I shiver in the cold damp wind, serves me right for waiting so long to look for a Christmas tree. But with the pressure of end-of-semester work, Christmas always seems to creep up on me unawares. If I were honest, I'd have to admit that part of it is my psychological reaction to stores like Wal-Mart always starting to push Christmas early, even before Halloween.
The few trees still on the lot are those rejected by others for obvious reasons, displeasing to me as well. I hail the proprietor I happen to see walking by. "Terry, have you any you've not put out yet?"
He's looking stressed as many vendors do this time of year, but he recognizes me. "Truck's just been unloaded. I'd help you myself, but I've got to check the invoice. I'll get somebody to help you quick as I can."
"Hey, Greg! Get your lazy butt over here and show Professor Andrews those trees just come in," he yells, then turns back to me, shaking his head. "Two of my guys are out sick, so I hired this one temporarily. He's not much good. But this time of year …" He shrugs.
"I'm in no rush."
"I'll get back soon as I can."
Terry trots off to his office and it's a few moments before a tall skinny kid that can't be more than eighteen pushes through the trees to where I'm standing. He's wearing torn jeans and a thin, grubby, denim jacket with a defeated expression on his thin face. "Sir?"
"Terry just told me he has a new shipment of trees. I want a thick one about nine feet tall."
"They're at the back. Follow me." His voice is pleasant, but defeated, too.
As I follow, I notice his unusual manner of walking. I look down at his feet to see ragged sneakers on his feet, but his right leg seems to lack flexibility, especially at the ankle, and he appears to 'throw' that leg forward. He stops and points to four tightly bundled trees lying on the ground. "These are all we got in tall as you said you want."
Two of the bundles look fat, signs of a thick tree, but that doesn't tell me anything about possible gaps in the branches or other defects. "How about opening those and standing them up so I can look at them."
"I guess it'll be okay."
"How can I judge if you don't?" He still looks reluctant, so I add, "If Terry has any complaint I'll handle it."
He bends awkwardly and saws through the binding twine with a dull pocketknife. I help him stand the tree upright and shake it out, though he says he can do it. A statement I doubt. After he's holding it, I back away for a look. The tree's quite nice, but there's one gap that annoys me.
"Possible. Open the other."
This one is it. Even after I push the branches down to relax them from being tied up, it's a beauty. "I'll take it. How much?"
He shakes his head. "I'll have to go ask."
He comes back with Terry, who looks at the tree admiringly. "Nicest one I've had this year."
"Just what I wanted. How much?"
"Greg, mark that tree sold and stay with it 'til I get back. Then we're goin' to deliver it."
I follow Terry to his office and write a cheque. To satisfy my curiosity I ask, "Where'd you find that kid?"
"He give you any trouble?"
"Not at all. He just doesn't seem to have the energy of the young men you usually employ."
"Like I said, two of my regulars are out sick. On my way in this morning I saw him standing on the corner by the mall with a sign saying he'd work for food. I asked him if he was serious and he said he was, but he's no hustler. It'll be about an hour before the truck is back and I can bring your tree."
"I'll be home, so any time. It's so close to closing, why don't you deliver it on your way home? It'll save you a special trip if you're driving the truck." I know he usually does.
"Good. Got another couple of deliveries to make before; that'll help."
I'm reading the evening paper when I hear his truck in the drive. I pull on my jacket and go out, surprised to see Greg with him.
"Want it in the usual place?" Terry asks. I always have him put it on the patio until I'm ready to bring it in, because I like to saw an inch off the trunk and put it in water immediately to keep it fresh.
"Please, but put it in the stand. I'll bring it in a little later if I can get some help."
"You'll need it; this one is heavy. That's why I brought Greg along."
The two of them wrestle the big tree around the house to the patio. Terry gets his chainsaw from the truck, and cuts the trunk and several small limbs off, then he and Greg fit it in the stand.
"You got the best, Professor. Appreciate your business."
"Thank you for bringing it. You finished up for the day?"
"Yeah. Gonna be good to get home and relax. Getting' colder, too."
Greg has said nothing, but I see him looking at my house with a wistful expression. "If your helper here has nothing else to do, do you mind if he stays long enough to help me get the tree in? I'll take him wherever he wants to go after."
"Fine with me. What about it, Greg?"
"Okay by me, sir." He goes to Terry's truck and returns with an old backpack. He sets it down and looks at me.
"Let me go in and put the plastic down first, then I'll come help you with the tree." I always put a sheet of thick plastic under the tree in case I spill water, as I sometimes do when I'm refilling the stand.
Moving the tree is a bigger job than I anticipated because Greg stumbles twice. When we've gotten the tree to the front stoop, he stops. "My shoes are awful muddy, sir. Let me take them off before I go in."
