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.

Addendum to Beaver Teeth

These three discussion messages were the first on Beaver Teeth and I’ve been rearranging things on this page and can’t figure out how to include them in the new discussion group, so I’m keeping them here. And Zen, by the way, I’d love to hear what you or anyone else thinks about B-Teeth. That’s the reason I’m posting it, to try to get it out into the conversation.

We Three Kings of Tacoma Are by Phil Austin

WE THREE KINGS OF TACOMA ARE

by Phil Austin

( Prolegomenon and copyright info)

THE CENTER PANEL

Not too many years past, in that region of the Pacific North where people have settled, wisely or not, around the base of the great volcano Tahoma, and specifically in the misspelled city of Tacoma, in the State of Washington – and on a dark and stormy night – the sodden figure of a drunken man fell to its knees in the humble neighborhood near St. Bart’s mighty old dark brick church set high up one of the seven hills above the twisted mystery of the lower Puget Sound. This drunken man on his knees did not pray, but belched hugely and vomited copiously into the welcoming gutter and then he breathed mightily and sat down on the icy curb. It was late in the month of December. He fumbled in his stained garments for a cigarette, the butt of which was found and lit only by using up three old greasy wooden matches. The matches each sputtered blue sparky fire into the Tacoma night.
A lonely car sped by, its tires splashing up a freezing surge of water, spraying this horrible, but by now smoking, man. He solemnly cursed each car that passed, as best he could.

“Fuckin’ Cavalier!” he would shout at a Chevy Cavalier. “God damn fuckin’ Invicta! Cock-suckin’ Toyahto!” and so forth. He gave the finger to each. “Man, ooooh MAN!” he shouted out, for no good reason, in a loud tone of gloom and drunkenness.

Then a little old car passed by, a little old hippie wagon, he thought, but he couldn’t quite remember the name for it and so he let it pass. There was a dog inside, he could see, and an old man driving and perhaps the face of a young woman with troubling eyes.

His name was Schrobberbeeck and he was drunk and filthy. He had on clothes, and that’s about all you could say about them. He had a beard, did Schrobberbeeck, but it wasn’t much of a beard. He sucked grimly on his damaged cigarette and water from his sickened shoulders dripped down into the old brickwork gutter. From inside the dimly lit and secret sanctuary of St. Bart’s he could hear the shaky little choir practicing the familiar songs of Christmas. Sad colored lights of the season blinked valiantly, strings of them having been draped over the old church by sober worshipers. The portico leaned at an angle somewhat canted to that of its steeple. The night was dark and darkening yet.

A little thing of light from far away shone down the hill and it came closer and got bigger. It was a flashlight approaching and behind it was Schrobberbeeck’s old friend Pat, sloshing up to him in the dark night. Pat (as Pat himself had often enough said) was a large Negro of a man and while he was as poor as was Schrobberbeeck, he was unlike his friend in that he was not a great drinker. He preferred decent marijuana, did Pat, and the twelve-dollar wines of California in what he liked to think of as moderation. Pat’s life was marred to a great extent by a mysteri-ous past and he counted himself a tragic figure for reasons never quite revealed to his friend Schrobberbeeck nor to much of anyone else. He walked with a great limp, did Pat, a crippled limp in fact, and and he tended to cars for a little living, he washed them and he sometimes parked them and for whatever reason, on this night, he was in a state of transcendent grace and triumph, which was lucky enough given Schrobberbeeck’s sad condition of damnation and drunkenness and defeat.

“It is Christmas again, Schrobberbeeck you fucking asshole!” Pat shouted out. “And it is time, my old friend, for the Three Kings to walk! Let them stride out into the heart of this dark and Holy Night! Is this not true? This night, this holy night, set aside for the celebration of the birth of Our Lord! In this land! Even here high above the mighty fucking Puyallup River!”

Pat’s words rang out into the freezing night. As if in response, somewhere down in Tacoma, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle roared to life. Frigid shafts of milky light struck down through shattered little clouds. The iced moon shone out briefly and then was gone.

