Port Saint Joe—the community Christmas concert is in the old movie theater. We’re talking old-old.
Eighty years ago, this place used to have a balcony, folding seats, velvet curtains, a silver screen. Today, there is a plywood stage where Clark Gable’s face used to be projected.
The whole town came for the shindig. There are people from all parts. Old and young, rich and rural.
Small towns support their own.
I’m in the back row. There’s an old man beside me. He wears plaid. There is a golf-ball-sized wad in his lower lip. He’s spitting into a plastic Coke bottle.
The opening act is a fiddle band. They’re pretty good. Gramps is singing along with the music—between spits.
“Love this song,” he shouts to me.
Gramps must’ve forgotten to change the batteries in his hearing aids.
The musicians sing several. One Christmas melody after another.
With each one, Gramps says, “Oh, I love this song.”
There aren’t many Gramps doesn’t like.
The local choir is next. Before they open their mouths, I see that they’re Baptists. I know this from the way they walk.
I grew up Southern Baptist. We have a special gait. We walk this way so that we can recognize our fellow Baptists in the liquor store and avoid them.
Gramps taps his foot. He spits on offbeats.
“Used to sing in church choir,” he says. “My wife’n I were in choir together back in Georgia. She had a purty voice.”
He’s singing along gently. People start looking.
My wife gives me the stink eye. She whispers through grit teeth, “Shut up or I’ll divorce you.”
“I’m NOT the one singing,” I point out.
“Then wipe that smile off your face.”
The next song: “O Holy Night.” I am powerless against this melody. The song takes me over. Now I am singing with the old man in a whisper.
Gramps is a perfect tenor. I sing bass.
And as it happens, we aren’t the only ones. You ought to hear this small-town theater come alive. There’s a light hum throughout the audience.
I’ll bet you won’t find humming like this in, say, New York City.
Afterward, Gramps is smiling. “Hey,” he says “You’n me oughta take our duet on the road.”
He laughs. I laugh.
He adds, “My wife and me used to sing duets when she was alive. Every Christmas we sang.”
Gramps’ eyes are glassy and red. I notice he’s wearing a wedding ring.
After the applause, he stands to leave. He shakes my hand.
“I got low blood sugar,” he explains. “Gotta eat or I’ll get the shakes. Don’t have my wife to look after me no more.”
My wife and I merry-Christmas him.
“Merry Christmas,” says Gramps. “You two enjoy yourselves tonight.”
He hobbles to the door. He doesn’t move fast. Gramps has no old woman to hook arms with, no children to squeeze, nobody to hug.
Nothing, but his snuff to warm him.
I follow him to the door, but I’m too late. He’s already gone. I’m left looking at the night, wondering about a man I don’t know.
Anyway, I had a marvelous Christmas this year. I hope you did, too. I hope you find yourself with a warm belly, a loving family, and happy children running loose in your house.
But tonight, if you find an extra minute, say a prayer for Gramps.
He’s missing his singing partner this year.