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Here is my Christmas story for 2015.  May Christ bring you a deeper peace this season. Julie Cosgrove.

00436172Plenty of Room

            Julie B Cosgrove            

Janice Hanson huffed through her bangs. How dare the caterer cancel two days before the biggest Christmas event of the season? Sure, her son’s car had been T-boned by a drunk driver, but it is not as if she had to keep vigil by his hospital bed. He lay in a medically induced coma for Heaven’s sake. She stomped through the marbled floor foyer, her stilettos clicking like flamenco castanets. Well, she’d better get her money back. The menu had cost her plenty.

Pausing to take in another deep breath to squelch the rising anxiety, she scanned the room. At least the decorator remained on the ball. The crew scuffled like ants to deck the halls, literally, as well as the main parlor, dining room, ballroom and veranda—just in case the warm front actually arrived as predicted. Four foot tall silver coated reindeer nestled in a grouping on the massive, round mahogany table perched in the center as it had been for the past four generations of her husband’s family. This soiree meant everything to his floundering consulting business. Pull it off and both of their appointment calendars for 2106 would fill—hers socially, his for business lunches, after work pow-wows, and rounds of golf. Let be lackluster and barely get a mention in the upcoming society section, or worst get a full half column of scathing criticism, and next year they’d be lucky to celebrate the holidays in their hunting cabin wearing charity shop flannel and eating canned beans. Plenty rode on this to be a success.

Two more workers wheeled in four dozen potted poinsettias in the burgundy jingle bell variety as well as baby blue, the latest in hothouse husbandry. Ribbons in silver, maroon and robin’s egg intertwined in the fragrant bows of hypo-allergenic, chemical-free evergreen strands. White amaryllis, promised to be in full bloom on Christmas Eve, by the time the chamber orchestra’s first melodic note struck, dotted the side tables. The dining table decorations would be made fresh the day of the party. And there’d be plenty of cheer flowing from the bubbly champagne fountain.

Janice punched in the number on her cell phone. Tapping her foot, she hissed, “Please be able to help. Please.” Her acquaintance and bored empty-nester Charlotte always got elongated eye rolls and smiles for her scrumptiously original hor d’oeuvres and decadent deserts.  She’d been thinking of starting her own business anyway, and this might be the shove she needed. Janice would be hailed the philanthropist of the year for launching her. Beatrice, her own cook, could roll up her sleeves and assist for an extra grand in her bonus check this year. Perfect.

“Oh, hi, Charlotte. I need a huge favor. But in fact, I may just be doing an even bigger one for you…” 

Janice walked into the butler’s pantry and, in revived multitasking mode, counted the Spode dinner, dessert and salad plates as she spoke. Protocl demanded at least three square feet per person to avoid overcrowding into personal spaces. She did the math. Two thousand on the main level for one hundred ninety-two guests. Plenty of room.

                                                                                     *  *  *

Bob curled next to the stoop, wedging himself away from the door so people wouldn’t whack it into his shins. The recessed entryway broke the winds blowing in from the north. He tucked his threadbare, third-hand coat around his torso and drew his knees tighter. People dashed along the sidewalk, their eyes either straight ahead with set jaws of determination, or buried in the screen of some electronic device. No one made contact or chatted. Funny. He recalled as a kid everyone at least waved when he and his mom passed by. But then, she’d been a pillar of the community. She hadn’t guzzled her paycheck as he did, when he had one. This time of the year stabbed him deeply. Long since devoid of wife and kids, he had no one to share the joys of the season with, except a few other downbeat and deadbeat derelicts as himself who crowded the shelter for a hot holiday meal.

“Umph.” The door whammed into his knee.

The woman glared at him as if he were made of black mold. She sniffed and turned her gaze away. He’d seen it a hundred times, but today, the gesture pierced his heart a few more inches. Tomorrow would be the 24th. Two days before Christmas and the day he’d walked the aisle with the girl of his dreams fifteen years ago. Did she recall it? Sure, and probably with a shudder for being such a naïve fool to marry the likes of him. They’d had such dreams before an on-the-job injury left him hooked on booze and pain killers when their two kids were three and five. They now must be, what? Twelve and fifteen? It’d been six years since he saw any of them. Four since he read in the paper left on a park bench of her nuptials to husband number two, a middle manager for a major electronics store.

Bob rose to his feet and shook off the sharp shoots of icy pain darting down his right leg from his lower back. Walk it off. That helped the best. What else did he have to do, anyway? Two hours until the daily soup kitchen opened, and then if lucky, he’d make it further enough in line to be given one of the twenty-five first-come-basis cots for the second time in a week.

