“Go Charlie go! Go Charlie go!” The fans shouted from the stands.
Charlie Baker shot from inside the keyhole and the crowd held their breath, then . . . the crowd roared as the ball swished through the basket. It was the third quarter. The score was close. Oakridge High School was up by three points. The Middletown team was getting tired.
Coach Breman watched each play as he thumped a rolled up program in his hand. His men were trying but there were too many high scorers out with illness, injury or vacation.
“Shoemaker,” Coach called to the bench, “you’re in.”
“Me Coach?” Adam swallowed hard. He had already been in during the first quarter. Made a fool of myself already. What more do they want?
From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the shadow people ooze onto the glistening floor. “You can’t do it Boy,” it jeered.
Adam tried to shake the doubts from his mind. Shaddi, close my ears to the clanging ones and to the crowd too. They scare me as much as the shadows.
“You’re our man, Adam,” Coach smiled and pointed him onto the hardwood with a wave of his hand. “You’re the man of the hour.”
“You didn’t have to say that Coach,” Adam smiled nervously.
“Mr. Foul-out?” One of the members of the Oakridge team poked verbal fun but knew enough to keep his distance.
“That’s me!” Adam pretended to boast. “I’m the foul-out pro!”
“If someone makes fun of you,” Pops would say, “join in the fun and the other person will lose their ammunition. They won’t be able to embarrass you. You can’t humiliate someone who isn’t humiliated.”
Johnson snapped the ball to Adam who dribbled the ball down the court and executed a lay-up shot that was absolute beauty in motion. Slam—dunk! The crowd jumped to their feet and the din was intoxicating.
From just behind the home bench, a piercing whistle split the air and Adam knew. Only Fritzy could whistle with that earsplitting pitch. He could recognize her call.
A call for a time-out brought the team over to the sidelines, into the coach’s circle and within a few feet of adoring fans. Adam tried hard to stay focused. He had never had all eyes turned on him before. In fact, he felt invisible most ordinary days.
The timekeeper’s buzzer brought all the players back into center court. It was the last quarter of the game and Middletown was down one point. The players started down the floor when an opposing team member pretended to accidently fall into Adam. That meant one thing. Adam would have to stand alone inside the key.
Adam stood at the free throw line, frozen in anticipation, positioned to take his shot. The free throw was a one and one. If he made the first basket, he would get a chance at the second. If he made both, Middletown High would be one point ahead. He bounced the ball a few times and eyed the basket. A dark shadow hung from the rim of the basket. At first Adam broke eye contact and with the target. He bounced the ball again and tried to regain focus. The gymnasium was silent. Adam aimed, let the ball go and arch in the air. Thump. The ball hit the rim and the crowd gasped.
Adam’s heart hit the floor faster than the basketball. From the hero of the school to their greatest disappointment, his rise and fall were dramatic. He was embarrassed beyond anything he had ever experienced. He preferred being out of the limelight. In the dark, a hidden figure has no form for others to admire. A star can lose some shimmer and shine very quickly. But, he knew he did not belong in the shadows. He was not one of them.
Adam tried to get control of himself as he took his place on the floor and guarded the man assigned to him. He raced up and down the floor for the next few minutes. In his mind, it felt like a character in slow motion in a movie he had seen. His energy was gone. His heart for the game had been deflated. The crowd sounded like the wind whipping through the bell tower, magnified times half a life time.
No matter what the players did, neither side could add one more point to the scoreboard as time ticked past. Charlie fouled out and had to take the bench. Adam looked around the floor for an opening. There were only twenty-five seconds left on the clock.
Adam dribbled slowly down the floor as he looked for someone, anyone he could pass off to. He popped the ball to Bill Collins who dribbled a few bounces then snapped it back to Adam as he neared the keyhole. There was no one around, at least not in Adam’s world of panic and doubt.
Shaddi, he whispered, levitate me. Let me fly. He felt a weight lift from his body and a new energy rushed in. Step, step, leap, shoot, and . . . whish!
