WHITE BIRD [A Christmas Story]

It had been a golden city for two centuries. A town of prominence longer still that had welcomed newcomers, fleeing monarchs and despots, those seeking liberty… the tired, the poor… all looking for a second chance or a new beginning.

But as with anything or anyone over time, age, erosion, and weathering have an effect. There is a cycle of rise and fall in all things. In this city, the affluent rose to find and secure the figurative—and often literal—high ground. Paying scant attention to the fallen or those below outside their still-glittering domain of the well-favored and fortunate. Parts of the city became more tarnish than gilt, and there dwelled those either left behind or passed over as the town grew outward and upward. This, then—within that great city—is where colors and life are muted, subdued. The setting where two people meet and find a future not bound by their past or present.


Olivia swallowed the last of her coffee with a grimace. Not because of the taste, which was rich, savory, and perfect for the caffeine-addicted. Her conscience—and maybe it was why she kept failing—spoiled the brew. She looked around. The thin old man with the threadbare, red turtleneck sweater was in his usual place, the corner table closest to the alley door. Brutishly freezing outside, yet he was still coatless. Despite the bloom of color on his cheeks and the red of his nose, he never seemed cold. At least not in the fourteen mornings she had seen him in that same spot.

Passing from the old man, scanning the dated but gleaming diner with its walls lined with dust-free framed photos of people and eras gone by, her eyes stopped at the front. Behind the cash register stood a man about her age, the owner, Henry. Fourteen straight mornings led to first names and learning a bit about each other. And he, more than any of the others on the block, was vital for her to talk to. Yet with this man, she could not tell him the real reason. Something behind his eyes shadowed his smile and made her hesitate. With only 17 days left, she would likely be fired if she didn’t get him signed and delivered. Change that; she would be fired.

So Henry, now coming around the counter and toward her, was why she frowned. He had her check in one large hand; though they were unseen, she knew what he held in the other. She glanced at the old man. One long, gnarled finger now stroked the side of his nose. Though facing her direction, his eyes were focused somewhere else. She shook her head. All types lived in the city, and the oldest areas were often home to the oddest.

Henry set the check and the two thick foil-wrapped squares on the table. The third morning, she had asked him, “Why two?” He had smiled at her and replied, “It’s not right to eat just one—I mean,” and his grin widened, showing slightly crooked but strong-looking teeth, “Chocolate, right?”

Placing cash for her bill and a good tip on the table, she stood and didn’t notice her phone had slipped from the pocket of the jacket on the seat beside her. “Next time, only one chocolate, okay?” Olivia put both hands on hips widened once she turned 40. “Do I look like I need two?”

Henry’s grin grew. “You look fine.”

Her cheeks warmed. Since her messy divorce, compliments had been far and few between and often proved an insincere prelude to asking for a favor. A half-smile and an awkward nod of thanks were all she could summon for Henry. Why was it so hard for her to talk with him? She cursed, pulled her jacket on, and walked to the door.

About to open and step out, behind her came the distinct opening of the song of her ringtone, “White bird in a golden cage…” sang from her phone. She turned, and as Henry was about to hand it to her, the phone warbled again. His eyes went to the caller ID.

“Trumaga Properties,” he said, “you work for them?” His smile disappeared.

The wind rattled the closed door behind her. In the corner of an eye, she witnessed a splatter of sleet now slanting down from the leaden sky as it struck the window.

“Olivia?” The edge to it—not the soft voice she had become used to from Henry—made her blink and meet his eyes. “I know what they’ve done—they’re doing—in the city’s older neighborhoods.” His eyes had narrowed, pulling the lines on his face taut. “Are you working for them?”

“They’re putting cash in people’s pockets, money most of them need.”

He shook his head, two sharp back-and-forth movements that showed the tendons she’d not noticed before in his neck. “They make lowball offers the owners accept only because of pressure and Daniel Trumaga’s scare tactics.”

“I’m not their employee,” it sounded lame even as the words passed her lips. The corners of his mouth turned down—she’d only seen that when it seemed he thought no one was watching him—with a sour expression. “I’m not…” she said again.

