Gayle Hayes, Author

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

2 comments:

  1. Another good one, Gayle! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thanks,again, for taking time during this busy Christmas season to read and comment. I spent the morning making my husband's favorite cookies (his mom's recipe) and really needed the lift of your comment by the time the last cookie was decorated. I wish you and yours a peaceful and joyous Christmas and a great 2017!

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