All Is Bright (1)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

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.