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Finding the Way Home for Christmas

by Ron Van Sweringen

Maxie Malone finished putting on her purple eyeliner and black lipstick in the subway. An elderly woman with a suitcase on her lap held the mirror for her.

“Honey,” the old woman asked, “does your mother know you have holes punched in your nose?”

Maxie was late as usual. A broken bootstrap on the way downstairs from her fourth-floor walk-up almost sent her into the communal trash bin on the first floor. She momentarily considered reclimbing Mount Everest to change shoes, but gave up the idea, realizing she had forgotten her key.

“Frig it,” she moaned. A leftover burrito she had gulped down for breakfast threatened to reappear. Scuffing her right boot along because of the broken strap delayed her even more and caused people to stare, as if her zebra-striped leotards and spray-painted leather jacket were not enough already.

“If I get fired today,” she panted, “it won’t be my fault. It’s bad karma.”

The Pancake House was crowded as usual, with a half dozen frozen souls waiting outside for tables. Maxie checked her Mickey Mouse watch. She was exactly twenty-seven minutes late.

“Hey you!” Fat Thomas, the floor manager, shouted at her when she tried to slip into the uniform changing room unnoticed.

“You’re a half hour late. That’s the second time this week,” he bellowed, a huge roll of fat around his middle wobbling up and down with each breath.

“Sorry, Mr. Thomas,” Maxie replied, trying to distance herself from him

“One more time and you’re history,” he added. “Get rid of that friggin black lipstick. You look like a friggin vampire.”

“Don’t pay any attention to him, honey,” Maxie heard a voice from behind her in the changing room. “He’s just hot this morning because he didn’t make out last night.”

Maxie burst out laughing. Somehow the thought of Fat Thomas making out was impossible to picture.

“How do you know?” Maxie asked, turning to face Marla, a forty-something bleached blonde waitress wearing rhinestone earrings.

“Mario, the dishwasher told me,” she smiled. “Mario said that Fat Thomas bought him two drinks at Sandy’s bar last night, after we closed. Then the old walrus put his hand on Mario’s knee. When he started working his hand up toward peckerville, Mario gave him an elbow in the ribs. Mario is only into women, ‘waay into women’ if you dig,” she laughed, rolling her eyes.

The rest of Maxie’s day was miserable. She had to work in someone else’s old bedroom shoes she had found in an empty locker. On top of that, Fat Thomas glared at her every time she turned around. The only bright spot was a ten-dollar tip from three middle-aged women who all ordered the grapefruit and wilted lettuce salad with prune marinade dressing. The sight of those three salads on her tray made Maxie seriously consider never reaching forty-five.

It was six-thirty and Maxie shivered on the platform, waiting for the subway. She pulled her coat tighter around her and smiled, thinking about the morning’s conversation in the changing room. She couldn’t help wondering about Mario the dishwasher. He wasn’t bad looking and he had even asked her for a date once, but she turned him down. “Big mistake,” she thought, scrunching her toes against the cold.

The subway car was nearly empty, only an old woman sat in the back. It was the same old woman who had held the mirror for Maxie that morning. Come to think of it, she was sitting in the same seat, with the same battered suitcase resting on her lap, arms folded over it.

“Hi,” Maxie greeted her. “Do you remember me?”

“The girl with holes punched in her nose,’ the old woman replied smiling, her wispy gray hair peeking out from under a red wool cap.

“Funny we should get the same car twice in one day. I’m Maxie,” she said, opening a pack of chewing gum and offering a piece to her.

“Thank you,” the old woman nodded, taking the full pack of gum and jamming it into her coat pocket.

Maxie was surprised by her action and started laughing. The more she thought about it, the funnier it got. She could tell by the look in the old woman’s eyes that she didn’t have a clue what was so funny.

Finally Maxie pulled herself together and asked, “Do you take this subway often?”

“I change lines every now and then,” the old woman replied. “I get tired of looking at the same stops all day.”

Maxie was confused by her answer. “Do you ride the subway all day?” she asked

“It’s better than being out in the cold,” the old woman replied. They put us out of the shelter at eight o’clock in the morning. Can’t come back until six o’clock at night. I usually don’t go back until after seven.”

Maxie was quiet for a moment. She was not prepared for the old woman’s response.

“Time to get off,” the old woman said abruptly. “My name is Agnes,” she said as she disappeared, suitcase in hand.

Maxie saw Agnes on the subway every day for the next week and grew fond of the peculiar old woman. They were a strange pair, Agnes and the punk-rock girl wearing black lipstick. Agnes’s conversation was occasionally disjointed and hard to follow, but she always remarked on Maxie’s changing appearance, her new green eye shadow or the shiny yellow plastic boots she wore for the first time. Agnes complimented Maxie’s blue eyes and her thick mop of red hair, occasionally reaching out to touch it.

“Virginia has red hair,” she said one day and then refused to say more when questioned.

Sitting next to Agnes and seeing the lost look in her eyes made Maxie sad. She felt about the old woman the way she would feel about her own grandmother, if she had one.

It was Friday night, the week before Christmas, and Maxie found a crowd waiting on the subway platform after work. When the train arrived, she made her way into the last car, expecting to see Agnes in her usual seat, but she was not there. Even more troubling, Agnes’s battered suitcase was next to her empty seat.

Maxie turned to a lone woman passenger sitting across the aisle reading a newspaper.

“Excuse me,” she said, “was there an old woman sitting here?”

“She died,” came the brief answer. “They took her off at 44th and Union.”

The four flights of stairs seemed harder than ever to climb as Maxie reached the top landing and her apartment door. Once inside, she looked at Agnes’s battered suitcase, sitting in the middle of the floor. Maxie was overwhelmed by sadness, thinking about the old woman. Somehow when her stop came up, she could not leave Agnes’s suitcase sitting there. Now she regretted taking it, what was to be done with it?

