The short man in a bulky tweed coat and brown fedora stepped around a young woman who sat on a camp stool. Her reddened fingers stuck out of gloves that looked sadly as though they hadn’t been finished. They tapped on an open notebook and she held a pen aloft. She smiled vaguely in his direction, as though she wasn’t really expecting a smile back. He was about to reach for a dollar but there was no cup or box for donations. When he looked back, she was scribbling away on a rumpled page. He sighed and rushed on. He had much to do before Christmas dinner with his sister, Rose, and her family.
The fact of the matter was that Earl Jay had never liked Christmas as much as he did other holidays, like Memorial Day or Labor Day, days that you got to take time off from work but didn’t have to fuss over at length. There were fifty-two public holidays in the United States; he had looked it up once and was astonished. But just a few seemed to command all the attention and Christmas took the prize. It wasn’t that he was irreligious–he attended church enough and he prayed nightly for everyone he loved and then some as he fought off sleep until the “Amen.” His faith was a given, but he was not a showy man, not one to make a public hullabaloo about what mattered. But there were obligations, traditions. He did what he thought best and participated.
A simple window display caught his eye as he trotted down the street, a large shopping bag in hand. All those garish, blinking lights seemed designed to blind you if you stared longer than three seconds. He pressed his nose against the glass and looked beyond six neat little elves amid giant stuffed stockings. Reese Hardware was not the place he had thought to shop for any gifts on his list. He did have a blank space after the name of Carl, his eight year old nephew. The window fogged up and he cleaned it with his gloved palm. He could see on a front shelf a grouping of child-sized tool kits. Earl rushed into the warm store, nodded at the salesman checking his watch, then studied them.
Everything was there: hammer, pliers, screwdriver, small boxes of nails and screws, a wrench–all scaled to fit the hands of someone (a bright-eyed boy grinned at him from a decal) nine to twelve, it was noted on a large tag. Earl mused that it was poor marketing. He imagined his neighbor’s daughter, age thirteen, pounding nails into the wall to secure shelving so she could display her collections of sea glass and shells. (That’s what she needed, a nice pine shelf). But Carl would like it a lot. He had inherited a talent with his hands. Tools, with some candy, would be the ticket. Maybe not chocolate Santas–did boys that age even still like those?–but something with good peppermint.
He turned the tag over to read the price and gasped. Forty dollars. Earl was thrifty. He saved change in a tall glass jar and turned it in every six months, at which time it went into his growing savings. As a single man for twenty-two years (all of his adult life), the only kids he knew well and truly liked were his two nephews. And also, of course, Keira the neighbor girl and Tate, the toddler grandson of his cleaning lady, Mrs. Hallender. They were all on his list. He picked up the toolbox. This was not the time to second guess what he wanted to do for them all: give them a little happiness. He certainly had the means and his interest had increased the last few months.There had been trying times with that mean, stubborn tumor. Yes, the children had seen him through without even realizing it, with their exuberant locomotion, good questions and laughter that turned the greyness of his days into vivid color.
When he stepped into the deepening darkness, Earl Jay looked up and felt a miniscule, chill snowflake land on his eye, and then several more on his pale cheeks. He watched the snow gather velocity and thicken in the lamp light. Cars were honking and people rushing by before the snow fell faster and there was one more delay in the completion of their tasks. He pulled up his collar and felt the comforting weight of the coat about him; the hat was pressed firmly on his bald head. He started down the street, then slowed as he neared his car.
She was still there, the girl with the notebook, writing away by the light of a tall candle that someone must have offered and which she held tightly with her left hand. A faux fur coat was draped over her legs. A fuzzy hat covered her hair and ears. Earl Jay wondered why she didn’t put the coat on; her sweater didn’t look substantial. He stepped toward her. Although she didn’t stop writing, she looked up and smiled as before.
“What are you writing?” he heard himself say and was embarrassed. It was really none of his business. You never knew what people were up to. Street kids often used drugs, came from terrible situations and landed in worse. She might be waiting for someone, for all he knew. For something that might not be so commendable. He was a stranger and he ought to have the good manners to let her be. Earl shivered and reminded himself he had to get to Rose’s.
“I write whatever seems right,” she answered amiably, and her pen stopped moving. “I write little poems for the kids. Or stories that take us away.”
She brushed her stringy brown hair out of her eyes and he saw them clearly in the soft darkness: they were palest, melting-ice blue. Blue like an early March sky. They took him all the way back to childhood and the train he boarded on raw spring mornings to visit his beloved grandparents for the week-ends. Those eyes carried him back to the sea where his mother had lived and painted and truly loved him, even from a great distance. They took him back to a blizzardy winter replete with snow blindness–and to where his anger-powered father cut dead and downed trees for extra cash. Until the time he slid into the ravine and broke his leg. He called out for Earl until he went hoarse. But Earl had found him; they made it back to the cabin, eyes aching and useless. Back to each other when they had thought it was too late. And her eyes even took him back to true love, just once. A blue dress, a blue night, a perfect last dance before he left for the Army. And left that splendid girl.
“Who are you?” he whispered, clutching his coat as the wind pressed against the wool.
“I write the life that no one should forget, but got lost somewhere or hidden way or longed for so hard that it stopped breathing. I just write what seems good. And tonight I have written what I love most, one more life eternal, because it is nearly Christmas and you saw me and stopped to talk. I write until it seems enough and it always works.”
She looked at Earl steadily and this time he felt she really saw him standing there. It struck him that she still smiled and yet her young eyes held a most sobering gravity.
“A life eternal?”
But she pulled on the coat and gathered her notebook and pen, then headed down the street. “Oh, you know.”
“But exactly what life eternal?” Earl called after her. He didn’t move, couldn’t move.
“Merry Christmas Earl Jay Jr.,” she called over her shoulder and slipped in between the gauzy windswept snow. It looked to Earl like the dark was raining jewels under the streetlights, or maybe wintry tears or bits of crystal breath, the breath of God. And he knew it, what she meant. Soon, maybe months or a few years, there would be no more happening here that he need attend to. But there was the life eternal. His life. His own quiet, rather fussy being. First he had more to do here, gifts to give. He had a Christmas dinner to share. It was that simple and he had to remember.
Earl walked over to the abandoned camp stool and looked around. There was nothing much to see. No trace that she had been there all that time. But there was one glove lying in the shadow that looked as if it hadn’t been finished. He took his thermal-lined gloves from his pocket and laid them with the snowy forgotten one. Then he left to visit Carl and Rose. Tomorrow, Keira and Mrs. Hallender and his littlest friend, young Master Tate, were coming over for brunch. Earl truly did make excellent cinnamon rolls.