So just a little prelude to this post. This is an attempt at a little short story. I hesitate to call it that, because in many ways it is a small bit that was inspired by the writing of one of my followers Hariod Brawn who definitely has an amazing skill at writing. It is a response to his post called the Ambit of Ambition. I was about to write a comment about it, and then decided maybe I could be a little more creative in my response and write my comment in the form of a similar story. His excellent piece made me think about how we define ambition and success in our lives. As a society these words often refer to economic gain or fame based on notoriety. But by their definition they don’t need to be. Can we not measure our success differently? Can we have ambition for compassion or other values that bring goodness to the world? With those questions I will say no more and allow you to contemplate an alternate universe. 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to read.
Terry was certain he didn’t deserve it, but even as he touched the glossy cover of Fortune 500 magazine he turned his gaze inward and gave a slight smile. Gratitude washed over him and for a few moments he decided to let the ebbing tide take him away. Perhaps it’s no crime to be proud of oneself, as long as you remember just how blessed you actually are. His wife of 20 years now, sat beside him, a beaming smile that darkness could never hold dominion over and nods reassuringly. With the timidity of child who approaches a horse, sugar cube in hand, he leafs through the pages until he sees his picture and the article written in his honor. While he had always striven for more, to have made this magazine was more success than one could ask for. Tears welled up a little as the 5-page article gave homage to a life so full, that accolades never seemed necessary.
He barely got past the first paragraph talking about how he had a food drive for the local food bank while he was in middle school, when he paused and remembered the very first experience that had motivated him to be the man he was today. He was 6 years old and was walking back with his mother after a trip to the laundromat. He remembered how it felt like an eternity that day doing laundry, especially since he become very hungry. Mustering the full crankiness, a 6-year-old can offer when his stomach is growling, he insisted on the way home that she get him a soft pretzel from the stand near the laundromat, even though it was only a 10 minute walk him. Mom had told him that she would make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she got home, but the smell from the stand had been wafting in to the laundromat for some time. While he generally loved the smell of clothes coming out the drier, his hunger mixed with the fact that somebody had spilled a whole lot of laundry detergent near them made him eager to follow that scent coming from the outdoors. He remembered how palpable the smell was as if he was being led by the nose. He knew his parents couldn’t treat him often, but he really wanted that pretzel.
He had easily defeated his mother with a series of quality pouts and big hugs and a look upwards at mommy with eyes that would make a puppy knew it had been out-cuted. Then as he walked away and held the warm chewy pretzel in his hands he heard the shaking of a paper cup and the clinking of change. He looked up and saw a face that just caught him. To this day he could bring to mind details about that face that he could not, on a whim, recall about others he had known better and for longer. There was the bushy beard. Grey had taken over the area of the chin and seemed to extend outwards in ripples of diminishing intensity to the rest of the hairy fac. His skin was the color of milk chocolate, but had the tough but yielding look of old leather that made him think of his mother’s handbag. He looked at other people with a smile and wishing people a pleasant day. There was a sincerity that he had not seen in many others save for his own parents. Terry stopped in his tracks and watched the man. Forced to stop too, his mother, after already losing one battle, asked him what was wrong. Her voice had the impatience that only a mother, carrying a full laundry bag and still many chores left in the day, deserves. He had wanted to know what that man was doing and why was he standing there. His mother explained that he was homeless and was asking for money from other people so he could buy food and beverage as he was likely thirsty and hungry. It was spring, but the day was dreary and cool, and the man was wearing a lot of clothes, but most of them fraying and with holes or rips here or there. Even on his parents satisfactory but tight budget he knew clothes would normally be replaced before such a state of disrepair. He remembered the man suddenly looked at him with a wide smile and he looked back into those eyes. There was a brightness to them that just made your day better to have them look at you, and all around his eyes were countless lines from years of hard living. He looked older than any man he had ever seen at the time, even though he suspected that this man wasn’t as old as his Grandpa Greg or Grandpa Paul. And in some ways those lines framing the eyes, made those bright eyes all the sadder, because Terry couldn’t understand how the world could be so cruel in the face of kindness. As the warmth of the pretzel radiated outward from his hand, he could suddenly feel his hunger fade.
