Friday, February 03, 2006

The Love Scrooge


Ella clutched her throat. A tombstone. Were those really her initials carved in careful precision?


Twenty-four hours earlier...

Ella snapped the newspaper with her wrists and read the final words of her article: "So, if you want to make the greeting card companies rich, if you want to spread chocolate like the black plague, if you want to bow to pressure on this, the most hyped holiday since Christmas, go ahead and celebrate Valentine's Day. Suffer your disappointments on the fifteenth, when she doesn't look as sparkling as she did in the moonlight, or he wants to watch ESPN instead of making you the center of his world. As for this writer, I say Bah, Humbug to Valentine's Day."

Her literary face smirked from a tiny square next to her byline, E. Benezer, with the title of her article right below, "Pass the Love Bug Repellent." She'd been writing for the Daily Chronicle fifteen years now, and had made quite a name for herself—good and bad. This pleased her as an opinion columnist. She knew she hadn't done her job until at least ten people wrote the editor to complain. So, she embraced her fans and dismissed her critics.

Every critic but one.

Rick Hart, a local disc jockey for KROK 105.3, had declared war on her a couple of years back, when she wrote her first anti-Valentine's Day piece. Apparently with a name like Hart, he took exception to anything that suggested a down-with-love mentality.

She flicked the power button on the radio in her home office. KROK blared immediately, and she waited for his reply to this year's article. True to form, he began his attack early, even before she could finish her morning cup of coffee.

"And that was Teddy Bear by Elvis Presley, dedicated to Ella Benezer, columnist for the Daily Chron. Miss Benezer's annual column on the down side of Valentine's Day predictably showed up in the paper this morning. Ella sweetheart, if you're listening, maybe all you need is a teddy bear to squeeze. Perhaps then you won't be so cynical. How 'bout it listeners? Why don't you send Ella a teddy bear today, care of the Daily Chronicle? If we band together, maybe that will soften up the Love Scrooge."

"Ooh!" She pounced on the power button, silencing the insufferable man. "Love Scrooge, indeed!" Rick Hart could keep his teddy bears. She had work to do.

Berta, her assistant, arrived right on time. Ella insisted on promptness. She had her weekly column to get out as well as a couple of books with deadlines. At the end of the day, when Ella handed her the latest handwritten draft, Berta seemed to be edgy about something. She averted her eyes and began playing with her fingers.

"What's wrong with you?" Ella growled.

"Um...do you want this done by tomorrow?"

"Of course. If I can write it in a week, you can certainly type it in a few hours."

More hesitation on Berta's part made Ella snap. "What?"

"I was going to ask for tomorrow off. It is Valentine's Day, you know."

"Is it a federal holiday? Do they close the post office? Does the world stop revolving on Valentine's Day? I don't think so." What was wrong with the silly girl?

"It's just that..." Berta stared at her shoes. "My boyfriend made plans and..."

Ella, still riding on the adrenaline from her column, barked, "Is that what I should tell my editor? That your boyfriend made plans? This deadline is looming. We can't waste any time."

"Okay, I'll let him know."

Berta left with tears in her eyes, but Ella didn't care. Her assistant's contract specifically stated no time off within a week of a deadline.

Minutes after Berta left, Ella heard a knock on her door. When she opened it, she felt the blood drain from her face as she stared into familiar green eyes.

Marly?

It couldn't be! Marly was dead.


The Visit

"My name is Josie, Marlene Jacobs' daughter. I believe you knew her in college."

Ella's hand flew to her heart. Marly's daughter! Marly had been her best friend in school. Partners in crime. What one couldn't think of, the other could. She staggered at this blast from the past.

"Wow! You look like your mother!" Now that her brain could assimilate this sudden information, a twinge of guilt ran through Ella. She'd read the obituary, but skipped the funeral.

"Thank you, I'll take that as a compliment." She walked into the apartment holding a white box tied with a red ribbon. "We're finally selling Mom's house and found this box in her closet. It contains clippings and mementos from her college days. Also, she followed your career and saved every article and column she could find. She still had the autographed copy of your first book."

