"Ya know something? Life stinks." Chuck was talking to nobody in particular. The bar had few other patrons on this Christmas Eve, just a few old men nursing their beers, not paying any attention to Chuck's complaints. Chuck didn't care if they were listening or not, he was quite drunk, and continued talking.
"I don't see what's so special about Christmas. What's to be so happy about? Life stinks, Christmas or no Christmas. Who needs it anyway? If Christmas is so special why don't you buy me another drink, bartender? That would be a fine Christmas gift indeed."
The bartender heard that, and walked over to where Chuck was slouched at the bar.
"No problem, pal. It is Christmas Eve, after all. I'll give you one on the house, but it's your last one, and you'll have to keep your voice down too. Merry Christmas." He slid a shot of Wild Turkey in front of Chuck.
Chuck only nodded, took his drink, and then resumed his oration.
"Yea, Merry Christmas. What's to be merry about? In the space of a year I've lost my job, my wife, my kids, and any dreams I might have had. Last week I wrecked my truck, and my landlord threw me out yesterday. He was in the Christmas spirit, wasn't he?" Chuck slammed the shot down his throat before continuing. "To top off the holiday season, my sister called to tell me that my Dad probably won't live to the New Year, and I can't get back to see him. What the heck do I have to be merry about this Christmas?"
"Where does your dad live, son?"
The voice came from Chuck's right. He turned to face a chubby little old man sporting a great white beard, dressed in the trappings of a Salvation Army Santa Claus.
"When did you sneak in, Santa? Whatta ya doing here anyway? Oh, I get it. You're gonna spend all that money you collect in them iron pots all day. If you're gonna have a drink yourself, at least you could buy me one. It is Christmas, and you're Santa, ain't you?"
"Yes, Chuck, I am. But you don't really want a drink of whiskey for Christmas, do you?" The old man was chuckling.
"That's what I said I wanted, you old rummy. What kind of Santa are you, anyway?"
"Come now, Chuck. If there was one thing you could have for Christmas, what would it be?"
The whiskey was getting to Chuck, and he became somber. "If I could, I'd like to see my Dad for one last Christmas. He may not make it another year, and I haven't spent Christmas with him in a lot of years. But I guess that's a moot point. It's already Christmas Eve, he's fifteen hundred miles away in Ohio, my truck is trashed, and I'm broke. Neither Santa nor the devil himself could get me home by Christmas day. If you were a real good Santa, you'd give me a lift in that sleigh of yours, or put a couple thousand bucks into my stocking tonight. Right now, I'd just settle for another drink."
The old Santa put his gloved hand on Chuck's shoulder. "Have faith, my boy. This is Christmas Eve, the night when miracles happen and dreams come true. The Lord blessed the world with a miracle on that first Christmas, and many smaller miracles have happened each Christmas since. You don't have to believe in Santa Claus, or reindeer, or buy a lot of fancy gifts for everybody, you just have to believe in the spirit of Christmas; peace on earth and goodwill to men. Miracles can happen, boy, you just have to find the spirit of Christmas, and believe. Getting that chip off your shoulder would help a lot too."
Chuck got up from his stool. "That's all well and good...you old geezer. If you're not going to buy me a drink, I'm gonna go to the little boys' room." Chuck stumbled off, mumbling to himself as he zeroed in on the restroom door. "Old rummy tells me I got a chip on my shoulder. What does he know anyway, sitting on a street corner all day, ringing his bell? I got plenty of Christmas spirit...and if he'd buy me another drink I'd have even more. Hee, hee..."
When Chuck returned to his stool, the old man was nowhere in sight. "Hey bartender. Where did that old wino Santa Claus go?"
The bartender looked at Chuck, puzzled. "What Santa Claus?"
"The one that was sitting next to me. I was talking to him. He was going to buy me a drink."
"You must be pretty drunk, pal. There wasn't anyone sitting next to you. You were all by yourself, talking to yourself." The bartender's voice hardened, "I think you'd better leave now. You're too drunk. Don't make me call the cops."
Chuck stared at the bartender. "You must be blind, and you're definitely not in the Christmas spirit, are you?" He gave the bartender the universal sign of good luck, with his finger, and stumbled out of the bar.
Outside, the air was cold and flakes of snow fell lazily from the dark sky, reflecting the twinkling lights of the big Christmas tree in Ripley Park. Chuck trudged south on Main, under the wreaths, garlands, decorations, and multi-colored lights that dressed the street up for Christmas. He noticed the sign, pointing the way to the Raton Lions' City of Bethlehem display, as he approached Apache Avenue.
