There were probably more depressing places when you were broke than Nantucket at Christmas, but Cindy Henderson couldn't think of any. New York, where she had lived for a few thin years after college, offered the saving consolations of its size and frenzy and indifference. Besides, there were dozens of odd little stores where you could find small cheap amusing things to stuff a stocking with at least. A stroll through the Chinese shops on Mott Street, or the open air markets that lined Orchard Street on a busy Saturday morning could supply you with a dozen tiny, eccentric gifts.
But Nantucket at Christmas was for rich people only. Cindy had seventy-six dollars in her purse. She had parked her ten year old Volkswagen Rabbit in the A&P parking lot and was walking up Main Street. There was a set of four chairs that she knew Mike would love in the window of the Lion's Paw -- for a mere twenty-eight hundred dollars. There were woolen shirts at the Looms for more than she was carrying, sweaters at Janet Russo for twice that much.
Christmas shopping had become one more part of the dance of lower class life, not that different from adding up your purchases at the Stop&Shop and getting it wrong and having to put things back, or playing checkbook roulette, hoping an advance from a generous boss or a prompt customer would cover the checks somehow. It was like those thin envelopes from the bank that meant she had lost the game again. How much had she paid in bounced check charges this year? Enough for a nice Christmas gift, anyway. Maybe enough for a trip to Jamaica.
"Hi. Cindy! Decided to sell that house of yours yet?"
It was Elaine Bailey. Cindy just shook her head and walked on. She had taken a delivery to Elaine's house the week before -- the front deck was stacked with FedEx and UPS parcels. She had breezily explained that she did all her Christmas shopping by catalog now.
"Give it some thought, dear," Elaine was calling after her. "It's best to sell before the bank forecloses. That's what I always say."
Cindy stopped and turned. For a second she was literally dizzy with hate. "The bank isn't going to foreclose."
"How nice. But keep me in mind, just in case."
Cindy appraised her: over-weight, over-dressed, overbearing. "Anyone but you," she said coldly, and walked on up the street. She was looking down when she bumped into David Trezize..
He was exactly her height, with thinning black hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a scrupulously neat black beard. Cindy had known David all her life -- they had gone to the Dalton School together in Manhattan from the three-year group until college. David had nursed a crush on her for most of that time, despite various girlfriends and a ten year marriage that had just fallen apart. His wistful infatuation had long since become a comfortable joke between them.
"Hi, David," she said. "You holding up all right?"
He shrugged. "Actually, it turns out there's an upside to getting divorced. People I haven't talked to in years come up to me and start giving me advice and comparing notes. It's funny. When you're the only happily married person in the group, it's like being the only one at a party who's not smoking pot. Everyone thinks you're judging them. Like you're above them or something. Well, I'm one of the guys now. And I like it."
"So ... now that you've joined the club ... do you think Mike is putting himself above you?"
"No, Cindy. I said happily married. Or at least faking it decently."
She looked away. "That's mean."
"It's true. You know I'll always tell you the truth."
"Yeah, well, that sounds great, David. But I think I'd prefer a friendly little lie once in a while."
She started walking away.
"Are you going to the reunion?"
He lobbed the question at her back. She paused for a second; then turned to catch it.
"Didn't you get the letter? It's our tenth reunion."
"It's been ten years?"
"1996 to 2006."
"Jesus." She was genuinely shocked. It didn't seem like ten years. Where had they gone? It was like someone stole them, like coming home to find your house had been burgled. Was the next decade going to evaporate this fast? It was a scary thought.
"Aren't you curious about all those people?," David was asking.
She looked at him and shook her head. "Not at all."
"Who succeeded? Who got fat?"
"It was Dalton, David. They all succeeded and they all got fat."
"But we're not going to be there."
"I am -- and Mark Toland will be there, too."
"Mark Toland? Oh, God -- I haven't thought about him in years."
"Yeah -- but if you put that together with all the years when you basically thought about nothing else, it still averages out to obsession."
“That was a long time ago. I was a different person.”
"Want to know what he’s doing now?"
"He's out in Hollywood, making movies.. He's about to start directing his first film soon. He'll be in New York scouting locations in January. That's why I figured I could get him to come to the reunion."