“But you work for them,” he wasn’t questioning.

“Henry, let me talk–”

“No,” he turned and walked away, not looking back.

Her phone sang again. Pressing the red DECLINE icon and pulling her jacket tighter around her, she slipped it into her pocket. She stepped out into the wind-driven icy slush.

Even in good weather, getting a taxi in the older parts of the city was hard. Ten blocks later, sleet firming into ice on her shoulders, her hand shook as she took three tries to unlock the door to her office. The faded lettering on the glass on the door still read Olivia Buonanotta | Divorce and Family Law.

After her divorce—its ugliness—and the disintegration of her practice and finances, she had tried on her own. And failed. The clients, often bitter and angry husbands and wives with children torn and tossed about, were too much… too personal, and she had no stomach for it. She had gone back to something abandoned two decades before. Real estate. Only to be trapped… again.

The phone buzzed in her pocket as she walked and shivered. Olivia hung her dripping jacket on a coat hook and took it out. Tapping the log for recent calls, she touched to dial the last number, the only one to call her in a month. He picked up on the first ring.

“Has he signed?” Daniel Trumaga demanded.

“No, but–”

“Listen, I hired you because we go way back.”

He wouldn’t say it to her face, but he had strewn about the words—glittery sharp broken mirror shards—cutting her down in conversations with others. She owed him, he told them all. Yet he had still helped an old friend. Old, yes… friends, not so much. She was just someone he could manipulate who needed the job. It was incredible how openings and offers had dried up with her added pounds and extra years.

“You got the people over on Lenix to sign. You can do this… the old Olivia would have by now.”

It was clear he tacitly meant the younger Olivia. She shook her head with the phone still held to her ear, thinking, this Olivia is tired and doesn’t want to exploit people to serve someone’s selfish agenda. “I’m working on it.”

“Time’s running out. Get it done.”

She was old enough to remember phone calls gone wrong, ending when someone slammed it down. It wasn’t as harsh with cell phones, but the silence was just as final. There was no more time. Henry’s location was the last prime corner spot. Get him locked in, and she could—would—walk away after this deal.

Yet something about the diner and Henry stopped her before even trying. Maybe because she’d fail with him. Olivia hadn’t with the others, but some of their expressions, when they realized they had settled for less or had been scared into a wrong decision, had been hard to take. She didn’t think Henry would be like those people or ever put himself in the position. But she had to convince him somehow.

The phone pinged, a calendar reminder she had twelve hours until the Trumaga Christmas Ball. Since Daniel had invited her, she would have to make an appearance.

By 6:30 PM, Olivia was showered, powdered, made-up, and Spanx’d into a long-sleeved evening gown she hoped made her appear slimmer but probably didn’t. I’m at the point I don’t care, she thought with a shallow sigh. The Spanx really held her in. Thirty minutes later, her taxi arrived. Ten minutes more, they were coming up on Essex, and she leaned forward. “Turn right here and take me to the corner at Washburn.” She saw the driver’s eyes on her in the rearview mirror as he nodded.

A minute later, “Right here, lady?” he pulled over to the sidewalk opposite the diner and turned to her. The sun had set, and the gray twilight clouds poured a light rain, likely to turn to snow.

“Yes, give me a minute.” The lights were on in the diner, and movement behind the fogged glass: a slender smear of red at a table on the right side. Deciding, she asked the driver, “How much?”

“To drop you here?”

She opened her purse. “Yes.” He told her. She paid and stepped onto the slippery sidewalk with a thin layer of ice forming. Not a car in sight, she jaywalked across Essex. The small bell above the door jangled as she went inside. Surprised to see the red she’d seen behind the glass front of the diner had been the old man she’d seen every morning for the past two weeks. He had scrutinized her all the way in from the cab.

Henry was behind the counter, arranging a pyramid of white porcelain handless coffee mugs. He looked up, and the smile that always played on his lips when he faced people straightened into a tight line. “This is different… and a surprise.” But as he would for any customer, he came around the counter with a menu and order pad to meet her at the table she sat at each morning. “Kind of dressed up to eat at a diner like mine.” He set the menu on the table in front of her. “Coffee, tea… lemonade or a soft drink?”

