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"Home For the Holidays"
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lovely?" The old woman watched the snowflakes wend their soft way down through
the sodium vapor lamps of the mall's parking lot.
"Yes, Dear. It sort of reminds me of home." He shifted his bulk in the old Ford wagon’s front seat and rubbed some more frost off the windshield. He adjusted the moth-eaten blanket and gently squeezed her hand. They sat and watched the snow for a few minutes, their eyes sparkling.
"Remember our first Christmas together? You got me that little toy Santa with the wind up crank and he would ring his little bell and wiggle his behind." She smiled at him with the few teeth she had left but there was still warmth there and more than a touch of affection.
"That was all I could afford back then - 25 cents. That was a lot in those days...and now, too, I suppose."
"Oh, Sweetheart, we're positively rich. Here, have some more eggnog."
She reached into the back of the station wagon and brought out the faded green thermos. The water in the restroom at 7-Eleven had been wonderfully hot so she had soaked the carton of egg nog in the sink until it was practically steaming. She had taken it triumphantly out to the car and poured it into the old thermos, and now they were sharing it for Christmas Eve.
The car radio played quietly through the cracked speakers in the doors. They sang along in their heads.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen...
"Turn it up a little," she said, and they both harmonized.
While the snow lay on the ground, deep and crisp and even...
The old man
sounded like a rusty gate but to his wife he was Mario Lanza, or maybe even
"I just love it when it snows like this, don't you?" The old woman puffed out her chest, breathing like a camper emerging from a tent on a crisp mountain morning. "With those big snowflakes, I feel like we should be in a picture on somebody's Christmas card."
The old man looked out through his frosty side window and said, "I suppose we'd better keep it down. Somebody might hear us."
"Oh, let 'em hear. It's Christmas Eve!" She rolled down her window a crack and resumed singing, this time at the top of her lungs.
They were parked at the edge of a streetlamp’s circle of light at the back of the lot. In the distance they could just make out the green neon of the J.C. Penny's sign, and through the falling snow the mall looked like a huge battleship plowing through the winter's night. People didn't usually bother anyone parked back here, although an occasional car thief would come up and look in the window - not that there was anything worth stealing.
The sound of their singing echoed around the mostly empty stalls and mingled with distant sounds of cars grumbling to life. They watched the line of red taillights file out of the lot and head for their hearths and Christmas trees. It was getting near closing time at the mall.
"Wait here, Sweetheart, I'll be right back." He eased himself out of the driver's side door, a big man squeezing through a small place.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Nature calls, my Love. I thought I'd go into the mall before they close. It'll only take a minute."
She watched him go around the front of the car and pull his collar up against the snow. With his bushy white beard and wobbling belly he belonged in a winter scene like this. She smiled to herself and hummed more Christmas carols along with the radio.
The old man came back twenty minutes later and eased back into the seat beside her.
"What took you so long?" she asked.
"Well, I had to get a little something for my best girl at Christmas." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a brightly wrapped box. He cradled it inside his big, weathered hands and presented it to her as if it contained the Crown Jewels.
"Oh, Sweetheart, you shouldn't have." She always said that when he got her something.
"Can I open it now?" she asked in a little girl voice.
"Of course - but first just a little kiss."
She pecked his rosy cheek once and tore the wrapping paper off the small package. It was a toy Santa - the kind with the wind up crank in the back.
"Oh..." she purred, and looked at the old man as if he had indeed given her the Crown Jewels.
She took the Santa out of the box and hugged it to her breast. She wound its crank all the way and set it on the dashboard. It gyrated and wiggled and rang its tiny bell. The light from the frosty streetlamp outside gave its eyes a merry glow.
"You know, I think this is our best Christmas ever," the old woman exclaimed, as she laughed and laughed.
"You say that every year."
"That's because they just keep getting better."
They sipped their eggnog, cranked up the car radio another notch, and watched the peaceful snow pile up.
Machowski pulled the black and white into the mall lot and let out a sigh. Why
did it have to snow on Christmas Eve? Now it would take him hours to get home.
His left foot fidgeted and his hands gripped the steering wheel. He hated having to work on Christmas. Someday he'd have some seniority and he wouldn't miss any holiday time at home with the old lady and the rug rats, not that they cared.
What was it all about? You bust your butt for years so you can drive around looking for winos on Christmas Eve. So your kids can have better toys than the neighbors. So your wife can get on your case when you come home tired every day. Some life.
Machowski cruised the mall lot one more time and headed for the exit. The lot looked empty, which made sense because why would anyone be hanging around here after closing time in weather like this? Then he saw the old station wagon way in the back of the lot. It was hunched up like a frozen animal in the snow, just at the edge of the light.
The cop turned on the big spotlight. He could see fake wood grain on the side of the station wagon, surrounded by rust. The car sat low and lopsided and a limp tailpipe hung almost to the ground. There were curtains on the back windows and he could see silhouettes through the milky windows in front.
Machowski grimaced and wondered what this was going to lead to. More paperwork most likely.
He radioed in his location and told Doris he was going out to have a look.
