by Todd Walton
Michael Perry, gruff and unkempt, smiles at his four-year-old daughter Cecily and says, “Please be my little songbird just a few more times and we’ll have Christmas tonight in a motel room with television and a bathtub and…”
“A tree?” asks Cecily, her eyes growing wide at the thought of a tree lit with colored lights. “With tinsel and angels?”
Mildred Kittredge, seventy-four, proud and prim in a dark tartan skirt and a well-pressed white blouse, looks out the big picture window in her living room, and frowns at the scruffy fellow pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk across the street, his cargo a dirty little girl sitting atop a pile of cans and bottles. Mildred describes the ruffian and the child in angry shouts to her husband, Ted, who is playing a video game in his study down the hall.
“Long brown hair. Fortyish. Six-feet tall. Blue jacket. Dirty jeans. Old tennis shoes. No socks. Are you listening to me, Ted?” She waits for her husband to reply, furious that these derelicts continue to come down her street after all her calls to the city council. “The little girl has curly brown hair like Shirley Temple. Her face is filthy. Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. Pink pants. I can’t see her shoes. She’s in the shopping cart. Did you hear me, Ted? They’re obviously homeless.”
“Yes, dear,” says Ted, a tall man with snowy white hair. “I’ll put the lights up before they get here.”
“Before who gets here?” asks Mildred, stamping her foot. “There’s a horrible man with an unsanitary child across the street. They’re going up to the Morgan’s front door, and the Morgans, as you know, are in Paris for the holidays.”
“Before the kids arrive,” says Ted, putting down his control stick, pleased with his new high score. “No need to get so upset. I’ll put them up right now.”
“I guess nobody’s home,” says Michael, pushing the cart away from the big brownstone. “Maybe next door.”
“I’m cold, Daddy,” says Cecily, hugging herself. “Can I have my jacket?”
Michael fishes in the duffel bag for her filthy blue jacket. “I’ll wash it, honey. Next chance we get.”
Cecily puts on her jacket and wrinkles her nose at the musty smell, though she’s glad to be warmer. “Thank you, Daddy. Maybe they’ll have a Laundromat at the motel.”
“I bet they will,” says Michael, feeling as hopeless as he has ever felt—his daughter the only reason he goes on living.
Julia Smiley, wearing her red sleigh bell apron over her forest green dress from Neiman Marcus, stands at the enormous butcher-block island in the center of her colossal kitchen. She’s sprinkling green and red sugar glitter on her white snowman cookies, trying to keep her mind on presents and ornaments, rather than think about her long gone husband.
“Jingle Bells,” she says lifelessly, which reminds her to put on the Johnny Mathis Christmas CD her mother sent to cheer her up.
The doorbell rings. Julia licks her fingers, washes her hands, and checks her face and recently permed hair in the little mirror she keeps over the sink for just these occasions.
“I’m still good looking,” she murmurs, frowning at her pretty face. “But I’m not at all sure about this perm. Maybe I’m ready for long hair again. Maybe…”
The house shakes as Lois, Julia’s sixteen-year-old daughter, hurtles down the stairs to answer the door with Arthur, fourteen, following close behind, shouting, “It’s not your stupid boyfriend. It’s probably for me.”
Julia clears her throat and tries not to cry as she imagines their father standing at the door, ashamed and chagrinned, ready to give the marriage another try, done with his ridiculous affair with that woman barely half his age.
“Mom,” says Arthur, coming into the kitchen, resplendent in his madras jumpsuit, his frothy blond hair in his eyes. “There’s some weird bums at the door.”
Julia’s feelings of forgiveness dissolve into rage as she grabs her rolling pin and storms through the house, determined to drive the invaders away. But the scene in the doorway is so arresting—a sad little girl standing atop a heap of cans in a shopping cart—that Julia lowers her rolling pin and gazes in wonder as the beguiling waif takes a deep breath and belts out that quintessential Christmas song:
Chess nuts rosing on an open fire,
jack fross nipping atcher nose
I know it’s been said many times many ways
Merry Chrissmuss Merry Chrissmuss
Merry Chrissmuss to you.
