Kristen Baker, 20 years old and as angular as an Art Deco coat rack, exits the Preservation Pub ahead of her beau, Quint Arrant. Her ordinary action triggers the eco-collision that occurs whenever the door of a steamy, warm saloon opens into a December night's chill. It is a little eddy of climatic regret.
Outside, Bing Crosby, garbled, warbles. There are four days before Christmas, here in Knoxville's Market Square and pretty much everywhere else, and it is not long past 7 o'clock. Quint walks into Kristen's back, not having anticipated her abrupt stopping. He is jabbed in the chest by one of her shoulder blades, the cushioning of two Land's End coats notwithstanding. He says, "What?" Perhaps he is expected to walk around her. But Quint is obliging to his bones. He pauses where he is, like a man trying to hide behind a straw.
An arm reaches back, groping for him. It is Kristen's arm, of course. Securing her target, she pulls him to her side—like many an impossibly thin girl, she is possessed of great strength. "Breathe in, look around." Quint complies with the twin instructions, and in that order. Alternately puffy and wispy white clouds exude from four nostrils, scented respectively by pale ale and a robust Californian Cabernet. "I want this, every year," Kristen says.
"This exact thing," she adds, contributing not at all to the exactitude of her meaning.
But Quint knows. Both students at the University of Tennessee, both dating exclusively for nearly eight months, both utterly serene, if not giddy, with one another's company, he knows. She has been mapping out a future in bits and pieces since September, employing phrases deftly hinting at what will be for them, a Delphic oracle under a tree by Sophronia Hall or descending from the KAT bus. There was something in Quint which had planned to, if not stem this tide of destiny, at least query it. Then October came and went, and then November—the calendar's white rabbit, always late, always rushing—did its customary quickstep right after, and the thing took a nice long nap within him. At this point, Quint is not confident of its waking in time.
Kristen's long fingers mate with those of Quint's hand like spider love-making, and she leads him to the ice rink in the Square's center. The space, bordered by the sort of promotional banners which more ordinarily festoon big-time car races, is rather packed. Rudely disregarding the tempo of Johnny Mathis' "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," parents push children before them as though each curve approaching is a major life decision, one about which the parent is sanguine and the child is clueless. Yet all go on, circling, veering, circling, falling. The metaphor is in fact embarrassingly blatant. A lone man glides with his cellphone to his face, a blending of worlds as inappropriate as hanging a Norman Rockwell in a dirty movie house.
Quint doesn't protest Kristen's increasing references to a shared future because he has nothing to put in its place. This he has concluded. He turns his head to see Krutch Park. Ribbons of lights choke tree trunks, but only up to a point. Almost audible in the dark night are ghostly echoes of men on ladders saying, "Aw, hell, that's enough," and the Dogwoods are left in a schizoid state of half-glitz, half pristine. Quint sees an elderly couple rise from a bench, only to make their way to another. Is it a game? He wonders, then feels Kristen squeeze his hand.
"Do you want to go shopping? Mast is still open. I don't want to," she says. Kristen does this, closing the door on her own suggestions as soon as they are voiced. Quint likes it. He deems it efficient and finds it oddly sexy.
"We could ride the sleigh on Gay Street," he offers. The couple meander and weave through the Square, past the adamantly artistic World Grotto, across to the Thai restaurant. "No," Kristen says. "This is nice, right here." And it is nice. On this evening a concordance of all the seasonal elements is felt. The clumsy and maniacally focused skaters on the ice, the air nearly humming in its icy stillness, the awful taped music, even the red-and-green chalk hieroglyphically proclaiming the Tomato Head's specials—it is that hour, or at best few hours, when nothing else is wanted because nothing of Christmas is absent.
A gaggle of middle-aged women passes Kristen and Quint. They are clearly on the last leg of an ambitious expedition, on their way for refreshment after shopping. Bags from Mast General Store bounce off their thighs gaily, like monstrously overdone tassels, keeping time with their staccato chorus of remarks about the crowd, the cold, the buys, and who wants a calzone. Unaware of what the other is doing, Kristen and Quint smile simultaneously.
"I thought nobody had any money for gifts this year," Quint says.
"Well," Kristen considers. "People use cards." She somehow imbues this statement, woefully redundant since 1952, with a patina of discovery. Then she sighs. "I just always wonder about the Christmas stuff they give, you know? It's always so winter-y. Corduroy, tweeds, heavy things. It's like people forget it's gonna get warm, or something." At this moment the napping thing inside Quint can sleep its dormant life away, because it is at this moment that he knows Kristen is right. She is right about the lack of seasonal foresight in the shopping public, and she is right to insinuate that they will be together forever. Her shopping insight is not of an earth-shattering variety. But it is a cozy insight. This is not merely enough for Quint; it is that anything more, ever and from anybody else, would be too much.
"Fleece on Earth," Quint puns, feeling somewhat idiotic in the doing.
"Good twill toward men," Kristen adds after a moment. A choir, possibly Viennese, does five-part harmony on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Quint averts his head, grinning, ashamed at liking their hopeless plays on words. By way of validation, by way of refutation of this reaction she senses, Kristen takes hold of his jaw with a woolen hand and kisses him. Quint tastes traces of red wine and certainty.
"Yeah," he whispers. "Probably. This exact thing."
At which moment a dainty snow begins to fall on the Square, like the powder used in days gone by, sprinkled over freshly inked signatures on very important pacts. Notarized by God, this exact thing. The scratchy music plays. The skaters skate on. Like them, Quint and Kristen make laps on the concrete, only larger and slower. Nor do they fall.
Merry Christmas to all. m
Formerly a regular contributor to Metro Pulse, Jack Mauro now lives in an Atlanta forest. He's working on a new comic novel, Good Oak, set in a fictional Tennessee town very near to his beloved, fictional-around-the-edges, Knoxville.