All Is Bright

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

(The following story was originally published in daily installments, from December 1 to December 24, 2019. For ease of reading, I have compiled the individual installments into chronological order.)

One

Dave Novak stands with his back to the grill, his hands folded behind him, gently gripping a spatula. He instinctively leans toward the warmth of the grill on this, the coldest night of the young winter, even as his common sense and years of working the diner warn him against getting too close, of getting burned. 

He gazes outward at the dining area, where two isolated figures sit—Maggie Kiernan to the left at the far end of the curving counter, George Czerny to the right at a table in the front corner. Maggie catches Novak’s eye as they nod, then looks down into her mug of jet-black coffee. She lifts the mug and sips, her thoughts now clearly elsewhere. Where, exactly, Novak can’t decide for certain, though he could guess a few possibilities. He turns his attention to George Czerny, who has already devoured two-thirds of his cheeseburger. 

“This looks great,” George said minutes earlier, as Novak set the place before him. “I can’t get a decent burger at the home.”

“It’s not a home, George,” Novak said, recognizing the old man’s implication.

“Yes, it’s a home. An old folks’ home. With too many old folks for my liking. And a staff that won’t fry up a nice, greasy cheeseburger. They say it’s not healthy.”

Still standing at the grill, Novak tries to remember what George told him in the past. So many regulars had told him so much about their pasts that it was hard to sort out the details. He seems to recall that George lived in his house up on the north side for years and years, probably longer than he should have, because Novak does remember the old man complaining, with obvious bitterness, about one of his kids—yes, it was a daughter—forcing him to sell the house and move in St. Luke’s Senior Center. Forced, that was the word he had used, though he probably could have resisted and stayed in his house, unless the daughter had his power of attorney, or something. Novak tries to remember if he knew the daughter, if they had gone to high school together, but he can’t place her or even recall her first name which George must have mentioned.

“Warmer, Maggie?” Novak calls out, and when she nods Yes he turns, sets down the spatula on the edge of the grill, and steps toward the coffee station. Coffee pot in hand, he walks down the narrow linoleum floor between the counters—tight going, even though Novak is the only one working that night—and refills her mug.

“Where is everybody tonight?” Maggie says, looking up at him.

“Gave them the night off,” Novak says. “Nobody should have to work Christmas Eve.”

“But you’re working.”

“I’ve got nowhere else to be, so I thought I’d stay open for anyone else who’s the same way.”

“I worked tonight too, even though my place wasn’t open. Weird liquor laws. Christmas Eve is some holy night, so the bars all have to be closed out of respect, but they’re all wide open again on Christmas Day.”

The phone rings and Novak holds up one finger to say Hold that thought, then adds, “I guess some of us just have to work,” as he picks up the receiver. “Marquette Grill.”

“Yeah,” a voice says on the other end, “do you guys deliver?”

“Ordinarily, yeah we do, but I’m the only one working tonight.”

“So there’s no way?”

“No, I don’t see how...wait. We’ll figure something out. Go ahead.”

Novak listens, jots down the order on a pale green pad. At the bottom he writes “10:00” and circles it twice, says goodbye and hangs up. 

“I might have to deliver this one myself,” Novak says aloud, though more to himself than to Maggie or George. But I have an hour to figure out how, he says to himself, this time in silence.

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.

Three

She sliced a lime in half, then another and another. Three limes should be enough, don’t you think, Frank? If anyone still ordered gimlets at Kiernan’s Tap—and no one did, not for decades—she would simply uncap the old bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice that she kept in the cooler below the bar. The juice probably expired long ago, and she should toss the bottle, but if nobody ever ordered a drink that required it, she supposed its freshness didn’t really matter. No Rose’s for her, not tonight. It was Christmas Eve, she was alone with nowhere else to be, and she had worked all day at the bar even though it was closed for the holiday—those local liquor laws—and by God, if she wanted a gimlet, she would have one, made with real limes. 

That’s not asking too much, is it, Frank? A good gimlet at the end of a long day?

She squeezed the limes over a highball glass, added two jiggers of Gordon’s and dropped in a few ice cubes. She stepped out from behind the bar and sat down on the first stool. The overhead lights were turned off, as were the neon beer signs that hung in the front window, with the only light in the shadowed room coming from the two green-shaded electric sconces that flanked the long mirror above the back bar. 

With the tavern closed she had worked a long day of meticulous cleaning, digging and wiping the gaps and cracks, mopping every square inch of the floor and deep into the corners with a mop and countless changes of wash water, with a thoroughness she never could have managed with customer to attend to. But after eight or nine hours of dogged effort she could now relax, savor her drink, and ponder her life or the town or whatever came to mind.

Oh my, Frank, do you remember Bill Flanagan, that one Halloween? Dressed up like Queen Elizabeth, in a blue satin ball gown with a big white sash, and wearing a jeweley crown and carrying that stick—what do they call it? That’s right, a scepter. He tried to talk like a high-class British woman but instead sounded like Benny Hill. Remember how Helen reacted? She laughed at first, but then he kept demanding that everyone there sing “God Save the Queen”,  which he didn’t even know the words to, but when they just hummed along he got mad, kept demanding they sing the words. Oh, was Helen furious. I can still see the look on her face—can’t you, Frank? The fight they must have had when they got home!

Maggie’s thoughts drifted elsewhere in time: to Stan and Ellie Horvath’s wedding reception, held right there at the tavern; to the fathers of the Little League team that Kiernan’s sponsored, lining the bar in celebration after every game, win or lose; to the inevitable gatherings after funerals, with glasses raised in memory of a McNally or a Flynn or a Schmidt.

From the corner of her eye, through the front window some movement caught her attention—a man walking past the courthouse across the street, glancing up at the soldier status before disappearing from view—and roused her to the present. She had been so absorbed in work and her memories that she didn’t realize how little she had eaten all day. A few pickles from the jar next to the cash register, and the single hard-boiled egg she found in the refrigerator from yesterday’s batch. 

She felt the sudden urge to eat, and to be away from the tavern. Memories were strong here, fifty years of memories. And sometimes too strong. She swallowed the last of her cocktail and left the empty glass on the bar—she would take care of it tomorrow—and walked away toward the back room to find her coat.

Four

George had barely reached the opposite side when the car sped past behind him, engine roaring, but with no blaring of the horn or even a yell to indicate the driver had even seen him. Over his shoulder he saw the car—a big, dark sedan, the make unknown to him—drift from side to side, over the center line and then to the right-hand curb, and back. Watching the car and not looking ahead of himself, he caught his toe on the top edge of the curb and sprawled forward, throwing his arms out to protect himself. He hit the sidewalk hard, arms crumbled beneath him, right knee scraping across the cement until he finally came to rest, face-down.

