By Michelle Barany
Carolers gathered outside the bookstore just as
Nathalie was about to leave, a shopping bag loaded with Christmas gifts:
books, cassettes, calendars weighing her down. It was getting late, probably
6:00 P.M., she thought, and she still had two shirts to buy in the department
store at the other end of the mall, one for her husband, Glenn, and one
for her brother, Chris. They had different, almost divergent personalities.
It would take her a long time to select the right shirts. She tried to
ease out from the side of the door, but the crowd of listeners had swelled
up around the singers, and she couldn't leave without disturbing anyone.
She put her bag down and listened to the uplifting carol, the tenor and
baritone of the men's voices mingling with the alto and soprano of the
women's. The singers, clothed in nineteen-century attire from hats to fur-collared
coats to boots, looked like an 1800 Christmas card out of someone's collection.
When the carolers finished their song, she forced
her way among a slowly dispersing crowd. There was no way she could rush
to the department store past the strolling people, and the loaded bag of
presents pulled down heavily on her arm. She decided to put the bag in
the trunk of her car and drive closer to the store.
The parking lot was crowded when she came, and
she had parked farther down at
the entrance to the lot. One third of the way
to her car, a man jumped up
from between two parked vans. Glenn's warning
flashed through her mind: Be wary of strangers approaching you as you walk
to your car, don't get yourself tangled up in packages, look around you,
have your keys ready. She could have checked every recommendation
off her husband's list, but this man appearing so suddenly defied any anticipation
of danger. Dusk was settling and the cars on the street already had their
lights on. She could see no one else on the parking lot. She kept on walking
without looking at him, but she saw him in her field of vision. She heard
him as she passed. "Do you have change? I'm broke and I'm very, very hungry."
She kept on going and, peripherally, saw him retreat between cars.
She slowed down. She had had time to appraise
the thin man, probably a little older than she, in his mid to late thirties,
dressed in a loose summer shirt and lightweight pants, barefoot, even though
the California temperature this mid-December evening was fast dropping
down to the low fifties. She shifted the bag from her left to her right
hand, lifted the flap of her purse, reached for her wallet inside, slowly
moving forward, her upper body slightly turning in his direction. He came
toward her. Sliding the handle of the bag of books down her arm, she riffled
through the wallet. She had used most of her cash in the bookstore
and found only two one-dollar bills and a ten. She turned, faced him and
handed him the two dollars. From her 5-foot-5 height conferred by the sturdy
two-inch heels of her shoes, and her over one-hundred-pound weight by her
light and warm woolen jacket, she felt like a giant before the slightly
stooped man, whom she could look in the face without raising her head.
He took the money, said, "Thank you," and tried
to add something else, probably, "May God bless you," as the Salvation
Army officers at the entrance of stores would say, but he stumbled on the
words, as if they were stuck together, and only the word God came out clearly.
He struggled to repeat, moving backward.
She turned away from him. "You're welcome," she
said, forcing herself to enunciate clearly, because she felt uneasy and
her words might come out garbled too. But not from fear, from shyness
perhaps, although she did not know why. The event had been banal enough,
had happened very fast, yet it lingered on like a settling mist.
At her car, when she placed her bag in the trunk,
she saw the silhouette of the thin man farther up, moving toward a couple
on foot. They glanced at him over their shoulders as they passed. Probably
mistaking their glance for a positive gesture, he moved closer to them.
His arms rose and fell as the couple went on without stopping. He stood
immobile until the flashing lights of a security cart came into view. He
then stooped down between cars and disappeared from sight. She got into
As she came to the other side of the mall, an
SUV pulled out of its parking
place ahead of her. She waited for a mounted
guard patrolling the area to go past the vacated space before pulling into
it. With this extra security, there wouldn't be any out of luck people
asking for help here.
The store advertised substantial December discounts
if the purchases were made with the store credit card, and people milled
about crowding the aisles. She made her way to the rack of new, fashionable
shirts with a soft velvet finish, easy to wear with or without a tie. In
no time she had selected a handsome long-sleeved dark gray shirt for Glenn,
more conservative. But what about that brother of hers? Should it be the
kind of sweatshirt Chris wore between business ventures when, avoiding
discouragement over the last failure, he kept in shape by running while
reassessing his options? Should it be a white shirt with a tie in case
he needed to look for a part-time job or two to hold him over until his
new small advertisement business took off? Or perhaps a woolen sport shirt?
