There was a fire crackling merrily in the fireplace. The scent of pine and gingerbread filled the house. Three greyhounds napped happily around the Christmas tree. Children in their pajamas were arrayed around their grandfather, awaiting the coming of Santa with the badly contained enthusiasm of youth.
"Grandpa, Grandpa, tell us a story!"
This call was echoed fervently by everyone present, including the other adult in the room. Grandpa chuckled a bit and told them that of course he'd tell them a story but they must promise to run off to bed afterwards, so as to give Santa time to deliver all their presents. They gleefully promised and settled down as best they could to hear the story.
Grandpa cleared his throat and sat back in his rocker and began to tell the children their story. "Children, he said, this is the story of a man they called Hard Luck Chuck."
Charlie, as his friends called him, was sitting as his desk. His office was a drab affair. It was devoid of any personal touches, save two photographs on his desk. One of his son and the other was his daughter. He never really thought much about it, but if he did, he'd probably reflect that not having a lot of personal effects in the office just made it easy to leave if he got fired. He shuffled through the daily reports, fact checking some, embellishing others and just generally made sure that the paperwork he was assigned flowed efficiently through his hands. He'd never really thought of himself as a star or a key player. He thought of himself like a floor, a wall or a light switch. You depended on these things to work, but you didn't spare them any thought unless they stopped working. And if they stopped working, they'd get demolished or replaced and left over parts would just get tossed aside. He didn't want to be replaced so he just kept working. Dependable. That was about the highest praise he'd ascribe to himself.
There was a tap at the door as Brian, his boss, leaned on the door frame.
"Charlie, you gotta clear outta here. It's Thanksgiving and the security guys can't leave until you do."
"Sorry, Brian, I just get caught up, you know?"
Charlie started to gather up his papers into his briefcase when Brian stopped him. "Hey now, you're not taking work home with you! Tomorrow's Thanksgiving! Go spend time..." Brian paused, but hurriedly pushed on "...er, relaxing, and don't try to come in Friday. I gave the whole office time off and I don't you coming in to work. Take some time, enjoy yourself."
"Sure thing, Brian. I'll see you Monday." Charlie grabbed his coat and hat and walked down the hall and out the door.
Brian paused at the front desk. The Guard shook his head ruefully. "There goes Hard Luck Chuck. Can't that guy ever catch a break?"
Brian grunted a non-committal sort of agreement and together he and the guard locked up and headed home, ready to start Thanksgiving with their families. Each of them felt a little sad for Charlie, who'd be alone this Holiday, like so many others.
Charlie went to his little house with the fenced in yard and parked in his driveway and went inside. He'd managed to put several files in his car earlier in the day, because he knew that Brian would tell him not to work on the Holiday, like always, and he'd just find a way to keep busy. Keeping busy was important to Charlie, since he really didn't have anything else to fill his time. His wife had died several years ago. His daughter was off at college in Alaska and couldn't really afford to come home during the school year. His son was married and living in California. Yeah, keeping busy was very important to Charlie.
He went through his evening, as he always did. He made himself a TV dinner, turned on a TV that he had no intention of watching and sat in his chair until he decided to go to bed. When we woke, he made himself a plain bagel with butter, sat down at the kitchen table and worked on the things he brought home to work on. It was Thanksgiving day, so he did stop to call his children briefly and, to honor the occasion, he made himself a plain turkey sandwich on white bread, put his work away, turned on the TV and sat in his chair again. Soon enough, it was time for bed. Charlie looked forward to bedtime, because it meant that he'd soon wake up and be able to go back to work.
The next day at work was just like every day at work, except no one was there. Everyone in the office had taken off except for Charlie and the poor security guard that had to be there because of Charlie. The fluorescent lights hummed and every so often the chair creaked. That and the scratching of a pen were the only sounds in the office as Charlie worked his way through the morning. At precisely Noon, Charlie heard the front door open and soon Brian's voice could be heard making sympathetic small talk with the guard. Brian soon made his way to Charlie's office.
"Charlie," he said, "let's go. I'm taking you to lunch."
"Brian," Charlie responded, "you should be home with your family."
"Pot. kettle. Goose. Gander. Now, I know your kids are out of town and you're alone for the holiday. Let me take you to lunch. Let's let the guard have a few hours off today. As far as I'm concerned you worked all day, now let's go eat. You pick the place."
