Randall Van Nostrand
Tinsel hangs like bangs in the window of Sutter’s Mercantile. Buster presses his nose against the glass. I stamp my feet, too cold to stand around watching Buster Walters drool over a dumb train set.
“We’re going to be late. Come on,” I say and shoe-skate down the block. Winowski Street is patchy with ice. I’m at the corner before he catches me.
“Millie, did you see the train?” As if anyone could miss it. “That train’s exactly like a real train. It’s got magne-traction. What do you think that is?”
He makes a fart sound. “How much you think that train costs?”
“Christmas is coming.”
I can’t imagine Christmas making this bad year better. My mother left two hundred and seventy-seven days ago. It was a pretty day for March. You ever have your mother leave you? Pack herself a bag and slip out of the house without saying goodbye? Come home and find there’s a note taped to the sugar bowl? That’s what I thought. So you don’t know how it feels when someone’s cut holes in your heart or how you have to walk around pretending you aren’t missing pieces of yourself.
“I’m asking Santa for that train. You think he’ll bring it? I’ve been good all year.”
I start to argue.
“I have so been good.”
“What about spilling juice on Granny’s accounting books?” She’s my granny, not his.
“That was an accident. Santa doesn’t blame you for accidents. Accidents don’t count.”
I don’t mention that Granny asked him twice not to set his juice down where she was working. We were lucky. Mr. Jacobson is sweet on Granny.
“What about not having your homework done and being late to school?” Buster is always late. He’s a bad influence on me.
“Those are ex-ten-u-at-ing circumstances. And by the way, you get extra Santa points for using big words.” Buster reads the dictionary like it’s interesting.
I pull open the door to the Church of the Holy Comforter. We race through the lobby and past the christening bowl.
“I get extra points for choir.” His voice echoes.
“No, you don’t.”
Mr. Margulies has already started the warm-up. He shakes his head as we join. Buster’s in the little kids’ section. I’m an alto in the regular section. Altos get to do the harmony parts. Helen Perkins gives me a sour look. She thinks she’s perfect. You know the type—turns in book reports in colored folders and thinks her bathwater is holy. Singing alto isn’t good enough for Helen. She’s been trying to get Mr. Margulies to switch her to soprano. So far, he’s held firm.
Today we’re practicing the music for the Christmas pageant: “We Three Kings,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Away in the Manager,” you know the drill. Christmas isn’t like it is in the movies. Daddy has already said he’s going to be on the road. He gets paid extra for working holidays and times are too tight for him not to take advantage. I don’t care. Really, it’s just a regular day with a bunch of advertising.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Buster says on our way home. He’s asked me a thousand times. He’s seven and still believes in Santa. I’m nine and don’t. The Walters’ house is next door to ours but he mostly lives with us. I’ve watched out for him his entire life.
“Nothing.” That’s what Granny always says, nothing but your sweet love. I don’t say the sweet love part.
“What if Santa brought you a hundred million dollars? Would you take that?”
“I wouldn’t turn my nose up.”
“If you got a hundred million dollars, would you buy me the train in Sutter’s Mercantile?”
“I’d buy you ten trains.”
“We could set them up in my room. They’d go over the bureau and under the bed and you and me could sit in the middle running them.” Grinning, he shoe-skates ahead of me. “All aboard!” and then he’s got his nose pressed against the glass of the Mercantile. If it wasn’t closed, he’d be pulling me inside. “I’m going to write Santa a letter,” he says when I catch up.
“You already wrote him.” He wrote the day after Thanksgiving. We had a fight about it. December first is the beginning of the Christmas season and anything before that is tacky.
“I need to write a better one.” I notice he doesn’t acknowledge I was right about him sending the Santa letter too early. “Will you help me?”
“You don’t need help.”
“If you help me, it will be better. Please, Millie.”
My teeth are chattering and I’m sick of standing around talking about some made-up Santa Clause. “You keep pressing your nose up against that glass you’re going to put a hole in it and Miz Isabelle will come after you.” All us kids know better than to cross Isabelle Sutter. She takes it as her Christian duty- and she’s a Methodist- to swat any child who misbehaves in her vicinity. There isn’t a parent for fifty miles around who’d dare complain about it neither. Her sister, Miz Patty, is a heck of a lot nicer.
