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.
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.”
“Ah! That’s the second time you have done that,” Stephen observed.
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
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.
“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.
Stephanie shook her head no.
“Did he do drugs? Alcohol?”
“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.
“You take yoga?”
“Is that such a surprise?” she asked.
Stephen shook his head a little. “What do you see when you get in touch with your inner feelings?”
Stephanie rested her chin on steepled hands as she thought. “Nothing. Yoga just seems like something I ought to do. A fad, I guess. Life is too busy to get in touch with your inner feelings.” She looked over at the decorated tree. “It is like Christmas. We race around like rats in a maze, to get trees, lights, presents, wrapping done, all barely in time, and then just collapse at the end of the maze. Before you know it, Christmas is over and you did not even enjoy it.”
“Jingle, jangle, jungle,” Stephen said.
“Yes,” Stephanie agreed. “Exactly. That is why I do not really celebrate it anymore. It has become such a show. So secular.”
“Secular? But you said you are not a Churchgoer anymore. Why should secularity matter? Look, the trappings are unimportant,” he went on. “Christmas is the time to listen, really listen, to your heart. And to the hearts of those around you.”
“This is the modern world,” she said. “There is too much noise to listen to anyone’s heart.”
“No,” he said with feeling. “We create our own noise and clutter, and the damage to our hearts is largely self-inflicted.”
“You are a hopeless romantic,” she concluded.
“I am not hopeless.”
Stephanie again realized what a sweet man he was. Not in the feigned sort of way some men used to project a caring image. She knew if she were to appeal to him…
“A penny for your thoughts,” he interrupted.
She smiled slightly. “If I search for my inner self, I guess there is room for a little more goodness.”
Stephen smiled at that and Stephanie asked, “Is that the kind of woman you are looking for?”
“Oh, I found the woman I was looking for when she collided with me in the mall.”
Ella reappeared to clear away the last of the dishes.
They thanked her profusely.
Stephanie commented on the fact that neither Ella nor Phillip gave Stephen a bill. He explained that he had an account there.
“God, this has been great,” Stephanie hugged herself. “I wish it would not end.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Stephen told her. “The night is young.”
“No, of course it is not,” Stephanie began to correct him, but broke off abruptly as she glanced at her watch. She tapped it several times and shook it and held it to her ear.
Stephen asked what was the matter.
“My watch seems to be working, but it can’t be. It says it is barely 6:20. But we must have been here talking and eating for hours.”
Stephen pulled out a very old pocket watch. “No. Six-twenty. Your watch is all right.”
“But how can that be?” she wondered.
“I don’t understand,” Stephen said.
“The time we have spent. It was such fun.”
Stephen smiled. “You mean time flies when you’re having fun?”
Stephen grinned. “A truly stupid saying. Haven’t you ever enjoyed a perfect moment? When time seemed to stand still? When you just lived in the moment?”
“But that is not possible,” she uttered. “Time cannot slow down.”
Stephen explained that time certainly could slow down. After all, Einstein long ago explained that time slows down dramatically as one approaches the speed of light.
“But we are not traveling at the speed of light,” Stephanie protested.
“Okay, smarty pants,” Stephen chided. “Then look at your watch. At any clock on the planet. Tell me if it is later than it is.”
“I guess not," she said with a shrug.
As they walked to the exit, Stephanie hummed the tune from The Twilight Zone. Stephen asked the reason.
“It seems bizarre. Kind of supernatural.”
Stephen just smiled and held the door open for her.
Outside it was cooler, but still unseasonably mild. As he spoke, Stephen’s breath came out in wisps of white. “You know what is supernatural to some people is natural to others. It’s all a matter of perspective.”
Stephanie wondered if that was Einstein again, or more shrink talk.
Stephen explained that it was neither. “Perception comes from here…and here (he tapped his head and his heart)…and sometimes a bit of luck. Why, even Einstein figured out the Theory of General Relativity when he was sitting in his patent clerk’s office and he imagined what would happen if he tipped back and fell in his chair. Or was that Special Relativity? I always get the two confused.”
Stephanie asked if he had tilted back and hit his head.
“Hmm,” Stephen rubbed his chin. “I perceive that your heart is still hardened.”
“It is going to take a hell of a lot more than dinner to change my heart.”
Stephen asked if she had not enjoyed the supper.
“Oh, I did! I got such a feeling of peace in there. Despite some of your harsh questioning.”
Stephen said he did not think it was harsh at all. “Perhaps I just held up a mirror for you to see yourself. Your inner self.”
“Shrink!” she exclaimed.
“Obstinate!” he retorted.
Stephanie laughed. “The other great thing about the restaurant was it is such a tremendous find. People will be so impressed when I tell them about it.”
“Is that so important?” Stephen wondered. “To impress people?”
“It’s to die for,” she answered.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he cautioned. “Especially if it is shallow.”
Stephanie could not think of a sufficiently combative response. They were at the car anyway. Stephen opened the passenger door for Stephanie. On impulse she placed her arms around his neck and kissed him.
When they broke Stephen arched his eyebrow. “It has been a long time.”
“For me too,” she said.
As soon as they pulled out of the lot Stephanie turned back. She wanted to get the street name, to find this place again. However to her surprise, there was no sign of the bistro.
Stephanie thought it odd that the cozy cottage could be concealed so quickly.
III. The Presentation
As they drove back along the deserted road, Stephen drummed his fingers on the wheel. Stephanie asked what was the matter. He explained he was just thinking. “I still need to find a way to warm your heart.”
Stephanie asked if that was so very important to him. Was that what he was looking for in a woman?
When Stephen said it was, Stephanie thought to herself. “I can fake it.”
She had a momentary start, wondering if she had unwittingly spoken aloud, because Stephen said, “And it cannot be faked. It must be genuine.”
After a moment, he snapped his fingers. “Do you like the theatre?”
Stephanie said she did, although she had not gone to a play in quite some time.
“I know,” Stephen droned in a mocking tone. “You work.”
Stephanie was about to protest but he jumped in first with a suggestion. “Have you seen ‘A Christmas Carol?’”
“Just an old grainy version when I was a kid.”
“It is a great story. Dickens wrote it, about a hard-…”
Stephanie cut him off. “I know the story line.”
She thought a moment. His comment about warming her heart came back to her. “Isn’t that a little obvious?” she challenged. “Why don’t you just get the three ghosts to visit me?” she laughed mockingly.
“They were otherwise engaged this night. It is a busy time for them,” Stephen said without the trace of a smile.
Stephanie asked where it was playing.
He told her the name of the playhouse. It was in the City.
“The City?” she cried out. “The traffic will be murder. We will never get there.”
Stephen told her never was a long time. “Besides, I do not think the traffic will be all that bad.”
Which was true enough. Once on the major highways, Stephanie was amazed to see so few cars on the road. “Why, we are practically flying” she exulted.
Stephen’s response was enigmatic. He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
“Wait a minute!” Stephanie said. “I read the arts section regularly. This performance has not been advertised. Or reviewed.”
“It is a special presentation,” Stephen answered.
“And wasn’t the playhouse you mentioned torn down?”
“You must be mistaken,” Stephen said. “It is open. At least for this evening’s performance.”
They drove in silence a while. As she thought about it, Stephanie started to stew. Finally she blurted out, “You know, I am not anything like Scrooge.”
“Listen! No more of your manipulative shrink games!”
“No games,” he agreed in a calm, reasoned voice, which infuriated her even more.
Stephen noticed Stephanie was clenching her fists. “Tell me,” he said, “just tell me three people you have shown unusual acts of kindness to.”
Stephanie thought for a moment.
“Well…there was” she paused long seconds, thinking.
