Winter 1960 - 1961
The cold November wind blew through holes in my jeans and placed its icy lips on my fingers. My ears felt like icicle twins giggling freeze in my brain. These minor discomforts were in no mean way able to compromise my happiness of spirit. A wheel came off the wobbly old Radio Flyer wagon I was dragging along behind me. I whistled Jingle Bells and dug deep in my coat pocket until I found the bent nail I had put there. I turned the wagon on its side and pushed the errant wheel back over the end of the axle. I had a feeling when I found that old nail and, sure enough, it was just the right size to fit in the hole on the end of the axle to keep the wobbly wheel from falling off. I pushed it through, bent it a little bit so it wouldn’t fall out, then righted the wagon and was once more on my way.
Today I had a date with the soldier lady at the Salvation Army Store. She had been putting back broken toys for me since summertime. I had three shiny quarters in my pocket and dearly hoped that would be enough to buy each and every one of my brothers and sisters something special. This promised to be the best Christmas yet. Momma had filled out a state form when she picked up the family’s monthly allotment of commodities and hoped to get a ten-dollar gift certificate for each of her children. She could redeem the certificates at a store downtown in exchange for gifts. They had no cash value so each child was sure to receive a new toy or two. Momma would have preferred to buy us clothes and Daddy would probably want whiskey or tools. I was very appreciative of the fact that the certificates were redeemable, if Momma got them, only for the purchase of toys.
I opened the door to the store and a bell hanging from the top hinge jingled loudly. The lady came from the back, smiled warmly and opened her arms in a gesture of greeting, told me to come on in. The wagon squeaked loudly as I pulled it through the crowded and cramped aisle. I was the only customer in the store, the only other person in the building besides the manager lady. She spoke to me as I followed her through the store, told me the wall to wall merchandise was an expression of folks’ generosity during the winter and holiday season. Each item was there because someone with a big heart had found it within themselves to give to others. There was a picnic table in the back room and the lady told me to go ahead and take a seat. She fixed me up with hot chocolate and sugar cookies. She smiled more than most adults I’d met. I liked that.
“You can call me Joe,” she said. Just then the bell on the door rang out. She gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder on her way out of the room. “You make yourself at home. I’ll go see to this customer, then you and I will get down to business.”
I had never met a woman named Joe before. It seemed a bit strange to me that she had a man’s name but she sure was a nice person. When she finished with the customer, Joe returned and poured herself a cup of hot chocolate. Seemed to me she was one of those rare adults it was easy to be quiet and relaxed with. We sipped our hot chocolate and ate cookies in a comfortable shared silence. When we were finished with our snack, Joe led me to a storage area in the back room. She scooched a big ol’ box away from the wall, pushed it out into an open area on the floor.
“Well, here they are,” she said, “I chose toys I thought you might be able to fix and that our handymen had set aside. Everything in this box is broken, mind you. You’ll probably have to use parts of one to fix another.”
I pointed proudly to my Radio Flyer. “Just like I did with the wagon.”
“A wonderful job. Yes, just like that! You’ll be a busy boy for the next month, just like one of Santa’s elves.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am...uh, Joe,” I mumbled. “That’s a whole bunch o’ toys and I only got seventy-five cents saved up from summer work. There’s no way I can afford all this stuff.”
“Hmmm.” Joe tapped a thoughtful finger on her chin and said, “Tell you what, you come by here when you can for the rest of the week. I’ll have you sweep the floor and empty waste baskets, straighten merchandise, odd jobs and tasks like that. There’s a lot to do around here and I’ll never be able to get it all done by myself. At the end of the week, you give me the seventy-five cents and you can take the box of toys home with you.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I got one more day of school before Thanksgiving break and sometimes I have to watch my brothers and sisters.”
“You’re a busy young man,” Joe allowed, “and I can see you take your responsibilities seriously. I won’t take no for an answer,” she said finally. “How ‘bout you sweep and do chores for me now while you’re here? That way you can take the toys home with you when you leave.”
“Wow!” I cried, embarrassed and red-faced in my excitement, “That’d be great! I’ll run home and ask Momma if it’s okay!”
“You’re welcome to use the phone here to call her,” Joe offered.
