Dear readers, family and friends, this story is a Christmas gift from me to you. It is written in the spirit of Charles Dickens and O. Henry. And like these beloved authors, I’ve taken liberties to create fiction based upon fact. For me, it’s very much like combining cookie dough with chocolate chips. I hope you find it as irresistible and delicious and as satisfying, with a nice cup of tea, as a warm fire on a blustery, snowy night.
In the year of Our Lord, 1933, in Philadelphia, one was used to walking at a young age, let’s say at conception.
It has always been true that Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Naturally, people walk through, between, around, and into and out of neighborhoods. But, for Roman Catholics in Philadelphia, folks didn’t just walk from one geographic area to another – they walked from one parish to another.
In fact, if you were or weren’t a catholic, the precious turf you called home, or where your place of employment happened to be, or where you used to live and grew up and went to school, or where your grandmother lived all definitively and decisively depended on the name of the catholic church next door.
This is how you navigated Philadelphia. One didn’t need coordinates of longitude and latitude or a numbered street or a cross avenue named for some tree. You only needed the name of the parish. This is how you identified yourself. For good or bad, this was how you were judged. This was how everyone knew your ethnic background. The parish was paramount. If not spiritually, then at least geographically.
However, if you were travelling a distance more than a few measly miles and you had some change in your pocket, you would of course take advantage of the miracle of public transportation.
Honest John Galloway tipped his conductor’s cap to the newcomer entering his trolley on Germantown Avenue and bid him welcome. The sun was still far from making its silent, seldom appreciated, triumphant daily debut on a damp and cold December morning – Christmas Eve no less. The shops in Chestnut Hill would not be opened for hours if at all because this year Christmas fell on a Monday.
Eugene Quindlen set himself down on the hard bench seat. He was foot sore from walking all the way from Midvale Avenue in East Falls where he stopped at the church to light a candle, knowing he would probably miss mass. At this hour he was the only fare on Galloway’s trolley.
“What parish?” the conductor inquired.
“St. Bridget’s,” Quindlen stated, matter-of-factly, because the question was almost expected. “And you?”
Quindlen grinned. “You’re joking with me man. A priest from Ludwig’s would never hear your confession, not in a million years.”
Galloway’s face turned sour. “Tis true my man – tis very true, indeed. An Irishman’s sins are a trial for a German priest. It’s because whiskey is our mother’s milk, not beer. But I take up residence where my car barn is. Livin’ with the Germans isn’t so bad. They make their own black brew and share it willingly. Besides The Most Precious Blood is just around the corner. In a pinch I can confess there.”
“But the Huns have no sense of decency,” Quindlen replied. “Ever since the war they blame the Irish for everything.”
“For God’s sake, man,” Galloway insisted, “the stuff they brew will knock your socks off. Didn’t I just tell you that it’s free? And who are you to be givin’ lectures anyway? Although you’re sober, praise be. Still, only the Episcopalians are welcomed this far west. Are you that bad off that you have to rise in the middle of the night to find work? You’re out of your league and into the land of lace curtains.”
Quindlen looked down at his shoes and sighed, deeply. Galloway cocked his head and saw the poor man’s reaction to his opinions through the streetcar’s mirror. He decided on a tactical retreat.
“But I agree that it was the Irish that put an end to the Kaiser. If it wasn’t for us the Gerrys would have won the war and the English finally put in their place. Just look at what Wild Bill Donovan did with the Fighting 69th and Father Duffy’s prayers.”
Quindlen didn’t hear a word the conductor said. He was staring out at the empty street, his mind filled with the faces of his children. Then, the conductor’s baritone voice became the sweet middle C soprano of his wife, Kitty, and her parting words to him when he rose from their bed at midnight: “Gene, don’t go. We’ll just have to do without. I have enough flour and sugar. I’ll make some cookies for the kids. We’ll sing songs and go to church. Don’t blame yourself for not being productive and providing. We’ll survive.”
