We hope you enjoy #PruittWrites first Christmas story of the year. A unique option for 2020.
You wouldn’t think an old blue and black coffee cup would be the best Christmas gift I had ever gotten, but it was this year. That Prussian blue mug with black specks taught me a lot about happiness and stubbornness. Thanks to a very interesting, yet somewhat unorthodox Claus, named J.H. Mays.
It sat on his dressing room table for twenty years or more I guess. John Harry Mays is an actor. While he is only fifty, he seemed to have walked out of fifties television. I could just as easily imagine him throwing a cream pie as I could doing the internet commercials he was now famous for.
He is heavy, though not overly so. He looks bigger than he is I think, or he else he is surprisingly agile for his big boned frame as he puts it. Even when he traded his tie and dress shirt for a Hawaiian shirt, of which he had a hundred or more, I seldom see him without a coat or sweater.
J.H. has hair that was a mixture of black and silver that wasn’t exactly either color, depending on how the light hit the shiny slick and wavy hair style. His eating habits were amazing. If someone else paid, he barely ate two pieces of toast, but if J.H. bought the dinner, he feasted.
“It comes from being a young hungry actor kid. If you were invited to a place where you wanted to make an impression, you ate like a bird. If it was a buffet, you got an extra napkin, loaded, topped, and devoured, then repeat. When you got your own money, you ate until you couldn’t eat. You never knew when you couldn’t eat again.”
J.H. was only supposed to stay over the weekend, until we could shoot photos for his upcoming ad campaign. Then covid quarantine hit, and he had nowhere to go. His hotel room slash apartment was shut down. Years of resisting buying a house because of fear of dipping into his savings had been a mistake.
I heard him on the phone the second day. He floated the idea of moving into the storage unit if the manager would let him use the office bathroom. When the guy said no I stopped him before he bought the place. J.H. idea of what he should and should not buy had three rules.
“Is it a good investment? Will it turn a profit, either through reputation or money? Can I sell it to the little skinny out of work actor in my head?”
“You can stay here as long as you need to J.H. Look I’m a bachelor, and it looks now like I’ll be one for a long time. It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to while we’re seeing nobody else.”
He looked at me like I was a hurt animal and agreed. Probably because the woman I was going to marry decided to elope, and forgot to tell me. Sally married a car salesman, the one who sold her birthday present, a new Jeep. To be fair, the note said they’d make the rest of the payments on the vehicle.
I had been head over heels about the girl, and I don’t think the feeling was the same. While this was obvious now, it wasn’t until I read the note. I was in no mood to even think about anybody else at that point.
I think that’s when I became J.H. Pet Project. He decided I was in no way going to be a curmudgeon, especially if he was stuck here for two weeks. That’s when we thought it was only going to be two weeks.
I became his guinea pig for his gourmet meals, and they were gourmet. He could cook amazing. A week in, he had his niece deliver more food. “Marlene, you haven’t left the house in years, and you had this food delivered. Take that mask off and stay for dinner.”
“This is Brian, he’s a hermit like you. Though he is new to the club. She’s my attorney. Handles all of my business, and anything that irritates me. Her address is my address, but her house is too small for me.”
With that, he went off to whisk some eggs into some soufflé he wanted me to try. “Sorry about Uncle John. He’s like a teddy bear in a monster truck. If he decides someone needs his attention, he goes full steam ahead.”
“I’m beginning to understand that. So your an attorney. How did you end up there?”
“Uncle John heard me say I wanted to be a writer. He said, ‘You need a career in the meantime kid. Otherwise people will call you a loafer, and they’ll never see anything else.’ So I became an attorney.”
“Were you okay with that?” She smiled at me with a funny look. Then burst out laughing.
“You really don’t know much about Uncle John yet do you? He didn’t force me to go. Instead, he introduced me to some friends who were lawyers. I fell in love with it. Once I did, he insisted on paying for college and law school.”
“My Mom is his little sister, and he sort of adopted her, Dad, and me. When I started at my first firm Mom mentioned that I liked the work but not the politics. He talked me into handling his business, then told me he needed someone full time.”
“That house he said I never leave, he built it, with an amazing home office. While he wouldn’t admit it, Uncle John built it for me. This way I had plenty to do to keep the lawyer in me happy, and give me time to write my mystery novels.”
“She’s good too Brian. Marlene won’t tell you, but she’s M. Calhoun-Tompkins, bestselling mystery writer of the year. I just gave her a little room to fly that’s all.” He yelled from the kitchen.
She blushed. “His hearing is excellent. Though his eye doctor says he still needs to wear his glasses! They’re not readers Uncle John.”
“Fit perfectly in my coat pocket until a script requires their attention. You two make yourself useful, go check on Barnaby. He’s probably hungry by now.”
She asked if I had a computer handy, and I showed her to my little office. “So who is Barnaby? I haven’t heard your Uncle mention him before.”
Marlene laughed again. “He’s Uncle John’s let polar bear. Barnaby stays hungry, but that’s not what he wanted me to check on. You’ll see.”
