W. Hegel’s holiday

When Sgt. Roscoe spotted the form slouched over a suitcase at the bus stop bench, she could not tell its gender or age. An oversized checked sweater concealed any shape, and the limbs were pulled in like a turtle’s. Only the head emerged, dwarfed in a cherry-red hunter’s cap, the tip of the nose pointing north into the wind as if waiting, perhaps sniffing, for the bus. She pulled over and lowered her window. “The late bus don’t run on Christmas Day, sir.” Cold air rushed into the car and made her words sound more fragile than she liked. The shape did not move, and she repeated herself. “You OK, sir? Sir?”

When the woman was unwrapped at the hospital—for it was a woman, overweight, around forty five—the staff found her comatose and nearly frozen. Her fingertips were stained with an unknown substance, in addition to being frostbitten. While they nursed her vital signs, several of the less occupied workers opened the suitcase. “Let’s see what Mrs. Claus brought the ER,” said an intern.

The newspaper lady was glad to get the call on the holiday. First Christmas after a divorce, especially if the kids are with their father and his folks, warm around a beautiful tree and floating in torn wrapping paper, while you’re alone in the apartment with the dog and a box of assorted See’s—you need something to do, she thought. The moment she walked into the hospital and met the policewoman holding the open suitcase overflowing with photographs, she realized she had received the gift of a lifetime. There was no ID on the comatose woman, the suitcase, or its contents, but she knew the photographs instantly. They were the work of the reclusive W. Hegel, obviously recently developed, newborn black-and-whites. Moreover, they were unexpected: W. Hegel had not come out with anything new for a decade, and was supposedly dead. The photographer was a master of lighting and angle, and shot anything and everything, except for W. Hegel. No one knew the first thing about the one who held that camera, who had failed to come forward for three Pulitzers, whose books recorded the goings-on of a fragile and oblivious world. But now W. Hegel was in the next room thawing, her fingertips stained with photographic developer, her veins coursing with warmth, taking a well-earned day off.

The old man’s tree

The old man was combing dumpsters for aluminum when he found the red bow. It probably came from a fancy tin of cookies, or maybe it was last year’s bow and no longer good enough. He pulled it out, keeping it above the dripping soda cans in his basket. Why you want this, he wondered. It’s no use to recycle. On his way through the park he left it tied to a spindly evergreen, just as the sun fell back toward the mountains after a half-hearted day’s climb.

The old man walked back to his trailer, from which a small part of the chill was removed with a few dollars of propane each month. While he drank tea and gin, the tree with the bow stood in his mind. He had not noticed it before, but the bow suited it. Not a bad tree.

The next afternoon a small flag on a pipe cleaner was twisted onto the tree. The day after that, four strips of silver tinsel shivered there as well. Still not bad. He wished he could reach higher than halfway up.

A square of suet was next, hung in mesh cut from an onion bag. He had tried to buy the suet with food stamps, which didn’t work, but the clerk gave him a lump anyway. Dirty old man. Who eats suet anymore?

The old man rested the day after that, sleeping through the few hours of daylight and waking only in time for tea and gin.

The next time he saw the tree, he stopped and put down his bag of cans and stared. There were two bright strings circling the tree, a string of popcorn and a string of cranberries. They made the tree fuller and rounder than he had remembered it, even with tea and gin. Moreover, there were three birds in the tree. The suet was nearly gone, and bits of red berry flecked the ground underneath, where two more birds pecked and quarreled.

Next there was a fishing lure. Then another lump of suet. A letter in a green envelope. Three cranes folded from newspaper. A glass angel. A chime that sang when the wind grew piercing. A candle on the ground, which he found burning one day. Orange quarters, hung for the birds with fishing line. A god’s-eye of blue and pink yarn. The best was snow, frosting every needle and ornament. The tree grew daily. Now even at night it glistened.

The old man’s trailer was still cold. He took his aluminum to the recycler and bought his holiday dinner, cooked and ate it, by himself; but also there was in his mind all that night the sight, and the smell, the feel, even the sound, of the tree with the red bow, the tree blooming, giving off ever more color, more size, more heat.