He passed a man clanging a bell over a bright red stew pot. People mostly ignored him, but a few tossed a coin or two in the top slot. They made eye contact. The man gave him an understanding nod.    

That’s right. Con them into giving. I need a hot meal. Ho, ho, ho.

                                                                                      *  *  *

Charlotte’s eyes flooded with tears. A few drops cascaded down the flour smudge on her cheek.  She wasn’t used to this hi-faluting confectionary oven. Black edged petite croissants stuffed with pumpkin walnut soufflé and a dollop of papaya relish hissed on the tray.

“Oh, no. NO!” Janie stood hands on hip in her whisper blue and silver evening gown with garnet and sapphire necklace with matching earrings.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what…”

Her arms circled like a helicopter in distress. “Well, do something, Charlotte! The guests arrive in twenty minutes.”

The mansion’s cook, Essie, clucked her teeth. “We’ll make it right, Mrs. H.” She pushed the air with her hands. “Now you scoot on out of here and leave it to us.”

“But there isn’t time. These took two hours to prepare, and…”

The wiser woman wiped her hands on her apron. “…And so, we chop off the ends. Then we’ll drizzle them in caramel sauce and plate them at angle in a pinwheel fashion. No one will be the wiser.”

“Good thinking.” The two set out with a new plan, ignoring the sage-rubbed Cornish game hens sizzling in the oven. Until the smoke alarm sounded as the first wave of guests shed their coats.

                                                                             *  *  *

The fire department, police and other emergency entourage flooded the mansion, shuffling white tuxedos and ball gowns outside in the frigid, damp air, minus their outerwear. Janie slumped to the stoop, her mascara streaking down both cheeks. Her dashing, just-enough-gray at-the temples hubby stood over her. “Can’t you do one thing right? You knew the importance of this party.”

Janie let out a guttural scream twisted her diamond wedding set from her finger and tossed it in his face. Her guests looked on in horror and disdain. She felt their eyes boring into her soul. She ran, stilettos in hand, out the front door, down the curved driveway and out the main gates to gain as much distance from their biting comments as possible. The cold air penetrated her lungs like a hundred miniscule daggers. On she went, ignoring the runs crawling up her calves from her twenty-five dollar hosiery. Her legs propelled her as gulps of hot tears fought for breath.

She had no idea which way she headed. She didn’t care. Maybe this street would end in a lake and she’d keep running until her feet no longer touched bottom. Then she’d sink into oblivion and not resurface until the spring thaw.

Her pace slowed as exhaustion set in. Each leg dragged as she willed one foot to lift, then the other. The chilled night prickled her bare shoulders. Sweat drizzled down her back and morphed into icy fingers. Clouds of her breath preceded her steps. Janice stopped to get her bearings. An alleyway lay ahead—dark, gloomy and foreboding. Exactly like my future.

A rattle of a trash can caught her attention as a feral cat jumped and hissed his dislike of her intrusion.

“Join the club, you mangy feline. Exactly what everyone else is saying about me right now.”

The scrawny, matted-hair beast sauntered off, his crooked tail high. Janice sunk to the ground and wept, her fingers clawing the damp, muddy asphalt.

A hand pressed her shoulder.

“Lady, you okay?”

She shook her head, not willing to put forth the energy to raise her gaze. “I don’t have a purse. If you want these jewels, take them.” She yanked off the necklace and dangled it in the direction of the male voice.

“You look mighty cold.”

Janice felt the weight of a body-warmed cloth drape over her. The stench almost made her gag. Days-old body odor, dust and a few other aromas her brain couldn’t register assaulted her nostrils. Yet she pulled the coat over her with one hand, welcoming the relief it brought. She pivoted to sit on her backside, legs tucked underneath her right hip. “Who are you?”

The beggar shrugged. His scraggly beard glistened with dew droplets snatched from the foggy atmosphere. Behind him a street lamp cast a hazy yellow glow, almost like an eerie halo. He lowered his hand, outstretched. “Soup kitchen’s open. You hungry?”

Her stomach responded with a deep rumble. The man snickered and pumped his fingers. “We’d better hurry before they run out and there ain’t no more room. I’ll pocket these jewels for safe keeping. Better give me the earrings, too.”

She didn’t know why, or perhaps she simply didn’t care at this point, but Janice obeyed. She twisted the dangling garnets and sapphires from her earlobes and plopped them into his hand. He helped her slide her arms into his jacket.

