MELVIN O’MALLEY IS READING THE PAPER in his room when Mary McLean, one of the certified nurse aides, knocks on his open door. In front of her is an empty wheelchair.
“I hope that’s not for me,” Melvin says dryly, not looking up. He removes the Arts and Entertainment section and folds it lengthwise, careful to crease the paper evenly down the middle. It’s an old habit from his commuting days, where he’d ride the train for an hour, cramped for space. Everyone did that back then, fold the paper into quadrants and read it section by section. He takes a sip of his coffee and pretends to keep reading.
“Not yet,” Mary says, smiling sweetly. “But if you don’t get up and get some exercise, I may be pushing you around like Mr. Peterson.” Clark Peterson lives in the room adjacent to Melvin. He spends his days in bed watching television except for whenever Mary can cajole him into taking a spin around the grounds in the wheelchair. Melvin doesn’t know why she insists on taking Old Peterson out (he’s actually two years younger than Melvin, a fact Melvin finds disturbing)—it’s not like he’s training to run the marathon. He’s waiting for the inevitable, like all of them.
“I already did my walk this morning,” Melvin informs her with a snap of his paper. “Half a mile.”
“Then it won’t kill you to take a walk to the common room…” Mary continues. Her eyes light up in excitement. “Because it’s time for the holiday exchange!”
“No thank you.”
“Every participating resident is guaranteed a present,” she says. “Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“Last year Eunice Weeks got a handheld sewing machine worth $80.”
“And she sewed Ron Taylor into his bed while he was asleep.” Ron almost fell out of bed the next morning as he struggled with his sheets. Ron’s daughter had been furious when she found out, threatening to sue Harmony Homes.
Mary’s smile doesn’t waver. “That was just a lover’s spat,” she says dismissively. “But what about Mrs. Shadle? A one year membership to the fruit of the month club!”
“I hate fruit.”
“I’m just saying that there are some nice big ticket items under the tree. The rest are all small things, but very nice, I’m told. Come on, Melvin. It’ll be fun, I promise!” She’s begging him. No wonder Clark Peterson lets her push him around in the wheelchair. It’s easier just to give in than to argue.
The truth is, Melvin likes Mary. She’s a spry little thing with a blond pixie haircut and clear sparkly nail polish. She joined the staff at Harmony Homes a year ago and she’s a breath of fresh air compared to the dour-looking folks who run this place. She’s too young to know any better, still in her twenties, all full of optimism and cheer. He’d be annoyed if she weren’t so damn nice.
He stares into Mary’s hopeful face and for a second actually considers going. But Melvin hates any sort of group activity, even eating in the dining room. It’s bad enough that he’s here, surrounded by geriatrics who can’t take care of themselves or who forget their own name. The only thing they have in common is that they’ve all been abandoned by their kids. Kids with their own lives, too busy to care for their aging parents.
“Don’t let me get in the way,” he’d said sarcastically when his own daughter, Barbara, showed him the brochures. He glanced at the glossy pictures of smiling seniors, their hair washed and perfectly coiffed, their clothes clean and pressed. The reality? With the exception of himself and a handful of others, nobody else seems to own so much as a comb. A few people wear their clothes inside out, and many just stay in robes all day. Nobody plays bocci ball or swings a golf club on the executive putting course out back. Nobody takes salsa classes or learns to cook Thai food.
“Dad, you can’t live by yourself anymore,” Barbara had tried to explain. This was all because he’d almost hit someone with his car. It was an accident. And leaving the stove on. Another accident. But throwing a brick through his neighbor’s window after her designer-bred poodle, something called a Labradoodle, left a trail of soft dog poop by his Japanese maple … well, he told the police it was an accident, but he and that Labradoodle know better. Melvin chuckles at the memory.
“So, what’ll it be, Melvin? I have to go get Mr. Peterson. He heard there’s a miniature snooker set and he’s anxious to get a good seat.” Mary drums her sparkly nails against the handles of the wheelchair, feigning impatience, but Melvin knows she’s teasing him.
“Maybe next year,” he says.
There’s a flash of disappointment in Mary’s eyes, but a second later she’s smiling again. “Okey dokey,” she says gamely, then waves as she walks past his doorway. “See you later!”
Melvin sighs and turns his attention back to his paper, his eyes focusing on the small headline in front of him. EXPRESS YOURSELF! OPEN MIC NIGHTS GROW IN POPULARITY ACROSS THE COUNTRY. What a load of rubbish. Melvin frowns as he skips to the next article, something about a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. He wouldn’t mind seeing it if Barbara, his daughter, could find time to take him. But she’s divorced with two spoiled kids and a sanctimonious ex-husband and alimony. Melvin doesn’t quite understand how a woman who doesn’t work can’t find time to let her dad take up residence in one of the many guest rooms in her house. True, they’ve never been very close and he was always busy at work, and maybe his own bitter divorce from Barbara’s mother may have jaded her somewhat, but still.
There’s the sound of someone shuffling by in their slippers. Melvin doesn’t look up, but he sees the nappy pink bathrobe from the corner of his eye. He tries to duck behind the paper but it’s too late.
