A guest post by Sue Smith (fellow member of The Writers Nest)
A "Last-Minute Christmas Sale" flyer swirled around the man’s tattered purple running shoes. The brown paper bag,clutched in work worn hands shouted “alcoholic” to the world. A black and gray Goodwill hoodie made a frail attempt to block the insistent December wind. The man beneath the clothes looked out at the world from the soft shadow of his hood as he sat on the bench by the bus stop.
A thirty something lady collapsed onto the bench next to the hooded man. She instantly projected a wall around him as she looked up at her friend. "Finally. I'm exhausted." She lowered a heavy bag on the ground next to her. " I've had all the phony Christmas cheer from the stores that I can handle."
Her friend, wrapped in a warm camel hair coat, stood glaring at the man willing him to move over. When nothing happened, she exhaled loudly and settled herself and her parcels as far to the other end of the bench as possible. "Well, you know Sally, you really should have checked to make sure your car was back from the mechanic before we left. I could have asked Bart to leave my car rather than get the snow tires today."
Both women deemed the hooded man invisible and continued their conversation around him.
Sally responded "How was I to know that we wouldn't be able to get a taxi to get home? There was no shortage while we were shopping. Now we’re stuck with the bus." She clutched her purse closely as she looked past the hooded man to her friend. "Deirdre you'd better make sure you keep an eye on your belongings while we're on the bus. You never know nowadays." She aimed a pointed glance in the direction of the quiet man.
Deirdre nodded, trying to shrink further into her warm coat. "Did you get everything on your list?"
"I better have because I've spent all that I had planned to and then some. This time of year really hits you in the pocket. I'm so sick of all these charities that you never hear from all year, suddenly sending you all their mouth and foot painted Christmas cards. They make you feel guilty if you don't send them money."
The wind began to feel colder.
"I know what you mean. I don't even open the envelopes anymore- just chuck them in the garbage. Money- money- money that's all they want and you can only give out so much right? After all family has to come first and I've got a huge list from my kids and nieces and nephews. Not to say anything of all the people that Bart works with. They don't expect just little presents either-you should see what he's put on the list for me to get."
"It's the same with me. Being head of department I'm expected to give a decent present to everyone under me. Then the company thinks I should take that out of my Christmas bonus. Go figure. To top it off my secretary went around and got a list of suggestions from the department members saying she thought that would help me -- can you believe that? I mean what am I -Santa Claus? God I hate this time of year. My bank account doesn't recover until at least March and the credit card interest rates suck you dry.”
At the intersection in front of them, an SUV jammed on its brakes as the light changed red. The driver of the truck behind just barely missed hitting the other car. He stormed out of his truck, slammed the door and like an angry bull released at a rodeo, charged forward to the SUV. He went to rip the car door open but the driver, seeing the advancing rage whirlwind in his rear view mirror quickly locked all doors.
The truck driver began pounding on the driver’s window. "What in god’s name do you think you're doing Mr.? I just about ploughed up the back of you. Didn't you see the color of that light? It was yellow -- yellow man- just like you are. You could've driven three trucks through there before the light turned red. Where did you get your license- off the back of a cereal package?"
Then he noticed that the light on the other side had turned yellow so with one final pound on the window he turned back and heaved himself into his truck.
Sally shook her head. "This time of year seems to stress everyone out doesn't it? I guess we're lucky that God only had one son. Can you imagine going through this ridiculous ritual more than once a year?"
Deirdre looked up as she heard the sound of air brakes announced the arrival of the bus. "Finally- let's get out of here and get home. Lord knows I've got tons of wrapping to do and I haven't even started ordering the food for Christmas dinner."
She grabbed her parcels, shot one more disapproving look at the man on the bench and walked over to the bus.
A gust of cold wind carried away the smell of diesel from the departing bus.
A small black squirrel intent on getting a few more nuts before hibernation stopped for a moment at the feet of the hooded man and looked up. The paper bag rustled as the man reached in and drew out a peanut to place by his feet. As he lowered the peanut, the squirrel stood up on its haunches and gently took the peanut from the man's fingers.
Dark clouds began birthing the first winter storm as white flakes began to claim the season. The man rubbed his hands vigorously up and down his arms for a moment before clutching the bag again.
A young red-haired girl skipped up to the bench. “Come on gran’ma. Here's a place to sit." She patted a spot next to the hooded man and smiled looking up at him. "Hi, my name's Carrie and my gran’ma is looking after me while my mom's at work. All the grade threes are on Christmas holidays you know."
Grandma settled on the other side of the man and began to apologize. "I'm so sorry sir if she's bothering you. Little Carrie is like the “Eveready Bunny." Grandma lent over to smile at Carrie. "She's just a real talker and loves people."
