Story too politically INcorrect?
Copyright 2005, Tracy Catlin
Dana stared up and gradually ate off the tip of her thumbnail. Tilting her head slightly to get another look, she suddenly felt ill.
“What if no one comes?” she said and thought, is this for real?
“Whuzzat?” asked her brother, the guy who owned the sign company.
He stepped down the ladder and one of his workmen with Nifty Neon Signs on the back of his coveralls whisked away the ladder. They were all anxious to be home with their families for Thanksgiving. The workday was ending as the sun disappeared; barely leaving a soft glow against the clouds that banked the horizon.
“What if no one comes, Ham?” Dana asked again.
“What do you mean ‘if no one comes?’ It’s the holidays! People buy all of that retarded stuff. Besides, Aunt Celia just turned the corner in her big ol’ pink monster. She’ll make sure you sell your crap.”
He put an arm around her waist as she hooked hers around his chest. At first she thought he was joking. Indeed, it was the pink Caddy, the one she had won after five years of being her pushy self. Aunt Celia was a close inspirational second to Tammy Faye minus the preaching and she believed in the mighty power of green, not the mighty power of God.
Dana slugged her brother in the chest. “You always knew how to cheer up a girl,” she deadpanned.
Ham pecked her on the cheek and said, “It’ll do fine! You know that I’m bringing the girls over tomorrow for our private shopping experience. What a great opportunity to make our walls cultured and civilized like.”
“But can you take Celia away with you tonight? This is supposed to be my moment.”
The Cadillac lurched forward when Aunt Celia forgot to shift the thing in park before taking her foot off the brake.
“Then make it your moment. Don’t let her railroad you. You should—“
“Wewwhoo!” Aunt Celia called. “Wewwwhoo! Auntie C’s here! And just in time it looks.” Her thinning hair blew into her face as the chilled November breeze blew her over to her sister’s children. Aunt Celia had colored her hair a bright pink this time.
“Are we ready?” Ham asked.
“Are we ready? Well, I’m so glad you waited for me to help you all out!” said Aunt Celia. “It’s bad manners to begin without everyone present. Now. What do you suppose we should do with that sign up there, Ham? It’s a tad off, isn’t it?”
Dana poked him with an elbow in the ribs.
“Hey,” he whispered, but he smiled at his little sister.
“Okay,” Dana said, “light it up, baby!”
ARTISTIC ANGLES zapped and glowed yellow against an orange and purple horizon.
“We’re in business!” Aunt Celia laughed and clapped her hands together, the tips of her fake red fingernails clacking together.
Dana couldn’t help going into her store at four o’clock in the morning the day after Thanksgiving.
She resisted flipping over the “Closed” sign to the “Decorate Your Life” sign. Her homemade frames decorated the walls with price tags from $4.99 to $299.99. The world’s best known and best loved art would look fabulous in any one of her homemade frames, and the prospect that no one had popped in as soon as she turned over the sign pinged a little twinge of disappointment in her stomach.
“Come on now,” she said aloud. “Only hopeless insomniacs and people who watch X-File reruns are up at this time—fa la la la la la la la la,” she sang.
Five a.m. came and no one lined up at her door. She’d only been ready for five years for this. When she set her elbows on the counter and rested her chin in the palm of her hand, the breath that came out of her raised her bangs into the cinnamon-fresh air.
Eight a.m. Dana felt silly for thinking that her business would just shoot off the ground as soon as she turned over her sign in the window.
At two in the afternoon, she had two old women with white puffy hair flitter in. They chittered away without a glance toward Dana.
“Can you imagine buying such a gaudy thing for a widower?”
“I’d say somebody wants a little bit more than friendship,” said the other.
“He’s much smarter than that, I think to—“
“May I help you?” Dana interrupted.
Both women scolded her with upraised eyebrows and dismissed her immediately by continuing their gossip.
"Just looking,” they said and both walked out after a five-minute browse.
