Some cynics can’t wait for the Christmas season to end, the songs to cease and the lights to go out. Having seen the darkest side of humanity in the work I do, I can’t wait for the songs, the lights, and the outpourings of reflection, affection and gratitude to begin, granting me a reprieve from a world at war I know only too well.
When I got home from “doing business abroad” (the term I use to deflect those who know me by reputation and want to get the story for free), the physician in charge of my case ordered me to do the unthinkable.
“You’d better forget Christmas festivities,” he advised. “You need to rest, limit your movement, give up smoking and drinking, avoid holiday crowds, skip holiday parties, and remain homebound until healing is assured.”
A sensible precaution to be sure, given my wound and the persistence of Covid and other mysterious winter maladies, but one with a problem for someone eager to reclaim the life he left behind and toast the end of another grueling year of reporting from the world’s trouble spots.
“You’re taking all the joy out of my holiday homecoming,” I complained. “This is what I’ve come back for. It’s more than festivity. It’s therapy. I’ve been in the trenches in the Ukraine and the killing ground in Gaza. The holiday is my healing.”
“I want to put you on the road to recovery. Do what I tell you and you may live to see another Christmas.”
“Never mind the next one. This is the one I want.”
“Then don’t ask me. Ask Santa Claus.”
“You can’t give me something to see it through?”
“I just did.”
“No, I mean a pill? An injection? A wonder drug?” ..
“What you need is a rest cure, plain and simple, unless you want to wind up in intensive care.”
“It might help if you found a less hazardous line of work.”
“It wouldn’t be half as much fun.”.
“Fun? You call what you do fun?”
“It keeps you on your toes You never know what to expect. It’s a survival game. I won it. Winner take all.”
“Medically speaking, I can’t say your victory did you any good.”
“Professionally, it makes me publishable—-and potentially profitable. Anyhow, I’m home now. Recovery is only a matter of time, isn’t it? And Christmas is a happy and healthy start.”
“In other words, you’ll go on doing exactly as you please, ignoring my warning?”
“I’ll be careful. I won’t overdo it, I’ll be a model patient. How does that sound?”
“Like make-believe. But you enjoy taking risks, don’t you? Otherwise you wouldn’t be doing what you do.”
“A holiday is a very convenient time for me to unwind. I can even decide if I want to go on doing it. Maybe I’ll stay put for a while and write a book. How does that sound to you? That’s healthy isn’t it?”
“So long as you begin the book by resting, isolating yourself, and avoiding winter’s seasonal ailments and mystery illnesses. If you do that, you might have a chance.”
“It isn’t just about me. There’s a woman in my life whom I have to see from time to time in order for her to—“
“In that case, you’d better ask Santa to deliver your eulogy.”
“I’d rather ask him for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle,” I said, steering the conversation away from further argument. “You know, what Ralphie in that old movie wanted in order to become am anti-crime sharpshooter? Of course, Santa is a little busy these days, so maybe I’ll have it delivered by Buddy, the oversized elf.” Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?
The doc stared at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses, shook his head, closed my file and got to his feet. “Let me remind you that the best way to live a full life is to do nothing to shorten it. The longer you put your life on the line, as you have been doing wherever you go in the world, and now, here at home——-“
“Nothing lasts forever, doc. I’m doing what I can while I’m still able to do it.”
“Since you realize that, you might also realize that life is a gift–the most precious gift of all. My job is to preserve it And that’s what you need to do on your end—unless you’re planning on checking out?”
“Well, it might make you happy to know I’m thinking of an extended absence from overseas assignments to write that book and maybe a screenplay based on it, now that Hollywood is back in the picture business–or says it is. I’m even considering a book about how and why American DNA got implanted with serial killers, school shootings and trigger-happy murder sprees. What I also found out overseas is that our cherished image of a peaceful, hate-free democracy has gone down the flusher.”
“What do you think the reason is for that?”
