He only began to get nervous when the pretty girl stomped hastily away from the queue, tossing her open suitcase to the wind right there in front of everyone. Besides dresses, slips, and other garments, numerous unopened letters with a familiar postmark scooted along the sidewalk before a light breeze. At seeing the postmark, he felt a lump starting to form deep in his throat.
But there was no time to think of that just now. Shaking her fist heavenward, the girl shrieked, “I HATE YOU! HATE YOU!!! DO YOU HEAR ME? THIS IS SO UNFAIR!”
From inside a room next to the wall, a deep voice replied, “I hear you loud and clear. Goodbye. Next.”
Everyone stepped forward one place. The single-file line was mostly straight, composed of varying types of people, all facing the imposing wall at the front.
Surrounded by people, Sam found he might as well be completely alone. None talked to the others, though some appeared to be smiling and relaxed, carefully reading a letter or a familiar blue book.
He had planned this vacation for almost longer than he could remember. When his friend Dave told him about this place, it was the one thing he thought of day and night. Dave and his family had been preparing together for this for weeks. Sam, who had always been alone before, decided to join them.
“The kindest man on THE PLANET owns this great resort place, and he has invited us to join him for a couple of weeks. And he has everything. I mean. EVERYTHING. Anything and everything you could want: round the clock massages, heated swimming pools, a working orchestra that anyone is invited to join. Plus, the food. Oh, Sam. I’ve heard that no one ever goes hungry at his table.”
Sign me up already, thought Sam.
But Dave wasn’t finished. “At the end, the host sometimes invites a few, lucky souls to stay with him at his place and live with him. In his home. With everything they need. Like forever.”
If it sounds too good to be true…
“What’s the catch?”
“Catch?” Dave shook his head, as if trying to swirl the foreign word down into his brain for a closer perusal.
“Condition? Stipulation? Come on, man! No one just invites a bunch of strangers to vacation with him and live in his home afterward.”
Dave’s eyes opened a bit wider. “Oh, yeah,” he mumbled. “The conditions.”
Overhearing their conversation, Dave’s mother sidled over. “The conditions aren’t hard, Sam,” she began. “There’s a screening process, of course.”
Smiling into his worried eyes, she continued, “But it’s so easy anyone can do it. There’s a guidebook that the host wants all the guests to familiarize themselves with.”
I bet that’s only the beginning, he thought, shrinking a bit.
He was right. “You have to register. There’s a phone number you have to call, and then they ask for your address. After that, you will be asked to meet with others to read the guidebook and start getting ready. Once a week, you will receive a letter. And the host encourages potential guests to write letters back to him.”
“They don’t even have to be long. Especially at first. The host just wants a chance to get to know potential guests. I’ve heard that he answers every single letter he gets, no matter how many.”
“Impressive,” replied Sam, mentally excusing himself from this first exercise with the thought that with THAT many letters, the host wouldn’t miss any from him. How hard could it be to win the man’s favor? Sam would start right away by not making extra work for him.
When Dave’s mother left to take his 2-year-old niece to the bathroom, Dave continued the spiel: “Sometimes you may get a phone call from the host. I got one last week, and it was the most encouraging visit! You just can’t imagine! If you miss that call, try to call back as soon as you can. The host likes to give guests little assignments—”
“Just little assignments. Things to do to prepare for the vacation. Nothing hard.”
“One time, my mom told us she had received an assignment to go right away to the hospital. She said it didn’t make any sense.”
How could it? Thought Sam.
Dave was shaking his head. “Turns out, one of her friends had a kid in surgery. He had been injured at the park, and his mom had no one to sit and spend time with her while she waited and tried to get hold of her husband.”
“How long was your mom detained?”
“Detained? You mean, on assignment?”
Sam rolled his eyes and nodded.
“Not that long. I think she said it took a couple of hours. Sissy and Dad had gone to the zoo, and Mom didn’t have anything else planned. It all worked out.”
“Clearly,” snorted Sam. For convenience, he’d go ahead and plan to skip some of these crazy assignments. Who had the time?
“So, what else does the host require?” he asked, wondering if he even wanted to know.
“Well,” Dave faltered, “he says he is always on the lookout for people who want to be friends with his children.”
“What’s wrong with his children?”
