Charity

By Tim Gorham

7.1 B-smallen searched for a spot in the St. Mark’s school parking lot, which was full. He saw this as a blessing and parked on a side street, figuring he could make an easy getaway after eating. The entryway to the school housed a small glass case that was filled with engraved plaques, colorful ribbons, and pictures of sports teams from decades past. Ben perused the awards for a moment. Fourth places. Honorable mentions. Then he made his way down a dark hall of tile and felt banners, following the buzzing crowd noise coming from the school gymnasium.

Nearly half the town was there. Small pockets of people stood and talked. Some posed for pictures taken by a photographer wearing a safari vest and three cameras around his neck. The rest squatted on cafeteria benches designed for small children, hunched over styrofoam plates of greasy spaghetti, wilting salad, and buttered slices of bread. Ben sat and ate alone in the corner of the gym. At the other end was the donation table, where two women in sweaters were receiving envelopes and cash offerings into a glass punch bowl. Ben peered over the rim of a plastic cup he pretended to drink from and watched the bowl fill. He wasn’t giving any money. He said that to himself again and again. He had a rent and student loans; a pile of other bills waited for him on the kitchen counter of his studio apartment. He could barely make ends meet, even with his parents sending him a check every month for food and work clothes. He felt he didn’t owe anyone a thing.

At around eight o’clock, a donor placed a thick envelope atop the punch bowl. The envelope slipped out, relieving the stress from Ben’s shoulders and putting him in fine enough spirits to eat a second plate of spaghetti.

As he sopped up the last smears of orange grease with a slice of bread, he noticed Mrs. McGill walking towards him with a girl on her arm. Mrs. McGill was the accountant at Ben’s office. She was an older woman, with stained teeth and small feet that supported a body thick about the backside. Every two weeks she pushed a squeaky cart up to Ben’s desk and gave him his paycheck. Ben would’ve been happy with this simple relationship, but Mrs. McGill always wanted to talk to him. He didn’t like her, and, despite her insistences, refused to call her by her first name.

“Benjamin Graham,” she said in a motherly tone. “I want you to meet someone.”

The girl on Mrs. McGill’s arm was young, about Ben’s age, and had straight brown hair that barely touched her shoulders. She was small and thin and pale. Mousy was the word that came to Ben’s mind.

Mrs. McGill clapped her hands. “Ben,” she said. “This is Olivia. Olivia, this in Benjamin Graham.”
Olivia grinned, and then extended a bony hand. Ben took it awkwardly and nodded.

“Olivia,” Mrs. McGill told Ben, “sings in the choir with us at St. Mark’s, and I just wanted you two to meet.” She pulled a seat from the table and directed Olivia to sit down. “I’ll just let you two talk,” she said, putting her hands on Olivia’s shoulders before leaving.

Ben began tearing pieces from his napkin and rolling them into little balls. His knee nervously bounced up and down while Olivia stared at him and clutched a small gold cross that hung from her neck. Ben felt like he was doing something wrong and tried covering his face with his hands, pretending to swat at flies or rub the stubble on his cheeks.

“It’s nice of you to come,” Olivia finally said.

Ben shrugged his shoulders. “I had nothing better to do,” he said, regretting it immediately.

“Well it’s nice of you anyway.”

They slowly worked into conversation. They talked about themselves, their general preferences and backgrounds, each trying not to offend the other with his or her particular tastes. Quickly they found that they had much in common. Both were relatively new to town and worked at jobs they hated, jobs they held onto because of the economy, jobs that paid little and offered few benefits. Both came from middle-class families and were disillusioned with the hardships that came with being on one’s own, a lesson neither had learned in so many years of privileged schooling. They regretted their safe upbringings: presents always under the Christmas tree; summer vacations spent in hotel swimming pools. Everything now, they agreed with flushed faces, was harder.

The coincidence of similarities eventually created a wedge of silence that fell between them. In this quiet span of time, Ben ran his tongue over his teeth and noticed his knee regaining its bob. Olivia’s eyes became soft and concerned. She looked around the gym. Then she looked at Ben.

“It’s sad about the little boy,” she said. “Thomas.”

Ben lowered his head. “I guess,” he said.

