The Magic of Christmas
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by Ron Cruger
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Note: Following is a repeat of the popular Christmas story written by Ron Cruger, “The Magic of Christmas,” the story of “Old John” and his three friends who met one Christmas inside Sander’s Department Store after closing time. Four homeless people find their lives changed thanks to their meeting a kindly old man during the early hours of one Christmas Day. The story brings hope to all who have abandoned hope. Merry Christmas to all…
     Most of the street people called him “Old John.” Others, who didn’t know him that well called him “Tic” because of the twitch that constantly bounced in his left eye and cheek. “Old John” was sixty nine years old, thin, angular and appeared to be continually tired.
     “Old John” had been a street person for the better part of four decades. He knew the ins and outs, the intricacies of being homeless – of living on the streets. He knew the bone chilling cold of the cement, the looks of disapproval from the more fortunate ones. Perhaps the most painful of all was his own sense of failure. He knew deep inside himself of his wasted years. He had a strong awareness that he could have done more with his life. With every step he took he felt the jarring in his spine shouting “flop, flop, flop.”
     Before his fall into failure. Before he tried to drown his pain in cheap drink. Before the frigid streets had become his home. Before he became “Old John,” his family and friends simply called him John.
     John’s parents were upper middle class. His mom, dad and his two sisters lived comfortably in the northern part of the state in a large Colonial style house. John played football in high school, got good grades and was fairly popular. After high school he went to the Community College for two years, getting an AA degree in business administration. After graduation John married his high school sweetheart, Alice. Three years into their marriage they still had no children.
     A week before their third anniversary Alice had gone to the doctor for her annual physical examination. At the conclusion Alice asked her doctor if there was good reason that she could not become pregnant. The doctor told her he would perform some tests. Driving home a drunk driver ran a red light, smashing into the driver’s side of Alice’s economy car – killing her.
     Two days after Alice’s funeral John bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and began his odyssey of escape. The drinking soon became his lifestyle.
     Three years after Alice’s death John’s father died of a heart attack. A year after that his mother died of leukemia.
     During the ensuing years John had held a handful of jobs, losing most of them due to his drinking. Now in his sixty ninth year John had long ago resigned himself to living on the streets until he met his end. His memories haunted him day and night.
     It was two days before Christmas and “Old John’s” bones were cold. He had been sleeping on top of the flattened cardboard boxes in the doorway of a shuttered pawn shop in the downtown area for the past six months. Once in a while the cops came by and hassled him. When they did he would pack up his meager belongings in an old gym bag and two black plastic trash bags. Then he would sleep elsewhere for the evening, only to return to the pawn shop doorway the next evening.
     On this chilly evening, which, for others was filled with the joys of the holiday season, “Old John” walked the downtown streets until he saw the bright Christmas lights being turned off. It was a sign that the rest of downtown was retiring – doors were slamming shut and being locked.
     He liked the holiday lights. They brightened the cold streets that were his home.
     John wore three shirts and a jacket, but the cold wind penetrated the layers and reached his bones. Tonight’s winds were stronger than usual. “Old John” shivered as he walked. His few remaining teeth chattered. “Old John” feared that the cold winds might prove to be too fierce for him to sleep on his cardboard boxes this evening. Two evenings before he had watched the ambulance pick up the body of an acquaintance of his who had died from exposure to the blustery weather.
     The problem, “Old John” thought, was where could he go to escape the treacherous winds and cold.
     It was 11 p.m. as John walked past the doorway of the closed downtown taco shop. He offered a “Merry Christmas” to the three bearded men who had made this doorway their nocturnal home. Two of the three offered, “Same to you, “Tic.” The third was huddled near the door, shivering and staring at the other two.
     “Old John” walked past the small shops that catered to the middle class apartment dwellers that lived in the neighborhood. He shivered as he walked past the Shell gas station, into the parking lot of the giant Sander’s Department Store. Sander’s had closed at 9 p.m., but there was activity inside the enormous building. The cleaning people and the re-stockers were readying the eight floors and organizing merchandise for the frantic crowds that would appear tomorrow, Christmas eve.
     “Old John” circled Sander’s parking lot, lugging his tattered gym bag and the two black trash bags. At midnight he saw the last of the cleaning crew and the re-stockers walk through the exit door marked, “Employees Only.” As the door opened and closed he edged closer, flattening himself against the brick wall closest to the exit door. As the last employee walked through the door “Old John” threw a red, workshop rag on the ground between the door and the casing, halting the door from closing completely and locking. He waited another ten minutes, until he was sure that the store was empty of workers. Staying close to the wall he carefully slid along the bricks until he reached the doorway. The door was a quarter of an inch from locking. He looked around behind him. Seeing no movement he pulled on the door knob and opened the door just enough for him enter the building, lugging his bags behind him. He removed the workshop rag from the floor, permitting the door to close and lock.
