The Christmas Panhandler

 

By Jim DeBrosse

FRANK DRAYER SAT staring at the letter from corporate, not really reading it, just feeling what it had to say, like a blow to the stomach. He tossed the letter back across the desk to his boss - `Front Office' Sam they called him, the station manager.

`Frank, I want to stress again it wasn't my decision,' Sam said, feigning the pained expression he had donned for so many firings before. `But corporate doesn't like our numbers - in fact, they hate our numbers - and they need a scapegoat. I'm sorry, but you know how the business works.'

 

`Yeah,' Frank said, `I know how the business works.'

 

He knew all right. Twenty years as a TV news director meant nothing. Awards, honors, 16-hour days meant nothing. All that mattered were the ratings, and they had been falling, falling, falling - like the snow outside the newsroom window - steadily, inexorably, suffocating his career and his life.

He took a deep breath, felt compelled to touch the angel decoration on Sam's desk, stroking its crown of golden hair. Suddenly, he remembered it was Christmas Eve day.

"You couldn't wait until after the holidays?"

Sam threw up his hands. "Accounting wouldn't let me. They'd have to pay you the year-end bonus."

"Oh. That's nice. That's really nice, Sam."

"That's the business, Frank. What can I say?"

When he stood up, his knees went rubbery. He stiffened them. Don't let the turkeys know when they've got you down.

`I'll be glad to write you a glowing reference,' Sam said, not bothering to stand up himself. `You can count on it.'

`Thanks. I'll let you know.' Frank would need it, and more. Who was going to hire a fired news director pushing 50?

Sam went back to shuffling his paperwork. That was that. End of story.

Frank walked in a daze toward Sam's office door, the one leading out into the newsroom, where everyone already knew the news and had no doubt picked it up on the office radar screen long before Frank had had an inkling.

He kept his chin up as he entered the room. Every square inch was crammed with desks, monitors, staffers, and that palpable electricity only newsrooms had. No one looked at him. No one said a word. He was a dead man walking. A goner. A ghost. Goodbye.

He pulled his winter coat off the rack, slipped it on, felt its weight on his shoulders like a shroud.

Alison, a reporter 20 years his junior, came up and touched him on the arm. Dear, sweet, ambitious Alison - always ready to please. As long as he could help her career. She had used him, he had used her. Well, no more.

`It's not you,' she said. `They're a bunch of jerks. You know that, don't you, Frank?'

`I don't know anything anymore,' he said. `Can I call you later?'

`Sure,' she said. `I'll be home.'

But he could tell by the way she dropped her eyes she wouldn't be there.

OUTSIDE, IT WAS DARK already and the snow was still tumbling, in wet clingy clumps that stuck to his nose and his cheeks and tickled a moment before melting away.

He moved quickly toward his car in the parking lot, his wingtips smooshing through the mess. He thought about Janet, the kids. Sunshine. What time was it in California? He looked at his watch. No good - the kids would still be in school.

How had it happened? How had he lost them, too? Their childhoods had been the blurry backdrop to his career - punching through to the foreground every now and then for a soccer game, a recital, for stolen kisses while they lay asleep in bed.

Nicholas, all boy, never a moment of repose or doubt, with the scruffy hair at the back of his head that stuck up no matter how many times you slicked it down. Megan, all kisses and cuddles, and never a complaint, unless it was about her older brother.

And then one day Janet had said she was leaving, taking the kids with her back to her family in California - a new life, a new start. He hadn't fought her. He couldn't. The kids had hardly known him any way.

A ghost. A goner. Goodbye.

He pushed the remote button on his car keys, and the car lit up and chirped as though it were glad to see him. At least something was.

He was about to lift the latch on the car door when he felt a hard tug at his elbow.

`What the. . .?'

He wheeled around to face an old woman in a filthy down jacket and a pair of unlaced boots. She wore a blue knit cap pulled down over her ears like a bucket. Her face was a gaping toothless grin.

He turned back to his car door. Better not make eye contact.

`I'm sorry,' he said, `I don't have any change.'

The old woman grabbed the crook of his elbow again, claw-like, unrelenting. She was skinny but hardly frail.

`Don't want no change, you big dummy. What time is it?'

