A thin line sometimes is all that separates genius from insanity. A person with a gift for music is called a prodigy, while the person with a knack for bending their ears into elephant’s ears is called a freak. A man turns his home into a museum for fine art pieces. That man is an eccentric, but the man who has thousands of wooden spoons in his house; he is a hoarder. But gifts are gifts and passions are passions. The seed of the weed and the seed of the rose are, in the end, both seeds.
And so it was that Stoney Boylan walked God’s green Earth for the better part of 75 years pretty much alone but for his many gifts and obsessions. Stoney had one obsession, though, that stood out from all the rest. That obsession was his passion for the parasol, the bumpershoot; or more commonly known, the umbrella, which even earned him a nickname in school, Mr. Poppins.
Umbrellas took up every nook and cranny of his home and no 2 were alike. Umbrella love burned in Stoney Boylan like an eternal flame. Even as a lad, while all the other boys were searching for new ways to attach ball gloves to bicycles, young Stoney was in his garage constructing a special basket for his umbrellas.
Later, as an adult, decades of peddling insurance made it possible for him to bring home parasols from all over the world. He never thought his passion was that odd either. Having never taken a wife there was no one to stand before him with a stop sign. As a result, Stoney’s 2-story flat became to the umbrella what the mighty oak became to the migrating monarch.
Not having stop signs also had a gnarly effect on Stoney’s sleep habits. After retirement, he turned as nocturnal as a bat and also established a regular routine. Every night around midnight he’d grab an umbrella and drive to the all-night Shopping Mart where he would then cruise the aisles, unfettered for hours, loading up his cart with whatever tickled him at any given moment; most commonly flannel shirts, spring jackets, potato chips or any cheap gadget that went pop, whiz or whirr. He’d then bring his stash home, spend the rest of the hours until sunrise organizing his shelves, nooks and crannies and then fall asleep in his easy chair until noon.
The night of “that crazy thing that happened” was a particular humid night; the kind of humidity you could carve a duck from. Stoney had chosen to bring his favorite umbrella, Elmore James; named for the late-great blues artist. Elmore James was a beauty of a parasol boasting a lovely ocean blue fabric and though pretty old still displayed like a courting peacock. Stoney always had an extra strut to his step whenever he had Elmore James on his arm.
“Morning Mr. Boylan,” a frail elderly woman drowning in a trench coat greeted as Stoney wheeled by her in the candy aisle. Stoney recognized the woman. She was a regular “all-nighter” who always stuck to the candy aisle, seemingly content to pick out boxes of chocolate covered cherries, admire them, then put them back on the shelf. He’d never once seen her check out. Stoney was surprised she knew his name.
‘Probably the punk stockers told her,’ Stoney thought, ‘Brats, everyone one of them.”
He tipped an imaginary hat at the woman then headed for the discount battery aisle to check out possible deals on expired double AAs.
Later Stoney rolled his cart and stash through the parking lot.
‘What a haul!’ he thought as he loaded the bags into the back seat before scooting around to the driver’s side. He caught his breath behind the steering wheel, gently placed Elmore on the passenger seat then started “the ritual”. He would need to touch all the spots on the dashboard that needed to be touched to keep bad away.
Then came a “ripping snap” as if a tree had split above him, followed by a ka-boom that sent Dashboard Mary into a shiver. Next came a few sloppy plops of rain. Then the sky wept – then the sky wailed. The heavens broke like a cheap pinata. Wind-driven rain quickly spread across the parking lot in waves, and lightening flashed like paparazzi’s cameras. Stoney sat back. Nobody could drive through that.
He turned on the wipers and through the curtains of hot rain saw the chocolate covered cherry lady standing alone in the lobby staring out through the glass doors. Stoney, being a good man, grabbed Elmore James, and courageously stepped out of the truck. Poor Elmore hadn’t seen water in years. Stoney foraged through the wind and rain like a conqueror and it immediately became crystal clear to him that his shoes and socks were riddled with holes. Worse yet the carton of Oreos he’d scarfed down for dinner were up in his throat and standing on end.
Stoney staggered into the lobby with hardly a breath to spare – and he was also panting like a long-haired hound and dripping like a 50 dollar-a-night hotel sink.
“Mr. Boylan,” the chocolate covered cherry lady smiled, “Have you forgotten something?”
Stoney’s heart joined the Oreos.
“Are you ok Mr. Boylan?”
“No,” Stoney groaned, “I mean yes, I mean no, I haven’t forgotten anything and yes I am alright. I thought maybe you could use some protection to walk out to your car!”
He raised Elmore proudly.
“My shield” he bragged.
“But Mr. Boylan you’ve run all this way with your umbrella closed. Why is that?”
Stoney didn’t have a good answer or for that matter, a bad one, but the woman let him off the hook.
“It is thoughtful of you.”
