NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here.
Charlie Brown Christmas
December 1969 ~ Tumbleweed Motel, Coldwater, N.M.
Shirley took a tray of sugar cookies out of the oven. She’d promised Joey he could help decorate them tomorrow. For now, he was sitting on the couch, watching Charlie Brown while snow flurries blew around the parking lot, winking in the light from the brightly colored bulbs they’d strung around the front windows. Joey wanted to put evergreen garlands up with the bulbs, but Shirley had vetoed the idea on the grounds that it was a fire hazard. Those bulbs got a little too hot for her to be comfortable hanging them next to branches full of turpentine that would dry out almost instantly in the desert air. Fortunately, he hadn’t put up too much of a fuss. He was a good boy. Letting him stay had been a good decision.
Shirley put another cookie sheet into the oven and poured two fingers of Irish whiskey into a coffee mug. She stirred in brown sugar and reached for the coffee pot. She knew women who wouldn’t dream of drinking coffee this late, but caffeine had never made much difference to her. Certainly not in the last eight years, anyway. Her nights were hell whether she drank coffee or not. Abuelito’s foul-smelling valerian tea was about the only thing that would reliably put her to sleep, and even then, the dream woke her halfway through the night, no matter what she did.
She opened the refrigerator and got out a carton of cream, sniffing it to make sure it hadn’t blinked. The sell-by date was three days ago, but cream usually kept a good week past that. Confirming it was still sweet, she poured a splash into her coffee and stirred it in.
A gentle jazz arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” floated in from the living room. Shirley patted her foot along with the walking bass line. Maybe she’d watch the rest of that special with Joey. At least it had a good soundtrack.
Soft light changed colors as Shirley walked into the lobby with her coffee and a mug of hot chocolate she’d made for Joey. The motor on the color wheel groaned quietly. The aluminum tree was a little garish for Shirley’s tastes, but Joey had fallen in love with it the minute he’d seen it in a Santa Fe shop window last week, and against her better judgment, Shirley had put the tree, color wheel, and a set of glass balls on her Mastercharge so the boy could have a proper Christmas. His mother hadn’t bothered to get him a tree since he was in first or second grade — a revelation that broke Shirley’s heart.
Shirley handed Joey his hot chocolate and a candy cane to stir it with and sat down next to him.
“Thank you, Mama,” he said without taking his eyes off the old black-and-white Philco in the corner. Shirley would have liked a color set, but that would have to wait. Maybe she could take in some extra sewing jobs and save up for one next year.
She settled onto the couch next to Joey. In his sweet, earnest way, the young man reminded her a little of Charlie Brown, Shirley thought as she watched the cartoon character’s pitiful little Christmas tree transform in his eyes.