He turned to look at her again. She was still grinning. There was a bright glint in her soft brown eyes, as though flecks of gold had somehow lodged there.

He checked his watch again. `Twelve after six.'

She laughed, a toothless howl. He caught the smell from her clothes now - stronger than a thousand dumpster dives.

`Twelve? You sure that ain't 11, or 13? How many seconds?'

`Excuse me. I gave you the time. Now, would you please have the courtesy to leave me alone?'

`That's the problem. You don't give nobody the time.'

`What did you say?'

`You heard me. You deef or somethin'?'

`Listen, I'm a man who just lost his job. I'm tired and I want to go home. Now if there's nothing more I can do for you.'

`Oh, you can do plenty for me. Plenty. The question is, will you?'

`Do what?'

`I need a place to stay tonight.'

`There are shelters, you know.'

`Don't want to stay in no shelter. They smell bad. Everybody passin' gas all night long. You ever spend a night in a shelter?'

`No, I haven't. But I don't see what's to be gained by this conversation. Now good evening.'

He reached for his car door, but her talon intercepted once again.

`Then give me a ride downtown. I know a hot air grate I can sleep on. Cozy as toast.'

`A hot air grate?'

`Better than nuthin.' '

`All right. Get in. I'll take you there.'

`Much obliged.'

When they had both closed their doors, the woman's pungent odor hit him like a whiff of smelling salts. He shook his head violently.

`What's the matter? Catch a chill?'

`No. Just tell me how to get to this grate.'

`It's right next to the newspaper. Fourth and Ludlow. The hot air comes off the presses.'

`I hate to tell you this, but they don't have their presses downtown any more.'

`They don't? Well, no wonder it was so cold that last time. I nearly froze to death.'

Frank slammed his hands against the steering wheel.

`All right. Just please, please, PLEASE tell me where I can drop you off!'

`Take me home. You need some company.'

`I don't need company that badly, believe me.'

`You don't? Where you goin' to find company tonight?'

`If it's any of your business - which it is not - I was thinking of going to my favorite bar.'

`Oh, yeah. And get good and drunk, then you drive home and slip off the road and kill yourself dead. You'd best be takin' me home, son.'

She grinned at him and her eyes glinted all gold again, like a peace offering. A complete wacko, he thought, but probably harmless enough. Why not take her home? What else could he do with her? But oh, that smell.

`All right. One night, and in the morning, I contact social services and get you off the street.'

`I'll already be off the street. At your place. I bet it's nice, too.' She hugged herself to get warm.

`Did you hear me? I said one night.'

`I heard you. I ain't deef.'

HE PULLED INTO the driveway of his condo, regretting now that he hadn't cleaned out the garage. He'd have to park in the driveway. What would the neighbors think, him bringing home an old woman dressed in rags. Well, so what? She could be a cleaning lady, couldn't she?

She slogged up the steps behind him, her neck craning and twisting to see the hundreds of twinkling Christmas lights up and down his winding street.

`All them pretty lights,' she said, a shiver passing through her small body. `But so cold. So cold.'

`It's warm inside,' he said, turning the key.

`I hope so, young man.'

She walked into his foyer and stood there a moment, taking it all in as though she had just stepped into a museum - the cathedral ceiling and the plush white carpeting and the big Monet prints that Alison had liked so much.

"No Christmas tree?" she asked.

"I'm hardly ever home."

She shook her head. "Oh, Frank. You need a life."

The old woman's eyes fixed on the fireplace in the middle of the room.

`Can you start a fire in that thing?'

`It's functional.'

`Then do it. It's mighty cold in here, too.'

`I'll turn up the furnace.'

`No, build me a fire. Ain't had one indoors for years.'

The nerve, he thought. The nerve. But a fire would at least help with the smell.

She dropped her dirty coat carelessly to the floor, slipped off the knit cap to reveal a crown of surprisingly pretty silver hair, thick and shiny. Then she sat down on his white sofa and kicked off her boots. Her bare feet were covered with raw bunions. And the odor - it seemed to come in waves over to where he was kneeling now on the hearth, stacking logs on the fireplace.

`I could be happy here,' she said, putting her hands behind her head. `Yessiree. Mighty happy.'

