Since Christmas is falling on a Tuesday this year, I thought it befitting to have a “Tale for Tuesday” be a Christmas story . . .
When I was in eleventh grade I wrote a short story for my Lit Mag class. I remember reading it to my mom from the back seat of our suburban as we drove home in the snow one evening. She cried.
Later, when I turned it in, Mr. Rosett’s praise was effusive. A great surprise since Mr. Rosett was never effusive, and certainly never praised anything I ever did.
And so, taking cue from my greatest fan and my greatest critic, I decided to submit the story (secretly) for publishing to Deseret Book. Not knowing the protocol for such things, I put it in a manilla envelope and simply labeled it “Publisher” – addressing it to the Deseret Book headquarters in downtown Salt Lake.
Now all I had to do was wait.
But why wait when you only live, seriously, like ten minutes away?
So one Thursday afternoon a few weeks after I mailed my package I “stopped in” just to check on my work. I remember a publisher (at least, I assume so) sat me down at his desk, fumbled around for a few minutes as if trying to find the status on my piece, and finally told me they couldn’t use my story.
I left, deflated, embarrassed, and determined that that was the end of my (presumably brilliant) career as a writer.
I’ve never ever told that story to anyone before. At first because I was embarrassed, and later because it fell into the forgotten memories of growing up.
But then I stumbled across the original story while flipping through my old notebook.
And so an even bigger treat – I’m going to share it with you.
Let me warn you – this is unedited. As I type this, I haven’t even read it from fifteen years ago. I assume it is full of syrupy sentimentality and cliche writing (you know, much like you get on a regular basis here on this blog). Do your best to stomach it for me
Strobes of Christmas lights illuminated store windows, advertising the last of the Christmas sales. Shoppers rushed madly from store to store, clutching their precious packages to be wrapped and put beneath the tree that very eve. Carolers stood on the corner, singing in untrained voices of the good tidings of the season. And high above them all a large orange street lamp cast a hazy glow on the dark winters eve.
As night wore on, the shoppers thinned out until only one unusually late one would pass on the street, hailing a cab or running to his car. The carolers had all gone now, going to someone’s house for some hot cider and muffins. The shopkeepers began to close their stores, turning out the lights and taking down the sale signs, replacing them with new “After Christmas Sale” signs.
Snow began to fall, thick and wet on the abandoned street below. In a dark alley, where the light from the street post couldn’t reach, a man huddled, crumpled against the wall.
You wouldn’t even know it was a man unless you looked closely. His figure seemed broken and drowned in the old ratty coat which he wore. He leaned between the cold brick of the alley and an old shipping crate. Between the two he managed to escape the brunt of the whistling wind, yet still he could not escape the harsh coldness that cut into him. Futilely he pulled the torn coat tighter and tighter about him, rocking himself back and forward in a vain attempt to stay warm.
The man listened – an attempt to occupy his mind – as the town became more and more quiet. Finally there was complete silence. Even the wind had died down to a careless whisper, and the snow seemed to make everything stand still. For a moment the man looked out from the alley and wondered if he wasn’t the only one left on the earth.
And then he heard something. Quiet at first, muffled by the snow. He had to strain to hear it. And then it came louder – the crunch of shoes on the side walk, coming towards the alley. The man looked out to see who it could be. He saw a thing woman, well-dressed, struggling with her packages. He hesitated, but then called out.
The woman stopped, confused by his call.
She turned so she could look over her packages and down to where the voice was coming from.
“Ma’am,” the man continued, “I was just wondering if you could help me, you see, it’s awful cold out, and I don’t have anywhere to stay so I . . . “
The woman cut him off. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I really can’t help you.” She looked across the street to where a taxi cab was approaching, and then back at the man. “I really wish I could, but I just can’t.”
With that the woman stepped towards the cab to hail it. The man looked after her, his face giving no evidence of disappointment or sorrow as he watched her climb into the car and drive away.
The wind picked up and the man wrapped his coat tighter around him, leaning against the brick. He closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep.
