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A Christmas Carol


by


T. J. Robertson




Smashwords Edition




Copyright 2018 T. J. Robertson




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Although I did not relish returning to Summerville, the scene of the crime as it were, I did so out of necessity. The death of my mother who, unbeknown to me, had put my name down as trustee of her small estate left me no alternative. I had to clean out the house, put it on the market, and meet with her lawyer for the purpose of tying up any loose ends. Those tasks having been done, ordinarily I would have shaken the dust of the place off my feet and beat a hasty retreat. This time, however, at long last, I had decided to stop running and face up to my problems which I now realized--alas too late--had their origin in growing up in Summerville.

So, it was at the dusk of a cold, wintry day that I found myself in the center of town, warily wending my way down Main Street. That my inner compass would lead me to a small restaurant, the sign above which read My First Love came as no surprise. For what seemed eons ago I had worked after school at that same spot--only then it had been a pizzeria. Shivering and brushing aside flakes of falling snow, I stomped my feet and went inside.

"Good evening; how may I help you?" That greeting came from the owner, a short, stout Armenian with a warm smile and sad eyes--it is said that the pain and torment of the genocide is reflected in the eyes of each and every member of that intelligent and generous race. His name I learned from the occupancy permit, which was prominently displayed on the wall, was Aram Boghosian.

In my travels one thing was for sure; I had become familiar with ethnic foods. So, glancing at the menu board above the counter, I replied, "I'll have a lamejeune, rice pilaf, and, for dessert, some baklava."

"Something to drink?"

"A cup of coffee, cream no sugar."

"Very good," he replied, "and is that for here or to take out?"

"For here," I said, paying him.

"Make yourself comfortable," he said, gesturing. "I'll have your order ready shortly." Then, smiling and doing a quick about-face, he disappeared into the kitchen.

So busy was I surveying the changes to this old haunt of mine that I did not realize there was a woman seated at a table behind me. When, at last, our eyes met, we both froze. Although the thick, flowing black hair of her youth was now thinner and streaked with gray; the sparkle in her hazel eyes, fainter; and her ready smile, more tentative and nuanced, I knew at once who she was. Coming to my senses, I swallowed hard and stammered, "Ex--excuse me but unless I'm mistaken, you're Carol Peters, aren't you?"

"You’re half right, Tom." Her voice was calm; her gaze, steady. "It’s Carol Hebb now."

"Well, I’ll be," I offered, shaking my head in disbelief, "and you remember me, too?"

In a voice I sensed was shakier than she would have liked she replied, "How could I forget you?"

Breaking the awkward silence, I found myself saying, "Do you mind if I join you?"

"No, I'd like that for old time's sake."

"I've just placed my order," I said, motioning toward the counter and sitting down opposite her. "Can I get you something?"

Pushing aside her empty plate and sipping her coffee, she replied, "No, you're too late, I've already had my fill." I turned uneasily on my chair; for, the slow, secret smile that went with those words did not escape my notice.

Beneath a long, black, down winter coat, which was unbuttoned, she was wearing a light blue, single breasted pant suit, a white satin blouse, and a gold chain. "You look good," I replied, basking in her allure and regretting lost opportunities.

"None the worse for life’s wear and tear, I hope." Her voice, though quiet, had an ominous quality. "You don’t look so bad yourself."

"I--I heard that you and John had married." She nodded and I offered awkwardly, "He’s a lucky guy."

"No, I was the lucky one." A smile appeared and vanished. "Was. Past tense. He passed away two years ago."

"I’m-I'm sorry," I mumbled.

She shrugged. "Unfortunately nobody in this thing called life lives forever. Besides, there are different kinds of death."

Again the hidden meaning in her words did not go unnoticed. "Look, Carol, I--I know it may be too little too late," I stammered, "but I want you to know I’m sorry about the way I left."

Her smile returned--albeit with an ironic twist. "So am I." She paused and heaved a heavy sigh. "As hard as I threw myself into my work at college, I couldn’t stop thinking about you." Again she hesitated, chiding me with her eyes. "But even I couldn’t wait for you forever."

"I didn’t expect you to."

"John and I had always been friends--unlike you and me, friends in a platonic way. We were on the yearbook staff, served as co-editors of the school newspaper, and worked together on a project for the senior science fair."

"How well I remember."

