The Welfare Check
Joe Harkness stamped his feet outside of his squad car, trying to knock as much of the grey slush from his boots as he could before sliding in. It was a futile, silly battle to fight all winter long, but he hated a salty, gravelly mess on the floormats, so he stamped. Fussy as an old maid, he thought as he radioed back into service. Jesus, he’d hated to write the old guy a ticket on Christmas Eve, but he’d totally blown the red light, narrowly missing the green Toyota and a sure vehicular homicide, given his speed. Joe had been assigned the rookie hours, a split Christmas Eve and Christmas Day shift, a detested schedule that thoroughly screwed up hope of any kind of holiday. Settling into his seat Joe shifted to adjust the position of his gun belt between his ass cheek and the seat to go easy on his sciatic nerve. Still a rookie at ten months, he’d already seen a couple old guys go out on a disability with sciatica, and always took care to shift pressure away from the nerve. Jesus, I AM a mama’s boy, he thought suddenly. “A place for everything, and everything in its place,” his mom had always recited, one of the many isms he had grown to adulthood with, internalized, baked-in, irrefutable. Thanks, Ma, he thought with fond exasperation. Maybe if Pop hadn’t died so early, Joe thought, if he’d had a little masculine buffer, he might have been a little more immune to those maternal incantations. As the only child of the young widow there had been few spaces in their togetherness when he was a kid. He loved his mom dearly but had jumped at the chance for his own tiny place at 19, relishing the privacy and the blessed option of clicking Vanna off in mid-spin. Long legs and split-to-the-hip evening gowns notwithstanding, Vanna had grown wearisome too, as the flagship in his mom’s rigid evening lineup. Ma, he thought with rueful fondness. She’d been disappointed that he’d had to work both Christmas Eve and Day but reassured him that she understood. “Somebody has to protect and serve, even on Christmas,” she had said, smiling at him, “I’m proud of you, Joey.” He realized with a twinge of unease that he hadn’t stopped to see her now for…could it be a month? Longer? Yes. Good Christ, I gotta somehow get over there later, Joe thought. It was Christmas Eve, after all.
* * *
Louise rose at dawn on Christmas Eve day to give the house a final going over in preparation for visitors that evening. She wasn’t precisely sure who would stop by since her daughter Kate’s family was far away in Colorado, and her son Chad had declined the Christmas Eve invitation, but she thought there might be a visitor or two. Chad’s family had a whole constellation of other in-laws to visit, which complicated their holidays. Louise understood. Modern families were very busy, she knew. Frantic busy-ness she privately thought; work, school, playdates, T-ball, ballet, piano lessons. At least this time they’d advised up front that they wouldn’t make it, rather than cancelling at the last minute, as had happened more and more often in recent years. She thought of last Easter, when she had to go around by herself to find all of the pastel Easter eggs she’d hidden for the kids. A silly waste. She hated waste. She’d never eat another egg-salad sandwich again.
The Durkins next door often looked in on her on holidays, as the neighborhood widow with the neglectful family. Likely Father Pat too, who rounded merrily amongst his favorite parishioners on Christmas Eve with an empty highball glass. Louise had always obliged with a generous knock or two of her famous creamy eggnog. She hadn’t made any this Christmas, though. A Maker’s Mark would have to do.
Always a fanatical housekeeper, she hadn’t left much to be done, but she set out to spit polish everything to a high shine, right down to her good silver. Harry used to say she attacked dust and dirt like Ike attacked Omaha Beach, but in truth he’d always been proud of the spotless house she kept. He’d been gone for more than ten years now, but Louise thought of him many times a day, with a little ache of loneliness around her heart. It won’t be long now, dear, she thought bleakly, feeling every one of her 81 years this cold Christmas Eve day. She took her feather duster to make a final round of her Hummel figurines and framed photos. She tenderly ran the duster over the faded old pictures of Chad and Kate in grade school, he with front teeth missing, she with pigtails, and then newer ones of her grandchildren Tiffany and CJ. They were last year’s school photos; she hadn’t gotten this year’s pictures yet though they’d been taken last September. Finally, rubbing her stiff and swollen finger joints, she broke out the silver compound and began polishing,
* * *
As promised by the department’s old timers, Joe’s Christmas Eve afternoon devolved into a master class in cop chaos. A cornucopia of crap. Distracted drivers with fender benders, sad shoplifters with no funds, drunk drivers topped off with Christmas cheer, and routine domestic calls turned dangerous; the last daddy had been taken up to Regions Hospital 8th floor for a 72-hour protective hold. Merry Christmas kiddos. Ah well…a rookie’s Christmas festivities, he reckoned to himself, resigned. The radio crackled to life again and he took the incoming call from dispatch. A hit and run, with injuries. Shit, he thought, toggling on the lights and siren and executing a slushy, slippery U-turn.
