Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas Carol For A Dying Breed

Redball Charlie Dickens carried only a small pack, yet he walked the walk of a man heavily burdened. It was Christmas Eve 1954, and most of his hobo brethren were long gone. After a slow start, the West Virginia snow was playing catch-up, and it covered all of Grafton in a heavy, cold blanket - five inches thick, and growing. Charlie hated snow. It always found its way through the holes in his ancient shoes, simultaneously soaking and freezing his feet. Cold feet, cold heart, they say. "They" say? Who are "they?" Who says that? Well, it sounds like a thing they would say, so let's just proceed.

"Look at those people," Charlie snarled, "risking life and limb to race across Main Street, rather than walk past the likes of us."
Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend, Charlie's only acquaintance, snorted.  "Maybe they're just going that way to get a picture of their kids in front of the Town Square Christmas tree.  See?  There they go.  You're such an old cynic."

"A cynic is just an idealist with experience, Pal.  I've got a good fifteen years on you.  Wait 'til you're my age.  You'll see."

Pally shook his head emphatically, as if trying to keep an image from forming in his brain.  "I'll never be like you," he said quietly. "Not if I can help it." 

At the intersection of Main and Latrobe Streets, near the roundhouse and locomotive turntable, the two men stopped.  "You're camping under the bridge, again?" Pally asked.

"On the pristine shore of Whiteday Creek, yessir."

"And you're sure you won't come with me to church tonight?  Sylvia and Timmy would love to see you."

Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend was married to a fellow hobo named Sylvia Patience Hidden-Forks, and together they had a five-year old son, the unwell but irrepressible Timmy Hands-Covered-In-Scotch-Tape.  Sylvia wasn't one to hate, but she had no love for Charlie, and he didn't much care for her, either - what with her being a person, and all.

"Me?  Go to church?  You must be joking," Charlie scoffed.

"But it's Christmas Eve."

"All the more reason for me to say no.  It will be just that much more crowded with townies, staring at us, terrified that we're going to rob them or breathe on them or soil their precious pews.  I don't know why you subject yourself to it."

"I do it because it's Christmas, of course.  And I figure getting in there under God's roof from time to time can't hurt. I'm going to ask him again why he would disfigure our son so badly, and beseech him to heal the boy."

"Good luck with that," Charlie said. "I've got to get my fire lit." He turned to start down the path that led to the creek.

"Hey, that reminds me," Pally called after him, "I heard you chased away a couple of hoboes, last night - two old-timers from Cincinnati."

"Yep.  What about it?"

"That's not how it's supposed to be, Charlie.  You know the code.  There aren't many of us left. We're supposed to help each other out - always.  It's the hobo way."

"Well, it ain't MY way.  You know I don't care about that stupid code."

Pally McAffable stared for a moment at his grouchy, on-again, off-again traveling companion.  "But it's Christmas..."

"Christmas?" Charlie spat. "It's December twenty-fourth, Pally. That's all. I'll see you around."  The old hobo stomped away, down the snow-covered path.

"Geez, Charlie!" Pally shouted. "You know what? I'm gonna go pray for you, you old fart.  I'm gonna pray hard that you have the merriest Christmas ever!"

*   *   *

Two hours later, drunk on hobo wine and relatively warm by the campfire he refused to share, Redball Charlie Dickens sank into a restless sleep.  Before long, he awoke to an oddly disturbing combination of sounds, which simultaneously sickened and annoyed him.  There was a man's voice, hacking, choking, and loudly moaning - and punctuating these haunting sounds of suffering, there came the high-pitched metallic clinking and clatter of chains.

"Say, brother, may I warm myself by your fire for a minute on this chilly Christmas Eve?" The unseen man growled tiredly.

Charlie strained to see into the shadows that wagged and wavered at the edges of the firelight.  "No.  Go make your own fire.  I'm trying to sleep."

The invisible voice coughed and moaned some more, and gradually it became a tall, slender figure, materializing between the fire and Charlie's disbelieving eyes.  He wore a tattered black long coat and a nearly-disintegrated top hat, and he was, in fact, draped in thick steel chains.  "Redball Charlie Dickens, you have been a hobo for thirty-five of your sixty years.  It is time for you to learn to share your fire!"

"How did you do that?  Who are you?  How do you know my name?" Charlie demanded, still trying to work out whether he was more afraid, or irritated.