Despite earlier plans, Ben thought about Thomas Dooling, the little boy for whom the spaghetti dinner was being held. Mrs. McGill had told him all about the boy at work that day. Thomas was born with a congenital heart defect, she told him. He had been in and out of the hospital for seven years. Now he needed a transplant. Insurance wouldn’t cover the operation, and his mother, Rhonda, was just a cashier at the neighborhood drugstore. “Don’t you read the paper,” Mrs. McGill had asked Ben. Ben shook his head before remembering that Mrs. McGill’s husband was the editor of the town’s newspaper. “I read the Times in college,” he said, “but I don’t like small newspapers.”

Mrs. McGill looked annoyed. “It’s a small town,” she said, and then pulled her cart away.

Olivia reached into her pocket and pulled out a small prayer card with Tommy’s picture on it. Copies of the card had been placed on all the tables that night. The boy was small and frail. His hair was pale blond, almost white-looking, and contrasted sharply with the pink circles that ran around his sallow eyes. A tube ran out of his chest, through a Spiderman t-shirt, and into a small Spiderman backpack resting beside him. Ben had placed all the cards at the table under his salad plate, unable to look at the boy as he ate.

“It’s sad,” Olivia said, looking at the picture, “to think that someone so young has to go through so much pain. I thought no one cared.”

Ben nodded, not knowing what to say.

“It could have been us,” Olivia added. “We’re lucky. We’ve never been through what this little boy has.” She shrugged. “It’s just sad.”

“It’s pretty nice that your church is doing this for him,” Ben offered.

Slight dimples came into Olivia’s cheeks. “I know,” she said. “It feels good giving back. No one takes the time to give back anymore. You know?”

Ben nodded again. He noticed splotches of red flushing over Olivia’s slender neck. He began rubbing at his own.

“Some people don’t give at all,” Olivia said.

The greasy spaghetti churned in Ben’s stomach. He felt as though Olivia were talking directly to him, only him, as if she were aware of his deception, his refusal to give money.

“I feel sorry for those people,” she said.

Ben’s hand swept away the balls of napkin.

“What?” Olivia asked.

“It’s all a waste of time, if you ask me,” Ben said.

“What do you mean?”

Ben cleared his throat. He flattened his sweaty palms against the paper table cloth, feeling that he had to finish what he started. “The kid needs a new heart, right?” he said. “That’s, what, tens of thousands of dollars? You think a spaghetti dinner’s going to cover that? You think what’s in that punch bowl is going to put a dent in the hospital bill?”

Olivia bit her lip. Her eyes stared with concern into Ben’s, as if trying to figure what was true and what was not—what he really believed. She shrugged her shoulders again. “It’s a start.”

“It’s delusional,” Ben said.

Olivia looked down at the table and began tearing slits into the table cloth. Ben regretted what he said. He regretted how this girl whom he’d just met made him regret everything he did.

“Well,” Olivia said after a moment, raising her chin. “You have your opinion. That’s fine. But I think this is great. What we’re doing, what you’re doing, is special. Everyone’s trying.” She clutched her gold cross. “This dinner may not pay for everything, but it’s special. People are coming together. Giving.” She took the prayer card for Thomas Dooling. “For this little boy,” she said.

Ben lowered his head and fiddled with his plastic fork and spoon.

“I like how people aren’t as negative as you,” Olivia added. “Life’s not fair, we’ve learned that. But I chose to be here because I wanted to help. I want to feel good about something for once.”

Ben raised his head and shrugged. “Okay,” he said.

The photographer with the safari vest came over to their table. He crouched down, focused one of his cameras, and asked Ben and Olivia to smile before snapping a shot. Then he thanked them and walked away.

“I’m sorry,” Olivia said.

“No,” Ben said, rubbing the bright flash from his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“I should go,” she said.

“Sure.”

***

After that night, Ben wanted to see Olivia wherever he could. He was drawn to her by something. Her compassion, he thought it was, though he regretted having to put his feelings into words, he was so bad at that. With help he begrudgingly sought from Mrs. McGill, he was able to attend two more charity functions for Thomas Dooling. First there was a pancake breakfast, then a bake sale. At each event he apologized to Olivia for his behavior at the spaghetti dinner. She forgave him each time. He gave what little money he could at both events, making sure she saw him offer checks to the collectors. Eventually he worked up enough courage to ask her out on a date. She agreed.

