The Christmas Gift

The short story below is based on actual events. Names and the location where the event occurred have been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent.

It was Christmas Eve in Paris, Tennessee, Sunday morning in nineteen ninety-three. A wintery mix hovered over the town and mass at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church was about to begin. Carla Diego, with her red and black checkered wool scarf covering half of her face, took a seat in the front pew. Her dark brown eyes zeroed in on the divinity scene in front of her. A replica of a manger made up of wood and moss sat in the pulpit. Larger than life ceramic statues of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus were strategically placed in the manger.

She thought about her three young sons in Sunday school and her constant struggle to financially support them. She was twenty-five years old, a single mother and she worked two minimum waged jobs everyday to make ends meet. Although, her chronological age deemed her a very young woman, spiritually and physically she felt old and worn out.

Carla inhaled sharply and bowed her head. A lock of her curly red hair fell stubbornly on her face and she tucked it behind her earlobe. She clasped her hands together and whispered a prayer until the choir bursted into loud song. Slow to open her dark brown eyes, she was drowsy and exhausted from insomnia. She stared blankly into the pulpit as she waited for Father Jennings to appear.

By the time the choir finished singing their long hymn, Father Jennings was standing behind the podium. He was wearing his usual. A long fitted black robe with gold trimming. He was short in statue and up in age. His laughing brown copper eyes panned the congregation. He gestured for them to stand and with his direction, they promptly recited the eucharistic prayer. Carla, feeling out of it, mumbled out the words. She blew out her cheeks in relief when it was over collapsing in her seat with exhaustion.

The congregation took their seats and prepare for the sermon. Getting out their bibles, eager to hear from Father Jennings. Instead, the priest had another agenda, gesturing for the congregation to put their bibles aside for a minute. He told a compelling story of an old sick retired army colonel. An eighty-eight year old who was unable to leave his home. He was physically ill with debilitating Parkinson’s disease and he suffered from depression. He needed help with his grocery-shopping and someone to cook meals. Except for a few distant cousins in Atlanta, he had no close family. He ran off his friends; his cantankerous personality the reason. He was a cranky, old fellow with a blistering nasty temper. His name was Abe Charleston and he lived in a modest townhouse community two blocks from the church.

After Father Jennings finished his story. Whispers erupted around the sanctuary. No one stepped up. No one volunteered. This bother Carla Diego. Although, she was struggling herself to keep her head above water, she felt empathy for the old man’s plight. She decided she would stop by Father Jennings office after service, to get Abe’s address and phone number. She figured since she worked part-time at Winn Dixie Grocery Store, she could bring the old man groceries once in a while.

Father Jennings silently moved his lips, citing another prayer as his large fingers made an invisible crucifix over his chest. Then he jumped right into his sermon, his message, “The Joy of Giving Back.” After he preached for thirty minutes, Father Jennings concluded the service. Carla rose to her feet and made a bee-line to his office. She made herself comfortable on the wood bench next to the door. She waited for him and it wasn’t long before she spotted him coming down the hall. She stood and greeted him with a broad, warm smile. “Father Jennings, how are you?”

“Hello my child!” As he reached for her hand and gingerly held it. “What brings you to my office?” He asked with an equally warm smile.

“Your story about the army colonel moved me. I wondered if I can get his information. I would like to help,” she revealed.

His wrinkled face lit up. “Bless you my child! Let’s go inside my office.”

He unlocked the door and she followed him inside. His office was simply decorated. Two huge leather black chairs sat in front of his shiny oak desk and the windows were stained glass. An oil painting of the adult Jesus pinned to a cross hung on the back wall. Father Jennings went into his desk drawer and grabbed his address book. His large fingers raked through the pages while Carla, getting antsy, toyed with a lock of her hair. “Here it is!” He announced, with his face beaming with excitement. “Let me jot down the information for you!”

“Thank-you,” Carla replied. He scribbled the information on a piece of paper and gave it to her. Then he cautioned. “Don’t bother calling Abe. He’s not going to answer the phone. Just make a visit!”

Worry and dread clouded Carla’s features. “Does the man have a gun? Will he shoot me if I stop by unannounced?” She asked with questioning big eyes.

“Dear child, no!” Said Father Jennings with mirthless laughter. “He’s got a temper, but don’t let that bother you.”

“Okay,” said Carla giving him a leery eye. She left his office feeling uneasy as she raced downstairs to retrieve her sons. On the way home, she drove by the townhome community Abe lived in, deciding she would visit him after Christmas.

A week later, after Carla dropped her sons off at school, she headed straight to Abe Charleston’s home. She drove into the complex and it didn’t take long to locate his townhouse. She parked her Ford Focus in front of his home and got out of the car. As she stepped to the door, a faint tobacco scent hovered in the air. Carla rang the doorbell. The sound of squeaky wheels came to the door and screeched to a halt. Her small frame flinched hard when a gruff voice boomed from inside. “Who in the hell is it?”

She shuddered. Scared to death. Then she barely blurted out. “Father Jennings sent me to visit you. I’m from Saint Mary’s Catholic Church up the street!” She said.

