Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 2

final coverHere’s the second section of the short story, “Kyle Helps Santa”, from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill.” To read it from the beginning, click here

Moriah Harris was not a woman to cry easily. She had lived through the early deaths of her parents, the shooting of her brother that had left him paralyzed from the waist down, and the desertion of her son’s father when her son, Andre, was two. Tears had played a limited role in all of these tragedies. She had allowed them for a few minutes at night after she went to bed; otherwise she did the next thing that had to be done, with a set jaw and no complaining. She found it best to keep her expectations low.

Even so, she found her eyes stinging and an awful lump rising in her throat the day she arrived at her uncle’s house in Pleasant Hill. Both the uncle and the house, which she had not seen since childhood, had deteriorated beyond recognition.

“This where we gonna live?” Andre, now eight, whispered as they waited for the door to be answered. His mom had told him over and over what a nice house it was. Now, the yard consisted of little but patches of dirt and garbage. An ancient green vinyl couch crowded the porch, stuffing spilling from the tears. When her uncle came to the door, he looked twenty years older than she expected and she could smell the alcohol on him from three feet away.

“Come on in,” he said, mustering cheer, rubbing bleary eyes. “It ain’t so nice as when your auntie was around.”

It didn’t look like he had done any cleaning in the three years since she had died. When Moriah followed her uncle into the kitchen, she saw two dead mice in traps in the corner. That’s when the tears threatened to take her over.

Moriah had lost her job, and lost the job she got after that, lost her car, then her apartment. She had made it to Cincinnati by bus with the last of her money, hoping for a new start at her uncle’s.

As the uncle rummaged for some food, Andre repeated, “This where we gonna stay?” His face wrinkled in distaste.

“Shhh,” she hissed back. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

***

Andre got out of the house as soon as he could, to explore the neighborhood. He walked up and down the main street. His mom said she remembered a big grocery store, a hardware store and the best barbeque place in Cincinnati. He didn’t see any of those. It looked like the place had gone downhill, kind of like his uncle. But there was a pizza place and a dollar store right around the corner, and a church that had a big parking lot with basketball courts, so he figured he could survive.

Pleasant Hill was an odd place to Andre, coming from an Atlanta suburb where everything was new. This place was a mix of ghetto and fairy tale. He would see a string of empty storefronts with garbage and leaves cramming the doorways, then look around a corner and see a beautiful old house glittering with Christmas lights. The big stone church less than a block from his house had a tall bell tower that looked like something out of a storybook, but next to it was a nasty looking convenience store with a bunch of young guys loitering in front of it, even in this cold weather.

At the other end of his street he found a park with a ball field and a good playground. That lifted his spirits a little. There was a water fountain that worked. That would help in case the water ever got turned off. He was trying out the swings when he looked across the street and saw a blond boy about his age looking through the iron bars of an ornate fence. He slowed the swing, jumped off, and crossed the street. He stopped near the boy, surveying the giant house behind him. It was painted three different colors. Then he looked at the boy. He was wearing brand new Nikes, top of the line.

Kyle said, “Hi.”

Andre asked, “You live in that big house?”

“Yup.”

“Is there much to do around here? I just moved in down there,” he pointed down his street, which Kyle’s house faced, as though Andre’s street was one long driveway to it.

“I don’t know,” Kyle answered. “I’m not allowed to leave the yard.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I know,” Kyle sighed. “My parents treat me like a baby.”

“You never leave this place?”

“I have to have one of them with me.”

Andre shook his head in disbelief.  “You got a lot of toys in there?”

“Yeah. I’ve got an X Box 1 and I just got the new Mario.”

“Before Christmas?  You rich?”

“I don’t know.”

“You live in a house like that with a lotta toys, you rich. Can I come in?”

Kyle shook his head sadly. “I’m not allowed. The gates are locked and only my mom or dad or Ania can open it.”

Andre looked up at the spikes at the top of the gate bars. “This thing go all the way around?”

“There’s a wood fence at the back.”

“How about I climb it and sneak in?”

Kyle bit his lip, torn between fear and longing. “I can’t take you inside. Ania will see.” Then he brightened. “But I’ve got a tree house back in the woods; I could show you!”

Andre scaled the back fence with an ease that made Kyle jealous. They ran from tree to tree like spies, then scrambled up wooden slats into the tree house. Kyle hoped Ania wasn’t looking out any back windows.

“This is awesome,” Andre said in low tones. “I can see the church tower. I can see part of the ball field too. I could see the whole town if your house would get outa the way! If you had some of them binocular things, we could spy on everyone.”

“I’ve got a telescope,” Kyle offered. “Wait here.” He scrambled out of the tree and ran into the house, soon returning with his telescope.

