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  • December 20th, 2011

A Christmas Present

 

A CHRISTMAS PRESENT

            “Merry Christmas!” Harvey Mirella muttered to himself, his mood as bleak as the cold moonlight filtering through the snow-shrouded pines.  The headlights dipped and dug at the snowbanks, briefly trapped a snowshoe hare faintly outlined by its shadow–white on white.

            It was Christmas Eve and Harvey was on his way to the county seat to get his son out of jail in time for the boy’s 18th birthday.

            His wife was in tears at home, her tattered face incongruous amid the glitter of the Christmas decorations.  The boy, Brad, was a late child, born on Christmas morning, when Harvey was 40 years old. 

            Harvey Mirella impatient with the boy, who always had seemed clumsy and slow, unable to fit in.  The boy was dreamy, intent on aimless study of leaves and grass, not books.  Harvey didn’t see how Brad could make it in real with life and this bitter Christmas Eve mission was proof of that. 

            Harvey hated his resentment, but he had been right about the kid—bad seed or some chemical insufficiency.  Some thing.  Sheriff calling at near midnight to tell him his kid had been caught breaking and entering. 

            Harvey gritted his teeth, anger heating his face.  Once he had felt blessed with a Christmas baby.  Not now.  Just another punk juvenile delinquent.  His juvenile delinquent.

            Brad had been sitting in a pickup and was fumbling for the keys when the police car pulled alongside.  The town marshal flashed his light on Brad’s white face, knew with a cop’s certain instinct that there was more here than a kid out with a six pack.  He motioned for Brad to roll down the window, his breath fogging in the cold Wisconsin night. 

            “What’s goin’ on here?” he asked.

            He could smell the beer, but the acrid stink of fear was just as strong.  Brad started telling him some story about getting stuck and trying to get out, volunteering much more information than he’d asked for–a certain sign the kid was hiding something.  He made Brad get out, noticed he weaved from the beer.  He flashed the light inside the truck cab, saw unopened candy bars, packages of potato chips and other snacks. 

            It didn’t take much deduction to associate the broken window of the gas station with the items in the truck and with the terrified youngster.  Punk kid, the marshal thought sourly, comparing Brad with his own boy who had starred for the high school basketball team and then had been killed in Viet Nam.             

            The center custodian was a gentle person, who had survived his own wild childhood. 

            “Punk kid breaking into a gas station,” the marshal said.  He pushed the boy, now numb with fatigue and dread, none too gently into the detention center.  “Sit down!” he commanded roughly.  Brad collapsed into a hard chair in the small entry area, his face white and frightened.

            The marshal and the custodian went back into a cramped office.  The custodian, who knew what had happened to the marshal’s son, said, “Don’t be too hard on him, eh?  It’s not the end of the world.  He’s pretty scared.”

            “He oughta be,” the marshal said.  “If he was a year older, he’d be lookin’ at prison.  Probably get off with a pat on the back and the next time he’ll be carryin’ a gun.”

            “Naah, I don’t think so,” the custodian said.  “Not a criminal, no.  Scared kid got some beer and did something dumb.  Probably never do anything wrong again.  Didn’t you ever do something wrong and not get caught?”

            “Not like this,” the marshal said.

            Harvey passed the city limit sign.  He knew where the juvenile attention center was.  “Juvenile attention!”  What a laugh!  Like they were doing the kids some favor.  Why not call it what it was.  A jail, a lockup for punk kids.  Like Brad.

            Harvey parked the car behind the attention center,  He felt old and tired. 

            His wife had been asleep when the phone rang, her dream one of danger and fear.  Later she wondered if the fright of her dream began on the first ring of the phone or if she actually had experienced a premonition.  She threw back the covers, raced into the hall to answer the persistent ringing phone, her eyes wide, but her mind still trying to shed the confusion of sleep. 

            “Yes!” she said.  The news made her go numb with shock.  Her lips were stiff, asking meaningless questions.  

            The official voice was patient, dispassionate.  He’d broken bad news–far worse than this–to many a parent and it always was the same.  Shock, fright, outrage sometimes from the fathers, poorly-thought- out questions, sometimes self-recrimination.                        

