Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Take a few minutes to read a short story about a young man, an old woman, a boy who suffers a horrible assault, and the tragic consequences of an ill-considered Supreme Court opinion….

Community Service

Frank hadn’t wanted to visit Alice, but he’d had little choice since it was his community service requirement. Despite the smell of old people dying, a couple hours in the nursing home seemed better than wearing a Day-Glo vest and scooping trash from the roadside. She asked him why he, a stranger, had come, a question that revealed a clarity he’d not expected. In an instant he realized that he’d no reason to be anything but honest with the old lady. He’d see her maybe a dozen times, and she was probably so forgetful, she’d not even remember his response, so he thought why sugar-coat.

"I got arrested for driving drunk. You’re my punishment."

As soon as the words left his mouth, he was sorry, but Alice’s quick response cut short what would have been a stammering apology. Ninety-two years had ravaged Alice’s body, but a long life had only strengthened and callused her mind.

"Honey, why don’t you go get my worthless daughter drunk? Maybe then sometime she’d stop by and see me." Alice’s wrinkles deepened as she continued. "On second thought, forget it. Marie would pass me by for some other senile old biddy just to spite me."

They both smiled, and so began Frank’s weekly visits. He visited Alice every Thursday, long after he’d fulfilled his community-service requirement. He even visited Alice when his thirtieth birthday fell on a Thursday. Alice had a present for him, a pair of trousers, a gaudy pair of trousers with broad vertical red and white stripes.

When Frank saw them, a single word fell from his lips: "stripes."

"Well, Frankie," Alice explained, "Marie got off her duff and took me shopping, and she hated these pants so much, I just had to buy them. She called them ‘Uncle Sam pants.’ I know they’re a little loud, but you could get some wear out of them. Besides, they’re wear-dated."


"Yeah. See the label in the waistband. It’s got the date of manufacture—just four months ago. Guaranteed to last three years. If they wear out before then, just call the company."

Frank knew the pants would last at least three years. If his place didn’t burn down, they’d hang forever in his closet, worn maybe once or twice a year as a joke.

Alice knew what Frank was thinking. "Listen, Mr. Fancy Pants," she began, her eyes beginning to catch fire. "Let an old woman tell you a few things you ought to know by now. First, back in the thirties.... We’d not dismiss anything serviceable. Second," her features relaxed, a smile curled on her lips, "a gift you buy for someone else is also a gift for yourself. Don’t deny me that. The look on Marie’s face when I bought them.... What do they say in the commercials?"

Alice could barely contain her laugher.


And her laugh exploded and crescendoed in a coughing jag that had Frank wondering if he should press the nurse’s call button. But the coughing receded and diminished into hacking chords.

Frank ventured a response. "Ok, I’m glad you got under Marie’s skin. And I will wear them. Maybe not often." Alice smiled.

"Tell me about the thirties."

"You don’t need to know. It was dust storms and foreclosures and old cars that wouldn’t run. One week we lived on nothing but wild berries and some carrots we took from someone’s field. There was nothing for you, especially if you were someone who’d already lost everything." Then a lightness came over Alice in the telling. "But I was young. I could believe it would get better. It was hard for the old people to believe."

Three days later, just before a nurse arrived with lunch, Alice had her last coughing jag, the muscles in her face relaxed for the last time and forever. The nurse on first seeing Alice thought how surprisingly youthful she looked as she lay still on the bed. Too still, the nurse realized as she checked her chart. She never told anyone about her first impression of Alice in death.

Frank sequestered himself for a month, until a friend persuaded him to get on with living, to join him Halloween night at a costume party. Frank put on the red and white striped pants and went as Uncle Sam.

The following Monday Frank dropped the trousers off at the cleaners. The clerk looked at them closely, and as soon as Frank left, called the police….

To find out why the clerk called the police and to read the rest of the story, go to http://bearingfalsewitness.com/CommunityService.asp#part2.

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