“Thanks for stopping in,” said Dana as the chimes above the door tinkled.
She twirled a brown hair tress. She recounted the money drawer and re-arranged the Christmas ornaments that were for sale at her front counter. She roamed the room and re-angled the angles, and she dusted each work of art carefully. She vacuumed for the fifth time. Then she recounted the money, read the newspaper, checked the want ads and called home to her husband, Paul, and their children, David and Mandy. But no one was home as she knew. They were all at Paul’s mother’s house a couple hundred miles away.
Dana listened to the answering machine and Paul’s voice: “We’re not home right now, but please have a Merry Christmas anyway.”
What if I have to go back to being a secretary, taking orders, running errands for other people? Even Aunt Celia would be a blessing right now.
She played a new CD, read a few Christmas cards, straightened everything again, straightened her blouse, grabbed her purse, locked up the shop and left an hour early.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” said the old man waiting at the door. He wore an old overcoat and looked like he hadn’t slept for days. A woman peeked from behind his shoulder.
Dana’s heart fluttered madly as she struggled to get the door open. The tinkle of the bells seemed more like clanging, especially as her key stuck. “Why won’t this open?” she said under her breath.
“We thought you’d be open early since it’s the Lord’s season,” a woman said. She stood behind the man. And as seriously as they were alive and standing before her, the woman said in a harsh whisper, “We’ve come to see the autistic angels.”
Dana’s hand, the one that had been shaking as she tried to unlock the door, stopped. “What?”
“The autistic angels. We drove by yesterday afternoon; five-ish, and saw your sign for autistic angels,” said the old man.
The door lock clicked and Dana held the door open for the couple to step through. A blast of blessed heat enveloped them, and Dana was grateful that the heat and its timing system worked.
“We’ve been waiting for over three hours,” said the woman.
“Three hours? Here?” replied Dana. Desperately, she tried to think of a way to get rid of the couple, and a twinge of shame made her cheeks redden. She said, “I’m sorry, but I believe you must have misread my sign. We are ARTISTIC ANGLES; I sell angles--frames, and works of art. Plus whatever other knickknack I can find that will help decorate—“
But they looked at her as blankly as she looked at her teenaged daughter at times, and her words died as soon as they hit her lips. If only the couple had had a pitchfork in one of their hands, they’d be the farmer couple in American Gothic.
The man took a step towards her and she automatically took a step backwards. “Ma’am. Your sign says what it says, and we mean to see some angels. My wife, here, it’s been a dream of hers to see a real angel without having to travel overseas. They seem to be a-plenty over in them Espanol parts of the world.”
Dana stared back at them if only to just stall so that she could think. How could they think that she would advertise angels, for Pete’s sake!
“It’s more than just a dream, Miss,” the woman said. Her fingers gently brushed Dana’s sweaty right hand, the one with her keys about to slip out, and the woman’s skin was cold, paper-thin that sent a chill up Dana’s arm.
“It’s my son’s birthday.”
The husband nodded.
“Eleven,” she said, and then louder: “He would have been eleven if I had only been watching him,” she said, voice dissolving in streaks of pained whispers.
“The boy was retarded, Miss,” said the man. “And the doctors did their best to explain this to us. It didn’t change nothing to us. He was our boy. He could milk a cow once we showed him, and the sheep tended to like him best, but he did have a hard time following what his mama wanted him to do. She stayed home with him—taught him the best she could. But once something caught his ‘tention, you couldn’t stop him and that’s the only thing he will pay mind to. Unfortunately, he’s a better runner than his mama.”
“What did he see?”
“My boy saw a silver gum wrapper at the side of the road,” said the woman.
“Unfortunately, that wrapper was on the wrong side of the highway. The sun was just right in the sky.” The man looked down and then away, as if he could see the words tumble around the room.
“And then we saw your sign and surely it is a miracle. We always come up to town during this time, and so we thought . . . seeing your sign so close to Tommy’s birthday was surely from God.”