He turned his head and watched the car run three yellow lights and disappear over the drawbridge. He rolled over, slowly sat up, and examined himself. His hands were badly scraped, with throbbing red lines scoring the skin; the right knee of his trousers was torn through, and inside he could feel the fresh wound a a trickle of blood. He noticed that he no longer felt cold, despite the temperature being in the low double digits; the sudden fear and burst of adrenaline warmed him. 

His mind cleared, he instantly realized that although he had cleverly escaped from the home, he had no plan for getting back inside again. The Christmas carol program was probably over by now, with the residents tucked away and the nurses back in their stations. He couldn’t just stroll through the front door and into the elevator to return to his room. Oh, his room—the Old Fitz, the reruns on TV. How he longed to be back there, and not out here on the street, where his fear and adrenaline were subsiding, and the chill returning. The security guard, remembering the twenty dollar bill, would surely let him pass, but George would never evade the head nurse. He needed to think this through, figure out a way, but first he had to get indoors somewhere.

Looking down Chapman Street, he was surprised to see a warm glow coming from a storefront, a block away. The diner, the Marquette. Open on Christmas Eve? George wondered. As the chill deepened further, he felt an intense hunger come over him, and he remembered the meager Christmas Eve dinner he had forced down. He wanted nothing more at that moment than some good, greasy food. 

He would eat heartily until he was stuffed, and warm himself up, and figure out how to get back into his room at St. Luke’s.

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.

Six

The Buick veered from the center line to the curb and back again, down the length of Chapman Street, from the outskirts of the city to the river. It crossed the drawbridge and continued erratically onward, over the bluff and through the wide-lawned neighborhoods of the west side.

Larry Eller barely knew his drinking buddy that night, other than his name and just enough vague details of his life to create enough familiarity between the two to keep them together for three hours, which was at least two hours too long.

Larry had assured himself that he would only stay for one drink. The salesman would just stop by the Christmas party of the industrial company he had sold plastic resins to for the last eighteen years, at a generic suburban steakhouse, just long enough to greet and toast his buyer, and some of the executives responsible for approving his sales. He arrived at 5:30 to find that his buyer, the head of purchasing, had already gone home, and the execs—who seemed to barely recognize his name—were guardedly cordial but were already checking their watches and stifling yawns, clearly intent on leaving.

After an awkward half-hour Larry was ready to leave, too, but then happened to strike up a friendly conversation with one of the company’s own salesmen. Their products couldn’t have been much more different—bulk resins versus engineered automotive components—but they shared a salesman’s innate gift of amiability and the ability to talk to absolutely anyone. Against Larry’s better judgment he accepted the salesman’s offer of a second drink, which turned to a third and a fourth as they chatted at an empty table at the edge of the room like old friends who had known each other for life. When the party ended and the restaurant host shooed the last two lingerers away, the conversation kept on as they moved down the corridor and into the lounge, which they entered after Larry briefly eyed the exit before, carried away in the moment, agreeing to one more drink which ended up being more than one.

Chapman Street was a blur even before the Buick reached the edge of downtown. Behind the wheel, Larry could see little more than the glowing yellow center line and the streetlights to the right, between which he struggled to keep the car centered as it sped onward. At Central he sensed some commotion in the street, some movement just beyond the windshield, which was soon passed by, whatever it was, and he had just enough awareness to notice that the next three stoplights were still yellow as he passed through the intersections, although the last light might, just maybe, have turned to red.

The car clattered across the steel bridge and slowed for a moment at the base of the steep hill until Larry stomped on the gas pedal, only easing off a few blocks after clearing the top of the bluff. In the darker west side neighborhoods where the houses and lawns were bigger but the streetlights only stood at each corner, he found it harder to keep the car going straight, the lateral veering of downtown becoming even more severe, and though only a few minutes from home he fiddled with the radio’s tuning knob, looking for a song he knew. The Stones would be great, though he would settle for Skynyrd or Bad Company. But he found only commercials pitching car dealers and supermarkets, and in his frustration his hand slipped from the knob and banged against the center console. His focus impaired even further by the dull pain, the car careened to the left and scraped the far curb. He yanked the steering wheel back to the right, but much too far, and he saw the looming parked car only at the last second.

He corrected left again and had almost cleared the car when he heard a heavy thud and the crash of glass, though the Buick kept going. Three blocks later he recognized his house—its front lights blazing through the darkness—and braked, turning oh so slowly into the driveway. He stopped the car outside, not confident enough to pull it into the garage. He wobbled out of the car and moved toward the house but then paused, remembering, and circled around to the passenger side. Peering along the fender he saw, with sudden, almost sober clarity, that the sideview mirror had been torn off and the doors gouged with long, deep furrows. He shook his head and turned back toward the house, barely seeing the icicle lights which hung from the eaves and the illuminated Christmas tree inside the front window as he searched his still-spinning mind for any decent excuse.

Seven

Novak had never imagined himself owning the Marquette Diner. It was the family business—his father Charlie opened the place in 1967, a few years before Novak was born—and he worked there as a teenager, nights and weekends, and full-time during the summers while home from college. He had plans for a career, although during his college years those plans were only vague. He only knew that he wanted to be a management trainee at some big corporation in New York or California, getting in on the ground floor, working his way up and someday becoming an executive with a corner office and a lavish expense account.

Charlie Novak never pressured his son to take over the diner, never even asked him to make a commitment to do so sometime in the indefinite future. If Davey wanted a big corporate job, Charlie always said, then let him go for it.

“How’s your mom?” Maggie says, as Novak sets a bowl of mushroom soup on counter in front of her.

“She’s good, thanks,” Novak says. “Still in Fort Lauderdale, probably always will be.” He looks away, out the front window to the empty street under the amber streetlamp glow. “She must be lonely since Dad died—she calls me every day. Never did that before.”

“But she doesn’t want to move back?” 

“No, she’s comfortable there. Really loves the heat. And she has a lot of friends, just not any that she spends all day with, like she did with Dad.”

“Those two were inseparable,” Maggie says. “Even while they were still here.”

“And even more so in Florida, I think. Especially after Dad got sick the last time.”

Davey did get the corporate job he wanted—and became Dave—though not where he wanted, but in Pittsburgh. Still, it was a start, with a multinational conglomerate that gave him plenty of growth potential if he was willing to relocate every few years. And he was willing. But one evening, he returned late from work to his apartment as the phone was ringing with a call from his mother, the call—as Novak realized later—that his father needed to make but would never be able to. 