Charlie sighed, resigned to his fate of having to leave for the day. He gathered up his coat and hat. "Wherever you want to go is fine with me."
Brian nodded and they left the guard to lock up. Just down the street was O'Hanlon's, a traditional Irish pub. They walked down to the street corner and Charlie reached out to push the button to cross. Just as he pushed the button, he felt an odd poke in his posterior. Turning around to see who had violated him, he found that the perpetrator was a four footed fiend attached by a leash to a rather embarrassed looking young lady.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Jack Squat likes people and he, well, probably just wanted to say hello in a really odd way."
Brian hooted and Charlie tried to be affronted, but his new friend sat down and put one paw over his nose. It was oddly comical and Charlie found he wasn't very upset at all. In fact, he cracked a smile. It was as surprising to him as it was to Brian, in fact. Charlie didn't smile much anymore. He bent down and gave Jack Squat a little attention. The young lady introduced herself, apologized more and explained that Jack Squat was a little goofy, even for a Greyhound. Charlie assured her it was fine, patted Jack Squat on the head one more time and crossed the street.
"You got your Christmas Goose early, didn't you?" Brian chuckled all the way to O'Hanlon's.
When they got seated, Charlie looked over the menu. He'd decided on Chicken soup and a cup of coffee. Satisfied, he put down the menu and made small talk with Brian till the waitress came over to take their order. Brian cut Charlie off and proceeded to order two top shelf whiskeys and the best steaks the house had to offer.
The whiskeys arrived first and Brian took the opportunity to propose a toast. "Charlie, you work too hard. It's high time you had some help, so we hired you a new employee to mentor and you will be promoted to chief of your section, with commensurate pay, a bonus and a bump in vacation time, which you WILL be using from now on."
Charlie protested, he resisted and he tried to get out of having to part with the work he loved so much, but Brian would not be swayed, so finally he relented and drank to his new-found "luck."
They made their way through the meal and Charlie headed home to suffer through the weekend and await Monday morning, where he was sure to be training his replacement.
Monday morning came and Charlie trudged into his office. He began to go through his morning ritual when Brian appeared at his door with his new youthful protege. "Mornin' Charlie. This is Kevin. He is your new employee. Kevin, this is Charlie. He's your new boss. Your job is to learn what Charlie does and take over most of the workload. Charlie is now responsible for this whole department - that is, both of you. Of course, we're going to be acquiring a small firm that specializes in this area and we need both of you ready to handle the integration efforts."
"Brian! You didn't say anything about this last week. Why," Charlie sputtered, as Brian cut him off.
"Charlie, this is me breaking it to you gently. You're teaching Kevin here so that you can manage the new division after the acquisition. There's only 10 or so people in the firm we're buying..."
"10!?!?" Charlie was starting to get ramped up, now. How dare Brian spring this on him? Charlie was perfectly happy with his bland existence and having this thrown at him, after all his hard work and sacrifice??? It was preposterous!
"Well, maybe closer to 20, but you're the best at what you do and, frankly, after all your hard work and sacrifice, you deserve it."
Brian beat a hasty retreat and left Kevin and Charlie to get acquainted.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Kevin cleared his throat and tried to make small talk. Charlie stared a bit longer and simply said, "Lesson one, the gentle art of spreadsheets."
The next few days, Charlie did his best to impart the knowledge his new young acquaintance would need to do his job successfully. That Friday, Kevin wouldn't be put off. "Who are the people in the pictures?"
"My son and daughter."
"They coming in for the Holidays?"
"Where are they?"
Charlie sighed and put down his pen. "My daughter is at the University of Alaska. My son and his family are in Burbank, California. Now, if you'll excuse me?" Charlie grabbed his coat and hat and bolted out the front door. He stormed off in a random direction until his head cooled off a little, muttering to himself about the effrontery of today's youth, asking so many questions.
Back at the office, Kevin went through Charlie's unattended briefcase. He found the documents he was after and picked up the phone. A few seconds later, Kevin spoke into the phone. "I've got the goods. Meet you in 5 minutes?"
Charlie found himself several blocks from the office, conveniently in front of a restaurant where he decided to get some lunch. He ordered, ate and paid for his lunch efficiently and strode angrily out the front door where he discovered two Greyhounds, gravity and the sidewalk in rapid succession. As he lay on his back, staring up at the sky and two very long noses which belonged to two Greyhounds. They were both very intent on giving him kisses, but he gradually became aware of a large, goofy man, a woman and a couple of kids fussing over him. They tried to help him up, apologize and pull the dogs off him simultaneously. The really only succeeded in making Charlie laugh. He finally managed to get up and brush himself off. If he'd thought about it, he couldn't have said why he was laughing about the situation he found himself in, but he did.
