Friday, December 20, 2013

The Gathering Before Christmas

For thirteen years, December, for at least one homeless wanderer, had been the same.  As 1940 drew to a close, Cranberry Sauce Oppenheimer stopped walking, stopped seeking work, stopped trying to recall his given name.  He knew that he was about twenty-seven years old, having left home at fourteen, and he was pretty sure he had been called Eugene, in the hazy past.  He vaguely remembered a childhood divided between Louisville and Cincinnati, but could no longer recall which had come last, and he wouldn't have been able to find his parents' home on a bet.

His annual Christmas letter to his mother was usually burnt in the hobo jungle fire with the hope that its smoke might somehow reach her, but on occasion, when December found him near the Ohio River, he would fold it into a tiny paper boat and send it floating downstream toward his two hometowns.  Such was the case with this year's note.

Dearest Ma,

     It's me - your son (Eugene, I think).  I hope you and Pa and the twins are well.  This year has been the hardest yet.  I lost my hat in a card game, but I remember how you used to say 'always look on the bright side.'  Do you still say that?  I do.  I try to, anyway.  So the bright side of losing my hat was that I learned never to play poker with a deck of only 45 cards - especially if your opponents know which cards are missing.

I worked the bean fields for most of the summer, and in the autumn I picked pumpkins, if you can believe that.  Otherwise, however, I could find no work, so I must confess that I stole more food than usual, and even took a pair of pants from somebody's clothesline.  I'm not proud of that, Ma.  I tried to go to confession a couple weeks later, but they kicked me out, on account of my stinkiness. 

My fortune went from bad to worse, when all my clothes were stolen while I was in the creek, trying to boil up and get clean for a job interview.  It would have been good work, too - helping to build roads in Indiana.  I got arrested for public indecency, of course, and although it was a relief to have a shower and a bed and a roof for 30 days, it was a jail shower, a jail bed, and a jail roof.  An old-timer in the big house told me it was Karma or some such thing, getting me back for taking that stranger's pants.  I can't say I disagree. 

I also got into a bit of trouble with my sauce-making, this year. I could only find cranberries that had been irradiated, and my sweet side dish made some of my hobo friends ill. When they saw that I never eat the stuff, they accused me of deliberately poisoning them. I tried to explain that I'm allergic, and just wanted to make a nice treat for my brethren, but it was no use. They beat me pretty bad - even knocked out a tooth - and I was on the run for weeks, before I lost them, somewhere in Pennsylvania.

On Thanksgiving, my only friend on the rails, a fellow called Bippity Hankerson, found out that his parents, who owned a little restaurant in Milwaukee, had died.  His Pa dropped a can of lard on the floor, slipped and fell, kicking the legs out from under their deep-fryer.  It spilled boiling oil all over him, and burned him right to death.  Bippity's Ma came running, slipped on all that lard and oil, and fell onto the butcher's knife she was carrying.  Bippity was so distraught when he heard the news, he got crazy-drunk on hobo wine, stumbled into the path of a fast freight, and was obliterated.  I burned what I could find of him.

So I suppose it makes sense that this December, the fog that annually envelopes me is gathering once more - as thick as ever, and twice as fast.  I'm not sure I can go on like this, Ma.  Oh, don't worry - you know I will go on - but, when this fog comes for me, I honestly can't see to the other side.  It's dark.  Christmas bells toll in my ears like a death knell.  I don't want to die, but I don't much care to be alive, either.  I want nothing.  I have nothing.  I am nothing.  Everything is nothing.  There is naught but this fog of unremitting sadness and despair.

The only thing that gets me through these Decembers is knowing that you and Pa are out there somewhere, praying for me, and knowing that no matter how numb I may be to it, Christmas happens, and is beautiful.  It also helps knowing that it won't be long before our beloved Cincinnati Reds get back onto the field. 

Until then, sure it's bleak.  I hate the fog.  It always ALMOST kills me, but I'm like a bear.  I hibernate as best I can.

Please wake me, Dear Ma, when it's over.

Your loving son,
Cranberry Sauce Oppenheimer, aka Eugene (I think)

Another post in response to a community prompt from my friends at

1 comment:

  1. Sad but so interesting - I love the characters you've drawn here and would like to see more of them.