Surprise Santa

Caught in the act. Photo by Ania Mikol Photography

We wish you a Merry Christmas

The winter wind was rattling the windows when the phone rang. The old man rose stiffly from his chair, stepped over the dog and answered. It was his daughter, calling to check in. She did that often, now that it was just he and the old dog left to run the ranch.

“Dad,” she said, “I’m moving to a bigger apartment and the movers want too much and I don’t have a lot of stuff. Bring the pickup and between you and me, we can get it done in less than a day.” He was proud of his daughter, all grown up now and working in the big city.

What she saw about living there completely escaped him, but he was proud of her anyway. It took grit and determination to leave the ranch, go to college and move somewhere new and different. He was pretty sure she learned about grit and determination from her mama, who showed it every day of her too-short life. Her and Rusty, that little red gelding that taught the young ‘un a whole lot more than just how to ride a horse.

On the appointed day, he got the morning chores done early and fired up the best pickup he had, which also happened to be the only one with a license plate. It did just fine to run back and forth to town but, like him, it was showing the wear and tear of too many years rattling around in rough country. But it would get him to Denver and back and it could haul anything they could throw in the bed.

A battered old pickup and a battered old cowboy hat look very out of place next to $50,000 SUVs. The old man ignored, as best he could, the angry looks and the angry honks as he navigated his way through traffic. Their reaction to his attempts to handle city traffic seemed, to him at least, a little ironic given all the holiday decorations that festively adorned the scene. But he finally eased the old truck up to the curb next to the apartment and rang the buzzer beside the locked gate.

The move went without a hitch, except for the woman on the elevator as they took a load of stuff up to the new apartment. She kept her head down and wouldn’t look the old man in the eye, even to mumble a response to his cheery “howdy.” And she snapped at him when he tried to hold the door. “It appears,” he thought to himself, “that city folks haven’t gotten any friendlier since the last time I was here.”

There was one last load, just a few odds and ends, so his daughter gave him the key to her old apartment and the code to the gate, and stayed behind to start unboxing things and putting them away. The old man, with the final load complete, eased the pickup into traffic. Finally getting comfortable with the drive, he relaxed enough to study the folks camped out on every street corner, holding a neatly-lettered cardboard sign and begging for whatever they could get.

But like the folks in the sleek SUVs surrounding him, the old man kept driving, mindful of his daughter’s admonition. “Be careful,” she warned him. “Don’t give them any money. They’re just going to use it to buy drugs or alcohol. You’re not really helping them; you’re just enabling their addiction.”

Then he saw the young woman and two kids, standing on the side of the road. Just standing. No neatly-lettered cardboard sign, no strategic location on a busy intersection. Just a suitcase.

As he drove past, his eyes met hers. And the cynical thought running through his mind, that she needed the same marketing manager as the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign, seemed pretty shallow.

He went a few blocks, the look in her eyes searing its way to his heart. “Turn around,” a voice seemed to say. And he did.

He slowed to a stop and cranked down the window. “Need some help?” he asked. The look on her face was answer enough. “Get in,” he ordered and with the cacophony of angry honks growing louder, ushered the young woman and her kids into the cab and tossed the suitcase in the bed.

“These young‘uns had anything to eat?” he asked. She just shook her head, her eyes fearful. The Golden Arches appeared ahead and he pulled into the parking lot.

They devoured their food and she warmed enough to tell her tale. Seemed her boyfriend finally got himself off the couch one day and announced he was going out to find a job. She never saw him again. She did the best she could, but got behind on the rent. They were evicted three days ago.

The old man looked out the window at the busy city street, trying to wrap his brain and heart around a cascade of conflicting emotions. Then the strains of a song from a Muppets movie that his daughter taped when she was young and played over and over again every Christmas popped into his head. “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute; We need a little Christmas now.”

He felt a little like the dog that chased cars its whole life until one day, it caught one. What the heck was he going to do now? His answer came in the form of his daughter, who got worried that he hadn’t returned yet and feared he was lost. She got in her car and retraced the route, looking for the unmistakable pickup. She saw it there in the parking lot, a very ugly duckling in a flock of sleek, black and beautiful swans.

She looked at their faces and didn’t have to ask. The old man looked just like he did on a cold day during calving season, when he’d stomp into the kitchen cradling an orphan calf. Behind that gruff exterior was a gentle heart, one that would stay up all night making sure his bottle baby got a full belly.

Urged by his daughter’s gentle questions, the young mother told her story again. Pulling out her phone, his daughter made a few quick calls. A taxi pulled up, she spoke quickly to the driver and handed him money for the fare.

“There’s a women’s shelter where you can stay until you get your feet under you,” she told the young mother. The old man dug into his jeans and pulled out a crumpled $20. “This’ll feed them youngsters tonight, if that’ll help.”

Tears filled the young mother’s eyes. “Thank you, she said, “and God bless you.”

Back at the apartment, waiting for the elevator with an armload of boxes, the old man met the “friendly” woman returning from the grocery store. She held the door and stepping in, asked the old man what floor he was going to. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. She glanced up and murmured a reply. Her floor came first and as she stepped off, he wished her a merry Christmas. A faint smile crossed her face.

“Dad, have you lost your mind?” his daughter scolded as he put the boxes on the floor. “What were you thinking, stopping in the middle of traffic and giving a ride to a complete stranger?”

“I was thinking of that old poem, ‘A Cowboy’s Christmas Prayer.’ Me and that ‘ol boy got a lot in common. Especially that part ‘bout not wanting anybody goin’ hungry on Christmas. I saw that woman and those kids standing there looking lost and I thought of that passage in the Bible where Jesus was talkin’ about the least of these and I just had to turn around.”

“Merry Christmas, you old fool,” his daughter said, and kissed his grizzled cheek. “Do you think Santa will bring you anything?”

He looked at his daughter and thought of the day.

“He already has.”

 

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