1. iron skillet
Sarah and I aren’t buying presents for each other this Christmas. We don’t have the money. I am working part-time delivering furniture for my father’s store and trying to save enough money for law school. Sarah, who works two part-time jobs, claims she doesn’t mind eating pasta five nights a week, or never having enough cash to go to the movies. This is what we get for marrying right after college. We knew things would be tight. But we do spend an awful lot of time these days talking about when I will graduate from law school and start making some real money.
“Even then,” I whisper into Sarah’s long, brown hair. “Even then it will probably be years before I make a decent salary.” Translated: Before we can start a family or buy a house or take a vacation to the Bahamas. Translated: We don’t have much to look forward to the next ten years or so.
“I don’t care about that,” Sarah says. “I don’t regret marrying you. What would we be doing separately that we can’t do together?” She grips my face between her rough, sculptor’s hands and stares cross-eyed at me. She gets close to my nose as if I were malleable as clay and she could make me perfect if she only tried hard enough. That’s Sarah. A sculptor of broken things.
Since I think of myself as a realist, and since we’ve only been married six months, I’m beginning to suspect we didn’t know quite what we were getting into. I’m thinking, worrying, that in a few years my gorgeous, smart, artsy wife will figure out she’s strapped herself to a going-nowhere-lawyer-wanna-be, and that will be the end of my life.
So, anyway, I’m sitting in the living room of our apartment, and an old Miami Vice episode comes on TV. The apartment is old, one of three units carved from a large ballroom in what used to be a Masonic Hall right on Main St. here in East Mercy.
The ceilings are high, made of tin pressed into intricate patterns, and there are hardwood floors and tall, tall windows overlooking the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant behind our building. The wall-paper is outdated. The handles on the kitchen faucets have been replaced by the garden-hose variety–the metal ones that look like cute, little flowers but dig into your palm whenever you have to turn them. The plumbing itself chokes and coughs like an old man with bad lungs.
Our landlord promises to fix this, but he doesn’t.
I am waiting for Sarah to get home from work. Her job at one of the better restaurants in town has certain perks–she comes home smelling of sweet, yummy things and sometimes brings me a pastry or two in a waxed-paper doggy bag.
That’s Sarah’s night job. During the day she sells brushes and canvas and other art supplies in a store downtown. She says she likes working, that she’d be bored otherwise. I wonder. I think she’d really like more time for doing her own art.
I crack open a beer, tip my head back for a long swallow. On the television, Don Johnson drives through a sultry Miami night to the sound of yet another Phil Collins score. It’s this whole money thing that’s getting to me. We got married in June, a month after graduating from college with interesting (to us) but useless (to anyone else) degrees: Sarah’s art history and my liberal arts. At least we are not alone. Friends of ours, classmates who studied practical things like business management and elementary education, haven’t landed jobs either. We’re all working part-time in supermarkets, restaurants, clothing stores.
I live now in fear that one of us will break an arm or catch pneumonia. Who can afford insurance on these salaries? My parents constantly nag me about health insurance, not wanting to interfere but unable to sit back and let me ruin myself either.
“What if you get hurt and can’t work? What if Sarah gets pregnant, what then?” they ask.
I tell them there isn’t enough money. I show them on paper. They can’t grasp the reality of my situation. They think I am being stubborn. Dad pretends to understand my predicament, but I can tell he’s baffled and disappointed that his son, who he tried to raise to be a responsible citizen, cannot better manage his affairs. I can see that in his eyes.
I take another gulp of beer and watch the television. I’m wondering if I should give up the idea of law school and get into law enforcement instead when Sarah sails into the apartment. I hear her fish a few things out of paper bags she has carried up the two flights of stairs to our apartment. She’s humming “Winter Wonderland.” A fist of guilt slams into my gut. I bellow, “I could’ve carried those up for you!” Goddamn Christmas.
Sarah opens the refrigerator, and I’m guessing she sees the half-empty twelve-pack because she yells back, teasing, “What have you been up to, wild-boy?”
“Fairly obvious, isn’t it?” I holler back. “Bring me another one?”
“Get it yourself!”
I roll up and off the couch and mosey into the kitchen. Sarah pulls stuff from the grocery bags and slides cans and boxes into the cupboards. She has cake flour in her hair. I step behind her, run my hands over her hips, press her up against the counter.
“Hey,” she protests, “Cut it out.”
I lean into her a little harder and whisper close to her ear. “Why?”
