The darkened shop fronts, outlined in twinkling Christmas lights, stood like forbidding sentinels against the deep mauve and grey ribboned remains of the December sky. Maria clutched her seven-year-old son’s hand as she trudged hastily along the street, slush wetting her feet through the toe of her ankle boots.
Next payday, she thought, I’m buying myself shoes. Even if they have to come from Goodwill.
Glancing at her Timex, she hurried her pace, if not her stride – the tight skirt of her pink uniform made her feel like a Geisha toddling on bound feet. She heard a low whistle, and the growling laughter of two men echoed through the grey shadows of the alley.
“Eyes ahead, Julio – remember?”
Around here, people kept moving and didn’t look too closely into the shadows.
The silver wreath on the diner’s door was hung just above the “Come In, We’re Open” sign. As if that were enough to entice customers, Maria thought as she entered – simply being open. But then, in this part of town, an open door to a warm, dry seat – even if it were only a stool at the counter – drew customers, all right. Carl, the owner and chef, preferred paying customers, but proved a soft touch for anyone down and out. No shortage of those types around here. The diner sat precariously on 47th Street, the street considered the “rat hole” to the city’s seamier side.
Maria relaxed as she hung her coat on the hook near the kitchen and waved to Terri, who smiled as she took an order from an older couple at the counter. Maria liked to arrive at work early, but today had worked late at the department store, caught in the “Christmas rush” of shoppers wanting their packages wrapped just so. She’d barely had time to hurry home and change into her waitress uniform when her neighbor arrived with Julio saying sorry, she had to work and wouldn’t be able to babysit after all. Maria hated to bring Julio to work. But he was the light of her life, her angel. Maria knew he’d be patient and quiet while she worked.
As she’d suspected, only a few people occupied the diner. Most folks were home with their families, celebrating in their own modest way. The people here either could not afford or were not inclined to put up a tree, and sat clustered around the small artificial one Carl put in the window each yuletide season.
Maria seated Julio at a small table in the corner. “How about you, sir? Can I get you anything?” She chucked him under the chin.
He smiled as she whispered, “There’s hot chocolate, on the house, for anyone under ten.” The eager look on his face was answer enough, and Julio drank his hot chocolate spoon by spoon.
The Santiagos, a grey-haired couple sitting nearest Julio’s table, smiled. Mr. Santiago asked, “So, little guy, what’s on Santa’s list this year?”
Julio bent his head sadly. “Santa can’t get me what I really want.”
“A new bike, a red one like his sleigh. But he only gives those presents to other kids.”
“Well,” old man Santiago said, “I’ll bet Santa’s saving his best present for when you’ve grown a little.”
Julio nodded glumly, and Maria hugged him.
“We have the best present of all, Julio – we have each other. Just like Mary and her baby Jesus.”
Glancing up, he smiled. “Tell me about the story again.”
Julio’s face was aglow with wonderment as Maria pointed to the treetop star to begin the tale of the first Christmas. Maria hadn’t realized the entire diner listened. As she finished, the three couples and scattered loners applauded.
“I’d better get back to work,” Maria whispered to Julio. She drifted to the other customers’ tables, checking on them one by one.
At the counter, she said to Terri, “It’s going to be a long night.”
“And not very profitable, judging by the clientele.”
When Maria thought of her childhood Christmases, the angry voice of her father overshadowed any happy memory. He always left in a swirl of angry words and slamming doors. Her mother retreated to her bedroom, her soft sobs muffled by the closed door. One day her father split for good, and Maria hadn’t seen him since. She cherished the memories of the few Christmases together, just she and her mom.
That all changed when her mother let her new boyfriend move in. He offered to babysit Maria while her mother worked the night shift at the auto factory. Too late, her mother discovered the real reason he liked to be alone with Maria. She’d hide in her closet, whimpering as she tried to make herself as small as possible, shuddering at the thought of his touch. It was no use, he always found her.
