Gayle Hayes, Author

Sunday, November 30, 2014

SHORT CHRISTMAS STORY




A Better than Average Christmas

By Gayle Hayes


    William was average in every way.  He'd been born at noon on the dot and was the middle child between a younger sister and an older brother.  He wasn't too short or too tall.  His hair was brown instead of blond or black.  His eyes were a mixture of green and brown instead of one or the other.  He was an average student.  He was liked well enough by a few friends, but he was not popular in school.  He wasn't clumsy, but he wasn't athletic, either.  He lived in the middle of the block on a middle-class street in a town of average size in Middle America.  His mother taught in his middle school, and his father was in middle management.  Even his grandfather, who lived with him and his family, claimed his politics were "middle of the road."  When asked how he was, the affable old man replied he was fair to middlin' without fail.  As if all that were not enough, William hated his name even though he was named for his grandfather.  To make matters worse, his last name was Williams.  It was as if his parents meant to emphasize his ordinary name by giving it to him twice.
       William had turned 13 on July 2.  That meant he was born in the middle of the year and was no longer a child or quite an adult.  In the months since he became a teenager, William was more frustrated than ever about being average.  He wanted to stand out.  He wanted to be better than average at something.  It wasn't as if he didn't try.  Even so, he sat on the bench through football season.  He hadn't been able to raise his grades past a C even though he studied more than ever.
       Everyone else was looking forward to Christmas and vacation from school.  William expected Christmas to be mediocre as usual.  He was unlikely to get the iPhone 6 he'd hinted at, but he might get the Wii game, How to Train Your Dragon 2.  With luck he wouldn't get more tube socks or another gag gift like the Tactical Canned Bacon his brother gave him last year to ward off starvation when the zombies attack.
       William slammed his locker door and headed out into the worsening weather.  He pulled his stocking cap over his head and shoved his freezing hands into his jacket pockets.  Then he headed home.  He could have waited around school for his mother, but she thought the staff meeting would run a little late.  William was anxious to leave school behind and start his vacation.
       He had walked about half the way home when he nearly tripped over a pair of legs protruding from a soiled gray parka.  The fur-trimmed hood made it impossible to see whether it was a man or woman inside of it.  He wondered how anyone would survive sitting on the icy sidewalk in that blizzard.  When there was no movement from the parka, he knelt beside it and asked, "Are you all right?"
       "What do you think?"  He was surprised at the woman's sarcasm.
       "I think you shouldn't be sitting on the sidewalk in this weather.  Are you hurt?"
       "Nope.  This is my spot.  I almost have enough for a bowl of chowder.  Would you mind?  You're blocking me from view."
       "How much do you need for that chowder?" William asked.  He stepped back toward the building and crouched next to her.
       "I'm a dollar short."
       William still had his allowance from the previous week.  He removed a crumpled dollar bill from his jeans pocket and handed it to the woman.
       "Can I help you get up?" he asked.
       The woman groaned.  "I am a mite stiff from sitting here so long."  She got to her knees and let William help her to her feet.  Then he saw her face was ruddy from the cold.  Her eyes watered.  She pulled a small napkin from her pocket and wiped her nose.  William took her arm and walked with her the short distance to the café.
       "Thank you, young man.  Not many on the street in this cold.  That's the nicest thing anyone's done for me today.  You're one in a million."
       The woman went inside the café, and William continued walking home.  In spite of the blowing snow and wind that drove through him, William felt warmed by the encounter with the woman.  He thought about what she said.  What he'd done was "the nicest thing" and he was "one in a million."  He'd never heard himself described like that before.  He felt less gloomy as he repeated the phrases to himself again.
       Once he was home, William brushed the snow off his jacket and removed his sneakers in the mudroom before he entered the kitchen.  His grandfather was at the sink taking his afternoon pills.  William put his arm around his grandfather's shoulders.
       "How ya doing, grampy?"
       His grandfather swallowed the pills and plunked the glass on the counter as if he'd just downed a stiff drink.
       "Aw, you know.  Fair to middlin'," he said.  Where's your ma?"
       "She'll be late.  Staff meeting.  Did you go to coffee today?"
       "Yeah.  I'm thinking about quittin' the group, though."
       "I thought you looked forward to seeing them."
       "I did.  We used to talk about our good times before the war.  Now, they just try to outdo each other bragging about their grandkids."
       William's grandfather shuffled out of the kitchen into the living room.  He wondered if his grandfather talked about his own grandchildren.  Did he find anything to brag about?  He might have praised Brandon, William's older brother.  He was a straight-A student and captain of his golf team.  Madison was only ten.  She hadn't been a Girl Scout Junior long enough to reach her awards, but she'd achieved all the awards available to her as a Brownie.  William wondered if his grandfather was embarrassed because he was only average at everything.  He knew his grandfather was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from the Army for extraordinary heroism in the Korean War.  William turned the word, extraordinary, over in his mind.  He once thought it meant more ordinary than usual until he looked it up.  Now he knew it meant his grandfather's heroism was actually out of the ordinary.  He must be disappointed to have a grandson as ordinary as William.  Maybe he was sorry William was named for him.
       William took the stairs two at a time to his room, stuffed a cookie between his teeth, and checked his phone for text messages.  As usual, there were none.  He decided to play his How to Train Your Dragon game again.  He'd already won all the tournaments several times, but playing the game again would get him fired up for the Dragon 2 game he was sure to get for Christmas.  His character would be Hiccup as usual.  Hiccup Horrendous Haddock, III.  Now, there was a name.  William was completely absorbed by dragon racing in the land of Berk when he saw the headlights of his father's SUV.  He realized he'd forgotten to shovel the sidewalk and driveway at the same time he heard the front door slam and his father's angry voice.
       "Willy!"  His father shortened his name only when he was in trouble.
       Before Walter Williams could yell "Willy" again, William was down the flight of stairs and on his way to the mudroom.  His father was right behind him.  He pulled on his boots and zipped his jacket while his father lectured.
       "Willy, you promised I wouldn't have to remind you about your chores again.  I'm disappointed in you!"
       "I'm sorry, dad.  Really.  I just got. . ."
       "I don't want to hear it.  You've always got some lame excuse for not doing what you're supposed to do.  Get with the program, Willy!"  The kitchen door slammed as his father stormed inside.
       That evening at dinner the harsh clatter of utensils on plates and the steady tick--tick of the hands on the clock emphasized the unusual silence in the dining room.  William had heard his parents discussing him in the kitchen.  Even his grandfather, who was hard of hearing, had heard the discussion about what to do with William.  His grandfather could think of nothing to say to lighten the mood at the table.  Brandon and Madison knew enough to be quiet.  Still, Brandon had given William a look that said, "Way to go, loser!"  Tonight no one asked for seconds.  Everyone was relieved when Walter rose from the table and left the dining room.  It was Madison's night to help with the dishes.  William offered to clear the table instead.  At least he had one friend in the family, now.  When William and his mother were alone in the kitchen, she spoke in her softest voice.
       "Your father is very upset, William."
       "I know.  I'm sorry, mom.  I lost track of time."
       "I've persuaded your father to overlook this, but you need to make a better effort to do what you say you'll do.  You're not a child anymore.  Not doing what you promise to do creates serious trouble for adults.  You'll be an adult soon enough.  You need to form good habits."  Margaret Williams put her arm around her son and gave him a squeeze. 
       "Thanks, mom.  I won't let you down."
       William felt too dejected to play his Wii game after dinner.  He sat on his bed in the darkness.  He still heard his father's voice.  "I'm disappointed in you!"  William knew he disappointed everyone.  His coach.  His teachers.  His parents.  If only he wasn't so average at everything.  He knew he'd forgotten to shovel the snow because it seemed like such an ordinary thing to do.  He wanted to do something great that people would remember.  If he shoveled snow today, there would be more snow to shovel tomorrow.  He wanted to do something that would leave a lasting impression.
       After brushing his teeth and putting on his pajamas, William slipped under his comforter and tried to escape his troubles in a deep sleep.


