The Best Christmas Present


Chapter 1 – The Ranch

Don sat on his apartment balcony watching evening traffic snake its way through the streets below. It was a rare experience for him to have time to do this as he was usually at work this time of the evening or tidying his desk to leave space for Ms Almeida the office cleaner to give his office her usual thorough clean overnight. She went about her business quickly and efficiently but had a smile for late workers and a greeting in heavily accented English when paths crossed. He’d passed her in the lobby wearing her trademark white overalls and wheeling a trolley as he exited the building and offered his usual pleasantries to door security.

He felt some affinity for Ms Almeida as in a sense they were both immigrants. She from a far country but he from the rolling plains of the mid-west where solitude was the order of the day.  He wondered about the country she’d left and why she’d chosen to come to this city. Her name sounded exotic to him so the country she came from must be exotic too. He hated this city and wondered if she found it appealing

His growing up world was so different from the city with its mind jarring mix of mechanical and human traffic. He longed for the singular noise of the harvester at work or friendly bantering of employed men smelling of horses before their evening naked bath. He recalled how they joked with each other evenings in dormitories and smiled. His father was foreman at the ranch so in that environment he’d enjoyed a somewhat privileged and happy childhood.

He remembered the old school bus which did a twenty-mile circuit of ranches collecting children for school each day and depositing them home as evening approached. His was the end of the line so the bus driver was accommodated with workers on the ranch overnight.

He also remembered the sleek black pony his father had purchased for him as a child. He’d called his pony Lightning and they were inseparable when school work had been completed for the day and he was free to roam the vast expanse of the ranch. The loud clanging of a huge bell set up outside the owners sprawling home would bring him galloping home to join men lining up for their evening meal at the chow house where Ah Sing the Chinese cook with his wife filled plates exchanging banter with the men as they did so. The ranch owner and his family observed it all from a veranda where their own cook a black woman named Mercy fussed over them.

Don remembered watching the mother of the house helping young ones struggling with their meals and felt a pang of longing. He’d no knowledge of his own mother. There was a picture of her with his father hanging over the mantel piece in their small shack. Don’s father never talked about it, but he learned from some of the older hands on the as a teenager his mother had died giving birth. Father had never married again and Don’s only experience with affection was from Ah Sing’s wife who cleaned their shack and did the washing. She’d see he was presentable for school each day, that his homework was done and he was in bed on time. He remembered her stories of China told in broken English but with an air of mystery that had him spellbound and longing to see the places she described so vividly.

Don was in his high school years when one of the ranch trucks arrived at school to take him home. His father had been thrown from a horse spooked by a rattler and died of injuries before para-medics had been able to reach the ranch.  Don struggled with his emotions. He knew he was expected to mourn for his father but his father had been a remote occasional presence crossing paths with him in the shack.  Ah sing’s wife was the closest he could think of as family, but thinking about it more all at the ranch were family in a distant kind of way.

The owners were good people and sent him off to finish High School and College as a boarding student. He stayed with workers on the ranch during vacation and they taught him the rudiments of their work.

After completing college work in which he did surprisingly well he returned to the ranch anticipating he’d become a ranch worker. On arrival he was summoned to the ranch home where the owners Jay and Nancy congratulated him and had a long talk. In their opinion Don had more potential in life than just being a ranch worker and they strongly advised him to look for a job and further his education. They told him to think it over and they’d call him next day to see how he felt about this.

This was the first time someone had given him a choice about his future. Up to this time everything had been managed for him and he felt quite comfortable with that. But as he thought things through overnight he realized life had other possibilities and he had power of choice over his future. There was nothing wrong with herding cattle for a living but he had the potential to do more.  He’d take their suggestion.

Next day he approached the ranch house with confidence. He had a college business degree and would take Jay and Nancy’s advice. They were pleased with his reaction and began to set in motion the last assistance they’d give him in recognition of the lifetime work Don’s father had given them. They arranged through city contacts for bridging work while he looked for other work, paid rent on an apartment for six months and produced a wad of notes to see him settled.

For the first time in his life Don shed tears as he said goodbye to everyone on the ranch, climbed into a ranch truck to be driven to the nearest town bus terminal.

Now here he sat on a balcony looking over streets below breathing the smog of the city. Decorations were beginning to appear above buildings. The Christmas season was approaching. Gigantic Christmas images festooned with lights winked at him in an attempt to lift his melancholy mood.  He remembered looking down at the winking white, amber, red and green of a city in motion and a thought came to him, “The Christmas lights have escaped.” He laughed at his mental joke.

Up to this year he’d celebrated Christmas back at the ranch but over time he noted his increasingly citified ways set him apart from the men and they began to distance themselves from him. He’d contemplated not returning this year, but now the option was not available to him. Jay and Nancy had sold the ranch and moved south. Separation from his childhood was now complete and he mourned that loss.

He sighed, opened the sliding glass door and entered his air conditioned apartment. It was time for supper and a brief time in front of the TV watching world news before settling in with a book and heading for bed later that evening.

In bed he dreamed of Christmas on the ranch as he grew up. Ah Singh dressed as Santa and his wife as an elf as they served Christmas dinner gave merriment to all. It seemed to be so out of place yet so normal at the same time. He wanted to experience that feeling again.

He woke with a start and looked at the bedside clock. I was 3am! Don groaned and turned over willing himself to sleep again. He remembered next evening was his office Christmas party and he wanted to be alert enough to enjoy that. After all that would be his annual socializing fix and he wanted to enjoy it. Being alone on Christmas day knowing families were celebrating together would be hard to take this year.

To be continued.


“© Copyright Ian Grice 2015 All rights reserved

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