Tim shoved his fists deep into his empty pockets. He stared at the pavement in front of his boots, willing himself to take a step forward, toward home. How can I possibly tell Ellie I’ve been fired? His final paycheck was tucked into his back pocket. Now what? As the sole provider for his family, Tim’s shoulders sagged with the burden.
He kept his head down as he shuffled along toward Main Street. It was already getting dark and a few glittering flakes dusted his coat. He pulled it tighter around himself. If only I hadn’t brought the car to the mechanic last night! The repairs would use up the rest of the money they had in savings, already depleted from Ellie’s trip to visit her father just before he died this summer. They were counting on a Christmas bonus to buy gifts for their daughters. No Christmas for them this year. Sorry, girls, your dad’s a loser.
Tim paused at the top of the bridge to watch the brisk river below. The wind grew icy, and he turned his collar up, wincing as snowflakes melted on the back of his neck. Cars passed over the bridge behind him, and he turned his face away from the exposure of the headlights. The last thing I need right now is a look of pity, or worse, the offer of a ride home. The swirling water sang a comforting song and Tim closed his eyes.
“Peace,” it whispered to him. “Freedom. Come.”
He leaned over the railing toward the river.
The roar of an engine interrupted the moment, and Tim turned once again toward home and began walking again as the car zoomed past. He picked up his pace; it was very cold.
Numb inside and out, Tim thought of nothing until he approached Washington Park on the corner of Main Street. The town decorated the park extravagantly every Christmas, making it a popular spot for carolers. Tim tuned out the soft strains of “Joy to the World” as he kicked a path through the powdery snow. Joy? What a joke. He concentrated on the ground so that he wouldn’t see all the cheerful twinkling lights and carolers in costume.
As Tim reached the corner, he was interrupted by a sudden pocket of heat. His shoulders relaxed and he looked up. A small clump of people gathered around a patio heater on the edge of the park. Tim glanced around; there were several heaters along the path into the park, and a line of people waited for something. He didn’t recognize anyone. I guess I could warm myself for a minute. He scooted closer to the heater and pulled his hands out of his pockets to thaw them.
The toasty scent of popcorn drifted by, mingled with the sounds of laughter and music. Tim’s stomach gurgled and he backed away, determined to have nothing to do with Christmas this year since it was sure to be so bleak for his family. As he turned, a little girl in an angel costume grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the line. Tim recognized her from the Sunday School class he half-heartedly taught with Ellie once a month, but he couldn’t remember her name. “Come on, Mr. Tim!”
Tim looked around, desperate for an escape. “Where are your parents?”
“They’re Mary and Joseph! And my baby brother is Baby Jesus!” Her eyes shone and her tinsel halo vibrated with her excitement.
The Living Nativity, he remembered with an inward groan. Tim racked his brain, but he couldn’t remember her parents’ names either. He glanced at his watch; Ellie would be expecting him home for dinner. They shuffled forward in line. “I should actually get going home,” he tried, but the girl didn’t loosen her grip. She was staring at a woman in colonial dress with a basket on her arm.
The girl bounced up and down. “Cookies! Cookies!” Sure enough, the costumed woman was offering free cookies to everyone in line. The girl took two cookies, handing one to Tim and nibbling on the other. Tim didn’t want to be rude. He thanked the woman and the girl for the cookie, but he was determined not to eat it. He looked around in vain for a garbage can so he could slip it in without anyone noticing. Not only was there no garbage can in sight, but they were approaching the carolers.
Great, there’s Jimmy and Marla, and Pete and Maxine with their girls. Now there’s no way I can sneak off unnoticed. Tim managed a weak smile at his friends and took a bite of the cookie to keep up appearances. They must be wondering why I’m here without my family. He held up the hand the little girl was holding by way of explanation. Maxine smiled and Jimmy winked at him.
The cookie was crisp on the outside and gooey in the middle, with a hint of warmth from the oven and a generous helping of chocolate chips. It was almost as good as Ellie’s cookies. He popped the last bite into his mouth and was surprised to find himself smiling. He reconfigured his face into a scowl.
One of the girl’s classmates approached with her mother. “Hi Sarah! Your baby brother is so cute! I love your costume!” The two girls giggled at each other.
Sarah! That’s her name. It was almost their turn to enter the pavilion. The usher instructed them to remain silent while inside.
The ground inside the tent was covered in hay, and twinkle lights sparkled on the canvas behind the holy family. There was a real donkey and two live lambs, but the too-small camel was made of plaster, chipped in several places, and in desperate need of repainting. Tim recognized two of the wise men and he was almost sure the shepherd boys were their sons. The mood in the tent was reverent, and each visitor knelt briefly before the baby Savior, then exited the tent quietly.
