A Knock At The Shop’s Door: A Christmas Eve Short Story

When George Ballew announced his retirement, his young assistant Seth Hall purchased the Ballew Mercantile with a loan from George’s son at the Temperance Savings and Loan.  Eventually Seth changed the name to Hall’s Five and Dime after George passed to his rest.

Now, fifty years later Seth’s son Thaddeus operated the store with its vast array of merchandise, especially jars of stick candy for those youngsters with a penny to spare.  It was a family place to come, to talk and to buy with cash or credit.

Perhaps, in this small mountain hamlet of Temperance Christmas was the ideal season for all.  The first December snows graced the mountain tops like diamonds reflecting sunlight.  The cool chilled winds floated down the sides like a melting ice cream cone on an August day, embracing all with their sweetness.

Thaddeus with help from his two assistants, Sally Smyth and Bob Young, decorated the store in full Christmas regalia on December 1.  Fresh cut Christmas trees  from the Daniels Farms stood on the sidewalk for the buyer and the curious.

The alluring smells of hot apple cider and nutmeg eggnog drew in a number of customers.  Sally’s knack of making eggnog was famous throughout the valley communities.  Bob’s hot apple cider pressed from the Williams Fruit Orchards added the right touch for the season with his secret ingredient—a few apricots for each gallon of cider.

Ava Hall, Thaddeus’ wife, had spent the year making children winter blankets for the display windows.  On Christmas Day she and Thaddeus would take the blankets and distribute them to the less fortunate children of the valley with some food baskets for their parents.

As we begin our tale on Christmas Eve, Betsy Tarrwater is at the fabric counter discussing the church’s New Year Eve Social with Sally.  Betsy and her ladies are the social hub of the community.

“I am making mittens for Wendy and Bethany.  I understand that you just received some vicuña wool from Peru, Sally.”

“Yes, Mrs. Tarrwater.  We received ten yards from Atlanta last week.  How much do you want?”

“Sally, has Mrs. Ballard been by yet to inspect it?”

“Not yet. She probably won’t come by until next week.  They are having that party tonight for their friends and family.”

Turning, Betsy looked out the glass door at the mountain.  “It will be a grand time on their mountain tonight.”

Sally detected the sarcasm in her voice. The Tarrwaters disliked the ostentatious  display of the Ballard wealth.

They had made their fortune on the backs of others without regret.  To rub their elitism in the valley community they built their “castle” on the mountain top which rivaled the moon for its brightness at night.

“I will take all ten yards, Sally.”

Bob gave Sally a smile.  This was the most expense wool they had in the store, and their Christmas bonus would be a bit sweeter because of Betsy’s purchase.

Now, the Tarrwaters were no strangers to wealth.  Betsy’s grandfather and father had made their fortune in the railroad business, but the Ballards had made their fortune in the slave trade, their shady business dealings in their factory, banking enterprises and coal mining.

The Tarrwaters, like the Daniels and Williams’ families, refused to do business with the Ballard City Bank.  They invested in the Ballew Savings and Loan run by Andrew Ballew who, like his father, was a thorn in the side of the Ballards because Andrew took financial risks on people whom the Ballards would consider below their station in life.

As the day wore on, Thaddeus looked over the receipts of the day and prepared two manila envelopes, one for Sally and one for Bob.  Business had been good this year, and the Christmas bonus would be good for his two faithful employees.

It was Thaddeus’ custom at 3 o’clock on Christmas Eve to send Bob and Sally on their way with their envelopes.  After handing the envelopes to them and wishing them a Merry Christmas, he swooshed them out the door.

For the next hour he would deal with the store business until 4 o’clock when he would close the store.  It was nearly 4 o’clock when he put on his overcoat and scarf.  He turned down the damper on the wood stove.

As he locked the main door, he turned to extinguish the gas lights.  There was a slight knock on the door.

Looking out the window, he saw no one.  He glanced down to see Jamie Piper shivering outside the door.

Opening the door, he ushered the youngster inside and told him to warm himself by the wood stove.  The young boy held out his shaking hands toward the warm potbelly stove.

“What can I do for you, Jamie?” Thaddeus asked.

“Sir, I came for five pieces of stick candy,” he replied with a quivering voice.

