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The House On Christmas Street

Chapter 2 - Early October

As usual in Maine, summer disappeared in the wink of an eye and September came along with its thievery, stealing the green from the leaves and the blooms from the gardens. By early October the trees were a riot of fall color, and pumpkins, cornstalks and purple, orange and yellow mums and asters decorated the doorsteps and front porches of many of the houses in Kennebec City. On Franklin Street most of the houses had not participated in Trick or Treating for several years, as there was only one family with young children. There had been a time when it was THE neighborhood to visit for the best candy, and parents would ferry their kids in cars from across town just to canvas the neighborhood. Back then Muriel and Ray had enjoyed decorating the outside of their house and seeing all the children in their costumes, but since their children had moved away they always kept the house dark on October 31st.

This year, forty Franklin Street was already decked out with cardboard ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, black cats and witches on the front door and picture window even though the family hadn’t officially moved in yet. As if in sync, their neighbors the Nadeaus had gotten into the act and already stuffed some old clothing with leaves, propping the “scarecrow” on their front porch with an old Red Sox cap on his pumpkin head.

Muriel sat in her recliner by her own front window early on this Friday morning, stitching an old cloth diaper to a formerly pink toddler sleeper she’d dyed black. She’d dyed the diaper as well, and had shaped it with scissors to be a fine pair of bat wings for her great-grand-daughter’s Trick or Treat. Muriel and Ray would be going to their grand-daughter’s house to help them get ready. Hard to believe little Laura was two already and talking up a storm. A tear fell from Muriel’s eye and slid down her wrinkled cheek. Where did the time go?

She looked up as the loud shriek of a drill pierced the morning. Soon it was followed by the sound of hammers pounding, saws whining, and voices shouting commands. She squinted and scowled, setting her mouth in a grim line as she put her project down roughly in her lap. She could feel her throat constricting as her eyes began to burn and well with tears. Ray, who was in his easy chair reading the newspaper, lowered it and looked over at her, opening his mouth as if to speak, then appearing to think better of it and remained silent. He went back to his paper briefly, and then looked up at her again.

“What are you upset about?” he asked.

“Who said I was upset? I’m not upset,” said Muriel.

“Oh, yes you are.”

“And just how do you know that?” she said, nonchalantly putting her hand to her cheek, hoping he wouldn’t notice the wetness.

“Muriel, please. After fifty-five years of marriage, I think I know.”

“Fifty-six,” she said.

“Fifty-six? Really?”

Muriel did not reply. She kept staring out the window. Dust motes were dancing in the golden rays of light streaming in. Their orange and white tabby cat, Elmo (named by little Laura) was lolling on the brown carpet in the sunshine, spread out to his full length. Occasionally he reached out one paw and batted at a speck of dust.

“So, what is it?” persisted Ray.

Muriel picked up her project and heaved a sigh. “You’d think the town would have some laws or ordinances or whatever about such things.”

“Such as?”

“Such as building whatever you danged-well want to wherever you want to,” she said, her voice shaking.

“You mean the new neighbors?” asked Ray.

Muriel, frustrated, glared at him. “Yes, I mean the new neighbors. What do you think I mean? Just listen to that racket at eight o’clock in the morning…and look at that mess. It’s ruining the neighborhood.”

Ray looked over across the street. “I’m sure they got a building permit.”

“They’re turning the Foster’s garage into a ... a monstrosity!”

Ray looked at her, concerned with her obvious over-reaction to the situation. “Muriel,” he said softly, “It’s their house now--their garage. I guess they can do whatever they want with it.”

Now the tears began to fall in earnest as Muriel said, “They should have left it the way it was. It was fine the way it was. Why does everybody have to go change everything?”

Ray got up and walked over to where his wife sat. He perched on the arm of the blue corduroy recliner and began to stroke her hair. “What’s wrong, sugar plum? Why is this getting to you so much? You didn’t react like this when they put on the addition,” he said, softly.

She pushed away his arm. “Oh never mind,” she said. “Just never mind.”

Ray threw his arms up in frustration, went back to his chair and picked up the paper again.

Across the street, workers were busy sawing, hammering and generally shaping a new second story over the old garage. The construction foreman, a burly, hirsute guy named BJ Border, was speaking with one of the workers as the Woodie station wagon pulled up to the curb and Don Cassidy stepped out onto the sidewalk. He shaded his eyes from the morning sun as he stood and observed the work.

