by Robert Corn
It was coming on Christmas, and Chris wanted to fly away. Life had been hard. And there was the pain. With a diagnosis of Lupus in his early teens, his life had changed overnight. Where he had once been a fifteen-year-old teenager in a muscular shell, he was now bloated beyond recognition. His appearance had changed so quickly as if he were a prisoner in an alien body. The mirror lied each morning when the face that stared back at him was unrecognizable. That year, he faced Christmas with a death sentence that he would endure in a foreign body that promised continued pain forever.
But the death sentence was only a bad joke. Chris was now twenty-five, and ten Christmases had come and gone since his predicted death. It was facing him again. He was not sure why he counted the years by this holiday. It was just his annual hourglass. Each Christmas Eve, he watched the last few sands fall through the narrow glass opening marking the passing of another year that he was still alive. And on Christmas day, he turned the hourglass over, and began the trek through another year.
Christmas had changed somewhat in Chris’s hometown as it had in most small towns in the South. Gaudy strands of colored lights had given away to the more civilized small white bulbs. The lights that used to be strung across Main Street leading to the courthouse had been replaced with electrified snowflakes. These white monstrosities were hung on the light poles in October, illuminated after Thanksgiving, and retrieved sometime later in the winter when the city found the time. Even the magnificent star that adorned the top of the courthouse had been replaced with stylish front door wreathes.
In the 60s, there was as good a chance as not that there would be snow for Christmas. It did not happen often. The occasional snow kept hope alive each year for the upcoming holiday to be white. At a minimum, it would be cold in December and that allowed parents to ease their children’s minds that Santa would, in fact, have no trouble getting his sleigh, reindeer, and toys into town.
As the years passed and the lights to the more formal white, the weather also took its cue that things should change. Whether it was global warming, a naturally occurring weather cycle, or a cosmic response to our country’s decision to celebrate the holidays instead of Christmas, the chance of a white Christmas had evaporated with Betsy Wetsy dolls and Lionel Trains. Sitting outside in his lawn chair on Christmas Eve (in the sixty-degree weather), Chris waited out the final grains of sand in his hourglass. He looked into the sky to find the Christmas Star as he had done since he was a child. He decided that this year would be his last to stare into the sky and be disappointed. He pushed his aching body out of the lawn chair and painfully moved into his parents’ house, preparing to flip the hourglass again.
While ice skating in sixty-degree temperatures was virtually unheard of in Tennessee, Chris’s parents had been from Connecticut and had made sure that their children knew how to skate. On the coldest winter days, they had found a frozen pond at one of the many farms in the area. His mom had told him tales about ice skating up north. She had said that almost everyone skated on ponds, but it was truly special to skate on a river. All you can do on a pond is go around in circles. On a river, well—on a river you could skate away to where ever you wanted. She had said that you could fly away on a river. Barring the unexpected wet feet that accompanied the occasional weak spot in the ice, the family had loved these outings. Once in the late 50s, the Duck River froze into a solid block of ice. This lazy southern river that curved its way through the town was better known for water skiing than ice skating, except for that one magic day the family spent ice skating the Duck.
Chris’s hometown was nestled almost exactly in the center of the state. This centralization was a locational distinction only. Nothing much ever happened in the small, but growing town of Columbia, Tennessee. Its primary, if not only, recognition was as the Mule Capital of the World. This questionable distinction came from Columbia reputation as the best place to buy a tamed mule in the South in the late 1800s. 170 years later, the town continued to celebrate it.
Each year, the town elected a Mule Queen, closed down West 7th Street, and mules and mule teams from miles around paraded to the Court House. It was an incredible event unless you were one of the street crews that had to clean the roads after the parade. The locals always referred to this day in March as the day in which anyone who had a four-legged animal got “liquored up” and rode it through town. But this event was so much more. Their small town had figured out a way to hold onto its heritage in a manner that was neither patronizing to the past, nor an assault to the sensibilities of the present. Mule day was Americana at its best—even the Mule Queen would agree.
In the 60s, Columbia was a small town of around 17,000 hard-working country folk. Columbia was the town that Beaver Cleaver wished he had lived in. This small town was home to those referred to in Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation. Companies like Monsanto, Union Carbide, and Hooker Chemical Company employed the largest number of the inhabitants. People worked hard and raised their children well; they believed in a Christian work ethic and respected authority and adults. This, of course, was during a time when adults and authority figures deserved respect. The biggest threat to civil obedience was the Columbia Rebels motorcycle gang which hung out at the Pizza Inn on the Nashville Highway. Their immediate threat to the law was the proliferation of fake IDs which they used to buy beer at the aforementioned pizzeria.