“‘Cause.” She turns, pinches the skin on my upper arm. I nuzzle my face into her neck. She smells good, like cinnamon buns with lots of gooey, sugary icing.
“What do you want for supper?” she asks.
I raise my eyebrows, thinking I’d just as soon skip supper if we could jump into bed that much sooner.
She reads my expression. “Tuna or hamburger?” She holds aloft two Betty Crocker boxes and says something about beer and pushes me away. I stand there feeling goofy, watching her fly around the kitchen. I am short of breath just looking at her, she’s so beautiful. She opens and closes the cupboard doors, reaches down underneath the sink, and with one-handed ease pulls out a heavy iron skillet.
“So,” she says, turning the burner to medium. “When are we getting our tree?”
“Do we need a tree?” I ask. “I hate Christmas.” The skin on my arm begins to itch.
“You love Christmas!” Sarah puts a hand on her hip and stares at me.
“Nope. Not anymore. I’m done with it.” I’m going for the sympathy hug now, staring moodily out the window where a few flakes are beginning to fall. “Let’s just forget Christmas this year. It’s no fun if I can’t get you anything. What’s the point of Christmas without presents or surprises under the tree? What’s the point of a tree?”
“I don’t want anything. You know that. I’ve told you a million times.”
She’s not hugging me. She’s dumping a can of tuna into the skillet.
“But I want to give you things. I want to give you . . . everything.” I am extravagant in my self-pity. “I hate that you work two jobs. I don’t like you living in a run-down apartment with cranky plumbing.” I begin pacing, the itchy feeling spreading down my back and across my stomach.
I’m warming to the subject. “It’s not right, Sarah. We made good choices. We’ve been responsible. We graduated from college. We work hard. We pay our taxes . . . we should be able to buy Christmas presents!”
Sarah stirs the supper. Snow falls. My back itches feels as if red ants are crawling around on it, trying to start a colony. “I think I’ve broken out in hives,” I say, miserable.
My wife lifts up my shirt in back.
“Yup.” She wraps her arms around my waist. Finally!
I reach around and hold her tightly, and her chin is a sharp pressure between my shoulder blades. My love for her, my wife, Sarah, brings tears to my eyes.
We stand watching the snow fall outside the window. A few colored lights blink in the window of the Mexican restaurant. The good smell of tuna casserole rises from the iron skillet on the stove.
The next morning, early, I am walking to my truck, cursing the snow and carrying a shovel over my shoulder when I see her. Lotta. She’s muttering to herself and pushing her shopping cart with great difficulty through the snow. A few cans and bottles roll around the cart.
Everyone in East Mercy knows who Lotta is. Some of the older folks remember going to school with her, but nobody seems to remember when she began collecting empty beverage containers around town and returning them for deposit. She’s not a bag-lady, even though she kinda looks like one. She has a home. Probably no car. The college students call her Lotta The Can Lady. Her real name is Lotta Merchant.
Probably because of this whole Christmas present thing, I feel a sudden affinity with Lotta. I, too, must struggle through the snow. I, too, stand close to the dark pit of poverty. I just bet Lotta isn’t getting any presents for Christmas either.
As we pass each other beneath the garlanded street lamps, Lotta skewers me with sharp, blue eyes blazing from a weathered face. She is mumbling to herself, but I cannot catch a word in her never-ending monologue.
I turn to watch her for a minute as she continues pulling the cart. She must have stolen it from the supermarket sometime ago, or maybe they gave her one of their old squeaky-wheel carts. You see those sometimes rusting out behind the building where the dumpsters sit. The wheels of Lotta’s cart carve thin paths through the snow and through the dark wells of her footprints.
She is a lone object in a blank, white wilderness.
That image haunts me all day as I load and unload furniture at the store. Once, I drop the end of a brocade loveseat and my father swears and asks me where my mind’s at. I imagine telling him, letting him see, for once, the nature of my inner life. . .
I don’t. Instead I mutter “sorry” and hike the loveseat up into the truck.
Though I drive through town a number of times that day, I don’t see Lotta with her cart. I find myself hoping it’s a good day for cans, that her cart fills quickly, that the bag-boy at the supermarket is kind.
3. Popcorn Strings
It’s the day before Christmas, a day off. I sleep late, slap together a peanut-butter sandwich for breakfast, watch The Price Is Right, and begin filling out law-school applications. I can’t, at this moment, think of one reason why.