       William woke up because he was too tall for his bed.  When he stood up, his head hit the ceiling.  His pants were too short, and the extra-large sweatshirt his grandmother bought by mistake barely fit him.  His socks and shoes didn't fit, so he walked downstairs barefoot and hunched over.  His mother screamed and fainted when she saw the giant that had been her son.  William put his father's boots on and went outside to shovel the snow.  The neighbor next door ran inside at the sight of William.  At school, William needed to enter his classroom on his knees.  He sat in the corner because he was too big for his desk.  When he tried to explain that he didn't know what had happened to him, he talked so fast that no one could understand him.  On the way home, he rescued a cat by reaching for the highest branch of a tree without any effort at all.  His head was so big that his hair didn't cover his head but stuck out in every direction as if he'd received a shock.  Both of his eyes were brown, but they were unusually large, giving him the look of a giant bug.  People ran away at the sight of him.  Once he was home, William stretched out on the floor of his bedroom to relax.  He wondered if he'd ever train his dragon again.  William was so sad that he hoped all of it was just a bad dream.  And it was.


       When he opened his eyes, the room was softly lit by a shaft of moonlight.  William saw that he was no longer too tall for his bed.  His pajamas still fit him.  He jumped out of bed to look in the mirror behind the door.  His head was normal again.  He blew a stream of air over his upper lip to remove several stray brown strands of hair from his forehead.  His eyes were no longer brown, and they did not make him look like a mutant insect.  He was able to fit into his pants and wear his favorite sweater.  His socks fit again.  He tried talking to himself in the mirror.  "Hi.  I'm William Williams, and I'm not unusual anymore."  He no longer talked too fast to be understood.  William was relieved to be average looking again.
       Marilyn Williams thought her son seemed more cheerful than usual first thing in the morning.  He didn't complain about having oatmeal again and ate it quickly.
       "What's the hurry?  You're on vacation, remember."
       "I need to shovel.  It's been coming down all night."
       "Dress warm.  It's colder when the wind comes up.  It would be nice if you could do the Morgans' walks too.  He's still recovering from knee surgery, and Mrs. Morgan is still recovering from the flu."
       William finished shoveling the sidewalk and driveway and went inside to warm up.  His cheeks were bright red, and snowmelt dripped from his hair to his cheek.  He mixed a package of cocoa with water and set it in the microwave.  The cocoa helped warm him faster and gave him an energy boost.  Then he headed out the door in the direction of the Morgans' house.  They lived on the corner, so shoveling their sidewalks took longer.  Mr. Morgan came to his front door and waved at William and then gave him a thumbs up.  When he'd finished shoveling, William asked Mr. Morgan if he needed anything else.  He handed William ten dollars.
       "No.  Thank you, sir.  I was happy to do it.  Are you sure you don't need help with anything else?"
       William found his mother in the kitchen putting finishing touches on homemade chicken noodle soup.  He told her Mr. Morgan had offered to pay him for shoveling and then said he could use a quart of milk and carton of eggs from the market.  Margaret didn't want to drive on the snow-packed streets, and William wasn't legal to drive yet.  William would walk to the market after lunch.
       Before he left the house, William went to his room and found the can of Tactical Canned Bacon in his knapsack.  He stuffed a package of tube socks and an extra pair of gloves inside with it.  Then he walked several blocks in the direction of the market.  When he arrived at the café, he noticed the woman in the parka was still sitting on the ground.  Now, she had a piece of cardboard under her.
       "Hey.  How are you?  I'm the one who gave you the dollar for chowder yesterday."
       "It was good chowder, too.  You should try it some time.  Are you going for a hike in this weather?" asked the woman.
       "No.  I brought you a couple of things."
       William reached into the knapsack and handed her the Tac Bac, socks, and gloves.
       "I thought you might enjoy that bacon some time.  It's already cooked.  If you don't open the can, it'll keep for years.  But in this weather, it'll probably be okay if you open it.  I had extra socks and gloves and thought you could use them."
       "Well, bless your little heart!  You're an extraordinary young man.  Did you tell me your name?"
       "It's William."
       "I'm Madge.  It's a pleasure to meet you.  Do you go by Will like the Duke?"
       "The Duke?"  William was confused.  He'd only heard of one Duke, and that was John Wayne.
       "The Duke of Cambridge.  Will and Kate.  They're royalty.  Don't you watch the news?"
       "Yeah.  Mostly the sports.  I know who they are.  I've seen them on my homepage online."  William laughed.  "Maybe I'll shorten my name to Will.  I gotta go to the market for a neighbor.  Do you have a place to sleep for the night?"
       "I've staked out the dumpster behind the café.  The waitress on the morning shift brings me coffee and day-old doughnuts for breakfast.  Not too many of us have room service, ya know."  Madge laughed.
       As he walked home, William thought about Madge.  She had used the same word to describe him as the Army had used to describe his grandfather.  Extraordinary.  Madge saw something in him that no one else did.  He wished he could do something to help her in return.  He'd just given her the things he didn't want.  There must be something else he could do.
       The next day Margaret Williams ladled homemade chili into bowls and placed a grilled cheese sandwich on each plate.  She set a bowl and plate in front of each of her three children.  Margaret loved Christmas vacation.  She enjoyed having time to cook wholesome meals for her family and to spend more time with them.  Margaret sat at the table and said the blessing.
