Returning the Favor and other Slices of Life

Returning the Favor
Returning the Favor
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Christmas Lights

Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, when all the women were running around to the mall looking for the latest sale on this or that, Jeremiah Green would get up early, go to the garage and get down the cardboard boxes of lights. Then he’d get out the ladder, the hammer, and the extension cords and set to work. He’d work most of the day, with a break around lunchtime for a sandwich made from yesterday’s dried-out turkey on white bread with French’s yellow mustard and Miracle whip and maybe some celery on the side with salt sprinkled on it. He’d sit on the porch in his old flannel shirt eating his turkey sandwich and celery, and crack open a Pabst from the cooler in the garage.

Helen didn’t cotton much to drinkin’ so he only had himself a beer on those rare occasions when she was gone and he had the house to himself. Most years a six-pack bought after the Fourth of July would last the rest of the year, then he’d allow himself another beer or two for New Year’s after Helen had gone to bed. She’d long since given up caring about watching some silly ball drop, figuring that she could tell it was a new year when she looked at the calendar the next morning at breakfast. The day changed every evening without her help; she didn’t need to stay up past her bedtime just to ring anything in. Jeremiah liked to watch all the commotion on the tv, so he usually stayed up and had himself a beer or two while that Clark fella nattered on until he fell asleep. Then he’d wake up sometime in the middle of the night and go to bed.

Then once he finished his turkey sandwich, Jeremiah (not once in his eighty-two years was he ever Jerry or Jer, or God forbid, Jed) would lean the ladder up against the side of the house and start to string the lights. By the time Helen got home from shopping with her sisters it would be full-on dark, and Jeremiah would be back inside watching Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy if she ran particularly late. Once she got home and got all her prizes deposited in the front bedroom for later wrapping and distribution, they’d go out in the front yard together and take a minute standing on the lawn of the house he bought when he got home from the war, a time he never really talked about, not even to Helen. They’d admire his handiwork, Helen would remind him to put the ladder away before they went to bed, and he’d reply that it would get done eventually, and anyway, what if there was a light burnt out? Then he’d go up to the outlet he had installed on the porch by that Reynolds boy down the street just for this purpose, and he’d plug in the main extension cord.

With that, the whole front of the house, roofline, bushes, little cedar tree by the driveway and all the porch railings burst into white light, and the whole neighborhood could tell that the holidays were upon them. There were never any colored lights, at least not since 1973 when Jeremiah shaved off those sideburns. There were never any flashing lights or strobe lights, and never any plastic Santas and reindeer on the roof. There was just a bright white celebration of the season. For over fifty years, from the time the armistice was signed and Jeremiah came home from Korea, he dragged that ladder out of the garage every November and lit up the night sky in a celebration of the season, of family, and of just being alive.

Until this year. When Helen passed in August Jeremiah sat down in that vinyl recliner in the den with a Pabst, probably the first time in thirty years he’d had a beer in August inside his house, and it seemed like he didn’t move from that chair for months. Neighbors would come to visit, to see how he was holding up, and he’d tell them, in the stoic way that octogenarian men who’ve seen young men die have, that he was doing about as well as could be expected.

As well as could be expected didn’t really amount to much, he thought to himself after the well-wishers, the pastors and deacons, the neighborhood widows and friends of his children that had moved away years before and were back in town visiting their own parents had left. As well as could be expected was getting up three times in the middle of the night to pee and being confused every single time when he went back to bed and there was no one there. As well as could be expected was fixing his own breakfast every morning and finally going into the garage to drag out the old coffee pot that Helen had wanted to toss out back twenty years ago when they got the new programmable kind but he wouldn’t let her for fear that just this thing would someday happen and he’d have to make his own coffee and be too old and near-sighted to read the instructions on the damn thing and besides, what does a coffeepot need all them damn buttons for anyhow? You just put the coffee in it, put some hot water in it, and it turns into coffee. It doesn’t need a clock in it, much less more buttons than one for off and one for on.

So as well as could be expected wasn’t really very well at all, if he would take the time to think about it. Which he didn’t, because Jeremiah was never a man to spend too much time in deep contemplation. But now, at 83, there wasn’t a whole lot left for him to do except sit. And think. And since thinking was less appealing, he managed to lose himself in some of the seventy-six channels if eternal drivel that spouted from the 19” color television that sat in the living room on top of the old console tv that had finally breathed its last some eight years ago. So Jeremiah sat. And watched tv. And that’s how most days went. He watched tv until bedtime, watched the late news and went to bed, where he lay awake listening to the silence beside him until sleep finally took him off for a couple of hours at a time.

So on this Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of listening to Helen get up at the crack of dawn to go shopping with her sisters, then getting up to drink the coffee she left for him in the machine he never did figure out how to operate, then heading out to the garage to start on the decorations, he sat. He turned on the tv and watched a little bit of that, then fixed himself a dry turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip from the leftovers from the turkey that the Methodist women brought by on Wednesday.

