Your 2022 Christmas Story from Kate Flora
Burnout didn’t begin to describe how Alice felt on the Friday before Christmas. She’d been a social worker for more than two decades. No one knew better how terrible things got during the holiday season. The people in her office careened from emergency to emergency with no time to breathe or get a meal or reflect on the misguided impulse to help that had gotten them into this. Alice had gotten smart early and moved up the food chain to an administrative job—shuffling papers instead of miserable, sad children.
It would have been heartbreaking except that their hearts were already pathetic, shattered organs held together with gum and wire. Work the holiday season long enough and your heart became like the box that protected Superman from Kryptonite, encased in lead to protect whatever was left from any more battering. Alice had protected her heart like this and also with a closed door and a raft of rules and policies designed to keep her from confronting the day to day awfulness, but she stepped in for her colleagues often enough that she never lost sight of what their work was about. Like this week, when, with three workers out sick and one on maternity leave, she’d been forced out from behind the protective barrier of her desk and into the trenches. Tenements, trailer parks, streets and shelters.
Now, late on a Friday afternoon, she felt like lead not only shielded her heart but had been poured over her until she was encased in it, too heavy with sad stories and no resources to resolve them to move. Sick children, hungry children, battered children, and desperate parents—their stories were piled up on her desk like filing the right piece of paper would magically solve something. The night supervisor was at her desk in the adjoining office, loudly playing holiday music as though it would chase these troubles away.
It was time for Alice to leave for home. Three days off, days that might, if she was lucky, melt at least one layer of this lead. Alice had never thought of herself as lucky. Outside, it was snowing. Pretty even through her grimy window but it would make the drive home miserable. People who couldn’t drive in snow would be all around her, slithering and skidding and getting stuck. Much as she wanted to be gone from here, away from the constant ringing of her phone and the pinched faces of desperate young social workers seeking her advice, she would wait a little longer for the traffic to clear.
Her supervisor, a woman who always seemed magically untouched by the awfulness and need around them, stuck her head in the door. “Finished your holiday shopping, Alice?”
Alice nodded. The woman would know, if she thought about it, that Alice didn’t need to do any holiday shopping. Three Christmases ago, her husband had been killed in a car crash. Two years ago, her daughter had suddenly decided Alice was the cause of all her problems and cut off communication. Last Christmas, Alice’s mother, a woman she had loved as a friend as well as a mother, had succumbed to the cancer that had been trying to claim her for years. Alice didn’t have a dog or a cat or even a goldfish.
Alice nodded. No reason to recite all of this. Being a downer at Christmas was such a bore. “How about you?” she asked. It was the polite response.
“Almost done. Just my mother-in-law left, and since she’s impossible, I’ll probably just get another scarf.”
“What about a jigsaw puzzle,” Alice suggested. “You told me she liked them.”
“Oh.” The woman, Mary Beth, looked surprised. “That’s a good idea.” She bustled away, leaving Alice in the quiet of her dim office.
After another few minutes, Alice decided sitting here was worse than sitting in traffic. She gathered her things, zipped on her warm boots and put on her LL Bean down coat and a fleece-lined hat. Gear up like that, she looked like the Pillsbury Dough Girl but she really didn’t care. She’d left concerns about fashion behind long ago. Now comfort and warmth were her priorities.
Tote bag over her arm, she turned off the lights and locked her office door.
She met no one on the way to the elevator or in the parking garage. The world was strangely silent and empty and she wondered, as she sometimes did, whether the world had ended and she had missed the memo. Outside the garage, though, the snarl of traffic confirmed that the world was very much alive and as incompetent as she’d expected.
There were two routes home. The first, the highway, was faster. It was also jammed at this hour with drivers desperate to gain a few seconds or a few places ahead in the rush hour crawl. The second wound its way through some back streets in town, over a river, and onto a quiet country road. There was one big hill that could be challenging in the snow, but she had good tires and all-wheel drive so she wasn’t very worried.
She turned the radio to NPR, hoping for an uplifting story that would keep her mind off work and the cold and empty house that awaited her. She hadn’t bothered with a tree this year. It was just something to wrestle with, cover her jacket and hands with pitch, and then shed needles all over her living room floor. Her cousin Andy, who occasionally checked in on her, would chide her for lacking holiday spirit if he knew. But he could only know if she told him, which she had no intention of doing. Alice was a bedrock old Yankee, well-schooled in putting a good face on things no matter what was really happening. “We don’t talk about that” and “No one needs to know your troubles” had been embedded since childhood.
