CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

Preface

I hope, dear reader, that you, along with our protagonist, will find the spirit in this short story of the season with hardly a spirit in sight.

I. Introduction

Stephanie was in a foul mood, which was her usual mood, when she collided with the stranger. Literally. She had come barreling toward the mall’s exit, arms loaded with gifts, the office having closed early this Christmas Eve, when the sight of a dress in a store window diverted her attention for just a second. Just when her eyes were averted, she struck something, blurted an “Oomph!” and the packages went flying. One of them contained breakables and she figured that gift was now broken.

Regaining her wits, Stephanie saw that the something she had collided with was a someone. A man, middle-aged like her. He was casually dressed, with a long white scarf. He also wore a sheepish look on his face.

As she bent to gather the errant parcels Stephanie shouted, “You stupid oaf! Can’t you watch where you are walking!”?

The stranger’s look grew bemused. “I was watching,” he said in a quiet voice.

Stephanie shook her head in disgust.

Stooping as well, the man picked up some of the packages. “Let me help.”

Stephanie ignored him, clutching at a box behind her. “The end of a completely shitty day,” she groaned.

A poor day it had been. Of course every day seemed a poor day to Stephanie. Today was a whopper however. It had begun with the damn alarm clock. Stephanie had smacked it with considerable might, under the subconscious theory that sufficient force properly executed might reverse the flow of time and allow for a bit more rest.

Stephanie’s blow did not in fact cause the fabric of time to unravel. It did allow her to snooze a while longer however. Too long, as it turned out, for when she finally turned herself away from the comforter’s warmth, not only was she not adequately refreshed, she was now dangerously late for work.

The next minutes were well rehearsed, as Stephanie had played this version of human pinball before. The adrenaline rush woke her more effectively than any alarm could. In any event, Stephanie pounded on her son’s door to get him up for school; then she hurtled through toilet, toothbrush and shower in time that could put a decathlon champion to shame. Stephanie quickly spotted, clutched and donned a wardrobe that reasonably matched, was different from the day before and above all—was still clean. In part this came from Stephanie’s practiced eye at dress-under-stress and in part from the fact that she was an attractive woman. She looked good in most outfits.

Make-up was a different matter. That would require some time. A few traffic lights and the car’s rearview mirror would do the trick.

She had not bothered to check back on her son. A small part of her did register that he had not responded to her alarm. “Kids!” she expostulated. No time to go into his room and coax him out of bed. As Stephanie flew down the stairs she satisfied her motherly dues with a loud over-the-shoulder shout. “Dan! You will be late for school!”

She was brought up short when striding into the kitchen, Dan was already there, munching on a bowl of cereal.

As Stephanie grabbed her breakfast, a granola bar (she desperately craved coffee, but there was no time; the corner gourmet shop by her office would supply the caffeine fix in the nick of time), she perused the business section while standing at the counter.

“Hey. Thanks for waking me up,” she grumbled sarcastically.

The cereal must have been inordinately fascinating, for Dan’s eyes remained glued to the bowl. Not that Stephanie noticed. Her sarcastic quip was delivered with her eyes still glued to the Journal. Some people called this the art of multi-tasking. Others called it rude.

Finally Dan did reply. “When I wake you up, you always snap my head off.” A second passed and he muttered more softly and somewhat bravely, “Of course you snap at me even when I don’t wake you.”

Stephanie slammed her fist on the counter. “Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Before he could answer, Stephanie growled, “Did anyone call for me last night?” She had been at a business dinner until late.

“No.” “No news?”

“Well,” Dan began slowly, “They’ve scheduled a tournament for the day after Christmas.” Dan was a sophomore at Valley High and had made the junior varsity.

“I meant news for me,” Stephanie snapped as she fished the last granola crumbs from the counter.

“No”, Dan answered. “But this match is important. I should play, at least third singles. But I am losing playing time. My returns have been way off. You were a tennis star in college, Mom. Maybe you could help me.”

“Sure. Practice,” Stephanie said. “You can’t beat advice like that.”

“The match starts at 3:30,” Dan added.

“Can’t you get a ride?” she grumbled.

The boy shook his head. “I guess. I just thought maybe you would like to come watch.”

“Oh Jesus!” Stephanie exclaimed. “Can’t I get any time for myself?”

“The problem is all your time is for yourself,” Dan observed quietly as he rose and put his bowl in the sink.

“Damn you!” Stephanie’s voice rose. She pulled her car keys from her purse and made for the garage. “Don’t be a smart ass.”

