Mrs. Vander Leyden’s Glasses
There are not many Christmas stories featuring cockroaches although there are many which include angels, kindly strangers, bells, bugles, elves, reindeer and presents beneath tree boughs—none of which will be found in this account of events leading up to Christmas 1981.
Although she is now passed, Mrs. Vander Leyden lived at 30 East Chicago Avenue, at the Lawson YMCA. Her rent was paid directly to the YMCA by the Wilmington Bank & Trust Company of Delaware and she cashed a dividend check and her Social Security at the Stop N’Drink on the corner. The Stop N’Drink was a bar insofar as it served drinks and sold packaged goods over plywood strapped onto concrete pylons. But it also operated as a rough justice credit union. Regardless of the season, Mrs. Vander Leyden wore a black princess cut wool coat, a black pillbox hat and black shoes. She carried a black patent leather purse at all times, very close to her body.
Mrs. Vander Leyden had lived at the YMCA for longer than any employee or resident could remember so it seemed as if she were part of the building, like the granite discus throwers on either side of the first floor entrance, the three red neon letters on the twelfth floor roof (Y blank space CA) or the Seven Virtues mural in the second floor lobby of which four Virtues were covered with announcements about bridge matches, Friends of Bill meetings, items for sale, and for a social worker who came on Tuesday mornings to help residents figure out their entitlements.
The first, third and fourth floors of the Lawson housed the gym, the swimming pool, and the weight rooms (the clientele being the gentrified folks living to the east of the building). There was a county hospital detox unit on the first floor at the back of the building. The fifth floors and beyond had twenty rooms each for residents—the eighth floor for women and the remaining floors for men. There were two communal bathrooms on each of these floors.
On any given evening the second floor lobby was where the gray haired men played cards underneath the Virtue of Charity and Hope. There was a television set in the corner, a vending machine, and a bank of lockboxes—every day residents checked for their mail and the pink phone messages left by the switchboard operators. Mrs. Vander Leyden never was seen in the lobby. But Mr. Hancock was there from early morning until long past when the window of the front desk was shuttered, as he used one of the tables as his office for a lawsuit so complex and convoluted that nobody was of the energy to ask how his work progressed.
The morning after she moved in, Kristi Hollingsworth answered “yes” when Mr. Hancock asked her in the first floor foyer—right in front of Dwayne’s desk—if she was The Law Student. This was just how quickly important information and gossip traveled within the building Mr. Hancock told her he had been unlawfully fired from his position as a union shop man and she gave him the phone number of the Northwestern Law School Legal Clinic and told him to ask for Professor Elson.
“Tell him Kristi Hollingsworth said he could help you,” she told Mr. Hancock. “And tell him I’m in his Civil Procedure class. I only just started so he might not remember me.”
Dwayne watched this exchange from behind his desk. It was his job to know residents and members of the athletic club and to stop anybody who wasn’t authorized from taking the stairs—mostly clients of the rent boys on the twentieth floor. For that purpose Dwayne wore a uniform and a badge. Dwayne had been eating his lunch while Mr. Hancock and Kristi talked. When Mr. Hancock went upstairs to his office, Dwayne pulled his gun from his holster in order to check it, which is something he often did when he was thinking.
“You got rid of that problem,” he said without actually looking at Kristi. “But I think you now got yourself a bigger one now.”
And indeed, two days later, Professor Elson asked Kristi to remain after his lecture on motions to dismiss.
“You ever do that to me again, so help me God,” he said. “Do you understand me? That man is crazy. The Trilateral Commission? The United Nations? The unions setting out to kill him? Do you have any idea how long it took me to get off the phone?”
Indeed, Kristi had heard a good deal more in the intervening two days from Mr. Hancock and she understood. For the rest of the time she lived at the Lawson, she pretended she couldn’t hear Mr. Hancock calling out “It’s the Law Student. Come here, Law Student!” as she picked up her mail and her messages.
Kristi didn’t notice Mrs. Vander Leyden the first few weeks of that first semester even though they both lived on the eighth floor, a mere four doors from each other.
