Monday, December 19, 2022

Some Things Don’t Change at Christmas by KM Rockwood

The isolated depot, a ways out of town on the interstate, was dark when I clambered down from the bus.

Not a surprise on Christmas Eve.

Courtesy: Foursquare

Behind me, the bus door closed with a pneumatic swish, and the bus lurched back onto the highway.

I shivered. Icy snowflakes swept through the uncertain glow from the single overhead light. Gusts of wind swirled the bits of snow that had already fallen into small drifts against the depot’s wall.

The door was locked. I tried to peer through a window, but I couldn’t see much. The whole building smelled of neglect.

It had been twenty-some years since I’d been here. A lot could have changed. Maybe this was just a pick-up and drop-off spot now. Maybe nobody ever staffed the depot.

Well, if I remembered correctly, at least the pay phone was outdoors, around the side of the building.

As I headed around the corner, I dug in my pocket for change. How much were calls now? Certainly more than the quarter they used to be.

But there was no phone there. All that remained was a discolored spot on the wall and a patch where the wires used to be.

I’d kind of noticed that there were no pay phones in the city neighborhood where I had been staying, but I put that down to them being removed because they were being vandalized. And possibly used for drug deals.

But when I thought about it, why would there be pay phones anywhere? Now everybody had a cell phone.

Everybody but me.

How stupid could I be?

Very, apparently.

I should have called my sister Miriam to ask if I could come before I even got on the bus.

When I told her in my last letter that I was living in a halfway house and that Mr. Jennings, my parole officer, had said he might consider granting permission for an out-of-state trip for the holidays to visit family, her reply had been cautious, but not totally discouraging.

“I’d love to see you, Jacob,” she’d written. “If you think you can make it, let me know and I will talk to Papa. Since Mama died, the kids and I have moved in so I can take care of him. He’s not well. Mostly his lungs. I don’t need to tell you he’s still upset at the shame you brought on the family. Mama never got over it, never wanted to show her face again in church. And Papa’s never forgotten that.”

She was right. I had brought shame on the family. My poor mother.

Miriam was my big sister. She wrote me once a month all the years I was in prison. A few times she even sent ten dollars for my commissary account. I always wrote back.

Her letters were the only ones I ever got. And I’d never had a visitor.

I couldn’t blame Papa if he didn’t want to see me. I shouldn’t have shown up like this, without an okay from Miriam.

But it was only last night that Mr. Jennings let me know that he’d approved the trip. Not much time to plan.

I’d decided to come anyhow, and call Miriam from the bus depot. Another stupid decision. How could I have missed the absence of pay phones? I hadn’t planned to mention I was already here unless she told me it was okay if I came, and that she’d pick me up at the depot.

If she said “no,” I’d just catch the next bus back.

It wasn’t until I went to the bus station downtown that I discovered the schedule had been cut back so much. Only one bus a day ran by the old depot. And only one bus back.

So now, here I was. And I was stuck. Maybe I could hike the remaining miles to the homeplace outside of town, but it would take hours, especially in the darkness. I wouldn’t get there until early morning, long before anyone got up. I’d be totally unannounced.

I couldn’t imagine I’d get any kind of welcome at that hour.

So what was I going to do?

Hole up somewhere and try to get some sleep before morning. Not like I’d never slept rough before.

My stomach growled. I’d brought a few granola bars, but I’d eaten them already. Being hungry, though, was the least of my worries right now.

I pulled my slightly-too-big, warm jacket tighter around me. I’d found it at the Community Thrift Shop’s five-dollar-coat-day sale. I had wool gloves and a watch cap. But my legs were already cold in the blue jeans, my socks had holes in them, and my worn boots were far from waterproof.

Why hadn’t I stuck a blanket in my backpack? It would have fit. All that was in it was a change of underwear and a few pathetic Christmas presents for Miriam and Papa and the kids. Cheap ones. I didn’t have much money, and the warehouse where I’d been lucky enough to snag a job was closed for Christmas week. A week without a paycheck. But I’d still have to cover the cost of room and board at the halfway house. Even if I wasn’t there.