Schrobberbeeck hiccupped gamely. He vomited again, a small but virulent vomit.

“Lord, but it smells like Hell itself out here, Schrobberbeeck, old son! God himself would be proud of such a stink!” And Pat hoisted his drunken friend up onto feelingless feet and so propelled him into some ceremonial and hopefully useful action. He had to do this pretty much every year because he needed money every year, and so needed Schrobberbeeck, however drunken his condition. Besides, it was exactly the season of forgiveness and of drunkenness.

He needed Schrobberbeeck on every blessed Christmas when he and Schrobberbeeck and their friend Crab Man would then, upon his urging, carefully remove the sacred symbols of their kingship from the secret places where they had been hidden all the year long, mostly tucked away in the rafters of Schrobberbeeck’s sagging garage on the alley in back of his downtrodden little house on Alder Street. These holy symbols were hidden there because Schrobberbeeck was the only one of the Three Kings who actually lived in a house, such as it was, and had therefore a garage, such as it was, and therefore a fit place in which to hide things away.

In the blessed season, the three of them would find up there the marvelous silver star of heavy-duty aluminum foil atop its long telescoping aluminum pole, once a fixture of some North End swimming pool; they would produce again their cardboard crowns and swords, wrapped in regular-strength aluminum foil by innocent third-graders at the Longfellow school and stolen from them with no regret; they would carefully lift out the manger, cleverly fashioned from a supermarket cart never returned to the Thriftway market, filled with glittery paper for straw and, as in every year, Pat would not have to blacken his face in order to portray the Dark King. The joke was as good this year as it was every year and, as in every year, the Crab Man and Pat laughed, although Schrobberbeeck, being too drunk on this night, did not.

Crab Man was so-called because he eked out a smallish living selling crabs to idiots and tourists down on Ruston Way, lurching from bicyclist to roller blader with a portable tray full of evil-smelling old dead crabs on not much ice. He worked out of the back of an ancient GMC Suburban decked usually with signs reading: “Crabs, One Dollar. Fretch Shrimp.” Crab Man was as stubborn and secretive and clever and sideways as a crab and pretty much a confirmed smoker of cocaine, although he did not exactly admit to it. He needed money, for whatever reason, and more than once had resorted to easy burglaries in neighborhoods accessible to his ancient vehicle, or so the police of Tacoma will be happy to tell you. He had long stringy hair and a devilish moustache and beard and he was one of those people whose frayed jeans seemed to cut across worn-in old high-heeled cowboy boots at exactly the right place. Crab Man was known to be attractive to certain women of the town, in other words, and that made of his life a living hell, as he was quick to point out to his two best friends, who, if he had to name them, would have been Pat and Schrobberbeeck. For the most part, Crab Man lived in Schrobberbeeck’s decrepit front room on a couch whose springs had seen one or two many thumps from one or two many rumps. When he needed to deal seriously with the annoying women of the town, he would take them to the trailer he theoretically owned, the old aluminum one parked down by the Puyallup River, under tall alder trees filled with roosting crows, because he was technically an Indian and the river land was Reservation Land. He was only about a quarter Puyallup, but that was more than enough, as he often said, certainly more than once.

It turned icy cold and crisp and finally began to snow on the Christmas night that these Three Kings, decked in their sacred symbols and pushing their manger on supermarket wheels, set out to sing their Christmas carols in this year in the city of Tacoma, which is a place of temperate enough climate – with albeit much rain – that snow is almost always a novelty. For it to snow – good snow, snow that stuck – could be counted almost a miracle in this place and especially on this night.

The three sad figures, after some years of practice, could sing “Silent Night” pretty well. They could sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” both the versions sacred and profane. They could sing “Adeste Fidelis,” although they had not one idea between the three of them of what any of it meant. They made quite a sight in the slump of thick snow that fell over Tacoma at rush hour, in the darkened night. They wore fake beards and robes that held many patterns popular with bathrobe makers and their great silver star glinted brightly above them when Pat twirled it on its long pole. It was more snow than Tacoma may have ever seen and it came down slowly, without wind or storm. It came down for hours that night. It snowed and then, amazingly, it snowed some more.

