Not Like It Used To Be

As I’ve gotten older, my love for the Christmas season has dwindled significantly. This is terribly sad. Sad, I say. I guess that happens to a lot of folks when they realize the magic of the season fades as you get older. No, it doesn’t fade for everyone, but most. There is still a certain joy at points during the Christmas season, but for me it doesn’t carry that sense of awe like it used to. Yes, sad…

I guess it is the commercialism which lends to seeing Christmas stuff up in stores in August (yes, there was a store here in South Carolina that actually had their trees and lights and decorations up in August) and the Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday sales and all the insane traffic around any store for months in advance of Christmas.

There is a part in A Charlie Brown Christmas that I’ve always enjoyed. Good old Chuck has just been laughed out of the auditorium because of the Christmas tree he picked out. Charlie Brown then wonders about the true meaning of Christmas, and Linus obliges an answer by telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Now, that’s not the part I am talking about. The part I like is right after that as Charlie Brown is looking up at the sky to the North Star that shines bright, he smiles and says:

Linus is right. I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.

Linus is right.

Still, Christmas just isn’t like it used to be. And that is the basis of today’s story. I hope you enjoy.

Not Like It Used To Be
By A.J. Brown

Families line the streets. Kids are bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while, but fade, leaving shivers along spines.

“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.

“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.

There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.

A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.

“Here they come,” a kid shouts. Others echo his words. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers. Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd L shape. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”

The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads Miss WW III 2038. She smiles. Her teeth are missing.

A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squeak and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp, a rope tied around his waist. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite as spectacularly grotesque.

A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.

Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels, motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns, but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.

The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.

The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and somehow love.

The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.

Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”

The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and shredded wrapping paper. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building. It collapses, brick, metal and glass tumbling to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers. Others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…

“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.

A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.

A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.

“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”

“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air before stepping into the car. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, places it on her head.

“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”

Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”

The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some parents, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids…

Rudy–Another Seasonal Short Story

In 2006 I wrote a lot of holiday themed stories, from Halloween to April Fool’s Day to Boxing Day to, yeah, you got it, Christmas. I even wrote a Valentine’s Day story, though I wouldn’t call it very romantic. This story is another one of those 2006 pieces, but only slightly reworked.

Instead of going with my normal style of writing, I went in a different direction with this one. I hope a bit of the humor comes through. Sit back, relax and enjoy the read.

Rudy
By A.J. Brown

“Rudolph, you can stop now.”

“Relax, Nick,” Rudolph said and stomped on the woman’s head again. It squished, as if someone had stepped on a slug. He looked up from the bloodied body beneath him. “She had it coming, boss.”

“How can you say that?” Nick looked at the gore on the ground, the mass of light brown hair that was graying and soaked in red. The woman’s face was gone, ripped away by the incessant pounding of Rudolph’s hoof. Her chunky body was bruised, and in some places, bones poked out of skin and clothing.

“Take a whiff,” Rudolph said and backed away.

Nick sniffed the air and shook his head. He then inhaled sharply. “What am I smelling for, Rudy?”

“You can’t tell what that is?”

“Rudy, all I smell is crap and blood.”

“Come on, Nick,” Rudolph said, gave a roll of his eyes. “Have all the cookies and candies gone to your head instead of your stomach? Stop playing around and sniff her again. Get down between her thighs if you have to, but take a good whiff.”

Nick bent down close to her midsection and took a deep breath He inhaled a second time, taking in the scent of the dead woman. There was some perfume and blood and the stench of a fresh bowel movement. There was also the scent of something else; something that forced Nick to pinch his nose in disgust and stand up quickly.

“How could you tell?” he asked.

“Nick, I’ve got a sensitive nose, remember?” Rudolph said as he stomped on the woman’s head one more time.

“Rudolph, your nose is a flashlight—that doesn’t make it sensitive.”

Rudolph smiled and his nose lit up. “I tell you what, boss: you get you one of these noses and tell me it don’t get a little sensitive after having it on all night.”

“You were born that way, you freak of nature,” Nick said and laughed aloud before growing serious again. “How could you tell?”

“Nicholas, old boss, wasn’t it you who said you have to be able to smell a hater from a mile away?”

“Well, yeah, but that is just a figure of speech.”

“Not for me, Nick. I could smell her an hour before I saw her. Granny, here, reeks of someone who hates Christmas. And she don’t just hate it, she despises it.”

Nick nodded and scratched his nearly bald head. “How’d she get all the way out here?”

“She must have been determined,” Rudolph said and looked around. “You know yourself, what determination can do for a person.” Again, his nose lit up, shining brightly, then dimming. “There are tracks leading from the woods—she’s been waiting.”