A while later he heard footsteps again. This time it was two people walking on the sidewalk toward the alley. He peered out to see two men, in tuxedos and overcoeats, coming toward him. They were talking and didn’t even notice the man until he called out them.
“Sir?” He was uncertain which one to address.
The taller of the two men looked down, seemingly annoyed that he had been interrupted.
Making eye contact, the man continued on, “Sir, I’m sorry to bother you, but you see, it’s cold, and I was wondering if you might have a place I could stay.”
The tall man looked the alley man over, and then turned to his friend. His friend shrugged, offering no advice. And the tall man looked back to the man sitting in the alley. “What would the neighbors think if I brought you home! No, I’ve paid my taxes, go to the shelter, they’ll help you there.” And with that the man turned back to his friend and the two continued on down the street. The man in the alley watched them go.
‘At least it’s stopped snowing’ he thought as he moved back into the alley against the crate and wall. He curled up again to try to sleep.
He didn’t know how long he had been asleep when he felt someone shaking him. At first he thought it was a dream, and he turned and moaned in an effort to dispel it. But the shaking persisted, and finally he opened his eyes to see a young woman standing above him. It took him a moment to orient himself, to remember the alley and the crate.
“Sir,” the woman was talking to him. He looked up at her and saw the she was carrying a large bundle, balancing it on her hip as she leaned over him.
“Sir,” she continued, “do you need a place to stay?”
“Huh?” he asked, still a little dazed.
“Do you need a place to stay?” she repeated, “I don’t have much, just an old worn couch and a blanket, but the apartment is warm, and you’re welcome to come if you would like.”
The man looked around, and then up at her. “Sure . . . yes, I would appreciate it.”
The woman helped the man to his feet. Together they walked on down the street in silence. The man noticed that the bundle he had previously thought to be Christmas presents was actually a basket of what appeared to be laundry. The woman herself was neat and clean, her hair was pulled up neatly away from her face, and her clothes, though a bit worn, were clean and pressed.
They walked on in silence for almost a mile before turning down another alley way, not too different from the one they had just left. But the woman pulled a key from around her neck, and stepped up to a door.
The two stepped inside the small apartment, and almost instantly two children nearly attacked the young woman.
“Mommy, mommy!” the two raced towards their mother and jumped on her, sending her sprawling into the orange vinyl sofa. The woman laughed and hugged each child in turn as they rambled off about everything that she simply must know.
“And then Kissy took us to the park and there was a puppy there,” a small girl of about five told her mom.
“And I held it,” the boy, a bit older than the girl, offered.
“I’m telling the story,” the girl whined before continuing. “And the puppy had a tail this big!” The girl stretched out her arms to make her point.
Another girl, this one about 16, entered the room. The woman looked up at her and smiled. “Hi Krissy, thanks for staying so late, especially on Christmas eve.”
“No problem.” The girl shrugged.
“Do you want me to walk you home?”
The girl smiled and shook her head. “No, that’s okay.”
And with that the girl let herself out of the apartment, and went home.
The man cleared his throat to try and remind the woman of his presence.
The woman looked up at him and smiled. “These are my kids” she explained. “That’s Jimmy” she pointed, “and that’s Melanie.”
Both children clung to their mother, shy at the stranger’s presence.
“Come on you two,” the mother urged, “time for bed. Go put on your pajamas and brush your teeth.”
“But mommy, we have to wait for Santa Claus” Melanie exclaimed.
The woman frowned at her daughter’s reference to Santa. “Honey, I’ve already explained that Santa won’t be able to find us this year, not after we moved.”
“Yes he will!” Melanie confirmed. “I sent two letters to him last week, one to tell him what I want, and the other in case he loses the first one.”
The woman hugged her daughter, at a loss for what to do.
Finally she managed to send the two to bed, and returned to the small room where the man remained. “Do you want something to drink? Some hot chocolate?”
He followed her to the kitchen. A dim 40 watt bulb hung from a cord on the ceiling, illuminating an avocado refrigerator, and an old stained sink surrounded by cabinetry that badly needed some paint. In the middle of the room an old round card table served as a dinner table, with orange crates turned over to use as stools.
