The sun shone dully through a thick blanket of December clouds while an elderly woman made her way haltingly across the street to Anderson's Grocery, clutching her coat collar closed while she went. A brass bell clanged overhead as she bustled through the door, pushing it closed against a bitter wind.

"Hello Mrs. Watkins, how are you this evening?" A jolly looking man in a faded red smock, greeted her from behind the checkout counter. "Cold enough for you?" "Yes... yes!" she exclaimed. "I believe it's going to snow again soon; the aches in my bones say so!" "As if we haven't had enough already! Can I help you find anything?" "No thank you, I don't think so, I just need a couple of things and then I'll be ready for a nice little Christmas dinner with my neighbor."

"You got here just in time," he said cheerily. "I was just about to close up shop." "Oh... good! I won't take long!" she said heading toward the canned goods section. She scanned the well-stocked shelves for what she wanted. There were cans of corn, cans of beets, green beans, sauerkraut, even cans of pumpkin pie filling. She must be getting close!

But her good humor failed when she saw that her way was blocked by a young ruffian. He seemed to be standing right where the cans she needed would be. He wore an olive drab overcoat with earrings and a spiky haircut, and his pants looked like they might fall right off his scrawny hips. What would a kid like this be doing in a grocery store?

She didn't want any trouble, so she decided to go on past him to the dairy cooler and pick up the margarine she needed. Maybe by the time she came back, he will have finished and moved on to another part of the store. She walked quietly and cautiously past the young man, noticing with chagrin that he seemed to be studying the ingredients in a can of congealed cranberry sauce, one of the things she was looking for!

At the refrigerator case she picked up a plastic tub of margarine and placed it in her shopping basket. On a whim, she added a carton of eggnog. Why not splurge a little? Tomorrow would be Christmas, after all!

Having finished with her other shopping, Mrs. Watkins returned to the canned goods section. As she stepped into the aisle, she observed the kid struggling with something under his jacket. While she watched, a loaf of French bread slid out from under his coat and fell to the floor. Looking closer, she could also see that his coat pockets were bulging with tin cans. He was shoplifting!

She stepped back, hoping he hadn't seen her. There's no telling what he might do if he thought she had seen him! Hoping to be inconspicuous, she turned to the shelf beside her and picked up the first thing that came to hand, a bag of nacho flavored chips, and dropped it into her basket. Then she made an inept effort to walk casually over to the checkout counter.

"Excuse me, Mr. Pritchard, I need to tell you something." Seeing that something must be wrong, the grocer leaned forward to hear her urgent news. "You've got a shoplifter!" she whispered excitedly. "That weird-looking punk is taking everything you've got! You've got to call the police!"

"Oh, you mean Jackie? It's all right, he doesn't take much." "He's done this before? You know about this and you don't do anything about it?" she asked, wide-eyed and bewildered. "That's right. He's okay. About every other week or so, he comes in here and takes one or two things."

While the man behind the counter spoke, the subject of their conversation sauntered past them and right out the door. "But I really don't mind," he continued, "he only takes what he needs." "You can't let him just walk out of here!" she whined. The storekeeper was beginning to lose his cheerful demeanor when he answered "Yes I can, Mrs. Watkins. I appreciate your concern, but this is my store; I'll do business any way I want."

"Now," he said with finality, "is there anything else you need? Or can I ring you up?" She could hardly speak; was he giving her the brush-off! "No," she snapped. "That's all. You can ring me up now."

After paying for her groceries, Mrs. Watkins stormed angrily out of the store. Along the way back home, a stray cat began to follow her. "Get out of here, you mangy, yellow flea bag!" she growled, kicking clumsily at it. "I don't have any food for you!" The cat, being used to such treatment, dodged her foot easily and continued to follow.

Just around the block, in a rented mill house, Jackie returned home to the smell of turkey and dressing. Susan, his pretty young wife, smiled as he came through the door. "Merry Christmas!" she called out, happily. "Supper's almost ready!" "Great! I'm starved!" He walked over to the high chair where a curly-headed girl with chubby cheeks smiled up at him.

"And how's my little angel doing today?" he said, lifting her high in the air. She laughed and squealed with delight. "Look what Daddy brought you!" He set her down and pulled a can from his pocket. "Your Daddy brought his baby some cranberry sauce! You like your cranberry sauce, don't you?... Yes you do!... Yes you do!"

She laughed and giggled as he tickled her chin. Susan came from the kitchen carrying turkey TV dinners which she put on the table. "Perfect!" she exclaimed. "Just what we needed to dress up our dinner!" She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

On the other side of town, a Christmas tree, heavily laden with lights and tinsel, stood watch in the corner while the grocer sat down to dinner, his family all around. Royal Doulton china and Waterford crystal sparkled in the flickering light of a pair of candles while the family prayed, giving thanks for the meal they were about to eat. When the prayer ended, the feeding frenzy began: Pass the turkey! Pass the potatoes! Terry, be careful, you'll knock your glass over. Christine, would you like to have some dressing? At the head of the table, the amiable patriarch, made a request: "Pass the cranberry sauce, please."

Down the street from Anderson's Grocery, Viola Watkins was preparing a modest meal. A small hen was roasting in the oven and green beans boiled in a pot on the stove. A salad bowl was filled with a colorful mixture of lettuce, carrots, radishes and broccoli. Fresh rolls snuggled under a towel in the breadbasket. A bag of nacho chips sat alone and unopened on the kitchen counter. The doorbell announced that her friend had arrived. "Margie! It's so good to see you! Come in, come in! Supper's almost ready. Let me take your coat. Have a seat!"

"It's good to see you too," Margie said. "Thank you for inviting me over. Here... I brought a couple of things for tonight." The box she offered Viola contained a home-made fruit cake and a can of cranberry sauce. While the two old friends ate, they chatted and reminisced about the good old days. Later, Viola told Margie about her encounter with the shoplifter and Mr. Pritchard, and about how rude he had been.

Margie interrupted: "Don't you know about Mr. Pritchard? "No.... Should I?" she asked, uneasily. "Mr. Pritchard used to have a partner in the grocery store. He and Ben Anderson, owned the store together; they were best friends. About twelve years ago, Ben had a heart attack and died. Ever since then, Mr. Pritchard has watched over Ben's only child, a boy who was only fourteen at the time. "I'm almost sure that the boy you saw at the store today must have been Jackie Anderson, Ben Anderson's son!"

For a moment, Viola's fork hung motionless in the air, all but forgotten. Finally, she said, "Oh, my goodness!... That must have been him!... I'm so embarrassed! I think I owe Mr. Pritchard an apology!"

After the ladies finished supper, Mrs. Watkins scraped their leftovers onto a plate and carried it out to the back porch. "Kitty?" she called. "Kitty! Kitty!" A scrawny yellow cat slipped quietly out of the shadows and crept cautiously onto the porch. "You know, if you feed that thing, you'll never get rid of it," Margie commented from the door. "I know. It's all right; he won't eat much. He'll only take what he needs."

She set the plate down and the cat immediately ran over and began feasting on the contents of the plate: chicken bones, giblets, green beans, cranberry sauce and gravy. Viola leaned over for a moment and stroked the cat's bony back while he ate. A smiled curled on her face when she heard a purr rumbling in its throat.

Copyright © 2000 James Stokes

Enjoy A Collection of Christmas and Holiday Stories