I’m working on my third book, a compilation of short stories about a redoubtable woman named Cora Entwhistle. (All rumors that she and I bear a resemblance are totally untrue.) Here’s a Christmas story, Mrs. Entwhistle-style. Merry Christmas, everyone.
Mrs. Entwhistle Cancels Christmas
Cora Entwhistle had mixed emotions. The thing was, she didn’t believe the Christmas story, but a respectable elderly lady living in a small town couldn’t voice such doubts. In her opinion, a virginal conception announced by angels was highly suspect. Why not just admit Mary was expecting before she got married? That was a story old as humans. As for the whole manger/shepherds/wise men meme, she couldn’t buy it. The unassailable fact of the matter was that a person who’d lived hundreds of years ago was still so influential that all the years before and after was dated from his birth. That seemed significant enough without all the attendant window-dressing. But she kept such views to herself. After all, Winter Solstice had been celebrated from time immemorial; it just came wrapped in red and green these days.
Some things about the holiday she liked: midnight service on Christmas Eve, when the familiar old church took on an air of mystery and strangeness; the table groaning under the feast of favorite foods; seeing her children and grandchildren all together. Some things she disliked: all that cooking; the difficulty of finding a date to gather family, the mad orgy of shopping and wrapping presents, the tension of deadlines and budget versus list. But she’d learned to concentrate on what she liked and ignore the rest as much as possible.
Mrs. Entwhistle was not one who did her Christmas shopping in July. She believed the holiday season had already overlapped its boundaries like a fat man in an airplane seat. She refused to think about it until December first. That was still plenty of time if you didn’t plan to go mad and make a big fuss over everything. In due time, she called her daughter, Diane.
“Hello, Mama,” her daughter said.
“How did you know it was me?” Mrs. Entwhistle demanded
. “You always ask that. I have Caller I.D., remember?”
“Oh, yes. It’s spooky, though, like you can see through the telephone.”
“Yes, Mama. How are you today?”
“Oh, fine, honey, just fine. Listen, I’m calling about Christmas. When’s a good day for me to have everyone here?”
“Well, let me just look at my calendar. It’s already filled up; seems to do that earlier every year. Let’s see. We have John’s family coming on the Sunday before. And the kids are in the church program on Christmas Eve. And on Christmas Day, we want to stay home so they can play with their new toys. The week-end after, we’re taking them to Dollywood. It’s their big present this year.”
“Any week-days available?” Mrs. Entwhistle asked, through gritted teeth.
“John has to work every day except Christmas.”
“Sorry, Mama, I don’t mean to be uncooperative, it’s just such a busy time with the kids and two sets of families to celebrate with. And you’ve left it kind of late.”
“Only one family is celebrating, far as I can see. And today is December second. I wouldn’t call that late.”
“Why don’t you just come here, Mama? You could come over on Christmas Eve, spend the night and watch the children open their presents in the morning.”
Mrs. Entwhistle shuddered at the mental image of two over-excited grandchildren ripping and shrieking their way through the ridiculous pile of presents that she knew lay under the tree at her daughter’s house. She pictured the mounds of wrapping paper and empty boxes, the hectic red cheeks of children who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and so did both. She envisioned the spilled cocoa, sticky on the floor; the quarrelling over who got more or better presents; the exhausted faces of parents trying, against all common sense, to enjoy the occasion. No, thanks. Not even if they were her own children and grandchildren. She had an ace up her sleeve for just such an occasion.
“What about Roger?” she asked.
“Mama, you know Roger can’t come. Jeannie’s allergic; she’d spend the whole holiday sniffling and coughing.”
“Well, I can’t just leave him at home.”
Mrs. Entwhistle’s little dog, an ancient Shih Tzu of uncertain lineage, was her built-in excuse when she didn’t want to do something. Nobody much wanted Roger to visit, not that it was his fault that he had those skin problems and a bit of an odor. He was old, after all. And he did get confused sometimes when he was away from home, and forget to go to the door when he wanted out. That one time he’d lifted his leg on Diane’s new sofa, Mrs. Entwhistle had never heard such a scream. Scared the poor little dog so much he dried up in mid-stream. It was not lost on Mrs. Entwhistle that Jeannie’s allergy developed right after that visit.