Charley was a heavy smoker—sometimes two but usually three packs a day—for as long as Dave Novak could remember, and as his coughing and shortness of breath steadily worsened he finally agreed to see a doctor, who returned with a diagnosis of early-stage emphysema, at age forty-six. After eleven years of further deterioration, during which Charlie never stopped smoking and Lorraine Novak had to work ever longer hours to cover for him as he rested at home, the call came to Dave Novak’s apartment.

“Cancer was inevitable, I guess,” Novak continues. “He never stopped smoking. He put off going to the doctor forever, and then when he finally went it turned out to be emphysema. For years after that the doctor told him to quit smoking, again and again, but he never did.”

Within days after the call Dave managed to arrange a twelve-month leave of absence—the company clearly valued him highly, and wanted him back—and returned home to take over the diner, relieve his mother and give his father the opportunity to recuperate. From his teenaged years and college summers he knew everything there was to know about running the diner, and his transition would be effortless. He would give it a year, his dad would recover, and Dave would get on with his life, in Pittsburgh and wherever else the company needed him.

Eight

The fight seemed to almost sober him. Almost, for he was still very drunk, though somehow more coherent and functional than he was when he first pulled into the driveway. After a few minutes he could even focus his eyes.

They fought in the kitchen, as far as possible from the living room, where their kids—ages six and four—were sitting on the floor in front of the TV, watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Daddy will come see you in a few minutes, Michelle said to them, but he and I need to talk first. Even through his still-blurred eyes, he could see that she didn’t want the kids to see him, in his condition.

Michelle had been fine with taking the kids to the early family service at Good Shepherd on her own. She had been fine with him not going with them; she knew he wasn’t a believer and never would be, and for him to be in church yawning through the service would have almost been mockery. Even the kids, despite being so young, seemed to sense that church meant nothing to him. And he never went to church the rest of the year anyway, so one more day of not being there wouldn’t make much difference. She didn’t even mind him going to a client’s Christmas party instead, even though she knew he’d be drinking and might have one or two too many.

But what she did mind was him not coming home at seven like he had promised, and missing the special dinner she had spent all day preparing, and finally showing up two hours late and smelling like a distillery.

Larry was apologetic, even repentant, and began to speak until she raised her hand to silence him. This is the holiest night of the year, she said, and even if you don’t believe, it still has to be the most special night. If for no other reason than to see the happy faces of your kids when they come home, where you’ve been waiting for them, ready to celebrate. Her voice never rose above a low growl, a skill learned from too many years of needing to express her anger without the kids overhearing. 

After his stifled attempt to apologize, he took the rest in silence, making it seem less like a fight and more like an onslaught. He knew it was best to keep silent, for he had no defense. He knew he should have only stayed for one drink at the party, said brief goodbyes to the important people, and gotten home before Michelle and the kids were back from church. 

Suddenly her torrent of words ceased, and she stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the back window as Larry watched her from across the room. To Larry she looked just as beautiful as the first time he ever saw her, and he realized at that moment how lucky he was to have her, and how lost he would be without her. He took a step toward her but, seeing him out of the corner of her eye, she said No, in a sharp voice which stopped him cold. Her voice lowered again, but was no less emphatic. I don’t want to see you right now. I don’t want you in this house.

Nine

Officer Reggie Pearson has been driving around downtown since 3:00 in the afternoon, along the same twenty streets, past the same buildings, past the same scattered parked cars. Every other cop in the precinct is home with their families, but as a rookie Officer Pearson drew the short straw—was given the short straw, as she thinks of it—and had to work on the holiday, even though downtown is nearly deserted. For a while now she has sensed, without any hard evidence, that being the only woman officer in the precinct held her even deeper down in the hierarchy. Still, she knows she had to start somewhere. Her dad and older brothers are cops, back in the town where she grew up. The force is the family business. There were no openings on the force back home, though, which is what brought her here.

Though she understands and accepts the hierarchy—but only the rookie part, and not the woman part—and the requirement to work on Christmas Eve, she wishes she had something to do other than drive around in circles. She even finds herself longing to ticket someone, just to relieve her boredom. 

At 8:45, almost six hours into her endless shift, she is driving down Osborn for the twentieth time when she glances in the rearview mirror and sees, two blocks behind, a dark Buick sedan rush through the intersection at Chapman. Without a radar reading she can’t tell if the car is speeding—though she suspects it is, maybe five or ten over the limit—and the stoplight on Osborn was still red when the car cleared the intersection, so at most the car ran a yellow. But maybe it’s driving erratically, she thinks, and she might still get something on the driver.

She accelerates to forty, turns right on Jessup and again on Jordan Street, but she doesn’t reach Chapman until after the car has already crossed the bridge, and she can only see its taillights as they disappear over the top of the hill. The west side is a different precinct, and without a clear violation, by regulation she isn’t allowed to pursue him. Pursue the car, she corrects herself, though she is convinced that the driver is a man.

She returns to her regular route—Osborn, Jessup, Central, Chapman and every side street—but after four more circuits she has grown weary and needs a break. In the warm months, April to October, for a break she would park the car and walk, like an old-time cop, but not in cold like this. Even inside the squad car, with the engine having run for hours, she still feels chilly. She is allowed regular breaks, but yet another regulation states that breaks can only be taken within the precinct, on the rationale that on-duty officers must be present at all times if needed. 

On any other night this wouldn’t be a problem, as there are many places she could go—a few of them her regular spots—but tonight, her first Christmas Eve on the force, her hours of driving tell her that there is only one place. She feels a sudden, almost overwhelming urge a scorching hot cup of coffee, and someone to talk to, and steers the car onto Chapman and toward the Marquette Diner.

Ten

He devours the double cheeseburger, lustily enjoying every bite, and contemplates having another. But first he has a taste for something else.

“Hey, Dave,” he calls out, “you got anything stronger than coffee back there?”

“What, isn’t my coffee strong enough for you?”

“Plenty strong,” George says, thinking of the bottle in his room. His longing to get back there isn’t quite as urgent now that he’s comfortable, with a full belly, and he still hasn’t figured out how to get into the home and past the nurses. “But I need something a little more…you know.”

“No liquor license, George,” Novak says, turning back toward the grill. “This isn’t a bar. If you want that, go to Maggie’s place.”

“Not open tonight, remember? And I know you don’t have a license, but I thought you still might have a bottle around.”

