The Raccoon
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I threw my bag on the rack above the seat and introduced myself to a well dressed stranger. It was to be a seven-hour trip and there was no point in being unsociable.

“Bill Kias, heading up to Quantico” I offered my hand as I took my seat.

“Jack Funz from Alexandria.” We sat quietly for a moment. “Bill Kias, you say you’re on your way to Quantico?”

“Yep, my son is an instructor at the FBI Academy. Where did you say you were bound for Jack, Alexandria? I hear that’s a big steel town now.”

“That’s right. I’m with American Steel. I’m just coming back from Hamburg. I was over there trying to convince the Germans to let us erect an A.S. plant there.”

“Do you speak the language? Gad, you couldn’t look more Nordic.” My seat companion had blond hair and the bluest eyes. He had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. They were actually sky blue - very light - a very handsome chap. He looked like the type that Hitler thought of as supermen.

  
 
“No way, I’m third generation American. My great grandparents came from Milan. The original name is Funziano. There are a lot of blond Italians in northern Italy. Me, I’m from south Philly. I grew up there. I left when I went to Villanova.”

With dinner hour approaching, I suggested that we retire to the dining car and eat our way through Mississippi. At dinner we discovered that we both had a weakness for Manhattans.

“I’ll tell you something, Bill. Today most bartenders don’t know how to make a good Manhattan. Where the hell is it going to end?”

“You know, Jack, to hell with saving the Yellow Belly Sapsucker. Who is looking after the Manhattan?”

It’s odd when strangers meet on a cruise ship, train, retreat, or in any spot where they are no longer connected to their roots. They tend to receive a freedom that permits them to speak from the heart.

As the train rolled up the East Coast corridor, night had fallen. It was a pleasant dinner; I enjoyed Jack’s company. It turned out we had a lot in common. We both had taken an active part in our church and had large families. I had just retired, and he was about to. We both had served in the Pacific Theater. We exchanged the humorous and tragic incidents that make up family life. We both agreed that with large families, nothing passes your door. The law of average condemns you.

“Bill, I would sit at the dinner table with the family and know that a broken leg, a wrecked car, drugs, and possibly an early death was paused outside my door. The card to each child had been dealt, but face down."

“You know, Jack, I always felt the same way. The only surprise would be to whom it happened. You knew it was going to happen. That damn law could not be repealed. That is strange, I never realized how other parents must fear the law of average.”

Jack was extremely proud of his family; he whipped out their pictures. Every one, including his wife, was blond. He shared a little about each one of his six children. Two of his sons had graduated from Harvard and were now lawyers. His daughter, Meg, was an astrophysicist. He had lost Jack Jr., who was shot down over Vietnam. His youngest son, who had left home at 18, was now serving a prison term.

Jack won my respect when he mentioned his son being in prison. That takes more than a Manhattan. Of course, I also responded by sharing how life was in the Kias chaos. We had seven kids, plus Vinn, a young man who was one of the Vietnam boat people. Vinn lived with us for about eight years.

“Jack, one day it occurred to me. I wasn’t the head of a household, but the manager of an insane asylum. When the inmates heard me refer to the house as the asylum, they gave me a white orderly’s uniform for my birthday. I fooled them. I wore it and added a straight jacket to the clothes in our hall closet.

Over a period of thirty years, I had to make 22 trips to the emergency room, without ever laying a hand on them. I got tired of taking them to the hospital to have their casts removed. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not too difficult.

I always laugh when I think of how Vinn was introduced to the American culture via the Kias family. I’m sure we left him with strange ideas about how the average American lives. He taught all the boys how to kick-box, and everybody loved his cooking. I always had to keep an eye on the dog. He thought Trapper looked delicious.

Vinn would sit on his haunches in the middle of the living room and watch TV. He always reminded me of those guys you would see down on their haunches, hands tied at the edge of the trail. I think they were waiting to be interrogated before they tossed them out of a helicopter. He would never let us throw out anything. He was real handy; he made us very conscious of how much we waste in this country. He could jury rig a watch. A real good boy, but God, was he inscrutable. To this day, I can’t decide whether he was Vietcong or an all right guy. When he first came, we had a kind of Inspector Clousseau, houseboy relationship. I would always sleep with one eye open. A trick I learned in the Corps.

In the space of five years, he had his own business. I remembered how he was always shipping mysterious packages to Paris.”

After dinner, Jack and I retired to our seats. Late into the night we exchanged tales of grief and humor, personal thoughts that I’m sure we had never discussed with another. Jack could tell a story. It was as if for once we could bury all subterfuge and speak freely, nothing to sell and nothing to buy. It was more than being kindred spirits. We had risen above our egos; nothing was said in confidence. We were just two strangers taking a risk, drawing the curtain and using this interlude to finally lay it all out. This went on for several hours.

“Bill, I’m sure you noticed my eyes. I have the damnedest bluest eyes. They always attracted attention. You’ll enjoy this story; it’s about my weird eyes and a lot more. You will be the first person I ever told it to, beside my priest. It happened thirty years ago. The story is fascinating, but you’ll understand why I never told it to anyone."

“Jack, you're right about your eyes. They put Paul Newman to shame. I noticed them the moment we met.”

