is at the bottom of the City Hall steps looking up, way up, looking in awe at the
human Christmas tree. I am certain it is Suzanne. My heart starts beating
faster, and I will her to climb the steps.
The human Christmas tree is created
by a mass of people, more than two hundred, dressed in suits of forest green.
Everyone is wearing white tuques and white mittens to add the visual effect of
snow having settled upon the greenery.
There must be twenty branches of this
tree that spreads wide and climbs up the twenty-three steps that lead towards
the entrance of City Hall. The tree sits on a base of two dozen people and grows
ever so slightly narrower as it ascends towards the final and twenty-third
step. The man on the top step,
at the very tip of the human tree, is dressed in shiny gold. His arms and legs
are spread out at forty-five degree angles. He is the star of wonder whose
royal beauty bright graces the whole project and whose presence hopefully
guides passersby to come from afar bearing a variety of tithes for charity.
I am at the end of the ninth branch
of this human Christmas tree. Although I have been feeling depressingly blue, I
am dressed in glittering red. I am the ornament hanging at the extremity of the
I watch Suzanne and I am in awe of
her radiant beauty. Time has been kind to her in the decades since I last her
saw at our youth club’s year end dance. And oh what a night that was.
I will never think more of myself
than I did on that dance night so long ago. I branded every young lady but two
with a florescent smiley face sticker on the back of their dress. While dancing
with a young lady, I’d slowly slip my hand down to rest upon the soft curve of her
buttocks. There I had gently applied a sticker.
That was one glorious night for me; I
fed my ego for hours. I was eighteen years old, displaying as much maturity as
a six month old Golden Retriever. I felt that I alone owned that dance floor.
As the music once again slowed, I
placed my hand into my left pocket and looked towards Judy. Lovely Judy. She
was chatting with a few girl friends as I made my move in her direction. She was
to have been my next conquest. But beyond Judy’s shoulder, I saw her ex-boyfriend
Nicholas who seemed to be in a debate with his own conscience. His body leaned towards
Judy as he tried to work up the gumption to ask her to dance, but his feet
seemed to be stuck in neutral.
I hesitated in my approach towards
Judy, for I imagined that at that late hour and that late in the season, her Nicholas’
chance was then or never.
As Nicholas finally got his act in
motion and moved towards Judy, I chose to concede to his desires and backed off.
Ha, I guess I did have a heart back then, and it was gutsy of him to try and regain
the lover who had cast him away earlier in the summer. I watched as Judy smiled
and accepted his offer, and as they began to dance, I started to sing the words
to that song: “Whenever you reach for me. I’ll do all that I can.” I sensed the
power of love reigniting between them.
A forceful tapping on my shoulder interrupted
I turned to stare into the chest of the
six foot-five inch brother of the only other young lady in the room who I had
not tagged with a smiley face that night. The big bruiser jerked his thumb over
his shoulder indicating that I should ask his sister Suzanne to dance. Now. I
knew it was in my best interest to do just that.
I walked across the dance hall to
where the sister and her flowery dress blended into the wallpaper on the far
wall. Suzanne’s eyes lit up when I asked her to dance. I took her hand and led
her out to the centre of the floor. As I put my right arm around her waist, my left
hand reached into my pocket. I fingered my roll of stickers and but before I
could make my move and stick a claim on her, Suzanne sighed and blurted out
that she loved me.
She told me that she had loved me
since time began. She told me that my asking her to dance was the most
wonderful event of her life. It was the last dance of the night and, as I
understand now, most people have expectations when courted on the last waltz.
But you just don’t tell a man you
love him right off the bat like that. At least you don’t tell me that. I released
the roll of smiley-face stickers in my pocket. This lady would not become my next
conquest. Not if there was love involved.
the first notes of the last dance, a black light had come on, and the smiley
faces stuck on the back sides of all the ladies in the hall, except two, began
to glow in testament to my ego. I had held each one of those ladies in my embrace
that night. One at a time, just me and them. I’d quietly celebrated each new
claim. I was a numbskulled narcissist, a total knob. But I didn’t know it
I had also had this obsession of not
being able to stop myself from singing along whenever there was music playing.
It was instinctive. I knew all the words to the songs, especially the old moody
slow dances. And I could sing, in
fact I still can today. I had sung through all my earlier dances and even while
dancing with this love sick Suzanne, who I desperately wanted to turn off, I
couldn’t shut my mouth.
misinterpreted my actions. She assumed that since I was singing a love song, I
was singing specifically to her, that she was being serenaded. Suzanne didn’t
understand that when there was music I just had to sing and couldn’t be muted no
matter how hard I tried to squeeze shut the vocal chords.
“I am so in love with you,” Suzanne once
again cooed in my ear.
was unable to reciprocate that emotion in the slightest, but I kept on singing
even though I knew the collateral damage it was causing.
most ladies left that social evening with a smile glowing upon their backs, Suzanne
left with a glowing in her heart. That glow glimmered for some time but would never
generated a reciprocal response from me. She waited for a phone call that never
came and hoped for a knocking upon her door that never occurred.
