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The Last Believer


Harry Buschman

From The Westlake Village Collection.

It always snowed on Christmas Eve. Like clockwork, the first flakes would
fall the middle of the afternoon. We would be on our way home by then because
old man Langley would close the office at lunch time.

He would appear at the far end of the drafting room bundled up and ready to  leave. "Merry Christmas, everybody." It was the signal for the rest of us to leave as well. We would be out of the building hard on his heels -- some of us would have a drink or two at Hurley's before catching the train for home. Some office romances would linger a bit longer, and there was always one or two people from out of town who had nowhere to go.

The railroad ran extra trains in the early afternoon, the schedules were ignored and you would see people on the east bound trains you never saw before. Many of them were tipsy and it was a fair bet they would ride past their stop to the end of the line. They would find the return trip long and embarrassing. Looking through the dirty windows of the home-bound train we would see the first flakes falling, and we would count off on our fingers the presents we bought for family and friends, to make sure we hadn't forgotten anyone. We were resigned -- we should have started earlier, but it was time to call a halt and if it wasn't bought and wrapped by now, there was always next year.

The train would pull into Westlake Village on the east-bound track. Some of us would make for the wall phones that hung in the cold dark station, others would strike off on their own -- knowing that their harried wives were busy in the kitchen and should not be disturbed. By now there would be an inch or two of snow, like cake frosting, to smooth over the dingy parts of town. Some of us would stop for a Christmas drink at the Hollow Leg Saloon. On Christmas Eve drinks were on the house and Clancy the bartender would be wearing his red and green suspenders. There would be Irish music on the phonograph. The road to home would then be only a quarter mile up Breakneck Hill. It would be a bitter cold quarter mile, and when we reached the top the north wind would be waiting, but the sight of our houses, the smell of wood smoke and the cooking, (not to mention the warming bite of Clancy's bourbon) would insulate us from the chill of a night in late December.

At that moment we would become separate men, each man distinct and alone to  himself -- no longer a group of homeward bound husbands. I would be me, and  you would be you.

The pies were being made. Apple and mince for us -- squash for the old folks.  The girls were stringing popcorn and cranberries in the living room -- the younger stuck herself and quickly blamed the older for pushing her.

"Don't take your coat off dear -- get the tree before it's covered with snow." The debate would begin as to where the heavy iron stand had last been seen.

"It's under this or behind that -- or perhaps it's in the garage back of the lawn mower." Wherever it might be, it would have to be found before the tree could be brought in; like opening an umbrella indoors, it was bad luck to lay a Christmas tree on the floor.

At last it would stand warming itself in the corner, concealing the picture of Uncle Fred for the duration of the yuletide season.

I always asked, "Anybody want to take a last look at Uncle Fred?" No takers!  There was never an answer. For the next few weeks, Uncle Fred would stare glumly through the tinseled branches at the festivities he never got to see in the living room.

I would have to get the lights and the decorations and the kitchen stepladder. The younger daughter would abandon her tiny string of popcorn and cranberries and plunge into the business of ornamenting the tree. It was the husband's job to hang the lights and climb the ladder to the topmost star. It was the wife's job to tell the husband the tree leaned a little too much this way or that -- "and turn it so the bare spot is against the wall."

The old dog, a stickler for the status quo, would view the proceedings with mixed emotions. He had been through enough Christmases to know that the quiet placidity of the next week or two would be interrupted. He would stare at the tree from his warm spot by the sofa, accepting the fact that this tree was sacrosanct -- unlike other trees he knew that could be peed upon, this one was for looking at only. He was prepared for a late night filled with hushed whisperings and muffled thumps from the attic to the basement. He knew he must ignore these noises tonight -- but only for tonight, for they are the same noises that every dog has sworn to the death to defend his family from. He could only hope that he would be walked and fed at regular intervals.

Christmas Eve supper was a casual affair, and quickly forgotten. Leftovers, eaten only to clear space in the refrigerator for tomorrow's onslaught of uneaten turkey wings, cranberry relish, creamed onions, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes. The lady of the house would look worn and faraway, with her mind on the night to come, the dinner tomorrow, and what she should pray for at the Mass in the morning. I would look haggard and wonder if I would be able to get the car out of the driveway now that the snow was six inches deep. The younger daughter would ask if she would be able to see the footprints of Santa and his reindeer on the roof, now that the snow had fallen. The older daughter had to eat and run because she was caroling with the junior class of Westlake high.

The younger daughter "believed." The older daughter did not. We were torn  between the two; we had to promise the younger that the fire in the hearth  would not hamper the arrival of Santa, and he would be favorably impressed if
he found cookies and milk by the Christmas tree -- he might even leave an extra present or two. Reluctant to relinquish the enchantment of Christmas Eve, and yet knowing, with a woman's cunning, that unless she took to her bed, the magic of Christmas morning would never come, she would, at long last, unwillingly say good night.

But, she had to be read to first .... something seasonal to keep the juices flowing, and in the midst of the reading of the "Grinch," or was it "The Little Drummer Boy," the carolers arrived to fill the house with song. We had to go down to hear them. The girls voices were pure as temple chimes, but the boys sounded gritty and unmusical -- like elderly drunks singing barely remembered school songs at a class reunion.

The older daughter was not with them. She was singing with a group on the posh side of Westlake Village where the take would be considerably greater. With the last strains of "Deck the Halls" ringing in our ears, a bright eyed soprano displayed a basket already primed with dollar bills. "For music books," she explained, "We need new music books." It is Christmas, after all -- only a Grinch could resist a request for new music books on Christmas Eve.

We're on our own now. The work of the night would now begin. Younger daughter asleep and the older one back from caroling -- already on the phone and smelling faintly of cigarettes.

"Where did we hide the Easy-Bake oven?"

"Where is the new tricycle?"

"What did you do with the wrapping paper?"

"I told you we needed Scotch tape!"

The round-up began amid urgent whisperings and stifled accusations. We alternated between panic, frenzy and dismay -- with long periods spent reading obscure assembly instruction sheets written in translation. A large sherry calmed the storm, and at last we were alone to admire the tree and the package filled living room. There was peace, a hush and a stillness so profound that it almost convinced us there might once have been a night like this long ago. The mother, the father, and the dog, mesmerized by the lights, the smell, and the memory of Christmases past.

There would be no believers under this roof next year, the younger daughter  would discover the hoax at last and from that moment on there would always be  a touch of disbelief in our solemn word. Little by little the magic of life had slipped away from her. The Easter bunny did not leave colored eggs in the living room, and the moon was not made of green cheese. Life was real, life was earnest, and a tinge of skepticism would make a woman of a little girl.

"I suppose this will be the last year she believes." I ventured.

"In Santa Claus? You're funny."

"Why? What makes you say I'm funny?"

"She didn't believe last year -- I thought you knew everything." She said. "You remember the record player we got her last year?"

"Yes, the damn thing wouldn't work."

"You had to go back the next day and get a replacement, didn't you?" She smiled at me tolerantly. "You took her with you, didn't you?"

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