The young mother, clearly overworked, wore a thin, ill-fitting jacket and blue jeans. On her right shoulder hung her purse, a diaper bag and three plastic grocery sacks. In her left arm slept a baby bundled in a white snowsuit and pink blanket. There was one empty seat on the bus, so she told her three-year-old son to sit there.
The boy obeyed, but squinted suspiciously at the fortyish woman in layered work clothes and a reflective safety vest sitting next to him. He squirmed. He glanced over his shoulder to see out the window behind him. He turned his face the other direction and eyed the overweight, old lady with a gray, metal cane propped against her knees. The boy stared at her challengingly.
She smiled at him.
He dropped his head, squirmed again, leapt to feet, and darted to his mother. Flinging his arms around her legs, he buried his face against her knees.
“Mikey,” she said uncomfortably. “Mikey, go back and sit down.”
“No,” the toddler whispered.
She shrugged her purse and the diaper bag higher onto her shoulder, leaned forward awkwardly, and placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go. Sit. Down.”
Mikey shook his head defiantly, looked into her eyes, and started to cry.
Other passengers on the bus pressed against each other, some pointed, others jerked their chins in Mikey’s direction, and all of them snickered. The driver’s angry glare bounced off the rear view mirror and slammed into the harried mother.
“Mikey,” she said pleadingly.
The old woman canted her head as she measured the exchange between the boy and his mother. Finally, she called out cheerily, “Mikey.”
The child twisted around to look at her.
“Mikey, come back and sit next to your Aunties,” the old woman suggested.
The woman in the reflective vest nodded toward the boy, then patted the empty plastic bus seat invitingly.
The boy glanced at his mother, who smiled with desperate frustration and repeated, “Go sit down.”
Realizing that he had been saved by his “Aunties,” the boy raced back, and the woman in the reflective vest helped him climb onto the seat. The boy knelt with his nose and one hand pressed to the window. He used the other hand to gesture at all the wonderful things outside the bus window: the overhead train, another bus, a truck from the south side delivering produce. Tapping his hand on the glass enthusiastically, he grinned and cried out at the truck’s logo, “Let us!”
The old lady thought of the three-story walk up and the twice used tea bag waiting for her at the end of the bus ride. The string from the tea bag would be dangling down the side of the cup and beside it, along the edge of the saucer, would be the half-slice of cold toast she’d set aside for her lunch. She tightened her grip on her utilitarian cane.
“Lettuce,” she agreed feigning excitement. “And tomatoes.”
The old woman hadn’t thought of her grandmother’s bedroom in forty years. She lay in the snowbank and remembered the pale draperies that puffed at the windows; the round blue and cream hooked rug that even then had been in the family three generations. She loved to stand at the vanity’s huge mirror with dark wooden scrollwork of horses rearing up on each side of the looking glass. She wasn’t allowed to use her grandmother’s gold hairbrush and hand mirror. She did anyway, though, leaving brown hair in the bristles. If her mother found them, she’d be yanked over her mother’s lap and beaten. If her grandmother found them, the elderly lady would wink at her as she pulled out the long brown strands and tucked them in the small, oval wastebasket under the tissues and magazines to hide them. Horses also stampeded across the scrollwork on the bed. She and her one-year-older cousin would twist blankets around the footboard and pretend to be cowboys. Yippee-ki-ya.
Her bag was still on her shoulder, but the zipper had split open and the contents scattered, no doubt destined to remain under the snowdrift until spring. From the direction of the busy pharmacy down the block she heard voices.
“Are you alright?” one of the voices called out. “Did you hurt yourself?” the other voice shouted. Two young men hurried toward her the center of the sidewalk where it was shoveled. One wore his store uniform. The other wore a parka. “Hang on,” they said. “Stay where you are. We’ll help you up.”
To her, the clomp of their boots sounded like galloping horses.
As far back as I can remember, my parents’ alarm clock was displayed front and center on top of the television in the living room. At the end of every evening no matter how angry my parents were at each other, my mother would rise from her chair, pull the switch on the back of clock, then stroll over to kiss my father good night. She told me over and over, and long before I ever asked, that they had agreed they would end the day with a kiss no matter what the day had been like or how they felt about each other in the moment.
