From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

The Midnight Caller

I grew up in a rural hamlet in the days when the telephone was a wonder and automobiles were impractical, and unable to traverse muddy country roads. Those were the days before the Depression became a proper noun, when there was barely enough to go around, when neighbors had little to depend on but each other. I recall one fateful night:

The early October storm and darkened night pressed against our windows, wind and rain blending in shrieking turbulence. The rumbling filled our little frame house in deep, rural Arkansas. Inside, the storm even seemed to dim the kerosene lamp on the living room table.

A restless, nine-year-old girl, I was sure the house would blow away any minute. Daddy had gone north, looking for work, and I felt more vulnerable than I admitted, even to myself. But somehow Mama sat, quietly and peacefully, mending her clothes “to do another winter.”

“Oh, Mama, you need new clothes,” I said, trying to make conversation. On a night like this, I needed the comfort of a calm human voice.

She put her arms around me. “You need better clothes because you go to school.”

“But you don’t even have a coat for winter.”

“God promises to supply our needs. He’ll keep his promise, not on demand, but in his own time. I’ll be all right.”

I envied her stubborn, come-what-may faith. Especially on nights like this. One stormy gust even swept down the chimney and scattered the coals on the hearth.

“Can we lock the doors tonight?” I asked.

Mama smiled as she took the little black hearth shovel and spread ashes over the red coals of fire. “Edith, we can’t lock out this storm. And you know we don’t lock our doors—neither do our neighbors—especially on nights like this, when someone might need to come in out of the storm.”

She picked up the lamp off the table and started for her bedroom. I followed her, crowding her steps.

She tucked me in, but before she could take off her crazy-quilt robe, the sudden crash of the front door opening to a charging wind brought in the smell of rain and the sound of objects being blown around the living room. Just as suddenly, the door slammed shut.

“Not all that noise was wind and thunder.” Mama grasped the lamp and started back to the living room. I was afraid to go with her. I was more afraid not to.

At first, all we could see were the scattered contents of Mama’s sewing basket. Then our eyes followed muddy boot prints across the bare pine floor, from the door to the overstuffed chair facing the fireplace.

A very wet, disheveled man, short and stout, wearing a dark, mud-spattered suit, sat slumped in that chair. His breath reeked offensively. His left hand still loosely held a gnarled can. “Mama—it’s Mr. Hall!”

Mama merely nodded as she shoveled up buried coals from the fireplace, shook off the loose ashes, carried the coals to the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and covered them with our rich morning kindling of pine. She instructed, “I’ll make coffee. You build the fire to help our guest get warm and dry.”

“But Mama, he’s drunk!”

“Yes, so drunk he wandered into our home, probably thinking it was his.”

“But that’s a quarter-mile down the road.”

“Young lady, Mr. Hall is not a drunkard. What happened tonight, I don’t know. But he’s a fine man.”

I knew that Mr. Hall met someone at the highway each Monday morning and rode to his little tailor shop in Little Rock, where he worked long hours all week. Each Saturday afternoon he came trudging home, leaning on his cane.

As if she read my thoughts, Mama whispered, “He must get very lonely from time to time.”

Standing in the kitchen doorway, I was struck by a vagrant thought. “Oh, Mama, what will people say about Mr. Hall—getting drunk?”

People must never know. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Mama.”

As the storm raged, Mama brought Mr. Hall a mug of steaming hot, black coffee. She lifted his head, persuading him to swallow the coffee, a sip at a time. The mug was almost empty when he opened his eyes enough to recognize us. “Miz Un’wood.”

“Yes, Mr. Hall, you’re going to be just fine.”

When Mama took the mug back to the kitchen, Mr. Hall managed to lean on his cane, leave the quilt half-folded across the chair and stagger out into the dying storm. We watched him walk none too steadily toward the front gate, leftover flashes of lightning showing him the way.

“It seems our guest can make it on his own now.”

“Mama, why do you call him our guest?” I asked. “He’s only our neighbor. We didn’t invite him in.”

“A guest is anyone who comes under our roof in peace. As for being our neighbor, do you remember who the neighbor is in the story of the Good Samaritan?”

“The man who helped the stranger.”

“You see, by being our guest, even unintentionally, we were given the opportunity to be Mr. Hall’s neighbor.”

A few weeks later, we came home from church to find a brown paper bag on the table labeled, “Mrs. Underwood.”

“Probably that dress pattern Mrs. Chiles said she’d loan me. She has a daughter about your size. Open it if you want to,” Mama said, as she went to change her clothes.

I reached inside the crinkling bag. “Oh, no, Mama!” I called. “It’s a coat for you and it’s beautiful!”

Mama came back to look at the garment I held up. Almost tentatively, she turned and slipped her right arm, then her left, into the sleeves. At the time I didn’t know I was learning the true meaning of neighborliness. All I knew was that when Mama tried on that winter coat, it fit perfectly.

Edith Dean

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