When Jack Campbell finally gets the doors locked at ten o'clock, there are still cars cruising through the parking lot to see if the store is open, trying to spot if there are any lights on or any activity is going on inside the building.
Jack only has two employees left in the store by this time, and he lets them out the very second the last customer checks out. The mall and the department stores and the grocery stores have all closed hours ago for Christmas, and he knows from experience that only Super Value Drugs, of which he is the manager, and a couple of convenience markets and gas stations and cash loan shops are all that are open on Robertson Pike this late on Christmas Eve. He also knows he could keep the lights on and the door open all night long and have a steady flow of customers, because nothing is sacred anymore. People always want to shop for something and they didn't know how to ever call it quits.
Since mid-morning -- and he'd arrived thirty minutes before opening at seven -- there'd been a stream of shoppers coming through the doors for candy, prescriptions, cards, cheap gifts, and just about anything else they could fit into their carts. Since Super Value had sanctimoniously stopped selling tobacco products a couple of years ago, the customers had to go elsewhere for their cigarettes to get them through the stress of the holiday, but they had managed to make a sizeable dent in the beer case and kept him busy filling and re-filling the popular brands all afternoon and up into the evening, when he had run out of product in the backroom and was finally free to begin the process of closing up for the holiday.
Not that it was going to be that much of a holiday. Super Value would be open in the morning at eight o'clock and stay open until seven Christmas night, a sign on the door apologizing for the shortened hours but explaining how the company was opening and closing at shortened times on this day so its employees would have ample time to spend with their families. It is the same old bullshit every year. Jack Campbell knows the company line well. He also knows that in the morning when he is back to open for the late and forgetful Christmas shoppers he will be lucky if he has any employees actually show up for work for their shifts. One or two all day, if he is particularly blessed.
He gets the money locked in the safe in the back and makes sure the pharmacy is locked up tight, and as an act of defiance he stops and drinks a Budweiser and smokes a peaceful cigarette before heading home. It is quiet in the store and he has turned the canned music off, so now he stands in the dark drinking and smoking and watching the car lights go by out on Robertson Pike. He's been sneaking beers off and on since about six, when he'd wolfed down a microwave hot dog in the back and chased it with the first bottle from the twelve-pack he had secreted away in the cooler.
He locks up and gets into his Altima and turns the key. There is no sound from the engine, only a clicking noise from the ignition quickly drowned out by Karen Carpenter singing "Sleigh Ride," and when he turns the volume down and tries again the clicking sound returns. He tries the headlights and they shine brightly across the deserted parking lot. So, the radio and the lights work. He is no mechanic, but he at least knows that the problem is not the battery. Solenoid, he thinks. Bad starter, he muses. Not a good sign for the home team, he surmises.
"Goddamn it," he says aloud. He turns Karen Carpenter all the way off. He knows she isn't listening and doesn't give a shit one way or the other. After all, she is dead. Her worries are all over.
He gets out and wonders if it makes any sense for him to pop the hood and try and figure out how to get the starter to work. Hell no, is the answer, so at least he is thinking somewhat clearly. He isn't completely drunk. He takes another beer from the sack and twists off the cap, partakes of a few reflective swallows while looking at his silent vehicle. It is coming up on eleven on Christmas Eve and there is nobody around to help him. He is screwed, he might as well admit it. At this moment there is absolutely no one for him to call. The only option he has left right now is to start walking. He lives maybe two miles away. If he doesn't have a heart attack he can probably make it home sometime before the holiday is through and all the decorations are taken down.
It is cold with a brisk north wind blowing. He hasn't worn his heavy coat this morning.
Yeah, he is screwed all right.
One good thing about making the arduous trek home this late on Christmas Eve is that there is hardly any traffic out. He tries telling himself how the lack of anyone out on the roads greatly decreases the possibility that he will be run down and killed by a drunk driver on the way home from some wild Christmas party, so this is supposed to make him feel better. He continues walking, keeping his eyes peeled for approaching headlights, knowing if he doesn't take precautions to get out of the way there is the good possibility he'll get himself mangled and be discovered later on battered and dead in a ditch on Christmas morning.
