A Christmas Chump
By Charles Dickens and B.J. Mendelson
This novella is dedicated to Louis Mendelson, who died on Christmas and ruined it forever.
William O’Leary was dead. There is no doubt about that. The death certificate was signed by a Lakeside Hospital physician and then later by the mortician at the Heafey Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler Mortuaries & Crematory. Ronald Chump signed it too, although it was unnecessary for him to do so. In his mind, Ronald’s name was good as gold for anything he chose to put his name on, and it was certainly true among some in the business community. Although the general public may point to Chump Airlines, Chump Casinos, and Chump: The Game — A real thing that actually exists — to suggest otherwise. Regardless, Old William was as dead as a doornail.
Now, we don’t mean to say that we know, of our own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. We might have been inclined to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade, but the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and our unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the planet is done for. You will therefore permit us, Charles Dickens and B.J. Mendelson, to repeat, emphatically and for the hearing impaired, that William O’Leary was as dead as a fucking doornail.
Did Ronald Chump know William was dead? Of course, he did. Of course! How could it be otherwise? William’s children, Maryanne, William Jr., Elizabeth, and Robert, had told Ronald so, and why would they lie about such a thing? Ronald and William were business partners for many years. Ronald was also William’s sole executor, his sole friend, and sole mourner. Or so that’s what Ronald thought anyway on that last one. Ronald was surprised to see such a crowd at the funeral for that very reason, but then in his defense, there isn’t exactly much to do in Omaha, Nebraska on a weekday morning.
And even Ronald, the alleged sole friend of William O’Leary, was not so cut up by the sad event of William’s passing. He was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain between prayers concerning his latest venture, an outdoor shopping mall in nearby Gretna. Ronald was never one for prayers. His crippling inability to read led him to sit with his arms folded for most of the affair that day. Given the surprisingly large audience gathered, however, Ronald seized every opportunity he could to remind the crowd of how big and important Ronald felt he was. For example, during the eulogy for William, Ronald listed off his recent business accomplishments. He then also made numerous references to the size of his penis and intimated that it was bigger than the deceased’s. We will let you decide which of these things was more shocking to the audience gathered on that day.
The mention of William’s funeral brings us back to the point we started from. There is no doubt that William O’Leary was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story we are going to share. First, because William emigrated to America on the RMS Transylvania in 1929, and people from that country have a poor habit of remaining dead. Second, and more importantly, If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say St. Cecilia Cathedral on Page Street for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
Ronald never painted over William’s name. There the old sign stood, relocated from downtown Omaha years after the funeral, perched above the management office door at the mall in Gretna: The Ronald Chump & William O’Leary Organization. Known informally as Ronald and William. Sometimes people new to the business called Ronald ‘Ronald’, and sometimes ‘William’, but Ronald answered to both names because it was all the same to him.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Ronald! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous sinner with the smallest of hands! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his orange cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating, Queens-accented voice. A frosty and failed science project lived upon his head, and on his eyebrows. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced the mall office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. External heat and cold had little influence on Ronald. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. Nor did the giant insects of Nebraska. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down handsomely”, and Ronald never did.
The mall in Gretna was modeled after a busy neighborhood in Victorian London. Willian’s idea. He once visited Woodbury Common in Central Valley, New York, a highly successful outlet mall, and remarked on how wonderful the stores looked, fit within a replica of an old New England town square that was the hallmark of the Commons. William thought a vibrant little Victorian London town, out in the dull Nebraska landscape between the states two population centers of Lincoln and Omaha, would create quite a tourist attraction in its own right. And William, although he wouldn’t see it in his lifetime, was correct. Shoppers from nearby Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and even South Dakota often came to William and Ronald’s outlet mall to shop. He was always the smart one in their relationship. The visionary. The self-help guru turned real estate mogul. But Ronald was good with the money, tracking every penny as though each one was a piece of his own blackened soul.
But none of those shoppers ever stopped Ronald at the mall as he did his daily rounds to meet with store managers There was nobody to say, with gladsome looks, “Yo, Ronald, what up?” No children of family’s shopping asked him for anything, and no tourist ever inquired the way to such and such a place. Even for directions to the Mutual of Omaha Building, which was the one skyscraper in the city skyline and often impossible to miss heading west on Interstate 80. Even the mall security dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw Ronald coming, they would tug their owners into a store entranceway; and then wag their tails as though to say, “Even I wouldn’t sniff that guy’s asshole.”
The homeless people that littered the mall parking lots also never stopped Ronald, although their origin is worth remarking here as it was not something William had imagined: It should be stated first that they were not actually homeless, but students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. Students, who were at the mall working their second job as re-enactors of the Dickensian poor. Third job, in some cases, after they finished their shift at the mall’s Brooks Brothers or Le Creuset outlets. This was Ronald’s contribution to the project, to be certain. Their job? To remind shoppers of how much better off the shoppers are than to other residents of the state of Nebraska, as outlet malls are often visited by the wealthy most of all. This was a marketing tactic Ronald enjoyed employing as it brought a ring of authenticity to the Victorian recreation that William dreamed up. The students were tasked with encouraging shoppers to continue buying the newest and most expensive items, lest they fall behind in society’s view and become just like the recreation street urchins themselves. Something that never failed to work, as capitalism depends on a permanent underclass to scare those above from joining their ranks below.
Manipulative? Sure. But what did Ronald Chump care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance. He was only interested in their money and the acquiring of more of it. That is, until one night. One unlike any that had come before it. The events of which we will share with you now.
Chauncey Durand & George, The Nephew
A curious thing occurred. It occurred, of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve. Ronald Chump sat busy at the mall office in Gretna, Nebraska. The mall office, such that you could call it one, was really just a large space divided into two parts by a paper-thin wall. On one side of the wall was the guest relations desk. This is where Chauncey Durand, Ronald’s long-suffering guest relations clerk, spent her days fetching strollers, wheelchairs, and mall gift cards for shoppers. Above Chauncey was a large television playing episodes of the ‘90s Sailor Moon, whose volume was set low enough for only her to hear. Chauncey thankfully had control over what was on this particular television, but that control only came after Ronald made some questionable comments about the color of her skin. Not wanting to face yet another lawsuit over racist remarks, Ronald offered Chauncey a raise, a small one, and control over the television. Unable to find work elsewhere, despite having a master’s degree in Creative writing and a bachelor’s degree in English, Chauncey reluctantly accepted. But having done so made her skin crawl, her stomach churn, and she yearned for the day that she would be free of this horrible man. Preferably in a job that made her feel fulfilled. That is if that sort of employment was to be found anywhere in America anymore.
Chauncey was a poet at heart, and that’s what she wanted to be and empower others to be as well. Before taking this job, Chauncey ran a small not-for-profit in South Omaha where she gave artists there a space to create and perform. The not-for-profit struggled mightily for years until she had no choice but to close it, filing for bankruptcy as she did. Although she tried to work for anyone and everyone but Ronald Chump, jobs were scarce. The best Chauncey Durand could find was temp work as a janitor over at the Amazon warehouse just off I-80. And even that was an unreliable source of income, where she was often told she wasn’t needed, despite being out of pocket for the cost of the multiple bus rides to get to the warehouse. At the very least, this current job with Chump gave Chauncey enough money to buy a used 1995 Nissan Altima to get around. Chauncey bought the car from a friend she used to waitress with for just over $1,000.
The paper-thin wall at the mall office also included a door. A door that was often left open by Chauncey, much to the annoyance of Ronald, for it allowed curious shoppers to look within. (Ronald often refused to get up and close the door himself, feeling that the effort to do so was beneath him.) Those shoppers who did look within would find what could politely be described as a “minimalist” setting on the other side of the door. There was a conference table, a set of uncomfortable wooden chairs, and a television on the far wall that played only Fox News. There was also a private bathroom. There was little more to the office than that in terms of decoration. As the holidays approached, the room also became a holding area for gifts sent to Ronald by his family that would soon go unopened or re-gifted to them the following year.
