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#140

Carol of the Urchin Choir



                 Elyes trailed behind his parents as they made their way up and down the aisles in the Diamond Food on a Wednesday night, filling their shopping cart with products he didn’t like, heedless of his protests. But to be fair, there was very little he liked. He was a very picky eater. Sometimes Elyes’s parents, and especially his mom, attributed the unnatural slightness of his physique to his pickiness. People always exclaimed over how thin he was, how short he was, and how pale he was. Sometimes when introducing him, even before people commented, his parents would say, “We do feed him, ha ha!” which Elyes despised. He knew he was fine. He was one of the fastest kids in the the third grade. If he were malnourished, would he be one of the fastest kids in his whole grade? No. Malnourished kids would definitely be among the slowest in their grades, hobbling along, struggling to stay upright, heads spinning at the most modest expenditures of energy.

                “Excuse me!”

                Elyes turned around to see a tall, sturdy woman of 65 or 70 smiling down at him, then looking past him to his parents to whom she addressed another, “Excuse me!”

                Elyes looked back at his parents just as they turned to face the woman and he noticed the way their faces lit up as they saw who was talking to them, their eyes flickering back and forth between him and the woman.

                “Yes?” said Elyes’s mother. He’d never before seen her so eager to please.

                “You know who I am,” said the elderly woman.

                “We do,” said Elyes’s dad. Both parents were visibly struggling to contain themselves.

                “Then you must know why I’m interrupting your grocery shopping,” said the woman.

                Elyes’s parents exchanged a happy look and then his mom, still grinning, said, “We have a suspicion,” and she walked over to Elyes and put her hand on his shoulder. “His name is Elyes. E-L-Y-E-S, but pronounced like ‘ee-LIE-us.’ We often call him Ely.”

                Now the woman gave Elyes her full attention, her eyes encompassing his whole self as she continued to speak to his parents. “So I must ask the obvious question. Is he just ill at the moment or does he always look this pitiful?”

                “Oh, no, no,” said Elyes’s dad. “He’s not sick at all. He always looks this pitiful.”

                “That is wonderful news,” said the woman. “That’s the most important part, of course, but as I’m sure you know, there is also a singing component. It is a choir, after all.”

                “Ely’s voice is feeble,” said his mom. “It’s high and clear, but feeble.”

                The woman chuckled. “You’re not just telling me what I want to hear, are you?”

                “No, no,” said Elyes’s dad. “Sing for her, Elyes.”

                It was the first time in the conversation that Elyes had been addressed directly and he did not intend to miss an opportunity to provide an obstruction in the road to wherever the adults thought they were taking him. “No,” he said.

                “He needn’t sing now,” said the woman. “But if you will bring him to the community center tomorrow morning at 8, we’ll see how he fares with the other Urchins.”

                “I can’t,” said Elyes. “I have school.”

                “The members of the Urchin Choir are exempted from attending school until after Christmas break,” said the woman. “And not only that, but Santa always notices when a boy or girl participates in the Urchin Choir. He considers participation in the Urchin Choir to be very nice indeed.”

                “And the city takes care of that,” said Elyes’s dad. “Right?”

                The woman’s smile faded as she looked at Elyes’s dad and then she said, “Yes, the city makes certain that Santa knows who participated in the Urchin Choir. Not that he needs the help, of course.”

                “I’m sure we can work out the details later,” said Elyes’s mom. “After he’s accepted into the choir.”

                “Exactly,” said the woman, her smile returning. “We don’t want to bore Elyes with the boring details. All he wants to know is that he gets to miss school and curry extra favor from Santa, right Elyes?” She stooped and extended her hand, which Elyes took and shook, finding that her fingers were warm but her palm was cold. “My name is Ms. Johnsman and I’m the director of the Multioak Urchin Choir and I would be honored, Elyes, if you would do me the pleasure of trying out to be one of our four Urchins this year. Will you?”

                Elyes could feel his parents on either side of him, flanking him, each with a hand digging into one of his shoulders, both uncomfortable in their own ways. His father’s grip was tighter and stronger, but his mother’s grip involved long fingernails. “Um,” said Elyes. His parents gripped his shoulders tighter. “Sure, I guess.” He heard both parents sigh as they released him, his mother tousling his hair while his father patted him on the back.

                “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Don’t worry about getting much rest, it’s just fine if you’re tired, or even exhausted! A few dark circles around the eyes never hurt anything.” She turned and walked away down the aisle and for the first time Elyes noticed that she didn’t have a cart or a basket.

                “We’ll keep him up!” Elyes’s mother said to Ms. Johnsman’s back. “We’ll have him play video games until midnight!”

                Ms. Johnsman did not look back as she walked around the end of the aisle and out of sight.

               

                “I don’t like your attitude,” said Elyes’s dad. They were driving home from the Diamond Food with bags full of groceries that Elyes would never have chosen in a thousand years.

                “I don’t want to be in a choir,” said Elyes. “I don’t want to be in any choir. I don’t care if Santa likes it. I’ve been good this year, I don’t need extra help.”

                “That shouldn’t be why you’re doing it anyway,” said his mom. “You should be doing it to help the community. Who knows how much longer you’re going to be painfully small, Elyes, you should be excited to use that for a good cause. It’s a rare gift.”

