All Is Bright (2)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Two

Three or four Christmas carols after the meager dinner—stringy turkey, dry mashed potatoes, a single teaspoon of gravy each, and too many green vegetables—would have been plenty for George. Three or four carols and a few hugs, then back up to his room for a few nips from the bottle of Old Fitzgerald he has hidden in the back of the closet, and some old black-and-white reruns before he dozed off for the night.

But after nine carols his patience had worn thin, and at the opening strains of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”—which had always depressed him—he rose and moved toward the common room’s exit doors, where he wished the head nurse Merry Christmas, and said he was tired and on his way to bed. But he wasn’t ready for his room just yet.

George knew they meant well at St. Luke’s, but everything there—the strict diet, the regimented activities, the forced camaraderie—would get to him now and then, and he just had to get out and walk. Even with the mild rebellion of leaving the Christmas Eve program, going back to his room would have been too close to what the staff would have expected from him. And so, after he shuffled to the end of the corridor he turned not to the left and the elevators, but to the right and the building’s lobby. Residents weren’t allowed outdoors alone after dark—a good rule, George thought, for most of the others—and near the front door sat a security guard.

George was glad to see it was the guard named Mike, whom he knew better than the other guards and was the most likely to be persuaded.

“Whew, too much dinner,” George said, smiling, as he approached. He leaned his elbow on the desk. “I need to walk it off, get some fresh air.”

“Nobody out after dark,” the guard said, George at that moment realizing that the guards were there even more to keep residents inside than to keep dangerous intruders—thugs, salesmen—out. “You can walk in the morning.”

“Yeah, but then I’d miss this nice, crisp, cold evening. A midnight clear, right? See all the stars?” he added, knowing full well that the stars were always obscured downtown by light pollution from the streetlights. He nodded toward the door, and as the guard followed his glance and even craned his neck slightly to the sky, George slipped a neatly folded twenty-dollar bill from his pocket, and slid it across the countertop. Hearing the faint scrape of the bill, the guard looked back, then up at him.

“Really? Are you kidding?”

“Serious. I won’t be gone long. Nurse Ratched thinks I went to bed, so nobody will know.”

The guard shook his head in disbelief, yet reached for the bill and pocketed it. George knew that the guard realized the old man’s mind was sharp, probably the sharpest of anybody in the home, and could be trusted to be safe.

“Be careful,” the guard said, waving his hand. “Cold out there.”

George walked up and down the grid of streets, never slowing, with no destination in mind, which was just as well given that all of the downtown businesses were closed for the night anyway, and probably for Christmas Day as well. He shuffled down Osborn Street, past window after darkened window, and waited for the Walk light at Jessup Street even though there were no cars to be seen in either direction. He crossed Jessup and skirted the courthouse square, glancing up at the World War I memorial—a young soldier, exhausted but pushing forward toward the front line—and thought of his own father and what he might have faced in trenches in France that he never talked about.

He crossed back over Jessup at Central, making his way north again. The wind was stronger here, cutting through his sweater—his overcoat was still in his room, and he was out the door before he realized his error, at which point he didn’t have time to go upstairs and fetch it without the nurse catching him. The cold drove him onward as he suddenly longed for the warm comfort of his room—the Old Fitz and his TV—so intently that he crossed Chapman Street against the light and his better instincts. He didn’t see the swerving car bearing down on him until it was almost too late.