The office is almost empty at Melloni Solutions. Save for Nate, Paul and Jim Melloni himself, the staff has left for the holiday. Garlands of silver and gold line the doorways to each of their offices and a tree sits in the middle of the lobby in which the IT specialists both entertain clients and brainstorm. Interfaith displays line the big, central room as Nate wearily makes his way toward the front door. Through the glass he sees the driving snow. The lights on the shrubs at the end of the short walk to the parking lot are barely visible through the storm. Right up front is the bosses office, a sign of Jim’s openness with both staff and clients.
“Happy Holidays Jim,” Nate pops his head in.
“Hey, Nate! Don’t rush out!” Melloni smiles wide and stands up, a small stack of envelopes is in his hand. He hands them to Nate. “Just some gift cards for the kids. Game stores and stuff like that. A shoe store for Natalie, can’t believe she’s sixteen.”
“Me either. Thanks Jim, they’ll appreciate it.” It is not a complete lie. Nate knows he has spoiled his kids. Still, he and Pam have done a good job with them. Now just to get home and get through the ritual. “Anyway, see you next year boss.”
“Back at ya!” Jim Melloni nods before picking up his glass. It is no longer the shock it used to be to answer to a man just over half his age.
“Yo Brown!” Nate hears the shout behind him and knows exactly who it is. Aside from where they work and one other thing, Nate shares a last name with Paul. There is no relation but the tall engineer likes make a big deal out of it. Nate turns around. “Thought you were gonna leave without saying good-bye!”
“Sorry, I’m just tired Paul,” the sigh betrays the PR man’s annoyance “I have to get home, help Pam with dinner, get the kids in bed, except Nat, and finish wrapping presents. I really frickin hate the holidays sometimes.”
“Not me. I love ’em!” The other man beams as he opens the door for his coworker.
“Why?” Nate tries not to look contemptuous, but the sneer comes out anyway. “You’re an atheist. I was goofy enough to marry a lapsed Catholic and have four kids. You’re single, why do you bother?”
“Dunno” Paul shrugs as Nate pulls his coat in tighter “I just love ’em. I love the food, the lights, the parties, and I love that for a bit people at least pay lip service to not being assholes to each other.”
“OK Pollyanna. You have fun. Enjoy your stay with your folks.”
“Will do. Just have one little stop to make first. Be careful man, the power is out all over and I hear the plows are having a hard time keeping up.”
It takes Nate a couple of times to get the engine to turn over, it is easily five below out, cold enough for him to use his head for once and put on a hat. He hits the gas and cusses under his breath as the car struggles on the slick snow. It is slow going. Paul was right and no streetlights guide him down Harvard Street. Only two blocks away he fishtails changing lanes. Before he can get complete control back he finds himself driving right into a snow drift.
Backing out is futile. He tries to rock back and forth going forward a bit, then back. He puts his car and reverse and guns it, only to hear his tires scrape on the slush. Getting out on his own is obviously not an option. He scowls and this time swears out loud before picking up his smart phone out of the cup holder. When he does not get a signal his swearing out loud turns a small fit of rage, his hand slapping the dashboard repeatedly. He puts his scarf around his neck and face and steps out.
The wind howls, and the snow blows, and through it all he thinks he hears and sees someone. It is not a bad neighborhood, but it is also not a great one. He cannot think why anyone in their right mind would be out in this weather if they do not drive, or even if they do for that matter. He hears them get closer as he goes to the front of his car, puts his hands on the hood and gives a good push. His feet immediately slip out from under him and suddenly there is a sharp pain in his head as it slams down into his bumper.
He wakes up and the first thing he notices is the odor of dirty laundry. Then he notices a bearded face, dirty and scarred, very close to his own. He tries to get up but feels the hand on his chest.
“Slow down buddy.” The man drawls, “you were only out a few seconds, but that was a nasty bump. Good thing my pal and I were comin up to help you anyway. Here man, let’s get you inside.”
Nate feels strong arms under his and with a little struggle he his back on his feet. His head throbs, and he feels a little dizzy. He does not know what these men have planned as the bearded man puts Nate’s right arm around his shoulder. The other man is taller, and the daggers stabbing behind his eyes keep Nate from looking up at him to see. They drag him just a little way down the street, and Nate recognizes the back parking lot of the Methodist church he passes everyday on his way to and from work. They take him into a basement filled with homeless men and women sitting around tables in a cramped room. The men set Nate on a chair and the bearded man starts pulling down on Nate’s right eye. Nate tries to pull away.
“Calm down Nate,” the tall man puts his hand on his shoulder and suddenly he realizes who it is.
“Paul?” Nate asks groggily.
“That’s me Mr. Brown, now let Kenny look at you. He’s not a doctor, but he was a medic in Afghanistan.”
“Oh,” Nate nods as a dozen, grubby men bundle up and head out with shovels. Kenny shines a flash light in Nate’s eye.
“That hurt?” Kenny asks.
“Uh no,” comes the croaking answer “no, not at all. Where are those men going in this crap.”
“Digging out your car buddy. Don’t want it getting smacked with a plow, or towed by the cops. Like my buddy Paul here said, I ain’t a doc, but I think you’re OK. Still should probably have a real doc look at it though.”
“Uh, yeah Kenny. Thanks. I should call my wife.” He reaches in his jacket to find nothing there.