A roving eye pressed against the peek hole of the door. Then the door flew open and a frail, elderly man appeared. He was hunched over in a wheelchair, smoking a wood pipe. On his head, he wore an army cap decorated with service award pins with wisps of white hair sticking out from underneath. There were tobacco stains on his tan flannel pajamas and his long, sharp fingernails were stained as well. Carla’s dark brown eyes were wide as saucers and she hesitated, drawing in a deep breath. “Are you Mister Abe….Abe Charleston?” She stammered.

“Whose asking?” He growled with deep set blazing blue eyes.

“Father Jennings sent me to help you with grocery shopping and……”

Abe cut her off. “Lady, I don’t even know your damn name! Who are you?”

“I am sorry. Let me introduce myself. I’m Carla…….Carla Diego,” she stammered again, cowering down.

“So that rascal of a priest sent you here, yeh? Mind telling me what the hell for?”

“He told me you needed help with grocery shopping and meal preparation,” she iterated again with her voice quivering.

“How do I know you are not a thief?” He questioned her with his eyebrows furrowing.

Carla shot him a funny look. “Sir, I take offense to that!”

“I don’t give a damn what you take offense too! Every time I give you silly sapsuckers money to do my grocery shopping, you end up stealing from me!” He said bucking his eyes.

Carla stiffened. Aching to go off. Instead she elected to maintain her composure as she reached in her handbag. She pulled out a notepad and ink pen and scribbled down her phone number. “Look, I don’t know who stole from you, but it wasn’t me. Here’s my phone number, call me if you need some help. Goodbye Mister Charleston!”

She dropped the note in his lap and turned to leave. “Hey wait,” he said softening his tone as tension eased from his face. Carla whirled around and her dark brown eyes met his. “I do need groceries,” he admitted as he looked her dead in the eye.

Her lips curve into a smile. “Well, all right!” She answered. “Let’s work something out.”

He backed his wheelchair up against the door and Carla stepped inside. He closed the door and gestured for her to follow him. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” he suggested.

“Very well,” she said.

Abe Charleston’s townhouse was a typical man cave. In a corner in the living room sat a fifty-two inch screen TV. There were sports magazines scattered everywhere and the place reeked of stale tobacco. On the kitchen counter, he kept a collection of wooden pipes. In the sink, dirty dishes and pots were stacked to the rim and his stove was soiled with grease. “This place needs a good cleaning,” Carla muttered to herself with her hand covering her mouth.

“What’s that?” Abe growled with icy deep set blue eyes.

“Nothing,” she fibbed, suddenly feeling uneasy again. Abe reached in a drawer over flowing with crumpled up paper and pulled out his grocery list. “Here,” he said.

Carla took the list from him and briefly looked it over. “I’ll be right back!” As she rushed to the door. Abe followed her in his wheelchair. “Don’t you need some money?” He called out.

“You can pay me when I return with your groceries!” Then she opened the door and walked out. Leaving the poor man with his mouth hanging open. An hour later, she returned as promised with his groceries. Abe, beaming like a cheetah, promptly paid her.

As time went on, the two of them became close friends. Every week, on Saturday, Carla would visit Abe and stay all day. She would clean up for him, purchase groceries to last him for a week and cook him a meal. They discovered they both had a love for the game of chess. Abe’s chess set was made of greek marble and Carla fell in love with it. She often told him when she got enough money she was going to purchase a set just like his one day.

Two years later, precisely two weeks before Christmas, Abe Charleston died peaceably in his sleep. He was ninety years old. His attorney called Carla the next day after his death to delivered the bad news. There was no funeral or memorial service. Abe wanted it that way. He was cremated by the end of the week and placed in a niche in the military cemetery.

Carla mourned her old friend for several days, often enduring sleepless nights. Then on Christmas Eve morning, after a long night of tossing and turning, she threw back the covers and struggled out of bed. She opened the blinds and squinted. A blanket of fresh glistening snow covered the ground and vegetation. As her eyes adjusted to the bright snow outside, she spotted a postal worker delivering mail on her street. He stopped at her mailbox and dropped off an envelope.

She rushed to her closet and slipped on her red rubber knee high boots. She found her jacket on a chair and threw it over her shoulders. She swung the door opened and stepped outside. Her boots crunched as she navigated through the icy thick snow. Leaving size seven shoe prints along the way. When she finally arrived at her mailbox, she flipped up the lid. She gasped when she picked up the envelope. It was from Abe Charleston! The envelope was postmarked December, nineteenth, the day before he died. “So weird!” She exclaimed not believing her eyes.

She fastened the lid on her mailbox and hurried inside. She threw off her coat and kicked off her boots and then she plopped down on the sofa. She ripped open the envelope. Out dropped a check for a million dollars signed by Abe. Her mouth gaped open. He had written her a note and it said. “To my guardian angel, Carla Diego, Thank-you for your kindness and unconditional love. You made an old, cranky man happy these past two years. I am sure you will put this money to good use. P.S. The chess set you love so much is on the way! Merry Christmas! Love, Your friend, Abe.”

Tears came to Carla’s eyes. Abe’s wonderful Christmas gift was not expected. She kneeled on her knees and thank God for Abe’s friendship and their precious time together. Then she called Father Jennings. During her phone call with him, she discovered not only was Abe Charleston a multi-millionaire and a blessing to her but he was a generous undercover philanthropist to his community until the day he died. I hoped you enjoyed the story. Merry Christmas Everyone And A Happy New Year! Comments Are Welcome!