The Gift of Peace
If Miss Grayling had been in the kitchen with her evening cup of tea, as was her usual practice, she never would have heard the whimpering.
But this was Christmas Eve, and one must uphold certain standards and traditions. She sat at the dining room table with a slice of fruitcake on a china plate and a crystal glass filled with sherry. A scented red candle burned in its angel-festooned holder on the white linen tablecloth. Her old radio softly played Christmas carols.
When she first heard the sound, she froze with the silver fork halfway to her mouth.
Perhaps it was the wind. A driving sleet was falling, coating everything with ice. If it continued, she might have to skip church services tomorrow. A frail old lady cannot take a chance on falling, even on Christmas.
There. She heard it again. Definitely someone—or something—crying. The sound was coming from her wide front porch.
Stiffly, she got to her feet and went through the hall to the front door.
Nothing happened when she pressed the switch to turn on the porch light. Something else to add to her list of items that needed attention.
She opened the door. The evergreen wreath, unadorned except for a red bow, gave off a fresh holiday scent. Light from the hall spilled out onto the porch.
At first Miss Graying saw nothing. Her eyes were not as sharp as they used to be. When the whimpering started again, she peered toward the sound. As her eyes focused, what first appeared to be a large indistinct pile of rags and trash sorted itself into several figures huddled together.
The pathetic noise emanated from a small dog which was clasped in the arms of a child. Behind the child a woman crouched, holding a small plastic device.
They were not dressed for the cold and sleet. Not a coat or hat or scarf between them. In fact, when she looked closer, Miss Grayling realized that the child was barefoot.
Well. The days of frequent vagabonds were long gone. Miss Graying could remember long ago, when she was a girl, Cook, who had been employed by the family as long as she could remember, would welcome strangers into the kitchen. Mostly men, but occasionally women and children.
Cook would fill bowls with hearty soup and pass them out with hunks of the homemade bread. No one left hungry.
“We can’t cure the troubles of the world, child,” she’d said when the young Miss Grayling asked her about it. “But we can feed the hungry who show up on our doorstep. It’s the Christian thing to do.”
Cook showed her the primitive drawing of a cat on the fence outside the back-alley gate. “That means a kind lady here will feed you,” she said.
Here was an apparent vagabond family. Miss Grayling knew of no cat drawing anymore on the fencepost, but leaving these people out in the cold was hardly the Christian thing to do.
“You’d better come in.” She opened the door wider and stepped back.
“I can’t thank you enough.” The woman straightened up and shepherded the child with the dog inside.
Where should she put these people? Should Miss Grayling treat them like guests, ragged though they might be? One never passed judgment on one’s guests.
Years ago, the parlor would have had a lovely Christmas tree and a warm fire. Miss Grayling had long ago dispensed with such trappings as not essential to the holiday. The parlor was cold and dark. Probably dusty, too.
The dining room had only its formal table and uncomfortable chairs.
The kitchen, warm and bright, was the obvious place.
Cook would have approved.
As they pushed through the swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen, Arabella, the black cat, viewed the approaching horde with dismay, which turned to horror as the little dog whimpered again. She decamped for her bed in a corner of the pantry where she spent a great deal of her time judiciously watching for mice.
An enticing aroma of freshly baked bread greeted them. Miss Grayling no longer prepared several pies and scores of cookies for the holidays, but she still baked Cook’s special holiday bread.
The woman retreated to a corner of the kitchen next to an old cupboard, punching at buttons on the plastic device.
“Why is the dog crying?” Miss Grayling asked.
The child buried his face in its fur. “Daddy kicked him.”
It was Miss Grayling’s turn to be horrified, although she had a very different reason than the cat. “Is
The child sobbed. “I don’t know.”
“What’s your name?” Miss Grayling asked as she took the dog and put him on the broad kitchen table. He stood there shivering.
“Bennet Smalley. The dog is Ajax.”
She ran her hands over Ajax’s legs, body and head, prodding gently. She didn’t feel any broken bones, and the dog didn’t wince at her touch.
“Maybe he is just cold and frightened.” She lifted him off the table and placed him back in Bennet’s arms. “But Ajax should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible to make sure.” As if a family that didn’t have shoes for a child in this weather would be able to afford that.
