X IS FOR CHRISTMAS by Phil Austin

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“It’s a mystery, Christmas, that’s what it is,” the Old Detective grumbled.  “I mean Christmas in Hollywood. There’s no mystery to Chanukah in Hollywood, for instance. It’s a celebration tailor-made for creatures of the desert, it’s about victory and oil and counting and Jews, for all their intelligence, are not a basically ironic people, but Christmas in the desert of Hollywood is a kind of puzzle, you’ve got to admit, especially for someone from a more northern climate. Irony is kind of built in, if you see what I mean.”

The old man and I were sitting in a little bar on Hollywood Boulevard, one he’d liked to frequent in older, more violent days, when dolls and sharpies ruled the Boulevard. It was the day before the day that even down here in the chaparral we like to call Christmas. The bar was called the Blue Mechanism, for reasons I couldn’t begin to imagine, and it was frankly run down, a dive, in fact. I had to agree with his remarks about the holiday, however, much as I disliked his choice of hangouts. Through the dark thick blue glass of the windows I could make out Swedish tourists toppling in the December heat wave. Wilted palm trees were festooned with jolly melting plastic Santas. Garlands drooped sadly. We sat as close as we could to a dangerous old fan that vainly tried to stir up the turgid air. My friend was talking, however, and that was good news for me.  In fact, he seemed swept up in an odd wave of nostalgia on this searing winter afternoon that needed some cheer to it, given the imminence of the Big Day itself.

“You see,” he said, tapping the battered fedora back on his grizzled head, “I never, in the old days, had any visions of sugar fairies and reindeers and guys named Frosty, because all I knew was the seamy world of the police blotter, the rundown underside of what we called life, back then. Back in those days, if I saw some socks dangling from a mantle, I’d start looking for the rest of the body, see what I mean? There were no smiling faces upturned in their big wooly mufflers asking me for a free turkey.”

I told him his days as a detective had certainly hardened him.

“Now I’m as soft as soft-water taffy,” he said. “But in those days, I was hard, all right. I was as hard as a big rock candy mountain, until one Christmas, years ago …”

I found my notebook and searched for my pen, the one I hoped wouldn’t leak onto my shirt. We were drinking shots of Black Label in the late afternoon and smoking cigarettes just for fun.

“You see,” said the Old Detective, lighting up another with his old brass lighter, “I took on a case one Christmas for a guy named Kringle, an old guy with a white Santa Claus beard and an annoying twinkle in his eyes who beat the elevator up to my office one crisp December day when the new smog hung from the eaves in frozen stillness and the crunch of actual snow could be heard on half the soundstages around town. Kringle was an enthusiastic bird, full of fizz and he poured out a story as old as Time itself. It was all the usual stuff: flying fantasies, chimneys, large ungulates, whips, something about a red nose and implications about Montgomery Wards that couldn’t be proved. I’d been down that street before.”

“What street?”I asked. It was a stupid question, but I already had misgivings about the old man’s tale.

“In those days, Monkey Wards had a store over on Santa Monica Boulevard. You know what I mean.”

“Do I?”

“I’m feelin’ good today, I’m feelin’ frisky. Are you getting this down?”

I told him I was getting it down. Actually, I wasn’t. The minute he’d mentioned “Kringle” and “Christmas” in the same sentence, I’d merely written the word “Xmas” on my notepad and was now idly tracing over and over the x. I began to draw a snowman.

“Now, on that day of cheer and goodwill – you getting this all down? – there was a Christmas party goin’ on across the hall from my office. This was when I had magazines in nice magazine racks in the outside office and a great-lookin’ secretary named Ruby who used to sit out there with her legs crossed.

I asked him if the correct word wasn’t “gams.”

“If I’d meant gams, I’d have said gams. Ruby had legs a mile and a half long and a mother who couldn’t remember her name, she was so far gone on hooch. That?’s “hooch”, h-double-o-c-h.”

I pretended to write. Actually, I’d now drawn a reindeer on its back, legs straight up, two x’s for eyes, but the Old Detective seemed satisfied and continued on.

