The voice on the phone sounded like a chipmunk on goof balls. I blindly patted the top of the night table in prayer for a cigarette and confirmed my atheism. He lowered his voice to a pitch within the human range by my fourth “What?”
“You’ve gotta find him. Yagottayagotta.” My fifth “what?” followed its four older siblings.
“The boss. He’s gone.”
“Fine,” I coughed. “Who are you and who is this boss?”
“Kringle, I mean Alfred. I mean I’m Alfred and Mr. Kringle’s the boss. He’s been gone for two days and…”
“Listen, Alfred, why don’t you get cleaned up and meet me at my office in an hour.” I reached a blind left hand to the night table and wondered how I would get through the next sixty seconds without a butt.
Alfred made the mistake of matching his voice. He was a vision in green and red with a curl to his shoes new to most parts of LA. He jingled when he walked, without the benefit of spurs.
“What’s the gag?”
“No gag, Mr. Marlowe. He’s gone.”
It took me a minute to place the aroma wafting gracefully across my desk.
“How many eggnogs did you have last night, Mister…”
“I don’t see the point Mr. Marlowe, and it’s just Alfred, ok?” He sat up straight and stopped playing with the bells on his shirt.
“Mr. Kringle never left before. And it’s almost time for “the trip” The last two words were wrapped in the memory of last night’s refreshments and nudged across the room with a whisper.
“Let me get this straight. Your boss is Kris Kringle and three weeks before the big event he’s a no-show?”
“That’s right, Mr. Marlowe. And you’re the best there is at this sort of thing. Will you help?”
He only flinched a little when I quoted a price four times my usual exorbitant fee. Hell, I would have done it for nothing. I looked in the pencil drawer for a Pall Mall. Aw hell. I hoped they would have cigarettes up north.
When Alfred and I got off the sleigh, Mrs. Kringle was in the doorway, holding up the family manse with her left shoulder, and blowing on her wet nails. I knew how Kris stayed warm through the long Arctic night.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Marlowe. Can I get you something…warm?”
By now it was redundant. “When was the last time you saw your husband, Mrs. Kringle?”
“Must we be so formal, Mr. Marlowe? Wanda, please.” She took my hand and led me into the largest kitchen this side of the Pentagon Commissary.
“All right, Mrs. Wanda, when was the last time you saw your husband?”
She pouted. “We had a family gathering here on Friday. He seemed upset, but I never…” She poured me a cup of eggnog thick as dough.
“What was it he was upset about?” The nog was like a wrecking ball wrapped in marshmallows.
“Well, it always bothered him that we never have his family here. It’s always my people. We didn’t really have a fight. I just sort of listened to him rant about ‘roads not taken’, and ‘what have I done with my life’ and stuff like that. I couldn’t even calm him down the usual way.” She slithered out of the bar chair and refilled our cups.
“And what way is that?” I leered.
“Oh, Mr. Marlowe, you are a tease,” she smirked as I wiped my white moustache with a blue handkerchief.
“Where is Mr. Kringle’s family now?”
“He would always talk about going back to ‘the old country,’ and giggle. I imagine he finally went back.”
I stood up and wobbled in the direction of the Kringle boudoir. The Victorian look of the house here gave way to a more plebian decor. I rummaged through two closets before finding any direction. It was a 1955 World Series team photo and a package of old letters. It would appear that our Mr. Kringle had, in a prior life, opted for naughty over nice.
Alfred appeared before my second bellow, but after the nog had delivered me to the floor. I was able to give him directions, before visions of sugar plums danced through my head.
Traveling in a reindeer-driven sleigh is ok, if there’s a tailwind. At that speed an incontinent animal could be lethal.
The lead buck kicked a wayward pigeon as the Brooklyn Bridge came into view. We descended to buzzing altitude and slowed to a dash. The sound of reindeer hoofs on the roof was sufficiently like those of clumsy burglars that no one found it surprising enough to investigate. Alfred wanted to enter in the customary way, but my other suit was in the cleaners and greasy soot was not a fashion statement I cared to make. We walked down three flights to the third floor. Alfred found the right apartment and gave a shave-and-a-haircut knock.
A glass pupil in the door dilated. “Marlowe’s the name, Mr. Kringle. Some people are a little worried about you.” The door opened and there he stood. “I don’t see why. I get the job done every year. Oh hello, Alfred.” He waved us in. The guy really was rosy and plump.
“So why the mystery?”
And laying his finger aside of his nose, he whispered, “Quiet please, Mom and Dad are sleeping.” We tiptoed into a comfortable living room. “I don’t think people are ready to know.” There was no hint of a red-and-green scheme here. “Can I offer you something to drink, a little schnapps perhaps?” I forced myself to accept.
“Sometimes people will surprise you, Mr. Kringle. There are lots of folks these days who celebrate both holidays.”
“Mr. Marlowe, perhaps someday. But for now you would do me a great service if you would keep this to yourself. And not to worry, I haven’t missed a delivery yet and don’t plan to start now.” He walked to a row of candles and lit a large wooden match. I looked in my coat pocket for a butt, unsuccessfully. “Would you do me the honor, sir?” he asked, holding out the match. “I beg your pardon?” was the cleverest reply that sprang to mind. “The shammas, Shamus, light the shammas.” A dim bulb flickered on and I held the match to the lead candle.
“Happy Holiday, Mr. Kringle.” He took the lighted candle and used it to light another, then with a wink of his eye and a twist of his head he turned to me, his droll little mouth drawn up like a bow, “Happy Holiday, Mr. Marlowe.”
Happy Holidays, dear readers!
-Will Byrnes, 19??
This story grew out of personal experience. My first wife and I used to make our own holiday cards, with sensitivity to the dual celebrations in our household. My ex is Jewish, while I was raised Catholic, although I long since moved on to atheism. Still, it was always my favorite time of year. So, one December, in accommodating both Christmas and Channukah, I wrote this story. I may have added an illustration or two, just don’t recall. We sent it to friends and family as a holiday card, no doubt perplexing many. Just a bit of fun for the season, no serious significance intended.