I offer you this late Christmas treat…something sour to the tongue and harsh on the digestion.
If it was going to snow, it would have to come in the form of a miracle. She had been watching the weather forecasts on three different apps and two websites and it was clear sailing. This was going to be, to quote one of the talking weather heads – the driest Christmas in a generation.
Of course it would be.
It was stupid, it was silly, but she had really been hoping for snow this year.
It would have been something.
It would have been…anything.
It had been a hard year.
Everyone had them, it was nothing new.
How we dealt with them and overcame them is what made us who we were.
The thing was though that this had been a really bad year.
A break up of a three year relationship in March.
Being fired in April.
Losing my aunt, the woman that had helped to raise me, to Cancer in July.
A DUI in September had me using mass transit and with a quickly draining bank account, a brother that has disowned me due to my relationship, and after over one hundred applications I had had only one interview and that was for a job selling perfume in a mall.
It was stupid but with Christmas coming, I was hoping there’d be snow.
I had cashed out my 401K at the job I was fired from and had been living on that. I figured I had about a month left until I was in real trouble.
I wasn’t religious but I was praying for a miracle.
Snow was the sign.
I was hoping for snow.
A stupid, childish thing but Christmas was a time for miracles and hope.
Mine was snow.
I just wanted to watch the snow fall with my Christmas lights on, watching old holiday movies, eating Chinese food, and thinking about my aunt, who set this tradition when I was still a kid waiting for her first bra.
There was no snow in sight.
I was crushed.
And that was that.
The streets were surprisingly empty in the city the night before Christmas but the diner down the street from my apartment was open so I bundled up and walked down there to get a cup of coffee. I needed to be out of my head and those four walls for a little while and just be around someone, anyone for a little bit. I was a little shocked that the diner was open at ten at night but was happy about it. When I pushed the door open the waitress, an older woman with deep rings beneath her eyes and her lipstick smeared onto her chin, shook her head slowly.
“Welcome to Mal’s, have a seat and I’ll be right with you.” She told me and I smiled and headed for a booth.
She looked at me as I smiled and shook her head and then turned and said something to the young man that had stuck his head through the order window. They both looked at me and shook their heads and then she turned and walked over to me.
“What’ll it be?” She asked.
“Gosh, just some coffee, thanks.” I told her.
The woman’s mouth opened, her fake grin twisted, and it was clear she was about to say something to me that she had been waiting to say to someone all night when a voice behind her stopped her.
“Gloria? Gloria? Can I get a refill on this water?”
The woman’s mouth closed and she shook her head and turned and was suddenly chipper.
“You got it, Father, I’ll be right there.”
The woman walked over to the counter and grabbed a pitcher of water and then went over to an elderly man who was sitting alone a few booths down from me. He was about two days overdue for a shave and his shoulders were dropped and he was looking out the window.
He and I were the only patrons in the diner and he looked like he needed some company.
I know I did.
I stood and walked down to the booth and stood beside it waiting for him to speak.
When he didn’t, I did.
“Hi, uh, sir. Merry Christmas!”
The old man turned and looked at me and my smile faltered.
“Um, uh, sorry to bother you…”
I took a step back and ran into the waitress and she cursed me and spilled water onto me.
“Goddammit…” The woman cursed.
“Now, now Gloria. Let’s take a breath. Miss, please, have a seat with me. It seems you wanted to speak to me.”
I turned to the waitress and was going to apologize but saw she had no interest in that. Instead I bit my lip and turned back to the pastor and smiled and sat opposite of him. He let out a long sigh and sat up straight and forced what I imagined was his imitation of a smile, though it never made it past his lips. His hands wrapped around the saucer beneath the coffee cup in front of him and began to slowly spin it around and around and around.
“So, uh, what can I do for you, uh, Miss?” He asked.
I opened my mouth to speak then closed it.
What could he do for me?
What did I want?
I had grown up religious, devoutly so, but had lapsed as I got older, floundering as I saw a great big world that offered few answers and it felt like standing at the edge of the ocean and hoping I could swim across it.
It was horrifying.
What did I want from him, as all my hope was fading?
“Oh, gosh, I dunno that I wanted anything…” I told him, looking down at my hands.
He made a ‘hmph’ sound.
“My dear, everyone wants something. Even if it’s something as simple as company.”
I looked up and he was looking out the window again.
“I am surprised you’re not at, I dunno, mass, or some service or something.”