One date turned into three, then five. Over this course of time, Ben could see that Olivia was handling life better than he was. While his cynicism was growing with every day, her optimism remained. She possessed what he had been losing for some time: an innocence that he so desperately wanted back. When he was in her arms he felt an assurance that things were alright, that their bond was immune to the hopelessness that he felt lurking all around. He spent every free moment with her. They tried cooking for each other. His meals were simple and tasted just as bland: broiled meat and instant rice. She took her time, chopping fresh ingredients with delicate hands, her brow slightly sweating. She made exotic meals, colorful and expensive. Ben could see that money was not as much of an obsession to her as it was to him.

What he couldn’t offer Olivia with gifts of jewels or culinary acumen, Ben offered with affection. He wasn’t an experienced lover, and their first attempt at lovemaking was short. Afterward, he caressed Olivia as if she was something precious, something fragile—a gift he did not deserve. He apologized. Her soft kisses on his shoulder, her comforting hands rubbing over his back, articulated both forgiveness and assurance. There would be many other times, she said in those kisses. And there were.

Six months into the relationship, Ben took Olivia to an elementary school basketball game at St. Mark’s, the first place they had met. Olivia was quiet and deep in thought. She had been out of work for three months, laid off from the job Ben thought she hated. She assured him that she’d be okay, that she’d get another job, a better job. But Ben could see the fear and uncertainty in her eyes.

During halftime of the game, Ben retrieved a modest gold band from his pocket. As parents changed video cassettes and the players sucked on orange wedges and water bottles, he pushed the ring onto Olivia’s finger. He had been living on soup and yogurt while saving the checks his parents sent to buy the ring. He bought it shortly after Olivia had been laid off and had carried it in his pocket whenever he was with her. Wearing the ring, Olivia made a fist. Tears welled in her eyes. They hugged as the loud gym buzzer restarted the game. They cheered for the home team in the second half.

“Hey,” Olivia said, nudging Ben’s shoulder. She tipped her head in the direction of a little boy standing in the middle of the basketball court. His hands were crossed over his body. He looked frightened and unwilling to play. Sneakers screeched all around him.

“Do you think you want one of those?” Olivia asked.

One of those?” Ben said.

“A child,” Olivia said. “We’ve never really talked about it.”

Ben looked at the frightened boy and thought for a long moment. The buzzer sounded to end the game.

“I guess.”

Olivia kissed him.

They went back to her apartment, which was just as small as Ben’s. She brought out a bottle of cheap wine from the refrigerator and two glasses from the cupboard.

“To our future life together,” she toasted.

They clinked glasses and drank. Then they smiled and kissed each other.

“Who should we call first?”

Ben loved seeing her so excited. “Who wants to know?” he asked.

“Our parents,” Olivia said. “Our friends.”

“Our parents are our only friends,” Ben said.

Olivia smiled and hugged him. “Well, then, this will be easy.”

They kissed again before Olivia grunted and pulled away. “Mrs. McGill,” she said. “We need to tell her. Tell her tomorrow at work.”

“I don’t want to,” Ben said.

“But she got us together,” Olivia offered.

“She’ll ask a million questions. You know how nosey she is. Let her find out on her own.”
Olivia’s eyes lit up. “We can take an ad out in the paper. One of those marriage-announcement things.”

Ben reached out his hand and rubbed the little red splotches on Olivia’s neck. “That’s corny,” he said. “And embarrassing.”

“Come on,” Olivia said.

“Mrs. McGill would definitely know about it then,” Ben added. “She’s married to the editor.”
“That’s right,” Olivia said. “Oh, you have to tell her, Ben.” She ran her hands over his chest and shoulders. “This is all working out perfectly!”

Ben told Mrs. McGill the next day. The heavyset woman went around the end of Ben’s desk and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, I’m so happy for you!” she said, the stale smell of coffee on her breath. She kissed Ben, and then licked her thumb and rubbed the smeared lipstick from his cheek. Ben asked her about the announcement.

