I wrote this story a few years back. I've shared it before and since it is the Christmas season I posted it again. The story line takes place during the Christmas season. To be truthful it is not your usual Christmas story filled with smiling families, presents and glitter. But it is imbued with the Christmas spirit of love, kindness, solidarity and a glimmer of hope. Those are attributes we need as hate and prejudice seem to be the social and political currency now in use.
The picture included I made recently. I titled it "Away In A Manger."
I Remember You
A Christmas story
by David H. Roche
written 8/28/06 revised 11 /18 / 2013
(C) David H. Roche
Hauling himself up into the freight car as it lurched abruptly he stumbled sprawling against a wall where he turned, pressing himself into the corner and slid down to the floor. He blew slowly on his fingers, warming them and drew his battered suitcase close to his side hunching forward to save the meager heat of his body inside his coat.
The glare of the freight yard lights flashed through slats in the boxcar door. Shivering he attempted further to pull inside of himself to escape the cold. But it was impossible.
Across from him there was the outline of another man huddled in the cold. He saw the bright orange dot of a cigarette suspended in darkness. As his eyes adjusted he saw he had two companions; a man and small dog.
The train gained speed. Despite the rattle and the jostling he acknowledged his companions with a wave. Settling back he drew inside of himself to control the trembling. There was nothing else but the cold that made him aware he was alive.
The two men sat across from each other as the train moved. When the train slowed, creaking and jerking to a stop his companion rose, swaying and crossed the length of the car sitting down next to him. The dog followed, lying alongside of him with his muzzle on the man’s thigh. "Name's Jack," the man said.
He looked at Jack. They were about the same age as far as he could tell. He reached and stroked the dogs head and said: "Gabriel; call me Gabe."
The two sat next to each other, their shoulders rubbing as the train jerked again, lurching abruptly picking up speed. Jack reached into his pocket drawing out a bottle and handed it to Gabe saying: "This'll keep the chill off."
Gabe took it thankfully unscrewing the cap taking a swig. The liquid burned all the way down his throat into the pit of his empty stomach where it settled like a pool of hot lava. He savored the burning and quickly took a second swig and another before handing it back. "Thanks. I don’t touch it often; sometimes it gets out of hand."
“Yeah, that can happen. But here's to a merry Christmas anyway."
"Christmas?" Gabe said.
"Yeah, it's Christmas Eve.” Jack looked at him: “You didn't know?"
"No. God, I didn't know. Christmas? Well, merry Christmas I guess." Gabe sat quietly, rocking and swaying with the motion of the train. The whiskey went from his stomach and into his brain the way a mellow summer afternoon becomes an all-encompassing ambiance. After a few minutes he asked: "What's his name?"
"Ah, the dog. He’s Harry. I named him after the President. He's tough as nails ... an honest pup. I can always count on him."
"Got three of these," Jack said patting the bottle. Found a box sitting behind a truck outside a liquor store, snatched them before the driver came back. I figured it would make for a nice Christmas." He sipped from the bottle and passed it to his companion. "Glad I got someone to share it with, Christmas and all."
Gabe repeated the word to himself, "Christmas." It was more in wonder than anything. Wonder that he hadn't known. Wonder that what had meant so much before could pass unnoticed now.
They drank together shoulder to shoulder sharing the warmth in the bottle and their bodies as they rocked in place with the motion of the train. Gabe took a half empty pouch of tobacco from his pocket, removed a pinch and spread it along the crease of a rolling paper. He'd done it many times and none spilled as he moistened the seam and put it between his lips. He struck a match and after taking a drag handed the pouch to Jack who took it saying; "Thanks.”
The two men sat talking while they smoked, passing the bottle back and forth. Jack was coming from New York and heading to California or maybe Oregon hoping to find warmer weather and pick fruit and maybe get a room. He had wanted to get going earlier in the year but ended up in jail in New York and had just been released a week before.
"I’m not really going anywhere", Gabe replied. "Just some place warm enough for my clothes."
"Any family?" Jack asked.
"Yeah, I got…”, then stopped. “No not really. None I can go and see, so I guess not."
Gabe pushed back into the crevice with Jack where the corners made a ninety degree angle and settled into the comfort of the alcohol. Already the numbness from the frigid night was vanishing, replaced with an imitation of warmth as the amber liquid radiated like a hearth inside of him.
"How's it going Harry?" He stroked the dog’s head absently but his thoughts were drifting without his will back to another Christmas Eve.
