No tale of Route 66 this time! Instead, my holiday present to all of you - a Christmas Eve story that is purely fiction, but hopefully touches on the human connections that we all need to make. Enjoy, and may you all have a wonderful and blessed holiday - no matter which one(s) you celebrate!
A NEW GIFT OF THE MAGI
A NEW GIFT OF THE MAGI
The snow falls fast and silent. It's the evening of promises – of the Savior, of Santa, of special significance. And in this particular small city, it's also the night of broken hearts, bleak loneliness, and barren spaces under spindly Christmas trees where toys and packages ought to sparkle.
Edith glances longingly at beautifully framed photographs of her husband George - of George with their son Jeff when Jeff was small, of Edith and George on their wedding day, and so on. They are all arranged atop the grand piano which George played while he was still alive. This is the first Christmas Edith will face without him since they were married 53 years ago.
She has set the dining room table just as she has for many Christmas Eves. She cannot bear not to. Not only is George not with her, but their son Jeff could not get home because of a heavy work load. If George were still here, he would be playing Christmas carols on the piano while Edith cooked. Edith gets up to check on the dinner cooking in the kitchen. Her pace is slow but sure, her steps steady in SAS shoes.
In the kitchen, Edith glances out the window and sees, through the fogging snow, headlights approaching, too fast for this night. The car must be sliding as the headlights now are pointed toward the house. Edith's hand flies to her chest, her gaze intent. “Oh, my.” The big dark car slides into her yard and finally comes to rest in a flower bed about 25 feet from her kitchen window, narrowly missing a couple large trees. Edith towels some moisture off the inside of the window and watches intently. Should she call 9-1-1?
The driver attempts to back the car up, but they are instantly stuck. A few minutes later, driver and passenger doors open and out steps a man and a woman. The man is tall and portly with a wool hat and a trench coat. The woman is wearing a long fur coat. Edith goes to meet them at the front door. She has it open before they can ring the bell.
“We are so sorry. We slid into your yard. We'll pay for any damages. We're stuck. Might we use your phone? Darn cell phone's at home,” the man says.
“Of course. Please come in. I see the snow's piling up. Would you like some slippers?” Edith inquires of the woman, whose high-heeled shoes have clearly not kept her feet dry.
“Oh, that would be nice. My feet are freezing from that little bitty walk. I'm Betty,” and Betty removes her wet shoes. The man removes his wet wingtips and leaves them on the hall rug as Edith shows him to the phone.
When Edith returns with a pair of crocheted slippers, the man is on the phone and Betty is waiting politely by the rug. Edith hangs the woman's beautiful coat in the hall closet while Betty slips her feet into the slippers. “My name's Edith. Betty, won't you come in and sit down while your husband telephones for help? You aren't hurt, are you?”
Betty replies that luckily they are not hurt, not even a bumped head. They hear the man hanging up the phone, none too gently. “Betty, they're backed up with calls due to this weather. They may not be here for a couple hours.”
“In here, Sam. In the living room. But we heard you,” Betty replies. “Should we call Chuck to come get us then?”
“Hell, no. I mean no,” the man glances at Edith, by all appearances a prim and proper person. Looking back at Betty, “Betty, you know I don't even want to go to Chuck's, much less call him to retrieve us after sliding off the road.”
“This is my husband Sam,” Betty explains to Edith. “Sam, this is Edith. And Chuck is our son. Our younger son. Our only living son, that is.”
Edith says she's so sorry and Betty says it's all right, it was a long time ago that they lost David, and Sam says nice to meet you Edith. But Edith does not ask why they do not want to go to their only living son's house for Christmas Eve. Sam stews and paces a bit. Edith checks on her dinner and wonders how it would be to have these people help her eat all the food she has cooked. She invites them. They decide to accept and Sam goes back out to the car to bring in a bottle of wine and a dessert that Betty had made. After a wonderful dinner, most of the bottle of wine (Edith just drinks a half glass), but no more mention of Chuck, the three retire to the living room again.
“Do you play, Edith?” Betty indicates the grand piano.
“Not any more. I was never very good anyway, and now my arthritis prevents it. My husband George was the pianist. He was a school music teacher, played at church, took some piano students here at home. If he were here, he'd be playing Christmas carols.” Edith smiled fondly at George's photos.
“Sam plays well,” Betty stated. “His mother was a concert pianist, actually. And Sam inherited some of her talent.”
Edith smiled. “Then will you play, Sam? The Christmas music books are on the top of the stack.”
Sam acknowledges, glad for something to do. During this last glass of wine, though, he has felt some contentment, being in this quiet old woman's simple but tasteful and immaculate house. The alternative would have been the tension between him and his son Chuck if they had arrived at Chuck's house. He turns his attention to the music.