“What-ever,” Dan mumbled and was out the front door to the bus stop in a welcome flash.

“Damn, snotty kid!” Stephanie huffed and she slammed the car door shut with more force than usual.

It was a short ride, Stephanie’s office being but one town over. The proximity of her office was hardly a blessing, for there seemed to be a greater number of blithering idiots behind the wheels than usual this morning. Stephanie fended them off with a few well-placed curses, shouts and empathic gestures with her middle finger extended.

Even buying her coffee had been a chore. Stephanie grabbed and sipped before the shop proprietor could say, “There you are, Ma’am”

Making a face, Stephanie said, “This is a mocha espresso.”

“Yes, it is, Ma’am,” the server said with a smile.

“I asked for a mocha DOUBLE espresso!” she barked.

The clerk was puzzled, for he distinctly recalled the lady asking for a mocha espresso. She had not asked for a double. But the customer is always right, and the woman clearly looked like someone he’d rather not tangle with this morning. With a smile he said, “Sorry Ma’am. No problem.” Immediately he came up with a double.

Stephanie grabbed it with a grimace. “Jerk!” she muttered. “No wonder you are only a coffee dispenser.”

That man, who had three children and desperately needed the business, bit his lip. He went on to serve other customers. He still offered a ready smile, but he felt a sudden, sad ache within.

Once at her desk, Stephanie’s phone rang. She ignored it. On the second ring, Stephanie’s secretary picked up, as had been painfully drubbed into her.

In a moment she poked her head into Stephanie’s office with a light rap on the door.

Stephanie looked up with an expression of distaste, as if Mary were a walking vial of malaria germs. “Yes! What do you want?” she snapped.

Mary was used to this as she stammered, “Uh, Ms. Grell, it’s your ex.”

Stephanie looked at her clock. Only 9:04. Great. “All right. I will take it.” She flicked her left wrist, dismissing Mary as she picked up the receiver with her right.

“Yes.” Stephanie had that rare ability to make such a simple one-syllable word sound like a demeaning curse to the recipient.

“Hey Stephanie. It’s me. Daniel.”

“I know who you are. Is there a point to this call?”

“Well actually, Stephanie…you see…I…er…”

“Out with it, Daniel. What do you want? Where’s my alimony? Today’s the twenty-fourth.”

“Well that’s the thing, “Daniel stammered. “You see, I lost my job. Budget cutbacks they said. I…I can’t pay you this month.”

Stephanie intentionally released a deep sigh into the phone. “You…cannot…pay…this…month.” She drew it out.

“I’ll make it up to you. I promise,” Daniel said. Stephanie could tell he was sweating.

“How, Daniel? How are you going to make it up? Are you going to die?”

“Listen, Stephanie. I didn’t call to fight with you.”

“So why did you call?” she snipped. “To tell me that because you are a screw up and cannot hold a job, me and the kid have to suffer?”

Which was not quite accurate. While it was tough meeting the bills of her high-powered existence, Stephanie had always been the breadwinner in the family, even when they were married.

“I’ll tell you what, Daniel. You have until tomorrow. Get me the money or I go back to Family Court. Take away your visitation privileges with little Dan.”

“Noo,” he moaned. “Where do I get the money?”

“I neither know nor care. Sell your mother’s clothes.” (Daniel’s mother, his last living relative, had died last month. “Whatever it takes, Daniel. Just pay up by the end of the day tomorrow. I am giving you a one-day extension.”

“But…but it’s Christmas.”

“That’s funny. My copy of the divorce decree says you pay on the twenty-fourth of every month. I do not see a Christmas exception. Do you?”

“I’ll try,” Daniel said, “but Stephanie, please tell Dan I said Merry…”

She slammed down the phone before he could finish.

“Loser,” she muttered, before losing herself in her work.

A few hours passed when there was another rap on her door.

“Wh…at?” Stephanie immediately turned sweeter when she saw Mr. Peabody. He was the company president and the office rumor was that today was the day Peabody would announce the new regional manager. Stephanie had been tasting this promotion for months. Ever since the incumbent, Len Fileski, had announced his retirement two months ago.

Stephanie had a lot of plans. Truth be told, she felt that Fileski was too old for the job. He had lost his fastball. The only reason he hung on so long was that clients loved the sweet, old man. “Sweet my ass,” Stephanie thought. “This place needs a taskmaster to shake things up.”

She hid her antagonism well, or was convinced she had, at least from Mr. Peabody. He sat down in front of her desk.