"Hey Pete, watch out. It might be Santa Claus," she answered through the speaker.
"Very funny," he replied as he opened his door.
The first thing he heard as he stepped into the bitter night was the sound of music coming from the station wagon. He walked up cautiously and rapped on the passenger side window with his flashlight, his right hand poised near his gun. The window rolled down halfway and he looked into a pair of clear blue eyes, set into a very ancient face.
"Yes, officer?" an old woman asked cheerfully. "Can we help you with something?"
"What are you folks doing here? The mall's closed." He craned his neck to see into the car with the flashlight. The back seat of the station wagon was lowered and there were blankets arranged neatly on the floor, along with some toiletries, a few paperbacks, and some folded up clothes. Home sweet home.
"Well, Officer, my husband and I were just sharing some eggnog on Christmas Eve. Would you like some?" She held out the thermos.
Something about her approach disarmed him. The old man in the driver's seat was grinning like a coyote and these two old geezers seemed to be having the time of their lives. Machowski wondered what was in that eggnog.
"Uh, no thanks Ma'am. I think you two better move along now. The mall closed an hour ago."
"But this is where we spend our Christmas Eve," she protested. "It's tradition."
He looked from her face to the old man's and back again. The old guy really did look like Santa Claus. He'd have to tell Doris about this one.
"Don't you folks have a home to go to?" he asked softly.
"We're home now, Officer. Would you like to come in? There's plenty of room in the back."
She was serious. He couldn't believe it. Strangely enough, he really felt like climbing into the car, maybe putting his feet up, having a little egg nog. In fact, climbing into an old station wagon with these two pathetic cases seemed like the most inviting thing in the world.
"No thanks, Ma'am, but I appreciate the invite. I'll just be running along now. I'll check on you once in a while to make sure nobody hassles you."
Machowski couldn’t believe what he had just said. Why would he offer to do something like that? He climbed back in his squad car, shaking his head and muttering to himself. He picked up the microphone and checked back in.
"I'll tell you all about it when I get back in, Doris. Ho! Ho! Ho! Over and out."
He drove around the lot again slowly, thinking. He thought about how it was supposed to get down to minus 5 degrees tonight. He thought about people dying of CO˛ poisoning from idling their cars to keep warm. He thought about people freezing to death on nights like this, homeless people.
He turned the car back towards the station wagon. He didn't check in this time before he got out of his squad car. This would only take a minute.
He rapped on the window and was greeted again by that smiling old lady's face. What is it about that face?
"Hi again, folks. I was just wondering if maybe I could help you two get into the shelter on Wabash tonight. It's supposed to get colder than a witches..."
"No thanks, Officer," the old lady interrupted. "As we said, it's tradition for our family to be here on Christmas. But that was real nice of you to come back and ask."
He felt like he was seven years old again, talking to his own grandmother.
"Okay...well...uh...Merry Christmas, I guess." He waved and backed towards his own car. This was ridiculous. He knew he should give those two the third degree, make 'em get out of the car; force 'em into the shelter for their own good. It's just that they looked so... Muttering, he started up his car.
After two more slow times around the lot Machowski knew that he was going completely nuts. An idea had popped into his head and it just wouldn't go away. He stopped the car one more time and strolled up to the old wagon. He knocked on the window for the third time.
"Hi again," said Machowski and his voice actually squeaked. "I was just wondering if maybe, well, seein' as how it's Christmas and all, you and your husband would like to join me and my family for a little Christmas buffet. At my house. I get off in about a half hour and you could follow me there. The wife usually sets out a pretty good spread and you could meet the kids, and well, you know."
The old woman's eyes lit up. "Why, young man, that is the nicest thing I ever heard. Don't you think so Stanley?"
The old man nodded his head like a bird on a perch. "I don't know what to say. That's just so kind of you Officer."
Machowski felt like his first grade teacher had just patted him on the head. "I know you have your tradition, but maybe you can start a new one this year."
The old couple exchanged a few looks and then she said, "Christmas at your house it is."
A half hour later Machowski pulled away from the station in his Toyota, followed by a rattletrap station wagon which popped and wheezed every few seconds. Machowski hummed The First Noel under his breath and felt pretty pleased with himself. He hadn't yet decided if Sheila would kill him when he walked in the house with two homeless old loonies on Christmas Eve.
"It's getting late, Stanley," the old woman remarked as they rumbled over the gaily lit neighborhood streets.
Stanley reached one hand inside the top of his coat and produced a gold watch, full of pockmarks and dents.
"Quarter to eight," he answered. "I guess it's about that time."
"Do you think we helped him?"
"I hope so. He seems like a nice fellow deep down." The old man put the watch back into his pocket and reached over to gently squeeze his wife's hand.
pulled the Toyota around the corner onto Greenwood, anticipating the last few
blocks to his house. He chuckled to himself like a kid on Christmas morning as
he imagined Sheila’s face when he brought those two old loonies into the house.
She’d blow a gasket for sure.
He looked into the rear view mirror and saw...darkness.
Machowski squinted. “They must have missed the turn on Greenwood,” he mumbled to himself.
