There's a tan metal storage building in the cheap-rent part of town where the Christmas banners and lighted wreaths that hang on street lamps for a month and a bit each year are stored the rest of the time, and Cliff knew where it was. It ruined the magic, were street lamp decorations able to contain any, to see them rolled and stacked up in the dusty dark, emptied of their Christmas spirits, which must migrate in great, invisible flocks to the north pole or some gingerbread town in Germany each January 1st. But then, he hadn't felt the magic of Christmas—at least not from a street lamp decoration—since he was a kid.
No older than 10 but probably younger, sitting in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra with his brother and sister. He had his nose against the cold window unless it was his turn to sit in the middle, looking up at the shining tinsel shapes on the street lamps. They had a game. When they passed a light pole bearing two silver tinsel bells, for example, he and his siblings would sing the first few lines of Jingle Bells. A green tinsel Christmas tree, O Christmas Tree. An angel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and so on. He reflected that they never figured out a song for the candy cane.
But that was a different time and a different town, and instead of a kid in an Oldsmobile, he was a middle-aged man in a bucket truck mounting a wreath to a streetlight on another 65-degree December day in Texas. There weren't any Christmas songs about wreaths that he knew of.
'Twas the Friday before Christmas, and all through the bar, adults of moderate ages were greeting each other, holding typical holiday gift bags with tissue paper poking out of the tops. The men wore dark jeans and some wore caps. The ladies wore stilettos and jeans and black-and-red plaid or sparkly golden tops under fake leather jackets, their curling irons likely still warm in their bathroom sinks. A heavier man spoke loudly and laughed at his own jokes while a younger, better looking couple nursed their drinks and looked politely attentive. Somewhere in a back room, aluminum trays of catering warmed over Sterno cans. White elephant would be played there later, and the loud, heavy man will have brought an inappropriate gift that two of the slightly younger men will fight over as a joke.
Someone's girlfriend had on a vanilla ice cream sweater with a loose knit that hinted at her bra and midriff as she carried drinks in both hands back to the group. A black-capped boyfriend met her halfway to collect his. A black-haired woman with dark lipstick, a black waxed jacket, black jeans and black high-heeled boots ordered a very pale blonde beer. The loud man was still holding court at the bar with the better looking couple, keeping the three of them from the party while the bartenders leaned together and chatted on the other side of the counter. The music was very normal background music that had nothing to do with the season, the party in the back room or the 12-foot Christmas tree glowing in the corner.
The aisles were jammed with the upper middle class, young, stay-at-home moms in designer activewear gazing up to the highest shelves while her truly cute boy or girl in the seat of the cart looks at her or the shelves or the other shoppers until reaching with both hands toward some treat he or she is unlikely to get. Is there a quota for the number of times a good mom must say 'no' in a grocery store?
A young hispanic woman in a hairnet sets out a basket of small pieces of pannettone as free samples, and an old man takes a piece with his bare fingers, ignoring the hygienic plastic tongs lying on top. The bread tastes of sugar and orange, and the free-sample butter is full of crumbs from the overeager.
One is either bumped or blocked by the carts of the entitled, myriad nobodies with their noses in the air while Michael Buble croons Christmas songs approvingly. One hides oneself behind a display of Christmas ale to escape the current of self-absorbed shoppers collecting ingredients for some holiday meal that only a small number of people will taste or care about. This, a tradition-rich time of year, means the store is swimming with the must-havers, and it can be dangerous to go against the current. They simply must have that certain brand of pasta sauce or cut of beef or bottle of wine or loaf of sweet bread or summer sausage that no one really likes but is served every year and therefore must be served this year, too.
There's a yellow Lamborghini taking up two parking spaces outside a vacant sports bar that's in the process of being taken over by a climbing gym. Meanwhile, several homeless men sit on the courthouse steps, their possessions below: a jacket, a new black suitcase and an old vacuum cleaner. There are snowflake decals on the diner windows and a white man with black dreadlocks past his waist ducks into the tattoo parlor across the street, which is open on a Sunday morning for some reason. There's a man wearing a santa hat and two women with purple hair. I soak the condensation from my water glass into a napkin and have a sudden urge to watch The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but it fades quickly without completely going away.
I haven't watched any Christmas movies or specials this year except for tuning out half of Charlie Brown before turning it off to go for a walk instead. I did go see The Nutcracker though. I remember the BBC version they used to play on PBS every year when I was a kid. To me, it was just as exciting as Rudolph or Frosty or driving around to look at Christmas lights because it, like all the rest of them, signaled the impending arrival of presents. I no longer look forward to presents because I'm an adult who, more or less, buys what I want throughout the year. Maybe that's why I'm unmoved by TV specials and Christmas music on the radio and snowflake decals on diner windows.
He was six years old and visiting his grandmother for Christmas in one of the huge, columned houses in the rich, old part of town where the yards are immaculate and the sidewalks buckle and break above the vast root systems of trees four stories high. Presently, he was hiding beneath the ancient, enormous magnolia tree in his grandmother's front yard, its bottom-most branches sagging to the ground to make his hideout's walls. No grass grew under there, and it felt secret and safe. He peered out from the cool shadows at various adults walking dogs and the neighbor's Christmas decorations until a blue sedan pulled into the driveway across the street. The kids were the right age to play with, but they were both girls. The parents were more or less ignored by the old couple who came outside to hug their grandkids.
He liked his secret spot beneath the magnolia tree where he would hide and play in the afternoons while the adults would sit indoors and speak softly or nap in easy chairs in front of the TV, probably tuned to something boring like golf or a cooking show that teaches people to jazz up something out of a can. He was too young when his grandfather died to remember him, but there was a picture of the kind-eyed old man on top of a cabinet in the hallway next to a cut-glass bowl full of hard butterscotch candies. He would take a little handful of the candies when he thought no one was looking, but they were, but he was allowed to have them, so the adults just smiled and said nothing.
So he stood in the shade beneath the enormous magnolia tree sucking on stolen butterscotch candies and pretending his grandfather was beside him doing the same, hunched and happy, watching the little girls across the street play and giggling at a woman power walking in a visor with her tiny, sweater-wearing dogs.