The First Christmas
He did his best to weave his way through the crowd that had formed along West 23rd Street. Ladies' Mile lived up to its name. Women in thick dark skirts, many of whom struggled with neatly wrapped packages, lined the walk. Some were escorted by men with finely manicured mustaches whose purpose seemed only to hold onto even more packages. This part of town was more foreign to David Jacobs than he would have liked to admit.
A gust of winter air hit the back of his neck and he pulled his coat closer, hoping that he didn't stick out too much.
There were only two days left until Christmas. Every other year, this wouldn't have meant much to David. He was Jewish. His family didn't celebrate Christmas. This year, though, it would be different. The world was on the brink of a new century, and David couldn't see the harm in change, especially if change meant that he might finally be able to express his true feelings to a certain Jack Kelly.
David had been saving for months. His father had gone back to work in the autumn and he had gone back to school, so he didn't have a chance at making much. He had an allowance which he was supposed to use to buy things he needed for his studies (or perhaps an occasional luncheon with schoolmates) that he had gone to great lengths to hide away. He'd barely managed to make it through the end of his winter term. All except one of the nibs of his pens had cracked and his pencils had been worked into useless stubs. The final result was nearly three dollars of pennies, nickels and dimes. It wasn't much, but David hoped that it would be enough.
He found himself in front of Stern Brothers Department Store.The doorman, dressed as finely as David had ever seen, didn't give David a second glance-over as he ushered David inside. Determined and optimistic, David nodded his head in thanks and walked through the entrance.
Jack Kelly was seventeen and just as poor as he had ever been. Winter was the worst season for newsies. Spring and summer and autumn were at least warm enough to carry the banner and sleep on the streets if necessary. Winter, though, was frigid even with New York's massive population. The Newboys' Lodging House was the only real option Jack and his friends had if they wanted to stay in a warm, safe bed. This meant that Newsboys were notoriously bad at giving at Christmas. The only things Jack ever even received were hand-me-down winter jackets and extra woolens from the Children's Aid Society. Those never fit quite right.
Surprisingly, though, the spirit of Christmas was not lost on Jack. He had been thinking for weeks about how he could turn this year (probably his last year selling papers with his friends since he would soon be considered too old to be a newsie) into something special. Every year, the Lodging House had a big dinner for the newsboys that lived there. He knew most of his friends wouldn't go hungry-- Kloppman had a way of making sure there was always more than enough to eat.
However, David Jacobs didn't live in the lodging house. David lived with his family and wasn't Christian. Jack didn't care a lot about religion in general. Growing up how he had, he wasn't exactly pious. When Jack had last gone and visited at the Jacobs household, though, he had casually asked David's little brother Les about Santa Claus. Les had looked up with him with big, conflicted eyes and said, "But Santa doesn't come to my house."
David had apologetically pulled Jack out onto the family's veranda and explained that Jewish people had a different holiday, but that Les had heard all about Santa Claus over the years and had even gone so far as to try and write him a letter, once. Jack had nodded and, feeling particularly knowledgeable on the subject of Christmas, had started talking about how there was one kind of Christmas about Baby Jesus and Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and kings, and that then there was another kind of Christmas, his Christmas, where people were just nice to each other and enjoyed the act of giving.
"An', well, even kids like me an' the other fellahs, we does our best, even if we ain't got nothin' to give."
David didn't own a watch yet. He was in line to inherit his father's old one, if there ever came to be a day when his family's income might stabilize. Despite that, he was always on time. He could hear a bell chiming somewhere off in the distance from where he stood on the bottom steps leading up to the Bethesda Terrace. Jack was late, and though David was sure that he'd show up, he felt the nervous knot in his stomach growing. In his mitten-covered hands he held a parcel that was meant to be a present for Jack.
Swallowing, David hoped for what must have been the hundredth time that Jack would like what he'd picked out. Though he'd had enough money to buy Jack something nice, David had enough foresight to realize that if he bought something too nice, there might be trouble. Not that Jack was intimidated by the Delancey brothers or any other kids on the streets... David frowned, uncertain. The angel atop of the Bethesda fountain seemed particularly judgmental, and also rather Christmas-like as it was coated in a fine layer of snow.
Finally, when David's attention had turned to a rather sturdy-looking rich woman in green dress and walking three tiny dogs near the fountain, he felt a hand clap against his shoulder. "Davey!" Two pats later and David was smiling, greeting his friend and feeling a bit awkward. Jack had already taken the time to follow David's line of vision, and he smirked. "Never knew you was interested in the hoity-toity type. Looks kinda like you could stick some candles an' berries on 'er and do 'er up like a big Christmas tree."
David didn't know if that was a particularly nice thing to say or even very funny, especially on Christmas day, but he looked at Jack and laughed, indulging his best friend. "No, her dogs. I thought they might twist her up like a big Maypole."
"But it's December," Jack laughed, and to get the last word in he changed the subject right away. "Speakin' of, Merry Christmas."
David had been too busy studying Jack's face to realize that Jack had an orange in his left hand. Now, he was holding the orange up for David to take. His hand was bare and chapped, knuckles red from the dry, stinging air, but David reached out and took the orange. He practically shoved his own present into Jack's chest in return. "You too. I mean, Merry Christmas."
"Huh? Wow, what's this?"
As Jack moved to open the present right then and there, David took the time to completely study the orange that Jack had given him. It was small, with sight spotting on the skin that indicated it might soon go rotten, but oranges were a winter luxury and David could count on his fingers how many times he'd ever eaten one. He smiled, hoping that the sudden flushing in his cheeks might be written off as being due to the weather. He watched Jack from the corner of his eye, finally, and was delighted to see that Jack looked stunned.
