All Is Bright (22)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Twenty Two

George’s offer to watch the diner while Novak was away—so politely refused, and then not even needed after the cop offered to deliver the phone order—were nearly his last words of the evening. He has been left alone with his thoughts, which at first dwelled on how to get back into St. Luke’s without being caught. 

Mike the security guard—with George’s twenty-dollar bill still warm in his shirt pocket—would let him pass, but the nurses were like hawks, seeing everything and swooping in at exactly the right moment. His temporary escape had been totally improvised, and first imagined only during the third Christmas carol of the program, and minimally planned, as evidenced by him going out without an overcoat. His return wasn’t planned at all, and George now realizes that there’s no easy way back in. He’ll return, give himself up like a hopeless fugitive, and face whatever consequences they have for him. He doubts that any punishment will be at all severe. They’ll never kick him out; they need all the residents they can get.

Other than resigning himself to his fate, he has spent much of the evening observing the few customers come and go. He was glad to meet Maggie Kiernan, but the cop made him uneasy—opening some wounds from his younger days that hadn’t quite healed—and seeing Larry, the salesman, only saddens him. It looks to George that Larry wants to talk to Novak, get something off his chest, and though he only vaguely mentioned problems at home, George has a good idea what those problems are. He recognizes what Larry is leaving unsaid, because George himself left those same things unsaid, and unfixed, when he was a young husband. The drinking, the selfishness, the arguments when he blamed anyone and anything other than himself. 

George finally got help, but it was too late for his marriage, and almost too late for his relationship with Debbie, which was only barely saved. She was still willing to have him in her life and part of her family, and no matter how late he stays up tonight, watching reruns and sipping—not slugging down—some Old Fitz, he will be at her house on Christmas morning, 8 a.m. sharp, arriving by cab so she doesn’t have to disrupt the household by picking him up.

George sees far too much of his younger self in Larry, and hopes that Novak can talk some sense into him tonight. Novak seems to be pretty good at that.

He has also come to the realization that St. Luke’s is the best place for him. For as much as he fights against his loss of freedom, less freedom, at his age, is probably exactly what he needs. He needs someone to keep an eye on him—without burdening Debbie, who has a family of her own to mind—and divert him from his more dangerous impulses, and keep him safe when his mind inevitably begins to slip. And despite Maggie Kiernan’s invitation, he won’t be drinking there the day after Christmas, or any other day. He will only drink in his room, where his intake is limited by the small number of bottles he can both sneak in and conceal, and where, if he drinks too much and falls or otherwise hurts himself, help will be there for him. Being in a bar, or walking home afterward, offers no such assurances.

From the corner table he watches Novak and Larry talk. Larry repeatedly looks over at him, and is clearly uncomfortable with his presence. George knows that Larry needs to talk, and so George should go. He rises from the table, stretches his arms languidly over his head, and drops a twenty-dollar bill—far more than he owed—on the table. 

“I’m heading home, Dave,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“Home?” Dave says, smiling. 

“The home, home, same thing.”

“Okay, George, but it’s freezing out there, and you don’t have a coat. Can I give you a ride?”

“Thanks, but no. It’s only a couple of blocks, and I like the fresh air. Have a good Christmas, Dave.”

“See you here tomorrow?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Who knows, the food at the home might suddenly get better. A Christmas miracle. You have to believe, right?”

George and Novak laugh together, and even the grim-faced salesman makes a short chuckle. George opens the door, coatless and already hunkered down against the cold, for the four-block walk to St. Luke’s, to home.