George immediately feels unease, worried that he might have been insensitive. He vaguely remembers hearing something about Novak having had a problem, getting sober, being in recovery. Novak didn’t talk much about it, but he might have let it slip during some languid afternoon when George was the only customer in the diner, and Novak had tired of chatting with his employees—usually Vickie the waitress and Julio the busboy—and sat down across from George. Or maybe he heard it from someone else.

When George told Maggie Kiernan he hadn’t been to her bar, but drank elsewhere, he meant to give the impression that he drank at other bars, that he was a man about town. He didn’t want it known that he only drank in his room from a stashed bottle, with only a blaring TV for company. There was already enough stigma involved with men who drank alone. He hadn’t been to a bar since he moved—was moved—downtown to St. Luke’s, and Wojtak’s, the corner bar in his old neighborhood on the north side, was too far from any of the bus routes.

He missed his old house, his neighbors, the old men at Wojtak’s who were his drinking buddies. Smitty, Fred, Vince. 

Debbie took all of that away from him, plus his car, when she forced him to move to St. Luke’s. He hadn’t at all noticed his mind slipping, or at least nothing as bad as what she claimed. He only got lost while driving one time, and forgot a kettle on the stove until the water boiled away only once, or maybe twice. He could still keep up the house, inside and out. Cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, raking leaves in the fall until the yard was bare. 

“No bottle, George,” Novak says.

George can see pain in Novak’s eyes, maybe as he remembered his darker times.

“You should go to Maggie’s, maybe tomorrow.”

“Debbie’s hosting Christmas,” George says. “I’m on my own tonight because I didn’t want to go to Mass.” He pauses. “Christmas Day is usually nice at her place.”

“Well, maybe the day after, then,” Maddie Kiernan says, from her stool at the counter.

Eleven

She kept her head down, eyes to the floor, as she walked toward the back room. Looking up, she would have seen things around the bar, details that all, in one way or another, reminded her of Frank.

The Miller High Life neon sign that lit up only as often as not, and whenever it failed Frank would curse and immediately call the distributor to complain and demand a replacement which never came. The round table that was mismatched from the others, having been bought by Frank at an estate auction on a Saturday morning to replace the table that had been broken the night before during the only bar brawl in the history of Kiernan’s. The ceiling light with the cracked glass shade, the framed poster of Dick Butkus, the back wall painted a depressing maroon, and so much else that had some association with Frank, gone now for three years.

Her memories had become overpowering, and she suddenly wanted to be gone from the bar, partly to at last eat dinner after all but skipping lunch—pickles and a hardboiled egg were barely a meal—but, more than anything else, to be away. Three years had yet to give her any distance, any acceptance or peace.

She wanted to be away. She would be back soon enough, before noon on Christmas Day, when Kiernan’s would reopen for a handful of men who had already had enough for their families. They would say or do nothing of consequence, but instead stare at the TV—usually, in what was forever a mystery to her, the New York Knicks—complain about politicians, tell the same dirty jokes for the twentieth or thirtieth time. 

She had almost reached the back room before she stopped, the empty glass she left behind now bothering her, though she would have plenty of time to wash it in the morning. She turned and walked back across the room, grabbed the glass as she passed and slipped behind the bar. She washed, rinsed and dried the glass, then returned it to the back bar and the neat formation of identical glasses that rested there. 

Though she tried to keep her head down, not looking, from the corner of her eye she saw the taped-up postcards and photographs that fringed the edge of the mirror. Postcards mailed by regulars from California and Florida, reading Wish you were here, oh who am I kidding, I came here because you’re not here. She could laugh off the postcards but could only view the photographs with bittersweet feelings. The photos were mostly of family, sisters and brothers of hers but also some of Frank’s, and nieces and nephews—school portraits, blurry snapshots of football games and crowded birthday parties. Photos of nieces and nephews, but no photos of the sons and daughters that Maggie and Frank never had.

She rushed from the room, grabbed her coat from the hook next to the alley door, and exited, locking up behind herself. The cold air immediately revived her, jarring her back from the past. Far too cold for a walk to the diner—as much as she would have otherwise enjoyed the exercise—she instead stepped down from the concrete stoop and toward the dingy white Ford Taurus that she hoped, prayed, would start.

Twelve

The security desk stood just inside the main entrance of the courthouse, from which the guard could clearly see the plaza and street outside, and the long corridor that bisected the building all the way to the back exit. Whatever couldn’t be seen in either of the two directions was clearly visible on the bank of ten video monitors tucked between the countertop and desk. Each monitor cycled five images, making a total of fifty vantage points throughout the building.

Jim Brock glanced up from his phone to the monitors, but only for twenty or thirty seconds—not long enough to see every view. Regulations stated that cellphones were only to be used while making the rounds, to notify the sheriff’s office if he came across anything amiss, but at the desk at night, with little to be seen on the monitors or outside the front entrance or down the main corridor, his attention was centered on his phone, where the Hawks were tied with the Islanders, midway through the third period. Sharp and Hossa had scored beautiful goals early on, but Crawford gave up a soft goal in the third, followed by a breakaway goal he had no chance of saving. The Islanders were on the power play, and Jim squinted tensely at the small screen, willing the Hawks to kill the penalty.

During a break in play he looked up, and on the nearest monitor he watched the clock change from 8:29 to 8:30. Time for his rounds again. He rose from the chair, which made a metallic squeak as it turned. He pocketed his phone and languidly moved down the corridor. He stopped at each courtroom, opened the door and flipped the light switch, scanning the room before turning off the light again. At each courtroom it was the same: the light on for a few seconds, the sight of an empty room, then the light off. The county court held no evening sessions, and other than the cleaning crew that passed through early, the overnight guard was alone in the building. 

On the upper floors Jim tested the door knob of each judge’s chamber and other offices, every one of which was locked each time he came through. His shift started at six, and he had seen almost nothing the entire evening until, as he returned to the desk, an old man shuffled past outside along the sidewalk, looking chilled in his thin sweater—Who goes out without a coat on a freezing night like this?—and, a few minutes later, the inside lights of the bar across the street suddenly going dark. Nothing of consequence.

Settling back into the chair, he turned on his phone only to learn that the Hawks had somehow lost, 3-2. He checked his text messages but found nothing of interest, glanced again at the monitors and felt, deep in his gut, the early pangs of hunger. He knew not to eat too soon, or else he’d be hungry again at two or three a.m., when only the meager pickings of the vending machines were available. Now—not yet nine—there had to still be a restaurant open, though his choices were probably limited with the holiday.

Online he found a phone number of one nearby possibility, and dialed.

