Finding Christmas Along Interstate 75, a short story written by Jim Bartlett at

Finding Christmas Along Interstate 75

Finding Christmas Along Interstate 75

written by: Jim Bartlett


From his hard plastic chair, in the third row of about twenty, all set stadium style for a better view of the dais, Charlie found himself staring upward, letting his gaze wander out the row of skylights that formed the top edge of the auditorium’s rounded south wall. The light snow, which began to fall just as he left his hotel, had become heavier as the morning had ho-hummed along, and was now weaving its way up the glass, little by little threading a curtain that would soon hide the thick gray clouds looming overhead in the broad Kentucky sky.

He felt, in a happenchance sort of way, there was something symbolic, or maybe metaphoric about that dark sky with its icy snow falling just outside, as it seemed to be a perfect match for the chill that had permeated the lecture hall, and those still in attendance, over the course of the last couple of days.

The symposium had started out well enough – a three day presentation by the esteemed Cromwell Grant Williams, a renowned social anthropologist whose work in the field of Nature versus Nurture had propelled him to the forefront as the world’s top authority on the subject. Charlie himself had great interest in the mystery of that question, and had actually used it in a number of his lectures back in his teaching days when he was a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thus, upon hearing that Williams was holding a presentation at the University of Kentucky – and knowing there was a direct flight out of Durham to Lexington – he found, despite it being the week before Christmas, he couldn’t resist, and reserved a spot.

He came with the expectation, and maybe even some high hopes, for a spirited debate on the matter. After all, Charlie’s leanings on the subject were toward nurturing, or tabula rasa (a blank slate), in that we are simply a product of our environment. That we’re nothing more than a lump of clay, and like that clay, slowly taking form as it’s molded, we become “ourselves” by what and how we learn along the way.

While on the other side of the coin, Professor Williams was a hardcore nature man, convinced that we are born with biological/genetic predispositions that impact one’s human traits — physical, emotional, and intellectual. A sort of “destiny,” in that we are hard-wired to succeed, or fail. To do good, or to do bad. The “choices” we make aren’t really choices at all, we’re just doing what our DNA has programmed us to do.

Yet, at the same time, Charlie knew Williams had his share of critics. He’d read those reports – some suggesting Williams’ work carried an underlying message implying there were those whose “biological/genetic predispositions” ranked a little higher than most, while others, though equally as concerning, claimed Williams was on a mission to sway the rest of the world to his way of thinking. But even with that, Charlie had been determined to keep those hopes high.

So, for Charlie, the only way to be sure, was to see for himself. He would have to show up wearing his “goggles of objectivity,” as he liked to say, and not let himself fall into the chasm of cynicism and anger that, like a virus, was infecting the world.

Williams crafted that first day with fine-tuned precision. The podium was his stage, and despite his stoic, almost glacial manner – quite juxtaposed to the twenty-foot splendidly decorated Christmas tree which shared that “stage” with him – he’d put on a show, with his lifetime of research the main song and dance. While outside, a student choir strolled by singing Christmas carols, inside he presented an array of lectures, all of which were perfectly accented with overhead projector slides from a Powerpoint presentation. He made sure to sprinkle his oration with historical references and quotes from other researchers and books, his voice always reflecting a pride almost rivaling that of a paleontologist who had just uncovered a new species of dinosaur. Through it all, he was forever writing on the whiteboard – notes about this, an emphasis on that.

Yet, try as he might, Charlie couldn’t help but hear, and see, the pitch of a high-pressure recruiter under all those theatrics. And by the end of that first day, Charlie felt he’d been at a enlistment center, rather than a symposium on human behaviors.

The morning of the second day had barely gotten under way when woman to the back of the room stood and asked a question. “What about perceptions, impressions, and subjective biases? Racism, for example. Aren’t those learned behaviors, based on our experiences in life or what others have taught us, and wouldn’t that suggest there is at least a small level of tabula rasa that blends in here?”

By his reaction, it was apparent Professor Williams despised that term.

“Tabula rasa, or the impression we’re able to modify our ‘operating system’ through environmental processes, is the yin for my yang,” he answered. “We’re born with what we need, and, with what I’ve explained and provided ample evidence for to this point, you should be able to see that perceptions and impressions are devised within our mind using the building blocks we already have.”

The professor, standing next to that sparkling tree, which Charlie could see he clearly loathed, seemed uncertain with his answer and the question had taken him down an unseen and uncharted path. And Charlie wasn’t the only one to notice, as the hall came alive with questions. The subject of nature versus nurture quickly fell by the wayside, the discussion instead becoming a vocal and opinionated debate on first impressions, and how often those might be right… or wrong.

