Ronnie stood on the corner, his one hand thrust deep into the pocket of his worn jeans for warmth. The thin fingers of his right hand clutched the two one-dollar bills he had been given to buy a present for the boy whose name he had drawn. His seven year- old eyes bright with wonder at the lighted decorations hanging from each streetlight standard, he turned slowly to see each one until he faced the street's end at the river.
"Ooooh!" For the huge tree blazed with light, at it's top a brilliant star. He stood transfixed by the majesty of the stately cedar, then heedless of all but its beckoning gleam, dashed across the busy street without a glance, unaware of the swerving car, the curses of the frightened driver, to run the block until he stood at the foot of the tree looking up in awe.
Five blocks away a middle-aged man lit a cigarette and leaned wearily against a decrepit bus, partly obscuring the legend on its side - Childrens Home. He zippered his jacket and stamped his feet a few times to ease the numbness, wishing the kids would come on. This week of Christmas with two thirty-mile trips each day, the traffic and crowds of people had worn him until he was barely able to cope with the demands of his own children, and now this late trip for a group of the young kids who had been overlooked in the scheduling.
Children's voices called, "Hi, Mr. Connors."
He looked at the package each carried. "You kids have a good time?"
"Sure did," one of the older ones replied. "Do we have to go back now?"
He glanced at his watch. "Yep, we're 'bout thirty minutes late. Get aboard."
"Can't we ride down the street just once to see the lights?"
He stifled a yawn and started the reluctant engine. What the hell, he thought, it's Christmas Eve. "Okay. Just once and then we're off." When the cheers subsided, he called, "Everybody here?"
"Hey, did you see that train?"
"She was the most beautiful doll..." Bits of excited chatter swirled around him, interspersed with cries of wonder at the decorated street.
He slowed the bus as he turned the corner nearest the waterfront tree. As the children crowded to that side of the bus for a last look, he glimpsed a small boy gazing intently at the tree. "Hey, are you kids sure everybody's here?" He called.
"Yeah. We're all here."
"Okay. Settle down now. We're on our way."
Filled with the tree, Ronnie ambled along, looking in store windows. He stopped to gaze in fascination at an animated window display in the town's largest department store. A Christmas tree, more beautiful than the one in the waterfront park, because it was laden with ornaments and tiny lights whose wires were hidden, filled one end of the window. Beneath the tree, bedecked packages proclaimed wonders within. A Santa figure in a Boston rocker moved back and forth before a fireplace in which electric flames flickered. From time to time his mouth opened in laughter conveyed outside by a speaker mounted above the window. From the mantel hug three stockings, the two smaller ones embroidered 'Father' 'Mother', but the third stocking, the big one, bulged enticingly. Ronnie's mouth opened in surprise - across the white top red letters spelled RONNIE. "It's mine," he whispered, sounding out each letter slowly to be sure there was no mistake. A single chime, the lights of the store dimmed, leaving the scene more vivid.
A weary sales clerk, rushing to her car to escape the bitter cold, bumped into a small boy standing in front of the window.
"Sorry," she mumbled automatically and rushed on.
A department manager buttoned his heavy coat and pulled his hat down firmly before stepping through the door. He paused as he passed the window and looked in. Display did themselves proud this year, he thought. He was about to move on when a small hand plucked at his sleeve. "That one's mine, mister. See, it's got my name on it." The treble voice quavered in the cold.
The man looked down at the child in the worn windbreaker with annoyance, then to where the finger, blue with cold, pointed to the stocking. "Not really. It's just window dressing." He hurried on to his car.
The lights in the window blinked out. Though he pressed his face firmly against the glass, Ronnie could no longer see. He turned away and trudged along. There were fewer lighted windows now, fewer people bent against the rising wind. The grinding gears of a passing truck jarred his attention. He would be in trouble if he kept Mr. Connors waiting. The gift purchase long forgotten, Ronnie trotted along to the parking lot.
The bus was gone! His blue lips quivered, tears started in his eyes, and inwardly he heard the hated sound - "Ronnie is a baby, Ronnie is a baby" in a monotonous chant.
Half block away, he glimpsed twinkling lights. The bus! It's come back for me! Relieved, he ran, but the lights became no larger, no bulk appeared behind. Twin trees on either side of the walk leading to a large house twinkled with clear lights. Entranced, his hand released the dollar bills and reached out against the iron gate. A snarling growl broke the enchantment. On the other side of the gate, a large dog showed bared fangs. Ronnie backed away, breaking into a run.
He slowed, exhausted from the cold. Enchantment stole back as he looked up. Drapes parted before an expanse of glass. The store? He wondered for a moment for the scene seemed a duplicate. But no, the fireplace held blazing logs, the tree was real with larger lights than those on the tree at the store. A man crossed the room with a box from which he began to assemble a train. Ronnie watched as the large-scale electric train began to run along the rails to disappear behind the tree and reappear on the opposite side.
The man stood, reaching for a cup from the tray the woman held out. He watched the man point to the train and smile at her. He saw her mouth move in laughter as the man said something, then bent to switch the train off as she closed the drapes.
The freshening breeze whipped flakes of snow around him, fluttered the empty lower half of his left jacket sleeve. Ronnie's head drooped, his feet lacked feeling in the ragged sneakers as he turned back. Water seeped into one sneaker as he broke through the crust of ice on a small puddle. He was drawn back, back to the department store window, for now the lights in the decorations were gone, the glare of the streetlights diminished as alternate fixtures winked out.
Ronnie moved on frozen feet to a large cardboard carton on the curb and dragged it to the bottom of the window. He must stay here, here for Christmas, here for Santa. In the morning he would find the door open to him, Santa beckoning from his chair for him to come in where there was warmth. He would sit before the fire and open all the gifts, but first, Santa would lift him up to take down his stocking.
He climbed into the box feeling a lumpy softness beneath him. He pulled it free and held it up. A teddy bear almost as big as he. "It's mine," he exalted. "I've got a present already! Ahead of the other kids, too!" In the near total darkness he did not see the jagged tear in the acrylic fur, the stuffing beginning to swell from the rent. Wrapping his good arm and below elbow stump around it, he snuggled into a little ball; his eyes closed.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of the store a timer clicks. Christmas tree lights flash on, the electric fire begins to flicker on the plastic hearth, in his chair Santa rocks back and forth, his recorded mirth drifting into the wintry sun above an irregular mound of snow.