Michael had ruined Thanksgiving.
As nine-year-old boys have been known to do, he had thrown a terrible fit after being woken from a nap. By the time his mother walked into the room, she could tell the pleasant Thanksgiving get-together was about to end (at least for her). She calmly picked Michael up as he kicked and screamed and said everything horrible thing he could think up, wrestling his mother all the way to the car seat and making quite a scene in front of the whole family.
With a few more snarls from Michael and another fit about putting on pajamas after getting home, he was tucked into bed in the tiny, tired-looking apartment. His exhausted mother impatiently left the room and said tersely, “Goodnight Michael.”
Michael awoke the next morning feeling incredibly remorseful for his behavior. He was getting too old for that sort of thing, after all.
He could see the dim glow of the morning’s first sun creeping in through the window when suddenly it dawned on him — sheer genius! He had no money and had been laboring about what to give to the members of his family that had meant so much to him since his father had passed away unexpectedly the previous spring. Now they were especially on his mind since he’d just ruined Thanksgiving for them. For Christmas he decided he would draw them all pictures (he was very good at drawing) and write them a simple note showing them how he felt. He closed his eyes and saw it as clear as the morning sunshine: Thankful 4 U – MDR (his initials). Perfect! Now, what about the picture? He had just destroyed Thanksgiving, so why not a turkey?
His mother called to him, “Michael, breakfast.”
He got out of bed with a broad smile, feeling better about the day ahead.
That afternoon, after gathering the necessary supplies (crayons, the last three pieces of nice paper they had in the apartment, and some scissors) he started his project with great zeal. The first one was for his mother. With great care he lightly sketched the turkey, erasing bits here and there when needed and correcting any errors with careful attention to the details. He then darkened the lines to get a final turkey he was pleased with. He colored in just the right places to make a perfectly wonderful turkey in his estimation.
His next task was to do the letters. The letters looked great, to start with, but he started them a bit too large so he could only fit “THANK” on the first line with “FUL” on the second. He double-checked his spelling and, ultimately, was very happy with the final product. One down (for his mom) and two to go (one for his grandmother and one for his aunt, uncle and cousins to share).
“Michael, what are you doing up there? It is already a half hour passed bedtime. Please get your teeth brushed.”
He put a stack of his books over top of his work so that his mother wouldn’t find it and went to get his toothbrush.
The next days were busily spent in various boyhood pursuits with his friends and cousins (they lived right around the corner) and then he had to go back to school. Soon, Michael had forgotten all about his turkey gift idea. Weeks passed and it was the day before Christmas.
Michael was cleaning his room to tally up some last minute points with the man in red and moved the books piled up on his desk. The turkey notes! In a fairly short time, he had traced the original and completed the other two copies for his family. Now he had to deliver them before Christmas.
“Ma, I’m running over to Jake’s real quick. I’ll be back in a few,” he said, not waiting for a response from his mother in the other room as he grabbed his coat.
He ran out the door holding his turkey notes carefully in his hand. A cold December wind was whipping out of the north and little bits of ice were swirling about, pelting Michael in the face. Twilight was just starting to settle in, so he knew he would have to hurry. He was not supposed to be out after dark.
He pulled up his hood and put the papers between his knees to hold them while he zipped his coat. Just then, a mighty winter gust swept through the dark alley beside his apartment building, catching his precariously positioned papers and swirling them off into the fading daylight of the dreary winter sunset.
“No!” Michael yelled as he chased the papers, running with his coat half zipped.
They swirled up in a giant loop over Michael’s head and floated into the dark alley. Though it was right beside his apartment building, he NEVER went into that ally. It was rumored that a terrible old man slept back there in the filth and the rats to be near the warmth of the drier vents coming out of the apartment complex. Michael thought he had seen the man once or twice, loitering in the shadows, but he had always quickly shifted his gaze away from the mysterious street man — a relative rarity in the small town.
Michael turned to face the gloomy passage as another wintery gust pelted ice in his face. He had to get his turkey notes. He’d worked too hard on them to lose them.
The din of the street beyond faded into comparative quiet with the alley walls muffling every sound but Michael’s lonely footfalls and the faint dripping of refreezing icicles. As he continued into the inky blackness before him, he could feel the warmth of the heat vent swirling around him and dissipating into the cold evening sky. He saw the end of the ratty old mattress nestled up against a dumpster where the old man slept. As he went to examine the area more closely he froze at the sound of footsteps on the bricks of the alley heading toward him from the street. By the time he had turned, the long and ghastly shadow of the backlit figure already fell nearly to his feet.
Michael could not move as he watched the silhouette approaching him — he knew it was the scary old man. His steady march of footfalls neither quickened nor slowed as he approached. The man stopped abruptly when he saw Michael standing in front of him, towering over him. He bent his bearded, dirty face down to look Michael in the eye.
“What are you doing back here son? You’d best be gettin’ along home.”
“Yessir,” Michael replied and quickly began walking back toward the street. His walk turned into a run. Before he reached the street he heard the cries of his mother — a touch of panic in her voice. “Michael! Michael are you out here anywhere?”
By the time he reached the street, she was already in her car and speeding down the block. He ran after her.
A couple of blocks away, Michael thought he’d better stop at Becky’s Diner because his mom might have stopped there to look for him. They went there often. He walked in the door with the familiar jangle and the smell of the food and the warmth of the diner reminded Michael how cold and hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
“Hey honey? Where’s your ma? Now wait just a second. Michael what is your middle name?” asked Becky from behind the bar with a big smile.
