For all that she wants, Janie knows Mr. Neilson will never kiss her. He conducts. When he conducts, his hair whips, his arms fly through the air. His moustache glistens. There are dark rings in his pits. Janie wants to be the kind of person whose devotion yields dark rings. Her father calls this giving it one’s all. Her mother gave it her all. She lost. There are no miracles. There are only days. Days marked by dinners from the coordinated meal chain. Days of ladies with Pyrex and tinfoil; pitying ladies who draw Janie to their stuffy breasts, to comfort their own worried hearts, to convince themselves that Janie’s mother’s fate won’t befall them. The neighborhood has seen enough. Janie has seen casseroles, stuffed shells. She saw one lady of the chain bent between her father’s knees. Mr. Neilson, Janie heard, does not even like girls. He’d been a daytime soap star before becoming a music teacher, she heard; she’s also heard about hamsters and celebrity butts. Janie knows you can’t believe everything. On the gym bleachers she stands next to Candace Connor whose mom supposedly had her at 15. They are both altos. Once, Janie saw Candace’s mom at the roller rink in Jordache jeans. She is beautiful. Candace’s mom will live forever.
Today is the dress rehearsal. They sing Rudolf, Frosty, Hallelujah. Mr. Neilson works himself into a froth for Do You Hear What I Hear?, which is done in a round. Janie lip-syncs the Jesus parts of Silent Night. When her mother first got sick, her father blamed Janie’s public school education. Her voice is not missed. Despite her efforts, she is off-key. Mr. Neilson only included her in the choir because of her mother.
Poor girl. At the funeral other mothers brought Janie gifts wrapped in silver and blue. Her father passed along these gestures of kindness – there was nothing to do but pass along other people’s gestures – however misguided they were. He said, “When will people learn it’s not about stuff?
Every night he gave her a dollar bill “to put in a safe place.” He gave her knee socks. Today with the socks she is wearing her jean skirt with the snaps and flare, a white button-down her father found in the boys’ department. Her calves itch. She smells like apple juice. A meal chain lady tried to do something about her hair last night, but Janie said, “Thank you. You’ve done enough.”
When they sing about dreidels, Mr. Neilson gives Janie an extra head bob. Tomorrow they will go downtown to Wanamaker’s. They will do their show in the department store lobby between cosmetics and perfume. The lobby will be festooned in lights and pine and poinsettia. They will sing and the shoppers and salesclerks and non-working parents will whoop and clap. Afterward, every child in Brook Valley District Choir will ride the escalator to the North Pole.
The gate will be strewn in clumps of fake snow, like the stuffing from teddy bears. In his chair Santa will be flanked by candy canes and a pair of human elves. There will be a life-sized cardboard of an oilcan. It will look like a genie’s lamp. There will also be electric menorahs, whose fat orange bulbs will either be lit wrong or burned out. Not that it matters. The holiday falls differently each year. This year, it is already over.
In Joy to the World, Janie makes perfect O’s with her mouth, like Mr. Neilson taught her. She wonders if he notices. She wonders what the ladies will bring for dinner tonight, when they’ll stop bringing; when the ladies will be replaced by just one lady. She wonders how she’ll play Santa tomorrow, if she’ll deliver a laundry list. Last year she wore her Star of David defiantly on his lap, only instead of dismissing her, he held her tighter and said, “Jewish girls can want things, too.”
Sara Lippmann‘s debut collection DOLL PALACE (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in New York’s East Village.