Friday, December 20, 2013
His Favorite Christmas Short Story
I've been having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. In an effort to fix this, I decided to write a short story based on Capital Light's Christmas song, "His Favorite Christmas Story." If you haven't heard it, please give it a listen below and buy it on iTunes. I love this song and thought that perhaps I could build on the lyrics with my own take. I changed a few things, but kept the spirit of the song very much intact. Feel free to share this with others, and have a Merry Christmas!
His Famous Christmas Short Story
Song by Capital Lights, short story by Colin Mansfield.
James Parker had planned on staying home that evening. His dad was by the fireplace reading, a book of poetry in one hand and his large half-bent billiard pipe in the other. The mix of strong tobacco and smoke from the fire filled their small three-bedroom house with a scent that James now associated with home. This time of year was especially difficult for the Parker household. The memory of losing his mother and younger sister eight Christmases ago was far enough behind them that it wasn't often discussed, but recent enough to make the wound feel fresh as the snow began to fall each year.
19 year old James sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes gazing into the burning fire. Memories from the year passed before his eyes: 1937 had brought the Hindenburg disaster, the disappearance of famous aviator Amelia Earhart, and the continued rise of the Soviet Union as a world power. His eyes traced the red bricks that were gleaming around the fireplace. Red and blue candles burned on the mantle above his and his father's stockings, next to a medal his dad had won in the Great War. The same candles that his mother had insisted on displaying each year. His father was still grieving, to be sure. But somehow he had managed to maintain the memory of James' mother and sister without constantly making it front-and-center in their lives. James' dad worked at the lumber mill and promised to get James a job next year. He was a good man.
A large *thump* against the window broke James' train of thought and sent him careening back to reality. A round blotch of snow was stuck to the window.
"James!" yelled voices from outside.
*thump* another snowball hit the window, and James' dad looked up.
James got up, ran to the window, and opened it just as another snowball was about to hit its mark. He suddenly realized that he should probably check-- too late. *pfff* the snowball hit him directly in the face. Wiping away the slush from his nose and eyes, James saw his two best friends - Tom and Robert - standing outside wearing what appeared to be their Sunday best. The only difference? Mittens and snowballs in hand.
"There you are!" Tom yelled, "You comin' with us to the Christmas party, or what?"
Arden was a small town located in northern Delaware, but the one thing it boasted every year was a beautiful and well-executed Christmas Eve party. People from big cities like Dover and Wilmington frequented the party annually, and sometimes folks from Maryland and New Jersey braved the snowy December drive.
James, still upset about the snowball, yelled back - with the best sarcasm he could muster - "With you two idiots? Not a chance!"
Robert replied, "Don't make us come up there and drag you out!"
James shut the window and looked at his dad.
"Go on, kid. You know I'll be fine here. You can wear my suit if you'd like."
James had never been much for parties, even Arden's famous Christmas bash. He enjoyed the company of his friends, sure, but the introverted side of himself was always at odds with the spirit of parties in general. A night inside with the warmth of the fire and the presence of his father seemed much more appropriate for Christmas Eve, anyways.
*thump* another snowball hit the window.
"If you're not gonna go, you better have the money to fix that window when Tom breaks it." said his dad, taking a puff from his pipe.
James smiled, opened the window again and yelled, "I'm coming already! Give me a minute to get dressed."
Donning his dad's black suit, James came back out to let his father give him a once over.
"Looking good, kid." His dad said, eyes scanning. "Come here and let me fix that tie." His dad's practiced hands undid James' sloppy knot and quickly fixed it with a masterful full-windsor.
"Better hurry, it's almost 10. I'd hate for you to miss that dance."
James' mom and dad had always danced when he was young. Everything - salsa, ballroom, swing - they knew it all. James himself had only learned a few steps, and would hardly call himself confident. Dancing was not on his agenda for tonight - besides, the only girls he knew in Arden were married or gone. A live band was supposed to be playing the party this year, though, and at least that would give him something to tap his foot to.
James wrapped the scarf his sister had knitted for him years ago around his neck, pulled a jacket on, and shut the door behind him.
"We thought you had fallen into the toilet or something." Tom said, slapping James on the shoulder.