Buster’s house is dark. His mother is either at work or passed out on the couch. My house has lights on but no decorations. Mama was the one to decorate our house. She loves Christmas more than Valentine’s Day, Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving all rolled together. I wonder where she is and what she’s doing. I have this feeling she’s going to surprise us and come home for Christmas. I’ve checked to make sure the decorations are still in the attic. There’s the little wooden horse Uncle Billy made when Mama was a child. There’s the red ball glittered with 1952, the year she and daddy got married. There’s the strings of lights and the golden-crowned angel and everything. I can’t imagine her celebrating her number one favorite holiday without the decorations. I can’t imagine her celebrating without Cyrus and Daddy and me.
“That you, Millie?” Granny says from her spot on the couch. She’s watching the six o’clock news and knitting.
“Hey, Miz Crookshank,” Buster says sitting close enough for a hug. He loves Granny’s hugs.
“I swear you get handsomer every day,” Granny says squeezing him close. “Soup’s on the stove. Get yourself fed and do your homework. The Price is Right is on in an hour. I’m counting on your help.”
I get Buster and me each a bowl of Granny’s bean soup. I don’t let him dish it out, he’d make a mess. It’s a Hard Day’s Night blasts from Cyrus’ room upstairs.
“I like the Beatles,” Buster says slurping soup. He’s gob-eyed for Cyrus, as if my brother’s some big hero. Cyrus is thirteen and too important for the likes of Buster and me.
“What do you think that magne-traction thing is?” Buster says. I don’t answer and keep my eyes on my science book trying to concentrate on the layers of the earth. Buster Walters can derail homework faster than any living being I know. “It sounds scientific, magne-traction.” He taps his pencil on the table. “You think Cyrus knows about it?” My brother is stomping around upstairs. Granny says he can’t help being noisy because he’s growing so fast. His feet are almost as big as Daddy’s. I think he just likes making noise.
“Don’t you have a book report to write?” I say.
Buster groans and opens his notebook. “You think Santa reads all the letters he gets? I bet he gets lots of them.”
“He’s not going to read anything from you if you don’t do your homework.”
Cyrus clomps down the stairs. His pants are too short. Seeing my brother’s skinny ankles makes my heart tender towards him. Maybe Granny’s right about him growing too fast. My brother pretends we’re invisible and my tender feelings disappear. He acts like it’s my fault Mama left us. Granny says it didn’t have anything to do with me or him, but it’s hard to believe.
“Hey,” Buster says jumping up to stand by his side. “You see the train in Sutter’s Mercantile?”
“Everybody’s seen it.” My brother sounds bored. He pours a giant glass of milk.
“You know what magne-traction is?”
“Keeps the trains on the track.” Cyrus grabs his milk, tucks the whole box of Saltines under his arm, and stomps upstairs.
“I knew magne-traction was important.” Buster looks as if he’s won a bet.
I work on answering the questions at the end of my science chapter. It’s hard to keep my mind from wandering. I fix Buster more soup and pour mine back in the pot. It’s plenty tasty, Granny’s a good cook. I’m just not hungry and don’t want her knowing I didn’t eat it.
“Will you help me write my letter?”
“Did you finish your book report?”
“Why I like Charlotte’s Web by Buster Walters. Charlotte was a very smart spider and she was a real good friend to Wilbur.” He looks up. “You want to hear the rest?”
“No, as long as there is a rest.” He’s drawn a picture of a pig and a spider on the top of the page. It’s real good.
“You going to help me with my letter?”
“You write it and I’ll check for spelling mistakes.”
“Santa doesn’t take off for spelling mistakes.” Buster can squabble about anything.
I press my lips tight and pull out the math worksheet. We’re learning long division. When he sees I’m not going to say anything more, he hunches over his notebook biting the middle of his pencil. Buster’s pencils look like they’ve been attacked by hordes of tiny pencil-eating creatures. It’s a trial to keep him from gnawing mine.
“You think I ought to ask him how he’s doing?”
“Sure.” I wonder what happens to the Santa letters. Does someone read them? Thinking about all those little kids’ wishes not getting noticed makes me sad. If there is no Santa, why doesn’t the post office return the letters? Grandma sometimes gets her letters returned. She likes entering contests. She won a whole bunch of dishwasher soap even though we don’t have a dishwasher. Granny gave it to the church. The local real estate company is using one of her winning slogans on the bench at the bus stop. Lenny Smith, an agent as real as real estate. Got a nice ring, don’t you think? Sometimes she sits on that bench even if she isn’t going anyplace.
