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SILENT NIGHTS

1.


Neal's partner's name was Marley, but Neal was no Scrooge. He attended Church each Sunday and major holydays, dropped his envelope in the collection basket religiously (pun intended), and was involved in charitable endeavors. Indeed, that is how Neal came to make the acquaintance of Ms. Marley.

Gwen Marley was the widow of Henry "Hank" Marley III, in his time an investment banker of some renown. He had been a talking head on occasion on sundry cable business outlets. To paraphrase the old commercial, when Hank talked, the markets listened. Apparently investment banking was a lucrative endeavor, Hank earning Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos dollars. Unfortunately it must not have been a healthy endeavor, Hank succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 64. This not being Victorian times, 64 was no longer considered old.

In any event, the widow Marley found herself the beneficiary of riches that would make Midas drool, she now being one of the world's richest persons, alongside Messrs. Buffet, Bezos and very few others.

Unlike the departed Mr. Marley, Gwen had no interest in the investment banking scene. Also unlike him, and perhaps cognizant that some of his gains might have been, as they say, ill gotten, Gwen decided to focus on charitable enterprises. How she settled on the organization Neal was involved with, he could not say, though he had known her before. He appreciated she was a welcome, and extraordinarily generous, donor. So much so that Neal called her my "partner." Not in the romantic sense. He did come to have an affection for Gwen but nothing involving intimacy or the stuff of poetry. Nor was she a partner in the legal sense. The organization Neal ran wasn't a partnership. And no, he didn't call her "partner" to flatter her because of her wealth. As much as her largesse was welcome, Neal valued his integrity that much more.

No, Gwen was a "partner" in the sense that she was so integral a part of Neal's group being able to operate. Her penchant was to visit every December, and make a VERY generous Christmas donation. So much so, it allowed Neal's charitable organization to expand and accounted for approximately 40 percent of the org's annual budget. Neal could have called her their fairy godmother, but "partner" seemed apropos and correct given how much her contribution meant to the charity.

By "charity", we're referring to the Madonna Alternative Care center, usually shortened to the Madonna Center. Neal was not cut from the same cloth as Gwen's late husband. The business world held no appeal for him. Possibly stemming from his parochial school education, or his altar boy days, or his Mom's instilling a sense of socio-religious responsibility, after college Neal was drawn to the world of the not-for-profits. Immediately upon graduation, he enlisted in the Peace Corps, doing a two year stint in sub-Saharan Africa, a site of unimaginable poverty. The experience was gratifying, though Neal did learn first hand why the government should never get involved with anything more serious than the snow. You ever been to the DMV or Social Security offices? You get the meaning.

So after the Corps, Neal applied for and was hired by one of the mega charitable enterprises. It is preferable not to mention names, but you've undoubtedly heard of it. Think red and you won't be far off (and no, it's not the Red Cross--no more guesses; that would be cheating). Neal spent a solid baker's dozen years there. (Is it appropriate to use that term for the number 13, when not talking about baked goods? Well, no matter). Neal learned a lot during his tenure at the charitable behemoth. The good with the bad. Good works abounded, for sure. On the other hand however, a disproportionate share of donations went to the higher up's salaries, and to fund more fund raising activities. Accordingly, donors would be disappointed to know a much reduced portion of their contributed dollar actually went to the poor and needy. The other negative was that certain of the higher ups seemed more interested in status than in doing unto others. If a governor or presidential candidate or even the occasional actor came by (it made for a perfect photo op), one had to watch out for the breeze resulting in the wake of executives rushing to see the celebrity.

When Neal felt he had learned as much as possible, and had grown sufficiently disenchanted, he gave his two weeks' notice and set out on his own. His goal? To establish an organization that would truly be dedicated to the neediest in the community, and do it in a way that offered the utmost in professional medical and social care while eschewing publicity and profiteering at the top. Neal saw it as an alternative type of eleemosynary organization. That, and his devotion to the Blessed Mother and voila, the Madonna Alternative Care center was born. People who worked there made enough to get by, but no one, no matter how high up the food chain, would ever get rich.

The Madonna Center offered a range of care, starting from pre-natal, through spousal abuse, substance addiction, you name it, then through hospice. "Cradle to grave" as one local reporter summed it up. The Madonna Center became highly regarded, even by the many non-Catholics who frequented its services.

It started small, of course. Neal had no funds of his own. So he began this way. A kindly pastor in his home parish allowed him to speak during each of the Sunday Masses, after which a second collection was taken up. Neal did these twice a year, not only at Anthony's, but also at various parishes in the lower Hudson Valley county whence he lived. In short order he raised enough to open his first, modest facility.

Neal turned out to be a gifted speaker with a resonant message. The obscene cost of health care struck most everyone, so the need for what Neal offered was self evident. Neal also had an intriguing hook. His parents, Jim and Carlene Armstrong, thought it would be cute to name their first born after the first man to walk on the moon, albeit with a slight twist. Hence, Neal (with an "a" and not the "i" as in astronaut Neil Armstrong) was christened. As he grew older, Neal thanked God his surname was not Hitler; he feared his parents would have baptized him "Adulph."

As it was, the name did invite confusion, if not ridicule. "Hey, you're the guy that walked on the moon! I thought you'd be older!" And so on.

Neal turned that to his advantage. He started his talks, "My name is Neal Armstrong, not the guy who was the first man on the moon. But if you listen to me and work with me, to borrow the old George Bailey line from It's a Wonderful Life, together we'll lasso the moon and bring it to those who can only dream of such things." That, coupled with Neal's evident sincerity, and the Madonna Center was off and running. Of course, the charity's name itself invited confusion. More than a few times, people, generally young adults, visited thinking it was a museum dedicated to the pop star of the same name. "I loved her Super Bowl halftime show a few years ago," one disappointed millennial commented upon seeing no signs of the icon, just abundant good works.

The Center really took off when Gwen Marley "adopted" Madonna as her pet charity. So abundant was her largesse, Neal not only expanded health care offerings at his initial site, he was able to open three more facilities throughout the county. It grew in popularity, becoming an accepted part of life in the quiet Hudson Valley.

Neal did mourn Gwen's passing. She had become a trusted friend as well as benefactor. Converting grief to joy, Neal named one of the facilities after the good lady. His own joy, however, would be short lived. This first Christmas after Gwen's passing, Gwen's only child, Arthur, scheduled a time to visit the center's main office. "How nice," Neal thought. "He wants to continue Gwen's tradition of making a generous Christmas present, in tribute to her." Neal looked forward to the meeting, and to likewise developing a cordial friendship with the Marley scion.

However Neal was about to be, as the British say, gobsmacked, for this Marley turned out to be a Scrooge. The sole heir of the Marley estate, young Arthur, who had never worked a day in his life (he didn't have to, such was the family wealth), looked not at Neal but at his own meticulously buffed nails as he told Neal, "We will not be continuing the annual donations to your little fund. There are other things I wish to devote the monies toward."

Neal was discomfited. "If there are other charities, I can assure you our uses of the funds..."

