“Thanks again,” I tell the elderly couple, “and Merry Christmas!”
“No, thank you,” says the man, helping his wife into her coat. “All we did was watch you work.”
“Well, that happens when you eat out,” I smile. “Be safe.”
“We will,” says the woman, “and a merry Christmas to you, honey.”
The twosome hobbles to the door arm-in-arm. I love old people.
What I don’t love is that party of 15 with five kids that was my only other table for an hour while I ran laps to the kitchen. Constant Sprite refills for the rugrats. That rude guy who swore his burnt steak had a pink center. The teenager with a mushroom allergy who ordered Chicken Marsala because “it sounded fancy.”
Since they left 10 minutes ago, I’ve been too scared to walk over and pick up the check, because big tables are always bad tippers. I finally brace myself to look . . . and literally can’t believe it.
“Lashondra?” I stammer, walking to the drink station. “Lashondra, look at this.”
My friend glances at the check and her jaw hits the floor. “Does that say . . .?”
“Like, three months’ pay.”
Five thousand dollars? she mouths.
I squeal like a toddler on a sugar rush.
“Everything okay?” asks a deep voice behind me.
I turn around to see it’s the guy who’s been eating alone at the bar. I’m crazy-excited, so instead of answering, I scamper over and thrust the $5000 receipt at him. His jaw plummets, too.
“Is . . . is this for real?” he asks.
“From a big table in the back,” I confirm.
The guy immediately jogs to the door. “Just a minute,” he calls over his shoulder.
Lashondra and I trade puzzled looks until he returns a moment later with a TV camera in one hand and a tripod in the other. “I’m Todd Schultz,” he says. “WGWH News. Okay if I interview you?”
“Um . . . sure,” I giggle.
Todd’s so nice as he sets up the camera and asks questions about my “Christmas Miracle.” I gush about how I’ll be able to catch up on rent, and fix the oil leak on my ancient car, and buy presents for my two-year-old son, Jackson, and get a laptop so I don’t have to do all my homework in the computer lab, and—
—Suddenly, Lashondra interrupts.
“Ellie?” she says, waving a hand in front of my face. “Come back to earth, girl. Didn’t you hear me before?”
* * *
The camera vanishes and takes the $5000 tip with it. Todd’s gone, and instead of his cologne, I’m breathing Pee Smell a la Dumpster. That’s what happens when a daydream dies as you’re freezing outside the kitchen door with a restaurant full of grinchy customers on the other side.
“Ellie, Brandy’s looking for you,” Lashondra says reproachfully. “We’re getting slammed.”
I sigh and walk toward the kitchen door. “Sorry, I just . . . I needed a minute.”
“You have three new tables in your section, but I bused your big one when they left—”
“You didn’t hafta do that. We’ll split the tip.”
Lashondra laughs humorlessly and hands me the check. “Don’t bother,” she says.
I look at the receipt and can’t believe it—my party of 15 left a $5 tip. Oh, and there’s a note to make it better: Sorry, Xmas presents to buy.
I mangle the receipt in my hand and pace beside the dumpster like a caged bear. “Don’t they know everybody has presents to buy?” I snarl.
“Ellie, don’t start this—”
“Don’t they get how hard big tables are?”
“Remember that couple right after you clocked in? Didn’t they leave you 50 bucks?”
“Um, news flash: Single moms have bills. Like, the ones we pay working for nothing while we take eight credits—”
“50 bucks, Ellie! That means you’re still doing okay tonight—”
“How’s that change stingy buttheads who don’t understand we work for a living?”
“Try thinking positive for a change? Just this once?” Lashondra sighs.
I glare back.
“Just . . . come inside. People are waiting.”
“And I bet they’re all bad tippers, too,” I mutter.
“If they are, I’ll slash their tires for you when they leave. ‘Kay?”
I try to keep glaring, but a giggle escapes. Lashondra always makes me smile. She holds the door open as we walk back inside to face the grinches.
Unfortunately, my phone rings as soon as we reach the kitchen warmth—and it’s my mom. This can’t be good. She’s watching Jackson tonight, and only calls when my kid’s driving her nuts.
“It’s Mom,” I tell Lashondra. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Brandy told me not to come back without you.”
“Okay, then just . . . I’ll be quick.”
As soon as I answer, I can hear Jackson wailing in the background. “Ellie, he won’t stop crying,” Mom moans.
“Yeah, I hear him. Did something happen?”
“I thought it was okay; he was watching a video. He seemed really into it—”
“You thought what was okay?”
