Charity Begins Next Door

byTx Tall Tales©

"Just thought I'd fix your fence, before it falls down. I hope you don't mind."

She just shook her head.

She stood there watching me, and I felt ill at ease. I was a stranger. She shouldn't be talking to me. I should probably leave. "I'm just going to clean up here and head back home. I can finish up later when your mother's home."

I straightened up my clothing a bit, wiping my hands on my pants. "I'm Alex Reed. I live across the alley," I explained, pointing down a few houses.

She nodded.

She reminded me so much of my own daughter, right around that age. Her hair was the same length, blonde, but not quite as light as Allora's.

Allora. My perfect little Allora. I closed my eyes, seeing her in that hospital bed, bruised and bandaged, fighting for her life. Her hair tucked under the bandages, the few strands that stuck out dark from sweat. Her body so small in that antiseptic white bed. My Allora.

Gone.

It felt like somebody had wrapped a band around my chest, and pulled it tight. I couldn't breath. I turned away from Erica, so she wouldn't have to see me lose it. She'd suffered enough already. I felt the tears rise, unbidden, and I started for the gate. I had to get out of there.

I barely made it as far as the driveway. It was too much. I closed the gate behind me and crumbled to the ground, seated with my head between my knees, my hands covering my head. It was Christmas, damn it! Christmas! My girls were supposed to be with me, shaking their presents and trying to guess what was in them. Instead Allora and Briana were gone. Their lives snuffed out before they could see anything of the world, before they could find their place, before they could fall in love. No shaking presents. No stomach aches from eating too many holiday sweets. No late night parties to drive me crazy with worry. No learning to drive. No struggling to find the right college. No bringing a boy home for the first time. No cramming for tests. No Spring Breaks. No proms. Nothing. Ever again.

I was sobbing, and the little girl who had lost her father was standing on the driveway beside me, her hand resting on my shoulder, while I made a fool of myself.

"Erica! You know your mother doesn't want you out if she's not at home. You should go back inside. Mr. Reed will be all right, he's just tired. Go on now." Cathy had me by the arm, and was doing her best to get me back on my feet. "C'mon Alex, not here. Let's get you home."

I knew she was right. I stood up, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. "I'll be alright. Just give me a minute." I pulled myself together, took a couple of deep breaths, and stood straight. "I'm Ok. Seeing her was just a little too much, too soon. But I'm fine now. I need to clean up here, and put the fence back together."

"Alright. I'll help."

It only took us a few minutes to clean up and cart the bags of yard trimmings out to the rear curb. I ran all the yard tools back to my house, and returned to finish the fence work. I braced the new post with a couple of 2x4's and reattached the two panels. Cathy's help made it a lot easier. When we were done we both stood back and looked over the yard. Much better.

"I'm going to go inside and fix Erica her after-school snack. It's about all that Sandy will let me do. Why don't you come with me?"

"I don't know if I should. Sandy doesn't know me. She may not want me in her house when she's not there."

"Never mind that. She'll be fine. Just come in a moment. It'll only take a few minutes."

I followed her inside, through the glass sliding door. Erica was sitting on the floor watching TV. I didn't even look that way. I was afraid that seeing the wrong TV show would dredge up more painful memories.

"Where can I wash my hands?" I asked Cathy.

She pointed to a door. "In there."

I headed to the bathroom. "Don't use the toilet. That one doesn't flush anymore."

I could hear the running water in the commode. I washed my hands and wiped them on my shirt. There was no towel in the bathroom. Then I took the top off the tank and examined inside. Nothing complicated. The chain that connected the stopper to the handle extension was missing. Lifting the rubber stopper, I saw it was under the lip, the cause of the running water. I reattached the chain, and tested the flushing. Worked fine.

"Fixed. The chain was just off."

Cathy nodded, and returned to making a grilled cheese sandwich. Briana loved grilled cheese. But you couldn't cut the sandwich, and you had to remove the crust. I wouldn't be cutting the crust off of sandwiches anymore.

I took a deep breath, and went to examine the front door.

"Cathy? I'm going to head home and get my sander and some paint. This door needs some help desperately."

"Go ahead. Sandy won't be home until late, and if we're going to get in trouble for the yard and the fence, we might as well make it a trifecta."

