Monday, December 12, 2011

A Christmas story for the holidays

Auld Acquaintance
By Mark Finn

Peter Crampus walked through the chaos and cacophony, his head down, his shoulders hunched. All around him clots of people swirled and eddied, their brows furrowed, their eyes dark and feral atop fixed smiles. Arms, elbows, and hips were thrown in a desperate attempt to make room, to gain purchase, to seize, to loot. Muttered curses, shouts of glee, howls of outrage, and maniacal laughter all conversed into a formless wall of sound that drowned out the meager strains of “Silent Night” being pumped through the department store’s intercom system. Nobody cared, anyway. There was nothing so distracting that could have captured the attention of any person present. It was Black Friday, and it was war.

Peter walked among them, idly observing the depravity. A woman in her mid-forties, wearing a sweater festooned with embroidered angels, pulled on another woman’s purse, stopping her violently short. As the startled woman turned to confront her assailant, the angel-sweatered woman shot past her from her blind side and snatched the last bright red toaster from the dilapidated shelf. The maneuver was so slick, it looked practiced. Peter grinned. “Not bad, lady,” he said under his breath. “Top of the list for you, dear.”

A young boy careened into Peter, head first, catching him in the upper hip. He fairly bounced off of Peter, a look of dull surprise on his face. Peter looked down at his assailant, who couldn’t have been more than five. “Where’s your mother?” he asked.

“You’re not my daddy!” the child yelled, pointing an accusing finger. His upper lip was crusted over with snot and chocolate. “I’m a ninja!” he announced.

Peter reached into the outer pocket of his blazer and produced a can of Jolt cola. “You know what ninjas like? They like soda. Would you like a soda?” he asked.

“Yuh yuh yuh!” the boy began jumping up and down feverishly.

Peter obligingly popped the top on the can, and as an afterthought, handed him a Hershey bar. “Here. Go sit in the hardware section over there and eat your candy bar and drink you soda, okay?”

The child grabbed both items and ran off, as fast as his corn syrup-powered legs could take him. “See if you can find the hammers!” he called after the child.

Peter smiled at his inventiveness. He strolled over to the manufactured island of glass cases that stood for a customer service counter and plucked the telephone receiver from its cradle. He mashed the intercom button and said, “Attention Black Friday shoppers: In ten minutes, we’ll have fresh deals and specials in Toys. Eighty-five percent savings on all Lego playsets. Starting right now, in twenty minutes.”

He hung up and watched as women appeared from every aisle like race horses leaping out of their chutes. A large Hispanic woman wielding a shopping cart fairly clipped the angel-sweatered woman, knocking her into a display of waffle irons. Instant Karma, he thought.

A frantic employee appeared, wearing corporate-mandated oversized elf ears that doubled as earmuffs and frantically tried to tell the rapidly coalescing horde of people that no, there was no such Legos sale going on at this time. Her quavering voice and fear-struck expression was like chum for sharks, and the frustrated shoppers began barking at her, hurling insults and threatening to sue the store unless someone got them some goddamn Legos right now.

Peter snickered and walked into the seasonal merchandise area of the store. The Christmas decorations went up November first, but now the section was bristling with all manner of decoration ranging from the sublime to the seriously tacky. On one endcap was a pyramid of metal cans full of popcorn, each one decorated with a smiling, avuncular Santa Claus holding up a bottle of Coca cola. Peter snarled and lashed out his foot, catching one of the bottom cans of popcorn and sending it skittering into housewares.

As if in slow motion, the pyramid sagged, buckled and then came crashing down in an avalanche of cheap tin. The noise was spectacular, cutting through the din and bringing an all-too-brief hush to the store. For a few seconds, all anyone could hear was the intercom music, and then the chaos returned as if it had never left.

“I would’ve taken every single one of you,” he muttered. “You have no idea how lucky you are.”

A young woman dressed in a pink and blue track suit stopped in front of him and asked, “Do you work here?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, slapping a smile that matched her own onto his face. “What can I do you for?”

