A Christmas Tale Copyright © 1993, Franchot Lewis All rights reserved
A CHRISTMAS TALE by Franchot Lewis
Tina hears the thumping noises of her grandmother's footsteps and she begins to predict the future. The footsteps mean that her grandmother is agitated again, and Tina is about to get yelled at. Tina's facial muscles twitch and she feels a churning in her stomach. She hunches her shoulders, sinks down in the sheets, and tries to hide, so to become a tiny, little lump in the bed, hoping to be invisible. She sucks in her breath as she hears the footsteps in the hallway out side the bedroom door. She fears that she can't - but knows she must continue to stay in her grandmother's house. But, how can she? She feels, she can't and be afraid this way? She skulks about the house, moves in every shadow she can find. She avoids eye contact with her grandmother and tries to avoid anyone who comes to her grandmother's house. This is a fretfully, worrisome, way to stay alive until her parents come for her. To her young mind, it seems like she has been living afraid forever. Already, she has spent three weeks living in her grandmother's house. She is convinced that everything in the house, including the furniture, is determined to subdue her. The ugly walls want to smother her. When she goes to bed she can hear her grandmother moving about, and she worries that her grandmother's friends might come sneaking into her room. To hide from them, she slides down in the bed under the blanket and covers her head. She prefers the darkness under the covers. She dreads sleeping with her head uncovered, making herself an easy target in the glow of the night light her grandmother keeps on in the room, for her, her grandmother says. She thinks the light is there for her grand mother and her grandmother's friends to spy on her.
She worries: What if her parents never come back? What if they know how hard their little girl finds living in her grandmother's house, and they don't care? She wonders. Certainly, they will return. After all, she is their daughter. Their only child. They know how horrible life is with the grandmother. Her mommy called the woman "an old bag". Her daddy called the woman "an old busy body". They placed her in the woman's house because there is no place else for her to go. How could she survive if she didn't have her grandmother's house as a place to stay until her parents's return? The house is a roof. The house is shelter, four-walls from the cold outside. It is too frightful a thought to think, yet she knows it could easily happen. Any day, her grandmother could explode and kick her out before her parents returned. She knows of her grandmother's terrible temper. Her mommy told her of the time the woman exploded violently. When her mommy was a little girl, her mommy was a pretty girl with long bangs. Her mommy was very proud of those bangs, and spent hours admiring them and herself in the mirror. Well, the woman asked her mommy to do something that her mommy didn't do and so as punishment, the woman sat down in a chair, grabbed her mommy and using clippers cut off her mommy's bangs. Her mommy cried and screamed. Her mommy said the tears came like rain. After her mommy told her that story, Tina disliked the old woman thoroughly. Sleeping in the old woman's house is a particularly hard ordeal for Tina. Tina has bangs like her mommy had as a little girl. And, Tina has seen that gray straw-like wire peeping from under the old woman's wig, and feels that the old woman is probably jealous of little girls' bangs. She has seen her grandmother without the creams and preservatives the old woman puts on her face. She glimpsed that moldy face in all its horror going into the bathroom early one morning last week, and she trembled and sneaked away, quietly, back into her room so that the hag face old woman wouldn't know that Tina has seen the ugliness. Tina just knows, the old woman doesn't like her. The old woman gives Tina shelter, and feeds her, but stares at her while she eats like she is stealing food. She trembles as she thinks further of her grandmother and her grandmother's friends. She heard them talking. The first week after she came, she heard her grandmother talking about her to another fat old lady, a friend of her grandmother's. Tina's head aches at the thought of being talked about. Her mind fills with the awful memory of her of getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom to pee, and of hearing her grandmother down stairs talking about her like she is a thief. "I can see, I'm going to have problems with that grand daughter," her grandmother said. "When she gets up some size she's going to be a bitch ..." A bitch, the old woman called her. Tina mumbled. Her grandmother, calling her a nasty name in the middle of the night, hurt. Tina wondered what names her grandmother must be calling her during the day. She listened, feeling pain and fear, but sort of,[ kind of], glad that she woke up to catch her grandmother in the act of disrespecting her. Tina felt that there was no reason why she should try to be nice to the old woman. The two old bitties were telling one another of how hard it is now-a-days to communicate with grand children. Her grandmother said, "I do every thing for that child I can: I cook for her, I lay her clothes out, make sure she has clean socks and underwear, I leave them on the bed ..." Tina was horrified. Her grandmother was discussing her underwear! Tina felt as though her grandmother was discussing executing her. "That child's always winding and complaining," Tina's grandmother said. "Saying, we don't do it like that in my house, we don't cook like that, we don't make it like that." Tina listened. Her grandmother's fat friend made a snort like a pig. It sounded to Tina as if the old women were either snacking or drinking. Tina's grandmother said, "The child's always winding about I don't do this right, or that, in my house, I felt like telling her to get the hell out of my house." "You didn't?" the fat friend asked. "I felt like it," Tina's grandmother replied, and both of the old women laughed. Tina eyes began to tear. They were now laughing at her. She was angry, so angry that she turned around and knocked over a broom that her grandmother had unintentionally left in the hallway at the top of the stairs. She became terrified that they would discover her easedropping. She cowered for a moment, standing still in fear, but they hadn't heard the broom fall, they hadn't stopped their laughter and