Just another futuristic, old-timey Christmas Story.

“The Last Old Man: A Christmas Story”

M.J. Downing

“The Oxen”

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
 Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Late Advent, 2043 CE

            Walter Pritchard knows what waiting a risky proposition it is to wait for the crosswalk  light at Bardstown Road and Douglas Boulevard. It is especially so on raw cold mornings, but Walt looks up at the leaden sky and offers it a wry smile. Snow falls on the shoulders of his brown wool overcoat, the last of its kind, dusts his shaggy eyebrows, and gives a delightful sting to the tip of his nose. He chuckles.

Cars come through this intersection way too fast to handle the curve and the blind spots, like the second traffic stopper a scant thirty yards further south.  Walt knows that pedestrians must gauge drivers’ malicious intent or relative state of panic as they turn south on Bardstown Road, especially if they are in the throes of a Holiday rush. It is December, and Walt knows that if drivers don’t make eye contact with you, you’re likely road kill, holiday season or not.

            “Nobody calls it Christmas anymore,” Walt mumbles, looking over his left shoulder at the church, his church since he was a young fellow, back in 1992. The old stained glass is gone, replaced by the impermeable animatic displays of the same figures that used to be there.  The figure of Jesus in the front window waves at him, and Walt waves back before he turns back to the task at hand.  At least the animatics aren’t as drafty as the old stained glass.

            Walt pulls his battered tweed cap a little lower on his forehead and prepares for his slow march across the road.  He is a tall man, bent slightly forward by the press of his ninety two years. The pedestrian crossing sign barks out “Now Walk Now Walk Now Walk Now Walk,” startling Walt into his slow passage across the intersection.

“Slow and steady, Walter, m’boy,” he says to himself as he moves in front of the traffic, breath steaming on this cold day.  People in the cars can see his breath, recognize that he’s mumbling to himself, ‘a habit of the elderly,’ they say to themselves.  That is what they were taught, anyway, for there few old people these days. Walt is a true Highlands curiosity. People in the waiting cars stare at him in wonder.  Some, maybe, who have seen him before, nod or shake their heads at the sight of him. “There goes the last old man,’ they might have learned to say. Walt just fixes a steady eye on the car bearing down on him from the Bellarmine side of Bardstown, for within it, a woman with her vehicle full of kids, hurtles around the corner.

“Probably late for school,” Walt says aloud, but he wonders if he knows exactly when schools are in session these days.  Once upon a time, kids got holidays at Christmas.  He did, but Walt recalls that those days lie buried in his enormous past. Walt smiles at his thought of an enormous past.

But everything about the car, inside and out, moves way too fast to suit Walt, and it heads right for him.  The woman inside, busy punching buttons on the console to her right, looks everywhere but at him. He can see the kids within the car screaming at each other but can’t hear their sounds.  Walt watches the woman’s hands flutter, like small, pale birds trapped within the vehicle’s climate-ontrolled system and forgets for a second that steering wheels have gone the way of manual transmissions years ago, so he tries to control the panicky thought that her hands are not on the wheel.

            “Still got the damned gas pedal, though,” Walt says aloud to the snow.  He

 stops, and the speeding car’s sensor systems recognize him as a pedestrian and slow

down for him.  The woman in the car presses harder on the accelerator, making the

turbine whine, but the car will not let her run him down.  Walt heaves a sigh and is

grateful for what passes for vehicle safety in the mid twenty-first century.

The signal still shouts “Now Walk Now” at him.  When the car senses that he has

stopped safely out of its trajectory, it lets a portion of the power return to the drive wheels to take itself away, along with its oblivious operator and passengers.  When Walt takes another step or two through the cross walk, the signal switches to the more urgent “Walk Don’t Walk Don’t Walk Don’t Walk Don’t” and Walt is only three feet passed the center stripe.  He hurries as best as he can, but his joints ache, and even the quarter mile walk over from his rooms on Douglas Boulevard hasn’t warmed his feet enough to move well.  But Walt smiles at the twinges and pushes on to the far curb in front of the coffee shop, his home away from home for the last forty years and more.

The door whooshes open as he steps close to the foyer, and Walt steps with care, holding the door handle that scarcely anyone touches any longer. Warm air dumps onto him from the dryers and sanitizers above him, and the evaporators in the carpet suck the melting snow off his shoes.  He sighs and waits for the inner door to open and give him his first sniff of coffee, the only thing that has not changed in the time that Walt has come to the coffee shop.  He breathes a contented sigh and starts his trek toward the coffee bar at the other end of the room.

