By Ann Boaden
They smelled poor.
That’s what I called it—that edgy, slightly musty smell, like old clothes that had hung too long in airless closets. Or damp soda crackers.
They looked alike, as if instead of being married, they were brother and sister. Same saggy, no-color clothes, same mouse hair.
My mother worried about them, the day they came to answer the ad for the room she was renting out. They seemed anxious about the rent. They looked, Mamma said, as if they hadn’t had a proper meal in a while. Or a real warm place to stay.
But they took the room. It was December, and I suspect my mother lowered the rent so they’d have a roof over their heads at Christmas.
At first they didn’t interest me. A nine-year-old doesn’t find people in smelly, saggy clothes with mousy hair exactly thrilling. I had enough to do with the grunge of life. What I wanted was a little glamour.
My mother was never nosy; she couldn’t afford to be, she was too busy minding her own business. At that time in our lives, there was a lot of business to mind: my father had taken off with a woman he’d met on his Moline to Chicago run and wasn’t keeping up his alimony payments, and it was the Depression, and my mother was trying to maintain us by sewing and taking in renters. But even so, she noticed that young couple. Maybe she noticed them because of how things were with her. She noticed how seldom they went out. They had no kitchen facilities in the room they rented, so she didn’t know how or when they ate. Or what. He didn’t seem to have work. But then nobody did in those Depression days. Except train engineers, like my father. Whenever I’d hear the train whistle, long and straight as steel in the night, I’d think of him, off with that woman, and I’d feel as if the steel sound were pushing down my stomach.
But with Christmas coming, my feelings got a little more complicated—which might have accounted for what happened with the people I’d come to think of, when I thought of them at all, as The Poor Renters.
Mostly I was concerned with what I might get on Christmas morning. I approached the subject with a kind of double vision. I knew about betrayal (that steel in the stomach), but at the same time, I trusted my mother’s and God’s and Santa’s providing. It wasn’t a hard balance to maintain. I was a kid, still half-lived in a world of fairy tales, with their wickedness and wonder side by side. That’s why I could make out my wish list with reasonable confidence. My mother mentioned that not everyone always got what they wanted, and it’d be a good thing if we could think about other people. Say, that young couple upstairs.
I was sitting at the dining table, my ankles threaded around the chair legs, my tongue out, printing my list. “I don’t like them. They smell,” I said.
“So do you sometimes,” said my mother. “That’s no reason not to like them. They’re down on their luck, that’s what ’tis,” my mother murmured.
I paused in my printing, arrested by the phrase “down on their luck.” I didn’t quite understand it. I saw in my mind a picture of the Poor Renters tumbling off some large wheeled vehicle like a bicycle and sort of flailing around on the ground with the bicycle on top of them. (It was only much later that I learned about the wheel of fortune.) But the image gave them a certain dramatic cachet, and that’s when I started noticing them. I noticed how her hair hung behind her ears, and his went straight back off his forehead, and how tall and white his forehead was, except for the three little red pimples just at the top. I noticed how, when she talked, she’d comb her fingers through her hair, and pull out the strands that loosened, and frown at them as if she didn’t know what they were. Her fingers were round and blunt. My mother said the ends were calloused; maybe she sewed or quilted.
I noticed she had little blue dents at each temple and I wondered if her round calloused fingers would fit into those dents, if she pressed them there. I noticed how their eyes mostly wouldn’t look at us, and when they did, in quick startled glances, it was like they were peeking out of some hiding place.
I began to make up stories about them. (I made up stories a lot in those days.) They were really famous people. There was some deep mystery in their life. Some tragedy had happened to them. All their family had been killed in an earthquake. Or a cyclone. Or a shipwreck. One of them—I couldn’t decide which—was a Secret Drinker. Anyway, the result was they couldn’t do whatever they did to be famous. Obviously they needed serious cheering up.
And that was how I decided to make them the Christmas card. I just could imagine how happy they’d be to have a beautiful gift from a thoughtful, talented little girl, and after they got cheered up, they’d go back to being famous, and then—well, who knew? I was reading a lot of stories at the time which featured sad and broken people miraculously restored by sensitive and saintly children who then had their own lives fixed. Of course, sometimes the sensitive and saintly children died instead. But I was very healthy, so I didn’t worry about that.
My mother, of course, encouraged me in the card project. Together we rummaged through the drawers in her sewing room bureau. I loved doing that at any time. The bureau was a big old cedar one, and it smelled of pine trees and cloth and the Beeman’s gum Mamma always kept in it. It was actually kind of magic; it held, in Mamma’s neatly arranged piles, the bolts and bolts of cloth she used for making our clothes and the clothes she made for church friends. She was a beautiful seamstress, and when the church friends recommended her, other people paid her for it.
So the bureau was full of cloth—smooth cotton prints and fuzzy colored felt and gingham with the little puffed up squares running through it. And one beautiful piece of cherry-red velvet. I pounced on it. “Oh, I want that,” I said.
Mamma hesitated. “It’s pretty dear,” she said at last.
“But it’ll make the BEST card,” I insisted.
Mamma looked at me then, the way she had when something serious was up, with her eyes going still and dark. “You’ll have to be sure and finish the card,” she said.
“Well, yes,” I said.