Stephanie gave a smile that was part sweet, part sexy.

“We’ll be closing early today. For Christmas,” Peabody began.

“Yes sir. Of course,” Stephanie smiled as she thought, “Soon that will change. Early closures do not translate into ready profits.”

Peabody tugged at his ear. “I know the rumor mill has it today we will announce Len’s replacement.”

“Yes sir,” Stephanie brightened. How exactly should she spend the bonus that went with the promotion? Perhaps a massage. “Lord knows I need it, working with these nitwits,” she mused.

“Well actually I just wanted you to know,” Mr. Peabody intoned, “that I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m putting off the decision until after the first of the year.”

“Yes sir,” she managed. “I understand sir.” Although she did not. She was the best qualified. Had adequate tenure. Played the office politics just right. Neutralized her enemies. Except for…

Pamela. Pamela Osborn was the only other apparent candidate for the position. She had little to recommend her except for what held up her ample bra, in Stephanie’s estimation, and the fact that she carried an Ivy League pedigree. As Pamela frequently told anyone within earshot, “I’m a Hah-vuhd.”

The two had crossed swords before and it was clear that the only things they had in common were unbridled ambition and mutual contempt. Stephanie gloried in undercutting Pamela behind her back, as she knew Pamela was doing to her.

“Want to saunter under the mistletoe?” Pamela had mockingly asked Stephanie at the office Christmas party. Old Len Fileski was standing there. It was also his retirement party.

“I would rather shove some Christmas holly up your ass,” Stephanie replied with a plastered smile for the benefit of any on-lookers.

When Peabody left Stephanie’s office with a “Merry Christmas,” Stephanie managed to say, “To you too, sir.” To his back she aimed the thought, “Effin’ imbecile.”

No sooner had Peabody left than Mary poked her head back in.

“From one imbecile to the next,” Stephanie thought.

“What now?” It was with the utmost effort that Stephanie refrained from adding the expletive she felt when she gazed upon the stupid woman. Despite holding back the words, the thought was nevertheless communicated by way of Stephanie’s expression.

Mary smiled sweetly. “We are closing early today, Ms. Grell. Merry Christmas!”

Stephanie’s fist pounded the desk. “Merry Christmas my foot!” She looked archly at Mary. “No. WE are not closing early. The other lazy twits in this office will go. You and I will jump-start the business plan for next year. We will get it to Peabody before he even expects it.”

“Why so early?” Mary wondered.

“Because it is the sort of extraordinary effort that will lock up that regional manager position. Pamela will not put in the same effort.”

As the disconsolate Mary went to retrieve her steno pad, Stephanie smiled grimly. “Merry Christmas indeed. Let them eat fruitcake.”

The office quickly grew quiet as a weekday church, save for a few customers calling with last pre-holiday business. Stephanie archly informed the miscreants that the office was officially closed. They should call back two days hence.

With Mary’s skill, for she had the institutional knowledge, Stephanie’s own cunning, and the quiet, the two flew over the business plan. It was still mid-afternoon when Stephanie noticed Mary glancing at her wristwatch.

“Going somewhere?” she asked in her gruff tone.

“I just need to pick up a few groceries before the store closes, Ma’am. For Christmas dinner.”

Stephanie had no plans for Christmas dinner. Mostly it would be the same as any evening. Work consumed so much time and sapped such energy that store bought prepared foods usually did the trick. Stephanie was pretty certain that there was a frozen pizza in the icebox. That would do for dinner.

Mary’s glance at the watch did force Stephanie to reconsider. The afternoon was fading. “When do all the stores close today?” she inquired.

"At six, Ma’am.”

“Damn. I still have to do my Christmas shopping,” Stephanie complained.

Not that she had the least desire to spread good will toward men. Rather, it was expected that she buy gifts for certain people. Her son, for one. Mr. Peabody. This nitwit, Mary. People in the office would gossip poorly of Stephanie if she did not give some token to Mary. It is important to keep up appearances, Stephanie realized. Bedsides, the business plan was almost done.

With a flourish Stephanie shut the memo in her desk. “Time to go home,” she announced with no special warmth.

“Yes Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am. Good Christmas.”

Stephanie’s only acknowledgment was a perfunctory nod. Her face was stuck in her purse where she stuffed the work she would take home. Not that it mattered any longer to Mary, who had already speedily crept out on little cat feet, lest her boss think up some last minute business errand.