chatter. Tina thought that there have to be places where she could go where staying out of the way until her parents returned wasn't so difficult. She wondered why her parents sent her to her grandmother. She was a good child. She didn't think that she could have done anything to merit this punishment. She wondered why her parents were being so mean to her by taking so long to return. They weren't mean like her grandmother. They wouldn't leave her unless something was to matter, unless they had no choice. She wondered: What were they supposed to do? They had to leave her somewhere, where she could sleep and eat. She doesn't blame her parents, and thinking about them only makes the wait longer. She has told herself often that she won't think about them, that they will come when they will come. She is a big girl and not a baby. She won't cry. She will fend for herself, with and against the old woman, until her parents return. So far, she has managed to get through three weeks. She feels certain that soon it will be the day that her parents will return. Her parents will be with her like they always were, and it will be like it has been always since she can remember. She just knows that soon they will come for her and take her home, and like last year, they will take her out to a big lot where there is a happy, smiling man with red hair and a green coat. In his lot is all the Christmas trees in the world. They will buy a big one, take it home and set it up with sparking lights and bright ornaments. They will sing together, spend plenty of time together. She will watch her mommy cook. Her mommy will cook and cook and she will eat and eat. In the three weeks she has been at her grandmother's house she hardly ate. When she does, she eats very little. Her mommy will come home and Tina will eat and eat and get some meat on her bones. Her daddy will lift her up, and then will ask her to show him her strength. She will flex her muscles, showing him the good use her body puts to her mommy's cooking. Her daddy will hug her, and her mommy while holding her, and she will squeeze, tight, against them both and feel safe and loved. She hunches down to sleep, hopeful that there won't be too many more nights before the morning daylight will bring the return of her parents. She hears her grandmother coming into the room. She holds her breath and waits for the old woman to leave. A long moment passes, but not long enough. Tina's grandmother sits on the bed and pulls the covers off Tina's head. Before Tina can speak, she cringes. Her grandmother flips on the room's light, and the brightness of a hundred watt bulb floods into the child's eyes. Her grandmother laughs, "Caught you by surprise?" Tina decides to yawn. "Sleepy, sleepy head?" her grandmother ask. "Didn't you hear somebody rummaging around downstairs?" Tina jumps up out of the bed as if she doesn't have time to get up without jumping. "Mommy and Daddy!" she screams. Her grandmother's face freezes. She looks unable to speak. She holds her breath, hoping to find words to say to the child. Before the old woman finds a single word, Tina is off the bed and is running down the stairs, happily skipping steps as she hurries. Tina is downstairs scurrying around, through the whole downstairs, running this way and that, and calling to her parents to come out and get her. She runs from one room to the other for ever so long. She thinks that her parents are playing hide and seek. Finally, she stops. Her grandmother is now downstairs. She asks her grandmother, "Where is my mommy and daddy? You said they be here?" Her grandmother tells her that she is mistaken. Her grandmother does not try to stop her when she inches away and huddles in a corner, behind the big Christmas tree her grandmother has set up. The tree is tall, almost as tall as Tina's daddy. It has silver bulbs that shine and many flashing bright, red and yellow and blue lights. There are boxes under the tree, wrapped in bright shiny paper and filled with many things. On some of these boxes is written Tina's name. Tina does not look at these boxes, nor does she look at the many other gifts her grandmother has sat unwrapped about the room. Tina stares in the direction of the floor as she inches herself even further into the corner. Her grandmother tells her, "I would wake up your mama, very early, on Christmas morning like this, while it was still dark outside, as soon as Santa Claus was gone, and she would come running down those steps, her face all lit up, her mouth squealing ... And she would attack the stacks of boxes with her name on them, and seeing her my face would fill with light and joy I would squeal too ..." Tina says, "My daddy's gonna pick me up." Her grandmother sighs, "We've explained this. You know where your parents are?" Tina does not reply. Her grandmother asks, "What did you tell me? That they were in church sleeping?" "My daddy's going to get me, take me in his car, and we're going home." "They are gone, but we're not alone, we're safe and alive". Tina lifts her chin. She looks up at the Christmas tree at its tallest point, at the lighted angel at its very top. "Yes," she hears her grandmother say, "Your mama and daddy are in Heaven with God." Tina snaps, "They're going to pick me up, they're coming for me!" Tina's grandmother's patience snaps. "If they are, you let me know, because I don't want to be here when they get here, because they're dead, " her grandmother was frowning. "They're dead and they aren't coming back." Tina's eyes waters and her grandmother flinches as if struck by a piercing pain, and then another, as Tina began to cry, " You, ugly, old thing, I want to be with my mommy." "Damn, " the old woman fusses. "I've no business keeping you, I'm too old to raise another child." Tina is about to poke her tongue at the old woman, then she sees something that the old woman has kept hidden from view: tears. Tina's old grandmother is crying. "Baby, baby," the old woman bawls and holds out her arms toward the child. Tina stops her own crying and takes a cautious step toward the old woman. Suddenly, Tina finds herself pressed into the old woman's sagging chest. She feels the wet face of the crying old woman pressing next to hers. She smells the woman's perfume, all musty and hard to take, unlike her mommy's sweet, pleasant scent. She is about to pull away from this foreign chest and run back into a corner when she hears the old woman sob, "I loved your mama, and I love you."
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