Newspaper really isn’t a very good insulator, but it’s marginally better than frozen cardboard. He had surrounded himself with as much newsprint as he could find, wadding it loosely to trap as much air as possible, because his cherished cardboard carton had been soaked by a sudden thaw. It softened and collapsed into a flat rectangle while he was out foraging in the afternoon. It had then frozen solid when the temperature had dropped from a very unseasonable fifty-five degrees to an equally unseasonable fifteen.
It was even colder than that now.
He huddled in the corner of the recessed doorway, hoping to catch the slightest drift of warm air from beneath the door of “Lindy’s Chocolate Emporium”. He had chosen this spot because the doorway was narrow, but set back several feet from the storefront, providing a better wind-break than wider double-doorways did. He might have sought refuge in the alley—he often had before—there were plenty of items to break the wind there, including the tall buildings themselves. But tonight he just didn’t feel like fighting with the other lost ones—the ones like him, who had nothing and now fought for the barest of necessities. His flat, frozen carton was there, but it would do no one any good tonight.
Besides, he loved the smell of chocolate; it was one of the best things about being off his meds. His sense of smell came back and his stomach didn’t lurch at the thought of food. Now that the fog had lifted he could also bask in the glorious, multicolored light and festive sound of the holidays. In this neighborhood the shops closed at ten, but the lights were still on, the plastic Santas still glowed, and the sound systems still sent forth holiday music of all kinds, from his favorite classics to the modern drekky stuff they made nowadays. He wasn’t a fan of anything modern, though he had to admit it–the tiny led lights were beautiful. He remembered the old ones his father had strung around the little spruce in the front yard, together with its doomed cousin in the front room of the house. Enormous by modern standards, the bulbs would burn your fingers if you touched them once they had been lit for a while.
I could use a string of them right now, he thought, longing to burn his fingers on anything at all. But they would probably catch his newspapers on fire. Wouldn’t that be something?
He had always loved Christmas. He loved everything about it—the reading from the Gospel of Luke, the decorations, the treats his mother and sister made, and, of course, Santa Claus. Christmas was a time when you really didn’t feel guilty about asking for your heart’s desire. You knew you might not get it—a live koala bear, for example, was out of the question, though his sister asked for one every year anyway.
Whenever reality became unbearable he would turn to the memories of his boyhood, back before things went south. Before the deaths, the violence, the betrayals, and the catastrophes of his life had begun to turn him into what he was today. And what am I? A vagrant? A bum? A societal parasite? There wasn’t really a proper word for it.
Christmas memories were the best, though. This was the one time of year when the hardened crust that enveloped most of the people he met began to crack a little bit. It was a time when love, compassion, and introspection had a chance in hell of prevailing over self-interest. There were more smiles, people were more generous, and even the predators seemed to ease up a little. He took fewer beatings and suffered fewer thefts…not that he had anything worth stealing, but in his world, the smallest asset could have the greatest impact. For example, he was being kept alive by newspapers that others had thrown out.
One of the few unpleasant recollections of Christmas was the day he finally accepted that Santa Claus was not a real, single individual human being who maintained a workshop full of elves at the North Pole. He had hung on to that notion for the first eight years of his life, unlike his sister, who wised up quickly when confronted with a Santa at every major department store. Mom told us they were Santa’s helpers, and I believed her.
He had been devastated. Santa was, for him, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, comfort, and hope. Hope most of all. He had never been a particularly religious man, but he just figured that Jesus had something to do with Santa Claus. Jesus was always trying to get people to give things away, to love other people. That’s what Santa Claus did, right? The one thing he reckoned Jesus never did was keep a “naughty” list. Or at least, if he did, you could get out of it in the end. All you had to do was be nice one time—right before you died.
Santa must have done that too, though…I know he forgave me more than once when I was naughty. And I know a whole lot of other folks who seem to do awful well at Christmas who never had a kind thought or a generous motivation in their lives. He shivered, shaking his head, rustling amid the newspapers.
There wasn’t any use in trying to make sense of it–Santa wasn’t real. He shook his head again as if to banish the thought, drifting off, filling his mind with thoughts of generous, smiling people, and Santa gazing into his crystal ball, or magic mirror, or whatever he used to keep tabs on everybody. The Santa in his dreams was always smiling.
The bell in the steeple of the nearby Catholic church chimed four.