When Stephanie pulled into the mall, her eyes popped out. The parking lot was full. “What the hell is wrong with these people?” she wondered. She circled the lot twice, going up and down numerous aisles. As luck would have it no one was exiting while Stephanie was circumnavigating. She slammed the steering column. “This is ridiculous! I wish somebody would bomb this stinking mall and all the fools in it!”

Just then she saw a spot. First row. Stephanie raced in to the spot. “What luck,” she thought, until she saw the “Handicapped Only” sign. “Screw it,” she muttered as she flew out of the car. “Sick people should not be out in this cold anyway. If they are that incredibly stupid, they deserve to walk in pain.”

Stephanie raced in to the first store she saw. A women’s boutique. “What do you have that is cheap but looks like an affectionate gift?” she asked the clerk.

To the person's perplexed look Stephanie explained, “It is for my secretary.”

“How little did Madam wish to spend?” the clerk inquired.

When Stephanie told him, he pointed to a display case. “Those scarves are reduced for clearance. They are quite inexpensive, but should make an appropriate statement to the recipient.”

Stephanie walked over to the case. She picked out a red-checked one.

“Hey!” She called to the clerk, notwithstanding that he was assisting another customer. “Hey!” She repeated. “I am in a hurry. Are these wool?” Her fingers caressed the fabric.

“Excuse me,” the clerk said to the other customer.

“It is faux cashmere. Most people cannot tell the difference.”

“Great,” Stephanie said. “She will think it so expensive. Perfect.”

On her next stop to get something for Mr. Peabody (crucial if she was to ingratiate herself to win the coveted promotion), two strangers accosted Stephanie. “We are asking people to pledge a donation for the hospice wing at Good Samaritan.”

“Sorry. I am busy.”

“Even a few coins would help,” one of the elderly docents said.

“Does your hospital do ear surgery?” Stephanie asked, “Because apparently you did not hear me. I will tell you what. I pledge never to get cancer and die in your hospital. That way you can keep your costs down.”

“We did not mean to be rude,” the other volunteer said, still not getting Stephanie’s message. “If you don’t have the funds, we are also asking people to join us in caroling for the ill tomorrow morning.”

“Caroling?” Stephanie repeated. As the two nodded, she deadpanned, “My joy is unconstrained.” Then her voice grew harsh. “I am not singing tomorrow or any time. I work.”

Mary had told her what Pamela had purchased for Mr. Peabody. It was easy to price out the gift—Stephanie proceeded to purchase one slightly more expensive.

In the next stop at the toy store Stephanie was frustrated by the lines at customer service. At last she was up to the front. “What is hot for teens this year?”

“Excuse me?” came the reply.

“Well, I do not know what my son actually wants. If I buy the popular toy, I should be safe.”

The shopkeeper had a quizzical look, to which Stephanie replied by way of explanation, “I work, you know.”

The shop clerk said, “Does your son like electronic games?”

Stephanie shrugged. She did not know. The clerk pulled out a multi-colored box. “This electronics game is all the rage this season. As a matter of fact, it has been on back order twice.”

“Great,” Stephanie said. “How much?” as she flipped out her credit card.

When the shopkeeper handed her the bag with her new purchase he called out, “Have a Merry…” but Stephanie’s back was already in fast retreat. “Christmas,” the word died on his lips as he shook his head.

Stephanie still had a few gifts to go. Luckily for her she was able to forego the persons she thought of as menial laborers. The postman, garbage men, doormen in her office building. Those she could ignore. But she had to get something for Dan’s teacher. And her yoga instructor.

She looked at the mall directory, thinking. Snapping her fingers she realized, “I’ve got it. The same crap I got that idiot Mary.”

Racing back to the first shop, Stephanie called out to the clerk, “Two more of those fake cashmere scarves!”

The clerk indicated the mall would close in about a half-hour. Stephanie knew traffic out of here would be insane. She tore down the mall racing for the exit to beat the rush. Juggling five parcels plus her purse, she was making great time. She passed a dress store, which had a fetching black sleeveless dress that Stephanie thought she would look fabulous in. She turned to look back at the dress as she kept speed-walking until… “Oomph!”

All her packages fell. The one for Mr. Peabody was breakable, and Stephanie’s ear detected a tinkling sound as the package bounced twice.

The man she had collided with wore a sheepish look.

“You stupid oaf!” she shouted. “Can’t you watch where you are walking!”

The stranger stooped to help her pick up the packages. “Let me help,” he said in a gentle voice.

Stephanie did not look at him. She was clutching at a box behind her. “The end of a completely shitty day,” she grumbled.

