wabash & michigan

Christmas Carriage Ride

Jon listened to the clop of Dancer’s hooves on the pavement and pulled his coat tight against the sleet. When he’d announced he had a part-time holiday gig as a driver of a horse-drawn carriage in the streets of Chicago, his roommate Sam had looked at him like he was daft. “You know you’ll be required to talk to people, right? Show them around? Be a tour guide?”

“Yes, I know, Sam. Satin usually has the job-”

“See, there’s someone who could handle the tourist bit.”

“But he needed a pinch hitter, since he’s traveling to New York for a month to visit his boyfriend. ‘You won’t spook the horses,’ he told me.”

“Just try not to spook the people.”

Jon had done pretty well so far, and when traffic was low he got to ride around the streets in peace. The job was a throwback to an earlier era, and a cheesy one at that. But when a couple got settled in the carriage (usually one was reluctant, and the other excited, eyes bright, pointing at the bells he braided into Dancer’s mane) they had a moment of quiet and calm in the midst of Chicago’s packed Michigan Avenue. The sounds of blaring horns and the swoosh of buses faded away, and typically the couple was giggling and making out within five minutes, paying no attention to the driver. Frankly, Jon was relieved, although he’d lived in Chicago for five years now and, he thought, had a decent tourist riff down.

Jon hadn’t had a single customer all night, though he did have a reservation for 9 pm. The sleet hitting the pavement probably explained it. So he was surprised when a beautiful red-headed woman tentatively approached the carriage as he was petting Dancer. Jon had a particular spot he pulled up to at the old Water Tower building, a small sand-colored stone castle that looked right next to his glossy black carriage, His boss insisted the effect helped sales.

The woman looked like she’d been crying, but was doing her best to hold herself together. “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you,  I know you had a reservation from us - from him -  tonight at 9, but we had to cancel, and I wouldn’t want you to lose the chance to pick up another customer, I know it’s the holidays and-”

Cars were honking behind him, but Jon had learned to ignore them, and this woman looked bereft.

“We’re the Baratheon reservation, I mean, we were.” She had a paper shopping bag under her arm. “I’m sorry, he had to cancel. I’m Sansa, by the way, not that you need to know the name of a customer who’s bailing on you. I just wanted to free up your carriage, I’m sure you can find another couple.” Sansa’s expression softened when she looked at Dancer. The horse pawed the pavement but stayed still as Sansa approached. “He’s beautiful.” Dancer was lovely, a small roan filly with red and green ribbons woven into her mane along with the bells.

“She,” Jon said reflexively. It was the first word he’d spoken. He could visualize Sam rolling his eyes. Sansa gave him a small nod. “She, then. What’s her name?”

“Dancer.”

“Dancer? Do you go through all of the reindeer names from the song? Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, the rest?” He was glad to see a soft smile playing around her lips. The sleet had turned to snow.

“No.” Come on, Jon, try for two sentences in a row. “She’s always been Dancer. Though that’s not a bad idea.”

Sansa took another tentative step forward. “Could I touch her?” Customers petting horses was strictly against company policy, but when he saw the light in Sansa’s eyes, he found he didn’t care. “Sure.”  

Sansa murmured to Dancer as she stroked her coat. She gazed wistfully at the carriage. Jon was struck by a way he might be able to salvage the night for her.

“So your reservation was paid in advance, and I haven’t heard about a cancellation.” The company didn’t allow for refunds anyway. “Would you still like to go for a ride?”

“No, thank you, I’d feel odd traveling in the carriage alone.” Jon was starting to seriously dislike the guy who’d taken this part of the evening from her. She seemed like a romantic, like someone who’d been looking forward to the ride all day. And it would be lonely in the carriage by herself.

“You could ride up here with me,” he said.

“Is that proper?” No, it wasn’t, and in fact Jon could get in trouble for it. He dodged the question.

“There’s room up here for two.”