Stephen made a buzzing sound. “Time’s up. If it takes more than two seconds to come up with a name, you failed.”
“All right, smart guy! Tell me at least three people you have helped recently!”
Without missing a beat Stephen rattled off, “There was that couple in Ohio last week. They were having marital trouble. And on Tuesday a salesman in upstate New York. He had lost his job. Age discrimination. Then there was…”
“Oh, shut up!”
Stephen shrugged. “You did ask.”
“So you are a regular Albert Schweitzer,” she said.
Stephen ignored the tone. “What a nice compliment. Thank you.”
They crossed the bridge into the City in silence.
Then Stephanie grinned as a light bulb turned on. “I’ve got it! Scrooge was so evil he has become a noun for any really nasty person. ‘Isn’t he a Scrooge’ is a common expression. Say what you will, I haven’t become synonymous with meanness.”
Stephen shrugged. In a quiet voice he said, “Actually, you have.”
“What in the hell are you talking about!”
“You did that before and this is the last time. No references to hell in my presence. As to your point, when someone in your office does something a bit, shall we say, uncharitable, your co-workers say, ‘Don’t be a Grell,’ or ‘You Grell.’
Sometimes they convert it to the verb form. As in ‘She’s grelling.’ Actually, I guess that’ a participle.”
Stephanie’s mouth was open. “I…I do not believe any of this!”
Stephen shrugged. “Believe what you want.”
She started shaking her head. “Now listen, mister! You do not even know the people in my office…do you?”
Stephen again shook his shoulders laconically. “I have heard things.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I will tell you what matters. It is hurtful of you to speak such things.”
Stephen asked if she preferred dishonesty in a relationship.
“None of this is constructive,” she roared. “Why, you…Scrooge!”
“Grell!” he threw back.
“This is some date!” Stephanie was practically yelling. “Do you think this is any way to impress a girl? Why you are…you are positively evil!”
Now Stephen clenched his jaw. His eyes hardened. It was the first time he had seemed anything but a gentle soul. He spoke in a low tone. “I…am…not…evil.”
He turned his head to her a moment. “You collided with me in the mall. Yet you accused me of being an oaf. Everything about your relationship to others. Your son. Your husband. Your co-workers. Shopkeepers. In your lonely universe they only exist for one reason. For you to blame. Without asking I can tell you have never read past the letter Q, because you don’t have any idea of the meaning of responsibility!”
There was more silence until Stephen looked over from his driving. He saw Stephanie sobbing quietly. “If I am so awful, why are you going out with me?” she whimpered.
Stephen gave a sad smile. He caressed her cheek. “Because I care for you. And there is goodness in you. It’s just been locked up for way too long.”
Now it was her turn to shrug noncommittally.
“Listen. I will not force you to stay with me. We don’t have to go to the play. I will take you home if you prefer.”
Stephanie was very thoughtful, and was about to tell him off when in a very quiet voice he added, “But I wish you would stay with me.”
Something deep inside held back her fury. She looked into his sad, kind face. Smiling, she said, “No shrink tricks?”
Stephen smiled back warmly. “No shrink tricks,” he agreed.
They drove the rest of the way in the quiet.
When they arrived he parked in a mostly deserted lot. As they walked along in companionable silence, they passed a darkened Church. A solitary figure sat on the stoop leading into the Church. It was clear the doors were locked. Stephen led Stephanie to the base of the stairs.
She asked why the Church was closed on Christmas Eve.
“It did not used to be,” he explained. “But with the crime and all…” He did not have to complete the thought.
He told Stephanie that the doors would be unlocked at 10:30. For the early gatherers for midnight services.
Stephanie did not even glance at her watch. She had given up doing so, merely accepting the fact that time had seemingly slowed to a crawl this evening.
A few other visitors were hurrying over to the base of the Church steps. Stephanie asked why they were gathering here.
“It’s a tradition,” Stephen whispered, “that on Christmas Eve he (gesturing to the occupant of the stoop) gives a sermon.”
Stephanie joked at the would-be homilist closely. He was shabbily dressed in rags and tatters. There was a metal plate of some sort on his head. It had a small semi-circle cut out of the brim of the strange looking “hat.”
“Who is he? What is that thing on his head?”
“Shh,” Stephen coaxed. “He is preparing his talk. He is what you would call a homeless person. He thinks he is Don Quixote. And that (motioning to the top of his head) is the Golden Helmet of Mambrino.”
Stephanie gasped. “He is a whack job! Why are we standing here, waiting to listen to some nut?”
Stephen whispered, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Do you ever do stupid things?”
Stephanie made a gesture and said of course, on occasion we all do.
Her escort smiled. “Then if you, a sane person, sometimes say stupid things, why does it seem strange to you that a crazy person may on occasion say wise things?”
Stephanie had to admit he had a point. Still she was not expecting much.
Then the old man stood. His wild eyes took in the gathering. He removed his helmet, placed it on the ground. His gray hair was in disarray. The street was absolutely quiet as he straightened, and began.
“On Christmas Eve in the twelfth century, a simple German priest told a story, which tonight this simple knight repeats as my Christmas sermon to you.”
He paused, taking in the small crowd. He cleared his throat.
“In those days, shortly after the birth of the Messiah, the baby Jesus lay asleep in the crib Joseph had fashioned for him. Mary, also worn out from the rigors of childbirth, likewise slept peacefully. For his part Joseph sat quietly on a simple wooden chair. So much had happened this night. The birth, shepherds visited even several wise men from the East. Joseph was still in awe of it all. Yet as the hour grew late, his eyes grew heavy and he began to doze.
“He was roused before long by a feeble knocking at the doorway to the stable. When he opened the door, Joseph beheld an odd couple. A man and a woman. They were the oldest people Joseph had ever seen. He thought they must be at least 900 years old.
“The man asked if they could visit the baby Jesus. Joseph said yes, and let them in.
“The old man and woman quietly knelt before the make-shift crib. The woman was trembling. She looked at her husband, who nodded.
“Then she removed something from beneath her cloak and paced it in the crib.
The old couple rose. They paid their respects before the sleeping Madonna. Then they thanked Joseph and left. They suddenly seemed much younger to Joseph, as if the cares of the world had been lifted from their shoulders.”
Throughout his homily, the knight had gestured and nodded dramatically, giving life to the story, which he now continued.
“Joseph naturally wanted to make sure everything was safe and secure. He hastened to the crib, reached in and pulled out the gift the old couple had left.
He was so astounded that he flew to the opening to the stable. But in every direction he looked, the couple could not be seen. Joseph did not know how such an old couple could possibly have moved so quickly. He slumped against the doorjamb, amazed as he stared at the object in his hand…a partially eaten apple.
“You see, the old man in our story was Adam. The woman, Eve. And they had come to give back what had been taken so very long ago.
“Centuries have passed since that night. We still live in a time of war. Violence. Anger tears at our families and our friendships. Illness and death of loved ones sap our strength. Economic woes present added weight.
“Yet it remains true that this night we again have the opportunity to give back our partially eaten apples, and in its place take on…purity of heart…Merry Christmas, my friends.”
The small crowd was silent a moment. Two women quietly wept. Then a sustained applause arose. The knight bowed courteously, smiled, and strode off. There were murmurs of awe, and appreciation among the onlookers. Then the crowd slowly dispersed.
Stephen offered his arm to Stephanie. As they slowly strode off, Stephanie commented that it was an incredible sermon. Quite moving.
“I don’t know,” Stephen spoke softly. “After all, he is just a whack job. Some nut.”
Stephanie’s ears perked up. “You mock me,” she said.
Stephen shook his head in earnest disagreement. “You mock yourself.” He still spoke in that gentle tone.
