Redemption

Once again there was no Christmas to celebrate with family: Sarah had outlived all of her relatives. That’s the problem with getting old. Everyone she knew had disappeared, leaving her all alone. Part of Sarah’s problem, however, wasn’t that she was considered ancient, but that she had never married, never had children, and because of choices her parents had made when she was young, had no idea if she had any cousins, aunts or uncles.

Last year in mid-summer, a pretty young woman dressed in a yellow-flowered shift knocked on her door claiming to be a niece. Sarah thought there was some resemblance to her mother, the shape of the woman’s chin, the color of her hair, and so she’d let her in. The woman, named Vickie, visited a couple of times, always polite and always refusing a cool beverage or a sweet treat. On the fourth visit, Vickie entered in tears and proceeded to share a sad story about being broke, being stranded in an unfamiliar city, and being desperately in need of money. Vickie never asked outright for money, but it was certainly implied. No dollar amount was specified, but Sarah’s guess what that it was in the thousands.

Sarah was smart enough to know it was a scam, so after the hints became more of demands, the woman scuttled out as Sarah called the cops. Several days later the newspaper carried a story in which the woman was killed in the nearby park during a scuffle, possibly over drugs. While she hated reading about the Vickie’s death, Sarah breathed a sigh of satisfaction that she hadn’t fallen for the “poor is me” story and handed out wads of cash. Or invited her to move in.

There were friends at the senior center that Sarah enjoyed seeing. People she ate lunch with nearly every day or that she’d talk with over a cup of coffee and day-old snacks that a volunteer brought in. She’d invited one woman, Sandy, to join her for lunch and a movie, but Sandy declined and never reciprocated.

Because no visitors would walk through her doors, Sarah hadn’t bothered to put out what few decorations she still had. The artificial tree, kept in the basement, hadn’t seen an ornament in years. The tree wasn’t too heavy for her, but because of its shape, it was awkward to lug up the narrow stairs while clinging to the handrail.

To bring up the tree first she’d have to rearrange the furniture. Sarah used to set the tree up in the front window, the one that overlooked the street, so that when the lights were on, everyone could enjoy the beautiful sparkles. Sometimes neighbors would comment about how cheery it looked, but these days Sarah wasn’t cheery.

The other issue was that she didn’t know if any of the light strings worked. That would be another hassle. Carry them up, plug them in, replace burnt out bulbs, repeat over and over. If she didn’t have enough replacements it would mean a trip to the store and facing endless questions about if she was going somewhere or having folks over. It she had said that she was celebrating alone, then there’d be sighs and condolences. But no invitations.

She owned a ton of Christmas CDs, but she didn’t play any of them partly because they were buried behind stacks of more recent purchases and partly because it was too much effort when she could hear all the music she wanted, and more, on the little radio she kept by her chair.

Years ago she’d bought a fancy receiver, multi-CD player and desktop speakers.  The last time she’d turned it on all she got was screeching noises. She’d tried everything she knew to get it to work, but gave up. Probably new speakers were needed, but at her age, why bother?

There was a time when she would have enjoyed the challenge of fixing things, but not now. She lacked the strength and agility to bend, pull, push and connect. Therefor things remained broken if unessential. Otherwise she hired someone. Because she’d lived without the stereo for years, that would be an unnecessary expense.

Sarah had every right to be gloomy despite the cheery Christmas music and the colorful displays in every store, but she tried not to let loneliness drag her down. The sun was shining this fine Christmas Eve, and since it was relatively warm for the San Francisco Bay Area, she put on a jacket and headed out for her daily walk around her neighborhood. This was a ritual she loved so much that she timed it so that dusk was just beginning to fall as she closed the door behind her. She wanted it to be not too dark for kids to still be outside and just dark enough for the colorful lights to come on as she walked. And since it was nearly Christmas, almost every house would be lit up.

Today she headed north toward the park at the end of the block. A pair of young boys rode bikes past her, their high-pitched voices shrieking with excitement. Sarah bet they were dreaming of all the wonderful gifts they’d open the next day. She smiled even though there were no presents for her. Hadn’t been for years.