Somewhere in there, Charlie, despite his best holiday cheer and willingness to forgive, was sorry to admit that, in the case of Professor Cromwell Grant Williams, he, along with the critics, had been right with their first impressions.

The professor, obviously frustrated with the storm that was brewing in the seats of his auditorium, called for an early coffee break – it was barely nine o’clock – hoping for a chance to regroup. But that hope turned out to be nothing more than a pipe dream, as with the assemblage’s return came a heated debate over November’s presidential election – still, in the eyes of many, unresolved – which evidently had been sparked during the recess.

And heated it was. Gore was clearly the winner, shouted one faction. The recount, the tabs, the polling place issues… Yet, with equal fervor – and volume – the other side screamed what was obvious to them: the votes had been counted, and Bush had won.

A shocked Williams, waving his arms and racing from here to there, tried time and again to intervene as things escalated from profanities strewn at the Supreme Court to fingers being poked into faces, and then finally to pushing and shoving. But his efforts were to no avail, and he finally had to call security.

Ho, ho, ho, thought Charlie. Santa’s village this is not.

Though the room was emptied, a lingering cloud of anger and rage remained, as it does so often when animosity and divisiveness prevail, and Charlie could smell, and maybe even taste it when he came in for the final day’s session. He sat alone for several minutes before the first of the remaining began to arrive. When the last had taken a seat, there were only eight, including Charlie, who’d braved the night, readied themselves for yet another day. And while Williams stood at the whiteboard, a dry marker in hand, the group sat quiet, watching, but definitely concerned. Maybe, they, like Charlie, were wondering if the study of nature and nurture would or could help in any way to better understand how we, as a “civilization” could be so uncivilized.

A noise from the podium pulled Charlie from his thoughts, and he shifted his gaze downward to where Williams, looking defeated, only twenty minutes into the session, had stopped pretending at the whiteboard, and moved over to the lectern.

“Surely not all of these highly educated and deep thinking scholarly men and women were born that way…” Williams said, his eyes glazed over.

To Charlie, it was a sign the man’s beliefs had been shaken to his core.

“I think you’ll agree that we’re going nowhere, and we’ve fallen into a hole well beyond the range of rescue. With that, I thank you for coming, for your patience, for returning. Particularly you, Mr. O’Sullivan,” he said, pointing at Charlie. “And thank you all for your thoughtful comments. With that, I think we’re done here. Though they’re probably not even open yet, I think I’m going to the nearest bar to find some of the other kind of Christmas ‘spirits’.” His gaze momentarily shifted to the tree, then back to the little group. “Feel free to join me. Have a good day.”

And with that he turned and walked out the side door.

Charlie, not quite sure what to think, quietly gathered his books and notepads, and turned to the remaining few. “Merry Christmas to each of you, and safe travels.” With a final wave, he headed back to his hotel.

He had originally planned to fly out the following morning – Christmas Eve – thinking the extra night would allow him time to relax, soak in all the complex arguments and discussions that had taken place during what he expected to be a fascinating lecture. But as he stood there in his room, a little deflated, and mostly just wanting to forget the events of the last couple of days, he decided instead to pick up the phone and see if he could fly out that very day.

As it happened, there was a flight at 1:30. The airport wasn’t all that far and he didn’t have much to pack, just some toiletries and a couple of shirts and such, so he knew he should easily be able to make it. He tossed more than folded his things, zippered up the wheelie, grabbed his shoulder bag overflowing with books and notes and leaflets from the seminar, and took a last look around the room. Satisfied all was as it should be, he laid a tip on the bed, and headed for the elevator.

“Checking out?” The clerk, young and bright-faced, set down the textbook she was reading and moved to the front desk decorated with a wreath to the front, and a tiny lit up Santa and his sleigh next to the little bell.

“Yes. Are you going to UK?” Charlie slid his credit card and room key card across to her waiting hand.

She smiled, taking the cards. “Yeah. Third year.”

“Social anthropology?”

“Wow, how did you know?”

“Wild guess… actually, I saw your textbook.”

“Ah, so you’re not a mind reader on tour.”

“Not even close. Not sure I’d want to be. I can’t imagine what sometimes goes on in peoples’ heads.”

“Ain’t that the truth. I see you’re checking out a day early?”

“Yeah, best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.”

She broke into a smile, her face, though seemingly impossible, brightening even more. Okay, then, you’re all set, Mr. O’Sullivan,” she said, sliding back his credit card.

“Well, off to the airport.”

