A Short Story
by Timothy Cornette
Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Seven, eight, nine. Forty. Forty-one. I have always been fascinated by numbers. That is why I chose to become an accountant many years ago. In an infinite world of numbers there are formulas to make the complicated simple. Follow the rules of math and at the end of any equation you will find the right answer. The numbers add up.
Forty-two. Forty-three. I am no longer an accountant. Right now, I am one of a few strategically-placed Santas from the city mission, my new home. My job is to stand in front of this hanging money pot, ring a bell, nod, wink, smile, and chuckle in Saint Nick fashion as the people pass by. I reserve my heartiest “Merry Christmas!” for anyone feeling guilty enough to drop a tinkling donation of left-over pocket change: a nickel or a dime—pinched tightly—or a more generous quarter, awkward and slippery between mitten fingers.
Undoubtedly, most are carrying an adequate amount of cash tonight. With Christmas only a day away, these frantic, last-minute shoppers are ransacking every exquisite shop on theMain Streetmarketplace ofOlde Towne Square. Incredibly, annoyingly, debit card machines are still future here. Such feigned and guarded antiquity is supposedly part of a surprisingly successful marketing scheme designed to promote an old fashioned shopping experience in this particular section of the city. Also quite successful are the young purse snatchers, less, the cops who give them chase (statistically speaking, skinny always outruns chubby). Romantic buggy rides further the Dickensonian illusion as horses go clip-clopping and poop-plopping all around the cobblestone square, but at exorbitant fifteen minute rates. The money is there or the horses would stare. The numbers add up.
The silent “e’s” recently attached to “Old Town” are completely unnecessary and annoying to a numbers man like myself, but obviously not to the teenage and college age alike who delight in pronouncing it, long and loud, as “Oldee Townee” (snicker, snicker, giggle, giggle, hee, hee). The only thing worse, perhaps, is if a “Ye” had been added as an introduction. Thankfully, my eyes and ears have been spared from that. In my mathematical opinion, the silent but sometimes long “e’s” should be subtracted immediately. However, nobody cares for my professional opinion anymore. Therefore, I remain more silent than the occasionally loud “e’s,” and refuse the juvenile temptation to touch the tip of my tongue to the base of my teeth and utter any unnecessary sound or long vowel phoneme. I just stick to counting numbers quietly in my head.
Forty-four. Forty-five. Eye contact brings only pittance to the pot. Another tiny guilt offering, but even the crumbs add up. One hundred pennies makes a dollar and a dollar buys a hot cup of coffee or a fresh biscuit for the broken man. Twenty dollars gets fifteen minutes pulled by a horse. Buggy or biscuit: the dollar is far more precious in the desperate clutch of the poor. I know.
Unfortunately, I am not counting dollars to the mission. I am counting the number of people exiting the gift shoppe (shop, shope, shoppee) across the street. I do this only to pass the time like a child counting colorful beads on a wire.
There is a door just behind my back and a little to the right; every time it opens, a bell jingles and alerts my own hand-held, silver bell: first the subtle door, jing-a-ling-a-ling, then, a not-so-subtle me, DING-A-LING-A-LING! Most pretend not to see or hear me as they attempt to sneak past with heads turned down or in the opposite direction. I ring the bell harder and louder. Some quicken their pace and make a wide circle around me as if I am a leper white as the snow. Of course, this mission endeavor would be a complete and miserable waste of time if I did not understand the secret to successful silent solicitation: guilt. Eye contact leads to donations. Locking eyes locks a wallet as effectively as a tractor beam (Yes, Virginia, Santa really does watch Star Trek) and the compulsory giver is drawn in by an uncomfortable personal guilt disguised as good will. Cha-ching. The money is in the can. That is the simple method by which most private funds get transferred from pocket to pot, at least on my corner, on my watch. No one ever gives willingly, if the truth be known. There has to be some measure of prodding, a bit of arm twisting, a little shaking down. This particular Saint Nick is certainly no saint and lives up to a common mafia name by robbing people at eye point.
I do empathize with the general public’s aversion to throwing out money to a complete stranger. Why should anyone give away their hard-earned money to a street bum when it can be better spent on someone actually known or truly loved? Even though the money pot has a lock on it and can only be opened by the mission director, or those he deems trustworthy, I also understand that many people suspect their donated change will somehow end up in my pocket and this dishonest, wino-Santa will spend it all on hooch. To tell the truth, I would if I could. Liquor is what led me to change my occupation from a hefty six figure annual salary to the bell-ringing beggar that I am today. Forty-six. Forty-seven. And here comes happy forty-eight. Business is booming across the street.