Concerning the private bathroom, Chauncey had to use the same bathroom all the customers did. It was located on the other end of the mall, next to the Michael Kors outlet store, which required a ten-minute walk to reach. In the Summer and Spring, this was fine, but in the winter, it was torture. It was only Ronald, who guarded the keys to the private bathroom with his life, that didn’t have to travel to use the restroom at all.
This Christmas Eve was cold, bleak, and saw the biting weather commonly associated with winter on the great plains. It was foggy withal: outside, the shoppers were wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement to warm them while complaining about the walk from their favorite stores to wherever they were lucky enough to get parking. Dodging the reenactors of the Dickensian poor as they did. It was just after three that day, but it was quite dark already. The fog came pouring in through every which way that it could within the stores. To see the dingy cloud of fog come drooping down over the outdoor mall and its neighboring cornfield, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard and partied harder.
Ronald used to sit at the head of the table when he was in town, but after hiring Chauncey, he sat right across from the open door to watch her every move, for what Chauncey would jokingly tell her family was “totally not racist reasons.”
It wasn’t just the mall office that was cold. It was the entire hallway that led to the office, which Ronald had deemed too expensive and pointless to heat. This was despite the fact that this area was commonly used by mall employees to exit their stores and take a shortcut through to the food court. But Ronald cared nothing for the minimum wage and non-unionized workers and their comfort as they made the way to the popular Voodoo Taco stand. So in the mall office, Chauncey froze every day and was often afraid to ask Ronald to raise the thermostat or request a space heater. They barely talked. There was no good morning or good evening. No pleasantries about what each other did. Ronald only discussed with Chauncey her job and any duties related to it. To battle the cold, and in a small way to mock Ronald, Chauncey used a leftover blanket from one of Chump’s failed hotels to keep herself warm. She was able to acquire the blanket from eBay for the low price of only three cents. Shipping and handling were free with this item. Ronald paid no attention to this visual bit of mockery, but every time Chauncey put on the blanket she would silently mock Chump to herself, “successful businessman my ass, you orange Dorito.”
Today, after putting on the blanket, Chauncey’s day was interrupted. “A merry Christmas, father! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was Tiffany, Ronald’s daughter from his first marriage. She was promptly escorted out by Chauncey.
“A Merry Christmas! God Save you!” the new voice of Ronald’s nephew, George, who snuck in while Chauncey chased Tiffany away. George had moved so stealthily that he caught Ronald completely unaware of his presence until he spoke.
“Bah!” said Ronald, “Humbug!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Ronald’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was freckled and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said George. “You don’t mean that I am sure.”
“I do,” said Ronald. “Merry Christmas! what right do you have to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew happily. “What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Ronald had no better answer ready. He was often described as “a little slow” by one editor at the Omaha World-Herald. “Bah!” Chump said again, and followed it up with “Humbug.” Truly, Ronald Chump was a man of letters.
“Don’t be cross, uncle,” said the nephew.
“What else can I be” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for reviewing your books to prepare for future retirement and finding nothing saved, not even a dime! If I could work my will,” said Ronald, indignantly, “everyone who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be beaten to death with their smartphones and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.
“Nephew!” returned the uncle, sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine. Buried alongside my second, third, and fifth wife.”
“Keep it!” repeated Ronald’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”
“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Ronald. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew: “Voting. The most sacred duty of all citizens of a democracy. Donating to a stranger’s GoFundMe campaign and doing so anonymously. Registering to be an Organ donor and advocating for legislation that would automatically enroll everyone into the organ donor registry, unless they choose to opt-out and Christmas among the rest.
But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys or used as tools to drive sales.
And therefore, uncle, though it has never put any cryptocurrency in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God, bless it! And to those who don’t celebrate the birth of our Lord, I say God bless them as well with nothing short of peace, love, and prosperity for the rest of their time on this Earth.”
Chauncey applauded: having returned to her desk after shutting Tiffany in the supply closet with a few shiny objects. Those objects would occupy her until Ronald left for the day, and after he did, mall security would come around to let Tiffany out.
Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety of her applause, Chauncey cleared her throat and began minding her desk again.
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Ronald, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation. You’re quite a powerful speaker, George,” he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder why you don’t run for president yourself!”
“Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us tomorrow. Priscilla is preparing quite a feast!”
Ronald muttered under his breath about hating “ethnic food” even more than Christmas itself. Already in enough trouble with the comments he made to Chauncey, Ronald kept the volume on this utterance low. Priscilla was Puerto Rican, and her and George’s marriage had caused a happy sensation within the, until then, entirely Irish Chump clan. Many of the family members welcomed Priscilla with open arms and open hearts as any family should, but Ronald was not one of them. Ronald paused before saying “I won’t be going.”
“But why?” cried Ronald’s nephew. “Why?”
“Why did you get married to your Puerto Rican Princess?” spat Ronald.
“Because I fell in love, and love knows no ethnicity, gender, or creed.”
“Because you fell in love!” growled Ronald, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. “Good afternoon!”
“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”
“Good afternoon,” said Ronald. At this, Ronald crossed his arms and pouted like a child. One would have expected him to stomp his foot if his nephew pressed on.
“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had many quarrels, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humor to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”
“Good afternoon!” said Ronald, this time stomping his foot.
“And A Happy New Year!”
His nephew left without an angry word, He stopped to bestow the greetings of the season on Chauncey, who, cold as she was in the literal sense this day, was warmer than Ronald in a figurative sense on all others; for she returned the greetings cordially with a smile that lit up every room she entered.
“There’s another one” muttered Ronald; who overheard her: “my guest relations clerk, and a husband and family, talking about a merry Christmas.
As Ronald’s nephew spoke with Chauncey before departing, two other people entered the office. They were a fine gay couple, both wearing ugly Christmas and Hanukkah sweaters with irony. The men were holding hands and pleasant to behold, born and raised both from the same small town in Iowa, not too far from the border of Nebraska. And now they stood, with their hats off, in Ronald’s office. They had books and papers in their hands and bowed to him. Ronald grumbled to himself about yet another interruption to his day.
“The Ronald Chump & William O’Leary Organization I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Chump, or Mr. O’Leary?”
“Mr. O’Leary has been dead for some time,” Ronald replied. “He died on this very night, come to think of it, seven years ago. But had he lived, the site of the two of you would have been enough to kill him.”
Ignoring the comment, the couple continued on their quest. “We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentlemen, presenting their credentials. They were from a local charity that supported Nebraska and Iowa public schools. At the ominous word “liberality,” Ronald frowned as if one of the men had farted, shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Chump,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for our neediest of institutions and the constant assault they suffer from Republicans and supposed education reformers in the Democratic party. Many students in our region are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts like clothing and breakfast sir.”
“Are there no Amazon fulfillment centers for them to work at?” asked Ronald. Chauncey winced at hearing this.
“Plenty of Amazon fulfillment centers,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And Walmart’s? McDonald’s, or combination Taco Bell and Pizza Huts?” demanded Ronald. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not, but those three remain our nation’s top employers.” Unhelpfully, the other man added that child labor laws prevented those under a certain age to be employed at such places.
“Unemployment is at a record low is it not?” asked Ronald.
“Yes, although those numbers don’t factor in the millions of people who have stopped looking for work or simply cannot find one, including many in our region as well, sir. Those federal unemployment numbers are cooked. Cooked almost as badly as the GDP, which not even the man who invented it could understand if asked to explain it today.”
Ronald glowered at the man, who quickly rephrased his answer.
“Yes, sir. The unemployment number is at a record low!”
“Good I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Ronald. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish non-denominational cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy students in need some food, books, and means of warmth so that they don’t rise up and eat the rich instead.” He paused for a laugh. This line usually killed with wealthy donors because of its hint of truth. Hearing no laugh from Ronald, the man continued. “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Ronald replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Ronald. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle and poor people merry. I help to support the establishments that employ them, ones I have mentioned, through real estate transactions: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there no matter how young they may be.”
“Many can’t go there; and many families would rather die than take welfare because society has shamefully brainwashed them to think it wrong to do so.”