“Why are you surprised?” He asked me.
“Well, I mean, you know.” I replied.
“Do I?” He had turned his gaze back on me and I could see that his eyes had started to turn slightly milky.
The harsh light of the diner revealed that glaze over his eyes and it may not be bad, for now, but a day was coming where the world would fall to darkness if something wasn’t done.
“I mean, it’s Christmas Eve, this has to be, like, the big night for you with tomorrow the big day. Right?”
“The church isn’t a shop, you know. We don’t have peak hours or dates. We’re open every day, rain or shine. Sinner or saint. Tonight is but another night on the calendar for me just as tomorrow is yet another.”
“But, that’s not true. It’s a big deal. A big, big deal. I might even go to a service in the morning and I never go…uh…” My voice faltered and a coffee was put in front of me and splashed cold, dark liquid on my hands.
I looked up and the waitress gave me a nasty smile.
I looked at the coffee and saw a soap bubble.
I furrowed my brow and was about to say something when the man across from me spoke.
“You see, tonight and tomorrow mean something to you, but it’s the same for me. Every day is spent in service to the Lord. There are no days off. There are now holidays from the Spirit. While some, like yourself, find faith when everyone is looking, for me, it is there at all times, a beacon shining into the darkest parts of my soul.”
I was quiet for a few moments as a fire truck raced by outside the diner.
“You make it sound, I dunno, it doesn’t…” My thought collapsed under its own weight.
The man had been looking out the window again and he turned back to me and he was rubbing the ring finger of his left hand.
“I am sorry if this shocks you but this is my job. This is a job. Yes, it’s a calling, was a calling, but it’s also a job. I am paid, you know. Even if they call it a stipend. It’s still pay. While everyone is coming to me for advice, or to confess some sin or another I am working.”
Hearing that made me feel strange, as if I was standing on a slippery rock in the middle of a rushing river.
“I guess I never thought of it that way.” I told him.
“No one does. It’s all right. Now then, you came here, to this diner, alone, on Christmas Eve. There is no one waiting for you, is there? There’s no one to go to tonight. Is there anyone tomorrow?”
I shook my head.
“Alone. Like so many of us. Alone in God’s love. And you saw me and thought you would join me and we could, what, be alone together? And that’s very kind of you, very thoughtful. Unless I wanted to be alone. No matter though. Let me tell you a story, if you don’t mind. Maybe it will answer your unspoken question about me. May I?” He asked.
“OK. Many years ago, more than it seems possible, I was a man of devout faith. My day rose and set with the Lord and I sang his Word to all that would hear it. I was the head of a church in the inner city of a city a few states over. It had been in the middle of a rapid decline when I was assigned to it and I think it was believed that I would be the one to close and lock the doors for good one day and they preferred a man of color do it so that some White man wasn’t locking a Black church. The thing is though that once I changed some light bulbs, cleaned up the pews, and stayed open for people to come to me we started to get more folks. Sure, they were the homeless, and the prostitutes, and the junkies at first, but it was a start and that first Christmas we were nearly full. Over the years the families in the city started to come to me as well and within five years we had gotten the notice of not just the city but of the higher ups in the church. I was asked to meet with some people and it was thought that I may be moved to a much more prominent role as the so-called Saint of the Ghetto, a name I loathed but had heard others call me when they thought I wouldn’t hear. I loved that church but I had ambition. I had dreams. And the night before my meeting I had a revelation…”
The man took a deep breath and ran a shaking hand across his brow and then returned it to the saucer, which he started to spin again.
“I had finished speaking about the birth of Christ at the midnight service on Christmas Eve and after a half an hour of shaking hands and wishing people a very Merry Christmas I had retired to the small studio in the back of the church to sleep. We had a Christmas service that morning at ten but I had already made notes as to what I wanted to say. I fell quickly into sleep and as I drifted I felt surrounded and filled with warmth. It was as if I was being embraced by a warm, soft light and I felt happier than I ever have in my life. It seemed as if a veil was before me, and as if behind it were the answers to all things. I knew I shouldn’t, I knew it in my heart but I couldn’t resist a peek, just a little peek, and so I reached forward with unseen hands and pulled apart the veil. And I swear to you I saw but a glimpse before I let them fall but the problem with knowledge is that you don’t always get to decide how much you gain. I woke to my own scream. I stayed in that bed, in my bed, for the entire next day, and rose only to relieve myself then returned. I did that for the next week and refused to answer the door to my room. After five days someone came into the church and graffitied the pews, and they knocked over the altar, and they broke the statue of the Virgin Mary I had purchased for us. It was only when some higher ups from the church came and broke into my room and made me go to a hospital for evaluation that I relented. The church was locked when I left and it never reopened and was burned down six months later. I was sent to recover in a facility owned by the faith and I was released a year later. I was released when I was told, very bluntly, that I was not serving God and that if I was not going to serve God then I could go somewhere and serve burgers. That was that. I realized that that which had once been my calling was now just a job, and I needed to get back to work. I started with the church just down the street last year. I fill in and handle services during the week but I do not do the holidays and they don’t want me to. It’s better that way.”
