It was the third year in a row I’d been roped in to working the late shift on Christmas Eve at the diner. Not that I minded. I had little to go home to besides a stack of overdue electric bills, each envelope an angrier red than the last, each one progressively more direct in wording: Your services will be shut off in 10 days without payment. I’d hoped customers would take pity on me, a young girl working on a holiday, but the tips had been the usual greasy dollar bills and spare change.
Once the main dinner rush had died down, I spotted an old man sitting alone in a booth toward the back. It was the same man I’d noticed the previous two years, I was sure of it. He always came in around nine, dined alone, and sat watching the door, ordering tea only when the previous cup had gone cold, untouched. He sat patiently, folding his hands over his steaming mug, lost in distant thoughts that brought passing expressions to his face, and he only glanced up when the door would jingle open, bringing in a burst of cold, Detroit winter air and road-weary travelers from I-94. When he saw them, his eyes would drift away again, back to thoughts unknown to me.
This particular Christmas Eve was slower than usual, and even my boss, Marco, had taken a seat in the kitchen to watch football on a flickering, boxy television. I peeked at him through the line window and, seeing that he was engrossed in the game, took out my cell phone to text– something strictly against Marco’s rules. I sent the first one to my best friend, and when she didn’t reply, I typed up a few different drafts to Sam, the guy I’d been seeing who’d never called me back after our last date.
I sent none of those.
The man was still sitting there, alone. No one else was in the diner, but we had blaring Christmas music to keep us company; some old crooner was going on about going home for Christmas for the hundredth time that day. At the time, I never understood why we couldn’t play newer Christmas albums from current pop artists, and it always annoyed me when I wasn’t busy enough to tune out the melancholy ear worms. But now, when I hear the old songs, it makes me nostalgic for Christmastime at Vic’s Diner.
I don’t know what came over me, that Christmas Eve. Maybe I felt lonely, or maybe I wondered if he did, but I stuck my phone back into my apron pocket and walked over to the old man’s table, sliding in to the booth across from him. He looked up, startled.
“I’m Calliope,” I said, extending my hand over the table to him.
He took it. “My name is Frank… Are you… supposed to sit here?” he asked, looking over my shoulder toward the register. He seemed concerned that talking to him would land me in some sort of trouble.
“Not really, but since it’s just you and me here, Marco won’t mind. He’s in the kitchen watching the game.”
“I see,” he said. He still looked puzzled, so I jumped straight in to why I’d sat down.
“I feel weird asking,” I started, unsure if I wanted him to know that I had watched him in previous years, sitting all alone, and had never been kind enough to speak to him until now, “but do you come in every year?”
Frank grinned then looked down at his tea mug. “I do.”
That was all he said. No questions about why I’d noticed, no polite weather conversation about the holiday or friendly chatter. His silence forced me to press on.
“So… why do you come in every year on Christmas Eve? I don’t think I ever see you otherwise.”
“Oh, well I don’t spend much time in a places like this,” he said. His tone was light, but I still felt like I should be offended. Again he did not offer up any more information.
“Okay,” I said, drawing out the word. A silence fell between us that almost broke me. I thought about sliding out of the booth and running for cover behind the register where I would try to pretend I’d never talked to the man to begin with.
“Calliope is an interesting name. What does it mean?” he asked, his first actual question of the evening, not counting his concern for my job.
I might have been annoyed if I wasn’t so relieved that he had cut through the unbearable awkwardness. Everyone asked this. It was the burden my mother stuck me with from the day I was born. Why couldn’t she have chosen a name like Holly or Autumn, or Jessica, even? I’d give anything to have a ‘normal’ name. Something that didn’t make people’s faces scrunch in confusion every time I said it.
But the man was harmless enough. He didn’t sneer when he asked.
“It’s Greek. Calliope is the muse of eloquence and poetry or something. I don’t really live up to it like my parents hoped I would. ‘If there were a muse of stubbornness,’ they always say….” I trailed off, having told this little anecdote too many times.
