When Al woke up, there was only one thing that he knew for certain: something or someone was making noise. He wasn’t even sure where he was, although a fairly bright night light spread a glow over the crowded room. Cardboard boxes were stacked against every wall. Al lifted himself up on his elbows. What was he doing in a room full of cardboard boxes? He reached over and pulled the chain on an old brass lamp next to the bed. An orange cat squinted at him from the foot of the bed. Al was pretty sure it wasn’t his cat, but it looked at home lying on his green bathrobe.
“Why don’t you go see what that noise was?” The cat looked at the old man as if he were crazy. Not crazy in general (like most people looked at Al), but crazy to think that the cat was going to give up a spot that had been warmed to perfection over the past couple of hours. The two creatures peered at each other for a moment and then the cat closed its eyes.
Al swung his spindly legs over the bed and found his two old brown leather slippers sitting on the rug. So he must belong here. He pushed his feet into the slippers, got up slowly, and grabbed the robe draped over the bed, displacing the cat, who burrowed into the folds of the bedspread with a feline whine. Al spent a few minutes trying to find the robe’s armholes, and then gave up and just wrapped the green flannel garment around his shoulders like a shawl.
Al shuffled over to the boxes stacked in two layers around the perimeter of the room. He lifted the flaps of one of the cartons. Inside he could see piles of ceramic mugs and plates nestled haphazardly between wads of newspaper. The dishes were white with bright green ivy looped around the edges. Ivy. His wife Ivy had made them in her Thursday night ceramics class. The set had taken a whole year to finish, and Al had laughed at Ivy’s self-referential motif. That big soft woman. Where was she?
But as soon as he phrased the question clearly in his mind, Al remembered that Ivy was gone and that he had insisted that the plates and cups be kept when Bonnie and those young people packed up. Now he and his stuff were at Bonnie’s house with her husband and sons, but the only name he was able to remember was his daughter’s. They had told him that he would not be here for long, so that was why everything had to stay in the boxes. Al was going somewhere else soon, but he couldn’t remember where.
Al was still trying to figure out where he was going next when he heard the noise again. He went out into the hall and followed the sound down the hallway, which was also plentifully lit with soft night lights. Other than the occasional muted clatter that had woken him up, the house was still. He seemed to remember that it had been very noisy when he went to bed. Lots of people. Loud music. But not anymore. Funny that a little sound had woken him up when he had had no trouble nodding off earlier.
Al found himself in the kitchen where glowing numbers were leering at him from the stove and the microwave and from a bunch of little gadgets plugged in on the counter. He had forgotten his glasses but walked to the stove and leaned over the top. Three-one-five. The time, he realized. 3:15. And he heard the noise again. Someone was sitting at the kitchen table. Al could not see the man’s face, but his white hair and beard glowed in the reflected light of the various appliances and of the twinkly blue lights on a tree in the room behind him.
What to do next was a mystery, but Al noticed the man had a plate and glass in front of himself, so the old man opened the fridge and got out the milk. There was a glass half-full of water on the counter, and he dumped the water into the sink and filled it up with milk. Then he saw a plate of cookies on the counter with the plastic wrap already pulled half back. Al took the glass of milk in one hand and grabbed as many cookies as he could hold with the other, at which point his robe slipped off his shoulders. He stared at the dark pile it made in the center of the white kitchen floor and went and sat at the table. He looked at the other man and decided that the man looked sad. The blue lights of the Christmas tree didn’t help, but it wasn’t just the ghostly reflection on his skin. It was strange how Al could often read people’s emotions even when he had no idea who they were.
“Do you live here?” Al asked. He didn’t recognize the man, but some days he could hardly identify anyone, and this guy certainly seemed at home.
The white-haired man brightened a little and chuckled as he wiped some milk off his beard with a filthy red sleeve. “No. I’m just visiting. How about you?”
Al thought for a minute. He hated questions, but he had started the exchange. “I live here now, but I don’t think I’m staying long. I think I am going somewhere else, but it’s not ready yet. They said I couldn’t stay at home. Well, it was an apartment. But it’s where Ivy and I lived after I retired. So I guess I’m visiting too.” He stopped for a sip of milk and to insert he first cookie into his mouth. Then he realized that he had forgotten to put his teeth in. He took the cookie out again and dropped it into his milk to soak. The other man chuckled again.
Al tried again. “Do I know you?” Al didn’t remember the visitor at all. Of course, he didn’t have his glasses on.
“I guess not. Nobody knows me anymore, I guess. No one even left me a drink and a plate of goodies, had to scrounge for myself. I’m Nick.”
