It seemed like just another innocent prank when my brother put me up to it. I was only seven years old on the night I unwittingly changed so many other kids’ lives. Time has a way of changing our perspective on choices we made in the past. What appeared to be a perfectly reasonable decision back then can easily be identified now as the point where I ruined my own life and damaged many others. When we’re little, we wish for Santa Claus to bring us toys and games for Christmas. I’ve never seen a little one ask St. Nick for the wisdom that comes with age and maturity, which is a shame.
I know it sure would have saved me from a lot of trouble…and not just a little heartache.
My name is Gregory Rinch, but I’ve been known as “Grinch” for most of my life. In all fairness to myself, I earned the nickname long before Jim Carey donned the green suit for the famous Christmas movie – it was just a natural way to shorten my name – “G.Rinch.”
I always thought of myself as a normal kid, growing up in a nice house with my parents and my older brother and sister. In retrospect, maybe we were abnormal because my parents were still married, but when you’re seven, you don’t know enough yet to realize that your circumstances are a little unusual compared to the rest of the world’s.
You just live. It’s a shame we forget how to do that when we get older.
We lived in a small town. It was big enough that it had its own schools, but to be honest, there wasn’t much else there. I think that’s what made the school activities so important to the town – everyone was involved with them at some level. Football and basketball games, school plays and holiday concerts – they all meant more to us than just something to occupy the children. School events were the center of the adults’ lives too. The happenings in the schools were the heart of the community. They always represented the place where folks congregated together, to see each other, and to be seen supporting the community.
Winter weather and Christmas plans were two things that I had very little control over as a little kid. I do remember looking forward to Christmas, and I could always count on some of what I wished for to appear underneath the Christmas tree. But, when you’re only seven, you’re mostly just along for the ride – particularly at holiday time. Being forced to dress up as a giant candy cane and participate in the second-grade portion of the school’s Christmas concert fell into that category. It wasn’t that I thought I was “too cool” – it was because I have always had a firm belief that people should never dress up to look like food products, regardless of their otherwise sweet and peppermint goodness.
I didn’t want to do it. It was as simple as that.
I think that’s what opened the door for my brother Colin to lead me astray. He was in the seventh grade. Maybe he wasn't much of a rebel, but he was five years older than me. In my eyes he was a grown-up. I believed Colin had to know more about life than I did, and I looked up to him for that reason. So, when he told me what I should say during my speaking part in the Christmas concert to make it even better, I did exactly what he told me to do. After all, he was my big brother and my role model – he’d never do anything to get me in trouble.
On the night of the performance, the worn wooden bleachers in the gymnasium were filled all the way to the rafters. Underpaid, overstressed, and vastly outnumbered teachers tried valiantly to corral a plethora of youngsters, dressed up as various implements of the holiday season, into following the intricately laid-out plan of the Christmas extravaganza.
Honestly, it worked out great.
At least, it did for a while.
Every grade had a slightly different role. The kindergarteners sang, the first graders danced (even though the school’s staff seemed lucky the little dudes managed to get herded onto the stage without falling over) but it was obvious to me that all-in-all, the performance was going well. Still, nervousness built inside my stomach as their routine wound down and the beginning of our little pageant approached. What I was feeling didn’t seem out of the ordinary for a little kid that was about to step in front of a microphone and speak to a large crowd of people, but looking back, I wish I would have understood the butterflies in my stomach were flapping a warning and not encouragement.
The lights were dark in the gym except for the two spotlights that blazed out of the gloom to focus on me. I can still remember how odd it felt as I stepped closer to the microphone. You could have heard a fly land in the cavernous room, but that was how things worked in Twin Bridges – everyone focused on what happened at the schools with complete attention.
The room was full of joy – even I could feel it over the tornado in my tummy. The crowd broke into thundering, supportive applause as I scanned the darkness and imagined the smiles on all of the watching faces. I was too young to understand that any smile my brother wore was because of the mischief he had managed. I gulped once and stuttered before I managed to announce in a booming voice resulting from a microphone set far too loud, “There is no Santa Claus, there is no Easter Bunny, and there is no hope!”
