The wind was blowing, and flakes were stirring. Their frenzy was only matched by the hectic bustle of holiday shoppers. On the corner, amid this all, in front of a department store stood a string bean of a Santa Claus ringing his bell, keeping company with the cold and a red hanging pot like it was his solitary chum in all the world. Suddenly a large stretch limousine with three zip codes pulled into the curb, where then a chauffeur and his cap quickly hastened from the driver’s seat, out and around the car, to open the door for a man whose cufflinks could probably have had their own Swiss bank account. The waited upon man’s face gleamed with a shave so close it would be days before he would have anything resembling a five o’clock shadow. He smelled of vintage cologne, old money and a penthouse on Park Avenue. “Merry Christmas,” the benefactor said, as he was instantly drawn, even with the crowd about him, to the spectacle in red, whose beard hung 2 inches too low below his chin so that he looked like he might have had two mouths, one closed and the other gaping, and squeezed a fifty dollar bill into the dry cauldron.
“Thank you very much, sir,” the two mouths throbbed their gratitude, as the man nodded and proceeded past him and through an opened door held by his chauffer, and into the swallowing jaws of Christmas commerce, disappearing behind a wall of gripped bags and groped boxes in the arms of dutiful shoppers. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas …” wafted out of small speakers just above the department store’s entrance way, and though it could transport you to fond memories, it blended well with the horns, and the groveling car and truck engines, and the stomping feet in the slush of passersby, and was no way out of place. The man in red dearly hoped what the song beckoned.
The man in red looked down, forgetting his sciatica, and through a grimaced smile, saw a small girl, no more than five years old, holding out a nickel.
“From my piggy bank,” she said. “Hope it helps the reindeer.” Even through her pink boots he could see her curling her toes as she lifted the coin to him on her mitten. The man in red, going by the name Santa Claus these days, stalled for a moment. He could even see her toes curling, because her boots had holes in them. Her mittens, not to be mistaken, were old socks.
“You want to give me that? All of that?” he said.
“Will you?” the girl asked, as if she’d been denied so many other things in her past, that she expected to be denied this too.
The man in red didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. He felt he couldn’t very well take this impoverished child’s last piece of change … and then the girl said words which more than equally startled the man.
“You can’t take it with you when you go.”
“Wh-what do you mean?” the man asked. What the words suggested he didn’t want to believe.
“I gave my daddy a statue I made in school, out of clay,” she answered. “Some of the other kids said it was a bug, but it was an angel. I know it was. I do, because that’s what I was trying to make … and my daddy said it was a beautiful angel. I used a pencil to carve out a smile.”
“Did you? Well that sounds wonderful,” the man said. “I know I’d like an angel like that. You must have made your daddy very happy with that.” The man was warmed from the cold by this sweet image, and sighed with a heap of joy filling his belly for it not having been something more … disheartening. But then the girl took from her stained coat’s pocket a reddish clay figure with some golden glitter glued on it, and his heart dropped. It was the angel. He had no doubt of this … but why was it in the girl’s pocket? He couldn’t fashion the words to say, but the girl smiled at him with a smile which was ages older than her. “Why doesn’t your daddy have this beautiful angel?” he asked, willed on by the strength in her face. “Why was it in your pocket? It should be up on a dresser for your daddy, or a china cabinet for everyone to see.”
The little girl didn’t answer, but only said, “Can you show them it?”
“Put it on your kettle,” the girl said.
Here were words that had caught up with her smile, way beyond her years, but fully grasped by him. “You know what, wh-wh-why don’t you put it there?”
The girl, given the invite to do so, was by no means timid, and quickly stationed her winged figurine just behind the slot on top where coins and dollars could be inserted, and then before stepping away plunked her nickel into the pot before the angel’s watchful eyes.
A man in a trench coat, passing by, touched by this humblest of pictures, followed her example and inserted a few bills.
“Thank you, sir,” the man in red said, and dipped his head to him, and then to a woman, and then another gentleman as there appeared to be a significant increase in the amount of donors suddenly. They gave coins. They gave bills. They gave ones. They gave fives. They gave tens. They gave twenties, and each time someone gave something, their eyes rested on that clay angel, and then that little girl with the sock mittens and open-toed boots, and this went on for the rest of the chilled afternoon.
The day passed. The bright grey winter sky turned less bright, and the street lamps subjugated beneath the dusk lit their halos for the greater coming darkness, very much like that child. The clunking of coins into the pot had ceased a long time ago. There was too much money in it for the coins to reach the bottom.
“Thank you, little darling,” the man in red said, seeing it about time to close up.
“It was the angel that did it,” the girl insisted giddily.
The man didn’t want to disagree with her. Why point out how sad she looked? “Maybe, but no matter how beautiful the clay angel is,” he said, “it can never be more beautiful than the hands that molded it,” and then fearing he couldn’t avoid it, added, “I’m sorry about your daddy.”
The little girl’s eyes dropped, clearly in recollection of someone, but then they rose again. A straight line formed between her lips signaled that she didn’t know what to say. Then, she shared this, “My daddy used to watch you as he walked by, and he gave you money, but he thought you looked so sad.”
“Did he? Maybe it was the beard.” He pulled up on it. “It tends to droop,” the man said.
“No, he saw it in your eyes.”
The man blinked. “Oh … oh, I’m sorry I did that. I didn’t mean for that to come across, especially at Christmas.”
“But it didn’t,” the little girl replied. “My daddy had to tell me.”
“Yes,” the girl answered, and then stepped up to the pot. “I’m going to take my angel back.”
“Oh … oh sure.”
“Cause you don’t need it.”
“No, you have your own,” she answered. “You said no matter how beautiful the clay angel is, it will never be as beautiful as the hands of its molder. Even though you’re not the real Santa … you should know … you make a lot of beautiful clay angels every day.”
The man in red, bewildered, closed his eyes and shook his head and laughed in utter disbelief that this little girl wasn’t a midget, with such prophetic words that did not spill from her in a splatter, but were consciously poured gently into a glass with complete comprehension of the vintage. Then the wind suddenly blew a chill into his face, and awakened his eyes, and the bell in his hand jingled. The girl was gone. “What?” Too many footprints were in the snow to follow hers, but as he noticed how so much of the traffic was now gone at this meal hour, and the great distance to the next corner, even a child on the run, he thought, couldn’t cover so quickly, he greatly doubted that the girl had left any footprints at all … except for those in his heart.