A Christmas for Vito

 

By Jim DeBrosse

CARTER REACHED ACROSS THE table in the food court at the mall and took Heather's hand in his. It was cold, a little clammy. Not like her at all.

The Hendersons were in their mid-20s, married now for two years and this, Carter knew, was the first real test of their love. "I'm sorry, honey. I thought this would cheer you up," he said. "Would you like to go home and just rest for a while?"

She shook her head no, looked out over the balcony railing to the anthill of Christmas shoppers below. Most years she would have enjoyed the holiday hustle-bustle, the decorations, the expectancy in the air. This year, it somehow seemed so sad and pointless.

"What would you like to do, then?" Carter said, his voice bridging now between consolation and impatience. "More shopping?"

"With what?" she said dully. She was still staring over the railing.

"We have one card we haven't maxed."

She at last looked him in the eye. "How much time do we have?"

Carter checked his watch. "At least two hours. We can drive there from here in 20 minutes."

Carter saw the sadness cloud her eyes.

"I told you, honey. We don't have to decide anything today," he said. "We go there and we talk to them. We could give it away - to some family that can really provide for it."

He squeezed her hand and she smiled a little. "Yes, you're right." But then she looked out over the railing again, her voice trailing off. "I just wish. . . ."

"Wish what, honey?"

"I don't know. That there was an easy answer."

"Tell me, do you want a baby now? Do you? Me just laid off and you with no raise for next year? It would be crazy. Absolutely crazy."

She bit her lip and nodded. "Yes, it would be."

"Just think about when all this is over. And when I have a job again. We can start all over. Just you and me. OK?"

She took a deep breath, nodded. "OK."

"I love you," he said. "You know that, don't you?"

´She smiled, her old self again. "Yes."

"All right then. I just thought of the perfect gift for Dad."

"Carter, if I have to look at one more tool . . . ."

"No, dear. We're not going back to Sears. I promise."

They reached for their shopping bags and got up from the table. Carter was about to reach over and give Heather a reassuring hug when something pulled at the back of his down jacket. He turned to see a little boy, about age 5, staring up at him with huge brown eyes.

"Mister," he said, "have you seen my mommy?"

The boy's face was pale white, almost peaked. A mop of dark, unruly curls coursed over his head and ears like kudzu. He was dressed in worn blue jeans and a dirty white T-shirt, a smear of grape jelly across his chest.

Carter turned to Heather with a look that said, what now ?

Heather got down on one knee, at eye level with the boy. "Did you lose your mommy?" she asked.

"No," the boy protested, "she lost me!"

The couple laughed, and then Heather said, "We can help you. OK? Where did you last see your mommy?"

Carter interrupted. "Shouldn't we just take him to the security desk? We could be accused of kidnapping or something."

Heather stood up. "Oh, Carter. Let's just look first."

"I remember now," the boy said. "We were in the toy store and I was playing with the wooden trains and then . . . and then. . . ." The boy's eyes filled with tears.

"It's OK, darling," Heather said, stroking the boy's curls. "We'll find her."

LITTLE BOY LOST

At the toy store, the boy went straight to the Brio table in front of the cash register and started connecting a long set of train cars.

Heather and Carter went up to the clerk behind the register - a teen-age girl with bright red hair and a mouth full of braces. Heather asked if a woman had been there looking for her son.

"Not since I've been in," the clerk said. "Should I check with the manager?"

"Yes, please do."

Carter turned toward the boy just in time to see him stuff a green locomotive into his jeans pocket. "Hold it!" he shouted, and raced to the boy.

"That doesn't belong to you, young man," he said, hearing his own father's voice inside his head. "Did you know you could go to jail for that?"

"But my mommy said she couldn't pay for it."

"I'm sorry, but that doesn't mean you just steal it. Now put it back."

"Would you buy it for me, mister?"

The boy's big brown eyes looked up at Carter with such soulful pleading that he nearly said yes. Then, suddenly, the thought occurred to him that the boy might be up to no good.

"Let's find your mom first. OK? Now put it back."

"I did!"

"No, you did not. Don't lie to me."

