“Random Acts of Christmas” (2003)
By Jim DeBrosse
Canfield Drive in Kettering was like any other Silver Maple-lined street of tidy brick ranch homes in that middle class suburb of Dayton. The houses all looked the same, although it’s not fair to say they were cloned, for some had the garage on the left side of the dwelling while others had theirs quite definitely on the right. Regardless, in each proud little home was a unique collection of souls, with their own stories to tell as well as a quiet middle-class readiness to help their neighbors, especially around the holidays.
Iris O’Dooley, lately of 6607 Canfield Drive ( garage on the right), had her own worries. After nearly a month in her new home, she was determined not to do Christmas with either her family or her ex-in laws now that she was officially divorced and her ex-husband had moved to Oregon and married the woman he had wooed via the Internet while he still happened to be married to her. Iris had volunteered to work at the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen that day, and again on Christmas Day, and every day for the next 10 days until she returned to teaching her class of third graders at Tillson Elementary School. Iris wanted only to be alone, alone, alone. A nice fire, a good book, a tall pine-scented Christmas tree (not fake, of course,) and a mellow glass of Merlot was all she wanted for the holidays.
At precisely 8:42:29 a.m. on that Christmas Eve morn, Raymond emerged from his front door at 6605 Canfield Drive to begin his way by foot to his favorite hardware store for another string of lights for the bottom of the Christmas Tree, which Snowball, the family’s white dwarf rabbit, had snipped cleanly in two while foraging — without supervision — in the family’s living room.
Meanwhile, at precisely 8:42:35 a.m., Iris O’Dooley backed her ancient Toyota Camry out of her driveway and toward the street, where she soon became stuck in an icy snowbank deposited there the night before by the ever-vigilant City of Kettering road crews.
Rneeeer, rneeeer, rneeer went Iris’s balding tires as the car dug deeper and deeper into layers of ice.
Raymond rapped lightly on her driver’s window.
Iris rolled down the tinted glass barrier between them. It was the man next door whose name she honestly didn’t know. She had met his two children, though. High energy kids, but very sweet. They had built a snow fort in their backyard, then challenged her to a snowball fight. Iris had always thrown a mean snowball.
“Yes,” she said, somewhat impatiently.
Raymond was speechless for a moment, taken aback by the soft beauty of the face in the window. Up to that moment, he had seen his new next-door-neighbor only at a distance, never close enough to notice the bright hazel eyes or the shimmering auburn hair.
“You rock the car,” he managed to say. “I’ll push. Okay?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Raymond bent to his labors at the front hood of the car and, as Iris hit the gas, he pushed and he pushed, but Iris failed to rock. Instead, she spun her tires in reverse and, again, dug herself deeper into the ice.
“Whoa!” Raymond shouted louder than he had intended. Iris rolled down her window again.
“You have to put it quickly in drive, then quickly reverse. Back and forth. A rocking motion.” He swayed his arms and torso in a steady rhythm from the hips, like someone dancing. “Got it?”
“Yes, a rocking motion.” Was he flirting with her? Oof. Men!
He pushed again as she spun backward — only to bang his knee against her bumper when she suddenly slammed on the brakes. Taking her time, she then threw the car into drive, wheels spinning wildly, having failed to take advantage of the car’s backward momentum.
He went to her window again. “Do you mind if I give it a try?”
She scowled at him, creating tiny lines on her creamy, lightly freckled face, but said, “Be my guest.”
She exited and he hopped into the driver’s seat, noting unconsciously how the car smelled sweetly of her perfume. He shifted into drive, and eased forward until he felt the car’s progress begin to slow, then quickly shifted into reverse and slowly backed up until the car peaked again, then shifted into drive. Each back-and-forth took the car a little farther out of its icy hole until, finally, the Toyota was free.
Raymond opened the door smiling — a bit too smugly, Iris thought.
“Thank you,” she said curtly, averting her hazel eyes. She slipped into the driver’s seat and made her way with slippery haste down Canfield Drive.
Men, she thought with disgust as she drove away. So controlling. Such know-it-alls. So…. so… so… like men!
Raymond continued on his stroll toward the hardware store. Had he upset her? But how? After three years on his own, had he lost all touch with feminine sensibilities? With a pang of shame, he suddenly realized he had failed even to introduce himself.
