Holiday Spirits

I found this little short in my files and dusted it off. I though you might enjoy it.

Joe sat in Barren Grounds, Lumiere’s premiere coffee roaster and café, and stared at the reflection in his Mocha Java. “Why do I stay here? Year in and year out I’m here, despite the fact that I resolve to leave every year about this time.” His faraway gaze switched to the fitful snow outside the cozy shop’s windows. He continued to mutter to himself, not an uncommon thing among the patrons of this odd little place. “I mean I do like my job but I could write just about anywhere.”The ghostly reflection of a young man in the window glass startled him out of his reverie.

He turned around and looked at the lanky straight-backed youth. The almost-man wore a denim jacket covered in road dust over a baggy University sweatshirt. The once blue jacket had been used as a drawing board for all manner of anti-war graffiti and anti-capitalism sloganeering, still as popular on the campuses now as it had been when Joe was his age. The hems of his baggy blue jeans scraped the ground and covered battered Chucks. A huge cobalt watch cap covered his tangled ashen locks completing the ensemble. He clutched a cup of steaming brew in his hands. “Mind if I sit with you sir?”

Joe surveyed the otherwise vacant restaurant and shrugged. “Certainly not. Have a seat. How you stay warm out there I’ll never know.” His own heavy, cable-knit sweater and parka barely kept the wind at bay. The obligatory plaid driving cap, seen only on men of a certain age, served the warming duty that his own blond hair would have in years gone by. “It must be twenty degrees.” Just the thought of the temperature and the wind driven snow chilled him.

“Made of stern stuff I guess. I’m a farm boy.” A winning smile graced his clear features.

“Home for Christmas?”

“Yes sir. And I can’t wait to get home. Pop is gonna pick me up soon. I got the bus here from school; it doesn’t get out into the sticks.”

“And well I know. I grew up around here and things were no different back then.” He drank deeply, the coffee infusing him with warmth.

An easy laugh came from that smile. “They can’t handle the roads. Pop’s old Ford can make it OK, but it’s about beat to death. The farm did well this year and he said he might get a new one.”

“My Dad was a farmer around here too. What’s your name son?”

“Joseph, sir.” The two shook hands.

“Well Joseph, do you have big plans for the holiday?

“Yep. My Grands and all my aunts and cousins will be here. There should be around twenty people or so all told.”

Joe looked surprised. “My, I didn’t realize families still got so big. I come from a large family too. I remember the holidays with all of the food and laughs. Singing by the fire, roasting chestnuts, all of those Rockwellian things no one does any more.”

“My family sure does them. We always have. Tradition’s real important to us. The only thing I don’t like about that’s my Pop’s expectations. He thinks that I should become a farmer, like him.” He shuddered a bit.

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m gonna move to Hollywood and write screenplays. Sounds pretty hokey, huh?”

Joe shook his head quickly. “No, not at all. I write myself.”

“Anything I might have read?”

“Not likely. I do mass-market mystery novels for old ladies. But it’s a good living.”

“Least you’re getting paid for it. That’s better than most do.”

“True enough and as I was just saying to myself, I can do it from anywhere.”

Joseph looked out the window and slugged down the last of his coffee. “The old man’s here, gotta run. It was great talkin’ to you.” He set his cup down and got up to go.

“Good to meet you young man. Good luck in your writing.” He turned to look for the old Ford and was momentarily puzzled when he saw no vehicle on the street. He turned back and saw that the young man and his cup were both missing. Then he remembered where he lived. It wasn’t the first apparition he’d met, but it was the first one he knew. “I guess I figured out that family was more important than Hollywood.” But Joe’s family was all gone now. His wife had passed away years ago and his kids never called any more. “So why am I still in this ghost town?”

“Excuse me, sir.” Joe looked to his right and saw a towheaded boy of no more than ten years. His painfully red winter coat and hat practically lit up the room. “May I sit here?”

“’And you will be visited by three spirits.’ Sure my boy. Have a seat.”