"Look!"

The boy pulled out his jeans pockets like rabbit ears. Nothing.

Carter looked behind the boy at the Brio set. The green locomotive was indeed back on the table. How had he missed that? The boy had rattled him, that's how.

"Just don't do it again. OK?"

Carter returned to the cash register as the store manager arrived. She wore a bright red-and-green jacket with a candy-cane broach, neither of which was a match for her air of middle-aged efficiency.

No one had been there that day looking for a lost child, the manager said. Then she nodded toward the boy at the train display, a look of faint disdain in her eyes. "I take it he's the lost party?"

"Yes," Heather said. "We found him wandering in the food court."

"I wish I could say this never happens," the manager said. "But with some parents these days. . . . Have you checked with security?"

"No," Carter answered, "but we're going there now."

'JUST BEING A KID'

On the way through the mall, the boy slipped between Heather and Carter, grabbed their hands and starting swinging himself wildly back and forth as they walked.

"Would you please not do that!" Carter snapped.

"Oh, he's just being a kid," Heather said. "You know, we haven't even asked his name."

"Vito!" the boy shouted, then immediately executed a standing somersault while still holding the couple's hands.

"Stop that, or you'll break your neck!" Carter said.

"No, I won't. Watch." And the boy performed a second somersault in the wink of an eye.

Heather laughed. "He's high-energy, I'll say that."

"Yes, a high-energy pain in the -"

"Now Carter. . .," Heather warned.

"I doubt we can scandalize this boy."

"Look," Vito shouted, pointing at an ice cream booth in the center of the mall. "Can I have one, please? Pleeeeeease. I'm really, really hungry."

Carter gripped the boy's hand. "Let's find your mother first. I'm sure she's worried out of her mind." He rolled his eyes at Heather, as if to say, yeah sure .

"She's waited this long already," Heather said. "Let's get the boy an ice cream."

"Cool!" Vito shouted, and went racing off to the dairy case.

Carter held Heather back a moment and whispered, "You know what I think? I don't think the boy is lost at all. I think he's a con artist taking us for a ride."

"Carter, you are so paranoid. He's just a little boy who wants an ice cream. OK?"

"Right. Then we take him back to our condo and, next thing you know, a whole family of gypsies shows up at our doorstep."

"Oh, Carter, get real."

"Mark my words, Heather."

A VISIT WITH SANTA

On the way to the security office, the trio happened upon the Santa display, a synthetic dazzle of fake snow, styrofoam candy canes and brilliant lights. Vito caught one look at the man in the overstuffed red suit and ran to stand in line.

"Come back here!" Carter shouted.

But Vito only waved and smiled from where he stood in line, holding his triple-dip Rocky Road cone in his other hand.

"Oh, let him go," Heather said. "It may be his last chance to see Santa."

Carter glanced at his watch. "Heather, we can't spend all day with this boy."

"I know, I know," she said. "Just let him do this one last thing."

Heather nearly cried to see the ill-dressed tiny boy among the other children in their mall-bought finery. Yet he behaved like a good little soldier, never pushing ahead or whining or even shifting from foot to foot. Now and again, he would smile back at Heather - conspiratorially, she thought, as though he knew a secret they shared.

Finally, when he crawled into Santa's lap, he held his cone safely away from the old gent's flowing beard and whispered in his ear. Santa looked puzzled by what he'd heard. He pulled back and said something to the boy. Vito again whispered in his ear, then pointed toward Heather and Carter.

Santa hugged the boy and set him down. He then escorted the boy down the ramp toward the couple.

"Now what?" Carter groaned to Heather. "He probably told Santa we kidnapped him."

"Carter, please."

A big man with an even bigger smile, Santa extended his gloved hand to Carter, whose own hand disappeared in a crushing mound of white velvet.

"I just wanted to meet the parents of such a fine young man," he said.

"But we're not his-" Carter was cut short.

"You can be very proud of your little boy. Do you know what he just asked Santa for?"

"A Brio train set?" Carter ventured.

"Oh my, no," Santa laughed. "He said he didn't want anything at all for himself this year. But he wanted a toy for every poor child in Land's End."