Fifteen minutes later, I was running the battery powered hand-sander over the door, removing the worst of the existing paint. I didn't have too much to do, it was already mostly bare. I had brought over three possible paints to use, all of which I knew were approved by the homeowner's association.

"What color paint do you think I should use?" I asked Cathy.

"Let's ask Erica." She returned in a few seconds with Erica at her side. "We're going to paint the front door, Erica. What color would you like?"

We had a choice of off-white, light blue, and a dark brown. She pointed to the light blue, then seated herself nearby to watch.

I had already removed the hardware. I taped the hinges and bottom kick-plate, laid out my drip cloth, and started applying a coat of paint, top-to-bottom. I looked over at the young girl watching me so intently. I saw the tree beside her, so small and bare, with one little package underneath it.

Christmas trees shouldn't look like that.

They should be big, full of decorations, all sorts, each one with its own story. Handcrafted special ornaments, with pictures of your family members. Popsicle stick ornaments with the Elmer's glue showing. Lights blinking in an assortment of colors, candy canes and tinsel, and an angel on top. There should be presents around the bottom, stacked and scattered, so many you can't even get near the tree.

It was the first year I didn't have a tree.

We'd normally go out as a family and visit one of the Boy Scout tree lots, picking the biggest, fullest tree we thought could fit in my living room. Then we'd decorate it together, Christmas songs playing in the background, and sipping eggnog. We'd spend an eternity untangling the lights, replacing the bulbs that wouldn't work, and replacing the metal hangars on the decorations that needed them. It was an all day affair.

Not this year. Not ever again.

I realized I'd stopped painting, and I was staring. A long drip of paint from my brush was running down the door. The little girl looked at me, almost as if she understood.

"Would you like to help?" I asked.

She looked around, as if to ask if I was talking to her.

"Yes, you."

She shyly nodded yes. I reached over to my bucket of painting supplies and pulled out a small brush. I pointed to the inlaid panels on the bottom half of the door. "You can paint here, around the edge of the panel. It needs to be done with a detail brush like the one you have. Get into the cracks."

She nodded, dipped her brush, and started painting straight down the panel edge, doing a good job.

"That's perfect. Just like that." I went back to work completing the top half, and had to work around her, sometimes leaning way over to paint above her. She saw what I was doing, and I saw the mischievous heart of a little girl for a moment when she started backing away from the door, making me lean further and further over.

"Hey!" I said in mock outrage. "You're doing that on purpose!"

When she giggled, apparently ignoring me, and continuing with her painting effort, I felt a small leap in my heart. It was nice to hear her giggle.

"When you're done with the painting, and done torturing me, you can paint around the edges of the two hinges and the kick-plate. If I won't be in your way."

Little Erica nodded, and continued her careful painting, working slowly and deliberately around the perimeter before moving onto the hinges.

I found myself kneeling beside her, painting the bottom-half of the door, while she detailed the trim. We switched places so I could work on the side near the hinges while she completed the bottom trim.

"Not bad," I commented, holding out a drip bucket for her to dump her brush in. I sealed up the paint can, peeled off the trim tape, and stood back to get a look at the results. A little girl stood beside me, her blonde hair a poignant reminder of all I'd lost. I took a deep breath to compose myself.

"Not bad at all. Think your mother will like it?"

I looked down at her while she thought it over. A smile slowly spread across her face. She nodded twice.

I put my hand down for a fist bump, just like I would with my girls. She shrank away for a second, then glanced up at my face for a second before making a tiny fist and bumping her knuckles against mine.

We were enjoying the last of the natural light as dusk was settling in. Cathy walked out and stood beside us, giving her approval. "The blue is perfect. Great choice Erica."

Erica stopped admiring her work, looked at Cathy, and blinked like she was just seeing her for the first time. She looked up and down the block, then walked back into the house and planted herself in front of the TV.

"Ready to call it a day?" Cathy asked.

"Yeah. Best get while the getting is good." I packed up my paint supplies and in just a couple of trips hid any trace that I'd ever been there. Except of course for the door, yard and fence. Oh, and the toilet, although that really didn't count for much.

