The Thirteenth Window (A Christmas Story)
This is a short story that wasn’t quite ready in time to be included in Other Copenhagens, but is very much in the spirit of the other stories in that book. If you enjoy it, you might enjoy the rest of the collection.
Abraham Washington, seven years a widower, had not put up Christmas lights in seven years. But on December 21st—the same day that the late warm spell finally snapped cold—Abraham’s son James called from San Francisco. While Abraham was still breaking down the latest Steelers loss, James changed the subject.
“You’re not going to put up those lights this year, are you, Pop?”
Abraham hadn’t planned to. Why?
Because just yesterday Malina’s father (Malina was James’s wife) had taken a spill from a ladder while putting up outdoor lights and broken his wrist and sprained his ankle besides, and he was a full five years younger than Abraham.
So this was the year for Christmas lights.
Abraham searched the attic and the basement, but couldn’t find the heavy green strings of big outdoor bulbs, only the short white strings with the tiny bulbs for the tree he hadn’t put up either for seven years and still didn’t plan to. Maybe Marie had finally thrown the lights out during her final spring cleaning—she had always worried they would cause a fire. Tomorrow Abraham would go to the mall and buy some lights.
That evening after a dinner of supermarket rotisserie chicken and microwaved corn, Abraham walked around the neighborhood to get ideas for which lights to buy. Christmas lights had changed a lot. Now there were lights that flashed, moved, or looked like dripping icicles. Some houses even had projectors stuck in the lawn that threw patterns over the walls and roof and looked like stained glass.
“Out late, Abraham,” said Officer Ogonosky.
“Not a great neighborhood to be out late.”
Worse than it used to be, but better than some of the others around. Which was why Officer Ogonosky walked his beat slower here and lectured Abraham sometimes instead of hassling the hard boys a couple blocks over. Abraham didn’t say that last part.
“Looking at the lights?”
That was right.
“I like the lights in this neighborhood. Colors, figurines, new stuff. None of those houses with just a candle in each window. Those are kind of boring.”
So just a candle in each window it was. It was a shame Abraham wouldn’t get to use the ladder after all, but sometimes in life you had to make hard choices.
The next day Abraham went online. During his last visit James had tried to teach his father how to order things from Amazon, but instead Abraham had learned to read product reviews. He could spend a week reading reviews and taking notes in a spiral notebook before he finally went to the hardware store to buy a wrench or garden hose. But he didn’t have time for all that now. He found a set of well-reviewed electric candles—one woman called them “the Cadillac of electric candles”—and wrote down the name and the number “2,” which was how many sets of six he would need to put a candle in each window of his house with none to spare. Then he got out the Yellow Pages and found the number for Sears at the mall. Luckily the number had not changed—they hadn’t delivered a new Yellow Pages on his step for years now.
“Housewares,” said a chipper voice after three transfers and a hold, “this is Emily.”
Did they have any Holiday Miracle Deluxe Electric Candle Sets in stock?
“Let me check. I’m going to put you on hold for just a minute, okay?”
After two minutes of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on electric guitar Emily came back.
“We have two left,” she said. “Do you want me to put them aside for you?”
He would be right over.
For it being so close to Christmas the mall was not crowded, maybe because of all the layoffs he read about in the news. Abraham found a parking spot almost in front of Sears. But even without the excuse of crowds the people in the mall were in bad moods. Two mothers were arguing about which one of them was first in line to have their kid see Santa and the security guard had to get between them and say things to the women about what he got paid to do and what he didn’t. Both kids were typing on their phones and Santa laughed until he coughed. Abraham walked into Sears.
Up the escalator he found Housewares, and behind the register he found Emily. She was tall and skinny and blonde and held her hands behind her back and bounced on the balls of her feet, as if she had been a ball girl in tennis or maybe as if she just wanted more than she had to do. Her name tag had gone crooked from the bouncing. Her eyes lit up as Abraham walked over.
“Can I help you find something, sir?”
Two sets of Holiday Miracle Deluxe Electric Candles.
“I’m so sorry,” Emily said. She actually looked so sorry. “I’m holding the last two sets for someone.”
