It was Christmas Eve, and to mark the anniversary of this sacred night before our savior's birth I was upstairs with my father, helping him do a touch-up paint job on the bedroom walls.
My mother was at church, doing penance for her sins. My father and I were covering up sins of clumsiness with white paint -- fingerprints, marks and dings from furniture, whatever.
We all find our own ways to get clean. My Irish mother went to church. My Italian father painted walls.
I was 16 years old, excited to be allowed to help my father with the touch-up paint job, being careful not to drip on the floor.
Suddenly the doorbell rang. I put down my paintbrush to go downstairs and answer it.
A sweet-faced woman stood at our door with a red bucket in her gloved hands. Out by the curb, "Silent Night" was playing from a loudspeaker on the roof of her idling car.
She told me she was collecting for some kind of Christmas charity, and anything I could give would be greatly appreciated.
Then she smiled. There was something desperate and pathetic in that smile. Also, she was shivering.
"Give me a second!" I said, and then I took the stairs two at a time to my room. In my wooden money box I had exactly two dollars in cash, which I grabbed before tearing back down the stairs.
Let me tell you about those two bucks.
I had a weekend job washing dishes at the Douglaston Club restaurant for the minimum wage. The top floor of the club was a rooming house, and one of my unpaid duties was to deliver two buckets of ice to an old lady who lived on the top floor.
She was a nice old lady, and I didn't mind doing it for her. In the course of the year I must have made thirty ice deliveries to her room, and late in December she dangled my Christmas bonus from her gnarled fingers:
The same two bucks I put in the sweet-faced woman's bucket. She God blessed me and drove away.
I went back upstairs to continue helping my father with the touch-up work.
"Who was at the door?" he asked.
I told him everything that had happened. His eyes widened.
"You gave her money?" he asked.
I swallowed. "Two dollars."
"She was collecting for a charity."
"Yeah? Which one?"
I swallowed again. I noticed that my hands were stained with paint, while my father's were clean. He worked so neatly it was almost maddening.
"I don't know, Dad."
"You gave two dollars to a stranger for a charity you don't know anything about?"
I was feeling dumber by the moment. "She was playing 'Silent Night' from her car!" I sputtered.
My father chuckled. "Well, then, she must have been legitimate."
My face felt hot and I was breathing hard. I thought about those thirty trips I'd made up and down the stairs with those heavy ice buckets for those two measly dollars, which I'd tossed into that woman's red bucket without a thought.
"Damn it!" I yelled.
My father laughed. "It's okay. It's a good lesson. Education is expensive."
Minutes later my mother returned from church. I told her everything that had happened, and she was proud of me.
"She was probably legitimate," my mother assured me. "And even if she was a faker, your heart was in the right place."
But were my two dollars in the right place? That question nagged at me for a long time.
Ah, well. I grew up. Things happened to me, good and bad, same as everybody.
My mother still goes to church, and my father still does touch-up jobs around the house, paint can and brush at the ready. To this day, anybody who visits my parents and leans against a wall walks away with a white elbow.
And here comes Christmas again, with all its manipulations and conflicting emotions, and if that woman with the red bucket were to show up at my door all these years later with "Silent Night" playing from the roof of her car, I would bestow not dollars but words of wisdom upon her, words I've lived by ever since:
Giveth all thy can to worthy causes at Christmastime.
But getteth a receipt to present to thine accountant at tax time.
Charlie Carillo's first two published novels, Shepherd Avenue and My Ride With Gus are available on Amazon kindle for 99 cents. His Website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show Inside Edition