Charity Begins Next Door

byTx Tall Tales©

"I understand." She held my hand. "How are you doing?"

"Better. Not good, but at least I can get out of bed."

"We're here if you need us. You know that, right?"

"Yes. Thank you. After the girls, you were the best thing that came out of our marriage."

"We love you too. Don't forget it."

"I'm sorry I was so useful about the funeral arrangements, I don't think I could have handled it without you," I confessed.

"Don't even think about it. That's what family is for."

That's what family is for.

* * *

My day wasn't quite complete. A few more calls and I was putting things in motion I wasn't sure I should, but I couldn't resist.

Around dinner time, I ventured next door. Cathy's husband John answered the door. "The hermit has left the cave. Good to see you out and about." He shook my hand, letting me in. "Cath - Alex is here."

Cathy came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. "How'd your day go?"

"Not bad. A few surprises, but I survived."

"We're about to eat. Care to sit down with us?"

"Maybe. When do you think Sandy will be getting home?"

"Probably nineish, would be my guess. Why?"

"Just want to talk to her if I can."

"You have time for dinner then?"

"Sure."

* * *

By 8:30 I was enjoying a cigar with John, sitting out in their driveway, trying to figure out what our football team's chances were of going anywhere in the playoffs. We were strategically positioned so I had a view of the Morrison's driveway.

When Sandy drove up, I excused myself from John and jogged across the alley.

"Sandy, can I talk to you a moment?"

She looked ready to chase me off, but after a few awkward seconds she crossed her arms, leaned back against the car and raised her eyebrows.

"Again, I'm sorry I entered your house without your permission. I know that was wrong. All I can say is I wasn't really thinking straight."

She rolled her eyes. "Anything else?"

"Yes. I know you told me you didn't need my help, but there's someone I'd like you speak to. I have a friend that's a lawyer, and he's willing to check into your insurance situation pro bono. Like you and me, he's suffered a few losses in life, and he'd like to help you if he can. If you'd just give him a call, he'll see what he can do."

I could see she wanted to say no, but was torn. She gnawed on her bottom lip, which I saw were chapped. She looked exhausted. I pulled out his card and held it out to her. "It'll only take a couple of minutes. It can't hurt."

She finally nodded and took the card from me. "Is that it?"

"One last thing. I'm headed over to my ex-wife's house tomorrow to clean out the refrigerator, and to get rid of her tree. It's my responsibility now. I was going to ditch the tree; it's one of those pre-lit artificial ones which I never could stand. I thought, if you don't mind, and it's not interfering too much, I could bring it by here and you could take if off my hands. Otherwise it's going to the dump." I spit out the words quickly before she could find too much fault with me.

She seemed resigned to allow me to interfere, at least this much. She sighed and finally spoke up. "Alright. That would be nice. Now if that's all, I'd like to go in now. My feet and back are aching and I have to get up early tomorrow."

"That's all. You can call Steve tonight if you'd like, he's a night owl and is expecting your call. Good night."

I took off quickly before she could change her mind about anything.

* * *

I had recruited Cathy's help over dinner the night before, assuming things went Ok with Sandy, and by noon we were back at the Morrison house, knocking on the door.

Erica let us in, and we hauled our goodies in after us. I had the tree folded up and left it on the front doorstep while we made room for it in the living room. After I'd put it in place, I hauled in a large plastic crate of Christmas decorations, and encouraged Cathy and Erica to get to work making the tree look 'festive'. Right on schedule my weekly cleaning crew showed up and I put them to work giving the entire house a thorough cleaning. I had felt guilty chasing them away the last few weeks, and had begged and cajoled them into doing me this one favor, on Christmas Eve of all days. The team of four went to work like whirling dervishes, storming through the rooms in pairs leaving sparking chrome and sweet smells in their wake.

We only had a few hours if Cathy was right, and I had one more big task lined up. The Chem-Dry carpet cleaners were running a little late, but showed up not long after the cleaning crew had finished with the living and dining rooms, and I had moved most of the furniture into the hallways and kitchen. They went right to work, and had the downstairs completed in a little over an hour. While they worked at that, I spent the time decorating the front yard and the house with Christmas lights. I hoped that Sandy liked traditional multi-color displays. I wasn't all that fond of the 'all-white' look, and was using my own lights to decorate her house. By the time I had finished I was sweating up a storm, and was getting nervous about the time.