“Coffee, please.”

On his way to the urn, he snagged the top mug from the stack. Filling a carafe, he brought it and the cup to her. Knowing she took it black, he poured, left the carafe, and turned to go.


He paused but didn’t turn back to her.

She continued, “Will you sit for a minute and let me explain?”

He walked to the counter without speaking, hesitated a moment, grabbed another mug, and returned to Olivia. He slid into the seat opposite her, reached for the carafe, and filled his cup. Silently, he studied her face.

She nodded at the old man across the diner. “Does he sleep here, too?”

Some of the smile—a rueful one—returned. “Mr. Kerstman’s interesting.” Henry set his mug down and scratched his right eyebrow. “Last year, early in the first week of December, he came in one morning. Said nothing and waited for a couple to get up from that table,” he cocked his thumb in its direction, “and sat down. My grandfather and father had died not long before, and I kept this place open until I decided what to do.” He swept his left hand, covering from the front door to the kitchen. “I didn’t know anyone who might be regular customers, but he seemed like one. When I went to take his order, he asked me, ‘Where is Hank… or Thomas?’ My grandfather and father. I told him they had passed away, and he bowed his head for a moment, then glanced up at me. ‘I’m sorry for your loss. But folks like them, their spirit goes on… alive in the places they loved and in the hearts of those who loved them in return.’”

“So, he knew your father and grandfather?”

“Yes. And every day that December, for three weeks, he would come in and sit at the table. He only ordered hot tea and chicken and dumplings, my grandfather’s recipe. From morning until evening, he would sit and watch people. My grandpa and dad always opened on Christmas day for those who didn’t have a family to share it with. I kept that going and realized Mr. Kerstman hadn’t come in and had left early the evening before. I didn’t see him again until two weeks ago. He gave me a dozen bags of chocolates, the ones I’ve been handing out.”

“He sits here all day?”

“I don’t think he has anywhere to go or any place to be,” Henry said. “He’s watching us now.”

Turning her head, Olivia peeked and saw the old man studying them, dark eyes twinkling with the different colored Christmas lights decorating the inside of the diner. “Where does he go at night?”

“I don’t know. But not long after sundown, he’ll,” Henry paused, “there he goes….” The old man walked to the door, stopped, turned to them with a nod and wink, and stepped out into the night. After draining his cup, Henry set it on the table with a clink. “What are you doing here, Olivia?” He shook his head. “I mean, not right now, but coming in every morning. Why?”

She tried to take a deep breath—damn the Spanx—and managed most of one. “Trumaga Properties is my client.”

“You’re a broker… a lawyer… or what?”

“Attorney. I’m working with them on their plan to buy and redevelop older properties in the city, their gentrification project. It means–”

He cut her off, “I understand the meaning,” and glared at her. “They manipulate conditions, twist perceptions, and don’t pay fair market value. You’re,” he stopped, then continued, “they’re screwing people.” He paused at her expression. “Don’t be so surprised. I’m smarter than I look,” his smile came back near full, “which is why I’m not interested in what you—they—offer.” He looked around him. “Since that day last December, when Mr. Kerstman told me about loved ones, places, and people they loved, I’ve had a lot to consider. This diner dates back to my great-grandfather, so been in my family for a long time. My grandpa and dad loved this place, and I believe it loved them back. At first, I didn’t sense it… but now… I can almost feel it every day. And,” he leaned across the table toward Olivia. “I think it cares for me, too. If I give it a chance.” He sat back, and even only the half-genuine smile lit his face like when they flicked the switch on the tree at Rockefeller Center. “I could never sell it.” The smile wavered and faded.

She saw his change; a cloud scudded across his face and darkened his bright eyes. An inward turning away as a veil came down to hide what no one wanted to reveal. Raw pain. Every lousy sensation Olivia had experienced since starting with Daniel Trumaga—spasms of distaste at an ego-driven client’s insecure shallowness and narcissistic selfishness—flooded her. She realized her professional life was nothing but moving money—during people’s most difficult circumstances—from someone’s pocket to another’s while taking a piece for herself. The moment of self-realization left her feeling soiled and sold out. Stained. Emptied.