Where there had been complete joy in the people watching just a few seconds before, there was now only stunned silence. You could have heard a pin drop before the atmosphere swung completely in the other direction. At first first there was one strong, loud, pained cry from a little girl standing behind me with the rest of my class. Looking back, I think her pain might have been the spark that started the wildfire of emotion that followed. Yelling, shouting, and much, much more crying – the silence came alive as total outrage turned into a living, breathing thing.
If only I had listened to the adults – all of the real adults – and recited the proper lines I'd memorized instead of what my brother had suggested, life would have been so much simpler.
“You can stop laughing any time.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Frank choked on his coffee, which had obviously gone down the wrong pipe. “It’s funny!”
“You’re supposed to be my friend, that’s why.”
“Greg, if you can’t rely on your friend to dredge up an embarrassment from twenty-two years ago, who can you rely on?”
“About anybody else left in this town,” I retorted under my breath as I took my seat at the table.
Frank snickered again. “True enough.”
I couldn't help smiling a little as I sipped my coffee. He certainly enjoyed pulling my chain on this. Perfectly willing to change the subject, I asked, “How are Janey and the kids?”
He picked up his own coffee cup and settled farther into his chair at the table. “Still asleep, I hope. They’ll be upset that I left them behind if they wake up and figure out where I went.”
“I never knew I was so popular.”
“I hate to say it, buddy, but it’s not about you – it’s about them.” Frank pointed to my basset hound, Thelma, and her two pups, nestled together, sleeping in a pile on the floor.
I chuckled, watching mother with her pups. Thelma was snoring notably – she wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. “Where are you and yours ringing in the holiday?”
“Home. Janey’s parents are off in the Caribbean somewhere, and my mom’s with my sister this year. We’re going to get up and do the Christmas morning thing, eat some food, and watch some TV. It isn’t Christmas until Chevy Chase blows a gasket and Will Ferrell sings in the Empire State Building.”
I grinned, thinking about how much I used to love watching ‘Christmas Vacation’ with my family. ‘Elf’ was another story – I’d quit watching Christmas movies before it came out. They brought that night in the gym back, and well…
It was easier not to bring it up again.
“You should come down to the house. You know everyone would be glad to see you.”
I sighed loudly. “And…there it is.”
“C’mon Greg, don’t get all upset. I know you and Christmas aren’t exactly friends, but you can’t hide away and roll around in it forever. Things happen, stuff goes wrong. I know it sucks, but the only one who’s miserable is you.”
“You don’t understand. You never have.”
“I understand more than you think I do. I understand your jerk of a brother convinced you to do something eons ago that created a big mess. I also understand that most of the people that were there have either moved out of town by now or have gone senile and been sent off to the nursing home. Either way, this is long over. Anyone with half a brain knew someone must have put you up to it. They’ve all moved on - why haven’t you?”
In all of the years I’d known him, this was the first time I couldn't argue with Frank’s logic.
And that only annoyed me even more.
Frank had been my friend long enough that he knew the conversation was over before I acknowledged it myself. He downed his coffee in a single gulp, stood and put his empty mug in the sink before he left without a word.
That twisted the knife worse than anything. Frank and I had been friends forever – we’d met in preschool and never parted. We’d had a squabble here and there, but never anything lasting or severe. He had never walked away and left me without a word – ever.
But the sound of his car pulling out of my driveway made it clear that was no longer the case.
The silence I found myself alone in cut straight to my heart, and it definitely felt like it was going to last. I wished I knew how to make it stop.
I was tired of being alone.
I decided to face my demon two days later.
I could have gone shopping at the Walmart up in Butte like almost everyone else in town, but my demon lived in Twin Bridges. If I were to ever face it, now was the time. Or, at least I thought so, until I pulled up in front of Miller’s Hardware after work on Tuesday night. There was no mistaking the fact that if I found the courage to even get out of the pickup and walk into the store, I wouldn't be facing Lainey Miller – I’d be facing the monster that I'd created and then let burn away at my spirit. There was something both terrifying and thrilling about the idea of confronting a beast I’d been running from for more than twenty years. In all honesty, I wondered if I was man enough to go through with it.
