tagRomanceHanukkah's Gifts

Hanukkah's Gifts

bylegerdemer©

This story, my entry into the 2015 Winter Holidays Contest, owes much to my friend and editor, AlwaysHungry. Any remaining mistakes are my own. I hope you enjoy the tale, and vote.

Chapter 1 - Hospital Blues


Her mother barely squeezed Simone's fingers, then whispered, "I need to tell you something, Mona..." Her mother then exhaled, a belabored rasp, until her breathing became more regular. She was asleep.

The emergency room had emptied out over the course of the evening, the traffic slowing down about 11 pm, as if the city conspired that 11 pm was some sort of civilized closing curtain time for accidents. The chair Simone Rosen sat in, next to her mother's bed, had become unbearably hard. The book she invariably carried in her satchel had lost its appeal over an hour earlier. She had caught up with all her emails and had given up on the idea of work. She had consumed her quota of coffee for the day hours ago and had switched to tea. Lipton's in small foam cups was all she could get, but at least the water hadn't been percolated through a coffee machine, picking up coffee taste along the way. Small things to be grateful for.

Simone had held her mother's hand, feeling for the small squeezes now and then. Her mother's hand lay in her own, the skin dry and cool, the joints gnarled with arthritis. It was the third time in a month her mother had ended up here, and some of the nursing staff had begun to recognize both of them. Especially her mom.

The night nurse in charge of her mother stepped in, pushing the curtain aside. The ER beds were separated by heavy curtains on three sides and, despite the hospital's privacy concerns, she knew the conditions that had brought each of her mother's neighbors into the ER. If you weren't talking, it was impossible not to listen. Although with the passing hours, the beeps of the various monitors and the electronic hums of the instruments drowned out all the human voices.

"We are still waiting for a room. How is she doing?"

"Sleeping peacefully now," she answered.

"Finally."

"Ms. Rosen, the doctor's looked over your mother's results and he's ordered more tests to be done tomorrow. We need to keep her overnight for observation. I encourage you to go and get some rest yourself. I have no idea when a room will open up - we are so crowded tonight. When it does, we'll move her very carefully - she won't wake up, and she'll get better rest in the room then here, without all this noise. There really isn't anything you can do for her tonight."

"OK. I will then. You have my cell phone, no?"

"Yes, we'll be sure to call you if we find out anything. I hope you get some sleep. Good night."

The nurse checked over the monitors one last time, took the sleeping patient's pulse, and left after nodding over her shoulder.

Simone placed her hand on her mother's cheek and a light kiss on her forehead. She didn't feel right leaving without assuring her mother she'd be back, but she wasn't going to wake her. She could leave a note, but what use would that be? Her mother would be unlikely to find it, and wouldn't be able to read it anyway. Her vision had gotten so bad she had even stopped wearing her glasses, the fixtures she'd had perched on her face for over 70 years.

Simone adjusted the blanket over her mother's diminished frame, threw another look at the monitors beeping and sighing out their data, and left. The halls were uncharacteristically quiet for a Thursday night, or any night for that matter. She knew because she'd been here on every night of the week, one time or another.

The lobby was empty, the lighting dimmed, and the carpet absorbed all noise except the low ding of the elevators. The convenience store that sold snacks and candy and flowers was dark, and the whole place seemed eerily quiet without people, though she could see a uniformed guard pacing near the outside doors. All of a sudden, she realized she was hungry. She hadn't eaten since she'd arrived at the hospital many hours earlier. Even if open, the hospital cafeteria seemed too dreary. She was close to the Information counter, and thought they might have some maps of the neighborhood, or flyers from local food joints, so she veered around to it, eyes cast to the stacks of advertisements lining the counter.

"May I help you?"

The man had been bent over the desk, hidden by the tall counter. When he rose to his full height and spoke, she nearly jumped out of her skin, hand on her chest. Then, embarrassed at her dramatic response to his innocuous question, she was speechless for a few seconds.

"I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I know it's pretty dead here at this hour."

His voice soothed her - not exactly deep nor reedy but friendly. His gray hair was cropped close to his scalp and she caught herself thinking it would look better if it had been just a little less severely trimmed. He was still looking at her, calmly, no trace of impatience.

