Now what? Adam wondered and grumbled. The night was too black for shadows to loom in the corners that Monday morning or very late Sunday, whatever you call the middle of the night. Christmas Eve services would be later that same evening.
Adam had awakened with a start. Charlie Baker’s horn was not his wake-up call because it was both too early and Christmas break had started. But, Adam was startled by something. He sat up and listened. Nothing but the wind and silence. He pulled the covers up around his ears, rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.
Screech. That was the storage closet door. I can tell by the sound of the squeak.
Adam eased himself down the ladder in his sock feet and inched across the floor in the direction of the storeroom closet. Why would someone be here at this hour?
Icy sleet lightly peppered the windows. It wasn’t a true blizzard, just a reminder of the stinging cold outside.
Adam almost called out Pastor Silverman’s name, but remained silent. The night intruder may not be him?
Since Adam had no more business in the church at that hour than a common thief, he
stayed in the darkest shadows and crept along the wall that led to where the sound seemed to come from.
“Shaddi,” he whispered, “let me see.”
The wall outside the storeroom burst forth with light that penetrated the studs and lath. The surface of the plaster glowed with promise. Adam was stunned. He could see through the wall with his eyes, or his heart, he couldn’t tell which. Whatever Shaddi had done, Adam didn’t know, but he saw and heard the boys in the room beyond the thick walls.
“Quiet Freddy,” a young male voice ordered from inside the huge, walk-in closet.
“Who are you afraid of waking, Buddy—God? Who would be here at this hour?”
“I don’t know, but it is Christmas Eve day.”
“You think Santa Clause will come through this place driving a sleigh?” Freddie jabbed his partner-in-crime in the ribs. “Are you sixteen or six?”
“Never mind that.” Buddy smacked at the other boy. “Keep your hands off me, Freddy Boy. I’ll have to clean your clock if you don’t stop.”
“You think you can stop me?” Freddy glared.
“I’ll show you,” Buddy barked and grabbed the boy around the neck.
Freddy pushed Buddy off and together they stumbled into the storage room shelves. The shelves rocked and teetered but Buddy and Freddy kept brawling and rolling around the room. With reckless abandonment, they shoved and tackled and fell from one side of the store room to the other. Boxes fell to the floor. Easter Pageant costumes were pulled and ripped from their hangers. They continued their assault on each other as they neared the valuable Christ Child carving.
What should I do, Shaddi? Adam struggled with the responsibility he could feel. No one can know I’m here. How do I stop them and still make sure no one finds out I live here?
“Watch out Buddy,” Freddy shouted as he wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth onto his jacket sleeve. “We came here to steal the carving, not destroy the thing.”
Steal the Christ Child? Adam’s heart pounded with anger mixed with the fear of being caught. Fritzy would never forgive me if I let them take the Baby Jesus statue.
“Do you think that guy will still want to buy a precious carving if it isn’t precious anymore?” Freddy asked.
“I don’t know if he’ll want it or not but there’s been no damage yet. And, if you’ll quit horsing around, this hunk of carved out wood won’t get broke.” Buddy was firm. “The guy came driving into town the other day and started asking my dad about a carving by some famous artist.” Buddy brushed himself off and grabbed Freddy’s collar. “Now get yourself together. I heard them talking and later, I found the guy at the filling station.” He looked Freddy squarely in the eye. “You didn’t tell anybody about him did ya?”
Adam thought of the man in the blue car. I had never seen him around town before. Maybe he’s the guy Buddy’s talking about?
“No, no, I didn’t tell nobody. What’s the matter with you? Let me go.” Freddy pulled Buddy’s fingers from his collar and staggered back.
“Well, you’d better not breathe a word about any of this. No one else knows this guy. No one will think to look for the statue with someone they ain’t even heard of. You got that?”
“I got it,” Freddy agreed. “Now leave me be,” Freddy pushed Buddy off him. “We’d better hurry and get out of here. You don’t want to be wandering around in this building when the
minister gets here.”
“I ain’t afraid of any soft, old Bible Thumper,” Buddy boasted.
“Well, this Thumper was a Golden Gloves winner a long time ago, Dummy. My dad told me.”
Pastor Silverman . . . a boxer? Adam nearly blurted his surprise out loud. Thankfully, his surprise didn’t knock-out his control.
“I could take him,” Freddy puffed out his chest and hitched up his pants. “I’m a pretty good boxer myself.”
“Boxer? Fred you’re a street brawler and a bad one at that.”