He let out a long sigh on telling me all of this and he looked out the window and I saw that the first flakes of snow for the season were falling.
I asked the question without even a thought and regretted that I had.
“But what did you see? What shook you this deeply?”
He turned back to me and gave me a very sad smile, as if he knew I’d ask and, having asked, he could now share that terrible knowledge he had gained.
“I knew you’d ask me, and I am sorry you did. I have lived with this terrible burden for so long though I am glad to share it, even if in doing so, it damns you as it damned me. What did I see, you ask? I saw caught but the briefest glimpse, the shortest moment. Above was a light that hurt to try to behold so I cast my gaze not up but down and I saw Hell, surrounded by thick smoke and populated with monstrous things that shuffled to and fro. The air was full of screaming and crying and it was not heat that was given off but cold. Just beholding it chilled me. I had never seen such things before, such creatures. Even in the deepness of my faith I had not imagined that demons really existed, but I was wrong. I was so wrong. I was struck with horror as one looked upwards and seemed to see me and as we locked eyes the clouds around them parted and I saw them, and I saw Hell and its inhabitants and that was why I screamed. I saw the truth.”
I leaned closer.
The man nodded to himself and he stopped twirling the saucer. The diner got suddenly darker and I turned and saw that a bank of lights had been turned off and the waitress and cook were standing in the kitchen doorway waiting for us to leave. I realized my hands were shaking.
“What did you see?” I had to know.
He nodded to himself.
“I saw us. The demon was just a woman, a woman walking back and forth. The demon nearest her, that seemed as if it had horns and talons, was just a man sobbing as he sat on the ground. The ravaged landscape I saw was a city. The cold I felt was winter. What I saw was earth. And I perceived it as Hell because I saw it, for that brief moment, as God sees it, as they see us, as the demons that we are. What that means, what it means in relation to Heaven, I cannot tell you. I dared not look longer and paid the price to look at all, but what I saw changed me. Something like Christmas, a human conjuration, means nothing in the face of it, does it? Does it? The only son of God, the only link we have to this unknowable thing is seen as a demon by the Almighty. And if that is the case…what are we?”
He pounded the table and I looked over at the two diner employees and they were seated in a booth, passing a joint between them.
“I…” I started with nothing else to add to it.
“I lay there in my bed, stripped of the armor of my faith, cut down to the bare nakedness of what I thought was my immortal soul and I had to ask myself – if we are but demons in Hell, then what is Heaven, and is it even meant for us?”
“But, but what if Heaven is what we are seeking to earn, or whatever? What if it’s, like, our reward for a life well lived? Like faith tells us?” I offered.
He nodded to himself and then reached behind himself and grabbed a thick wool coat and pushed one arm through the hole for it and then the other arm in and pulled it tight.
“Yes, yes, that may well be, I suppose, but what I didn’t tell you was the last thing I saw. Just as I was waking, the last bit of revelation that was offered me as a prize for my greedy desire for knowledge.”
“Above the earth, encircling it, were a million points of light that hovered watching us as we toiled and struggled and sinned and do you know what they were doing? They were laughing. They were…laughing.” The man stood and reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill and dropped it onto the table.
I looked at his, mouth agape.
“Merry Christmas.” He told me and turned and headed for the door.
Once he was out the door I stood and turned and headed for the exit myself. Outside I looked up and saw it was snowing. I stuck my tongue out and caught some and cringed. I reached out and let some fall on my hand and saw it was gray. I heard more sirens and turned and saw that there was a large fire a few blocks down and it was just starting to get going. As I squirted my eyes I saw that at its center was a church and heading towards it was the old man, who whistled as he walked through the falling ash.
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