The city was tinted in shades of grey and dingy brown, like a faded old photograph devoid of any warmth or color it may have once had. Smoke from the chimney's hung between and above the buildings like tired clouds too worn to fly any higher. A spiteful snowflake or two would whirl down from time to time, as if to remind the world below that there would be no white Christmas tomorrow.
He was clad in a dirty shearling coat that looked like it had out-staid it's welcome several years earlier, a pair of baggy jeans and a well loved knit hat. He curled his toes in his worn sneakers and thin socks. Neither were keeping his feet very warm. With a sigh, he looked down at the slip of paper in his hands. He had known it was coming and he had only himself to blame, which he also knew deep down. But it was easier(he decided as he picked himself and his guitar case and his coffee cup up and headed down the sidewalk), much much easier, to just blame it and anything else on God or Fate or karma or whatever you chose to believe in.
He shivered a little bit as the cold wind lashed out for a moment, then slumped his shoulders again as it slunk away. He crossed the street after a minute, glancing from the corner of his eye at the church he had avoided. It was decked with green wreaths and red bows which(in his opinion) looked stupid since there was not and would not be any snow. He could hear, dimly, a choir practicing inside, one last effort for the service that would surely be taking place tonight. This piqued his interest a little, but he kept on walking, heading toward the bridge where he often sat to play his guitar in hopes that someone would hand him a couple bills or even just some change. Since he'd lost his job(at a convenience store) this uncertain means had been his only income. This was why he'd just gotten notice that he needed to be out of the apartment by the end of the week.
"Merry Christmas." He muttered sarcastically as he rounded the corner. Then he stopped, his eyes widening for a moment before his brow furrowed angrily. Standing, in HIS place, beside HIS bench, was a clean cut, tall man about his own age. This intruder was clad in a long, black coat and had a violin tucked under his chin, on which he was playing Christmas songs with his eyes closed.
Our man hiked up his guitar case, stalked up to the violinist and stood glowering at him until the song was done. When the violinist opened his eyes he was met by the sight of a angry, vaguely dirty face glaring into his own. This was startling.
"This is my place, move on." Was the demand.
"Excuse me?" The violinists voice was cultured and polite.
"This is where I play, it's how i make money." The dingy man elaborated, a tinge of embarrassed fury in his voice. He glanced out at the river to avoid the violinists eyes.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't aware. I can move somewhere else if you'd prefer." He said. The dingy man hesitated, noticing for the first time the crowd of people that had gathered around for the violinist. It was far larger than any he had been able to draw, and the pile of money on the bench was larger already than he sometimes earned in a day. His eyes rested on it hungrily. The violinist noted his hesitation and his look, and with a flash divined it's cause.
"Or if you like we could perform together for a little while." He suggested. The dingy man narrowed his eyes.
"I would be willing to defer the earnings to you." He added. The dingy man contemplated for a moment.
"Fine." He banged open his guitar case, grabbed his guitar and tuned it moodily. The violinist played a scale or two and warmed his hands while he waited. Some of the people gathered around walked off, but several stayed.
After a moment, the dingy man grumbled, "I'm ready." He shuffled himself into a more comfortable position on the bench and played a chord.
"What should we play?" The violinist asked.
"Christmas songs, I guess." The reply was delivered with a curl of the lip. The violinists' eyes lit up.
"Ah, perfect. I was hoping you'd say that. Shall we begin with... oh... do you know 'O come, all ye faithful'?
"Of course I do." His voice was tinged with an unnameable something that gave pause to the violinist for a moment.
"You begin, then." He said, raising his instrument. With a few quick, up beat chords, the dingy guitarist set the key and the two began to play, fumbling often as they adjusted to one another. Before long, though, as one carol followed another, the sound grew stronger, each leaning with satisfaction into their part like they'd been playing together for years. The dingy man was a very good guitarist,he had played since childhood and never given it up, despite everything. And the violinist- every note quivered with grace and his supple, sinewy fingers on the strings flew like a graceful dance.
By late morning, many people had stopped to listen, and many out of these had taken time to even thank the musicians for this reminder of the season. Somehow, against what the dingy man thought were his wishes, they seemed to play more hymns than anything. Some standards too, all the oldies were in the mix. But the sacred, classic tunes seemed to sound the most natural and yet unnatural in contrast to the hurrying holiday crowds.