“For me,” said Abraham. “I’m the one who called.”
“Of course,” she said, “I’m so, so sorry.” But now she looked embarrassed rather than so so sorry.
Abraham was used to it. People who met him on the phone expected him to be white. His father had drilled the diction and accent into him and now he couldn’t have lost it if he wanted to. He supposed his voice wasn’t that different in real life than on the phone but that people saw him more than they heard him.
Emily got the boxes from behind the register, pulled off the yellow sticky note that said “Abraham Washington” in red marker, and gave him his change.
“Do you want a bag?”
Just the receipt was fine.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Washington,” said Emily.
On the way back to the parking lot Abraham stopped at the men’s room. The Santa Claus he had seen earlier was already in there standing at the lone sink. He had taken off his red jacket and hat but kept the pants and boots and black suspenders over his wife beater and was wiping his armpits with damp paper towels which he then threw in the trash. The beard was real. His body odor could not cover up the smell of alcohol and he wheezed when he breathed. Abraham thought about just turning around and walking out of the men’s room but it was a fifteen minute drive back to his house and like everything else his bladder was not what it used to be.
“Merry Fucking Christmas,” said the Santa, and laughed. The laugh turned into a cough and then stopped.
Merry Christmas to him too.
Abraham stepped to the urinal to take care of business quickly.
“Have you been a good boy this year? I said, have you been a good little boy this year, little boy?”
Better than some, he figured, worse than others.
“Then tell Santa what you want for Christmas, little boy.” The Santa had finished wiping down his armpits and was trying to put his jacket back on, but he stumbled every time he threw his arms behind him.
Abraham was fine with what he had, thanks.
“Tell me what you fucking want.”
Maybe he should go home and sleep it off.
“Don’t you have a wish? A special Christmas wish?”
He guessed everyone must have a wish.
“Then why don’t you tell Santa yours? Maybe it’ll come true.”
Abraham flushed the urinal.
“Merry Christmas,” he said. He left without washing his hands.
Abraham unpacked the candles at his kitchen table. They were about six inches tall, made of white plastic, with candlesticks painted tinny gold. The wicks moved around like bobble heads, which Abraham knew from reading the reviews was not a defect but was how they made the flickering effect when they heated up. Each candle took a double-A battery, which wasn’t included, but Abraham had read that in the reviews too and stopped at Rite Aid on the way home.
After he installed the batteries and tested each candle, he walked the house and put one in each of the twelve windows—front, back, and sides, even in the bathroom—making sure to point the handle on the base of each candlestick in, away from the window. It was lunch time.
After leftover rotisserie chicken and corn heated up in the microwave, Abraham washed the dishes by hand because he never made enough dirty dishes by himself for a load in the dishwasher.
It wouldn’t be dark until after five so he found his DVD of Die Hard, which for his money was the best Christmas movie ever made and which Marie had said wasn’t even a Christmas movie at all, not like It’s a Wonderful Life which was her favorite Christmas movie and Abraham’s favorite Christmas nap. He watched Die Hard twice. Close to the end the second time through he had to turn on the lamp next to his recliner because watching television in the dark strained his eyes these days and he didn’t want to go to the eye doctor to get glasses. Then he walked the house again, turning on the candles and the other lights off, and went out front to see how they looked.
They looked good. The candles gave a nice white-orange light and the moving wicks made them flicker just like the reviews had said. But one window on the second floor was dark. Maybe one of the candles was defective and had gone out? Abraham went inside and upstairs to check.
Both front windows in his bedroom held lit candles with dancing plastic wicks. So did the one front window in James’s room. Abraham frowned and went back outside. What he’d seen couldn’t have been right.
But it was right: there were four front windows on the second floor of his house, three of them lit and one dark, which was impossible. He went back inside to make sure he had not somehow counted the windows in his room and his son’s room wrong every day for the last 40 years and today. He hadn’t. Dividing the two rooms was a wall as thick as his outstretched hand. There was no space there for a hidden room and window. Abraham had read about dementia and Alzheimer’s and now he was afraid. He went outside again.