“Left it in your car,” Paul tells him as he hands him the phone. “Probably not gonna reach her though. Reception is terrible.”
“Yeah it is.” Nate looks at it sourly and puts it in his pocket.
“Hello Mr….” a large, blonde woman in bright clothes approaches him with a cup of coffee.
“Brown.” Nate finishes for her and watches the light bulb go on.
“Oh are you related to Paul?”
“No, no, we just work together.”
“Oh, well that must be very nice. Paul is our big angel: dishes once a week, bringing in Christmas Eve Breakfast tonight.”
“I was pulling up when I saw you run off the road.” Paul confirms. “Nate, this is Shelli. She runs the soup kitchen. Normally folks don’t stay here, but they set up cots between the pews because everyone is stuck here.”
“Anyway Mr. Brown,” Shelli smiles bright “We’ll pray for you.”
“Um, I’m atheist,” Nate murmurs.
“Oh, well, I’m not. Hope you don’t mind me praying for you.”
“Oh,” Nate waves and laughs embarrassed, “no, no, I’m sorry. Go right ahead. Didn’t mean…”
“It’s quite all right. Give it no thought.” She looks up and winks at Paul.
“Are you a closet case?” Nate asks Paul as his coworker helps him up and leads him across the room with Kenny.
“Nah,” Paul shrugs, “I just believe in helping how I can. I can with these folks. They do a lot of good and give me the opportunity to.”
“And they don’t make you pray?”
“Why would they? No, they just let me sit silent while they do their thing. It would be rude to not respect their rituals when I am in their space.”
They sit at a table in the corner. The only person already seated is a young, black man in a New York Yankees coat and Buffalo Sabres scarf and hat. A physics text book is open in his hands and he does not look up as the three men sit down.
“Tony, Nate. Nate, Tony.” Paul says.
“Hey,” the young man nods without looking up, “just about done, sorry.”
Kenny, Paul and Nate just shrug their shoulders and sit down as Shelli brings a tray. She hands out four cups of cocoa and puts a plate of food in front of Nate.
“I don’t know if you’ve eaten but you should get something in your stomach.” She tells him in a very motherly way, despite the fact she is easily ten years younger than him.
“Yes ma’am,” Nate chuckles, and then turns serious, “Uh, should I say… ummm…”
“Grace?” Shelli raises an eyebrow, “only if you want to, but we did already, so I hope you don’t think we’re rude if we don’t.”
“Ha! No, that’s OK” and he digs into the ham and potatoes.
“So,” Tony slams the books shut. “Nate, nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Nate talks with his mouthful. “You interested in going to school for physics?”
“Already did.” Tony shrugs.
“Oh” Nate stops eating, surprised. “So you help out here?”
“Nah man,I had to leave with a semester left to take care of my mom when she was sick. She passed and I couldn’t get back to school, was out too long without paying my loans. I gotta place to stay and a job and all, but sometimes money is too tight for food.”
The young man puts his head down embarrassed. Nate just looks at him, trying to process the whole thing. The awkward silence hangs over the table for a minute or two, before Nate finally speaks up.
“He… eck man, you did right by your family. There is nothing wrong with that. Hope if mine or my wife’s health takes a turn my kids are half what you are.”
“Thanks” Tony nods energetically, as if trying to will the compliment to take. Still the tears well in his eyes and his smile is a sad one.
The next hour is chaotic, loud, and even a little fun for Nate. He finally at least gets internet on his phone, so he can find out he probably will not get home until tomorrow morning, and can tell Pam that. He learns more about Tony. He learns about Kenny, and how his folks could no longer cope with his PTSD. He meets Melanie, who used to turn tricks to survive. He meets Kara, who still is and talks real low about it. He is not sure if she is just embarrassed or is trying to drop hints in a church, but Nate decides not to make that judgement one way or the other.
He meets Keisha, who lives in her beat up station wagon with her kids, despite the fact that she works full time in a big box store. Shelli would not let them sleep in it tonight. There is DeSean, a big, friendly, Muslim man who washes dishes both for a living and in the soup kitchen. He too went to college, working his way through in a tool and dye plant before suffering a brain injury at work. They all welcome Nate, never judging him. If the subject of their faith, or his and Paul’s lack thereof, comes up, it is always in the most polite manner. A few people are incredulous, but Shelli, Tony or Keisha head it off before it can reach a boiling point.
Finally around eleven o’clock Shelli tells the group they are welcome to stay up and chat in the dining area, but people will be sleeping upstairs, so please keep it down. Nate, exhausted from his ordeal and an even busier night than he planned, heads up to a cot. Strangely, he cannot sleep, fixated on the altar, thoughts racing through his head. He recalls going to church with his grandmother a few times, and when he was older, being told by his atheist parents he could politely turn her down. He remembers the scowls from his in-laws, and bitterly and stronger still, the tutting directed at his children. Then he thinks about these folks. When everyone finally starts waking up in the morning, and the smell of bacon and pancakes fills the air, Paul finds him sitting in a pew.
“What are you, a closet case?” Paul slaps him on the back. Nate laughs.
“No, I’m still me,” Nate groans as he gets up and stretches, “but maybe not everyone is what I thought they were.”
“They rarely are.” Paul shakes his head, “hey, you got me a present at the office party and I didn’t get you one.”
“Yyyyeah, you did” Nate slaps grabs his shoulder and shakes, “yeah you did.”