They continued in silence. Stephen realized Stephanie had not chosen to argue or react combatively. Rather, she walked deep in thought, reflecting. Stephen allowed himself a slight smile.
In time they arrived at the theatre. Now that she saw it, Stephanie was certain it had been slated for demolition. Yet the evidence indicated otherwise. The marquee was brightly lit. Patrons were arriving for the performance.
Inside a man of late middle age, impeccably dressed and with distinguished silver hair, greeted Stephen effusively. “Ah, Mr. Angell!”
Stephen introduced the man to Stephanie. Explained he was the manager of the theatre. “His name is Michael.”
Stephanie was impressed that her beau seemed to get around; he sure knew the right people. She was equally impressed that he did not even need a ticket. Obviously Stephen was so well off that his face was the equivalent of the price of admission.
Once past the foyer, Stephen greeted another person, decked out in some sort of white-and-gold uniform.
Gabriel, how are you this blessed evening?”
After introductions to Stephanie and further pleasantries, Gabriel escorted the couple to their seats.
Stephanie commented over how excellent the seats were. She was convinced that Stephen truly was a man of distinction. Her reverie was interrupted.
“What gives a person distinction,” Stephen was saying, “is what is in here.” He tapped his heart. “Not what kind of seats he is able to afford. Material goods are fleeting. Matters of the heart enduring.”
Stephanie was about to ask if he was a mind reader but thought better of it.
Stephen, again sensing Stephanie’s mood, allowed himself the smallest of smiles. He caught Gabriel’s eyes, who, recognizing the look, smiled in return. Then Stephen quickly said, “Actually, this theatre is specially constructed. Every seat seems like it is front row, center.”
Stephanie allowed that that was not possible, unless it was an illusion of sorts.
“Of sorts,” Stephen concurred in an enigmatic tone.
Before Stephanie could react, a flurry of motion caught her eye. Stephanie turned and stared, dumb-founded.
“That is the Mayor!”
She surveyed the audience more attentively. There was at least one captain of industry, a young movie starlet, a famous recording artist, and one or two other celebrities.
“This is a very elite audience, she whispered to Stephen.
“That depends on how you define ‘elite,’” he commented drily.
“Why are they all here?” she wondered.
“No different than you.”
“You mean they all bumped into someone named Angell who dragged them here?” Stephanie smiled at her wit; Stephen merely shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess celebrities come out for these benefit things,” she added. “What did you say this performance was for?”
Stephen said that he had not said.
“So? What group stands to benefit from this?” she pursued, gesturing around the theatre with a sweep of her arm.
“The poor of heart,” Stephen replied.
Stephanie said she had never heard of such a charity. “It’s not like the Heart Fund, or something.”
“No,” Stephen agreed. “It’s not like that.”
“So this must be really elite?”
Stephen replied, a bit exasperatedly, “This group is not all that elite. It is a cross-section of humanity. Most people are just like you.” “You mean struggling to make ends meet?” she asked.
“I mean they need a little Christmas spirit.” Stephen’s tone was serious.
Then the light dimmed and the play began.
The acting was superb, the lines well written, the music and the scenery did justice to Dickens’s masterpiece. When Marley’s ghost was about to sing “Link by Link”, Stephen leaned in and whispered, “I love this number.” Stephanie had to admit it was catchy. She found herself tapping her foot to the tune.
Yet despite the sense of, could it be enchantment, Stephanie’s mind wandered at times. Stephen noticed her sitting with a thoughtful look at several points. He wisely decided not to interrupt.
Stephanie had a few glimmering thoughts wherein she compared her lot to Scrooge’s exploits. This was but a shimmering awareness however. Most of the time, events from her life bubbled to the surface. Thoughts of long ago. She later reflected that she was surprised they had emerged.
When the Ghost of Christmas Past conducted Ebenezer to view his younger self courting Emily, Stephanie’s mind filled with scenes of Daniel before they were married. There had been no magic moment, no lightning bolt that had led her to love him. It had been a gradual thing. An evolving sense that he was a kindly person, deeply committed to her. One episode in particular had made a vivid impression. Stephanie had been having difficulty with a supervisor at work, a man who scorned women in the workplace. Stephanie grew so despondent one day that she had cancelled her dinner date with Daniel.
When she had arrived home after the dark day, who should greet her but Daniel. He had a bottle of wine (she recollected it was a cheap vintage, the only sort graduate students could afford) and a take-out dinner. As they sat to eat, Daniel proposed a toast. “Don’t let the hypocrites cloud your judgment. Your work will shine through. Always remember, you are the most impressive person I have ever known.”
In the theatre, Stephanie was smiling to herself. As soon as she realized it, she shook her head violently. So much had happened since, the constant bickering, shouting matches, slammed doors, she knew there was no room for a smile where Daniel was concerned.
She remembered him pleading much later in their relationship. “Why are you shouting at me? Why are you letting work consume you?” She had been so enraged by him directing blame at her.
Later in the show Stephanie’s mind drifted to her younger sister, Allison. Long since departed, courtesy of a hit-and-run driver. Sweet little Allie, as innocent as could be. And where had her innocence left her? Taken unfairly, by a cruel God, while the scum of the earth proliferated.
Allie’s passing had happened shortly after Daniel Junior’s birth. Some attributed Stephanie’s bitterness to post-partum depression, but it was an anger that never lifted.
Now Stephanie felt how much she missed Allie…and Dad…and…
Thunder from the orchestra pit, signaling the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Future, broke Stephanie’s reverie completely. She watched the rest of the performance in silence.
After Scrooge’s redemption and Tiny Tim’s final “God Bess Us, Everyone," and the curtain call, Stephanie joined in the sustained applause.
As Stephen escorted her out, it struck Stephanie that for a light-hearted play, for such was the way the directors had structured this presentation, the departing audience was incongruously somber. Indeed she found herself still clinging to the fragments of thoughts she had had during the show. Her mind kept going back to her ex.
Outside, Stephen asked if she minded a slight detour. Stephanie readily acquiesced. After all, time was moving so slowly. This still puzzled Stephanie, but it seemed of little import with the other items on her mind.
They walked a number of blocks, to an exclusive section of the City. Stephen led her through a revolving door leading to a chrome and glass tower. Stephanie had not caught the name of the building. She asked what this place was.
“I used to work here," Stephen relied.
“Very impressive,” she thought.
“You do not work here any longer?” she inquired.
Stephen hesitated, then said he now had his own practice. Stephanie grew even more impressed.
At the security station a sign said visitors were required to check in. Yet Stephen led Stephanie directly past; the guards did not even look up. It was as if they could not see the pair. There was a turnstile, which opened to Stephen’s touch.
“How did you do that?” Stephanie wondered.
They took the elevator to a high floor. It was late and it seemed to Stephanie that no one of consequence was in the building. She asked who they were to see.
“Barry,” Stephen simply explained.
“He must be important,” Stephanie said.
Stephen assured her he was.
“I mean, to be working in a place like this, on Christmas Eve and all,” she added wonderingly.
The door to the executive offices required a card key. Stephen however, merely pushed the heavy glass doors open. Inside, Stephanie looked at the plush carpeting and the expensive artwork on the walls. In the distance, down the long hall, a janitor was emptying trash containers. As they got closer Stephen called out, “Barry, how are you?”
The janitor turned. Instantly his ebony features grew to the widest of smiles. “Mr. Angell!” he called out happily.
“This is the important person we came to see?” Stephanie whispered. “He’s just a janitor!”
“And Jesus was just a carpenter,” Stephen said.
He and Barry now met in the center of the wide hallway. They embraced.
The two caught up on news, mutual acquaintances. Stephen asked about other people at “The Firm.” Barry happily relayed some of the office gossip.
