After the fight and my father’s decision that
“God damn it, we just won’t have a tree at all,”
I put on my coat and boots and went out to find a tree.
It was snowing hard and cold,
the sidewalks piled with unshoveled snow,
the occasional footprints already filled ankle deep,
only tire ruts in the street gave a path into the blizzard.
I walked the tightrope of ruts.
It is two city blocks from Berteau to Irving Park,
two more to the Chicago River, over the bridge
it is three to California, eight to Kedzie,
another eight to Elston, four more to the Farmer’s Market
where they sold Christmas trees.
My father was a stubborn man,
when he was angry even more so;
he had made a decision and he had to stick with it.
His rage had flared to my own –
it drove me as far as the river.
But at the top of the bridge the vista over the snowscape
that was ordinarily a fetid city dump muffled anger
the way it muted the sounds of the city.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, I thought,
on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
The song became my marching cadence.
Except for the freezing and the quiet death
nothing is so beautiful as a snowstorm in the city–
the buried cars hunched like burrowed animals,
the streetlamps receding into infinity,
aureoles of swirling snow and softened light.
I trudged past the used car lots
where I had used a frozen steel pad
to clean rusted bumpers,
the corner grocery where I stocked
shelves with Gold Dust Twins, fed
the incinerator trash, killed roaches
with my thumb, past the laundry factory
where the laughing Negro women worked,
past Belmont Rug Cleaners where the man
with the hole in his throat lifted
his decorous flap and blew us smoke rings.
The snow fell and kept falling,
sweat froze in my hair, tears froze,
my boots clacked their buckles like flattened sleigh bells;
and all the time my father was with me,
saying to me what he could not say,
what I cannot say now –
what is understood without saying.
There aren’t many trees to choose from
late on Christmas Eve and those that remain
have obvious shortcomings – missing branches,
lopsided shapes, twisted trunks – but there was one
broken-nosed beauty left and I got it at a bargain
from a man steaming off the heat of his shed
and anxious to get back to his Muscatel.
The walk back was longer than the walk out –
dragging the tree behind me through the deepening snow
that seemed determined to efface the city once and for all.
The tree whispered to me all the way home – Good
King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen.
At home my father said nothing,
brought out the saw and the tree stand,
and while we set up the tree in a puddle of needles
we forgave each other without saying so,
and the little ones laughed and threw tinsel
and God blessed us every one.