"Let's go rescue us some damsels in distress." said Robert, only half-joking. He had always been the ladies man, and James often lost track of his many girlfriends. Tom and James shook their heads as Robert led the way.
They approached the dance-hall, a place Arden had built a few years ago to house the ever-growing Christmas Eve party. The music was loud from the outside, and James could already smell gingerbread and peppermint. As usual, the town had spared no expense. In the distance, James could hear the local church carolers singing their hymns and songs on someone's front porch. He smiled, then stepped inside.
The Christmas Eve party of 1937 was the biggest any of the boys had ever seen. Red and green streamers hung from the large, domed ceiling and electric Christmas lights with big clear bulbs were wrapped around a huge, 25ft Christmas tree in the middle of the room. Around the tree stood people James had grown up with, along with strangers that he knew had made the pilgrimage from out-of-town - all in their very best attire. James saw men with suits and hot-cocoa in hand, ladies with dresses and sparkling smiles, and the occasional child trying to make mischief. Behind the tree was a stage where the band stood and played Christmas tunes. The lead vocalist was singing the 1934 hit, "Winter Wonderland" while the bassist behind him plucked at his large cello and the pianist masterfully led the tune. The city had even brought in a big brass band; trumpets and trombones filled in between lyrics. James had never seen such a beautiful spectacle, and for a second he stood at the entrance stark-still taking it all in.
"You comin' bud?" Tom said, pulling at James' collar to follow.
The boys took off their coats, grabbed an Irish coffee each, and started talking with friends. James remained reserved, stopping every few moments to admire the decorations and music. His foot tapped along with the Holiday favorite "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and he admired the couples dancing between the giant tree and the band's stage.
A half-hour passed, and James had found a seat away from the crowd. He sat and watched Robert get denied a dance for the third time that night. Tom stood with his work friends and laughed as they took turns telling jokes. Suddenly, James caught a blur of red from the corner of his left eye. He turned, and as he did he could swear that somebody darkened the lights. In James' mind the only light that remained in the room was in the back left corner of the dance hall. A young lady, perhaps 17 or 18, stood there in a bright red dress that fell to her calves. She was slender, but not short - perhaps five foot six or seven. her blonde hair cascaded to her shoulders in big round curls, and she was laughing. James couldn't hear her laugh from his side of the room, but he imagined that the only sound that could come from a girl like this would have rivaled the angels' chorus to the shepherds on the first Christmas night. Her eyes were shut as she laughed, and then they opened and glanced over at James. He looked away quickly, then back, and met her eyes again. She was talking to someone, but her eyes were focused on James. He looked at his watch to try and break the stare, 10:40. The party would end at 11, as it did every year. James cursed under his breath for not noticing the girl earlier - had he been blind, or had she just arrived?
He looked back at her, and saw that she was no longer engaged in conversation with anyone. She stood there, alone, one foot tapping to the music. She looked at the tree, tracing its boughs to the top where a star was placed like some kind of watchful spirit. She looked at James again, this time with only a fleeting glance. He saw her press her lips together as if she had just put on lipstick - then he noticed that she had. It was red - the same shade as her dress - and he found himself captivated by even just the image of her.
Everyone has a few moments in life that they can perfectly recall from memory. For James, this was one such moment. His mind sketched out her every curve and movement. The way she swayed from side to side, her dress rippling under the white Christmas lights. The way she kept her foot perfectly in time with the music. The way she looked at him, and held his gaze.
James found himself standing up, almost automatically. He left his empty drink at the table and started to walk towards the girl, holding her gaze the whole time. Robert and Tom both watched from the other side of the room as he walked straight through a circle of conversation without paying anyone mind. He walked straight up to the girl and was only a few feet away before he realized that his mind was completely blank. He didn't have a thing to say to her. His bravery was failing him fast, and he had to think of something quickly. If there was such thing as love at first sight, this was it. James knew that he had one chance with this girl - he had to make an impression. Gathering every ounce of courage he had left, James said,
"Would you like to dance?"