“Sate travels. Oh, and Merry Christmas!”


The airline rep, an older woman with a whiskey voice and good sense of humor, pulled the boarding passes from the clunky printer and slid them across the counter.

“O’Sullivan? Boy, oh boy, you must have had an earful of teasing growing up with that name.”

Charlie smiled. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“I’m sure I don’t,” she said with a chuckle. “And I probably don’t want to. Well, maybe a little, but I don’t want to start laughing and have the bosses thinking I’m having a good time up here.” She smiled and pointed toward an archway to the side decorated with garland. “The gates are right through there, but, just to let you know, the flight’s delayed. Santa might love this snow stuff, but with airplanes, it’s a different story, and yours is runnin’ late.”

“Glad I brought a good book.”

She looked out the window, the “snow stuff” continuing to fall. “I think you’re going to need it.”

The waiting room, to no surprise, was quite full, and Charlie ended up taking the last seat, an ancient-looking metal chair situated directly under the departure board. It didn’t take him long to see why it had been left vacant. Not only was it uncomfortable and cocked a bit to one side, but travelers would step up in front of him one after the other, most groaning or cursing under their breath as they saw their flight was canceled or delayed.

With a sigh of resignation, he took off his overcoat and draped it across his lap. As cold as it was outside, the terminal was quite warm, thanks mostly to the impatient crowd. He opened his book – a Harlan Coben thriller which would definitely have a twist, and definitely have nothing to do with academics. Or politics. But with the turn of the first page, and with the third person to stand in front of him with their grumblings, it suddenly occurred to him the reason why there were so many people waiting, and so many of them cranky about their flights being delayed.

Christmas. Of course. And it was coming up the day after tomorrow. Folks were going home – or at least trying to go home – for the holidays. Family dinners, decorating the tree, singing Christmas songs, opening presents and… being present.

With the thoughts of Christmas, or what is a “normal” Christmas for most, he exhaled a soft breath. He hasn’t had a Christmas tree in his house in more than twenty years. Not that he’s a Grinch, or hates the time of year, in fact, quite the opposite. But with being single, well, long time divorced – also twenty years, no coincidence there – and having no children, Christmas, while still something he enjoyed, didn’t hold the special place in his heart that it did for those folks with kids, grandparents, or a big circle of friends. For a number of years after his divorce, he’d have Christmas dinner at his sister’s house out in California, soaking in her kids’ laughter as they opened their presents, and later while they were racing around the house with the new toys. But they’ve both since grown up, one even with kids of her own, and Charlie backed off, wanting his sister and her husband to enjoy their “grandparents” Christmas time.

Brushing away the memories, he finally delved into the book, quickly becoming lost in the intricate plot. He was somewhere into the fourth chapter when a traveler – a younger woman wearing a thick, long coat, and equally thick makeup, her hair and ears hiding under a pastel scarf wrapped around her head and neck – began nervously pacing to the front of him, mumbling to herself as she stared at the departure board above him. He realized she’d been doing her little back and forth for some time, the level of her anxiety rising with each pass.

When she noticed him looking up, she stopped and met his gaze.

“Do you know what it means when it says, ‘See Agent,’ on your flight?”

Charlie shook his head and smiled. “It means you’re probably on the same plane I am.”

“I’m sorry?”

“No, I guess I’m sorry. Should have been more specific. I haven’t had the best of luck with flying lately. I was supposed to come over here on a direct flight, but that route was discontinued and I ended up with a connecting flight out of Atlanta. But for my return, the flight was full, so they sent me through Cincinnati. And then, just this last summer, when I flew out to California to visit my sister, they had to have fire trucks waiting as we were landing…” He stops, seeing her eyes widening. “Never mind that. Anyway, now, with the weather, my little commuter to Cincinnati has been delayed. Is that where you’re headed?”

She nodded, wiping a tissue across her nose.

Charlie stood, set his book and coat on the seat, and turned to have a look at the board. “I’m thinking that means we both need to go see the agent. Come on, I’ll walk with you.”

Grabbing his things, he led her outside through the side door and back around to the front, where a line of travelers extended out from the front entrance. While the overhead awning offered a reprieve from the snow, the wind had a bite and he quickly put back on his coat.

“Cincinnati?” he asked the last person in line.

“Yup. Ain’t lookin’ good.”

Charlie nodded. “Thanks.” Turning to the young woman, he said. “Looks like we might be in for a wait.”