Lois, who loves movies starring bold little kids, is deeply smitten with the singing child and bursts into applause.
Arthur, who favors anti-hero comics and mildly obscene rap music, finds the little girl’s rendition of the old tune sufficiently bizarre as to warrant an approving nod. And Julia, having for several months walked the fine line between functional depression and irrational despair, is stricken to the heart by the darling little girl, and bursts into tears of aggrieved compassion.
“I’m calling the police,” says Mildred, aghast at what she imagines to be going on across the street. “They’re making a horrible scene at the Smileys, and you know Mr. Smiley isn’t there anymore, so…”
“How does this look?” says Ted, standing on the highest rung of the eight-foot ladder to place the big bubbling star atop the towering spruce. “Or do you prefer the kinetic angel? The one that changes colors and has the spiraling halo?”
Mildred grabs her phone and punches 911. “Hello, yes. This is Mildred Kittredge. I’m at 7472 38th Street. Not avenue, street. There’s a man breaking into the house across the street. With a shopping cart.”
“Really?” says Ted, climbing down from the ladder. “At Julia’s?”
“That’s right,” says Mildred, looking out he window. “Breaking and entering even as we speak.” She hangs up and glares at Ted. “Since when is she Julia to you?”
“They just seem to be talking,” says Ted, remembering the thrill of that recent afternoon when he met Julia in the rose garden at McKinley Park, purely by chance, next to the fabulously fragrant red Mamie Eisenhowers, how they walked home together and she cried about her husband leaving her, and he comforted her. “I wouldn’t say he’s breaking in. They’re just…”
“You have to say that,” says Mildred, storming out of the room. “Or the police won’t come. You have to say there’s violence underway or they ignore you.”
“But honey,” says Ted, following her into the kitchen. “Why call the…”
“Don’t honey me,” says Mildred, seething. “You’ve been talking to her, haven’t you? Ever since her husband ran off with that harlot. Haven’t you? Admit it.”
“She’s our neighbor,” says Ted, feeling terribly sad. “I say hello to her occasionally. We…”
“You probably talk to her more than you talk to me,” says Mildred, turning away. “Don’t you? Admit it.”
Michael—wishing he’d shaved more recently than a week ago—steps into the doorway, gives Cecily a peck on the cheek, and turns to face the Smileys. “Thanks so much for the applause, but we’re just a bit down on our luck right now, and what we really need is…” He stops speaking and his jaw drops. “I…I…”
“What?” asks Julia, flustered to be the object of such a penetrating gaze. She impulsively touches her hair and wipes the corners of her mouth in case cookie crumbs are clinging there. “What is it?”
“You…you’re Julia,” says Michael, overwhelmed by a flood of memories. “Julia Payne. Class of 1978. Castlemont High.”
She squints at him, sensing she knows him, but seeing no one she recognizes. “Yes, but…who are you?”
A huge tear rolls down Michael’s cheek and he forces a laugh to stem the tide. “I’m Michael Perry. We…we…”
“Michael?” she says, forgetting all about her husband and her children and her hair. “Michael.
“Holy Jesus!” says Mildred, closing her eyes at the unimaginable. “She’s kissing him. Has she lost her mind?”
Ted does not close his eyes. Julia’s passionate embrace of the bedraggled man is one of the most beautiful things he’s seen in all his seventy-six years. “They aren’t kissing,” he murmurs, his heart pounding. “She’s hugging him.”
Mildred opens her eyes. And though she is loathe to admit it, Julia and the vagrant do seem to be embracing in much the same way she and Ted embraced on that long ago day when Ted finally came home from the bloody war, and they clung to each other for hours and hours, fearing to ever let go.
Now squad cars arrive, one two three, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Six officers leap from their vehicles and unbutton the straps holding their guns tight in their holsters.
Michael and Cecily turn to face the police, hands held high in surrender.
Sergeant Kelly, sensing nothing serious, leads the parade of gendarmes. “Okay, okay,” he says, nodding deferentially to Julia. “What’s going on here? This guy bothering you, ma’am?”
“No,” says Julia, stepping in front of Michael, shielding him. “These are my friends. They’ve come to visit for Christmas.”
