Sunday, December 20, 2020

Stephen’s Feast



Owen was on his way home, tired and hungry after a long day at work. It was the day after Christmas, but someone had to staff the office even though it was usually a very quiet day. He had volunteered, so that all his married colleagues could spend an extra day home with their families. There was no one for him to celebrate with, not even a dog, so he didn’t mind coming into work right after the holiday.

 

The weather wasn’t looking good; it had been cloudy all day, with a couple of brief showers, but now it was threatening heavy rain. It would be a long drive home, as he lived over 25 miles away from the office–freeway driving most of the way, but always slow and tricky in bad weather. Better stop and get some dinner now, he thought. Maybe that BBQ place—yeah, that would taste good! I’m really hungry. I’ll get a BBQ sandwich meal for tonight and an extra sandwich for tomorrow’s lunch. And maybe an extra side—two are never enough. Their sides are good enough for a meal on their own… I just hope they haven’t run out of anything!

 

He reached the BBQ place and turned into the parking lot. He went inside, breathing in the delicious smell as soon as he opened the door. As he stood in line, he went through the usual uncertainty of which of the sides he would order. They offered six, but he knew he should limit himself to three. By the time he reached the front of the line, he had decided on the mac and cheese and the cole slaw, with corn muffins extra. As he was ordering, though, he kept thinking about the fries. Regular or sweet potato? I’m so hungry… The young boy behind the counter waited patiently while Owen thought, clearly used to patrons’ indecision about sides. “And regular fries, too,” Owen finally announced. As he waited for his order to be assembled, he noticed that some light rain was starting to fall. Owen added a large cup of coffee to his order, realizing that it could be a while before he reached home, and he might need it.


Owen paid for the food and the full bag was handed over. He left the BBQ place and hurried to his car, dodging raindrops. He considered putting the bag on the seat next to him, so he could snack on the fries at least, but decided to wait until he got home. If he put it behind his seat, he wouldn’t be tempted to eat while driving. Man gets into accident on the freeway while eating cole slaw during rainstorm; details at 11, he laughed to himself.

It wasn’t far from the BBQ place to the freeway. As he approached the on-ramp, he saw a hitchhiker by the entrance, holding a cardboard sign that read, “Porterville”. He knew that city was about 150 miles to the north. Bad night for hitchhiking such a long distance, he thought. And the man had no umbrella or overcoat, just a yellow rain poncho over his shoulders. Owen passed him by, heading north on the freeway—but continued to think about the man, sitting on the side of the road as a rainstorm was just about to hit. Abruptly, he got off at the next exit, turned left onto the overpass, and got back on the freeway heading south. At the next exit, he repeated the moves. Owen pulled to the side of the road right at the on-ramp and honked at the hitchhiker, who quickly got into the car, carrying a small shoulder pack. Owen told him he was going about 25 miles north, towards Porterville, and would drop him at the freeway entrance where he turned off.

He got back on the freeway just as it started to rain harder. The hitchhiker peered out through the windshield and said, “Looks like this’ll be coming down for a while. Thanks for picking me up.”

The man was shivering slightly. “Pretty cold out there, right?” Owen asked. He turned the heat up in the car. Glancing sideways, Owen saw that the hitchhiker was on the thin side and looked very tired. “Take off your poncho if you like,” he told the man. “Saw your sign– Porterville. How long you been on the road?”

The hitchhiker pulled the poncho off, rolled it up, and shoved it down by his feet. “I left Madison City early this morning. I was hoping to make it to Porterville by nightfall, but haven’t had many rides, and most of them were short. I guess the weather hasn’t helped.” He looked out the window again as the rain increased. After a moment, Owen remarked, “I haven’t been to Porterville for a long time.”

“I’ve never been there. But my sister lives there, with her family. We’ve talked on the phone. She’s happy there; sounds like a nice place. I wanted to surprise her and make it there by Christmas. Didn’t manage that, but I called her and let her know that I was on my way. She said that’d be a pretty nice Christmas present.” He paused for a moment. “I haven’t seen her in a long time. Years,” he added. He looked over at Owen and said, “Thanks for picking me up. Maybe I’ll make it there tonight after all.”

“No problem. By the way, my name’s Owen.” He took one hand off the wheel and held it out to the other man while introducing himself.

The man grinned. “Very glad to meet you, Owen. I’m Steve.” They shook hands and then settled back into a comfortable silence.

