I’ve always loved the cold. I love wearing big sweaters with boots, I love lugging a mug of hot chocolate wherever I go, and most of all I love the tiny shred of hope that it might snow this year. It hasn’t snowed since I was thirteen, but I like the idea that it might.
In the south, early December isn’t quite as cold as I like, but it’s getting there. The wind nips at my face just enough for me to be glad I wore a beanie. The leaves aren’t changing color much, but enough have fallen off to crunch under my boot as I walk. I had finished work early, so I decide to treat myself to a salted caramel hot chocolate.
“Stop loitering! You lot need to find another place to beg.” I stop in my tracks, caught off guard by a voice that isn’t very Christmas spirited at all. Sure not everyone celebrated, but that didn’t give the speaker, a lady in her late forties with a pointy nose and pouty lip, the right to be so rude.
I turn my attention to the man who had just been yelled at. He leans against the brick wall of the coffee shop, ignoring the lady’s grumbling as he lulls his head to the side. There’s a playful grin playing on his lips, itching to be put to full use. Even though he’s sitting, I can tell he must be at least six feet tall. On top of a head of thick, silver hair, he wears an army green ball cap. It looks as if there had once been something written on it, but time had faded the fabric. He had a worn face but kind, blue eyes. They were the kind of eyes that invited you in for a plate of cookies and an old campfire tale. They reminded me of my father. He was wearing grey sweat pants, a navy t-shirt, and no coat. I wonder if he’s cold.
I flash him a small but sincere smile as I walk into the coffee shop. He returns the gesture, revealing an array of missing teeth. The lady, apparently given up on trying to remove the man, follows me inside.
“Sorry about him.” She steps behind the counter and pulls on a bright green apron. Her name tag reads ‘Daria.’ “What can I get you?”
“I’ll take a salted caramel hot cocoa.” I smile warmly, although it is not returned by Daria. “Also a cinnamon chip scone.”
Daria rings up my order and begins to make my drink. I try not to take her sour mood too personally, she may just be having a bad day. The holidays weren’t as cheerful for everyone as they were for me.
It’s not surprising I’m the only person in the coffee shop. It’s two o’clock on a Thursday, leaving the adults at work and the children at school. Being a journalist often left me with free odd hours of the day. While I wait for my order, I sneak a glance out the window and at the old man outside. I’m not sure, but I think he’s singing.
“He’s here at least twice a week. I can never get him to leave. I think I’ll call the cops next time.” Daria catches my gaze and hands me my scone and cocoa. There’s a hint of condescending in her voice that gets under my skin.
“Actually can I have another hot chocolate and a grilled cheese as well?”
“Sure.” I can all but feel the annoyance radiating off Daria as she rings up the rest of my order. No doubt I’d be the subject of her criticism later tonight. I can just imagine the tales of the little blonde kid who couldn’t make up her mind. I try not to think too much about it.
“Here you go.” Daria hands me the second half of my order with a frown. She doesn’t offer me a drink carrier as I try to balance everything in my arms. Still, I thank her and wish her a good day.
“Hello,” I say to the old man as I plop into a seat next to him.
“Hello?” He looks perplexed as I cross my legs and begin to unwrap my scone.
“Would you like a grilled cheese sandwich?” I hold the bag and one of the hot chocolates out to him.
“I would love a grilled cheese.” He takes the food from me with a bright, although quite toothless, smile. “Thank you ma’am.”
“I’m not a ma’am.” I laugh and take a sip out of my cocoa. My momma always told me you didn’t call anyone under thirty a ma’am. “I’m Gracie.” I thrust my hand out for good measure.
He shakes my hand, playfulness in his eyes. “Call me Nolan.”
We sit in silence as he takes the first few bites of the grilled cheese. At least a dozen people walk by, but the only person that stops to drop a dollar bill in Nolan’s cup is a young boy that couldn’t yet be out of high school.
“So, what’s so great about this cafe?” I ask Nolan after a few minutes. He raises his eyebrow.
“Its special little miss Gracie.” He winks at me, but doesn’t elaborate. He sounded exactly like my big brother Jared. I roll my eyes and take another sip of my hot chocolate.
“Would you like to go Christmas shopping with me?” I ask after finishing my scone.
“That’s very kind of you miss Gracie. But you’ve done enough already.”
“Nonsense, I could use the company.” I put on my best puppy dog face and watch as he melts in front of me.
“Fine. Fine. Just don’t cry on me. Can’t stand to make women cry. Brings nothing but trouble.”
I smirk as he stands up and follows me to the nearest store. I knew it was early to be buying presents, but I never could wait.
“Who we shoppin for anyway?” Nolan asks as I drag him down the aisle and towards the back of the store. The best bargains were always hidden away. It took time if you wanted to find anything at a decent price around the holidays.
“My fiancé and my brother.” I pull a navy hoodie off the rack before deciding Jared would never wear it. He walked around in shorts and flip flops in forty degree weather.
“Oi! When’s the wedding.”
“Two months.” I can’t help but smile as I get Nolan’s opinion on a camera for Matt. We had met just a year ago when I was writing a piece on how rapists and other offenders could walk free due to cracks in the legal system. Matt was one of many lawyers I had interviewed, but the only one who wouldn’t answer my questions unless it was over a dinner date. As annoyed as I was, he won me over in the end.
“How about you? Were you ever married?” I question as I pick out a red and black checkerboard quilt for Jared. His new dachshund had peed all over his old one. I knew he’d sooner freeze than buy himself another.
“Never found a lass. Didn’t have the time. It was just me and my buddy Gerald since I we were kids.” Nolan smiles a soft, delicate smile. It’s a smile that’s real and fake at the same time.
“Didn’t have the time for love.” I laugh, it’s something I’d heard before from all my friends when they wondered why I would be getting married so young. They’d tell me that at twenty three I should see the world before I settled down with a guy five years my senior, but I disagreed. You didn’t make time for love, love would always be there if you just let it. “What kept you so busy?”
“Well, when I was a boy, I was drafted for Vietnam. Didn’t have much time for making love although I did spend some lovely nights with a few foreign girls. I have to tell you miss Gracie the things those-”
“Stop stop.” I cover my ears and stick out my tongue. “I don’t want to hear another word of that vile rubbish.”
Nolan tilts his head back and lets out a hearty chuckle. He takes a seat as I move on to the shoes. I needed a pair of boots for when Matt and I visited Jared in Wisconsin next week.
“What about after the war? Ever think about settling down?”
“I took a few injuries. Girls never did find those kinds appealing.”
I nod, getting the picture. I liked talking to Nolan, it was so easy and so honest. I hadn’t been able to talk with anyone like this since my parents had passed away.
“After the war Gerald and I bought a diner. We made the best burgers in all of Alabama.”
“Now you’re just making me hungry.”
“We had the hand spun milk shakes with hot fudge and the crinkle cut fries. I can close my eyes and still smell the salt.”
“What ever happened to it?” I ask as I try on a pair of dark red boots with brown fur. They fit perfectly and were right in my price range. Sure, Matt was a lawyer, but that didn’t mean I needed to spend an unnecessary amount.
“Just before Gerald passed away, we passed it down to his son. We had a good run. It made us both a good deal of money at the time.”
I wanted to ask him where all the money went, but it didn’t seem like the right question. Instead, food always on my mind, I ask him another.
“What’s the diner like now?”
“It’s just down the street actually. His grandson sold it a year ago. Some idiot turned it into a coffee shop.”