“Sam, what has gotten into you? I don’t make the rules. I just follow them. Are you sure you even WANT to go on this vacation?”
Remembering that his last vacation had been a disappointing, low-budget trek through one of the national parks during rainy season, he changed his tune. “I want to go. Really. It has to be better than my last trip.”
“It’s not just better. It’s restful.”
Rest. That was something Sam hadn’t had enough of for far too long. While he had been daydreaming, the line had been moving quietly forward. Only two people stood between him and the host. And if they didn’t move quickly, he was probably going to gag pretty soon because the woman immediately behind him smelled funny. He couldn’t decide whether it was a dirty smell. Or just a hair product he didn’t particularly care for. One way or another, he needed to get AWAY from it.
Sliding a little to his right, he caught a quick glance at a rather tall stack of letters in the hand of the host, who stooped down to get to eye level with a brown-skinned girl with brilliant red hair.
“Gloria!” the host boomed heartily, as if wanting the whole world to hear him. “I think I would know you anywhere! You’re much prettier than your picture, and your letters have been a constant source of delight for me and many others in my family.”
“I’m, um, I’m, I’m THO vewy gwad to finawwy meet you, Thir,” she lisped.
“The pleasure is all mine, my dear,” he answered. Gently patting her hand, he announced to not just her, “It has come to my attention that you are in the habit of dividing your lunch in half every day and giving the other half to your friend Suzi to eat. Did you know that is sometimes the only food Suzi gets?”
The little redheaded girl looked away, biting her lip. “No,” she whispered. “Thuzi never complained. She also twied not to wook at my food. Oh anyone elthe’s. She thaid Thomeone would be watching out foh huh.”
“Someone was. You, my dear, played a huge role in Suzi’s rescue! I’m so proud of you! I feel as if we know each other already. Of course, you DO put much of yourself into those delightful letters you have been sending me.”
Sam could almost hear the smile in the redhaired girl’s “Thank you, Thir!” Hearing the host’s next words, his already sinking heart continued to sink a little lower.
“I just know we are going to be the best of friends. I have a little girl your own age, and she has been asking to meet you. Come on in, and welcome!”
The person just in front of Sam would be summarily rejected, then it would be only the host and Sam, finally face to face. Sam’s fingers started drumming again against his guitar case as he waited for the inevitable rejection for the ridiculous fool standing between him and the host.
“I’m just so sorry to appear in front of you, Sir, in this condition, I most surely am,” the ragged man stammered, hurriedly wiping one hand against a pants leg that couldn’t have been cleaned for at least a couple of days.
Just as I thought. Sam nodded to himself. Perhaps he had a chance, after all.
“What do you mean?” asked the host, not unkindly.
“I wanted to look my best. Do my best. BE my best.”
“This was the best I could do.”
Sam, though feeling a smidge of concern for the man before him, really wasn’t all that surprised. He was right so much of the time. This time wouldn’t be any different.
“Listen, Paul—” the host began,
“You know my name?” Even clothed in dirty rags, the man’s unfolding dignity shown through to Sam’s shocked eyes.
“Why wouldn’t I?” asked the host. “After our many late-night calls, and lively correspondence?”
Could Sam have been wrong all this time?
“I have a couple of advisors who have been tracking your movements. I know that you have traveled for many weeks from a distant country. I also know that instead of buying new clothes when you had the chance, you used the last of your money to feed and clothe a homeless woman and her three children. Your kindness gave her hope at a time she was almost ready to give up. Your name is already well known inside, and we have a whole wardrobe of new clean clothes for you to choose from once we get you settled. Come on in! And welcome!”
From the front of the line, Sam discovered himself alone for a few terrible minutes. Seemed like in the beginning the vacation was free. To those who had done the right things. Had he opened even a single one of those beautiful letters that had been arriving at his house? He remembered opening the guidebook. Once. Seemed like just another book of rules. Mostly common sense. Surely, he shouldn’t be required to study that? He already studied his dictionary religiously. Wasn’t that enough?
All the people who studied the guidebook had been gradually changing, and not all the changes looked good to him. Some of the more enthusiastic guidebook readers morphed into loud monstrosities that others labeled “Clubbers!” And who wanted to be a part of that group?
