“Mark, quit playing Jingle Bells on the glasses! This is probably the last meal you’ll have for awhile so you better make sure you don’t spill it all over.” Sharon grabbed a tottering glass of milk just in time to avert disaster.
Another expectation dying in a moment of painful reality. Five-year-old Mark, usually so self-contained and polite, would pick this moment to be a normal, fidgety boy. He really didn’t deserve her abrupt scolding. She sighed wearily, fighting a wave of misery.
Mark dropped his spoon. It clanged on the floor adding to the din of dishes clattering and cheerful conversations competing with jazzed up Christmas music. Sharon scanned the buzzing dining area, her Christmas hopes fading: the smell of baking cookies, sitting by the fire sipping cocoa, peaceful carols from an old phonograph filling her parent’s living room with magic. Certainty. Security.
Their waitress, Jen, breezed by setting a paper cup full of crayons and three kiddie placemats on the table. She refilled their water glasses then reached down and stroked the baby’s white-blond hair and cooed, “Oh, she’s such a doll, what’s her name?”
“Actually, his name is Michael. We just can’t bring ourselves to cut off his beautiful curls.” Sharon pulled the high chair closer to the table to get it out of the way of the restaurant traffic. “Wouldn’t you know,” Sharon thought. “They would seat us right by the kitchen.”
Sharon fingered three wrinkled ten dollar bills and some change in her coat pocket. It was the last of their money. One more big meal then they’d have to wait until they were paid at the end of the haul. Steve was at this moment picking up a load at a nearby freight center. Between now and then it would be crackers and cheese and the last few cans of juice and formula they had in the truck.
They spent the last week living out of the cab of their semi-truck. Three kids and two adults traveling across the country looking for better trucking jobs. Steve’s cousin said there was plenty of work out of Denver. They sold everything they could, packed the rest in the truck, and departed Greensboro just in time to leave family, friends, and everything familiar behind at Christmas time. They had engine trouble a few miles east of St. Louis. Nothing on a big rig can be fixed without spending gobs of cash. They parted with most of their savings at a Truck Center, Inc in Illinois. Steve finally landed a contract with a distributor in Aurora. He dropped Sharon and the three children off for breakfast while he met up with the load broker.
Andy’s Hometown Grill was a combination of fifties diner and 90’s remodeled restaurant kitsch. Shiny green garlands with red bows hung from the dining room partitions. A miniature lighted Christmas village lined the booth walls and giant silver snowflakes glistened in the windows. Outside a thin dusting of snow began to fall.
“Well, at least we’ll have a white Christmas,” Sharon grumbled
“I want Daddy!” wailed three-year-old Rachel.
Then all Sharon’s efforts to rescue it failed as Rachel’s fist crashed down on her glass of milk. Creamy liquid spread across the paper placemats, under the silverware, and dripped down the edge of the table. Sharon grabbed a handful of napkins and threw them on the growing puddle. She felt as if the whole diner full of people was staring at her unruly brood. She was dead tired and famished. “Where was their food?”
As if she had heard Sharon’s mental scream, Jen came out of the kitchen carrying a huge tray of platters. She balanced the tray on the edge of the table while Sharon finished mopping up the milk. Then the waitress briskly set the table with plates of crisp bacon, steaming hash browns, scrambled eggs, and piles of fragrant pancakes with syrup. Sharon quickly arranged the food in front of the children. Pacified by a mouthful of pancake soaked in syrup, Rachel stopped whimpering. Mark commandeered more than his fair share of bacon. Sharon felt short three or four arms as she tried to serve, feed and keep disaster at bay. Finally, with everyone satisfied and quietly stuffing their mouths, Sharon turned her attention to her own plate. She had just swallowed a couple of heavenly bites when Steve burst through the restaurant door and crossed the room with hurried strides.
“Daddy!” cried Rachel, reaching her arms up to greet him.
“Give me the thirty dollars.” His tone left no doubt that he was dead serious.
Sharon reached into her pocket and grasped the moist bills protectively. “You have got to be kidding! We’re eating already. How will I pay for all this?”
Steve’s tone softened slightly, “Look, they won’t load the truck until I pay for some kind of loading permit. The permit costs thirty dollars. They won’t wait for the money until I get paid at the other end. No permit, no job, no income. There’s nothing I can do about it. As soon as I get the truck loaded, I’ll come back here and we’ll figure out something. I don’t see that I have any other choice and I’ve got to hurry back or we’ll lose the contract.”
