To all of my brothers and sisters working today - Merry Christmas. Be safe. This short story is dedicated to you.
“Feliz navidad, amor,” Officer Karen Sorenson said as she walked toward her police car. The late afternoon San Diego sun shone brightly on the substation parking lot, a deep blue sky virtually devoid of clouds. The handsome man next to her grunted when she bumped shoulders with him. For a moment their dark blue uniforms seemed to merge.
“Christmas at work,” Officer Martin Saenz grumbled. “Bah freakin’ humbug.”
“Want a little cheese with that whine?” she persisted. “Maybe eggnog?”
“I hate eggnog,” Martin muttered.
“So what is your family’s Christmas routine?”
“A quiet morning. Cubans generally feast on Christmas Eve. My parents followed that tradition after they immigrated to Miami.”
“Huh. No eggnog?”
“Coffee. Lots of black coffee.” Martin opened the door of his police car. “Where do you want to have dinner tonight?”
“Not much. Burritos at 7/11?”
“Great.” She tossed her gear bag into the trunk. Removing her rifle from its case, she examined the optics to make sure they were in order. Satisfied, she snapped it into the rack. “I brought you a turkey sandwich, just in case.”
“I was hoping to cuddle in front of the fire on our first Christmas night as a couple,” Martin said, loading his own police car. “You know, a couple of margaritas, some salsa music and letting nature take its course. Being the junior cops on the watch sucks.”
“Our evening would more likely be me falling asleep on your shoulder because you made the margaritas too strong.”
“Is trying to get me drunk part of your usual evening plan?”
“Soro, alcohol is the reason guys like me get laid.”
She laughed, and a refreshing and restorative feeling washed over her. Martin’s chiseled body and ruggedly-handsome face oozed masculine virility – a hot-blooded 6’2” lover carved of mahogany. Dating him started with a flaming-hot kiss and landed them in bed within a week. She hadn’t needed a drink to want him then. She wouldn’t need one now, three months later.
“You’re cute, that’s why we do it,” she said. “Well, I’m not going to complain about spending Christmas night working swing shift. At least we’re together. A lot of cop couples aren’t.”
“Putting our gear into separate police cars doesn’t mean we’re together. I might not see you all night.”
“Call me on my cell and say something suggestive from time to time.”
“With all my heart.” She walked over to him, pecked his lips and offered a brief hug. “You stay safe, amante. See you out there.”
“Los muertos no velaron,” Marty muttered, standing over the corpse.
“The unmourned dead?” Karen said, standing in the living room of a modest retirement-community apartment, investigating the death of a man in his eighties.
“That’s him,” he replied as he scribbled into a small notebook. “A man dies on Christmas day and leaves no one to mourn him. He doesn’t have any family that management knows of. This guy was all alone. He’ll just sort of…disappear.”
“Stop it, honey.”
The man lay still on the floor, amid evidence of the paramedic’s unsuccessful resuscitation efforts. A plastic intubation device protruded from his open mouth, pushing aside a purple, swollen tongue. Torn envelopes littered the floor, the EKG patches they once contained stuck unceremoniously on ashen skin. The firefighters left it all behind for the medical examiner, to show what procedures they had used on their patient. They had picked up the sharps – the syringes used to inject pointless drugs into the unresponsive form they had tried to exhort back to life.
“It’s kind of like croaking without anyone noticing,” he said. “There’s an actual day in Mexico, if you can believe that shit, where they put out food for the unmourned. October twenty-seventh, I think. My uncle lives in Cancun, and he once told me--”
“Martin, shut the fuck up, okay?”
“What did I say?” He was more confused than angry. Karen felt things strongly, rising quickly to bristling irritation when he did or said something thoughtlessly. His girlfriend’s passion was one of her best qualities – and most challenging traits. “What’s his name – Tom? Tom’s got no family. No one cares—“
“Soro, what’s got into you? So what if it’s Christmas. It doesn’t matter to him. He doesn’t have a tree, no gifts. He’s just another of the lonely, unmourned dead. We see—“
Karen knelt beside the man and rested her hand on his shoulder. Amide the plastic tubes, the torn paper containers and the expended drug vials, she murmured several heartfelt phrases, patted him gently and closed her eyes. She fell silent for a moment, nodded her head and stood.
