A Will Starr Christmas Story Collection
The Joy of Giving
“He said at least a thousand, but he doesn’t recommend it. He says there’s not much sense in rebuilding the transmission when the rest of the car is worn out.”
Judy Warden hadn’t worked in ten months, and yesterday, on her way to make yet another job application, her car simply refused to move. Her friend Alice had just treated her to lunch, which they were eating on a bench in the city park. There were several children noisily playing a chilly game of baseball on the diamond and behind them, an old black groundskeeper was quietly picking up the trash around their bench.
“So what will you do?”
“I don’t know. My savings are almost gone, and so is Jim’s life insurance.” She blinked back tears. “I miss him terribly as my husband, Alice, but I also miss his guidance. He would have known what to do. Christmas, is less than two weeks away, and I haven’t purchased a single present. David is thirteen, so he’ll understand, but Julie is just six. She’ll want to know why Santa passed her up.”
“I can lend you a little.” Alice reached for her purse, but Judy stopped her.
“Thank you, Alice, but I don’t want to owe anyone, and I have enough for now. We’ve had to scrape, but we’ve managed. Something will turn up. It always does.” She watched the old man dump his shoulder bag into a trash can.
In front of them, a bat cracked, and the ball soared toward right field. A squealing girl ran toward first base, to the shouts of encouragement from her friends. Judy smiled in spite of herself. There was just something pleasing about noisy, happy children.
Alice checked her watch. “I have errands to run for Mister Edwards this afternoon, so I’ll give you a ride home. Ralph said he’ll bring the old Buick over tonight so you’ll have something to drive. It had a flat, so he took the tire down to the shop.”
“I appreciate you and Ralph, Alice. I’d be in a real pickle without you.”
Alice grinned. “Best friends forever, right?”
They grew up together as next door neighbors, and had never been separated. As high school cheerleaders, they had spotted Jim and Ralph watching them instead of the game, and the next day, they met in the halls. At first, they each dated the wrong guy, but that was quickly sorted out. Julie ended up with Jim and Alice married Ralph right after high school.
Jim went on to get a degree in engineering and married Julie. Then three years ago, Jim suddenly collapsed and died. The autopsy revealed a hidden aneurism, so Judy was on her own and with two children. Just three weeks before he died, Jim underwent a thorough physical because he wanted some life insurance, but the aneurism was not detected. Julie had thought the insurance was unnecessary, but thankfully, Jim had overruled her and he was covered. But even that was about to run out.
“What do you really need, David? Money is a little tight this year, but we’ll get you what you need.”
David Warden had been understandably devastated by the loss of his father, but he sensed a need so he did his best to take his dad’s place as the man of the house. He dropped the usual arguments with his mom, and assumed a new maturity, taking over many of the household chores his father had once performed. Julie was pleased with his assistance, but she worried that he was growing up too fast, so she encouraged his friendships with other boys his age.
“I don’t really need anything, Mom. Well, maybe some clothes. The old ones are kinda small.”
That was an understatement. His shirt sleeves were an inch short of covering his wrists, and his pant legs were far above his shoes. He needed both. Today was Christmas Eve day, so she went looking for sales, and bought three new shirts and pants that were reduced. She also got Julie a couple of new toys, although it severely strained her budget.
The skies were gray and foreboding, and snow was in the forecast. David climbed up to the attic and retrieved the tree and lights, but she said no to the outside lights. She knew nothing about ladders, and she wanted someone to instruct David on their use before he climbed up on one. They could do without outside lights one more year.
She was a little worried. Someone called Ralph and Alice wanting Julie’s address, claiming to be an employer looking for a paralegal, her profession. But that was several days ago, and no one had called or sent her a letter so she wondered if it was a scam. She put it out of her mind, and they decorated the tree.
Later, they made cookies, and David got out the Christmas movies. They settled in for a movie marathon, with fresh baked cookies and hot chocolate. Julie fell asleep in her lap, and the hot tears welled in her eyes as Jimmy Stewart congratulated Clarence on finally getting his wings That was Jim’s favorite part. Lord, how she missed him.
She tucked a sleeping Julie into bed, and kissed her damp brow. Then she got on her knees and thanked God for her children, and the blessings she did have. Many people, she knew, were far worse off than she was.
David was standing in the bedroom doorway.
“There’s a car in our driveway. I don’t know the car so it must be a stranger.”
Alarmed, she went to the living room window and peered out. The snow was drifting down and it was falling on a strange minivan, parked up close to the house. She couldn’t see anyone inside, and it wasn’t running. She could see tracks in the new snow going down the driveway to the street, where they disappeared. They looked like they originated from her front door.
She peered out the front door pane but saw nothing. Whoever it was seemed to have gone away. She hesitated, and then opened the door.
Between the storm door and the front door was a manila envelope. She looked all around through the storm door glass, and seeing no one, finally stooped down and picked it up.
She shut the door and latched it, and went back to the living room window where David was still looking at the strange car in the driveway. He turned and looked at his mother, a question in his eyes.
“I wonder what this is all about, Mom.”
“I don’t know.” She held up the envelope. “Maybe this will tell us.”
