Christmas wasn’t exactly a special holiday in our house. Daddy was kind of a Grinch. Up until Mama fought the Big Battle and I was finally allowed to wear whore paint, my most memorable gift was a large box that had inside it a slightly smaller box. That had inside it another slightly smaller box, and… well, you get the idea. It wasn’t really the boxes that were so memorable as Daddy’s merciless laughter at my disappointment when the last one was empty.
For obvious reasons, I didn’t really share the joy most everyone else shares at this time of year until I was in high school. I spent most of my earlier years looking forward to Halloween and Valentine’s Day, mostly because those were the times when I wasn’t likely to be punished for my fantasies.
I got my first real taste of Christmas spirit when I was fifteen. It was Christmas Eve. I’m not even sure why Daddy let me go. I guess when I said caroling, he presumed it was with the group from church. No way would I have admitted it was with Kyle and a group of his friends, but Daddy didn’t ask, and I didn’t have to lie.
Kyle and I didn’t date very long, but the reasons for that are another story. From our first date, he was the picture of manners and etiquette in front of Daddy, and a typically horny, groping, teenage boy as soon as we were alone. Kyle was the first guy to ever kiss me. While we were together, it was impossible for me to see past how incredibly hot he was. Nothing could have been more exciting than the sexual tension that tingled inside me when I was with him and the way my body responded to his kisses. A cold night out with him meant an excuse to huddle close for warmth, and I was shivering more from the thrill than from the weather.
Christmas carols are something that seems to be as natural as breathing. I told Kyle I didn’t know any and I wouldn’t be singing along, but I wanted to go just to be with him. Kyle insisted I would be singing, and for once, he was right. I was surprised to learn that I not only knew all the tunes, I seemed to instinctively know the words, probably from hearing them around on the radio and in stores throughout my life. Before we’d left our first stop, I was singing along with everyone else.
We went door to door through a quiet neighborhood across town, not far from the high school. Some people wouldn’t answer their doors. You’d see the curtains move and I guess they just didn’t feel like listening. There were even a few porch lights that turned off right before we arrived. A few would answer, listen to one song behind the safety of their screen doors, and then wish us a Merry Christmas. Halfway through the neighborhood was an older couple who’d heard us coming. They brought us out hot cocoa and sang with us. I teased Kyle about drinking cocoa with marshmallows in it, but he drank his just the same.
Between houses, Kyle would stop and kiss me, and so after the cocoa, I got sweet, sticky chocolate and marshmallow kisses. We kept kissing while we stumbled along trying to keep up with the others. I was beginning to believe that there was just no way to feel any happier than I did that evening, our breath forming fog in the frozen air as we sang, the joy in the friendly faces of strangers, and Kyle’s hot kisses against my numb lips.
Our last stop was at a house with a wheelchair ramp. I’d been through the neighborhood before but I had never noticed the ramp. We skirted it and up the front steps. A guy named Phillip, older than all the rest, rang the doorbell, waited a moment, and when no one answered, he reached down and turned the knob. I freaked and asked Phillip what he thought he was doing in a harsh whisper, but Kyle shushed me. Phillip pushed the door open and and we all followed him in as quiet as mice.
The house had a slight offensive odor, like a faint smell of diarrhea maybe. It was good to get in out of the cold, but the odor was hard to get used to, and I couldn’t get over feeling that we were intruders. It struck me immediately that there was no Christmas tree. Even Daddy the Grinch puts up a tree every year. There were no ornaments or decorations of any kind. There was no display of Christmas cards. A well kept and cozy looking living room gave the appearance that it hadn’t been disturbed by guests in ages.
We shuffled on tiptoes past the living room and down a dark hallway. One by one, we filed through a door and crowded quietly into a small bedroom at the end of it. An elderly lady lay motionless in her bed and the smell that hung in the house grew pungent as I stepped in, forcing an involuntary retching reaction.
It was obvious that the reason she didn’t move was because she couldn’t. It was obvious that the reason her house seemed untouched was because no one ever touched it. She was utterly alone. The horror of the loneliness, of being trapped in that bed, draped over me like a dark cloak, suffocating me, trapping me in the smell of her hygiene. I couldn’t imagine it. And how embarrassed she must be for us to see her that way. I felt horribly invasive.
Tears pushed their way into my eyes when I saw her face. She was smiling. Beaming. Radiating. Energy shone from her face fit to warm the room with, and I could feel her pushing the frostbite away from my frozen face and simultaneously away from my heart. She was a candle, burning bright in the darkness of my perception, and I realized there was no way I could ever understand her or her life. Her voice was young and musical as she gleefully told us we were right on time. Her eyes, full of the tinsel and fire that were missing from her living room, settled right upon me.
“Who is this beautiful young lady?” she asked.
“I’m Annie,” I choked. I’m not used to people calling me beautiful.
“Katherine Welles,” she said, and I instantly recognized her name from the prayer requests I hear in church on Sundays. “I’m so glad you could join us, Annie.”
We sang five carols squished in around her bed, all traditional hymns from the church hymnal. Somehow, I naturally knew my parts, and as I sang them, I felt the magic of a beautiful harmony ringing in the bedroom. We sounded like a real choir, and it occurred to me as our voices blended, that to her, we were a choir of angels. For one moment in my life, I was someone’s angel. We finished with Silent Night. Phillip had a deep bass that buzzed inside me when he sang. The magic of the feeling took me completely outside of my body, where for a moment, I could only wonder at the miracle of the words coming from my mouth without my help.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Welles,” Phillip said when we’d finished.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Honey,” she beamed. “Merry Christmas to you all!”
“Can I hug you?” I asked.
“Oh, I insist!” she exclaimed.
I did my best. She couldn’t move, so I could really only lean over her and hug her cheek to mine. She was frail and delicate. I felt her turn her face and kiss my cheek.
“I hope you’ll come again next year, Annie,” she said quietly in my ear.
Before that Christmas, the names in the prayer requests were just names. Until that day, they were just the last few words I had to endure before I could get out and call Jessi. As I walked down her front steps back to the unfriendly cold of the sidewalk, every name on that list was as alive and vibrant and beautiful as she was.
I never saw Katherine Welles again. Kyle and I broke up and and I never got an invitation to go caroling with them again. I thought many times of stopping by her house, but somehow in the magicless daylight of every other day, it was almost impossible to find the courage to push through someone’s door unannounced. Only once, I gathered the nerve to walk up to the porch, and test the knob, unsure what I would do if I found it open. Of course, it was locked.
© 2012 Anne Schilde