       "Okay.  Dig in."  She was rewarded with the usual rave reviews.
       "Today is the day I need your wish lists for Santa," she said.
       Margaret had placed a sheet of note paper with Santa's picture at the top by each placemat along with a pencil.  Brandon and Madison scribbled ideas as they ate.  William waited until they'd left the kitchen.  He helped clear the table.  Margaret noticed his sheet of paper was still blank.
       "You didn't write anything down, William."
       "I need to talk to you," he said.
       Margaret was loading the dishwasher.  "Don't tell me you can't think of a thing you want."  She laughed.  She'd already planned to get him the How to Train Your Dragon 2 game he'd hinted at so often.
       "Actually, I want two things for Christmas."
       "Well, you need to write them down.  That's the tradition."
       "It's too complicated.  Can you stop with the dishes and just listen, mom?"
       Margaret turned to face her son and saw that he was more serious than usual.
       "I hate my name."
       Margaret started to remind him he was named for his grandfather.
       "I know you gave me grampy's name, but I want to be called Will instead.  It's still his name, but shorter.  Like Will and Kate."
       Margaret was surprised her son knew about the royal couple.  She wondered what brought about this change in him.
       "Have you been teased at school about your name?"
       "No.  I never liked it.  Then I met Madge and she . . ."
       "Who's Madge?"
       "In a minute, mom.  Madge asked if I'd thought about going by Will like the Duke.  I like it.  It seems . . . younger."
       "Well, I don't have a problem with that.  You'll have to ask the rest of the family, though.  So who's Madge?"
       "That's what I want for Christmas."
       Margaret sat down at the table.  William paced in front of her.
       "Madge is homeless and sleeps behind a dumpster at the café.  She's really cool, mom.  I want to give her something I'd like to have myself.  Instead of the Dragon 2 game, I'd appreciate it if you and dad would give me the cash so I could give it to Madge."
       Margaret was stunned.
       "And I'd like to invite Madge to spend Christmas with us.  She could have my room."
       "William . . .Will, I think your sentiment is wonderful, but Madge is a total stranger.  I don't think your father will go for this at all.  As for giving her the money we'd spend on your gift . . . I hate to say it, Will, but she would most likely spend it on drugs or alcohol."
       "No, mom!  If you'd just meet her, you'd know she isn't like that."
       "How much do you know about her?  These people who live on the street aren't like us, William . . .Will.  They've been in trouble and can't hold down a job . . .or don't want to."
       "I don't know anything about Madge except she thinks I'm one in a million and extraordinary.  That's all I need to know."
       Margaret sighed and rose from the table.  "You have a good heart, Will, but I don't think your father will stand for this.  He works hard for what we have.  I don't think he'll let you throw your Christmas allowance away.  I'll talk to him, but you shouldn't get your hopes up."
       Before he went to sleep that night, William said his usual prayers and added one extra.  He asked God to provide a home for Madge on Christmas Eve just as He had done for Mary and Joseph the night Jesus was born.  He asked God to help his parents see that Madge was a good person and would use his Christmas allowance wisely.
       For the next several days, the snow fell relentlessly on William's family and his neighbors.  He shoveled snow for the Morgans twice before it stopped.  Each time he shoveled, Mr. Morgan would hand him ten dollars.  William wanted to take the money and give it to Madge, but he knew his father would not approve.  He thanked Mr. Morgan but refused to be paid.
       Whenever William tried to talk to his mother about Madge and to ask if she'd spoken to his dad, she would cut him off and tell him "Not yet."  He knew he'd done all he could for Madge.  He'd prayed for God to help, and he'd asked his mother who was his chief advocate in the family.  Soon he put it out of his mind and enjoyed selecting and decorating the tree.  He and Madison helped Margaret decorate Christmas cookies while carols played in the background.  Christmas was his favorite time of year.  Christmas is the best of everything in unlimited amounts.  Unlike his birthday when only he and his family celebrated, everyone celebrated Christmas at the same time.  People who were grumpy and stingy every other day were jolly and generous at Christmas.  It was the least ordinary time of the year.
       Margaret Williams had tried to advocate for William with his father more than once, but an opportune moment to discuss Madge and William's Christmas allowance never presented itself.  Walter Williams was in retail.  The shopping and buying that put him in the black during December also gave him indigestion and made for longer than usual days at the store.  He was in no mood to talk about anything unpleasant at home.  As it was, he brought work home most nights as he responded to business emails at his computer.  Margaret decided to put William's Christmas allowance aside for the time being.  He could always buy the Dragon 2 game himself and might pay less after the Christmas rush.
       William knew that his father would take the afternoon off on Christmas Eve as he always did.  He thought there might be a chance to approach him about Madge when he was more relaxed and ready to celebrate Christmas.  William passed the morning at a friend's house.  It was their tradition to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve every year.
