Only impoverished lunatics spend Christmas eve at the Original Mitchell’s restaurant. My boyfriend Scott and I had five bucks to our name. Santa had shunned us. We’d been extra bad, and there was no redemption in sight.
We sat at the counter, ordered coffee. The bearded guy on the adjacent stool wore a filthy gray overcoat encrusted with pins. Not safety pins, but the kind with slogans. Metal medallions bearing flashy words. “Grinch,” read the one closest to eye level. “Bah humbug,” proclaimed another.
He scowled. “What the hell are you looking at?”
I shrugged, took a sip of my coffee. It tasted bitter and terrible, like failure. “Nothing,” I assured him.
Scott swiveled on his stool, stared at the man. “I like your pin,” he said, pointing at the Grinch one. “Exactly how I feel.” The caffeine had lifted Scott’s spirits. He usually didn’t talk to strangers.
The man’s expression softened. “Yeah. The holidays suck.”
We sipped for a few minutes in silence. Our new friend smiled, revealing a row of chipped, yellow teeth. “I’ve got something cool to show you.” He lifted a battered suitcase from the floor, snapped open the clasp.
Scott peeled two bills from his wallet and placed them on the counter, adding a quarter as an afterthought. We were too broke to take the subway home. Maybe the conductor would let us ride free as a Christmas present. Fat chance. Such largesse was rare in Chicago.
The man tossed his suitcase on the floor. “I want to show you,” he insisted. He rummaged through piles of shirts, papers, and garbage, but nothing materialized.
“It’s okay,” Scott finally said. “We don’t need to see it.”
“You don’t understand!” the man cried. “I’ve lost something even more important.” His face was red and blotchy, like he was on the verge of tears. His earlier bravado had disappeared, and he looked small and frightened.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. Scott hauled me towards the door. We wandered into the cold, snowy night. The poor man knelt beside his suitcase, cursing his misfortune. I hoped our holiday luck would be better than his, but there was no way of knowing for sure. It was up to the conductor to decide.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks and four books. Her latest book, a memoir entitled “Bastard of a Poet” was published by Alien Buddha Press in June 2018. Leah’s work appears or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, The Spectacle, Outlook Springs, Mojave River Review, Drunk Monkeys, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, Wolfpack Press, and other publications. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp humor poetry contest.