The crowd jumped to their feet as the time-clock blared the final blast. A flood of cheering fans leaped onto the basketball court and lifted Adam onto their shoulders. He scanned the crowd around him for the one face he wanted to see. Then, there she was.
Fritzy grabbed his hand as the crowd bounced him in the air. The shouts continued while Fritzy ran along side Adam, as they made a victory lap around the gym floor.
What did he hear? What was the crowd saying? Could their words possibly be true? Was his name the one they shouted? Was he actually visible?
“Adam! Adam! Adam!” The sound of the crowd, that shouted in rhythmic canter, echoed in Adam’s ears throughout that night. No matter when he awakened in the dark cold belfry, the thoughts that flooded his sleeping mind were of smiling faces as they sang his praises. How long would the good feelings last?
Adam stayed on his pallet and listened for the sound of the wind beyond the cold brick walls. He smiled. Even the snow had stopped falling for a while by the time he awakened to victory.
Saturday was here already, December 22. Adam awakened a few minutes later than he would have on a school day. He had to be up early enough that Mr. Gunderman didn’t see him come down the ladder from the belfry. A few extra minutes of laying and thinking wouldn’t hurt. Still, he could not get caught in the church at an inappropriate time. Things were precariously balanced in his life and he had to keep all the dominos lined up until the final one was in place. Each story had to be carefully positioned on the building blocks of tales he had already stacked in the telling.
Adam’s mind had a way of flipping like a pancake on a hot griddle. He quickly forgot the thrill of victory from the previous night and began to wonder if the only thing in his life that was real was the little hummingbird. From the hero of the hardwoods, he now believed he could not have been more alone than if Middletown had been through the blitz the night before and he was the town’s only survivor. He lived in a cold, empty bell tower of a church with a little bird as his only family. The story he preferred was of a dear uncle who cared enough to take him in while his father was away at war and his mother was in the tuberculosis sanitarium. Sometimes he visioned a puff of green smoke and an Irish subterranean habitation under a green hillside where Mr. O’Shaughnessy, a leprechaun, toddled forth, winked and beckon him to enter his world. But, no one ever spoke of such places away from the deep valley of New York.
Now, another layer of fantasy had been added—the dream of being a basketball hero. Or, was the game a dream? Did he actually make that basket? Like the story of the little hummingbird’s flight south each year, he liked the one he had lived or created. His dream was full of praise and hope and now, even acceptance. And, sometimes, Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s pot of gold even seemed real.
“I’s all make-believe, Son . . . fantasy,” Moms would argue. “I heard my mother’s words every day growing up. There’s nothing real about any of the magic she taught you, Adam,” Moms would plead.
But, Adam was always the one to find a four-leaf clover if one was to be found. And, he could see the wee one come out of his thicket from time to time.
That morning, Adam was prepared for a piece of the dream that was real. He took a bottle of water from the corner of the belfry, poured some into the saucer in the basket-cage, and sprinkled sugar across the surface from a lidded jar he had found in the kitchen. He opened the food coloring bottle and added a drop to brighten the little hummer’s breakfast.
Adam would have to slip away from work and check on the little one often throughout the day. Hummingbirds eat so much Adam would have to make sure his saucer, the bird’s feast, was filled several times a day.
He opened the basket lid and smiled. The bird looked up at him, then hopped up onto Adam’s finger the minute the chirper could move about.
“Well, hello, Little Fellow. I’m sorry I can’t stay around and visit for a while . . . gotta run.”
Adam replaced the hummer, closed the lid and darted out of the belfry and down the ladder in record time. However, speed would be his downfall if he did not pay attention. He had forgotten his coat. He could not come into the church from the frigid outside without a snapped- up coat. He slipped back up, grabbed his school letter jacket, then flew done the ladder as if the hummer had taught him to fly.
Moments later, Alfred came through the front door as Adam left, turned around, and came back in through the rear entrance. He removed the jacket he had just put on and hung it on a hanger in the cloak-room area.
“Mornin’ young man,” Gunderman beamed. “We have a lot to do today. Christmas is Tuesday and that makes tomorrow Christmas Sunday.”