Dana stood as still as she could, mesmerized. Before she grabbed her throat, she absently wiped a tear that was threatening to fall. “Why don’t you look around for awhile, and I’ll see if I can sum up the angels for you.”
The woman reached out and grabbed her wrist and mouthed dramatically, “Thank you.”
While the strange couple browsed, Dana called home.
Aunt Celia answered the phone on the second ring as if she knew someone would call at this early hour.
“Hi-dee-hi and Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah—“
“Aunt Celia! It’s me; please stop,” said Dana, a sudden flush of anger stuck.
“And God bless us everyone,” Aunt Celia finished. “Why honey, it’s so good to hear from you. I thought everyone had left me. And then hearing your poor pitiful message to Paul and the kids,” she finished her statement by tsk-tsking. “It’s good that they all came home before you had a sweet panic attack.”
Dana sighed, letting loose of the anger before whispering. “Could you get the kids dressed and bring them to the shop?”
“Speaking of the shop, darling, I was meaning to talk to you about your hours. I just can’t make it during the times that you’re open. I do have to work too, you know.”
Dana counted backwards in her head, starting at one hundred.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Celia, I just had a customer walk in and put you on hold.” Stop clenching your teeth! she told herself. “Aunt Celia, could you get the kids ready and bring them to the shop?”
“How wonderful! Is the shop that busy? You poor dear—I’ll bring your free labor down in a jif, and you can put all three of us to work.”
“Could you also dress them in their Christmas pageant clothes?” asked Dana.
Aunt Celia’s voice became conspiratorial. “My, what a grand idea! We’ll be rich in no time!”
“No, Auntie C—" but she found she was explaining to a dial tone.
Aunt Celia swept into the shop; David looked as if he had just woken up and Mandy wore her pajama bottoms. She grabbed their wrists and almost dragged them to the storage room while the American Gothic couple hid behind a display of Christmas CD’s.
Aunt Celia followed behind, and as soon as she learned the story, Dana saw her hazel eyes mist and light up behind her faux jewel-rimmed glasses.
“It’s just for this one time for that poor couple over there,” said Dana. “They can’t read, and I guess they’re expecting something. Maybe it will make their Christmas a little brighter this year.”
Celia’s wispy hair suddenly flew into her cheeks as the heat kicked on and blew from the vent above her. Celia didn’t speak for several minutes as she watched Dana fluff up the kids and their costumes. This would be their first production; stars in their own show. And Aunt Celia smiled from the tips of her toes.
“Honey,” she said, “I’m going to make you rich.”
“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs.—“
“Dooley,” the couple said in unison.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dooley. The angels are ready,” Dana said. As soon as she said it, she regretted it. But instead of explaining yet again what she sold, she pointed towards the back room. They followed her.
Aunt Celia cut through the couple to get to the door first, and helped hold it open, her fingers sprawled like a spider.
“Oh my good Lord!” shouted the woman, who dropped hard onto her knees.
The look on David’s face was one of abject terror. Mrs. Dooley came closer and closer to his face and his eyes widened. Mr. Dooley’s back cracked as he peered in at David. David must have remembered something that Aunt Celia told him in the car about autism, because he suddenly jerked his hand up to his face and began waving his fingers in front of his eyes, focusing on something beyond the people staring at him. He even swayed back and forth from one foot to the other and began to hum.
“This one certainly is autistic, the poor thing,” said Mrs. Dooley. Rising from off the floor, she moved on to Mandy, who was poked and pinched, and even though she was older, she had the same look of terror on her face. “And those wings, those magnificent wings! They just fill the room!”
“Well, Jacob, it certainly is a Christmas miracle,” and Mrs. Dooley pinched David’s blushed cheek. “He’s not Tommy, though, but I am glad for this, all the same.”
