At exactly 4, she stepped away from the convenience store’s front counter, dodged through the so-called kitchen, and pushed out through the back door. The store owners, the Patels, were strict: clock in on time, clock out on time, or else get yourself a new job. She needed this job badly, so she forced herself to be a time-watcher now. It meant survival.
Christmas Eve. 4 p.m. The darkest night of the year, it seemed to Brenda—in more ways than one. She hurried across the icy parking lot toward the strip mall that fronted the four-lane. She was between shifts; 8 to 4 today, then four hours off, and then back for the shift she’d picked up from Theresa, who needed this job too, but who had obligations tonight: kids, dinner, and Mass. Tee had been late the last couple of mornings and was skating on thin ice with the Patels. Clock in, clock out… or else.
Hurrying into the Dollar-ama—OPEN till 8:00 pm their poster said, CLOSED CHRISTMAS DAY—Brenda took a shopping basket and started down the rows. The store was a mess, with things strewn all over the floor. Christmas cards scattered everywhere. The contents of a torn bag of nondescript candies littering one aisle. A mess, compared to where she worked. Her store might be a mom-and-pop (actually brothers-and-cousins) convenience store and not a link in one of those humongous chains with digital signs constantly flashing gas prices, but the Patels made sure it was well stocked—and tidy.
Brenda stepped around boxes of holiday wrapping paper and headed for the freezers in the rear. She had eight dollars, perhaps nine if she counted up all the change in her coat pocket. Tonight she couldn’t spend more than half; she had to survive till payday.
The freezers had been ransacked. Nuggets-and-fries and Salisbury steak were gone. There were still pot pies. “Good,” she muttered, taking two chicken pies. Tonight and tomorrow. She headed for the health aisle. Lady stuff. She couldn’t afford the prices where she worked.
On the way to check out, it would have been smarter if she’d walked down the pet and hardware aisle, but she wasn’t thinking and found herself in stationery instead. She stopped short. All along one side of the aisle notebooks were arrayed in squared piles, the neatest display in the entire store. School notebooks, journals, diaries, pocket notepads. Full size, half-size, in a kaleidoscope of bright colors, some sporting cutesy inspirational sayings. An array of jazzy and comfy designs—rainbows, kittens in baskets, puppies begging.
No, she told herself, but she knew it was a half-hearted no, and knew her resolve was crumbling. She only had eight dollars. And three of them were now accounted for. One more dollar would leave her half. Only four dollars till payday. But a notebook—
It was the world to Brenda. The world. And it was Christmas Eve, the time of gift-giving, the season of the Magi. After deliberating a few moments, she chose a notebook with a cover design that reminded her of an O’Keeffe, and headed for checkout.
She went out, across the parking lot, across the four-lane, toward the cut-rate hotel further along the frontage road that served her need right now; cheapest in town, within walking distance of work, sort of near the bus line, and not completely derelict.
She’d insisted on a second-floor room. Inside, she put down her bag and shrugged off her coat. The room was small, but the plumbing worked and so did the microwave and the fridge— though the fridge hummed so loudly that Brenda turned it off at night. She put one of the pot pies in the microwave and nuked it per instructions. She looked at her phone. Two minutes to six.
At six on the dot her phone rang.
“Hello, Brenda. Merry Christmas.”
Their conversation batted around, touching every base in their long-standing argument. No, she wouldn’t back down. No, she wasn’t going back to him. Yes, she loved her kids. No, she wasn’t going to take his abuse anymore. No. No. Yes. Yes.
“Yes, I’m working. Yes, I’m getting by. No, I can’t come home. I’m OK. Yes, I talk to them. No, I can’t tell you where I am. Yes, I wish I could come home, but I can’t, not right now. I have to do this. I have to…. I gotta go. Because my dinner is waiting. Chicken… Yes…Merry Christmas. Yes…maybe tomorrow. OK. Bye.”
She picked up the Dollar-ama bag. At home they always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning. She took out the notebook, her gift to herself. She had half an hour before she had to start back to work.
She went to her purse, and found her pen. Brenda started to write, spilling from her the first lines of a story that had come to her earlier in the day. She wrote quickly and neatly, the words filling the lines of the notebook, pulling her into a new world. But then, the ink began to fail her. Before the end of her second paragraph, it had run dry. Completely. Brenda gasped in disbelief. No! Not this! She got up and rummaged through her purse again. No more pens. In a sudden flush of desperation, she wrenched open the desk drawer. Of course, there was no pen in it, and if there had ever been one, it would have been decades ago, from a chain of hotels long deceased.
