In the twilight, a gray-haired stranger stumbled on the cobblestone street. A tall man wearing a battered top hat touched him on the shoulder. “Are you all right, sir?” the tall man asked.
“Yes, I'll be fine,” the stranger said. “Excuse me.” He paused for a moment to regain his balance, then made his way to the side of the street and sat down on the curb.
The tall man wore a brocade vest and a tailcoat. A blonde boy holding a crutch rode on the man’s shoulders. A crowd milled in the street. There were other men in top hats and scarves, bundled against a chilly coastal fog. There were women wearing bonnets and full skirts over layered petticoats. On the adjacent street corner, between a handsome Romanesque mercantile building and an oak tree clad in Spanish moss, a band of carolers huddled under a lantern and sang, “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay . . .”
Alongside the stranger, a thin man with a light beard and gold wire-rimmed glasses sat on the curb with two small girls, the smallest on his lap and the other in a wheelchair. The girl in the wheelchair had yellow blonde hair like the boy riding on the tall man’s shoulders; she appeared to be about the same age as the boy. The girl pointed. “Look!” she exclaimed, “It’s Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit!”
“I see them,” said her father. “I think Tiny Tim needs a chair like yours.”
Tim leaned his head around Bob’s neck and said, “Hey Dad, can we get a funnel cake?”
“Sure,” Bob said. He swung the boy down on the sidewalk. Tim dropped his crutch and scampered off toward a row of kiosks redolent of pastry and smoked sausage.
A red carriage drawn by eight Clydesdale horses approached in the distance. The crowd cheered. A sign on the wagon came into view. It read, “Budweiser Salutes Dickens on the Strand, Galveston Island, 1990.”
The stranger spoke to the bearded man with the two little girls. “This is a nice holiday festival,” he said. “Are you getting into the spirit of Christmas?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the man said. “Life isn’t exactly a Victorian Christmas card.”
“True enough,” the stranger agreed. “Anyway, do you live in Galveston? What are you doing here?”
“Yeah, we live here. But I guess what we’re doing is . . . we’re waiting.”
“Waiting? What are you waiting for?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Something good, I hope. My wife is, shall we say, ‘Great with Child’ -- number three -- and we’re waiting for that. Hoping everything is going to be OK. It was a difficult pregnancy. She went into preterm labor at six months and almost lost the baby. That’s one thing. Then there’s my job. I work as a researcher at the medical center here, but I’m on soft money and I don’t have tenure. My grant funding is looking very bleak right now. I just had a meeting with my boss, Hirschfeld, and he said the decision hasn’t been made about whether I’ll even have a job next year. So I’m waiting to find out what’s next. I need to publish more. I have one article that came out this year, but nobody cares. I’m worried about getting laid off, because we’re deep in debt. Our daughter had to be in pediatric rehab for a long time and we thought our insurance was going to cover it, but it didn’t. So we owe the hospital thousands of dollars. They sent it to collections and we’re getting these calls. It’s embarrassing. Then we bought a house, too, and that turned out to be a big mistake. They said the U.S. Navy was going to build a new home port here on the island, and all the houses near the Bolivar Ferry station were supposed to go way up in value. So we bought a little house near the ferry, just a few blocks in. Her parents and mine loaned us money for the down payment. But then Congress scrapped the Navy home port, and the housing market fell. Our house is now worth less than we owe the bank for it. And, you know, this place is prone to hurricanes. We had to evacuate last year for a storm coming in, and we spent four hours stuck on the Gulf Freeway going nowhere. We tried motels and there was 'No Room in the Inn' and no stable in the back! People don't realize this, but the 1900 storm in Galveston still ranks as the worst natural disaster ever to strike this country, in terms of loss of life. Six-thousand people died back then. There was no advance warning, no seawall protection, and no route of escape. I just know there’s going to be another terrible storm sometime. The Big One is coming. It's part of life here, like earthquakes in California. We don't know when. We’re just waiting . . .”
The stranger had been listening patiently to this rambling tale of woe. He was silent for what seemed like a long time. Then he spoke to the bearded man. “I have some good news for you,” the stranger began. “Things will turn out all right. The hospital is going to forgive your debt for all those pedi-rehab bills. In a few weeks, your son will be born. He’s going to be healthy. In about eighteen years, he’ll be a 6’2” shooting guard on a high school basketball team. Your daughters, too, will grow up and go off to college. Eventually, they're going to be happy and productive global citizens. That paper you just published with your colleagues will get a lot of attention. Sometime in the spring of this coming year, you'll get a call about a job in North Carolina. You’re going to sell that little green house over in Fish Village by the ferry station. You’ll take a loss, but it won't matter; by the time your son makes the varsity team you’ll be living in a house by a forest, worth many times more than your place here on the island. And by then you’ll be long past worrying about the likes of Hirschfeld. Another mighty storm will strike Galveston one day, just as you expected. Lives and buildings will be destroyed. In the aftermath, the university will lay off thousands of employees. But you won’t be here. You’ll be living on higher ground, a professor at Duke Medical School.”