“Mel-vin, yoo hoo!” comes a delighted cry from the hallway. There’s a shuffle-shuffle-shuffle as Alice Edwidge turns 90 degrees and makes her way towards Melvin, going all of one mile per hour as she pushes forward on her walker. The sight of the yellow tennis balls, their neon sheen dull and fuzzy as they scoot closer towards him, makes him shake his head. Really? Tennis balls? Gilbert Hobbs has something that looks like miniature skis on his, and Franco Juarez has some high tech digital device that beeps if you go too fast or near an obstacle. Ridiculous, in Melvin’s opinion. If he ever ends up needing a walker, so help him God, Melvin’s going to find the highest hill and release the brakes. See ya.
Alice Edwidge is in his room now, beaming as she approaches, her face wrinkled and earnest. Her lips are painted a bold, pouty red. Mary McLean’s doing, no doubt.
“Hello, Mrs. Edwidge,” Melvin says reluctantly. He puts down his paper.
She bats her lashes as she leans on her walker, slightly out of breath. “Call me Alice!” she scolds him. “Or Allie. That was my nickname.”
“Oh, you’re making me feel so old.” She casts a watery glance around his room. It’s a one-bedroom with a small living area, which he’s sitting in now. She peers just beyond him into the bedroom, gives a small nod of approval. “You’re a very neat man, Melvin. I like that. My late husband was like that. Into hospital corners and everything. You like hospital corners?”
Melvin sighs. All he wants is to be left alone, to be able to read his paper and have his cup of coffee, to listen to the morning program on public radio. But these damn mandatory open door hours—one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon, one hour in the evening—which the administration likes to refer to as “promoting communication, connection and interaction” among Harmony Home residents, is a farce. Melvin suspects it’s a quick and easy way to make sure nobody’s croaked in their bed, a five-second glance down the hallways to make sure everyone is present and accounted for.
“I like hospital corners just fine,” he says. He does his own bed this way, so tight you could bounce a quarter on it. Eighteen inches from head to fold, no wrinkles. The trick is to start making your bed while you’re still in it.
“I haven’t made my bed in years,” Alice tells him. “Between the arthritis and my lack of good muscle tone, it’s a miracle I’m even walking.” She pats the walker. “Well, with the help of ol’ Charlie here. Don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Despite himself, Melvin feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he stares at the beat-up walker, scratched and dented up and down the legs. “Charlie?” he asks.
Alice looks appalled. “Don’t tell me I never introduced you to Charlie! He’s a lifesaver—I wouldn’t be out and about if it wasn’t for Charlie.”
Melvin is about to ask more when Mary McLean appears in the doorway.
“There you are!” she says with relief. “We’re starting the holiday exchange, Alice. Don’t you want to join us?”
For a second a look of confusion crosses Alice’s face. She turns to Melvin. “I don’t know. Do I? What were we talking about?”
Melvin knows Mary’s watching him. He also knows that Alice Edwidge has moments like this, moments where she gets lost. “We were talking about going to the common room,” he says, standing up. “I’ll escort you.”
Alice beams. “Oh, yes! That’s right!” She grunts as she turns her walker around towards the door and begins to edge forward. “Let’s go!”
Mary waits for them to pass her, grinning at Melvin like a Cheshire cat.
“It was time for my morning exercise anyway,” he informs her shortly.
“But I thought you said you already walked half a mile,” she says, feigning innocence.
Melvin just gives her an annoyed look.
It takes them a while to get to the common room. Alice slows down every few feet to talk to any lingering residents, tries to convince them to join the holiday exchange. After a few minutes Melvin feels a bit like the Pied Piper, a small entourage of octogenarians following them down the hall.
When they finally get there, Melvin is surprised to see that the room is packed. Wheelchairs are lined against the wall, people sitting in every available space on the couches and chairs. Red and green paper chains drape from the ceiling along with paper snowflakes and signs that say JOY and FA LA LA LA LA. Christmas music is being piped in over the loudspeakers—Bing Crosby, one of Melvin’s favorites.
Melvin hasn’t seen this many residents in one place for a long time. Fourth of July will draw a crowd because of the firework display, as will Easter with the ridiculous golden egg hunt (whoever finds it gets a double helping of dessert for a month). Birthdays pull in a few extra people, too, mostly those wanting a piece of cake or hoping for a go at the presents when the birthday girl or boy isn’t looking. Thanksgiving was painful, with the staff dressed as pilgrims, and wicker cornucopias filled with plastic fruit. Barbara and the kids had insisted on coming here for turkey instead of inviting him back to her house for the holidays, which Melvin thought was odd. She’s already told him that Christmas is a busy time for her, that se has something special planned for the kids at Disneyland or some place warm out west, so he’s not even sure if he’ll be seeing her.
The room is warm. Mary spent most of the morning corralling people into the common room, and some of them have fallen asleep, bored with the waiting. But quite a few have come in on their own accord, their eyes fixed hungrily on the center of the room where a large fake Christmas tree is decorated with wooden popsicle ornaments from the afternoon craft class.