Finally, their fingers were too cold to play any longer. The temperature had dropped some and the snow-less clouds had thickened. The two packed up their instruments and paused.
"Would you like to go for a sandwich and coffee?" The violinist offered, motioning across the street to a hip little sandwich shop, the likes of which the dingy man had never been able to grace with his presence. Nor did he think he would be welcome now.
"I dunno..." He said. His stomach growled.
"It's very good, I can assure you. I go there often."
The dingy man was beginning to wonder quite hard about the identity of the intruder. His manner, his clothing, and most of all his amazing talent with his violin, seemed to imply something high above a street musician. He looked across at the shop again. He shrugged.
"Why not." He mumbled, following the violinist to the door. He paused when he noticed a sign on the door advertising live music. His brow furrowed in thought as they entered. The aroma inside was tantalizing, slipping into his nostrils and making his tongue tingle. A low murmur filled the room, from several people sitting at the tables conversing. The decor was a mixture of rustic and industrial, the walls rough boards while the light fixtures and furniture were a matte silver. A few prints hung on the walls.
The place was a popular haunt of artists, writers and those who fancied themselves something similar. Most of the people sitting around were either writing or drawing, and most were drinking coffee. As he looked around at the assortment, he glanced down at what he had felt were out dated clothes. He didn't stand out as bad as he had thought! One girl with long red hair trailing in waves from under a knit beret glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes as they walked up to the counter. The man behind it looked flustered, a phone cradled by his ear as he put bread into the case.
"One minute, I'm so sorry." He said, glancing behind himself for help, but in vain. Apparently he was the only one at work. The two walked to a table and set down their instrument cases, then went back over to wait. The dingy man contemplated the man behind the counters copious beard while he finished his phone conversation. It wasn't long before he hung up, his forehead wrinkled with discouragement.
"I'm sorry about the wait, guys... the band who's supposed to be filling the stage today just called to say they can't make it because their twin vocalists are sick. I guess I'll have to just turn on the radio." He sighed. "What can I get ya?"
"That's too bad." The violinist mused, as he surveyed the selections. The dingy man honestly didn't care what he got. "You don't have anyone else you could call?"
"Not on the holiday." The man replied. He shook his head. "I feel so bad... everyone expects something special for Christmas and now I don't have it to offer."
"Hmmm... I'll take a roast beef sandwich, please. And a black tea."
"I... I guess I'll have the same."
"Coming right up." The man turned to prepare the sandwiches.
"Would you want to see if both or one of us could fill the stage for a while?" The violinist asked the dingy man. He looked startled.
"I hadn't thought of that. Sure, why not. Got nothin' else to do and people might like it."
"Great. Excuse me-" The violinist addressed the man behind the counter. "This gentleman and I have been playing Christmas Carols across the road all morning, and we've gotten into quite a groove... would you like us to play?"
The man behind the counter look relieved. "Could you? I'd be very grateful- and sandwiches are on the house."'
"It's our pleasure."The violinist replied graciously. He took his sandwich and was about to go sit down.
"What should I write for names on the sign?" The man asked. The violinist hesitated, an nervous expression crossing his face for an instant.
"Say... Len Bradley and-" He turned with a look of embarrassment. "I'm so sorry. I never asked you your name." The dingy man shrugged.
"It's no biggie. I'm David Grant."
"Thank you. Start whenever you're ready, and if you have any questions tell me." The man said as he wrote their names up on the chalkboard behind his head.
"We will." They went and sat down. Before eating, Len bent his head for a moment. David furrowed his brow, but instinctively waited until he had looked back up to begin eating.
"So," Len said. "I guess I should have introduced myself before. I didn't think of it." David cracked a grin, the food already improving his disposition.
"Yeah, I guess. I wasn't exactly welcoming pleasantries. Sorry 'bout that. It's just-" He stopped abruptly, his ears reddening. He took a gulp of tea, grimacing at the heat.
"Well, I can understand. I think it's worked out rather well though, so it's all good." Len had a funny way of mixing rather formal conversation with common expressions. David nodded.
