He wasn’t looking for it when he found it: the old tavern with the green gabled roof, slung low over an impressive red door of what he thought was oak. He didn’t remember seeing the place before, but as he looked around the snow-covered streets and sputtering lamps, he wasn’t exactly sure where he was, or if he had ever really been to this part of town. He had wandered aimlessly down narrow alleys and winding streets from his office in the middle of the city to somewhere beyond, to some bit on the periphery where people like him didn’t often go. He probably would have been afraid, most times, to be in a place like this. But it was Christmas Eve and the snow was coming down in torrents, and if there was anyone else on the street he didn’t see them. He looked down at the sidewalks. The snow there was unbroken. He was alone.
And he felt very alone that day. The day had started and ended with a fight. One that had begun in the morning and smoldered all afternoon, bursting into flames again when Lizzie called. It is Christmas Eve and it is eight o’clock and you aren’t home. The reasons were always different and yet somehow the same. A different deal, the same paperwork. A different client, the same hours of grinding frustration. Deals that came and went and were forgotten but were, for the few days they lasted, the most important thing in his life. It was the trade-off, he told her, of working at the firm. It was why they could afford a nice condo on Center Hill, just off the park, instead of a cookie-cutter apartment in suburbia. But he knew and she knew that this had never been her dream. That she would have been happier in a place far from here, where it didn’t snow so much and the money wasn’t as good and life wasn’t as exciting, and he would at least be home at eight o’clock on Christmas Eve.
So that’s where they left it. With her slamming the phone down, with him not feeling like going home no matter how late it was, with the snow thundering down outside and him wandering aimlessly. Looking for some place, any place, to get a drink. And that’s when he found the tavern, with the green low-slung roof and the sturdy red door made of oak. It had no name that he could see, and he really didn’t care.
He pulled the door open and stepped inside. There was a rush of warm air in front of him and cold air behind as the two swirled together in a tiny vortex, whipping the hood of his coat up and over his head. As the door slammed shut behind him and his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that it was a cozy place, smaller than it looked from the outside. He was thankful for the warmth, and it didn’t take him long to figure out where it was coming from. A huge fireplace dominated the left side, with giant granite pillars on both sides and brickwork going up to the ceiling. A fire roared within, and there was a plentiful stack of wood set beside. The fireplace had no grate, which Jake found somewhat disturbing. He had always been one to worry about such things. Ironic that it was a fireman’s bar, with a thousand different patches from a thousand different cities, decorating the walls and the ceilings and the overhang that covered the top shelf of alcohol. There was a great moose head glowering down from above the fireplace. Jake felt, as he always seemed to do around such things, that its eyes were always upon him, ever watching.
As he looked around, Jake decided this was a good bar. Nothing spectacular, nothing that made it stand out. In fact, the most unusual thing of all was that there was only one other patron. Maybe not too unusual, considering the day. The man looked to be in his twenties, younger than Jake. Dressed in jeans and a cardigan, both of which seemed far too flimsy for the weather outside. He had looked up at Jake as he entered the room. Now he smiled, nodding once.
“Kinda cold out there,” he said.
“Yeah,” Jake replied. He was not overly interested in small talk.
“Glad you showed up. I was beginning to think no one was coming. It was getting lonely in here.”
Something about what the man said was strange. But Jake only really thought about it in the back of his mind, tittering on the edge where such thoughts linger and die.
“Yeah,” Jake said, walking towards the bar and taking an empty seat two stools down from the man. There was no bartender, at least none that he could see. Jake pulled out his wallet and waited patiently. The man glanced over at him and snorted out a laugh.
“Here,” he said. He lifted himself up and sat on the bar, swinging his legs around and dropping down behind it. Jake was nonplussed. “It’s alright. Mike’s a friend of mine. But he went off to run some errands. Ran out of something, I don’t know. We didn’t think anybody else was coming in, so you know. But I’ll take care of you. It’s no big deal. What do you want?”
“I’ll take a whiskey,” Jake said finally. Unorthodox or not, the bartender was gone, and he didn’t want to wait. The man turned around and picked up a bottle of Makers Mark bourbon from the top shelf.
“That’s alright,” Jake said, holding up his hand. “Well’s fine.”