It was here in the late 60s, Chris considered which college he would attend. His doctors and their diagnosis suggested he forget about college applications, since he would not live long enough. Upon digesting the implications, Chris did what any eighteen-year-old would. With a begrudging blessing from his parents, he bought a Honda 750 and took to the road. It had an orange tank with a black strip and gold pin striping. It was arguably the biggest bike on the market. His marginalized health had affected his strength and muscle coordination so that riding such a bike was a constant struggle. But it was important to him, so he learned how to cope. After all, he was eighteen and invulnerable—with the glaring exception of Lupus.
His version of Lupus was aggravated by sunlight, which forced him to ride mostly at night. There was something about the road after midnight that he found soothing. He had a transistor radio that he put in his shirt pocket and with the single, monaural earpiece he could fly away. And fly away he did.
The warm air raced past Chris on those rides with the sound of the Doors, Bloodrock, Hendrix, and Uriah Heep filling the night. During this time, FM radio was hitting its stride in the commercial market with album-oriented rock. There was a special feel about late night FM radio that was different from other radio formats. You felt as if you were the only person listening—if not the only person left on the planet. That was the feeling Chris enjoyed—to be the only person alive and riding down a dark road with Deep Purple grinding out Kentucky Woman.
Chris decided to spend the Christmas of 1970 in Key West. He had gassed up his Honda and headed south out of Columbia on Thanksgiving Day, and kept riding until the road ran into the ocean. Many a night, he rode without his helmet. He felt as if he had absolutely nothing to lose. He was already well past his expiration date imposed by the doctors. The air warmed as he moved from middle Tennessee through Alabama, into Georgia, and through the insufferably long state of Florida. Chris opted for the longer, more scenic, road down the east coast. The smell of salt and sand mingled with that of the oil from his Honda.
The engine roared through the night as he passed through one seaside town after another. The warm breezes blew in from the East and he felt the sand occasionally blowing across the road and stinging his legs. Between towns, he often turned off his headlights and pushed the 750 well over 100 mph—and let his adrenalin and the moonlight keep him between the white lines. There could be no better method to fly away—not even on a river!
Around 3:00 a.m., he crossed over onto the island of Key West. Since 1521 when Ponce de León came to the Keys, explorers have come in search of different things. Ponce had come looking for the Fountain of Youth. The treasure he sought was undiscoverable. Other explorers came to discover the treasures they sought, only to find that they could not be possessed.
The Hogfish Bar and Grill had their lights on, even though most of their die-hard clientele had left for the evening. If there were times that were too early to drink a beer, Chris wondered if there was ever a time that it was too late. He posed this question to the haggard looking young girl behind the bar. “I really don’t know,” she replied as one who had heard every pickup line imaginable. When she looked up, she noticed that the bike rider who had just entered her bar looked as tired as she felt. And she had pity on him.
“Let’s start again,” she started with a slight smile. “I really don’t know the answer to that one but let me get you a beer while I think about it. Where did you come in from?” She dug out a beer from the night’s leftovers in the melted ice of an old galvanized cooler with a faded logo on the side. She placed a Budweiser in front of him; she had sized him up and decided he was not a Michelob guy.
“Originally from Tennessee, but I spent the morning in Miami,” he answered distractedly as he placed his helmet on the stool next to him. “Do you know a good campground where I could stay for the night?”
“Oh sure, there are plenty around here,” she said as pushed her hair back behind her ear. She stuck out her hand and said, “By the way, I’m Star.”
“Wow—where I come from girls have names like Beth, Debbie, or Teresa. But, if that’s the case, you can call me Moon Unit,” he said after remembering what Frank Zappa had named his daughter.
She returned his smile, seemingly not annoyed at his disbelief of her given name. “Well, I bet where you’re from, your parents don’t live in a rusted-out trailer on the beach. And I bet your parents don’t make necklaces for a living, either.”
“Fair enough.” He laughed and took his first drink from the long-necked bottle. “So back to the issue of a place to stay. Any ideas?” He started to feel the adrenalin of the night’s ride wearing off.
“Well, there are several campgrounds around. Rates are good and the people are nice even though they may be a little stranger than the folks that you are used to!” she said again with self-deprecating humor.
