The Internet Christmas Project

You wouldn't be here unless you had to be. It's less than an hour's drive from the suburbs but it feels like Beruit during the bombing. You hold your breath when you get out of the car, and then inhale the contaminated air only when your body tells you can't survive otherwise. You walk from your car to the mission in a haze of fear that makes it seem you're looking at the world through frosted glass. The rest of the world passes through with the windows rolled up. You wish you were with them, rolling by.

The winter pattern has started in San Francisco. It’s cold and gray and the rain is coalescing in brown streams in the gutters. It will rain dirty cold until spring and so there will be months before the city escapes into warmth. Despite the gloom the line to get into the St. Lawrence mission stretches around the block. The people don't fidget on the sidewalk. This is their zone. They live in mental constructs that insulate them from the inhospitibility of belonging nowhere. They stagger in waking dreams peeking out of those worlds only to remind each other the queue is moving, or to mention they heard someone had died, or to relay a message from an angel or ghost that just tapped them on the foot. They’re all survivors in city camo, only seen when they want to be. Even now as you pass the church close up you have to look hard to perceive people under the collage of random clothing. Were it not for the staccato clouds of condensed breath they could be a heap of recyclables.

The road is stained in gasoline rainbows. Headlamps glare off the wet pavement. The traffic passes shedding noise and exhaust and it takes another painful eternity before the queue moves and Harry nudges her. Then she's in the gloomy church shelter. Dark wood wet with years of filthy air and impenetrable fog. She's in an apse. She knows the word from when she used to do crossword puzzles way back when it was warm and she had a place to sleep out of the rain. Then there's a blank in her life while she waits for something to happen, silences the grumbling in her stomach with the thought food may never come. Another eternity passes before she gets to the head of the line, to the white metal counter and the guy wearing plastic gloves and a hair net who keeps looking at her as if she's the cause of one of his problems.

She says," Thank you," before he's given her anything, and then figuring her sudden subservience may cost her, recoils into enough anger to make her feet move. Fight or flight.

The guy serving dinner is white but he seems like family and with his eyes he's saying he's got it figured out. They all do, these volunteers. Get a couple checkmarks from God and get the hell back home where it's safe and warm. She doesn't hold out a hand when he offers up the plate. She glares at him like she's picked him out of a police lineup. She's done it before.

Two vicodin in his blood numb Jackie to the point he's okay with everything around him and having the homeless stare him down is not something on his list of concerns. Do you still get credit for helping the poor if you're drugged and it doesn't hurt? Is it penance if you don't care how many Hail Marys you say? Just keep rambling until they make no sense anymore. Just words.

Full of grace. Full of it.

Coming to St. Lawrence purges all the unimportance in his mind and gets him right back to the bottom of Maslow's pyramid of needs. If you can be happy breathing, you can be happy under any conditions. The holidays are the perfect occasion to reclaim one’s humanity by reminding yourself how awful your life could become. Like the woman who's staring at him. How bad must her life be?

Jackie can operate under her gaze like an actor under the lights. She's helping him get in touch with his species. He's making allowances that all of them stare and most of them stutter or repeat themselves. He's got this place figured out but he wonders if his car is safe where he parked it. He wonders where Mary and Brad are having dinner and what she's going to say when she finds out he brought Julie here.

Somebody's got to appreciate he does things that take him some guts. He wears a smile and allows himself a moment of paranoia -- do any of the hungry fools have guns? He says," Happy Holidays."

The older woman doesn’t reply to him verbally. Instead, she breaks her stare but doesn’t move. She's looking at her feet. Then into the distance. They're all a little touched, you'd have to be to be out here. Even a child can get a job turning hamburgers. These people can't even feed themselves. They've regressed to infancy and this is the womb that accepts them. Come back to God and eat.

Blessed art thou.

He decides she reminds him of his mother. It's her aura and the way she stands with one shoulder drooping. He gets a whiff of her. Under six layers of torn sweaters and stained t-shirts she smells like the docks at low tide. Her eyes are glassy and absolutely nothing physical is similar to his mental picture of his mother, but she keeps coming to his mind. It's a feeling of familiarity, a conservation of defensive energy that occurs when you’re with family.

She says,"I don't need your goddamned charity." Doesn’t take the plate.

A gaunt man reaches around her and Jackie stands trying to compute what's happening. All he can think to say through the dissonance is,"But..."

The gaunt man's ball cap says, "Fish Envy." There's grease and cardboard visible on the frayed bill but you can still see the picture of a rainbow trout on a hook. He says,"Tessie, are you nuts again?" as Jackie hands him the plate and prepares another.

"She's missing some up here," says the man as if he's delivering the commandments directly from the mountain. "They took everything from her. Everything." Then he leaves for the tables.

"Happy Thanksgiving," Jackie says, spooning gravy over an ice cream scoop of instant potatoes. "We're all nuts. I'm nuts for being here, right?" When he's done he holds the plate out to the woman.

"You didn't even ask my name," says Tess. " Happy holidays -- you don't know who the hell I am. I'm not here to provide you with a rich holiday experience helping those less fortunate so you can go on home and sleep on your extra fluffy mattress oh so happy with yourself. I am a person. I am a human being."

"Bitch, save it for someone who gives a shit," says a man behind Tess. "Dinner is not an excuse for another of your political statements." He squeezes around her. Jackie hands him the plate and starts preparing another.

Now Tess has found a way to summon up a little anger. It's the only way to generate the energy to move on. She'd apologize to all of them for it, but that would ruin the plan and the plan is to not go hungry tonight. In order not to go hungry she's got to find a way to dislike this boy and she's doing what she can. Another guy tries to slip around her but she sticks out her leg and blocks him with a side step.

"You stay right there, Lemond, or you'll need a new throat."

"Come on, momma," says the voice. "Some of us wanna eat."

"That's exactly what I intend to do," Tess says. She holds out her hand and takes the new plate from Jackie. "You should be ashamed of yourself," she tells him, and decides his smile is smug. Artificial. Who do these people think they are coming here to exploit her misery? She's not here to make anyone else feel good..

Jackie says,"Sorry ma'am." These people are all down on their luck or a bit soft in the head. That's why they're on the street and not in rent-controlled housing. "Happy thanksgiving, anyway."

"My ass," she says, and heads over to the steel tables someone has decorated with paper fan-fold turkeys and napkins with pictures of pilgrims. She puts down her plate, maneuvers her purse onto the space next to her and slides into the seat. She pushes Harry with her hip and tells him to move over after he's already moved.

A blob of jellified cranberries falls from his fork to the table. He utters an epithet as he lowers his lips and slurps quickly, then rising, back of his hand to his mouth. Tess calls him a pig, and he tells her it takes one to know one. He imagines on the way out he could convince her to let him ride. Or if she said no, he'd recruit a couple of guys to hold her down while they took turns. Then it comes to him he's already done it once when it was warm and he was scratching for weeks afterward. Still, it's getting cold and lonely outside.

"What you staring at?" Tess says, and her day is ruined. She's standing under a shower of worry. Of all the shit to happen why does she deserve the holiday to end up with a beating, her clothes pushed up under her armpits, and another trip to the hospital? Why her and not the kid who's handing out drinks? Once she had a mother who loved her and a husband who would have put himself on the line. Now, if there's crap being dealt she's the one who's always going to do the getting. Since Marcus left there's been no one between her and all the scum on the street. Goddamned Marcus. Not as strong a man as she needed but he would have got a gun and killed them for what they did.

"I asked you what you're staring at, asshole."

Harry says he's staring at Christmas pussy as a lithe female hand takes the plastic cup in front of him and fills it with apple juice. The hand's owner is made of sunlight and moonbeams. She's a kid and she reminds him that somewhere he has a daughter. The problem with kids is they were yours when they were cranky and had to be fed, and someone else's when they were happy. Then there was the mother. Never satisfied. He was better off without them, and if they were lucky they were deader than he was.

"Happy Thanksgiving," says the girl.

Harry asks her,"Do you like your parents?" He reaches, touches her thigh with his fingertips and she recoils, blushing.