                “Let me tell you a story,” said Elyes’s dad. “You’re probably not aware of this, but your grandpa used to be a very mean man. He would yell at us kids and your grandma all the time, he would cuss, throw things, even hit us, sometimes. And when I was your age, I used to dread Christmas ‘cause I knew my dad, your grandpa, would be home from work all day with nothing to do except make the rest of us miserable. That’s how it was every Christmas. Every Christmas until the year I was 10. It was a week before Christmas and your grandma was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Me and your aunts were in the living room playing so as not to disturb your grandpa, who was taking his usual after-work nap in his room. Well, everything was fine until your aunt Alice, who was 5 at the time, stepped on a push-pin with her bare foot and it stuck in the skin. We tried to hush her crying as fast as we could, but it was too late, she had already woken your grandpa who came storming out of the bedroom already in a rage. I don’t know why, but he was particularly angry that day. Maybe something had happened at work or their had been tension between him and your grandma that we didn’t know about, I’m not sure. But whatever the reason, he just started smashing things in the living room and shouting, ‘Yeah, let’s all make a big racket! Let’s just make as much noise as we can!’ He was shouting things like that and breaking the furniture, breaking our toys, and me and your aunts were just watching this destruction happening all around us, crying but trying to stay quiet, and then, in a brief moment of calm after he smashed in the TV screen with the lever he’d torn off of his recliner, we heard something. It was quiet but we all heard it. It was coming from outside, a soft, high, pitiful sound. Your grandpa went to the front door and opened it and there, standing on our front lawn in snow up to their knees, huddled together in the wind and cold, was the Urchin Choir singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in their sad, piercing little voices. And I remember watching your grandpa, Elyes, I remember the change that came over him as he listened to those Urchins sing. All the rage drained out of his face and his features softened in a way I’d never seen before and his eyes filled with tears. And when the Urchins finished their song and began to slowly trudge back toward the sidewalk to continue their caroling to others, my dad, your grandpa, called out for them to come in and warm themselves, to have some hot cocoa, to get out of the wind, but they only shook their heads and said, ‘Thank you, sir, but no, we merely ask that you extend goodwill to your family, friends, and to all men. Good night.’ And then they clutched their ragged coats around their shoulders and walked off into the cold and the dark. And one of them had an old wooden crutch. Your grandpa watched them go until they were gone, standing in the doorway looking stricken. Then he closed the door, turned to face us, and dropped to his knees amidst the ruins of the living room. He spread his arms and, weeping, called us to him by name. We were nervous, but we sensed that something was different, and it was. It was, Elyes. He wrapped us in his arms and he embraced us, his body shaking with sobs, and he tried to apologize but he couldn’t form the words. But we knew what he meant. And he was never the same after that night, Elyes. He became the kind, generous man you’ve always known him to be. And that Christmas and every Christmas thereafter was filled with happiness and joy and everything that me and your grandma and your aunts had always wished for. And it all began with our unexpected visit from the Urchin Choir.”

                “Grandpa’s not that nice to me,” said Elyes. “He just yelled at me last week.”

                “Well, you deserved it,” said Elyes’s mom. “He told me what you did. And I’d think an incident like that would make you a little less confident about what Santa thinks of you at the moment.”

 

                Elyes and his mom made their way through the halls of the community center, following the yellow post-it notes taped to the walls with “Urchin Choir this way” written on them in black calligraphy. When they arrived at a room with a sign posted over the door in the same black calligraphy reading “Urchin Choir Here,” Ms. Johnsman was already inside with three other small, fragile-looking children: two girls and a boy. There were four large, plastic tubs against the far wall of the room, but there were no tables or chairs or any other furnishings and the floor was hard, gray tile.

                Ms. Johnsman walked over and thanked Elyes’s mom for bringing him. “I have your number, I’ll call you when we’re ready for you to pick Elyes up. It can be a little difficult to predict how long the rehearsals will run and, if we decide he’s not going to work out, we may need you to come get him sooner than we expect, though of course I certainly don’t anticipate that being an issue. He looks wonderfully pitiful today. So small!”

                After Elyes’s mom left, Ms. Johnsman gathered all the children in the middle of the room. “Urchins, this is Elyes. We’re hoping that he’s going to be our fourth Urchin this year.” The other children looked at Elyes and as he looked back at them, a shiver ran up his backbone. Was this really what he looked like? Was this who he belonged with? Ms. Johnsman introduced each of the children to Elyes one by one. Petunia was the second smallest of all of them, behind only Elyes, and she gave the impression of having a smudged face, although when Elyes looked closely for actual smudges, there were none. Willie’s hair was shaggy and unkempt and his face and body language were that of a child who lives in constant fear of being unjustly punished. He was also small, but not like Elyes. The third Urchin was a girl named Simone and one would have thought her a very normal-looking child if not for the fact that she had the saddest possible eyes, black and deep and so, so sad. Simone was the only returning Urchin. This was her third year and Ms. Johnsman explained that she was to be the leader while the Urchins were out caroling. Ms. Johnsman herself could not be seen with the Urchins when they were caroling because evidence of adult supervision and direction would spoil the effect, so Simone would be in charge while Ms. Johnsman trailed a few blocks behind in a van. They would keep in regular contact between performances with a cell phone that Simone would conceal in her costume. “But,” said Ms. Johnsman. “That’s all the technical stuff that we’ll discuss later. For now, we need to make certain that Elyes here belongs in our choir.”

                Elyes felt nervous. He didn’t want to be an Urchin, but at the same time, he didn’t want to fail here in front of the other kids, he didn’t want to be rejected and sent home in disgrace.

                “Elyes,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Do you know the song ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?’”

                Elyes nodded. It was one of his dad’s favorites, probably ‘cause of that long story he told in the car. It was weird to think that the Urchin Choir from that story, from way back when his dad was a kid, had impacted Elyes’s chances of joining the current Urchin Choir here in the present by causing that song to become a family holiday staple.

