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Chelsea O'Byrne

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Our daughter and son-in-law had been travelling 20 hours when they stepped off the airport bus in Hamilton, Ont. They’ve just arrived from Cairo. We have not seen them in a year. The excitement all round is palpable as they gather their bags.

As we head for our car, an elderly man, just off the same bus, tags along behind. He asks our daughter Julie where he can find a pay phone; he has a friend who lives in a nearby town.

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I glance at him. He’s a big man, dishevelled and seems confused. Something is “off,” I think. It’s 8:30 p.m., their flight was delayed and our dinner has been ready for two hours. I’ve twice returned the chicken to the fridge, turned off the sauce, reduced the boiling pasta-ready water to low. I’m feeling impatient.

But not one of us has a working cellphone, and the man has luggage. He can’t walk in the summer heat; it’s a good fifteen minutes to where there are stores. “Come in the car with us,” I say. “We’ll drop you near the shops."

The man turns away, staggers a little. Our son-in-law, Ihab, follows him and takes the handle of his largest suitcase. He wrestles the luggage into our small trunk, and the three of them cram into the back. Ihab asks the man his name – Ed – and introduces us.

On the way home, I think – there are no pay phones any more; I can’t leave Ed on the street. The voice in my head says, “But, yikes, what if there is no friend? What would we do with him?” A thought I try to push under swims to the surface of my mind – what if he’s been sleeping in hostels? What if he has bedbugs?

I’m ashamed of this thought, remembering a talk I once gave to a writing class on the theme of the stranger. The myths of the old cultures, I’d said, are stories that carry deep truths about human life. A message that the myths give us repeatedly is Welcome the Stranger. Those who welcome the stranger are rewarded and those who turn the stranger away are punished. I’d gone on to say, to my audience, that I don’t see this as a moral lesson; I think the myths are pointing to a truth of human life – that deep down, in our fears and hopes and humanness, we’re all connected.

Words, fine words. Easy to say. Yet now that I’m tested in this small way, I’m thinking bedbugs.

I dither, then decide we’ll take Ed home. The risk is minuscule. When we enter the kitchen, he sees the table set for four, the dark red roses in their vase, smells the recently simmered pasta sauce. Again, he tries to back away. I hand him our phone.

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His large fingers press the keys. Wrong number. My husband and I exchange a look. On second try, he reaches someone he knows. He hands me the phone, so I can give his friend directions. I try to explain why Ed is here, then tell her how to find our house.

Ed insists on taking his suitcases to the corner and waiting there. “I’ll watch for her,” he says, and thanks us as he heads out the door.

I take the meat out of the fridge and begin to heat it yet again. Turn the sauce to simmer. Add water to the large pot and turn the heat up.

Five minutes later, I check from the window. There he stands. Dusk is rising from the ground, the humidity is still thick. He’s drooping like the thirsty trees that line our street. My inner voice speaks up again: “Guest in the house, God in the house.” And St. Paul’s well known “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’’

I send Julie and Ihab out to get him. My husband pours red Portuguese wine for all. I return to the kitchen and turn everything off.

Ed tells us he was captain of the McMaster University football team 60 years ago. He’s 80 now and still a professor at Dalhousie University. Again, I exchange looks with my husband. Is this a confabulation?

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His wife died a year ago, he says; he’s lost 60 pounds. The evenings are tough. His friend nearby was his wife’s best friend all these years. She lost her husband last year, too. The two of them are now “keeping company.”

Hearing this, my suspicion turns to trust. I hear myself tell Ed that my husband is also 80. My worst fear is that he will die before me, and leave me alone in this house. Mordant laughter all around, but a meaningful conversation develops. This stranger has something to teach me.

After some time, a dark SUV slowly approaches. Ed sees it first. He tips his glass upside down and swallows the last third of its contents. Nods to my husband: “Excellent wine!”

A pretty older woman with curly hair steps from the SUV. Beneath the street lights, she reaches up and Ed bends over for a tender embrace. He introduces her as Frances, and we chat briefly. The four of us watch the two of them slowly drive away.

I’m animated by the way aspects of this little tale conform to the old myths. The stranger appears in disguise, often as a beggar – someone outside the norms of society. Only gradually is it revealed who and what (s)he really is. Think Odysseus, returning unrecognized to Ithaca. And the stranger has a reward, often intangible, for his host.

When I was a child, my Huron county farm relatives never locked a door. A stranger, no matter how down and out, would be welcomed, given water or a meal, sometimes even a bed for the night. How far from that our society has travelled, with our rising fear of the stranger.

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After discovering a bottle of wine on our doorstep, I find Ed’s e-mail address on the Dalhousie website and contact him. He responds, musing on life after an older person loses a spouse – “attitudes and behaviours – what we might consider to be transgenerational, teenage-type roles and attitudes. It generates the whole spectrum of comedy, drama and ennui. Good grist for a novelist’s mill perhaps!”

We arrange that Ed and Frances will join us for a glass of wine the next time he comes to Hamilton.

Leo Tolstoy is reputed to have said that in all literature there are only two plots. A person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In this story, a stranger comes to town, a stranger whom I believe has the wisdom to help me deal with my worst fear.

Marilyn Gear Pilling lives in Hamilton.

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