Written by Culture Correspondent Justin Bog
San Juan Islands, Washington, USA
The Christmas season begins and here at the end of 2012 I want to share my new holiday tale: Bracelet. It’s different from last year’s bouncy and jaunty tale about a single woman who sets her mind on one thing: Seducing Santa (click the title to read that fun tale set in Northern Michigan). There are other differences and similarities too. This story is told in the third-person point of view. Bracelet is about a different woman, a widow, and her Fidalgo Island life on The Puget Sound. The engine that drives this tale is loss, loss of an object, loss of a love, and this loss, on several different levels, reveals character. I hope you enjoy the tale. Please comment and let me know what you think.
Callie lost the bracelet. It’s all she can think about: how she could be so absentminded. Christmas is right around the corner and Callie misplaced Maggie’s, her sister’s, present. She can’t sleep well at night because her actions keep repeating in her mind, trying to find a clue to where the gift will be found. It’s eating a wiry pit in her stomach.
Last April, Callie stopped in an antique store up The Puget Sound coastline in the town of Fairhaven, shuffled around a bit, sifted through shelves of odds and ends, and spotted the bracelet where it sparkled on green velvet under hazy glass – an almost eerie match to her mother’s ring (Callie was immediately drawn to the bracelet and knew she’d buy it within seconds of finding it), which she had sent Maggie two years before. While Maggie had three kids, Callie didn’t have any children of her own to pass the jewelry to because of her accident long ago.
The antique gold bracelet needed polishing, and incorporated the same design pattern as the ring: three carved diamonds in delicate La Belle Epoch finery, with one larger diamond inset where the band widened. It cost Callie enough to make her worry about her savings, the looming recession, the school levy, and the next fundraiser for the community swimming pool – Callie loved to swim and do water aerobics three mornings a week at the Fidalgo Island Pool. The water being the only place her injuries didn’t matter, where she felt buoyant in body and mind.
Her parents, both firm disciplinarians, raised Callie and Maggie, in utmost fashion, to always be giving people; they, with an almost zealous stridency, emphasized what other people would like or what others needed before filling their own empty bowls. Callie bought the perfect, matching bracelet on the same impulse – it was needed – and put it out of her mind. She drove back to Anacortes, her home on the first island in the San Juan Islands chain, where her husband, John, had bought the small white, green-shuttered house on 8th Street and J Avenue, near the Public Library and close to Causland Park. John had been a career military man, and stationed at the base on Whidbey Island. By the time Callie washed her hair, prepared an art project for her students, and read a chapter of the latest P.D. James on the kindle Maggie gifted to her the previous birthday, the bracelet was already lost.
Callie teaches art at the island’s high school, but she doesn’t have seniority. The elementary art teacher, Mr. Wright, has been there longer. In the emergency vote, if the levy doesn’t pass, Callie will be suspended after the spring term and out of work within a year, right along with ten other teachers and programs. She has money enough to last for a long time in her savings, money from her husband’s insurance policy filled it up and left Callie feeling even more alone at home. She told Maggie she’d give the money back in a flash if John would only return, healthy. She knew if she had to stay home every hour of every day, she’d realize her loss even more. In part, Callie teaches the children to give her a purpose, and the delight on their faces when they create something out of the simplest tools mends her unhappiness.
Losing her job was a rumor back in April when she bought Maggie the bracelet. Now, December 20th, it’s a reality. The first levy vote fell and Callie’s on notice of suspension until they re-vote in February. She thinks about only teaching until June, only having six more months in her classroom, about never firing the irritable kiln again, never sending the roughest children to the principal’s office for throwing clay or paint at each other; she dreams about saying goodbye to the other teachers, trying to find some other job, striving to stay cheery even though she knows she’s too old to compete in the area’s job market. Visions of going to Colorado to stay with her sister flit to the surface from time to time, and she forces them back — and the image of her setting up shop next to her father in Surprise, Arizona digs into her mindset as well. Callie stocks up on antacids.