Stephen asked after one person in particular. Stephanie thought the name was Blodgett, though it could have been Blanchard, or something close. Barry lost his smile. “No better. He’s nasty, that one. Downright mean to all the employees.”
Stephen shook his head sadly. “I may have to ask Michael to visit him.”
“Michael?” Stephanie asked. “Who is that?”
“Why, he is in charge of…” But Stephen stopped. He cleared his throat.
Then he excused himself. “I forgot my manners.” And he introduced Stephanie to Barry. She was polite but a little distant.
“Mr. Angell arranged this work-study for me,” Barry explained.
Stephen added that this was just Barry’s night job. “By day he is studying medicine.” Stephanie’s view of the janitor brightened a little.
“Your mother is well?” Stephen inquired.
“You know the answer to that,” Barry smiled. “She is so looking forward to tonight. You know we are having this big party. You are coming?”
“Yes, that is why I stopped by,” Stephen said. “I wanted to ask permission to bring a friend.” He nodded at Stephanie.
Barry smiled again. “We are so grateful to you, Mr. Angell. You certainly do not have to ask permission.”
“It is admirable that he is working his way through med school,” Stephanie said afterward, “but why are we wasting time here? And why would I ever want to spend Christmas Eve with a family of…of…”
“Of blacks?” Stephen finished.
Stephanie said that is not exactly what she meant.
“That is exactly what you meant,” Stephen replied. “You just wish you had a more felicitous way of saying it.”
Stephen looked at her earnestly. “My grandmother was a cleaning woman. She was an immigrant. It was the only job she could get. For Christmas my Mother got a few pieces of hard candy. And a roast duckling in their lower East Side tenement. But there was no dishonor. Grandma worked hard, saved to give her kids a boost, and raised a fine family. And…they were happy. They didn’t care that she was a cleaning lady. They didn’t care that they were poor. As I told you, they were happy. That was all the riches they needed.”
Outside the building Stephen said that even if young Barry was only a janitor, he would still be a man of worth. “Like my grandmother.”
Stephanie just listened.
“Now he is a remarkable young man,” Stephen went on. “He is going to be an excellent doctor. You have no idea how many lives he is going to save. And countless others he will enrich.”
Stephanie politely said she was sure Barry would do just fine, but it was too bad they could not read the future to know for sure.
Stephen gave her a surprised look. “Time is a river. The future flow can be discerned. Without a doubt, Barry will accomplish much.”
“Oh, so you can read the future?” Stephanie laughed a little mockingly.
Stephen raised an eyebrow as he adjusted his scarf. “At times.”
IV. The Celebration
When they left Stephen’s former office building they were in the heart of the City. After hearing that the party at Barry’s house was a while off, Stephanie commented, “It looks like we have some time to kill.”
"What is it?’ she asked.
He explained that he deplored killing.
Stephanie giggled. “You’re kidding, right? It’s just an expression.”
“It is not just an expression,” Stephen replied gravely. “It is becoming a way of life for a people increasingly materialistic and violent. Once killing creeps into the accepted lexicon, it becomes easier to do.
“Besides, time is one of our most precious commodities. We should make the most of it. Not kill it.”
He went on to give an example. Two men coming home from the workday are exceedingly tired. One, despite his exhaustion, has a brief dinner and lies on the rug in the family room and rassles with the children. He lets them run over him. He chases them. Tickles a little. Then with his wife gets them ready for bed and tucks them in. The other man lies on the sofa with a beer. He shoos the children out so they cannot disturb his television. He lets his wife put them to bed. “One of these,” Stephen concluded, “killed time and one nurtured it. When each man’s time comes, which will be the wealthier?”
Stephen shook his head sadly. “So much waste.” And he walked a little ahead.
“Gee. It was just a saying,” Stephanie muttered to herself in an apologetic tone. She quickened her pace to catch up. Trying to alter the mood she asked if he cared for a post-theater drink.
Stephen was agreeable and asked where she wanted to go.
They were standing before a mighty restaurant. “Why, any place will be fine. Where I would like to go is out of the question.”
When Stephen wondered why, she motioned to the exclusive spot just before them. “Le Fleur”, the sign said. “This is the latest rage. So shee-shee. But you cannot get in. They say the waiting list is 18 months. And that is with reservations.”
Stephen chuckled. As he headed up the grand steps of La Fleur, Stephanie thought she heard him again say, “Oh ye of little faith.”
“We are not even dressed for it!” she called up the steps. Her date kept on, nonplussed. “Well this ought to be rich,” she grinned and thought, “OK, here I come. Let’s see how quickly you get tossed on your smarty-pants pants.”
To her surprise, the maître d’, headwaiter and doorman all greeted Stephen affably.
“Monsieur, it is once again a distinct honor.” They took Stephanie’s coat and seated them.
“But…but…people do not just walk in off the street to Le Fleur,” Stephanie protested. “They just do not.”
“Then how did we get in here?” Stephen taunted. “Flying carpet?”
Stephanie noticed several elegant-looking couples being turned away. One was the lead singer for a major new band.
“All right, Mister!” Stephanie demanded. “I want the truth!”
“You and Diogenes,” Stephen quipped.
“No. Really! These odd things that happen around you. They just cannot be. What is it with you?”
“Kindness.” He spoke so softly he could scarcely be heard.
“Kindness,” Stephanie repeated dully.
“What kind of crap is that? Roads appear where they weren’t before. Restaurants too. Time almost stops. You get front row seats where there is not even supposed to be a theater, elegant dining where pop superstars cannot get in. And you are sitting there with that silly grin and telling me it is all because of kindness? What kind of fool do you take me for?”
Stephen had been tugging at the fringes of his scarf during Stephanie’s harangue. He looked intently into her eyes, speaking softly. “You are an exceptionally profound kind of fool. You spend your life chasing after things that do not matter, hurting people who do, and at the end wonder why you are not happy. Kindness…and love…fuel the universe.”
Their drinks came. Stephanie fingered hers absently. “Kindness.” She repeated the word several times. Then she shook her head once. “It just does not make sense.”
“It would if you could only hear.”
Stephanie took on an indignant tone. “I am a very good listener.”
Stephen disagreed. “Perhaps. But you do not hear.”
“More riddles?” she challenged.
“More truth. To set you free,” he said. “Listen to them,” he nodded with his head to the next table. An older, middle-aged couple was there. The man had an exquisite watch and the woman was bedecked in jewels. The tables at Le Fleur were close together, but Stephanie was nonetheless surprised at how much of the dinner conversation she could make out. It was as if there was a volume control that somehow brought her right into the next table’s conversation.
The man had a paper of some sort that he was perusing. The woman was applying blush to her cheeks. The man spoke.
“Ah, dee-ah, did you remember to leave a Christmas tip for the manager at the country club? I do need to be sure to get the best tee times.”
“Yaas, of course,” she said, quickly adding, “I do miss Jennie this year.”
The man’s cell phone rang. In short order he was engrossed in a brief business discussion.
When he punched off he said, “Was the broker. Wants me to sell my lot in Allied.”
To which the lady replied, “Claurisse at the beautician’s this morning asked if Jennie would be home for the holidays.”
“I would be a practical fool to sell Allied,” he said. “It still has such upside.”
Stephanie whispered to Stephen that the couple was not paying attention to each other.
“They certainly are not hearing one another,” he agreed. “They have enough money to buy this restaurant, and dozens more. But they are not really happy. Just two lonely people caught on a merry-go-round.” Stephen sighed. “There are too many like these.” He looked directly at Stephanie. Then nodded at the adjoining table.
Before Stephanie could comment, Stephen said, “Perhaps it is time for us to go.”
