By Jim DeBrosse
Thornton Trickledown waited impatiently for the last employee's car to leave the parking lot before he ran from his office out to the rolling entrance gate. It was Christmas Eve and the final day of operations at the Dayton plant of Oil Pan International.
Trickledown was looping the chain and lock around the gate posts when the employee's beat-up car rumbled back to him in reverse. A man in his 50s — no one Trickledown recognized — rolled down his window.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Trickledown! How does it feel to be the most hated man in Dayton?"
"It's not my fault they work cheaper in China."
"You shut us down today just so you wouldn't have to pay Christmas bonuses, you cheap …"
"Hey, if you don't like it, open up your own plant."
"Yeah, when I move to China."
Trickledown headed straight from the plant to his favorite steakhouse. After a trying day like today, he needed a good thick cut of meat and a couple of Manhattans, straight up.
Shiraz, the girl he'd met on his last Sandals trip to Cancun, would have met him there, but she was pre-vacation shopping in New York, where Trickledown was flying the day after Christmas to meet her. Then the two of them were off to the Cayman Islands to celebrate his deal with the Shenyang City Metal Works. Trickledown had arranged the whole thing, saved OPI millions, and landed himself a big enough bonus and raise to guarantee plenty more vacation trips with Shiraz.
In the meantime, though, Trickledown would have to make the obligatory Christmas dinner visit to his parents' home in Oakwood — if he didn't want to be written out of their will.
"I hate Christmas," Trickledown said as he stabbed another bite of his porcini-crusted filet mignon.
He downed the rest of his Manhattan and signalled his waitress.
"Hey, another round here."
The snow was falling in wet, plump flakes when Trickledown stepped from the restaurant and lifted the collar on his Gucci coat — not one of those cheap bomber jackets, but the full-length ticket with nappa leather and double lambswool lining. He felt like a Captain of Industry — and maybe a little tipsy from the Manhattans — as he strode up Brown Street toward his parked BMW. The world was his snow globe.
But then, as though a giant hand had suddenly shaken up the scene, an old bag lady popped up in front of him. She couldn't be avoided in her filthy puffy coat and trash bag leggings. She held up a greasy palm to his face.
"Spare some change, mister?"
"You mean so you can buy yourself a bottle of wine?"
"And what if I do? It's Christmas Eve, in case you forgot."
"Why do you people always think the world owes you something?"
"The world don't owe me nothin', mister. But if you didn't notice, it's cold out here and a little wine would help warm my innards."
"There are agencies that can help. I pay plenty in taxes, OK?"
"I paid plenty in taxes, too, until I lost my job, and the one after that, and another after that."
"Well, go look again. Show a little self-reliance."
"You mean, like you?" The old woman cackled.
"Yeah, like me. A self-made businessman."
A general plant manager and only 32, he told himself proudly.
"Well, I guess we'll see about that."
"See about what?"
And the woman vanished just as suddenly as she had appeared.
Trickledown blinked and rubbed his eyes. He definitely hadn't needed that third Manhattan.
Trickledown pulled into the alley behind his condo, but the remote wouldn't work the garage door. So he drove around to the front and parked on the street.
Oddly, his condo was blazing with indoor lights. Had he been so distracted this morning as to leave them like that? He stamped the snow off his Michael Toschi boots and tried his key in the front door. It wouldn't fit.
"What the heck is going on here?"
He tried again, and that's when he heard a woman's voice inside. He pounded on the door.
"Shiraz, is that you? Open this door!"
But when the door opened, it wasn't Shiraz, but an elegant older woman in a black cocktail dress. She was staring down her nose at him.
"May I help you?"
Trickledown exploded. "Yes! You can tell me what you're doing in my house!"
"Your house? Oh, dear."
She slammed the door and Trickledown could hear her calling up the stairs — his stairs.
"Roger! Come here! There's a crazy man at the door!"
Roger was down the stairs and at the door in a flash. He was dressed in a tux, his bow tie still loosened, in final preparations for the evening.
"What's the problem, mister?"
"You are the problem! Get outta my house or I'm calling the police!"
Roger slammed the door and locked it.
"Helen," he yelled, "call 911!"
Trickledown howled in rage and pounded both fists on the door.
"No use," a voice behind him said.
It was the old bag lady, standing now on his porch. Only she wasn't wearing the puffy coat anymore. She was dressed in a red silk robe with a crown of holly on her head.
"Hey, aren't you the wino I just saw on Brown Street? Where'd you find that get-up?"
"No get-up. You've never seen a Christmas angel?"
"Are you a nut job, too? That does it, I'm calling the cops."
He pulled out his Blackberry and started punching keys. "I'm getting those people out of my house."
"Honey, you don't have any house. Never did."