The carpet guys left first, reminding me to let the carpet dry for another hour before returning the furniture to its place. The cleaning crew followed shortly after, and I'd rewarded them nicely, tipping them an extra $100 for coming out on Christmas Eve. I moved indoors, with the lights complete and lit up, to find a Christmas wonderland awaiting me.

Cathy and Erica had done an amazing job, using what I had brought over and getting the Morrison's decorations out of the attic and putting those to use as well. You could hardly tell it was the same house.

"You ladies have done an incredible job!" I announced, standing in the doorway.

Cathy looked a little disheveled but very pleased with herself. "Let's finish up quick. I have to get home; John's going to kill me."

I'd promised her we'd be done by 4:00 and it was already nearly 5:00. She was holding a Christmas Eve open-house and was expecting half of the neighborhood over that evening. She only had a couple of hours left to finish her own preparations. I gave her a hug for all of her effort and shooed her off, while I started hauling the furniture back into place, working at a frenzied pace to get done before the unsuspecting benefactor got home.

Erica followed behind me, arranging all the lamps, baskets and knick-knacks, and adding additional holiday decorations as we went. With the last of the furniture in place, I turned and gave her a high-five.

"This is all our secret, right? If your Mom asks, the Christmas elves stopped by to help clean up. You did a great job, Erica."

She smiled and held her arms out to me. I leaned down and gave her a hug.

"Thank you," she whispered, just before she let go and disappeared up the stairs.

I felt a lump in my throat. Whether it was fear of being caught by her mother, or the joy of hearing her speak her first words to me, I couldn't be sure.

* * *

By eight o'clock, Sandy still hadn't shown up on my front-doorstep with a shotgun. I guess she was going to wait until after Christmas to eviscerate me over meddling where I didn't belong.

I didn't care. I felt good, the best I'd felt in two weeks, thinking about that little girl celebrating a real Christmas. Kids should have Christmas.

I had cleaned up and decided to make an appearance next door, as I'd promised, when I got a call from Steve.

"Hey-ho, Stevorino."

"Only my Grandma gets to say that, asshole."

"Merry fuckin' Christmas to you too." I teased.

I heard him chuckle. "Merry Christmas is right. At least for your neighbor."

"How's that?" I asked, suddenly interested.

"The insurance creeps were just stalling. They don't have a leg to stand on. The only change to the policy was upon their advice after an annual policy review by their own agent. A little legal pressure was all it took. It's not a lot, less than $300K, but she'll be getting her check next week."

"Steve, you're the man. I take back all those nasty things I said about you."

"Shit, they're probably true. If anybody would know, it'd be you."

"All kidding aside. You're a life saver."

I knew he hated any hint of seriousness. I could almost hear him blushing over the phone. "Hey, that's what friends are for, right?"

"That's right. And I couldn't ask for a better one."

"Ditto. Asshole."

"Shit. You had to go and spoil it. Listen, I gotta run. Give your family my love and have a great Christmas. I'll give you a call next week."

"You got it. And Darla sends her love. She made me say that. Don't get any ideas."

"Got it. Give her a kiss for me. Scratch that. I'll come out after the holidays and give it to her myself. When are you going to be out of town next?"

"Funny guy. Start anything with her, and I'll make you keep her and the credit card bills."

"Ouch. You win," I had to laugh. "Thanks again."

"Merry Christmas. Hang in there buddy."

"You too."

* * *

I made my appearance next door, and stoically accepted the offered condolences which were definitely putting me in the wrong state of mind. After only half-an-hour I knew I had to get out of there, even if it did piss off Cathy.

John seemed to catch my mood, and dragged me outdoors to enjoy a cigar in semi-peace. With a heavily spiked eggnog in hand, and a more than decent Rocky Patel Decade burning nicely, I was willing to stick it out a little longer when he headed back indoors.

"I should skin you alive for that little stunt, you know."

I heard a voice coming from poolside, and headed that way to face the music. Sandy was sitting there alone, a large, mostly empty glass of wine at her side.

"I know. I was bad. But I'm done now."

"What were you thinking?" she snapped.

"I just wanted Erica to have a decent Christmas, and wanted to help you out a little in your effort to sell your house."

