Some Reader Comments
“Once again, Dennis, you’ve given us a beautiful love story; so perfect for the holiday season! What a lovely story. I just posted it on Facebook.” –Tamara Copeland
“Dennis I loved this story White Bird. I continue to enjoy your writing and thank you for sharing this beautiful story.” –Kathy Rosson
“This is just the type of story to read during the holidays. Dennis has a lovely way with words and crafting the story to keep the twist hidden just around the corner, but when it happens, it’s a warm and satisfying revelation. Grab a mug of coffee or cocoa, sit in a favorite chair, and enjoy this heartwarming story.”—A.D. Rivers
“A perfect feel-good story for the Christmas season! And that twist at the ending, how you add some Christmas lore. Love it!”—Cheryl Clemmons
“I just love your writing. Thanks for the great read, Dennis.”—Amy Dionne
“Loved the story.”—Rosa Cloyd
“I’m hooked and love the story, Dennis!”—Nina Anthonijsz
“When you can just crumble up and throw your past in the trashcan, then you’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”—CHUCK PALAHNIUK, INVISIBLE MONSTERS
It had been a golden city for two centuries. A town of prominence longer still that had welcomed newcomers escaping monarchs and despots… those seeking liberty and the tired, the poor… all looking for a second chance or a new beginning.
But as with anything or anyone… over time, age, erosion, and weathering have an effect. There is a cycle of fall and rise to all things. In this city, the affluent rose to find and secure the figurative—and often literal—high ground. Paying scant attention to those below or outside their still glittering domain of the well-favored and fortunate. Parts of the city became more tarnish than gilt, and there dwelled those either left behind or passed over as the town grew outward and upward. This then—within that great city—is where colors and life are muted, subdued. The setting where two people meet and find a future not bound by their past or their present.
Olivia swallowed the last of her coffee with a grimace. Not because of the taste, which was delicious and perfect for the caffeine-addicted. Her conscience—and maybe it was why she kept failing—spoiled the brew. She looked around. The thin old man with the threadbare, red turtleneck sweater was in his usual place, the corner table closest to the alley door. Brutishly freezing outside, yet he was still coatless. Despite the bloom of color on his cheeks and the red of his nose, he never seemed cold. At least not in the fourteen mornings, she had seen him in that same spot. Passing from him, scanning the old but gleaming diner with its walls lined with dust-free framed photos of people and eras gone by, her eyes stopped at the front. Behind the cash register stood a man about her age, the owner, Henry. Fourteen mornings straight led to first names and learning a bit about each other. And he more than any of the others on the block was vital for her to talk to. Yet with this man, she could not tell him the real reason. There was something behind his eyes that shadowed his smile and made her hesitate. But there were only 17 days left, and if she didn’t get him signed and delivered, she would likely be fired. Change that, she would undoubtedly be fired.
So Henry, now coming around the counter and toward her, was why she frowned. He had her check in one large hand, and though they were unseen, she knew what he held in the other. She glanced at the old man. One long gnarled finger now stroked the side of his nose. Though facing her direction, his eyes were focused somewhere else. She shook her head. All types lived in the city, and the old areas were often home to the oddest of all. Henry set the check and the two thick foil-wrapped squares on the table. The third morning she asked him, “Why two?” He had smiled at her and replied, “It’s not right to eat just one—I mean,” and his grin widened, showing slightly crooked but strong-looking teeth, “chocolate, right?”
Placing cash for her bill and a good tip on the table, she stood and didn’t notice her phone had slipped from the pocket of the jacket she had set on the seat beside her. “Next time, only one chocolate, okay?” Olivia self-consciously put both hands on hips widened considerably once she turned 40 years old. “Do I look like I need two?”
Henry’s grin grew. “You look fine.”
Her cheeks warmed. Since her messy divorce, compliments had been far, and few between and often proved an insincere prelude to the asking of a favor. A half-smile and awkward nod of thanks were all she could summon for Henry. Why was it so hard for her to talk with him, she cursed herself as she pulled on her jacket and walked to the door. About to open and step out, behind her came the distinct opening of the song she had set as her ringtone, “White bird in a golden cage…” sang from her phone. She turned, and as Henry was about to hand to her, the phone warbled again, and his eyes went to the caller ID.
