Nick at night

Flying quickly becomes tiresome, you know. I was watching the clouds: low and fast moving, an ever-shifting panoply of dark and light. As dusk came on I heard a few scattered calls of tundra swans. I scanned the sky, spotting the “V” just a few seconds before it shot behind the ridge. Talk about a tailwind!

Then to work. I descended the tree, brushed the soot from my suit, walked quickly through the middle distance into the foreground until the landscape became too small to hold me any longer. Since my mood was clearly favoring a “breath-taking sense of elemental fury,” as an art critic once said, I chose something by Martin Johnson Heade – no dark Satanic mills, if you don’t mind! Nobody was in the hall when I stepped down out of it and headed for the exit. Of course, technically, for me this world is All Exit – pace my friend Jean-Paul – but let’s not go there, as the kids say.

Screw the teenagers, though. Christmas is for children – gotta get ’em when they’re young and impressionable and ready to swallow any story that lends a bright red glow to the satisfaction of selfish desires and calls it magic. Ah, the lights, the carols, the smell of gingerbread, of a freshly cut fir! Ah, the sweets!

Here’s a young mother who takes the spirit of Christmas to its logical extreme. She’s shacked up in this dingy motel room with her two little kids to escape a court order awarding custody to the father, who sits at home staring at a half-decorated tree and a pile of unwrapped toys, weeping tears of pure frustration. The girl – let’s call her Gretel – she’s only four, a cute blonde thing, too young to really know what’s going on. But her older brother Hansel watches through big, dark eyes as their mother bends over the mirror, vacuuming the little trail of white crumbs into her ravenous nostrils. Let it snow, ha ha!

Yes, that’s right, children, Mommy lives in a magical house of sweets in the middle of the dark forest. Well, as I said a moment ago, the world is full of exits. Here’s a newly homeless guy still struggling with the mayor’s new math: 2000 beds for over 4500 people, 23 percent of them veterans like himself. Illegal to sleep in public, but they won’t jail you for it – that would defeat the purpose, now, wouldn’t it? So our Odysseus is contemplating an act of armed robbery or a mugging – anything to get him arrested and out of this cold and biting wind. But he pictures the stricken look on the faces of his victims and he just can’t do it, can he? No, not without flashing back to scenes of that bridge in Baghdad, the cars that wouldn’t stop, the shattered bodies of children looking so much like his niece and nephew back in St. Louis.

But he’s got his ticket, you see, and the Marines trained him very well in its use. It’s been so long since he’s had a good night’s sleep that the mere thought of it drives him half-crazy with longing. He remembers the snug Christmas Eves of his not-so-distant childhood, visions of dancing sugar plums and all that. You see how simple it is to distort a person’s memories with just a few words whispered in the wind? Because in reality, of course, he never slept on Christmas Eve, but lay sleepless with excitement as the clock ticked and the hours crawled by.

Something of that excitement, that electric current in the veins lingers even now, as he fits the cold muzzle of the gun into the hollow under his chin. Only an idiot would risk a side-of-the-head placement. The notion is offensive for aesthetic as well as practical purposes. Well, I’d love to stick around and watch his magic disappearing act, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover tonight. Where’s that asshole Rudolf?

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