She opened the envelope and dumped the contents on the coffee table. There was a typed letter, a smaller envelope and two car keys. She glanced up at David who shrugged eloquently. She picked up the letter and began to read:
Dear Mrs. Warden,
About ten years ago, I realized that I was not enjoying life very much, so I decided to do something that would please me and as my dear late wife used to say, nothing pleases a body like helping others. To make it even more fun, I do it secretly!
I guess you’re about my ninth or tenth victim. I’ve lost count. But don’t worry about whether I can afford it because I’m a wealthy man even if I am not a properly educated man. It’s my yearly Christmas project and this year, you’re the one.
The car is yours. It’s new. The title is in the envelope. There is also a cashier’s check that will see you through until you start working, which will be soon. Later, it will send your children to college. I never went to college, you see, but my children did. College is good.
The address is a law firm. They will hire you. Talk to Cynthia Parks, the attorney.
Oh, and in the back are some presents for you, David, and Julie. I always do that too.
Your secret benefactor.
David was reading over her shoulder.
“Mom? Can I see one of those keys, please?”
Numbly, she handed him a key. He looked at the remote buttons for a moment and then pressed ‘lock’. They both heard the van’s horn honk, and its lights flashed once. They looked at each other in astonishment.
She opened the small, white envelope. The title application was there in her name, and there was also a cashier’s check, made out to her. She looked at the amount, and her jaw dropped open. For a long time she just sat there, stunned at the sudden change in her life.
They threw on coats and hurried outside, where David pushed the remote button that looked like a door, and the side door of the minivan slid dutifully open. It took three trips to take the carefully wrapped presents inside and place them under the tree.
Christmas day was on Friday, so it was the following Monday before Judy Warden found herself in the law office of Cynthia Parks, speaking to her office manager.
“We knew you were coming, Mrs. Warden, but Miss Parks’ father passed away suddenly on Christmas day. She said to tell you she will contact you as soon as possible.”
Judy nodded. “I understand perfectly, and please offer my condolences to Miss Parks.”
Judy had just taken a roast out of the oven when the doorbell chimed. Standing on the porch was a well dressed and elegant looking young black woman. Judy opened the door.
“Mrs. Warden? I’m Cynthia Parks. May I have a word with you?”
Judy was shocked. The poor woman had just buried her father. “Oh, yes of course. Please come in, and I am so sorry to hear about your father. Would you like some coffee?”
“Thank you. That sounds wonderful. I’ve been chilled all day. Would you mind if we sat at your kitchen table? I like the informality.”
Cynthia Parks idly watched Julie play with her doll house as she sipped coffee. Then she turned to Judy.
“My Daddy worked three jobs, most of his life. He also made many shrewd investments. As a result, he was able to put me through law school, and my brother through medical school. All the while, he worked, saved and made more investments. Daddy became a very wealthy man, although he never finished high school.
When Mama died, Daddy was devastated and terribly unhappy. Then I reminded him what Mama had said about the joy of helping others, and he began his quest to find his ‘victims’, as he put it, and he thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of helping someone anonymously.”
She looked at Judy over the brim of her cup.
“As I’m sure you have guessed by now, Daddy was your benefactor. He’s gone now, so his secret no longer matters and I really wanted to meet one of his ‘victims’.”
She paused and sipped her coffee, watching Julie play on the floor.
“Daddy was particularly happy to have helped you.” She smiled at the memory. “He had me pick him up here after he delivered your car and gifts. He was giggling like a little boy. Oh, and by the way, you’re hired. I need a good paralegal.”
“Thank you Miss Parks. That was very kind of you.” She refilled their cups, and sat down. “But why me? I have to know! How and why did he pick me?”
“I have no idea. Maybe he met you at work or something? He never stopped working, you know, even though his investments had made him a multimillionaire.”
Judy shook her head slowly. “No, not that I recall. Where did he work?”
Cynthia Parks sighed and shook her head ruefully. “Daddy loved working around people and he loved the outdoors. He was a groundskeeper at the city park.”
A First Christmas
In the hushed stillness, I could hear the snowflakes softly falling on the pine needles over my head. In front of me, scarcely fifty yards away yet invisible in the dense snowfall, was a deer noisily browsing on a white cedar. I leaned back against the trunk of the pine where I was seated and waited, just as Pa had taught me.
Pa had been gone now for nearly two months on a trip for supplies that should have taken less than a week. Several times, I’d seen Ma standing on our cabin porch of an evening looking anxiously off to the east, but I’d said nothing, nor did she. My little sister, just seven years old last summer, was unaware that anything was wrong, and neither Ma nor I was about to worry her. We had enough worries of our own. Pa had been gone far too long and we knew it. We were on our own.
We had a little flour left, and some salt and coffee, but we hadn’t tasted meat in two weeks so I took up Pa’s rifle and set out to fetch us up a deer. After all, I was fourteen and a man grown.
A deer would feed us for a month, and would keep well in the cold. A Dakota winter was better than a smokehouse for preserving meat and such, and it was sure enough cold. My nose and cheeks told me that it was scarcely above zero, if that.
The snowfall seemed to ease up a bit, and I could just make out a dark shadow. Was that a shrub or the body of a deer? Pa had taught me to always make sure of my target, so I waited. Suddenly, the snowfall eased up some more, and I could clearly see a big whitetail calmly nibbling on a branch, his neck craned upward, and his magnificent rack almost touching his back.
