Christmas Eve, 1953
by Marlene Bell
Jill bounced on her bed, her small body buoyant with anticipation, its electricity permeating the little room. She was nearly always good, but why had she been so mean to Kevie last summer?
All day, Jill had anticipated Santa's annual trip from the North Pole with increasing anxiety, as her conscience brought forgotten crimes into focus. She now thought of the times during the year she had done something she shouldn't have. She thought of those secret scribes who documented bad behavior.
Elves? No not them. They like mischief, if it isn't too bad. They just run around playing their music pipes and making toys. Guardian angels? Yes, them. They write everything down too, in case you forget.
Why did I bite Kevie and say he bit me first? Lies. Sins. Everyone will know I did something so Santa stayed away.
When her parents came into her room to kiss her goodnight, she quickly vanished under the covers with her eyes closed. After they left her bedroom and closed the door Jill tried to sleep but her head was filled with the breathless anticipation of Christmas.
She crawled to the bottom of the bed, gazing out the window to search the skies for a long sleigh, perhaps preceded by a small red light. Even though everyone knew Rudolph wasn't one of the official reindeer.
Her image reflected on the windowpane, illuminated by the dim glow of the orange candle teetering on the sill. As Jill searched the dark skies, her eyes were drawn downward to observe Mr. Keegan's car crunching along the dirt road as it passed in front of the Bartlett home.
Dennis Keegan hunched over the cold steering wheel. Christmas Eve, and the store had been robbed again. Dennis knew there was nothing he could do about the break in. It was done, and his insurance wouldn't cover everything.
The store's location at Winter Hill had turned out to be a problem because of the crime in the area. The cops had never been very helpful. Perhaps because they were all paid off.
Dennis was known as a polite man who said little, and didn't want to know much. He was honest and did not engage in idle gossip. Very devout, he would not go to midnight mass. Christmas morning with the family was his way. Too many drunks at midnight mass, a disgrace on a Holy Night.
In Ireland, you went to mass Christmas morning and visited with family and friends, and then, if possible, you would travel about for twelve days. Each person, young or old, would perform at different houses.
Usually they would sing or dance, and occasionally read poetry. In some houses they would get drunk and sing the old Republican songs. No, that was on St. Patrick's Day. He paused to let a dog cross in front of the car, its breath visible in the dim light.
Back home there was no doll or train foolishness, at least not where he had been raised. What was the purpose? His wife, Mary, had never had a doll at all, but helped with the younger children. And his girls did not need any more dolls just because it was Christmas. Hopefully that little Bartlett girl would stay home. Without a doubt she would have something for his young ones to be envious about.
He hated this drive to Bethalstan through the cold gray streets. The police had not been encouraging. As usual, Mary had said nothing. He parked his car behind the supermarket and went in through the front door. It was an eerie feeling, knowing that men had broken into his store, robbing him of the little he had. It was only a store, but it was his.
The police were still inside. "Oh, hello, Tom O'Malley," Dennis said to the officer. Damn the man. The cops were all on the take, and the O'Malleys were all pirates from west Mayo. It was in the blood. What was the name of that sneaky little Corkman? Oh yeah, Barrett. "Hello to you, Kevin Barrett. Not a night to be answering calls is it?"
"Well, I wish this were a merry Christmas for you, Dennis," said Detective O'Malley. Barrett just shook his head in sympathy. "It always happens on Christmas," continued O'Malley. "Have you noticed anyone hanging around, but not buying anything?"
Dennis thought of the girl who came in with her boyfriend. They'd wanted the marquis diamond ring, but couldn't afford it. Now they would be out of luck, too. "No, Tom. I wish I could relocate."
"Now, Dennis you know this happens everywhere. There's no getting away from crime. Nothing suspicious? Any workmen?"
"Yeah, well, these punks know there will be stuff to steal at Christmas and they need money. We've been running to calls all night. And after Christmas, there will be suicides." O'Malley, the expert.
"Right, Tom. I'll survey the damage if you don't mind," Dennis replied as he walked past the policemen toward the rear of the store where the open safe was located.
