Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Christmas Story

Here is the second installment of Ryan's Christmas Story.

Sunday, December 23, 2007
Christmas Story, continued.My mouth tastes like explosives. We had to crush up TNT to put in holes for a blast we did today, and the dust is all in my mouth and nose and sinuses. It has a bitter taste. It doesn't go well with nutri-grain bars either. Also, for my family, I've been trying to call home, but the phones around here won't cooperate for some reason, so I may not be able to call before Christmas. Tell Adam I said "Yo," and also "Merry Christmas."

Margaret's Christmas Present, cont.... Margaret was not the sort to let anything go. She always thought deeply about things that happened around her. Just then, her head was full of admonitions to be kind and generous and to give to the poor, and pre-Christmas stories about the little baby Jesus not finding room in the inn. To her it seemed that Dick had acted in a very un-Christian way. Her mind was still busily turning the event over and over at dinner that night, causing her to be unusually quiet. Her Grandfather noticed and asked her what was on her mind. "I saw a boy today, Grandpa." "One of your little friends from school?" "No, he was a poor boy who came up to the gate in the back. He said he was an orphan, and Dick chased him away." "Why did he do that?" Grandpa asked. "He said he was a bad boy, but I don't see how he could know that. He didn't even talk to him, he only just saw him standing there." "I'm sure he thought he was doing what was best for you." "But how could he know that. What if he was just a poor boy who wanted some food?" Her Grandfather sighed. "My dear, Dick may have been a little hasty, but be assured he was only trying to look out for what was best for you and your friends. He is right, there are some people who will do bad things, who will steal from others if they are given the chance. Dick may have been right about that boy." "But he may have been wrong, Grandpa." "I'm afraid, my dear, that grownups can not always afford to be as generous. He had you to think about. What if he had not told him to go away and he had tried to steal from us?" "I would give him some money gladly, if I had any. He needs it more." The old man sighed. He didn't know how to explain to his granddaughter how important it was to keep her safe. Her world was so black and white, and sometimes he wondered if she might not be right in some ways. She continued to eat her meal in silence, and he didn't know what to say to her. Perhaps she might have forgotten about it in time, but that was not to be. Thursday was washday at the house, and one of the little girl's chores was to help Martha take the clothes off the line and fold them in the basket. Accordingly, after school she was in the back yard helping the old housekeeper. They were almost finished when she happened to look up, and she saw Perry, once again leaning on the gate and looking in at them through the back yard. Martha, turning to see what she was looking at, saw him too. "Who is that?" she asked. "That is the boy that Dick chased away yesterday," Margaret explained, and briefly told the story. "Did he really, now?" Martha asked with her lips tight. She looked the boy over sharply, and he stared back at them, as they finished folding the last of the towels. When they were finished, Martha picked up the basket and set it on her bony hip, but instead of going back into the house she went to the back gate. Margaret stared after her in suprise for a few seconds before running after her. Perry had been looking away, watching the roosters in the chicken yard fighting, but when he turned and saw her he jumped like a startled fox and leapt away from the fence. He was running away when Martha's sharp voice caught him and stopped him in his tracks. "You there, boy, come back here. I want to talk to you." He froze and turned, slightly crouched and tense, as if he was ready to spring away at the slightest threat. His eyes glanced furtively from the old woman to the little girl. "You eat yet today, lad?" Martha asked, eyeing him sternly. "Yes," he answered. There was a pause of several seconds and he added as an afterthought, "Ma'am." "Where did you get the meal from, then?" she asked. The boy swallowed and didn't say anything, but his expression changed to one of sullen defiance. Martha clicked her tongue and pressed her lips together. "Well, you come inside here, and there'll be no cause for you to be stealing food this night." The boy stared, as if he was trying to make up his mind whether this old lady was telling the truth or not. "Well, are you coming or aren't you, then?" the housekeeper asked. "It's all right, we won't hurt you," the little girl reassured him. Perry started walking towards them, slowly and cautiously. Margaret opened the gate for