Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Present

The Present
James Strauss

The child who was not a child crouched, his back to the warm window. It was below zero in Wisconsin, but not in the deep window well. A mouse looked up at him, its puzzled stare demonstrating no understanding, but also no willingness to back down. The child smiled. He looked down at his fellow traveler, but did not extend a hand. He knew about wild animals. Wild animals survived. Wild animals fought and died over territory. He was in the mouse’s territory, but he wouldn’t fight. They could not be friends. Wild animals had no friends. He knew that, at eight years of age, for he was a wild animal himself.

His name wasn’t Zack, but that was the name he called himself. His real name didn’t matter. The police couldn’t do anything with Zack, because he’d made it up. A couple of times he’d been printed but his finger-prints were too small to register in their computerized network. He’d been remanded to youth authority custody as Zack Zack each time, a name he’d seen in a cartoon somewhere. The window was warm to his back. He turned his head to study it. The basement light was unaccountably on. If someone was in the basement he would be visible, but he’d seen no one at all in the hours he’d been there. The lock to the window was not fastened. He pushed. Very very gently he applied sideways pressure to the multi-layered glass. He didn’t have gloves. The glass was so cold, even though much warmer than the above-ground temperature. It moved. An inch. Then a few more. Warmth cascaded out, filling the window well. Zack checked back for his companion, but the mouse had disappeared. Zack was not disappointed. Everyone disappeared in his life.

He didn’t try to open the window far enough to enter the basement. He was not stupid. If he went in, and got caught, then the cops would be back real quick. If he stayed out he could jump out of the well and run.

The window was open about four inches when the cat appeared. A gray cat. Big. Sitting there, having come silently form nowhere. Zack felt a pang of fear. The cat was nearly a fourth of his own size. If it had claws it could hurt him, he knew.
The cat stuck its head through the window, its eyes wide open, unblinking, as if in question. Zack stared. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a pet. Cats ran when they saw him. Dogs too. But not this one. Unable to stop himself, Zack reached out one dirty hand to pet the cat’s head. The cat did not react. It blinked once. Zack patted its head several times. When he stopped, the cat stepped through the window, and then curled up on the cold detritus of autumn leaves and junk which had fallen into the window well earlier, before the snow had come.

Zack stuck the fingers of his right hand into the cat’s gray fur. The cat looked up at him, but made no move at all. The boy’s hand felt wonderful. The cat’s fur was warm and it seemed to draw his fingers in welcome. He sighed deeply. The coming night was the best he’d had in a week, no matter what. Sleeping in the fields, even under rolled crops or piled hay, had been terrible. But that was before the colder temperatures. When it was as cold as it was there was no sleeping. Zack intrinsically knew that. Sleeping in the fields was the same as dying, and he didn’t want to die, so he’d come to this house. The lights had attracted him. There were other homes about but they were all dark. He knew he would have been safer from discovery there, but the promise of warmth from the lights had drawn him in.

The lights were Christmas tree lights. A single tree, down the hill right in front of the house, glowed. Across the back yard was a row of five more trees, all lit up as well. Only one tree, in the middle of the five had colored lights. The rest were little white ones. Zack wondered why the one tree was colored. Deep snow covered the trees so the lights were a glowing soft white, except for the colored tree.

Zack loved Christmas. Not for the presents. He’d never had a present. His family had not been a family at all, just a collection of people laying around in different states of sleep. Zack loved Christmas because people were nicer during the Christmas season. They gave him money and things. That didn’t happen during the rest of the year. But he wanted a present. One Christmas present would be okay. Zack sighed again. He didn’t know anybody. He’d run from where he had been weeks before. He’d only gotten to the country because a drunken man had picked him up by the side of the road. He’d wanted Zack to drive for him, not understanding that he was only eight years old. Zack hadn’t minded the drive. The car had driven all over the road and it had been kind of fun, like circus rides he’d heard about but never experienced.

A boy appeared in the window. Zack froze in terror. The boy called softly, not looking a the window.
“Harvey, Harvey, where are you?” The boy said the same words over and over, looking up into the basement rafters, then at the many boxes stacked along the concrete walls.