“If you don’t mind sending me in the direction of one of them, I would appreciate it,” as he pushed back his stool and placed a dollar on the bar.
After receiving a suggestion, Chris headed back to his bike and made the short trip to Boyd’s Campground on Stock Island. He was surprised to find someone at the front gate. “You Moon Unit?” yelled the bearded man over the sound of Chris’s Honda.
After hesitating a second, he smiled and answered, “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Star called from the bar and said you might be on your way,” he said sleepily. “So, what do you go by—Moon—Unit? What makes you happy?”
“Just call me Moon.” Chris knew that his new moniker for his time in the Keyes had been established.
“Groovy!” the gatekeeper said. “Find any place you like to crash. We’re pretty casual here,” he explained in a southern drawl. “We’ll catch you later.” He shot Moon a peace sign.
Christmas Eve was only a day away. Chris lived vampire hours, sleeping from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. and allowing the heat of the day to pass. The island weather was perfect after 6:00 p.m. With the winter weather, it was cool in the evenings but never too cool to require more than a sweatshirt. He ate seafood and sat on the beach watching the sunsets. He explored the neighboring islands during the early evenings, but always ended up back at Hogfish for a beer and conch fritters. He enjoyed the feeling of the bar and the time he spent with Star.
It was always after 2:00 a.m. before they had the time to talk. The local patrons kept Star and the rest of the waiters busy, even during Christmas week. But in the early morning hours, there was time to tell stories, laugh at their young pasts, and talk of the future. Chris had learned long ago not to speak of his pending demise. Once someone knew you were dying, everything changed. Even the most well-intentioned individuals treated you with sympathy and began distancing themselves from you and the sadness they would endure if they didn’t.
Like every other young adult in the early 70s, Star swore that she would not grow up to be like her parents. Chris agreed and wished that he would have the chance to grow up. They shared their likes, dislikes, and dreams of what the future would hold. Chris occasionally gave Star a ride home on the back of his bike, or they walked along the beach to her parents’ trailer.
The trailer was like night and day from the home in which Chris had grown up. But for all of its differences, he found it to be an easy lifestyle. Her parents were as different from his as was their home, but the difference was pleasing. On December 23rd, Star got off work early and the two ate dinner at the trailer. Star’s parents, Wolf and Arrow, turned out to be a little more conventional than their names indicated. The four spent the evening and the next morning eating coconut shrimp and Spanish rice and talking. The conversations ranged from politics to astrology, but the obvious omission was any mention of what Chris did for a living or what his future held. It seemed to be totally irrelevant to her parents what he did or would do. What mattered to them was only what was transpiring in the “now” and that suited him.
That morning as he left, Arrow gave Chris what she referred to as an early “present of the season.” Chris was touched and yet a little embarrassed that he had nothing to give in return. However, they did not seem to be the type that required or expected that a gift came with strings attached. He took the gift and asked them if it would be okay if he could open it on Christmas.
Christmas Eve presented Chris with mixed feelings. Everything felt different here in the Keys. The weather, the landscape, the people, and even the food. Gone was the turkey and dressing, the gaudy lights, and the conventional celebration of the holiday—and the absence of these things was saddening. On the other hand, the differences had their upsides. It did not feel like Christmas, therefore, the hourglass effect held no power over him here. His approaching expiration date was unknown to those around him. Here, he had a future like everyone else, and that had immeasurable value.
And there was Star. Chris had dated girls on and off for the last several years, but she seemed different. He was not sure if it was because he was in a different place. Everything felt new here. His infatuation with Star was probably his reaction to the surroundings and the excitement over spending Christmas away from home for the first time. But still, he spent most of his days thinking about and waiting to see her again. The feeling was both pleasant and disconcerting; he could not tell which feeling was the stronger.
He woke up earlier than usual on Christmas Eve. Ignoring the sun and its negative effects, he headed toward the local shops. He wanted to find some small gift for Star and for her parents. It was just one of those things that his parents had instilled in him. He was, after all, the child of southern parents in the 60s.
Wolf and Arrow’s present came first. Since Star was still introducing him as Moon, he found a small slide viewer with a picture of the moon setting over the west coast of Key West. Even though the small tourist gift was only $.49, he correctly surmised that to Wolf and Arrow an item’s monetary cost did not establish its value.
