Rick Halifax walks his dog Mavis, past the house in question at approximately 5:15 every morning. The walk is a routine that Rick isn’t sure who benefits from more – himself or Mavis. He’s never been one to sleep longer than is needed; sleep is for the Slothful World whose occupants are determined to remain in the lower tax brackets. By 8:30, Rick Halifax gets more done than than most – certainly more so than Big Joey Reeves, the man who lives at this house with his portly wife and three rotund children. Big Joey’s home is a humble ranch with yellow brick and aged stucco, with hedges that in Rick’s opinion, need some attention.

Rick shakes his head. A grown-ass man going by ‘Big Joey’. Hedge trimmers are at every big box hardware store, my man, Rick thinks to himself as he walks by. Do us all a favor and pick up a pair.

Mavis pees on the base of the Reeve’s mailbox, which Rick finds mildly amusing. A puff of steam comes off the urine in the cold air and dissipates like a ghost. Rick looks up at the house. Not a light on – Rick is both unsurprised and pleased. One less person to compete with in the rat race that has rewarded Rick quite handsomely. This part of the neighborhood may be on his established walk, but it’s more than a few levels below his on the socioeconomic ladder. He’s slumming on this route, no doubt about it. Rick enjoys this morning boost more than a tall coffee.

Something in the Reeve’s sloppy yard is different though on this December morning. A sign – about two feet in from the sidewalk has been staked into the yard. Rick hurries Mavis along to get a better view. A piece of rectangular cardboard stapled to a slim pine stake stands slightly askew. Rick squints to read it, cursing himself for choosing not to wear his glasses on today’s walk. He leans forward putting together the words, which are hand-written in black sharpie.

To the person who stole our Christmas lights: I hope you enjoy them as much as we did. Merry Christmas!

Rick looks from the sign to the house. Sure enough, Big Joey’s house is bare – no festive lights twinkling in the darkness of the morning, no wreaths, nothing.

Rick frowns. “Not even an air-inflated Santa, Joey Old Boy?” He smiles at how predictable things are in the world and how he, Rick, has learned to read people in ways that seem to fly right over the heads of most. The Big Joeys of the world will always have shabby shrubs, un-edged yards, tacky Christmas lights and inflatable Santas. White trash choose their trash status; nobody assigned them their lives. No socialism here. If a man wants to rise above his peers, he can – assuming he’s willing to work hard. Clearly Big Joey – and everyone else on this block – are still buried deep in their blankets making yet another daily choice to sleep away opportunity.

Rick tugs on the leash giving Mavis a nudge forward.

Like all days, Rick and Mavis turn from Greenwood Drive onto Alabaster Place. From Alabaster Place, the two head into Oakwood Estates, walking past the large faux wood sign that with soft flood lights announces to the gentle traffic passing by that the homes behind the sign are going to be better than yours.

The sign in the Reeve’s yard is still on Rick’s mind when he enters the security code allowing him entrance to his three-car garage. Mavis whines expectantly and sits at his food bowl which sits at the base of the wooden steps leading into the kitchen. Rick pours Science Diet into the bowl, unclips the leash from Mavis’ collar and adds a pat on the dog’s head before heading into the massive house.

Cheryl, Rick’s wife of 26 years, is sleeping soundly as Rick quietly slips into the shower of the master bedroom. In the shower, Rick wonders about the Reeve’s sign. Was it sarcasm, an attempt at guilting the thief, or did they sincerely hope the person who took their lights actually enjoys them? Are they sincere in wishing the culprit a Merry Christmas?

Getting dressed in his 15×12 walk-in closet, Rick thinks about Big Joey and his family. He knows them only because Joey’s daughter and Rick’s daughter were on the same soccer team two years in a row. Big Joey and his loud mouth cheers, yelling above all when his daughter blocked a goal. How could she miss? The girl is the size of a Volkswagen! Rick had the misfortune of Big Joey parking his extra large lawn chair next to Rick at several soccer matches over the years. Big Joey would boom his words of encouragement across the field rattling nearby windows and nearly blowing Rick’s eardrum.

It was just last week that Rick’s daughter, Ashley, announced at dinner that Big Joey’s Big Daughter would be most likely be heading to Stanford on a scholarship. Stanford!

“Does she have a letter to prove it?” Rick had asked.

Ashley looked at her father and rolled her eyes. “You think she’s making it up?”

Rick took another bite of double-smoked salmon, chewed carefully, swallowed and wiped his mouth with the mauve cloth napkin. “Not saying she’s making it up, I’m just saying that a school like Stanford just doesn’t throw out scholarships willy nilly to just anyone.”

“She’s really good, dad. You know that.”

“Is it a done deal – the scholarship?”

“No, but the school is flying the entire family to the campus this weekend.”

This ate at Rick. His own daughter was a bright girl who did well in school, but he knew her academics wouldn’t be enough for a school like Stanford. She was a striker on the soccer team during her sophomore year, but the coach – who clearly played favorites – cut Ashley last year after her riding the bench. She should be the one being romanced by Stanford, not Big Joey’s kid, who couldn’t be getting anything more than B’s.

He adjusts his silk tie in the mirror and shoots a few last shots of hairspray on his horseshoe hair pattern. Guilt. That’s what the smug bastard was trying to do. Trying to show to the world that he was taking the high road by “wishing” the person responsible for stealing their lights a merry Christmas. Big Joey, what an ass.

It wouldn’t be long before Cheryl or Ashley sees Big Joey’s sign, Rick realizes.

Rick kisses sleeping Cheryl goodbye at exactly 6 am. Cheryl grunts a little and stirs under the covers. He starts up his Lexus SUV and backs out into the driveway. Putting the car in park, he pops the trunk and heads stealthily into his backyard. In the shed, he reaches above the yard tools where a coil of Christmas lights rests on a shelf. He grabs the aged lights, places them in an old cardboard box and heads back to the driveway.  He looks around – no one is around or looking out their window, he’s sure of it. He places the box into his trunk and pulls out of the driveway.

Rick makes two stops on his way to the office: 1) Starbucks for a tall coffee, and 2) to chuck Big Joey’s lights into a dumpster behind the McDonalds.

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