Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore — which a more reasonable man would take as a sign of having sleep apnea — and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together; Ronald had no occasion to be told that the food court bell was again upon the stroke of one. His Apple Watch offering him nothing but a static screen. Ronald felt that he was restored to life in the right nick of time, for the special purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger dispatched to him through William’s intervention. But finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them all aside with his hands; and lying down again, established a sharp look-out all round the bed. For he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, with the eagerness of a knowledgeable contestant on Jeopardy.
People of the free-and-easy sort, the kind who step in dog excrement and don’t spend a single moment thinking about having done so, and being usually equal to the time-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Ronald quite as hardily as this, we don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances and that nothing between a baby and proof of climate change would have astonished him very much in his present state.
Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the bell struck one, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came.
All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and center of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. At last, however, he began to think — as you or we would have thought at first; for it is always the person not in the predicament who knows what ought to have been done — at last, we say, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room: the skull room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his sweatshop made slippers to the door.
The moment Ronald’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice, that of an old Jewish man from Crown Heights called him by his name and bade him enter. He obeyed. For you do not want to argue with an old Jewish man about anything, for their power of kvetching only grow stronger as they age. Especially when air-conditioning or the lack thereof is concerned.
It was his own room, the one where he kept the skulls. There was no doubt about that. But the skull room had undergone a surprising transformation. Instead of an eccentric collection of human skulls, including Ronald’s prized possession, “Mr. Bitey”, a skull that he had once won in an illicit card game with the former owner of the Houston Astros, there were happy humans instead. Fully clothed and talking about their plans for Christmas this year as if they were never even skulls at all. The walls and ceiling, always left barren, were covered now with living green, so much so that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened.
The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Ronald’s time within this home. Heaped up upon the floor, to form a kind of couch were Hamantaschen, turkeys, bagels, bagels with cream cheese, bagels with lox, bagels with salmon, kugel, matzo pizza, potato latkes, matzo ball soup, challah, horseradish, and the menacing substance feared by Jews across the land whenever its presence became known: Gefilte Fish.
All of this delicious food, and some that weren’t, and so much more, made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing menorah, and held it up, high above, to shed its light on Ronald, as he came peeping round the door. A giant that looked much like Louis did when Ronald knew him many years ago.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in! and know me better, man!” “… Unless you have a cat, in which case I am deathly allergic to their fur and you should stay where you are. I suppose we can do this thing from a distance if we must.”
Ronald entered timidly, stating that he did not own a cat, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Ronald he had been; and though its eyes, adorned with a professor’s idea of cool glasses, were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “But you can call me Bernie. All of my friends do. Now …Look upon me and feel the burn!”
Ronald reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, likely made of hemp, and bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were hairy in the way common among Jewish people of Eastern European descent; and on its head, it wore no other covering than a holly wreath set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanor, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.
“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit. As he peered at Ronald.
“Never,” Ronald made answer to it.
“Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?” pursued the Phantom.
“I don’t think I have,” said Ronald. “I am afraid I have not. Have you had many brothers, Spirit?” “More than two-thousand and nineteen,” said the Ghost. “A tremendous family to provide for!” muttered Ronald. The Ghost of Christmas Present rose. “You must be a Catholic like me,” Ronald said. The Spirit smiled and said no. “Spirit,” said Ronald, now submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learned a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
“Touch my robe!”
Ronald did as he was told, and held it fast.
All vanished instantly. The room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of the night, the skulls turned people yammering about their plans, and they stood in the streets of Midtown Manhattan on Christmas morning. Streets where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music as they crossed the street. Stepping into large puddles of melted snow and swearing as they did. All amidst the honking of the yellow cabs as they scampered across 5th avenue and West 56th street. Where across from the Armani exchange store was the home to Chump Tower. Ronald Chump’s old home before Nebraska and current base of operations for his organization’s non-retail dealings.
There was nothing remarkable about Chump Tower. Inside was an atrium that, on the surface looked quite pretty, but actually sounded like a loud, leaky faucet in the men’s bathroom of the decrepit Port Authority Bus Terminal. On the second floor of the tower was a Starbucks, where one of Chump’s other children had posed for a photo that hung on the wall by the elevators, extolling her most favorite drink from the franchise — which of course, was the most expensive drink on the entire menu. There was also a bar and grill inside, but the less said about that, the better. Ronald Chump’s old penthouse, which he occasionally still occupied when in town, consumes the top three floors, where everything is said to be made out of solid gold, except the people who work there. (And despite numerous inquiries into the matter, Chump had not yet found a way to address even that.) All the workers here in Chump Tower, by the way, were in this country illegally and woefully underpaid, to the surprise of no one who knows anything about Ronald Chump. Their poor treatment and low pay a crime against humankind if there ever was one, for earning the minimum wage is barely enough to scratch the mountain of cost that it requires to live in New York’s outerboros, to say nothing of Manhattan which has become a Disney World for the Rich, and an Arby’s for everyone else.
The sky was gloomy above Chump Tower, and the streets were choked up with a dingy mist, the kind of mist usually associated with people who like Pink Floyd and the movie “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or this area of town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.
For the people who were visiting Chump Tower, whether for the Starbucks or to listen to the awful sounds of the giant atrium, were jovial and full of glee. And outside the tower, which stood on the site of an architecturally interesting department store that Chump insisted be ripped down, despite public promises of preserving what he could, children played with what was left of the snow on the sidewalk. Calling out to one another, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball, a better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest, laughing heartily if it went right at their target, and not less heartily if it went wrong and smacked a stranger square in the face. For even lawyers could not find a way to make throwing a snowball something punishable by years in prison, and if they have, dear reader, we prefer not to know …
Although if we are allowed one brief aside from this literary romp, it is to share this on the importance of making a snowball and hurling it at someone: Do it. As the comedian and social critic George Carlin once said, “There’s one thing with snow. Even when you’re fifteen or sixteen and you just want to get laid and snowballs no longer hold the slightest interest for you — or even for that matter if you’re never going to see sixty again—when it snows you’ve always got to make one snowball. Only one, but you gotta. Just to see if it’s good packing.” And we can’t think of a better way to celebrate this joyous, secular, 21st Century version of a beloved 19th Century holiday by pelting unsuspecting members of your family with the fruits of Winter’s embrace.