A little something for Santa…
Here’s a bit of Christmas Cheer for you–made up of excerpts from The Lowlands of Heaven–as the story arrives at Christmas Eve…
In the 1930s and early ’40s, Americans welcomed Christmas more gratefully than they had in better times. The present was squeezed between a past haunted by the specter of the Depression, and a future that loomed black with the threat of war, so the spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men resonated more deeply than it had during times in which prosperity and security were more easily taken for granted. So despite the anxiety that beset daily life, San Diego, in the Christmas Season of 1940, carried on, donned its holiday livery, and showed the world a cheerful face.
In much the same way, Laurel carried on her search for Kate.
Her wandering led her to the downtown district where strings of colored lights, wreaths, and garlands of evergreen transformed the storefronts, and the sound of carols filled the streets. The strains of “O Holy Night” drew her to a shop where a gaily decorated Christmas tree glittered in the window. She sank down on the display window’s wide sill, leaned back on the plate glass and breathed in the healing music.
After a bit, another sound caught her attention: a ringing that reminded her of the bells of the locomotives she’d heard during her travels on the rails linking San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. She followed the sound, finally turning a corner to discover a red-nosed Santa Claus resignedly clanging away beside his collection bucket, which, despite obviously having seen better days, was made festive with some sprigs of holly and a red ribbon. Laurel watched as a passerby clinked a coin into the battered but gaily decorated vessel.
When the traffic thinned for a moment, the old fellow darted a look this way and that, slipped a flask from his pocket, and took a nip, missing not a stroke of the bell. As Laurel’s eyes caught his, he jammed the flask back into his pocket in one quick motion, and winked.
Laurel regarded him a moment, the parchment skin, the rheumy eyes, the grog-blossom nose. She remembered, with a tremor of apprehension, the “rumdums,” as Tony had called them, on the train from San Francisco. But recognizing the old man’s weariness, and—with a remnant of her fraying angelic sensitivity—feeling his essential good nature, her fear fell away.
“Merry Christmas!” she called to him.
“Merry Christmas, yourself, sweetheart!” replied Santa, with a smile that was disarming in such a rough-looking old fellow.
“You look tired,” she said. “Why don’t you take a rest?”
With a wry grin, he replied, “Strikes me as a fine idea, Love, but if I wanna fill the bucket, I gotta make the racket.”
“Let me, then,” said Laurel, setting the violin case on the pavement and undoing the latches. Santa watched her tweak the pegs and tighten the bow. He ceased ringing when she began to play Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He smiled and sat on the beat-up little box in which he carried his bucket and bell. Caught up in the Christmas spirit, passersby stopped to listen and to drop a little something into Santa’s bucket. A few coins landed in the violin case, too.
Laurel concluded Jesu to enthusiastic applause and as she segued into “O Come All Ye Faithful” the crowd joined in singing. As the crowd grew, so did the reach of their sound and their spirit, which drew yet more people. New arrivals would feed Santa’s bucket or Laurel’s violin case, or both, and then add their voices to the choir.
Finally, remembering her purpose, Laurel brought the concert to a close. She began to put the violin away, and was astonished to find the case half-filled with coins—and even a few bills, a kind of generosity scarcely heard of in those hard days. She stared at the jackpot for a second, then with an air of decision, picked up the case and tilted it over Santa’s bucket.
…continued, in The Lowlands of Heaven.