“Hey Walter!” a slender man, David Lombardi, Walt’s oldest friend, shouts from the large conference table in the middle of the room.  The smaller tables are empty, chairs scattered and abandoned in the chaotic departure of early morning caffeine seekers.  Walt waves in return and croaks a raspy “Hiya Dave,” as he passes the group who wave and nod to him severally as their conversation about politics moves on, going nowhere. He tries to straighten his back some as he passes them, tries hold himself up straighter in their company, yet he leans on the coffee bar when he reaches it, tired with the effort. 

A pleasant, heavily tattooed young woman cries out,

“Mornin’ Walt.  Try our new Polybond High Protein Lactose Free Caramel Machiato today?”  Her perfect smile shows dazzlingly white teeth, which always draw his eye.  Her face, neck and arms–and Walt only dares contemplate what else–are tattooed with varying shades of green foliage.  The leaf patterns extend down to her delicate fingertips, which she places flat on the counter in front of him. Her long, dark red hair is pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, which dances behind her head as she nods and smiles.

“No, faerie child,” Walt returns with his favorite name for this creature, “You know I want a decaf coffee.  It’s what I’ve gotten every day for the last twenty years at least, from the time my blood pressure climbed as high as the national debt.”

“You know my name in Loralie, Walt,” she teases, pointing to the patch over her slim collarbone on her form fitting shirt.  The letters of her name glow yellow.

“Yes.  Emphasis on the last syllable, right?” Walt responds with a crooked grin.

“Um Hm,” she intones.  As her hands busy with his coffee credits, her eyes close for a second as if in deep concentration.

“What’s a national debt, Walt?” she asks, leaning towards him over the counter, as though he has some terrible secret to impart.

“Something that Congress outlawed, my child, after the joint sessions sold this country’s soul to the Microncil Corporation,” Walt sighs, adding “back before you were born.”  Walt recalls, though, that Loralie is in her late forties, though her dewy, firm skin beneath the tattoos is that of a twenty year old.

 She leans back and laughs, a rich musical sound in Walt’s ears, full of spring time and hand in hand walks down tree-shaded lanes.

“You’re so funny, Walt,” she trills, her beautiful smile causes the leaf designs on her face to seem to flutter.  “I’ll get your beverage for you.”

“Yes, please,” Walt says, adding “and thank you for the thirty seconds of intimate customer interface.  You’re working hard today.”

“I’m pleased that you noted that,” she says, smiling and sliding his warm cup of coffee across the counter to him. The letters of her name change from a yellow glow to a green glow. “Good ratings help keep me here, serving you.”

“Surely, you could think of something better to do, though, a pleasant, beautiful young woman like you?” Walt says, reddening a bit in the mere mention of her attractiveness.  For just a second he sees her eyes darken and shift their glance from left to right rapidly.  Her girlish looks often confuse Walt.  He has a hard time remembering that Loralie had gone through the viral age reduction program, but she did not qualify for the cognitive skills enhancement procedure.  He recalls what his buddy Dave has told him, that she is stuck here and trying to make the best of it.  Walt notes that the letters on her name tag pale back to yellow and began to go white.

“But what could be better than working for people like you, Walt?” she chirps, pasting the smile back on her face.  The letters in her name take on a yellow light again, and Walt breathes a sigh of relief.

“Indeed, faerie girl—Loralie,” Walt remembers that to use a server’s name is to flag it in the company database. “You always make a wonderful contribution to my day. Thank you for serving me,” he says in a false yet hearty tone, watching the letters of her name take on a verdant glow again.  She sighs and nods, her eyes sending him a silent thanks.  He gives a relieved sigh and takes his decaf before he does any more damage and makes his slow way to the large table with Dave and the others.

“You flirting with the help, Walt?” Dave asks, getting his friends to make room for Walt to pull up a chair.  Walt smiles back and nods ‘yes’ to Dave, hoping that the shop’s employee/ambience sensors would pick up even these small moves of approval for Loralie.