“Trumaga Development,” he said, “you work for them?” His smile disappeared.
The wind rattled the closed door behind her, and witnessed in the corner of an eye, a splatter of sleet now slanting down from the leaden sky struck the window.
“Olivia?” The edge to it—not the soft voice she had become used to from Henry—made her blink and meet his eyes. “I know what they’ve done—they’re doing—in the city’s older neighborhoods.” His eyes had narrowed, and face tightened, pulling taut the lines on his face. “Are you working for them?”
“They’re putting cash in people’s pockets, money most of them need.”
He shook his head, two sharp back-and-forth movements that showed the tendons not noticed before in his neck. “They make lowball offers the owners accept only because of pressure and Daniel Trumaga’s scare tactics.”
“I’m not their employee,” it sounded lame even as the words passed her lips. The corners of his mouth turned down—she’d only seen that when it seemed he thought no one was watching him—with a sour expression. “I’m not…” she said again.
“But you work for them,” he wasn’t questioning any longer.
“Henry let me talk–”
“No,” he turned and walked away, not looking back.
Her phone sang again. Pressing the red DECLINE icon and pulling her jacket tighter around her, she slipped it into her pocket and stepped out into the wind-driven icy slush.
* * *
Even in good weather, getting a taxi in the older parts of the city was hard. Ten blocks later, sleet firming into ice on her shoulders, her hand shook as she took three tries to unlock the door to her office. The faded lettering on the glass on the door still read Olivia Buonanotta | Divorce and Family Law. After her own divorce—the ugliness—and the disintegration of her former practice and finances, she had tried on her own. And failed. The clients, frequently bitter and angry husbands and wives with children often torn and tossed about between, were too much… too personal, and she had no stomach for it. She had gone back to something abandoned nearly two decades before. Real estate. Only to be trapped in it again.
The buzzing phone had remained in her pocket as she walked and shivered. Hanging her dripping jacket on a coat hook, Olivia took it out. Tapping the log for recent calls, she touched to dial the last number, the only one to call her in a month. He picked up on the first ring.
“Has he signed?” Daniel Trumaga demanded.
“Listen, I hired you because we go way back.”
He wouldn’t say it to her face, but he had strewn about the words—glittery sharp broken mirror shards—cutting her down in conversations with others. She owed him, he told them all. Yet he had still helped an old friend. Old yes… friends, not so much. Not anymore. She had needed the job. It was incredible how openings and offers had dried up with her added pounds and extra years.
“You got the people over on Lenix to sign. You can do this… the old Olivia would have by now.”
It was clear tacitly he meant the young Olivia. She shook her head with the phone still held to an ear; this Olivia is tired and doesn’t want to manipulate people anymore to serve someone’s selfish agenda. “I’m working on it.”
“Time is running out. Get this done.”
She was old enough to remember phone calls gone wrong ending when someone slammed it down. Now, with cell phones, it wasn’t as harsh, but the silence just as final. There was no more time. Henry’s location was the last prime corner spot. Get him locked in, and she could—would—walk away after this deal. Yet something about the diner and Henry stopped her before even trying. Maybe because she’d fail with him. Olivia hadn’t with the others, but some of their expressions when they realized they had settled for less or had been forced into something, had been hard to take. She didn’t think Henry would be like those people or ever put himself in the position. But she had to convince him somehow.
The phone pinged, a calendar reminder she had twelve hours until the Trumaga Christmas Ball. Since Daniel had invited her, she would have to make an appearance.
* * *
By 6:30 PM, Olivia was showered, powdered, made-up, and Spanx’d into a long-sleeved evening gown she hoped made her appear slimmer but probably didn’t. I’m at the point I no longer care, she thought with a shallow sigh. The Spanx really held her in. Thirty minutes later, her taxi arrived. Ten minutes after, they were coming up on Essex, and she leaned forward, “Turn right here and take me to the corner at Washburn.” She saw the driver’s eyes on her in the rearview mirror as he nodded.
A minute later, “Right here, lady?” he pulled over to the sidewalk opposite the diner and turned to her. The sun had set, and the gray twilight clouds poured a light rain, likely to turn to snow.
“Yes, give me a minute.” The lights were on in the diner, and there was movement behind the fogged glass, a smear of red at a table on the right side. Changing her mind, she asked the driver, “How much?”