I eased my rifle around and laid it across my right knee. I covered the hammer with my left hand to muffle the sound and carefully eared it back with my thumb. The double click seemed sounded awful loud to me, but the big buck paid no attention. I sighted at a spot down low on his chest, just back of his front leg and carefully squeezed the trigger.
Above me and to my right, a rifle crashed and that buck went to his front knees for a moment and then rolled over lifelessly. At the same time, I heard a startled grunt and looked up just in time to see a man’s body slam into the top of a large pine and crash from branch to branch until he hit the ground and lay motionless, some thirty yards away. A few dislodged rocks and stones rattled down from somewhere out of the murk and then all was silent.
I lowered the hammer on my own rifle and sat there for a minute gathering my thoughts. We were the only white folks for miles around, and what glimpses I had of that falling man looked to me like an Indian. At last I rose and walked carefully over to the body.
He was an Indian, sure enough, and a Dakota. He was bleeding from the nose and ears, and I figured him for dead until he opened his eyes. He looked like he didn’t know where he was for a minute, and then he saw me. Instantly, he tried to rise but failed, pain wincing across his face and a single groan escaping his lips. His leg was twisted at an odd angle, and from his labored breathing, I guessed he had some damaged ribs to boot.
We both spotted his rifle at the same time, lying just a few feet to his left, but it might as well have been fifty miles with him unable to move. The snow let up some more and I could see a ledge some fifty feet above us. There was a disturbed area in the snow up there, and I guessed that was where he was standing when he shot that buck and then slipped.
I looked back at him, and he had drawn a knife from somewhere. I pulled up my rifle and cocked it, aiming it at his head. He fixed his black eyes on me for a moment, and then nodded. He closed his eyes and turned away, giving me a clear shot at the back of his head.
I swallowed hard. I’d killed my first Indian when I was twelve, and one more since then, but they were shooting at me and my family. Shooting a helpless man in the back of the head was something altogether different. But, leaving him here to die in pain and in the cold wasn’t much better. For the second time that day, I squeezed the trigger.
He didn’t move. He just lay there waiting for it, and I eased up on the trigger.
“Do you understand English?” I asked.
He looked back at me and shook his head.
“I’m going to make a travois and take you to my home.” I made signs with my hands, and after a while he nodded in understanding.
“I’m going to take your weapons. You are still a warrior and I value my scalp!”
He looked at me again for a long time and then a faint smile crossed his lips. He turned his knife around and held it out to me butt first.
“Just toss it over here. I’ve seen that trick before,” I signed.
This time he grinned broadly, but with a fleeting grimace of pain and he tossed the knife to my feet.
I looked longingly at the deer and the needed meat. Shrugging, I fetched a hatchet from my pack. I picked out two likely looking saplings for travois poles and set to work.
By the time I made the cabin with my burden, it was close on to dark, and Ma was anxiously peering out the door. When she saw the loaded travois, she thought it was a deer, and she was all smiles until she realized what I had. Then her eyes went wide and she looked at me with a hundred questions in her eyes.
While we worked, I told Ma what had happened and I told her I would go back tonight and fetch that deer. The sky had cleared and a full moon was just showing itself over the horizon.
We got him inside and on a floor pallet, and looked to his leg. Ma’s grandfather had been a doctor back in Ohio and Ma had been his nurse for two years.
“His leg will need to be set Ben, but we have nothing for pain, so it will hurt like nothing he has ever felt.” I made signs and he nodded. He had been staring at Ma ever since we got home. I reckoned she was the first white woman he had ever seen, at least up close. He seemed to be fascinated. Little Sue, my sister, sat on the bed, wide-eyed. He saw her and gently lifted his hand to her. Shyly, she smiled back and he closed his eyes.
I gave him a piece of rawhide strapping to bite down on, grabbed hold of his shoulders, and nodded at Ma. She pulled hard back on his foot, stretching his leg and then twisting it back to where it should have been. He groaned aloud and then suddenly slumped, passed out cold. Ma finished setting his leg quickly, and I took the opportunity to check him for hide-out weapons. There was nothing.
I fetched some leftover split shingles and we splinted up his leg as best we could. Ma felt his ribs and found one she thought was broken. She told me a cracked or bruised rib hurt almost as bad as a broke one and she figured several more were hurt. She bound his chest tightly with strips of rags, saying that would relieve some of the pain.
He was still out when I left to fetch that buck. Wolves and an occasional bear were about and I wasn’t in the mood to share meat. Ma held Pa’s spare revolver while I was gone, although that bad hurt Indian was probably no real danger.
In the next couple of weeks, he healed well, and we palavered some using signs. I learned that he was some sort of chief and that his camp was not far off. When I asked his name, it had something to do with bear cubs, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day, it came to me…Small Bear. I’d heard that name and he was a known Dakota warrior. He was also a chief of some reputation.
The day before Christmas, I woke up to a warm cabin. Small Bear was off his pallet and had stoked up the fire in the stove and added fuel. He had watched me do it and I reckon he caught on right away. I was ashamed not to have been up before he was and that I hadn’t even heard him fussing with the stove. Men have died from such carelessness.