She cackled, and it wasn't a pretty sound. "You too? You just barely met me and you're so damn eager to get me out of the neighborhood."

Her words surprised me. "Not at all. I'm just trying to fight back a bit against the unfairness of the world. What are you doing out here alone, anyway?"

"I can't stand the way they look at me. Like suicide is contagious or something. They don't know what to say; they all avoid me, or look at me like I was a leper or something."

"People can be assholes."

She smiled. "I'll drink to that."

I sat beside her and drank my 80 proof eggnog in silence. We watched a small group come out and start talking while they lit up their cancer sticks.

"I know you mean well, Alex. But you can stop now, Ok?" she said softly.

"One last thing."

"Please. Enough already."

"Steve called. Everything's cleared up with the insurance. You'll get your check next week."

She looked at me like I'd grown a third eye, completely stunned. "Really?"

"Really."

She finished her wine, gulping it down, then sat back. "Shit. Six fucking months they drag it out and then suddenly, like that," she snapped her fingers, "they're willing to pay up?"

"Steve's good."

She leaned forward and held her head in her hands. After a few seconds I could see her body was shaking. She was crying, silently.

"I'm sorry it took so long. If I'd been a better neighbor, we might have taken care of this months ago."

She sat up abruptly, and I could see the streak of the tears on her face. "Don't. Don't apologize. Just don't, Ok?"

"Ok."

I sat awkwardly, while she wiped her eyes and turned away from me, staring out at the backyard. I leaned over and took her empty glass. "Can I get you a refill?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes, please. Thanks."

"Be right back."

It took a few minutes to navigate the crowd around the bar, and to endure the late arrivals expressing their sorrow over my "loss". Like they know anything about loss. Shit. I was happy to get back outside, away from the doe-eyed suburban mommy's pity and their awkward mumbling husbands.

I plopped down next to Sandy. "Jesus. Next time you can make the booze run." I told her passing the wine glass over.

She gave me a twisted smile. "You volunteered, remember?"

"Don't remind me."

"That's what you get for being a Good Samaritan."

"That's it for me. Believe me, I've learned my lesson."

She chuckled. "Somehow I doubt that."

My cigar had gone out, and it would have been a shame to waste it. I ventured into the smoker arena long enough for a light, and immediately regretted it, catching the sidelong glances they gave each other, knowing what they were thinking. I didn't spend a moment there longer then I had to, hustling back to my solitude and Sandy. The only kindred soul at this soirée who might feel a tenth of the loss I that was consuming me.

There was one last thing I wanted to do, but I didn't know how she'd take it. I thought that maybe, just maybe, with one more glass of wine under her belt, she might acquiesce.

"Sandy?"

"Mmmm. I don't know if I like the sound of that. Are you up to something again?"

"No. Maybe. Not really. I mean, well, can I show you something next door?"

She gave me an odd look, which lasted quite a long time. "Can I bring my wine?"

"Of course. It'll only take a minute."

She stood, and followed me out the gate. We walked around the fence to my driveway and into my backyard. As we crossed my patio she piped up.

"Just because I've had a few drinks, and just because you did something nice doesn't mean you're going to get anywhere with me, I hope you know."

Her words slammed into me like a bucket of cold water. I hadn't even thought about anything like that. I turned and looked at her. She didn't look bad. Not at all. She cleaned up nicely, and even if she was ridiculously skinny, I could see she was an attractive woman. Funny that I'd never even noticed. I stood there trying to think of how to reply.

"Jesus, Alex. I'm just teasing you."

It took me a few seconds to reply. "That was the furthest thing from my mind."

"Of course. Believe me. I understand." Her sardonic reply was more surprising then the original tease.

Caught without a response, I entered the house and led her to the living room.

"What did you want to show me?"

I turned on the light in the living room, and moved out of the way.

"Holy crap!"

I gestured toward the piles of gifts. "They were for my girls. I don't know what to do with them."

"That's all for your girls?" she asked, looking on in wonder.

"Yeah. I kind of over do it."

"I'll say."

"I'd like Erica to have them. She doesn't have to know they're from me. They can all be from Santa if you'd like. If you don't take them, I... I don't know what I'll do with them."

"It's too much, Alex. It's a nice gesture, really. But it's too much."

"Please. No strings. Do it for Erica."