Still watching the dog, she called over her shoulder, “Are you hungry, Mrs. Smalley?”
“No. I just need to call my sister to come pick us up.”
“I’m hungry,” Bennet said. “And so is Ajax.”
“Sit down.” Miss Grayling indicated a chair at the table.
She opened the refrigerator.
Fortunately, she had just purchased a new jug of milk for Arabella. She had a ham she intended to glaze for her Christmas dinner. She loved ham, but whenever she bought one, she had so much left over that she got tired of eating it. However, waste not, want not. She always finished it.
Hams were already cooked, so she could cut off a few pieces right now. She’d made a sweet potato casserole which had not entirely cooled. And the oatmeal molasses bread was fresh out of the oven.
Miss Grayling poured a glass of milk, put a scoop of the casserole on a plate, and sliced some ham for Bennet and Ajax.
When she leaned over to put the plate in front of the child, she detected the odor of a body in need of a bath and clothes in need of laundering.
Remembering Cook and her unwavering tolerance for “those who can’t do better for themselves,” Miss Grayling broke off a hunk of warm bread and handed it to Bennet.
“Are you sure you don’t want something?” She turned to Mrs. Smalley.
“No. Thank you.” The woman shook the plastic device, which apparently was some kind of miniature phone, and stabbed at the buttons. “I can’t get this to work.” Her words were thick.
“That’s because Daddy stomped on it,” Bennet said as he shoveled sweet potato into his mouth. The poor child had no table manners.
As she turned to face them, the bright kitchen light showed the woman’s face. Miss Grayling saw her well for the first time.
More horror. A darkening bruise ran along the left side of her face from her chin to under her hairline. The eye was swollen shut. A rope of saliva hung from the corner of her mouth.
She wore a ragged sweatshirt with stains. Some appeared to be blood, but the others were not so identifiable. Her hair was a tangled mess.
Miss Grayling stifled a gasp. “Your face! You need medical attention!”
“No. It’s just a bruise. It’ll heal in a few days.” Her tongue flicked out and caught the saliva.
“Did you fall?”
Bennet spoke up. “Daddy hit her.”
“We must contact the authorities.” Miss Grayling wondered how to do that. Call 911? It was hardly an emergency at this point, but the police should definitely be notified.
“No!” Mrs. Smalley pressed her hand to her swollen cheek. “They’d lock him up.”
“If he did that to you, and kicked the dog, he should be locked up.”
“He didn’t mean it. Sometimes I just aggravate him…”
Miss Graying sniffed. “That is no excuse.”
Mrs. Smalley hung her head. “He had to come home from work early because his back was hurting him so bad. I was watching TV instead of fixing dinner. And the dog started barking…”
“Absolutely no excuse.” Miss Grayling drew herself up to her full height of five foot two inches. “Men must never hit women. No matter what the provocation.”
“He’ll be okay when he sobers up. I just have to stay with my sister for a few days.”
“Sobers up? He’s a drunkard?”
“Not really. Maybe a couple of beers. But when he’s on his pain meds, it affects him. He can’t think straight and he acts different.”
Miss Grayling could hardly believe that anyone could condone such behavior, regardless. “What kind of pain meds?”
“This patch he wears all the time. And the doctor gave him some pills for when it’s especially bad.”
“He buys extra pills from Jonny D,” Bennet piped up. “Got a whole bunch yesterday.”
His mother glared at him with her unswollen eye.
He resumed eating.
Miss Grayling had a subscription to the newspaper. It arrived every morning, and she read it with her morning tea. She was quite familiar with reports of the opioid epidemic. The pain patches were undoubtedly fentanyl. They could be quite intoxicating themselves. Drinking alcohol while using one was quite unwise.
“Do you have a phone I could use?” Mrs. Smalley asked.
Miss Grayling had a phone in the pantry. She couldn’t remember the last time it had rung, or that she had used it at all. But before he died, her father had arranged for the bank to pay her bills. Surely they took care of the phone bill, so it should work.
“This way.” She took Mrs. Smalley to the pantry.
Arabella glanced up from her bed reproachfully, then lay her head back down and deliberately closed her eyes to show that she didn’t care.