Henry had watched the play of emotions on her face and nodded. “I’ve learned you must accept when your heart tells you where you shouldn’t be. But must act to find where you should be. It takes time to figure out,” he paused, “and it’s hard to do… to move forward.”

This time, the breath came and went in full—no restraint—and she knew he had shared something personal and understood what he meant.

“So, are you headed somewhere,” Henry hesitated, “or can I take your coat?”

Startled from her thoughts, she looked at him. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I mean… you look nice,” he bobbed his head as if embarrassed but met her gaze, “pretty. You have somewhere to be tonight?”

“Oh,” backtracking to consider his compliment made her hesitate, “yes.” Then she contemplated spending an evening with stuffed shirts yet empty suits, listening to their self-important gossip and talk without substance or meaning. She couldn’t face them and pretend. “No,” she decided, “now I realize… I have nowhere to go. Except home.” She didn’t relish that either.

Henry was quiet for a moment, walked to the door, and flipped the sign to CLOSED. “Can you wait here? Give me about ten or fifteen minutes?”

She nodded, wondering what he meant. “Okay, but–”

“Please wait.” He turned and hurried to the back of the diner and into the kitchen.

Ten minutes by yourself—even when you’re used to being alone—shouldn’t seem so long. But Olivia knew time and events played out in her head were magnified; the highs higher and lows lower. Heightened by the surrounding stillness, the muffled steps above coming downstairs were more distinct as they crossed the tiled kitchen.

The diner’s lights dimmed, and a song she recognized—the instrumental part—played. She studied the old jukebox in the corner, thinking it had somehow come to life, but the glass and colored plastic remained dark. She recalled Henry mentioning he hoped to have it repaired one day.

With the lights dimmed, she could see through the diner’s large window. The falling snow came down in clusters accompanied by single flakes glistening as they floated through the arc of light from the lampposts. Patches of color danced on the glass as she shifted her view. The angle caught the inside reflection of the reds, blues, and greens of the lights on the Christmas tree to her right.

“Beautiful,” she murmured.

“Not as lovely as you.”

Olivia turned and almost didn’t recognize him. The black suit complemented his middle-aged Sean Connery-like appearance. White shirt with French cuffs just the right length from the ends of the sleeves with a twinkle of silver cufflinks. The knotted black tie’s sheen—must have been silk—caught darts of color from the lights.

Henry said nothing as he moved four middle tables to create an open area in the diner’s center. His eyes never left hers as he approached, bowed, and held out a hand. With just a tremble, she accepted, and he led her to the space. He took his cell phone out and pressed a button. The song started over, and the phone slid back into his pocket.

What Child Is This is my favorite Christmas song.” She smiled and, though surprised, didn’t flinch as his arm went around her waist.

Henry grinned as he moved them into the first steps. “This is Greensleeves, and it has its origins in the late 16th century. What Child Is This uses it as the melody but wasn’t written until 1865.”

It was as if seeing him for the first time. “How…”

“Does a simple diner owner know?” Henry turned her and brought her effortlessly back to him. “You told me once you had planned to major in art in college but hadn’t.” He held her for a second, smiling. “Do you ever wish you had?” She felt her expression shift and saw him react. Regret was something he understood. “I wanted to major in history in college… or music.” Henry sighed, “But I ended up in accounting… and now run a diner.”

The song seemed to last much longer than any version she knew. Olivia had not danced—not like this—in ages. His touch was light but in control, guiding her without seeming to. “I checked the song,” he whispered as he again pulled her close and held her for a breath.

“What song?” she asked him in the next turn.

“The one on your phone…” he paused for a moment as if chagrined, “I had never heard it before.”

“White Bird?” she asked as he rolled her along the uncurling of his arm to extended fingertips and back in.

He nodded.

“It was my mother’s favorite.”

He shook his head, “I’m sorry about that.”

The words jarred her. She missed a beat and a step. “Why do you say that?”

“I searched YouTube, listened to it again, and read the lyrics. She must’ve been sad, your mother, I mean.”

She stopped. “You know nothing about her.”

