Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Story 2013

Dear Friends,
For many years I have written a Christmas Eve story as a gift to the congregation.  I hope you enjoy this one, entitled, "Up the Chimney".  But most of all I hope you have a merry Christmas, the peace of Christ, and all of the blessings of the new year.


Elrod’s wife had taped the “To Do” list to the refrigerator door.  She knew he would be sleeping late and would, in his usual Saturday fashion, be roaming around the house in his underwear until noon. But her sense of equality had produced the list.  After all, if she had to brave the December elements and the wild furry of the Christmas shoppers at the mall, she wanted to make sure he would be producing a reciprocal effort around the house.
            Her list was long: “Hang Christmas lights on gutters”; “Scrub toilets”; Mop floors”; “Dust stairway rail”; “Bring up Christmas decorations from basement”;  “Shovel steps”; “Water poinsettias”; “Hang stockings on mantle”.   And Elrod noted that his wife, Erma, had added at the bottom of the list—in no veiled threat—“I’ll be home by 8 tonight.  Have everything finished.  And I mean it!”

            Elrod wasn’t frightened of his wife, exactly.  They had, after all, been married for forty-two years and had managed to expedite three kids out of the house while welcoming two grand-children into the mix.  But yet, all things considered, the thought of tangling with a pitbull was preferable to sparing with his wife.  After forty-two years, he’d lost the will to resist and most of his pluck had been digested into bowls of ice cream and consumed by the attentions of his stock portfolio.  Elrod reviewed his wife’s “To Do” list and after soaking his morning toast in buttermilk he cinched his bathrobe around his thickening waist and hastened to fulfill his Saturday destiny.
            The morning was cold—of sub-zero variety—and Elrod could sense the heavy breathing of the furnace as he slid the dial on the thermostat.  The vents puffed and Elrod set out to accomplish his tasks—shuffling about from room to room in his house-slippers as he scratched himself where he needed to be scratched and ignored the cold draft crawling up his backside after he tossed his underwear into the clothes hamper.  First, he brought up the Christmas decorations from the basement—all twelve boxes—and then watered the poinsettias with the remaining dregs of his morning buttermilk.  He scrubbed the toilet and then, in a spirit of protest and a final display of male vulnerability, lowered the seat as his wife had instructed him.

            A few minutes later, hunched over one of the boxes he had brought up from the basement, Elrod cinched his robe again and rummaged through the contents until he found the fireplace stockings.  His wife had always been a stickler for tradition and he knew, by sight and memory, where each stocking was to hang on the mantle.
            Elrod removed his wife’s stocking first—the longest—and examined it carefully for wrinkles.  He recalled that one year he had been forced to flatten, by the careful ministrations of a white-hot iron, each stocking under his wife’s stern and watchful gaze.  He did not want a repeat performance this Christmas, and so he decided to preview the stockings on the mantle before he hung them for keeps.

            Padding over to the fireplace, Elrod draped his wife’s stocking on the mantle in order to examine the substantial volume he would be expected to fill. But there, pondering his future, he suddenly chilled to the cold sweep of air spiraling between his legs and heard, somewhere in the recesses of the chimney, the chirping of birds.  “Lord,” he thought.  He had forgotten to net the chimney in the spring and it had now been infiltrated with starlings.
            Considering the age of the house, Elrod excused himself for this oversight and reasoned that, indeed, the birds could have flown in and built nests by another route—a crack in the masonry, perhaps, or by some hole in the foundation.  And because he had not yet built the first fire of the season, there was no reason for them to fly to coup.

            Retreating to find a flashlight in the pantry, Elrod returned and knelt at the fireplace.  He gazed up into the dark hole where, thirty feet above him, a sliver of sunlight smiled at him through the rusted face of the broken flue.  As he aimed the flashlight into the blackened bricks he once again heard chirping, and when the beam of light hit the nest—a circle of sticks shelved on a small outcropping—the birds went silent.  Still, he could see them up there, and it wouldn’t take much to scatter them.
            Exasperated by the inconvenience, and by the draft of cold air feeding through the broken flue, Elrod struggled to right himself inside the chimney and then stood on trembling knees as he raked his head and back against the sharp edges of the interior bricks.  He had not yet showered, and he reasoned he might be able to repair the flue after dispensing with the birds.  It was an old chimney with many flaws—along with years of residue—and he had not employed a chimney sweep in over a decade. 

            As he managed to pull his arms above his head in the stifling confines of the chimney, Elrod boosted himself by stepping on the iron cradle and hoisted his weight toward the nest with his free hand.  He inched upward, the tight space helping to disperse his weight, and as he propped his other foot on the chain that operated the flue , he felt a swell of confidence in his reach.  He shined the flashlight with his left hand and made a move.
            But suddenly, as he reached for the nest, the chain disintegrated under the arch of his foot and he found himself hanging, precariously, inside the chimney—three feet off the ground.  To make matters worse, his robe had caught on the hardened edges of the hundred-year-old mortar and as his weight had shifted to the front, his arms were pressed above his head in a helpless position.

            He was stuck.  Big time.
            His first inclination was to cry out for help—but the closest neighbor was a thousand yards away.  There was only the cold to contend with—and the sliver of sunlight to appreciate.  And since he didn’t want to rake the flesh from his back and legs struggling to break free, Elrod decided to settle into the chimney and make a day of it.
            He’d already had his breakfast, the morning was almost gone, and if Erma was true to her word—as she always was—he could expect to find relief in eight hours.  Elrod wedged the shimmering flashlight between his palm and the brick façade and stared at the nest where, just inches beyond his reach, a chorus of three small starlings stared down at him through beaked and beaded eyes. 

