Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Story

This is a repeat posting of a Christmas Eve short story, inspired by one of my favorite Christmas songs. The song is "A Fairy Tale of New York," sung by Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, with the late Kirsty MacColl.

It's a song set in the '80s, during the period when young Irish men and women immigrated to New York City to find their fortunes. I mean the 1980s - the Irish recession of 1980 - 1985 spurred a new wave of immigrants. These migrants were educated professionals - accountants, medical technicians, doctors and engineers, unable to find work in the bad economy at home.

The song is a duet between two lovers who've been defeated by life's hardships, yet remember the exhilaration of being young and in love in New York at Christmas time.
Shane: "I could have been someone"

Kirsty: "Well, so could anyone. You took my dreams from me when I first found you."

Shane: "I kept them with me babe, I packed them with my own. Can't make it out alone, I built my dreams around you."
It has one of the best opening lines of any Christmas song. If you haven't already played it, go listen.

There's another line, though, that for me holds a lot of meaning. It reminds me of another Christmas Eve in New York City, around that same time. The line goes:
"We kissed on the corner and danced through the night."
It's one of the reasons I love this song. I wrote a short story about two lovers in New York, at Christmas Eve, during the 1970s.

The office was closing early, because it was Christmas Eve. She'd called Arthur at work, and he said come over. He got off at 6:00, so she'd have to hang out, but that would be OK.

Everyone in the office wished one another a Merry Christmas. The two company patriarchs, Mr. Hodges and Mr. Sweeters, had passed out Christmas treats; tins of butter cookies for the ladies, and tall cardboard boxes holding bottles of whiskey for the men. Ruthie the bookkeeper had given Jen and Doris handmade brooches she'd made of glittery yarn, crocheted in the shapes of wreathes. Jen had waited, a little breathlessly, to say "Merry Christmas" to young Mr. Hodges. "So, congratulations on your first Christmas in the big city," he'd said, and had given her a hug, briefly pressing his cheek to hers before releasing her.

Jen ducked a kiss on the cheek from Eddie, whose shiny mouth smelled of the whiskey from the boxes. She rode the elevator down to Fifth Avenue, where a light grainy snow was beginning to fall, making the sidewalk slick.

The bar where Arthur worked was over near Pennsylvania Station. She got there at 4:30, which meant that by the time he clocked out at 6:00, she had already had two drinks, sitting at the bar. She loved watching him talk to the customers, Midtown regulars, the way he looked at their faces as if he cared about them. The corner of his eyes crinkled. Did he look the same way to others when he talked to her?

When Ralph, the manager, came out of the kitchen, Jen made a point of placing a ten dollar bill on the bar in front of her cocktail napkin - Ralph had warned Arthur about buying her drinks before. She gave him an insincere smile in return for his glare.

As they stepped onto 33rd Street, Arthur slipped the ten back into her coat pocket, and they both laughed. "Where to now?" she asked.

He wore a navy peacoat over his jeans and sweater, and a battered pair of boots. The snow looked like little bright beads in his hair - full and wavy, though it was going grey. He was 37, he'd told her. They had met while working on a play in the East Village, he in the cast and she as the stage manager.

"You hungry?" he said. "Over at Flanagans, they have a happy hour buffet. Not like that cheap bastard Ralph."

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He was taller than she, and rangy with wide shoulders and a kind of loping gait. "You walk like a farmer," she'd once said to him. "There's a reason, I guess," he had answered. That was the only clue he'd ever dropped about his past.

They took the short cut through the ground floor of Macy's. She showed Arthur a pair of gloves lined with tartan wool, and a matching scarf. "Winter's just started and you don't have gloves," she said. Then he held a pair of dangly earrings near her cheek, saying, "I'd rather buy you these," as she peered into a mirror. "But now I've spoiled the surprise." As they passed the perfume counter she sprayed Chanel No.5 on one wrist, and Arpege on the other, and held them to his nose. He kissed her in front of the revolving door onto Herald Square, and she tasted Bushmills and tobacco.

Flanagans was warm and dark and not so crowded they couldn't find a table. They ordered a round and filled their plates at the buffet - cheese cubes, crackers, Swedish meatballs in sauce and fried zucchini with marinara sauce for dipping.

"Not too many places have a free buffet anymore, " said Arthur, watching the crowd of office-workers having a drink before they plunged down to the train platforms.

"So did you go to that audition?" asked Jen. "Wasn't that this morning?"

"I went, yeah, I went up there. There were a lot of people, and I got to thinking about it and decided I don't want to do TV," he said. "It's too commercial. I didn't like the way those people looked."

"But you don't know until you - "

"Anyway, Jonathan says the director's a shit. Why would I want to work for someone like that? I already have enough trouble with Ralph."

Jen had come to New York right after college, hoping to work in theatre. She read the trades and sent her resume out for anything she thought she could do - stage managing, lighting, props. She never turned down a job without even checking it out. She looked at Arthur and thought, a real acting job paying real wages is way different than tending bar, then she looked down and decided not to say anything.