Both women approached the elevator at roughly the same time every morning: Kristi had an eight o’clock Contracts class for which she was always late and Mrs. Vander Leyden went to eight fifteen mass at the Holy Name Cathedral on the corner opposite the Stop N’Drink.
If the elevator came when Kristi was there, Mrs. Vander Leyden would appear to have suddenly remembered something mislaid or forgotten in her room.
If Mrs. Vander Leyden entered the elevator first and Kristi was running and yelled for her to hold the door, she seemed to be quite deaf.
And in every near interaction, Mrs. Vander Leyden also gave the appearance of being quite blind, as her black rimmed glasses were scratched to a sheen that made eye contact impossible.
Kristi wasn’t particularly aware of her surroundings. She would not have made a good detective. She didn’t expect to make a good lawyer. She had enrolled in law school because the economy was bad and school—any kind of school—seemed like a good place to lay low until good jobs were to be had. As a sign of her lack of deductive powers one October morning, she walked outside and was intrigued by a car that appeared to have had its hood and roof knocked in, but otherwise remained completely pristine—as pristine as any fifteen year old car can be.
It was as if God had smashed his fist down in a fit of pique.
“What kind of car accident does that?” she wondered. And it wasn’t until she came back to the Lawson that afternoon that Dwayne commented.
“It was a jumper,” he said. He was standing outside the entrance, in front of a granite discus thrower, taking a break to smoke cigarettes and harass the passing women with his friend Douglas.
“Checked into the twelfth floor and just jumped,” Douglas fulminated. “They say he was a poet. Published something.”
“If’n it was me, I’d check into the Ritz Carlton hotel,” Dwayne said. “Not this place.”
Some men who had come outside to enjoy the sun and they laughed, one of them declaring that he’d order up some room service before he’d go. The conversation made an epistemological turn. Could fish eggs be all that caviar was said to be and was it worth trying for a final meal? Was champagne or Courvoisier was a better bracer before one jumped? Would a cigar be nice or just a regular pack of cigarettes?
Then the men talked about women. And what kind would be the best to have if it was to be the last time.
“I’d want a white woman,” one of them opined. “Because a black woman gets in her groove and it’s the same motion over and over until she pops. Now, a white woman, she jerks around and screws up the rhythm and it’s a surprise what she’s going to do next.”
“And they sure love the dick,” another said. “You can best believe that white guys don’t got no dick and they don’t know what to do with what all they do got.”
Dwayne, Douglas, and every man looked at Kristi Hollingsworth for some sort of editorial comment.
Kristi could feel the hives rising up her chest and coloring her face. She excused herself as she had homework. The first year of law school was brutal and she was no intellect. Douglas asked if he could speak with her.
“Sure,” Kristi said.
“Well, I need to talk to you private like.”
He led her into the alley out back near the intake door for the detox unit. He offered her a cigarette but she said she didn’t smoke.
“So let’s say you commit a crime,” Douglas said. He paused just a moment to take a first drag. “A bunch of time has gone by and then the law can’t do anything. What’s that called?”
“Statute of limitations.”
“That’s it. That’s it. Well, how long before that kicks in?”
“Depends on the crime,” she said. And as he considered this, she added, “the worse the crime the longer the statute of limitations.”
“What’s the worst crime you can think of?”
“Killing your grandmother?”
“Worse than that.”
Kristi felt a tugging like the tides heading towards the lake and away from Douglas but he reached out a hand and rubbed her sleeve.
“I’m not fixing to do any harm to you. I just want an answer.”
“We haven’t gotten to that in Crim but I believe it’s something like twenty years. For the worst crime I can think of.”
“Aw, that ain’t gonna be no help.”
“Maybe you should go to Mexico,” Kristi said, slipping towards the sidewalk but Douglas held firm onto her sleeve. “They don’t have an extradition treaty.”
“It means they won’t send you back to the States.”
“I have relatives in California.”
“We have extradition with California.”
Dwayne stood at the end of the alley fingering his gun. Douglas relinquished Kristi’s arm.
