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Empty Boxes


            Like church mice sneaking past a sleeping tomcat, we moved noiselessly past our parents' bedroom into our living room where a gaily bedecked pinon Christmas tree glittered in the center of the room. The spicy pungent smell of pinon mixed invitingly with the smell of burning cedar logs, almost completely consumed by flickering flames in our fireplace.

           My little brother Rick and I flashed expressions of pure panic when the grandfather clock on the wall began chiming midnight. The clock betrayed our presence so loudly, or so we thought, that we waited for Dad to come in and angrily abort our midnight mission. The clock at last stopped raising gthe alarm, and amazingly, Dad was still snoring in their bedroom down the hall.

             We crept to directly beneath the tall tree which we had harvested from the nearby Manzano Mountains, and which we had decorated with such care and artistry that when we were done, we were certain it was truly the most beautiful tree in the world.

            From under its branches, you looked up into a galaxy of  luminescent ornaments, illuminated softly by strings of blinking lights draped on the branches, a silver or gold angel twirling in random spots, while sheer white angel's hair lay hazily over the lights as lazy red and yellow flames licked at the cedar wood crackling softly in the fireplace. 

           Under the tree, rows of boxes wrapped in a wide array of colors and topped with equally shimmerous bows sat casually stacked, the bows in colors of ruby reds, saphires and iridescent lavenders. Earlier, Rick, and I had already investigated most of the presents. 

          At ages 11 and 9, we were already accomplished experts at deciphering what precisely was hidden inside a wrapped Christmas present, simply by listening to the sound made when the box was held up and lightly shaken. I shook one box and determined it held clothes, because there was no sound except for the quiet slide of cloth. My brother held another box and rattled it, concluding it was a game of checkers.

         Still another box tinkled like glass: probably the chemistry set I wanted, and another box emitted a sound of tiny rubber balls rolling around in plastic: undoubtedly a pinball game wished for by my brother.

           The pair of behemoth boxes sitting under the tree stood quiet sentry, tenaciously refusing to give up even a hint of their contents. No matter how we shook, rattled and rolled the boxes, there was no spilling of beans, no raising of the curtain, no letting of cats out of the bag.

           "What do you think is in there?" Rick asked, equally mystified, as he lightly shook the box wrapped in green paper embossed with rows of Christmas trees. It was about the size of a TV set, but it was, mysteriously, as light as a pair of socks, and just as silent when jostled.

           "I don't know. I wish I knew what was in my box," I said, running my fingers along the edges of the fluorescent wrapping paper embossed with many Santa Clauses in scarlet suits, surrounded by all his reindeer. My box was light as a whisper. I shook it again in a final desperate attempt at disclosure; it gave up nothing.

           Tough clear tape anchored the wrapping paper so that no suitable peeking spots could be loosened without tearing the paper. And tearing the paper might mean a repudiation of the prize.

           "Remember, if you ruin the wrapping paper, you don't get the present," my mom had warned.

           The loud tick-tock tick-tock of the grandfather clock was the only other sound in our living room, along with the soft shush of snowflakes layering on our roof. The cold outside met the warm air inside on the window pane, creating artistic, swirling works of frosty art on our windows.

           "We better get back to bed before Santa comes," I whispered. My brother pressed his fingers to his lips to quiet my breathless murmur.

           After we sneaked back into our bedroom, we looked out the window, but the darkness seemed endless. Hours later, we were still awake, and each look out the window brought no hope that the night would end. It was still coal black outside. Snow flakes fluttered to the ground, creating a beautiful white blanket that was gathered in spots, making it look as if it had been carelessly dropped from some great height above.

           Miraculously, the sun at last tugged at our eyelids and we snapped awake. We ran to the tree, but our parents were still asleep. It was beyond belief. And since the rule in our house was that no presents could be opened until we were all ready, all we could do was to go into our parents' bedroom, and stare at their sleeping figures. Apparently disturbed by this anxious, relentless surveillance, my dad's eyes fluttered open, but then quickly shut again when he saw us waiting. Then one eye reopened and stuck in a squint gaze.

