The Day After Christmas
written by: Jim Bartlett
Stan hobbles through the back door and across the partially covered deck, finally easing into his favorite chair – a white wooden Adirondack positioned near the edge of the deck’s open backside – trying his best as he does so to ignore his knees and hips, both of which are voicing their complaints with a loud series of creaks and pops. He sets his cane against the nearby planter, overgrown with ferns and some sort of bright yellow flower that would most likely have given up for the season anywhere else, and then settles in with a bit of a wiggle, hoping to find a comfortable spot for his bony butt.
For the moment, and a long one at that, he simply sits, allowing the morning sun’s rays to smile down upon him. A gentle breeze brushes across his face, and in it he catches a salty reminder that the great Pacific is just a few blocks away. And he smiles.
The close of the manor’s door behind causes him to sit up and spin around, just in time to see Carmen, the center’s resident aide, heading his way, her stride more a dance than a walk. She carries a mug in one hand and an aluminum foil covered plate – chocolate chip cookies, he can almost taste them – in the other. Her long dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail, which sways rhythmically behind her, as if somehow catching the beat of the song she’s currently listening to on her earbuds. She’s petite, but only in stature, as her caring personality, particularly when it comes to her patients, stands tall, her shadow long. And she can be feisty, something that really tickles Stan.
As if a line had been drawn on the decking, and as she’s done every day for the last week, she stops right where the overhead covering ends, turning her attention to the string of old-fashioned Christmas lights that hang along the eve. But it’s not the lights themselves that place a frown on her face – even though the Christmas spirit in several of the bulbs has long since departed – but rather the tangled thicket of tinsel dangling from each loop that looks more thrown in place than hung. And thrown from afar at that. She takes in a deep sigh, gives her head a shake, and continues along, finally coming up beside him.
“Here’s your hot chocolate and cookies, Señor Lester. Fresh from the oven.”
Stan beams a smile of thanks, taking the plate and mug. He peels back the foil, bringing the plate close to his face. “My, oh my, these are wonderful. I thought I could smell the aroma of heaven drifting out from the kitchen. I was right.” Setting the plate down, he takes a quick sip of the chocolate, then turns back. “Perfect. Oh, I forgot to say, Merry the day after Christmas, Carmen. Did your boys have a great time? Did your husband get the day off? Did any of your family get to come for the day?” He laughs. “Listen to me, Mr. Twent…oh, wait, Señor Twenty Questions.”
“Merry the day after Christmas,” she says, her eyes lighting up as she breaks into a wide smile. “Si, my boys had so much fun. My sister and her family come over from Phoenix, so they had their cousins to play with. Lots and lots of presents. Everyone happy and lots of food.” She looks away, covering her mouth as she lets go a tiny laugh, one not much bigger than her. “Tooooo much food,” she says, patting her stomach. “Martin, he get off work. He get to stay home until Friday.”
“Well, that’s just so wonderful. Nothing beats being with family and friends during the holidays. I hope you’re getting off early today to spend some more time with them.”
“Si, thank you, Señor Lester.” She looks away again, trying not to let him see that her smile has faded. “Your family no come?”
“They’re all too far away, or just plain gone. But thank you for thinking of me.” He taps the back of her hand. “I’d better gobble down these cookies before they get cold.”
“Si, Señor Lester.” She takes in a long breath and nods. “Do you need anything else?”
Stan stretches out his arms, then pulls them tight to his chest, as if wrapping the sun and wind in for a heartfelt hug, allowing him to soak up their offerings of warmth and the ocean’s scent. With a smile he then picks up a cookie and takes a huge bite, answering her with his mouth still full. “What more could anyone want?”
She smiles, though he can tell it’s half-hearted, and turns back for the main building. He watches her until she gets to the door, and waves when she takes one more look his way before disappearing into the kitchen.
“I hear you’re a short-timer.” The voice catches Stan off-guard and he turns quickly, almost a little too much so, as his neck, with a little prick, reminds him to slow it down next time. He’s surprised to see Abby Carmichael sitting in the chair just a few feet over, having obviously slipped – well, snuck – over there while he was talking with Carmen. Maybe 3 or 4 years older than him, she’s been “after” him since his first week here.
Not that he’s not flattered. After all, Abby, while a bit overzealous, has a good sense of humor, been around the world – in more ways than one – and plays a mean game of poker.
“Well, hello there, Abby. Merry day after Christmas to you.” He raises his cocoa mug in sort of toast, noticing that she, too, has a mug, hers most likely filled with some sort of exotic tea.
She picks up her cup and clinks his with a nod and a smile. “Merry day after Christmas to you, Stan.”
“Well, thank you. And, yes,” he continues, “my doctor’s news was indeed good the other day. I guess you might even call it a sort of early Christmas present, as it looks as though my hip is healing better than they thought. So, as much as I have enjoyed my stay here at Bayside Manor with such fine company”—he gives her a long wink—“I’ll most certainly be glad to go home.”
She looks away, giving off a wistful sigh. “Well, I, for one, will miss your company.”
“You’ll just miss someone that’s so easy to beat at Five-Card Draw.”
“And Blackjack. Don’t you forget I kicked your tail in Blackjack.”
Stan leans his head back and laughs heartily. “Of course, Blackjack. I’m still stinging from that loss. I’m surprised I still have the pink slip to my car.”