“You want to test my strength, Buddy? You ready for that? Huh?” Freddy got right up in Buddy’s face and crowded him into a corner.
I can’t step in between them. I could take them, probably both at the same time. But, everyone would know I was here. Adam’s heart pounded with anger and fear of exposure. I hate hiding here in the dark like a coward. I can’t do anything.
The furnace room was next to the storage closet. Adam knew that, but the two hoodlums didn’t. When the coal, wet from the recent snow, popped in the huge firebox, the two new-to-crime thieves screamed like little girls. “What was that?”
The furnace you idiots, Adam responded in silence from the shadows.
The two intruders jerked and flapped about, ran into each other and bounced off shelves.
Adam had to hold his laughter in. He was so happy to see the two inept thieves get a small taste of the revenge he held in his heart, he bubbled with jeering glee.
The shadows that could not be seen in the dark, rose up like the phantoms of anger and
fear that they were, with piercing dagger sharp eyes. “We will destroy them for you,” they seethed.
Then Gertrude jumped out from nowhere, her long sharp toenails exposed and landed on top of Freddy’s shoulders.
“What the—? What is this thing?” Freddy screamed in a pitch no longer heard in boys his age.
“It’s a cat, Dumbbell,” Buddy laughed.
“Well, get him off me!”
“A cat? Thought you could handle a Golden Gloves champion, Freddy Boy.” Buddy laughed until he doubled at the waist. “Or, are you Freddy the Wild One?”
“Get him off of me now!” Freddy demanded.
Her, the cat’s a her. “Get her off of me,” you Ding-a-ling, Adam smirked.
Buddy reached up to the underbelly of the cat to lift her off his frantically screaming accomplice. Gertrude turned in the direction of the shadows. With glaring green eyes, she arched her back, switched targets and jumped from Freddy onto Buddy’s hat. Buddy reached up and brushed the cat from his head like a large pesky fly.
Adam nearly gasped from his dark corner. She better not be hurt. He boiled with anger.
Gertrude hit the floor on all fours. She simply turned and walked off. Apparently her fun had passed and she would move on to church mice.
“Get the Christ kid and let’s get out of here,” Buddy demanded.
Freddy rummaged quickly through the boxes on the shelves. He knocked off more decorations and small containers than he left stacked. Old hymnals, Vacation Bible School materials, and children’s choir vestments lay scattered all over the floor. Then, there it was. There could be no mistake about what they had found. The statue was exquisite. A beautiful carving of the Baby Jesus was crudely pulled from its box and jammed into a duffle bag the boys had brought with them.
Oh no, Adam moaned internally. There was nothing he could do but stand in the dark and watch the boys run out of the church with the beautiful carving, while the vicious, howling laughter of dark spirits still hissed in his ears.
As the boys passed, Adam etched their faces in his memory. He recognized them but didn’t really know them.
School’s not that big. They just don’t want to be close to anyone. They want to slink around the edges, Adam sneered.
He stayed against the wall well after the other two had run away like the sneak thieves they were. To Adam’s thinking, his hiding in the same shadows that let them get away, made him no better than the thieves. The carving was still gone. The desperate desperados had still stolen the joy of Christmas from the Cranberry Street Church and Adam had still remained silent.
The next morning, Adam felt just as guilty as he had the night before. What on earth do I do?
He awakened with the same heavy heart and the same question weighing him down that he had when he went to sleep. I’m the only one who knows that the Christ Child carving has been stolen and I know who took the masterpiece away. But I can’t do anything about it. If I tell anyone, they are going to want an explanation.
“And, just why were you in the church in the middle of the night Young Man?” I can hear the questions now. But, I don’t hear my explanation.
The day belonged to Adam, not Principal Sparrow or any of the other classroom crazy birds, so he took his time rolling out of bed. The hummer was in full chirp with one of his long “Watch me!” songs warbling forth. Adam opened the bird purse and smiled. “Good morning my friend, my roommate I guess.”
With the basket lid open, the hummer jumped onto Adam’s extended index finger and lapsed into his little short, quiet chirp that was to say, “I’m out of food.”
“I know, I know . . . breakfast,” Adam agreed as he checked for sounds in the room below, then transferred the little bird feet to the top of the basket before he slipped down the ladder.
With school on Christmas recess he hadn’t had a hot lunch in recent days, except at Fritzy’s home. He had signed his mother’s name on a form that allowed him to work in the school cafeteria. He usually operated the dishwasher. He didn’t mind the work. He exchanged water-shrunk hands for a warm meal. Now, Adam had to find food on his own. He thought about the roast beef sandwich Mrs. Breman sent home that was still in his pocket.
