Part I

Xmas treeIt was Christmas Eve. The boy stood alone on the city sidewalk, an icy wind cutting through his threadbare jacket like a knife.  The stores were all closing; the last few straggling shoppers, loaded with packages, were making their way home to their families. The boy watched them and shivered. He was not one to feel sorry for himself, but just now he couldn’t help it. This would be his 9th Christmas and he had yet to experience in his life the excitement and anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning and seeing a Christmas tree, brightly lit, with piles of presents beneath it; and knowing some of them were for him. He had yet to have a Christmas wish come true. He didn’t blame anyone. His mother worked hard but what she made was barely enough to pay the rent and put food on the table. His father was long since gone to who knows where. The boy barely remembered him and for the most part had stopped thinking of him. He had an older brother who had left home when the boy was six. At first the brother would come to see him but as time went by he came less and less. Then, this last year, they had gotten word that his brother had died of a drug overdose. The boy’s mother was not the same after that. She spent a lot of time just sitting and staring. The boy sometimes wondered if she would ever smile again.

Now, standing here watching the last of the shoppers, the boy felt trapped by his poverty. He wished that things could be different. A tear rolled down his cheek. Wiping it away with the frayed cuff of his jacket, he stood staring through the display window of the store in front of him, not knowing what to do.

“What’s wrong?” a voice inquired behind him.

Startled, the boy wheeled around to face a pleasant looking, older man with a concerned look on his face. The man was well dressed in a warm looking overcoat; collar up to shield his neck from the icy wind. The hat on his head was tilted forward partly obscuring the man’s forehead, but the boy could still see a face wrinkled about the eyes and mouth indicating the man’s age.

Instantly on the defensive, but also afraid, the boy stammered, “I wasn’t doing anything. I was just looking through the window.”

The man smiled. “I can see that,” he said, “but it looks like you have been crying. What’s the problem?”

The boy did not want to answer. Why should he trust this man? In his short life he had learned it was better to not show his feelings. He wanted to run away. But there was something disarming about this man. He didn’t seem threatening at all and as the boy stared back at the man the urge to run gradually dissipated.

The man smiled and put his arm on the boy’s shoulder. More tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks. “Come…,” the man said. “…tell me what’s wrong.” He steered the boy to a nearby bench and they sat down. The man was silent, waiting for the boy to speak. Minutes went by. The boy wiped the tears from his face, but his fear was gone, and he found himself wanting to talk to this man. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to trust him. The boy opened his mouth to speak. “I…Its Christmas time.” he said.

The man just listened.

The boy continued, “I have never had a Christmas present ever. I have never had a Christmas tree. My mom has no money. I don’t want much, but just once I would like a Christmas tree, with lights and tinsel and a present underneath for me. I would like that.” He was crying again.

The man took a handkerchief from his pocket and dried the boy’s tears. “I understand,” he said, “but don’t you know that you can have a Christmas tree anytime you want?”

A puzzled look came over the boy’s face. He was starting to doubt the wisdom of talking to this man. At length, however, curiosity won out.

“What do you mean?” the boy asked.

Well,” the man said, “close your eyes and I will show you.”

Hesitantly, the boy closed his eyes.

“Alright,” the man said, “I want you to create a picture of the Christmas tree of your dreams. OK? Let’s get a picture of a tree.”

The boy was puzzled again. “You mean in my mind?” he asked.

“Yes,” the man said, “in your mind. Now get that picture. Have you done it?”

The boy paused a minute, then he said, “Yes…Yes I have got it.”

“Great!” the man said. “Describe it for me”.

“Well…,” the boy said, “it’s an evergreen tree with a lot of branches and long needles. It looks nice.”

“That’s fine!” the man said. “What’s it smell like?”

“Oh…,” the boy said, smiling now, “it smells fresh, like pine. It smells really good.”

“Fantastic!” the man said, “But I thought this was a Christmas tree. Where are the ornaments? Put some ornaments on the tree.”

The boy was quiet a few moments and then said, “OK…the tree has ornaments.”

“Alright,” said the man, “tell me about the ornaments”.

The boy proceeded to describe ornaments of all kinds that he had put on his tree. Red bulb ornaments. Blue bulb ornaments. Snowflake ornaments. Icicle ornaments. He was actually laughing as he described them.

“Wow!” the man said, “Sounds like you have ornaments! But didn’t you say you wanted lights on your tree?”

“Yes!” the boy said.

“Well…” the old man said, “go ahead and put the lights on your tree.”

And so the boy did, white lights…blinking lights…colored lights…blinking colored lights…he put them all on his tree, telling the man about them as he went, and smiling and laughing the while.

“Incredible!” the man said, “You have the most lit up tree in the country. But what about the tinsel? Didn’t you want tinsel on your tree?”