At 8:52 a.m., Virgil Newsome, of 6608 Canfield Drive, pushed his brand-new Toro snowblower into the driveway from his two-car garage. It was a thing of beauty, fire engine red, lightweight and ready for action — a combined Christmas and retirement gift from Harriet, his beloved wife of 43 years. He turned the ignition key and the 6-horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine instantly roared, eager for its new duties. Virgil flew up and down his driveway and back and forth in front of his house in just minutes — and the Toro begged for more. So, he cleared the sidewalks of both his next-door neighbors, and all the way up and around the corner of the block.
Virgil looked at his watch: whaddayano, it was only 9:05, and he still had most of a tank of gas left. He pushed his Toro across the street to the home of that new gal, Doris O’Something, whom Harriet had told him about. Newly divorced and alone — not much fun on Christmas. He cleared her walk and her driveway and even the little pathway leading up to her porch. He was so taken by the ease of his labors that he failed to notice his machine chewing up most of the perennials in his path, leaving the spray of their mangled remains, mixed heavily with dirt and snow, in front of Iris’s door. Finished there, Virgil looked to the house next door and saw with glee that his old friend Raymond had yet to get out his shovel.
At 3:02 p.m., Iris pulled her car into her driveway and wondered who had been kind enough to clear her snow. Her gratitude lasted only a moment, however, for she quickly saw the path carved through her front garden to the porch. She parked the car in the garage and came out to inspect the damage. Her heart sank: she had so counted on those day lilies and hastas to cheer her up this spring. Now they were chewed down to the root, their leaves and stems scattered everywhere.
Who, no matter how well-intentioned, could have been so reckless? When she spotted the wheeled grooves and footprints in her lawn, leading straight to Raymond’s driveway, her sadness flared to anger.
At 5:30 p.m., Raymond pulled his Astro van into his cleared driveway, thankful that Virgil had been out playing with his new toy that morning, and the kids piled out, still arguing over whose turn it was to start the fire in the living room fireplace.
“No, I did not,” Claire said. “You did it last time. Remember? I was at a sleepover and… “
“Dad! She’s trying to take my turn!” Luke wailed.
“I am not, you mental case! It’s my turn and you know it!”
The kids had been awful to each other most of the day, including the two hours they had just spent skating at the Kettering rec center, where Luke, in his usual headlong competitive way, took a spill while racing against Claire, causing her to take an even more brutal plunge onto her knees and chin. There was a shiny bruise there now, but luckily no broken bones or teeth.
Raymond sighed and bit his tongue for now and headed to the front door to let them in. He checked the mailbox for last-minute cards but found only a small white envelope with no name or address on it.
“What’s that?” Claire asked.
“Daaaaad! It’s my turn!”
“Oh, be quiet,” Claire told her brother. “I don’t care. You do it then.”
“Quiet!” Raymond finally shouted as he tried to read the handwritten note he found inside.
“Dear neighbor,” it said, “I appreciate your kindness, but please don’t try to do me any more favors. Iris.”
“Iris?” he said out loud.
“Let me see, Dad.” Claire grabbed the note out his hand.
“I want to see it, too,” Luke said, and tried to snatch it from his sister. She held it just above his grasping hands.
“Luke, please. It’s a note from somebody named Iris.”
“That’s our next-door neighbor,” Claire said. “She’s really nice.”
“She is?” Raymond remembered his encounter that morning. And now this silly note. Raymond decided she was probably unbalanced.
“Yeah, she threw snowballs at us in our fort,” Luke said, forgetting the rivalry for possession of the note. “And then she gave us hot chocolate — with those tiny marshmallows on top.”
Raymond Knowles of 6605 Canfield Drive (garage on the left) had lost his wife to cancer three years before and was worried on this snow-covered Christmas Eve morn how he was going to recreate a decent Christmas for his two children, Claire, 12, and Luke, 10. For the past two years, Raymond’s older brother and wife had played host to him and his children, deflecting the cherished memories that would have been most painful to the trio. But this year, Raymond’s brother and his wife were spending Christmas at his in-laws. Raymond was on his own and off to a bad start: he had already forgotten to put the kids boots out on St. Nicholas night, the way their mother had always done, and rather than complain, Claire had said, “Well, that just means we’ll get more things in our stockings.”
“You were at work, Dad,” Claire said. “It was after school last week.” And then she added, “She’s hot, isn’t she?”
“Hot?” He wanted to say “yeah, hot under the collar,” but resisted.
“Come on, Dad, she’s pretty,” Luke said. “You never think anyone is pretty.”
Before he could think, he said, “Your mother was pretty.”
Silence ensued at 6605 Canfield Drive.