“We don’t have a phone at home,” I mumbled, “But it ain’t far. Is it okay if I leave my wagon here?”
Some folks acted all weird, like we were aliens or something, when they found out we didn’t have a phone. Joe just said, “You run along. I’ll watch your wagon for you while you’re gone. It’s safe with me.”
There were magic moments when I was a boy, pockets of fleet wings, safe and powerful in their unique offering. All I had to do is believe with blind faith in their existence. I hit the sidewalk running, closed my eyes tight, ran faster and faster until my feet were pumping air, lighter than a kite. I was a winged creature flying home and soon to its nest.
I figured the magic moments were probably daydreams paid for in crash landings, worth it still to a boy who believed he could fly. Momma kept the front door locked so I went around to the back. I turned the knob, threw the door open and barged into the room, eyes alert for Momma, eager to tell her my exciting news. And there she was... laying on the couch naked. And Daddy was on top of her. He was naked too. My feet began to walk backwards toward the door while my eyes refused to disengage from the fuzzy flesh tones of my naked parents.
“You wait outside,” Momma called from the couch, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
I went out to wait in the tiny dirt yard. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to whatever it was she’d have to say. She joined me pretty quick. Momma put an arm around my shoulders and asked me to sit down next to her on the back steps.
“Tommy, I thought you were going to the Salvation Army to look at toys.”
“I was,” I said, “I mean I did and... where’s all the kids?”
“I laid them down for a nap,” Momma explained. “Linda went to sleep on our bed, so Daddy and I...”
“I know,” I said quickly.
“There is nothing wrong with what we were doing, Tommy,” Momma said.
“No, naps are good for you,” I agreed hastily.
“All right buster,” Momma chided gently, “Maybe we’ll talk about this later.” She hugged me and shivered. “It’s cold out here, don’t you think?” Momma didn’t abide the cold well.
“I ain’t,” I said with renewed enthusiasm now that we weren’t going to talk about ‘that’. “I ran all the way back home and wasn’t a bit cold.”
“So I see,” Momma said. “Where’s your wagon? I was sure I’d hear that squeaky old thing long before I saw you in the flesh.”
“Joe’s takin’ care of it for me,” I replied. “See, if I sweep and empty the trash and stuff, she’s gonna let me have this whole big ol’ box of broken toys for seventy-five cents. I can fix ‘em up Momma, I know I can.”
Momma put her arms around me, held me close and kissed my ear.
“Slow down a little bit, Tommy. First of all, who is Joe?”
“She’s the soldier lady,” I answered excitedly. “She was grouchy at me this summer when she caught me lookin’ in the window all the time but now me ‘n her are good friends.”
“An army lady named Joe,” Momma smiled. “You still haven’t told me why you came home so soon and in such a rush.”
“Sorry. See, it’s like this,” I explained, “Joe’s gonna let me do some, what she calls odd jobs around the store. I just hurried home to see if it’s okay with you if I stay awhile and work.”
“Where are you going to keep these toys until Christmas so the kids don’t see them?” Momma asked.
That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had been so busy figuring out how to get the toys, I hadn’t thought about a secret place to hide my surprises while I worked on them.
“I don’t know, Momma. I have to be able to get to ‘em but I don’t want the kids t’ see ‘em ‘til Christmas.”
“I’ll make a place in mine and Daddy’s closet,” Momma offered. “We might even be able to rig you up a lamp in there. That way you can do your fixin’ and nobody will know.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing and doubted Momma would be able to talk Daddy into it. My siblings and I were not allowed in Momma and Daddy’s room unless we were beckoned to go in there and rub baby Linda’s back or bounce her on the bed.
“I’d like that,” I said finally. “It would be just perfect.”
“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” Momma said. “You can do odd jobs for your soldier lady until seven. Don’t forget, you have school tomorrow.”
My unexpected good fortune pushed Momma and Daddy’s naked bodies to the back of my mind. They would visit me many times later. I hugged Momma and gave her a kiss.
“Thank-you! I’ll be back by seven!”