“All right, Diane,” she said into the phone now. “Let me check with Tommy. You be thinking if there is some time you might squeeze your mother into your schedule.”
Mrs. Entwhistle hung up, hearing Diane’s sputtering as she replaced the handset of her old-fashioned desk model telephone. She dialed Tommy’s number at the office.
“Accounting,” he said crisply.
“Tommy, it’s Mama.”
“Oh, hi, Mama,” Tommy said, his tone changing instantly from business-crisp to whiney-casual. “I’m being rushed off my feet right now, could I call you back later?”
“This won’t take a minute. I’m just trying to see when you can come for Christmas.”
“I’m not celebrating Christmas this year,” Tommy said. “Since Judy took the girls and left me, I don’t have anything to celebrate. In fact, I’m going to ignore the whole deal. Maybe go skiing.”
“You don’t ski, Tommy,” Mrs. Entwhistle said.
. “I might learn.”
“I see. All right, then. ‘Bye.”
Mrs. Entwhistle was darned if she was going to spend one more minute begging her children to fit her into their plans. She sat staring out the window at the bird feeder. The black-capped chickadees and sober gray sparrows were having a grand time kicking the expensive sun flower seeds to the ground, where a couple of gluttonous squirrels Hoovered them up. Apparently they have time to get together, Mrs. Entwhistle thought. Then she rose decisively.
“Come on, Roger,” she said, rattling his leash and harness. The little dog walked stiffly over and extended his neck toward the harness. She slipped it over his head, buckled it around his belly, got into her coat, warm hat and gloves, and they set out for their daily walk. Walking was a good time to think, and she had some thinking to do.
“Well, who says Christmas has to be celebrated, anyway?” she said to herself. Mrs. Entwhistle often talked aloud as she walked. Let people think she had one of those cell phone thingies clipped on her ear. Half the population could be seen talking into thin air these days, like crazy people escaped from the Home.
“I’ll just do something else this year, on my own. Maybe I’ll volunteer to serve the Christmas meal at the homeless shelter. I can plop turkey and dressing onto a paper plate as well as anyone. That’d show Diane and Tommy.”
Of course, Diane and Tommy had a fit when she told them. They felt guilty, as Mrs. Entwhistle knew they would.
“I’m not mad at you,” she explained several times. “You are both busy. Fine. I can fill my time quite nicely, thank you. You’re off the hook, because Christmas with me is officially cancelled. I’ll see you after the holidays, when things settle down.”
And that was that.
They were glad to have her, at the homeless shelter. “We always need volunteers,” said the perky lady who took Mrs. Entwhistle’s call. “We start prepping the night before, get those big turkeys into the oven at midnight, carve early in the morning, everything goes in the warming oven, and then we begin serving our clients at eleven. People come through until around three, and then we clean up and go home. Can you come for the whole day?”
“No, dear, I’m seventy-eight years of age.” Mrs. Entwhistle didn’t hesitate to play the age card when it suited her. “I’ll come at ten-thirty and stand in the serving line. As long as my old legs will allow,” she added, prudently giving herself an out in case she needed it. Advanced age should have some compensation to balance out the things you lost, she figured. Heaven knew there were enough of those.
At the appointed time, she drove into the mission’s parking lot. Spaces were scarce. You’d think the homeless people wouldn’t be driving, she reflected, maneuvering gingerly into a too-small spot. The person on her right would not be able to get their driver’s side door open, but it was the best she could do. Maybe she’d leave before that person did.
Entering the warm, brightly lit kitchen, she felt shy. She knew no one, and that in itself was a novelty. Having lived in her house for fifty years, her neighborhood and its inhabitants were as familiar as her own face in the mirror. A smiling, hurrying woman in a big apron came forward, holding out her hand.
“Hi! I’m Marge!” she shouted.
“Cora Entwhistle. I called…”
“Yes! I was expecting you! Come on in and get your apron!”
Mrs. Entwhistle mentally christened her Shouter. Obediently, she slipped the stained white apron over her head and tied the strings in a firm bow behind her back.
