Wrestling an Angel
I was on the road to ruin, Ma said, because I let the devil bend my ear. Listening to him meant I was a surly, shiftless no-count (Ma again), and I’d better straighten up and fly right if I wanted a ticket to the big playoff game for Christmas.
Straightening up and flying right meant, no kidding, listening to my angel, since Ma believed that, just like everybody else in the world, her bad son Roy had two voices at his disposal, good and bad, and all I had to do was stop a second when I was in the middle of one of my rotten spells (a too regular occurrence in her book) and my devil would hightail it when he heard the sound of my angel’s celestial voice.
This from the woman who said I was too old to believe in Santa Claus.
“You mean you got an angel carrying on in one ear and a devil blabbing away in the other, and all it comes down to is how you cock your head?” My friend Hannigan hooted when he heard this story. “Which side do you figure your devil’s on?”
We’d just got back to my house from 7-Eleven, where I’d wheedled the lady behind the counter out of free sodas by doing my imitation of the ancient movie star John Wayne. She loved the Duke, and I was good at voices, so all I had to do was say, “Howdy, Miss Elaine,” and tip my pretend hat, and she’d fall to pieces. I glugged my soda and read the note Ma had left.
MAKE TWENTY CALLS WITHOUT FAIL! the note shouted. THE FOOD DRIVE ENDS TOMORROW! And, for good measure, REMEMBER, CHRISTMAS IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER!
“I figure the devil’s on the left,” Hannigan said, “since you’re left-handed. That’s why your poor old angel over there on the right just rides along not saying nothing. He sleeps a lot. I could knock him clean off, if you want.”
Hannigan was like me, he didn’t have a father around. But he was luckier in that his mother never talked to him about angels. His mother hardly talked to him at all.
“Course you might need the fellow,” Hannigan added, reading Ma’s note, “since you got to do a good deed if you’re coming with me to the game.”
I shrugged like it was no big deal, but Hannigan was right. That ticket was expensive, and I had to rely on Ma’s good graces to get it. So after putting it off as long as I could, I finally picked up her list and started dialing.
The trouble was, if my angel seemed tongue-tied to start with, he was downright mute with Hannigan watching. After a couple of straight calls where Hannigan listened and rolled his eyes, I guess I must have heard that old reliable devil whispering, because I started clowning around with the poor saps on the other end, giving them my drum-rolling DJ voice and pretending that if they answered this one simple question right, why they’d win a hundred dollars, just in time for Christmas!
Some of the suckers actually said that, yes, their refrigerator was running.
“Then you’d better go catch it!” I’d smirk and slam down the phone.
It was a dumb joke, but it made Hannigan laugh in his one-sided way, which obligated me to make him laugh some more. Only the next time, I don’t know what came over me, I changed my pitch. I threw my voice up a couple octaves and choked it off, like gravel down a washboard, until I sounded like an old man.
“Hello?” my old man voice said in a Mrs. Jones’ ear. “Is this Mrs. Jones?” I consulted Ma’s list. “Mrs. Edna Jones?”
“Who are you to ask? Why are you bothering me?” Whew, talk about having a devil on your shoulder. This old lady was what Ma would call crotchety with a capital C. I took a breath and kind of rose to the challenge.
“It’s me, Edna. Jimmy Jones,” I said. Hannigan’s eyes bugged.
“What kind of joke is this?” Edna had a voice that poured all over you and stuck.
“No joke,” I said instantly. “My name is Jimmy Jones, and I’m looking for somebody who’s my kin, and all I know is her name is Edna Jones. She’s on my mother’s side of the family. Twice removed. Were you born here?”
“No,” Edna snapped. “What’s it to you?”
“Edna, you never heard of genealogy? The family tree?”
“Go bark up another one, fella,” she advised. “I know your game.” Boy, was she a tough old bird. “Georgia sent you, didn’t she?” she added. “You tell her that’s my inheritance. Mine!”
“I don’t know any Georgia.” I made my own old voice waver mightily, and Hannigan shook his head with admiration.
“Georgia is not getting it back, I tell you!” Edna screeched. “It’s mine!”
“OK, Edna, OK,” I said. “Merry Christmas to you, too. Seems like everybody these days is just too busy to help an old man out. Even if it is the season.” I rubbed my knuckles across the receiver to mimic hanging-up noises.
“Wait!” she said suddenly. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Jimmy.” I sent my voice down a peg.
“Adele had a Jimmy, didn’t she?”
“That’s me.” My heart started to beat a little faster. What were the chances?
“You don’t say. From Flagstaff? You sure you don’t know Georgia?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Edna calmed down. “What’re you doing way out here in California, Jimmy?”
