From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1941 –
A Half Hour of Christmas
By Mabel Harmer
In the brief intervals when Jimmy opened the elevator door for the loading and unloading of passengers, he could glance out of the front entrance and see great, white flakes of snow falling. The people coming in brought a smell of crisp, cold air with them, and sometimes they had a bit of holly on their coats. The ones he knew said, “Merry Christmas,” and four of them had given him small gifts of money. Altogether, it was a swell time of the year, and Jimmy was quite happy when he wasn’t thinking of how badly they needed coal or wondering where he could get a pair of shoes for Nina.
That was the worst of winter. You couldn’t turn the kids loose unless they had a whole flock of mufflers and socks and shoes on them, and it was awfully hard to get any that fit or that weren’t already full of holes. Of course, if you could walk into a store and buy just what you wanted, that would be different. But when you had to depend upon what people could give you – that was something else again.
On the whole, though, they had managed pretty well since he got this job at the apartment house. Eighteen dollars a week paid the rent and bought what food and fuel they absolutely had to have. They were a lot better off than they had been at any time since Mom died and Jeff had walked out on them. Queer fellow, Jeff. He was the kids’ father, too, but he just hadn’t been able to take it. Jimmy squared his shoulders. Well, he could, even if he was just their half-brother.
He opened the door again on the main floor, and this time his only passenger was Mr. Hampton. “Merry Christmas, Jimmy,” he said in such a big voice that Jimmy was sure he really meant it.
“Merry Christmas to you, sir,” Jimmy replied heartily. He liked Mr. Hampton about the best of any man who rode on the elevator. He was so tall and so handsome and so cheery-like all the time. He was not like those folks who get on the elevator and grunt out the floor they want and then act like they’d spoken to the ceiling instead of a human being. Even when Mr. Hampton rode with Miss Everett he acted like he knew Jimmy was in the elevator; and he nearly always took time to say goodby, although anybody with a lick of sense could tell that he was head-over-heels in love with her and could hardly be expected to have eyes for anyone else when she was around.
“That’s a wow of a snowstorm we’re having,” Mr. Hampton said, as they stopped at the fifth floor. “I guess Santa Claus can come in his sleigh this year.”
“I guess he can, all right,” Jimmy answered with a chuckle. He was still smiling when old Mrs. Snyder came in, and since she never smiled at anyone and hardly anyone ever smiled at her, she stared back at Jimmy in amazement. However, she looked as if she were half inclined to let some sort of a frosty little smile escape from her thin lips.
Half an hour later, the signal flashed from the fifth floor. Jimmy went up; but when he opened the door, Mr.Hampton, instead of getting on, said, “Miss Everett wants to see you for a minute. I’ll tend this thing if nobody asks to see my driver’s license.”
Jimmy hurried down the hall, his heart thumping in a very strange manner. It was sure exciting to have Mr. Hampton change places with him just like they were equals,and to have Miss Everett talk to him. He supposed that everyone in the world who had ever seen her or heard her sing must be in love with her – in some sort of respectful, far-off way, of course. He bet that even Mr. Hampton was too scared to tell her he was in love with her.
He swallowed twice before he dared to knock at her door; and then, as she called to him to come in, he stepped inside very apologetically. It was the first time he had ever been inside the apartment, and its beauty dazzled him just as much as Marcia Everett herself did. The walls and furniture were ivory, while the draperies and carpet were a deep, rich blue. Its elegance would have been almost frightening if it hadn’t been for the Christmas tree that stood in one corner and the greenery that was over the mantel and around the light fixtures. Somehow, they made it look as if real people lived there instead of a fairy princess or something of the sort.
Miss Everett was standing by the mantel putting on her gloves. She was dressed in a long, gold-colored gown and a soft, brown fur wrap. Her hair looked more shining and her eyes more blue than Jimmy had ever seen them before. It was not surprising that he could only stare at her and mumble, “Did you want me for something?”
“Yes, Jimmy,” she answered. “I’d like you to come in here and light the wood in the fireplace so that it will be burning brightly when we return about eleven. Here is the key. Will that be too much trouble”
Too much trouble! If she had asked him to go out and chop down the trees in order to make the fire, it still would not have been too much trouble. Aloud he said simply, “I’ll be glad to do it, Miss Everett.” He took the key and hurried back to the elevator. A few minutes later, she and Mr. Hampton went out to join the gay Christmas throngs.