Sadly, NPR was running a story on corporations buying up trailer parks and driving out long-time residents. Not exactly cheerful holiday listening.
Spotting an empty parking space in the strip mall she was passing, she diverted and parked. She got a quiche from the deli she could reheat, a loaf of crispy French bread, and a small carrot cake. She stowed them in the car and went to the liquor store, where she splurged on a decent bottle of white wine and then, perhaps channeling her late husband, bought a bottle of good bourbon as well. While he was alive, they’d enjoyed a short bourbon in the evening while watching TV.
At the register, she tossed a couple of candy canes into the bag and went back to her car.
She’d stalled long enough. It was time to go home, turn up the heat, and put that quiche in the oven.
There was an ancient Volvo idling on the side of the road just before the bridge and Alice’s heart leaped against the walls of its leaden compartment. The bridge had an unfortunate reputation as a place to commit suicide. The city had budgeted for the installation of tall wire barriers to prevent such events but, as with many things political, the actual installation had gotten bogged down in discussions of how to make the barriers safe without making them unattractive. While the discussions nattered on, two more desperate people had jumped to their deaths. As if to make the prospect of suicide more appealing, the same town government that couldn’t agree on how to make the bridge safe had decked it out with strips of colorful lights.
Now Alice studied the idling car, wondering if this was another person for whom the world had become too much.
It was the season for that, for people to feel their despair, their sorrow, their failures, and to see no hope on the horizon. The music and lights that gave many people pleasure were like steel wool to others, rubbing them raw until they couldn’t stand it any longer. Some, she knew, took refuge in terrorizing their families, beating wives and children as though that would work off their anger and make them feel better. Some, unable to provide a decent Christmas, or swamped with bad memories of bad holidays past, took to drink or drugs to bury their sorrows, sometimes erupting into violence. It was the season when fathers and mothers who couldn’t even feed their children, never mind give them gifts, felt their failures the most. Sometimes one of them saw this bridge as the answer.
Despite her resolution to leave the world’s problems behind for a few days, Alice found herself pulling in behind the Volvo and turning off her engine.
She sat in her dark car wondering what to do next. She didn’t consider herself a very brave person. Some might disagree. Social workers went into a lot of very scary places and confronted a lot of scary people. Sometimes when it was necessary to remove a child from a home, she would take a police officer with her to ensure her safety. Even that wasn’t always enough. She’d been assaulted, spat at, had furniture, alcohol and food thrown at her, and been warned more than once that someday the person affected would find her again and that day would be her last.
In those situations, only Alice seemed to focus on the child or children involved, children who, often despite horrific treatment by their parents or caregivers, didn’t want to leave. Sometimes when she was trying to sleep—something that did not come easily these days—her head would be full of those plaintive cries. She had twenty-two years on the job. Three more until she could retire with full benefits. She could go now with a lesser pension. Her mother and her husband had left her with enough money so she would be okay.
Another legacy of that Yankee heritage: you worked as long as you could. Work was what defined you. Work was what proved your worth, your goodness, your fulfillment of your responsibilities to society.
One day soon, she was going to say “screw it” and stop working, never mind what the family ghosts might have to say. If her husband were still here, he would support that decision. He’d always fretted over how much her job took out of her. He’d been her lover and her best friend. His loss had left a hole in her life. In her heart. In their home, which now was only a place where she slept. Sometimes ate. Occasionally turned on the TV and then wept at programs they’d watched together.
It struck her then, truly like that old expression “a bolt from the blue,” that she was as good a candidate as any to jump off the bridge.
Ahead of her, in the dark car, she could just make out the shape of someone sitting in the driver’s seat. A man, she thought, based on his size. A man who sat and stared at the bridge just as she was doing.
Before she could over think it, she got out of her car and walked resolutely to the driver’s side window of the Volvo.
It was a man around her age. His hands gripped the wheel in the ten and two position, the grip so fierce his fingers were white. He was staring straight ahead at the gaily decorated bridge. He didn’t react to her approach until she bent and tapped on his window, signaling for him to lower it.
He shot a glance at her and shook his head.
She was going to have to work harder to get his attention.
She knocked on the glass, harder this time, and asked loudly if he was okay.
This time he didn’t even look at her.
He wasn’t in any danger as long as he sat in his car, but Alice couldn’t stand here in the cold beside him like the suicide police. A wind had come up and was finding its way under her warm coat, up her sleeves, and down her neck, as though it was somehow in league with the bridge and wanted her to go away so the man could accomplish what she feared he’d come here to do.
