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A Present for Christmas.

It was late, after midnight, when I left the theater. The corridor of dressing rooms was empty. All the other people had gone, either home or to join late parties around town. On the dusty concrete stairs one of the girls, hurrying, had dropped a flower. Old Nod, the doorkeeper, was still there, and he got up from his squeaky wooden rocking chair to open the stage door for me. His Christmas packages from the members of the company were already beginning to be stacked up on display along the shelf under the bulleting board. Day after tommorrow would be Christmas Eve.

"Good night, Mr. Wade," he said. "And thanks for the present."

"Hope you like it when you unwrap it," I said. I hadn't the faintest idea which of the bright packages was supposed to be from me. I had asked Susan to do my shopping, along with her own.

"We are planning quite a day at our house, Christmas Day," old Nod said earnestly. "The wife and I."

"That's good," I said. "Fine."

When I reached the street, the sidewalks were deserted. There was nobody else in sight in either direction. Some torn pieces of paper had already blown into the entrance of the theater, and the whole front was dark, but there, overhead, were our names in glass block letters: SUSAN MARKLEY & JOHN WADE in ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE--that bitter and brittle modern comedy which is doing so much for us all this winter. It's an odd feeling, sufficiently odd and disillusioning, to see your name there when the lights are turned off. It looks awfully blank. But it was there, and I had lost everything else in the world to put it there.

In the steamy lighted window of a tavern across the street, a Christmas wreath was hanging; and you could hear a muffled monotony of voices and foolish laughter, as if from far away, far away. Even those people of the squalid night were beginning to celebrate, however unknowingly, the humble birth night of a Child whom I guess even the wisest or the saddest of us do not know enough about.

I walked toward the distant avenue where I knew I would be able to pick up a late-cruising taxi. The less I let myself think, the better for me. Susan is one of the shining ones of this earth; she has two babies and a husband--a thoroughly nice fellow--and they had asked me to spend Christmas with them in their apartment overlooking Central Park. But they knew about Cathleen, and so they did not insist when I said, "No, thank you; please, not this year."

The invitations from other people, party people, were harder to get out of, but I don't think I offended anybody. On the avenue I signaled a taxi, and when I got home to the hotel where I live, I found that some more presents had arrived. Bellboys had brought them up and arranged them on a side table in my sitting room. In the soft light they were a rich blurred mass of golds and greens and cellophane glitter in expensive-looking shapes. I didn't look at any of the cards. Not yet. They would all be courtesies from other names of the stage or of Hollywood or radio, the lavish worldly gifts. I stood there looking at them, and I was alone.

The first time I ever saw Cathleen--that was just before Christmas too. Eight years ago. It was about three o'clock one afternoon, and in a second-rate casting office we were turned away at the same time, this girl and I. We didn't even get to see the agent. A tired blonde just looked up from her typewriter: "Nothing today, Mr. Kron says. He says, maybe after the first of the year." The casting office was on the second floor of a decaying old building just off Broadway. So we found ourselves going back down the stairs together, this slender, dark girl and I. There was a soft snow falling, veiling all the towers of the city, and we walked along Broadway with the crowds and the traffic. She had on a belted polo coat, a little shabby, and she walked with her hands thrust deep into its pockets. Her lips were shy and merry, but her eyes were very steady when she looked at you, and clear with courage. Over Manhattan it was a country sort of snow that afternoon, the kind of snow you remember from when you were a child; she was from a little town in Montana, and I from a Kansas farm. A thousand miles from each other, in fiercely dreaming youth we had each walked alone and looked up at the same country stars and been shaken with passion for the cities of the world, for the powerful, sonorous magic of the theater, for Broadway.

So here we were. Talking to each other at first hesitantly, almost timidly, but what we said I can't remember, much. I wish I could. We went into a drugstore where, in those days, the hungry hopeful kids of the theater used to hand around for endless talk: "I hear Libskind is casting next week." . . . "I got a tip on a road show that's going out next month." Cathleen and I sat up at the counter for a cup of coffee apiece. One of her gloves, I saw when she laid them down, was carefully mended at a finger tip. The wetness of the snow had soaked in through the thin-worn soles of my shoes, which I kept tucked back out of sight under the soda-fountain stool. But we were young and our hearts were high. Wherever she is, she must be remembering that too.

