originally published by
The Adirondack Review.
The Adirondack Review.
He turned onto the street where their home was tucked into the bend. It was, like all others on the avenue, covered by large sycamores weighed down with snow. The woman’s head rested back on the seat next to him. She wasn’t asleep, just looking to be left alone by her husband on the slow Christmas Eve drive. Music played on the radio, old holiday tunes from a decade neither of them could identify. Most of the songs were obnoxious shopping jingles, but a select few of them were nice, the way they felt severed from time, especially on that one night of the year.
The car pulled into the driveway and turned off. The music went without warning. Her head lifted and eyes opened as she reached for the door. He leaned forward and looked through the front windshield like a child might, up to the sky where the snow and colored lights blended together like oil painting. It took him back to the early and best years of his life, before bills and early-turn-in Saturday nights, before conversations about kids or unsatisfying vacations. The snow fell softly.
“Should we go for a walk?” he asked. There was a smile across his face and he looked into the sky as if hoping to see a miracle sail beyond the static above. She looked around in a daze, ready to lay her head back down and dream of Spring.
“No,” she said.
“Come on. We can go down to the creek and sit on the bench under the tree.”
“The one we sit under in the Summertime. It’s not far at all. It’ll be nice right now.”
She got out. The man followed. “Will you at least watch a movie with me?”
“You only want to watch scary movies, plus I’ll fall asleep.”
“Then let’s walk. Just for a minute,” he said.
The red wine she had at the party worked like Nyquil and she could already feel the headache drying her skull. She took with her the bag from the gift exchange game, a thoughtlessly regifted candle. On the porch she waited for her husband to unlock the front door. The snow wasn’t wet, but it collected. She turned to see what was taking him. The porch light was off but the night kindled from the few streetlamps. He stood out in the snowfall, looking up as if he were catching flakes on his tongue, but he wasn’t, he was only watching it come down.
He looks cute, she thought, childish, but cute. A quality that followed him. He was curious yet devoid of any obligation. Marriage had always been a hot topic, and once they were hitched his complaints became about the house; a home in the same town where her parents lived. She wanted a baby, but he was only interested in looking up at the sky, hoping to spot a fat man blazing across the night in a sled.
She waved her hand towards the door to guide him.
“You really won’t walk with me?” he asked again. There was a pause. “Even if I tell you a story?”
Her ears were cold. “I don’t like your stories.”
“You used to.”
“Not anymore,” she said. “They scare me.”
He stood stubbornly in the snow. His hands in his pockets as he stepped forward with his head low. He turned to look out at it again. “It’s like that scene from A Christmas Carol,” he said.
He moved his hands around in his pockets pretending to search for the key and biding time for her mind to change. Her jaw tensed and she shook her head. He was great at guilt, another unripe attribute that followed him.
“Fine,” she said with a heavy breath, “Ten minutes. And nothing scary.”
“Seriously,” she said.
She set the candle on the porch, pulled her jacket tight around her body and the two walked to the back of the house. A gate opened to a path which accompanied the creek. In Summer the water flowed nicely, but in the Winter’s peace, the vein was still.
“That party was alright,” he said. She nodded and kept her face tucked into her jacket collar. His coat was unzipped. It smelled like a cold burn and there were homes with fires glowing in windows through the trees in the distance, none of which felt particularly occupied.
“Are you gonna tell your story?” she asked to get the night moving.
“You don’t like my stories, you said so.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I like your stories, they’re just always ghost stories nowadays. I don’t like those.”
He bit onto his lip and thought for a moment. “Do you want to hear the one about the drifter in the snowstorm?”
“I said not scary.”
“I don’t think it’s scary.”
They walked a little more as he thought. He snapped his fingers. “How about the party story? That’s perfect, I can make it a Christmas one this time.”
“Are you talking about the one where the guy shows up at the doorstep after all of the guests have left?” she asked. “What don’t you get about not scary?”
Her husband shrunk into his coat. “I’m trying to think of Christmas stories I know.”
“All the Christmas stories you know are about ghosts,” she said.
“Those are the best ones.”
The man looked into the sky again. Some snowflakes looked like falling stars and he felt the beer he’d drank warm his blood. The flakes dropped into his eyes and melted. He wiped them away.