“To drop you here?”
She opened her purse. “Yes.” He told her. She paid and stepped out onto the slippery sidewalk with a thin layer of ice already forming. Not a car in sight, she jaywalked across Essex. The small bell above the door jangled as she went inside. The red she’d seen behind the glass front of the diner had been the old man she’d seen every morning for the past two weeks. He had scrutinized her all the way in from the cab.
Henry was behind the counter, arranging a pyramid of white porcelain handless coffee mugs. He looked up, and the smile that always played on his lips when he faced people straightened into a tight line. “This is different… and a surprise.” But as he would for any customer, he came around the counter with a menu and order pad in hand to meet her at the table she sat at each morning. “Kind of dressed up to be eating at a diner like mine.” He set the menu on the table in front of her. “Coffee, tea… lemonade or a soft drink?”
On his way to the urn, he snagged the top mug from the stack. Filling a carafe, he brought it and the cup to her. Knowing she took it black, he poured, left the carafe, and turned to go.
He paused but didn’t turn back to her.
She continued, “Will you sit for a minute and let me explain?”
He walked on to the counter without speaking, hesitated a moment, grabbed another mug, and came back to Olivia. He slid into the seat opposite her, reached for the carafe, and filled his cup. Silently, he studied her face.
She nodded at the old man across the diner. “Does he sleep here too?”
Some of the smile—a rueful one—returned, “Mr. Kerstman’s interesting.” Henry set his mug down and scratched his right eyebrow. “Last year, early in the first week of December, he came in one morning. Said nothing and waited for a couple to get up from that table,” he cocked his thumb in its direction, “and sat down. My grandfather and father had both died not long before, and I kept this place open until I decided what to do.” He swept his left hand, covering from the front door to the kitchen. “I didn’t know anyone who might be the regular customers, but he seemed like one. When I went to take his order, he asked me, ‘Where is Hank… or Thomas?’ My grandfather and father. I told him they had passed away, and he bowed his head for a moment then glanced up at me. ‘I’m sorry for your loss. But folks like them, their spirit goes on… alive in the places they loved and in the hearts of those who loved them in return.’”
“So, he knew your father and grandfather?”
“Apparently. And every day that December, for three weeks, he would come in and sit at the table. The only thing he ordered was hot tea and chicken and dumplings, my grandfather’s recipe. From morning until evening, he would sit and watch people. Then on Christmas—my grandpa and dad always opened on Christmas day for those who didn’t have a family to share it with, I kept it going—I realized Mr. Kerstman hadn’t come in and had left early the evening before. I didn’t see him again until two weeks ago. He came in and gave me a dozen bags of those chocolates, the ones I’ve been handing out.”
“He sits here all day?”
“I don’t think he has anywhere to go or any place to be,” Henry said. “He’s watching us now.”
Turning her head, Olivia peeked and saw he was, dark eyes twinkling with the different colored Christmas lights Henry had decorated the inside of the diner with. “Where does he go at night?”
“I don’t know. But not long after sundown, he’ll,” Henry paused, “there he goes….” The old man walked to the door, stopped, turned to them with a nod and wink, and stepped out into the night. After draining his cup, Henry set it on the table with a clink. “What are you doing here, Olivia?” He shook his head, “I mean not right now but coming in here every morning. Why?”
She tried to take a deep breath—damn the Spanx—and managed most of one. “The Trumaga Organization is my client.”
“You’re a broker… a lawyer… or what?”
“Attorney. I’m working with them on their plan to buy and redevelop older properties in the city; their gentrification project. It means–”
He cut her off, “I understand the meaning,” and glared at her. “They manipulate conditions, so they don’t pay fair market value. You’re,” he stopped then continued, “they’re screwing people.” He paused at her expression. “Don’t be so surprised. I’m smarter than I look,” his smile nearly came back in full, “which is why I’m not interested in what you—they—offer.” He looked around him. “Since that day last December, when Mr. Kerstman told me about loved ones and places and people they loved, I’ve had a lot to consider. This diner dates back to my great-grandfather, so been in my family for a long time. My grandpa and dad loved this place, and I believe it loved them back. At first, I didn’t sense it… but now… I can almost feel it every day. And,” he leaned across the table toward Olivia. “I think it cares for me too. If I give it a chance.” He sat back, and even only the half-genuine smile lit his face like when they flicked the switch on the tree at Rockefeller Center. “I could never sell it.” The smile wavered and faded.
