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. 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 in the food court, just to deliver one more “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 catchphrases such as “build the wall” instead of the good attention needed with advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.
Ronald picked up his Apple Watch from the nightstand and touched the crown. It was a gift from a visiting member of the SMG executive team. One who visited to discuss a potential purchase of the Nebraska mall for a few hundred million. Another fine payday for Chump. He often forgot he had it, as most Apple Watch owners do, and hadn’t thought to look for it during William’s visit to see if it too was acting strangely. The dumb stupid thing. A little watch bully. “What good are you when you’re not yelling at me about how many steps I’ve taken!” Chump thought.
“Why it isn’t possible,” said Ronald, “that I 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!” Chump thought back to the one time he thought the Sun had exploded, and woke his children up to come outside in their pajamas and “experience the end of the world” with him. He was wrong then. But could he be right now?
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 like the successful thief that it was.
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, New York? 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 passed; 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 sizable bank account. “He who has the most toys wins” was something Chump was fond of saying to anyone that would listen. Clearly unfamiliar with the works of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who said that you can’t take it with you.
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 everywhere, including 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 that everyone said looked like Dobby the house elf.
The ghost’s 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 buckle with the hateful symbol of the stars and bars. 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 is 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 those who ruled 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 had in that racist 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 and belt buckle 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 of 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. Who cling to the past at the detriment of the future, and those who fail to remember that everything changes, and we must embrace that change wherever and whenever we encounter it. 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, 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 a fervor only seen when he was talking about the sex workers he employed, “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 Chump 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 as 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 were 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. It was obvious that all the money that military academy collected was spent elsewhere, such as lavish salaries for its headmaster and other administrators. Echoing a problem in most industries today where useless administrators and management with their shiny Ivy league MBAs made all the money, while the employees who mattered to the enterprise most made almost nothing at all.
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 and propensity to hand the local children gelt around this time of year made him quite popular. (Although it did take some explaining to the children what gelt was at first, but the man didn’t mind.)
“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 home, 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! The parrot used to say all the best swear words. Flaming Mike Pence he called him, after a friend Louis served with in the war. 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. “Your aim was quite impressive, even if your intentions were not.”
The Ghost then smiled thoughtfully and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”
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, forever 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 commuters getting off the Flushing line 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 into the hallway; and he, nothing loth to go, accompanied her.
A terrible, dull turtle-like voice in the hall cried out, “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 an 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 an assistant to offer a glass of “something” to the postboy, who answered that he thanked the gentleman, but if it was from the same tap as he had tasted before, he had rather not. The Postboy was wise. For he had been fooled once before by the headmaster to drink and filed a police report later saying as much. The subject of the police 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 2020, “Yes.”
Although they had 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 not apprenticed here?” he scoffed. Know it. Ronald knew the place like the back of his hand. He used to even sleep here when asked, as well as 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 five. Quitting time. There would be no workaholism under Mr. Bernardin’s careful watch. Or an expectation that his employees must work a single moment more than they were obligated to do so. The emporium was profitable and put money into everyone’s pocket, employee’s chief among them. Little else mattered. For Mr. Bernardin was ahead of his time, realizing that people only have four hours’ worth of good, focused, mental work within them on any given day. Being pushed to work past those four hours did nothing good, neither for the business or for the employees themselves. He could often be seen telling any business person he encountered that Taylorism, or “scientific management” was flawed, and treating employees as replaceable parts on an assembly line was a monstrous practice.
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 a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-apprentice in selling and distributing Mets merchandise, Henry Bernardin. A slim, handsome black man. A good man that was friendly to all, stranger or family alike. He and Ronald were the best of friends, and Henry made his father, Old Mr. Bernardin, very proud indeed.
“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 at the race 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. Much like the thought today 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 old 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 team merchandise, and in the spirit of benevolence that Mr. Bernardin embodied, he did not turn them away. Instead, kindly Mr. Bernardin gave them some Mets merchandise and covered the expense himself from his own wallet. Old Mr. Bernardin was a kind, loving man of the people. He knew that love, acceptance, and empathy were the keys to building a rich and lasting community, and that philosophy touched everything that he did on this Earth. Why, 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 see on their way to and from school at P.S. 120. There was never a kinder man that walked this Earth in modern times, with only his son being the closest competitor.