`Remember, we're talking about one night. You can sleep there on the sofa.' The fabric was Scotch-Guarded, at least.

`Would you like to take a bath?' he suggested hopefully. He would whisk away her ratty clothes, find her something from his go-to-Goodwill pile.

`No, honey. Baths are dangerous. Open up all your pores.'

`They do?'

`Worst thing this time a year. Lets the flu bugs right in.'

`Oh, I see.' But it convinced him more than ever she was whacko.

The old woman started humming Amazing Grace , in perfect pitch. She closed her eyes as she hummed.

He lit the gas jets in the fireplace, and yellow flames soon licked all around the logs. The heat from the fire seemed to seep clear into the bones of his face.

`Ahhhh,' she said. `I can feel it over here. Right cozy.'

`Do you need blankets?' he said, thinking he could now at last be rid of her for the evening. He was dying to go to his liquor cabinet and pull out the Chivas.

`No, but you can fix me somethin' to eat.'

`I can?' He shook his head in disbelief. Who did this woman think she was?

She grinned at him. `You're goin' to eat, right?"

`Eventually.'

`Then just fix a little extry for me.'

He glared at her. `It might be a while.'

`My goodness, child. I'm hungry now. Ain't you?'

He almost laughed this time when she grinned at him. Her boldness defied belief.

`Let me make a phone call first.'

`You do that, honey. And say hi to the children for me.'

`What did you say?'

`Say hi to the little children. You ain't deef, are you?'

`How did you know I was going to call my kids?'

`Because you look like you need to. Now call, honey.'

He stared at her a moment, his face defiant and bewildered, then went to the kitchen phone. He punched in the familiar numbers, hoped one of the kids would pick up, not Janet. But it wasn't his night.

`Hello?' Janet was on the line, her voice instantly on edge. Did she have Caller ID now?

`Can I talk to the kids?'

`We're eating. Can you call back later?'

`I don't want to call back later. And they're my kids, too.'

He heard her shout into the background. `Nicholas, Megan - one of you want to talk to your father?'

`Not now, Mom,' he heard Nicholas answer. `Tell him to call back.'

What about Megan? Surely, Megan would come to the phone.

`Megan?' Janet called out.

`Not now, Mommy. I spilled something on my nice dress.'

`Call back later,' Janet told him.

`How much later?'

`Whenever you feel like it. Bye.'

She hung up.

He almost slammed the phone into the receiver, but before he could, the old woman cried out from the living room.

`I'll take some scrambled eggs, please!'

He laughed out loud. It was too much. He had just lost his job. His wife and kids hated him. And now he had a crazy woman living in his house.

He walked out to the living room, bowed toward her.

`Yes, your royal highness. Is there anything else I can get you?'

`No, honey. But make yourself some scrambled eggs, too. You could use a little cholesterol right now. Nothing like cholesterol to pick your mood right up. Better than Prozac.'

"You're kidding."

`Just go do it. Then we can sit by the fire and chat.'

THE OLD WOMAN HAD been right. There was something comforting in the fluffy, buttery smoothness of the scrambled eggs. Frank ate heartily by the fireside, a safe distance from the smell.

`When's the last time you saw your kids, Frank?' she said. There were flecks of scrambled egg around her mouth. He instinctively wiped his own, thinking she would get the message. She didn't.

`I don't know,' he answered. `It's been two, three years. It's hard for me to get away.'

`What about now,' she said. `You got no job, right?'

He took a deep breath. `Right.'

`Let me tell you something, young man. You only get as good as you give. You ever hear that expression?'

He nodded.

`You fly out to California. Spend some time with those children, they'll come around.'

`You think so?'

`I know so. Ever child is crazy 'bout their Daddy.'

`You have children?'

She laughed, flicked her hand at him. `Do I have children? Lordy, can't count 'em all. And I love ever single one of 'em. Ever single one.'

"Well, then, why don't they help you?"

"Don't have to. I love them anyway."

But he wondered if they were part of her little fantasy world, too.

He finished up his eggs and suddenly felt very sad. It was all so hopeless.

`People like me don't get second chances,' he said. `Not when you blow it so completely.'

`Second chances just don't happen, child. You gotta make them happen.'

