All Is Bright (5)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Five

Novak had just filled Maggie Kiernan’s coffee mug for the first time when the front door swung open, and the inrushing wind was followed by an older man who walked in head-down, cringing as he released the door handle. The man looked up and waved at Novak, who noticed his scraped palms and torn pants. The sight stunned Novak, and only after a few moments did he recognize the man.

“Jesus, George, what happened to you?”

“Tripped on the curb, landed flat on my face. Some idiot in a Cadillac or something almost ran me over.”

“Yeah, I saw that car,” Novak said, reflecting. “Actually, heard it, mostly.”

George merely grunted as he moved gingerly to a table in the front corner. 

“Are you okay?” Maggie said.

“I’ll be fine. Probably just need some peroxide and bandages, Miss, um…”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Novak said as he approached the table, coffee pot in hand. “George, do you know Maggie Kiernan?”

“Kiernan? As in Kiernan’s Tap?”

“That’s me,” Maggie replied.

“Good to meet you. But, sorry, I’ve never been to your place. I drink elsewhere.”

“You and a lot of other people,” Maggie said, with a slight laugh. “Nothing to apologize for.”

“Maggie, this is George Czerny. He lives at St. Luke’s.”

“I’ve got a few friends there,” she said. “But where were you before that?”

“Emerson, just south of Miller. Right by St. Albert’s. Hey, thanks for the coffee, Dave, but before you do anything else, I really, really need a double cheeseburger and a big plate of fries.”

“Didn’t they give you dinner?”

“If you can call it that,” George said, shaking his head. 

“Burger, sure, but no fries. I didn’t bother starting up the fryer today.”

“A diner with no french fries,” George muttered. “What, have the nurses been leaning on you?”

Novak hah-ed but said nothing as he reached into the refrigerator and lifted out a shallow pan which held a half-dozen beef patties. They were all uneven in size, and he picked out the two largest, returned the pan to the rack and closed the door. George was an old guy, Novak considered, probably didn’t have much excitement in his life, just hours and hours of pleasant calm. If he wants a double cheeseburger to celebrate the holiday, well, let him have it.

“I can give you chips, George,” Novak called out. “That alright?”

“Jays or Vitner’s?”

“Vitner’s,” Novak said. “Only Vitner’s here.”

“That’s good for me.”

Novak lifted one patty with the spatula, then the other, the cheese—two slices each—flowing over the edges and onto the grill. Plate at the ready, he dropped the stacked patties onto the lower bun, put on the top bun, nudged a pickle wedge alongside and finished the plate with a small cup of coleslaw. As he walked, plate in hand, between the counter and the right-hand wall, he glanced over to Maggie, who held up her coffee mug before her face, her lips moving almost imperceptibly.

As Novak set down the plate George beamed a smile, and almost as soon as the ceramic percussed on the tabletop George had already taken his first bite, which he followed by tearing open the Vitner’s bag. After a brief exchange Novak returned to the grill, scraped away the cheese from the hot surface with the edge of the spatula, and pushed the refuse to the shallow trough along the front edge. 

Novak stands, his back to the grill, drawn to its warmth. He thinks about George and the old man’s life, what Novak can remember of it, until he notices that Maggie’s coffee mug seems to be low. He calls out to her, asks if she wants a warmer. She hasn’t ordered her dinner yet, he notices.