Excerpt from Christmas Comes to Valentine
The spirit that attacks everyone at Christmas time and makes them long for home and family attacked Corrine’s mother and kindled in her the gumption to reenter her daughter’s life. It happened as she began to take calls for reservations for big families for Thanksgiving dinner in the restaurant where she worked as a hostess, and as she heard the wait staff and chefs speak of their Christmas gift desires and plans, and as she saw the advent items displayed in the store windows she passed on her walk home through the French Quarter.
It was, after all, the season for miracles, and the idea took such a hold on Anita’s heart as to make her think a miracle was truly possible and that she could actually be a mother after all.
She looked at the calendar, saw the countdown to Christmas and knew it was now or never. She had relinquished her daughter to her sister’s care three years earlier, and three years was a long time in a child’s life. Her daughter was to turn thirteen shortly after the new year and enter into the portal of adolescence. If Anita didn’t get there quick, her daughter would be lost to her forever.
She got busy breaking the news to her boyfriend of her plans to desert him at the holidays and hocking the good jewelry he had given her in order to get herself home to Valentine, Oklahoma, where her sister, her daughter and her memories lived.
Had Corrine known that her mother was of so serious a mind as to actually take steps in the direction of motherhood, she would have said, when she could find her voice, “It’s too late. I’m finally happy now, and I have a whole life ahead of me. Don’t spoil it.”
At the moment when her mother was drinking strong New Orleans style coffee and attempting to put her life in traveling order, Corrine was awakening from a sound sleep, the way she always awoke, her eyes popping open while she lay perfectly still with hands knotted in the covers, somewhere halfway between the warm comfort of flowered flannel sheets and the edgy anxiety of a mind trying to catch up and realize where she was.
It is first light…it is Willie Lee’s cat on her feet…it is Friday, Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and no school, yippee…oh, she got to go see the horses!
In the manner of one who is young enough not to need prying out of bed on a day off, she sat up. Willie Lee’s cat, still on her feet, did not move but was dragged along over the covers. She gently lifted him, stroked his soft fur once, then sat him aside, threw back the covers and hopped out of bed.
It was light enough in her room to clearly see the posters and drawings—all of horses—pinned on the walls, and the fuzzy stuffed horses, bears and other beings atop the bookshelf crowded with books. She was glad to have her own room, the first ever in her life.
Before they had moved into the apartment over Papa Tate’s newspaper, The Valentine Voice—a temporary living arrangement, Papa Tate liked to remind them—she had shared a room with Willie Lee. Even yet, when she awoke, she almost always had to peek into his room to check on him. She did so as she padded barefoot and silent along the cold wood floors of the short hallway, seeing him sleeping soundly, his dog Munro lying on one leg and the other thrown free of the blankets.
She felt relief. She did not want to take him with her this morning. And she could never, ever tell him no, for she loved him more than anyone in the world, except for Aunt Marilee.
Sometimes, in her nature of staying ready for any catastrophe, she would imagine what she would do, should she have to choose between Willie Lee and Aunt Marilee, say if a tornado came, as it had the previous spring, and crashed into wherever they happened to be. Which one of them would she throw herself over? Or if both of them needed all the blood in her veins, which one would she give it to? It was a disturbing proposition that could occupy her for quite a while at times.
In the bathroom, she used the toilet and washed up, then jutted her face close to the mirror, examining to make certain her teeth were pearly-white. She very much admired white teeth and thought hers, all so even, were her best feature. Then she went on to examine her face, looking for any blemishes and studying to see if she might find any signs of looking older.
Her eyes were dark as coffee beans, like Aunt Marilee described them, and her eyebrows just about grew together over her nose. She wound her dark, shoulder-length hair up on top of her head and turned this way and that, thinking that she would just have to convince Aunt Marilee to let her begin using makeup. Lots of the girls her age at school used makeup, at least a little cheek blush and pale lipstick. Using makeup didn’t mean she was going to start hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes, and running with bad boys.
Dropping her hair, she hurried back to her bedroom, where she jerked off her flower-sprigged long-johns and got dressed in her favorite blue turtleneck sweater—after pulling two other sweaters from her drawer but discarding them—Wrangler jeans and Justin boots. A pocketknife went in the right jeans pocket, and three dollar bills and a tube of lip gloss in the left, clear, because Aunt Marilee wouldn’t let her use the colored kind.
