Charlie Peterson looked at his watch and then at the departure board of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport. Another 45 minutes, he thought as the Christmas Muzak and flight information droned over the loudspeaker. He adjusted his thick, wire-frame glasses and tried to get comfortable in the plastic chair. He peeked at his wife. She was still angry. The laugh lines around her eyes had transformed into something severe.
“Come on, Margaret. You haven’t said a word since Mexico.”
“I didn’t know you were interested.”
“Don’t be silly, Margaret.”
Margaret put her bifocals in her purse.
After 33 years of marriage, Charlie knew it was a signal to stop, but he couldn’t. “Is it my fault the food tasted like dog meat?”
Her eyes flashed. “Don’t you dare start with that ridiculous Vietnam story again. You’ve done nothing but complain for the entire trip. I’ve never had such a miserable Christmas.”
“It won’t be Christmas until tomorrow.” Charlie winced as he realized that he was correcting her and hurried on. ”I really appreciate your surprising me with this trip, but it just doesn’t seem like Christmas without the kids and snow. Plus, I’m worried about work”
“Work?” Charlie you’re retired. When will you accept that? And none of the kids could make it home this year. Since your forced retirement you’ve been nothing but a…oh, why bother?”
Margaret turned away. Charlie slowly got up and walked through the crowded concourse to the drinking fountain. He hated feeling out of control of his life. He missed the sense of purpose that his job had given him. No one needed him anymore, and he could feel time slipping away. The memory of the fight in the hotel room with Margaret and the feeble dog-meat joke that he had made at dinner caused his cheeks to burn. Everything he tried to say or do came out wrong.
Somebody bumped into him elbow into his chest, taking his breath away, and then disappeared into the crowd.
“Jerk!” Charlie said. He was almost glad to have someone besides himself to be angry at.
He looked down an empty, dead-end hallway that led to the airport chapel. He looked back at Margaret, who avoided his stare. He shrugged and walked towards the chapel. It was something to do.
The room was smaller than he thought it should be for such a big airport. It was also empty-even on such a busy day. And with Christmas coming too, he thought irritated. Then guiltily he remembered how long it had been since he himself had been in church. Colin’s wedding…was it really three years ago? He sat on one of the three pews and said a short, awkward prayer. On the way out he signed the guest book below Mrs. Taylor Brown of Enid OK, who had written, “In the midst of chaos, you gave me peace.” He tried to think of something equally uplifting, but gave up and added his home address. As he walked back down the hallway, he remembered another Mrs. Brown he had once known.
When he returned, his seat had been taken by a young pregnant woman who was talking to Margaret. Charlie sat in the next empty chair.
“Did I take your seat?” she said as she struggled to rise.
“That’s all right. Margaret will get enough of sitting by me on the plane. Is this your first baby?”
“Yes, it is… thank you for the chair. I’m Amy,” she said holding out her hand. “I was just telling Margaret how nervous I am.”
“You’ll be fine. Margaret should know. She had three.”
“That’s not why I’m nervous. I’m trying to get to Colorado Springs. My husband is stationed at Ft. Carson, and he can’t get leave. It’s our first Christmas and I want to surprise him, but it looks like I’ll be spending Christmas at the airport.”
“I’m sure something will work out,” Charlie said as he clanked around the crowded waiting room. “Do you remember our first Christmas, Margaret?”
“How could I forget? We were broke and alone, and you kept saying everything would work out.”
“Well, it did!”
“Only because Mrs. Brown took pity on us and paid you to paint her apartment even though it didn’t need it.”
“We had to get our tree on Christmas Eve,” Charlie said with a smile. “The only stand I could find was so big that I had to use wood scraps to prop it up.” Charlie was glad to see Margaret smile at the memory also.
“Yes,” Margaret said. “I felt like such a fool for marrying you.” She scowled briefly at Charlie and then continued. “But it all turned out to be a good Christmas, after all. I don’t think I appreciated how special a person Mrs. Brown was at the time.”
The ticket agent opened his counter for ticket confirmation. Charlie waited in line with Amy and listened as the agent gave her the bad news.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stern, but it doesn’t look good. The earliest I can guarantee a spot is day after tomorrow.”
It made Charlie sad, and he thought about his own daughter. Then he remembered the Victorian dollhouse that took him nearly two weeks to make for her tenth Christmas. The memories of past holidays, when his children came rushing down to see the tree, swirled through his mind. Amy walked away with tears in her eyes, and Charlie ambled behind her.
“Talk to her, Margaret, while I check on something,” Charlie said and returned to the counter.
“When will that young lady be able to get out of here?” Charlie asked the agent
“Not for a day or two.”
Charlie thought for a minute and then he handed the agent his ticket. “If I give her my first-class ticket, when would I get another?”
“Tomorrow night at 7:10,” the agent said.
“Book me on it and give her my seat,” Charlie said as he reached for his wallet. Charlie fidgeted while the agent made the changes. Margaret would be angry, he thought, but no more than she already was. She would berate him for his impetuosity. But it didn’t matter if he got home today or not, he argued with himself.
He walked back to his seat and was rewarded by Amy’s squeal of delight when the agent called her to the counter and gave her a boarding pass. She held up her ticket and waved excitedly. The warm glow inside Charlie made him realize that this was probably how Mrs. Brown had felt.
Margaret stood up, smiling, and walked towards the gate. Charlie touched her arm
“Here,” he said holding out the reaming ticket. “You’ll need this.”
”I don’t understand,” she said with a puzzled look.
Charlie pointed to Amy.
“A last minute cancellation,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m booked on another flight tomorrow.”
“She shouldn’t spend Christmas here. I got to thinking about what Mrs. Brown would have done. It’s a way to pay her back for helping us.” Charlie squeezed Margaret’s hand. “I’d already spoiled our Christmas. I figured I might as well make someone else’s better. I’ve been very selfish lately.”
To his surprise, Margaret hugged him hard.
“Do you forgive me?” he asked.
“I’ll think about it,” Margaret said as she lightly punched his shoulder. “In the meantime, let’s see if we can find a hotel and some snow so we can get into the Christmas spirit.”
“Snow? In the middle of the desert?”
“Stranger things have happened, Charlie.”
Margaret took Charlie’s arm, and he walked down the concourse. This time he didn’t even notice when someone bumped into him.