True to her word, Joe had me sweep and clean and empty the trash. It was a reward in itself to toil in the service of such a good person. My final chore, and with Joe’s help, was to lift the carton full of toys onto my wagon and sweep out the out the corner where it had been stored. Joe had a hot plate hooked up in the back room. She fixed us grilled cheese sandwiches while I browsed through the box of toys.
“Let’s eat.” she said, “I’ll bet you’ve worked up an appetite.”
“I can always eat,” I replied. “Thanks.”
“No, thank you,” Joe said. “You did a fine job. This place was a mess. Now I’m ready for the holidays, thanks to you, my friend.”
I felt the heat rise to my face in a bright red blush when Joe called me her friend. It just felt too good.
“It’s fun cleaning and looking at all this neat stuff.” I told her, “Doesn’t feel like work at all.”
“I suppose by now you’ve noticed there’s nothing in that box but toys,” Joe remarked.
“That’s right,” I agreed, a big smile on my face. “Tractors and trucks for my brother Jackie, Lincoln logs, Tonka toys, blocks and dolls for Phillip and my three sisters.”
“There’s nothing in there for your parents,” Joe observed. “What do they like?”
I felt bad for a moment for not having thought of gifts for Momma and Daddy.
“I gotta think,” I said.
“Finish your sandwich,” Joe said, “I have to lock up. When you’re through eating, we’ll have a look around, you ‘n me. I’ll just bet something will catch your eye.”
After she locked the front door, Joe walked with me through the store. I had never been the only customer in a closed store. I wondered at all the used merchandise and the donations it represented. There must be a lot of rich people in the world and this place was proof that some of them were pretty nice folks. We came upon a section of books and that reminded me of Daddy.
“My Daddy reads cowboy books. He really likes the ones by that French guy.”
Joe sorted through boxes and shelves filled with nothing but books, books and more books.
“Here are a couple by Louis La’mour. Is that the author you were thinking of?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but he has that one there. I remember the cowboy on the cover.”
Joe dug some more and came up with a couple I didn’t think Daddy had read.
“How about your mom,” she asked, “What does she like?”
I glanced around the room until a puzzle caught my attention.
“She likes puzzles and scarfs.”
Joe helped me pick out a thousand-piece puzzle. When finished it would be a beautiful mountain scene. Momma and I could put it together and glue it to some cardboard and hang it on the wall. We had done that before. The last thing I picked out was a dark blue scarf. It felt soft like I imagined silk would.
“That will look nice with Momma’s brown chocolate eyes,” I said.
“There,” Joe said, “Now all we gotta do is settle up.”
“Oh yeah,” I laughed and handed her my three quarters.
“One more thing, then you can go home, Sir,” Joe said. “I have to get the name and address of anyone who works for me so I can fill out my employment forms.”
I felt like a big shot, getting my name on the employment rolls and everything. I gave her the information and she wrote it down on a form.
Joe helped me wiggle the wobbly, top-heavy wagon through the store.
“Take this,” she said. “This isn’t payment for the work you performed. It is a gift from me to you.” She handed me a wooden box. It was full of paints and brushes and decals, tacks and small nails, all the things and more than I would need to fix those toys up so they looked better than new. I hugged her tight, an impulse reaction which embarrassed us both and set the wooden box on top of the toys.
Once outside, I made sure the box was balanced on the wagon and started down the sidewalk with my happy load wobbling along behind me.
Joe stood in the doorway of the store watching me.
“Are you okay with that?” She sounded worried.
“I’m fine and thanks!” I called back as I slowed down to negotiate a crack in the sidewalk.
“You come back and keep me company sometime,” she called after me. She went back into the store before I could answer.
I got an ache in the bottom of myself at times like this just thinking about all the nice people I left behind. Moving every couple of months, with Daddy’s drinking and all the problems associated with it, I never had time to gather those people up and keep them close. Guess I missed the opportunity to say goodbye, a separate sadness, come to think of it.
As I neared the back door, Momma heard the squeaking wagon and, for my part, I waited until the door opened. Momma stood there with a smile and a glow on her face the likes of which I hadn’t seen for quite some time. Daddy came past her and lifted the box all by himself. He could see right into the top of it. I sure was glad I had the foresight to hide Daddy and Momma’s gifts in the middle of the box. Daddy winked at me.