Stoney wrung out the remaining 3 hairs on his head.
“No bags to carry?” he asked.
The woman smiled, “No, afraid not.”
Stoney straightened himself then tapped Elmore on the floor.
“Blume,” the woman replied, “Miss Blume or Old lady Blume as I hear the shelf-stockers call me.”
“Punk-ass punks,” Stoney grumbled.
Like a magician, Stoney raised Elmore James then slowly unfurled its boundless beauty before the eyes of an adoring Miss Blume. Stoney nearly cried. He positioned Elmore over Miss Blume and together they stepped out.
“That’s mine, the red car there,” Miss Blume yelled amid the deluge.
“I’m afraid we may have to swim,” Stoney shouted.
“I cannot, not a stroke!”
“Me neither,” Stoney laughed.
Then it seemed as if something must have really poked the hornet’s nest. The wind turned violent, and with one mighty blow, pushed our heroes forward like tumbling dice. Suddenly, a ghostly hand seemed to swoop down and rudely yank Elmore James out of Stoney’s hand, sending it skyward like a shot from a cannon. As quick as the moment of death, Stoney was left empty handed, confused, heart-broken and lost. He looked like a little boy.
Miss Blume, sensing that she’d just witnessed Superman receive a mighty blow, took hold of Stoney’s arm and led him towards her car. She eased Stoney into the passenger seat then went around and jumped into the driver’s seat. And there they sat, hardly a word said between them for a very long time. Stoney’s head was bent low like a weeping willow.
“I’ve let you down,” he finally mumbled.
“It’s just an umbrella,” Miss Blume consoled, “We’ll get you another one.”
That made Stoney slump even further. He could never tell anyone what umbrellas meant to him.
“It’s ok,” Miss Blume added, but it was of no use. Stoney reached for the handle.
“I have to go.”
“But it’s still storming Mr. Boylan. Please wait, just until the worst is over, would you?”
Stoney released the handle.
“I see it!” Miss Blume suddenly yelped, pointing up through the windshield, “Up there, it’s stuck on the corner of a gutter.”
Mr. Boylan perked up. She was right. There was Elmore James caught, helpless and trapped on the sharp corner of a gutter hight atop a cement wall.
“I have to get him down!”
“Him?” Miss Blume asked, “It’s too far up Mr. Boylan. You’ll need a fire truck.”
Stoney’s eyes turned hard.
“Why if I was young again….do you see that heat grate? I’d use that to shimmy myself up to the next level, then I’d grab hold of that old drain pipe there and get myself up one more level. Then, do you see that cement block with that big gouge in it? It’s shaped perfectly for a foot. I’d use that to get me the last few feet, then I’d be in perfect position to reach right across and snatch old….”
Miss Blume smiled.
“But I am not so young anymore am I Miss Blume?”
Miss Blume changed the subject.
“Did you find good bargains tonight Mr. Boylan?”
“Oh Yes Miss Blume!” Stoney tagged along, “Oh, and I see they’ve restocked the chocolate covered cherries.”
“Why yes Mr. Boylan! I saw that as soon as I walked in tonight. It made my heart skip, and the double-decker boxes!”
Mr. Boylan hesitated.
“You ought to treat yourself sometime Miss Blume. Bring a box home maybe.”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
Miss Blume then became lost in her thoughts for a long moment, before asking softly.
“Can I tell you something Mr. Boylan?”
“Something I’ve never told anyone?”
“Nor will I,” Mr. Boylan promised.
Miss Blume swiped the top of the steering wheel with her hand and reached for courage.
“I see angels,” she confessed.
Mr. Boylan nodded.
“I talk to them and they talk back, and I assure you Mr. Boylan they are real, very real.”
Stoney turned with a half-smile.
“I believe you,” he said.
“You do?” Miss Blume exclaimed in delight.
“But there’s more Mr. Boylan…”
She reached again for more courage.
“I haven’t seen them in an awfully long time.”
“No?” Mr. Boylan asked.
“No. It’s the pills, these pills, they shoo the angels away and sometimes, Mr. Boylan, that makes me so very sad.”
Stoney stared up at his precious Elmore James withering up there helplessly in the wind. He realized that he had forgotten to touch the dashboard and he prayed for forgiveness.
“You see I took my pill at 5,” Miss Blume continued, “I should have taken another one at 11, but I didn’t.”
She smiled like a mischievous child.
“What I’m trying to say Mr. Boylan is there is a chance, since I haven’t taken my pill, that they will come, and if they do…”
She looked down.
“Here’s the thing Mr. Boylan, angels are lighter than air. They don’t have to climb the sides of buildings to get to where the robins sing. They can just float up there and get your umbrella – like taking candy off a shelf.”
“Or chocolate covered cherries,” Stoney laughed.
“Yes, as easy as that. We just need to wait, patiently wait.”
