I have gotten used to the cold weather in Michigan. However, every year my wife Samantha and I escape to a warmer location during spring break. So it was in the month of April 2009 that we arranged a trip to Cancun. As luck would have it we had to cancel our plans due to an outbreak of swine flu there, so instead we went to an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
We spent four wonderful days at the resort. On the day of departure, the shuttle brought us back to the airport much in advance of our flight. The only thing we could do was while away our time window shopping for souvenirs.
We were in front of a jewelry store when a couple passed us. The man was of medium build and was wearing brown shorts and a floral shirt that was not tucked in. He appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties and was wearing a light maroon baseball cap with the logo “OU” on the front.
I normally don’t start conversations with strangers, but when the couple walked a few steps beyond us and turned back something made me speak.
“Are you folks from Oklahoma?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” the man replied, “Norman, Oklahoma. But now I live in Miami. I’m Duane.”
“Hi, I’m Ash.” I said.
We introduced our wives. He told us that he was in Montego Bay with his wife Agnes to attend a medical conference. He was a pediatrician.
I told him I too was an OU alumnus and had lived on Asp Avenue at one time. I asked him if he remembered the Rickner’s book-store right off the main campus. He said he did.
“How about the McDonald’s that sold 15-cent hamburgers?”
“Yes! On Jenkins,” he said.
He complimented me on my good memory. I started to feel some familiarity with him but didn’t know why. I also noticed that Duane was staring at me as if he was trying to remember something.
It was Samantha who asked him what year he graduated. It turned out he was a couple of years junior to me.
“Maybe we were in some classes together,” he said.
We could have continued talking, but we heard some announcement on the airport speaker system.
“Oh, my gosh! They just announced our gate. It was nice talking with you folks,” Duane said.
“Go Sooners!” said Agnes with thumbs up as they turned away.
“God bless!” he said as they departed.
When I heard those words it dawned on me that the man was my good old friend, Owen. The Owen I knew who pronounced his name “Oh Wayne.” Maybe he said “Oh Wayne” when he introduced himself, but I heard it as “Duane.” I should have introduced myself as “Ashley” instead of “Ash”. I could see the couple far ahead approaching their gate.
“Owen, Owen,” I shouted as I dashed toward him and his wife. Samantha followed me. I reached him as they were in front of their gate. Instead of lining up to board, they were standing idly looking at the monitor with the flight listings.
“Excuse me. Owen, are you the Owen who lived on Lindsay Street and owned a Renault?” I asked, almost out of breath.
He looked surprised as he admitted that he in fact was the same Owen. When I re-introduced myself as Ashley Wilkins his face beamed.
“Ashley? The quiet one?” he said as he hugged me. I apologized for not recognizing him and thinking his name was Duane.
“Well, we have changed, haven’t we?” Owen said. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“I wouldn’t have noticed you if you weren’t wearing your cap,” I said.
It turned out the announcement he heard was for another flight and they had another half hour, as did we. We walked over to a coffee shop to catch up.
Owen said that after he finished his work in Africa he returned to the United States. He didn’t mention what happened to Rachel. In Miami he enrolled in medical school and later became a pediatrician. He married Agnes and they had one daughter, Sally, a teacher in Melbourne. Both of his parents had passed away. I told him about the life of a faculty member at Michigan State, my three children – two of them professionals and one still in college – the campus politics, the pressure to publish and the struggle to get tenure.
We had a good chat. At the end we exchanged our addresses and telephone numbers. I invited Owen and Agnes to spend Thanksgiving with us.
“It’s a date,” Owen said as we departed.
I was really looking forward to Owen and Agnes’s visit. I remembered the special dinner Owen’s mother had prepared when I had visited his parents’ home in Pauls Valley. This was my chance to reciprocate.
A week before Thanksgiving I received a call from Samantha in my office at the university. There is a package for you from Florida, she said.
What had Owen sent? Perhaps it was a gift. I didn’t have any classes or meetings that afternoon, so I came home early.
It was a small padded envelope. Neatly tucked inside was an OU baseball cap, along with a handwritten note.
Dear Professor Wilkins,
I know how much you were looking forward to Owen’s visit to your home this Thanksgiving. I am sorry to inform you that Owen died two weeks ago in a car accident very close to our home. He left the house early in the morning for his daily run. Our neighbor was walking his dog and the dog somehow broke away from his leash to chase a squirrel. Owen ran after the dog to catch him and bring him back to his owner. He didn’t see a car turning the corner and coming toward him. He was hit and was seriously injured. My neighbor called an ambulance from his cell phone and rushed Owen to the hospital. After two days in coma Owen passed away. He died as a result of an act of kindness, as was his nature.
You had said that if it wasn’t for Owen wearing the OU baseball cap you two wouldn’t have come together. I want you to have the cap as a memento of your friendship.
When I finished reading I broke down and started to cry. Samantha was puzzled. She approached me asking – what happened? What happened? I was too overwhelmed to speak. I handed her the letter and wiped my tears.
Later that night after I regained my composure, I called Agnes. I offered my condolences and asked if I could be of help. She said she didn’t need anything at that moment. After settling some affairs related to Owen’s business she was planning to move to Melbourne to live close to Sally.
A week later I took the cap to an embroidery shop and had them place the letters Owen above the letters OU. I decided to keep the cap in a prominent place in my study.
Little did I know that a few days later I would receive a call from a FBI agent asking about the cap.
It was a call that made me wonder what my friend had gotten himself into.
For chapter 2 click here: Chapter 2
This chapter was written as a standalone story two years ago. I have, since, extended it into a novel. This is the revised version of the original story. Stay tuned for subsequent chapters.
All characters and events in this novel are fictional.