And these were flush times for Tacomans, the year had been a prosperous one and the goods and services, the fish and lumber, the cameras and carwashes, the meats and the motors and the glassware, the everything and the everything else had all done pretty well and the fattened people of the town sat before their glowing TVs and contemplated at least this one Christmas without need.

Not only pedestrians but slowing cars gave money to the Three Kings this year in amounts they had never before imagined. For a while they stood amazed on the corner of Division and Tacoma and sang “Jingle Bells” at the top of their lungs, but the traffic was piling up to see them and give them money and so – at the polite request of Sergeant Ng of the Tacoma Police – they moved down onto Pacific Avenue, that important boulevard, under the gentle wash of an amber streetlight that bathed them with what could have been a holy light, the way it cut neatly down through the falling snow. There, too, people seemed eager to give them money. They were wished “Merry Christmas” time and time again, and they would shout it back with the good cheer that naturally comes as coins and bills pile up in your manger, making it so heavy that it could not be wheeled, but had to be dragged from place to place. They drank from bottles concealed in their robes and Crab Man left briefly at about nine-thirty and returned with a gram of cocaine that kept each King awake and alert, singing and full of cheer.

It was almost midnight, certainly quitting time for the Three Kings, and Schrobberbeeck could barely refrain from counting all the coins and bills right then and there when a big dark stretch limousine pulled up, its many tires crunching in the snow, and a rear door opened and a voice issued out. It was the voice of a man, a deep-voiced man. He had long hair dyed three colors down to his waist and was wearing an expensive black three-piece suit of elaborate design. Half of his head was shaved and dyed a purplish color. His shirt was open and necklaces were draped around his throat. His fingers were studded with rings that flashed fire brighter than Schrobberbeeck’s wooden matches into the night. On his feet were high-heeled boots covered with the skins of animals never before seen in Tacoma and which Pat immediately thought were worth more than he on the open market. Pat was not on the open market, which was the way he put it, ever aware of his troubled ancestry.

“I am an Enslaved-American, not an African-American. I am a child and grandchild and great grand-child of the survivors of slavery. We are adapted to slavery as naturally as a woodpecker is adapted to pecking wood. And here we are, genetically ready to please, in a country full of mother-fuckers comically dead set against what they seemed to be absolutely committed to a hundred and fifty years ago, to the point that this very nation would not have been worth fighting over were it not for our Enslaved Negro labors.” This was the way Pat talked when he had some decent marijuana and a bottle or two of Pinot Noir from the Napa Valley. (If Schrobberbeeck joined him in smoking marijuana, after a pause, he would ask if the woodpeckers were absolutely committed as well and after a decent pause, Pat would just laugh like hell.)

“You’ve got a point, Mr. Man,” said the Rock-and-Roll Person from Seattle, after Pat had regaled him with something close to his usual Enslaved-American speech. “We’re free tonight because of you. What’s your name?”
“I am the Dark King,” said Pat with some dignity.

“Well, here, Kings of Men, have a cigar or three,” said the man, offering them several expensive-looking cigars in his bejeweled hand. “And a Merry Christmas to you.”
“That is not a rubber cigar, is it?” asked Schrobberbeeck suspiciously.

“No, it isn’t, not at all,” the tall man laughed, his little eyes twinkling against the velvet of the luxurious velvet seats. “It’s a damn illegal Cuban cigar, my friend,” he said. The exhaust of the limo billowed out, as if any more of a theatrical effect were needed; the three Kings next to the long black limo in the snow, lit from above by a great shaft of amber streetlight flickering down through the fall of unusual snowflakes.

“Let’s hear you boys sing it, though,” said the great man in the great car.

