I hear the recycle truck revving its engine outside, on the street which is lined with heaped trash on this last pick-up day of the year when households of the city can pile the trash and paper as high as they like without penalty. Inside my home, I'm the only sentient being awake. Even the dog sleeps; and it's near eight. The cat has come and gone, gobbling his dish of food without complaint before slinking back under the deck where he prefers to live. I sit at the end of a table littered with the debris of merry-making: A pewter bowl of fresh fruit, wadded cloth napkins, a coffee cup wrapped in cellophane filled with Christmas candy and packets of good tea, a Santa bag of home-made goodies, and a smattering overall of cheesecake crumbs.
On the buffet, a plate of chocolate-dipped pretzels which Jessica made sits beside a Snowman bowl of Jordan almonds. My amaryllis in its stone pot, an annual gift from my best friend Katrina, rises among the displayed Christmas cards. Boxes of Russell Stover truffles, half-empty; and red tapers in crystal candle holders, complete the tableau.
I'm not wealthy but my earnings adequately provided for a merry holiday for all of those on whom I choose to bestow gifts. We ate a rich dinner on Christmas Eve and brought three large bags of gifts to the family with whom we spent Christmas. And now I'm sitting with the newspaper discarded, glad of what I've been able to do to show my love for those whom I hold dear. At the same time, I think about others, with less, with little, with nothing.
A little girl's face rises in my mind. I might have written of her before now, but her story crowds the others, begging to be told again, again, again, and again. Theresa, her name; I think, though if I am honest, I cannot say for certain. It's been too long.
Nineteen-year-old Corinne, two years away from college graduation, living in Laclede Town, St. Louis, Missouri. A housing development east of St. Louis, the first of its kind in the country, block after block of town homes rented to federally subsidized families and St. Louis University students. I share one with two roommates and I have the biggest bedroom. But they have friends, and boyfriends, and full calendars while I skip class, drink too much Scotch at the pub in Busch Student Center, and covet their lives. On Saturdays, I go to a church hall near 14th and Mallencrot to tutor in the program where I've been a teacher since my senior year in high school.
My student has blond hair, pale skin, and the large blue eyes of an angel. She stands as tall as the middle of my chest if she tips her head back to peer at me. She struggles to understand the simplest math, with which I am little help, but together we plow through the problems so we can spend time doing what we really want, which is reading. Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Anne of Green Gables. All books from my mother's home. We had quickly exhausted the meager selection that the nuns provided, her fair head resting against my arm, which I wrap around her frail body in order to hold both sides of the book. She raises one small hand to trace the words as she sounds them.
On the last Saturday before Christmas, we bring our students presents and the nuns lay out hot chocolate and cookies. As she gobbles down the store-bought sugar cookies with the unnatural pink frosting, my little charge stares at the package which I'm holding. A flat box, about three inches deep, ten across and as many length-wise, it fascinates her with its red and green paper and gold ribbon. My mother, who has talents for which I've not gotten the gene, has done that scissors-trick which causes the ribbon to curl. I co-opted her wrapping assistance over hot tea that morning, on one of my rare visits out to Jennings in this period, when relations between my mother and I still bore the strain of an argument about which neither of us has apologized. But she did the ribbon anyway, while I brewed tea, and told her about my little girl. She asked how much the gift had cost and when I told her, made me take ten dollars from her to cover half.
When the children had consumed their treats, we open gifts. Theresa falls silent when she sees what her package holds: Matching hat, scarf, and mittens in bright red knit. She raises her eyes to my face and asks, Are these all for me? and I feel my heart spasm. I nod, my voice suddenly failing me. She traces the edge of the hat with one tiny finger, then moves the fabric, pulling her hand back suddenly, not lifting the items nor making any move to claim them. My mother won't let me keep them, she tells me sadly.
Of course she will, I assure her, and then I take the hat from the box and settle it on her head. I wind the scarf around her neck and step back. The girl closes her eyes and puts her hands on the edge of the scarf. Wonderment settles on her features. It's so soft, she says. I feel the clench in chest again. The set had come from a discount store. The yarn wasn't wool, or silk, or even cotton, but some cheap synthetic. I wish, suddenly, that I had gotten something of a higher quality, something better; but I shopped where I bought my own things without thinking.
Theresa opens her eyes as the bus driver calls out across the room. It is time for her to don her coat, a worn, short wool jacket. I help her arrange the long scarf around her neck again, tilt the beret, adjust the little ball on its crown. She pulls each mitten on with such care that tears spring to my eyes. I take her hand and walk beside her to the loading place, and stand while she climbs the steps of the bus and takes her seat. As the bus pulls away, I can still see the bright red hat on her small head, and the piercing sapphire eyes in the small tender face. She stays twisted in her seat, one mittened hand raised toward me, as the bus pulls away and carries the children home.
The next Saturday, class is cancelled for the New Year holiday. When we resume the following week, Theresa comes with bare head, bare hands, and three inches of uncovered neck rising above her jacket. Where is your new hat, I ask her, gently. Children can lose things, I know. She shrugs. I probe no further. That afternoon, I volunteer to take Theresa home, determined to find out what happened to the things that I had given her. At the door of her apartment building, we rap several times on the broad, scratched wood, until we hear footsteps echo in the hollow empty stairwell.
A gaunt, rangy woman pulls the door open. I don't notice that she wears two coats and a sweater over a dress,from under which protrudes a pair of men's green serge pants rolled to her ankles. What I see: On her head, a red knit hat; around her neck, wound twice, a matching scarf. Both too small for her; both made for a child. Theresa turns, suddenly, and pushes at me as her mother stares with sunken eyes in her haggard face. Go on, go away! Theresa snaps in the shrill voice of a nine-year old. She rushes past her mother and clamors up the stairs, her small body barely making enough noise to signal her passage. The woman gapes at me. I stand my ground, summoning courage, trying to find the right words. But she breaks the silence in a raspy voice: You heard my girl, she says. Go on, go away.
She closes the door. The stale frigid air of the building wafts to my face in the wake of the heavy sound it makes as it meets the bent frame.
On the coat rack here at the Holmes house, four decades later, hangs four or five coats and as many scarves. In my closet several more pull down the cheap hangers with the weight of the wool from which they are made. Though I've spent only pennies on the dollar of their original price, buying most at consignment shops, still, I have so many winter jackets that I could outfit a small army of size two women. Theresa, who would be nearly fifty now, might finger the edge of each coat and look at me with sorrow. And her mother, though probably long dead now, might clutch greedily at the bounty, hugging their mass against her thin chest, burrowing in their warmth. I would be able to do nothing but let her take them and vanish, with her daughter, into the cold of the Missouri winter, huddled in my best coat, while I am left with only my memories to warm me.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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