Best Christmas Ever
I really like Carol’s short story “Off The Grid.” We are excited to say that it was recently published in the latest edition of The California Writers Club Literary Review.
Off the Grid
by Carol Kearns
Teddy nodded his thanks without missing a note as the young woman dropped some change into the open saxophone case. As he anticipated, foot traffic was heavier than usual in front of the Dollar Store this Friday, and people were feeling excited and generous about the beginning of the holiday season. It was the day after Thanksgiving, with many people already in the mood for Christmas.
Today Teddy’s playlist of recognizable pop/rock and occasional jazz tunes was salted with songs of the season. “Feliz Navidad” was a big favorite in this neighborhood, and most of the families recognized “Rudolf” and “Frosty the Snowman.” This mini-mall was not the most profitable location on Teddy’s circuit, but the high volume of steady customers gave it a measure of reliability. The Dollar Store was a modern-day Five-and-Dime, with only the name changed to reflect the inflation of the past sixty years. The store offered simple things that people would always need – household items, certain packaged food, hair care products, stationery, costume jewelry. People came to shop, buy lottery tickets at the liquor store, and dine on Chinese take-out. Teddy lived within walking distance himself, and he worked this strip at least several times a month. With clouds looming from an offshore storm, Teddy felt he had been prudent in postponing the long bus ride to Best Buy until tomorrow.
The old man was a natural showman, and he had dressed for the holidays with a red Santa hat on his head and a red plaid muffler wrapped around his neck. Despite his worn clothing, his overall appearance, with bright eyes above a stubby gray beard, suggested one of Santa’s elves. People were drawn to him, and easily shared some loose change. A few hours of this paid for Teddy’s food, even on a slow day in this impoverished neighborhood.
He was just finishing a snappy Tony Bennett tune when a young mother, carrying a few Christmas decorations along with some packaged food items, exited the store with her three children. She was a bubbly woman who shopped here often, one who found joy in even the most humble activities.
“Nico,” she said to her six-year-old as they stopped in front of the street musician, “tell Teddy what song you’re going to sing in the Christmas show.”
“Frosty the Snowman,” he said with a big smile and a punch at the air with his plump little fist.
“Well, I know that one,” said Teddy. “Can you sing it?” And with that he began the familiar tune. As the mother and children sang whatever words they could remember, other customers were charmed by this moment of gentleness on a dirty sidewalk. Some stopped to watch, and more than a few other children were pleased to join in. All were oblivious to the sound of the cars traveling at near-highway speeds on the busy boulevard just thirty yards away.
“Thank you, Teddy,” said the young mother as she dropped two dollar bills in his case. “Will we see you next week?”
“Good possibility, Isabel. Thanks.” Teddy continued playing as other shoppers, following Isabel’s example, dropped some coins or a bill in his case before going on their way. To himself Teddy thought, “She always brings me luck;” but really, the young mother had been blessed with the gift of spreading joy. Those who came within her aura couldn’t help but follow her example.
By 4 o’clock heavy clouds from the advancing storm had completely filled the sky, and darkness would come before the sun had set. Teddy had just started “Hark the Herald Angels” when a slight figure in a green, hooded sweatshirt swooped down to grab some bills from his open case before darting away through the parking lot full of cars.
“Hey!” Teddy yelled as he started to run after the thief. Then he caught himself and looked back at his open case. He looked once more at the disappearing figure, and again at the remaining money. He couldn’t leave the case, and the thief would be long gone if he took the time to pack up.
“Damn fuckin’ thief!” he cursed as he shook his fist and paced back and forth a little.
“Sorry, dude,” said a young man who had seen what happened, but didn’t feel it was his place to interfere in such events.
“Shit,” Teddy said more to himself as he started to pack up his instrument. He realized his loud cursing was making some people wary, and he didn’t want to ruin this location for himself. People might not tip if they thought he was just a crazy old man.
He brought a smile to his face as he stood up, shouldering the case so that he carried it like a backpack, and said to some onlookers, “Well, I guess he needs it more than me. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
“Yeh, Merry Christmas, dude. He’s probably just hungry,” someone replied.
