It was a cold, dreary night and Peyton Taylor was alone in the oldest city in the United States. She loved St. Augustine, but even the lights in the Plaza, when she came out of midnight Mass, didn't cheer her up. It was the second year she had been a widow, and memories of Frank flooded her thoughts. They had always done things together. She thought she had adjusted to life as a widow but, for whatever reason, she was haunted tonight. Her grown children lived too far away for a short Christmas visit so, what should have been a joyous night, turned into her own “pity party”.
She started to walk toward her apartment. From the corner of her eye she saw an older gentleman with a short white beard. He waved at her as he came out of the Cathedral. Of all things, he was wearing a Santa Claus hat. Strange attire for someone who must have been in his mid sixties, she thought.
His walk was brisk as he headed across the Plaza. His cap bobbed up and down. Why had he decided to pick her out of the crowd mulling around and who was he?
“Excuse me for approaching you this way, but I watched you during the service. You looked so sad. Is there anything I could do to help?”
She shrugged. “Just the Christmas blues. This is the first time I've been alone during the holidays and I'm a little disheartened. It will pass. Thank you for your concern, though.”
He smiled and his eyes twinkled.
“Could I at least offer you a cup of coffee at the Pub around
Why not? she thought. Maybe a little conversation would brighten her loneliness. When they were inside, hot black coffee warming her, he introduced himself.
“I'm John Webster,” he said reaching across the small table.
“Peyton Taylor.” She shook his hand and noticed how immaculate his fingernails were groomed. She liked the way he looked. He had a trusting, slightly jowly face and a wonderful smile. Without the Santa hat, she saw bushy white hair that matched his beard.
“Forgive me if I'm staring, but have you ever dressed up and played Santa at Christmas?” She blushed at the audacity of her remark.
He squeezed her hand and chuckled. “I used to, for the grand kids. Since my wife died six years ago, the family doesn't come around as much. I've had more time since she passed away. I've adjusted. Your pain is still raw. Soon, you'll adjust, too.”
As he sipped the last of his coffee, he asked her how long she had lived here.
“Just a year. When my husband died two years ago, I needed to get away from New York and the pain I felt. Frank and I used to visit here every so often. It took courage on my part but I felt it was something I had to do. I opened a small store on Aviles, and live in an apartment above it. It's small and sort of Bohemian, but I have a nice balcony where I can enjoy the night air after a busy day at work. I enjoy hearing the clip-clop of the horse carriages as they bounce along the old brick road. I rarely have time for just sightseeing, though.”
“I've lived here all my life. I married my college sweetheart and she brought two strong male babies into our lives. Of course they're grown now with children of their own. Did I mention I have three grand kids and one great grand-daughter, Tina, who calls me 'Poopsie'?”
Peyton laughed. “She'll get it straight when she's older. Meanwhile, it's sort of endearing on her part. I don't see my children very often. They live busy, active lives and it's hard for them to travel so far.” She wiped at eyes that suddenly teared. This is crazy she thought. What must John think? He handed her his handkerchief and grinned sheepishly.
“Do you like Christmas lights? I know a lot of people who own houses that are magnificently decorated. Would you trust me to drive you around and look at them?”
She hesitated only a moment before accepting John's invitation. Christmas lights had always enchanted her. They left the Pub and he pointed to his Lincoln. He held her elbow as they crossed the street. They were off and running. Peyton hadn't realized how many different areas there were in St. Augustine.
They wove through back streets where he pointed to certain houses. He knew the names of all the kids he had been friends with so many years ago. He explained about the people who lived there now. Many had passed on or moved away, but several of the friends he had grown up with were still there.
The old Victorian houses sparkled like jewels. Open porches were covered with lights and dazzled the eyes. Large Christmas trees were laden with ornaments. As they drove past one house, John stopped the car and got out, waving to a couple who were on the front steps.
“John, old man,” the woman called out. “Come join us for some eggnog.”
John bent down and peered at Peyton. “Okay with you?”
She nodded and found herself being introduced to Ralph and Kendra McClain.
Inside the smell of roasting turkey wafted to her nostrils. A glass of strong, homemade eggnog was thrust into her hand. She sniffed the air.
Kendra offered an explanation for why she was cooking so late.
“I always buy the biggest bird I can find and cook it very slowly overnight. Then Ralph nibbles on it for breakfast. It's become a tradition. We love falling asleep to the aroma and I can relax just fixing the veggies and potatoes tomorrow before the family arrives. I don't like to be a slave to the kitchen, so pies and cakes are store bought.”
John interrupted the conversation. He still had a lot he wanted to show Peyton. After hugs and calls of Merry Christmas, they were on their way again. John continued down the winding, narrow streets pointing at certain houses, explaining about the people who lived there. It was like driving through spun sugar. Peyton was lost in the glow of magic John was providing. She laughed at the stories he told her about his youth. St. Augustine wasn't such a tourist town when he was a teenager, at least not by today's standards.
“We didn't have the traffic problem we have today. I could ride my Schwinn all over town without worrying I'd be hit by a car.” He slowed down. “Look over there. She's magnificent, isn't she?”
Peyton turned to look at where he was pointing. A large schooner was anchored in the bay. Its sails gleamed with white lights. A Christmas tree was decorated on the deck.
“I always wanted to go sailing, but my wife couldn't swim so I never bought a boat. Who knows. Maybe it's not too late.” He cocked a bushy eyebrow at Peyton.
Peyton giggled. “Somehow, John, I figure you can do anything you want. Age has nothing to do with you.” She reached over and lightly kissed his cheek.
They had driven around town for over two hours and this stranger had become her friend. When he finally dropped her off at the Plaza he said he'd be coming to see the shop soon as the holiday was over.
“I'd like that,” she admitted. They said their goodbyes and he drove away.
To her amazement there were still people strolling the Plaza. Before heading to her apartment, Peyton glanced around the brightly lit Plaza, at the millions of tiny lights caressing the tall trees. Yes, Christmas was here and she felt the glory of it all wrapping itself all around her.
Author Audrey Frank