Black-Eyed Peas

“I absolutely will NOT go out on New Year’s Eve,” Calla said, stirring a big pot of black-eyed peas. “We’ve got everything we need right here.”

“Look, I love eating the peas for good luck on New Year’s Day, but couldn’t we just go out for dinner on New Year’s Eve?” Jeff wheedled. “We wouldn’t have to go to a big party or anything. But couldn’t we just do a little something special to mark the new year?”

Jeff loved people. A happy extrovert, he could spend convivial hours telling stories and laughing with whoever happened to be around.  It was one of the few areas in which he and Calla differed. Calla’s career was a demanding one, and her idea of heaven was a quiet evening at home. She sighed. Jeff could be such a pain sometimes.

But he could make puppy-dog eyes that got to her every time. Her shoulders relaxed as she smiled at him. “Oh, you’re good! Okay, okay. Just dinner, though, and not some big glitzy restaurant, either.”

He promised. They’d been married eight years, and he’d bumped up against her boundaries often enough to respect them. He made reservations at a little neighborhood bistro where they went often. It wouldn’t be very lively, but he intended to talk her into wearing that little black dress he liked. He’d gotten her a necklace for Christmas that would be perfect with it. Jeff loved to see his wife all decked out instead of in her usual surgical scrubs.

They went early. Calla didn’t want to be on the streets once the heavy drinking started. As an Emergency Department physician, she’d seen enough road carnage to last her a lifetime.

The little restaurant was brave with candles and sparkly garlands draped from every available surface. There were few diners at such an early hour. Their waitress, whom they knew by name, waddled to the table with the menus.

“Wow, Conchita, look at you!” Calla said, casting a professional eye over Conchita’s enormous baby bump. “When’s the big day?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” Conchita said, pressing a hand to her back. “I guess I’ll know when it’s time, just like with the other four.”

The food she eventually brought them was delicious. They ate in silent appreciation, their conversation momentarily stilled. So they plainly heard the commotion in the kitchen.

A busboy ran to the front of house where the manager stood near the door. Both Calla and Jeff could speak Spanish, but they couldn’t comprehend it at the speed with which it was pouring forth. The manager grabbed her phone and they heard she was calling 911. The busboy was hopping from one foot to the other.

“Ahora! No hay tiempo! Is now! Is now!”

Calla and Jeff exchanged a look. They stood and walked through the swinging doors into the kitchen. There was Conchita with her forehead pressed to the wall, back arched with the convulsive pain of imminent birth. Calla took her hand, ignoring the torrent of panicky Spanish around them.

“Estarás bien. You will be all right,” she said steadily. “Babies that come so fast are always healthy. We’re going to get you up on the prep table where the light is better. Your baby is almost here.”

Calla signaled to the cook to clear the prep surface, which he did with a sweep of his arm. The busboy darted forward with a cloth and a spray bottle of disinfectant.  Supported on both sides, Conchita gingerly transferred herself to the stainless steel table. Jeff stood behind her and supported her back while Calla caught the baby and wrapped him in a clean dishtowel. In a remarkably short time, the wail of a healthy newborn transfixed everyone within earshot, echoed by the siren of an approaching ambulance.


“You have to admit that was a unique New Year’s Eve celebration,” Jeff said as Calla stripped off her ruined black dress at home.

“We did well, didn’t we?” Calla’s voice was high with leftover adrenalin. “That was real teamwork.”

“Did you see the baby looking at you when you wrapped him? His eyes were full of…something so mysterious; I don’t know how to describe it.”

“I felt as though he saw directly into my soul. I guess that clarity will fade as he gets used to being in the world. I’ll never forget it, though.”

 “So, do you suppose we’ll ever…?”

“I can’t think why we’ve waited so long.”


“I don’t want to leave Bella with a sitter, not when she’s still so tiny. I know you love to celebrate, though,” Calla said the following New Year’s Eve.

There’d been no time to cook a big pot of black-eyed peas, but it didn’t matter. She’d never felt luckier as she sat in the rocking chair with their three-month-old daughter clasped in her arms, a sleep-deprived, radiant Madonna. Jeff smiled from across the room.

“You must have me mixed up with somebody else,” he said. “I absolutely will NOT go out on New Year’s Eve. I’ve got everything I need right here.”

Love Letters

They were newlyweds and money was tight. With Christmas coming they didn’t know how they’d be able to buy each other presents. She said, “Maybe we should write each other love letters for Christmas.”

“Love letters? That’s corny. We say I love you every day.”

“Yes, but why? Why do we love each other? Wouldn’t that be the best gift of all, to know exactly why?”

“Geez! That’s a girl thing. I wouldn’t know how to write the first word.”

“Okay, it was just a thought.”