Soon came a musician. A beautiful Puerto Rican saxophone player named Cynthia with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk as she prepared to play. Our young Ronald made note of her entrance, and immediately introduced himself to her. 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 housemaid’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 done!” and the musician relaxed and enjoyed this brief moment of rest. But not long after, Cynthia 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 was a brand-new one resolved to beat her out of sight, or perish, as if her life depended on it. A young Ronald was taken by her work ethic and mastery.
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 to her!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley” a special request from Old Mr. Bernardin himself, who learned of the dance during the war and had loved it ever since.
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.
(B.J.: No, really. I think Charles used up all the adjectives there are, and we’re only two chapters into this thing.)
A positive light appeared to issue from Mr. 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 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 ten, 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. 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. Beds that were under a counter in the back of the building to help teach them both empathy with those who came from less. For even though both families had money, many in the neighborhood did not. A convenient lesson and arrangement for life, for empathy is at the heart of what is needed for us to survive on this Earth.
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 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.
“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 are each other. Their boss included. A boss who should do all that they can to ensure their workers are paid and treated as fairly as family. The way Mr. Bernardin did, and also 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!”
Cynthia the Musician
This observation by the ghost was not addressed to Ronald, or to anyone whom he could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Ronald saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. They were now looking at a time when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Michael Bay was still making music videos for MTV. Our Ronald’s face had not the harsh orange tan and hair plugs of later years, but it had begun to wear the signs of narcissism and avarice. His hair beginning to thin. There was also an eager, restless motion in the eye now, which showed the passion he held for money had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
Like many in this time, Ronald Chump believed in growth at all cost for his business ventures, and with that pursuit of growth came consequences. To the environment. To the people employed by the company. And to the surrounding communities that housed these enterprises. People lost their jobs for no other reason than it was deemed good management philosophy at the time to rank employees and fire the bottom performers every year. Even if the metrics used to rank one employee against the other were arbitrary at best, and malicious at the worst. Other employees were discriminated against for no reason other than it would be more profitable for the company to close down their department and shift the work overseas, exploiting the cheap labor other countries had to offer. It was during this time that Ronald Chump and others like him began to lose their very soul, choosing shareholder value as their heart’s true north star instead of contributing to the community they inhabit and employ.
The ghost had brought Ronald to a park bench in Queens where Chump was not alone. He sat by the side of a Puerto Rican girl in a colorful polka dot dress and white shutter shades that were resting on top of her head. It was the musician from the party at Mr. Bernardin’s, in whose eyes now were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past. By contrast, Ronald looked like the spitting image of Gordon Gekko. Suspenders and all. Their contrast in appearance a preview of what was about to unfold before the ghost and Ronald of the present day.
Ronald and Cynthia had struck up a relationship not long after Mr. Bernardin’s famed Christmas party. The two lived quite happily for some time in poverty on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. That is, until one day Ronald’s father had gifted Ronald with his very own apartment complex to run, and along with that apartment complex, the ability to earn all of the money that comes with owning property in New York City. A significant sum calling to mind the curse of people who had won the lottery, only to find themselves and those around them corrupted by greed. None marking the words of one such lotter winner who fell into misfortune, William Post the third, who said “I was much happier when I was broke.”
There were speedbumps along the way in for Chump, sure. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Like the time Ronald Chump broke a perfectly functional toilet seat in a rage and sued a young Jewish couple blaming them instead for his act of bathroom aggression, but Ronald survived those, and a considerable rat problem, and soon came another building. And then not long after that, there was a sizable inheritance that catapulted Ronald into the city’s wealthy elite with the death of his father. It was there, among the rich that paranoia set in, for the born rich do not like to spend their own money and are obsessed with keeping what they have at all costs.