Ella cringed. Marly had inspired her to write that book. Now she was ashamed of it. A hard copy of How To Get Him to Say I Do, lay forgotten until now in the bottom of her bureau drawer. How naive they'd been in those days.

She invited Josie to take off her coat and hung it on the coat rack next to the door.  "Please join me for coffee in the dining room. You must be chilled," she said as she glanced toward the kitchen window. "I see it's started to snow outside."

Josie thanked her and pushed the box across the table. She looked uncomfortable as she did so, and Ella cocked her brow.

"Like I said, Mom followed your career, and she became quite concerned."

"Concerned? Why?"

Josie fidgeted in her seat. "She wondered what happened to make you so cynical about life. I don't know if you realize, since the two of you lost touch, but Mom suffered a bitter divorce from my dad."

"Is Ben Sable your father ?" Ella felt the catch in her throat as she said the name she once vowed never to utter again.

"Was." Josie's eyes grew sadder, if that were possible. "A car accident, nine years ago."

Ella felt her head pound. This was too much to take in. The two people who once mattered more to her than her very life, now gone.

"The divorce affected Mom deeply, but after she became sick with cancer, she found a new love. Jesus Christ. She wanted you to know that."

Ella's heart felt as cold as the ice building up on the window. Jesus? God? She had no time for such nonsense.

Her face must have revealed her feelings. Josie said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come. But when we found the box and the note inside, it sounded as if she really wanted you to have it." She caressed the lid as if she were saying goodbye to her mother. Then she stood abruptly, grabbed her coat, and fled.

With shaking hands, Ella untied the ribbon. The note on top was a simple plea to deliver the box to Ella Benezer and included her address. She rummaged through pictures and articles from the school paper of their exploits together. Ella's past lay in the cardboard box. A videotape and a small New Testament were among the contents. She set them both aside. It was too much to take in. She'd watch the tape later, but the Bible would remain closed.


The Past

She dressed for bed. No use trying to write this evening. Thoughts of Marly swirled through her head instead of her latest project, a book on how to spot a false relationship. She slipped the tape into the VCR and curled up in her chair. She remembered vivacious Marly. Energetic with a lust for life. However, an older version of Marly greeted her on the screen. Dark circles under her eyes marred the once flawless complexion. She wore a desert rose colored hat with a tiny rolled brim, and Ella wondered if chemotherapy had robbed Marly of her gorgeous blond hair.  

"Ella Bella," Marly smiled weakly, using the nickname she'd called her friend eons ago. "I wish I could do this in person. Forgive me for not calling you. I couldn't bear it if you were still angry with me. This is the coward's way, but sincere nonetheless."

Ella mourned not only her friend's death, but the incident to which she referred. It seemed silly now. Marly had stolen her boyfriend, Ben Sable. Well, she admitted now, years later, you can't steal something that doesn't mind being stolen. She couldn't blame him. Marly was so fresh and lovable. She, on the other hand had already begun to focus on her career in that final year of college. Ben faded from importance, and he naturally fled to Marly, whom Ella had also begun to ignore.

"The following scenes are of our life," the ghost from the past continued. "I give these to you with all my love and pray that you'll forgive me. He wasn't worth our friendship."

Ella sat in the dark watching herself twenty-plus years younger, attending parties, ski trips, hugging Marly and kissing her cheek. Two zany girls growing up together.

When the home movies were over, Marly came back on. "We were so good together, Ella. I wish we could have kept in touch. It would make what I have to say next so much easier. I messed up my life when I married Ben. If he'd leave you for me, why wouldn't he leave me for someone else?" Marly offered a mirthless laugh. "I became very bitter, just as you seem to be. Since Ben, others were interested, but I couldn't stand to be hurt anymore. However, since my illness, one Man has entered my life. I've accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. I can now die knowing true love in a way that lasts forever. I'll be with Him for eternity. It's not too late for you, Ella Bella. I don't know what turned you against men, or love in general. I've read it in your column. I pray it wasn't from my foolishness."

