Christmas in the Courtyard

This story was commissioned to be part of my church’s Christmas cantata. I’ve made slight word changes from the spoken version for better flow, but otherwise remains as it was presented.

In the cantata, the choir sang a song at each pause in the story (indicated by the *** in the text). Any similarities to people living or dead is purely coincidental. Seriously.

Though it goes without saying, I’ll mention it anyway: ©2013, by Ben H. Rome. Feel free to share or redistribute BUT please attribute and provide linkbacks, if possible.

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Christmas in the Courtyard

It was Christmas Eve. If things went as I supposed, it would be my last in this world.

I made my way through the crowds. The mall was open late, as usual, and filled with the hustle and bustle of last-minute shoppers. None paid any attention to me as I aimlessly meandered among them. I remembered walking through this complex when I was a child, hand in hand with my parents. We had come to see the big decorated tree in the central courtyard, with its Santa Claus and other holiday décor.

It was the last happy memory of my life that I remember.

At some point in my wanderings, I found myself in that same courtyard. The decorations looked somewhat dated, the colors were faded and worn. I looked around, awash in the memories of that last true, happy moment. The space was crowded, full of tired shoppers taking a break, engrossed in their phones. A lone space at the end of a bench beckoned me and I took it.

Sitting down with a sigh, I realized why the seat was available. The scent of a cheap cologne mingled with sweat wafted over me the moment my back settled against the iron slats of the bench. Glancing to my right, I took in my seatmate. Dressed in a faded gold-brown suit with worn elbows, patches on his coat and pants, the elderly man looked to be sleeping. His unkempt beard framed a wrinkled but kindly face, his eyes closed against the world of chaos swirling around us. I glanced down, noticing the trash bag at his side lying next to his scuffed, worn-out shoes. The man was obviously one of the homeless that frequented the warm spaces in the mall to escape the harsh weather outside—and most likely, the world.

I patted my pocket. The tiny bottle was still there. Once I had my fill of memories and regrets, I would leave the mall, find a quiet place, and bring about the end.

A choral group began to fill a small stand of bleachers across the court from me. With their white, red, and black ensemble, they stood out from the harried, exhausted crowd around me. Fresh faces, bright smiles, these eager people appeared at peace with the world. Them, and the sleeping bum next to me. I wanted to move but couldn’t; there wasn’t another free seat anywhere among the restless crowd.

As the choir began to sing, my mind fell back to that last happy time.

Love surrounded me, then.

God was real, then.

***

“I love this time of year,” said the bum as the music faded. His voice was slow, but bright. I opened my eyes and turned to look at him, surprised to see he was addressing me. “What about you?”

He had kind eyes. He was the first person to talk to me in days, possibly weeks. I couldn’t help but respond.

“This time is nothing but pain and heartache for me,” I replied. “Sorry if that ruins your mood.”

The older man laughed. His smile was infectious and I found myself grinning for no reason.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “Since neither of us has anywhere important to go, why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind? Name’s Jayce, by the way.” He turned partway, facing me. Compared to other people I knew, he actually seemed to care about what I had to say.

Haltingly, I began to talk. I don’t know why; maybe because he wasn’t connected to my past or my life, maybe because he was bored and found me a distraction. Maybe because I felt the stirrings of something deep in my heart, a feeling I hadn’t known in many, many years.

As the choir began to sing again, I found myself pouring out my heart to this stranger, sitting on a bench at the mall, on the eve of the biggest holiday in the world.

***

As I talked, the floodgates of my heart and mind burst open. I shared with the vagabond as if he was my private confessor, a soul-deep friend who knows my most intimate thoughts before I could give them voice. I told him of living in a divided home, loveless and alone. Of being bullied in school on a seemingly daily basis. Failing college twice. Being thrown out of my mother’s home. Working three jobs to make ends meet. Getting married. The miscarriage. Her affair. Our divorce. The job I’d worked so hard for to be taken away because of a coworker’s lies. Mounds of debt. Mom’s death. Depression. The futility of it all.

I wound down, pausing as I considered my litany. So little joy; so much sorrow.