When she was in her twenties she’d fallen for George Miles, a not-so-handsome teacher at the high school where she worked. His neatly combed black hair, his crisply ironed button-down shirts and his funny way with words warmed her heart. Sarah sat near him every day at lunch so she could laugh at his not-quite-funny jokes and enjoy his riffs of contemporary music. She kept a dreamy look off her face so as not to scare him away and never, ever stared at his face even though the cleft in his chin tickled her pink. If word had gotten out that she fancies George, she would have been the laughingstock of the campus. Handsome George would never have fallen for plain Sarah. And then the most severe deterrent was that it was unseemly for a teacher to flirt with a peer.

For years she’d dreamed of the dates they’d go on, the kisses and the proposal after a fancy dinner, followed by a summer wedding in a lush backyard garden. Never once, however, had he asked how she was doing or engaged her in conversation or said good morning or dropped into her classroom to share curriculum even though they often taught the same level of math.

One August about fifty years ago, when school resumed, George did not appear. Sarah learned from the gossipers that he’d transferred to Fremont High School where his salary would be substantially higher. Her dreams crushed, Sarah swore there would never be a workplace romance, no marriage, no children and resigned herself to a life lived alone.

Other teachers teased her about her single status and one tried to set her up with a new hire, an odd-looking fellow with such a heavy accent that he was hard to understand. Sarah declined, but that didn’t stop further attempts at coordinating blind dates. After a while even those dried up.

At the park Sarah set on the one bench that wasn’t covered in bird poop and watched four little kids climb up and slide down, over and over, laughing and giggling as watchful parents stood guard. She imagined herself as a mother and how she’d walk hand-in-hand with her child everywhere they went, the snuggles on the couch while she read book after book and nighttime treats of vanilla ice cream and macaroon cookies. It saddened her that she’d never held her own newborn, never know the joys of motherhood, but what’s done is done. No going back now. Not at her age.

The kids were rounded up as the sun set lower. The parents dutifully buckled them up in car seats before pulling away from the curb. Sarah fought back tears that inevitably fell after such events.

She resumed her walk, this time one block over where there were a series of blowup decorations. Her favorites were Snoopy and the Grinch. Whenever she passed a Nativity scene she stopped for a minute to thank God for the blessings in her life. That left her feeling buoyantly proud of how well she’d managed despite being alone. A paid-off house, car, and an ability to live on her retirement.

Felling a bit chilled after the walk, Sarah brewed a cup of Chamomile tea as her microwaved dinner cooked. She turned on the evening news and listened, in horror, about shootings and stabbings and thefts all around the Bay Area. It was depressing how violent the world had become. She didn’t recall things being so bad before.

After eating she cleaned up a bit, wiping down kitchen counters and washing her fork and cup. She settled into her recliner and pulled the new sherpa-lined throw she’d ordered from JC Penneys that had come the day before. Just as her body warmed, an unfamiliar noise arose that drove Sarah to her front window from where she could see all the goings-on in her courtyard.

Outside stood a group of carolers, young and old, smiling despite the steam pouring from their open mouths. Their sound was beautiful even though a few loud voices sang off-tune. Sarah opened the door, saying, “Oh, my, how beautiful. Would you like to come in?”

Once inside with caps removed, she recognized her neighbors. “Oh! Thanks for coming. I’d offer you seats, but as you can see, well, I’m sorry, but I can’t seat you all.”

“No matter,” the youngest little boy said, “we’ll sit on the floor.”

There were four children spoke who quietly among themselves while the adults, in singles and pairs, approached with gifts. Ms. Bern offered a tin of homemade shortbread cookies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith a foil-wrapped plate of lasagna and the Mendoza clan of six gave her tamales and enchiladas. “We wanted you to have a special Christmas,” Mrs. Mendoza said, “so we made our favorite holiday foods to share.”

Sarah beamed. “This-this is wonderful. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just enjoy,” Mr. Bern said. “Now, we’d like to sing for you.”