"You got this fer me?" Jack asked, waiting for David's nod before he smiled a smile that David wasn't sure he'd ever seen before. Jack immediately began to wrap the present, a big, black winter scarf, around his neck. He slid matching gloves onto his hands, looking at them in disbelief. David wondered how many years it had been since his friend had worn gloves and a scarf, which were sometimes available at the Lodging House but which were scarce and usually saved for the younger, frailer children.
Jack had wound the scarf up unevenly, and it threatened to unfurl itself when he moved. Shaking his head, David pocketed his orange and stepped forward. "No, not like that," he said lightly. He couldn't find the courage to look at Jack straight on as he carefully re-wrapped the scarf, effectively bundling his friend up. Jack didn't seem to notice David's embarrassment through his own.
"Thanks Dave," he said sheepishly.
In response, David dusted off some lint that had been stuck to Jack's shoulder. Then, heart pounding, he retreated, falling in place next to Jack. He looked everywhere else but at the other young man. He was surprised when Jack's hand grabbed for his wrist and pulled him forward. "Come on." They walked together, Jack forgetting or unwilling to let go, and David certainly happy not to let the moment end. He liked Jack a lot, and wasn't sure exactly what to do about that. He knew he shouldn't say something directly because Jack was a boy and so was he. David didn't want to ruin things. Even though he had the reputation of being a "walkin' mouth," David knew that actions could speak just as loud as words.
Jack led them through the Central Park Promenade, past some shops and cafes. They were getting some looks from those around, and David noticed, but those looks were less to do with the fact that Jack was holding onto him and more with the fact that two ragamuffin boys had just infiltrated a somewhat upscale area. They kept on going. David began to question where, and finally when they had gotten to a spot where there wasn't much of anything except for some leafless trees and a lot of snow, Jack stopped. He dropped David's hand, walking just a few steps away, adjusting his scarf, wiggling his fingers in his gloves. David smiled at this. Jack turned around.
"You ain't cold?" Jack asked, suddenly.
David was just as wrapped up as Jack, probably more. His mother was very responsible and had practically quizzed David on what underwear he'd chosen, and if he'd put on thick socks before he was allowed to leave the house. He'd fought with her over whether or not he should have worn a knitted cap but he'd defied her and she had finally given up. He wore his selling cap with a gray scarf and mittens that Sarah had made for him. "No. You?" David replied, tilting his head a little to try and not get caught staring at Jack.
"What? No, nah o' course not. Not anymore." Jack wiggled his fingers in front of himself again, seemingly pleased.
"They were made using new technology. By a machine," David explained, "and so the store clerk said they're the warmest there is." David realized that he didn't really need to elaborate on the subject of the scarf and gloves, but he was nervous about whether or not Jack really liked them or not.
"It's great," Jack looked up at the trees, though there wasn't much to see. "Hey," he started up again, "The orange, sorry about it. I know it ain't really a real present or nothin'." He was too proud to say that it was all he could afford to give, and David didn't blame him.
"No," David fished back into his pocket. "It looks delicious. Are you hungry?"
"Yeah," Jack shrugged one shoulder.
David's grin deepened. He took off his mittens, fitting them underneath one arm as he moved to peel the orange. It was ripe and juice leaked out onto the snow, staining it a pale yellow color. It was cold, but David didn't mind. He saw Jack take off one glove as he divided the orange and handed one half over. Jack made an appreciative gesture with his chin, looking both a bit embarrassed and glad. It wasn't an expression that David had seen much of, and he felt special. His actions had brought that look to Jack's face.
The orange was possibly the most delicious thing David or Jack had ever eaten. The fruit seemed to give David bravery, and as they ate they watched each other and smiled.
Jack and David had walked together all afternoon. For as many people as there were living in the city, there were so many places in Central Park where they found themselves completely alone together. The snow had soaked into their boots and their feet had nearly gone numb from the cold. Jack didn't seem phased. He had even taken up some snow and packed it into a fluffy ball at one point, throwing it at David. David had pretended to be angry about it, and probably if the person throwing had been anyone but Jack, he really would have been. Seeing as the culprit was Jack, though, he had just stooped down, made his own snowball and got revenge.
"What about the dinner tonight?" David asked as they approached the park exit. The walk back down to Duane Street would take a long time, and already the sun was beginning to set.
"Yeah," Jack nodded, but seemed unenthusiastic about going back to reality. "And you, too. Your family's waitin' on dinner by now." It was true. Mrs. Jacobs was quite a stickler and would be absolutely horrified that David was tardy and had allowed his boots to get so wet.
"She is." There was a long silence until David looked at Jack, straight in the eye. He wanted so much to reach out and give some indication, any at all, that he'd like to skip out on his family and just spend more time together. David knew, however, just how Jack would have felt about that. He didn't want to ruin the mood. He also didn't want to be lectured on the importance of family, or to make Jack think he was ungrateful for all that his mother did for him by providing three square meals a day.
"I guess this means we should go." Jack spoke, but he still hadn't made a move.
"I guess so."
"Listen, Davey. Thanks for the present. Ya shouldn't a done that. But I'm happy ya did."
Jack brought his glove out to shake David's mitten, and David noticed the intensity on his friend's face. Something about it made David feel lightheaded. His chest pounding probably sounded the same as the machine that had so carefully produced Jack's Christmas presents. "Thank you for showing me my first Christmas." His words seemed so formal and strange.
There was a long pause. Neither young man moved. They were still holding hands. Jack seemed to be having difficulty figuring out how to say what he wanted to say. He had never been strong with words, especially words that were used to express feelings. "Well, uh, maybe next year I'll be able to do somethin', uh, better."
Their hands separated and David was a little amused at how Jack seemed almost bashful. It gave him confidence. "Does that mean we'll celebrate together next year, too?"
Jack's face was serious as he nodded, "I wouldn't wanna spend it with anybody else."