As I stand in the hardware store getting keys made for my house-sitter, the cell phone blasts its obnoxious ring into the air. People turn to stare, somewhat disapprovingly. I push my glasses higher on my nose and walk away from the counter to answer. Penny says, “Can you come get me?” and I respond that sure, I will, and end the call with apologies to the manager who had been asking me about my plans for Christmas.
He’s a happy guy, the hardware store manager. He told me about his perfect marriage one time, with a twinkle in his eye and a radiant smile on his lean face. He raised his hand to smooth the little snow-white pony-tail he wears. I gathered that they had married late in life, but I didn’t ask. I just congratulated him.
Ever since I listened to him thank Heaven for sending him an angel, he’s fancied we’re friends. I don’t know his name nor does he remember mine. But as I wait for my keys, he asks about my travel plans and warns me to take a blanket in the car. “It’s cold out there,” he says, and gestures to the windows. The kid brings my keys and I walk over to the counter again, shoving my phone back into my purse and putting a five-dollar bill in the hands of the waiting cashier. “And 89 cents,” he says, gently, and I give him another dollar.
They all tell me “Merry Christmas” and I respond the same, and throw in a Happy Holidays as the door closes. Then I drive into Kansas, past the Starbucks at which Penny works, where we’re scheduled to have coffee. I continue north, to her house. When she’s settled in the car we double back and park in the same spot where I parked when I brought my favorite curmudgeon here for coffee more than two years ago, a few months before he became too tired to go anywhere.
I can’t move for a minute. My hands grip the wheel and I tell Penny, I used to come here with Jay. It’s a slight exaggeration. We went there two or three times and I can’t remember why anymore. It wasn’t near his house or mine. But we did. And later, when he stayed at Brighton Gardens, I brought him carry-out soup from a Panera’s just up the street.
I shake off the memories and get out of the car, moving slowly in the frigid air. In a minute we are inside and Penny introduces me to her co-workers. Then I have a chai latte, with soy milk, sitting beside me, and Penny opens the gift that I’ve brought for her. I’m breathing easier. I can smile. I blink back the tears and tell a silly story about purple socks. Penny and I scrap a little bit over what it means, but good-naturedly. She sparkles, and I laugh, and we talk about her jobs, the kids to whom she teaches art, and how her friend Tina is handling her first Christmas as a widow.
Before I know it, a couple of hours have passed and it’s time to go home.
It’s the nineteenth day of the thirty-sixth month of My Year Without Complaining. It’s four degrees below zero in Kansas City. But life continues.