“Consider it done,” Mrs. McGill said. “But I’m making sure the story of how you met is in there.”
Ben shook his head and fell back into his chair.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mrs. McGill said. She began clapping in a happy pitter-patter. “Where are you getting married?” she asked. “When? What about the reception? I want to get this out A-S-A-P.”

Ben sat in his chair and swiveled. He shrugged, thinking for a moment, rubbing his chin.

“Never mind that now,” Mrs. McGill said. “That can come later. An announcement will do just fine. I’ll write it myself. You two will love it. Be sure you buy a paper next week. Saturday.” She tossed Ben’s paycheck onto his desk. Winking at him, she pulled her cart away and whistled down the hall.
Ben sat back in his chair and began to worry. Mrs. McGill made it all sound so official. He imagined phony handshakes and congratulations from people he hardly knew. He opened the envelope of his paycheck and stared at the paltry number he would later deposit at the bank. He felt dizzy thinking about all the preparations, the responsibilities. The costs.

He tried to ignore the permanence of it all: the wedding; the marriage; the job that would have to pay for it all. For a week he just thought about Olivia, about her happiness. He began moving his things into her apartment, keeping himself busy with cardboard boxes and mail-forwarding. When Saturday came, Olivia rushed to the grocery store down the street, bought a newspaper, and ran back. Out of breath, she handed Ben the curled copy.

“I couldn’t look,” she said.

“I don’t think they’d put us on the front page,” Ben said.

“They might,” Olivia offered. “It’s a small town.”

Ben hoped they hadn’t put them on the front page. The thought made him queasy.

“Open it!” Olivia said.

“Okay.”

Ben took a deep breath as Olivia gained hers. He unwrapped the paper slowly and read. Olivia, too excited to peek, watched Ben’s face. Her excitement was interrupted by the shock on his parted lips, the heaviness on his brow, the look in his eyes. She looked down at the paper to see it for herself: The death of Thomas Dooling in big black letters.

***

The funeral was held on the Wednesday after the announcement was made. Ben and Olivia went: Ben didn’t want to go; Olivia made him. The church was nearly empty.

There was the casket, a small box of well-oiled wood flanked on each side by two sleepy-eyed altar boys in white robes and sneakers. The priest began a prayer as Ben and Olivia took seats in the second pew on the left side of the church. Ben sat behind the red beehive hairdo of beautician Muffin Howard, his view of the ceremony impeded. He watched Rhonda Dooling instead. She was dressed in black, her hair a beehive similar to Muffin’s, though brown in color. She sat in the front pew on the right side of the church, between two broad-shouldered men with corduroy sport jackets and plaid flannel shirts. Her brothers, Tommy’s uncles, Olivia told him. Ben couldn’t stop watching Ms. Dooling. How she cried; how she sobbed. She looked like Olivia: small and thin, so fragile, so sweet looking. The type of woman, Ben thought, that any man worth a damn would naturally want to protect.

It happened after the funeral. Outside the church, when Ben approached her. She was staggering out of the church doors, locked in her brothers’ arms. Ben walked in front of their path and introduced himself. Olivia was in the church, talking to the priest.

“Ms. Dooling,” he said, his voice catching a bit. “My name’s Ben.” He cleared his throat. “Benjamin Graham.”

The top of Rhonda Dooling’s hairdo barely came to Ben’s chest. Her blue eyes were heavy with tears and surrounded by black eye shadow that had been smeared by the ball of tissue shivering in her hand. At that moment, Ben’s mind blanked. I have to say something, he thought to himself. Anything.

He licked his lips. Then he opened his mouth:

“I gave your son money,” he said.

Ms. Dooling began to weep. Her brothers squeezed Ben’s shoulders; their grips were strong. They thanked him for coming, and told him they needed to get their sister back home. Ben nodded and stepped aside. He watched the family gather into a brown van and drive away. As their vehicle turned the corner, he ran a hand over his face.

“You asshole,” he cursed at himself.

***

When he got home from work a week after the funeral, he was greeted by the heavy metal claps of Olivia’s typewriter. Olivia was at her desk. She was wearing Ben’s sweatpants and a t-shirt; her hair was neatly combed. Red splotches covered the back of her neck.

“What are you doing?” Ben asked.