She stood silent for a while, before she turned to me. "Why? Why now?"

"I don't know. Look, they're just sitting there. I'll end up donating them to some charity or something. I've got a ton of gifts, and nobody left to give them too. You've got a sweet little girl who has one present under the tree and could use a bit of joy in her life."

She wandered around the room, nudging the gifts with her foot, not answering, taking the occasional sip from her glass. She eventually wandered back and stood beside me.

She stood quietly for several seconds, apparently pondering a reply. "It's not fair," she finally muttered.

That wasn't what I'd expected. "No shit. Life's about as unfair as I could ever imagine," I answered honestly. "Good people get hurt for no apparent reason. Jack-offs seem to glide along easily without a care in the world. Innocent little girls have their lives cut short meaninglessly. Good-hearted neighbors have their lives crapped on as if it was some big cosmic joke." I could hear my own voice getting louder and more frustrated. "Life's a fucking kick in the ass, and every time it looks like something nice might come out of it, some cosmic comedian pulls the rug out from under you. What kind of God destroys a family for no good reason? Hunh? Answer me that!" I was almost shouting by the end of my tirade.

"I...I think I need to go home now." She turned and started walking away.

I chased after her, "Please, can you take just a few? Please. It's killing me to see them here."

She stumbled a bit, then paused. Without turning she said, "Bring over what you want around midnight." Then she slipped out the back door.

I took a few minutes to compose myself after she left. I'd made a complete ass of myself. Oh well. About par for the course. I decided to make another short appearance at Cathy's to at least say my goodnights. My nosy neighbor caught me the moment I made it in the door. "John told me you were around, but I couldn't find you anywhere."

"I ran into Sandy, and we broken people sort of hid out in your backyard."

She looked at me quizzically. "I was kind of surprised she came over. She didn't say a word about what we did this afternoon."

"Lucky you. I've still got the scars," I teased. Then I told her a little about our discussion, including the insurance situation and the deal with the gifts.

"Thank God. Maybe she can finally stop working 16 hours a day, and spend some time with her daughter. That'll be nice. I was wondering what you were going to do with all those gifts. I was afraid you were going to make a memorial out of them, leaving them there year after year, until the dust was an inch thick over them."

Her words stung a bit. "I'm not that bad."

"No, you're not. Although you had me worried there for a bit. It's just a hard thing to take. I understand that."

"I guess it's not a problem now."

She smiled. "I guess not. Erica's a lucky little girl."

"I don't know if I'd say that, but at least she might have a nice Christmas."

"I'm glad you came over tonight. A lot of our friends were worried for you. Your appearance was a nice Christmas gift for them as well."

"I can't say I really care too much. I know it sounds harsh, but how they feel isn't really high up there on my list of priorities at the moment."

"That's Ok. It's still nice that you came."

"I appreciate your inviting me. And for being the nagging neighborly meddlesome busybody you've been for the last couple of weeks."

She laughed. "That's the nicest thing anybody's said to me in a while, and in the nastiest way. I guess you are feeling a little better."

I sighed. "A little. Although I doubt Christmas will ever be the same for me again."

She moved in and gave me a hug. "It'll never be the same. But it may still, someday, be Ok."

I hugged her back, quietly. I doubted it.

* * *

Back home, I dressed down to sweats and a t-shirt, torturing myself a little by watching The Little Drummer Boy, Briana's favorite. Life was so fucking unfair. My girls were gone. It was Christmas and I was alone. I'd never, ever, spend another Christmas with Briana and Allora. Never.

An hour later I was at Sandy's back door with three huge garbage bags full of gifts. It had taken me two trips. I knocked softly and a few moments later Sandy let me in. She'd gotten rid of her party clothes as well, answering the door in a plain robe. She looked tired. I guessed that she'd been waiting up for me.

"Erica?" I asked softly.

"Asleep," she confirmed, taking one of the bags from me.

Quietly we headed to her front room and started spreading out the gifts. On each one, I removed the existing tag and she put a new sticker 'from Santa' on it. She asked me what was in each, but I couldn't remember all of them. Still, I was able to fill her in on the majority. She must have had some plan in mind, because she organized them according to my descriptions of their probable contents, separating them in neat little piles. After about 15 minutes I looked over and saw her shaking her head.

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