him, and he hesitated. "Boy, come in here now, and get you something to eat," Martha ordered, in a tone that brooked no arguments. Perry did as he was told. Margaret got him a glass of cold milk from the dairy, while Martha cut him generous slices of cold ham, cheese and bread. When they were set before him on an earthenware plate his eyes grew wide as saucers in his skinny face and he began eating as quickly as he could. Margaret laughed as he crammed his cheeks as full as they could go, like a squirrel hoarding nuts, but Martha glared sternly. "Boy," she said, "Swallow that mouthful and say grace before you continue, and then take decent Christian sized bites. Chew each one ten times." Perry gulped, "Yes, Ma'am. What's grace?" "You don't know what grace is," Margaret asked in amazement. She realized that the boy in front of her was a heathen, a real live heathen, just like the brown children in Africa. She half expected Martha to send him away immediately. "Grace is when you pray before you eat," Martha explained. "What should I pray for?" The old housekeeper sighed and looked up to heaven for patience. "Boy, someone needs to take you in hand and Christianize you. Fold your hands and pray to the Lord, thanking Him for the food He has seen fit to put before you." "But God didn't give me the food, you did," Perry objected, his mouth finally empty.Martha eyed him sternly. "Sure and what were you expectin' boy, the miracle o' loaves an' fishes?" Her natural brogue began coming out, a sure sign that she was getting worked up for a lecture, as Margaret well knew. "The miracle of what?" The housekeeper sat silent for a few minutes watching the boy eat, her eyes twitching, and Margaret was braced for the tirade she knew was imminent. Martha's tongue was never unleashed in vain. However, to her surprise, the old lady's eyes grew soft and she only said, "Boy, maybe the Lord didn't work any signs and wonders before you to feed your skinny belly. But ye make sure, the food would not be here if it weren't for Him." Perry nodded, not entirely comprehending, but duly impressed nonetheless. Margaret plied him with questions while he ate, which tried him sorely because Martha would not let him talk with his mouth full and he did not want to pause eating. However the little girl learned that the boy's father was in prison for robbing a bank, that the prison was near Albany somewhere, and the boy had been working his way as on the river boats for a while, but that work was scarce in the winter and he was heading back to the city to look for work. "My father works in New York City," the little girl said. "Where at?" Perry asked with interest. "He's a solicitor at Patrick, St. James and Still," she answered, somewhat wistfully. "Oh, he's a swell," the boy said dismissively. "I worked at a meat packing plant for a while." "How would you like to work here, boy," Martha asked unexpectedly. "Doin' what, for how much," the boy called out promptly. "Whatever I tell you for bed and board," the old lady returned just as sharply. "Place to stay?" Perry asked. "Yes." "All the food I can eat?" "You can stuff yourself 'til ye burst," the housekeeper assured him. "Ye'll not get rich, but I'll put some meat on your bones at the least." "For how long." "That depends on whether you work out," the housekeeper answered. "Shoot, I'm a good worker. I may not be big but I'm damn strong," he flexed his skinny arm and nodded. "If you never use that language again, you may work here." "Oh, sorry. So it's a deal?" "It is," she answered. The boy spit on his palm and held it out to her. To say that her eyes were cold is to say that Antarctica is pleasantly chilly. Perry gulped and cringed, about to wipe his hand furtively on the seat of his pants. "Boy, go to the pump outside and wash your hand, and do not ever spit again. It is a filthy habit." True to his word, the boy turned out to be an excellent worker, and surprisingly strong for his size. He seemed bound and determined to prove that, and lifted, heaved and strained all afternoon. Martha always cleaned the house every year before Christmas, but she had not intended to start for another few days. However the boy's unexpected appearance and her soft heart, as Christian a heart as ever beat, under the prickles, combined to convince her to start right away. Accordingly the three of them, the housekeeper, Margaret and Perry, went up to the attic and started tearing it apart. Margaret was perplexed by this because usually they only cleaned the attic quickly and cursorily. Now they removed everything from it, including several large old pieces of furniture that the two girls would not have been able to move on their own. As it was, they both took one end, and Perry, veins popping out on his skinny neck but lifting it nonetheless, took the other. The old room saw such a dusting and sweeping and scrubbing and