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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 10:11 am

White Christmas

The church people come for a visit

Illustration by Hector Casanova/MCT
Untitled Document The church people come for a visit

I had to give the people credit for climbing those stairs. The security lock on the door had been broken for a year. When I had moved into that building, pregnant and with a baby on my hip, I had to pay a $10 security deposit for a key to that door. Of the less than $300 a month I was living on, that $10 had been a lot of money to me. I asked for it back when I realized that the door was never going to get fixed, but I never saw that money again. So anybody could come in off the street, and anybody did. The stairwell became a shelter for every imaginable bodily function and a repository for every type of bodily fluid. Mostly it was urine. The light bulbs were often broken or missed, so I’d memorized the places in the stairs where wear patterns allowed puddles to form. That helped me avoid contact — but there was no avoiding the stench. By the time you got to the fifth floor, though, to my apartment, the odor of urine had given way to something sweeter — glue. The local kids called it “tolly.” They squeezed it into paper bags, fitted the bags over their mouths and noses, and breathed it in. It was a cheap and dangerous high. I’d first seen it done around the entrance to the building, where a group of hungry-looking teenagers shared a paper bag, their heads bobbing stupidly on their rubbery necks, open-mouthed and drooling. And when a very young girl moved in across the hall with a baby, that sicky-sweet odor became my neighbor. I worried about her baby. One day when the building manager seemed approachable, I spoke to her about. Somebody should report it, I told her, thinking that that someone would be her. She gave me a hard look. “She ain’t doing nothing,” the manager said of the glue-sniffing teenage mother. “I’ve known her and her family all her life.” She looked me in the eye. “And it’s a big family. Ain’t nobody reporting nothing.”
The baby I’d been pregnant with when I moved into the building was on my arm, and my daughter, who was about 2 years old, held obediently onto the edge of my jacket. They were my only family, and that building manager knew that. I took her comment about this girl’s family as a threat. But it wasn’t just cowardice that kept me from calling Child Protective Services. I had no phone myself and the pay phone cost 25 cents. Quarters were scarce. When I had one, it meant a can of pork and beans or a box of macaroni and cheese. It meant that my children might not whimper in their sleep from hunger on those end-of-the-month nights when the cupboard was bare. And I knew that my own parenting couldn’t bear much scrutiny.
So I held my children close and kept as much distance as possible from the people around me. I don’t even know why I opened the door that Christmas Eve. Maybe I thought that my children’s father had come to see them, though I should have known better by then.
Somebody knocked, and I opened the door. There stood five people in warm, clean clothes, smiles orchestrated onto their faces, a little fear in their eyes. They announced the name of some suburban church and thrust a paper bag into my hands.
They were the type of people I had been before a marathon of poor judgment had led me to this life and this building. They huddled together, elbows tucked in, not one thread of their woolen jackets touching the walls. I stepped back from the doors and gestured for them to come in. It was a one-room apartment. My children were napping on the fold-out couch that we all three slept on. The frame had bent so that it never folded back up. I had no curtains, but it wasn’t much of a problem to me. The only other building near enough to allow anyone a view into my apartment was a burned-out shell. Hanging on the windows were the pieces of laundry I’d washed in the bathtub that day: clothes for the kids and a couple of stained sheets I’d been given when I left the Salvation Army shelter the previous year. The strangers, in response to my invitation, gave a collective shudder, shook their heads, and backed away, murmuring unintelligible politenesses. When they reached a safe distance, they remembered what they’d come to say. “Merry Christmas!” they chimed as they edged away from my door. I closed the door and looked in the bag. There were three boxes of macaroni and cheese, a loaf of bread, and a box of cornflakes. Each had a sterile white label stamped with black letters. I looked at those generic labels, impersonal and punitive in their lack of color. I needed that food. How could I not be grateful? Yet somehow I felt condemned by it. I ached for the luxury of red-and-blue stripes on the bag of a normal loaf of bread. I carried that bag of joyless groceries to the alcove that served as a kitchen in the studio apartment. I put the bread and cornflakes in the refrigerator to protect them from roaches. I would try to save the cornflakes until my next check, when I’d be able to buy some milk. Without a colorful rooster or bright-yellow rising sun, that miserly box would camouflage itself in the white interior of the fridge. I had a little salad dressing, so I’d be able to make the macaroni and cheese without milk or butter, but the thought of it made me weary. I looked around my shabby apartment. I was paying for my sins, for those twin evils of gullibility and fertility. Out the window I could see the red and green traffic lights on Wilson Avenue, the white headlights and red taillights of the cars on the street, and the broad palette of Chicago brick colors in the buildings surrounding me. I looked at that colorless box of macaroni in my pale hand. Then I sat down on the pullout couch where my beautiful brown children slept. I rummaged in its crevices until I found a crayon and began to draw red ribbons on the bland box of generic macaroni and cheese.
The gratitude I should have felt continued to elude me. But I had to give those people credit for climbing those stairs.
Carol Manley’s short story collection Church Booty will be released in May by Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama.
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