He was small and wiry and had curly white hair and infinitely blue eyes. He was in his early 60’s. He was known as Harding “Hard On” Miller. He washed dishes at The Driftwood coffee shop and restaurant a few blocks from the ocean in this little seaside village of Cambria.
The owner of The Driftwood, named Robert, with big sad sympathetic eyes, had hired Harding one morning over coffee after listening to Harding’s unabashed story. Harding was living out of a truck down in the beach parking lot.
This morning here at the front counter Robert was handing to Harding a colorful envelope and Harding was oddly upset. Harding set the tray of dirty dishes down on the counter and grabbed the letter from Robert’s hand. Robert winced at that but maintained his sympathetic ear.
Harding fretted, “What the f.. Hell? I can’t believe it. Again! What is going on?”
Robert said softly, “It’s a Christmas greeting card, Harding. What is wrong with that? Who is it from?”
“That is exactly the question! I don’t know. There is never a return address and the stamp is always cancelled from the same town I’m in, no matter where I go! If I didn’t know better I’d think I was schizo and writing to myself for company! My parole officer sure ain’t doin’ it.”
Harding lowered his voice suddenly and glanced at the two cops, a male cop and a female cop sitting at the other end of the counter. The male cop was eyeing the ocean vista obliviously. His female partner was silently interrogating her face in the black coffee. Harding continued in a whisper that he thought was secure but which resonated off of the shiny hardwood counter and the big window in this nearly empty restaurant.
“Even when I was in prison, I would get a card every holiday, every birthday, no signature, no return address, just a hand-printed ‘Thank you. You are missed’ always at the bottom of every card. Is that weird or what?”
“Weird,” agreed Robert. “But really kind of nice. So what is the big deal?”
“It is creepy. It’s like I’m being stalked. I’ve spent enough time with people looking over my shoulder for one lifetime.” He glanced at the two cops again. They were both turned away. He thought they were both looking out the big window, but the woman was now watching Harding in the reflection while her partner’s eyes were setting sail for that bank of fog on the horizon.
Harding picked up the tray of dirty dishes and walked back to his washer station, setting the tray down on the stainless steel table. He then lifted from the tray a half-empty bottle of ale that some fisherman had left that morning. The young cook called to him, “Hey, ‘Hard On’, what’s happening?” That bottle, in Harding’s hand, was now a serious parole violation, but Harding walked in a trance with the Christmas greeting card, out the back door and he finally sat down to overlook the reedy creek that sauntered toward the ocean.
Harding stared at the Christmas greeting card. And with a first splash of ale down his throat, some shiny memories were uncovered. He was suddenly thinking about that evening at Comozzi’s Saloon, right up the street in the village, twenty-six years ago.
Twenty-six years ago, sitting at the bar had been this slender red-head with the most shamrock-emerald eyes. Harding had looked around for the guy she must certainly have been with, but he saw no one qualified. He sat beside her at the empty bar and asked, “Anyone claim this seat?”
She smiled, looking up at Harding’s reflection in the big bar mirror, “He’s not here.”
Harding thought to himself she didn’t say “I have a boyfriend (get lost!)” and he then said, “I’m Harding”
The two of them lost track of how many rounds they bought each other that fateful evening as they poured out each other’s lives. Harding remembered the pressure of his buried pain being released into those deeply forgiving emerald eyes of hers as they had talked.
“All I ever wanted was for my father to be proud of me.
My father was a pilot in World War Two. He flew a Liberator in daylight bombing raids over Germany. His best friend was his co-pilot. Half of those guys were shot down.
He met my mother while she was dating his best friend. When my father and his best friend played baseball between missions my father would just keep looking over at her and she would just keep looking over at him. They were married near the end of the war. He lost touch with his best friend.
My father was always my hero. But he was never happy with me. My mother was always the life of the family holidays, but even she thought I couldn’t do anything right
I was always in trouble.
