Another Little Christmas Tale
Winner--2019 Biographical Nonfiction
© Copyright 2018 by Doug Sherr
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The old mansion was quiet. I had pulled the weights off the chain that powered the grandfather’s clock in the hall to quiet the awful clack, clack, clack. I stormed and fidgeted around the dark house. My German Shepard, Sean, followed a few inches behind me as I stalked about peering out a window and abruptly moving to another window. Outside, the freezing wind sailed bits of garbage over the days-old dirty snow. A cat ran across the empty street and disappeared under a building looking for shelter and warmth. The night before when sleep wasn’t a possibility, Sean put his head on my pillow and stared at me, knowing that I was in trouble. I ordered him to leave, but he wouldn’t. Even a whack on the nose that made him blink couldn’t make him leave. I hugged him and said I was sorry. He kept his head on the pillow and it helped for a minute.
My beautiful wife and I moved into the house on the chance that it might save our shaky marriage. With seven fireplaces, high ceilings and large rooms the grand place was a long way from our rundown little apartment with the depressing wallpaper. The house was in limbo when we found it: past the time it could be rented for what it was worth and before the time it would be sacrificed to urban renewal. I promised the wealthy old man who owned it that I would get rid of the bums sleeping in the basement and keep it safe. He rented it to us for one-third of what we paid for our apartment. When we moved in it seemed like the house welcomed us. We slowly reconnected with the help of quiet dinners and making love by firelight. We got through day by day, but it wasn’t enough to save us. Things can’t save love— can’t fulfill needs—can’t fix, once broken, that mysterious connection that makes two people a couple. She had been gone a year and a half.
The girl who moved in a year after my wife left had just left. She moved into a tiny basement apartment a block away with my best friend. When I looked out the side window of the bedroom I could see the Christmas lights blinking happily in their window. If you’ve been there you know the feeling. Your throat constricts like you’re being strangled from the inside. You’re stomach is not hungry. You can’t sit still; the rush from a triple espresso doesn’t come close. Drugs do not help. You are help less. The English language doesn’t have words to describe this feeling. I pity any language that does. It was Christmas Eve and I was losing my mind.
I couldn’t stay in the house. I threw on my heaviest coat and went out. The old Chevy station wagon groaned and sputtered but finally fired up. I pulled off the plastic sheet that covered the empty driver’s side window. The heater didn’t work and without the blast of cold air coming in the windshield would have quickly frosted inside. The streets were icy and empty. I drove up towards Oxford’s Pub. Maybe friends, maybe a drink would help. The front of Oxford’s looked happy. The people going in and out looked happy. I couldn’t go in. I sat there with the engine idling for a while and then just drove off. I had no place to go to, I just drove.
In the next block down from Oxford’s a Christmas tree lot was closing. The lights went off and a man came out of the little warming shack and walked away. He was hunched against the cold, but he certainly had a pocket full of cash and probably someone was waiting for him to come home. I drove on, with no plan or destination. I passed by a little market that was still open. A guy came bursting out of the door with an armful of groceries and launched himself in a slide that went about five feet down the icy sidewalk. Right behind him was a young woman carrying a bottle of cane-wrapped Chianti. The woman laughed. It sounded clear and sweet. He took a couple of steps and launched himself again. He lost his balance and fell, but somehow managed to protect the bags. The woman let out a little yelp and ran to him. When she reached for him he pulled her down and kissed her. They wound up rolling in the snow, laughing and kissing, with groceries scattered all over the walk. I could feel the blood congealing in my throat. I slammed on the car horn in anger and frustration that they could be having such a good time. Clutched in their embrace they both managed to wave to me. To them, the horn was an affirmation. I drove away.
Blocks and turns later I was back at the intersection where the tree lot stood. The only trees there were miserable leftovers that wouldn’t bring joy to anyone. I know the stoplight went through several changes, but I must have been there a long time. A cop pulled up behind me. He got out and walked up to my window.
I looked at him and nodded yes.
“You been drinking?”
I nodded no.
“Think you can make it home?”
I managed to say yes. He told me to take it easy and wished me a Merry Christmas. There was nowhere to go so I turned the corner and headed back towards the house. I was empty. I couldn’t think. But then the inspiration came—it was so simple. I went around the block and pulled up in front of the tree lot. The remaining less-than-perfect trees had been chopped down for nothing; they wouldn’t even be used for fuel in a fire. I gathered as many as I could jam into the wagon, apologized to the ones that were left and drove home.
With the trees inside the house and the radio playing Handle’s “Messiah,” I lit fires in the parlor, living room and the bedroom and opened the last bottle of wine. Some wood boards in the basement cut into two-foot lengths made crosses for tree supports and bailing wire from the cross ends to the trunks balanced the trees. Most of the trees had gaps in the branches and generally weren’t very well shaped. Branches that were too long or too gnarly got cut off and open spaces were filled with branches cut from other trees. After whittling the ends of the replacement branches to a point and gouging out holes in the trunk the branches fit in nicely. A bit of wire helped secure them. I felt like a sculptor shaping works of art and sang along with the “Messiah”, “For unto us a child is born.” I lit some candles and put them in the living room windows. The house was warm and filled with light. When the work was done there were seven respectable looking trees. Each tree got a special place in the house. A box of popcorn and a bag of cranberries provided the main decorations. There was something peaceful about stringing the long strands of popcorn and cranberries. As I hung the red and white strands I gave each tree a pep talk: Nothing profound, just comments on how things can always get better and that not just any tree gets to be a Christmas tree.
I rummaged around in the basement
and found a box of
lights. It took a while to untangle the mess, replace the dead bulbs,
and tape the bare spots of wire. I stoked the fire with left over
branches, sipped wine, and strung the lights. A roll of aluminum foil
became stars and shiny bits to fill in the decorations. When all the
tasks were done I sat in front of the living room fire and finished
the wine. The trees were beautiful. I was exhausted, peaceful, and
reasonably human again. When the fires were down to embers I went
into the bedroom and looked out the window at Diane and Bill’s
lights blinking in their window. I wished them happiness and a fine
New Year. Sean plopped down next to the bed. I fell asleep and I