She saw the change in him, a cloud scudded across his face and darkened his bright eyes. An inward turning away as a veil came down to hide what no one wants to reveal. Their pain. Every lousy sensation Olivia had experienced since starting with Daniel Trumaga—spasms of distaste at an ego-driven client’s insecure shallowness and narcissistic selfishness—flooded her. She realized her professional life was nothing but moving money—during people’s most difficult circumstances—from someone’s pocket to another’s while taking a piece for herself. The moment of self-realization left her feeling soiled and sold out.
Henry had seen the play of emotions on her face and nodded. “I’ve learned you have to accept when your heart tells you where you shouldn’t be. But must act to find where you should be. It takes time to figure out,” he paused for a moment, “and it’s hard to do… to move forward.”
This time the breath came and went in full—no restraint—and she knew he had shared something personal and understood what he meant.
“So, are you headed somewhere,” Henry hesitated, “or can I take your coat?”
Startled from her thoughts, she looked at him. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I mean you look nice,” he bobbed his head as if embarrassed but met her gaze, “you’re so beautiful. You have somewhere to be tonight?”
“Oh,” backtracking to consider his compliment made her hesitate, “yes.” Then she contemplated spending an evening with stuffed shirts and empty suits, listening to their self-important gossip and talk without substance or meaning. She couldn’t face them and pretend. “No,” she decided, “now I realize… I have nowhere to go. Except home.” She didn’t relish that either.
Henry was quiet for a moment, then walked to the door and flipped the sign to CLOSED. “Can you wait here, give me about ten or fifteen minutes?”
She nodded, wondering what he meant. “Okay but–”
“Please wait,” he turned and hurried to the back of the diner and into the kitchen.
Ten minutes by yourself—even when you’re used to being alone—shouldn’t seem so long. But Olivia knew time and events played out in her head were magnified; the highs higher and lows lower. Heightened by the surrounding stillness, the muffled steps above coming downstairs, were more distinct as they crossed the tiled kitchen. The diner’s lights dimmed, and a song she recognized—the instrumental part—played. She studied the old jukebox in the corner, thinking it had somehow come to life, but the glass and colored plastic remained dark. She recalled Henry mentioning he hoped to have it repaired one day. With the lights dimmed, she could see through the diner’s large window. The falling snow came down in clusters accompanied by single flakes glistening as they floated through the arc of light from the lampposts. Patches of color danced on the glass as she shifted her view, and the angle caught the inside reflection of the reds, blues, and greens of the lights on the Christmas tree to her right.
“Beautiful,” she murmured.
“Not as lovely as you.”
Olivia turned and almost didn’t recognize him. The black suit complemented his middle-aged-Sean Connery appearance. White shirt with French cuffs just the right length from the ends of the sleeves with a twinkle of silver there. The knotted black tie’s sheen—must have been silk—caught darts of color from the lights. He said nothing as he moved four of the middle tables to create an open area in the diner’s center. His eyes never left hers as he approached, bowed, and held out a hand. She accepted, and he led her to the center. He took his cell phone out and pressed a button. The song started over, and the phone slid back into his pocket.
“What Child Is This is my favorite Christmas song.” she smiled and though surprised, didn’t flinch as his arm went around her waist.
Henry grinned as he moved them into the first steps. “This is Greensleeves and has its origins in the late 16th century. What Child Is This uses as the melody but wasn’t written until 1865.”
It was as if seeing him for the first time. “How…”
“Does a simple diner owner know?” He turned her and then brought her smoothly back to him. “You told me once you had planned to major in art in college, but hadn’t.” He held her for a second, smiling. “Do you ever wish you had?” The light caught her expression that came and went. Regret, he thought and understood. “I wanted to major in history in college… or music.” He sighed, “But I ended up in accounting… and now I run a diner.” The song seemed to last much longer than any version she had ever heard. She had not danced—not like this—in ages. His touch was light but in control, guiding her without seeming to. “I checked the song,” he whispered as he again pulled her close and held her there for a breath.