Adam went down and prepared the brightly colored sugar water for the hummer and looked around the kitchen. What would Pops say if he knew Adam had stolen food? The boy preferred to think of food acquisition as “local charity.” Then a thought came to him. He remembered a half-quart of milk that had been in the refrigerator for over a week. He knew that milk would spoil, so he would do the ladies a favor and drink every drop. That would save them the disgusting chore of emptying stinky, spoiled, curdled milk a few days later.
He opened the glass jar and upended the entire pint of cold milk in a few gulps. “Um, a
little cream is still in the bottle. That doesn’t happen very often. The ladies usually pour off the cream to beat for whipping cream or put in their coffee.”
Adam took the saucer back up to the belfry and looked for the bird. The little one was perched on the top of Adam’s school notebook. The tiny hummer fanned its wings in a blur of motion and fluttered over to Adam’s finger that was still holding the saucer. The bird attached its little feet to the edge of the dish and looked at the sugar water and back up at Adam.
“Little one, you are a survivor.” He put the hummer and his breakfast in the basket-cage, then got dressed. He was going out.
Adam had one thought in mind. The robbery. His silence in it was a puzzle with no
solution. He had to get out of the church for a while or he would get island fever, at least that’s what they called his closed-in feeling in the movies down at the Dabell Neighborhood Theater. But, there was nowhere for him to go. If he went into stores, he was afraid they would think he was loitering. Still, he had to go somewhere.
Outside, the wind had picked up during the early morning hours. Adam pulled his jacket around him as he tried to fold the wool and make a double thickness. Beneath the fabric, he could feel his own ribs. Unstopped, he leaned into the winter wind and kept his head down.
“Oh!” a female voice screamed from an adjacent yard.
“Are you all right?” Adam called over the fence to the woman who stood there bent over.
“I think I sprained or twisted my ankle,” she gasped in frustration. “I have been trying to get ready for company. My family is coming for our annual Christmas Eve party. I have to get this sidewalk shoveled off. There’s ice from the doorway to the edge of the garden fence.”
“Yes Ma’am, I can see.”
“I don’t know if I dare finish this job—or even if I can.”
Adam could easily see she was upset. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I would be happy to clean the walk off for you, Ma’a—in exchange for a jelly sandwich.” That was all Adam could think of to barter. Most women had home-make jams and jellies in their pantry.
“I am Francine Bisque, young man. Who are you?” Her question was quick but friendly.
“Adam Shoemaker, Mrs. Bisque. I’m the part-time janitor over at the church on Cranberry Street.”
“Oh yes, my boy. I know many of the people there.” She paused for a moment, then added, “If you can help me into the house, then clear all this ice off the sidewalk, I will be happy to make you a strawberry preserves sandwich. You’re not allergic to strawberries are you?”
“No Ma’am,” Adam smiled at her thoughtfulness.
“And . . . and a nice dollar bill to go with that sandwich. A glass of milk or apple cider too,” she added, like someone who had just summed up a major transaction.
Food and money? “Yes, Ma’am,” he pronounced with eager determination. I need speed and strength this morning Shaddi. Fill me with might and power, like the comic book heroes.
With Shaddi’s help, Adam’s arms wound up like a whirligig in a windstorm. He shoveled and scrapped and had the ice and snow off the sidewalk in record time. A whole dollar! Adam could not believe his luck. A dollar for Moms’ present.
He quickly finished the sidewalk and leaned the shovel on the house near the back door. Mrs. Bisque provided the sweet sandwich, the cider and the dollar. “The drink is in one of my good pint jars. Just set the glass by the back door when you’re finished.”
Adam downed the cider. The special apple juice was sweet and tangy at the same time. It touched him in that spot usually reserved for Grandma Schumacher. He tucked the sandwich inside his jacket, the dollar in his pocket, and started off in the direction of the Woolworth store. I’ll save the sandwich for later. But now, I have money to spend. I’ll have every right to be in the store. I’m not a vagrant today.
“May I help you?” the sales clerk smiled from behind the candy counter in the center near the entrance to the five-and-dime.
“Um,” Adam closed his eyes and inhaled the fragrances just inside the store. “I never can decide which is better, the salty smell of the peanuts, the sweetness of the chocolate clusters, or
the combined flavors of the caramel corn.”
