After about 20 minutes we were sure it was him. The top-hat was a dead giveaway, and the corncob pipe. He was sitting in the corner of the diner, at a booth, a magazine open in front of him and occasionally looking up at the Jets game on the TV. He was drinking hot chocolate, of all things, and didn’t seem to mind that each time he took a sip it melted his mouth away a bit, left him with broad ringed lips, like a clown. But a kind of down-on-his-heels clown whose brighter makeup was used up, leaving only the dingy part of the palette to work with.
At first nobody could get the nerve to talk to him. We said he obviously doesn’t want to be bothered or it’s rude to interrupt his meal or it’s probably not really him anyway when obviously it was, until finally Donna stood up – Donna was always the kind of person who chose Dare and then would go beyond what you dared her to do, that was what we liked about her – and walked right over there.
She stopped by his table, and then stepped forward just a bit. He didn’t look up until she said:
“You’re Frosty, right?”
With that, the snowman looked up and we were sure it was him: button nose, two eyes made out of coal, the whole thing. It was definitely him. There was never any mistaking him for some other snowman.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, I am.”
Well, I don’t have to tell you that his voice came as a shock to us. I mean, we were TV kids, we all knew what Frosty sounded like. He had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, a large smile. He was a snowman of big gestures, marching bands, rooty toot toot and rummy tum tums.
Not this sad quiet guy who gave a quick forlorn glance at the TV again as the Jets gave up yet another touchdown.
“Wow…” said Donna and even though she didn’t mean it that way we all felt it: the disappointment just seeped out of her. We were all back at the table and wishing she hadn’t gone over there, that we wouldn’t have seen him this way, and also that he wouldn’t have seen the effect he had on us.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Frosty said, even more quietly. “You’re right to feel that.”
“I didn’t…” Donna said but Frosty waved a stumpy arm brusquely at her.
“You did. I know. I know. I’m not surprised by it anymore.”
“I…” but Donna didn’t know what to say. Frosty looked up at her again in the silence, and then said:
“It was all an act.”
“Huh?” Donna said.
“An act. A show. A put-on. A jive.” Frosty seemed a bit more animated now. “It was all for showbiz, all for the kids, for Xmas, for Santa, for everyone. The whole thing: marching all around the town, running here and there around the square, thumpety thump thump thumpety thump thump.” He paused and took a long swig of the hot chocolate, looked up with despair in his eyes. “I mean, I’m not even a Xmas thing.”
Donna looked back at us, helplessly. We all looked at each other, then a few of us got up and went and stood by her. Frosty passed his implacable dark coal eyes, somehow watery and sad, over each of us in turn. “But it worked,” he said. “It worked, for a long while.”
He didn’t seem to mind us there as much, so we sat down, three of us across from him in the booth, while the other two drifted over and sat on stools at the counter looking at him. It was halftime. Frosty caught the waitress’ eye and motioned towards his mug. She brought him over some more cocoa, filled it up. He put his mittened hand on her arm.
“Leave the marshmallows,” he said. She shrugged, setting the bag of minimallows on the table. Frosty made a show of putting a bunch of them in, piling them up like a little mound of snowballs. Everything got quiet as we watched the marshmallows slowly dissolve.
“I had to do it,” he said. Then, louder: “I had to do it.”
“Do what?” Shelley asked.
“The whole thing. I had to force my way into Xmas, become a big star, get people singing and dancing about me, get them hanging up signs of me, talking about me, telling more stories about me. I had to get kids to make versions of me in yards and beg their parents to buy a corncob pipe so they could have their own Frosty. I had to wedge myself into Xmas the same way all the others did, and for the same reason.”
A brief fanfare of trumpets from the TV announced that there would be a sale on cars for the next three days at a local dealership. A weatherman came on promising clear skies until the weekend, when we might get some snow. Frosty shook his head. “More snow,” he said. “More snowmen. They’ll all have the dream.”
Later on we would decide that we were starting to get it even before he looked up and said:
“I mean, do you have any idea how hard it is to stay alive? Of course you don’t. You were born alive. You don’t have to wait until a hat falls on your head, or someone makes up a song about how your nose glows, or an uncle gives you to his niece on Xmas Eve, or any of that. You get to come into this world and just live in it, without ever giving a thought from one minute to the next about what might happen if people stop noticing you.”
“So you mean…” Pete said. Frosty interrupted him, too. He was ready to talk and he wasn’t going to be stopped.