“Another Sunday for most people to sleep in.” Adam looked away and reached for the broom Mr. G. held in his hand. He had to be careful or he would give himself away. These people were helping him because they assumed things about him. They thought he would be excited about Christmas like some little kid. He was not a child any longer. His life didn’t have the time, patience or luxury for childhood anymore.
“Well, I know you’ll be here for church tomorrow, Adam. I haven’t been feelin’ real good and I need you to work the big crank that pulls up that heavy wooden door between the sanctuary and the Honeywell Lounge, just like a big ol’ roll top desk. Folks will be wantin’ their punch and cookies don’t ya know, and ladies will serve those in the Lounge.”
“Yes Sir, I’ll be here. I will be glad to raise the partition.” That was partly right. He was fascinated by the roll up wooden divider between the two rooms. For the other part however, he had no intention of attending church services before Alfred assumed he would. He planed to pretend he had a cold or any other made-up story that came to mind. He was getting good at lying.
“I know I can depend on you,” Alfred smiled and handed Adam the list of that day’s chores.
Wish he hadn’t said that he could depend on me. Adam took a deep breath and put away thoughts of pretense. “You can count on me,” he repeated and cringed.
“I’m sure I can.” Alfred started toward the stairs and paused at the foot. He looked up the sixteen treads to the upper floor but didn’t place his foot on a step. “Need to go up and sweep the Sunday School classrooms. But . . .”
“You all right, Mr. Gunderman?” The boy began to worry. Alfred Gunderman moved like Adam’s grandfather did before he had his heart attach. His breath was just as short and shallow. Oh please, God, not again, he dreaded. Grandpa was nearly an invalid which accounted for his car accident.
“I’m just fine,” the old man assured him, but his steps were slow and labored.
Shaddi, help him, Adam thought. Then, sounds bombarded his ears, from within himself and without.
“Gotta get all this done . . . I know I’m doin’ too much. I know. I’ll slow down after Christmas . . . I promise. Just a little more today. Gotta keep goin’.”
Why can I hear Mr. G.? He’s going upstairs. Adam watched the old man from the foot of the steps. The words are like I can hear his mind working. How can that be?
“Those are his thoughts, Son,” Shaddi assured him. “Listen, the old one wants to deceive himself as much as you do. He knows he will die if he doesn’t slow down, but he lies to himself to keep on going. Live in truth Adam . . .” Shaddi whispered as his voice trailed off like a finely tuned motor’s hum.
Adam watched Mr. G. all the way to the top of the steps. Gramps went up steps just like that two days before he died. The next day, he felt sick and his shoulders and arms were sore. I thought the aches and pains were from splitting wood that afternoon. But, it wasn’t. Then he took Grandma to town and . . .
Adam knew what Mr. G. knew. His condition could be serious. But, the boy wasn’t going to argue with the old man. After all, he was the boss. Adam decided to review the list Mr. G. had given him and not give the man any trouble.
1. Sweep the floor.
2. Wash the windows in all the doors. Sticky peppermint fingers you know.
3. Fetch the Christ Child for the nativity scene. It’s in a box marked “Baby Jesus” that’s on a shelf in the back of the storage room. We need to make sure the statue is okay and ready.
“Hi working man,” Fritzy called as she hurried in and stomped her snowy feet on the
“Well, are my eyes playing tricks on me? You look like Fritzy Breman,” Adam smiled.
“What will you be doing today?” She bubbled as she reached for his broom.
“Washing windows, cleaning, and getting out the baby for the creche.”
“Baby Jesus? On Saturday?”
“I guess they want him out for Christmas Sunday.”
“They usually don’t put the baby in the manger until the Christmas Eve services.”
“I don’t know. Mr. G. mentioned something about checking on it. I just do what I’m told.”
“Every time?” Fritzy teased as she handed back the broom handle. “Then, this must be yours.”
“Well . . . maybe not every time,” Adam smiled an honest smile.
“I know where the carving is,” she turned and approached the storage room’s double doors. With a jerk, she swung them open together with a flare and fanfare, like a scene from a movie Adam had seen.