Thirteen

Novak came home but never left, the one-year leave of absence stretching to two years and then three as his father worsened, increasingly confined to the house and his oxygen tank. By the end of the third year Charlie no longer ever left the house—Lorraine somehow persuaded his doctor to make house calls—and Novak had to run the diner entirely on his own. Lorraine spent less and less time working at the diner, and more time at home tending to Charlie, who rarely left his old recliner in the family room. His afternoons were spent dozing, followed by dinner in front of the TV and then another nap, and on some nights he was sleeping so soundly when Lorraine left the couch to go to bed that she would tuck an extra blanket under his chin and leave him to spend the night in the chair.

As the fourth year neared its end, on the doctor’s advice Charlie and Lorraine moved permanently to Pompano Beach, where they had enjoyed spending their winters while there was still hope for Charlie’s recovery. Florida’s warmth seemed to revive him, and he survived for an unexpected sixteen more years before he finally passed away, ten months earlier. Lorraine had since come home a few times, but on each visit Novak felt her restlessness, and realized the city was no longer home for her.

Novak stands before the grill, just after returning from serving another cheeseburger to George—a single this time—and another bag of chips, which the old man tore into and had halfway finished before he took his first bite of the burger. Over his shoulder Novak sees George shaking salt—excessively, Novak thinks—on his burger. They must limit the salt at St. Luke’s. Might not even have shakers on the table.

He doesn’t mind working alone tonight, or being open at all. With so few customers he certainly isn’t open for the money, but he’s glad to be here with George and Maggie, who clearly needed someplace to be. He gave Vickie and Julio the night off—she’s with her big family at their old house on the east side, and he’s probably off pounding Tecates at some bar in some nearby town that has more generous liquor laws. They would both work on Christmas Day, and Novak would be there from morning prep—no breakfast service, which would have had even fewer customers than tonight—until a few minutes after he opened the place at noon, when he would turn over the grill to Mick, his part-time cook who only worked when Novak needed a fill-in.

He sees that Maggie is only halfway through her onion soup when he turns back to her sandwich, a grilled cheese that sizzles, its hidden underside turning as golden brown as the top. She seemed almost embarrassed when she ordered it.

“That’s okay, isn’t it?” she said. “It just sounds good, all hot and gooey and terrible for my health.”

“It’s perfectly okay.”

“Really? Not too much of a kid thing?”

“We’re all still kids, one way or another,” Novak said. He now walks down the narrow passage, her plate in hand. As he sets it down she says, “Thank you,” and smiles shyly, and he then sees a thoughtful look come to her face.

“Kids, hmmm,” she says. “So, what are your kids doing tonight?”

Novak notices that she didn’t ask what his family was doing tonight—though he has kids, he no longer really has a family—and didn’t ask about Diane at all.

“Christine and Molly are with my ex, at her sister’s house in Iowa, the whole week.”

Novak feigns being preoccupied with something in the kitchen, which allows him to say nothing. 

He only saw the girls for a few minutes two days earlier when they stopped by the diner—Diane waited for them outside, still in the car—and he gave them their presents. He had no idea what a 12-year-old and 10-year-old might want for Christmas, and Diane was icy on the phone and had no suggestions for him, so he took a chance with some ideas that Vickie was kind enough to share. 

“No, barely,” he finally says.

“Well, at least you have that much,” Maggie says. “That’s something.”

Novak remembers that Maggie has no children of her own, and realizes how fortunate he is, with what he has, even though it’s far less than he wants.

Fourteen

The room has gone silent. Maggie and George are finishing their meals, and Novak, with nothing to do for another five minutes until he begins filling the phone order, is busying himself around the kitchen, or puttering as Lorraine Novak used to say. 

George’s stomach is full and though he needs no more to eat he takes the second-to-last bite of his cheeseburger, and feels a deliciously greasy drip run down his chin that he quickly licks away. He pops the last bit into his mouth, savoring the delectable taste he won’t enjoy again for a while, at the home. 

He looks toward the back where Novak works, then his eyes fall over the curved counter—Novak once said that from above the counter area looks like a fish, narrow at the back, curving slightly outward and then back to a point at the front of the room. Below the salmon-pink countertop the sides are aqua—probably bright once, but now faded from the sun, especially closest to the front windows—and scuffed black near the floor from decades of being kicked and tapped by soles of customers’ shoes. The place must have been stylish in its day, George thinks, though he doesn’t remember it from back then. Other than to the courthouse and city hall, to pay a traffic ticket or the water bill, he rarely came downtown until he moved to St. Luke’s, his north side neighborhood had everything he needed—Wojtak’s, Freeney’s Grocery, Burt’s Bakery. The last thing that downtown could have offered him—the department stores—had moved out thirty years earlier, to the new mall on the outskirts of town. 

The Marquette had clearly seen better days. Novak can’t be blamed, Frank thinks. The place doesn’t do big business, and Novak is doing as much as he can, with upkeep if not renovations. George had heard Novak complain about the balky refrigerator, which required a repairman and an expensive service call every few months, the accumulated cost of which apparently never being quite enough to justify buying a brand new unit. And though the open grill kept the dining area warm enough in winter, during the dog days of summer the air-conditioning could never quite keep up, and Novak had to haul fans out of storage and position them around the room to generate some air flow.

George looks down at his plate, where all traces of the cheeseburgers are long gone, and all that remains are a few potato chip flakes. He licks his fingertips, dabs up the flakes and brings them to his tongue, enjoying the salty crunch as he swallows. Novak begins to cook again, presumably for the phone order. 

“Maggie, I’m gonna need a favor,” Novak says. “I need you to watch the place while I run this over to the courthouse.”

“I’ll watch the place,” George says, suddenly feeling the need to be needed. 

“Thanks, George, but no. Maggie owns a bar, she’ll know what to do if anything comes up while I’m gone. Besides, I don’t want you alone here.” He laughs. “You might find my bottle.”

George laughs as well, relieved that his earlier inquiry hadn’t been taken the wrong way. If Novak did have a drinking problem in the past, he was jesting about it now, so everything was probably okay between them.

“Won’t be more than a few minutes, Maggie.”

“Fine with me, Dave, whatever you need. The least I can do.”

Novak nods and turns back to the grill. The room is silent again for a few moments—Maggie stares again into her coffee, her meal finished—when the front door swings open, and in steps a police officer. George sees the uniform first, and tenses, and not even the following realization that the officer is a young woman can lessen his unease.

Fifteen

Within just a few moments, even before the front door opened, Maggie already regretted her promise. Though she promised to look after the diner while Novak was out, she felt a sudden urge to be home, under an afghan on the couch, with the Christmas tree lit up and holiday records on the console stereo, like she and Frank used to do. 

