By John Thomas Tuft

I steered the Ford F250 4×4 through the streets of Bedford, Virginia. Snow started falling mid afternoon and now as the light fades I steer past the courthouse, more lawyers’ offices than you could shake a stick at, and enough churches for three towns including their heathens, idly noticing the way the snow outlines the tree branches and softens the lights. The dogs doze in the back seat of the Extended Cab model, Pepper and Petey, two dogs’ dogs, who patrol the farm and keep the sheep entertained with their attempts at herding. The Lhasa apso on the seat beside me is a dust mop that yaps; Britches, queen of all she surveys and who never tires of reminding me of that fact. I turn onto Longwood Avenue to take care of the tiresome business of collecting rent at my sister’s apartment building. Once upon a time used as a Civil War hospital because, well, it’s Virginia,  it is now slightly more than a half dozen cheap apartments and it is my Christmas Eve duty to collect some very late rent.

Randy in 2C drives a flatbed tow/transport truck. Always in grease coated jeans and an oily once-white tee shirt, he does repo work, talks about his glory days playing high school football, and is always doing some sketchy work, strictly for cash, of course. As he presses wrinkled bills into my hand, what he hopes doesn’t get out is that a lot of his cash flow comes from being a drug snitch for the county sheriff’s office, setting up buys, locating stolen property—anything to lessen his own sentence for some off the books transporting of stolen cars. A guy who goes by Silversing, in 1D, is definitely off his meds. His parents kicked him out, at their wits end, after he dropped out of Virginia Tech to explore the celestial harmonics of the Peaks of Otter, three sister mountains to the northwest up State Route 43. He greets me with a disbelieving, “No, man, it’s Christmas. There’s no rent on Christmas. That’s Elf law 101.”

Shay and Annie are in 1A, a mixed-race couple in their late teens expecting their first child. Her father is there, loudly complaining about the toilet not working and he knows Judge Peters personally, and nobody should have to live like this, oblivious to the fact that I had no say in how events conspired to bring them here. Sherry, a divorcee in 2A directly overhead, pounds on her floor with a shoe to quiet all the shouting below her. I climb the stairs once again to smooth the waters, quiet the beast. It becomes immediately clear that Sherry has been imbibing holiday cheer since morning. She covers her loneliness during this season, as in all seasons, with bluster about needing peace and quiet and why can’t people just mind their own damn business and let her drink in peace. Her job as a hair stylist doesn’t cover the cost of a Christmas tree so she has strung colorful lights around the front window and painted a smile on the glass with lipstick.

Mrs. Peters pokes her head out of 2D. “Jack, could you carry Mr. Peters down to the front so he can enjoy the snowfall. Maybe some carolers will come by. He so loves singing and it’s too far to push him to the church in the snow.” The Peters rented the last apartment, despite their need for a first-floor unit because of the stroke that confined him to a wheelchair, beside robbing him of the power of speech. I pull my work gloves on again and apologize for wearing my muddy work boots into her spotless apartment. Poor guy is stuck up here all the time unless somebody shoulders the load. As I lifted this sparrow of a man in my arms, I heard the dogs going crazy down in the truck. Carrying him down the steps with his wife close behind fussing over getting a knit cap on his head, I smell smoke. I hurry the rest of the way down and out the door, nearly dumping poor Mr. Peters in the snow.

The snow is coming down harder, blurring the scene as I skid around the side of the building. The smell of smoke is stronger, and the wind is playing tricks on my ears. It sounds like someone is singing. I let the dogs out of the truck and follow them to the rear. There I find a small campfire is burning in the corner of the L shape to the building, out of the wind. Next to the fire are two men. One is missing an arm. One is missing a leg. One wears the gray of the Confederate Army. The other wears the Blue of the Union. Two old soldiers who could never go home. Warming their ghostly limbs against the snow and chill. One plays a harmonica. The other sings in baritone: “All is calm, all is bright…”

The dogs settle, and I notice that the building has emptied out. The Peters, Shay and Annie, Annie’s protective dad, Sherry, Silversing and Randy, pause to listen in this holy moment. Watching and waiting, hoping that the morning will bring peace…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.