Bart had managed to pull it off, and now he felt pleasantly exhausted. The neighborhood open-house Christmas party had been a long-standing tradition, but between his divorce and the Covid epidemic, it had been five years since the last one. The invitations, the furniture moving, the food and drink, the music and the cheerful ice-breakers—he’d had to do it all himself. But everyone was primed for a holiday celebration.
There had even been dancing—some folks had consumed enough alcohol to sing and pretend-polka to Dylan’s “Must Be Santa.”* (Bart sang the lead.) The night had ended with candlelight slow-dances to Elvis’s “Silver Bells” and “Blue Christmas.” His partners had been the two cute grad students who had recently moved in across the street.
Friends had stayed behind to put away the perishables and clean up most of the mess. The rest could wait until morning. Bart settled into his most comfortable chair with a glass of Jameson’s Irish whiskey, and watched the flames diminish in the fireplace as Windham Hill Christmas music played softly on the stereo. The moment reminded him of a favorite poem by Walter De La Mare:
Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Someone came, and kissed me there.
Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.**
Half-asleep, he smiled and asked himself: “Whose lips, if they dropped down from the aether to magically kiss me now, whose lips would they be?” The cursor of his memory slid into the file of forty-five years ago, to the night of that first office Christmas party; “Cathy! Of course, it would be Cathy!”
Fresh out of college, he was working at a drug company in Pittsburgh. He first met Cathy the night he went with a group of young co-workers to a Bonnie Raitt/Jackson Browne concert. She was Mike’s sort-of girlfriend, and lived within walking distance of the concert hall. So they elected to all rendezvous there, get a good buzz on, and then walk over to the show. When they formed the circle for the ritual of the reefer, she was on his left. As he handed the joint to her, she noticed the lump of scar tissue on his wrist. This had resulted from his smashing it on windowsills at his high school as he lugged his overstuffed 3-ring binder along crowded hallways.
“I have something to fix that right up,” she said as she broke the circle and went to her medicine cabinet. She returned with a container covered with Chinese characters and gently rubbed the scar as she whispered some kind of incantation.
The rest of that evening was spent most splendidly. He made a number of apparently witty comments that cracked everyone up, but the next morning he couldn’t remember why they were so funny. During the concert, he glanced at her from time to time, and on the walk back to her apartment he grabbed her waist when she tripped and almost fell. He felt as if a surge of electricity had passed through him. Everyone said their good-nights and when she said hers, it seemed that she was looking at him in particular.
The next week was Thanksgiving and Bart flew back home to New York for the holiday. At the dinner table his mother noticed that his scar had completely disappeared. “Some girl rubbed a Chinese balm on it,” he told her.
“Probably a lot of other rubbing going on,” his uncouth uncle commented. After a scolding from everyone else, the table talk shifted to another topic.
He didn’t see Cathy again until the office Christmas party. Employees could bring guests, so Mike brought her, although Bart had learned from other friends that they weren’t seriously dating. He watched as they danced and liked the way she moved—with graceful enthusiasm.
When the DJ took a break, she came over to the bar and sat beside him. He showed her the wrist with the absent scar, and she said, “Yeah, that stuff is magic; there’s so much magic in the world, if people would only open up their eyes and really see it.” He jokingly called her a “Kanute Woman” and she got the reference right away—to a Star Trek character who was a tribal “witchy woman” and knew the art of herbal healing. She was scoring more and more points with him.
He loved her laugh, loved her looks, loved her free and easy style. It was then that he made bold to gaze into her eyes—an amazing cornflower blue with an aliveness expressing what? Kindness, admiration, desire? No; something deeper, something more spiritual. Her eyes were twin portals to a well of living water. They sat there locked in eye contact for what seemed like quite a while, then broke it off to sip their drinks and make chit-chat. They talked music—she loved the Bee Gees but felt betrayed by their disco stuff. Yes! A girl after his own heart. Eventually the conversation shifted to more serious territory, their philosophies of life, and again they seemed to be in agreement, or at least she seemed to agree with everything he said.
It would have felt so right to stay with her when the party broke up, but she had come with Mike, and Bart’s code of conduct did not allow for such a betrayal of a friend. As he left the party room, he noticed her standing in the dead-end corner of the hallway leading to the exit stairwell. He went over for a final good-bye. She pulled him close and kissed him, briefly but on the lips, then laughed and joined Mike in heading down the stairs. After she was gone, he noticed above him a garland of plastic mistletoe that was part of the decorations.
