His scraggly salt-and-pepper beard covered most of his face. His pale green eyes were sunken in and watery. His face appeared to be almost an afterthought, tired and worn from many an unkind mile.
He sat protectively hunched over the glowing tip of his cigarette in the doorway of some closed-for-the-day establishment. His overalls were dirty, the clasps of them latching over bare skin where a shirt should be, his jacket unbuttoned. He was in a wheelchair for he had no legs.
He was the polar opposite of the jolly Saint Nick, with his thick white beard cloudlike and fluffy, whom my family and I had just seen at the Festival of Trees in Tacoma. He sat in his traditional red with white-trimmed suit surrounded by twinkling lights and fake glitter snow offering up a great photo opportunity for those of us who send out a photograph with our Christmas cards but had not yet come up with the perfect photo.
Cody and Carter, ages 6 and 4 at the time, had not noticed Santa, being overly excited to play some of the kiddie games located at the opposite end of the room. Nor did they notice that shadow of a man as we hurried from the restaurant to the light rail train stop, shivering in the breeze and hoping the rain would hold off for just a few more minutes.
At one point Carter and I were a mere 10 feet or so away from him. Carter’s choice of an after-meal candy from the restaurant turned out to be of the hard cinnamon variety. It was too hot, too spicy for his little mouth and he started in with the drama that only a child can muster from being slighted by a piece of candy.
As he whimpered about the offensive goodie, it fell out of his mouth and onto the sidewalk. I bent down to pick it up and as I stood, I saw him sitting there. For the briefest of moments his eyes locked with mine. I smiled and nodded. He did the same. And then the tide of life pushed me forward, and I caught up with my family.
We boarded the train heading to the parking garage where we had left our car. There were errands left undone, and the weekend was drawing to a close.
Almost a year has passed since that day, and still it has stuck with me, his image. I cannot shake it. I am saddened by his situation and curious about who he used to be, who and where he is now, and how he became homeless. I wonder what I would have said had the boys seen him, for certainly there would have been many questions, questions with delicate and difficult answers.
Where does he live? Why is he homeless? What happened to his legs? Where does he sleep at night? Who takes care of him? And of course they would want to know how Santa knows where to deliver his presents if he does not have a home, much less a chimney.
These are questions I cannot even answer to the satisfaction of myself much less to the prodding and wondering minds of my children.
This weekend we plan once again to go to the Festival of Trees and have invited my mom to join us. I imagine Cody and Carter will be eager to show their Grandma the sparkling lights and the breathtakingly decorated Christmas trees. If they don’t consider themselves too old, they may once again chase the dancing snowflakes projected upon the floor as Christmas carols float through the air.
We will eat out afterwards and find ourselves retracing our steps of last year. I know I will be scanning those darkened doorways, looking for him, and still struggling with those unanswered questions from last year.
Nancy Magnusson is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. She lives with her husband and their two young sons just outside of Gig Harbor. They enjoy focusing on the simple things in life and taking the road less traveled. Email her at email@example.com.