Song after song rang out in her normally quiet house. For the first time in a long time, Christmas joy spread enlightened her. Sarah felt so buoyant that she feared her feet no longer touched the floor.

It was over way too soon, but the carolers had others they wanted to bless. As they left, Sarah shook hand after hand, saying, “Thank you so much.”

The last to leave, the Smiths, folded her into a group hug as Mrs. Smith said, “You’re invited to Christmas dinner. We’ll have snacks around four, so come then. You don’t have to dress up as we’ll be wearing jeans.”

That night Sarah couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t shared Christmas joy with another soul in over thirty years, after her parents died in a horrific car accident. To be with the Smiths was a chance to laugh and enjoy good food. The Smiths were a happy family of four, so there’d be plenty of stories told and friendly teasing and tons of joy to go around.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to bring anything, the next morning Sarah searched through cookbooks to find something simple, yet tasty to make. She settled on a cheese log that was once a big hit at potlucks.

Prior to leaving, Sarah tried on a variety of outfits: light blue jeans with sweaters, dark jeans with tunics, black jeans with blouses. Eventually she settled on blue jeans with a dark green sweater. A Christmassy look, but not too formal.

At precisely three-fifty-five Sarah slipped on her jacket and strolled down the street, cheese log wrapped and balanced in her hands. Before she could ring the bell, however, the door opened, a smiling Mrs. Smith welcoming her with a smile and hug. “Come in, come in. It’s freezing out there.”

She led Sarah into the front room, indicating a chair before a fire in the gas fireplace. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Hot coco? Soda?”

“Tea would be nice. Do you have Earl Gray?”

With Mrs. Smith off to the kitchen, Sarah looked around. A beautifully decorated artificial tree stood in the front window, all reds and silvers. Underneath were opened gifts, mostly books and board games and bits of clothing. On every flat surface was a symbol of Christmas: santas, nativity sets, angels and snowmen. Cinnamon filled the air, reminding Sarah of the freshly baked cookies her mother made when she was a little girl.

The front door opened and in rushed two boys followed by Mr. Smith. The three tossed boots and coats in the entryway, then the kids disappeared down the hall. “Well, hello,” Mr. Smith said as he stood with his back to the fire. “I’m glad you came. Christmas is a time to gather together. We just couldn’t bear the thought of you being alone.”

“I don’t mind,” Sarah said. “I’ve been alone most of my life.”

“Well, it’s time to establish new traditions.”

Mrs. Smith entered with a tray of tea cups, hot water and a variety of what most likely were homemade cookies and brownies. “Help yourself,” she said, then turning to her husband, said, “turn on some music please.”

The kids appeared when the music began. Everyone sang along, even Sarah, who hadn’t sung outside of church since her teen years. It was great fun.

“Dinner is ready. Time to eat,” Mrs. Smith said as she led the way into the dining room.

Sarah sat next to Mr. Smith who turned out to be a lively conversationalist. He was well versed in politics, sports, literature and local affairs. The kids entertained by sharing jokes that weren’t quite funny but that everyone thought hilarious anyway, so Sarah laughed with them. Mrs. Smith was also a joy, because she shared stories of her students’ sillinesses.

The evening passed quickly. Around seven Mr. Smith offered to walk her home. He helped her with her coat after ordering the kids to say goodbye. Mrs. Smith hugged Sarah so tightly that it was difficult to breathe, but Sarah didn’t mind at all.

“Did you have a nice evening?” Mr. Smith asked when they arrived at Sarah’s door.

“Yes, yes I did. In fact, it’s the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Thanks for inviting me.”

After hanging up her coat, Sarah turned on her television just in time to catch a Christmas movie. It was one of those with a predictable storyline: woman meets man, they don’t like each other, they talk, they fight, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Sarah didn’t mind one bit. She’d just experienced her own storybook evening. This will be a Christmas to remember, she thought.