About the only thing running with some proficiency and productivity in the whole of the city was Honest John’s electrified trolley car, courtesy of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. Everything else was shut down, boarded up, closed for good, and the effects of depressed times showed on the sallow yet still young features of Quindlen’s face. There were dark circles under his bright eyes. His small, short frame was somewhat bent, making him look a decade older than he really was.
Galloway had earned the reputation as “honest” because he kept a rigid schedule driving his trolley. He was always on time as any engineer would be. Natural for a German, quite remarkable for an Irishman if you believed in what you were told was true. But, John Galloway had also earned that nickname because he had the saintly, and oft times annoying habit of getting men out of their warm beds and making them get to work on time. When a regular fare wouldn’t board his trolley at the proscribed minute, John would dash out of his street car and bang on the poor man’s door. In that way he made honest men out of idlers and hung-over drunkards, better yet, and for the most part, John Galloway woke a tired man from a few precious seconds of much deserved sleep. After all, if a man missed one day of work, he might never be able to find another job. This is how it truly was during the days of idle hands and poor prospects three long years after the crash of ’29.
For men everywhere it was worse than hell; worse even than the Great War. Nobody starved if you fell in the trenches of France. But now, the enemy refused to show its face. And, you can’t kill what you can’t see. To not have a reason to wake up in the morning is worse than death. This is what being unemployed actually means.
Work is life. Work is heat. Work is a meal on an empty stomach. If you have a wife and little children, work is a miracle.
For Eugene Quindlen, work would have been an answer to a prayer and a penny candle at St. Bridget’s.
“So now,” Galloway asked, dismissing, the usual banter between Irishmen and getting down to brass tacks, “where’s your stop and what are you searching for lad.”
“Anywhere I can play a piano and put some money in my bride’s hands,” Eugene answered, honestly.
John Galloway sniffed the damp air from a cracked window and was about to pontificate on the virtues of obtaining a steady and reliable government job, but stopped his thought process immediately. If a man had music in his soul he should always pursue it. Like poetry it will not leave you until you are dead. This is why the Irish have always revered the story teller.
Honest John applied his brake at the next cross street but there was nobody there to board his trolley. “You’ve got an honest face, lad. I should know. I’ve seen many snakes crawling around pretending to be what they are not. You’re as fair as the color of your hair underneath that cap of yours and as soft as the jut of your chin. That means you’re not as stubborn as most Micks. What, may I ask, is your Christian name?”
“Eugene. And yours conductor?”
“John. They call me Honest John, but I take no comfort in it. Every day is another day in the battle against the theft of Adam.”
Quindlen scrunched the brows of his Donegal forehead. “You mean Adam stole something?”
“Sure he did.”
“The apple, you fool, what else?”
“But, it was Eve who took the apple from the tree.”
“He abetted the crime, man. How many have used the excuse.”
“But, his wife talked him into it. He did it for her.”
Galloway sighed. “And we’ve been paying the price ever since. Listen, Eugene. I’ve a queer feeling on the progress of this conversation. As I said, you have an honest face. Keep it so, lad.”
The trolley was quickly approaching the next stop. Galloway didn’t want his passenger to leave on a bad note.
“How many young ones, then?”
Eugene hesitated a bit. He was staring at a beautiful Christmas tree atop the roof of an emporium. The lights were all out. Still, it was a grand tree: a fir with all the trimmings.
“Eight. At the last count,” Quindlen answered. “Who knows, it might be an entire ball team before we’re through.”
Galloway laughed. “Well that’s a good start anyway. Connie Mack would be that proud of you. Listen lad, if you have the music as you say, why aren’t you playing at one of the grand Christmas parties the protestants have in their plush mansions on the west side?”
Eugene got off his seat and cradled the hand rail of the trolley. He hadn’t gotten up this early to have a conversation, however edifying, with a transit operator or conductor or motorman or whatever they called themselves.
“I can’t read the music,” he said slowly. “I never could. I picked up playing the piano by ear and took to it like a babe to his mother’s breast. It was just something I could do. And I do it very well. But, I can’t play Chopin. If the maestro puts a sheet of notes under my eyes it’s like looking up at an airplane. I know it’s there, but I have no idea how it got there, you see?”
