Gracie Burrows

Paul Newton

Sitting under the old oak tree in her front yard was Gracie’s favorite place to daydream. She would sit and watch the people go by until she found herself in that magical place where dreams come true. Christmas was near and all the thoughts in her head centered around opening presents. She could almost touch them in her mind. The purple wrapping paper with a shiny green bow. She could see herself opening it, tearing the paper away revealing the toy underneath. Getting the toy wasn’t Gracie’s real wish; her real wish was for a present, any present.
Getting presents was a very rare occasion in her house. Her mother died when she was six from a severe case of the flu, leaving her father to raise her by himself. He worked full time but was only able to earn enough money to pay the bills and not much more. Every day he went in wearing a starched white shirt and came home brown and wrinkled from a hard days work. In the mornings Gracie liked to sit on his lap and listen to him read the days news from the paper. Sometimes the news was good, and sometimes it was bad, but none of that mattered as long as she got to sit on her father’s lap. Just the sound of his voice was enough to run the worries from her mind. And even though he was exhausted at the end of the day, he would always make time to read to her before she went to sleep. She never once doubted his love for her. Even if she never got any presents.
She would leave for school about the same time her father left for the stables. He would wave to her from his car as she looked out the bus window. She found herself wishing she could be with him as he went to work, instead of going to school. Her days were filled with books and songs, but it was still new to her and she hadn’t quite got the point. She daydreamed there too, but these dreams were of her mother instead of presents. She watched as the mothers stood with their children waiting for the school bus. Some would hug their children goodbye and others would just wave so not to embarrass them. Gracie remembered her mothers face, although it was starting to fade from her memory and she could still smell her soapy perfume. It wasn’t all that good of a smell, but it was her mothers, and that made the fragrance not really matter.

There were fifteen students in Miss Rowan’s first grade class. The seven boys sat on one side of the room and the eight girls on the other. The boys all sat together like one big gang but the girls had already started to form clicks. Amy Huddleston was the leader of the rich group. She had her three friends, Aaron Bailey, Julia Davis and Jessica Riddle. All of them lived in the same neighborhood on the rich side of town. And all of them dressed alike, which amused Gracie to no end. The other four were a loose group of girls that really didn’t do any thing special. Every now and again they would have a sleepover at Elizabeth Boone’s house. It was always the first choice because of the large pond behind her parents home. Gracie had been to one of these but didn’t stay long claiming an upset stomach.
Recess was always a hassle for her. The boys would tease her about her worn clothes. They were the ones her grandmother bought for her at the beginning of last summer. She had three outfits she could wear but they were getting old and didn’t quite fit the way they once did. One day she got so mad at Billy Parker she threw a rock at him. He was teasing her about her worn skirt and said her mother wore combat boots. She didn’t hesitate a second. She picked up that rock and chunked it at him over handed, hitting him in the back. It really didn’t hit that hard, but he still ran away crying to the teacher. Her father was saving to buy her new winter clothes but hadn’t yet saved up enough to buy much of anything. She told him, on many occasions, that she would be happy with some clothing from the second hand store at the church, but he wouldn’t have it. He told her that she was too pretty for old hand-me-downs. She didn’t mind that much any way. She liked her clothes; they were filled with good memories.
After school she would walk home instead of taking the bus. Her father wouldn’t be home for another two hours or so and she didn’t like spending all that time by herself. She could easily shave off an hour if she walked home. Her house was actually just two miles away but it took her an hour because she would always go to the malt shop and read the comic books that were for sale. The shopkeeper, Mr. Turnbow, let her read them as long as she didn’t bend them. Today she found a new copy of Archie and found her usual spot in the last booth. Her feet dangled, still not long enough to reach the floor. As she read she would band her heels on the wooded frame of the seat.
“That’s a good one.” Said Mr. Turnbow from across the room. “They get into a lot of trouble this time.”
“They always get into trouble, don’t they” She said without looking up.
“How’s your dad?
“Oh, he’s doing ok, I guess.” she said.
Billy Turnbow was a burly man. His square face and military haircut made him seem tough as nails. He walked over to the booth and sat down across from her. “Christmas is coming soon, what do you think Santa‘s gonna bring you?”
“My dad already told me that Santa doesn’t exist. He had too because he doesn’t have enough money to buy the presents that I asked for.”
He scratched his chin and looked at the comic she was holding. “I tell you what, you take that comic and go on home. When the next batch comes you can have that one too, ok?”
Gracie looked up at him just as the gigantic grin came across her face. She jumped up from her seat and hugged his neck, the whole time bouncing on her toes.
“Thank you, oh, thank you, Mr. Turnbow!” She kissed him on the cheek and ran out the door as fast as she could, holding the comic in the air like she was waving a flag.
Mr. Turnbow watched as she left with a tear in his eye. He was a veteran of WWII and never once shed a tear. I must be loosing my grip, he thought to himself. He got up to return to his duties behind the counter when his friend, Bernie, spoke up.
“You got something in your eye there, Bill?” He said with a sarcastic smile.
“Shut up you big dummy or I‘ll call in your tab!” Was his reply.
She ran all the way home, her new comic held tightly in her hand. It was a present. A real present. Even though it wasn’t wrapped in paper or came with a bow. It made her immensely happy, so happy that she found herself still crying as she laid down on the living room floor to read it. And read it she did. She must have read it four times before he came home. It was the best thing that she had ever read.
When she showed it to her father his reaction caught her off guard. He wasn’t happy that Mr. Turnbow gave her the comic. He knew Billy well. They had gone to school together and served together in the Army. Bill had always tried to watch out for him in the war and now, he was sure, he was doing it again.
“We can’t take charity, Gracie. It’s just not what we do.”
“But dad, why not. He gave it to me as a Christmas present. He even said that I could have one out of the next batch too. Please dad, I don’t get many things like this. Please.”
“No, Gracie, it’s charity. We can’t accept charity. It’s just not done.” He grabbed the comic and put it on the counter next to the day’s mail.
“Please dad! I want to keep it. I want it. Please, it means a lot to me. Please dad, please.
“No, Gracie, we can’t, we can’t take charity even if we really want it.” With that he moved into the living room and sat down in his worn red chair.
A tear was rolling down her cheek as she ran to his chair and kneeled next to it, leaning on the arm. “But it’s not charity, it’s a present. He gave it to me as a present.” She looked straight into his eyes. Her gaze softened him a little, but not enough to change his mind.
“I’m sorry, that’s just the way it has to be. I’m sorry.”
Gracie wanted to scream, cry and run all at the same time. But she believed her father knew best. She went to the kitchen to take one last look at the book. She stared at it memorizing the colors and its words. She touched it one last time as she started to cry even harder. Its shiny cover felt smooth to her fingers. It was just a book, but it meant more than that to her. It was a present, something she wished for every day as she sat under the tree in her front yard. She ran to her room and laid down on the bed, burying her head in her pillow, trying to hide her sobs.

