A Wise Man

Another year, almost gone.

On a Sunday afternoon my family sat down in the hilltop park to listen to a community Christmas concert. The chilly outdoor amphitheater was packed. My wife and I sported Santa hats, and our kids dressed as elves.

Up on the leaf-strewn stage the New Life Choir sang Christmas carols. The audience sang along, clapped in time, jingled bells and keys on chains.

For some reason I couldn’t join in. My thoughts concerned problems at work and those toxic in-laws that would be visiting again. Christmas felt tired. I kept looking around at the crowd of easily excited strangers in the audience. It all seemed so predictable.

At the end of our row, near the exit, I spotted one man’s head that stood out in the small ocean of red and white Santa hats. It was his strange golden crown that drew my attention. I wondered what sort of fool would decide to wear such a thing for Christmas.

The crown seemed absurd. It was one of those simple crowns that look like triangular steeples arranged in a circle, each graced with a single gem. Suddenly I realized the person had come to the Christmas concert as one of the Wise Men.

I looked at the face beneath the crown and saw a gray, very old man, who sat alone and apart.

A children’s choir was filing up onto the stage. Several dozen awkward children were all dressed like green elves. My son and daughter were very excited see more tiny elves, exactly like themselves. I looked at my wife as she gave Janie and Joshua each a quick hug.

The choir of bright-eyed elves gathered nervously in rows on the risers, smiling, squirming, turning their shy faces to the audience. Parents waved and held up phones to take pictures.

I regarded the expectant audience. Above the swelling sea of Santa hats, I observed the crowned head of the very old Wise Man at the end of our row. He was staring directly ahead. His weathered face appeared like a rock. I wondered what the old man saw. Confusion, probably. The passing of too many years.

I turned to watch the children as they prepared to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The tiny green elves stood side by side and began about that partridge in a pear tree. Their wavering voices rose and rose, becoming more certain as they sang about two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

The elves sang through the twelve days, brief days filled with abundant gifts of hens and geese and swans and gold rings, filled with gifts of dancing ladies and leaping lords and pipers piping and drummers drumming, drumming, drumming, repeating, repeating like strong, perpetual heartbeats.

Each elf had eyes that shined like jewels.

For a moment I forgot about work and in-laws and looked at my own excited children, my two small elves that one day would don Santa hats.

After the final carol had been sung, as everyone left the small amphitheater, the very old man in the strange golden crown remained in his seat. I glanced down at him as we brushed past. His eyes stared directly ahead. They were filled with tears.

A Bottle of Polish

A cashier at the hardware store scanned the small bottle of metal polish. “Be careful with this stuff,” she said. “I hope you realize it can be dangerous.”

A store employee watching from one aisle whispered to another: “Oh my god! What do you think that guy is going to do with a bottle of polish? I wonder if he’s going to drink it. He’s probably going to sniff it.”

Dirk took his purchase into the weeds near the freeway off-ramp. He settled into a spot that no one could see. He felt a little safe there. Just to be careful, he made a castle with his bulging plastic bags and hid himself.

He ate a several mouthfuls of hard pizza, drank some warm water. Then he began carefully searching through his bags.

Dirk suddenly realized what he sought was in one of his pockets.

Lying down, stretching out, he reached into the pocket, pulled out the small round brass medal. He held it up with a trembling hand and gazed at it.

The ribbon of the medal had disintegrated long ago. But the brass and the words stamped on the brass shined brightly in the sun. So brightly that he could almost see his own face.

Dirk slowly sat up. Carefully, he opened the small can of metal polish and put some on a rag.

“We know you’re there!”

Dirk shoved the medal back into his pocket.

Two people he knew came crashing through the weeds. One grabbed a plastic bag and picked it up and scattered its contents everywhere. “What are you doing?” asked the thin one with a sneer.

Dirk didn’t say anything. He turned his head, pretending to ignore them.

“I’m talking to you dumbass! What are you doing? You got any money?”

“No,” Dirk replied without looking up.

A hand came down and snatched the small open bottle of metal polish. “What’s this?”

“Don’t know.”

A foot kicked Dirk, then the two scrambled off through the weeds.

“Metal polish!” said one to the other as they followed the dry ditch under the freeway. “What can we do with this?”

“Nothing,” said the other.