"Are Greyhounds always this affectionate?"
The man looked a bit startled, but said "Yeah, pretty much, and they're always this goofy. Look, sir, I'm really sorry about all this, is there something we can do for you? At least let us give you our phone number and let us pay to have your suit cleaned."
"Don't worry about that. It was just an accident. This sort of thing seems to happen to me, of late."
As the family said their goodbyes and made further apologies, Charlie watched them go. Shaking his head he turned to go and found, lying on the sidewalk, a business card from what appeared to be a Greyhound adoption agency. It appeared that way because of the name and the words "Greyhound Rescue Group." He picked it up, intending to throw it away but his attention wandered, so he absentmindedly put it in his pocket and made his way back to the office.
Once Charlie made it back to his office, he found Kevin waiting patiently. Charlie emptied his pockets as was his usual habit and put the contents of them, card included, on the desk. Two young, very intent, eyes scanned the card.
"Shall we get back to it, then?"
"Sure Charlie. Let's get back to work."
The next couple weeks passed easily if not quickly.
A man sat in his office. He was staring at his calendar, noting that there was only a week until Christmas when the phone rang.
"Brian, how do you do? Fine. You have the information? Excellent. Please forward it to me immediately. Thank you, Brian. You have done very well indeed."
He put the receiver down and made three phone calls. He made a note on his calendar for December 23rd.
The morning of December 22nd found Charlie and Kevin working away. Kevin was doing most of the transactional things while Charlie merely checked his work. Charlie had to admit that Kevin was coming along nicely, though there was still a long way to go. Maybe by spring, Charlie could afford a week off since Kevin... That train of thought derailed as Charlie realized he didn't take vacations. Where had that ludicrous idea come from? Shrugging mentally, Charlie got back to the task of training Kevin. It was mid-afternoon when Brian poked his head in.
"Charlie, Kevin, get out of here. We're closing early today. Charlie, the office will be locked until Wednesday morning. The guards have orders NOT to come in if you call. They're to call me if you try to come in to work and if I catch you trying to come into the office, I'll add an extra day to your vacation. Now. Get. Out."
Kevin gratefully gathered his belongings and bustled out of the office.
Charlie stared at Brian for a bit, then bowed to the inevitable. He gathered his things, not making any attempt to hide his dissatisfaction. Brian was sentencing him to an entire 4 days of not working. That's ok, he reasoned, because he managed to put several files in his car and so would have lots to keep him busy.
"Oh, Charlie? I took your keys while you were in the bathroom and I relieved you of all those files. I won't hear of you attempting to work over the Christmas weekend. Merry Christmas! You're welcome!" Brian fairly ran from the office, indignant splutters followed in his wake.
Charlie made it home and fumed his way through his Friday night. Saturday morning, just after finishing the plain bagel he'd made for breakfast, the doorbell rang. Charlie opened the door and found himself staring at a courier.
"Good morning, Sir. Please, take this and sign here."
Charlie opened the proffered letter and read "Charlie - in recognition of your services this year, the whole office chipped in and got you this little gift -- Brian. p.s. Your Christmas bonus will be arriving tomorrow via special delivery."
Charlie looked at the delivery man and asked, "What is the gift?"
The courier reached down to his waist, grabbed a radio, keyed the mic and said, simply, "Bring it on in, fellas."
Over the next two hours, a team of people brought in a tree, lights, decorations and transformed Charlie's living room into a Christmas Extravaganza. Charlie wasn't able to turn down the gift and so he found himself watching the whole process in a sort of haggard disbelief.
As they left, they assured him that they'd be back in a week to take down the decorations. They were his to keep, but they would take care of cleaning up, not to worry.
Charlie stared at his living room for quite a while. He went about his day, determined to box up all the unwanted stuff, but somehow, he just never got around to it.
It was December 24th. Charlie waited with dread all day for his bonus to arrive. He didn't need or want a bonus. He just wanted to do his job. He just didn't need all this stuff complicating his life. To pass the time, he made himself stop humming Christmas Carols. He was also NOT watching A Christmas Story for the third time. After the fourth cup of egg nog (who likes this stuff, anyway?) the doorbell rang. He opened the door and was immediately accosted by two sets of front paws and two noses, each set belonging to a Greyhound. Attached to one of the Greyhound's leash was... his daughter. The other leash connected to his son, with his wife and child in tow. The looked at him expectantly, until he smiled and welcomed them in.