"Crazy there's anyone still here at this hour. Night shift?"

"Well, they try to keep the desk staffed as much possible. It's pretty much all volunteers here. I was about to head out myself, just cleaning up a few loose threads. But how can I help you?"

"Oh, nothing, really. I mean, I don't need anything. I was just looking for a place to eat that was still open."

"No problem. I know the area pretty well. Any preference for type of food?"

"Just a snack, really. Haven't had dinner, but it's too late for that. I'd prefer walking distance."

"There's a number of places still open — the advantage of a teaching hospital associated with a university. There's a Panera just across the way and to the right if you go out this exit, serves soups and quiches and sandwiches and things of that sort. It's OK. Beyond it there's a neighborhood pub, Squeak's. Better food, in my opinion - burgers, chili, that sort of fare. And they've got blues and jazz bands many nights. Locals, mostly."

Her shoulders slumped.

"No music for me tonight. Too tired for that. Maybe next time. Thank you."

She hadn't meant to be rude, but she was too tired to be diplomatic.

He looked at her, eyes penetrating.

"There's always the Starbucks at the corner. And across the street, the locals' coffee hangout that predated the Starbucks. They may be closer to what you're looking for tonight."

"Thanks much, you've been very helpful," and she turned away.

As she walked towards the exit, she noticed, in an unobtrusive niche in one of the walls, an electric menorah, with two "candles" lit, one in the middle and the other on the right side. Their family was not religious, but they had celebrated Hanukkah when she'd been young. It had been her job, once she'd been old enough, to light the candles, one each day for eight days, celebrating the miraculous bit of oil in the Maccabean cave that had outlasted all expectations and burned for eight days instead of one. Damn, where had the year gone? Hanukkah already... soon, Christmas would be looming.

***


He followed her with his eyes, noting her slow walk and still-slumped shoulders. Not young, but younger than himself. Visiting a parent? A child? A friend? She hadn't cried recently - clear eyes, clear nose, he'd learned to read the obvious signs after his year or so on the volunteer desk - so luckily no one had died. Yet. Unfortunately that happened more often than not, in his experience, with patients who'd come here. Nothing wrong with hospitals, but they were not the happiest of places. And he was pretty sure she wasn't here for her child - unlikely she would have left the building. Maybe a parent or a friend.

Something about her had piqued his interest, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Perhaps her eyes? She'd looked straight at him with intense, brown eyes. He shook his head slightly, as if to shake her out of his mind - he needed to get home, so he concentrated on gathering his stuff and making sure everything was organized for the morning crew. He knew how frustrating it was to come on the desk and find everything in chaos.

He wasn't ready for the clear tone of her voice ringing across the lobby.

"Thanks for that pub recommendation. Perhaps I'll try it tomorrow night."

When he lifted his head and looked at her, he caught only her coat as it cleared the revolving door.

***


She didn't know Los Angeles that well. She'd been there a few times before to visit friends, but the visits had been separated by several years and she'd never quite gotten the feel of the place. Her mother had moved there when Fred, Simone's stepfather, had wanted to be closer to his children and grandchildren from his first marriage. The year-round warm weather attracted both of them over the bone-chilling winters of Syracuse.

Simone hadn't wanted her mother to leave, but had no good reason to induce her to stay: no grandkids as bait. Her mother liked Pete, Simone's significant other, but everyone understood that grandkids were special. Her mother and Fred had decided seeing them more often was important. Simone had helped arrange everything on the eastern end of the trip and the western end had been taken care of by Fred's son. Not long after, she and Pete had moved to Tucson to take up jobs at the University of Arizona, and LA no longer felt a world away.

She was grateful to the kind-eyed gentleman at the Information desk for his help. His response had given her time to recollect herself. And now that she thought of it, some live music, or even canned blues in a pub, quite attracted her. But not tonight.

She passed on the brightly lit Panera, where the employees, UCLA students most likely, were cleaning up for the night. Students looked younger and younger to her since she'd turned 40. She opened the door to the eatery next door, which had a much more homey feel to it, ordered a bowl of soup and tea, and took her number to a table by a window. Somehow, looking out at the world passing by might relieve her of her grim thoughts. Except, even in the heart of Westwood, college neighborhood and all, the world passing by was pretty thin at this hour of night. And grim thoughts had a way of intruding whether she wanted them to or not.