     Silently, he moved through the aisles, coming to the carpeting and rug department. He reached down and tugged the end of a large roll of blue carpeting, stowed his three bags behind the roll, loosened his jacket zipper and set out to inspect the bottom floor of Sander’s Department Store.
     Finding the store’s candy and snack bar he walked behind the service counter where he saw bags of potato chips, hot dogs from the past day, mustard, onions and relish. He ate two hot dogs, washed down with a soft drink. Dessert was two chocolate chip cookies from the display case. “Old John” hadn’t eaten this well since the free Thanksgiving dinner at the Salvation Army.
     Relaxing after his filling meal, “Old John” pulled up a chair from the snack area, stretched out his skinny, aching legs, closed his eyes and pointed his head upwards, as if daydreaming. He had just started to doze off when he heard the footsteps.
     Quickly ducking behind the counter, he could feel his heart beating wildly. Slowly he raised himself enough to see down the aisle of the women’s lingerie department. Coming towards him was a woman and two men. His heart felt as though it would burst through his chest.
     Peering over the counter he saw that each of the trio were dressed like street people. Knowing that he couldn’t run and that he would be seen in a few seconds anyway, “Old John” stood up and faced the three.
     The trio stopped dead in their tracks and stared at the now perspiring “Old John,” who stood as tall as he could and said, “Are you part of the clean up crew?”
     One of the pair of men, the taller one, put his hands on his hips and answered, “No, who are you?” John, making a fast decision on how to handle the situation, replied, “My name is John, I’m just staying here tonight.” The tall stranger looked “Old John” in the eye and said, “Are you from the streets, I think I’ve seen you before?” “Yes, they call me ‘Old John,’ who are you people?”
     The shorter man, who had the look of an ex-prize fighter, took a step towards John, held out his hand and softly said, “Hiya, man, my name is Ben. Then, pointing towards the taller man said, “His name is Charley and her name,” pointing towards the short, fat lady with his index finger, “is Shirley.”
     John, relieved, shook hands with each of them and said, “Glad to meet you. Are you staying the night here too?” Charley answered, “It’s so damn cold out there at night, we’ve been staying here for the last two nights. It’s wonderful, we get a good meal at the snack bar, we’re warm and there’s nobody here to bother us. There’s plenty of room for you too, John.”
     The four spent the next hour sitting on the soft chairs in the woman’s lingerie department sharing their experiences on the streets of the city. It was getting late. Each of the four headed to a different department to spend the evening in warmth and safety.
     “Old John” returned to the carpeting and rug department, where he had stashed his bags. He lied down on a pile of carpeting and pulled two throw rugs over himself for warmth. He reminded himself that he would have to carefully leave the building before the arrival of the first group of employees.
     For the first time in months “Old John” had spent a warm and painless night sleeping. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark outside.
     He returned the throw rugs and carpeting to their original positions. Then he hoisted his ragged old gym bag and the two trash bags over his shoulders and waited behind the boxes of merchandise near the “Employees Only” sign. Four Sander’s employees entered through the door. “Old John” waited for the four to pass out of sight. He listened at the door for any noise coming from the parking lot. Nothing. It was safe for him to pass through the door to the outside.
     He quickly walked through the store’s parking lot and a block away he turned and saw his three new friends walking in the same direction. Another block and “Old John” turned right. He saw the trio turn left.
     John spent the day as he usually did – walking from one end of the downtown area to another, stopping at the rear doors of his favorite restaurants to go through the trash cans for edible remains of the day.
     The sun had begun its descent in the heavens. The shadows painted the buildings and the temperature was dropping rapidly.
     “Old John” raised his head and checked the big clock atop the Mercantile Building. It was 10:30 p.m. and he was beginning to shiver as the cold invaded his layers of clothing. He shivered even more thinking of spending the frigid hours of the evening and morning atop the cardboard at the pawn shop.
     He decided that he would attempt to spend another warm evening, once again, inside Sander’s Department Store.
His pace picked up as he walked towards Sander’s and watched as the arrays of Christmas lights were turned off and downtown slowly darkened.
     Passing through the parking lot area, “Old John” leaned against the Sander’s building wall, 20 feet from the “Employees Only” door. It was Christmas Eve and he had to wait longer than he had the previous evening. The store was open an additional hour this night to accommodate the hoard of late shoppers.
     “Old John” peered upwards and saw the top floor lights being turned off. Then the seventh, then the sixth floor lights shut down. It continued until the ground floor lights dimmed and then the entire building was dark.