"I wasn't expecting this," Charlie said with his trademark understatement. "Where did these dogs come from?"
His daughter spoke first. "Dad, your office called and said you haven't been enjoying the Holidays. They arranged for us to come and visit you." She handed him the leash. "This is Faith. I picked her out for you. Your office said you'd been looking at getting a Greyhound, but they couldn't say why. They made it possible for me to give you the Faith you need, so that you'll know that we both love you and we'll always visit you at Christmas time."
Charlie's son handed him the other leash. "Dad, this is Hope. Your boss said that you've lost the Holiday Spirit. Hope will give you the strength to wait all year for this Joyous time. As long as you have Hope, there is always a chance to be happy."
They proceeded to bring in everything Charlie would need to care for his new friends. There were dog beds and bowls and food and toys and coats and all manner of things, but Charlie didn't mind finding places to put the new things. His house was starting to feel like a home again.
Hope and Faith leaned on Charlie as he gave them attention. It was clear that his children had chosen wisely. He didn't object once to their presence. Everyone bustled about, making themselves at home. Hope and Faith discovered soft spots to lay on and very patiently allowed everyone to dote on them.
Once everyone was settled, Charlie had a panic attack. "I've no gifts, no food, no way to make you welcome. The stores are surely closed today."
"Never mind all that, dad. It's covered. Your office really went all out for you."
In due time, the doorbell rang a final time. Another crew showed up, this time bringing gifts for everyone and a full Christmas dinner. There was even a floral arrangement for a centerpiece. The card attached read "Friends and Family, Hope and Faith. That's what Christmas is all about, but it's even better with Greyhounds! Merry Christmas -- M.C."
Charlie didn't know who M.C. was, but he did pick up the phone and dial Brian's number.
"Brian, it's Charlie. Thanks so much for making Christmas merry for me once again. I don't know how to repay you."
Brian said, "Just teach my nephew Kevin how to do a good job and we'll call it even."
"Why, I oughtta...."
"Gotta go, Charlie. Merry Christmas!"
"Wait. Who's M.C.?"
"Charlie, we got bought out. We're now a subsidiary of a much larger corporation. Mr. C is the owner and CEO. I was going to tell you after the New Year. Nothing has changed, really, except that we both got big promotions and your department will be even bigger after the mergers..."
"There's time enough to worry about it after the Holidays, Charlie. Mr. C particularly said we're to enjoy ourselves. It's going to be a great New Year."
"Goodbye, Brian. And thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"In the months and years that followed, success and happiness followed Charlie around. Hope and Faith became the office Greyhounds. Charlie became a very happy man. He even fostered Greyhounds right up until the day he died. You know what else? No one ever called him Hard Luck Chuck again. Now, off to bed with you!"
Grandpa took a moment to sip his egg nog. The grand kids started to get up. The three napping Greyhounds got up and followed the children off to bed for the night. He sat, staring into the fire for a bit. Finally the other adult, a lady and grandmother in her own right, smiled and said "Do you still miss dad as much as I do?"
"Yep. I'm glad we kept up the tradition of bringing all our family together every Christmas. It's just not Christmas without all the grand kids and nieces and nephews and Greyhounds and such."
Together they tidied up and bit and trudged off to find their own beds for the night. Grandpa stopped to look at the hallway, lined with plaques. Each plague had name plates for each of the dogs that his dad had fostered over the years. As he made his way down the hall, past the many plaques, his finger traced over Leda, Heta, Sassy Breeze, Leo, Maggie, Chance, Abby, Marina, Eris, Joe, Missy, Phil, Gus, Tiff, Noel, Iggy Styx, Pin, Shaelee, Lois Anne, Mia, Floody, Sheba, Tango and Snoopy. So many hounds found their forever homes, loved and ultimately missed, but happy nonetheless. Both he and his sister carried on the tradition of fostering Greyhounds, as had their children, each adding to the plaques in the hallway, adding to families, building memories.
Late that night the stars twinkled and, in the deepest, quietest part of the night, a Greyhound nuzzled a small child while she looked out the window, just in time to see Santa's sleigh making his rounds. She fell asleep, quite content indeed.