Paper Angels

A Christmas Story



by Joe Beine

illustration by Nicole Robbins
  Alcatraz in the Fog by Nicole Robbins  


 

Paper Angels


Jessi knew that Ari’s spirit was easiest to find in cathedrals and graveyards. But today her search took her somewhere else. She looked up at the rust colored tower before her and saw a gray sandblasted spot near the top that was dipped in colorless fog. Despite the scruffy appearance, she decided this would have to do. The fog settled a bit lower as she continued her walk, a chilly breeze occasionally blasting at her. This breeze, along with the traffic hum, created an unsteady rhythm that even the best avant garde percussionist would have a tough time following.

Jessi was wearing an open leather jacket over a buttoned up denim jacket, both equally worn. Below the jackets a plaid Catholic school girl’s skirt blew against her legs, which were wrapped in black tights. One of her biker boots was untied, but it fit so snugly that she hadn’t yet noticed. She wasn’t a biker or a Catholic school girl, but she looked like a striking combination of the two. The contrast of her dark hair and eyes with her pale features only added to the paradox.

When Jessi passed by the first tower she felt a tug on the unseen umbilical cord that connected her with the spiritual realm. And she was reminded of what she actually was, not a biker or a Catholic school girl or even a young woman, but a traveler, a messenger, a spirit inhabiting a body in the world of people, sent down for a brief time to learn the meaning of alive. And whenever she felt confused or lost, which was often, she sought out her friend Arianne in a graveyard or a cathedral. Or a bridge that had become a cathedral the moment an angel stepped between its twin towers.

She stopped walking and gazed out at the bay. A fishing boat, braving the fog, trawled along on its way back to the marina or some other harbor. Seagulls and other birds played tag with the gray-green waves. Across the bay, Alcatraz was slowly being eaten by a dollop of fog. Its winking lighthouse was still visible, adding a steadiness to the uneven rhythm of the bridge.

A foghorn shouted a bellowing command, its wide blast coming from somewhere below her, and Jessi wondered if this had been its first warning or if it had already cried out during her short journey and she was just noticing it now. Everything was a jumble of fog, wind, sea water, traffic and rust colored steel, making it difficult to discern all the details of this blur without pausing to pay attention. Like a Monet painting. Walk quickly past, see nothing. Stop to gaze for awhile, see everything. Rising up from this jumble she heard Ari’s voice coming from the same direction as the foghorn, or perhaps it was coming from the bay, or even Alcatraz. She couldn’t really tell. But it settled itself comfortably in a friendly fashion inside her head.

“You couldn’t have picked a better cathedral, Jess,” Ari said and Jessi smiled.

“It doesn’t have any bells though,” Jessi said.

“The foghorns will have to do then. And look at the bay. It’s just like stained glass, isn’t it?”

“And the lighthouse on Alcatraz is a candle,” Jessi added.

“Yes,” Ari said. “But I wonder if the workers who made the bridge knew that they were really building a cathedral.”

“I’m sure they knew,” Jessi replied. “They must’ve. It’s just too obvious.” She felt Ari’s smile through the umbilical cord.

“So howya doin’, Angelgirl?”

“Oh um. I’m ok, Ari. I just um...” She looked out at the flickering candle on Alcatraz.

“You’re wondering about this time of year, aren’t you? Christmas time....”

“Yeah um. It just seems like everyone has these family things that they do. Like kids and parents and grandparents and stuff. And I don’t have that. I’m like this little orphan with no one. I’m not sure what my place is. I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go.”

“You’re not an orphan, Jess. You have Gabriel and Isabelle and all of us.”

“But you guys aren’t here. I was sent here by myself. And it seems all I do is look for dark places to hide in.” She paused. A jogger slipped past behind her, breathing hard. Jessi looked out at Alcatraz. The fog was struggling to put the candle out.

“What did you do, Ari? When you were here? Before you died?”