"That's very considerate of you, but your feet are going to get cold."
"It already is." His concern for my floors pleases me, though it means discomfort for him. He sits down on the top step and slips his left sneaker off easily, but lifts his right leg up with his hands and seems to struggle a little removing the sneaker.
When we have the tree set up, I see him look around. "This is nice, sir."
"Thank you. Would you like a cup of coffee? I know you must be cold."
"That'll be mighty good." He slips out of his jacket and drops it on the floor. I can see now that he's hardly more than skin and bones.
"Come to the kitchen and fix it like you want."
I see him look at the pot of soup I have simmering on the stove and sniff hungrily. When I pause to stir it, I hear his stomach growl. As soon as I hand him a mug of coffee, he puts three spoons full of sugar in it. "I need the sugar, sir. I'm feeling kind of weak."
"Let's go sit down."
The temperature is dropping rapidly and my heating system is slow to respond, so I light the gas logs in the fireplace. Greg sets his mug down on the hearth and flops down on the hearthrug beside it. The legs of his jeans ride up enough as he shifts position so that what little I can see of his right leg appears to be plastic. "Fire feels good," he says.
"Yes. It's going to be a cold night."
"Hope I can find some place warm." When he looks up at me, I can see his eyes are moist.
"Nothin', sir. It's nice being warm and having something hot to drink."
"Don't you have a home?"
"Got thrown out," he states simply and wipes his eyes.
"Mind telling me why?"
"My dad walked in on me and my buddy. Ty was leaving for college the next morning, so I was huggin' him. My old man yelled at us we were acting like queers. When I told him I am, he threw me out."
"It was the middle of August. I can't find much work cause of my leg, so I've just been movin' around trying to find something better. Don't look like I'm gonna find much."
I'm ten years or so older than he, as best I can estimate his age. Being a teacher, I like young people and see all types in the classroom, but none of them has touched my heart like this young man.
"Would you like to stay and have some supper with me? It's just going to be the soup."
His look is eager. "Oh, yes, sir! It sure smells good."
"You left your shoes and pack outside, let me get them for you."
He starts to struggle to his feet. "I'll get them."
"Stay. You've just gotten warm. It'll only take a second."
No longer than it takes me to retrieve his pack from the patio and his sneakers from the front stoop, I'm shivering by the time I get back in. "Boy, it's cold out," I comment as I put his sneaker on the hearth to dry. "Let's go eat. The soup will warm me up."
I fill large bowls, and slice a loaf of bread I baked that morning. When I sit down, I'm surprised to see the boy bow his head and offer a short prayer, something I should do more often.
Greg's face is one big smile when he tastes the first spoonful of my homemade soup, so thick with vegetables and chunks of lean beef it's almost a stew. "This is really good."
"I'm glad you like it. There's nothing like soup on a night like this."
His bowl is empty before I'm half way through mine. I point to the stove. "Help yourself."
He returns to the table with the bowl filled again. I manage to finish mine as he takes the last spoonful from his. "I feel a lot better now. This is the first thing I've had to eat today."
"Didn't Terry let you have time for lunch?"
"Yes, sir, but I don't have any money."
I give him the glass of milk he asks for, and watch him eat two more well-buttered slices of bread with it. I set out a plate of cookies I also baked this morning, but he smiles. "Too full. Might like to take one with me for later."
"That's a good idea. You're here, so would you like to help me decorate the tree?"
"Yes, sir!" He says with an animated expression.
I bring down the lights and ornaments from the attic and we set to work. I stand on a ladder and place the lights on the top, then work my way down, while he's doing the lower branches. I'm surprised at how seriously he's taken my comment about spacing the lights and hiding the wires as much as possible. I couldn't have done any better alone.
Several boxes of ornaments still remain to be put on when I yawn and glance at my watch. It's almost eleven. "What about a cup of hot chocolate and some cookies before we turn in?"
"I could really go for some now."
He's still at work when I return with the tray. "Enough for one day. I assume you're going back to work tomorrow, so I don't want you tired out."
"I'm not tired. This wasn't work; it was fun."
"Let's see how it looks." I plug the lights in. It's one of the nicest looking trees I've ever had. I expect some comment from Greg, but when I look at him, he's sitting on the floor again, crying silently.
I walk over and put my hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong, son?"
He raises tormented eyes to mine. "I always loved Christmas and putting up the tree and all, now this is gonna be all the Christmas I get." He wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt, and scrubs at his tears with his fists.
I feel unbidden tears in my own eyes. "Greg, where were you planning to stay tonight?"
