Authors: Elyse Douglas
“That fake lady Santa Claus looks really sour. Who wants to see a face like that at Christmas?!”
The last thought shocked her. She threw darting glances about, to see if she could find the source of it, finally spotting the same boy who had been leading her around. He stared at her intently, as if working on a thought, but not disclosing it. Jennifer tilted her head toward him, like a robin listening for a worm, hoping to pick up additional thoughts. She waved at him, but he spun around and ran off into the crowd.
Santa returned and Jennifer sighed in relief. “Am I glad to see you,” she said, pulling off the hat and handing it, and the bell, back to Santa.
He took them happily, returned the hat to his head and presently began ringing the bell. Jennifer became aware that she could no longer hear thoughts. Her shoulders relaxed.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked.
“Enjoy? How do you stand it?”
“Hearing all their thoughts. It would drive me crazy.”
“It was a gift to you. You heard the voices of their hearts: what they truly felt, needed and wanted. Were you moved by them?”
Jennifer massaged her eyes, weary and confused. “Yes…of course, but, what can I do about them—any of them? What can anybody really do?”
“Small things, Jennifer. Sometimes it’s just a smile, a good wish, a generous ear, or even just the simple understanding that we’re all here together on the Earth. That can lighten the heart.”
He continued. “At Christmas, many people are thankful and happy, but there are many who aren’t; their hopes, needs and fears are often more sharply felt, so we try to help them now and throughout the new year.
“By your just standing here and ringing the bell, you provided people with an opportunity to give, share and express what’s in their hearts. I think you’ll agree that most of the hearts in the world are good. And everyone wants happiness, don’t you think?”
“You just gave them a wonderful gift, and you asked for nothing in return. That shows generosity, Jennifer, and a good heart.”
Jennifer noticed there were nearly four inches of snow on the ground. The wind was gentle, and traveling on it was the scent of pine and mint. She lifted her nose as the breeze washed across her face like a cool liquid. She looked toward the towering tree and the bustling crowd, lost in thoughts of many dimensions. Her mind struggled to find something to believe in, to hold on to. What astounded her was that she could still feel the dull ache of Lance’s parting, but it had subsided dramatically, thanks to the warmth from the ringing bell; and that warmth continued to spread throughout her body like a healing balm.
He came from around the tree, his hands in his pockets, looking at her expectantly. It was the same little boy as before. Jennifer straightened and glanced over to Santa. “There he is again!”
“He needs your help, Jennifer. Follow him,” Santa said.
“My help!? He keeps running away.”
“ ‘A little child shall lead them’. Follow him, Jennifer; he’ll lead you into your future.”
Jennifer looked at the boy, who was again motioning for her to follow him. When she turned back to Santa, she froze. He was gone! Another Santa, taller and skinnier, was standing there, ringing a very different bell, a bell with a completely different sound: high-pitched and shrill. Jennifer wiped her eyes and tried to understand.
She turned her attention again to the boy, who kept waving her on. She followed.
Jennifer pulled her way through crowds, traffic and the blur of lights as she followed the child down snow-filled sidewalks to Lincoln Center. There, a large crowd gathered under another magnificent Christmas tree in the center of the plaza surrounded by the Metropolitan Opera House, the David Koch Theatre and Alice Tully Hall. As the crowd sang, inspiring voices and a brass quintet filled the air with “
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Jennifer was looking everywhere for the boy, who, once again, had slipped away into the crowds and disappeared. The music was so delightful and captivating that she stopped and listened, viewing the animated, happy faces and the dancing children.
She heard a trumpet! Instantly, she stood on tiptoes to find the player. The tone was warm and joyful; the musician was an obvious master. She found him on the stage above the crowds, dressed in a red and green muffler and bright red cap. He looked nothing like Lance; he was heavier and older. But he played effortlessly, swinging to the playful rhythm, his eyes alive and glowing with happiness. Though he didn’t look like Lance, she thought of him, felt again the pain of loss, then a tug of remorse. Why hadn’t she listened to Lance when he’d told her how much he loved music, when he explained how alive he felt whenever he remembered his high school days and the solos he’d played? How excited he was whenever he played even a few notes for her? She’d often ignored him, passing it off as frivolous, a waste of time. Sometimes, she’d even walked out of the room in the middle of a phrase.
Her own voice echoed back to her.
“Grow up, Lance! You can’t make any money at it! No one in town is going to respect us if all you do is play the trumpet!”
“Is impressing people in town so important to you, Jen?” he’d once asked.
“Your family was always well-off. I’ve been poor and pitied my whole life! I’m not going to let you give up being a doctor, a profession that pays well and is respected, to become a trumpet player, so we can be poor for the rest of our lives!”
Jennifer slowly dropped her head to her chest. The trumpeter began to play a solo:
The Christmas Song
. People near her sang along quietly: “
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
It was so liltingly poignant that it brought tears, tears of regret, tears of appreciation. She wiped them away as she scanned the quiet, enraptured faces watching the soloist; faces filled with contentment and happiness. The music had taken them into another world, into another state far from the realities of life, where words and concepts simply dissolved. She felt her own heart become tender, and, to her surprise, she noticed that her shoulders and neck had relaxed, her body had settled more easily into the Earth; into the Earth that was bearing the weight of all of them, of all things.
“How is it that I’ve never felt this connection before?” she thought.
She could feel the music penetrating through the crust around her heart.
“I’m sorry, Lance. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
After the song was finished, the little boy appeared again, and then shot off toward Broadway. Jennifer called out after him, but he didn’t stop. She wanted to stay, she wanted to savor the new feelings she was discovering, but she knew she had to follow the boy, so she slowly turned away and started after him.