But the line seemed to move along, and within a few minutes – thankfully from his perspective, as while the coat had helped, the wind had found his ears and face – they were in the lobby. But as they did, the automatic door opened once again and a man, easily six and a half feet tall, wearing dirty boots, Levis, and a thick sheepskin jacket over a flannel shirt, stepped in behind them. Noticing Charlie, he tipped his well-worn Churchill Downs hat, exposing a thicket of red hair, and then looked ahead at the counter.

“This don’t look so good,” he said with a tsk.

Charlie caught a hint of some sort of accent, but he couldn’t quite place it. Southern, as the man’s appearance might suggest? No… but before he could give it much thought, or reply to the man, the line moved again, bringing him, and the young woman, to the counter.

The agent standing behind was the same whiskey-voiced woman as before, but her humor seemed to have been lost to the snow and cold, and her face looked as worn as the man’s racetrack hat.

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said with a tilt of her head. “Hope you still got that book, I’m afraid you’re going to need it.”

“What’s happened?” Charlie asked.

“Your plane was originally delayed, weather and all. But then we got word it had been canceled out of MCI, uh, Kansas City. Seems they got hit harder than we did.”

“Kansas City? I thought we were going to Cincinnati?”

“You are, or were, but your plane comes out of MCI. Just one of those weird routing things. Anyway, the real bad news is that we’ve been putting folks in taxis and sending them up to Cincy, but… well, we just ran out of taxis. The folks ahead of you got the last one. None of the others in town want to make that drive. Guess the snow stamped out their Christmas spirit. Or maybe they don’t have a Rudolph to lead them along. Ho, ho, ho, eh? Anyway, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to spend the night. We can book you out tomorrow, same time.”


The word came as a cry more so than a question, and Charlie turned to the side. The young woman’s face was pale, her eyes wide, and she had her arms wrapped around herself.

“I can’t stay until tomorrow. There has to be some other way.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay,” said Charlie, trying to sooth her.

But it didn’t seem to help, and she covered her face with her hands, muffling as best she could a soft cry.

Charlie, lost in trying to console her, his hand upon her shoulder, didn’t notice the big man, who’d slipped up beside him.

“Well, you know, I’d planned on driving up to Cincy this evening, but with the snow, I thought I’d just hitch a ride on the plane and make it easy.” He turned to the agent. “I got us covered. Thanks.” Then, back to Charlie. “You get her out to the curb and I’ll meet you there.”

Charlie met the man’s gaze. “I’m sorry?”

“You two just get yourselves out there. I’ll be driving us up.” And with that, the man marched out the door.

Charlie stood there stunned, until the whisky voice behind him startled him back to the moment.

“You’d better get your little hinnies out there if you want to get up to Cincy. I don’t think he’s gonna ask twice or wait around long. Planes to catch and all that.”

Charlie nodded and somewhat smiled. “You’re right. Thanks.”

“Oh, and Merry Christmas,” she called.

He dragged more than escorted the woman outside, the icy wind once again taking its toll. But he’d only stood there a couple of minutes when a large four-wheel drive vehicle – a full-sized older Bronco, a bit dirty, but looked to be whitish underneath – pulled up to the curb.

The man jumped out and slowly worked the woman’s little suitcase out from her clinched hand, giving his head a cock as he looked over at Charlie. With a silent nod, he took Charlie’s wheelie and book bag, and then moved to the rear hatch of the Bronco. As he was tossing everything in, a book and some papers escaped from Charlie’s bag, landing in a rare dry spot on the concrete. The man quickly scooped them up, but something caught his eye, and he paused to look them over before tucking them back into the bag. With the hatch closed, he came over once again to the woman, gently placing a hand under her arm, and then walked with her around to the passenger’s side. “The backdoor’s open. Hop in,” he called across to Charlie.

Charlie did, feeling better in that the truck was already warm, but also strange, as he had no idea about this man other than… first impressions.

Once the woman was in, and from what Charlie could tell by the look on her face, feeling as odd as him, he watched as the man slipped into the driver’s seat and strapped on his seatbelt.

“I’m just gonna hop back onto the Loop, then catch Interstate 75 North. They should be keeping both those pretty clear,” he said as he pulled out of the loading area and made a quick run toward the airport’s exit.

“Sounds good,” said Charlie, still a bit lost. Yet the more the man spoke, the more of that “accent” caught Charlie’s ear.

Though the snow continued to fall, the Loop – Highway 4, which makes a full circle around central Lexington – was plowed as the man had predicted, and they were soon turning onto the freeway’s onramp. The ride had been in an hushed silence to that point – the man had turned off the Country-Western station that was playing when they all first got in, and, Charlie was just guessing, but he was pretty sure none of them knew quite what to say.

