Two days before Christmas and I was still looking for cheer. Not much going around. Jenny was nothing but a bittersweet memory. Though her name was still on the office door, the partnership dissolved months ago. She was tired of waiting on me, she said. She needed someone who could commit. Then two weeks ago I had to lay off Stephanie, my secretary. All part of the ebb and flow of the PI business. Merry Christmas, Steph.
Calling it a day, I locked up and headed down the hallway for the elevator. A man stepped on just before I got to the door. He avoided eye contact, let the doors close in my face. Nice. I stifled a curse and turned toward the stairs. There was some small satisfaction when I arrived at the lobby and saw the elevator was still up on two.
I could hear Gail Rover out on the sidewalk greeting everyone who passed with her perpetual, “God bless!” Pushing through the old revolving door deposited me into a cold drizzle, doing nothing to improve my mood.
Mrs. Rover turned toward the sound of the door, a smile on her face. “God bless, Mister Mann. God Bless!”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Rover.” Despite my mood I smiled back, her indomitable attitude irresistible. I took a few steps away, then turned back to her. “You have someplace warm to stay tonight, Gail?”
She beamed. “Yes sir, Mister Mann. I got a bed down at New Covenant.” That would be the New Covenant Shelter, four blocks away.
I fished a ten out of my wallet and handed it to her. “Get something warm to eat, Gail.”
“God bless, Mister Mann!” She accepted it with a smile and stuffed it into an old sock which she then jammed deep within her canvas bag. Judging by the slight bulge of the sock, she had not made much panhandling today.
I was but steps away when I heard her shout in dismay. Turning, I saw her on the ground. A young punk ran in the opposite direction, her bag in hand. I yelled and ran after him. At that he tossed the bag out into traffic. I gave up on him and dashed out to grab the bag before it was obliterated by the oncoming cars. Brakes screeched. Someone honked and flipped me off as I jumped back to the curb.
A passerby was helping her up as I returned. She flashed him a big smile and gave him a hearty, “God bless!”
“You know her?” the man asked.
“Gail Rover. She sort of works here.”
“She took a nasty fall.” He brushed off a bit of the sidewalk grime from her coat. “I’m glad you got her bag back.”
She took it back with an abundance of blessings, and began rooting through it. Her search became more and more agitated. “Oh Lordy, he got my purse!” At that, the passerby took his leave, evidently wanting no more involvement. I helped Gail search through the bag. She was right. The sock was gone.
“I’m so sorry. Come on, Gail, I’ll take you to dinner.”
She gave me an odd look, but took my proffered arm.
I headed to Mable’s, my standard diner. Gail rocked slightly in the passenger seat, hugging her bag. I turned the heater up to an uncomfortable level. Her blue jeans were soaked up to the knees, and the ragged coat she wore fairly dripped. She shot sideways glances toward me and began humming Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. By the time we got to Mable’s I was dying from the heat.
“New girlfriend?” Maude quipped when I asked for a table for two.
She showed us to a table in the far back corner and slapped the menus down. “Something to drink?”
“I’ll have coffee. Gail?” She was off in her own little world. “She’ll have coffee too.” I figured she could use something hot.
Maude came back in her own good time and put the coffee cups down with a clatter. “What do you want?” Good old Maude. The rudest waitress in town. It amazes me people tip her.
“I’ll have the burger and fries.” I looked up at Gail. She was staring at me, smiling. “What would you like, Mrs. Rover?” She blinked and smiled. Maude shifted from foot to foot, obviously annoyed at the waste of her time. “She’ll have the breaded pork chops, with a side of green beans and a baked potato.” I tried to pick something that would stick with her.
As Maude took up the menus Gail reached across the table and patted my hand. She looked up at Maude, face full of pride. “My son came down for Christmas with me.” Maude smirked and raised an eyebrow, clearly enjoying my uncomfortable situation.
Gail began humming along with the piped in music while we waited for the food to arrive, loud enough to attract glances from other patrons. I tried to engage her in conversation, but to no avail. Good King Wenceslas started to play. She informed me that it was always my favorite. Then to my mortification she began to sing.
She started out almost at a whisper, but her volume went up with each line. By the time she reached “Gath’ring winter fuel” she was in full throated glory. To my amazement she had the voice of an angel. The entire diner fell quite. People stood up to get a look at her. When she finished everyone in the diner broke out in unreserved applause.
It was glorious.
She was suddenly back in the real world, huddled down, embarrassed at her outburst. With tears in her eyes she looked over to me, tried to smile. “That was my boy’s favorite, Mister Mann. It was always his favorite.”
©2009 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.
“Good King Wenceslas” performed by Loreena McKennitt on YouTube.
Please remember those less fortunate than you this holiday season.