Trickledown's call was still ringing when, in a swirl of flashing red and blue lights, a police cruiser slid to a stop in the snowy street outside his house. Two police officers emerged with their hands on their holsters.
"You there on the porch!" the closest officer said. "Get your hands on your head!"
"What's the idea? This is my house!"
The bag lady whispered in his ear. "You want bullet holes in your nice leather coat?"
Trickledown put his hands on his head.
"Walk slowly off the porch and down to the cruiser, then place your hands on the roof, sir."
Trickledown did as he was told, certain the truth would soon be out.
An officer patted him down, then stood back.
"Let's see some identification."
Trickledown turned slowly around, pinched his wallet out of his coat pocket and opened it. He was smiling to himself, happy to make fools of the two officers, until he saw with a gut-wrenching blow that the wallet was empty.
"I can't believe it! My license, credit cards, money! It's all gone!"
He held out the empty wallet as proof.
"All right," the officer said, "into the cruiser."
They were whooshing through the falling snow on Fifth Street when the officer in the passenger seat turned to Trickledown in back.
"Sir, since it's Christmas Eve, we're giving you a break. No charges, no jail time. We'll take you to St. Vincent de Paul."
"No, I demand to be taken home!"
"Sir, from the name you gave us, you have no home. We either book you for vagrancy and disturbing the peace, or we drop you off at St. Vincent's. What is it?"
Trickledown held up his palms in surrender. "OK. St. Vincent's it is."
He closed his eyes to calm himself, but when he opened them again, the robed lady was sitting beside him. He screamed.
"You all right back there?" The cop was glaring.
"Fine. Fine. No hallucinations, or anything like that. Just, uh... clearing my throat."
He coughed dramatically into his fist until the officer lost interest.
Trickledown turned to the Christmas angel and whispered through clenched teeth. "What are those people doing in my house?"
The angel chortled. "It's not your house, Thornton. Your father gave you the down payment for it."
"But I paid him back, every cent, with my first job out of college."
"And who paid for your college?"
"My father did, of course. He could damn well afford it, too."
"But not you, right?"
"Of course not. I was just a kid."
"And how did you get that first job?"
"Well," he hesitated, "through a friend of a friend."
"Your fiancee's father, to be exact. It was his company. Only you didn't marry your fiancee, because you got a better deal at OPI and left her behind."
"Listen here — do you know how hard I've worked to move up to general plant manager?"
"I know you broke into the computer of your closest rival and took most of his ideas."
Trickledown's eyes opened like saucers.
"How do you know all this?"
The angel shrugged. "You said you were a self-made man. I had my people check into it."
Trickledown shouted this time. "Now wait just one darn minute! That's a violation of my privacy!"
The cop sized him up again, then turned to his partner. "Maybe we should take him to the Valley for a psych work-up."
The other officer shook his head. "On Christmas Eve? Besides, he doesn't seem dangerous to me. Just loud."
Trickledown smiled sheepishly. "Believe me, I'm not dangerous at all. Just a little ... confused right now. OK?"
The cruiser stopped in front of St. Vincent de Paul, where a man who was shoveling snow outside escorted Trickledown to the intake desk. An older woman with a smile as bright as her sparkly snowman pin met him there.
"Just fill out this basic information form, please."
She handed him a pen and he began scribbling impatiently. "One more thing, Mr. Trickledown. Do you have any mental health, drug or alcohol issues?"
"No, of course not."
"And you have no place to stay tonight?"
The thought suddenly struck him. His parents! Why hadn't he thought of them before?
"As a matter of fact, I do. Do you have a limo service?"
The woman smiled a little less brightly. "I'm sorry. This is St. Vincent, not the St. Regis. But we do have bus tokens."
He was trudging through the deepening snow along Ludlow Street, headed toward Patterson Boulevard, when the angel appeared again at his side.
"So, runnin' home to mom and dad, Mr. Self-Made Man?"
"Yes, I am, no thanks to you. I'm going to warm up, get a good night's sleep and deal with this nightmare in the morning."
"Ah, but the nightmare has just begun, I'm afraid."
The angel disappeared once again — and this time Trickledown wished she hadn't. Just up the street, underneath a dark railroad overpass, he saw a large man pull a ski mask down over his face. His right hand was stuffed deep into his coat pocket.
Trickledown tried to cross the street, but the man blocked him before he could step from the curb.
"Where you headed in such a hurry on this fine Christmas Eve?"
"That's my business."
"Now what kinda attitude is that, Scrooge? Let's try to spread a little Christmas cheer. Show me your wallet."
"I'm broke, I tell you. It's empty."
"Hand it over, or you deal with my jumpy friend here."
He jiggled his hand inside the coat pocket.
Trickledown pulled out his wallet and showed the man there was nothing in it, then dropped it to the ground.
"Is this some kinda joke? Where you hidin' the money?"
