Symphony Christmas, 9 of 10

Because I intend to publish the novel from which this excerpt comes, Symphony Christmas will not be placed in Backfile.

Carmen has asked Neil why he hesitates to give the jacket he has purchased directly to Rosa.

He shrugged.

“Have you been out at the apartments?”

“I drive by them every day, but I’ve never been in one of them.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never had reason to go. I’ve never been in one of my rich kids’ homes, either.”

“Don’t you want to see how they live?”

“Yes,” Neil admitted, “I really do, but I don’t want to look like big bwana coming in to look at the native village.”

Carmen shook her head in mild dismay. “Neil,” she said, “I think you’re more ashamed of their poverty than they are.”


Christmas inched closer. The children were ready for vacation and their attention wandered at any excuse. Juan Rogers went back to Mexico for the winter, and Joaquin Velasquez followed three days later. Attendance had never been great at Kiernan; by the week before Christmas, it was not uncommon for one fourth of the students to be gone on any given day. Neil preached the values of school attendance and all but tore his hair out in frustration; it did no good.

The children’s minds went on vacation a week before their bodies were allowed to follow.


Carmen drove by to pick Neil up at six. His own car was packed to drive to Oregon in the morning, so he tossed the colorfully wrapped present into her back seat and they went out to dinner. Afterward, she drove him out to the Oaks Apartments.

The scene was forlorn. Neil had seen this place twice each day as he drove to and from work, but he had never turned in. Two sycamores, a giant and its still considerable smaller brother, grew in the courtyard between facing rows of small apartments. The structures were of concrete block, two stories high with an open walkway at the upper level. There were four apartments on each side in each level; sixteen in all. It looked as if it had been a motel some time in its early history. The grass was still green and trimmed, even at Christmas time. The ragged palms out front were immune to the changing seasons, but the sycamores were bare.

Someone had wrapped the swing set in tinsel garland, and there were decorations in some of the windows. No children played outside so late on a winter evening.

When Neil got out of the car, he could see his breath. It was in the forties, which was about as cold as Modesto got. It would seem mild to an easterner, but to a little girl without a jacket, it would be just plain cold. Neil reached into the back seat and picked up the package. Carmen led the way without hesitation; she knew most of the families here.

The door opened to her knock, and Maria Alvarez appeared. She spoke with Carmen in fluid, rapid Spanish, then drew the door open and motioned them in. Neil stepped into the living room and looked around. Jose Alvarez was a slim, dark man in jeans and an undershirt. He got up swiftly and shyly from his place in front of the television and looked at his wife, who said something to him in Spanish. Neil could only understand a few words. Jose offered a brief, limp handshake, yelled, “Rosa!”, and spoke sharply to his younger daughter, who quickly turned down the volume on the TV.

Rosa came out of the kitchen dressed in ragged jeans and a faded sweat shirt. Her face lighted at the sight of Neil and Carmen, then fell instantly. Was she embarrassed by her house or her parents? Neil could not read her. Wherever it came from, the expression was chased away a moment later by shy happiness. Rosa took her mother by the elbow and spoke rapidly, gesturing toward Neil. Her mother nodded vigorously and smiled at Neil again. She took his hand in a longer handshake and said, “Gracias. Thank you. Rosa says you are helping her get better every day with her English. We know how important that is.”    continued


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