“Too much bad television and not enough good Christmas movies. Thanks so much, doc. Here’s wishing you and your family a joyous holiday season, a prosperous new year, and immunity from winter ailments and mystery illnesses.”
“Behave yourself,” he had the last word as he went out the door to his next appointment, “or else!”
As soon as Margo Devereaux learned I was back in town, I received an invitation to her holiday party and a brief message in her terrible handwriting. With the aid of a magnifying glass and a bright lamp, I translated her message as: “Long time no see. Hurry up! Don’t keep me waiting.”
That was Margo for you. Once she heard I was still breathing and ambulatory (with a walking stick), she decided to overrule the medical profession.
It was no ordinary party, but then there was nothing ordinary about Margo. She’d arrived back from the Caribbean looking sun-kissed, polished and burnished. What she brought with her was the intent to bestow a creative touch of the tropics on the guests of her late December frolic.
I rested myself during the day and then took an Uber to her showplace oceanside residence out at Crystal Cove. On the way, I had to endure a non-stop autobiography from the driver who told me how his utter boredom with a 9-to-5 job led him to Uber’s flexible driving opportunities with an emergency button in case the worst happened, which it sometimes did, but what’s an occasional thief or back seat lunatic compared to the luxury of working the hours you wish in your own car and making a steady income, plus tips?
I showed my invite and ID to the cordial armed guards at the gate who checked my name and waved me in. The celebration was well under way and going full blast with a band that had to be seen to be believed. The usual blood-red and snow-white Santa, stuffed with a pillow and pretending to be a saint of merriment, had been replaced by a shake-and-bake calypso band that could wake the dead and get them dancing.
Innovation extended to food and drink. The usual hot chocolate and warm cider were replaced by the offerings of a barista team serving everything from coco loco and Jamaican rum to Aruban arriba, and Mexican michelada. And good luck finding candy canes or other trademark holiday munchies; they’d been displaced by sweet and spicy tropical snacks that were unusual and sometimes unpronounceable.
Clad in the flowing robe, glitz necklace and turban of Caribbean high fashion, Margo was making the rounds, urging her guests to capture “the gusto of the holiday” and keep dancing to make the band earn “the small fortune I have to pay these rascals to keep you bouncing.”
When she spotted me, she hastened to my side, hugged me gently without disrupting the thick padding of my wound and insisted we clink a glass to toast the season and the memory of our good times together.
“Have you made your New Year’s resolution yet?” I asked my hostess as we downed our cocktails.
“I resolve to be a woman always in control of her destiny. And you?”
“To be a man in control of a woman in control of her destiny.”
“Oh, no you don’t! I happen to be a woman in control of any man foolish enough to believe he can control a woman in control of her destiny.”
As for actual ambition, both of us had achieved it, but at a cost, which may explain why we always came back to one another. And why, in due course, she led me out on the high deck to admire the infinity of stars, the scimitar design of the crescent moon, and the waves breaking incessantly on the rocks far below.
We raised a second clink to my surviving another perilous year as a war correspondent filing dispatches in several war zones and thinking of collecting the best of them for a book called “Under Fire.” My reputation had already made me a guest on several talk shows and won me the possibility not only of tackling a screenplay but of counseling the leading man on how to pose as a smart, tough, audacious reporter, fearless under fire and committed to his task no matter the degree of danger.
“Your writing may or may not make you famous,” Margo summed me up, “but it looks like the wars are wearing you down. Have you seen a doctor? Have you given any thought to retiring, settling down to a life of ease and comfort? Producing a book once in a while? A screenplay once in a while? What do you think about enjoying the good life you deserve?”
“With anyone in particular?”
“How sweet of you to ask,” Margo said.
From the outset, I was attracted to Margo’s strong sense of personal discipline. She was a woman of few words, modest means, strict diets and rigorous exercises – a lifestyle that I helped sustain by bringing her food and supplies when she ran “a little short” and taking her running on those occasions when she wanted to go the distance and learn how to pace herself to reach the finish.