And the first Christmas after we were married--we were living in a furnished room on West 15th Street. The first-floor front in one of those ancient red-brick houses. In front of our windows, left over from better days of the house, was a useless little ornamental-ironwork balcony, and again there was snow on the New York streets. The lacework pattern of snow on the wrought-iron railing, and I remember my girl in the dusk of Christmas Eve walking across the worn red carpet to stand there at the window, watching the lights of the Big Town coming on in the purple-gray. We had both been in summer stock in New England; I was now out of a job again, but she was getting an occasional hour as a model. She was so beautiful--so beautiful, and still so believing. On Christmas morning she woke me up early, making coffee on our electric plate. We had a few little gifts for each other, such small things as we could afford. But the greatest gift in the world was still the invisible one. When she tried to say, "Merry Christmas, d-darling--" I remember she stopped, and swallowed, and was silent. Her rumpled dark hair, and her eyes--her eyes were like flowers.

Our other Christmases. There was one on the road, in a hotel in a small town in Oregon, and it was raining. The gray, endless rain of the coast. It was a travel-worn road company we were in, not very good but it was the first year I had ever had a payday right around Christmastime, so it was the first time I was ever able to give her a really extravagant gift. I remember my girl standing in the gray morning light of that hotel room, with a mink coat on over her pajamas--well, kind of a mink coat--and crying with an absolutely motionless face while she looked at me.

And after that year the gifts could always be extravagant and the coats real mink or sable, and the diamonds also real. Because when we got back to New York, that strange play, The Wishing Cap, was being cast with unknown actors and actresses for a cheap production. When it hit, astonishing everybody, I hit with it. After the first roaring week of success, my name went over the sidewalk in lights, and the play ran for nearly two years. We had a big apartment, Cathleen and I, a duplex with an elegant stairway between the two floors, and in the Christmas seasons it was always filled with people, coming and going. You would meet people on the stairs who were practically strangers, but everyone was so gay, so festive; though once in a while some bonehead or some coldly over-dressed woman would say something like: "So this is Mrs. Wade. And are you interested in the theater?" I never knew how great a lady was my wife until I saw her smile and murmur after something like that.

Looking back, I can now see her quiet pain and her increasing shadow-like loneliness, as year followed year and play followed play, for me. But at the time I was so busy; you have to be hard and smart when you are coming up in this most merciless of all professions, or maybe it's only that you fall into the attitude of being hard and smart because everybody else is pretending to be. Somehow we never seemed to be together again, deeply, deeply, as we had always been when we were poor. They were hurried years, and desperately intense. I know that we must have had afternoons at home alone, but it seems to me that we were always coming in late at night from somewhere and getting out of our party clothes, too filled with other people's talk to say much to each other.

She never complained, even by silence, and she was always proud when some new good break would come my way. But I can remember the white, still face she lifted to me every night at the front door of the apartment when I was leaving for the theater. Once in a while she would be working, too, a minor part in some other theater--she would never take a small part in one of my plays. For that I don't blame her. I know how that I was watching goodness and bravery. She was hard-working and tired and beautiful. And somewhere along the way I lost my girl.

But there is one thing that I'm thankful for now. Through those years when I was failing her to gain success, she had one friend. I believe that Cathleen and Marge Kelly met in some unremembered short-lived play or other, in which they both had parts. I can't quite place just when it was, through there, but I think they shared a stuffy, littered dressing room with two other girls. More or less dimly, I can recall their joking about how untidy the other two girls were. Anyway, Marge began to be in our apartment quite a lot, they chummed around for lunches and afternoon shopping, and I was glad because it gave Cathleen company and somebody to talk to while I was busy. Besides, I liked Marge. For a long time--two or three years--she was practically like kinfolk to us both; a big, startling-looking blonde, deceptively luscious. Deceptively, because she was tough and theater-wise.

One Christmas afternoon when she came in, Cathleen showed her the array of grand presents I had given her, and at the last she held out silently in her open hand the keys to the new sports roadster which stood glittering richly in the pale winter sunshine in front of the apartment-house door, six stories below. Marge had seen it, coming in--in fact, I had told her about it a month ago when I had ordered it for Cathleen.

At the sight of the keys in that open hand, Marge started to make the usual and expected thrilled noises--and then stopped. Because Cathleen did a strange thing. Gently, she laid the keys on a table and, for no reason that I could imagine, walked out of the room. I heard her going up the stairs, I heard the door of her room click softly closed. And Marge gave a strange long glance toward those keys on the table.

"What's the matter?" I said.

"I guess it's a usual sort of story, John," she said slowly. "I won't argue with you."

It left me vaguely disturbed, but only for a little while. Something else happened, the doorbell buzzed, somebody else came in, I sent the maid to tell Cathleen; and I forgot.

