The shiny black limousine turned gracefully off Park Avenue and glided to a halt in front of the glass and brass doors of the towering Hyatt hotel. Immediately, the driver’s door opened and out stepped a large dark man wearing a black chauffeur’s hat, neatly pressed white shirt and black tie, black pants, and black shiny shoes.  He walked briskly but smoothly around the front of the limo toward a well-dressed gentleman waiting at the curb.

The chauffeur flashed a winning smile as he extended a huge hand toward his newest passenger.

“Good evening, sir,” he said.  “My name’s Charlie.”

The gentleman seemed a little startled by the genuine warmth of the driver’s greeting on this cold night before Christmas Eve.  But, he returned the handshake and smile, noticing that his own hand disappeared into the huge grasp of the friendly giant.

“Looks like you bear gifts,” Charlie remarked as he loaded the man’s luggage.  A medium-length piece of thinly curled gold ribbon stuck through the corner of a tightly zipped bag.

The gentleman knelt and cut away the telltale ribbon.  “Who needs the packaging,” he murmured, slipping the sliver of ribbon into his shirt pocket.  “All the kids care about is the gift anyway.”

Charlie lifted the man’s bag into the trunk.  “My daddy gave me a lot of gifts during his lifetime,” he remarked, slamming the trunk lid shut.  He paused with one hand still on the car and gazed thoughtfully toward the sky.  “But, two were the best.”

Intrigued by the twinkle in Charlie’s eye, the gentleman inquired, “What were those?”

“We’ll,” Charlie replied, moving past the gentleman to open the back passenger door, “the second best one was my daddy himself.  He was a busy man, but he always made time for me.”

“And the first?” the gentleman asked, ducking his head to slide into the car.

“He gave me faith in the little King whose birthday we celebrate in two days.”  Charlie leaned over so he could see the now seated gentleman’s eyes.  “There’s no greater gift a man can give his children, you know?”

The gentleman pursed his lips thoughtfully and nodded respectfully.  Charlie shut the door.

Charlie loved chauffeuring.  For forty-two years the AAA Limo Service afforded him a steady job and numerous opportunities.  For one, he got to drive just about every kind of limousine imaginable – black, silver, and white ones, pink ones, even a gold one.  He also drove the convertible classics that carried famous waving people in parades.  He really liked the cars.

>Some said he loved them.  Charlie cleaned and serviced every vehicle he drove.  He knew the limos as well as he knew the name of every street in town.  When he talked about a member of the fleet, he might as well have been talking about one of his six children or twelve grandchildren.  When it came to Charlie, AAA never had to worry about breakdowns, poor service, or complaints from dissatisfied passengers.

More than the cars, though, Charlie loved his passengers.  He guessed he had transported at least 40,000 by now.  He viewed each one not as a mere patron, but as a divine opportunity.  Sure, he worked for AAA, but he had a much bigger Boss who he figured scheduled appointments.  So, Charlie sought and relished opportunities to love, to laugh, to learn, to share special moments.  Even when people were rude or downright mean, Charlie respected them and treated them kindly.

“I don’t bark at barking dogs,” he would quip, “so why bark at barking people?”

“Why chauffeuring?” people occasionally asked.  “You’ll never get rich.”

“I make a decent living doing something I like,” he would counter.  “So what if I never have enough money to ride in the back seat?  I love what I do.”

Charlie loved what he did so much he did it off the job, too.  After hours, Charlie exchanged his black and white dress clothes for blue overalls and a wrinkled cotton shirt.  Instead of a limo, he drove his old station wagon, often ferrying widows to the grocery store or shut-ins to the doctor and back.  He liked to surprise them with little car parties on their birthdays.  He would drive around to pick up their friends and take them all on “Happy Birthday Road Trips.”  He even arranged Christmas and other special occasion shopping and recreation outings, always driving and smiling, loading and unloading, and scurrying around to help everyone who needed help.

On Sundays, Charlie drove the church van.  His passengers always enjoyed his rich bass voice belting out songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Soon and Very Soon,” and “‘Tis the Old Ship of Zion.”

“Get on board, get on board,” he would sing, as everybody from teething toddlers to toothless old-timers gathered behind him, finding peace and passage in his joyous service.

Charlie’s latest passenger thanked the big limo driver for dropping him off at the airport and checking his bags.

“Thanks again,” the gentleman called out, waving as Charlie drove toward the far end of the loading and unloading zone toward a group of cab drivers on the curb.  He smiled to himself as he turned to enter the terminal and saw a grinning Charlie stop, leap out of his car, and start shaking hands and patting backs.

Once on board his plane, the man quickly found his seat.  While settling in and securing his seatbelt, the piece of gold ribbon hanging from his pocket caught his attention.

Merry Christmas, Charlie, he thought.  Merry Christmas.   He fingered the ribbon contemplatively and stared out the window.

Forty-two minutes later, as the gentleman’s silver and white jumbo jet taxied toward the runway, a red and white ambulance raced toward the hospital.  While chatting with his curbside friends, a tightness enveloped Charlie’s massive chest so suddenly that he barely had time to gasp before collapsing on the sidewalk.

The ambulance, lights and flashing and siren blaring, roared into the Emergency entrance as the plane, lights flashing and engines roaring, readied for take-off.  As the heavy rubber wheels of the jet began to roll down the black tarmac, the little rubber wheels of Charlie’s stretcher squeaked down the tiled floors of the hospital corridor.  The nurses heaved the inert Charlie onto the Emergency Room table just as the airplane lifted its holiday travelers into the air.

At that moment, a shiny white limousine turned gracefully off Boulevard and glided to a halt curbside in the semi-circular entrance drive of the huge Memorial Hospital.  Immediately, the driver’s door opened and out stepped a large bronzed figure dressed in gleaming white.  He walked briskly but smoothly around the front of the limo toward the gentleman waiting at the curb.

The chauffeur flashed a winning smile as he extended his huge hand toward his newest passenger.

“Good evening, friend,” he said.  “My name’s Michael.”

The gentleman, not at all startled by the warm greeting, returned the handshake and smile.  He couldn’t help but notice that his own hand disappeared into the mighty hand of the friendly giant.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” Michael said, opening the back door of the limo and motioning for the gentleman to enter.

Far and away from Memorial Hospital, the gentleman with the gold ribbon nibbled peanuts and sipped a soft drink as he stared out of his airplane window at the moonlit clouds below.  He couldn’t stop thinking about the two best gifts he could give his children.

Suddenly, alongside the plane, he thought he caught a glimpse of a something.  Staring hard out the window, he thought, “Hey, that looks like Charlie!”

And it was Charlie, sitting in the back seat of a white limousine celebrating with big, radiant men.  Then, in a dazzling flash of lightning white and blazing taillight red, the limousine for Charlie disappeared into the heavens.

Published in Meat and Potatoes for the Soul“, Copyright © 2013 by K. Lynn Lewis.