Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas Story

“Christmas—who needs it?”

The ice clinked in her glass as Claire looked out the picture window to the frosty scene outside. She took a long drink and the outside chill seemed to slide right down to her belly with the cold liquor.

Lights glittered on trees and porches, and a few crooked snowmen dotted lawns covered with five inches of new snow. A lone car made its way down the icy track that used to be a wide paved street. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was getting its usual dose of snow for the holidays. I suppose that most people would think this is idyllic, the perfect Christmas scene, she thought. But here I am, alone once again at the holidays.

For a while, it looked like this year might be different. After the death of her husband three years ago, she’d found it difficult to even think about dating again. At her age, dating seemed a juvenile term for the desperate mating dance she’d observed at the few parties she’d attended at the urging of friends. She had not wanted to go, but the world seemed to think it was not healthy for her to sit alone in her house night after night. She had not felt lonely; she had her dogs and her crafts for company. Right now she had two quilts, an afghan, two oil paintings and three baskets in progress. She was nothing if not busy!

But she had to admit, at least to herself that last Christmas had been a very tough time. She’d wandered through stores, looking for gifts for her sons and grandchildren, and watched the happy families crowding around window displays and laughing as they sipped hot chocolate in cafes. She smiled too, hoping that she looked like a strong, busy woman who did not mind being alone, who in fact enjoyed shopping by herself. But inside she knew the truth. She was lonely.

Waking on Christmas day to an empty house was not a good idea either. Her sons had invited her to stay with them, but Claire told them she wanted to sleep late, go out for a long slow breakfast, and that she’d see them later in the day. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but when she opened her eyes at 6:00 am, she knew she would not go back to sleep. She switched on the TV to watch choir after choir singing carols as she brewed coffee in her old flannel robe. She’d laid out a red velvet one last night, but this morning did not feel like a red-velvet day.

She got through that day, but it was one of the lowest points she could remember since her husband’s funeral. When Rebecca invited her to a New Year’s party she grabbed at the invitation like a life preserver. She had her hair done, dressed carefully and sailed out to the party in a sweat of relief that at least this one holiday would not be spent alone, watching Dick Clark and the dropping of the New Year’s ball while drinking a toast with her thoughts.

That was when she’d met Harrison. He was a recent widower, and it seemed for several months that they might actually develop a relationship that would last. He was kind, attentive, and seemed to enjoy her company. The Labor Day picnic with their VFW group put an end to that, however. He met Sara there, and Sara made no bones about the attraction she felt for him as soon as they were introduced.

She swept that poor man off his feet, Claire thought. He didn’t know what hit him. It hurt, there was no doubt about that. But he was still vulnerable and just realizing that he was attractive to women and that went to his head too. When he came knocking a few weeks later, hat in hand, Claire was not ready to try again. Her heart was still sore and she was afraid of what another rejection might do to her psyche. She sent him away. It was hard but probably not as hard as being hurt again.

A screech of brakes and a crash of metal jarred her back to the present. She ran to the door and looked out. A car was sitting at an odd angle in her yard, its hood against the iron post at the side of the driveway. Steam rose into the cold night air, and one headlight, still on, hung down like a displaced eyeball. Claire grabbed the phone and called 911, then rushed outside.

“Are you hurt? Is anyone in there?” she called. Dumb question, she thought, of course someone’s in there—the car didn’t drop out of the sky! Claire grabbed the passenger’s door and pulled. The door opened with a squawk, its frame bent by the crash. In the seat was a young woman. A boy was behind the steering wheel, his head bowed forward.

“Are you okay? Is he okay?” Claire shouted. The girl stared at her, and then turned her head slowly to look at the young man. He lifted his head, tears streaming down his face.

“I’m sorry, honey, I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for the girl. “Are you all right? It didn’t hurt the baby, did it?”

Startled, Claire looked at the girl again. Oh my God. She’s ready to pop any minute! The girl shook her head.

“I’m okay. The seat belt held me. But you’re bleeding!” The boy raised a hand to his face.

“Just my nose—I must have hit it on the steering wheel. I’m okay, I think.”

“Can you get out of the car?” Claire asked.

The girl slowly unbuckled the seatbelt and lifted herself out onto the snow. She wasn’t wearing shoes, Claire noticed with a shock—just bunny slippers with little wiggly eyes. She didn’t have a coat on and she stood shivering in her thin flannel nightgown.

The boy jumped out and ran to the girl’s side. “You’ll freeze out here,” he said. “Get back in the car.”

