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 to meaningless catch phrases such as “build the wall” instead of comprehensive immigration reform.
Ronald picked up his Apple Watch from the night stand 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. Another fine pay day 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 moment of your morning dump down to the second. 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 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 willfully “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 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 and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Ronald with fervor not scene 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 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 hime, 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 in the war with. 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!”