The Drive To Christmas

The drive to Christmas

It was the coldest Christmas Eve on record, and a woman on Detroit’s east side had been found frozen to death, clinging to a chain link fence, at 6:30 in the morning, only two blocks from where she lived. Marsha shivered as she read in the paper that the woman’s body had to be cut away, it stuck so firmly to the metal.

Damn the news, she thought, they always play up the grisly details in a tone that sounds like they are announcing the winners of cheerleading tryouts. Marsha threw downt he newspaper and walked upstairs to the attic door. Time to dig out that tired tinsel again, she thought. It was funny to hear herself playing the unreformed Scrooge, she the former queen of Christmas for whom no amount of cookie baking was enough, no amount of shopping too tiring. Marsha remembered her dedication to Christmas crafts, which had begun in the second grade and did not let up for 30 years.

“What are you doing, honey?” Marsha’s mother called from her bedroom across the hall from the attic door. “I’m going up to get a couple boxes,” Marsha yelled back as she climbed the squeaky stairs. “There’s fresh coffee on,” her mother added.

“Do you want some help?” her mother called when Marsha reached the cedar closet. A drift of snow lay directly below one of the air vents in the roof. Damn roofers, Marsha thought. “”No, mother, I’ll be right down.” She pulled her sweater tight around her and tied the belt.

She did not feel like bringing the boxes of decorations down from the closet shelves or looking at the handmade ones that reminded her of friends she did not see anymore. It wasn’t supposed to work this way–those times were supposed to be treasures that you haul out of your memory once a year and fondle like the fragile glass balls you hang on the Christmas tree. Well, the freindships are all breaking apart just like the glass balls, Marsha thought, as she examined the tranished supply of ornaments. I never liked those aqua ones anyway, she decided.

Marsha stacked a few boxes in her arms, grabbed two strings of lights and a cardboard form wrapped with garland, and pulled the light chain. She kicked the door shut behind her.

“Did you get everything?” her mother asked as Marsha dumped the boxes in the living room.

“Yes. Enough” Marsha replied.

“Did you bring the pine cones?”

“Oh, mother, couldn’t we do without the pine cones. They’re falling apart anyway.”

“Honey, they make such a nice centerpiece,” her mother begged. “Come on. We wouldn’t even be having a tree if your brother hadn’t called. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, mother. I just don’t see the point in it anymore. There are no children in this house, and it’s just a lot of work. For what?”

“You know, Marsha, you’re my daughter, right? Right?” Her mother persisted, firmly tucking away a wisp of gray hair.

“Yes, mother. I’m your daughter.” Marsha braced herself for a sermon.

“You’re my daughter. But sometimes I don’t understand you. You’re never satisfied. You’ve got everything. A beautiful home. A fine understanding husband–a good provider, I might add. And then I talk to you and your mind’s in orbit somewhere. It’s Christmas Eve, and everything should be beautiful.”

“Mother, honestly and truly. I am not in orbit. I’m happy as can be that Michael is flying in this afternoon. And I’m glad Charles is bringing home a tree. We’ll be together tonight, just the four of us, and I’m very grateful for that. Believe me.” Marsha leaned over and kissed her mother softly on the forehead. She caught the scent of White Shoulders–that familiar smell that belonged so completely to her mother. There was a bottle of it upstairs waiting to be wrapped.

Outside, the streets had accumulated three days worth of slush and then frozen into a tangle of tire tracks and ice chunks which was being coated with a tranquil veil. It was unclear to her mother and to her husband, when he finally made it home from work with the Christmas tree, why Marsha dropped her spatula, threw her apron on the love seat in the vestibule and left for the airport without turning off the oven. The fact is, Marsha had grown bored of her cookie-baking project before the shortening entered the bowl.

As Marsha climbed into her Thunderbird, she was not thinking about the falling snow or about her mother, napping in the house. She was thinking aout the little brother she hardly saw anymore–his hair cut so short, his uniform so perfect and stiff. Where had all the time gone? How sad that we ever grow up, she thought, so sad and so quick.