            She put down the phone, her mind a jumble of frightened-bird thoughts, fluttering in confusion.   Nothing like this ever had happened.  She knew she shouldn’t have let him go out on Christmas Eve.  He belonged at home, with his family.  But he had promised to be home early.  “You can’t keep them locked in the cradle until they’re grown,” she told Harvey as he growled and finally gave in.

            She leaned weakly against the wall.  She had to tell Harvey.  He had heard the phone ring, but not until she’d already moved to answer it.  He’d been tired from a long day at the Cozy Cup, the cafe he ran downtown in Birch Lake, and was heavily asleep when the call came.  He’d lost his sense of time and missed the note of alarm in his wife’s voice, heard only the murmur of the conversation.

            Then she switched on the bedroom light and he knew something terrible had happened from her face, pitted by desolation.  “That was the Sheriff’s office.  They say Brad broke into a filling station and stole some things.”  He shouted foolish questions at her, groaned with misery.  How he hated what the boy had done to him.

            Brad was was sick and confused.  The beer had worn off, leaving him only a dull headache, a leaden fatigue.  He knew what would happen when his folks found out about this.  He hated himself, hated them for being there to receive and hurt and condemn. 

            “Common sense!” his father had shouted, the last time he’d been in a scrape–nothing major; he’d gotten some beer and drunk it and driven to see his girl friend and on the way he ran in the ditch and split his lip.

            “Common sense!  You don’t have a lick of it!  What makes you do such things!”

            He didn’t know.  If he knew he wouldn’t do them.  The beer eased the ache that always was there, a part of him.  He was as good as anybody, as big as the biggest.  He could cope with anything.  He could be happy.  He drank beer with the guys and told jokes and everyone laughed and he felt warm and wanted.       “Hey, man, what you in for?”  It was some scuzzy kid, looked about half-wired. 

            Brad shrugged.

            “I got caught in possession,” the scuzzy kid said.  “You deal?”

            “I don’t do drugs,” Brad said. 

            “Hey, man, you smell like a brewery,” the scuzzy kid said.  “They say alcohol’s a drug, you dig?”

            “What’s gonna happen now?” Brad asked. 

            “Ah, you probably get off with a kiss on the ear,” the kid said.  “What you get picked up for–droppin’ a six pack?”

            “Breaking into a filling station,” Brad said.

            “Hey, wow!” said the scuzzy one with respect.  “That’s heavy, man!  They probably gonna stick you away for a hundred years!” 

            Brad looked at him with fright.  He realized he had been counting on his father to get it all straightened out so could all go home where it was warm and familiar and it would be another bad memory. 

            He felt his punishment was in the terror of getting caught and dragged behind bars.  That this desolation could be more permanent hadn’t occurred to him. 

            The marshal, noting that the punk kid was only minutes away from being an adult, growled, “You better enjoy this luck, kid.  It’s about run out.  Next time I see you here, you ain’t gonna be a minor.”

            After Harvey had signed the paperwork, the marshal said, “You can have him.  He’ll probably get a slap on the wrist pinky and a kiss from the juvenile judge.”  The marshal looked at Harvey as if measuring how much of Brad’s guilt could be assigned to his parent.

            Harvey was stiff with his anger.  He moved jerkily across the parking lot to the car. He slammed the door on his side, making no effort to help his son.  Brad barely got the door closed before Harvey stepped on the gas, shooting forward, the tires spinning briefly on the snowpacked parking lot.

            Harvey thought of a dozen bitter questions, rejected them all, finally shouted, “Why!”  He pounded on the steering wheel.  “Why!”  He glared at the silent boy beside him.  “I wish you’d been born a girl,” he muttered sourly.

            Brad looked out the window at the bright winter night.  “I wish I hadn’t been born at all,” he said softly. 

            Harvey realized Christmas music still was playing on the car radio.  “Thanks for the Christmas present,” he said sarcastically.  He looked at the boy in the wash of moonlight through the windshield and saw tears glistening on Brad’s face.

            Once they had watched the flare of northern lights when Brad was six years old and he saw tears on the little boy’s face—tears of helpless joy.  His heart had swelled so filled with love that he thought he would burst.  But that was then. 