`How?'

`Let me think on that a while.' Her eyes seemed to glow more brightly gold as she sat there thinking.

Frank put down his empty plate, wiped his mouth, cleared his throat. `Tell me something - and I hope this isn't too personal - but how did you end up living on the street?'

`How does a body not end up on the street? Like they say, ` 'Cept for the grace of God, there go I.' It ain't so bad most of the time, though. 'Cept when it's cold and no hot air grate to sleep on.'

`Really?'

`Really,' she said.

`I have some more eggs if you'd like.'

She waved her hand. `No, I done had plenty. Right now, to tell you the truth, I'd like to get some shut-eye.'

`Can I get you a blanket or something?'

`No, don't need no blanket. You've made me plenty warm.'

`OK. Well, I guess I'll go now. I'll catch you in the morning.'

She laughed. `You try and catch me any time you can, sweetie. Goodnight.'

She swung her spry old legs on to the sofa and lay back, her hands over her chest in repose, like someone in a coffin. Almost instantly, she began to snore.

Frank closed the steel netting on the fireplace, turned off the lights. He could see the outline of the old woman in the glow from the fireplace, her folded hands rising and falling with every breath.

She seemed at such perfect peace - and yet living on the street, how could she be? Somehow, too, she had put him at peace as well. He'd lost the urge for the Chevas.

He went to his bedroom closet, pulled down an old afghan - one his mother had made for him years ago - and took a pillow from his bed. He brought them out to the living room, held his breath as he covered the old woman with the blanket and tucked the pillow underneath her silver head.

There, he thought. He felt good about himself, knowing he had brought a bit of comfort into this old woman's hard-bitten life.

He yawned. He was suddenly very, very tired. The stressful day and the warmth of the fireplace seemed to have drained him of every last reserve of energy.

 

He shuffled back to his bedroom and, without slipping off his tie or even his shoes, dropped onto his bed and fell

into a deep, deep sleep.

`FRANK.'

 

His head snapped up from the mattress.

`Frank.'

It was the old woman's voice, distant and almost mournful. She was calling - no, whispering, it seemed - from the living room, and yet he could hear her every word as though she were right there in his room.

`Frank, honey. I'm cold. So cold.'

He slid off the bed and went to the closet and brought out two more blankets, then headed for the living room.

The fire was out in the fireplace, only a gaping blackness there now. The old woman lay shivering on the sofa.

`Frank. Help me, please, honey. I'm so, so cold.'

He flapped open the first blanket in a hurry and covered the old woman's face by mistake. He pulled the blanket away, then fluffed out the second and this time let it fall slowly over her small frame. He tucked the blankets all around her body and her feet, swaddling her like an infant from chin to toe.

"That's better, child," she said.

He retrieved some more logs from the patio and put them on the fireplace. Soon it was roaring again.

Still, her shivering wouldn't cease.

`Should I turn up the furnace?'

`No,' she said. `Just sit with me. Won't you? I'm afeared I got the chills.'

He sat down on the ottoman beside her, but he wasn't practiced at this kind of thing at all. Janet had always been the one to stay up with the kids when they were sick or afraid or just plain cranky.

He touched her forehead - weren't you're supposed to do that when people were sick? - and found the paper-thin skin there on fire.

"You've got a bad fever," he said, standing. "I'll get some aspirin."

`No,' she begged, "don't leave me."

She grabbed his hand and clutched it so tightly it hurt.

"Help me, Frank. Help me!"

Her whole body started trembling - in waves, it seemed. Her neck and back arched from the sofa, her mouth gasped for air. She was nearing convulsions.

He tried to pull his hand free, but she wouldn't let go.

"I have to call 911," he said. "You need a doctor."

"No!" she screamed. "Don't go!"

"I can't help you! Don't you understand? You need a doctor!"

When he tried to pull away again, she let out a piercing shriek.

"I've got to do something!" he shouted. "You may be dying!"

"No! Stay here, Frank! Stay here with me! Don't go!"

Her fierce little hand was a vise on his own. He couldn't believe its strength.

"All right. All right. I promise I'll stay."

He started to stroke her hand, nothing but paper over wiry bone. "Please, just be calm."

