Every bulb on every tree stabbed at Jack’s bloodshot eyes like being poked with sharp sticks. Every other night of the year he’d slept in the comfortable, incognito darkness of the downtown park. A few months ago, someone had taken it to mind that the old dump needed sprucing up, seeing as how it was only a couple of blocks from the new, glittering downtown. First, they’d started up a farmer’s-slash-flea market every weekend, then when winter hit, they brought in a bit of T.L.C. for the season.
As if throwing some lights on a few trees is gonna make the world’s problems go away, Jack thought, then growled at himself. Truth was he’d enjoyed the lights for the first two or three nights. Then again, he’d been on a good buzz then, and a few hits off a brown sack wrapped bottle made everything seem to look better. No, the world didn’t get any kinder, nor the people in it, but the slow burn of alcohol in his guts made him just not care.
Tonight he was just too ripping sober to think anything in the world was good or kind. The painful truths of life came into way too sharp of a focus when he actually had the mind to think about them. That was probably why he’d stayed pretty well sloshed for the last fifteen years. Right this minute, all he could think about was how to get his hands on another bottle of anything that could be called ‘rot-gut’, and sink himself back into the comfortable, hellfire pit of drunkenness.
A couple strolled hand in hand down the sidewalk, and Jack held out a shaking hand. They were both well-dressed, well groomed, and from the names printed on the sides of the shopping bags they carried, they obviously had money.
“Got any change you could spare?” he asked, the words grating on his soul. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, he’d actually had some pride. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like, but every once in a while – usually when he was forced into involuntary soberness – that pride reared its head to torment him. Once, way back before the current ice age, he’d had a life with all the trimmings. ..
The young woman leaned closer to her companion, who gave Jack a dirty look, pulled his wife closer to his side, and hurried past. Three steps on the other side of him, they stopped, and the young woman leaned her face close to the young man’s ear. The man turned around, leaving her there, and stepped toward Jack, pulling his wallet from his pocket.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, slipping something into Jack’s hand. Saying nothing more, he turned back to the woman, who smiled broadly at him. They walked off arm in arm, no doubt happy with themselves for their Christmas generosity.
Let ‘em be smug. Jack didn’t care, especially after he unfolded the bills and found three twenties in his hand. That would buy a nice bottle or two.
He shoved the money deep into the inside pocket of his overcoat. He’d let the couple get out of sight before he headed down the street to Charlie’s Liquor. He’d let them think he spent their noble gesture on food, or to buy a house and turn his life around and become a pillar of society.
They can have their illusions; he said to himself, Heaven knows I don’t have any. They’ll have to have enough for both of us.
He staggered a bit as he stood up. He’d been sitting on that bench a bit too long, and his right leg had gone to sleep again. He hated it when that happened, but it was not as bad as when his arm did the same thing. What was a little staggering from an old drunk, anyway? People expected it, blamed the booze even when a body hadn’t had any.
He was swimming in deep thoughts of amber liquid and its accompanying floating feeling as he got to the corner of the park and almost tripped over what he thought was a big rock on the edge of the sidewalk. What? Had they decided to relandscape, too, he wondered. But as he turned to take a closer look at the boulder, it looked up at him with the sweetest face he’d ever seen.
She was all dressed in black; the backpack slung over one shoulder gave her an irregular shape. Her hair, what he could see of it peeking out from under the hood of her sweatshirt, was dyed black as well, but her eyes were as blue as the dawn. And scared.
“What the devil are you doing there?” he growled at her. He surprised both of them by speaking to her, he hadn’t intended to.
“Just trying to keep warm,” she said, her eyes wide with fear.
“Why don’t you go home?” he asked, “Don’t you know it’s dangerous out here at night?”
“I can’t go home,” the girl answered.
“Why not?” Jack glanced down the street. If he didn’t hurry, Charlie’s would close and he’d be out of luck for the night. “What? Fight with your mom? Don’t be stupid, go home!”
“I don’t have a way to,” the girl stood up from her crouched position. “I got here on the bus. I don’t have any money to go home.”
Jack sighed deeply, his hope for the warm burn in his belly from a bottle of booze fading.