Frank only nodded, smiling. His watery blue eyes were kind, I noticed.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked, feeling more intrusive by the minute.
“In a way, yes,” he said. “But I don’t know when they’re coming.”
I furrowed my brow. How could he not know if someone was meeting him? “What do you mean?” I asked. “A blind date? Every year on Christmas Eve who stands you up?”
Frank chuckled at that. His old hands swirled the bent metal spoon around his mug. “I have faith she’ll get here this time,” he said. “Why are you working on Christmas Eve?”
“My parents split up when I was a kid. My mom is in New York and my dad lives in Florida with his new family. So rather than choose who to spend the holidays with, I stay here.” I don’t add that I couldn’t afford a plane ticket either way and was too proud to ask them for help.
“Sounds like a lonely holiday.”
I looked at him, baffled by the irony of his words. As if reading my thoughts, he laughed.
“I guess that’s rich coming from an old man who comes to a greasy spoon alone every year and gets stood up. Still, I would think you would want to spend time with family when you could.”
“Yeah… the greasy spoon doesn’t pay much,” I said with a puff, glancing behind me to see if Marco had snuck his way out of the kitchen to discover that I wasn’t keeping busy. “And plane tickets are expensive.”
“Ah. The times when I had the least money were some of the best of my life,” he said, lost again in some distant thought.
“How so?” I asked.
“One year sticks out in memory,” he said, becoming more candid. “In 1965 I left for Paris with only fifty dollars to my name. I didn’t know what I planned to do. But once I got there it was like the entire world laid itself at my feet. I got a job within four hours of setting foot in the country. I met some of the best friends I ever had that same week. I still think about them! I wish we could keep in touch now.”
“Where did you get a job?” I asked. I pulled myself out of the booth to grab him another mug of tea and a hot chocolate for myself, looking back to let him know to continue his story.
“Well, see, I grew up in a mechanic’s garage here in Detroit. My father owned an auto shop.”
“So you became a mechanic, too?” I asked.
“No. The old man was quite insistent that I go to school and get a white collar job that would provide my future family a nice home and a white picket fence on the other side of the tracks. I think a small part of him hoped I’d help him retire while I was at it.”
“Ah, so what did you do?”
“I went to the University of Chicago and studied accounting. When I graduated I took two suitcases and the fifty dollars I mentioned, moved overseas and got my first job in an auto body shop in a poor Parisian neighborhood.”
“Ha! You tricky man!” I said while I moved around the counter to his table. “Why would you go and do that?”
His face lit up for the first time since I had sat down at his lonely table for one. Clearly no one had asked him those questions in a long time.
“I wasn’t through living yet. I was only twenty-one years old. I wanted to see the world before I settled down,” he said. He held his hands over the tea mug once again, so close over the steam that I was surprised it didn’t burn him.
“Tell me about Paris,” I said. “Were you there during Christmastime, too?” I wanted to know if the city was as dreamy as the one in the movies and my wild imagination.
A light danced in his eyes then, but there was also a note of sadness in his response. “I was. It was around this time, 1966, when I met my wife. I was twenty-two, and she was eighteen. The most beautiful woman in the world, my Marie.”
I rested my chin on my hand then, lost in his romantic retelling of how they had met.
“She worked at a shoe repair, resoling high-heeled shoes for rich Parisian women. I walked in to the shop to ask for directions to the Grand Palais,” he said, “and there she was; a vision with dark, curly hair and pale skin. She took pity on me, the dumb American. Her boss let her take off the rest of the day to escort me to the hall and the museum.
From that day on we were inseparable. We did everything together. I learned French, we went to museums, we had dinner parties with our friends… We didn’t have much money and we argued about it constantly, but we were in love. We had a great life there… Until I had to come back.”
My heart sank when he said that. It was as though the magic had been sucked out of the room, and all that was left was the cheap strings of Christmas lights and Frank Sinatra crackling through old speakers. The dreamy life in Paris, gone in an instant of bureaucratic red tape. I’m sure my pout was instantaneous.