“Dear Santa, how are you? I hope you and Mrs. Clause had a nice year.” Buster erases the word nice, making a smudge and inserts, delightful. “I like that word better.” He grins at me. “Please disregard my other letter.” He looks up again. “Disregard is a big word.” Then he describes the train in detail and why he wants it and all the good things he’s done to deserve a train like that. He’s stretching the truth but I don’t say anything. “What do you think? Santa’s going to get a lot of people asking for that train and I want mine to stand out.”
“It’s real good. I like the map.” On the back of the page, he’s drawn a map of Winowski street with one arrow pointing to Sutter’s Mercantile and another to his house.
Grandma tries to talk him out of using one of her five-cent stamps. “The Santa letters get special dispensation,” she says. “They don’t need a stamp.”
“I don’t want to take any chances, Miz Crookshank. This is too important.”
Grandma offers to mail it. I know if she gets her hands on his letter she’ll pry that nickel stamp right off and use it for a real letter.
“No thank you. I’m mailing it myself.”
Buster spends the night like he nearly always does. He’s got a cot to sleep on in my room but he mostly sleeps with me.
“I’m pushing you out if you start kicking,” I say.
Buster’s small but he’s a ferocious kicker when he gets dreaming. I’m usually the one who ends up on the cot.
“How long’s it take for a letter to get to the North Pole? You think he’ll get it in time?”
“They send the Santa letters through first.” I should tell him the truth about Santa but I can’t stand making him sad. There’s no way his daddy’s going to be able to buy that train. I start to say something about Santa maybe not having enough trains for everyone but Buster’s already snoring.
I watch the moon shine her silvery light on the roof of Buster’s house. All the houses on our street are alike. It’s funny going into Buster’s and having it be the same but different. He has the same room as me, except his window looks at the Marcus’ house. He’s covered most of the walls in his bedroom with comics and drawings. Granny would kill me if I did that to my walls.
I can’t believe it’s December fifteenth and we don’t have snow. Doesn’t seem fair to be so cold without snow. Icy weather is bad for truck drivers. I worry about Daddy in the big eighteen-wheeler on icy roads. I send God a prayer to keep him safe, and ask him to send Mama home in time for Christmas, and stop Cyrus from being so mad, and let Granny win a big contest. And please, I say to God, though I don’t think I’m supposed to pray for toys, please get Buster his train set.
At school, Christmas is all anyone talks about. Christmas presents, and Christmas trees, and Christmas carols, and Christmas movies. It’s enough to make a person sick to her stomach. For art period, Mrs. Kincaid has us making Christmas decorations. I cut a Christmas tree out of green construction paper and sprinkle it with glitter. Maybe Granny will tape it to our kitchen window.
On our way home from school, Buster and I stop at Sutter’s Mercantile.
“Twenty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents,” Miz Isabelle says sharp as scissors. She doesn’t have to look up the price so I know she’s been telling a lot of people about it.
Buster’s eyes go big. “That’s a lot of money. How do you think Santa’s going to afford that train?” he says to me.
“I don’t know that he can.” The light dims from his eyes and his shoulders sag. My heart feels like it’s being stabbed with sadness. “But you know, Santa’s pretty magical so anything can happen.” I hate myself for lying but I can’t stand him looking so defeated. And it’s not totally a lie. Grandma could win a big contest and I know if she did, she’d buy him that train in a snap.
“You think he got my letter?” Buster says as we shoe-skate down Winowski Street.
“Probably.” I wonder what my mom is doing and if she misses me and Cyrus. I wonder if she’s hung lights in her window. I wish she’d send us a Christmas card and let us know she’s thinking about us.
“You should write Santa about bringing you ice skates,” Buster says.
“I don’t want skates.” Where would Daddy get money for ice skates? Grandma’s been making bean soup for weeks.
“What do you want for Christmas then?”
Buster looks hurt but I can’t tell him all I want is for Mama to come home. The air bites my nose and ears like it wants to freeze them off. At Buster’s house, all the lights are on and we go inside to see if his mom is alright.
Something is burning.
“Hello? Mom? Where are you?” Buster runs through the house. I head for the kitchen. Smoke pours from the oven. I switch it off—we have the same one—and open the back door and windows to air out the place. The kitchen looks like someone’s thrown a tantrum. Flour covers the floor and there’s batter and oatmeal and sugar and burned cookies spilled across the counters. There’s something wrong with a person who makes a kitchen look this way.