Marly's voice faded to background noise as Ella began to reflect. What had turned her against love? Had it been her best friend's betrayal? Had that been the catalyst to losing herself in her career? Whatever the reason, no man would ever soften her heart.

A certain disc jockey might take exception, she thought reluctantly. After his first attack on her anti-love column, Rick had shown up at the Chronicle saying he wanted to see for himself the only person in town who hated Valentine's Day. He'd talked her into having dinner with him—for research.

She felt her lip tug into a smile. Rick had surprised her with his wavy dark hair and blue eyes that sparkled with mischief. Certainly not a face for radio—he should have been a game show host. That perpetual smile unnerved her. One date led to two, then to three. Her column began to suffer as she smothered it with fluff. The world started looking rosy. She knew she'd been set up. He was trying to ruin her—steal her edge. She broke it off. Shortly afterward she wrote another book: Lose the Noose, You Silly Goose—What To Say When You Aren't Interested. Persistent DJ Rick Hart continued the feud every year on the air, infuriating her even while trying to soften her heart. No one would ever soften Ella Benezer. She liked being thorny. It brought in great royalties.

Marly's voice became stronger, claiming Ella's attention once more. "But please know that there is one Man who will never let you down. He's waiting patiently for you to take His hand..."

Ella paused the tape. Marly's face was different, beyond the pain of cancer. If possible, she was more beautiful than ever. A...peacefulness rested within her eyes.

She hit play again. "...and He wants to be the Lover of your soul. Give Him a chance, old friend. I love you and want to see you on the other side."

The television screen went black and Ella wept as if Marly had died right there in her arms.


The Present

"Hello, lovers everywhere. It's Valentine's Day." Rick Hart's annoying voice woke her way too early. She hit the snooze on her clock radio alarm. She hadn't slept well the night before.  The past haunted her dreams.

Exactly seven minutes later, Rick's voice pulled her from another nightmarish dream. "...I understand the Teddy bears are pouring in."

"Mmph." Ella hit the snooze again. What must her boss think? She buried her head under her pillow.

Seven more minutes passed. The radio clicked on again just in time for Ella to hear the end of yet another love song. "...If you want to know if he loves you so it's in his kiss."

"Yes lovers, that's the 'Shoop Shoop' song. Silly title, great message. Now, to Miss Love Scrooge, I issue a challenge."

Ella slid her head out from under the pillow to hear what Mr. Hart had to say. "I'll be doing a remote later today right in front of the Daily Chron building. If E. Benezer would like to have it out with me, she can do it on the air. Meet me at two o'clock and give me a kiss, then I'll stop this feud. However, if you won't come, be warned. I'll simply have to pursue you until you relent."

Ella sat straight up in bed. "Pursue me?" She stared wide-eyed at the radio as if the DJ could reach right out and lay a wet one on her through the air waves.

She threw the covers off. "That's it!" She'd show up at that remote and give him a large piece of her mind. She'd been trying to keep her private life private, but that was no longer possible. He needed to be put in his place!

After Ella showered and changed, Berta arrived.

"What's wrong?" Berta asked, cringing as if her boss might beat her.

"Is it that obvious?" Ella stormed into her office. "It's Rick Hart again. Every year we go through the same thing. Well, this time he's gone too far."

"I heard. He's called you out."

Ella nodded her head. "That's a good way to put it. Dueling pistols at two o'clock. Well, he'll wish he hadn't."

"What are you going to do? I don't think you can humiliate the man. He has, after all, made his courtship public."

"Courtship?"

"You can't see what he's doing? He must have it bad for you. Why else would he embarrass you like this?"

Ella took a deep breath. "Whatever. Let's get to work." She wouldn't let the disc jockey disrupt her day. She'd have to cut it short as it was because of his stupid challenge.

The two women worked throughout the morning. Ella glanced over at Berta as her hands flew over the keyboard and caught a flash on her ring finger. She grabbed at the digit. "What's this?"

Berta blushed, then blanched. "It's...um...an engagement ring."

"Where'd you get it?"

