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His Angel, Mute on Christmas Eve

What is courage to love? A story of reflection at Christmas. It was Christmas Eve. Fearing she would die, he'd stayed away until now. Evangeline Sparrows looked at Hammond Phillips, the warm pecan brown of his face cradling lines of his earth's journey and in the lines she saw herself winged and skating on golden rivers. She pierced him, peering into his soul through his dark eyes. He took her small hands inside his own and saw them disappear, the fine wrinkles of her soft skin barely perceptible beneath his calloused fingers.

"I know what I did, Vangie. I know what I am. I only hope you can forgive me," he whispered.

She wanted to soothe him and say, "It's all right, baby. It's all right," but her mouth did not cooperate. She had expected this day, that they would come to this place, almost from the moment she'd met him seven years before in The Coffee Bean Café on the corner of Reynolds and Jackson in downtown Augusta, Georgia. He'd come in for his regular cup of tea with honey, a blue denim satchel beneath his left arm, a guitar case in that hand. She'd seen him before and he’d nodded. Indeed, she could be seen at The Coffee Bean any Monday, Tuesday, or Friday between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. A stop at the cozy café on her way back to her small ranch in Martinez, an Augusta suburb, had become a ritual for her.

When she finished teaching her Yoga class in North Augusta, South Carolina, she'd drive her old, tan Plymouth Duster across the bridge and stop a few blocks into the larger city, park, and have herself a cup of orange coffee or some chai with biscotti. And she'd noticed that on any of those days, around 3:20, the unassuming man of average build that she’d learned was Hammond Phillips would saunter in, set down his guitar case, and place the same order without variation.

"Yeah, give me my thing, Becky."

"Okay, Mr. Phillips, blueberry-sage hot with a blueberry muffin warmed, coming right atcha," said the short, chubby college student. Her curly blonde hair caught the light in a way that made her seem haloed, while her bright green eyes smiled at every customer, even the rude ones. Hammond Phillips was definitely not rude, and she seemed to smile more broadly when he dropped in.

For weeks he'd entered the little coffee shop, see Vangie, nod, and then sit alone on the opposite side of the room. He seemed a bit haggard, weary, almost lost, despite always being clean, pressed, and dressed neatly in either jeans or khakis and a trendy loose-fitting sweater or long-sleeved pull-over shirt.

Then one day when the wind hollered protests outside and the gods of the Savannah River wept, dousing Augusta streets with their tears, and Old Man Thunder grumbled with indignation that it should rain and so he must work on a previously gorgeous spring day, Hammond Phillips bounded through the entrance of The Coffee and Bean Café in dark khakis and a rust-colored pullover, his clean-shaven head shimmering with moisture and he himself wet from head to soaked-shoe toes, laughing. It was that odd day in 1999 that he ordered ginger-lemon tea, a chocolate chip cookie, and dropped right into the chair facing Vangie at her regular table. "Hello," he said smiling with nearly all his white teeth shown, "My name is Hammond Phillips. Fine weather we’re having. What’s your name?"

Vangie watched how his large hands dropped onto the rugged table, how they covered the graffiti carved into sturdy wood, "Jason was here," or "Sharita Weston Class of ’92." She’d often wonder how local students managed to deface the furniture and not have management catch them. Or maybe management saw and said nothing. The carvings added ambience. Clearing her throat, she stammered, "Uh-um. Excuse me?"

"Hammond Phillips. Pleased to meet you Miss?" he looked at her expectantly, extending a massive hand.

She took it and its heat seemed a foreign land of wonder. "Likewise. My name is Evangeline Sparrows."

He cocked his head to the left and then said, "Like an angel," speaking the meaning of her name. "The angel of sparrows. I like that. And it fits you too. Sparrows, singers. An angel of singers."

"Now how would you know whether my name fits me? You've just met me."

"Ahh, but how many months have I seen you sit here. A man can develop an opinion over time through observation, can’t he?"

She nodded and started to say that he could indeed but …

"Plus, not to sound as though I'm throwing you a pick up line, I hope, but you have what my grandmother used to call grace of face."

"Grace of face?" she asked.

"Yes, your face is heart-shaped. You have the big eyes, wide set, that people associate with innocence. A cute button nose." His eyes landed on her lips and lingered. "Very symmetrical features," he sighed.

"Thank you, I think."

"Yes, I'm complimenting you. You have the features people call beautiful. Lovely skin too, sweet caramel." He winked.

She knew he was flirting and wanted to rise and sprint from the building. For the last two years she’d avoided men. The day her hair began falling out and she bought her first wig was the day she began to run from intimacy. But a husband had run from her even before that, almost on the same day she found out she was ill. And after divorce, despite requests from highly suitable males to go to dinner, parties, or a movie, she'd kept to herself and pulled closer to her female friends.

Her hair had not gone completely. It lay beneath the curly, shoulder-length wig, as darkly auburn as ever but cropped so closely to her head that she thought she looked like an elfin boy when she saw herself wigless in mirrors at home. Her hair had been her glory in her youth, thick and reddish brown, falling past her shoulders in loose waves. Thinned and starting to speckle with gray, it would never look like that again, and she felt the wig screamed a false-advertisement to men, that she appeared to be something she was not, beautiful and healthy; thus, she pushed them away and with them the pain, the rejection her former spouse had dealt her. He'd arisen one day, after 19 years of marriage, and announced he wanted out. She no longer made him happy, and he'd moved on to another woman, one up north, that she never saw, never knew.

He'd left her with their two boys, Franklin, who'd graduated from high school last year, a year after his father's departure, and was now at Georgia Southern, and Brandon who had one more year at Lakeside High School. She wanted to do what was right for them, another reason to avoid men. She couldn't imagine wasting time seeking the romantic company of men when her time was so short and she had to see her sons through to manhood--healthy, stable, contributors to society.