“If they would rather die,” said Ronald, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that. I disagree with your assertion. This is a great country. A terrific country. The best country. And for those who are in need, they should simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work for a living to make ends meet like I did. Not take handouts from the government like some welfare queen!”
Ronald’s eyes darted over to Chauncey to see if she was listening, she was. And her death stare back at Ronald confirmed it so.
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman. “The world has changed. Jobs are scarce. The deck is stacked against the young. The infirm and disabled are not given enough to live off of their disability payments, and the social safety net continues to be slashed, meaning less and less money for those depending on it. Sir, as it stands today, even recent college graduates must now live with their parents and have no savings to speak of!”
“It’s not my business whom they live with,” Ronald interrupting “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. My big, and very successful, businesses occupy me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Ronald resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and in a worse temper than was usual with him.
Meanwhile, the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with their smartphone flashlights, proffering their services to go before Ubers and Lyfts, and conduct them on their way back to Interstate 80 from the mall’s dark access road. The replica church and its tower, which held the food court inside and was not referred to as a church officially, lest someone be offended, had installed an actual gruff old bell from Victorian times; and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterward, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense.
Outside what Chauncey referred to as the “totally not a church” church, some laborer’s were repairing the gas-pipes and had lighted a great fire in a trash bin, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered as Ronald did not want to provide them with portable heaters: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. None of them were here legally, and no one cared except for Ronald, who exploited the undocumented workers as much as he could under the guise of calling ICE if they did not cooperate with his requests. The laborers were only given days off when the governor of Nebraska, a conservative and ardent critic of illegal immigration, would come to the mall with his family; and even then, most of them were told to wait in their cars until he left. The governor often came to call upon Ronald for money, which Ronald happily obliged the hateful man with. In truth, it was the labor of the undocumented workers on the governor’s own farms, not to mention more than a few healthy subsidies from Congress, that made the governor the successful man that he claimed to be, but then, it’s not often that hypocrisy gets in the way of political ambitions.
The brightness of the stores where holly sprigs and berries visually crackled in the heat of the windows, made faces of all shades happy as they passed. Watching the store employees interact and try not to kill themselves on the ice that was forming became a splendid joke among them: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do with their daily lives, especially when trying not to break your neck on the ice.
Foggier yet, and colder still as the day went on! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. [Editor’s note: Uh, what?] [Charles Dickens: Shut up, it sounded cool at the time!] The owner of one scant young nose gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at the mall office to regale Ronald and Chauncey with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of–
“God bless you merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!”
Ronald threw the nearest heavy object he could find, a useless gift left by Tiffany last year that had remained unopened, with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving to the fog and even more congenial frost. Then, in his Queens accented voice, Ronald sneered, “God bless you merry gentleman …” He was often confounded by why customers came to the mall office without needing something, but every day, especially days around the holidays when the mall was packed to the brim, there would always be a shopper or two looking to say hello to the staff inside the office. Ronald hated these shoppers most of all.
Finally, the hour of shutting up the mall office arrived. With an ill-will, Ronald stood from the conference table and tacitly admitted the fact to Chauncey, who practically leaped from her seat as well.
“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Ronald.
“If quite convenient, Sir.” Chauncey made sure that the “sir” sounded as mocking as possible, as Ronald was unable to detect sarcasm.
“It’s not convenient,” said Ronald, “and it’s not fair. Who decided Christmas should be a federal holiday? Isn’t Martin Luther King Day enough? At least that comes during the slow season where your presence won’t be missed by anyone. Especially not me.”
Chauncey smiled faintly. “Of course, he singled out Martin Luther King Day,” she thought. It was often discussed within her family that she should quit and not put up with this awful man’s abuse, but quitting a job that paid well in Nebraska was easier said than done, as was moving to a place where jobs were more plentiful, and then what would she replace it with?
Everyone had a bachelor’s degree these days, and the crippling debt Chauncey earned by attending Creighton further ensured her limited economic mobility, to say nothing of her purchasing power. Even though Chauncey had filed for bankruptcy, that only discharged her non-student loan debt. She was still stuck with a balance of $137,000 from student loans that needed to be paid off; and that was not counting the interest, which caused that debt to grow every year since her graduation in 2006.
It had almost become a game in the Durand family to watch as Chauncey paid her student loans for the month, always above the minimum, only to find the following month that the balance had not only not budged, but had increased. It seemed a grand cosmic joke to Chauncey that she would be working at a mall where she was unable to afford anything sold at it, let alone her lunch at the taco stand.
“And yet,” said Ronald, “you don’t think me ill-used when I pay a day’s wages for no work. Why I bet most of your day is spent doing nothing by watching whatever animated filth it is you choose to occupy your time with.” Ronald was still bitter about Chauncey’s ability to control the television above her desk. He was also not a fan of anime.
She observed that although the mall office was fairly quiet most days, her presence was still important from a customer service perspective and she was being paid not just for the hours she worked, but the time it takes to get to the mall as well. This also included the intellectual and spiritual capital she expends every day upon assisting each shopper, leaving her exhausted and unproductive for her own projects and concerns, such as her poetry, upon returning home. It was the most she had ever said to Ronald since “the incident” that led to her control of the television and she immediately regretted it. But Ronald was not completely without reason. He paused to consider what Chauncey had said before grumbling, yet again, “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” as he buttoned his great-coat to the chin. “Fine. I suppose you must have the whole day. But be here earlier the next morning!”
Chauncey promised that she would; and Ronald walked out with a growl as he chewed over the words “intellectual and spiritual capital” in his mind. The worst thing about people Chauncey’s age, 35, thought Ronald, was that almost all of them were college graduates, and since most worked in fields, not at all related to what they got their degrees in, they wasted no time in trying to utilize the degree in some other capacity, like arguing about their pay. “I bet this one was a philosophy major”, said Ronald to himself. “No wonder she works here. What need is there of them or any other major in the liberal arts?” Why if Ronald had his way, college would only offer useful degrees in fields where there were jobs, and as those jobs were eliminated through automation, those degrees would be eliminated as well. Too bad for those with obsolete degrees! There were plenty of McDonald’s and Walmarts for them to work at when obsolescence came for them.
The office door was closed and locked in a twinkling, and Chauncey, with the long ends of her white Chump comforter dangling below her waist (for she boasted no great-coat), went down a slide placed near the parking lot for children to play with on her way out, in honor of its being Christmas-eve, and away from that awful Ronald Chump for a full 24 hours. She then ran to her old and beaten car before driving back to Omaha as fast as she could, to open the Christmas Eve presents with her husband. A tradition they had taken with them from their time together living in a cramped studio apartment before the couple had to move back in with Chauncey’s parents. Every year, she would get him something inexpensive and practical, such as a new tie, and he would get her a superheroine costume — last year it was Wonder Woman’s— to wear exclusively in the bedroom for their kinky roleplaying. (Because although the costume may cost some money, it is worth noting, dear readers, that some of the best things in life truly are free.)
Ronald took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern, a place called “Local” that had opened adjacent to the North Face outlet store. While there, and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his ledger, he then went home to bed.
It is here that Ronald Chump’s choice of homes should be noted. In the grand tradition of Walt Disney Land’s apartment that was built for Walt Disney, William O’Leary and Ronald Chump designed a few luxury homes to be built in a small development behind the mall.
Rather than have retail industry dignitaries stay at the local Super 8, just across the street from the cornfield, and because traveling to Nebraska from anywhere was a challenge, the small cluster of homes was designed to host VIPs and other parties. Ones who would come to see the mall, and perhaps be impressed enough with it to give Ronald and William all sorts of funding, both private and public, to build similar malls to the one in Nebraska. Plans were already in place to open one such shopping center in South Dakota, paid for by state funding. Something Ronald relished. Any day the wealthy didn’t have to open their wallet and could spend other people’s money to fatten their own treasure was a grand one, and there had been many such days of late for Mr. Chump and his wealthy friends in that regard.