There was a long pause during which Al was trying hard to remember his own name. He seldom offered it as he could never remember anyone else’s. It finally came to him. “Al. Albert. After my father. You’re lucky.”
The red-suited man said, “I was named after a saint. Who maybe wasn’t so real either. In any case I never knew him. Is that what I’m lucky about? I don’t feel very lucky these days.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t leave you a plate. People are always shoving a plate of a food in front of me as if I couldn’t decide for myself what to eat. Or couldn’t cook my own. My Ivy was sick for over two years, and I did all the cooking. Cleaning too. Ivy was a good woman, but she got small at the end. Couldn’t do hardly anything for her, but I didn’t pack up her stuff in boxes.”
The bearded man nodded and seemed to know who Ivy was and what on earth Al was talking about.
“I’m alone too. Used to have a wife, but she faded from memory. Faded away. And I am not doing so well myself.”
“Hard to get old.” Al pointed at Nick’s mouth. “Are those your own teeth?” Al mumbled as he used three fingers to fish the softened cookie out of his milk and stuff it into his mouth, spraying drops of milk over the table. The white beads glimmered in the reflected light.
Nick gave a broad ironic smile before answering. “Nope. Not real. Fake. Nothing about me is real.”
“Thought so. I left mine somewhere. I never did have good teeth, so I don’t mind the fake ones so much. No dentist bills. Yours look good. Seems like we keep leaving pieces behind though. And picking up plastic parts. Ivy got a new hip before she died. Pretty soon we are all going to be made out of plastic.”
“Yup. Except I’m the product of imagination, not plastic. Not so durable. I used to glow. I used to be the most important thing. I was bright and shining and new – and children couldn’t get enough of thinking about me. Now I’m just like the UPS man. Just the delivery guy. Don’t get noticed if the goods come on time, but if there is a mistake you are in a lot of trouble. Big change. People used to be happy just at the thought of me, just imagining me.”
Al was frowning. “I mostly imagine bad stuff.”
“That’s the problem. Hardly anyone imagines good things anymore. Sure, there are more delusional people than ever, but that’s not the same thing.” Nick looked sad. “Good imagination makes you happy and the people around you happy. Like I said, people used to be happy at the very thought of me. Now they’re not too sure. Take one look at me and imagine their credit card balances going up. Or they remember what Christmas used to be like. Makes them sad.”
Al nodded. Sometimes he remembered how things used to be, like little Bonnie running down the stairs when he came home from work. Ivy would be in the kitchen, making things chink and rattle as she got dinner out of the oven. He hadn’t much liked his job in the billing department of the hospital, but he loved coming home. No one at work much wanted to talk to him, and particularly not the people who owed money to Hoover Municipal Hospital. But at home, Bonnie and Ivy couldn’t wait to see how his day had gone, to ask him if he had gotten a seat on the bus, and to see how hungry he was after a long day in the office.
“Makes me sad, too,” Al said. “Some people used to be happy to see me. Now folks just ask me about my conditions. Just want to know if I’m constipated or if I took my pills. Or they ask me transportation questions – how I’m getting to the next doctor’s appointment or to get my blood drawn or isn’t it about time they took me to the barber. If you’re the UPS man, I’m the package, delivered from one repair shop to the next. Now I’m here,” Al looked around, “waiting for the next transfer. But nobody’s happy about it when this package comes to the door. Kind of wish I’d end up in the dead letter office.”
“I know exactly what you mean. They’ve spoiled it all. Do you know what the biggest holiday of the year is now? Shopping day. Black Friday. Can you even imagine being completely happy on a day called Black Friday? Can I have one of your cookies?”
Al shoved a couple of cookies across the table and threw another one in the couple of inches of crumby milk that was in the bottom of his glass.
Al brightened. “Christmas was always great. We only had one kid, which made Ivy sad, but I was glad at Christmas because we could always spoil Bonnie. Dolls, doll houses, sleds. And then later clothes and that music she liked. We’d put up the tree after lunch on Christmas Eve and make a whole afternoon of it. I think she was even happier decorating the tree than she was the next morning opening presents. Never see my Bonnie look that happy anymore.”
The man in red took a bite out of a cookie and then pointed what was left of it at Al. “They don’t even believe in cookies anymore. They want me thinner. Think I’m a bad example with my fat cheeks and my big belly. As if it would be any sign of happiness if we all looked like we lived in concentration camps. And as if I could die of high cholesterol. I’m going to die of something else entirely. And I don’t even dare light my pipe anywhere anymore. Sets off bells – and they’re not Christmas bells,” he added with a smirk.