                “All right, good. That’s the only song we sing in the Urchin Choir. I want you to sing it for us now. I just want you to sing it in your most normal, typical way. Don’t try to do anything extra with it, don’t try to project, don’t try to make it sound sad, just sing it. Whenever you’re ready.”

                All this direction confused Elyes. He wasn’t even sure what Ms. Johnsman was looking for. He had no idea what a successful rendition or a failure would sound like. Everyone was looking at him, waiting. He looked down at the floor and sang the song. When he looked up, Ms. Johnsman was smiling at him. “Welcome to the Multioak Urchin Choir, Elyes. Urchins, congratulate Elyes.”

                The other Urchins murmured the word “congratulations,” their lips barely moving.

                “Do you know why you passed your audition?” asked Ms. Johnsman.

                “No,” said Elyes.

                “The others have heard this before, but it will do them good to hear it again,” said Ms. Johnsman. “A woman named Ms. Johnward first conceived the idea of the Multioak Urchin Choir way back in the early 1930s, before even your grandparents were alive. It all began when she saw a lone urchin out singing for coins on a cold, snowy night just before Christmas. She was amazed at the urchin’s ability to inspire goodwill in the hearts of even the town’s most notorious curmudgeons, at the way his weak, faltering voice cut through all the noise and bustle of the holiday season to pierce her heart and the hearts of many others. She thought, ‘If only there were a way to harness this power for a greater, more far-reaching good!’ And so she set about assembling the Multioak Urchin Choir. She knew right away that although the term ‘urchin’ typically refers to a young boy, her urchins would need to be girls as well in order to broaden the appeal of the choir. At first she sought out child actors or children who could sing exceptionally well. She dressed them like urchins and took them out to sing for the citizens of Multioak, but this was a total failure. Many people complimented them on their singing and how well-behaved they were, but they inspired very little goodwill, if any. They just made everyone who saw them more sure than ever that everything was fine just how it was and that no changes needed to be made anywhere, and certainly not in their own lives.

“So Ms. Johnward went back to the drawing board. This time she assembled a group of real urchins: orphans, children from impoverished families, and the like. But this didn’t work either. These urchins were unruly and difficult to control and many of them had dreadful, braying singing voices if they could be made to sing at all. Furthermore, they were only interested in helping themselves, greedily accepting anything that was offered to them, thereby immediately draining their spectators dry of whatever goodwill they may have been lucky enough to inspire.

“And so at last Ms. Johnward realized that she had to choose each Urchin carefully, selecting them based on the qualities she had observed in that very first Urchin, whom she had never seen again since that first night, but whom she spent the rest of her days searching for inside other children. These Urchins could be rich or poor, from all walks of life, as long as they possessed that certain Urchin ‘something.’ They had to inspire goodwill by their mere appearance, by their presence, the way they carried themselves. They had to exude nobility in their suffering, they had to elicit pity that would extend to all mankind. They had to remind one that the world is a cold, cruel place, but that even amidst the coldness and cruelty, beauty can be found, no less beautiful for being small and tattered. More beautiful, in fact, for its apparent fragility marks it as exceptionally temporary, a thing to cherish in the deepest recesses of one’s being. And that’s what all of you are, Urchins, Simone, Petunia, Willie, Elyes, that beauty is your beauty. The people who see you and hear you sing know that your families are not necessarily poor, they know that Santa will be rewarding you for your efforts, but when they actually see you and actually listen to you, none of that matters; the specific, tragic beauty of the moment overwhelms them and their hearts are flooded with goodwill that overflows onto everyone around them. They will offer you a brief respite from the cold or hot cocoa, but you will decline, because that goodwill is not for you. Your mission is not to generate goodwill that you then immediately consume. No, you are there to generate goodwill that will change the lives of others, goodwill that will draw families together, mend fences, extinguish burning bridges. I’m using a lot of figurative language, but you all understand what I’m saying, right?”

                “Yes,” said Simone, leading by example, her sad eyes filled with both comprehension and sadness.

                “Do you understand, Elyes?” asked Ms. Johnsman. “Since this is your first time hearing all this?”

                “I think so,” said Elyes. “If someone offers us cocoa, we have to say ‘no.’”

                “Right,” said Ms. Johnsman. “And why is that?”

                “So they’ll be nice to other people instead,” said Willie. He winced as soon as he finished speaking as if already anticipating a scolding.

                “That’s right, Willie,” said Ms. Johnsman.

                Petunia shot Elyes a look and very subtly rolled her eyes.

                “OK, Urchins,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Follow me over to the tubs of Urchin clothes against the wall and let’s work on your outfits.”

                As she walked across the room, Simone and Willie were right behind her, but Elyes hung back with Petunia. It seemed like she had something to say and she did. “When you talk to Santa, go all out.”

                “What do you mean?” asked Elyes.

                “Simone got so frostbitten last year that she had to get two toes on her left foot amputated,” said Petunia, her voice low. “So make sure Santa hooks you up.”

                “Elyes, Pentunia, come over here!” called Ms. Johnsman, holding up a sooty, brown newsboy cap in one hand and a tarnished locket on a chain in the other. Willie was examining a faded, plaid scarf no longer than his own arm. Simone had four pairs of similar, scuffed shoes lined up in front of her on the floor and she regarded them with an expression of wariness born of experience. Elyes already knew that whichever jacket he ended up with, it would have prominent holes in the elbows.

 

                Elyes didn’t remember ever seeing the inside of Forton’s Foods before. His family had shopped at the Diamond Food for as long as he remembered, but this was where Santa was so this was where Elyes’s parents had brought him so he could hand Santa his typed Christmas list, which he had revised since joining the Urchin Choir. The new list also had a subsection of gifts for his parents, which they insisted would be fine. “We talked to Ms. Johnsman,” said Elyes’s mom. “And she said Santa often takes special requests from the families of Urchins.”

