A Glowing Holiday

By Ron Ciancutti

Joe heard the howling winter winds down the alley as ice pelted the glass pane on his back door. He was plenty warm beneath his blankets, and his efficiency apartment was well-heated by the little gas stove in the corner. Nevertheless, he knew his first steps out of bed would be cold ones since his place had been built long before effective insulation and weather-proofing. He braced himself, swung his legs around, and stepped into slippers; he felt the drafty bite of winter air around his ankles. Brrrrrrr, it was COLD.

Domino the cat sat atop the hot water tank next to the sink and standup shower in the tiny bathroom. The warm exhaust coming from the hot water stack was her personal heater, and she often lay there, watching Joe shave and brush his teeth. She stretched her paws as she lay on her side in a semi-welcome to Joe, and he petted her softly, looking into her eyes. Domino hated anything abrupt. Who didn’t? But she loved calm and quiet Joe. His mere presence seemed to settle her completely. “Well, a Merry Christmas to you, too, young lady,” Joe said.

He brushed his teeth, debated whether to shave, and pulled a hairbrush from the basket next to the shower. With one or two strokes, he knew his hair was beyond taming this morning, so he secured his baseball cap on backwards and glanced in the mirror. “Merry Christmas to you, too, you miserable old man,” he declared without commitment.

He made his bed neatly as the tea kettle whistled away. He poured water into a spoonful of crystals and had a cup of instant coffee and a piece of toast. The bay window beside the small kitchen table was currently featuring a blinding wall of blowing snow. Joe smiled tightly, thinking with concern of all the people who had to drive in this mess to get to their family’s homes this Christmas day. How lucky he was that he didn’t have to worry about any of that.

He didn’t have any family, so he didn’t have to drive anywhere. He didn’t have a wife or kids, so he didn’t have to buy gifts on the holidays. His job was only two doors away so he didn’t need a car or a ride to work. As a cook in a restaurant, he knew he always had plenty of food without ever having to stock up or spend any of his own money. Most of all, he had no obligations; he was free to do as he pleased. He was accountable to no one, and no one was accountable to him.

He finished his coffee, washed the cup, fed the cat, passed the vacuum, straightened up the house (all magazine edges on all tables matched the angles of the tables, and all lamps on end tables were perfectly centered), and clicked the switch to the Christmas tree he faithfully put up every year. The room was filled with colorful light as Joe stared at the tree. In the branches were nestled the ornaments of his youth, his mother’s favorites, his sister’s homemade ones, pieces of memories from long ago, gift ornaments from work associates, staff he once had—the tree held a lot history.

He sighed, gazing at the tree, “Yep. No obligations. What a blessing.”

Warm With Christmas Cheer
Joe wrapped his heavy coat around him and buried his nose and ears deep in the collar. He locked the door, checked it twice, and walked to the front of the building. Two store fronts later, he was at “Karen’s,” his employer for the last five years. He smelled the coffee brewing and quietly thanked God that there was someplace he had to be on Christmas morning. He remembered the many years of enduring this day alone with nothing to do, and it seemed the day would never end. He guessed the holidays brought out that kind of loneliness in a man. He placed the “Open Christmas Day” sign in the window, hung his coat up, and rubbed his hands together as he walked back to the kitchen.

Melba, the waitress, was peeling potatoes, and Eleanor, the dishwasher, was pouring eggnog. “Ready for a holiday snort?” she laughed as Joe cleared the door. “Wow! I just got my coat off!” He threw his head back and laughed heartily, which made the ladies laugh as well. He took the cup from Eleanor and threw the concoction back in one swallow. “Whew—that will warm you up. Merry Christmas, ladies!” He raised his empty glass to the sky.

They gathered for a group hug and Joe swallowed hard, a lump in his throat. How he had come to love these dear people. “Bless you, Joe,” Melba said as she wrapped a hand-knitted scarf around his neck. “I made this a cheery red just for you!”

“Aw, Mel,” he sputtered, “you didn’t have to do that.” She smiled and blushed, “Don’t do things like that cuz you hafta, ya do ‘em cuz you wanna. This whole place hasn’t stopped smiling since the day you showed up!”

Joe shook his head, but he knew it was true. He had a spirit about him that was contagious. He teased, he laughed easily, he was genuinely concerned for others, and anything he had expertise in, he gladly shared. He had helped folks over the years with legal papers, house sales, letters to loved ones, letters of heartbreak, and even Valentine’s Day cards, professing people’s love. Joe was there for everybody and anybody, but he really belonged to nobody. “No obligations,” he kept reminding himself. Commitment was always something he avoided. Everyone supposed there was a story of a broken heart somewhere in Joe’s past, but no one ever pried. He was so private.