She brushed her hair and caught it back in a ponytail, the whole time thinking with great anticipation of seeing the horses and Ricky Dale this morning. She and Ricky Dale had set up to strip and re-bed the horses’ stalls, but she had not heard from him since Wednesday.
She would not call him and ask.
Snatching her jean jacket from its hook, she checked herself in the mirror on the closet door, turning sideways and smoothing her sweater to check how much shape she had. She had something, enough for a double A bra, although a lot of that was hopeful thinking.
Legally, she was still twelve years old. Twelve going on twenty-three was what Papa Tate often said, and she could not figure out if he meant it as a compliment or a complaint.
She felt awfully confused about where she was, which was sort of in a nowhere land, too young to be a woman and too old to be a child. She couldn’t ever recall feeling like a child. She was too serious. Just about everyone said so. She didn’t seem to fit anywhere in this world.
She had, however, great hope in the fact that in a number of weeks that weren’t so long now she would legally be a teenager. At least that had some sort of designation as a point in life.
Grabbing her tennis shoes, she headed for the kitchen, silent in her sock feet.
Papa Tate was just coming out of his and Aunt Marilee’s room. In flannel pajama pants and bare feet, he looked as tired as if he had been digging potatoes all night.
Being a new husband and stepfather at the age of fifty-two was hard on Papa Tate. And Aunt Marilee had decided she wanted a baby before her eggs gave out, so she was keeping him busy. She might should have thought about Papa Tate giving out.
They nodded at each other. Papa Tate disappeared into the bathroom, and Corrine hurried through the apartment, pausing to gaze out the windows that ran along the south facing wall and looked down onto Main Street. It was going on seven o’clock. To the east, the sky beyond the Quick Shop and the tall, bare-leaved trees of Mr. Hornsby’s house behind it was turning golden and sending rays of a promised morning streaming through the window glass with blinds as yet pulled high.
Papa Tate said they lived on the sunny side of the street, which it definitely was in winter. Down below, things were still in the shadows. A car passed, headlights on. Deputy Midgette, who Corrine knew by his thin body and saunter, came out the police station door and headed along the sidewalk to the door to his and Belinda’s apartment above the drugstore. He must have had the night duty.
Corrine, who was not a fan of the apartment, because it didn’t have a porch or a yard, greatly enjoyed the windows. From them, she saw the town wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. Most weekday mornings Corrine saw Bonita Embree come in to the Sweetie Cakes Bakery at six—she had missed her this morning—and very often she saw that Mr. Grace did not leave the florist shop until way after nine. She saw the sun rise in the morning to shine on the brick and concrete buildings of Main Street, and saw it cast a sort of benediction glow on them as it went down in the evening, letting the moon take over, as if on guard at night.
From the wonderful vantage point of the windows she had viewed the Fourth of July parade, where the rodeo queen, Melissa Pruitt, had lost control of her horse at one corner of Main Street and had just about run down the high school cheerleading team and then put a dent in the mayor’s old Cadillac convertible before being reined in at the next corner by Leanne Overton, a professional barrel racer, and Mason MacCoy, an ex-rodeo cowboy.
And she had seen the Senior Citizen bus crash through the Senior Citizens’ Center front window when Mr. Northrupt, who was driving that day, pressed the accelerator instead of the brake and went right up over the curb and across the sidewalk. No one had been hurt, although that strange old woman Mildred Covington had choked on a brownie, and Mr. Winston’d had to do the Heimlich maneuver on her, bringing the piece of brownie popping out. The old woman had eaten it back down, though. Corrine had not seen this from the windows, being too far away, but she had heard all about it when she had accompanied Aunt Marilee to get the details for the newspaper report.
Basically, the windows had proved out as a real asset to them as a newspaper family. After the Senior Citizens’ accident, Papa Tate had requested that Corrine take notes as she looked out the window, just in case. Aunt Marilee had fixed a nice window seat for comfortable watching, and a small lined tablet was kept at hand.
After her honoring check of Main Street, Corrine went into the kitchen to get coffee going in the maker, and just as she got out the canister, the phone rang, as if someone had seen the light come on, which was probably exactly what had happened, because the caller turned out to be JoBeth Grace of Grace Florist across the street.