     Just as he had done the night before, he waited until the last member of the cleaning crew had left the building, and, as the door swung to close, “Old John” once again threw the red shop rag between the door and the casing. The door couldn’t lock.
     When he was sure the last employee had left the building “Old John” came from around the building’s corner, grabbed the doorknob and swept inside. For a few minutes he hid behind large cardboard boxes, as he made sure that he was alone in the building.
     When sure, John headed for the same carpeting and throw rug area. He stowed his three bags behind the same role of blue carpeting as the night before.
     Today he had eaten only a half a tuna sandwich, a portion of a candy bar and the dredges of a discarded can of soda. All found in trash cans behind local restaurants.
     Keeping an eye peeled for signs of visitors, “Old John” quietly walked to the snack bar and began eating. A hot dog, a slice of cold pizza, potato chips and two chocolate chip cookies later he pulled up a plastic chair and sat down in front of the counter and rested to digest his feast.
     The noises sped through the empty aisles. He hid again. Peering over the counter top he saw his three newly made friends from the night before walking towards him down the same lingerie aisle. It was Charley, Ben and Shirley.
     Charley saw “Old John” and offered, “Hi there, John, how ya doing?”
     “Good, good.” Replied “Old John.”
     “Old John” had noticed something that he hadn’t seen the night before. Charley walked substantially bent over. Ben’s left arm hung clumsily at his side, seemingly lifeless. Shirley had a pronounced limp in her right leg.
     The four spend the next hour, snacking on the remains of the popcorn, made earlier in the afternoon. They talked about their days and nights downtown.
     Tired, but no longer cold, the four headed for their chosen area of safety to spend the evening.
     At 3:10 a.m. “Old John” was awakened by a shuffling sound emanating from the next aisle over. He pulled aside the large throw rug he used as a blanket. Advancing towards him were Charley, Ben and Shirley.
     With the two men flanking her, Shirley, sotto voce, said, “John, we heard something a few minutes ago, it waked us, we think someone else is in the store!”
     John rose from his carpeted bed. “Let’s look around, but be quiet, real quiet.”
     The four, walking as one, went left, then right, then left again. As they turned towards the women’s shoe department they pulled up quickly. Stunned. Their four hearts raced as standing directly in front of them was a man – a heavy-set man, sporting a long, white beard, dark slacks, a loose jacket and boots.
     The stranger, also startled, held both of his palms towards the four and said, “Good evening. It’s Christmas, folks. Hope you’re enjoying the night.”
     “Old John” his heart still pounding inside his chest answered, “We’re not hurting anything. We’re just spending the night here, sir. It’s so cold outside. We needed a warm place to spend the night. Is it a problem? Do you work here?”
     “Heck no, folks, I’m just passing through. I needed to pick up a gift for a little kid in the next county. Seems I overlooked him when I made my list. You folks go back to whatever you were doing.”
     Ben asked the cheerful stranger, “You won’t tell on us, will you?”
     “Folks, I’ll only be here for a moment or two and then I really have to be on my way, it is Christmas, you know. Things to do, places to go.”
     “How did you get in here,” asked Charley.
     “With a charming grin, the stranger replied, “I have my ways.”
     “Do you have time for a cup of coffee or cocoa?” asked Shirley “I’ll make some if you do.”
     “Why, that would be nice, real nice, as long as it’s no trouble for you.”
     The five sat down on the plastic chairs in the snack restaurant area and soon enjoyed steaming hot cups of coffee, made in the large urn behind the counter.
     The bearded man told the four that his name was Chris. He asked the four questions about their lives. He found out that the four of them were homeless and lived on the streets of the city. None had any feelings, one way or another, about Christmas. Daily survival was all that mattered.
     Chris noticed that “Old John” had a tic in his left eye. He saw that Charley was bent over and Ben’s left arm just hung from his shoulder. He watched Shirley walk and observed her limp.
     The bearded one asked each of the four how they had come to be street people, “What happened?”
     “Old John” told of his wife dying in a car accident that turned him to drink. Charley was a college athlete with great potential to make it in the pros as a basketball player until he cracked a vertebra that ended his cage career, taking pain pills to excess. He still resorted to drugs and liquor to help him ease through his failures in life.
     Ben explained that he was caught robbing a liquor store and had spent five years in prison. After his release he became a helper to a landscape gardener but gave up on that and turned to mooching from friends and taking odd jobs picking fruit in season.
     Shirley explained that she was chosen to play “Annie” on stage in Cleveland as a child. Her career blossomed until seven years ago when her agent seduced her and introduced her to a heroin habit. She had remained in a half stupor most days since then, alternating between heroin and wine – falling down a flight of stairs after drinking a bottle of cheap wine crushing her right knee.