"You don't recognize me?" The stranger reached behind him and snatched a burning stick from the fire, then turned back toward Charlie, holding it up to illuminate his face.  His skin was deeply furrowed, and appeared to be decomposing, but his eyes held sparks of familiarity.  In his hand, the flaming stick hissed and smoked.

Charlie looked up at the man in disbelief.  "It can't be.  No way.  Do I know you?"

The man laughed, coughing as though he might at any moment free one of his lungs from his chest.  When this fit was over, he moaned again.  "In life," he wheezed, "you knew me as Undertaker Robert, The Lint-Coffin Weaver, your only friend and partner in all things hobo."

Charlie tilted his head and squinted. "Impossible," he declared. "Undertaker Robert is dead.  I watched him die.  He was--"

"Crushed by a steel girder as it was lowered into an empty gondola in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania? Yes, I know. I was there. That was me. You barely made it out of there alive. I didn't."

"But, then... That would make you a..."

Undertaker Robert coughed and moaned again. "A ghost. Yes, that's exactly what I am. And I'm in a hurry, so listen up. I'm here to warn you that you must change your ways - and not just at Christmastime. You have to abide by the hobo code.  Share your fire, help your fellow 'bo, watch out for children in trouble, be a gentleman when in town - the whole list - or you'll end up in chained, damned misery, the same as me."

"You're in a hurry?" Charlie said. "What's your rush? What are you - late for church? You're a ghost!"

"Ghost stuff. Now, listen..."

"What the hell is 'ghost stuff?'" Charlie laughed.

"Shut up!" the ghost snapped, rising several feet off the ground and pointing an angry finger at his old friend. "I'm in a hurry to not be around you anymore.  Now, I'm telling you that you have to change, and you have to do it now.  Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits.  Listen to them, do what they say, and you might be saved from the fate that has befallen me and my hard, selfish soul. That's all. Good luck.  Bye-bye..."

"Ugh," Charlie grunted. "You mean I gotta put up with two more of you spooks?"


"But, you're a spirit, right?"

"I am."

"So, you, plus two more.  That's three."


"But you said--"

"I know what I said!" Undertaker Robert coughed and spat.

"Swell.  Three more goddamn ghosts..."

"Yes.  Three more.  Tonight.  After I leave."

"When are you leaving?"



He was gone. No fading away, nor floating, nor moaning. He simply vanished, leaving Charlie alone with his crackling fire and his cold feet. And a headache.

*   *   *
Charlie barely had time to start convincing himself that the ghost of Undertaker Robert, The Lint-Coffin Weaver had been the product of tainted hobo wine, before the silent night was again interrupted by the impossible.

"Get up.  I have things to show you." The voice was that of a young man, full of energy and urgency.

"Oh, geez," Charlie groaned, laboriously pulling himself from beneath his ratty pile of old blankets and burlap. "Are you the first spirit?  Or, second.  Whichever?"

"I am." The ghost was indeed the image of a young man - maybe twenty-five years of age - but frightfully dead. "I am Spooky Night, Spooky Day..."

"I thought you looked familiar," Charlie said, rubbing his eyes. "Hell - you were a scary kid when you were alive, but now you're terrifying..."

The spirit cleared his dead throat.  "...and I am the Spirit Of Christmas Past."

"Do we really have to do this?"

"We do." The young ghost said flatly, extending a semi-translucent hand to Charlie.  "Take my hand and don't let go."

Charlie obliged, and in a split-second hurricane of lightning and chaos, the world exploded and rebuilt itself as something completely different - something which the old hobo instantly recognized.  It was a house - humble, but warm.  Seven-year old Charlie was hanging ornaments of glitter-covered paper on a prickly but fragrant scotch pine Christmas tree.  His father was replacing the fuse that had blown when the tree's lights, the crystal radio set, and the new electric clothes iron had overwhelmed it with amperes.  His mother was in the kitchen, basting something, humming "Adeste Fidelis," and doing whatever it was that mothers did to magically make Christmas happen.

"I remember that Christmas," Charlie said.  "That was the year I got a wind-up tank and an orange."  

"And?" the spirit said.

"And that tank was the best toy I ever had.  And I was happy.  So what?"

"Do you remember this part?" Spooky Night, Spooky Day pointed, and the scene changed, as if time sped up for a few seconds, then returned to normal speed.  The boy Charlie was bouncing excitedly on his knees, watching his parents open the gifts he had made for them.  His mother cried when she saw hers - a hand-sewn felt teddy bear with a big red heart on its chest.  On the heart was stitched, "I lov [sic] MOM."  Charlie's father's gift was a pipe - a corncob pipe - hand-carved and fully-functional.  They smiled at each other, and wrapped themselves into a family hug, as the scene faded from view.

