They agreed on a $200 spending limit. It was one of the most generous limits Julie and Kevin had imposed in their 15 year marriage. Julie was determined to spend it well. And it was time to begin shopping – today. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be done by Christmas.
“Good to see you again, Mrs. Dillard,” Joey, the Publix cashier interrupted her thoughts.
“You too Joey. Are you done with exams?”
“Yes ma’am. I got all A’s.”
“That’s great! See, I told you chemistry wouldn’t ruin your GPA.”
Joey smiled as he scanned groceries. “Thanks, Mrs. D. That’s $47.08. Do you need help getting it to your car?”
“No thanks, I got it. You have a Merry Christmas, Joey.”
As Julie walked to her car, she noticed a man sitting on a bench at the bus stop. She’d seen him there before with his rusty grocery cart. He wasn’t actually waiting for a bus. It was more likely he was seeking shelter from the cold drizzle. Julie placed her groceries in the trunk of her car, and then she walked toward him.
“Hello, sir,” Julie said shyly.
“Hi there, Miss.” He smiled a toothless smile. “You waiting on a bus? I can get out of your way…”
“Oh no, I’m fine. I just…” Julie wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, do you like burgers?”
“Yes, Miss, I sure do.”
“Well, you see, someone gave me this Milo’s hamburgers gift card. And I don’t really eat hamburgers. I thought maybe, would you be interested? I’d hate for it to go to waste.”
The man smiled more widely. “Why bless you, miss. I sure would.”
“Good,” Julie handed him the card. “I’m glad.” She watched him pull his ratty blanket tighter against a gust of wind. “Are you sure you’ll be warm enough here?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine. And now I can go get me some coffee and a hamburger.” He offered a calloused hand. “My name’s Jefferson, Miss. Jefferson Hamilton. My mama liked president names,” he smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Jefferson. I’m Julie. You have a nice day.”
The house was quiet as Julie put up her groceries. It was the first Saturday of the month, and that meant hunting. Kevin always looked forward to hunting weekends, and cold drizzle, even the promise of snow, never deterred him from holing up in a deer stand with his life long friend Stuart. Julie never understood how freezing one’s toes off looking for Bambi could be fun. Especially when she could hibernate inside with her coffee and Hallmark movies.
As Julie lounged in Kevin’s recliner under a quilt, the predictable story unfolded on the screen. He was a country boy, and she was back home taking care of family business. They’d dated and broken up in high school, but the spark was still there. They were about to kiss when a commercial interrupted to build the suspense that no one felt.
“Tonight at 6:00, the New Leash dog shelter is asking for your help. They are out of room, and they need you to adopt a dog before Christmas. Who could resist these adorable faces?”
Julie look at the array of dogs on the screen and shook her head. Kevin was dying to get a dog. Whenever one of those commercials aired, he was the one with puppy dog eyes, trying to sway Julie. Dogs were messy, though. And they shed and barked and pooped. They didn’t have time for a dog.
The phone rang, and Julie muted the television. It was Pam. Sighing, Julie also paused the movie. There was no such thing as a short conversation with Pam.
“Oh Julie, I hope I’m not interrupting anything. I was just wondering if you had heard about the Lewis family.”
“No, I haven’t. What’s going on?”
“Well, you know Suzanne has been worried about Ashley their oldest. She’s had that awful flu thing. Turns out she has leukemia. They found out yesterday.”
“Oh no,” Julie sat in a kitchen chair. “They must be devastated.”
“Oh I know they are. And you know, since David is self employed, their insurance is it the greatest. I’m going to call Pastor Tom and see if we can get a collection started.”
“That’s a great idea,” Julie smiled. Pam might be a chatterbox but she had a big heart after about 20 minutes of conversation, Julie hung up the phone and resumed the movie. Halfway through the second special, Julie fell asleep
On Monday after work, Julie decided to stop by Macy’s. She still had people to shop for, and Macy’s was convenient. She started with her little sister Karen, who was getting married in March. Karen had always bragged on Julie’s Christmas dishes, and Julie had been collecting a piece here and there ever since her sister’s engagement. Macy’s happened to have the platter on sale, so Julie bought it. As the cashier wrapped it, Julie marked through her sister’s name.
