CN&R’s annual Christmas fiction
Coins spun along the counter, quarters on edge, before coming to a dancing halt, falling over. They weren’t Bertie’s coins, but she was the catalyst. That’s the way Darlene, owner of the Bitter Cup Coffee Shop, told it later. Just a regular day with the regular scraggly line of folks waiting for their morning brew.
Bertie had marched up as usual from the direction of her small apartment complex. Trudging around the duck pond and across the footbridge, bunched tight in her December coat despite the inside heat, she’d shoved into line, her resentment trailing behind her. At the counter, she pulled a couple of dollars out of her ragged pocket, and the dollars tumbled floor-ward. Behind Bertie a woman in a headscarf bent to pick the money up. Before the woman was even unbent, Bertie’s coat pivoted and her sharp chin poked out. Bertie took one look at the woman holding the dollars out to her and screeched, “Thief!” She yanked her bills from the woman’s hand. “That’s my money!”
“I am—you drop—”
The woman’s now-empty hand drew back, fingers settling against the dark blue of her hijab, rippling down her chest.
“I saw you!” Bertie spun. “You saw her!” She yelled to the other customers waiting in line. “She took my money. These people—!”
“—No. I give it back,” the woman protested.
Inside her coat, Bertie sucked herself up, still screaming. “You people. You people think you can fool me. You can’t fool me!”
A hush had crawled from the corners of the small shop, stealing like a shadow along the floor and up the walls, covering the Christmas wreaths with their smiling lights, descending over the evergreen in the corner. Darkening the woman’s face.
That’s when Darlene, for lack of something better to do, sent a cup under the spout and spun the dial on the espresso machine, breaking into the silence Bertie’s noise had created. Finally overriding Bertie.
The air shifted and Bertie’s anger plunged down whatever rabbit hole it dwelt in. She grabbed her Americano and charged out of the shop, threatening lawsuits and revenge, leaving an embarrassed pall in her wake. Before Darlene could apologize to the hapless woman in the headscarf, Spooner cut in line and sent his coins dancing. Later, Darlene would say she wasn’t too surprised that one of her regulars was offering to buy the woman in the hijab her cup of tea. People were sometimes more thoughtful at Christmastime, even if by people she meant Spooner, whom she considered insular and a bit gruff.
Darlene wasn’t even that surprised when the woman in the hijab left money herself, paying ahead for the next person in line. She really had been trying to be nice to Bertie.
Darlene was surprised when it kept going. Customer after customer, upon receiving the news that their coffee or frappé or latté had already been purchased, left money to buy drinks for the next in line. Paying it forward. Even if it meant spending more than they’d intended to. Chucking out a ten or twenty on the sly. Self-satisfied, as if already in league with the rashness of those ahead of them, who hadn’t themselves given up on sudden charity.
Darlene told herself this won’t last an hour. But she reached hour two and then three, and people were still paying it forward, so she called the local news. Outside her doors the world had gone to hell in a handbasket, and the Bitter Cup Coffee Shop had been going down with it. Good publicity was just what she needed to turn things around.
The editor who got the call shrugged it off at first. Won’t last long, he told himself. “Call me back if you get through another hour,” he told Darlene. When the call came in an hour later, he yelled at the intern about to leave for lunch to get over to the Bitter Cup and get some interviews.
“What’s my angle?” The intern, Xavier, had never been asked to do a story before. He was worried he’d blow it.
“It’s almost Christmas!” The editor shouted. “You figure it out.”
Xavier was skeptical. This was his first story? A fluff piece? He ought to get in line himself and order a coffee and break the chain. He slunk off to the coffee shop to end his career before it started.
Xavier entered the shop to a tinkling silver bell and a ball of customers. He made himself thin to shove sideways through the unexpected crowd. People were sipping hot drinks. Spiced cider and vanilla. Chai. Dark coffee. He watched a pretty woman’s hand travel down with the decsent of a French press handle. A set of cherubic twins licked the whip cream fringe from their hot chocolates and smiled. Xavier shook himself. A hallucinatory warmth had spread through the crowd. As if they were all waiting for something good heading their way that had already arrived.
He sighed. It was going to be a fluff piece all right. He planted himself at a suddenly vacant table and waited. And waited. He was a pessimist, his general attitude confirmed hourly by cable news and the latest disaster. The real story, he figured, would be about the customer who placed an order and didn’t pay it forward. Then he could write the truth of it. The measure of the human soul and its capacity for love and hate, cruelty and indifference. Before that, every letter would be a lie.