The Three Kings looked one each at another and smoked at their cigars and then dutifully sang the profane version, hoping for more largesse from this strange man. To be sure, they weren’t exactly sure of all the lyrics. They sang:

“We three kings of Orient are,

Tried to smoke a rubber cigar.

Something, something …

It expl-o-o-ded …

Now we’re something …

Something something.”

“Well, that’s close enough,” said the Rock-and-Roll man meditatively. He reached back in the limo and pulled out a little leather bag, heavy with some important weight.

“Merry Christmas, you three idiotic kings,” said the man, sadly.

     “She doesn’t want to see me.” He stared straight for a moment and then he said, “So I’m going back to Seattle.” The door closed and the great white limousine plowed into the fresh snow in the street, leaving four snakes of blackened tracks twisting off into the holy night.

When the Three Kings looked into the leather bag, they found money, both in bills and some coins, some rare coins as well, some little gold and silver bars and several rings and a necklace worth perhaps some thousands of dollars, thought Crab Man, who did not mention that fact to the others. Still, it was a lot of worth. Schrobberbeeck produced a wooden match. It sputtered blue fire into the night and three cigars were re-lit. They were rich, although Crab Man hoped to be richer.

They headed for the American Wigeon Tavern on Broadway. They would get drunk there and eat prime rib sandwiches with au jus and horseradish, they shouted, but instead, they got lost in snow so heavy they could not find their way in their own city. Christmas seemed far away, the snowfall was so great. Tacoma itself seemed far away. The wind picked up and began to howl and the snow began to drift and there were no cars or passersby on the whiteout streets of the town. They pushed their shopping cart in vain, its straw falling out on the snow. They contemplated automobile theft. The streetlights went out, as did all the lights in town, one by one. The streets were deep in snow. They did not know where they were or where they had come from. For a while, they thought they saw light coming from the gutters of the snow-buried streets. From there, from beneath, they heard a great sound like the magnificent humming of more bees than anyone might ever imagine.

They tried the handles of the doors of cars left foolishly on the unfamiliar streets. They came upon a kind of hippie wagon on Yakima, near Division and the Frisco Freeze. Its little lights shone out into the night. When they tried the door, it was locked, but inside the car they could see that in the back seat there was a woman and a newborn baby who had been wrapped in a leather jacket with a skull embroidered upon it.

The woman and her new baby were set out comfortably enough. The car’s heater had once been working and the interior must have been just warm and the Holy Spirit itself seemed to smile right up at them as they stared through the frozen windshield. A large golden dog laid with its head upon the womanís lap, the baby beside. The old man tried once more to start the car.

“One more step and I’ll shoot you with the gun I have,” shouted the old man at them, but the engine refused to turn over. The Three Kings looked so funny in their stupid tinfoil crowns that the woman laughed in spite of herself. “You won’t do us harm,” she said, in a firm manner. “But if you don’t help us, my baby will freeze solid.”
“Don’t you have anywhere to go?” yelled Pat, scraping ice away and tapping on the window.

“We have nowhere to go and we have nothing to eat,” shouted the old man. ìHo, ho, ho.î

“Well, you can’t let her stay out here,” shouted Pat.

“Go away,” the old man yelled.

ìWe came to ask you the way,” shouted Schrobberbeeck, suddenly inspired from he knew not where.

“This is the way,” called the Old Man, simply. “Come in,” he said to them, making sure they saw his lips move. The doors became unlocked then.

There was a big yellow dog in the car. The woman wore a blue robe with a hood and the old dog lay its head on her knee as she nursed her little child. The little child laughed at them, through his suckling. Schrobberbeek knelt down in the snow, suddenly, not really knowing why he did and so did Pat.

The old man tried to start the car. The little engine turned
but did not turn over. “It’s no use,” the old man said. “Out of juice. We have no money.”
“What do you eat then?”

“We have nothing to eat.”
The three Kings looked at one another and then, without even consulting each the other, they gave the old man and the woman and the smiling suckling child everything they had, including the bag the strange rock and roll man had given them. The woman smiled gently.