Stacks of presents are wrapped in colorful foil paper and festive holiday prints beneath the tree. They’ve had holiday exchanges in the past, but the presents were always small—one year they each received a roll of Lifesavers, a gift Melvin found ironic if you thought about it. But this year, looking at the bounty underneath the Christmas tree, Melvin has to admit it’s an impressive collection.
“All right, everybody!” Mary claps her hands together, and some people begin clapping along with her, thinking it’s a game. Melvin helps Alice into a chair and positions himself against the wall, near the exit. Just in case.
“Mr. Jenks, can you please turn down the music? Thank you. If everyone is ready, it’s time for our holiday exchange!” Mary makes her way to the center of the room, smiling sweetly and patting people on the shoulder as she passes them.
Melvin gives her six more months, maybe a year at best. He hasn’t been here all that long but already he’s seen most of the staff at Harmony Homes come and go. Those who do this as a career get bored and look for new opportunities, bouncing from one facility to another and sometimes back again. Those who come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like Mary, tend to get disillusioned and discouraged. Their big ideas, their enthusiasm, get tamped down like a stake in the ground. Because let’s face it—this isn’t Disneyland. This is where people come to die. It’s a kind of purgatory, because the really sick folks aren’t here, just people who are aging who have no one to look after them. Melvin has already been here three years, and knows with his life expectancy, he could be here for another ten.
“Now, everyone’s name is in this box.” Mary pulls out a box from under the tree, and Melvin can see it’s different from the rest. It’s unwrapped, a simple pine box with a lid. The only decoration is a simple red bow glued on the front. Mary removes the lid. “When I call your name, you can come up and pick a present. If you want me to pick a present for you, just raise your hand and either me or Daryl will bring it to you. Ready?”
There’s more interest now, and even Melvin feels himself leaning forward. He’s scanning the presents, noticing that no two presents are alike, either in size or the wrapping paper. Hmm, that’s interesting. Last year everything was wrapped in one of three papers—a snowman motif, a Christmas tree motif, and one that was filled with multicolored balls, a generic paper that was probably borrowed from the birthday stash.
“Okay, first name!” Mary reaches into the box, pulls out a small strip of paper. “Lottie Rush!”
There’s a squeal as heads turn. Lottie Rush, a spry African American woman in her eighties, jumps out of her chair. She’s wearing yoga pants and a baggy t-shirt that used to belong to her husband. She races to the center of the room.
“Just one, Lottie,” Mary reminds her as Lottie’s arms start filling up with presents. After a few seconds of gentle encouragement, Lottie releases the other presents and returns to her seat with a large box. The minute she sits down she starts ripping off the paper.
“A Thigh Toner!” she exclaims, holding the box over her head. “It’s exactly what I wanted!”
There’s a smattering of applause as all heads turn back to Mary. Mary smiles and reaches into the box again.
“Alfonzo Owens!” she calls.
Alfonzo raises his cane.
“Okey dokey, I’ll pull one for you.” Mary turns and stares at the pile. “You like green, right?”
A nod. Alfonzo had his voice box taken out after being diagnosed with advanced pharyngeal cancer. He has a small box that he presses against his throat when he wants to be heard, but Alfonzo finds it easier to communicate in other ways. Melvin gets the sense that he was never much of a talker to begin with.
Mary reaches in and plucks out a long box wrapped in green foil paper. Daryl, the other nurse’s aide, takes it back to Alfonzo. Alfonzo unwraps the paper with shaky hands, a sign of early Parkinson’s. There’s a murmur from the men around him when they see what he has. Alfonzo shakes his cane in triumph.
“Lucky bastard,” Melvin hears one man muttering to his friend. “That has a double flex rod with an automatic anti-reverse.”
“Looks like it came with a mini tackle box, too,” his friend says. “And two bonus lures!”
Melvin remembers that Alfonzo was—is—an avid fisherman. He watches as a few men shuffle over from across the room to inspect Alfonzo’s gift.
“Leah Casey, you’re next,” Mary calls out.
Melvin can feel Alice fretting next to him. “I do hope all the good presents don’t go first,” she says. “Last year I got a shoe shine kit. Traded it for a marble rolling pin, but I can’t even lift it.” She shakes her head.
Melvin can’t think of anything reassuring to say. If it were anybody else, he’d tell them that honest truth—you get what you get. But watching Alice Edwidge eye the presents anxiously, he sees that her lipstick is already starting to feather, that she’s wringing her hands in worry. He feels himself reach out mechanically and pat her on the back.
Mary’s picking up the pace now, calling out names and ushering presents into the right hands or waving people to come forward.
“Arline Herring, come on down!”
“Calling Ethel Montgomery!”
“Brent Stout, it’s your turn!”
Melvin feels himself dozing off. It’s the heat of the room, too many bodies, the thermostat already five degrees higher than it needs to be. Outside the December day is grey and listless, no snow on the ground, everything bare and colorless.
Hearing his neighbor’s name, Melvin opens one eye. He sees Clark Peterson insist that Daryl take him up to the front in the wheelchair. It’s the most lively he’s seen the old boy in days.