Both she and the stranger stood up. He still held two of the bags. Referring to her last remark he spoke softly. “If it has been that bad a day, perhaps I can help.”

“How can you help?” Stephanie challenged.

“You would be surprised,” he said.

“I doubt that.” Her reply was curt. She quickly added, “You are not getting into my pants.”

The stranger smiled. It was a …sincere smile, Stephanie thought. She looked at him closely, really for the first time. He was pretty handsome. Not in a Hollywood sort of way. But his was a handsome cuteness.

The stranger again smiled. “When I offered to help I did not mean to suggest intimacy.”

“Well you’re a man. What else did you have in mind?” she asked.

“I could give you a Christmas present.”

“It ain’t Christmas yet,” she taunted.

His brown eyes sparkled. “Christmas is for when you need it.”

There was no arguing with that so Stephanie said, “What sort of gift?”

“The best there is,” he said, “and the best there is is kindness. To start with, I would be happy to help you to your car with those packages. It’s a heavy bundle, actually more bulky than heavy, for an attractive young woman to lug around.”

In spite of herself, Stephanie gave a small smile at the implied compliment. “Why not?” she said. And she and the stranger headed out to the parking lot.

Before they left the mall, Stephanie halted abruptly. “Oh, you broke one of my gifts. WE will have to replace it.” What she had in mind was that the stranger would pay for the replacement. “Unfortunately that will get us stuck in the mall traffic. Which is what I was trying to avoid.” Her tone was quite cross.

“Which package?” the man asked, nonplussed. Stephanie pointed to one he was holding. He shook it. Pretty vigorously. Not a sound. “I don’t think it’s damaged at all,” he said. “I am sure you will find it all in order.”

Stephanie had to admit it sounded unimpaired. “But I could have sworn I heard it tinkling.”

“Trust me. It is fine,” he said.

“Yeah, like you can see inside the box,” she griped. “Let me check.” She put the other packages down and carefully opened the box.

“You don’t trust me?” the man said.

As she poked and prodded the lid off Stephanie said, “I make it a rule never to trust anybody. I rely only on myself.”

“Sounds kind of lonely,” he remarked.

The parcel was in mint condition. Stephanie shrugged off her surprise. She had heard it shatter. But no doubt it was not broken now. She re-packaged and handed it back to the man. They resumed walking to her car. Out of the corner of her eye, Stephanie appraised him further. About her age. Pretty good shape for a middle-aged man. No flab. And he had a full head of hair, thank God. Dressed casually, but tastefully.

He wore a long white scarf over his sports jacket, which added a jaunty flair. The sports jacket was appropriate for it had been a mild December so far. The long range forecast was for more of the same. Forget about a white Christmas.

As to her companion, she also noticed no wedding ring.

They arrived at her car. The man helped arrange the parcels in the trunk.

Stephanie inserted her keys in the car door and opened.

“Listen,” the stranger said. He looked at the ground a second and pawed with his right foot. Looking up he continued, “I would like to buy you a drink. Maybe some hot chocolate. And something to eat. I know a nice place not too far from here.”

“Why the hell not?” Stephanie thought to herself. “I have not had a date in it seems like forever. And he does seem nice. And he is cute…

“Sure,” she said. “Do you want to follow me?”

“Why don’t you drive?” he suggested. “I did not come by car.”

He held the driver-side door open for her. And trotted to the passenger side.

As they buckled in Stephanie said, “I am Stephanie Grell.”

The stranger clasped her hand. His grip was strong, but the touch was warm and gentle. “Pleased to meet you,” he said with a grin.

“Do you have a name?” Stephanie asked.

The man nodded. “Stephen Angell.”

II. The Conversation

As Stephanie put the car in reverse she asked, “Which way do we go?”

“Let’s get out of the mall first,” Stephen responded.

“Once we are out of the mall, then what? Where is this place?”

“You will take a right out of the mall exit, then a left,” he answered.

“A left? Isn’t that where the town dump is?” she challenged.

“No,” he said. “Well, yes. The place we are going is beyond the dump however.”

“Thank goodness,” Stephanie sighed. “I was beginning to wonder. What kind of place is it?”

“It is out of the way,” he said. “Very peaceful.”

“Hmm.” Stephanie gave him a sly look. “Sounds romantic.”

Stephen looked at her quizzically for a second. The he brightened. “Oh no! No you don’t!”

“What?”” she said. “What?”

He smiled. “You are not getting into my pants.”

Stephanie smiled.