“I been here a decade, Edna. Got my by-pass in San Francisco and never went back.” I was making this up as I went along, a trick that comes with the voices. I told her how my wife was gone so it was just me now, all on my own at Christmas. Just looking for a little family, I said. ’Tis the season. Hannigan’s eyes were about to pop out of their sockets.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you, Jimmy,” Edna apologized. “I just had my surgery and them pain pills make me snarl. You really Adele’s boy?”
“Do I sound like a boy, Edna?”
She cackled at that, and we were on a roll. The only trouble was, I didn’t know how to stop the wheels. I was doing such a good job as an old man I nearly convinced myself I was Jimmy Jones, and I forgot the joke about the family tree I was going to use to trip Edna up. Even Hannigan’s jumping around doing his monkey imitation couldn’t make me lose my Jimmy voice.
Edna and I talked about all sorts of things. How her husband died twenty years ago and her kids had moved away. How there was nobody, not even a neighbor that she could count on in times like these, with her surgery and all. I might not have wings, but even my grubby little devil, after listening to Edna a while, knew it’d be kind of mean to admit I’d played a trick on her now. No, he warned, do your Ma proud and perpetrate the hoax.
Unfortunately, Ma didn’t see it that way. Edna and I were still gabbing when she appeared in the doorway. Ma is a big, no nonsense kind of woman, and with her arms slapped together and her eyes squinted at me, it was like looking at a lifeguard who’d just decided to let her swimmer drown.
“Uh, I got to go now, Edna,” I choked. “Somebody here needs the phone.”
“Say, Jimmy.” Edna wasn’t taking this lying down. “Why don’t you come on by here, let me have a"—she hesitated—"a look at you.”
“I haven’t seen any kin for years, Jimmy. It would mean a lot to me.”
“Uh, we’ll see Edna, we’ll see. I don’t drive no more and there’s no money for a taxi.” Ma’s glare had not only decided to let me drown, it was holding me under.
“Money, pooh, I’ve got money. Forget what I said earlier. I still have that inheritance. I never even used it. It doesn’t belong to me, really. Just don’t tell that to Georgia.” She cackled. “Say, you being family, I ought to give it to you.”
“Whoa, now, Edna.” Jimmy was losing his gravely washboard voice, held under so long.
“What, you don’t have things you could use a little money for?”
I coughed because Jimmy was momentarily speechless.
“Seventeen Sticks Drive, Jimmy. You could come tomorrow. It’s Christmas Eve,” she added. Edna was as good a wheedler as me.
“I don’t know, Edna,” I croaked, “but I got to go.”
Too late. Ma was already coaxing the story out of Hannigan when I hung up, and I’d no sooner set the receiver down than she had me by the ear, yanking me so hard I’m sure my devil and my angel both had to hang on for dear life.
She obviously thought my angel was asleep, like Hannigan said, because she was screeching loud enough to wake the dead. “You are worse than your father ever thought of being!” she yelled. “Him and his pyramid schemes and welfare scams and telephone hustles were nothing compared to you!” She whumped me upside the head a couple of times and then delivered the real blow. “You’re grounded into next year!”
“But Ma, the game!” I protested, catching a glimpse of Hannigan’s mirthful face as she pushed him outside and shut the door. She turned back to me, sorely disappointed.
“And furthermore, tomorrow you are going over to that poor woman’s house and apologize. Making her think the two of you were related. That’s enough sin to leave you rotting in hell, Roy Clarke. The devil has got his hooks in you deep, all right!”
He couldn’t have had as good a hold on me as she did, corkscrewing my ear so hard my whole body followed. “But Ma, Edna thinks I’m this old guy! She won’t know who I am!”
“She will once she gets a look at you. She’ll know you for the liar you are.”
“That’s plain mean, to let her down that way,” I whimpered.
“You should have thought of that before you tricked her.”
She had me there, only there was just one problem. The minute Ma had started talking about me going to Edna’s, my devil had started working up a scam. It was all that talk about inheritance money. “Don’t you have things you could use a little money for?” Edna had asked. Boy, did I. Talk about temptation. And Ma was putting me right in its path. How hard would it be to pass myself off as Jimmy’s just-arrived-for-Christmas nephew, sent in his stead since Jimmy’s heart had taken a turn for the worse. I even had a nephew voice I could pull out of my repertoire.
“You don’t want me going over there, believe me,” I warned Ma. But there was never any talking to her once she made up her mind. She was immovable, like those presidents chiseled in the rock at Mt. Vernon. She thought that if I wasn’t listening to my angel, she’d go ahead and put the fear of God in me until I did.
Which is how I found myself standing on Edna’s porch on Christmas Eve, smelling some pathetic cedar branches duct-taped to the door. Ma had me in her sights from the car, waiting, “Until hell freezes over if I have to,” she’d said, so what could I do? I knocked, heard Edna’s stick-to-you voice say, “Come in,” and turned the knob.