Star’s gift took considerably longer. After several failed attempts, Chris remembered that Star had a charm bracelet that she loved. She had spent one evening explaining to him the memory associated with each charm. Going to every shop in the area, he was unable to find a charm that he felt expressed the right sentiment. Late in the afternoon, he found a small shop with a local artisan named James. After a brief conversation about the nature of Chris’s dilemma, James asked him to describe the perfect charm. The answer came immediately, “Ice skates, James, ice skates.” After a brief look of disbelief, James responded, “Give me until 10:00 p.m. and come back by. I’ll see what I can do.”
Chris returned that evening with no expectation that James would have come up with ice skates. He did not know if James had even seen a pair of skates. James sat at his workbench, under the singular glow of a magnifying light and rubbed his eyes, when Chris walked in the door that had a closed sign hanging in the window. “Hey man,” James said looking up with renewed energy, “I think I may have something for you!” He handed Chris a perfectly crafted pair of miniature ice skates. “I was able to modify a small pair of coconuts that I had.” He grinned. Chris stared at James for a moment, waiting for some facial expression to alert him to the fact that James was joking, but it never came, leaving Chris wondering if the skates had in fact begun life as a pair of coconuts!
“These are awesome, James,” Chris gushed. “They are perfect. I know that she is going to love these. How did you—? Thanks, James. What do I owe you?”
“Aw man, you don’t owe me nothing. Hey—it’s Christmas Eve, and it sounds like this girl is something special. It is my gift to you, as it is your gift to her.” No amount of arguing would change James’ mind on being paid. Chris left the shop thanking James all the way out and feeling a sense of debt he could never repay.
Chris was shocked for two reasons. It was the first time that he had heard Christmas even mentioned since he was in the Keys—and secondly, James was a stranger. It was his second unexpected gift in as many days from people he barely knew. Christmas was different here!
With it being too late to wrap presents, Chris headed over to the bar to assume his identity as Moon. Star said him that she would get off early since it was Christmas Eve and handed him another Budweiser, since there were still a few hours before closing. The bar was practically empty this evening. Star brought over some fried shrimp and sat with Moon at one of the empty tables. She thought she saw sadness in his eyes and asked why. He avoided the issue, but her insistence was stronger than his desire not to answer. They talked about Christmas in Tennessee. She shared that Christmas had never held anything special for her or her family. It was another day at the bar for her—another few bracelets made by Wolf and Arrow.
Remembering her gift, he reached into his pocket and turning his back to her, quickly wrapped the charms in a napkin from the table dispenser. Handing her the tiny skates, he wished her a Merry Christmas. Her eyes glistened as she slowly unwrapped the napkin. Teardrops channeled down her face.
“I love them.” She looked up into his eyes. “I love them.” Wiping the tears away, she smiled and asked, “Are these ice skates?”
Now laughing she asked, “Why ice skates? I love them, but why ice skates? Where in the world did you find ice skates here?”
Offering up only the briefest of explanation, he said that they meant Christmas to him. They also represented freedom. He told her how his mother had said you could travel anywhere, if you skated on rivers.
Chris drew with his finger in the condensation on the table. For a moment, he looked up at her. Maybe for the first time since he had arrived in Key West, he looked directly into her eyes. In that moment, that she had worked her way into his heart, but he had no idea how.
She confessed that she didn’t have a gift for him. Chris said, “Being with you has changed the way I see the world. It has forever altered my perspective on life—and love. That’s my present.” Those words came out much too quickly, surprising them to silence.
Rather than offering any explanation, he left the words lying there on the table and hoped that nothing more needed to be said. They both took another drink and sat in comfortable tranquility. “Oh,” Chris said, breaking the silence, “I have a gift for your parents. He took the tiny slide viewer out of his pocket and wrapped it in another napkin. Please give it to them tonight.”
“Last call,” came the words from Gunther, the manager. Since no other customers were there, the two headed for the door.
“Merry Christmas,” shouted Star to Gunther as she opened the bar door to leave. “Yeah, uh—Merry Christmas you two,” he replied, staring to see if it was in fact Star who had spoken. The two walked to the beach and spent the rest of the evening lying on the sand and looking at the stars. Chris told her of how he had spent each Christmas Eve looking for the Christmas Star. It was a silly thing he had done as a child, but the habit had carried over.
Chris thought to himself what an odd couple they were—Moon and Star. Evening turned into morning without either of them noticing. The cries of the ocean gulls alerted them that Christmas morning had arrived.