"So when we both went on to Harvard, it was only natural that our paths would cross." Then, smiling wistfully, she said, "Accidentally on purpose, as he later told me." I turned uneasily on my chair and listened in silence. "In your absence he offered me a shoulder to lean on and I leaned on it hard and often. One thing lead to another, love blossomed, and we ended up getting married." She shrugged and stared across at me.

"Nature abhors a vacuum," I murmured.

"He was a good man and a wonderful husband," she said pensively. "I miss him a lot."

"I heard that he had become a surgeon and you, an English professor." She nodded and I found myself saying, "You’ve both done well."

"A number of our classmates have done just as well. Sandi Mosley's got her own law firm, Russ Drysdale’s started up a hi-tech company, and Ruth Butler’s written half a dozen romance novels--just to mention a few." Sensing my unease, she blushed and said, "Oh, forgive me, Tom; here I’m prattling on without asking you what you’ve been up to."

Again I shattered the stillness. "I’d like to be able to tell you how important and successful I’ve been but if I did, I’d be lying." Momentarily, her hazel eyes met and held my blue ones. "Let me just say that I’ve traveled here and there and done this and that." As if reading her mind, I felt compelled to add, "And, no, I’ve never been married; I couldn’t in good conscience subject any woman to such torment."

"Look, Tom," she offered awkwardly, "it wasn’t my intention to make you feel--

"I’ve never felt better," I interrupted. "How could I be otherwise, having the good fortune of meeting you again?" As casually as I could manage, I asked, "And what about your children?"

"There are none," she replied with a sigh. "Unfortunately one can’t have everything in life."

The reproach in her words hit home. "I know that only too well." I paused and took a deep breath. "Without making excuses for my behavior back then, the truth is I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage."

"I was well aware of that but foolishly thought I might be able to help lighten the load," she replied with a nod. "Unfortunately the closer I tried to get to you, the farther away you pushed me."

The pain on my face matched that in my tone. "You were well rid of me."

"That was easier said than done." Her voice trailed off to a whisper.

"How well I know."

"Do you?" she retorted. "Stealing away like a thief in the night." She shook her head in reprimand. "Even your mother didn’t know you had quit the state university and joined the army."

I shrugged. "The only person I hurt more than you was her."

Like stones, she hurled her words at me. "It was as if you’d vanished off the face of the earth."

"If only that had been possible," I murmured.

"The straw that broke the camel’s back was learning that you’d been discharged overseas and weren’t coming home."

"Yes," I confessed," I moved around Europe a lot."

"You could’ve at least written me," she chided. "One letter--would that have been too much to ask?"

"No, of course not."

Her anger reached a crescendo. "Damn it!" she exclaimed. "I loved you."

Fortunately for a flabbergasted me, at that moment Aram arrived and neatly set my order before me. After refilling Carol's empty cup with fresh coffee, he then vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

Having regained a whit of my composure, I replied in a low, apologetic voice. "Not a day passed that I didn’t think of you."

She gave a choked, desperate laugh. "You could’ve fooled me."

"What more can I say?" Throwing up my hands up in resignation, I offered weakly, "Robert Burns, the poet, put it far more eloquently than I ever could."

"And just how, may I ask, did he put it?" Her expression was taut and derisive.

"My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart’s in the highlands a-chasing the deer,

Chasing the wild deer and following the roe,

My heart is in the Highlands wherever I go."

Once again I found myself removing the cloak of silence that covered the room. "I apologize for treating you so shabbily but at the time I was running."

"Running from what?"

My head was bowed; my hand, toying with the rice pilaf. "From everyone and everything--but, in particular, a drunken father, a timid mother who was his enabler, and a family upon which the curse of alcohol had wreaked havoc."

Peering at me over her raised coffee cup, she asked, "Were you running from me, too?"

I nodded. "Yes."

"But why?" she demanded, her eyes searching my face and reaching into my thoughts.

"Because I never felt worthy of you." Suddenly that old sense of inadequacy reared its ugly head. "Your family was everything that mine wasn't--warm, kind, and loving.

"But, Tom, you were the quarterback on the football team, the all-time leading scorer in lacrosse, and the captain of the basketball team," she replied with a hollow laugh. "If not the world, at least the high school was your oyster."

"Fields of broken dreams," I murmured.

"What?"

"You don't understand, do you?" Now I was the one doing the chastising.

"I'm afraid you've lost me," she confessed, pushing aside some loose tendrils of hair.

Pausing, I heaved a heavy sigh and leaned back on my chair. "What I’m trying to say is that I wanted to be more than just another dumb jock."