Arthur cut him off with a dismissive wave. "It has nothing to do with charity. There is a property in St. Bart's I've had my eye on, and now that I have the means... New York grows so cold in the winter, one really needs a place to escape to, to recharge."

"Yes, life sure is tough," Neal said, the sarcasm flying so far over Marley's head, it could have reached the third ring of Saturn. He quickly added, "Your mother was a saint. I do hope you'll reconsider, in her memory, if not for the good itself."

"Fat chance," Marley said as he took his leave.

Neal slumped down into his chair, his face buried deep in his hands.


2.


Neal's assistant Jess came in with some papers and Neal lifted his head. He was so fortunate to have someone as capable by his side. Jess was fascinating as well, having become expert in classical music trivia. She'd recently spent all her modest ready cash reserve on a reprint of an original Mozart score. "Neal!" she exclaimed, "You're white as can be! You look like you've seen a ghost." "No," Neal quipped, "At least Marley's ghost brought a promise of redemption." Neal tried to regain some equanimity, but everything felt so surreal, as if light bulbs were popping all around his line of sight. When Jess left after depositing her papers, Neal ran his fingers through his hair. "This is horrible!" he exhaled. He went to a cabinet and pulled out a number of folders, poring over and over them. Darkness was falling as the day staff left, Neal still staring at the financials, unable to find a silver lining. His eyes filled with tears. "We can't last beyond this month," he groaned. He would have spent still more time on the finances, but it was futile. No matter how hard he stared at the figures, they were not going to improve. Neal's eyes fell upon the desk clock. "Oh my gosh!" he cried out as he hurriedly grabbed his coat and flew out of the building. So absorbed had he been with the numbers, and the sad news, he had lost track of the time--and the fact that he was now overdue to meet Wendy. Racing to the restaurant, fortunately not far off, Neal quickly greeted the owner, Nick, as he found Wendy already seated. "I was just about to call you, I was getting worried," Wendy said as she stood and kissed him. "I...I'm sorry. I got side tracked." "Rough day?" she asked. "Don't ask." "Too late. I just did," and she smiled in the way that never failed to melt his heart. Wendy had already ordered the house white; Neal settled for a beer. Peroni. It was an Italian bistro, after all. He took a long sip, wiped the foam off his lips and said, "Thank God you're here." Wendy didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see he was distracted. She took his hand and said quietly, "Tell me about it." Neal did, reliving the whole sordid episode with young Marley. When he finished, Wendy frowned and said, "What a pampered jerk! Don't let it get you down." "You don't understand. Without a donation like that, or close to it, we'll be forced to shut our doors," Neal spoke sadly. Wendy's heart went out to him. "No!" she gasped. "Yes. That's why I'm late. I've looked at this from every angle, and there's no way out." "I refuse to believe that," she said. "I know you, and you'll find a way out. What if you downsize?" Neal shook his head left to right. "We can't. The lease commitments won't permit it." "Well, let's at least enjoy our dinner, then we can ponder this and find a solution," Wendy offered. "By the way, my day was fine, thank you," she said. "Sorry," Neal said. She laughed. "No apology. You have every right to be preoccupied. But you know what? The Christmas parade is tomorrow evening. Why don't we take Jeremy and just enjoy the sights and sounds of the season? Get your mind off things." "O...okay," Neal said hesitantly. He looked into her welcoming face and did feel a little better. How lucky that he had stumbled upon her! Neal had had several girlfriends throughout the years, but nothing that had taken hold. It was a case of not finding the right person. That in turn was in large part because the women he met were turned off by his relative poverty. The not-for-profit gig, especially the way Neal ran it, was not personally lucrative by any means. Some of the women were uncommonly pretty, some smarter than others, some funnier, some nicer, but all were disinclined to commit to a lifetime of material deprivation. "Proof that some still waters do indeed run shallow," Neal had told a friend. That all changed when Wendy entered the picture. The way she entered it was as a visitor to the Madonna Center when her mother was in the throes of the final stages of cancer. All the helpers were more than caring and kind, and professional in their duties. Wendy was so appreciative of all they did to ease Mom's waning moments. Not the least in her gratitude was the gentle man who ran this entire chain of facilities, and who without fail visited Mom, holding her hand and talking quietly to her. When Wendy first saw him with Mom, she had tears, that a stranger would be so...loving. In her torment, Wendy had no thoughts of romance. However, months after the funeral, a co-worker told Wendy, "I've never seen you speak about a guy, or light up the way like you do when you mention that guy at Madonna. Why don't you ask him out?" "Why not indeed?" And that is what Wendy asked of a surprised, and pleased, Neal. On that first date, he knew there was a definite attraction and it went way beyond lust. Something...permanent? So much so, Neal felt he had to confide in this lovely, warm woman. "I don't make a lot of money. Never will. That's not what I'm about. I guess I'm not like other guys." Wendy's smile was wide and warm. "I know. That's why I'm very interested in you, because you're not like other guys. They only seem interested in one thing." When Neal looked puzzled she said, "Going to bed, silly!" "Oh, I would never do that!" he replied. "Never?" she asked in a semi-teasing tone. "Well, I mean...I mean you're pretty and all, but this isn't about getting into your pants. It's about building a future with you." And Wendy's heart went cha-ching! She told Neal she had a six year old. Jeremy. "And your husband?" he asked, tentatively. "Divorced. He left me when he found he couldn't keep his hands, and other parts, off one of the accountants in his office. They're married now." "He must be a jerk to let you go," Neal said. Wendy brightened. "Thank you!" The relationship blossomed from there, Neal spending time with the boy as well. Turned out the boy's father's second wife wanted her own family and did not encourage Wendy's ex freely associating with family number one. As much as Neal was falling so very deeply in love with Wendy, so too was he falling for the boy. And the feelings appeared mutual, as the trio did many family things. So Wendy's holiday suggestion was not at all untoward. In fact, Neal was pretty set on popping the question this Christmas. The only problem now? If the center closed, even his small income would be forfeit, and he had as of yet no prospects. After dinner, they strolled outside briefly, it being as the weathermen/women said, an unseasonably mild evening. Neal looked down as he said, "I'm only in my mid-thirties, and I feel like my life is over." Wendy took him in her arms and kissed him, as passionately as she ever had. "It's nowhere near over," she said, a tad breathlessly. Neal could not but smile as he took her in, all her beauty, inside as well as out. After a while, inasmuch as Neal had walked the few blocks from his office to the restaurant, Wendy offered to drive him to either his car, his home, her home...his choice. "I think I'd like to walk a little. By myself. Just think, to see if I can come up with something. Do you mind?" Her smile again lit his heart. "Of course not. I understand. You'll figure this out." And she kissed him tenderly this time, and was off. Neal walked several miles, with no specific destination in mind. He found himself in front of St. Anthony's, his parish church. "I wish it was open," he thought, knowing that in these days, churches had to be shuttered at night for fear of vandalism. Suddenly he saw a light within, and surprisingly the door was ajar. "It's open," he whispered. As noted, Neal visited the Lord's House on Sundays (and sundry holydays) but that was about it. Today however, he felt the need for some additional spiritual solace. So he quietly crept to the front door and pushed on it. It did open, and he entered, genuflecting and sitting in one of the pews. In the quiet, all he could hear was the crackling from the devotional candles, which added to the sense of peace. Suddenly Neal's head turned abruptly at a sound. His heart returned to normal as he saw an old sexton, mopping the floor at the rear of the church. Neal could swear no one else was in the church when he had entered. And yet, there was no denying the sudden presence of the cleaning man. Neal nodded at the old man, who put his mop aside and walked over to Neal's pew. He was in fact very, very old, but had a kindly face. For some strange reason, Neal felt a feeling of serenity in the old man's presence. The old man spoke. "You are always welcome here."


