by John Cheever (1949)
is a sad season. The phrase came to Charlie an instant after the alarm clock had
waked him, and named for him an amorphous depression that had troubled him all
the previous evening. The sky outside his window was black. He sat up in bed and
pulled the light chain that hung in front of his nose. Christmas is a very sad
day of the year, he thought. Of all the millions of people in New York, I am
practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 a.m.
on Christmas Day in the morning; I am practically the only one.
He dressed, and when he went downstairs from the top
floor of the rooming house in which he lived, the only sounds he heard were the
coarse sounds of sleep; the only lights burning were lights that had been
forgotten. Charlie ate some breakfast in an all-night lunchwagon and took an
Elevated train uptown. From Third Avenue, he walked over to Park. Park Avenue
was dark. House after house put into the shine of the street lights a wall of
black windows. Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of
consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall
of the city, the end of time. He opened the iron-and-glass doors of the
apartment building where he had been working for six months as an elevator
operator, and went through the elegant lobby to a locker room at the back. He
put on a striped vest with brass buttons, a false ascot, a pair of pants with a
light-blue stripe on the seam, and a coat. The night elevator man was dozing on
the little bench in the car. Charlie woke him. The night elevator man told him
thickly that the day doorman had been taken sick and wouldn't be in that day.
With the doorman sick, Charlie wouldn't have any relief for lunch, and a lot of
people would expect him to whistle for cabs.
had been on duty a few minutes when 14 rang—a Mrs. Hewing, who, he happened to
know, was kind of immoral. Mrs. Hewing hadn't been to bed yet, and she got into
the elevator wearing a long dress under her fur coat. She was followed by her
two funny-looking dogs. He took her down and watched her go out into the dark
and take her dogs to the curb. She was outside for only a few minutes. Then she
came in and he took her up to 14 again. When she got off the elevator, she said,
"Merry Christmas, Charlie."
"Well, it isn't much of a holiday for me, Mrs.
Hewing," he said. "I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year.
It isn't that people around here ain't generous—I mean I got plenty of tips—but,
you see, I live alone in a furnished room and I don't have any family or
anything, and Christmas isn't much of a holiday for me."
"I'm sorry, Charlie," Mrs. Hewing said.
"I don't have any family myself. It is kind of sad when you're alone, isn't
it?" She called her dogs and followed them into her apartment. He went
It was quiet then, and Charlie lighted a cigarette. The
heating plant in the basement encompassed the building at that hour in a regular
and profound vibration, and the sullen noises of arriving steam heat began to
resound, first in the lobby and then to reverberate up through all the sixteen
stories, but this was a mechanical awakening, and it didn't lighten his
loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to
turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source; it appeared in the
middle of the air. It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street
and the long file of Christmas trees, he wanted to cry. Then a cab drove up, and
the Walsers got out, drunk and dressed in evening clothes, and he took them up
to their penthouse. The Walsers got him to brooding about the difference between
his life in a furnished room and the lives of the people overhead. It was
Then the early churchgoers began to ring, but there
were only three of these that morning. A few more went off to church at eight
o'clock, but the majority of the building remained unconscious, although the
smell of bacon and coffee had begun to drift into the elevator shaft.
At a little after nine, a nursemaid came down with a
child. Both the nursemaid and the child had a deep tan and had just returned, he
knew, from Bermuda. He had never been to Bermuda. He, Charlie, was a prisoner,
confined eight hours a day to a six-by-eight elevator cage, which was confined,
in turn, to a sixteen-story shaft. In one building or another, he had made his
living as an elevator operator for ten years. He estimated the average trip at
about an eighth of a mile, and when he thought of the thousands of miles he had
travelled, when he thought that he might have driven the car through the mists
above the Caribbean and set it down on some coral beach in Bermuda, he held the
narrowness of his travels against his passengers, as if it were not the nature
of the elevator but the pressure of their lives that confined him, as if they
had clipped his wings.
He was thinking about this when the DePauls, on 9,
rang. They wished him a merry Christmas.
"Well, it's nice of you to think of me," he
said as they descended, "but it isn't much of a holiday for me. Christmas
is a sad season when you're poor. I live alone in a furnished room. I don't have
"Who do you have dinner with, Charlie?" Mrs.
"I don't have any Christmas dinner," Charlie
said. "I just get a sandwich."