Stephanie realized he had not paid for their drinks, to which Stephen explained that he had an account.
Outside Stephanie said, “You know, I have to tell you. This has been one of the weirdest dates I have ever been on.”
“Tell me about it,” Stephen deadpanned. “Come. We are expected at Barry’s home.”
Stephanie asked him where it was.
Upon hearing the address, she shrieked, “That is over 60 blocks away. Aren’t we taking a cab?”
Stephen said the walk would be fast. Stephanie was about to argue the point strenuously when she saw the approaching street sign at the next intersection. “It is not possible!” she exclaimed. For they had already gone 56 blocks.
Though of greater interest at the moment was the area they were in. To say it was run down would do a disservice to all things dilapidated. It was truly a horrendous part of the City. The buildings were tumble down, soot-covered. Trash littered parts of the sidewalk and the street.
Stephanie asked if they were safe here.
“It is a poor neighborhood. Not a penal colony.” Stephen explained, “Why do you equate that which is grim with crime?”
Then Stephanie heard music. It was different.
They were in front of a building. Stephen led the way in. Stephanie gulped, and pulled her jacket a little tighter up to her chin.
Stephen indicated the stairwell. The family was on the seventh floor.
“Why don’t we take the elevator?” she asked.
Stephen looked at her like she had three heads. “In this part of the City there is as much a chance of a working elevator as there is of life on Neptune.”
They trudged up the stairs. As they went up, the music grew louder. In front of the apartment door, Stephanie recognized the music. “Calypso, isn’t it?”
Stephen nodded. “Originally they were from the Caribbean.”
Stephanie smiled a little. She recognized the steel drum version of “Jingle Bells.”
As Stephen reached for the doorknob, Stephanie suggested they should knock.
Stephen disagreed. “Maybe at your house. Besides, with all the noise going on, they would never hear us.” And he led the way in.
Stephen looked at Stephanie and she grinned. So many senses were filled at once. And they were all pleasurable. The melodies. People in brightly colored outfits, some in suits, dancing, talking, laughing. The smells. Stephanie could not place it, but the smell of wonderful food drifted through her nostrils and made her mouth water.
“Mister Stephen!” Barry’s voice boomed out. “Welcome!” he shouted. “I just got here myself.” He greeted Stephanie and led the two in.
Most everyone greeted Stephen familiarly, warmly. “It’s like he’s running for office,” Stephanie thought to herself.
A pretty young woman materialized and gave Stephen a long embrace. She looked questioningly at Stephanie. Stephen made the introductions. The pretty, young woman was Barry’s sister, Toneesha.
As she looked closely, beyond the festive touches added for the season, Stephanie realized how poor the inhabitants of this apartment truly were. The dishes were chipped and cracked. There were no up-to-date conveniences. The TV and CD players were quite old. The upholstery was threadbare. But what struck Stephanie most of all was how immaculate everything was. A cup, where the handle had clearly cracked, had been carefully glued back in place. The sofa had been re-stitched in spots. These people were so poor, but had such pride in their home.
Soon someone whisked Stephanie away and she was in a large circle dancing. The steel drum was doing a medley of Christmas and island favorites. She forgot that she and Stephen were the only white faces in the apartment.
After a while, Stephanie was sweating and panting. But she was also laughing. The dancing had been so exhilarating, so liberating. Someone else led her to the food table. She had a fruitcake, a real, delectable one with real fruit, and a small plate of the most wonderful delicacies.
She spied Stephen talking to a stooped, gray-haired lady. Stephanie made her way over. Stephen introduced her to Mama. The old lady was very gracious in welcoming Stephanie. “Honey, you are so welcome here because you are a friend of Stephen’s.” Then with a conspiratorial wink she added, “He’s my guardian angel, you know.” Stephanie nodded politely.
When she had a moment alone at the food table with Stephen, she added, “Why are we here?”
“Aren’t you having a good time?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes, of course. But we don’t belong here.”
“Actually, we do,” he corrected her. “Mama has specifically requested that I be here. And you are my date. At least for tonight,” he added a little slyly.
“You see,” Stephen explained, “Mama is dying. Found out last year. Her one wish was to live to see a last Christmas. And,” he smiled broadly, “her prayers have been answered.”
“So how do you figure in?” Stephanie pursued.
“Why should it matter to you?” he answered. “‘Sick people should not be out in this cold anyway. If they are that incredibly stupid, they deserve to be in pain,’ don’t you think?”
Stephanie’s jaw dropped. “How did you…I…I…should never have said that…”
Toneesha came over and thanked Stephen profusely. The she turned to Stephanie. “You hang on to
him, Girl. He’s better than a good luck charm.” Stephen had an “aw shucks” grin.
Before Stephanie could ask, when they were again alone a moment, Stephen continued to explain. Mama was supposed to die last year. She desperately wanted to see the entire family for one last Christmas. That was her fervent prayer. She had the entire congregation at the Church pray for her. “And I,” Stephen said quietly, “I helped her get through that period. And here she is. She got her Christmas wish.”
“You helped her…” Stephanie repeated. “They say so much is controlled by our minds. You must be a very good psychiatrist.” She squeezed his arm and Stephen smiled. Then she asked, “Will Mama live?”
“None of us will live forever,” he said quietly.
“You know what I mean.”
Stephen shook his head. “No. She will be gone soon. The cancer is very strong in her.”
He paused, then went on. “What does it matter? These people are poor. Mama is sick. Just a burden on society now. They have so little to contribute.”
Stephanie was about to protest. She caught herself. She grimaced. “You are setting me up. You want me to say that although they are poor, they have so much joy and love to share. Like Tiny Tim’s family.”
Stephen cocked his head. “Tonight we saw rich people without love and poor people awash in warmth. I am not trying to trick you into saying anything. Draw your own conclusions. Which are happier? Which will touch the face of God? Your life is so busy, so busy, so cluttered. This evening I have given you a chance to enjoy the quiet. Where it is peaceful and you can look to your own heart.”
He excused himself to visit some of the family members. Stephanie watched the festivities. The littlest children had made a card and had given it to the old, sick lady. In it they promised Mama they would grow up to be God-fearing people.
Stephanie had a sad smile as she watched Mama hug the grandchildren. Stephanie saw a beat-up chair by the window. She sat down and gazed out the window. After a while a rustle brought her out of her reverie. Mama had pulled up a folding chair and sat next to her.
Stephanie commented on what a fine party it was.
Mama’s eyes crinkled. “We always get together Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and celebrate. This year is extra special.” Mama gave a wink, like she had just pulled a fast one. “I will leave with the best of memories.” Without thinking, Stephanie patted the old woman’s hand. Mama went on.
“It’s also a chance for me to leave good memories for them.” She indicated the roomful of friends and family with a sweep of her gnarled hand. She made a racking cough. Concerned, Stephanie asked if she was all right. Mama said she would be just fine.
“Lots of people done more than me in their lives,” Mama said. “Bus-ness people, movie stars, politicians. But when they gone, no one will remember. You know who was our senators in 1930?” Stephanie did not.
“Nah. They didn’t leave a mark. Same for those who ran the big corporations. Rich people think they have it all. You remember the saying that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame?” Stephanie nodded. “Well, when they die, no one remembers them fifteen minutes after they’s gone. What kind of life is that worth leaving?”
“When I go,” here she coughed again, “my children and grandchildren will still have me here.” Mama patted her hand over her heart.
“You got a child?” Mama asked.
Stephanie said she did.
Toneesha came back as soon as Mama had left. She asked Stephanie if she knew where Stephen had gone to. Stephanie did not know.
