Another Christmas Story

By Dave Benneman

Christmas Eve always messes with my head, and tonight, as I sit in my comfortable home watching a fresh snowfall through the window, is no exception. The tree looms in the corner, guarding the mountain of gifts beneath it. I stare at the driveway, waiting for my sixteen-year-old daughter to return home. She’s a good driver, but I worry about her driving in the snow. My right hand clutches the old-fashioned, corded telephone receiver. I’ve already embarrassed her by calling her cell phone twice. Both times, she assured me she could handle a little snow.

My gaze slides across the many books I’ve accumulated over the years. The library has floor-to-ceiling shelves and an old-fashioned rolling ladder. Too many sleepless nights in the past week come to collect the vig. My hand slips from the receiver and I fall headfirst into the past.

###

“Excuse me, sir. Last year you told me to come back and you’d give me a job,” I said.

“Go away, kid. Come back when you’re older.”

“How old do I have to be?” I asked.

“You have to be at least sixteen. Now, scoot, I hear your mother calling you.”

I presented him with my learner’s permit.

He handed it back to me without a smile. “Thanks for the heads-up, kid. I’ll stay off the streets.”

“I’m sixteen,” I said, hoping that he would see the significance. “You see?”

“I can read. I’ve got a truckload of trees due here any minute, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

“B—but, you just said I could have a job when I turned sixteen.”

Mr. Goldman scratched the stubble on his face and looked at me for a long minute. “I never said any such thing, kid.”

“You did. You said—”

“I said, come back when you’re older.”

“Well, I’m older.”

“Yes, and you’ve come back. That would be the end of our contractual agreement. I haven’t promised anyone anything since the day I promised the former Mrs. Goldman that I would love, honor and obey her. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“But you said…,” my voice cracked.

“Hey, kid, look in here for me.”

He brought his face down next to mine and pulled the skin down below his bloodshot eye. I moved in closer to look into his eye. His foul breath made me gag.

“Are you looking real hard?”

“Yeah,” I peered into his eye.

“Do you see anyone in there who gives a damn?” I pulled back abruptly.

“I just thought, you know, maybe you could use some help,” I pleaded. “Let me help you set up. If I don’t do a good enough job, you tell me at the end of the day, and I’ll go away and never come back.”

He grinned at me for the first time, and his yellow teeth appeared slowly, like stumps in a draining swamp.

“Are you offering to work for free?”

“Not exactly. If I do good, you have to pay me for the time I work.”

“But, I don’t have to pay you if I send you packing. And, you’ll never bother me again. Is that the deal?”

“Yes, sir. That’s the deal.”

“You’re kinda puny to be hauling trees, you know.”

“I’ll work really hard. You’ll see.” I immediately grabbed some 2x4s and started to assemble them into a kind of sawhorse to lean the Christmas trees against.

“You’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, but you’re as persistent as a leaky faucet,” he said grudgingly.

I dragged lumber across the empty lot for the next two hours. The brown, frozen grass crackled under my feet as I hustled around. Mr. Goldman spat tobacco juice and barked out orders like a prison guard on a chain gang. My breath puffed out in front of me and sweat ran down my neck. When the light began to fade, he showed me how to fuel and start the generator. Just as we plugged in the lights, a truck pulled into the lot, belching smoke. On the back, evergreens were stacked almost to the sky.

“Where the hell you been?” Mr. Goldman yelled at the driver. “You should’ve been here hours ago.”

A man the size of a small mountain jumped out of the truck. Pulling at the fingertips of his gloves one by one, he glowered at Mr. Goldman. A fat cigar clenched between his teeth issued a cloud of smoke that reeked of burning garbage. He threw his gloves down, walked over to Mr. Goldman, and gave him a fierce bear hug that lifted him clear off the ground.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, old man. Merry Christmas.”

“I’ll give you a Merry Christmas. Put me down,” Mr. Goldman grumbled.

Relief flooded through me when the big man laughed, so I laughed with him.

“What are you laughing at, kid?” Mr. Goldman yelled, frowning at me. “Find something to do.”

“Yes, sir.” I straightened up a sawhorse nearby.

“Sir, is it now? Do I have to call you ‘sir’ too?” His dinner plate-shaped face was still smiling.

“If you don’t get those trees off the truck soon, you can call me at home, because that’s where I’ll be.”

“I’ll have these trees off in a jiffy. What made you break down and hire help?” he said, pointing at me.

