I wrote this ten years ago just before Christmas. I often wonder if the two little boys who appear in my story are still alive:
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
It’s cold here. That’s not unusual since it’s the middle of bloody
December! But still, I’ve got to say it’s cold. Last night it was darn
near below zero outside, with a wind chill of minus 6 degrees. I know that’s knife edge cold because I was out for a very little while walking around. You can bet your warm self I didn’t stay out any longer than I had too. But, this old garret apartment isn’t much better with its ill fitting windows. I sit at this keyboard in the corner room and watch the curtains moving because of the wind blowing through the cracks. I notice that there is a build up of ice at the top of the lower window from the ventilated moisture inside leaking out. I haven’t seen that stuff since I moved out of my parents’ apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx.
That was a wonderful place for its access to the elements. On a windy night one could listen to the gusts literally rattling the glass window panes in their frames because they had so little putty holding them in. One or two of our windows here are similarly attuned to nature’s vagaries of wind and weather, and even with windows closed the insides of the frames will be wet during a heavy storm of rain. Yes, there is plenty of wiggle room, a great deal of tolerance between pane and frame. We will learn how to be snug under plenty of covers and comforters.
Mariellen and I were out for a bit this afternoon walking around in the weak winter sunlight. We were delivering a Christmas package to a poor family. Yesterday we had a little party up at the Mission on Greenwood Avenue and twenty of the children showed up. We were going to go caroling on the block, and it would have been the first time ever that that had been done. Alas, it was too cold for us to go outside, so we stayed in and sang carols, ate cookies and drank hot chocolate. None of the children touched the mulled cider, though several said that it smelled nice and wanted to know what cinnamon was. I am still surprised at the things they can be taught just by our going to the supermarket. I am also amazed and am becoming a bit annoyed, frankly, at what it seems isn’t happening inside their schools. Good heavens I know not much takes place at home, not without reason because poverty is
enervating; but cinnamon, and cider? Surely somewhere in all the
secularized celebration of the “Midwinter” Holiday Season some teacher must make mention of mulled cider, and how it gets that way. Gasp!
Anyway, party over we sat around and talked about who had come and who hadn’t. Mariellen has not seen Robby and his brother Aaron, nor has anyone else, for several weeks now, and she was concerned. At Laura’s suggestion we had gone to the County about Robby some time ago and suggested that they might want to look in on the family. Robby looked like he was, well, starving. We got a few knowing nods and a sympathetic glance or two. They all know the story. Now nobody sees Robby at all. Laura has told us that his family will not let the children go near her or us since the County visited them. Not to put too fine a point on it, we feel a bit guilty for making his little life a little harder.
Mariellenand I talked about it last night after the party. Should we
chance it? Should we put together a simple bag of gifts and bring them by the house? For her there was no doubt in her mind about taking the chance. Once started, our relationship with Robby, with any of the kids, has to be kept up. I wasn’t as sure in my heart as she was. I feared, actually, what might happen. She won me over, as she always does by just not quitting, quietly perservering in charity and peace and trust.
And so this morning she put together a bag full of goodies, a bright and shiny red gift bag which she filled with some little angels we had left over from yesterday, all of the fruit in our refrigerator, a little fresh baked cranberry bread, a copy of the Christmas caroling tape we’d made for all the kids, and several heaping hands full of candy. Then we drove over the three blocks to Greenwood and parked the car down the street from where Robby and Aaron live.
I have been there before when I walked Robby home after our Sunday afternoons and evenings with the children, but I have never gone up the stairs and stood on the porch and knocked on the door. Today I did with Mariellen.
The house Robby and his brother live in is an old house, a two family house. In New England it would be called a duplex. That means something different on New York’s East Side than if it were applied to this house on Zanesville’s East Side. They would occupy separate ends of the housing spectrum, New York City’s and Zanesville’s East Side duplexes. I think Fagin would turn his nose up at Robby’s “digs”, and “digs” with its overtone of cave dwelling is very apropos of this place which is beyond Dickensian in its squalor. Squalid is the only word which begins to do it justice. Though to use justice in any positive sense when speaking of this house as a place where humans can live is a perversion of the concept.
We approached the door and I knocked on its plastic “window”, almost putting my hand through it into the room inside. The door pane and the two windows of the front room were hung, barely, with what appeared to be filthy drapes. Above the door a blanket covered the gaping hole where the transom used to be. The once white doorframe was now a grayish brown smudged from knee level to about six feet up with unwashed stains and fingerprints. I knocked again and the drape was pulled back at its lower edge. Robby’s small face appeared, white and frightened, in the
lower corner of the pane looking like a spectre surrounded by the inner darkness of the house.
“Who is it?” his small voice was clear through the thin and cracked
plastic pane. “Hi Robby,” said Mariellen. “How are you?” Another face appeared, this time opening the door to the cold. Half dressed in thin pajama bottoms, Aaron, Robby’s older brother, said, “What do you want?” “We came to bring you a present for Christmas. We missed you yesterday.” Mariellen answered holding out the gift bag. Robby, still peering out from his side of the door pane, and dressed like his brother, couldn’t resist a cry of delight, “Christmas! Yay!” he said, and then immediately shut up.
Aaron took the bag from Mariellen’s outstretched hand. I noticed that his face was caked and dirty and could see, in the dim light behind him, a filthy room littered with empty cans and the detritus of the poor and hopeless. “Merry Christmas!” I said, and Mariellen echoed, “Merry Christmas!” as the door closed and Robby and Aaron slipped from sight into the interior night.
We turned and walked down the crumbling steps to the street and across it to where we had parked the car on the sunny side where it was at least a degree or two above freezing.
“I hope he doesn’t take a beating for that,” I said. “At least he will
have had a moment of joy to remember, even if he does get a beating. At least he has that moment,” said Mariellen grimly.
December 18, 2000