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Monday, November 18, 2019
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Christmas is a number

Doña Helena edged forward in her chair. She felt the tension tightening around her gut and wished once more that her husband Edgardo had changed his mind and accompanied her to the ceremonia. He would have shared the excitement boiling over in her and hugged her understandingly. The family lived in Cotton Tree village, a ten-minute drive away, but Edgardo (or Eddie) had to stay behind to watch the house. It was early December in 2016, and already they had begun their Christmas preparations, having strung some lights, bought a few gifts, and started on the painting.

Helena and four of her five children were in Belmopan for the tree-lighting ceremony. (The fifth, her daughter Belinda, remained at home suffering from a cold.) This was the third year in a row that Helena had gone to witness the lighting, the signal of the official start of the Christmas season in the capital. More than that, though, she hoped to win one of the many prizes given out by the City Council. She typically remembered little of the ceremonies themselves—the songs, speeches (included the Mayor’s), or even the actual lighting of the trees. (She had gone chiefly for the prizes and followed the same routine each year. To secure their seats, she and the children, as did just about everyone else, remained seated during the actual lighting segment.  Unable to see the 30-foot tree from under the tent, they relied on the countdown and the cheering that followed to know that the tree had been lit.)

The year before, 2015, Cecílio, her eldest son, had won a nice black cake. Eddie had told her that there were a lot of bicycles in the raffle this time (as one of the council’s drivers, it was he who took the official to the store for the bikes). How she wanted to win one of them! Belinda, then eight years old, had asked Santa for a bike. Her letter to the jolly saint included a drawing of a little girl watching as three others, her friends presumably, rode by on their bikes with hands uplifted. They were laughing, but the lone girl was crying. Her tears reached the ground. Below the matchstick effigy was the name “Belinda.” Winning one in the raffle would prove that Saint Théresè, the saint’s name given Helena at her christening when she was nine, had answered her prayers.

The second round of raffling had come and gone and her saint had not responded. Crossing herself discreetly, she uttered a quick, silent chaser petition to her heavenly guardian. When the MC, a young man she thought was attired como un payaso (like a joker), took the microphone and announced that there were only two bicicletas (bicycles) left, she shuffled the five tickets in her hand nervously. She whispered to her children to do the same. (There was no limit to the tickets one could get if he or she had some ceremony smarts: simply going to a different official assured one of another ticket!)

I have done my part, she whispered to Saint Théresè.

She had taken the first busito (a small 14-seater bus) from the village, and got to the George Brown Memorial Park early enough to secure their five seats under the big tent. They sat near the center aisle and mid-way down from the stage: experience taught her that if one had a winning ticket, he needed to be able to reach the podium upfront quickly before the “Going Once, Going Twice…” announcement from the MC could end their good fortune. She also knew the tent would be crowded and that seating was never enough as the pageant grew larger each year.

Behind them there was an altercation.

“How could you just tek [take] my chair?” came the anguished cry of a woman pushing a pram. “I just got up to change my baby!”

“You left your seat,” replied an insolent male voice.

Helena looked around and saw it was Claudino, also from the village. He was with a group of women across the aisle and some five rows back. He was not the sort to mess with.

“It was my baby. I had to get up,” pleaded the mother. “You were rude to do that. If my man was here you couldn’t have done that, you thief!”

“Nobody out here owns any chairs!” he shouted back at her. The woman was still clutching the baby in her arms with nowhere to sit.

The woman’s companion who sat next to her had grabbed at the chair when Claudino made for it, but he was stronger; and faster. Helena felt sorry for the mother, but could do nothing. If one of her children had to leave for any reason, she would stack his chair until he returned. She sent off one of them, went through the stacking routine for the lady’s benefit and hoped she noticed. Tree-lighting education!

The last strains of Winter Wonderland drizzled through the loudspeakers, and the MC was back.

“How many of you would like to win a bike tonight?” he asked, holding high a sheaf of papers. Of course that was the only reason they were all there. A needless question. A sprinkling of officials up front grunted politely. The rest of the tent was silent: no need to reply.

“Are you hearing me at the back?” he fairly screamed into the mike.

“No!” came a lone voice.

“That creole man,” said Claudino to his female companions, “heard, but says he can’t hear. Just like the ones at the village! Can’t make up their minds.” They all laughed.

“I don’t think they are hearing me,” said the MC, turning to the technician, unaware that his mike was still open. When the problem was corrected he was back with the same question. A crusty silence greeted him. He pressed on.

