Colleen yanks open the passenger door of Big Blue, rattling me and the car as she hoists herself onto the seat. Instead of her usual black attire, chosen for its slimming effect, she wears a red sweater matched by a voluminous skirt that cascades over her knees.
“Ho! Ho! You like?” she asks. Her fingers tug silver garland edging the hem. “My skirt was half-price at Salvo.”
I smile. Colleen takes pride in snagging deals from the Salvation Army.
“It's handmade, but the seams weren’t quite finished,” she says. “No clasp at the waist, so I used duct tape.”
And that’s when I realize she’s wearing one of those round, felt covers people put under Christmas trees. I decide not to say anything. She's been a grump ever since she couldn't collect insurance for her car.
“Where’s your holiday spirit, Trish? Can't you do better than a white turtleneck and jeans?”
I lift up my necklace. The strand of miniature, plastic tree lights is quite festive if you ask me, but Colleen is on a roll.
“Are you depressed?” She raises eyebrows, arched like the tops of candy canes. “Lots of people get depressed this time of year.”
I sigh, and then shift Big Blue from park to drive. The front end shakes as we lurch away from the curb. Big Blue scolds me, for yet again, I have agreed to give Colleen a ride. We're on-route to the Community Outreach Center at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. Colleen and I no longer belong to the parish, but we went there as kids, and recently she joined their volunteer services. Today is the gift party for children from low-income families. Colleen is not sure exactly how many will attend, for the church doesn't require parents to fill out forms like they do at Giving Tree or Toys-for-Tots. She said that putting names on paper means high risk for people lacking W-2s or green cards, and a date with Santa could translate into deportation or jail time. This troubling realization, heightened by visions of poor children being denied presents, prompted me to drive.
She pats my arm, “What you need is more meaning in your life. That's why we help those less fortunate.”
Whenever Colleen spews like a self-improvement book, I refuse to respond.
Big Blue wheezes up Ridge Road, and I peer through the windshield. The sky, razor blade grey, has been dismal all week. Snow might soften the barren hills, especially as we've reached December 22nd without a single flake, but there's none in the forecast. I grip the wheel tightly and coax us past potholes and other hazards. The area is known for black ice. Below us, the Susquehanna River weaves through Northeast Pennsylvania like a vital force. Only it’s not. I can hear my grandmother, who willed me this Buick eons ago: We have the longest non-navigable river in the United States, but it's not safe. Each winter, at least one vehicle turns too fast and plummets into the waters of the-ever-after. How easily Colleen and I could join the departed. I picture headlines rife with irony: Women check-out while doing a good deed. Quickly I purse my lips. If Colleen sees me smile, I'll have to tell her why. Then she'll gush with her Let’s-Give-to-Others theme.
Colleen is the real reason we're doing Santa-Fest. Undoubtedly she thinks her charitable work will erase the not-so-little fabrication of her missing car. What happened reeks of bad karma, and what's worse, she involved me by asking for a ride so she could drop off her vehicle. I figured she was going to a mechanic and needed a return-lift to the mall where we work. No way did I realize she'd dump her car in the brush of the river's floodplain and claim it as stolen. Hers was the malfeasance of a deadbeat and not a middle-aged woman who organizes the Annual Mall Parking Lot Clean-up Day.
“My insurance company is a big rip-off, taking my premiums for years. I'm owed a payback,” she said.
Talk about skewed logic. But rather than address her fraud, I worried about being put on the witness stand. I saw myself in an ivory pantsuit, a paragon of veracity as I placed my hand on the Bible and testified: I merely drove. I was not an accessory.
Then a teenage boy discovered the car. What he was doing by the river is anyone's guess, but he hot-wired the beater and got it onto the road, careening down Mill Street until a cop saw him run a stop sign. Sirens blared and a chase ensued—though I find that hard to believe since the car ran on three spark plugs and couldn’t go more than 25 mph. The boy and the cop burned rubber past the empty granary and the old Texaco Station. Then, at the curve by Golden Touch Beauty Shop—SMASH—right into the fire hydrant. No geyser erupted, but the Honda folded-up like an accordion. Thankfully no one got hurt.