The young man laughed. “Well liquor’s bad enough on any day, but downright awful on Christmas Eve. Tell you what, I’ll give you this for the same price.” Before Jake could say anything else, he’d poured two fingers in the bottom of a low ball-glass, chucked some pieces of ice in it and slid it his way.
“I’m Brian,” he said, reaching out a hand.
“Good to meet you, Jake. And what brings you to this fine establishment on this day of days?”
Now Jake smiled. “I could probably ask the same question of you.”
Brian swung his legs back over the bar and landed on his stool. “I guess I’m here ‘cause I don’t really have anywhere else to go,” he said. “This place just feels like home.”
Jake was surprised and now intrigued. He looked over at the fresh-shaven man with the neatly trimmed hair, expensive jeans, and Banana Republic Cardigan. He wasn’t the type, he thought. He’d known plenty of them. Guys whose lives had never quite taken off like they thought or expected. Guys who grabbed a job out of high school because it paid good money, never realizing that they’d be doing the same job, making the same wage, twenty-five years later. And their wives who loved them twenty-five years ago, when they were young and handsome and maybe a little bit dangerous, but not so much now that they had two other mouths to feed and no money to pay for the bread. So they came to places like this. Places where everybody knew their names. Places where they were still loved, still popular. Places where those things came from the bottom of a bottle. And down they went chasing the past and spending the future, wasting away until they were forgotten.
But if this was one of those men, he certainly didn’t look it.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Brian said, reading the thoughts in his mind. “It’s not what you think it is.”
“Oh, I didn’t…”
“No, it’s alright,” Brian said. “You’re right, of course. Why would anybody be in an empty bar on Christmas Eve? Shouldn’t everybody be home with their families?”
Jake felt the cut so deftly delivered. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess they should.”
Brian raised his glass. “Well, here’s to us. And Merry Christmas.”
Jake sighed. “Merry Christmas.”
The both sat there in silence. It took a moment for Jake to recognize the roar of it. It was silent. There was no music on. No television. Jake didn’t even hear the snow outside or the pounding of the wind on the glass panes beside the door. There was only the crackling of the fire and the tinkle of the ice as the warmth of the whiskey shattered the rocks into bits.
“You know,” Jake finally said. “I never liked Christmas.”
“You’ll get no argument here,” said Brian.
“You know what they say about Christmas? They say it’s the most stressful time of the year.”
“I mean, it’s not hard to see why. You’ve got family coming in, who you love but don’t necessarily like. You gotta buy everybody gifts, and nobody has money these days. Time. Everybody expects you to be home on Christmas. You know you hear all this stuff—Christmas is supposed to be about giving and love and harmony and peace and friendship but in reality it’s just one long, stressful drive to the New Year.”
“Well, you know,” Brian said, reaching over the bar and grabbing the bottle of Maker’s Mark, “there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why Christmas is the way it is. No doubt everything you said is true. We make it worse. But you know, there is something about Christmas they never teach you.”
“Let me ask you: what’s the scariest day of the year?”
“The scariest day of the year?”
“Yeah, what’s the day that’s supposed to be, you know, the scariest day of the year?”
“Halloween. But it’s all marketing, you know?”
Jake looked skeptically at him.
“OK,” Brian continued, “what’s the most romantic day of the year?”
“Right! But nobody really thinks that, do they? What’s romantic about February 14th?”
“Nothing. It’s a manufactured holiday. They just made it up. They picked a day, said that’s the day everybody is going to be romantic, and everybody shows up and buys flowers and chocolates and cards. There’s nothing romantic about Valentine’s Day. It’s the day Valentine was martyred…you know, killed. So the day the man died…What’s romantic about that?”
“What’s this got to do with Halloween? Halloween’s different. It’s, like, an old holiday.”
Brian nodded. “It is an old holiday. Very old. But it’s not what people make it out to be. Halloween is all about the souls of the departed, those who have gone on before. A night to remember the ones you’ve lost, and then celebrate their lives on the day that follows. We are the ones who made Halloween what it is. But I tell you what: the thing is, we made Halloween scary because we can. Because Halloween is not really scary. The scariest day of the year—that’s the day we dress in ribbons and bows, wrapping paper and Christmas trees, lit candles and tinsel.”