* * *
Polishing the last serving piece, Louise looked up, hearing the odd little squeak that issued whenever Dickie yawned. Waking from his nap, the little dog looked around immediately for Louise; seeing her he gave a tail thump, lowered his head onto his paws and regarded her contentedly.
Thank goodness for Dickie these last years, Louise thought fondly. She glanced over at him again in his little red corduroy bed in the corner of the dining room and smiled. He was a furry little dust-mop of a dog; an undistinguished mutt of indeterminate breed. He had nevertheless been the heart of her heart, since Harry died. He had unruly tufts of fur around his face into which Louise clipped little hair-bows, the colors dependent upon the season. Despite his cataracts, his eyes still shone with love and devotion for her. Dickie no longer bounced along at her heels wherever she went; only his dimming gaze followed her worshipfully now. It was both the cataracts and arthritis that left him a little unsteady, moving uncertainly around the house. But no matter, she thought briskly, she had gone online at the library, like her granddaughter had taught her – what a marvelous thing the internet was – and had found a simple do-it-yourself remedy to ease their suffering. She dried her hands on a dish towel, and went over to gently pick Dickie up, being careful not to hurt his joints.
“I’ve got to put your Christmas bows in today, don’t I?” she said to him, stroking his fur mane. “We want to be in our best bib and tucker tonight, it’s Christmas Eve!” He thumped his tail against her belly and his little pink tongue darted out for a quick kiss on her hand.
“Right after my bath,” she said, “I’ll primp first, and then you.” But first she wrote out checks for the light bill, the trash service, and the last little balance on her JC Penney bill. She paused then, her pen poised over a sheet of her lavender notepaper. After a long moment, she carefully penned two lines, then folded the sheet over. Leaving it unsealed, she propped it against the Waterford vase on the dining room table, with the bills stamped and ready for mailing. She looked around, finally satisfied, and went to get her robe and draw a hot bath for herself.
She added a generous measure of sparkling bath salts to the running water, watching the bubbles foam and breathing in the sweet scent of lavender. Her signature scent, the salts had been a birthday present the last time Kate had visited, three years ago. It was a luxury Louise indulged in sparingly, but she would treat herself on this special day. She clung to the grab bar she’d finally had a handyman install, after Chad had failed to do so after repeated promises. Stepping gingerly over the edge of the tub, she lowered herself carefully into the fragrant steam, warm relief seeping into her aching knees and back.
* * *
As the ambulance driver flipped on lights and siren and aggressively nosed his way into the steady rush hour traffic, Joe radioed the city’s impound lot for a tow. The injured driver’s smashed up Hyundai Elantra had hit a patch of black ice, rolled twice, according to witnesses, and was lying on its crushed roof in the shallow highway ditch. Its chrome sparkled dimly in the weird, eldritch light as Joe finished giving the tow truck driver the location. He glanced over his shoulder to the east and saw the huge full moon rising, bathing the landscape in cold, pure light. A full moon and Christmas Eve. Bonus, he thought. No wonder it’s fuckin’ nuts. He sat back in his seat to relish a couple of quiet minutes, write his report, and wait for his tow.
* * *
Clean, dry, and wrapped in her robe, Louise noted the winter twilight deepening outside, and a lovely Christmas moon, a full one, just rising over the trees. It was 5:00 p.m., the time her son and family would have arrived, had they been coming. As if on cue, the phone rang, and she hurried into her bedroom to answer it. In the dining room Dickie struggled up from his bed and padded down the hall and into her bedroom, to sit at her feet looking up at her.
“Yes dear, Merry Christmas to you too, dear…. I’m fine…yes, yes……give them both a hug and a kiss, and tell them their presents are here, whenever you can come. Yes, I’m sure Kate will call from Colorado tonight…Yes, yes, I’ll be fine. Love you all, too.” She gently placed the receiver back in the cradle. Dickie reached up one soft paw to her knee, with a soft, throaty whine. Smiling down at him, she smoothed his wild fur saying, “Well there we go, the obligatory phone call, checked off his list.” She had heard Tiffany squealing with delight in the background, maybe unwrapping the Barbie playset she had begged for. “We’ll just go ahead with our evening, won’t we, Dickie?”