He was now sitting at the table cleaning his rifle. When I went back to fetch that deer, I also picked it up his weapon. I gave it back to him, but without ammunition, a caution that seemed to amuse him. But since he hadn’t taken advantage of us while we were all asleep, I guess he didn’t have it in mind at all. You just can’t tell about an Indian.
Ma had been knitting something that she quickly put away whenever I came around, and I guessed it was probably a yarn cap to wear under my hat to ward off the cold. Both Ma and I had taken a hand in making a corn shuck doll for Sue. I made sign to explain Christmas to Small Bear, but he was clearly confused. Finally I made sign for The Great Spirit, and he nodded, although he still looked puzzled
Small Bear knew about Ma, me, and Sue of course, but he also asked after Ma’s man, so she fetched Pa’s picture from a drawer and showed it to him. For a long time he stared at it in wonder. I reckoned it was the first tintype likeness he’d ever seen. He turned it over and looked at the back as if to see the other side, and then handed it back without comment.
That night, we exchanged gifts, such as they were, and sure enough, I got that knit cap. Sue got her shuck doll and a pretty dress Ma had made up out of one of her own dresses. Then Ma handed Small Bear another knit cap like my own. He looked puzzled, so I put mine on to show him how it worked and I guess I looked sort of funny because he laughed. Then he put his on, and he looked so silly that I laughed. Ma scowled at both of us.
Several times that night, we cheerfully wished Small Bear a Merry Christmas, but he just looked at us with a blank stare. He must have thought we were all a bit daft.
Christmas morning dawned bright and early, without a cloud in the sky. It was still below freezing, but not the bitter cold it could have been. I was doing chores in the barn when I heard horses riding up. I fetched up my rifle and hurried to the house, all the while carefully watching the riders, and they were Indians.
When they reached the house, I was standing in the doorway, rifle in hand, but pointed down so there’d be no misunderstanding. We looked each other over and were getting ready to palaver when Small Bear limped out. There was an instant shout and the next thing I knew, they were all talking and laughing. Then Small Bear pointed at me and said some things and they all stared. There was another quick exchange of talk and then Small Bear signed to me that these were his people and that they had been looking for him.
There were no goodbyes. Small Bear mounted a spare horse they brought along and I fetched up his rifle. When I smiled up at him and handed him back his ammunition, he laughed at the private joke. He pulled his knitted cap out and put it on to the astonishment of the others. Then they just rode away, without a backward glance.
Later that afternoon, I got ready to go on another hunt next morning. I had spotted me some elk in the timber to the north a few days ago and we were running short on meat again. If we were to make it through the winter, we would have to have meat, and a big elk would make all the difference. The hard part would be dragging all that meat the two miles back to the cabin. It would mean several hard trips tugging a heavy travois. I was in the barn wishing I had a horse when I heard a shout outside.
I stepped out the barn door and spotted Ma in the cabin door shading her eyes and watching a lone figure coming up the trail, mounted on one horse and leading four others. From the way he sat his horse, I knew right off that it was Pa.
He was thin and weak, so we got him down and into the cabin. I took the packs and saddle off the horses and put them in the corral. Two of them were loaded down with deer meat, packed in their own hides. The others were toting the supplies Pa had gone to fetch weeks ago.
Pa was working on a bowl of hot soup when I returned to the cabin. It seems he was on his way home with supplies when he stumbled into the middle of a party of Dakotas. He had no chance to fight or run, so they took him captive and returned to their camp, some ten miles from here and in badland country. Pa is a fair skinned man with lots of freckles, and they seemed fascinated with his shock of light yellow hair. They bound him hand and foot with a set of irons they’d found somewhere, and there he sat until today, when something set off quite a commotion in the Dakota camp.
Their chief, a warrior called Small Bear, had disappeared a few weeks ago, and a search party had finally turned him up and brought him back to the camp. For a time, there was a big celebration and then, for no reason Pa could determine, they abruptly removed his irons, brought around his horses, most of his supplies, and two additional horses loaded with meat. To his astonishment, they sat him on his horse and just let him go.
“You just can’t ever tell about Indians Ben,” he said, looking at me. “They take notions for no reason we can figure. And you know the strangest thing of all?”
I shook my head no. I would tell my own story later.
“As I rode away, I could have sworn I heard Small Bear wish me a Merry Christmas!”
Elizabeth leaned forward and peered intently through the windshield, using her coat sleeve to wipe the fog from the glass. Outside, the blowing snow was falling steadily and the road was difficult to see in the glare of headlights and steady tempo of wiper blades. It had been a long day and she wanted nothing more than to go home and relax with a nice glass of merlot, but she still had to pick up a few last minute items for Christmas.
She slowed for the light at Elm and glanced up the hill to her left. If the snow kept coming, they would soon close Elm to traffic and open it to sleds and toboggans. That was an event that Philip had loved as a boy and he never missed the opening day, including the time he was sick with a fever and didn’t tell her. The memory brought a fleeting smile to her lips.
The mall was coming up so she turned into the south parking lot, praying that a spot was available. Several new stores were under construction and parking spaces were very limited due to all the construction supplies stacked on the asphalt behind the temporary fencing. The mall had rented an additional large lot two blocks away, but it would be an uphill walk in the snow and cold, and she desperately feared walking alone in the dark.