“God will reward you,” said the old man. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said, most gently.

The Kings trudged home through the freezing snow.

“Couldn’t the child have been God himself?” asked Schrobberbeeck.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Crab Man. “God has good cars and can clothe himself, even as a child he could.”

“But he was born poor, in a stable, in a manger – whatever that is. I don’t think it was in a supermarket cart.”
“But that was long ago.”
There was a long pause in the freezing cold. “Why, then, did we give them everything?”
“I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”

They found the bar and inside the patrons laughed and sang. They stood outside, with nothing to their names.

 

THE SECOND PANEL

Again, the next year, it was Christmas. Pat was very ill, laid out, sick in bed at the motel opposite the PickQuick Drive-in out on the great road across from the willows by the creek along the road that serviced the great docks of Tacoma. His two friends had gone out without him and yet they sang that they were the Three Kings. He lay in his bed and thought feverishly about the last year when they found the woman and the child and the golden dog and the old man in the hippie wagon and had given them every-thing they had been given.

Pat now felt certain that the little person had been God himself. Since that time, Pat had become a different man. Here is the way, the old man had said. His two friends, Schrobberbeek and the Crab Man seemed to have already forgotten the incident. “How strange, how strange,” they would say, but he could tell they didn’t even really remember.

But Pat had changed his life. He knelt before the statues. He followed after them, he went on the rounds, he forgot his tending of cars. He sang pious songs and tried to atone for his previous sins. He began to freeze himself and hurt him-self for reasons of crazed piety. His leg dragged. He spoke to people about sin, now, something he would formerly have laughed at. People at St. Barts thought he had gone crazy.

He had been longing and looking forward to this Christmas. He kept the star and he made it better. He told his friends he would only go with them if they would give their earnings to the poor, of which there were still too many in Tacoma.

“We are poor enough for all of them,” said Schrobberbeek firmly.

“Any idiot can make a star,” said the Crab Man.

Pat kept the star, with which they found God last year. He would not let them take it.

Pat was dying. Now death came to him. He could see the star, propped up above the clock radio that glowed greenly in the night, playing out its scratchy carols. The moon came out and climbed up the sky. Pat prayed for one more night of life.

He climbed out of the motel bed and fell and rose. He grasped the star and turned it toward the holy moon and he sang:

“We Three Kings of our star are

We have come here from places afar.

We went and searched and searched and failed

We went and searched o’er hill and dale

And there this star stood still

And there we entered with good will”

He cried and cried and turned the star. The child came to him through the snow although it was only rain. The child had a map of the world and an old pencil and a sweatshirt that said Seahawks on it. He was sweet and Pat recognized him at once.

“I have seen this child before,” he murmured. His motel room was filled with the smell of daffodils, although it was far from their season.

“Hello, Pat,” said the little child. “I have come to you since you can no longer come to me. Sing your song again. Sing the part, though, about the exploding cigar. It cracks me up.”

As Pat sang, an apple tree outside burst into flower in the night, as if it had snowed indeed.

“Come with me,” said the little lad. “We have a house now, and a carport and you must come with me.” Pat went with him and the golden dog followed behind. He saw spring in the Puyallup Valley and the crocuses and daffodils were in full flower in the driving and freezing rain of winter on the dark tide flats.

“How beautiful it is,” said Pat and he died.

When Schrobberbeeck and Crab Man came back to look in on him with some guilt, they had collected only enough coins and bills to have gone to the tavern and drunk and they were as drunk as Two Kings might be, but their pockets were empty. They looked in the window and Pat was dead.

When they opened the door to the motel room, it smelled inside strongly of flowers, as if it were spring too early.