Chris felt the nagging thoughts that he had known would come. It had happened every time he felt too close to someone. Romanticized, it could be referred to as the “call of the road.” He was unwilling to look Star in the face and tell her the truth. He had gone through this process a few times before—each time telling himself that he was sparing the girl the pain she would experience when he died. There was some truth to that, but he was not willing to face certain facts. He did not know the future and it scared him. Each year that he lived, he became more frightened of dying. He was not only running away from Star, he was running away from the inevitable.
He walked Star back home and made a snap decision. He broke his own rule and set off on his bike in daylight. Having discovered WKWF during his brief time on the on the island, he turned up the volume on his transistor radio and headed his bike northward. The morning disc jockey at WKWF provided the soundtrack for his trip out of the Keys. Having moved past the Christmas music format, The Miracles crooned their new hit, The Tears of a Clown, to the sound of the Honda moving through its gears. Chris refused to acknowledge the irony.
The trip north did not possess the same magic as did the trip down. There was a chill in the air of the grey December skies. Chris had his own sense of internal coldness from leaving Star without saying goodbye—and knowing that he had made a mistake. It was a mistake that he had made before, and he reconciled himself to the fact that he would probably make it again.
Remembering the present given to him by Arrow, he pulled over in a rest area on the Florida state line and dug through his saddle bags until he found the small box. Opening the gift, he found a necklace with a small moon which hung from a thin piece of leather strapping. He placed the necklace around his neck. He hesitated for a moment and then kicked the Honda back to life and headed northward again. He felt worse now.
January was as cold and gray in Tennessee as he remembered. Traveling back from Florida during daylight hours had taken its toll on Chris’s health and nothing would help but rest and time in bed. He had made several attempts to call Star at the Hogfish, but she had adamantly refused to speak with him. He did not blame her. By spring, he gave up trying to contact her.
April the weather that encouraged Chris to bring his bike out of the mothballs. He pulled the Honda out from under the dusty sheet in the garage that had protected it for the last three months. He revved the engine and enjoyed the sound and smell of the bike that he had missed for the past several months. Riding down the long driveway, he didn’t make the required stop before entering the small road in front of his home. Missing the hard right turn onto Maury Lane and slicing across both lanes, he slammed into the opposing ditch. The sunlight from the return trip to Tennessee had deteriorated his muscles and joints more than he could have imagined, and he couldn’t control the bike as before. With a broken leg and wrist, he knew his days of riding the Honda were over—and he wondered if life was truly worth living. A week had passed and finding that he was still alive even without being able to ride, Chris knew he could not spend another day at home and in bed—broken leg or not.
Chris caught a ride to Nashville later that week and was dropped off at the Chevrolet dealership on Church Street. He knew what he wanted and had no intention of coming back home without it. If he was not going to ride two-wheeled vehicles anymore, then he was going to drive the fastest four-wheeled vehicle he could find. Forty-five minutes later, he was headed south on I-65 in a 302 Z-28 Camaro.
Chris deduced that since he was not dead yet, he would find something to do until he did die. He had always loved of everything electronic. He had been re-wiring radios and small toys since he was five. Coupled with his love of music and a few connections he had to the music industry, he cobbled together an eight-track recording studio in the basement of his parent’s house. In one sense, he was blessed that he came from upper-middle class parents. But things being what they were, he dove into the recording business with the top-of-the-line equipment. He spent as much or more money on soundproofing the basement as he did on the electronics, and in a short time, he was in business.
After building and testing the studio, he applied for his business license. When the County Register asked him the name of his business, he realized that was the one aspect of his new venture that he had not considered. From a place deeper than his subconscious, he responded, “Star Studios.”
Chris had a good ear. He started slowly with local artists dropping in to do demo tapes that they would take to Nashville in hopes of “making it big.” With each recording, he learned how to better use his equipment and polished his techniques. Nashville was only fifty miles north of Columbia up I-65, and Muscle Shoals was only a couple of hours to the west. The demo tapes he recorded were finding their way to the big studios there. Producers inquired as to where these tapes were produced, and it was not long before Chris had more overflow work from these other studios than he could process.
The new business suited Chris. He mingled with B-level artists and occasionally filled in on recordings playing either on drums or guitar. He moved in the smaller recording circles that surrounded Nashville and felt as if he belonged. He even wore the uniform of the recording industry in the early 70s. Bellbottom jeans and tie-died shirts were on-trend. Leather fringe jackets completed each ensemble, with thanks to the fashion sensibility handed down from Woodstock. He was happy for the first time in his adult life.