“I didn’t hire him. He keeps coming around and pestering me for a job. Today he said he’d work free for the first day, and if I’m not satisfied, he’ll go away and not bother me again. It’s what you call a win-win.”

“You wouldn’t really do that now, would you?” the big man asked as his smile slid off his face.

“Come on, Moose. I can’t have some kid hanging around here getting in the way.”

“Let him help me with these trees, we’ll see what he’s made of.” Moose shifted his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other without using his hands. “Hey, kid, untie those ropes on the truck. I’ll be right there.”

I wrestled with each tree as Moose handed them down to me. Pinesap and sweat covered every square inch of my skinny frame.

“Hey, kid, you’re beginning to look like a tree yourself. Make sure the old grouch doesn’t try to sell you to one of his customers.” Moose doubled over with a deep belly laugh that turned into a coughing fit. “I crack myself up.”

Four hours of dragging trees around left my legs feeling like waterlogged fence posts. Mr. Goldman came through a row of trees and handed us each a bottle of Pepsi.

“Good job,” he said.

“I couldn’t have done it without Little Poop, here” Moose said, ruffling my hair and scattering pine needles to the four winds in the process.

“Little Poop,” Ralph Goldman said. “I like that.” He smiled for the second time since I’d known him.

“I’m calling him that because I’ve taken dumps bigger than him.”

“Please don’t call me that,” I said.

“If you’re going to hang around here, you’ll have to grow a thick skin, kid,” Mr. Goldman growled.

“If the kids at school ever hear that, I’m dead meat,” I mumbled to the frozen ground.

“So, what’s your name?” Moose asked.

“Tim Blake,” I said, extending my hand.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Fred Hopkins, but my friends call me Moose.”

My hand disappeared in Moose’s. It felt like I had slipped on a first baseman’s glove.

“This grumpy old man you want to work for is Ralph, but his friends call him Scrooge.” Moose pointed his Pepsi bottle at Mr. Goldman.

“I know Mr. Goldman! Well—sorta.” I extended my hand again.

“I won’t call you Little Poop, if you stop calling me Mr. Goldman.” He took my hand.

“He really likes to be called ‘Your Highness,’” Moose said, punching me in the shoulder, and knocking me sideways by two steps.

“If we’re going to be working together, you can call me Ralph.”

“That’s great Mr. Ralph. I mean, really? You’ll let me work for you?”

“Be careful what you wish for, Little Poop,” Moose said, winking at me.

“Here’s the deal, I will pay one dollar for every hour you work, but I want to talk to your mom and dad first.”

“Yes, sir! I mean, Mr. Goldman. Ralph, sir.”

Ralph pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, peeled off six ones, and handed them to me.

“Be here tomorrow at ten o’clock, sharp, and make sure your parents come to see me before the end of the day. Now, get out of here before I come to my senses and change my mind.”

“Yes, sir, thank you. Nice meeting you, Moose.” I backed out of the pool of yellow light the strings of light cast around the lot.

“See you around, Little Poop,” Moose called out, waving to me.

“Yeah, thanks. I’ll see you, thanks. Thanks again, Ralph.” I saw the two men grinning as I walked backwards toward home, waving six one-dollar bills in the air.

###

I almost knocked my mom over as I blasted through the front door. “Look, Mom! I got a job! I made six bucks already,” I said, out of breath from running home.

“Close the door, please, you’re letting out what little heat I can afford. The coalman won’t give me any more coal until I pay what I already owe him.”

“Yeah okay,” I said, guiltily stuffing the bills into my front pocket.

“Keep your voice low, your brothers and sisters are asleep.”

My mom looked as though she’d been breaking rocks all day. She looked like that a lot since my dad left. I told her about my job, but my heart sank as her eyes closed and her head bobbed onto her chest.

“That’s good, Honey, I’m real proud of you.” Her eyes flickered open for a moment.

She could hear me in her sleep. I shuddered at the thought. It was bad enough that she could hear me whisper threats against my younger sister through the floors, walls and over great distances. The thought that she could hear me in her sleep gave me the willies.

“I’m going to get a bath and hit the sack, Mom. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“There’s no hot water, Honey. You’d better make it a sponge bath.”

“Yeah, what’s new?” I muttered, as I made my way out of the kitchen.

“I’m just warning you,” she said sleepily from the kitchen.

A few hours later, I woke up freezing. The furnace must have gone out, as usual, and the two brothers who shared a double bed with me had gotten cold and taken all the blankets during the night.