Being without kids, they never went a year without being invited by friends to join them for Christmas Eve dinner. They would go to early Mass—even in their younger years, Midnight Mass was too late for them—and join their friends, but would always leave by ten to have a few hours of the night to themselves. They would come home, drink hot chocolate—Frank often slipped in a dash of Bushmill’s—and listen to Perry Como and Andy Williams. Now it is nearly ten and she’s committed to being here for at least another half hour. 

“Good evening, officer,” Novak says, from back by the grill. “Merry Christmas.”

He sets down the spatula and walks the narrow passage, extending his hand.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” he adds. “Dave Novak.”

“Officer Reggie Pearson,” she says.

Novak smiles. “Reggie? Were your folks Yankees fans way back when?”

“No,” she says, smiling in return. “Short for Regina.”

Maggie recognizes what is happening. She has done it many times at Kiernan’s, ingratiating herself to the police. They can be loyal, generous customers—diner or bar, on-duty or after hours—if you’re in good with them, but if not they can become your worst enemy, picking out health code violations to pass along to the city inspector, or hassling 22-year-olds with claims of being underage. Even though this officer is young, and probably doesn’t know yet how to throw her weight around, it’s still best to get on her good side early before she decides whether she’s friend or foe. 

The officer sits down, two stools away from Maggie on George’s side of the room. 

“What can I get for you? Anything you want.”

“Just coffee,” the officer says.

“Really, that all?”

She nods. “I’m on my break. Gotta get back to it, soon.”

Novak walks to the back, grabs the coffee pot and returns. He reaches below the counter for a mug, fills it and sets it in front of her. 

“Another warmer, Maggie?” Novak says, gesturing toward her with the pot.

“No thanks. No more, or I might float away. And all the caffeine I already had will probably keep me awake half the night.”

She doesn’t want to extend her stay with another cup, and hopes that maybe Novak will get the hint that she wants to leave, and that he should find someone else to watch the diner, even if his only other choice is George. But he clearly isn’t getting the hint, with his focus all on the officer.

Maggie looks on in tired silence as the two chat. The officer is new, only six months out of the academy, from two states away, her father and brothers are cops back home. Novak shares a few things about himself, how long he’s been running the dinner, how his dad first opened the place. 

“Slow night, I’ll bet,” Novak says.

“Really slow. There’s nobody around downtown to arrest, probable cause...or otherwise.”

They all laugh, even Maggie in her exhaustion, though in the corner George’s laughter seems subdued, even forced. Maggie looks again at the officer, as an idea forms in her mind. Maybe she would.

“Yeah, really slow,” the officer says. “And the later it gets, it’ll be even slower.”

“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you can,” Novak says. “But only until midnight, when we close. Then you’ll have to get back to work, or whenever.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be gone long before then. No two-hour break for me. Coffee, then back out.”

Novak nods and returns to the kitchen, walking past the grill to the refrigerator, from which he removes the aluminum pan of burgers.

Sixteen

Officer Pearson sips her coffee and checks her watch, seeing that the time is 9:50. Her coffee feels—if not tastes—good. Nothing against the diner, just that she still hasn’t quite acquired a taste for coffee. She ordered it more than anything for its heat. The fifty-foot walk from the squad car, which she had to park behind an old Ford Taurus, was bitterly cold, and she rushed toward the lit-up storefront as she regretted leaving her gloves on the dashboard. She also knows the temptation to take too long a break—the sergeant had already called her out twice—and wants to keep this one short and simple. A meal might make her linger, and she can’t afford another reprimand. As a rookie, she is still in a probationary period, and can be let go at any time, for cause. Keep it short.

She looks around the room. It’s a decent place, she thinks, maybe a little bit worn down but good enough. And she realizes that it reminds her of the diner back home, where her father and brothers meet for breakfast every Saturday morning, her father always holding court and her brothers reverently laughing along. She could get comfortable here, with the memories of her hometown diner and these people, who seem nice enough, but she has to be careful. Reprimand.

She gulps down two more swallows of her coffee, which has cooled but remains just as bitter. 

“Maggie, I’m just about ready here,” the owner—Dave something?—alls from the grill, where she sees him wrap a burger in aluminum foil, which he drops into a brown paper sack, followed by a dill pickle also wrapped in foil, and a bag of chips. He seems to be filling a takeout order, even though there’s nobody in the diner waiting for one. “You’ll be okay watching the place?”

The woman named Maggie hesitates, and Reggie sees her face turn sad. She is clearly unhappy with whatever the owner said about watching. 

“You’re okay with it, right?”

“Well, Dave, actually…” 

“What?”

“I’m really tired, and I have to open up in the morning, so I should probably be getting home.”

“Sure, Maggie,” the owner says, looking lost and uncertain, taking an almost pained glance at the man in the corner table. “Whatever you want. George, would you mind…”

“Is there a problem?” Reggie says. 

“This order has to get to the courthouse. Usually deliveries are no problem, but I’m the only one working here tonight, and Maggie needs to get home, so she can’t watch the place while I’m gone.”

“I’d be happy—” the man in the corner begins.

“George, I don’t think—”

“I can drop it off,” Reggie says, surprising even herself. She has to leave anyway, she explains, and what she doesn’t explain is her sudden resentment over having to leave, back to patrol where she has nothing to do, and especially having to work on Christmas Eve while everyone else in the precinct—other than the dispatcher—has the night off. She has no family here to spend the evening with, but she could have gone to church, then home to watch A Christmas Story with a few glasses of wine, and enjoyed herself. 

Delivering a burger to the courthouse during her shift would be only a mild rebellion, the slightest assertion of her independence, but at this moment the impulse strongly appeals to her. 

“Really?” the owner says. “You wouldn’t mind?”

“Serve and protect, right?” Reggie says, with a broad smile. “Well, this is definitely serving.”

Seventeen

Jim Brock has worked at the courthouse for two years, for American Eagle Security. This is his first job with the company, and also his first in government. Previously he worked in warehouses—night shift, like this job—for three other security firms. He came to American Eagle looking for something more than warehouse work. Courthouse guards seemed more important, or at least the ones on day shift who manned the metal detectors inside the front entrance. Maybe, he thought before he signed on with the company, he could get the day shift, and then make himself known around the courthouse, impress the right people and someday, somehow, become a bailiff. 

But instead he was put on the night shift, all alone, just like he was back at the warehouses. You can’t impress anybody on night shift, because nobody else is around. You could be the best night guard in the world and nobody would know. The only way you can ever get noticed is if something goes wrong—some drunk that you didn’t pay enough attention to shatters the front window, or a homeless guy is found sleeping in the revolving door by the first judge who arrives in the morning. Night shift is all downside, no upside. And now he has already been here two years—recently he has begun to worry that he’ll never move up, and he’ll have to find another company and another job.