Eleanor, in her innocent simplicity, stepped up and handed Joe a brown paper bag. He withdrew a large container of his favorite instant coffee. “Hey, Eleanor—thanks!” She shook her head shyly and turned to her dishwasher, “I knew it was the one you liked!” Joe put a hand on her shoulder from behind. “That’s really nice, El—I will use this every day.” She nodded, smiling, “I know, I know, I know.”

The back door to the kitchen burst open, and with it a blustery wind. Gordon, the deliveryman, had a fresh case of ribeye steaks that Joe would be serving as the day’s holiday special, but on top of the case sat a beautiful nut roll tied with a red ribbon. “Steaks for today and a nut roll from Ma for you, Joe! She says ‘Merry Christmas’ and still can’t thank you enough for working out that mess of hers from the bank.” Joe just shook his head. “Oh, for God’s sake, Gordon, that was just a couple hours work. She didn’t owe me anything.”

“It may be nothing to you, Joe, but she’ll never forget it. Plus, she said it’ll kill the taste of that rot gut coffee you swallow!” Eleanor looked up suddenly, “Hey, I just bought him a whole can of that rot gut!”

Everyone laughed as Joe went around the back of the cook line to light his burners and stoves. “Well, thank you everyone. Now let’s get to work and feed those hungry villagers of Christmas-land. If they’re here on a holiday, chances are good they’re lonely. Let’s fill them with good cheer.”

“Funny you should say that,” said Rita, the restaurant manager, as she came around the corner. “I took your complaints from last year seriously and bought all new Christmas music for the CD player. Are these the ones you like, Joe? Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby. Wait a minute, wasn’t he Jewish?”

Joe clapped his hands together. “Saint Rita! Look at you! Now we’re talking Christmas! Shove those in the player and turn it up loud until someone complains. Now we got a real holiday cooking here. Eleanor, cut up that nut roll to share with the kitchen gang and put it next to your eggnog!”

Eleanor shook her hips to the music as she loaded the dishwasher. The waitresses appeared, and Earl, the custodian, pulled a bottle from his pocket, providing “a little holiday cheer” to anyone who asked. The kitchen was alive with merriment and joy. No one here was complaining about working on Christmas Day.

Finally, Karen walked in. As a widow for about six years, she had been teetering on the verge of selling the place until Joe happened in, taking the cook’s job and filling the place with his personality and enthusiasm. Had he not provided that spiritual lift, Karen knew she would have sold and moved on a long time ago.

Instead, she followed Joe’s contagious spirit, inviting the employees over for monthly dinners where she cooked and fussed and got to know her people so very well. They had all become personal friends now, and as time passed she became more and more involved with their families and lives. And now it was time to pay a long overdue bill. She handed Joe an envelope.

“Karen, there is nothing I need and certainly…” She put a finger to his lips. “Not another word, Joseph.” Inside the envelope was the deed to the efficiency apartment he had been living in for the last half decade. It was a small, humble place, and its value wasn’t much, but it was now his, completely. Karen’s Restaurant held all the deeds on that side of the block, and her decision to section off Joe’s living quarters had another motive. Her hope was that, if he made this his permanent home, she’d never lose him to another opportunity or restaurant. She looked at all of the people watching him with tears in their eyes. How had she gotten so lucky as to have this man drop in out of nowhere to basically save her life?

The music played on and the laughter and smiles continued throughout the day. The regulars shuffled in and out, and all were of good cheer, some bearing gifts, some bearing personal burdens that they unloaded among their friends and neighbors. All left encouraged and a little brighter. How sad could any day be when you had friends to share your troubles and lighten the load?

Frozen In Time
When the restaurant was closing for the evening, staff members set the table for a little night cap, coffee, and dessert. Just as Karen was about to lock the door, a woman arrived. “I’m sorry, we’re closing,” Karen said through the window. The woman looked at Karen and nodded weakly. In a soft but audible tone, she said, “Does Joey Hightower work here?”

Karen paused and shook her head. “No, we have a Joe, but his last name is …” The woman looked beyond Karen at Joe, who was standing behind her. “Let her in, Karen,” Joe said softly. The woman walked past Karen, her eyes locked with Joe’s. She stood in the foyer directly in front of him.

She smiled a weak smile. “Joey, you’ve barely aged. It’s been…”

“Thirty-three years,” Joe said. He didn’t return the compliment.

Karen knew that she should leave, but she didn’t. She could sense the rising anger in Joe and felt compelled to help. “Anything I can do here, Joe? Should we seat this young lady?”