“OK, one night I’m working late at the office. I don’t know if I told you, but I’m the Treasurer of American Steel. At that time I had to put some mean nights in, making up the budget. Most nights I would be alone until about eleven, and then I would pack it in and head home. This one night I look up from my desk, distracted by a young girl emptying my wastebasket. Bill, she was without doubt the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Long jet-black hair, eyes that matched the ebony of her hair, a form divine. Her skin was that beautiful olive. She had that face that the Greeks appreciated.

Each night she would come in for a brief moment, finish her task and leave. After a while I began to look forward to her entrance. I guess it started with a smile. I attempted to establish a relationship, only to find out, by sign more than anything else, that she was a native of Peru and spoke no English.

One night I invited her to join me at my desk, to share my coffee. I don’t know how we communicated, but we did. She told me that she came from a small village, high up in the Andes and had just arrived in the U.S. My blond hair captivated her. She said I would be considered a god in her village. What really made her spellbound were my eyes. She had never seen eyes that color. As we would sit there, I realized that my eyes had a magnetic hold on her. She looked at me as if I were actually a god.

Well, it got to be a regular routine, the desk bit. I started teaching her English. I thought of it as a harmless recess. Unknowingly, I was becoming very attracted to her. I began thinking of her as my Inca Princess, and I knew she was thinking of me as a god.

Bill, I never fooled around in my life. In fact, I had no respect for any fool that did. This whole thing was crazy and getting out of hand. As the days went on, I found her lurking in my mind. Vera didn’t notice, but the Princess was definitely hurting the marriage. One night, I was determined to change my office to a different floor. As I was cleaning out my desk, she arrived early that evening.

‘Mr. Jack, Saturday I go to Cleveland to my brother. I will not see you again.’ Tears were in her eyes.

Instead of a feeling of great relief, my stomach turned. My Inca Princess was leaving. All reason fled. God, I was in love with her. Like a fool I asked her to join me that Friday evening for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I just wanted to say goodbye.

‘Honey, the fellows in the office have invited me out to bowl Friday. I’ll be a little late. I don’t even feel like going, but you know, you have to play the game.’

‘Jack, that does sound like a nice time. You certainly deserve some relaxation. Maybe you should join their league. All work, no play?’

Bill, for the next two days my conscience was eating me alive. I no longer felt at home in my own house. I found myself avoiding Vera. This kind of crap was new to me. How do guys do it? I kept telling myself, it’s only one crummy night. The Princess and I will just have a drink and dinner and that’s it. Who’s to know? Who’s to hurt? Vera said I deserved some relaxation.

Friday night finally arrives. Well, you know what happens. I didn’t make history. It starts off with hand holding at dinner and it ends up at two a.m. in a fleabag. I really blew it. God, I felt like garbage. Everything I valued and had taken pride in was gone. I wanted to drive the car into a tree. I tell you, Bill, I had really despised any married man who was unfaithful. I convinced myself she’s gone. It’s all over. It never happened. Vera will never know. Everybody is allowed one slip.

Quietly as possible, I pull the car into the driveway. I’m surprised to see the living room light still on. God, she waited up for me. While hanging my coat in the vestibule, I hear her call.

‘Honey you're rather late. Did you have a good time? I hope you remembered your ulcer. Take a glass of milk and bring me a warm one. I just couldn’t sleep.’ She glanced up from her book as I entered. Her glance froze into horror as I handed her the milk. ‘JACK! JACK! What happened? My God, Jack, you look horrible. What happened to you!’

She was now on her feet, milk spilt. I thought, what in hell is she talking about? I quickly ran into the bathroom off the kitchen, in search of a mirror. There, staring at me, was the head of a man with the eyes of a giant raccoon. My Inca Princess had poured out her emotions on my eyes. I suddenly recalled her constant kissing of my eyes. I was a dead man.”

“Jack, how in heaven’s name did you get out of it?” I asked.

“Bill, how in hell could you get out of it? I racked my brain. I had to come up with an explanation. There wasn’t any! Should I stonewall it? Deny any knowledge of the condition of my eyes?

As I stared into the mirror, I saw tears filling those horrible eyes. No. There would be no denial. I had had it. There was only one way back. I was going to tell the truth. God, I was going to tear Vera’s heart out. It was going to be the hardest thing I ever did. There really wasn’t a choice. As I stepped out of the bathroom, Vera was waiting for me, still with that alarmed face, and even more bewildered by my tears. I told her everything.

Bill, It was the most passionate moment of our marriage. I sunk to my knees and wept as I buried my head in her robe. My remorse was overwhelming. I was taking the sin and guilt and laying it at the feet of my innocent Vera. Bill, It is a strange thing to say, but honest to God, I felt as if I was at the foot of the cross, asking Him to forgive me.

Vera stood silently with her small hands resting on my head. I don’t know how long I knelt there weeping, but suddenly I felt the light kisses of Vera on my horrible eyes. She was kneeling, holding my face in her hands. ‘Jack, I’ll always love you. I am your wife.’”

“You dumped on her Jack. You never should have told her.”

“Bill, that’s just what my priest said.”

“ALEXANDRIA! ALEXANDRIA! ALEXANDRIA!”

“That’s for me, Bill. Look out the window and you will see the face of an angel.”

I had to look. Vera was an angel inside and out.

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