Zack looked down at the cat. The cat had to be named Harvey, but he didn’t move. Zack gave him a gentle shove, but the animal just looked up at him, as if he was smiling in pleasure at the other boy’s inability to find him. The boy, who appeared to be about his own age, turned to the open window, noticing it for the first time. He saw Zack. They stared at one another for a full minute.

“What are you doing with Harvey?” the boy asked, pointing at the curled up cat.

The cat ignored the boy, remaining on the cold ground next to Zack’s foot.

“Nothing,” Zack whispered, truthfully, through the opening.

“Its cold out there. Why are you there? Its warm in here. Come in here, and bring my cat.” The small boy crossed his arms, waiting for his orders to be obeyed.

Zack crawled through the window, after pushing it open. He didn’t touch the cat. The cat seemed to know that he was supposed to follow, so he did. Both of them stood to face the child, once they were in and the window was closed.

“You don’t look happy,” the little boy said, “but Harvey seems to like you. Do you live around here? I didn’t know there were any kids around here. All the rich people go back to Illinois at this time of the year, and they take their kids. Not that those kids like me anyway. I don’t have any friends.”

“I don’t know,” Zack said, hesitantly.

“You don’t know what?” the little boy responded.

Zack’s face grew red. He didn’t know what to say.

“I think I need to go before the police come,” he forced out, turning to look back at the closed window.

“Why would the police come?” the little boy said, “Are you a criminal?”

“I don’t know,” Zack responded truthfully. “I don’t know what a criminal really is, but I may be one.”

“No, I don’t think so,” the little boy replied. I think you’re here because of Christmas tomorrow. I asked God for a different Christmas gift this year. I didn’t want a sled, an electronic game or a scooter. I wanted something interesting, like a real friend. My parents don’t understand me. So God sent you. Do your parents understand you?”

“I don’t really have parents and I don’t know about God. I went to school but only for a year. I’m not sure why. I learned to read, but I don’t have any books.” The little boy reached out one small hand. “I’m Clark, and I live here. You learned to read in one year? I can read now, but it took me three years. Maybe you can’t really read. Maybe you’re just saying that.”

Zack shook the serious little boy’s hand. “That box over there says ‘Maytag, this side must always be up," he intoned, pointing.

Clark followed Zack’s gaze, then nodded.

“Okay, you can read,” Clark said.

“Why are you down in the basement?” Zack asked, tentatively.

“Harvey,” the little boy replied, instantly, picking up the big cat, but not for long. Harvey twisted and jumped down. The boy laughed, delightedly. “Harv is my only friend, but he runs away from me and hides. He likes the basement.”

“What time is it?” Zack asked.

“Almost midnight on Christmas Eve,” Clark responded. “My parents are asleep. They ‘overserved’ themselves a bit. That means they drank booze. That’s why all the lights are on. I kind of like it. I can do whatever I want. What do you want?”

The question caught Zack off guard. He almost said that he didn’t know, but held back. He thought about what he really wanted. “I’d like a present,” he said, smiling for the first time.

“Cool,” Clark said. “I’ve got lots of presents. Let’s go upstairs and check them out. They’re all wrapped but I’ve opened every one without Mom or Dad knowing about it. Maybe you can guess what’s in the boxes.” Without another word Clark walked to the stairs Harvey followed him, then turned to look back. Zack realized that the cat was more like a dog than a cat. He liked that. He moved to follow the boy and the cat up the stairs, brushing the dirt and leaves from his clothes as best he could. The house was warm.
Clark lead him through a hallway at the top the stairs and into a front room library. A decorated Christmas tree stood against the outside window, its lights blazing with reflections of the lights in all the many decorations hung on its branches. In the distance, out the window, Zack could see the softened light of the snow covered tree in the front yard. Clark and Zack moved presents about until they’d handled every one. Zack had not been able to guess even one of the presents correctly, but he had loved trying. There was only one flat box left.

“This is from my crazy grandpa. He’s crazy but I love him. I never can guess what he’s going to give me. My Mom says that’s because he’s crazy. But that’s okay. Old people can be crazy and still love you. My grandpa taught me that."

Zack handled the wrapped box. It was wrapped with some kind of bright gold paper. He shook it. “Gosh its pretty,” he said, delaying his guess.

