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.”