He had stopped shivering an hour ago. He opened his eyes, seeing the blur of the red, white, and green Christmas lights through a film of tears. He hadn’t wanted to wake up…not again. There was nothing in his life but despair—no joy for him anymore. And the worst of it was that he couldn’t be generous, as he had nothing to give away. He couldn’t provide help, or comfort, or even love, because no one would look at him. No one would speak to him. He saw troubled souls walking the streets around him and he could do nothing to help them. All he could do was take—from the meals at the Mission to the nickels and dimes he begged from passers-by—and he despised himself for it. He had left his pride behind long ago, and that was fine; pride was a sin, right? But he had never had the luxury of generosity. Not since things went south.
His sister was married now, last he heard she lived up in Poughkeepsie with some rich SOB she married. She had not contacted him in ten years. Maybe she had kids by now; he wondered if she let them believe in Santa Claus. Her last words to him were a harsh expression of disapproval for not taking his meds. Then she had closed the door and left him to his fate. She wanted to be rid of him, to wash her hands of him, and who could blame her? All he did was take from her, and she would never help him again. “Tough love”, she would call it. Mustn’t be an enabler. The last words out of her mouth—“Get help.”
At least he wasn’t really cold any more. He closed his eyes again. It was early morning on Christmas Eve–time to make his Christmas Wish. Last year he had wished for an orange, and a kind lady had given him one. It was the best day of the whole year.
What is it you would wish for?
He heard the voice, but could not open his eyes to look around for the source. Who wants to know? He felt a stab of fear. Voices after midnight, either in your head or not, weren’t good.
Don’t be afraid. Open your heart and tell me what you would wish for.
A feeling of wonderful security drew around him like a soft woolen blanket. I wish it would snow…
Open your heart and tell me your heart’s desire.
He thought for a moment. Is this a trick question?
He had the sensation of laughter then. He didn’t exactly hear it, but he felt it. The voice was amused. I’m waiting for you to tell me what you want for Christmas, it said patiently.
No one cares what I want for Christmas.
I do. Tell me.
Am I dead, or what?
Just tell me. I promise not to laugh again.
He drew a small, rasping sigh. No…not dead, obviously. This is because I’m not on my meds, isn’t it?
What do you have to lose? Don’t you feel wonderful at this moment?
I do, actually.
Then tell me. Don’t question what you don’t understand…just open your heart. I’ll know.
He squeezed his eyes tight, and made his Christmas wish.
I can’t give you that. You DO know that Santa Claus isn’t a real person, don’t you?
Well, I kept hoping, y’know? Tears of shame and disappointment welled behind his closed eyelids, but the voice came again.
Sounds like you’ve seen that episode of “Twilight Zone” one time too many. I can’t make you Santa Claus, but I can grant you something better.
What could be better than being Santa Claus?
Come with me…you’ll see.
Where are you taking me? What place is this?
This is your first stop tonight. Mrs. Lopez in 3C–remember her? Her mom passed away last month, and she needs you. This is a hard time when you’ve lost a loved one.
Me? Who could need me? Needs me for what?
Just go on…help her. You’ll know what to do. Go on, now.
He was in the darkened kitchen of a small apartment with a middle-aged, dark-haired woman. He did remember her–she had given him the orange last year. She looked tired, even by his standards. A feeble attempt had been made at decorating; a bedraggled string of lights dangled from the small window over the sink, which was piled with dirty dishes. Mrs. Lopez had not really been herself this season. Her sorrow had shadowed every corner of her life. She felt alone…alone and worthless. She lowered her head to the table, burying her face in her folded arms.
His first impulse was to go to her, to comfort her, but he hesitated. This was a private despair, and he felt awkward and slightly guilty.
Don’t worry…she can’t see you. She won’t realize you’re here, but her spirit will hear you. Go on, now. Do what comes naturally!
He drew near enough to reach out to her with both hands, allowing her sorrow to flood into his soul. To his amazement, he knew just what to say to her…it just came to him. Remember the Christmas when you and your mom made all those almond cookies and gave them to everyone? You were the most popular women in the neighborhood. She loved giving those cookies away–making those people happy–and she was so proud that you felt the same…remember? It’s all right. You’re not alone.
She didn’t move for a few minutes, and he wondered whether she had fallen asleep. Then she raised her head and looked over at the sink full of dishes. Her eyes strayed to the sagging string of tiny multicolored lights shining bravely at the window, proclaiming the joy and light of Christmas in spite of everything. Some tears came, but they were brief. She rose from her rickety chair, crossed to the sink, and began to run water. Then she reached into a nearby cabinet for a metal cookie sheet. As she did so, a shadowy figure–an older version of Mrs. Lopez–shimmered into life around her. It looked over at him and smiled. Thank you.
