She was my age. I believe I was ten. I can’t remember her name but that might be more because I don’t want to rather than a memory issue.
She had three or four little brothers and sisters, they are nothing but small shadows of recollection today. She had a knee-walking drunk for a father. She had a mother for him to beat on when he was out of whiskey. I remember that.
We lived in a boomtown in the midwest. Lots of oil. For a couple of decades, everyone had money. Yet, even when the cup runneth over, there is always the kid who has nothing. She was it. She was the poor kid.
At some point in yesteryear, civilization had conspired with Charles Dickens to draft unspoken legislation insuring there would forever be an unfortunate sucking the hind tit of life.
And, right out of the mind of Dark Charlie, the poor girl got canned goods for Christmas. Whoever thought this gift was in the holiday spirit needs to be beaten to death with their own practicality. But, wait! There’s more…
In the sadistic fashion of Miss Havisham, after Christmas break, our teacher initiated the customary — What did Santa bring you? — round-robin. The poor girl’s humiliation filled the room.
The worst kind of shame a kid can endure is that which is given to them by their parents.
I remember her dad passed out in their front yard once or twice a week. No one ever saw him staggering around, he would just suddenly appear, flat on his back, through ninety-proof sorcery. I remember my mom standing at the kitchen window growling; calling him a no-good sonofabitch without an ounce of shame to his name.
I remember the girl’s brother always saying they hadn’t eaten in two days. Always two days. He never came straight out and asked for food, but my mom was quick picking up hints. She never sent a stray away hungry.
I remember my mom standing at the kitchen window watching it all and crying.
On Christmas morning, a small gathering of blue-haired angels from the Rotary Club had descended on the girl’s house, their wings aflutter. They came bearing boxes and bags of their own righteousness and virtue. It was a wonderful day. The poor kids got fed and the blue-haired angels had reaffirmed their seat at the right hand of God. Tiny Tim’s crutch was spared kindling yet another Christmas season.
Her eyes welled with tears when she told the class she got a few cans of beans and some candy. After hearing tale after tale of Santa’s generosity, the fat guy had only floated her a few cans of Van Camp’s. Some of the kids laughed. My heart broke.
I should have seen it coming but I could not be bothered to watch for it. My face started leaking too.
I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide, but the world wouldn’t provide one. The world was teaching me a lesson. It grabbed me at the base of my skull and forced me to see. “Look! Look! This is how we roll.” We watched her cut out her own heart with the lid off a tin can and stuff shame into the void and we thought it was funny.
The only lesson I learned from the Ghost of Christmas Poverty was either fix the problem or stay away from it. Half-measures only fester the wound.
“What good is Christmas dinner if you starve every other day of the year?” — Borne Wilder
Looking back, the only shame I can still see is mine.
© 2019, Jess Starkey, Originally published by him on Medium where he is a top writer of short stories. Shared here with his permission.