     The aged Chris leaned back in his chair and said, “The four of you have gone through some tough times, haven’t you? I’m sorry you’ve had such terrible years, but, you know, this is Christmas and perhaps it’s time for you four to change your lives.”
     Each of the four wondered what their new friend was getting at.
Chris continued, “Please, take it from me, you can change your lives. It’s possible for you to get off the streets. You can rejoin society and become successful again. You must regain faith in yourselves. You must picture yourselves as being happy, earning a living, helping others, having friends and loved ones again. This day can be the start of your new lives. You must promise yourselves that drugs and drink live only in your past. Make this special time, this Christmas, a new beginning. I have a feeling that the four of you are destined to become lifelong friends – and your lives will become intertwined and filled with good fortune and blessings.”
     With that the short, stocky man rose, smiled and lightly touched each of the four on top of their heads as they sat in their chairs.
     He faced the four and said, “From this day on I feel that your fortunes will change. Prosperity will be your lot. I shall think of you all my days. Carry hope in your heart and your lives will flourish. Now, I must leave you. I have many things to do.”
    The four shook their new friend’s hand and bid him a safe trip. They had no idea of where Chris was headed.
     The four watched the bearded one walk down the aisle in front of them. “Old John” said, “You know, I believe what he just told us. It is possible for us to start new lives for ourselves.”
     The other three bore smiles for the first time in months. The tickling beginnings of hope and happiness stirred in their chests.
     “I feel so different,” said Charley. The four agreed that something special had happened to them. They sat and enjoyed another cup of coffee as they discussed the evening and its enchantment. “Old John” felt a strange feeling come over him. His tic had stopped. It was gone.
     Charley, hands on his hips, stretched backwards and then stood straight for the first time in two decades. He was no longer bent over.
     Ben massaged his left arm, felt a tingling and raised his arm over his head. He breathed deeply and said, “It’s a miracle, it’s been 30 years!”
     Shirley hugged Ben then walked towards Charley and felt that her limp was gone. She walked a dozen steps down the aisle, restraining her joy, then performed a quick jig to prove to herself that her infirmity was gone.
     “Old John” grabbed a mirror from a nearby counter and checked to be sure that his tic was, indeed, gone. It was.    Shirley walked steadily without her limp. Charley straightened his shoulders and squared his back. He felt no pain and he had gained 3 inches in height. 
     Ben waved his newly activated left arm. It tingled, but worked fine.
     It was nearing 5 a.m. The four were tired, but felt more alive than they had in many years. They knew that the Sander’s employees would be arriving soon. They had to get their few belongings and leave.
     At 5:30 a.m. the four friends were standing beside the “Employees Only” doorway.
     “Old John” felt that they may be leaving Sander’s as clandestine boarders for the last time. He felt good. He opened the door a crack and peered out, making sure that their exit would go unnoticed.
     The four walked through the doorway and headed towards downtown.
     One by one each felt an odd object in their jacket pockets. Each pulled out a new leather wallet. One by one they opened their wallets and found five one hundred dollar bills neatly placed inside the leather folds.
     In a pocket inside the wallet each found a small, flat, granite stone, polished smooth. Etched on the face of the stone was one word – “Believe.”
     In amazement, each stared at the other three. They hadn’t had time to comprehend and enjoy their newly found largess. They were stunned.
     Each tightly held their gifts. They did not trust placing them back in their pockets for fear that their gifts would fade into smoke.
     The words spoken by the short, stout man echoed in their memories – “It’s time for you four to change your lives.”
     The four walked together to the downtown Salvation Army building where they waited for its opening. Then each shopped for a new set of clothes.
     Outside, the sun was shining brightly, warming the streets. It was Christmas day.
     The four would never know how the gifts got into their pockets. They had a hunch, though.
     They knew they would never forget their magical Christmas Eve and Christmas day. They knew that something special, something magical had happened to them. They knew they would be forever grateful for the faith and advice given them by that stocky, short man in the dark jacket. Their thoughts would often return to that miracle Christmas at the snack counter in Sander’s Department Store.
     Around the corner from the Salvation Army the four sat in a small café, sipping coffee. Sitting there, their hands joined in promise on top of the small table. The four made a life long commitment that they would meet every Christmas Eve for a cup of coffee at Sander’s Department Store just before closing time.
     The four, indeed, found new and successful lives. They enjoyed good health and happiness for the remainder of their years.
     And every Christmas Eve, as they sipped their coffee in Sander’s Department Store, their heads would turn, hoping to catch a glimpse of that happy, bearded man who had given them their new lives.
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