"Nowhere. I've already been robbed once this evening."
The man pulled his hand out of his pocket to reveal a large gleaming wrench. Trickledown raised a forearm — too late to stop the bright white explosion on top of his head.
He came to, feeling a cozy warmth on his backside but a chill on his front clear down to his feet. He was lying on his side under some musty blankets with an old sofa cushion underneath his head. Orange flickering light played off the walls of the empty room.
By the entry door he saw a Walmart cart filled with junk and ratty blankets and topped off with trash bags full of aluminum cans. He rolled over, too quickly, and the pain cut through the top of his head like an ax. When he could open his eyes again, he saw crackling logs in an open fireplace and, crouching by it, a young man with a long beard and a knit cap. He was using rusty fireplace tongs to hold an open can of Dinty Moore stew over the flames.
He turned to Trickledown and smiled. "You hungry?"
Trickledown licked his dry, cracked lips. "No, but I'm awfully thirsty."
"You're in luck. They forgot to turn off the water in here."
He held up a McDonald's paper cup full of tap water. Trickledown reached from under his blankets for the cup, but then suddenly clutched at his chest.
"My coat! My Gucci coat!"
It was gone, and so were his $725 Toschi boots. He had nothing on but shirt, pants and wet socks.
The bearded man smiled. "Way I see it, you're lucky to be alive."
Trickledown remembered seeing the gleaming wrench above his face and shivered.
"You're right. I should thank you. I could have frozen to death out there."
Trickledown started drinking the water, too fast at first, so that it seemed to bore down through his dry throat like a Roto-Rooter.
"Take 'er easy," the bearded man said. "You been out now about six hours."
Trickledown coughed. "You're kidding."
"I found you just past midnight, right after the Carillon bells chimed. And they just rang 6 o'clock a minute ago."
The stew began to sizzle inside the can.
"Oh, by the way, Merry Christmas."
Trickledown felt his heart leap to hear the words. "And Merry Christmas to you."
He swallowed more water, slowly this time, and fingered the tender lump on his skull. He looked at the bearded man, who seemed perfectly content sitting in his rags before the fire.
"Why did you do it?" Trickledown said.
"Pick me up and bring me here?"
"No use wastin' a perfectly good man."
Trickledown began laughing and couldn't stop, even though it made his head feel like it was splitting in two.
"It's not funny. Too many perfectly useful people bein' wasted today. That's the problem."
The bearded man pulled the can out of the fire, took a plastic spork from his shirt pocket and licked it clean. He pushed the can toward Trickledown and offered him the spork.
"You wanna bite? I got plenty."
Trickledown politely declined. "You know, if I had a house, I'd have you come live with me."
The bearded man shook his head no. "I'm not one for livin' in houses. I much prefer the great outdoors, 'cept when it's cold and snowy like today. I got myself a camp in the woods over by the railroad tracks."
"How do you manage to support yourself?"
"Can collectin'. Trash pickin'. I get by all right."
Trickledown started laughing again without really knowing why. "Then you're a self-made man, right?"
The man shook his head again. "Heavens, no. None of us is self-made in the eyes of the Lord. He's always lookin' out for us. Just like we should be lookin' out for each other."
Thornton let out a deep regretful sigh.
"You know what? I used to run a factory, employed about 400 people. But I shut it down and sent it all overseas. I guess you could say I wasted a lot of people."
The man glared at him. "Then go and reopen it and call everybody back."
Trickledown laughed. "It's not that simple. You see ..."
But a flash of inspiration stopped him.
"You know what? Maybe I could open up my own business. I could take my bonus and my ..."
In the next instant, everything before his eyes became a white blur of blinding snow and he was falling, falling, falling ...
He was back in his warm leather coat again and walking from his favorite steakhouse, the snow coming down in clots around the street lamps. He kept walking, feeling the miracle of the crunching snow underneath his boots.
Up ahead, near the corner, there she was. The old bag lady.
He approached her with a smile as she put her hand out. He knew exactly what she would say.
"Spare some change, mister?"
"I've always got change for a Christmas angel."
"You gettin' flirty with me, young man? I ain't no angel, believe me."
Trickledown pulled out his wallet and, inside, his credit cards and driver's license were there, and so was his money, as though nothing had ever changed.
He pulled out every bill in his wallet, maybe $200 worth, and put it in the woman's palm.
"Have you been drinkin'? Cause I won't take this kind of money from no man who's been drinkin'. No, sir. My mama raised me better than that."
"No, take it, please. All of it. And have a Merry Christmas, will you?"
"Oh, I will. And so will my grandchildren. I was just finishin' up a cleanin' job tonight when I found out I had no change with me. Bless you, young man! Bless you for all the years to come!"
"We have to look out for each other, don't we?"
"Oh, yes, indeed we do, sir."
Copyright, 2008, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.