Not a Christmas Carol

* “No!” yelled Evelyn at the apparition. “No! You’ve got it all wrong!”

“As I was saying,” the ghost intoned, “you will be visited by three spirits.”

“Yes, I know. Christmas past, Christmas present, Christmas future. Everybody knows that. It’s been done and redone. But it doesn’t apply to me.”

The ghost looked mildly disturbed, as though programmed to intone certain things and expect certain results. “Before dawn,” it continued, “you will be visited by three spirits.”

“Yes, you said that already,” Evelyn interrupted peevishly. It didn’t help that the ghost looked a great deal like her late husband, a quiet and self-effacing man who could easily lose his place in a conversation if interrupted.

The ghost looked a bit mistier, not to mention mystified. “You will be visited,” it started again.

Evelyn jumped out of her chair, the comfortable recliner where she had been dozing briefly, preparing herself for Christmas eve, a busy night for her. She charged straight at the ghost, unconcerned by its resemblance to her late husband—or perhaps the resemblance drove her on. She was already wearing the Santa suit, one of several items of apparel that helped earn her the nickname “Ms. Claus.”

The ghost looked shocked for a moment, and then slowly faded from the room. “Hmmmph!” said Evelyn. “I’ve been drinking too much egg nog. Three spirits indeed! I am the spirit of Christmas!”

She glanced at the clock. She was almost late. She grabbed the red and white hat and the bag filled with packages. Next stop, the children’s home. She raced for the door, glowing inside with all the good that she was going to do, anticipating the smiles those presents would bring to the children’s faces.

Between the living room and the front door the stairs from the upper level met the hallway. Just as she was passing the stairs, Latisha, her ten year old daughter practically flew down the stairs and landed in front of her. Her best acrobatics were not sufficient. One foot hooked on the child’s body and down she went on her face. An unusual and unwanted four letter word escaped her lips as she examined herself for injuries. The practically indestructible Latisha was already picking herself up off the floor. It was unnatural! The child ought to be crying. She ought to need to have her mother brush her off, kiss it and make it better, apologize for coming close to kicking her in the stomach.

But no, she was on her feet, apologizing for tripping her mother. Evelyn moved quickly from annoyance that she couldn’t mother her daughter to anger at the child’s behavior. “You shouldn’t run down the stairs like that! You could kill yourself! You could kill me!”

Latisha just looked at her with that puzzled look. “But I didn’t,” she said. “I’m fine. You’re fine.”

There was an awkward pause. Then Latisha held out a small package wrapped not in Christmas paper but some blue looking stuff that seemed to have some sort of sea creatures on it. Evelyn was pretty sure she’d bought it to wrap a birthday present for one of the boys at the church.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I want you to take this to the children.”

“But what is it?”

“It’s my doll, the one that talks.”

Evelyn realized that the package was about the right size. She took it and examined it for a moment. Not only was the paper inappropriate for the season, it was clearly “boy” paper, and it was wrapping a doll. Either the girl who got it wouldn’t like the wrapping paper, or a boy would wind up with a doll. In addition, the paper didn’t quite completely cover the doll, and the tape was haphazardly wound in every direction.

“I can’t give this to the children!” exclaimed Evelyn.

“Why not?” Latisha didn’t look disappointed, so much as puzzled.

“The wrapping paper is messy, it’s birthday paper, not Christmas paper, it’s for a boy, but the present is for a girl.”

“Oh,” was all Latisha said.

Evelyn handed the package back to her daughter and started for the door. She’d be late for sure. One thing she always emphasized when she told people how to go about charity was that you were punctual and courteous. If you said you were going to be there at 7:00 PM, then 7:00 PM it was, not 7:01 PM. But she still looked over her shoulder with one parting shot: “If you really cared about the children, you’d have thought of all that. You just wanted me to think you were being generous.” Then she sailed out the door.

The time at the children’s home was all she had hoped for. She wished that Latisha wanted to come, but she wouldn’t force the child. Sooner or later she’d get the idea that it wasn’t right for her to just think of herself at Christmas. As it was, it was a good thing that Evelyn’s sister lived next door. She could keep an eye on the selfish little girl while her mother was doing good. How could she be so generous and her daughter so selfish?

She got into her car to leave the children’s home, looked in her mirror, and there was the image of her late husband. Evelyn was hard to startle. “What are you doing here? I told you there was some mistake. You don’t belong here!”

“Who was it you told?” The voice was a bit sarcastic.

“You. I told you, ghost! Get out of my life. Go bother someone who doesn’t have any Christmas spirit.”

“Nope!” said the spirit. “Evelyn Verdun, yes? 1224 Forest Lane, yes? Indeed yes! Just so!” said the spirit, sliding from a kind of drawl that probably came from somewhere in the southern U. S. to a slightly British accent at the end.