Agnes’s death disturbed Maxie more than she cared to admit, causing her to think of her own family. Looking around the dingy flat, she suddenly felt very alone. She missed her father. His death had been sudden, and Maxie regretted not having had the chance to say goodbye to him. She missed her younger brother also, and her mother, but not her stepfather. Maxie rebelled against his domineering personality from the beginning, his strict guidelines of what she could wear and where she could go. She desperately longed for her father and the trust he always had in her.

Maxie vowed to leave home at eighteen and she did, moving across the bridge into New York City six months ago on her eighteenth birthday. Her father had left her five thousand dollars in a bank account. It was almost as though he knew she would need ‘escape money’.

Maxie changed into something warm and comfortable. She brought out a bottle of red wine from under the pantry and when her wine glass was half full, she dropped an ice cube into it, calling out, “Bulls-eye.”

After a second bulls-eye, Maxie decided to open Agnes’s suitcase. Maybe something inside would give her an idea of what to do about it. She tried untying the single length of clothesline wrapped tightly around the suitcase, but the knot was impossible to undo.

“How in the world did she open this?” Maxie asked herself. Then it occurred to her, Agnes didn’t open it. The rope was there to keep it closed, permanently.

Maxie felt uncomfortable cutting the rope, as though she were invading Agnes’s privacy. When the suitcase opened, a neatly folded pink nightgown’s lacy border moved with the air. Maxie lifted the garment gently and found an old blue envelope beneath it. There was a card in the envelope, decorated with tiny pink flowers and the word ‘Congratulations’ printed across its cover.

Inside of the card, written in faded ink, were the words, ‘My baby, Virginia, six pounds, one ounce. Born September 26th, 1948’. A folded piece of white paper and a small black and white photograph were also inside of the envelope.

The photograph was of a newborn baby and Maxie assumed it must be Virginia. The piece of folded paper bore the name Virginia and an address: 2201 Highland Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. The words, ‘lives here’ and the date 1967, were also written in the same faded ink. One last item was in the envelope, a plain gold wedding band, with the inscription ‘All my love forever’.

Maxie didn’t open the suitcase again for the next few days. She concentrated on getting to work on time and making as many tips as possible. Her rent was due in a week. Everything was going fine until Thursday morning, when her alarm clock failed to go off and she was an hour late for work.

Fat Thomas was waiting for her when she came through the door of the Pancake House. Maxie started to explain, but he cut her off.

“You’re fired,” he snickered, “get your stuff and get out.” On the way out of the door, Maxie gave Fat Thomas the finger. Two elderly black women sitting near the door applauded Maxie as she left.

“You go girl,” one of them shouted, giving Maxie a high five.

It was three days before Christmas and she’d just been fired. “So why don’t I feel bad?” Maxie asked herself that evening, dropping an ice cube into her wine glass. Part of the answer, she decided, was not having to tolerate Fat Thomas any more. She still had over three thousand dollars in her bank account, and who knew what the New Year would bring?

Later that night, lying in bed with the lights out, listening to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” Maxie made a decision. She would go home for Christmas, if only for a day or two, but first she had another stop to make.

Agnes’s suitcase was small and it fit nicely in the overhead rack of the Greyhound bus. Maxie settled back to the purring engine, and the two-hour trip to New Hope.

Maxie knew it was a long shot, looking for someone named Virginia at an address that was almost thirty years old. If the trail ended there, her conscience would be clear; she would have done her best for Agnes.

The house at 2201 Highland Street looked like the picture on a Christmas card. The large stone colonial had dark shutters and a bright red door. Holly and small twinkling white lights framed the door.

Maxie took a deep breath and rang the bell.

A dark-haired young man smiled at Maxie as he opened the door, eyeing her up and down. “Hi, I’m Jack. What can I do for you?”

Maxie was well aware of the ‘eye undressing’, and the ‘what can I do for you’ wasn’t lost on her either. The problem was, she guessed him to be about fourteen.

“I’m looking for Virginia,” Maxie said hesitantly, squeezing the handle of Agnes’s suitcase.

“Hey mom,” the young man called out, turning away from the door, “it’s for you.”

Maxie’s heart beat faster. Had she found Virginia? The woman who appeared in the doorway was beautiful and Maxie couldn’t help staring at her, especially her red hair.

“I’m looking for Virginia,” Maxie repeated, not sure of what to say next.

“My name is Virginia,” the woman replied. “Come inside out of the cold, dear, and tell me your name.”

The inside of the house was so beautiful it took Maxie’s breath away. A fire burned in the living room hearth and a magnificent Christmas tree stood in front of a bay window overlooking the snow-covered valley.

Maxie felt out of place standing there, holding Agnes’s battered old suitcase. For a moment she thought, I must be crazy doing this.

“Now sit down, Maxie, and tell me why you’re here,” Virginia said, motioning to a chair.

Maxie had a hard time knowing where to start. Finally she said, “I have here a piece of paper with the name Virginia on it and the address of this house. It also has a date of 1967 on it. Does that mean anything to you?”

“That’s the year my husband and I moved into this house,” Virginia answered with a puzzled look.

Maxie felt better as she opened Agnes’s suitcase and began telling Virginia the story.

“Oh my God,” Virginia whispered, with tears in her eyes. “She was my mother. I searched for years trying to find her and then I finally gave up.”

Maxie breathed a sigh of relief. Now she could go home for Christmas. She was sure Agnes would be proud of her, in spite of the holes punched in her nose. Now if only her stepfather would come to the same conclusion.

Copyright © 2010 by Ron Van Sweringen

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