She reminded herself that she had no idea what he’d come to do. Her actions were only based on conjecture. Conjecture, where he’d parked his car, and her decades of experience with people in trouble.
Should she call the police? This really was their department, not hers. Her mind filled with what ifs. What if she did call the police and the sound of their sirens and their flashing lights catapulted the man into action? There was no way she could stop him if he left his car and headed for the bridge. She was a small woman and he was a large man.
Right. So did that mean she should do nothing? Just leave him here to whatever fate he chose, while she went home to her chilly house and ate a mediocre quiche?
Alice had had a boss once who firmly believed people chose their fates. He used to say that the bad things that happened to people were things they’d brought on themselves. He said that Alice and her colleagues were little more than garbage collectors, coming around after the fact to pick up the messes that were left behind. His attitude had driven several dedicated social workers out of the profession before he was finally driven out himself. Alice, being a stubborn Yankee, wasn’t about to let him drive her away, but he’d definitely undermined her confidence and compassion. It had taken a while to get it back.
If he were here, he would have gotten in his car and driven away, leaving the man to make his own choices. No, if he were here, he wouldn’t have stopped at all. It was cold out here and he didn’t like being uncomfortable.
Not that Alice did.
Shifting her feet, which were getting numb, she studied the man through the glass. He was decently dressed. Shaved. His hair was combed. The hands that gripped the wheel were clean. Beyond him, on the passenger seat, there was a large, blue teddy bear. Somewhere in this man’s life there was a child.
Alice thought about children she’d dealt with whose parents had killed themselves. About how the damage, the wondering if it was their fault, and the deep, deep sadness, could linger not just through childhood but through their whole lives. Yes, she was weaving a story for this man based on few facts, but if he went ahead with this, it wasn’t only his depression that was involved, but at least one other life.
She had to do something.
It struck her then—another bolt from the blue—what she could do. It was risky. Its success depended on whether or not the man was sunk so far into his depression that he was indifferent to the world around him.
Alice went back to her car and put the purse she’d been clutching inside on the driver’s seat. Then she finished buttoning her coat, wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck, and headed for the bridge.
As she stood next to the railing, a barrier low enough that even a small person like her could climb over it, she felt a gust of wind so strong it almost lifted her off her feet. If this didn’t work, if the possibility that she might be taking the same path the man in the Volvo was contemplating didn’t spur him into action, this fierce wind just might force her hand. She might be sent cascading down into the foaming dark water below her. It looked so cold and angry yet it was mesmerizing in the way it twirled and swirled, the brown foam on top like that on a glass of freshly poured Coke.
There was chain-link fencing between the cement barrier at her feet and the railing. Hoping this would work, scared to death that she would fail, and uncertain about how those wild gusts of wind would play into this, she wedged her foot into a space in the fence, gripped the railing, and raised herself up.
From what seemed very far away, she heard a man’s voice shout, “No! Don’t . . .” and then the crunch and slap of heavy feet on gritty pavement.
Strong arms wrapped around her as he pulled her away from the edge and against him, murmuring, “No. No. Don’t. Please don’t.”
When Alice dared to look up at him, his face was streaked with tears. It was an attractive face, though one marked by the creases and lines of suffering.
“Thank you,” Alice said. “Thank you. I’m okay. Really, I’m okay.”
She wanted to say, “I only did this for you. To get you to see what you were contemplating was wrong.”
But there had been a moment when the temptation had been great to put an end, forever, to the constant flow of misery and cruelty her work brought daily. Now, shaken by what had come so close, she was trembling and slightly sick.
His grip didn’t slacken, as though he feared that if he let her loose, she’d rush to the rail and jump.
“I’m okay,” she repeated. “I am not going to jump. And neither are you.”
He released her then and stepped back. “I wasn’t going to jump,” he said.
Silence as they stood there, buffeted by a wind that tore tears from her eyes. “I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “Neither was I.”
“Came perilously close to letting a foolish impulse turn into something much worse? But that foolish impulse wasn’t—”
Alice stopped talking. She didn’t want to explain herself to this stranger. She was suddenly unsure whether she’d made the whole thing up, whether she’d read intent when the man was only parked and thinking. She’d been reading people for a very long time. She could be right. She could also be wrong.
“Thank you for your intervention,” she said, recognizing she was using the tone she’d use with a subordinate she wanted out of her office, or that was designed to shut down further conversation. “I’d better be getting home.”
For what? A voice in her head asked. She didn’t even have a cat that needed to be fed.