"Excuse me?"

"You won't for long," he says, and he's done with her. The yellow gravy congealed on his plate and he pushes it around with his fork. He holds it to his nose to smell if it's gone bad while Julie fills empty cups, spilling juice on the table top and some on the diners, until her pitcher runs out. She goes behind the counter for more, bumping Jackie.

"Sorry. That old guy gives me the creeps," she says.

Jackie hands out another plate and says,"Which one?" without looking back.

"All of them," says Julie, unscrewing the top of a new bottle of juice. "How long do we have to stay here?"

He wants to leave now, too, but that would be to admit defeat. Retreat to suburbia. Weakness that prevents the soul from permanent growth. You're not supposed to like coming here. If it's not an imposition it's a worthless gesture. Two slices of turkey. Spoon of corn and creamed spinach. He plops a dome potatoes with his ice cream scoop. Pours on gravy. Hands it to whoever's in front of him.

If it doesn't hurt, it's not penance.

He asks his daughter,"Did you get anything to eat?" and she wrinkles her nose.


"What's wrong with it?"

"You gotta be kidding."

"It's good enough for them, it's good enough for us."

"I'll wait till we get home."

"I don't have anything at home. I figured we'd eat here."

"I meant my home." She squeezes past him with her pitcher of apple juice."And I'm not doing the table with the creepy guy."

"Then they'll have nothing to drink."

"Let them come and get it themselves."

"You're not helping, dear." He stops serving to give her the look he reserves for serious moments. Fred MacMurray counseling Chip and Ernie. Robert Young wearing a suit to Sunday dinner in the living room. If you can't find charity within you, then you're doomed to become a vacuous excuse for humanity. We do things we don't like to help others. It's not supposed to be comfortable. It's what separates us from animals.

"Go on," he tells her, and her tears aren't going to get her out of this lesson. Please become saintly. What all fathers want for their daughters. Beatification.

A voice from in front of him: "Hey brother? You hate me or something? That's cool. I can deal with a cold dinner. I got that shit inside. You know Folsom? I got friends come out, do me a favor if I ask. Like cutting you a couple new assholes. So how about it?"

The guy at the counter has his hand out and Jackie shoves the plate into it as Julie sulks, shuffling to where she left off. He's watching as she pours juice and the scruffy crew thanks her, one by one, as if they're suddenly aware they're being watched.

Now there's an elitist concept, Jackie thinks -- and stops himself. He is not better than these people. He is not worthy to wash their feet. Everyman is my teacher in that I can learn from him. Should have taken three vicodin. Then he'd bring one home to sleep in the guest room for the holidays. Not enough courage yet.

They're smiling, thanking Julie. Most of them wish her a happy thanksgiving. A couple are silent. They grab at their cups as if it's their last drink in a desert.

To Tess, they're all leering. It would show that girl what life is like to have to face one of them alone. She'd learn how real life is unfair and hurts. What right does she have to get to go home from this mess while as far as she knows she's going to die there?

Harry slides a hand onto Tess's thigh and says,"You cold? It's warmer with two in a blanket." And she's not taking it today. She's got fight in her because her man is gone and she's got to be what he was not. This is about being strong where she wasn't. Taught her good for being so reliant. Never again.

Tess elbows Harry, nearly knocking him from the bench and into Julie who's snaking between people to get back to the counter. Julie drops her pitcher on Harry, and in grabbing for it hits Harry's shoulder.

Taking two blows and a cold pitcher unexpectedly, Harry's seeing red. He's going to survive this beating. Now he's moving. He flails balled fists landing a couple erratic punches. When he hears women screaming, he punches harder. This is how you survive when they come to get you. You kick and you punch and you keep going till you're free. It doesn't hurt till you stop and rest, so don't stop. He tries to get to his feet but trips over the bench he was sitting on and lands on his back. He pushes away the hands as quickly as he can, judges the moment when the grabbing stops, rotates to his hands and feet and bolts for the open air.

When Harry starts punching, Tess goes for her bag. She tears out a handful of sweaters and shirts, some bottles she'd intended to take back for the nickel, and finds the black gun, trying to get a hand on the end to hold. She’s seen him this way and he keeps getting worse. It’s got to stop.

Harry kicks her once and she's got it in her fist. It's a lot heavier than she remembers but she's able to get it pointed toward Harry as he gets to his feet, wild-eyed. Who knows what this guy will do next? But she can't keep it trained on him. He keeps dodging and weaving, fending off invisible punches. When do you pull the trigger on these things?

"Stop right there, motherfucker," Tess says like it’s a movie – they all stop when you say that in the movies. But Harry's not listening and Tess is remembering him helping those kids from the west side send her to the hospital. No more Harry is a good life for her. He pushes past Tess running for the door and she doesn't think before she's closing her eyes and pulling the trigger. The gun makes a click. When she looks up she realizes the gun is pointed where Harry was, and not where he is. She's aiming at the guy behind the counter. He just stands and stares like he's confused. She looks at the gun to figure out what she's doing wrong. It looks easier on TV -- and then tries to aim it again but Harry keeps running. One minute he's here. The next over there. When she pulls the trigger again she’s thinking this must be what shooting's like. Maybe you don't hear the bullet if you're the one firing the gun. Harry ducks and she's pointing the gun at the guy behind the counter when the gun clicks again. He drops a spatula and a dish full of food.

Harry must not be shot because he keeps going till he's out the door and someone grabs her wrist and jerks it upward so fast she hears the crack in her shoulder at the same time the jagged bolt of pain runs down her arm.

Then there's a deafening concussion and the gun jumps in her hand. In a second everyone’s off their bench seat and is laying face down on the floor.

Except the volunteers. They’re standing, agape, frozen in their tracks.

Her ears are ringing. Father Rapplier is shouting something as he pries the weapon from her fist, he flips a switch on the gun and it opens up. He shakes it and a couple brass bullets fall to the ground.

Julie is holding her face and there's a stream of blood running down from a cut in her forehead. She's sobbing when Jackie gets to her.

"Are you okay?"

"No. I want to go home," she says.

He tries to hug his daughter but she yelps at his touch – wrong move -- and he tries to examine her. Where's the bleeding coming from? Head wounds always look worse than they are. Was she stabbed? The gun was aimed at the ceiling when it went off.

Who has time for this? "Let's get you to a hospital."

"I'm so sorry," says the priest, raising his hands, trying to get the crowd's attention. "Please, finish your meals."

A couple of the men come to Julie's side asking if she's okay. Jackie pushes them away. Haven't they done enough to his daughter?

"Easy, dude," says a guy with long stringy hair. "Be cool."

Jackie tells him to screw himself and the party's over. Everyone starts leaving.

As they leave the homeless pack the remains of their dinners into napkins and plastic wrap they shove into their pockets. The stream of people pushes past the priest. He's got the gun in one hand and Tess's wrist in the other.

"Is she okay?" Father asks Jackie, who doesn't know. "I can call an ambulance."

"By the time they to this hell hole I could have been to the emergency room twice," Jackie says. "No thanks."

"I'm so sorry," the priest says. "I'll meet you there as soon as we get finished here."

"Don't bother, Father," Jackie says, promising to be done with the mission forever once he gets Julie into the car. The neighborhood is a dangerous cesspool and to be injured in it means to become infected. But not everyone's a criminal. "I mean, don't worry, Father. I'll call you." It's not working. Why hide it? Move.

Jackie pries a fistful of paper napkins from a dispenser on one of the tables and presses it to Julie's bloody forehead. She's starting to look like a refugee from a battle zone and it's making him crazy. As far as he's concerned, today all of these people are dangerous. A couple people on the street stop and ask him if he needs help. He ignores them. He tells a man,"I don't need your help," as gruffly as he can. Don't follow me. Keep walking. Don't need any more interaction with charity cases. They don't want his goddamned help, anyway. What was he thinking bring a child down here?

"I hate you," Julie says.

"Yes, I know. I'm a terrible parent."