“Hey, you want to take a look at my woman?” Dwayne asked Kristi, following her into the building. “Here, let me show you. What do you think?”
He pulled from his wallet a Polaroid of a naked woman with her legs spread around a bottle of Courvoisier.
“See, this is why I don’t have to think about jumping,” he said. “And it’s also why you don’t have to worry about me when I say I’m watching out for you. Because you are way out of your league with this group and I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“I know both of those things to be true.”
“Just so you do. People here are dangerous.”
And that’s when Kristi first gave any notice to Mrs. Vander Leyden. While she could believe the rent boys, the crazy mutterers, the ex-cons, and Mr. Hancock were dangerous, she couldn’t imagine Mrs. Vander Leyden being any trouble whatsoever.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, when it was still nice enough to walk to the school in her jeans and a t-shirt, with a just in case sweater in her backpack, Kristi was intrigued by a crowd held behind velvet rope at the Park Hyatt entrance. The Park Hyatt was a magnificent hotel equidistant from the Lawson and the law school and Kristi was saving her money for a Christmas brunch there. Several well dressed men hovered around a black limousine festooned with two British flags on its hood. Kristi watched for several minutes from across the street—mindful that Professor Rahl had said that if she were late for one more Antitrust lecture he would drop her grade a full letter.
The Prince emerged from the hotel. He was shorter than Kristi expected, but trim and his suit jacked sported a few medals. He accepted two bouquets from children in the crowd. He shook hands with some of the onlookers and smiled pleasantly at the photographers.
Mrs. Vander Leyden stood at the outer reaches of the crowd, positioned near the front hood of the limousine. The Prince turned to make a few remarks, none of which could be heard from across the street. Then he got into the limousine. Mrs. VanderLeyden fell to a curtsey that was not quite worthy of a Texas debutante and yet quite worthy of an American citizen paying homage to a foreign potentate. She remained in that position until the limousine had disappeared into traffic and the crowd had dissipated. Then she rose with a solemnity of a woman who had been in the presence of a miracle.
Kristi decided in that moment that she liked Mrs. Vander Leyden, although she did not—at that time—know her name. That she had to ask Dwayne about.
“She comes from money,” Dwayne added. “It had to have been there. Check out her shoes. They’re old, they need to be re-soled, but they’re Ferragamo. Salvatore Ferragamo. He’s big in Italy. And she always wears gloves and the hat. That’s old school. But crazy. Definitely. Why else would she stay? Anybody sane with a wallet would get themselves the hell out of here.”
Kristi had been raised a Methodist, then sort of fell out of the habit. But the five fifteen mass at Holy Name was a short one and the relief priests had interesting homilies. The first time she took communion the priest hesitated, holding the wafer until she remembered to say “amen” to the body of Christ. She read the order of service and got to be pretty adept at some parts of the Nicene Creed and at mumbling through the parts she couldn’t memorize. There was a regular dozen that came to the service and Mrs. Vander Leyden was one of them. Once, when Kristi tried to say “peace be with you” to her during the course of the service, Mrs. Vander Leyden declined to acknowledge her.
It was the Advent Season. On the steps of the church, as Kristi paused to watch the first snowflakes swirl liked fireflies around the streetlights, Mrs. Vander Leyden walked past her, clutching her black patent leather purse to her chest and muttering a vicious incantation.
“The law student, the law student, she breaks every law in the books!”
There are people who shrug off the inexplicable, the strange. They can hear something directed at them and deflect it, perhaps even laugh at it. Kristi was not one of these people. She stood at the church, watching Mrs. Vander Leyden walk across the street. The older woman paused only once, decided against entering the Stop N’Drink, quickened her pace as she crossed the alley next to the Lawson, and then finally disappeared into the brightly lit foyer.
Kristi stood for so long that the priest, readying to lock up for the night, stepped outside and asked her if she was all right. She said she was and then she covered the same trail as Mrs. Vander Leyden before her. When Dwayne asked if she were all right, she repeated that she was. She picked up her mail. There was a red envelop postmarked Palm Springs, California.