Arthur prodded the food on his plate, but didn't eat it. "So when did you tell your folks you'd be home for Christmas?" he asked.

"I said I had a show to work tonight," said Jen. "It's such a drag to take the bus to Jersey now, with all the commuters. I told them I'd come tomorrow morning. It's OK, Mom and Dad haven't done a Christmas tree in years, dinner is the important thing, and that's not till later."

His eyes smiled into hers. "Well, we'll see you off in the morning," he said. He put his hand on her thigh beneath the table.

They took the PATH train down to the Village - the fare was 30 cents, cheaper than the subway, and it stopped at Christopher Street and Hudson, not too far from her apartment on Bleecker. They climbed the stairs and opened the door to the darkened apartment - all theirs, her roommate gone to Connecticut for the holidays.

She took off her coat, and he dropped his coat on the wood floor. He put his hands on her waist and looked her up and down. Her work skirt and sweater, dark tights and heeled shoes. "You look just like someone in a respectable business."

"But I'm not," she said, "you know I'm not." Because she was small and he was large, it was easy for him to pick her up in his arms and carry her into the bedroom.

After, he lay in the bed while she packed her overnight bag. "So are your folks cool about you living in the city?" he asked.

"I haven't asked them about it," she said, "not really. They know what I want to do. My dad left home when he went to college and never came back - so he knows. I suppose they think its OK, it's just good that they live so close to New York I can see them on Christmas."

"You got anything cooking?" he asked.

"Um, yeah, a couple of things. I'm lighting a play by Eugene O'Neil, down in SoHo next month. This off-off Broadway rep company," she said. "What about you? You don't want to do TV - is there anything else casting?"

"I don't know, I'm actually thinking about looking for another job. Ralph said he would give me more hours but he went back on his word."

"I don't like working in the office," she said, "but it pays the rent, and I can still do shows at night and on weekends."

"You got more energy than me." He rolled to sit up and reached for his jeans. "Hey, Jonathan's gone skiing in Vermont with some girl he met. Let's go to my place, we can light the fireplace. You got your bag?"

On the way to the subway, they went past Village Liquors on 7th Avenue to buy something to drink. It was just before 11:00, closing time. Inside the store, a green parrot on a perch in a cage said "Ho ho ho!" every time the door opened and the bell rang.

When they came up the stairs at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, the snow was falling heavier and it was fluffy now, not gritty sleet as before. It came whirling down past the street lights, and lay soft on the wrought iron fences and railings in front of the brownstone houses. "Look!" said Jen. "It's like magic." The snow dusted the sidewalk, and their footprints showed where they walked.

There was a Christmas tree lot on the corner, and - amazingly - the lights were on and the seller was there. "You're still selling trees?" said Arthur. "Who buys Christmas trees now?"

The guy shrugged. "Maybe there's someone who doesn't have one yet," he said.

In the A & P they bought some bread, some cheese and some green apples. "You want anything else? How about some twinkle lights?" Jen laughed as Arthur held them up. "Candy canes? Half price."

When they came out, the lights were still on in the tree lot. "Look," said Arthur. "It's almost midnight. What do you want for that tree there?" He pointed.

"Five dollars," said the guy.

"What, at midnight? Two seconds and it's not worth anything. C'mon, what about it?"

"Go on, take it," said the guy.

"Arthur," said Jen, "You're not serious, are you? What are we going to do with it?"

"Don't you worry. Here, I got it if you take your bag. Can you get the groceries too? It's not far." He hoisted the tree somehow on his shoulder. As he walked ahead of her, she followed the cross of rough new boards, nailed to the tree's base, shining in the street light.

His place was just a half block down on Henry Street. He stumbled up the flight of stairs ahead of her, the snow from his boots melting on the linoleum steps, the scent of pine close in the narrow hallway. The living room was darkened, but the blinds were open, and beyond the wide windows the lights of the bridge and the city beyond gleamed in the dark, as the snow fell past them.

Jen looked out at the lights. The faint glimmering buildings of Manhattan looked so near and so far at the same time.

Arthur set the tree in front of the window. "How's that? We don't need decorations. It's pretty nice just like this."

He built a fire in the small fireplace, and then brought the cushions from the couch to the hearth, the pillows from his bed, and a quilt. He got two glasses from the kitchen, and cracked the seal on the whiskey bottle. He slipped a pen-knife from his pocket and wiped the blade on his jeans. He held out a slice of apple with a paring of cheese to her.

"C'mon now. It's good."

It was 1:00 a.m. They drank whiskey by the light of the fire. In the morning she would be on the bus to New Jersey, but for now, the scent of pine filled the room and the snow fell outside the window.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

oh yes, that is the best Christmas music video, thanks for everything and Merry Christmas to you!

cactus petunia said...

Oh, that story was beautiful!
Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

You are a talented writer. But I'm not surprised -- everything you write is high quality.
I hope you had a merry Christmas!