“Always save a little for later,” I gave her my six-word motto for the mile. It didn’t work so well for her unseen expenses, but that’s when she turned her mind to marriage.
At first, she was a woman determined not to rely on others, and to make it on her own. When she went as far as she could with that, she went farther with the help of husbands capable of advancing her career and improving her lifestyle. When husband #1 succumbed in a sporting parachute jump, she acquired a second who died when an otherwise uneventful ski run led him off a mountainside he never saw coming. A third proved to be another short-timer when his penchant for solo sailing led him too far out to sea and caught him with a failed radio in the grip of a violent storm’s waves. No trace of the man or his boat was found.
Margo was now living among privileged and overprivileged neighbors who had a habit of bringing her food, wine and sympathy whenever they learned she’d become a widow again. She was only briefly in mourning, however, content in having gone far beyond anyone’s expectations of who and what she was—- a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, as she liked to say, who now owned the railroad.
“Here’s hoping your hair-raising adventures are finished for this year—and all the years to come!.” she toasted me.
That was Margo for you, always hoping to talk me out of my profession to ensure that she would have her oldest and closest friend at hand when she ran out of husbands. She needed me now more than ever, but not for food, supplies or learning how to pace a long-distance run.
Given the size and spread of her domicile, with its abundant palm trees, panoramic sea view and broad deck that soared over a private beach, hers was a far cry from humble beginnings, childhood poverty, and the early days of a career begun in a cramped apartment that she likened to “living in a closet.” Now she lived in an exclusive district that prided itself as “the ultimate in California coastal living.”
“Long time no see,” she said putting a gentle hand on my cheek when we were alone.
It wasn’t the first time she’d said that. Separation and reconnection were the pattern of our relationship, which may have been why the relationship had lasted so long. Our interest and intrigue with one another was unending despite our markedly different personalities and the vastly different paths we’d pursued in life. What we had in common was a mystery to our friends, but it was there, however one defined it.
The playful tone of her invitation did not disguise the fact that she wanted to see me again. I could only guess why until she admitted she’d been reading the latest press reports of my exploits, such as the those whose headline read: “Reporter Vanishes in Chaos of Ukraine” or “Reporter Missing in Chaotic Gaza.”
Did she want to learn from me how I had managed to survive these and other newsworthy risks? She certainly had cause to wonder, having read my account of my news-gathering in Ukraine, offering myself as a target for snipers, narrowly avoiding being captured by the Russians and shot as a spy. Or being so close to combat that I had been stunned and deafened by an explosion and instinctively checked myself to see if any part of me was missing.
As if that wasn’t enough, I exchanged the risks of Ukraine for the dangers of Gaza, where I left safety behind to accompany a seemingly routine patrol in search of enemy militants.. The militants were waiting for us. When we came under heavy fire, I exchanged my non-combatant status for a rifle. A full-fledged firefight ensued, quite unlike the movie versions of warfare in which you can place reasonable certainty that the star will survive unscathed by the bee swarm of bullets, rockets and mortars.
When I received her holiday message, I wondered if it owed something to what she had read by me. or about me, and almost certainly to the fact that one of us was always going his or her separate way, but always and inevitably finding a path back to the other.
When I awoke the next morning, I found myself fully clothed (except for my shoes), laying under several blankets of an improvised bed. It was well past morning and afternoon, so I had managed to get more of the rest the doctor had ordered. The question was whether I could find something to eat, something to drink and something of Margo.
I put my shoes back on, not without with a measure of difficulty, threw some water on my face, and went down the nearest staircase, assuming it led somewhere. Wandering through the stylish and seemingly limitless interior, I noted a few souvenirs of previous husbands, such as the thousand-dollar Henry Brass side gate rifle, a first-class collection of rare and premium handmade cigars, and a small flotilla of historic model warships. Evidently, there was a sentimental side to Margo; or else she was waiting for the highest bidder.
