Emmett couldn’t make out the words carried by the voices in the hallway outside his apartment, but he could tell their instructive intent by their tone. He could almost always tell the mood and identity by the tone, and that was the way he liked it. He had no interest in the personal details of his neighbors lives, but he preferred to have a general outlook on each of the people living around him. Long-divorced and retired, social observation had become his primary form of human interaction.
Putting a hand to his knee to support himself as he stood up from the bicycle on which he’d been working, he lifted his dirty spectacles from the bridge of his nose to the top of his head with one hand and fished his unfiltered cigarette from his over-full ashtray. Taking a long drag, followed by the heavy cough that expelled the smoke from his lungs, Emmett shuffled to the living room window, relocated the folding TV tray that held last night’s dinner plate and a tangle of bicycle brake lines, and brushed one side of the old sheer curtains aside.
The flurries in the air were not the full, fluffy flakes that could sometimes make even this rundown section of the city look clean and magical, but rather the type so sparse and fine that it took a few moments to determine whether they were truly there at all. Christmas was tomorrow, and it appeared the only snow the city would see in the meantime existed only in the gray, gravely piles of slush still lurking near the curbs and corners. The last survivors of the most recent snowfall, they’d evaded a sunny afternoon or two in the shadows to make it to the constant cold that waited in the deeper days of winter.
Across the nearly barren parking lot and the unforgiving traffic of Liberty Street, the frigid river pushed small skins of ice sluggishly past downtown’s hulking giants of steel, concrete, and glass. By night, they hid in the deceiving charm of the metropolitan holiday decorations, but in the piercing light of the winter’s sun, they were laid bare in a way that reminded one more of demanding time clocks and assembly lines than of cozy fireplaces and festive family dinners. A young mother led her hooded child across the parking lot below, and Emmett wished he could turn out the daylight to change that child’s momentary view of the world.
With a ragged sigh and a stealthy smile at the idea of the child’s eyes lighting up with the reds and greens of the Christmas glow, Emmett let the curtains fall back into place and turned to search for his clothes. He snatched his red and black flannel shirt from its crumpled slumber half-beneath a pillow on his broken-down couch, slipped it on, buttoned it up over his faded red thermal undershirt, and pulled his suspenders from dangling down near his hips to taut over his boney shoulders.
Those shoulders had been meatier when he was young, as had nearly the entirety of the rest of his body, save for his round little pot belly and his widening hips, to which the bulk of the more appropriately allocated weight of his youth seemed to have now settled. The curly, thick, dark hair that made him so popular as a young man had melted into a horseshoe of course, kinky, hair a thousand different shades of white and gray that circled that shiny bald patch on top. The whiskers around his mouth had been yellowed by the years of cigarette smoke, creating the only aspect of his physical appearance that truly bothered him, but he learned years ago that he looked less healthy with those whiskers shaved.
Emmett pulled on his fraying wool overcoat and his knit gloves, before wrapping his faded red scarf under his throat. A fingertip on one of the gloves had worn through years ago after he’d snagged it on the errant edge of a newspaper box, but it didn’t really bother him. The hole was at the end of his index finger, and that fingertip had become impressively desensitized by years work calluses, cigarette heat, and general exposure. His late sister had knitted these gloves for him one winter when he took shifts ringing that Salvation Army bell down on 19th Street, and he was in no hurry to replace them with a meaningless store-bought pair. Besides, Emmett found it tragic how easily folks discarded things these days.
Just because something was flawed or had seen better days didn’t mean it didn’t still have value. Older things had a character and a history that new things didn’t; there had been connections made, and all it took was a little care and effort to make those connections possible again. It was the reason he went to the trouble of delving into dumpsters for thoughtlessly discarded items like the bicycle he was repairing and restoring in his living room right now.
Today’s adults sometimes blamed the trend of disposing on their desire to make their children happy, but Emmett disagreed. A child whose guardian could not afford new items would rather have something that was “new to them” than nothing at all, he reasoned. And, sometimes, a child had a connection with a discarded item that could not be replaced by the smell of new plastic. That connection had been at the center of the confrontation he’d had with a mother from his building the previous week.
