It was just after 11 p.m. when the call came over the radio. The reflection of the city lights made the falling snow look like a million points of light, drifting slowly toward the frozen ground. The cop debated with himself whether he should respond to the call; a burglar alarm at a nearby department store. His shift change was less than an hour away If someone indeed had broken into the store, the paperwork involved would take hours.
Sal wanted to get off at a reasonable hour for a change. After all, it was Christmas Eve and he still had to get presents for his kids. "The alarm was probably set off by an employee locking up." thought Sal as he maneuvered the well-used vehicle toward the department store. "I'll never make it to the store, I guess I can just give the kids cash this year. They never like my presents anyway and Maria wouldn't appreciate me barging into her house at two in the morning anyway."
When Sal arrived at the department store, the building was dark and the area was quiet. As he circled the patrol car around the building, the falling snow swirled like a tornado through the beam of his spotlight. At the rear of the building, the spotlight's reflection was engulfed by the darkness of an open garage door. Sal radioed for backup, and exited the warm car to investigate.
As Sal approached the dark void of the open door, he noticed a single set of footprints in the fresh snow. The prints led into the building, but not out again. Sal clutched his large mag-light firmly in his left hand, while with his right he felt the inadequate security of his service revolver, holstered at his side. Sal began to sweat as his mind flashed back to another dark building, on another Christmas Eve.
Ten years earlier, Sal had responded to a break-in of a liquor store. As he entered the darkened store a bright flash blinded him. Sal heard a loud crack of a pistol as his body was hurled to the ground by the force of the bullet's impact into his chest. Although his kevlar vest had saved his life that night, the force of the bullet still cracked three ribs and knocked the wind out of the shocked officer.
Sal's survival instincts, honed by three combat tours in Vietnam, prevented him from losing consciousness and gave him the strength to bring his service revolver to bear. His last remembrance was of firing his revolver towards the flash, and unknown to him, killing his attacker.
Shaking off the memory, Sal discarded the flashlight as he entered the department store. He crouched just inside the doorway and allowed his eyes to become accustomed to the ebony darkness of the store.
During Sal's seventeen years on the police force, this particular store had been burglarized on many occasions. As his eyes made out a dim outline of the store, Sal remembered where the main lighting circuit breaker was located.
As the officer carefully inched his way toward the breaker box, he felt a twinge of pain in his ribs where he had been shot ten years ago. He winced as he remembered being released from the hospital, and how the pain from his wounds paled in comparison to the heartache he felt when he found his wife and kids had left him.
Sal wasn't surprised that Maria had taken the kids and gone. Their life together had started badly and just gotten worse. Sal could never bring himself to share with her the horrors that tortured his mind, and she felt rejected. He felt that his experiences as a cop, as well as a soldier, were not understandable to anyone, even himself. Maria watched over the years, as Sal became distrustful and cynical. She watched as he became more and more dependent on work and a bottle of Jim Beam for solace. By the time she had taken the kids and left, Sal and Maria were little more than strangers sharing the same house.
Sal reached the light box and threw the switch. When the bright lights illuminated the building, he heard the sound of footsteps running out the door he had entered. As he rushed back to the open door, another patrol car was just pulling up. While the other officers jumped out of their cruiser, Sal hollered, "Did you guys see anyone running away when you pulled up?"
One of the newcomers on the scene, a portly officer who had a reputation for enjoying more than his share of donuts, replied with a sneer, "No Sal, we didn't see nobody. Whatsa matter, did the little punk get away from ya?" Sal didn't reply as the other officers laughed and snickered. Angrily he turned his attention to the footprints leading into and out of the building. As Sal studied the details of the prints that were not his own, slowly his anger was replaced by a confident grin. "Maybe the punk got away, and maybe he didn't. You guys stay here until the manager arrives, I'm going for a little walk." As an afterthought, he looked at his fat cohort. "Why don't you make yourself useful and follow me in my car."
As Sal followed the footprints embedded in the freshly fallen snow, he thought to himself, "Shoot, this is easier than tracking a wounded buck. Of course if I were trackin' a buck, I'd be better armed, and bucks don't shoot back."
The trail ended only about a block and a half away, at the doorway of a dilapidated bungalow. As Sal climbed the porch stairs, he noticed the same set of footprints had obviously exited the residence earlier in the evening as the snow now nearly covered the older prints. "Gotcha," Sal whispered into the cold night air.