And even if old devilish Roy felt a little pinch of guilt, thinking of putting a lie on top of a lie, there was Ma, glued to the spot for the duration. Just by the feel of her eyes on the back of my head, I knew she wasn’t going to give me any ticket to the playoff game. So I stood fast.
“Come in,” Edna said again.
I cleared my throat and practiced my Jimmy’s nephew voice—sincere and a little sanctimonious—and opened the door.
I could see her in the kitchen, with her back to me, but even so I could tell right off my nephew ploy wasn’t going to work. Edna Jones was a black woman, and I had skin the color of the inside of a clamshell. I was backing out of the house, Ma or no Ma, when the old lady turned her face my way and I stopped. Edna was blind!
Well, that explained her hesitation about wanting to see me. She wasn’t going to do any seeing for now, with both her eyes patched. Two big white cups were taped to her face like a mummy’s eyes, which must have been the result of the operation she’d talked about.
“Jimmy?” she called, “that you?” Her chin bobbed.
“It’s me,” my Jimmy voice answered, gravel falling down its washboard before I could stop it.
“You sound awful short.”
“Got arthritis,” I shot back. “It crumples me up some.”
“You must have inherited that from Uncle Paul’s side. Ended up like a bunch of gnomes, every last one of them.”
“Well, thanks, Edna.” I was kind of offended at that, for Jimmy’s sake.
“Oh, shut the door and come on in here. Don’t pay any attention to me, it’s the medicine.”
I glanced back at Ma with a look like I imagined a prisoner would have on his way to execution, smiled to myself, and shut the door.
“I’ve fixed us something to eat,” Edna was saying.
“Now, don’t you go to any trouble,” I warbled.
“Nonsense, it’s no trouble,” Edna shot back. “You’re family.”
I looked around quick. The place was pathetic. A rickety couch and dirty windows, frayed rug. Now, I’m not much for the fake glamour people put on at Christmas, but geez, if you’re going to decorate, you should at least do a good job. Edna had somehow got herself a measly, one-sided tree, and had hung a couple of mopey ornaments here and there, which if you asked me was worse than if she hadn’t tried at all. To top it off, a battered Santa clock hung crooked on her kitchen wall.
Edna herself wasn’t in much better shape. She wore slippers with frayed fronts that opened and shut like mouths, so when she shushed around the gums went flapping. And her dress had that old-lady droop and her sweater was inside out. Worse yet, her white hair stuck up like electric shock.
It was a discouraging sight altogether, and I heard myself say, “Er, Edna, about us being family—”
Was it my fault Edna wasn’t paying attention?
“Oh!” I heard a thunk and saw her jump as a carton hit the floor. “Darn it! There goes the eggnog.” She looked deflated, fumbled until she had hold of a kitchen chair, and slid down into it. She put her chin on her fist and the cups on her eyes roved over the food on the table, two lopsided sandwiches and a bowl of fruit that looked like she’d hack-sawed it. Her fist moved up to her forehead above the mummy patches.
“I can’t do a thing like this,” she moaned, socking her head.
“I got it under control, Edna.” I went and picked up the carton. “It didn’t even spill.”
“Some holiday dinner, huh, Jimmy? Sit down.” Edna opened her hands across the table, her bandages looking right at me. I sat, but not close enough for her to touch me or anything. Finally, she lowered her hands.
“I bet Adele used to put out a good spread. I bet you miss your mama at Christmas time.”
“Oh, not as much as you’d think, Edna.” I lifted a crooked sandwich and took a bite—Spam, what Ma called a poor man’s baloney. “This sure is nice. But you don’t have to feed me. Not in your condition.”
“I never knew a Jones man yet who couldn’t eat. Even the short ones. Cornea trouble.”
“I only did them both at once to save money.”
“Geez, Edna.” She was killing me.
“Now, what did you want to tell me, Jimmy?”
That made me choke on my Wonder Bread. “What?”
“You said you had something to explain about being family, when you came in.”
So, she was paying attention. “Why don’t we just have a nice chat? I got a joke that—”
“Cut to the chase, Jimmy. I’m not blind.”
I sure hoped so.
“She sent you, didn’t she? Georgia sent you.” At the name Georgia, Edna snarled like she had on the phone. “She’s even gotten to my family!”
“I told you before, I don’t know any Georgia.”
“Well, it’s the last straw, Jimmy. The last straw.” Edna leaned back and fumbled for the pocket in her inside-out sweater. This was it, I thought, she’s going to try and deck me. I braced myself for a rock or a rolling pin.
Instead, she yanked out a big fat envelope and slapped it on the table, hard. “Just take it! I don’t care! Give it to her if you want. I’ve had enough.” Around her mummy patches, Edna looked winded.
