GIVING BACK AND PLAYING IT FORWARD
A Christmas Story by J. Powell
The small house sits by a stream, frozen over by the tremendous cold of this northern land. Other smaller homes surround the house and there is a very large, factory-like building sitting behind it. Even though it’s the middle of the afternoon, it’s dark outside. Lights are shining through the house’s red and white curtained windows. Passers-by can see Jessica, an older woman of indeterminable age with snow white hair, wearing a red dress and green apron, moving busily throughout the house. They can also see that at precisely two o’clock, she stops.
Jessica treasures this half-hour break in her day. Although it’s 35 below outside and the snow lays a thick carpet on her lawn, she’s comfortable. A fire burns in the fire place and her favorite Christmas song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, plays in the background. She sits down at the computer and immediately checks out the Rutland Herald newspaper’s website which contains all the latest news from Rutland, Vermont. The headline, Rutland’s Secret Santa Returns, stands out in black boldface print.
The article explains that for two years in a row, someone has left a letter outside of the newspaper’s door. “Merry Christmas. This is the time of year to spread some joy. Since the economy still struggles, I have decided to start early this year by passing out at least 30 presents of cash. I don’t want any pay back, and I want to remain anonymous.” To continue the spirit of the secret Santa, an anonymous E-mailer had written the publisher saying that she had been a recipient of the money. And since she did not need it, she would give it to the local food bank.
Jessica grins and wonders how her husband manages to do this. She knows he has helpers but still she thinks he is a most remarkable man. She hopes to hear from him soon but understands that when he travels, he finds it difficult to keep in touch.
At the same time that Jessica is catching up on the news of Rutland, miles away in that small city in Vermont, an old woman, Ethel Walker, stands shivering on a street corner waiting for Frank, her husband to pick her up in their old 1986 Ford Bronco. The truck had been dependable until recently when it had started to have one problem after another. Now Ethel always worries when Frank drops her off at the store. Will he make it back? He seems to be awfully slow this time.
Just then, a large man appears out of nowhere. She must not have been paying attention. Although he wears a heavy coat, she can tell that he is overweight with quite a large belly. He has a scarf around his neck and face which hides everything but his bubbly blue eyes. He looks harmless so she isn’t alarmed. He walks right up to her, doesn’t say a word, and hands her an envelope. Before she can say anything to him, he hurries away.
A minute later Frank drives up. His wife stands there staring at an envelope in her hands. “Whatcha got there, Ethel?” He puts her shopping bags in the back of the truck and holds the passenger door open for her.
“Well, Frank. I don’t rightly know. This man showed up and handed it to me.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Frank starts the truck and heads down Commerce Street toward home in the country.
“I guess so. I’m a bit nervous about what could be in it. Maybe it’s a summons.”
“Good grief, Ethel. Why would we get a summons?”
“I don’t know. It was just so strange. He was quiet, not a word. But he seemed harmless enough and he had smiling blue eyes.”
“Then open it.”
“Here it goes.” She opens the envelope and a Christmas card and a 50 dollar bill fall on her lap. “Oh, my God!” she yells. She reads the card out loud to Frank. “Merry Christmas. I hope you can use this.” The man had not signed the card.
“Oh yea! We can sure use that money, Ethel. This truck needs new tires for the winter season. The money could help.”
“I was thinking, since he gave it to me, I could use it for something that I wanted like a new table cloth for Christmas. The old one is so stained.”
“Humph. Let’s think about it. We should be practical, Ethel. We don’t have what we used to have. Besides no one comes to our house anyway.”
“Yes, I know. I wish we could have had children. I always wanted a full house. We used to have friends visit at Christmas time, but then it seems so many are dead or in nursing homes. If we had children, they would all be coming.”
Frank stops the car in front of their old farm house. He takes Ethel’s hand in his. “I know Ethel, but we couldn’t have them. And you were too sick to take care of children in those years. Otherwise we would have adopted. I love you Ethel, and I am so glad that we have each other.”
“I love you too, Frank.” She kisses his cheek and turns to get out of the truck. She doesn’t want him to see the tears in her eyes.
“Oh, and Ethel, let’s get that table cloth.” Frank feels very tender at that moment.
“Oh, Frank. I was just going to say, let’s put the money into the tires.” They both laughed.
“We have time. We don’t have to spend it right away,” Ethel adds.