“Mom, what time is it?” I yelled down the stairs, as I turned around and headed toward the bathroom. My sister came rushing across the hall and closed the bathroom door in my face. I hopped around doing the pee dance.

“Come on, Margaret, I gotta go,” I whined, banging loudly on the door.

Finally, the door opened and my evil nemesis stood there, looking very annoyed with me as she pulled a brush through her hair.

“You can use the bathroom now.” Then, slowly, and languidly, she moved out of the doorway.

“If you make me late for my job, I’m going to flush your head in the toilet,” I whispered.

“Mommm!” Margaret yelled.

“I heard that, Timothy Michael Blake,” Mom yelled. “How about you get down here now!”

“I’m not even dressed yet,” I complained.

I rushed into the bathroom before I missed my chance. After dressing warmly, I ran downstairs.

“Your sister has as much right to use the bathroom as you, without you banging on the door and threatening her.”

“I know, Mom, but she didn’t need to go, she just went in there to brush her hair. She does it on purpose.”

“I know, the whole world is just standing around watching your bathroom habits so they can get in your way.” She shook her head.

I glanced at the clock. It was already a quarter to ten. “I’ve gotta go, Mom. Don’t forget you promised to come by and talk to Ralph today.”

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get away. Who’ll watch your brothers and sisters?”

“Margaret can do it for ten minutes, she’s fifteen,” I countered.

“I don’t know, but I’ll try my best.” She turned back to the stove.

###

The next three weeks sped by in a blur. Every day, I rushed home from the bus stop, changed out of my school clothes, and headed down to the lot to help Ralph sell his trees. I learned how to shake out a tree so that people could inspect them. Ralph taught me to stand next to the bald spot on the tree and walk in a circle so the customer thinks they’re seeing the whole tree.

“There is a bald spot on every tree,” Ralph lectured.

I tied trees onto cars while Ralph handled the negotiations. Occasionally, Ralph would have me carry one home for an elderly person if they lived close by.

“No extra charge,” he would tell them.

Sometimes, I would get a tip anyway, like a quarter from the old ladies, but more often, I got some homemade cookies and a glass of milk for my efforts.

###

As the season wound down, my mother got more frantic with each passing day. We had no money, no tree, little food, and a dwindling supply of coal. The state had switched to issuing welfare checks once a month instead of twice a month. My mom did her best, but when the check arrived at the end of the month, she owed most of it. The milkman, the bread man, Al at the local grocery, and Mel, who sold clothes out of the back of his car—they all knew when the checks came in. They arrived promptly with their account books open and their hands out for what rightfully belonged to them. After the monthly bills were paid, there wasn’t much left over. My mother, who was no financial wiz, would take us out for hamburgers at the local diner. It was a celebration of sorts: proof that we had survived another month.

With Christmas only a week away, I checked my mother’s closet. Not a single toy was hidden in there. I came home one afternoon to find a minister with his arm around my mother’s shoulders, telling her that God would provide. Everyone except me had been sleeping on the kitchen floor for a week, with the electric oven going full blast around the clock, door open. A blanket hung in the kitchen doorway to keep the heat from escaping. God would provide what? Snow, unusually cold weather, and too many mouths to feed, was all I could see. Maybe he provided the alcohol that made my father a drunk and a dead beat.

Every day, I helped happy people pick out Christmas trees. They were all smiles and their laughter rang with the joy of the season. I decided to offer the wages I’d been earning to my mother. I couldn’t wait for God.

The next day, Moose rolled in at about eight o’clock. His truck belched more smoke than usual under the load of trees.

“Hey, Moose,” I hollered over the racket of the nonexistent exhaust system.

“Hey, Little Poop. How’s it hanging?” Moose yelled around the always-present cigar.

“It’s hanging,” I replied. “But I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

Most of the crowd had thinned out, and Ralph handled the stragglers while Moose and I unloaded the truck. When the last of the customers left, we sat on the back of the truck drinking soda.

“Hey, Little Poop, whatcha thinking about?” Moose punched me in the arm.

“Nothing.”

“Come on, you can tell us. We’re friends, right?” Moose pushed.

“It’s just—this priest came to the house today and told my Mom that God would provide. That’s easy for him to say. He don’t have to tell my brothers and sisters why Santa’s skipping our house this year.

“Why would Santa skip your house?” Moose asked.

“Let him be,” Ralph said, elbowing Moose with enough force to make him wince. “Hey, kid, go unplug the lights and let the generator cool down before you kill the engine,” Ralph barked.

