Originally posted on JT Twissel in 2013, my first year of blogging. My children call this my favorite Christmas story to tell. They had no tree, they had no presents but they did have….
The year the Hong Kong flu swept the country, killing thousands and leaving others to beg for death, I was temping at the Macy’s department store in downtown Kansas City Missouri as one of their clueless holiday helpers. They’d assigned me to help sell home goods about which I knew nothing, thus I spent most of my time hiding in the stock room on the pretense of trying to find a pot or pan or iron for a customer. I don’t think I found one thing.
The store was located downwind of the abandoned stockyards in a dimly lit part of town. There were no windows on the upper floors where Home Goods was located and so I seldom saw the sun. I arrived by bus in the dark and left in the dusk. Luckily I’d made a friend, an African American lady far more knowledgable in the world of home goods and the alleyways of dying cities than me. She quietly tended to my broken wings and warmed my frozen heart. She also made sure I always left on the right bus.
I lived with a woman named Jo in a small town just south of the city. She’d followed her husband out from Nevada after he made the unfortunate decision to sign up for the Army at the start of the Vietnam “engagement.” Thinking he’d be stationed in Kansas for a few years, she enrolled in graduate school at UMKC and then, poof. The war accelerated and her husband was deployed to Japan. This left her alone with the Bible thumpers in a town that bragged about trying single women and widows as witches. My maiden flight into the world had crash-landed in an Indianan cornfield and so when Jo, who was like an older sister to me, called and asked if I would come stay with her as a favor (she was a clever one), I quickly agree. I knew nothing about life in Mizzurah (as the state is pronounced by its residents) but figured any place was better than where I currently was and any direction better than the one I was headed in.
The locals referred to Jo and I as “dem dam hippies” and wondered out loud if we had lice, which I guess, considering that we lived in a three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm, was a reasonable assumption. The shack had a lean-to shed used to store the Jo’s Volkswagon Beetle but in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood.
In January we planned to move into the city so that I could take classes at the Art Institute and Jo could take a teacher’s aide position at the university. All seemed to be on track until five days before Christmas. I started feeling achey at work. The feeling got worse on the long bus ride back to the university where I met Jo each night. The bars, barbecue joints, and old boarding houses along the route were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition, they looked like ghouls in a carnival funhouse. I remember seeing my reflection in the window on that dark, cold night. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty.
I cried as I waited for Jo on a cold wooden bench inside Haag Hall. All around were murals painted by Thomas Hart Benton when he starving and feverish. The pink-cheeked farm girl laughed as she wrung a chicken’s neck for dinner while lecherous Farmer John eyeballed her as he jacked off in the pig sty. Beyond the treeless hills, inkblot clouds strangled tiny blue-birds and dropped their corpses like hail to the frozen ground. I briefly tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was I needed and then laughed at my stupidity.
The next morning I was barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I managed to call Macys only to be fired but didn’t care. I was about to die so what did it matter. Some time during the next three days Jo stopped checking on me which meant she’d also been stricken. The phone rang and rang and rang until whoever was on the other end gave up. The day before Christmas I was finally able to stand for longer than a few minutes without feeling dizzy but as so often happens when you think the worse has come and gone – BINGO – you find out it was only a teaser for the main event.