       Dodging puddles of slush on his way through the neighborhood, William stopped when he saw his father's SUV pull into the driveway early in the afternoon.  He hoped he still had a chance to talk to his dad about including Madge in Christmas Eve.  He watched as his father went around the front of the SUV to open the door for a passenger.  William was curious. When he reached his front yard, he saw someone wearing a soiled gray parka.  Then he realized it was Madge.  His father was following her up the front steps when he saw William.
       "Son, I want you to meet Madge.  We go back a long way.  I bumped into her today when I stopped at that bookstore next to the café on Park Street.  I have a little surprise for your mom."
       William was thinking his mother would be surprised all right.  Then his father handed him a package and asked him to hide the cookbook until he could wrap it.
       "Madge and I have already met, dad.  How are you Madge?"
       "Well, I'm better now that your dad has invited me home for Christmas.  I hope I'm not going to be in the way."
       "Are you kidding?  You can have my room.  This is great!  Come on in and meet everybody."
       After Madge enjoyed a shower and fresh clothes from Margaret's closet, everyone gathered in the living room for the lighting of the tree.  Walter Williams told the family that Madge once worked for him and was forced to quit her job when her health failed.  He was sorry he'd forgotten about her and was surprised to learn that she'd had more than her share of misfortunes, including the death of her spouse and sole support.  She lost her home because poor health still prevented her from holding a steady job.  She'd just moved out of an apartment she shared with someone who'd become abusive.  She was robbed of what little cash she had while she slept.  William's family listened with only an occasional "wow" in response to the string of bad luck Madge had suffered.  Walter Williams saw the effect Madge's story had on his family.  He knew they'd be excited over the Christmas gift he had for her.
       "I've promised Madge that I'm going to find a place for her at the store, and. . ."  Walter clapped his hands together for the big announcement.  "She'll be living in our vacant rental rent free for the time being!"
       The family cheered.  William was stunned.
       He changed the sheets on his bed and moved his things out of the way so Madge would feel more at home in his room.  He asked his mother if she had tried to convince his dad to bring Madge home with him.  His mother told him she hadn't found a good time to bring it up.  She was as surprised as anyone when Walter walked in with Madge.  William was afraid Madge would feel left out when they exchanged gifts the next day.  It was too late to do anything about it now.  As usual, his mother had it covered.  He followed her to the attic where she'd been wrapping gifts.  Margaret had bought a few things on sale and set them aside for just such an emergency.  A box of stationery with colorful wildflowers and a set of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash would be gifts from Brandon and Madison.  Margaret handed William an empty box and an envelope with the thirty dollars she'd not spent on his Dragon 2 game.
       "I set this aside so you could get the game yourself after Christmas if you still wanted to.  I'm sure your father would more than approve of your gift to Madge now.  Wrap it up.  She'll enjoy having a package."
       After church on Christmas Day, Madge and the Williams family enjoyed ham and eggs with buttermilk pancakes and homemade blackberry syrup.  Then they exchanged gifts.  Madge was surprised to receive their gifts, the first ones she'd been given in too long.  She apologized for not wrapping her gifts and then gave each member of the family a bookmark she'd crocheted herself.  William handed her the box he'd wrapped for her and asked her to open it when she was alone.  He explained it was personal and might embarrass her.  Then he told everyone that he wanted to be called Will from now on.  It was Madge's idea, and he liked it.  Since it was Madge's idea, even Brandon agreed to it without calling William a loser this time.
       Madge retired earlier than everyone else that night.  She had enjoyed sleeping in a real bed the night before and was anxious to do it again.
       The Williams family watched Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas night as was their tradition.  William thought about the miracle in his own family that Christmas.  He wasn't sure how it happened, but it did seem that his prayers had been answered.  Madge had a real home for Christmas, and he was able to give her something he would have liked to have himself.  He might get the game for his next birthday, anyway.  He was no longer obsessed with his perceived mediocrity.  He saw himself as others had always seen him.  He was more caring and generous than he'd realized.  He'd keep trying to be better at sports and to raise his grades in school, but he knew that winning at football and having good grades wouldn't mean much if he wasn't caring and generous, too.  The television went dark and the family got up to leave the living room.  Margaret remembered something unopened.
       "Oh, Will!  I almost forgot."  She reached behind the tree for a wrapped package that had a tag on it.
                   To: William
                   From: The Morgans.
       Will assumed it was more tube socks.  He was surprised when he unwrapped How to Train Your Dragon 2.
       "Why did they do this?  How did they know?"
       "The Morgans wanted to pay you for shoveling.  You made a lasting impression on them.  When they asked what they could do for you in return, I mentioned the game."
       "Wow!  Thanks, mom.  I got everything I asked for.  This was a better than average Christmas, for sure!"
       The family started up the stairs to bed.  Madison turned around and waved at William as he got his bed ready on the sofa.
       "Merry Christmas, Will."
       The living room was bathed in light from the neighbors' Christmas displays.  Will knew he was far too excited to sleep.
       "Merry Christmas to you!" He said.