“The song tells a story about longing to be free and wanting a better life.”

She dropped his hand. Feeling the long-buried hurt of watching her mother grow old before her time. A life wasted. Stung by the memory, she replied, “You mean something better… like owning a diner?”

His expression now matched hers. “You say that as if it’s a lesser thing to avoid.”

“That’s not what—” she stopped, even though it was what she meant but regretted saying.

“I guess it’s better to be a lawyer?”

Heavens… she didn’t mean that. “No, let me—”

The lines deepened on his face. “Or the owner of a company preying on people who’ve not had much in life. Nothing but the ground under them. And now, when they find out the value,” he stepped back from her, “the predators send people like you to mislead people into selling their property for less than it’s worth or worse, losing it through some contrived legal action.”

“Henry…” They faced each other in the diner’s center, his arms now at his side. She already missed the touch of them: one cradling her waist, the other… his hand in hers with fingers twined. His face was resolute, and though she met his look, Olivia couldn’t tell him what she had started to, so she told him the truth. “The first morning, I came to talk about what my clients wanted to offer you. But I saw how you talk to people, carry yourself without pretension, and enjoy seeing your customers and them interacting with you. Every morning, I watched and listened. You’re…” she gestured around the diner, “this place is… different.”

“What are we doing, Olivia? Why did you come here tonight? I will not sell to your client.”

“Henry, he’s just a businessman.”

“With a rich daddy who built their fortune on payoffs, legal trickery, forced evictions, and foreclosures and now wants to turn an overlooked real estate area to his profit. I’ve nothing against making money, but not if it means screwing people to add to your margins. I’ve heard your client talk and seen his ambition for power beyond business. He’s a sociopathic spider spinning his web from the outside in.” Henry shook his head, “Trapping people who have no way out.”

“I didn’t come here tonight for him… I…,” Olivia hesitated, and the silence grew heavy.

“You what?”

She felt the weight of wrong choices, of wrong people, wrong decisions made… in her life. Was this another one? Olivia didn’t think so. “I came for myself. Why did you ask me to wait? Why the dance?”

Henry stepped toward her as she turned away, unable to stay, afraid of any reply he might offer. She opened the door, not looking back at him. A gust caught and pulled it from her hand. Leaving it open, and without a glance in the window as she passed, she walked north on Essex and into the wind.

Inside, watching her until she was out of sight, Henry spoke as if she hadn’t left. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings and asked you to stay… for me.” The last two words hung in the air as he closed the door, locked it, and switched off all the lights.


It was the lull when the last of the late-breakfast dawdlers had gone, and the early lunchers had not arrived.

“You worry about her.”

The truth of the matter-of-fact statement didn’t startle him; who said it did. “Mr. Kerstman,” Henry turned toward him, “did you say something?”

“I’m not a Sphinx,” he chuckled.

“Almost.” Henry thought him as enigmatic as that ancient object in the Egyptian desert. The diner was empty except for them. He pulled the red kitchen towel off his shoulder, wiped his hands, slid a chair out, and sat down. “Who is it you think I’m worried about?” The knowing smile rankled Henry.

“The moments when that bell rings,” Mr. Kerstman cocked his left-hand thumb at the front door. “I love that sound. And you look up; your eyes go over there.” His hand rotated, the thumb now pointed across the diner. “When it’s not her, your eyes fall.”

“I scarcely know her,” which was true, “and don’t think about her,” which was not.

“People are an important part of my business. What they long for or desire… their wishes and wants.” Kerstman rubbed his face where gray-white bristles, though still short, shaped the form of what could become a full beard. “Your father told me a few years ago about the accident and about your loss. He wondered if you’d ever recover and worried you’d never be happy again.”

Henry gave the old man a stern look, not sidetracking to wonder what business Kerstman might be in. “I’m surprised my dad told that to a—”

“Stranger?” Mr. Kerstman interrupted him and chuckled again; its deep resonance was odd, coming from such a skinny man. “I’ve known your father for a long time and your grandfather even longer. And this place,” he tapped the table’s top with the knuckles of his right hand, “well, seems I’ve always known it.” He now had a distant look in his eyes.

“You mean, you knew them.” Henry thought not for the first time that Kerstman was not always quite in the present. “They’re gone.”

“Oh, I still know them… especially this time of year.” His sigh was of a content man, confident in the truth of what he’d said. “And they’re still here.” The lights now shone with dusk coming to darken the diner’s interior. They glimmered in Kerstman’s eyes as his gaze shifted back to Henry. “They’re also with your wife, son, and daughter. Love binds them; your family is still together.”

Henry sensed Kerstman was talking about something more—somewhere other—than just the diner. “I can still hear them, and sometimes a song or sound triggers a memory, and they’re so close I feel them. That fades, and it’s like I lost them all over again.”

“But you fight to hold on to their memory, even though it hurts. Anything that might fill the void is like you’re cheating on them. You fight that, too.”

“Yes,” Henry’s head snapped up, “I can never replace them.”

A knotted hand reached out, and Mr. Kerstman’s firm grip clasped his arm. “No, you won’t do that… and shouldn’t. No one expects you to.” With a last stronger squeeze, the hand withdrew. “You seem almost happy—those who don’t know better believe you are—but you’re still hurting, missing your family. And it worries you that you’re attracted to someone for the first time since your wife died.”

“I hardly know Olivia.”

“But there’s something about her, isn’t there?”

“I tried to show her the other night… I thought she felt it, too, but I was mistaken. It’s wrong of me; she works for a man I can’t stomach.”

“Henry, I can tell good from bad, and she’s not like him, her employer. She’s just not found the right circumstances… or person.” Kerstman paused, “And you lost yours… but five years is enough to mourn.” He put his long-fingered hands flat on the table. “You both need to shake free from what’s making your life less than it could be.”

“I have to get back to work.” Henry rose but didn’t move from the table and shook his head. “She’s not coming back; it’s been a week.”

Mr. Kerstman’s index finger of his right hand stroked the side of his nose as he studied him. “Then you should find her. Don’t come up with excuses not to. All you should focus on is how you feel when you see her. It’ll guide you.”

Outside, the lamppost lights came on. Dark had fallen fast, as it always did with the winter solstice. He turned toward the kitchen and neared it when Mr. Kerstman’s deep—pitched, sharp, penetrating voice stopped him.

“Happiness isn’t a one-shot, onetime deal, Henry. We all have multiple opportunities to determine—to find—what or who makes us happy. This is the season to give and receive. You should give yourself—and her—a chance; maybe she’s the right one for you and you for her.”

Henry heard the jangle of the front doorbell, and then all was quiet. Everywhere but inside his head.


The weather had worsened, and the temperature had dropped to levels not touched in a century. With the storms rise, power faltered, and outages spread.

“Try not to step on these,” Henry warned Mr. Kerstman. The thick orange electrical lines ran through the alley door left cracked to the generator outside. They led to a rectangular box with a dozen outlets inside the door near the table where he customarily sat. Several filled with plugs, their smaller cords snaking off to a large electric heater and into the kitchen, where a table-top electric grill, griddle, and microwave were powered.

“Some rig you got set up,” Kerstman said. “How long will it run?”

“The generator’s got enough fuel for two days. Hope they have power back on by then,” Henry replied. “The news people are calling this The Dark Christmas.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

For the first time, Henry heard anger in Mr. Kerstman’s voice. “Me neither,” Henry looked around. Several people in the diner huddled around the heater. As soon as the shelter opened with its more powerful generator and better facilities, they would move there until the power returned.

“Your grandfather ever tell you much about this place?”

Henry shifted in his chair to face him. This talkative, Mr. Kerstman, was a novel experience. “Not really, just his father opened it in 1917.”

“That’s true, but he took over in 1917 from his cousins, who had owned and operated it as a coffeehouse for nearly a century. Henry Livingston—your cousin on your great-grandmother’s side and his financial backer, Clement Moore, opened it in 1822. Henry, your cousin—which, down the years, is where your name came from—and Clement had a falling out about a year later. Over something Henry had written based on Dutch folklore and his chance meeting with a ‘mysterious’ old man.” Kerstman chuckled, then continued, “He had published it anonymously as a Christmas story for children, but somehow Clement took credit.” Kerstman tapped his red nose. “Anyway, that’s another story.” He thumped the table with his right hand. “Henry Livingston wrote the little story right here on this spot.”