After William’s death, Ronald chose to live in his partner’s old house. Since the mall was William’s idea, William had the bigger home of the two, and when it came to size, Ronald always insisted that he had the biggest of everything. William was barely in the ground before Ronald had most of William’s things moved out and burned so that nobody else could have them.
Inside, they were a gloomy suite of rooms, all devoid of the love and friendship that other people bring with each of their visits. The outside of the home was so dark that even Ronald, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. He was told numerous times that this was a safety hazard to keep the path connecting the mall to the homes so dark, but like any good company well aware of hazardous work environments, he found it was less expensive to not do anything until someone sued then it was to fix or make the needed changes.
There was also this old door knocker on William’s house. One that we bring our attention to next.
William O’Leary, The Ghost
Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Ronald had seen it night and morning during his whole residence in that place; also, that Ronald had as much of what is called fancy about him as any man in Nebraska could, which is to say, none at all. Let it also be borne in mind that Ronald had not bestowed one thought on William, since his last mention of his seven-years dead partner that afternoon. And then let anyone explain to us, if they can, how it happened that Ronald, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without it undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker at all, but the face of William O’Leary.
William’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects outside the home, but it had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. Or a dark cellar inside a bad lobster. We forget how that saying goes. It was not angry or ferocious but looked at Ronald as William used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. (William was unable to wear contacts after scratching his left cornea. A thing he did constantly while trying to take out contact lenses he already removed earlier that evening.) The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.
As Ronald Chump fixated at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again, and not the kind Ronald preferred to comment upon. “This is what I get for doing coke in the ‘80s” he muttered. To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. He did, after all, witness the birth of Tiffany. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and flipped the light switch nearest to the door. He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first as if he half-expected to be terrified with the sight of William’s ass sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on; so he said “For fuck’s sake!” and closed it with a bang.
The sound resounded through the home like thunder. Every room above and every sex swing in the S&M dungeon below shook. (When Ronald had all of William’s belongings removed, the dungeon remained untouched. Not because Ronald wanted to keep it, he thought William’s activities down there were deviant and disturbing, but because he could not find a crew willing to come and remove it.) The sound of the sex swing oddly continued to echo off the walls of the home’s interior in an odd way moments later. Ronald was not a man to be frightened by echoes. Only by small children, poodles, and the comedian Kevin Hart, who himself was not unlike a small child. He fastened the door, and walked across the hall, and up the stairs.
As Ronald made his way up the stairs, he thought he saw a hearse go on before him in the gloom, which these stairs were wide enough to easily support. He wasn’t sure. It was quite dark on the home’s second floor and Ronald was cheap. He only left the downstairs lights on to ward off potential burglars. The upstairs was left dim to save on electrical costs.
Up Ronald went into the blackness, not caring a button for that: darkness is cheap, and Ronald liked it. But before he shut his heavy door, he walked through his rooms to see that all was right. He had just enough recollection of the face to desire to do that.
Reading room, bed-room, the room where he kept his collection of human skulls. All as they should be. Nobody under the table, not even the sex worker whom had visited the night before and brought him dinner from the nearby McDonalds. Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his favorite suit, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall. Skull room as usual. Nothing moved. Not even the one with the weird face that he often had conversations with at night when he couldn’t sleep.
Quite satisfied, he closed his bedroom door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus, secured against surprise, he took off his clothes; put on his official Ronald J. Chump pajamas, which used to be on sale at Macy’s and were made in Vietnam, despite Chump’s insistence that they were made here in America. He also put on his night-cap.
There was a package waiting for him. He sat down before the fire to take his nightly cheeseburger, which was left for him by the sex worker next to the bedroom’s fire. One of the sex workers’ duties was to bring Ronald McDonalds as they arrived at his home since Ronald couldn’t be bothered to go in person; and it was all the sex workers could afford to eat based on what Ronald was paying them. There was never a better case for the legalization and protection of sex workers, then to look upon the faces of those who would sleep with Ronald Chump for money, and despair.
Tonight, it was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. Ronald was obliged to sit close to it, given that he refused to touch the thermostat, and brooded over the flames. The fire-place was designed to look like an old one. One probably built by some asshole during the Lincoln administration, and paved all round with quaint tiles that Ronald enjoyed describing as “queer.” The tiles were originally designed to illustrate the Scriptures. But now in their place were odes to Mitch McConnel, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and other prominent conservatives that Ronald enjoyed giving money to. There were dozens of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of William, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up all of them. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old William’s head on every one.
“Humbug!” said Ronald; and walked across the room.
After several turns, he sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten; but if Ronald had to guess, probably also related to William’s sex dungeon. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he
looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell, phone, and other electronic devices in the house. This included Ronald’s smartphone, which began to blare his ringtone, “Eye of The Tiger” by Survivor, as loud as the little device could. (Ronald had convinced himself that the song was written about him in the 80s, but whether or not cocaine was involved in that thought process remains unknown to this very day.)
This might have lasted half a minute or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells and ringtone ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging the heavy chains from the sex dungeon up the stairs with them. Ronald then remembered to have heard that ghosts live in haunted houses, the real ghosts, not the fun ones that take you on adventures, and was often described as dragging chains.
The sex dungeon-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
“It’s humbug still!” said Ronald. “I won’t believe it.”
His color changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried “I know him! William’s Ghost!” and fell again.
The same face: the very same. William in his usual grey sportscoat, his purple tie, that giant face, and even bigger jaw, which was always smiling … or ready to eat people. Even Ronald wasn’t completely sure, and he knew a thing or two about cannibals. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Ronald observed it closely) of cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. A closer inspection would have revealed that the data found within each ledger and deed pertained to every self-help seminar William had conducted during his time on Earth. Millions of dollars’ worth. A keen eye could even spot a receipt for the jet he had purchased, which itself was hundreds of pages long. William’s extremely tall and gangly body was transparent: so that Ronald, observing him, and looking through his shirt, could easily see behind him and into the hallway.
Ronald had often heard it said by critics that William had no guts since he didn’t run across the hot coals at his seminars that the attendees did, but he never believed those critics until now.
No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and enormous chin, which
wrapper he had not observed before: he was still incredulous and fought against his senses.
“How now!” said Ronald, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“Much!”–William’s voice, no doubt about it. Anyone would recognize it. There were dozens of self-help audiobooks released by William that had all become quite popular on Audible.com including such titles as “Awakening The Giant Inside” and “How to Win Friends and Influence Others”.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was.”
“Who were you then?” said Ronald, raising his voice. “You’re particular–for a shade.”
“I’m sorry, a what?” said the ghost.
“A phantom, a Spector, a poltergeist. You know man, a ghost!”
“In life, I was your partner, William O’Leary” replied the ghost. Having never been called a shade before, he wasn’t sure if he should be offended or not. But there wasn’t enough time to contemplate 19th Century English authors and their choice of words to describe the dead.
“Can you–can you sit down?” asked Ronald, looking doubtfully at the ghost.
“Do it then.”
Ronald asked the question because he didn’t know whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But the ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fire-place as if he were quite used to it.
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Ronald.
“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Ronald.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Ronald, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of cheeseburger Akira brought from McDonald’s, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato or onion. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Ronald was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the specter’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones. But we all know how well Chump’s attempts to appear smart can go …
To sit, staring at those fixed, glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Ronald felt unsettled. There was something very awful, too, in the specter’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Ronald could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair was still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven.
“You see this C?” said Ronald, wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself and to a three-foot-tall solid gold statue of the letter C, for Chump, that sat next to his bed. “Isn’t it terrific?”
“The Best C,” replied the Ghost. If William could still roll his eyes, he would have. He hated that stupid C and thought it was a criminal waste of funds, but since Ronald had his own charity to pay for such things, even though illegal to do so, William never shared this thought with Ronald when he was alive. What did he care, when it wasn’t Williams money to be wasted.
“You are not looking at it,” said Ronald.
“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.” The ghost noted to himself what a sick burn this was, and if he could still smile, he would have.
“Well!” returned Ronald. “I have but to swallow this C and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of Jews and goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you–humbug!”
