The new neighbor, a younger woman named Marta Swinsky, was to be greatly admired. All the women said so and the men didn’t disagree. Kari mused over this as she scrubbed final traces of grime in the upstairs bathroom sink, tub and floor. How many times had she seen Marta heave bags of gifts or donations of unknown sorts into the back of her station wagon then head out to deliver the goods? Every few days there she was again with a few more bundles, bags. Kari had asked her about it and she’d shrugged, saying, “It’s what I do, add a little something to others’ trees–I spend months getting ready. It’s what I enjoy.”
Kari donated items to charity, too, just not on such a grand scale. Year around. And she took several toys to the car dealership to disperse, bought art at the one day holiday market as they donated 50 percent of profits to the community center. But she could do more. She was focused on her own holiday preparations, admittedly.
And Marta was a real baker; that is, the air between the houses smelled as if she was. Even with only one of Kari’s windows cracked for a freshening breeze, fragrances of molasses cookies, lemon bars and cinnamon buns made their way to her nostrils. Next would be sugar cookies and Russian teacakes and more, Marta said yesterday. Kari thought she could smell sweetness even now, rising above the offensive odor of bleach in the bathroom. She intended on making iced butter cookie stars– soon. Maybe a mince pie or two.
The truth was, Marta was likely a better woman than she was. She was younger, more motivated, great at domestic creations, she’d noted. The living room alone was wonderful with its good taste and comfort. She seemed a young saint in the making, industrious after her already-busy work day, always ready with a wave and friendly greeting. Her stunning smile added to the overall appraisal that she was one of those who was touched with something “extra”–charisma, or perhaps more than the usual heart for humanity. And it was likely true. No one was displeased she moved into the neighborhood– nor her smart, dapper, polite husband, Evan. Four months later they were already settling in.
There were plenty of tasks checked off Kari’s lists but nothing to warrant modest neighborhood acclaim, not much of passing interest. It was a quiet rolling toward Christmas and New Year’s. Not many were excited this year although there might be a little relief from the pandemic. If the world was still subdued, she didn’t start her day fighting the fact. But she did try to make it more festive. Charles suggested they put more colorful lights on the garage–he got right to it. She played holiday tues and hummed along as best she could.
There was less and less to do each year, but it was only Charles and herself. Their son, Craig, had already flown off to see his girlfriend and her family in Hawaii. Not that he was obligated to come back home; he was twenty-nine and lived four hours away. But it would have been nice to see him a couple of days. Such a life, busy with his lawyering, his cohorts, flying across the Pacific. He deserved it–anyone who had to debate and harangue for a living deserved a sweet respites. In this case, with Delia the chemical engineer, again. Craig and his equally upward bound girlfriends–well, alright, good for them. Kari had liked a couple of them, but hadn’t met Delia. Craig and she met online six months ago. He’d told them he’d gone to see her twice already, that she might be “the one”. Kari would have to meet her to determine if that made any sense.
But love often didn’t, did it? She and Charles were like rutabagas and raspberries, both uniquely satistfying sparately but an odd pairing.
There was, however, nothing to gripe about during her morning assessments of reality. They owned a good dwelling; she had a companionable if somewhat distracted, often snoozy husband; a secured retirement following thirty-seven years of teaching high school world and American history. Charles still worked as a consultant regarding organizational and team building issues–from his office at home for the time being. They had a sluggish white Persian cat named Dot for a dab of black fur between wide eyes, and an active mutt, Mr. Grimly–or as Charles said, chuckling, The Grimster. That dog had fixed on its mug a somber look, even when happy. Maybe he was influencing Kari–she was increasingly the one to walk him. She talked to him at length as they walked; he made noises back, a whine or a grumbling.
But her everyday work was never done and that’s what loomed at her as she got up at dawn. If Charles had been more fussy as well as retired, it’d be harder to carry most of that load. She was just tired out–it bothered her, she long the one with unstoppable energy. Maybe being well over sixty was the problem or, again, the unending pandemic. Or work not being at school but household labors. She needed a new direction for the New Year.
Christmases past had been quite an event. But Charles saw it as so much fuss though he was glad to spoil her with a big gift (last year, a new computer, sorely needed). He didn’t easily join in the merry spirit she displayed–mostly the light displays he put up, a few classic holiday movies. Son Craig was all in until he was fourteen, at which point he found better things to do than decorate the house or corak along with their holiday tunes. He left at eighteen with hardly a backward glance, home only for brief periods after that.
“It’s a fact that things change and that’s that, get on with it,” she reminded herself and put away her cleaning supplies and ran downstairs, contemplating dinner plans.
“Pizza?” she asked at the study door. Therein Charles stared at his computer screen, then looked up blankly. “For dinner?” she prompted him with a grin.
“Oh, right, but on a Wednesday night?”
He said this with furrowed brow, as if she’d lost track of time and thought it was Saturday. They ordered take out Saturday or Sunday. Not Wednesday.
“I didn’t get to the store and don’t have a taste for soup and sandwiches. Or roasting a whole chicken, our only meat.”
He tilted his head at her, nodded, went back to his work.
When Dot wound her way between her ankles, she picked the cat up, held the fluffy mound of squirming fur close. Cats and dogs had barely a clue about the goings on, good or bad, were happy to be fed and walked, petted while given lap space. She appreciated them for that alone.
She ordered pizza and went outdoors to wait for delivery. It had warmed some in the afternoon. There was a loose weave of cloud with rain in the distance, but also a soft wash of crimson and pink as the sun went down, For those vivid colors given by sunsets she gave thanks. Christmas would come, it would be fine, it would be gone again. But sunshine and moonshine provided artistic touches to earth, waters and plants, the sky, and they’d keep on. She felt better to realize it once more.
