Gary, 29, (that was me) was running a roadside diner called the Candle Glow, out on the edge of Watertown, Wisconsin. 1979. I had started the business in August, and as expected with a new business, it didn't do too well at first. The food was great, according to the customers, but I guess they just didn't eat enough, because by November I had run out of money, and in December I was really getting desperate.
Lily (not her name) worked for me, as waitress and kitchen help. We were about the same age, and she could find something to make you laugh in just about any situation. I was in love with her, but that wasn't really going anywhere. It was almost Christmas time, the Friday before Christmas, and hardly anybody had come that night for a fish fry. Lily's younger sister Karen (not her name) stopped by, just to keep us company. Karen got bored, and pitched in to help us clean up. Karen was the opposite of Lily, the same sense of humor but in such a deadpan and soft-spoken way that escaped you if you weren't listening closely.
"Hey, let's all go to the Out-A-Towner after you're closed," Karen suggested. We thought it sounded like a good plan. It sure beat not waiting on customers that weren't there. Then, the door opened, and Lily's parents came in with her brother, Mike (not his name). Watertown isn't that big. We all sat around drinking coffee, and talking about Christmas shopping. Eventually the parents wanted to leave. Mike wanted to ride along with his sister, Karen.
After the parents had gone, Karen sat down at the counter, staring straight ahead at nobody. "Change of plans. Mikey's not old enough to go out drinking." Mike felt bad for screwing up the plans, suggested maybe they could drop him off at home on the way out. "My place," Karen said "We could all have some Christmas Cheer." Mike loved that idea, because at his sister's house, he could get some Cheer, too.
We closed up the diner and all drove over to Karen's place, a part of Sixth street that I'd never been to. Upper floor of an old house -- had to play with the lock to get the door to open. Karen wouldn't let us turn on the lights, because the apartment was a mess. She lit a candle, and we went to her living room, where she lit other candles. We could see some Christmas decorations, and a small artificial tree. She plugged in the tree lights. In the soft glow, I still couldn't see the walls or extent of the apartment. A sixties-era phonograph. Karen picked out a record, and put it on. "You've all got to hear this". The music started, the sound was warm and fuzzy, worn from much use. "Yeah, it's John Denver. But listen. Don't say anything until you hear it". Familiar, and unfamiliar Christmas-themed tunes, in John Denver's distinctive stentorian twang. There weren't enough chairs. Mike and I sat on milk crates. Nobody spoke much. Karen brought us all some wine. It was warm in the room, all of us huddled in the soft glow of candles and Christmas tree. And John Denver singing "Silver Bells".
"This one I just love - it's real." We listened as John sang "Please, Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas. I don't want to see Momma cry". "He sings it so cheery, but it's so sad". Karen once explained to us what was real. Working at a job, hanging around in dark bars, and such, that was NOT real. True reality is after spending a night out celebrating, stepping into the harsh antiseptic fluorescent glare of a George Webb restaurant (Milwaukee chain of diners) and having coffee and chili. That's reality spelled right out for you.
We talked a little about our plans, Lily looking forward to another semester at college, Karen changing to a new job, I was concerned about staying in business at the diner, trying to meet all the expenses and satisfy all the demands of a business, the crazy landlady, the grim creditors, and the inadequate customer traffic.
It was one of the most memorable Christmas memories of my life.
Within the next year, I went out of business. Lily graduated from college and moved away. Mike eventually got old enough to have his own car and social life. And Karen moved off to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. But that night, as the Earth was spinning through a now-distant corner of the universe, we were all together, and feeling better just for being together. God Bless Us, Every One!
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