December 24, 2012

A Christmas story

Home for the holidays


---- — Paul finished packing up the back of his Lexus and slammed the trunk. The saleswoman at the department store had done an adequate job wrapping the gifts he had purchased for his family on his lunch hour the day before, and now they were all nestled in the back of his car, ready for the upcoming trip. He didn’t relish the idea of a six-hour car ride to Plattsburgh, but he had taken only that afternoon and Christmas Day off and wanted to be back in the office early on the 26th. 

He relished even less the idea of visiting his family. He hadn’t been back for any kind of visit — Christmas or otherwise — in, how long was it? Four years? Five? He hadn’t even planned to visit this year but his brother, Gordon, shamed him into it. 

“Mom isn’t doing well,” he had said on the phone. 

How had Gordon gotten his phone number? 

“She may not make it another Christmas, and this would mean the world to her,” his brother had said.

Paul stood with his hand on the car door handle, looking at the door that led to his apartment on York Avenue in New York City. He gave the thought just a second of his time. But instead of heading back up the stairs, he opened the car door and climbed inside. He looked at his watch. Noon. With any luck, the traffic wouldn’t be too bad out of the city and up Interstate 87. He might make it through the mountains before it got too dark. Driving through the Adirondacks at night in the middle of winter was akin to riding a tricycle in the Tour de France — your car being no match for some tractor trailer headed to Montreal with a payload of logs to run you off the road just as the cellphone coverage goes dead.

+ + + + +

Traffic north to Albany wasn’t bad. He found the signal for WAMC down near Newburgh and just kept working the scan button along the way to find it on a different frequency as the station started to flit in and out. National Public Radio was rebroadcasting David Sedaris reading from his “SantaLand Diaries.” Just the kind of snarky tone he needed for this drive. “Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal,” Sedaris said. “Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things.”

The signs up I-87, now called the Northway, started to feel familiar. Clifton Park, Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs — names he enjoyed seeing from the rear-view mirror so many years ago. To escape, to leave the insular environment of the North Country. Columbia School of Law, clerking for Supreme Court justices in New York City, passing the bar then being brought on as an associate and then partner at Beals, Signet and Wilkens. It kept him busy, it kept him focused, and it kept him there.

Focus was what he needed about then. The snow had started lightly just north of Albany, but by the time he passed Exit 21 at Lake George, it was coming down furiously. The plows hadn’t sanded there yet, and he was driving in the tire tracks left by the last car to have made its way north, the taillights of which were out of sight. High beams didn’t help; they made the flakes look as big as silver dollars. The Lexus wasn’t equipped with snow tires, so he had to bring it down a notch, feeling like he was crawling along a highway built in the ‘60s for speed. Something up ahead near the Pottersville exit brought him upright in his seat. Flashing lights, burning flares. He slowed down to a stop and rolled the window down. A state trooper came up. Accidents, several of them after this exit. He’d have to leave the Northway and work his way up Route 9 for a ways.

“How far?”

“You’ll see the troopers re-routing you once you get to Westport.”

“Thanks,” Paul said, rolling the window up. 

The trooper waved and called, “Merry Christmas,” as the car started to roll away.

+ + + + +

Yeah, right. Route 9. At least the Mobil station at Pottersville gave him the chance to gas up the car and get a hot cup of coffee.

It was slow, slower than the Northway, but at least there was no other traffic to contend with. The coffee did its job — he was alert, but he also had to use the bathroom. As he was about to give up hope of finding a restroom and pull over in the snow, a Stewart’s Shop came into view.

“Hello,” said the clerk. “We’re having a sale on our hand-packed pints.”

“Just have to use the men’s room.”

On Paul’s way out, the clerk told him to have a nice holiday. Too late, he thought as he got back in the car and pulled back out onto the road. Just as he was about to pick up a little speed, he saw the lights in his rear-view mirror, higher than a car’s, coming at him at a good clip. He tried to pull over, but there was nowhere to go — he couldn’t see the curb, and he wasn’t sure there was one. The truck bore down on him and then passed him. The last thing Paul saw as the Lexus spun out of control and rolled into the darkness was the bed of the tractor trailer, filled with baled and tied Christmas trees. It figured. 

He sat for a stunned second assessing his condition. Nothing hurt, nothing broken. The air bag didn’t even go off. But he was surrounded in darkness. The front of the car was buried in snow, so the headlights were of no use. He was able to open the car door, but the Lexus was on an incline, and he had to pull himself out of the seat. His shoes, fine for the streets of Manhattan even in the winter, were no match for the Adirondacks in winter. His legs sunk in snow to the knee. With effort, he was able to extricate himself from each step and made his way up to the highway about 10 feet from the back of the car. He stamped his feet to try to shed the snow, which had gone up under his pant legs as well.

The snow wasn’t letting up. Wrapping his Burberry wool overcoat tightly around him, he started walking north, hoping he wasn’t far from the detour to the Northway that would be manned by the troopers as promised.