He did a quick U-turn and went back to the end of the street and looked both ways. Nothing.
He pulled the car over to the curb and got out. In the light from the streetlamp he could see his own tire tracks, already beginning to fill up with snow. Back before the turn he could clearly see two sets of tracks, one of them bumpy and uneven. After the turn there was only one set of tracks and they belonged to the Toyota. The snow was unbroken in every other direction, stifling all sounds. Standing there in the quiet snow, the hair on the back of Machowski's neck stood on end.
He got back into his car and sat still for a long time. Finally, he turned the key and backed out into the street.
He was still puzzling the whole thing over in his mind as he pulled into his driveway. The white plastic Santa beamed its electric smile onto his front stoop and Christmas tree lights
twinkled through the frosty picture window. Three small shapes huddled together inside, peering out with their noses pressed to the pane. As he switched off the headlights the front door opened.
"Daddy! Daddy!" came the shrill cries as he climbed the front stairs. "Daddy's home! Daddy's home! Can we open our presents now? Can we? Can we?"
The warm air of the house flowed out to greet him as the kids swarmed around his legs and waist. He could smell turkey and sweet potatoes and cookies. Coming in from the cold, white night, the house was a warm oasis bathed in soft hues of red and green and gold. He tossed his coat towards the big chair and kicked the door closed behind him.
"Come on, Pete,
snap out of it. It's Christmas Eve." Sheila nudged him with her elbow. "What's
the matter, rough shift or something?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I was just thinking."
"Oh, I don't know. It's just that we have so much here. Just look around." He waved his arm towards the Christmas tree, where the kids were tearing packages open with abandon, and on towards the dining room, where food and candles and festive napkins were laid out. "I'll bet there are a lot of folks that would be happy with a whole lot less than this. I know there are. And what do we do? Bicker and complain all year long. In fact, we only stop long enough to open presents on Christmas Eve."
Sheila had never heard him talk this way. She stared and let him go on.
"Let’s really enjoy things this year. Let's watch and remember every last minute, every last second."
Sheila opened her mouth to reply but was stopped by the look in his eye.
"Let's just watch for awhile, Sweetheart," he said to her softly, and patted her thigh.
They sat back and gazed at their three children then, their healthy and strong children, smart, well-fed. They looked around the room. The old, overstuffed furniture looked charming and cozy and the marked-up coffee table seemed quaint.
After a time Pete spoke again. "You know, tonight I remembered why I became a cop. It was the first time I'd remembered in a long time."
"What happened, Pete?" she asked, looking into his eyes.
"I'll tell you all about it sometime. I haven't quite got a handle on it yet myself. It just made me realize some things, that's all." That's when he got his second crazy idea of the evening.
When the kids were finished opening their packages they came over to give their parents the usual Christmas hugs and to recite the usual Christmas “Thank you, Mommy, thank you, Daddy,” in the usual Christmas monotone.
Pete held up his hand and announced, "Stop right there! How would you guys like to do something really neat for Christmas this year?"
The kids looked up. "But, Daddy..."
"I know, I know. You already opened your presents, 'cause that's what we do on Christmas Eve, right? And we know some kids believe that Santa Claus comes during the night on Christmas Eve, but we don't do that because your mother and I never taught you to believe in Santa Claus, right?"
The kids nodded their heads like parrots.
"Well, what if we got to be Santa Claus this year? Our whole family. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Now Sheila looked at him warily too. He'd have to talk fast.
"I know some places that don't ever have much of a Christmas. Lots of places. And we could fix that. All it would take would be some old toys you guys don't want anymore and some food we probably won't finish anyway. We could load up the Toyota and pretend it's Santa's sleigh and head out into the snow. What do ya' think?"
It was real quiet for a few moments until his three year old daughter asked, "You mean like a Disney movie?"
Pete laughed from the bottom of his gut. "Yes, Pumpkin, just like a Disney movie."
through the snow into the front door that night at 2 AM, wearing moon boots and
smiles. They were giggling and laughing and singing Christmas carols. Pete and
Sheila couldn't remember the last time they had felt so positively giddy, or had
had such a fine Christmas Eve.
The Machowski family slept well that night. The next morning the kids toddled down the stairs to discover stockings hung on the fireplace, filled to the brim. This was strange, for the Machowski family had never hung up stockings for Christmas. There were names sewn on each one and the ones for the kids were filled with candy and oranges.
When Pete and Sheila came downstairs they each thought the other had snuck back down to hang up the stockings during the night and they both chuckled. Sheila emptied her stocking and found candy canes, mints, and a small bottle of perfume.
Pete took his stocking down off the mantle and it felt unusually heavy. When he opened the top and peeked in, little chills went up and down his spine. He thought of tire tracks in the snow, disappearing. He thought of an old lady and an old man in the parking lot at the mall.
Pete Machowski lifted the faded green thermos from his Christmas stocking. He unscrewed the lid and smelled the aroma of steaming eggnog. Smiling slowly, he took a gentle sip. It tasted better than anything ever had in his life. He passed the thermos to Sheila.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Tradition," he replied. "Tradition."
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