By Mark Hannon -
Mabel’s eyes popped open, and she looked at the clock radio. 5:25. Should I get up now? she thought. “No,” her mother would’ve said, “It’s too early. We’re tired,” having been up most of the night fixing food and wrapping presents, and that after a day’s work. Mabel glanced across the hall at mother’s room, empty now for six years.
I’ve got to be ready when they call, she thought, and threw off the covers. Her hands gripped the worn bedpost as she pulled herself upright and her feet went into slippers next to the bed. She clicked on lights as she went into the hall, grabbed the bannister with both hands and worked her way down the stairs as quickly as she could manage.
There it is. She smiled, looking at the tree in the dark living room. She hobbled from the stairs along the wall, took a deep breath and forced herself to bend down to plug in the electric lights. Phew, got it! and the tree lit up. I’ll leave the rest of the living room lights off, it looks so pretty that way, just as she had that first year after mother’s death and every year since. She felt the cold air fade as she moved back away from the front windows and turned to admire the tree.
There it is, the bright blue ornament Daddy got when we first moved here. “The same color as Mabel’s eyes,” he said. New house, new job, new ornament, everything was looking up then. Her shoulders drooped, thinking about what happened. She’d come home from school, and everyone was crying. Mother was sitting in her overstuffed chair, Reverend Lutz, Aunt Gert and a few men in coveralls from work surrounding her. Mabel ran around asking, “What’s wrong? What happened? Where’s Daddy?” Her sister Sadie looked at her, covered her face and ran out of the room. Mabel looked up at Tommy, the eldest. She could see his eyes were wet and red. He stroked her hair and just shook his head. Phil was only a year older and always told her everything, but now he just stood there and stared ahead at mama. She didn’t get an answer until she overheard one of the men say, “Right there on the line. Had a fan shield in his hands and dropped right there.”
It was terrible at first when daddy died, but Mama kept them all so busy after the funeral. The men at the plant and the neighbors helped out, and the boys went out and got jobs, Tommy at the gas station and Phil got a paper route. Mabel started helping Sadie with her house cleaning jobs after school and on weekends. She learned to use Mr. Clean on the floors, Murphy’s Oil Soap on the woodwork and Bon Ami on the sinks and toilets so the houses shined and smelled clean.
When she was in high school, Mabel went up in the attic looking for some of her grandma’s old clothes for a Roaring Twenties dance they were having at church. (use different reason to be in the attic?) Looking through a wooden armoire up there she found an old guitar. She carried it downstairs, and when Mama looked up from where she was stirring the soup, she wiped her eye.
“Daddy used to play that when we were courting,” she said. Mabel cleaned it off carefully and got a book out of the library about how to play the guitar. When Sadie was out on dates, she would close the door to their room and practice for hours.
When she got out of high school, she started her own house cleaning route, just like Sadie. Sadie used to tell her about her customers, the Barclays especially. They had a bunch of kids and one that was Sadie’s age named Robert.
“He has blonde curly hair and helps put away the broom and mop when I’m done,” she said.
As the sun was coming up outside, Mabel thought about Sadie’s wedding. I wore that blue print dress, she remembered. Sadie said it set off my eyes. A friend of Robert’s named Tommy danced with her at the reception, but she never heard from him again, and the dress got turned into rags thirty years ago, wiping up the spills of other people’s children. She wished for a Robert to be in one of the houses she cleaned, but none ever appeared. She liked the houses with kids, even though they were always messier. She could play with the little ones and eat with the older ones when they’d come home from school for lunch.
One family had a little boy named Jackie who was always whistling, tapping his feet and singing with the radio. Mabel asked his mother if Jackie might want to learn to play the guitar. When they asked him, his face lit up and they made arrangements for Mabel to teach him. Those had been good times. She would come home from work and get the guitar to teach Jackie and some other kids, too, once word got around. She taught them the basics and some classics, but the boys all wanted to play like Elvis Presley and would drop out after a month or two.
Except Jackie. He loved music, any kind of music, and eventually she ran out of songs to teach him. When she’d go to their house to clean on Mondays sometimes, he’d pull out his guitar and play a new tune he’d learned for her. She called him Maestro Millbrook, after the bread commercials, and when he sang along with the tunes he learned, he’d put her name in the words somewhere. He sang that Mamas and the Papas tune, “Monday, Monday” to her.