"Oh, Charlie!" Mrs. DePaul was a stout woman
with an impulsive heart, and Charlie's plaint struck at her holiday mood as if
she had been caught in a cloudburst. "I do wish we could share our
Christmas dinner with you, you know," she said. "I come from Vermont,
you know, and when I was a child, you know, we always used to have a great many
people at our table. The mailman, you know, and the schoolteacher, and just
anybody who didn't have any family of their own, you know, and I wish we could
share our dinner with you the way we used to, you know, and I don't see any
reason why we can't. We can't have you at the table, you know, because you
couldn't leave the elevator—could you?—but just as soon as Mr. DePaul has
carved the goose, I'll give you a ring, and I'll arrange a tray for you, you
know, and I want you to come up and at least share our Christmas dinner."
Charlie thanked them, and their generosity surprised
him, but he wondered if, with the arrival of friends and relatives, they
wouldn't forget their offer.
Then old Mrs. Gadshill rang, and when she wished him a
merry Christmas, he hung his head.
"It isn't much of a holiday for me, Mrs. Gadshill,"
he said. "Christmas is a sad season if you're poor. You see, I don't have
any family. I live alone in a furnished room."
"I don't have any family either, Charlie,"
Mrs. Gadshill said. She spoke with a pointed lack of petulance, but her grace
was forced. "That is, I don't have any children with me today. I have three
children and seven grandchildren, but none of them can see their way to coming
East for Christmas with me. Of course, I understand their problems. I know that
it's difficult to travel with children during the holidays, although I always
seemed to manage it when I was their age, but people feel differently, and we
mustn't condemn them for the things we can't understand. But I know how you feel,
Charlie. I haven't any family either. I'm just as lonely as you."
Mrs. Gadshill's speech didn't move him. Maybe she was
lonely, but she had a ten-room apartment and three servants and bucks and bucks
and diamonds and diamonds, and there were plenty of poor kids in the slums who
would be happy at a chance at the food her cook threw away. Then he thought
about poor kids. He sat down on a chair in the lobby and thought about them.
They got the worst of it. Beginning in the fall, there
was all this excitement about Christmas and how it was a day for them. After
Thanksgiving, they couldn't miss it. It was fixed so they couldn't miss it. The
wreaths and decorations everywhere, and bells ringing, and trees in the park,
and Santa Clauses on every corner, and pictures in the magazines and newspapers
and on every wall and window in the city told them that if they were good, they
would get what they wanted. Even if they couldn't read, they couldn't miss it.
They couldn't miss it even if they were blind. It got into the air the poor kids
inhaled. Every time they took a walk, they'd see all the expensive toys in the
store windows, and they'd write letters to Santa Claus, and their mothers and
fathers would promise to mail them, and after the kids had gone to sleep, they'd
burn the letters in the stove. And when it came Christmas morning, how could you
explain it, how could you tell them that Santa Claus only visited the rich, that
he didn't know about the good? How could you face them when all you had to give
them was a balloon or a lollipop?
On the way home from work a few nights earlier, Charlie
had seen a woman and a little girl going down Fifty-ninth Street. The little
girl was crying. He guessed she was crying, he knew she was crying, because
she'd seen all the things in the toy-store windows and couldn't understand why
none of them were for her. Her mother did housework, he guessed, or maybe was a
waitress, and he saw them going back to a room like his, with green walls and no
heat, on Christmas Eve, to eat a can of soup. And he saw the little girl hang up
her ragged stocking and fall asleep, and he saw the mother looking through her
purse for something to put into the stocking—This reverie was interrupted by a
bell on 11. He went up, and Mr. and Mrs. Fuller were waiting. When they wished
him a merry Christmas, he said, "Well, it isn't much of a holiday for me,
Mrs. Fuller. Christmas is a sad season when you’re poor.”
"Do you have any children, Charlie?" Mrs.
"Four living," he said. "Two in the
grave." The majesty of his lie overwhelmed him. "Mrs. Leary's a
cripple," he added.
"How sad, Charlie," Mrs. Fuller said. She
started out of the elevator when it reached the lobby, and then she turned.
"I want to give your children some presents, Charlie," she said.
"Mr. Fuller and I are going to pay a call now, but when we come back, I
want to give you some things for your children."
He thanked her. Then the bell rang on 4, and he went up
to get the Westons.
"It isn't much of a holiday for me," he told
them when they wished him a merry Christmas. "Christmas is a sad season
when you're poor. You see, I live alone in a furnished room."
"Poor Charlie," Mrs. Weston said. "I
know just how you feel. During the war, when Mr. Weston was away, I was all
alone at Christmas. I didn't have any Christmas dinner or a tree or anything. I
just scrambled myself some eggs and sat there and cried." Mr. Weston, who
had gone into the lobby, called impatiently to his wife. "I know just how
you feel, Charlie," Mrs. Weston said.