Spooner didn’t sleep like he used to. That night he woke up at 2 a.m. and lay there, disgruntled. When he could no longer stand it, he got up to check his fridge. Its worried fan sounded louder than usual, made a haywire hum that matched his mood. His neighbor’s bedroom light was on. She was new, from some country he couldn’t name and would never think to visit. He thought she might be about his age, but he wasn’t good at judging such things. She wore a hijab and cooked strange-smelling dishes he caught a whiff of now and then. The one time she spoke to him she spoke in present tense. As if everything were unfolding, even the past, right before her eyes.
The answering machine was blinking. He pushed the button. Some reporter had called. “Mr. Spooner….? This is Xavier… investigative reporter… pay-it-forward phenomenon… you’re a regular at the Bitter Cup and….”
Sure, make a message out of him. That’s what the reporter wanted to do. How was he supposed to know he was going to start a chain reaction this morning? Some 100 orders later! It was like winning the lottery in reverse. He hadn’t even been sure it was his neighbor lady when he paid for her tea. He’d only done it because Bertie had disturbed his peace of mind, yelling like she did at the woman. It was on impulse. A strange impulse, really, given that he’d made it his life’s practice to avoid generosity in general.
Spooner’s eyes traveled to the small red basket on his kitchen table. He’d come home from work to find it on his porch this afternoon. The note attached read:
Dear Mr. Spooner,
Thank you for the cup of tea and kindness. I am learning to say Merry Christmas!
Your Neighbor, Haleema
Nestled inside was something she’d baked that he hadn’t dared yet taste. Spooner sniffed its sweetness. Haleema. The syllables formed on his tongue. What had he gotten himself in to?
“Please. Just answer one question,” the reporter pleaded before the machine cut him off. “What made you buy her tea?”
What, indeed? Spooner wasn’t sure. He stopped the message and went back to bed, where he tossed and turned, and looked over at the neighbor’s light, threading through the darkness. He contemplated the universal sleeplessness of the middle aged. It wasn’t like that gave them a connection or anything. Seriously, he hadn’t even realized it was her. But then she’d left that basket. And her gesture had connected him, not to her exactly, but to a Spooner he hadn’t been in a long, long time.
Spooner had been nine or ten. Back before his mom and dad split and Dad still headed up his Scout Troop. Their project was to make Christmas baskets for a bunch of orphan kids. He’d never even thought about them having a real orphanage right in the middle of town before. He’d read plenty about orphans in books, and for a while young Spooner even thought he wanted to be one, just so he could be the character in a book, too, the one that something adventuresome happened to. But real orphans were different.
The orphanage didn’t look anything like in the books. It wasn’t mysterious at all. It was just a sad old school surrounded by a cyclone fence, with nothing but asphalt outside, and plunked down in the middle of two busy roads where the traffic whipped by. When Scout Troop 345 showed up, the orphans were out on the asphalt for their recreation time. That’s what the orphanage lady called it, recreation time. They had some beat-up bikes and a set of monkey bars to play with, but there was hardly enough room to really ride the bikes, and it was so cold you wouldn’t want to grab on the monkey bars. They’d freeze your hands.
The asphalt smelled wet and tarry and the air smelled like the cars on the street. Scout Troop 345 had seven Scouts. They were outnumbered. The orphans stared at them. Spooner and the others had on Scout uniforms, which he was always proud of. But the way those orphans stared said his troop was a bunch of nerds for being charitable. And they didn’t look helpless or in need of Christmas baskets, either. They mostly looked mean. Like a bunch of school bullies, the ones who run by and punch you hard or nail you with the dodge ball on the playground. The ones who figure out fast what you hate to be called and call you that all the time.
The orphanage lady told the kids to gather around and get their Christmas baskets, and when she wasn’t looking, this one orphan girl rode up on her rusty bike and rammed the front of Spooner’s shin. It hurt and she knew it. She eyed Spooner, daring him to tell. Like she hoped that maybe then she’d be taken out of the orphanage to some other place, not better but just different. She was so sick of this place, it didn’t matter.
Spooner glared at her. She had a name tag around her neck, Asa in big block letters, like that explained her. Asa grabbed Spooner’s basket. The basket had taken Spooner a long time to make. He’d blown up a balloon, covered it with plaster of Paris and finally popped the balloon. His troop had put cookies inside Dad helped them bake, and candy canes and comic books they’d earned the money to pay for. But once Asa grabbed for it, Spooner did not want to let go.