When the Bronco got up to speed, and they were settled into their lane and headed north, it was the man who finally broke the quiet. Smiling, as if this was something he did every day, he looked to the woman, and then over his shoulder at Charlie, before giving his head a little shake.

“Sorry about the hurry-hurry, but it’s about an hour and fifteen minutes to the Cincy airport, especially in this weather, and we all have planes to catch.” He offered his hand to the woman. “I’m Gerry. Gerry Muldoon.”

The woman clearly caught off guard, stared down at Gerry’s hand. As she did, Charlie found himself leaning deeper into the back of his seat.

Muldoon. Gerry was Irish. The accent he couldn’t place. It all suddenly fell into place. And, his initial thoughts about Gerry, just as suddenly, fell by the wayside. He couldn’t help but smile.

First impressions.

After a moment, and a long one at that, the woman finally met Gerry’s hand with hers. “Cath.. ah, Cynthia.”

“Nice to meet you, Cynthia. And where might you be headin’?”

“D-Denver. Going to stay with a friend for a while.”

“You live here in Lexington?”

She sat quiet for a moment, as if having to think through her answer, before finally turning toward Gerry. “Yes. No. Well, used to. Worked for the phone company, but things changed. Have to change. So I have to get to Denver.”

Cynthia turned toward the window and hunched low in the seat, her words, and maybe more so that last little retreat into her shell, giving Charlie a chill somewhere deep inside.

“Well, let’s make sure you get there.” Gerry said, after watching her shrink down. He then turned a bit, extending a grizzly bear paw of a hand over the top of the front seat and toward Charlie. “And who do we have back here?”

Charlie reached up and shook Gerry’s hand. The hand was every bit as strong as it looked, yet filled with a genuine warmth. The kind that works itself deep inside starting with the first touch. “Charlie. O’Sullivan. I’m heading back home to Durham.”

A look of surprise crossed Gerry’s face and his eyes popped wide. “Wait… did you say, O’Sullivan?”


“Well, I’ll be. You must have taken a load of shi…” He looked over at Cynthia, smiled, and then continued. “Manure. You must have taken a truckload over that. Born and raised in Durham, Charlie O’Sullivan?”

Charlie smiled. “No. I’m from Los Angeles originally. Well, really, Watts.”

“Well, this just gets better and better, doesn’t it? Watts. I stand corrected, Charlie. That had to have been at least two truckloads of manure.” Gerry giving his head yet another good shake, turned forward to put his eyes back on the slippery highway. “I got her in four-wheel drive, and the snow seems to have stopped, but in this sort of weather, the road is just lying in wait for someone to ease up on their caution reins even just a smidgen. And boy if you do, she’d rear back and toss you on your ear.”

He went quiet for a bit, as if off in thought. After a moment or two, he peeked at Cynthia, who had pulled herself as low into the seat as seemed possible, then once again looked over his shoulder at Charlie. “So, what’dya do, Charlie? Though I have a guess.”

“I taught for thirty-five years, the last twenty-five at Chapel Hill. Just retired a couple of years ago.”

Gerry snaps his fingers. “See, I knew you were in academics. But, I had you picked for a swanky professor out of one of those New England colleges. Harvard or Yale.” He took in a little breath, then chuckled. “So what brought you to Lexington?”

“I came for a three-day seminar at UK.”

“You know, I’m not hearing ‘interesting’ or a ‘good time’ in your voice. I take it your little conference wasn’t as thought-provoking as you’d hoped?”

“Well, the lecture should have been fascinating, and the related discussions quite engaging. But human behavior amongst the attendees turned out to be the more ‘interesting’ part of the seminar. And not in a good way. I wish I could say I was surprised and had learned something new.”

“Hmm.” Gerry rubbed his chin, looked over at Cynthia again as if to bring her into the conversation, seemed to think the better of it, and then put both hands on the wheel. “So you trying to get home for Christmas with the family, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head, then smiled, realizing Gerry couldn’t see him. “No, just home. Only family I have is my sister, who lives back in California. She and her husband – my, oh my, they’ve been married forty years now – have their kids and grandkids over for a sort of family tradition thing, a big little celebration, so I’ve sort of backed off coming over during the Christmas holiday, and instead come out during the summer.”

“So I take it you’re not married?”

“Divorced. Better than twenty years ago. How about you?”

“Married almost twenty years now. My wife. Nora, and the boys – Sean and Brian, both teens, but good kids – are already in California. I’m heading out to join them, and to get a little work done while I’m there. Had to stay back for an extra week to take care of some things on the ranch.”

