The corners of my office were lost in shadows as I sat looking out the darkening window. Behind me, the desk lamp created an island of light and I was just offshore, within easy arm's reach of its warmth should my thoughts flounder in a sudden cold undertow.
Another Christmas . . .
Time passes so quickly. As a child, the weeks and months between each goose-pimple, teeth-chattering Christmas morning seemed to last forever. The fever would begin to build even as summer green faded to the burning rust of fall, and reach impossible heights as November turned, oh so slowly, to December. Sure, birthdays were fine, but Christmas . . . ah, the catharsis of a whole year's impatience. I could still feel the spirit living within me, though slumbering and I knew that every once in a while the ancient magic was still capable of lifting its childlike face in wonderment . . . .
I heard the clump-clump of familiar footsteps coming up the backstairs. I waited for him, visualizing the hand rising, going back--
"Come in Sam," I said before the knock could fall.
Sam stood in the doorway, unbuttoning his coat, squinting. "Kinda dark in here."
"It's cozier," I said. "Us writers need lots of atmosphere."
"And glasses, from the looks of things," said Sam.
I waved him into a chair. "So, what can I do for you?"
Sam shook his head. "Naw, Millie's doin' some last minute shoppin' for the grandkids. Thought I'd pop on in and catch you nappin' or somethin'. More like somethin', I'd guess."
I could hear cars slushing past on Howard Street and the old building settling against the wind. "Oh, Christmas and everything," I said, sighing. "Makes me feel old."
"It'll pass," said Sam, his chair squeaking as he leaned forward. "You get to a certain age and you find yourself rediscoverin' the whole thing."
"You there yet?"
Sam got this faraway look in his eyes. He grunted. "I missed a Christmas once. First Christmas away from home. It was six months after D-day and I was all of eighteen." Sam moved his eyes around the office, stopping here and there on a movie poster. He stared a long time at the poster for Apocalypse Now.
"Christmas morning, 1944," he said softly, the muscles in his jaw clenching. "I was with the 101st Airborne--"
"The ‘Screaming Eagles'?"
Sam nodded, his eyes flicking up to mine, darting away into the gloom. "The One-Oh-One had been rushed up to a town called Bastogne, right after the Germans had plowed through the lines along the Ardennes. ‘Battle of the Bulge' it was called. Bastogne was in a panic. Troops were pullin' back--"
Sam looked down at his large rough-hewn hands. "It ain't like you find it in books. I've read some of ‘em in the library. The facts are right but, up here in your head, you have memories--sights and sounds and smells--that can never truly be shared. Even with those who were there. We got all these unwritten books between our ears. They're filled every day and read every night, but only by you. People say they understand when you tell ‘em somethin'. But how can they, really? You want people to understand, sure, because you don't want to believe you're not that alone. You want ‘em to know who you are, what you are, and why you are. I figure writers are folks who want to leave somethin' permanent behind, even if it's only a ghost. All libraries and bookstores are full of ‘em, waitin' for life to come full circle. But the true book is the one you take with you at the end--" Sam started to laugh. I must have had my mouth open--that "pole-axed cow look" as Sam liked to call it. "Ah, I'm ramblin' on like a damn fool," he said, stretching his back.
"No, no," I said. "I think I under--" We both started laughing. "So you were at Bastogne when General McAuliffe replied ‘Nuts' to the German surrender terms."
Sam nodded, his vision withdrawing to some inner scene. "It's the cold I'll never forget," Sam began, barely above a whisper. "Sometimes at night I can feel it gnawin' away deep inside my bones. Winter comes around and I'm tempted to take up my son's offer of movin' to Florida. Can't quite picture myself stretched out on a lawnchair in flower print shorts, a straw hat, and sippin' lemonade. The cold though . . . it's an unforgivin' thing. Christmas morning, 1944.
"I remember the German tanks, big ugly Tigers, burning in the distance while we huddled together for warmth. Waitin'. Our overcoats were like cardboard. Icicles, like teeth, growin' on the lips of our helmets, and ice makin' our beards white. Our hands and feet felt like hard clay. The metal on our rifles stuck fast to bare hands. And it all began with the German 88s rippin' apart the night sky. Their twenty pound shells hammered the earth all around and it was like laying your face against a hardwood floor and havin' someone hit a ball-bat next to you face. Then the tanks appeared, rumblin' and creakin' like old dragons, with soldiers, like grey ghosts, ridin' their flanks. The world became a great, slow movin' train wreck, with us fallin' back on legs that felt like stilts, tryin' to keep just out of reach. We gave up a yard at a time, blood freezin' black as oil on the streets. Maybe we screamed, but no one could have heard it. By the end of the day we'd formed a solid line at the edge of town. And there we, by God, held. Next day, George Patton's 4th Armor rolled in and the siege was over. Only later, after one of the boys from the 4th with a canteen of hot coffee told me he was sorry about the late Christmas present, did I realize I'd missed the whole day. My 18th Christmas. I guess it's still out there somewheres . . ." Sam cleared his throat, his eyes bright. "Don't you just hate these old geezers who go on and on about their war stories?"
Sam and I sat in silence in a darkened room. Traffic was picking up outside. The sound of cars on the wet street seemed to jump out at me, suddenly, and with such sharp-edged clarity. We had been away, and now we were back. A young man with an old man's memory.
I stood up, from light to shadow. I held out my hand, pale in that darkness.
"For the one you missed," I said to my friend. "Merry 18th Christmas."