A Little Christmas Spirit
Book Excerpt :: Chapter 1
It was the sixth call in two days, all from the same person. Wouldn’t you think, if a man didn’t answer his phone the first five times that the pest would get the message and quit bugging him?
But no, and now Stanley Mann was irritated enough to pick up and say a gruff, “Hello.” Translation: Why are you bugging me?
“It’s about time you answered,” said his sister-in-law, Amy. “I was beginning to wonder if you were okay.”
Of course, he wasn’t okay. He hadn’t been okay since Carol died.
“I’m fine. Thanks for checking.”
The words didn’t come out with any sense of warmth or appreciation for her concern to encourage conversation, but Amy soldiered on. “Stan, we all want you to come down for Thanksgiving. You haven’t seen the family in ages.”
Not since the memorial service, and he hadn’t really missed them. He liked his brother-in-law well enough, but wife’s younger sister was a ding dong, her daughters were drama queens and their husbands were idiots. The younger generation were all into their selfies and their jobs and their crazy vacations where they swam with sharks. Who in their right mind swam with sharks? He had better things to do than subject himself to spending an entire day with them.
He did have enough manners left to thank Amy for the invite before turning her down.
“You really should come,” she persisted.
No, he shouldn’t.
“Don’t you want to see the new great niece?”
No, he didn’t. “I’ve got plans.”
“What? To hole up in the house with a frozen turkey dinner?”
“No.” Not turkey. He hated turkey. It made him sleepy.
“You know Carol would want you to be with us.”
He’d been with them pretty much every Thanksgiving of his married life. He’d paid his dues.
“You don’t have any family of your own.”
Thanks for rubbing it in. He’d lost his brother ten years earlier to a heart attack and both his parents were gone now as well. He and Carol never had any kids of their own.
But he was fine. He was perfectly happy in his own company.
“I’m good, Amy. Don’t worry about me.”
“I can’t help it. You know, Carol was always afraid that if something happened to her you’d become a hermit.”
Hermits were scruffy old buzzards with bad teeth and long beards who hated people. Stanley didn’t hate people. He just didn’t need to be around them all the time. There was a difference. And he wasn’t scruffy. He brushed his teeth. And he shaved…every once in a while
“Amy, I’m fine. Don’t worry. Happy Thanksgiving and tell Jimmy he can have my share of the turkey,” he said, then ended the call before she could grill him further regarding those plans he’d said he had.
They were perfectly good plans. He was going to pick up a frozen pizza and watch something on TV. That sure beat driving all the way from Fairwood, Washington to Gresham, Oregon to be alternately bored and irritated by his in-laws. If Amy really wanted to do something good for him she could leave him alone.
At first everyone had. He was a man in mourning. Then came COVID and he was a senior self-quarantining. Now, however, it appeared he was supposed to be ready to party on. Well, he wasn’t.
Two days before Thanksgiving he made the one-mile journey to the grocery store, figuring he’d dodge the crowd. He’d figured wrong and the store was packed with people finishing up the shopping for their holiday meal. The turkey supply in the meat freezer was running dangerously low and half a dozen women and a lone man crowded around it like miners at the river’s edge, searching for gold, each trying to snag the best bird from the selection that remained. A woman rolled past him with a mini-mountain of food in her cart, a wailing toddler in the seat and a two kids dragging along behind her, one of them pointing to the chips aisle and whining.
“I said no,” she snapped. “We don’t need chips.”
Nope. That woman needed a stiff drink.
Stanley grabbed his pizza and some pumpkin ice cream and got in the checkout line.
Two men around his age stood in front of him, talking. “They’re out of black olives,” said the first one. “I got green instead.”
The second man shook his head. “Your wife ain’t gonna like that. Everyone knows you got to have black olives at Thanksgiving.”
“I can’t help it if there’s none left on the shelves. Anyway, the only one who eats `em is her brother and the loser can suck it up and do without.”
Yep, family togetherness. Stanley wasn’t going to miss that.
He’d miss being with Carol, though. He missed her every day. Her absence was an ache that never left him, and resentment kept it ever fresh.
They’d reached what was often referred to as the Golden Circle, that time in life when you had enough money to travel and enjoy yourself, when your health was still good and you could carry your own luggage. They’d enjoyed travelling and had planned on doing so much more together—taking a world cruise, renting a beach house in California for a summer, even going deep sea fishing in Mexico. Their golden years were going to be great.
Those golden years turned to brass the day she died. She didn’t even die of cancer or a stroke or something he could have accepted. She was killed in a car accident. A drunk driver in a truck had done her in and walked away with nothing more than some bruises from his air bag. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. And Stanley didn’t really have anything to be thankful about. He didn’t like Thanksgiving.
