Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Cross

“Hey! Stupid!” I turned and looked where the sound projected above the ringing of cashiers and a low rumbling of people talking.

“What are you doing?” Came from the same voice. I finally found the source, which was six feet from the door that I had just entered. A heavyset man at least six feet in height was directly in the face the short fat boy who was bagging his groceries.

“Don’t put the bread there! You’ll crush it!” The man said, taking the bread from the bag boy and forcing it into a large paper sack. For some reason I moved toward the direction of this commotion. By the time I was half way there, the heavyset man had picked up his bags and left the store. That was when I saw the cross. The sight of the
eight-inch wooden cross-had a magnetic pull on my eyes. I hadn’t seen one of these crosses in three or four years. If the cross that this bag boy had had “LOVE” notched out, it had to be one of the crosses I had manufactured for a special educational group that came to clean our church for four months.

“Hello, my name is Phil.” I paused, trying to get the boys attention. The boy’s head was looking straight down at the floor.

“What was the problem?” I asked the boy.

“He didn’t like me. He didn’t like me asking, how he was? The boy replied.

“What’s your name?”

“Toby Alexander. People call me Toby.”

“Toby. Where did you get that cross?”

“From church. We help them clean the church. They gave us these crosses and told we were full of Love because we helped take care of the church.” Toby paused and started to bag the groceries that were handed down the sloping steel platform. I could see a big smile coming to his face. I stepped back and watched this boy talking in a broken speech to the woman who was paying the cashier. The cashier had an irritated look on her face because the bag boy was ruining her concentration in counting the change. “Do you want me to take them to the car, ma’am?” He asked, turning toward me and smiling more, if he possible could have. I noticed the remnants of paint embedded in the cut out places in the wood. This was one of the crosses on which I had hand painted the LOVE in big capital letters.

“Is there anything wrong?” A voice rang out next to me. Turning I could see a tall lean man in a long white cotton coat.

“Is there anything wrong?” the man said again.

“No.” I said pausing again. “I was talking to Toby about his wooden cross.”

“He’s really touchy about that thing. He doesn’t like anyone to touch it. Toby tells everyone at least one time during the day that he was given that cross because God loves him and makes him full of love.” The man in the white coat spoke while looking around to see if anyone
was listening to him. “Don’t tell anyone, especially Toby—whoever comes in contact with it gets this wonderful feeling.” The man said, looking at his watch.

“Can I tell you something strange.” I paused and I looked around to see if anyone else was looking too.

“I made that cross and painted ‘LOVE’ up and down that cross. They had a contract with this outside firm to have these retarded high school kids come and clean the church. They didn’t know the first thing about cleaning anything. They would take a broom and push it on
the floor, then would pick the broom up and walk three steps and start to sweep again. They would take a dust cloth and just touch the wood here and there. During the whole process I was really upset with the church spending all the money on these kids. Then the pastor comes up
about a month and half before the contract runs out and asks me to make these crosses with Love written every which way and then he wanted them in a week’s time. Luckily I was in between jobs or else he wouldn’t have found a sucker to do them. I bet I cut myself thirty times before I was finished with ten crosses.

“He gave one of the crosses to every teenager. I was there that day for some reason, God only knows why. One teenager came downstairs and bought a cold drink out of our vending machine. The kid was beaming with a smile from ear to ear. I went directly to see the guy who was giving them happy pills or something else. The pastor was pulling each teenager off by themselves and talking to them. This Toby was the teenager I saw him talk to at the time, believe it or not. The kid was dragging and had a frown on that any sad clown would want to
wear. The pastor handed the cross to Toby. I was close enough to overhear the preacher. He told Toby how much God loved him that he sent his own son to die just for him. This was a cross just like the one his son died on but that one didn’t have love written on it. Love
was written on this one to tell everyone, that is, the person wearing this cross was full of love and joy. This Love came from God and his son would give happiness to people around whoever wore this cross.

Toby’s face was transformed into the happiest face that I had seen in years. This was a big contrast to my offensive attitude, resulting from my having been without work for six months and being stuck with these loser kids were not a happy or joyous crowd. But seeing Toby’s
infectious happiness and joy made me feel worth something. From that point on I started to look forward to going to the church to supervise these oddball teenagers. In the end I hated to see them leave.” I stopped speaking and quickly looked at my watch.

“I was just running in here to buy some fruit for my trip to Cartersville this afternoon. I have to run. Can I stop by and see Toby again when I come through here?” I asked.

“Sure.” The man in the white coat said.

I visited with Toby for four years. After the second visit with Toby I looked forward to the last leg of my sales trip. I noticed after I left this boy that I felt more refreshed, and the time on the last leg of my trip appeared to be shorter.

I went into the grocery store one day and Toby wasn't there.

“He’s not here,” the store manager said after I asked where Toby was.

“When will he work again?” I asked.

“Who are you?” the manager asked.

“I’m just passing through and I usually take him out to have a vanilla milkshake.” I paused briefly. I had never met this manager before. “I come through every four months and see him. He’s so full of joy and happiness.

We’ve known each other for a couple of years.” I stopped for the manager to speak. There was a dead silence that I dreaded when I was selling. The move would be the customer’s and I had done everything but sign the order for him.

“Is there something wrong with Toby?” I finally said, looking directly at the manager. The man was quiet for a long time.

“He’s dead,” the man said, in a dry breaking voice.

“It’s been so hot in the past couple of months. Toby never missed a day of work. Heck. He’d come in the afternoon when he was off and help.” The man paused again, trying to catch his composure.

“One day, the beginning of last month, he started complaining about being cold. You know, he never complained. He was always full of joy and trying to make people laugh. You could tell he cared about the person he was talking to.” The man stopped and looked around to see if
anyone could see him. Over the past couple of visits I had finally come to understand what this boy had that I enjoyed sharing with him.

“About three in afternoon, he started to shake like a leaf in the wind. He didn’t want to leave work. I was the one that took him to the emergency room. They had to fight with him to get that old cross off him.

“He never returned.” The man stopped speaking and looked at the floor of the grocery store.

“They told me he had pneumonia. Well, that was it for him.” The man said, looking directly at me. I was speechless.

“Well, his kind don’t last long anyway.” The manager said.

“Where do his folks live?” I said, giving the manager a disgusted look.

“They moved up north somewhere after the funeral.” The manager followed up. .

“Well, thanks for the info,” I replied. “Did they bury the cross with him?”

“I believe that they did. Sally, the woman over there on the cash register, told us Toby held on to that cross to the very end.” The manager said pointing to the brunette at the third register. I smiled.

In my car I opened up my large address book and found the ‘T’ section. I took my black felt pen and made two wide marks on Toby’s name.

One more person with ‘love’ to leave this world. I thought while closing the felt pen and throwing it down on the floorboard.


Written by: Franklin P. Smith
Oral Renditions of his stories may be found at "Tales from the Smokehouse"