“Ah! That’s the second time you have done that,” Stephen observed.

“What?”

“Smiled.

“You know,” he added, “you really are very pretty when you smile.”

“Thank you,” Stephanie said, and she smiled again at the compliment.

“See!” he said. “You did it again.”

“Cut it out!” Stephanie laughed.

“I read somewhere,” Stephen said, “that when you smile you use certain muscles that are good for you.”

“You mean to prevent wrinkles?”

“No. It’s connected to your heart muscle.”

Stephanie frowned, “How does smiling help your heart?”

“It keeps it from growing cold.”

The silence hung between them for a few moments.

“Damn,” Stephanie broke the quiet as they hit a wall of exiting traffic.

“You seem put out,” Stephen remarked.

“I hate wasting time,” she ground her teeth.

“I didn’t realize getting to know me was wasting time.”

She gave Stephen a good-natured slap on the shoulder. “Touché.”

“Why don’t you take the other exit?” Stephen wondered.

She looked at him. “There is no other exit.”

His eyebrows arched. “O yea of little faith. Let me show you.”

To Stephanie’s surprise, Stephen hopped out of the car. He trotted to the driver’s side. Opening the door, he gently said, “Move over. Let me drive. I’ll show you.”

It seemed a little weird, but Stephanie unbuckled her seat belt and slid over to the passenger’s side.

Stephen pulled out of the line of traffic and head down the service road.

“This feels good,” he said. “I don’t get to drive a lot.”

“You don’t drive?” Stephanie was surprised. “Don’t you have a car? How do you get around?”

“Where I come from, no one drives. We use public transit. Autos destroy the environment.”

“But everyone drives,” Stephanie insisted, though she was cut off by Stephen who beamed, “Here!” He had pulled the car into an exit lane where there was absolutely no traffic.

Stephanie’s lips parted. “But I…I have been to this mall many times. I have never seen this exit.”

There was no traffic as they drove past the dump.

“There is nothing in this part of town,” Stephanie said. She had a slight chill, realizing a complete stranger controlled her car and was taking her deep inside a secluded waste site. She felt in her purse for her can of pepper spray.

As if reading her thoughts, Stephen reached over and squeezed her hand. “Relax. There is no way on earth I would ever harm you. There is something in this part of town. A small eatery.”

They took a few turns.

“I never knew these roads were here,” Stephanie commented.

Stephen turned right, past a grove of trees, into a small parking lot with only a few cars. Before them was a tiny, white cottage.

Stephanie looked around. “How charming! I never knew this was here.”

As he held the door open to the bistro, Stephanie took in a fire going strong in the fireplace. A small tree was tastefully lit. Beneath it was a manger with white porcelain figures.

She turned to Stephen. Her smile was wide. “I love it!”

“Oh, Mr. Angell!” An old woman with an East European accent approached. The two embraced.

“Ella, you look wonderful. You keep getting younger.”

The lady caressed his cheek. She looked at Stephanie. “He is so kind.”

“I knew from the voice it must be Mr. Angell.” This from an older man in an apron.

Stephen greeted him. “Phillip!” They kissed on each cheek, continental style.

The old man grasped Stephanie’s hands. “Welcome to my home! Ella will seat you. I must return to my cooking.”

“It is so warm in here,” Stephanie thought, though she meant it in a good way.

As they sat down near the fire, Stephanie saw only one other couple at a table. She was surprised a place like this was not packed.

“I will get you a drink,” Ella said adding as she walked off, “Oh Stephen! Our angel!”

Stephanie giggled. “So, you are an angel?”

“No,” Stephen smiled. “I just hope to be. Don’t you?”

“Gee. I never really thought about it.”

Stephanie took his hand. “I have to tell you. I was a little nervous driving here alone with you. In the middle of nowhere. But I am very pleased with your choice. No matter how the food is.”

“The food will be heavenly! As well as the ambience,” he said. “But why are you so surprised that I would bring you to such a place?”

“Oh, you know,” Stephanie said, her eyes downcast. “It is just that the men I have known, well they could barely get past drinks before their hands were all over me. Men are such slime!” She added after a second, “Present company excepted…I think.”

“You think?”

“The jury is still out.”

Stephen made a wry face. “I take it you have had bad experiences with the male of the species?”

Stephanie sighed. “Not anymore. I have given up dating. Every guy I went out with since my divorce was a creep. They were only interested in one thing.”

“Companionship?” Stephen offered.

Stephanie gave him a “You’ve got to be kidding” look.