He put a mug of hot chocolate on the table and shed his winter skin. “Thanks. It’s nice to get really warm.” He drank deep from the scalding sweetness.

“You on winter break from school?”

“Sorta. The snow’s so thick that they closed school for the day. Break start’s tomorrow anyway. Me and Bobby Johnson sledded here from school. He wants to go to the five-and-dime. Me, I wanted a hot drink.”

“So what’s your name son?”

“Everyone calls me JJ, on account of I’m a Junior.”

“Oh that would make you Joe Scotsborough’s boy.”

A gap-toothed grin came back. “Yessir. You know my Pa?”

“I’ve met him sure. It’s been a long time since we spoke though. You boys get into any mischief being out on a snow day?”

“No mischief sir, but we did see somethin’ interestin’.”

“What was that?

“We saw a white wolf in the woods on the way over here.”

“Well that’s not too unusual. We do have our share of wolves round here and I’m sure there’s at least one white one.”

The boy’s eyes squinted knowingly. “How many we got walks on its hind legs?”

Joe remembered that day well. The smell of wet woolens and fresh snow filled his head. He could almost hear the powdery crunch of two boys slogging through the snow, pulling a sled behind them. It was the day that set him on his path as a writer. “Not many I hope.”

“Me neither. It was standin’ over a dead deer and just rippin’ the things guts out. There was red snow all around. Bobby almost peed his britches. I was scared too, but I read lots of comics and stuff so it didn’t bother me too much.”

“How did you evade being caught by the thing?”

“Pa and I go huntin’ all the time so I know about stayin’ down wind of things. But that meant we could smell everythin’ and it was ‘bout as nasty as helpin’ clean the outhouse.” The boy pulled a sour face. “We watched it for a little while and then it heard a howl in the distance. We heard it too and I almost peed my pants too. Scariest thing ever. It howled back and took off. We’s lucky not to get killed.”

“Yes you were. It sounds like you and your little friend had quite an adventure.”

“Yes sir we did. It was a real ripper. I’m gonna write it down, so I’ll never forget.”

“That’s a wonderful idea. Maybe you’ll be a writer some day.”

“Maybe. That or a space man. Well I have to go meet Bobby. Thanks for sharin’ you table mister.” The boy faded to nothingness as he left the chair.

He had indeed stayed in Lumiere in part because he doubted that any other place would have quite the range of unusual things that this town did. Joe occasionally used his experience to enhance his scribblings. But most were too fantastic to pass off even as fiction. Of course his career now floated in a sea of mediocrity. His old stuff filled the bargain bins at grungy retail outlets. He hadn’t published anything in recent memory. So neither family nor career could answer the question he continued to ponder. “This is why so many people commit suicide at Christmas time. Too much thinking time on their hands.”

“You look like you could use some help pal.” He looked up and it was like looking into a mirror. This apparition of himself couldn’t have been from all that long ago. He was dressed in the same casual fashion that Joe had adopted out of the habits of a bachelor late in life.

“I sure could. Why am I here?”

“Well I’ll tell you why. You love this town. It’s like a crazy uncle. You don’t like to admit it to people outside the ‘family’ but you love it. It’s dangerous and creepy but endearing nonetheless. You never know whether it’s going to slap you or kiss you and it is that excitement that keeps most people here. You’ve made a lot of great memories here. Those memories are so vivid and this town loves you so much that it plays them back to you.”

“True enough. I do love this place in a truly bizarre and dysfunctional way. So now that I know that I am staying here out of a true love for this town, will you spooks be gone?”

“Not quite. You see there’s another reason you’re here.”

“What’s that?” His brow furrowed.

“You’re a ghost too. You died a few years ago after Leah passed away. It was loneliness really, well that plus the scotch and sleeping pills. But I guess you loved the old place so much that you couldn’t leave.”

“But I don’t want to leave. It’s safe here”

“I know, but remember the things you love more, the things those two boys tried to tell you about. Your love for your family and for the strange and wonderful is better than your love for this town. Let’s go.” He reached out his hand and the hand of a ten-year-old boy took it as they faded out together.

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