Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Mulligan’s Resplendent Holiday Feast

Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.

Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.

He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.

Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.

“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.

Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”

“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”

Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”

“But what if he doesn’t this year?”

“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”

Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.

Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.

Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.

“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.

“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”

“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”

“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.

Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”

Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”

“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“

“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”

“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.

Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!

Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.

“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”

“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”

“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”

“Sure.”

She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?

And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.

Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.

Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”

Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”

“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”

She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.

“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.

Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”

She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”

He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”

“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”

“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”

LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’

“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.

“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”

“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”

She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.

“I wonder. No invitations.”

“I know, I thought it was due.”

“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”

“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”

“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.

“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!

******

If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.

He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.

Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.

Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.

But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.

He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.

Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.

But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.

******

They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!

That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.

“It sounds like a crock.”

“It scares me for some weird reason.”

“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”

“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”

“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.

They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.

“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.

“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”

“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”

LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”

Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.

“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.

Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”

Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”

******

Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.

He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”

“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”

“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.

Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”

Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.

“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”

“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”

LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.

“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.

“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”

“Well, I suppose so,” he said.

“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “

Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.

“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”

Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.

When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.

******

He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.

Until now.

“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.

“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.

Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.

“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.

He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.

“What on earth?” he said.

“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.

“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.

Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.

And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.

He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.

He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”

He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.

“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.

Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.

He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.

PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.

Monday’s Meanders: Nob Hill Shopping District

Mainly one long street of commerce, Nob Hill in Portland is a certain kind of shopping experience: quaint shops, historical buildings, several great restaurants and year-round, brightly lit streets–and pricey goods. I like visiting NW 23rd Street a few times a year. I went out awhile with Marc on Sunday to explore many of the shops and drop some cash on Christmas family goodies.

Strolling along arm in arm, we took in colorful sights and energetic, happy sounds of a seasonal spirit that is genial, not superficial–despite the emphasis on material goods. So it was less the stuff we saw and more the meander and chatting with peaceful intention. It did wonders for my case this year of mild to moderate holiday blues.

It can be taxing this time of year if you are missing people or life stress presses harder upon you. But for me it is an opportunity for meditation, as well as a potentially happy experience. Sometimes I find there is a need to become even more attentive to smallest instructive moments and random, kindly incidents–to surprising or moving moments– or just make any kind of fun and roll with it. And then see what can come of a positively challenged viewpoint. Number one help: getting out of my own way (and out of my head)!

So off we went for a couple of hours later afternoon into early eve. The temperature was brisk and no rain fell–folks were amiable, jostling and pausing as were we. Even sales people had a good attitude, a good will that belied their likely long hours and hard work. It was enough to give me a boost amid my continued Thanksgiving day accident ramifications, which have rather drained me. A favorite stop is a store called The Meadows, which sells high end salts, chocolates, wines and bitters. I go for the superior chocolate since I don’t do booze and fancy salt does little for me.

I spent…more than I care to say…on a bunch of bars for my sister, Allanya. She is definitely worth it! I took her the treats today and we had a blast hanging out– she was, as easily predicted, delighted with her early gift. Since she has increasing short term memory loss, every moment with her counts–my best friend as well as sister.)

This is a fine example of prime commercial real estate on that street–sorry, I don’t recall the name of the apartments. Clearly they are historical and well maintained, attractive, almost certainly sought after. I would not hesitate to live here, perhaps on the top floor to take in the view of not only NW Portland. But also the beautiful West Hills that rise up about everything– even with dense population–and as they continue a steep ascent, they finally flare above the NW and SW city skyline. The woods spread out and deepen in Forest Park.

As an aside, our GPS “director” sent us on a wild goose chase to our daughter’s home afterwards, and we became well acquainted with those wild curvy roads in a blinding darkness as we navigated our way bit by bit. Holding my breath here and there as well as my seat, I admit to having shouted out a time or two, toward the road and my husband… and we had to rediscover our peace of minds again. A visit with our twin grand-babies restored a great deal.

I will end with some photos not from that immediate area but that I like, anyway. One is from a plaza within my city. Another two are taken at my late brother’s wife’s house, which is an old house with lots of dark wood and interesting spaces but well maintained–just unique and warmly welcoming. I saw her recently; we enjoy our visits a lot. The place always looks a bit like Christmas inside with amber hue and colored light strings hung here and there…I just want to share a cozy corner. I’m thankful she is part of my family.