“Mabel, Mabel, so good to me
Monday mornin’ she was all I hoped she would be
Oh Monday mornin’, Mabel couldn’t guarantee
That Monday evenin’ she would still be here with me”
Getting her tea in the kitchen, Mabel looked at the clock. Just eight o’clock. The kids will be going wild with their presents right now, and then Jackie and his wife will be getting them ready for church. No, they won’t call for a while yet. Mabel thought about church. She was one of the last ones in the congregation when they closed it down, and when the Falcon died a few years ago, she couldn’t get to any other churches farther away with her arthritis.
I might not be able to make it to church anymore, but I still have the good book, she thought. Mabel opened the worn family bible and read a bit. The story in Luke, that’s the best one, with the angel and the shepherds. She especially liked the picture of Mary, surrounded by the shepherds and the little baby Jesus in the manger. After reading that, she went to the middle pages where the family record was. Mabel had kept up mother’s careful writing of the dates of all the family events. The ink Mama had used was fading to brown, and the more recent notices that she’d put in, the ones in bright blue ink, were mostly deaths. There were a couple of Sadie’s grandkids births, but all she got was cards from them anymore. She looked at the big silver dish on the table with this year’s Christmas cards. Not a dozen there anymore, and half them were from vendors of some kind, like the stores she never went to anymore and she didn’t know anybody who worked at them anyway.
Reading the birthdates of her siblings, she thought, The boys have been gone so long now. Tommy had stayed out West when he got out of the Army, and Phil had his stroke about the same age daddy did. She had helped out every day at the nursing home (that place always stank of pee, no matter how much she cleaned) until he passed away too, and Sadie and Robert and their kids moved down South when the plant closed over on Delevan.
Maybe she’d turn on the TV for a little while. They always showed some happy kids’ movies like “Miracle on 34th Street.” She remembered watching that with Jackie’s kids once when she could still get around enough to babysit them. She looked at the clock. 10:30. They must be still at church or visiting the in-laws. They never came down here in the city anymore, to her rickety old house that needed everything. No, that picture might make her cry, better to leave it off.
At first, when it was just her and Mama, Mama used to ask the Nolan’s son Tony to come over and fix stuff for them. He’d come by after he got off work at the Chevy plant or on weekends. Mabel remembered going down in the basement watching him fix the dryer one time.
“It’s really pretty simple. It just needs a new belt, see?” he said.
She looked in close, and said, “Oh, okay, this belt here, right?”
“Yeah, that one right there,” he said pointing at the drive belt, and they smiled at each other.
About a month later, mama called Tony to come by and fix the overhead light that was flickering in the hallway. Mabel was sitting at the phone stand, talking to her friend Sue while he was up on the ladder.
“My Fair Lady’s up there now?...Sure, I’d love to see it…No, I haven’t heard from Jerry since we graduated. Is he still around?...well, maybe next week…Ok, goodbye.”
Mabel hung up and started doodling on the notepad. Tony kept looking up at the wires hanging from the ceiling and said, “Do you like that new movie just came out at the Granada, Mabel?”
“I’ve heard the music on the radio from it. The songs are real nice. And they redecorated the lobby and put up a new marquee for it at the theater, too.”
He looked down from the light at her and said, “Do you think you’d like to go see it this Friday, with me?”
“Uh, yeah, that would be nice. They’ve got shows at 5:00 and 9:00.”
“Ok,” he said. “How about I’ll pick you up at 8:30? Is that ok?”
“Sure, I’ll be ready then.”
Mabel took some money out of her savings and bought a new skirt from the Plaid Shop, brushed her hair back over her ears to show off her favorite earrings and even put on two drops of Chanel # 5.
Mabel got ready as soon as dinner was finished and couldn’t keep still, listening for Tony’s car. After a while, she sat down to watch TV with mama. At 9:30, mama shook her head and went to bed. Mabel waited until mama had gone to sleep and cried.
The next day, mama called the Nolans and found out Tony had got drunk with friends after work and forgot. Mabel was in the next room and heard. Mama never called Tony to fix anything again.