As they enter the house, Ethel hears a whimpering from under the front porch. She puts down the grocery bag, and goes back outside to check. “Hey, Frank,” she calls. “Look here. It’s a dog. It looks really bedraggled. Hey fellow. Come here. Come here, boy.” The dog stands up rather stiffly and walks slowly to Ethel with his tail wagging back and forth. She checks him over. He doesn’t have a collar. She feels his bony body. His matted coat and thin appearance lead her to believe that he has been wandering a long time. “Now what are we ever going to do with you?”
Ethel and Frank bring him into the house and give him water and some of the chicken left over from last night’s dinner. The dog eats so fast, he almost chokes on it. Ethel starts to make plans. “I guess we need to find out where he is from. He also may be sick. He is so frail. We need to take him to the vet.”
“Ethel, we were just saying how money is tight. We can’t keep this dog. We should take him to the SPCA. They will know what to do with him.” He bends down to pat the dog. The dog snuggles up against him, puts his head on the old man’s leg, and falls asleep. “Ethel, give that new vet, Dr. Sparks, a call. Maybe he will see us. Hopefully, he won’t charge too much.”
Ethel comes back from calling on the bedroom phone. “He can see us, but we have to get there as soon as possible.”
Ethel climbs into the Bronco and holds her arms out so Frank could hand her the dog. The dog sleeps in her lap all the way to the vet’s office.
Dr. Sparks sees them as soon as they get to his office. “Well, this boy is probably a Terrier-Poodle mix, and about three years old. The bad news is that he’s been starving. But that is all. There don’t seem to be any other problems. He will need all his shots though. This won’t be cheap. It will cost about $200. Of course, you can just turn him over to the SPCA, and they will take care of him.” The dog wags his tale and licks the vet’s hand.
“That won’t be necessary, Dr. Sparks. We are keeping him,” Frank declares. Ethel gazes at her husband in amazement and joy. “That’s right. We just came upon an extra amount of money, 50 dollars to be exact.” He tells Dr. Sparks about the Secret Santa.
“That won’t cover it, but I tell you what. Save that extra money for his food. You’ll need it. I’ll take care of the bill. And Merry Christmas.” A smiling Dr. Sparks almost skips into the next room to get the shots for Ethel and Frank’s new addition.
“Oh, Dr. Sparks. Thank you so much. Are you doing anything for Christmas? I know that you just moved here from the west, and maybe you don’t have too many people to celebrate with.” Ethel wants to find a way to repay him.
Dr. Sparks gently gives the dog his first shot. “Mrs. Walker, that would be lovely but I don’t know if you would want my family. You see, I have very large family. My wife and I have eight children. We don’t get invited out much.”
“Do they have grandparents, Dr. Sparks?”
He gives the dog his final shot and then while washing his hands looks over his shoulder at the old woman. “They have grandparents in California, but I’m afraid they don’t have much time for our children.”
“Oh, Dr. Sparks. I have all the time in the world and we really want to share Christmas with you and your family,” Ethel explained as she walked arm in arm with Dr. Sparks out to the waiting room. Frank followed with the dog.
“It’s a deal then. I’m sure that Allison, my wife, will be overjoyed. Moving across country overwhelmed her, and she still needs to unpack. The children also miss their friends and could stand some extra attention.”
As Frank opens the Bronco’s door for Ethel, he reminds her, “Now we don’t have any money for a new table cloth. We need to buy dog supplies, a leash, brush, toys, and of course food.”
“Well Frank, that’s okay. We will just make do. With eight children, no one will notice and they’ll spill food anyway. I’m sure looking forward to Christmas with a house filled with children.”
A few weeks later, the snow is still falling on Jessica’s house. “Christmas Eve is here at long last,” Jessica has been looking forward to this night of peace and quiet for a long time. Her husband, Nick, will be out again for his last travels of the year, and she can just put her feet up on the stool with a warm glass of milk in her hands. “Nick, before you leave, tell me what ever happened in Rutland? Did you manage to give out all the money? Did people do good with it?”
“Oh my, yes. Jessica, you should have seen how that little bit of money grew. Why it even paid the medical bills for the Walker’s new dog, Sparky. And when Allison, the vet’s wife, heard how Ethel and Frank received that 50 dollars, she called a friend of hers in Cloquet, Minnesota, and now a Secret Santa hands out presents there. Giving is spreading and maybe in a few years I won’t have to do it anymore. I’d like to do some sitting with children on my lap again.”
“That’s wonderful, darling. Have a safe journey. Watch out for the small aircraft.” Jessica helps Nick to put on his big red coat, and kisses him on his rosy cheeks. Nick opens up the door. It’s a perfect night for a sleigh ride.