What was she going to do with the basket? She’d just gobble the cookies and tear the comics and stomp on the plaster of Paris. She was so hungry, nothing Spooner managed to put inside was going to feed her. He yanked and she yanked and he yanked. Then she narrowed her eyes at him.
Spooner was ashamed of himself. Why was he holding on? How could he be mad at this kid when he had a family, one he was ready to go home to as soon as he gave this mean little Asa her basket? But he was mad. He was mad because he’d spent all that time on a Christmas basket she couldn’t care less about. Mad because she got Spooner thinking what a jerk he was, being a Scout and doing a sissy thing like making a Christmas basket for an orphan girl.
It felt to Spooner as if he were in that Twilight Zone episode, the one where a boy rolled off his bed at night and got sucked into another dimension. The other dimension seethed like the insides of a vast, endless jellyfish, a place the boy could get stuck in forever. The boy called for help and his dad could hear him but didn’t know where he was. He was lost and the crack in space was closing. Finally his dad looked under the bed and figured out how to reach him. The boy found his hand and the dad pulled and the boy held on and he was yanked out, just in the nick of time.
Why couldn’t this mean little girl realize Spooner was offering her his hand?
A bell sounded and the orphans scattered, disappearing into the building beyond the play yard. Spooner looked down at the basket in his grip. Asa’s name tag had come off and lay on the asphalt by his feet. He picked it up and folded it into the comic book.
For the longest time, whenever Spooner thought about that orphan, Asa, he considered her with the same smug triumph, seeing himself as the winner in some tug of war they’d played. It was only later he began to realize that Asa had shown him his own future. One where his parents would split up and he himself was sucked into another dimension. One where Spooner quickly learned, like Asa had, to insulate himself to stay safe. One where he lost his Dad’s hand and never got it back, before the crack in space closed up.
Xavier had taken up residence in the Bitter Cup for four days. He’d finally heard back from a Mr. Spooner, the customer who’d started the whole pay-it-forward thing off. Four hundred orders now paid forward! He gave up his skepticism and wrote his fluff piece in time for the Christmas issue. Spooner hadn’t been much help, though. He’d rambled on about some orphan from his childhood, and asked Xavier what good had come of his long-held safety when here he was a lonely man? Then Spooner informed him he had to go, said he had a date with the lady next door for tea, and hung up.
Xavier couldn’t explain it. The whole town was reeling. As if some spell had been cast over them, as if an angel had moved its wings and fluttered the dreary air with unexpected warmth. People felt their hearts pump up like balloons floating gently in their chests. They had unrolled the carpet of good will and walked about on it. No one wanted to break the spell. It was horrible to think about such dreariness now. And kind of wonderful to realize they themselves were the better angels.
Darlene’s coffee shop made the local TV news, then CNN. The town, which had for two years been wrangling for state money to complete a bike path, was suddenly granted the funds. It rained and the river rose, but not enough to flood as it usually did, along the low-lying levels. Xavier, not to be outdone by CNN, wrote a second fluff piece about Spooner and his neighbor finding romance.
That piece went viral. Small-town USA pays it forward for love! The lines at the Bitter Cup grew out the door. People crowding in to be a part of the phenomenon. Darlene, no fool, renamed her shop Better Angels and started handing out two-buck cookies for free. She heard that pay it forward had started up in some neighboring towns, and was threatening to spread across the state. Maybe even the country.
Xavier went back to his editor and asked to be hired full time, now that he was a viral sensation. He was hired on the spot. For his third and final fluff piece, he went looking for Bertie, the belligerent woman who’d yelled at the lady in the hijab and caused Spooner to buy his neighbor a cup of tea.
From the window of the Better Angels Coffee Shop, Darlene pointed Bertie out to Xavier. You could see her coated form hunched on a bench down at the pond’s edge. The recent rain had paused, so he left the shop and walked the path, which led him over the foot bridge still adorned with various Christmas paraphernalia. He stood in the damp, cedar-tinged air for a moment before introducing himself.
“Investigative what?” Xavier found that Bertie’s surly pessimism eclipsed his own. She pointed her gnarly chin his way. “Don’t you Merry Christmas me!” she crabbed. “Better Angels, ha! Bunch of thieves. You can’t trust a living soul in there. That’s what you ought to investigate.”
Diatribe over, she turned her back on Xavier and plucked a few stones from the ground. Tossed them recklessly—much like Spooner had tossed his coins onto Darlene’s counter a few days ago—into the steely water. The rocks arched up in a sullen way as Bertie scuttled off. And only Xavier stayed to watch them break and shift the water’s skin, rippling into larger and larger circles, once the stones fell.