Short Story by James Strauss
Baudelaire, the acclaimed French poet, had best captured it in one of his lyrical pieces, ‘an explosive morning,’ Darby smiled with the thought. A bright yellow Santa Fe sun glared, then disappeared behind darkening cloud shadows across the moving water. Darby lowered his upraised eyes to follow the constantly changing pattern of small rivulets of the river, as it flowed past his feet. Someone had named the changing infinite variations ‘chaos,’ he remembered from his former life, although he tried not to think about the past or its complexities anymore.
It was late December, and the Santa Fe River was little more than a half-frozen stream. Darby sat down between the water and a large lump of rumpled brown cloth that contained his friend Albert.
The lump straightened out, revealing itself to be a sleeping bag, its position carefully tucked under an abutting edge of the bridge for concealment. The bridge itself arched over the small river in a low, almost imperceptible curve, high enough to allow Albert to move freely, but not high enough to keep taller Darby from having to bend slightly at the waist when he stood. Darby glanced over at the bag, knowing his friend Albert was awake, but unwilling to leave the warmth of his secure cocoon. He turned his head to stare again into the gurgling river of water and ice.
It had been a good night. The black clad Gestapo-like police, their eyes newly augmented with government surplus night vision goggles, had not prowled the banks. Both men had slept from dusk to just after dawn, and that didn’t happen very often.
“Albert,” Darby whispered, nudging deeply into the side of the bag with his right foot, then leaning forward, his arms atop his knees, to wait.
“What? What is it?” Albert responded, his voice muffled by the fact that his head was fully zipped into the bag.
The New Mexico capital of Santa Fe lay nestled seven thousand feet high, but still well below the jutting white peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range, sweeping up less than a few miles to the south. Winter temperatures often plunged to potentially terminal levels for any person exposed to the elements, that might be ill equipped for high and dry frigidity, driven about by sweeping winds. The sleeping bag suddenly bent upward from its center, looking to Darby as if it was an Egyptian mummy coming back to life.
“Its too early,” Albert complained, his voice as cutting in tone as he could make it.
Darby reached over with one hand, and unzipped the side of the bag from top to bottom, all in one smooth continuous motion. The move was part of their morning ritual, as Albert’s bag’s zipper catch had broken off long ago.
“Oh, I hate this part,” Albert whispered, his subdued words bursting forth much louder now, without the bag to muffle them. He sprang upward onto the flat rock that served as their mattress, wearing only a pair of white Jockey shorts. Without delay he plunged knee deep into the center of the icy stream and then began to cup and throw water over his bent body. His breath, at first pent-up and silent, finally started to come out in small hissing gasps, each breath forming a hazy white puff of vapor before his scrunched up facial features. Darby smiled, his own skin still prickling from his earlier immersion. For the three years they’d been together, neither man had ever broken the oath they’d sworn just after meeting. They never started the day without washing, and they never relieved themselves in a public place. "Indeed," Albert had concluded at the time, "we are not street people...we are street gentlemen."
“Its Christmas Eve,” Darby stated flatly, once Albert stopped his barely suppressed yelps and stepped back onto drier stones. Albert toweled with the single shared towel, making small little mewling sounds. Darby waited, thinking about the night to come. They would play as they planned. He thought briefly about the future, and wondered if this would be the last time they would play together. Only Albert’s presence in his life had diminished the time he gave to considering ending it all. Before Albert, he hadn’t been truly suicidal, but he hadn’t wanted to live anymore, either. Darby looked at his small complaining companion, and then stared up to see what he could of the railing arching along the edge of the bridge. Sometimes Albert’s early morning ablutions would attract the attention of a passing tourist, and a head would appear just above them, peering down. But there was no one, only the brown of winter all about, broken by patches of bright white snow, and the dead grayness of the concrete bridge itself. Through the trees he could make out the small fence along the edge of Palace Avenue. Palace paralleled the river on one side, with Canyon Road on the other. Across the river the bridge joined the two roads at a point almost a mile up from the city’s central plaza. It was their favorite place to stay. Somehow, the arty liberal nature of Canyon Road constantly seeped into both of them, even though they weren’t permitted to enter any of the galleries. Wonderful adobe art galleries lined both sides of the road, all the way up from downtown, with a few restaurants and coffee shops interspersed in their midst. And it was Christmas Eve! Anyone and everyone who played a musical instrument could take up a place along the road, and play as night fell. Throngs of people would gather to walk up and down the road; laughing, drinking and eating from the cheese and wine tables the galleries had put out along the edges of the road.