The south lot was packed and she saw no customers getting ready to leave so she sighed and resigned herself to the long walk. As she drove to the alternate lot, she noted that two street lights in a row were not working and she would be in the dark for several hundred feet. She felt the cold fingers of fear grip her heart and then quickly dismissed it. The odds against being assaulted were actually quite low as Dan had pointed out just yesterday. She knew her fear of attack bordered on being a phobia, but that was little consolation.
The wind tore at her and made the slippery sidewalk even more treacherous. She pulled her coat collar close to her face and hurried up the hill, saying a silent prayer as she entered the long zone of darkness. Twice she thought she heard faint footsteps behind her and whirled around but there was no one there. The snow seemed to be increasing in intensity and she made a mental note to hurry her shopping and get back to the car and home before the streets became impassable.
At last the mall entry loomed in front of her and she breathed a sigh of relief as she entered the warmth and safety. She quickly began to fill her list and soon found herself at the jewelry counter for her last item. She had seen a small, golden crucifix with tiny diamonds set in the crown of thorns and she wanted it for Philip. Dan had chided her gently about it at first but when he realized she was determined, he relented and supported her decision.
Gathering up her belongings, she left the warmth and light of the mall to face the bitter cold, and darkness of the long walk back to the car. The snowfall had increased alarmingly since she had been in the mall and she felt a sudden sense of urgency. True, the car had four wheel drive but she had never had occasion to use it because Dan’s sure hands had always been at the wheel in situations like this. Hurrying, she failed to notice that she was entering the unlit zone and she also failed to detect through the veil of snow, the dim outline of a lone, dark figure emerging from the gray shadows of the slope.
She was halfway through the darkness before she realized that she was no longer alone. In the gloom, she could just make out the figure plodding toward her slowly. Suddenly near panic, she looked frantically around but there was no one except the figure and herself. Steeling herself, she straightened up in an attempt to present herself as a confident and self-assured woman as she had been taught in her survival class, hoping that her trembling hands were not noticeable. The gap between them narrowed and just as she was about to panic and run, she realized that the figure was an old bag lady pushing a cart.
The ancient looking woman was bent and silent, her meager possessions in a black plastic garbage sack nestled in the cart and she seemed not to notice Elizabeth at all. Her head and face were covered in a faded blue shawl against the cold and she was wearing a shabby dress, made from a rough, gray material. She shivered visibly in the cold and snow as she plodded slowly past.
Immensely relieved, Elizabeth continued down the hill. But then, something made her pause and look back at the old woman. On a whim, she did something that later, she would never be able to explain. She put down her bags and hurried after the old woman. Reaching her, she hesitated and then patted her on the arm. The woman stopped and slowly turned to face Elizabeth, pulling back the shawl to reveal a face that was neither young nor old, but filled with an indescribable and serene beauty. Elizabeth gasped and the woman smiled, instantly filling Elizabeth with a sense of love and well being that both shocked her and filled her heart with joy. She managed to stammer, “Will you accept this? I just want you to have it.”
With her gentle eyes, the old woman gazed at the crucifix held in her gnarled old hands and then looked up at Elizabeth. In the sweetest voice Elizabeth had ever heard, she murmured, “Your kindness will be remembered child.” Then she pulled her shawl back over her head, and without another word resumed her slow plodding up the hill.
On the drive home, Elizabeth deliberately turned left on State Street as she did every Christmas Eve. Dan had originally thought it a bad idea, but later, he too had made it a point to visit the site now and then. She pulled over and for a while simply gazed at the giant, silent oak. Then she got out and walked up to it, placing her hand on the scar where Philip had wrecked his car and died five years ago this day, Christmas Eve.
“I got you the crucifix I promised”, she whispered, “But, for reasons I’ll never understand, I gave it to an old bag lady. You know how silly your mom can get sometimes. I’m sorry, I’ll get you another one, but it will have to wait until after Christmas. I’ll place it in the lock-box with the other things. Please forgive me sweetheart.”
The small lock-box she had fastened to Philip’s tombstone had also been a former point of contention, but gentle Dan, her husband and her rock had listened and understood. It was a small thing really, and probably foolish, but it was her way of dealing with the loss of her beloved son. The box held what looked like a boy’s collection of boy things, but it was the sum of a mother’s love.
Dan brought Elizabeth a glass of wine and they were just settling in to watch a few old Christmas movies when the doorbell rang. Dan glanced at Elizabeth with a questioning look but she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. Dan got up to investigate.
Elizabeth was wondering when she should tell Dan about the bag lady and what had transpired when he placed a large package on the couch beside her. “UPS,” he said. “The driver thought he had made all his deliveries when he noticed this last package.”
The package was addressed simply to “Elizabeth” at their address. There was no return address.
“Should I open it?’ she glanced at Dan.
“Sure. It doesn’t look like a Christmas present. Probably just something you ordered and forgot about.”
She grimaced. Dan was right. She had a bad habit of doing that.
She tore the package open and stared in silence at the contents. It was an exquisitely crafted nativity, but like nothing she had ever seen before. The arrangement was unique and the whole thing was very different from the usual and traditional scene. The figures were so lifelike that they resembled tiny people rather than carvings. And for some reason, she had the overwhelming feeling that she was looking at the authentic nativity, not just some artist’s depiction.
