Joe Delante did not like Christmas. As a matter of fact, his friends would say he was more of a Grinch than Ebeneezer Scrooge. Whether this was true or not, it did not make any difference since Joe loathed all the fuss his friends made about the holidays. Secret Santas and mistletoe just made the season intolerable as far as he was concerned.
Listening to carols on the radio station as he drove his Mustang was enough to put him into a bad mood which could lead him to a good road rage if the cards fell a certain way.
His mother Rose told her rebellious son that his bitterness was what drove his father into an early grave. Yeah, when his old man kicked the bucket, Joe wound up working the Delante Pizzeria. He dropped out of college in order to keep the business afloat, but as hard as he worked the business made just enough to pay the bills with little left to spare. Rose suspected this was the root cause of his sour mood since his father had passed away from a heart attack on Christmas Day. When the rest of the family got home from mass, they found Rudy slumped over on the couch watching television.
Rudolph Andre Delante was laid to rest in the church cemetery. It would be the last time Joe would set foot on church property.
“Mama, I have a business to run.” He would tell Rose when she harped about his lack of attendance at mass. The truth was, Joe held a grudge against a God that would take his father without warning and leave him to tend to the fledgling business. His younger brothers Mario and Simon helped out, but they were got a kick out of the holidays, much to the dismay of their older brother.
“C’mon Joe, go with us to Celia’s party. She’s gonna have beer on tap.” Mario begged as he threw his dirty apron into the laundry bin.
“Kegger.” Simon smiled.
“I’ve got to get the dough ready for tomorrow.” Joe rolled his eyes as he shook his head.
“It’s Christmas Eve.” Mario shrugged.
“We are open on Christmas, you know.” Joe slapped the counter with his open palm.
“Why? You’ll be lucky if you get two customers.” Simon blew air between his teeth sounding much like a balloon with a leak.
“Two customers is money in the register.” Joe put his hand on the register. It was one of those antique registers with an arm, “In case I have to remind both of you.”
“Yeah, dad kept this place open on Christmas and he was gone before fifty.” Simon pointed out. “You ain’t even twenty five.”
“C’mon Joe, don’t be like dad.” Mario put his hands inside the pouch on his hoodie and swayed on the back of his sneakers. For a moment, Joe gave what he said some consideration, but his dedication to the business ended with a quick shake of his head, “You two go on now and have some fun.”
“You don’t know what you're missing. Marissa keeps asking for you.” Simon pointed his finger at his brother like a pistol but when he saw the icy look in Joe’s eye, he just shrugged as he followed his brother out of the shop.
About ten minutes before closing time, the pizzeria did not have a single customer, so Joe thought about locking the door and slipping off to the party. He knew Judah Baines never ended a shindig before midnight. He could be there in a few minutes, say hello to Marissa with a beer in hand.
Marissa DiMaggio was his high school sweetheart with curves in the right places and a voice that could melt butter. He closed his eyes. He could almost smell her perfume as he jingled his keys, finding the one to lock the front door. As he moved toward the door, he heard the bell jingle to alert him a customer had entered. His heart dropped into his shoes.
Sitting at the counter was a middle aged man in a beige long coat and fedora pushed back on his head revealing a balding spot. Once seated, he asked, “Are you open?”
“Yeah for another ten minutes.” Joe sighed.
“Good, I need a couple of pizza pies.” He smiled.
“What do you want, sir?” Joe felt his instinct to tell this jerk to get the heck out, but he knew he had an obligation to his late father.
“Two large pepperoni.” He put a Franklin on the counter. “It’s to pay for the order and the rest is a tip.”
Joe swallowed hard since the tab would be around thirty and the rest he would shove into his jeans pocket doubling his take for the dreary night.
“Gabriel.” He nodded.
“Gabriel, you look familiar.” Joe said as he made his way to the pizza preparation area. Using a ladle, he smeared the marinara sauce on two round disks that would become pizzas. Using the pepperoni and cheese, Joe added this to the sauce before putting each on a flat pizza spatula to place each of them into the stone oven his father had installed over thirty years ago when he opened his pizzeria.
“I’ve been told I have an everyman face.” He sat back on the stool.
“So are you going to a party?” Joe asked, trying to strike up a conversation while he waited for the pizzas to cook. The smile on Gabriel’s face disappeared so quickly, Joe quickly added, “Hey, it ain’t none of my business. Just forget I even asked.”
“It’s alright…you see my boss…well let’s just say he’s throwing a very unconventional gathering.” Gabriel waved his hand as if to keep this information hush-hush.