            “Hello, fellas,” he said aloud, admiring the flat tone of his voice inside the tiny space. 
            An hour passed, maybe three.  Elrod found it difficult to measure time in the darkness, his breath evaporating in the creosote sweetness of year-old ash.  He sang a chorus of “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” and hummed four bars of the “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  After a time of silence, he made the switch to Christmas carols and attempted to remember all of the words to “Silent Night”, recalling how, many years before, his son had sang “brown John Virgin” and “sleep in heavenly peas” at a piano recital. 

            Elrod laughed.  He sighed.  And then he wept momentarily over his predicament, tinged with embarrassment, and began to feel the weight of his age defined by the twinges in his joints.  But when he came to his senses he was singing “Ave Maria” at the top of his lungs.  And that’s when one of the birds pooped on his head.
            Elrod, startled by the dot of warmth on his cheek, offered up the question:  “Anything else, Lord?”  And then he fell asleep.

            Elrod dreamed.  He was in flight, arcing high over the winter trees, the world a wonder of snow.  He was not visited by spirits, but was spirit set free from his moorings.  He dreamed that he was dreaming, knew he was dreaming in some darkened shell of memory—and yet he did not want to leave his fancy.  What was it that held him there?  Love, perhaps.  Or some deeper appreciation of the indefinable, which was life and serendipity and the awe of the familiar.  He, like Erma, did not like change—and they had outlived the usefulness of the drafty old house, no longer able to care for its tired rafters and slumping masonry.  He wondered if they had outlived each other, too. But he dreamed himself into peace.
            And then he woke. 

            When he opened his eyes, startled by the sound of footsteps in the living room, Elrod cleared his mind and then blurted out a faint “help!” He cried louder on his second helping.  And then he heard his wife’s voice.
            “Where are you?” she asked.

            “Up here,” he bellowed.  “Up the chimney!”
            Elrod could feel the hot stare of his wife as she peered up into the cavity and gasped.  Her voice was swallowed by his open robe, but through some of her indecipherable gibberish he heard her say, “Now if that isn’t a sight for a woman may age!  No pants . . . and stuck inside the chimney!  And believe you me, buster, you ain’t no Santy Claus!”

            What was it she felt, he wondered?  Rage?  Delight?  Or some perverted sense of incredulity? 
            “Just get me out of here!” he yelled.

            “And how do you propose I do that?” he heard her say.
            He was wondering the same. Had been wondering it, in fact, for the bulk of the day.  “Get the three-footer!  The step stool.  I need something to stand on.”

            The batteries in the flashlight had died during his nap, and Elrod fidgeted painfully in the darkness, hoping against hope that the birds had flown away after they had defiled him.  He wasn’t a Freudian, but he wondered how the implications of this day would play out in the remaining years of his marriage.  Perhaps his wife had seen too much—even through three childbirths—and now all that remained of him was the memory of an open robe and a compelling story that she would recount, over and over again, to her gaggle of friends.
            A minute later Elrod felt a pressure beneath his right foot—a great relief to his spine—and as he pressed his weight back against the chimney he eased out of the sticking-points and released.  Helplessly, the scraps of his torn robe were left dangling inside the pipe-cleaner confines of the chimney.  As he eased himself out, stooping like some Neanderthal without benefit of a loin cloth, Erma was there to greet him with stern instructions.

            “You get a fire going,” she said hurriedly, “and I’ll make some hot chocolate.  You’re blue all over.”
            Elrod made no move to cover himself.  What was the point?  If he had work to do and hot chocolate to drink, he might as well grovel in the ashes like Job.  Reaching up inside the chimney, he pulled his robe loose from its moorings, wiped his face, and then stoked a fire with the scraps.  If the birds had not flown by now, he reasoned, he would smoke them out.

            A warmth glowed.  Elrod hunched over the fire, considered how this scenario had already been played out during the Pleistocene, when the first man had discovered flame and stood round it with admiration.  He cursed the nitwit who had invented the first bath robe, and then understood why his wife always filled his Christmas stocking with fresh underwear.   He wondered if his wife would take snapshots of his backside and post an update on Facebook. 
            Momentarily his wife returned with two mugs filled with steaming Swiss Miss and she didn’t say a word as she sat on the couch and faced the fire.

            “I would appreciate it,” Elrod said, “if you didn’t mention this to the neighbors.”
            His wife, saddened by the implications, suddenly burst into laughter.  “If you aren’t a sight, Elrod,” she said.  “Reminds me of our wedding night.”

            “Is that all?” he asked.  “Stuck in a chimney all day.  Defiled by birds.  Breathing in year-old smoke fumes.  And all you can think about is our honeymoon?”
            “I can think of more,” she said, “but you couldn’t do anything about it.”

            He moved to the couch and kissed her.  She smiled, and then sipped her hot chocolate.  She was about to suggest more.  Even considered it.  It was Christmas, after all, and very near their forty-third wedding anniversary.  Still, there was so much to do.  Christmas would not wait.  The stockings had not yet been hung by the chimney with care.
            Elrod propped a pillow on his lap and sipped his hot chocolate.

            The fire glowed.
            And then Erma turned to him, beaming, and asked, “Well, but have you finished that list?”


1 comment:


Poor Elrod! Does he have a middle name?
Anyhow, can't trust your answer, but I enjoyed it. Glad you had already preached the sermon three times!
Curious, though, was there any connection? :-)
Happy New Year, my friend!