🎄Are You Merry and Bright: part one
I began this project with the observation that many writers have done a Christmas story or two, but few have done a dozen—a full collection of them. The October story is probably the easiest holiday piece to write. No one does much navel-gazing on the true meaning of Halloween. Horror, a variation on Good Guy vs Bad Guy, is free to be a kind of shoot-’em-up, not asking for the sober commitment of Sentimental. (There is a tradition of mixing ghosts and Christmas, but the yuletide apparition must be politically correct, being charged with the task of changing a selfish heart.)
To me, then, in answer to the perennial Christmas question, the true (or best) meaning of the holiday is open arms—that table at which everyone is invited to take a seat. Whether you celebrate the holiday religiously should matter less than whether you celebrate it generously.
“Merry and Bright” is set in the year 1939—a holiday gathering in the screwball comedy spirit, with a little wistfulness for world peace.
“Always on, always off. That’s the life. Thirty bucks in my pocket. I don’t have to worry.”
“Just to keep your hand in.”
“If I wanted…” Dexter said. He’d given her two things, for this quip. A comic take, leaning away from her shoulder, still with his arm around her waist, but letting chill air come between them…and a mock-wary “um, hmm”.
“I could write you up a little Xmas piece this night…we’d have to find someplace to sit down. But, I mean, plots are easy. Help me out, we can do one now. Old widow lady, lives alone. My…” His own humor was making him smile, queering the tremolo he affected for pathos. “It’s a sad scene. She’s drawing back the curtain. Clutching its folds in her knobby knuckles, staring…um, gazing…Mabel.” He stalled while she took another step. Pressing momentum’s advantage, Dexter swung her round to face him.
“Oh, let’s go in,” she said. The drug store displayed bottles of perfume stacked on a pyramid of velvet boxes. Electric bulbs, red and green, framed the window inside. “It’s freezing. Buy me a hot chocolate.”
The movie hadn’t gone well. He’d disappeared for a cigarette at intermission, content leaving Sherman to march on; and leaving Mabel—wishing she’d saved this one for Saturday, and her Aunt Ernestine—only glad to meet up with Dexter, found still loitering outside the ticket office.
“Who won?” he said, lighting another.
“You’d like to know.”
She’d thought of better gags: the Ruskies, maybe, or Joe Louis. Seabiscuit by a nose. But then he’d think she was playing along. She took his hand out of her coat pocket, once and twice, and brushed past him through the door.
“Mabel,” he said, coming up on her heels at the perfume counter. “I was gonna ask. What’s the word I’m looking for?”
“For that sheep-eyed thing.”
“You mean your old lady? Googling. Mooning.”
“Mooning out at the falling snow in the light of the street lamp. Eh…we might throw in carolers. Maybe the jing, jing, jing, of a horsecar passing by.”
“What year is this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Say when your grandma was a gal.”
She held out a wrist for a spray of Soir de Paris. Dexter pantomimed putting on a gasmask. “Come on, hot chocolate,” he said, and took her off by the waist again.
There was exactly one booth, and it was free.
“All right, the poor old thing,” Mabel took him up, when he came back from ordering. “She’s a widow lady, you said?”
“Lost her son in the war.”
“Now wait a second…” Maybe he did get something from the movie. If he meant way past, he must mean Gettysburg. “Four score and seven years ago…?”
They struck the contemplative pose, while the waitress lowered their plates and cups. Dexter gulped, winking at Mabel when she cautiously sipped. The cocoa was not very hot.
“Okay, I get you. I should take notes.” He put his cup down, rooted out a Zippo and a pen, nudged this across.
“Or you take ’em. You’re the office girl.”
“Enchanté, sweet-talker. Dexter, what’s the problem? I mean, we have to help this old lady out, don’t we? She’s by herself, and it’s Christmastime. We don’t want her to just die!”
“Ha, ha, sentimental.” His crunched into his grilled bologna, and spoke high-pitched, with his mouth full: “Ma, I’m comin’ for ya.”
“No, she’s renting rooms in her house to make ends meet. Young couple…like O. Henry?”
“What, they’re gonna sell their most treasured possession…radio, let’s say…to buy old Mrs…” He paused. “Ernestine, a turkey dinner?”
“Ernestine. Wow, Dexter, you got that writer’s imagination.”
Mabel scribbled on the placemat, looked up, eyebrow arched. She put on an ingénue’s voice. “Honey, we’re young.”
He got her again, shooting back: “World ahead of us, babe.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she muttered. “Darling.” That was how a married pair of paragons ought to talk. “Why, any one of us could end up alone, like poor, poor Mrs. Ernestine. Only yesterday, I saw her mooning over Reginald’s…photo.”
Not photo, exactly. Back then it was some old-timey thing that started with a d. She took a stab at mouthing the first syllable.
“Oh, yeah? First Reg, then the mutt, huh? Lady’s got a lotta troubles. I guess maybe an angel is trying to tell us something. Dearest sugarplum, Mrs. Ernestine’s happy Christmas is up to you and me.”
Oh, seriously…I don’t believe you sell your stories, if that’s how your people talk, she’d been about to say. But there was a man, an old duffer in a Derby and fur-trimmed coat, sidling round their booth from the circular magazine rack, a “Night Crimes” and a “Shamus Omnibus” in his clutch. He’d been eavesdropping, inching closer, she knew it for certain, and now—with about this, no subtlety either—was sizing them up.
“You’re full of bologna, you can walk me home.” She shoved down her own last wedge of sandwich, wiping mustard from her cheek, swigging hot chocolate. Cold chocolate.
She had to lean in close to whisper. They’d gone a block from the drugstore; shoppers still huddled along the street, headlamps still flashed by…but turn one corner and they’d be among houses, two blocks yet from her aunt’s.
“Dexter, take a look behind you. Only, don’t really.”
“That old guy.”
He turned full around. He did worse, stuck a hand inside his coat and pulled out a card case.
“You got that detective rag. I just sold ’em a story. B. Dexter Baumgardner.”
The stranger had been reading by lamplight as he tailed them. He rolled his magazine, and with a good show of heedlessness tucked it under his arm, spilling Dexter’s card to the gutter.
“It’s not a lucrative profession, selling stories. I am Mr. Chilton.”
His eyes were communicating with Mabel’s. He got in next to her, jerking his head towards the lagging Dexter.
“Oh, heck, I’m Mabel…”
At mid-self-introduction, she cut herself short. She had just a week ago changed her name to Montmorency. This was classy-sounding—a dame of the theater’s moniker, far better than Biggins—but she couldn’t show up for a temp job with it. She wasn’t smooth yet, going back and forth.
Mr. Chilton said, “Mrs. Baumgardner.”
Dexter said: “Ain’t that a kick in the pants.”
“You may have heard,” Chilton went on, “of the twelve days of Christmas.”
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)