“Wait!” Claire reached out a hand to the girl and said, “Come inside. It’s warm in there. I’ve called 911 and they should be here soon. Come in where it’s warm. There’s no need to stay out here, is there?”

The girl glanced at her companion, and then nodded. “Thank you, we’ll do that. It’s so cold out here, and the car’s heater is probably dead anyway.” She took the boy’s hand and they walked behind Claire to the house. Inside, carols were still pealing from the CD player, the fire burned brightly, and the lights on the tree sparkled. Claire led the couple to the couch and offered the girl an afghan to wrap around her thin shoulders.

“I was just making hot chocolate,” Claire said. “Would you like some?”

“Yes, please, ma’am,” the boy (young man actually, Claire corrected herself mentally) answered. “That would be real nice of you. Um, my name is Joey and this is Marianne.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Claire. Well, we say silly things out of habit, don’t we? It’s not nice that your car is wrecked and your evening spoiled. I didn’t mean it that way...” Her voice trailed off.

Marianne grinned. “We knew what you meant. It is funny how we automatically say the polite things!” A worried frown crossed her face. “I don’t know how we’ll get home now...that car...we don’t have insurance on it, just liability. Joey swerved when someone’s cat ran out in front of us, and the ice...”

“I should have hit the cat, I guess,” Joey observed morosely. “But I acted out of instinct, you know? Now the car is gone." He stopped, squared his shoulders, and then continued. “I’ll figure it out, Marianne. Don’t you worry. Sure you’re all right?” He took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes, holding them with his own for a long minute.

“I’m fine, honey, I really am. The ice sort of cushioned us, I think, because it all seemed like slow motion. The baby’s not due for two weeks, you silly. That’s what the doctor said, remember?”

Claire looked out the window. Where was 911? They should have been here by now.

“I’ll get that hot chocolate, and then if the ambulance hasn’t arrived, I’ll call them again. It’s odd that they’re taking so long.” She hurried to the kitchen, where the whistle of the kettle rose to a shriek.

As she left the room, a shriek resounded from the living room. Claire ran back to find Marianne on the floor, clutching her stomach. Joey knelt over her, pleading, “Please, baby! It’ll be okay, please...” looked up at Claire in panic. “She’s in labor! What do we do?”

WE! thought Claire. How did I get into this? But just as quickly, she accepted that she was part of whatever was happening on her floor, and responded, “Help me move her to the bedroom—it’s just across the hall. There’s a bed in there.”

Between them they helped Marianne to her feetand led her to the bed. The girl fell into it, gasping and crying out in pain.

“Where is that rescue squad!” Claire grabbed the phone and dialed. “Yes, you can help me! Get the damned rescue squad her pronto. The girl who was in the car accident is now in labor. We need help!” She stopped talking and listened. “You’re kidding. You can’t be serious. How long? What happened? Oh, a bus wreck—and a semi. Please, send someone as soon as possible.”

She turned from the phone to find two pairs of frightened eyes looking at her. “There’s been a bad accident on the freeway,” she said. “All units are there—there are a lot of injuries.” She looked down at the girl on the bed. Marianne’s face was covered in sweat, and her hands picked restlessly at the blanket. “How are you doing?”

“I’m...okay. I’m... oh God!...” Her voice trailed off as her body contracted. Joey held tightly to her hand, saying “Hold on baby, hold on! They’ll be here soon.” He looked at Claire, his eyes begging her to say it was so.

“They’ll be here as soon as they can. How far apart are her pains now?”

“Like...maybe four minutes?”

Uh-oh, Claire thought. This is not good. “Marianne, has your water broken yet?”

The girl nodded miserably. Claire checked the bed to see that the sheets were soaked. Okay, one thing at a time. “I’ll get clean sheets...and I think I have a mattress cover that we can use. Maybe by then the EMTs will be here.”

Ten minutes and three labor spasms later, there was still no sign of the EMTs. Claire and Joey settled into a routine. Joey had been attending classes with Marianne and after his initial panic, he proved to be a good coach. Claire’s childbirth experiences were twenty years past, and she’d been on the other side of the experience. But she quickly picked up what Joey was doing, and made herself useful by timing the pains and watching for the arrival of help.

“Cup of coffee, Joey?” Claire stood stiffly and walked to the door. It was almost midnight. She’d called 911 twice more. Snow continued to fall and the roads were blocked. Help was coming, the voice on the phone promised. But it would be a while yet. Two rescue trucks had slid off the road, and that left only one to continue to carry the bus accident victims to the hospital.