"Why did we have to come here? Why couldn't we have a normal thanksgiving like normal people. Mom's right. You're living in your own world."

The key fob in his hand, Jackie unlocks the car from a distance, opens the passenger door and helps Julie get in.

"Your mother..." he starts to say as they glide onto the freeway.There are hospitals closer than the one near his apartment in San Jose. This is something else Mary will ding him for. The whole thing will go on his permanent record. She'll be talking about at the gym, at her orchid club meetings, at Starbuck's. By Monday all Julie's teachers will know her father took her to a dangerous part of the city to be beat up by derelicts on the holiday. Brad will launch on a condescending lecture that starts out innocuously as a conversation about the 49’ers football season over a beer in the living room, and ends up with an indirect dissertation on character, using hall-of-famer Steve Young versus O.J. Simpson as the models.

In Brad’s parlance, Jackie is O.J..

"It stopped bleeding," Julie said when they were a couple miles down the highway.

"Anything else hurt? What happened?" he says, now realizing he never even triaged her injuries and feeling like he wants to scream.

"He hit me. In the leg."

"He's just an old man. He probably didn't hit very hard."

"Right. Can you take me straight home?" Julie said.

"I want to get you checked out by a doctor, first."

"We're going to wind up sitting there for four hours just to have them tell me I have a scratch on my head. I'm telling you I'm fine."

"I kind of figured that," Jackie said, realizing that no matter where he took Julie, Mary would have to take her to her own doctor. Whatever he thought love or responsibility meant was just a waste of his time. He rolled down his window and paid the toll taker on the Dunbarton Bridge. No one was interested in his definitions.

"You should get EZ-Pass," Julie said, and he realized he had the box stuck to his windshield. Why did he pay cash? What should he say to his kid?

"What are you going to tell your mother?"

"That you're an idiot."

"But I'm your father. Don't you think maybe I was trying to do something you'd benefit from?"

"Sure. Instead of a nice turkey dinner you took me to the city and a bum tried to kill me. That's what every kid wants to do on Thanksgiving."

"Don't you think you're overplaying it, just a little?"

"Only one of us is bleeding."

"But not anymore."

Jackie began to feel the world clearer and sharper so he patted his pocket and realized he didn't have his pill bottle with him. His stomach hollowed out. The image in his mind materializes out of mental cobwebs. A woman pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger twice. He should be dead, twice.

His hands started shaking on the steering wheel. The world in front of him collapsed to a point. He said,"Yes, honey," without knowing if she was asking him anything

Where was Tess spending the night? Why hadn't the gun gone off? He heard the hammer fall twice and then saw Father dumping the shells. The gun was loaded. And why she reminded him so much of his mother? How she said she wasn't there to fulfill his life's ambition to help someone. She was right. Everything he'd done was for himself and because of his selfishness he should be dead, and probably Julie, too.

He rationalized to Julie to keep himself talking -- "Father Rapplier will take the help any way he can get it. Even if it comes from selfishness. Even if it comes from being dragged there by your father. Help is help, to him." But he didn't believe it.

They pulled into the Bayshore Hospital emergency room parking lot. Julie folded her arms and sighed when Jackie got out, went around, and opened her door. His hands were still shaking so he shoved them in his pockets.

"I'm okay, Dad. Really."

"You might be hurt and I couldn't live with that," he said. "Let's go."

It took them three hours to clear Julie of any major injury. He took her back to her mother's place, endured fifteen minutes of Mary's diatribe and Brad's piercing stare, then took off for his apartment as they herded poor Julie into their car to go back to the same emergency room.

Winter rain is colder than snow when it falls on Monday morning. Jackie wants the world of his responsibility to slow on its axis and wobble to a stop. On a day like today he would like to stay in bed until they're sure the apartment linoleum won't assault his feet with attempted frostbite. There should be hot coffee within arm's reach of his bed. It's inhumane that he should have to go out in the dark.

He drags himself into the shop praying that Mutt gives him at least till lunch to release the pressure in his gut before asking how his holiday was. But everyone who has the misfortune of responsibility is void of luck, so it happens – he asks Mutt for the keys to the Lexus and he gets the question straight away. He gets to the part about the pistol misfiring, then how Mary reacts, and the stress comes out as anger. The math says that because some guys have all the luck in the world, other guys are left with none.

"You're killing me, Jack," Mutt says. He reaches behind himself, pulls the keys off the pegboard and tosses them across the desk.

"I'm serious. What stroke of fate allows some people to turn all their fantasies into reality while I wander around like Walter Mitty, imagining success and never having it?"

"You know why? It's called, jail," Mutt says. "And who the hell is Walter Mitty?"

Jackie ignored the question. "You know how badly I want to see him staring at his own guts before he blacks out and dies? I want him to live long enough for the shock to wear off so he feels the pain. Sees me staring down at him knowing that after he goes I'm going to take my goddamned wife back."

"Happy holidays to you, too, Jack. What a great conversation. This is who I want over for Christmas Eve dinner. A future homicidal maniac. The kids love having you around. You’re like a video game."

Jackie slides onto Mutt's office chair. The cracked vinyl scrapes his jeans as he slumps and rubs his forehead. In the garage outside the office the morning crew comes in and soon the space echoes with the concussion of air hammers and grinders.

"It's the same thing, though, isn't it? Wanting to kill the guy your wife ran off with, and dreaming of your company becoming so successful you're the next Bill Gates. I mean, if you don't have guts for the one, why would you have any more luck with the other?"

"Because one is murder, and the other is free-goddamned-enterprise. Are you okay? You want the day off, I can tell, but you can't have it. I need you to make the run to Ransome's to match the F60's paint."

"How many times we got to do this? Ferrari red is red."

"We advertise perfection. We deliver perfection. The customer expects perfection. The customer expects his body work finished by Friday as you promised, by the way. The customer does not expect there to be a delay because you had to take a break to shoot the guts out of your wife's lover."

"Ex wife. He’s my ex-wife’s lover."

"Oh, just cut the bullshit. You have to get over this, Jack. Mary left you. And today you're alive. The gun didn't go off -– twice. Isn’t that fabulous luck? Why not be happy for your luck instead of becoming the only man on earth to go apeshit because he wasn’t shot dead on Thanksgiving? You're still doing those pills, aren't you? That's what's got you reeling on this Brian--Bonzo--"

"Brad," Jackie says.

"You're not going to kill Brad. You're not going to lose your mind or wind up in Betty Ford because you're going to stop the goddamned vicodin and do your job. If you're going to shoot anybody, you should kneecap the irresponsible quack who keeps refilling your codeine prescription."

"It's my back spasms. You don't know the pain," Jackie says.

"Every day you're worse. If you weren't my friend, -- goddamn it Jack, now, because you are my friend -- this business is going to do well and in ten years we're both going to retire down in Cabo and fish tarpon all day, sipping single malt on our own yachts, our laps filled with the rounded asses of topless sex-slave cheerleaders. And you don’t have to feel guilty about the last part because you’re not married anymore.” Mutt bobs his eyebrows like a frat boy.

"Fish. Sex. Booze. What about reality?"

"That is reality. Do not lose sight of the prize. Lose focus, lose everything. So flush the pills. Find yourself a woman. Get yourself laid. Lot of problems solved by regular sex. You now it. And get your own goddamned car. You’re paid enough. Now get off your ass and get down to Ransome's before I divorce you and get a new partner."

Jackie stands up and mentally plots the course to Ransome's. It's a couple blocks from the mission. And that makes him think of Tess, and that reminds him of his mother. Where before was stress, now he's feeling better and all that happened was that he thought of a bag lady.

He says,"What if it's all just luck? The people who come into our lives -- the things that happen?"

"Luck my ass. You know the saying. It's the people who work hard who always seem to get lucky."

"I could go to Mary's place with a loaded shotgun and pull the trigger and it might not go off. Like it doesn't really matter what I do. I could wind up on the street tomorrow."

"I think you had a rough holiday," Mutt said. "The first one alone is always hardest. Next time stay home and cook a bird."