The next day at the office, Bart went to Mike’s desk to apologize for monopolizing Cathy. Feeling most righteous, he told Mike that he wanted to date her, but wouldn’t do anything unless Mike gave him her phone number. What should have happened was for Mike to say, “Think nothing of it, old chum; she can make up her own mind. Here’s the number and you’re welcome to it.”
What did happen was this: Mike became stand-offish and their friendship never was the same. A few times he even went full-juvenile, and referred to him as, “Bart the Fart.” The following year, Bart left the company to pursue his doctorate in biochemistry. He became an expert in the control of the immune system using biologics, authored several lucrative patents, and retired in his fifties. He moved back to Pittsburgh, buying a large Victorian home near one of the City’s parks. He never saw Cathy or Mike again.
“Funny that I haven’t even thought of her in so many years,” he mused as he finished off the whiskey; “She was the one, the one that got away. I should have been more aggressive, but back then I thought that if something was meant to be, the universe would make it happen. I was a fool back then, full of magical thinking; now I know you’ve got to manipulate reality to get it to work to your advantage.”
He looked out the window and saw that a light snow was still falling, but the wind-torn clouds occasionally revealed a waning late-night moon. A brief walk would do him good, clear out the cobwebs and make him more ready for sleep. Out in the street he heard the approach of an old woman pushing a squeaking shopping cart filled with plastic bags.
She hunched over the handle, probably due to a bad case of osteoporosis. A reek like the sour smell of public lavatories assailed his nostrils. Ordinarily he would have crossed the street to avoid someone like her, but tonight he had a generous frame of mind. He pulled from his pocket the wad of a few small bills that he still kept handy for emergencies, tossed it in her cart and walked briskly away.
He felt good about giving her the money, then worried if she had even seen it. Another Christmas poem entered his consciousness, “Karma” by E. A. Robinson, about a gilded age cut-throat entrepreneur who is feeling some Christmas-time remorse about destroying his friend’s business. He attempts to assuage his guilt via a small donation to a street-corner Santa.
…And from the fullness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.**
Bart didn’t feel that kind of guilt, only the guilt of an “ultra-have” when confronted by the “very-have-not.” None-the-less, he fished a fifty-dollar bill from the depths of his wallet and went back to give it to her; “Here, my good woman, it’s Christmas-time; get yourself something nice.” Somehow, the archaic phrase made him feel even more like the subject of Robinson’s century-old poem.
She looked up from her crumpled pose bent over the cart and said, “Thank you, kind sir.” She too sounded like a character from a hundred years ago. It was as if they were both performing parts in a play already written. Just then the moon emerged from an opening in the clouds, illuminating the old lady’s eyes. Cornflower blue, and with a depth just like Cathy’s from forty-five years before! The shock of the image triggered an irrational fear, and caused him to bolt. She called out, “Merry Christmas, God bless you, God bless you” as he dashed towards his house with reckless abandon.
The patch of glare ice on the sidewalk was there because the neighbor hadn’t had time to salt it before going to Bart’s party. The light dusting of snow had made it a nearly frictionless surface, and Bart’s feet went flying as soon as he encountered it. His shoulder took most of the impact, cracking his collarbone, but he also banged his skull on the concrete, probably causing a significant concussion.
The bag lady wheeled her cart over to him, and went out into the street to flag down a passing car and tell them to call 911. Then she returned, covering him with a soiled quilt and stuffing a threadbare sweater under his head. “Don’t worry sir; help is on the way.” She moved closer in the suddenly-still and shadowy air to kiss him on the forehead. Just then the ambulance arrived, illuminating the scene with its flashing lights.
He burst out laughing when he noticed the sprig of plastic mistletoe that she had attached to the grimy stocking cap pulled down over her ears. As he watched the EMTs approach with their gurney, he resolved to help this woman climb out of poverty, whether or not she was actually Cathy. He turned back to her and asked “What is your name?” The only reply was the whispering wind as it swirled the dust of snow on the now empty sidewalk.
Richard Krepski (RICHSKI) is retired from a career as research scientist and educator. He currently resides in the twilight zone between scientific rationalism and poetic lunacy. His writing often has a spiritual or supernatural theme. Recent stories appeared in Uppagus, Esoterica, and RavensPerch.
** “Mistletoe” by Walter De La Mare (1913) and “Karma” by Edward Arlington Robinson (1925) are both in the public domain.