THE THIRD PANEL

In the next year Schrobberbeeck became fearful. He was afraid, or so he said, of God himself. He was frightened of Christmas, though, and that was the truth of it. It was Pat’s death, in that last year without snow, that did him in. Now he went to church every day. He was not of the faith, but he went to St. Bart’s every day. He feared truly the coming of Christmas. He missed his dead friend Pat and he missed the Crab Man, for that guy could make him laugh like no one else, but his fear kept him in his old shack. His car died there and he never left except to go to St. Bart’s or to Wright’s Park where he would look at the statues, many of whom, he said, had begun to speak to him. And he would venture out at night to steal.

Crab Man now associated with the devil himself. He had got a job hauling equipment for a metal band and so he was rich and it was said that he worshiped Satan. He was the one who said this, actually. He told a story of crabbing, the wind whipping up a hundred-year storm and taking his clothes away and in this naked state he was blown upon a Satanist in Mason County, where such things are said to be common, and the Satanist, thinking he was the Devil himself, taught him the workings of the book of the Devil. The book was called the Black Ambrosius. He would not crab at night, in fact he would not leave his trailer at night. And he and Schrobberbeeck drew apart and did not see one another. It was said that he was rich and he was not the only one who said it.

Schrobberbeeck was drunk, however, this did not change. And he stole. This did not change. This Christmas, as in the one two years ago when they had seen the child, it snowed like a miracle. He feared Christmas, afraid of some holiness, some awful miracle. The snow piled up and up, the moon was full and night was still and the stars were out in the black-blue sky above. He had decided to walk to midnight mass, in order that the Church might ward off the mystery. He did not take the star this night.

He set out clutching a flashlight although the moon was so full and bright the light was not needed at all. The bell called out in the thick white night. He was frightened. Not another soul was out. He cut through the park. The Christmas night wanted something from him.

Frightened as he was, he looked for the statues in the snow, the deep snow. These were his friends now, the statue of Nietzsche, the statue of Puget, the Mother of Christ, the statue of Vancouver, the statue of Ole Olafson, the statue of Babe (the Blue Ox,) the statue of the Unidentified Man, the statue of Mrs. McPherson, the statue of the Spirit of the Pacific, the statue of the Dead of the Great War, and as well all the little weeping statues in the roadside shrines for the accidental dead crushed by automobiles or fortune. But where were they on this night? All gone, every one. He froze with terror.

He saw a little figure running through the snow. A little woman, weeping. He had seen her before, on her pedestal, she might have been Jane Austen, she might have been Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she might have been the Spirit of Temperance or the Spirit of Pacificness. But he ran to the Woman of Absolution, he ran to the Mother of the Christ. Seven tin swords were driven through her heart.

“Dude,” she said, looking up at him, panting for breath.

     “Dude. You’ve got to carry me! I’m exhausted because I am too small to negotiate my way on foot through the depths of this snow. If I were to acquire a little hippie wagon or even a mini-van I wouldn’t need your help, if I could afford the gas and if my feet could reach the pedals. But I know you, I’ve seen you, you must help me. Carry me, Mr. Schrobberbeeck.”

The bell tolled too many notes through the thick white night.

“Holy Mother I cannot pick you up,” he cried out in fear and trembling, awaiting the mystery, awaiting his end.

“Listen, pal,” she said shortly. “I must make it to my son’s mass at the Pond, his big Christmas party and I will be late because I was made late. This evening, as I was preparing to attend my Son’s feast – plenty of time to get there even in this stupid snow – a pitiful man came to me, to pray to me. He was a fisherman, he said, and had fallen in with a defrocked priest who had taught him the ins and outs of the Black Ambrosius. He prayed for my help and he was so piteous that I stayed to help him.”

“He is saved then?”

“Yes. Hurry, carry me now.”

His heart rose and his care dropped away and he picked her up and ran with her, light as a feather, through the beautiful snow.

His steps seemed to sail, to fly. Over a long stretch of slope and snow, he saw a moving cross, dimly seen, heading a little parade that struggled up the hill through the park and toward who knows what. It was an unholy parade, perhaps, but he stopped for breath he did not know he had and he could see around the procession, the statues in human form gathered around the central float and up upon it was certainly God himself, so far as he knew.