“What song?” she asked him in the next turn.
“The one on your phone…” he paused for a moment as if chagrined, “I had never heard it before.”
“White Bird?” she asked as he rolled her along the uncurling of his arm to extended fingertips and back in.
“It was my mother’s favorite.”
He shook his head, “I’m sorry about that.”
The words jarred her. She missed a beat and a step. “Why do you say that?”
“I searched YouTube, listened to it again, and read the lyrics. She must’ve been sad, your mother, I mean.”
She stopped. “You know nothing about her.”
“The story the song tells is about longing to be free and wanting a better life.”
She dropped his hand. Feeling the hurt long-buried from watching her mother grow old before her time. A life wasted. Stung by the memory, she replied, “You mean something better… like owning a diner?”
His expression now matched hers. “You say that as if it’s a lesser thing to avoid.”
“That’s not what–” she stopped, even though it was what she meant but regretted saying.
“I guess it’s better to be a lawyer?”
Heavens… she didn’t mean that, “No, let me–”
The lines deepened on his face. “Or the owner of a company preying on people who’ve not had much in life. Nothing but the ground under them. And now, when they find out the value,” he stepped back from her, “they send people like you to convince them to part with it for less than the worth.”
“Henry…” They faced each other in the diner’s center, his arms now at his side. She already missed them: the one around her waist, him gently holding her hand with fingers twined. His face was resolute, and though she met his look, Olivia couldn’t tell him what she had started to, so she told him the truth. “The first morning, I came here to talk about what my clients wanted to offer you. But then, I watched you… how you talk to people, how you carry yourself without pretension, your enjoyment of seeing your customers, and them interacting with you. Every morning I watched and listened. You’re…” she gestured around the diner, “this place is… different.”
“What are we doing, Olivia? Why did you come here tonight? I will not sell to your client.”
“Henry, he’s just a businessman.”
“With a rich daddy who built their fortune on payoffs, legal trickery forced evictions and foreclosures and now wants to turn an overlooked area of real estate to his profit. I’ve nothing against making money, but not if it means screwing people to add to your margins. Your client is a spider spinning his web outside in,” Henry shook his head, “trapping people who have no way out.”
“I didn’t come here tonight for him… I…,” she hesitated, and the silence grew thick.
She felt it then, the weight of wrong choices, of wrong people, wrong decisions made… in her life. Was this another one? She didn’t think so. “I came for myself. Why did you ask me to wait, why the dance?” He stepped toward her as she turned away, unable to stay, afraid of any reply he might offer. She opened the door, not looking back at him. A gust caught and pulled it from her hand. Leaving it open, and without a glance in the window as she passed, she walked north on Essex and into the wind.
Inside, watching her until she was out of sight, Henry spoke as if she was still there. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, and I asked you to stay… for me.” The last two words hung in the air as he closed the door, locked it, and switched off all the lights.
It was the lull when the last of the late-breakfast dawdlers had gone, and the early lunchers had not arrived.
“You worry about her.”
The truth of the matter-of-fact statement didn’t startle him, who said it did. “Mr. Kerstman,” Henry turned toward him, “did you say something?”
“I’m not a Sphinx,” he chuckled.
“Almost.” Henry thought him as enigmatic as that object in the Egyptian desert. The diner was empty except for them. He pulled the rag off his shoulder and wiped his hands, slid a chair out, and sat down. “Who is it you think I’m worried about?” The knowing smile rankled Henry.
“There are moments when that bell rings,” Mr. Kerstman cocked his left-hand thumb at the front door, “I love that sound. And you look up, and then your eyes go over there.” His hand turned sideways; the thumb now pointed across the diner. “When it’s not her, she’s not there, and your eyes fall.”
“I hardly know her,” which was true, “and don’t think about her,” which was not.
“People are an important part of my business. What they long for or desire… their wishes and wants.” Kerstman rubbed his face where gray bristles, though still short, shaped the form of what could become a full beard, “Your father told me a few years ago of the accident, and about your loss. He wondered if you’d ever recover and worried, you’d never be happy again.”