“Nothing! No big deal, I just . . . started vacuuming.”
I can’t believe this. Loud noises have been scaring the pants off Jackson since he was a baby, and it usually takes more than an hour to calm him down once he starts howling. “Really, Mom? Really? You know how he gets!”
“I told you, he was watching—”
“Great, now I hafta leave work—”
“No! No, just talk to him. He loves the phone, and if he hears Mommy’s voice—”
“I’ll come get him. I can’t trust you with your own grandson.” I hang up and immediately head for the door.
“Ellie . . .”
I turn to see Lashondra giving me a look that’s a guilt trip.
“You have three tables waiting . . . if you keep leaving mid-shift like this—”
“I don’t have a choice,” I tell her.
“You don’t hafta take off every time your son cries—”
“You try raising a two-year-old,” I snap. “If Brandy doesn’t like it, she can fire me.”
I walk out.
Look, I know Lashondra’s right: I can’t keep doing this if I want a job. I just wish I could afford somebody besides Mom to watch Jackson. Somebody who wasn’t incompetent with toddlers.
Anatomy and Physiology meets at 8 a.m., which is perfect since I was up past 2:00 last night. The professor stops me at the door as I blow in five minutes late.
“Don’t move, Ms. Kaiser,” she says.
Terrific. Wonderful. This is my hardest class, and Dr. Reynolds is the strictest prof known to humankind. Our final is next week and she’s about to throw me out for being tardy.
“Don’t move while we give you a round of applause,” Dr. Reynolds continues. “You earned the only A on Monday’s quiz!”
“An A? But I barely studied!” I blurt.
“Are you complaining?”
“Well . . . okay, no.”
The class laughs and applauds. Dr. Reynolds shakes my hand and tells me I must be a “natural nurse.”
While the lesson continues, I look around for a seat—any seat, because this class is always packed. But my lucky streak is holding. There’s a chair right in front of Keagan, the gorgeous-and-brilliant guy I’ve had a crush on all semester. We’ve talked a few times, but he’s never seemed interested.
“Hey, Ellie? Ellie?” he whispers from behind as I sit down.
I make sure Dr. Reynolds isn’t looking and turn around. “What’s up?”
“You have anything going on tonight?”
I shake my head.
“I got a D on the quiz. Guess I’m not a ‘natural nurse.’ You think we could study for the final?”
“You mean . . . like, a study date?” I ask, flashing my best smile.
“Well . . . yeah,” Keagan says shyly. “I mean, if that’s okay with you?”
“I’d love to. What time?”
“Don’t you have a son?”
I roll my eyes. “No, that’s a really dumb rumor. I don’t know why people keep it going.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know—”
“It’s fine. Is Café Aroma good?”
“Perfect,” I say—and I know this is lame, but I literally bat my eyelashes. “I can’t wait to study with—”
—That’s when Dr. Reynolds interrupts with a voice like a knife.
“Ms. Kaiser, would you consider closing the door and finding a seat? It’s the least you can do after you interrupted my class.”
* * *
Keagan’s smiling face disappears and is replaced with Dr. Reynolds’ deadliest stare. The class is in no danger of applauding; they’re rolling their eyes as ChronicallyLate Girl waltzes in tardy again to put Dr. Reynolds in a worse mood than usual. This is what happens when a daydream dies as you’re trying to slink into a pack of stressed nursing students.
“I’m so sorry I overslept, Dr. Reynolds,” I say, desperately trying to explain (like it’s going to help). “I was up till 1:00 with my son crying, and just when he was falling asleep, I dropped a pan putting away dishes, which set him off for another hour—”
“Excuses are like armpits, Ms. Kaiser. We all have them, and they stink. Buy a louder alarm clock, because you need all the class time you can get after that quiz grade.”
Um . . . what does she mean, “after that quiz grade”? I yank out my phone as I wade through the sea of smirking faces toward a seat. When I find my score online, it’s not pretty: 48 percent. A nice, solid F.
You have to get a C in this class to continue with the nursing program. Which means if I don’t do well on the final, I’ll have to retake this torture next semester. Which means my degree will take even longer. Which means I’ll probably never be a nurse. Which means I’ll be waitressing for peanuts forever—
“Hey! Is your name Ellie or not?”
I glance up from my phone to see Keagan looking at me from the next row. Unfortunately, he looks exasperated.
“Keagan, you know I’m Ellie,” I smile.
“Then why didn’t you answer the first three times?”
Terrific: I was so busy obsessing over my grade that I didn’t hear Mr. Gorgeous calling.
