Joey had grown to despise Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve, and he sat on the edge of the stained brown sofa that served as his bed in the tattered little camper that he and his Mom called home. The camper , forlorn and drafty, sat tucked into the edge of the forest on a farm, far out in the country. The farmer, now in his seventies, allowed Joey and his Mom to keep the rusted camper parked there at no charge. They had been living there since Joey’s dad had disappeared one night a while back. Joey had no specific recollections of his father, just a couple of vague fuzzy memories of a large bearded man who seemed always angry and wobbly. He seemed to recall him being mean to his Mom, and being frightened when Dad was around. One night, his Dad had pulled on his coat, opened one last beer, and stormed angrily out of the house where they had been living in town, loudly slamming the door as he departed. Joey and his Mom never saw him again. That was Joey’s third Christmas, and his Mom prayed that he would not be able to remember the absence of gifts that year.
Joey’s mom was ill. She had been diagnosed with what the doctors called rheumatoid arthritis. Before she became ill, she had worked as a hygienist in a local dentist’s office. But her hands had soon become so grotesquely deformed by the ravages of the disease slowly destroying her body that she was forced to quit. She was no longer able to even hold the tools in her delicate hands, much less perform the exacting work required by her occupation. She became desperate, now having a young son to care for with no husband, and no other family to help her. Her medications , while unable to rid her of this affliction, at least made existence tolerable. The drugs were horribly expensive, and soon she depleted her meager savings, and was forced to sell the small wood frame house where she, her husband, and Joey had lived. She applied for disability, Medicaid, and every other state and federal program she could find. The sole living accommodations she had been able to secure came in the form of a highly used small camper, which the seller kindly positioned on the farm of one of her former patients. The little money that came in the form of a government check had allowed her to run electricity to the camper, and pay for the very bare necessities of life, food, second hand clothes from Goodwill, and her medications, but precious little else.
Fortunately, Joey and his Mom lived in the southern part of the country, with its moderate temperatures. Still, the mercury frequently dipped into the twenties here, and their sole defense against the cold was a small electric heater. Joey’s mom worried continually about the very real risk of a fire. All it would take would be for a stray piece of paper to fall against the glowing orange coils of the heater. Thus far, they had been lucky.
Joey sat on the couch and stared into the heater’s coils, dreaming about Christmas. He was eight now, and a third grader at the local elementary school. Though his clothes were old and worn, they were always clean. His Mom made sure of that. Despite crooked fingers and twisted wrists, she ignored the pain and dutifully washed Joey’s clothes by hand. “He may not be able to wear nice new clothes, but he can wear clean ones”, she told herself as she hung his few shirts and socks on the wire line behind the camper. Joey was all she had now, the only thing in her life that made any sense. She was fiercely determined to keep herself sufficiently functional that she could care for him by preparing meals, washing his clothes, and helping him with his schoolwork. Joey had never heard her complain about the pain. He saw only a smile when he looked at her, never seeing her nightly tears after Joey had drifted off to sleep on that couch.
He had heard the other kid’s excitedly chattering about their Christmas lists. Henry wanted a new bike. Linda had been to the mall and asked Santa for a Barbie Dream House. Barry was hopeful that he would awake to find a Xbox Kinnect under his tree. When his classmates asked what he wanted, he wistfully asked for a bike, so he could ride around all over Mr. McPherson’s farm after school. Silently, Joey also wished for something more practical, a new jacket. His coat was old and ripped in several places. The zipper was broken, so he was unable to seal it against the chilly winds of December. That bike would be really nice though.
Joey’s memories of Christmas stirred a variety of feelings within him. Each Christmas Eve, he would finally go to sleep after hours of dreaming and hoping for bright shiny toys and a red bike with coaster brakes. Each Christmas morning, he awoke to an empty camper. The only gifts he might see were a few pieces of candy and fruit, and maybe a Goodwill shirt. Of course, he was happy to be able to enjoy these treats, but soon began crying as he thought about his friends at school, and all the wonderful things Santa probably left for them. He knew he would hear all about it when school reconvened in January, and it hurt him deeply. With tears in his eyes, he looked up at his Mom, only to see her turn away, her own silent tears running in rivers down her face.
So Joey had begun to question this whole Christmas business. Why did Santa seem to always find his playmates? Could Santa not find his camper? Did Santa forget that he and his Mom had moved from their old house to this place out in the country? Joey soon grew angry about it, and hated the approach of the holidays. He was not sure which he dreaded more- Christmas morning or the return to a class of happy and excited classmates after the holiday break. Still, as darkness began to fall on the farm, and the camper, he simply was unable to avoid the hope that somehow Santa might find him and his Mom again. Maybe THIS year he thought. He knew he might not be able to bear it again this year if he awoke to disappointment yet again. Then he had an idea. He slid off the couch, and found the star that he had made during art class at school. He opened the camper door and taped it to the metal side, above the tiny window. “Maybe this will help Santa find us!” He went back inside, closed the door, and lay back on the couch. He pulled up the thin old quilt his grandmother had made many years ago before she died, and soon was fast asleep, visions of red bicycles spinning around his little head.
Back in November, Joey’s mom had discovered a program for less fortunate families that promised to help them this year. Though it did hurt her pride a bit, the thought of Joey’s face upon seeing a real Christmas quickly overcame any perception of shame. “I don’t need anything for myself,” she had told the nice lady from the local Baptist church. “But anything you could do for my Joey would be, well, just wonderful! Thank you so very much for your kindness.” “Don’t thank me. I have an anonymous donor who wants to help”. “God bless him!” was Joey’s Mom’s response.
Christmas morning dawned clear, and Joey’s eyes popped open. He jumped out of bed, and his eyes popped open even wider. “Mom! Mom! Look what Santa brought me!!!! A new jacket! Fleece lined! And its red, my favorite color!” “I know,” she said, “He left me something as well!” She held in her hands a new dress, one that she would not be embarrassed to wear in public. “Looks like we will be able to go to church now”, she added.
Joey hurriedly tried on his new jacket. It fit perfectly. He stuck his hands deep into the pockets. “Mom, there’s something in the pocket” said Joey, feeling a piece of paper. Withdrawing it from the pocket, he unfolded it. “MOM!!! It’s a note from Santa!!!” “What does it say?” she asked. “It says Dear Joey, I am so sorry I have not been able to find you for the past couple of Christmases. Maybe this will help. I left you another present, but I couldn’t get it in the camper, so I left it outside. I hope you like it. Be a good boy and I’ll see you next year!”
Joey threw open wide the camper door, nearly tearing it off its rusty hinges. There, beneath the star Joey had taped to the side of the camper, sat a bright, shiny, brand new red bike.
Across the field, Mr. McPherson stood at his living room window, holding a hot mug of coffee. His gaze was fixed on the small camper on the other side of the cornfield. He watched as Joey first jumped for joy, then jumped on his new bike, and tore off down the dirt road in front of the camper, wearing his matching red jacket.
The farmer turned to his wife and said “ I always wanted a red bike too. Seems I finally got my Christmas wish after all these years!’ He smiled broadly, put down the cup and gave his wife a huge Christmas hug.