Galloway pressed his lips in agreement and because he was out of ideas. “But, how in Christ’s name have you made it this far supportin’ a wife and eight kids?”
Quindlen shrugged his slight shoulders. “Oh, I found lots of work during the prohibition. At speakeasies and cheap vaudeville shows where you didn’t have to be a real professional; I even tried my hand at the motion picture shows playing the organ before the talkies came out. But, now the law has changed everything. Booze is legal and all the gin joints are becoming respectable.”
Galloway sighed, stopped his trolley and rang his bell. “Man, what do you hope to accomplish on the eve of Our Savior’s birth before the sun is even up on Germantown Avenue?”
Eugene Quindlen swung his short body across the trolley’s entrance/exit bar and deposited his well-worn shoe leather on the cobblestoned street. He glanced back at the conductor’s honest face.
“I’m determined to provide some sort of happiness to my bride and children this Christmas,” he said. And, with that simple fiat, before the doors of Honest John’s trolley closed, Eugene’s eyes, which were a little bleary along the ride west on Germantown Avenue, burst into a brilliant, radiant blue – a blue hue Honest John hadn’t seen since his youthful last gaze upon the blustery Irish Sea before the turn of the last century.
The Laughing Song
Eugene walked all morning and then all afternoon. He was looking for any opportunity. A woman wearing mink tipped him after he helped with her last minute Christmas packages and held open the door of her cab.
Lunch money. Not much, but it would at least stop the pang in his gut and get him off his feet. He went into the nearest diner. There were no soup kitchens in this neighborhood. He couldn’t suppress the loud sigh emanating from his lungs as he sat down on a cushioned stool. An attractive waitress smacking a stick of gum between her ruby red lips heard him.
“What’ll it be, mister,” she said. It was more of a challenge than a question. She thought maybe he was just there to park himself and get out of the cold. She wouldn’t stand for that. It was Christmas Eve and she needed every nickel to buy that baseball glove for her oldest boy.
Quindlen ordered black coffee, a bowl of vegetable soup and some rolls. He tried not to eat too quickly in order not to attract attention. He bought a paper and had another cup of coffee. Buying a Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin was an accepted expense. Reading about anything new might provide a glimpse of opportunity. Not the help wanted ads, every worker was scouring those, but the transactions in businesses and real estate, even the legal notices of governmental contracts, when viewed through imaginative eyes, could suggest possibilities to the eager mind. He read a story just last week, where the manufacturer of a billiards factory refitted his plant to produce bathroom plumbing products yet kept the capability of his plant to still produce pool tables. When Roosevelt initiated the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal government put out contracts for both toilets and pool tables to be installed in the recreation halls for the thousands of CCC workers expected to sign up for the program. It was pure genius, Eugene thought, to glean such an opportunity where none had existed before. This was how Eugene Quindlen’s mind worked.
Today, however, the newspaper was no help. Besides, his needs were immediate. It’s true that he had paid his rent for the month. In fact he was covered for January as well. The gas and electric were paid. This is also how Quindlen thought: necessities first. Kitty’s cupboard was not completely barren. There was food in the pantry. He had foreseen the possibility of want, the expectation of hunger late last summer. He borrowed a truck and drove out to the fertile fields of Lancaster County. There he spent what little money he had on bulk farm goods. Kitty learned how to put up the bounty by canning. Eugene turned the basement of their rented home into a root cellar. But, it was proving to be a long winter. Work was nonexistent and the money dried up and disappeared.
And, now it was Christmas Eve. The faces of his children with anticipating eyes and their innocent smiles full of trust in daddy’s promises of a wonderful noel that he could not keep plagued him. The worst of the art of deviltry – despair – besieged him.
He began walking down Germantown Avenue again, then up a steep hill until he came to a trolley loop. There was a green door and a small sign that read “McNally’s Tavern.” Because it was Sunday, the bar wouldn’t be open for business. He knocked on the green door anyway.
A woman with a broom in her hand answered. Eugene removed his cap. “Hello, madam, I was wondering if you had a piano and if you needed someone to play it?”
