The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ genre event – Recess: Children Stories for Adults. Please enjoy.
The cold snow was blowing as mother and daughter raced home. Sleet tore at their faces like hordes of hungry bees but it didn’t seem to bother them.
Nine-year-old Karen was remembering how one afternoon from behind candy bars, racks of hanging magazines and newspapers, a friendship she would always remember began. That’s how she met Mildred, a plump, old, grumpy lady who ran the newsstand.
Thinking back, Karen couldn’t understand why she liked her. At first glance it was clear she was not friendly- or nice. She always dressed the same- green-checkered kerchief, an ugly black paisley dress and a newsprint stained apron. Heavy black shoes completed the ‘look’.
No one knew much about Mildred – some said her husband left her years ago, others said she killed him and dumped the body in a washing machine but none were ever proven true.
Out of the blue- Karen asked her mother, “Can I sit with Mildred once in awhile… please?”
“Well as long as she doesn’t mind …”
So it began, sitting with Mildred in her newsstand. That was fun until school began with its homework, sports and school play. Now Karen could only visit Mildred on Saturdays.
Slowly, like the seasons, Mildred changed – instead of being grumpy and hardly talking she began to converse with Karen- about school, friends and she was thrilled when Karen wrote a school composition about her.
Winter and snow came early and refused to leave. The kids loved it; snowball fights and snowmen appeared all over and finally the hustle and bustle of Christmas.
“Mom?” Karen asked, “Can I buy Mildred a gift for Christmas?”
“I guess so if she celebrates Christmas,” said Marianna
“Of course she does. She has a Santa behind the counter.”
“Well if you want … what are you thinking of getting her?”
“A bath candle. It smells nice and it’s relaxing.
“Do you really think she’ll like that?”
“Yea, she’s always complaining about her elbows and wrists… A bath will make her better. Where’s a good place I can get one?”
“The drugstore… and they’re not expensive.”
“This one!” Karen called out, causing everyone in the drugstore to turn.
Karen reached up for the candle. Even though it was a decorative candle – one you put on a table rather then a bathtub shelf, it was a Mrs. Santa Claus, complete with pince nez glasses, bright red dress…. ‘It looks just like her,’ thought Karen.
“Sold…!” she exclaimed and reached for the candle then headed for the check out register, mother in tow.
Once outside, the sound of heavy snow plows clearing the streets and other trucks spreading salt joined the buzz of trucks, busses, and taxicabs crisscrossing sloppy streets. The sky was grayer and darker now and the snow was heavy. Every store was closing. Shopkeepers, customers were heading home.
All but Mildred.
She had a rule: Close at 8:30 PM, no matter what. And she followed that rule even as her passing ‘regulars’ were shouting, “Hey Millie, close up, go home.” She pretended not to hear them. After the street quieted down and was empty – she closed up and headed to Horowitz’s Toy Land.
Mr. Horowitz, a balding mild, friendly with a paunch who wore his glasses on his forehead and had an east European accent; he was getting ready to close. He reached to lock the door but was stopped by Mildred shoving her foot in the doorway.
“We’re closed…” He said, not seeing it was Mildred.
“No you’re not…” she said.
Mr. Horowitz recognized the voice and face.
“Oh… Millie…What are you doing here?”
“I need a gift. It’s Christmas Eve you know…”
“Of course I know. And thank God for Christmas, otherwise I’d be bankrupt.”
He paused and to himself said, ‘Her a gift…?’
“How old?” he asked.
“Oh?” he said surprised
“Let’s see I have…”
“A doll, please” Mildred interrupted.
They walked to the doll aisle. Mildred looked all around, even handled some dolls… now and then commenting, “This one gives me the shivers… too real, looks dead, eyes are scary…” Mr. Horowitz was growing impatient- thinking ‘What does she know about dolls…kids ?’ Again thinking silently.
“There!!! That one… up on the top shelve. Get it for me I want to see it…”
“That? It’s Miss Coney Island. No one has bought that one in years. I was thinking of…”
“Look, Horowitz get me that doll…”
“Of course, of course,” he reached for the ladder and climbed up, grabbed the box and silently ‘Thanked God’ for the second time. ‘It’s been sitting here for years.’
“I’ll take it.”
Mildred then walked the three blocks to Karen’s house ringing her doorbell. She could hear Karen’s excited voice through the door. She heard her run to the door.
“Could it be Santa, Mama?”
She was stunned to see Mildred.
“Merry Christmas,” Karen said in a voice that showed her surprise and affection for the old woman.
“Same to you…” Then without entering she handed the gift box to her. “This is for you.”
“Oh, thank you. Please come in.”
“No, no I have to go the stand is alone…”
“Oh please, come in… join us. Have a cup of…” Karen’s mother said walking to the door.
“No, got to go.”
“Oh no wait…”
Karen turned and ran to the tree and pulled a box out and handed it to Mildred.
“This is for you.”
“ What? What is this? I can’t. I don’t want nothing… Christmas is for kids.”
“No, you gave me something. Here this is for you.”
“ You must take it…” Karen’s mother said.
“If you say so,” she said in mock exasperation, then she turned and left.
Back in the newsstand, Mildred sat on her old wooden chair… looked at the gift box and tears began to gather in her eyes and roll down her cheeks.
She unwrapped the box, opened it and saw the candle… she laughed and reached for a match, lit it. The soft scent of pine drifted throughout the cold newsstand rekindling old memories.
Suddenly it stopped snowing. It was still cold but the city was swallowed up by a pine forest. Children were singing… laughing especially a chubby little girl with a huge smile. It was a small village with yellow buildings decorated with lights, candles… people singing…
When they got the news, mother and daughter went blank and just sat, oddly in the kitchen staring out at the backyard its snow covered garden, the backs of buildings….
“You know mama – I dreamt of her last night, she was in the dream. I was singing and dancing with her. What does that mean?”
“I guess it means… you were on her mind and she was on yours…”