“Law student! Hey, law student! Come here, I have some interesting new developments to tell you about!”
Mr. Hancock’s voice was not rhythmic or steely as Mrs. Vander Leyden’s, but now the words “law student” spooked Kristi and when the elevator delivered her to the eighth floor she kept one hand braced for a quick exit if Mrs. Vander Leyden were to ambush her.
But the hall was empty.
She went to her room.
She slipped off her jacket and put the red envelop on the desk in front of her.
While her first impulse was to rip up the card and her second to cry, Kristi implemented the third impulse. She put her hands out onto the desk. Putting pressure on the pinkie finger of her left hand, she said “I’m in law school.”
Then she pressed down the ring finger of her left hand while saying “I’m going to make a good living when I get out of law school.” Putting pressure on the middle finger of her left hand, she reminded herself that she had enough money to buy food. The index finger was about the guy in Civ Pro—Andy–who had asked if she would share her notes from two Antitrust classes he had missed. Maybe he liked her. The thumb was that she had enough money to buy a lipstick from Clinique and they were having a gift with purchase at the Marshall Field’s and she could go there tomorrow if she wanted. Onward through the right hand the litany of blessings but the effect on her mood didn’t last as long as she would have liked. She decided to take a shower. She gathered up her soap, towel, toothbrush, body lotion and a razor.
Mrs. Vander Leyden stood across from her door, leaning against the wall. Her glasses were like twin pale moons set on a black sky.
“Good evening,” Kristi said. She walked down the hall towards the communal showers.
“The law student, the law student, she breaks every law in the books,” Mrs. Vander Leyden chanted. “The law student, the law student.”
Kristi had had no trouble, or not much, since starting law school. This was trouble.
Kristi closed the door to the showers and even though it was not the custom on the eighth floor, she locked it behind her. After an unsatisfactory shower, she braced herself to find Mrs. Vander Leyden lying in wait.
The hall was empty.
Mrs. Vander Leyden played a large role in Kristi’s habits during the Advent Season. No more going to mass because Kristi was afraid Mrs. Vander Leyden would disrupt a service which she did the day after the red envelop was delivered. Nor would Kristi buy beer at the Stop N’Drink because she wasn’t sure that Mrs. Vander Leyden might not be cashing a check. Kristi took the stairs rather than the elevator and she didn’t linger at Dwayne’s desk in the afternoons. Still, Mrs. Vander Leyden appeared not even just outside Kristi’s door, but also at odd places where Kristi had never before seen her—at the coffee shop, at the park, and, most disturbing, at the vendor truck outside the law school.
Each time, Mrs. Vander Leyden chanted her curse until Kristi found an escape.
Now, the Lawson provided daily maid service just like any fine hotel. The eighth floor’s maid was named Alyce and she entered every eighth floor resident’s room more or less every twenty four hours in order to ascertain that rent checks would be forthcoming because certainly the dead cannot pay. New towels were handed out on Fridays but only if the towel used in the previous week was laid on the floor outside one’s door. Sheets were changed every other week. And there was a random vacuuming, but nothing to keep a calendar by.
The Friday before Christmas, Kristi returned from her last final and was followed from the stairwell to her room by Mrs. Vander Leyden. Alyce was changing the sheets in Kristi’s room and there wasn’t enough space for the two of them—and this is not a comment on Alyce’s avoir dupois. Nonetheless, Kristi closed the door to Mrs. Vander Leyden and got up on top of the desk to give Alyce room to do her job.
“What am I going to do?” Kristi asked.
“She’s a crazy one, she is. She got into it with me, this would have been three years ago, and you know what? I don’t ever ever ever go in her room. She could be dead in her sleep for a week and the only way we’re going to find out is when I smell something terrible from under the door. Something smelling more terrible.”
“But what do I do?”
“To make her stop going off on you?” Alyce asked. “I have no idea. Maybe you just got to learn to live with it.”
“That’s what Dwayne says. But I can’t.”