“Son,” said Jayce. I felt his hand on my arm. Glancing down, I noticed the shining band of gold around his ring finger. It was brilliant against the grime and grease that streaked his hands. “I know it hurts, remembering. But surely God was with you through all of this?”

I snorted. “God,” I bit out. “Where was He, indeed. I never saw Him through these struggles and pains. He abandoned me just like my father.” I stared down at my feet.

“Ah.” Jayce was silent for a time. Eventually, I looked up at him, startled to see a tear tracking down his cheek. His gaze was distant, unfocused. “I know how you feel, my boy. I, too, understand what it is to be abandoned, discarded, bruised, and broken. To be unwanted and unloved. To walk the lonely road.” Jayce looked at me again, a great sadness in his eyes. “I’ve known so many who have hated me, abused me, rejected me. One of my close friends even betrayed me, turned me in to corrupt authorities where I was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. I could have given up then, but I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“My faith in Him,” he replied.

I felt my lips curve slightly at my happiest memory. “You know, I knew God once,” I started, hesitant. The old man’s eyes softened as he silently encouraged me. “I felt Him beside me on a Christmas Eve long ago. Back before everything started to fall apart. It’s why I came tonight, to see if somehow, I could capture that feeling again. To see if His glory is indeed real.”

The kindly old man took my hand in his and squeezed. “Tell me,” he said.

And as the choir began anew, I did.

***

That memorable night had been cold and crisp, the hint of snow on the air. Mom and dad took me to see Santa that Christmas Eve, to fulfill a wish only a child could have. We had little money then, but somehow I always had a few presents under the tree. That year, money was non-existent and I’d been told that there would be no presents. My five-year-old mind had seized on the Santa story, and I was sure if I could talk to him personally, our Christmas would be saved. Ah, the flights of fancy that flits across the mind of a child.

My mother was resolute in her belief that God would take care of us. Dad, not so much. He worked two jobs and within a week had lost them both. I heard them fighting long into the night on several occasions, my little prayers thrown upwards towards God, that daddy would be able to work and the fighting would end.

The mall was vibrant; color was everywhere, dancing on clouds of cinnamon, pumpkin, and other delicious aromas. A small band belted out the sounds of Christmas; their joyous resonance seemed to permeate the very walls of the place. Hope seemed to float all around us as mom and dad smiled and laughed with each other. Holding onto their hands, I felt their strength and comfort flow through me and I knew I’d never stumble or fall.

He dominated the central courtyard, sitting on his throne surrounded by tufts of sparkly angelic snow. His kindly face seemed to smile directly at me as I approached, taking each stair with determination, my stubby legs moving with a steady pace. He reached for me as I approached, his hands soft, his grip firm. I felt safe in his arms, not wanting the warmth and the comfort to end. “And what would you like, my son?” he asked, his voice alluring, welcoming. He genuinely wanted to know my deepest desire. I could only look up at him with my tiny face in awe and wonder. I could not speak, being in his presence.

He smiled a knowing smile, looking at my parents and then again at me. He winked, reaching down into his bag. “This is for you, son. He’ll always be by your side.” I looked down and beheld a small sock monkey, a stuffed toy I had wanted since I could remember. Brown and white, the yarn-made monkey was floppy and soft, its button face grinning back at me.

I ran back to my parents and looked back at the man on the pedestal. He was already scooping up another child into his lap. He must have sensed me looking at him, as he gave me a glance, a smile playing along his lips as he mouthed “I love you” before waving.

The band broke into a new song and as its rhythm washed over the crowd, I took my new pal and began to dance with him. As I twirled and swirled, I saw my parents smiling at me. At each other. They kissed. Seeing them happy amidst the blend of colors, music, and the scent of cinnamon, my new-found companion dancing with me, I felt peace in my heart and found joy on my lips.

***

In my mind, the music faded and once again I felt the crushing weight of life seep over me. I blinked away the tears at the longing I felt. The man next to me placed his hand on my shoulder; I could feel the weight lift ever so slightly. “What happened?” he asked, his voice steady against the cacophony of the crowd.