The girl smiled, her red lips parting to reveal perfectly straight white teeth. She took his extended hand and replied,
James' thought that his ability to dance would be rusty after so many years without practice. But in that moment every dance with his mom rushed back into his arms and legs and muscle memory saved the day. He wrapped his right arm around her waste and they began waltzing around the dance floor. The song changed, this time with more trumpet and bass than the last, and James took her right and left hands as they began swing dancing. She followed him, movement for movement, as if she had been doing this her entire life. James was in awe of how easily they flowed together - he had never danced with anyone so steady and easily led. Their eyes flitted back to each other's frequently, and James was in awe of her smile each time.
Just as quickly as it started, it was over. The clock struck 11, the band played their last notes, and the Christmas lights were turned off. The mass of people inside began putting on their coats and moving outside. James was still holding the girl's hand when he saw Robert and Tom moving towards the exit. Robert had given up on conversations with women just in time to get outrageously drunk and Tom was helping him towards the door, holding James' coat and scarf. He looked back and saw James.
"Let's go!" he yelled, "help me out with Robert!"
James looked back at the girl, her green eyes sparkling. He held one hand to her face, closed his eyes, leaned down, and kissed her on the lips.
James knew that this would be his only moment with the girl. In towns like Arden you didn't date anyone long-distance. He didn't have a car or the money to travel. Besides - he wasn't sure he was ready for a family. He was barely about to get a steady job, and no amount of wishing would give this girl the home and support she deserved. It was better to break it off before it ever began. He released her hand, and walked away before she opened her eyes. By the time she did, he was already gone.
Three Years Later
"I'm a draft dodger."
This thought permeated James' every waking moment and stuck with him at every new stop.
It had started in September when President Roosevelt enacted the first peacetime conscription in the history of the United States. James' dad had briefly served in the first World War, but rarely spoke of it. Robert and Tom had signed up before the draft came to Arden, deciding that becoming officers in this next conflict might keep them alive. They had caught the fever of "serving the country" and had urged James to do the same.
James had never been a fighter. He knew that certain things in life are unavoidable, but no matter how hard he tried he could never will himself into believing in this war. He wasn't sure if his inability to be patriotic at a time like this came from some hidden cowardice, or rather a desire to live his own life, uninhibited by demands of the state. Either way, he had left town on a cold fall night with all the money he had saved from his job at the mill, leaving only a note for his father to find the next morning. His dad would understand, of that James was sure. But the guilt of abandoning his country haunted James even as he enjoyed the freedoms of traveling the country.
James had stowed away on trains at first, mostly. Eventually, he found a cheap motorcycle for sale in a Boston suburb and purchased it for more than its projected cost. He had a little extra money, and this was Christmas, after all. He might be a draft-dodger, but a Scrooge he was not. Riding his motorcycle in October and November hadn't been so bad, but the snows of late December made his stops more frequent, and his desire for a hot beverage and a warm meal insatiable.
He tore down the New York highway, his sister's scarf covering his face to prevent frostbite, and his gloved hands cranking the throttle. New York's Hudson Valley was a welcome reprieve from the dangers of bustling big cities that James had once admired. Dodging the draft meant that he had acquired a new sixth sense, having to steer clear of police and government officials in places like Manhattan. He had followed the Hudson river north, using his intuition and a map tucked in his back pocket to guide him to his next stop.
The only sign that illuminated the otherwise dark building read "DINER" in big, capital letters. White Plains, NY was a small enough town that James didn't have to fear discovery, but big enough to have a diner and a motel across the street from one another. James turned his bike off, grabbed his bag, and went inside.
The diner was same nondescript, typical eatery located all along the East Coast. It's shiny, chrome-plated decorations sparkled from a few Christmas lights here and there. It was empty save for one waitress and the cooks. James walked inside, grabbed a stool at the bar, and waited. He didn't need to look at the menu - bacon, eggs, and coffee were all he wanted. Maybe a muffin too - it was Christmas Eve after all.
"Merry Christmas," said the waitress, smiling as she walked out from the kitchen, "what can I get for you?"
She was beautiful. Long dark hair, pulled back in a bun, and eyes to match. She was maybe 20, but looked like she had been working in this diner her whole life. Perhaps she had been.
"Bacon, eggs, and coffee please," said James, smiling back. He had no intention of flirting with the waitress - romantic connections had been given up long ago for his life on the road. But despite his three years of travel, James had promised himself to never lose his courtesy or optimism. "And what kinds of muffins do you have on hand?"