The End

Monday, November 25, 2013

SHORT CHRISTMAS STORY


 

Christmas Magic
 
By Gayle Hayes
 
 
M
artin was practically carried along by the crowd of last-minute Christmas shoppers, and he kept his head down and hands in the pockets of his overcoat as a signal that he had no time for conversation should he bump into anyone he knew.  He tugged on the bill of his pale green fedora to keep snow from his eyes.  As he stood in the usual place waiting for his bus home, Martin was annoyed by the steady beat of bells rung by volunteers bundled against the cold.  Pungent aromas from an ethnic restaurant reminded him that he'd missed lunch.  He'd thought of eating there after Susan left with the children, but he was dogged by heartburn these days, and he'd thrown up a little in his throat the last time he sampled a spicy dish at an office potluck.
As he shifted from one foot to the other while trying to stay warm, Martin noticed a crowd gathered at the corner.  He wandered over and found a young man doing card tricks there.  Most of the audience contributed cash into the black top hat.  Martin was down to his last two dollars, but the magician fascinated him.  He dropped the cash into the hat.  Martin's bus was pulling into the curb.  He turned away from the crowd around the magician and then heard his name.
"Martin, you dropped something," a voice said.
Martin was so distracted by catching his bus that he reached for the object in the magician's hand without looking at it.  He dashed for the bus and boarded as the door was closing.  Once he was on the bus, Martin reached into his pocket for the object handed to him by the magician.  It was a pewter skeleton key.  Judging by its rich patina, Martin thought the key must be very old and well used.  He knew he did not drop the key, so he put it back into his pocket with the intention of returning it to the magician the next day.
Martin opened his front door and locked it behind him.  He switched on the light in the foyer and removed his boots.  The house was so dark and quiet that he was overwhelmed by loneliness.  Jimmy was not there for him to wrap up in his arms as the child kissed his cheek and said he was glad daddy was home.   Martin hung his fedora on the coat rack, but he left his coat on.  The house was cold.  He'd lowered the thermostat to save money while he was at work.  He would not be able to do that once Susan and the children returned after the holidays.  If they return, he thought.
He set the oven temperature and ripped off one end of a Swanson's TV dinner.  Tonight was meatloaf, so it must be Wednesday.  He'd already eaten the Salisbury steak and chicken dinners.  He was used to having Susan's dinners waiting for him in the evening.  In her absence, he assigned a different TV dinner to each day.  It was more efficient than weighing the decision when he was hungry and hurried.  Tomorrow night he'd stop for a burger and catch a later bus.  He thought Susan must be finished with dinner now.  He picked up the telephone to call her and then placed the receiver back in its cradle.  Then he looked through the mail, tossed most of it in the garbage, and wrote a check for the power bill while sitting at the desk in one corner of the kitchen.  He removed the TV dinner from the oven and ate it quickly to avoid thinking about the faces missing from the dining room.
After he finished reading the evening paper, Martin yawned and then stared into space.  He thought about the kind of day he'd had and remembered the magician at the bus stop and then the key he'd been given.  He knew a skeleton key was designed to work on any lock.   On a whim, Martin decided to find out if that were true.  He retrieved the key from his pocket and walked to the basement door.  He and Susan kept it locked to prevent Jimmy from falling down the stairs.  Martin inserted the skeleton key and turned the knob.  The door opened.  Next, he opened the back door, locked it, and then tried the key.  The door unlocked.  He briefly considered keeping the key.  It could be useful someday.  The key didn't belong to him, though.  Martin hadn't heard about the concept of Karma.  His own observations had taught him that we cannot escape the consequences of whatever we do to or fail to do for others.  Someone might need the key to get inside on a cold night like this.  He'd return the key the next day.
Martin noticed the magician was not at the corner near the bus stop when the bus pulled in to park the next morning.  He decided to leave the office a little early to allow time to return the key.  He walked the block-and-a-half to the office building, hurried through the revolving door, and took the elevator.  It stopped two floors below his.  The door opened.  One of the secretaries from another firm looked over the passengers.  She was very anxious and hoping someone with a key to the office would be on the elevator.  She'd hoped to get an early start on preparations for a board meeting and didn't realize she'd be the first to arrive.  The elevator doors closed, and it continued its ascent.  Then Martin remembered the skeleton key in his pocket.  He punched the number for the next floor, got off the elevator, and walked down the stairs.  The secretary was walking back to her office from the restroom.  Martin waved at her, explained that he might be able to help, and managed to open the office door on the second try with the key.  The secretary was thrilled and kissed his cheek, telling him he saved the day.
