“Merry Christmas, Bern.”
“You should say Happy Holidays, Pats. Not everyone celebrates Christmas.”
Bernie settled onto the barstool at the corner of the Formica bar. Patsy placed a glass with an orange and a maraschino cherry floating in caramel colored alcohol in front of him. He breathed it in, feeling its warmth before he sipped it.
This was the thing Bernie most looked forward to on Christmas evening. An old fashioned at Jack’s, the only place he knew in southwest St. Louis that was open at eight o’clock on Christmas night. It wasn’t a tradition. He’d begun to find tradition tiresome. His traditions were midnight mass followed by sleepless nights putting together some infernal plastic toy on Christmas Eve, tiny hands grabbing and pulling him out of bed a few hours later, eagerly awaiting Santa’s bounty. That twenty-four hours had become rote; just as his youngest began to sleep later and find less magic in the Christmas morning, his oldest was having her own babies and the cycle started anew for Bernie and Millie.
Forty-four years of this. It was enough tradition for one lifetime.
Five years ago things changed. Maybe it was six. Bernie didn’t keep track. Millie was too far-gone. He and the kids agreed–well, most of them–that it was time to allow someone else to care for her. The decision was agonizing, but now, sipping his old fashioned, Bernie remembered that she barely noticed the difference between the home they’d owned most of their marriage and the suite she’d been moved into at St. Boniface. When she had moments of clarity and looked at Bern with terrified, confused eyes and asked where she was, it broke his heart. But those happened rarely.
After Millie went to live at St. Boniface, everything changed. The kids began to have holidays at their in-laws. Chuck and Joan and Alec and Becky alternated inviting him to their homes for the holiday, but no one came to the big old house on Mead Street anymore. Perhaps this should have bothered Bernie, but he was relieved.
“How’s Millie, Bern?” Patsy stopped momentarily in front of him.
“She’s good. She loves the socks. You really shouldn’t have,” Bernie replied.
“Hey Bern! Why don’t you take a vacation? Go somewhere warm? I gotta timeshare in Fort Meyers, I’ll cut ya a deal.” Ronnie was a fixture so permanently perched on his barstool he resembled a gargoyle.
“No thanks, Ron.”
“Ah, c’mon. You got, what, like a dozen kids? Can’t they look after your old lady?”
“Eight.” Bernie sipped his old fashioned and let his eyelashes rest on his cheeks for a millisecond. Fort Meyers sounded blissful. There’d be people there his age, the warm humid air would lubricate the creaks in his joints. As long as Millicent shuffled through the corridors of St. Boniface, he’d be here.
What was so wrong with here, anyway? He looked around the room, mostly empty but for a young couple with their heads bowed together at a table in the corner, Ronnie and himself. Patsy played Handel’s Messiah on repeat. The tinsel and colored lights were timeless in their garishness, and the glints of primary colors reflected in the bottles behind the bar. Patsy polished glasses and stared out the window. Ronnie had lost interest in selling his timeshare and sat with his glasses perched on the end of his nose as he worked through his puzzle book.
He wasn’t sure if this was happiness. His guilt at leaving his wife, at being relieved to escape his children and their sullen teenaged offspring, at ignoring the slow decline of the house he and Millie had devoted themselves to for decades kept him from true, unfettered happiness. But this peaceful moment of contentment that he’d taken for himself every day for the last five years, was close enough.
This wasn’t horseshoes, after all.