“Yeah, my grandpa is colorblind so he goes for the wildest colors possible. He has no clue. That’s why the one Christmas Tree outside is colored. Its for grandpa. But he’s crazy, so it doesn’t matter.”

Zack nodded, as if he understood at. He had no grandfather that he knew. The crazy grandpa sounded pretty neat to him.

“You can have it,” Clark said, out of the blue.

“What?” Zack asked, in puzzlement.

“The present. If you can guess what’s in it then you can have it.”

Zack set the box down. It was too much. He knew he could never guess what was in the box. It was like the rest of his life. He was never going to understand any of it. That was just the way it was. A tear almost rolled down his face. He grimaced, then turned away. He would not cry. He could not cry. He was in the best Christmas place he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to crawl under the beautiful tree and sleep. Then wake up and live there.

“You don’t have to guess. Here, its yours. Merry Christmas. Grandpa is so crazy he’ll never know his gift is gone when he comes tomorrow.” Clark pushed the box toward him.

Zack fought his tears back, knowing that Clark knew he had almost cried. He liked the boy for ignoring it. “He’ll know. You’re not telling the truth. I can’t take it if he’ll know.” Zack slid the box back.

Clark sat back on his think knees, staring at Zack. “Okay. You’re right. But grandpa is different. When he comes I’ll take him aside and tell him that there was this boy who came in the night and needed a present. Grandpa is the only person in the world who will understand. I just know it. He’ll just shake his head, and like me even more.”
Clark pushed the present over to Zack again.

This time Zack grabbed it and tore the wrapping off. It was a small model train. Inside there was even a small transformer. He opened the box very carefully. The train was from Switzerland, a place Zack had never heard of but loved the sound of its name name. Both boys worked to set up the tracks into an oval. They connected the transformer and plugged it in. The train ran. Zack could not believe it. The present was a marvel of wonder. A small light illuminated the engineer in the engine compartment. They ran the train around the oval many many times. Finally Clark told Zack that he had to go to sleep. Carefully, they packed the train back into the well formed box. Zack followed Clark upstairs to the bedrooms. Clark showed him his sleeping parents. Both of them snored gently. The boys smiled at one another.

“My Dad is kinda serious when he’s awake, but he’s a great dad. He wears an expensive watch called a Nardin, which I’m not allowed to touch, but I do when he's in the shower. Mom acts silly but she's not, even though she's a blond. She's okay.

Zack made believe he understood. They moved to the last bedroom on the floor. Clark climbed into his bed, then pulled the covers up to his neck. A small blue blanket was on the pillow next to his head. He reached for it, then inserted part of it into his mouth.
“Mom says I have to give up my blanket soon, and Dad says my 'rag' is unhealthy.”

“Its okay,” Zack said, standing next to the bed, with the train box under his arm, wondering what it would be like to have such a blanket.

“Will you be gone when I wake up?” Clark said, his voice beginning to grow sleepy.

“Yes,” Zack said, gazing down upon the boy.

“Are you the friend God sent me?” Clark asked.

“Yes” Zack replied, not knowing why he said it.
“Will you come back again.? You can live in the basement. Nobody will know. And then we can play every night when my parents are asleep. Harvey can come too.”

Zack stared at the boy. Clark’s eyes closed, then his breathing slowed, although the blue blanket never left his mouth. Zack reached for the light switch, and then flicked it off. He stayed for a few more minutes, just watching the sleeping child.

Back before the window in the basement he crouched. His back was to the glass, which now felt icy cold. He would sleep until morning and then be gone. The train set, his first Christmas gift ever, was clutched tightly under his right arm. Harvey lay stretched across his left ankle. Zack thought of Clark, in the bedroom way above him, as he waited for the dawn.

copyright 2009


  1. Tender and heartbreaking, but starring Harvey, no less. Good cast in a simple but very familiar voice. Deep wells here and a stubborn sorrow that haunts in the cold.

  2. It is my prayer that the two little boys for whom this was written will learn to read and love it. Such a poem will outlast the page on which it appears tonight. May the crazy Grandpa have a peaceful rest in many twinkling hearts.

  3. If you start reading this and can not put it down, you are a good human being. The author is probably a grandpa that some would think he is "off the wall", but I bet he has a very fasinating background. Read his book, "THE BOY". jf