I’d done my buying at a pawn shop. I had a silver-colored necklace with a heart for Miriam, a carved pipe holder for Papa (It wasn’t until later that I wondered whether he still smoked a pipe. Especially since Miriam had mentioned something about his lungs) and for the kids, some strange robot-y creations which the proprietor had called “action figures” and assured me that today, all kids loved them.

Maybe I could pick the lock on the depot building without damaging it and sleep in there. At least it would be out of the snow and wind.

But if somebody found me, that would be a breaking-and-entering charge, not to mention trespassing. Definitely a parole violation.

Or find an old barn. Might even have some straw in it that would make for a cozy bed. It’d still be trespassing, but at least without the breaking-and-entering part.

The wind picked up and the snow came faster. I had to find somewhere out of the weather. Or I might freeze to death.

Not that freezing to death was really such a terrible prospect. My whole life, from age seventeen to now, was a waste. One stupid decision after another.

Instead of using my high school years to get an education and a start on life, I’d succumbed to the temptations of fast cars, wild parties, copious amounts of weed and alcohol.

I hadn’t even made it to the “woman” part of the proverbial “Wine, women, and song.”

That final night haunted me every time I closed my eyes.

Parked outside a small convenience store, engine running and radio blasting, I’d been sitting in the driver’s seat of my buddy Denny’s car. I’d positioned it right by the exit for a fast getaway in case he ran into trouble with his fake ID. We were both too young to buy beer, but his fake drivers license looked pretty realistic. Since I didn’t have a fake ID, he’d gone in alone.

He came running out, carrying just a six-pack. He jumped into the passenger seat and screamed, “Let’s get out of here!”

I stared at him. “All you got was one six-pack?”

He punched my arm. “Shut up and burn rubber.”

Shrugging, I put the car in gear, pulled out of the parking lot and roared down the road.

The radio was too loud for us to talk, but not loud enough to drown out the sirens.

I sped up, trying to evade the police cars. Denny urged me on.

The road was twisting and dark. The tires were almost bald. I missed a curve and the car slammed sideways into a tree, smashing the entire passenger side. And the passenger.

Later, I had lots of time to piece it all together as I lay shackled to a hospital bed, guard at the door. Seems that when the clerk questioned Denny’s fake ID and threatened to take it away from him, Denny shot him.

I didn’t even know he had a gun.

The clerk died.

So did Denny, crushed when the car hit the tree.

For me, that meant a felony murder charge. Participating in a crime which resulted in death.

I tried to argue that I hadn’t really participated in the clerk’s death. I had no idea what was going to happen.

Someone trying to use a fake ID to buy beer might be illegal, but how could it be a serious crime?

No one bought it. Not the cops, not the judge, not even my court-appointed defense attorney.

And I couldn’t argue that I wasn’t guilty of the fleeing and eluding, which ended with a smashed car and a dead Denny.

Probably would have been better all around if I’d died, too.

Now, twenty years later, I was out of prison on parole. Still doing stupid things.

The night air carried the ringing of bells from the direction of town, drawing me out of my morose self-pity. I gazed toward the sound.

That church just outside town calling good people to Christmas Eve services?

They’d sing Christmas carols. Raise their voices in prayer. Listen to the preacher read the Gospel story of the blessed birth.

It would be warm inside the church.

If I went there, I could probably sit in the back for the service.

Did they leave churches unlocked overnight? Maybe I could sneak back in after everyone had gone home and stay there until morning.

Pinpricks of dazzling light appeared down the road and approached. Slowly.

They evolved into a set of headlights, with windblown snowflakes dancing and shimmering in the glow.

Any chance I could step out by the road as it passed, stick out my thumb and catch a ride?

Not much. Even if they stopped, a ride to where? The church was in the other direction.

But the headlights didn’t pass. The vehicle limped slowly into the dim circle thrown by the overhead light. With the distinctive thumping sound of a flat tire.

It was a huge SUV, towering high above the pavement on outsized tires. One of which, the right front side, was totally flat.

I stood still as it stopped with the driver’s side door right next to me.

The door opened. Warm air, smelling of cinnamon and peppermint and pine, rushed to meet me.

A small, slender woman jumped out.

She was wearing a bright red coat, with a wooly hat pulled down over her ears. Her boots were some kind of shiny material.