Straightening up, she rose from the bed and reached into her sachet-scented bureau. She pulled out her silk petticoat to slip over her head. Then she took out of the closet her best black velvet dress with the lace collar and zipped herself into it using a long-handled zipper-pull, a trick she had perfected in the years since Harry died. Sitting at her vanity table, she powdered her face with her old-fashioned rice powder, and put up her hair with her best tortoiseshell combs. Taking Dickie into her lap, she brushed his fur smooth until it gleamed in the lamplight. She opened her jewelry case, pulled out two tiny plaid bows, and clipped them at saucy angles into his mane of hair. “There you go, pretty boy,” she said, setting him down. “We’re all beautified now!”
Louise went to the living room and switched on the Christmas tree lights, dispelling the dusky shadows. She slowly circled the tree, performing her customary fond inventory of the beloved old ornaments, as she did every Christmas. She stroked the decades-old decorations the kids had made: the beat up, glitter-painted pinecones, the tiny ballet toe-shoes on a faded pink ribbon, the battered little firetruck hanging from its red cord, the sparkly angel with chipped wing and missing left foot. Chad had given her three boxes of expensive blown glass ornaments a few years ago as a strong hint, but she couldn’t bear to part with the tacky old relics of her happiest years. She touched them all with a soft forefinger, until they brightened and sparkled through a prism of tears, which she wiped away. Finally, she turned and went to the kitchen.
Dickie paced along with her, claws clicking on the kitchen tile, seeming unusually reluctant to leave her side this solitary Christmas Eve. He’d always been so intuitive, she thought, perhaps he was picking up her aching loneliness tonight. Reaching into the cupboard, she took down a small amber bottle, twisted the cap off the vial and shook tiny pills into her palm. She ran water into a tumbler and swiftly downed the pills, draining the glass. Then she looked down at him and said, “Do you want a hotdog? Do you want your treat?” Dickie yipped and pawed the air, anticipating the toss of his favorite treat through the air. Breaking off a chunk of a hot dog that she took from the refrigerator, Louise flipped it to him, gaily as always. He snapped it out of the air, gobbling madly.
“Good catch!” she praised, and then asked, “Are you ready? Go for a ride?” He yipped again, and executing a little twirl of doggy excitement, raced to the kitchen door that gave on to the garage. With a last glance around at the gleaming table and countertops, she joined him at the kitchen door, saying, “Yes, yes, it’s time…let’s go, sweetheart.” Together they went out into the dark garage.
* * *
Joe radioed in for his dinner break around 18:30 and turned into the parking lot at Tierney’s Liquors. Leaving his squad running he entered under the garish, blinking shamrock sign over the glass door that tinkled merrily as he pushed through.
“Officer Joe, Merry Christmas, man!” called Bảo from his busy front counter. Leaving the cash register to his wife Kim, Bảo came over to Joe, and embraced him in a hard bro hug. Ever since the night Joe had broken up a robbery in progress after responding to the silent alarm Bảo had pushed, the couple had been devoted to him.
“Need a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20,” said Joe with a grin, “I’m heading over to see my mom later tonight, gotta bring her the annual Christmas bottle of cough syrup…she’ll add a spoonful of sugar, and use it to wash down the chocolate covered cherries,” he finished with a shudder.
“Leave your cruiser running maybe, for a sugar-coma run later on,” said Bảo with his singular baritone chuckle. It had taken Joe longer to get used to the deep voice without a trace of an accent emanating from the diminutive Asian, than to the incongruity of a Vietnamese bottle shop lit up with glowing shamrocks. Moments later Kim slipped a gaily wrapped pint of Jack Daniels into his pocket with a big hug, then handed him his mom’s Mogen David tied up with a sparkling ribbon. He hugged her back and thanked her, tucking it inside his leather jacket. Radioing back into service, he decided he’d pick up the cherries at Walgreen’s later, on his way.