“We now come to the last raffle. There are only two bicycles left. This is your chance to win a brand new bicycle for Christmas, 2016,” he announced.  Another little girl was led up the short stairs to the MC who asked her name.
“Génesis,” the child replied. It looked like that was the first time the MC had heard the Spanish name, and he appeared to be tempted to make light of it. But reason triumphed and the little girl pulled a ticket stub.

“And the lucky number is 33331,” he announced. The number was repeated, in English and Spanish. And again in Spanish!

The woman with the baby looked at her ticket: 33331. She had won! Leaving the baby with her friend, she made her way forward to claim her prize.

“Do you see who won?” asked one of Claudino’s entourage.

“It’s a creole woman,” hissed another.

“She looks like the one you took the chair from,” grinned a third.

There was silence for a moment.

“Well now she can sit on her bike instead,” snarled Claudino.

The conversation was ended by the MC who was speaking again.

“Okay,” he crooned into the mike. He shuffled those papers again. “We have one more bicycle. This one was donated by the consulate of México. The city of Belmopan is lucky to have such a good friend who is always ready to …”

The MC went on, heaping praises on our neighbor from the north, but no one listened. Those near to the front who could see the bike commented to neighboring patrons on its beauty; others farther away rose halfway up from their chairs, craning their necks as they tried to get a peek at it. The majority sighed impatiently. As did Helena who was in the middle of another supplication to Théresè. It was almost 9:30 and way past bedtime for her family. People in the village went to bed early and got up with the roosters at dawn.

The child who went to pull the winning number could have been the daughter of a Méxican embassy staffer. The audience became quiet as midnight on an open sea. Everyone made sure he did not miss that all-important final number.

“My name is Magdalena,” she chirped in response to the MC’s query.

Why, that’s Belinda’s segundo nombre (middle name), thought Helena. Surely that has to be a good sign for me.

She crossed herself once more.

The child reached in the sack and withdrew a ticket stub.

“Thank you, Magdalena,” said the MC. “Before you leave the stage, can you tell us what school you go to?”

The reaction from the crowd, tired and bored as they were, was instant. It started by someone near the stage muttering a muffled “Oooh.” In quick order it spread rapidly, like green Kool-Aid added to a mug of water. “Boooo! Boooo!” echoed the refrain. Magdalena may have answered but nobody could hear. Claudino’s voice from the rear rose above the clamor.

“¡El número! Danos el número!” (The number! Let’s have the number!). There was antagonism laced with anger and impatience in his voice.

The MC recovered quickly from the reprimand.

“Christmas is a number for someone here tonight,” he wooed. “Okay, okay!” he mumbled into the mike. The papers no longer accented his profile. “The winning number is 3122016.” He paused expectantly. “Is there a winner?” Another short pause as people checked their tickets. Helena checked hers but it was not there.

“Hurry, kids. Check your tickets,” she urged. But it was no use. None of them had the winning draw. “Check again,” she ordered them, and the desperation in her voice could not be stilled.

“I think we have a winner. Yes, I can see someone coming forward,” announced the MC.

There was just a moment as people waited for confirmation that indeed someone had won.

“Let’s go,” ordered Claudino. The response was immediate. His friends rose, grabbed their ponchos and headed for the exits.

The MC spoke into the microphone. “And now for the final musical selection for the night, we’ll call on the group…”

But he was speaking to a diminishing audience. The people had heard all they came to hear. A thousand hopefuls whose expectations of winning one of the sixteen prizes had been dashed. The busito drivers had already cranked their vehicles, and council workers had begun stacking chairs as purposeful as union workers finishing a shift.

The auditorium was half empty when the Mayor sent a note to the MC who scanned it quickly, then looked up with a wide grin.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he spoke authoritatively, “I have an important announcement from the Mayor.” In their rush, people did not hear nor were they interested any longer in what was happening under the tent. They continued to their busitos. So did Helena.

“His worship the Mayor has just informed me that the consular representative of the Republic of China-Taiwan has offered a bike for our final raffle tonight. Please remain seated while we proceed to the draw.” In the din, people continued towards the exits and workers continued to stack. At that point the technician turned up the volume.

“This is our final item before we have the singing group close the program,” the MC blasted the news. Busitos continued to roll away. “We don’t have the bike here,” he cautioned. “The winner will have to present his or her ticket to the store and collect it.” A few patrons who were on their way out, stood where they were. Their chairs were already snagged by the cleaning crew and added to the stacks which by then dotted the arena all around them.