 

A Place in Time

Alone

In the middle of a crowded room

Silent voices scream for recognition

Fear

Twists guts into compressed clay

Paralyzing limbs, numbing throats

Degradation

Fills the ears of the emotionally injured

Ruining scarce moments of hard-fought joy

Depression

Carries sinking hearts into oblivion

Erasing memories of happiness felt

Hands

Reach out, begging for salvation

Yearning for one sign of love

Answers

Arrive in rain-soaked clouds

Pouring down tears of understanding

Compassion

Clears the night of unmasked terrors

Awakening remnants of esteem, long forgotten

Joy

Blooms in multi-colored bursts of words

Spoken, thoughts shared, kindnesses felt

Light

Seeps into the crevices of the heart

Obliterating shards of self-doubt

Happiness

Explodes in multicolored bursts

Opening souls to welcoming voices

Surrounded

Encased

Enfolded

Alone no more

 

 

Freedom

Fortune laughs in the old woman’s face

Shuffle all that’s left of dancer’s grace

Wrinkled arms that once would fling and flay

Hang heavy and refuse to obey.

 

Her heart, weak and constantly famished

Cries for her torture to be finished

No longer she yearns for love to feel

Instead waits for heaven’s bell to peal

 

Eyes as tired as Victorian lace

Blinded to God’s everlasting grace

Steal bindings encircle shriveled chest

Restrict the ability to rest

 

In hardened bed of thorns she reclines

As witness to loneliness she pines

With every sinew, bone and ounce

She besieges Master Death to pounce

 

Oh please, oh please, Lord do me allow

To end this torturous life right now

I’ve lived my life as best as I could

Upon my principles I have stood

 

There is nothing now that I regret

Except for people I did forget

Forgive my sins, for I am weak

Give me the release, which I do seek

 

Then with smile upon her wizened face

She experienced God’s loving grace

Flying free of her skeletal frame

She joyously sand out God’s name

 

Somebody to Love Me (Please, not for children to read!)

Nikki hated Los Angeles in the summer. Hot and stinky, the smells of car exhaust, cooking food and steam from street vents far below filled the air with an unmistakable stench.

Her apartment was not air-conditioned, so she sweltered in the never-ending heat, drinking glass after glass of ice-cold cola and eating ice cream by the gallon. No other food held her interest. Nothing hot, certainly, even though a plethora of ethnic restaurants lined the streets far below her tenth floor flat. Her appetite killed by the combination of stench and heat, Nikki invariably lost weight every summer, to be put back on once the temperature cooled enough to make it desirable to eat.

Her job was boring. Every afternoon she walked a few blocks to one of the university’s residence halls, clocked in, then took her seat behind the desk.  She watched familiar, but unnamed students come and go as they met up with friends for an evening out or to study in the quiet of the massive library. Some of them stopped to chat, but mostly they ignored her as if she were invisible.

The best part of the job was the air-conditioning. Heaven forbid that students should swelter or feel uncomfortable, so the building was kept cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Just the way Nikki liked it.

There was one student, a rather awkward-looking boy, who stopped by and chatted with her every time he stepped through the double-glass doors. Joe. His name was Joe. Nikki never knew his last name, but she had learned that he was wealthy, came from a land-owning family in the Central Valley, he had one older sister who was attending Princeton and a younger brother who was an all-star high school athlete being courted by a vast array of colleges.

Nikki did not like Joe, but she listened to him because he was the most interesting thing in her nights. There was something a bit off about him. His face was not put together all that well. His ears a bit low and large. His forehead bulging and shiny as if he polished it before he went out in the mornings. His eyes, his best feature, were a deep brown, but too far apart and separated by an overly large nose. There was even a problem with his hair. It seemed to have a mind of its own. Despite the oiled appearance, the strands poked out in random directions, creating a spikey halo that gave him a devilish air.

Joe was engaged. Nikki had never met the girl for she attended a university somewhere in the Midwest. Joe had told her the name, but Nikki wasn’t interested so never remembered. Joe and the girl were high school sweethearts. Their parents were best friends. They played tennis and went to dances at a private country club. They went boating on a nearby lake and rented a cabin up in Lake Tahoe every summer.