"There's no way I can make it.'
"Oh well. Just thought I’d let you know. Gotta run. See you later."
He jogged off awkwardly, and She watched him go, thinking that his marital problems had sharpened him somehow. Part of it was that he'd lost weight. He was on what he called the ''heartbreak diet' : he ate nothing but grocery store bean burritos and he rarely finished one. That and the lack of sleep had weathered him. He looked battered and mature. Best of all, his nasty wit was back. Patty had smothered him but he was taking big deep breaths now and he was much better for it.
Cindy had reached the top of Main Street and had basically given up on the whole idea of buying a present when she saw the Timberland boots in the window of Murray's Toggery shop.
Mike desperately needed a new pair of boots. His old pair were falling apart, but it was the kind of thing he'd never buy for himself. She stood looking in the window, feeling her feet going numb. The boots were beautiful and they looked as if they'd last forever.
She took a breath and went inside.
The saleslady in the shoe department was Marjorie. Cindy had seen her around for years, passed her a thousand times in the aisles of the Stop&Shop, but had never managed to learn her last name. Cindy knew that Marjorie's husband of twenty years walked out on his family for an eighteen year old girl; everyone had been talking about the scandal last year. Once again Cindy found herself longing for New York. People knew too much about each other here. And she wondered for a chilly little moment what Marjorie might know about her.
"Hi, Marjorie. How much are those Timberland boots in the window?"
She was carrying boxes of shoes to a pair of high school girls. She called back over her shoulder, "A hundred and twenty dollars"
Cindy should have known. There was no way she could possibly buy them unless — she rummaged mentally through her purse. Which credit cards did she have with her? Did any of them have enough credit left for a purchase like this? The only hope was the Citibank Mastercard. She had just sent them a hundred dollars and if they had processed the check, it would put her within a few dollars of being able to afford the boots. But if not, the card would be declined and she didn't know if she could endure that particular humiliation today.
But the boots would be perfect for Mike. And she had been standing around too long. It was either leave and forget about it or use the card. She was reaching into her purse before she even knew she had decided. Marjorie was heading back her way
"Do you have them in a size ten?"
"I'll check, honey."
Marjorie seemed to accept the idea that Cindy could afford the purchase; so at least her financial situation wasn't common knowledge yet.
Marjorie brought the Timberlands and walked with her to the front desk. "Will this be cash or charge?," she asked.
Cindy handed over her card and the waiting began.
She stood there chatting about the weather ("It looks like winter is finally here.") because that's what a prosperous person who had no concern at all about her credit would do, feeling irrationally that if the small talk was comfortable and friendly enough, she might somehow fool the whole system. Or perhaps it was something darker -- if she showed how scared she was, even for a second, Marjorie, who after all, and appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, was no friend of hers, might void the purchase on pure suspicion alone. "Is this really your card?," she might ask, and make Cindy sign her name on a slip of paper, and she'd be so nervous the signatures wouldn't match and before she could think of showing them her driver's license, the cops would be taking her away and full view of half the town and --
"There we are. Here's your receipt, honey. Have a merry Christmas."
Cindy signed the receipt -- recognizably, though Marjorie didn't even glance at it. She just handed Cindy her copy with the box in a big Murray's shopping bag.
It was over. She had done it. She said "Merry Christmas" and walked out into a gust of raw wind. Why had she been so nervous? Everything was fine. She decided to take the incident as an omen. Things were going to work out for her and Mike. First Christmas and then everything else. She vowed again to tell him about the baby. Not today, but soon. He'd be glad for the news. The Lomax check would come, the other bids would come through. She might even be able to quit her job at the boutique. This new year was going to be the best ever for them.
She was thinking these thoughts, giddy with optimism, when she slipped on a patch of ice and landed hard in the sitting position. It knocked the breath out of her and the shopping bag went flying. She cried out in pain and surprise, but someone was helping her up and someone else was handing her the bag. A small anxious crowd had gathered. She thanked them and assured them she was all right and walked stiffly away, placing her feet carefully on the slippery sidewalk, moving like an old lady. It didn't occur to her to take the exquisite timing of her fall as an omen. Looking back, she would come to regret that omission.
She liked having a chance to brace herself, before she got hit.