“You got your work cut out for you, Kiddo!”
Adults are confusing critters to contemplate, I thought to myself. And not just my parents; most adults I had truck with in my life could be fighting like cats and dogs one day and naked on the couch the next. When it came to Momma and Daddy, your best bet was to just be thankful for the good days and run for cover the rest of the time. Well, this was one of those good days and I was thankful. Daddy set the box in the corner of the closet and showed me how to operate the on/off switch on a trouble light he had hung from a hanger on the clothes rod. I would be able to close the door and work away. No one would know where I was or what I was doing when I was in there. They left me alone for a moment to get my bearings. When I came out, Daddy and Momma were standing together with an arm around one another. I felt as if something was wrong with me because for some reason it just made me feel like crying.
I thanked my parents, then went to see what my brothers and sisters were up to. They had been told to stay in the bedroom while Daddy carried in the box. As so often happened in our lives, when I was the happiest, my brother Jackie was the most miserable.
“They made us stay cooped up in here while they were doin’ it,” he complained.
“They just wanted everybody to have a nap,” I shot back.
“You’re a liar, Tommy,” Jackie accused, “You even came in an’ caught ‘em in the act. I heard ‘em talkin’ about it. Daddy saw the door open a little bit an’ snuck over here an’ conked me in the head with it.”
There was a dent and scratch in Jackie’s forehead.
“You shouldn’t o’ been listenin’ to ‘em all sneaky like,” I said.
“Me?” Jackie cried indignantly, “You go in an’ catch ‘em doin’ it an’ you’re some kin’ o’ hero. I’m standin’ by the door an’ I near get my head knocked off!”
“Hey Lily!” I decided to play with and tickle my little sister to escape from Jackie. He was seriously messing with my good mood. My six-year-old brother, Phillip, piled on top of me and it wasn’t long before Jackie joined in. I was the oldest kid in the family, even including all the cousins, and everyone would always pile on and try to hold me down. We wrestled and rolled around on an old blanket on the floor and Jackie got in a couple of licks, forgot all about the bump on his head.
It was a tricky business, fixing those toys. When Momma and Daddy were gone, I would negotiate with Jackie to take everyone out back to play if it was warm enough. If not, I’d do my best to talk him into tending to and entertaining them in the house. We struck a deal whereby I would allow Jackie equal time to roam the neighborhood. The Christmas toys were about the only true secret I ever kept from my brother. To my knowledge, nobody but Momma and Daddy and Joe ever knew about me and the box of Salvation Army toys.
Speaking of Joe, the day before Thanksgiving a wonderful thing happened. A nice old Grandma and Grandpa couple knocked on the door. They told Momma they had a gift for Tommy and his family from Joe and the Salvation Army. They brought in a humungous basket with a big ol’ turkey and all the stuff that went with it. There was hard candy and fudge, lots o’ really good stuff to eat, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was like the grocery bags Jackie stole from ladies at the store, only better. We didn’t have to hide this food. Momma was suspicious of the couple and the basket until she found out these nice people weren’t going to read the bible to her or ask her to join them in prayer, none of that religious stuff. She claimed to have made her own peace with God and refused to listen to preachers and bible readers. Daddy wasn’t home so Momma and us kids got everything put away and chomped down a good part of the goodies before he showed up.
That night, when Momma put the turkey in the oven, I was allowed to stay up and keep her company. She was in a thoughtful and quiet mood. There were tears in her eyes but I was fairly sure, this time at least, they were happy ones. Daddy came home and he didn’t like it much that people had come while he was gone and left food at the house. He was always suspicious of what he called ‘handouts’. He wasn’t too drunk, though, and didn’t let his negative feelings ruin our high spirits.
The next day we ate like kings and queens. The sun was out so Daddy had to go finish a roof. He almost took me with him but changed his mind at the last minute. I did my best not to let it show how relieved I was. Momma put the turkey and the rest of the food out on the table. She took a good portion out for Daddy’s part and some white meat for work sandwiches, then told everyone to have at it. And have at it, we did. That turkey was a bare bones skeleton when we were finished with it.