“You take care,” she told him.
She turned to head back to her car. But impulse was strong in her tonight. She turned back to ask, “Who is the blue bear for?”
He shrugged. “I was going to give it to my son but now they wouldn’t let me see him.”
She knew a million versions of that story. Stepped hard on the impulse to say, “Who are they?”
“I’m supposed to have him for Christmas,” he said. “Noah. He’s three. But before I can pick him up, I have to prove that I have a place to live. A safe place for him to stay. And until today, I had that. Until this morning, when my landlord decided he needed the apartment over his garage for his son who wants to move home. Needed it right away. I . . .” A big fist swiped at the tears on his face. “I begged him to wait until after Christmas. He knew . . . he knows about Noah. Said he was sorry but that wasn’t his problem.”
The man’s big shoulders rose and fell. “I tried everyone I knew but you know. This season. People are busy and—”
He broke off. “Sorry to be laying all this on you.”
What the world regularly did to Alice, right? But this time, the choice was hers.
“Have you had dinner yet?” she asked.
“How can I think about dinner when—”
“Because we all do better and think more clearly when we’ve eaten.” Alice waved a chilly hand toward her car. “Follow me home. We’ll get out of this wind and see if we can find a way to solve your problem.”
“Look. I know I seem pathetic, but you don’t have to—”
“You didn’t ask,” Alice said. “I offered. You can follow me home and we can try to find a solution to your situation or you can go back and sit in your car and brood about it.”
She marched to her car, got in, and pulled out, pausing beside his car. “I don’t bite,” she said.
“No. You just jump off bridges.” There was just a touch of humor in his voice.
This was crazy, Alice knew. But she liked the impulses that had guided her so far. Impulses that went against everything she’d ever been taught. Do not bring your clients home with you, no matter how tempting that is. When she looked back, the old Volvo was behind her.
Well, she reminded herself. He wasn’t a client. She didn’t even know his name.
He pulled into her driveway beside her and parked, waiting while she gathered her purse and her packages, then offering to carry them for her. Nice manners. She knew it was hard to hang on to manners when life was kicking you down the street like an old tin can.
Alice unlocked the door, turned on some lights, and turned up the heat, while he put her packages down on the kitchen counter.
“I’m Alice,” she said as she turned on the oven.
“Duncan. Duncan Malone.”
She hung her coat on a hook by the door and gestured for him to do the same.
“It’s just quiche and salad,” she said, tucking the quiche in the oven and opening the refrigerator to pull out butter for the bread. Getting out a bowl for the salad. If she’d been by herself, she would have skipped the salad, never mind how often she was reminded that she was supposed to have five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day. When she was as tired as this, chewing salad seemed like too much work.
“Nothing fancy. I didn’t feel like cooking tonight.”
He hung up his coat and pulled out a chair, not so much sitting as falling into it. In the light, he looked much worse than he had out there on the bridge.
Alice got out two wine glasses and handed him the bottle and a corkscrew. “I’m having some wine. You’re welcome to join me.”
He stared at the corkscrew and the bottle like they were foreign objects, then set them on the table like they were too much to manage.
Shrugging, Alice carried them to the counter and opened the wine. “Tell me about your situation. About Noah. Who he’s living with and why.”
“My wife Cara . . . she died when Noah was one. It was . . . it was terrible but I tried to keep it together for our son. Then my sister, Suzi, offered to let us live with her. She’d be available to look after Noah when I was a work. It sounded . . .” He raised a troubled face to her, asking her to share his sense of betrayal, as he finished, “It sounded ideal but then, gradually, Suzi began to take over, to treat Noah like he was her own and she wanted me gone. She doesn’t . . . can’t have children. And then, there were a couple of times when I . . . when I came home after I’d been drinking. Suzi said it was okay but it turned out that she’d recorded me on her phone and used it try and show I wasn’t a fit father for Noah. For my son.”
He sighed. “It was only twice. I was stupid. Naïve. Trusting. I never thought she’d do something like that. I moved out, leaving Noah with her, thinking that might help. But she kept trying to edge me out of his life. So now, she has custody and I have visitation with all these conditions and . . .” Those shoulders rose and fell again.
“She must be spying on me or something, because when I went to pick Noah up this afternoon, she asked me where I was taking him and I said we were going to a motel and she said that wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t take him. It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t like this was the first time, or the second, that she’s found a way to keep him from me. But Christmas? And I . . .” Another sigh, one so heartfelt that Alice felt its pain like a blow.
