Thursday, December 17, 2015
A Christmas Story
'Twas not the night before, but Christmas Day itself. Late in the day, actually. It had been dark a few hours already. I remember it being bone-chillingly cold.
I was sixteen or seventeen. The family dinner had taken place earlier in the afternoon. At around seven o'clock or so I walked over to my girlfriend's house. Her family was a lot like mine, Italian-American tight you know, and so I figured that an appearance on such a holiday would be appreciated, if not expected.
To get to her place I had to walk past the White Castle on the corner of Atlantic and Shepherd Avenues. This was in the East New York section of Brooklyn, I should mention, the place where I was raised. Going past the restaurant on Christmas Day was always both fun and spooky, because this was the only 24-hour period in the entire year that the place was closed. Often my friends and I would go by the White Castle just to witness it on Christmas Day, to see the lights out and the grills cold, to hear the quiet.
Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the glass door to the restaurant, was an elderly couple. Elderly to a teenager, I should say. They might have been in their fifties, as I am now. They were bundled up but not enough to my eye; their bodies were next to each other but not close enough to keep each other warm, I thought.
"Cold tonight," the woman said as I walked past.
"Sure is," the man repeated.
I nodded and kept walking. Moving was the only way I could keep warm.
After visiting a while I decided it was time to get back to my own family. Mom and Aunt Anna would be putting out an evening buffet and I wouldn't want to miss it. As I said goodnight to my girlfriend's grandmother she grabbed me tightly by the wrist and drew me toward her.
"You be good to my granddaughter," she said in the thickest Italian accent. "Understand?"
Before I could answer the old lady kissed me and said I was a nice boy and that she liked me. Then she handed me a tray of my favorite Christmas cookies: cucidati, or fig cookies. I ate one right on the spot, or maybe it was two. They were extraordinary, better than my mom's, in fact. I hugged the old lady very tightly and kissed her.
"You keep making me fig cookies like this," I told her, "and I'll be good to anybody you want."
Approaching the White Castle I could see that the couple I'd seen earlier was still on the cold ground and against the door. It was around nine o'clock by now. Three hours before the place would reopen. They were waiting for exactly that, I realized. It hadn't even occurred to me earlier.
Just as before the woman and then the man remarked upon the weather. Again I nodded and kept on my way. It seemed colder now.
After walking another half block or so I turned around and headed back to the White Castle. This time as I approached the couple I made sure to speak first.
"These are my favorite cookies, and I want you to have them," I said handing them to the lady.
"Thank you, son," the man said quickly and without looking up, most of his face buried inside the warmth of his coat.
"We'll have them with some nice hot coffee in a little while," the woman said. "Won't we dear?"
I nodded and started on my way again.
"Merry Christmas," I heard the woman say. "And good night."