And lastly, a shot of my current dining table tableau for Christmastime. I will be adding to it–a fun thing I like to do.

I will say once again: it is deeply satisfying to have an array of persons and moments to embrace during this Season… and every day. I do hope you are finding that true, as well. If not, create a way to make it better, and please do ask for help if you need it. Someone out there cares, I guarantee it.

Blessings your way.

Fragrance of Life

DSCN1074

Carolyn was getting sick and more than tired of the holiday hullabaloo. It was not going to happen for her. Why would it? Bills were starting to pile up, the building’s ancient heating system eked out puffs of tepid warmth, an upstairs neighbor’s recently rescued Border Collie puppy was looking for sheep to herd, his restless whining keeping her on edge. And it had snowed. Not a drifty dusting but a raging snow. She couldn’t see a well-defined anything from her second story window, just pillowy lumps of whiteness, nearly blinding her. The courtyard and beyond were slowly vanishing in thick swirling snowflakes. A wave of panic swept over her; she hugged close her ratty navy wool sweater and looped a thick gray scarf twice about her neck.

When she’d taken the airy, high ceilinged vintage apartment at Mistral Manor, Carolyn had harbored such hopes. But that was two years ago. The past year had been one of plenty, then rent by piercing losses. In November she’d finally gotten news of the end of her marketing job. The company’s local office had been downsizing awhile so she had half-expected this. Just much later. The resumes she’d sent out had thus far garnered only a couple of nibbles.

She let the sheer curtain flop over draped white twinkling lights she had put up before the news. They gave off a sparse but steady glow that proved heartening despite her distress and the cold that crept in through every window, sneaked under doors. She went to the hearty wood box by the fireplace and set about making a fire. She had first relied on childhood memories of helping her mother with the wood stove,  hands warmed by her mother’s as they directed hers: splintered sticks that way, smaller pieces this way about those, bigger kindling crisscrossed and then pungent split logs placed just so. The fire always responded to their joint (mostly Mother’s) efforts. Her mother said being a fire tender was woman’s work as it took equal parts ingenuity, delicacy and strength.

Once again being a fire tender felt like second nature as it had so long ago. Now the aged wood combusted and crackled, a fragrant offering of another downed tree permeating the rooms. Carolyn sat on her one overstuffed chair, slippered feet splayed before the plain, companionable hearth.

It felt, however, disorienting to have so much time to herself. She had grown accustomed to the chatter and bustle of work, lunches out with two good office mates, the critical demands of a trying boss with such large perfect teeth the woman scared Carolyn for a bit. She’d liked her business coursework, had done very well and enjoyed two other positions before the last. But her current job’s reality had been tough to embrace with gusto. It was tedious too often and unlike her friends, who’d fought their way to better situations and were now being dispatched to new offices, she had begun to flag.

She had thought it all mattered less than it did, even the friends. Now as she let herself be mesmerized by her fire’s erratic dance she realized she had taken the situtation much too lightly. That’s exactly what Damon had told her six months ago before he walked out. He’d found her lacking in ambition, something he fairly burst with, and it made him impatient. Carolyn was also smart and energetic, attractive in her off-beat vintage way, yet she had so much less enthusiasm about business than he desired in a partner. He had set up shop already, a small kitchen store that sold unusual, surprisingly handy items. It was her lack of aspirations that came between them, he said. But Carolyn knew better. It was his self-importance and her lack of true commitment to him. There was too much of the first and not enough of the second to make it work–better despite advantages of a lively companion, observing business success close-up, even sharing a passionate bed amid gross uncertainty.

What did she actually want?

First, to pay the most of the nagging bills on time. Second, to enjoy the effects of sustained heat with rest. Third, to just skip Christmas. Without her mother–living a deserved life of leisure in Florida, enjoying sunshine with her third husband– it meant so much less. But this year money was too scarce to flee like royalty into balmy days and nights unfolding way across the country.

Fourth: to stop feeling so damned lonely. Hallelujahs were lovely for others but to her were more like a too-long intermission with no second act to attend. Where was even the next two line paragraph of her story? In limbo, that’s where.

The tea kettle’s whistling startled her out of growing self-pity. She let it softly shriek a moment or two more; it sounded like comfort. As she dunked the cinnamon and orange tea bag up and down in the heavy white mug and sat again, Carolyn inhaled deeply. She jumped when someone pounded on the door.

