Sugar and Spice

When her door buzzer snapped like radio static, Free stiffened like a rubber band pulled to the limit. It was Christmas Day, late afternoon, and her roommate was whistling while seasoning the Kwanzaa duck. Rising later than planned, Free had frittered away the morning in small domestic tasks, unnecessary, vaguely executed. She floated in a fretful haze that her companion's bright humor couldn't dissipate. Nor the radio. From time to time she searched along the dial for sentimental holiday tunes spun by those mellow voices from "back in the day". Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams. No luck. No witty orchestral arrangements. Just a numbing beatbox. She felt odd. Was she really getting old? She found a station with "The Messiah," a crisp Baroque rendition, and braced herself to listen a second time that day. Why couldn't she relax, let her man do the work, enjoy -- the door buzzer snapped like radio static.


"I'll go downstairs."

"Please. I'm not here."

Free tiptoed into the bathroom, placed awkwardly right next to her unit's entrance. Ear to the door, she heard deliberate leather shoes tread one flight down to the building's front door. Voices. Muffled and brief. Courteous and perfunctory. Then Free remembered, "What if Mother has to go...?"

She scurried out the bathroom, down the length of the unit and up the stairs to the second tier, open as an unfinished balcony. Standing in the shadows of piled up boxes on industrial shelving, Free was careful not to sway the plastic clothing bags on wire hangers on the exposed sprinkler pipes. A building code violation. Listening -- she wasn't cowering -- like a fugitive ready to escape -- but, where? -- Free defended herself to herself,

"This is my home. My time off. I've got a choice, right?"


She heard the front door open again, then shut. Her roommate's ascending footsteps were quicker, lighter. Peering over the inner balcony, she saw him enter, press one index finger to his lips, point downward with the other, shake his head slowly, then disappear underneath the balcony to stand poised at the door buzzer for its inevitable reprise. Free suppressed a sigh, her whole body alert like a spy. Minutes hung, swaying heavily like a corpse. One... Two... Five... How long did she stand there suspended? Long enough to remember an old Christmas tale.

- - -

Mother had always taken the traditions of good people seriously. Throughout Free's childhood and adolescence, hat and gloves were obligatory on Sunday, a telephone call never replaced a thank-you card, a candle was lit when somebody died. Mother had ferocious encounters with her first husband, Free's father. He loved humiliating his wife in front of her kinfolk and friends. Everything he repaired broke again soon after; every home improvement project went unfinished for years. An irresolute tinkerer? Worse. His slipshod handymanship was small-minded spite. Mother called a spade a spade. He was an atheist and loved ugly!

Never a Christmas Eve would pass without a major quarrel. For instance, he could never erect the Christmas tree, his only official holiday task (besides paying for it) without an uproar. He could never understand why his wife had to wait until Christmas Eve to put up the damn tree, even though she had told him and told him it was supposed to be a "surprise" for the kid and the price was cheapest when she waited until the last minute to buy a tree -- after all, was he a millionaire? But he never understood why she had to buy a real fir tree that was too tall and touched the ceiling and had to be shortened every year so the electric Star of Bethlehem could go on top. But no matter how many times she told him and told him and told him how she used those sawed-off pieces to make her window and front door decorations -- quite lovely as everybody -- people who knew better, people who had been raised, people who were quality -- everybody told her and told her -- and less expensive than store-bought wreaths -- or was he a millionaire? But he was never convinced, never swayed from his brand of arithmetic: an artificial tree over time would be less expensive, not to mention less trouble and work for him. Less trouble for him? Of course! He was nothing but a lazy man at heart -- a spade was a spade was a spade!

Thankfully, Free grew strong and tall and helped Mother carry the tree from the vendor to their home several blocks away. Then she helped saw off the top, helped set it up in its place of honor before the living room window where all the neighbors could see and admire.

- - -

How long did Free stand there as if suspended under the shadow of her own rented roof? Five... Ten... Then she thought, this is ridiculous, and crept back down the stairs. Mother's Christmas boxes, festive and banal, were piled high on the sofa. Two plain shopping bags, one brown, one white, lay on the floor. Her roommate put his finger to his lips.

"Quiet. I'm not sure Mother is really gone."

He had begun to call her Mother. What a howl!

"How did they look?" Mother never went anywhere anymore without her shadow, her second husband.

"Fine. Still wearing the toupee."

All together now. Laugh, cry, scream! That's what Free wanted to do.