He could wear it skiing, able to afford time off, if he was doing well.
As he should be, she thought, considering the business loan he had been
able to secure one year ago. She loved that tall brother of hers, four
years her junior, somewhat of a maverick, who, single at 28, with some
experience and a bachelor's degree in business in his pocket, was finally
experiencing some success in his newest venture. Perhaps Glenn would now
look upon Chris more kindly. Perhaps this Christmas, their talk wouldn't
turn into a bitter argument about Glenn comparing his company man's relative
security to Chris' taking of chances. It seemed, at times, as if Glenn
tolerated Chris solely for Nathalie's sake, she and her brother being the
only two left in the family after their parents' death in a car crash a
few years earlier. She bought the sport shirt.
The rack was near the entrance to the mall. Here
too, carolers sang, but these were dressed in metallic silver-and-gold
space suits, and the rhythm made the songs take flight toward and beyond
the bedecked red, green and gold dome above. The gaiety reached her. She
saw a belt she liked for Glenn and bought it. As she crossed the store
on her way to the exit, she passed the sweatshirts. A black one attracted
her attention. Her brother looked good in black. She bought it for him.
Her store card had made the purchases affordable.
At the entrance to the freeway, a man was walking
across, pushing a cart. She stopped to let him go by. Her headlights shone
on him. He wore a long, worn jacket and a cap pulled down to his ears.
The cart looked stuffed with blankets. A large-lettered sign "Will Work
for Food" protruded above. A homeless, she thought.
She remembered the slight man on the parking
lot. Where was he now that night had fallen? At least this one, wherever
he dwelled, seemed equipped for the cold nights in this semi-desert area.
It was easy to speculate that he was a veteran of the trade, whatever had
brought him here, alcohol, drugs, mental illness÷
She inched her way forward as, according to monitoring
lights, one at a time the cars ahead of hers sped up toward the freeway.
When her turn came, she, too, accelerated until she had reached freeway
speed. She merged into the flowing traffic of look-alike suburban vehicles,
moved to the central lane, the thin-clothed, barefoot man in tow in her
What, dear God, what could have brought the clean-shaven
man on the mall parking lot to ask total strangers for handouts? She had
been leery of him at first, but he could easily be the one to fall victim
to anyone's whim. And what had he tried to say, the thin stranger whose
words wouldn't come out? What could he buy with the two dollars she had
given him? A small loaf of non-enriched bread or half a quart of milk?
Was it why he hadn't been able to utter, "May God bless" or "God be with
you?" Or did something completely different jumble the words up, like,
"But for the grace of God, there goes you?" Ridiculous! She could hear
her husband's voice, You and your wild imagination! Why do you always complicate
life? How do you know he doesn't want drug money? Glenn, the voice of reason.
Even at that, where did you turn if you were on drugs and had no money
left to buy food? And what if the stranger had simply been down on his
luck, with no one to help? What did you do if you were in business, needed
a loan, had no collateral, had been kicked out of your home through repossession,
had no one to turn to, no experience at anything else and found yourself
hungry? The car heater wasn't on, but she felt sweat oozing on her
Restless, she twisted in her seat, looked up.
The next exit was hers. She had almost missed it. She made an abrupt lane
change. The car behind her blew an angry warning.
Glenn was right. She did let her imagination
get the best of her. Let's come back to reality, she thought. She needed
a handful of groceries, milk, bread, salad. She wouldn't have to write
a check. Her ten dollars would cover that easily.
Once off the freeway, she drove to the supermarket
in her area. She parked the car by one of the green dividing strips and
got out. The rising notes of a lone violin playing "Holy Night" ascended
in the darkness. She did not see the player, but she had seen him before.
She knew he was an Asiatic in his late sixties or perhaps in his seventies,
Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian, she couldn't tell. He was always sitting
Buddha-like on the grass at the end of a dividing strip, a plate with a
few shiny coins next to him. His face was long and lean, but not skinny,
and he had the long, smooth fingers of someone who had been spared manual
labor. What had he been in his native country? A doctor? A lawyer? A teacher?