She made an Internet call to Dr. Henry Liepowirz, head of the local zoo. “Hello Henry, how’s Barnaby doing? Will he be ready for December?”
“Oh yes ma’am, your Uncle’s charity drive is going well. Between this event and the Seal-a-thon, we should have our new expansion paid for in no time.” After the call she looked at me again.
“I think there’s something you need to know about Uncle John. He’s more than he seems. When you meet him you think he’s this big showman, and to some extent he is. What he doesn’t advertise is the crusader side of him.”
“Does he help with a lot of charities? Is the Zoo his passion? I didn’t think he was necessarily an animal guy?”
She could tell I didn’t understand. “He likes animals. He loves Polar Bears, Penguins, Dogs, Cats, but those aren’t his passion. People are his passion. He met Dr. Henry’s daughter performing in a broadway production, she’s an actress. Wanda told him about her Dad struggling to keep the Zoo going.”
“Uncle John stepped in, and now they’ve expanded three times in four years, including the new Artic section, and Barnaby the Polar Bear. At the same time I was coordinating that, he helped build three high schools. The reason he doesn’t own a house of his own isn’t really because he likes living in a hotel.”
“He owned that hotel until he gave it to the lady who used to be the head housekeeper there. He spends his time and money off stage taking care of people. If he sees someone who needs help, he goes into action.”
She could tell I didn’t completely understand yet, but said something about ‘Well you will’, before changing the subject. Over the next few months, I would get it. When the quarantine extended, and the restaurants starting closing, J.H. began his ‘Save The Culinary Artist’s’ drive.
In addition to Marlene, he recruited me. I became his videographer for his one man shows. J.H. started posting videos on YouTube, everything from hilarious comedy routines to Shakespeare. With each one, in the first and last five minutes, he made a passionate plea for someone, or industry in need.”
It became my full time job, which was good, considering no one was hiring a photographer. After about a week, J.H. had insisted on paying me. I didn’t realize it for months until I looked at Marlene one day when she came over to help shoot one of her Uncle’s more elaborate performances. “I’m one of his projects aren’t’ I, that’s why he’s started paying me?”
She laughed. “Honey, you were his project when he picked you to shoot his pictures instead of some bigger name. You just didn’t know it yet. It’s called Maysteria, all of us projects who experience his generosity have nicknamed the adventure. Uncle John figures this way you can’t say no to his help if you don’t see it coming til it’s too late.”
Over the next few months, all of this continued building. By November, I was a full blown Maysteria fan, also I had started looking forward to the weekly visits of his niece Marlene. I wouldn’t admit it, but J.H. could tell I was disappointed if she had to cancel, or was called away to something. That’s when he went into phase two.
The first Friday in November, he decided we needed an adventure. He had a huge movie projector, popcorn machine, even an old fashioned candy cart sent to my house. He worked all afternoon to cook an amazing dinner. On the way back to get the bread, we heard a loud crash.
J.H. wasn’t so corny he would fake a fall or anything so common and anticipated. He was on the phone, loudly arguing, throwing rocks out my back kitchen window in the woods. There were several pots at his feet, apparently he had knocked off, he seemed truly upset.
“No Harold, it’s not your fault, but I am disappointed. That shipment was supposed to get to Miami in three days. The High School is counting on those instruments for the Winter concert. I’ve got to figure out a substitute. Doesn’t Steve Torney live in Miami? Let me call him, thanks Harold.”
He whirled around to look at us. “Look kids, you heard. The shipment of instruments won’t get there in time. I’ve got to put together a substitute. There’s a singer I know, Steve Torney, he’s pretty big, but he owes me. This is a show biz thing Marlene, I’m going to have to handle it directly.”
“Are you sure Uncle John? I can help setup the call. What if he’s not available?”
He held up a hand. “I’ll use the old fashioned way, I’ll call him. You stay I may need help later, but a strong arm may be required for this. I may have to remind him of a couple things. Dinner’s cooked, I don’t feel like eating. You two eat, tell me how the movie turns out?”
With that, he was gone to the guest room, and without even Marlene figuring it out until the movie started, we were on our first date. We talked all through dinner, and the movie. J.H. came down just as it was ending.
“Well, Steve Torney is going to host an internet event, conferencing in all the students. They’ll get to do some songs with him, and he will do some specials. He jumped at the chance. I’m hungry, how was the movie?”
The two of us murmured that we didn’t really follow the plot while he brewed coffee. “Today is a special day Marlene. I had something delivered. Guess what it is?”
She had no clue, until he pulled out an old coffee cup, the one I had mentioned earlier from a small box. Her eyes got very, very wide. He smiled and nodded. “Yep, I think I’m finally there honey.”
Marlene hugged her Uncle. “Her name is Alice. You won’t believe it, but she’s actually the Principal of the High School that I’m helping in Miami. In the midst of helping someone else, I found something I’ve been looking for at least thirty years.”
“He’s confused Uncle John. I think you better do a recap, go slow, he’s new to the Maysteria Fan Club.”