“Good to see you again,” I heard Margo’s voice reach out to me from a pillow-strewn sofa near the view windows. “I was sure you wouldn’t make it to breakfast, so I waited for you to make lunch until my crew told me you were still out cold. Now you’re conscious, I’ll order dinner just in case you’re starving. Would your doctor object if you had a glass of wine?”
“So bring me up to date,” she requested as we began our meal.
“It’s a long story,” I evaded her question.
“Let’s see if I can guess how it goes. You almost lost your life more than once. You’ve been commended for the you-are-there feeling of your dispatches. And now you’re recovering with a wound and a wad of worthless foreign money in your pocket?”
“Something like that,” I said. “I was sorry to hear of your loss.”
“I warned him not to go out alone. He said some of his friends had made it to Hawaii, with or without problems, and he wanted to join the club.”
“Losing three husbands isn’t. I’m beginning to get a reputation as a mankiller. It makes me wish you and I were back in the good old days when we thought the world was ours for the taking. I miss that. I miss our age of innocence.”
“The rent was cheap, the food affordable. there was peace and progress, and what we didn’t know didn’t hurt us,” I agreed.
“Life was beckoning us, promising us we could have whatever we wanted if we were willing to work for it. That was sweet.”
“And what is life doing for you these days?” I asked.
“It’s worrying me. But cheer up. Here we are, together again. Isn’t that wonderful?”
A young servant came forward to ask our choice of beverage.
“The usual, Ruby,” Margo ordered. “Say hello to my old friend here. He went to see what was happening in Ukraine and Gaza and lived to tell the tale. I’m beginning to wonder if he is indestructible.”
“Welcome home,” Ruby said. “What can I bring you?”
“Made to my specifications.”
“French brandy that I like with lime zest and ginger slices.”
“I thought cognac was an after-dinner libation,” Margo said.
“Well, you never know.”
“You never know how long you have. Life is short. Better to grab the good stuff while the going is good. Just to make sure.”
“He’ll have a cognac,” Margo nodded to Ruby. “Just put a little lime zest and ginger slice in the glass, lightly press both with a pestle, and half fill the glass with ice. Stir well for five seconds using a bar spoon. Pour in some more cognac and add a small amount of lemonade and cucumber peel. Then stir again.”
“For five seconds, using a bar spoon?” Ruby asked.
“You got it,” I said.
“Have Mrs. Potts help you find whatever you need,” Della said. “Don’t forget to stir, but just a little bit.”
“Five seconds,” Ruby repeated.
The cocktail hour lasted longer than an hour and the simple but satisfying dinner twice as long as that.
Margo told Ruby we’d take our coffee out on the sheltered deck and there we planted ourselves, admiring the pleasantry of a clear and windless night, the patterns of infinite stars, and the voice of the tide that advanced and retreated from the beach far below.
“Feel at home now you’re back where you started?” Margo asked.
“It’s been a long time since I was here.”
“Too long. Are you really going to write a screenplay? I’d like to imagine you going Hollywood and dressing flamboyantly for the role of screenwriter!”
“Not for a while. Things came more or less to a standstill down there what with the actors’ strike, the writers’ strike and —“
“They’ve settled all that. But you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever be same. My guess is that Artificial Intelligence may start writing screenplays and humanoid robots may start playing roles.”
“Wasting my time in other words?”
“Not necessarily. I have a friend who knows a producer who might do the trick, with a word from me and maybe a little financial backing.”
“You’ll do anything to keep me around, won’t you?”
“Safe and sound.”
I looked carefully at her hint of a smile, noting the fine web of lines around her eyes, the cheeks makeup couldn’t quite gloss, and how her once firm chin had lost some of its contour. But the rest of her had held its own.
“You look fabulous,” I said.