“After awhile, mostly because of Ruby, the party spilled over across the hall to my place. The usual crazies from the Five Star/Hopeless Talent Agency were around. You remember the name Paul Bunyan?”

“The giant lumberjack?”

“Yeah. Well, he was there.”

I asked him how that could be, since I remembered Paul Bunyan as mythical at best and imaginary at worst.

“You’re too young, you wouldn’t remember,” he replied, puffing smoke. “By that time in his career, he was good for occasional guest shots on the Garry Moore Show and such. He was getting bookings, is what I mean. Now Miss Mysterioso, Mistress of Mystery? Played the organ? Everybody remembers her. Well, she was there with some potato and something salad that was really good, as I recall, and she had on a green and red sequined number that showed the two or three things about her that were no damn mystery at all.”

I said I understood him to mean that Miss Mysterioso, the Mistress of Mystery, was a looker.

“You got that right, son,” he smiled. “Curves up ahead or whatever the road sign says, if you subscribe to my meaning.”

I asked him if perhaps she had great gams.

“If I’d meant she’d had gams, I woulda mentioned it,” he said stiffly.  “That Argentine guy who had the trained bears showed up with some fruitcake that had candied mushrooms in it, and the girls from downstairs at Henrietta’s House of Hair came upstairs and put on some Chet Baker records and started dancin’ with each other real slow. There was a big ol’ traditional roast albatross with that sage and treacle dressing. After awhile even old Kringle had a few shots of toddy and pretty soon he was doin’ the stroll or whatever they called it in those days. At one point, even the bears were doin’ it. The party got pretty wild and I lost track of Kringle. You see, I’d forgotten to tell Ruby to sweep my rod off the top of my desk.”

I asked if it was common practice in those days for a detective to leave a loaded weapon out on his desk. Was this Kringle so intimidating?

“I wasn’t intimidated by anything in those days,” he said roughly. “But you never know. I was as hard as the big rock candy mountains and thought that Christmas was just a fancy way of spelling burglary. I was on alert, lemme put it that way.”

“Fine,”I said and pretended to cross something out and write something in.

“Now, I was leanin’ in on Miss Mysterioso pretty good – and believe me, there was a lot to lean over – when we heard the shot.”

“A gunshot?”

“That’s what everyone figured.”

“Kringle shot himself?”

“Did I say that? Of course, that’s the first thing an amateur like you would think.”

I suggested that he tell me, then, what actually happened.

“It was the crack of a tree splitting. Seems this Bunyan guy was outside choppin’down a magnolia tree. He wanted a magnolia blossom to give to Miss Mysterioso, because he was so in love with her. Sometimes a guy like that will just go crazy over a woman.”

I replied that, of course, I’d been down that street before.

“Nearly everyone in this town has been down Santa Monica Boulevard, sometimes twice a day. You ain’t heard the half of it, kid.”

“Well, the half I’ve heard isn’t exactly worth writing down,” I snapped back. He stared at me for a long moment.

“Should I be getting royalties for these stories about me?” He looked serious.

“No,” I lied. “Because I don’t get any.”

“Good,” he said. “Royalty is a mistaken idea anyway, much like Christmas, or at least that’s what Kringle found out.”

I said, he was certainly aware – wasn’t he? – that there had been a famous old black and white movie made about a guy named Kringle who looked just like Santa Claus.

“This wasn’t the same guy,” he said defensively. “This guy’s name was Ferdinand Kringle. Ferdinand L. Kringle. I can see the name on the file folder to this day.”

I told him he certainly had a good memory. I looked around in vain for the bartender, who I suspected was lying on the floor behind the bar gasping for air.

“No,” he muttered. “I had the file out last night because I’m thinkin’ of writing up some of my adventures myself. Cut out the middleman, so to speak.”

“You mean me?”

“Do I? You be the judge. You getting this down?”

I started to write. “Yes,” I said grimly, “I’m getting this down.”