"Blueberry, apple cinnamon, and chocolate," the waitress replied, "but you want blueberry. Don't tell the cooks I told you this, but the other two don't even come close."
"Blueberry it is!" responded James, enjoying this exchange. New Yorkers are famous for their cold attitude to strangers, and it was clear this waitress was a diamond in the rough. Her cheery attitude wasn't lost on James.
The waitress nodded, then went back to the kitchen. A moment later she returned, her eyes sparkling, two muffins in hand. She plopped one down next to James, then nibbled at the other. As James broke a piece off, the waitress asked,
"What's someone like you doing at a place like this on Christmas Eve?"
James was used to this kind of question and had a few alibi stories always prepared just in case.
"Headed up to Poughkeepsie to visit my uncle." he responded.
"Alright then. Good thing you'll be there by Christmas! The holidays just aren't the same without a family to share them with."
James nodded in agreement, breaking off another piece of his muffin.
The waitress grabbed a mug, filled it with coffee, and set it down next to him. "Someone like you probably has all kinds of stories." She declared with confidence. She motioned to the room and said, "I wish I could leave town and experience life outside of this place."
"Enjoy it while you're here," James said, "it's easy to take everyday life for granted." Truthfully, James missed his dad's voice as he read poetry aloud and the smell of fine tobacco in his house. Even the open air of the country paled in comparison.
"Do you have any good Christmas stories?" the waitress asked, taking another bite of her muffin.
James took a sip of coffee as his mind wandered off to the Christmas Eve party three years ago. It was the last one the town had thrown when war seemed eminent. The girl's red dress flowed before him, and her smile was as close to his face right then as it had been when they danced.
"I've got a great story." he said, his eyes glossing over, a smile edging at his lips.
The waitress leaned in, elbows on the bar. James began telling the story, from when his friends picked him up, through a description of the dance hall, clear up to falling in love at first sight.
"I wasn't sure I had the courage to speak to her as I approached," James explained, "she was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen." The waitress blushed. "Finally, I managed to ask her to dance. She obliged, and at a quarter-til-11 we started the most memorable dance I will probably ever experience. When the music stopped, I leaned in and kissed her."
"What happened next?" the waitress asked, "please tell me you two got married."
"No, that was the last time I ever saw her." James replied. "It might be my biggest regret to this day. I had every reason to not pursue her, of course. But I wish I could see her just once more to tell her how much that experience meant to me."
"What was her name?" the waitress asked.
"I never got it. And she never got mine. I left before she even opened her eyes after our kiss."
The waitress leaned back.
"That might be the most beautiful, tragic Christmas story I've ever heard." She replied.
The cook sounded off "order up!" from inside the kitchen and the waitress handed James his meal.
"Make me a promise," she said, forcefulness in her voice, "never lose hope."
10 Years Later; 13 Years From the Dance
James was 32, and had quite the reputation in the Hudson Valley. It was the year 1950, and the Second World War had ended five years earlier. James had never left his life on the road, but by now his draft-dodging days were nearly forgotten. He was a hard looking man, scars etched on his arms and face from a few encounters with drunk locals. He had kept his smile and sense of humor intact, and had been back to visit his father and hometown a few times since the end of the war.
He had decided long ago that settling down wasn't for him. He had never married, and the little he had to show for himself was a brand-new motorcycle and a series of journals that he had kept through the years. He preferred his simple life, and had picked up construction jobs here and there throughout the years to pay for the necessities. Despite his nomadic lifestyle, James had made friends all around New York, and had often returned to that White Plains diner where he had stopped 10 years ago.
His Christmas Story was a holiday favorite for the locals of the Hudson Valley. Every year as the snow began to fall James would make his way to restaurants and diners and share the tale of "The Girl With No Name," as it had become known. The gigs gave him money to stay warm during the winter and provided him with a little extra money to save. He wasn't sure what it was about the story - maybe the simultaneous beauty and sadness of the tale struck a chord in the local's hearts and gave them a reason to be thankful for what they had. Regardless, James enjoyed telling it.