Through the keyhole she saw Mr. Carpenter’s fuzzy white head. He didn’t peer back as he stood with a package, hand readied to bang again. He might have pressed the doorbell. When she opened up the door a crack, he looked up and she noticed his glasses were still held together with duck tape.

“Got a package here for you,” he softly growled and it was not an attempt to be ornery but his ordinary voice. He did not own the sort of voice that offered soothing words. Yet, they tended toward kindly.

She swung the door wide open, gesturing that he step out of the cold, drafty hallway.

“Thank you for bringing it to me. You dared go out on that porch to get the mail today?”

“I did! And it is blowing out there. No need to come in, thanks, I will get back to my reading–a great Sherlock Holmes.” He gave the package to her, leaned his wrinkled face into the room a bit. “It feels cold in here, too. Okay, you’ve got a roaring fire, that’s good. I need one.”

“Why don’t you come in, get warm, at least. I was just making tea.”

She didn’t want to sound desperate as she held out her hand to him. He was, after all, an old man, much older than her mother. Since she’d lived there they’d exchanged reasonable pleasantries, not overly friendly, not so aloof. Most all the tenants did when they bumped into someone. She felt welcome enough, but Carolyn had yet to get to know anyone well. It was the sort of bohemian community she had imagined she’d like to make home, creative types, young entrepreneurial sorts, old and young mixed together, some having been there for decades. But she hadn’t had the time.

Mr. Carpenter sniffed the air with his fine long nose. He had been a successful perfumer once, another tenant told her, but his smell had gone haywire or got worn out –he’d been ill, perhaps–and then he’d worked at Macy’s for a decade or more.

“Is that a grand old fir tree you’re burning?”

“Why, yes, lodgepole pine. How surprising you’d know that! I wanted to save the well-seasoned red alder and some madrone for a hotter, longer fire.”

Mr. Carpenter stepped in and looked around. She took the package, likely a gift from her mother, to the circular dining table.

“You might need that if the weather report can be trusted. Say, I guess I’d take that tea, after all, Miss Havers,” he said. “Any hearty black tea in your cupboard? With a dash of vanilla, too, perhaps”

“I do. Exactly that one, Mr. Carpenter, what a lucky thing.”

She took his faded black fleece and hung it on her coat tree, then prepared the tea. When she returned he had pulled up to the fire in the creaky rocking chair, the one she had found at roadside and had always planned to paint or refinish. His head bobbed up and his eyes smiled above his damaged glasses when she brought his mug. Taking her seat and settling again, wondering over how much warmer the whole place felt already, she sipped as they watched the fire lick at the air and twist about.

Mr. Carpenter cleared his throat though it made no difference in his gravelly tone. “You have any family coming around for Christmas?”

“I don’t. My mother and her husband live in Florida. I usually go there, but not this year. It’s…tight financially. Bound to get even tighter.”

“I don’t see you heading out at seven in every day, anymore.” She threw him a frown but he was still staring into the fire. “I often keep an eye on our people here. Not much else to do some days. You and most others leave each day for work. I did, too, but no more, of course. They threw me out ten years ago with flattery and persuasion and a pin of honor of some sort, but the truth is I reached seventy so that was the end. Imagine that!” He slurped from his mug and stretched out his spindly legs, then gave her an appraising look. “Beg pardon, I guess you can’t, Miss Havers. You’re a young one yet. But working hard comes naturally to you, I think, you carry yourself with confidence.”

“Maybe once upon a time. Not anymore. I lost my job last month. I worked in marketing. I’m not so valuable in the working world, either, it turns out.”

“I am sorry to hear it…well, on to the next good thing. I was a perfumer with my own shop for thirty years. We crafted bespoke fragrances as well as sold the most excellent scents. I dearly miss that work; it is an art, making perfume, and it well suited me. But I got sick with the cancer; my sense of smell was affected by chemotherapy. So I turned my business over to niece and nephew. They’re doing a capable job. After I got better I just took a job at Macys selling lesser scents but it was distraction, a paycheck. I tried to teach a little about perfume as I sold each bottle and had a ball. Then I was done there, too, so that’s how it goes. Life just flings surprises at us, distressing ones, sometimes beautiful, you know.” He stopped his gentle rocking and turned to her. “What’s next for you if I may ask?”