“Good. There was a shot later on, by the way, so if you were on a computer, you could save the word “shot” onto a file someplace and have it ready to re-insert when I get to the shot part.”

I said thanks and when was he going to get to the shot part?

“When I’m good and ready,” he snarled. “We better think about modernizing some. I think you ought to buy a computer and then you could get online and do some networking and maybe we could make some money off of these stories about me.”

I replied that I had every hope than in the future there might be some money from these stories, and of course, some of that money might be his and in the meantime I might see my way clear to advancing him a little something.

“Aha,” he said. “That’s the Christmas spirit. Now we’re talking. You write and I’ll talk. I’m thinkin’ of getting a hot tub, you know? I’ll soak and reminisce and you’ll get it all down on the mainframe. Now, Christmas was all humbug to me, remember? You’ve already got that down, right?”

“Right.”

“So, that night, when the boys in blue found Kringle under the Hollywood Christmas Tree of Light, strangled with those awful twisted green and red double wires they used to have, and bearing strange marks on his body, they normally wouldn’t have come looking for me. Unfortunately, he had my card in his pocket.”

I asked him if they thought he’d killed Kringle. He looked pensive and faraway for a minute.

“Well, they were hoping I’d done something. I didn’t have too many friends down at Hollywood Division in those days. I’d embarrassed those boys one too many times. They hauled me down to headquarters in a black and white and set me up under that one bare light bulb they were so proud of and they all sat back in the shadows and started firing questions at me that I couldn’t answer. Most of them seemed to be about a drunk reindeer and Mongomery Wards. I didn’t think much of it had to do with Christmas, frankly.”

I gritted my teeth and asked him if, by any chance, we were somehow talking about “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” a Christmas ditty that was originally composed, as I understood it, by a man in Chicago who worked for Wards.

“No,” he said firmly. “Wrong again. There was no singing on this one. This turned out to be only about a hard-drinking reindeer who may or may not have had a red nose. It’s immaterial whether it was red or not. Seems like he’d been letting himself out of those cages where he hung out with his buddies on top of that real estate office on Crenshaw. They had reindeer cages and white Christmas trees. I think they sprayed the reindeers white. Anyway, this one had been breaking into Wards and stealing power tools to take back to Alaska and sell for big bucks. It was logical. Kringle worked as a Santa at the same place, waving to cars. He must have caught on. The forensic boys noticed that the marks on Kringle exactly matched the dado head on a Power-Craft table saw, lucky for me. After twenty-four hours of questioning, they had to let me go.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Here’s the heart of the story,” he smiled. “When I got back to the office, the party was still goin’ on. I managed to find Miss Mysterioso. Paul Bunyan had her backed up against a moonlit brick wall covered with variegated ivy and was telling her a lot of lies. I said “Is this guy bothering you?” and she said, lookin’ up at me through half-closed eyes, “You bother me, big boy. This guy is just plain annoying.” I took a deep breath and told Bunyan to take a hike and he launched off into the same story he’d already told on the Merv Griffin show about some hike he took once with a Blue Ox and I pretended to look interested – same as Merv had – and after awhile he got so wrapped up in laughing at his own jokes that I just walked her away into the moonlight and the rest is history.”

“Where,” I asked, looking up from my notes, “is this history written?”

“In the newspapers. The print boys loved it:  ‘Ripsaw Rudolph Ripsaws Santa!’  You get the picture. But the real story went right to the  hearts of mankind,” the Old Detective answered, seriously enough. “You see, she was very, very good to me. Kinda changed my mind about Xmas, after all. She had a pair of gams on her that would melt the heart of Black Peter himself.”

So there was some justice to the season after all in those long-gone days. I like to think there was, anyway, back when Santa had a tan and Mrs. Santa was named Monica and wore a bikini and sunglasses and high heels and after the parade down Hollywood Boulevard they’d get together a bunch of their friends and they’d all pile into the big old turquoise convertible and bomb out to Palm Springs for Christmas because it was the kind of place where the Prince of Peace himself might feel right at home, out there among the roadrunners and the cactuses and the Joshua trees, with the stars out at night – so many you couldn’t hope to imagine them all – and the natural evils of the human spirit damped down for once and calmed, on this one night of all nights in our mysterious town.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This story was included in the 2004 edition of “Mirth of a Nation,” an anthology of humor from Harper Collins.