“You ain’t got any shoes.”

Janice looked down. “I think I dropped them a few miles back.” She grimaced as she bit one side of her lip.

He reared back and laughed. “Okay, girlie. You stick with me. Name’s Bob by the way.”

“Janice.”

He placed a gentle hand on her middle back. “This way, Janice. Maybe they’ll have a phone and you can call your family.”

She tugged the ends of the coats further around her body. “No. They don’t care now anyway.” Her voice quivered. “I have failed them, failed them all.”

Bob’s tone softened. “Know the feeling. Come on, then.”

They entered a back doorway into a brightly lit room. A Christmas tree twinkled in the corner. Hums of voices filled the rafters almost drowning out the carols being played over two loud speakers. People with green aprons and red elf hats dished soup and bread to a line of scraggly souls—some young, some old, male and female, black and white.

Janice halted as the smiles and laughter thawed her from the inside out.

“Ladies first. I’ll make sure no one bothers you.”

She shuffled along, just one more lost person, forgotten and alone at Christmas. She kept her eyes focused on the woman’s tennis shoes in front of her, soles worn and heels frayed. Bob stood behind her in a protective mode, close enough for her to sense him, and smell him. Somehow, his unwashed stench didn’t gag her as much as it had.

A teenager handed her a bowl, napkin and spoon on a tray. “Merry Christmas.”

She shot the girl a quick smile and moved ahead in line. Hot vegetable and chicken soup ladled by one cellophane-gloved volunteer, followed by a roll handed to her by another. At the end of the line, a thin wedge of pumpkin pie with a puff of canned whipped cream landed on her tray. Tears welled as she recalled how horrid she’d been to Charlotte. To take on such a last minute task of that enormity must have overwhelmed her friend. What a ghoul she’d been to her.

She slurped her food in silence, pushing away the guilt which crept into her wealthy shallowness of an attitude. She took for granted all she had—the bulging lager of gourmet foods and the fine kitchen and staff to prepare them. Then she whined because of some burnt tipped appetizers that probably cost as much as the soup and bread the volunteers doled out in this small auditorium.  In contrast, these folks, who possessed so little, seemed grateful for this one meal.

Bob cast a glance at her every once in a while, but left her to her thoughts.

Then a screech penetrated the quiet. A pastor tapped the microphone and offered a prayer. Behind him children shuffled to position. The radio quieted and a single C note plinked on an old upright piano. Slightly swaying out of sync, the wide-eyed little ones dressed in their Christmas sweaters sang two or three familiar carols as a woman crouched below the stage and kept time with her hands. People applauded at the end of each song.

The pastor grinned. “Because it’s Christmas, we have acquired fifty more cots, complete with blankets. We will clear out this dining area to make room. After all, one night long ago, some animals made room for a pregnant woman and her child. It is because of Him we celebrate this night. You see, He wants nothing more than for you to make room in your heart for Him.”

Then, the small choir ended with Silent Night as the lights dimmed and volunteers passed out handheld candles along with a baggie of chocolates and a Scripture card for each homeless guest.

Janice held her plastic sack to her chest and allowed the tears to flow. She couldn’t recall a Christmas so filled with love and caring.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“I ‘ve been blessed with so much and I ignored it. And now, because of my stupidity, I may have lost it all.”

Bob clutched her hand as tears shimmered.

“What is it?”

“I loved drugs and booze more than my family. Now I have no one. Don’t let that happen to you.”

The pastor enveloped him in a side hug. “You have one person, Bob. And He will never leave you. He came into this world for you, friend. You and all of us here in this room.” He winked. “Even you, ma’am.  No matter your story. There is plenty of room in His heart for everyone.”

Her lips quivered into a smile. “You all are in possession of something more precious than I ever had. And I have been considered by most to be one of the more privileged.” Janice whispered into Bob’s ear.

 He dug into his pocket and deposited her platinum gold set jewels into her hand.

“Here.” She handed them to the minister. “Payment for my meal, and all of this.” Her hands swept the room.

The man stuttered.  “Can we call someone for you?”

“Tomorrow, maybe. But tonight, I’d love a cot and the warmth of all of you. Thanks to Bob’s kind heart and your giving attitudes, I have rediscovered what this season means.”

Bob blushed as a grin etched the corners of his mouth. “Can’t recall when anyone ever thanked me for anything.”

The pastor winked. “You’re welcome to stay. Plenty of room.”

 

 

 

 

 

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