“Ivy was fat. Doctors told her to go on a diet and she just ignored them. And she died skinny anyway. I liked her better big.” Al reached to the back of his head and scratched the only spot where there was any hair. Then he looked for a cookie and realized that his stash was gone. He got out of his chair on the first try and went back to the counter for another fistful. When he got there, the Al stood for a minute contemplating his bathrobe on the floor. Who was that guy in red? Was Al in this guy’s house? He decided it didn’t matter for the moment as long as they had milk and cookies. He went back and sat down and dropped another cookie in his glass. Then he realized he needed more milk and started back for the big plastic gallon jug which he had left on the counter. This time it took two tries to get out of the chair. He toted the jug back to the table so he wouldn’t have to make the effort again.
“Do you remember things?” As Al was asking Nick this important question, he was also filling his glass. He should have known he could not concentrate on two things at once. The milk overflowed on the table and down onto the floor. Neither man made an effort to stem the flow.
The bearded man gave a snort. “I remember too damn much. I remember how it used to be. And I have a prodigious memory for names and lists. But it isn’t doing me any good anymore. Just makes me sad. And those lists! Ridiculous lists they have now – all printed out and prioritized. Don’t even need anything and they have detailed inventories of what they need – not want, need. Not what they wish for. They don’t even know the value of wishing. And wishing on a star! ‘Star bright, star light, first star I see tonight’ – they don’t ever see the first star. They don’t see any stars – they never go outside and if they do, they never look up. And if they do look up there’s too much light around to see anything. No wonder they can’t get excited about a Christmas tree and a few candles.” Nick brushed some crumbs out of his beard, casting them in all directions. “It’s the wishing time that’s important, not the getting time.”
Al considered this as he used his tongue to wipe his mouth and wondered how it felt to rub your tongue over as much facial hair as Nick had. “I don’t have too much stuff. All my stuff is in there.” Al gestured down the hall. “And there’s not much left. I guess that’s OK. Maybe by the time I buy the farm all my stuff will be gone.”
“Any of your stuff special?” Nick watched Al gum his cookies and smiled as if he were watching a favorite two-year-old mush up a Zwieback.
Al thought hard but, at first, he could only remember the stuff he had just seen. “Just Ivy’s dishes. She made them. Well, she didn’t make them, she painted them.” He paused for a moment and images started to come back to him. “And some old pictures, although mostly I can’t remember who anyone was. And I have two sweaters that I like. A red one and a blue one. Ivy made the blue one and she always thought the red one looked nice on me – though it’s kind of holey now. I like your red jacket.” Al did think the jacket was nice but wondered why it was so dirty. Even his old sweaters looked better than that.
“Red is a good color. Hold onto that sweater. Memories matter, holes don’t.”
“If memories matter, I am in a lot of trouble. Holes in my memory.”
“Better holes in the memory than in the imagination.” Nick pushed his glass and plate to the center of the table.
Al pointed at him. “What did you say? We’re all what people imagine we are or something like that?”
“Yup,” said the man in red.
“They all imagine I’m half-dead. I guess they’re killing me.”
“Just what I meant. I don’t have a choice, but what I say is that if you’ve got to be the product of somebody’s imagination, at least it ought to be your own imagination. That’s what I think.”
Al took this in while he fished the last cookie out of his milk. Nick got up and brushed the crumbs out of his beard and onto the front of his red jacket.
“Gotta go. People waiting for me. And you gotta go back to bed.”
The next morning, Al slept later than usual, and Bonnie and her husband were up before he awoke. The boys slept in because they knew what they were getting for Christmas – most of it had already been downloaded – so they weren’t in any hurry to make merry with the relatives. Bonnie and Fred made coffee and puzzled over the two glasses, plates, and spilt milk at the table. And they clucked over the green robe on the floor. When Al came wandering out a half-hour later, it was clear from the front of his pajamas that he had had cookies and milk sometime since Bonnie tucked him in.
“Who did you have cookies with last night?” Bonnie asked, nodding at the two glasses that now stood next to the sink and holding out his robe so he could struggle into it.
“I forgot,” said Al.
Bonnie let the subject drop resignedly as if she had never really expected an answer. “Did you forget that this is Christmas?”
“No,” said Al. “I would never forget Christmas.” Bonnie could tell from the clicking of the loose dentures that her father had remembered his teeth. Al had also remembered to shove his glasses on. The smeary horn-rimmed bifocals slanted precariously to the left. Al tilted his head to match the angle of the spectacles. He looked up and over the table to the shimmering tree which was sitting as forlorn and blue as it had been the night before. He sniffed the air and smelled only the furniture spray that Bonnie had used to clean the kitchen table.
“When is Christmas?” Al asked.