Come 5:30 in morning that alarm clock would go off. My mother would leap from their bed in a confused panic, realize that the alarm in the living room was ringing, and run down the hall into the living room to shut it off. Every morning: thud, thud, thud, swear, thud, thud. If she hadn’t tossed on her bathrobe, she would go back into the bedroom to get her bathrobe. If she had, she would sigh audibly, catch her breath, then go into the kitchen to make black coffee and four pieces of toast for my father before waking him up.
After I was grown and married my husband complained because I wasn’t waking him up early enough in the mornings. H1 insisted that I was responsible for waking him up because I was his wife and told me that I had to do better. I tried leaning into the problem: at first, making it an intimate joke between us for a while, then I began flipping on every single light in the house and playing the stereo. Eventually, I simply grabbed him by the ankles, hauled him out of bed onto the floor, and dragged him to the bathroom. He wasn’t happy with that solution.
I took the problem to my mother who empathized completely. She told me that she had the same problem as a newlywed, then she explained to me, for the first time in my entire life, the reason she kept the alarm clock in the living room. If it were beside the bed, she would turn it off and go back to sleep, causing my father to be late for work. She tried turning up the volume. She tried putting the alarm clock on a metal pie tin so the sound would echo. Neither worked. That’s when she put it in a completely different room so it would force her to get out of bed to turn it off. My father came into the room at the end of the conversation and agreed that my mother’s solution was the best.
I drove home with that conversation on my mind, turned over everything she’d suggested, and thought also about what I’d witnessed for myself while growing up. Did I move the alarm clock to a different room? Of course not. I told H1 to get his own ass of bed in the morning.
(but sharing a bowl of hot porridge with whomever comes)
For sixty-five times, that I’m sure about anyway, this earth has made it all the way to the back of the sun and returned. Sixty-five times, that I’ve seen for myself, and other, reliable sources say it has done the very same thing for eons, millennia piled against millennia. Not technically, scientifically forever, but as forever and always as matters to the gnats of humanity that we actually are. It’s ridiculous to suggest that I cannot imagine a time when it wouldn’t. If it didn’t then yes, certainly, I wouldn’t imagine it. None of us would. This dark morning I’ve opened the window blinds, pulled back every curtain, and stand with my palms pressed Around a chipped, rinsed-out-not-washed mug brimming with a coffee of elixirs and promises. The red plaid robe I couldn’t throw away when my mother died is knotted sloppily at my waist, mended one more time where my fingertips wear through the flannel. This is the second night in the same sweatpants, and even the family dog has declined to join me so early. Still, I face east like a prayer, anticipating, hoping, depending on one more new year. One more benchmark of what we’ve been, where we’re going, and who we are.
She lay there listening to her teen-aged sister’s slow breathing from the twin bed across the room and could tell her sister was asleep. No lights came from the hall. No voices from the television in the living room
She thought, I could sneak to the Christmas tree, look around quickly, and be back in bed before anyone notices. She propped Teddy, her stuffed bear, up in the corner of her own bed by the wall. Folded back the blankets, and slipped her feet onto the floor. She paused. She listened. Her sister’s little snore hadn’t changed, so she knew she was still asleep.
She rose to her feet and tip toed across the linoleum floor, pushed aside the tattered curtain that served as a door to the bedroom, and peered into the hall. No one was there. She stretched her neck, ear to the right, toward the other bedrooms, listening to see if one of her brothers or parents were awake. There wasn’t a sound.
She nodded in satisfaction, took a deep breath and walked down the hall to the left, toward the living room.
There were rules.
Her father was laid off so no more than $10 per present per child. Pick what you want but don’t ask for anything that cost more than that. She had asked for a Betsy Wetsy doll.
Santa would still bring presents, but the main one was from Mom and Dad and costs less than $10.
Everyone enters the living room Christmas morning at the same time.
She didn’t believe number three anymore. At least, not the part about Santa. All four of her older brothers had lined up and explained to her, in the blunt way of older brothers, that only babies believed in Santa Claus. Her sister pooh-poohed and told her that her brothers were wrong, that Santa was very real and would bring her a present. Her older sister was always right. It was hard for her to not ignore all four of her brothers, though.