The more he told the story, the more clear the details became. James could remember the texture of the girl's hands, the glossiness of her red lipstick, each pluck of the band's tunes. He could recall the look on his friend's faces as they called for him to come outside. He remembered the Christmas tree - its shape, height, and decorations as if it was standing before him right then and there. There were always out-of-towners at James' gigs that were confused why he was at the diner, reciting an old love story. But inevitably as James began his descriptions, the naysayers fell silent. It was too beautiful to bicker at, and too tragic to forget.
"Have you found the Girl With No Name?" James was asked, year after year.
His response never varied.
"No, but perhaps I'm not supposed to. Everyone's life can only hold so much beauty, and mine was all used up on that one night."
James was content with his life, but the girl in the red dress was always on the back of his mind. Town after town, city after city, James was always half-expecting to walk into a bar or diner to see her sitting there, ordering food or talking to a friend.
But it never happened, and it would never happen.
21 Years Later, 34 Years From the Dance
When James turned 50, he decided it was time to come home. His dad had passed nearly a decade before, and had left everything to James. It took him some time to give up his life on the road, but in the end he was ready for a change. When he walked into his house for the first time in almost 10 years, the old scent of tobacco and smoke greeted him like a welcome friend. Tom and Robert had moved back to Arden as well, and already had families of their own. They had taken care of the place until James was ready to return. All of his father's things were still in place - the old medal on the mantle, his dad's pipe, and even the Christmas decorations. His friends knew what the Holiday season meant to James and had readied the house for his return.
He was 53 now and had grown back into the Arden community. Every year, Tom and Robert invited James over to their house for Christmas dinner and fellowship. His answer was always the same: a polite "no thank you."
James' habit of telling the story of The Girl With No Name every year followed him to Arden. On Christmas Eve he would sit inside the dance hall and relay the story to anyone that cared to listen. His biggest fans were the children - virtually every child in the community would sit and listen carefully, hanging on James' every word. He spoke to them about love of the deepest kind, about his romantic dance, and the kiss that followed. And then he spoke about his premature departure, and his life on the road. Kids on Christmas morning would retell the story to their older siblings and parents, never sparing a detail. James enjoyed each retelling more than the last.
The story became as much a part of James as his time traveling. The two were intimately connected, and his reputation in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, and further up and down the coast had become larger-than-life. Yet still, the girl was never found. James imagined her living in some far off country with a good-looking husband and kids to call her own. He imagined her laughing on the beaches of California or smiling at sunrises in Texas.
When a few Christmases had passed, James could tell the story, then pause and let the children tell him what came next. His tale was as much a part of the community as caroling or opening presents on Christmas morning. The children invited James to their schools in the fall, and he coached baseball in the spring. Ever day he would return to his house, smoke his pipe, and sit where his father had sat years before. And as the snow began to fall each December, he always half-expected a snow ball to pelt against his window.
He never encountered the Girl With No Name. But as the waitress had made him promise all those years ago, he never lost hope.
20 Year Later, 54 Years From the Dance
It was December 25, 1991. James was laying in his hospital bed, cold from the morning air flowing in through his open window. It was Christmas, James realized.
He had been admitted to the hospital a month before after suffering a near-fatal heart attack. Stephen, Robert's oldest son, had visited James to hear his famous story when he found him on the floor. He called the ambulance, and James barely made it through the night.
Although he had survived the heart attack, the hospital had concluded that James' heart was failing. He had almost nobody left - the children had grown up, the town had grown out of James' story, and he was left with an empty bedroom and heart that could give out at any moment. Robert and Tom's kids cared about James - but their busy lives permitted only brief visits to pay the bills and say hello. The doctor told him that although surgery was available, it was extremely unlikely that James would survive the procedure. James opted to spend his last days in the comfort of the hospital, and he was content with dying there.
"Merry Christmas James, how are you feeling today?" asked the nurse, coming in to do her daily check up.
"Fine, thank you." James muttered, his voice hoarse, "It is Christmas, isn't it? And I haven't a thing to wear."
The nurse chuckled. "Not to worry," she said, "we just got a new nurse in today who will be working with me to take care of you. I'm sure your personality will impress her more than any clothes you could wear."