At this, the spirit raised a frightful cry and shook its sex chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Ronald held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!
Ronald fell upon his knees and clasped his hands before his face.
“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Ronald. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of us all,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within should walk among our fellow people, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world–oh, woe is me! –and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
“But didn’t you offer people in need comfort and relief to their most searing mental problems?” Chump asked.
“I offered only platitudes, pop psychology, and rocks!” As he said this, the specter raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.
“You are fettered,” said Ronald, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Ronald trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is now a big chain! A terrific chain! The best chain!”
Ronald glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of sex chain himself: but he could see nothing.
“William,” he said, imploringly. “Old William, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, William.”
“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “Happiness comes from the journey, not the destination, and neither of us has traveled much! Comfort is conveyed by others, other kinds of men and women of varying faiths and beliefs, and from some with no beliefs at all! Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked far beyond our office unless for work –mark me!–in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our business transactions with others; and weary journeys lie before me!”
It was a habit with Ronald, whenever he became thoughtful, to put his hands in his pockets and shake them to see if there was any spare change he could refuse to give to the homeless later in the day. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.
“You must have been very slow about it, William,” Ronald observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.
“Slow!” the Ghost repeated.
“Seven years dead,” mused Ronald. “And traveling all the time?”
“The whole time,” said the Ghost. “No rest, no peace. The incessant torture of remorse.”
“You travel fast?” said Ronald.
“On the wings of the wind,” replied the Ghost.
“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said Ronald.
The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its sex chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the police would have been justified in indicting it for criminal mischief.
“Oh, captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth, must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business” faltered Ronald, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business! Wrong was I to offer advice to those desperately in need in lieu of therapy, medication, and self-care; and to make them fly halfway around the world to Fiji and pay me great sums for the privilege of hearing me speak falsely to them!
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the specter said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through the crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, unless they had enough money to gain my attention and supposed wisdom? and never raise those eyes to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no shelters for the homeless to which its light would have conducted me! I could have built them. I had the means! As do you! But everyone talks about helping the homeless and yet does nothing when the solution is so easy when homes are what they need and access to assistance, money, and services not far from those homes. But not in my neighborhood the people cry, as did you, and as did I!”
Ronald was very much dismayed to hear the specter going on at this rate and began to quake exceedingly. In all of his years working in real estate, Chump did nothing for the homeless, and everything to evict as many of the poor as he could, leaving many of them to become homeless themselves.
“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
“I will,” said Ronald. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, William! Pray!”
“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day, smelling your farts and watching you shower, as all of the dead can do.”
It was not an agreeable idea. Ronald shivered and wiped the perspiration from his brow. The thought of dozens of angry ghosts in his bathroom watching him, or anyone else on Earth, use the shower was quite unsettling.
“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ronald.”
“You were always good to me,” said Ronald. “Thank you!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
Ronald’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done. “Would Abraham Lincoln be one of them?”
William said nothing in reply.
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, William?” Ronald demanded, in a faltering voice.
“I … I think I’d rather not,” said Ronald. “I’d rather stay in my bed until it’s time to use the toilet and see what’s happening on Twitter” Ronald’s eyes darted over to his clock to see that his Twitter and Toilet time was only six hours from now.
“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the food court bell tolls one.”
“Couldn’t I take them all at once, and have it over, William?” hinted Ronald.
“They are ghosts, not sex workers, Ronald! You can expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
When it had said these words, the specter took its wrapper from the table, and bound it round its head, as before. Ronald knew this, by the smart sound its teeth made, when the jaws were brought together by the bandage. He ventured to raise his eyes again and found his supernatural visitor confronting him in an erect attitude, with its chain wound over and about its arm.
The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the specter reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned Ronald to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, William’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come closer. Ronald stopped.
Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The specter, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge, which sounded a lot like a depressing rendition of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
Ronald followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
The air was filled with phantoms of stockbrokers, hedge fund managers, and other representatives of Wall Street wandering hither and thither in restless haste and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like William’s Ghost; some few were linked together with the chains having names upon them such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers; none were free.
Many had been personally known to Ronald in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a professional wrestler in need with whom it had denied health insurance and a pension. There was another still, who owned New York’s other baseball team and refused to spend any sort of money on them or hire competent people and get out of the way, who was chained to what appeared to be the old remains of their former stadium in Queens. Now the ghost wanted nothing more to spend lavishly and please its fans. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power to do so forever.
Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.
Ronald closed the window and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.
Christmas in Cornwall
When Ronald Chump awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his bedroom. He was endeavoring to pierce the darkness with his shark-like eyes, when the chimes of Chauncy’s “totally not a church” struck the four quarters. So Chump listened for the hour.
To his great astonishment the heavy bell went on from six to seven, and from seven to eight, and regularly up to twelve; then stopped. Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Or one of those god damn giant bugs from the cornfield, that Nebraska is known to have. Twelve! Or maybe … Maybe, Chump thought, this was some elaborate prank from the laborers working on the gas-pipes. Perhaps one finally had enough of living in fear of deportation that they decided to strike back. Strike back by messing with the clock on the food court, just to deliver one more little “screw you” to Ronald for all his abuses, And to the shoppers who paid no attention to their plight, and all the wrong attention instead to meaningless catchphrases like “build the wall”.
Ronald picked up his Apple Watch from the nightstand and touched the crown. It was a gift from a visiting member of the SMG marketing team. One who visited from Pennsylvania to discuss a potential purchase of the Nebraska mall for a few hundred million dollars. Another fine payday for Chump. He often forgot he had it, as most Apple Watch owners tend to, and hadn’t thought to look for it during William’s visit to see if it too was acting strange. The dumb stupid thing, Chump thought.
“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Ronald, “that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn’t possible that anything has happened to the sun, and this is twelve at noon!”
The idea being an alarming one for a man his age, where you knew the exact time of your morning dump. He scrambled out of bed and groped his way to the window. He was obliged to rub the frost off with the sleeve of his Ronald J. Chump Pajamas before he could see anything and could see very little then. All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold and that there was no noise of people shopping, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day and taken
possession of the world.
Ronald went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought. William’s Ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after rare mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked through again, “Was it a dream or not?” Was it like the time he did acid in Canisteo? No. At least that time Ronald was smart enough to bring a disposable camera with him into the woods.
Ronald lay in this state until the chimes had gone three quarters more, when he remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to lie awake until the hour was past; and considering that he could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was perhaps the wisest resolution in his power. Ronald always thought he was guaranteed a spot in Heaven, simply by virtue of his big bank account. “He who has the most toys wins” was something Chump was fond of saying to his children; on the rare occurrence that he could tolerate their presence.
The quarter was so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length, it broke upon his listening ear.
“A quarter past,” said Ronald, counting.
“Half-past!” said Ronald.
“A quarter to it,” said Ronald.
“The hour itself,” said Ronald, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy ONE. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant from his Apple Watch, and the curtains of his bed were drawn.
“Oh shit!” cried Ronald.
The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, we tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Ronald, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as we are now to you, and we are standing right behind you.
(B.J.: Did they stop reading this to look behind them? )
(Charles Dickens: They so did!)
Like you, Ronald looked as well. And he saw it was a strange figure–like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave it the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions like that old attorney general and former senator from Alabama.
Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same as if its hold were of uncommon strength rumored to belong to people with limited intelligence. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; the kind of white certain people insisted on wearing in the South during their late-night cross burnings, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt with the hateful symbol of the stars and bars. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a Confederate soldier’s cap, which it now held under its arm.
Even this, though, when Ronald looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, dark like the soul of the old South, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Ronald.
“I am! But I am not a sir. I am a They. A them. And I insist you refer to me so, for that is my preference and a choice that must be honored by all.”
The voice was filtered through a Georgia twang, the kind the Duke Boys used to have in that TV show while being singularly low as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who, and what are you?” Ronald demanded.
“Can’t you tell by what I’m wearing? I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Long past?” inquired Ronald: observant of its dwarfish stature.
“No. Your past.”
Perhaps, Ronald could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him; but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap, and begged him to be covered.