“You know what I mean. Us, we, me, Rudolph, Ralphie, Tiny Tim, the entire Peanuts gang: you just bring us to life one day on a whim and then here we are, and life is so wonderful and so sudden that we can’t let go of it – but we can’t hold on to it, either. We exist only because you think we exist… and we exist only so long as you think we exist.”
The marshmallows were fully dissolved into his cup, now. He picked it up and looked into it, watching the little white swirls go around.
“So that’s why I had to do it,” he said finally. He took another sip of the cocoa. “That’s why I had to become a legend. I came to life one day, and loved it, and played with the kids, and kept going until I heard them holler stop, and then suddenly, it was over… or so I thought, as I was fading away. That was short, I thought, but before things got too sad I just… didn’t exist.”
We all waited until he went on, with what we knew was coming next.
“Until the next year, when I came back. That’s when I realized how it worked. That’s when most of us realize it: if we come back. The first time it’s too new, so the second time we start thinking more about it. If we come back. Not all of us do. Everything gets one shot at it, at least. Everything anyone dreams up: unicorns, giants, princesses, giant squid, Santa, Thor… everything gets one shot. If they make enough of a mark they’ll come back. If they dig in deep enough into your psyches, they’re around for a good long time. And most of us realized the best way to get in there was Xmas. Everyone LOVES Xmas. You can put red and green bows and a bell on anything and you people will buy it.”
Donna, who was wearing a red-and-green sweater with tiny bells on it, blushed a little.
“So that’s why I did it. That second time around I knew that being a winter thing wasn’t enough. All those snowmen out there, coming to life and stumbling around in yards and getting plowed over and melting. I wasn’t going to be them! I wasn’t going back to nothing. So I got busy. I started greeting people and sledding and I made up a song about me. Yeah, I wrote it!” he was getting more animated. A few people further down in the diner were looking now, too.
“And it WORKED. I’m an ICON,” he said. “I got myself dug in there so good that I’m practically on a level with Santa. I’m one of the big three. Infants recognize me. I’m on sweaters and coffee mugs and DVDs and there have been over 1,400 versions of my song recorded. I’m rich!” he dug around and pulled out a wallet, pulled a couple of hundreds out of it, spread them on the table.
“I’m here,” he said, but then the verve just seemed to run out of him. He slumped a little, put his head into his mittened hands, and sat like that, dripping a bit as the steam from the mug of cocoa rose up to meet him.
Donna leaned across, put a hand on his arm. “So what’s wrong?”
Frosty looked up at her and we saw he was crying, after all. If you’d asked me before that night whether a snowman could cry, I’d have laughed and said what would a snowman cry about? If you asked me now, I’d shudder and sigh and say no man, you don’t want to think about that. There is not much sadder than a snowman crying slow, sad, sleety tears into a pile of marshmallows at 9:45 p.m. in a diner two nights before Xmas Eve.
We all wanted to hug him, but only Donna did. I told you she was like that. When Frosty had composed himself a bit, he shook his head a little and said “What’s wrong is I don’t know why I’m here anymore.”
“Well…” Donna began.
“Um…” I said.
“Hey, you…” Steve tried.
Frosty just shook his head.
“You bring joy to kids,” Shelley said, finally.
“DO I?” Frosty said, loudly enough that the waitress shushed him. He waved a mitten in her general direction. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Do I?” he said to us, more softly. His voice sounded like it was going to break again.
“Sure,” Shelley said. “You’re on all that stuff, like you said. Your TV show, your song… they’re on the air all the time. Everyone knows your name.”
“Yeah, sure, everyone knows my name – and pays it about as much attention as they do any other background noise. I’m just more scattershot Xmas stuff, a yard ornament in a giant display, a television special playing 17 different times in December on WTBS, a song that people know a verse or two of and then they hum the parts where they can’t quite remember how it goes. I’m constantly here, but never here.” With that last he thumped a mitten down on the table, emphatically.
We were all quiet, thinking of what we could say.
Frosty broke the silence. “Think: how many times have you come in here this month?”
We looked at each other. We met there a couple times a week, at least, probably 2 or 3, for coffee or a snack or just to hang out.
“Probably four or five,” I finally said.
“How many times have you seen me here?” he asked.
“Tonight was the first,” I said because I was slow on the uptake. Shelley elbowed me as I said it.
