Christmas Grace

christmasgrace

I hope this finds you well, and enjoying the anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus! The following is a short story I wrote for this Christmas. This will be my last post for this year as I will be taking some time with family as we celebrate together. Merry Christmas!


The young boy moved through the city in godlike fashion, his eyes swimming in every scene at once. Soft lights in front of him reflected in his eyes as pinpoints of magic mixed with wonder. Snow crunched softly below black boots. A distant bell softly called for donations, carolers sang of Noel.

People moved quietly about their lives. A young couple laughed at a joke only they would share as they carried bags laden with gifts. A car with a Christmas tree strapped to the roof navigated the street, passing a park where a group of teens threw snowy missiles at each other, their younger siblings creating snowmen nearby.

The boy longed to join in the fun, but knew it was impossible.

The street was simple, with facades that had been constructed years before. Red brick mixed with white marble. Brightly painted signs beckoned of holiday specials and consumer happiness that could be had inside of the doorsteps. Windows frosted slightly as the warm interior air met the chill of the holiday.

Oh, the air.

The smells of Christmas were everywhere. The young boy’s stomach growled and his mouth watered. The air around the local bakery smelled like cinnamon happiness. Honey ham was roasting at the deli, adding tantalizing savory to the sweet. Those smells mingled with evergreen wafting from the parking lot of the local church that sold Christmas trees every year, creating an olfactory symphony no one would ever intentionally put together but was not easily forgotten.

The boy walked from downtown to a residential street. Lights emanated from the windows, beckoning him to step inside. White smoke wafted from chimneys like signals declaring “there is warmth here.”  He saw dads and kids building snowmen with charcoal smiles in the yards and well-decorated Christmas trees gleamed in the windows.

The scene was serene. The boy would close his eyes and place himself in a store buying a ham, or running from tree to tree trying to find the perfect one with his family in tow. Other times he would be building a snowman with his dad. Every time he did his mind calmed, worry would tumble off his shoulders, and he would find peace.

“Tommy!”

His mother’s voice peeled him away from the fantasy. When he opened his eyes everything was frozen in time. The cars no longer moved, the smells were gone, and the people stood like statues.

Because they were.

Every year his mother set up the Christmas Village. He would watch as she gingerly unwrapped each ceramic piece. Tenderly she arranged the village square and then the houses that emanated from it. She had a special box with the people of the village, each carefully wrapped in newspaper the year before.

Occasionally she would save enough money to buy a new piece. She made it a game each time, placing the piece when he was not looking and asking Tommy to play “what’s new in the village.” Tommy always got it, because he spent so much time in the village himself.  Each piece was an old friend and a stranger in the mix was easy to identify.

“Tommy, dinner’s ready.”

Tommy turned form the village, and reality tumbled back into his mind. Christmas was just around the corner, but aside from the village you wouldn’t know it.  There were not other decorations, no tree or lights, no snowmen or candy canes. A large window in the living room faced the street and Tommy thought it would be a perfect place for a tree.  It would make the house look just like the houses in the village, he thought. But him mom said there wasn’t enough money.

Paint peeled off yellowed walls and the worn hardwood floors groaned as he walked to the dining room. The room was sparse. The only decoration was a solitary picture of a man bowed in prayer over a loaf of bread and a bowl of something Tommy couldn’t identify. He had asked his mom about it once and she said it was a reminder to be thankful for the things they had, rather than worry about what they didn’t. Tommy thought the things they didn’t have was a longer list.

His mother had made chicken and rice. The smell was wonderful and Tommy grinned as his mom carried a bowl of warm rolls to the table. He thought his mother was beautiful. She was tall, with hair the color of black licorice and high cheekbones. Tommy thought she should be in movies.

Instead she worked third shift at a factory ten blocks from the house. Every night a friend would come spend the night with Tommy while she walked to and from work, regardless of the weather.

Tommy’s dad lived in Phoenix. Or maybe it was Albuquerque? It seemed like every time he asked his mom she named a different city. Tommy suspected she didn’t really know, and was making up cities to get him to stop asking. Dad had left when Tommy was four. He told Tommy’s mom that he was going to go “down South” and look for work and eventually he would drive a shiny new car up and they would all go “down South” and live together.

She found out later that “down South” meant two towns over to stay with his new girlfriend. She hadn’t had the heart to tell Tommy. It was easier to make up city names.

They survived. There was always food to eat and the house was always warm. But everything they owned had been owned by someone else first. The table had come from an Aunt and Uncle. Tommy’s clothes were from a store that sold clothes other people didn’t want anymore.  Even the picture of the old man had come from the house of some relative who had died.

Tommy didn’t complain. He loved his mom and knew how hard she worked. He didn’t mind the worn clothes. Besides, the meals his mom put together were heaven.

But sometimes he felt trapped. Like this may be life forever.

Last summer, Tommy and his friend Jake had gone exploring in the woods at the edge of their neighborhood. For some reason they pushed further into the woods that day than normal, breaking into an open field on the far side they hadn’t known was there. They picked up large sticks to ward off bears and lions and other dangerous creatures that existed only in their minds. They were brave kings that day.