“God, its cold,” Albert said, as he struggled into his single serviceable pair of 501’s. The wind blew a great gust under the bridge, and Albert’s brow furrowed deeper, making Darby laugh out loud. The sun shone, great clouds clotted the sky, and a refreshing cold wind blew. “Indian weather,” Darby breathed, standing with arms spread to illustrate the comment. Years before, in prison, Darby'd met a Pueblo Indian who'd gone by the name of Raincloud. The entire pueblo he was from loved to go out on the small yard when the weather was particularly inclement. One stormy morning Darby asked him why, and uncharacteristically the Indian smiled.
“Weather. It's all we have left. The White Man loves warm sunny weather, so we gave him that, too, along with everything else.” Then he'd looked up, rain running down his lined and smiling face. “Indian weather. It's all we have left,” he’d whispered, his voice so low as to be almost inaudible.
“Are we going to warm up?” Albert asked, as they settled down next to the empty sleeping bags. Darby reached back to a beaten green case near his bag of ‘possibles’. He lifted the edge of the two corroded snaps that held it together, carefully removing a silver Bach trumpet. He noisily blew through the mouthpiece, before tightening it to the base of the instrument. Holding the trumpet close in his lap, his fingers absently trilling its three valves up and down, he waited for his friend.
Albert sighed, and pulled his own weathered guitar from its place inside his sleeping bag. The word ‘Martin’ had long faded from the top of its neck. He played one single note after another until the instrument was tuned, then scrolled experimentally through a rapid series of chords. He nodded to Darby and began the backup chords to ‘Silent Night,’ while Darby guided his trumpet into the melody. When the song was over they both smiled as one. Albert set his guitar atop the unzipped sleeping bag.
“We’re ready,” he commented, then held both hands up before him.
“Tell me the story again. I just have to hear it. You know how important it is to me. I don’t get to hear it very often...”
“Stop it,” Darby hissed, cutting him off. Darby didn’t care a bit that his best and only friend was gay, but he hated it when Albert deliberately exaggerated more feminine affectations. The more pronounced lisp, the voice pitched high, and wild hand gesticulations, always elicited a negative response from Darby. Albert frowned, his mouth sulking into a pout. Darby breathed deeply a few times, and then turned his head to stare at the sparkling surface of the passing stream before speaking.
“It was a wonderful marriage. My wife was everything I could have hoped for. Understanding, supportive, but also a gentle criticizing friend in disagreement. It was a solid, engaging kind of love. And then there were my children. My daughter was twelve and my son eight. My daughter was so attentive and serious that it could bring you to tears, and my boy, well, he was just cute, and to him everything was a thing of wonder.” Darby glanced at Albert briefly, to receive his encouraging nod and closed eyes. He stared once again into the freezing waters before continuing.
“I made a mistake. It was the kind of mistake that you might think would only be viewed as a bad business decision, but people lost money. So, over five ‘investigative’ years the family suffered for my conduct. The money, the company, the cars, and even the house was all lost to the attorneys, and to simple survival. But we didn’t survive. On a cold September morning, a morning not unlike this”, Darby waved one arm expansively about him, “I was sent to a low security Federal penitentiary in Arizona.” He stopped speaking and waited.
“And what happened then?” Albert asked, saying the words as if he was reciting them from a bad high school play.
“I went inside, ‘down,’ as they say in such places. It was a five-year sentence and, with the Feds, you serve almost all of it. They took me into the bowels of that prison. And as soon as I got in there, I knew. I knew it was over. My family was much better off without me, and my friends were already all gone. So I never wrote, never called, never even allowed anyone to sign up for a visit. And I didn’t open any mail, just threw it away until, after a few years, it finally stopped coming. When I got out of there, I had nowhere to go. So I took the government's fifty-five dollars, and bought a bus ticket to Santa Fe, as far from that place as the money would take me.” A smile played over Darby's features as he stopped talking, his thoughts on the better life his family had likely moved on to.
“But Christmas. Tell me about Christmas,” Albert insisted, nodding expressively and leaning forward in expectation. Darby glanced over at his friend, smiled again, and then turned back to the river.
“Christmas Boy, they called me. I loved it. The decorations, the great tree, the music, and the thousands of tiny white lights. I loved it all, almost like that Clark Griswald in the National Lampoon movie. Every Christmas I played the trumpet. We went up and down the streets of our neighborhood; my wife, the kids, and all of our friends. I played the carols and they sang the words...” his voice trailed away into silence.
