This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during December 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.
The biggest mistake I ever made was thinking the little things don’t matter. You see, one small mistake you can forget, hiding it away for no-one else to see… but after a while, all those small stupidities become a larger mess. When all of those come together you’re in trouble. How do you deal with decades of your own failings? I ran away for a long time, avoided responsibilities… making this the end of the story, not a beginning. Redemption will serve someone else well before it’s my turn. My time, however, is almost done… but not quite yet. Almost.
I get one more chance, then it’s done.
This time, I promise to not fuck anything up.
For him it was Tuesday, a double shift. Everybody else was celebrating Christmas Eve. On occasions such as these Joseph’s glad dance music is his only religion, no one else waiting at home. He’ll work straight through, taking breaks when it’s quiet: 10-ish, 2-ish and 6-ish, if previous experience is an indicator. It allows Jay to not be here and at the airport, Chrissie to drive north to see her family. Joseph’s Christmas gifts to his colleagues covers their arses.
Ruben’s waiting, night shift about to take their one day off this week. He’ll go eat Christmas Meatloaf with his mum across town: Joseph’s bought them some Jim Beam, as requested. The kid’s still too young to be as good as he is, deserves a better gig than the middle of nowhere. It’s easier not to think about being nearly a decade older than a stick-thin, tattoo-covered boy. He’s the closest thing to a decent friend Joseph possesses in this town, mirror to his own ambitions and failures. Maybe one day they will get the cash to open a restaurant together.
This year, the boy’s made him a gift, and it’s a genuine surprise. The notebook’s full of recipes they’ve created together, cuttings from the press… printouts of their growing online fan base’s support and encouragement. The T&C Diner is edging ever closer to greatness, success. There’s that familiar ache too as he walks away, out the back exit, into falling snow. How do you tell someone that you want to be more than friends? How do relationships work, exactly… Joseph requires a Christmas Miracle, probably several bottles of Jim Beam to make it happen.
That can be tonight’s thought before sleep: right now the diner’s beginning to fill. Andy’s out front, all hands and teeth as usual taking Trudii Richards’ order. Will she stick to tradition, bacon and egg hash on brown or will their special Festive Menu alter creature of habit? He catches older woman’s eye, pulls out his best kilowatt smile and knows she’ll drop everything for turkey bacon with sage and onion biscuits. Today started special, will only get better if he believes the hype everyone else seems increasingly willing to generate on his behalf.
That’s how the day goes too: smiles as connection, fuel for preparation. Elise and May Ann’s voices, harmonising through Christmas songs that sound fresh, joyous in the throats of young women. Customers tipping far more than is sensible when everyone’s cloth is cut to the bone. The serving window slowly begins to fill, gifts from hardcore clientele who know him only too well: hand-knitted jumpers and socks, chutneys and preserves plus a couple of bottles of decent red wine. Rhonda’s kids made him multicoloured Christmas cookies, each one hand decorated.
It’s already lunchtime and suddenly there’s real singing to replace Joseph’s battered Christmas CD: the local band made good are back home for their holidays. Hearing he’s serving Turkey Meatloaf and Cornbread the Diner’s broadcasting live via phone to fans as they eat then play. These guys will be opening for the electronic duo Joseph’s followed since his teens next March, 60 date US and European tour. If that’s not the definition of success, it’s hard to know what is. Yet here they are selling his praises without the need to ask, enjoying Christmas Eve.
Within an hour, there are dozens of people at the Diner. Joseph excels at improvisation: main meals evolve into snacks. Plates are piled with finger-food, Andy drafted in as extra help in preparation. Without needing to make a call Rhonda appears, plastic boxes laden with treats.
‘Boy, I KNEW you’d want my help without getting the call: don’t you worry, Momma R’s gonna make sure all these people are happy before they pay for our hard work…’
If Joseph didn’t already grasp he needs Rhonda on board making sweet dessert magic full time, this was the sign.
That afternoon he teaches the band to sling hash. May Ann’s brother and Elise’s aunt come help out too, more than enough cash to pay them full rate at day’s end. As sun goes down the band pack up to leave, yet diner’s at capacity. Only then does Joseph realise he’s being watched. The guy with Santa’s beard, in red shirt and black trousers, at the back by the jukebox, single table that’s reserved for locals who struggle paying. He’s been there, off and on, across the last few weeks; never saying much but always grateful. Today however, he looks different.
Joseph knows he’s unable to afford palliative care, lucky to have made it to Christmas at all. Over the last few months he’s struggled but refused any assistance. Weighing a fraction of what he was, huge frame is no longer tense, uncomfortable. This old man is finally at peace. Rhonda’s asking about wine glasses, dessert options: distraction pulls him away pointing, sudden concern: when he turns back the man’s gone. Instead, on his chair, there’s a bag. Red suitcase sits, distinctly out of place; Elise retrieves it, carrying carefully to kitchen door.
There’s heaviness in his heart, sudden realisation what symbolism means: Santa won’t be coming back. This is his last delivery, walking away from the Diner one final time, into the snow. They’d talked about it, he’d tried to change the old man’s mind. No dice, son. I’m through. Joseph had promised: when the time came, no fuss or bother. The things in that suitcase were his now, gift from one man to another. He’d let him go, and not call the cops, because there were things he’d done that would make life difficult this late in the game. Accept this gift.
Then, you let me go.
He’s always been a good boy. Looked after his momma well after I was long gone, plus when this broken body’s just dust and memory he’ll finally understand why it was the fool could never stay. Maybe I should have told the truth. Maybe. It’s better this way. By the time things work out, I’ll be a memory, like it was all those times before. It was his momma who got mad, never him. That boy always understood what it was to be different. He’s the man I could never become.
I’m proud of chef who remains steadfast, always true to his own self, producing baby back ribs so tender Angels themselves will openly weep when tasting his special barbecue sauce: never overly sweet, exactly spicy enough.
I’ll miss them both in God’s eternal embrace.
The suitcase remains unopened, propping open back door until last customer left her booth. Joseph could open it here but is compelled to do the deed away from staff. It’s surprisingly heavy, carried up stairs to apartment above his workplace, laid on kitchen table with care. The man thinks of dad, dumb enough to believe son had no idea who he was, that he’d just let the guy spend last days alone with terminal illness. The woman who’s looking after him right now’s being paid for thanks to medical insurance, so she’ll call him later with an update.
One moment represents an entire life, livelihood kept and nurtured away from him growing up. Except Joseph remembers this case brand new: open on the couch one Christmas Eve, decades past. Dad’s saxophone, propped beside: a musician was always on the road. His house, another gig. He may have singularly failed as a father, but Moses as a musician had played with countless greats across the decades: saxophone solos littered within the spectrum of modern music. If there were memories of those times within this case, Joseph would find means to preserve them.
It takes longer than expected to open: both locks are stiff, one initially refusing to open. Frightened contents might be damaged if entry’s forced, Joseph is slow, cautious.
Finally successful –
the case is stuffed full to capacity, countless neat stacks of used $100 bills…