He made his usual walk, starting down at the very end of the manmade path. On most nights, the walk ended for him beneath the bridge that crossed the river at the other end of the Riverwalk. It was there, beneath that bridge, where Kross would find shelter from rain and sometimes the cold, by crawling up the embankment and bedding down where concrete met dirt at its highest point, and far enough off the path that no one would notice him. Especially not one of the retired city cops that had the job as security along the six miles or so of the path.
It was dark and cool—but not cold, thankfully. His light coat wasn’t quite warm enough for a cold night, but he hoped to get a different one, maybe trade in the one he wore for a heavier version at the Salvation Army or even the Goodwill, if they allowed it. On normal nights he walked that concrete sidewalk alone, occasionally passing another walker, or jogger, usually someone with a dog. There were bikers and boarders as well, especially in the warmer months when the daylight hours lasted well into the eight o’clock hour. But this wasn’t a warmer month. It was definitely a cooler one and the days were shorter, giving way to evening around the same time most folks left their office jobs.
Kross tucked his hands into his pockets, lowered his head and wondered where breakfast would come from in the morning. Supper had been a stale, hard bagel that he had to wipe something—what, he didn’t know—off of it. It was chewy, but it was food, and bagels tended to stay on the stomach far longer than most foods he ate these days. Though it was bland and he would have liked some water to wash it down with, it was better than nothing, for sure.
A jogger passed going in the opposite direction, her head up, a blond ponytail bobbing from side to side. She seemed oblivious to the homeless man walking the same path. He gave a shrug at this, but didn’t turn to watch her go, like most men probably would have. Kross, knowing someone like that would be revolted if he even said, ‘hello,’ saw no reason to look, to follow her with his eyes and dream of something that could never happen. He was, after all, invisible to those with lives, with clean clothes, three meals a day (with snacks in between or a coffee from Starbucks), and a roof over their heads. Yeah, he was invisible to everyone, except the police or the owners of restaurants who throw out their leftovers in the dumpsters behind the buildings, only to get mad at him when they catch him digging around for food.
He wound his way along the sidewalk, passing under the occasional light, passing by the occasional EMERGENCY HELP boxes—one press of the button and the retired cop comes a running, or at least in his shiny golf cart with the red lights on—passing by benches to either side, none of which held young couples or even solo folks sitting on.
Kross looked up, stopped in his tracks. Off in the distance he saw lights, but they were dim and on the ground and there were two rows of them, one on each side of the sidewalk. He took a few steps forward and heard something he didn’t normally hear, something he hadn’t really heard in a long time, not that he paid much attention to holidays or even the seasons. To Kross, the seasons were warm, hot, cool, cold, and right then it was cool, not cold, so why the music? Why the singing? Why the…Christmas carols?
He walked toward the lights, noticed they were in bags. Just beyond the bagged lights were people standing around. Off to the edge of the sidewalk beyond the crowd was a small band of women playing instruments, a violin, banjo, upright base, acoustic guitar, and was that a tambourine? Yes, yes it was. He moved closer, stopped about fifteen feet from the gathering of people. The women singing had a country, bluegrass sound, right out of the backwoods, Kross thought. As he stood there, they sang The First Noel and Silent Night, and the violinist stood out among them. Kross couldn’t tell if she were really young and just very good, or really old and just very short, and still very good. After finishing Silent Night, he clapped, like everyone else, and walked by them. He glanced at the violinist and still couldn’t tell if she were young or old or maybe somewhere in between.
No one spoke to him, but moved aside as he passed, as if pushed by a force field.
Invisible, he thought, and hunched his shoulders.
A little further down a man stood off to the side of the path, another crowd had gathered around him. He played a saxophone—Hark the Herald Angel was the tune of choice. Kross tapped his toe and folded his arms over his chest as he listened. Again, when the song was done, he made his way through the crowds, unnoticed, or maybe noticed and ignored. He thought it was a little bit of both.
He reached another group, a Baptist men’s choir. They sang a song he didn’t know, harmonizing the best they could, but still managing to sound like a group of cats on a hot tin roof. He went on by, not waiting for their song to end. Still, no one paid him any attention. He thought for a moment that the little girl with the glasses and light-up shoes noticed him, but did she really? Nah, his mind told him.
As he passed the men’s choir and left the crowd behind, he noticed a sign with their name on it. Beneath their name were the words, SPREADING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT WITH EVERYONE.
Christmas spirit, he wondered. Yeah, sure, they have the Christmas spirit. Bah Humbug.
There were two other bands and in between them stood a hot chocolate stand set up, complete with snacks and apple cider as well. As he approached the stand hoping for a fresh drink for a change and something to wash down that nasty bagel taste, several people cut in front of him.
As if I weren’t here.
Kross sighed heavily. His shoulders slouched further down, his head lowered. He walked a little slower now, not paying attention to anyone else there, any of those folks who have encroached on his nightly walk to his nightly bed beneath the bridge. His stomach hurt, maybe from the stale bagel, but quite possibly from the lack of being. It was Christmas, after all, the season for giving, the season to be jolly, to be happy, to show love to your fellow human…being.
Further down, he came to a group of adults playing hand bells. Unlike the other times, he stayed in the shadows, just off the path and away from the largest of the crowds so far. They played beautifully, like a well-tuned machine, not missing a note. When they finished, the crowd clapped loud. Several folks headed away, looking for another group to perform for them.
Kross stayed in the shadows. There were eight of them, seven women, mostly older, and one man, probably the youngest of the group. There was one woman, near the center of the group, who seemed to be one of the main ringers. She was younger, her brown hair pulled out of her face with a ribbon, her motions fluid and smooth. She was smiling, and it never left her face.
The tinkles of the bells held his attention, mesmerized him. He didn’t know how long he stood there—until the last of the carols had been rung by the hand bellers—but for a short while, he felt the Christmas spirit spill through him. When the show ended, he stood a while longer in the shadows as the crowd dispersed, some speaking of how good the music was, how amazing the bell ringers were.
Kross ducked his head and stepped beyond the last of the lit up paper bags. The brief Christmas spirit fled him with the last of the rung bells. He was well into the darkness along the path when he heard someone calling from behind.
“Excuse me.” It was a female voice and it was soft and sweet.
He walked on. Surely, no one was speaking to him.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Kross stopped and looked back.
The young woman from the hand bells stood in front of him. She was still smiling. In her hands she held a Styrofoam cup.
“Are you talking to me?” Kross asked, expecting her to recoil from his raspy voice.
“Yes,” she said and held the cup out to him. “I thought you might like a cup of cocoa.”
“Yes. Unless you would like some apple cider.”
“No. No. Cocoa is fine, thank you. I haven’t had cocoa in years.” He took the cup from her and put it to his lips. He could feel the warmth rising from the cup. The first sip was hot and burned his tongue, but he didn’t care. It tasted great and made him think of Christmases as a kid at his Grandma’s house.
“Thank you,” he said and smiled, something he rarely ever did.
“Have a merry Christmas, sir.”
The girl turned and left. This time he watched her go, but not because he thought there would ever be a chance of anything. No, he watched her go because he was no longer invisible, at least not to someone. To someone, he was still a person, still a being…
Kross took another sip of the hot cocoa, relished the warmth. Tonight maybe the bridge wouldn’t be so cold. As he walked away he hummed, a song about Christmas…