"She pulled the trigger twice. And then the priest aimed it at the ceiling and it went off. But I feel like I know her. Like she's someone I've lost."

"Play the pick six. Count me in for two bucks. Stop driving yourself crazy. Get moving."

He started walking but the scene replayed through his head. The gun shaking in the woman's fist. The trigger clicking. It didn't even seem real when it was happening. Like even though he was incredibly lucky, it was never possible he'd die serving turkey to the homeless.

You can't change the way someone thinks about you. People have ownership of their own thought patterns and no one can reach in and change them. If the thought of you conjures revulsion you could walk into the room wearing the Nobel Peace Prize around your neck, trailing an entourage of well-wishers and photographers and your ex-wife is still going to want to be sick. That's why politicians get away with blistering inconsistency and bald-faced lies. What does "is" mean? Clinton knew he couldn't do a thing about what people thought and felt about him. They were either going to support or loathe him irrespective of his indiscretion. Being a lawyer he knew that the best way to run out the clock and drive your inquisitor crazy is to ask and re-ask him to clarify his questions.

It worked for a president. It would work for Jackie

"What do you mean by'think', Mary," he says into his cell phone, wishing they hadn't improved cell coverage in Burlingame so he'd have the excuse of losing the signal.

"You know goddamned well what I mean," she replies. Even though she's not loud, the phone feels like disease so he holds it away from his head. "What good did you expect would come from bringing my daughter into a fucking war zone."

"It's not Iraq. It's San Francisco," he says. "If you ever left Los Altos you'd see there are other parts of the country out there. I'm not talking about this anymore. Anything else?"

"There's no getting through to you so I'm suspending your visitation rights."

"Were you suddenly elected to the judiciary, or did you forget the part of lawyer school where they told you you couldn't do that?" Jackie says. He gets off the highway at sixth, steers toward the tenderloin and St. Lawrence. "You're not even a very good lawyer so you're going to need to get a friend to do the paperwork. And nobody's going to fault me for taking my daughter -- my daughter -- to help the homeless during the holiday season. People have compassion in this world, though I realize it's hard for a person like you to comprehend. Compassion. Do you know what that word means?"

There was no more Mary. She'd hung up sometime during his speech and he dreaded that they'd pick up where they left off next time they spoke. In two weeks she'd have discussed her options with her lawyer friends, tried a couple angles, and then realized the lawyer Jackie had hired had done his homework. But eventually one of her colleagues would call in a favor and find an angle. Then she'd get him barred from seeing Julie. He told himself he probably had nothing to offer his daughter irrespective of his selfish desire to be with her.

Selfish desire. Selfish questions. You get selfish when someone aims a weapon at you. He could see Tess pointing the gun at him in his memory, clear as a photograph and he felt sick. It was emotional vertigo. What he felt didn't fit what had happened as if it had been staged and he was the victim of a vast well-constructed joke. In the end she's remove a mask and reveal she was his long-lost aunt and that's why he felt he knew her.

When he gets to St. Lawrence Father Rapplier apologises in every other sentence during their conversation. He runs a rag over the tables in the dining area and answers the ladies' questions when they strategize that evening's meal.

Father says. "I understand if you don't want to come here anymore. There are safer places, even though we've never had an incident like that before."

Jackie shrugs, ashamed to tell the priest that not only did he plan never to volunteer at the mission again, but after he got one last thing off his chest, he'd never volunteer at any homeless shelter anywhere. He figured he'd used up his "survive-getting-shot-at" vouchers for one lifetime.

"What happened to the woman with the gun?"

"Tessie's one of our regulars."

"Did she get picked up?" Jackie says.

Father eyes Jackie before giving the answer. Squints as if by doing so he can see through his skin, right to his thoughts. "I didn't think it would serve any purpose to get the authorities involved. Nobody got hurt. She didn't realize what she was doing and she'll never do that again. I hope your daughter is ok. I heard the wound was superficial. I can understand if you wanted to press charges. But really. What do you have to gain? She’s not a criminal."

"So, tell me where to find her."

"Is there a problem I can help you with? Because if you've got something to settle with her, I'd really appreciate it if you let me handle it."

"Father, I just need to talk to her. Nothing else."

The priest wipes down another table. Jackie admired his protective instinct. For all Rapplier knew, Jackie harbored a grudge. And he couldn't convince himself there was rationality to the compulsion he had to see her. So he stood there silently until the quiet became painful, and then Rapplier jumped in.

"Because if you have an issue with her, I'd like to try to work it out with you first. Man-to-man. Before you bring in the authorities. I don't think it was Tessie who scratched your child's head. And she didn't mean -- what I'm trying to say is she has nothing. There's nothing else you can take from her and an act of revenge is the refuge of a very troubled soul."

"Father. I have to talk to her. I have to know who she is."

The priest stops his work and squares off. "She comes here when we're serving. Tonight. If you wait, she'll show." And when Jackie sits on one of the benches, the priest adds,"Can I put you to work until then?"

Jackie takes off his coat and helps the ladies get the counter prepared. He cleans aluminum trays, clears the empty boxes and opens corn cans in the kitchen while the women stir and bake and fry that evening's donations.

Halfway through the evening Father Rapplier taps Jackie on the shoulder as he stacks cases of bread flour and points. "You want to let her eat, first?"

And so Jackie waits until she finishes her dinner and gathers her four bags of plastic recyclables and extra clothing.

"What do you want from me? I didn't do no damage," she says, quickening her step when she realized Jackie's following her. She wobbles from side to side as she shifts her own weight and nearly the equal amount in shopping bags.

"I want to help you." He reaches for one of her bags and she pulls it away, trying to go faster

"I don't need any help," Tess says, climbing down the church stairs, setting each foot solidly before moving the other.

"Fine. Then help me."

"Why?" Tess says, and Jackie stops, hoping to give her a rest. She comes to a halt, panting on the sidewalk.

"Because you're human. Because it's like you said at Thanksgiving dinner, I was just there to make myself feel happy I was doing something good on the holiday. You were like entertainment to me. I'm sorry. I keep trying to figure out how to apologize and it comes out wrong."

"I didn't do anything to you but I absolve you of what you did to me. I'm sorry I pointed my gun at you. Now how about you just get the hell off my sidewalk and go back to whatever rich liberal white boy rock you crawled out from under. This is not your shopping mall." She starts again at a near run, much faster than he presumed she could go.

"Come have coffee with me."

"I don't drink coffee."

"Dessert, then. Something. Anything you want."

Tess stopped, and now Jackie was trying to catch his breath.

"Man, where'd you get in shape like that?"

She said,"You pay for anything?"

"Yes, of course."

"Anywhere I want?"

"You pick."

Guards stopped them at the entrance to the Saint Francis. Even when Jackie told them she was with him, a long lost relative, Tess wouldn't relinquish her bags to the bellman. She settled on Starbuck's on Market, drinking a hot chocolate and eating scones with the lunchtime working crowd. Businessmen waiting for cappuccinos give them a wide berth, avoiding eye contact, glowering at the ground with cell phones to their ears.

"You remind me of someone I know," Jackie says, finally. "I'm trying to figure it out. I never forget a face."

"Let me guess. She's a call girl from uptown. Best fuck of your life and you've been searching for her ever since."

"I never...I mean -- were you? No. You're going to think this is crazy."

"I'll tell you what's crazy. A man stalks a woman for hours. Serves her turkey. Gets shot at by her. Buys her cookies. Never asks her name."

A woman grabs the wrist of a child who takes a few steps toward Tess. She brings the kid back to her side and whispers into her ear.

"You remind me of my mother," Jackie says, hoping Tess doesn't take offense at the mother's action. Then feeling guilty because he's not afraid she'll feel bad, but rather, that she'll make a scene.

"Your mother was a black woman?"

"No. I mean not the way you look, the way -- something about you."

"You're right. You're crazy. That what you need? Are we done now?" Tess folds a napkin over two snickerdoodles and shoves them in her coat pocket. She starts to get up. There is a queue of people lined up to give their coffee orders and they all take a step away from the shop door when Tess gets up to leave.

