By May B. Yesno © 2008
Ever read the arguments about how folks die at a higher rate during the last quarter of the year as compared to the rest of it?
Oh, I don't mean how they die, because as far as I know there is only one way to do it, and that's to stop living. I suppose I'm really talking about the rate at which they die. And why would I bring up people dying when I'm trying to tell a Christmas story? I think I'll say this to make you understand why I might bring up dying around Christmas time--have you ever heard "Jingle Bells," or maybe "Jingle Bell Rock," or "I Saw Mama Kissing Santa," or . . . well, you get the point. You either die, or live it down, one of which you'll surely do. As long as you don't think about next year, then you'll surely expire. Though this new thing called "the web" has us not listening to the radio as much as in the past. Or maybe technology, what with the "subscribe now" radio channels from space and all. But it's hard to escape the mind-numbing repetition.
What brought all this on?
The season somewhat. Yep. I was sitting in the cafe the other day, listening to some of that junk cheer the piped-in radio was producing while people-watching. It occurred to me to take a good look around the place--a thing I'd never really done before. Remarkable. I'd gotten to the point of puking about the life choices that had brought me to sitting in a place with walls sticky enough to hold a glass if you pressed one against it, paint the yellow brown of tobacco smoke and no tile on the floors. God, what would Momma say, seeing this?
Still, the coffee was fair, the price was right, and it was warm. Even so, you needed to wear your coat and hat to keep them from disappearing. Then an old boy came in. I'd seen him around, now and then, never in company, just having coffee, listening and watching the activities going on. He didn't seem to be a nut or anything, just an old man. I've often wondered about that; that being an old man thing. How'd you go about that? I mean, how'd you go about ending up in a run-down cafe and all?
I'd raised a finger the waitress's way for a refill just before the old man stumped his way in and was getting it when the old man looked my way and lifted an eyebrow. So I told the waitress to bring the old man a cup and, looking his way, waved toward an empty chair. He accepted and sat.
After a nod of greeting and some wiggling to get his coat unbuttoned and his hat pushed to the back of his head, he wrapped his hands around that handle-less cup, alternating one over the other. He had not been wearing gloves. After about the third switch of his hands and in time for a refill, we got to talking about football, the silly stuff going on at City Hall, and pot holes in the street when he asked if I'd noticed that it was a whole lot easier to hide in a city than out in a small town.
To say the conversation paused would be putting a point on it. I just looked at him staring at the salt shaker. Finally, he became aware, shook his head and said that it is very easy to exist without neighbor friends in a large town than it would be elsewhere, you know?
I nodded. It seemed to make some sense that a man would be able to hide in plain view in a city. With my nod, he asked where I was from and other mildly personal stuff. Me? I did much the same. Bonding sort of questions, I guess you'd say; though how you stay impersonal while trading personal information is an art. I don't suppose I'll forget the old man now.
We went back and forth some, when the old man asked about my Christmases, or some of them anyway. That was pushing my boundaries, so to speak, and the old man seemed to recognize that and started to speak of his family from long ago - to me, very long ago.
"One of the first Christmases I can remember," he said, "was way back. My grand-dad was a barber. At the time it wasn't frowned on for someone to live in the same building as their work place. So, grand-dad lived along side of and behind the shop."
The old man chuckled. "It was some time later I figured out that the whole place was a house with one room enlarged and converted to the barber shop. It only made sense, really. How much space do you need for a one-man barber shop anyway?"
I nodded some to indicate I was listening, and the old man picked it up again.
"I remember," he continued, "that this was the day before Christmas, or maybe a couple of days before-- I've never been really sure, being so young like. Though I am sure that the old man was sick from something. That particular day, Mother hauled me and my brother over to his place and told us to stay outdoors. Now, don't get the wrong idea. It was somewhere in California and it was warm, even though we wore light coats. So we stayed out. Mom had left the back door open though, so I could see inside. Could see the bedroom, leastwise, the bed where grand-dad was laying, the dining and kitchen area and off there to my right, the door to the bathroom.
Mom went in and seemed to be talking to grand-dad, then her voice went up a bit and she commenced ranting on him for making a mess of himself and his bed clothes and how much a pain he was in her life. I couldn't make out the words grand-dad answered.
I don't rightly remember the words she was using, other than they were some hurtful to me and I didn't know what she was talking about. Still, I saw her reach and jerk down grand-dads underpants, telling him how filthy he was. After a bit more jawing, she scooped him up and started carrying him toward the kitchen area, me thinking she was bringing him out, but she didn't. She turned toward the bathroom, him all scrawny and pasty white looking.
I knew looking at him with his head flopped across her shoulder (he stood over six foot four) and his dirty boxers dangling around his right ankle that he was bad sick. Well, anyway, she managed to get the bathroom door open and plopped him on the crapper. He was all limp and limber like spaghetti, drooling on a dirty T-Shirt. She told him she was leaving him there, so he'd have to make it back to bed himself. I ran away from the door as she turned out of the bathroom.
I didn't run so much as just turn my back, hiding behind a tree next to the door where I could still see.
I peeked around and watched Mama go back into the bedroom and pick up grand-dad's pants. I remember the belt hanging down like it was coming loose, but Momma rifled through the pockets, putting change and stuff into her pocket. Then she found his wallet, took a bunch of stuff from it, and put that into her purse, replacing the wallet. She threw the pants in the corner and started going through his personals box-- the cuff links and rings and things-- putting all that stuff in her pockets as well. Pretty soon she came to the yard and called us boys to come. We were leaving.
I don't remember where we spent Christmas that year, but in the next day or so, Momma told us that grand-dad had died and that we'd be attending his funeral next week. She did take me with her to the hospital when she identified the body down in the morgue and signed the papers.
Well, you can imagine my reaction to this story from the old man. I sat silent, watching as he stood and buttoned up his coat and set his hat straight.
He nodded, turned and left the cafe. I watched as he stopped outside the door, shrugged himself deeper into his coat, shoved his hands into coat pockets, looked up and down the sidewalk both ways, heaved a deep breath and started off to his right.
I looked down at my cup, lifted a hand to the waitress for another coffee and started looking around the joint, noting the yellow brown walls a glass could stick to, if you placed a glass on it, and listened to the Christmas music being piped in.
May B. Yesno is a writer from Fresno, CA.