“People! People! Our clients are waiting at the door already! I need someone to go out and tell them to line up in an orderly way! Mrs. Entwhistle, would you do that?”
Mrs. Entwhistle nodded and moved toward the glass double doors, beyond which could be seen a jostling throng. Everyone seemed to be dressed alike, in dark jackets, black knitted caps and camo pants. They looked cold. And menacing.
She pushed the door open, stepped outside and heard the lock click as the door shut behind her. Great, now she was locked out in the cold without a coat, in the middle of a mob of hungry strangers. Sure to get pneumonia, if not get shot.
“Uh, folks…friends,” she said in her naturally-carrying voice, “I’ve been asked to tell you to form an orderly line before the doors are unlocked.”
“I was in an orderly line, until this shit-head pushed in front of me,” said one woman. She cast a baleful look at the offender.
“She left and then came back and jumped the line,” he said. “If you leave, you give up your place, right?”
“Now, now, ‘tis the season,” Mrs. Entwhistle said, but she was met by stony stares. “You know, to be jolly,” she explained.
“Ain’t nothin’ jolly about standin’ out here in th’ cold,” someone muttered.
“If you’re too good to wait, why don’t you get on outta here?” said an anonymous voice in the crowd.
“Don’t you tell me what to do; I’ll break your sorry head.”
Mrs. Entwhistle wondered how the newspaper headlines would read in tomorrow’s paper: Elderly Woman Killed in Riot at Homeless Shelter. Or, best case scenario: Saintly Volunteer Quells Homeless Unrest. “I certainly wouldn’t call myself a hero,” she rehearsed in her mind. “I just did what anyone.,..”
At that moment, Shouter swung the glass doors open wide and Mrs. Entwhistle surfed into the warm dining room on a tide of humanity. She washed up near the kitchen door and took her place in the serving line. The plates started coming. Plop, shuffle, plop, shuffle, it was endless.
“Make eye contact! Say Merry Christmas!” Shouter shouted. But Mrs. Entwhistle barely had time to glance up from the enormous vat of dressing.
She remembered the old I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel worked on the candy factory assembly line, and, unable to keep up with the conveyor belt, stuffed chocolates into their mouths and clothing. At least dressing would be warm next to the skin, if it came to that.
Finally the line slowed and then trickled out. The volunteers were encouraged to fix themselves plates and Mrs. Entwhistle did so, having worked up a good appetite. Like the clients, this would be her only Christmas dinner. She looked around for a congenial table.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked, approaching three seated women.
“Sit down, dearie, take a load off,” one of the woman said. “I’m Rachel, this here is Patricia, and that’s Mary.”
“Cora,” Mrs. Entwhistle said, dropping heavily into the folding chair.
“Tired you out, didn’t we? You have yourself some turkey now and catch your second wind.”
The women continued the conversation that Mrs. Entwhistle’s arrival had interrupted. “You need to leave now if you’re gonna walk to the women’s shelter in time to get a bed,” Rachel said. “I’m gonna sleep in my place. I’ve got a little pup tent up in those woods off the interstate. Got me a propane heater, so I’ll be okay.”
“Willy caught hisself on fire with one of them heaters,” Patricia said.
“Yeah, but Willy’s an idiot. Probably had all kinds of blankets and papers piled right up on it.”
Mrs. Entwhistle thought of her own bed, never before viewed as luxurious, and of the hot bath she intended to sink into when she got home. The women had draped their outerwear over the backs of their chairs – second-hand woolen coats that had seen better days, cleared from closets of plenty. The requisite knitted caps were still on their heads, no doubt to hide hair that wouldn’t stand the light of day. Fingerless gloves and one pair of mittens knitted in a reindeer pattern lay on the table. Were they warm enough on this glitteringly cold day? And what about the nights? Where were these women’s families?
Mrs. Entwhistle spoke up. “Do you have children? Have you seen them over Christmas?”
All six eyes turned to her. They regarded her silently for a long moment.
Rachel spoke first. “My boys are in California, I reckon. That’s what they said when they left a couple years ago. I heard from one of them for awhile, but when I had to give up the house, I didn’t have no address to give him. I had a cell phone ‘till someone stole it off me while I was sleepin’. I don’t guess my boys would know where to find me if they was lookin’.”