Mildred is extremely distressed. Throughout the long afternoon, as her two sons and two daughters arrive with her nine grandchildren, and all through Christmas supper and the opening of gifts, no matter how hard she tries, Mildred can think of nothing but that horrid man and the dirty little girl in the house across the street.
“What’s wrong, Mother?” asks Janet, the eldest of Mildred’s children. “You seem so tense.”
“She just…took him in,” says Mildred, clenching her fists and glaring in the direction of Julia’s house. “A complete stranger. Just…took him in. It’s inexcusable.”
“But why is that bad, Grandma?” asks twelve-year-old Philip, sorely disappointed she won’t allow him to go across the street to visit Arthur. “Maybe like the policeman told Grandpa, maybe Mrs. Smiley knows him. Maybe they are friends.”
“She couldn’t possibly,” says Mildred, barely able to keep from screaming. “How could she?”
“Mom,” says Jonah, her oldest son and the spitting image of Ted. “It’s Christmas. Maybe she’s feeling generous. ‘Tis the season and all that. So don’t worry about it.”
Ted watches the outdoor Christmas lights come on at Julia’s house, her azaleas and camellias twinkling with hundreds of little golden lights. “The officer said they were old friends visiting for the holidays. Maybe their car broke down. Maybe…”
“Of course she said he was an old friend,” says Mildred, shaking with rage. “They would have arrested him if she’d told the truth. She’s lost her mind. She’s watched too many of those stupid Hollywood movies where homeless people turn into saints and millionaires. She’s delusional, and now we’re all in danger.”
“Of what?” says Jonah, grimacing at Mildred. “We have them seriously outnumbered, Mom.”
“Don’t try to joke me out of this,” says Mildred, clenching her teeth. “That woman has lost her mind, and she’s endangering her children and us, too, letting a miscreant like that stay in our neighborhood. It’s an outrage.”
Lois is giving Cecily a bubble bath. Cecily peeks through her mask of bubbles and asks, “May I have some more hot, please?”
“Of course,” says Lois, trembling at the miracle of the child in their tub.
“Are we staying here tonight?” asks Cecily, pretending to be a mermaid, holding her legs together and swishing her imaginary tail through the warm water.
“I think so,” says Lois, feeling all sorts of motherly feelings she’s never felt before. “I’ll ask my mom.”
“I hope we do,” says Cecily, her eyes widening with excitement. “Because you have a chimney, and chimneys are what Santa uses for getting into houses with his presents. We were going to a motel, but they don’t have chimneys or fireplaces like you do, so there’s a much better chance Santa will bring what I wished for my father if we stay here.”
“What did you wish for?” asks Lois, holding her breath.
“New shoes,” whispers Cecily. “His are all worn out and we catch pneumonia if we go barefoot in the winter.”
Fresh from his shower, Michael is shaving with Julia’s razor and trying to think of a reasonable explanation for why he and Cecily are homeless. But the tangle of his past resists untangling, so he abandons his quest for an easy answer and says to his reflection, “I’ll just be honest. I’ll just…tell her the truth.”
Arthur is on the phone ordering pizza. “Yes, we’d like an el grande vegetarian with extra mushrooms and mega garlic, and we’d also like one of your humongo Christmas specials, the Chicago deep-dish Turkey ‘n Stuffing. Is it possible to get extra cranberry sauce on that?”
Julia is in the laundry room, washing everything in Michael’s duffel bag, weeping at the paucity of his belongings. She remembers how handsome Michael was when he took her to the senior prom and she wore her first and only strapless gown and all night long she worried her dress would slip away if she danced too fast and her breasts would come free for all the world to see. “So I only danced the slow ones, and he danced the fast ones with Mona Felix who was wearing practically nothing and wanted to take him away from me.”
“I can’t stand it any longer,” says Mildred, rising from her chair and striding to the front door. “If the police won’t do their job, I’ll do it for them.”
“Honey, no,” says Ted, looking up from the jigsaw puzzle he and the grandchildren are assembling—dolphins leaping over turquoise waters. “What are you doing? Wait.”
