Merciful Heavens

By Rick Krizman 

If the Eskimos have twenty-seven words for snow, this must be number twenty-eight, an igloo-crushing cloud avalanche rumbling in from the arctic on this night of nights, smothering Boston’s cow-path streets and blunt high-rises. Stuttering gusts rattle my cab as I brake-tap down Tremont, squinting through iced windows at the zombie parade of last-minute shoppers who inch through the blowing snow like ghost images. A hand sticks out and I skid over.

“Merciful heavens, aren’t you the gift of the angels,” the woman says in a melodious voice as she heaves two shopping bags and herself into the back. Heavy-set or heavily wrapped, middle-ish-aged, eyes vague behind fogged lenses, which she wipes, then smiles, probably getting a load of my Santa hat. “Babcock House,” she says, the retirement home just south of Boylston. My tires spin, the cab gyros sideways, then we’re lurching down the traffic-less street through the bleached urban tundra.

On Dancer . . .

How could Christmas Eve have come to this? I bought a Star Market pre-cooked turkey, a small tree, a ten-pack of CVS colored globes, and a string of lights that twinkled. I paid a guy fifty bucks to tune the upright, and polished the song lyrics until the message was unmistakable. But Ann Marie had sniffed it out, probably even guessed about the ring in my pocket. Five years’ll do that.

“There’s no point letting you go through this,” she’d said this afternoon, preempting my rehearsed pitch. She might have been crying as she turned out the door.

We don’t go half a block before another hand waves.

“Do you mind?” I ask the woman in back.

“You’re on an errand of mercy, young man,” she says, so I let a guy and his little son into the front. They’re going to Filene’s to see Santa, which is on the way enough.

“The T’s down,” the man says, clapping snow all over the dash. “Like winter’s some big surprise. Doesn’t this thing have heat?” The boy pokes at the meter and zeroes it out. “Connor, what did I say?”

“No problem, we’ll just call it seven bucks,” I say, punching the button and handing a candy cane to the kid. At Filene’s, the guy tosses me a ten, then holds the door for a parka’d woman who sags into the front seat and wrestles an overstuffed Jordan Marsh bag into the space between us.

“Oh my fucking God,” she says, eyes closed, bouncing her head against the partition. “It’s the fucking nightmare before Christmas.”

“You’re telling me,” I say. I’ll put my story up against anyone’s. Who gets dumped on Christmas Eve? She peels back her hood, releasing a spring-load of curls, dabs here and there from her compact, swipes her lips and makes a kissy-face at me.

“Okay?” she says.

“Um, you look great, yeah.” Is that what she’s asking? “But where are you going?”

“Where do you feel like taking me, handsome?” Lowered eyelids, then a laugh. “I’m just fucking with you. But if I were ten years younger, I’d blow off that other dickhead. Park Plaza, please.” She turns to the visor mirror, and I put the cab in gear, glancing in the rearview at the woman in back, who seems cool. On Prancer . . .   

Any other time, the woman’s fecund perfume, her lips at-the-ready, her Julie Christie mane, would have added up to at least a tingle, but she’s only making me lonely for the clean scent of Ann Marie’s skin, her pale, child-like face with its brief whisk of rouge, her straight, black hair that strand by strand escapes from her ballet bun in the course of a day.

At the Park Plaza, the woman gives me a lingering smooch on the cheek and takes her time sliding a folded bill into my shirt pocket. For one irrational moment I’m afraid she’s going to reach into my jeans for change, but then she flounces out with an over-the-shoulder “Merry Christmas.” Through the open door I see steam puffing out of a herd of worried faces.

“I can take three,” I say, and to the woman behind me, “You should get in the front. You’re definitely first.” She slides in next to me, and the lucky three crowd into the back with all their blizzard-and-Christmas rigmarole. I conjure a coherent if erratic route, but first aim the cab toward Babcock House.

I almost overshoot the left onto Mass. Ave, misdirected by the snow jiggling in the conflicting winds, but soon we’re schussing down the hill past Boston Conservatory, and I wonder where all the ballerinas go on Christmas Eve. Where is Ann Marie at this moment, the very moment she should be saying yes to our new life together? Maybe she’s cozied up in her apartment on Hemenway, remembering how I used to make up little songs as I watched her plie and tendu, maybe posing right now in front of the mirror in her tights, arranging her hands, her posture, her attitude, her toes just right. Wishing I were there. Piano fingers, she sometimes called me. Rhymes with lingers, I kept thinking as I was writing the song.

“I’m just three streets that way,” a voice pleads from the back as we turtle along.

“Lord knows I’m in no hurry,” says the woman next to me and turns around. “What address was that?”