                The line to see Santa wasn’t very long, but the few people in the store who seemed to be there to shop for groceries did little to hide their annoyance. Santa also appeared in other stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas, bouncing around from night to night on a schedule that was printed every day in the Multioak Interpreter-Tribune so people would know where to find him. But Ms. Johnsman had strongly suggested that the Urchins visit Santa on one of the nights when he was at Forton’s Foods because the shorter lines would allow him to give the Urchins the special attention they required, and would also prevent the Urchins from exposing their identities to too many people since seeing an Urchin out dressed in normal clothes with caring parents could ruin the effect if the same person then also saw the Urchin out caroling on performance night. Ms. Johnsman had also said to visit Santa at Forton’s Foods as soon as possible so as to give him enough time to make sure he could accommodate their new, more demanding lists, or even to change their status from “naughty” to “nice,” if necessary. Simone, Petunia, and Willie had all been to visit Santa on the first night he was at Forton’s Foods, but Elyes hadn’t been an Urchin yet at that point, so here he was on the third and final night, slipping in under the wire.

                Elyes wondered what Santa’s reaction would be when he revealed he was an Urchin. Elyes didn’t like it when people made a fuss over him. He hoped Santa wouldn’t make a big deal out of it or announce it to the rest of the people standing in line or anything. He preferred a quick, businesslike transaction. It would be especially nice if Santa didn’t ask him how old he was and then exclaim over how small he was for his age like every single other time he’d sat on Santa’s lap. Elyes knew there were a lot of kids in the world, but it was kind of insulting that Santa couldn’t just remember the age Elyes had told him last year and then add one year instead of asking.

                Elyes had spaced out, lost in thoughts about Simone’s frostbitten, amputated toes and how paltry his Urchin costume had felt once he was wearing it, and he didn’t notice it was his turn to talk to Santa until his dad nudged him in the back. Elyes realized he was at the front of the line and that Santa was beckoning him to his lap, his fluffy beard muffling a “Ho ho ho!” that was less of an authentic laugh and more of a catchphrase.   

                Elyes walked the green strip of carpet up to Santa’s throne, which was constructed out of cases of soda pop, and took a seat on Santa’s lap. Elyes was at the age where he didn’t regularly sit on laps anymore, but this was how one talked to Santa, for some reason. But Santa’s lap was not comfortable. Elyes didn’t know if there was any way to go about making one’s own lap more comfortable, but he thought that Santa, of all people, should be trying. Well, maybe he was trying, Elyes didn’t know what he was doing in his private time.

                “What’s your name?” asked Santa. “Hold old are you?”

                “Ely!” said his mom, beaming at him from where he’d left her and his dad at the front of the line. “Tell Santa what you’re doing this year!”

                “I will, Mom, we’re not to that part yet.” Elyes turned back to Santa. “My name’s Elyes.” He’d heard the age question and elected to ignore it for now.

                “That’s a unique name,” said Santa. “How do you spell that?”

                “E-L-Y-E-S,” said Elyes.

                “Interesting!” said Santa. “In France, they pronounce that name like ‘Ee-lee-yus’ or something like that.” He paused, reflecting on the people of France, maybe. “And how old did you say you are?”

                “I’m in the Multioak Urchin Choir this year,” said Elyes. “I’m an Urchin. Here’s my revised, typed Christmas list.”

                “You’re an Urchin?” asked Santa, taking the list. He looked up at Elyes’s parents. “He’s in the Urchin Choir?” His voice had changed. He sounded like the judgmental Santa you hear about but never see in person.

                “Yes, he is,” said Elyes’s dad. “And we’re very proud of him.”

                Santa tilted his head back and looked through the bottom half of his bifocals at Elyes’s Christmas list. “I see there’s a subsection of gifts for parents on here.”

                Elyes’s mom was feeling affronted, Elyes could tell. “Ms. Johnsman assured us that was standard.”

                Santa looked down at Elyes and the sorrow in his eyes made Elyes squirm on his lap. Then he looked up at Elyes’s parents and said, “Will you two talk to me in private real quick?” He slid Elyes off of his lap and stood up, motioning for Elyes’s parents to follow him around behind his throne, which, after a flurry of exasperated sighs, they did. Elyes stood in front of the empty throne, looking down at his feet while the other kids in line and their parents stared at him, probably wondering how old he was and if his parents fed him enough.

 

                The car ride back to the house was uncomfortable. Elyes could tell his parents were indignant about whatever Santa had said to them during their private conversation, but he could also tell that, whatever it was, they were not going to share any of it with him, even though it was definitely about him.

                “Hey, Dad,” said Elyes from the back seat, watching the frozen-hard yards marred by the presence of holiday inflatables slumping beneath the burden of their own lousiness go past. “Did you know that ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is the only carol the Urchin Choir ever sings?”

                “Really?” said his dad. “That’s what they sang when they changed Grandpa! That’s my favorite.”

                “I know,” said Elyes. “That’s why I’m telling you.”

                “It’s your dad’s favorite,” said Elyes’s mom.

                “I know,” said Elyes. “He just said that and I already knew that. You wanna know why that’s the only song the Urchin Choir sings?”

                “Sure,” said Elyes’s dad. “I bet it’s interesting.”