"Land's End?" Heather said.

"It's a public housing project, not far from here. I volunteer there on Christmas Eves."

"Vito," Heather cooed. "That was such a sweet thing to ask for."

"I agree," Santa said. He patted Vito on the head, and the boy seemed to light up like a Christmas display.

"You know," Santa said. "In the 20-some years I've been in this business, I've never had a child ask me that. Does that tell you something?"

Santa picked up Vito, ice cream cone and all, and hoisted him into Heather's arms. She wanted to kiss the boy's fair cheek, but she worried what Carter might say.

"Ho, ho, ho!" Santa laughed as he lumbered back toward his throne. "And a merry Christmas to all!"

DISAPPEARING ACT

The boy finished the last bite of his cone as the trio entered the security office.

The room was official-looking, full of work desks and chairs and security monitors, but brightly decorated for Christmas just the same. Heather looked for someone in charge. In a while an older man with a dove gray mustache stepped from behind a desk and smiled.

"Can I help with you something?"

"Yes, my husband and I found this little boy in the mall." Heather turned to introduce Vito, but didn't find him there. Carter looked, too. Vito was gone.

"I can't believe this!" Carter wailed. "The kid was just here!"

The security chief peeked behind the front desks. "He's not back here, either."

Carter rushed outside into the mall. "Vito!"

Heather was on his heels. They raced down the crowded corridor almost to the center of the mall.

No Vito.

"Do you think he went outside?" Heather said.

"Come on then," Carter said. And they both ran the other way to the exit and out to the sidewalk.

"Vito! Vito!"

Their shouts were muffled under a heavy, windless snowfall. An inch or two had already accumulated, a blanket of soft glittering white over parked cars and concrete alike. Nowhere was the imprint of a tiny boy in a dirty T-shirt and jeans.

"Incredible," Carter said. "They'll think we're nuts."

"He'll freeze to death out here!" Heather said. "We've got to find him!"

Heather tramped off toward the parking lot. Carter snared her arm.

"Let's not panic," he said. "I'm sure he'll have enough sense to come inside. We'll just tell the security people to look out for him."

"But we're responsible."

"We can't just go off on a wild goose chase."

SECURITY TAKES OVER

The security chief with the mustache scribbled notes on his desk mat as he listened to Carter tell the story of the little boy they'd found, and then lost again.

The chief asked for a detailed description of the boy: his weight, height, how he was dressed. Carter answered as best he could, and Heather filled in the blanks.

"And did you get his last name?" the chief asked.

Heather and Carter looked at each other.

"I'm sorry," Heather told the chief. "We didn't think of that."

"No need to apologize," he said. "The first thing we'll do is make a PA announcement. Not many boys with the name of 'Vito.' I would assume the mother is still around here somewhere."

Carter shook his head. "I wouldn't count on it."

"Carter, come on," Heather said. "Do you really think she'd just leave the boy?"

"Well, it's not your concern," the chief said. "You two have done more than your duty. I suggest you return to your shopping and enjoy the rest of your day. We'll take care of this."

'JUST HOLD ME A WHILE'

Carter took Heather's hand as they left the office. Heather suddenly turned and clung to Carter with all her might. He saw that she was crying. He stroked her soft hair and tried to think of comforting words to say.

"It's all right, Heather. They'll find him. I'm sure they will."

"Just hold me a while," she said, her mouth buried against his down jacket.

"OK."

The other Christmas shoppers swarmed oblivious around them, a tiny island of warmth and sadness.

In a while, Heather let go and sniffled. "OK, OK. I'm all right."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. Let's go find your father's gift."

"All right, honey. This way."

'MY MOTHER DOESN'T CARE'

They were across from the Disney Store when they spotted him. His curly head disappeared through the entrance and into a cuddly world of stuffed toys and smiling cartoon characters.

Heather gave chase. "Vito!"

Carter was just behind her when Heather found him hugging a giant stuffed Pooh Bear at the back of the store. Heather was on her knees holding both boy and bear.

"Vito, where in the world did you go? How could you scare us like that?"