For a long time she studied me intently and then in a softer voice said, "If only I had known how you felt back then."

"What would you have done? Gotten 650’s on your college boards instead of 800’s, become the salutatorian instead of the valedictorian, gone to Tufts instead of Harvard?" I paused and shook my head. "No, I don’t think so."

"Why are you so angry with me?"

I studied her long and hard. "Oh, Carol, I could never be angry with you," I said, my voice trailing off to a hushed whisper. "I’m angry with myself for having believed that great American myth that all men are created equal. The truth is some are created more equal than others and nobody knows that better than I do." I hesitated and, interlocking my fingers, formed a steeple. "No matter how hard I hit the books I couldn’t keep up with the likes of you and John. I was out of my league and I knew it."

"Good grades and high test scores aren’t everything, you know?" she replied, her voice softening.

"For me they were the only thing."

"All any of us can do, Tom, is to make the best of what the Good Lord’s given us."

"College, college, college! That’s all I ever heard from teachers and guidance counselors alike." With contempt, I spat out the words. "So--except for meeting you-- I spent four miserable years of my life at an elite high school trying to become something I could never be when I should’ve been at a vocational school training to be a mechanic or a baker. Probably the latter because I prefer the smell of a bakery over that of a garage."

This time she was the one who broke the tense silence that engulfed the room. "Feeling as you do, why have you come back?"

"Because I could only run so fast and so far in life before I had to stop, take a deep breath, and look at myself in the mirror," I confessed.

"And what did you see?" she asked, raising an eyebrow inquiringly.

Throwing my hands up in resignation, I retorted, "A sad and pitiful middle-aged man who was tired of blaming others for his own shortcomings." Now my subconscious thoughts were streaming surfaceward. "I had traveled far and wide and, seated at outdoor cafes, had spent years in front of empty coffee cups, watching the world pass me by."

For a long time she stared across at me and stroked her cheek pensively. "So all that time you were really running from yourself?"

I nodded. "Today, of all days--the twenty-fourth of December--I had to return to the scene of the crime and try to redeem myself."

"The scene of the crime. How appropriate. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this moment." Again she let out a hollow laugh. "Oh, how often in my anger did I fantasize grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and beating some sense into you."

"I don’t blame you for feeling that way."

"What’s that saying? Hell has no fury like a woman scorned?"

I nodded. "Something like that."

"Now that my wish has come true," she said, her gaze riveted on me, "all I can feel for you is sorrow."

"I’d prefer your understanding," I replied, letting out a long, audible breath.

"You’ll have to settle for a little of both.

I shrugged. "Beggars can’t be choosers." I broke through the silence that hung over us like a heavy mist. "Meeting you here again," I exclaimed, "I--I can't believe it."

"Because John loved Middle Eastern cuisine, often he and I would come here together." Drawing her lips in thoughtfully, she said, "In my case, however, it was not the good food that drew me here but rather the fond memories of a youth long since passed."

"And the current name of the place, My First Love," I blurted out, "I can't get over it."

"Ironic, isn’t it?" Now her hazel eyes were gentle and contemplative. "The owner, Aram Boghosian, named it in honor of his deceased wife."

"It was a pizzeria when I was working here part-time," I said, glancing around.

"Yes," she replied with a wag of her head, "Toscanini’s."

My spirits as well as my eyes brightened at the mention of that name. "Mr. Toscanini--God rest his soul--was the most decent and understanding man I’ve ever met--the kind I would’ve wanted for a father had I had a choice in the matter."

Like the sun after a passing storm, her smile suddenly reappeared. "Do you remember how we first met?"

"How could I forget?" I matched her smile with one of my own. "It was a Christmas Eve and, just like this one, it was snowing lightly. You had come in with some friends and even now I remember watching in awe as the white flakes on your hair glistened more brightly than the tinsel on a Christmas tree."

"And as I recall, you were wearing a Santa-Claus hat at the time." I gave a wag of my head and she said, "And you were helping Mr. Toscanini tidy up his gingerbread house."

I chuckled. "Yes, in addition to pizzas he loved making gingerbread houses--the biggest one of all for display on the Christmas holidays."

"I ordered a large tomato and cheese pizza and guess what?" she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

Turning scarlet, I answered, "I made the mistake of putting anchovies on it."

She nodded. "Ugh, I hated them then and I still do."

"Anchovies and I have a lot in common."

After sharing a laugh with me, she said, "Not as much as you might think."