“I never had kids,” Patricia said. “Never been married. When the factory closed, I couldn’t make my rent no more, so I had to get out on the street. Been out there for three years now, and it ain’t so bad, once you figure out where to get help when you need it.”
Mary’s head was down. Tears leaked slowly from her closed eyes and made tracks down her cheeks. She said nothing. Mrs. Entwhistle drew in her breath to speak, but Patricia caught her eye. No, her head shook, and she placed a finger on her lips. Mrs. Entwhistle exhaled and closed her mouth. She understood. Some things went too deep for words.
“So!” Patricia said, with forced cheer, “The women’s shelter is real fine. We c’n take showers and wash our clothes and on Saturdays there’s a gal comes and gives haircuts. Lotta times someone brings in a big pot of soup. But…” she hesitated. “Well, it’s a mite far from here. If you was to give us a ride, that would sure be a help. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Mrs. Entwhistle’s glance fell on Mary’s foot, clad in a filthy orthopedic walking boot and elevated on another folding chair. “How did you hurt your foot?” she asked.
“Oh, just got a dang infection between my toes. Feet are wet a lot. It’s getting better, but it still hurts like hell when I walk on it.”
“Of course, I’ll drive you to the shelter,” Mrs. Entwhistle said with some difficulty. There seemed to be a big lump in her throat. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Coats and gloves were donned, with much winding of scarves around necks. They need waterproof boots, Mrs. Entwhistle thought, resolving to go to Wal-Mart the next morning and purchase several pair. And maybe some warm flannel shirts, too.
Rachel said good-bye in the parking lot and set off on foot for her pup tent in the woods. She turned and waved several times before she disappeared into the trees. The other women climbed into Mrs. Entwhistle’s car. Never had her old Buick been so appreciated. Patricia and Mary commented on how nice and clean Mrs. Entwhistle kept it. They complimented her on the soft seats and strong heater and smooth ride. When they arrived at the women’s shelter, both women gripped her hands, told her she was as good as an angel, and wished her a Merry Christmas as they hauled themselves back out into the frigid and darkening day.
“Merry Christmas,” Mrs. Entwhistle said back. She’d slipped a twenty dollar bill into Mary’s coat pocket. A little voice whispered in her head: she’ll probably buy a bottle with it. I don’t care, Mrs. Entwhistle answered. Whatever gives her a little comfort.
She resolved to go back to the shelter in the morning with the contents of the crowded coat closet in her front hall. After all, I can only wear one coat at a time, she thought. Any more just get in the way.
Driving home in the gathering dusk, she silenced the radio and told herself a story instead. “Joseph had to register with the census so he could be taxed. That’s the most believable part of the whole thing. We can all relate to that. And anybody who’s had a baby knows they come when they darn well please, so Mary could have been caught by surprise with those first labor pains. Maybe the shepherds really did leave their flocks and walk a ways to see the new baby, just for something to break the monotony of sitting in the fields looking at sheep all day and night. A new baby is always interesting. Now, the three wise men – no way they’d have shown up that night, all the way from Asia or China or wherever it was. But I guess there could have been rumors that got them curious, too. Maybe they were heading that way anyway, and decided to stop in and see for themselves. It was different back in those days, folks didn’t get their news on the television or the Internet. Stories probably got better as they were passed along, like a big game of Gossip. Could have been some bright stars in the sky, too. No city lights to drown them out. But angels, now—there I have to draw the line.”
It was almost dark now, but home was near. She pictured Roger, waiting by the door to greet her exuberantly. Maybe she’d build a fire in the fireplace, take a long, hot bath, have a cup of soup, call the kids to wish them a Merry Christmas. Her children may have been unavailable today, but they were there for her at the other end of the telephone line. They knew where to find her. They’d always know that.
Filled, suddenly, with contentment, Mrs. Entwhistle hummed a little. Then she sang the words, turning her face up to the first bright evening star, her quavery voice cracking on the high notes: “The first Noel, the angels did say, was for certain poor shepherds, in fields as they lay.”
It didn’t seem to matter anymore whether the Christmas story was true in a literal sense. There was a kernel of truth in there somewhere, and it was enough.