The morning was getting off to a much better start than usual, and Martin arrived at his office with an unusual smile on his face.  The receptionist noticed it.  She said Martin seemed to be in a very good mood for so early in the day.  For the first time since she'd been employed there, the receptionist offered to get Martin something on her bakery run.  In the week since Susan left, Martin missed the slices of coffee cake and banana bread she usually sent with him for his morning coffee.  He asked the receptionist to surprise him with whatever looked good to her.
After pouring a mug of coffee and adding cream, Martin headed for his office.  He dropped his briefcase on the desk, and took a moment to gaze out the window overlooking the busy street below.  Usually, he was happy to leave the busy street for the quiet of his office.  He spoke to no one on the elevator for fear of being late for work, and he never spoke to the receptionist for fear of interrupting her concentration.  Now, he looked upon the street below with a more benevolent attitude.  Martin was given to introspection, and he thought about how much better he felt that morning.  It started with having a key to open the office door.  That led to the kiss on his cheek.  The kiss led to his good humor.  His good humor led to the unusual courtesy on the part of the receptionist.
Martin thought he might just keep the skeleton key a little longer.  Maybe he didn't drop the key as the magician thought, but he was sure the magician would agree that he'd put the key to good use and might be entitled to keep it as much as anyone else.  Perhaps, he'd leave the office at the usual time and take his chances on finding the magician on the corner.
About mid-morning, Martin was summoned to his boss's office to discuss a client.  While Martin waited for the receptionist to find the client file, he noticed an attractive young woman reading a magazine in the waiting area.  He'd seen her before from time to time, but she seemed to be waiting for Martin's boss more often lately.  The senior secretary came out of the office and waved Martin inside.  Then he saw the secretary hand the young woman an envelope.  Once he was seated in front of the gleaming oak desk, Martin opened the client file to refresh his memory about it while he waited for his boss to return from his private bathroom.  He'd never looked around the office before, so he took a moment to scan the room.  Then he noticed the square metal box on the corner of the desk.  He'd seen it before.
Martin remembered the day a few weeks before when he'd been preoccupied with a different file in the boss's office.  He'd only been slightly aware that the senior secretary came in to announce the young woman from "the charity" who was waiting for his "contribution."  At that time, his boss had unlocked a closet in the office and taken several bills out of the square metal box.  He handed them to the senior secretary who, in turn, slipped them inside an envelope.  She left the office, the closet door was locked again, and the boss returned to his desk to discuss the matter at hand.
On this occasion, Martin heard his boss open the door of the bathroom.  He kept his head down as if he'd been concentrating on the file.  His boss crossed the room, picked up the square metal box, and placed it on a shelf in the closet.  Then he closed the door.  Martin wanted to remind his boss to lock the door, but he'd been pretending not to pay any attention.  At that moment, his boss asked for his opinion about the client's demand, and Martin was forced to forget the square metal box and concentrate on an answer.
Once he was back in his own office, Martin was preoccupied with phone calls, appointments, and dictation.  He left his office to use the restroom down the hall and noticed some of the firms were already dark.  He would not be leaving the office early enough to look for the magician near the bus stop.  Instead of stopping for a burger, Martin ordered Chinese food delivered to his office.  One by one, everyone else in the office left for the day.  Darkness fell on the busy street below.  Once the office workers were gone and the shops closed, the traffic was limited to a taxi now and then along with the scheduled busses.  As long as he was busy with work, Martin did not think about Susan and the children.  Once the work was finished for the day, he fought to keep from descending into a black abyss of depression.
Martin had not heard from Susan in over a week, and he began to wonder if she'd already forgotten him.  The last time they were together, they'd argued about Christmas.  Martin thought he was being frugal, but Susan accused him of placing money above the happiness of the children.  The word she used to describe him was "tight."  Of course, he didn't agree.  It wasn't tight of him to send Susan and the children to her parents for Christmas.  He knew a company could not stay in business without a budget.  His family was no different.  He'd budgeted for train fare for Susan and the children.  There could be no exceptions.  He often said, "straying from our budget will send the family down a slippery slope."  Then the phone rang.
Susan had tried to get Martin at home and then called the office, thinking he must be working late.  He'd already forgotten that the sound of her voice was such a comfort to him.  She said she missed him.  She described how Jimmy climbed up on Santa's lap to ask him to "please, please bring my daddy here for Christmas."  Then Susan began to cry.  She said her father offered to pay for Martin's train fare.  Martin might have been able to ignore Susan's tears and Jimmy's plea to Santa, but he would never accept train fare from Susan's father.  He would enjoy not having to see the man during the holiday.  He was chagrined to think Susan's father might think Martin was not a good provider instead of realizing how carefully he was managing his family's future.  He promised Susan he'd think about it.  He'd try to find some room in the budget after all.  Then he told Susan he loved her and hoped she still loved him.  Tears stung his eyes when she hung up without another word.