One day in November of 1975, he received a call at the studio. A local drummer was laying down drum tracks for a new demo, and Deb, the receptionist, could barely hear the party on the other end.
“I need to speak to Moon,” said the voice.
“Who?” the receptionist yelled over the drums.
“Moon. I need to speak to Moon.”
There was a slight pause in the roar of drums, and Deb tried again, “We don’t have anyone here by that name.”
A panic grew in the voice of the caller. “There must be. I have been trying all morning to track him down. He was here about five years ago. His name was Moon. He rode a Honda down from Tennessee.” The mangled remains of Chris’s 750 rested in the Star Studio lobby. Chris kept his beloved bike on display as an art piece and reminder of his past. Deb, putting two and two together, made the intellectual leap.
“Do you mean Chris?” she offered.
“I don’t know. Please, let me speak with him. Maybe he knows Moon.” Wolf’s voice was tired and on the verge of breaking.
“Just a minute. I will get him for you.” Deb waved off the drummer who was gearing up to play again. She ran to get Chris.
“Moon—is that you?” the caller said.
“Wolf! Is that you? It is so good to—how did you find me? I can’t believe it is you. How are you doing man?” Chris asked.
“Hey, Moon, I am so glad I found you. I have something to tell you. I have some bad news.” He paused and tried to regain his composure, “Star was riding her bicycle to work, and—” said Wolf as his voice broke. “They ran the stop sign. She never saw them coming. She never had a chance.”
Chris was silent. He reached inside his shirt and felt the moon necklace that he had worn every day since he had stopped at the Florida state line. The only words he could speak were inappropriate but he could not stop himself, “Was she still mad at me, Wolf?”
Arrow, who had been listening, pulled the phone away from Wolf and spoke in a quiet voice, “No Moon. She always loved you. She was not mad. She always hoped that you would come back, but she was not mad.”
“I am so sorry. How are you guys holding up?”
“You know—we are just making it day by day.”
“Yeah, I uh. I don’t know what to say,” mumbled Chris. “I am so sorry.”
“Well, we just wanted you to know,” said Arrow sadly.
“Hey—thanks for calling. I appreciate it.”
As he was hanging up the phone, Chris exclaimed into the phone, “Wait—Arrow, are you still there? Hey, I want you two to know. I loved her too. I was an idiot for leaving, but I loved her too.”
“Thanks Moon,” Arrow said as she hung up the phone.
Chris hung up gently. The drummer started “from the top” laying down his part on the rhythm track—and just like that, Star Studio was alive again.
Late into December, the studio was trying to keep up with the last-minute requests for recording time. With the end of daylight saving time, the evenings came quickly and lasted for what seemed an eternity. This December had been especially cold, and rumors were circulating about a white Christmas. A massive arctic clipper was moving through the south; and it looked like there would be a reason for the orange grower’s association to have an excuse to raise the price of orange juice next year. If it was not too cold for the oranges, then it was too dry. There was always a reason to raise the orange juice prices. Even the remotest mention of a white Christmas was enough the prompt the obligatory trips to the grocery store for bread, milk, and occasionally the higher priced orange juice. As if getting to the grocery store was a matter of national security, Chris jumped into his Camaro and mounted an assault on all other vehicles on the road. It was never acceptable to travel the speed limit if you could get away with going at least 15 mph faster.
Chris tuned the radio to WMCR and listened to his friend Tommy Wilson, whose dad owned the station. Tommy was beside himself as was the rest of Columbia. There would be record lows this Christmas with a better than ever chance of snow for the big day. The Duck River had ice forming along the banks for the first time since the late 50s. It did not take much to make news in Columbia and a white Christmas ticked off all the boxes.
Upon hearing those reports, Chris wheeled the car in the opposite direction and pushed the accelerator, alerting the highly-tuned engine to respond. Pulling into the Riverside Ballpark, Chris left the car running and ran to the river’s bank. It had formed muddy shelves of ice that reached out from the bank into the water. Chris saw chunks of ice moving down the river like frozen fish. He was transported to the 50s and he visualized himself and his mom skating on the river. They were flying away to places unknown. If this season offered him no other gift, the memory of skating with his family would be sufficient.
