It was 10:20 at night on Christmas Eve when I heard the noise. It was raining and there was enough wind to cause the branches of the oak tree out front to scrape the front of the house so I didn't pay any attention to it until I heard it a second time, a little louder, a little more insistent. Something between a knock on my front door and somebody scratching at it.
I went over to the door and turned on the outside light. There's a picture window next to it and I moved the blinds out of my way. There, on the top step, was someone with a dark coat, head bent over, chin was almost on chest, the long, dark hair looking scraggly from the rain and what I assumed was lack of washing.
I was all set to let the blind back down and ignore whoever this person was outside my door. I started to move my fingers back, releasing the blinds when I saw the most woebegone face I think I've ever seen. I couldn't tell if it was man or woman, adult or child. I just knew I'd have nightmares and difficulty looking in the mirror for a long time if I let that blind fall and turned away.
I opened the door. She, I could tell it was a young girl now that the light from my living room fell upon her face, lifted her head and said, "Please, Sir. It's raining and I'm..."
She didn't have a chance to finish what she was saying. I reached out and practically dragged her inside, out of the rain. Upon closer inspection, it was not a coat but a dark gray sweater that came down to just above her knees. It was soaked and half the buttons were missing. She stood there, trying to hold it closed, shivering.
Her face looked like it was having problems deciding whether to be dirty or clean. I came to the conclusion that it had been dirty and the rain had rinsed some of the dirt off. Make that filthy. It was going to take more than a winter rain to get her clean.
"My name is Arthur," I said. "What's your's?"
"Maxie," she said quietly. She had kind of pulled into herself, looking timid and defensive. I realized she probably was not expecting to be yanked into the house and subjected to the inspection of an old man when she took a chance and knocked on my door.
"Well Maxie, you're a mess. You are filthy and wet and cold and those clothes look like you've been wearing them for weeks straight. The first thing we need to do with you is get you out of them," there was a sudden intake of breath at that, "and into a hot shower. I've got some pajamas that will be way too big for you but they'll be warm. And I've got plenty of safety pins we can use to at least hold the pants up. Are you OK? I mean, you aren't injured or sick or anything like that, are you?"
"No Sir, I'm fine."
"I'm close to 70 years old and my name is Arthur. Save that 'Sir' crap for someone who appreciates it. I'd much rather have some affection, even if it's pretended, than phony respect. After you've known me a while, if you find you respect me, fine. But I'd hope you would still want to call me Arthur."
"Yes, S ... Arthur."
"Much better. Have you got anything on under that sweater or is that all you're wearing?"
She opened it up to reveal a lightweight dress, something for the spring or summer, looking like it too had been worn for months straight.
"Hmmm. I don't think any of that would withstand a cycle in the washer. Probably fall apart. I don't suppose there's anyone you'd like me to call, is there? Some relative, maybe? Like a mother who misses you?"
"No, there's nobody like that, Arthur."
"I suppose not. Well, it's not going to do either of us any good for you to drip all over my carpet and catch cold. There's a bathroom down that hall on the right. There's liquid soap and shampoo and conditioner in the shower. Let's see. Hairbrush, toothpaste, new tooth brush in the medicine cabinet, hair dryer under the sink and clean towels on the hanger. It's going to take a couple of minutes for me to find those pajamas so you can either leave the door unlocked and I'll put them on the counter while you're in the shower or you can come into the kitchen wearing a towel when you're ready for them."
"I trust you. You can bring them in the bathroom."
"Good. Off you go, then."
I went into the bedroom across the hall from the bathroom Maxie was in. I heard the shower for a minute and then the door to the stall opened and closed. The shower was turned on stronger. Good. It was going to take some water pressure to clean her up.
My daughter grew up in this room. I married late in life and was almost 40 when she was born. Suzanne was the light of my life, the perfect daughter. And then she started to talk. And think for herself.
I came from a world in which adults were considered to be right strictly because of their age. Young people did what they were told; their mission was to be seen and not heard.
Suzanne never bought into that. She and I would get into the worst fights, yelling and screaming and slamming doors when it was over. There were many times I had the impulse to throttle her or to pick up something and throw it against the wall but I never indulged those impulses. I loved my little girl too much to do anything physical to harm her. But both of us learned that well chosen words worked just as well or better than a fist or a belt. Sometimes the two of us avoided each other for days, even weeks after one of these battles of wits was supposedly over.
I look back on it and they were for the stupidest things. A school outfit I deemed inappropriate. Staying out later than allowed, not coming straight home from school. Sometimes it felt like she was goading me on purpose. One thing I learned while she was in my life was that we were both stubborn and neither of us would back down.
Then came a time when it went too far. She was sixteen when she came to me for help. Despite our track record, she chose to come to me instead of her mother. She was pregnant. No, she didn't love the boy and the last thing in the world she wanted was to marry him. She did not want to kill her child. She was going to have this baby and she wanted my understanding and support. Just that. She wanted me to be her Daddy.
