Christmas Eve or not, as I watch Phil fiddling with the tree lights, still blank as our bank account, I could just scream. If he hadn't taken so long setting Teddy's train around the tree, we would have more time to get ready for the holiday. There's no reason a model train needs twenty-five test runs! And he should never sit on the floor that long. Besides, staring at our worn gray rug depresses me even more.
Not that I don't complain.
I set hot gingerbread cookies on the mantle. I don't want Franny's little fingers to find them too soon. One cookie head snapped already. My head may go next. Ever since Phil came home from the war in '45, he hasn't been the same. The leg shrapnel I can handle, but the metal that opened his head, changed our lives forever. I remember when Phil graduated college. He chose to pursue chemistry in graduate school. We had it all worked out. Then, he left for the European front in March, and never finished the program.
"Don't worry, dear, I'll find the offending bulb," he says.
I nibble on a cookie I don't want through a fake smile.
My Aunt Marilyn could have at least given Phil a Christmas bonus. Even if she couldn't give him dignity. Just a twenty-three-dollar a week job at her bakery on the other side of town. Seems to me the doughnut holes are sweeter than my aunt. Since Phil can't drive, I need to take him there every morning. In a car running on a prayer and three gallons of gas. With Franny, Teddy, and a set of infant twins. At 5 AM.
Franny will be the life of me yet. Traced an image of herself in the bedroom mirror with nail polish, then played tic-tac-toe on Teddy's belly with my good Sunday lipstick.
At least my parents will take all four kids to their house for the day. That's our Christmas Eve tradition. While the children are gone Santa comes. When Mom and Dad bring them home, we all celebrate. Well, thanks to S&H Green Stamps, Phil and I saved enough for a few toys. But my celebration feels as absent as the tree lights.
War. Ugly. I wonder if anyone really wins. Phil agrees, but we can't say it out loud. I long for peace on earth. Or at least enough bread for an entire week.
"Esther, look. I've found the problem light. Naturally, it was the last bulb on the line. Don't you just love these colors?"
She smiled, I think, or was it a twitch? I grab the edge of the sofa and hoist myself up. I'm careful to turn my face away from my wife so she doesn't see the grimace as I move my bum leg. But I know I'm not hiding anything from Esther, the realist.
I'd love to tell her about the day last week when I took Franny with me to the corner barbershop because she was driving my wife crazy. I met the president of the state university and learned he lives less than a mile away from us.
"You're Philip Howard?" he said. "Most interesting. I'm a man of science, not fate. Nevertheless, I've got to wonder why I ran across your undergraduate thesis just this morning. Brilliant work, sir. Brilliant. Ph.D. material."
Before the holidays, the barbershop gets busy. While we waited. we talked about education. Every facet. Esoteric and practical. Even more amazing than our chance meeting, Franny sat humming "Silent Night," as she colored. I wondered if another kid had taken over my daughter.
Suddenly she chimed in. "My daddy is the smartest man in the world. And the nicest too."
I'm sure I blushed. But the university president didn't act as if he noticed. Then he allowed me to get my hair cut first while he talked to Franny.
He listened to her five-year-old audacity while the barber complained about how I always waited until I looked like a brown dust mop before I got haircuts. I wouldn't dare tell him it was because I barely had change left after groceries.
Then when I got up to leave, the president told me to expect a call. There was a teaching assistant position opening. And he would push for me to get it. If I wanted it. As well as a scholarship to finish my education.
I tried not to thank him like a sycophant fool and came home. Silent. Esther would mention the obstacles. Yes, yes, of course, if he called me, I would tell him about my injuries. No details about the trembling shakes. But as a man of science, he would know. Yes, he would know.
I would know. The reason I didn't consider life could be better. Ever.
I turn away from the Christmas lights, too colorful now. Too bright. A seizure trigger perhaps. No, I can't handle radiance, even for a moment. Not anymore.
"A table and chairs just my size. How did Santa know I needed them? But when's your big present coming, Daddy? I've been waiting all night."
Daddy looks at me funny. "What big gift, sweetheart?"
Now, Grandma and Grandpa look at me funny too. Grownups are hard to understand. Daddy looked so excited at the barbershop. And that man with all that gray hair promised. He promised me too.
"Don't you remember? I told the man at the barbershop how Daddy taught me how everything in the world is made of puzzles, like water was made of an H and a 2 and an O. And how good that was for the smaller things to get along. He asked me questions and laughed, even when I didn't know what was funny. Then I told him about how after the war, sometimes Daddy shook and fell down, but he always got back up again and talked about how the little parts of everything fit together again. No matter what. Even after working all day for what Mommy says wouldn't feed a church mouse. Even though I looked and looked, but never saw a single mouse in church.
"Then the man said that I was a good learner and Daddy sounded like a great teacher. He knew a doctor who could help Daddy. And he had the biggest, greatest Christmas present ever for him. And that Daddy showed him good really did still live in the world, and I was the angel sent to show him.
"So, now I'm wondering when the man's going to get here."
Mommy looks confused until Daddy tells her about the gray-haired man. She starts smiling, big like the lights on the tree. And Grandma and Grandpa laugh.
Then Mommy and Daddy do something I never saw them do before. They giggle, like the twins do when I tickle their bellies.
"Sweetheart," Daddy says, "Thank you for giving me my big present."
I don't understand, but Mommy looks happy for a change, and she lets Teddy and me eat two gingerbread cookies instead of just one.