He wanted to stay and watch Mrs. Lopez make cookies with her mom, but the voice came: Well done. Now, let’s go…there are a lot of people in need of comforting tonight.
Can I really do that? Can I help them all?
The voice “laughed” again. Only Santa gets all around the world in one night, right? No…you will only give a few gifts tonight. But you should know that there are lots of us. Do what you can. Go where you are most needed.
Who ARE you?
I’m just like you…one of the lost ones. We couldn’t give while we were alive, but because we yearned to help others, we are blessed now. You will help those who are lonely and in despair–those who have given up. You’ll help them find joy again, and you get to give your gifts every night of the year! Me, I like to hang around the hospital on 3rd street and the retirement home on Lincoln avenue. Now, isn’t that better than being Santa Claus?
I’d still feel better if he was real…
Who said he wasn’t?
Did I? I may have been mistaken. Now, get to work…and Merry Christmas!
Officer Langley shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, reached down with a gloved hand, and patted Benjamin’s neck affectionately. Ben shook his head and blew through wide nostrils, the curb chain on his bridle jingling, his breath steaming forth in two jets of white vapor. Ice had formed on his whiskers and the long hairs above and below his bright, brown eyes. He was better equipped to withstand the cold than Langley was–Ben was a half-draft, his body stout and his winter coat more than adequate–but he still wasn’t happy about the sudden return to the subarctic.
“Come on, boy…let’s get moving. Maybe a nice, brisk walk will warm us both up,” Langley muttered, barely audible through the dark blue muffler he had pulled up over the lower half of his face. Ben moved forward obligingly, his heavy-shod hooves clopping out a pleasing rhythm on the icy asphalt. Langley regretted not putting Ben’s rubber boots on, but it was too late now. He wasn’t too worried; even the criminals kept off the streets when the temps dropped this fast. As a nod to the season, a single brass sleigh bell had been attached to Ben’s breastplate. Langley liked the sound it made, and so did Ben. He nodded his head a little more than usual, long ears “flopping to the beat”. The sound of the bell was a reminder. “Hey, buddy, it’s Christmas Eve! We’ll both have the day off tomorrow…”
Langley turned the corner, passing the Catholic church, crossing himself as he did so. “Here’s hoping we can have peace on earth, at least for tonight.” It would be nice to have a break from the drunk, the disorderly, and the deceased. He always worried about the local vagrants in weather like this–those who could stand the company went down into the tunnels beneath the city, but the meeker ones were afraid. They often stayed above in the cold. So much for inheriting the earth…
Ben snorted, slowed, and stopped, turning his head to look intently at the doorway to Lindy’s Chocolate Emporium. Langley sighed–Ben wouldn’t stop and stare at a bunch of newspaper unless there was someone inside it. He caught sight of a pale hand protruding from a dark sleeve, and his spirits sank. Ah, nuts. Not again…not on Christmas Eve.
“Come on, Ben, let’s take a closer look.” Langley knew what he would find; he’d seen it before. He was a kindly soul, and this sort of thing got to him more than he would have admitted. No one should have to die this way–without the comfort of a single other person who gave a damn. “Whoa, Ben. Stand, now.” Langley prepared to dismount, a wave of sorrow washing over him.
Don’t be sorry for me. Wherever people suffer, I will comfort them. When they are dying, I will reassure them and help them find courage. I will be there to love them and help them, even as I am helping you now. It’s the thing I’ve always wanted most! Some have the joy of giving only while they live, but I will give love and comfort forever. No one will ever know my name, but they’ll be thankful all the same. Do you not feel better already?
Langley didn’t know why, but he felt compelled to speak to the empty air. “Yeah, actually, I do feel better.” And he did. He felt comforted–that wonderful security that comes from being loved, like he used to feel when he curled up in his father’s lap in front of the TV. He and his dad used to love watching old monster movies together; they were scary, but he knew nothing could hurt him.
Taking a deep breath, he dismounted, the pain in his half-frozen feet shocking him back into reality as they hit the sidewalk. His tall partner lowered his head, nuzzling at one of the crumpled sheets of newspaper that had blown away to expose the dead man’s face.
I know you can’t realize it, but you’ve just laid eyes on the happiest man in the world. Goodbye, Officer Langley–lots of folks needing comforting tonight. Merry Christmas…
“Merry Christmas,” said Langley in wonderment, looking into the gray, dead face of the man in the doorway. It wore a smile–the smile of a man who had been given his heart’s desire.