Sal rapped sharply on the door then stepped back off to the side, revolver ready. Inside the house Sal could hear the whining voice of a boy followed by the sharp voice of an angry woman. He heard the rattle of the knob, as he watched the door open spilling light over the porch. A plain, tired looking woman stood in the doorway dressed in a tattered bathrobe, rollers in her mousy blonde hair. Behind her, a look of horror and shame etched across his face, was a boy of about twelve years old. Before Sal could speak, the woman greeted him with a strained voice, "Merry Christmas officer, please come in."
As he entered the house, Sal noticed a garbage bag sitting against a wall. An expensive mink coat was visible at the top of the bag. As Sal's eyes became adjusted to the dim lights of the house, he observed more details of the house and its occupants.
The house was devoid of furniture, except for a well worn three legged couch. The bare wooden floors were covered with strewn clothing and garbage. Roaches climbed freely on the stained walls, and the stench of old trash permeated the chilly air. Sal glanced into the kitchen and noticed that the dented door of the rusted oven was wide open and the burners were all turned on, the only source of heat for the home.
As Sal turned to face the boy and the woman, movement from the doorway caught his eye. Peeking around the door were the doe-like eyes of three little girls. Sal winked at them as he addressed the woman. "Ma'am, I have reason to believe that your boy there forcibly entered the Sears store over on 110th Street. I'll bet my left eye that that stuff in that garbage bag there was stolen from that store."
The woman did not speak and tears began to roll from her bloodshot eyes. She turned to the boy and gave him an icy stare. The boy choked back sobs as he spoke. "I took dat stuff from dat store officer. My mama an' sisters needed presents for Christmas. My mama ain't got no money, and everyone knows dat Santa ain't real. I just figured that everyone else done already got their presents, and dat big store wouldn't miss a few things."
Sal steeled himself from the boy's innocent tear filled eyes. "Don't let the kid's words get you all mushy," Sal thought to himself, "Everyone's got a sob story, but it doesn't mean they're above the law." Sal gave the boy his most intimidating stare as he removed his handcuffs from his belt. Sal continued to glare as he addressed the boy's mother. "I'm gonna have to take the boy to the station ma'am. If you can get a sitter for your girls, I'll allow you to go with him." A look of horror came into the woman's eyes when Sal added, "I could always call Social Services if you can't get a sitter." The look in her eyes told Sal that the woman was more afraid of Social Services than of the police.
Before the woman could reply, Sal began handcuffing the boy, but before he was finished the three little girls rushed into the room with tears streaming down their cheeks. "Please don't take Martin to jail Mr. Policeman!" cried the oldest girl. "Santa won't take him no presents in jail." Sal could not look into the eyes of the girls and was relieved when their mother scolded them and herded them off into the bedroom.
As the woman tended to her children, Sal inspected the items in the garbage bag. It contained some dolls, girl's clothing, an expensive necklace, and the mink coat. Sal noted that not one of the items was something a teenaged boy would want. "The boy probably got scared off before he could get his own loot." Sal muttered under his breath.
When the woman reentered the room, she seemed to have regained her composure. As Sal took the boy by the arm to lead him out the door, the woman spoke.
"Martin ain't a bad boy officer. He only gets onto trouble because he ain't got no man around to tan his fanny."
Sal asked, "So where is the boy's father ma'am?" As soon as the words were spoken, he wished he had kept his big mouth shut. "Now I'm gonna get the sob story." he thought as he turned to the woman and listened.
"Martin's daddy was a no good bum. He weren't ever good at nothin' but drinkin' and usin' drugs, and beatin' up on me. He seemed to try to be a good husbin after Martin was born, but his friends and da drugs made sure dat was short lived." The woman paused, then continued somewhat bitterly, "When Martin was only two years old, on Christmas Eve, his daddy was killed by the police while robbin' a likker store. Since then I been through dozens of men an' jobs tryin' to get by. I never took no welfare ..."