+ + + + +

After about a half hour, he could make out lights up ahead off the road. Getting nearer, he could see the structure, white against white; its lights set it aglow against the low-hanging clouds. A church. He could see people entering the front doors. Maybe they had a working phone or knew of a garage with a tow truck nearby. At the very least, he could get warm and dry off a little.

The parking lot was packed. He looked at his watch: 6 p.m. Christmas Eve services were just about to start. In Plattsburgh, his mother would most likely be at Mass. He hadn’t been to church since leaving for college. When he had attended, under orders from his mother, he felt those anticipated Masses were for people who didn’t want to get up on Sunday mornings.

He entered the church, which, like the lot outside, was packed. Ushers were shoe-horning people into pews. An elderly man in a suit brought him to one of the last open seats in the dimly lit church. He seated Paul on the end of a pew next to a couple with three small children. The church was teeming with families, and the noise was reaching a dull roar. There were children everywhere. They were running up and down the aisles, some going to see the manger scene at the front of the church, some running to the bathroom. A little shepherd went scooting by to get in line for the processional, fighting with robes that were too long, not paying attention to where the crook was pointing. It swung by the pew, and Paul had to duck to avoid being struck in the head.

The boy stumbled by without looking back, trying to re-gather his robes with every step. Paul’s attention was drawn away from the shepherd boy by the feeling that someone was staring at him. He glanced around and saw, in the pew directly across the aisle, a little boy of about 3 or 4. He met the boy’s gaze. Paul looked away and then peeked back to his left. The boy was still staring. He had a slack-jawed, vacant look, and Paul couldn’t tell if the boy was actually staring at him or zoned out in some kind of pre-Christmas daze.

He slowly looked over his shoulder and then to his right at the family sitting next to him, and then back at the boy across the aisle. The boy hadn’t moved. Paul wasn’t even sure if the kid had blinked. If he’d been on the subway on his way to work, Paul might have made a face at the boy to get him to look away, but he didn’t feel that was appropriate behavior for church, so turned his attention toward the front and tried to ignore the creepy little kid to his left.

+ + + + +

Soon the dull roar lowered to a murmur, and the music started signaling the beginning of services. Everyone stood to see the children walk up and down the aisles. Led by Mary and Joseph, a whole troupe of shepherds and angels came marching through, followed by a group of much younger children who, for some reason, had been trusted with lit candles. Paul watched, transfixed, as the candle children got ever closer to the feather angel wings in front of them. There was a bit of a traffic jam because Mary and Joseph had stopped at the manger scene to put the statue of Baby Jesus in the manger. One of the candle children, who was focused on the wax slowly dripping toward her hand instead of on where she was going, walked right into an angel.

A parent jumped into the aisle and pulled the angel to safety. Another tragedy averted. Paul looked back toward the action at the manger in time to see the minister bless the crèche and the newly added Baby Jesus statue. The statue was about the same size as Mary. His head was actually bigger than Mary’s. Talk about a Christmas miracle.

At some point during the blessing, Paul felt a tugging on his right sleeve. He looked down and saw a rather frantic girl who was hopping from one foot to the other. Her mother was standing beside her.

“Excuse us,” the mother whispered apologetically. 

Paul sighed, probably louder than he should have because she said in a acrid tone, “She has to use the potty.” 

He stepped out into the aisle to make room for them to pass. As he sat back down, the services began. He looked around, not sure if he wanted to stay, but it was warm in the church, and his clothes — especially his shoes and socks — were beginning to dry out, and it wasn’t until he heard someone else’s cellphone going off that he realized he might have the use of his own phone again. He reached for his in the breast pocket of his suit coat but before he had a chance to check it, the mother had returned with the girl, waiting to be allowed back in the pew. Again he stood, and again they moved past him. The mother looked at the cellphone in his hand.

“Really, can’t it wait?” she said as she settled down with the kids, all of whom were fidgety and squirmy. 

Paul put the phone back in his pocket. He gazed around the congregation, and his eyes settled, once again, on the kid across the aisle. That kid was still staring at him. Paul’s attention was suddenly stolen by a little girl in the pew ahead of him. She had turned around and was holding a Sheriff Woody doll. She was shaking the doll back and forth, saying, “I’m Woody! Howdy, howdy, howdy.” 

People surrounding him started to laugh while her parents tried to quiet her down. Paul closed his eyes a moment and breathed out heavily. At this rate, he’d never get help to retrieve his car, he’d never get to Plattsburgh, and he’d never hear the end of it. Just as he contemplated getting up to leave, everyone stood and launched into a rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” 

Paul stood, woodenly, eyes on the pew in front of him, when the girl next to him said, “You’re supposed to be singing.”

This time, he did make a face, as if to say, “And you’re supposed to be quiet and better mannered.”

“Mommy, he made a face at me,” she cried to her mother.

“Don’t look at him, honey,” she said, loud enough for Paul to hear. “He’s not a happy man.”

+ + + + +

Paul didn’t know if he should be thankful that the kid would now leave him alone or upset at what was certainly an insult. He wasn’t an unhappy man. At least, not in general. He just wasn’t happy then. 