"I don't know. Any place I can find out of the wind. Guess I better go start looking."
I help him up, wrestling with my conscience. Though he's a stranger, he's been open and honest with me as far as I can tell. Besides, how can I turn him out on a freezing night like this. "You won't have to go far. Help me wash up these mugs, then we'll get you settled in."
"Spare bedroom across the hall from mine."
He doesn't say anything else until we've made the bed and I've shown him the other bath. Suddenly he throws his arms around me in a hug. "Thank you, sir. I knew you were a good man when I saw you, but I didn't think you'd give somebody like me food and a place to stay the night."
"You deserve it. Get your bath and go to bed. I'll call you in the morning, so you won't be late to work."
I do call him the next morning, but after I've fixed a large breakfast for him. As long as I get orange juice and tea, I'm content, but he needs more. It's just luck that I have some bacon in the freezer and had bought some eggs for my baking.
"Sleep well?" I ask when he comes to the table.
"Haven't slept that good since I left home. Feels good to be clean, too. Wish I had some clean clothes to put on, what little I have is dirty." He's wearing the jeans and shirt from yesterday.
When he stands to leave for work, I tell him, "Leave your pack here. I'm doing some wash today, so I can put your things in."
"I can't do that."
"You've done too much for me already. I have no way to pay you back."
"Greg, it's Christmas, so let me do this for you. I've enjoyed your company."
He hugs me again. "Thanks, sir."
"Come along and I'll take you to work. You're going to be late if you walk. Here, put this on." I hand him a heavy quilted jacket I occasionally wear outside to shovel snow. It's far from new, but still presentable looking. He's so skinny the jacket is big on him, but it'll be a lot warmer than his denim jacket, and there's a light dusting of snow on the ground.
I pull into the lot right behind Terry. He looks at me strangely when he sees Greg get out of my car, not that I care what he thinks. "Greg, come back to the house for lunch," I call. It's only four blocks, so I know he can walk it quickly.
Back at home I do the wash, noting that while Greg's meager amount of clothing had been good quality, the rough time he's had over the past few months have reduced them to near rags. I make note of his sizes before I dump them in the machine. I need a few things from the market and there's a large supermarket next to Wal-Mart, so I can one-stop shop.
Much as I hate shopping and crowds, the mob is at the other end of the store, so I can look at clothing leisurely. I find some lined jeans on sale, a pair of inexpensive cords that look reasonably nice, and some flannel shirts in his sizes. A few pair of socks, some underwear, and I'm ready. I'll let him keep my old jacket. I feel good about what I'm doing, so I have more than my usual amount of patience in a checkout line filled with harried people.
I fix far more for lunch than I normally would, but Greg eats hungrily, then dashes back to work. I start to finish decorating the tree, but remembering his pleasure last evening, I let it wait for him to do.
On impulse, I drive over to pick him up at the time Terry usually closes. I wasn't the only one who waited to get a tree I see when I pull in. There are few left on the lot. Terry happens to see me and comes over.
"Anything wrong with the tree?" He asks.
"It's perfect. I just came for Greg."
"Glad you did, cause I wanted to ask. He gave me some cock and bull story about you letting him stay at your house last night."
"I did. He helped me decorate the tree, and did a wonderful job. How could I turn him out in the snow when he had no place to go?"
Terry slowly shakes his head. "I felt sorry for him too, specially being a cripple, but, man, taking a total stranger in like that. There's some bad kids out there."
"He's not one of them. He's a nice quiet boy."
"Whatever. I know one thing, he's sure different today."
"In what way?"
"He's smiling, and he's a damn good salesman. Sold near every tree I got, and people comment how nice he is."
"Yesterday he was cold and starving. No one can be happy on an empty stomach and sleeping any place he can find out of the wind."
"Damn! I knew he was sorry looking, but I didn't know he was that bad off. Wish he'd told me he didn't have any money. I'd have given him some to get lunch."
"Where is he?"
"Sent him out with the truck to make deliveries. They ought ta be back by now. I'm waiting on 'em, so I can go home."
Before Terry can straighten up and light the cigarette he's pulled from his pocket, the truck pulls in. Greg climbs out of the back and comes straight to Terry. He fishes in his pocket and holds out several dollar bills. "Here, sir."
"What's this for?"
"People gave me tips for helping them with their trees."
I see Terry's surprised look. "Keep it, Greg. If people want to tip you, it's yours."
"You sure, sir?"
"Very sure. Don't keep Professor Andrews waiting. I'll see you in the morning."
Greg must have put in a hard day, for he's streaked with grime. "A bath for you the minute we get home," I tell him.
He grins. "Goin' to feel mighty good, too. Been rushed all day."
