[Note to followers: The first time I tried to post this story, the text blocks got all screwed up. One of Santa’s naughty elves I think or perhaps it was the eggnog! At any rate HAPPY HOLIDAYS!]
The year the Hong Kong flu swept across America killing thousands of people and leaving others begging for death, I was a “Christmas Helper” assigned to the home goods department of a Macy’s in downtown Kansas City Missouri. If you’ve ever taken a seasonal job selling products that you know nothing about then you’ll understand why I spent most of my time in the stock room. No one ever found anything in the stock room and so I could sit in there forever wondering why anyone would want a tangerine colored crockpot.
The store was located not far from the abandoned stockyards in an area where few businesses still survived but I was just a teenager with no resume. And so I’d quickly and without thinking taken a minimum wage job an hour by bus from Greenwood Missouri where I lived with a friend a few years older and much wiser than me.
Her name was Joellen and she was more than a friend. She was the big sister I’d never had.
Her life had been hard. Her father, an alcoholic, had committed suicide when she was fourteen and the man her mother soon remarried didn’t like children. Especially Joellen who was probably smarter than him and not afraid to speak her mind. She survived by hiring herself out as a nanny in exchange for room and board. We were really lucky when she picked our family.
Not long after Joellen graduated from college she married a man in the National Guard. She’d followed him on his first deployment to Missouri where, thinking they would be settled for a while, she’d enrolled in graduate school. However, he was redeployed, this time overseas, leaving her stuck in a town on the outskirts of Kansas City.
For a gal from Reno Nevada, this was akin to being stuck on Mars. Reno is an all-night, pay-to-play, everything goes town with a marque reading “Biggest Little City in the World.” The sign outside of Greenwood Missouri read:
WELCOME TO GREENWOOD
✞ HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED✞
After high school, my first attempt to voyage out into the world had ended in a Mennonite cornfield with one friend hospitalized, the other pregnant, and me with a fork stuck in my leg. I’d returned home to Reno hardly the Prodigal Child. My parents were going through a divorce, all my friends were in college or getting married prematurely to boys I knew would never be men. My chances to succeed seemed slim to none and then Joellen wrote:
”Come live with me and get your act together.”
She had more faith in me than I did.
We soon became known in Greenwood (population 800) as “dem dam hippies.” I guess because we drove an old VW bug and lived in a three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm. When the temps dropped below freezing, we pulled the VW into an attached lean-to, however, in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood. It didn’t always work.
Every morning I drove with Joellen to the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) then took a bus down to Macys. I can still remember the long hours I spent in that windowless building pretending I had any idea whatsoever about what I was doing. The only thing that made the job bearable was a cheerful black girl, not much older than me, who could talk customers into buying products off the shelves so she did not need to enter the dreaded stockroom.
Five days before Christmas my body began to ache. The bars, barbecue joints, and Victorian boarding houses along the route back to the campus were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition they were as sinister as ghouls in a carnival funhouse.
I remember seeing my reflection in the window on those dark, cold nights. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty (or as my mother would say like “death warmed over”)
I cried as I waited for Joellen outside her class. All around were murals Thomas Hart Benton had painted in his lean and feverish years, scenes of farm life that felt so cold and lifeless I decided he must have hated the Midwest.
I tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was all I needed, but deep down I knew, it was the Hong Kong flu.