Excerpts for Christmas Home
One Year Later
People would look at the old black Lab and say, "Christmas. That's an unusual name for a dog." In the beginning, George would explain how the Lab was supposed to have been a temporary holiday guest, a brief fostering project to help out the local animal shelter. His youngest son, Todd, thought the name Christmas was a good fit. Now, nearly four years later, the dog had found a permanent home with the McCray family, and George was inclined to lean down, hug his canine friend around the neck, and say, "Best Christmas present I ever got!"
Christmas was resting his head on Todd's lap in the backseat of the car as they drove down Main Street that evening. George's wife, Mary Ann, and Todd chatted back and forth about the weather--lightly falling snow, smoky gray skies, and a low howling northwest wind. George, a pragmatic sort, smiled at the notion, but wondered if they shouldn't have named the lab Elmer, like the glue. The dog bound and knitted his family together.
The elder McCray tried to park in the small municipal lot that flanked the west side of Crossing Trails Town Hall, but it was already jammed with cars. The turnout for that night's town hall meeting was going to be huge, particularly for a town of less than two thousand residents. So much was hanging in the balance.
George turned back onto Main Street and drove north for two more blocks before finding a space in front of what had been the barbershop but was now a Dollar General Store--a sign of the times. Though many older businesses like the hardware store and the diner had managed to hang on, the growing number of discount stores suggested that the town's better days were visible only in the rearview mirror. Once within this tiny six-block area they still called "downtown" there had been a bakery, a movie theater, clothing stores, a Ford dealership, a furniture shop, and much more. Still, the Crossing Trails Chamber of Commerce boasted thirty-four members. The town just had to survive, George thought. Right? Any other answer seemed inconceivable.
Many of the original stately brick buildings had survived, but there were also plenty of newer, cheaper-looking steel-and-concrete structures, quite a few sporting for rent or sale signs. George was continually amazed at the way the town had changed, particularly in the last several years as the exodus of young people from the rural farming community continued. At least his children, all living within driving distance, had not strayed too far from the McCray homestead. Todd was closest of all.
"Looks like a good turnout for the meeting," George observed.
"As it should be. People are worried." Mary Ann buttoned up her coat and collected her purse from the floor of the car. She turned around and poked at her son's knee. "Let's go."
Todd undid his seat belt and started to get out of the backseat with his headphones still attached and his iPod playing a Scotty McCreery tune that he did his best to adopt as his own. Once completely out of the car, he broke out with the chorus, "I love you this big!" As Todd stretched out his arms, Mary Ann stepped into his embrace, and they repeated the lyrics together. Mary Ann smiled at life. Being a music teacher and having a tone-deaf son was beyond ironic.
George opened the other rear passenger door. When Christmas jumped out, he snapped a leash on the dog's collar and gave him a gentle pat on the head. "Good boy. You've got work to do tonight, don't you?"
There was an unusual urgency to that night's town hall meeting. Earlier in the week The Prairie Star--Crossing Trail's newspaper, once daily, but now weekly--had reported that the mayor would discuss the town's latest economic setback. After fifty years, Midwest Trailer and Hitch had officially called it quits. Horse ownership was at an all-time low, as were trailer sales, and the town's largest employer was going out of business.
The survival of Crossing Trails was being threatened by a combination of factors that could be overcome only by an intense collaborative effort. Severe cost-cutting measures were inevitable, and everyone knew it. The lead story in The Prairie Star indicated that services that had once been taken for granted were now at risk. Like a virus at a day care, the rumors spread up and down Main Street in the close-knit town. People had moved right past worried and were dashing toward panicked.
The McCrays and other families had watched as smaller rural communities in the surrounding counties had eliminated or consolidated fire and police departments, closed schools and libraries, shut hospitals, and all but died. They couldn't help wondering if the same spiral had been set in motion in their town.
George, Todd, and Mary Ann walked south down Main Street as a light fog settled in. Christmas loitered, sniffing at the occasional fire hydrant. The outside temperature on this early December evening was warmer than the snow-covered ground. The slushy sidewalk was dangerously slick and uneven in places, so they walked carefully, with Todd in the middle, holding on to his parents' hands with a firm, youthful grip that kept them from slipping.
Mary Ann liked it that her adult son would still hold his parents' hands. For some it might be considered a sign of his disability, but for her it meant so much more. When he was little, he held her hand for physical support; when he was older, he did it for emotional reassurance. It was his way of checking to make sure that his mother was there for him as he navigated through a world that did not always make sense to him. Later still, holding his parents' hands became a simple and honest way to show his unabashed love. While his grip still sent some of these ancient family messages, it was not lost on her that there was something new going on. Todd was using his strength to hold them up. She wondered if George was having anywhere near the same thought, or if Todd had an inkling of how the roles of parent and child were constantly being renegotiated with the passage of time.
In the storefront windows many of the merchants had made some effort to showcase their Christmas goods. Green holly and blinking white lights hung from the wood poles and brass rings that previous generations had used to tie off their horses. Falling under the dim light, cast by the old-fashioned streetlights, were little bits of intermittent snow blowing through the dark night sky.
With his jet-black coat, Christmas was hard to see as he tagged along, content, with his family.
The dog was a local legend in Crossing Trails. It was hard to know where the truth about Christmas ended and the exaggeration began; both George and Todd were inclined to embellish his exploits. Whether Christmas had really taken on a mountain lion and won, understood more than fifty words, or could read your thoughts didn't matter to most people. What they loved most about the dog was the joy he brought to the McCray family and every other human he met. That was magic enough.
Both Todd and George described Christmas as "my dog." However convenient, this was not entirely accurate. Like blue skies, small children, and the air we breathe, dogs can be shared, loved, and enjoyed but not owned. Partnership, yes. Ownership, no. That's the way it has always been between dogs and humans.