A dog, possibly a large one with fangs, barks from a dark yard as he passes. He keeps waiting to hear the sound of this vicious animal approaching to leap upon him any second now, but as he walks on the barking grows fainter and finally subsides. This does not reassure him that much, since this stealthy beast could be one of those silent but deadly killers that make no sound before attacking their prey.
Caldwell trudges on. In living room windows he sees lit trees sparkling and shining, porch lights and gutters strewn with twinkling lights, wreaths on doors and a now and then manger scene. One yard is covered completely with every yuletide figurine imaginable, Santa and his sleigh with all the reindeers, red-nosed Rudolph out front in the lead, elves, hobbits, Frosty, Mrs. Claus, the Grinch. Some of them are inflatable and alit in bright dazzling color. Caldwell wonders, after listening to people talking every day of the year about how poor they are and can't afford anything, how all this money has been blown on such a wide array of crap. He is never going to understand people if he lives another fifty years, but of course if a drunken driver comes barreling along and runs him down and leaves him dead he for damn sure won't have to worry about it.
He comes to the end of one street and starts down the hill toward a four-way intersection. There are a few businesses in the middle of this neighborhood, a small meat and three, a florist shop, a short strip mall with a dentist's office, and a real estate firm. Up the hill is an apartment complex where folks tend to sporadically get shot and sometimes croak on a continuing basis, and across the street is the remains of what used to be a private school, elementary, middle, senior high, now abandoned for another property where gunfire and domestic brutality are not operating in full view just across the street for the students to observe during recess and football games on Friday nights. The traffic lights are blinking yellow, and so he looks all four ways for the out-of-control vehicle with his name on it and then skitters across. When he makes it safely to the other side, he stops and finishes off the beer he's been taking sustenance from since leaving the store. He tosses it in somebody's ditch, opens another, and moves on. He has one beer left after this one, so he is doing just fine. At least he isn't having to go through this ordeal sober. That would be tragic.
When he gets to the end of the second street, he knows he has less than a mile to go to get to his house, which is a good thing because this hiking stuff is getting old now. He can turn the corner and climb a short hill and after that it will be downhill. The road is straight, and because it is a dead end, not too many cars ever venture down it.
A fluorescent advertising sign in a house's front yard is lit up, and all the lights inside the house are blazing. He looks at the sign advertising Maleva and her ability to tell fortunes and give spiritual advice. In his current state, half-drunk and marooned by his stupid automobile and out in the cold on what is for most of the world the holiest night of the year, he can't help but laugh out loud at the preposterousness of a gypsy woman in his neighborhood plying her trade on Christmas Eve. That is when with no warning whatsoever it starts to rain. No light sprinkles to begin with, just a hard, steady, cold rain coming down on his head.
He does not think about what he is doing too much, but simply sets his feet upon the sidewalk from the street and makes it as fast as he can to the front porch of Maleva the fortuneteller's house. It is coming down in buckets when he knocks on the door.
He waits for almost a minute before the door opens. A swarthy-looking man with a handlebar moustache looks back at him. There is a kerchief around his neck and a gold earring dangling from his ear. The man is maybe fifty, and he stands looking Caldwell over without speaking, and Jack wonders if this is out of rudeness or because the guy doesn't know English. Maybe it is both, but it is pouring down now and Jack doesn't much like being outside in the elements drunk and a mile away from home. It seems worth the risk to get inside somewhere for the moment. He can tell from experience that he is having one of his what the hell moments.
At first he thinks the guy is just going to shut the door in his face and leave him outside in the rain, but finally he brokenly says to Jack, "What you want?" Jack tells him how he wants to get his fortune told and the man keeps looking at him like he doesn't understand what he is saying. There are two men in the background standing in front of a fireplace that isn't lit. They have their arms around each other and are singing parts of "O Come All You Faithful," but the lyrics aren't in English or any recognizable language Jack knows, so Jack thinks it could be he is only guessing at the song. It could be "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" for all he knows. Finally he says the name Maleva, which must be the magical word for entrance, because the man shakes his head up and down and opens the door wider. The two men behind him stop singing and pour wine into their glasses and turn them up like they are in a fraternity chugging contest. The man at the door holds up one finger and disappears down a hallway. As soon as he leaves the men put their glasses down and throw their arms around each other and start singing again. This time it might be "We Three Kings," but Jack is only guessing. After all, he hasn't heard "We Three Kings" in a long time, and he is close to drunk on top of everything right now, so it is hard to tell exactly what he is hearing.