The woman opened the door wider. “That was fast,” she said to herself. “Come in lad.” Walking over the threshold, Eugene said a quick thank you to St. Bridget and blessed himself.
“Hugh,” the woman yelled to a small table on the other side of the room, “You were just talkin’ about getting a piano player (she pronounced it piʹ-ano).”
“And, what of it woman,” Hugh answered, not bothering to look up. He was playing cards with another man dressed in a conductor’s uniform. The pot in the middle of the table was big, there were even some bills in it.
“This way,” the woman said. Eugene followed her across the bar, nervously fingering his cap with both hands. “Here he is then.”
Hugh looked up and eyed Eugene suspiciously. “And who would you be?”
“He’s a piano player,” the woman stated with triumph.
“By Jaysus,” Hugh exclaimed. “I only just now uttered those very words. Remarkable.”
Eugene couldn’t keep his eyes off the pile of money on the table. He wished he hadn’t spent the tip the woman in mink had given him on food. There was enough in that pot to feed his family for a month. After all those years playing in speakeasies, he had become an expert card player. He only swore it off after Kitty had told Monsignor Kelly about his gambling habit. It would have taken him hours to amass the money in the center of the table, still with luck it could be done.
“So, man,” Hugh said, laying his cards on the table – a full house, “do you think you could play that thing.” He nodded to a spot across the room. Eugene followed Hugh’s nod to a dark corner. There was an upright piano and a bench seat that looked like it hadn’t been used for years.
“Thank you, sir. I believe I could.” Eugene said, enthusiastically. He looked at the conductor sitting opposite to the man Hugh. “I took the trolley earlier this morning and told the operator I was looking for work as everybody is today. But, he never mentioned this place. I’m sure he would have, it being so close to the loop. Perhaps you know him?”
The conductor, who was also staring at the pile of money that Hugh was whisking away, shrugged his shoulders. “Well, did you get his name?”
“He said everyone called him Honest John.”
“Ha!” The card player chortled. “John Galloway never does his drinking in uniform. He goes home after his shift. He drinks medicinally every morning. Three fingers of Irish to get the blood up. He takes a cold shower because he claims a hot one weakens the senses. Then he works as many hours that they’ll let him. He’s clean cut, always prompt, and never lets his guard down. He’s the soul of the union brotherhood. Catholic to the core, no communist can shake him. When he does drink, he’s among Fenian friends or not at all. And I’d give my right arm for him if he’d even let me – which he wouldn’t. He has to lead the charge because he knows better than anyone else – which he does. If you’ve met and heard the wisdom of Honest John, then I’d take it for gospel. Does that answer your question Mr. piano player?”
It did and Eugene made his way over to the upright. He blew the dust off the seat and sat down. He opened the lid and stroked the keys. It was obviously out of tune but not terribly.
He started with “The Last Rose of Summer.” The maple wood piano resonated well, although it was situated too close to the wall and the sound was somewhat muffled. The song, a somber, Irish ballad, matched Eugene’s mood. He knew the words but didn’t dare sing them. He could carry a tune as good as anyone but this song needed a gifted voice. But he played as if he were living the melody. He used the pedals to hang onto a note at just the right moment. Everything his heart was feeling – the sadness and tragedy and despair was united to the ancient keys of the upright. It was if there was just one universe with only three things in it: the song, the keys, and the player. When he finished, he looked back at his audience. The woman with the broom, Hugh, and the conductor all gazed at him with blank faces.
“You can play all right,” Hugh said. “What’s your name?”
“Quindlen, sir. Eugene.”
“Well, Eugene, I’m Hugh McNally.”
“And I’m Rose,” the broom lady said with a bright smile.
“And I’m Happy,” the conductor added, holding up his whiskey glass.
They all laughed. Rose went behind the bar and poured the remaining contents of a bottle into two glasses. She brought them over and set one on the piano.
“Oh, Hugh, darling. Can we keep him? Look at his blue eyes. He’s adorable.”
“I’m sure all of the operators of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company will agree with you my dear,” Hugh scoffed. “Now, Eugene, play something upbeat. The fellas that come here are as down as the economy, including yourself. Try to lift their spirits, lad. Give the boys something to smile about. What they need is music and my whiskey to forget about their troubles.”