There’s no way she could leave the peace of The Sound, all the wild birds that migrate to her feeders in the spring, the Arts Festival in the Summer, the scary-fun Halloween party at the town marina, all of her friends who visit often, and her dearest pals who share her love of films at the Anacortes Cinema and a bottle of wine at The Brown Lantern pub afterwards to dissect Hollywood’s offerings – the easy laughter of friends as close as family to Callie; there’s no way she could leave John, whose ashes fell into the cold water between Fidalgo and Lopez Island. Sometimes she sits on a bench in Washington Park for an hour at a time watching the ferry boat travel to the outlying islands, stopping at Lopez Island first, long and visible from her bench – a place to walk and find hidden beauty in the yesteryear pace. John took Callie there once every summer and they’d picnic on reuben sandwiches and pickles from Gere-a-Deli at Watmough Bay, a pristine hidden beach where yachts anchored, and other visitors were scarce.
The December chill of morning wakes Callie up and she’s glad school’s over for the year. All the teachers whose jobs are secure scurry away from any future dread, give Callie forced cheer: “You’ll see, Cal. People love you here.” But Callie’s next thought is always: all the love in the world won’t save jobs. Where she left the sparkling bracelet nags inside her. She can’t believe she’d ever misplace anything, let alone her sister’s Christmas present, anything with so much meaning and value.
Callie has slept off and on and dreamt of a sketchy wandering about town, a following of her regular path among the birches down to the boat docks, up past the tennis courts where, in the summer, young children are taught to swing forehands and serve by a gruff coach – his hectoring always making Callie grin since she knows well how children often stray from any planned lesson. In her dream, she’s arm in arm with John, who steadies her walk; somehow right beside her, even though he died five years before, bone cancer withering him away to splinters while Callie waited, covering him up so she couldn’t see him beneath the white t-shirts he wore. She forced herself to stay by his side and thought, “How many quilts will it take to bring him to peace, softly, with no pain?”
After untangling the covers from around her feet Callie doesn’t remember her dream and the happiness of her walk under the trees. The images flicker out and become overshadowed once more by, “It’s almost Christmas and the bracelet. Where is it?” She mutters, “John? If you were here you’d tell me. I know you would. You’d remember.”
Callie hunts through her trunk at the end of her bed and brings her mother’s old holiday quilt out, red and green overlapping circles intricate and warm. She wraps herself in it, grasps her cane and moves out of her bedroom. After noticing the drift of snow she decides to call Ben Ditty in an hour to shovel her walkway. It rarely snows in Anacortes so close to the water, but this year the first, and perhaps only, snowfall, blanketed her neighborhood, the cookie-cutter Victorian homes disappearing in the whiteness.
Soon, Callie sets coffee bubbling and a slice of raisin bread toasting. In the back of her mind different locations to search in the house pop in and out of memory. Did she put the bracelet in the top drawer of her dresser? In the box of wrapping paper? Did she leave it in her old purse, the one she threw away last summer? How can she find it in time to send it to Maggie? And her sister takes over her thoughts. Maggie, ten years younger, settled more than half the country away in Colorado, with a living husband, and their three children, Sheila, Mark, and George, the oldest, the one with the old family name, their father’s namesake. Maggie didn’t grow up with Callie because Callie moved away when Maggie was still a young child and only moved back to the farm for her last two years of high school, where the energy in the home made Callie feel like she sat on the largest cushions of pins and needles. People thought Callie would never walk again after a tractor rolled over her on the family farm – her father a corn and cattle farmer, staying the course for the past three generations, until her parents went sonless. They sold in their senior years – her mother passing on almost eight years ago now, and her father living in a retirement community in Surprise, Arizona, his health worries a constant undercurrent whenever Callie spoke to him or her sister.