even mopping as it hadn't seen since the last of the boys, Margaret's uncles, had moved from there. It received several moppings, in fact, until the old hardwood planks that made up the floor actually looked close to the same shade of brown as the ones downstairs. The windows were wiped until the cold December sunlight sparkled through them as if it meant to. The rats were sure the end of the world had come. Margaret was terribly afraid of rats, but Perry found a nest of them in an old chair and showed her how fat ugly rats start out as naked pink little midgets, blind and about the size of peanuts. After that she didn't mind the grownup rats so much. All in all it was a productive afternoon. Martha was exacting, demanding that everything be done right, and in the end it was dark before they got the furniture back. The attic was not yet wired for the electric lights, so Martha told them they would finish it tomorrow. Margaret wanted Perry to eat with her and her grandfather, but Martha would hear none of it, so after a brief but cordial introduction to the old man, he was whisked away to eat in the kitchen. For the next week and a half, Perry worked for Martha cleaning the house from top to bottom. Margaret also helped, running home from school to be a part of the effort. The work was slow and thorough, thorough as it had not been for many a year that the old housekeeper had had to do it alone, or with only a little girl for help. As the young boy proved himself and earned the housekeeper's trust, he was also allowed to spend part of his evenings with the little girl and her grandfather in the study, although Martha was invariably there to keep an eye on him. The first sunday morning he spent with the family was very nearly the last. Martha had purchased a suit of clothes, cheap and plain but of good material and solid workmanship, a few sizes too big so that he would have room to grow. She even bought him a pair of stout boots that pleased him no end for his own were too small. He was very thankful for the gifts until he found that the housekeeper expected him to wear them to go to church with the family. A clash of wills ensued, and Margaret, have been banned from the kitchen for the duration of it, never learned how it went. Neither Martha nor Perry ever spoke of it again, but somehow or other a very subdued Perry in a fresh suit of clothes and highly washed face went to service with them, and sat almost perfectly still for the entire thing. Later that afternoon, it being Sunday, Margaret was reading in the library when the boy poked his head in. "Watcha doin'?" he asked. "Reading," she answered. "What about?" For answer she held up the book so he could read the title. "Shoot, I can't read that," he scoffed. "Why not?" she asked, looking up over the cover. "I can't read," he answered defiantly, hands thrust in his pockets. "You can't read?" Margaret asked in horrified shock. "Nope," he replied. "Never went to school." "But that is terrible. Every American child has to know how to read," she insisted. "Well, I don't." "Then I'll teach you," she told him in a determined voice. "It's easy, all you have to do is know your alphabet, which is..." "Yeah, I know my letters," he assured her, as if only a fool wouldn't know his letters. He rattled off the alphabet rapidly and correctly." He had a quick ear and mind, and he learned rapidly. Before the afternoon was over he knew his short vowel sounds and his consonant sounds and was reading short words like "fat" "cat" and "rat". "See," he boasted. "Nothing to it. Always knew I could read if I wanted to, just never tried before." And so the evenings in front of the fire became reading lessons. Martha watched her little charge, with barely disguised pride, as the little girl taught the boy to read. He was sharp, and soon became so excited about his new ability that he forgot to boast. During the workday he was always stopping to read something, whether it was a newspaper used to pack the good china, or even a label on a medicine bottle, he had to read it. As much as she approved of his new fascination with literacy, Martha was forced to be stern with him. No reading until his work was done, and later, when he set his bed clothes on fire, she forbade him taking books to bed with him and trying to read by candle light. They finished cleaning the house four days before Christmas. With the extra hands and a strong young back to help her, Martha had made the project far more ambitious than usual, cleaning from the top to the bottom, room by room, floor by floor, never permitting the children to move on until each room was spotless. Perry took the brunt of the work. The housekeeper expected him to lift the heaviest objects, do all the climbing, dust all the hard to reach places, and do most of the running, and she frequently scolded Margaret for attempting to do what she had