12 Christmas stories that don’t suck
by Kevin Murphy
When I was fourteen I got a job at the Turkey Barn for the Christmas season. I was still too young to get a job working in a store or as a part-time waitress; I was also too nervous.
I was a turkey gutter. The other people who worked at the Turkey Barn were Lily and Marjorie and Gladys, who were also gutters; Irene and Henry, who were pluckers; Herb Abbott, the foreman, who superintended the whole operation and filled in wherever he was needed. Morgan Elliott was the owner and boss. He and his son, Morgy, did the killing.
Morgy I knew from school. I thought him stupid and despicable and was uneasy about having to consider him in a new and possibly superior guise, as the boss’s son …
The last day before Christmas had passed. A clear winter night had come; the stars peeped out; the moon rose majestically in the sky to the light good people and all the world so that all might enjoy singing kolyadki and praising the Lord. It was freezing harder than in the the morning; but it was still so still that the crunch of the snow under the boot could be heard half a mile away. Not one group of boys had appeared under the hut windows yet; only the moon peeped in at them stealthily as though calling to the girls who were dressing up in their best to make haste and run out on the crunching snow. At that moment the smoke rose in puffs from a hut chimney and passed like a cloud over the sky, and a with on a broomstick rose up in the air with the smoke …
It was December — a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air that seemed meditative, like the chirping of a solitary little bird.
She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper …
Christmas is a sad season. The phrase came to Charlie an instant after the alarm clock had waked him, and named for him an amorphous depression that had troubled him all the previous evening. The sky outside his window was black. He sat up in bed and pulled the light chain that hung in front of his nose. Christmas is a very sad day of the year, he thought. Of all the millions of people in New York, I am practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 a.m. on Christmas Day in the morning; I am practically the only one.
The last thing I do every Christmas Eve is go out in the yard and throw the horse manure onto the roof. It is a ritual. After we return from making our attempt at the H Street Sledding Record, and we in the kitchen sipping Egg Nog and listening to Elise recount the sleigh ride, and Elise then finally goes to bed happily, reluctantly, and we finish placing Elise’s presents under the tree and we pin her stocking to the mantel — with care — and Drew brings out two other wrapped boxes which anyone can see are for me, and I slap my forehead having forgotten to get her anything at all for Christmas (except the prizes hidden behind the glider on the front porch), I go into the garage and put on the gloves and then into the yard where I throw the horse manure on the roof …
“What shall I write?” asked Yegor, dipping his pen in the ink.
Vasilissa had not seen her daughter for four years. Efimia had gone away to St. Petersburg with her husband after her wedding, had written two letters, and then had vanished as if the earth had engulfed her, not a word nor a sound had come from her since. So now, whether the aged mother was milking the cow at daybreak, or lighting the stove, or dozing at night, the tenor of her thoughts was always the same: “How is Efimia? Is she alive and well?” She wanted to send her a letter, but the old father could not write, and there was no one whom they could ask to write it for them.
But now Christmas had come, and Vasilissa could endure the silence no longer. She went to the tavern to see Yegor, the innkeeper’s wife’s brother, who had done nothing but sit idly at home in the tavern since he had come back from military service, but of whom people said that he wrote the most beautiful letters, if only one paid him enough. Vasilissa talked with the cook at the tavern, and with the innkeeper’s wife, and finally with Yegor himself, and at last they agreed on a price of fifteen copecks.
So now, on the second day of the Christmas festival, Yegor was sitting at a table in the inn kitchen with a pen in his hand. Vasilissa was standing in front of him, plunged in thought, with a look of care and sorrow on her face. Her husband, Peter, a tall, gaunt old man with a bald, brown head, had accompanied her. He was staring steadily in front of him like a blind man; a pan of pork that was frying on the stove was sizzling and puffing, and seeming to say: “Hush, hush, hush!” The kitchen was hot and close.
“What shall I write?” Yegor asked again.
Two very shabby looking young men stood at the corner of Prairie avenue and Eightieth street, looking despondently at the carriages that whirled by. It was Christmas Eve, and the streets were full of vehicles; florists’ wagons, grocers’ carts and car-riages. The streets were in that half-liquid, half-congealed condition peculiar to the streets of Chicago at that season of the year. The swift wheels that spun by sometimes threw the slush of mud and snow over the two young men who were talking on the corner.