“All right,” he said. “Some men are like that. Others are rather decent. You know. The bell-shaped curve.

“No,” she remarked categorically. “They are scum!”

Stephen was curious. He asked Stephanie where she had met her distasteful dates.

“The usual places,” she answered. “Bars mostly.”

“Bars?” he asked with more than a degree of surprise.

“And twice at business conventions.”

“And what exactly,” Stephen said, “was the social function at the conventions where you met these, uh, gentlemen?” “Cocktail parties,” she said.

“Have you tried Church socials?” Stephen asked.

“I do not go to Church anymore.” After a moment Stephanie added, “I am a fallen away Catholic.”

Stephen asked her why. Asked if she had a problem with the message of love, charity and forgiveness.

“I don’t know. I guess the stories of clergy sexually abusing altar boys turned me off.”

“You think a majority of priests are guilty?”

Stephanie said she thought it was a small fraction of the whole.

“So you let a very few interfere with the message of love?”

“All right,” she added. “I guess some of the rites seem a little strange to me.”

Stephen’s eyebrows arched. He tugged at his white scarf. “You have a problem with the mystical? How else does one explain the supernatural?”

“Look,” Stephanie said in an exasperated tone. “I am just pretty busy. I stopped going to Church regularly during college. Then stopped altogether when I started working and having a family. You know how it is.”

He shook his head in disagreement. “No. No, I don’t know how it is. I don’t understand how anyone can’t make time. Seems to me the one person in the entire universe you would be better off not alienating is the Creator of All Things.”

Before she could comment, Stephen asked if not at church, had she tried to meet men at library events.

“I read enough at work. I certainly do not have the stamina to read for fun” she explained.

Stephen probed other areas. Parents/teachers associations, local museums, charities. The pattern was becoming quite predictable. So much so that Stephen answered for Stephanie as to why she avoided charitable activities. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “You work.”

Stephanie nodded.

“So let me get this straight,” he summarized. “You avoid meeting the kind of men who frequent churches, libraries, museums, schools, adult education programs, youth athletics and charities. And you go out of your way to meet men drinking at bars. And you wonder why your dating experiences have been less than optimal?”

Stephanie looked at him. “It is more complicated than that.”

Stephen shook his head. “It is not complicated at all. As a matter of fact, the logic of it is compellingly obvious.”

Before Stephanie could respond, the food came. They had been nursing a red wine.

She lifted a forkful. “Mmm. I have just died and gone to heaven,” she said.

“If only it were that simple,” Stephen quipped.

Stephanie giggled and took another mouth-watering bite.

When they were almost finished, Ella and Phillip asked if everything was to their liking.

Stephanie raved. Told them they should publicize. They could fill up the house every night.

Phillip explained they preferred their solitude and had no desire to advertise.

Stephanie shrugged. This was inexplicable to her. “’The business of America is business.’ Calvin Coolidge,” she told the two elderly proprietors.

“’Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day; tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’ Jesus Christ,” Ella said. Phillip and Stephen smiled.

At the only other table with customers, a young woman was crying softly. Her white-haired dinner companion held both her hands and spoke reassuringly.

“I guess the food did not agree with her,” Stephanie joked.

Her listeners remained serious.

Ella explained. “That poor girl had an unwanted pregnancy two years ago. Gave the little girl up for adoption. She had been having second thoughts when she heard the baby had died. A rare form of leukemia. She is having trouble dealing with her not being able to comfort the baby in her last days.”

Stephanie realized her earlier quip was especially vacuous. So that her audience not think poorly of her she said, “Too bad there is nothing we can do for her.”

Stephen responded, “Perhaps you can explain to her the joy of having time only for oneself.”

Stephanie remained silent. She was somewhat puzzled by the comment and it seemed vaguely familiar. She could not quite place it, however.

The old proprietors went about their business.

“Tell me more about yourself,” Stephen said. “You fascinate me.”

Stephanie glowed inwardly.

Stephen asked what she wanted out of life.

“Oh boy. A lot,” she began with a laugh. “Large house with a Jacuzzi. Yacht. Servants. Winter house on the Riviera. Let’s see. What else…Getting even with people who have done me wrong.

“What about you, Stephen? What do you want out of life?”

Stephen contemplated his glass. “I would like…”

Stephanie looked at him deeply, wiling him to go on.

“I would like someone to lay Christmas holly on my grave.”

“That’s it?” she laughed. “Why, that is nothing.”