"I remember, I remember," Charlie said impatiently.  "So what?  I liked Christmas, once upon a time. What's your point?"

"So, did you see your face, while they opened their gifts?" the spirit asked. "You were seven years old, but the highlight of that Christmas was the giving, not the receiving.  That's kind of a big deal."

"Yeah, yeah. Christmas spirit. Who cares? Let's get on with it."

"Your heart was filled with joy, Charlie," the spirit sighed.

"Well, of course it was.  I was seven.  I thought that moment was forever.  I thought my folks would be there forever.  No one had told me that ten years later, my father would get fired from his job as shift foreman at the shoe polish factory, come home early, find my mother having tea with Mr. Gibbers from church, assume that there was more to it than just tea, fly into a rage, chase my mother out into the street, and get both of them run over by an ice truck.  Where's that scene in your little newsreel, huh?"

"I have that.  It was right before you joined the hobo nation.  Would you like to see it?"

"No!  Thank you, I can remember it just fine. Look - you may not know this about me--"

"I know everything about you, Charlie," the spirit interrupted.

"Then you should know that I've read that wretched Christmas story, and your showing me my past is just not going to cut it.  I remember perfectly well.  I don't need you to show me stuff."

"Yes, you're quite the tough one, aren't you?" the ghost scoffed.  "Well, just like Undertaker Robert, I'm in a hurry, too, so take a quick peek at this..."

"Okay.  Wait.  What the hell are you in a hurry for?  You're a ghost!"

"Ghost stuff," Said Spooky Night, Spooky Day. "Never you mind. Just look at this." He grabbed Charlie's arm and squeezed hard, and the world once again went kablooey.  

Charlie saw his twenty-four-year old self, sitting on a railroad track, with a dirty, but extremely pretty young blonde girl by his side, laughing and looking at him as though he was the dawn, the dusk, and everything good that happened between the two.  "Oh my God - that's... that's her."

"That's who?" the ghost, said, knowingly.

"Marian," Charlie said softly. "Marian May Wyomingsong.  Why would you show me the only woman I ever loved?"

"To remind you that love exists, and that it is not beyond your reach. Don't be stupid."

"I already know that, you big jerk. I'm not stupid.  Love of my life. The one that got away. I get it."

"I don't think you do, but I'm not going to spell it out for you," the ghost grumbled. "You loved. Past tense. It's not just a feeling; it's an ability, and it's one that you lost, through lack of practice.  There. That's your lesson, smart-ass. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got ghost stuff to do.  Merry Christmas to you, and to you a goodbye."


*   *   *

The spirit was gone, and Charlie was alone again. His fire was struggling, so he gave it a poke and a couple of new sticks. He turned around and came nose to nose with a wide, startling grin. He flinched, let out a yelp, and very nearly fell backwards into the fire.

"Hi!" the clown-like caricature blurted. "I'm the Spirit of Christmas Present! I'm also Santa Fe Jinglebell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp! That is, I was, until I died, three years ago, surrounded by my loving family, after a wonderful, miraculous life..."

"Oh, hell's bells," Charlie muttered.

"Don't give me any guff, Dickens! Undertaker Robert warned me about you, and I'm telling you right now, you can just stow it. I don't have time for your crotchety foolishness."

"Oh, are you in a hurry, too?" Charlie taunted. "Is there some sort of Christmas party for ghosts, and if so, why didn't you schedule better, to accommodate it?"

"Shoosh," the spirit said, "our scheduling is just fine.  And I know you don't give a hoot about redemption, but heed my words.  Redemption takes many forms, from the birth of God's only son, to a hobo who went home, as I did.  For years, I assumed that I was unforgivable, but in the end I was more than forgiven."

"I've heard your sappy story, Jinglebell," Charlie muttered. "A bunch of hooey, if you ask me."

"Well, I'm not asking you, Dickens! We don't have time for my story, anyway. Look..." The spirit gestured toward Charlie's fire, and in an instant it went all crystal ball, displaying a 1954 black and white TV image of the front steps of St. Augustine's Church, up on West Washington Street.

The stairs were lined with luminaria, and it looked as though half of the population of Grafton was filing into the church. At the end of the line was Pally McAffable, Everybody's Friend and his wife and son. Sylvia Patience Hidden-Forks wore a coat that looked as if it might have been fancy, once. Timmy Hands-Covered-In-Scotch-Tape was bouncing excitedly. He was careful not to touch anything, but otherwise seemed pointedly oblivious to his infirmity.