By noon, the climate in the elevator shaft had changed
from bacon and coffee to poultry and game, and the house, like an enormous and
complex homestead, was absorbed in the preparations for a domestic feast. The
children and their nursemaids had all returned from the Park. Grandmothers and
aunts were arriving in limousines. Most of the people who came through the lobby
were carrying packages wrapped in colored paper, and were wearing their best
furs and new clothes. Charlie continued to complain to most of the tenants when
they wished him a merry Christmas, changing his story from the lonely bachelor
to the poor father, and back again, as his mood changed, but this outpouring of
melancholy, and the sympathy it aroused, didn't make him feel any better.
At half past one, 9 rang, and when he went up, Mr.
DePaul was standing in the door of their apartment holding a cocktail shaker and
a glass. "Here's a little Christmas cheer, Charlie," he said, and he
poured Charlie a drink. Then a maid appeared with a tray of covered dishes, and
Mrs. DePaul came out of the living room. "Merry Christmas, Charlie,"
she said. "I had Mr. DePaul carve the goose early, so that you could have
some, you know. I didn't want to put the dessert on the tray, because I was
afraid it would melt, you know, so when we have our dessert, we'll call you."
"And what is Christmas without presents?" Mr.
DePaul said, and he brought a large, flat box from the hall and laid it on top
of the covered dishes.
"You people make it seem like a real Christmas to
me," Charlie said. Tears started into his eyes. "Thank you, thank you."
"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!" they called, and they watched him carry his dinner and his present into the elevator. He took the tray and the box into the locker room when he got down. On the tray, there was a soup, some kind of creamed fish, and a serving of goose. The bell rang again, but before he answered it, he tore open the DePauls' box and saw that it held a dressing gown. Their generosity and their cocktail had begun to work on his brain, and he went jubilantly up to 12. Mrs. Gadshill's maid was standing in the door with a tray, and Mrs. Gadshill stood behind her. "Merry Christmas, Charlie!" she said. He thanked her, and tears came into his eyes again. On the way down, he drank off the glass of sherry on Mrs. Gadshill's tray. Mrs. Gadshill's contribution was a mixed grill. He ate the lamb chop with his fingers. The bell was ringing again, and he wiped his face with a paper towel and went up to 11. "Merry Christmas, Charlie," Mrs. Fuller said, and she was standing in the door with her arms full of packages wrapped in silver paper, just like a picture in an advertisement, and Mr. Fuller was beside her with an arm around her, and they both looked as if they were going to cry. "Here are some things I want you to take home to your children," Mrs. Fuller said. "And here's something for Mrs. Leary and here's something for you. And if you want to take these things out to the elevator, we'll have your dinner ready for you in a minute." He carried the things into the elevator and came back for the tray. "Merry Christmas, Charlie!" both of the Fullers called after him as he closed the door. He took their dinner and their presents into the locker room and tore open the box that was marked for him. There was an alligator wallet in it, with Mr. Fuller's initials in the corner. Their dinner was also goose, and he ate a piece of the meat with his fingers and was washing it down with a cocktail when the bell rang. He went up again. This time it was the Westons. "Merry Christmas, Charlie!" they said, and they gave him a cup of eggnog, a turkey dinner, and a present. Their gift was also a dressing gown. Then 7 rang, and when he went up, there was another dinner and some more toys. Then 14 rang, and when he went up, Mrs. Hewing was standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee, holding a pair of riding boots in one hand and some neckties in the other. She had been crying and drinking. "Merry Christmas, Charlie," she said tenderly. "I wanted to give you something, and I've been thinking about you all morning, and I've been all over the apartment, and these are the only things I could find that a man might want. These are the only things that Mr. Brewer left. I don't suppose you'd have any use for the riding boots, but wouldn't you like the neckties?" Charlie took the neckties and thanked her and hurried back to the car, for the elevator bell had rung three times.