It makes logistic sense to drop off the other two as well: a young guy going to the Roosterfish on Beacon, then an elderly man with a cane, who I let out in front of a clapboard bungalow that’s lit up like a gingerbread house. He staggers a bit on the shoveled walk, then warm light spills from the front door and a figure bounds out and takes his arm. Inside I see candles, people in red sweaters, a piano. The door closes behind them, and we soldier on.

“I’m Felicia, by the way,” says my new companion.

“Ann Marie,” I reply. She looks at me strangely. “I just said ‘Ann Marie,’ didn’t I?” I cough out a laugh. “Actually, it’s Jeff.” I hand her a candy cane. “Ann Marie’s my girlfriend . . . or not.”

“She must be a lovely girl.” The woman unwinds her thick-knit scarf and pulls off a stocking cap. Her grey hair is curled tight to her skull, her face olive and weathered. She could be fifty, or eighty, and doesn’t remind me of anybody.

“Yeah, she’s definitely lovely,” I say, “and it would be even lovelier if I was with her now instead of out here driving around god-knows-where.”

“It can be a hard time of year,” she says. “There.” She points to a woman who’s ducking under the wind and clutching a bundle to her chest, waving like crazy.

“Are you sure?” I say.

“What’s she supposed to do?” she says, so I hit the brakes, a little hard, and fishtail to the curb. The woman backs in, and I see she’s holding an infant.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, there’s room at the inn after all,” she says, then to the little thing in her arms, “Your grandma is going to be so surprised,” and kisses its forehead. “Do you know Dorchester?”

“Of course we do,” says Felicia.

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“Ann Marie’s missing all the fun,” Felicia says, hours later, and I have to admit it is fun, flying down the slick, empty streets like some kind of Christmas superhero, and definitely, Ann Marie would totally enjoy this. Sometimes she rode shotgun with me, and when business was slow, we might park out on the pier, breathe the tangy Atlantic air and watch the planes land across the harbor.

Certainly there isn’t another guy. I’d have known, she keeps her heart on her arm. It kills me that she still wants to be a dancer and I don’t—yet—have the means to make that happen for her, which I would if I could, but songwriting . . . Not that I’m not working my ass off every day, inspired or not, turning out okay stuff, but it would veer off with a mind of its own, and in short, nobody is throwing any money at me.

“I wrote her a song,” I say.

“I’m sure it’s wonderful and she’ll love it.”

“Actually, it pretty much sucks. Turns out you can’t just write a song for somebody.”

“How does it go?”

I think, but can’t recall one bit of the melody or a single tortured couplet.

“No, it really does suck.”

Ten o’clock and the stores are closing, last-minute shoppers followed close by exhausted sales people looking to join their own families. I turn off the meter and scoop up waving bodies like a snowplow while Felicia keeps track of the tens and twenties flying through the partition. The maddening snow continues to pile up, often getting the better of my overworked wipers, and occasionally Felicia sticks her head out the window to help me find the road.

“What about you?” I ask her. “Where is your family tonight?”

“My boys are grown and long gone.”

“They don’t live here?

“Oh heavens no. They’re far away.” She gazes off, and I see a shine in the corner of her eye.

She remains quiet as we pick up a couple of drunk students and drop them off in a gentrified block of Babcock Street in the south end. We tool along for a bit, but nobody’s waving for a cab, and soon we come to Babcock House. I slow to a stop, suddenly aware of how beat I am.

“Well, it’s been quite a night,” I say to my co-pilot. “I bet you’ll be happy to climb into a warm bed.”

She’s fishing through a large handbag. “Let me just get my keys.”

I turn on the dome light and see that she looks older than her voice sounds. She has on a grey cloth coat that couldn’t possibly be warm enough, her feet encased in old-fashioned buckle-up galoshes like I’d worn as a kid.

“I know they’re here,” she says, frowning over her bifocals, but she’s moving things back and forth in the same repetitive fashion to where I know they aren’t in there, and I reach into one of her shopping bags. “No, I’ve got that.” She takes it from me just as I glimpse the crumpled newspaper and what looks like empty cans and some take-out Chinese cartons. “I’m sure it’s unlocked anyway,” she says, fumbling for the door handle.

“Wait here.” I crank the heat and shiver out into the sleety darkness, where I climb over a plowed snow bank, then up the un-shoveled stairs of Babcock House. The doorknob doesn’t turn, and as I search for the bell, I notice an official-looking sign posted next to the door. I back up a few steps, see that the windows have no shades, everything dark, then rattle the knob once more, knowing it’d do no good to knock.

Back in the cab, Felicia stares straight ahead, clutching her bags like they’re her twin babies. I turn off the dome and we sit in the reflected snow-light in front of the blowing vents.

