THE OLD MAN’S CHRISTMAS TREE, PART IV
Short Story by James Strauss
Christmas had come and gone, and then New Years, too. There was nothing to New Years, not even on the television, except for the fact that the ball in New York came down a blessed one hour before midnight so sleep could welcome in the New Year. The old man sat looking at the space the Christmas tree had filled. Oly, the infantile but rapidly growing kitten, sat in his lap; the only cure for his shaking hands he’d yet to find, in or outside of the medical establishment. The boy had helped him order clothing and shoes for the boy, days back, which had set the old man back several hundred dollars. He could not imagine the kid continuing to wear his collection of cheap junk instead of real quality wool and cotton. And Nike shoes, of course. They should have been Allen Edmunds. One could not live in the state of Wisconsin and not either wish for, or possess, at least one pair of the highest quality shoes made on the planet. The old man knew that the kid wasn’t going to understand that until later on in life. The coat was from North Face and it was good for thirty below zero, or even more, if the kid threw it on over his new Packer sweatshirts. The whole mess was to come in from some sort of godless miracle center from a company called Amazon, but the morning had come and gone with no delivery.
It was early afternoon, at least four hours away from a couple of shots of Jamison to get through the night. He loved drinking the stuff, and more than loved the first hour of its effect. He could look at the fire in that time and see dancing hope, flaming opportunity and fiery coals of warm comfort and hot swirling wish about to come true. But then there was the rest. If he didn’t get to his bed in time, then he wouldn’t be able to sleep at all without drinking more. If he did get to his bed he knew he’d wake a few hours later and the same problem with drinking some more would overcome him.
When his wife had passed on he’d prayed to God that God would go away and not bother him anymore. He knew now that he’d been praying to die but he’d never been able to openly accommodate the cowardice of such a thought. He was a Marine and Marines don’t ever quit.
He decided to pray to God to help him not drink, not be depressed, not feel alone in the world. He prayed for his hands to stop shaking. He prayed by using his special form of one-way conversation. He looked up and talked out loud. God didn’t seem to accept silent commentary for some reason, and that thought made the old man laugh out loud. There was no evidence that God ever accepted any commentary, no matter how loudly expressed.
“Okay, non-listening and non-caring God. Here it is. I need a bit of help here. I need my hands to stop shaking and I need to not feel so alone, and I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or even know. And I’d like to be able to get the hell away from here, from time to time, to do whatever I feel like. So, there you have it. I don’t need a wife or money or a job or even a reputation. I thought I needed that junk before and look what happened.”
The old man stopped talking to the air up above him. He looked down at the comforting fire again, and then over at the open space where the tree had been. “Well, it was a half-way decent Christmas or at least a real Christmas after all. I guess it’s not wise to pray to You and yell at You at the same time, so I apologize for that, but one more small thing. Could you get the clothes and shoes delivered before the boy gets frozen solid?”
The old man sighed and looked down at the cat sitting silently and patiently in his lap. He looked at his hands and smiled at the fact that they weren’t shaking.
“Was that you?” he whispered, realizing that what he was, and had been asking God for, was really happening in some form already. Up until that moment, the old man had credited some special feature inherent to cats in the subsidence of the small miracle of the shaking. The old man had told his doctor about how the shaking ended whenever he touched Bentley or Oly. His doctor said that, if what the old man said was true, then it was a miracle of God. The old man had never before considered that the doctor’s sort of derisive and patronizing response might have a basis in fact, about it being a miracle.
“Well, there is the rest,” he whispered, turning his head upward one more time.
The door knocking started, or at least the first three rapid knocks. Oly jumped down, as the old man got up and headed for the door. He knew it was the boy, but frowned when he turned the knob to open the door. There had been no more knocks. When he pulled the door back and stared through the crack he realized it wasn’t the kid. It was a man standing on the porch wearing an ugly brown uniform. The man was also wearing a brown baseball cap. Both the shirt and the hat had patches denoting the UPS delivery company the man obviously worked for.
“Delivery,” the tall man said, “sign here.” The man pushed a flipped open notepad through the opening.
The old man stepped back. There was no way he could read the form without his glasses, but he would be damned if he’d let the delivery guy know he couldn’t see the letters and numbers. He pulled the pen from a clip at the top of the pad and then swiped his rough and wild signature in an open space near the bottom.
“You want the boxes inside or out here on the porch?” the man asked.
The old man wanted to tell the guy that it was below zero and that he should at least be wearing a heavy coat and gloves, but he thought better of saying anything. He pulled the door all the way open and pointed at the area next to the fire where the tree had been.
The man stuck the notepad down into the space between his stomach and his belt buckle. The belt buckle had four letters on it. USMC. He reached to the side and pulled a dolly sideways, before wheeling it through the door and over to the wall. In seconds, before the old man could even get the door closed, he was done and preparing to leave.
“You a Marine?” the old man asked, pointing at the man’s buckle.
“No, it was my Dad’s after the war,” the man replied, stopping and turning before he reached the door.
“Vietnam?” the old man asked.
“Yeah, and you?”
“India Company, 3rd Battalion Fifth Marines, First Marine Division,” the old man blurted out, surprising himself.
The UPS guy stuck his right hand out.
“Thanks for your service,” he said.
The old man nodded, slightly let down by the standard comment from most of the people who hadn’t served but wanted to say something, anything, about a service they seldom understood or really cared about. He took the man’s hand and gripped it powerfully.
“No, I really mean it,” the man said, pressing the old man’s hand as strongly as the old man’s pressed his. “Maybe I could stop by and have coffee or something. I don’t live that far away and there aren’t any vets around here I know of.”
The old man was taken aback. He retrieved his hand and squeezed it a few times with his other hand.
