All Is Bright (15)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments


Within just a few moments, even before the front door opened, Maggie already regretted her promise. Though she promised to look after the diner while Novak was out, she felt a sudden urge to be home, under an afghan on the couch, with the Christmas tree lit up and holiday records on the console stereo, like she and Frank used to do. 

Being without kids, they never went a year without being invited by friends to join them for Christmas Eve dinner. They would go to early Mass—even in their younger years, Midnight Mass was too late for them—and join their friends, but would always leave by ten to have a few hours of the night to themselves. They would come home, drink hot chocolate—Frank often slipped in a dash of Bushmill’s—and listen to Perry Como and Andy Williams. Now it is nearly ten and she’s committed to being here for at least another half hour. 

“Good evening, officer,” Novak says, from back by the grill. “Merry Christmas.”

He sets down the spatula and walks the narrow passage, extending his hand.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” he adds. “Dave Novak.”

“Officer Reggie Pearson,” she says.

Novak smiles. “Reggie? Were your folks Yankees fans way back when?”

“No,” she says, smiling in return. “Short for Regina.”

Maggie recognizes what is happening. She has done it many times at Kiernan’s, ingratiating herself to the police. They can be loyal, generous customers—diner or bar, on-duty or after hours—if you’re in good with them, but if not they can become your worst enemy, picking out health code violations to pass along to the city inspector, or hassling 22-year-olds with claims of being underage. Even though this officer is young, and probably doesn’t know yet how to throw her weight around, it’s still best to get on her good side early before she decides whether she’s friend or foe. 

The officer sits down, two stools away from Maggie on George’s side of the room. 

“What can I get for you? Anything you want.”

“Just coffee,” the officer says.

“Really, that all?”

She nods. “I’m on my break. Gotta get back to it, soon.”

Novak walks to the back, grabs the coffee pot and returns. He reaches below the counter for a mug, fills it and sets it in front of her. 

“Another warmer, Maggie?” Novak says, gesturing toward her with the pot.

“No thanks. No more, or I might float away. And all the caffeine I already had will probably keep me awake half the night.”

She doesn’t want to extend her stay with another cup, and hopes that maybe Novak will get the hint that she wants to leave, and that he should find someone else to watch the diner, even if his only other choice is George. But he clearly isn’t getting the hint, with his focus all on the officer.

Maggie looks on in tired silence as the two chat. The officer is new, only six months out of the academy, from two states away, her father and brothers are cops back home. Novak shares a few things about himself, how long he’s been running the dinner, how his dad first opened the place. 

“Slow night, I’ll bet,” Novak says.

“Really slow. There’s nobody around downtown to arrest, probable cause...or otherwise.”

They all laugh, even Maggie in her exhaustion, though in the corner George’s laughter seems subdued, even forced. Maggie looks again at the officer, as an idea forms in her mind. Maybe she would.

“Yeah, really slow,” the officer says. “And the later it gets, it’ll be even slower.”

“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you can,” Novak says. “But only until midnight, when we close. Then you’ll have to get back to work, or whenever.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be gone long before then. No two-hour break for me. Coffee, then back out.”

Novak nods and returns to the kitchen, walking past the grill to the refrigerator, from which he removes the aluminum pan of burgers.