Madam Maleva the fortuneteller suddenly materializes by his side, and behind her the doorkeeper drifts back to his two friends to resume singing and drinking and welcoming the Christ child into their living room. Madam Maleva has her own kerchief wrapped around her head, and in the dimness of the room with only a candle flickering here and there her eyes appear to bulge from her sockets like she is some sort of a frog. There is a thin moustache above her lip and a couple of comely warts on her forehead. She is just over four feet tall, and she is wrapped in a dress and a shawl that could cover another five fortunetellers just like her. She looks up at Caldwell, then peers at the bottle of beer in his hand.
"You want fortune told tonight?" she says. "Is this true?"
"Yeah. If you have the time. I know it's Christmas Eve."
"Come," she says. "There is time."
They walk to the first room on the right. It is a bedroom, but there is no bed there. There is a small table and two chairs. Against the wall is a shelf with a glass ball on it Jack figures he could go bowling with and a deck of cards stacked beside it.
"Sit here," she says. "First you give me the money. Twenty dollars."
Caldwell reaches for his wallet, wondering if he actually has twenty dollars cash inside it. There are two tens there, and he hands them over. He has four dollars left.
"Do you want to know about love," she asks, "or fortune?"
Caldwell looks across the table at her as she sits down. He's seen his twenty dollars disappear down the neck of her dress. "Fortune, I guess," he says. "I've pretty much given up on finding true love at this point. But if you can fit them both in together, that'll be fine too. That would be a nice Christmas gift."
Madam Maleva does not smile and stares at him while she shuffles the cards and lays them out in piles. Tarot cards, Jack thinks. She really is a gypsy. She seems to know what she is doing. She asks to see his hand.
Madam Maleva must have seen something fairly awful in the palm of his hand, for she frowns at it for a while before looking at the cards she's sorted out. There are lovers and stars and a hanged man and a fool, and Madam Maleva begins murmuring what each one means and looks up to Jack to see if he understands. Of course he doesn't, because he is a fair-piece drunk and unable to much comprehend at this moment all the facts and information he is being given. Instead he concentrates on how much Madam Maleva looks like she ought to be speaking to him from some amphibious lily pad, and he keeps thinking how any minute a long green tongue might flick out from her mouth and pull him into her throat. She places the glass ball in front of her and runs her hands over it like it needs cleaning for her to see clearly. Then she tells him how the cards and his palm and the ball all say he is going on a journey very soon, and on this journey he will meet a stranger. A change is on the way for you, she tells him. Very soon the life you have led so far during your time on this earth will be far behind you.
"Am I going to die?" he asks. It seems like something he ought to know. He has paid twenty dollars, he reminds himself, so he is at least entitled to something. Knowing if he is going to expire would qualify in that category.
"Eventually," she says.
Caldwell has for a while now been aware how he might someday come to cease to exist, so he fishes his final bottle of beer from his jacket pocket and twists off the cap. He studies the Judgement card and the Death card and another card with the sun shining on it. He looks at the crystal ball on the table before him and thinks how it is about the same size as the gumball machine he'd had as a kid, where he could put a penny in the slot and push a lever and a colored ball would roll out. He takes another long swallow of beer and looks down at his palm, which doesn't look much different to him than it ever did. He hears the men singing back in the living room, louder and drunker and full of gypsy cheer. Holy infant, he thinks. He gets up to go, hoping like hell it has stopped raining outside, otherwise he is going to go get a big swig of wine from the gypsies' bottle on the mantle and lock arms with the three men and sing his ass off for a while until the rain stops and he can walk home without getting drenched.
He opens the front door and stands on the porch looking out. It has stopped raining. Now it is snowing.
In the thirty minutes time he has been inside with Madam Maleva the snow has fallen so hard that the walk is covered and the grass is turning white. The streets are still just wet, so Jack doesn't think he's going to slip and bust his ass there. He tells himself to stay on the asphalt the rest of the way home. Most of the houses have gone dark by now in preparation to rise early Christmas morning, and he has this feeling of being alone out in the world as he walks down the street. The only sound he can hear is his own feet scuffling along.
