Charity Begins Next Door

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Life isn't fair. So when you fight back, fight dirty.
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Life isn't fair. So when you fight back, fight dirty.


Christmas has always been my favorite time of year.

I married young, and had two perfect daughters, but my marriage was far from perfect. We had been young and in love. I was entering the community college and Denise was starting her senior year when we decided to tie the knot. Her family's ready acceptance of me was a huge factor - the family I'd never had, making me feel like a real member of theirs. I can admit it now; I probably loved being a part of the family as much as I loved Denise.

Our split up was inevitable, two teenagers who knew nothing about life thinking their infatuation with each other would make everything else workout. I wasn't an all-star, super jock, Rhodes Scholar with a 12" swinging dick. I was just your average student, A's and B's, spending some bench time on the football team to get my letter, and losing my virginity at 18 to the girl I'd eventually marry.

When times got rough, we didn't know how to handle it, and struck out at each other. Her family often stepped in and helped out when they could, but time after time, the great sex wasn't enough to make up for the difference in our wants, needs and ambitions.

In the end, we gave up. Sometimes I think it's a miracle we made it through 5 years. Our devotion to our children allowed us to finally see past our own issues, and work out a remarkably amiable truce, with our girls at the center. Even though Denise and I couldn't live together, it turned out we got along a lot better divorced. We shared our daughters' time, lived only one neighborhood apart, and worked together as a team to make our personal differences have as little impact on our girls as possible.

I had initially shared an apartment uptown, but eventually bought one of the smallest houses in the same school district, just to make things easier. It was a lot more than I needed most of the time, but when the girls stayed with me it felt like a home. And we only lived a couple of miles apart.

The neighborhood was nice, predominantly younger families, in older, smallish homes. Most of the people were cordial, kept up their property, and after a few years I knew many by name and would exchange greetings at the grocery store, or when out shopping. I had become suburbanized.

This was our fourth Christmas since the divorce. Denise was living with Eric, who I wish I could despise, but he was a decent guy with a great job and lousy taste in sports teams. He doted on my girls without trying to take my place. It had taken a while, but we'd developed a friendship, which wasn't a bad thing.

My child support was pegged at just over $1500, with the kids on my health insurance. Even though we weren't married long enough for alimony to kick in, I was paying another $500 a month just to make the kids' lives better. And for me, that was all that really mattered.

The expense had been rough at first, but with little to concentrate on other than work, my performance skyrocketed. Two promotions in three years had made the financial aspect much less problematic, but increased travel had made the ability to be available for the girls less guaranteed. Denise was good about it, and worked with me. In return I picked up some more of the girls' expenses, including music lessons and a piano.

Christmas was special. We celebrated Christmas an an extended family. I'd come over early, and we'd have a big family breakfast and open all the presents together. I really went all out to make sure the girls got their favorite items. At six and eight years old, they were still young enough to have simple wants, and the magic of Christmas was as real as it gets. The in-laws would come over in the afternoon with more presents and we'd have a good old fashioned Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. It was nice to be part of something.

I got a Christmas shut-down at work and Denise didn't, so we agreed that they'd stay with me from Christmas to New Year's, and any time she could get off, we'd usually work out something to get her time with the kids. It was understood that I wouldn't leave town, at least not for more than a day.

Summer was great with the 2 weeks I got to spend with them, and we'd usually spend it on the beach. Christmas was still different. Christmas was magical.

I always was given the girl's wish list, but I'd also start my shopping in late November for the must have items of the season. And I wasn't stingy; I'd buy them all up, just to make sure I didn't miss any. Stores, online auctions, Craigslist, I'd use any way possible to get my hands on the hottest presents. The first two years I'd caught hell from Denise for buying everything on the list, leaving nothing for them to get. Now I received a separate list of things I wasn't allowed to buy.

So it was that I had just finished wrapping my forty-fourth present, all in glitter Barbie paper for Briana, and in Hannah Montana paper for Allora. December 5th, my earliest date so far to finish the bulk of my shopping. Sure, I'd pick up a few more things, including something for Denise and Eric, but my girls were taken care of. The presents were carefully spread around my living room, where they'd remain on display until just before Christmas, when I'd bring them over to Denise's in a big ceremony.