Albert sat with a relaxed smile playing across his facial features while Darby stared at him, reflecting back on the three-year period they’d spent together. Many times they’d been rousted by the police, and once they’d been taken all the way to the dreaded detention center across from the state prison. Playing musical instruments at the downtown plaza without a license had been their offense, and they’d served two weeks in that hellhole, on a charge of pandering. The only saving feature of their ‘time’ had been Albert’s gayness. They'd never wanted for cigarettes, stamps or jailhouse commissary items, like sardines and crackers, to sit out under the moon and eat instead of the awful jailhouse fare.
“Let’s go,” Darby said suddenly. Both men gathered their things and stepped from beneath the arched concrete overhang. They'd been so focused on the retelling of Darby’s family story that neither had noticed the snow. It fell thickly, swept all about by a gusty cold wind.
“White Christmas,” Darby whispered, as they climbed the bank to Palace Avenue. They stood and looked up the snow blown canyon to where their stash lay hidden, deep within the bottom branches of a squat pinon tree. Inside the hidden steamer trunk Darby kept an old Hong Kong made tuxedo, with all the accoutrement, one pair of decent street shoes, some clothes for Albert, and a few pieces of near meaningless memorabilia. Before they could make the long hike up canyon however, they had to find something to eat. They had seven cents between them.
Santa Fe was a diminished place during the winter months. The downtown was forsaken by the locals, as well as the near non-existent tourists. Their only possibility of income came from selling small items (they’d found, begged or somehow got hold of during the summer) to the local shopkeepers. When that was not possible, they had no choice but to live off the largesse of the few restaurants that would allow them anywhere near the alley dumpsters, or located behind their premises. They walked the mile or so back toward the plaza area, then milled about in the park for a while until there were no customers left inside the corner Baskin and Robbins. A nice older couple ran the ice cream shop; plus, a bakery they'd established behind it. Albert and Darby almost never failed to get free coffee and day old rolls from the place, although they tried not to visit too often.
“There you go,” said the beautiful older woman, when they gathered up their haul, the coffee so hot they needed double paper cups to hold it. “Things will get better. You’re good men.” She always said the same thing, and always gave them a great, genuine smile. They nodded and left, murmuring their thanks. The uncovered coffee formed foggy cones of vapor, as they walked to a bench in the park across the street.
Once they were seated and eating the crusty hard rolls, Albert asked; “Do you suppose she always says we're good men for a reason?”
“What do you mean?” Darby replied absently, his attention taken with attempting to drink some of his coffee without getting burned.
“I mean; do you suppose she says that because there’s some question as to our goodness?”
Darby didn’t answer the question. The conversation about the woman’s comments had become a part of their regular ritual. They quickly finished breakfast, and rose to begin their journey, snow having already begun to accumulate on the black surface of the asphalt streets. The hike up Palace, all the way to their secret hiding place, took half an hour, and both men were cold and snow covered when they arrived at the tree.
“Ah, the Ark of the Covenant,” declared Albert, as Darby pulled the oversized suitcase out from under snow laden branches. “He opens the sealed case of treasure and extracts its mummified artifacts...” Albert was only silenced by having to dodge a loosely made snowball thrown from Darby’s free hand.
“Give it a rest,” Darby murmured, in as menacing a tone as he could manage, knowing full well that Albert was impossible for him to intimidate. Darby unpacked the trunk as his friend stood in the snow, arms outstretched, catching an occasional snowflake on his tongue, and then exclaiming “Thank you, God,” as if he’d just received communion.
“Would you stop, and put this on,” Darby held out a folded white shirt and the wrinkled Armani suit they’d purchased for four dollars from a Salvation Army store a year earlier. It was mid-afternoon by the time they were able to make their way back to the bridge, both damp, and a bit bedraggled by the continuing snow. They had moved slowly because Albert would only walk on the traces of packed snow left by the infrequently passing cars, jumping crazily from one track to another. They huddled under the concrete arch, and started a small fire to warm up and dry out. Ordinarily, a fire would have been out of the question, as the police were ever vigilant, and had no use whatsoever for street people. However, the heavy snow on Christmas Eve made it unlikely that they would be found and rousted from their spot. It took several hours to dry off completely, and evening was almost upon them when they finally extinguished the fire.