“And what’s your name dearie?” enquired the MC tiredly.

“LaToya Beatty, Sir” replied the girl with her stubby Bantu knots. More engines along the roadway roared to life.

“Pick a number, will you?” the MC said brusquely. The child reached in and gave him the stub she had selected.

The female quartet, in their colorful gowns and led by their self-assured leader, moved discreetly onto the stage. Everyone had grown weary of this tree-lighting: a two-hour program that started late was then into its third hour and running way too late for the kids.

“The winning number, and please remember that this is a surprise gift from our friendly Taiwanese emissary, is 3331855. Is there a winner?” asked the emcee. No one in the thinned-out audience indicated there was. The situation at that time was different from earlier on when there was a tent full of patrons and it could take a while to spot the holder of a winning ticket. That no one acknowledged having the ticket was immediately evident the winner was not there. Nevertheless, to be quite sure, the question was asked again, and like before, there was no hand raised.

“If there’s not a winner then…” The MC was going into his raffle-closing routine when the mayor held up an open palm cutting him off. A hurried exchange took place between His Worship and his deputy who then approached the platform and wagged the MC over.

The MC smiled broadly at the mayoral pair, and spoke.

“As there is not a winner present,” he said, “we think it’s only fair, and the donor has agreed, to let whoever it is that has the winning ticket get the chance to redeem their prize. Ticket holders need to call the council’s office next week to get information about the winning number. Now let’s hear from the ladies.”

The remaining patrons, tired and disappointed, began to leave. The workers moved in to finish their job, noisily stacking the few remaining chairs and talking loudly about what they would do with the rest of the weekend. When the young, talented soprano hit the high notes in Schubert’s Ave Maria with sustained tremolos, it was only a handful of officials and family members who heard her.

Eddie met his family at the bus stop. He didn’t have to ask whether Helena had won a bicycle: she didn’t have it, and her downcast appearance, even in the dull glow of the street light confirmed the sad news.

¡Maldita sea! (Damn!) he said to himself.

To her, he whispered brightly, “I’m sorry, darling. Maybe next year we’ll be lucky.”

The four boys had quickly gone ahead in the darkened path. She smiled weakly. With businesslike resolve she said, “We need to get a bike for her in less than three weeks, not next Christmas. She’ll be so disappointed.” Her sigh was audible.

Edgardo hugged her companionably.

“Maybe we can find an excuse that she’ll understand. Santa didn’t get the letter, you know, too much snow; or his workshop had too many requests for bikes this year.” Helena remained quiet. “Oh, I get it,” he chirruped as they continued towards their thatched bungalow. “We could tell her that Santa was jacked when he…”

“Or,” she cut him off, “we could tell her that butterflies don’t have wings.” He sensed her frustration and took away his arm. Belinda was Helena’s prized child. He knew that. No guesswork. They spent so much time together; she was always cooking Belinda’s favorite meals; ever so attentive to her tiniest of demands.

“Can’t we borrow the money, or buy it on credit?” she asked, but she already knew the answers. They were still paying for the new stove they had bought a year before. Luckily, the credit company had waived the December payment. And Cecílio, who was in high school, needed a technical drawing set and the accessories by the time school reopened.

“I wish we could, Helena, but you know how…”

“Yes, yes,” she cut him off again. They were nearing the house. Nearby a neighbor’s radio was playing softly: “…All is calm, all is bright…” She put out her hand and stopped him.

“I’m sorry Eddie! I do love you,” she whispered. “You’re a good man and you do the best you can.” She hesitated. “Let’s not have the children see us like this.” She smiled up at him. “We’ll find a way.” She felt for the then useless tickets in her purse and dropped them in the garbage drum near the gate.

In his agitation and anxiety over their diminished prospects he did not see nor hear the single sob that escaped her.

“Put out the garbage will you, Eddie?” she asked when they entered the house. “There’s some soured beans and rotten bananas that will have the house smelling badly by tomorrow morning.”

That night Eddie did not sleep well. At first, when sleep eluded him he tried counting—sheep, stars and finally began counting from 100 backwards. Still he remained wide awake, his mind going back again and again to the problem of getting that bicycle for Belinda. There was no solution. The music from the village bar remained an annoying backdrop to his restlessness. He dismissed an idea of seeking help from his brother-in-law in Teakettle Village: Helena would not forgive him for resorting to Gildardo for a loan after the way his wife had gone on about it the last time they did that.