Banging full force with her fist on the dumpster as he was sifting through the trash it held, she’d shouted, “Get out of there, you nasty old man!” Emmett raised his head and waded toward her through the boxes and bags.
“I’m looking f — ” he started, but she appeared to have no interest in hearing his reasoning.
“I don’t care what you’re looking for! Get out of there! That’s disgusting, and you’re going to track it all back into the building! I’m calling building management! Get out of there!”
Emmett would have been happy to explain, but she was already on her phone, and she didn’t appear to be in a particularly receptive mood. Instead, he just turned his back to her and resumed his search. It was a good reason, though, and he argued quietly with himself about whether or not she’d appreciate it if she knew.
On the previous day, the young woman’s daughter had been playing with a stuffed monkey when the threads holding its plastic eye on its plush face finally gave way, and the eye dropped into the mulch at her feet. Emmett visited the playground beside their apartment building daily to sit on the bench at its perimeter, to feed the birds, and to watch the children play. This little girl, who he knew to be called “Tonya”, never made an appearance without the monkey. When she was the only one at the playground, he was her capable companion, and often she chose his company over some of the children with whom she didn’t get along as well. The monkey’s name was “Bo”, and the utter sadness in Tonya’s sobs when Bo lost his eye hit Emmett like a hammer.
Even though Bo’s left leg had been about half torn at the hip for as long as Emmett could remember and it’s fur was matted in various places with mud and food and the combined grime of sticky hands and time, Tonya seemed to somehow know that the eye incident meant Bo’s time was up. Emmett pictured Tonya in the future as a young adult woman driving down Liberty Street, glancing over at the playground and tearfully thinking back to losing Bo that day. As she and her mother gathered up Bo and his eye and walked them both over to the dumpster, Emmett thought about how unfair it was that such easily mendable situations can live on inside us as such painful memories for so long.
The day that Bo lost his eye, Emmett had already begun considering ceasing his daily visits to the bench. The general response from the parents there had been increasingly hostile since the incident with the toddler a few weeks earlier. The child had been completely unattended by an adult at the time, and was supposedly being minded by a busy five-year old sibling instead. Emmett remembered being thankful he’d made the decision to visit the bench at that particular time so that at least he was present to monitor the younger child’s safety for a bit.
“Oh, don’t put that in your mouth,” Emmett had called out cheerfully from the bench with an arm outstretched in the direction of the toddler. The little boy gave a surprised look, mouth agape, and dropped the hunk of mulch reluctantly. Emmett’s jolly laugh roared out into the cold air, and his pot belly jumped up and down between his suspenders. The child smiled and laughed too, walking toward Emmett as the old man attempted to recover from a coughing fit. “Well, hello there, little fellow,” Emmett said when he’d caught his breath.
The little boy reached up with both arms and a great deal of stretching as he arrived at Emmett’s knees. Emmett reached his broad gnarled hands out, took hold of the toddler under each arm, and lifted him onto his lap. For a moment they just looked at each other, then they both laughed again as the little boy tried to entwine his stubby little fingers into the old man’s whiskers.
By the time the mother came storming onto the playground, Emmett and the young boy were sitting together watching the older children play and watching the pigeons land and take off around them. “What are you doing?!” the woman yelled, “Put my son down right now!” Emmett looked up quickly, but hesitated in his surprise. “I said put him down!” the woman yelled.
“Certainly, ma’am,” Emmett said, placing the young boy gently on his feet on the ground. The toddler immediately turned around and reached both arms up toward Emmett again.
“Who do you think you are?” the woman asked indignantly.
“I’m Emm — ”
“I KNOW who you are, Mr. Watkins,” the woman interrupted sternly, “And I know that you come out here and watch these children for hours every day. I also know that you have nothing to do with my children and no reason to be handling them. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’ma,” Emmett said, hanging his head.
