written by Luisa Reyes
When I decided to respond to an advertisement I saw in the newspaper soliciting musicians to double as bell ringers for The Salvation Army, my mother panicked.
“People will think you are a recovering alcoholic,” she said. Puzzled by her comments, I ignored her warning and went for the interview anyway. After singing The Little Drummer Boy, which I’d practiced the night before in preparation, the interviewer asked me, “Why do you want to be a bell ringer?” I told him I liked the idea of it, but that my mother warned me that people will think I’m a recovering alcoholic. “Yes, they will,” he quickly interjected.
Again, I was puzzled. Other than gleefully rushing to place a dollar bill in the kettle with my brother when I was a child, I had no experience with The Salvation Army. I’d never considered the people ringing the bells to be anything but good people and was surprised by my mother’s and now the interviewer’s response. I assured the interviewer that I had sung Christmas Carols for several years with a professional Christmas Caroling group, and simply thought it would be fun to combine the caroling with bell ringing. He sighed, seemingly out of disbelief, and I got the job.
I didn’t realize how little my caroling experience would mean until my first day. I was assigned to a kettle located in the middle of a busy mall, filled with noises and sounds from every direction: piped music coming through the speakers in the corridors, the rock band playing in the Macy’s wing, tinkling folk tunes from the circling children’s carousel, and lastly, the din of the crowds themselves as they ate dinner at the food court. Plodding along, I continued my bell ringing and hoped that it would somehow carry over all of these various sounds throughout the mall and encourage everyone to pay attention. And, I admit, I also mastered the art of counting down the hours as the days went on, quickly trading in my high heels for a pair of truly relaxing and comfortable tennis shoes.
I soon learned that my brother and I weren’t the only little kids who eagerly rushed to donate a dollar into the red kettle. Time and time again, I would see parents beam with pride when their little children figured out how to fold the dollar bill in just the right way so that it would easily slide down the groove of the plastic kettle. I also learned that WWII vets were especially awed by The Salvation Army, and they frequently stopped by and shared with me their various stories of how The Salvation Army had helped them so much while they were stationed in Europe during the great war. And one accomplished-looking lady even shared how The Salvation Army had helped her get back home after she ran away to Chicago as a rebellious young teenager.
There was also the fellow who wore a reflector vest over his winter clothing. He, unfailingly, would come into the mall on a daily basis to walk around. From what I could tell, he was obviously somewhat mentally challenged, and his dedication to his exercise routine was unhampered. Soon, he included a stop by my stand in his daily walk and would drop either a penny or a nickel into the kettle with much earnestness. He explained to me that he felt it would bring him good luck. I didn’t know what to say, but I really did hope it would turn out as he wished.
Since I was a regular at the mall during the bell ringing season, I soon became acquainted with some of the other seasonal employees at the mall, including the mall Santa Claus, who was the bearded and rotund son of a preacher who had lost his way, but was now straightening his life back again. He had been on food stamps and this job was quite an opportunity for him to get a foothold on his life and earn some much needed extra income. He worked very hard and kept long hours. And, with his outgoing personality, he was an enormous success, a fact attested to by the lines to get a picture with Santa Claus being so very long, that I would often have to move my kettle stand so that I was not overrun by families standing in line with their young children, all laughing and dressed in their holiday finery.
One day, as Santa and I talked during the few times our breaks coincided, he asked me about the fellow in the reflector vest who walked around daily. I told him that I didn’t know anything about him, except that he would always donate a penny to my kettle. The Santa Claus then shared that the fellow would also stop by and give him his Christmas wish list on a daily basis. The list included a new reflector vest, a stopwatch, and a whole host of other items. All of which would come to a fair sum, if purchased new.
The closer it got to Christmas Eve, the colder the weather turned. And the winds brought snow with them, as well. On one of his last days working, Santa asked me to make sure and stop by his stand before my shift was up to say goodbye. When I did so, I saw the fellow with the reflector vest was also making his daily visit. I watched as Santa pulled out a bag full of presents and handed them to the fellow in the reflector vest. The man was visibly taken aback and speechless, but he began opening his presents, as Santa instructed. The first thing he opened was a bright and brand new reflector vest, which he immediately put on. And then Santa helped him set up his new stopwatch as well. After opening up all of the other presents on his list, Santa asked him if he had done well. To which the fellow nodded in affirmation. Satisfied, Santa turned to attend to other children standing in line, all most eager to present to him their wish lists as well. The fellow in his new reflector vest turned to me and said he was worried people would think he had stolen all of these brand new things. I assured him as best as I could that it would be okay, and that Santa had just come early for him.
The next day, the fellow stopped by Santa’s once again. This time, proudly sporting his brand new reflector vest, he carried a letter from his sister in his hands. As she explained to Santa in her letter, she had severe breast cancer for which she was undergoing strenuous treatment and she had cried many a time as she worried about her brother and what would happen to him. But, thankfully, Santa had helped calm her concerns by remembering her brother so very generously. And, of course, being a manly man, Santa was humble and made light of what he had done. But I could tell that he was bravely fighting back the tears. The next day, as usual, the fellow proudly sporting his new reflector vest stopped by my kettle and dropped a penny in, as was his custom. But, this time, he didn’t say it would bring him good luck. Instead, he told me, that it already had.
Luisa Kay Reyes has had poems featured in the Set Sail For Poetry, I Spy Poetry, A Kaleidoscope of Poetry, and the How Sweet It Is anthologies published by the Stark County District Library. She has also had poems published in The Sleuth zine for Nancy Drew sleuths and The Silkworm poetry anthology published by the Florence Poet’s Society. Recently, her poem “A Christmas Poem” was declared a first place winner by the Sixteenth Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. In 2007, she received Honorable Mention in the Alabama Meter Readers International Limerick Contest and First Place in the Florence Poet’s Society Limerick Contest. And just this past October, her poem entitled “Nancy Drew . . . ” was published in the Nancy Drew Anthology published by the Silver Birch Press. Recently, she has started writing nonfiction and she was very pleased to learn that her piece entitled “Dinner On The Grounds” was accepted by the Fire In Machines literary anthology for publication.