The conversation flows around them as Dave gets Walt settled, helping him remove his coat. The old man looks around the table at the men and women, retirees, all close to his age but looking more like fit corporate executives in their early forties, hale and strong, clear eyed and bright faced.  Their mornings start with a round of talk over coffee and head on into various fitness or cultural venues, all of which come from program profile options that download through the phone chip behind their right ears. They will all be gone in another half an hour, and Walt will read some Thomas Hardy and take a walk then, in the snow, if he is lucky. Walt elected many years before to do without the phone chip.

“Does my old heart good to flirt with yon leafy, elfin maiden,” he says, turning to Dave, “and we both know why I do it.”  This draws a firm nod from Dave and a glance full of understanding. Dave and Loralie had coupled briefly a few years ago. Walt hates the word “coupled,” but there it is.  Hardly anyone gets married anymore, except the few remaining Christians, mostly the gay and lesbian ones who finally earned the ‘right’ of sacramental as well as civil union.  Folks couple and part, now, always looking for the bigger, better relationship credits and tax breaks. Even his friend Dave, the best man at Walt’s wedding, doesn’t ever talk of getting married.  Walt finds it very confusing, but his marriage had been wonderful and lasted for forty odd years. He still carries his torch for the late Caitlyn.

The group’s conversation about the political games goes on around them.  Walt hears his friends going on about the corporate benefits that Louisville has just won from Chicago in achieving a new, higher Microncil efficiency rating.  He shakes his head in wonder at the thought of Louisville as an efficient place.  Of course, Microncil relies heavily on cannabis and kudzu harvests from Kentucky for citizen satisfaction and fuel production.  When Walt was as young as his friends all looked now, Kentucky had been an impoverished state, but Microncil, the software, fuel, and pharmaceutical giant, had grown dependent on such states that could still maintain regular growing seasons for their best cash crops.

One handsome octogenarian, blonde, wavy hair cut perfectly, his features tan and toned says, “We might actually acquire the Bears this time.  We’ve been due a professional franchise since I was a boy.”

Walt grimaces as another, a woman who looks like she could be Walt’s granddaughter, says, “No.  We don’t have the containment facility for players here,” at which several of the youthful looking sages nod. She has shoulder length auburn hair, a heart shaped face, and large brown eyes. Walt sighs and adjusts his chair, trying to get his old bones comfortable.  This woman is a new face to Walt. He wants to think that she is pretty, but sees that the warmth in her brown eyes is a lie. This is a fierce person, he infers from her imperious tone and abrupt hand gestures.

 As the conversation goes on, her glance keeps shifting back to Walt’s face as though she is trying to place him or figure out what he is.  At length, she holds up a slender hand, firm and well manicured, and halts the conversation about the latest depredations of the syntheroid maddened athletes of the NFL.

“Excuse me, sir,” she says, turning and leaning over her now folded hands, her beverage cup cold in front of her.  “I don’t believe that I know you.”

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” Dave says, “I forget that you have not met my friend Walter Pritchard.  Walt, I’m pleased to introduce you to Sarah Matthews, the newly retired and and blissfull, former director of Kentucky Weed Harvest programs for Microncil.  Sarah moved in next door to me. She found our little group here on her options announcements yesterday evening.”

 Sarah nods, but as Walt pushes himself to his feet and sticks out his hand to take hers, she lifts her finger to touch the phone tab behind her ear to text him “Hi.”  Proximity, eye contact texting has made this the new, germ-free way of shaking hands. She looks at his hand as though he wants something from her.  A slight frown creases her flawless forehead.

“You look old,” she says, her tone flat, almost sullen.

“Good thing, too,” Walt laughs, “cause I am!  Will turn 93 next month, if I live that long.” No one at the table laughs with him.

“Well, why, when you cou—“

“Sarah,” Dave interrupts her, “Walt can’t, that is, they can’t, um, help—“

“Virus therapy doesn’t work on me, dear,” Walt says, interrupting Dave’s attempt to rescue him.  Walt sits back down, taking his hand back to reach over and pat Dave on the arm.

“Well, why not?” Sarah demands, drawing a gasp from one or two of the folks at the table.

Walt laughs again, a wheezy chuckle that no one picks up. “I’m a genetic anomaly, dear.  Viruses have a hard time with me.  Like they can’t find a home in me. I beat’em before they get started. The upside is that I’ve never had a cold or the flu as long as I’ve been alive.  What you might call a down side is that these new, what they call viral life enhancements, don’t work on me either.”