“Well,” remarked the elder of the two, “I guess we are at our rope’s end, sure enough. How do you feel?”
“Pretty shaky. The wind’s sharp tonight. If I had had anything to eat I mightn’t mind it so much. There is simply no show. I’m sick of the whole business. Looks like there’s nothing for it but the lake.”
I heard this story from Auggie Wren. Since Auggie doesn’t come off too well in it, at least not as well as he’d like to, he’s asked me not to use his real name. Other than that, the whole business about the lost wallet and the blind woman and the Christmas dinner is just as he told it to me.
Auggie and I have known each other for close to eleven years now. He works behind the counter of a cigar store on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and since it’s the only store that carries the little Dutch cigars I like to smoke, I go in there fairly often. For a long time, I didn’t give much thought to Auggie Wren. He was the strange little man who wore a hooded blue sweatshirt and sold me cigars and magazines, the impish, wisecracking character who always had something funny to say about the weather, the Mets or the politicians in Washington, and that was the extent of it.
But then one day several years ago he happened to be looking through a magazine in the store, and he stumbled across a review of one of my books. He knew it was me because a photograph accompanied the review, and after that things changed between us. I was no longer just another customer to Auggie, I had become a distinguished person. Most people couldn’t care less about books and writers, but it turned out that Auggie considered himself an artist. Now that he had cracked the secret of who I was, he embraced me as an ally, a confidant, a brother-in-arms. To tell the truth, I found it rather embarrassing. Then, almost inevitably, a moment came when he asked if I would be willing to look at his photographs. Given his enthusiasm and goodwill, there didn’t seem any way I could turn him down.
We learned “Deck the Halls” and “Hark! The Herald Angels” … They weren’t ashamed and we weren’t embarrassed.
Oh, but when my mother heard about it all, she said to my father, “Misha, you don’t know what’s going on there. Cramer is the head of the Tickets Committee.”
“Who?” asked my father. “Cramer? Oh yes, an active woman.”
“Active? Active has to have a reason. Listen,” she said sadly, I’m surprised to see my neighbors making tra-la-la for Christmas.”
My father couldn’t think of what to say to that. Then he decided: “You’re in America! Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas … Some joke, ha?”
“Very funny, Misha. What is becoming of you? If we came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants, and instead we fall into a creeping progom, that our children learn a lot of lies, so what’s the joke? Ach, Misha, your idealism is going away.”
“So is your sense of humor.”
“That I never had, but idealism you had a lot of.”
“I’m the same Misha Abramovitch, I didn’t change an iota. Ask anyone.”
“Only ask me,” says my mama, may she rest in peace. “I got the answer.”
We were living up Blarney Lane, in Cork, at the time, in one of the little whitewashed cottage at the top, on the edge of the open country. It was a tiny house — a kitchen with two little bedroom off it — and the kitchen door opened to the street. There were only the four of us — my parent, my brother Sonny, and myself. I suppose, at the time I’m speaking of, Sonny was six or seven and I was two years older. I never really liked that kid. He was the mother’s pet; a proper little Mummy’s darling, always racing after her to tell he what mischief I was up to …
Faith is not driving them, her mother, Esther, is. In the car it’s the five of them. The family. On their way to Snow Mountain Highlands—Sandusky, Ohio, to northern Michigan—to ski. It’s Christmas, or nearly. No one wants to spend Christmas alone.
The five include Faith, who’s the motion-picture lawyer, arrived from Califomia; her mother, who’s sixty-four and who’s thoughtfully volunteered to drive. Roger, Faith’s sister’s husband, a guidance counsellor at Sandusky J.F.K. And Roger’s two girls: Jane and Marjorie, ages eight and six. Daisy, the girls’ mom, Faith’s younger sister, Roger’s estranged wife, is a presence but not along. She is in rehab in a large Midwestem city that is not Chicago or Detroit.
Outside, beyond a long, treeless expanse of frozen white winterscape, Lake Michigan suddenly becomes visible. It is pale blue with a thin fog hovering just above its metallic surface. The girls are chatting chirpily in the back seat. Roger is beside them …
It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.