"No. One more thing. Please," Jackie says.

"I ain't your mother. I would remember if I bore a child as ugly as you."

"I just want to know – how’d you wind up here?"

"You want to know why I'm on the street?" She looks around at the people who are waiting. They can all hear the conversation, and given an audience she raises her voice. "You're the reason I'm on the street. People like you who only give a shit on alternate holiday weekends. You come down here and dole out your charity like you're God's gift. Come down here to make yourself feel good you don't have to beg and sleep in the park. People like you don't realize that life is a three-hundred and sixty-five days a year thing. You know who got the brains? These people right here. The ones who drive by and never stop and stay away from me like I was bad luck. At least ya'll are not hypocrites." The last bit she says to the store patrons themselves.

Jackie feels his throat closing and his chest tightening. He pauses for a second at the door, making eye contact with a few of the customers and thinking to apologize, but thinks better of it.

He catches up to her outside on the sidewalk, crossing the street after exchanging pleasantries with a meter maid who was ticketing an illegally parked Hummer.

He's nearly out of breath again when he says,"Well, after having you try to kill me I'm going to join that coffee shop crowd, too. You don't have to worry about seeing me again. You don't need me or anyone else. From now on I'm spending my holidays in a nice warm house by the fire and you can starve to death for all I care." And he felt better for a couple seconds after his diatribe. Then the guilt set in.

"You had to follow me way out here to tell me that," she said. "You're vicious mother. You've got something wrong with you, boy."

"You're right," Jackie said. He stopped walking. Tess kept going and he said to her back,"You have it all figured out. There's nothing I can do. You're where you're supposed to be."

Tess turned abruptly.

"Stay in suburbia. Be just like I was. Then one day it will hit you. You think you deserve what you got, high definition color TV, cell phone, it's there because you're better than everyone else. But you're going to find out that every day is another opportunity for shit to strike. One day your luck runs out. Could be you play the wrong stock. Could be you get cancer. Could be some day somebody dies by accident and they blame you and you can’t get out from under it because once people believes something, there's no changing their minds. And then when you come to my street corner, we're going to see who's got enough to eat. Then you'll see the distance between you in your white car and me on my loafers is like this--"

She held up a thumb and forefinger so there was a tiny space between them.

She said,"and you go through your life thinking it's miles. Rude awakening coming. Nothing you can do about it. Gonna make me mighty happy. Make my day."

She left him standing on the sidewalk, fishing in his pocket for his prescription bottle.

Julie is in Union Square with some students from her high school. They are deeply involved with a multi-media event they'd proposed for their senior class project, and Jackie is in the city on another paint matching assignment so he figures he'll drop in to see how she's doing. Convince her to have lunch with him. Take her and a couple friends out so he could get the feeling for what her life was like. Maybe be useful to someone again.

"Mom will be mad you're here," she says, as soon as she sees him. She's peering over the shoulder of a guy about her age who's hunched over a laptop computer. A series of cables issues from the back of the laptop and terminates in a box under a portable awning the school had set up. The square is filled with window shoppers and tourists who step over the wires as they stroll between the hotels and the department stores.

"Mom will be mad I'm in Union Square. Is she mad that guy is in Union Square?" Jackie points to the first person who passes him. "Let's be logical."

"She told me I wasn't supposed to see you. She's getting a court order."

"But she doesn't have one and she's not going to get one because that's just plain petty and stupid," Jackie says, the empty falling feeling growing in his stomach as his body picks up speed in the guilt dimension. Always falling. He'd lost his wife and home. What had he done to warrant losing the love of his daughter, too?

"Dad, you should probably just go away. She'll be all over me."

"Ok," Jackie says. He takes two steps backward. "Ok. I don't want her all over you. It's not fair to put you in the middle. Give me a call sometime? I miss you."

Jackie holds a hand up in as pitiful a wave as he can summon, and Julie does the same. Her eyes are glistening. It was good she would cry. It's what he wanted -- that she would still feel something for him as he went over the edge and plunged to an uncertain fate he began to wish was death.

When she says,"Hey dad," he spins on his heels fast enough to qualify for the ballet. Brings a hand to his eyes and rubs, hiding that he had been crying, too.

"You know computers? Right? Can you help Lane? Something's wrong with the laptop."

The young man relinquishes the machine to Jackie, and Jackie sits on the bench next to him and starts poking at the keyboard.

"What's this?" he asks, summoning an authoritative tone. The computer is completely unresponsive to any human input and it's due to a program called 'IHP'.

"It's the Internet Holiday Project," Julie says. "We're going to use the computer to put pictures on the diamond vision over there," and she motioned toward the twenty-by-forty foot video screen that towered over the pedestrians on the square. "We were going to call it the Internet Christmas Project, but then we realized we were being biased toward Christianity so we changed it."

"Always a good idea to be unbiased toward Christianity at Christmas," Jackie says to fill the space between him and his daughter, and he was glad Julie thought there was something he could do to help. But he realized the only thing in his bag of computer tricks was to turn the machine off and then on again, which he does without hesitation.

Lane yelps and holds a hand out in futility when Jackie cycles his machine. Jackie says,"It's for the best. Trust me," not really knowing if it is.

Then he asks Julie,"What sort of pictures are you putting up? Ads?" and he hoped it would take an hour for the machine to reboot.

"Baby pictures."

"Really? Whose?"

"That's the whole idea," she says, standing taller and spreading her arms to accentuate. "People will submit their baby pictures over the internet and we'll display them when they tell us they'll be downtown. So, your grandmother could tell us when you're going to be at Saks, and right when you're here you're picture shows up on the diamond vision. We have sponsorship from Nordstrom’s and Sharper Image and Crate and Barrel."

"Just people's baby pictures?" Jackie says. He shuts the computer down again as it begins to show life. Lane makes a feeble attempt at an objection with a whine. When he suggests Jackie doesn't know much about computers, Jackie trumps him: "I am a certified Apple technician," he tells the young man, who complains about the machine being a Dell. "Well that's your first problem, son" Jackie replies.

Julie says,"Won't it be great, though? You can be down here shopping and then you look up and you see a picture of yourself as a baby on Christmas morning. That's what everybody really wants, isn't it? To be a kid again at Christmas? And everybody loves babies. It will make everyone think about love and joy and also, the stores think it will promote impulse buying, which is a big component of their holiday revenues. We're betting it will increase the sales at Nordstrom's by about four percent. We're going to measure the numbers in January, and Nordies will donate to our school ten percent of the increase over last year."

"So, ten percent of four percent goes to your school?" Jackie says, showing off that he was always good at math. The laptop boots. He hands it back to Lane who quickly absconds with it to a bench as far from Jackie as his cables will allow. "Four tenths of a percent could be good money from a store like Nordstrom's. It's a win-win."

"Yeah. It's my junior entrepreneur's project," Julie says, bouncing on her toes. "It was mom's idea to get commercial sponsorship. She got us in to see the store managers. She said it should impress them at Stanford. I applied there, you know."

"What happened to UC Boulder and forestry?"

"I changed my mind. Stanford's the best foundation for my law career. I have the makings of a senator, mom says."

Jackie lets it sink in, mentally murdering the judgmental little men that come to his forebrain and make haughty pronouncements about his daughter's transformation in career choice. He'd always imagined her in the forest or on a mountaintop, going places he always wanted to get to but never had the time or money once he started supporting a family. Now she was going to live her mother's dreams instead of his. There was nothing fair about it. But nothing in his life was fair.

"A senator. You'll be a great one," he says to her, patting her shoulder. "Hey, you want to go grab some lunch? Invite Lane?"

The sparkle goes out of Julie's eyes. She bites her lip and looks at her shoes.

"Oh shoot." Jackie glances at his watch. "I forgot I got an appointment I have to make. Let's do it next time. Ok?" He kisses her on the forehead and takes a few steps away. "You keep it up with the ideas. That's how you get places. Tell mom I said,'hi.'"

"I've got your baby picture, dad," Julie says, and she's crying. He goes back, gives her a hug and tells her he'll make sure he's there to see it, out of sight of Mary of course.