But it was a thought that wouldn’t go away. He couldn’t sleep that night. Lying awake, he mentally listed all the things he loved about her. Maybe if he just put them down on paper…

When Christmas morning came, their empty stockings still hung from the mantle just as they’d left them on Christmas Eve. She made pancakes and sausage. He built a fire with logs he’d split himself. Together, they sat watching the flames as they had their second cups. He felt too shy to give her his letter. She didn’t seem to have one for him. Well, it was just a thought, as she’d said. She’d probably reconsidered. Maybe she was afraid she’d be disappointed in anything he’d write. He knew he lacked eloquence.

Then she pulled an envelope from the pocket of her robe.

“Here. This is for you.”

That gave him the courage to hand her his letter. They opened and read them at the same time.

Dear Julie,

I love being the number one person in your life. I love you because you know what to say to calm me down when I’m mad or upset. I love to see you push your glasses up on your nose.  I love it when we’re working on something, and you throw your whole self into it. I love the way you make love to me — I can’t stress that enough! I love that you are curious and brave and smart and kind and hard-working and cheerful. I love that you make me proud . I love to talk to you and hear you talk. If I live to be one hundred, I’ll find something new to love about you every day. Merry Christmas.

Love, Mike

Dear Mike,

On the day of our wedding, I thought I couldn’t love you more. But I was wrong; I love you more with each day that passes. There are so many reasons. I love that you strike up conversations with strangers. I love that you clean after I cook, and you cook sometimes, too. When you look up from your book and smile, my heart flips. I love how much we laugh together. You consult my wishes in every move we make. When we are old and gray, I’ll still think you are the handsomest, kindest, sweetest man in the world. Nothing could ever change that. Merry Christmas

Love, Julie


Days pass slowly, but years go by fast.  Life gets in the way. Kids come along, and time and money have to stretch. Mike and Julie feel beaten down by exhaustion, tears, illness, disappointments, angry words that can’t be unsaid, silence that grows like cancer.

Now they sit across the desk from the divorce lawyer. Their bodies lean away from each other. Arms are crossed adamantly over chests. They avoid eye contact. Julie’s foot taps; Mike drums his fingers on his knee. How soon can they get out of here?

The law office, along with the rest of the world, is decorated for Christmas, and that makes everything worse. Christmas used to be their favorite time of the year. Now, the smell of fresh pine, the sight of poinsettias, and the sound of insistent carols is torture. Julie thinks she might die of grief before January first. Mike fears every day he is having a heart attack, judging by the pain in his chest.

“We’re here today to reach an amicable settlement of your divorce.” John Moeller, Esquire, has a dry voice. His fingers make a steeple. He’s been presiding at meetings like this for a long time; he’s taught himself to feel nothing. “You’ve both agreed to arbitration to avoid a costly and messy court trial. I have before me your lists of demands, and we’ll go through them one by one. But before we begin, your children asked me to read something.”

Moeller opens an envelope and takes out two sheets of paper. Julie and Mike gasp. The letters. They’ve been handled so many times the paper looks like wrinkled silk. For twenty years they read the letters aloud to each other on their anniversaries, and their kids were listening. At the sight of those pages, the couple’s arms uncross and they lean forward. They meet each other’s eyes and see the memories there. Before Moeller can read the first word, Mike and Julie speak at once.

“Look, maybe we should think about this further…”

“I need more time, it’s a big step…”

His face betraying nothing, Moeller folds the letters, slips them back into the envelope and hands them to Julie. Together, the couple leaves the office. Mike holds the door for her. Julie thanks him.

Moeller stands at his fifth-floor window and watches as they emerge from the building and walk down the sidewalk. They are talking, their heads close together. He steers her around a sidewalk Santa. She looks up into his face as she takes his arm.  

A small smile disturbs the attorney’s impassive countenance.

“Merry Christmas,” he says softly. “Merry Christmas.”

The Nursing Home Cat

Gabriel was just an ordinary cat. Nothing special about him. Yet he knew, he always knew when someone was about to die. Then he’d appear at that person’s door, establish himself on the bed and stay until the last breath. He’d become a legend in the nursing home where he was the resident therapy pet. People joked about him at breakfast: “Well, I didn’t sleep so well last night, but at least I didn’t get a visit from Gabriel.”

Sally often sat by the bedsides of patients who were near death. She didn’t wait to be asked; she simply saw a need and filled it. Nobody really knew why. There was speculation that she was lonely, that she was a busybody, that she’d once been a doctor and was now atoning for some horrible mistake. Like a seasoned politician, Sally neither confirmed nor denied. She just went her way. Quiet, watchful, sleek and self-contained.

If directly questioned, she’d say, “What would it be like to be at the end of one’s life and not see a familiar face?” There was no answer to that, and eventually everyone came to expect her, to count on her presence in those last moments.