“Yes…I forgot about the tinsel!” the boy said, and he proceeded to put tinsel all over his tree from top to bottom. Soon he was done and he told the man so.

“Good job!” the man said, “You’ve got your tree, lighted, ornamented and tinseled, just like you wanted…but aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Yes!!” the boy exclaimed. He had been so enthralled with his tree he had forgotten about the present.

“So…what do you want for a present?” the man asked.

There was no doubt in the boy’s mind. “A football!” he said, excitedly.

“That’s great!” the man said, “Put a football under your tree as a present for yourself.”

The boy did, and then he sat there on the bench in the cold December twilight, his eyes closed, looking at his tree with the football beneath; and for the first time in a while, he felt happy.

A few minutes went by before the boy opened his eyes, only doing so when he realized that he no longer felt the man’s hand on his shoulder. He looked about, seeing no one around him. The old man was gone, but there on the bench next to him, still in its box, was a brand new football. The boy stared at it, not quite believing his eyes. Excitedly, he touched it…it was real! He tore the football from its box and tossed it into the air, caught it, and then tossed it again. He rubbed his hand over the ball’s pebbled surface…it was real leather, just like the pros! But where had the ball come from? And where was the man?

The boy wondered fleetingly, but then lost himself in the excitement of the gift. For the next few minutes he was an All Pro Quarterback leading his team to a game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, and he was having a great time.

Soon, though, it was dark and the boy decided to head for home, his new football cradled in his arm. He took one last look at the bench where he had sat with the man and it was only then that he spied the note. In all the excitement he had missed it. He picked it up and looked at it. In a simple, clear hand, the note said:

“It was great meeting you son. Have fun with your new football. And remember, the future is free ground. No one owns it. You can do anything you want with it, so you use it well. Merry Christmas”

The boy finished reading, put the note in his pocket, and ran off for home.

 

 Part II

Xmas treeThe roar of the Super Bowl crowd was deafening. The quarterback had been having trouble with it the whole game and was hoarse from having to yell the signals loud enough for the ends and backs to hear. To make things worse, that last sack had rung his bell. The right tackle had missed his assignment and a linebacker had broken through clean and had a free shot. The quarterback was glad for the time out. It would give him time to clear his head and figure out what to do. Trailing 24 to 21 with a 3rd and thirteen on their own 35, and 21 seconds left in the game, the team was in a tough spot. The quarterback had already met with the coach on the sideline and had gotten the play; a deep out route to the split end who would then step out of bounds and give the team a shot at a field goal to tie. The quarterback did not like the call but he did not tell the coach. Number 43, the cornerback on the opposing team, had been jumping that route all day and had already intercepted him once. And… if the end was covered… the second and third options on the play likely would not get the yardage needed. Yes, it was a tough spot to be in…but the quarterback had seen plenty of those.

 He returned to the field, the team milling around him waiting for the TV time out to end. With the crowd roaring in anticipation of the coming play, the quarterback turned away from the team and, looking up at the now darkening sky, closed his eyes. Shutting out the crowd noise, the situation, the other players…everything… he returned to that cold Christmas Eve so long ago, when as a boy he had met the kind man and gotten his first football. He thought of the Christmas tree he had created in his mind and the lesson he had learned about the future. He still had that note. It was his most treasured possession. Twenty years had passed and the boy from that time was a boy no more. At 6 feet and 4 inches tall, 225 pounds, and with a cannon for a right arm, he was cat quick and on the verge of being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He had been drafted #1 out of the University of Washington 7 years earlier and had become the starting quarterback by his second year in the pros. Now he had his team in the Super Bowl with 21 seconds to go and 65 yards from a win.

 “Screw that deep out route!” the quarterback thought. He opened his eyes and, back in present time,  he turned toward the team. To a man they were all looking at him. The split end gave voice to the concern the whole team felt when he said to the quarterback:

 “Are you OK? You look a little lost.”

 The quarterback looked back at him, “Oh yeah…” he said, “I’m fine. I was just doing a little thinking.”

 “What about?” the split end asked.

 “Oh…I was just thinking about a Christmas tree and a few other things.” the quarterback said.

 The split end rolled his eyes, his worst fear realized. That last sack had done some damage he thought; maybe a concussion. He was about to motion to the bench for the trainer when he heard the quarterback tell everyone to huddle up with an intention that demanded instant compliance. The split end forgot about the trainer.

 “Ok guys,” the quarterback said, “pay attention! Coach wants to run a deep ‘zig and out’ to the split end and go for the field goal to tie. He wants to try and win in overtime.”

 The split end moaned. “I don’t think that play will work,” he said, “number 43 has been jumping me all day on that route. That guy is an animal! He’s killing me!”