It was a Christmas Eve four years before that Gabe remembered as the whiskey and conversation released him from his preoccupation with the cold reality of the boxcar.
The first bottle was emptied and the second opened. Gabe spoke absently to Harry. Harry nuzzled his snout into his master’s lap and gave a sigh.
Gabe's thoughts went their own way as the three rocked back and forth together in the semi-darkness.
He remembered the Christmas Eve that had brought him to this place in time. He didn’t want to. But his memories were a cascade that seemed to have no end. His mother, and Sherry came to mind; both gone forever from him now.
The ring that was to be Sherry's had been his mother's engagement ring. It was a two carat diamond in a platinum setting. It was the only thing of value he had. But he had come on hard times and had to get a loan against it at Goldfarb’s pawn shop. He had made weekly payments. As Christmas approached he made double payments from October on and had it all paid off except for the last payment he was going to make that Christmas Eve after work so he could take it home to Sherry. It was an engagement ring for the second time. The thought of Sherry's face when he would put the ring on her finger that evening had made him smile all day. That's what he told everyone when he stopped at O'Leary's for drinks after work.
He had gotten carried away and forgot the time. When he looked at his watch he knew that he'd have to hurry. By the time he got there it was just past closing but he saw Goldfarb locking the door and turning to go down the street. He ran up behind him and called: "Sol. I'm glad I caught you. I need to get my ring."
The pawn broker continued walking and didn't turn to acknowledge him.
"Hey Sol," he called again as Goldfarb continued without responding. "I was afraid I'd miss you, wait up."
Goldfarb turned slowly and looked at him with eyes absent the light the living have and said: "I'm closed. See me after the holiday."
"Sol. It's me, Gabe Walker; I've got the last payment. Just open up and let me get the ring. It won't take more than a minute." Gabe grabbed Goldfarb's sleeve, "I need to get my ring tonight. It's an engagement ring for my fiancé. It's Christmas Eve."
"I know who you are and you're late. I'm closed and I'm going home. We have a celebration tonight. You should have gotten here earlier. See me after the holidays." He removed Gabe's hand from his sleeve and walked away.
Gabe grabbed him again and held on.
Goldfarb turned to him with the same lack of emotion he had cultivated during 40 years behind the counter in his shop. He looked at him with the same eyes he used to view those whose humanity he refused to recognize as he took their money and sold their possessions when they couldn’t redeem them: "It's not your ring until you make the last payment. It's my ring until then. I'm closed. Good night, have a merry Christmas."
He yanked his arm out of Gabe's' grip, turned away down the sidewalk into an alleyway leading to his car behind the storefront. Gabe watched him as others hurried home to celebrations and families. His anger rose and turned into despair. "The hell I will you god damned piece of shit." He ran after him down the unlit alley and jumped on his back dragging him down.
The two men struggled but Gabe was stronger. Goldfarb, older and weak from decades behind the counter was no match for the younger man whose strength came from manhandling swine carcasses in the slaughterhouse five days a week. Gabe subdued him quickly and went through the older man’s pockets. Finding the keys he ran to the pawnshop leaving Goldfarb on the ground.
Once inside he went right to where he knew the ring was and grabbed it. He placed the last payment along with the keys on the counter, and left. He gave a fleeting thought to Goldfarb as he passed the alleyway and almost went in to see if he was alright. But then said to himself: "The hell with the god damned bastard," and walked past.
What had made him snap? Whether it had been the afternoon drinking, the anger at Goldfarb or the thought that he would come home empty handed to Sherry who deserved more than he could ever give her. He had never been able to figure it out and he had run it through his mind a thousand times. But what he did know was that he had taken the ring and left Goldfarb in a heap, gasping for breath in the dark.
Sherry had been as happy as a girl is when the man she loves gives her a diamond. But the day after Christmas Goldfarb's murder was front page news. Apparently there had been a witness. The police had also lifted a fingerprint from the jewelry counter. Gabe had a record and it wasn't long before they knew who to look for.
A few days later there was a flashing red glare across the walls of their flat. He nervously pulled the curtain back and looked out the window. There were two Chicago Police cars stopped and two cops in the street below were looking up at his apartment. He didn't have time to explain. And in the cold rumbling box car he could see Sherry standing there trembling and scared repeating: "What's going on Gabe? What's going on?" He had run out the back door of the apartment and down the stairs. She had heard a knock at their door and found the police standing there.
Running for his life, dashing through alleys, across busy streets, and over railroad tracks he ended up in the freight yards and found himself in a boxcar. The next day he was in Idaho.