“Candles in the windows, Abraham?” said Officer Ogonosky, who was standing on the lawn when he came out of the door. “Couldn’t find something more interesting? And you’re missing one.”
So he could see the window too?
“Course I can see it,” Officer Ogonosky said. “You feeling all right?”
The candles came in packs of six.
And there were thirteen windows. Were there?
“Christ, Abraham,” said Officer Ogonosky, “it looks like a guy missing a tooth. It’s Christmas. ‘Tis the season to spend that little extra.”
It was two in the morning and Abraham was lying in bed and not sure what to think or what to do. Was this an answer to his silent wish? Or just some unrelated miracle? Was he supposed to leave it here? Or was he supposed to go further? He knew what Marie would have done and what she would have demanded that he do or else he wasn’t a man and certainly not her man. But he wasn’t Marie which was why he had loved Marie. And he was pretty sure even Marie had never seen anything like this.
Around four a.m. Abraham made up his mind and went to sleep.
The window was gone in the morning. Abraham told himself he wasn’t disappointed and brought in the paper and did the crossword and went about his day, but he didn’t go to the hardware store and get a tree like he’d thought he might have while he was lying awake. Maybe it was his fault somehow. Wishes were tricky like all the fairy tales taught. Or maybe he should have been braver last night and now he’d missed his only shot.
When it got dark he walked around the house turning on the candles in all twelve windows and then went outside to look at them, trying to keep his heart from hoping that he’d get another chance and when the thirteenth window was there, dark just like the night before, his heart ached and pounded so hard Abraham had to sit down on the ground for a minute to catch his breath.
He opened the bulkhead and went down into the basement and got the ladder. He didn’t like the look of the sawdusty powder that he had to brush off, as if termites had been at the wood, but it was the ladder he had so he brought it up and leaned it against the front of the house and climbed up, careful to put his feet at the side of the rungs where they would be stronger.
Through the glass it was pitch black and Abraham couldn’t see anything. He went back down the ladder and into the house to get a flashlight as fast as he could, so the window would still be there when he got back. It was still there and when he shone the flashlight in, all he could see was the bulb reflected in the pane of glass. He looked up and down the street, where he could see very far from this height, to make sure Officer Ogonosky wasn’t coming or anyone else, and then he put the flashlight in his back pocket and his hands on the glass and tried to push the window up using the stickiness of his fingers. The window went up easily, as if it wanted to open and had just been waiting, and Abraham crawled inside.
He was in a tiny antechamber with featureless black walls and industrial black carpet on the floor. It reminded Abraham of the back of a movie theater, as did the blind wall he found through the door on the far end, around which he could just glimpse light. Then he walked around the wall and forgot about movie theaters. He was in a library.
It was a huge tower library or maybe a mineshaft library, hollow with a great beam of sunlight falling straight down the middle and dust motes floating and flashing. There were no windows, like a mineshaft, but it smelled more like a tower. The spiraling floor was lined with shelves of red books on one side and on the other with railings of iron and wood that reached up to Abraham’s waist and left him nervous as he held on and looked as high as he could see and then as low and found only more twisting floor and red books and railings and more light.
Abraham tried to turn off the flashlight and found that it was already off, having failed in some way, and wouldn’t turn on again. He put it back in his pocket and began to walk up the spiral, brushing the spines of the books with his hand and keeping away from the railing, walking up instead of down because he wanted to see where the light was coming from. He walked for at least ten minutes and nothing had changed and the light seemed just as far away as ever, so he stopped.
Abraham caught his breath and took down a book at random, all of them being bound in simple red cloth with nothing on the spines or covers, and started to read.
Abraham Washington was born in Key West, on a day that began cloudy and ended up quite hot.
Abraham hadn’t been born in Florida but in Michigan, though he didn’t know whether the day had started cloudy or how it had finished. He took down another book.
Born in Cambridge to two professors of economics, Abraham Washington was destined to become a notable economist himself.
Which made him laugh. His mother had taught high school math and his father had been a mechanic and sometimes an unemployed mechanic, and Abraham had worked in bars and restaurants around Detroit and eventually managed them and then retired.