He held out his hand and said “Hi, my name is Terry, would you like this pretzel?”
His mom stood with jaw slowly giving way to gravity.
The man introduced himself, and told Terry his name was Jim and thanked him heartily for his gift as he was quite hungry. Terry gave him a solid 6-year-old handshake, Jim’s fingertips cold as ice, while the other hands exchanged the pretzel. Jim had turned to his mother and said “You have a fine boy there.”
His mom simply said “Thank you. Yes I do.” A confirmation of something she needed no other person to tell her was true, though you could still tell she was glad to hear it. Terry felt much more warmth now than the hot pretzel in his hand provided, and the joy at making that man happy was a feeling he never felt before. It’s like he realized that not all joy was the same, and that there is a joy out there that is more fulfilling than unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. When he got home he had a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the biggest glass of chocolate milk his mother had ever given him.
As Terry continued to read the article about him, it recounted many of the sources for his nomination. It was hard to believe that 500 people had written personal testimonies to his kindness, his generosity, his friendship, and his compassion. He joked to himself that he had it is easy. When you are good with your hands, it’s much easier to lend one. It was his best friends and business partners who had done the legwork to find all these people to write letters. He felt an extreme sense of gratitude for having such friends. It was around games of Dungeons & Dragons that they came up with the idea to start a carpentry business. Which then grew into a business that flipped houses. After the first year they had enough money to hire a few employees, and this allowed his friend Jonathan to do less carpentry and work more on the business end of things. According to the article his employees had put together a letter of testimony as well. As the company took a little less time, he started to do pro bono work with Habitat for Humanity, and for people in his neighborhood. When he met his wife at age 32, his company had grown to where he had 10 full time workers and this allowed Terry to pull back a little so he could start a family. He wished his daughter could have been here right now to share this moment with him, but she was away at college for architecture. She shared his passion for building and had even a keener eye for design and making things look beautiful. Apparently she had also written a letter talking about what an attentive and hardworking father he was.
The article couldn’t name everybody, but there was a letter from a former science teacher who was nearly fired for being a gay. A plea perhaps he was only able to win at a schoolboard meeting because of the goodwill his company had in this small and fairly conservative town. There was testimony from the director of the local Vo-Tech where he taught classes, and took many of the students on to gain experience helping him with projects. Some of those students also wrote letters of support.
After a while it had become too much for him to read anymore, and too indulgent to wonder who all might have taken the time and effort to support him. Maybe he was too humble, but he also knew that none of his success was his alone. Where would he be without the support and love of his parents? It was their kind and generous nature that drove his own ambitions. How could he have had the successful business he had without the loyalty and trustworthiness of his friends? Ones that shared a similar vision for life, and whose enthusiasm and work ethic were matched by extreme talent for business and carpentry. And all these people he had helped to over the year had come at the expense of time he couldn’t spend with others. His wife and daughter had been so patient and understanding to know what drove him, and while they had never once expressed any wish to have him around more, he knew that at times they must have missed him. Any one of the 500 people, he was sure, gave as much to him as he did to them. He turned to his wife and said “I must get a list of the people who wrote in, so I can write them back and thank them.”
She looked at him with eyes that knew him so well and just laughed. “All in good time my darling. Tonight you are resting on your laurels and I have made reservations. Now good put on something nice. You get an evening that’s just about you.”
Resigned, he got up and walked towards his room and tried to push his uneasiness to the back of his mind. He stopped and started to turn sure he would have a good argument in all this, but his wife had followed him, expecting such ridiculous tactics and said “Go on!” and gave him a playful push on the back into their room.
He was resolute that he’d pay for dinner.