“Hi, Mr. Cassidy,” said BJ, as he walked over to where Don was standing. “We’re making good progress here. Everything’s going according to plan.”

“Looks good,” said Don. “Think you’ll be done in time?”

“Oh yah, no problem there. It’ll be ready for whatever you want to put up there in no time.”

“It’s gonna be nice and sturdy, huh? Did you make sure to reinforce it the way I wanted?”

“Oh yah, you bet,” BJ said, smiling, and Don nodded amiably.

Meanwhile, up in the second story window of the house next door, Scott Anderson was munching on a chocolate frosted Pop Tart and watching Don as he walked around the garage. Scott, a senior at Kennebec City Regional High School, had late arrival privileges and didn’t have to be at school until nine-thirty on Fridays. He’d been up early anyway, working on a new video game design…designing games was his favorite hobby and he hoped to actually get paid for it someday…when the station wagon pulling up caught his eye. He’d been practically counting the days until the new neighbors moved in ever since he saw the “For Sale” sign come down on the house next door. He’d been working at his computer on the sweltering day the family had first looked at the house, and he’d had the window open to catch a breeze so he just happened to hear everything they were saying as they looked around. When he saw the incredibly hot girl he crossed his fingers and said a silent prayer that they’d buy the house. Of course, Scott wasn’t exactly a ladies man. He’d never actually had a girlfriend, unless you counted Sarah Starzynski, his fourth grade “girlfriend.” Still, it would be nice to dream, although Scott knew, deep down, that a girl like her would never go for a guy like him. Pretty girls liked tall guys, and he was only five-foot-nine. Pretty girls liked rugged jock-guys, and no one would ever mistake him for an athlete with his Jell-O pudding body. And last of all, pretty girls liked popular guys, and he would never be that. Oh, and then there was the fine, lank brown hair that always seemed to be in his face. Pretty girls didn’t usually go for guys with hair like that either.

Now, hoping to see the girl come bounding out of the car, he watched for a while until his father knocked on his door and opened it, not waiting for permission to enter.

Sam Anderson was a trim man of average height, with short blonde hair that had begun graying at the temples a bit since the loss of his wife to ovarian cancer a little over a year ago. Ruggedly handsome as he was, his Literature students at the University sometimes compared him to a popular television action hero, but he knew the resemblance ended with looks. He was no hero. Since Stephanie died he’d been having a hard time keeping it together. He knew he needed to snap out of it, to spend more time with his son, to try to live again, but he just couldn’t seem to find it in himself to do anything but plod through each day. It didn’t matter that he knew this isn’t what Steph would want.

Their life together may not have been the fairy tale, but they had loved each other passionately, had raised two boys together, and were faithful and strong together. They agreed on matters of faith in God (they believed and raised their sons in the Church), child-rearing (firm but fun, “child-centered,” Steph had called it) and the importance of education. Financially they’d been through some rough times, but hadn’t every couple at some point? They were planning a twenty-fifth anniversary trip to Hawaii when she’d started having trouble, and the rest was all downhill. Their elder son Brian had taken off the fall semester of his sophomore year at BU to spend the last few months at home with his Mom, but he returned after a dismal Christmas and had spent this past summer working at an internship in the city. Scott had seemed to get along okay after Stephanie passed. He kept up his grades in school, he had a job bagging groceries. Sam wasn’t worried about him.

As for himself….he’d promised to be strong for her, but that strength lasted as long as it took to help her to the other side. It had been a long ordeal…over a year from the time she was diagnosed until she finally gave up…and there had been lots of false hope during that time. It exhausted Sam. When she went she took all the joy in the world with her. He only hoped he could manage to keep things going until Scott graduated from high school in June and then went off to college in September. After that he didn’t care what happened.

Now, as he stepped over piles of dirty laundry and dodged empty soda cans, Doritos bags and candy wrappers, he just felt more defeated. He looked at the unmade bed and sighed.

“What are you doing? Don’t you have to be at school?” he said to his youngest son.

“It’s Friday, Dad. I’ve got late arrival, remember?” Scott replied, swiveling around in his chair and looking toward his father.

