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Leaving for Christmas

By Patricia Crisafulli

Author’s Note: This story is the sequel to “Waiting for April,” which I recently published. Now it is three weeks after the chance meeting between Thomas and April, and three days into their married life—with Christmas approaching …

December 4, 1953 –

            Thomas peered into the oval mirror above the scratched and pitted dresser as he knotted his tie. Black shoe polish, always an occupational hazard, smudged the crumpled silk, and he tucked the ends into his sweater vest to hide the stain. Running his palm over the top of his head, he studied his dark hair, threaded with gray and a little thin at the temples. As he moved his hand, light glinted on a gold band, half of a his-and-hers matching set bought from a pawnshop three days ago.

            A married man. He whispered those words to his reflection, trying to find an anchor for himself amid the whirlwind of the past three weeks, from the evening he met April to the morning at City Hall when he married her. Slowly, he sat down on the edge of the bed and rested his hand on the gray wool blanket spread atop the covers. It was serviceable and clean enough but ugly, like everything else in this apartment.

            April should have nice things, pretty things, he scolded himself. Not just a two-room apartment, but a house—the kind with flowerboxes and curtains in the windows.

            His irritation over all that he’d never be able to give to his new wife triggered the doubts he’d been trying to ignore. His own feelings he never questioned. From the first moment he saw April, he’d fallen hard for this beautiful woman of twenty-six. Now, she was saddled with him: a thirty-eight-year-old man who repaired and shined shoes in a tiny shop in Union Station.

            When would April wake up and realize what a mistake she’d made?

            “What time is it?”

            The groggy voice jarred him out of the worried loop, and Thomas exchanged the lines in his face for the creases of a smile. “A little after seven.”

            Groaning slightly, April pulled the covers up to her ears. “I’m just so tired.”

            Leaning over, Thomas kissed her forehead, smelling the floral scent of her shampoo or maybe it was the face cream she put on every night. “Stay in bed,” he said.

            “I’ll come by the shop,” she murmured. “Make myself useful.”

            Lingering, he watched her eyes close. A sigh took her back to sleep.

            One hand on his fedora and the other holding up his collar, Thomas headed into a December wind that carved him like a knife. It was cold enough to snow, yet only icy rain fell. At least the apartment was warm, he told himself, and April could sleep late.

            All along the fifteen-minute walk to Union Station, in the heart of Chicago, Thomas thought back to that November night when April walked into his life. Memories spooled like a movie reel: how he’d looked up from his workbench and locked his eyes on a young woman crossing the great hall of the train station. He had watched her, purpose and grace in every step, until realizing she was heading to his shoe repair shop. At nine-thirty at night, his had been the only open door along a row of shuttered stores inside the station.

            “Is there a pharmacy nearby?” she’d asked, then explained that she wanted something to settle her stomach.

            A gust of wind knocked Thomas in the chest, and sleet raked his cheeks. Chicago weather at its worst.

            He retreated into the warmth of the memory—how he’d dug through all the drawers in the workbench and then his jacket pockets to find a roll of antacids.

            Thomas couldn’t remember if he had introduced himself first, or if she had told him her name—April. She’d just come in on the eastbound Glider, from California to Chicago. In an hour or so, she’d depart on the next train that would take her all the way to the East Coast. Then conversation had turned to confession, which Thomas supposed happened between strangers who never expected to see each other again. April told him how she’d gone to California with a girlfriend who wanted to be an actress. Her friend pursued the glamor, but April had been glad to land a job as a secretary in a movie studio. Now she was heading back home to New Jersey, where her parents expected her for a Thanksgiving visit.

            “They don’t know,” April had said, her voice soft. “I’m pregnant. I have nowhere else to go, but I’m not sure they’ll let me stay.”

            Even before she finished her story, Thomas had made up his mind. All his life, he decided, he had been waiting for April. Two-and-a-half weeks later, when the justice of the peace asked if he took this woman to be his wife, he’d never been more sure of anything in his life. But now, living in his tiny apartment where they bumped into each other at every turn, Thomas had to wonder if, instead of rescuing April, he’d ruined her life.

            Ducking through the side door of the train station, Thomas entered the great hall and passed Jimmy at the newsstand. Jimmy made a sweeping pantomime of looking at his watch. “Twelve minutes late. Somethin’ keeping you in bed?”

            Thomas acknowledged the teasing but didn’t stop to talk. He had a ten-hour day ahead of him, maybe even twelve. He needed to make as much money as possible before the baby arrived.

            Unlocking the door to his tiny shop, Thomas plunged back into familiarity: the shoeshine station; his stool with its cracked and patched red vinyl seat; polishes arranged by color and brushes by size and coarseness; his workbench lined with the tools of his trade. Thomas slipped on a leather apron with deep pockets and tied it behind his back.

            A customer stopped for a shine, and Thomas got to work. The shoes were fine leather—Italian, no doubt—and probably custom-made. As he rubbed polish over them, Thomas thought about the man in California—April’s boss, who’d gotten her pregnant. Thomas didn’t know much about the man, but he could imagine him, wearing an expensive suit and shiny shoes. 

            He bit his lip and buffed the leather briskly.

            All morning, Thomas tried to keep his mind and his eyes on his work, but every few minutes he scanned the great hall of the train station that swarmed with travelers and commuters. April had said she’d stop by, but now it was nearly noon.