“No, it ain’t always yes,” my mother said. “Sometimes you don’t finish things.” She was right. I’d get an idea for an ambitious project and then lose interest. Or it clearly wasn’t going to turn out the way it looked in my head, so I’d just drop it. Several half-sewn blouses, partially-done embroidery—the rusty rings of the hoop now indelibly stamped on it, so even if I did decide to take it up again, it wouldn’t look right—were crammed at the bottom of my underwear drawer. And the sweater without the sleeves . . . I looked down and said, “I know. But I really will this time. Promise.” And she gave me the red velvet and a piece of cardboard from a Fisk and Loosey’s box.
But actually this project went amazingly well. That’s after I figured out that my first idea, a jolly Santa with the red velvet for his suit and bits of cotton for his beard and black buttons for eyes, was beyond my artistic skills. So I settled for a round Christmas tree ornament, using the bottom of a glass to cut it out right, and glued it down and stuck on some glitter, and it looked nice. Really nice.
I might not have been very artistic, but I did pride myself on my reading and vocabulary skills. So I gave serious thought to the message I’d print in the card, frowning over it at the dining table as my glittery ornament dried in gentle waves on the cardboard. Just “Merry Christmas” wouldn’t cut it; it was way too predictable. “Season’s Greetings,” which I had thought rather fine last year, now struck me as pale and banal. “Joyous Holidays” might have done, but it presented some spelling challenges that I (and I was sure my mother) wasn’t up to.
That was when I remembered the phrase that had caught my attention in the first place: “down on their luck.” All spellable words, and a really original sentiment. Carefully I printed: “Hope you are soon up on your luck merry Christmas.” Well, that’s what I’d planned. But I didn’t allow enough space, so “Christmas” got crowded off the edge of the cardboard, and it read, “merry Christ,” with the “t” sticking up the side like an elevated cross. I asked my mother anxiously if that was OK, and she thought it would be just fine, because after all, Christmas was about Christ, and who wouldn’t want him to be merry, poor toad, with all he’d got to go through? Still, to cover, I put a period after the “t” so they’d think I meant it that way.
We hadn’t seen Poor Renters in a while, and they made so little noise upstairs that we never knew whether they were there or not. Though we didn’t ever see them go out, either. It annoyed me that they were so elusive because I wanted to give them that card. I could, of course, have gone up and slipped the card under their door. But I didn’t want that; I wanted to see them open it, to see how cheered up and grateful it would make them. Maybe they’d even fix up my life right then and there. I resented their nonappearance, as if they were depriving me of something I had a right to.
My mother settled the issue by announcing that she was going to ask them down for Christmas dinner. She’d always made a big deal of that dinner, and the Depression wasn’t going to change it. There’d be the turkey with its butter glaze, the mashed potatoes, white Himalayas running with butter (and that was before the gravy), her special dressing with the chopped-up apple, the green beans and corn pudding, the mince pie. How she scraped together the money for that feast, I still don’t know. But I do remember hearing the old Singer going late at night, as I was falling asleep. The whirr and the beat-beat of the treadle; that would soothe me when the train whistles came, that gentle sound, like a hand on my forehead.
It would be the perfect time to give them my card—when they came down to dinner.
So Mamma and I went upstairs and she knocked on the door.
It took a little while, and I had a brief fear that maybe they were gone. But then we heard sounds inside, a rustling, and then the door opened and she stood there. Nobody said anything for a minute. Her face looked raw and shiny. My mother said, “Won’t you come down and have some Christmas dinner with us? It’s just Evie and me, and we’d love to have you.”
I can see it still: her quick look back at him, then the way she lifted her hand and ran those round calloused fingers through her hair. I can see him sitting on the bed, looking at the floor. His shoulders like a bent coat hanger. I can see the opened letter on the bed beside him. I can smell the poor smell and feel the heft of the silence.
Finally, she said, “Oh—oh no. No, no thank you. It’s very kind but—I don’t think—we—I mean, we have—”
My mother said, in that soothing way she has, “No matter. If you change your mind, just come down. There’s plenty, there’ll be leftovers. But Evie has something she wants to give you. Why don’t you run get it, honey.”
I don’t know how I knew it when my mother didn’t. But somehow—maybe it was her own need to give something, her own anticipation of the pleasure they’d get from her dinner—somehow she didn’t see what I saw then. What I had seen in the look she gave him, what I had seen in her eyes.
I swallowed and said, “No, Mamma. It’s not really finished.”
She said, “But I thought—”
I looked down and said, “I didn’t finish it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I whispered.
After all this time, it is a confused and painful memory. Why did I not simply explain, as soon as we got downstairs: “Mamma, they didn’t want it, it’s the wrong thing”? Probably because I was nine years old and betrayal and love were so mixed in me I couldn’t sort them into words. I think somehow, in a way I couldn’t define, I felt protective—protective, oddly, of them both, the Poor Renters and my mother. I couldn’t say they wouldn’t want the card we’d both been proud of because that would be to expose them, not just their poverty but a desperation that had nothing to do with earthquakes or shipwrecks. And I couldn’t hurt my mother by telling her the truth: that our well-intentioned efforts to help were stripping them raw.
So I think my unfinished wish was the best gift I could have given them.
I think so.
I think so…
Ann Boaden has taught literature and creative writing at her undergraduate school, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, since receiving her master’s and doctoral degrees in English from The University of Chicago. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry appear in a variety of journals and anthologies, including South Dakota Review, Penwood Review, Big Muddy, Christmas on the Great Plains, SIMUL, Pietisten, Wascana Review, Knight Literary Journal, The Heartlands Today, Time of Singing, Buffalo Carp, and others. Her YA novel, Fritiof’s Story, is scheduled for release in April 2017.