“Where were you going to go?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I guess I thought we’d drive around all night and then tomorrow would be Christmas and everything would be okay, because it’s Christmas.”

“I sort of had the same idea,” I say, and we sit quietly for another moment.

“I too was once a dancer,” she says. Had I told her Ann Marie was a dancer? “It’s a selfish thing. All you have is your own body. And it’s hopeless too. Gravity always wins.”

“I think the arts are all selfish. Maybe not selfish, actually, but self-absorbed.”

“But somehow we manage, and here we are,” she says.

“Yeah, well it’s not where I want to be.”

“Where do you want to be?”

Good question. I could have stayed in my apartment, sans Ann Marie, and worked on the damn song. I could be back in Kansas, where I was once a child stretched in front of the fireplace imagining the Christmas tree lights were faraway galaxies. Or dead in ’Nam, like the kid in the dorm next to me with lottery number seven. I gaze out at the bleached wilderness Boston has become, everyone’s expectations buried under inches and feet of white powder, put the cab in gear and crunch back into what I imagine to be the center of the street.

“I guess this is fine,” I say, thinking about the cold turkey in my fridge. Ann Marie. Cold turkey. There’s your stupid third verse. “Come on,” I say to Felicia. “One more stop.”

We pull up to my apartment on Queensbury, where I edge the cab tight against a snow bank, then grab Felicia’s bags and help her out the driver’s side. The snow has finally relented, the wind is spent, and in the cottony silence, it feels like we’re the only two people in a large, white living room. We squeak arm-in-arm through the soft powder to the front door of the ramshackle brick building, then up the stairs and into my one-bedroom, where my sad little tree sags like it’s embarrassed by the paltry string of lights and store-bought bulbs that signify nothing. I notch up the thermostat and hear the radiator ticking as I guide Felicia to the couch and ease her down. She exhales greatly and wipes her glasses, then looks around with magnified eyes.

“Goodness, Jeffrey, such a nice place.”

My mom was the only one who ever called me Jeffrey. Not when I was in trouble, but when she had something important to tell me. The extra syllable. Pay attention, it said, and I had when she’d told me I had a baby sister coming. That her cancer was treatable. That we were moving to the suburbs. And the first time, I remember, when she took my hand and walked me toward my grandmother’s open casket. Jeffrey, she always says now when I answer the phone, some urgent affair our only reason for speaking anymore.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty?” I yell from the kitchen, reaching past the bottle of Korbel for the turkey, then reconsider and pull out the champagne, pop the cork, and pour a deserving amount into two coffee mugs. Back in the living room, Felicia’s eyes are closed and she’s very still. I ease the cup down and lean close to listen for a breath, relieved to see her chest swelling up and down. She doesn’t budge as I unbuckle her galoshes and pull them off. I lift her legs onto the couch and her head tips the other way until she’s lying prone.

I shake off my jacket and pull a retirement fund’s worth of bills and change out of the pockets, then sit on the floor next to the couch, take a good pull of the bubbly, and count out over three hundred dollars. “Shotgun on Christmas Eve always gets a hundred bucks,” I say, sliding five twenties into the pocket of the coat that’s still wrapped tightly around her. I find the afghan my grandma knitted for me, drape it over Felicia, and tuck a pillow beneath her head. Then I turn off the overhead lights, leaving only the twinkling from the tiny Christmas tree, which casts Tinkerbell shadows around the room and winks in the bubbles of my champagne.

 

A stab of light penetrates my eyelids and they flip up. I squint against the too bright and too cheerful sun, and too late I reach for the dream that’s sliding away, something about the woman I dropped at the Park Plaza. I’m in my chair, covered by my grandma’s afghan. I look over at the couch, remembering, and see it’s empty. The five twenties sit on the table next to the rest of my haul. No galoshes, no bags.

I hear a clattering of pans from the other room and realize I smell onions frying. I wrap the afghan around me and shuffle into the kitchen, where she has her back to me, whisking a bowl of eggs. She turns at the sound of my footsteps.

“Jeffrey.” Ann Marie looks at me, standing still with her lips parted. Her unpinned black hair hangs down over her shoulders and half of her face, and she pulls it aside. “I’m so sorry,” she says then, and comes to me, and I fold her tiny dancer body into the afghan. “I’m sorry,” she keeps saying, over and over, until I believe her.

 

Rick Krizman took a sabbatical from a decades-long career as a music composer and songwriter to earn an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. He writes short fiction and poetry, and his stories have been published by The Wising Up Press, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Star 82 Review. Rick is the father of two grown daughters and lives with his wife and animals in Santa Monica, CA.

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