Raymond knew all too well why the kids were fighting that day: it was easier to deal with anger than the absence of their mother at Christmas. But he was determined they were going to make the best of it and perhaps even enjoy themselves. He had all the fixings for hot cocoa, including the tiny mushrooms that Luke liked so much. After a dinner of honey-baked ham and twice-baked potatoes — a recipe left by his wife — they would sit by the fire, sip hot cocoa and open their presents — the beginning, he hoped, of a new family tradition.
At 5:48 p.m., Mrs. Betty Krebs of 6610 Canfield Drive stepped out of her house with one more gift of her old-fashioned Christmas cookies for a last-minute special delivery. Mrs. Krebs, long a widow now, was extremely proud of her Christmas cookies, a mix of springerles, butter lemon drops with raspberry jam filling and melt-in-your-mouth buckeyes — cookies the younger set seldom bothered to bake anymore. With the precious cookies wrapped up neatly in purple wax paper and tied with a golden bow, she made her way across the street to the home of Iris O’Dooley. Mrs. Krebs knew how it felt to be alone on Christmas Eve.
Inside 6607 Canfield Drive, Iris was making preparations for her evening at home. The fire was crackling and popping in the fireplace. The Merlot bottle was open and breathing on the kitchen counter. And she was just now making her selection of a good book for the evening — pulling out “Pride and Prejudice” for the umpteenth time from her bookcase in the living room — when there came a rapping at her door.
Oh no, she thought, instantly assuming it was that man again from next door. But when she glanced out her peephole, there was Mrs. Krebs, beaming through the fisheye lens and full of holiday cheer.
Oh, how she wished she could just hide somewhere.
“Merry Christmas!” Mrs. Krebs sang out as Iris opened the door.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Krebs.”
“These are for you, child,” she said, handing Iris her purple bundle.
“Why, thank you.”
“You won’t find cookies like this anywhere. All the old-fashioned recipes.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Krebs. I wish I had something for you but…”
Mrs. Krebs flipped her gloved hand. “You just moved in. I know how it is, child. My husband was in the Air Force. We moved 12 times in 15 years. I hardly bothered to unpack. It’s a good thing we didn’t have children.”
Iris suddenly realized that Mrs. Krebs, too, would be alone that evening. “Would you care to come inside?”
“Wish I could. My sister is coming to pick me up in a few minutes. What about you, dear? Are you going somewhere?”
“Actually, I’m happy just to stay here.”
“I understand,” Mrs. Krebs said, and she did. “Remember, if you need anything, Raymond next door is a good man. I’ve never seen such a devoted father.”
Iris wanted to ask, and where was the mother? Had she, too, met her soul mate on the Internet?
“You know his wife died three years ago,” Mrs. Krebs said. “Cancer.”
Iris felt the word like a blow to her stomach. “No, I didn’t know.”
“Oh, yes. She was only 34, poor thing, and those two kids left behind. Raymond took it very hard.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“There’s Virgil across the street there, too. He’ll do anything for you. He cleared all the sidewalks in the neighborhood this morning.”
“He did?” Iris felt another guilty blow to the stomach.
“Has a brand-new snowblower. His wife Harriet gave it to him. Although if the truth be known, she bought it to get him out of his recliner.”
Mrs. Krebs laughed a hearty Christmas life and started down the porch steps. “You take care, child. Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Krebs.”
Her face hot with humiliation, Iris stared at the unopened package still in her hands. She hadn’t done any baking herself for Christmas but perhaps she could use them as a peace offering. She waited until Mrs. Krebs was safely inside her door again and walked the path left by Virgil’s snowblower over to Raymond’s house.
She stood anxiously at his door, raised a fist to knock and froze a moment with indecision. What should she say to the poor man? How could she possibly explain her nasty note that morning? But she decided it was enough to say she was sorry and boldly rapped before she could dwell on it, producing the reverberating knock she recognized from her own hollow-core door.
She could see the pique in Raymond’s face when he opened the door.
“Yes?” was all he said.
She thrust the purple package at him. “Listen, I’m sorry for that silly note I left you. I thought it was you who ran a snowblower through my garden. Would you accept these in apology, please?”
Raymond stared at the wrapped cookies – the same cookies Mrs. Krebs had given him the day before. He almost said, “No, thanks,” until he looked up at Iris and saw the genuine contrition in her eyes. She seemed close to tears.
“Of course,” he said, but without much enthusiasm. “Apology accepted.”
She bit her lower lip as he closed the door.