She and Pete were drifting apart. She didn't have the heart to tell her mom those news. Hell, she didn't even want to admit it to herself. And how did she feel about that, really?

Years ago they'd decided they liked their freedom and didn't want to hem themselves in with kids. They were of a mind, mostly. Pete especially was weary - kids just seemed like one more anchor to tie them down. He liked to travel at the drop of a hat, liked going out when he felt like it, couldn't sit still. Dogs were about the limit of responsibility for him. He loved her, she knew that. But she didn't want to shove a kid down his throat - what if he didn't like their kid? Could she raise the child by herself? Could she take his reproaches, if they came? Her friends with kids, even men, had told her not to worry about that - that faced with the fait accompli, Pete would fall in love with his flesh and blood. All men did. Mostly. But... she wasn't sure.

Now she thought it was too late. She was past the age when childbirth would be easy and problem-free, if it ever was. She knew enough about that to know she was being naive, that childbirth was never guaranteed to be problem-free for women of any age; nor was it guaranteed to be problematic at her age - newspapers had stories of women in their 50s giving birth, so why should she not try? Because that ship had sailed, and turned into a near-invisible dot on the horizon, that's why.

And the child would certainly have much less family surrounding him or her. Simone's father had passed away years earlier, much to her mother's shock but only because her mom, unlike Simone, could not see her father sink into depression and apathy. Perhaps a grandchild would have given him a reason for living, perhaps not, but her father frequently talked of death in welcoming words. She was under no illusions that he was done with his life, or what was left of it. Her mother was in and out of hospital emergency rooms on a more and more regular basis these days, and had less and less grip on the reality around her. Even if she would have liked the idea of grandkids of her own - which she sort of had, on Fred's side - she wasn't in a position to really enjoy them. And Pete had lost his parents and only a sister he hardly spoke with. So their kid would have no family anchors in this world after she and Pete would be out of it. Still...

She stared down at her empty bowl and her empty cup, realizing that she'd finished both in less than 15 minutes and she had no farther excuse to be here. Time to head back to her hotel. She'd need to get up early tomorrow to try to catch up to some of her work before going in to see her mother and her mom's doctor. Papers to grade, a student's thesis to grade. None of it sounded appealing.

She pushed back her chair and headed out into the chilly night air. It was December in LA - warmer than Tucson, and balmy compared to Syracuse, but she still wrapped her thin coat around her more tightly as she walked back towards campus, in the direction of the guest house she was staying in. No one was out on the Westwood Boulevard. Bundled up homeless people looked like large hibernating tortoises in the doorways of some of the businesses she passed. She imagined even LA must be a pretty tough place to survive the winter. She'd heard some of the California cities refused to build permanent homeless shelters, afraid of drawing more homeless to them from northern cities. She didn't know where LA stood on that front, but people wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags on thin cardboard make-shift mattresses didn't seem like a reasonable thing for a city the size of LA to be able to live with. Especially not in a neighborhood like this.

She was only a couple of blocks from the guest house, cutting across in front of the Geffen Playhouse and across the Whole Foods parking lot, when the grizzled voice barked out, seemingly from nowhere:

"Hey, lady, got some change?"

She hesitated, startled out of deep thought. She should have known better than to not pay attention to her surroundings. She knew how to behave in a large city, but her mother's health, her brooding about her, Pete, and children, and the late night had completely discombobulated her.

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"C'mon, lady, you ain't from around here. I'm sure you got some change on ya, you ain't walking around empty-handed... Dun't be a cheapskate! You look like you're goin' home to a nice cozy bed, why d'ntcha share a bit of dat wid me?"

The guy wasn't tall but he looked solid and ominous in a dark sweatshirt, hood pulled over his face so that she couldn't see his eyes. It was so dark in the parking lot that she couldn't even tell what color the hand he'd stretched out at her was. Not knowing quite what to do, she finally did what the man asked. Bringing her shoulder satchel in front, she started rummaging in it for her wallet, cursing not putting it back in the inside pocket as usual.