“What” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose bigoted passions brought this hat back into relevance; and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow, extinguishing the true beauty of humanity’s achievements. Instead viewing the past only through the lenses of hateful nostalgia for when humanity was at its lowest.”
Ronald reverently disclaimed all intention to offend, or any knowledge of having wilfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him here.
“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.
Ronald expressed himself much obliged but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:
“Your reclamation, then. “And the reclamation of those like you who have hate in their hearts for their fellow man. Do not confuse my dress with my purpose. I wear only what you and others like you believe I wear when they glorify the past. Now, take heed!”
It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.
“Rise! The way hate will never again if my work is done right, and walk with me!”
It would have been in vain for Ronald to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his Vietnamese made slippers, dressing-gown, and a nightcap. The grasp, though gentle as a house elf’s hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped its robe in supplication.
“I am a mortal,” Ronald remonstrated, “and liable to fall.”
“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, “and you shall be upheld in more than this!”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The mall had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it or the cornfield, or the Super 8, or the highway, was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
“Good Heaven!” said Ronald, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!”
The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!
“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
Ronald muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a whole big fat hoax, “fake news”, and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Ronald with a fervor not seen unless he was talking about “the immigrants”–“I could walk it blindfold.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!” observed the Ghost. “Let us go on.”
They walked along the road; Ronald recognizing every gate, and post, and tree; until a town appeared in the distance, Cornwall, New York, with the Canterbury Presbyterian Church, and the winding Hudson river at its side. Some cars and pickup trucks were seen trotting towards them with boys inside from the military academy. All these boys were in great spirits, listening to The Beatles, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.
“I always hated the fucking Beatles” said Ronald.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
“Is that so?” Ronald turned back toward the boys and shouted, “I always hated the fucking Beatles!”
The jocund travelers continued to appear; and as they came, Ronald knew and named them. Art Davie, who went on to found the Ultimate Fighting Championship League. Bob Stiller, who went on to found Green Mountain Coffee, and Bob Benmosche, who was the CEO of the insurance giant, AIG. Even the kids he later hazed by ordering them to belch on command and stand in hot showers while wearing their full winter military gear were there. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their journey to and from the city! What was merry Christmas to Ronald? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?
“The academy is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”
Ronald said he knew it. And he sobbed like he did before each and every one of his wedding nights, thinking about how much this one would cost in alimony later.
They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a dormitory that resembled a large house. One of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows were broken, and their gates decayed. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast.
They went, the Ghost and Ronald, across the hall, to a door at the back of the dorm. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was near a feeble fire reading Green Lantern comic books; and Ronald sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be. Sent here to escape from his abusive father and pretentious mother.
Not a latent echo in the dorm, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the paneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Ronald with softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.
The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his young self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a Jewish man, in what appeared to foreign garments for those unfamiliar with Orthodox Jews: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window. His Santa Clause like beard made and propensity to hand the local children gelt around this time of year made him quite popular.
“Why, it’s Lazarus Lifschitz!” Ronald exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Lazarus! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone with his comic books, he did come, for the first time to welcome me into his home, just like that. Poor boy! And his sister, Lillian,” said Ronald, “and his wild brother, Louis, the unbeliever! It was Louis who gave me my first comic book, Showcase #22, the debut of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern!
To hear Ronald expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends and for all those who work for him and know him on this Earth.
“And there’s Louis’s Parrot!” cried Ronald. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! He used to say all the best swear words. Flaming Mike Pence he called him, after a friend he served with in the war. Whenever Louis would come home he would say, ‘Flaming Mike Pence, where have you been, Flaming Mike Pence?’
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Ronald muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Ronald. “Nothing. There was someone singing a Christmas carol at my office the other day. I should like to have given them something other than grief. Instead, I hurled an unwanted gift at their head.”
“I saw.” Said the ghost.
The Ghost then smiled thoughtfully and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”
Christmas With Mr. and Mrs. Bernardin
Ronald’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and dirtier, like an Arby’s just after the night shift had ended. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Ronald knew no more than you. A rare occurrence, as even the smallest of children know more than he on all matters beyond business. Ronald only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays. He was not reading comic books now, but walking up and down despairingly. Ronald looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in. Putting her arms about his neck, at first pretending to strangle him, before stopping and making an expression that said, “Ahhhh! I bet I had you that time”. She then kissed him on the cheek and addressed the boy as her “Dear, dear brother.”
“I have come to bring you home, dear brother!” said the child, clapping her familial tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home! Home, home, home, to Queens, the greatest borough of them all.”
“Home, little Maryann?” returned the boy.
“Yes!” said the child, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, forever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be without the drink. That home is now like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home without suffering a savage beating first; and he said Yes, you should, and sent me with a limo to bring you. And you’re to be a man!” said the child, opening her eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world. Now come, brother, come. If we hurry we can be home in time to throw hardened clay at the rush hour commuters getting off the seven trains.
“You are quite a woman, Maryann!” exclaimed the boy.
She clapped her tiny hands and laughed, and tried to touch his head; but being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace him. Then she began to drag him, in her childish eagerness, towards the door; and he, nothing loth to go, accompanied her.
A terrible, dull turtle-like voice in the hall cried, “Bring down Cadet Ronald’s box, there!” and in the hall appeared the school’s headmaster himself, who glared on cadet Ronald with a ferocious condescension, as if he Ronald was an earthworm, and the slow headmaster would fit him inside his beak and swallow him up if he could. Instead, the spectacled old man threw Ronald into a dreadful state of mind by shaking hands with him. He then conveyed him and his sister into the veriest old well of a shivering best-parlor that ever was seen, where the poster up on the wall detailed the most arcane rules of how America’s government works, and the celestial and terrestrial globes in the windows, were waxy with cold and thoughts of world domination, or at the very least, strategies for winning the board game known as Risk. Here the headmaster produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered installments of those dainties to the young people: at the same time, sending out a meager servant to offer a glass of “something” to the postboy, who answered that he thanked the gentleman, but if it was the same tap as he had tasted before, he had rather not. The Postboy had been fooled once before by the Headmaster to drink and filed a police report later saying as much about the incident. The subject of the report and the alleged incident is unknown as the case was settled out of court. Cadet Ronald’s trunk being by this time tied on to the top of the limo, the children bade the schoolmaster and his hideous hanging neck fat good-bye right willingly; and getting into it, drove gaily down the garden-sweep; the quick wheels dashing the hoar-frost and snow from off the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray.
“Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered,” said the Ghost. “But she had a large heart!”
“So she had,” cried Ronald. “You’re right!”
“She died a woman,” said the Ghost, “and had, as I think, children.”
“One child,” Ronald returned. “Then she died.”
“True,” said the Ghost. “Your nephew!”
Ronald seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, as if someone had just said how much they still admired Bill Cosby at a family dinner. “Yes.”
Although they had but that moment left the school behind them, Chump and the Ghost were now in the busy thoroughfares of Queens, where shadowy passengers passed and repassed; where shadowy cars and buses, so many buses, filled with people coughing and sneezing but not a single tissue among them to spare, battled for the way, and all the strife and tumult of a real city were. It was made plain enough, by the dressing of the shops, that here too it was Christmas time again; but it was evening, and the streets were lighted up as they should always be to deter crime and traffic accidents.
The Ghost stopped at a certain warehouse door, and asked Ronald if he knew it.
“Know it!” said Ronald. “Was I not apprenticed here?” he scoffed. Know it. Ronald knew the place like the back of his hand. He used to even sleep here when his family was unbearable to be around.
They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in his Mets cap, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Ronald cried in great excitement:
“Why, it’s old Bernardin! Bless his heart; it’s Mr. Bernardin alive again at the old Met’s emporium!”
Old Mr. Bernardin laid down his pen and looked up at the oversized Mr. Met clock, which was on sale at the time for $15, that pointed to the hour of five. Quitting time. There would be no workaholism under Mr. Bernardin’s careful watch or an expectation that people work a single moment more than they were obligated to do so. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his coat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes right up to his organ of benevolence
[BJ: Charles, do you mean his mouth when you say “organ of benevolence”?]
