Christmas Eve        
                      
    “Go talk to your professors, do something. The entire
summer you worked for the university and they paid you
nothing,” she wiped her tears.

    “I owe them for the tuition of the last two semesters.”

    “Talk to the Foreign Students Advisor. Tell her we’ve
two small kids, they need food. How could we pay for the
formula?”

    “I already talked to her. She said that’s the university
policy. If there is a balance, they garnish my income.”

    “They do what to your income?”

    “Garnish, I looked it up in dictionary. It means they
decorate my paycheck. She said I wouldn’t graduate if all
debts are not paid in full.”

     “So, why are they holding your paychecks? You’re not
skipping town. Where do you go without your diploma?
Did you tell her this summer you’ll go to Chicago to drive a
cab? Tell her you’ll save two thousand dollars and pay off
your debts.” she was carving out the rotten parts of the
potatoes.

    “Listen honey. They don’t care about our problems.
We’ll be lucky if they don’t increase the foreign students’
tuition before I graduate. They’re planning to have three
different types, In-State, Out-of-State and Out-of- Country
tuition.”        

    “I’m not worried about two years from now. How can we
survive this winter?” she shrieked.

    He took a deep breath, “Well, don’t keep your hopes
high but maybe I can get a job during this Christmas
break,” he restrained his excitement.        

    “Doing what? How much do they pay?” Her eyes shone.

    “The minimum wage is $1.60 per hour. This guy has
work for two full weeks. He got a contract from the
university to clean up the brushes and broken trees on
campus roads. The heavy snow knocked down so many. ”

    “Oh, that’s perfect. If you work eight hours a day for
two weeks, you’ll make $128.” she was punching numbers
on the calculator.

    “Before school starts, I can make enough to pay for
the next month’s rent.”

    “We’ll still have $38 left,” she said. “You know that Aida’
s birthday is on Christmas day, don’t you?” she added.

    “How can I forget? Everyone in this country celebrates
our daughter’s birthday.” he grinned.

    “Who is this guy? I hope he doesn’t change his mind
the last minute like the last guy who wanted to hire you.
We need this money. ” her words blended with the steam
coming out of the boiling pot.          

    “He lives here in our complex, in building K. Do you
remember the blonde girl you were talking to in the
laundry room the other day?”

    “The one who was asking about our kids?”

    “Yes, that’s his wife. Her husband’s name is Bruce.
They’re both from Topeka. He said they were High School
sweethearts. Whatever the heck that means. Americans
have names for everything.” he said.

    “They got married last year. She loves to have children
but her husband wants them to wait for both to finish
school first. She’s just a junior,” she pensively added.

    “When he told me about this job, he once mentioned
the work permit. But I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

    “Is he in your class?”

    “Yeah, in my Fluid Mechanics class. He’s graduating
next semester though. I can’t believe this guy. He’s too
prudent, always nervous about something. He pays in-
state tuition which is almost half of what I pay per
semester and he receives federal grants and a student
loan.  He has no expenses until he graduates, already
had a few job interviews and received two job offers so
far. He’s still worried about his future.  Life is so easy for
American students,” his gaze was fixated on their sleeping
children.

    “What do we do for a Christmas tree? Kids love to
have one decorated,” she asked.

    “Look! Look out the window woman. Why do you think
God has planted so many trees right in our backyard?
Tonight I’ll cut a nice small one,” he said.

    “Didn’t you see the notice in the laundry about
destruction of university properties? There’s a $50 fine if
they catch you,” she sighed.

    “Don’t worry my dear. Law does not apply to us, we’re
not from Kansas. Why do you think I’m paying Out-Of-
Sate rate for my education? The penalty for cutting trees
is already included in my tuition,” he grinned.

    “Just be careful please.”

    “Where is the Christmas box full of ornaments we
bought from the garage sale in summer?” he asked.