He's hardly in his room when I hear him call, "Sir, can you come here a second?"
"What is it?" I ask from the doorway.
"Those clothes aren't mine." He's pointing to the things I bought for him and laid out on his bed with those I washed.
"They must be. They certainly won't fit me."
"Aw, gee." Tears roll down his cheeks.
"Bath, then clean clothes before you get to eat, fellow." I leave to go start our dinner.
You'd think it was already Christmas from his expression when he comes to the table. He hugs me when he brings our plates to the stove. "Thanks so much. I really needed everything."
"I'm glad to see they fit. Let's eat."
After dinner, we finish decorating the tree and clean up. "Everything's so beautiful, and you've given me Christmas already. I'm not believing there's anybody good as you."
I put my arm around his shoulders as we stand admiring our work. "You're a fine young man, Greg. You're making my Christmas better by being here."
He lays his head on my shoulder. "Wish my folks had been good as you, even after I told you I'm gay."
"Greg, it's not something you choose. You're born with the tendency. I know it makes life harder for you, but you can't change it."
"Really? You don't think I'm a sinner like the Bible says?"
"No indeed. Many things have been discovered since the Bible was written, so some of it no longer applies. What's important is the truth we learn from it that applies to our real life."
"You sure think different from the preacher back home."
"The church I attend is more liberal in thought than most. We'll go to the midnight service Christmas Eve if you'd like."
"You goin' to let me stay here that long? It's almost two weeks 'til then."
"If you want to."
"I do!" He hugs me. "You just don't know how much."
"Then start calling me Colin. That's my name and I'm not such an old man that you need to say sir. If you were in my class at the college it would be different."
The next ten days fly by. When I go to pick Greg up in the evening two days before Christmas, I see him shake hands with Terry before he comes to my car.
"Guess that's the end of this job," he says as he gets in. I've watched him twice a day, now, and he always uses his hands to lift his right leg in after he's seated.
"Terry's not closing for the holidays already?"
Greg shakes his head. "The other guys came back, so he doesn't need me any more. He's a pretty good boss, though. Gave me a bonus, too. I can really use that."
As soon as he's taken a bath and dressed, he comes in the kitchen holding out several twenties. "I know this doesn't come close to what you spent on my clothes and all. I only kept a little to carry me 'til I can find another job somewhere."
I shake my head. "I'm not taking it, Greg. You've been good company and I've enjoyed having you. I wanted to help a fine young man, that's my Christmas gift to me. We'll talk about your future after we have Christmas together."
He has to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief, but says nothing more about it.
I swear, nothing lasts any more. Greg points out five bulbs that have burned out since we did the tree. I go to the drawer where I always keep replacements, but have only two. I hand them to him. "Guess we go shopping tomorrow. I sure dread having to fight the mob."
"I was hoping you were goin' out. I want to see the decorations and all."
"Then we'll go early, and tomorrow night we'll ride around so you can see some of the homes I know decorate well."
"That'll be fun."
It's been quite a strain on my self-control, especially since Greg started hugging me, but I've not touched him otherwise. I'd love to cuddle him and stroke his stump, but it's hard enough to admit to myself that I'm a gay devotee, though he's become more handsome than I thought possible since he's gained a little weight. I've fallen in love with him and I want him to stay. Part of it is having someone to love. I was deprived of my family by a plane crash a few years ago, and it's been more lonely for me than I want to admit. God, how having him around is forcing me to face up to reality and quit deluding myself. In my entire life I've never before been this introspective.
Despite the crowds, I've never had fun shopping until Greg and I go out the next day. I note several things he looks at longingly, then suggest we split up for half an hour or so. He quickly agrees.
"If you have any idea of buying something for me, don't," I caution as he starts away.
He grins. "I won't."
I'm pretty sure that's a lie, but I don't push it. He's old enough to do what he wants with his money. I make a mental note to ask him why he's walking even more awkwardly now.
I've put my purchases in the boot of my car and sit waiting in the vestibule of the store until he comes up with a big smile and takes out a small bag from the larger one he's carrying. "Found those bulbs we needed. Hardware store had some. I hope I got the right kind. I can take 'em back if they aren't."
I open the bag and look. "Just what I was looking for. Ready to go home?"
"I sure am. I need to sit down for a while, cause my leg's hurting me. Wish I had my crutches." This is the first time I've heard him complain.
"Does it bother you often?"
He shakes his head. "Hardly ever. Guess it's because I lost weight. My stump is so loose in the socket it's hard to keep on."
"I have an old pair in the attic I'll bring down for you. When I saw you limping, I was going to suggest you might want to use them."