The donation of clothes is another story. Clothes can become unwanted at some point and end up on the street like the unwanted people who now wear them. Money is never unwanted, of course, but clothes—why, I would be surprised if any person passing in front of me right now has never, ever, at least once, shoved a bag or two of his or her unwanted clothes into a charity bin. Piles of shoes and socks, pants, dresses, hats, scarves, and items such as these (hopefully minus any used underwear—unless such underwear is long, waffled in texture, and goes by the name of John) all crammed into closets and attics is a dangerous fire hazard under the right circumstances. A gigantic house torch is not as harmless or inviting as a tiny tiki torch. Believe me. This, too, I know. But on a lighter note, donated clothes have saved countless lives on the street, and not just a few houses, as well as the people who live—and still live—in those houses.
I will never forget my first consignment shop experience. I had walked into another world several income levels lower than the one I once knew. The air was thick and stale, and the musky smell of poor people searching through hangers of clothes, all arranged in tight rows, combined with the scent of a loaded mystery diaper hidden somewhere deep within the aisles like a very bad and steaming Easter egg nobody wants to find. Florescent tube lights hummed and flickered over stained gray carpeting which hid the cracks and muffled the creaks of a very old and crooked building. I might have slipped into instant shock or deep depression were it not for the surprising solidarity I suddenly felt with all those around me. No need to pretend here, no need to impress. We are what we are: humanity reduced to the lowest common denominator (at least in American culture), hanging out at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, just trying to survive with a little more human dignity and little less stink.
I had no bling, that’s the thing. So I got what I could get, what was free and what would fit, and never complained. Protection against the harsh elements of nature completely cancels out all vanity. Streaking was the only other option and would have led to fines I could not afford to pay. Needless to say, my first outfit, though hard to look at, attracted a lot of attention: an eyebrow-raising combination consisting of an army green and powder blue paisley shirt, tucked tight into butterscotch corduroy pants, held up by a well-worn leather belt with home-drilled buckle holes for the exceptionally skinny, thick black socks, and scuffed, brown, wingtip shoes (the crocodile shoes were a little too shiny, showy, and pointy, and I did not want to seem like I was strutting too much in my fancy new duds, so I decided to stick with the more humble wingtips). The era (error?) of the seventies never really passed away but remains alive and well in charity clothing stores acrossAmerica. Old bell-bottom cords never die; they only fade.
I am chuckling again, but not because I am Santa. I am imagining myself as an emaciated male model on The Price Is Right showcase, introducing my first charity outfit to an envious audience and four very excited contestants, all jumping up and down, eager to win such lovely and stunning apparel. The bonus showcase might include a handsome set of suitcases in the form of plastic bags, or—A NEW CAR!—in the form of a rickety shopping cart which pulls hard to the right because of bad alignment. What is your bid on these items? I’ll bid one dollar, Bob.
(I must be getting tired to the point of delirium but, thankfully, my two-hour shift with discretionary warming breaks is almost over.)
Speaking of two, I have been on the street for almost two years now. The first year disappeared into a drunken haze. I do not remember many details. A bottle of Scotch can suppress, erase, or completely prevent any memory from registering in the first place. A soused brain is a smooth brain: more hold, less fold. Frankly, Frank, I do not want to remember what I had to do to survive: things previously unimaginable.
During the cold months—so cold that spit freezes before it hits the ground—I recall attempting to elevate the core temperature of my body next to back alley trashcan fires and sleeping in an old abandoned Chevy Impala, which had been stripped of everything except its metal, sitting all alone and utterly humiliated in the dark, driving days over, just an empty shell, going nowhere, like me. Eventually, the car did, in fact, go somewhere once the city hauled the rusty has-been away. Shortly after came the snow.
Early one morning, a cop on the beat saw only my head and right shoulder barely visible from a heavy white drift. I awoke in the Emergency Room recovering from a nearly fatal case of hypothermia. From the moment I first opened my eyes I began to count, conducting a frantic, visual muster of my fingers and toes (one, two, three four, five, one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four five). Four times five or two times ten equals twenty no matter how it is approached. Profound relief further warmed my body (All fingers and toes present and accounted for, sir!). I was lucky, they said, it might have been far worse. I was bathed and properly fed for the first time in a long time. Hospital mashed potatoes with brown gravy never tasted so delicious.
After a terrible case of the shakes, I became sober again, painfully so. As soon as I was able to think coherently and annunciate clearly, the doctor and the nurses began asking about my immediate family. I told them only what I had to: that my ex-wife could care less if I live or die, that my children hate me, that the sub-zero weather outside will treat me warmer. But it wasn’t always this way, I think to myself in haughty protest. It wasn’t always this way, I whisper to them in humble sorrow. They just stared down at me (and, frequently, not-so-subtly, at the clock), nodding concern, frowning something else, privately opinionating and concluding who knows what, looking straight into my eyes before rolling theirs around the corner. But I do not hold this against them. I can count two reasons why: one, they saved my life (at least, what remains of it) and, two, even the best of the best can miscalculate at times. Again, I know.
