Neil ended up having a great time. Mrs. de la Vega was past the worst of her illness and her zest for life had returned. She waited until Carmen had gone out, then got up and cooked Neil a delicious Mexican meal, ignoring his protests, and carrying on a one sided conversation in Spanish. Only their gestures and laughter were bilingual.
Carmen chewed him out royally for letting her mother out of bed. Neil said, “How was I to stop her?” Carmen had to admit that it would have been impossible.
Several days later, Carmen came in to see his can tree. She had only just heard of it from Delores. She said, “Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing? I would have been glad to help.”
“I really didn’t do that much,” Neil explained. “Stephanie Hagstrom and her mother were the force behind it, and Delores agreed to do the distribution for us.”
“How did you ever get it started? I’ve tried to get my seventh graders to have some social conscience all year, and I’ve gotten nowhere.”
Neil explained about the candy trick. She said, “Good. Good. We need more of that kind of thing.” Then she gave him a dazzling smile, looked around to see that no students were near, and gave him a quick kiss.
“”What was that for? Not that I’m complaining.”
“That, Neil McCrae, is because you are a nice guy.”
“It took you long enough to notice.”
Her gaiety went away. Neil said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Someday I will,” she promised, “but not just now.”
They left together in Carmen’s car because they had a date to do some Christmas shopping at the mall. Neil had to get gifts for his mother and grandfather because this year school was running all the way to the twenty-third. He would have a day to drive to Oregon and no time to shop once he got there.
While they were walking through J. C. Penney’s, Neil said, “You know Rosa Alvarez?”
“If you had to, could you pick out clothes that would fit her?”
“I guess so. Why?”
“She’s kind of chubby.”
“I know what she looks like. Why did you ask if I could pick out clothes for her?”
“Do you think her parents would mind if I bought her a jacket? She has been coming to school without one and it is really getting cold in the mornings.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, Neil. I could let them know so they won’t buy her one for Christmas, if they had planned to. When did you decide to do this?”
Neil shrugged, feeling embarrassed for no good reason. “I don’t know, she just looks so miserable every morning. She always heads for my room to warm up.”
Carmen smiled. “She doesn’t come there just to warm up. You have a fan club.”
That embarrassed Neil even more and Carmen laughed again.
Carmen bought the jacket for him. It was nothing Neil would have chosen, but she assured him it was stylish as well as warm. He bought lesser presents for a dozen of his other students whose parents were poor. Carmen said, “Can you afford all this?”
“The only other people I have to buy for are my mother and grandfather.”
“Well, that goes without saying.”
“Say it anyway.”
He faced her suddenly and drew her back between some racks of clothing. His face was serious as he said, “Carmen, you are very precious to me. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now.”
“Wow!” She put her hand on his chest and kissed him quickly. Then she pulled away and said, “People are looking. I don’t want the kids to catch us necking behind the lingerie.” more Monday