As soon as Colleen heard the news, she pulled her hair away from her scalp, all tight, and then fluttered her eyelids: “No-fault insurance! There goes my money.”
“Be glad the car got towed to the dump where it always belonged,” I said.
But here's the glitch: the culprit was Matthew, the younger brother of Heather, the high school senior who works weekends with Colleen at Hallmark Cards. We like her parents and went to their Halloween Party. "I have to do something," fretted Colleen. "That judge locks-up juveniles over the slightest infraction."
Finally she sent the judge an email, saying Matthew came from a good family, and she wouldn't press charges or request payment for the car. Who knows if the judge read it, but he put Matthew on probation with an order for community service.
Is it any coincidence that Colleen signed onto the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Outreach Center? Clearly her do-gooder action reflects a need for penance, but rather than admit her guilt, she told me, “I can use this as material for my book.”
Ha! Colleen writes the novel in her head. She hasn’t put a word to paper for six years, yet claims to draft a new chapter each time I give her a ride in Big Blue.
“Your silence is deafening,” says Colleen, pounding her fist on the dashboard. “Why aren’t you talking to me? How can I be creative with you acting this way?”
Reluctant to encourage her so-called novel-in-making, I fumble with the radio knob. We have discussed more plot scenarios than I can count, but whenever I suggest taking notes, she dismisses me. Colleen says the act of pen-to-paper is premature. Her writing needs mental stimulation. Mental is right.
Froggy 101 fills Big Blue: Grandma got run over by a reindeer… Colleen elbows me in the side, hoping I’ll sway like she does. She knows I don’t like these dopey songs, but she laughs, “Get with the season. Don't you love how people decorate?”
Big Blue rumbles down the hill toward town. Are we looking at the same place? Houses stand close, leaning side-by-side for balance. If one drops, they'll all collapse—swoosh—like dominoes. Styrofoam candy canes dangle from porch rails where paint peels like curled ribbon. Artificial wreaths are tacked to doors, and the few windows without plastic insulating them against the cold yield stick-on snowflakes. Icicle lights droop from roof gutters. Maybe they'll sparkle when lit up, but the wires resemble wet spaghetti. Several yards have signs with red, white, and blue lettering: We Support Our Troops. Then I spy the deflated blow-ups. Those decorations are pricey; I can't imagine how people can afford them. When filled with hot air from whirring motors, they expand into toy shops, snow globes, and gargantuan Santas. But flattened against dirt yards, they remind me of condoms littering the mall parking lot after a Saturday night.
“Check out Rudolph,” smirks Colleen. Four reindeer line up in procession. Each has a mechanized head. The one in front flashes a red nose as the next deer sways its snout, seeming to sniff Rudolph's butt.
I pretend not to notice. Last year, after the employee party where Colleen made a meal of red and green Jell-O shooters, she yelled for me to pull over. I thought she was going to hurl, but as I stopped Big Blue, she hopped out and lumbered across the lawn, grabbed a couple of reindeer and repositioned them in a Yuletide hump.
We turn onto River Street and pass a stout, plastic snowman, the kind my grandmother displayed back in the 70s. It's probably a collector's item from when Coal was King and the farms thrived. Now people celebrate with acrylic stars atop molded nativity sets. I'd like to think the real straw in mangers flanked by cows and donkeys offers reassurance. But for what?
“We're here,” says Colleen, donning a Santa hat.
I nod. The Outreach Center, formerly called Church Hall, looks like a train car with narrow windows zippered into grey siding. Above the doorway, red-and-white lights round as fishing bobbers show incandescence, for already the sun fades. I maneuver Big Blue curbside, under a street lamp. “It will be lit when we finish.”
Colleen plucks garland from her hem and crowns the St. Christopher statue on the dash. “Should be safe.”
Soon as I lock Big Blue and place keys in my pocket, I notice a guy standing near the alley adjacent to the building. He’s thin, wearing baggy jeans weighted by a chain on his belt loop so that they sag below his hips, showing the top of boxers. His hair is flat along the sides but buffeted up on his skull like the peak of a conquistador’s helmet. He waves his right arm behind his back as if signaling to someone. Out marches a little girl in a pink fuzzy jacket, so big it hangs to the ankles of her white tights. She taps her scuffed party shoes. Out rush four more pre-school kids, and then after them, a cluster of about ten others.
Colleen walks, jangling bells on her skirt. The kids point her way
“Mirenla,” says the guy, and I figure that means Look at her.
He’s in his twenties, half Colleen's age, but she gets all flirty. She rolls her shoulders and grins. “Ho, Ho,” she says, emphasis on Ho.
The kids laugh. A boy wearing blue mittens waves to us. Then more little bodies bunch into the pack.
These kids with dark eyes and straight black hair do not look anything like homegrown towheads. “Where are they coming from?”
“Sshh,” says Colleen.
Then I remember her gag order: No asking where they live or where they moved from. Last summer, Spruce County's River Gazette featured headlines about the mayor in Hazelton, forty miles northeast of here. He blamed Spanish speakers for the bad economy and instituted an ordinance to fine landlords for renting to illegal immigrants. Next thing, all Latinos got blamed for every one of the city's many woes. Rocks got thrown at their windows, and tires were slashed. When families left, no one ever asked where they went.
It wouldn't take much to track their path. Our school district has want ads for English as a Second Language teachers, and Weis Market stacks one shelf with Goya Foods. Yet Less Said is the dictum at the Outreach Center. That's why the River Gazette won’t cover the party for its Lifestyle section, and there will be no human-interest clips on TV-28.
“Too much attention and they’re gone. Then what do these kids have?” hisses Colleen. She says Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church is doing the right thing by providing assistance for people—legal or not.
Leave it to Colleen to involve me in a covert Christmas party.
I pull open the front door and smell kettle corn, hot chocolate, and peppermint. Father Ryan stands in the entrance, his face as white as his collar. “I expected twenty kids, same as always, but there are way more. They arrived early. I don’t know what to do. We won't have enough for them.”
Colleen jokes, “Multiply loaves and fishes?”
He doesn’t laugh. Father Ryan, frail and wrinkled, seemed ready for retirement when he came to the church as a temporary appointment in the 80s, yet here he stays. Maybe the parish can't find a replacement? Priests are in short supply, what with sex abuse crimes, and so few men want to join.
“Woohoo—this place is packed,” says Colleen, pushing me until I am pressed thigh-to-thigh with Father Ryan, an awkward moment.
I sidestep and glance at the children. Father Ryan rasps, “Santa can't make it. He got called to the pileup on I-81.” Bob Jenkins, the county coroner, plays Santa every year. What now? I wonder. The group must tally over a hundred. Children shuffle with anticipation, forming one huge amoeba. Three boys with buzz cuts raise shoulders and giggle. They squish closer, clearing a passage for us.
Then the girl in the pink jacket steps across the threshold. She stops due to the crowd. I worry the kids left standing outside won't be able to fit in the room. “Senora Santa,” she calls. As Colleen turns, I wrack my brain for ideas. I stare over heads to the rear wall and spy a folding table with cookie trays. A few women hold babies. Beside them hovers Mrs. Pavinsky, the elderly organist, sporting a sweater like my grandmother had worn, all festooned with beaded mistletoe and holly.
“Time for singing,” says Father Ryan.
“Let's get you to sit by the Tree,” Colleen tells him. I think he meant for her to start singing, but she cups his elbow with her right hand and propels him toward the armchair intended for Santa. The high-back chair swallows him like a shrunken elf. The kids smile. I glance toward Mrs. Pavinsky, thinking she'll play the upright piano, but she sits on the bench with a baby in her arms. Colleen shrugs, then claps her hands and sings: Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Way.