Jimmy was off duty at eight o’clock. He changed quickly from his smart uniform to his own shabby clothes and hurried out onto the street. Soon all the stores would be closed, and he still had all his Christmas shopping to do. Three dollars and seventy-five cents! It was hard to know just what to buy when the children needed so many things. One toy for each one with some candy and nuts would have to do, so that he could use the rest for food. If only there was enough to buy shoes for Nina, too, but there wasn’t. Well, maybe they would turn up someway. Once in a while things did.
He spent a whole dollar on the toys and ended up with a three-bladed pocket knife for Ted, a gay red truck for Paul, and a small doll for Nina. He then turned to the less exciting task of buying groceries and finished with an almost unheard-of bit of extravagance by paying ten cents for a red bell to hang in the window.
On reaching home he found the children huddled around the kitchen stove, waiting either for Jimmy or Santa Claus, they weren’t just sure which.
“Gee whiz!” cried Ted, when he saw the unusually large number of packages Jimmy was carrying. “Is all that for us?”
“You bet your life,” Jimmy assured him proudly, depositing his bundles on the table, “but you’re not going to see any of it tonight because some of it is a surprise. Have you had something to eat?”
“We sure have,” Ted answered. “Mrs. Wilson brought us in some stew with carrots and onions and everything in it. There’s some left for you, too.”
“That was pretty swell of her, wasn’t it,” said Jimmy, scooping up a plateful of the savory stew. “Folks are sure good at Christmas time. She’s got all she can do getting food for her own family, too.”
Six-year-old Paul, who had said almost nothing since Jimmy’s return, but who had been eying the packages intently, now suddenly asked, “Which one is the Christmas tree?’
“There isn’t a tree, Buddy,” said Jimmy in a cheerful tone of voice, designed to make Paul think that there was nothing to regret in not having a Christmas tree, “but I got a pretty red bell to hang in the window. That’s almost as good as a tree, you know. And I saw Santa Claus down town, and he said that he was going to bring you a dandy present and some candy and nuts.”
Paul was not to be side tracked from his original idea, however. “You said that there would be a tree,” he insisted, looking at Jimmy with big, blue, accusing eyes.
“I said that maybe we could get a tree. But trees cost an awful lot of money, and there was just enough to buy something to eat and get the stove fixed. “If it hadn’t been for the stove, thought Jimmy, perhaps they could have had just a little tree. Things like broken stoves were always popping up to take the last dime a fellow could scare up.
“I want a Christmas tree,” Nina began to wail, feeling quite stricken about it now that Paul had suggested the idea.
“But I just can’t get you one,” Jimmy insisted. Kids were so darned unreasonable. They seemed to think that money was found in gutters. “Anyway, it’s time for you to go to bed now, and when you wake up in the morning everything will be swell.”
“There’s a big tree down in Casey’s window,” Ted suggested. “Maybe we could go down there and look at that one for a while.”
“It’s too cold,” said Jimmy briefly, “and too late. Come on now and go to bed. I’ve got to go back to the apartment house and do a little job.”
The apartment house! A vision of the gorgeous tree in Miss Everett’s living room flashed through Jimmy’s mind. If the kids could just see that tree for a few minutes. The one in Casey’s window couldn’t hold a candle to it. Gee! If they could just see that tree!
“I don’t want to go to bed,” said Paul stubbornly. “I want to see a Christmas tree. You promised.”
“I didn’t promise,” snapped Jimmy, goaded out of his usual cheerfulness by Paul’s unreasonable insistence.
Great tears gathered in Paul’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Nina promptly followed suit, and even Ted’s face looked frightfully woebegone. Jimmy’s glance traveled around the squalid room and back to Paul’s tearful face. Poor kids, they had so little! What if he took them back there just long enough to see that tree? They wouldn’t have to touch a thing. They could just sit on the floor while he lit the fire, and they could pretend that it all belonged to them. Miss Everett had said that she wouldn’t be back until eleven. There would just be time enough to go if they started right now.
“All right,” he said aloud. “Get on your things, and I’ll take you out to see a tree. But you’ve got to act better than you ever did in all your lives before, because it’s the most special tree in the whole world.”