Another book from a few shelves over: born in Vermont, to farmers. Another: Memphis, to a musician and her biggest fan. And another: Paris, the one in France. Unlike the details of his life, the grander movements of the world did not seem much different than his world: for example the Idiot had still somehow won re-election, followed by two terms of the Frustrated Hope and one of the Disaster from which the country was still recovering. Abraham read through one of the books in more detail: stories of kindergarten and boyhood fights and summer camp romances and bullies and a university education in applied mathematics.
He met his wife Clarissa that winter when they both ordered the last scone in a café at the airport, waiting for the same flight to New Mexico, where both had recently taken jobs.
In his life Abraham had never met a woman named Clarissa or eaten a scone or ordered one or been to New Mexico. He took another book from another shelf and met another wife Megan and a second wife Jill after Megan turned out to be jealous of everyone and everything. He had three children it seemed, but he dropped the book before he could figure out how many were with each wife. He leaned against the shelves and sank down on his knees and then sat with his back against the shelves, looking out through the iron bars of the railing into the great shaft of light. He sat like that a while and thought about James and about what the hell he was supposed to be doing in this library and about Marie.
It seemed to Abraham that the light was growing dimmer and his flashlight still wasn’t working so he decided to head back towards the door as he’d walked a decent way by now and finding the way out in the dark didn’t appeal to him.
The walk back was quicker going down the spiral, but the library was almost pitch black by the time he found the door and went around the blind wall and exited to the antechamber, which was strangely close and hot.
But why “strangely” if this was New Mexico after all? Strange was his choice of clothes. He’d go back down the ladder and into the house and change out of this long shirt and these pants before Clarissa saw him or she’d think he was getting sick or going senile.
Abraham stopped in front of the window and suddenly he was sweating and it had nothing to do with the heat. He was still carrying a book in his hand, and as he approached the window he could feel it tingling and pulling as if it wanted to go through. He was breathing fast and not sure where he lived or who his wife was but he was sure that if went through the window with that book his wife would be Clarissa whom he had met in an airport and whose face he could now half conjure.
He ran back through the blinded hallway into the library and threw the book as hard as he could into the deep central hole which was almost black now and then Abraham gripped the railing for a moment and breathed. Marie was his wife, Marie who was seven years dead. He had to grope his way out of the library. He went back out the window and closed it and climbed down the ladder into the freezing Michigan weather, having checked his pockets for stray books three times even though they were too big to fit in his pockets.
That night unsleeping in his bed Abraham realized that in all the minutes he’d stood there breathing he’d never heard the book with Clarissa hit bottom.
The next day was Christmas Eve and Abraham spent it not watching television with the TV on and trying not to check his watch. As the sun went down he paced around the house observing the shadows get longer and itching to turn on the candles. Someone knocked at the door.
“You know you left a ladder against your house last night?” Officer Ogonosky asked.
“Not a smart thing to do in this neighborhood, Abraham.”
He had done dumber, and probably would again.
“Forgetting things like that lately? Someone from the council on aging could come by.”
Aging didn’t seem like something they would need a council for. Seemed he was doing it fine on his own.
“No shame in admitting you need some help, Abraham. All of us do at some point. Think about it. And Merry Christmas Eve.”
When Abraham had turned on all the candles and gone into the front yard he was relieved but not surprised to see the thirteenth window was there again and dark. Now he had a pretty good idea about how long the miracle would last. He went up the ladder and discovered that unlike last night no matter how hard he pushed the window it opened just enough to let him squeeze in, which he did. That made Abraham even surer about when the window was going to disappear and that he should get moving.
Now that he understood the rules there would be no aimless browsing because time was tight and a life without James and Marie was not something he could ever choose. During the day he’d had plenty of time to think and plan while pretending to watch television and now he found that his hope had proven true: the books closest to the library door were also the closest to his life as he knew it.
Maybes would go in a pile on the floor and the obvious rejects went over the railing into the shaft of light. At first Abraham was nervous about throwing them like that but the walkway didn’t have much space and he didn’t have time to waste walking back and forth or pulling down the same book a second or third time. And nothing had happened after he’d thrown the Clarissa book last night, no booming voices or lightning bolts. So over they went like peanut shells into the grand canyon.