When she was but a child, her teenage years right around the corner, the accident caused Callie’s pelvic area to fracture and a complicated network of internal damage weakened her system for almost a year – she would never have children. A piece of her shinbone cracked so badly it had to be removed, which made her left leg shorter than her right. Her parents shipped her far away for help, where she stayed with Aunt Eileen (now dead of breast cancer just like her sister, Callie’s mother) and her husband, a university professor, also childless at this point, in their upper-middle class home in Boston. The best doctors in the area worked with reconstruction and rehabilitation, a lucky service to have decades ago. Maggie once told her she regretted not having a sister around to talk to. Callie couldn’t reply. Maggie wanted to drag her into another argument about why they weren’t any closer as siblings – a discussion neither of them could ever win.
Every Christmas Callie tries to send Maggie something from her past, or her mother’s past, something to remind them that they’re family, related and bonded by blood. Callie fondles the red and green threads of the quilt’s pattern and wonders when she’ll send it away to her sister.
In the afternoon, when her steps have been cleared of ice, and salt sprinkled down, Callie, booted up, walks down 9th Street and cuts over to Commercial Ave and through the town’s main historic block, past the Cap Sante Inn and the closed bakery, wheat and flour growing too expensive for the bakery to remain open, all the way to the bright and rigid Safeway (with her limp, her uneven legs, Callie tries to walk each day — John was a walker too, loved the journeys they took) – there used to be a family grocery nestled between the old theater building and a long absent video store. She clutches her shopping basket and steps among the mounds of hothouse tomatoes, leaf lettuce, and avocados with a sense of impending doom. A flittering worry takes hold and makes her pick two cans of lentil soup off the shelf without thinking. Terry, the bag boy, gives Callie a cheerful smile when she declines help to her nonexistent car, and says, “You be careful on your walk home.”
Callie decides to buy another book at Watermark bookstore on the return trip, another mystery by Tana French, someone else whose books she devours. Callie’s usually so good at solving the crimes, and this thought pulls her mind in confused directions as she plots the methodical course she took with the bracelet. The snow picks up and she nearly slips crossing M Avenue, where she cuts to the right towards her house. Once home, she places the groceries on the counter and puts them away while the images fly, unrevealing the location.
It’s her sister she’s worrying over. And the present. Then more images come to mind. And somehow she remembers spring days, strolling arm in arm with John, talking to him as he held her hand on their way down the shoreline to take the Guemes Ferry just to get out of the house, the five-minute ferry leading to close-by Guemes Island’s only restaurant for their famous fish special and a bowl of clam chowder.
“Look at the swans, Callie. They’re making a nest in the reeds. I’ve never seen them here before. They usually congregate in the fields closer to La Conner,” John said to her, pointing out the large white birds at the entrance to a preserved shoreline area. “They mate for life,” and John winked as if telling her a joke and Callie hit his arm telling him she was in on the joke. The distant memory sneaks across her mind and somehow tightens Callie up; makes her jaw ache and her eyes scan every inch in front of her feet and her cane. The gold ring she sent to Maggie years ago – she concentrates on that; gets back to the matter at hand; whisks John away. Set with diamonds. The ring used to be her mother’s. The bracelet she found in a store in Fairhaven. She’s pretty sure the store’s called Rooster’s Antiques, or something about a farm, the place just South of Bellingham’s main city district. The bracelet went with the ring. A perfect match.
Callie climbs the stairs to her room, opens her jewelry box and takes out a small tin filled with tissue. There the ring sat idle for years, and when she brought it to the light the stones glimmered. Now the ring box of her mother’s is empty and Callie can’t remember why she kept the tin, why she didn’t send it to her sister with the ring. It doesn’t make any sense to her, but she must’ve wanted the tin case as a reminder – her mother’s image appears and disappears so quickly Callie lets out a breath as if just spooked. Callie remains in her room the rest of the day sleeping and reading; the jewelry box stays against her chest until she wakes to start water boiling for tea.
She tells herself the bracelet is only misplaced; hiding the way small children do playing in a deep wood. Christmas is less than a week away and Callie wants to mail the package to Maggie tomorrow so it arrives on the eve.