While Dan placed it on the mantle, Elizabeth pulled a folded note from the box. It said simply, “Your son is with my Son”.
“Well, what in the world was this artist thinking?” exclaimed Dan from across the room. He looked over his shoulder at Elizabeth. “This is crazy! Mary is wearing a crucifix!”
Suddenly she knew. She stumbled over to the fireplace, tears already stinging her eyes. Mary was dressed in a faded blue shawl, pulled over her head against the cold. Her shabby dress was made from a rough, gray material. Elizabeth gently picked up the small, still figure and for the second time that day was filled with a sensation of great joy and love. She peered closely, and around Mary’s neck was a tiny crucifix and she knew if she used a powerful magnifying glass, she would be able to make out tiny diamonds in the crown of thorns. She looked again at that timeless face filled with beauty and for a fleeting moment, she thought she saw a tiny smile. Her hand shaking, she replaced Mary by the Christ Child and turned to her husband, her eyes welling with tears of joy. “I have something to tell you Dan. Something that happened today. Something very wonderful!”
Dan was peering closely at the Nativity again. For a long moment he didn’t answer and she wondered if he was listening. Then he looked at her over his shoulder, his blue eyes wide in wonder and his normally dark complexion almost ashen. “OK, you can tell me in a minute, but first look again at the nativity. Look closely. See anything strange?”
She peered closely at the figures. All the biblical characters were there, but there was also another, someone who seemed slightly out of place, standing close to the Christ Child and gazing at him with great love and wonder. She picked the figure up and looked closely at the tiny face. Stunned, she turned quickly to Dan who nodded silently. A great weight she was unaware she had been bearing was suddenly lifted and the simple words of the note echoed in her mind: “Your son is with my Son.”
The figure was Philip.
An Exchange of Gifts
His breakfast was scarcely touched as he stared at the snow slowly falling outside the window. He had not written anything in months, and he was in a foul mood. The income from his previous successes was dwindling, but nothing new was coming to mind, and the harder he tried to come up with something, the more his mind rebelled.
He was deep in thought, so he failed to hear the tinkling of the bell as another customer entered the small inn. Moments later, a long shadow crossed his table, and he looked up to see a smiling Edward Scribe, regarding him from under bushy brows.
“Having a solitary, Charlie?”
He invited Edward to be seated with a wave of his hand. Charlie and Edward had grown up in the same neighborhood as boyhood friends, a relationship that had endured to this day. Edward was a tall, gangly man, a lawyer, and a bachelor. He lived alone in an apartment, and was rumored to be worth a good deal of money, perhaps even wealthy. Mary, his sole love interest, had married Charlie instead, a situation that Edward had cheerfully accepted. Mary had never mentioned it, but Charlie knew she had never forgiven Edward for not having the decency to at least be offended. Charlie found it all quite amusing, even years later.
“What will you be having this morning, Mister Scribe?”
Robert, the waiter, hovered over the table, empty handed. He prided himself on memory, and although Edward and Charlie had tested him many times by changing their orders again and again, in an effort to confuse, Robert invariably delivered the correct meals.
“I will be having my usual, Bob, and be quick about it!”
Both men smiled at the old joke. Robert knew full well that Edward was in no hurry, not that it mattered, because the orders were always filled quickly anyway. It was the trademark of the Blue Keg to serve customers without undue delay.
“Have you written anything of late?” Edward watched his old friend, as he removed his gloves.
Charlie shook his head slowly, gazing out the window at the snow. “No, my mind has gone dead, Edward. I have not had a glimmer of an idea for weeks on end. I have written an odd article here and there for the newspaper, but that is about the end of it.”
Charlie turned and smiled at his friend, “But enough of that. What of you, Edward? You always seem to be a happy, and prosperous man.”
Charlie was startled at the sudden change his simple question seemed to make on Edward. His friend visibly paled, and beads of sweat formed on his upper lip, despite the cold. Edward looked furtively around, and then bent over the table, in an obvious desire to speak in confidence. Charlie leaned forward, and his friend began to speak in such a low voice that he had to strain to hear.
“Oh, but where to begin, Charlie? I suppose you have heard that I am a wealthy man? Well, it’s true. Over the years, I have amassed quite a fortune, but I have done it by being a ruthless lawyer. Oh, it was all perfectly legal, you see, and I have committed no crime by man’s laws, but there are other, more important laws, are there not, Charlie?”
Charlie nodded, bewildered. There had never been the slightest stain on Edward’s career. He was held in high esteem by all who knew him.
Edward continued, “Time and again I have destroyed men legally, Charlie, by employing the law and I suppose one could say that all of it was their own doing and the result of making bad decisions or even greed. Businesses came to me and I showed them how to use the law to take the assets of their victims. For that, I was paid a sizable fee.”
“I have heard nothing of this. You reputation is untarnished, is it not?”
Edward nodded. “Part of the agreement is that my name must be kept secret. I gave advice, but I took no part after that.” He hung his head. “I wanted to convince myself that I was just doing what I was supposed to do as a lawyer. But then the nightmares started.”