Sansa hesitated. She’d wrapped her arms around her blue peacoat. Jon tried again. “Besides, I think Dancer likes you.”

“I bet you say that to all your fares.”

“I don’t.”

“No, you don’t seem like the hard-sell type. Well, if you don’t mind, I’d be grateful.”

Jon helped her up next to him in the driver’s seat. She was warm next to him and squealed in delight when the bells tinkled in Dancer’s mane. They headed out into the river of car lights on Michigan Avenue.

“Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Jon. Is there anywhere in particular you’d like to go?”

Sansa blew into her mittens. “No. I’m sure I’ll love whatever tour we take.” Jon started showing her the sights, but Sansa seemed to enjoy the small details of the ride Jon has never noticed before. She closed her eyes to smell the roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and pointed at the strings of lights draped over the trees lining the street. Little kids waved at the carriage and Sansa waved back. Some of her enthusiasm rubbed off on Jon, and he saw the city through fresh eyes. They hit a pothole at the intersection of Michigan and Wabash and Sansa grabbed Jon’s arm and didn’t let go. Jon silently thanked the city for not maintaining the streets.

“Oh wait! I have an idea.” Sansa rummaged through her bag and pulled out two Santa hats. “We could wear these. I think the crowd would love it.”

“You’re good at this.”

Sansa shrugged. “I run a florist shop, and I specialize in sales.” She faltered. “We don’t have to, of course.” Jon, who’d never worn a piece of holiday clothing in his life, took one of the hats and put it on. Sansa grinned at him and pulled the other hat over her ears.

Tourists started to point and smile at the two of them. When they hit the next stoplight a group of sightseers called out to them. “You two are such a cute couple! Give us a kiss for Christmas!” Jon stared at a sea of phones held up to capture the moment. He had no idea what to do. Sansa turned to him and whispered. “I think it will help business. Though I’m not sure you want to kiss a stranger.” Jon heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. He most certainly did want to kiss Sansa, and she seemed willing and maybe a little excited by the idea. Here goes nothing, he thought. He reined Dancer in and leaned over to her, heart pounding. He held back, though, in case she decided this wasn’t a good idea after all. He saw Sansa take a deep breath and leaned into him. She tasted like sweet peppermint and his hand came up to cup her cheek and he got lost in the softness of her lips and the warmth of her skin. When they finally broke apart, the crowd had dissipated. He could see Sansa’s breath in the cold air. “Thank you Jon.” Anytime, he wanted to reply, but his brain kicked in. “You’re welcome.” OK, that wasn’t much better. Sansa must have seen the right expression on his face, though, because she snuggled closer to him as they arrived where they’d started.

“That was so kind of you, Jon. This city can feel isolating, even though we’re surrounded by people, and I’m happy I met you.”

“I know what you mean. I grew up in a small town in Illinois. I sometimes feel more alone here in a sea of tourists than I did standing on my back porch.”

Sansa nodded. Jon was reluctant to let her go, but he had no reason he could think of to ask her to stay. “Would you like your hat back?”

Sansa smirked. “Keep it. Consider it my contribution to marketing. Oh, by the way, could I have your card? My brother Robb and his fiancé are looking for a holiday outing.” Jon dug around in his pockets and placed the ivory card with an embossed gold carriage in her hand. “Thank you,” she said softly. “Here, take mine too. I think you could sell flowers on rides. Stop by the shop if you like.” Jon felt a brief flutter of hope that Sansa might want to see him again. “OK, I’ll do that.”

Sansa hopped down and gave Dancer one last pet. “Thanks for making the night special, Jon.” Jon swallowed. “I’m glad I could help.”

“So am I.” Whoever had left her behind tonight was a fool, Jon decided as he watched her leave. He ran his finger over the edge of the card she’d given him, and realized she’d written a number on the back. He smiled despite himself. Sam was never going to believe he’d met and kissed a beautiful girl and managed to get her number.