“Okay,” he said, “I have one.”
She looked at him endearingly, a hint of what they shared the first few months after they’d met. There was also suspicion in her face, as if she’d been betrayed one time too many, and couldn’t be again.
He ground his teeth, and then he began.
“There was a church that sat upon a hill. It wasn’t the largest in town, hell, it wasn’t even the first Baptist, but it was full of believers who made their way each and every Sunday morning, and it was all because of the Pastor.
“He was a particular man with a particular way of hospitality. He might set a soft hand on your shoulder, or use your name like he’d known you his whole life just after you told it to him only once. He made you feel safe, like you had a friend.
“When Christmas came each year the Pastor and his wife made an effort to make the holiday special for the children who attended the church——and so they put on a Christmas pageant. It always started with the choir doing some sort of pops arrangement, never Tchaikovsky, just department store stuff, and when the choirs wrapped, the kids would come to the altar and perform a short play. This was the crowd pleaser.
The Pastor had written the script himself, and his wife composed the music. It was about church mice who taught the meaning of Christmas to a herd of cats on a quiet night. The kids would get ready in the basement of the church, then march out to a room full of awes and perform. Half of the children were in mice ears, and the other half had black cat whiskers painted on their faces.
“One year the Pastor decided he wanted to do something new and different. He wanted to grow the production to add songs and a reenactment of the first Christmas in Bethlehem as the mice told the story of Mary and Joseph, but he needed more participants. There was a small neighborhood at the bottom of the hill which the Pastor passed by most days on his walks. These weren’t the nicest homes, in fact the neighborhood was only half built before the developers went belly up. The playground however had been finished. The Pastor noticed that no adults were ever watching the kids at this playground and the children ran wild. They smoked, swore, and were up to no good at all——at least not in the Baptist’s eye. On a cloudy cold day the Pastor decided he’d visit them.
“He stood at the edge of the playground. The children were collected there as they were every cloudy day. When they noticed the man staring at them from a distance they stopped and watched back. The Pastor approached, asking where their parents were. None of the children replied. They stared silently from monkey bars, atop slides, and on creaky swings. The Pastor grew uneasy. None of the children seemed to blink, or have any expression upon their faces at all, and so the Pastor left.
“Over the next few days he could not stop thinking about the children he’d encountered. Why were they so quiet, yet unfrightened? He wondered, and began to develop a plan.
“That following Sunday, the Pastor arranged for the best patrons from church to take a handful of pamphlets down to the neighborhood and hand them out. So that’s what the churchgoers did——they did anything that the Pastor asked without question, especially if he set his hand on their shoulders and used the names their friends called them.
The men with the corduroy coats and the women with the heavy wool skirts marched down the hill and knocked on doors, leaving the pamphlets when no one answered, which they found to be every home. The Pastor didn’t knock on doors though, he went straight to the playground in the center of the neighborhood, knelt down, and invited the children to come to the church for Sunday School. He even pitched the Christmas recital to them, and said they could join if they wanted.
“The following week not a single adult from the homes showed at the church. Not one. The Baptists came up with their own conclusions as to why. But it upset the Pastor that no one showed. After greeting the regulars he decided he’d go to the playground and plead for the children to come, but he never made it. Before he got to the bottom of the front steps of the brick church, a line of the children from the playground were heading in his direction. They were dressed in sweatshirts and ripped jeans, their faces and elbows were scratched and dirty, and most of them hadn’t had a haircut in some time. Also, he noticed for the first time how pale they were, especially for children who spent so much time outside.
“ ‘Good Morrow,’ the pastor called to them.
None of the children replied, they kept walking towards the church and the Pastor walked after them. When they got inside the Pastor showed the kids to the basement where Sunday School was held.
“When the playground children entered, the usual kids in the class turned their heads to see. No one welcomed the new children who took their seats in the back row and listened as the teacher——a woman who herself gave a type of shrewd eye to her new students——narrated a story.
“After Sunday School the children were guided upstairs for the sermon. An extra pew had been added to accommodate them. Again, they sat in the back quietly, and listened to the Pastor begin.