           "You guys are up kinda early, aren't you?" he asked, his gruff voice stirring my mother, who turned her back and hugged her pillow firmly.

           "No, Dad, the sun's already up," I reported.

           "What is today? Saturday?" he asked drowsily.

           "No Dad," Rick said impatiently. "It's Christmas Day."

           "Oh, Christmas Day, that's why you guys are up so early, huh?" he said.

           "How come you guys never get up this early when there's work to do?

           We didn't respond, except by shifting in place back and forth, exhibiting our anguished anticipation.

           "You guys need to pee?" Dad asked.

           "No," we said in unison, but we continued our restive exhibition.

           "Well, you guys go feed the animals and put on some coffee and then we'll get up," Dad said.

           We put on our clothes and coats and rushed through the door where we stumbled in the freshly fallen snow, nearly two feet deep. Our breath billowed in huge misty clouds as we worked to pull frozen rubber water hoses to the corral to water the cows and horses. The air was brittle as stalactites that formed on the eaves of our house, but the sun felt warm on our faces as we worked. We broke apart hay bales and deposited breakfast for the animals into their pens.

           Our chores done, we ran back through the snow, stopping just long enough to engage each other in rapid fire snowball battles, but then we remembered what waited for us. We crashed through the kitchen door, where we were met by the inviting aroma of frying bacon and eggs, the spicy smell of roasted green chile and the appetizing smell of warmly sweet pumpkin and apple pies.

           Meanwhile, the Christmas tree glittered in the living room, guarding its boxes of promise and twinkling hopes turning to glimmering joy.

           We wolfed down breakfast, despite our mom's admonitions that if we ate too fast, we'd choke to death. We didn't choke, and at last, we gathered around the tree, as my mother put on a record of Christmas music on our record player. My father, as official Christmas Master of Ceremonies, dispensed the gifts one by one, and the lucky recipient excitedly ripped paper and tore open boxes to unveil a treasure while the rest of us watched, barely able to withstand our own great anticipation.

           Finally, the massive pile of gaily wrapped boxes had been reduced to rubble, the gifts organized in neat piles by our sides. The only boxes that remained were the two huge ones that stubbornly refused to disclose their secrets, standing like sentinels amid the rubble.

           "What's in them?" I asked my dad breathlessly.

           "Yeah, what's in them?" Rick parroted.

           "Just a bunch of empty boxes," Dad said, flashing a grin at my mother, who smiled back at him mysteriously.

           Rick and I looked at each other with skepticism. We knew our parents wouldn't play a joke as cruel as that on us, not on Christmas morning.

           But as we excitedly opened our boxes, we did indeed find nothing but empty boxes, each one smaller than the last. Finally, we found ourselves holding in the palms of our hands two small boxes that looked like they could hold nothing much bigger than earrings.

           We looked at each other with disbelief and growing dismay. Whatever resided in these tiny boxes surely did not deserve our breathless anticipation, I thought, with deepening pangs of disappointment in my heart.

           Our eyes must have reflected our dejection because Dad spurred us on.

           "Go ahead, open them," he said.

           With waning enthusiasm, we opened the boxes and found hand-written notes that said simply: "Go and look in the porch."

           We almost could not bear it. We ran to the porch and threw open the door, followed closely by our parents, who were beaming in anticipation of something we could never foresee.

           Brilliant sunlight streamed in from unadorned porch windows, glinting off shiny chrome spokes and ruby-red fenders. Two red Flyer bicycles preened in the light like prize-winning ponies. My pony was bedecked with a bright blue bow on the handlebars and a red bow was festooned on the mane of Rick's bike.

           We squealed and bounced up and down like sugar-fueled elves. We ran up to our shiny new bikes as if they were live ponies, and then we hugged our parents, who enjoyed our demonstrations of delight and surprise almost as much as we did. Our hearts glowed like embers in the fire.

           After mass, the sun had melted off enough snow so we could take our frisky new ponies for a ride. We rode country paved roads like they were skyways, shiny new chrome rims casting off fantails of spray, the cool brisk wind filling our lungs and our boyhood with dreams.  





