Driving through town, even though it wasn’t very late, the city was quiet. It was Christmas Eve and most people were already wherever they were going to be for the night. There was no traffic, the buildings downtown were dark. No one was out walking on the sidewalk.
As we drove past the courthouse, we stopped at a red light at an intersection and I glanced over at an office that was brightly lit. It stood out in the dark quiet of the rest of the street.
Through the wide front window, I could see a man sitting behind a desk, a heavyset man in his shirtsleeves, writing on a piece of paper. In front of him was a couple, a middle-aged man and a woman. They were well-dressed, wearing coats, as though they’d hurried in from the cold and forgotten to take them off. There was something about the way they sat, close together, leaning on one another for support, slightly bent, as though they were folding into themselves, that made me take a closer look.
Their faces were composed but there was an air of sadness around them. A deep weary sadness..
The scene looked like an Edward Hopper painting; the angular, starkly furnished office, the harsh light pouring from the windows and spilling across the sidewalk, and the people, three people with closed and shuttered faces.
Maybe it was their age, close to my own, or the sadness that radiated from them, or the way they sat so close together, but something made me think the couple might be parents there to help a child. On a night when everyone else was celebrating, they’d gotten a call and dressed carefully before going down to post bail. On the night when in the past they might have been pulling hidden presents down from the attic, assembling a bicycle, or building a doll house, they were downtown signing papers and writing a check.
The light changed and we drove on, but I had a lump in my throat.
Somehow, the fact that it was Christmas Eve made everything worse.
I don’t really know what was happening in that office, I filled in the blanks with my imagination. But each year I think of that couple and the scene I witnessed. They remind me that in the bright artificiality of the season there is always another side. In spite of the tinsel, the trees, the candles, some struggle, some grieve, some slog through the holiday burdened with real heartache. And some, like the man behind the desk, simply go about their business. Of course, that’s what we’re trying to forget this time of year. We decorate and shop and party, putting reality on hold for as long as we can. But it’s there. It’s always there.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org