The first thing we did was talk to Miss Garber about our plans for the orphans, and she thought it was a marvelous idea. That was her favorite word, by the way—marvelous—after she’d greeted you with “Hellooooo.” On Monday, when she realized that I knew all my lines, she said, “Marvelous!” and for the next two hours whenever I’d finish up a scene, she’d say it again. By the end of the rehearsal, I’d heard it about four zillion times.
But Miss Garber actually went our idea one better. She told the class what we were doing, and she asked if other members of the cast would be willing to do their parts as well, so that the orphans could really enjoy the whole thing. The way she asked meant that they really didn’t have a choice, and she looked around the class, waiting for someone to nod so she could make it official. No one moved a muscle, except for Eddie. Somehow he’d inhaled a bug up his nose at that exact moment, and he sneezed violently. The bug flew out his nose, shot across his desk, and landed on the floor right by Norma Jean’s leg. She jumped out of her chair and screamed out loud, and the people on either side of her shouted, “Eww . . . gross!” The rest of the class started looking around and craning their necks, trying to see what happened, and for the next ten seconds there was total pandemonium in the classroom. For Miss Garber, that was as good of an answer as she needed.
“Marvelous,” she said, closing the discussion.
Jamie, meanwhile, was getting really excited about performing for the orphans. During a break in rehearsals she pulled me aside and thanked me for thinking of them. “There’s no way you would know,” she said almost conspiratorially, “but I’ve been wondering what to do for the orphanage this year. I’ve been praying about it for months now because I want this Christmas to be the most special one of all.”
“Why is this Christmas so important?” I asked her, and she smiled patiently, as if I’d asked a question that didn’t really matter.
“It just is,” she said simply.
The next step was to talk it over with Mr. Jenkins, the director of the orphanage. Now I’d never met Mr. Jenkins before, being that the orphanage was in Morehead City, which was across the bridge from Beaufort, and I’d never had any reason to go there. When Jamie surprised me with the news the following day that we’d be meeting him later that evening, I was sort of worried that I wasn’t dressed nice enough. I know it was an orphanage, but a guy wants to make a good impression. Even though I wasn’t as excited about it as Jamie was (no one was as excited as Jamie), I didn’t want to be regarded as the Grinch who ruined Christmas for the orphans, either.
Before we went to the orphanage for our meeting, we had to walk to my house to pick up my mom’s car, and while there, I planned on changing into something a little nicer. The walk took about ten minutes or so, and Jamie didn’t say much along the way, at least until we got to my neighborhood. The homes around mine were all large and well kept, and she asked who lived where and how old the houses were. I answered her questions without much thought, but when I opened the front door to my house, I suddenly realized how different this world was compared with her own. She had a shocked expression on her face as she looked around the living room, taking in her surroundings.
No doubt it was the fanciest home she’d ever been in. A moment later I saw her eyes travel to the paintings that lined the walls. My ancestors, so to speak. As with many southern families, my entire lineage could be traced in the dozen faces that lined the walls. She stared at them, looking for a resemblance, I think, then turned her attention to the furnishings, which still looked practically new, even after twenty years. The furniture had been handmade, assembled or carved from mahogany and cherry, and designed specifically for each room. It was nice, I had to admit, but it wasn’t something I really thought about. To me, it was just a house. My favorite part of it was the window in my room that led to the porch on the upper level. That was my escape hatch.
I showed her around, though, giving her a quick tour of the sitting room, the library, the den, and the family room, Jamie’s eyes growing wider with each new room. My mom was out on the sun porch, sipping a mint julep and reading, and heard us poking around. She came back inside to say hello.
I think I told you that every adult in town adored Jamie, and that included my mom. Even though Hegbert was always giving the kinds of sermons that had our family’s name written all over them, my mom never held it against Jamie, because of how sweet she was. So they talked while I was upstairs rifling through my closet for a clean shirt and a tie. Back then boys wore ties a lot, especially when they were meeting someone in a position of authority. When I came back down the stairs fully dressed, Jamie had already told my mom about the plan.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Jamie said, beaming at me. “Landon’s really got a special heart.”
My mom—after making sure she’d heard Jamie correctly—faced me with her eyebrows raised. She stared at me like I was an alien.
“So this was your idea?” my mom asked. Like everyone else in town, she knew Jamie didn’t lie.
I cleared my throat, thinking of Eric and what I still wanted to do to him. It involved molasses and fire ants, by the way.
“Kind of,” I said.
“Amazing.” It was the only word she could get out. She didn’t know the details, but she knew I must have been boxed into a corner to do something like this. Mothers always know stuff like that, and I could see her peering closely at me and trying to figure it out. To escape her inquisitive gaze, I checked my watch, feigned surprise, and casually mentioned to Jamie that we’d better be going. My mom got the car keys from her pocketbook and handed them to me, still giving me the once-over as we headed out the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, imagining that I’d somehow gotten away with something, but as I walked Jamie to the car, I heard my mother’s voice again.
