I don’t recall ever having gloves or mittens in the winter. I’d put two pair of socks on my hands when I went out to play, and there were always one or two buttons missing from the coats I wore, or the zipper didn’t work. I hated the cardboard in my shoes Ma put there when the soles wore out, and more when it rained and they got waterlogged and squeaked when I got into school. Ma did a lot with a little. There was always food enough for Lily and me, and sometimes some left for Ma, and sometimes not. Ma gave us what she could and she gave us what she could have had for herself.
Ma had round, brown rolls for cheeks. She didn’t smile a lot but I could make her laugh, when she’d let me. Every New Year’s Eve, I tried to cheer her up cutting out confetti to throw in the air. Cutting took up most of the day. Ma looked happy when I threw the paper in her hair at midnight and brought her a fake highball, usually a Coke with a cherry in it, but the whole thing was over in a minute and I think we both felt sad. She missed having Papa around. After Papa died, the big brown went out of her eyes. Folks around say they had a pretty good marriage. Now there was Lily and Ma and me the house felt different.
Papa smelled good like a barbershop and he was tall as a tree. I remember that. His name for me was “my little man” and he’d call me that when he lifted me up into arms that big. I knew enough of him to miss him.
That Christmas sticks in my head because it was the Christmas we couldn’t afford a tree. I kicked about that, and I kicked around town, hoping for snow but every day went by and no snow came. I invented a whole schoolyard of imaginary playmates to kick around with. Then all of us could be mad together about the tree.
There were three Als in our town. TV AL fixed TV sets. On his repair shirt, in red, it said, “TV AL”. One of his eyes blinked normal and his other eye stayed open all the time. He scared me but not as much as Allegheny Al did. Allegheny Al was the second Al. He used to get his arms going like the trains on a track and go “Whoo-Whoo”, like that, real loud. Once, I saw him get into the push-up position on the ground and drink puddle water. Ma said he was a strange duck. The third Al, Quite Shy Al, never said anything. He’d stand with the other two Als and the three of them would be having a puff. They liked having a puff together.
I liked staying in my room with not too much light on and read. Lily was no fun to play with. She was always doing her doll’s hair or doing her own hair in the mirror. When we tried to play, I’d smack her and she’d smak me back. Lily was born not well. The doctors said she’d live maybe two years, but she kept on living. She had Ma’s eyes. Ma said it wasn’t good for my eyes reading in the dark but I liked being with my books.
“I want to write stories,” I told my mother. “I’m going to be a writer.”
Ma’d say, “You have to work. You have to get a job.” She didn ‘t understand. I didn’t understand. She said I had pipedreams.
I popped out of bed late that Friday and my feet felt like feathers in my shoes.
“You’re all bubbles this morning,” my mother said. “What are you up to now?” But I didn’t want to share my plan and bounded down to the cellar and got Papa’s army axe to cut me down a Christmas tree. That would be Ma’s surprise.
It wasn’t long before I found a good tree. I knew it was the right one because the minute I stopped in front of it, the sky started to let down snow. I didn’t want to bring the tree down but bring it down I did. After a long time of chopping, I could see my mother’s smile. So I plucked it like it was a flower and headed on my way. The flakes at first would come and kiss me on the face and go, one after another. That, to me, is snow, and I felt good in my chest. Before long though, the tree seemed to get heavier with every step and I had to stop more than I got to go. The wind picked up. The snow got crazy with me and started to twist in the blizzard wind. It was as if the stones from the sidewalk in town were hitting me in the face. There was so much snow, and the dark pressed on my ears and on my head, and the tree felt like I was dragging two tons of forest, and I couldn’t hear or see. Ropes of snow fell from the pines above and the birch branches snapped hard and hurt me.
I wanted to let go of that tree but I had it and I had to get it home so I asked for the strength of 10 angels and heard bells from the church, and at once the great weight lifted and I thought I was seeing things when I looked back and there were the three Als lifting the tree along with me. They came out of nowhere and I was too scared to let them help and too scared not to so I pulled on.
My hands were cold as stone. Everything was flying in the dark — birds, and the hot steam coming from the mouth of the three Als, and the tears in my eyes and the flakes all around. I didn’t know what to do. My head was in my boots. My face was getting slapped by the snow. And I wanted my dad. More than anything in the world I missed my dad.