The car started, backed out of the parking place much too fast, skidded on some ice, barely missed a row of parked cars, and then accelerated toward the exit, tires spinning all the way. Evelyn’s hands weren’t on the steering wheel, and her keys were not yet in the ignition.

“Slow down!” she yelled. “The speed limit here is 15 miles per hour!”

“Slow down, gotcha!” said the spirit, accelerating into the street without stopping at the stop sign. What followed was a nightmare of dashing in and out of traffic, moving at speeds that didn’t seem possible, and even flying from time to time.

The car stopped in front of a small house. There were patches of snow on the ground, but no decorations on the house. It was daylight, and a tall, athletic man was apparently playing basketball with a young girl. The child looked cold and unhappy, too lightly dressed for the weather.

It took several minutes for Evelyn to recognize herself and her own father. That was not a subject she wanted to think about.

“How can you look like my late husband, when the ghost that told me I’d be visited by three spirits looked like him as well?” she snapped at the spirit, who was now seated beside her in the front of the car.

“You really don’t take this spirit thing seriously, do you? Most people would be afraid. You defy us!”

“Yeah, yeah. But why?”

“Why do I look like your late husband? I don’t know. I’m a product of your mind, mostly at least, so I probably look just like you’re most afraid I’d look.”

“Afraid? Of Andy? That’s a laugh!”

“So why aren’t you laughing?”

“Ha! Ha!”

“You’re special, lady, very special. Ms. Claus indeed! Now look at the scene, like you’re supposed to.”

The girl continued to try to follow her dad’s instructions. She tried to throw the ball through the basket, but lost it behind her back. It rolled down the driveway. She just stood there watching it roll.

“Go after it!” yelled the man.

When she returned with the ball, he said, “Evie, Evie! The idea is to put the ball through the basket. The basket is over there!”

“Yes, Daddy,” Evelyn heard her younger self say. Then she threw the ball again. This time it his the post, a couple of feet below the backboard, and bounced back toward her. She fended it off with her hands, and it hit her father in the side. He moved his arm slightly and somehow guided it so it practically fell into his hand.

“Get inside girl!” he said. “You obviously don’t even want to try. I don’t know why I spend time trying to teach you.”

Evelyn could feel herself getting angry. So many sessions with her father had ended in that one way. Once when she had reached her teen years, she’d told him he had wanted a boy, but he ended up with a girl. “God is punishing you with me,” she said. Deep inside she’d hoped he’d contradict her. But it was not to be.

“Yeah,” he told her. “I must have committed some really horrible crime.” Then he walked off.

She was so deep in that memory that she didn’t even notice the car leave in the same way it had gotten to the cottage. She couldn’t explain even to herself why the apparent speed and even occasional collisions with other objects didn’t frighten her, even though they seemed real enough. This time they wound up in front of the church she and her mother had attended. There was a Christmas party going on, and the spirit led her into the fellowship hall. Somehow he looked a bit different, though she wasn’t sure just how.

They arrived at the party just in time to see little Evie, now about 12 years old, handing a present to her Sunday School teacher. Evelyn remembered the scene as clearly as though it was yesterday, though she couldn’t remember the last time she’d thought about it. The present was a thin rectangle, and the Sunday School teacher opened it up. As she did so, Evelyn’s mother muttered in her ear, “You should have let me wrap it. I could have done a better job.”

Then the teacher took the picture, and a smile lit her face, but Evelyn’s mother saw what it was. In a hand made frame was one of Evelyn’s own pictures, a painting of some sort of landscape. It wasn’t very realistic, or very well done, in the mother’s eyes. Her face radiated embarrassment. The frame was made of rough wood. There was no glass in it, and the backing was cardboard cut from a packing box.

“Evie,” she shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “How could you? You said you were giving something important to your teacher! You’ve insulted her!”

The teacher herself was trying to say something, looking with dismay from mother to daughter. She held the picture up to admire it. The adult Evelyn could see from her teacher’s face that she was admiring the picture.

“What does she see in it?” asked Evelyn.

The spirit answered. “It’s beautiful.”

“You mean she thinks it’s beautiful because she loves me? And she did, you know. She really did love me.”

“No, she thinks it’s beautiful because it is. Look!”

Suddenly Evelyn was disoriented. She felt nauseous. Then she recognized that she was looking through the teacher’s eyes. She saw the picture. It was a somewhat impressionistic view of a landscape, but there was subtlety there, shades of color, elements that kept one looking.

Suddenly she was disoriented again, and the scene changed. The picture was just splotches of paint. It was ugly. It was an insult that anyone should think to give this picture as a present, even a child. Another wave of nausea swept her as she realized she was seeing through her mother’s eyes.

