All Is Bright (20)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Twenty

As the young cop leaves, Maggie is relieved. Not that she wouldn’t have helped, even gladly; she could have easily stayed at the diner for another twenty minutes while Dave Novak was away. It was the sort of thing that local business owners do for each other—little gestures when someone else needs help, small moments when they look out for each other. They had to help and look, had no choice if they are to have any chance of keeping their downtown business district alive. Even if the owners rarely speak to each other, or cooperate to get better police protection or more reliable trash collection, they care far more about each other than the department stores at the mall or the big boxes on West Jessup ever would.

She would have helped Dave Novak, but ended up not having to. As the squad car pulls out from behind her Taurus and into the street, she turns back toward the grill, where Novak is again cleaning. She had known his parents, before Charlie Novak faded away and Lorraine moved to Florida, not as friends but colleagues, and admired them as good people. Dave is good people too, she thinks. She senses a loneliness about him, without his parents, divorced from his wife and seemingly separated from his daughters, even at Christmas. 

She pulls her coat from the back of her stool, wraps it around her shoulders and slips her arms into the sleeves. Her motion catches Novak’s attention, and he smiles as he walks toward her.

“Heading out, Maggie?”

She nods. “It’s been a long day. But, I’m sorry. I would have been glad to watch the place.”

“I understand. You need to be home.”

Yes, she thinks, that’s where she needs to be. By the time she gets home there will still be an hour left of Christmas Eve. Plenty of time for hot chocolate and a warm afghan, and Perry Como and Andy Williams. She hopes, but can’t quite remember, if she taped “It’s A Wonderful Life” last year, as she meant to. George Bailey, and Mary and Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter and Clarence the Angel would enthrall her for a few hours, as they did while Frank was still alive, and whether she dozes off before the finale or stays awake straight through, either will be just as satisfying as the other. 

“Yes, home,” she finally says, wondering how long she has been silent.

“Well, enjoy the rest of your evening, and your morning.”

“Until I go back to work,” she says, and smiles as she realizes how much the work means to her. 

“I’m working too, remember. But I’ll be done not long after noon. I’m only coming in to open, but I’ll knock off not long after that. Vickie and Mick and Julio will be fine here without me. So after noon I’ll be free, and I’m coming to your place right after that for a drink. Or two.”

“That sounds great, Dave. Looking forward to it. But, if you don’t mind, can you bring along a big bag of cheeseburgers?”

“No grilled cheese?”

“Not this time.”

“Okay, cheeseburgers it is.”

“Merry Christmas, Dave,” she says as she pulls on her gloves.

“Merry Christmas. See you tomorrow.”

She turns and pushes open the front door, feels the rush of cold which invigorates her even as she longs to escape from it, and hurries away toward the warmth of her waiting house.