Behind him, the smelly woman had started quietly chanting again. “I’m actually FRIENDS with THE HOST. THE HOST wants to be my FRIEND. BE A FRIEND TO THE LIKES OF ME! WILL WONDERS NEVER CEASE!”
Sam thought wonders WOULD cease if the woman could learn to FINALLY be quiet.
Before he could complain anymore, Sam found himself looking into eyes that were at once kind AND disappointed. “And WHO might you be?”
Sam coughed for a moment, then managed to choke out, “I’m Sam Worthymore. My friends call me GOOD SAM. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I clean up after myself constantly, so I never leave any messes. I’m sure you’ll want to include me in your vacation group.”
“Sam Worthymore? Good Sam? Constance, can you please come over? Has anyone here heard of a Good Sam? Or a Sam Worthymore?”
Huffily, Sam snapped out, “Listen, Mister. I’ve been planning this vacation for weeks. My last vacation was nothing to write home about, and I’ve just about had it with rules and pushy people. All I want is to rest, relax, and spend time with worthwhile people.”
He found the host squinting into his eyes. “You do? You want to have a good time? At my house? On my dime?”
A pudgy woman in brilliant pink had grabbed the hand of the host, whispering just loud enough to be overheard. “Sir, at one time, we DID have someone by that name included in our mailing list.”
Sam straightened up a bit.
Only to slouch when he heard the next tidbit: “After a year of expensive mailings, which were never answered – maybe never even opened – his name was dropped. We determined he was no longer interested.”
NO LONGER INTERESTED????
“Sir, please!” he began. “I’ve been thinking of your lovely orchestra for months. See? I’ve even brought my guitar? I’ve been practicing every single day. I bought a new swimsuit—”
Miss Pudgy in Pink whispered louder now, “with money he SHOULD have used to hire a taxi and ferry his sister to a doctor’s appointment across town on a day when public transportation was totally shut down.”
“Son, is this true?” he was being asked.
“Sort of. Technically. But what made you in charge of me? What gives you the right to tell me how to live my life?”
The host sighed heavily. “Apparently, NOTHING. Especially if you won’t be spending any time in my home.”
But Sam wasn’t quite finished. “I’m exhausted from just the trip to get here. I NEED to be here. I NEED to rest. I NEED to eat good food. And have good times! And be treated good.”
“Yes. Really! What kind of host are you anyway? What kind of person invites strangers over only to turn them away at the last possible minute?”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand, Son.”
“Don’t call me son,” Sam spat.
“Clearly, you’re not my son.”
“You got that right!”
“I thought my friends and the guidebook made the parameters perfectly clear: I am seeking FRIENDS – not strangers – to come spend time with me in my place. Our records indicate that your home address received not fewer than fifty, heavy, weighted invitations, some of them with large gift cards inside. But you never opened them.”
Sam felt his eyes narrowing at the memory. All the fancy gifts in the world couldn’t tell him how to live his life. And he wasn’t about to change now.
“Additionally,” the host was saying, “You received at least as many phone calls, all bundled with the possibility of help and training, had you ever asked for assistance.” He was shaking his head now, while briefly blotting his eyes with a silk handkerchief. The price of that handkerchief alone would have solved several of Sam’s more urgent problems. He felt his anger rise to new heights as the host delivered the final nail to Sam’s vacation coffin: “Son, I don’t know you.” He was speaking slowly now, lowering his tone to that level that demands attention and respect. “In fact, after multiple attempts by both me and my associates, I have never known you. And judging by your response, you have never wanted to know me either. As it is, there’s a payphone just down the road. Here’s a quarter. If you want, you can call someone who cares. Whatever you do, you will have to leave here. We don’t know you. And you’re not welcome. Goodbye now.”
As Sam left the line, he was horrified to hear the host greet the woman who smelled so bad with, “Caroline! Is it really you after all this time? I’m so glad to finally meet you!!! Come on in!”
Bumping both his guitar case and his overstuffed suitcase down the sidewalk, Sam silently cursed his bad luck, while wondering who he could call to come pick him up. Maybe his sister?
“I’m so sorry, Sir,” the voice on the other end of the telephone line was saying. “That number is currently unlisted. Is there something else I can do for you?”
Gwennon, June 24, 2021