After heating a bowl of soup and corn from the freezer – always corn – she again concentrates on the near and distant past. The family farm now lost to wealthy cattle barons from Denver who bought it for fifty cents on the dollar, still enough to make her father happy. Her father remains proud. She viewed the family farm as if it always had a shroud of darkness overhead – never remembered how she landed in front of the tractor one fateful day — the specific memories of the accident a blackness she can never pierce. Her father drove the tractor and didn’t see her. How could that be? Could she have tripped? She wasn’t lame then. She never brought up the family farm, always kept her conversations light when calling her dad in Arizona – “You’re learning how to play bridge? That’s so great, Dad. Who yelled at you for sitting in the wrong seat at the cafeteria? You tell those ladies to mind their own business and keep their hands to themselves.” Retirement home bingo days. Her father didn’t want to come to Anacortes, to live in one of the assisted living centers on the island even though they are some of the best in the country, or so the literature says. Callie slips the image of her family’s losses into a dark recess in her mind, and begins to make a checklist:
1. Her coat pockets are empty. She searches them. Even in places she knows there’s no reason for her to have put the bracelet, she scans these places again and again, sometimes two and three times.
2. She scours the old green Ford Mustang with the white convertible top in case the bracelet dropped, even though Callie knows she would’ve found it by now if it’d been in the car. She washes and vacuums it once a week, inside and out, just like John used to do.
3. The living room: under couches, easy chairs and in the end table drawers, nothing in the canisters on the mantle except matches and a deck of cards.
4. Her hall closet light blinks on when Callie opens it. She sees the shoes first, and most of them are John’s. She picks up one of his church shoes; they used to go twice a year, Christmas and Easter, and that was enough for John, a habit from his own upbringing, and Callie looks at the clean black sole and remembers when she bought them for his birthday, and how he never had the stamina to wear them for more than an hour. Her fingers slide across the leather. She remembers her husband’s feet and all the times she washed them and cleaned him when he couldn’t move — all the miles they walked together a winnowing thought shaking a bit of her gloom away. Before he died, Callie hovered an inch from his face and said, “I love you.” He touched her hand, moving with the pain and repeated her words back. And the clothes are a reminder. She couldn’t give them away. Five years passed and the clothes always helped her remember John in happier moments. Of course Callie’s life moved forward. She discovered her solitary existence without John was a burden, and she wanted to believe in a higher power the way she was raised, and thought about going to the upcoming Christmas service and then continuing on with weekly visits, but doubts crept into her mind, a scar weeping, and she couldn’t remove the clothing, the western books; even John’s shaving kit remains in the third drawer of the vanity. So many friends of hers cautioned her to give John’s belongings away, told her this is better for her mental fortitude, and Callie would then change the subject of their conversation after saying, “Please don’t worry so much about me.”
Callie places her husband’s shoe next to its mate and then rummages through the front hanging coats, jackets, and dress shirts John stored there. She pulls out her light-weather coat for the fourth time and turns it inside out. A receipt from Watermark bookstore – more mystery books read and then boxed and sent to Maggie – falls from an inside pocket and twirls to the ground. Callie picks it up and throws it away.
Her list continues:
5. Her bedroom’s the last place to check: the dresser, where John’s office socks sprinkle in with her patterned socks and hose. She tries to think about the bracelet; retrace her steps from Rooster’s Antiques, the return drive to her house, where she put the small brown paper bag for safe keeping, but can’t come up with anything in the convertible. It was a nice day, full spring sunshine, the top down as she drove home on the scenic Chuckanut Drive, and stopping at The Farmhouse for an early supper – could the wind have taken the bag and blown it into The Sound, right over the cliff? Preposterous, but there was nothing under her mattress; she looked just for the sake of looking there. Nothing in her closet except more dresses which she goes through another time, checking pockets and the floor beneath in case, just in case.