“I’m here every night,” Frosty said. “From the first snowfall through about March. I come in here every night. I’ve walked by your table lots of times. I heard about your date with the redhead,” he looked at me “And your new job at the radio station,” at Donna, “And how the two of you didn’t want anyone to know you were dating,” he said to Shelley and Steve, as we all looked at them in surprise. “I’ve walked by you, I’ve sat near you, I borrowed some ketchup from you last week,” he said to Donna, “And you never noticed me before tonight. Never.”
We all looked down guiltily. It was obvious he was telling the truth.
“I fought so hard to make everyone know I exist, just so I could exist, and now I’m stuck here, existing in the background, just walking around, listening to people and sometimes briefly interacting with them, like this. Just like so many of the rest of them, we half-dreams, frittering around on the edges of your world. We can’t leave, we can’t stay, we can’t live.”
He stood up. “And so we just sit in diners, sipping our cocoa and hoping that maybe the Jets would have a decent game for once. We listen to your conversations and remember the times that people talked to us, and then, when you all go home to nestle snug in your beds, we drift around in the park or out by the river, trading stories of the old days and how great they were. We wait until we melt, or the sun rises, or whatever else has to happen, and if we’ve been around long enough, we hope that it’s for the last time.”
He turned away and walked towards the exit. Halfway out the door, he looked back. “But it never is,” he said. “So until we meet again.” He nodded and then, bowing his head, stepped out into the swirling, pretty snowflakes that were beginning to fill the town square like so much confetti.
We all sat there a few minutes, feeling like someone had kicked us in the stomach. Donna had tears in her eyes. Shelley and Steve were holding hands. I could feel a lump in my throat and I didn’t think I could talk.
“Well we’re not going to just let him walk away, are we?” Pete said. He stood up. We followed him.
It was hard to see outside; the snow was getting thicker and there was no moon that night. The streetlights were few and far between. We finally saw him enter a cone of light two blocks down, trudging along in his squeaky black firemen’s boots. “FROSTY!” we yelled, as loud as we could, running after him. He heard us and turned around, and although his coal eyes couldn’t actually widen, they seemed like they wanted to.
We tumbled up to him and all started hugging him, not worrying about the cold. When he tried to shove us away we began singing his song as loudly as we could, no sarcasm, no irony, just heartfelt belting out the words that he’d taught us so long ago. It didn’t take long before he came around a bit, and we saw him start to sort of tap his foot. Donna stopped singing for a second, and yelled “PARADE TIME!” and I swear to god somehow Steve got a broomstick! Frosty waved that around like a baton and we marched around the square, twice, pretending to play big bass drums and trombones. Shelley walked like an elephant and Pete tried doing a cartwheel. He was awful at it and we all laughed but he didn’t care.
By the second time around the square Frosty was practically skipping. “Let’s go sledding!” Steve suggested, and we all started running to the park, stopping now and then to throw snowballs at each other and give each other facewashes, high-fiving Frosty and each other.
We got there and realized we didn’t have sleds. Frosty threw himself on his stomach and we could sit on his back, one or two at a time, and slide down the hill lickety-split, snow on snow, magic on magic. The hill was lit only by distant streetlights and the stars themselves, which when you looked up blended in with the snowflakes so that it seemed like you were flying through space in a blizzard. Our cheeks were getting chapped and we could feel the cold in our toes but nobody wanted to stop. Two, three, four, five times down the hill with Frosty, and in between the rest of us were running up and down and rolling down the hill ourselves, panting our breath out into thick clouds of merriment.
I grabbed Steve and started wrestling him, as he threw snowballs up at me. We tumbled over and over and Donna and Shelley grabbed big clumps of snow and threw them on us before dogpiling on. Pete came running over and put snow in the girls’ collars. They began squealing and yelling and giggling and when we all finally stopped we laid there quietly in the snow for a second, just looking up into the whirlwind of snow and stars.
Donna asked: “Where’s Frosty?”
We all sat up and looked around. He was nowhere to be seen. We walked around the top of the hill and Pete ran down and Steve looked over by the trees. Frosty was gone. No pipe, no hat, no bootprints around. It was just us, out there in the dark and the snow, bits of ice melting into our shirts, our toes starting to feel numb, our noses bright red and our cheeks pale. Our eyes glistened with happiness and cold. With a silent agreement we all started walking back towards town, nobody talking at all.
Just before we split up and went to our cars down in the town square, Shelley looked at each of us. “Want to meet at the diner tomorrow night?” she said. “Maybe get some hot chocolate?”