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119 thoughts on “X IS FOR CHRISTMAS by Phil Austin

  1. The Other One-More Lament

    I was looking for a way to get around this current dilemma,
    and glide neatly around Christmas,
    to a more post Winter blue state,
    stable, predictable and depressing.

    Once not having an all encompassing distraction,
    staring at what normally slide past,
    stops it motionless in its tracks.

    But, why bring the uninvited guest,
    when many have already taken the role,
    and doing it all so much better,
    and all by the lack of nothing no less.

    Just, take-take-and-take,
    and let the chips fall, for those who want what’s leftover.
    When they have theirs,
    everyone will get what coming,
    with or without anything of content.

    Extend the hand, but don’t tire doing it,
    you might be asked to do something other than expected.
    Don’t wait too long for the heavy lifting,
    or you may never know what to pick up.

    It is always the advice, while having none,
    when all becomes too intimate and the next one over,
    but here’s looking straight ahead, zoning out all else.
    Isn’t this where I get off?

  2. Lament Something-Else Xmas

    I’ll be the one shuffling past the caroling,
    as the sounds are made,
    passing by briefly enough to know when I have finally left.

    Just a simple dot seen and quickly gone,
    almost like I wasn’t there,
    a faint daydream or afterthought,
    something seen distantly many years before,
    but never now.

    I once was, but have now become the furthest point,
    staring on to something else unrelated
    and locked away on someone else’s thought, unseen.

    If I still have my feet, they’re the only thing moving,
    take me there, now,
    pull me out,
    drop all the afterthoughts in my lap,
    and take me away, again.

    . . Or never was.

  3. Invisible

    All the greeting have been worn out, and said,
    to the point of having no meaning.

    Rituals won’t even get me by, this time.

    They’ll all discover something without my hand in it,
    spin their own webs,
    while their hands fly in the air in self amusement.

    It all seems hollow to me.
    Pardon me, if the enthusiasm goes missing,
    it seems pointless.

    You’ll be the first to know,
    if it gets off the ground,
    lifting from the grasping possessing mire,
    but no plans yet and none coming.
    Waiting again patiently

  4. Ah, but the past is exactly that,
    and there are many more cruel things to mess with you, now.
    — Just thankful for the times we crossed paths and had a common understanding.

    But, the violence becomes more, where previously,
    they only came after one,
    because they had none
    and saw everyone else as having some or all of it.
    — Whatever it was to be after.
    Looking to have it right a way and no one looking,
    it was stolen, but soon discovered all was intangible,
    that mystery ingredient not so easily torn and absconded.

    So, it is one less, where they thought they could stand in his place,
    only to discover the rest of us filled the gap and go on,
    with and without at the same time.
    The only thing they conquered was themselves,
    losing what little, being lost in process, after.

    ‘ Can’t take it from me, when the sharing mentoring never left.
    We are spiritual and talking freely,
    that simple tickle and side thought,
    in the back of your mind.
    Inspiration is being in spirit.

    This just ain’t one of those letters, dialogue,
    or whatever they call conversation.
    Only thing I have to worry about
    is that somebody didn’t turn the light on, outside,
    and doesn’t know where things are coming from,
    or going to.
    — But, oh well, it happens

  5. My N And Your A

    So, they think they can end it all, as we all sit by,
    and let them pull this off.
    The pyramids are made,
    the artisans carve it on the walls and round mandellas,
    then at the same time, brutally sacrifice their fairest maiden,
    to show how advanced and understanding basic humanity can be.

    After putting all the effort in of setting it all up,
    they walk away and disappear,
    with little to no responsibility that they were ever there,
    or a legitimate reason for the running away.
    Something so primitive will imply we will all go out of existence
    because they couldn’t pull it off themselves.
    Basically, if we can’t, no one can, and if you do,
    it will all rain down on you, so there wise-guy.

