All Is Bright (21)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Twenty One

Other than the streetlights, the fluorescent light beaming out from the storefront is the only illumination on the block or, from what Larry had seen during his drive, the entire downtown. Although the sight is inviting, he remains in the car for several minutes, waiting, thinking. 

He is now fully sober, the reality of his situation hitting him hard, and seeming to suppress the alcohol that undoubtedly still flows through his veins. Surely he can’t go home. He begins to wonder where he can find a hotel room at this time of night, and on this night in particular. There aren’t any hotels downtown anymore. He’ll have to check the motels out by the interstate, find a room, go back home tomorrow afternoon after Michelle has had a chance to cool down, and try to salvage whatever he can of what he ruined.

His thoughts are interrupted by movement across the street, where the door of the diner opens and an older woman emerges and hurries to a car parked at the curb, climbs in and after a few seconds drives away. He needs a hot cup of coffee—to sharpen his mind so he can think things through—and maybe someone to talk to. He turns off the ignition.

He pushes open the glass front door. To the left an old man sits at a corner table but Larry, needing some distance, veers to the opposite side and takes a seat at the counter. From the back a tall, friendly-faced man approaches, coffee pot in hand. 

“Merry Christmas,” the man says. “Coffee?”

“Yes, thanks,” Larry says as the man reaches below the counter, brings out a mug and fills it. 

The man has the air of being an owner—relaxed and fully in charge—which to Larry doesn’t quite make sense. An owner working on Christmas Eve, and apparently all on his own? The company owners he knows never work holidays, delegating only minor authority—simple restocking orders—to their buyers, while deferring big decisions until they get back to the office. At this time of year that could mean two or three weeks until they return from the Caribbean, while a salesman like Larry stews at home, waiting for them to approve a big new order as he falls further behind on his volume quota. His owners seem to feel entitled to time off, no matter what the company needs.

“Dave Novak,” the man says, extending his hand. “Welcome to the Marquette.”

Larry shakes Novak’s hand. “Larry. You own this place?” he says, still not quite believing.

“Yeah, seventeen years now. My dad started it back in the sixties,” Novak says. “You from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

“I live up on the west side. Salesman, plastics. Don’t get downtown much, other than driving through.”

“Like a lot of people,” Novak says with a slight smile. “My lunch business is okay, thanks to the courthouse, but evenings are slow—everybody goes to the chains out by the mall. I’m thinking about cutting back to just breakfast and lunch.”

“Go where the business is, right?”

“Yeah. And give the customer what they want, which apparently isn’t dinner downtown.”

Novak retreats halfway to the back, where he pauses at the cash register. 

“Usually I wouldn’t even be open tonight,” Novak says, looking toward Larry without meeting his eye. “But I had nothing else going on, and I know that some people have nowhere to be on Christmas Eve, so I stayed open, thought we could all spend it together.” Novak laughs. “All of us. I’ve had four people in here tonight, George included, right George?”

Larry hears a grunt from the old man in the corner. Novak returns to the front, takes out a mug for himself, pours and drinks. 

“So, you live on the west side. What brings you downtown? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Some problems at home,” Larry says, warily eyeing the old man, George. He feels like he can trust this Novak, but he is less sure about the other. He wants to talk, share what’s on his mind, but not to an audience of two.