The call came from Denise's mother, Sharon. It took me 11 minutes flat to get to the hospital. I was still too late. Denise and Briana had both died en-route. Eric had passed away only ten minutes before I'd arrived. But Allora, my perfect little Allora, was fighting for her life, in critical condition. She'd always been a fighter, would never back down from any challenge. She'd beat this too, I just knew it.

It was a freak accident, with a car dodging out of the way to miss a coyote on the road. An 18 wheeler behind the car did his best to avoid the car in front of him, but ended up fishtailing, and taking out a suburban in the next lane over. That vehicle crossed the median and hit my ex-wife's family van head-on. Six dead already and one little girl still fighting hard for her dear life.

Sharon and I kept a vigil over the little towhead, and when the doctors came out after 6 hours and declared the worst was over and she was in stable condition, we fell into each other's arms and cried like children.

We stayed by her side, one of us always present, and Sharon called me when my baby woke up and spoke. For three long days we watched her slowly heal in the hospital, the worst of her bruises, cuts and contusions blossoming on the second day, and only just starting to fade again. I'm not a religious guy by nature, but I found myself on my knees beside her bed, praying to God to take care of her, and giving thanks for pulling her through this horrendous disaster.

At 4:18 pm on December 7th she passed away.

No warning, no reason, she was there, and then she wasn't. The doctors suspected a clot. I suspected incompetence.

I finally understood how a person could get so down on themselves that life might not even feel worth living.

I went home and shut myself off from the world. After a while I took the phone off the hook. Hell, let's be honest, I ripped the fucking wires out of the wall so I didn't have to listen to one more bleeding heart tell me they were "sorry for my loss". The cell phone was easier. I just turned it off.

Several people from work came by and assured me that I could take as much time as I needed. They'd bring me food, and news, and would leave as soon as they felt they'd spent the minimum time required socially by the situation.

Denise's family took care of the funeral arrangements. They attempted to call, and even stopped by for my input. I gave them a check for $10,000 to take care of the girls, nearly wiping out my savings. What was I going to spend it on now? I couldn't bring myself to go to the showing but I did take a shower and put on a suit for the funeral. It was a bleak day, gray skies, 20 mile an hour winds threatening to tear the top off of the outdoor tent. The ground was soggy from rain the previous night. Just perfect.

"Thanks, God. Piss on a guy when he's down. Well, fuck You too."

I shook the required hands, and kissed the offered cheeks until I just couldn't take it any longer. All these fake people. Fake emotions. Tell me how sorry they were then go home to their perfect little families and eat meatloaf. Fuck'em. Fuck'em all.

Fourteen days. Two solid weeks in that dark house. I wouldn't turn on any lights. No TV. I didn't bathe, I didn't shave. I sat in my chair or I lay in my bed and wallowed.

I had a few visitors after the first couple of days, but I'd rarely let them in, and before long they had the decency to stop showing up. Only Cathy from next door wouldn't let me sink into complete oblivion. Every day, at least 3 times a day, she'd check in on me. I wouldn't have let her in, but she had a key to the back door for emergencies and wasn't afraid to use it.

She'd open the windows a crack, and goad me into getting out of bed and at least sit in the living room. She'd bring food, which she'd set in front of me, and refused to leave until I at least tried it. I insisted on getting my key back, and she handed it over willingly enough. And showed up again the next day. She'd made copies. Meddlesome bitch. Again, she badgered me into eating her breakfast.

And she'd talk. God, how that woman could talk! I got tired just listening.

All the neighborhood gossip, town gossip, political gossip, school gossip - she was plugged in everywhere and knew it all. Who was doing what, or whom. Griping about people who still had Thanksgiving decorations up, or had Christmas blowups in their front yard. Church fiascos and neighborhood vendettas, she would sit there, drink her tea (or bourbon and coke if the sun had set) and fill me in.

I didn't care.

It had been two weeks since the accident. I'd lost more than 10 pounds, and really just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. But Cathy wouldn't let me. She made it her personal mission to cheer me up, get me to respond, bring me back to life.