 Laughing, the quarterback looked at the split end.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re not going to run that play; we’re going for the win now! I need everyone to hold their blocks for a seven-step drop. Everyone got that? And someone pick up that linebacker, we can’t let that guy through again! Here’s the play…”

 The quarterback called a “deep zig out and then go” with the end, who would be split wide to the right side of the field, as the primary receiver. It would start as the same play the coach wanted except the quarterback would pump fake when the split end broke to the sideline. Number 43 would bite on the fake and the end would break deep behind him for the TD.

 “But what if 43 doesn’t bite on the fake?” the split end protested. “He is faster than me and….”

 “Shut the hell up!” the quarterback said. He was looking at the split end with a steely resolve, but then he softened a bit.

“Listen,” he said, “listen all of you. If there is one thing I have learned in my life for sure it is that the future is free ground. No one owns it, least of all number 43. We can do anything we want with it. So everyone do your job and let’s win this thing!”

 As the team broke huddle and went into formation each player knew what they had to do. The crowd noise was at a fever pitch but they could all hear the quarterback calling the signals, clear and strong. The center snapped the ball and the quarterback went into his 7-step drop. The linemen were all holding their blocks but that linebacker had stunted and was, again, coming free up the middle. Suddenly the fullback stepped up and buried his helmet in the linebacker’s chest stopping him cold. The rest of the linemen were on their assigned defenders, and in the controlled pandemonium had created a perfect pocket for the quarterback, who, as the eye of the storm, surveyed the situation before him.

Meanwhile the split end had been running his route to perfection. He had gotten off the snap in good shape and fought through number 43’s initial effort to knock him from his route. He had run about 30 yards down the right hash marks when he suddenly feinted toward the center of the field and then broke sharply to the right sideline while turning his head back toward the quarterback, as if expecting the pass.

Thirty yards up field the quarterback was standing strong in the pocket, the defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers straining but failing to get around, through or over the wall of players protecting him. The quarterback had been looking to his left surveying that side of the field as the play started, which resulted in the defensive safeties drifting to the left side of the field.  Suddenly, at exactly the moment the split end made his break to the sideline, the quarterback turned back to the right and brought his right arm sharply forward, giving the pump fake of his life. Certain he had the game winning interception coming his way, number 43 bit hard on the pump, just like the quarterback expected. Seeing this, the split end planted his foot and cut sharply down field, streaking toward the end zone, exactly as they had planned in the huddle.

Momentarily stunned by the sudden move, number 43 quickly grasped his situation…“Shit!!” he yelled, as he saw the split end break behind him.

Re-setting his feet and arm after the pump fake, the quarterback now reared back and bringing his arm forward, let the ball go toward the split end…a perfect spiral, carving a long arc against the darkening sky.

Though in reality the crowd was cheering wildly, to the split end the stadium was eerily quiet and time seemed to stand still…the ball taking forever to get to him. Diving at the last second and stretching as far as he could, for a moment it looked like number 43 would be able to deflect the ball away…but suddenly, there it was… just clearing 43’s fingers. The split end reached toward it, allowing the ball to settle into his hands as he crossed the goal line…Touchdown! 

The quarterback and his team had won the Super Bowl!

The stadium went nuts, fans and media spilling onto the field and everyone wanting to interview and take pictures of the quarterback. It took a while for things to calm down, but at last he was able to shower and get dressed. Leaving the locker room, the quarterback was on his way to his car when he heard someone call him from behind. He turned and instantly recognized number 43 from the other team.

“You played a helluva game,” 43 said.

“Thanks!” said the quarterback. “So did you.”

43 was silent for a moment, then he smiled. “You know,” he said, “I had that split end in my pocket the whole day. Where in the hell did you come up with that last play? I know your coach and there is no way he called that.”

 The quarterback laughed. “Oh, that play,” he said, “that’s just a little thing we call ‘Christmas Tree’. Glad you liked it.”

“Oh yeah…,” said 43 cynically, “liked it a lot!”

The quarterback shook 43’s hand and, as the other player turned to leave, stood alone for a few moments, watching him retreat into the distance. He took the time to think again of the kind man who had befriended him on that cold Christmas Eve all those years before, and of the Christmas Tree he had created in his mind. Overcome with appreciation, the quarterback turned his eyes skyward, closed them for a moment, and under his breath uttered a “Thank You” to the man who, in such a short time, had taught him so much.

He wasn’t expecting an answer, and so it surprised him a little when there suddenly appeared in his mind a response:

“You’re welcome, son.” the familiar voice said.

Recognizing the voice instantly and, realizing that he should not have been surprised, the quarterback chuckled. This was, after all, the same man who had come from nowhere, materialized a football and then vanished into thin air. What should he expect from such a man?

Laughing to himself, the quarterback continued the walk to his car.

 

The End

Copyright © 2005

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

Xmas tree

 

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2 Responses to The Christmas Tree: A Short Holiday Story of Hope and Belief in One’s Dreams—by Mark Arnold

  1. Thanks, Mark! I was spell bound and in tears.

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