“He moved the congregation up and down, left and right, through all of hell's layers back into Heaven. He told stories of losers and winners, rich and poor, serpents and sinners, and when he was done the Pastor so modestly eased into a delicate plea, one it seemed his life depended on, as his wife rose from the front with a deep steel bowl which she held out with both hands.
‘Donations,’ she said.
She walked up and down the aisles to collect. ‘Donations,’ she reminded each row. ‘Donations.’ Every woman with a perm and man with a patch sewn to his elbow dropped twenty dollars or more into the bowl, it filled green. Slowly, it made its way towards the back. When the bowl came to the children from the playground, the Pastor’s wife held the bowl to her chest and looked to her husband for instruction. He nodded. She leaned over, right next to the smallest child’s face——a little girl with long tangly hair——and held the bowl out to her. The Pastor’s wife squinted her eyes and smiled. ‘Donations,’ she said.
“The room was quiet and the congregation turned to watch the little faces blush over. But this didn’t happen, their faces remained cold and pale, yet unbothered that they were unable to donate. The congregation’s eyes burnt into the children’s Sunday rags with rips in the knees and grass stains on the hips. The children from the playground stood, and without a word, left.
“The weeks leading up to Christmas passed by and the church prepared it’s performance. None of the children from the playground returned. Nor did the Pastor see them on his walks any longer. It was as if the whole neighborhood had deserted. The creaky swings still blew in the wind.
“On the Saturday evening before Christmas, the congregation congregated for the pageant.
“Good Morrows exchanged in the cold night as the crowd filed in, then the pageant began. The choir warmed up the crowd, as usual. When they finished, the singers walked off of the risers to take their seats with their families patting them on their backs. The congregation prepared for the children’s play to begin.
Mothers took out cameras and wound them, holding them at the chin ready to snap, but the children never came up from the basement. The Pastor’s wife shuffled out with an apologetic smile to see what was holding them.
When she didn’t return after a few moments the Pastor rushed down the aisle with some men from the choir.
They marched down the staircase.
The Pastor grabbed the brass handle of the old wooden door leading to the basement and turned it. It creaked as it easily opened, as if being pulled from the inside. The men gasped as the children l——”
The wife covered her ears and closed her eyes. “Every time,” she said. “You get me every time.”
“I didn’t mean for it to be scary,” he said. “Not when I started it.”
“We could’ve had a nice night, but you had to go off and ruin not only the party for, but the rest of the evening.”
“Don’t even start, that party was shit,” he said. “All the parties you drag me to are.”
She looked at him, he wouldn’t look back.
“We can’t have any nice nights,” she said, “not even Christmas. You always have to find something to complain about. You can’t be happy with anything, and you can’t keep your word.”
“How do you figure?”
“Your stories. You just want to stay home and think of fucked up things. I hate it.”
The night was cold then and the snow on the ground was a nuisance. It seemed deep and heavy. The man didn’t want to go home. The thought of sleeping in the king-sized bed felt more lonesome than sleeping in the park on the bench under the tree alone. They didn’t speak again until they reached the house.
He walked to the door and opened it but he realized that his wife wasn’t by his side. She stood at the edge of the porch, looking up into the snow falling.
“Which scene did you say tonight was like?” she asked. There was no weight in her voice.
“A Christmas Carol?” he asked. She nodded. “There’s this scene, where Ebenezer and Belle——Belle is the girl he loves——they’re walking through a park. It’s snowing where they are. Somewhere in London I guess.”
“And what happens?” she asked.
“Sure you do. You always say, ‘every scene has a fine point’, especially with an author as famous as what’s his name?”
“Ya. Especially with Dickens. So what happens in this scene? What’s the ‘fine point’? Come on, what is it?”
A few beats of snow hit the ground.
“He ends it,” he said.
He opened the door to the house for her. Her eyes looked ahead as she passed him.
The man stayed outside a while longer, looking out into the night towards the houses that felt abandoned, even with their light in the window. He considered lighting the regifted candle his wife had brought home and letting it burn all night wherever he slept. He didn’t want to look into the sky again and hummed the last tune that they’d heard on the drive home, a song from a decade he couldn’t recognize. He thought of going back to the bench under the tree where it was shaded in the Summers; where the snow would fall around him and he could imagine whatever stories he liked.