I felt the press of the bottle against my leg. “I already told you about my life,” I snapped. The sorrows rose and crashed against my heart.

“No, son. The monkey. The toy that he gave you. What happened to it?”

I pressed my fingers into my eyes, willing the tears away as I reflected. “I lost it.”

The silence between us was comfortable. Jayce didn’t press, allowing me the time and space I needed. His hand was a gentle pressure, a comforting one I hadn’t known since dad had left.

“I took that monkey with me everywhere,” I said, my voice low, trembling. “He was my constant companion. I ate, slept, read, went to school with him by my side. Whenever mom and dad fought, I hugged him tight and remembered that night, that perfect moment. I’d pray with him next to me, believing that his prayers could help lift up mine to God. I loved that monkey as I’ve loved no one else; even when mom’s cigarette ashes left burns on him or when the cat ripped a hole in his side, I only loved him all the more.

“One day few years later, dad dropped me off at school. He saw my monkey and took it away from me, told me I needed to grow up, that I needed to quit being a kid and ‘be a man.’ He drove away and I never saw him again. He walked out of my life, out of our lives, and took my best friend away from me.” I sighed, the memory a deep wound upon my heart. “He died a few years later. I don’t know where he’s buried.”

I paused, letting the memories drain away. “What about you, Jayce? Why are you here? Where is your wife?” I indicated his hand, where the gold ring shone bright. I wanted to stop talking about me.

“She left me,” he replied. He looked outward at the crowds still swirling around us. “She told me she didn’t need me anymore. That I and my love was no longer necessary in today’s complex and rational world.” He twirled the ring around his finger. “But I still wear this because I’m committed to her. She is my bride, my true love. Despite her mistakes, her hurtful words, her misplaced priorities, I won’t leave her. If she came to me right now, I would take her back in an instant and throw her a party like she’s never known. Actually, I’d throw them all a party. Everyone who’s hurt or rejected me; I forgave them all.”

“A party,” I replied. I shrugged, not understanding this strange man next to me. Jayce simply nodded, closing his eyes as the choir began anew. I settled back as the music began, letting the familiar songs strum upon my bruised and scarred heart.

***

As the music faded, the words of the carols broke over my heart. I began to sob, not knowing why but feeling the sorrow and the pain spill from my soul.

Jayce pulled me to him; I didn’t resist. I let it all go, my fears and my failures, my missed opportunities and broken promises. Before I knew it, I was tightly hugging this man, uncaring of his grimy clothes, his scratchy beard, his unfamiliar scent. He held me close, his presence a pool of serenity inside and out. I don’t know why hugging a homeless man in the middle of a crowded mall was so comforting to me, but I was beyond caring. I needed the moment before I ended my personal story.

Gradually I became aware of the pain in my leg; the pill bottle in my pocket pressing tightly against my thigh. I remembered where I was and moved away from Jayce, brushing myself off. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what came over me.”

Jayce looked at me, a knowing smile playing along his lips. His eyes were bright, sparkling against his dark and dirty face.

I made to leave when Jayce’s hand took my arm. “Son,” he said. In his other hand was a small package.

I sat down again, the gift in my lap. I looked at my benefactor, who simply smiled.

With careful deliberation, I began to unwind the scarlet cord that held the box lid in place. Inside was a card perched atop some tissue. “I never left you, son,” it read. “I will always be here for you. The earth may fade but my love remains. Love, J.C.”

Underneath the tissue was a sock monkey. Cigarette burns on his hands and feet, a tear along his side. It was my monkey, my friend. My ever-present companion once taken from me, now returned.

I looked up, stunned. The seat next to me was empty, no trace of my companion. Nothing lingered nor remained.

For a moment, time stood still. I replayed my conversation with Jayce—J.C.—and began to shake my head in wonder. I began to laugh as the crushing weight broke over my heart, sweet peace covering my bruises and burns, scars and scabs. As the choir began again, I tossed my bottle into the trash. I then took up my long-lost companion, my Christmas miracle, and began to dance a dance of amazing love. And as I danced, I heard the three words that every soul craves from God most high.

“I. Love. You.”

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