The foursome entered the crowded meeting room of City Hall. Todd's boss at the shelter, Hayley Donaldson, had promised to save them seats near the back, where Christmas could rest out of the way before he went to work. The McCrays looked around but could not find Hayley, so they claimed four chairs at the back of the room and sat down.
Todd took the aisle seat and gave the command for Christmas to sit, out of the flow of traffic. He pulled an index card from his pocket with a list on it. Hayley loved lists. She was always giving him lists. Todd smiled to himself as he thought about the lists. He would often tease Hayley by greeting her with his hand extended. When she looked at him quizzically, he would say, "Waiting for my list!"
Earlier that day she had written on an index card the things she wanted him and Christmas to do at the town hall meeting. At times it irritated Todd that she made so many lists telling him to do things he didn't need her to tell him to do. When he complained about it to her, she just said, "I make lists for me, so what's wrong with making them for you?"
Todd stuffed the index card back in his pocket, and as he did a funny thought caused him to laugh out loud. Tomorrow he would make a list and give it to Hayley. It would say, "Quit making lists!"
George looked up at his son wondering why he was chuckling. "What's so amusing?"
Sometimes other people did not find the same things funny that Todd did, so he had slowly grown guarded about sharing his sense of humor--even with his mom and dad. He was afraid that it did not make him look smart. "I was just thinking about something at work."
George smiled reassuringly, picking up on Todd's reluctance to explain himself further. In fact, as someone who loved to laugh when he could, George very much enjoyed Todd's sense of humor and didn't care whether or not his son looked smart.
George returned his attention to the room. No one had bothered to plug the Christmas tree lights in on the mayor's Christmas tree. Fake gift boxes had been haphazardly spread about the base. All the faux gifts were wrapped in the same green paper, and most were ripped in several places. Many of the bows and ribbons had slipped off. George took one look at the pathetic tree, went over to the wall socket, and plugged in the lights. It looked only marginally better. He shrugged and returned to his seat between Todd and Mary Ann.
The McCrays spotted many familiar faces as more people began to stream into the increasingly crowded room; it seemed that most of the families they knew in Cherokee County were represented here tonight. This meeting had definitely captured everyone's attention. While George said his hellos to friends and neighbors, Mary Ann turned around and glanced at the entrance to watch the people coming in. Then she caught sight of a scene unfolding in the small glass-walled conference room across from the main meeting hall. She nudged George. "Look out there," she said softly.
Though they could not hear the conversation, it was obvious to the two of them that Hayley Donaldson was having a heated discussion with the mayor and the city manager. She was throwing her hands up in the air as if to say What gives? She was a tall, self-assured, and confident woman--fit and strong from handling dogs. "That looks bad," George said quietly, while thinking to himself that he wouldn't want to be on the receiving end in a heated exchange with that young lady.
Todd, oblivious to the scene, pulled Christmas close to him and checked his pockets to make sure he had remembered the training treats. That was number four on Hayley's list. He grinned again.
The door to the conference room flew open and Hayley stepped out into the hall that separated the smaller room from the main hall. She saw the McCray family in the last row and moved quickly toward them, greeting Todd and Christmas briefly before taking the seat next to Mary Ann, who sensed her distress the moment she saw her. "I'm so darn mad, I can't talk," she whispered to Mary Ann. She continued to glare out into space, and soon angry tears began to stream down her cheeks.
Mary Ann took her by the arm. "Hayley, what's wrong?"
In high school Hayley had been one of Mary Ann's favorite students, in every way a responsible and dedicated young woman. She had been one of the stars on the debate team and had never lost her composure easily. Mary Ann tended to remain protective of her former students. She tried again, "What happened? Tell me."
"You're not going to believe this. I can't believe it."
"What?" Mary Ann pleaded.
Hayley nodded her head in Todd's direction and then leaned over to whisper in her favorite teacher's ear, "They want to close the shelter. Like, now."
"No!" Mary Ann gasped. She could not help her own reaction but didn't want Todd to overhear. "Come with me," she said, standing. Todd and George looked up as the two women stepped into the aisle. Mary Ann clutched Hayley's elbow and said, "Just a quick trip to the ladies' room before this meeting starts." George looked at Mary Ann and nodded, knowing full well that something else was going on.
Once in the hallway, struggling to keep her voice even, Mary Ann continued, "Why in the world would they do that?"
Hayley spoke softly and tried to sum up her conversation with the mayor. "As usual: it's all about money. The county is no longer willing to fund its half of the shelter's expenses. The town has its own money problems. Mayor McDaniel told me that they want us to close. We're done."
Mary Ann's voice rose uncontrollably. "That's impossible. Where will the dogs go?"
Several people milling in the hallway began to notice their conversation. Hayley led Mary Ann a few steps farther away from the meeting room and continued her explanation. "Mayor McDaniel may know something about real estate, but she doesn't know squat about animal shelters. She must think that we can put fifty-plus dogs and cats on the corner and someone will just pick them up. I had to scream at her just so she would agree to let us stay open till the end of the year."
"Why is the county backing out?" Mary Ann asked.
"The shelter needs lots of repairs. The roof, the plumbing, the heating, and the air-conditioning are all old."
"So why can't they just fix it?"
"They needed the money for other things, so they sold our building. We have to vacate by December 31. They are going to demolish the shelter to make room for a convenience store! I'm just so mad I can't stand it!"
Mary Ann looked toward the meeting room. "Does Todd know?"
"No. I just found out myself."
"They gave you no warning?"
"A couple of months ago, and then again several weeks ago, the city manager told me that there were money problems and problems with our lease, too." Hayley again started to choke on her words. "They never told me this could happen. I thought they would work it out. I just didn't take the whole thing seriously." She calmed herself. "I should have seen it coming."