It takes some maneuvering, but finally Daryl manages to get the wheelchair through the crowded room to the Christmas tree. About half of the presents are left. Clark screws up his face, concentrating on each present as if he can see through the wrapping. Some residents are getting antsy, ready to charge the tree or just head back to their rooms. Marcelo Nielsen, 83, breaks out into “The Art of the Possible” from Evita. Clark finally plucks a present from under the tree.
As Daryl wheels him back, Clark is ripping off the paper like a kid on Christmas morning. He lets out a whoop and holds a miniature snooker set over his head. “Eight ball in the corner pocket!” he hollers with more gusto than Melvin has even seen. Mary is laughing then dips her hand into the box to pull out the next name.
“Oh,” Alice says again, wringing her hands. “It looks like everyone’s getting what they want. That’s good, right?”
Melvin considers this. Clark with his snooker set, Alfonzo with his fishing rod. Lottie with her thigh toner, which she’s already taken out of the box and using with gusto. Leah with a perfumed stationary set, Madge with a telephone with pockets for pictures of each of her grandkids. Arline got a trio of succulent plants. Ethel, a former beautician, has a decorative jar filled with hair ties. Brent received a retractable umbrella with his alma mater’s logo. Granted, a handful of residents attended the University of Chicago, but it’s still a funny coincidence.
Melvin watches as three more residents go up and choose a gift, each one reacting the same as the last—surprise, joy. At their age, they’re beyond niceties and polite platitudes—if they don’t like it, they say it. But so far everyone seems delighted, a far cry from year’s past and suspicious as far as Melvin’s concerned.
It’s Mary, it has to be. In the short time she’s been here, she’s taken the time to get to know everyone intimately, knows their stories, their histories. Of course she would know what they want for Christmas.
“Thank you, Mary, but I’m Jewish,” Ella Steiner informs Mary when her name is called. “I told Daryl it was unnecessary for me to come, but he insisted.” She pretends to give Daryl an exasperated look, but he just smiles and gives her a wave.
“Isn’t today the fifth day of Hanukkah?” Mary asks.
Ella nods. “It is.”
“Well, you are welcome to choose a gift in the spirit of the holidays,” Mary continues, “but if you’d rather not, I understand. We do our best to make this a festive time, celebrating all faiths, but I know we fall short. I’m sorry, Ella.”
Ella considers this, then nods. “Well, why not?” She stands up, brushing imaginary lint from her pant suit. Melvin tries to remember her situation as he watches her make her way to the center of the room. It’s a bit like his, children too busy with their own lives to let Ella into them. She’s younger than most of the people here, in her early seventies, a widow.
Ella approaches the tree carefully, almost warily. He’s seen her help other residents with a stealthy kindness, refusing any acknowledgment, but her generosity intrigues him. After a moment’s hesitation, she reaches for a gift wrapped in a simple blue paper. “I’ll open this in my room,” she tells Mary. “Thank you.”
Mary calls out a few more names, and the presents start to dwindle under the tree. Alice Edwidge is beside herself, almost in tears.
“Alice,” Mary calls out, reading from the strip of paper in her hand. “Alice Edwidge!”
“It’s me!” Alice turns to Melvin. “Finally!” She grips her walker and starts moving forward, eyes shining.
The next moment happens in slow motion. Too many people in the room, maybe, or perhaps Alice’s own excitement had gotten the better of her. Later Melvin will notice that all the tennis balls on Harmony Homes’ walkers will be replaced with generic plastic sliders.
The walker tips, snagged on something invisible, and Alice goes with it, a fragile porcelain doll. At first the fall seems of no consequence, nothing more than a snowflake drifting lazily towards the ground. Someone will grab hold of her, or perhaps she’ll regain her balance, admonishing herself later about her own clumsiness.
But none of that happens. When Alice lands, she lands harder than it would seem possible. There’s a crack followed by a dull thud. For a second the room is silent.
And then Daryl and Mary are rushing forward, more aides coming in from the hallway, the kitchen. Sudden commotion, pandemonium. Someone is on the phone. Residents are wailing, some are observing, and others are trying to console their friends.
In a matter of minutes everyone is ushered back to their rooms. Melvin himself is unclear as to how he got back there—one moment he was in the common room, the next he is sitting on his bed in a daze.
The morning sun becomes the noon sun becomes the afternoon sun. Melvin sits, and waits.
At last there’s a gentle knock on his door. “Melvin?”
It’s Mary McLean. Her eyes are red and puffy, her face sallow. She comes in and sits next to him on the bed.
“Mrs. Edwidge is over at the hospital in Freeport,” she tells him, touching him on the arm. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m sorry, Melvin.” She sniffs.
Melvin wants to tell her that he hardly knows Alice Edwidge, that her condolences are misplaced. Elden Burns, he wants to say. They would often sit together, giggling like school children. Go tell Elden, he wants to say.
But Mary just edges closer, puts an arm around his shoulder. From her sweater pocket she produces a square box, wrapped in silver paper. “We didn’t get to finish the holiday gift exchange,” she says in a quiet voice. “But I think this one is for you.” When he doesn’t move to take it, she places it on the nightstand table.