“Come on,” she called to her two young boys, gathering them up and stomping back in the direction of the building.
In the days that followed, it had been clear that word had traveled around the building. He received hostile looks and muttered remarks every time he visited the bench after that. Even when there were no children at the playground, residents of the building glared at him accusingly, as if suspicious that he was sitting there waiting for children, when instead he was trying appease those same parents by avoiding them.
Although it seemed to be getting worse recently, it had been this way to some extent for years for Emmett. Children enjoyed him and were drawn to him like a magnet, while adults distrusted and avoided him. In the summer earlier that year, he’d walked up to a diner table to compliment a young girl who’d gotten up from her seat to open the diner door for an elderly woman with a walker. The young girl’s father had been in the restroom, and Emmett felt the girl’s thoughtfulness should be recognized and encouraged. He was just leaving the table when the girl’s father returned, and called out on his way back to the table, “Hey, get away from my daughter!” Emmett held up his hand and bowed his head in submission, making his way back to his own booth. The man continued to give Emmett dirty looks until he and his daughter were finally out the door.
More recently, during an early winter cold snap and snowfall, Emmett had caught a young boy by the arm as the two of them crossed paths on a city sidewalk. The boy had just raised his sneakered foot to stomp in a slushy puddle. “Careful there, young man,” he chuckled goodnaturedly, “You don’t want to have to walk around the rest of the day with a cold, wet foot.”
“What are you doing?!” The boy’s mother shouted at Emmett, “Get your hands off of my child! You can’t touch my child!”
Emmett considered explaining that he was trying to keep the young boy and everyone in his proximity, including the mother, from taking an unpleasant splash to the feet and legs, but instead he just raised both hands, ducked his head, and offered a genuine apology while continuing to move in the other direction.
With a long drag on his cigarette, that same ragged sigh, and a smile, Emmett brushed the memories aside, and guided his cat, Comet, back inside his apartment with his boot. He closed the door, checked to make sure it had latched, and scuffed over the dirty carpet down the hallway of his apartment building to the elevators. Christmas Eve was no time for frustrations and grudges, he decided; there were things to be done. The elevator dinged as he reached the lobby, and he reflexively pulled his coat collar and his scarf tight around his neck. Out on the street, the city did its best to dissuade him with its stern face, but Emmett had been around these blocks more than once, and he knew there was something better under the surface.
Pulling a crumpled list from his pocket, he unfolded it and began trying to commit as much of it as he could to memory. By the time he burst through the door at Premier Electronics, the smile on his face was almost as big as the empty canvas sack he’d already pulled from his coat pocket. He wasn’t even fully inside before calling to the back, “Rick! Do you have my stuff?!”
Rick emerged clumsily from the back, rubbing his eyes, “Ummmm…. Yeah, Mr. Watkins, let me get it for you.”
“I’ve told you, Rick, call me Emmett, please.” The old man leaned himself up against the glass display case being used as a sales counter, threw his canvas bag on top, and scrunched the lip of it down to get it open wide. Rick slid a box out from a shelf behind the counter, lifted it, and slid it next to Emmett’s bag.
“Listen, Emmett…,” Rick started uneasily, “I appreciate that you prepaid for everything you wanted done, and really, for all the repair business, but…” Rick swallowed hard, “Look, man,… you gave me too much money — like,… way too much.”
“I know,” Emmett said, laughing his long, loud laugh, and ending it with his characteristic cough. “It’s for you. Not for the work, but for you personally. Make someone happy with it, and start with yourself.”
Emmett left Premier Electronics with a clattering collection of repaired electronics nestled in the bottom of his sack. All the broken screens were new again, all the worn out buttons and switches were now firm and responsive. All of the batteries were fresh. Things previously lost would be rediscovered, and the world could use a little bit more of that, Emmett thought.
“You are a crazy man,” Janette called to him a few minutes later as he popped through the door of the “Extra Lap”. Emmett shuffled up to the bar and laid his sack lightly on the bar top.