When he left the farm near Sligo, his older brother having inherited everything in the old way, Dennis headed down to Galway City. There he'd been lucky enough to learn the jewelry business. Dennis wasn't sure why he'd left the West, but he'd thought to make his way in America.
He'd started a store and bought the home at the end of Sunset Drive. It was one of the original houses on the little street, with old fixtures and dirty wallpaper. There was a double sink and cracked linoleum in the kitchen.
Outside were outbuildings from another era, a tarpaper barn and a one-room chicken coop. But it had enough land for a vegetable garden and a few animals.
The little bit of farming he and Mary did on Sunset Drive sustained them through the years. The Italian neighbors were good people and minded their own business. The old man was a good grower.
But that young couple, the Mitchells, drank too much and got rowdy. Bud Mitchell beat up his wife Annie. Then she cried to Mary, who was sad for her but couldn't do anything.
The Bartletts had just moved to Sunset Drive. They had kids about the same ages as the Keegans, but his children had work to do, not much time for running in the woods. It was the talk of the neighborhood, the way the Bartletts let the girl run with the boys.
Dennis' eyes quickly scanned the store. The robbers had smashed their way into the cases and jimmied the safe. They had known what they were after, leaving Keegan's Jewelry with only some claddagh rings and fancy rosary beads.
The meager diamonds and other jewels were gone. Casualty Indemnity Insurance would not be pleased. Absently, Dennis wondered what the robbers would get for his life's work. Nothing compared to his loss.
O'Malley interrupted his thoughts. "Well, we've just received a call to the projects. But if there's any information, we'll be in touch with you."
Dazed, Dennis nodded in the policemen's direction. After the squad car pulled away, Dennis sat on his jeweler's stool a long time. There was something he didn't trust about those two. Finally a sigh escaped his throat. It was time to take inventory.
About one o'clock, he locked up and went to his car. In the frigid, cutting air he turned over the engine and waited for the car to warm up. He shivered on the cold seat, his hands bitter in the thin leather gloves. One ten Christmas Eve night, 1953.
Slowly, he headed back down the hill to Sacawete. The occasional merry loud laughter of couples having a good time and cars returning from midnight services broke the cold ice crystal hush of Christmas Eve. Orange colored lights with halos around their bulbs shone in the windows and multi-colored lights twisted around porch railings.
The houses were farther apart as he left Sacawete Center toward Sunset Drive. As he turned onto his street, Dennis glanced at the new little houses with their store decorations and shiny cars, now dark under the moonless sky. He wondered at the benefits that all the American veterans got. There had been no end to Ireland's fight and no benefits, except that they did get the Republic, such as it was, without the six missing counties.
As Dennis began the ascent up the dirt road Jill awoke with a start. She peered out the window and watched Mr. Keegan drive slowly toward his house. She turned to the sky to see if Santa's sleigh could be observed. If she did see Santa, she'd pretend to be asleep so he'd stop at her house. She wondered if Santa would visit the Keegan kids, since their father had been out all this time.
In the next room, the baby rhythmically pounded his head on the crib. But Jill was supposed to be asleep. Soon he fell quiet and the only movement in the Sunset neighborhood was the elves waiting to help Santa unload his sack.
She rested back onto her pillow, listening to the gentle settling of the house and the comforting wind dancing through the neighborhood. That wind will help the reindeer, making their journey from the north easier so Santa can get to all the children in the world.
What exactly are sugarplums…?
Marlene Therese Bell has worn many layers of clothing since reaching "the age of (un) reason." Teacher, Federal worker, ballet dancer, store clerk, popcorn butterer, housewife, hockey mum, traveler, and more.
But the layer closest to her consciousness is that most distant in time, and life as it now is. She is fascinated and appalled by historic time and personal foible.
She says, "In this layer of costume I am a writer, artist, and student of both. We learn as we go. My writing often begins with a story, yet the story unfolds like a blank canvas.
"Our minds dip hesitantly into stillness. We have a preconceived notion, but the story reveals its core as we write. I hope you enjoy this holiday tale, which now seems unreachable. Or, is it?"
You can email Marlene at firstname.lastname@example.org
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