“You have quite an imagination,” said the bearded man. “But you know what? There’s something very familiar about you . . . Have we met somewhere?”
“No, I'm sure we haven't. Well, I mean, not in the way you think. It’s complicated. You see, I gave my son this gadget for Christmas. And he just wanted me to try it out.”
“A gadget . . .”
Yes. Have you ever wondered, as a ‘thought experiment’, whether you actually exist? What if it turned out that you, and the entire world you know, were only a reflection of somebody else’s imagination -- an elaborate digital simulation made of memory fragments from another universe . . .”
“You mean, like, Plato meets the Matrix?”
“Kind of like that. The point is, none of this is real. And I guess nothing is perfect, either, including that machine. For example, you couldn't possibly have heard of the Matrix, and I don’t think there would have been cobblestone streets in Galveston in 1990."
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, never mind. Merry Christmas.”
“Same to you! And I didn’t catch your name . . .”
“It’s Matt. Take care of yourself, and your girls -- especially the one ‘Great with Child’. I have a feeling we’re going to meet again someday. Maybe sooner than you think.”
* * *
“Dad, I really want a UniSim-T3 for Christmas,” the boy was saying. “It’s all I want, just that one present.”
“And why do you need a thing like that?”
“Because it's the most amazing thing you've ever seen in your life. You have no idea. I tried one at Josh’s house. If we had one, you could use it, too, anytime you wanted. You would love it, Dad.”
“They’re way too expensive.”
“But the price has come down. You can get a US-T3 for twenty-nine something.”
“Thirty-thousand dollars is still a lot of money for a toy.”
“Dad, this is not a toy! We are talking about a universal simulator with time-travel functionality.”
“Yes, it simulates time travel. That’s why it’s called a si-mu-la-tor, Dad. It taps into the Global Data Stream -- directly -- and it builds a model of any time and space you can think of. It’s very authentic. It uses the total archive of the extrapolated physical history of the planet, the entire human document, all the linked genealogies and the genome repositories and millions of actual human brain downloads. . . ”
“Not to mention all those ‘blogs’ from the twenty-teens, I suppose.”
“Right, and the data from the social networking sites and the ‘e-mails’ -- they’re in there, too. You didn’t ever use ‘e-mail’, did you Dad? Wasn’t that before your time?”
“Of course I did! Every single day, when I was a young man in my first job, I got dozens and dozens of e-mail messages -- hundreds, some days. And then I would sit there and write e-mails responding to all the people who had written to me.”
“No kidding. Were you insane?”
“Well, no, this is just how we spent our time.”
“Whatever, Dad. It’s all in the Stream now -- in the GDS -- and that’s how the UniSim-T3 works. It recreates everything. You just get inside there and snap on the datacap, let your mind go and you’re there. It’s multisensory and interactive and completely integrated. Absolutely seamless. You would never know it’s not real. You meet people and talk to them, but then if they're too boring, you just think them away, and boom! Electrons to the wind. Then you go someplace else, find other people in some other time. Can you imagine how much this would help me with my homework?”
“Of course it would -- if you ever did any homework. And where do you think we’d put this thing, anyway? Isn’t it like a huge box, the size of your mother’s closet?”
“No, no, not that big! It would fit in the garage, or on the patio . . . Come on, Dad, what’s your problem? It’s Christmas! This is my last year at home before I go to college. After I leave, you may not see me again for a very long time.”
“So maybe I should get this uni-thing and then I could just simulate you. Or not. And as for Christmas, when did it become the Season of Emotional Blackmail where children hold their parents hostage to buy stuff they can’t afford, don’t need, and won’t even want by this time next year? Have you ever thought -- even once -- about reaching out to people less fortunate than yourself? Maybe give a gift to one of those kids from underprivileged families? I see them driving to school in those old beat-up electric cars.”
“Dad. Those old cars are cool now. Those are not the poor kids you’re seeing, trust me. But whatever, OK? I will do something generous for somebody else. And I’m still getting a UniSim-T3.”
“Son, did I ever tell you . . .”
