They put Shorty and me out of the jail just before eleven in the morning on Christmas Eve.
I guess they thought they were doing us a favor, not leaving us locked up on Christmas, but to tell the truth, I’d been looking forward to the special meal we were supposed to get. Everybody said it would be turkey loaf, but one of the inmate kitchen workers said the truck from the food bank had delivered a lot of ham and sweet potatoes. And pies. Real pies.
Processing into jail took hours, sometimes longer than a day. Processing out took maybe fifteen minutes. I wasn’t used to moving that fast.
I glanced over at Shorty. He had dumped out the contents of his property bag and was frantically pawing through it. But they hurried us along, so he just stuffed everything into his pockets. Before I could get my mind around what was happening, we were out the front door, dressed in our own clothes.
With no place to go.
First time I’d breathed outside air in almost six months. I inhaled deeply. The air was fresh and cold with a sharp scent of coming snow. Sure enough, as we went down the front steps, a few gentle snowflakes drifted down and eddied on the sidewalk. Church bells rang in the distance.
I shivered. The jail was always cold. Most of us kept blankets wrapped around ourselves. I grew my beard, which helped. Some people, like Shorty, even made makeshift hats by sewing up the leg holes of jail-issued tighty-whities.
Since I’d gotten locked up in the summer, when I was wearing a tee shirt and flip flops, the officer who handled our release let me keep the sneakers and gave me a hoodie someone had left behind. But I was still cold.
Shorty was in better shape. He had a warm jacket and a watch cap. He even had a pair of heavy mittens.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Shorty asked, tugging the watch cap down more firmly. “We didn’t even get lunch.”
“We could go to the Rescue Mission. They have a soup kitchen lunch.”
We tromped down the street and were waiting when the doors opened. The warm scent of tomato sauce wafted out. It was accompanied by scratchy Christmas music.
Shorty got in line in front of me. He grabbed a tray and began shuffling forward.
The audio system buzzed like an angry wasp, the artificially cheery strains of Jingle Bells fading into static. It hiccupped and made a loud clicking sound. Then, loud and clear, the strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” belted out.
Shorty stopped dead.
I bumped into him. Somebody further back in the soup kitchen line called, “Hey, come on, buddy. Move it. We ain’t got all day.”
Most of us actually did have all day, but I saw no sense in pointing that out.
“Oh. Sorry,” Shorty murmured and stared at the ladleful of spaghetti and tomato sauce a volunteer had just dumped on his tray. He moved along, picking up a chunk of garlic bread and a dish of something that may have been chocolate pudding.
I got my own ladleful of the spaghetti and slid into a seat next to Shorty. My bad eye was on the side where Shorty sat, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the poor guy might have wiped a tear from his eye.
Somebody had decorated the church basement for the approaching holiday in a half-hearted fashion. Tarnished garlands hung along the wall. A bright green artificial Christmas tree with bent branches and tattered needles had been strung with lengths of colored lights, only some of which were actually lit. A battered crèche stood on the stage. Mary was missing two fingers on one hand and Joseph’s beard had lost its last few inches. The Christ child had yet to make an appearance. He should show up at midnight tonight.
We dove into the spaghetti. It smelled good and tasted better. Around us, others were eating quietly. Talk could wait.
Shorty forked the last lumps of the dirt-colored probable pudding into his mouth and drained the cardboard coffee cup.
“What now?” he asked, picking up someone’s discarded napkin and putting it on the tray next to his own.
“I dunno. They got one of them clothes closet things here, back in the offices. You know, where people donate clothes. Maybe they got a jacket that’ll fit me. And an extra pair or two of socks.”
The lady in the office looked up from her desk as we approached. It wasn’t the same lady who’d been working here last summer, before I got locked up. She plastered a bright, artificial smile on her face and said, “Do you need to make a phone call?”
Inwardly, I winced. Most people, even most homeless people, manage to have a cell phone of some sort. Usually, the prepaid kind. Was it so obvious that we were in such bad shape we didn’t have that much?
Well, yeah. I was here to ask for a jacket. “No phone call. I was hoping to maybe get something warm from the clothes closet.”