Now actively and openly discriminating against those he deemed unworthy to live in his apartments, with black applicants and Puerto Ricans specifically applying and being told no apartments were available, while white applicants were told the exact opposite. In other instances, according to at least one federal lawsuit against Ronald, available apartments were said to be worth twice as much as what they actually were when Black and Puerto Rican applicants applied for them, in order to make the building unaffordable for them to move into it.
When Cynthia had learned of this practice, it was then that she knew the Ronald she had fallen in love with had ceased to exist. Replaced by a monstrous villain that kept only his face and none of his charm.
Cynthia was still who she always was, a brilliant musician and an immigration activist who believed in the economic potential of open borders in the United States. Something the country had practiced until the late 19th Century with the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. An act which said that people from China would not be able to come to America for at least ten years, and even then, those that came would no longer able to become citizens. Not long after this act passed, politicians increasingly used immigration as something to be feared in order to further their own careers. A practice that still continues to this day, and one that Cynthia had vowed to fight against until her last breath.
The ’80s also found Cynthia arguing long and hard against such things as “trickle-down economics” and what little those policies would do for the poor and working class. All while it allowed for the rich to hoard even more of their own money and use it for gain that would benefit no one but themselves. Cynthia had asked Ronald to use his new-found wealth for good and to advocate against such disastrous policies, but Ronald refused. It was the basis for many fights. Cynthia pushing for Ronald to do good, and Ronald refusing, instead hoarding his money exactly in the way everyone feared beneficiaries of Reaganomics, and future tax cuts for the wealthy, would.
“It matters little,” Cynthia said to Ronald. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you better than I can, so be it.”
“What Idol has displaced you?” he said.
“A green one,” said Cynthia.
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. Cynthia sighed. She knew inherited wealth is far from the even-handed dealing of the world. It’s just something that allows the wealthy to get wealthier.
Chump continued, “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty, and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
She said nothing for the moment. Saying that the game was rigged to his benefit would only enrage Ronald, and that would do nothing but prolong this conversation.
Decades later, a thing Cynthia feared would come true. That one of the wealthiest families in the world could make as much in a single moment of time as one of their full-time employees can make in a single year. She had seen this coming, and in Ronald, increasingly she found someone who wanted that very thing she feared to happen.
“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond any sort of consequence. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one until this master-passion of greed has engrossed you. Have I not?”
“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”
She shook her head. Even when you have grown apart over the span of a year, maybe two, Cynthia had lost track before the revelation of Chump’s housing policies, it was difficult to say painful truths to your soon to be former partner. You still love them in a way, and you do not wish to hurt them, and yet … That’s exactly what these conversations were bound to do no matter how hard you tried.
“Am I?” said Ronald.
“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, both of us forsaking money from our families to strike out on our own, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”
“I was a boy,” Ronald said impatiently.
“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are now,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and I can release you.”
“Have I ever sought release?”
She said nothing again. The park they were visiting in Astoria was known for its view of the East River and the Hell Gate Bridge. This particular part of the river was also known for dangerous whirlpools that had taken more than a few boats in its day, and more than a few lives. Her life with Ronald now felt as if she had been sucked into these very waters. There was a moment of doubt about the answer to Ronald’s question, but then …
“In words. No. Never.”
“In what, then?” said Ronald.
“In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said Cynthia, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Don’t you see me in the face and eyes of the people you deny apartments to? And what of Henry, your dear friend, to see how quickly you forgot about him. All in an effort to not lose the respect of your new gilded friends because they said he did not fit in at their gatherings despite his family’s wealth.
He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said, with a struggle, “You think not.”
“I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” she answered, “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free today, tomorrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose me, a citizen in name only with the way Puerto Rico is treated by this country. Me, a woman of color — you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by wealth and social status: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do, and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.”
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
“You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!”
Cynthia stood from the bench, and after a moment of silence, she parted. Leaving Ronald alone to think on the course his life had taken now that he had almost everything he seemed to have ever wanted.
“Spirit!” said Ronald, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Ronald. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms and forced him to observe what happened next.
They were in another scene and place: a home in Washington D.C. One not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Befitting a sensible congresswoman trying to live modestly in an otherwise expensive city.