A musician perhaps? No doubt someone with a profession, who had learned
how to play the violin. Was he someone who, once he had immigrated into
this country had found out that he was too old to practice his trade? Someone
who lacked training in other fields, but who could create stirring sounds?
And attract a few coins to his plate?
The two entrances to the store were framed between
quadrants of Christmas trees for sale. The man playing the violin was sitting
across from the central quadrant, at the end of a strip close to one of
the entrances, dressed, as before, in a fading rust suit and a buttoned
up faded brown shirt. A few people went past him without stopping. What
would he say if, on her way out, she gave him her change, Thanks, but for
the grace of God÷?
She hastened into the store, grabbed a hand basket
and put in the milk, the bread and the salad she needed. On her way to
the cashier, she calculated that it would leave her four dollars and some
cents out of the ten in her wallet. Christmas was approaching; she could
still buy a bottle of sweet sherry. She and Glenn could sip some tonight
together by the fireplace. But it meant that she would have nothing left
to put in the man's plate. From inside the store, she couldn't see him,
couldn't hear him play. No, she thought; it's our time, our holiday
time. She added the sherry to her provisions. Besides, she thought, she
couldn't possibly donate to every outstretched hand.
She left the store by the farthest entrance from
where the man still played, walked to her car the long way around to avoid
him. Once inside, she quickly closed the car door on the wrenching sound.
Her headlight lit the player briefly as she pulled the car out and swung
it around, just as someone was putting a donation in his plate. He did
not acknowledge it. He continued playing, as removed from all as if he
had been alone in a far-away rice paddy.
She pulled into the street, removing the figure
from her rearview mirror.
On the way home, she kept her thoughts on the
evening ahead. A quick meal, then Glenn would light the gas logs in the
fireplace while she would bring in the sherry. They would settle on the
love seat across from the fire.
When she arrived home, she saw her brother's
car along the curb and felt a surge of joy. She went directly into the
kitchen through the rear door to put the groceries away before joining
the men into the living room. As she went in, she heard her brother's voice
but couldn't distinguish the words. When he stopped talking, there was
a pause. She removed the carton of milk from the bag and went to place
it inside the refrigerator. In the living room, the pause lasted, unusually
long, it seemed. Then Glenn spoke, his voice perhaps more reflective than
when he normally addressed Chris. The refrigerator door open, she listened.
"I don't have that kind of money. And I don't
know that I could raise it." Then his voice rose, business and analytical,
as usual. "Tell me. You had a large loan. Apparently things didn't go so
well. What makes you think they would pick up?"
She heard Chris clear his throat. "It's÷" He
cleared his throat again."÷the third year. The crucial year. If you could
at least co-sign for me÷ Come next year, I'd be able to repay÷ everything."
Her heart pounded oh so fast. Her hand holding
the milk carton shook against the shelf beneath the freezer, as she waited
for her husband's answer.
© Michelle Barany, 2002
Michele Goriou Barany
I was born in Paris (6ème arrondissement)
and, after the age of ten, grew up mostly in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic
coast of France. In France, I taught 4th grade in a public grade school,
then became a translator-interpreter for USAREUR Headquarters in the office
of G-4 in La Rochelle. I met my American husband of 46 + years through
friends. We were married in La Rochelle in 1955. I came to the United-States
with him in June of 1956. In the United States, I worked as a clerk in
the Agricultural Department at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown,
while my husband studied for a Master's degree in Music Education. After
he received it in 1957, we left for Sanders, Arizona, where he taught music
in high school for two years. Our first child, a daughter, was born in
Ganado, Arizona, on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The following year,
we came to California where we have lived since 1959. Our other two children,
a daughter and a son, were born in California.
When my children were all in school, I went back
to college. I have a bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, with a double
major in English (creative writing option) and in French, and a master's
degree in French from California State University, Long Beach. I was also
made a member Pi Delta Phi, Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa. For twenty
years, I taught French in several community colleges and at California
State University, Long Beach, where I edited three books of my senior and
graduate students' literary translations, The Translators' French Quarter.
I retired from teaching in 1996. My husband and I travel and we enjoy our
grandchildren. I also write stories. Once a month, a group of francophone
friends meet at my house to speak French.
I have had poems published in journals,
and stories in anthologies, reviews and journals, among them: The Antioch
Review, Rafale from Le Farog Forum and Le Forum.