And now I see Suzanne climbing the
steps at city hall. She stops to gaze at our human tree of wonder. She listens
to our music. We of the human Christmas tree are actually a choir – a poor one
I admit – comprised of downtrodden folk of the city. Standing on the ninth
branch, I’m as downtrodden and defeated as most. But I can sing better than any
I am the tenor on the ninth branch.
The human Christmas tree is a
project of the city’s Mayor who brings together the homeless and at-risk folk
and offers us a paying job: to sing Christmas carols between noon and one p.m.
every weekday throughout December. We also sing from five to seven on Wednesday
through Saturday nights.
Battery operated red lights flicker
on and off at the top of our white tuques, adding some glitter to our
night-time performances. On Christmas Eve we will compete with the downtown
churches, trying to draw away their midnight worshippers. I am out of work, out
of luck, and pretty well out of chances to get back on my proverbial feet, but
this Christmas time gig makes me feel almost like a regular guy again.
I watch Suzanne closely. She slowly
climbs a few steps, pausing at each branch while absorbing the music. She is
getting nearer to my branch. I sing as powerfully as I can. My voice is the one
thing I have left. I don’t need to focus on the sheet music. I know these
carols by heart and I focus all my energy upon performing just for Suzanne.
We are not a good choir by any
stretch of imagination but the Mayor’s “On Your Feet Again” program is making a
difference by using a normally useless contingent of his inner city folk. His
is banking on the assumption that even a bunch of crappy singers can’t butcher
a Christmas carol too badly, and in any case, at this time of year, the Mayor figures
the populace will cut us some slack.
The Mayor organizes a group of
volunteers to feed us free meals as we linger between shows. He lets us hang
out at the nearby convention centre, where he has a group of retired business
people trying to teach us computer skills and effective job search techniques.
This hasn’t done me much good, but I guess you never know.
I notice Suzanne’s lips moving and I
realize that she is singing along with us. We in the choir have reached out and
touched another bystander. I strain my ears and swear I can hear her sweet voice
weaving through the din of our choir. The spirit of Christmas that exudes from our
tree of human retreads is powerful.
The choir stops as we catch our
breath before moving on to the next carol in our repertoire and Suzanne has
moved up another step. She is standing by the ninth branch. My knees feel weak.
Suzanne and I have not been this close since the night of the club dance when
she expressed her love to me.
I look at Suzanne standing right
there just a few feet to my side. She is scanning the faces on the ninth
branch. We begin singing about Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephen. I push
and project the power of my tenor voice to its limits. I may never have sung
with such passion. I may never have been in such need of acceptance.
Her eyes move towards me, the red
ornament, and a smile spreads across her face. She joins in as we hit the
stanza where “a poor man comes in sight gathering winter fu-u-el.” I can tell Suzanne
does not recognize me. The twenty-some years that have passed have not been kind
I am sixty-five pounds heavier than
I was when I held her in my arms the night of the club dance. My cheek jowls
hang down the sides of my face like saddlebags from a mule. My long greasy hair
hangs out the back of my toque in a ponytail. My collapsed nostril is a
scarring from my close encounter with cocaine.
I must get Suzanne to realize that
it is me. As her eyes once again settle upon me and my distinct voice, I sing
my lines directly to her. “Thou shalt find the winter's rage, Freeze thy blood
less coldly.” It is as if I am on one knee, begging her to let me, this poor
man, back into the warmth of her heart. Her eyes remain fixed on me and they seem
to bore deeply into my soul. I reciprocate her gaze.
She moves up the steps to the tenth
branch of the human Christmas tree. I turn my head and watch as she goes but I
am still singing directly to her. Then she moves to the eleventh branch. I
rotate my torso and continue my serenade. On to the twelve branch and I know I
have lost her. No surprise there. Why would she ever want the sad sack of bones
that I’ve become?
Our carol ends and my heart collapses.
I turn back and face the City Hall Square at the foot of our Christmas tree.
We begin our next song. It is the lovely
“O Holy Night,” a carol in which my range of voice excels over all the other
choir members. It is my time to shine but my spirit has darkened. The song
begins and I can only lip-synch the words. My shoulders have slumped. My chin
dips and disappears into my meaty jowls.
And then Suzanne is beside me again.
She is so close. I feel sweat surfacing on my forehead.
She is staring into my eyes. My
voice regenerates and I join the choir in their lyrics. Her eyes are locked on
mine, as I have again fixed my gaze upon her. Her head nods as if there now just
might be some slight recognition. A smile spreads across her face but it is a
sad one. She reaches her hand towards me and her bare fingers linger for
several seconds as they make contact with my white mittens. I feel her warmth
seep through the woollen fabric.
Suzanne turns away without a word
and continues ascending the human Christmas tree. She is gone. She has stuck a
crisp twenty dollar bill to my mitten.
Glen Benison has had nonfiction articles published in two
Canadian running magazines and in the Ottawa
Citizen; he has had seven of his (very) short stories broadcast on CBC
Radio. Six years ago, he turned his fancy to fiction when he discovered many ideas taking
seed in his mind and then escaping onto his keyboard. He is never certain
how a story might unfold and once his fingers start the qwerty dance, a story’s
ending is often totally out of his control.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and
creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon,
Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London,
Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Oakville, Orillia,
Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton,
Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.