Fiction: A Christmas Carol (Part 2)

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 room 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, wheel chairs, 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 here. 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, and she yearned for the day that she would be free of this horrible man and employed elsewhere. Preferably in a job that made her feel fulfilled. That is, if that sort of employment was to be found anywhere 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 had 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 buses to get 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 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. 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 worse, 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 to 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 them 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 was 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.”

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 on the spur of the moment. 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 a 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 would occupy her until Ronald left for the day, and after he did, mall security would come 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, sir,” he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder 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 figurative sense on all others; for she returned the greetings cordially.

“There’s another one” muttered Ronald; who overheard her: “my guest relations clerk, and a husband and family, talking about a merry Christmas.

Ronald’s nephew had let two other people in as he exited. 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 between the two states. 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 holding hands 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, and 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 conservative 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? McDonalds, or combination Taco Bells 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 start to eat the rich instead.” He paused for a laugh. This line usually killed with the 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.”

“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 from their disability payments, and social security 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 access road. The replica church and its tower, which held the food court inside and was not referred to as a church officially, least 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 afterwards, 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 hypocrisy gets in the way of political ambitions in America.

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 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 tv 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 Kentucky Fried Chickens for them to work at.

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, to wear exclusively in the bedroom for their sex games. (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 pain, the small cluster of homes were 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 a new shopping center in South Dakota, paid for by state funding. Something Ronald relished. Any day he didn’t have to open his wallet and could spend other people’s money to fatten his own treasure was a grand one, and there had been many such days of late for Mr. Chump and his wealthy friends in that reguard.

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 everything. William was barely in the ground before Ronald had most of William’s things moved out and burned so that nobody else could use 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 change anything.

There was also this door knocker on William’s house, and one that we should bring our attention to next.