“You’re the only one left without a partner,” he says. “You wanna do this?”
“Dr. Reynolds told us to pair up and review for the final. Do you ever listen to people?”
“Oh . . . yeah, review.” I pull out my notebook. “How’d you do on the quiz?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well . . . I got a 96. Now, you wanna start with—”
“An A? How?”
“Um . . . studied, I guess? You want me to quiz you on the vocab?”
“I got an F,” I admit. “I knew I didn’t study enough. Jackson—that’s my son, Jackson—he keeps me busy, but I thought—”
“The syllabus says quizzes aren’t a huge part of our grade. What’s your course average?”
“It’s a C right now, but—”
“Then you’re good. Just don’t flunk the final.” Keagan shrugs. “Name the five principal bones in the skull.”
“It’s so distracting, y’know? Studying with Jackson there, or in class with other people around . . . I do better in coffee shops. Like, studying. You wanna do it together sometime? I know I could learn a lot, with your A and everything.”
“Um . . . I don’t wanna take time away from your kid.”
“It’s okay; my mom watches him—”
Keagan stands up and grabs his laptop. “You get distracted, right? So . . . I should leave you alone. I’ll find a group of three. You can . . . y’know, quiz yourself. No more distractions.”
Dreamy McDreamboat gives me the most awkward smile ever, then walks away. He’s clearly thanking God he escaped the crazy, tardy, quiz-flunking girl with the howling baby.
I want to stop him to explain—but that would be just as useless as it was with Dr. Reynolds. What would I say? “I’ve always been a daydreamer, but I wasn’t a space cadet when I got more than five hours of sleep a night and didn’t have to jump up from studying every time Jackson shrieked”?
Even in my daydream I felt guilty because I was picturing life without Jackson. This kid is the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. He came along when I was 19 and dating a loser named Nathan, whose only virtue was playing guitar in a band (and it wasn’t even a good band). His vices included not having a job and hating my mother. How we hooked up is a story for another day, but naturally, he vanished when I got pregnant.
Now I’m stuck with diaper duty, a job I hate, a degree that’s taking forever, zero prospects in the Man Department, and a kid I love passionately while occasionally wishing he didn’t exist. To top it off, I have to work tonight, and after our fight last night, it’s not like I can ask Mom to babysit. Guess I’ll be calling off . . . and this time, Brandy might tell me not to come back.
I spend the next 50 minutes not-studying. When class mercifully ends and I’m packing up, I get a text from Mom.
Church this weekend? It’s almost Christmas.
I swipe the message away with an eyeroll.
But then again . . .
Mom and I need to patch things up before I lose free babysitting—not to mention our relationship. And honestly, I was one of those weird kids who liked church in high school. It’s just that when I got together with Nathan, my youth pastor had the nerve to warn me he was bad news, so I stomped out and haven’t been back. That may not have been the most mature move. And church at Christmas would mean a lot to my mother . . .
See you Sunday, I send back to her.
Well, this should be fun. It won’t be awkward or anything when I walk into worship with a toddler, right?
“Is this the two-year-olds class?” I smile and try to hand Jackson to the lady on the other side of the dutch door.
“Our Sunday school doesn’t accept children of sin!” she shrieks, recoiling as she holds a cross necklace between us to ward off the evil.
I almost turn around and walk out of church. But since I promised to meet Mom, I reluctantly lug Jackson with me to the sanctuary.
My old youth pastor is shaking hands at the door, and when he sees me coming, he smirks like a real smart-aleck. “I would say ‘I told you so,’” he whispers as I walk past, “but I think your kid said it for me.”
I walk down the aisle looking for Mom while the Holy Rollers stare and snicker. I find her in a pew sandwiched between two ancient crones who glare at Jackson as I squeeze between them. During worship, the old biddies hiss a constant stream of snark at me.
“Do you realize you’ve already doomed your child?” whispers the one on the right. “Fatherless boys get lower grades and more suspensions from school. Look it up.”
“You’re less likely to earn a high school diploma because of what your parents did, little boy,” her pal coos to Jackson. “Aren’t you glad you have a single mommy?”
“And you’re more likely to go to jail someday,” the first woman adds. “I could knit you a little orange onesie, so you’ll be ready . . . wouldn’t that be cute?”
The pastor is new since the last time I came to church, and when he stands up to preach, my blue-haired buddies mercifully shut up. The sermon is about when Mary found out she was pregnant with Jesus, and how she could have been stoned for fornicating. (I have to Google “fornicate” on my phone.)
