The Christmas Club ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k).)
Stanley and Virginia Miller lived in a modest four-room house on a tree-lined street in a small town. They had known each other their entire lives and had been married for ten years. To this union had been born two children: Georgette, age nine, and Ian, age seven. When Ian was born, Virginia experienced some complications and wasn’t able to have any more children, but that was fine with her because she thought two children were as many as she could reasonably hope to take care of. Both children attended the town’s public elementary school, the same school that Stanley and Virginia had gone to when they were growing up.
Stanley was never very good in school, had just barely graduated, and worked as a miner. He spent all day long, every day, below the ground chipping away at rock. The mine where he worked had been in operation for many years, and every year the mine became bigger and bigger until it had become so vast that people never believed how big it was until they saw it for themselves. It had become big enough, Stanley joked, to swallow the entire town. He sometimes had nightmares about the mine, about digging down too far to ever make it out again, and he would wake up calling for help and gasping for air. Every time he came out of the mine at the end of his shift, being out in the open air again seemed like something of a miracle.
Stanley’s take-home pay was meager and he and Virginia never quite had enough money to go around. After paying the rent, buying food, paying the gas bill and the light bill and all the other incidentals, they sometimes ran out of money before the end of the month. To help meet expenses, Virginia took in washing and ironing and occasionally hired herself out for “heavy cleaning” or some other kind of domestic work.
When Virginia was younger, before she married Stanley, she had worked in a tailor shop doing alterations and seamstress work. She thought she was quite good at it and she liked working for the old man who ran the tailor shop. Now that she was older and, knowing that she had real aptitude for the work, she wanted to buy her own sewing machine and whatever else was needed to go into business for herself. She was sure she could make enough money to supplement Stanley’s pay and provide a few little extras for her family.
When she spoke to Stanley about going to the bank and borrowing money to start her own little business, he was against the idea from the outset. He was superstitious about banks and he hated the thought of owing money. He had the idea that Virginia would never make enough money on her own to pay back a loan and he would have to make good on the loan himself.
In spite of the shortage of cash, Virginia was still able to save a little money here and there by scrimping and counting pennies. If she bought a cut of meat, for example, for thirteen cents less than she had paid for it the last time, she would put thirteen cents in her jar at the back of the kitchen cabinet. If the light bill was two dollars less this month than last month, she would put two dollars in the jar. When she had more than two or three dollars in the jar, usually in small change, she would take it out and deposit it into her Christmas Club account at the bank. By autumn she had about two hundred and thirty dollars in the account, but she didn’t want Stanley to know about it just yet. Eventually she would have to tell him, but she would deal with telling him at the appropriate time. She hoped he would be pleased with her for saving money he didn’t even know they had.
She wanted to give Ian and Georgette a wonderful Christmas, the kind of Christmas she had never had when she was growing up. Every Friday when she was finished at the grocery store and had the groceries stowed in the trunk of the car, she would take a walk down the block to look at the bicycles in the window of the hardware store. There was a boy’s bicycle and a girl’s bicycle that were very much alike. The boy’s bicycle was a little bigger, with a crossbar that the girl’s bicycle didn’t have. Both were shiny red, with chrome bumpers, pristine-looking whitewall tires, and streamers attached to the handlebars. She knew that any child would be thrilled to own such a bicycle.
When Virginia was growing up, Christmas never amounted to much in her house. Her father was much older than her mother and, although a decent man, he was odd in his own way. He didn’t believe in any kind of religious observance and would never allow the celebration of Christmas in his house. Christmas was, he said, for people with lots of money to throw away and he had none, in spite of the stocks and bonds he owned that eventually left Virginia’s mother well-off in her widowhood.
There were never any gifts or music or Christmas tree or decorations in their house, and on Christmas Day they usually had stew or hash or beans and cornbread for dinner, while Virginia’s father silently read the newspaper or listened to the stock market quotes or the war news on the radio and Virginia and her mother sat with their eyes downcast and ate in silence.
