Christmas 1982. Sarah was 4. Jonah was 2. Jonah was too young for expectations, and I was grateful for that. As for my daughter, Sarah, well, I hadn’t seen her since mid-October.
It had been a nice fall day. I’d gotten my monthly check for $329. That and some food stamps were all we had to live on. Sarah had been determined to have a Strawberry Shortcake Halloween costume — a new one, not a faded, worn one from the thrift store where I bought everything else that we owned. On my budget, the costume was a foolish extravagance, but it was desperately important to Sarah — and Sarah was desperately important to me. We bought the costume. She went to sleep with it in her arms. That night her father came to the door.
His appearances were sporadic. Jonah would never really know him as a father, but Sarah loved that man. For the first two years of her life, until she learned to talk, he’d taken her everywhere with him. I would find out later that he held her on his lap while he played cards and let her sleep on piles of coats while he shot dice in smoky shuttered apartments all over the west side of Chicago. All I knew at the time was that wherever he was was where she wanted to be.
He’d been on his way to Mississippi to visit his mother that October night. He wanted Sarah. I let her go. Two months later, on Christmas Day, all I had of her was the image of my sleepy little girl clutching that Halloween costume that I never got to see her wear. I knew that her father would bring her home one day just as randomly as he’d taken her, but I also knew that everything he did he did on his own schedule and that nothing I could do would make it happen sooner.
As it was, I was too sick to take care of the child I still had. Jonah was a sweet 2-year-old, more prone to cuddling than to destruction. He was the child I needed him to be. I had asthma so bad then that I couldn’t talk and breathe at the same time.
Our apartment was odd. From its original luxury, it had been carved into separate sleeping rooms with a common bath. At some point those orphaned single rooms were re-grouped in twos and threes. Each of my three rooms had a door that led to the hallway. Except for one, those doors were nailed shut. New doors had been cut to connect the rooms, but they’d never been finished. They were framed by rough plaster and exposed insulation. The bedroom had a sink that was no longer attached to any plumbing. By walking into the closet and stepping out the back of it, you’d find the bathroom. Behind the tub was a hole that allowed someone’s black cat to come up through the basement.
The wheezing radiator taunted me and cheered on my asthma. When the big old boiler in the basement had kicked on for the first time that fall, it began spewing all of the mold and mildew that it had collected over the summer up through the pipes. I hadn’t drawn a clean breath since.
A storefront doctor had given me medicine that made my skin crawl but did little to ease my breathing. As much as possible, I lay motionless on the dusty old secondhand couch, whose past was as questionable as my own. I watched Jonah play, praying that I wouldn’t have to get up to rescue him from any childish misadventures.
From somewhere I’d acquired two toys for the kids that Christmas. There was a little low-to-the-ground wooden horse with wheels. I’d painted it yellow and glued red yarn on for a mane. And there was a rag doll — must have come from a thrift shop, but maybe I got it from some church. It was about 2 feet tall and had an elastic strap on each foot that a child could pull over his own feet to make a perfect dancing partner.
I lay gasping on the couch while Jonah sat on the little horse, clutching the doll in front of the TV. Not all televisions were color in those days, but ours was, and it was large for its time — an incongruent extravagance in our shabby rundown lives. Two years earlier, after an absence that made me believe I’d never see him again, my children’s father had rung my buzzer. I ran down to meet him, desperate to get $2 from him for milk. He shooed me back up the stairs. He needed to make a grand entrance with his surprise. It was the television. He and his cousin carried it in and presented it to 2-year-old Sarah. I was pregnant with Jonah then. Their father turned to me proudly. “I got the heaviest one they had so you can’t carry it to the pawn shop,” he said. He didn’t have the $2.
Now, on Christmas Day of 1982, with his sister absent and his father not even a memory to him, Jonah sat intently in front of that TV. I looked at him. Then I looked at the dust that filled the gaps between the baseboards and the floor of our apartment. I looked at the exposed powdery plaster edging the doorways and the crumbling foam that oozed from the threadbare sofa cushions. I thought about how many things I should do that might help me breathe better — but I couldn’t move. I forced my chest to rise and let it fall it, trying to compel air into my lungs between spasms. I looked at Jonah and tried to think up some way that I could possibly be a good mother to that child or at least an adequate mother. Some way that didn’t involve money. Or breathing.
A loud gurgling noise broke into my thoughts. I pushed myself up off the couch and into the kitchen, where thick black water bubbled up in the sink. I headed downstairs for the building manager. I had heard somewhere of the “dead man’s 10 seconds.” The theory was that even if somebody shot you through the heart, you’d still have 10 seconds of life to do whatever you needed to do. Each step I took felt like that dead man’s 10 seconds.
I got to the manager’s door and gasped out my problem. Edwina, the manager, was motherly in a masculine kind of way. She rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a wrench and was upstairs hard at work in my kitchen by the time I stumbled back to my apartment and collapsed on the couch. Jonah wheeled over, cuddled with me for a minute, then sat back down on his horse and paddled back to the TV.
When I heard Edwina leave, I didn’t get up to lock the door. I thought about it, tried to make it feel important enough to justify the breath it would cost me, but I didn’t move. Then the door opened again. It was Edwina. In her freshly scrubbed hands, she carried a plate, piled with chicken and dressing, which she thrust at me. “Eat,” she said, and was gone.
I set the plate on my chest, grateful to have it yet not sure I could eat and breathe at the same time. I looked over to Jonah to signal him to come enjoy the feast, but he was completely absorbed with the television. I looked at the TV. It was The King and I. As I watched my son watch the screen, the orchestra swelled. Yul Brynner took his partner in his arms and swept her across the dance floor. Jonah rose from his little yellow horse, lifted his rag doll, and began to dance. In that dusty little misshapen apartment, he was the king of Siam. He danced. He danced. He danced. The warm plate on my chest seemed to ease the bronchial spasms a bit. The scent of dinner made me realize that I was breathing. I felt myself smile. It was a good Christmas.
Carol Manley is a regular contributor to Illinois Times and a finalist for the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (University of Georgia Press).