“Of course,” she said, increasing the wattage of the artificial smile. She pulled a ring of keys out of her desk and led me down the hallway to the huge closet where they kept the donated clothes.
“See if you can find anything.” She turned to Shorty. “Do you need to look, too?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll just wait.” He followed her back down the hallway and plunked himself on a bench in the office.
I could hear them talking as I rummaged through the clothes. Some of the stuff was so bizarre it was hard to imagine anybody actually purchasing them. Or even designing them for manufacture. A long vest in a harlequin pattern of shiny red and black. A bright green velvet cape. Maybe they were someone’s idea of a joke. Or costumes.
I did find a quilted jacket in a grotesque shade of brown, kind of like the pudding, but it fit and it was warm and it had a hood. There were no gloves, but I found some warm socks—I could always slip them over my hands—and a long knitted scarf that would make a reasonable substitute for a hat.
Shoving three extra pairs of socks in the jacket pocket, I stepped into the hallway and went to thank the lady.
Shorty got up to come with me.
“Remember,” the lady said to him, “we’ll be open until five. I can get you a bus ticket to the stop nearest to your family, if you want.”
He nodded. “Thanks. I’ll think about it.”
“And,” her smile lit up again, so maybe it wasn’t totally fake after all, “if you’re still around, we have a Christmas dinner here tomorrow at lunch time. Turkey and all the trimmings.”
She turned to me. “You find what you needed?”
The question took me by surprise. I almost blurted out that no, of course I hadn’t found what I needed. If I’d ever done that, I wouldn’t be in and out of jail, and I certainly wouldn’t be standing here on Christmas Eve, listening to her tell us about the soup kitchen Christmas dinner.
But of course that’s not what she meant. She was asking about the clothes.
I said. “I found a good jacket. And a scarf.”
“Good. I hope they’ll keep you warm.”
Nothing was going to keep me warm on this cold night unless we found someplace to stay, but no point telling her that.
We shuffled out onto the street.
“Let’s see if we can pick up a few bucks,” I said.
Shorty’s eyes opened wide and he covered his mouth with a mittened hand. “It’s Christmas Eve! You can’t go steal anything on Christmas Eve.”
I grinned. “Nah. I know a guy, might have few hours’ work for us.”
I led the way across town. Last year, I’d done some work for a guy named Danny who sold Christmas trees from a vacant lot. He’d told me to come back next year if I was around, that it was hard to find casual labor so close to the holiday.
Even if he didn’t have work for us, he’d have coffee and a fire in an old fifty-five gallon drum.
From a block away, we could hear tinny Christmas music blaring out of speakers mounted on poles in the corners of the lot. Unbelievably, they were playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I glanced over at Shorty. He did flinch, and his eyes were damp with what might have been unshed tears, but he didn’t say anything and kept right up with me.
The lot smelled of pine and wood smoke.
We got there midafternoon. Danny had just one mildly pathetic Christmas tree left. He sold it for fifty cents to a sad-eyed teenage girl in a too-thin jacket who was pushing a stroller with twins.
I waited to talk to him until after he made the sale.
Shorty hardly came up to the girl’s waist, but he tugged his hat on tighter and stepped up to grab a ball of twine. He wrapped the tree and helped the girl tie it to the handle of the stroller. She nodded her thanks, and her eyes looked a little brighter as she turned back to whatever hole-in-the-wall she called home.
“Be right with you,” Danny said. He went to put his cash box and clipboard in the cab of his truck. And carefully locked it.
“Some business man,” I murmured to Shorty. “Danny can’t be making any money selling trees for fifty cents. Even scraggly ones like that.”
Shorty looked up at me. “That girl wanted a tree for her kids, and I bet she hasn’t got much. It’s Christmas, dude. There’s things more important than making money. If you’re not gonna be generous at Christmas time, when are you going to be?”
I laughed. I started to say, “Never.” But I caught the dreamy look in Shorty’s eyes. He wasn’t kidding.
Then I wondered, when did I get so cynical?
Danny said he’d pay us to help disassemble the lot.
Shorty was a good guy to work with. He might be small—he was the smallest grown man I’d ever known—but he was strong and worked hard.