“Okay,” I wiped a tear from my face and jumped off the truck. I watched Ralph turn on Moose, but I couldn’t hear what they said over the noise of the generator. Moose’s shoulders slumped while Ralph waved his arms in the air. When I came back, Moose gave me a big bear hug, climbed into his truck, and pulled out without a word.

“Hang in there, kid,” Ralph said, handing me my earnings for the day. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The next day, I came home from school and watched as a surly man covered in coal dust slung a bag of coal into our coal bin. Mom stood on the porch with a blanket wrapped around her while she talked to him.

“I don’t know anything, lady. I just do what they tell me.” He shrugged his shoulders and left.

I ran up the three steps to the porch. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, but let’s get the furnace going. I’ll figure it out later.” Relief and confusion colored her face.

“Mom? It’s not much, but take the money I made helping Ralph and buy some toys for the kids.”

She hugged me and nodded. Her face began to crumple, but she pulled herself together. “We’ll see, Honey, thanks.”

My brothers and sisters were excited. Out in town, Christmas decorations blinked and sparkled everywhere you looked. With only a couple of days to go until Christmas, my mother’s closet still stood empty. But our house was warm again, and for that I was thankful.

###

At the lot, the sparse selection of trees that remained meant I had little to do. I stood around with my hands in my pockets, waiting for Ralph to send me home. When Moose showed up with an empty truck I went to the drugstore for sodas. Standing around doing nothing stank. I returned to see Ralph waving his arms the way he did. Moose’s cigar poked out of his silly grin. They got quiet when I arrived, and I handed each of them a soda.

“I’ve gotta go. See you tomorrow, Little Poop.” Moose turned to leave.

“And don’t forget the tinsel,” Ralph yelled after him.

“Yeah, yeah, I know how to decorate a Christmas tree.” Moose waved a meaty hand at Ralph.

“I wish he wouldn’t call me that,” I said.

“He don’t mean nothing by it. Turn off the generator, kid, let’s call it a night.”

When I came back, Ralph had his old Studebaker Commander warming up.

“Get in, I’ll give you a ride.”

Ralph had worked me into the ground every day for four long weeks, and he had never offered me a ride home before. I gave him directions as we drove the two blocks to my home, and wondered what this meant. When we got there, he parked the car.

“Are you going to invite me in?” he said gruffly.

“I—I…Is something wrong?” My voice shook.

“No, I just want to tell your mom what a slacker you are.”

“Slacker?” I yelped, but then I saw the hint of a smile creep around Ralph’s mouth. “Well, come in, I guess.”

My mother sat in the kitchen, holding a cup of tea. Her eyes were red and swollen. She jumped from her chair when she saw Ralph come in behind me.

“You remember Mr. Goldman?” I asked.

“Yes, of course.” She stuffed a tissue into her dress pocket and shook Ralph’s hand.

Ralph gave me a look I recognized; it meant: go find something to do. I backed out of the kitchen slowly, not wanting to be excluded.

“Go check on Walter and Charlie,” my mother said. “Charlie’s is running a low fever. Feel his head.”

I hovered at the bottom of the steps and tried to eavesdrop, but their voices were too low for me to catch anything they said. I checked on my little brother and went to the window just in time to see Ralph pull away from the curb. My mother came into our room and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Mr. Goldman said you’re quite a good worker. He’s sending over a free Christmas tree tomorrow. Isn’t that nice?”

That didn’t sound like the Ralph I knew, but then I thought, how many of those needleless trees could he sell on Christmas Eve, anyway?

“Yeah, that’s nice.” I turned away from the window.

“He said he would see you tomorrow. Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” She closed the door, leaving me to my thoughts until I fell into a deep sleep.

 

 

 

###

When I got to the lot the next day, there were no trees left. The lights were rolled up and loaded onto the truck, making the lot look empty and sad. The brown grass had been ground into the frozen earth under the feet of the holiday shoppers. Ralph leaned against his old car, laughing with Moose.

“Hey, Little Poop, how’s it hanging,” Moose yelled with his usual enthusiasm.

“I’ve got to run, Moose, I’ll see you later,” Ralph said before pinning me with his stare. “Get in kid, we got work to do.”

“Ralph, if we don’t have any trees to sell, what do you need me to do?”

He looked at me over the roof of the car, his yellow teeth grinning from ear to ear.

“It’s Christmas Eve, boy. We’ve got shopping to do. Get in. Get in.”

I’d never seen him this jovial. He smiled so much that it scared me a little.

“Who’re we shopping for?”

