by Dave Argabright on
In 1996 I decided to write a fictional Christmas-themed column for the year-end edition of National Speed Sport News. I immediately discovered that writing fiction is a very different animal than the type of writing I had been doing. But I took a stab at it and this is the end result. The column appeared in the Dec. 18, 1996 issue of NSSN. As was the paper’s custom this was a very large edition complete with a season wrap-up of nearly all the various racing series.
The feedback from the column was positive, and it led me to write a Christmas column in the year-end issue for the next 15 years or so. Some were okay, but others I’d rather bury in the backyard. Among all of them this is probably my favorite.
Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
By Dave Argabright
The old man stared impatiently at the traffic light, his hands gripping tightly to the car’s steering wheel.He didn’t want to be here; really, as he looked around at the gray and wintry scene that surrounded him he didn’t want to be anywhere.
Fred was depressed.Christmas was here once again, like all the years before, and the colorful decorations sparkled outside the homes as he drove by.“Christmas is for kids,” he continually barked, not allowing any cheer to pierce his unhappiness.
Long ago he had been the hero: winning races and enjoying a fast-paced life that took him all over the country.But age took the dashing good looks, and time stole whatever fame he had earned and left him a forgotten old man.In turn came bitterness; anger that a world that once embraced him had turned its back on him.So he tried to forget the old racing days, and he no longer stayed in contact with many of his old pals.
His wife kept reminding him about Charlie, and their annual reunion.In a custom that dated back nearly 50 years, Fred and Charlie had made it a point to get together for a Christmas visit. The past couple of visits had taken place a few hours north in the nursing home where Charlie was living out the rest of his days.
But this year Fred didn’t want to go see Charlie.Not really.He hated driving that far; he hated the fear that enveloped him each time he walked into a nursing home; he hated the fact that each visit might be their last.
Most of all he hated Christmas, and the helpless feeling of having nothing left to give his old friend.
He steered his car into the parking lot of the facility, pulling up to a handicapped spot toward the front.Clutching his cane, he struggled to get up and out of the car, steadying himself as he began his walk inside.He could hear the annoying sounds of Christmas bells, softly ringing from the church across the street.
Near the entrance he saw himself in the reflection from the glass doorway.He paused to stare, marveling at how much he had changed. The gray hair; the deep, wrinkled face; the belly; the slight shuffle in his walk.God, how could everything go away so quickly?
His heart filled with dread as he walked down the hallway, stopping at the nursing station to ask directions to Charlie’s room.He had already made up his mind that this visit would be only for a few minutes; let’s get this over with and get out of here.
“Charlie hasn’t had a visitor yet this Christmas,” a young nurse mentioned as she gave Fred directions to the room. That made sense to Fred; Charlie’s wife was long ago gone, and they had no children. Who would still be around to come see another forgotten old man?
She lowered her voice and gave Fred a solemn look. “He’s close to the end,” she said simply, and Fred knew what she meant.
Fred shuffled down the hall and found the room, stepping through the open door. He was startled by Charlie’s appearance; it’s bad enough that a heart attack almost killed him a couple of years ago, but then came the stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed, a prisoner in his own body.But his eyes sparkled as he saw Fred’s face, and Fred scooted a chair alongside his bed and sat down.
“It’s good to see you, old friend…” he began, holding Charlie’s hand, knowing that his friend could hear but not answer.Fred began making small talk, that awkward mindless chatter about the weather, about politics, about a lot of things that really didn’t mean very much at all.
After a few minutes he began to feel like he was talking to himself. Charlie’s eyes stared out the window, as if they were looking at nothing at all.Fred shifted uncomfortably in his chair, finally saying that he really needed to get on his way, to get back home before dark.
He was surprised at the strong grip from Charlie’s hand; and the old man’s pale blue eyes darted to his, as if looking directly at his soul.The man’s mouth moved slightly, and no words came. But his eyes begged Fred to stay, just a little bit longer.
“All right, let’s talk for a while,” Fred said, releasing Charlie’s hand and settling back into his chair.
He reached far back into this mind and began talking about their early days together. As he spoke he began to smile, and suddenly he could recall days long ago forgotten; happy days filled with excitement and enthusiasm. His smile grew as he recounted warm and happy memories of that were literally a lifetime ago.
He talked of the days when he and Charlie were boys, playing in the lush green fields not far from here, trying to laugh away the hard times of the depression.And of the day they wore their new Army uniforms, crisp and proud, their dark hair combed neat and sharp.
Fred’s words flowed easily. These memories had been packed away in a chest and pushed far back into a dusty corner of his mind, locked away and hidden, for decades. Now they were suddenly released in a torrent, and he was amazed at how much he could recall, and how vividly.
He talked of how they both discovered their love for cars and racing, when they were fresh out of the Army.Late Saturday nights and bright Sunday afternoons that were filled with sunshine and fun, two young men who were living life to the maximum.
He laughed out loud at some of the stories, while Charlie lay nearby, listening to every word.He couldn’t speak or respond; but as the stories flowed his eyes twinkled and a tiny smile played upon his lips, and occasionally he would gasp as laughter caught in his throat.
Fred’s tales of their old racing days were bright and colorful, filled with rich detail and passion.Fred had forgotten all thoughts of today; instead, he had somehow crossed a bridge to yesterday, and his words allowed both men to take the trip together.
Fred’s eyes focused on his left hand, resting on the arm of the chair.Moments ago it was pale and shaking and spotted with age; but now he saw a muscular and tanned arm, a leather glove on his hand as it rested on the outside brake.
He turned his eyes to Charlie.Gone was the weak and ailing man he had visited; now he saw only the Charlie he had known so long ago.There was an old Cromwell helmet perched on his head, the paint peeling slightly around the many chips that dotted the front of the cap.Charlie’s broad smile was as bright as the sun, a picture of happiness and contentment.
Fred stared intently at the young man lying in the bed, an soft aura surrounding him. Fred’s eyes felt heavy and he suddenly felt very tired. He leaned back into the chair, the warmth of the room enveloping him. Wrapped in the warmth and happiness of his memories he drifted off to sleep.
He awoke with a slight start, the nurse’s hand gently shaking him from his slumber. He had no idea how much time had passed, and he glanced at the window. The winter sun was gone, and he felt a chill come upon him.
The young nurse knelt by his chair.
“Charlie is gone,” she said softly. “He must have slipped away in his sleep.”
Fred nodded slowly, letter her words settle over him.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He nodded again, pulling himself up from the chair. His trembling hands clutched his hat as he stood unsteadily at Charlie’s bedside.
He looked down upon his friend, lying still and silent, a peaceful look on his face. Charlie’s struggles in this world are over, and Fred wondered if it was really true that he would be making his way to a better place.
Fred squeezed Charlie’s hand one final time and turned to leave the room. The sound of his shuffling shoes and cane filled the hallway as he walked through the lobby and back out into the cold.
He could hear the bells from the nearby church, and he paused. It was a beautiful sound, really, and he smiled.
When he parked his car this afternoon he had feared that he had nothing to give his old friend. His heart felt warm that he had indeed brought something precious and meaningful after all. He had helped his friend find his way home, one last time.
He turned and looked around, the cold air nipping his nose and ears. Christmas lights adorned the homes up and down the street, and the bells from the church played softly. He blinked away tears; he was sure it was just the cold air that brought them about.
The words came softly to his lips, and he smiled as he said them.
“Merry Christmas, Charlie…”