Leaving Mrs. Smalley to attempt her call, Miss Grayling sat down at the table with Bennet. “Did you get enough to eat?”
“Yes, ma’am. It was really good. Thank you.” He glanced down at where Ajax sat next to an empty dish. “Ajax says thank you, too. We ran out of dog food a couple of days ago.”
“Yeah. Daddy was s’posed to buy some, but he forgot.”
Or, Miss Grayling thought, spent his money on pills from Jonny D. “Do you live around here?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am. Next door. Front ground floor apartment.”
Since when did the fine old house next door have a front ground floor apartment? Had it been cut up into apartments without Miss Grayling noticing?
Although when she thought about it, that would explain the series of seemingly unconnected people who were constantly coming and going. Not to mention the five mailboxes nailed precariously to the porch railing.
Mrs. Smalley came out of the pantry, the side of her face even more swollen. “Aunt Sophie’s coming over to pick us up. Finish your supper and thank the lady, Bennet.”
“He’s already thanked me very nicely,” Miss Grayling said. “Can you stay with your sister permanently?”
Mrs. Smalley laughed, the sound grotesquely distorted by her swollen mouth.
“Could we, Mom?” Bennet asked.
“No. Maybe for Christmas, but then we have to go home.”
“Why, Mom? Nobody at Aunt Sophie’s hits anybody. Or kicks Ajax.”
Shaking her head, Mrs. Smalley said, “I’ll make Daddy go to the doctor about his back hurting so much. They’ll help him and talk some sense into him. Then things’ll be better. You’ll see.”
Bennet didn’t say anything, but he looked skeptical.
Miss Grayling shared his doubts. Why would Mrs. Smalley think anything would be different after the holidays, despite a visit to a doctor?
She would never understand why Mrs. Smalley would return to a man who beat her, although perhaps a woman had the right to decide to put up with that. Then it might not be anybody else’s business. But when the abuse involved an innocent dog, and possibly a child, it became everyone’s business.
Everyone included Miss Grayling.
Despite the dreadful weather, Mrs. Smalley’s sister arrived promptly, driving a sturdy-looking, boxy red vehicle. She had to live nearby.
Miss Grayling was about to suggest Bennet could wear an old pair of her boots, but when the car pulled up, he grabbed Ajax, said good-bye to her, and dashed out to climb in.
Mrs. Smalley turned to Miss Grayling. The side of her face was turning an ugly shade of purple and red. “I don’t know what we would have done without your help. Thank you.” She offered her hand.
Miss Grayling steeled herself for a handshake. At this close range, Mrs. Smalley didn’t smell any better than Bennet. Worse, actually.
As soon as they left, Miss Grayling took the dishes over to the sink. She scrubbed her hands, then tidied up the kitchen.
Someone should do something about Mr. Smalley and the position in which he put his family.
She had been adamant that she would not cooperate with the police.
The doctor was unlikely to do much.
A clergyman was a possibility, but Mrs. Smalley had given no indication they belonged to any congregation.
That left Miss Grayling.
She certainly did not scour the world seeking ways to interfere in other people’s affairs. But this had been thrust upon her. She had a Christian duty to do something.
Perhaps she could visit Mr. Smalley to assess the dilemma and then confer with her own minister about possible solutions.
She put on her coat and hat. After glancing out the window at the treacherous conditions, she got her cane from the back of the closet.
Remembering the unpleasant odor emanating from both Mrs. Smalley and Bennet, she went to the kitchen to retrieve a pair of latex gloves and donned them. She could refuse to sit down, but she might be required to actually touch something in the apartment.
The distance to the house next door was not long, but Miss Grayling stepped carefully, leaning on her cane. The sleet was turning to snow, hiding icy patches.
When she reached the imposing front door, she paused. She saw no doorbell, and the imposing brass lion knocker she remembered from her youth was missing.
If the house was now divided up into apartments, this might be a common entrance. Miss Grayling turned the knob, and the door opened. She stepped into the high-ceilinged entry hall. A magnificent oak staircase on one wall rose to the second story.
A grimy door to the right in the entry hall stood slightly ajar. “Front ground floor apartment” was what Bennet had said. This certainly fit the description.
