The Holiday Visit
The decision to go to Denver was made at the last possible moment. A flight was out of the question, and the bus ride would be long, but it had been over a year since Mrs. Patsy Thomas had seen her son’s family. With her seventy-second Christmas just three days away, the spirit of the holiday took its time in influencing her to go at all. She would hate for them to have paid for her room and it not be used. Besides, her only grandson had just graduated high school mid-term, and she had forgotten to send his check.
The final step, excluding the arduous task of packing a bag for the Greyhound, was to stop at the bank. A handwritten OUT OF ORDER SORRY sign had been attached to the front of the bank’s sole ATM, meaning the line inside the lobby was even longer than expected on this last business day before Christmas. The evening sun was already closing in on the tops of the trees as she entered the Merrillville State Bank.
The temperature inside forced her to uncoil her long red scarf and slowly unbutton her winter coat as she waited patiently to get the money from her savings–three hundred dollars, one-ninety of which was for the last-minute ticket alone–for her trip to Colorado. Even though the other customers spread themselves out evenly throughout the roped-off maze, Mrs. Patsy Thomas felt the hot breath of the man behind her. After he half-belched an extended sigh, she finally turned to him.
“Hot in here, huh?” he said to her forehead. He was balding, had not shaved his beefy face in at least two days, and wore a gray mechanic’s jacket and oily jeans that fell beyond the end of his shoes.
She nodded and hummed her agreement shortly before returning her gaze toward the closest teller.
With the transaction complete, the clerk behind the iron gate at the teller window wished Mrs. Thomas to have a happy holiday season. “We’ll be open again at nine o’clock on Tuesday,” the young lady said.
Another nod of appreciation came from Mrs. Patsy Thomas. Though she spoke little, it was more out of her belief that nods of agreement were sufficient when in the company of strangers.
Before going back outside, the old woman wobbled slowly and stopped at a plastic tree, gathered her things and prepared her body for the cold weather that awaited her. She placed the brown cash envelope in the outside slot of her oversized burgundy purse. After buttoning her coat and wrapping the scarf around her neck–she had left her gloves on the dash to keep warm–she stepped to the exit where the bank manager stood wearing a brilliant smile.
“You have a great Christmas there, Mrs. Thomas,” he said as his eyes began at her face but slooped downward by the end of his sentence.
Perhaps a child with unimpeded hearing might have known she said, “You too.” The man in the gray mechanic’s jacket had already finished too and held the door open for her as the wind rushed in the bank one final time before the manager locked the door from the inside.
* * *
Once the uneventful drive home was completed, Mrs. Patsy Thomas crossed the barren and icy street to her house. She had reached the door when she remembered to get her mail. For the last three Christmases, 519 Murphy Lane had not been decorated at all for the holiday season. Her neighbors, on the other hand, had evidently thought there was a contest for whose exterior decorations could be the most obnoxious and loudest in the neighborhood. Walking gingerly to her mailbox, she felt snow tap her cheeks and target the lenses of her eyeglasses.
She had been anticipating a letter from her last living friend, Betty. As she scanned the letters from the mailbox for Betty’s large red cursive script, she heard a man’s voice. A look to the right, then left, and back toward her car across the street before the man, who was approaching her from the left, announced her name again.
“Mrs. Thomas? Is that you?”
She hesitated before nodding.
“Mrs. Thomas, do you remember me?” he asked, pacing slowly, crouching, and pointing both hands toward his chest.
She smiled, but shook her head slowly.
“I just saw you at the bank. I thought that was you, but I didn’t think of your name ‘til a minute ago.” He grinned, exposing grimy chewing tobacco teeth.
She eyed the white patch on his gray jacket that revealed in red stitching that his name was Mitch. Above the patch was written Lowell’s Auto Service and Repair.
“I was just at the bank,” she said statically.
“I know, Mrs. Thomas. That’s what I said. I saw you there.”
She grinned and bit her lower lip, bringing it inside her mouth away from the wind.
The young man continued. “You probably don’t remember me, I guess. It’s been a while since I ran around with Jimmy and those guys.”
She rested the hand with the letters at her side. “Jimmy? Now who was that?”
“Wasn’t that your son’s name, Mrs. Thomas?”
Mrs. Patsy Thomas shook her head rapidly. “Heavens no. My son is Kenny.”
The young man wiped his scraggly chin. “Oh, right. Kenny. Wonder where I got Jimmy?”
“And you’re…” she nodded at his encircled name badge. “Mitch. Well,” she said. “Merry Christmas.”
