Jacob Walters stood before the sink and looked at the face that was staring back at him in the mirror. It was a haggard face. A face that had weathered a lifetime of disappointments. A face that showed defeat in every wrinkle, and desperation in the eyes.
How did I come to this? Jacob thought.
Jacob hung his head and looked into the sink. He turned on the water and watched it swirl around the basin and then disappear down the drain. He imagined his life swirling away down the drain as well. The world washed clean of his pitiful being.
Shutting the water off and turning back to look out of the small bathroom and into his bedroom, Jacob saw that his bed was unmade. Why make it up when I'm just going to fall into again tonight he told himself.
Jacob lived in dingy apartment on the outskirts of the student ghetto. Just a small one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette, bathroom, and a common area -- his study -- as he liked to think of it. There was his bookcase along one wall, filled with books that were once of interest to him. His desk was in the corner adjacent to it, piled high with papers that he no longer cared about. On one corner of it stood a dusty computer, many generations out of date. He never used it much even when it was new. Along the other wall was the memorabilia of his life, the evidence that proved his existence, now that he had been retired these past five years. His diplomas, his photographs of dignitaries he had come across during his years at the University, and of his colleagues, and lastly, of his family. Ah, his family. Emily his wife and Stephen and Sarah, his children. The most recent picture of them was 15 years old.
In the center of the room was a ragged old sofa. Near it was a small end table. And on the table was a bottle of Jack Daniels and a glass. In front of the sofa on the third wall of the room was a television set. Jacob had spent many hours sitting on that sofa in recent months, and many nights, as well, as he dozed after a night of filling his glass from the bottle and watching whatever he could pick up with the rabbit ears on his television. Jacob accepted sleep whenever it crept upon him. He had trouble sleeping in recent months and it seemed that only way he could fall asleep was with the help of Mr. Daniels, or by taking two or three of the pills his doctor had given him. Even then, his sleep was fitful, his dreams painful.
Turning to the wall of memorabilia, Jacob took down the family portrait taken about 25 Christmases earlier. We were still a family then, he thought as he looked at the images. He walked over to the sofa and sat down, poured himself a drink, and stared intently at the photograph. Emily looked lovely. They had been married about 16 years when it was taken. He knew then that he was losing her, but at least they were still together. Stephen was about 15 then. He and Stephen had had many differences of opinion by that time, but they were still able to enjoy watching a game on TV together. Sarah was his favorite. He couldn't help but love her. She was very sweet and always had a big hug for him. Jacob smiled to himself as he looked at Sarah's pretty face. Slowly his smile returned to a frown. Losing Sarah's love was almost too unbearable to take.
Jacob Walters sat on the sofa, lost in his thoughts, thoughts slowly being dulled by the drink he was nursing. It was Christmas Eve. Again. Once he loved the Christmas season. He loved the time spent shopping for gifts. He loved putting up the tree and decorating the house. He loved everything about it. Especially the time he got to spend with his family. The school semester had usually ended in early December and classes didn't resume until the second week of January, so he had nearly a month to spend with them. And every day was pure joy.
Now he hated Christmas. He made Ebeneezer Scrooge look like Santa Claus. Christmas was just another day in the year. No, he thought to himself, Christmas is the worst day of the year!
A decade of Christmases had come and gone since Jacob had shared the day with anyone he cared about, since he had exchanged gifts and laughter, or sung carols, or had a fine dinner. And to make matters worse, in those ten years, Christmas was creeping up more quickly with each subsequent year: advertisements, store decorations, you name it. Jacob's torture was now beginning shortly after Labor Day and the agony didn't start to dissipate until mid-January. Good God, he thought, what a diabolical and dastardly world!.
Turning his attention back to the photograph in his hands, he stared at Emily's lovely face. He had adored her. When he first met her in college he was astonished that she was willing to go out with him. His friends had warned him that she was "out of his league". But the two of them got along famously. He was finishing up in graduate school and was planning on being a professor himself. Emily had liked the notion of being a professor's wife, of going with her husband on sabbaticals to Paris or Stockholm or some other exotic, high prestige locales. Her father had been a full professor and a world-renowned economist. Her mother had reveled in playing hostess at the many functions related to her father's work. Their home had hosted eminent scholars and business and world leaders. She had even met Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
The problem was that, although Jacob eventually became a full professor, he never became famous. Yes, he had met many dignitaries, but they hadn't come to meet him. What Jacob excelled at was teaching. He was an exceptional teacher and his classes were always filled to capacity. He did his research and published his papers, but teaching was what he loved and teaching was what he could do best.
Emily and Jacob hadn't been married for more than a couple of years when Jacob began to sense her disappointment in him. At first, she didn't say anything directly about it, but he got plenty of indirect input that she wasn't happy. She wanted to know why some other young professor had gotten some committee chair instead of him or why he didn't some recognition award at the yearly dinner dance. But as the years went buy she became more outspoken on his failings and began pushing him harder and harder to take a sabbatical in Europe or to vie for the Department Chairmanship. Along the way Stephen was born, and a few years later, Sarah. But Emily began to use the children as just two more excuses to badger Jacob. "How do you expect us to give the children what they deserve if you don't apply yourself, Jacob," she was ask when he had particularly exasperated her in some way.