Miss Grayling knocked tentatively on the door frame.
“Who’s there?” a gravelly voice called.
Squaring her shoulders firmly, she answered, “Mr. Smalley? I’m your next-door neighbor.”
“Come in, come in.”
Glad she had the gloves, Mis Grayling pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Vague vestiges of the room as she remembered it remained. A large television set, turned off, now occupied the place of honor in front of the marble fireplace. Elegant crown molding still surrounded the tray ceiling, covered now in cobwebs. But the shades were drawn and it was dark and dingy, crowded with cheap furniture and trash, including an open pizza box containing one chewed slice.
A bedraggled plastic Christmas tree, its lights still blinking, lay on its side.
“What’d ya want?” the gruff voice asked.
In the dim blinking light, she could make out a man half-sitting and half-lying on the couch, wearing a stained T-shirt and clasping a half-empty bottle. He needed a shave and his hair was greasy and tangled.
The room smelled of undone laundry and stale beer.
Miss Grayling closed her eyes to block out the vision. “I was speaking to your wife, and I was concerned…”
“That bitch.” He raised the bottle. “You tell her that when she gets back, she’d better do right if she knows what’s good for her.”
His speech was slurred and she had to listen carefully to make out what he said. “Really, Mr. Smalley.”
“And that nasty little dog. I ought to strangle it. Next time, I will.”
Alarmed, Miss Graying asked, “And Bennet?”
“Damn kid. What kind of kid is called Bennet? Sissy name. Prob’ly isn’t even mine.” He put the bottle to his lips and drained it.
This did not seem like a promising situation to put before a minister.
She tried one more time. “What can be done to help you and your family, Mr. Smalley?”
He belched. “You can bring me another beer.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Hell yeah, it’s a good idea.”
“But nothing. Gimme a beer.”
The man was hopeless.
If she got it for him, she would have an opportunity to see the kitchen, and check to see if food was available. “All right.”
She went through to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Several bottles of beer sat on the shelves amid encrusted containers of who-knows-what. No fresh food she could see.
On the sticky counter lay a bottle opener—she remembered they used to be called church keys—together with some scattered pills and a box with a prescription label.
“While you’re out there, get me another one of those pain patches. Gotta be time for another one.”
“Yeah. In that box on the counter.”
Clearly he didn’t need more of either the beer or the pain patches.
“Just a minute.” Miss Grayling picked up the box and peered into it. There were three patches left.
The sink was full of dirty dishes. Thanking her foresight to wear the gloves, she reached in and pulled out a table knife. She took several of the pills and crushed them with the blade of the knife. Then she opened the bottle of beer and swept the crumbs into its narrow opening.
Carrying the beer and the box of pain patches, she went back into the living room.
Mr. Smalley took a big gulp of the beer and choked on it. He sat up, sputtering. “Tastes funny. What’s in it?”
“Oh, it’s just not as cold as usual,” she said, although the bottle was icy and sweating. “Let’s put the new pain patch on. Where does it go?”
“Here.” Mr. Smalley yanked up his T shirt to expose his flabby belly.
Miss Grayling forced herself to look at it. One patch was already in place. “Do I need to take that one off?” she asked distastefully.
“Nah. Leave it. Just put another one on next to it.”
Peeling the backing off the patch, she applied it below the one already present.
Then she repeated the procedure with the other two.
Mr. Smalley seem oblivious to what she was doing.
“Now drink up your beer and I’ll get you another one.”
Surprisingly obedient, Mr. Smalley chugged the contents of the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Smiling, Miss Grayling took the empty bottle out to the kitchen and rinsed it thoroughly, making sure all the water drained out of the sink. Then she got another bottle and opened it.
When she went into the living room, Mr. Smalley was sitting with his legs on the coffee table and his head thrown back. He was snoring.
She splashed a bit of cold beer on his shirt. He didn’t flinch. She reached down and placed the bottle next to his feet, ignoring the offensive odor emanating from his socks.
door closed behind her, tested to see that it had snapped shut, and went through the hallway to the front door.
Grasping her cane, Miss Grayling traipsed carefully home along the slippery sidewalk. The sleet had completely changed to snow, covering her footsteps.