At that point, the minister called the kids forward to tell them the Christmas story. Kids began climbing over people, over pews, all vying for their places up front. The girl to his right didn’t give him time to step out into the aisle. She bounded past him, stepping on his foot on her way by. Once the kids were all settled, the minister started out by asking if anyone already knew the story of Christmas. For a moment no one said anything. Then the little girl with the Sheriff Woody doll raised her hand.

The minister nodded at her and she said, in a very confident voice, “My mommy made my dress!” 

Then she proceeded to pull the hem of her skirt over her head, showing off her fancy new tights. The minister moved on and asked the kids if they knew who would be born that night.

“Not my baby brother,” said one boy. “My mom said if she has to, she’s keeping her knees together just to have the baby on New Year’s Day so she gets to have the New Year’s baby.” 

Paul huffed. This was his chance to take his leave. He gathered his overcoat, hat and gloves and had stepped out into the aisle when an almost audible hush fell over the congregation. All the children — even the most rowdy of the lot sitting at the minister’s feet — sat still. All eyes turned to him. And he felt himself turning crimson as he met their gazes. Just then, the kid whose mother wanted the New Year’s baby pointed at him and shouted, “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!” 

Confused, Paul pointed to himself and started to shake his head. But the sound of jingling bells made him turn around. What was coming up the aisle toward him was, indeed, Santa. Not the creepy mall Santa or the Salvation Army Santa found on every corner of Manhattan, with the dirty faux velvet and fur coat and leather slip-ons that cover up sneakers. This was the real deal, the way Santa was supposed to look.

He had a real red velvet suit trimmed in real white fur and big black leather boots with golden sleigh bells attached to the laces that rang with every step. His gloves were black leather trimmed in white fur; his hat was more of the same red velvet and trim. And his beard was fullest and whitest Paul had ever seen on a man in a Santa suit.

+ + + + +

The children were beside themselves with excitement, hoping he might stop to say hello to them. He made his way to the manager scene first, where he knelt down and said a prayer. Leaving a brightly wrapped package at the feet of the big-headed Baby Jesus, Santa stood, righted his hat, and nodded at the minister. He shook a few of the kids’ hands as he passed them by, but on his way down the aisle, he stopped first at the boy who had been staring at Paul. He hadn’t joined the group of kids up front. Placing one hand on the boy’s head and the other under his chin, Santa lifted his face to greet his own. It was at this moment that Paul realized the boy was blind.

The boy smiled, and Santa leaned down and kissed his forehead. Standing, he looked over at Paul and reached out his gloved hand. Paul stood, frozen to the spot for a second, then reached out and took Santa’s hand in his own. In an instant, he was a child again, standing at his mother’s side waiting his turn in line to sit on Santa’s lap at the W.T. Grant store. The atmosphere was electric. Music piping in through the store speakers had people singing to themselves in the aisles, friends were stopping his mother to wish her a happy holiday, Merry Christmas. Santa himself was resplendent in a red velvet coat, black leather boots, real sleigh bells by his side. 

Paul could smell Christmas. He could hear Christmas. The next stop after Grants was church. It was Christmas Eve, after all.

Then he was back, standing in the aisle of church with Santa’s hand in his. Santa leaned in. Paul looked around, then leaned in as well.

Santa whispered in a hushed tone, “Dubrey’s wrecker stopped by the side of the road a ways back and pulled a Lexus out of the snow. That wouldn’t happen to be yours, would it?”

Paul’s mouth was agape. All he could do was nod. And then, as Santa started to head toward the door, Paul found his voice.

“Thank you, uh, um …”

“Santa. Just Santa.”

“Yes, of course. Santa. Um, and Merry Christmas.” 

+ + + + +

Santa continued heading toward the door and raised his mitten-covered hand in a wave. Paul turned around and saw all eyes on him. He looked around and nodded at several people and smiled. Many nodded, smiling back.

The congregation started filing out. Kids were excited to get home and get to bed. Parents wanted to get home and finish wrapping, to have a glass of wine, to collapse themselves. Paul crossed over to the little boy and smiled at his parents. He then crouched down and touched the boy on the shoulder. The boy looked in Paul’s direction.

“Merry Christmas, little buddy,” he said. The boy smiled at him.

“Thank you,” his mom said to Paul. “To you, too.”

Paul walked out of the church. Many of the cars had cleared out by then, and he saw his Lexus sitting at the far end of the lot. He pulled his phone out and dialed.

“Hi, Ma? It’s me. I’m about 45 minutes away. ... Long story, but Ma, I’m going to be staying a few days, if that’s OK. I’ll see you soon.”

+ + + + +



Every year, one of our reporters writes a fictional Christmas story, carrying on a tradition started by Steve Manor, who staffed our Northern Tier bureau until his death in 1996.

Here's our 2012 story, written by Contributing Writer Gerianne Wright, and her daughter, Margaret Downs, a senior at Plattsburgh High School.

As is also a tradition, the story is illustrated by local artist Les Cosgrove and dedicated with affection to Steve Manor.