“Today it was just too much. I want to be with my son but I know it’s not good for him to be in the midst of such bitterness. Suzi’s good with him and I’m such a loser that—”
“Stop it,” Alice said. “You’re trying. You’re trying hard. That does not make you a loser.”
“Oh. Right. You have no idea,” he said.
Alice got out the bourbon, uncorked it, and poured some into a glass. She handed it to him.
“Actually, Duncan, I have every idea. I’ve been a social worker for more than twenty years.”
He looked at the glass in his hand. Said, “My experience with social workers hasn’t exactly been pleasant.”
She nodded. “I know. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. But we’re not all bad and our goal is to keep families together.”
“You couldn’t prove that by me,” he said.
He was bitter. Frustrated. Disappointed. Hurt. None of that would help his current situation.
Alice looked back on her evening so far—threatening to throw herself off a bridge, and then inviting a stranger into her house. She might as well continue on this bold and unfamiliar course, never mind that she knew absolutely nothing about this man. Her judgment might be terribly off and she’d invited an ax murderer home—they were always ax murderers, weren’t they?—but she’d been trusting her instincts for a long time. They usually didn’t lead her astray.
“Come with me,” she said, setting down her wine and heading for the door that led into her garage.
He set down his glass and followed in the dumbly obedient way of someone with nothing left to lose.
In the garage, she turned on lights and led him up a flight of stairs. At the top, she opened the door and stepped back to let him enter.
“We built it for our daughter when she was just starting out. It’s nothing fancy but with a bit of cleaning, it will be cozy and comfortable.”
It was a small apartment over the garage—a living area, a kitchen in the corner, a bathroom, and a bedroom.
Duncan wandered around the room, bemused, like a man seeing something unfamiliar but interesting.
Finally, he said, “We could use this? Noah and I could stay here over Christmas?”
“Over Christmas and as long as you need to. It’s been empty far too long.”
She turned on the heat, then led the way back downstairs.
When he was back in his chair, bourbon in hand, she got out her notebook and clicked her pen. “Where does your sister live?” she asked.
Slowly, gently, aware of his stunned state, she gathered the information she needed, then made a call to her office where she found someone who could update her on Noah’s file. She wasn’t surprised to find that Duncan’s sister hadn’t been entirely straight with him. No sense in going into that now. What needed to be done was reunite Duncan with his son.
She sliced the bread and they ate it with the quiche. It was nice having someone at the table again. Sometimes you don’t realize how empty a house is until there are people in it again.
After dinner, she told him to brush his teeth—not a good idea to show up to collect his child smelling of bourbon, especially given the way his sister had used drinking against him—and then they put Noah’s car seat in her car and drove to Suzi’s.
When Suzi answered the door, Noah, who had been hiding behind her, dashed past her and threw himself in his father’s arms. “Daddy! You came back.”
Suzi was tall like Duncan, wide-shouldered and rangy. She also wore the guilty look of someone who’d been caught out.
Alice introduced herself, showed her credentials, and made it clear that they were there to pick up Noah in accordance with the agreement with the agency.
Duncan’s sister glared at her, hands on her hips. “Oh right. Well, I don’t know what my useless brother has told you, but he has no place to live. He’s not allowed—”
“He has a very nice apartment in Ellenville,” Alice said, cutting her off. “I’ve inspected it and it is entirely suitable.”
“But I want Noah with me for Christmas.”
“Christmas with my daddy,” the little boy said. He gave his aunt a sweet smile. “Maybe you can visit us.”
Alice figured that was not her department. Duncan and his sister would have to work that out. She gestured for Duncan and Noah to go to the car, then asked if Noah’s things were still packed for the anticipated visit with his father.
They were, and Suzi, with a glare, reluctantly handed them over.
“This doesn’t have to be a battle,” Alice said. “It’s not about winners and losers. Not when you both love the boy so much.”
Suzi shook her head, then turned and shut the door.
For the millionth time, Alice wondered why people had to make things so difficult for themselves. Why they refused to cooperate for the sake of the children. She wasn’t surprised anymore. She wasn’t naïve. She was disappointed.
She joined the chattering boy and his smiling father and started the car.
Driving across the bridge, she realized she was terribly tired. It had been a difficult evening, rescuing Duncan and Noah. An evening of letting them rescue her. She was looking forward to going back home, slipping her shoes off, lighting a fire in the fireplace, and sipping bourbon while she watched a Christmas movie.
Maybe tomorrow, Duncan and Noah could help her find a tree.