“I’m not the one serving old men booze at three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve day,” Emmett called back, letting his jolly laugh roll out again. Janette sat a shot of peppermint schnapps, the bottle, and a fistful of beef jerky down on the bar in front of him.
Emmett reached for his wallet, but Janette stopped him mid-motion with her sharp reprimand, “Oh, no you don’t, mister! That’s on the house. It comes with the gig.”
Emmett chuckled again, his little pot belling jumping under his coat. “Fine, fine, but we agreed on a price for the wrapping.”
“Which was way too generous, I told you. Twenty-five dollars per hour for wrapping is crazy, Emmett. Make it five.”
“How many hours was it?” Emmett asked with a raised eyebrow while reaching for his wallet.
“Janette…,” Emmett smirked without looking up, “I know when you’re lying.”
“Five, Emmett, but I’m serious, that’s way too much. I can’t take that much from you.”
“Nonsense,” Emmett roared heartily, sliding $125 dollars onto the bar. “And your son’s present arrived in good shape?”
“It did,” Janette said with a relieved smile.
By the time the sun set, the peppermint schnapps bottle was considerably lighter and the walls inside the Extra Lap were still ringing with laughter. There was still work to do, though, so Emmett said his goodbyes and received a mistletoe cheek-kiss almost immediately after filling his sack with the clothing his contact Walter had delivered from the back of his box truck. A failure to previously consider packing order caused Emmett to have to repack his sack with the clothing from Walter on the bottom, the wrapped presents from Janette in the middle, and the electronics from Rick on top.
The bag was heavy, and Emmett had to stop once for a brief rest. He sat his bag against a building behind his legs and leaned his back against the wall. As he huddled into his coat against the cold night air, he must have looked like a homeless man, because a stranger passing by handed him a dollar.
“Oh, I don’t — ” Emmett began to protest.
“That’s all I got, man,” the stranger said, waving him off.
Gathering his strength and catching his breath, Emmett hauled his sack to his shoulder and made his way back to his apartment. Once inside, he dove immediately into his work. His hands moved with the energy and agility of a younger man as he wrapped the remaining presents, finished fixing the bicycle, put some finishing touches on some salvaged toys, and put a great deal of effort into writing legibly on all of the gift tags. His original intention was to be finished by 1:00am, but he was still pleased to be out his door by 2:15.
When he stumbled back in, the clock read 4:23am. It was a few minutes after 6:00am when he first heard the excited little voices outside his apartment in the hallway. He was tired and sore, but his delight outweighed his fatigue. He poked his head out the door just in time to see about half the children on his floor already enjoying their gifts while the other half were just beginning to discover theirs.
Down the hallway, the little boy whose normal hooded sweatshirt was not warm enough to battle the winter winds was trying on his new coat. The young mother with the new baby was crying over a package of diapers and a canister of the same formula Emmett had noticed in her shopping bag one day. As Emmett made his way down through each of the floors, he was able to watch the young high school boy who walked both to school and to his after-school job discover the bicycle that had spent so much time upside down on Emmett’s living room floor. He saw the girl he’d recently overheard awkwardly explaining to a friend that she couldn’t text because she didn’t have a phone right now clutching one of the repaired phones to her chest.
In the lobby, a number of residents were gathered around the sign he’d posted, which read “Merry Christmas from 422C”, trying to figure out between them exactly who lived in that apartment. He slipped by them all wordlessly, anxious to get outside to see the effects of his handiwork on the neighborhood.
Basking in a wholesome sort of vindication, Emmett took a deep breath of the frigid air, coughed for a moment, then sneared back at the crush of poverty and inhumanity to which his neighborhood fell victim every other day of the year. A little bit of money did certainly help grease the wheels for his mission, but his real contribution had been the time he’d spent and the attention he’d paid. The victory had given him a heady feeling, and he decided to defy the cold a little while longer on the bench by the playground before returning to bed. He’d just barely turned the corner of the building when he saw Tonya in her pajama bottoms, coat, and boots pushing a freshly washed and reconstructed Bo on the swingset.