She was a regular. One of a number of kids that were forever in and out of the store on Saturdays. She always ran with the same crowd but you knew she didn’t think she fit in with her friends. She was short, had a cherubic face framed with a tangled dirty blonde mop of hair which seemed to do the exact opposite of whatever the brush directed.
Her friends were always looking at the latest coats, the team jerseys, the new figure skates and roller blades. She always disappeared into the basement, amongst the equipment and skates that her friends would sarcastically refer to as “previously loved…Hah”.
I followed her downstairs one day. The main floor of the store was supervised so I thought I would check out the attraction that the basement held. I rounded the corner, and saw her tentatively reaching out and touching a pair of used ladies figure skates. She would sigh and fight back the tears that were welling up in a pair of green eyes that were old beyond her years. It was one of those moments. I knew that this was a young lady who had seen too much and experienced more than should be allowed – someone who has been robbed of her youth.
“Can I help?” I whispered softly, not wanting to break the spell. “No” she sighed, and she lowered her head and started for the stairs. This became a ritual throughout November and the early part of December. Every Saturday, now at times without her friends, she would come to the store and head to the basement, to touch, stare and decline my offer of assistance.
Mid December came, with its panic shopping, money being no object as long as someone left with a gift. Team sweaters, coats, figure skates and roller blades. The purchasers looked faintly familiar. It suddenly struck me; the purchasers were the parents of the friends of the little girl. She was conspicuous by her absence that day. Near day’s end, I was out front having a cigarette, when she walked by, head down. I said “Hi”. She paused, returned my greeting and then went to move on. I was overwhelmed by an aura of sadness emanating from her.
I popped off one of those unthinking, unfeeling, standard lines that have become so associated with the season. “What’s Santa going to bring you?” She started to sob. “Santa’s not coming. I know that. The firemen will come, but they aren’t Santa, are they?” My mind raced to a different dimension, how can the firemen come back? Even if they did, they would come back to their wives and grown-up kids. They will make the choice. I held out my hand. “Come on inside where it’s warm. Don’t worry; you are always welcome in this store.”
We had made a pot of cocoa for our customers to sip, but it remained more than half full. Most had been too busy, in too much of a hurry to stop and share a moment of the festive season. I poured her a cup and turned around. I saw the front door close and I figured she had left. Shrugging sadly, I sipped her cocoa and headed to the basement.
I reached the bottom of the stairs, and she hadn’t left the store at all. She was again downstairs staring at the figure skates. They were faded with age, the picks sheared off, the blades rusted badly. Only the shape would tell you that they were figure skates. She was picking at the toe, trying to get some of the original white to return.
I handed her the cocoa, “What’s your name?” “Ally”, she replied. “Listen, ‘Ally’ I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you with the Santa remark.” “Staring back at me, she smiled for the first time, “That’s okay, I could tell you didn’t mean it.” I looked more closely now. She had freckles, tracing across her cheeks that added a permanent color to a lifeless face, void of all emotions. An Ice Princess. “My little brothers still believe in Santa, but I know it’s the firemen who bring the toys and the food.”
I sat on the stairs and said “Can I tell you something?” She nodded. I patted the stair beside me. She sat down, watching my every move with her eyes wide. “I know where you are coming from. I had stopped believing in Santa too. I am now old and I’ve lost my confidence, I have nothing but persistent pain in my back. But I know sometimes the firemen will give us a wish, not to me, but maybe to you. I knew it was the firemen. Santa rides around in a sleigh, not a bright red engine. Besides if Santa was on a fire truck and he accidentally hit the siren, he would wake up every kid in the neighborhood and wouldn’t be able to deliver any presents would he?” She giggled. “No…And he would probably get busted for disturbing the peace.” She laughed some more. Not quite a belly laugh, but a sound that can only be described as a number of buried childhood years rushing out in a torrent. As if she had a whole lot of catching up to do.
“I know the firemen, I talk to them. You know what they tell me?” They tell me they are Santa Claus, and I believe them. Throughout my years, I came to associate Santa with a whole bunch of presents crammed under a tree. I can think back of when I was young, and all I could give my mother for Christmas was a picture I had made for her in school. Later, and on many occasions since, she has told me that those pictures meant more to her than anything. They were something that was a little piece of me. It showed her how much I loved her. The spirit of Christmas is doing something special for someone you love. For some it is presents. For me it was pictures. For the firemen it’s sharing the joy of the season, so people will know what it feels like to be loved and appreciated for who we are, not what we own.” She asked, “Can you bring the firemen back?” “I don’t have what it takes to do it no more.”
She handed me her empty cup. “Thanks Mister. I think I will go home and draw my Mom a picture.” I asked her about the skates. She sighed, as if she had re-assumed the weight of the world. “Mom and I talk. I go to the park and skate and she will come with me. The boys are off playing hockey with their friends, but she will stand in the snow and watch me skate. I think it is because she used to do it and like it. But she’s grown up now, so she can’t have fun anymore.”
The lump in my throat was swelling. I held out my hand. “Tell you what. You come back next week and we will see what we can do about those skates. Promise?” She beamed and shook my hand. “Promise that you’ll bring them back?” “I’ll do my best.” I watched as she bounded up the stairs, a kid again. It took me a minute to regain my composure and I headed upstairs. For the first time in twenty years, the pain in my back vanished and my confidence came back. I decided as a ramshackle writer to come back one more time.
My good friend Brian Donlevy was standing beside the cash register with the strangest look on his face. I asked what was up. He told me the strangest thing had just happened. “Some guy wearing a fireman’s coat was in here. All of a sudden your little buddy went bouncing by with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. The guy watches her go out the door and hands me a wad of money, complete with silver.” I asked him what it was for. He nodded at the little girl and said “her skates”. “I dropped a dime and when I looked up, he was gone.” I asked “How much did he give you?” Brian counted up the money and told me. I felt warmth in my heart. Brian was holding the exact cost of a new pair of ladies figure skate’s tax included.