“Oh, well, I’m buying a tool belt for my husband and we’re going to fill it with tools. Now, I’ve got a hammer, a tape measure, a screwdriver, a socket wrench, and a level. But I need something else. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Did you get him a screw-in?” Peter asked.

“A what—no, I don’t think so. What is that?” She looked concerned.

“Oh, it’s the latest thing,” Peter said. “It’s like a stapler, but it sets screws. It’s perfect too, because it removes them. You just…” he mimed slapping an imaginary tool against a wall. “…and bam! The screw is set.”

The woman’s concern turned to interest. “Are they expensive?”

“No, they aren’t. Around twenty bucks. But listen…” he leaned in close for effect. “There’s a company called Sirius that makes Screw-ins and they are the best out there. We’ve got them on sale right now, and no one knows about it.”

Her eyes lit up like molten lava. “Where are they?”

“Back in hardware. There’s a young man working back there. Just tell him that you need a Sirius Screw-In, and that the manager said he could help you.” He paused. “Got it?”

“Yes, thank you!” She ran off, repeating “Sirius Screw-In, Sirius Screw-In,” under her breath.

Peter had to laugh at his own childishness. He strolled back up to the front of the store where the various check-out lines made for an impenetrable snarl of bodies and shopping carts. The tangle was particularly thick around the customer service desk, but he slipped easily through the crowd and vaulted nimbly over the counter. Another Elf-ear-wearing employee looked at him with dull amazement. “Go take a break, Debbie,” he said. “I’ve got this.” She ran without a second glance.

Peter held up his hands. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got exciting news! We just opened up the mobile return center outside in our state-of-the-art recreational vehicle. Please make your way outside with your exchanges. This area is now off-limits.”

They stared back at him, mouths agape.

“It’s a crime scene,” said Peter. “There’s been a terrible accident. Well, I don’t know if you can call ‘murder’ an accident, but—oops, I’ve said too much!” He smiled. “In any case, the police may want to speak to some of you about what you saw…” The crowd melted like slush. He grinned, hit the register with the side of his hand, and the drawer banged open. Peter scooped out all of the twenty dollar bills and leapt back over the counter. He walked through the tangle again, dropping the bills like seeds behind him. The shrieks and accusations that followed brought everything to a halt. Armed security guards appeared. Peter faded back again, deeper into the store.

It was all he could do. He used to love this time of year. The coming of Winter. The ringing of the bells. Bedecking the evergreen trees. It was glorious. All of the homes were always blanketed with thick carpets of snow and ice, and the air smelled of burning wood, baking bread, hot mutton stew. He looked around at all of the metal, the plastic, the cardboard, the vinyl. This is an unholy place, he thought.

Peter’s maudlin thoughts carried him back into the pet section, arguably the quietest place in the store at the moment. He rounded the corner, wondering if he should get a nice bone for himself, when he saw the man.

Tall and thin, with a careworn face and a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard, the man wore maroon overalls over a simple long sleeved white shirt. His forest green jacket was tucked under one arm as he bent down to regard the young boy, holding a package of three tennis balls.

“I’ve only gots three dollars,” said the boy, who was probably five or six. He was fairly wrapped in layers of clothes to stave off the outside chill. Inside, however, he was red-faced and sweating.

“Well now,” said the thin man warmly, “I think anyone who wants to buy a present for his best friend ought to be able to do so, don’t you think?”

The boy nodded.

“Well, why don’t you let me help you out?” The man tugged on his nose, and two gold coins fell out into his hand. “Look at that,” the man said. “Two dollars!” He handed the coins to the boy.

The boy’s face lit up. He threw his arms around the older man and hugged him. “Merry Christmas!”

“Oh ho, Merry Christmas, young master Cooper,” the man replied as Cooper ran towards the registers.

Peter sneered, but managed to summon a cordial tone as he said,  “Hello, Nick.”

Nick glanced up and his mouth fell open. “Peter?” He straightened up and strode forward. “How have you been? It’s been too long!” he held out his hand. Peter took it warily.