As Chuck turned west on Apache, he realized that he'd never visited the popular Christmas display before. "In ten years, I've never been there. I guess now is a good time to see what everyone fusses about. It's not like I've got anything better to do. Maybe there's a building or something up there that I could sleep in. Sure is cold."
The cold mountain air and the long walk up the avenue to Climax Canyon left Chuck winded, and somewhat sober by the time he reached the entrance to the City of Bethlehem. He passed through the archway under the shadow of the trumpeting angels that adorned each side, and continued up the dirt road into the canyon. He caught sight at once of the nativity scenes that made up the City of Bethlehem, each made up of colorful wooden images, brightly lit against the canyon walls. He stopped at each one and read the storyboard that told of the scene's place in the story of the first Christmas. Glowing images of angels stood guard on the rocky canyon walls. As he came to the scene of Christ in the manger, he had to admit to himself that, while not high tech, the City of Bethlehem was indeed a special place.
Chuck spotted an old railroad car around a bend of the canyon. He remembered that the Lions used it for storage. "I'll bet it's unlocked. Looks like as good a place as any to catch some sleep, without freezing to death." As he got closer to the car, he spotted the glow of a campfire farther up the canyon. The scent of cedar smoke and roasting meat began to filter into his nostrils. He could see the outlines of two people in the camp, and an Indian style teepee stood behind them.
Chuck stopped in awe just outside the light of the small camp. The man inside the camp was magnificent. He was an Indian warrior; of what tribe Chuck could not guess. His sleek body was clad in deerskins, and a huge buffalo robe draped his wide shoulders. It never occurred to Chuck that an Indian warrior, in the middle of Climax Canyon, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter 1996, was at all out of the ordinary. It somehow seemed that he belonged there.
Sensing that someone was watching, the Indian turned and stared right at Chuck, his black eyes piercing through the night. Chuck tried to speak, but the words would not come. He wasn't afraid, he just seemed to have forgotten the mechanics of speech. The warrior walked quickly towards Chuck, raising his coup-stick to strike, but Chuck stood his ground, frozen for no reason he could think of. The warrior stopped short, inches away from Chuck's bearded face. He looked fiercely into Chuck's eyes, then at once his expression softened. He lowered the coup-stick and took Chuck gently by the arm, leading him into the camp. Chuck followed unquestioningly. He and the warrior hadn't shared a word, yet they seemed to understand that neither man meant the other any harm.
As Chuck's eyes adjusted to the glow of the campfire, he noticed the young woman sitting near the flames, tending to the rabbit roasting over them. She was a pretty thing; her skin was a golden brown, and her eyes were big and brown like a doe's. She paid no mind to Chuck, continuing to see to supper.
The warrior gestured to Chuck to sit, and then turned to fill his beaver-fur clad pipe. Chuck watched in wonder as the warrior carefully, almost reverently filled the reddish stone pipe with tobacco. He then presented the pipe to the sky, the earth, and the four directions, before lighting it with an ember from the fire. When he was sure the tobacco was well lit, he passed the pipe to Chuck, who clumsily repeated the ritual and took a deep drag off the pipe. The tobacco was pungent and harsh, but its smoke further calmed and relaxed him. The warrior nodded and smiled, taking back the pipe and drawing upon it himself.
The woman started to rise with two clay bowls, but the warrior jumped to his feet and stopped her. He took the bowls and motioned for her to sit back down. She shot him a look that confirmed to Chuck that she was definitely his wife, and sat back down. The warrior returned, handing Chuck a bowl of rabbit stew, grinning sheepishly.
Chuck ate the stew without really tasting it. He wondered who these people were, where they were from, and what the heck they were doing out here. As Chuck began to ponder the question, a scream pierced the night. He looked to the Indian woman, as the warrior jumped up and ran to her side. As he held her in his arms, Chuck noticed for the first time that she was pregnant...very pregnant. "Oh boy," he thought, "she's gonna have her baby now, isn't she?"
The warrior was in a panic. This was obviously his first child, and nothing in his upbringing had taught him the first thing about child birthing. That was a woman thing, something that warriors could not be bothered with. He loved his wife dearly, though, and he would have gladly traded his warrior status if only he could help his wife now. His black eyes suddenly met Chuck's gaze, and Chuck understood the pleading look at once.
"Me?" he thought to himself, "What do I know about delivering babies?"
They helped the young woman into the teepee, and down onto a buffalo robe. Chuck thought about what to do next. "Boil water, I've got to boil water." He ran out of the lean-to and gathered snow, which he placed, into the pot over the fire. The warrior followed, understanding...sort of. Instead of going back into the lean-to, Chuck sat at the fire.
