The Necklace (a Christmas short story)

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.”

“Gus.”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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

What Makes for a “High Quality” Spouse

I saw a tweet the other day from some guy attempting to instruct women on what “high quality men” look for in a partner. His list can be narrowed down to fitting his definition of attractiveness and unblemished past. On the one hand, the things on his list weren’t bad things. On the other hand, when they are used in a Pharisaical manner to impose a universal standard and to imply that those who don’t measure up are “low quality,” well, that’s just wrong.

To universalize his list is to exclude many who can, will, and have made wonderful spouses.

Why does this matter so much? Well, being a #boydad, and, as a foster dad, being a momentary dad to several other boys, it makes me look inward to ask: What am I implicitly and explicitly teaching my sons about what qualities to look for in a wife?

And there are two main things that I hope I teach my boys…

First, worry more about being a “high quality man” than looking for a “high quality woman.” Or, work on your own character before being a critic of another’s. And how do we begin to become “high quality”? By realizing that we can’t be.

That’s part of the point of the gospel story–there has only been one high quality man (Jesus) and the rest of us don’t measure up. We all fall short of the perfect standard that God requires of us. That is why we need Jesus. It’s either gaining his perfect righteousness by faith and a grace-gift of God or it’s nothing.

Grace is the key word here. When we realize that we need the grace of God in Jesus in order to be pure and righteous before God it humbles us. It humbles us as it enables us to keep growing in character as the Holy Spirit works in us. It also humbles us as we realize that the same grace we have received we need to show toward others.

The simple truth is, as a man, I will never be a perfect husband. I can strive to be the best husband that I can be, but I will never be the husband my wife truly needs and deserves. I trust that she will be gracious to me and my flaws as we walk the road of life together. This also means that no woman will ever be a perfect wife. One of my roles as a husband, then, is to show the same grace that I constantly need.

Second, I can teach my boys to look for the one great quality in a spouse that matters more than any. I can teach each boy to look for a woman who loves Jesus more than she loves him. I want my boys to marry into a partnership where they pursue God together. That means that above anything else there must be that deep love for Jesus. That’s the great command that Jesus gave, after all–love others deeply, yes, but love God supremely (Matthew 22:35-40).

Certainly, I want my boys to find wives who love them deeply. Indeed, who love them more deeply than they love anyone else on earth. But I also want my boys to find wives who understand that marriage is only temporary for our season on this present earth. While it still matters greatly, the eternal matters more (Matthew 22:23-30).

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Image credit: Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

What These Pictures Represent

We moved into our home a year and a half ago. One of the reasons we bought this particular house was our desire to be foster parents and have plenty of room for kids to live, sleep, and play.

There were some pressing needs with the house, so decorating was hit and miss. We had some pictures we wanted to hang, and they spent the entire time in a pile on our bedroom floor until today.

The pictures represent our family but they also represent the craziness and unexpectedness of life.

When we first moved in, it was us and our dog. A couple of months later, we welcomed our first foster child. A month and a half after that, two more foster children. A month more and we decided it would be a good idea to get a puppy. Then we said goodbye to all three kids on the same day. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

We spent the summer trying to train the puppy as we waited for our next placement. We got a call asking if we could take a sibling group of five. We said yes, bought some extra beds and secured a crib. Then we were told, “Actually, we’re not moving them yet.” Another month passed and we were asked if we could take the siblings again. This time we bought a car. Only again to have the situation change. So we sold the car. Then the car broke down (sorry, dad). Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Along the way, we went from two dogs to one dog. We had to say goodbye to our 13-year-old furry friend as age and health caught up to him. Then, September came. We got a call asking if we could take another foster placement, this time a sibling set of two. Absolutely. The children moved in with us. A couple of weeks later, we found out we were expecting. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Winter came. Then spring appeared on the horizon. We realized we weren’t able to give our very large puppy the attention he needed between working, caring for two young kids, and being pregnant. We gave him away to a good home. We were sad about that, but he is happy and getting plenty of attention. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

May arrived. The kids returned home. Being a month away from our baby’s due date, we decided to hold off on accepting any more foster placements, at least until we’re through the summer. The house seemed a lot quieter, but it gave us time to get the baby’s room ready and work on some other things around the house. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Today is the day after our baby’s due date. We’re still waiting for him to make his appearance. He seems as stubborn as his daddy. But, we finally brought the pictures down from the bedroom. I grabbed the hammer, nails, and level, and we went to work. For a year and a half the pictures sat on the floor, but now they hang on the wall. My wife says it makes it feel that much more like home.

A year and a half passed. We went from one dog to two dogs back to one dog to no dog. We went from one kid to three kids to no kids to two kids to two kids and expecting to baby almost here.

Life is crazy and unexpected. It has its twist and turns, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Sometimes in the craziness pictures collect dust in a corner for far too long, but eventually they end up on the wall where they belong.

Embrace the chaos and the unexpected.

(Now, maybe, the stairs will get painted that we ripped out and replaced six months ago…)

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