"I found it in the attic in an old box she didn't throw out. Pictures of you from when you were a baby with Grandma and Grandpa. Lane scanned it. It's going to be the first one we show."

Jackie wants to thank her without his usual "Father Knows Best" motif, but the words won't come so he hugs her tighter. And he thinks that there are a lot of things that can make a grown man cry and since the divorce he was susceptible to most of them.

Now there is a new one.

He has to make a third trip to Ransome's. There are over a hundred shades called "Ferrari Red " and he'd guessed wrong, so Mutt kicks him out of the office to get the color right and then to take a few days off unpaid. The trip takes him past the mission and he feels compelled to stop. He goes into the St. Lawrence chapel casually, not realizing there's a funeral going on. Then embarrassed at the disturbance he causes, wonders aloud who died as he sildes into the pew next to Tess.

“It’s Harry,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “Heart attack.”

“Well, now you don’t have to shoot him.”

She looks at him as if he's on fire, and then blows her nose into a tissue that's balled up in her fist. When the service is over Jackie follows her downstairs to the mission where she sits in the dining room.

He says,"Our relationship got off on the wrong foot."

"Relationship? You learn that from TV world? This is the actual real world. There is a legal term for what you're doing. It's called assault."

“So we're even. You aimed a loaded gun at me. I feel something toward you. I just want to work it out so I can get on my life. Is that too much to ask?”

“Don’t tell me you're in love with me, because a woman like me -- I got more men than I can handle. You all need to grow up and stop looking for new mommas. Because I got nothing to give you. So you don’t get nothing with me.”

Saying he wasn't in love with her seems cruel. So he says, “Why are you crying over this guy? You tried to kill him a few weeks ago. Were you in love with him? A kind I don't understand? Like a mafia thing, where it's okay to try and kill the other person and accidentally whack some bystanders in the process? I'm trying to figure it out and I can't sleep thinking about it.”

"I was only trying to wing him,” she says. “Sometime the only friend’s you got is a friend like him. If I could get myself someone less problematic, I would. Instead I have to live in a refrigerator box with a goddamned schizophrenic manic-depressive madman. But he was family. He brought home the food, mostly. Got out of control once in a while and toward the end he was mostly out of it. I was afraid he was going to kill me or someone else. It's called co-dependency. I have it because I have no health care or food or money or home or...”

Jackie interrupts her. "I guess we have to live with who we get stuck with."

"Luck's like that," Tess says. "Brings them to you. Takes them away just as fast."

The way she speaks makes Jackie even more interested in her. She has a vocabulary. She'd put the time in to get an education. There was character under the layers of sweaters and built up defenses. He’d no doubt she’d seen rough times. And he's sure that buried under all of it he will uncover a jewel.

“What about before?”

“Before what…? Oh, we’re back on that. Why do I owe you my story?”

“I don’t know. Entertainment? Because you tried to kill me twice?”

She sighs. Purses her lips and then squints at him wryly. “Too early for lunch, so, okay. I'll let you waste my time -- again. It's like this. When I could work, I was a nurse. Made a mistake that cost me my job, my husband and my home. You want to know what it was, too? You want I should relive it in front of you so no matter what problems you have, they seem small in comparison? Well at least I’m not as bad off as Tess…”

And he does want to know. And he is ready to pay the price when Father Rapplier storms into the dining room and slams a newspaper onto the table next to them.

The headline is: "Crackdown on Homeless Violence"

“Never again,” he says to the two of them. “I will never quietly bury another of our family taken from us by the immorality of greed and the inhumanity of commerce. Never again will I stand by while profit lines the pockets of the rich at the cost of human life. Never again will I bury my bretheren without a fight. It stops here. We fight. We make our stand, here and now. No more. Never again.”

Jackie isn't about to volunteer for anything. Tess asks the priest what he's suggesting.

“Mayor’s on a rampage. They’re pushing us out of Union Square. The businesses are coming down on the police, and the police are coming down on us. They want everyone herded into a four block area between Hyde and Turk for the duration of the holiday. It’s to keep us away from the shoppers in Union Square, and they’re shutting down St. Lawrence for the entire week. Killing Harry wasn't enough for them.”

“I thought he had a heart attack,” Jackie said.

“He got a little too forward with some Japanese tourists outside the Saint Francis and the police used a tazer on him. His heart was weak.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Jackie says.

"Sorry my ass,” says Tess. “So what do we do, Father?”

“Christmas eve. Union Square. The whole community assembles and we summon the Lord. We let them see they can’t kill Harry without recourse to God Almighty. We bring the meaning of deliverance right into the middle of all of their consumerism. For who made the lame to walk and the blind to see? And who bade us give alms to the poor, especially on Christmas Eve?"

"Charles Dickens?" Tess says. "Because Jesus wasn't born yet on Christmas Eve."

But Rapplier will not be deterred by her logic. "We’ll show them. We’ll take our city and our holiday back. I need each of you to tell the others. Seven PM.”

Jackie starts to think. He remembers Julie.

He says, “Hey, Father, you know, honoring Harry by getting arrested on Christmas Eve isn’t such a great present for the community. There are children…”

“The Children will be cared for. The authorities will find them other shelters. And Christmas Eve is exactly the correct day for the demonstration. We’ll slow down commerce. We’ll make the news. We’ll appeal to the hearts of the public and we will prevail.”

“You won't get your publicity. You know how efficient the police are with the media.”

Father puts his hand on Jackie’s shoulder. It makes Jackie think of a movie, and then he realizes Rapplier is playing Spencer Tracy in Boy's Town. The priest looks into his eyes and says, “Why are you here, Jackie? All these years. Why do you come?”

“To help,” is what Jackie says because it would take too long to explain he wanted absolution from everything that had ever gone wrong in his life. Because he wanted peace of mind that never came and he felt working with the poor would help him find it. Because he wanted release from the world of materialism that surrounded him, and he enjoyed the company of people who weren’t encumbered by excesses.

Because there was a part of himself he hated, and this was the only way to kill it.

“Then help. I’m asking you to help. God is asking for your help. You lived through a miracle. The Lord spared your life when you stared down the barrel of a loaded gun twice in one evening. Now it’s time to show your gratitude."

Jackie considers telling Father he has become agnostic, but he decides against it and his silence is taken as an acceptance of the quest.

"And tell them all, if the police ask where they're going they should say to Saint-Sulpice and keep moving toward the park. It will throw them off long enough to let us assemble."

"Father, you got something going on in the head today," Tess says. "Ain't no such church except in France." But Rapplier still isn't listening. He nervously wipes down the tables in the dining room, and then starts sweeping the clean floor mumbling about his time, his quest, and the iniquity of the unfaithful.

Jackie says,"Harry was right. Everyone is nuts."

Then Julie occurs to him, and her project. If she wasn't done with the IHP early enough, he would have to make sure she was out of the square before the police tried a mass arrest. Accomplishing that could be easy. If Mary finds out that he plans to be in the square to meet Julie, she'd put an end to the whole project. He decides he'll call her and tell her he's going. Julie will be safe.

Tess says to him,"You're not coming over with us, then. You and your, 'let everyone starve,' spoiled white boy attitude. Because for a minute there, it seemed like you told the padre you were."

And he wonders about the rules of the God of St. Lawrence mission. If you were crazy and you did something bad you deserved the bad luck you got. At least you got instant absolution under the law. But what happened to your luck if you were crazy and did something good?

Seven o'clock Christmas Eve and Union Square is not where George Duffy wants to be. He's standing at attention in half his riot gear. Not enough to attract attention, but enough to remind him of what could happen. Enough to be a presence. That's his job tonight. Police presence instead of being a father to his children.

Helmet without the face shield. Flak jacket. Baton. Flexicuffs hanging from his belt. The speaker mic on his shoulder chirps every few seconds with commands and responses from sector command.