"Since Mr. Toscanini was going to put an ad in the local newspaper, he took a snapshot of the two of us."

"The pleasant employee and the satisfied customer alongside the gingerbread house--how well I remember," she enthused. "Our picture appeared in the next week’s edition and soon we were the talk of the school."

"Hansel and Gretel."

Vigorously, she shook her head. "They were brother and sister, which we most certainly were not."

Aware of the hidden message in her words, I swallowed hard and tried to gloss over it with humor. "The gruesome twosome."

For a long time she regarded me quizzically before saying, "So you see, Tom, there were some good times, too."

"That certainly was one of them," I replied with a nod. "Sometimes your happiness lies right under your eyes and you don’t even know it."

"And in the simplest of things."

"Where, I wonder," I mused aloud, "do those precious, happy hours of yesteryear disappear to?"

"Into the trash bin of time," she replied with a shrug. "Fortunately all the unhappy ones end up there, too.

I felt a warm glow flowing through me. "If I could only go back, I’d make amends and do things differently."

"We all only get one shot at the bull’s eye of life," she chided, waving a finger.

"Yes, and I missed the target by a mile," I replied, suddenly losing my appetite and pushing my plate aside. "Now my sole purpose in life is to perform acts of random kindness."

"Acts to and for whom?" Her eyes were sharp and assessing.

I shrugged. "Paying for the person in line behind me at Dunkin Donuts, mowing my neighbor's lawn, putting a quarter in an expired parking meter, or giving the rubbish man a gift certificate to McDonald's.

She smiled wryly. "You really have stopped running and are intent upon redeeming yourself, aren't you?"

"My days of running are gone forever," I replied with a nod. "Just now when I realized who you were, instead of fleeing I came over to redeem myself." Strangely, at that moment my lips tingled in remembrance of the first time hers touched mine. "And the truth is, as we've been talking, I've had all I could do not to burst out crying and embarrass both of us."

She regarded me with somber curiosity. "Why couldn’t you have been that vulnerable before?"

"Because I was a jock. Besides, I had missed the bull’s eye, remember?"

Momentarily, she was lost in her own reveries. "Have you returned for good?"

"To the States yes but here no."

"But this is where your roots are," she protested.

"Who was the writer who said you can’t go home again?" I asked, stirring uneasily on my chair.

"Thomas Wolfe."

"Well, he was right."

Dabbing at her lips with a napkin, she replied, "Somebody else--Robert Frost, I believe--said home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

"I’m just about to burn my last bridge here."

"What do you mean?"

"I've just put my mother’s house up for sale and tied up all the loose ends."

She glanced at her watch and got to her feet. "I was one of those loose ends, wasn't I?"

I nodded. "Yes, and again I apologize for the shabby way I've treated you."

"Apology accepted," she replied, buttoning her coat.

"Thanks." I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. "Before you go, I’d like you to have this," I said, taking out a photo and handing it to her.

"Oh, Tom, this is the snapshot of the two of us that Mr. Toscanini took," she said, looking at it fondly.

"All these years it’s been my good luck piece."

"I can't accept it; it just wouldn’t be right," she said, smiling down upon me. "You’ve been carrying it around so long."

I motioned for her to keep it. "Take it as a parting memento, or better still, a modest Christmas present."

"If I take it as the latter," she protested, "I’ll have to give you something in return."

"You already have." I hesitated and, then, with a heavy sigh replied, "I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll love you forever."

At a loss for words she stammered, "What--what can I say after that?"

"You don’t have to say anything."

A blush like a shadow ran over her cheeks. "All I know, Tom, is that my wellspring of love has long since run dry."

"I understand."

Bending over, she kissed me on the forehead. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas."

She turned and started to leave but stopped at the door. "Oh, Tom," she said, facing me again.

"Yes," I replied, feeling blissfully happy and fully alive.

"Always remember ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Momentarily, we shared a smile and, then, she walked slowly out the door and disappeared.

I might have stayed there forever pondering the road in my life not taken and what might have been the result had I chosen it over the other. Aram, however, came over and brought me back to reality. "I hate to bother you, sir," he said in a kind, gentle voice, "but because it’s Christmas Eve, I’m closing down My First Love early."

Quickly, I got to my feet. "I fully understand, Aram; for, just this very minute I closed down my own."

With those words I pulled up the collar of my coat and walked out into the night, the melody, I’ll be Home for Christmas, all the while playing in the town center.

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