“Buzz us if you need anything,” she tells him. She stands up, places her hand on his shoulder again. This time, he reaches up and rests his hand on hers. A sob bubbles up in his chest, and a second later he’s crying. Melvin hasn’t cried in years, not even when he and Gwen got divorced. Gwen, who’s long since remarried and living with her husband in Tahoe, her other children right around the corner from them. No nursing home for her.
It’s like this for a while, and then Mary sighs. “I have to check on the others,” she says. She gives him a hug and then slips away.
Melvin looks at the present on his nightstand. If he could have anything, what would it be? A new alarm clock maybe, but it seems inconsequential in light of what’s happened. Alice fixed up and healthy once again? Even Melvin knows how ridiculous that request is.
He tugs at the corner of the paper. He can’t tell what it is, so he tears the paper a little more until the wrapping pulls away.
It’s a box of Tifore’s Lemon Creams. He stares at it in disbelief, at the gold stamped lettering, the cheery lemon printed on the cover of the box. These are the lemon creams of his childhood, a gift from his father’s mother every Christmas season in preparation for the new year.
“The bitter with the sweet,” she’d say, popping one in her mouth. She’d close her eyes and smile, a light dusting of powdered sugar still on her lips. Melvin would do the same, closing his eyes with a sense of contentment as the soft confection melted in his mouth.
Now, Melvin cracks the cellophane wrapping with a small pocketknife he keeps in the drawer by his bed. When he lifts the lid of the box, the room is filled with the scent of citrus and sugar. There are 12 yellow orbs, each tucked into their own square of the tray. He picks one up, feels the softness between his fingers, then puts it in his mouth.
The bitter with the sweet. The death of his younger brother at age 5, a fall from an apple tree. Fighting with Gwen, the divorce. The death of his parents. The feeling of rejection when Barbara put him in Harmony Homes.
His first love at 11, Juliet Rhodes. His first kiss. College, he was the first in his family to go. His first job, his marriage, his children. His grandmother. Lemon creams. Melvin closes his eyes, and remembers.
He’s not sure why he gets up and walks to the hallway, walks to Alice Edwidge’s room. Her room is a mess, a bit disheveled like Alice, her battered walker tossed in the corner, forlorn. Charlie, Melvin thinks with disdain. Lifesaver, huh? You sure didn’t do her any favors this morning.
Melvin walks to the bed, the sheets still crumpled and unmade. Alice has hospital bars on the sides of her bed, which make it a bit difficult, but not impossible.
Melvin sets to work, starting at the bottom of the bed. He pulls the bottom sheet tight, tucks the end of the sheet between the mattress and the box springs. He moves to the head of the bed, and pulls the sheet taut, tucks that in, too.
Next he returns to the foot of the bed. He lifts the sheeting 16 inches from the foot of the bed and places one finger on top of the corner, lifting the sheet with his other hand. He tucks the lower drape under the mattress. Holding the corner in place, he brings the sheet over to form a 45 degree angle. He tucks the rest of the side of the sheet under the mattress, working his way back to the top of the bed, smoothing as he goes. He does the same with the top sheet and then the blanket, then folds the comforter in thirds and places it at the foot of her bed.
It’s funny, because Melvin makes his own bed twice a day, once in the morning and again after his nap. There’s always a small pleasure in it, the contentment that comes with a job well done, but this feels so much more satisfying. He takes one last look, smooths a small winkle, and leaves.
On the way back to his room, he thinks about calling Barbara but then feels a part of him bristle. Why not, he argues with himself. Ask her if she’ll come visit, or if he can stay with her a little longer. Promise not to cause any trouble, not to criticize her cooking. Volunteer to watch those grandkids of his, will try not to tell her how best to raise them. He’ll just be there, trying not to cringe as he watches them tear open a million gifts too many, Barbara’s way of making up for her lackluster ex-husband.
Melvin sighs, lets his shoulders drop. Or maybe this is better, him being here. Barbara can have room to live her own life, make her own mistakes, without Melvin sitting on the sidelines shouting out what she should or shouldn’t be doing. He’s had a chance to live his life, and maybe now he has to give her a chance to live hers.
He passes Ella Steiner’s room, sees the discards of her present in the large trashcan in the hallway. Inside, she’s murmuring softly as she sets up a silver menorah in the window of her room. Funny how he never paid attention to her smile before or the way her silvery hair curls around her ear. He notices her hands, graceful, her fingers long and slender, and remembers that someone said she used to play the piano. He watches as she uses the center candle to light the first candle on the far left of the menorah. She looks up and gives him a shy smile.
Melvin feels heat rush to his cheeks. He gives her a polite nod and hurries on.
He passes Clark Peterson’s room. “Melvin!” Clark calls, waving a miniature cue in the air. “Did you hear about Alice Edwidge?”
“I was there, Mr. Peterson,” Melvin says. “We all were. It’s very sad.”
“No, Melvin, the latest news. She’s going to be all right! Damn walker broke her fall, she has a concussion and a fractured wrist, but she’s fine. They might be sending her home as soon as tomorrow or the day after.”