Jake chuckled. “I can honestly say I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Of course you don’t. Nobody does. See, here’s the thing: everybody hates Christmas. Everybody. The only people that don’t hate Christmas are children. And that’s because they are innocent. They are innocent and they don’t feel it. They don’t feel the truth. You know why Christmas is on December 25th?”
Jake thought about it for a second. He knew that it wasn’t really about when Jesus was born. Honestly, he never really knew why. But what he did know was that he hadn’t been asked this many questions since law school. Whether it was the whiskey or Brian, somehow being here actually made him feel better. “OK, I give. Why do we celebrate Christmas on the 25th?”
“Because,” Brian said, leaning in conspiratorially, “what better way to hide the darkest day of the year than to cover it with the most holy?”
“Yeah, both literally and figuratively. There’s a reason that people fear the darkness, a reason they always have. The greatest gift man ever received was fire. When God created the earth, he said, ‘Let there be light.’ Oh, there’s evil in the darkness, my friend. Both real and figurative. Evil that you cannot see. Evil that cannot live in the light. And what’s the darkest day of the year? The longest night? When we sit in darkness, waiting for the sun, wishing for it to come? December 21st, more or less, under the modern calendar. And that’s the day the first Christmas was on. The same day that the pagans once lit candles and bound them to trees in the forest to chase away the night. They wanted to push it back, to illuminate the darkness.”
The fire crackled and popped behind them. Jake glanced at an ember that had fallen on the floor. But as the glow dimmed to nothing, he looked back at Brian who had never taken his eyes off of him. Then Brian continued.
“And they did a pretty good job. No matter how they actually feel, people believe they are supposed to be happy at Christmas. They tell themselves they are. They sing songs, they light candles, they open presents. They spend time with loved ones and they cook a big Christmas ham. They don’t worry about the night. That’s what they tell themselves. But inside they know. The subconscious always knows. Somewhere deep in the back of the brain, somewhere beyond where we normally think and see and feel. It knows the truth. And that’s why people are depressed at Christmas. The darkness is upon them. Sometimes the darkness wins. The fact of the matter is there are more suicides and divorces in January than any time of the year. Christmas comes, and it takes the very last bit of life people have. Robs it from them; leaves them helpless.
“And that’s the truth they don’t teach you at Sunday school,” Brian said, taking a deep drink of bourbon. “And if I had to guess, I bet you are feeling a little bit of that darkness now. You know, normally, the longest night of the year is the 21st. But it moves, you know? The calendar is not perfect. The earth wobbles. Rotation’s all messed up. And this year, it falls on this…very…night. December 24th. Christmas Eve.”
Then something strange happened. The room seemed to grow darker, and somehow even quieter. The fire no longer roared; the ice was silent. But as soon as it came, the moment passed, lifted by the light in Brian’s eyes.
“But I say that we should look at things a little differently. That we should not hide from the darkness. That we should not fear it either. People think of the spring as a rebirth, but the first month of the year is January. And after tonight, the night will never be as dark again until one year hence. Every day will be a little bit longer, a little bit brighter. Every day the night will come later, and it will flee from the coming of the sun sooner. What a marvelous thing that is.
“So this is what I propose we do, my friend. I propose we make a pact. After tonight, we are going to have a little bit of that light in our lives. I know you’ve got somebody waiting at home for you. I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And I have a feeling, though I could be wrong, that that person means more to you than any other person in the world. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have driven you to drinking in an empty bar on Christmas Eve. But you know, every day’s a second chance, and tomorrow’s a little bit longer than today. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” Jake said to the stranger across from him. The peculiar man who seemed to walk through his mind and come out the other side with a most obvious answer that had never seemed obvious before. Jake drank the rest of his bourbon. Not because he needed it, but because he didn’t want it to go to waste. He started to pull a ten out of his wallet, but Brian raised his hand.
“No, no, no,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for you, I would have spent this night alone. So let me get it for you. A gift. On Christmas.”
Jake hesitated for only a second. It seemed more wrong to refuse than it did not to pay. So he nodded once. Smiled. Shook Brian’s hand. “I’d love to stay…”
“But you gotta go,” Brian said. “I understand. Absolutely. Maybe we will meet again sometime.”
“Maybe we will. Oh, can you help me out? I don’t even know where I am.”
“It happens. Walk out the door, take a left. The first street’s Main. Take a right and it will take you straight to the park.”