[Charles Dickens: Your guess is as good as mine!]
Old Mr. Bernardin called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:
“Yo! Ronald! Henry!”
Ronald’s former self, now a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-apprentice in selling and distributing Mets merchandise, Henry Bernardin, a handsome black man with a stylish afro fitting of the times. A good man and a better friend to Ronald and all who knew him. Henry made his father, Old Mr. Bernardin, very proud indeed.
“Big Henry Bernardin, to be sure!” said Ronald to the Ghost. “Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Henry. Poor Henry! Dear, Henry!”
“Yo ho, my boys!” said Old Mr. Bernardin. “No more work tonight filling those merchandise orders. It’s Christmas Eve, Henry. Christmas, Ronald! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Mr. Bernardin, with a sharp clap of his hands, “faster than you can say Willie Mays!”
You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters–one, two, three–had ’em up in their places–four, five, six–barred ’em and pinned ’em–seven, eight, nine–and came back before you could have got to twelve, securing all the locks and panting like gamblers between races at the track as they did.
“Hilli-ho!” cried old Mr. Bernardin, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Henry! Chirrup, Ronald”
Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Mr. Bernardin looking on. It was done in a minute. Every bit of Mets merchandise was packed off as if it were dismissed from public life for ever-more, like the thought of the Mets ever again being taken seriously as a franchise; the floor was swept and mopped, fuel was heaped upon the fire, and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night. A few stragglers walked by the store looking to score some last-second merchandise, and in the spirit of benevolence that Mr. Bernardin embodied, he did not turn them away but gave them some Mets merchandise at no charge, covering the expense himself from his own wallet. Old Mr. Bernardin was a kind, loving man of the people. This was even the neighborhood he grew up in, retrofitting an old and dilapidated building, complete with fireplace and shutters, just so that it would no longer be an eyesore for the children to drive by and see on their way to and from school at P.S. 120.
In came a musician, a beautiful Puerto Rican saxophone player named Cynthia with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk as she prepared to play. In came Mrs. Bernardin, one vast substantial smile. In came Henry’s sisters, three Miss Bernardins, beaming and loveable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. Men and women of all colors they were. In came all the young men on the Mets team itself and the men and women employed in the business of fielding that team.
In came the team owner, Joan Payson, her housemaid, with the housemaide’s cousin, the baker. In came the Payson’s cook, with her brother’s weird friend, whom everyone called “the milkman” for reasons not even known to the Ghost. In came the teachers from P.S. 120, and the bus drivers, secretaries, and janitors. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once, hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of groping that decades later might be considered harassment. Everyone dancing with the best of intentions, all jokes about groping aside. Love was in the air, as was joy, as was merriment, with no one caring about things like race or sexual preference. All were loved and welcomed here, and the people danced as if they knew this in their hearts.
When this result was brought about, old Mr. Bernardin, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well down!” and the musician relaxed and enjoyed this brief moment of rest. But scorning rest upon the appearance of Mrs. Bernardin, a white German woman that Mr. Bernardin had met while stationed in Berlin. She instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet as if all the other musicians in the city had been carried home and she was the only one left to play, exhausted, on a shutter; and she was a bran-new one resolved to beat her out of sight, or perish as if her life depended on it. (For it did. While Mr. Bernardin was known and loved by all, Mrs. Bernardin was rumored to be a cannibal. It was said she kept independent contractors Mr. Bernardin hired, such as Cynthia the musician, locked in a secret basement. This was done especially to those whose services did not meet her expectations. The mistreatment of independent contractors is something that trickled down into Ronald’s brain years later, such as with the limousine drivers he hired through his organization. When the bill came due for their services, the organization refused to pay them on the grounds that their services did not meet his satisfaction. “Be glad we did not lock you in our basement!” the memos from the Chump Organization were known to have said. This was always dismissed as an oddity from an odd organization, but you, dear reader, now know the truth.
There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there were mince-pies, whatever those are, and plenty of beer. Beer, the nectar of Flushing! But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when Cynthia the musician (an artful dog, mind! The sort of woman who knew her business better than you or I could have told it her!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley” a special request from Old Mr. Bernardin himself. There would be no extended stay chained in the basement for this clever girl!
Then old Mr. Bernardin stood out to dance with Mrs. Bernardin. Top couple too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with at an orgy if you got in their way; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.
But if they had been twice as many: ah, four times: old Mr. Bernardin would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Bernardin. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell us higher, and we will use it. What was that? Ok. Yes. He did not eat people, which is more than we can say for Mrs. Bernardin and what happened to those who ended up in her secret basement.
A positive light appeared to issue from Bernardin’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would become of ’em next. And when old Mr. Bernardin and hungry Mrs. Bernardin had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, hold hands with your partner; bow and curtsey; whip and nae nae; thread-the-needle, floss, and back again to your place; Old Mr. Bernardin “cut”–cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.
When the clock struck ten, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Bernardin took their stations, one on either side the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, and wished him or her a Merry Christmas. (Cynthia the musician did not wait to say goodbye and made sure she left at the soonest opportunity to do so. An invoice would later be sent to Mr. Bernardin for her services with the assistance of Ronald, but we will get to that later.) When everybody had retired but the two store employees, Henry and Ronald, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back of the warehouse to help teach them both empathy. For even though both families had money, many in the neighborhood did not. A convenient lesson and arrangement for life.
During the whole of this time, Ronald had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Big Henry were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.
“Did you know she eat people?” asked the Ghost.
“No” Ronald mumbled, but the Ghost knew he was lying. Old Mr. Bernardin and Henry did not know, but Ronald did. It was he who discovered the basement, and he who then told Henry and Henry who told his father and the authorities. Everyone could tell when Ronald lied. In fact, the police did not believe him about Mrs. Bernardin’s recreational activities. Something that sent Ronald into a rage, and became the reason he, to this day, will just outright lie to people. So scarred from this experience that he was of the belief that few people he interacts with actually take him at this word. But the constant bullshitting was only a superficial point of this night. Much more was at stake for this man. And Mrs. Bernardin was now rotting away in Hell.
“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Ronald.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two employees, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Old Mr. Bernardin: and when he had done so, said, “Why! Is it not? He has spent but a thousand dollars of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Ronald, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, one only a boss or supervisor can provide, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune. Especially in today’s world where the social contract has eroded, and the only thing people can really count on in troubled times to come are each other. Their boss included, who should do all that they can to ensure their workers are paid and treated fairly, the way Mr. Bernardin did, and given the education they request to improve their skills at no cost to them; and all the time they need to be with their families or to maintain their health as needed.
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Ronald.
“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.
“No,” said Ronald, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to Chauncey just now! That’s all.”
His former self turned down the lamps as he gave utterance to the wish; and Ronald and the Ghost again stood side by side in the open air to another destination on their journey.
“My time grows short,” observed the Spirit. “Quick!”
Cynthia the Musician
This observation by the ghost was not addressed to Ronald, or to any one whom he could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Ronald saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. They were now looking at a time when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Michael Bay was still making music videos for MTV. Our Ronald’s face had not the harsh orange tan and hair plugs of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of narcissism and avarice. His hair beginning to thin. There was also an eager, restless motion in the eye now, which showed the passion he held for money had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
Like many in this time, Chump believed in growth at all cost for his business ventures, and with that growth came consequences. People lost their jobs, others were discriminated against for no reason other than a spreadsheet suggested it would be profitable to do so, and Ronald Chump began to lose his very soul.
The ghost had brought Ronald to a park bench in Queens where Chump was not alone. He sat by the side of a fair Puerto Rican girl in a colorful polka dot dress and white shutter shades that were resting on top of her head. It was the musician from the party at Mr. Bernardin’s, in whose eyes now were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past. By contrast, Ronald looked like the spitting image of Gordon Gekko. Their contrast in appearance a preview of what was about to unfold before the ghost and Ronald of the present day.