“Of course,” Mr. Boylan replied.
“So that would be ok with you Mr. Boylan?”
“Yes. That would be fine.”
Miss Blume smiled and turned on the radio. As luck would have it, they were treated to 2 Willie Nelson songs.
A funny thing was happening inside Mr. Boylan. He felt hope for the first time in a long time. Even though he didn’t necessarily believe in angels, part of him did and that, apparently, was enough. Suddenly, when he looked up at Elmore James, he didn’t feel like his heart was being ripped from his chest and the world wasn’t a rock with sharp edges anymore but, instead, a big, old goofy clown face. He marveled at the feeling. He closed his eyes to swim in it a little but a hard knock on the window snapped him awake.
A face in the window; the angry face of an angry young woman who was locked in a stare-down with Miss Blume. Miss Blume finally lowered the window.
“Aunt Berle! I knew I would find you here. Do you know what time it is? Mrs. Harkness called and said you hadn’t come back yet. It’s the middle of the night Auntie. I have to get up for work in 3 hours!”
“No, you don’t! You’re already up and you can tell ol’ snoopy Harkness, for me, to tend to her own spinach!”
“We’re in a tornado watch Aunt Berle! One touched down in Riverdale already, leveled it. You need to go back to the apartments. Leave your car. I’m driving you home. I can’t trust you anymore.”
The youngster looked at Stoney.
“But my angels!” Miss Blume cried.
The young woman fumed.
“So, you haven’t taken your pill have you?”
The girl turned back to Stoney.
“Do you have some place to go Mr.? Someplace safe.”
“Boylan and yes I’m fine. My truck is right over there.”
“This man has lost something very dear to him,” Miss Blume explained, “…and my angels can get it back for him. It’s very important!”
The girl pursed her lips.
“You need to take your pill right now Auntie! And quit dragging others into your illness!”
“No!!!!” Miss Blume screamed, “No more pills! Not now! Not ever and I mean it this time!”
“It’s ok Miss Blume,” Mr. Boylan reassured, touching her sleeve, “She cares. You’re lucky Miss Blume.”
“Thank you,” the girl said with a quick nod.
The niece opened the car door. Miss Blume stepped out and placed the keys in the palm of her niece’s outstretched hand.
“I’m sorry,” Miss Blume turned to Stoney Boylan.
“Don’t be,” Stoney replied.
The young woman then placed a hand under Miss Blume’s elbow and looked at Stoney.
“I’ll need to lock the car sir.”
“Of course! Yes! I’m sorry!”
Stoney stepped out of the vehicle and shut the door. Miss Blume’s niece locked the car then walked Miss Blume away.
“Miss Blume!” Mr. Boylan shouted.
Miss Blume stopped and turned.
“The stocker said something interesting to me tonight. He said tomorrow, I mean today, the red licorice arrives and it’s the extra-long sticks! Isn’t that good news Miss Blume?”
Miss Blume smiled. The girl then tugged at her aunt’s sleeve then led Miss Blume off towards the awaiting world of safety. Mr. Boylan smiled at the knowledge that the young, thank God, could never know.
Stoney walked slowly to his truck. It was nearly 4:00 a.m. It had stopped raining. He counted the steps. An even number would keep the bad away.
Stoney drove his truck through the puddles and over to the spot under the gutter that held his Elmore James. Elmore was in rough shape, its fabric starting to tear.
A young man suddenly bounded around the corner and headed for Stoney’s truck.
“Mr. Boylan,” the boy shouted, “Dangerous weather. Riverdale already got it. You need to go someplace safe.”
“Yes” Mr. Boylan whispered to himself, “Safety, very important.”
The boy looked up.
“Is that your umbrella Mr. Boylan?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“Do you want me to get it for you?”
Mr. Boylan thought for a second.
“No! It will come down. I have faith.”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, shaking his head. The kid then reached into the pocket of his rain slicker and pulled out a plastic bag. He reached into the bag, then held something out to Stoney.
“Grape Mr. Boylan? They’re seedless.”
Mr. Boylan quickly shook his head and frowned.
“God no!” he admonished, “That may be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! It’s unnatural! Unnatural!!”
“Ok then,” the boy laughed then put the grape back into the bag and the bag back into his slicker.
Mr. Boylan turned his attention back up to Elmore James.
“I’ll come back and check on you Mr. Boylan, make sure you’re ok but I really think you should go.”
“Yes,” Mr. Boylan replied.
“Stay safe Mr. Boylan!”
“Yes safety, very important,” Stoney mumbled.
The boy gazed up, shook his head then turned and walked off.
Stoney put his head back and grumbled.
“Seedless grapes! Jesus! What an atrocity!!”
He shut his eyes just as the first angel arrived.
Image: Der arme Poet (The Poor Poet), Carl Spitzweg, 1839, oil on canvas, currently in a private collection in Switzerland