“I am so grateful that Mama got a little lease on life, but soon she’ll be gone…” Toneesha’s face contorted and tears flowed. “Oh, I’m going to miss her so much!” Stephanie felt a little awkward. She hugged the young black woman and patted her back. As she did, the awkwardness faded.
After some time Toneesha pulled back. Stephanie gave her a tissue and Toneesha dabbed her tears. “Thank you,” she spoke softly. “People must say you are a kind person.” Stephanie gave a derisive snort. It was so slight, Toneesha did not notice as she turned to go back into the party.
Suddenly she faced Stephanie again. “You have a child, right?”
“Yes,” Stephanie said. “A boy.”
Toneesha smiled sadly. “Don’t ever stop asking yourself: What do I mean to him?” Then she left for good.
“What do I mean to him? Stephanie echoed. She again turned to the window and the night sky.
She kept staring at the void. Stephanie absently placed her hand over her heart. She pulled it away and stared at her palm with the same detached vision she had had of the dark, empty sky. “Nothing at all,” she whispered the answer to her hand.
She held her head in her hands and a small sob came out. Stephanie wiped at a tear. Then she hopped off the chair and scanned the room for Stephen. As it turned out, he was right there, watching her.
“I need to go,” she said. “Now.”
Stephen looked at her deeply. He nodded in understanding.
Escorting Stephanie by the elbow, Stephen made their goodbyes. They walked down the stairs.
Outside, Stephanie’s car was at the curb.
“But we walked here. We left it downtown,” she said.
Stephen replied that he had had the car brought here. Stephanie did not question this. Her mind was preoccupied.
As Stephen opened the door for her, Stephanie glanced at her watch. She sighed.
“Problem?” Stephen inquired.
“There is one other gift I need to get, but it is too late now. The stores are definitely closed.” Her eyes were moist.
“What did you want to get?” Stephen asked. Stephanie told him. He held the door for her. Before closing it he snapped his fingers. “I have an idea. Wait here.” And he jogged back into the apartment building.
After several moments, Stephen returned with an elderly black man.
“This is Lester.” Stephen introduced the man, who tipped his cap at Stephanie. “He works in a store nearby.”
“What kind of store?” Stephanie asked.
“Sporting goods,” Lester said as he produced a set of keys. Stephanie practically flew out of the car. She flung her arms around Lester and kissed him.
Stephen drove, Lester opened, Stephanie purchased, and they dropped Lester back at the party. Then the two were off. Again the roads were practically deserted and in no time they were in Stephanie’s hometown.
Stephen drove to the Church. “I will get out here,” he said. “I have a few…er…errands to run.”
“Here?” Stephanie asked.
He pulled the car to the back of the parking lot. It bordered the cemetery.
Just before getting out, Stephen caressed Stephanie’s face. His eyes crinkled in warmth. “Take care of yourself, Stephanie.” He paused. “Oh, and thanks for letting me drive one more time. I enjoyed it.” He reached for the door handle.
“Wait!” Stephanie called. “Will I see you again?”
Stephen smiled. “That’s up to you. I’ll be at midnight Mass.”
Just a few hours from now.
He got out of the car and strode briskly toward the cemetery.
Stephanie slid over and put the car in gear. Suddenly she stopped with a lurch. “I didn't thank him.” She told herself.
She got out and turned in the direction he had walked. She looked left and right. But there was no sign of Stephen. “Boy, does he walk fast.”
Stephanie shrugged and got back in the car and started to drive. She was not bothered because she figured she would find him in a little while and thank him for the evening.
As she headed for the short ride home, Stephanie thought to herself, “It was a weird date, but he is an excellent counselor. Am I glad I bumped into him.”
As she drove, she started to giggle. Then Stephanie turned it into a solid belly laugh. She laughed so hard she had tears. When it subsided, she said with a grin, “You are one odd duck, Stephen Angell.”
V. The Incarnation
Young Dan Grell rubbed his eyes when he heard Stephanie’s car in the driveway. “There goes my peaceful Christmas Eve,” he mused.
His discomfort grew to massive proportions when he heard his mother slam the car door and cry out, “Dan! Dan!” Dan wondered what sort of trouble awaited him now.
He walked cautiously to the front door, in time to see his mother hurrying up the walkway. “Come on!” she called. “Get your jacket on!”
Dan noticed her hair was askew, which wasn’t like her. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Nowhere!” she laughed, and gave his tummy an affectionate tickle. “We’re just going to the driveway. You wanted to practice your tennis, didn’t you?”
“Well yes, but…”
“But nothing. There is no time like the present. Let’s go!”
Stephanie ran to the garage and grabbed her racquet. Dan had donned his light jacket and had also gotten his racquet.
“There are no courts open,” Dan reasonably pointed out.
“Who needs courts?” Stephanie laughed. “We will improvise. The garage light should be sufficient. Let’s use the driveway.”
“Uh, ok,” the perplexed boy replied.
“You go to the end of the driveway, by the road,” Stephanie instructed. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
She had also grabbed a bucket of tennis balls and ran to the opposite end of the driveway, where her car was parked.
“Ready?” she called out.
Dan still did not understand her odd behavior, but he nodded. He had a thought that perhaps he would have to call a doctor.
Stephanie tossed a ball to the boy, and watched intently as he hit it toward the garage. The closed garage door acted as a buffer to stop the balls. Stephanie repeated the drill, about a half dozen times.
“Wait!” she called down the driveway, and ran to her son. “Here’s your problem,” she said. She explained how he was dropping his arm a certain way, causing him to lose power. “Watch me,” she said. Stephanie demonstrated the proper form.
“Now. You try.”
Dan swung without the ball, several times. Stephanie made a few minor suggestions, but expressed overall pleasure at Dan’s adaptability. “Now let’s try it again with balls this time.”
She tossed more balls to him. This time, Dan’s returns were crisper, better placed. Much more powerful.
No sooner did the bucket of balls run out than Stephanie ran all over the driveway retrieving them. She then tossed another bucket full of balls to her son. And again.
One time, Dan hit a ball that slammed into the rear fender of Stephanie’s car.
Fearing severe chastisement based on past experience, Dan dropped his racquet and raced over. “I’m so sorry, Mom! We’d better stop!” He went to see what damage had occurred.
Dan practically fell down at Stephanie’s response. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “It is only a car. Let’s play some more!”
Dan decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and resumed his lesson. As he played on, he realized he was getting better. And as he played on he did not realize, consciously that is, that his inhibitions over his mother were fading and he was truly enjoying himself.
After another bucket, Stephanie cried out, “Oh, I feel so stupid! I forgot!” She motioned Dan over to the car. Reaching into the car she handed the boy a package.
“Merry Christmas!” she called out, grinning.
“But it’s not Christmas yet,” Dan pointed out. They usually exchanged gifts, a rather cold, brief affair, on Christmas Day itself.
“Oh, Christmas is for when you need it,” Stephanie giggled. “Go on,” she prodded, motioning to the package.
Dan’s eyes widened as he tore open the gift. “It’s…how did you…”
Stephanie enjoyed his pleasure. “Merry Christmas, Dan.”
Dan clutched his brand new, high tech Nimbus 2000 tennis racquet. “Thanks, Mom!” and they hugged.
The boy motioned to his new racquet. “This costs a fortune. Are you all right, Mom?”
Stephanie’s expression grew serious. “I have not been all right. I let too many things get in the way. But I am all right now.
“Dan, I promise you things are going to be better from now on.” She hugged the smiling boy again. And told him she would drive him and his friends to the Christmas tournament. And from now on, she would be at all his matches.
Stephanie glanced at her watch. “Oh my. We had better get ready for Church. Midnight Mass always fills up well before midnight.”
“Church?” the puzzled boy asked.
“I would like to go. With you. Tonight. And every Sunday.”