He learned quickly to start at the end of each book, which was the present, and work his way backward to certain key facts. Was James still happy and successful? Was Marie alive? Did they have a little more money and fight a little less? If so he’d skim back further to find out who he was in this life, what he’d done and to whom—lawyer, boxer, even in one book a thief who’d never gotten caught. One had him inheriting a fortune from his father who had been an investor rather than a mechanic and it had seemed so promising until he read enough to realize his father had been miserable and tossed it into the shaft of light which was dimmer by now than it had been when he’d started.
But that book got him thinking, and he noticed that his “maybe” pile had no books in it, because in every book there was something wrong about Marie or at least something different, which was the same as being wrong. In this one she was a humanitarian lawyer—which sounded like exactly what Marie might have been if she’d had the time and money to choose—but she didn’t like animals. Not that she kicked dogs or slaughtered cats, but she wanted them out of her house and away from her person, which was an insult to the real Marie who had picked up dozens of mutts from the street and scratched them behind the ears and taken them in over Abraham’s objections until she found homes for them, because she’d heard what happened to rescue animals who didn’t get picked quickly at the shelter.
The change wasn’t always so obviously bad. In this book she loved football, which should have been great: no more lectures about concussions, no more fighting over the remote on Monday nights. But if Marie was sitting next to him watching the game and drinking a beer instead of railing against broken bodies and ruined brains, was she really Marie?
That was the question: were any of these people Marie? Were any of them James? Were any of them even Abraham?
Abraham half wished he could unthink this thought, but now he had to work it all out. Were all these books other worlds that already existed somehow alongside his own, and by leaving with a book he was going to become one of those other Abrahams? If so, he wouldn’t be himself anymore—he’d be one of them. And so he—the only Abraham he was sure was real—still wouldn’t be back with Marie.
On the other hand, if there was only this one world, and bringing one of these books through the window would warp and alter it, he would be erasing Marie, the real Marie—his tough, gentle wife who was not quite the Marie in any of these books. He would be trading her for an imitation. And was that different than living in New Mexico and having a wife named Clarissa? Was it different enough?
Soon the library was gray and about to be black, and Abraham tried on some desperate notions: refusing to leave and sleeping on the floor. Running back for matches. A leap of faith or something like it into the bottomless center where he’d thrown the books. But none of the notions fit.
Instead he walked back through the antechamber slowly. His mouth was dry and tasted like the acid churning in his gut. He crawled through the window back onto the ladder but didn’t climb down yet, standing with his fingers on the sill, not sure at all that was not making the worst mistake not just of his own life but that anyone could possibly make in any life, until the window clicked and slid and on its own slammed shut. He felt the breeze on his fingertips. According to his watch it was only 11:58 but he trusted whatever this was more than he trusted his watch, so: it was Christmas.
Abraham wanted to cry but what he was feeling was too deep for tears, like how sometimes it got too cold to snow. His chest was tight. He climbed down the ladder and collapsed it and hauled it with him back through the bulkhead into the basement. He’d just stowed it back behind the water heater when the lights went out and every electric hum in the house stopped. He hadn’t brought a flashlight with him this time so he picked his way back to the bulkhead stairs and then around into the street.
The blackout had hit city-wide—everything was dark as far as Abraham could see, house lights and street lights and Christmas lights except for the stars suddenly visible above him and the candles in the windows of his own house, not because of any miracle but because the candles were powered by batteries. Then there was the beam of a flashlight crossing the lawns and coming towards him.
“Don’t worry, Abraham,” said Officer Ogonosky. “No weather, they ought to have the lights back in a couple minutes.”
Here and there neighbors were coming onto their porches with flashlights of their own and calling to each other. A distant siren wailed.
“Abraham,” Officer Ogonosky said, “you all right? You look—you all right?”
“Yes,” said Abraham. He was not sure if he was telling the truth.
“Hey,” Officer Ogonosky said and smiled, “you got a candle for that last window. Now it finally looks like Christmas.”