marked out as Perry's work. The boy didn't mind a bit, and even got angry himself whenever the little girl tried to do his work for him. Margaret was inclined to resent this but the housekeeper explained knowingly, "Let him work. Men are never happy unless they are doing something they think we can't do. He needs the self-respect of working for a living, and it won't hurt him to be a gentleman, willy nilly." Margaret didn't understand, but she obeyed. After the cleaning inside, Perry was sent outside with Dick to collect greens. The two did not trust each other, but they operated under a sort of truce, even competing to see who could bring in the most greenery for the decorating. Dick won, of course, and rather lorded it over the younger boy, who would have been inclined to play some sort of trick on the groundskeeper to get even, except that he was on his best behavior. The house was decked with great glee. Perry professed not to have much use for Christmas, and Margaret was shocked by this but Martha paid him no mind, and try as he might, he could not help getting sucked into the festivity in spite of himself. The last sunday before Christmas, Perry found Margaret once again in the library, this time writing a letter. "Next you'll have to teach me to write all fancy like that," he commented, refering to her rather balloon shaped cursive. When she didn't answer he asked, "Watcha writin'?" "It's rude to look over people's shoulders," she said primly. "Well la-de-da," he scoffed, balancing on the back of a chair. "Watcha writin'?" She sighed and laid down the pen. "Why can't you go away?" "So why can't we work on sunday?" he asked. "If I had work to do I wouldn't be bothering you." "We can't, it's the Lord's day." "Well, the Lord ain't never done nothin' for me, why should I do anything for Him?" "Perry!" Margaret cried. "Take that back." "Shan't either," the boy grinned. "Take that back, or you'll go to hell when you die." "Poo, so will most of the people I know." "I won't. Grandfather and Martha won't." "Well, send me a letter and tell me how heaven is." "Perry, you mustn't joke about such things," the girl cried earnestly, almost in tears. "God hears you." "No He don't either." The boy was suddenly almost angry. "If God listened, then why'd me old Dad end up in jail?" "I thought you said he robbed a bank?" the girl said. "Yeah, but he was hungry and he needed to feed me somehow." "God had a reason, Perry, but I will pray for your father. Maybe God will let him out." "I bet God always answers your prayers. He always answers good people's prayers. You never had to steal to eat so He does whatever you ask. It ain't fair, I tell you..." suddenly he stopped short in the middle of his rant. Margaret was sitting with her head bowed, her curls over her face, and something about the way she sat told him that he was crying. As much as he could care for anyone in his selfish, boyish heart, he cared for her, and his conscience smote him at the thought that he had made her cry. He heard her whisper something, but he couldn't make it out. "Look," he said, uncomfortably. "Don't cry, I didn't mean it like that. It's not your fault you always got everything, and I know you'd give it all away if you could. You're not like most Christian folks, and neither is Martha. Don't cry, Margaret." He had to bend his head very close to hers to catch what she was saying. "God didn't give me everything I wanted. He took my parents away too." Perry awkwardly shifted from one foot to the other. "I didn't mean it like that," was all he could think of to say. "Every Christmas I pray extra hard, and I promise to be extra good, if only Daddy will come home, but he never does. I always forget and I do something naughty, and that ruins it." "No you don't," Perry yelled fiercely. "You never do anything even close to bad, I bet. It isn't your fault your old man is an ass." Margaret looked up at the boy, not crying, but with tears in her eyes. "He went away when Mama died. She died when I was born." "Yeah," the boy said. "Dick told me. But that isn't your fault." Margaret shook her head. "I'm not worried about me. I'm worried aobut you because you're almost a heathen." "Well it isn't my fault I never had no upbringing," he said sullenly. "Perry, I want you to promise me something." "Sure," the boy said, nonchalantly. "I want you to promise me that you will say the Lord's Prayer every day. I know you know it, because Martha taught it to you, and I heard you saying it along with us at service." "Aw, Margie, don't worry about me. I was only joking." "Promise me," she commanded inexorably. Her dark brown eyes, still filled with tears beseeched as much as her voice commanded. As much a boy as he was, there was already something of a man in him. Perry could not say no, and he promised. He meant it, too.

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