“Well, I’ll be happy to get you anything you want.”
“Thank you, no. I’m going to look around before I decide.”
“If I can help, just let me know,” she smiled.
Adam walked slowly through the store as the narrow boards of the hardwood floors squeaked beneath his feet. He was a customer—a real customer. The broad table-like shelves with clear glass dividers provided small cubbies to perfectly display each item type. Tea towels in one, dish rags in others. He touched everything but could decide on nothing. He didn’t stop until he came to the stack of linen handkerchiefs. They were beautiful.
“Aren’t those a little too frilly for you,” Fritzy teased as she came up behind Adam as he debated his find.
“Hi, Fritz.” He was surprised. He had not even thought of Fritz being anywhere but school, church and home. Adam hadn’t been out in the world for so many months, except to school, the thought never occur to him that others were out and about every day.
“Who’s the hanky for?” She reached for one of the delicate lace bordered soft cloths.
“You smell good.” Adam blurted.
“Thanks. The fragrance is called Chantilly.” Fritzy smiled and waved her hand near Adam’s face. “You just put a little on your wrist. The pulse is close to the skin there and the warmth brings out the scent.”
“It’s great Fritzy.” Adam looked back at the handkerchiefs. Just then, he and Fritzy were jostled by two boys who pushed and shoved each other and any one else in the store. They were nearly bowled over as the boys pushed their way through the store.
“Watch out Freddy,” Buddy whispered hoarsely. “The idea is to not get noticed, not knock over everything in the store.”
Adam could hear him clearly. Wow, Shaddi, super hearing! Thanks.
“Quit bossing me around, Buddy.” Freddy pushed again and a comic book fell from under his jacket.
“That’s just fine. You want to drop the others too?” Buddy jabbed Freddy in the arm.
“I know them . . .” Adam finally realized who the two were. He had just seen them during the night and he recognized their voices.
“Who?” Fritzy questioned and looked past the boys to see who, of any account, Adam could be referring to.
“Never mind,” Adam whispered. He looked back and saw a clerk watching the boys. Adam turned and ran into Freddy again and this time there was a zap, a charge like Adam felt when he helped Grandpa with the old truck and crossed some wires that should not have been crossed.
“Yow!” Freddy yelped and shook his arm. Two more comics fell from beneath Freddy’s coat and lay on the floor.
Adam simply pretended he had been knocked off balance by Freddy during the boys rough horseplay. He raised both hands, No foul, he gestured.
“Are these yours?” Adam asked as he grabbed the comics off the floor before either of the two could touch them again.
“No, no they aren’t mine,” Freddy threw up both hands in denial as he looked back at the clerk who continued to watch him.
Everyone turned to Buddy. “Hey, they’re not mine.” He thrust his hands as far into his pockets as he could jam them.
“They are mine, I believe,” the clerk said as she reached for the comics. She winked at Adam and took the magazines from him. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Adam handed them over without giving any acknowledgment to the boys. He didn’t
even look in their direction.
Freddy and Buddy ran out of the store and didn’t look back.
“Same school, different circles,” Fritzy mumbled as the two darted off.
“They are definitely not my friends.” Adam was adamant without explaining why he felt as he did. Their behavior was explanation enough.
“You are so brave, Adam,” Fritzy admired. “So honest.”
The praise stabbed him like a dart in a bullseye. “I’m not so―”
“Thank you, Young Man,” the clerk repeated. “You have to be commended for your honesty.”
“But,” Adam stopped. There weren’t any words for what could not be said. “Thank you,” was all he could say.
“Now, tell me about the handkerchief,” Fritzy demanded.
“I earned a little money this morning shoveling a walk. I want to get Moms a Christmas present.” He held up the two handkerchiefs he admired. “Which do you like?”
“Well . . . that would depend on how much you earned. The pretty one with the tatting on the edge is fifty cents and the one with the tatting and the crocheted flower in the corner is one dollar. Which one can you buy with your money?” She held them up. “They are both pretty.”
“I just have a dollar and tax on the expensive one would make the cost about three more cents.”
The clerk with the comic books overheard their conversation. “Well, you should get some reward for having caught the shoplifters. Let’s make the fancy one a dollar even, if that’s the one you want. How’s that?”
“Are you sure?” Adam gasped.
“Of course. You earned a special price.”
Adam payed for his purchase at the front counter.
The checkout girl smiled. “I believe Charlotte may have been wrong on that price. I think the ticket should read, seventy-five cents . . . total.”