            Hungry, he put the “back in 10 minutes” sign on the door, bought a ham sandwich from the deli across the station, and ate standing up at a high table where he could see across the expanse of the station. Amid a sea of gray and black and brown, muted tweed and subtle plaid, a flash of red caught his eye: a neck scarf being unwound—once, twice, three times.

            Thomas stuffed the uneaten half of his sandwich in its waxed paper wrapper. His walk became a run across the floor to where April stood in front of a decorated tree. Her eyes widened and her lips parted as if ready to say something.

            “You didn’t come this morning,” he blurted out, then kicked himself for how accusatory it sounded.

            April blinked. “I-I got a call. Then I took a little walk. I’d felt queasy, and the cold air made me feel better.” Her voice trailed off.

            The man in California—Thomas would bet on it. At a loss of what to say, he thrust the half-sandwich out to her. “Hungry?”

            April shook her head. “I had tea and toast.” She dug her hands into the pockets of her coat. “You going back to the shop?”

            Thomas nodded, and April fell in step next to him. Jimmy called out from the newsstand, “If it ain’t the newlyweds.” April waved, and Thomas gave him a tight smile.

            Then he felt the cool fingers that reached for his hand, and he sighed. If April really did leave him and go back to California, the loneliness would kill him. But for now, at least, she was still here.

            The days passed with quiet busyness. Thomas worked Monday through Saturday, then on Sunday afternoon he and April strolled along State Street admiring the decorations. Small crowds stood in front of the windows at Marshall Fields decorated with elves with presents, angels with trumpets, lights and glitter. The figures moved, and April laughed, as giddy as any of the children. Thomas thought of what a wonderful mother she’d be—young and energetic, quick to play and reluctant to scold. He tried to insert himself into that mental picture, but fear moved him to the background, the disconnected observer.

            April slipped her arm through his, and he gave a little grunt. He covered up the sound with a cough.

            She looked at him. “Could we buy a poinsettia? The apartment is too small for a tree, but something a little bright…” She waited, expectantly.

            Patting her arm, Thomas continued walking. “The flower shop won’t open until Monday, but we can get it then.”

            And, just as he’d said, Thomas came home on Monday night with a bright red tropical flower that took up nearly half the tiny table for two. They had to push their plates closer together, their elbows touching. April took a bite of peas and carrots, then put down her fork. “I need to ask you something,” she said, her eyes never leaving her lap.

            Thomas tasted bile in the back of his throat.

            “Are you disappointed with me?” she asked.

            “No—” Thomas’s eyes prickled and burned, his heart raced. He made the leap before April could say another word, blurting out his fear. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

            When Thomas looked at her, he saw the tears caught in her dark lashes. “I thought I’d done the right thing, asking you to stay—to marry me. Maybe you were only scared,” he went on.

            April dropped her head and sobbed.

            “If you want to go back, I won’t stop you. I just want you to be happy.”

            April jerked her head up. “Back? Where?”

            “California.” Thomas spat out the word like a vulgarity. “Isn’t that the reason you’ve been getting so many calls?”

            Anger flashed in her eyes. “I’d never go back there.”

             Years later, Thomas would recall the jolt of electricity, as searing as the touch of a live wire. It sent him to his feet, knocking over his chair. The clatter of wood on the old linoleum made April jump, but he reached out and cradled her in his arms. He loosened his grip for fear of squashing the baby. She laughed when he told her that and hugged him back, hard.

            That night, in the twist of their bedcovers, April rested her head on Thomas’s chest. “I do have something to tell you, and I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it.”    

            Thomas wrapped his arms around her. “Tell me. Whatever it is.”

            April wiggled out of his embrace to raise up on one elbow. “My mother has been calling me almost every day—sometimes twice and day.”

            Her mother—not some man in California. Inwardly, Thomas groaned at his own presumptuous stupidity.

            “Mom has worn my dad down, telling him he’s going to be a grandpa. Now they want us to come for Christmas. But I don’t know how you feel about that.”

            Thomas gazed at this young woman—his wife—for whom he’d go to the moon and back. “I’ll get the tickets tomorrow. We can leave on the twenty-third and be there in time for Christmas Eve.”

            “And be back by new year’s,” April added. “I want that time alone with you.”

            For all his years working in Union Station, Thomas had never boarded one of the trains. But there he stood, two days before Christmas, holding a suitcase in one hand and his wife’s arm in the other. She looked poised, a seasoned traveler in the wool coal and matching hat she’d worn that night they’d first met. He wished he could have afforded a new topcoat for himself, to make a good impression on April’s parents. Marv and Donna, he repeated the names to himself, trying to picture the faces he’d only seen in a photograph April carried in her wallet.

            April looked up at him, her eyes softening. “There’s something you need to know.”

            Thomas could guess what she’d say next: how her parents would be cool to him, perhaps even hostile, because they believed he was some stranger who had seduced their daughter and gotten her pregnant. That had been the assumption when April had told them she’d eloped.

            “Two days ago, I called my father and told him the truth—about the man in California, me meeting you in Union Station, you offering to marry me. Everything,” she said.

            Thomas braced himself for the indictment, knowing her father would question his motives. “What did he say?”

            April turned to face him. “That you are a good and honorable man.”

            Thomas’s mouth quivered. “I don’t know about that,” he began, but the train station announcer’s booming voice drowned out his words. Now boarding on platform six, the eastbound Metropolitan Express, making stops in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York’s Penn Station….

            April slipped her hand in his and tightened her grip. “Let’s go,” she whispered. Together, they were leaving, for Christmas.

Leaving for Christmas
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