All Is Bright (13)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Thirteen

Novak came home but never left, the one-year leave of absence stretching to two years and then three as his father worsened, increasingly confined to the house and his oxygen tank. By the end of the third year Charlie no longer ever left the house—Lorraine somehow persuaded his doctor to make house calls—and Novak had to run the diner entirely on his own. Lorraine spent less and less time working at the diner, and more time at home tending to Charlie, who rarely left his old recliner in the family room. His afternoons were spent dozing, followed by dinner in front of the TV and then another nap, and on some nights he was sleeping so soundly when Lorraine left the couch to go to bed that she would tuck an extra blanket under his chin and leave him to spend the night in the chair.

As the fourth year neared its end, on the doctor’s advice Charlie and Lorraine moved permanently to Pompano Beach, where they had enjoyed spending their winters while there was still hope for Charlie’s recovery. Florida’s warmth seemed to revive him, and he survived for an unexpected sixteen more years before he finally passed away, ten months earlier. Lorraine had since come home a few times, but on each visit Novak felt her restlessness, and realized the city was no longer home for her.

Novak stands before the grill, just after returning from serving another cheeseburger to George—a single this time—and another bag of chips, which the old man tore into and had halfway finished before he took his first bite of the burger. Over his shoulder Novak sees George shaking salt—excessively, Novak thinks—on his burger. They must limit the salt at St. Luke’s. Might not even have shakers on the table.

He doesn’t mind working alone tonight, or being open at all. With so few customers he certainly isn’t open for the money, but he’s glad to be here with George and Maggie, who clearly needed someplace to be. He gave Vickie and Julio the night off—she’s with her big family at their old house on the east side, and he’s probably off pounding Tecates at some bar in some nearby town that has more generous liquor laws. They would both work on Christmas Day, and Novak would be there from morning prep—no breakfast service, which would have had even fewer customers than tonight—until a few minutes after he opened the place at noon, when he would turn over the grill to Mick, his part-time cook who only worked when Novak needed a fill-in.

He sees that Maggie is only halfway through her onion soup when he turns back to her sandwich, a grilled cheese that sizzles, its hidden underside turning as golden brown as the top. She seemed almost embarrassed when she ordered it.

“That’s okay, isn’t it?” she said. “It just sounds good, all hot and gooey and terrible for my health.”

“It’s perfectly okay.”

“Really? Not too much of a kid thing?”

“We’re all still kids, one way or another,” Novak said. He now walks down the narrow passage, her plate in hand. As he sets it down she says, “Thank you,” and smiles shyly, and he then sees a thoughtful look come to her face.

“Kids, hmmm,” she says. “So, what are your kids doing tonight?”

Novak notices that she didn’t ask what his family was doing tonight—though he has kids, he no longer really has a family—and didn’t ask about Diane at all.

“Christine and Molly are with my ex, at her sister’s house in Iowa, the whole week.”

Novak feigns being preoccupied with something in the kitchen, which allows him to say nothing. 

He only saw the girls for a few minutes two days earlier when they stopped by the diner—Diane waited for them outside, still in the car—and he gave them their presents. He had no idea what a 12-year-old and 10-year-old might want for Christmas, and Diane was icy on the phone and had no suggestions for him, so he took a chance with some ideas that Vickie was kind enough to share. 

“No, barely,” he finally says.

“Well, at least you have that much,” Maggie says. “That’s something.”

Novak remembers that Maggie has no children of her own, and realizes how fortunate he is, with what he has, even though it’s far less than he wants.