“She’s not here,” Buster says. “I even looked under the bed.” We found her there once. Together we go through the house and double-check.
I call Granny. She comes so fast she hasn’t buttoned her coat. Her face goes from surprise to disgust and then like she’s pulled down a shade, looks like herself again.
“Taffy-making was worse,” she says taking off her coat. “When is your Daddy coming home, Buster baby?”
“Tomorrow, I think.”
Same as mine. If his daddy’s been drinking and sees the place like it is now he’ll go after Buster.
“Millie, find a broom and dustpan and see what you can do about the floor. Buster, start sponging the counters. I’ll deal with the pans.” Granny makes a quick phone call to the sheriff to keep an eye out for Mrs. Walters.
“You think Santa will take off points?” Buster says as we get to cleaning. His forehead’s folded in wrinkles.
“No,” I say. “You get extra points for cleaning up messes. The worse the mess the more the points.” Grinning, he puts more elbow grease into sponging the counters. My mom may have deserted us but she’s not crazy like Mrs. Walters. And then as I’m sweeping up a pile of dirty flour, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to get Buster that train set.
The next day after school, we stop at Sutter’s Mercantile. Buster joins a group of boys fussing and shouting about locomotives and freighters. I look for Miz Patty and find Miz Isabelle. It’s an emergency so I take a chance.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Do you have any after-school work?”
“For you?” Miz Isabelle looks down her pointy nose. If a pencil were a person, it would be Miz Isabelle.
“I can work Saturdays and every day after school except Wednesdays. I want to buy that train in the window for Christmas.”
“You can’t work enough to buy that train for Christmas.”
“I was thinking I could pay some now and put it on layaway.” Granny loves layaway and Buster would know it was his.
“Millie, that train is for a rich family like the Perkins or Rogers. Everybody knows your family’s struggling.” Her words sting. I don’t turn away because I’m asking Jesus to open her heart. To my surprise, he answers.
“Isabelle, we could use an extra pair of hands this Saturday with the Christmas rush,” Miz Patty says. She has appeared behind me like an angel. She and Miz Isabelle are as different as cats and dogs. They both have the same sharp nose and curly dark hair but that’s where the resemblance ends. Miz Patty is as round as a donut.
Miz Isabelle sighs like she’s blowing out candles on a birthday cake. “Alright then, if your grandmother says yes, you can work this Saturday. We’ll pay you seventy-five cents an hour.”
Saturday morning Miz Isabelle sets me to dusting and tidying the shelves. She’s real particular about shelves looking nice. When I’m not dusting she has me running around getting things for people. I carry Miz White’s packages home for her. She gives me a quarter tip. Later I deliver a bottle of cough syrup to Mr. Cutty who’s sick in bed. He gives me a nickel for my trouble. Buster and Wilson Perkins stop by to say hello but I don’t have time to talk, Miz Isabelle keeps me running like a wind-up toy. The boys hang around drooling over the train set in the window until Miz Isabelle tells them to scat. In the afternoon, Miz Patty slips me a chocolate cookie saying not to let anyone know, meaning Miz Isabelle.
Wilson and Helen’s daddy, Mr. Perkins, asks about the train set. I linger close by dusting the jam jars and hoping he won’t buy it. At four thirty, Miz Isabelle gives me five dollars and says I’m done for the day.
I hand it back to her. “Here’s my down payment on that train in the window.”
“You give that money to your grandmother.”
“I want to buy the train.”
“I told you, that train isn’t for you.”
“Isabelle, take the child’s money. We’ll put it on layaway.”
I smile up at Miz Patty. She’s a real nice lady.
“I will not let her waste good money on a silly train set. Millie, go home before it gets dark.”
With tips, I have five dollars and thirty cents. With the eighty cents in my piggy bank, I have a grand total of six dollars and ten cents. If I had the whole $29.95, Miz Isabelle would have to take it. I don’t know how I’m going to get that much money by Christmas. Maybe I can win a contest.
At home, Buster’s sitting with Granny and Daddy at the kitchen table talking about the train set. I’m real glad to have Daddy back safe and hug him hard so he knows how much I’ve missed him. His beard’s scratchy on my cheek and he smells like cigarettes. I tell them about working at the Mercantile. Buster helps me set the table. We always eat together when Daddy’s home.
Cyrus slams in the back door and my stomach twists. His lip is bloody and his cheek’s bruised.
