Activists walk up to Sweet Pea on the sidewalk and with garlicky breath explain that the Salvation Army is an organization that traffics in hate; those coins clinking in that little metal kettle aren’t putting poor kids in clean khakis, they’re funding the beheadings of gays in Uganda and the purchases of tiny drone helicopters used to buzz abortion clinics.
Hipsters ask her if they can pay with their phones. They think they are showing off. Sweet Pea tells them to go to the website and donate there.
Ignatz shambles back and forth and tells her don’t she look mighty ho-ho-ho ringing a bell for the Sally.
He wants to dip his hand in, enough to get a cocoa.
Eliminatin’ the middle man, he says.
Be stealin’ from the Lord’s work, Sweet Pea tells him.
The Lord know I freezin’, baby!
Most of the shoppers come from out of town, nostalgia fiends. They are sweet. They come for the skate pond (bank-sponsored, tween-crowded) and the homemade candy shop (overpriced, tween-crowded) and the oldtimey department store with an honest-to-goodness Christmas display in the window and a creaky escalator and a women’s department that caters to tiny old ladies but not the twenty-first-century girl raised on beef and grits. Nostalgia fiends also love giving money to the Sally, and soon enough one of them—fedora and Flexible Flyer and genteel like Bing Crosby—asks Sweet Pea how she takes her coffee. Her guard is up. Who are these men assuming a chick wants to be taken care of? They do it North and South. But then the man emerges from the co-op with a fresh cup, steam rising through the lid-hole, and a handful of sugar packets and a hot blackberry scone in a little bag with a napkin. He plinks the change in the kettle and says Merry Christmas, which she cannot return because her mouth is full of scone.
Ignatz stands off a ways with his head cocked as though to say, I see how the light shines on you.
The only things she misses about Texas are places to get real pulled pork (bless their hearts, the attempts they make up here) and men who don’t gawp at chicks who drive pickup trucks.
What she doesn’t miss: rattlesnakes, football as a religion, sad bookstores, dumb boys and their paws, fat whores in honky-tonks asking where she was born.
You couldn’t make her go back, not even on this, the coldest day of the year. People have to keep moving. Much like a beggar, Sweet Pea’s business is about visibility. She leverages the parking meters. Out-of-towners fish for change at the curb, even though parking on Main is free through December. They gripe to fill in the space. Sweet Pea waits until they have their coins out to tell them about the free parking, at which point they may as well give their money to a good cause.
She works for a few minutes at a time. A couple weeks’ worth of casing clued her in that the tripod is left there for the next ringer, who can’t always be counted on to show up. So she rigged herself a kettle out of a metal planter and a wire hanger and applied three coats of Krylon Safety Red at her dorm desk, the paint seeping through the newspapers she had spread out, onto the laminate and corkboard, as though a slaughter had taken place. Even with the window open, Quinn complained about the fumes.
The bell came from Walmart, $6.98 plus tax. The Santa hat, stolen after the guy wearing it—someone’s cock-blocked ex visiting from Bentley—had passed out in the common room.
Another thing Texas doesn’t have: outdoor ice skating. She and Quinn went to the temporary rink the week it opened, just before Thanksgiving break. A bunch of other kids from the U had gone as well and soon they took over the place, roughhousing in front of the pissed-off townie moms, hip-checking anyone who got close. It turned out that Quinn could skate—she skated competitively as a girl, she said, and she twirled and glided amongst the bodies, not needing to look where her feet were. Sweet Pea looked on with her knees locked, until Quinn came over and took her by the hand.
Don’t think, she said. Bend into the turn.
Counterclockwise they went with the flow of the other skaters, a blur of faces watching them from the perimeter, making three laps before Quinn steered them into a corner of the rink, pinning Sweet Pea against the boards and kissing her on the lips, just above the fold of her scarf. Quinn’s tongue slid down Sweet Pea’s throat like honey tea. The moms yanked their children away.