The Christmas Miracle Couple left beaming and had told another couple and that couple told their family members. E-mail spread to those who could send it to their ten closest friends or suffer serious bad luck. And after three weeks, the angel costumes had been torn twice, David and Mandy were suffering in school and dreading Winter Break for fear that their Aunt Celia would not let them have a day off to gawk in front of the television or play with their new toys.
Aunt Celia was relentless, and with Christmas quickly approaching, Dana’s guilt grew. She cried every morning before flipping her open sign, and wished that she had never called Aunt Celia to bring the kids over that day. The people kept coming and Celia kept raking in the money. None of Dana’s frames sold.
“I’m making us rich, m’dear!” exclaimed Aunt Celia, holding a wad of bills in her white-clenched fist. Dana held her tongue.
Christmas Eve morning, the tinkle of the bell rang early over the shop door and Aunt Celia blew in like a tornado with Mandy and David skulking behind her. The phone rang and three customers walked in right behind them. Dana answered the phone and as soon as the receiver was to her ear, the whole lot of them began speaking at once.
“No, there are no autistic angels here. I sell angles—frames. Quite lovely, homemade, some oak, some—“
“What do you mean there are no autistic angels here? George, we’ve come so far!”
“Oh yes we do have them!” said Aunt Celia. “They just haven’t—“
Gotten into their fraudulent I-hope-to-never-see-again costumes, thought Dana. The woman on the phone yammered away about why Dana didn’t have the autistic angels in her shop, especially if she advertised them on that big yellow sign. The people in the shop glaring her down were repeating everything she said on the phone, and Celia denied everything that Dana was saying.
The death glare Dana sent to the back of Celia’s head did no good. Celia’s hair waved all around her face, her hands crackled with each clack of her cubic zirconia rings, and her jewelry tinkled as she swung from customer to customer.
“She’s hallucinating,” said Celia, or, “It’s been a bad year for her.” “She hasn’t slept in days,” or the kicker, “The Lord won’t let her see His angels.” This she said with a cluck clucking of the tongue, closed her eyes and bowed her head as if to pray. What she was really thinking was how many more dollars she could make.
Dana chuckled to herself. “Oh, yes ma’am, I’m still here, and listening. No ma’am, but if you’d like a Monet reprint, I’d be happy—“
Celia leaned over the counter, and snatched the phone out of Dana’s hand. “Oh please DO come down to our humble shop, ma’am. Yes. Yes, they’re here. You better put a rush on it; our precious angels have such Godly work to perform.”
Dana stormed into the workroom to cool off rather than tell her aunt where to go and how to get there, and to give her children a pep talk. Before she threw open the door, she heard groans ending when Aunt Celia reminded the children of their cut of the profit, for it was very, very significant, especially to a boy who had a sweet tooth. They pulled on their costumes, wary of their mother and great aunt, who smiled at them and waved her own fingers in front of her face. Aunt Celia’s shoes click-clacked on the way out of the room.
She snatched up the receiver to the ringing telephone. “Halloo! Why yes, we have exactly what you’re looking for. Ten dollars a peek; a nice price compared to those Guatemalan monks. Oh, her.” Pause. “Yes, I did hear her say that there were no angels.” Pause. “She’s new.”
Dana tried not to listen to the commotion outside, but the walls were thin, and her nerves were thinner, especially after she heard the words that came flying out of her aunt’s ruby red off-color lips and into the phone. Her heart felt like it was set on fire. She flew from the back room, her arm raised, her finger pointing and horrible, nasty names on the tip of her lips. Dana grabbed the receiver and hung up the phone. It jumped from the cradle and the whole front row of patrons could hear a muffled, “Hello? Hello?!” before she hung it up again.
The store was packed with people waving ten-dollar bills. They swayed from side to side and morphed into one giant ruckus of a demanding, hungry monster. Women screamed for a peak at the angels, that it was her first amendment right to see. Ten dollar bills were drifting through the store. The monster shrieked.