The hard stare of Sarah’s eyes softens and the contours of angry offense leave her features.  She looks at his balding scalp and the dark spots on his hands, shaking her head.  Several people get up from the table and either go to fetch more coffee or head for the door, waving bye and promising to see folks in the morning.

“But that’s awful,” she says.

“Well, I don’t think so,” Walt says in return, “It’s who I am, what I am. I see it as a gift from God.”

“But you can’t do as much, you can’t possibly hope to attract a mate,” Sarah remonstrates, as though she wants to help him change his mind, “And no one thinks things are gifts from God, anymore.” She offers this with a sort of offended sneer that helps Walt see that she isn’t pretty at all. “I mean, all that went out when we went on the credits system and got away from the cash nexus, with all of that ‘In God We Trust’ nonsense.  I mean, it’s positively antiquarian, and it isn’t even honest.”

“If you just retired,” Walt says, “I figure that makes you, what seventy?  Seventy one?”

“Yeah, seventy-four, actually, since I started a little late with Mic,” she returns.

“And you look like you’re in your late thirties,” Walt observes. “Is that honest?”

“Of course it is,” she says, her voice rising in anger. “Just because I’m of retirement age, there’s no reason I can’t have a high quality life…”  Walt listens to her spiel out the Microncil mantras, and he moves his hand in a circle, suddenly very tired of this person and desiring her to get on with things.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Better living through chemistry, as we said when I was young.  I believe I’ve heard it all before.”  At those words, the remaining others at the table start shifting their glances toward the door, touching their ears for phone options, and activating their thermal layers.  They draw away in unison and make for the door. Their phone options offer them several other better things to do than be party to conflicts.  Dave reaches up and taps the top of his ear three times to shut the phone connection down for fifteen minutes, which Walt notices and smiles.  The phone will hook Dave back up on its own if he doesn’t access it.

“And simply looking the age that I am has not reduced my quality of life,” Walt says. “I get along fine.  I have at least one good friend, good things to read,” he says brandishing his battered volume of Hardy poems, “and Christmas is only a couple of days away.”  This draws a sneer from Sarah. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Christmas.

“Sarah, it is simply how things are with Walt,” Dave explains, trying to keep his voice pleasant and low.  The few other patrons of the coffee shop have been looking in the direction of Sarah’s raised voice, as though they might have to summon help.  Their hands move toward their ears.  Dave looks around at them all and shakes his head “no” and waves his hands.  Most of their hands go down and most of their eyes turn back to their quiet conversations or table screens.

Sarah follows his example and lowers her voice but says in exasperated tones, “But it’s, it’s, offensive.  And even if your little group of friends thinks it’s okay to spend time with a person like this,” she gestures dismissively at Walt, “I imagine that Microncil would be offended.  I mean, I’ve never heard of anything like it! A person who wants to be anybody can’t just refuse the tr—“

“On the contrary, my dear,“ Walt says, pulling out a wallet which draws an even more quizzical look from Sarah, “I have a statement from the Microncil offices stating my case most succinctly.”  He pulls out a small, laminated card from the wallet and slides it across the table so that she can read it.

Sarah bends her head over it, careful to avoid touching it, and reads aloud, “’Microncil hereby acknowledges that Mr. Walter Pritchard has cleared the testing protocols and is hereafter released from viral treatment programs and is hereby free to age as best he can, in as good health as he can manage. He is free to be the last old man on earth.’” Sarah recognizes the signature of the previous CEO of Microncil, Brand Saul, at the bottom of the card, in copperplate, looking fresh under the silky laminate. She snaps her head back and utters a startled “Oh!” in recognition of the signature.

“But I thought that everyone would be made to, that is, be offered the chance to—

“I was, my dear, and I’m glad to say that I passed by it,” Walt returns. She is stopped solid at this.  Walt notes that her facial muscles tense and relax in an effort to come up with some blistering comment, but she fails and simply lets out an exasperated “Ugggh!”  He watches her turn on the protective thermal layer in her tailored jacket in preparation to leave.  The slight glow that it casts about her makes her look nebulous, like some sort of luminescent, alien life form.

“And to think that you still believe in God, too,” she sneers.  With that, she gets up, flips her hair back over her shoulders and stalks away towards the door.  She turns to the line of vehicles plugged in along Dundee Road and slides through the dark portal of a new hover car, disappearing into its dark, plush interior, hidden from view.

“What an extraordinarily ugly woman,” Walt says laughing and turning to Dave.