The first thing Ma and Pop did when they visited that one weekend in late September was go and buy sweatshirts at the campus shop because it was so cold, Henny Penny, how can you stand it? Bought a decal for the car window, too. They were nice to Quinn, inviting her to join them for dinner since her own folks hadn’t made the trip from Westport. Sweet Pea had to talk Ma and Pop away from Cracker Barrel and toward a real restaurant with ingredients sourced from local farms.
Pop had never been this far North. He couldn’t help but comment on all the bike racks and feminist bumper stickers and shops selling clothes made of hemp.
Then, later, when the three of them were alone: You get along? The roommate?
Sure, definitely. Quinn’s a peach.
You go to parties together? You know not to go alone? And don’t drink from a cup that’s been handed to you?
Pop. They tell you that the first day
Ma wants to know about boys. What happens when one of you . . . you know? I heard this is something that happens. On the news they called it sexile.
It’s not a big deal, Ma. You work it out.
It’s just, from what little I gathered, Quinn seems . . . severe.
Sweet Pea didn’t ask her what she meant. Ma was slippery with her code words. Severe could mean tiny, athletic, unfeminine; it could mean metropolitan, possibly cruel. Quinn knew how to be with a girl. At the time, Sweet Pea had only woken up in Quinn’s bed once or twice, their legs warm, Quinn’s fingers grazing her scalp. They would murmur their dreams, nudge toward something of a plan: drop out together, escape these city phonies, work on a farm in the spring, adopt a puppy. There were towns where they let you keep goats without a permit. To the north, lumberjacks and maple tappers, and to the west, artisan woodshops and glass blowers, and in all directions, depending on the time of year, corn stands and pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms. Sweet Pea had her truck. They would fit right in.
Sweet Pea stopped going to class. She worked a few weeks in a yarn store before she was fired for getting mouthy with a customer. Now, in December, campus feels unwelcoming, with finals and rape dramas and kids in wool pajamas having snowball fights, and even Quinn’s camped out in her bunk with a mug of Teavana and her Organic Chem textbook open like she’s making a go for real.
I’m amazed they haven’t arrested you yet, Quinn says.
Arrest me for what, Honey Pie? No crime gettin’ people to be nice to you. Better it go to us good folks than the hate.
It’s not you they’re being nice to, Sweet. All about people’s egos. Then, after a moment: Have you eaten anything?
Have a Luna bar, they’re in my crate.
This with Quinn sitting on her meal points. They could splurge, the two of them. It has been icy since the day Sweet Pea sold her books. And now, another sign that Quinn is rooting in: she has strung colored Christmas lights in the room, threading them through the ceiling tiles.
Sweet Pea doesn’t know how Quinn can stand living with lousy baseboard heat and judgmental toxic sluts and one community bathroom serving eight residents and fire alarms pulled in the dead of night. Even now Sweet Pea is cold; this whole scene is cold. What she would like is to climb in and get warm with her girl, but there’s Chemistry in the way.
If she’s learned one thing in her short time here, it’s how many frauds there are in the world. Independent feminists who turn out to be the neediest bitches you ever met, melting into puddles as soon as the apple of their eye hooks up with another flavor. Princesses crying harassment when profs catch them plagiarizing papers. Then there are the guys, all complicated pieces of work, passing you a Solo cup and keeping an arm around your shoulder like they’re looking out for you. Fake cops who never met a lady who knew how to jump-start a car (twice this semester), then talk you down like you’re owed it. It takes a certain kind. The same kind that gets off when they’re offended, like it’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to them.
We might have a lead on a squat, Sweet Pea says. Ignatz says there’s one above the Indian restaurant. Imagine, Honey Pie! You and me getting through winter warmed by the aromas of curry and hard work.
Why would I want to live with Ignatz? Quinn says. Ignatz is an addict. He’s looking for people to bring down, Sweet.
There are messages for Sweet Pea. Bursar’s office. Shrink. Ma, in Laredo. Bianca, at Georgetown Law. Quinn takes them down neatly on a Hello Kitty notepad after telling the caller that Penelope (her family doesn’t recognize the name Sweet Pea) is at the library. Or, for variety’s sake: gym, movies, dining hall. Sweet Pea’s family is suspicious. Drawn-out silence on the other end. They feel out this Yankee girl they don’t know, with her short-circuit accent; it must be like shouting into the black of a well. Why doesn’t Penelope answer her cell phone? Is she living with a boy? Is she on drugs?
