A Gift For Joey
At twilight on a frigid Christmas Eve in the year 1949, an emaciated, miserable young man stood on a street corner begging for money from passersby. His chattering teeth mimicked his trembling, ill-clad frame, but his questioning eyes held each return glance with unwavering expectation.
“Please, w-won't you give something?” the man implored, thrusting his hat out to each in turn. “My s-son Joey is four years old. I promised him a toy fire engine for Christmas, but I have no money.”
“A likely story!” spat a well-bundled middle-aged woman as she wagged an accusing finger. “I'm sick of you freeloaders at Christmastime! Don't you people have any shame, any self-respect?”
The startled man did not respond, but instead cast his sight meekly downward. The scolding matron seemed pleased by the feigned act of contrition, and with a self-satisfied snort she spun away, dismissing the man from further thought as she rejoined the sidewalk procession. Her exit granted space for those more generous of spirit, and within half an hour the bottom of the man's battered hat was thinly layered with small bills and coins.
Contesting with fierce currents and swirling snow ghosts, the man hastened to the nearest department store, counting his meager gain on the way. Three dollars and change. That was all. Would it be enough? What did a toy fire engine cost nowadays? Well, no matter. He had the money and he would keep his promise. His son, at home with Mrs. Simpson, would not be disappointed — not this time.
Ignoring the chill that threatened to turn his bone marrow to ice, the man began to whistle a lighthearted tune. The endless, frustrating search for employment would resume after tomorrow, he knew, but this evening’s successful endeavor gave him reason for cheer. Perhaps this signaled a change in luck, for what better indication of that than this welcome chance to make his son’s Christmas a joyous one.
As he rounded a corner, a slamming blast of wind shoved the man backward. Reeling, he slipped and fell hard, with his left shoulder striking an unyielding lamppost. His ragged hat departed, whirling upward, rising to the streetlights, sailing beyond them into the night. Three greenbacks, emboldened by his loosened grip, fluttered in his gloved right hand. Soon, they too were twisting and cartwheeling up past the streetlight's glare.
Rising against the harsh wind, the man clung to the ice-glazed lamppost. He stared in stupid disbelief at his offending hand. “Ahh, Joey ... Joey, I’m so sorry,” he muttered. And for a long time the man embraced the unresponsive lamppost, overwhelmed by thoughts of remorse, all but oblivious to the frenzied wind that swirled around him, whistling and mocking.
In a shabby apartment on Jefferson Street, five blocks away, Mrs. Simpson worked her needles, mindful of the time. The stores would be closing soon and Mr. Turner would arrive home. The keen anticipation of returning to her warmer apartment across the hall was enough to ward off the Turner apartment's chill. She brushed back a gray strand from her cheek and set her knitting aside. Rising from the worn, flowered settee, she glanced over at the boy idly drawing on paper on the bare living room floor. His dark, close-cut hair reminded her of her late husband’s, as Mr. Simpson had worn his in that same abbreviated style nearly his entire life.
Reflecting on her absent husband reminded her of how much they had looked forward to this time of year, how much it had meant to them. As a long-wed couple who embraced a strong religious faith, Christmas had always held a special significance, and its annual passing never failed to leave warm memories. She wondered if Joey Turner would ever have those types of memories, the kind that bring a smile of remembrance in old age.
Joey paused in his scribbling to declare, “Daddy's gonna bring me a fire engine.” He grinned up at Mrs. Simpson and she smiled in return. As the boy resumed his artwork, Mrs. Simpson moved to the kitchen to fix a quick, late dinner, with her thoughts gravitating to the boy's father. She knew Sam Turner would try to keep his promise, but despite being a stable, hardworking man, the truth was that he had not been employed for months. Getting enough food had become an issue, compounded by a critically overdue rent. The landlord was a patient, understanding man, but even he could not be expected to hold off eviction forever. What an awful outcome that would be, for where could the poor man go? And what would become of that sweet, lovely child?
At Brinden's department store, two blocks from where he had been panhandling, Joey's father stood in a toy aisle, burdened by unwelcome thoughts that seemed intent on playing back his entire catalogue of sins and failures. At this late hour, Brinden's was all but empty, of merchandise as well as of patrons. The toy fire engines were nearly gone, but to the miserable figure standing before them, the remaining ones were just as inaccessible.
For a long moment, Joey's father was unsure why he had come. To get warm? That was part of it. But why had he come here? In truth, he knew the answer, but perhaps needed to steel himself for conscious acceptance of the rash deed he was about to commit. At last, perspiring from nervous anxiety but resigned to his mission, he reached for the smallest red engine. He positioned it beneath his inadequate coat, trying in vain to mask its awkward bulge.
Minutes later at the door a muscular arm held him helpless. Sam Turner's sweat-streaked face flushed a deep red, a telltale shade that marked both his indignation and his shame. Stammering, he tried to explain, to justify his actions, but soon realized the futility. Heartsick, he faced the excruciating truth that this year would mirror the last; again, Christmas would pass with no gift for Joey, leaving nothing to distinguish it but another bill owed his child, this one left unforgivably unsettled.
A half-hour later at the Ninth Precinct jailhouse, Joey's anxious father paced his cell, and then paused to grip the cool, grim bars. “Please,” he pleaded yet again to the policeman on duty. “Can’t something be done? Someone's got to tell Mrs. Simpson what's happened to me. She and Joey must be worried sick by now.”