“Also,” Stephanie went on, “Let’s check the refrigerator. I want to see what we have. Let’s prepare a feast for the holiday.”
Examining the stock, Stephanie said, “How about tomorrow morning you help me. We’ve got a ham, a roast, pasta. And I will make an apple pie and some fresh bread.
“And I would like to go to the hospital tomorrow. Good Samaritan is sponsoring a caroling trip there. Want to join me? Of course I would understand if you don’t. At your age and all.”
Dan shook his head in disbelief. “My friends might think it’s strange, but you know what? I’ve always wanted to do Christmassy things. We’ll be like almost a family.”
“Yes,” Stephanie happily agreed. “A family.” She paused over the thought of the “almost.” Dan watched her as she got a faraway look in her eyes.
“Mom?” he interrupted her at last. “All that food we’re going to cook. It’ll be too much for us.”
“Well. I have an idea,” she replied. “We can invite a guest.”
“It will be a surprise,” she smiled, “if I can reach him. Now come on, we had better get ready. Let’s get on our Sunday best.” Which they proceeded to do.
They got to Church later than Stephanie had hoped, but still in time to get seats. Stephanie looked at the floral decorations, the crèche scene, the candles. It was as if she was seeing it all for the first time.
As it got closer to twelve, the crowd mobbed in. Churchgoers lined the aisles. Ushers even placed a few in extra seats where the choir sat, behind the altar.
Stephanie leaned over to Dan. “Most of these people are the ones who only come once a year.”
Dan replied, “Mom, WE don’t even come once a year.”
Stephanie mussed his hair. “Not anymore.”
When the service started, it seemed to Dan that his mother was the happiest person in the Church. She sang the carols more joyously and hung on the priest’s every word during the sermon. All in all she gloried in the pageantry. When the deacon passed by with the thurible, Stephanie whispered to her son, “I always loved this part when I was a girl.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply as the scent of the incense took her back to another happy time.
She kept patting Dan’s forearm, something she had not done in years, not since he was tiny. Dan did not mind. He rather enjoyed the new feeling. Dan’s silent prayer was that this good time would last.
When Mass ended, some people left quickly, but many hung around, chatting in small clusters, wishing one another a “Merry” and a “Happy” and the “Healthiest.” Stephanie stayed also, through to the last note of the choir’s recessional.
During services she had scanned the congregation, eventually picking out people. Now she told Dan she had to see someone. She hurried over to Mary, her secretary. Mary was chatting happily with another couple. One of Mary’s daughters clung to the hem of her mother’s somewhat threadbare coat. Mary’s husband and the other children were talking excitedly to another family.
From his vantage point, Mary’s husband was the first to see Stephanie approach. He walked to his wife’s side, figuring she might need the support. He had heard much about this evil woman, although Mary had always said, “Mrs. Grell is just lonely and frustrated.” Mary did not see Stephanie, since her back was to her. So Stephanie cleared her throat, a sound so familiar it made Mary’s skin crawl.
In a very serious voice, Stephanie said, “Mary, I need you to get to the office tomorrow, after Christmas Day, about 15 minutes early!”
Mary turned, wondering why this voice seemed so out of place in the Church. She was barely able to stammer, “Early? Tomorrow? Yes, Ma’am.”
Her husband flushed with anger. “Oh, can’t you give it a rest! Tonight of all nights!” He took a menacing step toward Stephanie.
Stephanie was confused for a second. Then she held her palms up in a gesture of innocence and said to Mary and her husband, with a mild titter, “You do not understand. No, of course not. I have never given you reason to.”
Mary wondered what in the world was coming next.
“Mary,” Stephanie said, “I want you to make a modest revision to the business plan. I am telling Mr. Peabody that I do not wish to be considered for the regional manager post.”
To say Mary was shocked was understatement. “But…but…Ms. Grell…you mean to let Pamela…?”
Stephanie said, “In the first place, please stop with the Ms. Grell. It’s Stephanie.” And she smiled at Mary, who still wasn't sure what was happening. She gave an awkward smile in return.
“In the second,” Stephanie continued, “There is no way on God’s green earth I would let Pamela get that job. She is not qualified, lacks strategic vision and she is not a nice person.” She paused a moment before adding with a laugh, “And that’s coming from me!”
Mary laughed involuntarily and Stephanie said, “You don’t have to laugh so approvingly.”
“No, Ma’am. Certainly not, Ma’am,” Mary said.
Stephanie laughed again and took Mary’s hand. With her other hand she held Mary by the elbow. “Remember. It’s Stephanie, Mary. I want you to change the business plan to put your name on it.”
“What!” Now Mary figured her boss had had a nervous breakdown. Or she herself was hallucinating. Unknowingly, she fanned herself with her hand.
Stephanie went on. “I am going to convince Mr. Peabody to promote you to the job. I need to make more time for my family. I will still work at the firm, but I cannot take on any more responsibilities.
“You are actually the best qualified. You have the institutional memory, sound judgment, common sense, people skills…”
Mary cut her off. “Mr. Peabody would never agree.”
“Trust me,” Stephanie said. “I know I can convince him.”
“I don’t know,” Mary was flustered. “It’s such a big step. Am I capable?”
“I will help you,” Stephanie said comfortingly.
“Your pay will be almost double,” Stephanie jumped back in.
Mary’s eyes widened a little and she said, “Let’s get that damn work plan fixed up!”
Mary looked at her husband, who was at last smiling. Then she turned back to Stephanie. “Thank you...Stephanie,” she spoke softly.
“I have not said this before,” Stephanie said, “but thank you for years of service, and for putting up with me. After all that, you deserve this job.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Mary blurted out before thinking. Then she grew sheepish, and both women laughed.
Stephanie wished Mary and her family the best of Christmases. She felt great and was smiling broadly.
“By the way,” she added, “Mary, if I or anyone like me acts viciously, like a…like a…”
“Like a Grell?” Mary inquired helpfully.
“Yes,” Stephanie smiled, “like a Grell. Fire them. Even if it’s me.”
“I would,” Mary said. “By the way, you know this will drive Pamela nuts.”
Stephanie’s smile grew even wider. “Yes. Yes, I guess it will.”
Stephanie headed out now and there standing on the walkway was someone she felt she had to make amends to.
As she approached him, he started to back away. Actually, he pretended not to see Stephanie and ushered his wife to the steps down to the parking lot. But Stephanie called out his name. It was the coffee shop proprietor.
When Stephanie saw the look of abject horror her greeting caused, she felt even giddier, for she realized that the news she brought would be that much more joyous.
“Sir! I may have neglected to tell you…that is to say, what I mean is…Oh bother! THANK YOU!”
”Thank you for the best coffee in the world, for a sincere smile every morning for every customer, and for helping me get through so many mornings.”
The coffee man smiled hesitantly. He figured some other shoe was about to drop. After moments of silence he said simply but haltingly, “You’re welcome.”
Stephanie beamed. He beamed in return. Mrs. Coffee joined in the beaming.
They turned to leave. Stephanie called, “Wait! There is one other thing!” Mr. Coffee faced Stephanie with a look as unwelcome as if he were facing a firing squad. He guessed that now the other shoe surely would drop.
It did, but not the sort of shoe he was expecting.
Stephanie told him she wanted to throw a big holiday party for her co-workers. And she wanted him to cater it.
To say Mr. Coffee was surprised was understatement. He thanked her and offered to get a price list the next business day or, if she preferred, to submit a bid.
“No,” Stephanie giggled. “Spare no expense. I want you to cater the grandest office party there has ever been. Do not worry about the cost!”