"Yeah. Sure did bring in a better crowd than normal. Guess I've gotta credit you for that. You're not bad with that fiddle." ,
Len laughed outright, nearly choking on his sandwich. David looked surprised, then doubtfully chuckled a little himself. Len collected himself and straightened his face.
"Well, I do my best." He said, his eyes still twinkling with amusement and a trace of guilt. David cocked one eyebrow and swallowed the last bite of his sandwich. He noticed with some embarrassment that Len was only half done. Well he probably gets a chance to eat that well a lot more often than I do, he thought resentfully. He sat slurping his tea while Len finished his sandwich, as methodical as he could be. When he had finished, he swallowed the last of his tea and wiped his hands.
They walked up to the small platform on the far side of the room. It was built into the corner, just far enough away from the light to be slightly shaded. David dragged a chair up and pulled out his guitar.
A few of the diners glanced up as the two tuned their instruments and then began a soft rendition of 'O Come all ye Faithful'. After a few moments, the people listening began to smile, turning to each other with comments and appreciative smiles. They played, on and on, as people came and went. One song merged into the next until finally the sky outside was growing dim. David paused and glance at the clock.
"It' nearly 4:00." He said. "One more song?"
"Do you know 'O come, O come Emmanuel?'" Len asked, his fingers still poised over the strings.
David felt a twinge of memory shiver in his stomach.
"Yeah." He paused. "First Christmas song I learned, actually." He added, almost under his breath.
"Wonderful. Let's do it." David fingered the first, mournful E minor chord, as Len joined with a flourish. The haunting melody floated through the now nearly empty shop. David forgot he was even playing as the familiar chords fell from his fingers. Unconsciously the words drifted through his mind.
Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel...
The violin was singing the melody so purely that you could almost hear the words in it's tone. Len's eyes were shut, a look almost of pain on his face. And yet it was happiness too. He leaned into the song with his whole body, the tune spiraling up out of the innermost depth of his heart. The few people listening sat in silence as the song ended, resolving into the last triumphant chord.
Those that were listening broke into applause, the sound echoing in the room. Len suddenly stepped forward. David glanced up at him, his brow furrowing.
"Thank you all. I hope you remember the true meaning of the season. Merry Christmas." He said, emphasizing the Christ in Christmas. His voice, though gentle, commanding the entire room and was filled with a deep earnestness. David ears grew red and he glanced down. The faces of those listening were thoughtful. David suddenly noticed the red haired girl hadn't left.
She was watching them, her face still and intense. Her lashes were dark with tears. She held a gel pen in her hand and an open notebook sat on the table in front of her. An empty coffee cup was forgotten by her elbow. David met her eyes for a second. She didn't drop her eyes, and a question seemed to float in them. Then she did look down, as David felt his ears growing redder.
He watched her slip her book into a faded canvas bag with a lion printed on it. Len had turned to put away his violin. The girl pushed her chair back and stood up, sliding it back under the table before heading towards the stage. David felt a moment of panic. Thankfully, Len straightened just as she reached them. He smiled down at her as David made his escape by beginning to put away his guitar.
"I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed and appreciated your music." Her voice was clear and concise, but sweet. David strained his eyes to see if he could see her without turning. He couldn't.
"It was a wonderful blessing... I'm so thankful God sent you here today. I pray you've reminded everyone here of the true meaning tomorrow holds."
David cringed and snapped his guitar case shut. He turned around. The girl looked over at him.
"That is the best thing you could say." Len replied. His face looked like he'd just been given an unexpected gift. "I pray the same." She squinted at him.
"Wait... I feel like I've seen you somewhere be-" Her eyes widen. "Leonard Shaw?"
Len flushed guiltily. "Yes." Her face was etched with excitement.
"How did I not recognize you before? I so enjoy your music and your wonderful testimony."
David was staring at the man in shock. Now that he heard the name, of course he knew the man. He was one of the biggest young names in classical music(which David followed in spite of himself), and well known for his strong but quiet faith. Len- or Leonard- had been relaxed up until now. Even the girls words had just seemed to give him a genuine, relieved pleasure. But now he seemed to have stiffened up.
"Thank you... that's encouraging to hear." He said quietly. She smiled.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to make a huge production out of you." She promised. "You're only human and I always think I would hate that if I was a musician."
