The Christmas Letter

by Charles M. Manwaring

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    Miles of gray desert ended abruptly in a miragelike valley of green. A cluster of neat houses sparsely shaded by poplar and cedar trees flanked both sides of the road. Near the center of town stood a bank, a mini-supermarket, a hardware and general mercantile store, and a combination garage and service station.

    A few strings of tinsel and pasteboard Santa Claus placards swung wearily in the hot breeze above the street. In the doubtful shade of a large cedar stood a small frame building with a weathered sign that read: U.S. POST OFFICE, DESERT CITY, ARIZONA, POPULATION 467. The cedar was decorated with colored bulbs and strands of red and green paper. Inside the post office a wreath of holly hung over a grilled window which boasted a faded sign: GENERAL DELIVERY … STAMPS.

    Behind the window, Luke Jones sorted the mail without conscious thought or effort. After 30 years in Desert City there was little he didn’t know about every resident—with one exception, the stranger who had arrived in town two days before. Luke shrugged, murmuring under his breath, “Curiosity killed the cat.” His lips twitched into a wry grin. “Must be a mighty long trail of dead cats behind me.”

    Luke heard a scuffle of feet and turned toward the door. Mrs. Abbie Smithers walked in, and just behind her stood the stranger. Luke’s eyes watched the stranger, but his words were to Mrs. Smithers. “Got a postcard for you, Abbie. From your sister in Colorado. She ain’t going to get here for Christmas after all.”

    “For pity’s sake!” Mrs. Smithers said. “I’ve cleaned house until the whole place shines like a new pin.”

    “Don’t fret,” Luke said calmly. “It’s only a delay. Her little girl came down with the chicken pox. Here—you better read it yourself.”

    As Mrs. Smithers left the window, the stranger asked, “Anything for Bill Anders?”

    Luke’s sharp eyes studied him. He knew without looking that there was nothing, yet he turned and slowly sorted through some letters, his gaze darting sideways at the young man. “Ain’t you the fellar whose car broke down here day before yesterday?”

    “That’s right.”

    “Too bad,” Luke said. He looked directly at the serious-faced young man. “I hear it’s costing you $70 to get it fixed.” His glance was shrewd. “Garageman was in a while ago. Said it’s been ready for you since yesterday.”

    “That’s right. Have I got a letter?”

    “Where you expecting this letter from?”

    Anders’s face flushed. “Look, I just want to know—”

    “If I know where it’s from,” Luke interrupted, “maybe I can tell you when it’ll be here.”

    Anders looked down at the floor. “It’s coming from Los Angeles. I wrote airmail two days ago when my car broke down.”

    “Ain’t here yet,” Luke drawled.

    Anders’s face shadowed. He turned to leave.

    “Should be in tomorrow,” Luke said. “Mail gets in at 11:00.”

    Anders limped toward the door, and Luke noticed that he wore a heavy brace with a built-up shoe on one foot.

    “Hey, Anders!”

    The young man stopped and turned around.

    “You clear broke?” An angry flush reddened Anders’s face. “None of your business!”

    Slyly Luke said, “You got money coming in that letter, ain’t you?”

    “What’s it to you?” He stopped, took a deep breath, and said more quietly, “Yes, 100 dollars. Anything else you’d like to know?”

    Without expression, Luke said, “From your folks, hey?”

    Anders hobbled back to the window; his face was white. “Look, my folks are dead. A friend of mine in L.A. is sending me the money. At least, I asked him to send it, and I’m sure he will.”

    “Maybe,” Luke said dryly, “maybe not.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Sometimes you find out you ain’t got a friend when you ask for money.”

    Anders stared at him, then said, “Jim isn’t that way.”

    Luke could sense an uncertainty behind the words. “Where you going from here if this Jim sends the money?”

    Bill Anders’s mood changed suddenly. He looked at Luke and grinned. “Darned if you aren’t the most nosy, old … curious man I’ve ever seen.”

    “I’ve been told that.”

    Anders laughed. “All right, you might as well know. I’ve got a job waiting for me in Albuquerque that I’ve been trying to get since high school. A good job. A big chance for me.” His voice lowered. “I’ve got to get there in time to begin work the day after Christmas. I’ve got to!” He turned abruptly and limped out to the street.

    Luke rubbed his chin and stared after him.

    At 11:30 the next morning Luke finished sorting the mail to the barely audible Christmas carols coming from the battered radio on the shelf. He examined again the letter addressed to Bill Anders. The postmark was smudged beyond recognition; the name and the address were typed. Luke held the envelope up to the light. He could see the outline of currency inside. He fingered the envelope. It crinkled like crisp, new greenbacks crinkle. Yes, it contained the 100 dollars Bill Anders was waiting for.

    Luke’s lips thinned a little. A hundred dollars could mean a lot to a person, even to a man in his position. It could mean that new fishing outfit he wanted for his next vacation. He smiled at the thought. A Christmas gift to himself …

    He fondled the letter. What he would have given years ago for this money! It might have changed his whole life—marriage, children, grandchildren—but he had been unable to borrow the money. Friends—even relatives—had turned him down. He slammed the letter into the mail slot. Why should he worry about a crippled young man, a stranger he would never see again?

    Luke heard dragging footsteps on the wood floor and turned around to see a subdued Bill Anders, a face lined with worry, yet eyes which still held a lurking hope.

    Luke hesitated, and then he reached into the slot and pulled out the mail under the letter A. Deliberately he sorted through the letters; indecision still weighed upon him. He didn’t have to give this letter to the boy. But if he didn’t, could he ever live with himself? Could he look into a mirror without seeing the disappointment on the young man’s face?

    He held the letter away from the others.

    “Is that for me?” Anders’s voice was strained.

    Luke held the letter up to the light. “Postmark’s smudged. Can’t tell where it’s from.”

    “Is it for me?”

    “Ain’t got a return address on it,” Luke drawled.

    “It’s from Jim! It must be!”

    Luke watched the boy’s face. It was transformed. His eyes were shining now, the lines of strain and worry vanished. Luke waited a moment longer, and then he tossed the letter through the iron grill.

    Anders ripped open the envelope. Five crisp, 20-dollar bills fell out. There was no message. Carefully he picked up the money, handling each greenback almost with reverence. He glanced up at Luke. “Jim isn’t one to write,” he explained, “but when a guy needs help, he comes through.”

    “Guess you got a real friend, hey?” Luke said softly.

    As he reached the door, his shoulders straight, Anders looked back and smiled. “Merry Christmas!”

    Luke watched him limp down the street toward the garage. He sighed heavily and turned again to the mail rack. From the A slot he withdrew a postcard. It was postmarked Los Angeles and addressed to Bill Anders. The few scribbled words on the back were still fresh in Luke’s memory. “Dear Bill: Sorry I can’t help. Things are tight for me too. Jim.”

    Slowly Luke placed the card on the counter and stamped it “UNCLAIMED.”

    His voice was fretful as he muttered, “Curiosity cost more than a cat this time.” But he was smiling as he turned back to his work.

    From the battered radio came the soft strains of “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

    Illustrated by Lee Shaw