We took down the audio system, and even though the Christmas music blasting from the speakers had been distorted and grainy, the world sounded a little more lonesome without it. We loaded the wind-blown decorations, the sawhorses and the axes. We finished up the coffee and put the big urn into Danny’s truck.
Danny frowned as he looked at the trash-strewn lot. “You guys finish up here, okay? Bag up the junk and put it in the dumpster. Sweep the lot and make sure the fire’s out before you leave. I’m gonna go home and get ready. My wife says we got to take the kids to church.”
He gave us each fifty dollars. A lot more than I’d expected or that the job was worth. Enough to give
I halfheartedly swept up the empty paper cups and the bits of paper and twine. It looked pretty good
Shorty shook his head. “Man paid us to clean it up. So we have to clean it up. And make sure the fire’s out.”
An hour later, we’d spread the contents of the fire barrel on the ground. The ashes sizzled as the icy snow hit them. We’d gathered all the stray branches into trash bags. Shorty couldn’t reach to toss them up into the dumpster, so I did that.
The scent of wet ashes filled the air. It no longer smelled like Christmas. And the wind was turning bitter.
The shoulders of my shirt felt damp, and I came to the unfortunate conclusion that the ugly brown jacket was not waterproof.
I fingered the money in my pocket. “Let’s go someplace warm and get a drink.”
“Okay.” Shorty pulled his jacket a bit tighter and brushed snow off his shoulders. I bet no moisture was getting through to his shirt. “Where to?”
“A bar, of course.”
I led the way to Jako’s. I go there when I’m flush. Which isn’t often.
Christmas music. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Again. Not exactly the most comforting thing for a couple of homeless guys just out of jail.
The bar was almost empty. It would probably fill up as folks got off from work. Most of them would stop for a quick one on the way home, before joining their families. A few diehards would stick it out until closing time.
Jako watched us walk in and sit at a table by the big front window. He slid from behind the bar, wiping his hands on his apron. “What’ll it be?”
“Beer. Whatever you got on tap.”
“Yeah?” Jako just stood there and stared at me.
I pulled out a twenty and laid it on the table. “I got money.”
“Okay.” Jako wasn’t a mean guy, but he wasn’t a pushover. The first time he’d served a beer and I had no money, he was mad and kicked me out. Now he just waited until he saw the cash before he filled the order. If I was broke, he’d toss me out. Happened more times than I cared to remember. I guess I’m a slow learner.
Couldn’t blame him. After all, he was running a business, not a charity.
He turned to Shorty. “And you?”
“Got any hot mulled cider? Spiked?”
Jako and I looked at him.
“Hot buttered rum?”
“How about hot chocolate? With a peppermint stick?”
“No hot chocolate. With or without a peppermint stick. This is a bar. Only hot thing I got is coffee.”
“How about some Irish coffee, then?” Shorty asked.
“Irish coffee I can do.”
Jako took my twenty and went to get the drinks.
I unzipped the ugly jacket and felt the lining. Damp. Gonna be a cold night. I leaned back in my chair and peered at Shorty. “Hot chocolate with a peppermint stick?”
Shorty shrugged. “It’s Christmas Eve. That’s a traditional Christmas drink.”
He laid his mittens on the table. I’d never seen anything like them. They were surprisingly thick, knit with a bright pattern across the back. And I don’t know what kind of fabric they were made of, but they sparkled.
“What’re we gonna do next?” he asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know about you, but I think I’m gonna buy a good-sized bottle of Wild Turkey and find some place to hole up until morning. Then I’m gonna get a Christmas dinner at the Rescue Mission. After that maybe I’ll figure out what I’m gonna do next.”
“Can I come along?”
What could I say? In the jail, we’d been in cells next to each other. Talked into the night, mostly about nothing. We’d had each other’s back out in the dayroom. Made life a lot less lonesome. Maybe sticking together was a smart thing to do.
“I guess. But you don’t got any family you might go home to? At least for the holiday?”
“Not really. At least, I can’t go back there. How about you?”