“Sorry.” Joe apologized
“I wish I could tell you, really I do, but it’s just one of those things.” Gabriel shrugged as the timer went off.
“Your pizzas are ready.” Joe used the spatula to take them out of the hot oven and plopped them in an open box. Gabriel handed Joe the hundred dollar bill as he took the warm boxes from Joe.
For reasons he still isn’t sure about, Joe watched his last customer exit the shop. He would lock up as soon as Gabriel was gone, but then he discarded his coat and two giant wings appeared on his back. Joe nearly fell over the pizza prep area as he watched Gabriel take to the night sky in flight.
“What the---?” He rushed out the door, but Gabriel had already disappeared. He was still holding the money in his hand as he stood there with his mouth open looking at the sky.
“So walking in this neighborhood with that, is kinda dangerous.” A beat policeman warned Joe.
“Did you see that?” Joe pointed to the sky.
“Big Dipper? I see it every night on my shift.” He shook his head, “Better get back inside and put that money where it belongs.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joe opened the door with his eyes still looking up at the opaque sky.
“So some guy named Gabe came in here and left on wings?” Mario said as he removed a pizza from the oven.
“Swear to God.” Joe shook his head.
“Are you sure you didn’t come over and grab a beer?” Simon laughed.
“No, he walked in ten minutes before closing.” Joe asserted.
“If it was me, I’d tell him we were closed.” Marion put the hot pizza into a box. “Hey it’s Christmas Eve and it’s pretty slow…can I go home early?”
Joe flopped his arms to his side. As soon as the customer paid for his pizza and left, the place was empty. “Sure.”
“Great.” Mario grabbed his jacket after discarding his apron.
“Me too?” Simon asked.
“Sure.” Joe was disappointed his brothers did not seem to have the same level of dedication he had to the place.
With less than an hour left to go and an empty pizzeria, Joe sat at the counter and watched the big snowflakes fall from the sky.
Son, if you are ever going to make it in this business, you have to be dedicated and willing to go the extra mile if need be.
His father was standing in front of him wearing his old black and white striped apron that he wore every night.
“Dad?” He stood up. He was tired and needed a good night’s sleep, because these illusions were a lot more frequent, like Gabriel and his wings.
“Josepheppi, my boy.” He tilted his head and smiled at Joe. “I knew I taught you right.”
He waved his finger whenever he was trying to prove a point which was most of the time.
“Are you really here?” Joe asked.
“Do you see anybody else here?” He laughed.
“Dad, I don’t know if I have what it takes to run this place.” Joe sighed.
“Wha? What is this? Didn’t I tell you that you were gifted?” He leaned on the counter in front of Joe and looked him in the eye.
“I just don’t know if I want to be gifted anymore.” He shook his head.
“Wha? What? What are you talking about?” His voice raised a few octaves. “My father came over from Italy on a boat. He cleaned restrooms so I could start my own business. And I did.”
“Dad, I was going to college. I was getting straight A’s. “Joe pleaded.
“You will have time to do that again. When the time is right.” His father patted him on the cheek with his open palm.
“When the time is right. Get those two brothers of yours to help pull the weight.” He smiled.
“Fat chance.” Joe stood up and let a laugh escape.
“Your mother can work miracles.” He shook his finger at his son.
The bell rang. Joe instinctively looked up. It was Gabriel.
“Christmas Eve and you are still open?” Gabriel sat down.
“This is the guy, dad.” Joe looked to where his father had been standing, but he was gone.
“Dad? Who would that be?” Gabriel questioned.
“My dad, Rudy, was just standing there…right there…”
“Doesn’t seem like he’s still there.” Gabriel smiled.
“Sure, sure, what can I get for you? Joe asked.
“Actually, the boss loved the pizza so he sent me to get you.” Gabriel nodded.
“Who is your boss?” Joe asked.
“I’d rather not say.” Gabriel sighed.
“I saw you fly away last night after you left here.” Joe pointed to the door. “You had wings.”
“How would that surprise you?” Gabriel asked.
“Not all my customers can fly.” Joe said with a hint of sarcasm.
“Only angels can fly.” Gabriel said as if this was a hardened fact, “Demons do not have the wing capacity since their bodies are too heavy for their wings.”
“Who are you?” Joe began backing away for his sole patron.
“You saw.” Gabriel nodded.
Indeed, he had, but he had more questions than answers.