“I wonder what she was up to?”

Rudolph rolled his eyes again. “Think about it, Nick. She was here to take you out, old man.”

”But why would she—“ Nick started to say before it dawned on him. His eyes popped open, his jaw went slack.

Rudolph nodded.

“I see now. If she gets rid of me, then there is no Christmas.”

“That’s right, Nick, old boy,” Rudolph said and stepped away from the body. “I don’t know what you did to her but you pissed her off pretty bad. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to take out Santa Clause.”

“Do you really think she was here to do me harm?” Nick asked as he looked down at the pulpy mass.

“Dude, she was here to kill you,” Rudolph said. “But don’t sweat it, Boss, I’ve got your back and she’s just meat for the bugs, now.”

Nick clapped Rudolph on the neck and they started away from the body. He glanced back momentarily and smiled.

“Would you like a beer?” Nick asked.

“Nah,” Rudolph replied, “but I’ll take a fuzzy navel, especially if you’re buying.”

“Oh, I’m buying, alright.”

“Nick, do you have a cigarette?” Rudolph asked.

“Sure do,” Nick said. “But, don’t let Martha know. She thinks I quit.”

Nick placed a cigarette between Rudolph’s lips and looked back toward the woman. Pulling out his lighter, he flicked it several times before it came to life. He lit the cigarette and stepped back.

The sound of the rifle penetrated the air. Rudolph teetered, one eye wide in disbelief. The other eye was gone, as was the back of his head and his once bright red nose. Nick bent down slipped the cigarette from between Rudolph’s lips and placed it between his own.

Rudolph’s body twitched, his back hoof jitterbugged.

“Cocky son-of-a-bambi, wasn’t he?” came a voice from the shadows.

“Yes, Blitzen. The cockiest.”

“You reckon he knew?” Blitzen asked, nodding and motioning to the woman.

“I don’t think so, but if he did, well, at least he was good for something before he died.”

“Do you reckon Martha knows about the affair?”

“No. But, she would have, if it wasn’t for Rudolph sniffing her out.”

“He had a good nose,” Blitzen said and walked off.

“Yeah, that’s about the only thing I’m going to miss of him.”

“You may want to get someone out here to clean up the bodies. You don’t want to leave them here overnight.”

“I’ve already got it taken care of, Blitzen,” Nick said and blew out a long strand of smoke. “Ahh, here they come now.”

Rounding the corner was an old beat up pick-up truck. One head light was blown out, but with the way it kicked and sputtered there was no doubt to Nick who it was.

“Howdy, Nick,” the driver said as he pulled up. His hair was a brilliant white, as was the stubble on his knobby chin.

“Evening, Jack. How’s Mrs. Frost doing?”

“She’s fine, and Martha?”

“Oh, she’s doing well. Gearing up for the Christmas rush.”

Jack got out of the truck and rubbed his head. “So, what is it you need, Nick?”

‘Well, it seems one of my trainees has been shot.”

“Ahh, man, I’m sorry to hear that,” Jack said and shook his head in disgust. “I thought it was illegal to hunt in these parts.”

“It is, but sometimes they do it anyway. You know how it can be.”

“Yeah, so what’s one of your trainees got to do with me?”

Nick pointed at the ground where Rudolph lay, his head face down in the snow. “I hear you like venison.”

***

Again, I hope you liked the story and, well, it’s time for a shameless plug. If you would like to find more of my work, you can pick up my short story collection, Southern Bones, here

I would appreciate if you would pick up a copy, and leave a review. Like the page, if you will.

Okay, no more plugging for now.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Not Like It Used To Be…

Since Christmas is just a few days away, I thought I would entertain you all with a few Christmas stories, kind of like a gift from me to you. Enjoy them. Leave comments if you will. Oh, and Merry Christmas…

Not Like It Used To Be
By AJ Brown

Families line the streets, kids bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while but fade, leaving shivers along spines.

“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.

“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.

There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.

A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.

“Here they come,” a kid shouts, others echo his words. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers. Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd L shape. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”

The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads “Miss WW III 2038.” She smiles; her teeth are missing.

A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squeak and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite like this one.

A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.

Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels, motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.

The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.

The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and love—the only thing they know and love about Christmas these days.

The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.

Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”

The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and fake presents. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building. It collapses, brick, metal and glass tumbling to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers, others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…

“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.

A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.

A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.

“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”

“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air before stepping into the car. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, places it on her head.

“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”

Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”

The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some parents, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids . . .

A Day In the Life

“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.”

“Jimmy?”

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…