A Midwinter’s Tale
December 09, 2010 - It was cold. December had been unseasonably mild, the thermometer only falling into the upper 30s in the small hours of the morning. Night before last the weather changed. A bubble of Arctic air slipped south and the chill pushed away what little warmth a body could find in the nighttime. The man shivered as the chill pierced to his bones as would an eagle’s talons pierce the mouse it carried home to its aerie. It gripped at his vitals and seemed to settle as a ball between his shoulder blades.
That day he had walked in the alleys and side streets while others went in and out of the stores and restaurants on Main Street. If any saw him they rapidly averted their gaze, not wishing to be reminded that there were among them those who lived in quiet desperation. It was not the time to be reminded of unpleasant things. It was a time to worship plenty; to proclaim the worthiness of success; to give enough that others might see in their gifts an expression of the givers’ comfortable condition. Lest they be shaken in their enjoyment of the season the celebrants hurrying along chose not to see that upon which their eyes had fallen. He was, to them, invisible against the festive commercial trappings of the season.
So it was that the man had gone abroad unseen in the city, stopping at the closed back door of each establishment while others gaily went in the inviting entrances opening on Main Street. Scraggly, graying hair peeked from beneath his once blue watch cap. His beard, as scraggly as the hair of his head, was as grizzled and food stained at the corners of his mouth where dried crumbs clung. He wore a blue windbreaker over a tattered plaid shirt that he had found somewhere. Two pairs of trousers warded off the winter’s cold, the outer pair bound at his ankles with scraps of rope to keep the winds out. A pair of cast off boots, two sizes too big, covered his feet. Over it all a khaki trench coat belted tightly at the waist gave him the aspect of an overstuffed sausage. He carried a backpack into which he had stuffed those things that he treasured; those things he had found; and those things to help him survive just one more day and one more night.
It had started to snow. The flakes clung to his watch cap and speckled his beard with white as he pulled aside the contents of the trash bin looking for a treasure or a morsel. He found a newspaper, barely soiled and folded neatly. He took it, not to read for he had lost his glasses some time back and without them he could see only blurred dark lines contrasting with the grey of the paper on which they were inscribed. He opened his trench coat, unzipped the windbreaker and smoothed the paper inside as one more layer of insulation to stand between his chest and the winter’s cold then did the wrapping back up again.
The sun was fading, signaling the time at which the Alley Man must cease his search for sustenance and comfort such as it was and begin to look for shelter for the night. He would find that too in the city’s alleys. Sometimes he would find it under a stairway; sometimes under a thicket growing next to a building; and sometimes when the weather was mild simply under the heavens with a starry dome for a ceiling. This night with the snow and the cold he would have to find a niche to shelter him from the wind’s teeth.
The Bell Ringers had positioned their kettle strategically at the northeast corner of Main and State Streets, just a few feet from the wide steps that led to the imposing oak doors that opened into the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church. The shoppers streamed west on Main Street from past the appliance shop, past the church, and toward the Excelsior Department Store across State Street. They were dressed for the season. The men wore fedoras with the brims snapped neatly over one eye. Neat top coats warded off the wind as silk neck scarves flowed out behind them as tails on a kite. The women wore’ broad brimmed hats defying the wind because they were secured to elaborate hairdos with pearl headed hatpins. Fur collared broadcloth coats reaching down to mid-calf were their protection against December. Children darted ahead of their parents for the Excelsior was where Santa’s Throne was ensconced for the season.
“Merry Christmas”, the Bell Ringers called, as coins and bills cascaded into their kettle. “Thank You, Kindly”, greeted every contribution, “and a Happy New Year”. The Ringers planned well for in a half hour, just at six, the Presbyterian’s evening service would begin just as it did on this night every year. The church goers would be generous – to a degree – not wanting to be seen to be stinting at this time of year. Many, who at other places and other times would have simply looked the other way and passed on would stop and dig into their pockets for a coin or two. “Thank you, sir and a Merry Christmas to you and yours.”
The Alley Man found his shelter for the night behind Lauderborn’s Appliance Store. It was a cardboard covered crate in which the automatic washer-dryer that sat in the display window had been shipped. It lay on its side next to the back door with the open bottom toward the church next door. Tucking his backpack in the corner to serve as a pillow he crawled into the crate. He found that if he lay diagonally on his side and drew his knees up toward his chest he could almost squeeze his whole body into the crate. It would be cramped but at least it would keep the snow off and the wind away.
Just before he slipped off to sleep he could hear the notes of the organ coming from the Presbyterian Church. “How nice”, he thought, “the folks at church are playing me off to sleep.” He enjoyed music. It brought back to mind a time when he had not been the Alley Man, a time when he could play, and sing, and make his own music just like anybody else. He tried to lay hold to that memory but it slipped away. He could not remember when it had been, and where, and even what they called him then. Tonight he was only the Alley Man. He fell asleep.
He did not know how long he slept; only that he woke in a violent shiver brought on by the intense cold. He felt it to the bone, a cold reaching deep inside of him like an eagle’s talons grasping. He lay there shaking and involuntarily extended his legs to ease the cramping at his knees. As he did so it seemed he was no longer alone. He was cradled in the bend of a strong arm while a cup of strong and warming broth was held to his lips. He drank deeply and felt warmth course through him. He looked up at the face of the man who cradled him like a baby. It was a strong face; a kind face with slate grey eyes that both looked deep within him and promised him kindness. He wondered at the scratches on the man’s forehead. Perhaps he had a kitten. The Alley Man had a kitten once that scratched him, but that was long ago and he couldn’t remember the kitten’s name.
He felt a strong right hand stroke his forehead smoothing away the lines of care with a soft caress. He looked at the hand. There was a scab in the middle of its palm and what seemed to be dried blood. Like the broth he had tasted, the touch gave him warmth and drove away the cold. He drifted off to sleep again; a deep and truly restful sleep; and as he did he heard the organ play again and the choir singing, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
“We found Lucas Matthews in the morning. He had died during the night. Of exposure the Medical Examiner said. We knew him as the Alley Man. We learned his name from the State issued Photo ID Card in his backpack.
“It was a funny thing, Sergeant. He had a small Testament open in one hand with a finger of the other pointing to a verse. We knew that it was his. Inside the front cover someone had written, ‘Lucas Matthews on the occasion of his Confirmation.’ Even in death he wouldn’t let go of that book.
“What was strange was that inside that box where we found him there was no light to see by even with the sun up. But there it was; that pointing finger as though he was following the words as he read them. ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’.
“It is all in my report.”
©2010 L. Keith Hays Champaign, Illinois
Agree? Disagree? Just want to add your .02 worth?
Click here to send your comments to Ming
Return to Home Page
© Copyright Keith Hays
All Rights Reserved