Andre ran his fingers along it. “You got something like this in your house? You rich for sure.”

Kyle showed him how to use it, then they played pirates because Andre remembered that pirates used telescopes. Kyle found that Andre was boss at pretending. First they were the pirates, then they switched to being crew on the ship being attacked by the pirates and battled with invisible pirates, then they were the pirates again, going through the jewels in a treasure chest, planning what they were going to buy.

Andre said, “With this gold, I’m buying the biggest, fanciest telescope I can find.”

It occurred to Kyle that he rarely used his telescope. Sometimes he and his dad would look through the skylight at stars, but not very often. Andre thought it was the best thing ever.

He was looking through it again now.

Kyle, dropping pirate character, said, “You should ask for a telescope for Christmas. It’s coming pretty soon.”

Andre’s brows knitted, and he lowered the telescope. “I hate Christmas. I just get clothes and some dumb little stuff like a water pistol. I never get what I want.”

“Not even from Santa?”

Andre looked at him sideways and gave a strange little laugh. Kyle was floored. He had always assumed everyone got what they wanted from Santa, as long as they didn’t ask for a weapon.

“Did you ask him for guns or knives?”

“I don’t ask for nothing because I won’t get nothing.”

Then the boys saw a car drive into a carport behind the house. They both dramatically dropped to the floor of the tree house. “You gotta go before she sees you,” Kyle urgently whispered. “Wait.” He watched his mother go into the house, then said, “Quick now, while she’s taking off her coat and stuff. Quick!”

Andre was down the tree and over the fence in a few seconds. Kyle wished he had thought to ask him to come again.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available at Amazon.

Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 1

final cover

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill,” my book of Christmas short stories set in our Cincinnati neighborhood, is a collection of twelve fictional stories in real places, that give us a glimpse into the lives of its diverse people; old and young, rich and poor, black and white. I’ll be posting one of the stories in blog-sized segments this holiday season, starting this week:

 

                              Kyle Helps Santa

When it came to decorating for Christmas, the town of Pleasant Hill gave a patchy performance. Some of the grand old houses were beautifully done-up, with lights spiraling down their columns and outlining their turrets.

The streets of the newer developments were bright and cheerful – although even ‘new’ in Pleasant Hill meant forty years old. Yards busy with statuary showed Santa fraternizing with shepherds and wise men, snowmen sharing space with the holy family. But many of the streets had smaller houses, where life was too low budget for decorating. Most of them boasted no more than a door wreath, or a tree peeking out the window, if anything. In the big apartment complexes that offered government housing, there was no evidence of Christmas at all.
No blanket of snow had yet arrived to offset the drabness of the bare trees. It was just bleak and cold. There were not many kids outside.

This, however, did not stop Kyle Sorensen from wandering around his big front yard each day after school, kicking at stones, watching squirrels, seeing how many times he could run up and down the driveway before he was completely winded. His was one of those houses with lights outlining its impressive Victorian form. His parents were painstakingly restoring it.

Loneliness could be traced in the slight downturn of Kyle’s mouth and the searching motion of his eyes. The cheerfulness of his new winter outerwear, all coordinated in oranges and olive greens, did not match his serious face. He stayed outside, even on the cold drab days, because it felt less lonely than inside.

He could watch kids playing across the street in the community center playground, where he could not go unless a parent was with him. He was literally locked in his front yard with its iron fence and ornate electronic gate, but he could pretend that kids were about to come and play with him, and once in a while someone would talk to him as they passed.

It would chagrin his mother when she drove up to the gate at six o’clock or so, to see the boy standing in the bare, dark yard, peering through the iron bars. She just had a wall knocked out between his bedroom and the room next to it to make a large play area. The room had a space theme, with planets and moons suspended in mid-air, wallpaper of sky and clouds above the chair rail, fluorescent stars on the ceiling. The kid had his own galaxy up there and here he was, peering pathetically through cold bars.

“What are you doing here?” she would ask, then before he answered, “Did you practice piano?”

“Yeah.” Ania the house keeper always supervised his piano practice as soon as he got home from school.

“Well, what are you doing out here in the cold?’

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Don’t you like all your toys?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t there anything on TV? ‘Blue’s Clues’ or something?”

He hadn’t watched ‘Blue’s Clues’ for years. He was seven now.

“No, Mom.”

“Well, tomorrow I’d like you to find something to do inside. You’ll catch a cold out here.”

But he would always go outside as soon as piano practice was over. The big house was too still, with no one but Ania vacuuming or chopping vegetables. She was a quiet person and did not speak much English. “Snack ready for you,” and “Piano now, Kyle,” was about all she said.

***

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available at Amazon.