Dana held her arms open, fingers pointing to the east and west walls. She looked as if she were Moses ready to part the waters of the Red Sea, only this time, she was trying to prevent her aunt from parting the fools with their money. The burning in her chest intensified as she yelled so loud that Mr. Reed from two doors down called the police. She climbed on top of her counter.
“The LORD . . . has called His angels home! Unless you’re here to buy . . . angles . . . people, they are ANGLES, A-N-G-L-E-S, then I suggest you . . . blindly go . . . not read . . . someone else’s . . . sign. And YOU,” she pointed at Celia with the jabbing west-pointing finger, “follow me.” Dana swept her head around, meeting anyone’s eyes who dared to speak to her, then climbed down, disappearing back from where she came.
All was quiet; no one dared to move.
Aunt Celia dutifully followed, but only after raking her eyes over all of the bills that jabbed the air. One lone voice in the crowd said, “Didn’t she say that like a true prophet?”
The door slammed behind them in the workroom. Celia whined; both her fists balled on each hipbone. “Do you know how much money I’ve made you?”
Dana ignored her aunt. Aunt Celia said something else about money and paying the bills, and the frames not going very fast, but Dana’s head hurt too much to let in any more chaos. She thought about Prozac and needing Paul.
“ . . . One thousand dollars in two hours . . . " said Aunt Celia. Only the words just didn’t flow right; they were slow, like someone had pushed that button on the VCR that showed only one frame at a time.
The pounding intensified and redness flooded her eyesight.
“Mama?” said Mandy’s voice so far away.
“Mama!” David’s voice now, insistent, and their mama opened her eyes. She swayed back and forth, sight fuzzy like all of those romantic black and white movies. The wings were so large that they filled the room, and she didn’t understand how there could be wings in this room. She had just cleaned it this week and she distinctly remembered there were no wings.
But they were there nonetheless. And they grew and grew, and finally, Dana could make out a face that rose and kept rising until all she could see was an outline of the most beautiful chin, mouth, nose. Its eyes looked down upon her, so liquid. The eyelashes closed, and a rush of cool air whisped Dana’s hair from her eyes. The room widened and stretched as the angel before her stretched its wings.
“You’re so . . .” Dana whispered. She clasped her hands together and had to avert her eyes, though she worked to look again. The angel was silent as layer of wing billowed out. Dana felt one small feather brush her cheek and it was as if she had been kissed for the first time.
Dana didn’t have to say anything else or even think of anything else because there were no words she could think of. She looked at the face of the angel, who smiled down as if Dana were a small child. Dana couldn’t stand to look at such beauty, and when she forced herself to take one more glance, she saw the bumpy texture of ceiling while three very pale faces looked down at her, one with too much ghostly foundation.
“Did you see it?” she whispered, her head filled with honey.
“See what, baby?” replied Celia.
“It was so beautiful! How long was Tommy here?”
“You’ve been out for about ten minutes, sweetheart. You were about to scream something at me. Then you just floated out of your mind and onto the floor.”
Dana felt as if her chest would explode when she tried to stand. “Did you see it?” she almost cried. “Oh, I’m so dizzy!”
“That’s because you hit your head when you fainted. And your cheek is bleeding, Sweetheart. We have to get something on that.” Aunt Celia, Mandy and David helped Dana from off of the floor. David found a blanket and carefully wrapped it around his mother’s shoulders as Mandy got a chair from where her mom did the books.
Dana touched the burning spot on her cheek and swiped the blood. It stung, but it was the most glorious sting in the world. Tears came, then spilled onto her cheeks, making the cut burn even more.
“Aunt Celia,” she said.
“Wait a minute, Sweetie. Let me see that cheek. Why, it’s an angel.”
“No, no, I saw an angel,” Dana said.
“As God as my witness, it’s a bleeding one, too!”
Dana held her hand to her cheek, closed her eyes, a tear rolling across her fingertips.
“Oh, honey! I’m going to make you rich!”
Apologies to my brother Tommy. I really thought that name was cool and used it. --T.