On the first Friday in December, Virginia went to the bank to withdraw the money from her Christmas Club account. She waited in line behind several other people, and when her turn came she stepped up to the teller’s window and handed the teller her passbook that showed the balance in her account. She told the teller she wanted to withdraw the money and close the account.
The teller frowned and squinted as she looked for the account number in her records. She had a double chin and eyebrows drawn on in graceful arcs halfway up her forehead. When she spoke, her voice had an odd little-girl quality about it. “Hold on a minute,” she said. “I’ll have to go check on this.” She turned and walked away to the rear of the bank and disappeared through a doorway.
When she came back, she smiled at Virginia and handed the passbook back to her. “Your money has already been drawn out of this account,” she said.
“There must be some mistake,” Virginia said. “I haven’t taken my money out.”
“No, but your husband did. I guess he forgot to tell you.”
Virginia just stood there looking at the teller with no expression on her face until the teller asked her if she was all right and if there was anything else she needed.
When she got back home, she felt better because she was sure the bank had made a mistake and, after speaking to Stanley when he returned from work, she would call the bank and have the matter straightened out in a matter of two minutes. Stanley would never take her money without telling her. He didn’t even know the money was there, so how could he take it out? She couldn’t wait for him to walk through the door so she could talk to him about it.
When Georgette and Ian arrived home from school, Virginia gave them some money and sent them to the store to buy a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. She gave them a little extra money so they could each buy themselves a candy bar, but she made them promise not to eat it until after supper.
She was sitting at the kitchen table thumbing through a magazine when Stanley came in from work, a few minutes later than usual. Without looking at Virginia, he set his lunch pail on the table and went to the sink to get a drink of water.
Virginia looked up from the magazine at the back of Stanley’s head. She waited until he had turned the water off and then she said, “I went to the bank today.”
He turned around and faced her with the glass of water in his hand, his hip resting against the sink. “What?” he asked.
“I said I went to the bank today. They told me you took the money out of my Christmas Club account. I was sure it had to be a mistake. I knew that, even if you had known about the money, you would never take it without telling me.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down at the floor.
“So, the question is: Did you withdraw the money from the Christmas Club account?”
“Yes, I guess I did,” he said.
“Why did you do that? That was my money. I saved it.”
“Just what is a Christmas Club anyway?”
“I want to know why you took my money.”
“Well, I think there’s a law somewhere that says your money is also my money.”
“You had no right to take it without telling me.”
“I was going to tell you.”
“That money was for Christmas. I wanted to buy some things for Ian and Georgette. I wanted to give them a nice Christmas.”
He poured his glass of water out into the sink. “Some things are a lot more important than Christmas,” he said.
“Do you still have the money?”
“I want to know what happened to it.”
“Ian and Georgette have everything they need. They have food to eat and clothes to wear and they’re getting an education. That’s a lot more than I had.”
“What happened to the money?”
“I’ve owed my brother Richard two hundred dollars for a long time. He was desperate to get it back. He’s getting a divorce and he needs all the money he can get.”
“So, you’re telling me that my Christmas Club money went for your no-good brother’s most recent divorce?”
“He’s family,” Stanley said. “I think family is more important than buying stuff for the kids for Christmas that they don’t need.”
She wasn’t finished with what she wanted to say, but Ian and Georgette returned from the store and she didn’t want them to hear her and Stanley arguing about money. She stood up from the table and went to the sink and began peeling potatoes for supper.
Over the next few days, Virginia wouldn’t look at Stanley and she spoke to him only when he spoke first or when he asked her a question. She slept on the couch and when Stanley got up in the morning to get ready for work, she covered up her head with the blanket and wouldn’t get up and cook his breakfast as she usually did. She wouldn’t uncover her head until after he had left for work.
In the second week of December, there was an accident in the mine. Stanley and two other miners were injured when some rock above where they were working gave way and fell on them. One of the miners died instantly. Stanley and the other miner were rushed to the hospital.