There were no streetlamps way out in the country where she lived, so no light came through the large, picture window. Her mother took everyone outside once after dark each evening so that they could see the multi-colored lights glistening on the Christmas tree in the center of that window. It was beautiful. Just looking at it tickled her ears, made her toes tingle, her stomach happy.
What was that noise? She paused mid-step and squinted her eyes to hear better. Who moved? Who’s awake? When she didn’t hear the noise again, she decided everything was okay. She didn’t stop again until she was in the living room. She could see coats and boots piled by the big oil heater on the far end of the room nearest the kitchen. She saw her father’s favorite chair pushed to one side for the Christmas tree. And, yes, there under the tree, were stacks of wrapped presents.
She almost laughed, but stuffed her hand in her mouth at the last second so that the sound wouldn’t wake anyone. It was working. She could look over her gifts, shake a few, and figure out if she were getting a doll.
She glanced over her shoulder, back down the hallway. No one was there and there was no sound, except her sister’s little snores. She liked her sister’s snores. Sometimes when she had a bad dream and couldn’t fall back asleep, she would lay awake and listen to them. It was comforting to know that her sister was so close.
She turned back and walked into the living room toward the tree. Ahead of her, where her gifts were always placed under the tree, was a big, dark spot. She couldn’t see beyond it. She couldn’t see into it. She wondered what it was and peered closer.
The big dark spot growled! It rose up higher and higher and growled louder and louder. Wet, yellow teeth flashed brightly in the middle of the dark spot…in the middle of….a bear! A grizzly bear! Here, in front of her beautiful Christmas tree, in her safe living room, was a vicious, mean, hungry grizzly bear. She froze.
The bear loped toward her snarling. A deep, long rumble rose from the bear’s chest.
She ran. She ran and ran, out of the living room, down the hall, into the bedroom, past her sleeping sister, and leapt back into bed. She could hear the bear in the hallway. She pulled the covers over her head, shivering in fright. She shook for the rest of the night. She couldn’t sleep. She was too afraid to pull the covers down and see if her sister had been eaten yet. She wondered which of her brothers would be first to become the grizzly bear’s midnight snack.
After a long time, she heard all of her family in the hallway laughing, eager to enter the living room to get their presents. Rule number 5. The bear must be waiting in the living room, she thought, ready to pounce on the unlucky person who walked in first.
Oh no. Oh no. What could she do? She was frightened. She was more than frightened. She was terrified.
“Get up, Lazybones,” her mother called from the hallway. She slunk more deeply into the blankets. Her mother strode into the room, jerked back the covers, and said, “Everyone is waiting for you. Enough is enough.”
She knew it was over. She had to get out of bed and march as bravely as she could into the living room and be eaten by the grizzly bear. There was nothing else to it. She could face the grizzly bear, or she could face her mother.
She planted her feet on the floor, straightened her back, and walked down the hall. Because she was the youngest, she always got to go first. She thought this time that was best. Maybe the grizzly bear wouldn’t eat anyone else after eating her.
As soon as she stepped into the living room, she stopped. Her brothers and sister darted around her and to the tree. She blinked her eyes. She blinked her eyes again. Wrapping paper and ribbons flew everywhere. Her oldest brother was prancing around showing everyone the new globe that Santa had brought him. Her sister was holding up a make-up case with real lipstick in it.
There was no grizzly bear. No growling. No wet, yellow teeth.
Her mother took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her toward a coat heaped in front of the Christmas tree. She recognized it as her father’s large army coat. Her mother pushed her a little more.
Maybe the grizzly bear is under the army coat, she thought. Slowly, cautiously, her hands trembling, she lifted the coat by the collar and one arm. Hidden underneath it was a child’s table and four chairs. The perfect size for tea parties, for Teddy and her dolls, the perfect size for her.
She laughed. She laughed so hard at herself she cried. It was never a grizzly bear. It was her father’s dark army coat. She made all the rest up. She had frightened herself. She laughed again.
Outside Santa peered through one corner of the large, picture window. He chuckled to himself. When she pulled out a chair and sat at the little table, he chuckled again and whispered softly, “Elves have magic, you know. Rule number 1. And rule number 5.”