The woman went on with her story but Sal was no longer listening. In his mind he remembered his own experience in a liquor store, ten years ago tonight. He remembered that he never even saw the person he shot and had refused to look at his mug shots afterward. The pain in his ribs returned, and Sal felt like he would vomit at any second. "It couldn't be the same guy," thought Sal. "Even if it was, he shot me first and I just shot at whatever shot at me." Sal had never even thought of the burglar that had injured him as a real person. Until now he had never contemplated the fact that the person might have had a life, let alone a family. The repressed feelings inside Sal seemed to erupt like a volcano. He turned away from the eyes of the woman and the boy, hoping that they could not read his thoughts.
"I fetched Martin's toothbrush. Can he take it with him?" asked the woman, her voice not much more than a whisper.
In that second, something inside of Sal snapped. All the pain, sorrow and agony of his past seemed to be lifted from his heart, and he knew what he had to do.
"No." Sal replied curtly to the woman's question.
Sal turned to the boy and began removing his handcuffs. "I'm going to give you a break boy," he exclaimed in his best command voice. "But if I ever catch you so much as spitting on the street, I'll lock you up and throw away the key."
Neither the boy nor his mother could say a word. They just stared at Sal with amazement and gratitude.
Sal continued, "Now you take this key and put all of the stuff you stole into the trunk of my car outside, and tell my fat partner that I'll answer all of his questions later." When the boy hesitated, Sal barked, "Go on and do it before I change my mind!"
As the boy ran out the door, garbage bag in tow, Sal reached into his pocket and turned to the woman. The policeman stared at the floor as he placed a wad of money into the woman's hand. "Ma'am, I want you to use this money to get you and your kids something nice for Christmas. I don't tolerate stealing, but it is Christmas and kids deserve to have a nice Christmas."
The boy returned giving Sal back his keys. The woman still had not spoken and Sal could not look at her. "Don't think you're getting away with anything," Sal said firmly to the boy. "I'm going to be coming around here quite a bit to make sure you tow the line. I'm sure I can find a hundred chores around here for you to do to pay for your crime."
As Sal turned his attention from the boy, his eyes met those of the woman. Her eyes were wet with tears and expressed a mixture of gratitude, sorrow and, Sal even thought…pity. He quickly avoided the woman's eyes and started for the door. "Merry Christmas!" he bellowed as he walked through the door and out into the snowy night air.
As he walked to his car, Sal thought he heard the woman say "God bless you." But the words were barely loud enough to overcome the thunderous beating of his heart.
Sal knew he bore no responsibility for the state of existence of Martin and his family, but at the same time, he wanted to help.
"Maybe I want to help these people to make up for all the people I couldn't help," Sal said to himself as he got into his patrol car. "Or maybe it was just the right thing to do."
As Sal closed the door, he thought he heard the tinkle of sleigh bells overhead. As he looked up, he caught a shadow moving swiftly through the snowy night. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "Got to start sleeping better," he thought as the patrol car eased into the night. He gave his fat partner a look that made it no secret that questions were not welcome, as they made their way through the snowy Cleveland streets back to the stationhouse.
When the patrol car pulled into the underground garage of the police station, Sal took the keys and went to the trunk to retrieve the stolen merchandise, as the fat man made a beeline for the cafeteria. As he put the key into the trunk, he glanced at his watch and grimaced.
"Damn, all the stores are closed by now…guess the kids are gonna have to get cash this Christmas."
His mood darkened, because he knew that his son had wanted Ninja Turtles, and his daughter wanted a boom box…presents he had promised Maria he would buy.
"Just call me Father of the Year, I guess," he mumbled as he raised the trunk.
As he pulled the trash bag of stolen goods from the car, he noticed two additional packages also lay in the trunk…packages that were not part of the stolen goods and not there when he went on duty earlier that evening. His face turned bright red as he noticed that one was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action set, and the other a small Sony portable stereo/tape player. At first he thought his fat friend may have actually thought of something more than donuts and gone to the department store for him as he reclaimed the stolen merchandise, until a note attached to the boom box caught his eye.
You did a family a great service tonight, and I hope you will do one for me as well. I am way behind this year, so could you please deliver these to your children for me? Merry Christmas.
A few moments later, two officers just coming on duty were dumbfounded as they found Sal lying on the concrete floor, laughing hysterically and singing jingle bells as if he had been drinking. They were even more shocked when he jumped up and hugged them both, screaming "Merry Christmas!!" before running into the station house like a madman, a twinkle in his eye that he hadn't had in years.