J.H. laughed. “I still don’t like that term. Fans are people who appreciate your work, but may not know you. All of you, and I mean all of you, are dear friends. I’m just an actor who remembers what hurt, hunger, and loneliness feel like, who wants to help somebody else.”
“Sit down Brian, you’re about to hear a story a little like your own. I was a young actor, met an actress, fell in love. She didn’t feel the casting was right, so she changed the lead. I think she’s been married about five times, and I gave up when she broke my heart.”
“I had just bought this coffee cup that day, and was planning on taking it to the apartment I had just rented. It was going to be our honeymoon place. She at least told me in person. I called, cancelled the apartment, and promised I’d never settle down. I’d be a bachelor the rest of my days.”
“That was stupid. I knew it the day I set it, but actors are dramatic. The problem is, I kept playing the role. I allowed a lot of possibilities to pass me by. This coffee cup sat in my dressing room as a reminder of two things.”
“The cynic said, not to settle down, it hurt too much. The hope in me said simply, you’ve drank plenty of bad coffee, but you never stop over one bad pot. I’ve decided, hope was right. I don’t know if this Principal and I will keep dating, but I know I’m ready to give it a try.”
In spite of a great first date, anger flooded through me. I didn’t say anything stupid, but I made some excuse and headed upstairs for the night. J.H. didn’t follow, but I found out later he covered with Marlene for me.
The next morning though, he made up for his discretion the night before. I don’t know where he got the tuba, but he got one. The door to my room burst open, and in walked J.H. In his pajamas, slippers, and suit coat, blaring a tuba. “Breakfast is in five minutes young man, the coffee is brewing. I ask that you join me post haste, or else I’ll be forced to practice the entire soundtrack to my first musical in this room, your choice.”
I sleepily nodded, mostly out of fear, and he left. Five minutes later, looking horrible, I sat down to breakfast. I was still too stunned to be angry, so I kept my mouth shut.
“Brian, you almost royally ruined any opportunity last night. Do you think you’re the only one that’s scared to talk to someone? Marlene is not a major fan of it either. One scare, and she’ll run for the hills. My own long term ignorance aside, she’s worth the fight my boy.”
“J.H. I appreciate your help, but …” He helped up a hand and stopped me. Then he picked up that coffee cup.
“Let me guess, I have no right to meddle in your life. I agree. I’m not doing it because I have a right too, I’m intruding admittedly, because you need me desperately. Give me five minutes, and if you don’t see merit in what I’m about to say, I’ll never speak of it again.”
I lapsed back into shock and nodded. If nothing else, curiosity had me now, to see what he would pull next. At least the tuba wasn’t in site.
He pointed to that coffee cup again. “The best cup of coffee of the day is your first one. You may be half asleep, you may feel horrible, but that first cup of coffee says you can get through the day. There’s only one cup of coffee that’s better than your first morning’s cup, and that’s Christmas Coffee.”
“Christmas Coffee is better because it doesn’t just say you can get through the day. It says this, this is why you get through all those days, for mornings like this one. Yes, the other girl hurt you, and no it’s not fair, but when you find the real thing, you realize all the other missteps were worth it all.”
We ate in silence after that. He wasn’t sure he was convincing, and I wasn’t at first either. Until the second cup of coffee. I started to think about, not what he said, but about Marlene and I laughing together. I smiled at J.H., he smiled back, and handed me some cinnamon rolls.
“So J.H. what made you rethink your position. The Principal, what made you ask her out? It wasn’t that silly coffee story you just told me was it?”
He laughed. “Of course not. You’re young and full of energy, you have the strength for loneliness, I’m older. I just got too tired to keep it up, it’s hard work, plus, she’s got a great smile.”
I was still terrified, but I did like Marlene. So we started dating. With the quarantine, she couldn’t go home to Denver for Thanksgiving, so J.H. cooked everything. He spent four hours over video conference talking to Alice. They playfully argued over who had the better cornbread dressing recipe.
She was able to fly in the next week and stayed with Marlene. The four of us became inseparable. J.H. bought a huge Christmas tree, and fancy ornaments for my house, but the fun was pulling out Marlene’s old one and decorating the simpler one at her house. At one point J.H. and I were covered in attic dust, but we didn’t care, it was Christmas.
It’s not Christmas yet, and every day with Marlene, and J.H. is an adventure worth risking your heart for, but before I end my story, I want to share one last snippet. That night, after decorating the second tree, he and I drove home. He handed me a small box, wrapped in snowmen wrapping paper, we both knew what it was before I opened it.
The card attached to the coffee cup is something I’ll always cherish. “Everybody needs a good sturdy coffee cup for Christmas. Some days, like pots of coffee with a bad filter, there will be grounds for being disgruntled. Yet, even a bad cup of coffee smells sweeter with someone to share it with.”
Some Christmas stories are told where all the threads are wrapped up, but this year is very different. Neither J.H. or I know how things will turn out with Marlene or Alice, but we do know one thing. If this year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of family, of investing in others, and of sharing a good cup of coffee, and your heart with those you love.