PHILIP POTTER trudged through falling snow on Christmas Eve with the last-minute shoppers on Connecticut Avenue. A few more stops and he’d be done. He nodded, tipping his hat and smiling, at the people he passed, now and then adding “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
Not since childhood had he been so excited about the season’s festivities. The snow helped. Without at least a dusting, it hardly seemed like Christmas. But what made this year so special was the little boy his sister had delivered nearly four years earlier. Since January 13, 1963, Thaddeus Mathew Parker had become the reason for every season.
Philip looked forward to spending Christmas in Maryland with Thad, his sister, Mary—who still insisted on calling Thad Mathew—her husband, Alex, and James Walker, Philip’s boyfriend.
Philip had spent weeks every November since his nephew’s birth researching toys before buying his presents. Thad being too young to know what was going on his first Christmas had in no way detracted from the pleasure of buying for him. But Philip had been a little let down by his nephew’s cool response to the bathtub play set he’d bought, and last year he’d been disappointed when Thad enjoyed playing with the ribbon and wrapping paper more than the LEGOs the experts had recommended.
This year would be different. His darling nephew had babbled about Santa for weeks, and, upon request, reeled off an ever-changing list of toys he hoped to see under the tree. The one constant was a Ride ’em Fire Engine that Philip had bought and stashed in his sister’s garage. Thinking about how his nephew’s face would light up made Philip smile.
Blowing snow whirled around him. He tugged the black beret down onto his head and tightened the scarf around his neck, pulling it up over his goateed chin and freezing ears. The weatherman had predicted the Christmas of 1966 would be the whitest since 1962. Maybe he and James could take Thad sledding on the hill by the Washington Monument.
Philip pushed up the sleeve of his coat to check the time. James would soon be finishing up the meeting he’d arranged with his father. Philip doubted the conversation had gone well. He’d wanted to go along, but James wouldn’t let him—he’d said something about needing to fight his own battles and not rubbing the old man’s nose in anything. Philip snorted in disgust. James might have forgiven his father for kicking him out at fifteen, but Philip hadn’t.
He brushed the snow from his eyebrows with a gloved hand as he walked and tried imagining the conversation between James and Roland Walker. James’s part was easy. Having shared a bed with him for several years, Philip knew James better than anyone else did—especially his sorry excuse for a father.
Sweet, sensitive James would explain his fascination with ballet, share his excitement upon first seeing The Nutcracker, and reveal his dream of performing the role of the Snow King. He’d tell his father how much he’d learned from the classes he and Philip had saved up for him to attend, and explain why he needed to quit his job to train full-time under the tutelage of Mary Day at the Washington School of Ballet.
Philip had finally met the doyenne of dance at a fundraising gala for the arts. She’d insisted James drop whatever he was doing to study with her full time and had raved about his natural grace and beautiful lines. The cost of lessons had given Philip pause, but only because he thought she should back up her words with a scholarship or find a patron to pick up the tab. Still, considering the sacrifices James had made while Philip was in graduate school, he’d do whatever he could to help James’s dreams come true too—including swallowing his pride and accepting a handout from the father who’d had nothing to do with his son for the last six years.
Philip hoped Roland would see how James’s eyes blazed when he talked about loving to dance and sense his passion for ballet. Roland would have to be blind to miss it. Wouldn’t a father do anything he could to help a child’s dreams come true? Whatever differences they might have, James was Roland’s son. Wouldn’t any man want his son to be happy?
As they’d never met, imagining Roland’s part of the conversation was more difficult. Given the man’s reaction to finding out his son preferred men to women, Philip suspected not one thin dime of the fortune he’d made in plastics would go toward ballet lessons for his son. Still, James wanted to try.
Unlike Philip, who’d always known he wanted to work at the Smithsonian, James had struggled to find his passion. In the time they’d been together, James had jumped headfirst into a host of careers ranging from welder and sculptor to gardener, house painter, and then on to singing and playing several musical instruments. A half-hearted stab at acting had landed him in a local production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Philip remembered how horrified James had been about dancing in front of an audience when he got the part, how transformed he’d been by rehearsals, and his elation after his first live performance.
Like an indulgent father, Philip had gone along with James’s desire to dance, believing in the back of his mind that, like the rest of his short-lived occupations, dance too would soon fall by the wayside. But it hadn’t. James loved to dance as much as Philip enjoyed historical artifacts. Recognition from Mary Day had upped the ante. Her interest in James proved he was meant to dance. Finding his calling had changed him. If a lack of money prevented James from pursuing his dream, Philip didn’t know what would happen.