“Then maybe you got to move out.”
“I don’t have any place else to go.”
“Well, that’s why any of us are here.”
As Alyce waddled out of the room, she put her hand very briefly—and not just to support her weight—on Kristi’s shoulder.
“She’s not out there.”
“But she’ll be back,” Kristi said.
After Alyce left, Kristi sat down proper at her desk and the ten fingers were counted: I’m finished with finals. I think I got a good grade in Antitrust. I’ve been invited to my Contracts Prof’s Christmas party. I have a study date with Andy.
But she couldn’t finish. The prospect of Mrs. Vander Leyden appearing at the doorway of her Contracts professor’s house was enough to derail even the most heartfelt shout out of thanks to the universe. She spent the rest of the evening reading the same page of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
On the following morning, Kristi woke up to a miserable wailing from outside her room.
It could have been somebody injured—in October, a woman had come back to the Lawson after having been shot in the shoulder and she had sounded something like this. Oh, how Alyce had complained about the blood on the carpet!
It could have been an animal, but it would have to be a large one for the sound it was making.
Kristi put her head under her pillow and wondered when Alyce was going to start shouting for help.
And then she remembered that it was Christmas Eve. Alyce had the day off and the next day. Many of the women on the floor had gone to relatives or friends. It might even be just Kristi left behind. She picked up the phone and dialed the switchboard.
“I’m not sending anybody up there unless you tell me what it is,” the operator said.
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah, well, there it is.”
The howling continued after the operator hung up. Kristi was no hero. She wasn’t brave. She wasn’t particularly curious—the satisfaction of curiosity being, in her experience, disappointment. But she opened the door and looked out into the hallway.
The howling was Mrs. Vander Leyden, crouched on the floor directly in front of the open door to her room. She wore a nightgown that had once been white and once had lace. She pulled her hands away from her face as Kristi warily approached. The two women stared at each other, although it was clear to Kristi that Mrs. Vander Leyden couldn’t see at all without her glasses.
“Mrs. Vander Leyden, what’s wrong?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m . . . the law student.”
“I can’t see. I can’t find my glasses. Help me.”
“I’ll find your glasses, Mrs. Vander Leyden.”
This is the part of this Christmas story where there are cockroaches. A large number of them. A writhing, living bulbous intrusion on the wall was the first thing Kristi saw and she thought “this is where they all come from”. Then there were the newspapers, stacked from floor to ceiling and tied with twine—and cockroaches skittered between pages and around the stacks. How Mrs. Vander Leyden negotiated with the newspapers and the cockroaches was a mystery as Kristi could see no desk, no chair, no nightstand, no bed. The glasses were on top of a stack of papers that seemed to be church bulletins from several decades gone.
“Here they are,” Kristi said. She helped the glasses into Mrs. Vander Leyden’s shaking hands.
Mrs. Vanderleiden put them on and goggled at Kristi.
“Bless you! Bless you!”
Mrs. Vander Leyden grabbed Kristi’s hands and pressed them to her lips.
“It’s all right, really, it’s all right,” Kristi said.
She helped Mrs. Vander Leyden get to her feet.
“What did you say your name was again?”
“That’s a lovely name.”
“Thank you. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Vander Leyden.”
“Merry Christmas, Kristi,” Mrs. Vander Leyden said.
Then Mrs. Vander Leyden entered her realm of cockroaches and paper. She closed the door. Kristi went back to her own room. The red envelop was still on her desk. It was early. Officially, she should wait until the next morning. But this was as good of a time as it was going to get and it would have to be done. She sat down and opened it.
Inside was a Christmas card, all right. Pale blue with a little boy holding a song book. There was a little bit of glitter and a background of snowflakes. On the inside, the inscription read “Tis the season, wishing you a joyous Christmas” and the signature was “love, Mom” with the word love smudged as if there had been some misapprehension placed into its four letters.
Kristi put her hands out on the desk. She realized she was smiling.
She put pressure on all ten fingers and said “I found Mrs. Vander Leyden’s glasses.”