Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Last Minute Shopping

“You set?”

D pulled his black hoodie over his smoothly shaved head, then slid on his Ray Ban sunglasses. The glowing white letters of the store’s neon sign blurred on the lenses. The glasses were stylish, but I knew what they hid.

I gulped and managed a nod.

“Meet you at the door when the job’s done. Don’t be late.”

I patted my pocket for the twentieth time. The package was still there. I followed D across the slushy parking lot and through sliding glass doors into a blast of light, heat, and “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Joining the slow moving mass of puffer coats, D and I inched past a grim-faced woman in a blue vest. Beside her, a bent cardboard sign read “3” as in three more shopping days ‘til the big day. She looked right past me as I moved into the store. Nobody noticed me. Almost complete invisibility to adult humans was one of my gifts, one of the things that made me good at my work. Still, it paid to be careful. Not much of a margin of error in this job.

Although it was close to midnight, many children were in the superstore's crowded aisles, some stuffed into shopping carts like last minute gifts, crammed next to dinged cartons holding big screens, microwaves, and popcorn makers.

Children you had to watch for. They noticed things. Things that were special. Things that were different.

Things that were wrong.

I acquired my target as D’s tall, gaunt frame slid behind a wall of giant inflatable Hula Dancing Santas:  A woman, no longer young, wearing a stained trench coat over faded hospital scrubs. The merciless fluorescent lights etched gray shadows under her eyes. She held the hem of a silky red nightgown, then let it slip through her chapped fingers. Her cart was empty save for a toddler propped in the seat, immobilized by a full body snowsuit.  A boy of about six whose bony wrists jutted out of a too small jacket over a hooded sweatshirt glued himself to her side.

The boy’s huge brown eyes turned in my direction as the woman pushed the cart forward. Spotted! I was too close. I melted back into a rack of lingerie.

So difficult to get close these days. In the old days children were much more trusting. Now it was all Stranger Danger. Now, every adult was a predator. But of course, most predators were someone the children knew very well.

A very unholiday feeling pricked my heart.

Merging carefully into the slow stream of shoppers and their carts, I pictured the store from above, a swishing river of blue and black polyester, the tops of heads with gray roots showing, baseball caps pointing backwards and forwards, exhausted children splayed over shoulders, moving past islands of plastic things that could not begin to plug the love-shaped holes in the hearts of their recipients.

If only they stepped outside. The world was so big. The sky. The stars. The air. The cold, more alive than anything in this building packed with beating hearts and bad music.

Suddenly, I felt snow sting my cheeks, heard half-remembered carols as delicate as frost on a window pane. Funny thing, how memory snuck up on you. I shook my head. Memory was a distraction I couldn’t afford. I had a job to do and I had only until midnight to get it done.

The Boss sends us on these little jobs as a way to earn extra credit, which I can sure use after that business at the Rowdy Reindeer Tavern.

I worked my way close enough to see the stars on the baby’s snowsuit, which many washings had faded to gray. The baby sucked loudly on the handle of the cart, face red, hat askew. Poor kid looked hot. That hat had to come off.

At that moment, the hat slid to the floor, revealing two skimpy, off-kilter pigtails. Brother picked up the little red hat and tossed it into the air. Baby kicked her legs and shrieked with glee, a shriek that burst into a sparkling laugh, a fireworks of joy that drew the eyes of harried shoppers. Surprised smiles creased their tired faces as they turned toward the sound.

Crumbled candy canes! I didn’t need more people looking toward my target.

I slid behind a display of artificial holiday greenery, peeking between plastic poinsettia leaves as the family joined other shoppers angling into the toy section.

You know, I’m not entirely magical. Sure, I can do some lower level tricks, misdirections, you might call them, but when operating on this plane, you’ve got to follow most of the rules. That’s physics for you – something I could alter, take a tuck here or there or let down the hem - but I can’t change things abracadabra or ho ho ho, like some others I could name.

Not yet, anyway.