“Yes, and I was just thinking about how attractive I had found her when I first met her. Hm,” Dave says, leaning on his hand.

 “Sorry, buddy,” Walt says, “I didn’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t pursue her, if that’s the way your blood’s moving.”

“No, it isn’t that,” Dave said. “Well, it partly is.  She’d really do a lot to boost my coupling credibility, but you’re right.  She really is ugly, and I couldn’t see it before.  I wonder why.”

 “Maybe she was just part of your phone options for today,” Walt laughs.

“No,” Dave says, “But then, yeah, she was.  I think I remember getting the tip that a successful, attractive coupling opportunity was coming my way.”

“Do they really say it like that?  How awful,” Walt says, “I mean they could say it in any way they wanted. ‘Hot chick movin’ in next door’ or ‘Attractive, available single woman coming to your area’.”  Walt chuckles, but Dave remains pensive. 

“No, they wouldn’t say it that way,” Dave says, “’cause it doesn’t fit the living health matrix the phone system works on.”

“It’s barely possible that I was having a joke with you, buddy,” Walt explains, “But you seem upset about something, pal.  What’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Dave says, “I guess I just don’t quite, you know, feel like myself.” Dave’s youthful face wears a confusion that reminds Walt about Dave’s real age.  He can’t seem to look at Walt for more than a few seconds at a time.

“Can you get sick anymore, I mean with all the enhancements and such? You look like the picture of health.” Walt observes in a low tone.  The shop’s ambience monitor doesn’t like talk like this, and Walt knows that Dave knows it. “Maybe we should take a walk, huh?”

“No.  I’m scheduled for some aerobic training in half an hour, and I’ve really been looking forward to this fitness upgrade, but” Dave hesitates, and Walt notices that Dave’s eyes go sort of moist and shifty. Walt notices that Dave’s eyes are wet, and the corners of his are mouth turning down.

“Well, David, I believe that something in your near perfect life has put you on the verge of tears,” Walt says. “What is it?  We’ve been through a lot, you know, even you going through the age regression treatments at, what 78?  I thought the virals would kill you before they cured you, and yet we got through that, didn’t we?”

Tears are coming freely from Dave’s eyes now, and Walt is concerned that maybe something in his old friend is breaking.

“Yeah.  We got through that,” Dave admits, “the same way we got through Caitie’s, you know.”

“That we did,” Walt sighs, “That we did.  Is it rougher than that?”

Dave nods his head ‘yes’ and looks away before he says,

“But, you know, sooner than later, you’re going to…you know…die.”

“Yeah. So? You won’t?” Walt answers.  Dave nods his head,’yes’ with emphasis.  He places his hand on Walt’s arm.

“I’ve known you most of my life,” Dave says. “I was even best man at your wedding, and I thought about it and don’t like the idea that soon you’ll, you’ll…”

“Kick the bucket?” Walt adds, drawing another vigorous nod from Dave.  “Well, you will too, someday.”

“Yeah, in another lifetime,” Dave says, exasperated. “They tell me that I can expect to live to be at least a hundred and fifty, but when I think about you going—dying, that is—I’ll be all alone. There will be no one left that I really know or who really knows me.”

“Nonsense,” Walt snorts, “You have a whole table full of friends who were just here.  They’ll likely be jogging at your side when you croak, Methuselah.”

“But they aren’t the same,” Dave insists, “They aren’t as real as you.”

“You bet they are,” Walt says, “They were just here a few minutes ago, tanned and as fit as fiddles, all of ‘em.  There’s that blonde fellow, Richard Haskin.  You’ve known him longer than you’ve known me.  Didn’t you two go to the same grade school?”

“Yes,” Dave says, touching his ear to turn his phone connection off again, “but Rick doesn’t even act like he knows me.  I can’t talk to him about anything that isn’t in his profile options or who he plans to couple with next.  If I tell him I’m having a down day, he just brings up the NFL and his vitamin regimen. It’s like they have all lost the ability to just talk, you know?  They can all run ten miles if they want to and do fifteen pull-ups at a time.  They can date like they’re teenagers.  They can stay up all night, and never feel it, but they—none of them—feel as real as you do, Walt.”