“Put me down,” she said. ìI will not be late for my son’s feast.î She looked back at him.

     “Forgive me,” she said enigmatically, her tiny self then turning and trudging through the snow. A small music, something about reindeers perhaps, drifted up to him from the parade.

     He could not go on without seeing something, he thought, although he was clearly not invited. He crouched behind a tree and stared. He saw all the statues, but in their human forms, all gathered around the windblown float that came up last in the parade, upon it a great figure of a man, bearded with age, clothed all in red and white. The littlest Mother stood up next to the saint, whose large being graced that float. His heart was as big as the storm that had been. Around the figure were all his mothers, not as solid statues, but as living things: The Mother of Five Wounds, the Mother of Imaginary Reindeer, the Mother of Red Roses, the Mother of Daily Bread, the Mother of Refuge, the Mother for a Holy Death, the Mother of Ho Ho Ho, the Mother of Devotion, the Mother of the Woods, the Mother of Seven Sorrows, the Mother of Jolly, the Mother of Rest, the Mother of Lovers, of Purgatory, of Invention, of Giving. As Schrobberbeeck watched, from far away, he saw that Santa’s heart might burst like a grape the way heíd heard Christ’s had. He shouted out then, a shout as loud as that he’d shouted at cars but two short years ago.

He shouted out “Hey!” And then, “He is forgiven!”

All the heads of all the paraders snapped around but they could not see Schrobberbeeck, hidden as he was behind a tree, and the float lurched forward somewhat, drawn by a small lawn tractor, and then suddenly there was a loud crack and the ice broke on the Pond where they all stood and the ice was thin and covered with snow so they had not known the danger when they paraded and then the float tipped perilously and Santa was thrown off, clutching at tinsel and everyone ran out in a circle from the sinking tractor and float. Ice cracked, music drowned, little screams and shouts echoed up the slope. Santa’s heart, so far as Schroberbeeck could see, did not break.

Why this made him happy, he did not know. But he was content and went on to Mass and prayed and knew not why. He made his way the long way around. Snowplows had begun their work. He slept peacefully, not so drunk after all.

The next day all the statues were back in their places, made of their familiar materials, far from being human flesh. A groundskeeping crew – after hauling the float out of the pond – found Crab Man, his hands grasping at the bars of the black iron grate that enclosed the little Lady of the Seven Sorrows. A yellow snake lay beside him with its belly slit open, terrible to behold. Crab Man was as dead as the Dead Ambrosius himself.

Schrobberbeeck became a different person. He lost all fear and awaited solemn moments. He longed for more mysteries. He looked out for them and they were his friends. Outwardly he seemed the same. He lived in his horrible broken house on Alder Street and he drank and he stole. These things were in his bones and not even the strongest emotion of his soul could change that about himself.

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

Art of the Insane

ART OF THE INSANE

HELLO AND HELLO AND HELLO AGAIN AND AGAIN, I’M BILLY FLAMNIGAN AND WELCOME ONCE AGAIN TO ART OF THE INSANE AND TODAY WE’RE GOING TO BE DISCUSSING ONE OF THE MOST BEDEVILING PROBLEMS FACING THE BEGINNING OR EVEN AMATEUR PAINTER WHO WISHES TO REAP THE BIG PROFITS YOU CAN MAKE IN PRODUCING ART OF THE INSANE THAT IS SO LIKE THE REAL ART OF THE INSANE THAT ONLY A TRULY BEDEVILED INSANE PERSON COULD TELL THE DIFFERENCE WHICH MAKES NO DIFFERENCE AT ALL TO YOUR BANKBOOK OR WALLET.