I sat there for quite a while just staring at the keys hanging from the ignition and trying to figure out what I was going to say if I stepped inside. I had barely spoken to Lainey since that night in the gym. She had gone through her own troubles and suffered her own losses, and I hadn't been there for her because of the weight I'd carried due to speaking fifteen horrendous words. It was too bad – I met her at almost the same time I met Frank, and for a while we had been every bit as close. She had always tried to be a good friend to me.
Even if I’d done nothing to return the favor other than cause her pain.
The cow bell hanging on the door clattered an announcement of my arrival. The place hadn’t changed a lot from the last time I’d been there as a little kid with my dad. The aisles were still the wood shelves her dad had built by hand when he opened the store. Lainey Miller greeted me with a smile, but she had curiosity written all over her face when I stepped into the store. “Hey, Greg, what’s going on?”
My memory flashed back to the night of the concert yet again. There stood seven-year old Lainey, her face drenched with tears, as the magnitude of what I’d said that night fully set in.
“Not much, Lainey. How are you?”
“Doing well. The kids are ready for Christmas; family’s coming to town…” Her voice suddenly trailed off. “So…what can I do for you?”
“I need some stuff for the house.”
“Stuff, huh?” Her smile was as radiant as I remembered. “That sounds pretty serious. What kind of stuff do you need?”
“Stuff to decorate. You know, for… Christmas.”
Her smile grew even more. “Well, sure, so…what kind of decorations do you have in mind?”
I swallowed hard, trying to force the lump back out of my throat. “A Christmas tree…and the things you hang on it?”
“What kind of things do you like?”
“Lights,” I said quickly. “And the round things?”
“Balls,” she said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. What color?”
“Aren’t red and green kind of traditional?”
“Well, yeah, but you’ve never struck me as terribly traditional. You should pick out stuff that you like, Greg.”
“I guess I don’t really know.”
She rubbed the back of her neck. I couldn’t tell if it was frustration, confusion, or the end of a long day. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you set up. Come with me.”
She spent close to an hour with me. I was pretty sure it was close to closing time when I pulled up, otherwise I would have come back later. I’d wanted this to be quick – I thought I needed an escape route if things got uncomfortable.
Now, I quickly found that I didn’t want to leave her side.
There was still more than uneasiness floating around in my stomach when she finished pushing buttons on the register. “Tree, lights, round things, garland, window static clings, and…shiny tin-foil stuff. Will there be anything else, Greg?”
“You know, nobody in this town calls me that anymore,” I said. I knew the uneasiness was making its way to my face. “There is one more thing.”
“I’m out of mistletoe,” she smiled. “And I’m not going to call you…that.”
I took a deep breath. “I need to apologize for what I did that night. I’ve always known it was wrong, but I wish I could erase the memory of what I did from everyone’s mind. I’m sorry Lainey, I really am.”
She picked up the bags and walked toward the door. I hefted the tree box over my shoulder and followed her.
She was quiet for a minute while she led the way to my pickup. Snow had started to catch in her hair before she said, “We all get that particular dream dashed sooner or later. It’s all right, Greg, really. It wasn’t, for a while, but it is now.”
I looked down at the ground self-consciously. “It’s getting there, anyways.”
“You really haven’t had a real Christmas, have you?”
“Not for quite a while.”
“Do something about that.” Her face softened as she seemed to catch herself. “I’m glad you trusted me to put you back in the game, Greg. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Lainey.”
“What’s all this?” Frank made a bee-line for the kitchen and the coffee maker as soon as he walked through my front door. I followed behind, practically running to catch up to him.
Glancing back toward the living room, I nodded appreciatively at my own handiwork. “This…is Christmas.”
“Okay…” Frank failed to hide his smirk.
“Frank, do I have to say it? Really? All right, here goes…you were right. I’ve been dragging out this whole Christmas debacle thing for far too long.”