“Too long,” he agreed.

The two men faced each other, unsure of where to place the next conversational footstep. Peter finally broke the silence. “Nick, what are you doing here?”

Nick smiled, and for a second, his face broke into a multitude of crinkles and he looked much, much older. “Oh, the same thing as you, I suspect.” He shrugged and stuck his hands in his pocket. “I can’t seem to stay away.”

Peter nodded and then glanced over his shoulder. “You want to smoke? Get some air?”

Nick smiled again. “That sounds good.”

They walked back through the horde in silence and let the automatic doors kiss them goodbye. Outside the temperature was in the mid thirties with a light wind, but neither of them seemed to feel it. Peter shook an unfiltered Lucky Strike out of a crumpled package and lit it was a worn Zippo. Nick produced a meerschaum pipe that was so old it looked like stained wood. He filled it carefully and took his time lighting the tobacco, puffing merrily away until his head was fairly encircled with smoke.

“You look good,” Peter said, for want of anything else.

“You don’t,” said Nick with the same cheerful directness. “I take it that all of this,” he gestured over his shoulder with the stem of his pipe, “is your doing?”

“Not really,” Peter said. “Not anymore. I don’t have to do anything anymore. Now I just enjoy tweaking these ungrateful bastards.”

Nick snorted. “Oh, that’s hogwash, Pete. You don’t enjoy this work. You never did. So why do it for free?”

Pete looked away. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” Nick said.

Pete spun and kicked the brick wall they were leaning against. “They cut me out, all right?” He thumped the half-smoked cigarette away. “I got sidelined! And for what? That? In there?”

“We both got sidelined,” said Nick. He blew a smoke ring.

“No, that’s not true, Nick. You had a fall back. You had the church. They still know who you are, even if they don’t recognize you. But these…stinking Puritans…” he grabbed at the air with his hands, searching for the right words. “They were scared of everything! They still are! None of them could handle me, not in my prime.”

Nick listened, silent, smoking.

Pete took a deep breath and said, “I can’t even remember what I used to look like.”

Nick took his pipe out of his mouth and gestured with it as he said, “They remember. Oh, not up front, you know, but in the back—what do they call it—the unconscious mind. This place is different because it had to be, Pete. When everyone came over, it was to try a new way of living. They didn’t have to bring the old monsters with them. There were plenty right outside their door.”

Pete snorted and said, “You know who’s fault this is…”

Nick held up his hands. “Please, don’t start in with this again…”

Pete shouted over him. “That son-of-a-bitch Martin Luther could have kept his big fat mouth shut, but no, he was cut out of the gravy train, so he had to kick about it! And now look what we have to deal with! Baptists, Methodists, those snake-dancing people…”

Nick shook his head, exasperated. “You can’t blame Martin Luther for the Puritans. And besides, they’re all gone now.” He sighed, hooking his thumbs into the sides of his overalls. “What’s in there is all part of Corporate America, and nothing else. There’s no sanctity, no ritual, and certainly no goodwill towards men.

Pete nodded. “This modern world is dead. It’s made of lifeless things. These people—these peasants—surround themselves with lifelessness and tell themselves that they are living it up. It’s a joke.”

“Oh, yes, it’s all going to Hell in a handcart,” Nick said, his eyes twinkling.

“Thank you, yes, Nick. Finally, you’ve come around to my way of thinking…”

“And so, I want to ask: why are you here?” Pete opened his mouth, and Nick gently added, “and no bullshit, this time, okay?”

Pete closed his eyes and sighed. “I feel drawn to these places because I can still get flashes from the list. I still want to take the children who are horrible. But I can’t. And so I walk these little events, doing the mischief I can do, and hoping that I’ll be proven wrong.”

Nick tapped his spent pipe on his heel and put it back in his pocket. “That’s always been the difference between you and me, Krampus. You look to be proven wrong. I look to be proven right. Even when we made the rounds together, you never quite figured that out.”