“Okay,” Henry wondered what it had to do with anything, “that’s interesting, but….”

“You want to know why I’m telling you?” Kerstman’s bushy white eyebrows arched. “Well, just to say, this location is well-favored during the holidays and at Christmas.”

Henry rose, “Thanks, Mr. Kerstman, but I need to–”

“What, Henry… to do what?”

Henry stared down at him, then turned toward the door as a van from the shelter pulled up outside. With a wave and a chorus of “Merry Christmases,” those waiting stepped outside to board it.

“Henry, did you try to find the woman… Olivia?”

“I found an office number, called and left her a message,” he picked up the apron he’d draped across a nearby chair, “but I’ll never see her again.”

The old man, his eyes alight, scrutinized Henry as he walked away.


It was a bleak cold—the worst kind—and he was alone. Henry had expected to see Mr. Kerstman to wish him a Merry Christmas, but the old man had left before sundown and not returned. Henry had turned out all the lights except for one. The heater struggled to provide warmth that only reached a few feet. He sat at the closest table, not hearing the music from the speakers. Until it came to a song on his playlist that shook him. “This is my winter song… December never felt so wrong…,” he sang the words. The ache that had grown stronger all day consumed him.

He stood and moved around the diner, among the shadows from the single light on the counter. Stopping at the window, he looked out on the street at the night filled with swirls of ink lightened by dark gray as a weak moon broke through the low clouds.

About to turn away, he spotted a sweep of rose-colored light that caught white bands of wind-driven snow streaming at an angle from the sky. The beam danced, buffeted, or carried by the wind, pushing it down Essex toward him. In minutes, the light—now a brighter ruby, more penetrating than a white glare—stopped at what was the corner he couldn’t see.

Cast in the backlight was a shadow. It took a step and faltered as the wind shifted and strengthened. Shards of ice glinted as a gust shoved the shape, sending it skittering on ice-coated concrete. It went down hard, and the light stuttered and blinked out.

Henry shoved the door—putting his weight behind it—open against the wind. On the sidewalk, he slid backward and felt the palm of a great hand—the wind—on his chest, pressing him against glass and stone. A flash and the glistening scarlet reflection on the street guided him; he leaned into the wind and reached the middle of the road. The puddle of red light showed a huddled form—a person—in a heavy hooded coat with knees pulled up to their chest.

God, so cold; his hands, arms, and legs were already numbed. Henry kneeled and gripped the form, the crunch of a thin scrim of ice breaking as he got his arms under to pull them to their feet. The wind’s shriek overrode any words as he half-carried, half-walked them back to the diner. After prying the door open with a gasp, he got them inside.

The figure staggered toward the heater in the room’s center. Despite the dimness, he could see it carried in one hand a large—the biggest he’d ever seen—flashlight with a thick lens the size of a butter dish. Setting it on the table, a gloved hand swept back the hood, revealing a face half-covered by a red scarf with white tassels. The hand unwound it.


She, with some difficulty, stripped the gloves from her hands and rubbed her face. “I… I…” she stuttered, “have never been so cold.” Shivers racked her.

Henry went to the counter, lifted the pot of coffee from the warmer, poured two cups, and brought them to the table. “What the hell…” he sat them next to her. “Why in the world would you go out in that?” his hand gestured at the blizzard blasting outside the window, rattling it in its frame. “Are you crazy?” He rose, walked to the counter, and returned with a Coleman lantern. In its bright arc, her chin trembled.

“I had a visitor late this afternoon,” she gulped a swallow of coffee. “I don’t know how he found me. I asked him, and he said he knows things like that. No idea what he meant, but it seemed more than what he said.” She shook her head, and the raw ivory look of her cheeks faded as warmth crept in. Her eyes still had not met his.

“Who… Olivia, who was it?” Henry drank from his mug.

