The last Christmas Eve train, a coal drag headed for Baltimore by way of Hyattsville, rumbled southeastward into the DC suburbs. The light Mikado locomotive that had pushed it up the hill from Brunswick had turned around on the "Y" at Gaithersburg and was headed home. Motor cars puttered in the distance. The air hung motionless and frozen. It felt like snow. A lone figure, hugging himself against the cold, stepped out of the shadows and stood under one of the handful of street lamps that dotted the small downtown that stretched for less than a mile along the tracks.
He figured it was already at least seven o'clock, and if he was going spread any goodwill this Christmas, he would have to get to jingling, and soon. He checked his shoes, he checked his sleeves and then his tattered cap. With all his bells fastened tightly, he did a little dance. Jingles filled the chilly air. He wiped his face as best he could with his dirty old washcloth, then cleared his throat and let out a few practice "fa la la's."
Gaithersburg, Maryland was not by most accounts a hobo-friendly place, although to be fair, no place was. The B&O mainline snaked through town, but there was no yard - only a short siding and the Y-shaped engine turnaround. It was a small farm town, and its 25 mile distance from Washington, DC might as well have been 250 miles in the 1930s. The lonely tramp beneath the street light had walked and ridden and trespassed his way here from New Mexico over the past four months.
He had two reasons for making sure he was here for Christmas. First, he knew he was unlikely to run into any other hoboes, here. This was important. None of the other rail-riding bums could stand him or his incessant jingling, singing or preaching about the Nativity. Plus, he was a hobo, and most hoboes didn't like each other very much.
The other thing that attracted him to this sleepy little town was a small two-bedroom house on Chestnut Street, near the fairgrounds, and that's where he was headed this Christmas Eve. He stopped a block away from the train station and did some jingling and singing. Usually, this netted him a few pennies and a threat or two of arrest. Tonight, the last-minute shoppers were many, and after a few minutes at the corner of Summit and Diamond, he had nearly three dollars and a new pair of second-hand gloves.
He bought a yo-yo, a cheap rag doll and a few candy canes at the drug store and jingled over to Chestnut Street, humming the Coventry Carol to himself.
He was earlier than last year, and the lights were still on inside the tiny house. This meant a longer wait in the cold, but more importantly, it also gave the drifter a chance to peek inside. He crept, keeping his jingling as muted as possible, up to the side of the house, to the window that he knew was the living room.
They were still up. Both wore flannel pajamas; James covered in firetrucks and little Caroline still in pink footy things. He hadn't gotten a look at them last Christmas, so he was a bit taken aback at their increased size. Their mother, adorned in her favorite Christmas apron, was helping them hang their stockings, trying to hurry them off to bed. The drifter-turned-peeping-Tom felt a wave of hurt slosh through him. They were fine. She was fine. The house looked well-kept. There was, still, no man in sight. He felt low - lower than usual.
It had been five years. He had never met Caroline, who was a few weeks from entering the world when he had left. He only knew her name because he had seen it scrawled in glue and glitter on her Christmas stocking. Every year, he came to the house on Christmas Eve. Every year, he brought with him a bag of candy and a couple of toys, as well as every last cent he had managed to beg, borrow or steal since the previous December. Every year, he stood there searching for the courage to knock on the door, to beg forgiveness, for permission to re-join the world. Four times, he had failed.
This year, he came close. He watched the children hang their stockings. He saw them scamper off to bed. He watched their mother as she poured herself a glass of wine, then carefully filled the kids' stockings and arranged a small pile of gifts beneath the tree. He waited about half an hour after the last light had gone out, then tiptoed up the steps and onto the front porch. He placed his annual gift to his abandoned family gently on the doormat, along with the same note he always left, a barely-comprehensible apology for taking off the way he had.
He hesitated. He put his hand on the door and whispered, "I love you," then turned and started down the front steps. From the darkness behind him, in the porch swing, he heard a throat clear. His instinct to run was overwhelmed by his instinct to freeze in his tracks, so he froze in his tracks.
"You know, Franklin, those jingle bells are a lot louder than you think they are."
"I was afraid of that."
"Sure you were, sweetheart. Sure you were. You know what I think? I think you wanted to be heard, jingling around out here like one of Santa's elves."
"I don't know what to say to you, Nancy. I don't know where to start. I should go."
"You can start with 'I'm sorry,' Frankie, and see where it leads. Come inside. It's freezing out here."
"I know nothing can redeem me, but I am truly sorry, Nan."
"Merry Christmas, you smelly old hobo. Come inside."