            It was after midnight.  Brad was an adult in the eyes of the law, now, a year older…and it was Christmas day. 

            Harvey felt the tire blow, a sagging and sudden thumping.  He immediately slowed and let the car drift to the roadside.  It crunched to a halt in the softer snow.  Another frustration, but Harvey realized he was drained of anger.  He knew only a cloying fatigue. 

            “You could maybe help out a little bit,” he said tartly, looking at the boy.  The Christmas music was clear in the suddenly silent night.  “Change the tire.  Do something constructive for once in your worthless life.”

            Brad nodded, his head down.  He opened the door, felt the sharp bite of the cold, and stepped into the snow, his boot crunching.

            Harvey unlocked the trunk.  He stood back, watching the boy.  Brad wrestled the spare tire out, the cold on the metal and rubber numbing his hands.  He shivered, put his hands under his armpits to warm.  “Come on!” Harvey said.  “We haven’t got all night!”  Brad felt a flare of anger, but it died quickly.  He tried to make his stiffening hands work with the icy tools.

            The lights blinded both of them and they squinted awkwardly into the glare.  Where had the pickup come from?  They’d heard nothing.  “So, you got dem flat?”  The voice was rich with a meaty Svenski accent.  The pickup truck’s door creaked and clunked as the man got out.  Probably some Scandahoovian potato farmer heading home full of Christmas beer.

            The figure was indistinct in the haze of the truck lights.  Harvey glimpsed overalls, broad, powerful peasant hands. 

            “Looks like dat boy’s doin’ all right,” said the farmer.  Harvey looked at Brad struggling with the heavy tire and felt unfamiliar compassion.  The car radio was playing “Silent Night.”  For all its familiarity, it fit the calm quiet of the cold winter night. 

            Harvey remembered, with a sudden ache in his throat, other Christmases when Brad was little and innocent, a chubby baby. 

            “So, den, you need some help?” the Svenski asked?

            “Thanks for stopping,” Harvey said.  “I guess we’ll get goin’ all right.”

            “Everything gonna be all right,” said the farmer.  “Dis is Christmas, sure.  Dem troubles we got, dey ain’t nuttin.”

            “Maybe not for you,” Harvey growled. 

            “For me most of all,” the man said.  “You know dis is the time ven God’s son vas born?  I been lookin’ at dat fine boy you got and tink ain’t it nice to have a son.”

            “They’re trouble,” Harvey said, the dull ache of his anger pulsing again.

            “Dey’re joy too, you gif ’em a chance,,” the farmer said.  “Look, dem northern lights is comin, you betcha!” 

            Harvey looked to the north, where the farmer pointed.  There was Nothing but a lacework of stars.  Brad finished with the tire and straightened.  Harvey started to turn toward the farmer to say he saw nothing when the first flare lit the horizon. 

            The northern sky pulsed with light.  In seconds the entire sky filled with veils of surging light, throbbing with a fierce majesty.  , The northern lights strode from horizon to horizon like a parade of angels.  There were shimmering robes of pearly light, fountains of fire.  They swelled and bloomed soundlessly.  They were so immense, so grand that neither he nor Brad felt the cold, though there was no heat in the lights.        As abruptly as they had come, the lights ebbed.  They faded to a dull fire on the horizon and the winter stars shone again.

            Harvey found he was weeping. 

            The farmer had vanished.  How had the old guy known the lights would flare?  Who was he?  Harvey turned to the boy who was pale-faced in the moonlight.

            The boy, now a man, yet also was the six-year-old, wet-eyed with wonder. “Brad…” He didn’t know what to say.  He held out his arms to his son and Brad stepped into them.  Wordlessly they held each other. 

            “Brad, I love you,” Harvey said.  “I always have.” 

            “I love you too, Dad,” Brad said.  “I always have.

            In silence they headed toward Birch Lake and Christmas morning.              -30-

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3 Comments

  1. Carrie Jo

    December 21st, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Reply

    Oh, I have tears in my eyes!

  2. Ken G

    December 27th, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Reply

    Beautiful story. Thanks Joel.

    • joelvance

      December 27th, 2011 at 8:32 pm

      Reply

      Hi, Ken,
      And thanks for the kind words. They’re much appreciated.
      Joel



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