“I’ll be outside,” she snapped. “You wait with the medical examiner.”
Karen stood next to her car, staring west toward the Pacific. A peaceful mood seemed to embrace the waves rolling gently under the pale rays of a full moon. That helped ease her frustration with Martin. A little.
“What’s the matter?” Martin asked, walking slowly up to her. “I’ve never seen you act like that at a DOA. I mean, if we took every one of these personally, where would we be? I know it’s Christmas, but still. What gives?”
“Did you see the plaque on his kitchen counter?” she asked. “The one next to his wedding picture?”
“The thing with the crossed swords? Yeah, he was in the army or something.”
“He was a sergeant in the Tenth Mountain Division. Do you know what that means?”
“He…. I dunno, maybe he hiked in the mountains or something?”
“He trained in the mountains. Trained for war at high altitude in the winter. He was a grunt who dug foxholes, and ate cold food. He probably wasn’t old enough to buy a beer.”
“Where did they train?”
“At the top of Tennessee Pass in Colorado. Camp Hale was built in a valley ten thousand feet above sea level, among fourteen thousand foot peaks.”
“They prepared to fight in winter conditions, in the mountains, because that’s where they were going in Europe. Christmas 1944, he was on his way to war. Maybe on a troop ship at sea, hoping not to be torpedoed.”
“When he was growing up, street vendors still rode in wagons pulled by horses. My great grandmother used to run out into the street in Philadelphia and scoop the poop for her rose bushes. Horses weren’t lifestyle statements – that’s how people got around. It was a different world.”
“How do you know all this shit, Soro?”
“Dad is an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado. His specialty is military…culture I guess is the best way to put it. He and I roamed Camp Hale one summer because he was writing an article. I heard all of the stories.”
“Are the winters cold up there?”
“Brutal. We camped there one night, a cold clear February, to see what it was like for the troops. It was ten below and we had the best winter camping gear around - Gore-Tex, down, space heaters. We still froze our asses off. These guys had wool and cotton and cork.”
“They toughed it out.”
“Yeah. Then they fought in some of the most rugged terrain in Europe. One night, they climbed up an 1800-foot vertical face in the Italian Alps, in the dark, in winter and attacked a German position with fixed bayonets. Drove the Germans off of the mountain.”
“How many guys did they lose?”
“Over a thousand altogether. Tom’s friends were dying all around him and yet… He got through it and lived to be an old man. He married, he worked all of his life and then one day he died in a little apartment in a modest retirement community in San Diego.” Tears welled in her eyes. “We had the sacred duty to treat him with respect. We had the honor of being with him at a time when the only dignity he had was our prayers. He lived a full life, one that he once offered in the defense of freedom. He was still a teenager when he did that.”
“This guy, esta un guerrero – a warrior.”
“Yeah. This man’s death is worth mourning. When duty called, he answered. He has a warrior soul, just like you and me. He was a stud, a hardbody. Just because he got old and fat doesn’t change that. Once, he could master anything. He endured, he overcame, he prevailed. He sacrificed for us.”
“Faced everything life could throw at him and succeeded.”
“Yes, he did.” She took his warm, soft hand into hers. “Our savior was born on this day. He promised peace on Earth, good will toward men.”
“I wish there was more of that.”
“It’s the great assurance of this season, of the birth of Christ. He intended his message for ordinary people like Tom. Men who have seen war deserve to be at peace.”
“I’m sorry we have to work, Marty. But I got the chance to do something meaningful today. I offered dignity to a good man on the day he died. I got to be with you while I did it. I’m blessed.”
Martin turned her around and held both of her hands. The look in his eyes was calm, but around the edges…. He hadn’t given in to keep peace between them. He was reacting to her words as he always did – honestly, without pretense or façade. A tiny smile formed on his lips.
“Merry Christmas, Karen.”
“Merry Christmas, Martin.”