THE LITTLE ANGEL
A Christmas Story
Two-and-a-half-year-old Betty Pardue waddled to her bed and wrestled herself onto it as her father came behind to tuck her in and sit beside her to help her say her prayers, a task which had befallen him because his wife had taken their older children to the movies.
He was preoccupied and the words which spilled from his lips sounded to him as if they came from far away.
"Hail, Mary . . ."
The little girl studied her daddy's serious countenance, wondering why he was not smiling. He always smiled and tonight, with Baby Jesus and Santa Claus already on their way to visit, there was more reason to smile. Besides he ought to be happy 'cause he was going to New Orleans and everybody in Slidell liked going to New Orleans . . .
"Hail, Mary," she repeated after him.
Charles hardly saw the little girl. Her image was a blurry outline and instead of her he pictured the face of the person he was going to meet in just a little while for that "story" the "office" had asked him to handle special, even though it was Sunday and his day off.
The face was a lovely one, fresh and young and ringed with soft blonde hair.
That "story" idea, he was thinking, had worked so easily. Mary not only had not questioned him about it, she had even suggested what he had planned to suggest that he not worry about trying to drive home afterwards but stay in town. It would be too much to drive the thirty-two miles there and then try to drive back again late at night -- or early in the morning, especially since he had to be at the News again at ten a.m.
"Full of grace . . ." he went on.
The little girl reached out her chubby hand and wrapped her tiny fingers around his thumb.
Incongruously the warmth of her innocent hand reminded him of the warmth of another hand -- not nearly so young. He could still feel the thrill that had gone through him when it first had touched his.
"Blessed art thou amongst women . . ."
Kathy Fuller, he thought, was specially blessed among women too. She was so beautiful, so young, so alive . . . and just what he needed so much after ten years of married life that suddenly had become drudgery. Every day the long ride to town and back. Every day the tour of city hall, which was his "beat" for the paper. Every night the same problems with the kids -- and with the finances. Yes, the job too had been drudgery -- at least until that morning he had first seen KATHY sitting behind the desk in the outer office belonging to one of the city councilmen. Just seeing someone different from the homely, grouchy, tired old lady who had been behind that desk every morning when Charles had made his rounds was relief enough. But when that someone was Kathy . . . and when he found that she was to be a permanent fixture, since the old lady had quit in a huff over some argument the day before -- well, that was something. This councilman's office now became the most important port of call for Charles in his daily rounds in search of stories for the News.
"And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . ." Charles finally remembered to say.
The little girl continued to study him. If Daddy is worried, she thought, Daddy ought to say his prayers too. And she said aloud:
"And bwessed is da froot of dy woon, Gee-Gee . . ."
The incongruity of all of this suddenly occurred to Charles. Him, here, now, helping this little one to say her prayers, wanting her to be good and pure, while all the while he thought only of Kathy and the wonderful things which would happen to them together tonight -- all through the night -- in her apartment on Royal Street in New Orleans' Vieux Carre. What was important to him now was his vanity -- Kathy wanted him and that meant she wanted him because he was an interesting attractive man -- still a young one -- not just because he was her husband, the father of her children and the guy who paid the bills.
"Holy Mary, mother of God . . ."
The little girl was deep in thought. She seemed to be wrestling with her own thoughts and was unconcerned about her father's impatience. He repeated the phrase before she answered.
"Holy Mary, mudder of Gawd . . ."
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Charles was trying to rush her, without having to yell at her. Oh, baby, he said to himself, say 'em, get 'em over with so I can call Kathy to tell her I'm coming.
"Pray for us sinners," Charles went on and the little girl parroted him listlessly.
"Pray for uth thinners . . ."
Yeah, Charles thought, better pray a lot for us tonight. But he knew no matter how they prayed nothing was going to stop him. The date, the promises he had extracted from Kathy in their brief but intense flirtation were powerful lures against which prayer could not prevail.
It was funny, he was remembering, how the whole thing had happened. First there had been the daily exchanges of formal greetings. And then after a little while he had found himself lingering a little longer each day in that particular office -- or finding excuses to make trips there that he had never made before. A reporter could always find some excuse to visit a councilman's office.
They had gotten along well from the start. And then gradually had come the harmless kind of public flirtation that some newspapermen indulge in, kidding along the girls because the girls could be helpful when a reporter needed information. They might even tell where their boss was when he was ducking queries. And suddenly Charles had realized their relationship was more than just the usual . . . that the conversations had begun having their serious -- and exciting -- moments.