Heading towards the sidewalk that ran along the busy boulevard, Teddy pulled the cheery Santa hat from his head and shoved it in his pocket. As if changing costumes, he pulled a dark gray watch cap out of another pocket and jammed this one on his head. He was done for the day, and he was thankful that he still had enough left in coins to buy some warm food on the way home. He couldn’t do real cooking at his place and tonight he wanted something more than just a microwave dinner.
Los Sombreros was only a block out of his way with food that was known for its value. The burritos were huge, usually enough for two meals, and they came with extra marinated carrots and onions and peppers. As he walked along the boulevard, the sidewalk became more spotted from a noticeable drizzle, and the wheels of passing cars threw up a fine spray. Teddy calculated that he still had time to buy dinner and beat the rain.
The outdoor seating at Los Sombreros was empty because of the weather, but the threat of rain hadn’t yet discouraged people from getting food to go. As Teddy took his place in line, a figure at the pickup window caught his attention. A young man, whose face was obscured by the hood of a green sweatshirt, turned around holding a large drink and a bag with food in it. As he walked away, he didn’t notice the man with a saxophone case on his back rushing past to head him off.
“You’re the little creep that stole my money!” Teddy shouted, grabbing the hooded figure by one arm. Clearly startled, the young man bolted forward, causing Teddy to lose his grip. But this time, Teddy gave chase. Reaching an alleyway, the figure headed off into its shadows. His youth and speed gave him a clear advantage, and he was almost certain to outrun his accuser; but his efforts were undermined by the contents of a trash can that had been knocked over by a careless driver the night before. The drink and bag went flying as his foot slid over a loose bottle. He was scrambling to his feet when Teddy grabbed him with both hands.
“I oughta beat the shit out of you, you little thief,” Teddy yelled, dragging his captive back toward the alley’s opening. He continued to shout obscenities as he yanked off the hood to get a better look at the culprit. Teddy was a musician, not a man given to fighting, but he wanted some kind of satisfaction for the wrong that had been done to him. He was not expecting the look of fear and anguish that he saw when he finally got a good look at the young hoodlum’s face. It was a smooth, delicate face, wet from tears, and with a mouth twisted by giant sobs.
“Aw, shit!” was all Teddy could exclaim when he realized that the thief was not the callous teenager that he was expecting. “You’re just a kid!” Finally, in frustration, he pushed the boy away, causing him to fall once again. This time the boy remained in a sitting position on the pavement with his face covered by his forearm, and not noticing, or not minding, that he had partially landed in a puddle of water.
Teddy stood with clenched fists, trying to decide what would make him feel better at the moment. Catching sight of the white restaurant bag, he stomped back into the shadows to retrieve it. By the time he returned, the boys sobs had softened into quiet shudders. Teddy wanted to walk away, thinking that at least he could gloat over denying the thief his prize; but the better part of him kept his feet from moving.
“You’re lucky it was me you stole from! Do you know that?’ he railed. “You think I’m an easy mark just because I’m a musician?” He stood a few feet away, glaring at the boy who dared to glance up only briefly before returning his gaze to the ground.
“And you’re stupid, too! Next time make sure you’re long gone before you stop to spend the money!” In Teddy’s eyes, the boy should be glad he was getting a lecture instead of a beating. His heart had stopped racing, but Teddy was still unable to walk away. Finally he growled, “Are you hungry?”
The youth said nothing, looking up with dark eyes sheltered by long, thick lashes. Teddy tried again. “Tienes hambre?”
This time the boy nodded his head up and down ever so slightly. Realizing that the restaurant bag was getting damp from the still-sporadic rain drops, Teddy stuffed in inside his coat close to his chest before yanking the boy to his feet.
“C’mon,” he said. “We can’t stay here forever.” He started to walk in the direction of his street, stopping to look back only once and giving a slight jerk of his head to indicate that the boy should follow him. The line was smaller as Teddy walked past Los Sombreros on the way back to his street
Turning the corner, Teddy hunched his shoulders and kept his head down, trying to avoid the sharp wind that stung his cheeks. By the last half block he had picked up his pace to something of a light jog, hoping to reach shelter before a serious drenching. He never once looked behind until he reached an untended lawn in front of a faded stucco house.