Jack nudged his ribs rousing him from the reverie and offered him the bottle again. He took it gladly, gulping it. Settling back more memories filled him. The rocking of the car settled him and the cold seemed only to be outside. The warm glow inside gave him comfort and distance from everything.
Behind his eyes he saw Sherry again and now she was telling him she was pregnant. He remembered how she was scared. But he had taken her in his arms and swung her around in the center of the parlor, they ended up giggling, kissing and laughing. That was the summer before Goldfarb's death. They would be married before the baby was born and they began to make plans and choose names.
But by the next summer he was in California and by October had made his way back to Chicago hoping to find Sherry and their child. He found out where she was living through friends who told him where she was, warning him that the police were still asking about him. They told him something more. She had married one of his friends who promised to look after her. And the baby was a boy.
In the frigid night images passed behind his eyes and leaked down his cheeks. The plans they had made and the happiness they had felt were like the leaves of autumn after a glorious summer. But summer was gone, none the less.
He had gone to the neighborhood where she was living. After walking the street all morning he saw her pushing a carriage and stop at a market. From the doorway of a tobacco shop across the street he watched her talking with Graziano, the grocer. There was a forlorn sensation in his chest as she bent and lifted his son from the carriage. She jiggled him on her hip as she talked with Graziano and selected produce. He wondered what she had named him.
He wanted to rush across the street and take her in his arms, but he didn’t.
In the cold night air he felt the desire as vividly as he had felt it that day. He bent his head and wept, his body shaking uncontrollably.
He felt Jack's hand on his back. When he opened his eyes, he saw in the flashing lights from outside the expression of the most supreme kindness in Jack’s face. Without words his eyes conveyed the deepest sympathy and tenderness. .
In the grubby, rattling boxcar traveling through the night a transcendence of some sort occurred. A light in the darkness was turned on. He pressed his face against the filthy fabric of his companions coat and cried until he couldn't cry anymore. The comforting arm was a refuge. As his sobbing slowly ended he heard Jack's voice: "Christmas is always hard for men like us," and offered him the bottle again.
"Yeah, Christmas is always hard," Gabe answered. He took the bottle and drank deeply finally passing into something that resembled sleep.
When he opened his eyes he was cold and hungry. The train was stopped at a siding. He couldn't tell where it was; only that it was a little warmer than the night before. They rolled cigarettes and sat side by side smoking silently. Jack opened the third bottle, took a drink and handed it to Gabe.
Around daybreak the door of the car was drawn open and a disheveled visage appeared in the opening struggling to climb in. It was a woman. Jack scrambled to the doorway grabbing her hand, pulling her into the car as the train began to move. She sprawled forward onto the floor and sat up. Harry approached her cautiously, wagging his tail slowly, and sniffed her.
There was a wild look in her eyes.
"Merry Christmas", Jack said.
She said nothing until after looking back and forth between the two men and the dog, ascertaining they were all who were in the freight car with her. Her first words were: "I could use a cigarette".
Gabe handed her his pouch. "I'm Gabe, he's Jack, and that's Harry." He pointed to the dog. "Jack's going to California or Oregon. I'm just going."
He waited for her to say where she was headed, but she offered nothing. Finally she said; "I'm Angel. God, it was cold last night." She trembled, shivering as she looked back and forth at each of them. "The bastards in the jungle wouldn't keep their hands off me. Every time I went near the fire they started pawing me. You know, like I’ve got time or interest in that!” She made her point clear by fixing her eyes on theirs as she spoke. “I couldn't sleep because I had to keep my eye on them. Finally I knocked one out with a rock and left.”
"The jungle can be rough if you're a woman and got no one to watch out for you." Jack said and pulled the bottle from his pocket handing it to her. She took it without hesitation and gulped quickly.
"About thirty, had been pretty ... but beat up now." Jack thought. Her face was smudged and darkened lines filled creases below her eyes. She was less than thin looking ravished like a milkweed in tatters at the end of summer. She sipped, shuddering at the burn of the whiskey. Then waited a moment and took a larger sip and another before leaning back against the side of the car between the men.
Becoming comfortable with her new companions she said: "I've got some food." She took a mashed loaf of white bread from inside her coat and laid it on her lap. Then she took out another equally misshapen loaf and laid it next to the other one.
The men's eyes opened wide. Jack said: "That looks awful good Angel. I’ve had nothing but whiskey for two days now."