Callie feels her pulse rise when she stops searching, and puts a finger to her throat. She makes her way out of the closet, into her adjacent bathroom and stares at her weary face in the mirror as if to conjure answers from a crystal globe. She moves her fingers to the lines surrounding her eyes and traces them slowly to her mouth. John always rubbed her cheeks and found pressure points beneath her eyes and above her curving lips where he massaged to relieve tension. In the mirror she thinks she sees John’s hands over her own, skeletal, spotted, ripe with wrinkles, and she starts to cry into them.
After a warm bath, Callie pulls a flannel nightgown on and climbs into bed. She’ll return to her searching in the morning. When the telephone rings it snaps her out of her list-making and she picks up the receiver and says, “Hello?”
It’s Maggie calling to ask Callie how she’s getting along this Christmas. Callie updates Maggie about her teaching job and the levy that didn’t pass on the first vote. “Things are going to be pretty tight in this town, Maggie,” Callie says, “until I know I still have my classroom.” Her voice comes across scratchy and almost feverish.
“The kids are fine and wonder when they’ll see their Aunt again,” Maggie says. “I’m very sorry about your school’s position. I wish I could do something.”
It’s the way Maggie always talks to Callie. Never listening to Callie or responding to her daily worries until she talks about her children or her family or what’s happening in Colorado. This is Christmas. This is her job. This is why Maggie votes like their dad, and they never talk politics anymore; the family knows better; Callie doesn’t want to get into another senseless argument. Many of her friends follow different politicians across the abyss, and they think her own opinions don’t amount to much either. With more time spent in their mother’s presence, Maggie kept topics of conversation to small stuff, seldom ever wanted to dig below the surface, learned from her mother: just be polite, which makes Callie’s own facile mental questioning and creative drive, paired with her physical rigidity, all the more oppositional, and, how they dance around serious subjects, laughable. Callie wants to say she’s sorry, to spout her real concerns and tell Maggie about the bracelet, but her throat closes and she coughs, holding the receiver away – she wishes she could scream.
Maggie keeps talking about her plans and the children being accomplished skiers and boarders, amazing computer and gaming experts (wanting new ski equipment, clothing, computer games), gift suggestions without really being gift suggestions, and how smart all of them really are, how their eldest, George, may receive an athletic scholarship in soccer, how much it costs to keep him in the elite field each year. She doesn’t mention academic pursuits, but her two nephews and one niece, Sheila, described by their mother as budding geniuses, often make Callie smile. Callie loves them. It’s her sister who irritates with her bubbling-over cheer. Callie clears her throat, listens, and thinks about all the kids she’s taught, and how most of them would run from the school, turn their backs, if it wasn’t mandatory, and how little they’re learning now.
“That’s nice, Maggie,” Callie says. “I hope they love what I sent them.” The week before, Callie wrapped, boxed up, and shipped books, the hottest titles of the moment, and included a couple t-shirts for each child with orcas (sightseeing tours being a must-do tourist activity in the area), otters, in playful, gamboling native designs. She didn’t want to wait in case the bracelet never materialized — deprive her nephews and niece of a gift from her come Christmas morning.
“I’m sure they will, but they’ve been so hyperactive I wish I could put them on work detail up in the North Pole . . . I want you to know that we’re planning a trip out your way to see you this summer. If it’s in the budget and all. It’s been two years, right?”
Callie says, “I haven’t sent your present yet. It’s almost too late now and I feel awful.” She hears one of her nephews shouting in the background. A couple seconds pass.
“What’s that? I’m sorry I missed what you just said. Sheila hit Mark and, honest to God, the little weasel bit her arm. I had to tear them apart. You know how kids can be.” Mark had always been Callie’s favorite, and this thought made her sad – kids changing before their parents’ very eyes, an aunt calculating how much they’ve changed physically and emotionally since the last visit.
“I said I hope you have a merry Christmas and I’ll be thinking of you. Getting together this summer would be wonderful.”
“Don’t worry about your job. It’ll turn out all right. You’ll see. I love you.”
“I love you too, Maggie. Merry Christmas.”
