Tuesday, December 24, 2013

People at Christmas Time

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Albert said as he carried a hollow, plastic donkey through the snow  to the nativity display in front of the strip mall.  “There were no rabbits in the manger with the baby Jesus.”

Beside him, Ed’s right arm was wrapped around Joseph’s neck while he cradled the baby in the crook of his left elbow.

“Then how did a rabbit get involved in his resurrection?” Ed said.

Albert’s feet stopped sloshing through the melting snow in the parking lot and he turned to Ed, right arm wrapped over the donkey’s back, left hooked under its belly.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

Ed stopped walking a few steps beyond where Albert stood and turned to him.  “Don’t talk to me like I’m a dummy.  You’re the dummy.  The Easter Bunny, whatta you think I’m talkin’ about?”

Ed was five years older than Albert, but they’d gone to school together since the sixth grade because Ed had been held back a few times.  Now they were in their forties and both worked for the man who owned the strip mall, Harvey Keith.  He was the best boss either of them had ever had, although they worked for him in different capacities.

Albert’s shoulders drooped as he tilted his head back and rolled his eyes, then he started walking again.  “The Easter Bunny isn’t in the bible, you mook.”

“I never said it was in the bible!  I’m askin’, if there’s no rabbit involved in Jesus’s birth, then how come there’s one involved in him comin’ back from the dead?  I just figured, hey, maybe there was some bunnies in the manger, or somethin’, y’know, with the other animals.  And then later, maybe when he came out of his tomb, there was some bunnies hoppin’ around then, too.  That would make sense.”

Albert walked around the manger facing the street, stepped inside, and placed the donkey next to Mary so it seemed to be peering into the makeshift crib.  To Ed, he said, “Can you tell me how that would make sense?  Or why it would make sense?”

Ed plopped Joseph down on the other side of the crib from Mary, then leaned forward and gently placed the baby Jesus in its bed.  “I don’t know if it makes sense so much, but at least it’d be a bunny somewheres near Jesus in the manger and somewheres near Jesus on Easter.  And now, maybe, when we celebrate Easter, a bunny comes around and hands out candy to the kids.  You know, maybe so they won’t scream in church.”

Albert’s sigh became a frothy cloud of vapor in the cold.  “Then why isn’t there a Christmas Bunny?”

Ed frowned at him and narrowed one eye, suspicious of mockery.  “I dunno!  ‘Cause we got Santa Claus, I guess.  Santa helps Jesus out at Christmas time and the bunny helps him at Easter.”

Albert laughed quietly and shook his head.  “I don’t know if you’re being funny or if you were deprived of oxygen in the womb.”

A silver Hyundai Sonata Hybrid slowed to a stop at the curb in front of the nativity scene. The passenger’s window slid down to reveal a man in his late twenties or early thirties wearing tinted glasses.  A young woman of the same age sat behind the wheel.  The man said something, but they couldn’t hear him, so Albert and Ed crossed the sidewalk — Albert in his dark suit and overcoat, Ed in his jeans and down jacket — and leaned toward the window.

“Is this private property?” the man said, nodding toward the large holiday decorations.

“Are you kidding me?” Albert said, sounding at once weary and deeply annoyed.  “It’s a strip mall, not a courthouse.”  He pointed behind him at one of the storefronts.  “You see that?  You can’t get your nails done at City Hall.”  He aimed his finger at Stumpy’s Liquors, with its bright red-and-green greeting painted on the window:  HAPPY HOLIDAYS!  “And the government doesn’t run liquor stores, okay?  This is all privately owned property, none of it is taxpayer supported.  Okay?”

The man in the car waved a hand at the manger.  “So this is legal?”

Legal?  What the hell is wrong with you?”  His voice grew gradually louder as he spoke.  “Who are you, Santa’s gestapo?  Of course it’s legal, it’s mid-November and this is America, you rocket scientist, it’s been the Christmas season since the first Halloween decorations went up at the beginning of September!”

“Hey, look, I was just wondering — ”

“Yeah, yeah, I know what you were wondering!  Now why don’t you go donate some toys to an orphanage, or something, to make up for being an obnoxious douchebag?”

As the window slid back up, the car drove away, kicking up a few clumps of dirty slush.

“Jesus Christ,” Albert muttered as they headed back toward the mall.  “When did they change that damned song?”