When Cathleen left me, that next January, she said, "I'd always come back to the man I knew. For that man I would go hungry. I expected to, when I married him. For him I would scrub floors, I would go in rags, because he was gentle and he had a simple heart. But he's gone, he's gone. He left a long time ago, little by little. So now it's my time to leave."

I guess I was so bewildered and angry, making such a scene of outraged pride, that I did not understand what she was trying to say to me. She was not angry; she was talking almost in whispers.

"Of course," she said "Proudly, you've done everything in the world for me, except remain the man I loved. Your gifts have been stupendous and thoughtless. I'd rather have a sack of popcorn, bought with your last dime. Do you remember the time you did that, and we ate it together, walking along a rainy street? For all your vainglory, successful men like you are a dime a dozen. But I remember the little gentle ways of a man who had nothing."

Well, so she was gone. I know that she stayed with Marge for a while, and I kept expecting her to come back, so I did not call. Then I heard that she had gone out with a road company, but I still kept expecting her to come back someday. I didn't know her, after all. The next I heard, a year later, she was in Australia, in a touring repertory company. and then it was too late, because she had changed her name, and I could not trace her through any booking agency. So she was really gone, and she meant it.

That was why, the other night, I turned away, sick in my soul, from the gorgeous, the impersonal, professional Christmas packages on my table, and went around my hotel sitting room flipping on all the lights. The shadows were bothering me.

I went to the telephone and ordered my late supper sent up. And standing there in the glare of lights, that was when I realized that I had already decided to go and see Marge Kelly. For old times' sake, I thought, because it was near Christmastime. I knew she was back in town, becaus elast October I had had a note from her. I hadn't paid any attention to it at the time, beyond perhaps a moment of grim amusement, because I was busy the evening I found it on my dressing table in the theater. Now, rooting around in my hotel-room writing desk, I found it again:

... just back and resting from successful tour of the Middle West. See you are still going great, John. Old remembrances and congratulations, From,

Yours sincerely,

MARGE.

The note gave a remote Brooklyn address, but no phone number. Maybe she hadn't wanted me to call her.

The next afternoon I set out by subway for Brooklyn. I didn't bother to shave--I could stop in a barbershop on my way to the theater later on--and from motives of tact which I guess were unnecessary and a bit overdone, I wore an old belted raincoat and a hat which had been comfortably battered on my last two summers' fishing vacations. I didn't look exactly trampish, but I was not sartorially flaunting my prosperity before Marge's cynical eyes, either.

It was a long subway trip, and the address she had given was a grimy old brick rooming house on a dismal street. Her name was on a mailbox--Apt. 3-A--and I climbed three flights of creaking stairs to knock on her door. I heard her heavy firm step, and the door opened. She had on a gray flannel wrapper with a couple of careless cigarette holes burned in it, and her extremely golden hair was twisted up on top of her head, but she was as big and beautiful as ever.

"Oh!" she said. Then she held out her hand. "Hi, John. Come in."

She had only one room, and we stood awkwardly in the middle of it, smiling uncertainly at each other. I don't think we actually said, "Well, well!" in too-hearty voices; Marge said, "This is a surprise, John," and I said, "You're looking grand, kid."

"Hell with the old theatrical amenities," Marge said abruptly. "I'll fix you a cup of tea or a gin fizz. What do you want?"

"Coffee," I said. "I'm working tonight."

"I know you are. I haven't caught your show yet, but I hear you're better than ever. You and Markley," she said. "Somebody was telling me that you're working more quietly than you used to, and that it's better."

"Thanks," I said. "But it's mostly Susan. She's swell to work against."

"Listen, brother; I said let's cut out the courtesies of the theater. You're getting better because I think it's killing you along the way."

She went over to a gas plate in a corner and fixed a percolator of water and coffee. She struck a match to the gas, blew it out with a long look at me, and then, with magnificent aplomb, retired behind a shabby folding screen which was set up in another corner of the room. I heard her sling her wrapper aside, and pretty soon I could tell she was getting into her girdle. I could hear her take a deep resolute breath as she hauled it up over her munificent and probably ivory-beautiful middle. then there were rustlings as she took a slip and some clothes off coat hangers in that corner.

"Listen, Marge," I said. "How would you like to see our show tonight? I can't get seats for you and the boy friend, if any, because we're sold out for weeks ahead. But I'd like to have you in the wings, watching us tonight. As my guest."