    “I can’t believe we paid only fifty cents for the whole
box. It’s under the bed. I looked inside it the other day. It
has everything, lights, candy canes, frosted balls, a
chubby Santa figurine and a shiny gold star for the top.”
She was excited.
“The kids will be so surprised in the morning to see the
blinking lights on the tree,” she continued.

    “You see. There’s always hope,” he said.

     “We’re running out of milk,” her voice suddenly
muffled.

    “Tomorrow, after the exam, I’ll walk to the Safe-Way to
get milk. The car broke again.”

    “How far is it?” she asked.

    “It should be about five miles to get there and come
back. It’s on the other side of campus. The walk is not
long but the damn wind is intolerable. Oh, I hate Kansas
winters.”

    “How much does it cost to fix the car?” she wanted to
subtract this expense from his paycheck.

    “If I take it to this mechanic shop at five in the morning
before his boss shows up, he will do it for $25. The timing
belt is out.”

    “It’s leaking oil too,” she said.

    “That’s too expensive to fix.”  

    “But It’s so embarrassing, oil is dripping everywhere in
the parking lot.”  

    “Yes, but the mess is covered by fresh snow every
day, isn’t it?  God is on our side. You see, usually drivers
pull into a gas station and ask the attendant to fill up the
gas tank and check the oil. We just need to say the
opposite, please fill up the oil and check the gas.” They
burst in laughter.

    “We don’t have much cheese and cereal either,” she
sighed.

    “For cheese, juice and cereal, we have to wait until the
first of the month to get our WIC checks.”

    “Can’t we get Food Stamps?”

    “You wish. That’s for citizens. But I have good news for
you. I heard there is a church on the intersection of Yuma
and Juliet that gives away a loaf of Cheddar cheese to the
WIC recipients, sometimes a sack of flour too,” he said.  

    “I can bake bread.”

    “Bread? Bread is for poor people. We’ll make Pizza
with free dough and free cheese.

    “Pizza needs Mozzarella cheese dummy.”

    “You’re very particular! Believe me sharp cheddar
would be just fine,” he smiled.

    “I guess so. Kids don’t know the difference. They love
pizza.”

     Two days later, he took the last exams and the fall
semester ended. The entire week before Christmas, he
worked on campus roads removing broken limbs,
shoveling snow and cleaning isles. And at home, the little
Christmas tree never failed to dazzle the kids. The lights
constantly blinked red, blue and green. The chubby Santa
on the limb bobbed his head to left and right and the lucky
star sparkled in the dark at night.     
    On Christmas Eve when he finished the work, Bruce
was leaning on his truck waiting for him. “I’m sorry man, I
can’t pay you, believe me I didn’t know this but I was told
foreign students on F-1 visa are not allowed to work for
private employers; you can only work for the university. I
don’t want to get in trouble by paying you,” he spit the
black chewed tobacco out on the snow before getting in
the truck.

    Suddenly the cold wind slapped him, he was numb.
Words froze on his tongue.

    Before driving off, Bruce said, “At the end of January,
when I get my paycheck, the university pays you forty five
dollars for this week after 25% deduction for income tax of
course. I’m sorry man but I can’t pay you on my own, that’
s against the law.”

    He walked home on slippery sidewalks in the dusk. The
bitter cold pierced through his shabby coat. His head sunk
to his chest breathing inside and counting the number of
pizzas he had to deliver to make ends meet this month.
Where do I get twenty five dollars to fix the car and who
orders pizza on Christmas Break anyway? The school is
closed, most student leave the town for holidays.  The
bone chilling thoughts marred his mind. Christmas was
tomorrow.

    He entered the Safe-Way Grocery Store preoccupied
with his daughter’s second birthday and wandered
aimlessly in the isles checking prices. As he darted out of
the store looking down to avoid eye contacts; a few
moments later he was frozen in place by a strong hand
tapping on his shoulder.

     The huge store manager searched his pockets and
two small birthday candles and a little tube of cherry flavor
cake icing were all he found.