The Train Rider

The Train


Lorenzo loved to ride the train, though it wasn’t because of the money he saved. It wasn’t because he could catch an extra hour of sleep while the train did the driving, and delivered him to work. It wasn’t even because it gave him time to read when it seemed he never had any time to open a book.
           Lorenzo loved to eavesdrop. In the din and closeness of the train, it was easy, and he heard fascinating conversations, though most were mundane, routine, and mostly small time chit-chat.
            But sometimes, often, he heard snatches of conversation that sounded as if they had been written by a brilliant writer. He would daily hear dialog to a play taking place right in front of him, for free.
           Lorenzo found a seat on the commuter train and pulled a book out of his pack. He started to read, and people all around him began to speak. A male voice in the seat behind him talked to a woman. He couldn’t see their faces. The male voice spoke in a hushed whisper.
         "They’re trying to blame me just because I was the last one to see him," the voice said. "Did you see me on the news?"
         "No, but don’t worry about it, you didn’t do anything," the female voice said. “Just don’t act guilty and nobody is going to know.”
         That was all Lorenzo heard. Then another equally fascinating conversation began to unfold from an older gentleman in the seat in front of him. 

The man looked out the train car window at the Wool Warehouse on Second Street, a store he apparently remembered in a different way that how it appeared now: The stately old former warehouse in its time had been built like a grand old hacienda, complete with all of the graceful architectural amenities of one. It had elegance and style, and was being converted by an investors group into a community theater. It had been built at the same time, and right next door to the Alvarado Hotel, an icon in southwestern railroad architecture and style.
        The Santa Fe Railway put the wrecker’s ball to it in the 1970s before the city could appreciate its beauty. The hotel had once been graced by the beautiful and morally correct Harvey Girls, waitresses that served weary train travelers with shiny young innocence and friendly but correct professionalism.
        "What are they doing to the Warewolf?" the old man asked a younger woman companion.
        "Not warewolf, grandpa, it’s the Wool Warehouse, Grandpa," corrected the woman.              "Que? Que dices? I can’t hear you," the man said.
        An older woman on the other side of him took a cell phone and put it in his front shirt pocket.
       "Here, keep it here in your pocket so you can hear it if anybody calls," the woman said sternly.
      "They’re going to turn it into a theater," the younger woman said.
     "Hay, que bueno, I love to go to the movies," the old man said.
     The younger woman looked like she was about to correct him again, but decided it was too much trouble. Lorenzo smiled at this exchange.
      "May I sit here?" a well-dressed young man with cropped short black hair asked Lorenzo, who noticed a curious hesitance, as if the man recognized him from somewhere, though Lorenzo was certain he had never met the man.
     "Yeah, no problem," Lorenzo said. He moved his backpack and put it on the floor between his feet.
     After a momentarily silence, the two men began making small talk. Lorenzo learned they were neighbors, and that Ramon was 20 years younger than the 54-year-old Lorenzo. They lived in Tome, a riverside hamlet where Lorenzo had lived on the same land his great grandfather had homesteaded in the 1700s as part of an old Spanish land grant.
     The train rocked from side to side as it trundled forward and then began gaining speed, rumbling toward Albuquerque like a carnival ride. A huge luminous silver moon hung on the horizon like a silver coin. Gray scenes outside sped past like the frames of a movie at fast forward.
      Since everyone in each little town knew everyone else in the town, they began exploring mutual connections. Lorenzo discovered a delightful connection in that Ramon had an older sister, Clarita, who was about Lorenzo’s age.
      Lorenzo immediately remembered a girl named Clarita, whom he had invited to his 16th birthday party, where, she had been the belle of the ball under a shimmering disco ball.
    "She’s still beautiful," Ramon said.
    "I wanted to dance with her, and I think I saw that she wanted to dance with me, but I was shy," Lorenzo said. "I was afraid."
     Lorenzo had always been fearful. At 16, Lorenzo had never envisioned still living in Tome.     His plan had been to escape the farming community and see the world. Instead, he had been trapped, by poverty, meekness and fear.
     Watching the scenes zip past his window, Lorenzo remembered how he had once dreamed of being a poet, or a playwright, perhaps even a novelist.
     And though Lorenzo had published a handful of poems in small literary or college presses, and had self-published a book of poetry and of short stories, he couldn’t help but indulge the feeling that the life he’d imagined had somehow abandoned him. He had come to the realization, without really acknowledging it, that he was never quite good enough, in his writing, and in his dealings with women, and life.
     He began to imagine that he had a double in a parallel universe, who was happily living the life he had imagined as a youth.
     He thought about the days that turned into years wondering what might have happened had he gotten enough courage to ask Clarita to dance. Maybe he’d have a Harley Davidson now, on which he had imagined he would see the country.
      Instead, he had a decrepit old Honda 350, a "rice burner" that got him to his job flipping hamburgers at the Dog House in downtown Albuquerque. He had wrecked it one night, leaving him with a noticeable limp. But he had put it back together with duct tape and baling wire, and it still ran.
      The Dog House was so named because of the chile smothered hot dogs that became the roadside diner’s specialty, but it could easily have also referred to the hound dogs that lingered in the parking lot for Lorenzo to drop some leftovers on his way to the dumpster at the end of the day.
     Lorenzo thought back to the day of his birthday party, in his mother’s beauty shop, which had been festooned with balloons and ribbons. They had played 45s on an old record player, and no booze allowed.
     All the pretty girls of the village had come, and all of the boys. It was a wonderful party, yet Lorenzo had never gotten over the possibility that he could have danced with Clarita, and perhaps would have even won a kiss, if he had been more of a man, even as young as he was then.
     The train lurched to a stop at the Rio Bravo station; about 15 more miles to the Los Lunas station, where Lorenzo would get off.
     "So how is Clarita these days, besides being still a beauty?" Lorenzo asked Ramon.
     "She’s married, about 20 years, to a nice guy, and they have two children, a son and a daughter, both in their teens. He’s an architect, and she’s a school teacher," Ramon said.
      "Wonderful, that’s great," Lorenzo said.
     The train stopped and the car doors opened. A blond, wearing shabby clothes and chewing her gum furiously, declared to no-one in particular, "Survived another day."
      Then as the train began to pick up speed toward its final stop in Los Lunas, the woman settled back in her seat, her gum chewing slowed to a crawl, and she looked out the window, though her glazed eyes showed she was looking inside rather than out.
     Fifteen minutes later, the train slowed and stopped at the Los Lunas station. Ramon  gathered his belongings and stood up to leave.
     "Send Clarita my regards," Lorenzo said. Then as an afterthought, he added, "Tell her I’m going to have another party in the beauty shop, and she’s invited."
Ramon smiled.