                “OK,” said Elyes. “So, first of all, it just sounds sad, but not depressing. The melody is bittersweet. But when we sing it, it’s that much more affecting, because our voices are weak but haunting. Anyway, OK, so the first line is, ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas.’ So, first of all, when you hear that coming from me as an Urchin, right away you notice that I’m not including myself in the wish, only you, so that selflessness gets you right away. Then, OK, the word ‘little’ is in there, which does two things: it reminds you that Christmas doesn’t have to be a big ordeal to be good and it also causes you to consider how little me and the rest of the Urchins are. Then we sing, ‘May your heart be light.’ This line is important ‘cause it reminds you that the condition of your heart is what’s most important. Next comes, ‘From now on our troubles will be out of sight.’ This line is important because it reminds the listener that we’re just children, and as bad as we may have had it so far, we’ve still got that childlike optimism, that assurance that soon everything will be fine forever. And that’s both encouraging and heartbreaking. You know it isn’t true, but you don’t want us to know it isn’t true, you want us to believe for as long as possible. So then we repeat ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ and then we sing, “Make the Yule-tide gay.’ The word ‘make’ is so important here because it presents the idea that you have agency, you don’t have to just sit around hoping for the Yule-tide to be gay, you can take steps to make it gay. ‘Yule-tide’ is just an archaic term for Christmas, but that’s good because it reminds you of the generations who have come before you, the people who lived and hoped and dreamed and loved and, yes, died. Also, the word ‘gay’ in this context hearkens back to a time when people rode in horse-drawn sleighs and children got genuinely excited about nutcrackers painted to look like soldiers. Also, you gain more respect for the Urchins because of our ability at our age, in this time and place, to sing the word ‘gay’ without giggling. Now, the next line is, ‘From now on our troubles will be miles away.’ More of that exquisitely naïve optimism.”

                “Wow,” said Elyes’s dad. “That’s a lot to take in.”

                “I’m not done,” said Elyes.

                “Just hit the high points,” said his mom. “Summarize the rest.”

                “But every word is important,” said Elyes. “That’s what Ms. Johnsman said. She said all of this, I’m just relaying it to you.”

                “OK,” said his dad. “But I can believe every word is important without having every word explained to me.”

                “But there’s stuff about the ‘faithful friends’ gathering near,” said Elyes. “And ‘Through the years, we all will be together. If the Fates allow.’”

                “Are you excited for your presents?” asked Elyes’s mom. “Santa told us he’s very proud of you for volunteering to spread goodwill as an Urchin this year.”

                “Whatever,” said Elyes. He returned to looking out the window in silence. Some people had decorated their yards using only white lights thinking that it made them look classier, but it didn’t make them look classier, it just made them look self-conscious. Elyes’s personal supply of goodwill was not overflowing.

 

                 That night when Elyes went to bed, his dad came into his room to tuck him in, turn out the lights, and say good night, as usual.

                “Dad,” said Elyes. “Do I just look pitiful? Or am I actually weak?”

                “We’re all weak,” said his dad, his hand poised above the light switch.

                “But am I especially weak?” asked Elyes. “I don’t feel weak. I just feel normal.”

                “Why are you asking?” asked his dad. “Did Santa say something to you?”

                “What? Santa? No.”

                “Then what are you worried about?”

                “I’m not worried,” said Elyes. “But I’m wondering if I should be worried. I’m one of the fastest kids in my grade, but that doesn’t matter for a lot of stuff.”

                “Ms. Johnsman won’t let you get too cold,” said his dad. “You’re a kid and her job is to look out for you.”

                “But she chooses the coldest night,” said Elyes. “She looks for the worst weather in the ten days before Christmas, and that’s when she takes us out. That’s why we don’t know when we’re performing until the day of.” He didn’t mention Simone’s amputated toes.

                “Do you not want to do it?” asked his dad. “Are you afraid?”

                “I’m not afraid,” said Elyes. “Are you afraid for me?”

                “Your mom and I are confident,” said his dad. “We’re pretty darn sure you’re gonna be fine. We trust Ms. Johnsman. She was right about Santa, wasn’t she?”

                “We don’t know yet,” said Elyes. “Santa hasn’t delivered yet.”

                “He will,” said Elyes’s dad. “Good night, Ely.” He turned off the light and closed the door.

                Elyes had no idea how weak he really was, but he felt certain that he would find out soon.

               

                The next morning at Multioak Urchin Choir rehearsal, Ms. Johnsman strode into the room with a big smile on her face and said, “I’ve just been looking at the weather report, Urchins! It looks as if tomorrow night will be our performance night. The weather is supposed to be just terrible!”

                Choosing the night with the worst possible weather within the ten days leading up to Christmas was standard Multioak Urchin Choir procedure, according to Ms. Johnsman, because the more cognizant the spectators were of the nastiness of the weather, the more they would be moved by the Urchins caroling in it. And the Urchin Choir certainly could not have the spectators believing that they had ducked a certain night for weather-related reasons. Appearing to have the luxury of choosing a less awful night to carol would be less likely to inspire the spectators to new heights of goodwill-inducing pity.

                “How bad is it going to be?” asked Petunia. She shot Elyes a look and he didn’t know why.

                “It’s going to be around 0 degrees,” said Ms. Johnsman. “But it’s supposed to snow today, so by tomorrow night, everything will be covered in icy snow and the wind is supposed to pick up. No one will be out in it except for you Urchins, it’s going to be perfect. You all need to remember to wear your long underwear, but remember, it can’t be anything too bulky. We need you all to look thin and pitiful.”

                “I have a question,” said Petunia. “Is Santa going to bring Elyes more presents than he brings for the rest of us?”

                “That’s not for me to decide,” said Ms. Johnsman. “That’s for Santa to decide.”

                “Wait,” said Elyes. “Why would I get more than the rest of you?”

                No one said anything for a few moments. Willie had the look of someone who was trying to mentally plug his ears.

