The dog was whining this morning. She needed to be walked unusually early, so I threw on some jeans and a sweatshirt. I grabbed my coat, hat, gloves and keys, and we headed out the door for a quick walk around the block.
It is not uncommon to walk down the street here and see someone working on their car by the curbside. But today Frank caught my attention because several things seemed out of whack. The sun had yet to rise; it was still dark out. And winter, cloudy. Snow was forecast. Typical for Chicago: cold.
Frank had strung a shop light out to his truck; the orange cable was plugged in to the side of his small, one-floor house and the bulb was hanging from a notch in the car’s raised hood. He was working in naught but his t-shirt and jeans. At least he had the sense to wear work boots. A few of his tools were sprawled out over the parkway and a screwdriver lay on the sidewalk where I was walking Lexi, my dog. When we got to Frank’s plot, Lexi spent some time sniffing around his tools so I picked up his screwdriver and handed it to him.
“Need a hand?”
“Na, I’m just replacing this belt here. Damn alternator went out.”
“Yeah, that’s happened to me before, too.”
“Could you hand me that socket wrench there?”
As he started tightening the bolt, the new belt slipped out of its groove. He took it off the pulleys to look at it closely.
“Seriously, dude: let me give you a hand.”
“Okay, sure. Thanks, pal.”
As I tethered the dog to a tree nearby…“Uh, if you don’t mind my asking: why are you doing this now?”
“I have to get to work later.”
“What do you do?”
“You got a job on Christmas eve?”
“Yeah, just a small one. I guess it’s some folks who don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ll be done by noon if I can get this damn car fixed in the next half hour.”
“Well, if not, I can give you a ride over there, if you want.”
“Thanks. I’ll take you up on that if we can’t get this working.”
He ran his fingers over the belt as he looked for I-don’t-know-what.
I wondered what store would be open this time of day on Christmas eve: “Did you just get this at the store?”
“Na, I had it in my garage for awhile ‘cause I knew the belt needed replacing. I just never got ‘round to puttin’ the damn thing on and now all of a sudden my car won’t start this mornin’.”
“Awww, man, that’s a bummer.”
He started to put the belt back on its pulleys with his greasy, cold fingers. “Yeah. But it’s okay. It’s easy enough to fix.”
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a jacket?”
He glanced at me as if to say, “How do you rate, pal?” and said, “Na, I’m used to the cold.”
“Sorry to say so, but I’d hate for you to get sick.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
He had the belt threaded provisionally so he straightened up and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket. He offered me one.
“No, thanks. I don’t smoke.”
He nodded, drew a cigarette out of the pack for himself, pulled a lighter out of his front pocket and took a long drag, squinting. His unshaven face relaxed and he let out a sigh.
“Hey, I couldn’t help but notice your tattoos. Tell me about ‘em. What’s that one there?”
“Oh, that’s my daughter. She died a couple years ago.”
“No. How old was she?”
“Oh, man, I’m sorry to hear that. That’s rough, dude.”
He exhaled his smoke out the corner of his mouth as he said, “Tell me about it. There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about her. The doctors didn’t think she’d live beyond two. It was a miracle she lived that long.”
“How do you manage?”
“Well, you know…I mean…how do you cope, how do you keep on going?”
“Well…I just think, ‘She’s in a better place now’, ya know.”
“Yeah. That is comforting, isn’t it?”
He put his cigarette on the car frame and asked for the socket wrench. A few twists of the wrench. The belt seemed to be on properly. He climbed in the driver’s seat and tuned the ignition.
She started right up.
He came out and started cleaning up.
I walked over to where the cable was plugged in and began bundling up the cord for him.
“Thanks a lot, pal.”
“No problem.” Then, a thought: “Hey, if you want a hand with that small job today, I have some time this morning, I could help a little. You’d get done a little earlier and could spend the rest of the day with your family.”
“That’s nice of you, but no thanks. I wouldn’t want to put you out, besides: I don’t have no family. My wife and I got a divorce a year ago and there was just Emma before that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, man. But, it’s no trouble at all, really. Seriously, let me give you a hand.”
“Really? Don’t you have family or nothin’?”
“Well, I have a family but we’re just takin’ it easy today. We were expecting my mom and brother to visit from Minnesota but that didn’t work out ‘cause she has to move by the end of the month so all of a sudden we have a pretty low-key Christmas.”
“Okay, sure. If you don’t mind.”
“Let me just go take my dog back home and I’ll be right back, okay?”
We had to drive to Evanston so we had a little while to talk. The sky, though still cloud-covered, was beginning to grow brighter: the sun was rising behind a curtain. There would be enough light for our work.
As he smoked another cigarette with the window slightly open, I asked him, “So, where’d you grow up?”
“Right here in Chicago.”
“Oh, so you have family here then? Brothers? Sisters? Parents?”
“Yeah, but I won’t see them today. Long story.”
“Yeah, believe me: I know about family stuff. It’s not always easy.”
“How ‘bout you? Where are you from?”
“Minnesota, but I lived in Spain the past twelve years.”
“Spain? Why did you live there?”
“I was pastor of a few churches there.”
He did a double-take. “You’re a pastor?”
“I would not have f***ing guessed that.”
I smiled and asked, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, I’ve never known a pastor to trim trees before.”
“Well…now you do.”
We were quiet for a bit until he started humming Away in a Manger, while he continued dragging on his cigarette.
“I love that song,” I said.
He explained: “It’s Emma’s favorite.”
I asked him, “So tell me…it’s Christmas eve: what’s your favorite Christmas memory?”
“When Emma was six.”
“What was special about it?”
“Nothing in particular. It’s just that we were all together. I was still married and Emma was still here. We had presents and lots of food and it was just what Christmas should be. We played games and it snowed and we made a snowman and we just had a great time. How about you? What was your favorite?”
“Well, it sounds funny to say but I always remember the Christmas right after my grandpa died. I was just a kid at the time, sixth grade. We got my grandma outside to play a game with us and she started laughing and laughing and laughing. She laughed so hard she wet her pants. I know it sounds strange that she would be laughing like that but I guess it’s like you said: she was just glad knowing my grandpa was in a better place.”
“Yeah. Makes sense.”
There were only three trees to trim and we finished just after eleven. He offered to pay me for the trouble.
“Please, no. Consider it a Christmas gift, buddy.”
We got in the truck and drove off. It began snowing and gratitude filled my heart as I thought of a certain tree trimmer born in Bethlehem around 2,000 years ago who identified with guys just like Frank and me, scraping past heartache and broken-down cars, driving in the wake of disappointment.
The Tree Trimmers
a short story by Troy Cady