“It is enough,” he smiled, a little sadly. “And it is harder than you think. You have to inspire enough love during your life to have a wish live on after.”

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Do?” He seemed puzzled.

“You know. Your job.”

Stephen said you could call what he did counseling.

“You are a shrink!” she declared. “That explains a lot.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a counselor.”

“Do you have a large practice?” she probed.

Stephen thought for a second. “Do you ask from a sincere interest in my practice, or to determine my income level?”

“You caught me. It is only natural for a girl to know if a man interested in her has means.”

He shook his head. “Life is so much more than money. As to my clients, I have more than I care to admit.”

Stephanie smiled broadly. She noticed however that Stephen did not seem at all pleased by her reaction.

“I feel like pinching myself,” Stephanie said. “You are handsome, well-off, interested in me…There has to be a catch. There must be something wrong with you.

“You are the sweetest guy I have seen in a long time. You are not solely interested in jumping in the sack, you don’t have a ring…Oh my God!”

“What?”

Stephanie made a face. “Are you gay?”

Stephen smiled. “Well, my friends say I do enjoy life.”

“No, no,” she said impatiently. “I mean gay, as in homosexual.”

“That’s the first time anyone’s said that to me,” Stephen said. He looked himself up and down. Do I look gay? Not that there is anything wrong with that.”

“You’re…not?” she said tentatively.

“Not…at…all.”

“Then there really is no catch?” Stephanie asked. “What do you want from me?”

“Just to get to know you,” he said. “And…like I said before, to have someone lay Christmas holly on my grave.”

A middle-aged man with a violin entered the room. He sat near the tree.

“He really is quite good,” Stephen told Stephanie.

“I am not a fan of violins or classical music,” Stephanie commented.

Stephen told her to give it a chance. “It is said he can make people cry when he plucks the strings.”

The man proceeded to play “Silent Night.”

Stephanie’s eyes shifted from the violinist to the fire. It took her back to an image of long ago. She was six years old. Her father was holding her in Church. Christmas vigil Mass. Dad was stroking her hair to the tune of Silent Night as the congregation sang.

Little Stephanie nuzzled her face against her father’s. “I love you, Daddy,” she whispered.

He gave her a squeeze and said, “I will always love my little buttercup.”

When the violinist ended, Stephen handed Stephanie a tissue. She had tears in her eyes.

“I feel so silly,” she said, blowing her nose.

“I was thinking of my father,” she explained. He died when I was seven. I hated him for leaving me. For a long time. But it just struck me how very much he loved me.”

Stephen smiled and squeezed her hand. “I think your father is pleased to have left such a deep and warm memory with you.”

“Thank you,” she blew again, daintily. “I still feel a little silly.”

Stephen said, “Love is gentle. Love is patient. Love is never silly.”

“Did St. Paul say that?” she asked.

Stephen frowned. After a moment of reflection he added, “Maybe he did.”

“I remember at our wedding there was a reading from St. Paul. Something about the greatest of something being love.”

“’So faith, hope, love abide these three: but the greatest of all is love,’” Stephen said.

“Yes! That’s it!”

“It’s from Corinthians,” he said. “Tell me. What happened?”

“What do you mean?” she replied with her own question.

“To your marriage.”

“It is a long story,” she sighed.

“We have time,” Stephen pointed out as he sipped his wine.

“Actually, it’s the same old story,” she amended.

“Infidelity?”

Stephanie shook her head no.

“Did he do drugs? Alcohol?”

Again no.

“Was he abusive?”

“No. Nothing like that. The passion just went out of our marriage. We drifted apart. Fought constantly.”

“And you blame him?”

“Absolutely. He drove me away.”

Stephen spread his hands apart, a gesture of supplication. “Might a part of it have been your fault?” “No.’’ But she said it will less conviction.

“Ever think about getting back together?”

Stephanie’s eyes grew wide. “What a strange question from a date.”

“Well, you wouldn’t want to get involved and then realize your best path forward was the one leading back. You must have loved him once.”

“Are you shrinking me?”

“You trying to lose weight?”

She gave him a look. “Listen, I hate my ex. I did not even go to his mother’s funeral.”

“Did you despise her?”

“No, Stephen. But I had neither the time nor the inclination to console Daniel.”

“Your hatred runs deep.”

Through slightly gritted teeth Stephanie said, “Yes, it does.” She asked if that satisfied him. That she was really looking for a new relationship.

“All relationships are journeys of many levels,” Stephen said.

Stephanie said that sounded like something her yoga instructor might have said.