“I got a sister.” I smiled at the thought. “A twin sister, actually. She’d let me stay for Christmas, at least. Maybe. She’d help me get back on my feet. But she’d want me to go to AA meetings. And not drink.”
“Is that so bad?”
“The AA meetings? Or the not drinking?”
“What else have I got, if I don’t drink?”
Shorty closed his eyes. “Everything. And right now, you’re stone cold sober. Alcohol free. A few months in jail does that for you.”
“Same for you. Why don’t you go back to your family?”
“I come from this really small community, see, so it’s not the family so much. It’d have to be everybody willing to give me another chance, or there’d be no point in going back.”
“Would they do it?”
Jako brought the drinks and my change. Mine was in a glass mug. Moisture condensed in cold droplets on the outside. I took a sip. It tasted so good.
Gentle steam rose from the Irish coffee. Shorty warmed his hands on his mug and took a drink. “Yeah, they would. They’d give me another chance. But I don’t think I can face them all. Not after what I done.”
“I know what you mean.” I took a gulp of the beer. So much for being alcohol free.
“Alcohol is what got me in trouble. I let everybody down.” Shorty rubbed one of his eyes.
“Yeah. I was a real disappointment, too.” A lump formed in my chest. I coughed. “My dad, he was a professional ball player. He wanted me to be a good athlete, too. All through school. But I have this bad eye, see. No depth perception. Dad just didn’t understand. He thought I was goofing off.”
“He didn’t understand about you not being able to see right?”
“Not really. I mean, the eye doctor told him. But he said I could do it if I wanted to. It was a challenge to overcome. If I wasn’t so lazy.”
“Bummer.” Shorty wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Your folks sorry to see you ended up so short?” With my finger, I traced patterns in the condensation on the side of my mug.
Shorty sat up straighter. “My height has nothing to do with it. Besides, I’m not that short. I’m almost four foot tall.”
I looked over at him. Four foot? Maybe. But it wasn’t exactly tall. Was Shorty sensitive about his height? How could he not be? Did it bother him that everybody called him Shorty? I wondered what his real name was. But in jail, if a guy didn’t offer it, no one asked.
“It was the booze.” Shorty’s shoulders slumped forward again. “It got out of hand. First they let me go from the factory job. Said it was just too dangerous to have somebody who’d been drinking around the tools and machinery.”
“This really small community has a factory?”
“Yeah. It’s where pretty much everybody works. But there are a few other jobs. After I got kicked out, I went to work in the livestock barns. You know, mostly shoveling shit. You can do that when you’re less than sober. In fact, it helps to be a little out of it.”
“At least they let you have a job.”
“Yeah. But I blew that in one try.”
“Just one bad incident? And they fired you?” I took another sip of my beer. It was cold going down.
“Kind of. I didn’t stick around to get fired. I left.”
“You were drinking?”
“Of course. Or it wouldn’t have happened. That far north, days can be real short. It was toward the end of the winter. Two of us were finishing up. We were hauling water in the calf barn. I was pretty well buzzed. I stumbled and knocked over a lantern. Set the hay on fire.”
“Burn down the barn?”
“No. The other dude managed to dump water on the flames and then we stamped on the hot spots. Got the fire out before it had a chance to spread.”
“So no harm done?”
“I wish. The calves panicked, ran out the door. I’d been so out of it I’d left the gate unlatched. They all ran into the woods. There are wolves out there.”
“Did you get them back?”
“I sure didn’t. I took one look around and left. I didn’t want to face anybody. Eventually I ended up here. Picked up the drunk and disorderly charge and got sent to jail.” Shorty stared into his mug. “I wrote back to my mother a few weeks ago. Just to tell her I was doing okay.”
“Was that after you got locked up?”
“No. Just before. I got the envelope and the stamp from the secretary at St. John’s. She said I could use that office for an address. I don’t plan to tell my mother about being locked up.”
“So did you hear back from her?”
“Yeah. I lost the letter, though. I’m not sure what happened to it. I thought it would be with my property when I got out of jail, but it wasn’t.”
“But did she want you to come back?” I asked.
“Yeah. She said getting ready for Christmas just wasn’t the same with me gone.”