My father had become the pastor at our church and also the head of my youth group and he was respected by everyone in the community. But he would laugh at my answers to questions during Bible class. He would make me put my nose into a chalk circle on the blackboard and wear a dunce cap. When I wanted to play Church football, he sneered at me that I was too small. Besides, he would say, don’t grow up to be one of those low-life athletes. When I signed-up for Church football anyway, he would never come to a game. One day I was doing really good: I made two touchdowns, and we needed one more to win. Suddenly there was my father holding a clipboard. I asked him what he was doing there and he said he was now the Assistant Coach!
He benched me and let some lousy guy “have his fair turn”. We lost. I was so furious I quit the team. And then he would always mock me in front of everybody for that, for being “a quitter”.
The worst was one day in the garage when I found an old trunk of stuff from my father’s pilot days. There was a picture of my father’s flight crew with his best friend and him in the middle. I had never seen a picture of his best friend. His best friend was a tough looking little guy and…and… I had his best friend’s eyes.
My father caught me and snatched the picture and hit me; really pounded me, telling me to stay out of his things. I left home and joined the Marines that week.”
Harding and Shauna finally took their bottles of beer outside of Comozzi’s and headed down to a spot near the creek.
They were making love when Shauna’s boyfriend found them
The boyfriend’s crew commenced beating Harding while the boyfriend dragged Shauna up the bank, cuffing her repeatedly with the back of his hand. They left Harding crumpled and crying “Leave her alone!”
But a few minutes later Harding came up behind them in the street outside Comozzi’s. The boyfriend was harshly restraining Shauna and growling between his teeth how he was going to smash her face. As the boyfriend turned around, Harding, bloodied and limping, shoved a broken beer bottle into the boyfriend’s throat. Shauna screamed and the boyfriend’s crew now swiftly beat and kicked Harding unconscious.
The circumstances were not important to the court. Harding had come back with “deadly intent” and, after a half-hearted presentation by his court-appointed lawyer, Harding was convicted of Attempted Murder. He was sentenced to 25 years.
He never heard from Shauna again.
Harding’s family then all but disowned him. He never saw them or heard from them again. His friends vanished.
But about ten years later he began to get the greeting cards for his birthdays and holidays.
His parents both died while he was in prison. When he was paroled he was a stranger in a strange land. He had the small inheritance left to him from his religious parents. He bought a pick-up truck with a camper shell and eventually landed in the parking lot of the Cambria beach.
All that time the mysterious greeting cards had followed him with every move.
Twenty-six years later, as Harding sat there, bottle in hand, overlooking the reedy creek sharing his memories, a shadow fell upon him. Harding started from his reverie and turned around. He reflexively but futilely dropped the ale bottle.
Standing there was the female cop.
Harding, even as he plummeted into despair, noticed the eyes of the female cop. They were as infinitely blue as his own eyes.
The female cop spoke softly, “Hello, Harding,” then she showed a hesitant smile, saying, “Father. Dad,… I’m your daughter. My name is Deirdre.”
“Daughter…?” His mouth fell open. Harding arose.
“I sent you that greeting card. I sent them all. Do you remember Shauna? She is my mother. She told me your story when I could finally understand, when I was about ten years old. She made me promise not to tell you anything. She thought that she had hurt you enough. She was ashamed. So I secretly wrote birthday and holiday cards to you in prison. When I became a cop I could always find out where you were.”
Harding was speechless, blinking and moving his lips.
Deirdre took a deep breath, “Dad, you have a little granddaughter. And she has your eyes…”
Harding put his hand against the side of his face, “Granddaughter…?”
“Dad, my husband Brian and I want you to come live with us. Even if it’s only for awhile.”
Harding lowered his hand from his jaw, “Can I ask you: where is Shauna?”
Deirdre tightened her lips and said haltingly, “She, she died… She died…”
And tears filled both worlds of infinitely blue eyes.
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