“What do you think we’ll get for Christmas this year?”
It was on every kid’s mind—always is, it seems, in early December, when the young children are thinking of Santa Clause and the older ones know better. Still, whether believing or not, there were hopes of presents under trees and no school for two weeks. Christmas break was still two weeks away and the temperatures had dipped a little toward the end of 1980.
Jimmy and I made our way down Evans Street, having turned off of our road a couple of blocks earlier. At the end of Evans was a store appropriately named after the area—Broadacres. It was where we went before or after school, depending no how much money we had for lunch, or even if we ate lunch on any particular day.
The parking lot was crumbled concrete dotted with plenty of pebbles that crunched under foot. The building itself was a block structure, painted light yellow with a green awning that stretched along its front side. One door lead in and out. A bell jingled every time it was opened.
We were just outside the parking lot, still on the black top of Evans Street when I asked Jimmy that question. He shrugged, his denim jacket moving up and down with his shoulders. “I don’t know. Mom said money’s tight so who knows?’
“What about Santa Clause? Do you think money is tight for him, too?”
He stopped, looked at me for a minute, then smiled. “I doubt it—Santa has all those elves that make the toys anyway, so maybe we’ll get something good this year.”
This year? Jimmy had reached the beginning stages of branching out, becoming his own person. He had become less of a jovial prankster and more of a brooding pre-teen waiting for childhood to be over. We had grown apart—from being the Dynamic Duo to just being brothers, me the pest who wanted to tag along with the brother I worshipped and him wishing I would just leave him alone. Or, at the very least, have Mom tell me to leave him alone instead of her constantly on him about keeping up with me. Those words said so much more than he thought they did. In the end, he hadn’t dashed my hopes of there still being a Santa Clause, of joyful ignorance on Christmas day.
I’ll always have that…
We rounded the corner and went into Broadacres, the bell jingle-jangled as the door opened and closed. The place smelled like old people—at least what we associated with the elderly at the time: dusty, musty and stale. Mr. Haggarty sat behind the counter, his eyes like glass, his massive bulk hanging over the sides of the stool he was on. We went straight to the candy aisle, started picking out boxes of lemonheads and packs of Hubba Bubba bubblegum.
“What about grape?” I asked.
“Hush, Dwight,” Jimmy said, put his hand up. He was staring at Mr. Haggerty. I peeked past Jimmy’s shoulder toward the front counter, which was more of a boxed in square where Mr. Haggerty rang up the customers and doled out cigarettes to talking buddies.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Be quiet,” Jimmy responded, walked toward the counter.
Jimmy and Mr. Haggerty’s eyes met. I could see the heavy pull of Mr. Haggerty’s lips, how they stretched into a frown that made his entire face look as if it were crying. He reached over, turned the radio up so Jimmy and I could hear. The announcer’s voice was soft, filled with tears as he spoke words I’ll never forget.
Again, John Lennon, formerly of the Beatles, is dead…
I didn’t realize the gravity of those words. I was ten. It was 1980, when kids were still kids at that age and not little adults of unforeseen futures. I knew what dead was—my great grandfather had died a couple of years earlier. I had been sad for days after that. But, then life went on, I went on and his absence grew less and less painful. But, Lennon dead meant little to me. I knew who the Beatles were—Mom and Dad had several of their albums, but Lennon… Lennon didn’t ring a bell.
Jimmy knew who he was.
I stood, quietly, waiting for Jimmy to say I could talk again, waiting to purchase my candies so I could get on to school.
Mr. Haggerty shook his head. “It’s a shame,” he said and wiped tears from his eyes.
A moment later the announcer became quiet and a song began to play. I knew the first chords immediately. Before the lyrics could start, Jimmy ducked out of the store.
“Hey, wait up,” I said and took off after him. By the time I rounded the corner he had left the parking lot and was walking fast. I yelled for him to wait up, but instead he started to run, his book bag bouncing from side to side on his back. I ran after him, trying to get him to slow down, yelling that school was in the other direction, that we would be late if he didn’t stop and turn around.
He reached home long before I did. We were in trouble and I knew it—the tardy bell would have rung by then and there was no way we could get there and not miss most of first period. Out of breath I stumbled through the front door and dropped my pack to the floor.
Jimmy stood in the hall at the record cabinet. He had switched on the turntable and placed the needle on the record. The opening chords to the song from the radio at Broadacres began.
Jimmy sang along, tears in his words.
I read the news today o boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
I just had to laugh…
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before…
“Jimmy?” I approached him carefully. He held the vinyl’s cover in both arms, clutched tight to his chest. “Jimmy, what’s wrong?”
He lifted the needle from the record and shook his head. He sniffled, turned to me. His face was red and streaked with tears. “John Lennon’s dead.”
“Who’s John Lennon?”
Jimmy said nothing. Instead, he put the needle back on the record, picking up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in mid-song. “It’s him. It’s all of them.”
“But, that’s the Beatles.”
“He was the Beatles.”
Jimmy lifted the needle, put it back on the original song, A Day In the Life. He sang with the Beatles, with the now deceased John Lennon. He cried. I cried. Not because Lennon had meant something to me. I was ten, remember? I cried because he cried and if Jimmy was sad, it had to be bad.
It was December ninth—Lennon had been killed the night before—and Christmas was just around the corner. That year Santa Clause was good to us, especially Jimmy, who had listened to the Beatles nonstop since Lennon’s death. In a flat box, wrapped in red was the special gift left by the jolly guy himself. Jimmy peeled away the wrapper and stared at the album. It was Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’
For me there was no special package to soothe whatever ailed me. There were only generic packages with toys in them. It was then I realized the truth about Christmas; it was then that my childhood fantasies were shattered.
That afternoon I peeked into Jimmy’s room. He lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling while John Lennon sang “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Momma.”
He looked at me, one eye closed as if he had been sleeping. “Yeah?”
“There’s no such thing as Santa Clause is there?”
He frowned, shrugged that goofy shrug of his. “No. I guess not.”
I gave a nod. My heart was broken then, just as his was. “Can I come in? Maybe listen to John Lennon?”
Another shrug and then, “Yeah, sure.”
For the next few hours, we sat in silence, Jimmy on his bed and staring at the ceiling and me on the floor, knees pulled to my chest, arms wrapped around them. Every once in a while Jimmy would flip the album over and go back to lying quietly on his bed, his thoughts a million miles away. It was the last time he and I shared more than ten minutes in a room together without arguing or fighting. It was the end of the innocence of my childhood.
I sit back now, some thirty years later, remembering that cold winter and another song comes to mind. Yeah, it’s a Beatles tune—when you grew up to them, they’re kind of special to you. I played the song before leaving the house this morning, intent on ending a long cold spell, spanning three decades. Maybe Lennon knew something when he sang about people living life in peace. But, maybe he knew even more when the Beatles sang of the sun coming after a long lonely winter.
Here comes the sun, Jimmy. Here comes the sun, and I say… It’s all right…