* * *
Dickie seemed momentarily confused when Louise got in the driver’s seat and started the Buick without letting him in, but when she got out and slid into the backseat, he jumped in happily, seeming spry as a pup. She unfolded the hand-tufted quilt and plumped the small pillow she had plucked off her bed, easing herself down. Settled into her makeshift nest, she lifted the blanket, and held her arms out to the little dog. Dickie jumped up on the seat and nestled into her embrace, so close she could feel his quick little heartbeat against her own slow one. Louise kissed his forehead, and whispered words of love to him, thinking how beautiful the cold blue moonlight was, pouring through the garage window. Soon they were fast asleep, no longer mindful of the quietly purring engine of Harry’s big Buick. The air thickened and the last of the oxygen burned away, as their breath stilled and the Christmas moon rose high in the sky.
* * *
Joe took the welfare-check call from dispatch at 21:43 and headed for the north side to check on an old lady who lived alone out on Azalea Avenue. The woman’s daughter had called from Colorado with Christmas wishes, and became increasingly alarmed as the evening wore on and she was unable to reach her 81-year-old mother.
He arrived ten minutes later at the address, a pretty little brick rambler with a beribboned wreath on the front door. The house was neat as a pin, but dark except for the twinkling Christmas tree in the front window. He rang the doorbell but got no response. After a brief wait, finding the front door unlocked, he entered and called out to the old lady.
“Officer Harkness, St. Paul Police, is anyone home?” When there was no answer Joe began a quick search of the premises, hoping to find the old lady napping, but expecting to find her fallen, perhaps with a broken hip, probably in shock. Worst case, Joe thought, turning on lights and moving from room to room, he might find her dead. He was still rookie enough to find corpses unsettling.
Opening the garage door, he flipped on the light and there found the old lady and her little companion in the still-running car. Her cheeks were cherry-pink from the carbon monoxide, reminding Joe of his mom, when she used to wear too much rouge; an odd gut-punch. Like a merry reveler now spent, the old lady was the picture of peaceful slumber with her little dog’s head tucked under her chin. He keyed his radio and called it in to dispatch, with a request for the coroner, then ran trembling hands through his hair. Shaken, he donned disposable gloves in order to preserve available prints and turned off the engine. Following protocol, he set about securing the scene while waiting for the M.E., ostensibly looking for signs of intrusion, but knowing, of course, that this was not foul play. This fact was confirmed when he found the short note leaning against the crystal vase on the dining room table.
“We’re just tired, and ready to go. Don’t worry, all will be well now. Love, Mom.”
Waiting for the coroner, his thoughts turned to Ma, alone this night in her small apartment, with her little fake Christmas tree. His eyes grew moist as he wondered where this old lady’s family was. Maybe they were working too.
The old lady’s son arrived shortly after the coroner, looking grey-faced and shocked, smelling of brandy and vanilla. Joe wondered where he’d been and why Grandma hadn’t been invited on Christmas Eve. He very nearly asked him but thought better of it. The son wandered the house, rubbing his face, holding his mother’s note between two fingers, as though it were a bomb that might detonate. His sister, he advised Joe dully, was boarding the red-eye in Boulder and would arrive after midnight. When the coroner finally left, Joe cleared the scene and returned to the PD to write the report.
* * *
Shifting the bag that held the bottle of Mogen David and Walgreen’s finest Queen Anne Cordial Cherries, Joe let himself through the high-rise’s security entrance with the keycard he had for the building. It was almost midnight. On the eighth floor, he knocked on his mother’s door, startling her awake from her nap in front of the TV where It’s a Wonderful Life was concluding with a tinkling bell and Clarence getting his wings. After peering out the peephole in her door, she threw the door open wide and stood in her fuzzy pink robe, beaming with surprise and joy at her son on the threshold. She hadn’t expected a Christmas Eve visit.
Joe went to his mom and wordlessly enfolded her in an embrace. Drawing back, he looked at her for a long minute as though trying to memorize her face. Then he took her hand and drew her into the apartment for a long overdue visit and a glass of sweet Christmas wine.
Tara Flaherty Guy is a recovering career zoning enforcement official, recently retired. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN and currently works as a contributing writer at St. Paul Publishing Company. Most recently her prose and poetry was featured in Yellow Arrow Journal, Minnesota Voices and Ariel Chart. Her newest work is forthcoming in the St. Paul Almanac and Talking Stick Literary Journal. Guy lives in Minnesota with her husband and three self-absorbed, cheeky cats.