Home. Is this what that is?
“Hey, wanna play some snooker?” Clark asks. “I have two cues!”
Melvin’s about to decline when he thinks, why not? “Sure,” he steps, stepping into Clark’s room. It’s the first time he’s ever been inside. It’s cleaner than he’d expected. The TV is the most prominent feature in the room, next to the bed that Clark spends his days in.
They play four rounds before Melvin has to call it quits. “Long day,” he says. “Thanks for the game.”
Melvin grins. “Sure.”
Back in his room, Melvin readies for bed. He changes his clothes and brushes his teeth, turns out the light. He slips in between his sheets, lets out a deep breath. His room still smells of lemon creams, and he’s decided he’s going to save the rest to share with the others. Mary, of course, and Alice when she returns. Ella, if she eats sweets, and Clark, whom Melvin suspects eats nothing but sugar when he’s camped out in front of the TV. Maybe he’ll send a box to Barbara and the kids.
He drifts into a dreamless sleep, a smile on his lips.
CHAPTER TWO ~ OUTSIDE THE PICK AND SAVE
THE LINE STARTED AT THE ENTRANCE of the Pick and Save and wrapped around the block, 40 people long.
It’s early still, just past seven, but people have been standing in line for almost an hour. Most people are bundled up warm and a few people have brought blankets from their cars and trucks.
“A free Christmas turkey!” Enid Griffin declares. She’s thirteenth in line. “Honestly, I’m surprised more people aren’t here.” She looks around, stamping her feet to keep warm.
“Is there a limit?” Jannell Mason asks anxiously.
“One per family,” Goldie Little tells her. She heard about the giveaway less than twenty four hours ago from Erwin Holder, a clerk at the Pick and Save who came in for his twice annual haircut at the Avalon Cut and Curl.
Jannell counts the number of people in line. “What if they run out?” she asks.
At this thought a few panicked faces turn toward the locked doors of the Pick and Save. They still have ten minutes to go. Harriet Simpson has a strategy to make sure she gets her turkey of choice—once inside the Pick and Save, she’ll make a sharp right towards the produce department and then follow the heads of lettuce and tomatoes straight to the meats in the back of the store. She considered cutting through the aisles in a diagonal pattern but worried others might do the same, causing a jam in the pasta and juice aisles and thus slowing her down. No, better to follow the widest path and proceed in a straight line.
Merv Stanton was getting gas when he saw people lining up. He figured something interesting was going on so he decided to check it out. He waited in line for almost ten minutes before asking someone what they were doing there.
“I’ve already made plans for my free holiday turkey,” Corey Baker tells the woman standing next to him. He’s in his mid-twenties, a subcontractor with a local construction company in town. “I’ve invited two friends over from work. I’ll be doing baked potatoes and green beans.”
“I have a recipe for scalloped potatoes that’s easy,” Felicity Banks tells him. “You can make it in just five steps. If you have paper I’m happy to give you the recipe now.”
“Sure, why not?” Corey nods in thanks as a man in front of him hands him a section of his paper and a pen.
“Four potatoes, one medium onion, four tablespoons flour,” Felicity recites, ticking off each ingredient on her fingertips as Corey begins to write. “Four tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to taste…”
“Oh, there is nothing finer than a turkey coming out of the oven,” Enid sighs. “Every year I soak mine in brine. Meat just falls from the bones!”
“What’s brine?” Ishmael Pope asks. He’s not in line for a turkey, just hoping to get dibs on the fresh produce that’s brought in every Friday morning. He likes to shop early so he’s usually here when the doors open. He can be in and out in less than 10 minutes with over two recyclable bags full of his groceries for the week. The unexpected crowd of people is both annoying but a bit intriguing, too—a loner, Ishmael hasn’t been around this many people in a long time.
“Brine is a salt water soak,” Enid tells him. “It makes everything more tender and so much more tastier. I brine everything.”
“My grandmother used to make her own pickles,” Ishmael recalls. “I think that’s how she did it. It would take forever before those pickles were ready.” He remembers dusty jars lining the wooden shelves in the cellar.
“If it was four to six weeks, then she probably used a brine solution,” Enid says. “You can pickle faster with vinegar, but it’s still a good week or two if you want the flavor.”
“Enid, that pickled slaw you brought to the Fourth of July picnic this past year was delicious with the burgers and steaks,” someone says, sighing at the memory.
“Oh, that one’s easy,” Enid says. “Red cabbage, onions, sugar, salt and pepper, and you’re done! Oh, and the vinegar, of course.” She laughs.
“Here,” Corey says, tearing off a strip of newspaper and handing the rest to Ishmael along with the pen. “If you want to take notes.”
Ishmael listens to Enid repeat the ingredients, asking a question or two and taking down her number at Avalon Travel in case he has any more questions.
“Dessert is always my problem,” Noelle “Noe” Hart says. She’s not from Avalon, but here because an aunt just died. For the past six days Noe has been rambling about in her aunt’s large weathered house, piles of things everywhere, feeling overwhelmed and alone. It was the real estate agent who suggested Noe take a break and just enjoy Avalon for a couple of days. She gave Noe a list of things to do, including standing outside the Pick and Save for her free turkey.
