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, for ever 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 7 train.
“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 upon 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 instalments of those dainties to the young people: at the same time, sending out a meagre 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 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 admired Bill Cosby at a family dinner in 2019, “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 apprenticed here?” he scoffed. 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 seven. 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 grown a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-apprentice in selling and distributing Mets merchandise, Henry Bernardin, a handsome black man with an afro that was twenty-years out of style, but he pulled it off with such grace and ease the way Henry made everything look easy. 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 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 P.S. 120.
In came a musician, a beautiful Peruvian 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 were 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 such as Cynthia the musician locked in her basement whose services did not meet her expectations.)
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 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 eleven, 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 harden them for a life of business to come. A convenient arrangement, if one could get past all the screaming that emanated from the basement.
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 later told Henry and Henry who told his father and the authorities. Everyone could tell when Ronald lied, but that 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 regardless of how kind and generous her husband might have been, for eating people is something Heaven frowns upon.
“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, 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!”