James smiled. The hospital was a nice place, and although the sanitary smell of rubbing alcohol and latex was no match for his favorite tobacco, he couldn't complain about the cheery atmosphere.
"Carol, why don't you come in here and meet James."
The nurse left, and the new nurse entered James' room. She was an older woman, and James couldn't catch a good view of her from his position on the bed.
She stepped closer and sat on a stool next to him. "Hey there, I'm Carol. Nice to meet you James."
The light from the window was on her face and James couldn't quite make out what she looked like. Then again, his sight was failing him almost as quickly as his heart.
James' mind went back to all the Christmases before. He had always been the one to share his story, and in his old age it had gotten harder and harder to tell. He had wanted to share it with the hospital staff - if nothing else it would help him get his mind off of the pain. But the difficulties of old age and his fading mind made it difficult to form the words. He had made it a point to replay the story in his head so he never lost it, but telling it was getting harder and harder.
On this Christmas morning, all James wanted to do was listen. He didn't have the voice to share anymore. He had lived a full life, and his stories had run their course. On this cold December 25th, the only present James wanted was to hear somebody else's Christmas tale.
"Nurse?" James asked, "what is your favorite Christmas story?"
The nurse paused, folded her hands on her lap, and smiled. The sun glinted off of the red glasses she was wearing, and she leaned in.
"When I was 18 years old, I met a man in northern Delaware. I was visiting with a friend from college, before the war started. It was December 24th, and it was the most beautiful celebration I had ever been to. I'll tell you what, that town sure knew how to throw a party. I noticed a young man sitting at a table alone in the distance. He met my eyes, but looked away. I wasn't sure if he already had a girlfriend and was waiting for her, or if he was just enjoying watching the party from a distance. But I couldn't keep my eyes off of him. Something about him - a sense of adventure that I had never seen before - made me want to have a conversation. All of a sudden, he got up and started walking towards me. When he got close, he stopped and tried to gather his words. He must have been so nervous - but all of a sudden he asked me if I wanted to dance. I of course said yes, and he took my hand. He was the most fabulous dancer I have ever met, and I had a hard time following. It was close to the end of the evening, but even in those few minutes I knew that I loved him. I don't know how I knew - I just did. The band stopped playing, and our dance came to a close. Now - I'll tell you, I wasn't the type of girl to kiss just any man I danced with. But I was so caught up in him, and I knew that I had to kiss him. There was no hesitation when he reached for my face and pulled me close. Our lips met, and I shut my eyes. A moment later, I felt him release me from his embrace, I opened my eyes, and he was gone. I never got the chance to ask him his name, and I never understood why he left, but I know that it wasn't out of fear. He had the courage to ask me the dance, and I am forever grateful for that. I just wish I could have told him how much that moment meant to me. That night has always stuck with me, and to this day it is my favorite Christmas story. When the war started, I left to be a nurse overseas. I always kept my eyes open for that man, hoping that I might see him as a soldier or officer. And although tragic, the beauty that I saw on that night has driven me to be a kinder, gentler, more loving person. I owe that all to the man with no name."
James was weeping.
"What's the matter, James?" Carol asked.
"You're favorite Christmas story is my favorite Christmas story." James said, grabbing her hand.
Carol looked into his eyes, and realization cascaded over her. "James..." she said, her voice trailing off.
The only thing James had ever wanted in his life was to meet the Girl With No Name again. Now it was happening, and in the most unexpected, unprecedented way. At this moment, James realized that he had nothing left to live for. The loose ties of his life were being drawn shut, and he could feel the impending end closing in. James' thoughts drifted back to his life: the children, his motorcycle, his life on the road, and the waitress. He realized that this one belief that he might see the Girl again had kept him alive all of these years. It had given him purpose, and now that purpose was gone. He could not let that happen to Carol, not when she was still so healthy and beautiful. Not when she could touch so many other's lives still. Carol could retell their story, but to do that she needed one thing.
James' breath got heavy, and his eyes began to shut. "Make me a promise, Carol..." James said, in a whisper.
"Anything." Carol said, realizing that this may be her last moment to speak with the man she loved so much over 50 years ago.
"Never lose hope."
James let out his last long breath.