So when an elderly man, a friend, lay dying on Christmas Eve, Sally was there. The corridor outside the old man’s room had been minimally decorated by the staff. After they’d given out night meds, fetched extra blankets, filled water glasses and turned down the lights, they strung a tinsel garland around the nurses’ station, hauled a silver tree out of the supply closet and stuck it at the end of the hall. It was about all they had the energy for, what with the sore feet and backaches.

Sally stood in the hall and watched. She didn’t offer to help or make suggestions as to how she’d do it. Nevertheless, her wordless scrutiny made the staff nervous. They exhaled when she stepped back into the dying man’s room.

He was conscious. “Sal? Is that you?” His voice was weak, but she heard.

“Of course it is, Homer. Who else? Not your very important daughter-in-law and not your oh-so-busy son. Want to wet your mouth? You can have ice chips. I asked.”

“No, don’t want ‘em.” He coughed convulsively.  “What day is it?”

“December twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve.”

“Can’t die today or tomorrow, then. Spoil Christmas for my family.”

“I guess you’ll die when it’s your time, Homer.”

Sally held back her opinion about his family. They both knew he’d been deposited at the nursing home to breathe his last where it wouldn’t inconvenience the relatives. They were gathered around a festive table at that very moment. When Sally thought of his family laughing and feasting while their father lay dying, her fingers curved into claws.

He changed the subject. “You seen that durn cat?  Slinks around here like a shadow, shows up when a guy’s about to croak, curls up on the bed and purrs him out of this world.”

She was familiar with the cat, a large, inky tom named Gabriel. In fact, Gabriel was prowling the hall outside Homer’s room, arching his back and rubbing his whiskery face on the door. She saw no need to mention it.  

“Is there anything you want, Homer?”

He stopped plucking at the bedsheet and regarded her with surprising clarity. “Well, I don’t want that damn cat, that’s for sure. There is something, but you probably won’t want to bother, though.”

“Tell me.”

He did.

Sally nodded.  “I’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “Don’t leave yet.”


“I think he’s gone,” Sally said to the night nurse. It was three a.m. and they heard the lonely wail of a freight train in the distance.

“So many choose to go with the train,” the nurse murmured.

She walked with Sally back into Homer’s room, then stopped short inside the threshold. They stood in a Christmas snow-globe. Starry lights outlined the bed. Fragrant orange and clove garland draped the window. A tiny cedar tree cast its twinkling shadow on the ceiling. Carols filled the air. In the middle of all that holiday cheer, the dead man smiled.

“He wanted one last Christmas,” Sally said, smiling back at Homer. She made a sound in her throat that might have been a purr.

Gabriel padded off down the corridor, tail swishing. He wasn’t needed that night.

The Rest of Forever

Jody had an unusual sense of mortality. While most of us know in an academic way that we will indeed die some day, in our hearts we don’t believe it. Time stretches to the horizon, and we are prone to squander precious days. Not Jody. Jody knew there was no forever.

            Maybe because she was a Christmas baby, she had a mystical turn of mind. When she was a child, she dreamed time was a river, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, both calm and fierce, but always ending in obliteration in the sea of infinity. It made her aware at an early age how limited her time in the river was and the inevitable end that awaited. That knowledge informed the way she lived her life.

            Jody did the usual things: education, job, first apartment, friends, hobbies, but she did them mindfully, zestfully. This was especially apparent in December when she celebrated both her birthday and the season. She held a party every year, saying without irony that it was for her and baby Jesus. She filled her home with candles and greenery, set a fragrant pine stretching up to kiss the ceiling, and served delicious food and warm hospitality. There was always a crowd.

            Jody had loads of friends, but she never found The One, somehow. There were men in her life, romantic and platonic, but no marriage, no children. She enjoyed life as it was, although she felt a pang when she saw an old couple leaning toward each other, or when she passed a park full of children. Still, she trusted her journey on the river. She believed she was where she was meant to be.

            When Jody’s seventieth December came around, she felt old and tired for the first time. She was not up to throwing her usual party. There was no one special with whom to celebrate, after all. Her friends hastily assembled a pub gathering on December 23rd, running in to raise a glass and sing Happy Birthday before getting on with their lives. It was the eve of the Eve, after all, and people had places to go, things to do.

            A man at the bar watched the festivities, raising his own glass to her. When she finally sat alone staring at the Christmas lights around the mirror, he approached her.

            “Happy birthday,” he said. “I can’t believe the part about it being your seventieth, though. Mother Nature couldn’t possibly be so kind.”

            Jody gave him the wary smile she reserved for men in bars, but then she looked again. There was something different about this one. An energy, a glow that emanated from him like an aura. She liked the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. What the hell; she wasn’t getting any younger. She took a chance.

            “Thanks,” she said. “Do you ever think of time as a river?”