He looked at the name on his shirt. “Actually, I forgot that was on here. This is an old shirt I bought at Goodwill.” She was confused. “Here. Let me help you up those stairs. Wouldn’t want you to slip or anything,” he said as he walked with her to the steps and offered his angled arm for support.
Underneath the shelter of the small porch, Mrs. Thomas placed her hand on the doorknob and clenched the mail. “Thank you,” she said.
“S’no problem, Mrs. Thomas. I wonder, though. Would you mind it if I used your restroom?” Though flustered, she relented. “I used to deliver papers around here.” After the ivy green door was opened, his stained boot met the threshold before hers.
Several minutes later, the flush from the bathroom startled Mrs. Patsy Thomas as she closed the closet door of her bedroom. She had forgotten what it was like for someone else to be in the house. With mildly increasing speed, she left the room and walked into the dining room to meet the young man. Her purse, scarf, and gloves lay on the round oak table.
He had stopped by some photographs that hung in a short hallway that led to the bathroom and closet beneath the staircase.
“So, did you go to school with Kenny?”
“Uhh…yeah. Well, actually, I think he graduated before me but we were at Eastern at the same time about twenty years ago or so.” He focused on one particular picture.
“Did you say you grew up around this neighborhood?”
He met her eyes briefly then turned upward toward the ceiling light. “Well, not exactly. I mean, I told you I delivered papers here years ago, right?”
She brought a hand to her jiggly chin and blinked. “No, I…oh, right. You did. What is your last name?”
“Oh, uh…Phillips.” He took a few paces toward the dining room. From his back pocket, he produced a mobile phone and looked at it strangely. “I…need to make a quick call, Mrs. Thomas.”
“Do you need to use my phone?” she walked toward the closest one, a push button that hung just inside the kitchen and had an elongated cord.
“No,” he said, holding his phone up at eye level. “I’ve got this.” The young man turned away from her and mumbled into his miniature phone. Mrs. Thomas looked around her dining room and noticed various spots that had been overlooked the last time she cleaned. The cuckoo clock her son and husband had built for her sounded at the top and bottom of each hour. Now that it was six-thirty, she watched as the tiny door slid open and the hand-made bird—her son’s attempt at a blue jay—sprang forward.
She slapped the top of the dining room chair she stood behind and remembered she had better call Betty before she forgot again. The young man was close to the front door now and would probably be leaving after he was off the phone, so she decided to call her friend from the kitchen.
* * *
Kenny crashed through the door, his ball cap askew. “Mommy?” he cried.
Patsy rushed into the room. “What is it, dear?” Then his face came into focus. “Oh my god! What happened?”
Kenny’s nine-year-old face had never been this damaged before. In his short life before this moment, Patsy had seen her son scratched by a friend’s cat and slapped by his father for misbehaving, but these were deep brown bruises and charcoal-crusted bloody cuts along his cheeks and around his mouth. He held his face as he talked.
“I don’t know,” he said over and over.
“I’m calling the hospital.” She led him by hand to the kitchen and grasped the yellow handset from the wall.
“No!” he squealed. “Please don’t! I’m okay!”
Kenny’s father George entered through the back door and stopped at the threshold. “What happened, Patsy?”
She turned and saw her husband’s face had been scarred too. His marks were provided by Valvoline and axel grease. He rubbed his hands with an oily rag.
“Kenny was out playin’, I think, and he got hurt somehow.” She began dialing.
“Who you callin’?” George asked.
“The hospital, of course. I don’t know what to do in this sit–”
George walked toward her and extended his arm. “Hang up the phone, Pats.” He grabbed the handset. “Here, lemme look at ‘em.” He studied Kenny’s face. By grabbing his son’s chin, he could maneuver it in several directions as he surveyed the damage. Kenny, remarkably, did not wail with each guided movement from his father’s thick fingers.
“Don’t think his jaw’s broken or anything,” George said solemnly. “Son, you wanna tell me what the hell happened?” He stood and tucked the rag into the back of his overalls.
“Some kids at the park were messin’ around with us. One of ‘em stole Barry’s bike last summer. Remember? They wouldn’t just let us play by ourselves and then Barry’s older brother showed up with his friends and there was this fight.”