But the painting had to be disgusting! She could trust her mother, because her mother was always truthful. She never called anything good when it wasn’t. Some people said her mother was critical, but her mother had assured her that they were simply softies who didn’t believe in seeking the very best.

She’d never believed what her Sunday School teacher had said about the picture, because her Sunday School teacher didn’t tell the “unvarnished truth” as her mother would have said.

She was back looking through her own eyes. “Which one saw it like it really was?” she asked.

The spirit shrugged, a sort of rippling action. He was getting more transparent now. “Which do you think?”

“I don’t know. I’d think my mother, but they each see something so different. How can that be?”

“Why do you see me looking so much like your late husband?”

But they were off, racing toward home. She found herself at home, her car parked in the driveway. She ran into the house, looked at the clock. She still needed to take the pot of soup to the soup kitchen. She needed to leave in about another 15 minutes. She yelled for Latisha, but there was no answer. She ran up the stairs. As usual, the girl’s room was a mess. Without even thinking, Evelyn started to straighten it up. Then she remembered the time.

Where was that girl? How could she run off somewhere on Christmas Eve? If her aunt doesn’t know where she is she’s going to get spanked good and hard this time! I haven’t done that since she was four, but tonight is the night! She can’t mess up my Christmas Eve! Where was the girl’s Christmas spirit? Next year, I’ll make her go with me.

And with that she pulled out her cell phone and headed down the stairs again. As she grabbed the pot of soup, her sister answered. No, she didn’t know where Latisha was. Yes, she’d check around for her. Yes, she’d call as soon as she knew something.

And out the door she went, bearing soup for the kitchen, and with a little judicious speeding, she got there on time as well. She was a little bit worried about Latisha, but she told herself that even though she was only ten years old, the child was exceptionally independent. She’d take care of herself.

She stood in the serving line ladling out soup. The next person in line was a black teenager. He looked reasonably well fed. What was he doing in line? Evelyn was black herself, but she’d grown up in the midwest where almost all her neighbors were white. The one great fear that had been instilled in her was the fear of teenage boys, with a subtle hint of special fear for black teenage boys.

She had always suspected that the real problem her father had was that the black teenagers were more likely to ask to take his daughter out, and she had been a beauty in her day. It was the one thing she could be proud of in her childhood and youth. Of course, with her father’s fear, she’d ended up marrying some white guy who had brought her Latisha, and then promptly died in a car accident. She wasn’t convinced her father was wrong, however, and she still harbored a bit of the prejudice.

But then she saw that little bit of transparency in his body. At the same time she recognized him. He’d met her the first week in college. He was athletic, handsome, and intelligent. He saw no reason he shouldn’t go out with the most beautiful girl on campus. She’d turned him down flat.

He was wearing a slight smile, as though he recognized her fear. Somewhere deep inside she was afraid he was here to get his revenge. She was in the middle of something that felt like a tornado. She was spinning and dizzy. She thought she threw up, but who could tell?

They landed a half mile from her own neighborhood, but in what would be called a bad part of town. She looked around. Besides the spirit beside her, who still hadn’t said anything, she saw several teenagers. They were gathered in a vacant lot. There was a pole, and one board from what might have been a backboard, and there was a hoop that looked like it was fashioned from coat hanger wire. It sagged dangerously as one of the boys tossed the basketball through it. It looked like the ball was not quite sound either.

Then she heard something rattle, and coming from the direction of her own home, the home she had deliberately bought well away from here, came her own daughter, pulling a wagon. She must have borrowed it from the neighbor boy, because she had told Latisha that a wagon wasn’t a good girl’s toy, and refused to get it.

In the wagon, however, was a large box. She could now see that the neighbor boy was balancing the box in the wagon and helping pull it along. There was a third child, walking alongside, probably six or seven years old. She didn’t recognize him.

Latisha rushed to grab her daughter. “Latisha,” she yelled. “You’re never going to sit down again! How dare you come to this part of town? How dare you leave the house without my permission?”

But she passed right through and went part way into the ground. “She can’t see you, and you can’t touch her,” said the spirit.

“You’ve got to let me touch her! I’ve got to get her out of here! This is dangerous?”

“This? Dangerous? This is all a state of mind.” The spirit was very calm. She tried to think what was wrong with the way he talked. Then she realized. He looks like that young man from college, but he talks with my intonation.

So she had to watch as the teenagers gathered around the wagon. It soon become clear that one of them was the little boy’s big brother, but they didn’t know Latisha or her neighbor. They opened the box—a new basketball hoop and backboard, and a new ball. They gathered around the pole and before very long had rigged way to hang it. Then her daughter, who was forbidden to waste her time on sports, picked up the ball and tossed it through the hoop, to cheers from the teenagers.