They’d gone over the numbers a hundred times. James could quit waiting tables to concentrate on his dance career. Philip’s job at the Smithsonian paid enough to support the two of them. But the tuition for the Washington School of Ballet was out of reach.
Way out of reach.
The very idea of asking anyone for money rubbed Philip the wrong way. He prided himself on his self-sufficiency. Asking Roland Walker was the last resort. All other options had failed. James meeting with the father he hadn’t seen or spoken to in more than five years was a testament to his desperation.
Philip stopped in front of Walgreen’s, admiring the attractive display of powder blue, sea-foam-green, canary-yellow, and fire engine–red transistor radios in the window. He bought two of each color and an extra red one—James’s favorite color. While he waited to have Santa’s Helpers wrap the radios, he enjoyed a piece of cherry pie and a cup of hot coffee at the fountain. His impulse purchases when money was such an issue were blameworthy, but he knew James wouldn’t mind. A few more dollars wouldn’t make much difference anyway.
On the way home, he detoured by the Relief Society Shelter for Wayward Boys, where James had often stayed before Philip had rescued him from the streets. Perhaps a cheery new radio would lift the spirits of the boys who’d spend Christmas there. Philip knew James would appreciate the gesture even more than the watch awaiting him under the tinsel-laden tree in the G Street apartment they shared.
Philip opened the shelter’s door, stomped his feet a few times, and whisked his coat free of snow. He’d expected the cash-strapped, eight-bed facility to be deserted, but, of course, it wasn’t. The snow and cold had chased all but the hardiest souls from the streets. He hoped he’d bought enough radios.
The squeak of the color wheel changing the white artificial tree from amber to green, then red, blue, and back to amber competed with the tinny music coming from a beat-up radio on the front desk. Philip recognized Joan Baez singing “Ave Maria” from her newly released Christmas album. He’d dropped hints to James and his sister, and hoped to find a copy among his holiday gifts.
Boys playing Chinese checkers on a card table near the white-flocked tree erupted into laughter. A shortage of volunteers meant they lacked much in the way of parental influence, supervision, or positive role models. Philip wished he had time to join them as he walked toward the young man at the reception desk. The boy’s head was down, the fingers of his left hand tangled in his bangs as he concentrated on the fountain pen that danced across the page. Philip watched him fill line after line with the most beautiful penmanship he’d ever seen. He cleared his throat to get the boy’s attention. No luck. The pen flew across the page of the spiral notebook so fast, Philip expected to see smoke. He cleared his throat again, adding a little cough for good measure.
The boy looked up, startled. His ash-blond hair might have been parted on the side earlier in the day, but now it fell over his forehead. Violet eyes anchored his symmetrical face. “Gosh! I’m sorry. I didn’t even see you there.”
“I admire your focus. What are you writing?”
The boy blushed. “It’s my journal. One day I’m going to cash in on all this pain and suffering with a runaway bestseller about my life on the street.”
“Oh?” Anger at the boy’s ignorant parents rippled through him. What were the parents who produced and abandoned the boys who ended up on the street or at places like this thinking? Here was a young man who any parent should be proud to stand beside. How could one small thing provoke such a callous response? “I bet your story will be a fascinating read.”
“Yes, sir. One day you’ll see Daniel Bradbury on the library shelf between Isaac Asimov and Truman Capote. That’s me, Daniel Bradbury.”
Philip extended his hand. “I’m delighted to meet you, Daniel Bradbury. Philip Potter.”
Daniel grasped his hand in a strong grip and pumped it twice. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Potter. Can I help you with something?”
Mr. Potter? He winced. The title was appropriate, he supposed, even if he still felt more eighteen than thirty. He placed the shopping bag of transistor radios hidden beneath cheerful wrapping paper and color-coordinated bows on the desk. “For you, and anyone else here tonight. Merry Christmas.”
“Gee thanks, Mr. Potter.” Daniel reached into the bag and pulled out a package. Then he called to the boys playing Chinese checkers. “Hey guys, presents!”
The game broke up in a clamor of falling chairs and bouncing marbles as the young men rushed to grab a gift from the bag. Philip stood back, enjoying the excited “oohs” and “aahs” the radios elicited from them. Yes, Philip thought. This is shaping up to be the best Christmas ever.