Once inside, Adam was surprised by all the stuff. There were extra folded up tables, chairs, costumes from an Easter pageant, and boxes of stuff probably no one remembered any longer what they contained.
“Over this way,” Fritzy directed.
Adam followed behind and surveyed all the boxes, sundry equipment, and furniture. If he had realized that all of those supplies were in the huge closet, he would have rummaged through the boxes just to break the monotony of the empty nights. There were no windows in the room so he would not have been seen.
“It’s just over here,” she said.
“No,” the shadows surrounded her. “Stay away from the carving, Adam. We will not look at it.”
Adam could hear the dark ones clearly but Fritzy didn’t seem to notice. Then, she stopped abruptly just before they reached the box.
“No,” the shadows ordered again as the air grew thick with the stench of them.
Fritzy didn’t say anything about the smell. She just stopped abruptly and Adam nearly ran into her. He involuntarily reached out and grabbed her waist to steady himself. His face contorted with embarrassment. What if she gets the wrong idea? What if she thinks―
Fritzy turned and nearly ran into Adam. She wasn’t angry. She seemed more mischievous than mad.
Adam didn’t understand her expression but he liked her new sparkle. Their eyes met just as Alfred came into the storage room. He was out of breath and leaned on one of the shelves. Adam and Fritzy smiled sheepishly at each other and turned their infectious grins away from Gunderman’s sight.
“Got him?” The older man asked as he leaned against a stack of boxes by the door.
“What?” Fritzy asked.
Adam controlled a laugh. “He means the statue, Fritzy.”
“No, not yet, Mr. Gunderman,” Fritzy offered. “We were almost there before you came in.”
“That’s okay,” Alfred glanced around and then started to walk out. As he walked, new orders were chattered over his shoulder. “Mrs. Gunderman is coming in. Should be here is a
minute. She needs help with some boxes of decorations.”
“Mrs. Gunderman?” Adam mumbled.
Fritzy snickered softly behind him. “Alfred often calls his wife Mrs. Gunderman to younger people. He is a strong believer in showing respect.”
“So is my family,” Adam offered.
“Why are they getting the Christ Child out so early, Mr. G.?” Fritzy quizzed the old man as she followed the little procession around the storeroom. “That’s not the way we do it.”
“You one of those, ‘It ain’t been done like that beforers?” Mr. G. Chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t know. I just do what the pastor asks and Adam here does what I ask. And you . . . well, I guess you do what any proper young lady wants to do.”
“I do what Daddy says I can do,” she protested.
“And you Adam, who, besides me, gives you your marching orders?” Alfred quizzed but his expression was more that of knowing than asking. “God?” he chanced a guess.
“God? How could he . . .” Adam’s gaze fell as the pain of disappointment came over him like a chill. “I haven’t heard anything from God in a long time.”
“God still speaks, My Boy but he’s outside of our time. He answers in his time, but he always hears and he always cares. ”
“Well, maybe I don’t,” Adam spit out with a taunt jaw.
“Adam, you don’t mean that!” Fritzy gasped.
“I’m just telling the truth as I see it.”
“Expressing your pain is never wrong. We can’t heal when we can’t find the open wound.” Alfred reached out and patted Adam’s shoulder.
“Well . . .” Adam looked down at Fritzy. She seemed to trust him so much. He had a strange impulse to just explode with the whole truth, then he remembered his grandfather’s words.
A man is only worth the truth of his words, Adam.
A man is only worth the truth of his words, Adam.
What could he do? How could anyone trust him now? He had told so many lies. “Well, I don’t always feel that way. It’s been . . .”
“What, Son?” Alfred was ready to listen.
“Nothing, not really. I was just asked to join the basketball team but had no shoes. Fritzy’s parents solved that for me. Things are looking better all the time.” He tried to cover his dark feelings with more of the same colorful fabrications.
That was not a lie but he wasn’t telling the whole story either. He was living a masquerade. No one knew him deep down. Who you are on the outside is just a small sample of who you are on the inside.
Adam could not resist the need to present his world as loving and normal. “We—are all looking forward to a great Christmas.”
And the lies rolled like marbles into every corner and filled the room that was his world.
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