Maybe they worry she’s whored herself out. No whores up here, Ma’am, it’s too cold for that kind of living.
Quinn is a good liar, lies to her own folks, so she’s patient with Sweet Pea’s. Pretends to mishear them. Busy girl you got there, Ma’am. I hardly ever see her, myself. Tell you what, when I see her, I’ll have her call you back. Yes, I’ll tell her it’s urgent.
The wind hushes. A voice calls through the coats and bags: That’s not the right bell!
Beg your pardon, sir?
A regulation brass Salvation Army-issue bell rings in F-seven diatonic. What you’re ringing there is a brass-zinc alloy Town Crier edition. I happen to be a proud standing member of the Campanologists’ Society of North America, and that is not a regulation Salvation Army bell!
The ringing cuts out. Reckon you ain’t know no such thing, sir, Sweet Pea says.
You got credentials, young lady? someone else asks.
Beg your pardon?
Your Sally card.
I don’t know—they didn’t tell me nothin’ about a card.
You’re running a scam is what you’re doing.
A couple of the activists—they cluster like carpenter ants, them along with the freewheeling gimps in scooter chairs with rally flags, spitting up slush— hear the commotion. I told her! one of them says. This young lady rings for religious oppression! He grabs the bell from Sweet Pea’s mittened hand.
The nostalgia fiends stand back, light and amused.
Give me back my bell.
Then it is in the sky—arcing end over end, barely clearing a Poland Spring truck before it clangs and rolls into the gutter on the other side of the street.
Cheers go up. Applause muffled through gloves. Someone says, Thank God, she was driving me insane with that thing.
Another says, Jesus is the reason for the season!
Insult to God is what it is.
I say we call up the Sally office and see what’s what.
Hey! Brotha! What do you know about God?
This is Ignatz, running interference. Wearing his crazy face. Theater is a useful skill on the skids.
I say what do you know about God, sir? You talk to God? You seen God somewhere? Does He look like Santa Claus? Does He smell like a Cinnamon Spice Latte?
Now, I didn’t say I had a problem with you, Mister.
But don’t you want to talk about God? See, you live where I live, you get to be pretty sweet with God. Tell me, do you go to the UU church or the me-me church?
A cop car wedges in, squawks its siren. Ignatz will sleep in a warm place tonight. With attentions diverted, Sweet Pea unhooks the kettle and slips down the alley alongside the co-op, through the side entrance. She heads to the back and finds a seat in the dining area. She watches people buy their quinoa and winter kale and heavy-paper magazines and bulk coffee for fourteen dollars a pound and shoulder it away in totes from public radio.
She checks her phone and finds a message from Texas. Henny Penny, it’s me again; I know I’m a pest. Finals and all. Just want to know if you’re coming home for Christmas, if we might expect you. Bianca and Jay and the kids will be here. Your papa and I miss you, baby doll.
No plane fare. No wish to answer questions. She works out how she’ll tell them this.
I know I promised, Ma. But you gotta understand, I’m in love.
She’ll let her figure out with who, and then: You know, it’s normal to want to experiment at your age, Penelope.
It’s not a laboratory, Mother. (Quinn, with her Chem book today, never so much as moved.)
She’ll need an icebreaker. An anecdote. She can say she was walking dow Main Street when someone went up to the Salvation Army volunteer and hurled the girl’s bell clear across the street. Everybody laughed. It was really funny.
Ma will say, sure as hell don’t sound funny to me, Penny-love. Folks are just trying to spread cheer. Why would anyone do that?
Not expecting an answer. Ma likes to hear these stories. They give her a chance to sound off, even when she’s heard them before.
NEIL SERVEN lives and works as a lexicographer in western Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. “Return Policy” appeared in Washington Square Review #29.