I’m going to beat her, thought Evelyn. Then I’ll ground her for the next year. She’ll remember this night forever. She shouldn’t be here.

With that thought she was home again. She raced for her car, to rush out and catch her wayward daughter. But she was confronted by another spirit in the hallway. Three of them, she thought. There must be three.

This one looked for all the world like she would expect Latisha to look in her 20s. The only problem was that she had several tattoos, something her mother had forbidden, and she was dressed in an orange jail suit, shackled, and handcuffed. It didn’t seem to slow her down. She said nothing, but Evelyn felt herself floating out the front door, then flying for miles through the cold air. They ended up at the state penitentiary.

They soon were standing in a prison cell. A prison chaplain was talking to a young lady, one who looked exactly like the one beside her. Then she saw the name across the girl’s back: “Verdun,” along with a number.

“Do you have any messages for anyone?” asked the chaplain.

“No, there’s nobody I care about. I agree to see you just to pass the f*****g time.” She got a slight grin, but it disappeared when the chaplain wasn’t shocked by her language.

“I did care about someone once,” she said.

The chaplain brightened. Perhaps there was some comfort he could provide, just by carrying a message. “Yes, a little boy. His big brother and his friends needed a basketball goal. I had saved enough money. I had plans for that money. I loved basketball, but my mother wouldn’t let me play. I took it and bought them a goal at the Walmart store and took it to them in a wagon.

“When I got home my mother whipped me with a belt. It was the only time I remember, but I do remember it damn well. She just kept on hitting me because I had been missing. Then she found the receipt for the basketball goal, and she hit me some more. She just lost it completely.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Evelyn to the spirit.

The spirit simply gave her a look that said, “Try fooling someone else.”

They flew through a few steel walls, and found themselves in a room with a glass window at the front. Seated in rows looking in was a group of very solemn people. There was a table with straps to tie someone down so that they couldn’t move. It was the gas chamber. As she watched in horror she saw her Latisha strapped down to the table. Despite the barriers she could hear what was going on in the next room as well. “Five people she shot in a robbery,” someone in the audience whispered, “yet she looks completely calm.” Latisha did look calm—the calm of someone who no longer really cares whether she lives or dies.

But Evelyn heard the whispered words, “Mama, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run away.”

She felt a wave of dizziness and fell, but when she landed, she was on the floor of her own entryway. She rolled over and looked at her left hand. It was scraped, apparently from her fall. It was all impossible. Still, where was her daughter? Had she dreamed that too?

“Latisha!” She yelled, running down the hall. She continued yelling as she ran up the stairs. She realized she was running as her daughter did, that would have resulted in a sharp scolding, but her feet didn’t slow down.

In Latisha’s room there were clothes strewn all over the floor. The girl truly never had learned to be tidy! She looked carefully and realized that the clothes and the shoes Latisha had been wearing earlier were on the floor. What was missing? Her best running shoes, her leather purse (an ugly favorite!), and her gym shorts.

Could it be that she had seen precisely where her daughter would be, playing basketball with the teenagers in that vacant lot? It could! And in her shorts with patchy snow on the ground? Yes, that would be Latisha!

Evelyn ran from the house jumped in the car and raced out of the driveway. I’m going to show those spirits how to drive, she thought savagely. When she was about halfway to her destination, she realized that it was relief she felt, not anger; relief that she knew where to find her daughter.

Then she saw her daughter with the teenagers, playing basketball. There was only one streetlight and it wasn’t too good, so she almost missed it. She slammed on the brakes, and slid into the curb with the screech of protesting tires. The boys dropped the ball and ran toward her car, thinking there had been an accident.

But Latisha knew the car. She caught the ball and stood in the middle of the lot, frozen, a look of terror on her face. Evelyn ran toward her daughter and fell to her knees on the pavement. “I’m sorry mother, but I had to,” she whispered.

Evelyn reached out to her daughter. The basketball was in the way. After a few moment’s awkwardness, she reached out and grabbed Latisha by the shoulders. “It’s OK honey, I know you had to.”

The ball was dropped, and mother and daughter practically fell into each other’s arms. The teenagers stood around them, not knowing precisely what was going on, but sure it was wonderful.

“I don’t think we got it straight, Mama,” said Latisha, breaking the spell of the moment. Evelyn looked over at the basketball goal.

“True, you didn’t. But nobody’s perfect!” Then they hugged one another again, this time laughing.

“Hey, girl,” said one of the boys, looking at Latisha. “You didn’t tell us your Mama was Mrs. Claus!”

“Yeah, she is,” said Latisha.

“Do you have to take her home now?” he asked Evelyn.

“No, I’ll just watch you all play for a while. It’s Christmas Eve. Folks ought to have fun on Christmas Eve!”

*This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any events and characters to real events and characters is purely coincidental.

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