Near to the television on the wall, with Paw Patrol playing sat a young girl, so like the last one that Ronald believed it was the same until he saw her. Cynthia, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her granddaughter and reading on an iPad tweets and emails from her constituents. Today all about her immigration policy and the brave plan to finally open America’s borders again.
Cynthia said to one: “As one New York University researcher, Michael Clemens, concluded, open borders would make the world twice as rich, and with that money, hope and prosperity can spring eternal for all those who have not benefitted thus far from the global economy to the tune of $305 billion according to the World Bank.” That might be more than 280 characters, so she thought of the best way to edit her statement down to within Twitter’s restrictive character limits.
Cynthia dreamed of what the world could do with all that money generated from open borders, from preparing for life after climate change to providing universal healthcare coverage to all. It would be a beautiful world for her community’s children to inherit and one she fought hard for in the House of Representatives. For many years now Cynthia was the duly elected representative of New York’s 6h Congressional district, which counted Flushing within its borders. Her home. She never did leave Queens after Cynthia and Ronald had moved there from Harlem.
The noise in this living room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there than Ronald in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself as if they were forty in number. Terrifying. Unruly. And adorable to all but Mr. Chump. A parade of cars in the driveway bringing more and more children by the minute.
The consequences of all these children at play were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the grandmother and granddaughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the grandmother, soon beginning to mingle in the kids that had come today for this family gathering, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. Cynthia laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Her life in Congress. Her granddaughter, her daughter who was in the other room preparing a Christmas lunch together with her husband, and many cousins, nieces, and nephews that had gathered today for Christmas. All from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and all here not to celebrate the religious element of Christmas, but the spirit and joy that only a federally mandated holiday can provide during the heart of winter. There should be much more days like them.
This was a good life. Cynthia regretted very little.
But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued just in time to greet the grandfather, who came home attended by his brother-in-law, a Chinese man named Berndt, with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting in numerous, beautiful languages, and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenseless brother-in-law!
The scaling him, with chairs for ladders, to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him around the neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection as if he worked for Amazon itself! By the time the children were finished with the Berndt, he looked like a picked over Walmart on Black Friday morning.
The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received! The terrible announcement that a cousin’s baby had been taken in the act of putting a Shimmer doll, of Shimmer and Shine fame, into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having already swallowed Shine! The immense relief of finding this to be a false alarm when Cynthia found the two dolls in the other room! The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy! They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the living room and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the home’s bedrooms; where they went to nap, and so subsided.
And now Ronald looked on more attentively than ever, when Cynthia’s husband, a white man named Eric, having his granddaughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her on the couch in front of the television; and when Ronald thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him grandfather instead of this man, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.
“Cynthia,” said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, “I saw an
old friend of yours yesterday. You will never believe who SMG wants to buy a mall from”
“Who was it?”
“How can I, George? I don’t know,” she added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed.
“Ronald Chump,” said Cynthia.
“Ronald it was! How did you know?”
“I was curious to see who would put a multimillion-dollar mall in the middle of Nebraska where no one lives, so I looked it up when you left for your trip.”
“You knew this whole time?”
“I did. It was the first I had thought of him in many years. How was he?”
“Exceedingly polite, in the way all men are when they’re trying to get something they want.”
“Pigs. All of you.” Cynthia laughed.
“Pigs!” shouted Cynthia’s granddaughter.
Cynthia smiled at her granddaughter, “That’s right. And remember darling, Men are never to be trusted fully. Not until time shows you otherwise.”
“Even the nice ones?” asked Cynthia’s daughter from the kitchen, eyeing her own husband with a smile.
“Especially the nice ones,” said Cynthia.
“Spirit!” said Ronald in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
The spirit was quite pleased with this line. He had been readying for this night by reading about Stoicism from a bunch of white guys who found money and fame in regurgitating all the good things ancient Greek philosophers had said while conveniently leaving out all the bad ones.
“Remove me!” Ronald exclaimed. “I cannot bear it!”
He turned upon the Ghost and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if it can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Ronald observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the Confederate cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Ronald pressed it down with all his force, thinking to himself that this was the one time he did not want the old south to rise again, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.