“About your deprived childhood? Yes, you did. And about the time when all you got for Christmas was some sort of pathetic iTrinket -- a tiny telephone or a little music player or some other lame device that doesn’t exist anymore. Poor you.”
“OK, so you’ve heard all my stories. Then let me tell you one about your grandfather, the one you never knew. He was quite a storyteller himself. He grew up in Ecuador in the mid-twentieth century. His parents were Christian missionaries there, as you know. And according to the story, Christmas was coming, and all he wanted was a bicycle. He was a little boy about seven or eight, and having a bike was his great dream. He thought that if he just got that two-wheeler, he would be happy forever. So his father found a used bicycle that somebody in the city of Quito was getting rid of, and he bought that and put it under the Christmas tree. It was an old red Schwinn -- a little worn and scratched, a little rusty -- but it worked. On Christmas morning, your grandfather saw the red bike and he was filled with joy. He rode it every day, for many months. But then he began to wish that his bike could be shiny and new-looking. He asked his father if he could paint it. And his father said, well, painting a bike was a difficult thing. Pains had to be taken. It had to be done right, or not at all. The bike would need to be taken apart, and the rusty parts sanded, then painted with a primer and finally with several coats of enamel. His father promised that he would help him do it someday, but that day never arrived. His father was a missionary doctor, and his missionary work came first. So the boy, your grandfather, asked his mother if she would help him paint the bike. She said yes, she would. And so she did. She took him on the bus to a paint store in Quito. Together they picked out a can of lime green paint, the color of the house they lived in. And the boy said, ‘Mom, we need to buy a brush, and a can of primer, and some steel wool to sand it, like Dad said.’ And so they bought these things, too, and rode the bus back home. When they got home, the boy said, ‘Mom, will you help me take the bike apart and sand it with the steel wool, the way Dad said?’ His mother, your great-grandmother, said yes, she would. So the two of them got out some screwdrivers and wrenches and pliars and took that bike apart -- down to the last sprocket, bolt and loose nut. They laid all the pieces on the floor on newspapers. The boy spent all day sanding the pieces with steel wool. Then he painted it with the primer. When that dried, he brushed on the green paint, first one coat, and then two. It was dark outside by then, and finally his dad came home from the hospital. The boy rushed to tell him what he had done. ‘Dad, Dad, come look at my bike! We painted it. Mom and I painted my bike!’ And your great-grandfather looked at all those pieces of a bicycle spread out on the floor, and he was displeased. He said lime green was not a good color for a bike. He said there were brush marks. The rust pocks had not been sanded smooth. And then the boy felt embarrassed and disheartened and went to bed. The pieces of the bike were moved into the attic. The boy tried to reassemble the bike himself, but he could not. His father said 'one of these days' he would help him put the bike back together, but he never did. And so the bike remained in the attic in pieces. A couple of years later, your grandfather’s family left that house and returned to Minnesota for a time. Your great-grandmother and the children went first, leaving your great-grandfather in Ecuador awhile longer to tend to his medical work. When the doctor came to rejoin the family in Minnesota, he said that he had found one of the workers at the hospital in Ecuador, a poor fellow, and had given him the pieces of the old green bike. The worker was thrilled to have it, he said. He had put it all back together that same day, and the bike worked fine. He said the man was very grateful for this generous gift -- it was like Christmas -- and he thanked the doctor and he thanked God.”
* * *
“We need to spend less on Christmas presents this year,” I was saying.
“Sure. But we say that every year.”
“This year I really mean it. Have you seen the Visa bill this month?”
“Just think of it as travel points, not dollars.”
“No, seriously, I am really worried about the economy. People are expecting Obama to work some kind of miracle. Like he's going to part the Red Sea."
“Things will turn around.”
“But what if we actually have another Great Depression? My dad grew up in the 1930s and still remembers how bad things were. That’s what made him so frugal and anxious for the rest of his life.”
“Some of that is genetic. Your whole family gets depressed.”
“Probably so. I guess it also made him take a lot of responsibility at a young age."
