Excerpt from My Newest Christmas Novel
By Jeff Salter
First of all, on this eve of a new year – and after one of the lousiest calendar years I can remember – let me wish one and all a Happy New Year. I truly hope (for all of us) that 2021 is kinder and gentler than the 12 months we’ve just endured.
The heroine of my new Christmas novel is a nurse working in a nursing home. When a brand new patient shows up late on a Friday afternoon — the day before Christmas Eve — without any paperwork, Lucia Alvarez is quite suspicious. But the attractive nurse is a lot more welcoming than the grim-faced aide, Martha, whose favorite patient had just passed away and vacated the bed now occupied by the elderly WW2 veteran.
It’ll be up to young Matt Clarke — passing through and now without any appreciable resources (since his truck was stolen) — to help keep the old guy warm and fed during this cold holiday weekend. If he gets to know Lucia a lot better, along the way, so much the better.
Late last month, I introduced my newest novel – The Yuletide Caper – and provided a little backstory as to how I came to write it and why. For Hound Day this week, I thought I’d share an excerpt:
Friday Evening, December 23rd, 1994
“Are you serious?” I asked the frail and grizzled man, who’d been my companion on this outdoor cement bench for less than an hour. “You want me to help you break IN to that place?”
Shushing me with his weathered, heavily veined hand, John Lester nodded. “I’ve got no place else to go.” With a heavy shiver from the near freezing temperature, he pulled together the lapels of his drab overcoat. It looked warm enough to me, but this old gent was hardly more than skin and bones, so perhaps the cold weather hit him harder. He also tugged at the bill of his cap, emblazoned with WWII in faded gold braid.
On my way to the Gulf Coast, this morning I’d stopped along the middle Tennessee interstate to fill up the tank, never expecting to come out of the shop and find my truck — and basically everything I owned — gone. After I’d filed the police report, there was nothing to do but explore this isolated little town, waiting in the frosty climate for a solution to my dire straits.
“Let’s suppose I’m able to get you inside,” I said, trying to sound as reasonable and convincing as a life insurance salesman. “Don’t you figure they’ll just toss you right back out?” All I knew about John, besides his name and estimated age, was that he was a veteran of World War II — but that was indeed a broad category. He also appeared to be recently homeless, which — during winter in this area — could be fatal for the elderly.
“I’ve been watching this place all day,” he said quietly, as he pointed with a gnarled finger. “All the important activity is back here at the loading dock.”
“Sorry. Don’t follow you. That sign says the entrance is on the second level, clear around to the middle of the other side, at the front. Isn’t it?”
John nodded. “But this rear dock on first floor is where the staff and patients come and go.”
I still had not caught on. The chill from our bench had worked its way through my jeans and into my hip joints and tailbone. Though I’d found John to be one part likeable and one part pitiful, I had my own problems. I was on foot, desperately missing my 1983 GMC Sierra … and the local police had done nothing besides accept my report of the theft. That left me in almost the same position as my new acquaintance … except that John was more than double my age and likely triple my infirmity. “Okay. The staff and patients use this rear entrance. So what?”
His rheumy eyes studied me briefly, as though trying to calculate whether I had any brain cells functioning. “My point, young man, is that the patients are carried on wheeled stretchers through those rear doors. Medics come during the day to take them to appointments or treatments … and later that same day, medics bring them back.”
To me, that seemed pretty normal for a standard nursing home operation. This particular facility was massive, with four floors featuring two wings which intersected at an angle of approximately one hundred-twenty degrees. “So? Must be three hundred patients residing here.”
“Make that two hundred-ninety-nine,” replied John matter-of-factly, though we were both merely guessing at the numbers.
“Shortly before you walked by this evening, there was another patient exiting on a gurney.”
“Okay … a late appointment.”
“Nope. It wasn’t an EMT vehicle.” He coughed raggedly. “This particular team came from one of the local funeral parlors.”
I shrugged. Old people in nursing homes do eventually die. Today was such a day. “Not trying to be dense, John, but where are you going with all this?”
“Since the funeral home people took away that patient, it means there’s a vacant bed here.”
The light came on. “Oh, so you figure to sneak in and just claim that bed?”
He nodded, clearly pleased at his own clever plan.
“Uh, how many minutes do you think it’ll take before they realize you’re not Mister or Missus Cratchit … or whoever it was that died today?”
“Matthew, it’s Friday night. All the bosses have gone home. Not to mention, it’s the day before Christmas Eve … so all the regular employees are home drinking cider or something.”
I’d told him to call me Matt … Matt Clarke. But old people are often stubborn. I didn’t concur with his calculation that the three hundred-bed facility would be staffed by inexperienced nincompoops, but I possessed no energy to argue. I had my own fish to fry and right now I needed shelter and food about as much as this grizzled old veteran did. “So why don’t you just walk right in and claim the empty bed?”
“I can’t. Not by myself.” He gripped my forearm … probably as tightly as he was able at this point in his age and infirmity. “I need a scout to find out which bed is vacant, and to collect names from a few of the doors in the administrative offices.”
“Scout? Sorry, buddy. That’s more like an accomplice before the fact. In this case, the fact being that you’re planning to defraud this nursing home by stealing their bed and meals for however long it takes them to find you out.”
“Not stealing. When I move on, their bed will remain here. They almost certainly already have their entire weekend meal circuit planned, down to the oven temperature and number of trays. I’ll simply be consuming the contents of one of those trays which otherwise would have been nibbled at by whoever it was they rolled out to this rear dock under two hours ago.”
It sounded preposterous to me. “Even if you get away with the initial feint, you know they’ll figure it out sooner or later — probably sooner. And what do you think they’ll do to you then? Jail, maybe.”
He shrugged. “Jail would be fine with me. It’s a cot and three meals. Look, Matthew, if you won’t help me, that’s okay. Maybe I can wing it. But I don’t want to spend Christmas out here on the street. Even if I live through it — which, with the temperature dropping like people say it will, I’ll probably freeze to death by tomorrow night — that’s no way to spend Christmas.”
He’d already told me he was widowed and estranged from his surviving family, plus all of them in different states. I hadn’t asked why his family had cut him off … or if he’d been the one to sever them. These days, families had so many dysfunctions, there were few surprises anymore at the reasons for those issues. But I understood what he meant about wanting to be indoors, warm and fed, for Christmas. That had been on my mind since I exited the gas station this morning and saw a blank rectangle of concrete where my truck had been parked. My total resources at the moment were the clothes on my back and the sparse contents of my flattened wallet.
I could feel my resolve weakening. When John had first mentioned this caper, I was positive I would have no part in it whatsoever. But each time he wistfully gazed at the rear doors of that loading dock area, I felt more and more compassion tug at me. No, I certainly did not wish to be involved in his illegal occupancy of a newly-vacant nursing home bed. But I wasn’t even clear on how the law viewed such an act. Would it be impersonating a patient? Eating a dead person’s pre-scheduled meals? Surely those would be misdemeanors at worst.
“Let’s say I try to help you get inside,” I said finally, after I re-focused my attention on my aged companion. “Then suppose I learn the location of the empty bed and collect a few names of administrators. Let’s even make the implausible leap of faith that we get you into the vacant room. How many minutes do you think it will take for them to figure out you don’t belong there?”
“I’ve got it all worked out, Matthew.”
If you’d like to see a bit of the back-story, here’s the link to last month’s blog:
[JLS # 521]