At 8:22 p.m., Iris was sitting in her wing chair, a comfortable hand-me-down from her mother, while a crackling living room fire warmed her feet and legs. A glass of her favorite Merlot sat ready by the little wood stand by her side. She was reading “Pride and Prejudice” for perhaps the fifteenth time, her way of forgetting everything about her awful day.
But unfortunately, there was more awfulness to come. Suddenly, she heard loud chaotic noises in the attic, of things being toppled and spilled, followed by the quick tell-tale patter of tiny feet.
Squirrels again! And after she’d paid good money that summer for a professional trapper.
She grabbed a flashlight from under the kitchen sink, ran to the bedroom hallway and pulled down the ceiling stairwell to the attic. But as she started up the steps to inspect the damage, things were eerily quiet again. The varmints must have left the same way they had come in.
She stood on the attic floor and shined her light around the gloomy space. A rack of formal clothing, the items (including her forlorn wedding dress) still mothballed in garment bags, had capsized to the floor. A stack of old picture frames once propped against the chimney wall lay spread like dominoes.
She checked the corners and edges of the room. The holes sealed by the trapper were still plugged and intact, and she could see no signs of entry anywhere. Then, cued by a draft of cold air, she directed the flashlight to the vent at the front of the attic. Two wood slats there were missing. Below the vent a raccoon of seemingly polar-bear proportions stood on its hind legs, its eyes glowing yellow like a demonic beast.
Before she could take a step backward, the raccoon charged at her, dashing between her legs and down the attic stairs. She heard the body “plop” resoundingly in the hallway below.
She followed down the steps, clutching her flashlight like a weapon. From the hallway, she heard more clattering and breakage in the living room and, when she arrived there, found the raccoon clinging to the very top of the Christmas tree, hissing at her like a rabid wildcat.
She ran to the front door and out into the freezing cold without a coat.
“Are you okay?”
Raymond was standing by his trash cans on the side of his house, surrounded by boxes to be broken down.
“No. No problem at all. Just the largest, meanest raccoon I’ve ever seen on top of my Christmas three.”
Raymond removed his winter coat and held it open. She thanked him and gladly slipped into its cozy warmth. Grateful, too, that the overly long sleeves covered her freezing hands.
“Wait here,” Raymond said, and ran back to his house. He emerged seconds later with a broom, then grabbed a round lid from one of his plastic trashcans.
“I am prepared to do battle for thee, fair maiden.”
Iris laughed, enough so that Raymond was encouraged to see she had a sense of humor.
On the front porch, they propped open the screen to make sure there was a convenient exit for both raccoon and, if need be, people on the run, then gingerly pushed open the front door. In the entryway, they could hear the raccoon chittering away in the living room.
Indeed, the raccoon was still roosting in the tree, its tiny, human-like paws clutching the Christmas star as the treetop swayed under the extra weight. The animal let out a mighty hiss to leave it alone.
“Yikes,” Raymond said. “That’s one badass raccoon.”
He lifted shield and broom toward the offending beast.
“Stand back,” he said. “This could get wild.”
He took a swipe at the raccoon with his broom but succeeded only in making it clutch more tightly to its chosen ornament.
“All right then, I mean business.” And this time he took a thwack at the beast.
In the slow motion of an action film, all eight feet of the decorated tree started falling in their direction with the raccoon still holding fast to its top. Iris tried to block the tree’s descent, but succeeded only in knocking over Raymond in her way.
Both of them hit the floor as the tree smothered them in branches, needles and dangling lights and ornaments. Meanwhile, the plucky raccoon jumped over their heads and bounded for the front door.
With a mighty jingle, Raymond hefted tree and decorations off to the side, freeing both of them. Iris began spitting loose needles from her mouth like watermelon seeds. They turned their heads on the floor at the same time, looked at each other’s scratched-up faces and broke into peals of laughter.
When they came to their senses again, Raymond quipped, “Merry Christmas.”
“And Merry Christmas to you as well.” Her face was flush with the evening’s excitement, her eyes brighter than any ornament.
There was a moment of silence as they contemplated what to do next. Perhaps get off the floor?
“Could I offer you a glass of wine?” she said.
“Under the circumstances, I think a stiff drink is in order.”
“I have some bourbon and Sprite.”
“Too bad you don’t have any mistletoe.”
They smiled into each other’s faces, and then Raymond touched his fingertips to her needle-strewn lips and planted a tender kiss there.
When Iris opened her eyes again, the whole room seemed to light up for Raymond.
“Well,” he said, “should we start all over, neighbor?”
“I think that would be in the holiday spirit.”