The usher at the exit handed each patron a candy cane. Sarah smiled at Tim, let go of his hand and ran off toward the popcorn stand. Tim turned towards home, but his feet were heavy, as if all his despair had sunk into his boots. He nodded and smiled at the few neighbors and acquaintances he passed. His heart squeezed as he noticed a booth of handmade wooden puzzles. The girls would love those. He hung his head, humiliated by the news he would have to tell Ellie: there would be no Christmas for them this year.
Tim turned away from the merriment in the park and emerged onto Main Street. All the shops displayed cheery holiday themes in their windows, but Tim didn’t look to his right or his left. He set his face straight ahead. He would be home in ten minutes.
A car slowed beside Tim and the window rolled down. It was Roger, his next-door neighbor. “Hey, Tim! I heard your car’s in the shop. Want a lift home?”
Tim shook his head. “I’d rather walk, thanks.” He couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact.
Roger shrugged and sped off toward home. Tim stood still. He looked at his reflection in the chocolate shop window. Frowning. Shoulders slumped. Defeated. Behind him, the window mirrored colored lights blinking, people chatting and laughing, snow drifting lazily through the air. He turned around. Everywhere he looked, families were enjoying the festival together or browsing the shops for holiday goodies, a smile on every face. Why am I the only miserable one?
Another car pulled up to the curb. Crap, it’s Daniel. There was no hiding the truth from Daniel, Tim’s closest friend at work.
“I heard, Tim. Get in.”
Tim climbed into the passenger seat without a word.
Daniel didn’t drive away. “I’m sorry. I know you were counting on a Christmas bonus.”
Tim shook his head, fighting the sting of tears that threatened to humiliate him in front of Daniel. “I’ll be fine.”
“You’re going to land on your feet, buddy. There’s lot of jobs out there. Jen told me today that Mark at the hardware store is looking for a daytime clerk, and the elementary school has been looking for a maintenance man since Bill got sick. You’ll be back to work in no time.”
Tim shook his head. Daniel sighed and drove Tim home without another word.
“Thanks for the ride.” Tim trudged up to the front door. He couldn’t put it off any longer; he had to tell Ellie now. He thumped the snow off his boots and eased the door open. The smell of pot roast greeted him, followed by the scurrying of little feet.
“Daddy! Daddy!” The girls each hugged one of his legs and giggled up at him. He patted them both on the head and hung his damp coat on the rack. He dragged them, still clinging to his legs, into the kitchen where Ellie was slicing the roast.
Ellie glanced up at him and saw the misery in his eyes. “Girls, go play in your room until I call you for dinner.” As soon as they disappeared around the corner, Ellie put her arms around Tim’s chest and all the emotion he had been stuffing down overflowed.
Tim wept into his wife’s hair. “They let me go.”
Ellie squeezed Tim even tighter. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll be fine,” she whispered to him. “We’ll figure this out. We’ve been through it before. God is faithful. He’s our provider.”
Tim shook his head, but Ellie held his face between her hands and looked him in the eye. “None of that. There’s plenty of other jobs out there. Now, let’s eat, and then what do you say we take the girls down to the church festival tonight?”
Tim didn’t respond. He wasn’t in the mood for arguing. He sat down at the table to eat his meal in silence.
The girls bounced in chattering and squirmed into their seats. When they noticed their father’s sullen mood they too picked silently at their food.
Tim glanced up at his girls and saw how their cheery faces had fallen. He shifted his eyes to Ellie. Also downcast. Shame burned within his bosom, deeper than the shame of losing his job. He was dragging his family into the pit with him. They looked to him to be strong. He was to set the example, especially for the girls. I’m setting an example, all right. Self-pity, fear, hopelessness … Do I really believe that God is my provider? He threw his napkin onto the table in disgust, provoking three pairs of eyes to snap up to his, three beautiful faces inquiring.
An image of the living nativity in the park returned to his mind and he was struck by the peace of that poor, humble family. They had nothing, and yet God had provided for them.
“Will I not also provide for you?” Tim heard this whisper in his heart and he knew that it held no condemnation. The weight lifted from his shoulders as if someone had removed it.
Tim looked his girls in the eye, offering a mischievous grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go get your coats and boots on! Chop, chop!”
The girls squealed and scurried to their room. Ellie squeezed Tim’s hand and smiled. They cleared the table as the girls clomped back into the room, bundled up like Eskimos.
As they walked down Main Street hand-in-hand, Tim noticed the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Mark’s hardware store.
The beautiful featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her generous permission for The Cultivating Project.
Athena lives and writes in Colorado Springs, where she can look up at the mountains and be reminded of the nearness of God. Hiking, reading, and spending time with her family are her passions. She and her husband, Jon, are actively involved in the Anselm Society, and they also run a ministry for blended families at their church. Whether through fiction, nonfiction or poetry, Athena loves to use words to paint portraits that display the work that God does within each person.