"My boyfriend, Tim, of course." Berta pulled her hand back and cradled it with her other.

Ella sat hard in her desk chair. "Does this mean you'll be leaving me?"

"Of course not. I'll still have to work, he doesn't make enough for the both of us."

"When did this happen?"

"Last month. You only just now noticed it?"

"Why wouldn't you share something this important with me?" Ella was beginning to see herself as others saw her. She should have commented on the ring, but truthfully, she'd never noticed it. Why would her employee not share this with her?

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I know how you feel about this sort of thing." When Ella glared at the young woman, Berta stammered, "Love and...stuff. We were going to plan the wedding today. You know, spend the whole day together, make it special, but I had to work."

Ella rubbed her temples. What kind of a shrew would make her employee so frightened that she couldn't tell her why she wanted the day off?

"Listen," Ella finally said when she had a voice. "There's nothing so important that it can't wait until tomorrow. Be with your guy."

Berta looked at her skeptically. "Are you sure? You won't call me with a web site question, will you? Or make me come back to handle your fan mail?"

"I'm sure," Ella tried to smile, but she suddenly felt very tired. Her restless night must be catching up with her.

"Okay," Berta slowly picked her coat and scarf off the rack. "I'll see you tomorrow." She gingerly walked through the front door and as she pulled it behind her she whispered, "Thank you."

Ella shook her head. Berta acted as if she'd lost her mind. Maybe she had. She glanced toward the white box on the dining room table. Reaching inside, she pulled out the New Testament.


The Future

"Love is patient, love is kind." Ella read the pink highlighted text of 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen. Throughout the book, Marly had marked a plethora of references about love. She cringed when she read, "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."

When she reached 1 John, chapter four, she found herself on her knees. "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God...Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." She wept as she read how God showed His love by sending His Son as an atoning sacrifice for sins. "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear..." These verses seemed to leap off the page.

What was she afraid of? Being hurt again? More importantly, why was she afraid of God's love? Maybe for the same reason she was afraid of Rick's love. She knew she would change inside.

Change. That was it. She wasn't ready to change her lifestyle. She glanced toward her wall of awards, all touting her expertise on books and articles teaching others how to live without love. She couldn't give that up, could she?

Suddenly, she remembered the time. She'd have to hurry to meet Rick at two o'clock.

When she arrived at the Chronicle, a crowd had already gathered. Applause greeted her as she stepped out of her car and made her way to the remote booth the radio station had set up for this fiasco. She rolled her eyes at the dozens of teddy bears next to the booth.

She heard Rick say over the fading last lines of This Guy's In Love With You, "I feel your pain, Burt Bacharach. Well, I can't believe my eyes! Miss Love Scrooge in the flesh. She's come to meet my challenge. Luckily we're on the air, so if anything happens to me, I have you all for witnesses."

He walked out of the booth dragging his microphone with him. "What will it be E. Benezer? A kiss? Or this..." He kicked the teddy bears aside to reveal what they were hiding.

Ella clutched her throat. A tombstone. Were those really her initials carved in careful precision?

"Yes folks, this is the time of reckoning," Rick informed his on-air audience. Then he looked at Ella with hope burning through those dazzling blue eyes. "What will it be, Ella? A kiss to stop this feud and start a promising future? Or is love dead between us?"

Is love dead? No, she didn't want that. Not from Rick and not from God. If she turned away from Rick now, if she didn't put her faith in something—or someone—if she didn't allow perfect love to drive out her fear as she'd read in Marly's Bible, her future would loom dark and bleak. Suddenly the awards, the prestige, and her reputation didn't matter anymore.

Her practiced speech evaporated. She straightened her shoulders, locked eyes with the persistent DJ, grasped the lapels of his sport coat, and soundly kissed him. When she did, she also kissed God, who whispered to her softened heart, "Ella, I am the Lover of your soul."



Copyright: Kathleen E. Kovach, 2005. All rights reserved.
If you wish to share my work, please do not copy without express permission, but I do invite you to send the link to those you feel will benefit from my stories. Thank you for understanding.