But Mildred will not be deterred. She hurries down the front walk and marches across the street; Ted and their children and grandchildren following in confused disarray.
Arthur answers the pounding on the door, shocked to find Mildred and Ted and their myriad descendents gathered on the front porch.
“Bummer,” he says, making a goony face. “I thought you were the pizza.”
“I am not the pizza,” says Mildred, wondering what Julia has done with that frightening man. “I am your neighbor, and I’m very worried about what’s happening in this house.”
Julia joins Arthur in the doorway, her face free of the sorrow that has masked her for years. “Merry Christmas, Mildred. Ted.” She smiles sublimely. “Are you out caroling? It’s so cold and clear. We’d love to hear a song. Come in. Come in. We’ve just turned on the tree lights.”
“We won’t come in,” says Mildred, trembling with anger. “Not until that man is gone. How dare you harbor that kind of person on our street. I don’t know what sort of mental problems you’re having, but I…”
“You mean Michael,” says Julia, seeing her fearful self so clearly in Mildred’s eyes. “He was my high school boyfriend. The first man I ever really loved.”
“First man you ever loved,” gasps Mildred, swept away into a vivid memory of
Christmas eve in Philadelphia, Mildred and her younger sister Claire just returned from sledding on Brower’s Hill.
They are having cocoa by the fire when someone knocks on the front door.
They run to answer, expecting friends with gifts, but it’s Father with his cap crushed in his trembling hands, his eyes bloodshot and full of tears, his lips quivering, desperate for a drink.
“Mama says we can’t let you in. Mama says you don’t live here anymore.”
“Oh, please my darlings, it’s so cold out here and I…”
“No,” says Mildred, slamming the door.
Now Michael appears with Cecily in his arms, his long hair brushed back from his handsome face. He smiles at Mildred and says in his rich baritone, “Isn’t it amazing? Finding each other after all these years.”
And without thinking, Mildred bows to him, deeply humbled by the seamless confluence of her tragic past and the miraculous present. “I…I don’t know what to say. Forgive me, I…”
“Please,” says Julia, drawing Mildred in from the cold. “We’ll have egg nog and wine by the fire, and cocoa for the children.”
“And I’ll sing,” says Cecily, leaning out from her father’s arms to kiss the old woman’s cheek.
“And we’ll sing along,” says Ted, slipping his arm around Mildred’s waist, lest she trip and fall.
Midnight. Mildred stands at her bedroom window, looking up at the Christmas moon still nearly full. She hears Ted coming up the stairs, and she wonders if he’ll notice the nightgown she’s wearing, the translucent cotton thing she used to wear long ago when they made love with abandon and the children came into being every two years, and they could imagine no end to their passion for each other.
Ted enters their bedroom saying, “The doors are locked, the children fast asleep.” He sits on the edge of the bed and takes off his shoes. “Quite a day, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” says Mildred, smiling at Julia’s house. “Quite a day.”
“Full of surprises,” says Ted, wanting so much to touch his wife, but fearing she will push him away as she has for so long now.
Mildred turns to her husband and opens her arms to him.
Michael and Julia sit at the kitchen table, searching their minds for anyone else from the olden days they might reminisce about. But there is no one left to keep them from speaking of their own lives now.
“The last time I saw you,” says Michael, sipping his tea, “was Christmas of my first year of college. I dropped out my sophomore year and never came home again.”
“Mitzy Eiger’s party,” says Julia, remembering her blue paisley dress, her daringly short hair, the peace symbol earrings she never let her mother see. “You had a moustache and all the girls thought you looked so dashing.”
“Ah, yes,” says Michael, touching his upper lip. “My Zapata phase.” He looks at Julia’s hand and sees the deep trace of her vanished wedding ring. “And you were engaged to good old Joe Phelps, so I didn’t even try to kiss you.”
“I broke up with him a few days after that party,” she says, barely remembering Joe. “I wish you had. Tried to kiss me. Who knows what might have happened?”
“So…where did you go after that?” He smiles shyly. “What did you do?”
She takes a deep breath and says, “You first.”
He takes her hand and gives it a good squeeze. “No, you.”
Todd Walton’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com