“You’ll say anything to sell a script, won’t you?”
She asked Ruby to refill our cups and not to forget the creamer this time. Then she turned back to me with a long, appraising look, as if to make sense of who I had become and what had become of us.
“What did you really learn over there?” she asked. “Tell the truth. Did you gain anything except fear and regret?”
“Is that all?”
“The experience necessary to write well.”
“Is that all?”
“A new awareness.”
“The fragility of life. The limitations of security. The knowledge that-we are only fooling ourselves when we think we’re immune from—“
“Thank you, Ruby, but this is French vanilla and you know I prefer Hazelnut. While you’re there, be a good girl and ask Mrs. Potts if she has any of her homemade fruit cake left for us to share.”
We drank our coffees in silence until she put down her cup and looked at me in a way I had not seen before. The look was more unnerving than the Russian explosion or the Hamas attack.
“Is there something you want to ask me?” I said at last, sensing it was the reason I’d been invited to see her again.
“Who are you when you’re not writing?” she asked.
I had no idea what she meant.
“What do you do when you’re not writing?”
“Eat and sleep.”
“You’re in love with danger, aren’t you? Come on, admit it. What would it take for me to persuade you to give up adventuring for a safe and secure life—the kind of life you deserve—the kind of life you could be living right now?”
I didn’t tell her that I had plans to join an old Navy friend of mine who was assembling a hand-picked team and offering me a share of whatever reward might be found in the newly discovered wreckage of the Santa Cecilia, an eighteenth-century Spanish warship that foundered southwest of Bermuda with what might (or might not) contain a substantial treasure of the Indies.
The venture, slated for spring of 2024, was one I couldn’t resist, Not without its risks, of course, given sharks, currents, and dive perils. But when chance or fate or whatever you want to call it offers you the adventure of a lifetime, you would always hold it against yourself if you declined the opportunity. The doctor would warn me not to go, but I viewed it as another key to healing rather than a short cut to disaster.
My silence to her questions told Margo everything she needed to know. She sighed and looked past me, as if trying to imagine a way to change my mind and improve her life with a sustainable husband.
“I think,” she began and stopped, unable or unwilling to share her thought. It was as if the season of giving had not given her what she desired most.
“Tell me what you think,” I encouraged her as she took a taste of her coffee, made a face, and tossed the cup over the edge of the deck.
“I think you actually have to have all your dreams, whatever they are, come true to realize they are the wrong dreams.”
Unfortunately, the Santa Cecilia held nothing more than a few broken muskets, a few useless cannons, a few rusted swords, and the remains of its unfortunate crew.
Our team disbanded, but not before its commander shook my hand and grasped me to say farewell, declaring it had all been worthwhile because it showed the stuff of which we men were made.
“Now it’s time for all of us to go home,” he said, “find a wealthy and obliging widow, and retire to a life of gardening, Scrabble and golf.”
By the time I made up my mind to take his advice—after covering the Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon where I stepped on a land mine that miraculously did not explode—Margo had married again. But this time, she took no chances. She married a clergyman without the least interest in risking himself in sporting ventures. The two of them made a handsome couple who had nothing in common, but because her new husband was prudent, circumspect and scrupulous, she could be reasonably confident of a lasting marriage.
And then duty called. The cleric was asked by his church to go on a sacred mission to tend the hungry and hapless natives of a crisis-torn African state ravaged by merciless militants and hungry lions. His mission was to save lost souls and reclaim them. I later learned he was stepping into the role of a predecessor who had disappeared without trace, presumably into the hands of inhuman militants or the jaws of a hungry Leo with an acquired taste for humans.
The wound slowly healed, but I couldn’t keep my mind on a book and I drew a blank in Hollywood. I have every intention now of surviving my next stint of war correspondence and returning for the holidays to learn whether Margo’s game of matrimonial roulette has begun to spin again, jingling her bells as she renews her hunt for a model and sustainable husband.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”