Henry gave the old man a hard look, not sidetracking to wonder what business he might be in. “I’m surprised my dad told that to a–”
“Stranger?” Mr. Kerstman interrupted him and chuckled again. Its depth odd coming from such a skinny man. “I have known your father for a long time, and your grandfather even longer. And this place,” he tapped the table’s top with the knuckles of his right hand, “well, seems I’ve always known it.” He now had a distant look in his eyes.
“You mean, you knew them.” Henry thought not for the first time Kerstman was not always quite in the present. “They’re gone.”
“Oh, I still know them… especially this time of year.” His sigh was of a content man confident in the truth of what he’d said. “And they’re still here.” The lights now shone more brightly with dusk coming on darkening the diner’s interior. They glimmered in Kerstman’s eyes as his gaze shifted back to Henry. “They’re also with your wife, son, and daughter. Love binds them, your family is still together.”
Henry sensed Kerstman was talking about something more—somewhere other—than just the diner. “I can still hear them, and sometimes a song or sound triggers a memory, and they’re close. Then as it fades, it’s like I lost them all over again.”
“But you fight to hold on to their remembrance even though it hurts. Anything that might fill the void is like you’re cheating on them. You fight that too.”
“Yes,” Henry’s head snapped up, “I can never replace them.”
A knotted hand reached out, and Mr. Kerstman’s firm grip clasped his arm. “No, you won’t do that… and no one expects you to.” With a last stronger squeeze, the hand withdrew. “Mostly you seem happy—those who don’t know better believe you are—but you’re still missing your family. And it worries you you’re attracted to someone for the first time since your wife died.”
“I hardly know Olivia.”
“But there’s something about her, isn’t there?”
“I tried to show her the other night… I thought she felt it too, but was mistaken. It’s wrong of me, and she works for a man I can’t stomach.”
“Henry, I can tell good from bad, and she’s not like him, her employer. She’s just not found the right person, the right circumstances to make her happy.” Kerstman paused, “And you lost yours… but ten years is enough to mourn.” He put his long-fingered hands flat on the table. “You both need to shake free from what’s making your life less than what it could be.”
“I have to get back to work.” Henry rose but didn’t move from the table and shook his head. “She’s not coming back; it’s been a week.”
Mr. Kerstman’s index finger of his right hand stroked the side of his nose as he studied him. “Then you should find her. Don’t come up with reasons not to. All you should focus on is how you feel when you see her. It’ll guide you.”
Outside, the lamppost lights came on. Dark had fallen fast as it always did with the winter solstice. He turned toward the kitchen and had gotten nearly there when Mr. Kerstman’s voice—pitched sharp and penetrating—stopped him.
“Happiness isn’t a one-shot deal, Henry. We all have multiple opportunities to determine—to find—what or who makes us happy. This is the season to give and receive. You should give yourself—and her—a chance; maybe she’s the right one for you and you for her.”
Henry heard the jingle of the front doorbell, and then all was quiet. Everywhere, but inside his head.
CHRISTMAS EVE (DAY)
The weather had worsened, and the temperature had dropped to levels not touched in nearly a century. With the storms rise, power faltered, and outages spread.
“Try not to step on these,” Henry warned Mr. Kerstman. The thick orange electrical lines ran through the alley door left cracked to the generator outside. They led to a rectangular box with a dozen outlets inside the door near the table where he customarily sat. Several filled with plugs, their smaller cords snaking off to a large electric heater and into the kitchen where a table-top electric grill, griddle, and microwave were powered.
“Some rig you got set up there,” Kerstman said. “How long will it run?”
“The generator’s got enough fuel for two days. Hope they have power back on by then,” Henry replied. “The news people are calling this The Dark Christmas.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
For the first time, Henry perceived something like anger in Mr. Kerstman’s voice. “Me neither,” Henry looked around. Several people in the diner huddled around the heater. As soon as the shelter opened with its more powerful generator and better facilities, they would move there until the power came back on.
“Your grandfather ever tell you much about this place?”
Henry shifted in his chair to face him. This talkative, Mr. Kerstman, was a new experience. “Not really, just his father opened it in 1917.”