Eugene had downed his drink and, because he went without much food over the past week, it went straight to his head. He was feeling euphoric. He played the “Laughing Song” and sang the lyrics. Actually there weren’t any lyrics, per se. It was just a jumble of “hah, hah, hah” and “he, he, he.” But it was fun, uplifting, and contagious.
Rose broke out another bottle. Eugene continued playing and drinking whiskey. He played ragtime and jazz and Irish folk songs. Hugh gave him the job. If Eugene could fill the stools and tables at McNally’s he would always have a full tip jar. It was wonderful. It was glorious. It was a job!
With patting of backs and guffaws of laughter, Rose and Hugh escorted Happy and Eugene out the door and into the cold night.
Walking down Germantown Avenue, it took nearly fifteen minutes for Eugene to realize it: he had a job but he still didn’t have any money.
He thought about going back and asking for some kind of advance. Anything that would just put a couple of bucks in his pocket so he could buy a few presents. Then, he remembered the McNally’s went with them onto the street. They locked the door behind them as they left. They didn’t live at the tavern. That was only their place of business. He had no idea where they lived.
“Oh, dear Lord, what have I done? What got into me? It was the damned whiskey!”
It was getting late. He looked around him but only saw darkness. No one was out on the street tonight. They were huddled close in front of cozy fires. They were drinking warm punch. They were singing songs. They were wrapping presents. They were making merry. And here he was miles from home, broke, stupid, ashamed, and uncharacteristically drunk. He was beside himself with misery.
What was Kitty doing now? What were his kids thinking, dreaming, expecting? Kitty’s words came back to him. But, now they weren’t her words at all. They were somebody else’s words and they hit with a vengeance. “Don’t blame yourself for not being productive and providing…”
“Oh, God!” he shouted to the very heavens. “Please help me! I got a job. I did what I set out to do this morning. Kitty told me not to go – but I did and I did it! What do you mean don’t blame myself? Who else is to blame? I’m not productive and I’m not providing. It’s all my fault.”
Germantown Avenue was so empty of human life that Eugene’s words bounced off the buildings on the opposite side of the street and echoed back into his ears. He laughed like a madman. His laughter, too, reverberated back into his brain and mocked him.
And then the voice spoke: “You are a fool, Eugene. You scan the newspapers for opportunities that do not exist. Why? Do you think you can make money from government contracts? By selling plumbing supplies and pool tables like the other man did? He already had a company. You have nothing. You can’t even read sheet music. Face it man, you’re a failure. There’s no harm in admitting what you already know, is there? Do you really think Kitty meant what she said? That you are not productive and cannot provide, but that this is not your fault? You know better than that. Who do you think you are, some kind of medieval knight slaying an imaginative dragon? Do you really believe you can change the course of history?”
Eugene Quindlen staggered down the street devoid of rational thought, in a vacuum, destitute of feeling anything but the constant, incessant stabbing of the demonic knife that struck repeatedly, deeply, into his soul.
A bell rang and the trolley car stopped. Honest John cranked down his window and yelled across the street. “Are you all right, man!”
Eugene was passed out on the stoop of a brownstone. He was dreaming that he was a knight in shining armor atop a great white steed. He wore Kitty’s colors on top of his lance – yellow and blue. She always liked yellow and blue. “If ever we buy a home of our own,” she said, “it would be painted yellow and blue. You know, Gene, blue like Virgin Mary blue.” Eugene smiled. He was, indeed, her knight. He had promised, from the very depths of his heart to serve her for the rest of his life. This was how pure his love was for her. He would slay dragons for her love.
“Get up, man!” John Galloway screamed. “I’ve got to run the trolley and I’m late as it is.”
Wistfully, Eugene awoke from his magnificent dream. He struggled to his feet. He was shivering. Galloway took his arm and guided him into the trolley. Once the heat from the car hit Eugene’s face it knocked him out again. Galloway slapped his face and poured some hot tea from a thermos down his throat
“Eugene, wake yourself up, man. I’ve got to operate the trolley and keep on schedule.”
