by Nathaniel Johnson
They scoffed at Old Thompson and ridiculed him, for every year he told the same old tale: Pudding, his long-lost golden Labrador, would return on Christmas Eve. Years before, Pudding had disappeared during a furious blizzard the day before Christmas, and when Old Thompson went searching for him he became lost, suffered frostbite, and nearly succumbed.
His neighbor Caleb Turner, hearing his cries, found the old man wandering in the woods, half-frozen, dragged him home, and made him some tea. When Old Thompson struggled to run back out, Caleb restrained him and called the doctor.
Hobbling into Miller’s grocery store on Christmas Eve, Old Thomson closed the door, turned about, straightened up, smiled, waved, and offered salutations to the group — all booted and flanneled — gathered about the iron coal stove savoring their hot cider. They greeted him as “Old Thompson”; none remembered his first name.
“Have you come for Pudding’s Christmas treats?” cried Amy Miller, retrieving dog-bone biscuits from a shelf where she always kept a box for Old Thompson.
Old Thompson mumbled, “Yes, thank you,” and with trembling hands, reached for his wallet.
“It’s on the house,” said Amy Miller, dropping the biscuits into a bag; she knew the old man’s allowance was gone.
“Probably gives ’em to the birds,” whispered a villager.
“Or eats them himself,” someone muttered. Shuffles and titters followed.
“Pudding will be back this Christmas!” shouted Old Thompson, shaking the biscuits, defying the world.
“Of course he will,” said Amy Miller, soothing the wrinkles. “Now, drive safely, old man, and a Merry Christmas to you — and to Pudding.”
As the group raised their mugs, Old Thompson lifted his bag of biscuits. “And Pudding wishes everyone...” He stopped. “Can’t remember what I was going to say.” A tear slipped down his cheek as he turned away and limped towards the door.
“Take care, old man,” someone said.
Clutching his biscuits, he departed the store, leaving the door ajar. The villagers shook their head and returned to their cider and chatter, leaving Old Thompson to the wind, and his solitude.
As the dusk dropped, the sky vanished, and the air frosted, Caleb Turner watched Old Thompson park his ancient Ford, get out, slam the door, and shamble up three steep steps to his bungalow. Bumbling the latch, Old Thompson stopped, looked about, called for Pudding, waited, and then entered — belatedly closing the door behind him.
Caleb Turner told his wife that Old Thompson was home safe.
The night dipped down, silent as an icicle.
Inside his dust-layered bungalow, Old Thomson switched on a lamp and knelt to ignite the gas fire, leaving the bag of dog-bone biscuits on the floor. Dinner tonight would be grand indeed: fried calves’ liver with bacon, onions, and mushrooms. Pudding would eat only the liver.
“It’s Christmas, you know,” Old Thompson called out, opening a can of mushrooms. “If no one else wants mushrooms, I’ll eat ’em all!” His laugh shivered the room like a gust of winter wind. “Something else, Pudding. Wait till you see what I’ve got!”
Resting in a threadbare chair, relishing the liver and a glass of port, Old Thompson felt happier tonight than he had in years. Weary of the tears and lonely hours, he vowed to rejoin the world again. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, he and Pudding would go to town, buy more biscuits, and watch the children meet Santa Claus in the village square, as they always did. Folks would be so pleased to see them.
It was midnight. Pudding lay at the old man’s feet, having enjoyed his share of the liver and a large helping of biscuits. Old Thompson, leaned over, stroked the dog’s fur, and told him it was the best Christmas ever. Exhausted, he fell asleep.
* * *
Two days later, Caleb Turner told his wife that he had not seen Old Thompson leave his house. “Better go check... I’ll be back in a minute.”
He found Old Thompson, still in his chair — eyes wide open, baring a toothless smile. At his feet were a bowl and a half-empty bag of dog-bone biscuits; the gas fire — long expired — had left the bungalow stone cold. Out back, were frozen paw-prints leading to and from the bungalow. Caleb never mentioned that to anyone, not even his wife.
A few days later, when the villagers heard the news, they shook their heads, as they had a hundred times before, but Amy Miller wept. She knew Old Thompson had spent all his money on the finest calves’ liver a dog could want.
Copyright © 2013 by Nathaniel Johnson