Once upon a time, in a town not nearby, constructors began to construct; pencils penciled, saws sawed, hammers hammered, and the dozer did not doze, until, at last, a beautiful house arose, from the midst of a pine-wooded lot. After the energetic-but-tired, sweet-but-sometimes-moody, ugly-but-growing more handsome every day, typically-awkward adolescent period of a new property growth spurt—after all the deep divots and scattered debris were finally smoothed or raked away—the fully-mature, custom-built, bi-level structure settled firmly, heavily, and permanently (or so I thought) into the sod. The finished product was breathtaking to behold. So was the mortgage. Originally, though, my wife and I expected the monthly payments to cause just a little stress. We were not at all surprised by the temporary financial discomfort of such high-end creaturely comfort (actually, it was something else that caught us off guard). No pain, no gain, right? The end justifies the means—even the lack thereof. This was our dream house, after all, and no expense was spared. When it came to our happiness, I knew how to work the numbers. As we accountants like to say: the higher the happier.
But I was anything but happy.
The years passed as quickly as the people coming out of the shop across the street, one after the other after the other. Forty-nine. FIFTY. I had planned on retiring by fifty. Something went wrong. Fortunately, I still wear a suit to work: it is BRIGHT RED and I always “stand out” in a crowd (wink, wink). Less metaphorically, more literally, less humorously, I really am standing on a sidewalk out in the cold and a sidewalk Santa is not the kind of promotion I was hoping for (but, boy howdy, did I ever earn it!), a not-so-jolly old elf who is bent, spent, and suffering, not from arthritis, but from years of very bad arithmetic.
Cussing, spitting, smelly grannies with long dirty fingernails, no teeth, wreaking of smoke, and full of dirty innuendos—the kind I used to avoid on the streets, the ones pushing stolen grocery carts, picking through trash, and begging endlessly for cigs—are more repulsive than sad. Most folks prefer a sweet, plump, dignified, Mrs. Clause-type, full of wisdom and love, wire-rimmed glasses perched delicately upon the nose. She is glad to see you coming around the corner because she has just finished baking cookies and she wants you to eat two or three hot and fresh out of the oven, served with milk. That kind.
My own grandmother, now deceased, was a bright but quickly-fading matchstick struck deep within the cave of my selfish existence, burning barely long enough to hint at treasure of another kind, lost so long ago. Due to a prolonged illness, we decided to move her into the spacious, downstairs guest bedroom of our house mere months before a sudden lack of oxygen snuffed her temporary light. After such a brief exposure, darkness returned to our expensive dwelling place darker than ever. Her revealing match had gone out. Only the smell of sulfur remained.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line: perhaps this best explains why Gram’s wheelchair ramp annoyed me, and, more specifically, why I built it twice. The first construction was one quick, steep, descent from the front entrance of the house to the ground. Aside from being an ugly detraction from the front-face beauty of the house, to my haunted mind, the ramp was a hideous symbol of handicap, sickness, and death, a daily reminder that gravity gets us all, taking us, pulling us, much faster to the ground than we would like to go, to some green plot marked with a gray stone, a grave engraved with your name and expiration date.
Choosing to ignore such a harsh reality, I actively destroyed the grim implications of the first ramp by building a second one with three planked levels of greater length and lesser slant, each symbolizing a steady successful ascent at all three stages of life: the early, middle, and later years, respectfully. The new ramp was an aesthetically-pleasing symbol of human achievement designed to focus one’s attention on the house at the top rather than the ground at the bottom, life rather than death. The first section was traced by a colorful variety of azalea bushes, the top section was partially-hidden behind the sweet-smelling blooms of three freshly-planted dogwood trees, and the middle ramp was visibly sandwiched between, a symbolic window to the priorities of the present, not the sentiments of the past or the fears of the future. The here and now is what matters most, living for the moment. Eat, drink, and be merry, and all of that.
Man, oh man, I sure am enjoying this present moment of my life. Cheers!
Fifty-one. Fifty-two. Fifty-three. Fifty-four. Time marches on. People pass by.
Before Gram passed, she did her best to correct my math. I silently resented her subtle intrusions, politely veiled in hints and parables. Sometimes she really got under my skin. Knowing I might raise my voice if I responded to her directly, I responded indirectly with the kind of cowardly, drive-by sarcasm of a cocky teenager far-too-easily ticked off at a watchful and loving parent, continually ignoring sound wisdom, a pubescent fool. Indeed, it was true that the family’s living expenses were far higher than my annual income would reasonably, safely allow. I knew it; she knew it. That was the issue; that was the bone of contention. I figured it was really none of her business because not only was she an unexpected intruder—ahem, a guest—in our home but also another huge, unavoidable expense. Truthfully, had it not been for me and my easy willingness to spend, she would have become a miserable captive locked in some stinky, frightening nursing home. I was her only living blood relative and without me she had no one, right?—except for her supposed God who is both invisible and silent. Quite ironically, in a court of law I might have been the defendant and she the prosecuting lawyer in a case of Needs vs. Wants. According to Gram, American Greed was a dangerous mutation of the American Dream and held certain requirements, even down to the selling of one’s own soul for surety: no bailout exists for a soul in the red; there is only hell to pay.
