“Smudges in the Holiday Window”
by C.A. Rowland
Harold dipped the soft fabric end of the window cleaner into the bucket of soapy water, just as he’d done when he was alive. He wasn’t sure why he was still doing the task every day, only that Elaine had told him he should.
“Don’t forget to clean them each day. Pay special attention to the Macy’s windows during the holiday season.” She’d whispered those words even as he lay dying. No sense to them, but he’d spent sixty-four years doing as she requested, so he hadn’t quit after he passed.
The cold water in the bucket no longer froze his skin during winter as it had when he was living. There was just no way to do this without the blowback of wetness that seeped through his brown shirt and pants.
Harold was grateful that winter hadn’t yet set in this December. The darkly painted overhang of the department stores like Macy’s kept most of the rain from reaching the windows. Except when the wind whistled through the streets, lifting everything from umbrellas to skirts to leaves that stuck against the glass panes.
The windows that ran along 34th and 35th street in New York were like framed pictures. Rectangles that were separated by the same dark wood of the overhangs. Within them, scenes from the year’s theme. He’d seen the snowmen families, the carolers, the winter wonderland of Santa’s workshop in past years.
Each year, they created a new world for the thousands that would wander by each day. Some held warm pretzels they’d purchased from the street vendors. Others held sandwiches and other street food that oozed in their mouths. The taste of food was something Harold missed.
He’d arrived early so he could remove any splashes or smudges from the children’s hands and noses as they leaned in as close as possible to see all the details. He and Elaine were some of those “children” equally fascinated by the lights and characters within. Smudges distorted the scenes. Splashes of water did the same. Harold cleared them off each day.
The overhead lights for each window were not yet on, but the street lights gave him plenty of light to work by. He stared into the window he was working on. A family dressed all in red coats and gloves with scarves around their necks were laden with packages as they headed to a local charity.
Squish. Squish. Harold soaped up the window and then switched to the long arm squeeze. He was careful not to leave any marks of liquid behind, going over and over the area until it was so clear you almost felt you could step inside.
He took his time with each window, knowing that Elaine would be waiting for him. She’d lapsed into a coma three days before. At eighty-six, she’d been living in an assisted living facility where he spent his time watching over her. When she’d fallen, he’d felt an initial rush of joy that she was finally joining him after four years. He’d missed talking to her, touching her.
She’d broken her hip and needed surgery. Harold had berated himself for days that he’d been happy for a moment after she’d fallen. He’d immediately regretted the thought but it had been there. Nothing was worse than seeing her in pain. Watching her sleep without being conscious was only slightly better, but at least he knew she was no longer hurting.
Harold wondered how long it would be until she joined him. His heart ached.
Elaine had loved the windows and had cried when she saw the windows years ago where the story of Jesus and the shining star leading the Wise Men was told in pictures as one moved from panel to panel. She’d also cried at Mr. and Mrs. Claus with hearts all around. Almost like Valentine’s Day at Christmas.
Squish. Squish. Harold moved to the fourth window.
He continued cleaning, one swipe at a time. The windows were cleaner this morning than usual, which helped with the process. He never hurried, but this day was special.
His heart was heavy. Christmas Eve had been their time to see the windows. They’d always had dinner at a local restaurant at five in the evening.
The crowds would be swirling around Macy’s, much as the snow did, but each year, at just about six, the throng would clear for a time. Harold wasn’t sure if it was merely the flow of the people or if Elaine made that happen.
She’d always had a way about her. A quietness and patience that he’d seen in no other living human. Sometimes she’d go silent and stare off into the distance.
“There’s those that need my strength,” she’d say. Harold had learned she’d say no more, even when he asked. Only smile that gentle smile reserved for those occasions.
Harold moved to the final window. The one he’d been saving for last. The picture was of the inside of a house, the Christmas tree all adorned in wooden, handmade-looking ornaments. The store manager knew that shoppers would be searching for those once they’d seen them in the window, and the display for them was up front, just as they walked inside the main doors.