“Oh, yeah. Well, I’ve got a department meeting at five today, so I’ll be home late. Order a pizza or something,” he said, reaching into his pocket, pulling out his billfold and handing a twenty dollar bill to his son, who took it and stuffed it in his own pocket.

“Okay. But come home after the meeting, okay?” He briefly considered telling his father that his rumpled shirt wasn’t tucked in all the way, then thought better of it.

Sam looked perturbed. “You’re not the parent here, you got that? If I decide to go out after the meeting you don’t have a say in it.”

“Dad, I just…” Scott looked away. “Okay. I got it. Whatever.”

Sam stood looking at his son for a few seconds, then nodded his head and left the room.

Scott sat silently until he heard the front door slam shut. Looking out the window again, he could see his father was now striding across their lawn in the direction of Mr. Cassidy.

Oh no, oh no; I hope he’s not going to complain about the racket, he thought. He’d have a pounding headache this morning even without the construction sounds. Please, God, don’t let him say anything.

Don looked up toward Sam and smiled, waving a hand as if to say “hi,” but Sam didn’t seem to see him as he stopped mid-stride, reached into his pocket and, after some fumbling, pulled out his set of keys. He got into his silver Corolla, closed the door quietly and sped off.

Way to say “bye,” Dad. Well, at least you didn’t get too near him. The last thing I need is them figuring out my Dad’s a borderline drunk, Scott thought.

Lost in thought, Scott didn’t notice Ms. Ellis from up the street and her son, Zack, standing on the sidewalk by the driveway. Angie Ellis, a taller-than-average and plumper-than- average but otherwise average-in-every-way woman, was wearing a large grey sweater over a pair of black leggings, with imitation Ugg black boots. She waved shyly to Sam Anderson as he peeled out, but Sam didn’t see her either.

“Well, now I feel like a moron,” Angie muttered to herself, absentmindedly gathering her curly, long brown hair into a ponytail with her hand and letting it fall. She’d been thinking about Sam Anderson on and off for a while now, and even though she saw him occasionally she’d never had the guts to actually introduce herself. She only knew about the loss of his wife because she’d read the obituary in the paper, and she thought he looked sad, angry and impatient all at once. Something about him, however, intrigued her. She recalled driving by their house one Halloween when he was outside with his wife and sons, who were just youngsters then, and they were terrifying the Trick or Treaters with the old fake scarecrow trick. He’d seemed like a good, fun-loving man back then, the kind of guy Angie had wished she could meet. Now his wife had been gone over a year, and sometimes Angie wondered if he could ever be attracted to a wallflower like her. She felt like a school girl with a silly crush, and she chastised herself, a thirty-three year old woman with a teenage son, for feeling so ridiculous.

“Come on Zack, we gotta get going or you’re gonna be late for school and Mom’s gonna be late for work, again.”

She tugged on Zack’s arm to try to get him to keep moving along, to no avail. He was too fascinated by the activity to move. Angie knew she was once again gonna have some ‘splaining to do at Dr. Lindner’s office, where she was a dental hygienist. 

At the house across the street Muriel sat staring out the window with her work forgotten on her lap. She was lost in thought, remembering the good old days when the kids were little and what fun they’d had. The house had never been quiet like this back then. Then, one by one, they’d grown up in the wink of an eye. Their son Michael had gone into the insurance business and was now the vice president of New England Insurance in Hartford. He was married with two kids, both of whom had moved out west after college. One of them, her grandson Jeff, was a chef at a fancy restaurant in California where Muriel had hoped to dine with Ray someday. She’d taught Jeff how to bake right here in this house when he was little. Nancy, their eldest child, was a nurse living in Pennsylvania with her husband Levi, a welder. She’d never had any children. And Olivia, their youngest, lived right here in town with her husband Ed. They owned the Ace Hardware store on Main Street. She had made Muriel and Ray Great-Grandparents when her daughter, Morgan, had Laura. It had been a good life, and Muriel took comfort in the fact that they had been good parents…the proof was in the pudding. She’d gotten into the trenches with the right man when she’d married Ray all those years ago.

Now the rock of her life sat across from her, slumped in the easy chair and snoring away, the paper lying in a mess at his feet. How much longer would they have together to enjoy this life they’d made? She knew she should talk to him about what was going on, but she just couldn’t yet. It just wasn't something he could fix.


The House on Christmas Street
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