I was about to make my move when a blast of black light blew me into a tower of holly print fleece blankets. Several blankets and a cardboard sign, Rollback 3.88, tumbled into a teenage girl’s shopping cart. She kept right on texting and walking as I somersaulted out of her way.

I’d heard about those black lights. Well, D did say he had an appointment in Electronics. Usually when D’s kind acquired a target, there was a gentle stream of golden light like one of those glowy Thomas Kinkade calendars, or more rarely, a shower of sparkles, like morning sun glinting off ice crystals. This one, well, the Black Light! I couldn’t wait to hear D’s story.

My target had pushed further into the toy department. I had to move. D wasn’t the most patient guy and this cost-cutting carpool business put everyone on edge. But what could you do? Everyone was tightening belts these days. Transportation from our realm was expensive, and that meant sometimes sharing a ride with someone – or something, I wasn’t quite sure about D – from the wrong side of the magical tracks.

But D had utter invisibility. He’d been doing his job for a long time. Not me, not yet. Nowadays everyone had a smartphone camera and one little mistake meant you were all over the Internet. And that meant the Boss was not so jolly.

The tinny rendition of  “Feliz Navidad” playing over the loudspeakers cut short and a breathless voice gasped, “Associates to electronics, associates to electronics.”

I dusted myself off and hurried after my target.

My target’s boy was protective, sticking close to his mother, not like some of the other kids, who were yanking toys from shelves or kicking them along the floor. The boy did pull a few things off the shelves, but he put them back with care. Now he hung off the front of the cart, eyes trained back in my direction.

Had the boy seen me? I had to chance it. I inched forward.

The cart stopped and the woman picked up a box.

“Do you think Evan would like this for his birthday?”

The boy shook his head. “He’s already got one.”

The baby had stopped sucking. She looked at me with those unblinking eyes, drool dripping over the handle. One little leg started to kick.

I slid behind a Barbie Dream House.

D materialized by a rack of stuffed pink ponies and made a little “come on” sign.

“Easy for you, Mr. Invisible,” I muttered. “Just a minute!”

I turned back to my target. Something about the elegant cut of her coat, even with the threads trailing from the hem, made me think of the way things had been when I was just starting out with the Boss.

The tang of varnish and freshly cut wood, the bright paint, the merry music on the town square by the workshop hit me, and the fluorescent light, the scent of plastic, and the disco carols faded away.

My target pushed her cart right past me. I fumbled in my pocket but the little boy tugged his mother to the other side of the aisle. Too late!

Reindeer rash! The kid was Mr. Protective.

D pointed to his bony wrist. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but I got the message. When D says time is up, it’s up.

I didn’t need a clock to tell me it was almost midnight. What was it with midnight? Why not 1 a.m.? Or two when the bars close?

I pushed that thought away. That’s what had gotten me into this mess in the first place.

All I had to do was this one job to get back into the good graces of the Big Guy. A last minute mission only I was desperate enough to accept, desperate enough to hitch a ride with D. Well, I’d hung out with a rougher crowd back at the Rowdy Reindeer.

“Too many people. In you go.” The woman picked up the little boy and settled him in the cart. He looked back over her shoulder as he clambered in, but he turned to face the front of the cart. Probably keeping a lookout for out for me, the person of impossibly short stature in the fir green coat and boots. I made sure my ears were still tucked under my black watch cap and followed.

The baby continued to watch me with those unblinking eyes, one little leg kicking, kicking. She was definitely on to me.

I dropped back behind a large lady in a drooping Santa cap, and tried to make my thoughts blank, blank as a whiteout snowstorm.

I jumped side to side, trying to see past the drooping hat. Where had they gone?

D stopped to check out a display of thermal underwear.

I peeked around the lady again and my boot skidded on something soft.

The baby’s red hat.

I snatched it up and whirled toward the sound of the baby’s boot banging on the cart. My target had turned down a blindingly yellow, purple, and pink aisle labeled Crafts. The baby kicked again, wildly, still sucking on the cart handle. I hunkered behind a display of “It’s a Wonderful Life” DVDs.