“Dessert is our favorite part!” Priya Blair tells her. Her identical twin sister, Lori, nods in agreement. The only distinguishing features between the two young women is that Priya has a pink scarf wrapped around her leather jacket while Lori has a light blue one. They’re in their early twenties and standing a few people behind Noe, but listening to everything that’s going on. “Next to chili, that is.”
“And buffalo wings,” Lori adds.
“And Indian food,” Priya concludes. “Anyway, you have to ask yourself a central question first, though. Sweet or savory?”
Noe thinks. The first thing that comes to mind, more of a smell really, is her mother’s apple pie. “Sweet,” she says.
“I love your accent,” Lori says. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“Texas,” Noe says, blushing. She hasn’t ever left the south, much less the state of Texas, so it surprises her when people comment on her light southern drawl.
Priya smiles. “Well, welcome to Avalon. So are you more of a chocolate person?”
Noe laughs, feels a tightness that’s been in her chest all week start to loosen. “Isn’t everyone?”
“Not me,” Enid says. “I’m very particular about where I get my calories. Chocolate isn’t one of them.”
“Not even hot chocolate?” Harriet asks in surprise as Enid shakes her head. “What about white chocolate?”
“White chocolate really isn’t chocolate,” Milly Walton tells them from the front of the line. “It’s cocoa butter and milk solids.”
Priya looks at Noe. “What about cookies or cakes?” she asks. “Or are you more of pudding person?”
“Cookies,” Noe says.
The sisters look at each other before breaking out in a grin. “Then we have the perfect recipe for you. It’s easy and it’s full of chocolate—chocolate crackle cookies!”
There’s a murmur of agreement as the women surrounding the twins and Noe nod.
“Okay, let me write this down,” Noe says. She looks through her purse for something to write with when someone nudges her and passes her a pen and the remaining sheet of newspaper. “Okay, go ahead.”
“One cup Amish Friendship Bread starter,” Priya begins. “Half cup brown sugar, packed…”
Dale Hodge, manager for the Pick and Save, unlocks one of the doors and steps outside. The crowd hushes and Noe lowers her pen, feels a rush of adrenaline.
“Okay, folks,” he says. “A few ground rules: no running, no pushing. There are plenty of turkeys, more than those of you standing in line, so you’ll all get one. And I just received word that the same anonymous benefactor is giving away the hams, too. So it’s your choice: ham or turkey, but you can only choose one. And only one free turkey or ham per household, please.”
There’s a small commotion as some people are thrown into indecision.
“Burl loves ham!” someone cries to her friend. “But I was going to do a turkey! I have the menu all planned out!”
“My wife makes it with this brown sugar pineapple glaze,” one man tells another, blowing on his hands. “Grandkids love it. But I’m a turkey man myself. Damn if I know what to do now.”
“Who’s giving this away again?” Goldie asks, but no one seems to hear her.
“I was going to buy a ham anyway,” Jannell says, beaming. “Now I can buy a turkey or ham and get the other for free.” A look of anxiety crosses her face. “But which one should I buy and which one should I get for free?”
“Just buy whichever’s cheaper,” someone says impatiently, craning their neck as they watch Dale Hodge unlock the other side of the door.
“No, you need to figure out how many servings you’ll get,” Emmett Jensen says. He’s an accountant, buried under a pile of three scarves and woolly earmuffs. The minute Dale made the announcement, he decided to go with a honey baked ham for his holiday table, which seems more traditional than turkey. He’ll be cooking for his new girlfriend and her son, and he already did a turkey for Thanksgiving. “Look at the cost per pound although the turkey has more bone, so you have to discount that. For example, a fifteen pound turkey that serves six versus a ham that serves …”
“Oh, for goodness sake!” Carol Doyle snaps. “It’s just Christmas dinner, not rocket science!”
“Yeah,” her friend, Jo Kay Buckley, retorts. They’re young mothers in their mid-thirties, both with four children apiece. They’re wearing workout clothes under their puffy down jackets, their children still at home with their husbands who will shuttle them to all the appropriate places: school or daycare, the babies with a shared sitter. The women are irritable until they have their morning coffee which can’t happen until after their “me” time which is a workout at the gym in Freeport with a personal trainer named Stanton.
“It’s not rocket science,” Emmett agrees, unperturbed. He could never date women like Carol or Jo Kay, both of whom he knows from high school. They didn’t care for him then and it’s clear they don’t care for him now, but that doesn’t bother him. He knows he’s a geek while they used to be two of the most popular girls in school, but they’re not in high school anymore. Emmett has his own accounting firm, makes a good living, and is dating a nice woman named Janice. “It’s just simple math, Jokey.” He grins.
Jo Kay glares at him.
Dale Hodge finishes unlocking the doors and steps to the side, his ring of keys jingling. “Come on in, everyone! Remember, no pushing!”
There’s a small surge as people press forward, chattering excitedly. In a matter of minutes the store is full of people, and more keep coming.