“Which is true, but he took over in 1917 from his cousins who had owned and operated it as a coffeehouse for nearly a century. Henry Livingston—your cousin way back on your great-grandmother’s side and his financial backer, Clement Moore opened it in 1822. Henry, your cousin—which down the years is where your name came from—and Clement had a falling out about a year later over something Henry had written based on Dutch folklore and his chance meeting with a mysterious old man.” Kerstman chuckled then continued, “He had published it anonymously as a Christmas story for children, but somehow, Clement took credit.” Kerstman scratched his red nose, “Anyway, that’s another story,” he thumped the table with his right hand. “Henry Livingston wrote the little story right here on this spot.”
“Okay,” Henry wondered what it had to do with anything, “that’s interesting, but….”
“You want to know why I’m telling you?” Kerstman’s bushy white eyebrows arched. “Well, just to say this location is well-favored, especially during the holidays and at Christmas.”
Henry rose, “Thanks, Mr. Kerstman, but I need to–”
“What Henry… to do what?”
Henry stared down at him, then turned toward the door as a van from the shelter pulled up outside. With a wave and a chorus of “Merry Christmases,” those who had been waiting stepped outside to board it.
“Henry, did you try to find the woman… Olivia?”
“I found an office number, called and left her a message,” he picked up the apron draped across a nearby chair, “but I’ll never see her again.”
The old man, his eyes alight, scrutinized Henry as he walked away.
It was a bleak cold—the worst kind—and he was alone. Henry had expected to see Mr. Kerstman, to wish him a Merry Christmas, but the old man had left before sundown and not come back. Henry had turned out all the lights except for one. The heater struggled to provide warmth that only reached a few feet. He sat at the table closest to it, not hearing the music from the Bluetooth speakers until it came to a song on his playlist that touched him profoundly: “This is my winter song… December never felt so wrong…,” he sang the words, and the ache grown stronger all day filled him.
He stood and moved around the diner among the shadows from the single light on the counter. Stopping at the window, he looked out on what he would typically see was a lighted street, now a night filled with swirls of ink lightened by dark gray when the weak moon broke through the low clouds. About to turn away, he spotted a sweep of rose-colored light that caught white bands of wind-driven snow streaming at an angle from the sky. The beam danced, buffeted, or carried by the wind pushing it down Essex toward him. In minutes the light—now a brighter ruby more penetrating than a white glare—stopped at what was the corner he couldn’t see. Cast in the backlight was a shadow. It took a step, faltered as the wind shifted and strengthened. Shards of ice glinted as a gust shoved the shape, sending it skittering on ice-coated concrete. It went down hard, and the light stuttered and blinked out.
Henry shoved the door—putting his weight behind it—open against the wind. On the sidewalk, he slid backward and felt the palm of a great hand—the wind—on his chest, pressing him against glass and stone. A flash and the glistening scarlet reflection on the street guided him as he leaned into the wind and made it to the middle of the road. The puddle of red light showed a huddled form—a person—in a heavy hooded coat with knees pulled up to the chest. God, so cold, his hands, arms, and legs already numbed. He kneeled and gripped the form, the crunch of a thin scrim of ice breaking as he got his arms under to pull them to their feet. The wind’s shriek overrode any words as he half-carried, half-walked them back to the diner. After prying the door open with a gasp, he got them inside.
The figure staggered toward the heater in the room’s center. Despite the dimness, he could see it carried in one hand a large–the biggest he’d ever seen–flashlight with a thick lens the size of a butter dish. Setting it on the table, a gloved hand swept back the hood revealing a face mostly covered by a red scarf with white tassels. The hand unwound it.
She, with some difficulty, stripped the gloves from her hands and rubbed her face. “I… I…” she stuttered, “have never been so cold.” Shivers racked her.
Henry went to the counter, lifted the pot of coffee from the warmer, poured two cups, and brought them to the table. “What the hell…” he sat them next to her. “Why in the world would you go out in that?” his hand gestured at the blizzard blasting outside the rattling window, shaking it in its frame. “Are you crazy?” He rose, walked back to the counter, and returned with the Coleman lantern. In its bright arc, her chin trembled.
“I had a visitor this afternoon,” she gulped a swallow of coffee. “I don’t know how he found me. I asked him, and he said he knows things like that. No idea what he meant, but it seemed more than what he said…” She shook her head, and the raw ivory look of her cheeks faded as warmth crept in. Her eyes still had not met his.
“Who… Olivia, who was it?” Henry drank from his mug.