“But we called you 45 minutes ago!” Claire was getting desperate. She couldn’t deliver a baby!

“Yes, ma’am, I know that. I’m trying to get help from Johnson County. I’m doing the best I can. Tell your girl to hold on.”

My girl! She’s not my girl! Claire thought as she hung up the phone. A loud yell from the bedroom brought her flying to the door.

“Claire! I can see its head!” Joey’s face was white. Was he going to faint? Blood soaked the bed and the front of his shirt. Oh my God, thought Claire. I’m about to birth a baby!

Red lights flashed on the mounded snow covering the wrecked car. Radios and voices were muted by the still falling flakes as the paramedics guided the gurney up the walk. Claire met them at the door.

“You’re a little late,” she said. “We’ve got a fine baby boy in there. I am so glad to see you! She’s in that room over there.”

“We got here as quick as we could, Ma’am. Sorry for the delay. It’s been a bad night.”
The paramedics moved rapidly to the bedroom door, then stopped short. Looking over their shoulders, Claire too was struck by the scene in front of her.

Marianne sat up in the bed, a blue blanket around her shoulders, her long brown hair falling softly over her breasts. In her arms she held a tiny white-wrapped bundle. Beside her stood Joey, his brown leather coat and dark hair reflecting the soft golden light from the lamp.

“I think we’ll name him Jeshua,” the girl said softly. “I want Claire to ride to the hospital with us. Is there room for her?”

The paramedics hesitated, and then one of them shrugged. “Sure, why not? We’ve got room in the front of the truck, if you don’t mind squeezing into the jump seats.”

A week later, Claire stood looking out the window. The snow was melting in the bright December sunshine, and the only sign of the wrecked car was the bent iron post.

She smiled, thinking about her Christmas this year. It was certainly different! She’d spent most of the day at the hospital, waiting for Marianne’s parents to arrive. She called her sons and explained that she’d be over later, after a nap and a bath. They were shocked to hear about her evening.

“That’s you all over, Mom,” said Scott, her oldest. “You will never cease to surprise me! I’ll come pick you up at the hospital in my truck. Then call me when you’re ready to join us this evening, and I’ll come get you. I don’t want you out on these roads.”

She hadn’t argued with him. The evening was wonderful, and she shared the story of her Christmas Eve over and over as each new group arrived.

“You’re glowing, Mom,” Sammy observed. “After what you went through, you’re happier than you’ve been in months—years!”

Yes, she was happy. She’d needed something to take her out of her routine, and it had arrived on Christmas Eve in the form of a little baby. She turned as she heard a small sound behind her.

The baby lay in the old cradle, brought down from the attic and cleaned by her sons. His little legs were covered by a soft yellow gown that had been brought over by her daughter-in-law, who explained that she had a whole bag of baby clothes she’d saved after her last child was born five years ago. “Guess I knew we’d need them again. I thought we were through with babies in this family, but evidently I suspected there might still be a chance.”

Marianne sat in the oak rocker by the fire, Joey on the rug at her feet. He’d just added a log and sparks were flying up the chimney as the log crackled.

“Thank you for letting us come back here, Claire. We were heading to my folks, as you know, but they really don’t have room for us. After the plant closed and Joey lost his job, we didn’t know what we were going to do. My parents were making space for us, but with my sister and her kids already there, and Grandma having to move in with her Alzheimer’s getting worse, I hated to ask it of them. We were just out of options.”

Claire smiled. “It’s fine with me, Marianne. This old place needs some livening up. We’ll get Joey enrolled in that EMT training class he found out about, and when he’s done you’ll be able to get a place of your own again. For now, you’ll do me a favor to stay with me.”

They were interrupted by a knock at the door. Claire pulled it open, and there stood Harrison, his arms full of baby toys, baby clothes, flowers and a bottle of champagne.

“Happy New Year, everybody!” he called. “Claire, I don’t know anyone I’d like to see the year in with more than you. Would you mind if I came in?”

“Of course not!” Claire laughed. “Come in, come in, Harrison. It’s so good to see you again. And I hope you’re planning to stay overnight—I still have extra rooms to fill.

There’s plenty of room at this inn!”


mary said...

Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it with us. You are a fantastic writer!

Granny Sue said...

You're welcome! I started this story 3 years ago, then last year found it again, revised it a lot, and then lost it in the computer--you know how that goes.

I tohught it was one that people would enjoy this time of year.

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