"Swell," she said. "I'd like to see you work, John. Besides, it's probably the last chance I'll ever have to set my big foot on a New York stage. Even just standing in the wings, I'd like it once more. I don't fool myself anymore, John. Thanks, and it's sweet of you."

She came out from behind the screen, dressed to the teeth. She had on a

hostess gown, long skirts, that the late John Drew would have had to shout--if you can image that--to make himself heard against. But damn my eyes, Marge is superbly and toughly good-looking.

"I know why you're here, John," she said briskly. "And I won't tell you where she is, and I won't do anything about it. She wouldn't want me to. But we'll have a cup of coffee like ladies and gents."

She went over to the gas-plate corner and started doing around with cups and saucers and the percolator. Her room was exactly as you would have thought it--magnificently untidy, with a lot of professional photographs of theatrical friends scattered around. There was one signed picture of Cathleen in a heavy imitation-silver frame. Twice my eyes had winced away from it. But now I made myself lood at it steadily.

"That's the boy," Marge said. "How long since you've dared look at your pictures of her? I bet you have them hidden away out of sight."

She brought our cups and saucers and we sat balancing them. She was absolutely regal. The coffee was good and strong. She did not sip; she took a hearty swallow.

"So you've got success, John. That's the big thing," she said abruptly. "But you've lost the little things. You've got what the rest of us would sell our souls to get, and you've sold yours. You've lost remembrance of the good little human things that make life worth living for the rest of us."

I didn't say anything. This time it was my turn not to argue with her. Besides, I could see that I was in for the sort of scolding which your wife's best friend is privileged to give.

"A big name in lights, and getting better," she said. "But how long has it been since anybody has done anything for you except for your name? How long since anybody has done anything for you just because you were another human being, like the rest of us?"

When a thoroughly nice woman is talking to you like that, all you can do is bow your head before the storm. And anyway, I guess I didn't have very much to say. It went on for quite a while, but we ended brightly and cheerfully, as friends. As I picked up my hat and started to leave, she tucked her arm in mine and walked with me out into the hall.

"Well, see you backstage tonight, and thanks again," she said, while I went clattering down the stairs. "Don't forget to leave word at the stage door to let me in."

"I won't forget," I said.

On the next floor down--the second floor of that old house--the door of another apartment stood open and a little girl maybe nine or ten years old was busily sweeping. The broom was as tall as she was. When she looked up and smiled at me, a passing stranger, all the pale radiance of poor city childhood was there--the wistful, anxious light that the city takes away before its children's faces are grown up.

"Hellow," she said.

I stopped, and smiled too. "Hellow," I said.

She had a woman's apron, tied underheath her chin. Behind her, in the cluttered half-darkness of that room, stood a Christmas tree. Some tinsel gleamed sparsely and dully on it, and a few dim packages lay on the floor under its branches.

"I see you're going to have quite a Christmas," I said.

"Oh, yes!" she said, and turned to look at the tree. For her it was so beautiful, it was the fullness of all promised magic.

From under the brim of my battered hat I watched her, and after a moment she sighed happily, gazing at the tree, and then turned back to me. Shabby as I was, and unshaven, I must have looked like all the aother people she knew, or even poorer.

"My name's Gretchen," she said sociably. "I get home from school earlier than my father or my mother from their jobs, so I was just tidying up the house. What's your name?"

"John," I said.

Hauling to broom along, she came to the door and we shook hands.

"And are you planning a nice Christmas too?" she asked in her best neighborly voice.

"Well, I guess I hadn't thought much about it," I said.

"You mean you haven't got any children?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"And nobody?" she said.

I didn't say anything, but I smiled again. And quietly this child gazed at my face.

"Wait," she said.

She went back into the room. To the poor thin Christmas tree. Bending over, she anxiously studied the packages, and then picked one up. Coming back to the door, she silently held it out to me.

"Oh, no!" I said. "I--"

Gently, she pushed the gift into my hand. A small sort of flatly limp package awkwardly wrapped in cheap holly paper and painfully tied up with dime-store tinsel string.

"It isn't much," she said. "It's just a little old something I made for my father. But it's a little thing that you can unwrap on Christmas morning, and we've got lots. We've got so much."

With the eyes of a child looking at me and seeing me clearly, clearly--with quiet pity--I think in that moment I learned one of the great lessons of my life. That sometimes it can be more blessed to receive. Sure, wildly I was tempted to send to that little girl and her tired mother and father such a great lavish Christmas as they had never dreamed of. Sure, I could go shopping inthe big stores; I could have a dozen trucks stop at that door. But if I did, I would take away something that the child had for herself, for she had given to the poor and the lonely.