Of course, I knew better than anyone else and let her know in no uncertain terms how I felt about a sixteen year old mother. Even with the way were with each other, things would have probably worked out if I'd just said my piece and shut up. I was too riled up for that, though. I wanted an admission of guilt and an apology and who knows if that would have satisfied me. She finally had enough and disappeared. One morning she was just gone.
She called her mother a few days later to let her know she was all right. Poor Janice, always stuck in the middle. Almost a decade and a half of trying to keep the peace between us. She tried to get me to call Suzanne and apologize to her. She begged me for once in my life to shove my stupid pride aside and make the first move. I accused her of ganging up on me with our daughter.
Janice left me soon after that. A daughter was born but I never saw her. My granddaughter. Janice found somebody, got married and moved back east. She sent me cards for Christmas and my birthday every year. Every one had a note with Suzanne's phone number in it. Twice a year, I'd sit in my easy chair, looking at the name and the phone number and envision calling her. I would grovel and she would tearfully forgive me and introduce me to this child of hers; the granddaughter I knew absolutely nothing about. But I was too damn stubborn for that.
I've often wondered how bringing a new life into the world could have looked so wrong to me. These days it's so widely accepted and the only couples who seem to want marriage are the gays. The world is changing but there are very few still around with 70 year old morals. The longer I waited, the harder it became to take that first step towards reconciliation.
I snapped into the present and went over to the dresser. The dresser that had been my daughter's but had never been used by a visiting granddaughter as it should have been. I opened drawers and found some pajamas in the third one. Probably not today's style but they were in good shape and they were flannel. Unlike those from my drawer, these might fit her without requiring drastic steps and safety pins.
I looked in the closet and there was a quilted robe I thought might work. It might drag on the floor a bit but should keep her warm.
I folded the robe and put the PJs on top of it and was just picking the pile up off the bed when I heard the shower turn off. I walked across the hall and got my face close to the door.
"Yes. I've got your clothes. Are you decent?"
"Heck no. I'm nekkid as the day I was born."
"I can't bring them in with you like that. I'm an old man, Maxie. I'd probably have a coronary and die."
"Just my luck. All right. Hang on a minute." I heard the shower door open, then close. "It's safe now, Old Man."
I opened the door and was inundated by a torrent of steam. I made my way into the room and found the counter more by feel than by sight.
"Here you go, Sweetheart. I found some things that might fit. Call me if you need anything."
"Hurry up, Old Timer. You're letting all the warm air out and I'm freezing my tail off in here."
"Oh, Sorry." I rushed out the door, pulling it closed behind me.
I heard her chuckle as I walked down the hallway towards the kitchen. I filled the kettle and put it on to boil, then went into the pantry and got a couple of cans of chicken with rice soup. I emptied them into a saucepan and put it on medium. I heard the hair dryer start up, making its wah-wah-wah-wah sound as she moved it back and forth. The kitchen suddenly lit up for half a second and then there was a clap of thunder a couple of seconds later. The rain was pelting loudly on the aluminum awning over the patio outside the kitchen.
The hair dryer went off and I heard the door open shortly after. She came into the kitchen, her head bent over as she used a Q-tip in her ear. She looked absolutely gorgeous. So young, so fresh, so different from the girl at the door.
"You look good," I said. "How do you feel?"
"Wonderful. It seems like years since I've been clean like this."
"How long has it been?" I asked her.
Her eyebrows tightened for a moment, then she relaxed. "A long time. A very long time."
I could tell she wasn't going to say anything further. "I've got some soup on the stove and the water's ready to boil. I can get you some tea or hot chocolate and I may have some instant coffee somewhere if you want that."
"Are you going to have anything?"
"Tonight seems like a good night for cocoa," I told her.
"Good. You make that for both of us and I'll serve up a couple of bowls of soup. Where do you keep the bowls?"
"Up in that cupboard," I said, pointing. "But I don't need any."
"Anything I eat, you eat. You could be trying to drug me."
I was ready to protest when she laughed at me. Not a quiet chuckle as she had when she was in the bathroom but a full out, joyous laugh. It sounded like silver bells as it filled the kitchen. How many years had it been since I heard laughter like that in this house?
Still smiling, she put her hand on my arm. "Arthur, it's a miserable night outside. It's nice and warm in here. Come on. Have some soup with me."
"All right Maxie. If you insist."
She told me of her experiences on the street but as soon as it started getting personal, she changed the subject. There were loners who wanted nothing to do with anybody else, some groups, or camps as she called them, that were just as reclusive and others, both singles and camps, that welcomed all. If you had, you shared. If you needed, you got. If you took advantage, you found yourself alone in short order.
The girl was hungry. When I asked how long it had been since she had a good meal, the only thing she would say was it hadn't been quite as long as her last shower. She said it with a sad smile on her face and she was looking at something that was not in my kitchen when she said it.
I found some canned beef stew and I heated up a couple of cans. I just kept her bowl full and she finished it all without making me eat any. Make that finished almost all of it. The last spoonful never made it to her mouth. I heard it clatter to the table, then I saw her head slump over as she fell asleep at the table.
Tear Jerker /