It was a very special day and Mr. and Mrs. Goodbody were expecting a very special guest. They were atwitter with excitement: they cleaned and decorated their house from top to bottom, and dressed up in their best clothes. Mrs. Goodbody had been cooking for days: ham and potato salad and green beans topped with fried onions (the kind in the little red can) and parker rolls and Jello mold and her special pineapple upside down cake. Mr. Goodbody fired up the stereo and sat, hesitating, on his heels with a CD in each hand.
“Which do you think he’ll like better, sweetheart? A Christmas Choir or Beloved American Carols?” He called to his wife.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so excited!” Mrs. Goodbody called back from the kitchen. “Are you sure he’s coming? Here?”
“I’m sure,” Mr. Goodbody said firmly. “We’ve done everything right.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
Mr. Goodbody rushed to open it; Mrs. Goodbody emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron and patting her hair into place.
“Welcome!” Mr. Goodbody called out grandly, swinging the door wide then almost as quickly swinging it almost closed again. “Who are you?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. My car broke down. I was hoping you could call my sister to pick me up.”
“Call your sister! I’m not falling for that. Use your cell phone.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I haven’t been able to keep my phone, since the furlough. If you could just call my sister for me, I don’t have to come inside, I could slip her number under the door.”
“I’ll call the police, that’s who I’ll call!” Mr. Goodbody shouted and closed the door the rest of the way, firmly.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, sir, but I’ve got to get to the hospital,” the voice continued through the door. “My mother is sick and they say she’s dying. Could you just make one local phone call for me? I’ll have my sister meet me at the corner. You don’t even have to tell her your address.”
Mr. Goodbody, who had been standing with his ear pressed up against the door, backed away to a safe six feet.
“You have illness in your family and you brought it here! Get off my property.”
“Yes, sir,” the voice said sadly.
“I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it!” Mr. Goodbody shouted but there was no reply.
Mr. and Mrs. Goodbody waited in silence, clutching each other. Then Mrs. Goodbody remembered and checked the doorbell camera feed on her phone. “He’s gone!” She told Mr. Goodbody with relief. They both sighed. Then Mrs. Goodbody returned to the kitchen, put on her plastic apron and rubber gloves and mask, and took her Clorox and mop and crept out cautiously to disinfect their front porch.
It would not do for their important guest to be exposed to illness!
After she had finished, she washed her hands long in the guest bathroom, then wiped it down, and returned to the kitchen. She had just unmolded her Jello onto her best serving plate when the front doorbell rang again.
She scurried from the kitchen, pulling out her phone as she did.
“We’d better check, just to make sure, this time,” she told Mr. Goodbody. Together they huddled in their front hall, peering at the tiny picture on her phone.
“Is that him?” Mrs. Goodbody asked. “I can’t tell with that mask on.”
“It doesn’t look like him. I don’t think he’d wear a mask,” Mr. Goodbody replied dubiously. “Can you make this picture any bigger?”
“I always thought he’d be taller,” Mrs. Goodbody tilting her head one way then the other. “Oh, no, that’s the new neighbor. See, he’s wearing that funny hat that they wear.”
Mr. and Mrs. Goodbody looked at each other. Then Mr. Goodbody poked the “Speak” button with one finger.
“Yes?” He asked.
“Good morning, Mr. Goodbody. Good morning, Mrs. Goodbody,” his neighbor’s voice came politely through the phone’s speaker. “Best of the holidays to you.”
“Yes, Merry Christmas,” Mr. Goodbody replied, wishing that his neighbor would get off the porch. Mrs. Goodbody had already returned to the kitchen to suit up and dig out the cleaning supplies again.
“Mr. Goodbody, I am leading the neighborhood food drive. So many people are suffering right now, so many people don’t have jobs, and have unexpected medical bills, and don’t have places to live. If you have any spare cans of food you can let us have –“
“Times are tough,” Mr. Goodbody agreed into the phone, making no move toward the door. “You’re new in America –“
“– Mr. Goodbody, I’ve lived here since I was three months old –“
“– and I know it’s different where you come from. In America, people are independent. You can’t just give them things or they will come to depend on you.”
“And we will not be depended on!” Mrs. Goodbody, over Mr. Goodbody’s shoulder.
There was a pause. “Then I am sorry,” their neighbor finally said. “I am sorry that you feel that way.”
The Goodbodys watched him leave and then Mrs. Goodbody disinfected the front porch once more.
The day was growing late. It was almost dark. Mr. Goodbody switched on the lights, illuminating the yard with red and green. The food was spread beautifully on the dining table and all three places were set with their best china, the set they almost never used. On the coffee table, a cheese log and crackers waited, untouched.
“When do you think he’s coming?” Mrs. Goodbody asked Mr. Goodbody. And then the doorbell rang again.
“That must be him!” Mr. Goodbody called triumphantly but Mrs. Goodbody pointed at the picture on the phone. The Goodbodys looked at each other with alarm, then back at the phone.
“Of all nights!” Mrs. Goodbody said.
“Doesn’t she know we’re expecting him tonight?”
“Mom! Dad!” A voice called, so loudly that they could hear it through the door and through the phone. “It’s me. Carla and I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
“She brought that woman!” Mrs. Goodbody hissed. “How could she! She knows how we feel about her lifestyle decision.”
“Mom, I know you’re scared. We’re wearing masks and we don’t have to come in. We just wanted to see you and wish you a Merry Christmas and tell you that we still love you.”
“We’ve got to get rid of her,” Mr. Goodbody whispered. “He could be here any minute and we can’t have him see them.”
Mrs. Goodbody advanced toward the door, though still standing six feet away.
“You’ve made your choice,” she declared loudly, then glanced back at Mr. Goodbody. He held up his thumbs in approval. She continued boldly, “You’ve made your choice despite knowing that it’s wrong. I can see that you haven’t come to your senses yet. You know how we feel.”
A loud sigh emerged from the phone. Then another voice said softly, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, you knew it was a long shot.”
The reply came distantly, as if the speaker was moving off. “I just thought with it being Christmas…”
Mrs. Goodbody returned to the kitchen for her Clorox and mask.
When she had finished cleaning, Mr. and Mrs. Goodbody sat in their armchairs in the living room.
“Do you think he’s coming?” Mrs. Goodbody asked, gazing up at the clock which clicked inexorably towards midnight.
“Of course. Of course he’s coming,” Mr. Goodbody replied. “I am sure we did everything right.”
“You don’t think those people scared him off, all those people on our front porch?”
Mr. Goodbody sighed.
When the clock struck twelve, they put away their feast, turned off their lights and the Christmas music, changed out of their glad rags, and crawled into bed.
In her dreams, Mrs. Goodbody saw herself meeting their illustrious guest. She knew it was him, though all she saw was light.
“Why didn’t you come?” She heard herself asking. “We’re good people. We do what the minister says. We go to church every Sunday. The book says you will come to us and lift us up with you. Why didn’t you come?”
When the voice like the sigh of the sea replied, Mrs. Goodbody heard it, not with her ears but through her whole body, like the reverberation of a great bell.
“I did come. I came three times and you turned me away three times.”
“I know when I am not wanted,” the voice added.
And then Mrs. Goodbody awoke to the cold dark of her room, to the sound of Mr. Goodbody’s snoring, and knew that they were alone.