    Even on the other side of the circular calendar,
    if translated properly,
    it says, ‘ Drop In The Nearest Mailbox, Postage Guaranteed.’
    They know all of what they were saying had to be returned,
    in order to be corrected,
    and straighten out what was previously misunderstood.

    At best, all of this amounts to nothing more than a ‘Fill In The Blank,’
    if the end really wants to be known.

    Is there any where-with-all,
    to have the gray matter,
    to know that is what is being asked for?

    Everyone is dancing around it,
    but none have their finger on it.
    Most likely, waiting to be lead, like children,
    waiting for someone else to pay the price
    and be the one with the responsibility.
    But, then-again?

  6. The Day Before, And Stuck In The Previous, Until The Previous Past

    The room was a few degrees cooler, the dream state nil,
    and no expectations expected. Santa is, and the other one was,
    when he had to be.

    It’s one of those frame-of-minds
    being the conveniences part of the year,
    and all the rest, either, leading from it or to it.
    Once in the eye of the storm, all the best qualities go missing,
    or abbreviated for the season, then forgotten,
    figuring the need is only seasonal.

    If it is time to change your underworns,
    must be time to put the changed into the red bucket.
    Blinked, if I’ve waited long enough,
    it’ll be the next time, then the other one,
    if not totally forgotten eventually.

    The cosmos ate it, obliterated into obscurity,
    totally on a different frame-of-mind.
    Then-again, as with all things, gravity might have it in your lap,
    one of these days.

    As with almost all, it’s the neighbors and never your responsibility,
    their struggle to make it better,
    falling outside your immediate awareness,
    even to the point of non-existence.

    The Universe has an order,
    usually ordered out, and prepared before delivery.
    Don’t forget to tip the guy in the fatigue hat and gray uniformed pants.

    By next week, this will all be theirs,
    at least in your willingness to admit it even passed your way,
    on the open highway, and never heard of, again,
    until the next time with new disguises and an assumed name.
    Matter of fact, that is his new name,
    ‘Sume the Ass,’
    following swiftly behind,
    and never seen again,

    and both fingers crossed.

  7. Tripping Over My Feat

    Slipping into the two o’ clock hour,
    after walking in the moonlight, upon a freesing ground,
    all was still and looking on, in some other plane of consciousness.

    Could have passed a dozen walking, but none was to be had,
    neither making any difference if I hadn’t tried at all, in the first place. The only one taking it away,
    was that effort initially started from the beginning,
    while others simply couldn’t care less
    if the stroll was off the edge of the earth, yesterday.

    If never expecting, how would it ever be disappointing?
    Shoot low, with no goals and always exceed any expectations,
    or simply remove all the above,
    change the subject and be that blank daydream,
    with a long stare.

    I passed the warmup with Christmas,
    New Years is just a matter of tripping over a minor obstruction,
    not even stumbling.
    — Lean forward, letting gravity take over and do the rest,
    surprisingly don’t be surprised you’re not occupying the same space,
    at a previous moment.

    Plus, recounting is even simpler,
    throwing your head back, and using that as a lead backward.
    As one monkey follows another,
    perform your best dyslexic talents and reverse the forward.
    Simply and basically, state the contrast, and skate down the middle, while no one is looking, and, never agreeing or stating any opposition,

    (example i.e.) like saying “noyes” (if coming from the negative), or “yesno” (discovering a false sense of confidence). If caught in either, it was never where you should have been, and always best to be indecisive, never knowing. —- And never ask for directions

  8. That simple, back-and-forth, almost like thinking, as one foot is put in front of another.
    This wasn’t the dream looked for, but fluid as if the words were there before me.
    I didn’t have to put anything anywhere, discovering it was told to me before,
    and knew it all the while. But just the same, what’s next that hasn’t been told, so far.

