A cold night, one of the coldest he could recall, and cursed by a wind that whipped and snapped off the river to rob all feeling from fingers, toes and hearts….
Matthew Cooney crumpled up the newspaper that served as his pillow and nestled as best he could under the overcoat that doubled now as his blanket. Enough of an overhang from the tacky tobacco store, closed now behind an iron grid, kept him from absorbing most of the snowflakes that shot on the wind like tiny darts. He had seen nights like this, far more than he cared either to count or remember. He would face this dark night as he had faced every night for the past two years, resolute simply to see the next morning.
Almost no one was on the streets, the combined effect of cold, wind, snow and Christmas Eve, which, if nothing else, promised the rarity of a White Christmas. Christmas Eve meant little to Matthew Cooney. Christmas was just a day, the same this year as any other Friday. He would spend it as he spent most days – shuffling among strangers who chose not to see him, wending his way to the mission where, at the end of the priest’s blessing, he would find at least a cup of hot coffee and a muffin, then setting himself up in the park with a paper cup in front of him and a look of quiet pleading in eyes that scoured each passerby for sympathy and spare change. If he were fortunate, he might collect enough for a meal at McDonald’s, filling his stomach with grease and gristle and quieting his mind enough to allow him to get an early start in his quest for the perfect door front. It would have to be recessed from the sidewalk, dark enough to afford him some bit of privacy, and close to a heating grate. Those were hard to come by.
Cooney’s Christmases had always been a blur. Even as a child, one blended into another, and none of them held any enchantment or wonder. The yelling, the slaps, the cold were indistinguishable one year to the next. He had grown too old too soon, the excitement of holiday meals and Christmas carols and cards sent or received obliterated by poverty and the resentments it engendered. The best Christmas gift he ever received was a carton of smokes from his father. His mother rarely left her bottle long enough to give him anything.
When Cooney’s father left them and his mother passed the point of all concern, Matthew set off on his own. He was 13 at the time, incapable of sustaining himself without the usual crimes – theft, some petty and some not so petty, a few drugs bought at wholesale and sold at retail, and, in a grand gesture of hubris, an attempt at armed robbery. He was an amateur, though, and no match for a liquor store that was a regular target for those on the edges. The owner stepped on a hidden alarm and feigned confusion and fear long enough for the squad cars to roll up to the door. The police drew their arms, Matthew Cooney threw his down, and he found himself a temporary home through a six to eight year sentence.
When his sentence finally ended, it was back to the streets. No one hires an ex-con, he thought, especially one with no schooling, no skills and no hope. Cooney knew his lot, and he accepted its heartbreak. There was, he believed, no longer a heart to break.
And now, on this bitter Christmas Eve, Cooney settled into his doorway. No miracles. No bright star to light his way. Nothing but the cold and wind and snow. In the early evening of it all, he drifted into what passed for slumber. - - - -
“Cooney. Matty Cooney. Is that you?
Cooney roused at once as a man’s hand gently tapped his shoulder. Instinctively he reached for the knife he kept in a side pocket of the coat. “What the hell? Get off me,” he barked, squinting against the darkness to see who this was.
The man drew off at once. “Jaysus, Matt, it is you. What the hell are you doing out here on a night like this? I knew you once, don’t you see. Johnny Duncan, you recall. I’m Johnny Duncan.”
Cooney peered upward, scowling as he wracked his memory for a Johnny Duncan. Maybe, once, a few years back. When he was another man in another time. When he was a boy, there might have been a Johnny Duncan.
“My family and I lived three doors down from yours. We ran together a bit before, well, before you left. A bit of mischief, a game or two, all that. D’ye remember at all?”
Cooney grunted as the vapors of recollection put a face to the name, and he saw the grown version of that face kneeling before him now. “Johnny Duncan,” he whispered. “Yeah.”
“So what the hell are you doing out here, Matty? You’ve no place to go? No place to be? Christ, man, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Just the way it is, Johnny, and nothin’ to be done about it. Go on your way now. There’s nothing for you here.”
Duncan reached down and placed his hand under Cooney’s arm, then pulled him upward. Cooney resisted, stumbled as he tried to pull his arm away, but found himself too weak. Duncan got him to his feet.
“And there’s nothing for you here either, Matty. I don’t have the first clue what happened to you, but I’ll tell you, lad, I don’t give a damn. I see a man I knew sleeping in a doorway on Christmas Eve and I know he shouldn’t be there, no matter who he is or what he’s been. You’re coming with me.”
Cooney stepped away as best he could but Duncan held tight to his arm. “I’m goin’ nowhere, Johnny. Leave me be.”
Duncan let go his grip and turned to face Cooney fully. He sighed, shook his head, then said, “Do you recall that we were in the same catechism, Matty? Do you remember what we learned? More than just a few chosen words, the rubbing of the beads and Sunday Mass. That teaching gets into your blood and you can’t ignore it. Christmas, Matty. It’s part of who we were as boys. Part of who we are. Even if it’s only for one night. You’re comin’ with me, Matty. You’re not sleeping in this cold. Not tonight.”
Cooney said nothing and looked hard at the other.
“I have a flat not far from here, with a spare bedroom. It’s yours for the night, along with a hot meal. Tomorrow you can sort things out. Stay or go, as you choose. But every Christmas Eve demands a stable for those in exile.”
“Those in exile. I’m hardly the Christ child, Johnny.”
“You’re as close as any of us from what I can tell. Come along, now. For old times, and for who we used to be. There’s no star, and no wise men, and you won’t have to sleep with the goats. But there’s a manger for you tonight, Matty, if you’ll have it.”
Matthew Cooney hesitated, then gathered his overcoat and a small bag of belongings. With an unsteady step he came to Johnny Duncan’s side. Together, then, into the night, through the wind and the cold and the snow, to hear the angels singing hosannas in soft and gentle voices.