“Say.” My target held up a paint set, surprisingly real and solid in the shrink-wrapped jumble of plastic toys. “How about this?”

The boy took the set in his hands. “It’s great. Mom, can I have one, too?”

The woman hesitated. “Maybe next time.”

The boy turned to the baby. “Hey, where’s your hat?”

The target looked down, saw the hat on the floor at her feet, and picked it up. Her head tilted. She opened the hat and pulled out the package I’d stuffed in it – money or “Benjamins,” I believe they’re called down here, tied in a white ribbon with a sprig of holly. It had taken only a minimal bending of physics to slide the hat to the spot by her rubber clogs. I held my breath, standing on tiptoe, peeking over the DVDs.

The woman looked around, but she and her children were the only ones in the aisle. Well, the only ones she could see.

A laugh, small and stuttering, was cut off as she pressed the hat to her lips. Then she said, “Yes, you can have one.”

The boy whooped.

The baby’s leg kicked.

An avalanche of relief replaced the worry I’d been dragging around like a broken pull toy. I spun into a few steps of the Sugarplum Shuffle.

I turned and bumped right into D’s silver skull belt buckle.

“Let’s go, elf chick. Time flies.”

Over the P.A. system, an electric guitar shredded, but all I could hear was the sound of sleigh bells ringing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Ho-Ho Plan

Squish, squish, squish. My red tennis shoes sounded on the linoleum floor of the hospital corridor. I tip-toed down the dimly lit hallway and poked my head around a corner then waved the all clear sign to my partner in crime behind me. I hissed, “Come on!”

My six foot companion, dressed in an elf costume with a red bag slung over one shoulder, fast-stepped toward me. The small bell attached to his left shoe jingled every other step. I blew out a breath in frustration, ruffling my Santa mustache.

I repositioned my beard and mustache and turned my head to look at him. “Way to stay under the radar, Gabe.”

When I swung my head back around, the tip of my Santa hat smacked me in the face. I jumped. We made quite a pair—a short, female Santa and a huge elf. But those were the only outfits the costume store had in stock the day before Christmas.

“Sorry, Angela. I know you’d rather be at the party.” My neighbor and friend, Gabe, shifted the bag to his other shoulder.

An antiseptic smell wafted by and tickled my nose. I stifled a sneeze. I really, really didn’t want to be here, but felt sorry for Gabe’s little sister and wanted to help him do something nice for her. Emily had been hit by a car and badly injured on the way to her elementary school just before Christmas vacation. The oblivious driver had been texting and didn’t see her in the crosswalk. To make matters worse, their father, who was a single parent in the military, was serving overseas. The unfairness of life.

Our plan—my plan—was to get in, spread cheer, get out…and go party. It was our senior year in high school and we were supposed to have fun. Also, I wanted to get away from my wicked stepmother. Gabe, however, was reluctant to sneak out to a party. His grandmother was in charge while his dad was gone and he didn’t want to make trouble. Our compromise was to decorate Emily’s hospital room then go to the party.

Hearing someone else’s squishy footsteps, we flattened ourselves against the wall although it was difficult for a big guy like Gabe to be unobtrusive. I hoped it wasn't Nurse Hacker. She had strongly suggested that Gabe and his grandmother leave earlier this evening because she said Emily needed her sleep. But it was Christmas Eve for Pete’s sake.

After the footsteps receded, we bent over and crept around the semi-circular nurses’ station where two nurses tapped on their computer keyboards.

The sounds stopped, and I heard one ask, “Did you hear a bell?”

“Maybe it was Santa and his reindeer.” Both chuckled and the click-clack noise resumed.

I glared at Gabe. He shrugged and grabbed his jingle bell to silence it, then crab walked until we cleared the nurses’ station. We stood up and bolted down a hallway to room 224.

Peering in the doorway, I saw Emily curled up under the bed covers.