3.


Oddly enough, Neal felt a profound peace. Whether it was the stillness of the Church without all the hustle and bustle of priests, lectors, ushers, singers, unruly congregants, whatever, or whether it was the reassuring presence of the old caretaker, as unlikely as that seemed, Neal was able to sleep well that silent night. In the morning he gathered the Madonna Center's staff together. He had always believed in transparency. So, he shared the unwelcome news. People did not react well. A few well chosen epithets were hurled Marley's way. Neal tried his best to be reassuring, and to tell these people he relied upon the most that they would find a way together. Though candidly, he had to admit he was presently at a loss.

Mid-morning Wendy had come up with her brainstorm, which she excitedly shared over the phone. "I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner?" she exhaled. Her idea? Have Neal go back to what had worked way back when. Preach at the Sunday masses.

"I'm not sure we can recoup what we've lost," he said.

"Oh, don't make me say 'ye of little faith.' This will be a start," Wendy assured him.

With nothing to lose and no better idea, Neal set out to the rectory to see Father Paul, the pastor. "We're at the end of our rope," Neal admitted. "I'm hopeful that in this season of giving, well, perhaps we can regain more than would ordinarily be the case."

He didn't expect any push back from the prelate, which is why Neal was dumbfounded by Father Paul's words. "The pedophilia scandal has hurt church attendance markedly, and then the pandemic hit. People have not come back in anywhere near the numbers we saw before. And with the loss of congregants, there's been a loss of donations. "I'm sorry, but we need all the funds we can collect, reserving second collections for the church. We don't have the luxury of entertaining good will," the pastor said without any trace of irony. He continued, "As a matter of fact, I've even had to ban the Little Sisters of the Poor, who normally make the rounds, forcing a little dent in their activities." The priest chuckled at his usage of the word 'little', though Neal saw nothing comical in it. Being inherently courtly by nature, Neal bid the pastor farewell.

Funny thing was as frustrating as the day got, several times the image of the friendly janitor popped unbidden into Neal's head. Each time it made him smile and feel better. "I have to tell that old guy he's been some sort of a tonic. I should thank him," Neal thought.

Back at his desk Neal slapped his head. "I'm not giving up!" He let his fingers, and the world wide web, do the walking as he researched habitual givers to Christian causes. Having compiled a list, Neal called. He needn't have bothered. In all cases he could not get past the gatekeepers. Some politely said they would relay the message, but in tones that suggested that Neal not count on any help. Others were gruff. One in particular growled, "The new tax law limiting the charitable deduction has hit us in the pocketbook, so we are re-assessing our gift giving priorities!" And still one other, the acolyte of a noted evangelist, said, "The Reverend is way too busy to get involved in ventures like yours. He is currently writing a book on generosity of spirit." Neal asked whether the acolyte saw any contradiction in terms, which resulted in a hastily hung up phone.

Failing that, Neal next called several newspapers. His local paper, the Journal News, would not be useful, its reach not extending beyond their humble county, where other than the Marley family, there were no people of comparable net worth. So Neal called the New York Times, and the other major metropolitan dailies, the Post and the Daily News. Neal thought if he could garner some favorable press, a sugar daddy (or mommy) or more appropriate to the season an angel, would surface. Neal knew the Times always publicized its neediest cases fund during the holiday season.

This was sure not the 1950's, however. When people at each newspaper heard the name of Neal's organization, especially the "Madonna" part and assumed it was Christian inspired, they wanted nothing to do with it. To be fair, the Post had some initial interest, until they learned this was not a pet charity by the pop star of the same name. "We can't be seen favoring one religious preference over another," each spokesman for the papers said, clearly reading from the same HR manual.

"Why not?" Neal asked. "This is a charity that helps all, regardless of creed. You help St. Jude's, don't you?"

"That's different. Marlo Thomas is behind that." Neal slapped his hand to his forehead. Striking out on the irreligious outlets, he next tried those of supposedly spiritual orientation. "We don't support Catholic endeavors," one Christian publication editor snapped at him.

"But it's Christian," Neal replied plaintively.

"It says 'Madonna', which means Mary worship which we don't believe in."

"Tell that to the Mother of God when you get a chance," Neal retorted.

He did try several uniquely Catholic publications. One said, "We can't do that. However, if you'd like to pay for advertising, that might help your cause." If Neal had the money for it, that would have been fine. But then he wouldn't be here in the first place.

The other publication was scarcely any better. "We get so many requests for assistance this time of year. We can't help them all, and we can't choose. So we've found the best policy is to stay neutral."

"Like Switzerland," Neal said, intending the hearer to understand the gentle sarcasm that the Swiss, while ostensibly neutral in WWII, actually facilitated the hiding of much Nazi treasure.

"Oh no, I'm Irish," the lady on the other end of the line said, yet again proving that Neal's subtlety could reach Saturn unimpeded.

Next Neal drafted his own small article and accompanying press release. He sent it not only to every periodical imaginable, but also papered social media sites with it. His only response? Two people wanted to friend him on Facebook, because they had frozen bank accounts overseas they needed help with. If only Neal could provide his social security number... "Ix-nay to that," Neal whispered, demonstrating his mastery of a second language, that being pig Latin.

It had been a full day, and was already dark. Of course, this close to Christmas, it grew dark earlier anyway. "The end of a perfectly crappy day," Neal muttered, as he tossed an errant copy of his press release into the recycling bin. Unfortunately, his day was about to get much worse.

Before he could leave, several staffers were waiting on him. Putting on his best happy face, despite how miserable he felt, Neal ushered the quartet into his cramped office. All four looked extremely nervous. They were being led by one of the staff doctors. The doc, like many of the health care professionals, had his own practice, but devoted hours each week at discount rates, to the Madonna Center. The others were one of the nurses, a social worker, and one of the few admin staffers (Madonna Center ran lean even in the best of times).

"Uh, Neal," the doctor spoke, pulling at his collar. "I hate to bring this up, but we represent a group of employees."

Neal nodded encouragingly. "Go ahead, Doc."

"Well, the thing of it is, uh, we don't make a lot of money here, which is fine. But with the loss of funds, well, we can't afford to do this gratis. You know how it is."

Neal rubbed at red rimmed eyes. "No, Mike, I don't know. I know we need time to regain our footing. I know if we are patient and stick together, we can get through this. I know I've sunk my whole live into it. That's what I know."

"Yes, and we respect you for that. Love you for it as a matter of fact. But...a lot of us need to start looking for other jobs. Spring is the worst time for hiring in the health care field, as I'm sure you know. So a lot of us will look now, and if we find something, we'll have to leave."

