A depressed bar owner meets strangers on Christmas Eve.
by P. May Wilson
December 13, 2003
Christmas Present_p. May Wilson-
The Town of Prairie lay silent under a gentle blanket of snow. It had been snowing all day that Christmas Eve, sometimes heavily. Now, as midnight drew near, only a scattering of flakes drifted down, caught glittering in the streetlight’s glow.
On Main Street, midway down the first block off the highway and nestled between Jerry’s Auto Shop and Gina’s Boutique, was an establishment called The Walk Inn Bar and Grill. The Walk Inn was in a plain brick building, its name on a lighted Pepsi sign that hung perpendicular to the front so it could be seen easily by passersby. The door was to the right side, and the rest of the building front was dominated by a plate glass window, which now shut out the night with its Venetian blinds.
The only occupant of the Walk Inn was a woman scrubbing the grill, blinking away tears as she worked. Betty Walker, the owner of the Inn, was a tall, plump woman in her mid-forties. Fair skinned, her eyes cornflower blue, Betty’s carefully styled, short hair had only a few silver strands amid the ash blonde. The clean white cook’s apron she wore had “Betty” embroidered in the top center of the bib and covered her casual but Christmassy red and green outfit.
As Betty lowered the flame on the gas grill, completing her chore, it seemed as though her mood lowered with it. She glanced at the clock: ten minutes till midnight. Ten minutes till Christmas. No, thought Betty, ten minutes till December 25. Exactly six months since her family died in a fiery crash with a semi, whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and crossed the center line, literally plowing into the Walker family car. Her husband Bill and the youngest, Carl (his tenth birthday was exactly two weeks ago, thought Betty as fresh tears welled up in her eyes) were dead at the scene. Lana, who had just turned thirteen, lived nearly twelve hours longer. B.J., who Betty guessed had begged fruitlessly to be allowed to practice driving (Bill hadn’t been ready to take him out at night yet) lived another two days. Without them, concluded Betty, there is no Christmas. Just December 25. Without them, she wondered as she had countless times these six months, is there anything?
Betty glanced at the clock again. Three minutes till midnight, which was closing time, whatever else it might happen to represent. Betty walked around the cook’s counter and sat carefully on the first stool at the lunch counter. Her back was one big ache and she thought about the bottle of heavy duty painkillers on her nightstand at home. It was almost full.
“Is there anything?” came the thought again. Is there anything without them? Betty’s eyes took in the somewhat dilapidated interior of The Walk Inn. There just wasn’t enough money coming in to fix it up, and neglect by previous owners gave it a sort of down-at-the-heels look in spite of her regular and thorough cleanings. It’s sure not a gold mine, Betty thought. More like a goldbrick. An albatross around my neck…Is there anything worth living for? Of course, she still had family—her mother, her sisters Bonnie and Becky, and their families. Both had been practically pestering her to come spend Christmas with them. Betty had become cooler and cooler until she had been all but hostile in refusing their invitations. It hurts too much, Betty’s eyes filled once again at this thought, it hurts too much to see them and their happy, intact, alive families. Is there anything, is there anyone, without them—Bill, B.J., Lana, Carl—to live for.
The big hand and the little hand had just met when the jingle bells on the front door rang as the door opened. Betty jumped to her feet, her back protesting with a sharp jab of pain, hastily brushing at her eyes with her left hand. The intruders entered hesitantly and stood looking at her uncertainly.
They were very young, just kids, really—the girl certainly looked too young to be in the condition she was in (about to pop, Bill would have said) judging by the bulge that pushed out the front of the too big hunting jacket she wore. They were both wearing calf length moccasins adorned with beads and fringe. There coloring was dark and their hair shiny black. The young man had on a bomber jacket that had seen better days, and a blue paisley bandana wrapped gypsy style around his head.
Indians! Great, thought Betty with something like disgust. The Pine Tree reservation was an hour north of Prairie, but since most of the communities close to it didn’t allow the sale of alcohol the Indians would drive down to Prairie to drink. As a result, there had been trouble—property damage and such. The big plate glass window at The Walk Inn had been broken two years ago. No one knew for sure who did it, but it had been a wild night in Prairie and several young men from the reservation had ended up in the county jail. Betty’s personal views on achieving racial harmony had changed somewhat after having to replace that huge window.
“I’m sorry, but we’re closed,” She said matter-of-factly, while thinking, “I hope he’s not drunk.” The young man looked at the clock and let out a sigh, then glanced at the girl. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. The man looked at Betty and set his jaw as though summoning up courage for something.
Abruptly, he took three steps further into the room, not seeming to notice that Betty stiffened as he did so. Then he spoke, ”Ma’am it’s like this. We’re on our way south, just over the state line to spend Christmas with Miriam’s sister and all—that’s Miriam. We’re engaged,” he indicated the girl with a nod, then continued, “I’m Jay, Jay Jacobson… anyway, we couldn’t start till real late ‘cause the boss kept me way over and well, you know what the weather’s been like today and we had slow going of it and then we went into a snow bank just back a piece and now the heater don’t hardly work worth sh— worth anything. Ma’am, we’re plumb froze, we can’t feel our toes hardly at all. Please ma’am, could you make us a pot of coffee and a sandwich maybe? We just want to warm up for the rest of the way. You know there ain’t going to be nothing open between here and Bakerton—that’s just over the state line, ‘bout twenty miles north of Center City. Please, ma’am, I know you want to go home, but we need your help. I guess I don’t have to remind you that it’s Christmas, but I will, if it’ll soften your heart a bit.” This last Jay said with a dazzling but guileless smile, and fell silent.
