Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas story: UNDER THE HOLLY

~Story by Ken Coffman~

Tom carefully parked the old Toyota on the crest of a hill. The starter did not work, so he needed the incline to compression-start the car. The sky was obscured by woolen blanket of clouds that seemed to suck color from the world. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment and gathered the willpower to move. Tommy was with the next door neighbor, Claire Jensen, who watched daytime dramas with the TV volume turned up so high that Tom could hear the tinny chatter in his car as the cooling engine ticked. With the steering wheel imprinted on his forehead, he slowly raised his hand and wiggled his fingers. He was not paralyzed, but it was as if the world pressed on him with cruel force. Cold wind slipped through loose window seals. Snow looked imminent. He needed to go.

Standing on Claire's sagging porch, he lifted the knocker and let it fall. It snapped like a toy pistol. Tommy's feet clomped on the floorboards; miniature thunder as he ran to the door.

"Daddy," he shouted. "Where have you been? I've been waiting. It's Christmas."

Tom was proud of Tommy's vocabulary. He was not quite four, so his enunciation was sloppy, but his thinking was clear. Tom gathered him in his arms squeezed.

"No, Christmas is tomorrow."

"No, Christmas is today, right now, they said so on TV," Tommy explained patiently as if that settled the matter.

"Okay, maybe I'm wrong," Tom said.

Dressed in several layers of bathrobes, Claire muted the TV and poked her head around the corner.

"Merry Christmas, Tom," she said.

"Back at you, Mrs. Jensen. I hope Tommy was no trouble."

"Never. I wish my kid was as good as him Tommy's an angel. We were watching the Christmas special As the World Turns. It's a rerun of old highlights, but it's still pretty good. Eddie didn't find out Deena was his mother until after Margo killed her."

"That's nice, Mrs. Jensen."

"A man in a uniform walked around your house. I think they turned the power back on."

"Why would they do that?"

"I don't know, but look."

Tom peered through lace curtains at his little house. It was true, some of the lights glowed.

"I didn't pay the bill," he mused.

"If it's still cold over there, come back. At five o'clock I'm going to have a nip of Smirnoff from the freezer. You can share a toot."

Tom knew that a nip meant a fifth, but he did not begrudge her habit; she was always sober during the day. He knew she didn't want to share her bottle but he appreciated her asking.

"We have something to do, but we might stop by later."

"You do that, Tom."

She waggled her fingers at Tommy and he returned the gesture. Outside, Tom strapped Tommy in the car and settled himself in the driver's seat.

"Are you ready?"

Tommy nodded solemnly and took a deep breath. He was convinced the car would only start if he held his breath. Tom released the parking brake and popped the clutch as the car picked up speed. It rumbled to life with a puff of blue smoke.

"See, Daddy, it works," Tommy said.

"It always does," Tom replied.

They turned at the corner.

"Where are we going? It's Christmas, you know."

"So I've heard. We'll go see Mommy."

"Oh." Tommy watched the scenery flowing outside his window for a minute. "What's a pregnancy test? I asked Mrs. Jensen, but she said I should ask you."

"Is that something you heard on the TV?"

Tommy nodded vigorously. "Yes," he said.

"We'll talk about that later, okay?"

"Does later mean never, Daddy?"

"You're a funny little guy. I don't know what I'd do without you."

The cemetery was on a hillside. Cedarville, in all of its small-town patchwork glory, spread out on the valley floor. The river weaved through trees and glistened in the flat winter light. Tommy fumbled with his seatbelt and door and then ran to his mother's grave site. Towels, decorated with sprigs of holly and evergreen fronds, were spread on the damp grass.

"Mama didn't forget Christmas," he shouted. "Hurry up."

Tom handed him a pair of woolen socks.

"Put these on, it's cold."

"Wally has mittens, they're really cool. I mean they're warm, but they're cool."

"We don't have any mittens, so you have to wear socks. They're warm, put them on."

"No one else wears socks on their hands," Tommy complained, but he pulled them on.

Tom stood for a minute reading the inscription. Rebecca Thomas, Beloved Wife and Mother, Taken Too Soon. 1982-2007. RIP

He wanted to scream and tear out his hair and rip the stone from the ground and throw it down the hill. Instead, he pulled a Thermos from a paper bag.

"Give your mom a kiss and have some chocolate," he said.

Tommy kissed the cold granite and settled on his haunches on the picnic towels. He sipped the hot chocolate and studied his father.

"Are you alright, Daddy?"

With his thumb, Tom worked on a smudge of chocolate on Tommy's cheek.

"Sometimes," he replied.

A man, dressed in a long gray overcoat, picked his way from the parking lot. It was George Wilson, Rebecca's boss.

"I took a chance on finding you here. Hello Tommy."

"Hello, Mr. Wilson," Tommy replied.

"We took a collection around the office and got your power turned back on."

With creaking knees, Tom stood, and then took George's arm and led him a few steps away.

"We don't need charity," he said.

"You can call them and tell them to turn it off again."

Tom took a deep breath.

"I'm sorry, I know you mean well..."

"Rebecca wouldn't want you two to freeze to death on Christmas. Let us do this small thing. Also, the man from the insurance company came by again."

"I told you, I don't want their money. It has Rebecca's blood on it."

"You're so melodramatic. He gave me papers. The money will go into a trust for Tommy so he can go to college when he's 18. Rebecca would not want you to be stupid."

"I'll get a job after the first of the year."

"Don't be a fool. You don't want the insurance money, that's fine, but sign the damn papers for Tommy, okay? The man from the insurance company is driving me crazy."

"Okay. I don't have a pen."

George proffered a silver pen and Tom scribbled on the paperwork at all the places marked with red X's.

"Another thing is, you need to turn on your cell phone. That agent lady from New York has been trying to get in touch with you. I don't understand all this stuff, but she says there are two bidders and you need to decide if you'll sign a two-book deal. That's good, right? She says it's a fair amount of money."

"I can't think of that stuff right now. My wife is dead."

"I know all about the horrible accident, Tom," George said gently. "I also know she supported you for three years so you could write that book. I told the agent I'd let you know. Now you know and I'm done. You take care, okay, Tom?"

"Yeah," Tom said.

He watched George navigate his way back to the parking lot for a moment before turning back to Tommy.

The picnic bag held a partial package of Oreos. He held out a handful for Tommy who took them in his ensocked hands.

"I haven't had dinner yet," Tommy said.

"On Christmas, you can have cookies for dinner."

"I like Christmas," Tommy mumbled through a mouthful. "There's no money for presents, is there? We're flat."

"That's right, Tommy, we're flat busted." A sprinkle of snowflakes drifted from the woolen sky. "But, maybe your mama sent you something..."

"What?" Tommy jumped up and ran around the tombstone. "I don't see anything."

"Maybe she left it under the holly."

The holly flew as Tommy tossed off the sprigs. He raised a package wrapped in red and green paper.

"Look, you're right. Mama didn't forget about me."

"No Tommy, your mom will never forget about you."

Tommy jumped on his dad's lap clutching his present tightly in his chubby arms.

"Go ahead and open it."

"Can I wait a while, Daddy? I don't care what it is."

"Wait as long as you like," Tom said.

The snow, drifting from the sky like apple blossoms, slowly turned the ground white. They stayed as long as they could stand the cold and then headed for home.


Ken Coffman is the author of Steel Waters, Hartz String Theory and other mad novels available from Amazon.com and other online bookstores. He wrote a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog published by Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Ken lives in the Northwest with his wife Judy who is a well known artist. He is a Field Applications Engineer and Member of the Technical Staff at Fairchild Semiconductor.