Gram’s own family had survived—even thrived—somehow happily—through the Great Depression. As a child she was no stranger to the metallic blood-taste of war and the ketone hunger-breath of poverty. A feast in those days consisted of some fried bread balls and the end tips of lunch meat rolls left over from delicatessen shavings, previously thrown to the dogs as waste. She was a stalwart remnant of the Greatest Generation, prudent and content with scraps and crumbs. Therefore, in defense of myself, I tried to tap into Gram’s passionate red, white, and blue patriotism. I rationalized my skyrocket spending habits under the American flag of Capitalism. One day, as I was attempting to reconcile bills to bank statements, she simply handed me one of her homemade crafts and walked away. It was a barrel painted as a pig—a pork barrel! I got the point loud and clear without her ever having to say a word: even Capitalists—not just un-American Socialists—can become greedy, irresponsible, and destructive. My own insatiable greed and materialism would lead ultimately, quickly, to an irreversible economic collapse and the implosion of my family since money, at that point, was all that held us together. OR, maybe she was simply suggesting I use the cedar object as a piggy bank, a reminder to set some funds aside, saving up for any future wants rather than spending down. This is a fine example of one of her subtle hints, which could be taken one way or another, leaving me to ponder and figure out. I actually laughed at that one. I would smile even now if the barrel still existed, if the pig had not roasted in the flame.
One of Gram’s more annoying proverbs, meant only as a warning, of course, was eerily prophetic. Shortly before she died, she crocheted the following words, framed them in a brown thread borderline shaped like a house, and set the finished product upon the desk of my home study: The leech has two daughters: Give and Give! There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say “Enough!”: the grave, the barren womb, the earth that is not satisfied with water—and the fire never says “Enough! Her little craft was not very cozy or pleasing to eye and ear, but it might win lots of extra points in the weird category in some carnival contest.
The words ended up burning and branding themselves into my brain (pun not intended). Gram described them as living words or something odd like that. I imagine they were taken from somewhere in the Bible, I don’t know for sure. Like most normal people, I have always been very careful to avoid any discussion of the Bible which is as strange and irritating to me as those who cling to it. Gram was that type, and had she not been family, I would have easily avoided her altogether. I remember her homemade Christmas cakes were always shaped like little churches and packed tightly with colorful fruits and nuts—how appropriate.
I really miss her, though. Those pretty hazel eyes so full of love and concern regarded me one final time, in silent prayer, perhaps, even as she slipped away. In death, she seemed to continue up, not down; in life, I continued down, not up. So—scratch the whole wheelchair ramp theory, disassemble it again, because there must be a hole in it the size of the hole in my wallet. Reality can only hide behind the trees until winter strips them naked.
Sitting there beneath everything else, or on top of it, the burden of the house had become overwhelming. That blue-shuttered, cream-colored mirage of happiness and everything it contained drove me to work daily like a cruel taskmaster and, in the evening, it loomed ominously at the end of the lane, almost sneering. My career as an accountant was less and less a passion and more and more a prison. I was just another pathetic slave chained to the sweaty rowing galley of the USS Insurmountable Debt, a ship destined to sink.
I rarely saw my family anymore. Any occasional, obligatory, appearance was not much earlier than bedtime, usually later. Too much overtime will deteriorate even the strongest relationships over time. Even on the good days, those rare days when I actually made it home in time for dinner, I was curt and impatient with my wife, a useless zombie with the kids, and not very kind to certain pieces of furniture and dinnerware, occasionally smacking, shoving, or kicking whatever got in my stupid, brutal way. Physically and emotionally, I was ugly, boring, always exhausted, and sometimes dangerous. Wrung out as I was, I still could not fall asleep. Countless nights I could only stare at the ceiling through red, puffy eyes, and count: I would count negative numbers (The leech has two daughters: Give and Give!) There was a time when the barely audible respirations of my wife would have easily lulled me to sleep, like a see-saw, gently, up and down, or like a porch swing, slowly, back and forth. But not anymore; somewhere along my busy schedule she had become a stranger.
Then the drinking began.
Insomnia dangerously altered both my attitude and performance at work, ramping up the one while minimizing the other, respectively. Messing up a client’s numbers is considered a mortal sin in the accountant world and I was already on thin ice. Recognizing my need for some serious rest, a coworker recommended a glass of wine as an effective bedtime sedative, spelling it out like a physician on a yellow sticky pad and slamming it on my desk: pour one or more q.s. (quantum satis, as much as is enough) at h.s. (hora somni, bedtime). Heeding his prescriptive advice, I purchased my “medicine” bottle on the way home from the local ABC brownbag “pharmacy.” Then, privately, from the moonlit driveway, I lifted a glass to the nasty house and toasted: to the American dream turned nightmare.