Her roommate repeated like a grocery list what Mother had said: on their way to dinner at _________, sorry we missed OUR daughter, have plans for New Years Eve.

Like a paroled fence stuck with a stolen white elephant, Free hesitated, then eased her index finger under a huge red satin ready-made bow. Just then the door buzzer zapped her nerves like frayed wires.

"Didn't I tell you?" Her roommate almost hissed.

"Wait. Perhaps it's a mistake."

Thirty seconds. One minute. Another zap.

Was that the front door downstairs? A neighbor must have let them in. Free tiptoed back down the length of the loft. Was that tapping on the door across the hall? A familiar petulant pecking. Mother. At the wrong door. Just then the phone rang and the second husband announced that he was calling from his cell phone and had driven back for the two shopping bags.

"We save them and use them again," he explained.

All together now. Laugh, cry, scream!

When the roommate brought the bags downstairs, he found Mother standing in the narrow lobby. Glowering. Silent.

- - -

Like a feisty Chihuahua, the telephone answering machine yipped, winking its red light every other second. Inches away at her computer Free leaned over and gave it a light tap with her left index finger. Electronic, the answering machine was the first improvement her roommate had made to their place -- of course, Free's name was still the only one on the lease, but he had made himself at home with barely his nose under the tent. He had arrived on Thanksgiving with a cooked turkey small enough for two in a disposable roaster in an insulated pizza tote (he was a recent graduate of a restaurant school). Since then he had tightened the crooked screws in her shower curtain pole and replaced the blown-out refrigerator bulb and tacked down the frayed carpet end she had been tripping over for the past two and a half years she had sublet this minimally renovated artists loft. The owner had bought a regular mansion with some kind of genius grant.

Flexing her fingers on the keyboard, Free, who was a freelancer, smiled smugly. Had she found her perfect mate? The perfect milk for her cappuccino, the strongest pill for her migraines, the quietest sorter for her loose change, the sturdiest organizer for her credit cards -- oooooops! Don't get carried away.

At the moment he was out jogging his daily twenty blocks and back. Just enough time for Free to receive and concoct a zinger to Mother's obnoxious message on the machine:

"Ignoring your own mother on Christmas? Now I know why! He had the nerve to answer the door! Get a lawyer before it's too late! Get a ring before you know what!"

While her latest assignment was storing on a zip disk, Free poured herself a second cup of coffee. A mellow Ethiopian brew she was getting used to. Then she got a stamped padded envelope already addressed to herself (the obligatory SASE) and covered her own name and address with white-out. When it dried, she wrote Mr. and Mrs. Holloway (her mother's second husband's name) and their Jamaica (as in Queens) address with a bold black Crayola marker. She stuffed their Christmas gifts to her into the envelope, pressed down hard on the self-adhesive flap, then stapled it. Within fifteen minutes she was on the IRT to the Thirty-Fourth Street Main Post Office.

For a half-hour, the freelancer stood in a sullen post office queue. The day after Christmas -- were these forgetful, guilty kinfolk or bargain hunters? To entertain herself Free wondered which would arrive first: this overnight package or her thank you notes for the selfsame gifts. That very morning before Mother's infuriating phone call she had dropped the cards into the mailbox down the block. Even though Free was the writer, Mother always had the last word. Insufferable!

Free tittered to herself as she reboarded a dingy train. The thank-you cards would most certainly arrive after the express package. Snail mail. The last word.

All the way back to Alphabet City, the freelancer tittered. Returning Christmas gifts. The day after Christmas. That's traditional, right? What a howl!

The week before Christmas her real father had phoned three times. Calls she never returned. Then his forty dollars arrived tucked in a Christmas card entitled "Daughter, You're a Very Special Blessing".

Yes, she was Daddy's little girl.

About the author:

The poet Yvonne writes short fiction under the name Yvonne Chism-Peace. Recent publications are: Wired Hearts, "Call Accounting"; Word Riot,"Close Calls"; Inkburns, "This is Not a Questionnaire"; Moondance,"Miss"; Clever Magazine, "Mid-Century Homily"; Feminista "Domestic Help" Moxie, "Aftertaste"; In Posse Review "Tumbling"; Thought, "The Key" Saint Anne's Review, "The Dusk". Her books of poetry are IWILLA SOIL, IWILLA SCOURGE, and IWILLA RISE (Chameleon Productions Inc. 1985, 1986, 1999) for which she won NEA fellowships. She was the poetry editor at MS. magazine (1974-1987)