She gripped the sign like St. Helena holding The True Cross, avoiding eye contact with the people driving past the busy corner she was assigned, people like Max, driving out of the mall just now, with his bored son, Leo, lost in his Game Boy, looking forward to getting out of shopping hell and this car, crowded with shopping bags stuffed with gifts from Macy’s and Sears and whatever, and back home to the widescreen.
Leo ignored the old man’s lecture about saving his money to buy a gift for his mother. She already had everything! He knew the old man would cover for him when he shrugged empty-handed on Christmas Eve. The old man would sigh, rush out and buy some trinket on his behalf, curse the holidays, wrap the gift himself, hand Leo the pen to sign the card, all the while listening to him deride Christmas gift giving as “an empty ritual.”
Max hit the brakes on his lecture, cursed the red light and apologized for his language, pretending Leo cared. Looking up, Leo noticed the old woman, dressed more for Sunday Mass than for standing out in the cold, wrestling with a sign twice her size, advertising a Furniture Extravaganza.
Mrs. Estrella never came up here except to clean houses. The Foothills are a long way from South Sixth, as far as La Encantada is from a Bethlehem stable. Mrs. Estrella lived down in the barrio from which Max, known as Maximilian then, had escaped; down where the mechanics, janitors and nannies live; and where Nana Esther, Max’s nanny, had lived until she was identified years ago as a bystander killed in a south-side shooting story. The kind of numbing story from down there that, these days, Max skims over on his way to the sports scores.
The light was taking forever. Max patted the steering wheel of the same car he drove all the way down there, just to get it hand washed at the fundraiser Esther’s family had pulled together at 12th Avenue and Ajo Way to buy the pine coffin. So clean.
Mrs. Estrella, stared up at the blank back of the sign, and envisioned a calendar where she planned her visit to the food bank, to the county jail and her good-for-nothing husband, and to the Goodwill to pick up comfortable shoes better suited to standing for eight hours. And her proud visit to the gaming store to buy, with the money from this job, for her boy the video game he didn’t dare ask for. And then at last, Christmas Eve would be here. In the cold wind she inhaled the scent of Midnight Mass.
Leo thought of his mom, on her own errand, filling a grocery cart with fresh-cut flowers, cinnamon brooms and Brie. Then home to a glass of Shiraz, feet on the coffee table, a pine scented candle and some trash TV.
Mrs. Estrella gave up cable, and her beloved telenovelas, when the rent went up again, and the payday loan debt ballooned. Down here you pray to win the lottery, that the noise a block over wasn’t a gunshot and, Holy Mother, would it be asking too much for Luis to stay away from gangs and in school? Another lost child would be too much. She switched hands, blew on the frozen one, and rocked on her sore feet.
This light is taking forever. Max drummed the steering wheel. “Leo. What do you want from Santa?”
Santa? Is he kidding? How lame can you get?
Leo glanced back at the ridiculous woman again, marveling at her ridiculous plastic jewelry and the ridiculous black dress that had faded before he was born. Their world-weary eyes met for a second. He looked back down, coughed, fiddled with his earbuds and fantasized about bolting out of the car and handing her his iPod. That would be crazy awesome, yo.
The boy in the car reminded Mrs. Estrella of her own boy. Luis should be getting home right about now. Tonight, between jobs, she’ll corner him about school, make him a sandwich and poke him in the ribs until he laughs. Inevitably, as the game goes, he’ll stand up and wrap his tattooed arms around her and lift her up off the floor until she swats him. Before bed she’ll sip some beer, because she needs something to confess to the priests, then she’ll rub her feet, light a candle and pray for Luis, her good-for-nothing husband and strangers in need.
The light turned green. Now! Go dad, go!
That night Mrs. Estrella fished the new iPod out of her purse. The tiny thing must be worth two weeks’ pay! She put in the earbuds, clicked her way into the playlist, rolling her eyes. Madre de Dios, she hated hip-hop, but hey, tomorrow, when she finished helping Luis with his homework, he’d get a surprise and he’d wrap his tattooed arms around her and lift her up off the floor.