It all seems so pointless, especially when you are watching The Price Is Right. When your wife works two jobs. When you can’t afford a lousy Christmas present to put underneath a tree.
I give up and put the unfinished applications on the table. I watch the afternoon soaps and drink beer.
Sarah comes home smelling like a fir tree. I am suspicious. She’s wearing a pair of my old Levi’s jeans, a sweater, and L.L. Bean boots. She’s grinning so hard her face must hurt.
“I’ve got a surprise!” she says. She grabs my hand.
“What?” I say, even though the surprise is obvious.
“Just come with me. You have to help.” She tugs me from the couch. “Get your boots on.”
She leads me down the two flights of stairs, dragging me by the hand. A minute later we are standing in the parking lot next to a huge, cut, fir tree.
“How’d you get that here?” I ask.
Sarah shrugs, eyes glittering, refusing to tell me anything.
“I don’t want a tree,” I say, crossing my arms. “We don’t have decorations or presents or anything. It’s embarrassing!”
“Well, you’ve got one,” Sarah says. She’s no longer grinning, and her eyes sparkle with something other than enthusiasm now. “Don’t be a Scrooge, jerk.”
“Which is it? Scrooge or jerk?” I glare at her, thrust out my chin, feel bearish. She doesn’t validate my question with a response.
I sigh, grab the heavy end of the tree, pull it roughly toward the building. It takes fifteen minutes to get it into the apartment, and broken-off pieces of Christmas tree law strewn over the floor. I’m reminded of the rose petals Sarah’s three-year-old cousin flung around the church aisle before Sarah made her grand entrance at our wedding not so long ago. The two events, both symbolized by the shredding of flora, strikes me as hopelessly ironic and bitter.
“There,” I say, leaning the tree up against the livingroom wall. “Happy?”
“No.” Sarah’s voice is measured. “I’m sick of your attitude.”
She continues, probably because she knows I’d rather drop the whole conversation. “Can’t you just enjoy what we have? Here’s an opportunity. Why don’t you see what you can do with it.”
“That’s your area of expertise.” I glance at a particularly complicated, and dare I say gruesome, sculpture made by my lovely wife. It is composed of twisted metal salvaged from the junk yard, and it looks like a woman surrounded by barbed wire, looking like barbed wire, probably feeling like barbed wire. I’m sure Sarah meant to make a statement, but I don’t like to be confronted by this ugliness every time I step into my living room. “You’re the only one I know who thinks she can make a bunch of junk into something beautiful, make garbage into art. Sometimes you can’t salvage a thing. It just has to be what it is.”
Somehow I know we are no longer talking about art or even the tree. We are talking about something more important I don’t want to confront head-on.
“Coward,” Sarah says. “Try.”
I guess I reach my limit of tolerance because at that moment I can’t stand to be in the same room with this person with whom I’ve promised to spend the rest of my life. I stalk into the bedroom and shut the door. Sarah stays in the living room. We mope for an hour before I finally grab my wallet, call a friend, and tell him to meet me at our usual bar.
We play darts, drink beer, discuss sports, and watch UMaine hockey on the television above the bar. I try not to think about Sarah, that stupid tree, or the fact that tomorrow is Christmas. By ten, I’m feeling guilty and drunk. I pay my tab, shake hands with my friend, and leave.
It’s snowing again. All the shop windows on Main Street are bright with strings of Christmas lights blinking off and on, off and on. Electric candles dot the many windows of the big, Victorian houses occupied by old East Mercy families. Everything is muffled and quiet.
Sarah is in bed when I open the apartment door. There are a few wadded-up tissues on the coffee table in front of the couch. I feel so low, I stand in front of the Christmas tree as punishment.
She has strung popcorn and wrapped the strings in and around the branches of the tree. There are cloth bows tied onto the ends of many branches. I recognize the material–old shirts she brought home from the used clothing store a few weeks ago and stacked in the corner of our bedroom.
And beneath the tree is a wrapped box.
“Damn,” I mutter. My head hurts. I go to the kitchen for water and aspirin, and on my way to the sink, I stub my toe on one of the many bags of empty cans stacked beside the trashcan. My stomach sinks another inch deeper. I’ve promised for weeks to get rid of those cans, but because they don’t bother me, I haven’t felt any urgency. Self-loathing competes with the beginnings of a hang-over.