“Believe it or not, I’ve got family.” He threw his yellow grin at me again.

We drove into a large, potholed parking lot in front of a warehouse next to a railroad siding. Ralph parked near a long row of loading bays that were choked with trash and ice.

“No offense, Ralph, but is this where you plan to shop?”

“This here, my boy, is the old farmers’ market. You can buy anything here.”

Ralph climbed out of his beat up Studebaker and headed toward the door. I followed hesitantly, thinking the door wouldn’t open. When it did, a variety smells assaulted me. My stomach lurched. The metal walls and roof echoed with voices so loud you had to yell to be heard, intensifying the general din of the place. The huge building housed a variety of businesses. We started down a wide aisle. On my right, a lady set a basket of sliced potatoes into a bubbling fryer. Ralph waved at her and said something in Spanish.

, Mr. Ralph. You want the usual?”

“Not now, Rosie, I’ll be back.”

“You better,” she said, her face in a pout.

The next stall was fronted by refrigerated glass cases, contained meat.

“Hey Ralph, what is that?” I asked, pointing at a large jar that sat on the counter.

“Pigs’ feet.” Ralph nodded at the proprietor of the stall, who was wearing a white apron smeared with blood. “Pickled pigs’ feet. You’ve never seen pigs’ feet before?”

“No. What are they for?”

“To eat. They aren’t my cup of tea, but those who eat them say they’re delicious.”

“They don’t look like my cup of tea either.”

“They use every part of the pig when they butcher it.”

“Every part?”

“Yes, and I mean every part.”

“Eew, that’s gross.”

Ralph smiled. He put a hand on my shoulder and steered me through the crowd past the other booths until we arrived at a large, open area. In the center, on a platform about four feet high, a man holding a microphone looked in our direction.

“Testing, one, two, testing. Ralph, you grumpy old fart,” he bellowed. Feedback screeched through the air.

Ralph waved to the energetic young man, who had an unruly shock of black hair. “Who are you calling old? How would you like to go home and tell your mama that an old fart whipped your butt?”

He jumped down from the platform, landed right in front of us, and extended his hand toward Ralph. Ralph pushed his hand aside and pulled him into an embrace.

“Moose said to give you that. Where’s your dad?” Ralph asked.

“He’s home with mama, setting up the tree. You do know it’s Christmas Eve, right?”

“Of course I know it’s Christmas Eve. I’m Jewish, not stupid. What about your Uncle Sal, is he around?”

“You just missed him. He went down to Rosie’s for a bite to eat before the auction.”

“Moose told me you got a load of toys in for tonight, is that right?”

The young man motioned behind him with a sweeping gesture. “Two box cars full. The fork lift is pulling them off right now.”

“Excellent. By the way, Kevin, this is Tim, my helper, better known as Little Poop.”

I tentatively stretched out my hand and Kevin shook it vigorously.

“I’d bet dollars to donuts Moose gave you that nickname.”

“Yeah, but I wish he wouldn’t call me that.”

“Hey, I know how you feel, I’m Droopy Drawers. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Little Poop,” Kevin said with a grin.

“Kevin, I’m going to catch up with Sal at Rosie’s,” Ralph said.

“Are you staying for the auction tonight?” Kevin asked.

“That’s why we’re here.” Ralph threw a wink at Kevin.

On the way back, we passed a bakery. People yelled out their orders and pushed to the front of the counter to get their fresh-baked bread. In the next booth, an old guy slept under a sign that advertised hearing aids. A boy no older than me stood in the middle of the aisle yelling, “Soft pretzels! Ten cents a piece, three for a quarter.”

We rounded a corner and Rosie waved from the grill. Ralph took a seat across from a rough-looking man with slicked back black hair and a scar on his face that stretched from the corner of his left eye to his square chin. Pink in some places, the scar drew attention to his pot-holed face and large bulbous nose. He squared his truck-like shoulders and looked at Ralph with a grim expression.

“J’eat?” He asked Ralph, as his gaze raked over me.

“Not yet. What’s good?” Ralph asked.

“Rosie’s got a green chili burrito special tonight.” He took a bite. “It’s not awful.”

“Sal this is Tim. Tim, this is the famous Salvatore Baldassare.” Ralph said it with a flourish. “That’s Italian for stinky cheese.”

Sal gave Ralph a deadly look and went back to his burrito.

“Rosie, two specials.” Ralph called. “And a basket of cheese fries.” He handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Get our food and a couple of Pepsis, and bring me the change.”