                “Because,” Petunia finally said. “You’re the smallest and skinniest so it’s the most dangerous for you.”

                “Well, wait,” said Elyes. “‘Cause did you guys know I’m one of the fastest kids in the third grade?”

                “Third grade!” said Willie, his incredulity overriding his hatred of conflict. “I thought you were in first grade!”

                “I’m almost 9!” said Elyes, his voice rising.

                “Listen, everyone listen,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Santa will be fair, that’s all you need to know. Santa won’t make a mistake. Simone, this is your third year as an Urchin, hasn’t Santa been fair to you the last two years?”

                Simone hesitated just long enough for it to seem maybe significant and maybe not. “Yes,” she said. “He has.”

                “See?” said Ms. Johnsman as if Simone had given her the exact flavor of response she’d been seeking. “I believe in Santa. And I don’t mean that I simply believe that he exists, although I believe that too. But I believe in him, in his desire and ability to fulfill his role as a figure who bestows the right gifts in the right amount upon those who deserve them according to their relative naughtiness or niceness. You all spoke to him, you gave him your lists, he knows what you’re doing, he knows what you’re sacrificing. I think we need to focus on being good Urchins and let him worry about how that’s rewarded. What else needs to be said?”

                “But what if Elyes dies?” asked Petunia.

                The room went utterly silent.

                “Elyes,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Did Santa tell you not to go caroling in the cold with the Urchin Choir?”

                “No,” said Elyes. “But he did have a weird conference with my parents behind his throne thing.”

                “And what did your parents tell you?”

                “Nothing.”

                “So Santa didn’t tell them you shouldn’t do it?”

                “I guess not.”

                “Well,” said Ms. Johnsman. “I trust Santa implicitly. If he were to step in and suggest that any of you should not participate for any reason, then of course we would have to listen and abide by his suggestion. But, Elyes, If he didn’t tell you not to do it, then he must want you to do it. Right?”

                “Sure,” said Elyes. “I mean, I want to do it. Petunia and Willie are the ones who think I can’t handle it.”

                Ms. Johnsman nodded. “See, kids? Elyes thinks he can handle it, I think he can handle it, and most importantly, Santa knows he can handle it. So let’s get into our full costumes and sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ for a few hours, OK? OK!”

 

                The weather was terrible. Just terrible. And it had gotten dark so fast, the sun hastening to the other, presumably less miserable side of the planet as quickly as it could. And with the sun’s departure, the wind had come howling down out of the North and sunk its teeth into Multioak, shaking it like a filthy coyote trying to break the back of somebody’s poor, poor pet cat with a human-sounding name. The snow on the ground was only six inches deep, but an icy crust had formed on the top layer, just like Ms. Johnsman, in her delight, had predicted.

And all of the Urchins were so cold. Their thermal under-layers were doing little to keep them warm and their fraying, ill-fitting, old-timey costumes were doing less. Elyes’s toes and fingers were numb, he was shivering, his teeth were chattering. He felt like a real urchin. Not a capital-U Urchin Choir member, but an urchin. A victim of misfortune, an unfortunate product of an unfortunate environment, frowned upon by Fortune. He was amazed, however, by the spectators’ responses to the Urchin Choir’s caroling.

The Urchins’ voices, feeble to begin with, had to compete with the whistling wind, and no one, of course, had any doors or windows open, so the singing had to somehow penetrate the winter fortifications of each house and be heard above the TV or music or any indoor conversation. And yet, somehow, it always did. Invariably, by the time the Urchins got to “from now on our troubles will be miles away,” whoever was inside the house would be crowded at the front door, braving the cold, watching and listening to the Urchin Choir with tears in their eyes, melting hearts, arms around each other’s shoulders. Foreheads would be kissed, hands would be held, gentle, unified swaying to the rhythm of the song would commence. And then, when the song concluded, the spectators would break into applause, call out “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you” and “Thank you so much,” and then they would offer hot cocoa. They would offer hot cocoa and although Elyes’s  frozen bones were crying out for it, Simone would say, ‘Thank you, sir (or ma’am), but no, we merely ask that you extend goodwill to your family, friends, and to all men, good night,’ and the Urchins would trudge through the snow back to the sidewalk and on to the next house.

Elyes had not expected to see anything as dramatic as the story his dad had told him since he always assumed his dad was exaggerating, but after only 12 houses, Elyes had already seen a racist, old mom embrace her white son’s black girlfriend, a rebellious teenager promise his weeping parents that he’d go to rehab for his eating disorder and painkiller addiction, and a middle-aged couple renew their wedding vows right there on their cold, cement porch in just sweatsuits and slippers. The Urchin Choir was inspiring a lot of goodwill and getting tangible results. Simone kept calling Ms. Johnsman to update her after every two or three houses and Ms. Johnsman, sitting in the van way down the street, kept telling Simone how thrilled she was with how performance night was going.

The one problem, which was becoming a bigger concern by the minute, was the condition of Willie. All of the Urchins were cold, but Willie was in especially bad shape. At house number 13, where a tubby elderly couple mouthed the words to the carol along with the Urchins and offered them hot cocoa and hot spiced cider, Willie didn’t sing at all. Elyes just heard his chattering teeth and at some point he started producing a strange, quiet, staccato moan. After the Urchins turned down the hot cocoa and hot cider and headed for the next house, Petunia said, “Guys, stop. Look at Willie. Willie, are you OK?”

Willie said nothing, but he kind of nodded his head yes. Kind of. The Urchins stopped on the sidewalk halfway between house 13 and house 14, clustered together with their backs to the wind. “Willie,” said Petunia. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s just cold,” said Simone. “Like all of us. Come on, we have to keep going. It’s worse just standing here.”