It seemed like only minutes had passed when she arrived at a toy store, a tall bright red building, with yellow flashing lights and windows that danced with color, movement and animation. She watched as the little boy ran inside, underneath the arms of grown-ups toting large packages and bulging shopping bags.
She went after him. Inside, children darted about the shop with big, bold eyes and anxious bodies, exploring, squealing and pointing. Five-feet-tall stuffed animals loomed in the corners and on the stairways, miniature monkeys clung to railings, electric trains tooted and circled. There were racks stuffed with board games, dolls, brightly colored plastic trucks and walking robots. Parents struggled to contain the young ones, salespeople hurried by, and cash registers rang loudly.
Jennifer searched for the child, stepping past pastel-colored dollhouses, miniature forts and Victorian homes where puppets’ heads were peeking out of windows.
She finally spotted him looking down at her longingly, from the second floor balcony. She started after him. Upstairs, she circled the floor, twice, pushing through persistent crowds, but not finding him. Finally, she stopped, mystified. That’s when she overheard the conversation between two women, the next aisle over.
She ventured a quick look but could see only the back of one woman, dressed richly, in a fur, and the other, dressed modestly. They were strolling aimlessly through the aisle, and had paused to squeeze a cuddly little stuffed kangaroo.
The woman in fur said, “Don’t waste your time unless this boy has money, and a lot of money. I don’t care how nice he is.”
“But he loves what he does,” the other said.
“There’s nothing worse than a man who loves what he does but makes very little money doing it. It’s outrage posing as sanctity!”
“You were in love once.”
“Once was enough.”
“Don’t you miss being in love?”
“I have his memory and my money. That’s enough for me. To hell with the rest of it.”
“But, don’t you get lonely?”
“Look, Emily, it’s time you started living in the real world, and the real world is a place where money and power are more important than love and romance. Love is a cheap sparkler. Love is fickle. Love dies. Believe me, you can get a little romance whenever you want it, if you have money. If I get lonely, I can always find a man.”
“But what about children? Didn’t you ever want children?”
“There are plenty of those running around already. Just look! Everywhere! You can barely walk the streets or the stores, for tripping over them. Don’t be fooled into thinking that having children is so wonderful. If you look into the faces of most of the parents in this store you’ll see nothing but stress, exhaustion and regret. When they grow up, they’re even more trouble, and they cost a fortune!”
“Surely you don’t believe that, Ms. Taylor?”
“I do indeed! And now I’m sorry I agreed to come with you to buy this silly gift for your little brother. I hate these stores, and their prices are so offensive!”
“You know, Ms. Taylor, my family wonders why I stay with you.”
“We both know it’s for my money, Emily. You think you’ll get some someday if you’re nice to me. Well, you’re only a fair secretary, so I wouldn’t push it.”
Jennifer felt her way along the aisle until she was able to steal a look around the corner and catch a glimpse of them. When she saw the woman in fur, she stood bolt erect, her heart kicking in her chest. She recognized the woman immediately! It was herself! Older, yes, but she knew in her gut that she was looking into her own face: a sour face of a shriveled woman, old before her time, with cold hawk-like eyes and a shuffling gait, as if even her steps were stingy and resentful. She exuded a poverty of spirit that depressed the very atmosphere around her.
After they had drifted away downstairs, Jennifer leaned back against the pink wall, panicked. She watched the hanging cherubs and spinning angels above, looking back at her with daring eyes, critical eyes, beady eyes that warned and threatened. Sweat popped out on her forehead. Her heart raced. She wanted to scream out and run away—find someplace to hide—some sanctuary. After a deep breath, she spiraled down the wrought iron stairs and burned past shoppers, hitting the front door with the flat of her hand.
Outside, it was still snowing, driven by a stiff breeze. She looked up and down the street, but nothing was familiar and nothing felt safe. She didn’t know where to go.
When the child appeared, waving for her to follow him, she hesitated, fearing another painful encounter.
She shouted at him. “Who are you!? Tell me! Who are you!?”
He didn’t speak. He just stood there, looking at her with pleading eyes.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me who you are!”
The little boy turned around and started off into the moving shadows. Lost and anxious, Jennifer went after him.
She followed him across Central Park West, and entered Central Park near 72
Street, where all traffic had ceased and all things seemed to be in a state of uncertainty. The child hurried along the meandering pathway, and she struggled to keep up, stepping gingerly, watching him steadily as he forged ahead. When he crested the top of a hill, he stopped for a moment and looked back to her, and in the muted glow of the park lights, she saw snow falling about him.
“Wait!” Jennifer called.
To her surprise, he did.
She was nearly out of breath when she drew close to him. He stood motionless as she looked him over, trying to understand.
“You’ll meet him soon,” the little boy said.
“Meet who soon?”
“Tell me. Who will I be meeting?”
He finally spoke. “Will you go sledding with me?”
“Sledding?” Jennifer repeated, confused and shuddering.
He nodded, then pointed toward the next hill, where Jennifer saw children swarming the slope, shouting gleefully. She squinted to see them streaming down the hillside on sleds and red saucers. She watched them building snowmen and having snowball fights.
Before she could answer, the little boy tore off toward the sledding hill, tumbling and sliding. She watched him climb and crawl until he crested it, triumphant and waving.
The wind scattered Jennifer’s hair and she raked it from her face, feeling the damp snow. Her feet were cold. Her ears were cold. Her face was cold, and she would have given anything to be sitting by a warm fire with a hot cup of coffee. But she looked about, resigned, then started down the bluff, toward the boy. With great difficulty, she tramped down one hill and scaled the side of another, finally clawing her way to the top, tired, chest heaving.