The kids clap, but no one sings along, making me wonder if they don't know the words. Colleen's voice gets gravelly as if she's in a smoke-filled bar. She increases the tempo and starts doing the Twist. The tune to a heavy downbeat: jingle beelJingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rock. At the boom of rock, Colleen grins and thrusts her left hip, swishing her skirt.
The children mimic her, wiggling and laughing. What will happen when they see there aren't enough gifts?
Their exuberance unnerves Father Ryan. Surely he realizes how the lack of gifts means disaster. His hands flap as he reaches for a bowl of candy canes under the Christmas tree. He signals for Colleen: “They'll have to share.”
I am aghast. What kid shares a candy cane?
Colleen takes the bowl, grabs my arm, and pulls me to the middle of the room. The children swarm around us as my brain backpedals to age seven and how I yearned for a Bridal Barbie, complete with white, satin gown, flowing veil and silver high heels. When I found a box under the tree that was just the right size, I hugged it to my chest. Fingers trembling, I tore off the wrapping paper only to find Flower Girl Skipper, Barbie's younger sister, wearing a blue dress and black flats. I'm sure my bottom lip quivered, but at least I got something. That these kids won't open their own presents makes me want to cry. I whisper to Colleen, "Not enough gifts: What should we do?"
She pauses, and I expect her to speak, but she hands me the bowl. Then she shimmies along, placing candy canes in outstretched hands. But here's the amazing thing: Each kid who takes one, peels away the cellophane, breaks off a piece, and passes the remainder to the next kid in the bunch. I don't hear whining or complaints. These children parcel them out without being told, and all the while they laugh.
Four boys with gangly arms elbow each other. When Colleen offers a candy cane to the tallest boy, his face becomes purposeful. He breaks it in pieces for his friends.
By the time we navigate to the open doorway, Colleen still has a fistful of candy canes. She distributes them to the kids at the top of the stairs. Like those inside, each breaks off a piece and passes it along to the children on the sidewalk. None of them are at all upset. I’m stunned. Surely the children realize there isn't enough for each of them.
“Senora Santa,” chortles the girl in pink, clutching fast to Colleen.
A boy waggles chubby fingers and reaches for the girl’s other hand. The two of them somehow set off a chain reaction, hand reaching for the hand of the hand of Senora Santa. They thrill by simply holding the hand.
“Ho Ho!” says Colleen. The children echo her. Their game of repeat ripples through the room and continues out through the door.
Why don't they show annoyance at not having their own? I expect them to look around, eyes hungry for gifts. But there's no asking: where's mine? I try to compute what their action implies. They hold hands, pressing palms together as if yielding an electric charge: the magic of the hand reaching for the hand of Senora Santa.
Without thinking, I pass a candy cane to a girl with red hair clips.
“Well, 'tis the season,” snorts Colleen.
“Ho, Ho,” cheer voices like Colleen, mixing from all directions. Their words speed up, and they chant in silly rounds. Their playful harmony could rival a choir. How strange to discover this kind of joy.
I step outside to the cement staircase. On the sidewalk, children lace hands, forming a link that stretches all the way to Big Blue under the street lamp. The kids laugh. They must be cold, yet they don't protest. The twenty-year-old guy we'd seen upon our arrival stands guardian at the rear of the line. He gives a thumbs-up approval I can't figure, but for some reason, his gesture makes me warm to the spirit, and I smile. “Ho, Ho,” I say, laughing with the sound of my words.
A girl missing her two front teeth grins and tugs at my jacket. She points at the surrounding hills where colored lights twinkle.
My eyes widen. I know the houses need siding and new paint, yet the scene rivals a holiday image on the Hallmark cards sold by Colleen.
The girl reaches for my hand.
She lisps: “Feliz Navidad.”
Puffs of breath rise with the night.
She and I watch as the exhale crystallizes into tiny specks of snow.
- David Rigsbee reviews Midnight Lantern: New And Selected Poems
by Tess Gallagher
- David Rigsbee reviews Midnight Lantern: New And Selected Poems