“Tell Marilee to mention in her column that this is an exceptional year for poinsettias, and we are beatin’ Wal-Mart’s price on the six-inch pot size. Oh, only I don’t think she can name Wal-Mart. Tell her not to use that name. Just say Grace Florist and Gifts are beatin’ those big-guy’s prices.”
It was funny how people wanted her aunt to write it up, but they also wanted to tell her how to do it.
Mrs. Grace added that she was sending over a big plant for the newspaper office. “I’ll write up what I want Marilee to mention in her next two columns and put it with the plant.” Then she added, “But give her this message, just the same.”
“Okay, I’ll tell her.”
They got all sorts of presents from people who wanted mention in the paper. Fred Grace sent over a plant or flower arrangement from the florist just about every holiday. Fayrene Gardner had sent over a plate of each of her new dishes when putting them on the menu at her Main Street Cafe. Jaydee Mayhall gave them some wonderful blue ink pens and cute little notepads when he was running for County Commissioner and asked Papa Tate to put in a good word for him in his editorial. Papa Tate said his good words could not be bought with ink pens or any amount of money, but he would mention Jaydee, because that was news. He sure did talk highly of the IGA in his editorial, though, when the grocery sent over a sample packet of steaks from their new specialty line of all naturally grown, hormone-free beef. He said that he had not been bought, but that he had experienced a dang good product and wanted to tell about.
Corrine scribbled the message on a small yellow sticky note paper and stuck it on the end of the counter, along with half a dozen other notes. People just weren’t reading the instruction to contact Charlotte at the Voice with their info.
Corrine scooped the aromatic ground coffee into the maker and set it to brewing with the efficiency of someone who had been doing it since the age of four, when she had learned that fresh brewed coffee in the morning made big people happy. She’d had to stand on a chair for the job back then, but today getting on her tiptoes sufficed, and coffee still made big people happy.
While the coffee brewed, she cut a chunk from one of the three fruitcakes they had received after Aunt Marilee’s column had come out, where she said how much she liked them. Corrine was glad her aunt had said that. She liked fruitcake, too. Enough coffee was in the pot for her to pour herself half a cup, to which she added a liberal amount of milk and sugar, then drank it down somewhat hurriedly, interspersed with bites of the fruitcake.
Aunt Marilee did not approve of her drinking coffee. She said that Corrine needed to be sixteen before she drank coffee because of stunted mental capacities and needless stimulation in a young body. Corrine thought her aunt knew just about everything, but she did not believe her infallible. At twelve she could quite often benefit from stimulation just like anyone else.
Papa Tate was late and would need stimulation, she thought with a glance to the clock.
She got his big stoneware mug from the cabinet and then her aunt’s favorite china cup and saucer. Just as she went to pour the coffee, the telephone rang again, and she jumped and sloshed the coffee all over. Then she was in a tizzy to catch the coffee before it ran off the counter, at the same time reaching for the phone.
“Is this the Holloway residence?” an anxious female voice asked, when Corrine forgot and just said hello, because she was anticipating some idiot with news for Aunt Marilee’s column.
“Yes.” She was immediately curious. The woman’s tone indicated intensity. “I would like to speak to the Editor, please. I’m sorry to be phonin’ so early to your home, but I’ve got to get on to work, and I’ve got somethin’ I think he might want to report in the paper.” She spoke in a tone and manner that caused Corrine to imagine a tragic figure on the other end of the line gripping the receiver with a bony hand. “Oh, this is Teresa Betts…but he won’t know me, so I guess that don’t matter.”
Such calls were not uncommon, and she was reminded of Papa Tate’s instruction to never discourage anyone from reporting information to the newspaper. He said it was the business and livelihood of the newspaper to hear everyone out, and that one could never tell what might be the story of the year and win them a Pulitzer Prize. Papa Tate had once, years ago, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, which, apparently, was a really important deal.
“I’ll see if he can come to the phone,” Corrine said.
Just then, before she could lay the receiver aside, Papa Tate, wearing jogging clothes and Nikes, entered the kitchen. He was whistling, so Corrine slapped her hand over the receiver, in case she was going to have to make up something about him not being there.