He ran out of mustard last week and kept forgetting to put it on the list that hung on the refrigerator. If he didn’t write it down, he wouldn’t remember to get it when he went grocery shopping this Sunday, either. He had taken to grocery shopping at eleven on Sundays so he didn’t have to worry about seeing any of the church women in the store. Helen had always been real active in the church, but with her gone he didn’t see much sense in him going. He figured he and God still had a few things they needed to sort out from about fifty years ago, but they were the sort of things a man needed to talk through with his maker face to face, and going to church wouldn’t do him a whole lot of difference one way or the other.

As he was sitting, not really enjoying his mustardless sandwich but not really not liking it either, he started to hear some rattling around in his garage. The neighborhood, which had been full of young veterans when they moved in all these years ago, had seen its ups and downs, and was currently on the beginning of one of the up periods, which was to say that there were a lot more people living there at the moment who could be considered down than up, but in general they were hard-working people who didn’t cause too much trouble. The people on the tv liked to talk about it as a neighborhood “in transition,” but Jeremiah just thought that was a fancy way of saying there were some poor people that lived there, some white people, some black people and some Mexicans thrown in for good measure. There was some crime, sure, but in general it was decent place to live. But when he heard somebody rattling around in his garage, he didn’t run out to go look and see what they might be stealing.

It’s not that he was afraid that whoever was in his garage might hurt him. He’d known pain at different times in his life, you didn’t make it past fourscore years on this earth without getting hurt more than once, but he just really wasn’t that interested. And as the day wore on and the noise in his garage continued, he finally decided that if there was something worth taking out there they should have already took it and left him alone, so he went to the back door and stuck his head out to yell at whatever hooligans were back there. But by this time whatever perpetrators there had been were already gone, so all he saw was a closed garage door and a q quiet back yard. He went back inside and dozed in front of his tv for the rest of the afternoon, watched a little football, not that he knew or cared anything about any of the schools playing, but it was something to pass the time, and napped a little more.

Along about seven o’clock, he started to listen for Helen’s sister Mary’s car, and then remembered that Mary didn’t drive anymore after she got so blind they took her license away last summer, and besides, she wasn’t going to be dropping Helen off tonight anyhow. But as he stood in his kitchen alone, feeling once again the lost feeling of someone who is missing something that he just can’t quite put his finger on what it is, there was a knock at his front door. He had left all the porch lights off to keep folks from coming by to check on him since he didn’t really feel like sharing another afternoon of how you holdin’ ups with somebody who he didn’t really give much of a damn about and he figured didn’t give much of a damn about him either, so the knock was a little surprising. He figured it was a kid, since they weren’t usually smart enough to figure out that when the porch light wasn’t on it meant that the body inside didn’t want to be bothered.

So he made his way through the darkened house to the front door, and pulled it open to find an empty porch. He looked around for a minute, confused, before he saw it laying over to the right of the door. It was an orange extension cord with a red bow tied to the end of it. On the bow was a card, and Jeremiah reached down and pulled the card off the end of the card and read it.

“Dear Mr. Jeremiah,

We are sorry that your wife died. We are sorry that you are sad, and that you didn’t want to put your pretty lights up this year. We hope we did it good and it will make you a little happy.
Feliz Navidad,

Jose y Hector Garcia (from across the street)”

Jeremiah stood there for a minute looking around, not really knowing what to think, when he looked up and saw two boys looking out of a living room window across the street. The bigger one looked like he was about thirteen, and the little one looked to be maybe eight. The big one just watched him, but when the little one saw him looking, he waved excitedly, indicating that Jeremiah should plug in the cord.

So he did, and he walked out on his lawn to see his house lit up just like it was every year, with white lights on the little cedar tree by the driveway, on the porch railings, on all the bushes on the front of the house, and even on the roofline, although how those little boys got all the way up there he had no idea. Until he saw his ladder leaning up against the side of the house just like he did every year until after he got everything working just right. He stood there for a minute imagining he could feel a smaller hand in his own as he stood there on his lawn not quite as alone as he’d been a couple hours before, then he turned around, nodded to the two boys in the window, one waving like his arm was one a spring, and one nodding back solemnly, gathered his ladder, and put it away in his garage until after New Year’s.

14 comments:

BamBam said...

DUDE !

What an awesome read my friend!

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

:)

Joe Speaker said...

Merry Christmas Johnny.

thanks.

23skidoo said...

Well done sir!


Thanks for sharing.

Betty Underground said...

Yup, that one choked me up a little. Thanks!

The Bracelet said...

Thanks for that.

yestbay said...

Beautiful.

All the best to you and yours.

BWoP said...

Nicely done.

TrueDub said...

Top notch, a really touching read.

Happy Christmas to you & yours.

Jim

Miami Don said...

Fantastic.

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