Sergeant Erickson glanced at the cell, leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on a desk corner. “I feel for you, I really do,” he said with seeming sincerity as he scratched an expanded circular bald patch atop his head. “But you said there's no phone out there, so you'll just have to wait 'till I can free up a squad car to send by. I'm afraid we're just a skeleton crew tonight, being as it's Christmas Eve and all.”
Sergeant Erickson, a thirty-year veteran of the force, had heard every hard luck story imaginable. He learned long ago not to get emotionally involved, for he had discovered that detachment was conducive to sanity and longevity in his line of work. Nevertheless, this man's story allowed a small twinge of discomfort to disturb his equanimity, as it brought to the policeman’s mind a troubling issue from his past. He glanced again over at the prisoner. The threadbare coat and worn shoes were standard indigent wear, but the clothes were clean and the man clean-shaven, and those facts alone impressed Erickson.
This man was no criminal, and certainly no bum either, for Erickson knew both types well. No, he saw this Turner as most likely a pretty decent guy who was just overwhelmed by a few bad breaks. No job, a dead wife, and a young son to raise ... understandable if something finally snapped. A shame it all had to come to a head on Christmas Eve, though.
Erickson settled back in his chair, looked away from the prisoner, and closed his eyes. Unbidden, a name floated forward and centered itself in his consciousness. Robbie. How long gone now? Was it ten years? Fifteen? Why couldn’t he remember? So strange how time plays tricks. Still, one clear memory again seeped through, the one always imposing itself when the push to reminisce came. It was what his son had once called him—“the bestest daddy in the whole wide world.”
Only four years old at the time, the boy couldn’t have known that his earnest, innocent sentiment would be proven misplaced. But how could any of them have known? Back then, the darkness that would soon divide and destroy their family had not yet begun to appear, a black entity that would in time eclipse all light. In the end, a growing alienation would replace all goodwill and would lead Erickson’s once model family to a tragic dissolution.
Beneath his closed eyelids dampness welled up and the old sergeant winced in anticipation of the familiar stabbing such musings always inflicted on a heart that refused to heal—or perhaps simply could not. So long ago and yet like yesterday. Would he ever not feel it … the pain ... the guilt?
His son had been fifteen when he disappeared. Whether he simply ran away or met with foul play was a mystery never solved. A thorough search and investigation turned up nothing. Again, Erickson reviewed the progression of events. In those early years on the force, he and his wife Marie had been happy, and they enjoyed their upwardly mobile life. Promotion had come swiftly, and when Robbie arrived five years into the marriage it seemed they had been truly blessed. Then, by subtle degrees, rifts began to appear on the idealized surface of their world, expanding to wide gulfs within a few years’ time. Marie became ill, diagnosed with a chronic form of schizophrenia. She began to disintegrate before Erickson’s eyes. An insidious robber of mind and reason, the disease left Marie to drown in delusion, to spend her days ranting at walls and fighting invisible phantoms. She could find no defense against her unrelenting demons within, and in time became unaware of her helpless angels without.
One terrible day, in the midst of yet another futile treatment program, Marie found a moment of awful clarity and threw herself from an eighth floor hospital window. Erickson, stunned to his core, had been forced to raise Robbie on his own. He had failed. His beloved wife’s shocking descent into madness and suicide had been too much to bear. His faith, strong in the beginning, ended at her death. The religion of his childhood had betrayed him, his fervent prayers sent into the void had all been returned as undeliverable.
In his despair and loneliness, Erickson had found a joyless, numbing comfort in drink, and he gradually withdrew into the darkest corner of his being. In time, the once binding threads of connection with his son began to unravel. Robbie, feeling unwanted, had turned more and more to the streets for the succor of questionable friends. His son’s permanent departure from home, at a late hour on a night of boozing indistinguishable from any other, went unnoticed. Weeks later, in a rare moment of sobriety, Erickson realized he was alone.
Slowly, Erickson disengaged himself from both his distressing thoughts and his comfortable chair, feeling an irritation rise that extended to the man in the cell. Why was this guy here, on Christmas Eve, with a young son expecting him to be home? Why were there always people like him screwing up their lives and everyone else's who depended on them? Glancing up at the massive wall clock, the sergeant realized his shift was nearly over. His night watch replacement would soon arrive, so he had to act fast. Muttering an oath, Erickson turned toward the cellblock and strode to the prisoner's cell. Expertly he inserted a key and slid the cage door open in one motion.
“Go home, Mr. Turner,” he growled to the startled inmate. “Go home to your son. You know that I'm not allowed to do this, that I'm risking my job, but there are times when you just have to do the right thing. I've accumulated some goodwill with my superiors over the years, so I’m hopeful they will show leniency for my actions. I’m betting you’re an honest man and will voluntarily return to face the theft charges when Christmas is over. Don't make me lose that bet, Mr. Turner.”
As Joey's weary father trudged through snowdrifts down deserted streets toward home, Sergeant Erickson reached for the phone on his desk and dialed a number.
(That concludes the excerpt. This free story is offered as an e-book and contains a bonus of two stories from my children's book, Seven and One Tales for Young Readers. They are "Grandpa's Stories," and "The Cat Who Was King.")