The season of getting and spending and eating and fighting with relatives is over, and a new year awaits. Now is as good a time as ever to clear out the ghosts of Christmas past, at least the two most recent Christmases. They’ve been disturbing in a most peculiar way.
We also saw a friend do a production of “Scrooge” at a community theater, which put me in the mind of seeing and hearing ghosts, as well as learning a thing or two about building fictional characters.
Our friend is a big man, nice and plump, old enough to play Scrooge but one of those frustrating men with skin distilled in cream and roses that makes him look years younger than he is. He also has a bounce to his portly step, so the entire image of Scrooge was altered, turning the play into more of a contemporary political statement than a cautionary tale. He was excellent in the part, and his singing voice was powerful, but he simply was not Scrooge. He was corrupt Big Business who didn’t give a damn about the Little People of this world, especially if they were dumb enough to be ill, like Tiny Tim. It was a fair and impartial battle cry, suitable for either side of the gathering class war happening in this country.
Gotta watch out for that when constructing our fictional characters. Who we are and the thoughts we think become the skin we wear and the weight of our step. Get them wrong when creating a character, even a minor one, and we’ve blown the illusion. It’s what we do as writers, create illusions that intensify the mystery of reality. All it takes is a few false steps to confuse the reader and ruin the experience.
But on to my own disappointing ghosts. Part One.
Last year was our first here on this lonesome highway in a town without trains, plains, buses, or taxis. There’s not even a safe road to walk into town on, if we had a town worth walking to. We’re one of those rural farming areas devastated by the recession and industrial farming. We’ve got a karate studio and a flower shop on Main Street but not much more. I’m not interested in either.
Around here, community centers on your particular brand of hellfire, Bible-thumping church, and we have plenty of those. If you don’t belong to a church, you don’t belong here at all. You’re on your own, toots. You don’t get invited to a neighbor’s house for Christmas Eve, nobody thinks of inviting you to a Christmas party, and nobody knows your phone number to give you a howdy on the day their Christ was born. It’s plain old weird to my way of thinking, but I’ve learned to think of it a little different since then, and I’m not as bitter as I was.
Make that bitter, angry, lonely, missing my family so much I felt like my innards had run away from home, and we were stone cold broke on top of it all. No presents for anybody. Not even Christmas cards, and we couldn’t afford new decorations for our new house. We’d greatly underestimated the cost of such a big move and were still reeling from the full voltage shock of the tax system around here. We were making more money than we were in Vegas, spending less on housing, but once the state, county, and city taxes were taken from our paychecks and added to everything we bought, we’d never lived on such a slender limb. I was also determined we’d pay off the cost of the move, including buying out our lease in Vegas, within one year. I can get obsessive about debt and become unreasonably rigid in my focus on eliminating it.
And I don’t care who suffers how much in the process of ditching the debt. I stick with the plan. We ate off the value menu at Taco Bell for our Christmas Eve feast.
That’s not to say there weren’t any festivities at all last year. No way. I threw one heck of a pity party for me and my husband, complete with pouting and cussing and mournful phone calls to my daughter filled with tears loud enough for my husband to hear so he could blow a few more horns of heartache and ramp up the pity party. There’s joy in misery if you pour it on thick enough. Martyrdom has its perks.
The one thing not allowed at the party was not having enough money for sending presents to our kids. And other people. That’s my favorite part of Christmas. Not being able to do that didn’t just hurt, it was defeat. A deep and private kind of hurt that made every step slow and pitiful. Come Christmas morning, carrying that silent hurt had drained me so much, I didn’t have the energy to shower. Well, maybe I did, but I wasn’t going to use that energy on looking clean and perky. Let the world see what a sad and wretched creature circumstance had made of me.
So it was with stringy hair and yesterday’s socks that we took the dogs down to the creek for a romp. We went extra early in hopes we’d miss the hunters with their new Christmas shotguns, taking aim at the ducks and missing because they forgot the manual for the new gun back in the truck. We were feeling pitiful but not suicidal.
And that’s when it happened.
Some damned fat cat rich man ruined my party.
I saw it as we were parking the car, but it was my husband who jumped out of the car before it came to a stop and grabbed it. By the time I’d set loose the dogs and hollered, “Get the squirrel,” so they’d take off, my husband had his grubby paws all over it and his cell phone out and ready to dial. Never mind we’d been to the creek a couple hundred times by then and knew there was no phone reception out that far, he had assumed the position of Dudley DoRight, ready to call the proper authorities.
“Gimme the wallet,” I said, taking the buttery leather, high-ticket object he’d dove out of the car to grab. I saw it first. “And put away the phone. What’re you thinking?”
He took the phone from his face and looked at it as if it had crawled up there on its own.
“Habit,” he said.
“Well, you’re not in Vegas any more, Dorothy,” I said, turning the bulging, uber organized wallet over in my hands and spreading it open. It felt good. It felt rich. It felt like it didn’t belong on the rugged banks of the creek any more than we belonged in Arkansas. “This is big city stuff,” I said. “Something like what we used to carry once upon a time.”