I soon discovered that more than a glass was required, more than wine to put me to sleep—a simple medication “adjustment,” if you please. My condition (sickness or disease, according to the good folks at the city mission) proceeded from bad to worse: insomnia leading to dipsomnia. I developed an insatiable need for alcohol but, hey, I am certainly not the first to become dependent (hooked) on a harmless prescription. Less dramatic and more pragmatic: it worked. Statistically speaking, a Long Island Ice Tea is to a Sleepy Time chamomile tea what Mike Tyson is to Barney Fife—an easy TKO laying me flat on the mat barely into the fight. I love aLong Island! With twenty-eight percent more alcohol content than the average high ball, a few sips and it’s out of the park and into the dark, baby. No lullaby required.
On numerous occasions, I would awake on the parlor couch or floor already hours late for work. My head would buzz and the message machine would beep with threatening messages from the boss. One afternoon, I raced to the bathroom to freshen up for an all-too-familiar and pathetic groveling session to somehow stay employed. A note pasted to the bathroom mirror revealed what I already suspected was coming: the end of my marriage. It was that terrible moment of stark realization, like the seconds just before a tsunami hits the shore, when the surf suddenly, drastically recedes and the thunderous sound of mighty water piling upon itself is coming for you so fast there is no chance of escape, and the end of your life irreversibly is what it is, game over. A powerful emotional shockwave rushed cold and dark through my pounding brain almost causing me to pass out again. My wife and children, who once loved me so strong, and remained so patient, hopeful, and forgiving through all those unnecessarily hard years, were suddenly gone; they walked out the door and never looked back. Later that same day, my boss, who had once respected me, even trusted me, did not look back either as I sheepishly left his office. Wearily, he told me to go home and get some rest, to return in the morning, sober, on time, that this would be my last chance.
The sun rose again and, somehow, I actually managed to get up and out on time, but I wasn’t sober. En route to work, I skidded and rammed my car into a tree about a mile and a half from the house, stumbled home, and entered the door just as the message machine was relaying the news that I was through. The plug had finally been pulled on what was left of my life.
Before the liquor entered my bloodstream that night, I toured the silent house. The stairway wall leading to the children’s rooms was lined chronologically with pictures from their baby years on up through high school. Did she leave these behind just to torture me? Passing each one, I reverently touched the frames and tried to remember. When did they get so big? At the third step, my son’s bright smile revealed straight, milk-white teeth and happy, innocent eyes; but at the top step, he looked older, more distant, and sad. Where was I all of this time? The stairs marked the years by portraits and fittingly turned a corner half-way up, dividing the time between happy and sad, between good days and bad. The long upper hallway appeared distorted through moistened eyes as I entered the master bedroom, last door on the left. Peering into a huge walk-in closet now as empty as my heart, only the faintest scent of my wife’s perfume still lingered there like a ghost. I sat on the floor and cried, loud moaning sounds from a house haunted by sorrow.
Fifty-five. Fifty-six, seven, eight. Fifty-nine. It is beginning to snow again and my feet are cold. I remember the emergency room staff. They were cold too. They were not very happy that one of their beds was wasted on defrosting a loser—a non-paying loser. A man with no friends or family might pay someone to be his friend if he has enough money: a doctor for the sick man, a psychiatrist for the crazy man, a lawyer for the guilty man, and a hooker for the horny man. Money is always required; anything lower than that is sheer beggary. I am no beggar and never have been (though this whole Santa thing certainly feels like I’m begging for money in order to “earn” or keep my bed at the mission); after all, I did not ask to be rescued from that mound of snow—I was completely unconscious at the time. Even still, it was impossible that I pay. At that point, I had absolutely nothing except barely the breath in my body. They should have just kept me on ice and slid me into the cold storage downstairs; that would have been cheaper and easier for everybody.
By the time the divorce was finalized, family court had unmercifully siphoned any reservoir of pay remaining or henceforth coming; my unemployment checks had already expired, or what was left of them after child support; my certification as an accountant was revoked after being sued for misplacing some commas causing no small disaster for all involved; and the blue-shuttered, cream colored house, along with the land upon which it sat was under certain threat of imminent foreclosure. Astronomical legal fees only added to my financial woes with a well-dressed, calculated, cruel subtraction at the end of a lost case; sitting deep in a big leather chair behind a gigantic cherry wood desk, a complacent lawyer licked the tips of his long, bony fingers, and turned page after page of a meticulously-kept tally sheet upon which every minute, every phone call, and every extra word—whether typed or spoken—was charged exactly and faithfully to my account. Win or lose, client pays all. In my mind, as I’m folding, I think, I’m out . . . I’m slowly backing away from the table before somebody gets shot.