“Of course, Mary was innocent,” the pastor proclaims; “her baby daddy was God. But for other people, it’s different.” He fastens a malignant stare on me: “Did everyone bring their rocks?”
Suddenly, the pastor hefts a boulder from behind the pulpit. Meanwhile, the whole congregation—the old ladies, the nice married couples, even my mom—produce rocks from under the pews. They’re all scowling straight at me.
I close my eyes and try to shield Jackson as the congregation takes aim. The pastor intones, “May God have mercy upon your soul—”
—That’s when the crash of a rock hitting the ground startles my eyes open.
And right on cue, Jackson starts wailing at top volume.
* * *
The boulders and death stares vanish. I’m sitting in church, but the loud noise wasn’t a stone—the pastor knocked a huge Bible off the communion table. This is what happens when a daydream dies as a packed church tries to listen to their pastor over the noise of a toddler howling.
That’s right—the only real thing in my daydream was my kid screaming like a banshee. And now, all the two-parent families who dropped off their kids in Sunday school are giving me death stares. Come on, people: Is it so bad that I kept my son with me instead of leaving him with strangers?
Anyway, it’s time to make an exit. “I’m so sorry,” I mouth to the pastor as I stand up with my screaming, kicking bundle of joy.
“No—please stay,” says the pastor, walking towards me. “Why would you leave?”
“Are you serious?” I blurt. “Why wouldn’t I leave?” I’ll have to spend the rest of the service pacing in the 30-degree parking lot so nobody hears my banshee, but that’s motherhood for you.
“See, this is my point,” the pastor says, walking over to me. He has to raise his volume so people can hear him over my kid, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “This is the whole point of the story.”
Thanks to my daydream, I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“This planet’s overrun by sin, right? But we know instinctually that things could be better—should be better. God could’ve just left us to wallow in misery with nowhere to go but down,” the pastor explains.
“Instead, he sent Jesus to turn our imperfections into miracles. Yeah, I’m talking about imperfections like a little boy crying in worship. Probably because the clumsy pastor knocked over a Bible.
“Or . . . imperfections like the ones wallpapering the Christmas story. Think about the shepherds. When Mary gets to Bethlehem, she’s big as a house. Her baby’s about to pop, and nobody can find it in their heart to give her a room.
“But that’s okay, because when she and Joseph land in a stable, God is providing a spot where the scum of the earth—lowlife shepherds, who look rough and smell worse—can encounter a Savior without getting chased away. Isn’t it just like God to elevate the humble over the great?
“Or take the wise men. We know Jesus’ family is poor, right? And when Jesus is two, his family has to take an unscheduled trip to Egypt to escape King Herod and his jealous rage. How are they going to afford it?
“But God already has it covered. Exotic strangers from the East drop into this disaster with three precious gifts for Toddler-God, starting with a box of gold. That’ll help the family finances, right?
“Now, here’s another imperfection in our midst,” the pastor continues. “Oh, no—a baby’s crying! Oh, no—how can worship go on?
“Well . . . maybe it’s not supposed to. Maybe instead of glaring, we should be looking for what the Incarnate God, the Jesus who’s still active in the world and in our hearts, is going to do with this mess.”
The pastor holds out his arms. I’m confused for a second, then realize he wants me to hand him Jackson—the kid who just landed a foot in my stomach so hard I nearly dropped him. Well, the pastor doesn’t have to tell me twice. I cheerfully let him hold my little hot mess.
Meanwhile, my mind races. I haven’t heard a sermon in two years, but this one is kinda getting to me. Is God trying to do something with my imperfections—even with single momhood? Is he working somehow through lousy tips and worse grades? What am I missing because I’m so busy focusing on the imperfect that I couldn’t spot a miracle if God hit me over the head with one?
And that’s when I realize . . . maybe he just did.
It took more than an hour for Jackson to calm down after Mom started the vacuum. I couldn’t soothe the savage beast for even longer when I dropped the pan in my kitchen. But the moment the pastor took Jackson off my hands . . . the wailing turned off like a switch.
Right now, my son’s babbling cheerfully like a little gentleman. Mom, who was giving me the cold shoulder until now, squeezes my hand. Meanwhile, the glares from the congregation have turned into the adoring looks that people give a perfect baby.
I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t another daydream. Then I turn to face the pastor.
“Um . . . I was wondering,” I say, with a wry smile. “Pastor, would you ever consider babysitting?”
Copyright 2021 George Halitzka. All Rights Reserved.