All Is Bright (7)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

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.