I stared at the envelope, and my eyes bugged. It wasn’t sealed, and some greenbacks poked out. It was like Christmas a day early, seeing all that money, and my devil got on his knees and prayed. “What’s that, Edna?”
“Oh, don’t play dumb, you know what it is. The inheritance. It’s yours. You can have it.” She pushed the envelope my way.
That grubby rat on my shoulder jumped up and did a jig. Grab that envelope and run! Playoff game! Ticket money for the rest of your life! the little blackguard yelled. Riches were so close I could smell the grit on those greenbacks.
What could I do? My hand snaked out.
DOn’t YOU TOUCH THAT! My hand froze and I looked around. Edna’s mummy eyes were waiting. The battered Santa clock struck 11 by playing the opening notes to “Jingle Bells.” Who was that?
It couldn’t be. Not him. Not now.
“Why would you want to give that to me, Edna?” I said, feeling a little shaken. “You look like you could use some money around here yourself.” The clock stopped singing “Jingle Bells,” and I thought maybe I’d been hearing things, that it hadn’t been my angel piping up after all, but some trick of those chimes. Besides, the whole idea of angels and devils was ridiculous, anyway.
“Let me tell you why, Jimmy.” Edna’s electric hair rose up a notch. “Because it doesn’t belong to me, not really.” She’d perfected the art of looking at me through her bandages, old Edna, and it made me edgy.
“No?” I said.
“It’s from Mr. Clay, like I said. But it was meant for my friend Sarah. She was the one that helped him. Her and her good deeds. Always ready to lend a hand. Always smiling, always cheerful. So when she came upon Mr. Clay, a perfect stranger, sick at the bus stop like that, what did she do? She found him a ride, got him home, rescued him. And on Christmas Eve, too.”
“That was a nice touch.”
“Mr. Clay thought so. Said Sarah knew the real spirit of giving. So he leaves this cash to her. Only she’s already passed on. And what do I do? I go claim it. We looked a bit alike, you see. I thought nobody would know the difference.”
Whew, she was a piece of work all right.
“Trouble was, his daughter Georgia, she figured it out. And she’s been hounding me ever since.”
“I know, Jimmy, I know. Why do you think I’ve never been able to use it? Georgia’s right. It doesn’t belong to me.”
She shoved the envelope at me again. “So take it. Please. I don’t want it anymore. Blood money, that’s what it is. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Edna, I—” I stared at that envelope, helpless. It was all true, what Ma said, I did have a devil and an angel, one on each shoulder trying to bend my ear. I knew this for a fact since right then they were both using crowbars to do the bending, cranking open my ear canals and shouting clear into my brain matter.
“What is it, Jimmy?” Edna looked angry, under her patches. “You don’t want it either? I don’t blame you. It sits heavy on your chest.”
You could buy more than tickets with that money! my devil bellowed.
But Edna needs it! my angel sang. She could have a real Christmas tree. She could have a nice dinner. She could have one eye fixed at a time!
“Jimmy,” Edna cut in. “I can see you’re a good man. I can see you don’t want to do it, take money from an old lady. But yesterday I was thinking, all your talk about how lonesome you were and down in the dumps, not even enough money for a taxi. Isn’t this just what you need? It’ll perk you up.
“Besides,” she added slyly, “if I was to do you a good turn, then maybe I’d get out from under my own shenanigans. Truth is, it’s been weighing on me, Jimmy.”
It was weighing on me, too, and had turned into a knockdown drag-out between the horns and the halo, which had by this time scaled my skull and were duking it out overhead.
And then there was Edna, with her mummy eyes and electric hair and hacked-up fruit, calling me a good man. It gave me an eerie feeling, like I could see into my future when I really would be a man, and what kind of man that would be.
“Edna,” I said slowly. “Do you suppose Georgia needed that money?”
Edna sighed. “Mr. Clay left her plenty, Jimmy. But that’s not the point. What matters is what you do yourself, know what I mean?”
Unfortunately, I knew exactly what she meant.
“Listen, Edna,” I said, none to happy to say it. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“Oh?” The mummy patches got a wary tilt.
“But if you let me explain, you’ll be doing a good deed for a stranger right this minute.” I meant Ma, out in the car waiting for hell to freeze over.
“Explain then,” Edna demanded.
I cleared my throat. This called for my real voice, which wasn’t easy, considering. There was my devil up top reeling from the blows, and my angel gleefully calling out what I could do. Rearrange the mopey ornaments, clean the kitchen, cook Edna something decent to eat. You could even convince her that her friend would want her to keep the money.
“No need to go hog wild," I told the halo, but it was like Ma always said, give ’em an inch and they take a mile.