"Well it's alright sometimes. But sometimes you want a little.. break." He admitted, a real smile coming back to his face.
"Of course." She turned to David. "And you- any surprises?" She asked.
"No. Not that I know of, anyways." He replied, glancing sideways.
"You were amazing too." She said. He could feel her gaze on him, so he reluctantly looked back up.
"Thank you." He said. She looked at him for a moment, then sighed.
"Well, I should go. Thank you both again so much. And Merry Christmas." She said, turning toward the door.
"The same to you." Len called, watching her go with gratitude on his slender face. He looked down at David with a sheepish look.
" 'Not bad with that fiddle.'" David shook his head. "I should have recognized you, myself."
"I was glad you didn't." He said, as they carried their instruments down and went to take leave of the shop owner. He thanked them several times and took their numbers to add to his list.
"We'd love to have you back anytime." He said, shaking their hands.
"Maybe we'll come back sometime. Give us a call." Len smiled as the were ushered out the door by the jingle of the bell hanging on it. For some reason, instead of going their separate ways, they walked silently to the bench on the bridge, where they had first met. When they reached it, both set down their cases and stood, watching the river for a long moment.
"Thank you for doing this." Len said at last. David didn't look up, just squinted a little at the glitter of a huge Christmas tree down by the water front.
"I enjoyed it. Anyways, it's quite the honor to play with you, even for a real musician. Let alone a deadbeat like me." He said bitterly, than regretted it. He never played for pity. What he did and was was... what it was. He knew that. And he didn't want anyone else's control over it, or pity for him now. Len didn't seem to feel pity.
"A real musician isn't measured by the school they attended, or the instrument they use. Not even by who they play for, or what they play." He mused aloud. David listened, the words ringing true in his heart.
"What is one measured by, then?" He challenged his new friend. Len was silent for a moment.
"I think only God knows that." He said at last. "He's the only one who can really make a musician after all."
"Huh." David mustered all the disdain he could. Somehow, at the end of this day, it was a little harder than normal. His notice of eviction... playing all those Christmas hymns that would never leave his fingers even if he tried to send them away... that silly red-haired girl... and now Len's quiet words. Somehow at the end of this day, what he had thought he thought seemed a little different. Len was looking over at him. He could see it out of the corner of his eyes. He finally turned and met his gaze. He read the question in Lens eyes.
"I'm not really on the best of terms with... God." He said, failing to sound as defiant as he had wanted. He sounded defeated instead. He scraped his toe along the bottom of the railing.
"I'm sorry to hear that." Len said. To Davids surprise his voice didn't carry disdain or judgement. Just true regret. In all these 5 long years he had received everything from anger, to disgust, to tearful pleading. But never just a calm assured acceptance. It deflated him like a pin in a balloon.
"Yeah." He looked back out over the river. He blinked to clear the blur that gathered in his eyes, obscuring the pointillist surface of the river as it reflected the fading gradient of the sky. He could sense that Len wasn't going to push him further and yet he suddenly needed him to, needed him to ask him more. Because he himself need to say it.
"You're a lot different than the Christians I knew." The words came. Len raised his eyebrows.
"You just are. You don't push people and you just do what you do and are different." That sounded intelligent. "It's like God is really real to you."
"He is." There was reverence in his voice.
"When I was growing up, I don't know, it just wasn't like that." David continued. He didn't know why he felt so comfortable talking to this man he'd known only for a few hours. But he did.
"Everyone made rules and talked about stuff but none of it seemed that important. It was like being a certain way was the important thing, not the why behind it."
"I can see why that would drive you away."
"It wasn't just that. I took guitar lessons from when I was about, oh... probably 12. And I loved it. It was like... I don't know, flying. The way you imagine a bird must feel when you see one just racing through the air. That doesn't make sense does it?"
"On the contrary I understand you perfectly."
"So I kept learning until my teacher couldn't teach me anymore. And that's when it started. I wanted to keep going, but my parents said I needed to focus on 'more important things'. I tried, I really did. I kept playing for church and stuff and my parents were sort of satisfied. Then it was time to pick a college and I just wanted to go to music school. My dad and mom wanted me to get a business degree. I didn't. I always had done what that said, but I was older now and this is my life, and so we fought. And then I left home and God and all of that behind and... tried to do my own thing. I mean it worked at first. Like, I was able to get a job at a convenience store and pay my rent and then I played guitar at clubs and stuff to make some extra. It was going great except..."