Bankruptcy to an accountant is as accusatory, humiliating, and damaging as a charge of quackery is to a physician; but, in the end, I was left with no choice. The numbers add up.
The final insult came almost two whole weeks before I was officially required to permanently vacate the premises when the house itself kicked me out by burning completely and thoroughly to the ground. I must have looked, sounded, and smelled like a madman, all disheveled and staggering on the front lawn, bottle of whiskey sloshing in one hand, vomit flecked on my face and crusting to my shirt, flickering orange flames reflecting from wild, bloodshot eyes, laughing hysterically and slurring Gram’s strange words, loudly, over and over: sss-there rrr three rrr four things zzthat nnnever sssay eenuff . . . the fire never sezz eeenuff!!
Suspected of arson, I was never officially charged with the crime. The fire might have been set on purpose out of bitterness, or maybe even cleverness involving some sort of last minute, wild card, fire insurance policy scheme—but probably drunkenness. This last shoe fit the best, most agreed: too drunk to feel anything (that’s the whole point of drinking, right?), and too drunk to be clever. While the people talked I walked off into the loneliest sunset of my life. Like those who exited before me, I never bothered to look back; at least, not physically. Inwardly, however, I often look back, like I’m doing right now. A man cannot escape from himself. I’m stuck with me. Regrets, memories, questions, they’re all there; faithfully tagging and nagging along, painfully honest members of a permanent pity party.
Somber Santa: just standing here, thinking, thinking. No more winking.
Before I was released from the hospital a year ago, a case worker from social services visited me in Room 13 (of all the available rooms, I would have to be placed in the not-so-lucky thirteen) and it seemed as if the very sun itself had entered my room, all bright and warm and happy. Everything about her was beautiful, to the smallest detail. For a moment, I looked beyond her shoulders, down the long hospital corridor from whence she just came, and wondered, in disbelief, how everyone else could remain so unaffected by her presence; but it was business as usual for them. She stood in the doorway smiling at me and said that I cleaned up nice. These were the first kind words I had heard in a very long time—and coming from someone like her—wow! Suddenly, I wanted to be a better man. Though she never knew it, her simple words were like a gift to me.
She left my room for a while and then came back again. She was sipping hot orange spice tea, her Christmas favorite, she said. Silently, I wondered how an orange spice kiss would taste under her tree when she snapped me back to reality by likening this season of my wretched life to more than a lonely winter, but a nuclear winter with lots of acrid fallout. That was when she pointed me to this particular city mission, which is nicer than most, I hear. The mission is only a temporary stop until I can be rehabilitated. If I am to maintain food and shelter, especially during the cold months, I must comply with all curfews and rules, attend every scheduled AA meeting, and work both willingly and honestly wherever I am assigned, which, for me, is down in the scullery washing dishes and scrubbing pots and pans day and night. Scrub-a-Dub-Dub, one man and a tub: perhaps the mission wants me to remember all of these homeless soap suds whenever I am tempted by suds of another kind. No happy hour down here.
I am no longer washing dishes. During this Christmas season, I am one of the few strategically-placed Santas. I am still fascinated by numbers, though, because in an infinite world of numbers there are formulas to make the complicated simple. Follow the rules of math and at the end of any equation you will find the right answer. The numbers add up.
Sixty, sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three: a father, a mother, and two sweet little children. My job is to wink at the kids whether I feel like it or not. Just now, my heart aches more than my toes, far more. The barren womb—the empty house in ashes—my poor ex-wife and children—where in the world are they on this frigid, winter night? I wish I had a bottle to numb the pain.
At the mission, I always avoid the obese, donut-munching chaplain; it is hard to take a guy seriously with crumbs on his lips and white powder on his tie, box of pastries always close by. We all have our addictions, I suppose. But the handsome minister from the church around the corner is almost as skinny as me—a middle-aged black man, with a slightly British accent, wearing a white clerical collar, and a direct, intelligent gaze through hazel eyes just like Gram’s—and he is always giving food away to the hungry people who loiter on the front steps beneath the tall, white steeple stabbing a cross high into the sky for all the city to see. Also, like Gram, he says the strangest things; none of the empty platitudes of Chaplain Apple Fritter, but hard-hitting, well-grounded, unexpected things stirring both anger and hope.
Moments ago, I wished for a bottle to numb the pain. One of the strange things the minister told me is that pain is actually a blessing and I should never seek to numb it with anything; rather, I should lean into pain because there is a reason for it and a purpose in it. Pain is telling me that something is not right; therefore, I must seek to know exactly what it is, what is wrong, what is causing it.