“That won’t be necessary,” he said. “We’re closing and she won’t be here long. She never stays anywhere too long.  What can I do for you, Donna?”

Donna looked at the floor and pulled off her hat. As she looked up, Joe felt that old, familiar rush of desire and regret. She was still so beautiful. She said, “I was passing through town visiting some old haunts. I came in to get a dose of memories, but never thought I’d find you here.” She locked eyes with him, and the room fell silent and uncomfortable. She glanced at Karen and explained, “We used to eat here almost every day when we were in college. We made lots of plans right there in that very booth. It was a long time ago.”

“I heard you married for the third time, Donna.  If you’re roaming around on Christmas day, I’m thinking maybe that one didn’t work out either.” It was cruel when it came out, but he had earned the right. His eyes drilled into hers.

Donna’s eyes widened; she nodded and choked a bit on her response. “Oh, I see. We’re going to tell the truth today, huh? OK, Joey, the truth? I’ve known for more than a year you were here, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to come in. I’m broke, Joe. I have nothing. My children don’t want to see me, my parents passed on years ago, I can’t hold a job, and I came here to tell you after all these years that you were right all along. There never has been another you in my life, and everything since I left you has no value—no lasting pleasure. I chose “flash over substance,” as you always used to say, and I came up empty. I’m sorry I couldn’t see it when we were younger. I simply didn’t have the wisdom you’ve always had. Could we ever try to make it work again, Joey, after all this time?  Would you even consider it? Of course not. So, when I finally knew you deserved to hear it, when I knew I could say it to you, not to trick you into a reaction, when I knew I could speak from the heart and admit my regret, I finally knew I should come forward, give you that peace, and be on my way.”

Joe closed his eyes. Indeed, he thought he’d finally made peace with that life before. He had turned the page, found his niche, and made some lifelong friends here at Karen’s. Why now? Why, when it finally seemed settled, did she have to re-ignite all of this long-buried pain? Or was it ever really buried? Can a man carry a torch for 33 years?  He looked at her for what seemed an eternity. He wished that she had just stayed away, kept those memories from becoming new decisions, but was it really just a memory or the root of all his bitterness? Could she really just show up and in five minutes blow his world apart again? He took a deep breath. No. No, she couldn’t. He had grown, and if she were to come back into his life now, it would have to be on HIS terms. And if she was truly willing to live that life—the life without “Park Avenue” luxury, without top-shelf wines and fine dining, the life of reality that he was the man he had always been and what attracted her to him years ago, his INTEGRITY, HONESTY, LOYALTY, SIMPLICITY. These were his gifts, and that was proven to him over and over that day. She said she was on her way. Perfect. He told himself, “Let her go. Just maintain yourself for five more minutes, Joe, and she’ll be gone forever. Let her go. Move on. Be done with it.”

“Do you have a place to stay in town?” he heard himself ask.

“Yes,” Donna brightened. “I’m staying with a friend of my mother’s until I get on my feet. She was widowed years ago and needs a live-in companion as she ages.”

“Karen,” Joe said without looking away from Donna’s glistening eyes. “Could we use another waitress?”

“If you vouch for her, Joe, she can start tomorrow,” Karen said, still standing there, unwilling to lose her greatest asset.

“Well, Donna,” Joe exhaled with a shaky sound, “come on back with us. There are some people I’d like you to meet.  Have you had anything to eat?”

“I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble, Joe,” she said.

He responded slyly with the first bit of humor in the conversation, “Since when?”

Joe and Donna stood at the end of the table looking at the very best friends Joe ever had.  They were all toasting and chattering. “Everyone, this is Donna, a very old friend of mine. Donna,” he paused and cleared the lump in his throat. “Donna … this is … my family.” Everyone stepped up, hugged and welcomed her, and started talking to her at the same time. Joe sat, watching her interact with his friends. Later that evening, she glanced at him and blinked away a tear. She mouthed the words, “Thank you, Joey.”

He nodded without commitment and said silently, “Merry Christmas.” He reflected on this miraculous day and all it had brought: the realization of true friends, the warmth of commitment, and the promise of something in the air that just might work out this time. Either way, he was much more grounded now—so sure of what would and wouldn’t work in his life. The gifts of the holiday were truly becoming clear to him, and the inner peace he felt was nestled in an appreciation of the most faithful and supportive of God’s creatures—his good friends.

As he knelt by his bed and the snow stacked up outside, the tree lights illuminated his newly owned humble home. “Happy Birthday, Lord. You are so very good to me. My cup runneth over.”

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.