"Unlike certain people in your current family . . . "
"Ah, well. You know, I was just remembering this story Dad used to tell from his childhood in the Depression. He was only a little kid but he got a job delivering newspapers. Every morning he would get up before dawn and walk his route. In the winter there was deep snow and subzero temperatures, you know, in Minnesota. So he did this, day in and day out, and saved up his money for two years. Then he took the money and bought a brand new bicycle for himself. It was a thing of beauty. It had these unique, custom wheels -- very fancy and unusual. But the first day he had the bike, he parked it outside the public library and somebody stole it. Somebody actually stole this child’s bike. He was devastated, of course. He told his father about it, and Arvid called the police. The cops took a report but they said he’d never see the bike again. Well, several weeks went by, and my dad was just longing for his lost bike and waiting to see if something would happen. Then one day my dad notices somebody riding a bike -- some other bike -- but it’s got these special wheels on it, and he says, ‘Hey, those are the wheels from my bike!’ And so he asked this guy where he got the wheels, and one thing led to another. The whole thing unraveled and it turned out that this other boy -- my dad’s friend, actually -- had stolen the bike and disassembled it to sell the parts piecemeal. I mean, he had taken it apart down to the last sprocket, nut, and loose bolt. He figured he could make more money that way. He sold the seat to one guy, the handlebars to somebody else, the frame, the tires, the wheels, even the chain -- he sold that to somebody as a separate thing. Whenever I heard this story, I always imagined that maybe this boy had to steal because his family was so poor in the Depression they needed the money for food. It all seemed too sad and unfair and, you know, he was even my dad’s chum. Anyway, the boy confessed. He said he was very sorry and he wanted to make it right. He went out and found every last one of the people he had sold the parts to, and he bought them all back. Then he put the bike together again and returned it to my dad. My dad said he forgave him, and he really did. So there you have quite a story of reconciliation. And redemption.”
“Unlike the 'bike story' from your own childhood . . .”
“Yes, but it turns out there’s a new ending to that one too. I don’t think I told you this, but one night when Dad was here last spring, around Angela’s graduation, I recounted that tale for Matt to hear. The parallels are pretty amazing. Dad was sitting right there. It was after dinner -- you had already left the table -- and I dragged out that old chestnut about my bike when I was a kid, and how I took it all apart and Dad never helped me put it back together, and then how he gave it away to some poor guy as an act of charity.”
“And what did your Dad say? When you told that whole story again in front of Matthew. . . I mean, it makes your dad look pretty bad.”
“You know what? He told me he was sorry. After all these years, he just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Dad, it’s all right. I forgave you a long, long time ago.’ But he’s like, ‘No, I am sorry, really.’”
“Well, that’s something.”
“Yeah, and so I said, ‘Dad, do you remember what happened the next Christmas after that?’ And he didn’t remember. So I reminded him. We were in Minnesota, and I just wanted a wristwatch for Christmas. That’s all I wanted. And so my parents gave me a watch. It was a mechanical wind-up watch with a red secondhand and a calendar window. They gave it to me on Christmas Eve. And I was so happy with it. I can vividly remember sitting up in the balcony at First Covenant Church at the candlelight service, you know, just gazing at that beautiful little red secondhand lurching around the face of my watch, around and around. I remember seeing the ‘twenty-four’ turn into a ‘twenty-five’ at the stroke of midnight. And the next morning, we went skating on the creek up in Harris, and I took off my new watch and put it in my pocket; I didn’t want to bang it up if I fell on the ice. But what happened was I skated onto some thin ice and fell through -- up to my waist. It was so cold, and I climbed out of the frozen creek and ran back up to the house to get warm. I took off my wet clothes, and my Aunt Janet immediately threw them in the dryer. I waited in front of the fire for my clothes to dry. A little while later, Aunt Janet came into the room with this terrible look on her face. In her hands she carried a cereal bowl containing all the parts of my new watch, which had just gone through the dryer. So there was my watch in a hundred little pieces, with the red secondhand sitting right on top like a stray cat whisker. I was so sad. But I took the pieces to my dad in a plastic bag, and to his credit, he felt really bad for me. He didn’t scold me or anything. He didn’t buy me a new watch, either, but he found a jeweler somewhere in Minneapolis who was able to take all those tiny pieces and actually put them back together into a watch. That's Depression thinking for you. But it was also, you know. . . a miracle."
From the living room, on the stereo, a jazz singer was bending the notes of a carol: “. . . Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”
On that one day
The unforgiven will be forgiven
The unreconciled will be reconciled
The flood waters will recede and
What the mighty storm destroyed will rise again.
Everything taken apart will be put back together
And all that was old will be new again
The waiting will be over
The Hoped For will come and
The tears will be for joy.
* * *
 [This anecdote is documented in a handwritten letter from my mother, Charlotte Dillon Swanson, circa 2000, shortly before she died. I dimly recall the incident at Dickens on the Strand in Galveston, but I had told my mother about it some years earlier. She vividly remembered it, probably embellished it, and, as was her custom, reminded me of this and other salient events of my life in a letter sent for my birthday--JS].