The coffee man practically fell over himself, he was so profuse in his gratitude. Coming at what would be a quiet time of year for his small business, this was indeed a grand Christmas gift. Surely, he told his wife, she could get that fancy, schmancy coat she had dreamed of. The older lady gave her husband a smooch. Stephanie saw it and felt very much alive.
The crowd was thinning. Mostly families and friends of the Church’s adult choir, along with a few happy stragglers. Stephanie thought to find Dan. In the dwindling crowd he was not hard to find. The boy was talking…to his father.
Stephanie approached and this time saw terror in Daniel Senior’s face. ”I wanted to reach you,” she said seriously, “but I did not expect to see you here. You were never much of a Church-goer.”
Daniel looked down. He hadn’t shaved. And his clothes, well, they were not his Sunday best.
“I had nowhere else to go,” he said. “And it’s Christmas. I figured with no job and all…well I figured it couldn’t hurt to visit the Lord’s house.
Then he straightened. "You wanted to see me?” He seemed surprised.
“Yes. About the matter we discussed earlier this morning.”
Daniel’s eyes grew wide. His jaw trembled. “Please, Stephanie. I will find a way to pay you. I promise. Please give me just a little time. It’s Christmas.”
“It’s Christmas!” she roared. Two of the old choir ladies looked over. Stephanie gave them a look of unspeakable menace and they immediately averted their gaze. She looked at Daniel and continued in her stern voice, “And because it’s Christmas I suppose you think it is a time for forgiving one’s debts and obligations?”
Before Daniel could answer she chuckled, “Well, so it is! I do not want your money anymore, Daniel. Happy Christmas!”
Daniel was stunned. He looked at their son.
The boy chirped, “She has been acting kind of loopy, Dad. But don’t complain.”
Stephanie heard it and laughed. “No. I may have been loopy before, but not now. Not ever again.”
Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “Stephanie, thank you. But I still must keep my responsibilities. I just need time. Surely there is something you want that I can do in the interim.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Yes there is.
“I want you to spend Christmas with us. We are going caroling in the morning and then we are preparing a Christmas feast.”
Dan Junior jumped in. “You mean it, Mom! Wow, this is great!” And he flew into her arms.
Then Stephanie caressed her former husband’s cheek, much in the same way Stephen had caressed hers. She spoke quietly. “Then we will spruce up your resume,” she smoothed his jacket collar. “Clean and press your suit, and we will make a few calls…and get you the good job you deserve.”
Daniel just looked at her. He was not sure what to make of this transformation. “Thank…thank you,” he said simply. "Merry Christmas, Stephanie.”
Stephanie had tears in her eyes. “Merry Christmas, Daniel.” And she hugged him dearly.
Stephanie asked him if he could do her a favor. He readily consented.
She wanted him to drive Dan Junior home and wait with him until she got home. “It will not be long,” Stephanie assured them. “There is someone I have to see.”
“A guy?” Daniel asked.
“Yes,” Stephanie replied. “No. I mean yes.
“Listen, I have only known him a very short time, but he has become a very dear friend. I owe him a thank you. He is supposed to be here.
“Daniel, he is not…not a romantic interest. I thought so at first, but it is not that. Actually, there has not been another man in my life since you.”
“I dated some since we split,” Daniel said, “but it did not work out.”
Stephanie looked down. Very quietly she said, “Dan, maybe it could work again for us. I would really like that.”
Daniel’s grin could have lit up the Church. "I would too.” And they hugged even more fiercely, while their son looked over at the baby Jesus in the manger and whispered, “Thank you!”
Father and son left, the Dad’s arm across the boy’s back. Stephanie smiled. Then she looked around the Church. There were very few clusters of worshippers now. She walked past each. No sign of Stephen.
Stephanie thought it so unlike Stephen, who struck her as organized to the point of fastidiousness. If he said he planned on being here, then neither heaven nor hell could budge him from his resolve.
She walked outside, but there was no one on the sidewalk. She walked through the parking lot. Stephen was not near any of the remaining cars.
“I really want to see you again,” Stephanie whispered, the breath leaving a white puff of frost in the chill air.
She heard laughter and turned around. The last group of churchgoers was leaving the building. As they walked to their cars, Stephanie passed them, going back into the Church one last time.
The only person left was the priest. He had a candle snuffer and was about to extinguish the candles. Stephanie sighed audibly and turned to go.
“May I help you, dear?” the white-haired priest asked.
“No, thank you, Father. I was looking for a friend who I spent the earlier part of the evening with. He promised he would be here.”
“Well the Church was very crowded this evening,” the priest offered helpfully. “Maybe you missed him in the crowd. Is he a parishioner? Perhaps I saw him.”
“I don’t know,” Stephanie said. “His name is Stephen Angell.”
The old priest dropped the snuffer with a start. Stephanie saw a look of recognition. She became excited.
“You saw him, Father? Where?”
The priest gasped. “In the cemetery. I was…walking…earlier.”
Stephanie cut him off. “He would not still be there, would he?”
The priest nodded.
“Thank you, Father!” she cried out and off she ran.
“Wait! Dear!” the old priest called out, at last regaining his voice. But Stephanie was clearly gone and only the echoes remained. The priest slumped against the altar, the candles still burning.
The cemetery was a large oval behind the Church parking lot. Actually it was three ovals, the largest section in the middle, with two smaller ovals on each side. It was so large, a paved roadway surrounded the plots. Behind these were houses. Stephanie figured Stephen either went for a walk or lived back there. There was so much ground to cover and she could easily miss him on foot. So she ran to her car and decided to drive.
As she opened her door, Stephanie felt, then saw, the first fluttering of what would be a gentle snowfall. It was still unseasonably warm, and there had been no hint of this on the weather forecasts. Stephanie stretched out her arms and looked up to the heavens. She opened her mouth to drink in the flakes. Laughing she yelled out, “Merry Christmas!” Then she got in her car and turned the wipers on.
She reached the far end of the circular drive. No one in sight. As she rounded the bend that would lead back to the Church, something caught her eye.
She quickly backed up a few yards and angled the car a little, for a better view. She switched on the high beams. No one was there and it was quite dark. But if someone were there, even in the black of night they would have seen Stephanie’s face grow white. “Oh my God!” she whispered.
She hurried out of the car and approached the site for a better look. Then she fell to her knees and began to cry softly. She reached out her hand to brush away the snow. As she did so, a thought popped into her head.
Stephanie jumped up like a woman possessed, left her car and raced to the Church. She hurtled gravestones and bushes, and slid once or twice in the gathering snow, but managed to keep her footing.
“Father! Father!” the old priest heard the woman calling out.
Stephanie raced back into the Church, almost breathless. She fished in her pocket and produced a small wad of bills. “Father! A Christmas donation!” She fairly flung the bills at the old priest. “Please! I must have some holly! Can I have some?” The altar was filled with arranged holly.
Sensing the hand of the Divine, the priest nodded.
Stephanie ran past the priest, grabbed a huge armful of holly, mindless of the stickers, and ran back to the cemetery, calling out, “Thank you, Father! Thank you!
Many Christmases have passed since that evening. The parishioners gossip about the old woman, who has some idiosyncrasies as old people are bound to have.
Some say that she was once a mean-spirited person. But others hush them up, saying how dare they malign one whose good deeds have become legendary in the tiny community.
Regardless of which side of the debate people are on as to the old lady’s past, there is no disagreement about the strangest of her oddities. Some say the old lady does it for a friend. Others say she does it for a lover, in the brief period she and her husband, now deceased, were apart. Still others say she is just a little off, because of her age, and she does it for a complete stranger. Whatever the view, all who notice marvel at the Christmas ritual.
For every Christmas Day, the old lady brings a bouquet of holly, and lays it on the grave of Stephen Angell.