I don't know how it happened. I didn't push a button on my phone or turn a knob on the car radio. I'd been traveling in silence along most of the Great Basin Highway, lost in the thoughts only a long drive can inspire.
So the opening chords of Hallelujah startled me yesterday, as I entered the tiny town of McGill, Nevada. Ghosts live here. Tiny homes with tiny porches offering the occasional tiny American flag flank the vacant courthouse and boarded-up school, and there's an aura of being forgotten, of better times, of what used to be. The sign says 1,500 people live here, but ghosts do, too.
The haunting, unexpected melody escorted me down the town's two-lane artery, suspending me in a surreal soundtrack series of slow, 25 mph moments, until an impossible visual coda rang through the passenger window. Impossible, because the speed limit was 25 mph on this stop-sign-riddled road, and the sidewalk was the only buffer to the clapboard house standing at the edge of the concrete.
A deer, dead on the sidewalk.***
"Do you believe in Santa Claus?"
The question came a few years ago, from the little girl in a puffy pink jacket sitting next to me on a flight over the same expanse of land I was traveling now. She'd been in my seat by the window when I boarded the plane, and I'd told her as much, so she fumbled with her seatbelt and slid over to the aisle. I realized how Grinch-ish it was for me to tell her she was in my seat, when she probably just wanted to look outside.
I asked her if she wanted to sit by the window and she said yes please and thank you and scooted back over. I settled into the seat next to her as she pulled out a beat-up Hershey's chocolate bar from her coat pocket. She unwrapped it, broke off half, and held it out to me.
"Do you want to share?"
She introduced me to her stuffed animal and we spent the flight playing Rock Paper Scissors and talking about the important things. She asked me if I was married and then why I wasn't. She guessed my age and I guessed her's. I showed her a picture of my horse and she asked me if I was sure my horse wasn't really a camel.
She asked me if believed in Santa and told me she'd asked him for three things: to be good, to be able to study hard, and to be with her mama forever. But she knew she was getting something else too, because she had peeked in a bag her mama had brought home last week.
She asked me what the tallest mountain in the world is and I said I thought it was Mt. Everest.
"Do you think God sits on top of it and watches over me and everyone?"
I sat there for a second, looking at this little girl whose face was shining and curious and real and beautiful and so full of promise and gratitude and sharing and love and all these things I think I've sometimes lost.
All these things that were now being given back to me by this angel sitting in seat 7E.
"Yes, I think He probably does."
The plane touched down and rolled to a stop. She crawled over me into the aisle and as she started to walk away, she turned back to say that it was nice talking to me and she hoped I'd have a Merry Christmas.
And then she was gone.
Do I believe in Santa Claus?
If he can look like a little girl in a puffy pink jacket, then yes.
The last of Jeff Buckley's 'Hallelujahs' faded into the outskirts of the tiny town, the strange marriage of song and town and deer taking chase despite my commitment to the gas pedal. I thought about how Buckley had died accidentally in a seemingly harmless environment, kind of like that deer on the side of the frustratingly slow road in the middle of a quiet town.
I couldn't tell if I felt hopeless or confused.
This year's For The Sender Holiday Show took place at the La Paloma theater, and featured a new family member: Gregory Page. He'd been in a seminal San Diego band called the Rugburns, and told me how they'd opened for Jeff Buckley on that very La Paloma stage two decades ago. The hope was that the Rugburns would draw a crowd, since Buckley had sold only a handful of tickets. But even with the last-minute addition of The Rugburns, only 60 people showed up.
And now, Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is legendary. He'd fill a thousand La Paloma theaters with witnesses to hear him sing that song one more time.
I saw her a few miles outside the town, jumping in place next to a minivan on the shoulder of Highway 93. She was smiling wide and joyfully waving her arms, gazing up at someone I assumed was her dad, who held a squirming cat close to his chest.
A leash dangled from the cat's neck. Were they taking it for a walk right here? With semis and holiday travelers passing each other in blurs of horns and exhaust?
But that's not what made me look twice, then slow down, then stare, then remind me of the grays and blacks and blues and greens and reds of why we are here, the twists and turns and falls and ascents of this unpredictable, sad, painful, joyful, beautiful life.
What made me look twice was the little girl.
Who caught my eye and waved.
From the shoulder of Highway 93.
Wearing a puffy pink jacket.