The rain came down harder and Owen put the windshield wipers on high; they made a hypnotic sound as they swept from side to side. He wondered to himself what was going to happen to his passenger if he didn’t make his destination that night—because it seemed more than likely that he wouldn’t. Owen turned on the CD player; soft instrumental Christmas music filled the car. “That’s nice,” said Steve, and then he took a deep breath. “Sure smells good in here,” he said.

“I stopped for some BBQ sandwiches,” Owen said. “You want one? Reach behind my seat and get the bag.” “I can’t eat your dinner,” Steve replied. “What will you eat then?” “Don’t worry, I bought two sandwiches. There’s one to share.”

“Well, if you’re sure…thanks.” Steve reached behind Owen’s seat and carefully lifted the heavy bag and put it on his lap. He opened it and got out one of the wrapped sandwiches.

“There should be a fork and napkins in there, and some sides. They always come with sides. Help yourself to anything—I’m not very hungry, but they always include sides, so I take them.”

Nodding his thanks, Steve started in on the sandwich. He ate rather quickly. He must be really hungry, Owen said to himself. Then he remembered something. “Here, better have this coffee too. It’ll be cold before I can get it home.” He lifted the covered cup out of the cup holder and handed it to the man.

“Thanks a lot,” Steve said as he grasped the cup, uncovered it, and took a drink before putting it back into the holder. “Hey, man, God bless you. I haven’t had much to eat today. This is really nice of you.” He finished the sandwich and started to open the container of one of the sides. It was the mac and cheese; Owen tried not to look as Steve finished it off and started on the cole slaw, while drinking the coffee. He went by that BBQ place twice a day during the week—he could always get more. He was glad he had something to share.

The light had almost faded completely by now and the rain was coming down in sheets, off and on. Owen kept his eyes on the road and the rear-view mirror for the next few miles. There wasn’t much traffic, but visibility was bad and there was always the chance of a skid with the roads this wet. While he concentrated on driving at a safe, reduced speed, he wondered how his passenger would manage to get a ride in this pouring rain. No one will want to pick him up this time of night–he’ll be dripping wet and it’ll be dark. He’ll have to sleep under the overpass, or at a bus stop or something. He might even get sick. He considered this for a while, and then turned to Steve to ask him what his emergency plans were. But Steve had fallen asleep, still holding the empty coffee cup. Owen reached over, gently took it from his hand, and put it in the cup holder. Steve didn’t stir. Long day, full stomach, warm car—he’ll sleep for quite a while, I think. He probably really needs that.

Owen continued to drive in silence, with only the sound of the windshield wipers to accompany his thoughts. Just then, he saw a mileage sign—½ mile to his turnoff, 125 miles to Porterville. Only a couple hours more. IF he gets a ride. Owen looked over at the sleeping man again, frowning slightly.

Without being fully conscious of his decision, he drove past his exit and continued north on the freeway. With any luck, he’ll sleep most of the way, so no arguments—and he’ll be rested, ready to see the family. They’ll still be up, maybe, and be glad to see him. Owen smiled, thinking about Steve seeing his sister again, after years of separation. It won’t be too long of a ride back. Anyway, I like driving.

He continued down the road, navigating carefully through the downpour. But even through the rain, he could still see many strings of colored lights on either side of the road–still brightly shining, this first day after Christmas.


@2019, Mary M. Isaacs

From the book Christ Child’s Lullaby. Get it here on Amazon.

Author’s note:

The title, “Stephen’s Feast”, refers not only to the hitchhiker having a good meal, but also to St. Stephen’s Day (The Feast Day of St. Stephen)–December 26, the day after Christmas, which is when the story is set.
More importantly, the entire story is a contemporary interpretation of my favorite Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas”. The first line of that carol is “Good King Wenceslas looked out/on the Feast of Stephen…” i.e., the carol takes place on December 26. You might want to look up the words if you don’t know them all.


“Owen” is the closest name I could get to Wenceslas. The hitchhiker is the “poor man” in the carol whom the “king” [Owen] spies through his window [car window] on December 26. The boy at the BBQ place is the “page” who supplies Owen with “flesh, wine, and pine logs” [the BBQ sandwiches and sides, the hot coffee, and the warm car].


The carol ends with the words, “Therefore, Christian men be sure/Wealth or rank possessing/Ye who now shall bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing.” At the end of the story, Steve is blessed and Owen is happy with what he has done.

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