"So, tell me, one like an angel of sparrows, what is it you do and why do you come to this humble place three days a week?"

"I teach a Yoga class just across the bridge in North Augusta. One day I stopped in here for a cup of coffee. It felt good and so I kept coming."

"Oh, a Yoga teacher. Flexible. Do you teach classes over on this side too?"

"One through ASU continuing ed. Actually, I'm mainly a freelance writer. I write for a few regional magazines."

"Oh, I see. I'm a writer too, but a songwriter and a singer. I also teach private guitar lessons down at Radford’s Music on Broad. And I'm celebrating today because I just sold a song and I've been given a regular gig at Tout Le Monde"

"Well, you do have something to celebrate," she said, meaning it, knowing that Tout Le Monde was one of the hottest restaurants and bars in the area. "Who bought your song?"

"Detwyler Records in Atlanta for that group, The Maddening Crowd."

"WOW! I love them!" she blurted. "Is that your main style of music, folk-blues?"

"I write and sing enough of it, but I’m more partial to jazz and R&B. I love a good ballad."

She simply nodded and listened as he told her more of himself. As he spoke, she felt her heart softening and wondered if she could open up to a man again after all, a man like him. And then he brought up the sticky questions.

"So, is there a Mr. Sparrows?"

"No. There's no Mr. Sparrows. Sparrows is my maiden name. I took it back after my divorce. And is there a Mrs. Phillips?"

That's when she saw the specter clearly, the source of his haggardness and weariness. Right before he spoke, she saw grief turn its sneering head and wave at her from his eyes.

"Mrs. Phillips died about 18 months ago giving birth to our first and only child. They--they both died," he stated the facts bluntly as though he’d dealt with the pain, but she could feel his anguish, drafts of it swooshing out from grief wrapping and unwrapping itself, repeatedly, in a tattered death shroud beside him.

"I thought the loss would kill me. But here I am. I mean I almost went down. But here I am," he smiled weakly.

So, she knew he was not the one then. Not the man to whom she could open herself, not because she'd be hurt, but because she wouldn't want to put him through another loss. Two years before doctors had told her she'd need a kidney in about nine years or so, explained the odds of her getting one, but told her to walk in hope, to be optimistic. Well, it was one thing for her to walk around with the knowledge that she may not survive to 2010 yet garner the courage to be cheerful, quite another for her to expect someone to love her, commit to her, in spite of that cruel knowledge.

Men in her age range, in their 40s, if they chose to take a mate, wanted someone who would still lie beside them in the wee hours of senility, a soul with whom they’d share AARP privileges, and who’d join them on Caribbean cruises and trips to France, and take advantage of the seniors discount at local movies theater, not someone whose diapers they may have to change before they reached 55. And a man who'd suffered so great a loss as wife and child would never knowingly subject himself to a similar loss, place himself in a position to be abandoned again. What sane man would allow himself to fall in love with the doomed?

Right then and there, between a nibble of biscotti and a sip of chai, she cooled toward him, disguised how much she enjoyed his company. And as she dismissed herself from his presence she told him the truth, that she'd need a kidney in about seven years. She told him so he would know not to pursue her further and move on quickly to a viable love.

She continued her trips to The Coffee Bean after that and he continued to sit down and talk to her. The friendship bloomed, nurtured by him despite her concerns. She'd gone to his performances, reveled in the heavenly soulfulness of his voice and songs, even watched him date a few other women over the course of their friendship. None of those romances seemed to work for him, but he kept trying, while his music career grew hotter.

Several years later he left town for New York city. His career demanded it, and they'd maintained their connection via email and telephone. She'd even written an article on him for a national music magazine and been paid well. But despite their contact, the clear spiritual connection, he'd never said he loved her and she didn't expect him to say so. Yes, there'd been times when she'd been at home alone, scrambling to open a bottle of pain medication, that she resented that he didn't seem to have the mettle to love her and face the darkness with her, but she'd overcome those resentments, and loved him quietly, accepting her fate.

And so they'd come to this night, Christmas eve, 2006. Tonight he was at her bedside where he'd been all day because she’d mailed him a letter and told him she'd not be getting that kidney as hoped, no match, and dialysis had run its course of usefulness. She was in fact dying, and he was in fact asking her forgiveness. But for what?

"I know what I am, a coward. I've run from you, Evangeline. I didn't want to love you and deal with the pain of losing you, but here I am, regardless, with a hole in my gut." He lifted her hands to his mouth and brushed his lips against them.

"I should have taken the risk and spent the time, and made love to you, and done everything for you and with you that my heart told me to do. I was a coward. And I've gained nothing, but lost time with an angel."

She didn't want him to feel guilty and tried to convey with her eyes that there was nothing to forgive, that he had to go and make a life of his own. Look at how successful he'd been. But she couldn't speak. She could not move her lips. And that's when she heard the long, high-pitched tone of her life monitors signaling she’d passed away.

Suddenly she looked down at him and also at her own body, small and thin in the hospital bed. She saw her sons, beautiful young men, Franklin with his new wife Cheryl, and Brandon alone following them, rush through the doors. Immediately they began weeping. She wanted to say, "Don’t cry." She felt fine. "Don’t cry. I am at peace like never before." She saw the minutia of this world's discontent and her soul shouted a hallelujah. "Don’t cry," she said and went unheard by the mortals who loved her.

And then she simply drifted up and out the corner of the room, into the night air, as the sky and the stars embraced her Christmas eve, like an angel.
I Burst Out Laughing
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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