“Come on over anytime, Jamie!” my mom shouted. “You’re always welcome here.”
Even mothers could stick it to you sometimes.
I was still shaking my head as I got in the car.
“Your mother’s a wonderful lady,” Jamie said.
I started the engine. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess so.”
“And your house is beautiful.”
“You should count your blessings.”
“Oh,” I said, “I do. I’m practically the luckiest guy alive.”
Somehow she didn’t catch the sarcastic tone of my voice.
We got to the orphanage just about the time it was getting dark. We were a couple of minutes early, and the director was on the phone. It was an important call and he couldn’t meet with us right away, so we made ourselves comfortable. We were waiting on a bench in the hallway outside his door, when Jamie turned to me. Her Bible was in her lap. I guess she wanted it for support, but then again, maybe it was just her habit.
“You did really well today,” she said. “With your lines, I mean.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling proud and dejected at exactly the same time. “I still haven’t learned my beats, though,” I offered. There was no way we could practice those on the porch, and I hoped she wasn’t going to suggest it.
“You will. They’re easy once you know you all the words.”
“I hope so.”
Jamie smiled, and after a moment she changed the subject, sort of throwing me off track. “Do you ever think about the future, Landon?” she asked.
I was startled by her question because it sounded . . . so ordinary.
“Yeah, sure. I guess so,” I answered cautiously.
“Well, what do you want to do with your life?”
I shrugged, a little wary of where she was going with this. “I don’t know yet. I haven’t figured that part out. I’m going to UNC next fall, at least I hope so. I have to get accepted first.”
“You will,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve prayed for that, too.”
When she said it, I thought we were heading into a discussion about the power of prayer and faith, but Jamie tossed yet another curveball at me.
“How about after college? What do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe I’ll be a one-armed lumberjack.”
She didn’t think it was funny.
“I think you should become a minister,” she said seriously. “I think you’re good with people, and they’d respect what you have to say.”
Though the concept was absolutely ridiculous, with her I just knew it came from the heart and she intended it as a compliment.
“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ll do that, but I’m sure I’ll find something.” It took a moment for me to realize that the conversation had stalled and that it was my turn to ask a question.
“How about you? What do you want to do in the future?”
Jamie turned away and got a far-off gaze in her eyes, making me wonder what she was thinking, but it vanished almost as quickly as it came.
“I want to get married,” she said quietly. “And when I do, I want my father to walk me down the aisle and I want everyone I know to be there. I want the church bursting with people.”
“That’s all?” Though I wasn’t averse to the idea of marriage, it seemed kind of silly to hope for that as your life’s goal.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s all I want.”
The way she answered made me suspect that she thought she’d end up like Miss Garber. I tried to make her feel better, even though it still seemed silly to me.
“Well, you’ll get married someday. You’ll meet some guy and the two of you will hit it off, and he’ll ask you to marry him. And I’m sure that your father will be happy to walk you down the aisle.”
I didn’t mention the part about having a big crowd in the church. I guess it was the one thing that even I couldn’t imagine.
Jamie thought carefully about my answer, really pondering the way I said it, though I didn’t know why.
“I hope so,” she said finally.
I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, don’t ask me how, so I moved on to something new.
“So how long have you been coming to the orphanage?” I asked conversationally.
“Seven years now. I was ten years old the first time I came. I was younger than a lot of the kids here.”
“Do you enjoy it, or does it make you sad?”
“Both. Some of the children here came from really horrible situations. It’s enough to break your heart when you hear about it. But when they see you come in with some books from the library or a new game to play, their smiles just take all the sadness away. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
She practically glowed when she spoke. Though she wasn’t saying it to make me feel guilty, that was exactly the way I felt. It was one of the reasons it was so hard to put up with her, but by then I was getting fairly used to it. She could twist you every way but normal, I’d come to learn.
At that moment, Mr. Jenkins opened the door and invited us in. The office looked almost like a hospital room, with black-and-white tiled floors, white walls and ceilings, a metal cabinet against the wall. Where the bed would normally have been, there was a metal desk that looked like it had been stamped off the assembly line. It was almost neurotically clean of anything personal. There wasn’t a single picture or anything.
Jamie introduced me, and I shook Mr. Jenkins’s hand. After we sat down, Jamie did most of the talking. They were old friends, you could see that right off, and Mr. Jenkins had given her a big hug as soon as she’d entered. After smoothing out her skirt, Jamie explained our plan. Now, Mr. Jenkins had seen the play a few years back, and he knew exactly what she was talking about almost as soon as she started. But even though Mr. Jenkins liked Jamie a lot and knew she meant well, he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.
