The town was holding on in the death throws of a mill economy built on textile plants, which now stood vacant on the south side of town. Despite the bleak economic outlook for some, business was booming on the north side. There the huge hospitals and medical parks stood, not far from the busy line of restaurants and service establishments. A large law firm stood on the corner just before the bridges, the firm of Christopher & Christian, partners since the firm’s establishment fifty years earlier.
The old man walked up Walnut Street, which crossed his bridge, walking in the usual slow gait of a man with no itinerary or schedule. The backpack hung lightly on his back, seeming a contrast to the darkness in his face. Shuffling along the sidewalk, he could hear the sounds of traffic in the late evening, and see people smiling in the passing cars. But, his eyes registered no recognition of anything, and his face was blank. Ducking behind the small café on the corner, he fumbled through the lengthening shadows to the dumpsters. Dropping the pack to his feet, he leaned over into the can, sorting carefully through the packaging of various meals. In the first he found a burger only half-eaten. The second had nothing, but the third and fourth still had fries. Several packages later he found a piece of pie, and a half cup of chili. After finding a package of unopened crackers he loaded everything into his pack and ambled on through the back parking lots of the next few shops.
Sorting through the bin of the department store, he found a tube of sunscreen and a baseball cap. He stuffed the sunscreen in the pocket of his worn jeans, and slipped the cap over his head. Further on up Walnut Street, he dug through a dumpster near the drive-through of a fast-food joint, where some teen-agers were packed into a Jeep. Bass cranked up, and top rolled down, they were laughing and having a goodtime.
It was at that moment that they caught sight of him at the dumpster, backpack open, and the contents visible. Laughing louder, they began to call obscenities across the parking lot. A lanky young man in the backseat leaped over the doorframe, and called for the dark-haired one in the seat beside him to follow. They scurried across the parking lot. Reaching the old man, the thin light-haired fellow shoved the old man, knocking him off his feet. The dark-haired one bent over, and grabbing the pack, he tossed it into the large dumpster, far enough that it was unreachable. Laughing they both hurried back to the jeep, where their buddies were pulling away from the drive-through window.
Picking himself up off the ground, the old man dusted his knees and britches off as he heard the laughter fade with the departing youth. Picking up his ball cap and placing it on his head, he pulled the brim tightly over his eyes as they faded into an expressionless gaze, and he stood there silently for a moment before the dumpster. Apparently realizing the pack was hopelessly lost, he turned and retraced his steps back down Walnut Street. As he headed toward the river, total darkness descended, and the stoop of his shoulders, and the pain in his eyes were no longer visible in the light of the streetlamp. He walked along in the shadows of darkness, not thinking at all.
Nearing the vicinity of the department store, he saw people hurrying out with bags and parcels, hurrying to get home. One lady fumbling with rolls of gift wrap climbed hurriedly into her Jaguar, locked the doors hurriedly with a momentary glance in the old man’s direction, before speeding off. A young man hopped in his Chevy 4-wheel drive and peeled out of the parking lot so fast he barely missed the old man crossing the parking lot. Shop lights were extinguished one by one. The man walked on down the street, seemingly oblivious to all of this.
As he passed the Law Firm, he could see the counselors coming out of the building, closing up the offices early for the night. Large gifts were tucked under both their arms, and the younger gentleman had his young daughter by the hand. Glancing in the direction of the old man, he gripped her hand tighter and gave him a hard look, as if to dare him to come near his child. Then they disappeared across the parking lot, behind the building, laughing as they called Happy Holidays to each other and frost from the cool night air curled from their lips.
The old man neared the bridge, and turned off the road headed towards the river. A small economy car came flying across the bridge towards him. He saw a young couple in the front seat. From the erratic driving, it was obvious they had just left a party, and the driver was drinking. Just at that moment the young attorney was pulling out of the driveway of the Law Firm.
The old man heard the screech of tires, the grinding thud of metal against metal, and turned to see the lawyer’s Mercedes as it came careening over the low railing of the bridge into the river. With a glance in the direction of the economy car, he knew the occupants had to be dead in the wreckage. But, the Mercedes had disappeared out of sight. Without a second thought, he scurried down the river bank, pulling his tattered shoes off as he slid through the damp grass. Diving into the river, he paddled out to the floating car. The young attorney was crumpled over the steering wheel, unconscious. His daughter, head
full of curls and tears rolling down her face, begged for help, trying to get the windows to roll down.
The old man jerked the passenger door open, took the little girl in his arms and paddled back to the bank, where he sat her in the grass before turning back to the river. Paddling back out to the quickly sinking Mercedes, he pulled the young attorney quickly from the car and paddled breathlessly back to the bank, before he collapsed there on the grass.
With only hours remaining until Christmas morning dawned, emergency lights glaring off the bridge, the water, and the people that had gathered, the paramedics tried to save him. But, the effort had been too much for the old man‘s heart. Wrapped in blankets, the attorney and his young daughter sat on gurneys near an ambulance while the paramedics checked their vital signs and prepared them for the ride to the hospital. The little girl turned toward the sound as the church bells on the south side rang midnight. The ball cap floated along the surface of the river. Tears rolled down the attorney’s face as he watched them pull a sheet over the old man’s face. Looking at his daughter’s damp curls, he realized he had just been given the best Christmas gift of his life. But, what a price had been paid!