The square is full of shoppers and traffic. People lugging great shopping bags brimming with bright red paper and bows squirm past each other, everyone on a mission of acquisition. Cars honk at each other impatiently. Most of the panhandlers have been relocated to the missions or Golden Gate park, but one or two didn't get the message. They steer clear of Duffy and his squad using the crowd as a shield. The cops aren't going to roust the civilianry on the holiday eve just to pick them up and drop them in holding. Bad for business.

It pisses off Duffy they can't leave well enough alone. Just take off and collect quarters somewhere else He reminds himself to be a professional. Drives away the notion of his wife and children in front of the television watching Christmas show reruns. Logs snapping in the fireplace. The tree alight and the train circling beneath. A gust of cool air reminds him there's a job at hand. Professional.

From the microphone on his lapel, his Captain: "Seven charlie one, status."

Duffy presses the button and says,"Still code four," and he's hoping it stays that way. Get home by midnight. Take the gifts from the garage and put them under the tree. The wife awake enough to respond to his invitation to snuggle. Merry Christmas.

The squelch on the mic breaks again. The tinny voice to which he owes allegiance: "You want to take a look around the garage entrance? We got an RP says she's being stopped by a man wearing a green army jacket and a black knit hat who claims to be from the Church of Saint Solstice. That event number sixteen forty-seven at time nineteen hundred six."

Duffy says,"Roger, that," signals to his partners to follow him as he heads in the direction of the underground garage. He says,"excuse me," to the first couple of people he squeezes past. Tourists with cameras in hand, not looking where they're going. Will serve them right when they get their pockets picked. Merry Christmas. Welcome to San Francisco. He crosses Powell and looks up to see the students still screwing around with their gear. What a time for this. You got the homeless with a potential riot on an incredibly busy shopping day and these kids are playing games that will cost him the rest of his Christmas working instead of being with his family. He looks up toward them on the berm over the garage and catches the eye of the leader. Points to his watch. Wasn't it supposed to start by now? The sooner it goes, the sooner it's over.

Julie shrugs at officer Duffy and shouts to him they're almost ready, but she doesn't know if it's going to happen at all. Lane's struggling with the laptop again. It all worked when they tested it at school, and it worked this morning when they tried it. But for some reason none of the pictures are loading from the laptop to the diamond vision system. They have a three hour window that opened at five, and is closing at eight. She's seeing the four tenths of the Nordstrom's percent dissolve to zero in a flurry of technical mishaps.

Children walk past, their hands enveloped by their parents' hands. They're enraptured by the large douglas fir and blazing lights in the early winter night. There's a sparkle from every store and the wisps of Christmas music that escape each time the doors open on the big hotels.

"You gotta make it go," she says to Lane.

"Oh. I didn't know that," Lane says. He's typing as fast as he can. Clicking. Issuing commands. Every so often he looks up at the screen and Julie looks too, hoping to see the intro and hear the music. Instead the screen flashes the same ads for The Gap and Gucci.

"Can't you get another computer?"

Lane glares at her, eyes narrowed. "Another spectacular idea. Why didn't I think of that?" And he goes back to punching keys.

"Restart it," she says. "Like my dad did."

"How many times did you see me do that? Eight, already. I'm out of ideas except one. How about you go somewhere else and let me work in peace?"

She thinks to object, but then realizes that leaving him alone is the only thing she hasn't tried yet. So she walks to the edge of the concrete walkway. A couple more kids walk by, excited, begging their parents for food or gifts or a simple ride home to await Santa Claus. And she realizes that the project has taken her away from her own holiday. The feeling of warmth and anticipation she had as a little kid. The work has made today just another day. When did it happen that Christmas became commonplace?

Suddenly she wishes her mother hadn't taken off so fast into Saks Fifth Avenue for some last minute shopping. Wouldn't it be nice just to have her there to hold her hand like those young kids?


Her father is across Geary standing with a crowd of homeless people. There's the priest she recognizes from Thanksgiving. He's dressed all in black with a large wooden crucifix hanging from around his neck. They look like they're about to storm the walls of a castle somewhere but they don't seem to know which way to go. Typical Dad.

Julie looks around quickly, and not seeing her mother waves back to Jackie, then goes to bug Lane, hoping Jackie doesn't bring that crowd of filthy people to where they're working. She'd had enough of that for one holiday.

There's a shout and a commotion from the parking garage entrance just beyond. Jackie tells Father Rapplier he'll meet up with them in the square. He's off on his own, waiting for a break in the traffic to cross the street. She knew he was coming, why didn't Mary make Julie stay home? Now he's got to get Julie away from the square before the crew from St. Lawrence make their statement. The police are moving toward the shouting and without waiting for the light to change, Jackie bolts across the street toward Julie. The bravado ignites Rapplier, who barks instructions to his army.

"We're going to march peacefully into the square and assemble in front of the screen. Remember, we're human beings. We have a right to be here as much as these other people." And when the light changes he leads the throng, striding purposefully, as obviously as he can.

Jackie knows he'll do everything short of inciting violence to make the news tonight. Consciousnesses will be raised. Rapplier had been planning his statement for his interview with the reporters.

When Jackie reaches Julie the police are amassing just beyond the concrete walkway where Lane is struggling with his computer. Batons in hand they're moving in an uncoordinated march toward some center of activity. There's more shouting, more aggressive and angry this time and Julie looks to him. She's afraid.

"It's time for you to go, sweetpea," Jackie says. "Let's get you out of here. Where's your mother?"

"It isn't set up, yet," Julie says, first looking at him, and then reacting with a jolt to the scream of a man in pain. And now sirens in the distance.

"I'm sorry, honey. It's just not going to work out this year."

"It's because of you. Because you have to ruin everything. You had to bring all of them here. You had to ruin Thanksgiving and you have to ruin Christmas. What's wrong with you?" And now she's crying and she pounds him in the chest with a balled fist and walks away toward the crowd of police.

Jackie follows her and sees only chaos. Thinks only that he has to get her out of there as the police squad car on Post opens a microphone and begins a recitation of orders from the onboard bullhorn. "It's unlawful to gather in the square. Please move out of the square quickly."

He catches up to her at the police line. He says,"They're going to start arresting people. Now I don't give a shit what you think about me -- right now we're going in the other direction away from these cops, finding your mother and getting you out of here."

"I don't need your help to find her. Leave me alone." And she squirms away from him into the cordon of officers. The police part like the Red Sea to allow her through but Duffy runs into Jackie and realizes he's seen him with the crowd of homeless just a few minutes ago. He's been had. He puts his palm on Jackie's chest, reaches for the microphone on his lapel. Tells them to forget about the agitators near the garage. It's not Saint Solstice. It's Saint-Sulpace. Haven't they read " The DaVinci Code " like everyone else in the world? It's code.

"You're with these people," Duffy says, now feeling like they're making a fool of him. He's done with the Christmas Spirit.

"Get them off my square," he says.

"They're not my people," Jackie says without thinking. "My daughter is over there. I need to get to my daughter."

"Get back there and get them out of the square or I'm going to have my officers start removing them. You have ten seconds."

Duffy starts counting down. Jackie tells him he's not the instigator, and scanning the sidewalk, he sees Julie standing safely near the doorway to Sak's Fifth Avenue and Mary with an armload of bags reaching her. It gives him a moment to think. He's not the ring leader. He's not in charge but Duffy doesn't care. Julie is watching him from across the street. He smiles at her. Winks and hope she sees it: his finest moment or his worst.

When Duffy gets to eight Jackie tells him to wait. He'll move them. When he turns he faces a wall of people. Between the police and the tourists and the shoppers searching for their cars he's now elbow-to-elbow. Squeezing between the crowd as the sirens grow in the distance he finds Father Rapplier standing amid a group of seated homeless people, reading from the Bible, stories of shepherds in the fields.

"Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy."

Fear not -- Jackie thinks. Fear not. No matter what he does the world will turn on its wheels. No matter how hard he works the earth moves. Aim a gun at him, he can't be killed. Fear is not the appropriate reaction.

Squad cars edge their way through the traffic, red and blue lights flashing. He runs into Tess as the police begin to move in. She's making her way through the crowd to get to where everyone from the mission is sitting when she comes face to face with Jackie.