After choking it back for days, Martin allowed himself a good cry.  Then he walked to the restroom, washed his face, and returned to the firm's office.  He seemed to be the only one on the floor.  He was on his way to his office when he found himself at the door to his boss's office.  He knocked.  There was no answer.  Martin went inside, closing the door behind him.  He walked over to the closet where his boss kept the square metal box that seemed to contain an unlimited amount of cash.
Martin had already given much thought to the box and its purpose.  From snippets of conversation and various behavior he'd seen, Martin was sure his boss was hiding something he kept from everyone except his senior secretary.  Why would a man keep secret funds unless they were acquired illegally and used for dark purposes?  He doubted his boss even counted the money.  Wasn't there something unfair about a man like Martin having to send his family away at Christmas while his boss could afford to take his family to Hawaii?
Martin reached for the doorknob which he knew to be unlocked, but the door did not open.  He rattled and pulled on the door knob.  Then he realized his boss discovered his mistake and locked the door before leaving for the day.  Martin had already convinced himself that he would be justified in taking train fare from the box.  He deserved to be with his family at Christmas, too.  He was disappointed.
Not only had Martin not been able to indulge his feelings of entitlement, but he'd missed the last bus.  He'd need to walk home.  He would not consider hiring a taxi.  He returned to his office, straightened his desk, and put on his overcoat.  Then he remembered the skeleton key in his pocket.  He reached for the key, turned it over in his hand, and walked back to his boss's office.  Martin inserted the key into the closet door, heard a click and turned the knob.  The door opened.  Martin slowly opened the door, turned on the closet light, and reached for the square metal box.  He opened the lid and saw a confusion of bills in all denominations.  He guessed there were at least two dozen hundred dollar bills along with fifties, twenties, and tens.  Martin removed $150.  He thought he was owed that much for his overtime hours in the last month alone.  He tucked the bills into his wallet and locked the closet door.  Then he left the office and took the elevator to the first floor.  Once again, the skeleton key proved invaluable.
The magician was not on the corner at that time of the night.  The streets were deserted, except for people getting in and out of taxis or personal vehicles parked near apartment buildings.  Martin walked as briskly as possible while being careful not to slip on the icy sidewalks.  He'd never felt so alone and was startled by the slightest noise.  More than once, he was sure he was being followed.  The farther he walked, the more alone he was.  The magical mood of the morning disappeared.  Now, Martin felt as if he'd left a very bright place for permanent darkness.  He regretted taking the money from his boss.  Ever since he'd put it in his wallet, Martin felt uneasy.  He began to wish he'd never seen the magician or used the skeleton key.
Martin heard a woman's voice and saw someone waving at him.  She was with a small child.  She'd locked herself out of her home and wanted Martin to help.  She thought her little boy could stand on Martin's shoulders and enter an unlocked window to open the door.  Martin accompanied her home.  He told her he had a better idea.  Then he removed the key from his pocket and opened the door to the woman's house.  She was very grateful and wished she could offer him a reward for helping her.  Martin assured her that "helping someone in need is its own reward."  She insisted he join her for a cup of tea.  She removed her knitting from a tattered chair so Martin could sit in front of the fireplace.  It was obvious she enjoyed no real comforts.  The apartment was sparsely furnished, and he'd noticed her refrigerator was nearly empty when she opened the door to get milk for his tea.  Martin knew he was much better off than this woman, and he felt ashamed for taking the money from his boss.  He vowed to return it.  He finished his tea, thanked his hostess, and continued on his way.
Martin's mood improved.  Once again, he'd been able to help someone with the key.  He'd been feeling sad and alone.  He enjoyed the company of the woman and her child, even if the time was brief.  On his long walk home, Martin had plenty of time for introspection.  He saw what he'd done for what it was.  Theft.  His boss was fair, and he enjoyed working for him.  He was wrong to take the money for train fare when he had the means to travel without stealing.  The key was a gift.  It made him happy when he used it to help others and miserable when he used it dishonestly to help himself.  Martin wished he'd never been given the key.
When he finally arrived home, Martin was thoroughly chilled, exhausted, and weary.  He reached into his pants pocket for his house key, but it wasn't there.  He tried the other pocket, too.  He remembered running late that morning and leaving the house in a rush.  He must have left the key in its usual spot on his dresser.  Then Martin thought of the skeleton key.  Once again, it would save the day.  He reached into his coat pocket for the key, but it was not there.  He tried the other pocket, too.  He was sure he didn't leave the key with the woman who'd been locked out of her house.  He was sure he'd put the key in his pocket, as always.  What was he to do now?  Every house on the street was dark.  Martin hadn't found time to make friends with his neighbors.  He'd even said some harsh words to the neighbor next door when he discovered their fence was just over the property line.  There was no one Martin could go to at that late hour.  He'd never felt so hopeless and alone.  He slumped to the door mat and thought about the awful turn his life had taken in only one day.  Then he remembered wishing he'd never been given the skeleton key.  Was it possible the key simply disappeared with his wish?