Then one day she let me have it with both barrels.

She walked up to me and slapped me across the face. Hard. "Damn it Alex! Snap out of it! Life is hard. And it isn't fair, but as bad as you have it, there's always someone who has it worse. Often in your own backyard if you have the eyes to see it."

"What do you know about it?" I snapped viciously. "I notice your kids are alive."

"I know my mother died when I was six, and my father left when I was thirteen, leaving Mike to raise my sister and me. He was seventeen years old. But he manned-up and did the job the best he could. That's what I know. Life is hard."

"Life is hard. Life's a bitch and then you die. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When God closes a door he opens a window. If I hear one more God-damned cliché I swear I'll kill something," I growled.

"Alex, you got a raw deal. You had two perfect little girls, and now they're gone. Your past is shattered. Your little bit of immortality is lost. And as bad as you've got it, I'd remind you others have it worse, and they just press on. You need to as well," Cathy told me, kneeling beside me and holding my hands.

The woman barely knew me. A middle-aged mother of three with grown kids, and a workaholic husband. Her life was her home, keeping it immaculate and decorated for every holiday and season. Now it seemed I was her newest project. Why should I matter that much to her? Couldn't she see I didn't want her help?

"Sure, starving Ethiopians, children in Nigeria dying of aids, Tibetan monks martyred, it's a tough world. Boo hoo."

"You don't have to look as far as Ethiopia or Tibet. There are people right here, right on your own block that are really struggling. Open your eyes. If you don't like the unfairness do something about it. Even up the odds a bit. Make a difference somewhere. Get back to living."

Something she said must have gnawed its way down to my subconscious. I spent my usual 14 hours or so in bed, but when I awoke I was thinking about her constant comments about someone in my own backyard that had it worse.

I cataloged each person on my block, in my head, and nobody really had it that bad. Sure, Neil, three doors down had lost his job, but his wife was still working, and he was looking. The Harris's on the corner had a boy in Iraq, but as far as I could tell he was still Ok, and they had three more at home. The Martins, one down from the corner, fought all the time, and even had the cops called in on them once but they were still together. What did Cathy mean?

I expanded the radius of consideration to include the blocks surrounding us. Then it hit me. Across the alley in back, two houses past Cathy's own. Six months ago. Barry Morrison had driven into an empty field behind the local middle school and eaten a bullet. I didn't know much about the family - I just knew there was one.

When Cathy came over, I had showered off the top two layers of grime and sweat, and was drinking a Coke in the living room.

"Good morning, Alex, beautiful day outside. Why don't we go out on the porch?"

"The Morrisons. Tell me about them."

She placed her mug of tea in the microwave, warming it up, then walked out my front door and sat in one of my rocking chairs out front.

Irritated, I followed, and sat in the chair beside her. "The Morrisons?"

"Sandy and her daughter Erica. You won't see much of her; she's working two jobs trying to keep the house over their heads. They're still fighting with the insurance company over payment. Suicide clause won't pay under two years. He had insurance for years, but just around two years ago he changed the terms. She's been trying to sell the house, but it's underwater, and nobody's buying."

"How's the little one?"

"Erica's not doing so well. She's seeing a counselor twice a week, and hardly speaks anymore. The school's talking about holding her back," Cathy explained. She sounded sad.

"Do we know anything more about why he did it?"

"No crimes, he wasn't fired, no embezzling, it's not clear what it was about. Apparently he'd been depressed for quite a while, but the underlying situation is still a blank as far as I know."

"Harsh on the family, going out like that," I told her, finding the whole idea hard to grasp.

"To say the least. The poor woman is worn to a frazzle."

"And how does this all matter to me?" I asked.

"It doesn't. It doesn't have to matter to anybody. They're on their own. Alone."

"No family help?"

"Not that I know of. If they're around, we don't see much of them, that's for sure."

"Cathy, how the hell do you know all this stuff?" I had to ask.

"People just like to talk to me. I'm a very good listener," she told me with a big smile.

We sat quietly enjoying the crisp air, finishing our drinks.