The vehement slamming of a door broke her reverie. Voices rose and fell, muffled across the side yard. Marta stepped out the kitchen door, headed toward the garage but stumbled a bit. Her husband’s voice was commanding but unclear. She paused, turned around, leaned her back against the house, panting, then right before she walked back she saw Kari. Stood up straight, walked rapidly to the door opening to her. Went in. Kari grasped both sweatshirted forearms and shivered.
Had she seen anything, really? Heard –what? Who didn’t argue at times? Everyone did and sometimes neighbors knew it but respected others’ privacy; sometimes they never knew, which was a good thing, she thought. She and Charles had had an argument a month ago that still got her a bit riled to think of it, but they’d moved on. She sat on her porch and wondered about her neighbor. Drifted back to her son and how he was long gone. Young children especially made the holidays meaningful, fun….She wondered if Marta wanted children. Kari hadn’t, not really, but when she had him a light went on; she was so pleased for them all. How she missed her son pulling up into the driveway a bit fast, with reasonably warm Thai take-out on the back seat to share, and a couple of days and nights of good talk at the ready.
The pizza delivery car pulled up, a teenaged girl hopped out and ran to Kari, plopped a warm box of savory delight into her hands and took a small wad of cash proffered, no counting it.
But then Marta’s side door opened. Her body was ejected and Marta fell hard. Running acorss the damp grass, Kari’s heart pounded in her throat. Marta was lying in the driveway, face covered with a mass of long auburn hair. She was crying softly like a creature from far off and wounded under cover of night. Kari pushed back unruly hair to better assess the state of things.
Marta’s lower lip was sucked between her teeth, eyes squeezed shut though tears eeked from the corners. Face contorted, hands to sides of her head.
“Marta.” Kari smoothed her hair; the cheek against cement was bright with blood. From her fall? “Marta, tell me if you’re badly hurt. What happened?”
The woman’s eyes blinked open, one partly swollen shut, the other brimming but she shook her head back and forth, hands dropping away to the driveway. Then she brought a forefinger to puffy reddened lips, one split open and said, “Shhhh….”
In the small window above the kitchen sink, there was a shadowy movement–and Kari knew Evan was there watching them. He didn’t come outside. Kari felt sick to her stomach as she gathered Marta into her arms, though the woman resisted.
“I’m okay, let me be,” Marta whispered, then sat up, pushing Kari back. “So sorry, had a couple of drinks…wine doesn’t sit well,” she murmured,
But there was no smell that shouted alcohol, not wine or beer or liquor. This was a sober woman severely distressed. Kari helped her up, looked her full in the face.
“Please,” Marta implored, more tears flowing.
“Come to my house. We’ll make Christmas tea. Let me help.”
“Tea?” her eyes widened at such a preposterous though. “No, no–I can’t,” she said, looking quickly at the kitchen window, now dark. She turned back at Kari, strands of hair caught on her lips. “Please. Don’t say a thing.”
“Check in with me tomorrow, alright? Come by, even.”
Marta may have nodded or maybe not. But she clasped Kari’s arm before turning and stumbled off, holding her side. She reached the door, opened it and was enveloped by shadows.
Kari backed away to her own yard, watching the window for light, which did not trun on. Hesitated, atill, and listened. Only a slight pattering of rain which she now felt on head, face, hands. A sighing breeze among two stalwart pines in the back yard. She wanted to stay but was certain if she did she’d crash into their house and pull out Marta and march her to their own home. But Marta had told her nothing, did not want to go with her. Why would she? Recently new in the neighborhood. The marital fight an embrassment and, worse, worry about–no, fear– of the man waiting in the kitchen. It was so much more than a tiff.
The gravity of what had happened disturbed her; Kari felt caught by some twist of fate, mere chance, inserted into someone else’s bad dream.
“Kari! Where in earth did you go?” Charles stood on the porch and when he saw her turn to him, held out his hand. “Pizza isn’t much good now–we’ll have to nuke it.”
“I’m here! Oh, I was…talking…to Marta, sorry.”
The pizza respponded well to reheating. She smiled at his small jokes, nodded at the update of work and she thought of hurt and love, kindness and sorrow, trust and fear. And what did it really take to become a saint in this world, in such times? Was it ever possible–or simpler than imagined? Was it necessary, even? And, in the meantime, how did one live with pain, and knowing about others’ pain? Did you look at it, name it, or go on and still hurt with it?
How could she save Marta from any more? Had Kari surmised correctly her situation? Domestic violence. As if naming one sort of violoence separated it from others. It never told the whole story, she believed.
What was this Christmas meant to be about? Charity and pain?
It struck her as Charles lay his toasty, broad palm over her narrow, chilled hand: if not for shared compassion, it was all for nothing; if not for tenderness, it was all far less than should be. Cookies and lights and even sons visiting were smaller matters when considering greater human needs. And she’d about forgotten. That you had to rise up to meet life more, all of it.
That night in their wide, lumpy bed, covers heaped upon them, Kari and Charles embraced a long moment then fell asleep. Kari, to her surpise, did not awaken once until morning, a wide blue morning. As she turned to him and he opened one eye then another she decided she would tell him. Maybe they could figure something out; maybe they could offer safe haven. And Marta, being cared for, might find her way better. Maybe she’d learn that novice sainthood was not all it was cracked up to be, and that was alright.