Brightly colored presents lay under the tree. The room’s backdrop was a wallpapered crimson wall behind that tree. All around were not-quite-full-sized armchairs and a table set for a holiday meal. Two white horses wearing black bridles and small bells, their shoes in matching midnight black, pulled a sleigh that was the centerpiece.
None of those were Harold’s focus.
Instead, he stared at the dollhouse sitting to the right of the tree.
When he’d seen the window in early November, he’d hardly been able to contain his delight. Elaine had loved that dollhouse when they’d seen it some ten years ago. It reminded her of her childhood.
“I played with mine for years. Every birthday, I had a tea party in the main living area. For each holiday, I created decorations that I hung outside the house.”
Those were the special moments she’d remembered, but there were hundreds of hours spent playing with her dolls that she moved around the house in stories she invented. He’d been surprised as he often was when she shared a memory or made his favorite meal. She was thoughtful like that, remembering what was important to each person she crossed paths with.
Two stories of a wooden house, with miniature furniture for the bedrooms upstairs and living furniture in the den below. The lights worked although they weren’t on this early in the morning, and the small Christmas tree inside had a star that twinkled. Elaine had stood for almost an hour, pointing to this detail and then that one as she stared inside.
Harold wondered what had been changed since they had last seen the house. Elaine would know. She remembered those kinds of things.
He wondered if that hadn’t been because they had been unable to have children. Elaine always said it didn’t matter, and she’d taken care of those who seemed to need a last bit of encouragement as they were about to pass over, or whatever they came to Elaine for. How they knew to come to her, Harold never knew. Only that they did and she heard them. Through her patience and gentleness, she somehow reassured them.
She treated the children she taught the same way, helping the little ones to find their way in life. Her decorations in the classroom were legendary among the other teachers and the kids.
Harold had reached out to her when he died, but he’d been unable to find her. He supposed the fact that he was with her every day had somehow kept them apart in the way others had found her. Jealousy raised its ugly head at times, but he swatted that away with the notion that he was with her in her last days, a gift not many others like him had.
They’d always agreed to wait on each other. There was to be no grand funeral or wailing. Both agreed that a simple memorial service like the one Elaine held for Harold was the answer. Both knew that the second to die would not have an option on what others planned for them, but Harold knew that if Elaine had her way, she’d want everyone to remember how she had lived and remember the happy times. Harold knew there had been sad and angry times, but those had faded when he passed. Perhaps Elaine already knew this.
At nine in the morning, Macy’s doors opened. The windows lit up. Harold loved this time of day, when the lights were almost like a magnificent sunrise on the horizon, bursting forward to extinguish the darkness. He slipped inside the building and left his bucket and other equipment in the janitor’s room, his work finished for the day.
Harold hurried along the streets to the assisted living facility where Elaine lay in bed. The nurses would have already been in to attend to her, changing her bedding and giving her a sponge bath. Harold could hardly contain himself during those moments, wishing against all he treasured that he’d been the one to go second so that he could do those tasks for her.
Instead, he could only slip the wisps of what had been his hand into hers and talk to her. He fancied that she was bored although the smile she’d had when she’d grown silent played across her face full time now. Could it be that others were able to talk to her, and she could still reassure them in this new state of being?
If that was the case, why couldn’t she do the same for him? He almost resented anyone else taking time from his Elaine.
Sounds of the song, Good King Wenceslas, rang in the halls, seeping into Elaine’s room. One of Harold’s favorites. The singers were quite early. The residents would be in their rooms so anytime during the day or evening mostly worked for visitors, and charity workers like those that brought the dogs and cats around to comfort those that were conscious.
Harold decided that carolers would be out on the streets in the evening and that the morning was a better time for them to see the people who could not come to them. He’d always loved singing, having a deep baritone voice that rang out when he and Elaine went to church.
They’d never been huge churchgoers since there were some who wouldn’t understand what Elaine did. Mostly, she kept it hidden from all but Harold and the ones who needed her.