“Wait…you have a car? We should have played a couple of more hands…” Abby winks again and raises her mug in another toast. “Can I ask you something, Stan?”
“Why is it you celebrate Christmas on the day after Christmas?” Her eyes suddenly widen, and she puts her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my, I hope I’m not being too personal.”
Stan nods, takes a bite from another cookie, then a noisy sip from the hot chocolate.
“Oh, no, no. It’s nothing traumatic like that.” Leaning back into the chair, he smiles. “You see, my wife and I parted ways right after my grandson, Travis, was born. Found herself one of those young ‘personal trainers’ slash ‘life coaches’ that showed her all the things she was missing in life. Like a good chunk of my retirement and our vacation house. She was fifty-four, good lord, I don’t think he was even thirty.” He takes another bite, shaking his head. “Anyway, I digress. As the years went along, I realized all I really wanted was to have time with my grandson, which was fine with my daughter, who took my ex-wife’s side, by the way, until it came to the holidays. As Travis grew up, I sort of fell into third place, with his father, by then my daughter’s ex – yeah, she followed in her mother’s footsteps – taking him Christmas Eve, then Angie, that’s my daughter’s name, and my ex having him on Christmas day, leaving me the leftovers, as I finally got to spend the afternoon with him the day after Christmas.”
“Oh, it really wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I’d show up with two fishing poles and we’d head off to the beach, or rent a boat, and spend the day after Christmas ‘fishing,’ though I don’t think either one of us ever caught a single fish. I, for sure, didn’t, as I wouldn’t even bait my hook.” He laughs. “Now that I think about it, I don’t recall even having a hook on the line. Just weights.”
“So…what was the point? I mean, fishing, but not fishing?”
“The point was the time we spent together. And, by casting that line into the ocean, it was my connection to the sea. Through that line it would pass along its deep calm and guiding spirit, and I soaked it up. I think Travis felt it, too. Or maybe it was there because he was there. It just seemed, even then, he was somehow in tune with the world around him. Everyone we met, animals included, and, for that matter, I want to say even Mother Earth, could feel it in him. I dunno. But what I do know is that we had some great times and long heartfelt talks, he and I…” Stan takes another bite of his cookie, taking a moment to chew on it, his mind lost in thought. “But really, to be honest, there was nothing in the world like walking into my ex’s house the day after Christmas seeing him waiting there for me. I’d step into the room with those fishing poles in my hand and his eyes would light up like candles. No matter how many times I did that, it would still take everything I had just to say, without choking up, as had become my tradition, ‘You ready? I’m here to spring you out of this joint, kiddo.’ He’d give me a big hug and fly out that door.”
Taking in a deep breath, her eyes moist, Abby gives her head a slow shake. “That’s just so sweet. Wait…where is he now?”
“Ah…Travis turned out to be a great, great kid. Aced high school, got a ton of scholarship offers for all the best universities. Sought after by all the big name companies. But he wanted to do something to make the world a better place. Just a giant heart in that kid. So, he went to Berkeley, got some sort of fancy degree and even a Masters in under four years, then went off and joined the Peace Corps, spending a couple of years working with folks in Central America on finding clean water and better hygiene, even helped build a school. And bless his heart, through all that, he somehow found a way to keep up our tradition of fishing the day after Christmas. He’d show up out of nowhere, hair looking like some sort of haystack in the wind, but he’d have those same old fishing poles in his hand.”
Stan looks over to Abby, whose smile takes up most of her face.
“Oh, my, Stan, that’s just wonderful. You must be so very proud. Is he still down there?”
“I am indeed very proud. But, no, he finished up his tour with the Corps and went on to become the head of the Foundation for Peace and Humanity. Maybe you’ve heard of them?”
“Yes, of course. I most certainly have! They do AMAZING things.”
“Indeed they do. And he’s been a big part of it. It’s what he was meant to do. You can tell he’s just so happy, I mean, he flies around the world making life better for those who need a giant helping hand…and even those who just need to know where to stick their line in the water. I get all these marvelous pictures of him here or there – the African plains one week, then some isolated village in Nicaragua the next. Sometimes, sadly, folks need help right here in our own country. But no matter what, when the people there, obviously ever so thankful, gather around him for a picture just before he leaves, you should see that smile he’s wearing.”
“You know, he got that from you, right?”
“No, silly. He learned WHERE to get that smile from you.”
“Well, you’re too kind, Abby. I’m just so grateful that he and I got to spend so much time together and, even more so, that he’s happy.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s even more grateful than you know for that time as well.” Something catches her breath, and she turns in her chair, letting her gaze drift back toward the messy array of tinsel and lights. “When’s the last time you saw him?”
“Been a couple of years now. But he’s always right here.” Setting down his mug, Stan thumps his heart with an open hand.
“I do believe you’re right,” Abby says, still looking back toward the building, though now, a sly smile has broken across her face.
“What the devil are you looking at?” Stan asks, twisting in his chair. But as he does, his breath catches as well. There, on the deck and just under the closest clump of dangling sliver tinsel, stands a tall, handsome young man, with long blondish straw-like hair sticking out from a red Santa hat. In his left hand he holds two grungy old fishing poles.
“Merry day after Christmas, Gramps. How about I spring you out of this joint and we go fishing?”
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