Looking up from the photograph and staring blankly at the wall, Jacob downed his drink, hoping that it would dull the ache that was growing again in his heart. He quickly poured another, the next of many we would need to get through this joyless night.
His thoughts turned to the night when he first realized that Emily was lost to him. They had been at a dance at their country club, Pine Oaks. Jacob hated the club but had joined under pressure from Emily. He really wasn't much of a golfer and although he did enjoy tennis, the snooty atmosphere of Pine Oaks never appealed to him. Emily, on the other hand, was in her element at the club. She liked dancing and never turned down a request to show off her moves on the dance floor. More than once she would leave Jacob sitting in some corner, drink in hand, while she danced the night away, in the arms of one man after another.
On this particular night, Jacob noticed that Emily was no where to be seen. He had gotten used to her dancing and flirting with other men, but it was unusual for her to be absent altogether. Walking toward the bar to refresh his drink, he walked past the cloakroom. Hearing a giggle that sounded familiar, he stepped into the room to see Emily passionately kissing Frank Timmons.
Jacob stepped back out of the room and fell back against the wall. He was devastated! But it made perfect sense to him. Timmons was a successful surgeon, recently divorced, and on the prowl. He had everything that Jacob didn't have: wealth, charm, notoriety, ambition.
Collecting himself and getting his drink, Jacob spent the rest of the evening getting drunk in his dark corner of the room. When she finally saw his condition, Emily's voice stung him, "Honestly, Jacob, why must you embarrass me like this?"
When he asked her where she had disappeared to earlier in the evening, she replied that she had been chatting with Dolores Ruffin in the powder room. Her lie cut through him as if she had used a knife.
From that point onward, their relationship deteriorated steadily. Emily did pretty much whatever she pleased and Jacob threw himself into his teaching. They no longer made love. Jacob didn't know if Emily was actually having an affair. It didn't really matter to him. She was lost to him and that's all that he knew. He made no attempt to determine the extent of her relationship with Timmons, or anyone else. However, Emily's criticism of him became more frequent and she made no effort to hide her comments from the children. Jacob could see that his already troubled relationship with Stephen was worsening because of Emily's diatribes. Sarah's love for him, on the other hand, seemed unaffected.
Turning his attention back to the photograph and taking another swallow from his drink, Jacob tried to focus on Stephen's face. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that he and his son were at loggerheads. Stephen had the uncanny knack of doing things that simply got under Jacob's skin: his clothes, his friends, his attitudes. It seemed sometimes that they couldn't get through three sentences before they were involved in some heated argument. Afterward, Jacob usually couldn't even determine what had started the argument. Stephen had a constant chip on his shoulder where Jacob was concerned and Jacob could only fathom that something he had done or said had turned his son against him at an early age.
It didn't help that Stephen adored his mother. When she would start in on Jacob, Stephen would glower at him if he was nearby. As he grew older, Stephen would sometimes throw his two-cents worth in as well. As Emily's criticism became more open and frequent, Stephens disdain for his father grew into contempt, and their arguments became more nasty.
Gulping down the contents of his glass and then setting it down on the table, Jacob filled it once again. He pressed the framed photograph against his chest and closed his eyes tightly, squeezing out the tears that were welling up in them. His marriage was a failure. His son loathed him. But losing Sarah cut him to his core. When she turned away from him it was as if his heart had been ripped, still beating, from his chest.
For a long moment Jacob sat there weeping. What did I do to deserve such a fate? he thought to himself. I can't bear to go on like this.
Gathering up his strength, he managed to look at the photograph once again. Sarah's beautiful face looked back at him and he felt, for an instant, that love she had unconditionally given to him.
Sarah was the joy of his life, his crowning accomplishment. He knew that he could never again produce anything as sweet and wonderful as Sarah. Whenever, Emily or Stephen would bring him down, Sarah was always there to bring him up. She would cuddle with him on the sofa while watching TV and she would unfailingly kiss him goodnight every evening before going off to bed.
Whenever Sarah did something well -- got an A on a test, solved some video game, anything -- Jacob was always the first one she told about it. When she was hurt or upset, Jacob was the person she came to for comfort. Their relationship was perfect.
Until Linda Skotich.
Linda was one of Jacob's graduate assistants. She helped him grade papers and do research. Although Linda was less than half Jacob's age, she was attracted to him, partly because he was so engrossing as a teacher, partly because he was a kind and enthusiastic mentor, and partly because she sensed the personal torment he was experiencing with his marriage. Jacob never discussed his marital troubles with anyone, but to any thoughtful observer, it was obvious that there were problems at home. And Linda was a thoughtful observer.
Their affair started slowly. It was probably unintentional on both parts. Some good-natured kidding, a reassuring hug here and there, a kiss in a moment of weakness, and the next thing you know -- an affair. For Jacob, he was seduced by a woman, albeit a young woman, who cared for him and wanted to hold him. Jacob longed to be held and he long to be cared for. It had been so long since Emily had showed any affection to him that he was starved for it and he was unable to resist Linda's caresses.
