“Every path, every curb, every rooftop was lined with thousands of softly glowing brown paper bags.”
Christmas Eve traditions differ from region to region, from family to family. All Lainie Davis knew, before she got in her old car and headed east was that Christmas traditions were for other people, not her. This excerpt from Welcome to Last Chance describes her first Christmas Eve in Last Chance.
Ray came by just at dusk Christmas Eve to pick up Lainie and Elizabeth, and on the way to San Ramon, the orange and crimson sunset faded to purple and the first stars tentatively appeared in the growing dusk.
Elizabeth peered up through the windshield into the darkening sky. “This is the time I used to watch for when I was a little girl—the moment when it was really, truly, Christmas Eve.”
“Seem weird not being at the ranch Christmas Eve?” Ray pulled off the highway at the San Ramon exit and joined the line of traffic snaking toward the town plaza.
“A little, maybe. But I’ve always wanted to see the San Ramon Plaza all lit up too, and with Lainie singing with the choir this year, well, here’s my chance.” She smiled at Lainie sitting between her and Ray.
“And here we are.” Ray turned a corner that brought them onto the plaza.
Lainie stared at the soft glow that surrounded them. Every path, every curb, every rooftop was lined with thousands of softly glowing brown paper bags.
“I’ll let you ladies out and go find a place to park. Meet you inside.” Ray stopped the truck in front of a restaurant and came around to help Elizabeth climb down.
The plaza was already filled with families and couples strolling the paths between the luminarias, their hands stuffed in their pockets and their collars turned against the evening chill. A mariachi band was playing “Feliz Navidad” in the gazebo in the center of the plaza.
The warm, spicy aroma of chile drew them into the cheerful clamor of the busy restaurant, and Elizabeth waved as she followed the hostess across the red tiled floors to a table set before the kiva fireplace. “Oh, look. There’s Juanita and Russ and the Montoyas. Looks like they had the same idea we did.”
Lainie was rereading the menu when Ray pulled out his chair and joined them. She looked up with a confused expression. “Do you all even eat chile and stuff on Christmas Eve?”
“What do you mean, even on Christmas Eve? Especially on Christmas Eve is more like it. Why, what do you have on Christmas Eve in California?”
Lainie tried to remember. “I don’t know. It depends, I guess. There was usually a party somewhere, so we had chips and some kind of platter from the grocery store.”
Ray shook his head. “Trust me. This is better.”
They were nearly finished with their meal when Juanita stopped by on the way out the door. Russ was still at their table counting his change.
“Merry Christmas, you all!” She finished tugging on her gloves and pulled her knit cap from her coat pocket. “What happened to Fayette? She get held up at home?”
“I never heard anything from Fayette. Was I supposed to? She’s riding up to the ranch with us tomorrow morning, but we didn’t talk about Christmas Eve.”
“Russ and I asked her and Matthew to have dinner with us up here, but since we had to do some last-minute shopping in San Ramon this afternoon, she said she’d meet us. We haven’t seen her, so I thought maybe you knew if something had come up.”
Ray rolled his eyes and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Great invention, ladies. You ought to give it a try.” Elizabeth and Juanita watched as he punched in the numbers. “Fayette? Hey, everything okay? Here’s Juanita.”
He handed the phone to Juanita, who muttered, “I hate these things,” before she smiled into the room and raised her voice so that people sitting across the room turned to see what was going on. “Fayette? Are you okay? We’re worried about you.”
They all watched her shake her head and tsk, and when her brow furrowed, so did Elizabeth’s. “Oh, honey, I’m sure he’s just lost track of the time. I’m just sorry you had to miss the music. But listen, we’ll be done singing in the plaza at 7:20. Russ and I will stop by here and pick up your Christmas Eve dinner and have it to you before it even cools off.”
They could hear Fayette’s tinny protest, but Juanita would not be dissuaded. “No, this is one night you are not going to cook. Now, what can we bring you? Mmm-hmm. And Matthew? Okay, see you around 8:00. Now you take care and stop worrying.
“Here, I don’t know how to turn this thing off.” She handed the phone back to Ray. “That boy! He’d better get himself turned around and right quick.”
“So he’s not home?” Elizabeth’s face was a mask of concern.
“No, she hasn’t seen him since three this afternoon when he promised he’d be home no later than five. You’d think on Christmas Eve, of all nights, he’d show a little consideration for his mama. After all she’s been through . . .” Her voice trailed off and the table fell silent for a moment. Juanita shook her head and puffed a loud sigh. “Well, I’d better go get that order in so we can pick it up after we sing.”
“Wait, Juanita. Can I ride back with you?” Elizabeth called after Juanita. “I don’t want to rush Ray and Lainie.”
Lainie put her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder. “I think you just want to go check on Fayette.”
Elizabeth reached up and patted her hand. “Well, Christmas Eve is never easy on her, and she should not have to sit there alone wondering where her boy is.”
At 7:00, when the handbell choir from San Ramon Methodist Church filed out of the gazebo in the plaza and the choir from the Church of Last Chance filed in, Lainie couldn’t tell if her shivering was due to nerves or the cold. She could see Ray bend down to say something to two young men sprawled on a park bench in front of the gazebo, watched him clap one on the shoulder and shake the other’s hand when they got up to make room for Elizabeth, and then her attention was drawn to Lurlene standing just down the steps with hands and eyebrows raised. The choir drew a collective breath, and the plaza was filled with the sounds of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
The concert was over almost before Lainie knew it began. Ray and Elizabeth stood at the foot of the stairs, and Ray swept her into a hug.
“That was amazing! Fantastic!”
Elizabeth blew her nose on the hankie she held clutched in her hand. “Lainie, honey, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the third verse of ‘Silent Night’ sung so beautifully. You have a God-given gift in that voice, young lady. I hope you know that.”
Lainie tried to think of something to say. She felt shaky, and exhilarated, and happier than she could remember having felt in a long time.
“You did real fine, Lainie. We’re all proud of you.” Juanita appeared at Lainie’s side and gave her shoulders a squeeze. Her smile was actually warm and relaxed. “Are you ready to go, Elizabeth? Russ has gone to pick up Fayette’s dinner, so we can go on and wait in the truck if you want.”
“Here, let me see you to your car, ladies.” Ray offered his arm to his grandmother.
“No, that’s not a bit necessary.” Juanita grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and tucked it in her own elbow. “The truck’s right over there. You two go on and enjoy yourselves.”
Ray jammed his hands in his pockets and watched the two ladies make their careful way through the glow of the luminarias-lined path to the pickup parked on the curb. He took a half step toward them as he watched Elizabeth struggle to hoist herself into the cab. But she settled herself before he could take more than a step, and he stopped and shook his head. “These ranch women . . . stay out of their way or get run down.”
He turned to Lainie with a smile and held out his hand. “We’ve been ordered to have a good time. Shall we get started?”
Lainie found herself humming another Christmas song as they joined the others wandering the plaza. Her hand felt like it belonged in Ray’s. Walking next to him, occasionally bumping shoulders, not saying much, filled her with a warmth that could stay the coldest night. Overhead the stars faded in the warm glow of thousands of candles tucked into their small brown bags. Who could imagine that such heart-stopping beauty could result from something so simple, so homely?
They stopped in the shadow of an old church still standing where it had been built with handmade adobe bricks two hundred years earlier. Ray dropped her hand and took her face in both his warm hands.
“Your face is cold.”
Lainie looked up at him. “Really? It doesn’t feel . . .”
But Ray wasn’t listening. He bent his head and she closed her eyes as he gently drew her face to his. From the gazebo a choir sang, Gloria!