Neal looked so forlorn. "We...we're in this together. We always have been. We just need a little time."

One of the others, the nurse, spoke. "Time is a commodity we don't have," he spoke softly. "We're sorry, Neal." With that, they shuffled out, leaving Neal behind in the funereal air.

"What do we tell our patients?" Neal said to himself. "Just kick them to the curb?"

That was when his cell chose the unfortunate time to buzz.

"WHAT!" he practically shouted into the phone.

There was a stunned silence before, to Neal's horror, he heard Wendy say with more than a trace of sorrow, "And I'm happy to talk to you too."

"Wendy! I'm so sorry! I didn't mean..."

"It's o...okay, I guess. You have a lot on your mind." Her words said one thing, but her tone did not convey unadulterated forgiveness. She ploughed on. "The reason I called was to remind you the holiday father-son game is tonight. You promised to take Jeremy."

Neal's face fell. "Oh, heck....Heck!"

"That's all right. I'll explain it to him. He's used to being disappointed by father figures." The chill on the other end was unmistakable. One he had never heard come from Wendy's lips.

Neal's head snapped up. He wondered if he had heard correctly. Of course he should not have been snappish or sounded peeved. He delayed too long before starting to say, "Wendy, I..." But the connection had already been broken.

"Dang!" Neal said as he madly punched the numbers back in. It went to voicemail. He tried several more times. Finally he left the facility and hurried over to Wendy and Jeremy's home. No one there. "This is a nightmare that keeps getting worse and worse!" Neal cried out. He jumped in the car and headed to Jeremy's school. "I can't be that late!" he muttered.

Indeed, he was not. Neal got there in time to suit up and play hoops with his girlfriend's son. His son to be? Fortunately, the child brightened at Neal's appearance. "Mom said you couldn't make it. I'm glad you could."

"Me too," Neal said. "Sorry to have cut it so close."

The good hearted boy said that was all right. Being here now was all that mattered. Except it wasn't. Later, when Neal had seen them to their door Wendy, still in that frosty tone told Neal, "I know things are tough now, but I can never, never, let Jeremy be crushed again."

"I understand," he mumbled, contrite. Wendy offered a curt nod and closed the door. No goodnight kiss, which caused Neal to wonder. "If I ever need a break from the world, it's right now," he was talking to himself. So once again he drove to St. Anthony's. Sure enough, the door was open still at this late hour, for which Neal was thankful. He went inside and sat in his rear pew. He was more than pleased to shortly thereafter see the custodian. The old man offered a salute of some sort with his gnarled fingers.

Neal approached the old man. He offered his hand. "Neal."

The old one grasped Neal's and said, "I am Franz."

"Franz?" Neal said.

The man smiled. "In this country, I think people would call me Frank."

"Pleased to meet you, Frank," Neal said. That sense of tranquility filled Neal again. He mentioned it to Frank, and said that he appreciated the warmth the old one offered.

Franz, or Frank, waved a hand. "Is nothing. People should give warmth to each other, eh? I must go now, but I think we see each other again soon, no?" as he picked up his mop and bucket and shuffled slowly off.

"I hope so," Neal agreed. He did not then know it, but his life was about to plummet off the cliff, and he would be in desperate need of any warmth whatsoever.


4.


Late the next morning, Arthur Marley returned, sans appointment. "Praise the Lord!" Neal exulted. "He's had a change of heart." Marley had not however. What he had was a very stern look and a command that they best get down to business. With a nod of his head, Neal indicated the man begin.

"I've had a setback. I purchased the St. Bart's property. Dash the luck! No sooner did we close than there was a fire. Everything was destroyed."

"I'm so sorry for you," Neal said and despite his dislike of the man, Neal was saddened. He was not wired to be vindictive toward others. "Surely insurance will cover the loss."

"No," Marley shook his head adamantly. "I thought to save a few shekels and didn't purchase the insurance."

"Oh my!"

"Oh my, indeed! That is where you come in."

"Me?" Neal was more than a little surprised.

Marley reached into his pocket and produced a paper. "This is what I calculate Mother gave you these last six years. I would like it back!"

"But...but, I don't have it! The money's gone for salaries, and supplies, and expansion these years. You don't...take charitable contributions back!"

"I do! Surely you have available funds."

"Not of that magnitude. Not even close. As a matter of fact, without Gwen's support, I fear we shall have to close. I've been wracking my brain trying to stave off disaster."

Marley pantomimed playing what he called, "The world's smallest violin. My concern is recovering what you have taken."

"I...I didn't take it. It was a gift."

"A gift that is now recalled."

"I'm not lying, Arthu...Mr. Marley! We don't have those kinds of funds. I'm...I'm sorry."

Marley looked smugly at Neal, who he viewed as a mere office clerk. What did Mother ever see in this insignificant speck? He snarled at Neal. "I feared you would refuse. You leave me no choice sir, but to have my lawyers file papers!"

"You would take us to court? I...we...can't even afford an attorney!"

"I'm sure the judge will be most sympathetic," Marley laughed meanly. With that, he took his leave.

Marley must have had his scheme all arranged, for not two hours later a friend who worked at the county court called and informed Neal suit had been filed. Neal called his own attorney. Carl did the occasional legal favor for Neal, by way of recompense for the center's caring for his sister, who was one of all too many opioid victims. The Madonna Center never had serious legal problems before. So Carl handled the occasional supplier contract, or change in lease terms and conditions, or the periodic regulatory filings. Nothing involving "heavy legal lifting" as he termed it.

Sensing Neal's distress, Carl cleared the deck and invited him to his office ASAP. After Neal related the tale of woe, Carl said there was good news and bad news. "The good news is you're basically correct, a donor cannot reclaim the funds well after the fact. The bad: Marley is being represented by a white shoe firm out of Manhattan, Gable, Gable, Gable and Perkins. They don't back down. I fear this is going to trial."

"And that is bad, why?" Neal asked, "If the law seems to support our position?"

"Two things," Carl told him. "One, Gable, Gable is good. No telling what they'll spin to try to mesmerize a judge or jury. Two, going to trial is a full blown affair, way above my pay grade, that is to say, way more than I can afford to contribute to the Madonna Center pro bono."

When Neal asked about Carl's fees, he got a severe case of sticker shock, even at reduced rates. "We...we don't have that kind of money," Neal said glumly. Carl said he needed something by way of recompense to justify to his partners his getting involved.

Neal breathed out deeply. Rubbed at his head. He had a very tiny nest egg that was intended for a special purpose. A ring he had his eye on at Ben's, the local jeweler's. The one with which he would propose to Wendy, and by extension to Jeremy. Again sighing deeply, Neal shook his head. "I can write you a check now, at least for a part of the fees." Carl said that would get them through the early stages and then they'd revisit the matter. Neal thought sadly, "There goes that, Wendy." He did ask Carl what else he could do?

Carl's answer was brutally succinct. "Pray."

Not that Neal needed that sort of legal advice, but even though it was only midday, if ever Carl needed prayer, it was now. He again made his way to St. Anthony's. Knelt in his usual pew. Said his usual prayers, then let his mind wander, hoping in some inchoate way to reach out to the Almighty. Neal heard a slight stirring, and found Frank sitting behind him.

"You seem troubled, no?" the old sexton said.

"I am troubled, yes," Neal agreed. "Life is pressing in on me."

Frank nodded. "Life sometimes is burdensome, I think."

Neal said, "You have an accent. You're from Germany? Poland?"

Frank smiled. "Austria." The way he said it, it came out "Ous-tria," with a slight trill on the r."

"Have you been here long?" Neal wondered.

"No. I arrive very recently. So...you are in right place if life is, how you say, a burden?"

"I suppose. What I really need is Clarence Goodbody."

Frank looked puzzled. "What is wrong with your body?"

"No," Neal smiled in spite of himself. "You know, the angel from It's A Wonderful Life."

Frank still looked befuddled. Neal asked, "Don't they show that on Austrian TV?"

"I never see such a thing," the custodian said. "Is good show?"

"Yes," Neal replied. "But it's not real. Unfortunately my problems are. I'm not going to find an angel who will whisk my problems away, or have the townspeople stage a surprise collection to ward off the bill collectors, or...whatever."

"Ah, but you do have an angel. Everyone does," the caretaker said in the quiet.

"I think mine's been social distancing," Neal said.

"I do not know of this social distance, but you do have angel," Frank said in his broken English.

Suddenly Neal took Frank's hands in his. "Thank you for... your humanity."

"Is nothing," Frank grinned. "If anything there is I can do, you ask."

Neal smiled sadly. "Much appreciated, but I don't need a custodian."

"Of course not," Frank agreed. "You need angel."

And with that, Neal left. Had he realized the nightmare he was about to descend into, he might have stayed in the Church indefinitely.


5.


Jess, Neal's assistant grabbed him as soon as he returned to the office, pulling him inside with marked desperation. "What's wrong?" Neal asked.

"It's just terrible; it makes me so mad!" she said.

"I know," Neal replied, "But we can't let hate consume us. We'll find a way out of this, I hope. Funding has to be out there. We just have to find it."

Jess gave him such a look. "You haven't heard?"

"Heard what?"

Jess's eyes teared up. "I hate to be the one to have to tell you..."

"What!" Neal was growing wild. "Is Wendy all right? Jeremy?"

"Through now plentiful tears Jess sobbed, "They're fine. It's...you!"

"Me?"

"What they're saying about you!" She reached for the remote on the small office TV and switched to the local cable news station. There, Neal was horrified to see Chatsworth Gable III outside the New City courthouse, before a bevy of microphones. "My client, the esteemed philanthropist Arthur Marley, has filed this action against the Madonna Alternative Care center, because of the insidious way the group's leader, Neal Armstrong, conned Mr. Marley's infirm mother, now deceased, and swindled her out of millions of dollars!" In went on in like fashion, but Neal snapped the set off.

"I'm so sorry, Neal!" Jess wailed, and Neal comforted her.

"People won't believe that garbage," he said.

Jess's eyes were so incredibly sad as she explained, "Unfortunately, people seem inclined to believe the worst about us. We've gotten a slew of calls, hate calls, demanding we return what one person called 'the ill gotten gains'. Oh, Neal!"

Neal hugged her tenderly and though his mind was reeling, he assured her things would work out. Though he was unsure of it.

Two workers came in next and gave their immediate notice. "But...but you can't believe what they're spewing about us? About me?" Can you?" Neal pleaded.

One of the two said, "I've been thinking of leaving ever since word of our shaky finances leaked. This just hastens the day of reckoning."

The other was more judgmental. "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Next came a slew of calls from reporters. From the thrust of their questions, it was clear they had bought into the tale of corruption and need not be confused by the facts. Nothing Neal could say would or did dissuade them from writing unflattering pieces.

Then attorney Carl paid a visit. Since he was here in person and not over the phone or at his own office, Neal figured this had to be bad news. In that, he figured correctly. "I think we should try to settle," Carl advised.

"But we're in the right. We've done nothing wrong," Neal protested.

"That's beside the point. Remember, I told you how good Gable was. They'll have the entire town turn on you, such that no jury will believe you. Surely we can liquidate whatever assets are here, the supplies, leasehold, whatever personal accounts you have, anything at all and offer it to them."

"There is next to nothing, and if we do that, I'm basically admitting that I'm the evil one. After which I'll have nothing left."

"You can rebuild," Carl offered.

"With what?" Neal shrank into himself. "Even my reputation is in tatters. No charity would take me on. It's funny, Carl. I've gotten to the point where I've dedicated my life to others and now I'm the charity case. Except one no one wants to take on."

"Well, think on it," Carl advised in soothing tones. "But we should move on a settlement discussion before Gable puts too much in the way of fees into this. Then, they'll never settle until they grab every last penny in court."

Some people, a very few, both colleagues and friends, did visit or call Neal, assuring him of their trust in him. For that he was grateful, but it was woefully inadequate. Neal began making plans to transfer the remaining patients to other facilities. He feared they'd not receive the quality of care, the kind of true, caring aid to the disadvantaged the Madonna Center offered, but at least Madonna's patients would not be cast into the streets. This took the better part of the day.

Following that, Neal faced up to the inevitable. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, he would shutter the Madonna Center for the last time. "Merry Christmas to me," he uttered morosely, as he shut the lights to his office.

In the anteroom, there was another visitor. Wendy. At least one bright spot. Neal had a small smile as he turned his lights back on and invited Wendy in. He thought he would propose anyway. HHhe felt he needed something to latch on to, and if nothing else, in Wendy and Jeremy he at last felt he had a family. He would tell her about the ring and how his ability to pay for it had evaporated, but he would get her one, eventually. A very fine one, as soon as he figured a way to get back on his feet. "Wendy's not about materialism," Neal thought. "She'll understand."

But something was off. Very off. For starters, when Neal held his arms open, Wendy did not make a move. She stood aside, very stiffly.

"Oh, Neal!" she sobbed. "Jeremy has taken a beating at school."

"OhmyGod! Is he all right?"

"Not physical abuse. He's being tormented...because of what the kids...and their families...are saying about you! Neal, after all he's been through, his father leaving and cutting him off, I just can't let him be hurt anymore." Neal tried to speak, but she held up a restraining hand. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," she wailed. "Oh, Neal, I love you. But I can't go on like this! I can't let Jeremy live like this! I have to...I have to say goodbye!" She cried even harder, and before Neal could try to caress and comfort her, she fled the office. Never, never, had Neal felt lower than at this point.

He was indeed in a daze. He left the office, his mind a blank and he walked. As you know by now, Neal was a good walker, arguably because he was the namesake of the moonwalker, but that would be mere speculation. His eyes would fill with tears, making spirits anything but bright. Indeed, Neal may have only been in his mid-thirties, but yes, he felt like his life was over. All he'd worked for, gone in a flash. The fact that his was a life of giving made the pill that much more bitter to swallow. "How can they torture someone whose only offense was to do good to people?" he talked to himself. Just then, he saw the Church steeple (without conscious thought he had walked this way yet again). Atop the steeple was the cross, putting to rest Neal's thoughts about innocent young men being unjustly condemned.

When he was in front of the Church, Neal figured, "What's the use?" and he intended to pass on. Before he stepped away however, he heard music. A hymn from inside on the church's organ. It was a tune Neal had never heard, and he found it enchanting, almost haunting in its beautiful simplicity. So despite his growing doubts, and the fact he had only recently visited the church, he stepped inside, and took his seat. As soon as Neal entered, the organ stopped.


6.


Neal put his head in his hands and softly cried out, "Help me, God!"

A gentle hand rested on his shoulder. Frank. "Oh, Frank," Neal spoke in an utterly bereft tone. "I've lost my job, my wealth, my status, my love, everything."

Frank looked at him in almost a loving way and settled into the pew beside the stricken man. "Ah," the old man said, "But at least you have not lost your faith."

Neal sniffed. "I'm beginning to have doubts about that."

"You have it backwards, I think. Doubt is the beginning of faith."

"What good is that?" Neal asked. "Faith will not bring me back."

Frank gave a puzzled look. "Why not? It shall move mountains."

Neal gave a dismissive wave, as if to say, "Okay, okay."

Frank said, "You have had setback, no? So now is most important time for you. You can shrink back and do nothing. But I think maybe if you do that, you no be happy with yourself. And others not be happy with you. Above all, God not be happy with you. Is best not to have God unhappy with you. So, instead of giving up, now we do something, eh?"

"We?" Neal asked.

"We all in this together," came the innocent response.

"So, what can we do?" Neal's sarcasm was mild, but it was there.

Frank chose to ignore it. "We make plan. To restore things."

"How, Frank? How do we do that? I mean, I'm a failure, and you're just a..." He halted, it not being in Neal to be unkind despite how low he had been brought.

Frank gave a slight smile. "I'm just a what? Floor mopper? No, you are so wrong. What I am is old, and with age comes wisdom."

Neal inclined his head, as if to say, "You've got a point." Neal did say, "I'm just too depressed, my friend. I don't have the psychic energy to come up with anything. Anything at all!"

Frank's eyes twinkled. "Precisely the time for action! Look," he motioned to the Bible in the pew in front of them. The answers are all in there."

Neal shook his head. "I'm not an Old Testament guy, and I'm relishing re-enacting the book of Job."

"I was not thinking of Job. I think of a different person whose name starts with J." When Neal just looked at him, Frank said in a patient, sort of teaching tone, "Jesus."

"Yeah, yeah. WWJD. I get it," came the monotone remark.

"What is this WWJD? Ah, is not important. Tell me," Frank continued, "What is most important event in Christianity?"

Neal thought. "I've always been partial to Christmas, but I would have to say that theologically speaking, Easter must be the crucial event."

"Non!" Frank was emphatic. "The Agony in the Garden!" Neal was about to protest when the old man insisted, "That was time for Jesus to make choice. Save Himself or save humanity. Once He made the choice, all else fell into place." That had a certain logic to it, so Neal quietly acquiesced to the point.

"So!" Frank went on, warming to his topic. "We make the choice, no? We do something instead of licking wound like dog. We come up with plan to get you, how you people say, back on your feet."

"Jesus was God," Neal pointed out. "I don't have the energy to overcome...life."

"Jesus also man," the old one reproved him. "But, yes, I understand what you say. You know, Jesus not the only person to deal with tragedy and disappointment. You are familiar with music?"

"Of course. What kind of question is that?"

Frank shrugged his shoulders. "Just simple question. You know of Christmas carols I think, yes?" Neal acknowledged that to be the case. "So tell me, what is most popular carol of all?"

Neal smiled at the thought. "That's easy. It also happens to be my favorite. Silent Night."

The old one seemed happy at Neal's response. "Ja. You know where the song comes from?"

"Germany, I think."

"Nein. Austria (Ous-tria). From small parish near Salzburg. St. Nicholas."

"Ah," Neal brightened slightly at the knowledge. "As in Saint Nick? Santa Claus."

"Ja. Ja. It was a time of much bloodshed, the Napoleonic Wars. Also global cooling from the great eruption of Mount Tambora. Anyway, people were sick, bereft of loved ones, hungry because of famine from the cold spell. To bring some peace, the pastor of St. Nicholas's wrote a simple six stanza poem. To hearten his flock, he asked a local composer to write music to accompany the poem. The church organ was broken, so the composer had to write for guitar, and do it quickly for Christmas Eve Mass. You think you have problems and pressure. Pah!"

"So the composer wrote the music for Silent Night?" Neal asked.

"Ja. The congregation very much enjoyed, but in early nineteenth century there was no widespread publication or broadcasting or computer media like you have today. So, composer did his work without recognition. People at the time thought Beethoven or Haydn wrote the music. Took many years for the carol to achieve popularity and for it to be recognized. It was not published in a hymn book until 1866, three years after composer died."

"How do you know all this?" Neal asked, somewhat impressed at the erudition of this lowly caretaker.

"In Austria, this is known by all people." That made sense to Neal.

"Anyway," Frank went on, "You do not do things for recognition today. But eventually, goodness is recognized. Whether it is growth of Church Jesus started, or popularity of carol a simple Austrian composer created."

"Okay, I admit I am inspired, at least a little. So, yes, I guess I'll try to retrieve my life. But I'm still emotionally wrung out. And I don't have a clue where to start. I'll sleep on it and perhaps start tomorrow."

"Nein!" Frank raised his voice, for emphasis, not out of anger. "We start now!"


7.


Neal noticed the sun was down, the stained glass windows displaying none of their vibrant warmth. "It's late," he noted.

"Good. So it will be quiet and we work."

"Here?" Neal asked.

"What better place for inspiration? In the peace and quiet."

"Well...okay, but...what are we going to do?"

Frank stood and paced up and down the center aisle a few times. At last he stopped and turned on his heel. "Aha!"

"Aha?" Neal wondered.

"Ja! We do something that shows people you are good man, and maybe also makes little money."

"Great idea, Sherlock," Neal quipped good naturedly. "What exactly do you have in mind?"

"No, I think the question is what do you have in mind?"

"Riddles?" Neal inquired.

"No. What talent do you have?"

Neal said, "Not to brag, but I am a good administrator. And I know I have a good bedside manner. The patients respond very favorably to me."

"No! That is your job. I ask what talent you have? Music, maybe. Like me. In my younger days I was teacher in Austria, but on the side I composed a little music."

Neal brightened. "Was that you playing the organ when I came in?"

"Ja." Now Frank brightened. "I play organ only a little. Mostly I played the guitar."

"Well, it was a lovely piece."

"I composed it," Frank said.

Neal was visibly impressed. "And here I thought you were just a caretaker."

"I am. But even caretaker has other abilities."

"Is your music published?" Neal asked.

"Some. The piece I was playing, it is not so much performed here in your country. Sometimes in Austria."

"Well, I'll be."

"Yes, you will. So," Frank clapped his hands together. "Why not we compose a Christmas carol? I help you," Frank encouraged.

Neal looked down. "I have no musical talent whatsoever."

"Is problem," Frank agreed. Then he had a thought. "Paint! You work at Madonna Center. Do a Madonna and child! People will love!"

Neal laughed. "My artistic skills are limited to stick figures."

Frank made a face. "I think maybe Madonna of the Straight Lines not a good idea."

They were quiet for a while, until Frank asked, "Now that you have much time on your hands, what would you do?"

"I like to write," Neal said. "I've had an idea for a while about a story involving a wounded soldier during the Battle of the Bulge, at Christmas time."

A loud hand clap ensued as Frank said, "Excellent! People love Christmas stories, and soldier stories are always, how you say, warming to the heart."

"Heartwarming?" Neal offered trying to be helpful.

"What I said," Frank replied. Then he said, "You have paper and pencil. Write!"

"Not so fast," Neal jumped in. "I have a vague idea where I want to start the soldier's story and how to end it, but there's a big gap in the middle that's missing. Also, something...else. I don't know. Something more, but I can't put my finger on it."

"So, go," Frank instructed. "Walk!" Neal got the idea, and began to pace up and down the main aisle. He decided the Lord would not mind his failure to genuflect each time he approached the altar. At length, Neal said, "What if I had used as a back story, something from the present. Like maybe the soldier's daughter reminiscing about her father's wartime exploits?"

"Very good," Frank agreed. "Multi-generational stories are good." The way he said it in his excitement, it came out "Goot."

Neal sat back in the pew and prepared to write. "You ask if you need sounding board," the old man said. For now, I play. Music may inspire you.

"Yes, of course," Neal told him. "I would enjoy that. Can you play Christmas carols? That'll get me in the mood. And sacred ones, not like Frosty or Rudolph."

Frank made a face. "What is Frosty?"

"Wow, you sure lead a sheltered life in Austria," Neal remarked.

The old man began with the song they had discussed. Neal closed his eyes and was transported by the gentle strains of Silent Night. When the old caretaker was finished, Neal said that it was sublime. "Such wonderful carols from the Old Country," he noted.

Frank nodded and began to play the Ode to Joy. "From Germany," he explained. Then he dove into God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. "England," he said. "Ah, and from France," and he began to play a simple hymn that was joyful and filled Neal with inner peace.

"What was that?" Neal asked. He had not heard it.

"Il est ne," the wrinkled one said. "In English, you would say, 'He is born, the infant king; play the oboe, bring out the bagpipes...'"

Neal jumped up and hugged the old man.

"Not in front of the creche scene," Frank said.

"That is it!" Neal cried out. "Il est ne!" he repeated joyfully, and sat back down and began to write, feverishly. He typed the title, Christmas Lights, and began the opening words. "Christmas Eve, Present Day. No visions of sugar plums danced in their heads, for the simple reason the children were too old to be tucked in and made snug in their beds. By the properties of logical extension, the mother was also entirely too old, something the old lady dwelled on in the quiet." Hours passed that Neal scarcely realized. He stood and craned his neck. He was appreciative that Frank stayed quietly by, supportive. "It's funny," Neal said. "This is just pouring out of me. A lot of the words, and the ideas, I don't even know where they're coming from. It's almost like some...force...outside me is putting it in my head. Is that what they mean by inspiration?"

"I think maybe revelation is the word," the old man suggested.

Neal went back to it, writing with a frenzied passion. At last he plopped the pencil down with a flourish. "Finished!"

Frank smiled, a million wrinkle lines showing. "Now you bring it to the world. Even if only a few see it, if it brings them joy, you have done a good thing, I think, maybe yes."

Neal knew the odds of this being widely recognized were long, but the creative act itself felt good. This exercise was a true catharsis, and the formerly beleaguered man felt...wonderful! He said as much in thanking his old friend.

"Was nothing," Frank modestly voiced. "Now I must be going."

"Where?" Neal wondered. "It's Christmas Eve."

"Back...home," the caretaker said.

"You can catch a flight this late?" Neal said.

"Ja. My travel plans are arranged." Frank then said, "Ah, because it is Christmas, I think to give you a little gift." He reached into his pocket and removed a sheaf of papers that he handed to Neal. "A composition I made. I have signed it. I hope you put it to good use." Neal glanced ever so quickly as he carefully stuffed the papers in his inner pocket. "Thank you. I shall treasure it always. When will you be back? Will I see you again?"

"Ja. We meet again." With that, the old man straightened, and made a kind of salute. "Auf wiedersein!" And he opened the door and was gone.


8.


Neal was emotionally drained by what he had written and so was slow on the uptake. He suddenly slapped his head. "I didn't even wish him a Merry Christmas! At the least, I ought to drive him to the airport." Neal stepped outside. He looked all about, but saw no sign of the old man.

"Looking for something?" a voice called out. It was Father Paul, getting ready for the morning weekday Mass.

"Oh, hi Father," Neal called out happily. "I was looking for the sexton. I have to tell you, it was so good to have the Church open all night."

"What?" the pastor said. He ran up the steps saying as he did, "The Church is supposed to be locked at sundown." He looked worried, until he tugged at the door and, sure enough, it was shut tight.

"But...but Father! Your custodian, Frank, is a wonderful man and he kept it..."

The priest cut him off. "Are you all right, my son? Our custodian's name is Matt."

"Well, Frank, or Franz must be his assistant."

"Nope," the priest said. "No one by that name here. Well, I have to be going. I need to collect my thoughts for the homily."

Neal would have stopped him to pursue the discussion when another voice he never expected to hear called out. "There you are!"

Neal turned. His jaw dropped. "W...Wendy?" She was there in the flesh, Jeremy holding her hand. "What are you doing here?" Neal asked.

"We were looking for you. I've been calling all night and was getting frantic. I was petrified you might have done something..." Her voice broke as her eyes welled with tears.

"But how did you think to look here?" Neal inquired.

Wendy offered a half smile though her tears. "Well, I came to say a prayer. St. Anthony is the patron saint of finding lost things...or people, right?"

Neal nodded. "But why?"

She sniffed. "I came to ask forgiveness."

Looking back at the church, Neal said, "You've come to the right place. The Lord is all forgiving."

Shaking her head, Wendy said, "I didn't come here for that exactly. I came...to ask your forgiveness. I never should have left you!" And she started to cry again.

Neal felt awkward. "No. Please don't cry. I understand. I don't want Jeremy to be put through any agony on my account either."

Wendy waved him off as she tried to collect herself. "You familiar with scripture?" she asked.

"A little," Neal smiled.

"Remember the part about 'a child shall lead them?'"

Neal shook his head yes.

Squeezing her son's shoulder, Wendy said, yesterday evening Jeremy said something profound. He said he'd rather live in an angry world with you as his dad, than in a safe world without you." With that Jeremy flew to Neal's side, hugging his leg, until Neal picked the boy up and caressed him tenderly. After a moment, Wendy approached. "My turn, Big Man." Jeremy smiled and wriggled out of Neal's arms and stepped aside. And Wendy took his place in Neal's arms, hugging, kissing his neck, and pledging her love.