The two little boys hardly waited to catch all the seriousness of Jimmy’s talk before they began to pull on their ragged jackets and caps. Jimmy wrapped up Nina with considerable misgivings. Her clothes were thin; she had a cold, and she was plenty sleepy enough for bed. But it wouldn’t do to leave her alone, and, anyway, she was just as worked up about a tree as the boys were.
It was after nine when they left their flat and started for the Colonial Apartments. The children were so excited with the bright lights and gay Christmas decorations that they were quite unmindful of the discomforts of the long, cold walk.
They greeted the warmth and elegance of the lobby with wide-opened eyes. It was the first time that Jimmy had ever permitted any of them to come within the sacred precincts of the Colonial. He allowed them no time, however, to gaze around, but hustled them up the stairway with its rich, velvet carpeting. The elevator was not for their use tonight.
“Why do they have the Christmas tree so high up?” Paul asked between puffs, when they reached the third floor.”My legs are getting wobbly.”
“Because the higher up they get, the better they are,” Jimmy whispered back. “Don’t say anything else now until I tell you that you can. Come on, Nina, I’ll carry you the rest of the way.”
On the fifth floor, he led them cautiously to the door of Miss Everett’s apartment. The halls were empty and silent, but Jimmy’s heart was doing a flying trapeze act while he fitted the key in the door. The lock turned easily, and he drew them quickly into the living room.
They stood just inside the door trying to absorb the magnificence around them. The tree had been left lighted, and it shone and sparkled in such a glory as none of them had ever imagined possible. “Is…is it Heaven?” Paul ventured to ask, at length.
“No,” said Jimmy, with a short laugh. “It’s just … well, it’s just a special kind of Christmas tree, and you can stay here and look at it for half an hour if you’ll be real quiet and not touch anything. Look! I’m going to light the fire, too. I’ll bet you haven’t ever seen anything like that before, have you?”
He touched a match to the paper beneath the pine logs, and they gazed in fascination as the flames crept up and threw out their cheerful, ruddy glow.
“Now I’ll tell you what you can do,” he continued. “You can come over here and sit on the floor just a little way back from the fire, and then you can get warm and watch the fire and the tree at the same time. No, not on that!” he cried as Ted ran a speculative finger over the satiny cover of the couch. “You must just sit on the floor.”
“Who made the tree like that?” Paul asked, after he had studied its shining balls and rows of glistening tinsel from top to bottom.
“A beautiful lady,” Jimmy answered. “I guess she’s the most beautiful lady in the whole world.”
“I want to see her,” Nina announced happily.
“Oh, no. You couldn’t do that. She isn’t coming back for a long time, and pretty soon you have to go home and go to bed.” He wished that she were there already. Her feet were soaking wet, and her cough had a bad sound to it.
“Let’s not go back,” suggested Ted. “I’ll bet that Santa Claus will leave a lot better things here than he will at our place. He always does for the rich folks.”
“But we have to go back,” said Jimmy firmly. “We can only stay here just a little while.”
“Why?” Ted persisted.
“Well, because …” He did hope that the kids weren’t going to be hard to deal with.
The hands on the tiny ivory clock on the mantel were racing steadily on toward ten thirty, the time that Jimmy had decided upon as the last possible moment for them to remain, even though Miss Everett had said she was not returning before eleven. It was going to be a wrench to leave all this warmth and comfort and beauty, to go out in the snow again, but it had to be done. Anyway, he had made good. They had seen the tree, even if it had been for only half an hour.
“Come on, kids,” he said, at length. “Put on your things and let’s get going.” He stood up and put another log on the fire. It must be burning brightly when Miss Everett returned. Ted stood up, too, although with visible reluctance, but the other two sat still, staring at the gorgeous tree. Jimmy could see that it was going to take real effort to get them started.
He lifted Nina to her feet and was just starting to put on her shabby coat when a silvery laugh was heard outside, the door knob turned, and Miss Everett stood in the doorway with Mr. Hampton just behind.
Jimmy stood still with Nina’s coat in his hand, frozen into complete silence. The two little boys were still also, sensing that something had gone wrong somewhere; but Nina, after staring at Miss Everett for a minute, said, “Is that the beautiful lady, Jimmy?”