“You’ve been fighting again,” Granny says. “I swear if you don’t get a handle on that temper of yours, something bad is going to happen.”
“I didn’t start it. I got pushed into the wall and—”
“You’re grounded,” Daddy says low and quiet.
“That’s not fair. You want me just to take it, let myself get beat up?”
“We had an agreement.”
“But it wasn’t my fault.”
“We’ll talk about it later. Wash up for supper.”
Cyrus buttons his lip. If Daddy wasn’t here, he’d be slamming out of the room.
“You’re turning my hair gray,” Granny says handing him a dishtowel with crushed ice. Nobody mentions her hair’s been gray for a long time.
Cyrus jerks his chair out and sits hard. He glares at me and Buster like it’s our fault he’s in trouble. Granny and Daddy get to talking as if everything is fine but it isn’t. The air is frozen between us. Buster squirms beside me and I can’t hardly swallow my food.
“You know that train in the window of Sutter’s Mercantile?” Buster says. “Santa’s going to bring me it for Christmas.
“There is no Santa,” Cyrus says.
“Yes, there is. I wrote him a letter. Put a stamp on it and everything.” He looks at me and I can’t look him in the eye. “Millie, tell him.”
“Cyrus, please,” I say to my brother.
“Grow up, Buster. Nobody’s bringing you that train. Nobody cares about you.”
“That’s enough,” Granny says.
“I’m just telling him the truth. He’s going to find out sooner or later. About time people stopped lying around here.”
“Go to your room,” Daddy says.
Cyrus stomps up the stairs. His bedroom door bangs and the Beatles shout about their hard day’s night.
“Who wants more potatoes? Buster, you have room for another spoonful? I made them extra creamy.” Granny’s leaning close like mashed potatoes can heal a broken heart.
Daddy gets a beer from the refrigerator.
“You knew about Santa?” Buster says to me. His voice is hurt and his face is so crumpled I can hardly look at him.
“You could have told me, Millie.”
The click of the door is worse than a slam.
“He’ll be alright,” Granny says patting my arm.
Looking at the food on my plate makes my stomach hurt. “May I be excused?” Daddy nods and I go upstairs. It’s noisy with Cyrus’s Beatles. I put the pillow over my ears and wish the roof would fall in and kill us all.
In the morning, I go to see Buster. He’s in his room sitting on the floor playing with his dump truck.
“I’m not getting that train for Christmas, am I?” he says.
“I don’t know.”
He gives me an old man’s look.
“No, I don’t think you are. I’m real sorry. I tried to make enough money to put it on layaway but Miz Isabelle wouldn’t let me.”
This cheers him up. “I know you’d give me a whole train yard if you could.”
That’s the truth, I would. Then I tell him what I want for Christmas.
Early Christmas morning the house is quiet. I tiptoe downstairs looking for signs of Mama. I thought maybe she’d have sneaked in after we’d gone to bed and wrapped herself up like a Christmas present. The lights Daddy strung across the window in the living room are still lit. It makes the room soft and pretty. I curl up on Granny’s spot on the couch and cry.
Later, when everyone’s up, I give Granny the potholder I made in her favorite colors—blue and yellow—and give Cyrus the Hank Aaron baseball card he’s been wanting. He’s glad to have it. He gives me a notebook with my name printed on the front and says it’s for writing down my thoughts. It’s nice of him. Granny made us each a pair of mittens. Mine are red with blue stripes, Buster’s are black with yellow stripes. Cyrus’s are green without stripes since he’s so grown-up.
Buster opens his present from me. It’s a Superman comic book. “Thanks,” he says. I know he’ll read it a bunch and put it on his wall.
“I’m pretty sure Mr. Perkins bought that train set for Wilson,” I say.
“Wilson’s okay. He’ll let me play with it.”
“Watch out for Helen.” We start to giggle.
“She was the meanest angel ever,” he says. Last night, Helen Perkins in the middle of the Christmas pageant whacked little Eddie Burns with her angel wand so hard he started to cry.
“Open your present,” Buster says when our giggles slow.
I undo the Christmas wrapping. A lump fills my throat and I have to swallow real hard. And just like that, all of a sudden, from out of the blue, it’s Christmas.
“I made it myself,” he says.
Tears itch the back of my eyes. He’s drawn a picture of my Christmas wish: Mom and Dad and Cyrus and Buster and me sitting under a big Christmas tree with a train set.
“This is nice,” I say. “Thank you.”