The state of his mind was alarming.  Martin tried to think of a solution.  He was in control of this situation.  He'd set the ladder up against the house and try to find a window that was not locked.  He'd tried two windows when Martin saw flashing lights at the front of his house.  Two officers ordered him to come down from the ladder.  A neighbor had reported someone breaking into the house.  Fortunately, his wallet was still in his pocket, so he could prove he belonged there.  The officers drove him back to his office so he could spend the night inside.  He slept on his boss's sofa.  The next morning, he managed to wash his face, comb his hair, and sit at his desk before anyone else arrived.  He called a lock and key expert and arranged to meet him at home later in the day.  Martin found his front door key on his dresser.
Two days later, Martin left the office early and took a taxi.  He hoped to find the skeleton key so he could return the money he'd taken from the square metal box in his boss's office.  He asked the driver to follow the route Martin took a few nights before.  Then Martin asked him to stop at the home of the woman who'd been locked out.  While the taxi idled at the curb, Martin knocked on the door several times.  When he peered into the window, the home appeared to be vacant.  Then a neighbor informed him the woman left to avoid paying her rent.
Martin knew it was a long shot, but he couldn't resist asking the neighbor if the woman mentioned a special key.  The neighbor didn't hesitate.  "Not to me, she didn't.  But I found an old key after she left."  The woman reached into her apron pocket and showed Martin the skeleton key.  "Is this it?" she asked.
The next morning, Martin's boss was busy preparing to leave the office to travel to Hawaii with his family.  He called Martin into his office and told him he'd been surprised to learn Martin's family wouldn't be with him at Christmas.  He said he thought Martin deserved a bonus for Christmas, and he hoped $150 was fair.
"Maybe you can use it to join the wife and kids for Christmas," the boss said.  Martin thought it sounded less like a suggestion and more like a judgment.   Martin thanked him and tried to refuse the bonus, but the man would not hear of it.
"You deserve it, Marty.  You're the only businessman I really trust."
Then his boss asked Martin if he'd take care of a little matter while he was away.
"I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm guilty of a small vice.  I gamble whenever I get the chance, and I'm pretty good at it.  The wife and I agreed I could keep my winnings and gamble them until I lose.  Then I've got to quit.   I try to do something good with the winnings when I can.  It's not that I'm a philanthropist, mind you.  My conscience bothers me less that way.  You might've noticed the young lady who visits from time to time.  She's a secretary at the home for neglected children.  She might come by while I'm gone if they get in a pinch.  She'll let you know what they need to get by, and I want you to give her whatever amount she asks for.  I keep the funds in a square metal box in my closet.  You might have noticed it."
The next day after everyone left, Martin used his boss's key to unlock the closet.  He removed the square metal box and placed it on the desk.  Then Martin took $300 from his wallet.  He knew he'd not been trustworthy and did not deserve the bonus or the $150 he took.  Once the money was back in the closet, Martin locked the door and hid the key.  Then he left the office building and headed to his bus stop.
Martin planned to pay his own way to spend Christmas with Susan and the children.  He walked with his head held high and arms swinging at his sides.  His family meant more to him than his budget.  He smiled, thinking how lucky he was to be able to return the money he'd taken and begin anew.  He could picture how excited Jimmy would be to see his dad.  The magic key reminded Martin of something he'd been told by his dad long ago.  "The value of personal integrity is only fully appreciated once it is lost."  It was a lesson Martin relied upon often during his life and the reason why he was the only businessman his boss trusted.
The magician had returned to the corner and was still doing card tricks.  Martin reached into his pocket and dropped the skeleton key into the black top hat.  As he turned to get on his bus, he heard a familiar voice behind him.
"Betty, you dropped something."
Martin turned around.  He saw a young woman wearing a stylish scarlet coat, matching tam, stockings with seams perfectly centered, and high-heeled shoes.  She was reaching for the skeleton key extended from the magician's hand.  The magician winked at Martin and continued doing his card tricks.  Martin boarded the bus while wondering what kinds of doors Betty would choose to open with the gift she'd been given.  Then he was distracted by an elderly woman whose Christmas packages had tumbled out of a shopping bag onto the floor of the bus.
  As the bus pulled away from the curb, Martin noticed the magician had finished doing card tricks.  He tucked the cards into a pocket, placed the top hat on his head, and waved at the departing crowd as he shouted,
"Have a Magic Christmas, One and All!"
 
 
 
 
THE END