Gabe placed the bag on the ground. It made a slight noise and his sister let out a sigh in her sleep. He paused, then carefully opened the sack and pulled out a small artificial tree decorated with lights and placed it on a table.

I reached in the bag and slid out a box. It made a crinkle noise as I tugged a tray of ornaments out from under the cellophane wrapping. I handed him a miniature angel followed by bells and snowflakes.

After we finished decorating the tree, Gabe began hanging paper stars and candy canes from the ceiling. I placed a two stuffed bears next to Emily. Dressed in a hospital gown with one arm in a cast, she looked like a bruised angel with a broken wing. The digital monitor silently measured her vital signs and displayed mysterious graphs and numbers.

Gabe walked over and set a package on the bedside table. He bumped it with his foot, the bell on his shoe jingled. I shook my head.

Emily opened her eyes. "Santa?"
“Um, yes." I cleared my throat and whispered in a deep voice, "Ho, ho, ho.”

“I knew you wouldn't forget me.” Emily’s tiny hand reached for mine. “Santa, get me out of here. I want to go home. I miss my daddy.”

Gabe and I exchanged glances.

I paused to give myself time to choose my words carefully. “The doctors want to make sure you’re healthy before you go home. But if you wish on a star really hard, something good will happen.” I half quoted a line from a Disney movie and hoped it would help.

Emily struggled to sit up in bed rubbing her eyes with her good hand. She craned her neck to look out the window. "Where’s a star? I don't see one."

I didn't see any stars either. The sky was obscured by the tall buildings that surrounded the medical center. I improvised and pointed to a neon star logo next to the name of a medical device company. “That star.”

“That's not a real star.” She frowned.

“The object isn’t important, it’s the meaning behind it.” I thought I sounded wise, but she didn’t look convinced. I tried again. “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” When in doubt, use the full Disney quote.
Emily nodded her head and closed her eyes. “I wish I could go home for Christmas.” A tear slipped down her cheek. More tears. Then a torrent.
 “Uh, sleep and have sweet dreams. This elf dust will help.” I frantically waved my arm and blew pretend magic dust over her. I wanted to get out of here, go to a party, and have fun. This parenting stuff was tough. Perhaps I owed my stepmother an apology.

Nurse Hacker bustled into the room. My eyes focused on the sweater she wore over her top. A sleigh pulled by dachshunds wearing bejeweled antlers circled her upper half. Despite the hipster trendiness of ugly Christmas sweaters, it wasn’t a good look for her.

She pushed me to the side, pulled Emily close, and gently rocked her. The little girl calmed down and yawned. Relieved, I turned to Gabe and bobbed my head at him to leave.

“Don’t even think about it,” Nurse Hacker loudly whispered. She tucked the covers around Emily with one-hand. With her other hand she motioned for us to go outside the room.

When we were in the corridor, the Hacker attack began. She counted off our infractions on her fingers. “One: breaking the visiting hour rule. Two: you woke up Emily and she needs sleep to heal. Three: you upset her. What were you kids thinking? It’s very important that she stabilizes in order for her to get well and go home.”

Gabe blurted out, “It was my idea. I wanted Emily to have a nice Christmas. Don’t blame Angela.”

I tried to look apologetic and sincere. But if we left now we would still have plenty of time at the party.

With a tight smile, Nurse Hacker continued, “I understand. And, since you're dressed and obviously filled with the holiday spirit, I need your help to decorate and pass out presents in the children’s cancer ward.”

My heart sunk. Would we ever get to the party? Also, hospitals scared me. Especially at night. The machines glowed in the dark and made weird beeping noises. And then there were sick people. I crossed my arms in a self-hug to ward off the chills that crept down my spine. How did my brilliant plan go so wrong?

Before we began our Christmas chores, Nurse Hacker made us call home so our families wouldn’t worry. Gabe talked to his grandmother; I notified my witchy stepmother.

Then the three of us walked down the hall to the nearby cancer ward. Gabe began to assemble track for a toy train and arrange it around the large Christmas tree. I put wrapped toys in a bag and began rounds with Nurse Hacker. While she checked on the patients, I placed gifts next to the kids’ beds.