“So you could go back?”
“I could. I been thinking about it. I don’t know where I’d work, though. I couldn’t just hang around and do nothing, like I can do here. There’s not much up there. But maybe I could show them I’ve stopped drinking. I could help out without expecting to be paid for it. Eventually they’d let me try a real job. If I wasn’t drinking.”
“You thinking about taking up the Rescue Mission on that offer of a bus ticket?”
Shorty’s eyes glistened. “I don’t think so. At least not now. Christmas is too busy a time to just show up. Maybe I’ll think about it later on.”
“Does the bus go to your town?”
“No. But I could go to the end of the line. Folks’ll help you out. They got satellite phones up there. Somebody would call my mother for me. She’d arrange for me to be picked up.”
I was having trouble getting the beer past a lump in my throat. “When you do go back, do you think I could go with you?”
Shorty frowned. “With me? What would you want to do that for?”
“I dunno. I got to get out of here.”
“How far away does your sister live?”
“Just a few hours south. And the bus runs right into town.”
“Why don’t you go there?”
Not sure I could trust my voice, I put words to what I was afraid of. “I haven’t talked to my sister in a long time. Suppose she didn’t want me?”
“At least you’d know.”
“Or even worse, suppose she let me move in, and I started drinking again? After all, I’m sitting here with a beer right now.”
“You got some control over that.” Shorty scratched his head. “If you came with me, I don’t think you’d like it. I don’t know what anybody would say. Nobody ever moves in. At least not that I remember.”
“Okay. Just an idea. And not a good one, I guess.”
“Well.” Shorty turned and peered at me. “I guess they wouldn’t mind if you came for a little while. For sure you wouldn’t be smoking any weed or anything—there isn’t anything like that up there.”
“But there is alcohol.”
“That there is. Rum and vodka and brandy. And moonshine. Eggnog, too. No AA, though.”
I looked away. “I could work for my room and board.”
“I think you’d be better off going back to your family.”
We sat in silence.
“You ever been away for Christmas before?” I asked Shorty.
“Your mama’s gonna miss you. Best present you could give her is going home and staying straight.”
The afternoon was drawing to a close. A few cars pulled up outside. The four o’clock crowd was arriving.
Shorty gulped down the rest of his Irish coffee and stood up. “Let’s go.”
I finished my beer. “Where’re we going?” I asked.
“Back to the Rescue Mission.
At the bus depot, no one sat near us. I suspected that we smelled, and not in a good way. Jail was always full of the odors of urine and unwashed bodies and disinfectant. It could be hard to tell what was the jail stink and what was me. I was so used to it, I didn’t notice it anymore.
More tinny Christmas carols played. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” of course. But this time, maybe we would be.
Occasional spits of snow blasted into the open waiting area. Christmas lights blinked on the outdoor sign. Most of the people waiting had suitcases or bags. Some of them had cheerfully-wrapped presents.
Shorty and I had nothing but the bus vouchers from the Rescue Mission.
The lady at the Rescue Mission had let Shorty make a call. Getting connected was a real chore. By the time they got through to his mother, tears were streaming down his cheeks. Through the crackle and the static, I could hear her cry, too.
The north-bound bus pulled in. Several people got up and moved toward it.
Clutching the voucher, Shorty got to his feet and took a step toward the curb.
The bus door opened. People climbed off and gathered around to collect their luggage.
I didn’t get off the bench.
Shorty turned and looked toward me. “You coming?”
“Suit yourself.” Shorty brushed snow from the shoulders of his jacket.
“I been thinking. The southbound bus is idling over there.” I pointed. “I’ll see if I can’t go stay with my sister, at least for the holidays.”
“Probably your best bet.” Shorty took off his watch cap and shook the snow off it, then got in line. “Have a good life.”
I stared at his ears. They were huge and pointy. “Say,” I said, “what kind of factory is it in your town?”
Shorty looked back over his shoulder as he started up the steps to the bus. “Toy factory, of course.”
“And what kind of calves was it that got loose when the fire started?”
He waved and the door closed behind him.
The bus pulled away into the swirling snow. I watched as the lights disappeared.