Quindlen roused himself and sat up on the seat Galloway had plopped him on. “Are you alive then?” Honest John asked looking at him through the mirror.
“I’m alive,” Eugene managed to say. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the fare.”
“Forget about the damned fare,” Galloway fumed. “I dropped you off early this morning. You were full of life and determined to do the right thing for your family. Tonight I picked you up – off the bloody pavement – stinkin’ of the poteen and freezing to death. Now, and slowly, what the hell happened to you?”
Eugene tried to recall. “I walked all day. By the loop I found a tavern with a green door. McNally’s it was, yeah, Hugh and Rose McNally…”
“I worked with Hugh, he was an operator like me.”
“And some guy who called himself Happy, he wore a conductor’s uniform.”
“That’s Harry Coyne – a heavy drinker and a bad poker player.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Anyway I started playing the piano…”
“They have a piano? I didn’t know or I would have told you.”
“Yeah. I mean, Happy told me you wouldn’t have known. He thinks your God or Daniel O’Connell or somebody like that. Anyway, Rose served up some whiskey…”
“Some? Man, you have a strange notion of proportion.”
“Yeah, so my head’s telling me. So, I got the job. Hugh and I shook hands on it. The next thing I know I’m walking down Germantown Avenue and I remembered I never asked for an advance. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Everything I tried to do today went down the toilet because I had a couple of drinks. I could’ve killed myself I felt so low.”
“Don’t even think that way, lad. There’s too much of that goin’ on these days.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Listen, Eugene. I’ve got a couple of bucks in my pocket. Why don’t you take it. Buy somethin’ for the wife and kids.”
Quindlin shook his head. “Thank you friend, but no thanks just the same. Everything is closed now anyway. It’s too late. Listen, let me off at your next stop. I need to stretch my legs and walk off this head.”
Galloway eased off the electric power and applied the car’s new air brakes. Eugene paused as he walked down the steps. He stretched out his hand and the conductor took it warmly.
“Patrick be with you,” Galloway said.
“Honest John – now I know why they call you that – I thank you with all of my heart.”
The trolley pulled away and Eugene, once again, began a long walk.
He passed the emporium that he saw on the ride up Germantown Avenue earlier, in what now seemed so long ago. It was the one with the Christmas tree on top of it, the fir with all the trimmings. He looked at the sign in the dark window: “Abe’s Emporium.” An idea began to formulate in his mind.
It was nice tree. It didn’t look too big. It was tied down with ropes. He saw that a fire escape led to the second story of the emporium. Eugene looked up and down Germantown Avenue. Not a soul was to be found anywhere. After all, it was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve.
Maybe he could salvage something of his long day and his long walk and his longing to see the eyes of his children light up on Christmas morning. Maybe Kitty wouldn’t have to lower her head outside of church tomorrow when the other wives described how wonderful their Christmas day was going with presents under the tree and a turkey in the oven. He had a job now. He would pay back anything to anyone if he could just accomplish one positive thing.
He lifted a lever on the side of the building and brought down the stairs of the fire escape and looked around again. Everything was clear. In less than a minute he was on the second story landing and swung his body onto the roof of the entrance to the store. The tree looked smaller from the pavement. Still, it was doable. He went to work on the ropes. The knots were tight of course. They would be to prevent the wind from knocking the tree off the roof. And the trimmings were all secured to the branches with heavy twine.
Finally, he lifted the tree and decided to lower it on the side of the building opposite the fire escape. As he did so, the tree went down about half way and then slowly fell to the ground like it had its own parachute. Everything was going smoothly. He descended the fire escape and walked around the front of the store.
As he turned on the other side of the building to fetch his prize he saw the toothy smile of a beat cop holding the tree in an upright position. Eugene was speechless. Just then church bells throughout Chestnut Hill proclaimed the midnight hour.
“Merry Christmas,” the cop said.
There comes a time in every man’s life when wreck and ruin are the inevitable consequences of one’s actions. When the hangman’s knot tightens around your neck and there is simply nothing else you can do. This was that time for Eugene Quindlen.
