From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Honey Man

It was a living. We came every Sunday, my kids and I, to sell my handmade jewelry at the swap meet. Before sunrise each week, we were lined up with 150 other “swappers,” people like me . . . fallen on hard times and finding a way to survive. While most folks were dressing for church, we were sharing Styrofoam cups of hot coffee, taking our places at the abandoned drive-in theater, setting out our wares. That’s where we met the Honey Man.

I was just closing a much-needed sale of my handmade jewelry when Teddy, my toddler, smeared a viscous sweet matter on my corduroys with his two-year-old hand. “Bees make it,” he said, beaming at me from under his sticky curls. He was holding a handful of plastic straws full of glistening golden honey. I turned to find Angie, my five-year-old daughter, sucking on one of the honey-filled straws.

“I hope you don’t mind, ma’am.” A bent sixty-something man was reaching out his hand. “It’s all natural, won’t hurt ’em . . . local honey from my own hives.” His gnarled hand was slightly sticky when he firmly shook my hand.

“I’m Robin,” I said, staring down his turquoise eyes, checking his character. As a single mother, I had to be cautious. But I saw only gristle, kindness and an untold story.

“Jake,” he answered. “I’m parked just over there, if you need anything, ma’am.” He turned a huge back with bent shoulders to me and walked away with a slight, almost unnoticeable limp, like an old injury that had been oiled with honey. Halfway to his booth—a display of honeycombs and diagrams of bees—he turned, as if he knew I was staring, and winked. Teddy and I laughed.

From then on, he became a part of our lives. Every Sunday, he unloaded his fold-up display from a yellow Volkswagen and set it up across from us in the old drive-in theater parking lot we used for the swaps. He wasn’t much of a salesman—he simply gave out sample straws filled with his honey—but he never went home with leftovers. One taste and people were hooked. So were the kids and I, and not just to his honey. We were naturally drawn to Jake’s quiet, unassuming manner and constant kindness to us.

We knew little about him. “I don’t naturally talk about me much,” he would say over coffee breaks and lunches during the next few months, and the only time a glimmer of his past peeked through was when I told him about my painful divorce. “The man had everything,” he said, choking back tears and looking across to where my children were minding his booth. “What I wouldn’t give . . .”

I saw my chance. “What about you, Jake?” I asked. “Where are your people?” He stared down into his coffee mug, but didn’t answer. Finally, he looked up. “Tell you what. My peaches are ripe, and I make a honey cobbler that’s to die for. Bring the kids around to my place. It’s about time they met the bees.”

The next Saturday, we bumped up a country road, following the map Jake had drawn. He emerged from a house he had built himself, carrying a pitcher of iced lemonade. He invited us to sit at the picnic table, and we ate his famous cobbler, surrounded by fruit trees with tinkling bells and carved wooden birds tied on their branches, flowers and beehive boxes.

Soon the kids were romping in the pasture with the baby goats, and I turned to the Honey Man, who had started on a long story about the bees, his favorite subject. “I want to hear about you, Jake,” I interrupted. Jake rubbed his gray stubbled face and scratched the back of his thick neck. Then, reluctantly, he began to talk.

“You’re too young to remember World War II. People were excited. We were all gonna go off to Europe and kill us some Nazis. My small unit was ambushed behind enemy lines. Only me left, with this hurt leg.” He slapped his right thigh. “I don’t know how I got to the farm. The old man must’ve found me in his field. He buried my buddies, and I believe he prayed over their bodies. Germans— they were supposed to be the enemy—but this man and his family, they were just people. I was slow to recover, and it must have been an awful risk keeping me in their house.” He paused and wiped one of his large hands slowly across his face.

“The farmer had a niece. We were married by spring. Elizabeth wasn’t the enemy. She was not fooled by Hitler’s smooth words. We weren’t legally married: just her uncle’s family and me and a Bible, and a promise to love each other.

“Then news came that the war was ending, and my leg was healed. So I made my way back to my base camp and tried to negotiate with the commanding officer: I wanted to take my bride home with me. He put me off, assured me that it would all be processed after my return to the States. I tried to go back and say good-bye to Elizabeth, but it was crazy times; the war was ending, and Germany was being torn in two. I was threatened with a court-martial if I tried to crash the curtain.

“Court-martial! My heart was already in lockup! I’d left Elizabeth with her uncle’s family. We thought she might be pregnant, and I knew she’d need me. I guess I was the only soldier who wasn’t happy to be home. In the end, when the lines were drawn, the little farm and the woman I loved, fell on the east side of the line. People call it the Iron Curtain, but they don’t know how cold and hard that iron is, not like I do.”

My peach cobbler was looking blurry. Jake shifted his weight in the wooden chair. “I tried to find her,” he said. “Uncle Sam couldn’t help. In the end, I sent back my Purple Heart and all those medals, Bronze Star, the lot. They were nothing after losing Elizabeth.

“You should have seen her,” he said, smiling. “Eyes as gray as cold steel, but when she’d smile, she’d light up the world. Her hair was a mop of yellow straw. Her skin was like the milk she got out of her uncle’s cow each morning. I’m an old man now, and I wasn’t much to look at then either. But she loved me; that I know. Wherever she is, she loves me still.

“Every year or two, I go to Germany and follow every lead I can, but every year, I come home alone. I’m getting tired, and I’m overdue to go again.” Jake looked suddenly weary, and I worried that I shouldn’t have reopened a painful wound. “Maybe if you and the young ones could pray for me. I need an angel to help me find her, ’cuz working alone has not been successful.”

The next day, the Honey Man was not at the swap meet, and I worried some more. The kids and I made a point of mentioning Jake and his lost wife in our dinner prayers each evening. But the week slipped away from me, and I didn’t get a chance to drive out and check on him. So I was elated when, the next Sunday, I saw his familiar yellow Volkswagen lined up with the swappers. I was swamped at first and didn’t get a chance to look for Jake. Then I heard him.

“Robin, I’d like to introduce you to . . . my people,” Jake said, his voice husky. Taken aback, I looked up to see him flanked on either side by beautiful, identical, enormous blondes. “My daughters, Ute and Ingrid.” They held out matching milk-white hands and smiled, apologizing for not yet speaking English well. There was no mistaking them. They had Jake’s startling eyes, but they were taller than him, with big yellow beehive hairdos. I was speechless, looking from one woman to the other and then around for their mother.

Sensing my confusion, Jake spoke up. “They found me! The day after our visit, I was too low to come to the swap. Come Wednesday, when the doorbell rang, I tried to ignore it. But they’d come a long way and kept on ringing. When I finally opened the door, they didn’t have to tell me who they were.”

Elizabeth had recently died, the twins told him, but she had never given up on her lost husband, never doubted his love. “Your father is looking for us,” she assured the twins as they grew up. “We should never give up on looking for him. He loves us.”

Her insistence on that love was what had brought them overseas to find their father. Once Jake’s daughters found him, they weren’t losing him again. They moved into the home Jake had built for his long-lost bride, and they stayed there all together, surrounded by the fragrant trees, tinkling bells and humming bees. The war, with all its losses, was finally over for Jake, and, at last, the Honey Man took up living with his family.

Robin Lim

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