He glances past the metal detector and through the revolving door at the silent street, and tries to remember the last time that a car drove by. Everybody must have had nowhere else to drive, and were back where they belonged. Home, with family, for most of them, he guesses. This is the third straight Christmas Eve he has had to work. The last time he was home with Mary and the kids, he lucked out when another guard needed the overtime, and took Jim’s shift. It was the old man Bill, Jim remembers, who must not have had any family around. Unlike Jim himself, with a wife, three kids and another on the way, all before age thirty. Four and soon five mouths to feed. He thinks again about that next job, which now seems even more likely.

With the Hawks having lost and the postgame show ended, he pulls up the county website on his phone, wondering what qualifications they require for a jail guard, if there’s any way they would ever consider a guy with six years of experience, but none in corrections. He finds a job listing, and is engrossed, and increasingly subdued, by the long list of requirements that he barely hears the knocking.

He looks around, trying to pinpoint the sound, and finally sees a silhouette just beyond the front window who knocks louder this time and holds something over their head, which he recognizes as a paper bag. From the silhouette’s outline he senses that it’s a woman, and as she turns he catches a glinted reflection from the streetlight behind her, on what is, unmistakably, a badge.

Eighteen

Larry is again behind the wheel but has no idea where or how long he’s been driving. He is no longer drunk, or at least not as drunk as when he first came home. The fight with Michelle—the one-sided onslaught—sobered him, as did the gripping blast of cold air that hit him as he stepped outside. Though he would probably fail a sobriety test, he is alert, driving straight and steady, being neither a threat to others or a candidate for being pulled over by the police. But he seems to drive only on pure instinct, his consciousness all internal, his attention drawn entirely inward. 

As the Buick rolls through the west side streets, he obsesses over his life, the life that brought him here, the life he has now. The choices he has made and the problems they have caused. At some point he turned off the radio—he never heard that Stones song he had wanted—and remains in complete silence. 

For however long he’s been driving he hasn’t passed another car. This might have seemed logical—late on Christmas Eve, but still two hours before Midnight Mass—had he been at all aware of his surroundings, which he isn’t. But the absence of other cars was so pronounced, even to his subconscious mind, that as he paused at a four-way stop to let another car take its turn before him, he suddenly realizes that, yes, it’s another car. Everything about the car—the angle of the windshield, the posture of the driver leaning into the wheel, the salt stains on the fender, the shape of the taillights—jumps out at him in vivid detail. He is fully awake, his mind and vision clear.

He finds himself alone and longs for company, but recalls just enough about his evening to know that he can’t go home. And that tonight there are few places he can go. He thinks that his best opportunity might be downtown. He looks up at the street sign and is shocked to realize how far he must have driven. He turns the car to the east, and drives on. 

The downtown streets are barren, every building dark and parked cars only scattered here and there. At each intersection he cranes his neck to peer down the side street in both directions, but sees nothing. He tries to remember what he saw during his first drive through, coming back from the Christmas party, but comes up with nothing until finally there is the faint memory of a bright storefront beaming into the night.

He turns from Jessup onto Central, then drives the three blocks north to Chapman where he pauses for a red light. On the green he turns, looks ahead and sees the lit-up diner, and is relieved only for an instant before he then sees a squad car at the curb. He freezes, braking the car down to a slow roll as he feels panic well up from deep inside him, and fear of how high his blood-alcohol level might still be. But he sees the squad car’s brake lights briefly flick on, then off as it angles into the left lane and drives away. 

He feels his throbbing heart begin to slow, and slowly accelerates the car until he finally pulls into a parking space on the opposite side of the street.

Nineteen

He can’t quite comprehend what he’s seeing. He’s only been on the job for four hours, so he isn’t tired enough to be hallucinating, but outside the front window there appears to be a police officer holding what looks like a bag of food, and gesturing toward him as if the bag is his. Yes, he ordered food from that diner, and somebody had to deliver it, but a cop?

It almost seems like a setup from some old movie, where two gangsters put on cop uniforms and knock on somebody’s door, and the unwary victim just unlocks the door and lets them in—except that this is a courthouse and there’s nothing here to steal.

He steps out from behind the desk and walks cautiously forward. The uniform looks real, which relieves him, and when he gets near the window the woman again raises the bag, and through the glass he can just make out her voice.

“For you. Two burgers and chips.”

He stares in silence.

“From Marquette Diner?”

He nods and reaches for the keyring attached to his belt, unlocks the handicap-accessible door and opens it partway. 

“I’m Officer Pearson,” she says. “Reggie. I volunteered to bring over your food. The owner’s the only one working there tonight.”

“Really?” Jim Brock says. “I mean, thanks and everything, but delivering food, on the job? Can’t you get in trouble for this?”

She smiles. “Maybe, but I could get away with it. Can we step inside? Cold out here.”

“Yeah, of course. Jim Brock, by the way.” He steps aside, closes the door behind her, and locks it. He gestures toward the security desk, to show his welcome.

“I have a good excuse,” she continues, standing in front of the desk, her hands resting on the front edge, as he returns to his chair. “I’m on patrol, and downtown is my beat—all of it, including the courthouse. I had to come here anyway, to check out the plaza and those weird corners that you can’t see from the street.”

He knows those corners, and has seen homeless people sleeping there during the warmer months.

“I’m here to check the outside, you’re here to check the inside, so it’s inevitable that our beats would intersect.”

He smiles, admiring her assuredness, her confidence. “At least I get to be in a warm building. Cold night out there to be on patrol. And Christmas Eve, no less.”

“Yeah, I’m a newbie, the low man—woman—on the totem pole. Everybody else pulled rank on me tonight, so I had to work. It’s okay, I don’t mind. Just how it is with the police. My dad and my brothers—they’re all cops, too—went through the exact same thing.”

He can see her being from a police family. The confidence, assertiveness, even her upright posture which probably first came from her childhood, and only later from standing at attention at the academy.

“I remember how that was,” he says, and instinctively opens the bag, lured by the delicious smell from within. “Do you mind if I...” He nods toward the bag. “I’m starving. Skipped lunch today.”

“No, please, go right ahead.”

“So, yeah, I remember,” he continues, his voice muffled by his first large bite of burger. “Guys with seniority always had holidays off, and I had to work.” But he falls silent as he realizes his implication. Five years into his security career and he’s still working nights. He’s no longer a newbie, paying his dues, but instead is well on his way to being a night shift lifer. Probably never a bailiff or a jail guard. 

