(I’m going to quickly post this overly sentimental short story before I come to my senses ….)
He sat in his recliner in the glow of the lights of the Christmas tree, listening to the radio, sipping the Crown Royal and 7-Up he had poured himself. He wasn’t in the habit of drinking alone, but it was Christmas Eve. Outside it was dark and cold. It had snowed about a week before; about two inches was left on the ground. The package sat wrapped in plain brown paper under the tree.
The radio was playing Christmas songs. Between songs the deejay would give an update on Santa Claus’s status. It felt like a long time since Santa Claus had played a role in his Christmas. From beyond his door he could hear the pounding of little feet running up and down the hallway. Those little Williams boys are worked up tonight, he thought. And why shouldn’t they be, it’s the night before Christmas. They were annoying and wild and disruptive as ever, but tonight he felt pity and hoped for the best for them. They’re not so bad, he thought, they’re just little kids. He hoped their father would remain sober long enough for them to have the Christmas every kid deserved. He thought about his own son and model trains and hot wheels and matchbox cars, and the old house, then he closed his eyes and thought about the house he grew up in, the Christmases of his childhood, and the endless bounty that would lie under the tree in the grey light of the early Christmas morning, and his Mom, and his Dad.
He opened his eyes and saw the small tree with the single solitary package wrapped in plain brown paper underneath it. He could hear the wind gusting outside and suddenly he felt cold and alone. He emptied his drink and went to the kitchen counter and poured himself another. He looked at the clock on the stove. It was a quarter past eleven. Forty five more minutes. He had promised himself that he’d wait until it was Christmas. Staying up wasn’t a problem; after all, he could sleep late in the morning.
He looked out the window to the parking lot, three stories down. The moon was shining on the snow and reflecting off of the parked cars. It looked cold and barren outside. There’s something about a cold winter night that makes you appreciate being home, warm and with no place you had to go. Home. This was home now, this downtown three room apartment on the third floor. He swished the drink in its glass, making the ice cubes rattle. He raised his glass and softly said out loud, “Here’s to home”, and then he took a long drink.
He sat back down in his recliner. The radio was between songs, and the deejay was giving a weather report. He became aware of the silence from down the hallway and the absence of little feet in the hallway. The Williams boys must finally be in bed. Now if that drunk of a father and that sow of a mother got their act together, they’d be getting the presents out, setting them under the tree, getting everything ready for that magical morning. He waited to hear them fighting again, because that would be just like them, fighting on Christmas Eve, too stupid to realize how important this night was. Those boys, those bratty and obnoxious boys, who rode their bikes too close last fall and scratched his car, who were always running up and down the stairs, actually knocking him over that one time, if he hadn’t had a firm grasp of the railing he would have surely tumbled all the way down. They had no decent upbringing, they were only seven and five, and their Mom couldn’t be bothered with them, holed up in her apartment all day, probably eating, while their Dad was out all the time, probably drinking. What a pair, he thought, her eating and him drinking – they were made for each other. Stupid kids are what they are. Stupid kids who were raising stupid kids. He waited to hear them fighting, but there was nothing.
He then looked at the display case he had built. He was proud of the work, of his craftsmanship, of the wood inlays and the glass paneled doors that opened and shut. It was a quarter to twelve now, only fifteen minutes before he could open the package from Handelman’s engravers. He was getting excited now, and he went to the closet. He was shaking when he took the duffel bag out. He hadn’t looked at it in months, since he had the idea, since he ordered the engraving, since he talked to the owner of the land, since before he began working on the display case in the shop at work.
The radio had quit playing Christmas songs and was now broadcasting some news show. A man’s voice droned on and on. Down the hallway it was still quiet. He became aware, as he removed the Louisville Slugger from the bag, that he couldn’t stop thinking about how quiet it was. He took out the glove and the small case that held the ball with Robin Yount’s signature on it. He looked at the package, then at the display case he had built, but his mind was still preoccupied with the couple down the hall. He wondered if they were still awake. He went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway. Down the hall, under their doorway, he could see a sliver of light. They were still up.
He went back inside his apartment. Suddenly, for the first time, he questioned his plans. Why a memorial? Who was it for? What would it change? He looked at the clock on the stove. It was five minutes before midnight. He didn’t have time to answer these questions, to think these things through. His gut was telling him what to do now. He put the items back in the duffel bag and in what felt like the same motion, he went down the hallway. He gently knocked on the door. The father opened it; he was wearing a two day growth of whiskers and a ratty flannel shirt, but he appeared to be sober.
“Oh, hello”, the father cautiously greeted.
“I’m sorry to disturb you”, he muttered. “May I come in? It’ll only take a second.”
“Sure, sure”, he said. Beckoning to his wife, he said “Honey, it’s Mr. Johnson, from down the hall.” She got up from where she was kneeling under the tree.
“Merry Christmas”, she said. Apprehension leaked out of her forced smile.
“Merry Christmas”, he replied. “I’m sorry to interrupt your Christmas Eve, but I was going through some old things, and I thought maybe your sons would enjoy them. Lord knows I’ll get no use out of them” He handed the duffel bag to the father. “It’s just some baseball stuff, a bat and a glove and a ball.”
“Thank you”, the father said, starting to go through the things.
“I hope they like baseball. They’re getting to that age.”
“Oh, they do, or, they will”, the father said. Examining the ball, he said “Who’s Robin Ount?”
“Yount”, he corrected, his opinion of the man as a moron now confirmed. He was just about to explain when the mother interjected,
“Robin Yount, you must have heard of him, dear. He was a famous Milwaukee Brewer.”
“Oh, right, right, Robin Yount” It was pathetically unconvincing.
“Mr. Johnson”, she said, “thank you so much, but we couldn’t take these things. That ball is probably worth some money.”
“No, no, please take it. I’d rather see the bat and glove come to some use. I think your boys would enjoy it. As for the ball, please, do with it what you want.”
“But we couldn’t”
“You don’t understand. These were things I bought for my son, a long time ago. He never got to use them. So please, it’d mean so much to me to see your boys playing with them next spring. Please.” He became aware of the tears that were beginning to form behind his eyes.
“I don’t know what to say. Let us pay you something.” Her eyes were moist now.
“Don’t even think about that. This is a Christmas gift. To your boys”
They thanked him, and offered him some hot chocolate. He was surprised to see that that was all the father was drinking. Maybe they got it after all, he thought, even if the husband was too stupid to know who Robin Yount is, maybe they understood what he didn’t all those years ago, that Christmases are numbered. He declined their offer and they exchanged pleasant good nights.
He went back to his apartment. Satisfied and content, he went to bed and slept soundly. Under his small Christmas tree, the plain brown package from Handelman’s engravers remained unopened.