"Hold me, Frank! Hold me! I'm so cold!"

He bent down and lifted her tiny frame to his chest - a weight no more than the blankets that covered it. And just as suddenly as it had begun, the shuddering stopped. She went limp in his arms.

When he set her down again, the old woman lay back and closed her eyes.

"Thank you, Frank," she whispered. "You have a good heart."

"You think so?"

"I know so."

She sighed, pulled the blankets to her chin.

"Are you going to be OK?"

"Yes, honey. Can you do me one last favor?"

"Yes?" His voice was filled with patience now.

"Do you have a Bible?"

He thought a moment. He hadn't looked at one in years.

"I think in my bookcase."

"Can you go and get it for me and come right back?"

"Yes."

He found it wedged between his Fitzgerald and his Hemingway and brought it to the old woman. She reached up and took it from him, then placed it open on her chest like a shield.

"Would you like me to read it to you?" he asked.

"No, child. I know ever word in it. I just want it here for comfort."

"OK."

She stared at him. "Will you sit with me tonight, Frank?"

"Yes."

"You promise?"

"Promise."

"Good."

He grabbed his big wing chair from the corner and pulled it next to the sofa. The old woman had shut her eyes. He sat down, watched her breathing for a moment and, in a minute or two, it was as calm and regular as a baby's. In a twinkling she was fast asleep.

He reached down and touched her forehead: It was cool. How odd, he thought. And yet he remembered reading somewhere how sudden fits of fever weren't uncommon among the elderly. Something about their thermostats being out of balance.

He sat back and rolled his head against the chair's cozy wing. In a moment, he, too, was asleep.

HE WOKE TO FIND the sun filtering softly through his front curtains, and the old woman gone. Not a trace of her. Not even the blankets he had brought out to the sofa.

He checked every room of the condo. Found the blankets he had given her back in his bedroom closet, folded. He lifted one and put it to his nose. It smelled as sweet as flowers.

He went to his front door, opened it. The street was a Christmas card landscape of sun-glistening snow - but not a single footprint on his sidewalk.

He looked at his watch. It was almost noon.

Had he dreamt the whole thing?

And yet he knew the old woman had been there. He still felt the peace of her in his heart.

The phone rang in the kitchen. He raced to it, thinking it might be her, might be the police.

`Hello, Daddy?' a voice said.

"Megan?'

`Merry Christmas, Daddy.'

`Merry Christmas to you, dear. I'm so glad you called.'

`Here's Mommy, Daddy. She wants to talk to you.'

`Did we wake you?'

`No, no. Not at all. Merry Christmas. How is everybody?'

`Fine. Would you like to talk to Nicholas. Nicholas?'

`Hi, Dad. Merry Christmas. Wish you were here.'

`Me, too. Did you get my present?'

 

`The Nintendo? Yeah, cool. Just what I wanted. Here, Mom wants to talk to you again. Mom?'

 

Would it be another tongue-lashing? It didn't matter. He wouldn't retaliate this time.

 

`Frank?'

 

`Yes?'

 

`I would like to apologize. I guess I felt badly about the way we treated you last evening on the phone.'

`That's OK. I guess I deserved it.'

`No. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. Especially on Christmas Eve.'

`Listen, Janet. I'd like to come out and visit you and the kids. I mean, if it's all right with you.'

`Why, of course. Is everything all right?'

 

`Yes. Fine. I'd just like to get to know my family again.'

 

`You would?'

 

`Yes, more than anything in the world.'

 

`Are you sure you're all right?'

 

`Why? Do I sound different?'

`Yes.'

`Better different or worse different?'

`Definitely better.'

`I know,' he said. "Something happened. It's hard to explain."

"You'll have to tell me about it. When you get out here."

`Sure.'

When he hung up, he felt so good he wanted to run outside in the snow and leap for joy.

 

A fire, he thought. I need a fire, and a nice hot cup of cocoa. With teeny-tiny marshmallows. Could you buy those

on Christmas?

He headed straight for the fireplace, and there, lying on the hearth, was the Bible he had given the old woman. He picked it up.

On one of the open pages, a single line had been underscored.

"I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."

Copyright the Dayton Daily News 2000

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