Olivia held her finger up for a moment of quiet. She typed a few more lines and then ended with an emphatic punch of the last key. She ripped the paper from the typewriter and spun her chair towards Ben. “How does this sound,” she said before clearing her throat:

“‘Dear Mr. Editor. It is with great regret that I write this today in regards to the funeral of Thomas Dooling, the sweet little boy who passed away weeks ago. The people of this small town, particularly those of St. Mark’s Parish, have treated this boy’s death with the grossest levels of indecency and selfishness.”

“Olivia,” Ben said.

Olivia waved the letter at him. “Hold on,” she said. “Listen to this part.”

“‘Your paper did an admirable job in reporting the condition of little Thomas throughout his life and up until his death. However, the gross ignorance of his funeral fills my heart with sadness. I was disappointed to note that not one reporter on your staff was at the funeral procession last Wednesday. I wish Ms. Dooling knows that some readers of this paper are truly saddened by her loss and will continue to support her in any ways necessary.’”

After reading, Olivia looked up at Ben and beamed with pride.

“Are you sending that in?” Ben asked.

“Yes,” Olivia said.

“Don’t.”

“Why?” she asked.

“It’s a little much, don’t you think?”

Olivia straightened herself in her chair. “No. I don’t,” she said. “People just threw that little boy away like some piece of trash. It wasn’t right.”

Ben rubbed the toe of his shoe into the carpet. “I know,” he said. “And you’re right. But it’s a little harsh. A little personal.”

“I don’t care,” Olivia said. “It was wrong.” She spun her chair back to the typewriter and set the letter on the desk.

“If you want to send it,” Ben said, “then send it.”

“I’m just tired of being quiet,” Olivia said. “You try to be a good person, thinking that everyone else is doing the same. But it’s not true. Some people just don’t care. It pisses me off.”

Ben walked up behind Olivia and squeezed her shoulder. “You care too much,” he said.

“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Olivia took Ben’s hand off her shoulder and squeezed it. “I’m not changing,” she said.

“Good,” Ben said. “I need you this way. I want you this way. I just worry sometimes.”

“Why?”

Ben thought about the question for a long moment. “Sometimes you scare me,” he finally said. “When you get angry, you sound too much like me.”

Olivia squeezed Ben’s hand once more. Then she put it back on her shoulder. “You’re stuck with me, buddy,” she said.

***

They keep to themselves that evening, eating dinner quietly and watching television on separate ends of the bed. That night, as her letter, enveloped and addressed, sits on the kitchen counter, he awakes to the sounds of heaving. He rises from the bed and finds her wrapped around the toilet, her shirt damp with sweat. He asks her what is wrong. She tells him to get her some medicine, her plea echoing around the porcelain bowl.

Pushing through boxes and bottles on the shelves of a kitchen cupboard, he cannot find a suitable cure. She retches. He pulls on a pair of jeans, grabs his coat and keys, and heads out for the all-night drugstore downtown, too caught up in his actions to relay the plan to his fiancée. The illuminated sign of the drugstore burns dimly above the building’s awning. Through the doors and under the security camera’s television set, he heads directly to the pharmacy. He walks up and down the pharmacy’s aisles, looking for a cure-all both suitable for her and affordable for his wallet. He admires the bright boxes and bold lettering of the medicines on the the top shelves; then he picks a generic brand of antacid on the bottom shelf. He starts for the checkout counter.

There Ben sees, behind the counter, Rhonda Dooling, scanning cases of soda for a teenage boy who is pecking at the keys of a cell phone. Ben’s lungs fill with air; the bottle of antacid rattles in his hands. Everything, to him, goes quiet, save for the beeping of the register’s scanner and the hum of the fluorescent lights overhead.

Ms. Dooling gives the teenager his change and watches him walk out through the automatic doors, the cases of soda hanging from both hands. Ben walks up to the counter while her attention is taken and delicately places the medicine before the scanner. After a moment, she looks at the pills, ignoring Ben, and then reaches for them.

“Find everything all right?” she asks, her voice sounding as weary as the look in her eyes.

“Yes, thank you very much,” he says.