One bright eyed boy was wide awake. “Santa Claus. I've been waiting a billion hours for you.” I sat on his bed. He crawled in my lap and studied me. “You’re kind of short and small for Santa.”

“Good things come in small packages.” I handed him a present. “I hope you get what you wish for.”

He tipped his bald head. “My wish wouldn't come in a box.”

“I bet you want to be healthy and at home.”

“No, I wish my friend would get better and leave the hospital. I’m okay and my mom said I get to leave next week.” He tore off the wrapping paper and pulled out a toy fire truck. “Cool.”

I gave the little guy a quick hug and said goodbye.

While Nurse Hacker and I walked to the next room, my eyes filled with tears. He was so young but cared more about his friend than himself. I was selfish and wanted to have fun. My chin dropped; my body sagged.

She handed me a tissue. “These kids are brave. They face life's difficulties and somehow seem to thrive and inspire us. I get weepy sometimes too. Be strong; you’re doing a good thing.”

Hacker had a soft side? I guess there’s more to people than I imagined. I blew my nose and straightened. The rest of the night passed quickly. I talked with several kids who were too excited about Christmas to sleep and then helped Gabe with the decorations.

Toward daybreak, activity in the hospital increased. Tired, we finished our Santa duties and stopped to check on Emily before we left the hospital. We walked into her room and I was astonished to see Gabe and Emily’s father. He sat in a chair next to his daughter and held her hand.

“Dad!” Gabe ran to him and they embraced. His grandmother hovered nearby.

Gabe's dad said, “I got emergency leave and planned to surprise you last night, but then you called from the hospital.”

Emily piped up, “I probably get to go home in a few days.” She smiled. “I like my Christmas tree and my bears. Thanks, Santa and elf.”

That smart kiddo. She knew it was us last night.

My stepmother stood to one side of the happy group under a candy cane decoration. I slowly walked over to her. Hesitantly, she lightly hugged me. I tightly hugged her back. She said, “I’m proud of you.” Then teased me with, “Your beard and mustache make quite the fashion statement.”

Gabe leaned over to me. “Sorry, Angela. I know you wanted to go to the party.”

“What party?” I laughed. I had forgotten all about it. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you wish for, but you get something more valuable. In a strange way, my plan worked.


A huge thank you to everyone who works in the medical profession for sacrificing time with family over the holidays to care for others.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Femme Fatally Yours

by Paula Gail Benson

            It’s wonderful to have a book released at Christmas time. Unless you’re me.

            My name’s Ham Richards. I’m a recently tenured film professor with a tendency to view my life as a movie. For instance, I can imagine my book’s arrival memorialized in a grainy black and white. 
            “I’m home,” I call out cheerily, entering the front door of an elegant hallway, wearing a tweed suit with patched elbows and carrying a pipe. A Christmas wreath’s looped over my arm like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

            From the kitchen, Daphne, channeling Mary Bailey and wearing a cute ruffled apron, rushes forward to greet me.

             “Darling,” she cries as her arms wind around my neck. “The most wonderful news. Your dream has come true.” She plants a big one right on my kisser.

            “Ewwwww.” The long derogatory wail comes from our precious daughter Jessica, aged twelve, who has snuck in from the kitchen. As Daphne and I look at her adoringly, she says, “Cut out the smoochy stuff and let’s open the box.”

            So, we do just that, taking a short interval to ooh and aah at the cover and author photo on the back--again me in tweed with patched sleeves and pipe. Then, Daphne gets our Polaroid and takes a few candid pics of Jessica, me, and the book, all coming out the camera’s front slot and developing before our eyes.

             Finally, I tell her, “Let’s see if we can all get together in the shot. Jessica, you hold the book.” I bring my two girls in close beside me, stretch the camera at arms’ length, and snap the very first selfie. As the photo appears, we see ourselves centered and smiling, with Daphne’s arms around my neck and her lips pressed against my cheek.