Like the time it rained so. Oh, it rains a lot in New Orleans. But there are some days when it really pours. Days that you can remember a long time. And Charles would never forget this one. He had been standing at the window at the side of her desk, waiting for the councilman and watching the large drops splatter against the panes of the big windows in the handsome old building on St. Charles Street that serves as New Orleans's seat of government.
"What're you thinking," she had asked, "about what a beautiful day it is . . . for romance?"
Little things like that. And little things do mean a lot, Charles knew.
And then yesterday the mayor had had his annual Christmas party for ll the city hall workers, and for the members of the press who covered the building. Charles had gone. And so had Kathy. And suddenly he had found himself next to her -- alone with her in the midst of the mob that swirled about. And somehow he had found himself, emboldened by the drinks, telling her exactly how he had felt about her for so long, feeling a little bit foolish about it. But he needn't have, he found out. For he could still hear her soft voice telling him that she had felt exactly the same way and agreeing with him that they would have to find a way to be together alone soon. He'd have gone with her that night, but Kathy told him that she had to go out of town, to visit her family in Opelousas, one hundred and fifty miles away. Just a Christmas visit, but she had to make it cause her mother was ill. But she'd be back Sunday night, unless something happened to prevent her from coming back, like her mother taking a turn for the worse . . . Call her Sunday, she had said, about eight. And then if she had returned, he could drive over at once . . .
Charles caught himself . . . turned back to little Betty.
"Now and at the hour of our death, Amen," he concluded, and as the little girl began to respond at once, Charles started from the room.
"Now and at dour of our debt, Amen."
In a moment he was at the telephone in the hall, dialing long distance. He straightened up and found himself staring into the mirror above the phone table.
The face that stared back at him was passably pleasant. There was plenty of gray at the temples, but the face was unmarked by time.
"Hell," he said, "I'm not old. Forty-five, sure. But I still look young. And that gray hair, like Mary says, just makes me look distinguished. Just prematurely gray."
And he knew that Kathy didn't think him old. After all she had wanted him too. She was meeting him tonight. And for a purpose they both understood.
"Daddy," he heard little Betty calling. "Daddy, boy."
Charles put down the phone, mumbling.
"Now, come on, baby," he said crossly as he returned to her room. "You've got to get to sleep and daddy's got to get ready to go. "What do you want?"
"Daddy," she said, "you porgot somethin'. You porgot to talk to dargian angel."
"You're right," he admitted. "I did forget. Come on now. We'll finish our prayers."
He sat beside her again and said, "Guardian angel, watch over me."
"Dargian angel," the little girl repeated, "watch over me." And Charles started from the room again. He was through the door when he heard her voice again:
"And Dargian angel," she said, "watch over daddy too."
Charles went back to the little girl, took her in his arms, hugged and kissed her and then tucked her in again. She rolled from her back to her stomach and he sat there, unhurriedly patting her little bottom until her eyes closed. Then he walked uncertainly to the telephone . . .
Five minutes later, Mary Pardue and the two older children trooped in. Mary's face registered surprise. Charles was standing there at the phone, which he seemed to have just replaced. He was still dressed in the clothes that he had lounged around in all day.
"Charles," she said, "we hurried. We thought you'd be ready to run as soon as we got in. But you're not even dressed."
Charles gave her a husbandly kiss, hugged the two youngsters and then began piloting them toward their room.
"I'm not going to town after all," he said. "I haven't been feeling well. Probably just indigestion, but I thought I'd better not try to drive in feeling this way, so I called the city desk and asked them to get someone else for the job. You know when a guy gets my age, he's got to be careful . . ."
DELETION FROM EARLIER DRAFT:
In the Vieux Carre apartment of Kathy Fuller the telephone which had been ringing incessantly finally stopped. The only sound then was the crackling fire in the tiny fireplace. And then there was a deep sigh and the young man lying next to her on an afghan in front of the flames said softly:
"Was that the phone, was the phone ringing?"
Kathy pulled him toward her again, whispering:
"Who cares? I'm not expecting any calls . . . and since you walked in Friday night I haven't felt the need to talk to another soul . . . Just relax . . . and kiss me again."
END OF DELETION
Charles followed his wife into the nursery. She wanted to make sure that little Betty was tucked in.
Just then an auto horn sounded somewhere outside. A long blast, like the blast of a trumpet.
Little Betty stirred and rolled over from her stomach to her back. Her face was bathed in soft light that seemed to be coming from a brilliant star just outside the window. And the Pardues noticed that their little angel was wearing a happy smile.