“There was a ring… then a loud knocking. I opened the door, and there he stood, only 5° outside not counting the wind chill, wearing his red turtleneck and a scarf flapping in the wind.”
She nodded, “Yes,” and blinked. “He asked me, ‘May I come in?’ I stepped back, and he followed me inside. Then I noticed in one hand he carried a red bag trimmed in gold. He told me, ‘I can’t stay… it is Christmas Eve.’ and reached into his sack and took this out.” She touched the flashlight on the table, and it rolled in a half-arc toward Henry. “I started to ask him why that mattered… but he cut me off. ‘A gift,’ he said. For what? I asked. He laughed; how such a sound came from that skinny old man,” she shook her head, “and said, ‘It will help you find your way.’” Olivia reached to roll the flashlight back to her. “He handed it to me, unwrapped his scarf and laid it over my arm, then with a ‘Merry Christmas,’ he left.”
Olivia emptied her cup, and Henry rose to fill it. “Thanks,” she nodded, and her smile warmed him more than the heater and coffee. “I set both on the entryway table, chalking the whole thing up to some old man’s eccentricity. Two hours later, it was dark—I just had a Coleman lantern in the back room, my private office—and came out and started to put them away. I…” She stopped, stretched her hand out to rest on his just a moment, then pulled away. “I’ve thought about you a lot, and when I picked up the flashlight, it came on and spotlighted the door. I was flooded with feeling your hand in mine—from when we danced—and when I touched the scarf, something told me to bundle up and go out. I grabbed my coat, wrapped his scarf around me, and picked up the flashlight. Without thinking, I was on the street in almost pitch black. The flashlight came on but shut off if I faced any direction but south. I followed the light here.”
This time his hand reached for hers. A line from The Winter Song came to him as he explored the depth of color in her eyes. He sang partly to himself but mostly for her, “My voice a beacon in the night. My words will be your light to carry you to me. Is love alive?” As he looked at Olivia, he answered the question the song asked, “Yes… it’s alive.”
* * *
The wind had dropped, and lighter snow drifted down. They—the man and woman—had not heard him come in, few ever did, to sit at the table. He watched them as they grew closer. Now touching… then a kiss. “Always—always—the best gift to give and receive,” he smiled as he stood and slipped outside through the barely open alley door stepping around the dark mass of the shadowed generator. A fresh flurry of snow blown from the roof above showered him and carried with it the sound of bells. Nine sets. Each a different pitch, but one most distinctive pierced the night. Mr. Kerstman chortled, “After all, he’s the lead.”
He raised his hand to the fire escape that started about twelve feet above him and rose to the top of the building. At his gesture, the ladder dropped. As he climbed, he filled out both beard and girth, and the added weight did not slow him down. He reached a roof now lighted with a red glow, to the sound of stamping hooves. A minute later, he was gone, but the sound of bells and his voice and laughter rang through the night. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
Below him, the city lights came on.
NOVEMBER 30 (A YEAR LATER)
“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.”—Charlotte Brontë
It was still a diner but had expanded into space next to it to add a gallery. The sign over the door depicted a golden cage, its door open and above… a bird in flight in a blue sky. The woman behind the counter wasn’t any lighter nor younger but seemed so much happier. The man who hugged her from behind smiled and kissed her cheek. The next day, December 1st, was their wedding day, and they hoped to see a good friend in the coming holiday season. Off to the side, with a rainbow glow of colors, an old jukebox played Greensleeves.
# # #
NOTE FROM DENNIS
I’ve used some things fictitiously for this story, but the following are facts. The Dutch West India Company established the colony of New Netherland in America in 1624, and it grew to encompass all of present-day New York City and parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. They christened the thriving Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island New Amsterdam (which became New York City). The Dutch brought with them the presence of Saint Nicholas, who has been in the Hudson River country of America ever since the beginning.
Clement Clarke Moore is widely believed to be the author of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas.’ Written in 1822, once it had become popular, it was known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ But there is a dispute about the authorship. Some academics and literary historians believe Henry Livingston Jr., a peer of Moore’s, wrote it. Because of the story, St. Nicholas became the model for Santa Claus, whose name comes from the New Amsterdam Dutch, who shortened it to Sinterklaas (itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of Saint Nikolaos). Santa Claus is also known as de Kerstman (the Christmas man) in Dutch.