“How long you been out here?” he asked, gesturing to the park around them.
“Since this afternoon.”
Jack watched a single tear drip down the girl’s cheek, another one of those ugly realities he’d rather be avoiding.
She said nothing, but nodded furiously.
“Come on, then.” He turned and walked away, half hoping she wouldn’t follow him, but she did. She stuck close to his elbow as he led her down the sidewalk, past the door of his beloved Charlie’s Liquor and across the street to the burger joint.
“How old are you?” he asked her as they waited for the food they ordered.
“Sixteen.” She looked him in the eye, without judgment or disgust, the first person to do so in years. It made him uncomfortable, that pride thing crimping in his gu againt. “My name’s Kat.”
“That’s not a name,” he grumbled, looking out the window just in time to see Charlie’s blue neon ‘open’ sign blink off. Dang it. “A cats an animal. What’s your real name?”
“Kaitlyn,” she answered, looking a little embarrassed at his remark.
“Well, Kaitlyn,” Jack said, “Where’d you come from?” He knew he’d be smarter not to pry into the girl’s personal life, but she’d made him lose out on a good night’s drunk, and he intended to share his misery.
“That’s a couple hundred miles from here,” Jack said with a frown. “How’d you get here?”
“I came on the bus.” Kaitlyn said, her eyes wandering over the tray the waitress brought and set before them. “I was going to go all the way to New York, but somebody stole my purse. So now I’m stuck.”
“Running away from home?”
“Something like that.” Kaitlyn ripped open a ketchup packet and poured the contents over her fries. “Seems a little stupid now. I wish I’d never got on that bus.”
The conversation ended as the two vagrants ate dinner, the best one either had eaten in days. Jack’s mind worked right along with his jaw, and by the time he finished his food, he’d pretty much worked out what had to happen next.
“Come on,” he said, getting up from the table as Kaitlyn slurped the last of her soda. “You and me got somewhere to be.”
“Where?” Kaitlyn asked as she slid out of the booth.
They walked out of the restaurant, Kaitlyn silently keeping close to his elbow. They crossed the street, back past the now closed Charlie’s Liquor store, over two blocks and down one. He held the door open for her, and they walked into the Greyhound station. Jack said nothing as they walked up to the ticket counter, but he did point out the special holiday travel fare poster as they passed it. Go home for the holidays! Any city in the state - $50!
“One ticket to Springfield,” he told the man behind the counter. Kaitlyn answered all the necessary questions, and Jack dropped his life savings – the three $20 bills, minus the dinner at the burger place—on the counter to pay for the ticket.
“Do you think my mom will let me come back, after what I did?”
A face crossed Jack’s mind that he hadn’t let himself think about for a very long time.
“Trust me,” he answered, “she’ll be glad to see you come home. Any parent would.” If only children were as glad to see their parents…
Kaitlyn hugged him, an impulsive embrace that Jack never saw coming. Before he could say or do anything, the call came over the loudspeaker. The bus to Springfield and all points west was loading now at Gate Three. A grateful girl waved and smiled and disappeared through the door.
Jack sighed and headed out the door on the other side of the building. The bus station didn’t allow loiterers, he knew from experience, and he wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation with the cops. He did notice, as he stepped out into the night, that he felt warmer inside than he had before. He blamed the hamburger, but he knew that wasn’t really it. Really, it was the thought of a little girl on a bus on her way home in the middle of the night, two days before Christmas.
That face showed up in his thoughts again. He shoved his hands deep in his coat pockets, as if steeling himself for the painful thoughts that came with that particular memory. His own daughter, several years older than Kaitlyn, had refused to speak to him the last time he went by the house. To be fair, he had been blind drunk, and a little too loud, and it had been late at night. He hung his head, hearing the words she’d said to him.
…don’t want your grandkids to see you like this. Come back when you can sober up!
For the first time ever, things suddenly seemed clear. Yes, it was painful, but if the situation was reversed, and he was in Kaitlyn’s shoes, he knew he’d do whatever he could to get home to his family. He knew he had to do whatever it took, even if that meant the booze.