After crossing a few more names off her list, Julie meandered into the men’s department. She had been eyeing an overcoat since the early fall. It was long, heavy, and navy blue. It would look great on Kevn, and with the holiday sales, it was under their agreed limit. She fingered the sleeve, trying to make up her mind. Was it the right gift? She couldn’t quite decide.
Stopping by Publix’s on the way home, Julie saw Jefferson sitting on the sidewalk. He waved to her and lifted a cup of coffee bearing the Milo’s logo. She waved back. He was still wrapped in the dirty blanket. Though today was warmer, she knew he wouldn’t be very comfortable. Thank goodness he could buy coffee and warm food for a little while
Julie noticed her neighbor’s kids playing outside as she pulled into her driveway. They were tossing a ball back-and-forth, though not very well. Their Labrador retriever, Lady, intercepted the ball and streaked away from them and into Julie’s yard. When Lady saw Julie, she dropped the ball and loped over, jumping on Julie and nearly knocking her off her feet.
“No Lady! Stop!” The children ran over. Nia pulled lady back by her collar. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Dillard! She’s just glad to see you.”
“That’s OK. She certainly is loving,” Julie remarked as the lab licked her fingers.
“She likes to kiss everybody. Come on, lady! Get the ball!” Lady looked at Julie for several seconds, wagging her tail, before running back to her own yard. Julie carried her bags inside and washed her hands.
The clock showed 1:15 a.m. when Julie woke up and tiptoed out of the bedroom. She’d been waking up at about the same time for weeks, unable to go back to sleep. Instead of tossing and turning, she made a cup of tea and picked up a book to read. The neighborhood was quiet and dark. Julie plugged in the small Christmas tree and read in silence.
After about an hour, a siren sounded in the distance, and Lady began barking. Julie knew Lady would bark until one of the Taylor’s came outside and let Lady into the house. That dog had the family trained, Julie thought, chuckling. She stifled a yawn. Maybe she could go back to sleep.
Once she was under the covers, Julie lay there listening to Lady’s barking. Sure enough, Mr. Taylor opened a door and called for lady. The barking stopped, and the door slammed closed. It was quiet again. And in the silence, an idea came to Julie. The longer she thought about it, the more excited she became. By the time she fell asleep, it was after 3:00. But she slept soundly.
The two and a half weeks leading up to Christmas were busy, as they always are. Julie worked, spent more time shopping, and opened too many Christmas cards to count. She taped each one to the door frames, as they always did. When she marked through the last item on her shopping list, Julie rewarded herself with a red velvet cupcake from Dixie’s Small Sweets. They were her favorite.
On Saturday, December 21st, Julie loaded a few things into her car and drove toward the south side of town. She passed Publix’s, the movie theater, and their small Presbyterian Church. As she turned onto a side road and drove through a set of gates, she smiled a little.
It wasn’t particularly cold that Saturday. Julie carried a large point setter and walked across the grass to a simple marker. She dusted it off and placed the plant in the basin attached to the top. The marker was grey stone, and it read, “Kevin Andrew Taylor, loving son and husband, January 20th, 1979 to October 6th, 2019.” Wiping away a few tears, Julie spread a blanket and sat on the ground
“I know it’s a few days before Christmas, but I couldn’t wait. You know I like to open things early. I wanted you to know about this year’s gifts. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but that sweet little girl, Ashley, has leukemia. Her parents don’t have the greatest insurance, so the church took up a collection. I used the $200 for my gift to help. I thought you would like that.
“I met the nicest old man named Jefferson Hamilton. I know, what a name! He said his mother liked presidential names. He spends his days outside. That coat I’d been eyeing was on sale, so I bought it for him. It looks great. He has blue eyes like you.
“And,” Julie pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I got this. Or rather her. She’s some kind of retriever and shepherd mix, I think. I named her Holly. She’s 5 years old. She’s only chewed a few things, but she does sleep on your side of the bed now. I didn’t figure you would mind.”
Julie sat there for a while, talking to her husband about how much she missed him and about what she was learning. Finally she stood and folded the blanket. She walked back to the car, feeling a little lighter. Kevin would have been pleased. She had gotten him the perfect gifts.
This story was submitted to Reedsy.com ‘s story prompt contest, found here: