Adam and Fritzy would have to hustle. They had to get back to town on time. He was the man of the family now. Moms needed indoor plumbing and Adam knew he had to have a clear mind and time to think. Besides, he had Fritzy with him and, to his way of thinking, he was responsible for her too, at least that evening he was.
A clear mind and clear vision are different things, however. When the sun sets in the country, it is dark, seriously dark. They stepped up their pace as the temperature began to drop. When they had passed Raymond Bryson’s farm, six mailboxes down the road, a blue car slowed down beside them and the driver rolled down his window.
“The weather’s starting to get bad. You two want a ride back to town?” The driver asked.
“That’s okay,” Adam refused and didn’t look up. The timbre of man’s voice had an eerie echo that was unnerving as the sound bounced along on the clear icy air. The goose bumps on Adam’s arms stood at attention again. First, Crammer pushed me, now this guy. I can’t get Fritzy involved in this.
“Look behind you, Son,” the driver suggested.
Adam turned to see that a squall had gathered in the west. “Even in the dark, that doesn’t
“It looks bad.” Fritzy huddled up close to Adam and buried her head in his back to protect her from the wind.
“There’s another blizzard pushing in. You two had better hop in and let me take you into town.” The man was pleasant enough.
Adam would have acted without paying attention to his gut in the past, but it was different this time. He had never seen the man around anywhere.
“I’m so cold, Adam. You get in the front and I’ll climb in the back. I can still get back in time to help Mom finish the cookies.” Fritzy said as she reached for the door handle and got in.
Adam pulled the front seat forward for Fritzy, then got into the car with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. Country people hitch rides into town all the time. In a small community, everyone knows each other. This time the situation was different. Adam was sure he did not know Mr. Blue Car.
“The name’s Smith,” the man offered.
“Adam Shoemaker. Thanks Mister.”
Fritzy was silent in the back.
“Shoemaker?” Smith looked at the boy a moment then turned his attention back to the road. “The road is a little slicker out here since the sun has gone down.”
Smith? Adam puzzled. There aren’t any Smiths in Middletown. “You from around here, Mr. Smith?”
“No, Son, I’m not. You live out this way? You, Little Miss?”
Adam felt uneasy. Why was the stranger asking him where he lived? Who was he? Adam
didn’t like the whole situation but he really didn’t know why, except he had Fritzy to think about if he had to streak out of the care quickly.
He answered in a monotone droll, “No, I live in town. We were visiting the Crammers.” More lies but they seemed to be the safest response.
Shaddi, who is this guy? Why does he give me the creeps?
Nothing more was said for a few miles. In the reflection on the side window, Fritzy
looked like she had fallen asleep.
Adam also saw the images of darkness, with their sinister eyes, pass by as if on the conveyer belt of an assembly line. He wondered if the shadows were actually there or if the figures only represented the empty, hollow places of his heart. He turned his eyes away and focused on the falling snow that seemed to bombard the front windshield with kamikaze impact.
“This is the first Christmas without war since 1938.” Smith broke the silence.
“That’s right I guess. I hadn’t thought about the holidays like that.”
“Did you folks get along okay back here?”
Back here? Adam wondered what the stranger meant. He decided facts would be safe. “Most of the men and boys were gone. My dad shipped out almost three years ago. First we thought he wouldn’t have to go. He was a farmer and food was necessary. I guess they ran out of available men.”
In the dim light, Adam could see the snow-covered jagged fence posts pass as they got closer to town. They flew by like skeletons standing guard, whose dry bones were bleached white from exposure to the cruel world.
“I’ll bet you’re glad your dad’s back home.”
Adam was not interested in talking about his father’s absence with a stranger. He could not explain why his father was still gone, even to himself, no matter how many times he saw the vacant chair at the kitchen table. He certainly wasn’t going to try to answer a question for which he already knew he had no answer. He definitely was not going to say that Pops might be a deserter. It was easier to think that he was dead and the war department hadn’t sent his body home yet. Not even his dog tags. He wondered if the dry bones were trying to tell him of his father’s fate.
“Is there anything I can do to help out?” Smith sounded caring, helpful even. But, who was he?
“No, we’re getting along okay.” Adam gripped the passenger side door handle and nearly jumped out of the car when they slowed at the first stop street inside the city limits. Then he thought of the sleeper in the back seat. “You can let me off at Fritzy’s house.”
“This is Cranberry Street?” Smith looked up at the street sign. “Tell me where to go.”
“Three streets up. Norman Avenue.” They road in silence.
“I’ll take you home then,” the man offered.
“No, that’s okay. I live down the street.” Adam insisted.
When the car stopped, Adam hoped out and opened the back door. “Fritzy,” he nudged her shoulder. “Wake up.”
“Oh,” Fritzy slowly opened her eyes and looked around. “We’re home. Thank you but I was going to the church for a while this evening.”
Mr. Breman opened the front door. “Glad you two are back,” he called out as he hurried down the steps to help Fritzy inside. “Your mom said you had gone for a walk and I said,
‘Impossible. Not on an evening like this.’ Did you have a good time?” he reached out his hand to Adam. “Good to see you Adam. I knew she was in safe hands.”
“Thanks Adam. I had a really good time,” she smiled, then thought again. “I am really hungry. Did you save my supper for me?”
“We were just ready to eat. Do you want to stay for supper, Adam?” Coach Breman asked. “No thank you. Gotta get back. Bye Fritzy.”
He motioned to Smith to drive on. “I can walk from here. Thanks.” Adam had to get away. He was tired of the questions, and sick of the cold. He was relieved he had told Smith to let him off at the Breman’s home. It was just a few blocks down from the church. He just knew he had to get away. There was something about the man that made him feel uncomfortable, but he didn’t know what.
Smith coasted his car along the curb behind Adam as he walked on the sidewalk. Adam feared he would follow him all the way to the belfry. He walked up to the first house that had no lights on and pretended to try the front door.
“Back door,” he shouted over to Smith and waved him off. Adam walked around to the back of the house, then ran up the alley and over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. He was glad Morningstar’s dog was not out. That big black mut chased anyone and anything off the place. A squirrel couldn’t touch a foot to the ground in his yard, before the dog tore after the tree rodent and chased the nut eater back up a tree where it belonged. Adam could hear the dog bark from inside the kitchen door.
In Morningstar’s back yard, Adam could see that moonlight had begun to burn through the heavy snow clouds. In the dim light, Adam saw a path stretched out before him, defined by tiny bits of sparkling green dust. He followed the crystal path and darted across several back yards and came out on the next street, more than a half block from where he had entered. When he circled around and got back to the church, he finally breathed a sigh of relief. His satisfaction at arriving back at the church was quickly squashed. Every light in the church was on. He dare not go in.
“You are home, My Son,” Shaddi whispered in his ear.
“Home,” Adam mumbled to himself. “Only a god who would speak to me would call a
cold, lonely, belfry a home, a home I dare not enter because good people are there.”
Adam walked around to the back of the cold building. The kitchen window was not possible to enter. A group of women were working and buzzing about between the oven and the counters. There was nothing Adam could do. The coal room window was too risky. The women like all the lights on and the hall would probably be brightly lit. Adam leaned into the doorway of the back entrance and crouched down to make a smaller target for the wind to hit.
He almost dozed off. Wait a minute, there is no reason why I can’t go in where it’s warm.
Adam went around to the front door and stepped inside the church. He knew the church was all lit up but was surprised that every single light was on. Pops would have come up behind you and turn them off.
Even though the street lights had come on outside, the usual time for folks to come in for the evening, the church on Cranberry Street was alive with activity. Adam followed the sweat aroma all the way to the kitchen door.
Many church women hustled around in the kitchen where they placed hundreds of freshly baked and iced cookies into large tin cans decorated with festive Christmas scenes. The cookie were then covered with wax paper before the tin lid was secured on the top.
“Adam, I am so glad you’re here,” Fritzy wiped her flour dusted hands on her apron as she looked up. “How did you happen to drop in here? I wolfed down my dinner then Daddy drove me over,” she paused just a second. “Would you like a cookie?” Without waiting for an answer, she popped an extra Christmas stocking cookie into Adam’s mouth. “I’m sure this one won’t fit in the tin,” she smiled. “We’re finishing up with the cookies while some of the men set up the Nativity Scene.”