three o'clock, Charlie had fourteen dinners spread on the table and the floor of
the locker room, and the bell kept ringing. Just as he started to eat one, he
would have to go up and get another, and he was in the middle of the Parsons'
roast beef when he had to go up and get the DePauls' dessert. He kept the door
of the locker room closed, for he sensed that the quality of charity is
exclusive and that his friends would have been disappointed to find that they
were not the only ones to try to lessen his loneliness. There were goose, turkey,
chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed
scallops and oysters, lobster, crabmeat, whitebait, and clams. There were plum
puddings, mince pies, mousses, puddles of melted ice cream, layer cakes, Torten,
éclairs, and two slices of Bavarian cream. He had dressing gowns, neckties,
cuff links, socks, and handkerchiefs, and one of the tenants had asked for his
neck size and then given him three green shirts. There were a glass teapot
filled, the label said, with jasmine honey, four bottles of aftershave lotion,
some alabaster bookends, and a dozen steak knives. The avalanche of charity he
had precipitated filled the locker room and made him hesitant, now and then, as
if he had touched some wellspring in the female heart that would bury him alive
in food and dressing gowns. He had made almost no headway on the food, for all
the servings were preternaturally large, as if loneliness had been counted on to
generate in him a brutish appetite. Nor had he opened any of the presents that
had been given to him for his imaginary children, but he had drunk everything
they sent down, and around him were the dregs of Martinis, Manhattans,
Old-Fashioneds, champagne-and-raspberry-shrub cocktails, eggnogs, Bronxes, and
His face was blazing. He loved the world, and the world
loved him. When he thought back over his life, it appeared to him in a rich and
wonderful light, full of astonishing experiences and unusual friends. He thought
that his job as an elevator operator—cruising up and down through hundreds of
feet of perilous space—demanded the nerve and the intellect of a birdman. All
the constraints of his life—the green walls of his room and the months of
unemployment—dissolved. No one was ringing, but he got into the elevator and
shot it at full speed up to the penthouse and down again, up and down, to test
his wonderful mastery of space.
A bell rang on 12 while he was cruising, and he stopped in his flight long enough to pick up Mrs. Gadshill. As the car started to fall, he took his hands off the controls in a paroxysm of joy and shouted, "Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We're going to make a loop-the-loop!" Mrs. Gadshill shrieked. Then, for some reason, she sat down on the floor of the elevator. Why was her face so pale, he wondered; why was she sitting on the floor? She shrieked again. He grounded the car gently, and cleverly, he thought, and opened the door. "I'm sorry if I scared you, Mrs. Gadshill," he said meekly. "I was only fooling." She shrieked again. Then she ran out into the lobby, screaming for the superintendent.
superintendent fired Charlie and took over the elevator himself. The news that
he was out of work stung Charlie for a minute. It was his first contact with
human meanness that day. He sat down in the locker room and gnawed on a
drumstick. His drinks were beginning to let him down, and while it had not
reached him yet, he felt a miserable soberness in the offing. The excess of food
and presents around him began to make him feel guilty and unworthy. He regretted
bitterly the lie he had told about his children. He was a single man with simple
needs. He had abused the goodness of the people upstairs. He was unworthy.
Then up through this drunken train of thought surged
the sharp figure of his landlady and her three skinny children. He thought of
them sitting in their basement room. The cheer of Christmas had passed them by.
This image got him to his feet. The realization that he was in a position to
give, that he could bring happiness easily to someone else, sobered him. He took
a big burlap sack, which was used for collecting waste, and began to stuff it,
first with his presents and then with the presents for his imaginary children.
He worked with the haste of a man whose train is approaching the station, for he
could hardly wait to see those long faces light up when he came in the door. He
changed his clothes, and, fired by a wonderful and unfamiliar sense of power, he
slung his bag over his shoulder like a regular Santa Claus, went out the back
way, and took a taxi to the lower East Side.
The landlady and her children had just finished off a turkey, which had been sent to them by the local Democratic Club, and they were stuffed and uncomfortable when Charlie began pounding on the door, shouting "Merry Christmas!" He dragged the bag in after him and dumped the presents for the children onto the floor. There were dolls and musical toys, blocks, sewing kits, an Indian suit, and a loom, and it appeared to him that, as he had hoped, his arrival in the basement dispelled its gloom. When half the presents had been opened, he gave the landlady a bathrobe and went upstairs to look over the things he had been given for himself.Now, the landlady's children had already received so many presents by the time Charlie arrived that they were confused with receiving, and it was only the landlady's intuitive grasp of the nature of charity that made her allow the children to open some of the presents while Charlie was still in the room, but as soon as he had gone, she stood between the children and the presents that were still unopened. "Now, you kids have had enough already," she said. "You kids have got your share. Just look at the things you got there. Why, you ain't even played with the half of them. Mary Anne, you ain't even looked at that doll the Fire Department give you. Now, a nice thing to do would be to take all this stuff that's left over to those poor people on Hudson Street—them Deckkers. They ain't got nothing." A beatific light came into her face when she realized that she could give, that she could bring cheer, that she could put a healing finger on a case needier than hers, and—like Mrs. DePaul and Mrs. Weston, like Charlie himself and like Mrs. Deckker, when Mrs. Deckker was to think, subsequently, of the poor Shannons—first love, then charity, and then a sense of power drove her. "Now, you kids help me get all this stuff together. Hurry, hurry, hurry," she said, for it was dark then, and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over. She was tired, but she couldn't rest, she couldn't rest.
back to "CHRI$TMA$"
THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE THE BOTTOM LINE