The elderly couple ahead of him in line turned to greet Timmy and his parents, and they asked the boy what he had asked Santa to bring him, this year.  "All I want for Christmas is to be allowed to go to school, so I can play with other kids," he declared.

Fast-forward to the Christmas mass: Timmy smiled brightly and sang the hymns and carols at the top of his pristine little voice. Communion was a bit of a challenge, what with his Scotch-tape-covered hands, but he soldiered happily through, and everyone instantly loved him. The scene faded to black.

Charlie blinked at Santa Fe Jinglebell. "Sweet kid," he said. "Shame about the hands, but he seems happy enough."

Jinglebell snorted, then did a little dance, causing the bells on his shoes - and almost everywhere else on his person - to jingle festively. The image in the campfire flickered back to life. It showed two men, dressed in rags, huddled together in the snow on a hillside.

"Who are they?" Charlie asked.

"They are the two strangers who asked to borrow your fire, last night," the spirit said, "and they are dead."

"What? Where? How?"

"They moved on, as you suggested, and tried to continue on to Cumberland. It got very cold up on the hill, and they froze to death twelve miles east of Grafton, before they could get a fire started."

"Man, that's dumb," Charlie said, shaking his head. "The should have just moved to the next bridge, or holed up in a boxcar in the yard, or something. Guess they won't make that mistake again, huh?"

The spirit stared at Charlie for a few moments. "Wow. You're really not a nice person."

"You're not going to start preaching at me about the hobo code, or goodwill toward my fellow man, or God, or whatnot - are you?"

Santa Fe Jinglebell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp sighed heavily. "Preach? No, I'm not going to preach at you, friend. Christmas spirit, kindness, goodness - get some, and get it quick, or you'll be sorry. I gotta go - I'm late, already." With that, he was gone.

"Wait!" Charlie yelled at the empty air from which the spirit had vanished. "I'm already a little bit sorry. You can preach if you like. I think I might even have some questions for you..."

*   *   *

Behind him, Charlie heard a low growl. It was deep and rough, and it carried a menace that echoed off the hills of Grafton.  He turned to face it, and found a patch of air that was blurry and distorted, as light twisted and melted into a heavy, hulking, robed and hooded figure.

"Yipes," he said, "Does the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come always have to look like the grim reaper? It's such a cliche. Nice job, though - very ominous."

The figure growled again, and continued to gather itself together and into better focus. It pulled back its hood, and Charlie gasped. It was not the grim reaper. Reaper, maybe - but far from grim. It was the fabulous face of Fabulon Darkness, who in life had been the coolest, most fashion-forward hobo anyone had known. If he had been around in the next millennium, it would have been suggested that he looked as though Avril Lavigne, Robert Smith, and Billie Joe Armstrong had had a baby. He was Dark Wave, Punk, and Goth, long before any of those things existed.

"Whoa..." Charlie said, "Fabulon Darkness! It's a pleasure to meet you, and I assume that since you barely said a word when you were alive, this will be a quiet and hopefully very quick haunting."

"It will," Fabulon Darkness said.

"And I assume you're in a rush, anyway..."

"I am."

"Great. Well, would it help if I already know what's coming, and that I'll try to be nicer?"

The spirit shook his head slowly, and reached out to Charlie with a half-decomposed hand covered in silver rings and black spiderweb tattoos and nail polish.

"Fine." Charlie took hold of the cold, cool hand. "Let's get this over with."

In a flash, they were standing by a fire much larger than Charlie's, surrounded by low, sad voices. It was a bona fide hobo jungle - a camp with more hoboes than Charlie had ever seen in one place. There was a sort of receiving line, with dozens of hoboes waiting to share a word of condolence, a prayer, or a hug - sometimes all three - with Pally McAffable and Sylvia Patience.

Charlie turned to the spirit. "Timmy's dead?"

The spirit nodded.

"That's terrible," Charlie said softly. "He was a bright kid. But I have to ask - and please don't take this the wrong way - besides being a horrible tragedy for my only friend, what does this have to do with me?"

Fabulon Darkness raised an eyebrow at the old hobo. It was an eyebrow that desperately wished it could speak, so that it might say "Really?"

"What? It's not like the boy's fate is my fault."

The spirit pointed a super-goth dead finger at Charlie's pants pocket.