I took the bill and walked up to the counter. The spotless, dull-green countertop reflected years of wear and tear. I leaned on one arm and watched Rosie move her ample bosom around the cramped cooking space as she assembled the burritos, tossed a hot basket of fries into a bin, and salted them. She wasted no effort, and her long, black ponytail swung with each motion. Catching my stare, she laughed, and it sounded like music.

“You are Mr. Ralph’s boy?” she asked.

“I just work for him.”

“Ahh. Pepsi for Mr. Ralph, what for you?”

“The same,” I said, handing her the twenty.

“No, no little one. You tell Mr. Ralph Merry Christmas from Rosie.”

“Okay,” I said, shrugging, and slid the tray full of food from the counter. When I set down the tray, Sal stood up and shook Ralph’s hand.

“See you down there,” Sal said.

“We’ll be along in a few minutes.”

Sal walked slowly through the crowd, which seemed to part for him automatically. When he disappeared, the crowd flowed back into the void. It might as well have been fog instead of a throng of people jostling to get where they were going.

What’s this?” Ralph asked, waving the twenty in my face.

“Rosie said, ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Ralph,’” I tried to imitate her accent.

“She did, huh? Dig in, kid, Rosie is the best cook on the planet since my mother passed away.”

“I don’t know what’s in there. I never had one of these before.”

“You just pick it up like this and bite the end off. Trust me. This is good food, kid.”

I started on the cheese fries and watched Ralph as he tore into his burrito with enthusiasm. Juice squirted out from the end when he bit down, and he moaned with delight.

I picked up my burrito with caution and sniffed at it suspiciously. Ralph moaned again as juice ran down his hand and puddled on the table. I took a small bite, sampling the flavors that were swirling around in my mouth.

“This is good.” I took a second, much larger bite.

After we finished eating, Ralph gathered up our trash and carried the tray up to the counter.

“Rosie, you Latin beauty, come out here and give me a hug.”

Swinging up a section of the counter, Rosie squeezed her rear end through the narrow opening and hugged Ralph. This was a different side of the Ralph than I’d come to know in the last four weeks. I liked this version of Ralph better than the one on the tree lot.

“If I didn’t think Umberto would track me down and cut my throat, I’d take you to Florida with me and we could live happily ever after,” Ralph said as he deftly slipped the twenty-dollar bill into the pocket of her apron.

“I know you Jewish, Mr. Ralph, but you have Merry Christmas for Rosie, okay?”

“Anything for you, Rosie. I’d even pray to the guy in the funny hat for you.”

“Oh, Mr. Ralph, you big kidder.” Rosie swung a hand towel at him as he turned away.

“Come on, kid, it’s time to sing for your supper.”

We walked back to where I met Kevin, aka, Droopy Drawers, and now, the aisles were almost empty. Everyone faced the raised platform on which Sal and Kevin stood. Kevin directed a forklift that set a pallet at his feet. He cut it open and threw an object to Sal, who held it over his head.

Sal’s voice rang through the hall as clear as a church bell, and his deep, commanding tone took me by surprise.

“First item, Tiny Kissy Dolls, ten dollars each,” Sal’s baritone sang out.

Hands shot up in the crowd, and Sal tossed the dolls to men who were circulating the crowd and making change from nail aprons they wore around their waists. Ralph calmly held up two fingers, but no one came to him for money or handed him a doll. The next pallet contained train sets, and again, the hands shot up. I watched as the chaos increased and toys of all kinds were thrown out to the waiting crowd. There were wagons, bikes, teddy bears, and Easybake Ovens. Ralph nodded or held up fingers as the night wore on.

“This is the last pallet,” Sal announced.

Kevin unpacked one of the items inside and held it up for all to see. An all-in-one stereo, eight track, and record player. My jaw dropped when I saw it.

“At eighty-five dollars, it’s a steal,” Sal said. “Since it’s Christmas Eve let’s make it seventy, even. That’s seven-zero for the mathematically challenged. Buy these things up so we can all go home!”

Arms slowly went up.

“I have a nephew in Tampa who’s about your age, do you think he’d like that?” Ralph asked me.

“Who wouldn’t?” I nodded. “It’s got everything.”

Ralph nodded to Kevin and then we made our way up close to the stage. The last of the stereos were being cleared out.

“How about a Christmas carol before we go, Sal?” Ralph yelled out.

Kevin picked up on the suggestion and got the crowd to applaud until a red-faced Sal gave in and held up one finger.