Pete looked sideways at Nick. He wanted to tell him to get bent, but they both knew he was right. “I hate it when you do that.”

Nick started chuckling. Not quite his old laugh, but close. Pete smiled despite himself. “What?”

Nick’s eyes misted over. “I was just thinking about Vienna.”

“Vienna?” Pete thought back, summoning up the venerable city in his mind.

“Yes, Vienna. What was that kid’s name? Augustus Meinke!”

“Oh, crap, that kid…” Pete got an instant picture of a round-faced boy with positively reptilian eyes and a mouth set in a perpetual sneer. “Oh, I wish I’d eaten him!” Nick laughed harder. “You stopped me from killing that little monster!”

Nick was ho ho-ing, now, and it was literal music. “I told you to drop him in that iced up river,” Nick said.

“What was that thing he did to his teacher?” Pete mused. “Did he set her dress on fire?”
“No, that was Christian Schenkle. Auggie painted the plague sign on her door.”

“That’s right!” Pete laughed. “God, what a feckless little savage.”

“And remember how the dunking ended up?”

“Oh, he wouldn’t admit he was wrong! I kept dragging him through the water, and every time, he’d come up, shivering so hard his teeth were rattling and say. “It d-d-d-d-doesn’t b-b-b-b-bother m-m-m-me any…!”

Nick slapped his knee. “You never cracked him.”

Peter smiled ruefully. “No, I gotta hand it to him. He pissed himself, and he nearly got hyperthermia, but he never wavered.”

Nick finally stopped chuckling. “Do you remember what happened the year after that?”

“Well, he wasn’t on my list,” Pete said.

“He never made your list again,” Nick said. “He grew up and became a rabbi.”

“He did?” Pet smiled. “Son of a bitch. I had no idea.”

Nick nodded. “And he told our story to all of the children. He counseled, he cared for the sick, he saved people from themselves. He gave generously to others. He was loved by his synagogue, and his wife and children all benefitted from his wisdom and his kindness. They paraded him through town when he died, and hundreds gathered to talk about how he changed their lives.”

It was Pete’s turn to be silent.

“And all of that was thanks to you.” Nick put his hand on Pete’s shoulder. “Not me. I looked after the children as best as I could. I gave them what I could. But I was the reward for doing what they should have done in the first place. You, on the other hand. You were the agent of change.”

Pete’s brow furrowed. “How do you mean…?”

“You’ve forgotten, because it’s been so long and neither one of us is at our peak anymore, but you only had to carry off one or two children and suddenly, everything was wonderful and rosy and idyllic for a long time.” Nick fished around in his pocket for a package of gum. “It’s a lot easier to be the good guy when everyone’s on their best behavior to begin with. You made my job easy.” He held the pack out. “Juicy Fruit?”

Pete took the gum and popped it into his mouth, foil and all. “This is not the conversation I expected to have with you when I saw you again,” he said.

“What? You were going to punch me in the nose?”


“Maybe you’re right about all of this,” Pete said. “But a fat lot of good it does me, now.”

Nick patted Pete on the back. “Look, if you miss doing the job so much, why not start doing it again?”

Pete looked at Nick. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You serious? But…what about…?”

Nick shrugged. “Upstairs hasn’t said anything to me in years. Why don’t you break the horns out? For old time sake? Take the basket and switches out for a spin. Look, the most you’ll get is a slap on the wrist. That non-intervention policy is in effect, but only if you still work for the company. We’re free agents!”

“Wow…” Pete felt a tugging in his heart such has he hadn’t felt in a century. “It would feel so good to snatch one of them again.”

“I saw a couple of ideal candidates in there, earlier.”

“What could it hurt?” Pete asked. “Maybe it would do some folks some good. They need their fear again. Fear of the dark. Fear or reprisals.”

“Consequences,” Nick said.

“Maybe he should take a tour of the store, together,” Pete said. “For old times’ sake.”

“Yes,” Nick said, smiling. “I’d like that. For old time’s sake.”

Nick held out his arm and Pete linked his within, and they strode hand in hand back into the store.

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