Bob brushed the cold plastic seat of the park bench before he sat.
It was an old habit.
He and his grandfather used to sit on the benches on Boston Common and gaze at the lighted trees and absorb the mystical silence of the scene. A whiff of hot chocolate would drift in as a family with overdressed kids strolled by. Bob’s mouth watered at the thought of a warm drink. The distant trill of Christmas carols filled the gaps left in the honking of cab horns on Boylston.
“You don’t know who sat here,” the old man would grumble as he swiped a flattened copy of the Boston Globe over the wooden seat with green chipped paint. “Bums, drunk, whores. Why don’t they clean this place up?”
Bob would block out the old man’s unhappiness. He’d sometimes tug on a coat sleeve and pull his grandfather to his feet and say, “Time to see Santa at Filene’s.”
Bob, on his own park bench, shook his head at the memory.
Hadn’t thought about those days for years.
His grandfather died, he moved on for work, married, had kids, the kids moved on; life, he thought, just life.
But the holidays made him grumpy. Buy this. Get ‘em that. Toys the size of pick-up trucks.
Bob decided one day watching the TV news that none of the advertisers wanted him for a customer. I’m not cool enough for you. I’m not gonna walk around in pants that don’t fit, wearing watches that talk to me and tell me when I’m too fat, too slow, too old.
I didn’t want to be your customer, he decided, because I don’t think it’s meaningful to drive to the middle of nowhere with all my groovy friends, then climb a desolate mountain, build a fire and open a bottle of bourbon.
They probably left the empty bottle behind.
He decided it was the excess, the me-me-me; it was what happened when the Hippies became hedge fund bankers and learned to spin money from thin air and suddenly nothing else mattered.
He gazed out at the passing crowd of shoppers, pushing carts piled with boxes and draped with clothes; in a week they’d be back for the bargains and returning the rest of it.
Buying love, he thought, buying affection. Salving pain with purchase.
He laughed softly. My pain is worth more than yours and here’s the receipt. We can buy something to fix everything but loneliness.
Then he stared at the ground and shook his head. God, Bob, when did you become such a fricking … he looked up and said aloud, “Jerk.”
“Sorry?” asked the woman standing before him next to a young boy. “You talking to me?”
Good thing I didn’t say that I was actually thinking, Bob thought.
“Talking to myself,” Bob muttered.
“Oh, okay,” she said. “I’m going to leave him here for just a minute, if you don’t mind,” and then walked away.
What? “Hey, lady…”
She was gone. Bob stood to find her in the crowd, then sat. “It’s just you and me, stranger,” he said to the boy in as a mild a voice as he could. The boy, whose round face peered out from the blue hood of his jacket, screwed up his face. Then he sat. “She’ll be back. Probably getting you a present and doesn’t want you to see it.”
Bob extended his hand.
The little boy stared at the outstretched hand and then grasped it with his weak and wet fingers.
“What’s your name?”
The boy withdrew his hand and stared into the passing crowd, the anxiety settling into his eyes.
“Emilio,” the boy whispered.
“Well, glad to meet you, Emilio,” Bob said smiling and expansive. “Your mom will be right back.”
“My aunt,” Emilio said, his voice fuller. “My mom’s, um, gone.”
Bob felt his brain banging against his skull. I’m sitting next to some orphan kid. What’d I do to deserve this?
Stop it, he scolded himself. It’s just some worried little kid. You know what that feels like.
And for that moment, Bob saw himself sitting alone on a cold broken bench after his grandfather told him to “Stay here.” He never knew how long the old man would be gone, but he would return more cheerful and swaying as he walked. “C’mmeer,” he would command, and pull Bob from the bench; the sun had collapsed behind the Back Bay high-rises and they stopped once or twice as the old man tried to remember where he had parked. “How was Santa?” his mother would ask. “Fine, fun,” Bob would lie.
Bob glanced down at Emilio, silent and withdrawn into his coat. He rubbed his gloveless hands together.
“Want a hot chocolate?” Bob asked.
Emilio glanced up and then down to his feet and nodded.
When Bob returned, he pulled open the tab and handed the foam cup to Emilio. “You might want to hold on it a second, and let it cool off. You can warm your hands.”
Emilio took the cup on both hands and raised it to his mouth. He stuck his tongue into the opening.
“What’s hot chocolate make you think of?” Bob asked.
“Breakfast.” Then, “My Mom.”
Bob winced. He didn’t want to ask, but then knew he had to.
“Where’s your Mom?”
Emilio shrugged, his coat riding above his small shoulders. “Gone. My sister, too.”
He slurped up some hot chocolate. “We used to play kick ball.”
“Will you see them for Christmas?”
Emilio shook his head, his face sliding side-to-side inside the hood. Softly: “I want a puppy for Christmas but my aunt says they won’t let puppies in.”
Bob sighed. This was small town, he thought, I could find out where Emilio and his aunt live with ease. His mood shifted. You really need some sad, lonely kid to make you feel better? he scolded himself. You really are a jerk.
Bob searched through his coat pocket for a pen and a store receipt. He wrote his name and phone number on the receipt and stuffed it into one of the pockets on Emilio’s jacket. Maybe, he thought.
“That’s for your aunt,” he said. “If you can’t have a puppy, what do you want for Christmas?”
Emilio pulled his mouth in and tugged his eyebrows lower. “Someone to play kickball with.”