The seventh and final in my Christmas short story / flash fiction series. Enjoy!
I hesitated as I rounded the corner and hunkered into my down jacket.
Half a block ahead, a grizzled and unkempt man sat with his back against the brick wall. He wore a stocking hat and overcoat, both of which had seen better days. Without gloves, he rubbed his hands together and blew warm breath onto his fingers.
Maybe if I had seen him sooner I could have crossed the street. I thought about turning around but he caught me with his gaze.
What’s the big deal? you might wonder. I felt bad enough whenever I walked by a beggar on a normal day, but Christmas Eve?
I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets and sighed.
“Hey, Mister?” the man said with a gravelly voice. “You got some change?”
“Sorry.” I quickened my pace.
“Merry Christmas!” he said to my back.
My heart sunk. I had a dollar in my wallet. I suppose I could have given it to him though it wasn’t much but I wasn’t turning back.
In three more blocks, I reached my destination. Bart’s Cafe on Fourth Avenue had existed longer than I had been alive and I was certain they hadn’t changed the fryer grease in those thirty-four years, either. Mom used to work there. I was three when she died. Dad helped keep her memory alive by taking me and my older brother to the diner every Christmas Eve. I hadn’t been in a decade, neither had Dad or Aaron. I wouldn’t have gone that year except I needed the solace of familiarity.
I stepped inside, pulled off my gloves and scarf, and welcomed the warmth. There were only two other patrons, a waitress in a green elf’s hat, and a cook who chomped on gum and shot the breeze with a man on a barstool.
I sat at the opposite end of the bar. The waitress approached and asked what I wanted. “Double cheeseburger with mustard and extra onions,” I replied. I thought about the homeless man I passed. “Actually, you know what, make that two. No onions on the second. And two coffees to go.”
“You want anything with that? The slaw is fresh.”
“Two orders of fries.”
“K, hon. It’ll be a few minutes.” She relayed my order to the cook.
I rubbed my face and then played with my wedding ring. It was my and Katie’s tenth Christmas together. I was afraid it would be our last. We had opened presents that morning, a tradition of our own, then she took the kids to see her parents. I hadn’t been invited on the trip. The year hadn’t been easy, especially after I lost a second job in six-month’s time. We argued almost every night, a few times in front of the kids at supper, something we had once vowed never to do. We were drifting. I had spent more nights sleeping on the couch than I had in our bed.
How could two people once so in love find themselves so far apart?
Neither of us had cheated. We didn’t hate each other. We just couldn’t get ourselves on the same page. A friend had recommended counseling. We had gone a few times but even those sessions often ended in verbal tussles.
We were worn down and tired. Josh and Hannah felt it, too.
The waitress brought me the food, two takeout containers in a plastic shopping bag. She ran my card. I added a ten-dollar tip and scrawled Merry Christmas! across the receipt.
The man still sat where I had passed him. He gave a curt nod, likely thinking I would walk by again. Instead, I asked if I could join.
“No one’s ever asked that.” He gestured to the sidewalk.
“Sorry, I was rude.”
He shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
I handed him a box. “I don’t have cash to give you but no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. I hope you like cheeseburgers.”
He smiled. “I love them.”
I held out my hand. He shook it. “My name’s Kenton.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“What’s your story?” Gus asked, his mouth full of cheeseburger.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. If I hadn’t been here, you’d have been alone.”
I chuckled. He had a point. I told him my reason.
“That’s rough,” he said.
“Do you still love her?”
I rumpled my brow. “Of course.”
The man glanced at me and grinned. “Then why, Kenton, are you sitting here talking to a lonely old man?”
I slowly chewed my bite, pondering what he meant.
“Go to her,” he whispered.
I stood. He was right. I gave him the rest of my food.
“You might need this.” Gus reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box.
“What is it?”
“Take a look.”
I opened the box and inside was a necklace with two butterflies. Katie loved butterflies. I had bought her a necklace like it when we dated. Somewhere along the way she had lost it. Neither of us could quite remember when.
“How’d you…” I glanced up. Gus was gone. The boxes were still on the concrete where we sat. I looked left, then right. He couldn’t have disappeared that quickly. My eyes returned to the locket. Whatever happened with Gus or whoever he actually was, I knew what I had to do.
It was a three-hour drive. I arrived just as the sun was setting. Many of my in-law’s neighbors tried to outdo each other with their display of lights. The little white and brick house that sat on the corner, however, had simple strings of white running along the gutters. Things didn’t have to be complicated.
That’s what I forgot.
Spend time with her. Listen. Enjoy life with her and our children.
I parked, ran to the door of that white and brick house, and rang the bell in a frenzy.
“Okay, okay, coming!” my mother-in-law hollered.
She opened the door. “Kenton?”
Katie sat on the floor playing Candyland with Josh. She glanced up. I smiled.
The next week, we walked hand-in-hand down the street. Katie wanted to see what after-Christmas deals the stores and shops promoted. Across the street, I saw a familiar face. A young man stopped and handed him a bottle of water.
“I have to do something.” I started toward the street.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back! Give me a moment!” I called as I jogged to the unkempt man. “Hi, Gus.”
The man stared at me with yellowing brown eyes.
“I wanted to say thank you again.”
“Do I know you?”
I gazed at the man, unsure what to think about him, his question, or what had happened. I carried a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet that time. Instead of pressing him further, asking who he was or how he knew about the necklace, I pulled out the bill and handed it to him.
He grasped it with rough, callused fingers. “Thanks.”
I gave a nod and returned to my wife.
“What was that about?” she asked.
I shrugged and took her hand. Then I pointed at the store window. “Hey, there’s that train set Joshie wanted. Looks like a good deal. Maybe we should get it for his birthday.”
©2020 Michael Bergman
Image by unsplash.com/@golfarisa