“He wasn’t even singing at the last house,” said Elyes. “He was just making weird sounds. Maybe he shouldn’t keep going if he can’t sing.”

“Willie, you have to sing,” said Simone. “Got it?”

Willie kind of nodded again.

“He can’t sing,” said Petunia. “Willie, sing right now to prove you can sing.”

Willie’s eyes looked dazed, but with a tiny speck of fright buried deep in their dark centers. He parted his lips and the chattering of his teeth immediately intensified. Then the staccato moan returned.

“Yeah,” said Elyes. “That’s what he was doing before.”

“No,” said Simone. “Willie, sing the carol!”

Then Willie had the saddest little coughing fit, just a dry sputter that nonetheless bent him double.

                Simone called Ms. Johnsman and explained the situation, making no effort to conceal her disdain. After a short conversation, she hung up and slipped the cell phone back into her ratty coat. “Ms. Johnsman said it’s fine if he doesn’t sing. We just need to gather around him and have him lean on us. When the spectators see us supporting our unwell friend, they’ll be even more touched and filled with even more goodwill. You hear that, Willie? Don’t try to sing. Just lean on us and look just how you look right now. You can even close your eyes if you want.”

                The spectator at the 14th house was one burly man in shorts, work boots, and a white tank top. He had a bushy blond beard and backward baseball cap that was either dirt-colored or very dirty. He appeared in his doorway before the Urchins even began to sing. “I heard you comin’!” he shouted. He put his hands in his shorts pockets, his one concession to the frigid temperature.

                As the Urchins sang, Elyes and Petunia supported Willie between them. In the glow of the Christmas lights tossed haphazardly on the spectator’s bare bushes, Elyes could see that Willie’s lips were not the right color. His skin looked like printer paper made out recycled materials. As the song went on, Willie rested more and more of his weight on Elyes and Petunia until it became clear that he would topple into the snow if either of them let go of him. The spectator spent the entire song looking up at the stars with an expression of melancholy reflection, but when the last note faded and was blown away by the wind, he looked at the Urchins and said, “That boy in the middle there looks bad.”

                “Merry Christmas,” said Simone. Then, under her breath, she whispered, “Make Willie walk, we have to move on.”

                “Let me fix you all some hot cocoa,” said the spectator. “At least some for that boy, I really think he needs it.”

                “Thank you, sir, but no, we merely ask that you extend goodwill to your family, friends, and to all men, good night, ” said Simone, seasoning the rejection with her usual tragic smile, her eyes beaming sadness at the spectator like parallel lasers.

                “We’ll take some hot cocoa,” said Elyes to the spectator. “Just some for Willie.” He turned to Willie. “Hey, Willie, come on, I’m going to help you into this guy’s house so you can have some hot cocoa and get out of the wind for a minute.”

                “No,” said Simone in a furious whisper. “No! No one’s getting any hot cocoa!”

                “Willie, come on,” said Elyes. “Move your feet. Petunia, help me get him inside.”

                Petunia nodded. “OK, let’s go.” She and Elyes started to move forward, dragging Willie toward the house, but Willie began to moan and dig his feet into the snow, shaking his head from side to side.

                “See?” said Simone, stepping in front of the other Urchins to block their path to the house. “He doesn’t even want to go in. He wants to do this right.”

                “He’s just scared of getting in trouble,” said Petunia. “Like always.”

                “I won’t let you take him in,” said Simone. “I’ll grab onto him. You can’t carry us both.”

                “All right,” said Elyes. “Petunia, can you support him by yourself?”

                “Maybe.” She spread her feet wide in the snow and hunched forward. “OK, try it.”

                Elyes slowly shifted Willie’s weight over onto Petunia, little by little. “You have him?”

                “I think so.”

                Elyes stepped to the side, out from under Willie’s right arm, and although Petunia’s legs shook, she and Willie stayed upright. “Hurry up,” she said.

                “Do not,” said Simone. “Do not!” She tried to grab for Elyes but he was way, way, way too fast for her. She was probably one of the slowest kids in the whole fifth grade.

 

                The spectator’s kitchen was a friendly, comfortable mess. A cat with long, white fur sat on top of the microwave while the microwave heated a mug full of tap water. The spectator stood by the microwave and scratched the cat on top of the head with one hand while tapping the paper cocoa packet against his thigh with the other. Elyes stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, a puddle of dirty snowmelt forming around his shoes. The pleasure of being out of the wind and cold was indescribable. Feeling was beginning to return to his fingers and it stung in the best possible way.

                “Some people say it isn’t masculine to sip hot cocoa,” said the spectator. “But look at me. I do it. I put marshmallows in it, I don’t care. I sit by the window and pet this cat and sip hot cocoa and watch the snow fall. And look at me, right?”

                The microwave beeped and the spectator extracted the mug of hot water, tore open the packet, and poured the cocoa powder into the mug, stirring it with a short spoon. He set the mug of hot cocoa on the counter and began to look through his cupboards. “I know I’ve got some marshmallows. Some people say it’s not the hot cocoa that isn’t masculine, it’s the sipping or it’s the marshmallows, on and on, but I sip it and I use marshmallows and-“

                The doorbell rang.

                “Hold on,” said the spectator, and he went to answer the door.

A few moments later, Ms. Johnsman came into the kitchen with the spectator. “Come on, Elyes,” she said. Her voice had the cold edge of the outside. “You need to go sing for more houses, we don’t have time to stop now.” She turned to the spectator. “Thank you so much for your generosity, sir, but we’ll make sure Willie’s OK. I’m sorry we imposed on you.”