"You're a good neighbor too, Cathy. Thanks," I said softly.

"That's what neighbors are for," she said, reaching out and patting me on my arm.

That's what neighbors are for.

* * *

Cathy brought me dinner again and I realized I was starving. She beamed at me when I finished the whole platter.

"Let's go for a walk, Alex. You could use a stretch of the legs."

It had gotten chilly, and we bundled up a bit. She took the lead and we walked down the block and turned up the neighborhood. We headed back up the next block and she regaled me with the entire history and habits of the inhabitants of each place we passed. She might have been a good listener, but I had to wonder when she ever was quiet long enough to hear anything.

It was obvious when we got to Sandy Morrison's place. The "For Sale" sign was a dead giveaway. The unkempt yard and overgrown bushes indicated a lack of care for months. It couldn't help with the sales prospects. The door paint was faded, and there were no Christmas lights or decorations set up. I thought the Realtor wasn't earning their commission, letting the place show like this. Through the window I could see a desktop Christmas tree, maybe two feet tall, lit up all in white.

Strangely, Cathy stopped speaking before we got to the house, and didn't speak again until the end of the block. "Sad," was all she said.

We took a round-about path back to my house, and our conversation had returned to the safety of weather concerns, community issues, and such, carefully skirting any discussion of the Morrisons.

I was feeling the chill after the walk, and invited Cathy in for a cup of coffee, Irish fortified if she so desired.

We drank our coffee in front of my gas fireplace, warming our old bones. Damn that neighbor of mine, and her good intentions! She'd not only gotten me to think of something other than my own misery, and the unfairness of it all, but she had me thinking about those poor girls behind me, and what they must be going through. Damn it! It wasn't fair.

I guess I still wasn't ready for pleasant company. Angry at the world, I threw my mug at the wall, shattering it, and leaned over with my head in my hands, doing my best to hold back the tears. Big boys don't cry.

Cathy stood and ran her fingers through my hair for just a moment before leaving out the back door. Kind enough to leave me alone to wallow in my misery a little longer.

* * *

December 22nd. Just three days until Christmas.

When Cathy came over that morning, I was already up and dressed. I had my working duds on and coffee and bagels ready.

"You're up early," she commented, helping herself to the java.

"It's almost 10," I reminded her. "Not so awfully early."

She laughed. "Seems to me anything before noon is quite early as of late. Got plans?"

I nodded. "Thought I'd head over to the Morrison's and see what I can do about the outside of the house. Clean it up a bit. Make it a little more presentable if they're really planning on selling it."

"That's mighty neighborly of you."

"It'll give me something to do. I need to get out of this damned house."

After our coffee, she walked with me across the alley, all my yard-work gear in a wheelbarrow. The grass was dormant, but long, and the bushes were out of control. I didn't notice when Cathy left, but she returned in a few hours with some sandwiches for lunch, insisting I take a break.

I'd finished the bush trimming and had mowed the lawn, bagging the trimmings. I was just finishing the edging when she appeared. I took a break, and listened to her chatter about the neighborhood activities, and how sad it was that in the past few months nobody had offered to do as much as I had.

"I guess we victims of fate need to stick together."

"It already looks 100% better. If you want to work in the backyard, I have a key to the gate."

"It figures you would."

"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked.

"It just doesn't surprise me. I bet you've been helping out when you could."

She sighed. "Not too much. She's too damn proud. Doesn't want any help from anybody."

I shook my head. "Now you tell me. She'll probably call the police on me."

"So what if she does? You know you're doing the right thing. I'll bail you out if need be."

I let her unlock the back gate, and saw I had my work cut out for me. The back yard was worse than the front. The fence needed work as well, some boards were broken and loose, and one whole section was sagging. Luckily, my tools were only a couple of hundred feet away, across the alley, and I was soon at work, determined to finish before the residents arrived home.

The biggest problem was one of the fence posts which had rotted out at the bottom. A new post and some quick-setting cement, solved that problem. Within an hour I'd be able to reattach the fence crossbeams to the new 4x4.

I turned to see a young girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, watching me from the porch. Crap.