Sam plays through a whole book of Christmas tunes, everything from “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” to “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Occasionally Betty and Edith sing along or chat quietly. Mostly they think their own thoughts. After Sam's recital, he turns to Edith. “You know, sometimes I play for the residents at the Gentle Winds Nursing Home over on the parkway.”
Edith smiles and claps her hands. “How about that! George did that for years!”
At the Gentle Winds Nursing Home, Ronnie is ending his shift as a maintenance man. He has three children, two in grade school and one in junior high. They stay at Ronnie's parents while he works because they lost their mom. Ronnie's wife died of cancer earlier in the year.
Ronnie had wanted the kids to have a real big Christmas and had saved and shopped and saved and shopped. He had lots of presents for them wrapped and under the tree but their house got broken into last week and all the presents and their TV and computers were stolen. It made the local news and lots of people donated presents, way more than Ronnie had had for them, in fact, so many that now he doesn't know what to do with the extras and the ones that are not age-appropriate.
The snow is fogging down as Ronnie heads for his car in the parking lot. His house is not far from his work but his parents' home is across town. Maybe he'll stop by his house first to make a sandwich and make sure that all is in order for when he gets the kids home. They'll be wired from being at grandma and grandpa's and eating way too many cookies. They'll beg and plead and he'll relent and let them each open one – only one now, kids, you hear? - package. One new toy each to cart off to bed with promises of a mountain of gifts to open in the morning, followed by their dad's special pancakes.
It's slow going because the streets are slick. Ronnie has just gotten in the house when he hears vehicles in the street and a loud horn blaring. Just as he looks out the window, a big pickup truck is barreling down the narrow street, forcing a small car off the road. The little car slides into the ditch at the edge of Ronnie's front yard. He watches to see if the driver can take off or not. Apparently not. Out in the yard Ronnie approaches the car. The young woman driver rolls down the window. “Did you see that moron run me off the road? Now my car's died.”
“I did,” Ronnie replies. “You didn't get his plate number by any chance?”
“C-H-U-C-K,” she says. “I'm sure it was C-H-U-C-K plus a number.” She tries to start her car again.
“Let me try,” Ronnie offers. The young woman nods and opens the door for him, then slides over into the passenger seat. The car is an older model. It won't start for Ronnie, either.
“Look, I just got home from work and was going to make a sandwich. I know you don't know me, but...do you want to come in and have a sandwich while you wait for help? Do you have a cell phone? You can use mine if you don't.”
The young woman hesitates, but not for long. Ronnie has kind brown eyes and a nice smile. She takes a chance. “I have a cell phone but I'll take you up on the sandwich.” Ronnie likes the way snowflakes stick on her thick black lashes and then is surprised that he even noticed.
In Ronnie's nice warm kitchen, they eat sandwiches. On the phone, the tow guy said it would be awhile, what with the snow and all. Ronnie has made a pot of coffee.
The young woman tells her story. Her name is Melissa, she works two retail jobs, is a single mom, and has two little kids. She and the kids have had to move back in with her mom. One of the kids has been sick, there have been tons of medical bills, she's broke, she has no credit, and the tears roll down her face as she admits that she has been able to buy almost nothing for her kids for Christmas. She was on her way home to her mom and the kids from work when C-H-U-C-K-plus-a-number ran her off the road.
Ronnie tells her his story, ending with the part about all the extra toys that he has. He offers them to Melissa for her kids. She cries and accepts. “I really need to get home to my mom and kids,” she says. “And I have to go pick mine up from their grandparents,” Ronnie says, “So why don't I give you a ride home?” They load the back seat of Ronnie's car with presents and he drives her to her house, just a few blocks away. He helps carry all the packages inside while Melissa introduces him to her mother and the kids ask a million questions.
“I'll have to get my car tomorrow,” Melissa states at the door.
“Let's see if the tow truck shows up tonight,” Ronnie answers reasonably. “You should give me your number so I can call when and if they come.” Ronnie taps the number into his phone as Melissa gives it to him.
“Thank you,” she says simply. “You gave my kids Christmas.”
Ronnie nods. Maybe you gave me hope, he thinks. “Good night.”
Chuck is pulling into a convenience store. What a shitty day, he thinks. Laid off. Laid off just before the holiday, for chrissakes. Something else the old man will rub in my face. That wouldn't have happened to David. David wouldn't have lost his job. David got straight A's. Why can't you be more like your brother was?
Chuck shakes his head to clear out the old voices. His parents, Betty and Sam, are probably on their way to his house now for their annual strained-tense-and-uncomfortable Christmas Eve. Maybe they're sitting in his driveway right now. Let them sit. Chuck slams the door of his truck and enters the convenience store. That pretty-but-too-serious girl is behind the counter. Chuck veers from his path to the beer cooler to slide by the counter first. “Sarah” is the name on her badge.