Stanley had a fractured skull and a badly broken arm and shoulder and was in a coma. Somebody from the mine called Virginia and told her what had happened and she got the next-door neighbor to drive her to the hospital in his car. She sat in a chair by Stanley’s bedside and prayed that he would be all right. She twisted a handkerchief in her hand and wept some, but most of the time she just looked at Stanley lying in the bed, hoping to see some sign that he was going to be all right. When there was no one else in the room, she told him—even though he was unconscious—that she was sorry for the way she behaved about the Christmas Club money. He was right, she said; some things are a lot more important than Christmas presents.
After a day and a half, Stanley died without ever regaining consciousness. Virginia knew there had never been any hope that he would live. She went home and sat on the sofa and cried and waited for Ian and Georgette to come home from school to tell them their father was dead.
A week after Stanley’s funeral, two letters came in the mail. Virginia carried them into the kitchen and opened them one after the other with a paring knife. One was from the mine where Stanley worked and it contained his last two weeks’ pay. The other letter was from the miners’ union; it was a letter of condolence and a “death benefit” check in the amount of three hundred dollars. These two checks were all the money she had in the world.
That night she lay awake most of the night, hearing the forlorn sound of the train whistles off in the distance. After Ian and Georgette left for school the next morning, she put on her clothes and drove downtown with the two checks. She went to the bank and deposited Stanley’s paycheck to pay for the rent and other bills that would soon be coming due. The death benefit check she endorsed. When the teller handed her six crisp fifty-dollar bills, she folded the money and put it inside the zipper compartment inside her purse. It was the most money she had ever seen or owned at one time.
Her next stop was the hardware store. Luckily they still had the bicycles in stock that she admired and hoped to get for Ian and Georgette. She bought both bicycles, paying a small down-payment on them and arranging to have them delivered to her house on the day before Christmas. She signed an agreement stating she would make monthly payments on the bicycles until they were paid for.
After the hardware store, she went to another store where they sold sewing machines and asked to see the best top-of-the-line machine the store carried. The clerk demonstrated the machine and told her it was so simple to operate even a child could use it. She bought the machine and asked that it be delivered to her house as soon as possible.
After the sewing machine store, she went to another store where she bought a record player with a radio built into it and a selection of records that she knew Ian and Georgette would like. In the same store she bought new winter coats for herself and for Ian and Georgette, refusing to add up in her head the amount of money she had spent that afternoon.
On her way back home she stopped at the supermarket, where she bought a large turkey and everything she would need for a Christmas dinner. She also bought a lot of extra things she would not ordinarily buy, such as candy and nuts and fruit. Outside the supermarket where they were selling Christmas trees she bought a large fir tree that would reach all the way to the ceiling in their little house. The clerk tied the tree to the top of the car for her.
When she got back home, she carried everything inside, and then carried the Christmas tree in and set it up in the living room. She went down to the basement to bring up the lights and decorations. She was stringing lights on the tree when Ian and Georgette came home from school. She knew they would appreciate decorating the tree by themselves without any help from her.
She stood back and watched as they excitedly took the decorations out of the box and began putting them on the tree. She tried to remember what it was like to be their age and find joy in such simple things; she had lost the feeling long ago and would never experience it again.
The phone began ringing in the kitchen. She didn’t want to leave the Christmas tree and answer it, but she would tell whoever it was that she would call them back later, after supper. It was a woman down the street, a Mrs. Capers, for whom she had done some housecleaning a while back.
Mrs. Capers had heard about Virginia’s past experience as a seamstress and wanted to know if she was interested in coming by her house the day after Christmas and talking to her about making some new drapes for the dining room. If everything went well (that is, if she liked the drapes), she would have other work to be done. Also, she had a couple of lady friends who needed to have all their clothes let out due to the middle-aged expansion. Having their old clothes altered would be so much cheaper than buying new ones.
Virginia arranged with Mrs. Capers to come around to her house at one o’clock on the twenty-sixth. When she hung up the phone and went back into the living room, Georgette stopped what she was doing and looked at her.
“Who was that on the phone?” she asked.
“It was the spirit of Christmas,” Virginia said.
Georgette didn’t ask for an explanation because they had all the lights strung on the tree. When Ian plugged them in and they saw that all of them still worked after their year-long hibernation in the basement, Virginia took that as a very good sign.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp