New neighbors

When the young hippie couple moved in across the street, Major Charles Cornelius McWilton counted two small children: one a babe in arms, the other a little girl who was past toddling and well into running. Though retired, Major McWilton continued to live a highly ordered life and was none too pleased about these new arrivals.

The husband had a shifty look about him, with that wide tie and bushy mustache. The wife wore a shapeless muumuu every day. Her predecessor (the previous lady of the house across the street) used to drive to the grocery store wearing her curlers, which was bad enough. This one left her long, lank hair hanging down in her eyes. She probably hadn’t seen the inside of a beauty salon in her entire life.

The most upsetting part of his morning watch these days was when the hippie father went outside — wearing only his underwear — to pick up the newspaper. Of course he subscribed to The Los Angeles Times. That commie rag. Exposed himself to the entire neighborhood, practically.

While it was an especially sweltering Indian summer in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, Major McWilton made no excuses for his own appearance. He dressed himself each day in a clean, button-down shirt, a narrow dark tie, freshly-pressed slacks, and shoes shined every night before bedtime.

Time passed, the days grew shorter and the clocks turned back. One morning, Major McWilton was startled awake by a knock on his front door. Strange. He’d been dozing in his easy chair instead of keeping watch. He opened the door and found the little girl from across the street on his doorstep. She was weighed down with a heavy item.

“Your Sears catalogue came to our house on accident, Mister, “ she chirped.

“By accident,” he corrected. He accepted the catalogue and noticed a sprinkling of freckles across her forehead, cheeks, and arms. Her dimpled smile reminded him of his daughter, whom he hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. He wondered whether she ever did marry that hippie motorcycle-riding bastard.

“You can call me Major McWilton. I’m not a Mister, I’m a Major,” he told the little girl standing before him.

“Manger? Like the one they put Jesus in when there wasn’t no room at the inn?” She didn’t wait for a response; she was clearly very eager to have a new captive audience. “My gramma has a manger. She lets me sedditup under the twee at Christmastime. I can’t hardly wait!”

He grinned in spite of himself, and let her mispronunciations and grammatical errors go uncorrected. He used to be wild about Christmas, too, when he was her age. He thought back to the time he played one of the Three Wise Men in his annual grammar school pageant.

“That’s right, Christmastime is coming soon,” he agreed. “Thank you for bringing my catalogue over.”

“Welcome! See ya later!” She turned and skipped back home, looking both ways before crossing the street, he noted with approval.

By the time Christmas arrived, Manger and the little girl had become good chums. She didn’t understand why he always insisted they sit outside on his front porch to play. She was intensely curious about his house, wanted to come inside and inspect his medals. But he never invited her in.

She also didn’t understand where he would have gotten the large, vintage dollhouse that arrived on her doorstep Christmas morning that year. It was, by far, the fanciest gift she had ever received. 

“To Dimples, From Manger,” said the card.