Frank waved it away. “She came here to be with me; don’t worry so much!”
“Really? How romantic!
I should go to Paris,” I said. “I should go with fifty dollars in my pocket, just like you did. I could be a waitress in a little cafe right by the Eiffel Tower and meet a French boy and fall in love.”
Frank chuckled at this, stirring his tea again but not sipping it. “I’m not sure the world is the same place anymore,” he said with a slouch of his shoulders. “But I can tell you that it was the best decision I ever made.”
“Did you ask her to marry you?” I asked, ready to be swept into the fantasy once more.
“I did. She came to Detroit after I took a job in accounting. It was a different city back then from the sad place it’s become. There was still all the opportunity in the world back then. I asked her to marry me while sitting here in this booth,” he said.
The shock that gripped me nearly knocked the wind out of me. Vic’s Diner was more special than I had ever given it credit for. “Here?” Where I’m sitting?”
“Yes, Marie sat there, sipping on a vanilla shake and telling me the food was terrible,” he said, pointing at my side of the booth, “when I popped the question.”
I shook my head, eyes wide and grin even wider. But then it dawned on me. Marie wasn’t sitting in my place then. She wasn’t there across from Frank.
“Oh,” I said, crestfallen. “Where is Marie now?”
Frank breathed deeply, his new expression matching my mood.
“We had fifty beautiful years together,” he said. He sat back in the booth and I looked away as a tear glistened in his eye.
“I’m sorry, Frank. I didn’t mean… I should have stayed behind the counter,” I said, staring into the bottom of my empty cocoa mug.
“Not at all, young lady,” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t. It’s been three years since I had anyone to talk to.”
“Is that why you wait for your mysterious date?” I asked, feeling sheepish.
Before Frank could answer, the bells clanged on the door, and I jumped out of the booth, shooting him an apologetic look. I rushed to the front where the menus were stacked on the counter, and counted three people — a family– brushing snow out of their hair and off of their coats.
“Hi, welcome to Vic’s,” I said as I approached. The tallest of the bunch, a man in his early forties with sandy blonde hair, smiled at me and said hello. I grabbed three menus and asked them to follow me, leading them to a booth near Frank’s. Though, when I turned toward the back of the diner, Frank was no longer sitting where I’d left him. All that remained were his mugs of untouched tea. He must have slipped into the bathroom, I thought.
“Mom,” the sandy-haired man said,” where did you want to sit?”
I turned to the short woman who led the pack, ready to seat them at any of the open tables. But she only had her eye on one.
The woman rung her hands and asked me sweetly, “Can we sit here, please?” She gestured to the only unbussed table in the place– Frank’s.
My words caught in my throat. I wanted to tell her that she could sit anywhere else, just not here. But her eyes were insistent, almost pleading. So I grabbed the mugs and moved them over to the long counter saying “Sure, of course, he’ll understand.”
“Sorry, who?” the woman asked.
“Oh, no one,” I said, not wanting to make her feel like she’d been rude in asking for Frank’s booth. “My name is Calliope and I’ll be your server this evening. Can I get anyone anything to drink?”
“Calliope,” the woman said, looking up at me. “Like the muse.”
“I- uh- yes, actually,” I stuttered.
“That’s a beautiful name,” said the younger woman sitting where Frank had been only minutes before. I looked over my shoulder toward the bathroom, afraid he’d emerge at any moment and think I’d betrayed him by giving up his sacred booth.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Is everything ok?” the man asked, peering up from his menu.
“Yes, everything is fine, sorry,” I said. Truthfully I felt a bit faint. “Can I just ask, ma’am, why you wanted to sit at this booth?”
The older woman looked up at me then, and I knew what she would say before she said it.
“This is where their father proposed to me over fifty years ago. Frank and I always used to drag the kids here every Christmas Eve.”