For the past couple of years, I’ve written a Christmas story. This is the newest entry:
“Closer. Closer. OK. That’s it.”
Hank yelled, “Whoa, there girlie! Damn near ran me over.” Then he laughed. “Who taught you how to drive? Oh, that was me.” Then he hooted. “Ha!”
His granddaughter Jennie tipped the rearview mirror down so she could see the old man trying to balance the twenty-foot ladder against the old, tall spruce, the last green thing in the town square; skeletal, gaunt maples and oaks, leafless, scratched space against the darkening sky. Beyond, a silent town center huddled, rooflines shouldered in snow, a wobbling trace of truck tracks heading south, the weak light of an angled single street bulb above the basketball court flickered. The garish red and blue neon “Bud” sign in the window of the combination grocery and diner cast a muddy shadow in the snow resting on the ice machine below.
A foot of new snow covered the town square and the light wind blew fluffs of it off the branches onto the old man’s red flannel cap whose side flaps no longer covered his ears. She shook her head. He’s immune to the cold, she thought with some appreciation. Gloveless, the oil-stained Bean coat unbuttoned, boots unlaced, the red-faced, bearded old man, her grandfather, scowled into the weather. She recalled him standing at the top of the sliding hill, hatless, waving, laughing as the toboggan she and four friends were riding slipped sideways on the icy hill before it slammed into the wall of snow that had piled up at the fence. Off they flew, faces buried in the cold; then they stood shaking off the snow while the old man whooped and hollered, dancing in the frost like a winter sprite.
She smiled softly at the memory, shut off the engine, pulled on some leather gloves and stepped from the warm cab into the dark, chilled air.
He shook the ladder and received a face full of snow as thanks.
Jennie leaned over the sidewall and hoisted out the box of lights, and looked at the sky and the fading light slipping behind Black Mountain.
“Poppy, we should do this in the morning, when it’s lighter. We’ve got maybe a half-hour.”
“Tomorrow’s too late, girlie. That’s Christmas Eve and folks be coming home.”
“Should we at least wait until Kerry get here?” she asked.
Kerry was her brother. He lived in Rumford and worked in the mill. Probably on double shifts, working till the annual holiday shutdown.
“Can’t wait, Jennie. No time.” And Hank tugged at the long rope of lights that spilled out of the wet cardboard box and draped them over his shoulder. He reached back into the box for a couple extension cords and held them out for his granddaughter.
“Run ‘em over to the junction box. They’re a hundred feet each, plenty long. I’ll start stringing lights.”
Jennie plugged in the end of one of the cords and walked carefully back toward the tree, the wire slipping easily out of her hand; Hank had expertly wound the cord over his elbow and hand so it would not tangle. It was those little things that mattered to him, she knew, those little things that had kept his life ordered since Nanna Denise had died, now five years ago.
What a couple. A house warmed by the aroma of gingerbread and brownies, crusted, sticky breads, and the garage alive with banging, sawing and swearing as Hank plowed through project after project – birdhouses, tables, Adirondack chairs, the fence around the back yard – as if one day there would be no more lumber to saw, nails to hammer or brushes to clean.
She watched, Jennie did, for those signs that some of her older patients exhibited alone in old age, silent, just memories, if they could recall them.
But Hank soldiered on; Jennie wondered what would happen if he ever ran out of families to make birdhouses for.
So there he was, fifteen feet in the air, nimble as a kid, one elbow wrapped around the ladder’s frame, one foot in mid-air, and a string of lights in one hand as he miraculously slipped the clips over the frozen branches, as far out as he could reach; then dropped down a step or two and repeated whole acrobatic act, all the while ignoring the arthritic pain in left knee, his sciatica and a stiff left shoulder that had needed surgery since he was a teenage lumberman and fell from a tree.
“There you are,” he yelled over his shoulder to Jennie. “Get that other ladder up and start stringing. Then we’ll plant the star.”
“OK,” Jennie said as she slipped the other ladder from the side of the truck and leaned it on the tree. “Bring me up another string,” Hank yelled down.
One by one they laid on the eight long strings of lights, connected the plugs and then, on the ground, hauled the star from the back of the truck.
It was two feet across. The original one was made of glass, but shattered in a storm some time ago. Her brother Kerry crafted a new one out of clear Plexiglas and Hank carved a foot-long base from maple that could be bolted firmly onto the peak of the tree.
Jennie wiped the star with a cloth to remove the gathered dust; sometime in the past this had become Hank’s annual chore. Or maybe, she thought, he just decided it was. Either way.
“Easy now,” Hank instructed as they each on different ladders side by side, hoisted the star. At the top, Jennie felt her ladder wobble and she tightened her grip; Hank paid it no mind, slipped his free hand under the side of the star and hung it over the top, before passing the lug nuts through the holes in the base and tightened them. He fumbled in the branches for the plug and made the connection.
“We’re done,” Jennie said brightly. “How about some coffee when we get home.” And she started down the ladder.
Hank didn’t move.
“They used to come up on the train from Rumford,” he said, his voice dragged away in the wind. “Up the valley, along the river, they’d stop here, the engine huffing steam into the cold. Maybe a dozen would get off, wait on the platform for their luggage, then leave for their warm homes. The train, black and solid in the cold mist, would huff off heading north, the whistle in the hills like a lonely moan, mourning. That was the last train before Christmas. The engineers said they knew they were near the end of the line when they’d pass the First House out there on the west side where your ancestors built it. Knew they were here because as they passed that dark house, they’d see this light, this star. And whatever was agitating them would fade, they said, as if the white star calmed their hearts, and somehow, even if they wasn’t from here, they felt they were home.”
Hank glanced back at his sweet, beautiful granddaughter, the jewel of his eye, the love of his life, and smiled.
“That’s why we put this up, girlie, and why it has to be up by Christmas. Gives you something to come home to.”
Jennie felt the tears in her eyes, and the catch in her throat. She took off one glove and kissed her fingers and reached over to press them into her grandfather’s lips. He took her hand and kissed her fingers.
Jennie looked past the old man, the Great Hank, into the dark night. In her mind, she saw the train running black and solid in the night, the headlight cracking open the gloom in the valley, then heard the whoosh of steam brakes and the clanking stop. Saw the faces smile, the embraces, heard the soft laughter and knew the tree, all draped in green and blue, red and yellow, and the big white star would always be there, always shining.
She brushed the old man’s stubbled cheek.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah.”
Driving away home, Jennie glanced into the rearview mirror entranced by the twinkling colored lights but transfixed by the strong, white star, a beacon. Beside her Hank’s head leaned sleepily on the cold window. The Great Hank. Yeah.