Charlie looked closely at his old friend, noticing for the first that his always skinny frame was now decidedly gaunt, and his cheekbones were protruding alarmingly. His fingers were trembling slightly, and he had a nervous tic pulling on his right eyelid.
“Nightmares? What sort of dreams are you having?”
“Hauntings, Charlie. My sins have come back to visit me. I haven’t slept undisturbed for months. I would give it all up for one decent night’s sleep.”
“Hauntings? What sort of hauntings?”
“Visions. Visions of despair and anguish for those I have wronged, and I am always there, laughing at their misery. Then I become aware of another, a beast…an ugly beast with foul, fetid breath, and he has his filthy, horrid arm around my shoulders, laughing along with me. Then I awake in terror, not daring to go back to sleep.” He looked at Charlie, pleadingly. “What am I to do Charlie? What am I to do?”
Charlie sat back in his chair for a moment, deep in thought. He scratched his left ear absentmindedly, as was his habit, while other patrons talked quietly, amid the clatter of dinnerware and utensils being placed on clean linen. For several minutes, Charlie pondered the situation, his lips moving silently as he discussed the possibilities with himself. Finally, he glanced up at Edward, thoughtfully, and then leaned over the table again.
“Do you have a list of all those you’ve wronged?”
Edward nodded, his eyes to the side, obviously ashamed, “Yes, Charlie. I’m a lawyer, so I keep a list of my victims, and their losses. We lawyers do that sort of thing.”
“What then would you say to this? Suppose you gifted each of them generously and anonymously? Suppose you made amends in such a way that you take no personal credit? Would that not serve to offset your wrongs, satisfy your conscience, and sever your ties to that beast of your dreams?”
Edwards jaw dropped open, and he stared at Charlie for a long moment. “It would take all I have, Charlie, but yes, I can and I will do that! In fact, I will do it today, by messenger so that it arrives tomorrow, for Christmas.”
He stood and gripped Charlie’s hand tightly in both of his own hands, moisture forming in his sunken eyes. “Thank you Charlie. It was just the sort of simple yet elegant solution that I have come to expect from you.”
Charlie patted him on the back. “As it happens, I now have an idea for a story, so we are both blessed, my friend”
Edward hurried out the door, as Robert watched from his waiter’s position along the wall. He crossed to Charlie’s table
“I take it that Mister Scribe will not be taking his breakfast this morning?”
Charlie smiled up at him. “No Robert, but I have suddenly developed quite an appetite, so you can bring it to me.”
Half an hour later, Charlie rose from the table, and Robert, ever watchful, lifted Charlie’s coat from the rack and held it for him, as he put it on. Charlie nodded at the waiter and started to leave, but then turned around and spoke to Robert. “Tell me, Bob Crandall, how are your dear wife and children faring?”
The waiter beamed. “Oh, they are all quite splendid sir, and thank you for inquiring. In fact, we are going caroling tonight!”
As Charlie turned again to leave, the waiter spoke to him once more, and he looked back.
“Excuse me, but I shall not see you tomorrow as I have the day off, so may I wish you a Jolly and Happy Christmas, Mister Dickens?”
The Best Christmas Ever!
Gene Autry’s new hit record about a red nosed reindeer was blasting through the loudspeakers mounted on either side of Swenson’s showroom windows, as Billy Sanford gazed in awe at the object of his dreams. The war was over and manufacturing companies were slowly getting back on line, including Schwinn, the maker of the shining red and white speedster in the window. A Schwinn was not just a bicycle…it was the only bicycle in the eyes of a small boy like Billy.
True, Billy already had a bike, if it could be called that. It had once belonged to his Uncle Jack, who was the dare-devil of the family, and his old bike showed it. Most of the paint had been scraped off in various collisions and falls, and the handlebars were bent, one side up and the other side out. The tires had no real tread, and the cords were readily visible. The inner tubes were now more patches than rubber, but Billy used it daily on his paper route, ignoring the wobbling of the bent rims.
Western Auto, Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward all had their own, cheaper brands, but the crown glory of bicycles was a genuine Schwinn Hornet, with a battery powered, push-button horn mounted in the tank, and it was now mere inches away from Billy’s admiring eyes.
“Looks like a well made bicycle, Billy, but that J.C.Higgins model that Sears sells is somewhat less expensive.” His father removed his pipe and glanced down at his son. “But maybe you could save up your paper route money and buy this one if you have your heart set on it.”
Billy studied his father’s poker face, but could detect nothing. Still, if he had no intention of getting him the Schwinn, he probably would have said nothing at all. Billy’s dad was a Christmas enthusiast and devotee, merrily making the most of it every year. He had been wounded on OmahaBeach, so he counted every day as a gift, especially Christmas. Uncle Jack was a Marine and he had been awarded a Silver Star for heroism on Okinawa. He came home without a visible scratch, but was deeply wounded, nonetheless.
In any case, there was always Santa, although Billy now had his suspicions. Several of the packages from Santa last year had been wrapped in paper he had seen his mother buy. As a result, Billy had some doubts, but it would not pay to take chances, so Billy visited the great, bearded one last week, painstakingly describing the Schwinn to a tee.