The woman opened a cupboard to reveal nothing more than half a loaf of bread, a box of Cheerios, a sticky jar of peanut butter, and an old can of hot chocolate.
Taking the can down, she put some water on the stove, and sat down across from the man to wait for the water to boil.
After a few moments of hesitation the man finally asked, “Why isn’t Santa coming this year?”
The woman got a pained look on her face and was silent for a moment in an effort to control her emotions.
Finally, in a quiet voice she explained, “Their dad died a year ago this January. He never was one to plan for the future. He left us with so many debts, and not enough money to cover them. So after the house was sold, and the debts were all paid off, we had just enough to pay the rent here. I’ve been doing laundry for some neighbors for the past months, but there just isn’t enough money for Santa to come.”
The woman paused, staring curiously at her hand. After a brief moment of silence she continued on. “Jimmy seems to understand. He’s grown up a lot these past months . . . more than he should have to. But Melanie . . .” the woman’s voice trailed off.
The whistle on the kettle blew, and the woman stood and mixed the hot chocolate. She placed his cup carefully on the table, and then without a word, went into the other room.
The man sipped his hot chocolate ab it uncomfortably for a few minutes before the woman returned. In her arms she carried a heavy wool and leather overcoat. “Here she said, “I want you to have this.”
She handed him the coat. “It was James’. My husband.”
The man was about to refuse, but then he saw in the woman’s eyes what it meant to her that he take it. And so he took the heavy coat from her, and said in a quiet voice, “Thank you.”
The woman simply smiled. “I’m going to bed” she announced. “I’ve put some blankets and a pillow on the couch for you, and if you need more, they’re in the closet in there.”
And then the woman left. Disappearing behind a door, leaving the man alone in the dark kitchen with his cup of hot chocolate and a coat on his lap.
The next morning Melanie came bounding in, jumping right on top of her mother. “Mommy, Mommy, come see! Come see what Santa brought!”
The woman rolled over and moaned. “Mel, I’m sorry Santa couldn’t come this year . . .”
The little girl interrupted her. “No mommy, come see! Come see what he brought!”
Just them Jimmy jumped on her too. “He came mom! He came!” he exclaimed as he bounced on the bed.
The woman looked at her children. “All right” she sighed, and she let them pull her out of bed. She wrapped a bathrobe around her and stepped out into the hall, her children dragging her to what she was certain would be an empty living room.
But the room wasn’t empty. Christmas lights hung from the ceiling, casting red and green shadows everywhere. They seemed to melt off the wall and on to the large green Christmas tree standing in the corner of the room. The tree was wide and green, and was strung with tinsel and candy canes, and at the very top shone a bright yellow star.
Beneath the tree were piles of brightly wrapped packages. Yellow and white ribbons curled out as the children ran to open them. The woman looked around, seeming a bit confused. She went into the kitchen. The light bulb had been changed to new bright light, shining on the packages of food that overflowed from the cupboards and onto the counter and table. And there, in one corner of the counter, was enough money to last the woman and her children a very long time.
But where was the man? She remembered the night before, and the man who had come to stay. She went back into the front room, where her children were nearly drowned among the wrapping paper and toys. But the man wasn’t there.
She opened the door and looked down the alley way. She saw a familiar coat walking down toward the street. “Sir!” she called after him.
The man turned. “Sir . . . won’t you come back in?”
The man shook his head and turned back to the street.
“Sir,” she called again, “thank you.”
The man looked back to the woman in the doorway. “My dear woman, I have not nearly done for you what you have done for me.”
And then he walked out onto the street, and became lost in the morning traffic.
And the woman turned back into her house to enjoy the Christmas morning with her children.
Okay – so now that I’ve just typed that up, I see why it was rejected – the grammatical errors alone are enough to drive one crazy. Clearly proof reading has never been my strong suit. But the story is simplistic and idealistic, kinda Frank Capra-esque. It is kinda fun. Ah, me.