Christmas Tale

The old lady digs deep

True story. Tailpipe came out of his house a few months ago and found Sal, a glum, knobby-faced man from down the block, lying right in the middle of the street. On his way from the local package store to his one-room digs, Sal's legs had just given out.

"I'm OK," he kept saying, though he didn't have the strength to get back up. Some of the neighbors gathered around him; one of them bent over and, with a knowing glance at the others, displayed a brown bag with an unopened, king-sized can of beer.

By then, a fire department ambulance was there, and the neighbors persuaded the reluctant Sal to get checked up at an emergency room. He grumbled that he was really fine and that he didn't want to have to argue with hospital officials about payments, but paramedics lifted him into the ambulance and drove him away.

Sal was back on the block a week later, characteristically offering no explanations. That was the unsmiling Sal for you. You're lucky to get a grudging hello or good morning out of him.

His friend Alex was a little freer with the small talk, though he was so badly afflicted with arthritis that he couldn't get around without a walker. A retired IBM worker from Ohio with a gorgeous tan, Alex was a familiar sight on the block, pushing the walker, rain or shine, step by painstaking step, from his house to the neighborhood bar.

"How y' doin', Alex?"

"Can't complain."

It's the code of the ailing oldster, the marooned retiree. Don't complain. Keep pushing that boulder up that hill.

One Sunday afternoon in September, Tailpipe spied a klatch of fire trucks jammed onto the street down the block. He found Sal sitting woefully in a straight-backed chair in front of the building where he and Alex lived. Yeah, he said. The fire was in Alex's apartment. Sal had run an errand at the CVS, stopping for beer and cigarettes for Alex. When he got back, smoke was pouring out of the place. He and another man tried to get Alex out — "but it was too hot," Sal said, shaking his head mournfully. "Alex didn't make it."

It has been that kind of year on Tailpipe's block, a dreary blend of local mishaps and global tensions. For elderly people on fixed incomes, you can multiply the dreariness index by two or three.

In another building on the block, a single, elderly woman lives an impenetrably private life. She rarely comes out of her apartment, a tiny mother-in-law annex next to a low, lackluster cottage, but the 'Pipe has glimpsed a tangle of gray hair and the flickers of a television through her front window. Last Christmas, he also glimpsed the top of an artificial Christmas tree in the apartment, with old-fashioned, multicolored lights. Reds and greens and oranges and blues, the lights must have provided a warm, festive touch to a bleak existence in a home that clearly had little else in it.

And the tree stayed there, lit up every night, long past Christmas. Tailpipe, walking his dog, saw it there and began to wonder if there's a Guinness category for longest-maintained Christmas tree. April, May, June... the modest tree burned brightly.

Finally, in September, around the time workmen piled the scorched remains of Alex's possession on the curb for bulk-trash pickup, the lady's tree went dark. Tailpipe likes to think that the gray-haired lady was somehow memorializing Alex.

The dark days stretched into December. The old lady's tree was still there, but no lights. For the 'Pipe, it was counterintuitive. Lights in July, darkness in December. It didn't add up. Maybe the lady would finally dig deep, Tailpipe told his wife, and find some holiday spirit. She couldn't sit in her bleak apartment without a touch of color. But the darkness continued past Thanksgiving.

Last Thursday, Tailpipe took the dog out, and at last, the tree was lit again in the old lady's front room. The colors even seemed a little brighter and more plentiful. The 'Pipe wondered if there had been a sense of ceremony when she flipped the switch. It wasn't the White House, with a Marine band playing Handel, or Rockefeller Center, with a church chorus and big wigs to mark the season. But on Tailpipe's block, the lighting of the lady's tree meant that, no matter the circumstances, life would go on. And that's a good thing.

Sal went past the house on a bicycle the other day, with a newspaper tucked under his arm and a brown paper bag clutched in his hand.

 
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