“You know, I live on the park and I’ve never been down here before.”
“Sometimes the wind blows people to the places they need to be, when they need to be there.”
Jake smiled, genuinely. “Merry Christmas, Brian.”
“Merry Christmas, Jake.”
Jake stepped outside into a new world. The wind had died and the snow had stopped, and the city had never been so beautiful. The lamplight reflected down upon the fallen snow. It seemed to gather it, amplify it, and reflect it into the world. Pushing back on the darkness Brian spoke of.
Jake walked home in peace that night, home to where Lizzie lay. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched her as she slept. She had been crying. He could tell. She had probably cried herself to sleep.
Jake had never been a particularly sentimental man. He didn’t believe that things in life ever came easy. He thought the only way to solve problems was through hard work. So he didn’t think that one night of revelation—even if it was Christmas Eve—was going to solve all their problems. Any more than one night had built their years of joy together. But as he slipped into bed beside the woman he loved, Jake did know one thing. This was the last Christmas they would spend in the city. And wherever they went, he would be with her, and that was all that mattered.
The next day, he called the office early and told them he wasn’t coming in. It was Christmas, the deal could wait, and nobody on the other side was working, anyway. It surprised him how little resistance he encountered. But he guessed nobody else wanted to work that day, and he wondered how many times it had been his own stubbornness, and not that of others, that had robbed him of so much time.
He spent the day with Lizzie instead. She had been hesitant and uneasy at first but put on a happy face. It was Christmas after all. She needed no mask when he told her the news about the decision he had made. It was the best Christmas he could remember.
As morning wore on to afternoon, he told her he had a friend he needed to go see. A friend he had to thank for some good advice. He wandered into the park, down Main two streets. It was funny that he had wandered so far the night before and yet ended up so close to home. And when, after two streets he took a left, he knew he had reached his destination. It was all the same as the night before. All the same, with one…crucial…difference. There was no bar. Or at least, there wasn’t a bar anymore.
Instead, he found a vacant lot where the bar once stood. Vacant, except for the black timbers that filled it, some that had made up a roof still with tinged with green. The only structure that remained was what looked to be the ruins of a great granite fireplace, broken bricks at its foot where they had fallen and shattered. He stood dumbfounded and wondered how it had happened. But there were no fire trucks, no police tape, no smoking embers. In fact, the vast majority of what remained was covered in a foot of snow. He took two steps onto the lot, removed his glove, and reached down, touching a bright red chunk of oak, charred at one end. It was as cold as the ice that surrounded it.
“Hey!” he heard someone say. He jumped with a start and spun around. The man was older, wearing a thick parka that ran all the way down his body. In his hand was a cane.”Sorry to bother you, sir. But I don’t rightly know what you’re doing out there.”
“I just…this bar…”
“Was a bar,” the other man said. “You must not have been around here lately.”
“No. No, I was here last night.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “You must be lost. If you’d been here last night, you’d see the same thing you’re seein’ now. Such a shame, too. Mike ran a great place. He had insurance, but he was getting up in years and decided not to reopen the place. City’ll get around to condemning it sometime, I guess. Clean up the lot.”
Jake stared at the man, but he wasn’t really listening. “No, you don’t understand. I was in this bar last night. Big red door. Granite fire place. A moose.”
“Yeah, that’s the bar alright,” the man said. “But I’m telling you it’s been gone for a while. Burned down a year ago.”
“On Christmas Eve?”
“Nah,” the man said, rubbing his chin. “Earlier than that. The 21st, maybe? Yeah. Terrible shame about the young man though.”
“The young man?”
“Yeah, you know, local kid. Home from college for the holiday. He and Mike were close. Really tore Mike up. They don’t know exactly how it happened. Mike went out for supplies and when he came back, the place had burnt down. Best guess is some accident with the fireplace and Brian succumbed to the smoke before he could get out…”
“Brian…” Jake whispered.
“Yeah, that was the kid’s name. Brian McGuffey. Real smart kid. Everybody loved him. Knew lots of history and trivia and such. He used to tell stories like you wouldn’t believe.”
Jake looked at the bar. “Maybe I would believe,” he whispered. “Maybe I would.”
“Last Year’s Eggnog” was originally published in the anthology, Christmas Lites. All the proceeds from the sale of Christmas Lites go to support the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Buy it here!