INSTANT FICTION BY A.W. HILL: HE WAS JUST SOME JOSEPH...
The knock came just before midnight.
We weren't used to visitors, much less on Christmas Eve. Visitors come for warmth, and our house was cold for lack of money. They come for celebration, and we had not much reason. My mother'd lost her job, and my father had lost his mind. He’d gone off to find it, somewhere out West. We were four: my younger brother, little sister, my mother, and me. I was eleven and called Jack.
We were around the dining room table, drawing pictures of how we imagined Santa Claus to be, allowed to stay up ’til midnight for a chance of hearing sleighbells. To brighten the mood, my mother had big band swing on the phonograph: Stan Kenton’s Christmas, the album was called. When I asked why she played old records, my mother said that swing made her feel good because it swung up, not down. This was sufficient answer for me, for it was only through her effortful happiness that I could be sure the world wasn’t falling apart.
Even on Christmas Eve, the last train from the city came at eleven fifty-four. Most of the men had come home hours before, but there were always stragglers. It wasn’t unusual to hear footsteps in the deep crusted snow, or to see clouds of breath and blue smoke on the hard air, but it was very much unusual to hear those footsteps turn toward our door, and to see those clouds break against the frost on the pane. “Who in the world…?” my mother said. “Santa Claus!” my little sister shouted. “He doesn’t knock,” said my brother. “Oh, yeah,” said my sister. “Should I get it?” I asked, as this was my job. “No,” getting up she said, “I’d better see who it is. You stay put.”
It was a man, the age of my mother or more. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold and his smile was bright enough to catch the twinkling lights on the door. He wore a black wool overcoat, as all the good men did, and beneath his tartan scarf, I could see he also wore a jacket and tie. His mouth open, ready to speak, he drew back, regarding my mother with an odd curiosity. “Have I come to the right place?” he asked. “I had my head down against the cold and turned at what felt like a familiar bend, but....” My mother did not seem especially alarmed. “Well, I’m not sure,” she said. “What place are you looking for?” “1009 Avingdon Place,” he answered. “That’s where you are,” she said, and by now we’d all clustered round her apron. “Are you the new minister? We’d heard you’d arrived.” The man cocked his ear toward the living room and smiled. “Stan Kenton,” he said. “Ah, the memories,” and he did a little dance step right on the threshold. “Yes,” my mother replied, smiling, and invited him to come in and warm up a bit before continuing on. simple bridesmaid dresses
He had the good looks and the strong reassuring voice of an old-time actor like Robert Taylor. He belonged in black and white. My little sister took to him instantly and was on his lap before he’d finished his first egg nog with bourbon. He said he practiced law and that his specialty was finding justice for those who’d suffered injury or hardship through no fault of their own. He made us laugh and played Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on my father’s ukulele. He taught my brother and I how to play liar’s poker. Best of all, he made my mother laugh with stories of the old days that were as if shared though they couldn’t really have been, as he was a stranger. They talked and laughed long after we’d been put to bed, so long we thought sure they’d scare Santa away. But somewhere in the blue hours of night, when the world in silent stillness lay, my mother made up the sofa for him, and I heard her dance up the stairs. It wasn’t long after that the sleigh bells came.
In the morning, we discovered a fire in the hearth where there had been only cold coals, and stockings hung and bursting with sweets, trinkets and Pez dispensers. The blankets were neatly folded on the sofa, and on the phonograph, Anita O’Day was swinging Jingle Bells. Our visitor was gone, and our mother sat in the old armchair with stuffing coming out the bottom with a letter in her hand and a look of wonderment on her face. “Where did he go?” I asked, not without a trace of disappointment. She looked at me, her eyes moist, and read the last lines of his letter: “None of us has just one history. None of us go down just one road. Maybe ours will meet again.” “Who was he, mom?” I asked. She folded the letter and slipped it in her dress pocket, saying only, “Let’s see what he put in your stockings.”