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Charity: A Short Story
Jenny scooped the one-pound packages of Turtles into the larger cardboard case. “Five, ten, fifteen,” she counted, “and that one too, in case we sell out.”
Despite double gloves, her hands were freezing. She felt shapeless and ugly in layers of utilitarian pants, parka, knit cap, and a scarf wound around her head, exposing only her eyes. It didn’t matter, she reminded herself; vanity is selfish, and we are missionaries! Throwing a brisk grin to her partner, Jenny slammed the back door of the van and waved off their team leader to the next town. Bill and Jenny, left alone with bulging cases of candy on the squeaky snow, stood at the edge of the silent Minnesota hamlet of Smithville, December 24, 1976.
She pulled an already-disgusting handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her nose. Jenny had volunteered for the missionary program back in the spring, and by summer, she had found herself traveling with six other young people on a mobile fundraising team. They were urged to compete in sales, to do their best to support the church’s many projects worldwide. Although fundraising was difficult, Jenny usually managed to moderate her shyness after she had approached several people, as long as they were not too irritated by her requests for money. On Christmas Eve, too, it was especially easy to get fired up to work for God. However, this holiday, Jenny was sick—running a fever, sneezing, and coughing. The month-long sales competition between the different teams ended that night, though. Therefore, she had agreed to go out, sick and all.
Bill eyed her with concern, squinting against the sun, which flashed off ice crystals in all directions. “You’ll be OK; it’s the last day.”
“Thanks.” Jen felt grateful, but not particularly close to the gangly twenty-year-old, who kept to himself and seemed rather dull. However, she determined to make the best of things, stuck here alone with him hundreds of miles from the church center and thousands of miles away from her broken and bitterly alcoholic family, her string of failed love affairs, and the rest of her miserable life. No, there was no better place for Jenny than here. Besides, God Himself had called her, and she was proud to have turned her life upside down in response. Sometimes, though, only pride kept her from quitting.
“Bill, let’s get going!”
The two young missionaries bowed their heads for a hasty prayer and started in opposite directions door-to-door.
In darkness at 5:00 p.m., they finally met up again at the tiny diner in the town square. The townspeople, mostly descended from sturdy Scandinavian Lutheran stock with a sprinkling of Catholics, had been kind and receptive. Almost every home had made a donation, no questions asked; after all, it was Christmas Eve. However, an almost perfect fundraising day flew right by Jenny as she shook with fever. All afternoon, tottering up icy steps and around block after unending block, she had struggled to keep a grip on her body. Now, finally, dinner: hot soup and hotter tea. She couldn’t taste it, but no matter—the heat was enough.
“Just a few more hours; let’s keep going!”
After a brief prayer together, the two parted again. Jenny felt the deep, blue-black cold envelop the small town. Soft lights glowed in each window, and the people’s friendly donations were beacons as she plodded onward. The cold, however, was unforgiving. Finally, the two finished the last house and gave their last box of Turtles in return for a donation. Rejoined by Bill, Jenny coughed and shuddered, “Let’s call in and wait for the van.” He steered her to the deserted town square, where he phoned the church center. Stepping out of the booth, his worried face telegraphed the news.
“The van broke down; Team Leader will get here sometime tonight, but not until late—we’re just supposed to wait.”
The two young people stared at each other. In all of downtown Smithville, there was not one open business—only utter darkness, cold, and silence. The temperature had plummeted to well below zero before wind-chill. It was almost 9:00 p.m.
Jenny and Bill huddled into a dark, storefront doorway. The Church’s restriction on unmarried male-female touching made them unwilling to warm each other, and besides, she was not attracted to Bill. They eyed each other miserably and tried to stay out of the wind. Sitting on dry snow, leaning against the closed building, they prayed and chitchatted, then just fell silent.
After what seemed hours, they noticed people down the street, entering the small Catholic Church. The two looked at each other—Midnight Mass! As quickly as they could, Jenny and Bill stumbled to their freezing, aching feet. After all the parishioners had gone in, they slipped through the back doors and took seats in the rearmost pew. By now, they were too far gone to appreciate the Mass; they just wanted this night to be over, to pull warm blankets over their heads, and to sleep.
“The mass is ended. Go in peace.”
On their way out, the parishioners slowly filed by the two young people, averting their faces as they passed, family by family. As the church emptied, it dawned on Jenny and Bill that they would be back at that icy storefront in a few minutes. Bill began to ask a few folks if they would shelter the two missionaries, but met only rejection.
As the last townspeople left, perhaps moved by his conscience or perhaps simply taking responsibility for the situation, the deacon approached Jenny and Bill. After a few questions, he guided them next door to the rectory. He disappeared inside, and soon afterward, an old station wagon crunched up and an elderly, weathered, bundled-up face peered at the missionaries, the man’s eyes bright and curious.
The old man’s home was a snug little trailer where his bespectacled wife brewed cocoa and fussed over Jenny and Bill. The four sat quietly, sipping cocoa and smiling drowsily at each other around the table. Almost unconscious by now, at least the two young people began to thaw out. At 3:00 a.m. that Christmas morning, Team Leader finally arrived with the van and relieved the elderly couple of their strange guests. As they drove away and the next morning, Jenny and Bill sent heartfelt prayers, thanking the elderly couple for their Christmas charity.