"Yes," he said. "I will tell her."
     Lorenzo followed Ramon, and suddenly he had the inspiration to follow him, on the chance he might see Clarita. Ramon was walking briskly ahead and didn’t notice the trailing Lorenzo.
         the parking lot, Lorenzo’s hunch paid off, when he saw Clarita open the passenger’s side door. She got out of the car to greet her brother, and she kissed him on the cheek.
      What Lorenzo saw next, like a boxer’s punch to his stomach, knocked the breath out of him. Lorenzo realized now why Ramon had looked so startled when he boarded the train and had first seen Lorenzo in his seat.
     Clarita went to the driver’s side window, and asked the man inside to roll down his window. Then she kissed him, lovingly, and walked back to the passenger’s side, where she climbed in happily.

 The man, it seemed to Lorenzo, could have been Lorenzo’s identical twin, a doppelganger he thought it was called. .

      Lorenzo watched in fascination as the couple drove away. The next day, and for months afterward, Lorenzo watched for Ramon, but he never saw him again. And when he tried to find Clarita in the home where she had grown up, there was nothing there but adobe ruins.

            Lorenzo listened to the conversations on the train, but even those didn’t interest him anymore. He stopped riding the train, and when people asked him why he had stopped, Lorenzo replied simply, "I don’t like the train anymore."

             It wasn’t long before people stopped asking him.


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