It's the first time he's called me by my given name and it's pleasant to hear from his lips. He uses far better English than most kids his age, so he's had a decent education.
He's sitting on the side of his bed in his briefs wrapping his just above the knee stump with a new Ace bandage when I bring the crutches to him. He smiles winsomely. "Sure will be nice not having to use my leg for a day or two." His leg looks worn and battered from hard use.
The morning of Christmas Eve, I start preparations for our holiday dinner leaving him to his own devices. He seems to appreciate good Christmas music as much as I, changing CD's in the player as soon as all five have played. He comes into the kitchen on my old crutches and helps me as much as he can
That evening we have a quiet dinner, then a glass of eggnog and cookies by the fire. About nine-thirty I suggest that we get ready for church. The special music begins at ten-thirty and Mass at eleven, so that the celebration of the Eucharist begins at midnight.
Greg calls me to pin up the leg of his slacks so it's as neat as possible. He looks wonderful in his new slacks, crisp shirt, and the blazer I insisted on buying him for the occasion. I'm pleased to see he has enough pride to have polished my old crutches so that they gleam like new. I only used them for three weeks while my broken leg healed.
"You'll have to help me. I've never been to a Catholic church before."
"I'll be glad to tell you what to do. It's mostly just following the Mass in the book. And it's Lutheran, not Catholic."
"Oh." His sigh of relief that tells me his church has little regard for the Church of Rome.
Our building is old, Gothic in design and rich in decoration. I particularly like the fine organ and appreciate an organist who lets it roar as I know Don will, especially tonight. The interior is spectacular in the candlelight. I can tell the impact it has on Greg when he stops in the doorway to look around, his mouth open in surprise.
"I've seen pictures of cathedrals, but none beautiful as this," he whispers when we're seated.
"It's not a cathedral. The bishop's church is in Richmond. Even so, by Lutheran tradition it's only in Europe that the bishop's church is called a cathedral. Hand me the prayerbook and I'll mark it for you." Our books are supplied with several ribbons for marking pages of the service and hymns. I have my personal one with me, so I have only to mark the pages of the hymns in mine.
Christmas Eve High Mass is the most beautiful service of the year for me. The music is glorious, and I can tell Greg is appreciating it as much as I. I feel him move closer to me when the lights suddenly go out at the beginning of the Mass. Then our pastor walks down the aisle holding the Christ candle and reading from the gospel. After the acolytes light the altar candles and those on the advent wreath, the lights come up for the processional. I open Greg's book to the proper carol and it begins with Don using full organ. I always shiver in delight at this moment.
Greg does well following the service, kneeling and standing when I do, though I have to help him up a few times. My favorite part of the Mass is coming up. I know what to expect, but I'll be watching Greg with a sense of amusement.
After the lessons and Psalm, pastor and the kids serving with him gather at the altar in preparation for the Gospel processional. I'm an organ buff, so I know Don will play with full organ, the antiphonal trumpet crowning it with a blaze of sound. Greg jumps at the volume of the first chord, then watches the procession in awe: the huge brass bound Bible almost too heavy for the kid carrying it, the processional candles, the processional cross, then pastor in his best ceremonial vestments. Half way down the main aisle they stop, and the Holy Gospel is announced. We chant the response and listen to the reading. Then Don improvises an impressive fanfare for the recessional. When we're seated for the homily, I put my arm around Greg's shoulders and feel him snuggle against me. Definitely the best Christmas I've had in years. As the bell rings at midnight, I lean over and whisper, "Merry Christmas, Greg. I love you." I'm shocked at myself, for I hadn't intended to say those last three words aloud.
Though it's the most solemn moment in the Mass, I almost smile at Greg's expression when he drinks the wine at communion. I help him up and we go back to our seats, where he whispers that he had expected grape juice. At the end, I take Greg with me into the chancel to listen to the postlude because I want to congratulate Don for his superb music.
"Well, babe?" I ask when we're finally headed home.
"Fantastic! I really feel like it's Christmas now. It was beautiful. Nothing like my church at home."
We stand with our arms around each other for a last look at the tree before I pull the plug on the lights and we go to bed. I'm hardly under the covers before Greg comes in my room. He sits down on the side of my bed, dropping his crutches to the floor.
"Colin, did you mean what you said in church when the bell was ringing?"
I reach out for his hand and squeeze it. "Yes, Greg. I love you. You've brought a joy into my life I didn't know I was missing. You're the best Christmas present I could ask for."
He leans over and kisses me. "I love you, too, Colin. Make this our night together." With that, he flips the covers back, and snuggles up against me.
He goes to sleep almost immediately, while I thank God for this gift and contemplate the future through my tears of joy.