TODAY WE’RE GOING TO LOOK AT THIS GUY ANDY WARHOL WHO’S AS POPULAR NOW THAT HE’S DEAD AS HE WAS WHEN HE WAS ALIVE AND PEOPLE HOPED HE WOULD BE DEAD SO THE PRICES OF HIS ART WOULD BE DRIVEN UP AND UP. NOW ANDY WARHOL WAS NOT INSANE. HE WAS MIRED IN THE DULL AND BORING WORLD OF FINE ART AND WHILE HIS INSTINCTS WERE AS INSANE AS THE NEXT MAN’S, HE NEVER COULD REALIZE THE BIG PROFITS HE MIGHT HAVE MADE IF HE HAD TURNED TO PAINTING JESUS ON LOCOMOTIVES OR CLOWNS WITH KNIVES. HE WASTED HIS BRIGHT TALENT ON DETERGENT BOXES AND PICTURES OF ACTORS, THINGS A TRULY INSANE ARTIST WOULD NOT LOOK AT TWICE. NOW YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE, WOULD YOU? NOT ONCE, NOT TWICE. OF COURSE YOU WOULDN’T. ANDY WARHOL MADE FAME INTO ART, HOWEVER, AND YOU CAN DO EXACTLY THE SAME WITHOUT JEAPORDIZING YOUR STATUS AS INSANE AND PRICING YOURSELF SO FAR BELOW THE MARKET AS TO MAKE THE WHOLE PAINTING NOT WORTH YOUR WHILE.

NOW, HERE WE GO. LET’S TAKE A CANVAS AND I THINK THIS WEEK WE’RE AT THE POINT WHERE WE MIGHT MENTION THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO PEE ON YOUR OWN CANVASES. NO ONE WILL KNOW IF YOU HIRE IT OUT AND THIS CANVAS WAS PEED ON BY A CERTAIN MEMBER OF MY FAMILY WHO WILL KILL ME IF I LET HER SECRET OUT. BUT SHE’S A GOOD WOMAN AND VERY SUPPORTIVE OF MY COLLECTION OF 16TH CENTURY CREAM RINSES AND HAMSTER TWIG CAGES. TAKE A COLOR FROM ANY TUBE ??? THERE WE GO . A LOT OF VIEWERS ASK ME WHAT COLOR IS BEST TO START WITH, BUT THEY MUST NOT BE WATCHING CLOSELY BECAUSE WHAT DO I ALWAYS SAY? IT DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL.

MAKE A CLOWN, I KNOW YOU KNOW HOW TO DO IT. LET’S HAVE HIM CRYING, I’LL USE SOME OTHER COLOR FOR THE TEARS ? AND LET’S HAVE HIM HOLDING A KNIFE, KIND OF WAVING IT AROUND. THERE YOU GO. AND JUST PUT A LOCOMOTIVE IN THERE. VERY DARK. JUST MIX A BUNCH OF THESE TUBES TOGETHER, THAT ALWAYS MAKES THINGS DARK . SOME SMOKE, MAYBE A LITTLE DETAIL OF THAT GUY IN THE RAINBOW WIG THAT’S ALWAYS AT HOCKEY GAMES??? THAT’S NICE NOW. SOME FLOATING EYES ??? QUITE DISCONCERTING ???

AND THERE YOU HAVE IT, SOMETHING THAT WILL INCREASE IN VALUE THE MORE FAMOUS YOU GET. SO START DYING YOUR HAIR AND GETTING SHOT BY ONE OF YOUR GIRLFRIENDS OR BETTER YET, PAINT ON ONE OF YOUR GIRLFRIENDS AS SHE SHOOTS YOU AND YOU DUPLICATE EVERYTHING MILLIONS OF TIMES AND BEFORE LONG YOU’LL BE THE TOAST OF TOAST ISLAND AND JUST AS UNHAPPY AS YOU CAN BE, PRICED TOO LOW TO COMMAND THE PRICES OF THE INSANE AND THE SUBJECT OF SO MUCH BORING COMMENTARY THAT CHILDREN OF THE FUTURE ARE PREPARING NOW TO BE BORED BY YOU AND YOUR ANTICS.

THIS IS BILLY FLAMNIGAN FOR ART OF THE INSANE.

“It’s That Time of the Year ???”

Los Muertos

“The Strange Dream”