Uncle Jack and Aunt Millie came over for Christmas Eve and made a big announcement…Billy and his little brother David were going to have a cousin…their first! Billy had some idea of how that came to be from third grade scuttlebutt, but David was clearly confused.
The adults had a glass of red wine, and the boys had milk. Billy had sneaked a taste of his mother’s wine one time, and couldn’t understand why anyone would drink such awful stuff when they didn’t have to! A few minutes later, their mother warned them that Santa does not stop at homes where children are awake, so they kissed everyone and went to bed.
Billy had made up his mind that this year, he was going to stay up and see for himself about Santa, so he closed his eyes and merely pretended to be asleep, determined to stay awake. Five minutes later, the first small snore announced his failure.
He sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes rapidly blinking away the cobwebs of sleep. At the far end of his bed stood his David, with an accusing scowl on his face.
”Oh my gosh! It’s Christmas morning and I’m still in bed!”
Billy jumped up and scrambled down the stairs, pausing on the landing to stare down at the tree. There it was! Santa had brought his new Schwinn Hornet, and it was exactly the one he had picked out! Even the color was right…two tone fire-engine red and white! His heart was pounding as he ran the rest of the way down the stairs, oblivious to his mother’s cries of caution.
They gathered at the tree, holding hands as a family while his father said a brief prayer. Then the present opening frenzy began in earnest, but Billy had eyes only for the bike. He ran his hands over it lovingly as his father grinned.
It was a magnificent collection of gleaming chrome and enamel glory, calculated to make an eight year old boy’s heart fairly ache with joy. He absentmindedly opened other presents, but his eyes kept returning to the bike.
Finally the last present was unwrapped and Billy made his move. “Mom? Can I go for a ride?”
Mrs. Sanford hated it when Billy left on his paper route, because she was a typical worrying mother. Stories of boys having bicycle accidents haunted her, and she tried not to be the type of mother who stifled her son’s life, but Billy knew she lived in fear, so he did not push it.
She looked to her husband who nodded quietly. She sighed and shrugged her shoulders in resignation. “Oh, I suppose it’ll be OK, but just around the block!” Billy rushed up the stairs to get dressed.
“Now just around the block now, and don’t go in the street! Do you hear me?”
Billy waved his acknowledgment to his mother and got underway. The new tires whispered on the sidewalk and the wind began to build on his face. He peddled harder and then tried the brake. It stopped almost instantly, or as his father would say, “On a dime“. He tried the horn button, and was rewarded with a raspy honk. His heart soared. This was the best Christmas ever! He turned the corner and disappeared.
“Ralph? Will you check on Billy? He’s been gone for some time and dinner is almost ready.”
Ralph Sanford put down his paper and stretched sleepily. He walked to the front window and peered out on the lawn. No Billy. He looked up and down the street and saw nothing. He was about to put on his shoes and go looking for his son when he saw a small figure turn the far corner. It was Billy, but where was his bike? Alarmed, he grabbed his shoes and bolted out the door.
Ralph and Mary Sanford sat on the couch and stared at their oldest son. Ralph blinked and asked his son to repeat what he had just told them, but slowly this time.
“Well, I was riding on the other side of the block when I saw Jimmy Davis sitting on his porch. Jimmy’s in my class you know.” He looked at his parents who nodded.
“Anyway, I showed him my new bike and we started talking about Christmas and what we got and stuff like that.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “I guess Jimmy’s dad got laid off last fall and they don’t have much money, so Jimmy didn’t get anything for Christmas this year. Nothing at all.”
He glanced at his parents, his troubled eyes begging for understanding. “I got all kinds of neat stuff, so I got to thinking about how lucky I am.” He glanced at his dad. “And my daddy came home from the war, when lots of dads didn’t. Anyway, I thought about it, and I know I should have asked you first, but…well….I gave him my new Schwinn.”
His lip trembled and tears welled in his eyes. “Are you mad at me?”
His mother slowly shook her head, absently dabbing at her eyes, “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier or more proud as a mother than I am at this moment. That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” His father just nodded his head and studied his son with a new respect. He rose and padded off to the kitchen, ruffling his son’s hair as he passed
Roast turkey was Billy’s favorite food and today’s had been the best one ever. He sat sleepily on the couch watching David playing on the floor with his new Tinker Toys. He was about to drift off when his father sat beside him and nudged him gently with his elbow.
“Say, Billy, there’s an after-Christmas sale on bikes down at Swenson’s tomorrow, and I was just thinking…why don’t we go down there and pick one out and you can work it off by doing some of the chores I usually do around here. Fact is, I think I saw another Schwinn Hornet there…a blue and white one. ” He got up and walked to the window, peering out at the street. A few lazy snow flakes drifted by silently.
“Seems to me that a boy who thinks about others like you did is grown up enough to do a man’s work now and then.” He turned and looked back at his son. Billy’s jaw dropped as he realized what his dad was proposing and he stared up at him.
“Deal Billy?” His father’s voice was oddly gruff.
Billy quickly regained his composure and nodded vigorously. “Sure Dad. Deal.”
Christmas music was softly playing in the living room when Billy glanced out the front window just in time to see a bundled-up Jimmy Davis flash by on his brand new Schwinn. Billy waved and smiled to himself. It really was the best Christmas ever.