This memory, however, sparked the idea that maybe; just maybe, he might skate the Duck one more time. Digging through the closets and outbuildings at his parent’s home, he looked for his old skates. Under years of accumulated belongings, he found the objects that had defined his past. Old toys, tennis rackets, and baseball cards were stacked throughout the floors of the house. Like an archeological dig, each layer represented a time in his life covered only by the following year’s possessions. Near the bottom of a trunk in the attic, he uncovered his skates. They were moldy, dry-rotted remnants of ice skates. They were several sizes too small. No matter, this was nothing that a trip to the local sporting goods store could not resolve—and into the Camaro he climbed, setting another speed record as he roared across town.
The next days passed by and the studio closed on Christmas Eve until the new year. Chris bought a few presents as he did every year and made his deliveries. It was getting late, but he had one more stop to make. He drove back to the ballpark, and this time he drove across the field and all the way to the river. He scrambled down to the bank and there it was. Frozen solid like a river of chocolate milk. It was not as magical as he remembered, since it was the color of solidified mud, but it was frozen—and that is what mattered. Once again, the river would give him another "memory" gift; he would skate the Duck River again.
In some emotion akin to panic, he ran back up the bank, got into his car, and then spun his tires in right field and he headed home to pick up his new skates. He was back within thirty minutes. Checking the dashboard clock as he left the car for the second time, he noticed it was 11:15 p.m. He would skate into Christmas.
Sitting on the frozen bank, he strapped on his new skates and gingerly moved onto the ice. The ten plus years since he had last skated left him without the skill to be graceful, but there was enough muscle memory left for him to quickly regain the basics. In minutes, he glided across the icy river. He occasionally dodged a random branch that extruded from the frozen surface, but overall, it proved to be an exhilarating experience. He decided to skate upstream. He had no concern for his car since it was almost midnight on Christmas Eve, and Columbia’s finest were surely back at the station by now. Even the Columbia Rebels would not cause trouble on Christmas Eve!
He closed his eyes and skated purposefully down under the East 5th Street Bridge and northward into the night. In his mind, he skated past Williamsport and skirted along the Natchez Trace Parkway, and all the way down to Little Lot. It was frigid, but Chris knew this would be the last time he would skate—and he had gone so far. The pain was bearable. At the darkest spot on the river, he saw his mother skating along beside him and experienced the kind of joy only children can know at Christmas time. He was transformed to a child again as he and his mother flew away up the river and to the north. His mother smiled warmly and pointed at his feet. He felt that distant but familiar feeling of wet feet. It was always the precursor to what? His mind did not react before the ice beneath his feet gave way to the sound of a sharp crack. He was underwater instantaneously. He struggled, but the freezing water shocked his damaged muscles into an immediate surrender. His first thought was of the hourglass that, he estimated, would need to be turned over in the next few minutes. The sands moved more slowly now; their movement was almost imperceptible as they passed the narrow neck of the timepiece.
Chris was calm. He was not cold. He had anticipated this moment for years, and now it was here. Each second spent in the freezing water stole his remaining consciousness. His mother smiled at him as he flew by her. Just ahead was Star. Her face was softer and she smiled at him. She looked to be around nineteen and had not aged a day since that Christmas Eve in Key West.
As much as he wanted to focus on Star, his attention was pulled away to Main Street just up the hill. It was not the Main Street that he had left minutes before. It was the street from his youth. Colored strings of lights crisscrossed the road leading to the Court House that displayed a huge star perched on top. It was just as he remembered, and he smiled. It was perfect.
He looked beyond the Court House star to something so remarkable that he questioned his senses. Above the Court House—he saw it. It was incredible. No, it was more than incredible. There were no words to describe it. He saw a star that was so bright, so brilliantly white, that the star redefined beauty. It seemed alive by the way it pulsated and blinked from one degree of perfection to another. Shining miraculously, it filled the sky. He had searched a lifetime for this star, and here on Christmas Eve, it had found him.
The Star morphed from something of unearthly beauty into something warm and inviting. He felt the pull and a desire grew within him to go to it—to become one with it. The pain that had since he was fifteen drained from him. He passed into something so wonderful that his lifetime of suffering seemed a small price. He cried and regretted his complaints against the unfairness of life. But the warmth radiating from the light replaced his regret with an overpowering sense of love—and Chris rested as he greeted his mother and Star on the other side. By the time the courthouse clock had finished chiming midnight, Chris had flown away—and the first flakes of Christmas snow fell on the the frozen river that wound its way through Columbia.