Left or right

When the new neighbors moved in across the street, Major Charles Cornelius McWilton counted two hippie parents and 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. She also 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.

It was quite a sweltering Indian summer that year in Southern California. Things got especially stifling inside the post-war, mass-produced homes of their modest neighborhood. Air conditioning was a luxury reserved for far more tony areas. Nevertheless, Major McWilton made no excuses for his appearance. Each day, he donned a clean, button-down shirt, a narrow dark tie, freshly-pressed slacks, and shined shoes. He refused to wear those “desert boots” that had become so fashionable of late.

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 and newly missing bottom front teeth reminded him of his daughter, Gail. He hadn’t spoken to her in over a decade. He wondered whether she ever did marry that motorcycle-riding bastard. Beatnik.

“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 was no wooms at the inn?” She didn’t wait for a response; she was clearly eager to impress her new captive audience. “My gwamma has a manger. She lets me sedditup under the twee at Cwistmastime. 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.

Time passed, the days grew shorter and the clocks turned back. By the time Christmas arrived, Manger and the little girl had become good chums. He let to her talk about her favorite subjects at school: molecules and Vincent Van Gogh. She listened to his advice about all manner of topics, generally concerning the importance of constant vigilance. That meant keeping a sharp eye on things and never trusting anyone.

She could not understand, though, why he always insisted they sit outside on his front porch. She was intensely curious about his house, wanted to come inside and inspect his war medals. But he never invited her in.

She also didn’t understand where he got the large dollhouse that arrived on her doorstep Christmas morning that year. It was, by far, the fanciest gift she had ever received. Was it from the Sears catalogue? Probably not. It looked older — maybe from the late 50s. She could tell by the style of the wallpaper inside, which reminded her of her gramma’s house. 

“To Dimples, From Manger,” said the card. It had a picture of the three wise men on front, following the star of Bethlehem. That night, he decided to pick up the phone and reach out to his daughter Gail. He felt prepared to talk to the beatnik, if he had to.