Marsha decided not to take the expressway to the airport. She thought the surface streets would be better. She headed west on a main drag and soon was caught in a parade of traffic that inched along between lights. She decided to stop at a party store. Probably the present Michael would like most, she thought, a nice selection of good liquor. When she left the store, the traffic was crawling as before. It was 4:30 already. The snow was coming down in clusters and crunched underfoot. The wind whisked under Marsha’s coat.

At 5:30, as she turned south toward the airport, Marsha hoped that the plane had also been delayed. To escape the traffic, she turned into a less traveled and only slightly unfamiliar route. It was almost dark now, and Marsha was frustrated over the continuing snowfall. She couldn’t see ten feet in front of her. Circles of snow spun and swirled liek little tornadoes aimed at the windshield. Marsha gripped the steering whell and stepped on the brake. At the same time, she realized that she was nearer the road’s edge than she had thought. In an instant, it was too late. She heard the scraping of snow against the underside of the car, and the whole dashboard tilted to the right as a tire cam to rest in the ditch.

Oh my God, Marsha thought, how stupid can I be. She threw the car into reverse and heard the terrible sound of spinning wheels. Rock it, rock it, she thought, and thrust the gear stick from reverse to drive as if to rip it from its socket. Marsha opened the car door and stepped out into the snow. Her high-heeled boots slipped out from under her. She got up and looked in dismay at the circle of slop on her camel coat. She made her way to the trunk. Kitty litter will get me out of this, she thought. It didn’t, though she dumped an entire bag of the stuff under the rear tires and tried again to rock the car, which, as if to defy her, then stalled and would not be started.

Marsha lay her head on the steering wheel. When she raised it, she saw a gas station up the road. It was dark. The streets were dark and, as if by magic, they were suddenly empty. No cars anywhere. Even if there were cars, she thought, would I get into one? She decided to walk.

When she reached the gas station, a uniformed man inside was counting the money in the cash register, with a flashlight pointed at the till. She pulled on the door. It was locked. The man heard her and looked up. He gestured and shook his head no.

Is he kidding? Marsha thought as she looked down the streets at two dark buildings and the snow-covered highway. What am I supposed to do, freeze to death in this blizzard while he counts his change?

“You don’t understand,” she called through the glass. I don’t want gas. I’m stranded. My car won’t start.”

The man, Marsha guessed, was pushing forty, as she liked to say about herself. She couldn’t decide if he looked like a thug or a nice guy. He sauntered over to the door.

Bad night to be be stranded,” he said, “Everything closed. Now the electricity’s gone out on me. Christmas Eve. We s’posed to be closed at six o’clock.”

“I’m awfully sorry. I’m on my way to the airport, and if you could just help me with my car, I’ll be on my way.” Marsha opened her purse and dug our her Triple A card.

“We’re not a Triple A station,” the man volunteered as she held the card out to him.

“Well, then I guess I’ll just pay cash,” Marsha said, wondering first if she had it and then if she wanted him to know she had it. The she realizedthat this was one of theose stations that do nothing but pump gas–where you go to the teller and say ten dollars on number six, like at the race track. No garage, no wrecker.

“Where can I call?” Marsha said.

“Lotta places you could call,” the man answered, “but the phone’s down along with the electricity.”

The many opened a drawer and began clanging tools around. “It’s probably just flooded,” he said, putting on his bloves and raising his parka hood. “If my ride comes, tell him I’ll be right back.”

Marsha waited in the station, silently reprimanding herself.

In fifteen minutes, the man returned. “I got it started all right, but that car won’t move without a tow truck.”

Marsha looked out the window at the growing mounds of snow around the gas pumps. The thermometer in the corner read near zero. She turned around to face the stranger. “Well,” she inhaled, “my name is Marsha Kovaks.” She hesitated. “We might as well know each other’s name.”

“Ray Upton,” the man said. “The storm should let up soon. My ride will be here.” Then he looked at Marsha and said. “I don’t think you’re going to make it to the airport.”

“Well maybe the plane will be late or maybe the flight was cancelled. In the meantime what are we going to do?”

“Take a look,” he said, pointing out the window. “That party store closed at five o’clock and that little restaurant closed at six. Didn’t have no business all day anyway. Next place that might be open Christmas Eve is a mile away. I think we best just wait.”