Looking into a mirror is always a difficult task for anyone not wishing to see his or her personal blemishes. I myself am not one for mirrors, but according to the handsome black minister, a mirror reflects backward things right again, putting them into a more understandable perspective. The good minister is not one for clichés, and this is probably just his fancy way of saying that hindsight is twenty/twenty without his actually having to say it. Again, like Gram, he expresses some weird things about the Bible, but, unlike her, he is expected to say such things because he gets paid to say them and so is expected to say them—which makes it a little less annoying, but only a little. He further explained that the Bible is the only flat mirror that can reflect the unseen human soul, not merely left to right, but also right to left, up and down, and from the inside out, making invisible things visible.
Blah, blah, religious blah, says the thought bubble surfacing from the comic strip section of my mind as the minister spoke. I can only hope that this particular invisible fact does not become visible; he will be offended if it does, though, I’m sure, like me, he is probably used to regular rejection and can easily shrug it off.
At least the minister gives me stuff to think about, something to pass the time as I stand here shivering, unlike donut boy. More than that, he gives me hot chocolate, which is how we met in the first place. Earlier this month, he was counted among those coming out of the shop across the street (he was number twenty-two, as I recall, and has managed to stay in the early twenties ever since because of his consistent time schedule along side of the other regulars at the café). During the Christmas season, the comfy little store earns a little more by selling wassail (here we come a-wassailing) and hot chocolate to customers, but not so cheaply. Anyway, the first time I saw him exiting, he was carrying a large, hot drink in his left hand, deftly dodging the traffic, and heading straight for me. I think, uh oh, here we go.
Good morning, Santa!
Good morning, back atcha, Reverend. Uh, please, call me SAINT Nick. I humorously emphasize “saint” hoping to avoid any uncomfortable conversion coercion.
ARE you a saint, Nick? He emphasizes the first word of his question by dragging it out and up like a siren.
Aren’t we in the same business, Reverend? We both rob from the rich and give to the poor. You take money from people in tithes; I take money from people in donations. Oh, sorry, you can’t have any portion of my offering because the money is locked in a safe place and I don’t have a key. I pat the metal pot as I say this.
The minister graciously laughs at my insulting humor, my ignorant effort to scoot him more quickly on his merry way. He also notes my obvious avoidance of the question. He responds by saying something strange about his being in the Father’s business (again, he gets paid to say such ethereal things and, frankly, he does it well). I think to myself: hmmm . . . hazel eyes staring at me . . . feels like Gram re-incarnate . . . kind of creepy . . . maybe she’s haunting me from the grave.
I never knew my earthly father, I say.
Do you know my heavenly Father?, he says.
(I’m getting annoyed now, my face flushing red and matching my suit.)
How can I know Him if He’s up in heaven?
Eyes traveling back from the winter sky before landing directly upon me, he simply responds: God came down.
Then, the minister, clad in a long black winter overcoat, white collar scarcely peeking out, hands me a large hot chocolate, the first of more to come. He always pays the full price for the drink then hands it to me for free (to warm you, he always says). Walking so kindly away from our first personal encounter, he offers one final word: Christmas is about giving and receiving, not taking or earning.
Everybody knows this statement is only true in theory, not in reality. Intuitively, however, I sensed that this particular minister was not just another hot air expert on the obvious, but that he was referring to something greater, something deeper, something yet unspoken and un-expounded, something more meaningful and ancient, something I needed to hear, something to be revealed at the proper time—over another hot chocolate, perhaps—though, for now, he had to go.
As I watched him walk away, he actually looked back at me and smiled. Silently, I liked him; surprisingly, I hoped he might come back around. And he did. And he always does.
More than three weeks later, instead of humming Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, I’m singing the Twelve Days of Christmas—except that every verse and every gift is only hot chocolate from the minister (the first verse translating a hot chocolate in a pear tree, and so on, all the way to verse twelve). I now lift every cup to his oft-repeated words: to warm you (replacing all the cheers! of formerly lifted beers).
Quite a few chocolates later, I really am much warmer and looser to the quick-but-meaningful conversations with the minister whenever he passes my chilly little Santa gig, especially since he is the only person who ever actually speaks to me longer than a nanosecond, and who offers more than a slight nod of the head, or the typical, walk away, American how ya doin’ which never wants or expects an honest answer in return. So, in a weak moment, and against my better judgment, I reluctantly accept the minister’s persistent invitation to attend his Christmas Sunday worship service, which has already taken place this Sunday past as Christmas happens to fall smack dab in the middle of the week this year. But I was there; oh yes, a Christmas miracle, I was there—the first time in, say, ever?