“What song, Albert?”

“That fa-la-la song.  When did they change it to ‘’Tis the season to be an asshole, fa-la-la-la-la-fucking-la?’”

Ed chuckled.  “I don’t think they’ve changed it yet, but I know what you mean.  I didn’t think you believed in any of that stuff, though, Albert,” he added, hooking a gloved thumb over his shoulder at the nativity.

“No, I don’t.  All that Jesus stuff ... I mean, if there was a Jesus and even half of that stuff in the bible happened, I don’t believe he walked on water or did all those other magic tricks.  But, hey, he shook things up, spoke out for the poor and the sick, and he pissed off the people in charge, so that makes him okay in my book.  But it’s Christmas!  Does everybody have to agree on everything, now, before we can digest our fudge and fruitcake?  Yeah, I know, they can’t represent one religion on government ground unless they do it with all others, I get that.  That’s fine, I’m all for it, and it’s the law.  But why does it all have to be so ugly?  And come on, it’s a strip mall!  What the hell did that idiot think, that Palace Massage and Aromatherapy is a government operation?  Jesus!”

They stopped to wait while a pickup truck slowly backed out of its parking space.

“Remember when we were kids, Ed?  The whole idea at Christmas time was to at least make a little effort to be a better person, right?  Whatever you thought that was supposed to be.  Maybe you smiled and said hello to the postal carrier you never acknowledged the rest of the year, or you tried to be friendlier to your cranky neighbor, or you gave more to charity, or maybe it was the only time you gave to charity.  Or you went to church and maybe put a little extra money in the offering plate.  Things like that.”

“‘Member that time we decorated old lady Taggart’s front yard?” Ed said with a laugh.

A smile grew slowly on Albert’s face.  “Oh, yeah,” he said, nodding.  “I remember that.”

“We put Santa and his reindeer on the lawn and lights on her porch.”

“That’s right, she wouldn’t let us put them on the roof.”

“Yeah, ‘member?  She caught us climbin’ up on the roof and came after us with a broom.  Kept yellin’ ‘Your parents are gonna sue me!’”

Albert let out a full, throaty laugh.  “Yeah, see, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.  We knew she didn’t like us, we knew she didn’t want us around, but it was Christmas!”  He smiled again.  “She sure was a mean old woman.”

“‘Specially at Christmas time.  She hated Christmas.  She was a widow twice as long as she was married.  Last few years of her life, I’d go over and do some yard work for her.”  He shrugged one shoulder.  “You know, anything she needed doin’.  She was always mean about it, thought I was tryin’ to cheat her out of somethin’, always tried to chase me off.  Christmas come around, and she’d get even meaner.”

“Whatever happened to her?  I don’t remember hearing.”

“Blew her brains out with her husband’s shotgun.  Used her toe.  Did it on Christmas Eve about twelve years ago.”

The pickup truck pulled out of the parking lot and turned right on Convention Street.  It was starting to rain and the pickup’s windshield wipers came on as it merged into traffic.  Albert and Ed continued their walk toward the mall, slower now.

Albert shook his head back and forth slowly.  “What’s happened to people, Ed?  I know things are bad, everybody’s broke, jobs are scarce.  But things have been bad before.  And Christmas time brings a lot of pressures, I know that.  But wasn’t there a time when people tried to be nicer at Christmas?”

Ed squinted as he thought about the question.  “Maybe it just seemed that way when we was kids.”

“Maybe.  But people weren’t so ... angry.  Why the hell is everybody so angry?”

“I dunno, Albert.  Maybe everybody’s so angry ‘cause ... well, ‘cause everybody else is so angry.  But I’m pretty dumb, even for a janitor, so I dunno.”

Albert frowned and gave Ed a sidelong look with hooded eyes.  “You’re not dumb, Ed.  I keep telling you that.  Didn’t they have you tested for a bunch of stuff back in school?  You know, learning disabilities, stuff like that?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah.  But I failed all the tests.”  He barked an abrupt laugh.

“But they were negative, right?  There was nothing wrong with you.  And what did everyone conclude was the problem?”

Grinning, Ed said, “I’m a lazy ass.  And I am.  Long as I got some beans and Mountain Dew, a place to sleep, and a bowling alley nearby, I’m happy.  I don’t need nothin’ more’n that.”