"It's better than nothing, here." She picked up the loaf and broke off a piece handing it to him explaining with a laugh: "The grocer chased me down the street, but I never looked back. I just kept runnin'. I'm not gonna starve when someone's got more food than they need."
"There's a lot who don't have anything and a few that got more than they need;" Gabe said.
Jack took the hunk of gooey white bread and pulled it apart with his fingers letting it dissolve in his mouth. Angel took another piece from the loaf and passed it to Gabe. Jack passed the bottle. They ate and drank silently together.
"Here Harry." Angel put a piece of the bread in front of the dog. He devoured it and looked into her eyes imploring her for more. She gave him another piece and he ate it just as quickly. She patted him and he lay down resting his head on her leg, never taking his eyes from the remaining bread.
"Angel remembered you Harry, even if I didn't. Sorry old boy." Jack stroked the dogs back and Harry sighed deeply.
"Got a family Angel?" Gabe asked.
"I had a man and a son; a baby boy."
"His father killed him, the son of a bitch. He shook him cause' he wouldn't stop cryin'. He was only hungry and the bastard couldn't afford a place for us to stay or a meal. He just shook him till he snapped his neck.”
"Bastard is right. But why are you here?"
"I couldn't stay with him after he did that and he was all I had after he killed my son. I buried my baby in a jungle in Idaho and left the damned bastard there.”
"So where are you going?"
"Hadn't thought about it. Right now I'm just goin' I guess. I'm sure I’ll find out."
"I think we always find out at some point," Jack answered as much to himself as her.
Gabe said: "Yeah, I guess that's what I'm doin' too. Don't know if I'll ever find out though." He was silent for a moment: "I try to make sense of it all and I can’t."
The train jerked abruptly, began moving and picked up speed. The freight yard passed in a blur and the morning light brightened, flickering through the door of the car illuminating Angel's face as she passed the second loaf to her companions. Each man took the loaf and tore a piece from it. The loaf was shared between the four of them until it was gone.
"You got to keep going' " she said. “Ain’t no use in stopping cause it seems everyplace you stop is bad’.”
Gabe answered: "Some people got a place to go. Jack's going to California, or someplace out there to find work. Others like you and me are just going, going away from everything, not to somethin'."
"Well" she said, "the way I see it we're all going to something. Sometimes you can't tell from where you are but that’s what you’re doing. I think you don't find out till you get there. Maybe we're always there and don’t know it. In any case we just got to keep going and take what we got now. This might be all there is. We'd be mighty poor if we threw it away looking for something else if this is all there is.”
They sat silently together until she let out a piercing cry and crumpled onto her side in pain rolling over with her head landing in Gabe’s lap. Her long coat opened. It wasn't until then that the men saw she was pregnant.
"It's time!” she cried. “Oh God no, don’t let it be time.” Her face twisted with fear and pain.
Jack helped her stretch out on the floor and took some soiled clothes from his bag placing them under her head. He spoke soothingly to her: "I know what to do. I delivered two babies in one night in a jungle in South Dakota. As long as nothing goes wrong there ain't nothing to get excited about. You're gonna be alright Angel." He stroked her matted hair and his voice reassured her as the train with its cargo traveled on.
Gabe cradled her head as Jack tended to her. The fear in her eyes vanished by degrees as she listened to Jack’s voice. Slowly she realized that he knew what to do. She screamed and her body contorted. Sometime in the afternoon before the sun went down she gave birth. Jack poured the remaining whiskey on his hands and rubbed them together catching the babe as it was pushed out into the world.
He opened Angel's blouse and laid the baby on her chest, quickly covering her with her ragged coat.
Clasping the new life to her breast she asked: "What is it?”
"It's a boy," Jack said.
"A boy, a baby boy!" She began to cry but her tears turned to laughter and she clasped the unnamed infant tightly laughing and crying on the floor holding her precious son as the train rocked them back and forth.
Gabe got up and went to another corner to give her privacy as she nursed the infant. He sat and rolled a cigarette, gazing in astonishment at Angel and the baby boy lying in a pile of dirty clothing on the filthy floor of a freight car on Christmas Day.
They were going that’s for sure; he still didn’t know if they were going someplace or just moving. But it seemed to him now that they were going together, all five of them; Angel, Jack, Harry, the unnamed baby boy, and himself.
Something had changed. Something had happened. They had been thrown together with their separate needs, helping each other with the little they possessed. He wasn't able to say what it was he felt. But it was something to do with hope and the quality of human kindness.