It was fall of 2002, and business was slowing down for the season at the Hilltop House Hotel. The wonderful weddings that took place at the point in the crisp October air were over. the annual bluegrass festival had just ended the prior weekend and the air no longer held the homey melodies of “Blue moon of Kentucky” and “Wabash Cannonball” as the sun fell behind the hotel.
At this time I was the hotel’s night clerk as I was the only one who would take the job. So I enjoyed some time in the early evening on the grandiose front porch with a coffee and a cigarette, before my shift started. Few guests were there at this time of year, but one who was always there until the first week in November, was Mr. Klien.
That was all I knew him by. And he knew my name, but he always called me “Young sir”. Mr. Klien had been a regular guest for years and always came at the same time, the same room for a few weeks. he was a cordial old fellow in his late 80’s (when I knew him) who had survived the holocaust in Europe, and had made a life for his family when they escaped after the liberation in Washington, D.C. I admired the little man, and was never anything but nice to him. Oddly, if he was there and I was in a bad mood, he had a way of making me laugh a little.
One morning I was tending the front desk and finishing up my paperwork. It had been a very quiet evening, even the strange footsteps on the stairs were absent. I was in a pleasant mood. There were no issues to report (which at this late time in the hotel’s history was a GOOD thing) and everything was moving along fine. I had set up the continental breakfast in the lobby and started the coffee machine, when I noticed Mr. Klien coming down the stairs. I looked at the clock. it was only 5:45. The sun wasn’t even up yet.
“Good morning Mr. Klien.” I smiled and motioned to the freshly brewing coffee. “Coffee wont be ready for a few minutes, sir, but I can get you some from my pot, if you’d like.” I kept a pot of coffee on in the security room that was behind the front desk.
“No thank you, young sir.” he smiled and pulled on his jacket. As he shifted his cane from one hand to the other I glimpsed the faded numbers permanently etched into his flesh, an unwelcome reminder of the hatred this man survived. “But would you like to see something MAGICAL?” he asked as he slid his jacket on.
I smiled broadly. “Sir,” I replied “I would LOVE to see something magical!”
He smiled too and a little glimmer sparked in his eye. “Come outside with me.”
I grabbed my own jacket and held the heavy oak door open for the little man and followed behind him. The crisp air snipped at my exposed skin and my breath cooled in the air in front of me. I love this weather, it always did (and does) make me feel alive. He directed my vision to a point between the mountains with his cane. “Just watch that way for a brief moment, young sir.” So I did. I knew sunrise was coming as the dark black of night faded into the cool blue of morning between the silhouette of the mountains.
In those few minutes we chatted a bit more than we had before. He told me of his kids. How his wife passed almost 30 years ago, how he had seen and done things few could dream…or understand. I didn’t know it then, but this tiny man, told me in brief a tale that i would have listened to for hours. Mr. Klien was one of those rare individuals who really HAD seen and done it all. (i mean come on, hiding from nazis in a polish ghetto?! that story alone would rivet the hardest person) he paused and put a hand on my shoulder as the first radiant line of the sun broke the horizon. “Through all my life young sir, i have learned to pause and find magic everywhere. I’ve been coming here for years and i FINALLY found the magic here.”
I was puzzled. I grew up here and knew this tiny little town of mine held lots of magic and wonder. “but Mr. Klien…” i began.
He cut me off politely. “Look, young sir, the mountain’s on fire.”
I followed his gaze and my eyes widened a bit more than i thought they could. Before my eyes the sun broke the mountain with an epic suddenness. The light blazed across the Gold, red, yellow, brown and orange leaves that had turned the mountainside of Maryland Heights into a quilt of warm colors, and turned that into a brilliant display of color that seemed alive with the morning breeze. The mountain side moved in the crisp breeze, the colors shifted and melted into one another as the wind picked up and whipped leaves from those trees. The early morning fog that clung to the river started to lift in the wind and roll like tendrils up the mountainside. With the combination of the colors, the wind, the fog and the light of the morning sun…the mountain did indeed look as if it was on fire!
I looked at the little man beside me with wide-eyed amazement. He was no longer a little old man worthy of all the respect in the world…no…this man had transformed in front of me into a wizard. he had cast some spell while telling me his life’s story and ignited the mountain with the sun as his torch. My mouth hung agape, i stammered for words, and my eyes beheld in child like wonder the full and absolute power of this magic the little man wielded with effortless ease.
I stood there and watched until the spell ended. The mountain went from a thing on fire to the mountain peppered with warm colors that it was normally.
Mr. Klien patted my arm as we turned to go back into the lobby. “Take your time, young sir, or you’ll miss the magic in the world.”
I never saw Mr. Klien after that year. I didn’t want to ask…actually…I didn’t want to know what may or may not have happened. In my heart Mr. Klien will always be somewhere in D.C. enjoying a huge pastrami on rye with a load of sauerkraut and his whole dill pickle. (he had to have a WHOLE dill pickle…not slices, not halves, not spears…whole)
But every year in the fall, I make it a point to wake up extra early on a random morning when the color of the leaves have peaked. I go to the point where the Hilltop House still stands, and I wait. I wait for the black of night to fade into the pale blue of morning, I quiet my soul and I wait for Mr. Klien’s spell to show me the magic. And every year it never fails…The mountain ignites in a blaze of furious color and I hear the little wizard’s voice in my head. “you have to take the time to see the magic in the world, young sir.”
I do, Mr Klien, thank you sir….I still do.
Dedicated with love, to Mr. Abney Klien 1915-2003