Harold began to sing, his hand still in Elaine’s. As he closed his eyes to sing the chorus, he fancied he felt her hand squeeze his slightly. He opened his eyes only to be disappointed that the movement didn’t repeat, and Elaine was still as always. Harold waited all day for some sign that Elaine was conscious.
“It’s Christmas Eve, sweetheart. I’ll be at the Macy’s windows for both of us.”
He kissed her cheek.
“I’ll be back in the morning with a full account. You’ll love what the window dresser has done this year.”
Harold left about five in the evening, heading through the streets and crowds for Macy’s.
Once there, he entered the front door and headed to the back room. Christmas Eve was a special time that brought out more children than any other day. Even though he finished his work for the day, he wanted to make sure the windows were clear.
Harold moved outside, his bucket in hand. He checked each window, from corner to corner, wiping a few smudges here and there before he was satisfied he’d done all he could. He returned the equipment and waited for the crowds to die down.
Without Elaine, he almost felt like his being there was a betrayal.
At six, the doors to Macy’s closed, and some of the lights turned off. Harold wandered between the windows, listening to the carols playing. In the window with the carolers, he stopped and sang along to “Silent Night,” which was piped in.
He remembered the early years when he and Elaine had walked in the snow, singing songs and holding hands. They’d gone for hot chocolate afterward, shivering until the burning liquid slipped down their throats and warmed their tummies.
In the window with the charity hospital, Harold remembered Elaine bringing holiday cards and good wishes during the season to similar places. He’d gone along because he loved her, but he’d never had the same connectedness with people that Elaine seemed to have. Harold had just been happy being included in all that she did.
When Harold had died, he’d expected to see others like him. Dead, but still around the living. He’d wanted to ask them if they knew Elaine. If they did, what was it she talked to them about? Down quiet alleys, in their apartment and a few of the ones they’d lived in over the years, he used the time he wasn’t with Elaine trying to find any other like him. He just knew there had to be at least one.
None showed themselves to him. Almost as if they knew he wasn’t Elaine or that he wasn’t any use to them.
Harold moved to another window. This one portrayed The Gift of the Magi. The mannequin with the shorn yellow hair and the young man with the hairpin in hand which she no longer needed touched his heart. He knew Elaine would have cried if only she could see it. Harold had described it on one of his visits. He’d hoped that the scene would rouse her from the coma, but realized he never remembered all the tiny pieces that Elaine would notice.
He moved to the last window with the Christmas tree and dollhouse. Harold had saved this one to describe to Elaine on Christmas morning. If anything might wake Elaine, it was the description of the display he stood in. He just hoped he could remember enough of it to reach her.
He reached in his pocket and wiped all the windows for smudges that the window dresser might have left on the inside. Harold wanted nothing to spoil the display.
The music changed, and “Up on the Rooftop” began playing. Harold closed his eyes as his heart sank. Elaine had loved the upbeat song and hummed it often each holiday season. The idea of magic and other mystical events in life was a favorite theme. Harold had always been the practical one who dismissed such ideas. Now that he was here, he wondered if he’d been wrong all those years.
If he could just talk to a spirit like he was, he’d ask those questions. Get some answers. Instead, he was here alone, on Christmas Eve, hoping for a miracle where there was none.
He should be with Elaine. Giving her what comfort he could.
He almost left, but then turned at the sound of someone pasting their face against the glass. How dare they smudge the window on this of all nights?
The frown on his face was replaced with a slow smile as he saw a small figure, eyes bright and full of wonderment. Her mouth was open in an “O” of surprise. Wrapped in a white coat, all buttoned up, with white matching gloves, the figure stood still, staring in, a huge grin on her face. She was just like him, the first he’d seen and all he could do was stare.
He was afraid he’d scare her if he moved, so he remained still, waiting for a sign he could ask her his questions.
She turned, and Harold gasped.