Form the corner of her eye she glimpsed the snow like a passing drape of white velvet, a near-ghostly thing. It struck her as wonderful. “I like design, maybe create packaging. That might sound odd but I like to draw and used to make things. But my degree doesn’t really support that wish. So I don’t know yet just what to do.” She closed her eyes, warmth flowing to her toes and calves and thighs and into her core and chest at last.

“It’ll come to you. Something always does if you’re willing to reconsider things. To try new avenues. I was glad to have my Macy’s job in the end. It saved me from deadly boredom, kept me engaged with people and, well, it was still perfume!”

Mr., Carpenter ended his sentence on such a gleeful note that Carolyn felt a pang of envy.

“I wish I had a deep passion like that…”

“Maybe it’s there and you just haven’t given it due respect and attention.”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”

They listened to the increasing wind and talked of weather, the endless oversell of a commercial Christmas, then the sorts of music they preferred–he, the old standards and opera; she, electronic and jazz–the food they wished they might eat and what they settled for on a limited budget. His late wife, gone long before he retired. How he’d then taken up painting after many years of forgetting all about it. He admitted to being fairly bad at it but no matter.

“Well, enough of an old man’s ramblings. I’ll head back upstairs, you have better things to do,” Mr. Carpenter said when their mugs were empty.

Carolyn bit back the words, Not really, please stay a bit longer. She could tell he was ready to go home; he probably had more to do than she did.

At the door he put his jacket over his arm and smiled sincerely, his wrinkles deepening about lips and folding around eyes. “Thank you kindly for the nice tea and talk.”

She felt overwhelmed by his friendliness and seized with a desire for another visit. “Want to come by for dinner Christmas Day? I’ll try to make something decent. Maybe start with a good glazed ham?”

His thin white eyebrows hovered above his glasses, then he stared past her, perhaps out the window, and for a moment she thought he’d gotten lost in thought, forgotten her altogether. Then he came back to the moment and rubbed his whiskery chin.

“I think I still have a scalloped potato recipe tucked away. Do you want to try a hand at throwing a small Christmas party–together? Invite a couple more folks? Mrs. Mize is alone this year, and so is young Trent Rafferty.”

Carolyn felt a small jolt of nerves as she imagined her apartment occupied by people she barely knew. She’d have to clean and maybe decorate. She hadn’t fixed a ham in a long time. They needed candles, too, and she was out. She knew wise-cracking Mrs. Mize but who was Trent Rafferty, a new tenant? Whatever had she been thinking, inviting him in for tea, then impulsively inviting him to dinner? Him, not three!

“Yes,” she heard herself say, “that’d be a good thing, I think. If they bring some dishes, too.”

“I’m sure of it. I’ll call them–or better yet, we’ll stop over later this week and figure it out better. They’re good folk. How about it?”

“Okay, Mr. Carpenter, sounds like a deal. And please–call me Carolyn.”

“Carolyn, then. I’m Elwyn, if you like, either way is good.” He nodded approval, as if of the way things were going. “And also, I’ll ask my niece and nephew if they need any good marketing done. Or package designing, perhaps. I still hold a place in our business. Oh, and maybe you’ll burn the madrone and oak for Christmas? Love those fine woods. I might have to steal a piece or two…”

He exited the doorway.

“What was that you said? About the work?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s thin, energetic visage, in burgundy flannel shirt and baggy dark chinos, shuffled down the hallway to the elevator.

After she shut the door, she poked at the fire to coax a hotter flare again. It’s tangy, sweet smoke smelled of well being, of good times, of a life lived better if only she could figure out how to make it happen. She moved to a frosted window, fingers splayed against sharp cold, melting icy filigree. The snow had stopped lambasting everything. It now lay upon the space below in a sparkling landscape of small hillocks and valleys. Streaming light created a bejeweled dream of a courtyard. She wasn’t entirely sold on a potluck for Christmas and she missed her mother terribly. But home had sneakily become Mistral Manor with its creaks and dripping faucets and chilly spots, her serviceable fireplace and small balcony that was a boon even in winter. It’s curious inhabitants. With Mr. Carpenter–she might call him Elwyn, more likely not–as new friend and perhaps adviser, anything might be possible, after all, given time.