So, with her little limp package in my hand, I only took off my hat and said, "Thank you, Gretchen."

"Merry Christmas," she said. "And don't be sad anymore. Please."

When I looked up, Marge Kelly was still at the top of the stairs, where I had left her. So she had seen all this. I waved my hand to both of them and beat it out of there. I couldn't stand any more.

That evening Marge showed up timidly at the theater only ten minutes before curtain time. Susan and I, ready to go on, were waiting in her dressing room when I heard the wandering and uncertain clicking of high heels in the corridor. I got up and went to the door.

"Hi, Marge," I said. "Here I am. Come in and meet Susan."

I had expected the old girl to be terrifically dressed for the occasion, but she wasn't. She was wearing ordinary street clothes, rather subdued. I think she was shy and didn't want to be conspicuous, coming as a visitor among this company in this theater. Susan, vivid as a flame, was sweet to her as only Susan knows how to be sweet, but as we all went up to the stage, Marge suddenly seemed too big, and almost stubling.

Hurriedly we introduced her around to some of the rest of the company as they came drifting up. Everybody tried to make her feel at home there; and halfway through the first act, when I came offstage, I saw that she was much more at ease with two or three of the minor members of the cast--much more like her breezy self with them. I patted her shoulder as I went by, and she smiled brightly at me. Too brightly.

And later on in the evening an odd thing happened. On the stage, Susan and I were working hard and smoothly toward our second-act curtain, the best scene in the play. The audience was laughing out front, because, as I said, it is a bitter and brittle New York comedy. But standing in the wings alone, watching Susan work, Marge--Marge was crying. For all she could never be, and didn't hope for anymore.

Susan, lovely and perceptive, knew it, too; and was kinder than I knew how to be. She was Marge's hostess from then on, and I didn't see much more of either of them offstage. When the show was over, at the end of the third act, we took our curtain calls; Susan and I taking the last two or three together, reaching for each other's hands and then dropping them, laughing.

Marge was waiting in the wings, her eyes enormous, and as the two girls went downstairs. Marge almost reverently stubled again when Susan slipped a friendly arm around hr waist. By the time I cam walking slowly along the corridor, Susan's dressing-room door was closed and I could hear the two of them talking away and laughing. I was grateful to Susan for taking over, because I wanted to be alone. Susan's husband would be coming for her, and they would all go up to the apartment on Central Park for supper. That was swell for me. I couldn't bear to talk anymore, just now, to anyone.

In my dressing room, I stood looking at some more grand professional presents which had arrived that day at the theater. I had stacked them in a corner on the floor. wearily, I started getting out of the sports clothes in which I play the last act. And then, in only the slacks and my undershirt, I found myself standing very still, staring at my old raincoat where I had hung it up behind the door. I walked toward it, and from one of the pockets pulled out the limp little package that had been given me that afternoon in Brooklyn. I held it in my hand for a moment, the cleap slick holly paper, the carefully knotted tinsel string. I laid it down on my dressing table all by itself, under the square of light bulbs framing the mirror.

There it was, the illwrapped little package that a child has given me, a stranger, because she thought I was lonely and had nothing. I was very tired, and I sat down and put my head on my folded arms on the dressing table just to rest. Against one elbow I could feel that package; on my bare shoulders I could feel the heat of the light globes. I heard people leaving the other dressing rooms; voices and laughter and departing feet along the corridor. Pretty soon it was very silent in the theater.

I don't know how long I rested there. But suddenly there was a big hand laid very softly on my shoulder. I raised my face. It was Marge. So I don't know how long since she had silently opened my dressing-room door, nor how long she had stood there looking at me.

"Oh, hellow, kid," I said. "I thought you'd gone."

"No," she said.

"O.K.," I said. "Give me a minute, and we'll go out and get some supper. I'll buy you a lobster, baby, for old time's sake."

"No," she said. With her handkerchief she gently wiped my cheeks.

"Forget it," I said. "I'll buy you some champagne too. For nearly Christmas."

"No," she said. "I've got a letter to write tonight. I know what to say, now, John. And Cathleen will listen to me."

"Oh, kid," I said. "I--"

"Hush," she said. "So long, John." Softly, softly, she touched the little package, and walked away, and closed the door for me.

So I guess my girl will be coming back. Maybe we'll open the little package whenever she gets here, but maybe we will never open it. Maybe we will just put it away somewhere, never really knowing what poor small magic is in it. But where I can get it out and look at it again sometimes. If ever I should nearly forget again.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Foster, Michael
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:5115
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