Jimmy was too stricken to answer, but he clung to Nina’s hand as if for some means of support. The two people walked into the room and closed the door behind them.
Suddenly a new dread took possession of Jimmy’s mind. Terrible as it was that Miss Everett should find them trespassing in her room, it was still more dreadful that she should be angry and destroy the happiness of the beautiful half hour with the Christmas tree.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say, with intense pleading in his voice and eyes. “The kids wanted to see a tree, and we didn’t have one at home, and yours was so beautiful that I thought maybe it wouldn’t hurt if they just came and looked at it. They haven’t touched anything.”
Miss Everett’s eyes traveled from one to another of the shabby little group. Then an amazing thing happened. The look of astonishment on her face gave way to one of tenderness, and she said in a tone of voice quite different from any Jimmy had heard her use before, “It’s quite all right, but you had better hurry on home now. It’s very late for little folk to be out.”
Jimmy stood by helplessly, too much dazed to be of any use. Miss Everett took Nina’s coat from his hands and slipped it on the little girl. As she did so, the child coughed in that deep way that had been getting worse all evening. Miss Everett put a hand to the child’s cheek. “This child is ill,” she said to Jimmy. “She ought to be in bed. And these shoes are wringing-wet. Where are her overshoes?”
“She hasn’t any,” Jimmy blurted. “And I know that I shouldn’t have brought them out, but they coaxed so hard that I couldn’t refuse. We’ll hurry back now, and I’ll get them right to bed.”
“She can’t go back through the snow in that condition,” said Miss Everett, shortly. “I’ll have to put her to bed here.”
“Here!” gasped Jimmy. “You mean … here?”
“Certainly I mean here. We can’t let her go out and finish taking her death of cold, can we?” She dropped the long, fur coat from her shoulders and handed it to Mr. Hampton.”Here, Wayne,”she said,”Lay this coat down somewhere and go turn the tub full of water. I’ll give her a hot bath.”
Mr. Hampton took the coat and put it on a chair and went about obeying orders almost without a word, but Jimmy could see that he was just as much floored as he was himself.
Miss Everett went out into her kitchen for a minute and came back saying, “I haven’t a bit of mustard. Jimmy, you run down to the drugstore and get a can of mustard and some VapoRub and a bottle of cough syrup. I believe I have aspirin.
He took the five-dollar bill she held toward him in stunned silence. This couldn’t possibly be the beautiful Marcia Everett, the famous singer, talking about mustard plasters and cough syrup for a kid that she had never seen before!
When he returned, Miss Everett had Nina in her own bed wrapped up in some kind of a pink silk thing, and she was tucking soft, down covers about the thin little body. She had changed from the gold-colored evening gown to a soft, rose, homey kind of dress. She looked less like an opera singer now and more like a person you could sort of talk to without being quite so scared. Mr. Hampton was out in the kitchen heating something on the range. He didn’t look dazed any longer; he looked very happy, as if he had just discovered something very wonderful.
Jimmy took the things he had bought out into the kitchen and then went back into the living room and stood undecided whether or not he should go home without being definitely dismissed. Paul and Ted, being entirely ignored in the last hectic few minutes, had gone back to enjoying the Christmas tree and the fireplace.
Presently Miss Everett went out into the kitchen.”Will you bring me the hot water for this plaster, Wayne?” she asked.
He hesitated. “You know,” he said, “we could get a nurse into do all this stuff.”
“But why?” she asked. “Don’t I seem to be doing all right?”
“You’re doing marvelously well. In fact, I don’t understand it at all. I didn’t suppose you knew that kids existed – especially kids with croup.”
Marcia Everett laughed – a queer sort of laugh. “Well, let me tell you a few other things you may not know, Wayne Hampton. I was brought up on the wrong side of the tracks, and my name, before I became an opera singer, was Mary Eklund. I was the oldest of eight children, and I helped them through everything from measles to the itch. Now do you think I can take care of a case of croup?”
“I think … Come here, and I’ll tell you what I think.”
There was a long pause, and finally Miss Everett’s voice came back sort of muffled-like. Jimmy motioned to the two little boys, and they crept out of the door. He guessed that they wouldn’t be missed if they went home now.