Several questions swirled through Charlie’s head. One at a time, he told himself. “What part of California?”

“The family’s staying in Santa Barbara taking in a little of that California sunshine.” He waved an open hand toward the front windshield. “Gotta be better than this, right? I might have to make this a Christmas tradition. Anyway, I have a meeting with a breeder who raises Arabians just north of there, a little place called Santa Ynez. We set it up for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so thought we might as well take a little family break. I’ve been there a couple of times before, and boy, do they have some magnificent animals.”

“Small world.”

“How so?”

“My sister lives in San Luis Obispo. Taught at Cal Poly there for, oh, twenty-five years? So I know Santa Ynez. We went down to Solvang for their Danish festival when her kids were younger.”

“Well, how about that.”

“So, you raise horses, Gerry?”

“Oh, boy. Indeed I do. Have a ranch on the west side of Lexington called the Four Leaf Clover.”

“Horses? You raise horses?”

The voice caught Charlie off guard, and by the look on his face, Gerry as well. They both spun toward Cynthia, who’d emerged from the burrow she’d dug on that side of the Bronco, and now had a slight hint of a sparkle in her eyes.

“I love horses. I wanted to work with them, that’s why I came to Lexington. But things didn’t work out.” Looking away, but only for a second, she took in a deep breath and then continued. “How did you ever get so lucky to be able to raise horses?”

Gerry rolled back his head, spilling out a laugh that lit up the Bronco. “Now there’s a story, if there ever was one, I tell you.”

“Well, don’t leave us hanging,” egged on Charlie.

Gerry turned, smiled, then faced forward again, his eyes focused on the road ahead. At the same time, the sky, as if curious about the story as well, split an opening in the dark clouds, and a sliver of a beam of the setting sun cut through the driver’s side window. It landed on Cynthia’s cheek, and for the first time Charlie saw the reason for all the thick makeup. Hidden deep underneath, as probably were so many other things about her life, was a deep, purple bruise. He winced at the sight, thankful that Cynthia didn’t see, only to then catch Gerry watching him in the rear view mirror. Gerry gave an ever so slight nod, then turned toward the woman.

Charlie nodded back, wondering how long Gerry had known. Then again, he got the feeling he’d known all along.

“Well, here’s how it goes. You see, growing up in Ireland, on a farm, no less, I fancied horses more than anything else in the world. Loved them through and through, I did. Twern’t all that many around where we lived, mostly sheep and cows. Pigs. And chickens. Except over at the McGee farm. They had a little stable, raised them mostly for pulling wagons and carts and the like. Now and again, when my dad would let me, I’d hike over there and catch up with Finn – he was about my age – and we’d sneak off with a couple of horses and ride the hills there. I say ‘sneak,’ but his gramps knew what we were doin’, and would always make this big fuss when we got back in. But, really, he thought it was dandy.”

He paused to change lanes, making his way around a slow truck, and then continued. “Anyway, with ridin’ that horse, and now and again when I got a chance to be around a tube, getting to watch the Derby, or any of a dozen other races, my heart was set on being a jockey. I thought about it night and day. I just had to be a jockey.” His head cocked back, and that laugh once again filled the Bronco. “Well, needless to say, old Mother Nature was going to have no part of me sitting up on a race horse. Would you just look at me? I should be carrying an axe and have a big ol’ blue ox. Can you imagine some poor horse trying to make five furlongs with this lug on its back!”

He laughed again, this time Cynthia joining in. Charlie couldn’t help but smile himself, picturing the giant man sitting on a horse’s back as it tried in vain to make its way out the starting gate.

“But, I wouldn’t be deterred. No sir. I just decided I had to find some other way to work with race horses. I’d been saving my money, which wasn’t much, and decided as soon as I turned seventeen, I was going to move to Lexington, the center of the world when it came to horses. What I was going to do when I got there I had no idea, but I knew, just knew, it was going to be great. I was going to be around horses… how could it not be?”

“How old were you when you made that decision?” asked Charlie.

“No more than eight, I’d say. But even with nine more years to save, when you live on a farm, and the closest village, not that there’s any work for a young lad there, was five kilometers away, it’s a pretty far-fetched dream, I tell you. So when I was standing there blowin’ out my seventeen candles, but was still at least a bucket of pounds short of what I needed, I have to tell you I was a sorry lot to look at. But then, in steps my Uncle Charlie. Now there’s a splendid name.” He looks up in the rear view and winks at Charlie. “And he’s got this big ol’ can that he slides across the table. ‘Happy Birthday, Lad,’ he says. And when I opened it up, it was filled to the brim with notes. I was so excited I thought I was going to pee my pants, I did.”

Cynthia’s hand rocketed to her mouth, but arrived too late to stop a cackling laugh from escaping. “Oh, no,” she said. “You almost made me pee MY pants.”

Charlie gave his head a shake as he joined the other two in a good, long chuckle. “They still use the pound over there, Gerry?”

“Still do a bit. Slowly swinging over to the Euro.”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to sidetrack us. This is getting too good.”

Gerry smiled, then maneuvered the Bronco once again around a slower moving car. Charlie peeked over the top of the seat for a look at the speedometer, which was sitting at 75. The same as it had been most of the way.

“I left for Lexington with a big sendoff two weeks later. Didn’t know at the time, being a dumb ol’ farm boy, all the paperwork you had to go through to get into the States. And even more to stay. But I did it, and did it right – once again, thanks to Uncle Charlie – and next thing you know I was working out in the barns at White Fence Stables. Beautiful place, had around a hundred horses, couple of them making it to Belmont, one even winning the Preakness.”

“Now that’s impressive,” Charlie said, wiggling in the chair. Though it was much softer, and definitely more comfortable than that plastic seat back in the lecture hall, his butt was slowly going to sleep.

“I stayed on for almost five years, the foreman taking a shine to me. Little by little I got to know more and more about the business end of things, but more importantly, I was a sponge when it came to horses. I think he, and the owner, eventually, came to see that, as the horses all seemed to take a fancy to me.” He paused for a moment, pinching his chin, and checking the mirrors.

“Right now, I am sooooo jealous,” said Cynthia.

“I think there might have been a little of that in the owner and the foreman as well. Things sort of went as far as they were going to go – from their eyes I was too young and eager, and from mine I wanted more. So one day I was out on an errand, think I was getting some parts for the fence or something, and this man, nicely dressed and a fifty dollar haircut, stepped over to my side. ‘You’re that young lad from White Fence, right?’ ‘Yessir,’ I replied, proud as could be. Though at the same time I was surprised anyone knew me. After all, I spent most of my time at the stables.” He stopped. “Though I did get to go to a race or two. Now there was an experience! Anyway, he shook my hand and said his name was Lyndon Dennehy and he owned the Red Anvil Stables. I’d heard of them, they were just a bit bigger than White Fence, but, more importantly, they’d had a horse in the Derby four years running. And while I had heard of him, boy was I surprised when he said he’d heard of me. And then he pulled me aside and told me he wanted me to come work for him. The pay was way better and I got the opportunity to do a little more. Learn lots of new things. So, I accepted.”

“White Fences must have been disappointed to see you go,” said Charlie.

“If they were, they never said anything. At least to me,” said Gerry. “It was a good move and I really liked working for Dennehy. True to his word, he opened my eyes to a whole range of new things. Had me involved in about everything on the business side and even got me deep into the racing part. But I really did my best with the horses, and soon they came to trust my judgement about breeding.

“But the best thing about working there came a couple of weeks in. Dennehy’s daughter came home for the summer – she was in her last year out at UC Berkeley.”

“Berkeley? My, oh, my,” Charlie chuckled.

“She was about the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Now, mind you, the only girls I’d been around for quite a while had been 16 hands high and had a long tail, but even with that, she took my breath away.”

“I think I know where this is going,” said Cynthia with a smile. “She’s your wife, now, isn’t she?”

“Yes. Yes she is. And still the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”

A road sign caught Gerry’s eye, and he took note as we whizzed by. “Twenty miles to go. We’re making good time.”

“So, how did you get from stable hand to stable owner?” asked Cynthia. “I know he paid a lot better, but I can’t imagine it was that good.”

Gerry smiled. “I’d worked there for almost three years before I found the courage to ask Nora to marry me. We’d been dating in what we thought was secret the first year, but nothing escaped Lyndon’s keen eye. Fortunately, especially for me, he approved in a big way. So from then on I was just part of the family. We’d only been married a couple of years when Sean came along, and jakers, did that make his grandpa proud. My folks even came over from Ireland to see their new grandson. Not long after that, Lyndon decided he’d had enough, and handed the reins – boy, there’s a pun if there ever was one – over to me. Then, when Brian was born, he signed the stables over to Nora and me. We got a couple horses in the Derby, a whole herd of them in Churchill Downs, and any number in places like Santa Anita, and next thing you know, the stables were booming. Little by little I bought up the three adjoining ranches, which, when you looked at the four of them combined on a map, sort of looked like a four leaf clover. Me lucky charm. So, with Lyndon’s approval, we changed the name.

“The last few years I’ve really grown attached to the Arabians. So I make a trip out to California now and again.”

“They really are beautiful animals. How about the boys, do they have the same passion for horses as you do?” asked Charlie.

“Not even close. Sean wants to play football, and Brian seems to be leaning toward becoming the next Country Music star.”

“Oh, boy.”

“It is what it is. As long as they’re happy and doing something that keeps them feeling alive.”

Noticing a road sign, Gerry looked over his shoulder and flicked on a blinker, hoping to change lanes, this time to the far right. With the thicker traffic, it took a few minutes to get a clear spot, but he was finally able to make the transition. “This is our exit, we’re almost there.”

Once they’d crossed over the highway, and the airline terminal signs were in view, Gerry looked over at Cynthia, then back at Charlie. “Remind me again of what airline you two are on.”

“Delta,” said Charlie.

“United,” said Cynthia.

“Okay, looks like you’re both at the same terminal. Easy peasy.”

He veered off the next right, and, slowing down, began to weave his way through the departure drop off points. They passed several before he slowed some more, then whipped into a vacant spot between a courtesy bus and a large car with a family unloading suitcases from the trunk.

Charlie watched as Gerry jumped out and walked around to the back of the Bronco. As he popped open the rear hatch and started pulling out their luggage, Charlie leaned forward and put a hand on Cynthia’s shoulder.

“So nice to meet you, and more so to share this ride with you and Gerry. Quite a guy, eh?”

“Is he ever!”

“Well, safe travels and a very Merry Christmas.’

“You as well.”

Charlie slid out of the truck on the sidewalk side, then moved to the back to claim his wheelie and bag.

“Let me give you a little something for gas, or a coffee, or lunch,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

Gerry laughed. “Are you kidding? I should pay you two for having to put up with my rambling story.”

“It was a wonderful story, Gerry. I’m actually glad the plane didn’t make it. I really enjoyed the ride.”

“So did I, Charlie. Now you’d better get going before you miss your plane.”

Gerry reached out as if to shake Charlie’s hand, but instead pulled him into a giant bear hug. A grizzly bear hug.

“Well, if you’re ever back in Lexington, look me up. I’ll set you up for a ride on one of those Arabians.”

“We’ll see about that,” Charlie said with a smile. But when he started to turn toward the terminal, Gerry raised a hand.

“Oh, by the way. It’s both.”


“Nature and Nurture. You came hoping to find an answer, or at least a hint of where to look for one. But, and I think you knew this all along, the truth is, because we’re born with some leanings or predispositions, whatever you choose to call it, we’re not really a blank slate out the gate. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Adapt. Change. Be better. You’re a good man, Charlie. Born in Watts, a black man with an Irish surname, I’m gonna guess most folks carrying that load would be wasting away their lives away, or worse, in prison. Instead, you’ve dedicated yours to making others’ better.” He smiled, then patted Charlie on the shoulder. “But, really, my friend, you need to rediscover Christmas. Go see that sister. Hang some ornaments. Spread that cheer you have in your heart.”

“Maybe you’re right. Thank you for the kind words.” He paused, giving his head a little cock to the side. “How did you know about the symposium? About tabula rasa?”

A Cheshire cat smile broke out across Gerry’s face. “You learn a thing or two about life when you’re around horses all your life. They know the right places to look, and what to look for. In fact, they’ll share all their secrets, if you’re bold enough to ask. Merry Christmas, Charlie,” he said, sticking out his hand again.

“Merry Christmas,” Charlie replied, cherishing that big paw handshake one last time.

Charlie, frozen in place, watched as Gerry slipped around the Bronco and opened the door for Cynthia, then led her to the rear to get her little suitcase. There they stood together, Gerry doing most of the talking, his hand on her shoulder like it had been on Charlie’s. It was a bit too far away to hear what was being said, but Charlie got the drift, as after a few heartfelt minutes, Cynthia’s hands raised to her eyes – she was obviously in tears – and then she gave Gerry a hug. With some sort of silent agreement, he pulled out a business card and handed it to her, then waved goodbye as he got back into the Bronco.

Though he knew Gerry, nor Cynthia for that matter, could see him, Charlie waved another goodbye, a little teary-eyed himself as he watched as his own personal “Santa” rode off in his four-wheel drive Bronco “sleigh.” All the while thinking, maybe this was the year to finally get a tree.

“Merry Christmas, Gerry.”

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This publication is part 84 of 93 in the series 12 Days of Christmas