Frank poured himself a heaping cup of coffee before settling down at the other end of the kitchen table. “There’s no ‘I told you so,’ Greg. Not about this. So, where’d you get all that?”
“You bought a house full of Christmas stuff from little Lainey Miller? Did you make her cry again?”
“I thought we weren’t going there.”
“Sorry, buddy. Couldn’t resist.” Frank smirked. “I just remember how upset she was that night. When you make up your mind, you don’t mess around, do you?”
“Go big or go home.”
“You’ve gone home, Grinch, and gotten all nice and comfy in Santa’s Christmas village. So… are you man enough to go big and come tomorrow?”
“I’m good here, thanks.”
Frank scratched at his chin. “I’ve never gone from being so proud of you to embarrassed by you quite this quickly - and I’ve known you long enough to practice. A lot.”
I suddenly became interested in my coffee cup.
“Why not, Greg? It’s just some chow and television. Why won’t you come and join us?”
“I don’t want to be hassled by you over this. Can’t you give me credit for how far I’ve come?”
“You haven’t gotten very far at all if you’re still planning to sit here all day instead of joining us for one single meal. Hanging a bunch of Christmas crap around your shack doesn’t make it a holiday. It makes your house look like the holiday aisle at Walmart. Sharing time with people that love you makes it a holiday.”
“I don’t have anybody, Frank! Don’t you understand that?”
He put down his cup without finishing his coffee, stood up, pushed in his chair and stomped out of the kitchen. On his way out of the house he shouted back, “You have me, you stupid bastard!”
“A Christmas Story” was playing on TV for the fourth time already since I woke up. The lights on the tree were blinking in random patterns of color that I’d actually started to memorize. Thelma and one of her pups were snoring away underneath it, and the other one was sitting at my feet, whining expectantly. I’d fed him, taken him out four different times, and rubbed his ears until my fingers felt like they were going to fall off.
I stared at him, and he stared right back. “I’m getting too old for this.”
It was like he knew I was supposed to be doing something and wondered why I hadn’t already done it. I tried to scoop him up off of the floor, but he trotted over to the door, sat down, and started whining, again.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Pup? They’re young, and just so...happy.”
The look on the little guy’s face made it clear he thought I had answered my own question.
I opened the front door and followed him to my pickup. As soon as I’d opened the driver’s side door, he let me pick him up and deposit him on the bench seat. We were heading down the road in my pickup a few minutes later. The little guy was far happier than I had ever seen him, bouncing around and yapping away like he’d never heard his own voice before. It wasn’t a long drive to Frank’s house, but the little guy didn’t stop moving the whole time.
I don’t know why I was going so slowly when I turned into Frank’s driveway and parked behind his Explorer. The truth was I’d started dragging my feet long before I saw him waiting with the front door open. I knew what was about to happen, and Pup certainly did. He was so excited that he jumped over me and out of the truck into a snow bank along the side of the driveway as soon as I opened the pickup door. He never really stopped to collect himself, just regained his awkward footing and trotted between Frank’s legs and straight into the house. An eruption of glee indicated Frank’s children had quickly taken to their new friend.
“Be careful, Greg. There’s Christmas spirit running loose around here. You might get some on you if you come any closer.”
I shrugged, not sure myself. “Pup just didn’t want to stay with me anymore, I guess.”
“Can you blame him?” Frank smiled.
I shrugged again.
“So, what can I do for you?” He asked.
“Give the pup a home.” I struggled with the next words. “And forgive me for being an ass.”
“Well, come on inside. It’s freezing out here. Dinner’s ready and we’re letting in all this cold air. Besides, we're watching ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ after dinner. I hear it's pretty good.”
I just shook my head and stepped through the door.
“Merry Christmas, Grinch.”
You might find yourself wondering if this is the end of the story, and it is, for the most part. The man-hug that ensued once the door was closed was, to be honest, pretty awkward. If there’s anything I learned over the past week, it was that facing a little awkwardness is a natural way to bring normality back to the world is, well…it’s odd, but…
It’s also good.