“Your middle name honey, what is it?”
“David, like my dad,” Michael replied.
“Oh you sweetie pie, I should have known, MDR. That makes sense now.”
“Don’t act surprised with me. I know it was you that left me that sweet note about being thankful with the turkey on it. It was right outside the diner door and a customer brought it in and set it on the counter. What a nice thing for you to do. So many people these days just don’t seem to understand how much they have to be thankful for, especially this time of year when we should be the most thankful.”
“Oh, do you still have it?” Michael asked.
“No sweetie I sent it home with Mr. Walters who lives in your building. He has been coming here with his wife for over 50 years. She passed away yesterday, right before Christmas. I gave him the note you made and oh you should have seen that smile brighten up his teary eyes. Boy did it make his day. He left a few minutes ago and took it with him.”
Michael explained his situation and the search for his mother.
“Well let me call over to your cousin’s house. In the meantime, why don’t you warm up with a sandwich and some soup on the house?”
Nobody answered at his cousin’s or at his house, so Michael thought he’d better keep looking for his mom. The warmth and the meal reinvigorated Michael in his search. Now he was walking to his grandmother’s house.
As he passed the corner Christmas tree lot, Barry the tree farmer yelled at him. They used to visit his farm every year when Michael’s father was alive. There was no money for a tree this year, though.
“Hey Michael — MDR — is this from you?”
“This note here with the turkey on it that I found stuck in one of my trees, it’s from you isn’t it? You’re MDR right?”
“Oh, yes, yes I made that.”
“Boy I tell you. I have never heard so much grumbling at Christmas. This tree is too tall. This tree is too fat. I love Christmas and Christmas trees, but sometimes grouchy people can take all of the joy out of it. Your note reminded me that people do appreciate what I do and, quite frankly, it really made my Christmas Eve a nice one.”
“Michael I was so sorry to hear about your dad. Do you guys have a tree up yet?”
“Oh, well let me bring one by. I’ll drop it at your place in the lobby after I close up tonight.”
“MICHAEL! MICHAEL! There you are! I have been driving all over looking for you! What are you doing out here. You really scared me!”
Michael turned and ran to his mother who was already out of the car running towards him. She had him wrapped up in a vice-like hug and had him in the car in seconds.
Tucked in his bed that Christmas Eve, Michael was not thinking about Santa or the presents he would get the next day. He was devastated that his gifts to others were all gone. He’d wanted so badly to let his family know how much he appreciated them and he’d failed. He cried himself to sleep.
The next morning he woke feeling empty, but quickly remembered that it was Christmas, and that at least he could show his mom the Christmas tree from Barry.
“Hey Mom, I think there is a surprise in the lobby! Let’s go!” he said waking her up.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the apartment, not even noticing the stack of small packages wrapped up in the corner of the room. They hurried down to the lobby when Michael’s mother stopped him short, her protective hand across his chest.
There in the corner of the lobby was the Christmas tree, as promised, and kneeing before it was the scary man from the alley, with his coat in a crumpled heap on the floor beside him. Upon hearing visitors he humbly stood. In the light, he didn’t look so old — not much older than Michael’s dad had been. His eyes were kind.
“Miss, I need to talk to that boy of yours — MDR,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“W-why. P-please leave us alone,” Michael’s mother said.
“Your boy, he left me this note on my mattress last night. It was just sitting there. I wanted to tell him how special that was to me, how much it meant,” the man rumbled.
“Oh, I think you must be mistaken sir,” Michael’s mother trembled.
“I don’t think so miss. Here, see,” he said as he pulled a battered piece of paper from his pocket with a turkey and Michael’s message on it. “Son, this is from you right?”
Michael could hardly speak, “Right.”
“Well, I saw a fella drop a tree off here last night and leave it, but it didn’t have decorations on it. Since it was Christmas and all, I thought I’d better do something about that,” the man from the alley continued.
He knelt back down and smoothed Michael’s note out on the floor. Michael noticed that there was an old tattered shoelace knotted and carefully punched through the corners of his paper. When the man stood again, the tongue of one of his boots was flopping out of his pant leg where that old shoelace had been. The man hung Michael’s note at the top of the tree.
He looked at Michael, “You want to help me decorate it?”
With that the man from the alley reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a handful of tattered dog tags and held them out, the Semper Fi tattoo on his forearm catching Michael’s attention. Michael looked up at his mother and she nodded her approval.
As they were hanging the ornaments, Mr. Walters walked through the lobby.
“Well I be,” he said mysteriously and turned to head back upstairs.
He returned a few minutes later with an old framed picture of Mrs. Walters. A tear splashed down on the black and white picture as he set it at the foot of the tree.
Soon, others passing through the lobby stopped to admire and adorn the tree with pictures and ornaments that represented people they were thankful for. Conversations started with neighbors who hadn’t had time to visit for months, all discussing the beautiful tree, Michael’s note and what it represented. Michael’s mother brought down a picture of his dad to put under the tree with the others. His grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins came over, bringing food and gifts. All admired the tree and the THANK FUL 4 U note at its summit.
Soon enough, the crowd dispersed and no one was left in the lobby but the man from the alley, Michael, and his mother.
“Can we?” Michael asked, looking up at her.
Michael invited the man to Christmas dinner. He accepted. As they turned to go upstairs, Michael’s mother wiped a tear from her eye as she looked at her son and silently mouthed the word “thankful,” held up four fingers, and lovingly put her finger to his chest.
This is one of three stories in Matt Reese’s book “Christmas Anthology” that can be purchased at lulu.com.