"Traitor," she says.

"What are you talking about?" And suddenly there are shouts from the periphery of the square. The cops are raising their batons. Cameras and video cams are alight everywhere. It's going to wind up on the evening news from hundreds of personal digital cameras. On the world news. Tomorrow the riot in Union Square will be front page everywhere. The San Francisco PD beating up on the homeless and a bunch of shoppers in front of Macy's will be remembered for decades. Rapplier has it right.

And he's standing like Ahab on the bow of his ship, Bible in hand. He's going to jail and he knows it. He's going to sacrifice for his people and his God. The voice of Rapplier over the commotion -- "Let the true spirit of Christmas reign over the land. True sacrifice. For he who turned the merchants and vendors from the temple is born again on this day."

"This is totally wrong," Tess says. "What were you people thinking? You're fools."

"I thought something good would happen to us for a change," Jackie says. "Because I think it doesn't matter what we do. It's all just whatever the hell luck we get, and the people luck brings to us we gotta live with." And he lowers his head, resigned. What was he expecting?

"That's not what I mean," Tess says. "You caved. They should be arresting us -- not those people over there. You should have told that cop to screw himself. We're here. We're not moving. We have nowhere else to be tonight. Merry Christmas."

Jackie told her Merry Christmas as a large snowflake began on its way from the stratosphere. It fell through the troposphere without melting and passed the jumbo jets landing at SFO. It passed seagulls and the news helicopters orbiting overhead. It danced around the updrafts made by wind against the the sky scrapers, and finally fell between the shoulders of the people crammed into Union Square and landed squarely on the toe of Jackie's shoe.

When he saw the first one, he looked up and another one hit him between the eyes.

Then he started laughing for the memory of the now dead snowless Christmas history of San Francisco. The reality of snow was beyond his ability to believe, so he presumed it had something to do with an advertising stunt put on by Macy's. He presumed it would go away.

Tess looked at the sky. "What the hell?" she said. And the snowflakes landed on her cheeks and melted to tiny patches of wetness. The police lines advanced toward them, allowing the shoppers to pass between them as they made their way toward their Father Rapplier and their quarry.

Jackie watched officer Duffy take his night stick from its holster on his belt and march toward him, weaving between the growing number of people. Then he knew he wasn't going to get home tonight and he probably wouldn't see Tess for quite a while. So he said to her,"You once told me I didn't know your name but everyone knows it's Tess."

"It's not. Nobody ever asked my name. When I got to San Francisco that bastard Harry told Father my name was Tess because that was his old girlfriend's name. So it stuck. Everyone kept calling me Tess. It's been a couple years and I don't feel like trying to correct them. Once people get an idea stuck in their head about you, it doesn't change."

The police reached the homeless people and surrounded them. Father Rapplier shouted even louder from his Bible and the sitting people braced themselves for what they knew was coming.

"So what's your real name?" Jackie said, offering her his hand.


She slid her hand into his and they started to push their way through to the others. He reached into his pocket for his prescription bottle and he tossed the vicodin into a green metal trash container. As it fell Jackie said,"Alice, I think it's snowing."

And it was. It snowed glorious six-sided crystals as perfect as if artist drawn. They began to cover the cars and filtered through the air, each a glowing angel in the beams of artificial lights from the stores and hotels.

Everyone looked up at the sky toward the clouds they couldn't see. Duffy reached Jackie and told him to put his hands behind him, but he was too busy holding Alice's hand to comply.

"It's snowing," someone said. Everyone said.

At that moment, Lane got his program to run. Digital electrics sprang to life like the nuclear center of a star catching fire. The huge screen stopped displaying ads about discounts and great deals at the Virgin Megastore. After a second of blackness, there above them, twenty feet high, was the picture of a mother in a hospital bed holding an infant in her arms. Beside her in the white uniform and cap they wore in the nineteen fifties was a nurse.

"That's you, Alice," Jackie said, recognizing the picture. The nurse in the picture was a very young black woman. She held a bottle and a blanket and smiled at the young mother, Jackie's own mother holding him. The faces -- he never forgot a face. It was the way he remembered her, so young, before she fell to the disease that took her from him when he still had questions for her.

"Goddamn, it is," Tess, now Alice, replied. "When I was at St. Barnabas."

Bells began to ring in the square. Bells from nowhere. From the soundtrack on Lane's computer broadcast through amplifiers and loudspeakers. And the homeless began to sing along.

Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away

"That's my mom. That's me," Jackie, said, eyes full of tears.

"No shit?"

He could barely say,"No shit," for the lump in his throat.

"Then come here, baby," she said. "You're one of mine," and she hugged him as a picture appeared on the screen and officer Duffy dropped his flexicuffs and stared at himself and his father in line waiting for Santa at the Bamberger's Department store. In the picture, next to him in line was another child he knew was the man he was about to arrest.

Duffy holstered his baton, looked at Jackie, and thought of his own children at home he would soon hug by the fire.

He told Jackie,"Please don't commit any crimes," and then began singing the carol with everyone else.

And picture after picture came up on the screen and people began to see themselves. They saw their children. They saw their long dead grandparents and their uncles and aunts who lived in cities far away from San Francisco. And each person saw in his photograph another person who was standing with him in the crowd.

And the snow fell harder, and the music grew louder. People found their own voices and sang along with the carol.

There were verses and harmonies, and people sang in registers they never knew they could reach while the police took off their helmets and let the snow fall into their hair. They sang and watched themselves as children, opening presents, lighting candles, spinning tops, dancing and reading from holy books. Shoppers saw themselves as teenagers with men and women now police officers. The police recognized friends among the homeless and passengers in passing cars.

Julie found Jackie in the crowd and she had Mary with her. Jackie introduced Mary to Alice and then there was nothing for any of them to say to each other so they kissed each other Merry Christmas, and Jackie hugged his daughter and quietly whispered to her to reconsider science for a law degree.

"But whatever you do, be happy," he said. "That's all I want for you."

She said," I love you, daddy," and Jackie felt he would never die, and the luckiest man alive for being born.

On, on they send
On without end
Their joyful tone
To ev'ry home

And the snow came down and reminded people of holidays past when they woke in the morning to the world blanketed in white. They were reminded of family dinners and kisses from aunts who pinched your cheek. Of uncles with pockets full of quarters. Of rides on grandfather's backs. Of warmth and light and being small and held and rocked as if nothing in the world could ever hurt again.

Those who were carrying shopping bags put them down and forgot them because they were people who didn't need anything anymore. Those who bore heavy hearts found them lifted as if on wings. And the waiters came out of the restaurants on the square pushing carts of hot chocolate and glugwine and sherry. Hotel managers told their staff to come out and bring the Christmas cakes and cookies.

Nobody pushed or shoved, but each handed cups of steaming drinks to another until everyone’s hands were full and they sang trailing cookie crumbs and dribbling holiday drinks on their clothes. Then in San Francisco every argument came to a halt. Not one hand was raised in anger. Not one driver cut off another. Nobody cheated at Monopoly or Scrabble or card games, even solitaire. Nobody could remember what they wanted for Christmas, or what they had bought anyone.

In condos and apartments throughout the city young children waited for their dogs to speak English and their fish to ride bicycles. And because the world is full of luck, every single person in the square that night had seen themselves on the screen and knew there was someone else nearby who once shared life with them. Everyone knew he was loved.

Then the snow slowed, and the last flake fell as surely as the first one appeared. The people sang the last verse as one voice and felt their own sound merge above as if they could match the grandeur of the heavens with their song. And they felt love awaken in their hearts and saw their neighbors standing on the same earth, breathing the same air, born the same way.

When the carol was over the loudspeakers fell silent. The snow melted into tiny puddles. People waited for what would happen next.

Every person in Union Square inhaled deeply and only a child spoke. And for the first time since the city was built the smallest of the small, the soul of pure human innocence could be heard in every corner and office of the square.

“That was fun. Do it again.”

Copyright 2005 by Joe Mastroianni