Back home I cleaned up and sat down pondering what I'd just done. I had mixed feelings, a little guilt creeping in for taking liberties with someone else's house. But thinking about that little girl, and what she must be going through, made anything I could do to help worthwhile.

Thinking was dangerous. I realized I hadn't been very nice to the people who had tried to help me. I decided to rectify that if possible, and found a new phone cable for my phone and plugged it in. Picking it up I heard a dial tone. Good.

I made a list of phone calls, and went to work. Calling, one-by-one, my friends, neighbors and co-workers, I apologized for my behavior and thanked them for their concern. To a one, they blew off my boorish behavior, and promised they'd be there for me if I needed anything.

I stopped, with just a few calls remaining, wondering where those people were for Sandy and Erica, who seemed to need it far more than I.

I picked up the phone and dialed Denise's family. I knew it was going to be tough. I apologized for leaving the funeral arrangements to them, and thanked them for all they had done. Speaking to Dan was difficult, but my conversation with Sharon almost did me in. The time we'd spent in the hospital, watching over Allora came up, and I had to take a break for a bit to get my emotions under rein, while I listened to Sharon sob. Even after the divorce we'd remained friendly, and I was glad that we'd had each other on that fateful watch. I promised I'd stop by in the next couple of days, she insisted there was some paperwork that needed taking care of.

My last call was to Steve, my roommate for three years in college, and best friend in the world. I had hung up on him twice that first day, and it was haunting me. He'd left more than a dozen messages on my cell-phone voicemail. Plus, I had ulterior motives.

The phone rang several times and went to the answering machine. I felt like a weight had lifted, I wouldn't have to face him. "Steve, Alex here. I'm sorry I..."

"Alex, I'm here, don't hang up, I'm here. Let me turn off this damned machine. Hold on." I heard some rustling and the echo of our voices disappear. "Jesus, Alex. You're killing me."

"Sorry. It hit me so hard; I just couldn't listen to one more well-wisher."

"I understand."

He would understand. His father had passed away while we were in our last year of college, and he took it hard. Started drinking heavy, cutting classes, and chasing anything with boobs. I took care of him as much as I could, going so far as to collect his homework and projects, even talking to his professors. He'd been slow to pull it together, but eventually came around.

Five years later, less than a year out of law school, it was his mother. I had flown out and spent a week with him. I knew it would be hard - he was an only child, and he had few relatives, and none he was close to. He came out of that funk bitter, and it cost him his girlfriend - no loss there. We'd been as close as brothers, hell, probably closer. We still were.

Steven understood.

I opened my soul to him, and stayed on the phone for ages. I heard him send his wife off to bed, while I vented. It was a much needed cathartic outpouring that left me exhausted.

"What can I do? Anything, you know it. Should I fly down?"

As much as I'd love to see him, it had been nearly a year, he was a family man now, and it was Christmas. "No. Stay with your family. I'm doing better, and if I need to I can call."

"Of course."

"I also wanted to say I was sorry."

"Sorry?"

"Sorry that I couldn't do more for you when you lost your parents. I never really experienced losing anyone like that, and couldn't comprehend what you were going through."

"Shut the fuck up. You were there for me, buddy. Always. When nobody else was. I'll never forget that. Enough said. Don't need to be getting sappy over it."

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Alright. By the way, there's one other thing you might be able to do for me."

"Anything. That's what friend are for."

That's what friends are for.

* * *

The pounding on my front door was not unexpected. Ten o'clock at night might be a little of a surprise, but the knock wasn't.

I went to the front door, and looked out through the glass beside it. A woman stood there. I had a fairly good idea of who it was.

I opened the door. "Mrs. Morrison?"

She glared at me and nodded.

"Come in, please. Can I get you a cup of tea, or coffee?" I turned and walked into the house, leaving the door open. I walked to the kitchen, and poured myself a cup of coffee. I turned to see her standing in the archway to the living room.

She looked ready to burst, but I watched her breath deep and run her hands through her short hair. She looked young. Too young to be going through the hell she was currently experiencing.

"I don't want you around my house or my daughter," she finally snapped.

"I understand, and I'm sorry I interfered." I walked past her and sat down in the living room. "I can't explain it. I had to do something to get out of this house, and when Cathy told me about your situation I guess I got carried away."