"I had to," the boy said.

"Why?"

"Because they think I steal things," he said. "The last time they said they'd put me in jail."

"But, Vito, we've got to find your mother."

"My mother doesn't care where I am."

"But, Vito, she must. We have to find her."

"Then take me home."

"Fine. Anything," Carter said. "Where do you live?"

"At Land's End."

AN EXTRAORDINARY ENCOUNTER

Heather felt her heart sink as Carter drove their old Cavalier along the access road to the housing project.

Even the fresh snow couldn't hide its drab monotony - apartment building after apartment building of pink brick and entries without stoops.

Many of the windows lacked curtains or shades. Some were covered with sheets, others weren't covered at all.

"Do you know your apartment number?" Carter asked Vito.

He was sitting in the back seat, buried inside Carter's down jacket and strapped behind a seat belt.

"I see it!" he said, pointing through the window. "Turn right here."

Carter turned on to the first street and Vito pointed ahead to the second building on the left.

"It's that one, right there."

Carter drove up to the building. There were three separate entries. Vito pointed again.

"There! That's my house!"

"With the potted flowers out front?" Heather asked hopefully.

Withered mums, frosted in snow, stood on either side of the entry. The white door was freshly painted and there were frilly curtains in the window. It didn't seem as bad as the others.

Heather liked its warm, inviting feeling.

"Yeah, that's it!" Vito said. He sounded happy to be home.

Carter parked the car and Vito was the first to leap out of the car and run up to the door. He knocked as hard as he could.

"Mom!" he shouted. "Mom!"

Heather and Carter waited in front of the car as the falling snowflakes, like moments in time, pelted them softly and disappeared. But no one came to the door.

"Oh, brother," Carter muttered. He looked at his watch. "We have less than an hour before the appointment."

"Carter, we just can't leave him."

"I know, I know."

Vito came back from the doorway, disappointed and shivering.

"I'm cold," he said. "I want to go home."

"Get in the car and warm up," Heather said.

Carter stepped up to the front window and tried to peek through the curtains. "I can't see a darn thing," he said. "It's too dark. She must be out."

"Look," Heather said. "There's a doorbell."

She pushed the lighted button on the door frame. Carter was standing by her side when the door miraculously opened, and an old lady poked her head outside. She smiled as though she had been expecting them.

"Come in, come in," she said, motioning with her tiny hand. "You'll catch your death of cold out there."

The old lady had white hair and eyes like two hot coals. Much like Vito's. Heather yelled back toward the car. "Vito! Someone's home!"

But the car was empty. Heather rushed to the car, opened the back door. Only Carter's down jacket was still there.

"He's done it again!" she cried. "He's not there!"

"You're kidding!"

Carter threw open both doors. He looked under the seats, and came out shaking his head.

"Veeeeto!" he suddenly screamed toward the clouds. "Would you please stop playing this game!"

The old lady stepped outside, an oversized white shawl around her shoulders. "Don't worry," she said calmly. "He'll be all right."

"How can you be so sure?" Heather asked.

"Oh, I'm sure," she said. "Come in now. I have some fresh eggnog in the fridge."

Heather and Carter stared at each other in disbelief.

"Come now," the old lady said. "I've been expecting you."

TELLING TALES

The old lady had them sit on a big worn sofa in the living room, its bare spots covered strategically with knitted doilies.

The apartment was cluttered with knick-knacks and memorabilia - old photographs and porcelain dolls and treasured bits and pieces of a long life.

There was a warmth and coziness that put the young couple at ease.

The old lady brought in two large glasses of creamy eggnog. She sat down in her cane rocker and said, "Now enjoy. You two deserve it after what you've been through."

Heather took a sip. "It's delicious," she said. "But how do you know what we've been through?"

She flicked a hand at them. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that you are both here."

"Are you Vito's grandmother?" Carter asked.

The old lady smiled. "Before I answer that, may I tell you a story?"

"Are you sure Vito is all right?" Heather asked.

"Oh, my yes. He'll be back. Don't you worry. My story will make it all clear."