Finally, when he did fall asleep, it was to tormenting dreams. The one that left him in a real sweat had Belinda getting her bike on Christmas morning, but as she mounted it, the gift she asked Santa for became an out-of-control bronco.

Papá! Papá! She screamed over and over, “Get me down; get me down! I can’t ride it!” Helena did not feel the thumping sounds he made, tossing about the bed until he awakened and was freed from his torment.

The mood was somber when the family sat for breakfast the following morning. Bing Crosby could be heard dreaming of a White Christmas from the radio playing softly in the living room. The phone rang..

“Hello?” Eddie had risen and gone to the living room to take the call. After listening a moment he said, “Yes! This is he!” Helena and the children continued eating, not having any interest in the phone conversation. But as he spoke he became more agitated, and when he uttered Increible! (Incredible!). They all turned towards the living room. “Say that number again, please?” He wrote on a pad, cradled the phone and was on his way back to his breakfast.

“Who was it?” asked Helena, thinking that someone had called to give him a would-be lucky number to buy for the lottery drawing later that morning. Eddie was a regular buyer of the weekly lottery. He and his friends shared what they considered the lucky numbers to buy of a Sunday.

He did not answer. Instead there was just the hint of a frown as he re-entered the dining room.

“Where are the tickets you had from the ceremonia last night?” he asked Helena.

“In the garbage can where I threw them when we got home,” she replied. “Why?” she asked, surprised.

“That was Claudino,” he replied. “He got a call earlier from one of the cleaners who told him this morning there was another draw after you all left last night.” He paused for emphasis. “No one at the meeting claimed it!”
Helena was silent for a moment.

“It is too late now to claim the prize anyhow,” she pointed out. “The MC would have closed the drawing then,” she sighed, bemoaning a possible lost opportunity. Eddie grinned and she resented his insensitivity. But then he spoke again.

“That’s not so,” he puffed. “The donor wanted to make sure the winner got the prize.” He then explained the arrangements agreed on to make that happen.

Helena brightened, but then she remembered the tickets. Turning first to Cecílio, then to the others in turn, she asked them what they had done with theirs. There were moments of remorse as they each said they had thrown theirs away through the windows of the busito as it sped towards the village. All that remained then were hers. Outside in the garbage. Everyone forgot breakfast. In a moment they were huddled around the drum as Eddie reached in, searching for the tickets.

“How many were there?” he asked, rummaging about in the fruit peel, malodorous souring beans and the stench of rotting, week-old garbage.

“Five,” she replied hopefully.

“I’ve got three. Here they are.” He passed them to Helena and returned to the search. “One more to go,” he said, passing the fourth to her.

At that moment, their neighbor Don Francisco had just stepped out the back door of his renovated hacienda with a bag of trash. He was a retired policeman and with his wife, a nurse, also retired, had recently returned from the USA after a fifteen-year sojourn. For a moment he stood transfixed, unable to look away from the scene playing out before him. Eddie was bent over digging in the trash as his family looked on. He saw his neighbor reach up and give Helena something which she took eagerly. The don remained an instant longer before quietly re-entering his house.

“Christina,” he said to his wife, “you wouldn’t believe what those disgusting neighbors are doing.” His American accent was clipped and strong. “Go take a look,” he urged her. Christina looked through her favorite window to the world just in time to see Helena receiving the last of her fouled tickets.

“How absolutely obnoxious!” she said, moving away. “What kind of example is that for their young children to be seeing?”

With the last of the discarded tickets in hand, Helena asked: “What was that number you got from Claudino?”
“Let’s go back inside,” urged Eddie. “I wrote it down on the pad.”

“3,3,3,1,8,5,5.” Eddie was holding up the notepad calling out the numbers slowly. Before he took his eyes from the sheet, Helena shouted: “I have it! We have the winning number. ¡Gracias a Dios! And thank you Théresè.” She crossed herself excitedly.

“What did you win, Mamá?” enquired Belinda, not realizing the significance to her of the winning ticket.

“She won a…” piped up Cecílio, but he was instantly shushed by Helena.

“That’s the big secret,” she said darkly. “We really won’t know for a couple of weeks.”

“Okay, Mamá,” Belinda began, but a fit of sneezing cut off what she was about to say. When the spell had passed she took her mother’s hand.

“I’m glad you had the number, Mamá!

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