Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Eve at Joe's Diner

I write a Christmas story each year. Here's the one for 2006:

Muriel Stone needlessly wiped the counter while she stared into the tiny parking lot in front of the diner. Whirling snowflakes curtained the inky night beyond the reach of the lights. She turned toward the pass-through window to the kitchen. "Joe, why don’t we just close up and go home before the weather gets too bad?"

The older man with a white cook’s cap on his head leaned close to the opening. "Can’t do that, Muriel. This stretch of road is long and lonely. What if someone who doesn’t know about how really far apart the towns are needs some place to light for a while?"

She tossed the damp white rag onto the shelf under the counter. "I guess you’re right, but we haven’t had a customer for over three hours."

He smiled at her. "You go on home if you want to. I can hold down the fort alone."

Muriel gave her head a swift shake, and one curly lock fell from the bun at the back of her head and tickled her neck. She stuck it back under the knot. "I said I’d work tonight, and I will."

After all, she really needed the extra money Joe paid for the holidays. She still owed the hospital $5,000 on her deceased husband’s final bill. It had taken her over two years to whittle it down that low. With the tips she’d been receiving lately, it might take another couple to finally pay it off. What a dismal forecast for her future.

The brass bell over the door jingled, and she looked up. A middle-aged couple, bundled against the cold, made their way to the farthest booth from the door. Probably to keep from feeling the wintry wind in case someone else came in. Muriel filled two glasses. After sticking menus under one arm, she picked up the water and headed around the counter.

"How can I help you folks?" The smile she painted on her face as fake as a three dollar bill as she handed them the menus.

The woman pulled a cap from her tumbled, white curls and looked up at Muriel. "I need something hot and nourishing. What do you suggest?"

Her companion silently watched the exchange with a half-smile on his face.

"Joe has a delicious pot of stew going, and his cornbread muffins’ll melt in your mouth." Muriel poised her pencil over the small green pad.

A look of deep understanding passed between her customers before the man ordered. "That sounds fine to us. My wife and I would like coffee while we wait for you to bring the food."
Muriel didn’t need to write their order down. She walked to the pass-through where Joe waited expectantly. "These people want some of the stew and cornbread."

He nodded and set to work. The steaming food appeared in the window just as she finished pouring the coffee. After serving the bowls of stew, Muriel returned with the hot bread and butter.

With a twinkle in her eyes, the woman gently touched Muriel’s arm. "Since you’re not too busy with customers, could you sit with us while we eat?"

Muriel glanced from her to her husband, who nodded his agreement. Why not? It had been a boring afternoon and evening. She was good at her job, because she liked talking to people. "Hey Joe, I’m going to visit with these people unless someone else comes in."

He gave a wave from the kitchen, and she knew he didn’t mind.

They talked for over an hour. These people fascinated Muriel, telling her about being retired, the family scattered all over the country, the far-flung places they’d visited in their travels. Jesse and Martin Hamilton expressed an interest in her life, and she found herself telling them more than she had ever shared with anyone, except Paul when he was alive.

Muriel couldn’t remember exactly what led up to it, but eventually they talked about God as if He were their personal friend. She’d never known anyone like them. Since she hadn’t come from a religious family, she’d never heard of the things they shared with her. Somehow, she soon felt her heart yearn for the kind of peace that radiated from this couple. If only it were possible for her to experience it.

As soon as that thought entered Muriel’s mind, Jesse reached toward her and took her hand. "We didn’t just happen to drive by tonight. God told us to come here to this diner to talk to you. He loves you and wants you to know Him the same way we do."

As coincidental as that sounded, Muriel’s heartbeat quickened. She wanted to know this God they spoke about, especially if what they said was true. "So how do I get to know Him?"

Martin reached into the seat beside him and picked up a Bible. She’d seen one before, but had never felt drawn toward it as she was now. He pushed the red leather-bound book across the table toward his wife. Jesse opened it and started reading. The words came alive in Muriel’s heart.

After the woman shared several passages from the book, Martin asked if Muriel wanted to accept Jesus as her Savior. When she nodded, they prayed over her, then helped her know the words to pray for herself.

If anyone had ever told her a simple prayer would change her, Muriel would have thought the person was crazy. She was still a waitress in a small diner in the middle of nowhere. She had debts hanging over her head and missed her husband. But something inside her had come alive. For the first time in her life, she really understood what Christmas was all about.

Muriel looked at her new friends and smiled through her happy tears. "Thank you for coming here and telling me about Jesus."

"We were glad to do it." Martin took his Bible when Jesse handed it to him.

Muriel decided she would have to save the money to buy one for herself. Not a leather one like they had. She knew there were other kinds. If she had to, she’d just get a paperback.

Jesse pulled open the large tote bag she carried. "The Lord told us to bring you a gift, but we don’t want you to open it until we’re gone."

Muriel, who really liked getting presents but didn’t get very many, only gave the gaily wrapped box a cursory glance. "Are you leaving anytime soon?"

Martin scooted out of his side of the booth. "We have to be on our way. We’re going to visit our newest grandson for the first time."

After jumping up from beside Jesse, Muriel looked from one of her new friends to the other. "I hope I haven’t held you up too long."

The smiling gray-haired man took her hand in his. "This was the most important part of our journey."

Muriel clutched the present as she walked them to the front door. When she turned back, Joe stood behind the counter.

"So what happened out here?" His words sounded cheerful.

"The strangest thing." She sat on a stool and told him all about it. "I’ve never felt like this before."

Joe nodded. "I’ve been praying for you a long time."

"You’re a Christian, too?"

"Yeah, but I guess I’m not as good a one as I should be if the Lord had to send someone else to tell you about Himself." Joe poured both of them cups of coffee and settled on the stool next to hers. "So open your present."

Muriel tore off the paper. The box contained a leather Bible with her name on the front in gold. How could that be?

"Did you have anything to do with this?"

Joe shook his head and took another drink from his cup.

When Muriel picked up the book and caressed the smooth navy cover, she noticed that five envelopes lined the box. She opened one and counted out ten $100 bills. Each one contained the same thing. In the last one she opened, there was also a note.

God told us to bring this to you. He even told us your name. This money must seem like a treasure to you, but just remember your greatest treasure is the one we showed you before we gave you this present.

Copyright 2006, Lena Nelson Dooley


Anonymous said...

Lovely, Lena.

Merry Christmas, Rachel

JanetElaineSmith said...

I was directed to your blog by Janet Spaeth. What a wonderful warm Christmas tale. Thank you so much.
Janet Elaine Smith, fellow author

Sheryl said...

What a wonderful story Lena. Thank you for writing it for us.

Have a blessed Christmas!

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful story!

Have a very blessed Christmas, my dear friend!

Janet Spaeth

Bernadine said...

What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Loved it. Sending warmest Christmas greetings...Hope you had a wonderful one.

Anonymous said...

I loved your story, Lena. Thank you for reminding us how God can work when we are completely surrendered and listen to His voice.