Heather and Carter nudged one another on the sofa as the old lady launched into a tale about her life during the war, when she had been an adventurous young woman just out of high school, working at the Delco plant making munitions for "the boys."

"I would go to the dances every Saturday night at Lantz's Merry Go Round. Do you remember Lantz's?" she said, then waved off her own question. "Of course not. You're both much too young. Anyway, Lantz's was the cat's meow back then. They had this giant crystal ball that reflected the most dazzling light all over the dance floor.

"And there were soldiers - tons of soldiers, all in their handsome uniforms. I met one of them there and fell madly, wildly in love. His name was Frank. Frank Marinelli."

Carter nudged Heather again and pointed to his watch.

"Oh, don't worry," the old lady said. "You have plenty of time. So tell me, when are you expecting, dear?"

Heather's mouth dropped. "You're the first person to ask."

"Just one minute-" Carter blurted, but Heather clutched his arm.

"How did you know?" Heather asked.

The old lady only smiled. "May I continue my story?"

"Yes, but make it quick," Carter said.

"It will be quick enough."

The old lady went on to say how she and Frank were married the day after they met at Lantz's and, without telling their parents, had spent their honeymoon at the Biltmore downtown. "And then, instead of dancing, we met every night at the hotel and stayed in our room until the next morning. It was two weeks of the most perfect bliss. And then the day came when he was shipped out."

Heather saw the woman's face turn suddenly blank and cold, and she knew the rest.

"He was killed," Heather said.

"Yes. Within four days of his leaving. His troop ship was torpedoed. I got word from his sister - the only person who had known we were married."

Carter looked at his watch again, rolled his eyes.

"I was so sad, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to die myself, but I hadn't the energy, or the nerve, to do myself in. Not outright, anyway. So I drank, and I drank some more. I lost my job, of course. And when I found out I was pregnant, I drank even more. I didn't want the baby. I didn't want anything to remind me of Frank."

Heather's eyes were wide now. "You lost the baby."

"Yes, dear, I did. Just before Christmas of 1943. And I've spent every day of my life regretting it. But there's no way of going back into the past, is there now?"

Carter stood. "Listen, it's been nice, but we've gotta go."

"Of course, you do," the old lady said, smiling.

Heather pulled Carter back to the sofa. "No, I have to ask her something."

"Yes, dear. You can ask me anything."

"Is Vito someone you've adopted?"

"No, he's not."

"Then," Heather said, swallowing hard, "is he your child?"

The old lady smiled and shook her head. "I have no idea, dear. I just know that every year, about this time, he brings someone to me - someone like you, dear."

Carter jumped from the sofa. "Heather, let's get the hell out of here - now! This woman is a lunatic."

The old lady got up slowly, went to the front door and opened it. "You may go," she said pleasantly. "I have nothing more to tell you."

Heather raced through the door and outside, where it was dark now. Pink circles of snow glistened under the vapor lamps.

"Vito! Vito!" she called out. "Where are you? Where in God's name are you? Please! Where, where, where!?"

She fell to her knees in the snow and buried her head in her hands. "Vito! Oh, God, Vito!"

Carter tried to lift her, but she wrestled from his arms. "Leave me alone! Please, just leave me alone!"

The old lady came outside, wrapped again in her shawl.

"Look what you've done!" Carter shouted at her. "How could you do this to us?"

"I've done nothing," she said. "Someone much bigger than us has done it all." She nodded toward Heather. "Why don't you just hold her now."

Heather was standing, her face still in her hands, sobbing as though her heart would burst. Carter was afraid, afraid of the rawness of her emotion.

"Go," the old woman said gently. "She needs you."

He went to her then, and was about to wrap his arms around her when she reached out and held him with a fierceness that nearly threw him off his feet. She pressed her face hard against his chest.

 

"Carter, please - I don't want us to. . . ."

Carter felt his chest melt beneath her grasp. He stroked her hair and said softly, "I don't either, honey. I just want you to come home. I love you. I love you so much."

She looked up into his eyes and saw a tenderness there she had never seen before. "And our baby, too?"

"Yes," he said. "And our baby, too."

Copyright, 2001, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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