“Your Dad passed on recently?” he asked, thinking as fast as he could, not knowing how to take the man’s invitation.
“No, I was just a kid,” the man said. “He died from his wounds, but it took a while. My mom bought the buckle for him, but he got buried at Arlington in his uniform so he didn’t need it.”
“Arlington?” the old man asked. “He was an officer?”
Nobody but officers got buried at Arlington, the old man knew, or if they had other military family members already buried there.
“No, he was a staff sergeant, but he had the Navy Cross.”
The old man was shocked. The man’s father had received the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross, exactly as he had himself, except the sergeant had also paid with his life for those decorations. Anyone with the Navy Cross or the Medal of Honor could get buried in Arlington, the old man recalled. There simply weren’t that many who ever received such rare decorations, however.
“Can you come by tomorrow?” the old man said, hoping that he didn’t sound too confident that the much younger might actually show up.
“Four. I’ll be here at four. I’ll bring some Lion Kona coffee, Amazon ships it free for me.”
The old man stared, still unable to take in meeting the deliveryman and the coincidences binding them together.
“After that, maybe we’ll go into town and try the coffee at a few places there, every once and awhile.”
The UPS guy went through the door and closed it behind him. By the time the old man remembered that he didn’t even know the driver’s name, the truck pulled away and was gone. The boy suddenly appeared near the closed crack of the door, giving the appearance that he’d slipped in when the door had been left gaping open.
The old man sat down in his chair and waited for Oly to join him. The kitten jumped up and the man breathed out a relieved sigh. The shaking was gone again. The boy crossed the room and immediately started going through the boxes, knowing they’d been delivered for him, tossing cardboard everywhere.
“Why don’t you have winter clothing or shoes?” the old man finally asked, having turned the question over in his mind many times since meeting the boy. He’d been afraid to ask for fear that the boy would stop coming by.
“Mom doesn’t want me to go out in winter, which is okay because she doesn’t understand,” the boy replied, still going through boxes until he came to the shoes.
“Wow,” the kid said. “They have laces. I’ve never had shoes that had laces. And they need sox. Did we get sox?” He put the shoes on his bare feet without stringing the laces through the holes. “Cool,” he breathed out over and over again, clomping back and forth across the wooden floor in front of the fireplace, the rubber soles squeaking at every step.
“Your mom must know you go out anyway,” the old man said, leaning down to grab a couple pair of sox from one of the discarded boxes. He tossed both pairs to the kid.
“Your housekeeper tells her, no doubt.”
“Nah, the housekeeper drinks a bit,” the kid said, “sorta like you.”
The old man slid his left hand self-consciously down into the crease between the cushion and the arm of his chair. He felt the bottle but didn’t say anything. He knew he wouldn’t be taking many more hits of the whiskey, or if he ever would again. The way the boy had said the words ‘drinks a bit’ had hurt.
“How do you do that?” the boy asked, trying on one of his new long sleeve cotton shirts.
“What?” the old man replied, mystified.
“Get God to do what you want him to,” the boy said, conversationally, as if the subject wasn’t intensely personal. “I heard you talking to Him. I slipped in before the delivery truck came.”
The old man didn’t know what to think. He didn’t like having had the kid overhear him. It was embarrassing. And he didn’t like the violation of his privacy one bit. He stared at the boy’s back, knowing the kid wasn’t turning around on purpose.
“Where’d you get that idea?” the old man said, his voice tinged with anger and surprise.
“You asked for company and now that UPS guy is coming tomorrow to talk to you about his dad who died,” the kid said, matter-of-factly. “The cats stopped your hands from shaking, just like you asked, and then the UPS guy said he’s taking you to town. And here I am.”
The boy turned with his arms outspread, a big smile on his face as he modeled a new flannel shirt with a Packer sweatshirt covering it.
“Ta-da,” the kid sang out before he paraded back and forth in front of the fire.
“Well, I didn't ask God for you,” the old man said, peevishly, knowing he was being churlish but not being able to stop himself.
“No, I guess you didn’t, but that part wasn’t up to you,” the kid replied, kneeling down to dig out a pair of heavy cotton jeans from an already opened box.
“Up to me?” the old man inquired, surprised by the kid's answer and somewhat by his lack of care about the old man’s negative attitude.
“Nah, that was part of what I had asked God for.”
The old man didn’t know what to say again. Finally, he framed the only question he could possibly think to ask. “You asked God for me?”
“Well, not exactly,” the boy replied. “I asked God for somebody like my dad who wasn’t my dad. Somebody who’d care and that I could talk to. Somebody who didn’t drink and hit mom or me.”
“So that’s why you brought the kitten?” the old man asked, trying to put the truly strange sequence of events together in his mind, knowing now that he wouldn’t be drinking any more of the Jameson's for whatever future lay ahead.
“Nope. I asked God for him too, but I named him myself.”
It took the boy three trips to get all the stuff out of the boxes and over to his own home. When he’d gone for the last time, closing the door behind him after having said “thank you” a million times, the old man sat petting the cat, thinking only about feeding the fire some more of the splits of beech that sat stacked nearby. Then, a thought occurred to him.
“I suppose I should say thanks,” the old man said, craning his face upward once more. “I mean if the guy shows up. I don’t know. Maybe I should pray for confidence.”
He stopped talking when he heard the door crack open. He twisted his torso around, expecting to see the boy, but it was the UPS guy.
“You got a coffee grinder? the man said, through the six-inch crack. “I forgot to ask.”
The old man nodded.
The door closed and the UPS guy was gone. The old man knew the man wouldn’t have come back to ask that question if he wasn’t going to show up the following day.
The old man looked up, forgetting about feeding the fire and the bottle of whiskey hidden under his seat cushion.
“Shit,” was all he could think to say.