"C'm'on, lady, faster. D'nthca be wastin' time."

Before she had a chance to find it, he grabbed on to the shoulder strap and started to pull it off.

"Hey...," she screamed. "Let go!"

"Hey, you! Let the lady's purse go, jerk, or I'm going to call the cops!"

The voice came from behind her, and the arm that reached out for the strap of her purse, to drag it back from her assailant. Both seemed vaguely familiar.

"Fuck you, asshole!" her assailant screamed as he ran off, quickly disappearing into the alley between the theater and the grocery store.

"You OK?" My rescuer put his hand on my shoulder in a friendly, comforting gesture.

"Yea, thanks. Not sure what I would have done... hey! You're from the hospital," she said, getting a closer look at the man standing beside her, helping her with her.

"Yes, we met, sort of. I was just heading home. My car is parked a few blocks from here. This isn't the way I like to run into people, though. I'm glad I came along."

"Oh, God, yes. That would've been the last thing I needed - losing my wallet and cards and all that - on top of everything else."

"You know, this neighborhood is usually pretty safer, but I guess nowhere is completely safe, especially near a large campus, and especially for a woman walking alone at night. Are you going back to the hospital tomorrow evening? Or tonight, I should say," he added, glancing at his watch and seeing it was past midnight.

"Yes, I am," she nodded.

"I'm working the desk again. I'm Martin, by the way. Why don't you let me walk you back to your hotel if you're going to be this late again?"

"Oh, no, no, I don't want to be any bother. I'll just be way more careful. I shouldn't have drifted off like that, not paid attention. And I'm Simone. Some call me Mona."

"A very nice name, Simone. It's no bother, really. Seriously, it's not a problem. I can leave anytime after 11 pm, so if you're there that late, I'd much rather walk you than let you go alone. Unless of course, you have someone else..."

She shook her head. "No. Thank you, I'll stop by if I stay that late again. Thanks much." She pointed her chin in the direction of the guest house. "I'm just that way a couple of blocks."

"Tiverton House?"

"No, Hilgard House. I guess the Tiverton is closer. Maybe next time."

They walked in silence for a bit.

"You always work on Friday nights?" she asked him.

"Well, I don't have kids. It's easier for me than for the others who do, so I volunteer for it. Not always, though. Not when I have gigs."

"Gigs?"

"Yea, I have a band. I play jazz and blues guitar."

"Ahhh, that's why you knew about the pub?"

"Yea, we've played there off and on. Have a gig coming up tomorrow night, in fact. If you're still here..."

"Maybe. Probably. We'll see," she said, trying to sound less committal, though listening to some live music on Saturday sounded really good all of a sudden.

By the time they'd reached Hilgard House, she was looking forward to hearing his band, and he was looking forward to having her in the audience and a chance to get to know her a bit better.

She extended her hand, "Thanks a ton for your help tonight, Martin. I'm glad you were there."

"No worries at all. I'm glad I was there as well. Most likely you would have been fine, but... better you didn't have to take that chance. Good night, Simone."

She smiled, nodded and disappeared into the hotel.

He looked after her a fraction of a second, then turned and relaxed his shoulders.

If he was honest with himself, she had raised his interest. Something about her bearing, or that... that smile. His interest was raised less and less these days, even with porn flicks, even with reading erotic stories on the sites he'd been frequenting for several years now. A real live fling - was that even a possibility? Thinking too far, too soon. And anyway, at his age... Best just go home. Lord knew, it had been too long...

Chapter 2 - The Motor City Pub


After eating breakfast and sucking in a sufficient amount of coffee to kickstart her brain, Simone looked at her list of things to do to catch up with work, ticked off some of them (emails, finishing and sending off a review, working on an exam), and gave up around lunchtime. Her previous experience had told her nothing was likely to have happened yet other than tests, so it would be useless to go to the hospital any earlier.

She called Pete to check in.

"Hey, Pete, how are you?"

"You sound tired, Mona," he said. "Any news?"

"Just tests and more tests. I'm still trying to find and talk to the doctor in charge of her. He ordered some tests.She was barely awake last night, and not too lucid."

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