As George and Patsy stood in the kitchen, they learned that their son had been dragged into a fight by some older kids and tried to grab his bat and leave but someone else took it first and swung it at him. He remembered being on the ground and trying to cover his face while he was kicked in the stomach and head. Luckily, Aunt Betty—he was too young to understand she was not a blood relative—had been passing by the park walking her dog and by threatening to call the police had stopped the boys from hurting Kenny any more. Someone who had never taken the time to marry or have children, Betty had become the self-appointed watchdog for the 500 block.
“I need to call Betty,” she said to George. George retrieved some ice from the freezer and wrapped it in a clean dishtowel and followed his son into the living room. Betty validated everything her son had told her.
* * *
Mrs. Patsy Thomas closed the Christmas card. “Yes, and thank you again, Betty. It’s a lovely card,” Mrs. Thomas said into the phone.
Betty’s voice seemed muffled. “When will you be back?”
“I’m not going to be back until the middle of next week.”
“And who did you say this young man is? It makes me nervous that some stranger is there with you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. He was a friend of Kenny’s. He’s just being polite. I believe he’ll be leaving any minute.”
“You be sure to call me after he does, okay?”
“Yes.” She heard him snap his phone shut and walk toward the kitchen. “I’ll call you later.” She hung up.
“It was just so funny that I saw you in the bank today, Mrs. Thomas,” he said, slowly rubbing his hands together. “Tell me. Does your husband still work on them old cars?”
Mrs. Thomas studied his face more closely and squinted through her tall and wide eyeglasses. “My George passed some years ago, I’m afraid.” She sat at the table.
“Oh.” The young man rubbed his chest and looked around the room until something almost directly behind him caught his attention. He turned his body away from Mrs. Thomas, and then completed a circle. “Mrs. Thomas? I think someone’s at your door,” the young man said, pointing a thumb in the direction of the door. He walked toward it and said without turning around, “Does your doorbell work?”
Mrs. Thomas arose suddenly and watched as he pushed aside a white lace curtain. He opened the door and a girl younger than her first guest entered. “Mrs. Thomas?” He walked the girl toward her and into the light. “This is my friend Jasmine.”
* * *
“Mom?” Ken called. “Mom? You home?”
Mrs. Thomas crushed a cigarette into a makeshift ashtray in the north corner of the attic—her secret smoking spot since the week she became a new mother a quarter of a century earlier.
She stood and walked gingerly toward the stairs that would return her to civilization and heard her son’s voice continue. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet!”
The girl’s name was Heather. She brought with her a bronze face, blonde hair, and a zero waist—nothing like the last one. Mrs. Thomas already knew what was about to take place; she had seen the same anxious look on her husband’s face twenty-five years earlier.
“Mom, we’re getting married in the fall.” He glanced at Heather’s eyes. “October tenth.”
Heather smiled brightly, and Mrs. Thomas longed for her abbreviated cigarette. However, she knew she could not appear dissatisfied with her son’s decision to marry so quickly after his last girlfriend. Quickly, she responded in an appropriate manner.
“That’s lovely, dear.” Mrs. Patsy Thomas hugged her only son, then her soon-to-be daughter-in-law. “Your father would be so happy for you right now, I’m sure.”
“Well, there’s something else I need to tell you,” he said. He made her sit down at the table and he held her hands together. “Heather here wanted me to wait, but I can’t. What are your thoughts on becoming a grandma?”
* * *
Mrs. Thomas was not sure what to make of Jasmine. She wore a man’s jacket emblazoned with a professional sports team’s logo across the chest in bright orange letters. Her hair began as dark brown, ended in bright yellow, and was tied in a ponytail. While constantly chomping on bubble gum, she spoke shortly and kept her hands stuffed into the angled pockets on either side of her stomach. Though Jasmine never appeared rude, she did emit an aura of impatience. Her thin legs shivered constantly as she looked out the window and reminded the room of the cold weather outside.
Mrs. Thomas offered them coffee. Until this moment the length of time that these two strangers had been in her house had not encouraged her to offer them at the very least something to drink. The young man reminded her so much of her son that it felt good to her to serve someone else. Kenny never drank coffee, but she had never seen her husband start a day without it. Heather, her daughter-in-law, had sent a one-cup maker to her for her birthday last spring, but she had kept the standard-sized Mr. Coffee, should she ever take her turn and have some of the ladies from church at her house.
Jasmine didn’t care for coffee, she was told. Jasmine drinks pop all the time, but never coffee. Mrs. Thomas thought about all the instances when she would guilt her son to cut out the sweets and sugars, especially those soft drinks that made her own stomach become tight and make her head woozy. George usually drank whatever he could find throughout the day—tea, coffee, and water most days, but he sure loved her lemonade when the weather called for it. She’d leave a pitcher of it on the back steps, and he’d come fill his cup throughout his Saturday hours in the garage.