            After squealing in delight, Daphne declares, “That’s our Christmas card photo.”

            Perhaps, it might have happened that way if we were a happily joined together family in some alternative stuck-forever-in-the-mid-20th-century universe. As it was, the only part of reality that matched my imaginings was my author photo in the tweed jacket with patched elbows. Even that was minus the pipe.

            In reality, the box of books arrived in the main office of the English department. Our department head, Walt Chatsworth, gathered two faculty members, who happened to be checking their mail slots, our office manager Mrs. Dutton, and Selma Grant, a graduate student who had spent the last month either flirting or pleading with me to supervise her Jane Austen thesis as audience for the announcement.
            My colleagues were briefly polite and congratulatory before slipping away with their messages and correspondence. Selma branded my cheek with her signature fuchsia lip gloss, whispering in my ear that she would love to work on her thesis with an author published by a major house.

            “Professor Montgomery’s better suited to your field of study,” I reminded her.

            “But, they’ve made movies of all the Austen books,” she replied, scooping up a handful of the postcards I’d paid for to publicize my book before heading toward the door.

            “Great job, Ham,” Walt Chatsworth told me as he clasped my shoulder. He leaned in to say, “Don’t forget Selma’s family gave us Grant auditorium. Wouldn’t you like an endowed chair?” Then, he grabbed a half-inch stack of my postcards, saying he was headed to an administrative meeting and wanted to rub the news in the other department heads’ faces.

            Mrs. Dutton loaded the books, remaining postcards, and a sheet with information about my scheduled signing at the university bookstore into my arms, then sent me unceremoniously down the hall. I reached my door with the stack intact. Monty, Professor Hal Montgomery, who had the office next to mine, dashed past me on his way to a class, or maybe hoping to avoid Selma Grant, and didn’t even offer to open my door.

            Somehow I managed to get myself and my bundle inside my office and deposit the items on the corner of my desk. I turned to close the door and came face-to-face with Daphne, who taught Victorian literature, primarily poetry, in the department. I greeted her with a smile, but saw that she was staring daggers at my open box of books.

            “The only reason you ever wrote that book was to flaunt a woman’s betrayal in my face,” she yelled as she pointed toward the offending volumes.

            “You know that’s not true, Daphne,” I said as gently as I could. “I’ve been writing about noir for years. This is just a culmination of my efforts.”

            “A book about deceptive women called Femme Fatally Yours.”

            I had been rather proud of that title and truly fascinated in how femme fatales could dominate cinematic imagination, even to the point that they didn’t need to physically appear. Like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca who’s dead before the story begins. Of course, that author’s name brought me back to the Daphne before me, now my ex-wife, and made me wonder if subconsciously I wanted her out of my life before she entered it. Yet, I knew that wasn’t the case, because I would have missed out on having Jessica.

            Still I felt my teeth set into a grind remembering how Daphne left me for Dorian the Lay, a hunky graduate student who became an adjunct professor in the department. Dorian who caused Daphne to stray, thus destroying my beautiful family and leaving me perpetually worried that Jessica would be scarred forever by our split. Dorian, who kept Daphne from turning gray. Dorian, she will obey. Oy vey.

            Perhaps I should have felt triumph over Daphne’s fury. I had a full-length book and signing schedule, while she continued to toil away on articles that would be hidden in literary journals, of interest only to scholars and grad students seeking footnotes. Part of her stress and frustration came from the fact that it was her promotion year, meaning she was constantly putting together packages for review by jaded faculty committees looking for reasons to deny a candidate elevation to a more exclusive club. As Monty had told me, “Be glad you only have to tolerate her tirades here at work. Can you image what hell it would be to live with her and celebrate your book’s launch while she’s undergoing academic scrutiny?”

            I opened my mouth to respond when I heard another voice from just outside the doorway. “Chill, sweetness. We could hear you down the hall.”

            Dorian. The man I had vowed never to like appeared to be on my side. When he walked into the office, he held Jessica by the hand. My teeth returned to grind.

