All Is Bright (23)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Twenty Three

The door closes behind George with a rush of cold air, and they watch him shuffle past the front window, moving much more casually than one would expect on such a frigid night. Maybe he really does like the fresh air, Larry thinks. Me, the older I get, the harder it is to ever get warm in winter. 

They turn back from the window, and after a few moments of awkward silence, Novak raises his eyebrows and sighs, as if to say there’s never any end of work around here, have to get back to it. He retreats to the grill, where he scrapes away some encrusted grease with the spatula and slides the debris into trough at the front edge. Larry knows that Novak probably won’t have any more customers tonight—he already alluded to only having four customers—and is likely ready for his final cleanup of the day. But though Novak has good reasons to be busying himself around the grill, he also seems to be avoiding the awkwardness that settled over them after George left.

Larry needs to talk, wants to talk, even though Novak is a stranger. Though maybe talking to a stranger is easier. Novak probably wants to get home, and will be intent on finishing his task unless Larry takes the initiative.

“So yeah, problems,” Larry says, hoping that Novak picks up the thread from minutes earlier. 

“What kind of problems?” Novak says. “Again, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Not at all. Bottom line, my wife kicked me out. Well, maybe not totally kicked out, but she made it very clear she wanted me out of the house.” He pauses. “Okay, that’s not really the bottom line. I made that sound like it’s all on her, but it’s one me. The real bottom line is that I got drunk tonight, for no good reason. Office Christmas party, one of my customers, and the buyer I deal with wasn’t even there. I should have had one drink, wished Merry Christmas to a few important people, and gone home. Instead I stayed for three hours and I don’t know how many drinks.”

“Oh, ouch.”

Larry nods. “Missed Christmas Eve dinner with my wife and kids.”

“So you made a mistake,” Novak says.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes. This is just the latest one. Most were getting drunk, ruining something. Tonight I ruined Christmas Eve, maybe my worst yet.”

Novak walks to the back, lifts the coffee pot from the burner, and returns. “Coffee?”

“Sure, though I’ve never really liked the stuff. But I probably need it.”

“Look...Larry, right?” Larry nods. “Larry. I barely know you, but I appreciate you confiding in me all the same. I kind of see where you’re coming from. I’ve ruined a lot of things, too.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Well, no, nothing that bad, but plenty else. School plays, dance recitals, wedding anniversaries. And one Disneyworld vacation with my in-laws...ooh. Don’t ask.”

Larry smiles, trying to imagine all that could have gone wrong. It’s A Small World, after a few stiff drinks, Space Mountain after too many beers...

“Yeah, but Christmas Eve,” Larry says. “Michelle didn’t even let me sleep in the basement—and I’ve slept off quite a few down there. Now I have to find a hotel room.”

“Whatever you do,” Novak says. “Don’t do that. I blew up my marriage. Too many mistakes like yours, and not enough work to fix them. But the thing is, I might have been able to fix them if I had just talked to Diane, worked out our problems. My problems. But I couldn’t do that, because every time I fucked up—sorry—I moved out for a few days, checked into a hotel or crashed on somebody’s couch. I never sat down and had a heart-to-heart with her until too much time passed for any of it to have any real meaning.” Novak refills his cup. “So my advice to you, if you even want it, from a stranger—is to go right home tonight, sit down with your wife, talk until sunrise if you have to, but talk. If she stayed with you through all your mistakes, she must see something decent in you. So you have to work it out. While you still can.”

“But…”

“But nothing. That’s what I’m telling you. I’m not going to argue with you. It’s just advice from a stranger. Take it or leave it.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, Larry. You should get home. I’ll bet your wife is just about to put the kids’ presents under the tree.”

“Yeah, and I need to be there to eat all the cookies they left for Santa.”

“Exactly. So get home. It probably won’t be an It’s A Wonderful Life moment, but you have to try.” He pauses. “You have to appreciate what you have, and what it would be like to lose it. My God, just to have your kids home at Christmas. Just be glad for that.”

Larry sees Novak’s eyes grow misty, and senses what he went through, what he’s going through.

Behind the wheel, Larry starts the car and pulls carefully away from the curb and drives west, at ten miles below the speed limit. When he first entered the diner, he thought that what he needed more than anything was to talk, to bare his soul. But now he realizes that, more than talk, he needed someone who understood him. And Novak understood.

As he rolls over the bridge and up the hill toward home he tries to imagine the conversation with Michelle after they’ve put the kids’ presents from Santa under the tree—he can only expect the best, or else he wouldn’t try at all—and what her verdict will be. Again, he can only expect the best.

You can stay, she will say. You’re still in trouble, deep trouble, but I won’t have Jenny and Ethan wake up on Christmas morning and see that Daddy isn’t here, gone. I won’t have that. I’m doing this for them, not for you.

Doing it for them, Larry thinks as he approaches his house, where the tree in the front window is still lit up. Doing it for them is all the reason he needs, to fix this, to get it right.