In a fit of anxiety, he begins grabbing items on the rack besides the counter. He adds two candy bars, a tin of mints, and a tabloid magazine. “This should do it,” he says before dropping a pack of batteries onto the pile.

Ms. Dooling doesn’t look at him. She takes one item after another, runs it across the star-shaped scanner, and then punches for the total on the ancient-looking register. “Thirty-one, twenty-seven.”

He reaches for his wallet and flips through a few bills before realizing he has out-spent himself. He runs a hand through his hair. He tries laughing.

“Guess I’ll have to write a check,” he says.

He pulls a lonely check from another sleeve in his wallet and nervously scribbles it out with the counter’s chained pen. She takes the pen and examines the check.

“I.D.,” she says.

He already has the license in his hand. He hands it to her, but then stops when both his fingers and hers are on the card. Does she know already? he asks himself. If she doesn’t, will she connect the dots with the name on the card? Will she remember the horrible man who broke her heart outside of the church, the man whose words had filled her eyes with more tears?

“Let go of the card, sir,” she says with not much fight.

Her voice releases his fingers. He puts his hands in his pockets and bows his head. There is a moment of silence when he cannot hear her move. He slowly raises his head, fearing the worst, and, sure enough, finds her open-mouthed and searching-eyed, looking about the features on his face. His shoulders go limp.

“You’re from the paper,” she says.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“The paper,” she says, as if he had asked a question. “You’re marrying Olivia Upshaw. Little Olivia Upshaw.”

He feels himself leaning backwards. He is surprised to see a smile on her face.

“I thought I recognized you,” she says while copying his identification number onto the check. She runs the check through the register and begins bagging his items. “Did you know I used to sing with Olivia in the St. Mark’s choir?” she asks.

“Really?” he says while crossing one foot over the other. He clears his throat and forces a smile that he can’t help but feel is nervous.

She nods. “Years ago. She probably doesn’t even remember. But she’s great. I‘ve never seen you at our church, though. Don’t go?”

“Well,” he begins, trying to find his way into the conversation. “I don’t know.”

She smiles.

Has she forgotten? he asks himself. Does she not know who I am? What I did to her? How awful I am? I need to tell her.

He keeps his feet crossed and his mouth closed and watches her snap her fingers and go for something under the counter. She pulls out a purse and retrieves a brightly-colored envelope from its pocket.

“Here,” she says to him. “I was going to mail this later.”

“What for?” he asks.

“You’re getting married,” she says.

He takes the envelope and runs his hands around its edges. “I can’t take this,” he says.

She waves a hand at him. “Don’t sweat it,” she says. “It’s not much, but it’s something.”

He covers his mouth with the envelope and taps it against his lips.

“What?” she asks him.

He places the envelope before his chest and thanks her. “I don’t deserve this,” he says.

She bows her head and thinks about this for a moment. Then her eyes meet his.

“Everyone deserves a little charity sometimes,” she says. “Even though it may not be enough . . . we do what we can.”

That night, as Olivia sleeps beside him, he thinks about Thomas and Rhonda Dooling. He thinks about the funeral and what he said. He thinks about the drugstore counter and what he didn’t say. He begins to cry while thinking about Olivia’s letter, her words ringing too true once again. He tugs at the bed sheets and rolls on his side, his back to his love. He watches the night turn from black to gray and imagines time reversing itself.

Why is everything so hard? he wonders. Why is everything so complicated?

For a moment, lying in bed, he wishes he could give it all back. His job. The funeral. Even Olivia. He thinks about what his life would be like without these things. To be innocent again. As he contemplates this, Olivia twitches in her sleep, sending a small tremor into the mattress, into him. She groans. He turns over, and then goes still. He examines her tense face. He puts his arm out and gently runs his thumb down her pale cheek. Eventually her face softens and her breath returns to a calm, peaceful rhythm that whispers from her nose.

Satisfied, he turns back to the window. The sun is coming up. He rubs the crust of dried tears from his eyes. He listens to Olivia’s breathing and slowly finds his way into her rhythm.
Soon enough, everything settles into a feeling of calm, a gift he does not deserve.

 

——————–
Tim Gorham’s fiction has appeared in GW Review, Coe Review, and Temenos. He lives, works, and writes in the Omaha area.


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