All Is Bright (14)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Fourteen

The room has gone silent. Maggie and George are finishing their meals, and Novak, with nothing to do for another five minutes until he begins filling the phone order, is busying himself around the kitchen, or puttering as Lorraine Novak used to say. 

George’s stomach is full and though he needs no more to eat he takes the second-to-last bite of his cheeseburger, and feels a deliciously greasy drip run down his chin that he quickly licks away. He pops the last bit into his mouth, savoring the delectable taste he won’t enjoy again for a while, at the home. 

He looks toward the back where Novak works, then his eyes fall over the curved counter—Novak once said that from above the counter area looks like a fish, narrow at the back, curving slightly outward and then back to a point at the front of the room. Below the salmon-pink countertop the sides are aqua—probably bright once, but now faded from the sun, especially closest to the front windows—and scuffed black near the floor from decades of being kicked and tapped by soles of customers’ shoes. The place must have been stylish in its day, George thinks, though he doesn’t remember it from back then. Other than to the courthouse and city hall, to pay a traffic ticket or the water bill, he rarely came downtown until he moved to St. Luke’s, his north side neighborhood had everything he needed—Wojtak’s, Freeney’s Grocery, Burt’s Bakery. The last thing that downtown could have offered him—the department stores—had moved out thirty years earlier, to the new mall on the outskirts of town. 

The Marquette had clearly seen better days. Novak can’t be blamed, Frank thinks. The place doesn’t do big business, and Novak is doing as much as he can, with upkeep if not renovations. George had heard Novak complain about the balky refrigerator, which required a repairman and an expensive service call every few months, the accumulated cost of which apparently never being quite enough to justify buying a brand new unit. And though the open grill kept the dining area warm enough in winter, during the dog days of summer the air-conditioning could never quite keep up, and Novak had to haul fans out of storage and position them around the room to generate some air flow.

George looks down at his plate, where all traces of the cheeseburgers are long gone, and all that remains are a few potato chip flakes. He licks his fingertips, dabs up the flakes and brings them to his tongue, enjoying the salty crunch as he swallows. Novak begins to cook again, presumably for the phone order. 

“Maggie, I’m gonna need a favor,” Novak says. “I need you to watch the place while I run this over to the courthouse.”

“I’ll watch the place,” George says, suddenly feeling the need to be needed. 

“Thanks, George, but no. Maggie owns a bar, she’ll know what to do if anything comes up while I’m gone. Besides, I don’t want you alone here.” He laughs. “You might find my bottle.”

George laughs as well, relieved that his earlier inquiry hadn’t been taken the wrong way. If Novak did have a drinking problem in the past, he was jesting about it now, so everything was probably okay between them.

“Won’t be more than a few minutes, Maggie.”

“Fine with me, Dave, whatever you need. The least I can do.”

Novak nods and turns back to the grill. The room is silent again for a few moments—Maggie stares again into her coffee, her meal finished—when the front door swings open, and in steps a police officer. George sees the uniform first, and tenses, and not even the following realization that the officer is a young woman can lessen his unease.