Sharon reluctantly drew the money out of her pocket and handed it to Steve. Without a word he spun on his boot heels and was gone. She could hear the roar of the semi truck’s engine as he pulled the oversized beast out of the parking lot.
Originally, she planned to take the children across the street to the mall after they finished eating. They were going to window shop to kill time until Steve met them at Santa’s Village near the main entrance. Now, she would have to keep the children entertained right here at the table for a couple of hours. And how would they pay? Could you really wash dishes to pay for a meal? They had been through lean times before but never this close to the edge. She felt thoroughly humiliated: noisy children, spilled milk, and now completely broke. She tried to eat but her appetite had vanished.
“Here, Mark, you can have my bacon.” Sharon slid her plate over.
“Mommy, what’s going to happen?” Mark looked pale and worried. It hadn’t occurred to Sharon that he might understand what was going on, that her five-year-old son tuned into the conversation. Suddenly her distress about paying for the meal evaporated. It was the anxiety in Mark’s sweet face that concerned her most.
“Mark, help me get the baby and Rachel fed. I’ll have Jen bring us some new placemats and we’ll keep busy coloring and eating until Daddy gets back. And Mark, maybe you could say a little silent prayer to help us stay calm. Everything will be all right, I promise.”
“Just great, now I’ve made this a test of my son’s faith,” she thought, bitterly. She was playing a risky game with God. “Hey, if I’m not good enough for your help, my little son’s faith is on the line here.”
She suddenly felt too tired to worry anymore. She scooped Mark into her arms and hugged him tight. “Just keep busy. We’ll take this one minute at a time.”
She looked over at the baby. Scrambled eggs covered his face. His eyes drooped and his head nodded. Sharon spread a quilt on the booth seat. She gently cleaned Michael’s face then pulled him out of the high chair and wrapped him in the quilt.“One blessing already, he will nap for at least an hour.”
Mark and Rachel continued eating quietly. Sharon decided she may as well enjoy some hash browns and orange juice after all. It cheered her immensely to have the baby asleep and the other two children settled down. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them now that their noise had subsided.
“Look, Mommy,” Mark nudged her harm. “I drew a picture of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. See here’s Grandpa sitting by the fire and there’s Grandma decorating the Christmas tree.” Sharon nodded absently. Her mind was caught up in memories of Christmas back home. The kind of Christmas she wanted to giver her children. Whatever had possessed them to take off like this? It had seemed like a great opportunity to get their trucking business going, an adventure even. But now it seemed more like a disaster. Back and forth her thoughts flew.
“Stop. What’s done is done. I’ll go crazy rehashing what can’t be changed.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out. Their plates were just about empty. Rachel stuffed the last of her pancake in her mouth, stretched out on the seat, and put her head in Sharon’s lap. Sharon covered her with a coat. She glanced out the window. The snow had changed to large soft flakes. The breakfast rush was over and the dining room was quiet. Another blessing: they won’t be unhappy with us for taking up valuable space.
Just then, Jen swept out of the kitchen and up to their table with another tray. She began setting out three large mugs of hot chocolate topped with tall swirls of whipped cream.
“Wait, I didn’t order these.” Sharon protested. “I really can’t pay for them . . . “ she said. “Or any of it.”
“No problem, don’t worry about it.” Jen broke in. “Look outside, right out front. See the white-haired couple getting into that red pick-up. When they paid for their breakfast, they paid for yours and threw in the hot chocolate, some sandwiches, and a dozen donuts to go. They said to tell you it’s an early Christmas present.”
Sharon watched as the red truck pulled out onto the snow-covered highway and disappeared into the storm. For a moment, she felt a twinge of discomfort; embarrassment that someone had noticed them and their problems. She hadn’t dared wish for or expect anything like this. She felt a surge of gratitude wash over her. A miracle for her little family. In an instant, the anxiety that coursed through her body transformed into joyful relief. A miracle for her little family. “Thank you,” she whispered out loud.
“Mommy,” said Mark. Can I drink my hot chocolate? I already said a thank-you prayer.”
“Yes,” said Sharon, still gazing out at the falling snow. “Yes, Mark, you can drink your hot chocolate now.