Purposefully and fashionably late, I slipped and tripped into a vine and tangle of legs and feet already occupying the back row, and—slowly, clumsily, apologetically—inched my way toward a narrow gap in the middle of a long wooden pew. I chose to wear my Sunday best Santa suit because I was scheduled to work immediately following the service; plus, all of my other clothes were too holey for church. Easily noticing a bright red stick man, elfin hat politely in hand, stepping in, over, around, and upon the toes of the faithful (excuse me, sir; pardon me, ma’am; sorry about that; I do apologize), my new friend, my only friend, the good minister himself, offered a subtle nod and an amused look of relief. He really wanted me there because, supposedly, he had the answer to a lifelong mathematical question of mine which would require more than the usual five or ten minute installments of street conversation. Unlike most, I do not mind sitting for an hour in such warmth, where the thermostat is set at no less than seventy degrees and folks are sitting so close all around me, legs touching, shoulders rubbing, and no one is bothered by such proximity—like a big family—their perfume, their peppermints, their voices all mingled together, a mighty throng of young and old, all singing, praying, whispering, smiling, fidgeting, scratching, sneezing, sometimes listening. For a lonely street guy, here is a bit of heaven. For the space of an hour, I can pretend like I belong.
The mission, having provided me the opportunity to stand for so many hours out in the freezing cold, I was left with no other choice but to think or to count customers coming out of the little shop across the street. The minister had crossed the street and handed me a visible drink with an invisible mirror; then, one-by-one, customer-by-customer, memory-by-memory, minute-by-minute, the layers of my life were peeled back from my formerly pickled brain. Leaning into the pain, I began to see: insomnia had transformed me into an alcoholic but, BEFORE THAT, emptiness had transformed me into a workaholic. My very own chicken and egg scenario: which came first?—the drinking, the insomnia, or the emptiness? The mirror revealed the exact reverse. It was the inexplicable emptiness, growing deeper and darker with every expensive, greedy, busy, useless attempt to fill it. The leech has two daughters.
My perplexing mathematical question to the minister came in different forms. Why does a person who has everything feel so unsatisfied? How is everything really nothing and more never enough? In the human equation, why don’t the numbers add up?
Can you answer these questions sixty-four and sixty-five?
Sixty-six is stalling at the front door of the store. He has no packages, he carries no drink. He seems to be struggling with whether or not to go back in and buy that certain gift for someone special. Or, maybe, he is carrying only a debit card and is disappointed that the store accepts only cash.
I can’t remember every point of the minister’s sermon (relaying a sermon to someone who wasn’t there is probably far more annoying than if someone prattles on and on about a movie another has never seen or will ever care to see), but he spoke of the Christ child who willingly emptied Himself of His heavenly glory and was made in the likeness of men, Christ Himself being the first and greatest Christmas gift, having paid the highest price (His own blood) to purchase the most wretched and undeserving of souls, the dirty, the poor, the smelly, and outcasts—like me. He gave His life so that dead men might live. The minister’s text read something like, Yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.
That’s a real switcharoo. Strange stuff, echoes of Gram.
I really like the good minister and would never want to hurt his feelings but his line of thought seemed rather gory and offensive for Christmas. Mentally, I started to drift—until he began to explain the emptiness, until he proceeded to answer my deepest question, until those hazel eyes looked right at me, right into me, correcting my faulty math easily, systematically, professionally, like a math professor quickly clacking out the solution with chalk on the board. He said something like the human heart will always be empty until Christ fills it. Suddenly, my antennas were up. There is a God-sized hole in the human soul and nothing—absolutely nothing—in this finite life can ever fill such an infinite void except God Himself. So, one starry night long ago, God came down, trading riches for rags, becoming one of us, the complete opposite of what anyone would expect. Thus, the greatest gift is in giving and there is living in dying. Things like that, seeming contradictions.
Today, out here on the sidewalk, the minister’s words and their meaning are literally sinking in. My heart is strangely warm and my mind is full of light.
Number sixty-six decided to go back into the store after all and came out again maybe six minutes later but this time with a loud pop, pop, pop! The second bullet hit my money pot, shaking it violently. The third bullet hit my chest, I think, which must explain why it hurts so bad, which must explain why I am freshly fallen into the freshly fallen snow.
Above the sirens, I can hear the town clock counting up to ten, Bong, Bong, Bong, eight, nine, ten, but it sounds more like a death knell because, for me, it is counting down, three, two, one. My shift is over. Numbers add up. Seconds tick down.
My whole life is flashing before my eyes. That is what this is. I wish I could kiss the social worker—just once. There she is, right over there, standing next to my children, smiling (You clean up nice). She looks like my wife. I am confused. I am convulsing. It feels as though I am doing supine jumping jacks in the snow, my skinny arms and legs scissoring back and forth, in and out. I turn my head to one side with a flop and stare across the street, one final time, through glassy eyes. Somehow the shop seems both near and far away. I see a little girl pointing. I don’t know if she’s real. Look mommy, she says, Santa’s making a snow angel!
Gram, the handsome black minister, and Christ: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is LOVE. This unconditional love has moved both heaven and earth to find me and will never let me go, embracing me—even me—tonight—especially tonight—as I lay helpless, bloody, and dying in the snow.
It all adds up now.
I am no longer alone.
I feel warm when I should feel cold. I see light when I should see dark, and head upward, finally upward, toward a distant star.