Then, as he is cutting through a front yard to save some steps, he hears a sound from a culvert near a mailbox. The sound is soft and muffled, but it is undoubtedly a whimper coming from the ditch. There is some crying drifting out from there, and he steps over to see what it is.
At first he doesn't see anything, but as he adjusts his eyes from the falling snow and squints he sees the form of a puppy huddled up against the spot where the drainpipe pokes out. The puppy seems to be trying to get inside the pipe but is too large to fit. The puppy, he guesses, has figured it is going to freeze and die here in the snow, and it doesn't like the idea much, so crying seems like the only thing left to do.
Jack doesn't reach down and pick the puppy up, but he does poke at it with his toe, for no real reason other than to maybe get it to stop crying. The dog looks up at him and rises quickly to its feet and wags its tail. The next thing Jack knows it has come toward his shoe and is licking it, the whole time its tail going ninety miles an hour.
Caldwell speaks to the puppy while it licks his shoe.
"Who do you belong to?" he asks. "Are you lost?"
The puppy looks up at him and Jack could swear it is smiling. He turns away to continue his walk home and doesn't have to look back to know the puppy is following right behind him, taking the same steps with him through the snow. He turns around and starts to tell the dog to go home, but he doesn't because he knows that the puppy has no home. He starts to say go away, but he knows he doesn't really want it to go away. He picks the puppy up and looks it in the eye, and turns it over beneath the streetlights. Even with it snowing so hard, he can see it is a girl. He considers this fact for about four more seconds and then nestles the dog against his jacket and covers it with his arms. It is not so far to his house, and he is not so much of a horse's ass these days that he is going to leave a little lost puppy out in a snowstorm on Christmas Frigging Eve.
The puppy eats a handful of Cheerios and half a hot dog when they get to the house. He puts some papers down in the kitchen and turns out the light, but in about fifteen minutes he can't stand the crying anymore and gets out of bed and comes back to the kitchen to see what he can do. The puppy has actually done her business on the newspaper and is looking up at him and wagging her tail like a windshield wiper on high speed. He starts to turn out the light and go back to bed, but he knows already she is going to start crying again when he does. It is Christmas and she's been lost in the snow and scared to death. He's rescued her from all that and now she only wants to be with him.
He hasn't slept with a dog in a long time, not since he was a kid. She curls up against him in the dark and he decides he will call her Eve.
Before he drops off to sleep he thinks of Madam Maleva again. You are going on a journey, she had told him. You will meet a stranger. He thinks of walking home and finding Eve in the ditch. It had been a long trip, and Eve had been a stranger. He thinks about how he had told Madam Maleva that he had given up on ever finding love again.
Eve sleeps very close to him all night. When he gets up and takes his shower, he wonders what to do with her all day. Should he lock her in the kitchen or in the garage?
The snow has stopped sometime in the small hours without accumulating that much, but it is cold enough to make a person not want to be outside. He thinks about walking to the store and almost calls for a cab, but he's pretty cheap and in the end thinks it's better to walk instead. He starts to leave Eve in the kitchen and take off walking, but finally he gathers her up and sets her down on the ground outside and lets her walk with him. She loves being in the snow, and runs around his feet barking and wagging her tail as they walk. When they get to the store, he puts her in his back office and gives her water and buys some puppy food from the shelf. She eats and curls up in a corner and goes to sleep.
The day goes by smoothly with all his help showing up, and he closes the store at seven. Because it is Christmas day, he's not bothered to call anyone about his car, thinking it will just have to wait until tomorrow. He is supposed to go to his daughter's house for Christmas dinner, so he calls her and tells her he will have to have a ride. While he is waiting, he walks out to his car and gets in. He turns the key and it starts instantly, about like he already figured it would, because sometimes that is just the way it goes. He calls his daughter back and tells her not to bother coming to get him. He will be along. He doesn't tell her about Eve or that he is bringing her with him, Eve, who is looking out the passenger window now as he drives.
It is a nice holiday, the best he's had in years. He thinks how it is strange and funny and wonderful the way things work out sometimes, even for somebody like him. He would have never thought such a thing before. You could have fooled him. He thinks of that old Chuck Berry song and how true it was, how sometimes it just goes to show you never can tell.