She stared at me, and crossed her arms. "Don't mention her name. I could kill her."

I smiled. "Believe me, I understand that. She's been in my house every day, 3 or 4 times a day, meddling in my life."

"Meddling is right," she snapped. She walked over and sat on the loveseat across from me. "Listen. I appreciate the thought. And I'm sorry for your loss." She smirked. "Ha, listen to me. Sorry for your loss. Crap."

She leaned back. "We're doing fine. I don't need your help, I don't know you from Adam, and I don't want you around my daughter when nobody's around. Jesus, you painted my frickin' front door blue! A little presumptuous, don't you think?"

I smiled. "I would have picked the wood tone. Blue was Erica's choice, one of the four approved colors according to our Stalinist homeowner's association."

She leaned back, rolling her eyes up. "Don't remind me. If the bastards send me one more notice about yard and fence maintenance, I'll rip their lungs out." She seemed to calm down for a second, maybe realizing that those notices would no longer be coming. "I know. I should be thankful but I don't need a stranger meddling in my life. Understood? No more doing things for me."

"I didn't do it for you. I did it for that little girl. You don't know me. I don't know you. Agreed. I don't know what happened to you and your family or why. Not really. What I do know is that girl of yours doesn't deserve the hand she's been dealt. That's all I could think. I just wanted to help where I could."

She looked angry. "I'm sorry you lost your daughters. I am. But Erica is MINE. My daughter. My responsibility. Not yours."

"You are right. She's no responsibility of mine."

"That's right. I don't know you. We live three doors down and in two years you've never spoken a word to us. Six months we've been on our own. I certainly don't need you poking your head in now. I don't know you, I don't want to know you, and I'm not sure I'd like you if I did."

"Welcome to the club."

"Club?"

"I'm not sure I like me either. I'm sorry, alright? Now I'm tired. You can let yourself out."

She got up and stomped her way to the front door, closing it sharply behind her.

That had gone better than I'd expected.

* * *

December 23rd. I got up early, cleaning up, even shaving. I had errands to run. Cathy showed up in my kitchen while I was preparing breakfast.

"At least neither of us is in jail," were her first words.

"Not yet."

"You did a good thing. Don't forget it."

"I know. Still she was right. We should have asked permission."

"The hell we should! She'd never have given it."

"Then maybe we should leave her be."

"If a person was drowning, and they couldn't yell for help, wouldn't you still throw them a life preserver?"

"A little overly-dramatic, don't you think?"

"No. She's going down for the third time, and is in complete denial. By the time she accepts the fact she needs help it could be too late." She looked me over. "You clean up nicely. What are you up to?"

"I need to run some errands, see a few people, stop by work, some other stuff."

"Don't overdue it," she said, still in her 'caring' mode. "Need some company?"

"Thanks, I appreciate the offer. I can handle this."

"Ok, you have my number. Give me a call if you need anything."

* * *

The office visit was painful. I stopped in, thanking my bosses for their understanding, visiting a few friends and letting them know I appreciated their concern. The way they looked at me just drove home how alone I was. I was glad to get out of there.

I made a visit to the florist and picked up a trunk-load of Christmas cacti. I drove around to everyone I could think of, expressing my gratitude, and leaving the pretty plants behind. I used the same corny line with each one, comparing my 'prickliness' the last couple of weeks to the plant's spines. I left a few plants on doorsteps with a note. By mid-afternoon I felt I'd done my part.

I stopped by Denise's parent's house, and Sharon greeted me at the door with a hug before she broke into tears. After she'd soaked my shirt she brought me in.

"There's something you need to know, Alex."

She sounded odd, and I wondered what was up.

"Denise left a will. She left you the house and the lion's share of her insurance, to take care of the girls if anything happened to her."

I was stunned. It was so unexpected. "I... I don't know what to say."

Sharon reached out and patted my hand. "It's not what I'd expected, but if you think about it, it makes sense. What are you going to do?"

"I guess I'll sell the house. I certainly don't need two houses."

"She had mortgage insurance, it'll be paid off. You could rent it out, you know. Earn some steady income off of it."

It was too much too fast. I couldn't think straight. "I'll have to think about it. I just wasn't expecting anything like this."

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