The trio boarded at Atlantic Avenue. Nick. Twitch. Morph.

“Trouble,” the businessman thought, quickly shifting his gaze back to his newspaper so as not to provoke them. Twitch stared anyway.

“Gangbangers,” the young mother internalized, her hand instinctively clutching Doris’ left hand. In her daughter’s right palm, a small gift.

“Jewelry,” Morph thought. “Earrings. Or a ring,” and judging from the elegant gold wrapping, more than costume jewelry.

Yes. Earrings. For Grandma.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Then Twitch spied the old woman. Frida’s chunky legs were crossed beneath the seat, just one handle of a cloth shopping bag in her hand, so it was splayed open, everything inside visible. She snored softly, then snorted. Twitch snickered.

Doris squeezed her mother’s hand until it was white.

“Sweet Baby Jesus,” a nun muttered as she clutched the arm of her infirm brother.

Twitch peered into the bag. Dented cans. Most un-labeled. Sometimes it was cat food, which was fine because Frida had a cat. Fido. Which Frida thought was hilarious. Other times it was corned beef, cream of something soup, sometimes peaches — 25 cents a can. No returns.

Twitch snickered again and reached for the bag just as a disembodied voice called out the next stop. Twitch’s hand froze in mid air when Nick grabbed it. Twitch, a hothead, resisted at first, but Nick slowly and forcefully pushed Twitch’s hand into his own pocket. When Twitch finally got his meaning, he pulled out a wad of cash.

“It’s almost Christmas,” Nick said loud enough for everyone to hear as the train chimed and began to slow. Twitch dropped the cash into the sleeping woman’s bag.

Then, Nick turned to Morph who peeled off a couple of twenties. Nick held his gaze. Morph peeled off more. Nick locked his baleful gaze on his friend until the deposit was complete.

The brakes screeched, more chiming, and finally, the door opened. Nick tossed his own wad of cash into the bag and the trio backed out like it was some kind of getaway. No one else moved except for simultaneously exhaling. Somehow, they’d held their collective breath for seven minutes.

The businessman added $50. The nun tossed in $23, all she had, a few stops later. Every passenger did the same until it was just the mother, daughter, and Frida.

“I’m sorry,” the mother said at the next stop as much to the sleeping woman as she did to Doris, “We spent everything on the earrings for Grandma.” As they walked to the open door, the mother felt a tug when Doris stopped short, studied Frida for a moment, and stared into the bag brimming with cash, a decent Timex watch, and a worn rosary. Then, as if she were placing a star atop a Christmas tree, she gently placed Grandma’s gift on the pile.

The next day after dinner, Doris’ mother whispered the story and an apology to Grandma while Doris played with new toys beneath a flickering tree that made the peeling paint on the walls look almost festive. Grandma folded her arms in satisfaction. “Best gift I never got.”

The cans turned out to be mostly cat food. So, it was a good day for Fido, too. He eyed Frida curiously. She was dancing to Bing Crosby. “Meowy Christmas, Fido,” she giggled. She thought it was hilarious.

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service.