Metal jingled in his pocket and he pulled out two quarters, all that was left of the gift of strangers. Enough to make a phone call. Not much, but a start…
The receiver was icy cold when he put it to his ear.
A long silence.
“Nan, I’d like to come by and see the kids for Christmas.” Jack couldn’t believe the sound of the words coming out of his own mouth.
“I just don’t know…”
“I’m sober, honey.” He said before she could refuse. “And I’m going to do my best to stay this way.”
On the other end of the phone, he could hear his daughter’s tears. She invited her father to dinner, the first ever occasion since she’d gotten married. Behind the happiness, Jack could feel apprehension. He wondered if he was making promises he could not keep.
He hung up the phone feeling a whole new kind of warmth inside himself. Almost as good as booze-burn. He still wanted that drink, but since he didn’t have any money, it really didn’t matter anyway. Maybe, just maybe, he’d found something better.
With nowhere else to go until Christmas day dinnertime, he headed back to the park. If no one else had claimed that spot under the play structure, he might just burrow in there for the night. Tomorrow, maybe he could find somewhere to take a shower and clean up for his family holiday.
“Hey, Joe!” He called out a greeting to another park regular as he walked across the grass. “How you doin’?”
The old man looked up, his wrinkly face even uglier in the weird shadows of the Christmas lights on the park trees.
“Not so good these days,” he answered. “Got robbed a couple of nights back. Don’t know what they thought they were going to get off me, but they did it anyway.”
Jack noticed that his friend wore only a light windbreaker, and the rucksack he usually carried slung over one shoulder was conspicuously missing.
“Did you go down to the mission?” Jack asked. “Get another coat?”
“They don’t got any,” Joe shrugged. “They said too many people need ‘em. So there weren’t one for me.” He patted his belly with a good natured smile. “’Sides, they wouldn’ta had anything to fit me and my girlish figure.” Even as he chuckled, Jack saw him shiver violently.
“Here,” he said, slipping this own coat off his shoulders. Underneath it, he wore two tatty sweaters, neither one remotely fashionable. “Not fancy, but it’s warm.”
“I can’t take your coat, Jack!” Joe protested, but Jack held it out to him firmly.
“I’ll be fine,” Jack said. “I got two sweaters to keep me warm. ‘Sides, I’m going home for Christmas. Gonna see my grandkids.”
Joe accepted the coat with humble gratitude, and stood up to put it on. He smiled as the coat, still warm from Jack’s body, wrapped around him.
Jack said goodnight, and found his way to the playground. His spot was empty, and he crawled in underneath the slide, out of the wind. He settled in and made himself comfortable.
“Jack.” A voice, vaguely familiar, pulled him out of sleep. He opened his eyes, finding it brighter than usual for a winter morning. But then, he wasn’t under the slide anymore. And he wasn’t cold.
“I’m right here,” he answered that voice.
“Come, follow me.” A man, standing a few feet away, gestured to him. Jack went to him, thinking as he did that the man looked an awful lot like that picture of Jesus in the church building he used to go to every Sunday. “I have a place waiting for you in Heaven.”
“I can’t go to Heaven,” Jack said, shaking his head. He wanted to follow, more than he wanted anything in the world, ever. But his own recollection of the past held his feet in check. “I don’t deserve to.”
“How can you say that?” The Stranger asked him, “When you have given me the same gifts that the wise men brought at my birth?”
This has got to be a dream, he thought. I’ve never brought any gifts to Jesus. I’m nothing but an old drunk!
“You gave your gold to a stranger who needed a way home. You gave your myrrh, the gift of healing, to your daughter when you called and promised more than you have ever given before. And you laid your frankincense in the hands of a friend who needed uplift and comfort.” The man in white smiled the kindest smile Jack had ever seen. In it, he saw the same smile he had seen on Kaitlyn’s face, heard in his daughter’s voice, and felt inside himself when he saw his coat warming his friend. “Tonight, you’ve given everything for others, and there is no greater love than that.”
The Lord laid his hands on Jack’s shoulders.
“Now come, celebrate my birthday with me in the Kingdom of My Father.”
With the warmest feeling radiating through his entire spirit, stronger than anything he had ever felt before, Jack followed.