            He walked up to my desk and picked up a book. “Is this your tome, Ham? How rad is that? Congratulations, man!”

            Jessica had inched beside him and reached for a postcard, carefully eyeing its featured silhouette of a slim, shadowy woman with a cigarette holder between her fingers. “Is this the kind of lady you like now, Daddy?”

            I felt the contents of my stomach flip as I looked directly into her earnest face. I remembered too well the night I told her that her mother and I would no longer be living together. We had a daddy-daughter date at our favorite hangout, the Study Break CafĂ©, and she wore her Cinderella Halloween costume. She never wore that outfit again. Sure, the next Halloween she said she’d outgrown it, but I feared she associated it with the loss of her family.

            “A femme fatale’s a character that appears in a lot of the movies I watch, so I wrote a book about how filmmakers have depicted her,” I explained. “You remember we bought all those different books and movies about Cinderella when you were little? And, you liked each one of them, even though they were different? Well, it’s something like that.”

            “Is a femme fatale like Cinderella?” Jessica asked. “Does she always get her prince?”

            “That’s probably a topic your father can write his next book about,” Daphne said. “Come on now. We need to get you to your piano lesson, then pizza for dinner.”

            I gave my daughter a kiss and watched her leave with a different family. Wondering if my life would ever seem normal again, I sat at my desk, ready to address some postcards to colleagues. As I reached for one, I noticed that the stack seemed to have dwindled lower.

            Throughout the next week, I began finding my postcards in odd places. My mail box in the office. Inside a copy of the student newspaper placed on my desk. Tucked in the flap of the portfolio I carried to classes. Each one was decorated with a sticker that looked left over from Valentine’s Day and carried a message of love or devotion like one you would find on a candy heart: “U R 4 Me,” “Please Be Mine,” “Luv U 4-ever,” “Hugs and Kisses.”

            I was in a dilemma. Did I have a stalker? Should I report the theft of my postcards? Was this the message of a secret admirer or a cruel trick? I began watching those around me carefully. Walt Chatsworth was a straight-forward guy, not given to teasing. Selma Grant hadn’t pestered me about supervising her thesis, but every time she passed me in the hall she wore an enigmatic smile. Daphne either frowned at me or ignored me. Besides, she should have been busy enough compiling her promotion packages not to have had time to send me bogus love notes.

            The week following exams, I had my signing at the university bookstore, which was empty except for the staff and a few students either selling back textbooks or meeting at the coffee lounge. No wonder Mrs. Dutton was able to snag this prime time. I took my place at the signing table figuring I would be spending my time smiling as people passed me by or answering questions about where the bathrooms were located.

            But, I wasn’t destined to be alone. Selma Grant waltzed in with an armload of books and her father in tow.

            “Daddy,” she said as she brought him over to my table. “This is Professor Richards I’ve been telling you about. He’s just published the most fascinating book about female characters in noir film. Why don’t you get to know him while I return these texts? Maybe you can convince him to supervise my thesis.”

            She flounced off toward the customer service counter, leaving me feeling my frozen smile crack a bit at the icy reception I received from her father. He frowned and picked up a copy of my book, flipping through the pages, stopping at the photographs to shake his head.

            “My daughter has talked about you a great deal,” he said. He had a neatly trimmed gray mustache that inched upward as his lip took on an Elvis-like smirk. “Seems like she took a shine to you while in your class.” He slapped the book closed, making me jump. “Frankly,” he continued, his steely gray eyes looking straight into mine. “I find it hard to believe the university pays you for what you do.”

            I gulped, sure he must have seen my Adam’s apple bob. Then, with the memory of Walt Chatsworth’s voice saying “remember Grant auditorium” running through my mind, I gave him my most placating smile.

            “Mr. Grant, I couldn’t agree with you more. I must be the luckiest man in the world to do what I do and get paid for it. Having a true student of literature like your daughter in my class brought that fact home for me. Her thesis will definitely be a respected work in the field. To ensure it receives the attention it deserves, she needs a real scholar to supervise her work.”