She didn’t say anything, but she looked at me, shut the door, and proceeded to the back of the SUV.

I followed.

“You got a spare?” I asked.

Stupid question. It was right there, mounted on a bracket on the rear door.

“How about a jack?”

She nodded and pulled the door open.

More warm, fragrant air poured out.

How delightful if I could just climb in there, curl up, and go to sleep.

Like that was something she might let me do.

I wasn’t planning to pull a me-strong-man, you-weak-woman number on her, but really, tiny as she was, could she even manage to get that huge spare tire off its bracket without hurting herself?

Of course I’d change it for her.

Courtesy: Dreamstime

Then maybe she’d give me a ride. But even if she didn’t—and I couldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to let a strange man ride along with her—it wouldn’t hurt me to do it. Most useful thing I’d have done in a long time.

I unbolted the spare while she opened a compartment under the floor and pulled out a jack.

The wind was picking up, blowing the snow in our faces.

We worked surprisingly well together but wordlessly, and finished quickly.

She disassembled the jack while I bolted the flat tire to the brace on the back door. Then she put the jack away, slammed the floor back into place over it, shut the back door, and climbed into the driver’s seat.

I stood there, wondering how to ask for a ride.

Sitting behind the wheel of that huge vehicle, she looked like a delicate toy.

We still hadn’t spoken a word.

“Aren’t you getting in?” she asked.


“Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Back into town?” I asked. “To the church?”

She shook her head. “All locked up. They’ve already gone home.”


“But I could take you somewhere else.”

I heaved my backpack in and scrambled into the passenger seat.

The fragrant, comfortable warmth surrounded me. I felt more relaxed than I had in years.

“Have some coffee,” she said, passing over a thermos. “And there’s a few cookies in that tin over there if you’d like some.”

I’d like some. I was hungry.

Before I shoved a cookie into my mouth, I told her where the old homeplace was.

She nodded. “Yes. I’m going right by there.”

The snow was coming down more heavily, making it hard to see, but that didn’t seem to bother her. Snow coated the roads and drifted against the fences.

I took a drink of the coffee and sat back, looking around. The back seat was covered with wrapped packages, a basket of fruit and some grocery bags.

“What are you doing out like this on Christmas Eve?” I asked. “Especially in this weather.”

She shrugged. “It’s Christmas. You get weather like this. You can’t really expect one person to handle everything that needs to be done. And sometimes you need to give people a chance to show whether they deserve what they’re wishing for. We do find that Christmas Eve is the best time for certain tasks.”

I glanced at the packages. “Like delivering Christmas presents?”

“That, too.”

We rode along in silence. The snow was coming down quickly, piling deeper and deeper.

“This SUV certainly handles the roads well in this weather,” I said.

“Yes.” She didn’t take her eyes off the road. “It’s designed to meet any challenges that arise, especially winter road conditions.”

Before I knew it, we were driving through the deepening drifts and pulling up the long driveway at the old family homeplace.

Public Domain Pictures

A string of Christmas lights decorated the front porch. I could see a Christmas tree through the front window.

My throat tightened. Suppose they weren’t happy to see me?

I turned to the lady. “I might not be able to stay here. Then I’d have to move on. Do you think you could wait a minute and see how it goes before you leave?”

Although I had no idea where I could move on to.

She stopped in front of the porch. “I’ll be here if you need me.”

I thanked her and climbed out.

Clutching my backpack and trying to keep the tears out of my eyes, I stepped up to the door and knocked.

It opened instantly.

I had no idea what to say. I just stood there, my stomach churning.

Miriam gasped. She turned and shouted over her shoulder, “Papa. It’s Jacob. Come for Christmas.”

I heard him cough, then clear his throat.

Our Jacob?”


“Tell him to come in out of the cold.”

My vision blurred. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

Miriam looked out over my shoulder. “How did you get here?” she asked.

“This lady gave me a ride. See…” I turned around to point at the SUV.

But it was gone.

There weren’t even any tire tracks in the snow.

Beyond the end of the driveway, pinpricks of light lifted toward the sky.

Public Domain Pictures

A sound of ringing bells drifted across the snow.

This time I recognized them for what they were. Sleigh bells.