“Drivers license says he’s from Florida.”
“Florida? He could be clear out of the state by now.”
“Either which way,” my husband said. “He could’ve stopped here to, I don’t know, take a leak before getting on the highway heading back home, or heading further west for Christmas dinner.”
“Bet he’s wondering what happened to it and where he lost it.”
“Or doesn’t even know it’s gone yet.”
We both looked around to make sure there wasn’t anybody else within sight, somebody dressed fancy who might have dropped the wallet. We were alone out there, at a creek, in the wilds, so far from everything and any eye witnesses that we couldn’t get a single bar on our cell phones.
I handed the wallet back to my husband. I knew what the next step would be, and I couldn’t do it.
He opened the compartments of the wallet one by one, checking the credit cards, the VIP health insurance card I.D., the business cards of people in other states with very important job titles. Worked his way slowly to the long pocket where the cash would be, if there was any.
“Holy shit,” my husband said, then quickly folded up the wallet.
“Not sure. Six at least, maybe more, probably eight. All of them crisp one-hundred dollar bills.”
Without looking at each other, Bill shoved the wallet into his flimsy winter jacket and we took off looking for the dogs.
We’ve been married a long time, partners in this life, and without exchanging a word, we knew what we would do. Neither of us liked it. But we couldn’t wait to get at it. Desperate to do what we didn’t want to do and forget it ever happened.
We found the dogs, herded them back in the car and took off. Arguing.
“Call the credit card company,” I told him. “See if the card’s been reported lost.”
We drove on a few miles until Bill got a bar on his phone, then did as I told him.
As usual, the credit card company wasn’t one bit of use, but Bill kept pushing, trying to get more information, had to know what they knew and asking over and over if the card had been reported lost or stolen.
I had to yank the phone from his face and hang up before I blew a gasket. Being lonely and broke makes me cranky.
“Guess we’ll take the wallet to the police,” Bill said, rubbing his face where one of my fingernails had grazed him.
“Not on your life,” I said. “There’s cold, hard cash in that thing.”
I pulled over to the side of the road and started digging through the wallet. I hit pay dirt.
“There it is right there,” I said, pulling out a business card that was stuck between two credit cards. “The name matches the one on the drivers license and it’s got his cell phone number.”
I handed Bill his cell phone.
“I’m still thinking we should take it to the police.”
“No,” I said. “Just because they’re police doesn’t mean they won’t help themselves to the money before calling the guy. And then you know who’s gonna get blamed for stealing his money.”
“Getting cynical there, aren’t you, Cyd?”
“Just call the guy.”
He did. The man was still in town visiting relatives, nearly cried for joy, repeated over and over how he couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe someone like us had found his wallet and given him a call, couldn’t believe he’d given up wondering where it was and had turned the matter over to Jesus and Jesus had come through for him. He’d be right down and meet us where we were parked, just a few blocks from the police state. It would only take him a few minutes because he was staying with family on the other side of the highway at the golf course.
“Figures,” I said to Bill as he hung up and we waited. “He’s in a big fancy house up at the golf course opening presents with family and we’re standing guard over his wallet and his pocket change, all eight hundred dollars of it.”
As hard as the now-happy stranger had worked earning his place as a fat cat, we’d worked harder and had gotten caught in the jaws of surreal circumstances that left us broke and wearing old clothes in Arkansas without a single present for anybody and our only family 1,800 miles away. I did not like that man from Florida.
And I liked him even less when he showed up in his fancy car and clothes and alligator loafers and praised Jesus for his foolishness of letting his wallet slip from his pocket at the creek, only to be rewarded by Jesus because it landed in the hands of two honest people who could have taken off with the cash without anybody ever knowing.
Oh, shut up!
But Mr. Happy Holy Roller was on a righteous roll with the love of God and insisted we all join hands (oh, joy) as he lead us all in prayer, which wasn’t enough for this guy.
Oh, no, once he was done praying and preaching, he had to whip out two of those crisp bills and offer them to us as a “gift.” Bill looked at me so quickly I was the only one that noticed, then he did as we’d agreed we’d do in that invisible second during which we spoke to one another.
“No,” Bill said, taking a few steps back from the Florida fat cat. “Go ahead and put that money in the collection plate of your church.”
What? During that flash conversation we’d had, I’d agreed we’d turn down any reward or gift the man might offer, but not put it in the collection plate of a church! Not in a house of a god that had been so mean to us for so long and kept us away from our family and friends and left us stranded in a miserable little town that didn’t know the meaning of hospitality or generosity or even awareness of two people alone during the holidays.
Had Bill gone crazy? I couldn’t wait to get him in the car so I could tell him a thing or two.
But then the hugging began, and that threw me off my game. I had stringy hair and was wearing yesterday’s socks. I might have been broke, but I still had my pride. I didn’t want to be hugging anybody.
We drove home slow. Silent.
“So,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” Bill said.
“We got it after all.”
“Yeah.” Bill turned, looked at me.
“Yeah. It’s Christmas.”
The best we’d had in years.