The noise traveled well in the old house, despite her best efforts to hide it. Her father’s ears perked as he heard the small noises coming from the back of the house. He rose from his red chair and walked to her bedroom door, opening it just enough to peek into the room. He saw his brown-headed daughter lying face down on her bed. He watched as her body shuddered with every muffled sob. He couldn’t understand why the comic book was so important to her. It was just a crummy comic, after all. He had a whole box full of them in the attic. If she wanted to read one she could just look at one of those. He quietly shut the door to her room and walked outside to get a breath of fresh air. Sitting on steps the front porch, he could see the neighbors in their front room decorating a tree. He thought about her last Christmas, not being able to afford any more than one gift, a pair of shoes. She loved them though; she wore then for days, even to bed. They weren’t especially good shoes, so why did she like them? He thought.
He stared up into the sky, admiring the stars above. Thoughts of war entered his mind. He remembered the nights spent on the battlefield wondering if he would ever see his wife and his little girl again. Gracie was only one year old when he was sent to Europe, his wife fought with him about being sent, but there was nothing they could do. “Every man was needed to fight the big fight,” was the answer his lieutenant gave him. He remembered sitting in foxholes and abandoned buildings, thinking about getting a letter from home. But when you’re on the frontlines of a war you don’t get much mail. It was hard to get it to the right person and you didn’t need a postman running around delivering mail when you’re being shelled. There were many times, he remembered, that he would have given his rifle for just a small post card, much less a whole letter.
It had been a while since he gave his daughter a gift, or anything at all, for that matter. He told her about Santa Clause and how he wouldn’t be visiting this year, not because she was bad but because Santa didn’t really exist. He told her that he really bought the presents and that he couldn’t afford to buy any. She took it as well as could be expected. She had already begun to suspect that Santa wasn’t real any way. The present he brought her last year wasn’t wrapped at all. The brown shoebox was just sitting by the window in the front room, not even a bow to top it off. He had been saving to buy her a new dress for months but one flat tire ruined it all. These were the days before radials and ply tires tend to shred when they go flat at high speed. It cost him three dollars for the tow and a new tire and rim that was a dollar more than he had saved. He had to start all over again, saving every penny he could get his hand on. He had a dollar saved for her dress, but it would be spring before he could save enough to buy it. It occurred to him that maybe, all she wanted was a present. That the comic wasn’t as important as he thought it was. It was getting some thing, anything that was important to her. Like getting a letter from his dear sweet wife during the war, which was worth his weight in gold.
“Gracie… Come here!” He shouted from the front porch. He could hear her shoes slowly clumping their way toward the front of the house. He turned to see her coming through the door, her face red and blotchy from crying.
“I know your right dad, I know I can’t keep the comic. Its just…” Her dad interrupted her.
“Gracie come here and sit by me on the steps.” He put her arm around her and pulled her close as she sat. “Have I ever told you about the letters I got while I was in the army?” Gracie shook her head. “We used to move around a lot in Europe. We would either travel by truck or we would just walk. But we never stayed in the same place for very long. Sometimes we would be with other groups of soldiers and some times it would be just the guys in my squad. Well, because we moved around a lot we would never get any mail. We would go for months without words from home. It just wasn’t possible for the Army to get it to us. Anyway, I wished almost every day to get a letter from your momma, I wanted to hear the latest news from home and most especially I wanted to hear about how you were growing. When I finally did get the mail, it was like Christmas. I liked the letters about you especially. Your momma wrote and told me about the first time you stood up and how you cried all night when you were cutting teeth. Those letters were the best things in the world to me. My point is, I realize that you haven’t gotten any presents or any thing else for that matter in a long while. It must be hard not having the same things that the other kids do. So that’s why I want you to keep the comic.” Gracie’s eyes opened and her face began to smile. “And when the next one comes in you can have that one too.”
Gracie wrapped her arms around her father’s neck, squeezing so hard that she made him choke.
“Hey!” her dad said “easy! I’m fragile you know!” He was smiling as big as her now. Gracie jumped up and ran inside the house whooping and hollering the whole way.
“Thank you daddy, thank you, thank you, thank you!” She yelled as she grabbed the comic up and ran into her bedroom to read it once more.