This particular Thanksgiving stands out in my heart and mind as one of those rare occasions, a day when Jackie didn’t get plinked, slapped, or sent to a corner a single time. He tried to fight it but from all appearances, just for a little bit, he was happy. Momma sat back rubbing the top of her belly. The baby was due sometime within the coming month. Phillip, Lily and Linda had mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie all over their faces. They were a sight to see.
“I wish we had a camera,” Momma said wistfully.
I brought her a cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie. She had those tears in her eyes again.
“This is how it should always be, Tommy,” she whispered. “It is a wonderful holiday, thanks to you and your friend Joe. You’re a good boy.”
We were in bed that night when Daddy got home but I woke up when I heard him clunking around. Our happy Thanksgiving time had gone to bed with us. I knew it was over when I heard Momma crying and Daddy calling her names. I put my hands over my ears and thought about the knife under the stove and Daddy’s naked back when he was doin’ it to Momma. That would be a perfect time to get him. I considered getting another knife and having Jackie help me but pushed the thought away. I wasn’t sure what Daddy would do to me for sticking him with a knife. He would beat Jackie to within an inch of his life just for thinking about it. I was sure of that.
The dim remembrance of the time I had been poised to do the deed, the night of knife and spaghetti, changed me in a forever way. I learned to totally slip out of myself and, like Momma said one time, just go away. It was a scary process because I didn’t have any control over it. It was like when I attacked the fat boy who was torturing the cat. I wasn’t myself. A monster climbed inside my brain and looked out through my eyes. It was bound and damned determined to protect Momma and my brothers and sisters. Whatever the monster was, it had come to watch over them through me and only me. This Thanksgiving night, like so many others, somewhere beneath the screaming voice of my father, the monster just took me away.
A strange thing happened the day after Thanksgiving. A big truck parked outside on the sidewalk. A man got out of it and knocked on the door. Momma and Daddy were both at work, so I answered.
“Your parents home, kid?” he asked.
“They’re at work,” I replied.
“I’m from A & A Glass,” he said. “Your landlord, Mister Garcia, has sent me out to fix the front window.”
I agreed to move the couch back from the wall, which was easy to do because the cushions were still busy being used as beds. The house faced north and across the busy expanse of 29th Avenue stood the mammoth hunched beast, Freeland Elementary. I had never considered the plywood covering the broken window hole a barrier, not in any conscious sense anyway. Watching as the men removed it, I realized that was exactly what it had been to me. We didn’t own curtains and the blanket was in use in the bedroom. There was no escaping it, now the beast could watch through this window eye into our lives. My brothers and sisters must have felt it too. They all came and stood next to and behind me. They stared through the clear glass as the man and his helper gathered their tools, got into the big truck and drove away. I watched the exhaust from the truck form its own cloud and hover in the air. Lily grabbed my hand.
“I cold, Tommy.”
Phillip and Linda chorused, “Me too!”
“We ain’ safe no more. We ain’ never safe no more.”
“You guys all go back to the bedroom,” I said, “I’m gonna light the stove.”
“You ain’ supposed to touch it,” Jackie reminded me.
“Just go,” I replied impatiently, “I’m tired of arguing with you about everything.”
Jackie was correct in his warning. I had been told explicitly by Momma and Daddy both to stay away from the brown monster. Lighting it was tricky. I was aware of that, having watched my parents light it dozens of times. They always made us kids go in the bedroom and close the door just in case it blew up. I got a straw from the broom and lit it at the cook stove. Then I turned the knob on the heater and poked the straw in through its small round hole. Just as would usually happen to Momma and Daddy, the straw went out when I pushed the pilot button. I returned to the cook stove and lit the straw again. When I poked its flame through the hole this time, the brown stove blew up in my face. It usually did that too but I had never been in the same room as the concussion.
My brothers and sisters came out of the bedroom and just stood there looking at me like I was a zoo exhibit or something. Jackie pointed to his face and back to mine then started laughing. Phillip grinned and Lily said, “You look funny, Tommy.”
I slugged Jackie in the arm on the way to the bathroom. Looking in the cracked mirror above the sink, I was distressed and amazed to see my face had turned light gray and my eyebrows and eyelashes were gone. Both my ears were ringing loudly. The fine blonde hair on both arms was singed and curly. When I touched the burnt hairs, they fell off leaving my forearms smooth and hairless like my face.