Betty listened with bewilderment, then amusement, at this outburst. Jay was so earnest and Miriam looked so weary. Could they possibly be up to no good? At any rate, they weren’t drunk.
Betty thought, Oh, well, what’s another half hour? There’s no one to go home to. With a will, Betty held back the tears that wanted to come at this thought, and cleared her throat. Once again, Betty’s tone was matter-of-fact as she addressed Jay, ”I can make a pot of coffee, but I’ve got everything shut down for the night and all day tomorrow, so if you want something to eat it’ll have to be cold. We’ve got beef salad, tuna salad, and sliced ham. Say,” a thought had suddenly struck Betty, and her tone sharpened, “You do have money, don’t you?” Jay nodded vigorously, “Oh, yes ma’am. I’ll certainly pay for it.” As he began digging into his jeans pocket, Betty said, “No, no, I don’t have to see your money. Now why don’t you and Miriam have a seat and I’ll put on the coffee.” Betty walked around behind the counter, feeling ashamed at her suspicions as Miriam and Jay sat down at the first of the tables that were spaced the length of the bar and grill opposite the lunch counter and bar.
After fixing them their sandwiches and telling them to help themselves to more coffee, Betty sat down at the next table and put her head in her hands. She could hear the couple talking quietly, but couldn’t make out the words.
They have each other, she thought, they are a family. They’re young and poor but they love each other and that’s all that matters. My family is gone forever. I have nothing to live for. I can never get them back. Why go on? Why? Why the hell should I go on living? For what? For who?—the thoughts circled through her mind, repeating over and over.
“Say, are you okay, ma’am?” Jay’s voice broke the spell Betty had fallen under. She looked up. Jay was standing at the table with his wallet in his hand, smiling.
“I’m fine,” said Betty, straightening up in her chair. “Are you all through?”
“Yes, ma’am and it really hit the spot. I know we can make it just fine now to Bakerton. How much do I owe you?”
Once again Betty took in the threadbare appearance of the young couple and said, ”Forget it. It’s on me. After all it is Christmas.” The bitterness in her heart at these last words was not betrayed in her voice. Jay was looking at her closely. It made her uncomfortable, but then he smiled his big smile. He turned around and took Miriam’s hand and they left.
Betty was going to the back of the building to turn out the main lights when the bells on the door jingled. It was Jay with a shoebox, tied with a green ribbon, in his hand. He set it on the counter and said, “These are for you. Merry Christmas, Betty!” He was back out the door before Betty could say anything. She wondered how he knew her name, then realized it was on her apron for all the world to see. As she took the apron off she even managed a smile at herself for still being so suspicious. As she put on her coat she stared at the box Jay had left, wondering whether to even take it with her. What could those two ragamuffins have wanted to give her? She picked it up and shook it, then tucked it under her arm and went out the front door, locking it behind her.
Despair enveloped her once again as she walked into her empty, lonely house. Nothing. No reason to live. No reason to live. The house echoed the words in her head. Her heart and back throbbed together in pain. Betty walked into her bedroom and set the shoebox down on the bed. As she took off her coat her eyes seemed drawn to the bottle of painkillers. Painkillers to kill pain. Enough of them would kill pain forever. Betty picked up the pill bottle and sat down on the edge of the bed, causing the shoe box to slide onto the floor. The noise made her jump. She stared at the box with its green ribbon and wondered again what could have prompted the Jacobsons to give her whatever-it-was. Setting the bottle back on the nightstand Betty picked up the box and slid the ribbon off of it. They hadn’t even taped the box shut. Betty turned on the lamp and then lifted the lid off the box and looked inside.
What she saw was angels filling a vast sky over an open field, and they were singing! They were singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” It was the most beautiful sound Betty had ever heard in her life and it seemed to go on forever…
“Betty, BETTY! Where on earth… oh, here she is, still in bed.” These words brought Betty out of her slumber, but before they could sink in, there were nieces and nephews bouncing all around her on the bed yelling, ”MERRY CHRISTMAS AUNT BETTY!” Her sister Bonnie stood in the doorway shaking her head, but making no attempt to stop the onslaught of the children. Betty looked at her in bewilderment.
“Well, you wouldn’t come to us, so we brought Christmas to you. If you still refuse to spend Christmas with your family you’re just going to have to go somewhere else, because we brought everything with us and we’re staying. Goodness, did you sleep in your clothes? You must have been exhausted. Well you just get yourself showered and by then breakfast will be all ready. You don’t have to do a thing.”
“Mom, MOM! Can I have a cookie?” This request came from Johnny, Bonnie’s youngest and hungriest child. Bonnie looked at him sternly. “Honestly, Johnny it’s not even nine o’clock in the morning! Besides, I doubt your Aunt Betty has had any time to even bake cookies.”
“But there’s some cookies right here,” said Johnny, holding out a shoebox. Seeing the box in Johnny’s hand brought the events of the previous evening flooding back to Betty. Her eyes fell to the contents of the shoebox Johnny was holding out to his mother.
The box was full of angels, all right. Christmas cutout cookies in the shape of angels. At the sight of them, Betty Walker laughed out loud, her first real laugh in six months.
Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.
A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.