I turned around to see the three Als. I heard Quite Shy Al say the only thing I ever heard him say. He said, “Ouch!” Then I know a light was on me and the door flew open and the tree fell in and I fell on top of it.
“Have you lost your mind?” My mother’s face was all rage.
“Huh?” I said.
“What’d you bring that monster thing in here for? Are you crazy? We have no room for THAT. Look at it. We have no bulbs to put on it. No presents to put under it. We don’t have food to put on the table. You’re not thinking. You don’t think. You’ve got me crazy in here. Look at the MESS! Why did he leave me with this? Why isn’t he here to deal with this?” And I knew she meant Papa.
“Why wasn’t it you and not him?” She wished I was dead.
I went kind of deaf right then. I heard her throw the three Als out and I couldn’t hear the rest of what she was screaming because I got up and I ran. I don’t know what direction I went. I ran and ran and ran to get away from everything that was coming out of Ma ’til my legs felt like jelly and then I fell down dead on my knees and I crawled and I didn’t want to look back at her and I didn’t want her to look at me. I hated her. I hated her blind. Didn’t she know the tree was for her? So she could be happy. So she could smile. Didn’t she know I was trying to make things better? How could she be like this? How could she…
I got up and I walked, not knowing where I was going. But I was never going back. Not there. Not to her. The hate I felt made me forget the cold. And I sat down in the snow. And I didn’t remember anything for a long time after that. By the time I stopped crying, I was hungry. I poked around in some nearby barrels hoping to find something I could eat. That’s when I found The Little Man.
He was no bigger than my hand. He had white bangs, and a white beard, and two poppy seeds for eyes. He had a little, red nothing for a nose, and the brightest red coat, and his tinker toy hands were holding three logs for the fire, tied with a small, green ribbon. Someone had thrown him away.
I won’t forget as long as I live the sight of my mother that morning I came home. She was standing in the doorway, the leftover winds from the storm whipping around her white nightgown like boat sails. She’d been crying. When she saw me, she smiled, and the whole way to the door lit up. I showed her The Little Man.
“Look Ma. Something to decorate the tree.”
Ma hugged me hard and brought me in to see the tree. She and Lily had stood it up in a tree stand and it had settled in as if it was home. I pinned The Little Man to one of its branches. It was good being in that small house that day with the big tree filling every room, and the snow packed outside the windows and the odor of pine in our head. Lily said The Little Man was the cutest, little man ever and then came a knock at the door that almost bowled my mother over. The
Three Als fell in with arms full of every kind of cookie and cake and pie and treat, and laid them in the tree for decoration, and all of our neighbors, and some people we didn’t know followed in behind the Three Als carrying every kind of goodie you can imagine — hams and turkeys and fresh vegetables and fresh fruits and buttered biscuits and every kind of everything. There was no room to put it all. One woman made two, stuffed Cornish hens and those we set for our centerpiece. On the tree, The Little Man seemed to come alive. I knew Ma was thinking of Papa. I was, too.
“Maybe some day you’ll write about this,” said Ma.
“Look at the tree being still,” said Lily.
We could hardly keep from crying. And we laughed all day with our neighbors and ate ’til our bellies were big.
When my mother was a girl, she sang in the church choir. I never heard her sing but I like to think that she is singing now with the angels. There’s a picture of her I like. Lily sent it to me. There’s a pumpkin in it, and curtains behind her that look like party ribbons, and pretty print paper on the wall. In it, she’s smiling wide. I remember I made her laugh. No Christmas was like it, that Christmas of The Little Man.
The years have made me into a little, old man myself. I’ve become what the world calls a man of good standing. I give speeches in big halls to big crowds of people. My books sell well and I write most about what it’s like not to be afraid. I find myself in places I never dreamed I’d see, walk roads to the homes of folks I never dreamed I’d know, folks who have fed my belly and fed my soul at their tables.Writers and painters and singers and kings. Many blessings have come my way, and many feasts, but none have tasted as good as the feast the Three Als brought Ma, Lily and me that silly Christmas ago.
The Little Man travels with me everywhere I go. I keep him in my pocket. He’s in my pocket right now. He has cookie and candy crumbs in his beard, and his hat is gone, and one of the firewood logs is gone too. I don’t know what happened to that. I love to look at him and when I do, I hear my mother’s voice that Christmas Day say, “Maybe someday you’ll write about this.”
And so I have.
Leo Racicot lives in Lowell, MA. This is his first submission to Bread ‘n Molasses magazine.