“Boy, are you gonna be in trouble,” Jackie observed when I returned to the kitchen.
I ignored his comment, went into the living room and took hold of one end of the couch.
“Come on, Jackie. Help me put this thing back.”
“Tommy, are you blowed up?” Lily asked me.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “And you guys stay away from the stove. Just like Momma always says, ‘It’s hot!’”
“You are too blowed up and maybe about to get died.” Phillip just had to add his two cents worth.
“Just shut up and help Jackie bring the cushions and blanket in,” I said. “You guys can all sit on the couch and warm up while I find us something to eat.”
“How come he’s allays the boss o’ us?” Phillip asked Jackie.
Jackie mumbled something in reply as they went to do my bidding. I got some commodities out, rice and tomato paste this time. There was no meat in the house but Momma had taught me to boil and fluff rice, then add one can each of tomato paste and water. Throw it all together, add a little salt and pepper and Voila!, you had Spanish Rice.
My fingers kept going to my face to feel the skin where my eyebrows and eyelashes were supposed to be. I was upset about having them burned off and, on top of that, afraid I’d be in deep trouble when my parents got home. There was nowhere and no way to hide this situation. One look at my hairless face and I would be found out. I expected Momma to be home first or I would never have tried to light the stove in the first place. She would understand about the window men and the cold outside air getting in. Daddy, on the other hand, might or might not, depending largely on his mood and state of sobriety. These thoughts ran over and over in my mind, always looping back to, ‘Will they grow back?’
I had watched a television movie about a boy whose hair turned green. I was haunted for weeks after I saw it and would swear mine was changing to green every time I looked in the mirror. This eyebrow and eyelash thing was hopping around in my mind the same way. I didn’t want to be the boy with no eyebrows or eyelashes. If Daddy was in a bad mood, it didn’t matter. I would just be the dead kid with no hair on his face.
When Momma got home, she was upset that I had turned on the stove. After the scare of lighting it, I hadn’t attempted to adjust it and it was very hot in the row-house. She turned the heat down and continued to scold me about it. She finally settled down and admitted she was scared and just plain relieved that I was alive and hadn’t blown myself up. I was, of course, never to touch the stove again. When I asked her about my eyebrows and eyelashes, she took a closer look at me and broke into laughter. When she got control of her giggles, she held a hand on the top and bottom of her belly and told me it would take a while but she imagined they would grow back. Daddy got home after everyone had gone to bed. He was so drunk he probably didn’t know if he had eyebrows and eyelashes himself. He set his quart of schnapps and a jug of ice water by the bed and fell over sideways.
A couple of days after the window was put in, just like Momma said would happen, a man came and put an eviction notice on the front door. We went to school and the neighborhood children had something other than our lack of lunches and ragged clothes to poke fun at us about. Now we were the family soon to be put out on the street. Having been there many times before and knowing what was coming didn’t help much. I wanted to fight the taunting children but the fear of Daddy’s belt kept me in line. My brothers and I had been duly warned: if we got into any more trouble in school, our fault or not, there would be hell to pay. Daddy had enough problems of his own. He didn’t need us to pile on any more.
Momma went to court on the eviction notice and offered her paycheck, eighty-four dollars from the Dog House Bar and Grille, to keep us from being thrown out on the street. The judge was openly sympathetic toward this extremely pregnant woman and her six rag-a-tag children. We stood with her before the judge, her four stair-steps, Tommy, Jackie, Phillip, and Lily. Momma held Linda and Cheryl snuggled into my arms. The judge smooth-talked the landlord into accepting Momma’s check. Mister Garcia was very clear on one point though. He would have full payment, including back rent, by the thirty-first of December or out the door we went. Momma knew it would take a miracle to meet these conditions. Momma leaned against the marble walls of the City and County Building after the hearing and smiled wearily at me. Her victories were hard fought and small, the epitome of survival, living life one day, one moment, at a time. She was only five-foot-one. Tall in my eyes, I suspected her belly was rounder now than she was tall.