She had Elaine’s eyes. Or at least that’s what he thought. He’d met Elaine when they were eighteen, so he’d never seen her as a child. Taking pictures had been less common as they were growing up, and Elaine had left behind whatever her life as a young person was when she met him.
“We’re starting anew, the world and our life will be what we make of it.”
Harold had been so overwhelmed that she loved him as much as he loved her that he’d never questioned her. Now, he wondered what else he had missed knowing about her.
The girl’s grin shifted to the small, knowing smile he recognized as belonging to the older, gentle Elaine. How could this be?
The girl moved the hands which had cupped her face to the window, and she stared upward as if looking for something. She pushed on the window, but it held. She reached up as if searching for a knob but found nothing. Her smile became sad.
They’d been separated when Harold died. Were they to be separated once again?
A car going by sent light streaming into the window, and in that instant, Harold saw the smudge. Could it be that easy?
He rushed forward and pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, quickly wiping the smear away. As it cleared, the girl found a knob and opened the window.
Except there was another barrier. She was now blocked by the physical glass connected to the building.
Harold took a step back. The girl looked at him, longing in her face. But also, the same patience and gentleness she’d shown to those Harold knew she had communicated with. If only she could tell him what he needed to do.
Taking a breath, Harold looked at the window, searching for another smudge or something that would create a barrier.
What could prevent Elaine from coming through to join him? He’d cleaned everything important to her. What was he missing?
Harold turned and looked at the dollhouse. He’d cleaned the windows.
He smacked his head.
The Christmas tree star wasn’t lit.
He leaned down, carefully using his white handkerchief to reach inside and wipe the star for any fingerprints or smudges. The light blinked and then began to twinkle.
Harold felt the rush of air as the childlike Elaine became the gray-haired lady he’d loved through the years.
She rushed forward to hug him, kissing him on the cheek.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d understand.”
“I heard every word you said, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t talk to you as I have others. And look at you, keeping the dollhouse a secret from me for months.”
“It’s no matter. You’re here now. I missed you.”
Elaine smiled and took his hand.
“There’s no time to waste. I have my own surprise for you.”
“We’ll have lots of time to talk later, but there are so many like us. Those that believe a life should be celebrated once its light has been extinguished. They are all coming to a party here.”
Elaine clapped her hands together.
“I’ve been telling spirits to keep this a secret for years and years. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for you. I thought having it in the Macy’s window would be wonderful but now I get to have a holiday party in the dollhouse. You have no idea how many others didn’t want a funeral, but wanted a celebration of who they were in life. I’ve been inviting them as they contacted me. I never told you so it would be a surprise for you. You have been the best husband I could have had. We have so much to celebrate.”
“No wonder I couldn’t find any spirits. I looked for someone to tell me how to talk to you.”
“They were afraid they’d give away the secret so they stayed away. I’m sorry if you were lonely, but they couldn’t figure out any other way to keep you from finding out.”
Harold smiled at his wife in life and in death. “I always knew you were the patient one. I never guessed this was what you were doing.”
Elaine laughed and pulled on his arm. “I couldn’t come sooner. I didn’t know for sure you’d be here, other than on this night that we are always here. You had to be here so I could be sure the movement from one side to the other could be completed. Come now, we need to be at the front door to welcome our guests inside. It will be such fun.”
Harold let Elaine lead him to the dollhouse door. He’d followed her all through life, and he guessed he’d follow her through this and their next adventure as well.
The two reached the doors. She took one side of the front door and he took the other. Together, they swung open the way into the house. Opening them wide so that the Christmas lights flooded out, calling everyone to the celebration of their lives.
Carolyn Rowland is a lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Tennessee home; it’s a place of history and inspiration. Her first novel, The Meter’s Always Running, is an amateur sleuth paranormal mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, and the second in The Haunted City Mystery series will be published in 2023. Ms. Rowland writes historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Her short stories can be seen in several of the Fiction River anthologies, Pulphouse Magazine, and other short story anthologies. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at www.carowland.com