The two guests sat at the table as she rose and walked to the kitchen to make the coffee for the young man and herself. As she flicked the switch, the light bulb popped a flash and the room went dark again.
“Oh dear!” she said.
“Light bulb burn out?” the young man asked.
“Heavens. That liked to scare me to death,” she said, holding her chest and smiling. The smile masked her shock.
He got up after looking at Jasmine. “Want me to replace it for ya?” Mrs. Thomas said that would be wonderful and that the bulbs were in the second drawer by the sink. In the darkened room, Mrs. Thomas stood at the faucet and washed two coffee mugs—one that her son had made in school and another that George had bought for her while on a trip in Florida.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any Coke for your young friend,” she said while not looking up from the sudsy water. “Would you like some milk? I may have some butter cookies around here somewhere.”
The young man had placed a kitchen chair behind her and stood atop it to replace the bulb. He told her not to worry about it. Suddenly, Jasmine was standing at the end of the carpet of the dining room and watching the young man step down and return the chair.
Mrs. Thomas handed the young girl a green tin filled with sprinkled yellow cookies. The offer of a glass of milk was accepted as well.
“It’s gettin’ heavy out there, Mitchy,” she said.
Mrs. Thomas looked above the sink straight ahead through the small window that displayed the neighbor’s house. “Oh, it sure is.” She dried the cups and prepared the coffee.
“You sure?” he asked, though Mrs. Thomas couldn’t imagine why he doubted her.
“Yeah,” Jasmine said shortly. She snapped a bubble of her gum and straightened her posture.
“I…guess we can’t stay, Mrs. Thomas. Listen, thank you anyway, but we’re going to go now.” Mrs. Thomas watched as he led Jasmine out of the kitchen.
“Mrs. Thomas?” the young man said. “Tell Kenny I said hello next time he’s by, okay?”
“Oh, well…” Mrs. Thomas trailed off. How could she say it? She’d never had to say it to anyone. Kenny had been dead for three years and she’d never had to form the words before. “I will. You two be careful out there.” They walked briskly to the door. “And Merry Christmas.”
Mrs. Thomas was relatively certain the young man had said Merry Christmas back, but she definitely noticed Jasmine wipe her eyes with her index fingers as he led her out the door with a firm hand on her back.
To go along with her coffee, Mrs. Thomas prepared a packaged tube of croissants. The coffee pot full, Mrs. Thomas poured a cup and decided to read Betty’s card again while sitting by the unlit fireplace. It pictured a smiling snowman atop a brilliant red sleigh. “Christmas Wishes for a Lifelong Friend” read the cover. On the inside was printed “May the warmth of the season extend to you this Christmas.” Betty had added, “Be careful in Denver and don’t forget to call me.”
She set the card and mug on the table beside her chair and dialed.
“Betty? Yes, they’ve left.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Betty. I wanted to tell you that I also got a card from–”
“Patsy,” she said quickly. “Did they take anything?”
She was baffled. “No, as a matter of fact, that nice young man changed my kitchen light bulb. Why would you think–”
“Patsy, listen. Was the girl wearing a black New York Knicks jacket?”
Mrs. Thomas thought about it as she stared at the dreary fireplace. “I…don’t know. Why?”
“They’re in front of my house right now. There’s a policeman here–”
Mrs. Thomas could hear Betty inhale, which only meant that she was about to talk a lot without breathing. Mrs. Thomas was told the police were called for her own benefit. How could she just let some strange man in the house just like that? Betty questioned whether Dr. Vickers should increase her prescriptions. Didn’t she remember that fight Kenny got into years ago? What if she hadn’t done anything then? People get crazy around the holidays, don’t they? There was a long pause between the two old friends. Betty’s excited voice subsided a little as she continued. “…And he says the girl had an envelope with hundreds of dollars crammed in her jacket. The man told the police it was their money and that they’d been at the bank today too.” She paused and sighed. “Honey, are you missing anything?”
Mrs. Thomas took a bite from her croissant and chewed slowly. The young man had seemed so sincere and was so polite. He’d asked about George and Kenny and had made her feel normal, though only for a little while. George’s heart attack and Kenny’s accident had been within two years of one another, and she never got to say goodbye to either one. She finally looked at her purse on the dining table. The envelope no longer stuck out from the side. “No. Must be theirs.”