“It’s a lady who says she has somethin’ to tell you for the paper. Her name is Teresa Betts.”
He instantly took the phone and said in his Editor voice, “Tate Holloway here. How can I help you?”
As Corrine finished cleaning up the spilled coffee, she watched his attentive expression and listened to him saying, “Uh-huh,” and “I see,” and “Well, by golly, that would certainly surprise me.” She would have liked to listen to the entire conversation, but time was ticking past, and she wanted to get gone before Willie Lee awoke.
She got a handful of small carrots from the refrigerator, stuffed them into her jacket pocket and took up Aunt Marilee’s cup of coffee, carrying it carefully through the apartment to the bedroom, where her aunt was propped up on two pillows, trying to open her eyes.
“Where are you goin’ already?” There was a hint of alarm in Aunt Marilee’s tone, and she came up off the pillows, brushing back her short hair, as if needing to get herself ready for some contingency that she had either forgotten or that had just popped up.
“To clean stalls for Miz Overton.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot.” Aunt Marilee instantly relaxed, falling back into her groggy state. She took the coffee mug in both hands and sniffed over it, smiling softly with pleasure, her eyes going all soft and content.
Aunt Marilee was a pretty woman and perhaps prettiest first thing in the morning, when she seemed soft all over. In that feminine state, it was a little hard to look away from her, and in fact, Corrine had seen Papa Tate sit and observe Aunt Marilee when she was sleeping. Just sit and do nothing but gaze upon her as if he had found treasure.
Right that minute, Corrine was looking at her aunt, at her long dark lashes, flushed cheeks, and then at her left earlobe, with its tiny pinpoint of a hole.
“Can I get my ears pierced?” she asked. “It could be a Christmas present.” Sometimes the best time to ask Aunt Marilee for anything was in her groggy moments. She would say yes without really realizing it.
Aunt Marilee cracked an eye at her and said, “Think about it for three days and ask me again.” Aunt Marilee had taken to doing this thing with three days ever since the pastor had given a sermon at church about how often in the Bible things happened in three days.
“Who was that on the phone?”
“Which time?” At Aunt Marilee’s blank look, Corrine said, “JoBeth Grace the first time, with information for the column, and just now it was a Teresa Betts for Papa Tate. I don’t know what that’s about.”
“Oh.” Then, “Maybe we should get an unlisted number.” She often said this.
Papa Tate heard her as he came through the door. “Then we wouldn’t get these interestin’ phone calls,” he said. “That was Missus Teresa Betts, who is a practical nurse out at MacCoy Senior Living. She was given three thousand dollars in cash by some unknown person.”
“Well, my goodness!” Aunt Marilee sat up straighter, brightening with interest and expectation of the entire story.
Papa Tate explained that Mrs. Betts had brought her mail in on Wednesday but had not looked at it until this morning, when she found a padded five-by-seven manilla envelope containing three thousand dollars in cash, with a note that said: Merry Christmas from Santa Claus.
“That was it? Just Merry Christmas from Santa?” Aunt Marilee asked.
“Yep. No return address on the envelope, of course. It has a Lawton postmark. She asked me if I thought she would legally be able to keep the money. I told her I didn’t see why not, since she hadn’t stolen it, but to be sure to keep the envelope and the note. She doesn’t have any idea who could have given her the money. Though she was certain that it wasn’t her no good husband, who left her six months ago with a broken-down car and three children.”
Aunt Marilee made a sound of agreement as she drank from her cup.
Papa Tate added that the children were two preschoolers and a first-grader. The younger children had been sick a whole lot over the past year, one having been hospitalized with some virulent form of infection that had almost killed her. Mrs. Betts had been struggling to pay off medical bills.
“Which she can now pay, thanks to the generosity of this magnificent soul.” Papa Tate looked as happy as if he’d given the money himself. “She wants me to put a note of thanks to this secret Santa Claus in the paper, so whoever it is will know that she appreciates his generosity, and that the money will be used to give her kids a good Christmas.”
“His generosity? What makes her think it’s a man?” said Aunt Marilee, who could always be trusted to think of such details.
“Good point, my sharp wife,” Papa Tate said, bending to give her a kiss.
Corrine thought things like this were the neatest thing about being a newspaper family. They got told all the best stories.