Walt studies Dave’s face and watches the tension in Dave’s youthful frame as a tremor runs through it.  Walt runs his hand over his head. He has seen this same thing coming for years, but he didn’t figure that Dave would recognize it.  Walt has watched as his friends all regained their youthful capacities with the new treatments and has seen them all drift away into their lives filled with scheduled opportunities.  Caitlyn’s own treatments had not saved her from a heart defect.  She had died looking almost as youthful as the day that Walt married her. 

“I’m sorry, bud,” Walt says, “But at some point, it will be that I will die.  You will too, in the distant future.  It is what will happen. But you are the only one who can make your life feel real, and—“

A sharp buzzing sound cuts him off, and Dave grimaces at the intrusion.

“Sorry, Walt.  I’ve got to take this,” Dave says and gets up, touching his ear to take the call.  The buzzing stops as Dave taps the phone bump behind his ear.  Walt watches as Dave replies to the voice on the other end of the connection inside his head, sees his friends eyes glaze over for a second before he replies, “Yes.  I’m fine.  I just wanted a private moment,” silence, “yes, I know that I can access a privacy setting—Yes, I realize that my profile data stream has slowed down sufficiently—No I did not realize that my aerobic appointment had been moved up—Sure,  I would still like to get the upgrade.”  Dave rises from the table, switches on the thermal layer in his jacket and heads through the airlock to his vehicle.  Walt watches him with a sad smile on his lips.  He takes a sip of his coffee and feels it warm him. 

Out the door in four quick strides that Walt knows he could not duplicate, Dave stops in his tracks by the front window, looks back into the shop at Walt and shakes his head.  Walt waves, smiles and mouths ‘tomorrow.’  Dave nods but his youthful face still shows the strain of tension as he jogs to his vehicle, unable to resist the upgrade in his aerobic conditioning program.

Walt says a silent prayer for his friend and wonders how the poor fellow will manage without him and only a handful of heavily engineered centenarian teenagers to count on.  He shakes his head.  He turns to his favorite Hardy poem, “The Oxen” and reads it loud enough for Loralie to hear.  She claps her hands as he finishes, though she likely has no notion of its sense.  Walt bows with as much flourish as his back can handle, and heads out into the snow.

Warmed by his coffee, Walt tucks the Hardy poems back in his coat pocket and carries his gloves, also the last of their kind. At the door, he waves to Loralie, who gives him a pixie like, sideways bob of her head and a dazzling smile.  The letters of her name tag are still a bright green, Walt is glad to see.

Out in the cold air again, Walt takes a northerly tack up Bardstown Road. There,  he figures some of the old-style shops will have a few wonderfully tacky Christmas lights and geegaws in their windows. He wants to see them again.  It will take him a while to get there and back, but he can always stop and rest in one of the shops. Shop keepers see him as something of a celebrity.

  The leaden skies please him, for they promise more snow.  The flurries turn to bigger, sticky flakes and mount up on his hat and coat. His slow steps take him along the heated side walk, which frees him from the worry of a fall.

He considers Dave and the fix in which the poor man finds himself.  In his heart, Walt feels as young and as old as he ever did.  He considers that his spirit hasn’t aged a day.  He recalls the first time he ever read the Hardy poem, eighty years ago, about the animals who all kneel, away from prying human eyes, in their barns at midnight on Christmas Eve in honor of the Christ child.  The poem ends with the line ‘hoping it might be so,’ and Walt wonders if his friend Dave can still entertain such a thought amongst all the noise and relational options of seemingly eternal youth. Walt pushes his gnarled hands into his gloves, knowing that on Christmas Eve at midnight, he will believe that the animals are kneeling.  He will be kneeling too, when he isn’t holding his lit candle high amongst the few folks who will still gather for St. Paul’s Midnight Service and welcome Christmas again.  In the quiet of Walt’s heart, and the peacefulness of his head, he knows that Christmas is coming, as surely as the day on which he’ll die, and that the decorations and cheap lights that will soon dazzle his eyes, taking him right back into that Christmas feeling he has had since he was a kid, is evidence of what makes him real, even as it argues for a much better world to come. This, he figures, is the grace that has come to him as the last old man, and he whispers a prayer for his friend Dave who has denied himself this simple gift. He thinks that maybe he’ll try extra hard to get Dave back to church on Christmas Eve.  He thinks that he’ll give Dave his collection of classic comic books for Christmas or maybe find a way to decorate a Christmas tree, a small one, and bring it to the poor fellow’s quarters in the next couple of days.  The thought warms him, and Walt chuckles at the way the cold air nips at his nose

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