From beneath the hood came a warm voice. "That's all right ma’am. She’s no bother. "
"My sentiments exactly." Grandma smiled and sat back further on the bench pulling her cloth coat tighter against the wind.
Carrie hopped off the bench and began bouncing. "Look gran’ma-snow! I think it's gonna snow for Christmas. Hey gran’ma, you think we can make a snowman?"
"If we get enough snow I can take you to the park and we can try. But maybe you should get back onto the bench while we're waiting for the bus."
"Hey gran’ma, did you see the church behind us? They've got one of those- what do you call them? You know those thingies with the baby Jesus and Mary and stuff. Can we go and look? Can we?"
Grandma smiled as she stood up and looked at the hooded Man. "I know the bus just left so we probably have time. Would you mind just keeping an eye on these parcels? We'll be right by the church behind us."
From beneath the hood the warm voice assured her that her parcels would be safe.
Grandma smiled at Carrie. "It's called a Nativity scene. And yes we do have time to go and see the baby Jesus."
Carrie skipped circles around grandma as they walked over to the Nativity scene outside the church. "This is wonderful- just like Christmas should be with snow and everything." Carrie laughed and put her tongue out trying to catch the snowflakes.
Once Carrie arrived at the scene she became quiet. "Gran’ma, do you think it's okay to walk on the straw and go and peek at baby Jesus?"
"I'm sure that would be okay with Jesus."
Carrie went down on her knees to be able to peek into the little cradle holding the doll. She was quiet for a moment just looking. "It's just really a doll right gran’ma?"
"Yes it is dear, but it's to remind us about what really happened about 2000 years ago in Bethlehem."
More quiet from Carrie.
Grandmother looked back over to the bench by the bus. "We should get back there because that kind man is watching our parcels."
"Okay grandma." Carrie seemed subdued as she walked back to the bench.
They sat down and Carrie watched the snowflakes melting on her open palm. "Christmas is his birthday, right? So I want to give him something. I just want to put something in the cradle so he won't feel so alone."
The hooded man’s voice startled the grandmother. "You're welcome to give him this." He said as he reached into his brown paper bag and brought out a soft toy lamb to hand to Carrie.
Grandmother was perplexed and couldn't read the motivation from the hidden face. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am."
Carrie accepted the small gift and sat staring at it, her forehead furrowed. You could almost hear the snow falling.
She turned back to her grandmother. "But in the manger- that's just a doll. I want to give the real Jesus a present for his birthday. I don't know what to do."
The grandmother thought for a while and then turned to the man in the hood. "You were so kind to give Carrie the little lamb. I don't think she's going to leave it with the doll so perhaps we should give it back to you?"
“Would you accept it as my Christmas gift to your granddaughter?"
"Please grandma, can I keep it please- please- please?" She hugged the little lamb up against her chest.
Grandmother was puzzled. What a strange fellow he seemed to be. "Why that's very kind of you. We're complete strangers and yet you've shared something with us that seems to be special to you."
She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. "Do you have anywhere to celebrate Christmas? Do you have a family to be with?"
His head tilted up as the hood slid back slightly revealing eyes reflecting profound emotion . Wisdom and pain flickered through them like lightning.
"Yes, I have a family. A rather large one but I'm not sure that I would be welcome at their table." A single tear ran down his left cheek as he quickly wiped it away.
Grandmother's heart melted. "The bus will be here any moment. Please, you would be welcome at our table and in our home. Let me give you our address."
The bus appeared around the corner of the street in the distance as he took the piece of paper.
Grandmother stood up and began to gather her things. "By the way sir, my name is Madeline. What is yours?"
"My name is Joshua but you can call me Josh." His eyes shone summer in the winter afternoon.
Carrie looked up at Joshua as the wind blew his hood back over his brown hair. "Mr. Joshua, I would really like to give Jesus a present for his birthday. What do you think I could give him?"
Joshua went down on one knee and looked deeply into her eyes. He smiled and answered. "The most important thing that you could ever give to Jesus would be your love. All he wants is for you to love him and let him love you and guide you through your life. Do you think you could do that little lamb?"
The bus pulled up and grandma stepped up the first step reaching out for Carrie. Carrie stepped up hugging her gift and turned to Joshua. "I can do that. I can give him me for his birthday."
As the bus doors begin to close grandma called back "Don't forget we expect to see you at our home for Christmas dinner. I want you to know you will always have a place to stay and visit whenever you need to. Merry Christmas, Joshua."
"Merry Christmas, dear ones." He called out as the bus doors closed. He turned to walk away but stopped for a moment. He looked up through the swirl of thickening snowflakes and smiled.