"Better to mind the water than to go back in there. Women have been doing this for centuries without my help. Maybe it'll be all over before I get back in there."
The scream of the woman dimmed Chuck's hopes. The warrior glanced at him, worry and concern evident in his eyes. Chuck avoided his stare and turned his attention to the pot over the fire. The woman screamed again. Chuck grabbed a ladle and stirred the pot of melting snow furiously. He could feel the warrior's eyes on his back. As another scream tore the night, Chuck felt the grasp of the warrior's hand on his shoulder. He could stall no longer. He rose and walked into the lean-to, praying as he went.
As Chuck knelt down beside the young woman, he was suprised to see the form of a baby in her arms. She had done it herself! Chuck's elation was short lived as he noticed the sobs of the woman, and the stillness of the baby. Without hesitation, he reached for the baby, held him up by the legs, and slapped his backside sharply. To his relief and amazement, the baby burst into a wailing cry. Chuck and the baby's mother were so delighted they decided to join him, and tears of joy flowed freely.
The warrior burst into the teepee. He had heard the cries of the baby, but the tears coming from Chuck and his wife confused him. As he cautiously moved forward, his wife placed the baby in her arms and presented him to her husband. He realized then what the tears were about, as his own eyes became moist. He took the child into his arms, and held him proudly. Sensing that the new family should have some time alone, Chuck stepped out of the teepee and snuggled down into a warm buffalo robe.
As Chuck lay in the warmness of the buffalo robe, the warrior emerged from the teepee and knelt beside him. The warrior reached into the deerskin pouch around his neck, and removed a small object. He placed a small onyx coyote into Chuck's hand and nodded with gratitude. Chuck smiled and reached his right hand out to the warrior, and they shook. The warrior rose and returned to the teepee as Chuck placed the coyote in his pocket, and settled down to a contented sleep. For the first time in his life Chuck understood the true meaning of Christmas, and he realized that the Christmas spirit need not be limited to only one day a year.
Chuck was exhausted, and he soon fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed that he was gliding through the night air in a sleigh, at the side of the old Santa he met in the bar.
"Chuck, wake up." The sound of his father's voice echoed through his head. Then a sharp blow to his ribs woke him to the glare of the morning sun.
"I said wake up, boy. I thought you was dead."
Chuck looked up into the deeply lined face of his father, confused. "Naw Dad, I was only sleeping...DAD!! Where am I? How did I get here? What the..."
"I was just going to ask you the same thing, son. What are you doing sleeping here on the porch? You could have just knocked. I don't know how you got here, but by God I'm darn happy that you are. It's been a long time... too long."
The words of the old Santa in the bar popped into Chuck's mind. "Miracles can happen, boy, you just have to find the spirit of Christmas, and believe."
Chuck looked at his father and smiled. "I got pretty drunk last night, Pop, and I don't have the slightest idea how I got here, but I'm glad to be here too. Merry Christmas, Dad...I've missed you."
He could see the tears welling up in the old man's eyes. "Let's go inside, Pop. I'll cook Christmas dinner for you, and we'll watch some football; just like we used to."
Chuck put his arm around the old man and helped him hobble into the house.
Later that afternoon, Chuck and his father relaxed in the living room, watching football on the television. They were discussing the loss of the Cleveland Browns football team to Baltimore when the newsbreak interrupted the game on TV. The newsman was interviewing a wild-eyed teenager wearing a Plain Dealer newspaper bag around his shoulder.
"I swear it's true, mister. I saw Santa Claus land his sleigh right here on this street. He had another fella riding with him, but he was sleeping. I wouldn't lie about something like that."
Chuck's father pointed to the TV. "By God, that's my paper boy. What's wrong with these kids today, anyway...Santa Claus landing here on our street. Those drugs are going to destroy this country."
Chuck didn't answer. The previous night's dream replayed in his mind.
"What's the matter with you, boy? You're as red as a beet. Did you drink too much wine with your dinner?"
"No, Pop. I'm OK. I think I'll get some air, though." He walked out of the house into the chill of the Cleveland evening. His hands were cold, so he stuffed them into his pockets. He felt an unfamiliar object in his pocket, and pulled it out to see what it was. It was an onyx coyote. Chuck smiled and continued walking down the street with the coyote clutched in his hand. He remembered that native Americans called the coyote the "trickster". He knew that he'd been blessed with not one, but two miracles the previous night, but he also knew that nobody would ever believe him if he told them about it.
Chuck knew, and that was all that mattered. As he turned to return to his father's house, the clanging of a Christmas bell, rung by some distant Salvation Army Santa Claus, echoed through the night.
An Original Christmas Story by Daniel 'Chip' Ciammaichella
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