            “Who do you suggest?” Mr. Grant asked. The Elvis smirk was becoming more prominent.

            “An unsung hero in our department, whose work has influenced the lives of young people across the country. Professor Hal Montgomery. He’s worked for years compiling the textbooks used to teach English in tenth through twelfth grades. He’s a recognized authority, who’s been asked to speak at conferences throughout the world. A lonely bachelor, totally focused on his books and classes. A brilliant student like your daughter would be a true inspiration for him.”

            Mr. Grant’s lips were now pressed together and poking out from beneath his mustache as if he were considering my words carefully. “Does he make good money putting these school books together?”

            “The best,” I whispered, seeing Selma headed back in our direction. “He was in his office grading exams when I came over to the bookstore.”

            “Has Daddy convinced you?” Selma asked as she approached the table.

            “Professor Richards has made an excellent suggestion that I tour the department building while I’m on campus,” her father replied. He dropped my book on the table and took her arm. “I want to meet some more of your professors. Haven’t I heard you mention a Professor Montgomery?”


            “Well, I want to hear about him.”

            I watched them walk away. I wouldn’t begrudge Hal that endowed chair.

            After an hour and a half of smiling without sales, I thanked the bookstore staff for arranging the event and wished them a happy holiday. I walked home, knowing that I would be facing an empty apartment. I had decorated a tree for the time Jessica would spend with me there, but I’d agreed that she could stay with her mom and Dorian for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I planned on looking for a channel featuring a Christmas movie marathon until she arrived to be with me the day after Christmas.

            “Ham,” my landlord called as I entered the home converted into apartments. “You had a special delivery while you were gone. I let the lady into your apartment. She said to give you this.” He handed me one of my postcards with a sticker that said: “Luv U Truly.”

            “What lady?”

            He held up his hands. “I’ve been asked to say no more. You’ll have to check this one out yourself.” Then, he went back into his first floor digs.

            I pocketed the postcard and walked up the stairs wondering what surprise awaited me. As I reached the landing, I saw the door open a few inches. I walked up and announced, “I’m home,” which sounded as dumb as I thought it would.

            From inside, I heard a dear, familiar, childish voice say, “You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow.”

            The words were followed by a trio of kazoos playing “Auld Lang Sine.” I pushed the door open and saw Jessica, Daphne, and Dorian standing before my tree playing the instruments. Jessica wore an outfit from the forties with a wide brimmed hat. She ran forward to give me a hug.

            “I asked Mom if I could dress up as a femme fatale for you. Can you guess who I am?”

            “Well . . .” Even though she recited Lauren Bacall’s lines, she didn’t exactly look like Slim Browning from To Have or To Have Not.

            “Do the lines with me. You start.”

            “What should I say?”

            She prompted. “That’s some dress you got on there.” I repeated the line and she replied, “This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Her hand bounced against her shoulder length curls.

            “I’m still not sure.”

            She gave her hair another flounce. “Excuse me. I think I got a date. But, stick around fellas just in case.”

            “More and more familiar.”

            She sighed. “This one will give it away.” Still, she let me have the line. “I'm glad I know you George Bailey.” 
            I smiled. “Violet Bick from It’s a Wonderful Life.”

            “What do you think?”

            “You look wonderful, sweetheart.”

            “Why don’t we get a few pictures of you by the tree?” Daphne asked. “Here, you and Jessica hold your book.”

            After Daphne took a few candid shots, I said, “Let’s take one together.” I had my girls on either side of me, when I noticed that Dorian held back. I could have snapped the photo without him, taking the attitude: Dorian, you caused the fray now keep away. But, it was Christmas and I felt more like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause than James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.

            Motioning for Dorian to join us, I took a selfie with my phone. Of course, we were perfectly centered in front of the tree, Jessica and me with my book beside Daphne and Dorian, cheek-to-cheek as they blew their kazoos.

            I’ll keep the memento, but I’m not sure I’ll use it on my Christmas card.