“This is going to be crazy,” Rhea Higbee, a cashier, tells another cashier, Cassie Gaines. No one is checking out yet, but they’re all ready.
“I know,” Cassie says. She takes one last chew of gum before tossing it in the trash. “Remember the time we double downed for the week?”
Rhea grins. In an effort to make the Pick and Save a coupon-friendly grocery store, the management had decided to let customers double the value of their manufacturer coupons with a limit of ten coupons per day. Customers had gone nuts and every day was exhausting that week, but it had been fun.
Cassie nods as the first wave of customers holding their turkeys or ham approach the registers. “Here we go!” she says. She fastens on a smile, her hands ready to scan the first item.
On Aisle Six—Pasta, Rice, Dried Beans, and Pudding Snacks—Wanda Sharpe stands in front of a shelf full of instant stuffing. She points to a box.
“Now I know from experience that this cornbread stuffing has excellent taste and texture,” she’s telling Edie Gallagher, who’s taking copious notes. “But it can run a little dry, so I tend to be generous with the butter. If you love cornbread, this is the stuffing for you.”
Edie nods. Her baby daughter, Miranda, is sitting in the cart along with Edie’s own turkey, patting it like it’s a cat. Edie is a reporter with the Avalon Gazette and they’re running a story on the free turkey and ham giveaway. Edie plans to put a few recipes in with the article, but what she wants is to find out who’s behind the giveaway. So far no one has stepped forward and Dale Hodges says he doesn’t know either, just that someone dropped off a cashier’s check with instructions that they make a ham or turkey available to every family in Avalon who wants one. There’s over four thousand people in Avalon, about 1,500 households. Edie knows not everyone will come by, but still. That’s a lot of free meat even for someone imbued with Christmas spirit. They’d have to have pretty deep pockets, too.
“Now, if you know you’re going to have turkey on the table, you’ll want to go with this.” Wanda points to another box. “The right balance of spices and herbs, not too salty. You can even see bits of celery and onion, though I always chop up a little extra on my own and add it as well. It’s just like homemade!”
“Except that it’s not,” Agnes Reyes says from behind them. Her own cart is filled with onions and celery, a bag of walnuts, currants, green apples and, of course, a turkey. “The holidays are a time for friends and family to come together. Who wants stuffing out of a box?”
“I do,” Wanda informs her. “As you said, the holidays are about spending time with the people you love. Who wants to be slaving away in a kitchen all day? Not me, that’s who.”
Agnes reaches past them for a bag of brown rice. “I make a turkey and rice soup the day after,” she tells Edie. “I’d be happy to give you that or the stuffing recipe for the Gazette. Real recipes, not with the instructions that say ‘add hot water and mix thoroughly.’” She gives Wanda a haughty look.
“The good citizens of Avalon want quick and easy tips,” Wanda tells Edie firmly. She reaches over and clucks as she tickles Miranda’s cheeks. “You want to be able to enjoy these moments. Goodness knows you’re busy enough as a new mom. Do you really have time to toast walnuts or make your own stock?”
“Graham loves my turkey stuffing—the stock is what gives it the flavor,” Agnes retorts. She turns to Edie. “Don’t you have a favorite recipe from your childhood? Food is how people show love for one another. You’re preparing something from your heart. When your daughter grows up, she won’t remember what you got her for all those birthdays, year after year, all those toys and other nonsense. What she’ll remember is what you put on the table.” She sniffs and straightens up. “If you’d like, I’m happy to be interviewed to discuss this in greater detail. I’m free on Friday.”
Wanda puts her hands on her hips, annoyed. “Agnes, Edie is interviewing me. ME. You’ve had your time in the sun, it’s my turn now.” She turns to Edie. “Agnes used to have a column in the Gazette, like thirty years ago. Op Ed.” She rolls her eyes.
“It was called ‘Agnes’ Angle,’” Agnes tells Edie, her face lighting up. “Predated you and that editor of yours. My column ran for five years. Avalonians loved it—I’ve kept all of my fan mail.”
Wanda is just staring at the ceiling, annoyed.
Miranda is starting to get fussy, and Edie needs to get home, needs to start typing up her notes if she wants to meet her deadline. “Why don’t I get both of your numbers?” she suggests. “That way I can call if I have any questions. As you both know, we have limited space in the Gazette, so I won’t be able to use both recipes.”
Agnes hands Edie a strip of newspaper. “Well, I already took the liberty of jotting down the recipe for you, just in case. Here you go!”
“Agnes Reyes, you were eavesdropping!” Wanda exclaims. “You’ve been trying to finagle your way into this conversation ever since we started at the jellied cranberries—I thought that was you behind the display of canned green beans. I’ll bet you don’t even need that brown rice!”
Agnes looks defensive, and then guilty. “It’s true, I don’t.” She puts the one pound bag back on the shelf and explains to Edie, “I can get it for a dollar twenty five when it’s on sale—I almost never pay regular price if I can help it. Hey, do you suppose your readers might appreciate some shopping tips as well?”
“NO,” Wanda says before Edie can answer. She crosses her arms and gives Agnes a pointed look.
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