The boy had been following about ten yards back, forced into a trot because of his shorter legs. His hood was up to keep the rain off of his face, but his light sweatshirt was not much protection from the cold, and he jogged with his arms close to his sides, hands shoved into his pockets.
Going to the gate across the driveway, Teddy held it open and indicated for the youth to pass first. The boy’s wariness was clear as he hesitated before going further, but a loud clap of thunder was persuasive. By now the rain fell as if some great angel was emptying a giant bucket. Water landed with such force that the drops bounced back up, doubling the threat of soaked feet and legs. Teddy hurried down the driveway, past the house and to the side door of a detached garage. He did not have to ask the boy twice as he unlocked the deadbolt and offered the shelter of his home.
The garage had some overhead fluorescent lighting, but Teddy preferred the light from a shaded floor lamp. In the warm glow, the inside of the garage looked almost cheerful, but there was not much that could be done about the cold. Teddy’s dwelling was not so much a converted garage, as a minimal shelter with some amenities for habitation.
A small dining table with two mismatched chairs occupied the center of the space, and a stained recliner was positioned next to the floor lamp. A sleeping bag, a pillow, and some neatly folded blankets sat on the bare mattress of the single bed that was along one wall. The ad hoc domicile did have water from a utility sink that had been installed for laundry six decades ago; and a small refrigerator, along with the lamp, was plugged into the garage’s only legally wired outlet. A few salvaged bookcases and other pieces of furniture provided storage for Teddy’s belongings.
Teddy put the bag of food on the table and took care of his instrument first. Grabbing a clean rag, he wiped the case dry and opened it to check for any leaks. Satisfied that everything was good, he replaced the sax and carefully set the case by two other instruments on a raised wood platform. Concrete blocks underneath kept these valuable possessions off the damp floor.
The boy, who had removed his hood and wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, remained by the door, watching without expression as Teddy used an extension cord strung from the main house to plug in a hot plate for boiling water.
When these basic tasks were accomplished, Teddy hung his coat neatly on a hanger and donned a heavy sweater. From a stack of crates that held clean clothing he obtained a second dry sweater that he offered to the boy.
Even though Teddy lived alone, he had several place settings for meals because he did have occasional company. After making two cups of hot coffee, he unplugged the hot plate and plugged in a small electric heater that was positioned under the table. At last he invited the boy to sit and share what was in the bag. Thank you, God. It was a burrito.
The two ate mostly in silence, with Teddy occasionally asking, “So you don’t speak any English?” or mumbling, “Esta muy bueno,” as he pointed to the food. Seeing that the boy was still hungry, Teddy brought out the last of a loaf of bread and slathered a piece with peanut butter. The boy ate two more pieces of bread like this.
Hearing the rain abate somewhat, Teddy grabbed a towel and a half-used roll of toilet paper and motioned for the boy to follow him out the door. The two ran across the driveway, skirting the puddles, to the unlocked back door of the modest house. Teddy’s rent, which used up two-thirds of his disability check, included access to a small bathroom, just inside, with hot water. An interior door leading to the kitchen was kept dead-bolted. Giving the kid the towel and toilet paper, Teddy showed him the bathroom and then went back to wait in the garage. When the boy returned, Teddy grabbed his towel and toothbrush and took his turn.
Teddy only used the space heater for short periods of time, because it was impossible to heat such a primitive dwelling anyway. So when he had finished all other necessary activities, he unplugged the heater and the refrigerator, and gave power to a small TV and DVD player.
“You ever seen Terminator?” he asked the boy. “I got it from the Library.” He had the boy put on some dry socks and sit on the recliner under two blankets. As the movie started, Teddy crawled into the sleeping bag to watch it from the comfort of his bed. He wasn’t surprised when he saw that after twenty minutes he was watching it by himself.
Teddy’s earlier sense of outrage was long forgotten. At his age, he no longer worried about trying to make sense of things that seemed to be wrong in life, being only mildly curious about why the boy was so alone. Teddy had made a place for himself in the urban jungle, with some protection from whatever might cause him harm. For survival, he was used to living alone and off the grid; but at heart he was a sociable man. Tomorrow, he mused, I’ll see Luis in the morning and get him to translate. I can still get to Best Buy by 1 o’clock.