“Think anybody will come tonight?” Albert asked of his friend.
“Christmas Eve, snow, the farolitos, free wine, music.... yeah, they’ll come. This is Santa Fe, after all.” They looked at one another and then laughed. Santa Fe’s ethereal peculiarities were a subject of frequent and spirited conversation between them.
Fully dressed, and ready with their instruments, they climbed back up from the river to Palace and crossed the bridge, making their way over to Canyon Road. Turning north, they walked less than a quarter mile, past the El Farol Grill, to the south west corner. As they had hoped, no one occupied the corner. It was their corner. Just down the road was Geronimo Restaurant, where Santa Fe’s rich and famous hung out, where neither Darby nor Albert could ever hope to get past the front door, even if they’d had enough money. They set up, pressed back just off the street, against the thick adobe wall under an overhanging eve to keep their instruments out of the still falling snow. They used the sleeping bags as padding against the rough coldness of a cracked concrete surface behind them. Settled in, they practiced very lightly from time to time, but mainly they waited for darkness and the rising glow of Canyon Road’s Christmas lights.
Farolitos (small paper sacks, half-filled with sand and a small lit candle) lined the street, windows of the galleries, and even some of the roofs of others. A Spanish tradition was maintained by the little bagged lights. The way, once again, was lit for the coming appearance of the Christ-child. Brighter burning glows came from fires. Up and down the street, log bonfires had been lit, their warmth evident by the clusters of people who'd already begun to gather around them.
Just before full dark, Albert and Darby started their first set. Both men smiled, and sometimes even grinned, when they got one of the Christmas carols just right. The combination of guitar and trumpet was among the most unusual to be played, even on Canyon Road on Christmas Eve. People began to fill the street, seeming to come out of the snow itself. They laughed, sipped wine from clear plastic cups and moved about. A group formed in front of Albert and Darby, as they played. Three individuals seemed to materialize out of the blowing snow and moving crowds. Albert was the first to take note of them. In the middle of ‘O Holy Night’ he stopped playing. Darby went on for a few notes before he brought his trumpet down. His gaze locked on the woman who stood directly before him, her own eyes boring straight into his. A young woman, taller than she, stood just back from her left shoulder, while a dark-haired teenage boy was at her right
“Darby?” the woman asked into the sudden silence, broken only by the wind and distant hum of evening revelry. Albert looked over at his friend to see him nod dumbly, his trumpet coming to rest against his right thigh. With no music issuing forth, the crowd dispersed and moved down the street. Darby stepped forward and embraced the woman. The teenage boy and girl who accompanied the woman joined in, and the four stood together at the edge of the curb. Albert watched. A white cold light reflected down from the corner street lamp, with swirling snow making the shadow they cast seem to move back and forth as a single entity. Albert waited, but they didn't break apart.
Slowly, Albert wrapped his old Martin in his sleeping bag, looked at his friend’s back, and tried to smile. The smile formed on his lips but he couldn't force it to reach his eyes. He walked back to the bridge, and then climbed down and took up his old place on the bank, his back pressed hard up against the abutting concrete. He could see a few glints of light penetrating all the way from Canyon Road through the trees, but he could hear only the wind and the gurgle of the half-frozen river waters. The snow seemed to lessen, but the wind blew stronger and colder, until Albert had to wrap himself tightly with the sleeping bag, his guitar clutched beneath and held closely to his side. He didn't notice the shadowy standing figure just outside the arch of the bridge, until he moved to tuck the edge of the bag down under his chin.
Darby’s voice came from the apparition. “Are you coming?” He thought he'd considered all there was to consider sitting alone, so he didn't move when he finally spoke.
“There’s no place for a strange man like me in your family. Not a man whose lived on the street for five years. Not a man of middle age, who’s gay, and maybe a bit mentally damaged. It’s wonderful that they found you. Don’t lose them again.” He nodded to himself when he finished, knowing it was too dark for the movement to be visible.
“Are you coming?” the apparition said again, as if not asking a question at all.
Albert looked up and beyond the standing figure. With the lessening snow he could make out the lines of farolitos flickering atop the distant galleries along Canyon Road. Moments passed, but only the icy wind made any sound. Tears formed in Albert’s eyes and he couldn't remain where he was. Not knowing what to do or say, he slowly unwrapped himself from the sleeping bag, and moved toward the dark figure.
“Merry Christmas, let's go home.” his friend, the apparition, said.