            Unsurprised by the question, he considered it seriously. “I think life has currents that carry us and if we don’t fight it, if we go with the flow, we end up where we need to be. Do you believe in karma?”

            They talked for hours. They discovered they were both voracious readers and liked the same books, secretly wrote poetry, took long walks they refused to call hikes, loved being with people and loved solitude, watched Netflix movies, and got excited about Christmas. And yes, they both believed in time’s river and the turning wheel of karma. Was it one of life’s cruel ironies that they’d met so late in life? Were there any days left for them?

            Forever is composed of Nows, Emily Dickinson said. They agreed that they had Now.

            Each day counted; each day was a celebration of their life together; each day was golden. The roar of the infinite sea ahead could be plainly heard. Peacefully, hand in hand, they floated toward it. Their wedding bands held the inscription: For the rest of forever.

What’s Your Sign?

            Owen could flat tell you some bad job stories. There was the winter he worked as a ranch hand, walking miles in the numbing cold to break the ice on the cattle troughs. And the year he washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant, hunching his shoulders against abuse screamed in a language he didn’t understand. Maybe the worst was the time he spent as an orderly in a nursing home. Talk about God’s waiting room! He was torn between compassion and horror as he watched the old folks slowly collapse in on themselves like wet paper.

            So writing horoscopes was a vacation, really. He arrived at the newspaper office early every morning and spent a few hours cranking out horoscopes for the next day. True, his space was barely bigger than a broom closet. In fact, it had been a broom closet before the managing editor, who happened to be Owen’s uncle, decided to save money by hiring his own in-house writer on the cheap. Owen could hardly believe he finally had a job that didn’t suck.

            He knew zip about horoscopes, but he had some reference books, some stuff about stars and cusps and the moon in the seventh house. He got so muddled trying to make sense of it that he gave up and just sprinkled a few buzzwords into whatever he felt like writing for each sign. Nobody noticed he had no clue what he was doing.

            Janice read her horoscope every day, and often shook her head in puzzlement. “Who writes this crap?” she’d ask aloud. Nobody answered because she lived alone. Once in a while, though, the horoscope fit her like a glove. Then it felt prescient and wise. She’d think about it all day and try to apply it to her life.

            This morning the newspaper was full of holiday ads. She acknowledged drearily that Christmas was coming. Again. And just like last year and the year before that, she had nobody to celebrate with. When you’re alone at Christmas, nose pressed to the windows of other people’s lives, it all seems like something dreamed up by an evil god to remind you what a loser you are.

            She turned to her horoscope and read: You are loved. There is someone who counts on seeing you every day but is too shy to approach you. Open your heart to the possibilities that abound, and you will be led in the right direction.

            Janice sat up straight, electrified. Who looked for her, who counted on seeing her? She just knew it was a man. It could be the guy in the mailroom. He was always nice when he dropped the mail in her in-box. He wore a wedding ring, though. Maybe it was the bus driver who took her to work every morning. But he barely glanced at her except once when she’d dropped her fare, and then he’d sighed loudly in irritation. Well, so it had to be someone she hadn’t met yet. Today she’d be alert to kind eyes in a shy stranger’s face, and if she saw them, she’d make the first move.

            Owen always ate lunch at his desk. He brought a sandwich from home and got a Coke from the vending machine. But on that day, the December air was unseasonably warm, the sun poured down like a blessing, and the air rang with Christmas carols. He decided to venture across the street and try one of a long line of food trucks that ringed the park. Before he left, he counted the few crumpled bills in his pocket to make sure he had enough.

            Janice had the same idea about the food trucks. She liked the chance to get out of the office for a while, especially on a balmy December day like this one. She pulled her hat off and stuffed it in her pocket as she waited in line. She couldn’t see how the sun caught the red highlights in her hair and made them sparkle.

            But Owen could. He looked at her appreciatively; she noticed and smiled at him.

            “Great day, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s like a gift, a day like this. Like a Christmas present. My horoscope this morning said today would be special.”

            Owen smiled back. “What’s your sign?” he asked, mentally searching through what he’d written the day before.


            “I’m a Leo,” he said. “Mine said I’d meet someone special when I least expected it.”

            They looked at each other for a long moment.

            “Do you believe that stuff?” Janice asked.

            “Not really,” Owen said with a shrug.

            “No, me neither. Well, have a nice day.”

            She turned and waded into the crowd.

            Owen stood looking after her, and he saw her wooly hat fall from her coat pocket.

            “Miss!” he called, scooping it up. “Scorpio! Your hat.”

            She turned and waited for him to catch up. He looked down at her upturned face and felt something move in the vicinity of his heart.

            “I do believe in horoscopes, actually,” he said.

            “So do I. I believe in them, too.”

            The next day, every horoscope was the same: This will be the best Christmas ever.