“That’s right.  But you’re not dumb.  Don’t talk about yourself that way.”

Ed looked at him briefly with a surprised smirk.

They stepped onto the canopied sidewalk that stretched along the front of the shops.  “Would you like a drink, Ed?  Some jerky, or something?  I think I’d like a cup of coffee.  Let’s go into Stumpy’s.  My treat.”

They turned right on the sidewalk and walked by one of the strip’s empty units, previously Captain Collectible.

“What are your plans for Christmas, Ed?” Albert said.

“Hell, I don’t even know if I’m doin’ anything for Thanksgiving yet.  Last Christmas, me’n some friends had a nice turkey dinner down to the bowling alley, and then we bowled our asses off.  Probably do the same thing again this Christmas.  How ‘bout you, Albert?”

“Oh, I’m doing the usual family thing.”

“That’s good.  It’s nice to have family at Christmas time.”

“Oh, yeah.  It’s all planned.  Last year, we drove upstate to see my wife’s family.  This year, we’ll have Christmas with my family here in town.  It’ll be a typical family gathering, I’m sure.  Dad will get drunk.  Mom will get hysterical.  My sister will get slapped by her husband, and the Children of the Corn will be screaming about how Santa screwed them.  Yeah, I can almost feel the warmth now.”

As they walked by Mia’s Nails, Albert’s phone vibrated in his pocket.  It was Mr. Keith.  Albert stopped to answer the phone.  While he talked to the boss, Ed stared idly at the traffic on Convention.  Neither one of them saw the young man in the denim jacket who, farther up the sidewalk, reached out to push the door of Stumpy’s open but stopped for a moment to look at the front window before going inside.

“I’m here with Ed,” Albert said.  “I helped him put up the nativity out front.  My meeting with Miss Lee at Palace Massage is in — ”  He checked his watch.  “ — twenty minutes.  Shouldn’t take long.  She’s a reasonable woman and she knew the rent increase was coming.  I’ll be back in the office after lunch, if that’s okay with you.”

After the conversation ended, they continued up the sidewalk.

“You gettin’ a massage?” Ed asked.

“Here?  God, no.  I have to meet with Miss Lee over a rent dispute.”

“What’s that title Mr. Keith gave you again?”

“Vice President of Field Operations.”

Ed grinned.  “Sounds important.”

“Half the time, it’s not much more than a glorified errand boy, but it’s a good job.”

They stepped out of the cold and into the warm stuffiness of Stumpy’s Liquors.  It was a cluttered store all year long, but during the holidays, it became even more cluttered with decorations and Christmas displays.  To their right stood a Santa Claus that looked bigger than it was because it stood on a three-foot-tall base wrapped in corrugated paper with a red-brick design.  He wore red velour coat and pants with the traditional fluffy, white cuffs and collar, with the traditional shiny black boots, and his shiny, white beard appeared to be made of spun glass.  He had a green bag slung over his right shoulder and held in his extended left hand a bottle of vodka.  Small toys were scattered all around his feet.  Just behind Santa’s bag stood a green Christmas tree covered with sparkling ornaments and lights.

To their immediate left was the register, behind which stood Stumpy himself, a stout, craggy Vietnam veteran in his early sixties with a prosthetic right leg from the knee down.  He had a droopy white goatee and long white hair that he pulled back in a ponytail.  He stood with his beefy, tattooed arms folded together across his chest, talking quietly with a tall, slender man in a denim jacket who had his hands cocked on his hips, elbows pointing outward.

“What’s your poison, Ed?” Albert said as he headed for the coffee station.  “You’re still guzzling that Mountain Dew stuff, aren’t you?”

There were four carafes lined up, each labeled to identify the kind of coffee it held.  Albert pulled a medium-size Styrofoam cup from the holder, held it under the nozzle of the carafe marked “REGULAR,” and pumped the top to fill the cup.

Ed chuckled as he passed Albert and opened one of the soft drink coolers.  “I ain’t ever drank nothin’ besides Mountain Dew since high school, I think.”

“If you’re not careful, you’ll spend the last years of your life drinking nothing but Mylanta and crapping into a bag.  Those sodas will eat up your guts after a while.”