“Peppermint and spearmint?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Thaddeus opened the jumbo jar on the counter and took out five pieces of stick candy.  As he was replacing the lid, he remembered that Jamie had five brothers and sisters.

“Jamie, is all of this for you?”

“No, Sir, it’s for my brothers and sisters.”  He handed Thaddeus five pennies.

“How’s your father?”

“He is doing well, Sir.  His hand and arm will be back to normal in a few weeks Doc Carr said, and then he can return to the coal mine.”

“Did Mister Ballard give him his Christmas bonus, Jamie?”

Jamie looked down at the floor sheepishly. “No, Sir.”

“Why not?”

“I heard my father tell my mother that Mister Ballard said that the Christmas bonus was only for working men, not men who allow themselves to be injured.”

Thaddeus frowned.  Ballard was known as a hard taskmaster who would work his miners to death if he could do it.  He found Sunday to be a waste since work was strongly discouraged by the Christian community.

“Jamie, are things very tough for your family this Christmas?”

Hesitantly, Jamie replied, “Yes, Sir.  We don’t even have a tree.  Mommy says that these five candy sticks is all that she could afford for Christmas presents.”

“What will be your Christmas present, Jamie?”

“Since I am the oldest, I will do without.  My brothers and sisters must come before me.”  There was a deep sadness in his nine year-old voice.

Thaddeus reopened the jar and took out seven more sticks.  He handed them to Jamie.  “Each of you will have two sticks a piece this night.”

Looking intently at Thaddeus, Jamie replied. “Oh!  Thank you, Sir.”

“You should get along home now since the night cold is wrapping itself around town.”

Jamie scooted home as Thaddeus headed to his house.  When he arrived home, he told Ava about Jamie Piper’s visit.

On the counter she had been working on food baskets with fresh baked apple pies, fried chicken, corn meal dumplings, sweet corn and a quart Mason jar of Williams’ Apple Butter.  She grabbed the largest basket and handed it to Thaddeus.

Pulling her coat, scarf and hat from the hallway closet, she pushed Thaddeus out the front door with herself close behind.  They walked down the street and around the corner.  The sun was sitting with a cerise glow as they neared the old Billings place which the Pipers were renting.

Down the street Bob Young came with a large pine tree.  Thaddeus had called him before he left the store. Sally Smyth came around another corner in her father’s buggy. She had a big box of bows and ribbons for the tree which Bob asked her to bring.

They all converged at the front day and knocked.  Jamie opened the door and his eyes became as big and bright as Depression glass saucers.

After conversing for a bit and setting up the tree, they said their good-byes and Merry Christmases to the Pipers.  As they stood outside, they saw the mountain lights from the Ballard residence, and their huge star erected for the entire valley to see.

The night was cloudy.  The Ballard Star was brilliant in a gaudy kind of way.

Looking back into the Piper’s living room, they saw Jamie lifting his youngest sister up to place the star on the tree. As the star swayed on the treetop, it caught the light from the fireplace and seemed to glow with radiance like sun light reflected off morning snow.

Down the street they heard the soft sounds of carolers singing The First Noel.  Without saying a word they smiled and departed for their homes.

On the mountain the festivalers enjoyed their turkey and ham, Bay oysters, tender green peas, roasted red potatoes, cranberry sauce, Bordeaux wine, French coffee, Parisian salad, mincemeat pies and nesselrode pudding in the coal-fueled warmth and decorated splendor. They had not a care in the world. After dinner they sat around the twelve-foot Victorian tree with their Italian snifters drinking Calvados brandy.

Down in the valley one family was grateful for the generosity of their fellow hamlet dwellers.  Their Christmas would not be bleak and dreary because a man and his wife and a young man and woman made a difference on that Christmas Eve for one family in their community.

May this Christmas Eve and Christmas day find you blessed with the generosity of spirit.  May you live Christmas well by sharing your gold and myrrh and frankincense.

For a mountain star is not starlight, and the star of wonder still shines over the earth for those who seek a babe in a manger. Look beyond the mountain to the night sky to find starlight.

Merry Christmas! God bless you everyone!

G. D. Williams       © 2012

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NOTE: This story is a prequel to THE CHRISTMAS GIFT from last year.  The link is posted below.