Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gladys and the Christmas Competition

The announcement came in the newsletter from the apartment manager. It was highlighted at the top, surrounded by images of holly leaves and berries. Two hundred dollars off of rent for the tenant who had the prettiest Christmas window. "They" would be walking around the property on the night of December 21st to judge.

Immediately after reading the announcement, Gladys’ mind went a-whirring.  If she focused all of her attention on that front window she could win! Yes, the tree would be in its usual spot as an annual beacon of joy just as every year.  She so wanted the world to know the joy that she felt.  Every year she hoped that it would spread some cheer. But, this year it could mean so much more. It could bring some welcome financial relief. The budget was still fixed and tight. But with her decorating acumen she might win this Christmas competition. A growing sense of competition assured her that she would!

That night Gladys pulled out all of her Christmas decorations. She unpacked them fiercely, tossing old paper and plastic behind her. She plunked down every decoration on the kitchen table, the taller ones tipping this way and that against the table legs and the walls. Gladys' activity was so intense that her old cat decided to back away slowly to find a nice quiet and dark corner in the closet to keep out of the fray.

After some time Gladys hustled off to her desk to pick up a pencil with a good eraser and that stiff, old pad of yellow paper. Hurrying back to the table, she pulled out a chair and sat down to begin charting her course. The pencil flew here and there about the paper. With quick-fire frustration she would erase all ill-conceived designs and then redraw them. After about an hour or so of heavy concentration, she leaned back and held up her tablet. There it was! The winning window!

The next hours and days were full of concerted effort, with Gladys occasionally having to stop to wipe her brow. Her old cat would carefully weave between the boxes and the papers on the floor—the gauntlet through which it must pass to gain the water and food bowls in the kitchen.  The house was a tumble with Christmas objects, first placed here, then there, then there. Finally, in triumph, not only was Gladys’ apartment window finished perfectly with Christmas delights, but also the remainder of her humble abode. There was just one more thing left to do. She must view the window from the vantage point of the judges—the unknown judges of the Christmas competition.

That morning it had begun to snow. Soft, big, lazy snowflakes had carefully and quietly began to bury the trampled, brown grass. The snowflake’s work had been steady and sure. A deep and thick blanket of brilliant white snow now hid the ugly late autumn and early winter gray. Gladys peeked out of her bedroom window to see how warmly she needed to dress. The wind started to pick up handfuls of snow and toss it as a baker does the flour just before kneading the dough.  Gladys pulled on her heaviest coat and tightened a wool scarf around her neck. With her sweater underneath, her arms pitched out to the sides a bit, quite like a penguin. She realized her first winter's mistake very soon when she attempted to lean over and put on her boots. Rather than un-layer her layers, she insisted on huffing and puffing and bending and twisting in unusual ways to secure the boots to her feet. By the time she got this accomplished, she was sweating mightily inside of her coat and her hair was plastered to her head under the sturdy hood. She could feel the moisture matt the wool scarf to her neck. Undaunted by the prospect of the wind forcing her into a seasonal cold because of this, Gladys launched out the door, through the hallway and down the front steps into nature's raw winter. Almost running out into the snow, a big smile broadened her face and she could feel her skin tingle from the freezing air. She was swept back to her childhood when they would race out of the house coatless and anxious to see their simple tree decorations shining through the window. The whole family would stand together and with chattering teeth sing "Oh, Christmas Tree!" They would sing only as long as they could feel their feet. Then they would race back in for hot cocoa and putting away the empty decorations boxes.

Gladys was thrilled to see her window. It was glorious! The lights were hung perfectly. The tree radiated its small splendor. The handmade paper snowflakes danced across the panes of glass as if they had just fallen from heaven. For a moment she could hear her parents and siblings softly singing, “Oh, Christmas tree! Oh, Christmas tree! ..." But then the wind slammed against her with the chilly biting reminder that she was still alone.

 As she fought to keep her balance, the wind belayed its force for a moment. Gladys saw more lights in her peripheral vision. She took several steps back and looked at one window and then the next. Every one of her neighbors had worked as hard as she to decorate their windows. Three stories high and twelve rows across Christmas lights beamed out. Flashing wreathes, tiny and big trees, reindeer noses, blinking Santa faces all sent their lights reflecting onto the freshly fallen snow.

In a moment of despair, Gladys realized she probably would not win the Christmas window competition. Her hope for some financial relief was vanquished. But then she realized that all of her neighbors probably needed the same relief. She knew that Frank’s children never came to see him or help him. She knew that the young couple on the second floor with the new baby had barely enough furniture. She remembered the veteran who lived in 3C was bound by his terrible nightmares and unable to work. She thought of the three teenagers sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder in one of their two bedrooms while their mother slept heavily in the other after her second shift each night. Gladys felt a wave of shame wash over her.  She really did not need to win. She had just enough. She looked carefully at each window, wondering who needed relief the most and hoping that they would win.

"Evenin’ Gladys." A horse, old voice broke the silence.

"Well, hello Frank!" Gladys was glad to see her neighbor.

"Sure is pretty, isn't it?" Gladys could see the delight in Frank's eyes. "I've never seen it all lit up like that!”

"It sure is pretty, Frank. Indeed it is." The two turned again to the wall of lights, smiling and comforted by each other's presence.

Frank cleared his throat and then began to sing quietly. It only took Gladys a bar of notes to recognize the tune and then she began to sing with him.

Oh, Christmas tree!
Oh, Christmas tree!
How lovely are they branches…

They finished the song with a sense of respectful and hushed joy. Frank took Gladys's arm and held it in a frail way as they walked back into the apartment building. She knew he was not strong enough to hold her up, so she feigned the need for support to honor his effort.

"Good night, Gladys and Merry Christmas!" Frank's smile was so sweet and wonderful.

Gladys gave Frank a quick kiss on his wrinkled, old cheek. "Merry Christmas to you as well, Frank. Merry, Merry Christmas."

Gladys watched as Frank hobbled back to his door down the hall. He turned and waved before he closed the door behind him. Gladys entered her own apartment and surveyed the mess. Her cat, sensing the change in mood, sidled up to her and leaned heavily against her leg. "Well, dear," she said as she picked up her old cat.  "I guess we'd better clean up this mess." The two stared comfortably at the mess for some time. Setting down the cat, then dismantling her winter garb and pulling off her boots, Gladys thought that this was a very good start of one of the best Christmas seasons in quite some time.

Copyright M.R. Hyde 2012