"Oh. I see." Charlie reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of lint. "Aw, geez. I really am a stupid jerk. Lint is the enemy of Scotch tape. If I had shared my damned lint - and no, I never did - I could have cured Timmy of his Scotch tape problem."

The ghost nodded.

"And he would have lived.  Oh my God. Look at Pally and Sylvia. They're inconsolable. I've seen enough, spirit. Get me out of here - please."

There was a crack of thunder, and in a blinding flash of blue light, the setting changed. Charlie and Fabulon stood in a desolate woods, beneath a grey winter sky, looking down at a pile of dead leaves in the shape of a human body. At its head, there was a scrap of plywood, with a few words scribbled on it in creosote. The ghost pointed his fabulous finger at the board.

"Do I gotta?" Charlie protested. "I know it's me. I know I'm dead and no one cares, or they're happy I'm gone. But listen - I don't care. I really don't. It doesn't matter to me at all, what people think of me. I'm not learning any lesson, here."

The ghost growled, and pointed again, emphatically.

Charlie sighed, trudged over to the makeshift grave marker, and bent over to read:

This was Redball Charlie Dickens. He was no hobo. 

"Damn, that's harsh."

A gust of wind chose that moment to push the leaves away from the dead man's head, which appeared to have at least a dozen stab wounds all over it.

"Stabbed in the head? Oh come on - that's a bit much, don't you think? And they didn't even bury me? Shit, man!" Charlie studied the horror that was his fate for a minute, shaking his head, first in disbelief, then in anger, then sadness, and finally in refusal. "Mister Darkness - I know this story. This is only a vision of what may be, not what will be. Right?"

Fabulon said nothing.

"Okay, listen. I've thought it over, and I think I want to avoid getting stabbed in the head and dumped in the woods. What do I need to do? You gotta at least give me something to do - something tangible. What do I do?"

The fabulous Fabulon Darkness leaned in close to Charlie, far into what anyone would consider very personal space, smiled coolly, and growled, "Change." The scene morphed back into Charlie's campsite, with the purple glow of dawn spreading from east to west. The final ghost didn't disappear, but walked away through the snow, flashing a hand signal - something which, decades later, would symbolize rock n' roll "devil horns" - over his shoulder as he went.

"Wait!" Charlie cried. The ghost did not wait. The ghost was late for his ghost stuff (today, that was a Christmas brunch with the other ghosts). "I'll change - I promise. If it's not too late. Oh, man - if it's too late, I'm going to be so mad..."

"Are you okay, mister?" A young boy walking a little white dog, clearly a townie and not a hobo child, had happened upon Charlie's camp.

Charlie wheeled to face the boy and demanded, "Hey! What day is it?"

"Whoa," the boy said, "Don't yell at me. It's Christmas. Where's your Christmas spirit?"

"He went that way," Charlie said. "If you hurry, you can catch him."

"You're goofy," the boy declared. "Merry Christmas to you, though. Bye." He turned and headed up the hill toward Latrobe Street, with his dog trailing behind him and glaring at Charlie over its shoulder.

"Wait, kid," Charlie called after him. "I don't suppose you've seen a couple of hoboes around here with a hobo kid, have you?"

"You mean mister McAffable and his wife, and Timmy - the boy with tape all over his hands?"

"Yes! That's them!" Charlie enthused. "Have you seen them?"

"Well, sure. Everybody likes them. They're camping down at the other end of the train yard - at least, they were last night."

"You're a good kid," Charlie said. "Merry Christmas. I've got to run."

When Charlie approached Pally and Sylvia's campsite, calling their names in a sing-song voice and shouting "Wake up - it's Christmas," they didn't quite know what to do, at first. Well, Pally and Timmy didn't know what to do at first. Sylvia immediately picked up a rock and threw it at the newly-festive old hobo. Pally gently took her arm and said, "It's okay. I'll handle this."

"Pally, my friend! I didn't mean to startle you, or your wonderful, beautiful wife. I won't be long. I have to get to church..."

"Mass isn't until ten-thirty, Charlie," Pally said. "What's the matter with you?"

"Ten-thirty, of course. Well, I want to get there early, and get a good seat. But before I go, I wanted to give you something.  I have a gift." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the giant ball of lint. "It's for Timmy."

This post made the most of one of this week's Studio 30-plus prompts, "Wait," from Nonamedufus' post, Nodding In Agreement. Check out his blog - you won't be disappointed. But first, have a very merry Christmas, everyone! If you don't observe Christmas, then have a great day! Catch you guys later...



No comments:

Post a Comment