They hang up at the same time. After she extinguishes the light, Callie snuggles into her blankets. She and her sister didn’t bring up the fact that neither of them planned to go down to Arizona to spend Christmas with their father. He didn’t want them there. (“I’m fine right where I am. Callie, I don’t need you fussing about with nothing to do and spending all your money on me. Maggie, you come see me when the kids have spring break . . . they can swim in the pool.”) His two daughters never went against his wishes — and there is guilt in Callie’s worrying. Stuck in the same room with each other, Callie always faces the etched-in guilt in her dad’s eyes; he still blames himself for her scars, her shortened leg, and will not let the wound close. Callie sent him a new pair of slippers, easy to just step into, and Grisham’s new legal thriller — these gifts shuttling on their way only a couple days past — Merry Christmas, Dad. Love, Callie.
Her sleep breaks in the early morning and Callie continues to picture John from her dream. The coldness of the air in the room slaps the vision to pieces and she can only recollect bits. John sitting on his riding lawn mower wearing his red jacket, waving to Callie. Long ago, the day she first saw him in line at the Puget Sound Bank, before she’d completed the coursework for her teaching certificate up at Western University, when she was working as a teller, hoping he’d end up in front of her. The expression on his face passing in her sleep – film under water.
Callie’s vision blurs until she shakes her head. She takes her cane and goes downstairs. The Anacortes American is on her doorstep, shiny with ice particles. Weekly news of jobless people, farmers out of luck and still earning the same prices for grain and corn they did in the thirties and how sustainable farming is making inroads, letters to the editor rallying a plea to the town stating what dire circumstances everyone is in for: “Do you want your children’s education to languish because the school can’t sustain a sports program, foreign languages, physical education classes, clubs, art, and high school bus transportation? Please vote yes next February, and until then think of your children.”
It’ll pass this time, Callie hopes. How could it not? After Christmas, people will tighten their purse strings, but they won’t want their kids to suffer. So many people out of work as it is.
Her skin raises gooseflesh and she walks to the hall closet to cover herself in a warm coat, one of John’s wool Pendleton coats, and the answer reveals itself, robbed from her memory for so long she’s not sure if her mind plays tricks on her.
Callie remembers the April day she drove up the coast to visit another teacher, see the current wows in her favorite art galleries, and search through antique stores in Fairhaven. It was sunny, she remembers the warmth that day, the wind blowing through her hair on the drive home, but she awoke to a chill that morning. Long forgotten, a mundane detail, her own coat stayed put because of the frost on the ground. She decided to wear one of John’s jackets in case she could put the 1972 Mustang’s convertible top down (John treated his green car with the white top like a favored child and so did Callie now) on the drive home and grabbed one from the closet.
Her fingers push through the clothing until a second layer reveals itself. She wore John’s large red jacket; the one with the big pockets; the one the wind couldn’t cut through and the rain couldn’t puncture; the one he wore in her dream, where John smiled at her, saying he was in on the joke, and Callie lets out a braying laugh. Callie rifles the pockets and turns them out. The small brown paper package falls into her hand and Callie takes the bracelet from within. She makes a nest on the closet floor with John’s clothing. She sinks down and rests, comfortable, on her husband’s shirts, hunting jackets and shoes. She smells the oldness. Callie puts the bracelet around her wrist — a gift that fits, calms her anxious mind. Callie knows John is beside her, all around her, and the bracelet is his present to her. A comfort as she touches the gold and runs her fingertips across the intricate array of diamonds. Callie says thank you, out loud, and then tells John she’ll never take it off.
When the post office opens, Callie is first in line. She walks up to the postal clerk, her limp obvious to everyone behind her, places the large box on the counter, and smiles.
“Merry Christmas, Callie. Are the contents breakable? Would you like to insure this today?” She loves living in a town where everyone knows her.
“No thank you,” Callie says as she pays the bill, “happy holidays to you.” Callie turns and walks out the building. She’s happy, relief easing her mind as she thinks about how much her sister will cherish their mother’s Christmas quilt as much as she did.