Suddenly Jake had screamed.

Not a sound a brave king should make.

Tommy jerked around, raising his stick in shaking bravado. Then he laughed.

Just inside the tree line was a deer skeleton. But it wasn’t an ordinary skeleton. This deer had died standing up. Its neck was wedged in a crook formed by two saplings. The flesh had decayed, but the skeleton remained standing. The mouth yawned open with patches of hair still attached. The result looked like something out of a nightmare, the gapping mouth just at eye level.

They studied the skeleton for a while. It looked like the deer had gotten caught and suffocated. After a while they lost interest and moved on, but something about it stuck in the back of Tommy’s mind. The deer had died only feet from safety. It died looking at the field, caught by chance; likely running from some other perceived danger into the snare that would cost it it’s life.

The deer haunted his thoughts. When he would visit friend’s houses where the paint wasn’t peeling off the walls and where the floor of the bathroom wasn’t spongy he would be ashamed. He felt suffocated by life, like a deer that could see there was more, but resigned to the fact that it would die before experiencing it.

Tommy knew it was morbid for a fifth grader to think like that, and so he kept it to himself. This time of year he would go to the village his mom set up to escape the felling, but he always had to leave. The boys in the village all had nice housed and had daddies at home. There was one piece of a father and son walking hand in hand. The dad was carrying a wreath and they both had eternal smiles on their plaster faces. Tommy would pretend that was he and his dad.

Tommy and his mom ate dinner quietly. His mom asked him about his day and Tommy told her about the man who had come into their class in an army uniform. He had just gotten back from Afghanistan. He was Charlotte’s dad. Charlotte sat two seats down from Tommy and her face had glowed as her dad had talked.

He had been gone for a whole year and was now back.

Tommy’s Dad had been gone for five years and he knew he wasn’t coming back, but he was happy for Charlotte.

“After dinner some of my friends from church are going to stop over,” his mother said as she cleared the table. Tommy didn’t really like that idea, but didn’t know how to say so. He didn’t want them to see the peeling paint and the squishy floors. But he couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t hurt his mom’s feelings so all he said was, “cool.”

The year before he and his mom had started going to a church that met at the local YMCA. It was a smaller church. Every week they would set up chairs in the gym and sing and pray and listen to the pastor.

His Mom said she liked it because it was simple and the people seemed genuine. “You don’t need to have fancy things to be a church,” she said to Tommy. Tommy thought it was weird to like something for what they didn’t have. But the kids at the church were fun and he liked the ladies who taught his class, so he actually looked forward to Sundays. Besides, there were always snacks.

But now they would see where he lived.

There wasn’t time to think about it because soon there was a knock on the door.  Before he knew it a handful of people were in the living room with the bare window hugging his mom and rubbing his head. They had boxes with them. Wrapped presents peeked from the top of some — others were bags of groceries, enough to feed Tommy and his Mom for weeks.

“Can someone open the door?” A muffled voice called from outside. His mom jumped and opened the door again to find a pair of men carrying a Christmas tree. It was so large they almost didn’t make it through the doorway, popping through at the last second in a flurry of needles.

Tommy didn’t know what to say. No one stared at the peeling paint. No one made a comment about the floors. They didn’t seem to care. The women went with Tommy’s mom to help her put away the groceries and Tommy watched as two men set the tree up.

“You gonna stand there, or you gonna help?” One of the men said playfully to Tommy. No man had ever asked Tommy for his help before.  Tommy jumped and grabbed onto the tree.

A smell of cinnamon wafted from the kitchen as the ladies opened a frosted dessert. It mixed with the smell of dinner and the evergreen and suddenly Tommy jumped.

It was the smell of the village.

This was what he imagined it would be like.

One of the men, a large man with a beard on his face that framed the smile that always seemed to be there walked up to Tommy, gripped his shoulder and said “Merry Christmas.” He handed Tommy an envelope with a large bulge in the middle.

Tommy looked at it, not sure whether he was supposed to open it.

“Go ahead,” the man said, sensing Tommy’s hesitation.

Inside was a small booklet, obviously made by the man himself. It was one of those coupon books like the one Tommy had made for his mom at school one year for Mother’s Day. On the front was the man’s name and phone number. Each page was a promise:

One Hunting Trip

One Game of Catch

One Saturday Adventure

One Snowman

One Detroit Tigers Game

“Tommy, I know it’s not easy growing up without a Dad.” Tommy’s eyes were watering as the man talked.  “Mine wasn’t around much either. I know I can’t replace your Dad. But, I already talked to your mom, and I would like to hang out and spend some time with you if that would be OK.” Tommy just nodded, flipping through the pages.  “Anytime you want, you call me.”

Tommy saw the deer in his mind again, only this time someone came along just before the deer died and slowly moved the tree branches. In his mind the deer fell to the ground, then got up and ran away.

The man grabbed the book from Tommy’s hand and ripped out a page playfully. “How about we go build that snowman?”

 

Blessings,