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One afternoon a month or so before Christmas, when the dollar stores were filled with rolls of shiny wrapping paper and the little shops were leaking happy carols onto the winter sidewalks, Sonny Colusso stopped in Jim’s Shot Glass.
The bar was festive, wreaths of holly pinned on the mirror above the bar. Frankie the bartender was standing on a stool, placing a Santa hat on the head of the lawn elf next to the television.
Sonny sat at the bar and swirled his glass to let the rye get acquainted with the ginger and the ice — he was trying to get the bubbles to flatten — when he sensed a presence at his side.
“Aren’t you the mailman?”
The speaker was an older fellow with nicotine-yellow hair and a trim spade of a beard. He was wearing a navy blue topcoat and holding a magazine under one arm; unusual, since most of the regulars didn’t wear topcoats, nor did they read.
How did he know? It didn’t matter. Sonny let the sound of the ice in his glass serve as a reply. He wasn’t the one who wanted to talk.
“So, how’s it going?”
“How’s what going?”
“Doing nothing. You liking that?”
It sounded like a taunt but it made Sonny pause. Liking it or not had never occurred to him.
The old man caught the bartender’s eye. He ordered a rum and coke, and another rye and ginger for Sonny.
“I deliver things.”
“You a courier?”
The old man said, “I’m looking for someone to make deliveries in the neighbourhood. You might be the man for the job.” He said, “I’m trying to ease off, to get out of the business. Not that it’s a business; more of a sideline.”
Sonny did not react.
The old man said, “I’m getting older; aren’t we all? But I can’t just walk away. The regulars expect me. You know what that’s like. You’ve walked a route. People rely on you. You don’t want to disappoint.”
Here it comes, thought Sonny.
The old man said, “I’m working on Christmas Eve. You want to give me a hand? You’ll find it worth your while. Ho, ho, ho, don’t you know.” The stranger laid a finger alongside his nose. The gesture seemed odd; irony was for kids.
“Worth my while how?”
The old man put his hand on Sonny’s forearm and suddenly Sonny felt like a child’s balloon, floating in the air, tethered to the old man’s hand. He tried to speak. Words wouldn’t come.
No one noticed as they floated over the tables towards the back of the bar, where a hard man was sitting by himself. The hard man had a teardrop tattooed on his cheek. He was sitting in a puddle of blue light. He didn’t look up.
The old man took a packet of salted peanuts, as if out of nowhere, and placed it next to the hard man’s beer. The hard man didn’t notice.
“That’s it,” said the old man. “That’s the job. That’s all it is. It’s what I do.” And he led Sonny through the air to his seat at the bar.
Sonny fought for gravity. The old man said, “It’s true, we were flying. No one could see. Call it a gift. There are a few of us. We hover over the city on Christmas Eve, looking for the blue light of longing. Wherever we find it, we leave a little comfort.”
Just then, the hard man sat upright, as if he’d awakened from a dream. He opened the packet of peanuts and ate them, one by one.
“Don’t ask. I can’t tell you. It’s a gift. Are you in?”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this. You don’t even know the old man’s name.” Sonny said she shouldn’t wait up. Missy said she’d leave him something in the oven. “Don’t blame me if it’s all dried out.”
“You know what?”
“Your question. It’s hovering over your head, like a word balloon. You want my name.”
He was right.
“Call me Klassen. Come on. We have work to do.”
They walked to the corner of Macdonell and Queen. The street was quiet and there was optimism in the air, unusual in the neighbourhood. Klassen dropped a quarter into the pay phone outside the Hindu video rental shop.
Christmas in Parkdale was a six-foot candle glowing on a frozen lawn, and a string of lights dangling from the juniper bushes near someone’s front steps.
The alkies, the crazies and the junkies, all the little kids and most of the old people were at home now, and the few people who were on the street were heading back to their rooms, and they smiled at each other as they passed, almost embarrassed to do so, as if the best wishes of the season were some kind of karaoke of the spirit.
Sonny remembered how it felt to be a kid, to put on a pair of fresh pajamas, powder blue, with cowboys and horses and six-guns. He remembered what it was like to crawl between clean sheets and close his eyes tight until all thoughts of wonder drifted away and he fell asleep.
Klassen said, “You’re getting into the spirit.” Sonny looked blank. The old man said, “The word balloon above your head; cowboy jammies. I had them, too. Never mind. I just called headquarters to verify the start time. We’re all set. It’s on. Let’s go.”
And the old man touched Sonny’s arm, just as he had before, and the two men rose slowly, and they drifted high into the night air. The sensation was that of swimming in warm salty water under the bone-white moon. Sonny looked down to see if anyone was looking up. No one was. The air made his eyes fill with tears.
The lights of the city were a handful of careless gems thrown onto a swath of black velvet. Here and there, Sonny began to sense little flares of blue light leaking from windows; not from every window, and some lights were brighter than others.
They entered through the window, drifting over the sill and through the pane as if they were part of a painting by Chagall.
How this could be, Sonny did not know. But it felt normal. Somehow. Sort of. And then they were inside.
Sonny held his breath. A woman was sitting on a motorized scooter in front of her television. She was watching Luciano Pavarotti sing “O Holy Night.”
She was heavy in the leg and her arms were thick and she seemed tired. There was an asthma puffer on the coffee table. She had been wrapping presents: a High John the Conqueror candle, a plastic tiara of paste diamonds, a pair of fluffy pink slippers and a soft bag of licorice allsorts.
Sonny said, “Her daughter and her granddaughter are coming over in the morning. You see the way she’s embroidered their names on the stockings on the tree? The candle is for the daughter. The tiara is for the little girl; she’s in Grade 3.”
“She buys herself a gift each year.”
Klassen drifted into the woman’s bedroom and fluffed her pillows, and then he drifted out again and as he passed by, almost touching her, and he whispered in her ear. “Beautiful tree.” She showed no sign that she heard, but she smiled.
Sonny stared, open-mouthed.
“She’s roasting a chicken for dinner tomorrow. She likes to drink sweet wine with ice cubes when she eats a chicken dinner; not to my taste, but it takes all kinds.”
The two men wafted out of the apartment in silence, and that is how the evening went — they came and they left at will, unseen, leaving little gifts, things that would not be noticed but would bring a moment’s pleasure.
And when the pink and yellow morning began to wash like watercolours over the neighbourhood, they drifted down to earth and called it quits.
Klassen brushed a few flakes of snow off his coat. Sonny took that as a cue, and he let go of Klassen’s arm.
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“You don’t need to know any more than you do now. There are no surprises, beyond the first surprise. You look in on those who need comfort and you leave a little good behind; sometimes, nothing but a whisper.
“That’s Christmas — people need to know they’ve done their best. They need to feel as if they’re not alone. When you get good at it, every now and then you will be able to conjure up something physical. It took me a couple of years to learn that little trick with the wine. But basically, that’s it. The rest will come. You want the job?”
“That’s it? That’s all?”
The old man began to fade from view. Sonny said, hurriedly, “Wait. I’m in. What about next year?”
“It will come when it comes. I’ll be there if you need me, but I don’t think you will. You don’t have to force it. But it will be better if you forget until next year.” He disappeared.
Sonny felt heavier, somehow; more substantial; grounded. It took him forever to walk home, climb the back stairs, find his keys, unlock the door.
Missy was sleeping.
He didn’t want to wake her. He walked across the living room. The tree lights blinked, the floor squeaked. She called to him from the bedroom.
“How was it?”
He didn’t know what to say.
He said, “It was a lot like Christmas.”
Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: email@example.com