by James Bates
Ralph Kaczynski had been a salvation army bell ringer for seventeen years and this was by far and away the coldest and the snowiest winter he could ever recall. In spite of wearing long underwear, jeans, two sweaters, three pair of socks, heavy boots and a thick, insulated snowmobile suit, he was still cold. It didn't help that standing outside the huge big box store was a lesson in the both the good and the bad in humanity. Mostly the bad. People hurrying and yelling at each other, shoving and pushing...Man, talk about lack of good will toward mankind. He stole a quick glance at his wristwatch. Nine forty-five. Only fifteen minutes to go until the store closed. Then Christmas Eve tomorrow, and then he was done until next year. Thank god. It'd take him until July to thaw out.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a commotion near the exit. A young woman was arguing with one of the security guards. He recognized her. She and her daughter had been frequent visitors since Thanksgiving, and he'd occasionally wondered what they'd been doing, so much time in the store like the did. They rarely left with any packages, anything he could see anyway. Hmm. Shop lifters, maybe? There'd been a rash of them this season.
Suddenly the little girl, who must have been six years old or so, stepped away from her mother. She looked Ralph right in the eye, smiled a friendly smile and skipped across the slushy sidewalk toward him, going too fast in his estimation. "Watch out," he called out above the noisy throng of shoppers. "It's slippery."
She tried to slow down, but slipped and fell down hard anyway. "Oww," She said quietly as she slid along the sidewalk right up next to him.
Ralph's heart immediately went out to the little girl. With her pink stocking cap and unicorn themed snow jacket, she reminded him of his daughter when she was that age. He bent down, "Here, honey, let me help you." Her mother was still preoccupied with the security guard. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay, mister," she said, wiping the slush off her tights. "It doesn't hurt too bad."
He lifted the little girl to her feet and made sure was uninjured. He glanced back just as the security guard waved the mother away. She hurried over, saying to Ralph, "Thank you so much, sir." Then she knelt down next to her daughter, "Are you okay, Lisa? I told you to be more careful."
The little girl's tights were torn at the knee, but she only had a small scrap, a tiny amount of blood. "I'm okay, mommy, really. This nice man helped me."
Ralph was suddenly embarrassed. "It was nothing. She's a tough little girl."
What was he talking about. He didn't know anything about her, but the little girl, this Lisa, had a way about her, a presence almost. He had to ask, just to be polite, because, after all, it was the holiday season, "Do you want anything special for Christmas, honey? A doll or something?"
The little girl shocked him. "No. Not really."
"Are you sure? Nothing at all?"
The little girl thought hard for a moment and then said, "Well, what I'd really like is to sing a Christmas carol."
"A Christmas carol?"
"Yes, please. Right here." Ralph couldn't believe how polite the little girl was.
"She didn't get to sing in the school concert this year," her mother added. "I had to work so I kept her with me."
There was something about the two of them that Ralph found endearing.
He put his bell aside and said, "You know. I'm not sure if it's against regulations or not, but to heck with it. You go right ahead, young lady. Sing any song you want."
Lisa beamed a bright smile and took a moment to compose herself. Then she stood up straight and tall and starting singing "Silent Night". Her voice was quiet at first and the song hardly recognizable, but by the time she gotten to "Sleep in heavenly peace," she had found her confidence and passion, and her voice rang out loud and clear into the cold night air. Soon, a small crowd formed around the little singer, some even humming or singing along themselves. Ralph stood off to the side with Lisa's mother, watching, enjoying a bit of Christmas magic right there on the sidewalk of a big box store.
When she was done with her song, the crowd applauded and asked for more. With a nod from Ralph she sang, "Joy To The World," and even the bell ringer, old curmudgeon that he was, felt a tear form in his eye.
While her daughter sang, Meg, went through her mental checklist. Get Lisa into bed, snug and secure. Make sure the doors were locked. Make sure their extra blankets were handy because it was going to be cold tonight. Get to work tomorrow by nine in the morning for a full six hour day. Then back to the parking lot for the night, Christmas Eve.
Meg considered herself lucky because she had a car to call home and a place for her and Lisa to sleep. Others weren't so fortunate. But it almost had all gone down the drain when that security guard had gotten in her face, telling her she had to move on and couldn't park there overnight. She had to remind him that she could, that the owners of the store had agreed to let ten cars park there for the winter and she was one of them, one of the homeless finding a place to live in the big box store parking lot.
Finally he'd agreed, saying, threatening, "Well, you better watch yourself. No drugs or alcohol or anything like that."
No problem. Meg told him, "Look, it's just me and my daughter. You've got nothing to worry about."
He didn't either. Lance, her former boyfriend and Lisa's father, had no idea where they were and that was the way she wanted it. He was a drunk and was physically abusive to her, and she needed to stay away from him for the sake of herself and Lisa.
When Lisa was done singing she ran over, "Mommy, Mommy, did you like them? Did you like my songs?"
Meg smiled, "I did very much, sweetheart. You did really good." She turned to Ralph, "Thank you so much.
He suddenly had a thought, "You know, tomorrow's Christmas Eve. I'll be here from four until six, closing. Maybe Lisa would like to come and sing. I'd like it and I think the crowds would, too."
Meg thought for a moment. Why not? "What do you think, Lisa? Would you like to sing some more tomorrow?"
"I would, Mommy, I really would."
"Well, you heard her. I guess we'll be back."
Ralph smiled, "Good. Great. See you then."
"Okay. Right. See you tomorrow." The three of them all waved good-bye.
The snow was starting to fall as Meg and Lisa made their way to the far corner of the parking lot to their car. They got in the backseat and spent a few minutes wrapping themselves in blankets for the night, then curled up together for warmth.
Just before she fell asleep, Lisa spoke, "Mommy?"
"Am I really going to be able to sing tomorrow?"
"Yes, you can. If you want to."
"Oh, I do. I do."
"Well, then you can."
"Thank you Mommy."
"Don't thank me, thank the nice man. Ralph."
"I will tomorrow. Okay?"
"Okay. Now, good night."
"Good night. And Mommy?"
"If I can sing tomorrow, it's going to make it my best Christmas ever."
Meg snuggled in close to her daughter. It was so peaceful and quiet she could hear the snowflakes settling on the roof of the car. A silent night. They were safe from Lance. They had a roof over their heads and she had a job. Most importantly, she and Lisa were together. Things could be a lot worse. "Mine, too," she said, hugging her little girl tight, "My best Christmas ever."
About the author
Jim's family used to go Christmas caroling around his neighborhood when he was young. Silent Night is still one of his favorites.