“Let me guess,” the cop proffered. “You were just walking by in the middle of the night when you saw this poor tree and decided it needed a home.”
Eugene, who was staring at his shoes in mortal shame, lifted his head and shook it in the affirmative.
“Well, it begs the question – um – Mr.?
“Quindlen… officer… Eugene.”
“Yes, Eugene it is, and a fine upstanding name for sure, but I was just a little curious, lad. How did you expect to get the tree home and where is that anyway?”
“I live in St. Bridget’s Parish.”
“Ah, I see, so that’s where our little tree was goin’. All the way to St. Bridget’s, how nice, I should have known. Did you plan to rent a truck then, Mr. Quindlen? Perhaps you were going to call a taxi cab, or, judging by the stench of whiskey on your breath, you intended to fly home.”
Eugene stammered something unintelligible.
“You know, Eugene,” the cop went on in a sweet Irish brogue, “Santa Claus is comin’ to town tonight with his reindeer, perhaps you were plannin’ on hitchin’ a ride on his sleigh.”
No matter how much he had earned this spate of ridicule, Eugene could stand it no more. He humbly raised his arms with his palms turned up and let his heart do the talking for him. In torrents his story poured out of him like an open spigot, like a tempest-tossed barrage from a cyclone pummeling Chestnut Hill in a once in a lifetime two-minute explanation for the books.
The cop, Mike Thornton, had heard it all in his long law enforcement career. But he had never quite heard it this way, never with this much passion and this much conviction. He had never heard it as the bells were ringing in the birth of the Christ child.
Eugene ended his discourse with this: “I’ve stolen. I am as guilty as Adam. Even more, since my wife tried to talk me out of doing this today or yesterday, in fact she pleaded with me not to go and do this at all.”
Mike Thornton shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the snow flurries suddenly descending on Germantown Avenue. “Okay, Eugene, I think I finally get it. You were going to put this tree on your back and lug it all the way to the distant parish you call home. Somebody else did this once. Only he ended up being nailed to it. I’m no Cyrenian, but I’m not going to let you carry this burden all by yourself.”
Thornton reached into his coat and pulled out a little notebook. “Follow me,” he said to Eugene. They walked to the corner where the callbox was. Thornton finished his conversation with the precinct desk sergeant and turned back to Eugene, who was out of earshot. “The owner of the store, Abe Fineman, is on the way over here. He’ll decide what we should do.”
Abe lived only a block away and was at the scene in minutes. Thornton told him everything. Abe looked Eugene up and down as if he were purchasing a priceless artifact. In fact, he was. He was buying back Eugene’s soul.
Abe removed the store’s keys from his fur-trimmed overcoat and opened up the door. He whispered something in Thornton’s ear and then went to his office to make a phone call.
A truck arrived fifteen minutes later and parked in front of the store after Abe called in a favor, complete with a driver and a few strong bodies. It was immediately loaded with toys and gifts, warm clothing and canned goods from the wealth of the emporium. The fir tree with all the trimmings was also tenderly put into the truck. With a police escort, the truck drove to a small rented house in St. Bridget’s Parish in Philadelphia. There the woman of the house was awakened from a disturbed slumber in a ladder-backed chair in front of a small coal stove. The tree was installed in the home and a bevy of presents placed beneath its stiff branches. The cupboard of the home was filled with sumptuous tins, the few bureaus stuffed with stockings, long johns, wool sweaters, warm linen, and blankets, the lone closet suddenly lined with mittens, hats, coats, and boots.
Over the many years that followed, Abe Fineman, Mike Thornton, and Honest John Galloway were always the most honored and welcomed guests at the Quindlen’s Christmas celebrations. Reading his Sunday Philadelphia Bulletin, always looking for opportunities, Eugene made a fortune selling plumbing supplies to post World War II communities called “Levittown.”
There are indeed only two constants that mere mortals can rely upon in our world. One of them is the very real beverage called the “milk of human kindness.” The other is the power of a penny candle and a prayer.
And, from this humble author’s family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas.
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”