One evening, Emily discovered Jacob and Linda together. It had never dawned on Jacob that Emily might catch wind of his affair, or that she would even care if she did. He never really tried hard to cover his tracks -- he never felt the need. Jacob never thought that Emily would be looking for an excuse to end their marriage and his affair with Linda was just the ticket she was looking for. To much of the world, and especially to her children, Emily had been wronged.
To Stephen the affair simply reaffirmed everything he had ever thought about his father. He would never speak to his father again. To him Jacob ceased to exist.
But the affair shattered Sarah. She had resisted her mother and brother's railing against her father. She adored him. But she never expected him to shame their family in such a way and could not understand how he could do such a thing. Jacob never really tried to fully explain things to Sarah. He didn't want to seem to be blaming her mother for his failings. But Emily took the opportunity to poison Sarah against him and over the course of their separation and divorce, Sarah became more and more distant.
When Emily remarried the next year (to a high profile lawyer in another state), Sarah and Stephen went to live with them. Sarah spent the summers with Jacob but things were never the same between them, and once she went to college, he rarely saw her. Her letters finally trickled off to nothing by the time she got married herself.
Letting the photograph fall limp in his lap, Jacob poured himself another drink and gulped it down quickly. He sat slumped on the sofa, staring into space, his eyes wet with tears, tears that ran down over the crevices of his weary face.
To Emily and Stephen, Jacob no longer existed. He had learned from Sarah that Emily had ultimately divorced the lawyer and had married a business executive. Stephen was married and had a couple of kids. Sarah had one son, a boy named Joshua. Jacob had never seen Stephen's family, but had only seen Sarah's on a few occasions when Joshua was a toddler. Does Joshua even know I exist? he thought forlornly.
Sarah and her family lived in Oregon and had a life of their own. He hadn't seen her in person for a very long time. Perhaps he would get one or two letters from her during the year and a card at Christmas. These letters lacked much of the warmth that was once between them and seemed to only recount events in her family's life. But he was thankful for them. But this year there had been no Christmas card. Have I sunk so low that even my dearest Sarah has given up on me? Jacob thought to himself.
As he poured himself another drink, Jacob glanced at the clock on his desk. 11:45! God lord, must I endure another 15 minutes until Christmas? Another 15 minutes until I spend the day alone?
The thought of spending Christmas day alone was almost unbearable. He breathed a heavy sigh and put the photograph on the cushion beside him. He looked over at the wall that contained the remnants of his life. Is this all I have to show for seventy years of living? He had once managed to survive his loneliness through his teaching, but at 65, he was forced to retire -- University policy. Without his vocation, his life steadily disintegrated over the past five years.
Jacob looked at the bottle. Just enough for one more tall glass. Reaching over he filled his glass and put the bottle to his lips to drain what little remained there.
The clock on his desk showed the time to be 11:47 p.m.. Jacob's heart was heavy. Picking up his glass he struggled to get up, as if the entire weight of his 70 years rested on his shoulders. Seventy years and what have I accomplished? I'm not even remembered at the University. I've driven everyone I've ever loved away from me! I'm pathetic old has-been. No, I'm not a has-been. I'm a never was. Jacob staggered a few steps and then stopped again. No, I'm a never-should-have-been!
Jacob slowly made his way back to the bathroom, drink in hand. Again, he looked at the face staring back at him in the mirror. This time he hardly recognized it. He was looking into the tired dead eyes of a lost soul, the eyes of an old man, unaccomplished and unloved, a man who had come to the end of the line. Although he knew is that he wanted to sleep and he didn't care if he ever woke up again, especially tomorrow -- Christmas day. Maybe he could sleep through the whole day and avoid the depression of living through it alone.
Opening the medicine cabinet he grabbed the bottle of sleeping pills and placed them on the sink next to his drink. He took a long hard look at the tall glass of Jack Daniels and the half-filled bottle of pills. His deep sadness gave him the courage to empty the pills into his hand. Nothing can be worse than this he thought as he started to bring his hand up to his mouth.
BAM! BAM! BAM! came a pounding from the other room. The sound startled Jacob back from his thoughts. BAM! BAM! BAM! He recognized it as a pounding on his front door. Good lord, who can be bothering me at nearly midnight on Christmas Eve? he wondered.
Jacob spilled the pills back into the bottle and shuffled over to the door. Looking through the peephole, he saw a young man standing there. Opening the door a crack, he said, "Yes, what do you want?"
"Are you Jacob Walter?" came the boy's reply.
"Yes, who wants to know?"
"Grandpa, it's me, Joshua. I've come to spend Christmas with you"
Jacob let the door swing open. He was stunned. Yes, he could see the resemblance. He could see Sarah in the young man's face.
"I took the bus from Portland. Gee, you ought to get this doorbell fixed."
Jacob felt something spark inside of him and the spark started to crack through all the depression and loneliness that had been weighing him down for these many years. It was the spark of joy that was starting to well up inside him. Tears poured down his cheeks, but these were tears of pure and unadulterated joy. He took a couple of steps forward, spread his arms out and pulled the boy into him, hugging him with every fiber of his being.
"Merry Christmas, Grandpa!"