There would be worse to follow. After Thanksgiving it would be Merry Christmas, happy Hannakuh, Happy Kwanza, you name it. All that happy would finally get tied up in a big Happy New Year bow. As if buying a new calendar magically made everything better. Well, it didn’t.
Stanley spent his Thanksgiving Day in lonely splendor, watching football on TV and eating his pizza. It’s not delivery, it’s Digiorno. Worked for him. He ate two-thirds of it before deciding he should pace himself. Got to save room for dessert. Pumpkin ice cream—just as good as the traditional pie and whipped cream, and it didn’t come with any irritating in-laws. Ice cream was the food of the gods. After his pizza he pulled out a large bowl, filled it, and dug in.
When they got older Carol had turned into the ice cream police, limiting his consumption. She’d pat his belly and say, “Now, Manly Stanley, too much of that and you’ll ending up looking like a big, fat snowman. Plus you’ll clog your arteries and that’s not good. I don’t want to risk losing you.”
Ironic. He’d wound up losing her instead.
Between all the ice cream and the beer he’d been consuming with no one to police him he was starting to look a little like Frosty the Snowman. (Before he melted.) But who cared? He got himself a second bowl of ice cream.
He topped it off with a couple of beers and a movie along with some store bought cookies. There you go. Happy Thanksgiving.
For a while, anyway. Until everything got together in his stomach and began to misbehave. He shouldn’t have eaten so much. Especially the pizza. He really couldn’t do spicy now that he was older. Telling everyone down there that all would soon be well, he took a couple of antacids.
No one down there was listening, and all that food had its own football game still going in his gut when he went to bed. He tossed and turned and groaned until, finally, he fell into an uneasy sleep.
“Pepperoni and sausage?” scolded a voice in his ear. “You know better than to eat that spicy food, Stanley.”
“I know, I know,” he muttered. “You’re right, Carol.”
Carol! Stanley rolled over and saw his wife standing by the side of his bed. She was wearing the black nightie he always loved to see her in. And then out of. Her eyes were as blue as ever. How he’d missed that sweet face.
But what was she doing here?
He blinked. “Is it really you?” He thought he’d never see her again in this lifetime, but here she was. His heart turned over.
“Yes, it’s really me,” she said.
She looked radiant and so kissable, but that quickly changed. Suddenly, her body language wasn’t very lovey dovey. She frowned and put her hands on her hips, a sure sign she was about to let him have it.
“What were you thinking?” she demanded.
He didn’t have to ask what she was referring to. He knew.
“It’s Thanksgiving. I was celebrating,” he said.
She frowned. “All by yourself.”
“I happen to like my own company. You know that.”
“There’s liking your own company and there’s hiding.”
“I am not hiding,” he insisted.
“Yes, you are. I gave you time to mourn, time to adjust, but enough is enough. Life is short, Stanley. It’s like living off your savings. Each day you take another withdrawal and pretty soon there’s nothing left. You have to spend those days wisely. You’re wasting yours, dribbling away the last of your savings.”
“That’s fine with me,” he insisted. “I hate my life.”
He hated waking up to find her side of the bed empty, ached for her smile. Without her the house felt deserted. He felt deserted.
“You still like ice cream, don’t you?” she argued.
Except for when he paired it with pizza.
“Stanley, you need to get out there and…live.”
“What do you think I’m doing?” he grumped.
“Going through the motions, hanging in limbo.”
What else could she expect? “It’s not the same without you,” he protested.
“Of course, it’s not. But you’re still here, and you’re here for a reason. Don’t make what happened to me a double waste. Somebody snatched my life from me and I wasn’t done with it. I want you to go on living for the both of us.”
“How can I do that? This isn’t a life, not without you sharing it.”
“It’s a different kind of life, that’s all.”
It was a sub-par, meager existence. “I miss you, Carol. I miss you sitting across from me at the breakfast table. I miss us doing things together and sitting together at night, watching TV. I miss…your touch,” he finished on a sob.
“I know.” She sat down on the bed next to him, and he couldn’t help noticing how the blankets didn’t shift under her. “But you have to start filling those empty places, Stanley.”
“I don’t want to,” he cried. “I don’t want to.”
He was still muttering, “I don’t want to,” when he woke up.
Alone. For a moment there, her presence had felt so real.
“She wasn’t there at all, you dope,” he muttered.
Except why was there a faint scent of peppermint in the bedroom? It made him think of the chocolate Christmas cookies she used to make with the mint candy frosting on them and the sprinkles. After a few big sniffs he couldn’t detect so much as a whiff of peppermint and shook his head in disgust. Indigestion and memory. That was all she was.