“We can’t just sit here around your kerosene heater all night. Nobody knows I’m here.” She looked away from him and in her most authoritative tone said, “Look Mr. Upton, are you sure you have a ride? My brother was expecting me at the airport…” (she looked at her watch) …two hours ago. I’ve got a tree to decorate and presents to wrap and, and eggnog to make. My husband and mother are at home and don’t even know where I am, and….” Oh God, she thought, twenty years in this city and you’re still stupid enough to turn down some side road and tell a stranger that no one knows where you are. “I mean they won’t know what’s become of me.” She realized that it sounded as if she had just accused the man of kidnapping. “Well, you know what I mean. We can’t just sit here. Maybe we can flag down a car….”

“Yes, I think I know what you mean,” Mr. Upton said coldly. “It’s Christmas Eve for me too you know.”

“Mr. Upton, I don’t think you understand me….”

“Look, lady,” he replied with hsi eyebrows furrowed.

Marsha was taken aback. She did not think of herself as the “look, lady” type.

“I’ve got three kids at home and a beautiful wife,” he continued. “We got our presents wrapped. Our tree’s decorated. And our eggnog is made. And if you think I want to spend my Christmas Ever listening to you, you’re crazy. I’ll get back to Livonia if it’s the last thing I do.”

“I live in Detroit,” Marsha said meekly and thought for a moment. “Mr. Upton,” she finally offered, “you know I am a woman alone in this city and, well, you know the kinds of things that….” She looked Ray Upton square in the eye, and, seeing nothing be a man eager to get home to his kids, began to laugh. They both laughed.

“How old are your kids,” Marsha asked.

“My three boys,” Mr. Upton said proudly, “are six, eight, and ten.”

“Still young enough to get real excited about Christmas,” Marsha smiled.

“Not as excited as their old man,” Mr. Upton answered. Then he pulled several flares from the from the drawer behind the cash register and went outside. Lighting each flare, he placed it in the snow near the window.

How smart, Marsha thought, someone might stop. Then she noticed that he had carefully arranged them in the shape of a Christmas tree.

“Mr. Upton,” Marsha said as he came in, “that’s the cleverest thing I ever saw.”

Then Mr. Upton pulled two torn chairs around the heater and dragged a plastic crate into place between them. He unfolded a white handkerchief and draped it over the crate. Then he produced two gingerbread men, each topped with colored sprinkles and a paper Saint Nicholas. Just like the ones I could have baked this afternoon, Marsha thought.

“I remember these gingerbread men from when I was a kid,” she said.

“Me too,” said Mr. Upton. “But these aren’t the same one,” he laughed.

“Always hated them,” Mr. Upton said.

“Me too,” Marsha agreed. And they sat down to chew on the gingerbread.

Then Mr. Upton went to the Coke machine and opened the door with a key, took out two bottles, opened them, and handed one to Marsha. He held the bottle out to toast. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Kovaks,” he said.

Marsha laughed and clinked her bottle to his. “Merry Christmas Mr. Upton.”

When Mr. Upton’s ride drove up at nearly eleven o’clock, the snow had stopped and the sky was full of stars. The drive was a jolly man who let out a deep, thunderous laugh as he stepped out of this car to find his friend chasing a woman around the station lot–Marsha in huge rubber goots and a greasy parka. “Merry Christmas” the pair yelled, laughing as they finished a circle of tracks in the snow.

“Man, where you been,” Mr. Upton called. “We got to get this lady home.”

“How do you like the new night watchman,” Marsha called pointing to a lopsided snowman with an oil funnel for a nose.

When Marsha walked in the front door, her husband, her mother, and her brother were waiting. Her mother was in tears. “Oh my God, Marsha. We were so worried. We thought you had frozen to death or something terrible had happened. What’s the matter with you, running our of here like that? Where have you been?”

“Sweetheart,” her husband soothed, “we didn’t know what happened to you. We were ready to call the police.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But believe me, I had a Christmas Eve that you won’t read about in the morning paper,” Marhsa said as she hander her brother a sack of clinking bottles and threw her arms around him. Then she turned back to the skeptical stares of her family.

“Well don’t let’s stnad here,” she said. “Let’s get everybody a drink. And let’s get the rest of those decorations our of the attic and on the tree.”
Received an “special nod” in the Detroit Free Press Christmas short story contest, December 21, 1980.

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