Maria jumped as the door to the diner slammed shut, the bells jingling. Immediately glad for the distraction – no one should think terrible thoughts on Christmas Eve – she told Terri she’d wait on the young man. From the darkest depths beyond the rat hole, Alfonse was only an occasional customer. At least he wasn’t part of a gang, the last she’d heard.
Mustering a smile, she asked, “What would you like?”
“Coffee, black,” came his mumbled reply. His eyes were vacant as he wrung his hands.
“Okay, comin’ right up.” She tried to sound cheerful, even though her Christmas cheer ran close to empty.
About half an hour passed, and the customers whiled away the night with conversation. One of the old men called with some effort, “I’ll take my check now, Maria.” As Carl burst through the swinging doors from the kitchen, whistling “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Alfonse stood in a nervous jerk.
“Just sit down. Nobody’s going nowhere.” He pointed through his coat pocket.
A hush fell over the room. The buzz of the diner’s neon sign suddenly seemed loud, and the cheer of Jose Feliciano singing Feliz Navidad on the radio out of place.
“Everybody stay calm. Real slow, now, take out your money and whatever valuables you have, and lay them here.” He spread a crumpled red bandana on the table.
The customers exchanged confused looks.
“Let’s go,” yelled Alfonse, glancing toward the window. Occasionally, a police cruiser ventured into these streets, but Maria had a feeling that tonight there would be no savior arriving in a cherry top.
Noiselessly, each person approached, laying their meager belongings in the bandana. Alfonse prompted each, “Is that it?”
Each nodded, shrugging.
The last to approach, Maria instructed Julio to remain seated no matter what. She whispered to Alfonse, “Please, can I keep my money? I haven’t bought Julio’s Christmas dinner, and—”
“Put whatever you’ve got right there.” Alfonse motioned to the table.
Onto the dirty bandana, she carefully laid twenty-two dollars and some change.
“And the ring,” he said.
Her eyes widened as she clutched her left hand. “My wedding ring?”
“In the pile. Now.” Hardness glittered in his eyes.
Her nostrils flared, but she slowly pulled off the thin band of gold, kissing it before placing it gently on top. Julio ran to his mother and clutched her waist.
Alfonse yelled, “Hey, hey! Sit down, both of you!”
“Don’t make my mom cry,” Julio said. “My daddy died last year, and she cries too much already.”
Alfonse pulled his shirt away from his neck. “Yeah, we all got problems, kid. Now sit down.”
“Why are you doing this, Alfonse? You don’t mean it,” Julio pleaded.
“Look, I’m not going to say this again—”
“But you always help people, not hurt them. And you make such beautiful pictures.”
Carl stepped forward. “He’s right, Alfonse. You don’t want to do this. You have real talent. I’ve seen your paintings in the tunnels, on brick walls. You know, people pay for art like that. Murals, they’re called.”
“Shut up. I know what you’re trying to do.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Give me the money from the drawer, Carl, and I’ll be on my way.”
Heaving a sigh, Carl strolled to the cash register. “It’s not too late, Alfonse. You can stop this now. We can forget this ever happened…”
Hushed agreements filled the air, everyone nodding in encouragement.
“What’s the matter with you people? Just give me the damn money!” His eyes shifted wildly from face to face.
“Please, Alfonse,” Julio said quietly. “Don’t steal. I love your paintings. My mom said God gave you that talent.”
Dragging his sleeve across his mouth, his face twisted as tears welled.
Julio continued, “She said your paintings help all of us see that we’re better than this old town.”
Alfonse glanced at Maria. “You said that?”
Maria nodded mutely, afraid the wrong word would send him into a rage.
“We love you, Alfonse,” said Julio.
“Yeah, right.” He spat a bitter laugh. “A lot of good that does me.” His hand shook as he wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead.
“We need you to keep painting pictures. My mom said it helps us remember the good things,” Julio said.
Indecision smoothed Alfonse’s features. He looked into each of the faces surrounding him. “How can you people keep living like this? I have to get out! I can’t spend another year in this rat hole!”
“You will get out,” Julio said. “You’ll be a famous artist someday. My mom said so.”