“Hey Sarah, what's up?” he asks her. She doesn't answer. “Cat got your tongue? What's wrong with retail help these days?”
Sarah is in no mood for Chuck's badgering. He finally pays for his six-pack, fishing around in his pockets for cash, and leaves. Sarah was stressed before Chuck ever came in the store. She breaks into tears. When she gets off work in a few minutes she must make her way through the storm to the hospital to be with her mother Stella, who fell and broke her hip two days ago.
When another employee arrives for the new shift, Sarah grabs her coat and purse. As she leaves, she spots a ring on the floor. The obnoxious man who bought the beer must have dropped it, but he paid cash and she has no idea what his name is or where to find him. Instead of leaving it at the convenience store in the lost and found, for some reason she picks it up and takes it with her. Engraved on the small ring – a woman's ring – are the initials “M. and C.” inside a heart.
The streets are terrible and Sarah is tired as she makes her way to the hospital. But it's beautiful out – a winter wonderland as pretty as a fairy tale. Memories of childhood Christmases and wintry days skating with her mom make her smile. At the hospital, Sarah's mom, Stella, is sleeping. Sarah sits by her for awhile, remembering sweet memories, dozing, praying, hoping she wakes up, hoping she sleeps. Later, down at the coffee machine, Sarah gets in a conversation with Marcy, a nurse she recognizes from yesterday. They talk about holidays and loss.
“I hope that Stella – my mom - will recover. She is all the family I have. I'll go home after a bit tonight but then I'll spend Christmas Day with her,” Sarah says.
“You're a good daughter,” Marcy says. “I wish I still had my mom. I lost her two Christmases ago. Then last Christmas I broke up with my boyfriend. I keep thinking that underneath he was a good man, but he had so much anger in him and he wouldn't talk about what gave him that chip on his shoulder. Finally, I couldn't take it any more.” Marcy smiles. “But now your mom! I love caring for her. She reminds me so much of my own mom. She's a lovely lady, and I do think she'll recover.”
Chuck pops the cap on another beer and changes the TV channel. Sappy Christmas shows designed to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel even worse than you already do, he thinks. He is alone, but the thought comes to him that his parents planned to stop by this evening. He looks at the time and realizes they should have arrived a couple hours ago. He knows he should call them, but they almost never remember to take their cell phones with them anyway. He doesn't try.
Idly, Chuck wonders if his parents even realize what they have done to him all these years, building his dead brother's image into a demi-god, an ideal that Chuck had no chance of reaching, even if he had tried. Mostly, he had just gone the other direction all his life, trying not to equal his brother. Trying to do his own thing, which pretty much never worked out, he had to admit.
In a rare moment of self-analysis, Chuck allows comparisons. David was high school valedictorian. Chuck regularly got into scrapes. David graduated cum laude from a good private college. Chuck quit after three semesters at the university. Chuck worked at a succession of jobs. David landed a position in a prestigious firm. Chuck lived. David died in a fiery car crash, the only thing he ever did wrong, Chuck concluded.
But I was the one to live, Chuck thought suddenly. I was the one that lived. My life is the one that's gone on, and what have I done with it? It was a sobering thought, even after three beers. Maybe I could learn to let go of some of this anger. Sure, my parents threw everything David did in my face all these years. But at the same time they persist in my life. They help me out when I fall on hard times. They don't give up on me. They want to spend the holidays with me.
Oh, and Marcy! She stuck by me for three years before finally giving up on me. Marcy. I miss her still. I was such an ass.
Chuck fishes in the pocket of his jeans for the little initial ring Marcy had given back to him when she broke up with him. He can't find it. He stands up so he can thoroughly check out the contents of his pockets. The ring is gone. He's carried it with him for a year. A terrible sadness envelops him like a shroud. He realizes he has mucked up pretty much everything for a very long time. And Chuck cries. Chuck cries for a life badly lived, and for a life that was snuffed out far too young, and for his parents who don't know how to give up on either of their sons.
Edith, Betty, and Sam have drunk the second bottle of wine. From their conversation, you would think they've known each other much longer than just this one night. Betty has become rather sentimental and is talking about their two sons. She describes David's successes and his handsome appearance and the car wreck that ended it all. She shakes her head as she relays Chuck's failures and anger issues.
“Do you think we were too hard on Chuck?” she asks Sam.
Sam is not sure he wants to visit this discussion this evening. “Oh, Betty, who knows?”
Edith, who has been listening carefully, picks up the conversation. “You know,” she begins, “My husband George was a second son. His older brother was also named David. David was a pleaser, an overachiever, a brilliant student. George, who was extremely intelligent himself, was always overshadowed by his older brother. He could never begin to please his parents. George tried harder all his life. But at the time I first met him, he was terribly depressed. He had just attempted suicide. He finally learned to value himself, finally learned the concept of self-worth. I worked at bolstering his confidence for many years.”