Ronald and Cynthia had struck up a relationship not long after Mr. Bernardin’s famed Christmas party, and it was Ronald who handled the transaction between Cynthia and Mrs. Bernardin after the party to ensure that Cynthia did not vanish like the other contractors. The two lived quite happily for some time in poverty on St. Nicholas Avenue, until one day Ronald’s father had gifted Ronald with his very own apartment complex to run, and the ability to earn all of the money that comes with owning property in New York City.
Then came another building. And then not much long after that, a sizable inheritance that catapulted Ronald into the city’s wealthy elite with the death of his father. It was there, among the rich that paranoia set in, for the rich do not like to spend their own money and are obsessed with keeping what they have at all costs. Now actively and openly discriminating against those he deemed unworthy to live in his apartments, with black applicants and Puerto Ricans specifically applying and being told no apartments were available while white applicants were told the exact opposite. In other instances, according to at least one federal lawsuit against Ronald, available apartments were said to be worth twice as much as what they actually were when Black and Puerto Rican applicants applied for them, in order to make the building unaffordable for them to move into it.
When Cynthia had learned of this practice, it was then that she knew the Ronald she had fallen in love with ceased to exist. Replaced by a monstrous villain that wore his face.
Cynthia was still who she always was, a brilliant musician and an immigration activist who believed in the economic potential of open borders in the United States. Something the country had practiced until the late 19th Century and had increasingly cracked down upon in order to benefit xenophobic politicians in the 20th.
Now arguing long and hard against such things as “trickle-down economics” and what little those policies would do for the poor and working-class, while it allowed for the rich to hoard even more of their own money and use it for gain that would benefit no one but themselves. Cynthia had asked Ronald to use his new-found wealth for good and to advocate against such disastrous policies, but Ronald refused. It was the basis for many fights. Cynthia pushing for Ronald to do good, and Ronald refusing, instead hoarding his money exactly in the way everyone feared beneficiaries of Reganomics would.
“It matters little,” Cynthia said to Ronald. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you better than I can, then so be it.”
“What Idol has displaced you?” he said.
“A green one,” said Cynthia.
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. Cynthia rolled her eyes. She knew inherited wealth is far from the even-handed dealing of the world. It’s just something that allows the wealthy to get wealthier. The economic equivalent of a claw machine that never picks up anything but appears to be accessible and something playable by all.
Chump continued, “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
She said nothing for the moment. Saying that the game was rigged to his, and others like his benefit would only enrage Ronald, and that would do nothing but prolong this conversation.
Decades later, a thing Cynthia feared would come true. That one of the wealthiest families in the world could make as much in a single moment of time as one of their full-time employees can make in a single year. She had seen this coming, and in Ronald, increasingly she found someone who wanted that very thing she feared to happen.
“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond any sort of consequence. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one until this master-passion of greed has engrossed you. Have I not?”
“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”
She shook her head. Even when you have grown apart over the span of a year, maybe two, Cynthia had lost track before the revelation of Chump’s housing policies, it was difficult to say painful truths to your soon to be former partner. You still love them in a way, and you do not wish to hurt them, and yet … That’s exactly what these conversations were bound to do no matter how hard you tried.
“Am I?” said Ronald.
“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, both of us forsaking money from our families to strike out on our own, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”
“I was a boy,” Ronald said impatiently.
“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are now,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and I can release you.”
“Have I ever sought release?”
She said nothing again. The park they were visiting in Astoria was known for its view of the East River and the Hell Gate Bridge. This particular part of the river was known for dangerous whirlpools that had taken more than a few boats in its day, and more than a few lives. Her life with Ronald now felt as if she had been sucked into these very waters. There was a moment of doubt about the answer to Ronald’s question, but then …
“In words. No. Never.”
“In what, then?” said Ronald.
“In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said Cynthia, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Don’t you see me in the face and eyes of the people you deny apartments to?
And what of Henry, your dear friend, to see how quickly you forgot about him in an effort to not lose the respect of your new gilded friends because they said he did not fit in at their gatherings.
“It’s because his mother was a cannibal!” Ronald mumbled. Cynthia replied simply, raising her eyebrow and saying to Chump, “Was that really the reason? Or a convenient excuse to exclude him for more insidious reasons?”
He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said, with a struggle, “You think not.”
“I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” she answered, “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free today, tomorrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose me, a citizen in name only with the way Puerto Rico is treated by this country. Me, a girl of color–you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by wealth and social status: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.”
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
“You may–the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will—have pain in this. A very, very brief time and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!”
Cynthia stood from the bench, and after a moment of silence, she parted. Leaving Ronald alone to think on the course his life had taken now that he had everything he seemed to have ever wanted.
“Spirit!” said Ronald, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Ronald. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms and forced him to observe what happened next.
They were in another scene and place: a home in Washington D.C. One not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Befitting a sensible congresswoman trying to live modestly in an otherwise expensive city.
Near to the television on the wall, with Paw Patrol playing sat a beautiful young girl, so like the last one that Ronald believed it was the same until he saw her. Cynthia, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her daughter and reading on an iPad tweets and emails from her constituents about her immigration policy and the brave plan to finally open America’s borders again.
As one New York University researcher, Michael Clemens, concluded, open borders would make the world twice as rich, and with that money, hope and prosperity can spring eternal for all those who have not benefitted thus far from the global economy to the tune of $305 billion according to the World Bank. Cynthia dreamed of what the world could do with that money, from preparing for life after climate change to providing a universal basic income to all. It would be a beautiful world for her children to inherit and one she fought hard for in the House of Representatives. For many years now Cynthia was the duly elected representative of New York’s 14th Congressional district.
The noise in this living room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there than Ronald in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself as if they were forty in number. Terrifying. Unruly. And adorable to all but Mr. Chump. A parade of cars in the driveway bringing more and more of them by the minute.
The consequences of all these children at play were uproarious beyond belief, but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the kids that had come today for this family gathering, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. Cynthia laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Her life in congress. Her many children, cousins, and grandchildren had gathered today for Christmas. This was a good life. She regretted little.
But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued just in time to greet the father, who, came home attended by his brother, their uncle, with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenseless uncle! The scaling him, with chairs for ladders, to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round the neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection as if he worked for Amazon itself! By the time the children were finished with the uncle, he looked as ramshackle as a Walmart on Black Friday.
The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received! The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a Shimmer doll, of Shimmer and Shine fame, into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having already swallowed Shine! The immense relief of finding this to be a false alarm when Cynthia found the two dolls in the other room! The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy! They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the living room and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the home’s bedrooms; where they went to nap, and so subsided.
And now Ronald looked on more attentively than ever, when Cynthia’s husband, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother on the couch in front of the television; and when Ronald thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.
“Cynthia,” said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, “I saw an
old friend of yours yesterday. You will never believe who SMG wants to buy a mall from”
“Who was it?”
“How can I, George? I don’t know,” she added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed.
“Ronald Chump” said Cynthia.
“Ronald it was! How did you know?”
“I was curious to see who would put a multimillion-dollar mall in the middle of Nebraska where no one lives and no one who does wants to. So I looked it up when you left for your trip.”
“You knew this whole time?”
“I did. It was the first I had thought of him in many years. How was he?”
“Exceedingly polite, in the way all men are when they’re trying to get something they want.”
“Pigs. All of you.” Cynthia laughed.
“Pigs!” shouted Cynthia’s daughter.
Cynthia smiled at her daughter, “That’s right. And remember darling, Men are never to be trusted fully until time says otherwise.”
“Even the nice ones?” asked the daughter
“Especially the nice ones.”
“Spirit!” said Ronald in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!” The spirit was quite pleased with this line. He had been readying for this night by reading about Stoicism from a bunch of white guys who found money and fame in regurgitating all the good things the ancient Greek philosophers had said while conveniently forgetting all the bad ones.
“Remove me!” Ronald exclaimed. “I cannot bear it!”
He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Ronald observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the confederate cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The Spirit dropped beneath it so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Ronald pressed it down with all his force, thinking to himself that this was the one time he did not want the old south to rise again, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.