“Yeah, that’s what Mom used to tell me.  Course, she was a drunk who died early of liver failure, so I guess nobody’s perfect.”

“Look!” Stumpy barked.

Startled by the shouted word, Albert and Ed turned toward the register in front.  Stumpy was leaning forward, both hands flat on the countertop beside the register as he glared at his young customer.

“I got Jews who come in here, Muslims, Shintos,” Stumpy said.  “There’s a family of Sikhs lives up the road and they buy their milk and eggs here like clockwork.  None of ‘em celebrate Christmas.  Maybe you haven’t noticed, but this city’s got diversity up the hoo-ha and my business depends on customers buying things.  So I put ‘happy holidays’ in the window this year to include everybody, okay?  And I’ll be doin’ it every year from now on, until people like you make me so fuckin’ crazy that my head explodes and they gotta close this place down.”

The guy in the denim jacket straightened his back.  He had shaggy blond hair and wore black jeans, black-and-red winter boots.  He dropped his arms at his sides and his bare hands looked pink and gnawed by the cold.  In his left, he held a wool cap that he crumpled in a fist as Stumpy finished his little impromptu speech.  “But you’re a Christian, Stumpy!”  He raised his right fist and brought it down hard on the countertop on the word “Christian.”

“I said I was raised a Christian, but I haven’t been to church since Christ was a corporal and I got no interest in goin’.  That’s got nothin’ to do with this!”

“But you know what they’re doing.  You know what they’re trying to do to the holiday, it’s just another way of squeezing Christianity out of America.  We’ve talked about this!”

“No.  You’ve talked about it, and I’ve stood right here being a congenial host in the hope that you’ll buy another Coke or Baby Ruth or, if I’m lucky, another round of both.”

“Oh, come on, Stumpy, I’ve been coming in here for three years!  I thought we were friends.”

Albert finally mustered the strength to walk back to the front, smiling and saying loudly enough to be heard, “Hey, Stumpy, you know, none of us want you to go exploding your head all over the place, or anything.”

Stumpy smiled and gave Albert a nod of recognition.  “It’s okay, Mr. Antonellis.  This guy’s a regular customer who’s complaining about my decorations.  He’s gonna change the subject or leave, right Chris?”

Chris’s head turned slowly from side to side.  “I can’t believe this.  What are we supposed to do?”

“About what?” Stumpy bellowed, spreading his arms.

“Come on, guys, it’s Christmas,” Albert said.

Standing just behind him, Ed popped open his can of Mountain Dew.

Stumpy’s body jerked once as he released a single laugh.  “No, it’s not, Mr. Antonellis.  We haven’t even gotten through Thanksgiving yet.  I used to love Christmas, but it’s like a tumor.  It just keeps getting bigger and pretty soon, it’ll metastasize and spread through the whole year.  The radio’ll be playing ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Silver Bells’ in May.  They’ll probably make Santa Claus president.  Tell you the truth, if I didn’t have the store, I’d punch anybody wished me merry Christmas before December first.  But people buy more,” he said with an exasperated shrug.  “Put up a Santa Claus, some snowmen, they spend more money.  Pavlov’s elves.  Even this year, with everything so bad, everybody so broke — that doesn’t stop ‘em!  It’s insane.”

“But it’s not Christmas,” Chris said.  His voice was low but had suppressed anger behind it.  “They’re taking Christ out of it.”  He pointed a finger at the store’s front window.  “You’re taking Christ out of it!”

Stumpy rolled his eyes.  “Oh, Jesus, here we go again.”

“Hey, nobody’s taking Christ out of anything!” Albert said.  “We just put up a nativity scene out front.  Jesus is right out there where everybody can see him!”

Chris jerked his head back and forth insistently.  “Not at the capitol building.  Not at City Hall.”

Albert said, “No, that’s not true.  There are Christmas displays there, but they include other religions, too.  This is still America, despite the best efforts of many, and religion is still a big part of it.  But Christianity isn’t the only religion!”

“It’s the American religion, the religion of our founders."

Stumpy tipped his head back and laughed.

"This country was built on biblical Judeo-Christian principals and — ”

“Don’t include the Jews!” Stumpy said with a cold laugh.  “They don’t celebrate Christmas and they got no problem with ‘happy holidays,’ so don’t drag them into this.”

