Itzhak poured another finger of bourbon for the tragic man sitting in front of him.
The people who came into his bar on Christmas Eve were almost always tragic. Drunks who’d alienated their families, old men with nobody left, or the occasional Christmas romantics trying to find a partner to kiss under the mistletoe.
It was all the same to Itzhak. Business was business. He was Jewish, and Christmas mattered about as much to him as Yom Kippur had mattered to the irritated goys who hadn’t understood why he was closing the bar on a perfectly good weekday.
All the same, though, he wasn’t insensitive to the whole affair. Whatever the holiday, he knew it wasn’t pleasant to spend it alone. So, he hung up lopsided garlands and put a few strands of the disturbingly bright LED lights in the window next to his menorah. The bar’s playlist was a disjointed medley of non-religious carols involving magical snowmen, jingle bells, and wishes for snow. He’d added in a few Hanukkah songs for good measure.
“I know it ain’t your holiday,” Nicolas slurred, downing the bourbon. “But thanks for staying open, ‘Zhak.”
Nicolas was a thick-bodied sanitation worker whose only family was his bedbound, terminally ill mother. He snuck out to the bar after she’d had her nightly medication, drinking as though he could find the cure for cancer somewhere at the bottom of his glass.
The door to the bar opened, bringing in a blast of cold air and a few snowflakes.
“Shut the damn door,” an old woman grumbled.
Rubbing his hands against the outside cold, the newcomer laughed jovially. “Bah humbug, Fiona. Bah humbug.”
Despite herself, the perpetually grouchy woman managed a weak smile.
Throwing off his scarf and jacket, the man sidled up onto the barstool beside Nicolas.
“Howzit, Jamal?” Nicolas asked sloppily, patting his barmate on the back.
Jamal steepled his fingers eagerly. “Well, gentlemen, I have news. I got my first callback.”
“Your parents should be proud,” Nicolas muttered.
Itzhak winced at the well-meant but insensitive comment, nervous to see how Jamal would react.
Jamal nodded, taking a second to digest the remark.
“You know what? You’re right. They should be proud. But who cares about them? I got y’all, my theatre troupe. I got Andy. You’re all better than a couple of bigots.”
“Another one, ‘Zhak?” Nicholas held out his empty glass.
“I think you’re good on the booze.” Itzhak pushed a bowl of peanuts towards the other man, who accepted his cut-off uncomplainingly.
“When’s Hanukkah?” Jamal asked, “You going to close down the bar for a few days like last year?”
Itzhak looked guiltily at his menorah, which hadn’t even been plugged in that season. “It’s actually going on right now.”
“Why are you here with us?” Jamal asked. “Why aren’t you with your family?”
“It was five years ago, Sarah. And I still feel terrible about it.”
Itzhak was on his knees, kneeling beside his bed as though in prayer, watching his wife pack away their future into her suitcase. His hands were folded in supplication as he begged for something he knew wasn’t going to happen.
Her eyes were splotchy and swollen, black lines of mascara had run tracks down her cheeks.
“My own sister. I had to find out from my own sister,” she sobbed.
He reached for her hand, but she pushed him away.
“It happened once,” he defended weakly. “And I’ve never forgiven myself for it. I always wanted to tell you, but I just—”
From the bedroom at the end of the hallway, a sleepy voice spoke faintly, “Mama? Daddy?”
Both adults froze.
Wiping at her nose, Sarah took a deep breath before calling, “Go back to bed, baby. We’ll go see grandma tomorrow for Hanukkah.”
“Sarah…” Itzhak pleaded dimly, feeling as though a lightbulb inside of him was flickering.
She hauled the suitcase off the bed and walked out of the room without another glance at him.
“It’s complicated,” Itzhak muttered uncomfortably, not knowing how to define his life’s current state of flux.
Neither man pried further, but as they talked for the next hour, they’d periodically shoot him a pitying look. He didn’t want their pity. He wanted them to call him a liar, a cheat, a bad husband and father. It’s complicated was a pathetic minimalization.
But none of the patrons who currently sat in Itzhak’s bar were strangers to complicated. Complicated was parents who disowned their gay sons and mothers who died slowly from sickness. Complicated was aging away from friendships and growing apart from lovers. Complicated was a thousand different reasons why the scattered groups in Itzhak’s bar had come together on Christmas Eve to celebrate their loneliness together.
Life was complicated for him. For all of them.
“Well, ‘Zhak, tomorrow is Christmas for us and Hanukkah for you…” Nicolas finally said after a while, speaking slowly as his drunken idea formed. “Let’s celebrate together?”
Itzhak felt a weak smile touch at his lips.
“Okay.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ll be open. Same time as usual.”
Nicolas stood, throwing cash on the counter, “Keep the change. I’m no good at cooking, but I’ll bring some chips for tomorrow.”
Putting his coat back on, Jamal added, “I might have a tub of cookie dough at home. We’ll see what I can do with that.”
As the customers trickled out, with promises of desserts and snacks to bring the following evening, Itzhak cleaned the tables and scrubbed stains from cups. Before stepping out into the snowy evening to face an empty house and the crippling uncertainty of the future, Itzhak walked to the window and turned on his menorah. It was the cheap electric kind, bought almost as an afterthought when he’d opened the bar a decade ago. But, as he stood in the darkness, it somehow seemed to glow brighter than years prior. The lightbulb inside of him was flickering. But there was still light somewhere.
Rebekah Worick lives in Washington D.C. with her loving family, indifferent cat, and bustling beehive.