“Only one,” Sal said, and he began to sing “Silent Night.”

No one stirred while Sal sang. The room remained silent for a moment after he finished. Then cheers erupted, the customers gathered up their purchases and rushed for the door.

“Hey, kid, give this guy a hand packing up all this stuff.” Ralph motioned toward a haphazard pile of toys.

I watched as Ralph and Sal talked and money changed hands. Then they embraced.

“Merry Christmas, Sal,” Ralph raised his hand in a wave and we headed for the door.

“What about the stuff you bought?” I asked as we made our way through the aisles that were now strewn with trash. All the shops were closed, and only a few stragglers remained and were making their way for the exit.

“Oh, Kevin’s going to have it shipped to Florida for me. So, you had an easy night of it after all.”

“Yeah, I guess, but don’t you need it now? I mean it’s Christmas Eve. If you’re giving that stuff as gifts, you’ll need it by tomorrow.”

“First of all, I’m Jewish and Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. Besides, I’m leaving for Tampa tomorrow,” Ralph explained, as he pushed open the door. “My nieces and nephews will get their gifts when I get there, and not a minute before.” The cold air rushed at us as we walked to his car.

“So, now what?” I asked.

“I guess I’m taking you home. Why don’t you drive?”

“Really? You’ll let me drive your car?”

“Show me what you can do in the parking lot before we hit the open road.”

I cruised around the lot, staying in the lanes until Ralph gave me a nod toward the street. A feeling of sadness enveloped me, after seeing all those toys. Unless my mom managed to pull a rabbit out of her hat, my brothers and sisters were going to wake up to nothing on Christmas morning. I knew the likelihood of a check arriving from the State was slim, but I also knew that if by some miracle it did, my mother would have no qualms about going straight to a store and spending the whole thing on gifts. I mulled this over and then said a small prayer to a God I didn’t necessarily believe in, asking Him to deliver that check.

“Why so glum?” Ralph asked.

“Just thinking about my brothers and sisters. I wish I’d brought my money with me. I could’ve got them each something.”

“How long has your dad been gone?”

“Five years. Why?”

“You must have had bad years before and you came through it all right, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but, it’s different for me. I’m older. I don’t believe in Santa Clause.”

Ralph scoffed. “That’s good, because you have to make your own way in this world. The sooner you realize that no fat guy in a red suit is going to give you everything you want, the sooner you’ll get off your butt and start working to get what you need. Right?”

“I guess.”

“That’s what you did isn’t it? You pestered me until I gave you a job.”

“Yeah but…”

“No buts. You have to take the pitches thrown to you in this life. Some folks go down swinging, some hit home runs, and some are afraid to stand in the batter’s box, like your dad. Your mom is a swinger and I hope she tags one out of the park some day. You’re a swinger too. I know you’ll get a hold of one. Good things happen to people who work hard. You’re a hard worker, so you hang in there.”

I pulled up in front of the house and put the car in park. Ralph peeled off several bills and handed them to me in the dark. He slid across the bench seat and pushed me out the door.

“This is it, kid. I probably won’t see you again. So, have a good life, and when the pitcher throws that fast one down the middle, take your best swing.”

“Won’t I see you next year?”

“I’m getting too old for this game. Moose will take over. I’m heading to blue skies and warm breezes.”

“Ralph, thanks for the job and all,” I said, as my throat constricted around every word. “Merry Christmas.”

He pulled the door closed and drove away with the wave of a hand. I walked into a warm kitchen. As I took off my coat, I heard my mother reading, ‘T’was The Night Before Christmas’ in the other room. It was her Christmas tradition; she would send the kids to bed after this. I stepped into the room and stopped in my tracks. The splendor of the tree left me speechless. Too big for our little house, it took up a third of the room. My mom got up and hugged me fiercely.

“What is…Where did that come from?” I stammered.

“Mr. Moose brought the tree and we helped him decorate it,” my brother Walter yelled.

“That’s right,” my mom said, “Your friends, Mr. Goldman and Moose did this,” and she added, whispering into my ear, “Little Poop.”

“I wish he wouldn’t call me that.”

“I’m sure.” She smiled.

She finished the story and sent everyone to bed. I hung back, promising my brothers I wouldn’t be long. They reluctantly dragged their feet up the stairs. I looked at my mother hopefully, the obvious question on my face.

“It didn’t come, but we have the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen—and go look in the fridge.” She pulled the door open. “We’ll have a turkey with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner!”

“What’s all this?”