Normally Joe would be gone by now, off living his fancy dream life far from LA, but not this year. He had not done well in one of his required classes and was forced to repeat it before he could move on. So here he was, bored and lonely.

He turned his attention on Nikki, which she did not encourage, but tolerated.

“Hey,” he said as he approached the desk. “Want to go out for a beer after you get off work?”

“Not really.”

“Aw, come on. You deserve a night out. I’ll treat you.”

“No, thanks. I’m meeting someone.”

“Then how about tomorrow? You can’t have plans for tomorrow already.”

Nikki was saved when a noisy group of girls entered, all of them obviously drunk. Not all of them residents. “I need to see your IDs,” she said as she waved the girls over. She noticed that Joe slithered away, and sighed with relief. These girls were just the distraction she needed.

One by one the girls pulled out their cards. Three of them lived upstairs. Two in the residence hall next door. “Okay,” Nikki said. “Remember that no guests after eleven, so you two have to be gone by then.”

“We will,” one of them said, and then the group took off, staggering and giggling toward the elevators.

Nikki’s shift ended at eight in the morning. By that time she was exhausted, and since she had no classes this summer, she could go home and sleep. When she finally left the building, she had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being followed, but whenever she turned around, there was no one there.

All the way home the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She felt nervous and agitated, and so as she neared her building, she got out her key and quickly let herself in. She pulled the door closed and then stood there, peering through the opaque glass. Nikki thought she saw a shadow pass approach, stand still for a few minutes, and then slowly turn away.

It spooked her enough That she didn’t wait for the elevator, but instead practically ran up the four flights to her apartment. The first thing she did was close the curtains. Then she turned on the television and scanned channels looking for news. There had been a series of break-ins lately, all clustered around the university. In all cases the victims were single women. All lived alone. All attacks happened during the early morning hours or late at night. None had been solved.

When Nikki found no new stories, she went into her bathroom to shower. But thoughts of being caught there, naked, were too much. So she crawled into bed, hoping to push away the spooky image long enough to get some sleep. It didn’t happen. The shadow approached the door, over and over in Nikki’s mind.

Eventually she got up and poured herself a tall, cold soda. Then she opened her psychology textbook and tried to study. She couldn’t get passed the deviant behaviors described in the required chapter. Obsession. Narcissism. Compulsive, repeated actions. Inflated egos. Sexual perverts.

Nikki fixed herself a bowl of strawberry ice cream topped with whipped cream for lunch. It felt cool on her tongue, and when she closed her eyes, she pictured the patches of strawberry plants that her mom grew in the backyard. The bright red of the ripened berries. The sweet taste, almost like pure sugar.

After washing out her bowl, Nikki was calm enough to shower. She lingered under the cool spray, relishing in the temporary respite from the heat. She dressed in denim shorts and a light blue tank top, packed up her books, and walked to campus.

As she crossed Main Street, that sense of being followed returned, but there was nothing Nikki could do about it. She had to move on, get to class without stopping and looking over her shoulder or she’d be late, and her professor humiliated anyone who wasn’t seated when he passed through the door.

When class ended, Joe was there. “Want to get a pizza?” he asked.

Nikki pushed past him, pretending not to hear.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward him. “I asked if you wanted to get a pizza.”

“Let go.”

He wrapped his arms around her, bringing her close to his chest. He placed his chin on the top of her head. “Come on, Nikki. You know you want me. You’re such a tease.”

Nikki planted her hands and pushed. She managed to create a bit of space between them, but then Joe trapped her against a door, bent down and kissed her. “See how much you like it. Next time, we’ll take it further.” Joe released her, waved, blew her a kiss and strolled away.

Nikki was shaken. This was sexual assault, her first. She knew she should go to the counselors’ office and report it, but it would be Joe’s word against hers. He came from wealth, she from a working family. He didn’t need money to go there; she was on full scholarship. When it came down to it, Nikki knew she’d lose. So she went to work.

Thankfully nothing exciting happened. No clusters of drunken students, no rambunctious athletes, no giggly girls. And especially, no Joe.