“Tommy,” she said, “people like us have to be satisfied to claim our small victories. That man will have us out but not before we celebrate our Tommy Family Christmas and I see this baby born.” She closed her eyes and the peaceful smile remained on her beautiful face. “God bless that judge.”
Momma continued to work but was being pressured by her boss to take off work before the baby was born. She said he was afraid it was going to be born in his bar. It was a cold and icy winter so Daddy couldn’t have been working anyway but he kept himself so drunk he couldn’t see straight. He spent a lot of time at the Dog House Tavern and hustled Momma for her tips while she was working. She complained to me that Daddy was spending her money faster than she could earn it and this was another reason her boss wanted her to take off. The event of her pregnancy and Daddy’s extreme drunkenness were just plain bad for business. Momma was back to stealing whatever was left on the plates in the bar restaurant so we had something to eat. She and I worked together on this as always. If Daddy drove her home from work, she hid the garbage in her coat and slipped it to me. I scraped off the ashes and egg shells before feeding it to my brothers and sisters. We couldn’t heat it up if Daddy was home and coherent. He wouldn’t have his kids eating, by God, garbage.
A couple of days before Christmas, Daddy cut back on his drinking. On Christmas Eve, I snuck out of the bedroom after my brothers and sisters had all gone to sleep. Momma helped me drag the big box into the living room. I had painted and fixed toys for everyone, then wrapped them in newspaper and tied them with string. All except Jackie’s. I had straightened the axles on a big semi-truck and a red farm tractor. I arranged these on the outer edge all by themselves so Jackie would see them the moment he came out of the bedroom. Momma had the gifts from the Santa Claus Shop. She had stood in the cold and snow for four hours one day to redeem her certificates. She was disappointed with what she picked out because she was so far back in line that everything was picked over by the time she had her chance to choose. I hugged her, told her it didn’t matter. Those gifts had been wrapped at the Santa Claus Shop so they had real festive wrapping paper around them and ribbons and bows.
There was no Christmas tree and no colored lights, not so much as a candle lighting the room. I felt a tear slide down my cheek as I stood back to look at the pile of gifts in front of the couch. They were bathed in an arc of light from the street through the new glass of the window whose blanket curtain was in use in the bedroom covering my brothers and sisters. The couch without cushions as a backdrop to the display of presents was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, a hard-earned wish come true. Momma patted me on the back. There were tears in her eyes and she seemed too choked up to speak. She squeezed my arm and walked in to the kitchen to finish her coffee with Daddy.
I returned to bed and waited for the lights to go out in the kitchen. When I was sure Momma and Daddy had gone to bed, I got their gifts out of the coat closet where I had them hidden and placed them on the floor with the rest. I was making my way quietly back to the bedroom when I heard a noise at the front door. It was after ten o’clock and I couldn’t imagine who it could be. I peeked out the window and whispered her name under my breath.
She had left a small Christmas tree on the porch. It was decorated with bulbs and candy canes. And there next to it was another humungous basket of goodies and food just like the one the nice couple brought us on Thanksgiving. Best of all were two smoked hams. Momma wouldn’t have to cook. I took the tree in and arranged the presents around it. It was then I noticed a gaily wrapped package poking out of the food basket. It was about the size of a shoe box and had a tag on it that read: For Tommy from a friend, Merry Christmas. The light outside the iced-up window shined into the room and divided itself around the little tree in slices of sparkles all its own. I hugged the gift to my chest and thought to myself, ‘We’re gonna have a bright Christmas morning just like everyone else this year.’ My Christmas angel has a name.”
Christmas morning was everything I thought it would be and more. Jackie held his tractor and truck in his lap. He rocked them back and forth and tears ran down his cheeks. The package from Joe had two model cars in it, a forty Ford pickup like Daddy’s except it was a hotrod and a fifty-seven Chevy.
Daddy was too sick to be upset about Joe’s ‘handouts’. Going on the wagon was getting harder and harder on him. He shook really bad all over and the whites of his eyes turned yellow. Jackie and I helped Momma set the table and once again, thanks to Joe and the Salvation Army, we ate like royalty. Daddy wasn’t interested in food.
© 2018 artwork, music and words
conceived by and property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner 2018 ©