Now Neal felt tears. "I was...going to ask you to marry me, if you, if you both...will have me. But I have no money for a ring."

"I don't want a ring! I want you!" Wendy cried out. And they shared a deep kiss, which even Jeremy this time didn't mind or say "Yuck!" to.

The happy reunion was of necessity shortened. Neal had a date in court. "Our lawyer, Carl, says its perfunctory. Just an initial appearance at which the judge will set a future date. But I have to be there."

"Correction. We have to be there," Wendy said, which young Jeremy eagerly seconded.

So it was the trio found themselves in the courtroom. It was mercifully quick, but not the way Neal expected. Far from it. Each attorney made opening statements. Then the judge, Neal thought he looked familiar, cast a stern gaze about. "Mr. Gable!" the judge thundered.

"Yes, your honor?"

"This suit is a travesty. Mr. Armstrong has done nothing but good for this entire community, and you have slandered his good name and brought this frivolous suit."

"Y...your honor," Gable stammered. "We are prepared to offer evidence."

The judge's gavel slammed down, silencing Gable and instilling the fear of God in the attorney, who was known for not showing fear. "I should recuse myself from this case. But I am a human being first; a judge second. My wife suffered from bipolar disorder. This man!" he pointed with his gavel at Neal, "Is the only reason she is alive today! Now you can appeal and petition that I be recused, but I warn you. If you do, you will never, N-E-V-E-R, win another case in my courtroom. Is that clear?"

"Y...yes sir."

A bang of the gavel. "Case dismissed!"

Neal, Wendy, Jeremy and Carl's smiles could have lit up the International Space Station. Marley sat at lawyer Gable's side, a strange look on his face. Meanwhile the happy group repaired to the Madonna Center, where Neal's happiness was dispelled because he had to see to the removal of the patients, and then close up shop forever.


9.

 

       When Neal and his small group got to the Madonna parking lot, the first person they happened upon was Father Paul. "You threw me with that strange custodian talk this morning, Neal, but there is something I wanted to say. I was wrong. Especially this time of the season. You are more than welcome to speak at our Sunday masses and raise funds."

       Neal pumped the good priest's hands warmly. "Oh, thank you, Father! Thank you so much!"

       "I hope I've restored your faith, my son."

       "You helped, but a certain strange Austrian janitor beat you to it. Thank you, though."

       "From the bottom of our hearts," Wendy piped in.

       When they entered the office, Neal was taken aback by the rather large number of people inside. Neal cast a quizzical look, his eyes centering on the ever loyal, and able, Jess. Neal placed the papers from his pocket on the desk next to his assistant. "What's going on, Jess? Have the ambulances come to transport the patients?"

       "No," Jess said, as she bit her lip to keep from bursting into tears. "I...I cancelled them."

       "But Jess! We need to relocate them!"

       "No. No, we don't. Look!"

       A group approached Neal. The doctor who had earlier served notice again acted as spokesman. "The way that lawyer disparaged you was the last straw! We're staying with you, even if you can't pay any salaries! To coin a phrase, we have a commitment to your heart, Neal." Neal's eyes were wet, his vision blurry as he hugged first the doctor, then all the staffers who smilingly hugged, patted and "atta-boyed" their leader.

       Wendy leaned down and through her own tears croaked, "Don't ever forget this, Jeremy."

       "I won't, Momma," the boy smiled.

       Suddenly the door opened and the crowd silenced, parting as if reenacting the famous Red Sea scene. Arthur Marley came into the office. Dirty looks were directed his way. Looking about

sheepishly, he said, "I don't expect I am welcome here. But I have something to say." He approached and stood directly before Neal and Wendy.  He swallowed, then said, "A little while ago I held a press conference. I told them I was wrong, that you had done nothing untoward, and that if you sued me for defamation, I would not contest it."

       "I won't sue you," Neal said in barely a whisper.

       "There is one other thing," Marley grew in confidence, no longer a ghost of his former self. "Here," as he thrust an envelope at Neal. When Neal looked inside, his eyes grew large as saucers. "The next of our continued yearly donation," Marley said.

       "But...how?" Neal asked.

       "I liquidated some of my family's real estate holdings."

       "But...why?" Neal then asked.

       Marley leaned on a cabinet. "A strange old man in dingy clothes, said his name was Franz, visited me last night."

       "Last night?" Neal said, to be sure.

       "Yes. He directed me to a letter my mother had left. I don't know how he knew of it, but he did. The letter..." here Marley paused, collecting himself. "In the letter Mom said she had been supremely depressed after a trying time during her marriage to my father and after her own mother had died. So much so that she was seriously contemplating suicide. A chance encounter with a young man who had just returned from an overseas stint with the Peace Corps changed her attitude. In fact, she credited you, Neal, with saving her life."

       "The Lord moves in mysterious ways," Neal said.

       "Imagine that," Marley said quietly. He paused, somewhat overcome with emotion, then said, "I best be going."

       "You're welcome to stay," Neal said. "You're among friends."

       "I...I don't have friends," Marley said sadly.

       "Imagine that," Wendy muttered under her breath, earning a mild nudge from Neal.

       All of a sudden Jess cried out, "OhmyGod! OhmyGod! OhmyGod!"

       Everyone turned toward her, and Marley asked Neal, "Did that woman just win the lottery, or is she having some sort of religious experience?"

       Jess looked at Neal and exclaimed, "Where did you get this!" She was holding aloft the paper Neal had placed on the desk. She exclaimed, "It is a signed score, an original, of Silent Night. By the composer. Franz Gruber! There are only four in existence, but those were from much later in Gruber's life. This...this original, is one of a kind! Of course it'll have to be authenticated by an expert."

       Neal didn't have to wait for authentication. He knew. Shortly in the new year, the original would go under the hammer at Christie's for $300 million. In addition, Neal's story did sell, quite nicely thank you, and was converted into a top grossing screen play. Neal, Wendy, Jeremy and the two other children they would soon have did not get wealthy off the proceeds, of their own volition. They did have enough to live comfortably, and for the Madonna Center to thrive in perpetuity.

       That was in the near future however. For now, there was a tinkling, a utensil tapping a wine glass. Wendy stepped forward and said, "I would like to propose a toast to my fiance." There were murmurs of approval, this being the first the group had heard of Neal and Wendy's engagement. Wendy resumed. "To Neal, who we all know is a lover of Dickens, (people laughed appreciatively), and who of all of us knows how to keep the spirit of Christmas in his heart every day of the year!"

       There were a number of "Here heres!" and much applause, cheering, and stomping. And nary a dry eye at the pathos of the man of the hour looking down, unable to meet their gaze, his heart was so full.

       At last Neal did look up. Clutching Wendy and Jeremy's hand, he said, "My friends, at this time of home and hearth, I am so happy to be here with you, to be...home. May God bless us all this Christmas Eve night, and all silent nights."

       Someone spontaneously started, and all joined in singing Silent Night. Near the end of the carol, a bystander whispered to Neal, "You've been through so much, I bet you'll sleep well tonight."

       "I will," Neal said as he looked skyward. "In heavenly peace."

                                                                    

The End





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