Improv on The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

On Christmas Eve many years ago I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound – a sound a friend told me I’d never hear – the rush of an angel’s wing.

“There are no angels,” my friend had insisted and I knew he was right because of the very sad thing that had happened to me.

Late that night I did hear sounds, though no wings or rings. From outside came the rattle of an old exhaust system and the blowing of a horn that sounded like a pig in pain. I looked through my window and saw an old beater taxi with its off duty sign lit up.

It was dented beyond chop shop; it was dented like it had lost an argument with a snow plow. It was lacy with rust like somebody thought body rot was kind of déclassé artistic. Snowflakes fell lightly around it. A cab driver was standing next to it stomping her feet and looking at her watch. She was short and built like a fireplug.

“You coming?” she yelled up at me.

“Where?” I asked.

“The Common,” she said, “What dya think – Rockefeller Center or the North Pole or something?”

I pulled my boots on over my pajamas and went out because nobody was going to miss me anyway. She opened the passenger door for me and I slid in. There wasn’t anybody in the back yet.

“Fries?” she asked, “They’re kind of cold.”

I said, “sure,” and took them. And they were, but I munched on them anyway.
We kept driving through the neighborhoods – Malden, Somerville, Cambridge. Brighton, Mission Hill. Kids kept getting in and the taxi was sort of like a rust-bucket stretch–cab and I could see some other taxis, too. I always figured that there were probably other unhappy kids like me — losing somebody really close or having the first Christmas, or being hurt by somebody trusted, or new in divorce-land or move-away or maybe sick – more than I thought, but not so many as the happy ones. Most of all kids are happy kids — anyone will tell you so.

The happy kids go on the Polar Express with hot cocoa but the ones who are sad at Christmas, they just get a cab to no where special. And cold fries.

We traveled through dark streets and sometimes we could see the flash of city cats’ eyes or crows eating road kill or other things scurrying that I didn’t want to identify. There were red lights and green lights but they were just at intersections – it seemed everyone had turned off their holiday lights so the sky would be dark enough for You Know Who. (as they say in those books about Harry Potter – who seems unhappy, but isn’t as bad off as I am with those great friends and looker-afterers, sort of like guardian angels). Angels, again.

I thought it was time to make a statement.

“I don’t want to see Santa and I don’t want a bell.”

“Have a sandwich, kid.” The cabbie had already taken a bite out, but I thought that was nice.

A fine sleet began to fall and the cabbie turned her windshield wipers on, then she went into a skid on a patch of black ice and the littlest kid in the back seat kind of squeaked. We passed Mass Avenue and the Prudential but the big tree from Canada was turned off. We passed the Boston Public Library and Old South Church and Trinity Church and the Hancock and kept on up Boylston, past Arlington Street Church and the Green Line. Past the Public Garden we turned down Charles Street.

“They are gathering in at the ice rink,” the cabbie said. “That’s where Gabriel will give the first gift of Christmas.”

“This sounds religious,” said a boy in the back of my cab who looked Jewish.
The cabbie answered. “He will choose all of you.”

“Look,” said a little girl with bare feet, who looked like an illustration for a creepy Hans Christian Anderson story. “All those fairies.”

“Just fat snowflakes,” I mumbled, but under my breath because I was feeling sorry for her. She was so little and probably hadn’t lost her baby teeth and still believed in fairies and Santa. In fact I was starting to feel so sorry for all of us, because there were a lot, I mean a really a lot of us, that I wasn’t feeling so sorry for myself anymore.

There was a circle of homeless guys – they were like the Common Cathedral guys who meet outdoors for worship on Sunday across from St. Paul’s — and one of them stood up in the center and all the fat snowflakes circled around his head.

“Hail Merry Christmas,” he said and looked confused like I do when I start with the Pledge of Allegiance and end up with the Lord’s Prayer. Great – a confused angel.

Now why did I think that?

The guy came over to me and put out his hand. I was in my bathrobe and didn’t have my giveaway money I keep in my pocket for emergencies. Suddenly my cab driver was behind me –“Go ahead,” she said, “it’s Gabriel.”

If I was going to worry about stranger-danger, it was long past time, so I stepped forward.

He asked, “What would you like for Christmas?”

I knew that what I wanted for Christmas was not in any Santa’s bag or even under any angel’s wing. What I wanted for Christmas I just couldn’t have. But what I did receive was like this picture of everybody else who was sad tonight in the snow with kind of a glow around us and really really cold all together. There’s something excellent about being together when you are cold. There was this Boston Trolley souvenir wagon all locked up tight and I figured maybe I could use a souvenir of this feeling. So I said, “If you are an angel … can I have a feather?”

He reached up back behind his ear and he drew out this long grey feather, which looked exactly like a dirty disgusting pigeon feather except how could a pigeon feather come from behind this man’s ear? I took it and looked at my cabbie who flashed me a smile of her crooked teeth – she could use a few of these fairies or mini-angels … or snowflakes or whatever they were.

The clock struck midnight and the bells started ringing from the late night Christmas Eve services and I was glad because I was thinking I was dreaming but in the suburbs they don’t have late services any more, so I must really be on the Boston Common which long ago people made a common because they needed a place to graze their sheep.
There’s not much else. We drove back, dropping passengers as we went and we threw everything into our smiles and waves as each one left, ‘cause maybe it wasn’t going to be any merrier than right now on the city street — suddenly with a multitude of kids in cabs saying “Merry Christmas.”

At last the cabbie dropped me off and actually gave me a hug right there in the glow of the meter and everything and whispered, “You know you really can fly with that thing.”

That was a long time ago now and, to be honest, I lost that feather. But I never forgot that Christmas and how sad I was. The sad got less, but it hasn’t ever gone away. It’s my sad and it’s OK. When I’m in Boston on business, I always try to take a Guardian Taxicab. And every December when I’m walking around doing my grown up things I’ll find a feather, kind of long and gray, and I stick it in my Christmas tree up near the angel on the stop and my family thinks it’s odd, but I just smile.

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2 Responses to Improv on The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

  1. Nathaniel C. Emens says:

    Wow, what a message. I will have to save it and read it again and again. With the way things
    are going in our own country, I will have to read it and think about what could be. Nat

  2. Maren says:

    Thank you so much, Nat!

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