“Oh, my God, Sam, that's what we've done to Chuck. I see it now.” Tears stream down Betty's face. “Let's call Chuck right now. Let's ask him to come get us.” Sam reaches for Edith's phone. Edith smiles like a small wise Buddha.
Sarah has just checked again on her mother, Stella, in the hospital room. Stella is doing well, sleeping peacefully, her vital signs strong. Marcy, the nurse, has just checked her as well and has reassured Sarah that she should be just fine throughout the night.
“Go home and get some sleep, Sarah,” Marcy suggests as they step out into the hall.
Sarah nods. “Maybe I will. What about you on Christmas Eve? Is your shift over soon?”
“I'm signing out right now. I saved your mother for last on my shift,” Marcy smiled briefly but then her expression changed. “My Christmas Eve is not going to be very special. The pipes burst in my apartment building last night and I can't stay there. My whole floor's a mess. I packed a couple bags. I'll see if I can find a motel room. I don't have any family in the area.”
“Marcy, come stay with me. I don't have anyone besides my mom here. It's just a little house but there's a spare room. I'd love the company. Please say you'll stay.”
Marcy agrees. They are each alone and not wanting to face their aloneness.
As Sarah pulls carefully into her snow-packed driveway, with Marcy creeping in just behind in her own car, Sarah notices the big black Lincoln buried in the mud and snow of her elderly neighbor's wintry flower bed. As Sarah gets out of her car, she calls to Marcy, “ Marcy, I need to go next door to check on my neighbor, Edith. She lives alone, but I don't know what's going on with that car in her yard. Come with me. Edith's very sweet.”
Edith answers her doorbell and welcomes Sarah and Marcy inside. Edith reassures Sarah that she is fine and that the car belongs to her new friends Betty and Sam who slid into her yard.
“I have to admit I was going a little too fast,” Sam mutters to himself. Introductions are made and Marcy studies Betty and Sam.
“I know you both,” Marcy says, “But I can't recall from where. Maybe at the hospital where I work?”
Recognition sparks in the eyes of Betty and Sam also, as Marcy exclaims, “You're Chuck's parents! I met you one Christmas! How are you both?” The three converse as Sarah hugs Edith and tells her how happy she is that she is fine and has some company.
The doorbell rings again and Edith once more goes to answer it.
“Excuse me, ma'm, but I think you have my parents here. I'm Chuck and I'm here to pick them up.”
Edith smiles. “Please come in, Chuck, and welcome. Why don't you take off your coat and just join us for a little while.” Chuck enters the living room, looking at his parents with a little newly-acquired appreciation.
Betty goes to him and embraces him. “Chuck, I know now what your dad and I have done to you all these years,” she blurts out, not wanting to wait another hour to try to make amends. “Please forgive us.”
Sam has risen from his chair and puts his arms around mother and son. Years of assumptions and hurts begin to dissolve. Edith tactfully leaves this intimate family tableau and retires to the kitchen, where Sarah and Marcy have busied themselves. Edith engages the young women in conversation to cover the personal exchanges in the other room.
After what Edith considers a suitable length of time, she, Sarah, and Marcy return to the living room.
“Chuck!” This from Marcy.
“Marcy!” This from Chuck. “And you, you're the girl in the convenience store. I owe you an apology, don't I.”
“I'm Sarah. And I'll accept your apology. And I might have something for you.” Chuck looks confused as Sarah picks up her purse and reaches inside. She thrusts her hand toward Chuck and reveals the little initial ring outstretched on her palm.
“Marcy's ring! I must have dropped it when I paid you for the beer.” Chuck picks up the ring gently from Sarah's hand.
“This Marcy?” Sarah asks. Sarah looks at Marcy. “This is the...?”
“Yes,” Marcy nods. “This is the man I broke up with a year ago.”
“Would you consider taking your ring back, Marcy?” Chuck looks hopeful. “I'm going to change. Call it the Christmas spirit. Call it divine intervention. Call me the ass that I've been. I swear, I'm a changed man.”
Marcy considers. “Maybe, Chuck. Maybe.”
The doorbell rings again. “Who else are any of you expecting?” Edith asks as she heads for the front door. She opens the door and there stands her son, Jeff, with his arms full of packages.
“Jeff! I thought you weren't coming!” Edith draws him into the little hallway and throws her arms around him and the packages.
“Aw, Mom, I caught a late flight. I just couldn't leave you alone on Christmas. But...I didn't know you'd be having a party!”
“It's a long story, Jeff. Just come on in and meet my new friends.”
Cheryl Eichar Jett
December 24, 2014