“Your friend, Moose, brought it over with the tree and the decorations. It’s too bad you missed him. He only left a half hour ago. The kids were hanging all over him. I swear I don’t know how he managed to get that tree in here with them pestering him.”

My mother hugged me. “We may not have presents, but we have the gift of friends and we have each other. Right?”

“Yeah, but the little ones won’t understand.”

“They understand more than we give them credit for. Now go to bed, or they’ll blame you for making Santa skip our house,” she said with a sad smile.

###

“Tim, Santa’s here,” Walter exclaimed, shaking me awake.

“Go back to sleep. It’s too early,” I groaned.

“Listen, I heard him downstairs,” he insisted.

“You’re dreaming.”

“Shh.” Walter held a finger over his lips.

Then, I heard something too. I couldn’t make it out, but it came from downstairs.

“Wait here.” I made my way down the steps and peered around the corner. The tree lit up the entire room. “Mom?” I whispered into the pine-scented air. There was no answer. As I moved quietly through the living room, I heard a car pull away out front. It rounded the corner and something on our porch reflected the taillights. I eased the front door open and staggered back in disbelief. Brightly wrapped boxes covered the porch. I rushed up the steps and tiptoed into my mother’s bedroom.

“Come downstairs right away!”

I ran into my room to put my shoes on while Walter gave me a wide-eyed look. “Go to sleep. I’ll be right back.”

Shivering on the porch, I handed the gifts in to my mother. Tears washed the sleep from her eyes as she read the tags and sorted the shiny packages into piles for each child. I carried in the last one, the heaviest of all, and read my name on the tag.

“No peeking. You have to wait until everyone is up before you unwrap it!” She wiped the tears away with the sleeve of her bathrobe.

“But, Mom!”

“Help me get these under the tree so we can go back to bed.”

“Who—” I tried, but my throat closed up.

“It must have been Santa Claus.” She smiled.

Back in bed, I couldn’t close my eyes. I lay awake thinking about the mysterious gifts. Shortly past five o’clock, Walter began to stir.

“Go wake everyone up,” I said.

In no time, we were all assembled in the living room. The tree, the gifts, plus the five of us left little space. Mom read the tags and handed out the gifts. She slid the only one with my name on it over to me as wrapping paper flew into the air from all directions.

My eyes filled with tears when I unwrapped it and saw the box. All-in-one stereo.

###

Bright headlights splashed across the white lawn and startled me awake. My right hand knocked the phone from the table. My arm ached from hanging over the arm of the chair. I walked to the front door and Sylvia ran from her car into my arms.

“Dad? What’s wrong?” she asked, giving me a peck on the cheek.

“Nothing, Honey, nothing.”

“You’re crying.”

“Tears of joy.” I hugged her again.

“Dad, is Uncle Moose coming this year?” Sylvia asked.

“He’s in the guest room sleeping off the jet lag.”

“Could you ask him not to call me that name? It’s embarrassing.”

“He doesn’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just his way.”

“Well, it embarrasses me.”

“I’ll ask him, but it won’t do any good.”

Moose loomed at the top of the stairs in the bathrobe Sylvia had picked out for him years ago. A hideous shade of green, it made him look like a cross between Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster. He always brought it with him when he came to visit us. His face lit up when he saw Sylvia.

“Hey, Fish Guts!” Moose roared as he held out his arms and waited for her to run up the steps to hug him.

“Hi, Uncle Moose! I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

Moose’s bear hug engulfed Sylvia.

“I’m sorry, Sweetie, I’ll try to remember you’re a big girl now. And you sure don’t smell like fish guts no more.”

“You look great. How is Florida treating you?” Sylvia asked, extracting herself from his embrace. She gave him an appraising look. “They aren’t starving you. That’s for sure,” she added, patting his voluminous belly.

“Florida’s okay, but I miss you something fierce,” Moose ruffled Sylvia’s hair.

“We miss you too, Uncle Moose,” Sylvia said, beaming.

“Were you a good girl this year?”

“Of course, I’m always good. Right dad?”

I nodded my head.

“I’ve gotta use the privy,” Moose said. “See you in the morning, and Merry Christmas.” He kissed the top of her head and lumbered off toward the bathroom.

When the door closed, Sylvia leaned over the railing and smiled at me.

“I guess it’s okay to have one eccentric uncle, right Dad?”

“I’d say we’re very lucky to have one eccentric uncle. Merry Christmas, Fish Guts.”

“Yeah, lucky,” she mused. “Merry Christmas, Little Poop.”

 

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