“That’s how it is with me,” she says. “But I don’t mind. I have to start somewhere, and work my way up.”

He is suddenly saddened by her optimism, wondering what if she never works her way up, what if she ends up always working nights and holidays? His sadness comes from the realization that he was just like her once, before things went bad—or actually, not bad, just nowhere. He finishes the first burger and starts on the second as she tells of her family’s police careers and how they all moved up, to sergeant and lieutenant, and one brother who even made detective. Their stories, told by her with such eagerness and warmth, slowly encourages him, and by the end of the second burger he has come to believe she’ll do well.

And who knows, maybe he’ll do well, too. Maybe he’ll apply for that guard job at the county jail, just for the hell of it. The worst that can happen is that they say no. And it also occurs to him that it would be smart for him to stay in touch with this officer. If she moves up someday, she’ll probably get in good with powerful people, and maybe that could open doors, or even just a single door, for him.

“But wait a minute,” he says. “How do I pay for this? I thought the owner would be the one delivering, and I’d just pay him.”

“All taken care of,” she says. When he gives her a questioning look, she adds, “On me.”

Embarrassed, he quickly pulls a ten-dollar bill from his pocket and tries to hand it to her across the counter, but she refuses.

“Just a favor. You can do me a favor back, sometime.”

He is even more embarrassed, almost ashamed, by her generosity. Just when he was thinking that she might open doors for his career in the future, here she is, not only delivering his dinner but also paying for it, with him offering nothing in return. 

“I should really get back to work,” she says.

“But I thought this was work,” he says. “Our work just happening to intersect here at the courthouse.”

“Yeah, right. I forgot. Intersecting beats.”

He unlocks the door and pushes it open for her. “Thanks for dinner. I owe you one.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Well, then, Merry Christmas, officer.”

“Reggie.”

“Okay, Merry Christmas, Reggie.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Dave, and good night,” she says, waving as she turns away.

As he locks the door he sees her recede across the empty plaza, toward the squad car. He returns to the security desk, to work.

Twenty

As the young cop leaves, Maggie is relieved. Not that she wouldn’t have helped, even gladly; she could have easily stayed at the diner for another twenty minutes while Dave Novak was away. It was the sort of thing that local business owners do for each other—little gestures when someone else needs help, small moments when they look out for each other. They had to help and look, had no choice if they are to have any chance of keeping their downtown business district alive. Even if the owners rarely speak to each other, or cooperate to get better police protection or more reliable trash collection, they care far more about each other than the department stores at the mall or the big boxes on West Jessup ever would.

She would have helped Dave Novak, but ended up not having to. As the squad car pulls out from behind her Taurus and into the street, she turns back toward the grill, where Novak is again cleaning. She had known his parents, before Charlie Novak faded away and Lorraine moved to Florida, not as friends but colleagues, and admired them as good people. Dave is good people too, she thinks. She senses a loneliness about him, without his parents, divorced from his wife and seemingly separated from his daughters, even at Christmas. 

She pulls her coat from the back of her stool, wraps it around her shoulders and slips her arms into the sleeves. Her motion catches Novak’s attention, and he smiles as he walks toward her.

“Heading out, Maggie?”

She nods. “It’s been a long day. But, I’m sorry. I would have been glad to watch the place.”

“I understand. You need to be home.”

Yes, she thinks, that’s where she needs to be. By the time she gets home there will still be an hour left of Christmas Eve. Plenty of time for hot chocolate and a warm afghan, and Perry Como and Andy Williams. She hopes, but can’t quite remember, if she taped “It’s A Wonderful Life” last year, as she meant to. George Bailey, and Mary and Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter and Clarence the Angel would enthrall her for a few hours, as they did while Frank was still alive, and whether she dozes off before the finale or stays awake straight through, either will be just as satisfying as the other. 

“Yes, home,” she finally says, wondering how long she has been silent.

“Well, enjoy the rest of your evening, and your morning.”

“Until I go back to work,” she says, and smiles as she realizes how much the work means to her. 

“I’m working too, remember. But I’ll be done not long after noon. I’m only coming in to open, but I’ll knock off not long after that. Vickie and Mick and Julio will be fine here without me. So after noon I’ll be free, and I’m coming to your place right after that for a drink. Or two.”

“That sounds great, Dave. Looking forward to it. But, if you don’t mind, can you bring along a big bag of cheeseburgers?”

“No grilled cheese?”

“Not this time.”

“Okay, cheeseburgers it is.”

“Merry Christmas, Dave,” she says as she pulls on her gloves.

“Merry Christmas. See you tomorrow.”

She turns and pushes open the front door, feels the rush of cold which invigorates her even as she longs to escape from it, and hurries away toward the warmth of her waiting house.

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.

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.

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.

Twenty Four

Novak locks the front door and checks his watch—a few minutes until midnight—then moves back to the doorway of the storeroom, where he flips off the light switch. The dining area falls dark, as does the kitchen, but from the weak light of the storeroom he can see that he left his coffee cup on the counter where he stood talking to the salesman. Without turning the overhead lights back on, he returns to the front, through the narrow passage between the counters. The cup is still slightly warm, and never one to waste anything, Novak raises the cup to his lips and drinks down the last of the coffee.

He stands, looking across the curve of the counter, the stools, the square tables along the walls. Four customers this evening, Christmas Eve, including two who only had coffee. Or five customers, including the guard at the courthouse. He couldn’t have taken in much more than thirty dollars. He does the math in his head, comes up with the exact total. Certainly not worth it, if money is all that matters. But being open matters more to him than that. These people needed someplace to be—not work and not home—and he is touched, moved, that they chose to spend some of their Christmas Eve with him. They would all move on to someplace else, with family and friends, or alone, but for a while the Marquette Diner was where they wanted to be.

Christmas Day will be quiet for Novak. An old movie in the morning—George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol, definitely—and then to the diner to open up, and in the afternoon he’ll stop in at Kiernan’s to see Maggie, to drink a tonic and lime, talk about current news and remember Christmases of past years. A call to the girls later, after he gets back to his apartment, when he hopes to hear that they’re having a good time, and maybe even that they can’t wait to see him again when they get back home.

At the wash sink he scrubs the coffee cup with a soapy sponge, sets the cup in the drying rack and moves to the back door, where he switches off the storeroom light. The door closes solidly behind him as he steps into the cold night air.

Christmas will be a quiet day, but for Novak it will be enough, and good.

© 2019 Peter Anderson