“I’m not ready for whatever it is you are asking me to do.” Joe began to feel tears roll down his cheeks. “I’m just starting out…”
“The call can come at any time.” Gabriel replied flatly.
“Can I at least call my mom and let her know?” Joe asked.
“This is not a call.” He looked at his watch. “Sometimes we take someone, like yourself, who is gifted and return them once they have completed the task.
“And what would my task be?” Joe asked, feeling a little more relieved.
“You are going to make a really big pizza, of course.” Gabriel removed his hat. He was completely bald on top of his head. “Are you ready? Now I’m going to have Bob escort you up there, but it seems he is late again. Bob is an archangel in training…”
A rather large man walked into the pizzeria. He was wearing an apron that said “Trainee” across the front.
“Sorry I am late boss, the traffic was horrible.” Bob shifted on each leg.
“It’s alright, Bob. This is Joe.” Gabriel introduced them and Bob shook hands with Joe.
“Whatever you do Joe, do not go into the main dining area.” Bob warned Joe as they were standing in the largest kitchen Joe had ever been in. “If you do, they will never let you back.”
“Back where?” Joe asked.
“Back to where you came from.” Bob peered through the small window in the door, “I will deliver the pizza. All you have to do is make it.”
With nearly every topping at his fingertips, Joe Delante put together a pizza that would have made his father proud. Bob stood nervously at the door.
“So how long have you been an angel?” Joe asked as he put the pizza into the oven. He did not like what he saw when he opened the door to the oven.
“Time is not something we keep track of up here.” Bob answered.
“And what about those things in the oven?”
“Oh Joe, you do not want to know who…I mean what they are.” Bob began to tremble.
Joe remembered the hundred dollar bill Gabriel had given him. It was still in his pocket. “Hush money.” He thought to himself.
“Done,” He told Bob who was still trembling.
“Excellent.” Bob rushed over to take the pizza on a platter, “You are gifted.”
“No, I just paid attention.” Joe said in a voice only he could hear. Bob pushed the door open. Unable to resist temptation, Joe walked over and peeked through the window into the dining area.
“Wake up sleepy head.” Mario jostled his brother. Joe groaned. “Did you really sleep here all night?”
“Sleep?” Joe shook his head to clear out the cobwebs that had accumulated. He sprang to his feet. It was true, he had spent the night asleep in the pizzeria. In his dream his father and Gabriel spoke to him about his talents and Bob took him up there to make a pizza for, well he never did find out who it was for.
“Merry Christmas.” Simon walked through the door.
“It’s Christmas?” Joe rubbed his eyes.
“Yes, it’s Christmas. What did you think?” Mario gave him a gentle nudge in the back of his head.
“Go home.” He told them.
“We just got here.” Mario shook his head.
“It’s Christmas. We should be home with mom.” Joe insisted. Both of his brothers looked at Joe as if he lost his mind.
“What happened to all that money we were going to make today?” Simon shrugged.
“No one will come and make it worth our while.” Joe hung the “Closed” sign in the window.
“Are you sure you are feeling alright?” Mario asked.
“I had a bit of a revelation.” Joe confessed.
“Were you visited by three ghosts?” Simon shrugged still in shock.
“Better.” Joe put his arm around Simon and Mario, something he had never done and both redacted the same way.
“Have you lost your mind?” Mario asked, letting his eyes look at the hand resting on his shoulder.
“No, let’s just say I’ve come to an understanding.” He laughed.
“We have to teach you how to laugh. That was just plain creepy.” Simon shook his head.
“In my dreams, I saw how I was becoming like dad and I knew I would not fare well.” He removed his hands from their shoulders. “So let’s go home and spend the day with mom,”
“No pizzas. No surprise calls to work.” Mario put his head on a swivel.
“Nope, no just kidding either.” Joe laughed.
“I don’t know what dreams you have had, but I think I am beginning to like them.” Mario agreed.
“So we just go home?” Simon walked toward the door.
“Yup, we just go home.” Joe held the door open for his brothers, adding, “I’ll catch up.”
“Say, this isn’t a trick where you stay and do all the work.” Simon raised his eyebrows.
“No, it’s on the level.” He watched his brothers walk home singing some carols.
When he got the keys to lock the door, he saw the envelope on the counter. He picked it up and removed the card.
Thank you for the wonderful pizza you prepared for me and my angels. It was truly the best pizza we have ever had.
Putting the hundred dollar bill inside the card, Joe locked the door and walked home for Christmas feeling very much like Ebenezer Scrooge.