A flood of frustration and anger coursed through Brenda. She should have bought a pack of pens when she chose the notebook. Foolish mistake! But then, that would have meant another dollar gone; a dollar wasted on more writing stuff—a total, complete waste, they’d all said—to feed her love, her dream, her self.
She closed the notebook and laid the pen across the cover. But my writing is not a waste, she said to herself. And neither am I. She pulled on her coat. She would go back to work early. She blinked away tears and went out into the frosty night.
Under the towering streetlights, she could pick out the debris that lined the shoulder. Food wrappers, smashed Styrofoam cups, a hair barrette. Her eyes scanned the dirty snow, looking for a pen, but the closest thing resembling the shape was a straw. It gave her a start, and then disappointed her beyond words.
She could take one from the Patel’s Readi-mart, of course, although that would mean having to unwind the masking tape and remove the plastic spoon bound to every pen to discourage theft. She dismissed the idea as a descent into dishonesty. It wouldn’t be a theft on the level of a co-worker, a college student who had helped himself to a packet of Bics one slow night, when he was trying to finish some homework that he’d stashed under the counter: $3.49 plus tax. She was relieved when he didn’t show up for his next shift.
Brenda had had enough of theft. She had taken a vow against it the day she fled. She would no longer allow it; not theft of her time, her safety, her soul, her thoughts, or her dreams. She had tried to explain that to her mom, but her mom didn’t hear her. Her sister got it and told Brenda to go, to save herself. Then she and her husband took Brenda’s kids in, for the time being. The kids were safe with them.
Christmas songs that had been playing when she left work were playing when she returned to take her place behind the counter: Holly Jolly Christmas, Silver Bells, I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The tape on the radio station had obviously cycled around. She tried to ignore the lyrics, but they nagged her. She was a writer, after all. Words were everything. Words were what you used to convey your deepest, most essential thoughts.
“Pack of Marlboro Lights—”
Brenda looked at the customer. It was the man in the motorized wheel chair. Paralyzed legs, of course. One arm worked normally, but the other — ? He lived in an apartment up the hill, behind the Readi-Mart.
“Something’s gotta get me through Christmas,” he added, looking at Brenda’s name tag with a wry expression. “How ‘bout you, Brenda?”
Brenda stopped, stunned into speechlessness. Her hand was halfway to the cigarette rack. He had used her name. She couldn’t remember a time when someone had called her Brenda, like that. Like it was a name, a nice name. Not a taunt, a put-down, a word enjambed between nasty epithets of vulgarity and derision.
“I don’t know,” she whispered through a fog of emotions. “I’m working, I guess….”
“Hell of a thing, to work tonight. Should be home . . . with your kids.”
Sudden tears pinched the inside of Brenda’s eyes, stinging worse than all the tears she had cried these last weeks. Christmas Eve. Her kids. Did they have any understanding, at all, of why she had to do this thing? This escape? This salvation of herself? She hung her head, to avoid showing him her tears. Without looking at him, she laid the cigarettes on the counter.
“Hey, Brenda. I’m sorry,’” the man said, seeing the tears spilling from her eyes. “I shouldn’t have said that—” He was taking out a twenty-dollar bill from an inside shirt pocket, He tossed it toward her, not rudely, but so it would reach up from his chair to the counter.
An apology. It only made her tumult worse. A stranger apologizing for hurting her. A stranger…. She stifled a sob, ringing up the sale.
As she counted out his change, he said: “Will you do me a favor? Open the pack for me? Otherwise, I gotta use my teeth.”
Slowly, Brenda opened the cellophane band, and then the inside foil. She handed him the pack.
“Thanks,” he said, tucking it into his inside shirt pocket.
Brenda offered him his change. “Keep it,” he said. “It’s Christmas Eve. Buy yourself a bag of kisses, or maybe a hot chocolate, or two. Something to get you through the night.” His hand came up to his joystick and he whirred away toward the door.
Just before they locked the doors at midnight, Brenda went down the far aisle, to the last shelf, near the restrooms. From the small stationery display, she chose a 12-pack of ordinary stick pens. A pen for tonight, a pen for tomorrow; pens for all the Twelve Days, and beyond. She clutched the pack in her hands. The man had no idea what his gift meant to her tonight. Walking back to the counter, she knew that she would write her way through this night and keep writing through the day tomorrow. And she knew she would make it through all the long winter days to come.
Author's CommentAlthough it seldom happens, I have, once or twice in my life, run out of ink or found myself without paper when I needed it most. I know that burning frustration, and how important writing is to my sense of self and wellbeing. This is key to Brenda’s story. No matter her dire circumstances, she resolves to follow her creative instinct. It’s the common denominator among the writers I know. We write because we must. Brenda is one of us.