That’s how I knew what he was thinking.
“Why not?” Jamie asked, her brow furrowed. She seemed genuinely perplexed by his lack of enthusiasm.
Mr. Jenkins picked up a pencil and started tapping it on his desk, obviously thinking about how to explain himself. In time, he put down the pencil and sighed.
“Even though it’s a wonderful offer and I know you’d like to do something special, the play is about a father who eventually comes to realize how much he loves his daughter.” He let that sink in for a moment and picked up the pencil again. “Christmas is hard enough around here without reminding the kids of what they’re missing. I think that if the children see something like that . . .”
He didn’t even have to finish. Jamie put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my,” she said right away, “you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”
Neither had I, to tell you the truth. But it was obvious right off the bat that Mr. Jenkins made sense.
He thanked us anyway and chatted for a while about what he planned to do instead. “We’ll have a small tree and a few gifts—something that all of them can share. “You’re welcome to visit Christmas Eve. . . .”
After we said our good-byes, Jamie and I walked in silence without saying anything. I could tell she was sad. The more I hung around Jamie, the more I realized she had lots of different emotions—she wasn’t always cheerful and happy. Believe it or not, that was the first time I recognized that in some ways she was just like the rest of us.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” I said softly.
“I am, too.”
She had that faraway look in her eyes again, and it was a moment before she went on.
“I just wanted to do something different for them this year. Something special that they would remember forever. I thought for sure this was it. . . .” She sighed. “The Lord seems to have a plan that I just don’t know about yet.”
She was quiet for a long time, and I looked at her. Seeing Jamie feeling bad was almost worse than feeling bad because of her. Unlike Jamie, I deserved to feel bad about myself—I knew what kind of person I was. But with her . . .
“While we’re here, do you want to stop in to see the kids?” I asked into the silence. It was the only thing I could think to do that might make her feel better. “I could wait out here while you talk to them, or go to the car if you want.”
“Would you visit them with me?” she asked suddenly.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could handle it, but I knew she really wanted me there. And she was feeling so down that the words came out automatically.
“Sure, I’ll go.”
“They’ll be in the rec room now. That’s where they usually are at this time,” she said.
We walked down the corridors to the end of the hall, where two doors opened into a good-size room. Perched in the far corner was a small television with about thirty metal folding chairs placed all around it. The kids were sitting in the chairs, crowded around it, and you could tell that only the ones in the front row had a good view of the thing.
I glanced around. In the corner was an old Ping-Pong table. The surface was cracked and dusty, the net nowhere to be seen. A couple of empty Styrofoam cups sat on top of it, and I knew it hadn’t been used in months, maybe years. Along the wall next to the Ping-Pong table were a set of shelves, with a few toys here and there—blocks and puzzles, a couple of games. There weren’t too many, and the few that were there looked as if they’d been in this room for a long time. Along the near walls were small individual desks piled with newspapers, scribbled on with crayons.
We stood in the doorway for just a second. We hadn’t been noticed yet, and I asked what the newspapers were for.
“They don’t have coloring books,” she whispered, “so they use newspapers.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke—instead her attention was directed at the kids. She’d begun to smile again.
“Are these all the toys they have?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, except for the stuffed animals. They’re allowed to keep those in their rooms. This is where the rest of the things are kept.”
I guess she was used to it. To me, though, the sparseness of the room made the whole thing depressing. I couldn’t imagine growing up in a place like this.
Jamie and I finally walked into the room, and one of the kids turned around at the sound of our steps. He was about eight or so, with red hair and freckles, his two front teeth missing.
“Jamie!” he shouted happily when he saw her, and all of a sudden all the other heads turned. The kids ranged in age from about five to twelve, more boys than girls. After twelve they had to be sent to live with foster parents, I later learned.
“Hey, Roger,” Jamie said in response, “how are you?”
With that, Roger and some of the others began to crowd around us. A few of the other kids ignored us and moved closer to the television now that there were free seats in the front row. Jamie introduced me to one of the older kids who’d come up and asked if I was her boyfriend. By his tone, I think that he had the same opinion of Jamie that most of the kids in our high school had.
“He’s just a friend,” she said. “But he’s very nice.”
Over the next hour, we visited with the children. I got a lot of questions about where I lived and whether my house was big or what kind of car I owned, and when we finally had to leave, Jamie promised that she’d be back soon. I noticed that she didn’t promise I would be with her.
While we were walking back to the car, I said, “They’re a nice bunch of kids.” I shrugged awkwardly. “I’m glad that you want to help them.”
Jamie turned to me and smiled. She knew there wasn’t much to add after that, but I could tell she was still wondering what she was going to do for them that Christmas.