In a long ago time and a faraway place, as we try in vain to measure what seems real, I knew a sad boy named Jimmy. I knew him when he was maybe twelve years old. And I, at twice his age back then, thought I was a wise adult.
Jimmy felt sad because he had no home to visit on Christmas Day. He lived inside a small blue room; along a shadowed, narrow hallway; inside a red-brick building that the county authorities called a cottage. But Jimmy and I knew that his room was a cell within an institution, a place designed to house and care for children whose parents had disappeared.
Each December staff members of this institution tried as best they might to contact children’s families and make arrangements for holiday visits. Most times these efforts met with success. Someone, anyone really, would lend an embrace in the spirit of the season. A relative, or a friend of a relative, or even a relative stranger with the sense to understand that an open door was a gift that a lonely child needed.
But no one opened a door for Jimmy that year. Jimmy’s voice sounded too loud when he interrupted a conversation. Jimmy’s stare burned resentment into the flesh of those who looked at him. Jimmy’s nostrils flared with contempt when someone said hello to him. Jimmy’s muscles tightened with tension if another person dared to touch him.
Jimmy wasn’t cute or pretty in the eyes of most who met him. He frowned when addressed by another child. He slammed his feet when he walked, as if to punish the ground that refused to support the weight he carried. He threw tantrums and slammed his fists against the walls that held him back.
Jimmy fast became an outsider, even to other outsiders.
Instead of an ordinary school, Jimmy attended a Psychiatric Institute for academic classes and therapy sessions. Each morning, Monday through Friday, as the fifteen other children who lived near him, but not close to him inside his “cottage,” walked to street-corner bus stops to wait for their rides, Jimmy remained behind. He peeked around the edge of a curtain and looked at the wakening sky, until everyone else had left. He wanted no one to see him board the foreshortened yellow bus that picked him up and drove him to the center of a hollow city.
I tried too hard to befriend Jimmy, although I thought I was doing otherwise. I believed that I could somehow fill an empty space so wide and deep, a space that I now understand as the nagging ache a child feels when he wants to smile or cry.
“Good morning, Jimmy.”
“Leave me alone.”
“I tried. They wouldn’t let you go home to my apartment. I’m not married. I’m an employee here.”
“They ain’t reasons.”
On the morning of December the twenty-fifth of that distant year, Jimmy’s anger grew more desperate. He watched his cottage neighbors leave the place they all were forced to call home. Name them orphans if you’re willing to admit that no politically correct attempt to alter reality can change the nature behind a name. Jimmy watched them as they marched down the narrow corridor, then gathered together inside the cavern called a living room to meet kind faces and hear soft voices whispering Merry Christmas wishes.
“Come here, child. Come with me today. And who’s that hiding there in the corner?”
“He’s Jimmy. Jimmy don’t like Christmas.”
“That can’t be true. Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”
“Go away, lady.”
And when the last kind face had disappeared into the holiday breeze that blew beyond those red-brick walls, when the last soft voice became smaller than a forlorn echo, Jimmy and I prepared to share a meal.
The kitchen space was all stainless steel. Large cabinets held gallon cans of spaghetti sauce that tasted like ketchup, fruit that swam in syrup, and vegetables that surrendered their colors for sake of preservation. The refrigerator, large enough to serve as a butcher’s locker, contained eggs by the gross, lard by the pound, bacon by the slab, and milk by the jug.
So I’d earlier that week shopped for kinder food at the local grocery store. Jimmy refused my invitation to join me. I wasn’t his father or his older brother, that much I understood.
We baked a Cornish hen; dressed it up to look like a turkey for two; stuffed it with rice and berries. Mashed potatoes, whipped together with heavy cream, topped with a lake of yellow butter. Homemade bread and jam. Root beer soda poured over crushed ice. No vegetables to ruin a child’s appetite.
The dining room. Four great tables, bolted to the tile floor. Four squeaking metal chairs arranged around each table. Shelving along one wall, piles of folded clothing sitting there, each item labeled with an orphan’s name. High ceiling. The glare of fluorescent lighting. Dusty plastic draperies pulled closed against the windows.
I spread a cotton cloth atop a fold-out wooden table that I’d brought from my apartment in the city. A centerpiece candle, shaped like a snowman. Sprigs of pine. Holly leaves. Silent Night drifting from the speakers of a radio.
We sat. Jimmy stared. I guess I prayed in my own way.
A tear ran down Jimmy’s cheek, a tear he couldn’t wipe away.
“Don’t want nothing.”
“Please, please, Jimmy, eat with me.”
“I ain’t hungry.”
“I know. I understand.”
I followed Jimmy as he walked back to his cell. He wouldn’t let me pull the blankets close. He turned his face toward the wall.
I sat awhile beside his bed, and then I left him there till morning.
And so is this the end of a sad Christmas story? It seemed so way back then.
But no, it’s not, because such stories never end. Today, this Christmas, I can wonder what became of Jimmy, and believe that he wonders in turn about what became of me. I can hope that Jimmy found an open door.
Jimmy, young boy, you did want something; the tear that ran down your cheek that evening told me what you wanted, told me what then I could not give to you.
Although we human beings try in vain to measure time and place, time and place cannot be measured. The Christmas meal we shared that night, and all it meant, still lives within the two of us.
Merry Christmas, Jimmy. Merry Christmas to the both of us.