"Well, I, I... I hung around the wrong people and did some stuff I shouldn'tve."
"So now I'm fired from my job, I had to break with the group I was playing with and now I've lost my apartment 'cause I can't pay for it. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I'm not going back to my parents for help. If there is one thing I hate, its 'I told you so.'"
"Well I can't blame you there."
There was silence for a while. David felt like he shouldn't have said so much to a basic stranger. But at the same time he felt so relieved.
"David.. I don't know how much I feel I have a right to say. But i will sat this- even if you can't go back to your parents, you can always come back to God."
"I don't even know if I ever was really with Him." David said miserably. "It was all empty words."
"It doesn't have to be. Look, my church has a service tonight. You're welcome to come and I can talk to you afterwards." Len said, laying his hand of Davids shoulder. The streetlights were on now and no trace of light left in the sky.
"I'll think about it."
Len reached into his pocket for his phone, glancing at the time as he did so. "Would you like my number?"
"I don't have a phone now, actually."
"Oh, of course. Well, I go to that cafe a lot, if you ever want to come check for me. I'm so sorry but I really have to go. The service starts at 7:00, it's at Grace Baptist on Hope Street. I hope to see you there, but I'll understand if I don't." Len said, grabbing his case.
"Len-" David said as he turned. "Thanks. If God really is real, than I think He sent you."
"I like to think so too."
* * *
David sat on his bed, staring at the guitar case directly across from him, against the wall. He had always said he would never again set foot in a church. He was done with all that. And yet, now...
Len's words had really hit him. And hearing his own story, out loud had put some things into perspective, too. He didn't know what to think, but for the first time he felt that maybe the things he'd been told could really matter. A lot.
With a sudden, decisive movement, he went to his closet for the nicest shirt he owned. By nicest, he meant the least dingy. He buttoned it quickly, glancing at the clock. He'd have enough time. He stuck his shoes on, grabbed his coat and hat and went out the door, shivering at how cold the air had gotten.
The walk wasn't far, and as he covered the distance with long, winter-hurrying strides, his thoughts turned into a kind of prayer. He paused in front of the church, looking up at the steeple, feeling the light on his cheeks, hearing the all-too-familiar buzz from inside. It felt both like a strange deja-vu and a new beginning.
He walked up the steps and slipped inside, just as the service was starting.Perfect timing. He thought, for now no one would talk to him.
He sat, listening to the words, different and yet the same to what he remembered. But again the difference. To these people, looking up and listening to the old, old story with rapt faces, God was certainly real. And then Len got up, violin in hand. He looked crisp and professional in his grey jacket and black pants and tie. A pretty girl with dark hair was at the piano. Len raised his violin.
And the music started.
With a jolt, David instantly recognized the song.
'O come, O come Emmanuel.'
The melody filled the church with as much mystery and majesty as it had at the coffee shop.
As the chorus rang out, David knew. And in his hearts the words sang out, born on the wings of the song as it played...
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
xxx I honestly don't know if this turned out how I want it. I'm so ridiculously overtired. But here it is nonetheless. I thought it up in response to a prompt I read to write about Christmas without being cliche, and also a blog post by Alea Harper of Elvish Pens, Fantastical Writings on same topic. I don't know. It is a little cliche still. At least it didn't snow. No one kissed. And Len is NOT an angel.
I may try to do one(non-cliche-as-possible-story) every year. Haha right. Anyways, I'd love feedback on this one because as you should be able to tell at this point, I'm not sure if I succeeded with it. Actually I'm pretty much positive I didn't. So, I want you to tell me some things to fix/change/help so I can maybe someday re-write it(now I feel guilty because I just read a poem about maybe+someday. And also didn't someone just post about the lie that is tomorrow? Ok I'm rambling now. I hope you're having a blessed Christmas season so far. Be still in the busyness if at all possible! xxx
(note: after getting feedback, I've edited this story a little. Hope you like it! Thanks so much to those who commented! I can't say enough how much it means <3)