In the morning Nikki walked home, alert in case she was being followed, but after crossing Main and not feeling the least bit perturbed, Nikki relaxed. When she entered her building, no shadows appeared. She collected her mail, called for the elevator, and rode up feeling good about the day.

When she unlocked her door, she knew something was wrong. She stood in the open doorway, ready to leave in case of attack, but as she looked about she quickly saw that there was nothing out of place. No weird smells or writing on the walls. No dead pigeons or strangled cats. But there was something. Something that Nikki could not see or smell or define. It was there as surely as that shadow had been in the glass.

She gently closed the door behind her. An arm went around her neck and pulled her back into a burly chest. “Nikki, my love,” Joe’s voice said. “I didn’t think you’d ever come home.”

“Let me go,” she said as she heard the deadbolt turn.

Joe kissed her on the neck. “You smell so good.” He turned her around and kissed her neck.

“Stop it. I want you to go.”

“You want me, yes,” he said as he pushed her into the bedroom. He placed one hand on her right breast, the other went under the waistband of her shorts.

Nikki struggled, but her arms were pinned to her sides. She tried kneeing him, but couldn’t get enough force behind it to hurt him. “Stop. Please, stop.”

His lips found hers. He tasted like whiskey and cigarettes. Marijuana. His hair smelled so bad she gagged. And his body odor, beyond foul. He was so disgusting that Nikki thought that he probably  hadn’t washed or brushed in days. It made no difference.

Joe pushed and shoved until he had her on the bed. The unmade bed, which shocked Nikki as she never left without everything being neat and tidy.

He forced Nikki’s hands above her head, trapped them with one of his much larger hands, then unbuttoned her shorts with the other. Nikki wiggled and squirmed and tried biting Joe’s arm, but couldn’t get enough of his skin in her mouth to hurt him.

“Getting feisty. I like that in a woman.” Joe pulled away and looked in Nikki’s eyes.

“Don’t rape me, please. Don’t hurt me. Leave,” she said, “and I won’t report this.”

“Rape? This isn’t rape.” Joe smiled. “This is consensual. You’ve been begging me to do this for months now.”

“No, Joe. It isn’t true. You’re lying. I never teased you,” Nikki said as tears poured down her cheeks. When he let go of her hands she scooted away until she was off the bed and against the far wall. “You’re engaged,” she said. “Your girlfriend loves you. Imagine how she’d feel if she knew you were a rapist.”

Joe stood up and glowered at her. “I’m no rapist.” He stepped toward her, his hands clenched. “Don’t go spreading rumors about me. It you say one word, I’ll get you fired. In fact, I can do worse. I’ll get you kicked out of the university.”

“Just go. Now.” Nikki moved toward the bathroom door, stepped into the room, slammed the door shut and locked it. Joe pounded on the door, screamed additional threats, and then finally walked away.

Nikki stayed in the room, sitting on the toilet lid for what felt like hours.  Her entire body trembled, her teeth chattered, and despite the intolerable heat, she felt frozen. Only after convincing herself that he was gone, did she feel brave enough to open the door.

She went into the front room. No sign of Joe. Nikki quickly crossed the room and bolted the door. She sank to the floor and dropped her head into her arms. She breathed deeply, telling herself that she had escaped. She had survived.

And she knew that she couldn’t report it. Joe’s family was wealthy enough that he could lie his way through the accusations and live to rape another girl. Which made Nikki wonder, was there any possibility that Joe was the neighborhood rapist? Could he be the one terrifying single women?

Nikki packed up as many of her belongings as she could in the two suitcases she owned. She wrote two letters: one to administration claiming a family emergency that required her at home and the other to the apartment manager. She put stamps on the envelopes, and carrying everything squeezed into the elevator. She dropped the letters into the mail slot in the lobby along with her key.

She walked briskly to the nearest bus stop and waited nervously until it arrived. After several transfers, she arrived at the bus depot, where she bought a ticket to San Francisco. It was not until she was seated on the bus that she was able to breathe without panicking.  As the bus pulled out, Nikki saw a figure that she thought was Joe leaning against the wall.

It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t dare. Would he?