“Nah, think nothing of it,” said the spectator. “Listening to those kids sing made me feel like doing some good and I thought, well, hey, they’re here right now and they look like they themselves could use some help, you know?”

“I understand,” said Ms. Johnsman. “And I urge you to please spread that goodwill to someone else instead. Maybe a loved one or a neighbor.”

“Eh, maybe,” said the man. “I mean, I already made the effort once. That’s probably good enough.”

 

Back outside, Elyes found that Ms. Johnsman’s van was parked at the curb in front of the spectator’s house and that the other Urchins were already inside. “Get in, Elyes,” said Ms. Johnsman. “Now.”

Once everyone was in the van, Ms. Johnsman turned around in the front seat and glared at the Urchins, her hands trembling with the effort of suppressing her rage. “I have never been so disappointed with a group of Urchins. Never. Elyes, not only did you accept hot cocoa, you went into the house! Out of the cold and into the spectator’s house! And Petunia, you supported him! And Simone, you didn’t stop them! You’re supposed to be leading! Is this what happens under your leadership? Willie at least had the honor to refuse to go into the house. He’s the only one who’s behaving like a real Urchin tonight and he’s barely even conscious. Do the rest of you think Santa’s going to be impressed with this performance?”

The Urchins were silent but for Willie’s teeth chattering and his occasional whimpers.

“Now get back out there and finish strong,” said Ms. Johnsman. “And maybe, maybe Santa will overlook the disaster you’ve made of performance night so far.”

 

                As soon as Ms. Johnsman drove her van back down the street, Elyes ran to the spectator’s front door and rang the doorbell over and over until the spectator answered. “You again?” He was drinking the hot cocoa he’d prepared for Willie.

                “Elyes!” shouted Simone from the sidewalk. “Stop! I’m the leader and I’m telling you that you have to stop! I’m not going to have Santa blame me for this! You’re throwing away everything we’ve sacrificed so far!” She and the other two Urchins were standing at the end of the spectator’s driveway where Ms. Johnsman had forced them back out into the cold. Willie was standing under his own power again, but it did not look sustainable. He was in deep trouble.

                “Do you have a recent newspaper?” asked Elyes.

                “I guess,” said the spectator. He disappeared for a moment and then returned with that day’s paper, handing it to Elyes.

                “Thanks,” said Elyes, and he began to flip through it as fast as he could with his numb, gloved fingers, crumpling the pages in his clumsy haste.

                “Yeah,” said the spectator. “But you Urchins are more demanding than I thought. I thought you were different. Selfless and stuff. Guess not.”

                But Elyes didn’t hear this last part because he had found what he needed and taken off sprinting down the street. Even in the cold, dressed as he was, running into the wind, he was fast.

 

                The line of parents and children waiting to talk to Santa in Flying Kick Karate Studio fell silent as Elyes walked past them. His chest was burning, he couldn’t feel his face. He puffed and panted, his nose dripping without pause, the soles of his shoes squeaking on the tile floor where the karate mats had been rolled up to accommodate Santa and the seekers thereof. By the time Elyes got to the front of the line, the whole room was quiet.

                “My boy,” said Santa. He rose from his throne made of boxes draped with all the different colors of karate belts. “What has happened?”

                Elyes could feel the eyes of everyone in line behind him on his pitiful back. He knew, exhausted and disheveled and ravaged by the elements as he was, that he must look the most pitiful he’d ever looked, maybe more pitiful than anyone else these people had ever seen. He could feel the immensity of their collective pity, he sensed it swelling and looming over him. But Elyes did not feel pitiful. “We need you, Santa,” he said. “The Urchins need you. You’re the only one she’ll listen to.”

                Santa nodded. “We’ll take my truck.”

                As Elyes and Santa walked past the line of people to the front door, not one parent or child complained that Santa was leaving before they’d had their turn with him. Instead, the parents cried, embracing their children. Many people tried to give Elyes money or gift certificates or mostly-completed punch cards from local sandwich shops, some kids even tried to give him their coats, but Elyes just shook his head, and in his wake, kids who gave every indication of being selfish brats offered their candy canes to their siblings, to children they didn’t even know, parents complimented other parents on the behavior of their children, feuding neighbors buried the hatchet, older brothers pointedly did not remark on the dumbness of younger brothers’ theories on the mortality of toy-making elves. The line began to dissolve, the families mingled, and goodwill, more than overflowing, erupted forth.

                As Elyes and Santa walked out into the parking lot in front of the karate studio, Santa asked, “Where are the Urchins?”

                “Over on Barwin Street,” said Elyes.

                “And you ran from there?” asked Santa. “In this weather? How long did it take you?”

                “I don’t know,” said Elyes. “About 20 minutes?”

                “Wow,” said Santa. “You’re fast.”




Discussion Questions

  • When have you been at your most pitiful? Did you use that time to inspire goodwill in others? Or did you just act pitiful? I think I know the answer but I’m not going to say ‘cause you’ll just get mad.



  • What inspires goodwill in you? Is it guilt in the rare moments when you’re aware of your own good fortune? If not, hurry up and figure it out because there are more questions to get to.



  • When one goes caroling with a group, who is usually the loudest singer? Is it the person with the best singing voice? Is it the person with the second best singing voice? Or is it the person with the worst singing voice, just bellowing away?



  • At what exact point does the act of sipping hot cocoa run afoul of traditional ideas of masculinity?



  • What are some ways to stay warm if you’re stuck outside in cold weather? If an icicle has formed at the end of your nose and you can only stammer the letter “c” when someone tries to speak to you, is it already too late?



  • Think about your third grade year. Think about every kid in third grade with you. What percentage of them were faster than you?