I take my aspirin, drink my water, and slip into bed. Sarah doesn’t move, and I stare at the patterns on the ceiling for a long time before curling my body close around hers. I kiss her cheek and stroke her hair and wonder for the upteenth time if this is going to work out. As I push my face into Sarah’s hair, I smell the soft, salty aroma of popcorn
4. purple mittens
I wake up just as the first light seeps into the sky. My head throbs, dull and deep.
Pulling on the jeans I wore the night before, I plod out to the kitchen in my bare feet. I wince at the cold. I stare out the window while coffee drips into the pot. The new snow’s turned everything white and pure. I’ll have to shovel the truck out again.
The image of another day, of Lotta struggling with her cart in the snow, shimmers in my mind. And today is Christmas.
I glance at the bags of cans stacked against the trashcan, a reproof. To Sarah, they are a nuisance. To Lotta the Can Lady, those cans are a bounty.
That’s how the uncharacteristically brilliant idea forms in my brain. I count six bags of empty cans, and there is still time before Lotta makes her rounds.
I pull on some socks and boots and hustle with a bag of cans out the door, down the stairs. In less than a minute, I am outside the building, stacking a pile of cans into the snow near the sidewalk. They are a beacon in a sea of snow, big enough for Lotta to spot with even a casual glance. Although rumor has it Lotta can spy a can from a hundred yards, that she can sense a bottle in a trash can from across town, I’m not leaving anything to chance. Even Lotta must have an off day once in awhile. Today there will be no mistaking the magic of Christmas.
I make a really decent pile of cans near the sidewalk and hope no policemen drive by and charge me with littering. It’s Christmas, though. Won’t most of the officers be home with their families and looking in stockings and kissing their kids? My headache and black mood miraculously disappear, wiped away by the cold, cold air and the sudden sense of purpose.
I imagine Lotta’s eyes glittering, happy. I let out a whoop and run up the stairs for the next bag. I make a trail of cans around the parking lot and through the door of our building. The flip-tops reach half-way up the stair before I run out of cans the third time.
Briefly, it occurs to me that maybe Lotta has something better to do on Christmas morning. I don’t care. I’ve started this thing, and I’m going to finish it even if I end up putting each and every one of those cans back into a bag and hauling them to the redemption center.
I grin and bolt into the apartment for the next bag.
Sarah is waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Here,” she says, thrusting a paper sack at me. She picks up another bag for herself.
I kiss her lightly on the mouth. She elbows me. “You jerk,” she grins. “Let’s go.”
We finish our work placing the cans on the stairs one after the other. We turn back to look at our handiwork. The flip-tops snake around the landing to the second flight, a twentieth-century Hansel and Gretel trail home. We still have cans in our apartment. I’m all for leaving them in the bags outside the door, but Sarah has a better idea.
“Get out of my way,” she whispers, glancing at the neighbors’ doors which are still closed despite our somewhat rude banging and thumping up and down the stairs. Sarah goes to work efficiently stacking those cans. Soon there is a large triangle of shiny, multicolored aluminum standing in front of our door. It looks like a Christmas tree . . .sorta.
I take Sarah’s hand in mine. A feeling of Oneness, of Love, of Wedded Bliss crashes into my heart, and I realize how much I have to be grateful for. I’m about to tell Sarah this when we hear the sound of cans clanking and rattling in a rusted-out shopping cart pulled through a few inches of fresh snow.
I pull Sarah into the apartment, and we stand with our ears to the door, listening for Lotta.
“Oh! One more thing!” Sarah runs to the living room. I am bewildered. I don’t want her to miss this– this perfect moment we’ve created out of practically nothing. She is back in a few seconds and holding the box I had seen beneath the tree. She smiles an apology and rips open the paper, pulls out a pair of bright purple mittens. “I knit them from an old sweater I unraveled,” she whispers, holding them up for inspection. She’s so cute and pleased with herself I almost laugh.
She eases the door open, puts the mittens in front of the cans, and tip-toes back to me. We are unable to resist leaving the door open an inch so we can see Lotta’s frizzy, gray head bobbing up the stairs. She’s muttering happily to herself, and her eyes dart around as she grabs cans with nimble fingers and stuffs them into a black trash bag.
I nudge Sarah who is crouched beneath my arm. She looks up at me and smiles. I know that smile is a gift, a forgiveness. We gently shut the door.
On the other side, Lotta finds a pair of purple mittens and ponders the mystery of a tree of aluminum beer cans. She snags the one on top, and it drops, clink! into her bag.