“I kinda felt like an orphan sometimes too. I barely knew my dad. My mom was a mess. I didn’t know where my brother was. My stepfather had taken him and vanished. I hated Christmas for so long. Resented other people cause they had such happy Christmases. People like at work would invite me over for Christmas dinner. But I felt so out of place. Like I wasn’t really part of their family celebration.

“I went to Sacramento one year to visit my mom. And all she did was drink. And we argued all the time. Some Christmas. I blamed her for everything that was wrong with me, that was wrong with my life, which was pretty stupid I know. So she had a crappy marriage followed by a second crappy marriage. Me and my brother were like baggage getting dragged around.

“And then one year I just thought, you know, I don’t want to do this anymore. Fight with my mom or be miserable at someone else’s Christmas dinner.”

Ari paused and Jessi decided to stay silent. She didn’t want to interrupt her. The drone around her had settled into a different rhythm. A new pattern emerged and then was quickly replaced by another one.

“So I thought,” Ari continued, “ok, who has a worse Christmas than me? Someone with no real family to go to. No real home. Could it possibly be worse than this? Every year? And I thought, what about people in the hospital or homeless shelters? What kind of Christmas do they have? So I went to a homeless shelter and there were all these little kids there. I wasn’t expecting children. And I wanted to do something for them. Something more than like just give them a toy or something. And I couldn’t exactly dress up as Santa Claus.”

Jessi smiled.

“So I thought, what do I have, what can I give these kids without a home?”

“So you gave them your voice, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess. It was like, I can read to them. I can tell stories. I can sing Christmas carols with them. I can spend time with them and play games and make simple things like paper chains and snowflakes and angels....”

A spark danced through the umbilical cord. The two angels smiled.

“And I finally had my first good Christmas. I finally felt content. I went back every year. Christmas is about making kids happy, something I never was.”

Ari stopped speaking and Jessi could suddenly feel the bridge’s uneven rhythm: foghorn wail, Alcatraz wink, breeze blast, traffic. Another jogger danced by, followed by a dark clad person, just wandering through Ari and Jessi’s bridge cathedral.

“What about your mom?” Jessi said. “Did you ever fix things with your mom?”

“No. I was dead before...” She paused. “I died before I had the chance.” She paused again. “Sometimes I wish I could have it back. But of course you don’t know, do you? You don’t get to look at life in the right perspective until after you’re dead.” Ari suddenly laughed at what she had just said.

A momentary lull in the traffic thump was filled up instantly with the cries from birds flying at the base of the tower. The foghorn let out a mournful wail, sounding nothing like a cathedral bell. The traffic rushed on again.

“So that’s what I will do then, Ari,” Jessi said. “I will go to a hospital and a homeless shelter, and I will sing carols with the children and read to them and play with them. And make paper angels.” She smiled, then gazed down at the stained glass surface of the bay. “I’m sorry about your mom and all that, Ari....”

“Yeah, but you know what, Angelgirl? I found my redemption through the children.”

“That’s why you became an angel.”

“Really?”

“Yes, um. Angels have a special relationship with children. That’s why they can see us, while adults have such trouble.” Jessi briefly thought she felt rain, but then realized it was only sea air pouring over the bridge from the Pacific behind her. “I should go now, Ari. It’s getting cold.”

“Have a good Christmas, Jess.”

“You too. Bye my friend, Ari. I miss you.”

Jessi headed back down the bridge’s walkway, feeling the breeze tug at her face and push around her small figure. When she passed the bridge’s tower she felt the spiritual umbilical cord loosen, and she looked out at the bay. The lighthouse candle on Alcatraz had winked off, finally succumbing to the fog. The city was next. Jessi hurried off toward the tourist parking lot, pulling her leather jacket tighter around her. She hurried off to seek her redemption through children.
 




text © 1999, 2001 Joe Beine [Contact]
illustration © 1999 Nicole Robbins


please do not copy or distribute without permission
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"Paper Angels" is from the book
Paper Angels, a Collection of Christmas Stories
by Joe Beine



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December 1999