“Christians are the only group it’s still acceptable to ridicule.  Gay marriage is making Christianity a crime!  Don’t you guys watch the news?”

“Just because it’s got the word ‘news’ in its name,” Stumpy said, “doesn’t mean it’s not feeding you a bowl of shit.  You ever think of that?  Haven’t you noticed that some will deliver news while others, I don’t know, looks like all they want to do is piss people off?  You ever notice that?  Wonder about it?”

Chris’s nostrils flared and when he spoke again, his voice trembled.  “Atheists are going around this country tearing down Christianity.”

“No, they’re not,” Albert said.  “They’re going around the country being annoying assholes, but what they’re doing is perfectly legal.  This is a free society and there are assholes everywhere, so you’ve just got to learn to deal with them, or ignore them, or something.  You don’t go to jail for being an asshole in this country, and if you did, everybody who gets pissed off about ‘happy holidays’ would be in jail with them.”

A sneering look moved across Chris’s face as he glared at Albert.  He nodded slightly, then said, “I suppose you’re a Jew.”

At the same moment, Albert and Stumpy let loose a loud “Ooohhhh!”

“I’m Italian, you dick.  I was raised Catholic.  Like that makes any fucking difference.”  He nodded toward Ed.  “He’s Jewish.”

“On my mother’s side,” Ed said.  “Personally, I lean more toward Buddhism.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s okay,” Chris said, his voice sounding more breathy and tremulous.  “All that’s okay.  But if you’re a Christian, you’re a target, you’re an outcast.  Pretty soon, they’re gonna start rounding us up and putting us in camps.  They’re already built, waiting for us.  Gay marriage will be legal in all fifty states soon and Christians will be criminals.”

“Jesus Christ, you know what you are?” Albert said.  “You think you’re some kinda patriot, some kinda warrior for Jesus, but all you are is angry and stupid, and all those two things do is feed each other.”  Albert clapped his hands together.  “Okay, you’ve worn out your welcome here.  Anything you want?  Some gum or a pack of cigarettes?  Get it and get the hell out, and if you come back, keep your goddamned opinions to yourself or you’re banned for life, you understand me?”

“You can’t do that.  Who the hell are you to do that?”

“Vice President of Field Operations for Harvey Keith Properties, that sound important enough for you?”  Albert stepped toward Chris, put a hand on his shoulder and gently turned him toward the door.

Chris pushed against Albert’s hand with his shoulder as he reached his right hand around his own back and slipped it under the denim jacket.

“Oh, shit,” Stumpy said, moving fast but not fast enough.

Chris’s pink-fingered right hand held a gun when it reappeared from behind him, and he raised that gun in Albert’s direction.  Stumpy bent down, reached beneath the counter and produced a sawed-off shotgun.

Chris fired his gun before he’d finished aiming it and the bullet entered the left side of Albert’s abdomen, just below his rib cage.

“Albert!” Ed screamed, his voice a shrill knife that sliced through the cluttered store.

Stumpy was racking the shotgun when Chris fired a second time, sending a bullet into the right side of Albert’s chest.

Since the first gunshot, all Albert could hear was a loud, unwavering ringing sound.  The first bullet hit him like a cannonball, making him bend at the waist with clenched eyes as he was punched backward, unable to breathe.  The second bullet kicked him in the chest and he straightened somewhat as he fell backward, arms flailing.  His back slammed into something and he began to slide into a sitting position against it, but his flailing arms hooked onto something and prevented him from hitting the floor.  He felt the rough surface of the corrugated paper under his hands.

There was another explosion when Stumpy fired his shotgun, but Albert did not hear it through the ringing.  He felt bits of Chris splatter onto him, though, warm and wet on his face and neck.

Chris hit the floor hard, a bloody mess.

Ed screamed Albert’s name again and again.

Albert opened his eyes as he tilted his head back.  Something had opened up deep inside him and all that came out was wrenching pain that rapidly spread through his whole body.  Overhead, he saw a face slowly falling toward him, its white beard tumbling over itself like foam, its left arm outstretched and held up, clutching the phony vodka bottle in its black-gloved hand.  Falling behind it was the green pyramid of dangling, twinkling ornaments and lights.  They engulfed his field of vision as he died, and Albert’s last thought was, Peace on earth, ho ho ho ...

© Copyright 2013 by Ray Garton