At lunchtime she heated up the stew the Meals on Wheels fella had left for her, and she turned on the radio. Christmas Carols, that’s the thing! They were playing “Sleigh Ride” when she turned it on. She used to imitate the horse’s whinny at the end for Jackie, he loved that and would dance around and giggle when she did. She tried to do it now, but it caught in her throat, and when she looked around, there wasn’t anyone around anyway, and she began to cry.
Oh, where’s my Maestro Millbrook? I wonder if his kids even remember my name? Stop it, Mabel, stop crying, you’re a grown woman, Mama would say.
She wiped her eyes with the tissues in her pocket and looked out the window. Still snowing, must be three inches of the white stuff out there. A white Christmas, so what. Now I’ll have to call around tomorrow and see if I can find a kid to shovel the walk. I hate it.
The guy across the street was shoveling out his new Buick. Probably going out to family soon, visit she thought. She thought of her old Ford Falcon. When she couldn’t get the car to start two years ago, she found out the Gulf station, the one where Tommy used to work, didn’t fix cars anymore. Mac had sold the place and the Yemenis there now just sold gas at the pumps and snacks and cigarettes inside. Finally, she called the Goodwill and they towed it away. As the young guy walked away after giving her the receipt, she heard him say to his partner, “Nobody will want this old hooptie, we might as well take it to the junkyard.”
When she’d first got that used Falcon, after Aunt Gert died, Phil had taught her to drive the standard shifter, and once she had that down, she thought the world was her oyster. She applied for jobs all over town and was ready to take the bookkeeper’s job over at Dunlop, but mama started getting sick with the Parkinson’s. The others weren’t much help, and mama needed lots of care at different times, so she arranged the cleaning schedule to fit and forgot about the 9-5 jobs.
It was kind of a blessing, anyway, she thought. No more car insurance payments. That helped stretch her check further. Now she waited for her check every month, and before they gave her direct deposit, she would walk a quarter mile to the bank to deposit it, because her usual bank had closed the branch close to her. Now she doubted she could even walk that far, and it wasn’t safe anymore with the kids around here nowadays. Cars, she thought. She remembered getting down on the floor she’d just cleaned with Jackie and zooming his toy cars across it. He always took the red Mustang and gave her the black car. “It’s the same color as yours, Mabel,” and he would go “Vroom, vroom,” and push the Mustang across the floor. She would take the black car and go, “Clunk, clunk, ka-shesh, ka-shesh” and then “Pffft. Yup, this is my car all right!” and Jackie would laugh every time, no matter how often she did the same thing.
Jackie went away to college and then his folks moved down to Florida. Jackie came back home though, got married and settled down out in the suburbs. For a while, he would call Mabel up to babysit his kids, but she would fall asleep sometimes and the once the kids snuck outside. Janice, Jackie’s wife, came home from work and found them playing in the front yard, not ten feet from the street. She shooed them back into the house and nudged Mabel, snoring in the overstuffed chair with a storybook she’d not finished reading to them.
“Mabel, are you ok?” she asked, shaking her shoulder. Later, Mabel overheard Janice talking to Jackie. “They might get hurt, Jack. She can’t keep an eye on them.”
“She’s been so good to us, though, Janice,” Jackie said.
Mabel made it easy on them. When she put away the toys before she left that day said, “Well, I guess I better make this my last roundup, kids. I’m getting’ too old for this rodeo,” and she faked a laugh, which got a smile and a sigh of relief from the parents.
Mabel woke up, stirred herself and came back to her Christmas Day. I wonder…did I miss their call? No, that ringer is turned all the way up. She reached over to the table and held the bible tightly. Please, God, have them call me, please. She fixed herself another cup of tea to keep herself awake. They’ll call before they sit down to dinner.
Mark Hannon has had short fiction published in several publications, including The Wayne Literary Review, Adelaide, and Bohemian Renaissance. His novel, "Every Man for Himself" was published in 2016, and another novel "The Vultures" was published in October 2020, both by Apprentice House Press. You can find more of his work at markhannonbooks.wordpress.com or on Facebook @everymanforhimselfhannon.