“There was the doorbell… then a loud knocking. I opened the door, and there he stood, only 5° outside, not counting the wind chill, wearing only his red turtleneck and a scarf flapping in the wind.”

“Mr. Kerstman?”

She nodded, “Yes,” and blinked. “He asked me, ‘May I come in?’ I stepped back, and he followed me inside. Then I noticed he carried a red bag trimmed in gold in one hand. He told me, ‘I can’t stay… it is Christmas Eve.’ and reached into his sack and took this out.” She touched the flashlight on the table, which rolled in a half-arc toward Henry. “I asked him why that mattered… but he cut me off. ‘A gift,’ he said. For what? I asked. He laughed; how such a sound came from that scrawny old man,” she shook her head, “and said, ‘It will help you find your way.’” Olivia reached to roll the flashlight back to her. “He handed it to me, unwrapped his scarf, and laid it over my arm, then with a ‘Merry Christmas,’ he left.”

Olivia emptied her cup, and Henry rose to fill it. “Thanks,” she nodded, and her smile warmed him more than the heater and coffee. “I set both on the entryway table, chalking the whole thing up to some old man’s eccentricity. Two hours later, it was dark—I just had a Coleman lantern in the back room, my private office—and came out to put them away. I…” She stopped, stretched her hand out to rest on his just a moment, then pulled away. “I’ve thought about you a lot, and when I picked up the flashlight, it came on and spotlighted the door. I was flooded with feeling your hand in mine—from when we danced—and when I touched the scarf, something told me to bundle up and go out. I grabbed my coat, wrapped his scarf around me, and picked up the flashlight. Without thinking, I was on the street in almost pitch black. The flashlight came on but shut off if I faced any direction but south. I followed the light here.”

This time, his hand reached for hers. A line from The Winter Song came to him as he explored the depth of color in her eyes. He sang to himself but for her, “My voice a beacon in the night. My words will be your light to carry you to me. Is love alive?” As he looked at Olivia, he answered the song’s question: “Yes… it’s alive.”

The wind had dropped, and lighter snow drifted down. They—the man and woman—had not heard him come in; few ever did… to sit at the table. He watched them as they grew closer. Now touching… then a kiss. “Always—always—the best gift to give and receive,” he smiled as he stood and slipped outside through the barely open alley door, stepping around the dark mass of the shadowed generator. A fresh flurry of snow blown from the roof above showered him and carried the ring of bells with it. Nine sets. Each a different pitch, but one most distinctive pierced the night. Mr. Kerstman chortled, “After all, he’s the lead.”

He raised his hand to the fire escape that started about twelve feet above him and rose to the top of the building. At his gesture, the ladder dropped. Both beard and girth filled out as he climbed, but the added weight did not slow him down. He reached a roof now lighted with a red glow to the sound of stamping hooves. A minute later, he was gone, but the sound of bells and his voice and laughter rang through the night. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Below him, the city lights came on.


It was still a diner but had expanded into the vacant shop next to it to add a gallery. The sign over the door depicted a golden cage, its door open and above… a bird in flight in a blue sky.

The woman behind the counter wasn’t any lighter or younger but seemed much happier. The man who hugged her from behind smiled and kissed her cheek. The next day, December 1st, was their wedding day, and they hoped to see a good friend in the coming holiday season. Off to the side, with a rainbow glow of colors, an old jukebox played Greensleeves.

# # #


I’ve used some things fictitiously for this story, but the following are facts. The Dutch West India Company established the colony of New Netherland in America in 1624. It grew to encompass present-day New York City and parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. They christened the thriving Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam (which became New York City). The Dutch brought with them the presence of Saint Nicholas, who has been in the Hudson River country of America since its beginning.

Clement Clarke Moore is commonly believed to be the author of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ written in 1822. Once it grew in popularity, it became known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ But the authorship is disputed. Some academics and literary historians believe Henry Livingston Jr., a peer of Moore’s, wrote it. Because of the story, St. Nicholas became the model for Santa Claus. Whose name comes from the New Amsterdam Dutch, who shortened it to Sinterklaas (itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of Saint Nikolaos). In Dutch, Santa Claus is also known as de Kerstman (the Christmas man).