Of Dollar Stores and Ham

Last March, I submitted the following story to the people over at Chicken Soup for the Soul. They were looking for stories for the next Christmas edition in their line of books.

With the book now out in stores (and never hearing back from them), I am operating under the assumption my story wasn't selected. That is why I'm posting it now.

The following took place when I lived in Los Angeles. Names haven't been used in this story in order to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

Of Dollar Stores and Ham

The smell of honey baked ham cooking in the oven filled the entire two-bedroom apartment with its enticing aroma. The ham was the prize of that Christmas, or so I thought, and I listened intently as the juices of the ham sizzled in the scoring heat of the oven. I had never cooked a ham before but I had decided it was the least I could do for my friends. Judging by the salivating looks on their faces, they were ready to judge my cooking skills. Christmas or not, they would let me know if the ham failed their taste test.

This was Christmas time in Los Angeles, far away from the friendly confines of Idaho and Nevada. These were the states in which our families resided. These were the places where many of the previous Christmases had been spent. Not this year. Fighting a distance of hundreds of miles, unemployment, and low-paying jobs had kept us in the city of Angels for the holidays. With a little creativity, love from far away, and the aforementioned Christmas ham, my three friends and I created a very special Christmas Eve of our own.

The sunny weather of Los Angeles didn't exactly lend itself to making it seem like Christmas. Santa dressed in shorts and a blaring sun were the exact opposite of the cold nights and snowy days we'd all grown up with. Making the best of our situation, we taped up a single strand of Christmas lights on the fingerprint smeared front window of the apartment. The lights hung loosely and blinked red and green. Tiny stockings, bought at a nearby dollar store, served as decoration on the glass end table. We did our best to bring Christmas to us, but it was not until Christmas music began to blare from the stereo that Christmas finally reared its beautiful head. Combined with the wrapped gifts from near and far that sat under a 12-inch Christmas tree, Christmas had finally come. That lonely feeling in the pit of my stomach dissipated from existence.

I watched as my friends gathered on the couch; smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. The loneliness they expressed only a week prior slowly vanished. Making the best of circumstances, they munched on candy and drank soda and beer as they awaited the arrival of the Christmas ham. The aroma filled their nostrils as their anticipation grew. They laughed as jokes flew left and right, the hardships of the past few months temporarily extinguished from their cluttered minds.

The ham safely cooking in the oven, I joined the others in their circle of fun. I plopped onto the fabric torn chair, my body relaxing for the first time in days. Only a few years removed from college, the thought of being away from my family for the first time in my life had left me feeling alone up until recently. I was fortunate to have these friends and our ability to make the best of any situation. Between dead-beat employers, lack of funds, and disinterested landlords, we had seen enough misfortune over the past few months. We would make this Christmas count despite being away from our families. We turned it into an opportunity to get to know each other better and provide each other with the gift of companionship. That would be enough, though the gifts from the dollar store would no doubt be a riot upon being unwrapped. It was these gifts we would open first as the gifts from home waited patiently in their boxes.

I grabbed a red plastic cup off of the disorganized table and treated myself to a cup of eggnog. Stories of past Christmases were told, each one growing more outrageous than the last. The jokes about whether or not Santa would find us here, tucked away in the slums of Los Angeles, kept us laughing and humble. We agreed to leave the lights of the Christmas tree lit overnight for Santa, knowing that the 2-AAA batteries purchased from the dollar store might not even last the next hour. I suggested we leave Santa a beer because even he might need an adult beverage from time to time. The antics of the night gave us new stories to tell and new memories to embrace.

My mind drifted back to my own Christmas memories. I thought of the few Christmases I remember spending with my grandparents. I thought of the snow falling gently in the dark night as my siblings and I eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa Claus. I thought of the restless nights of Christmas Eve's past, imagining what glorious presents would be sitting under the tree the following morning. It was a moment of reflection, one that we all separately took part in. Despite the Christmas music in the background, a heavy silence blanketed the room as the thoughts of my friends no doubt traced back to memories of their own. We acknowledged the uncomfortable silence with our eyes meeting. We raised our glasses in a silent toast. A smile and a nod conveyed the words we could not muster.

I sipped my eggnog, paying no attention to the room temperature liquid that slid down the back of my throat. We would survive. Though the emptiness of the sprawling city still loomed outside of our apartment and our families were in different states, I felt at home. Close friends would now be considered family for life. A memory was created when all hope seemed lost. The dollar store Christmas was something to behold and better yet, I didn't even burn the ham. As it turns out, miracles really do happen. They happen not only at Christmas, but in the kitchen as well.