Adam could say nothing at first. “But―”
“I’ll hear no more about my decision. I’ll begin to doubt myself,” the cashier stated as she handed him the thin box that contained the cherished Christmas present.
“Thank you,” Adam said, but in his mind he calculated: a hamburger for lunch would be fifteen cents and a glass of milk would be a nickel. He smiled. He could save the jelly sandwich for supper and actually have lunch as well. He would survive another day.
“What do we do now?” Fritzy looked around the store. “Everything is so bright and colorful in here, I don’t want to leave. Christmas decorations are everywhere.”
The saleslady at the music counter sat at the upright piano and sang as she played. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . .”
“I don’t know.” Adam wanted to eat but didn’t have enough money to treat Fritzy, so he said nothing more.
“I am going to get a malted,” Fritzy giggled as she headed toward the lunch counter. “Do you want half?”
“I think I’ll get a hamburger. I’ll share half my burger with you if you want to divide the malt with me.”
“Well,” Fritzy jumped up on a fountain stool and swiveled for a few seconds. “I don’t
want any hamburger, ‘cause Mom would kill me if I spoiled my lunch and . . . I wouldn’t be able to drink the entire malt myself. I was hoping you would take the other half of the malt so I could have some and not get Mom’s bun in a tangle at the same time.”
“Okay,” Adam thought. I’ll be money ahead and have a full stomach at the same time.
They found two seats at the lunch counter. The year was 1945 but the Woolworth and the fountain had been there long before that. The black marble counter was even warn in a few of the more favorite eating spots.
“You’ve talked about your grandfather but not your dad, Adam.” Fritzy removed her coat and made herself comfortable at the soda fountain without giving much thought to what she was saying.
Fritzy’s comment was harmless enough but Adam didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t want to talk about his father. He didn’t know what to say. “He went overseas a couple years ago.”
“When does he get discharged? Is he part of the clean up?”
The waitress sat the malt on the counter, along with the metal mixing can, and a second glass. Fritzy poured a generous portion of the malted milk into Adam’s glass and slid it along the counter as the waitress sat the sizzling hamburger in front of him. The bun smelled like it had been buttered and grilled. It looked delicious and smelled even better.
“He . . .” Adam took a bite of the burger as he stalled for time. “We haven’t heard from him in a long time.”
“I imagine that’s kinda scary.”
“Where was he the last you heard?”
“Um, he had been shot down over Germany. A pilot in another fighter saw him go down.”
“Adam, I am so sorry. If you don’t want to talk about it . . .”
He didn’t know what to dream up next. The whole thing was a lie. His dad wasn’t even a pilot. He was a Sargent in charge of some men who were to help take back a town or village or something. But, no one knew what had happened. The rest of his men had already come home. No one knew where Sargent Schumacher was. Adam finished the rest of his sandwich and pretended to have his mouth too full to talk.
Fritzy laughed and pushed the malt closer to his reach. “You had better wash some of that down. Didn’t Mother feed you enough food yesterday?” She chuckled again.
“Too long ago, can’t remember,” he teased. “Besides, I like to eat every day.”
Fritzy laughed again. “I guess you’re right.”
A wide mirror stretched above the full length of the lunch counter. The reflection allowed diners to enjoy the activity of the store behind them while they ate. Half of the fun of being in the Woolworth was seeing other patrons as the bustled about.
Adam’s eyes suddenly snapped to attention. The man with the blue car came into the store and stopped. He looked around, mostly toward the back of the store. Adam put his hands over his face like he was yawning or tired and needed to keep his face from falling off.
“Are you sleepy already? It’s only 11 a.m.”
“Sorry Fritzy,” Adam yawned and peeked at the man through his fingers. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
“The services are tonight. Maybe you need a nap.” She finished her malt and wiped her mouth. “So decadent, yet, so yummy good.”
Adam watched the Smith guy walk to the back of the store and decided to use that as a cue to leave while blue-car man was at the back. He chugged down the last few swallows of the thick malt and grabbed up his mother’s present. “I think I’ll catch a few winks. Let me walk you home.”
As Smith walked to the back of the store, the two young people walked out the front. Adam did not feel safe until they had rounded the corner, out of sight of the door in case the man came out. He felt crowded, fearful, and had no idea why he felt that way.
Adam’s world was whirling around him and he couldn’t find the core of the vortex. What was happening? It wasn’t enough that he lived in a birdcage with a hummingbird? Now he felt stalked. Would the man follow them? Would he find the church on Cranberry Street?