Alfonse sank into a chair, hands covering his eyes. “God, if only that were true…”
“Don’t worry.” Julio laid a hand on Alfonse’s shoulder. “We know you don’t mean it.”
Alfonse’s shoulders heaved in quiet sobs.
Carl whispered, “And a child shall lead us…”
Maria watched Carl, whose face appeared bright, out of context with the unfolding events.
Carl said, “Julio’s right. Your art has helped us, and now we – all of us – can help you. None of us wants to see you turn bad. You just need someone to remind you how much you matter, to all of us. But you have to decide, right now, that you want to live right. Not like the rest of them.”
Alfonse lifted his head, but his sad eyes did not look at Carl. “I needed money to get away… I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The others gathered around Alfonse, laying their hands on him.
“God bless you, son,” each said in turn as they took back their belongings, cradling them as they walked out the door.
Lastly, Julio told Alfonse, “It’s the birthday of the baby Jesus, you know. Special things can happen.”
Maria secured her wedding ring on her finger, then took her twenty-two dollars. “If you need a job, the city’s road crews usually need help during the winter, clearing snow…”
He let out a ‘sheesh’ and shook his head.
Anger flared. “Listen, sometimes we have to do things we don’t want, while we’re waiting to do something we do want. Take me,” she continued, though he gazed absently out the window. “I’m working two jobs, trying to put some money away for the future – a better future for me and Julio. Go ahead and laugh, but that’s only part of my plan. Someday I’m going to college so I can be what I really want to be – a social worker.”
He gazed at her in disbelief.
“I know what you’re thinking: she’ll never make it. But I’m smart, and if I work hard, I’ll get scholarships. I’m not giving up.” She straightened her spine. “And neither should you. Julio was right. You have real talent.”
Carl’s hushed voice held excitement. “Yes, Alfonse, we all believe it. You could get a job at the community college, that way your tuition would be reduced. If you need help getting started, I’ll do what I can.”
Incredulous, Alfonse turned to Carl. “Why would you want to help me after what I’ve done?”
“Because Julio and Maria are right. We need your art, to remind us that we – each one of us living here – is better than this neighborhood. You have a chance, a real chance, to prove it.” Carl’s eyes gleamed.
Maria gathered her coat and Julio’s, saying to Terri, “It’s time for me to get my baby home, even though Santa won’t be stopping again this year. Carl has it under control, as usual.”
“Take it easy, Maria. You two have a Merry Christmas.” Terri tousled Julio’s hair.
As the door slammed shut behind them, bells jingling, Maria stopped for a moment to watch Carl and Alfonse through the window. Carl leaned toward the younger man. With each sentence, Carl seemed to be bolstering Alfonse’s confidence, giving him faith in a better future.
The church bells pealed brightly. “Listen, Julio. Silent Night.”
His eyes drooped, so Maria bent to pick him up, and hurried before his weight became too much for her. She heard the swoosh of tires as she paused at the corner. A friendly voice called, “Hey, Maria – you need a lift home?”
Shifting her body so she could see inside the cab, she smiled. “Hey, Rico! Sorry, but I can’t afford it.”
“It’s my Christmas present to you. Hop in.”
“Thanks, that’s really nice of you.” She climbed in, cradling Julio on her lap.
“Nah, it’s not like there are any fares out there at midnight on Christmas Eve. Not till midnight mass is over, anyway.” He smiled in the rear view mirror. “Hey, do you two have any plans for Christmas dinner? My mama invited half the neighborhood. You might as well come along, too.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it would be nice having you over. And you don’t want to be alone, do you?” He pulled over to the curb in front of Maria’s apartment.
“All right.” Maybe Christmas dinner wouldn’t be so bleak for her son.
“Pick you up tomorrow around three then?”
“Three it is.” She waved as he pulled away.
‘Midnight,’ Maria thought, carrying Julio inside. The stars shone brighter and clearer now, the city blanketed with an unusual hush.
After next Christmas, she would be ready to start college. No more diner work. She’d get a small apartment nearer the college, apply for a few scholarships…
She hummed to herself walking upstairs, not even minding the cold slush that had seeped through the toes of her boots.