  9. They tend to come through in a variety sort-of way. If there is such a reference.
    Dream, daydream, a thought while standing still, and thoughts that were never yours,
    but there they are just the same.
    I could have swiftly walked past only being self absorbed,
    and attribute almost everything to background noise,
    but why am I intentionally ignoring the obvious?

    The dialogue and imagery is unmistakable,
    like a known familiar trait and at the same time,
    a kind hand. Paying attention, it is that one independent thought, not yours,
    but there just the same, standing blatantly by itself,
    like fresh inspiration just outside your immediate preoccupations and capabilities.

  10. That person with the stare, the long look and no explanation made,
    communicating nothing said, knowing you better get it.
    The normal aspect, looking for your double shuffle in response,
    it was about time for them to explain theirs.

    Always putting the fix, the silent implication of wanting something,
    never ‘what I can do for your lacking.

    The deficiency is yours,
    the reason you stand or appear before me,
    at least have the where-with-all to engage,
    looking for the other to pick up the weight.

    I tire of being under thumb, the woefully without, expecting to forever tow the weight,
    and never being of any substance in order to perpetuate the long continuance
    and ongoing with heads looking down,
    grubbling with dirty knees, in a medieval retrograde,
    ancestry ignorance to slip by
    without a liberally given threat of standing equal, or to be

  11. Choose your offering well, when all is eaten like air,
    with the only concern is to the next and so forth another.
    Wanting not to dwell, the only agreement is to travel in the same direction,
    having some sort of content, speed, as oppose to being still,
    and a conclusion, all optional, liking and like never to be asked at any point of consideration’s end.
    Other than to say, done, and so little to show for it.
    A simple race, all the motions made, arms flying through midair,
    but nothing after reciting a cliched habit, all for entertainment, and never yours.

  12. Phil, I know you killed him off, but MORE OLD DETECTIVE STORIES, please, please, please! He must have told a thousand stories besides the ones you’ve written down. I’ve been a Firesign fan since… well, always, but the Old Detective took your work places that four guys (now three, sadly) can never go. I think when all is said and done, it’s your best solo work, bar none.

  13. I was looking to the sky, on this sun lit day, with the head turned slightly up,
    and the most ambient thought, or better yet, a lined phrase.
    Knowing my own mind, it wasn’t, the phrase that was resident, but
    best described, out-of-the-blue, half-knowingly, someone else’s, of vague familiarity and acquaintance. What could I do, acknowledge it by a simple answer,
    since it was a question or statement needing answer, to its completion.

    As luck would have it, volleying back, another strings of words, not owned by me,
    needing another expressed reaction, mine, completing or nodding in agreement after.
    A two way, with something of no face, other than yours?

    Inspiration or subjugation, one of those posed situations where a higher understanding,
    a friendly whisper in the ears, being only privy, and never claiming that grin on my face,
    as the result. Doubt it?
    Give me a better one, if not believing in spiritual inspiration.
    And so the work continues . . .

    While the rest have the parroting act down, memorised and fooled proof, and all thinking they have the insight, but never seem to know where or when to put hyperbole poo, where is the new truth?

    Lie, you fool.

  14. Peerlessly Through The Looking Glass

    I wasn’t sleeping more than a half hour at a time, with always an excuse not to.
    The short adventures into the dreamscape were a walk with the surreal and few familiar faces,
    but when has that been a prerequisite?

    One segways the other, like some sort of ritual handshake.
    Seeing slightly over the nest, without really being without feet on the ground,
    and always in the same old place. If anything is going to happen,
    it’s already past, a vague impression saying it has always been.
    Why complain, you’ll quickly be reminded of it, with that long pause after.

    To set an even balance, some of us have to take the excesses of the less,
    to say and accept most have gone missing and absent in others’ universe.
    Be the janitor that wipes the bowl, preserving the mindlessness of ‘the others’ day-to-day.
    Someone has to live in the shadows to be called them, and give purpose,
    so others don’t have to think.

    Oh the humanity of it all, if I went missing, too. Picking a direction and not looking back,
    leaving all the rest to pick up the pieces on their own.
    It’s so urgent, you pick up the phone, frenzy maker.

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