“I know, I know,” Adam said with little enthusiasm, “a doll in a manger.”
“Adam, our baby Jesus is a work of art, a masterpiece, carved from a Lebanon Cedar, brought back from the Mediterranean. The artist, Samuel Morris, was one of the greatest wood carvers ever. The carving is worth a lot of money, but more important, the Baby Jesus was given to us by Mr. Morris himself who used to live here in Middletown.” Fritzy insisted. “That carving is our Christ Child.”
“I’m sorry, Fritzy. I didn’t understand the significancy of the piece. It is the Christmas Christ Child but it is a piece of priceless art as well, giving lovingly by the artist.”
“That’s okay. You didn’t know,” Fritzy’s eyes twinkled, “and now you do.” She untied her strings, folded the apron and laid the bright cotton coverup on the kitchen counter top. “Have you ever tried to carve anything?”
“Mom let me use a few of the big bars of Ivory soap to carve. Mrs. Becker, our art teacher, had us draw a picture on paper the size of the bar of soap. We laid the image on the soap and traced the edges with a tooth pick that left an indented outline on the bar. Then, we used a paring knife to shave away everything that wasn’t our drawing, our design. Carving soap was fun, but can you imagine how hard it would be to carve something as beautiful as the Christ Child out of hard wood? That carving of the babe means a lot to all of us, tradition, beauty, and it represents all of our Christmases.”
Adam said no more about the carving. Fritzy’s description of her own artful whittling and explanation about how much the figure meant to her, only made Adam feel worse. A baby doll in a wooden food trough hadn’t seemed very precious to him in the past. He didn’t expect this Christmas to be any different, but he couldn’t tell Fritzy how he felt.
There was silence, then Fritzy added, “It’s getting late. If more snow comes in like they say it’s supposed to, the walks will get even more slippery. Daddy is going to meet Mom and me out front. I had better be going.”
“I wish I could drive you,” Adam offered.
“Then none of us would be safe,” she laughed.
“I will have you know, I have been driving the tractor on the farm for five years, since I was ten. You would be very safe with me.”
Fritzy smiled. “A real race car driver?”
“I might not be ready for the Indi-Five-Hundred.” Then Adam thought about all of the people who were still milling through the church, as they finished up and cleared out. He couldn’t very well be the last one in the building. After all, how would he explain that?
“I’ll walk you to the door so you can wait for your dad,” Adam offered.
Together he and Fritzy stood for a moment by the glass window in the door where they could see out to the street and shared small talk about school, the day, and the holidays. They spoke a lot of words but the conversation would not have sounded special to anyone who happened by. But, to Adam, their being together was magic, not just because he was talking with Fritzy but because he had absolutely no one else to share a thought with, the hummingbird. The hummer was not no one, he was a no-thing, and that was vastly different.
When Coach Breman pulled up to the curb, Mrs. Breman grabbed her coat from the coatrack and joined the two. Adam walked to the curb with Fritzy and helped her and her mother into the car. He waved, then stood as the car pulled away. What should he do? There were still others in the church.
He stood on the street corner for a moment until the Breman’s car neared the corner and turned. The bitter cold of the approaching snow storm blew through his clothing like a summer jacket. He couldn’t stay outside any longer. He slipped back into the church and into the sanctuary where he laid down on a pew.
Like a common street bum, he stayed in the darkness of the sanctuary and waited for the
sounds of happy friends to fade as the last of the volunteers cleared out of the building. He was not one of them. He was an interloper, a fraud, a liar. He feared he would be caught in his charade.
“Why do I even care?” he whispered into the vacant places all around him. He should not have cared about Fritzy or about the Christ Child carving. Recently, he had only thought about himself and where he was going to find food. Caring about someone else felt like his security had suddenly cracked, like an ice-covered pond, as the hardness snapped and chased him across the surface. He could barely stay ahead of the split that would take him under and steal away his new sense of security.
“What next?” he whispered into the night. “Shaddi, will I ever stop running from breaking ice?”