By William Cass
I was ten and sat watching my mom set a casserole dish down on the kitchen table between us. I bowed my head when she did, and we mumbled grace. Afterwards, I gave her my bowl, and she lifted the cover off the casserole; steam came from it, and it smelled good. I was hungry. I’d just come inside from playing football down the street with my friends and hadn’t had a snack after school.
My mom looked at me, hesitated, then replaced the cover and set my bowl down. She said, “Did you do your good deed today?”
I grimaced. I’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask. She often didn’t, although she’d made that daily expectation for me clear shortly after my dad left two years before. I searched my memory trying to come up with something I’d done that day that might qualify. Finally, I said, “I threw away my trash at school after lunch.”
“That’s not a good deed. What else are you going to do with trash?”
I thought some more, then said, “I told my teacher I liked her new hairdo.”
“That’s being nice. That’s being kind. Not the same thing as a good deed.” She leaned forward. “We’ve discussed this plenty, Paul. A good deed is an intentional, uncommon…”
“…helpful action for someone,” I finished for her and felt my shoulders slump. “I know, I know.”
My mom stood up and used a pair of hot pads to slide the casserole back into the oven. From her satchel on the counter, she took the sweater she was making me, sat back down, and began knitting. Without looking up, she said, “Come back when you’re done. I’ll keep dinner warm.”
I made a snort and intentionally scraped my chair on the linoleum when I got up. I stomped over to the cupboard that stored our cleaning supplies, grabbed a bottle of Windex and a rag, sprayed the counter next to her knitting satchel, and wiped it off. I put the supplies back in the cupboard and faced her, my hands on my hips.
She regarded me evenly, then said, “Chores aren’t deeds.” She pointed to the back door. “Go.”
I watched her return to her knitting, her mild expression never changing, and shook my head. The only sound in the room was the click of her needles. I stalled another moment, then yanked open the back door.
She said, “Coat.”
I grabbed my Mackinaw jacket off its peg and tried to slam the door after me, but wasn’t able to. It was already completely dark and cold enough that my breath came in short cloud blasts. I walked out our back gate, stood under the streetlamp at the curb, and looked up and down the road. All my friends had gone home for dinner, too, and the sidewalks were empty. Not a single vehicle moving in any direction. Just the silent neighborhood of little rundown bungalows like our own with the tall chimney from the cement factory where my dad used to work billowing smoke off in the distance.
I glared back at my house and muttered, “Good deed, my ass.”
With no particular purpose in mind, I started up the sidewalk towards the vacant lot where we’d been playing football. I found myself wondering, like I often did, what my dad was doing at that moment, where he was, why he left. I knew he was still depositing money each month into my parents’ joint bank account, so he had to be working someplace. That contribution, and my mother’s meager income as a nursing assistant, were just keeping us afloat. Did she miss him? I guessed she still did, although it had been quite a while since I’d come upon her crying silently like I had all the time after he first left. That behavior was eventually replaced by the flat affect she now always wore; her face reminded me of those belonging to assembly line workers I’d seen in photographs.
I stopped across the street from the house next to the vacant lot. An old woman I recognized well had come out of a side door there with her tabby cat at her heels and was carrying a bound plastic bag to a trash can next to her garage. Her name was Mrs. Henderson, and she and her cat lived there alone. She was always yelling at us not to trample her bushes and flower beds that bordered the vacant lot where we played. She was bent a little at the waist, with a cap of thin white hair, and usually shook her fist when she shouted at us. We called her “The Old Witch”.
I felt myself blinking as I watched her drop the bag in her trash can, then blew out a long breath and hurried across the street and up her driveway. She was huffing and trying to squeeze her bag down into the full can when I stopped in front of her.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The old woman’s head sprang up with alarm. Then her eyes slowly narrowed. “You’re the Nielsen boy, aren’t you? One of the young hoodlums that’s always causing a ruckus next door. What do you want?”
“Can I give you a hand with that? Pull it down to the curb for you?”
I watched her eyebrows knit. “Garbage truck doesn’t come until the day after tomorrow.”
“I know, but that can is full, and I can take care of moving it down now for you.” I shrugged. “Looks heavy.”
The cat curled its way between her ankles as she frowned, regarding me. The shift change whistle blew at the cement factory, a long, mournful sound. Finally, her frown eased and she said, “It does give me trouble, dragging it to the curb.” She nodded once.
“Okay.” My grin was sheepish. “Can I have the lid?”
She handed it to me, and I leaned on it until it pushed the last trash bag down far enough to secure itself on top. I grasped the can by both handles and bumped its bottom down her driveway in short bursts of effort, surprised by its weight. When I’d gotten it settled against the curb, I wiped my hands on my jeans looking up at Mrs. Henderson where she stood perfectly still in her housecoat. The light under the eaves outside her side door cast her face in shadow.
“Wait here,” she told me. “I’ll be right back.”
The cat followed her as she shuffled back inside. I listened to a long train pass out at the edge of town until she reappeared carrying a small Tupperware container. The cat followed her again as she made her way down to me.
“Appreciate you doing that,” she said and extended the container me way. “Here’s some cookies I just baked. Share them with your mom.” She paused, studying me with softened eyes I could now see for the first time were downturned at the outer edges, gentle and sad. “I heard at church about your dad leaving. Same thing happened to me many years ago.”
I took the container from her. It was still warm. I swallowed over a hardness in my throat and said, “Thanks.”
She nodded again. “Any Wednesday evening you want to come by and pull that can down for me, I’d be grateful.”
I nodded, too, sniffed, and said, “You bet.”
The cat purred at her feet. Without looking at it, Mrs. Henderson reached down and scratched the top of its head. “All right, then,” she said.
I watched her turn and the two of them make their slow way back inside the house. I waited for the light under the eaves to blink off before turning myself and starting home. I thought: well, there’s Wednesday taken care of each week; that’s pretty easy. I wondered what I’d come up with on the other days for good deeds. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I’d find something. When I stopped to think about it, I realized the possibilities were really endless. The warm cookies in my hands felt good against the cold. I clutched them against my chest.
William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, has received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.