Christmas Card 2013

Christmas for Carole is written in the style of Damon Runyon, a New York author and newspaperman celebrated for his short stories set in the world of prohibition era Broadway.  He is probably best known for Guys and Dolls, a musical adaptation of two of his short stories released as a classic movie starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.  If you’ve never read any of his tales, please seek out some of his original masterpieces before reading my poor homage.

Damon Runyon wrote several Christmas stories including Palm Beach Santa ClausDancing Dan’s Christmas and The Three Wise Guys.  The last title was a rewriting of the Nativity in Runyon’s own inimitable style and was my inspiration for Christmas for Carole, which attempts to rework.. well, I guess it’s pretty obvious.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Christmas for Carole

Stoops in the Snow 1930 Martin LewisIt is nearly 3am on Christmas morning, and I am sitting on a tall stool in Mindy’s wrapping myself around forkfuls of gefilte fish, which is a seasonal dish and most sustaining, and looking out of the window at the world going by, and finding it all most festive.  The snow lays round about, deep and crisp and even, or it will do if it is given a fair chance, but with the cabs and the private cars going about their business, and the good people on the pavements rushing past the window with their arms full of parcels, it is getting kicked up into heaps of mush in the gutter.

A short way down the street a Santa Claus in a red suit with white whiskers such as you will often see at Christmas time is standing on the corner with a bell in one hand and a bucket in the other, and as the good citizens are passing by he rings his bell and shakes his bucket, and the citizens are throwing tin into the bucket without thinking twice.  I am commencing to think that this is a very good dodge indeed, for there is nothing wrong with tin so long as you have plenty of it, and I am wondering where I can maybe get a red suit and white whiskers of my own, when I see something which makes me drop my fork in consternation, and I splash sauce on my tie.

For while I am watching, who should come walking up Broadway but Benny the Screw, and as he pulls level, the Santa Claus rings his bell in Benny’s face and says to him like this, “Ho ho ho.”

Maybe this Santa Claus is not from round here, for if he is he will not be standing on the sidewalk with a bucketful of tin in full view, neither will he be wasting his time hohohoing Benny the Screw.

Benny is a skinny old guy with a stoop and a puss as sour as a pickle, and he is widely regarded as the meanest man in Brooklyn and possibly the world, in fact he is so close that normally you will not get a cigarette paper between him and his wallet.  Benny is a medium-sized ice merchant, which is to say that he is in the jewellery dodge.  Although he is at least three hundred years old he is a common sight around and about, wearing half-moon cheaters and a threadbare suit which is out of style when Methuselah sends it to the thrift store, walking to work as he is too mean to pay the cab fare.

So I am watching with a lively interest, and expecting Benny to chew out the Santa Claus no little and quite some, when Benny turns to the Santa Claus and ho ho ho’s him right back.  This is when I spill sauce on my tie, but it is nothing to my surprise when Benny reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fat bankroll, peels off a twenty and drops it into Santa Claus’s bucket.

All I can think is that Benny is indulging in a little too much of the old Yuletide spirit, though up to this moment I will say that Benny’s liver will give out before his wallet does.  I do not have to wonder for long, however, for Benny marches up to Mindy’s door and comes right in.  As he is kicking the snow off his boots he sees me and asks, “Do you see Scratch tonight?  I have something here I need to give him.”

When I hear that Benny is looking for Scratch on Christmas Eve I figure that he must find out about Scratch and Carole, and he is going to give Scratch the old heave-ho, which explains why he is in such a good mood, for Benny is never happier than when he is kicking someone in the teeth.

Scratch is Benny’s clerk, and I figure that Benny should know better than to come looking for him in Mindy’s, as what Benny pays is strictly for the monkeys, and Scratch cannot afford a pretzel at Mindy’s, even on Christmas Eve.  Also, Scratch will never be anywhere but at home any night, where he will be minding his kid brother Li’l Gimpy.  Li’l Gimpy stands knee high to a polliwog and gets his name when he is born with one leg all crippled up, so he gets by with a crutch. Scratch and Li’l Gimpy never have much of a father, and their mother dies when Li’l Gimpy is even smaller than he is now, so Scratch is all the family Li’l Gimpy has in the world. Everyone agrees that Scratch makes a pretty good job of it though, and Li’l Gimpy is always well fed, and washed, and livelier than a barrel of ginger.

The one thing that Scratch cannot be for Li’l Gimpy is a doctor, so for as long as anyone can remember he is trying to save the potatoes for Li’l Gimpy to have an operation to straighten out his leg, but of course on what Benny pays him he hardly saves any potatoes at all, and there is always something unexpected coming along to eat them up anyway.  When Scratch is telling me all this one day, I ask him why he does not chip off a little of Benny’s ice at the end of every month, as I figure Benny has so much ice that he will not miss a little here and there, but Scratch says he will not cheat on Benny, as he is in love with Benny’s daughter Carole, and he does not wish to queer his chances with her.  I cannot blame Scratch for being in love with Carole, for she is a pretty young Judy with hair as black as a yard up a chimney and brown eyes, and a serious demeanour, and she is as fond of Scratch and Li’l Gimpy as they are of her, but I can tell him that the odds on him getting Benny’s nod to the deal are longer than they will give you on Minnesota Fats to win the Kentucky Derby riding on a sewing machine, for after Benny the Screw’s ever loving wife passes away because he is too mean to send for a doctor when she is sick, Benny holds on to Carole tighter than he holds onto his wallet.

All the same, Scratch and Carole manage to meet up secretly every now and then.  Li’l Gimpy, who is obliged to accompany them on these occasions, is not too interested in their conversation, which is inclined to be of a somewhat fruity nature, so he fills in time by pegging stones at the street signs, and I hear he gets so good that he can dot the i’s of Mississippi Avenue four stones in a row.

Anyway, I do not see Scratch in some time, and I tell the same to Benny the Screw.

“Well then,” replies Benny, “I will wait for him, for I arrange to meet him here, and if you wish I will buy you a cup of coffee and tell you the story that brings me here.”

I am by no means averse to listening to stories, even from Benny the Screw, as stories are sometimes most instructive, and anyway I figure that the day Benny the Screw buys me a cup of Java is something I can tell my grandchildren about, if I ever get round to having any, so I thank him kindly for his generosity and Benny orders two coffees and starts like this,

“As you will imagine,” says Benny, “Christmas Eve is a good day for the ice dodge, and when I leave Scratch to lock up tonight I am carrying plenty of lettuce. It is late and the banks are all closed, so I am obliged to take this money home with me. I carry it in a paper sack like it is nothing, as I figure that nobody will think I am dumb enough to carry money around in a paper sack.

“By the time I get home I am very jumpy indeed, and I am sorry that Carole is not there to greet me, but I figure that she is out wasting my money on food or some other frivolity, and there is nothing I can do about it.

“I put the sack on the bureau and fix myself a cup of hot water, which is a soothing drink, and economical. As I come back from the kitchen the clock is striking midnight, so I am taken by surprise when there is a knock at the door. It will not be Carole, as she has her own key, so I think that maybe it is carol singers, towards whom I am not kindly disposed, as they are nothing more or less than beggars, and in my experience if they do not sing flat then they sing squeaky. So when I open up the door I have a head of steam on and I will give them a piece of my mind if they do not turn out to be a short fat guy with a smile on his kisser and a clock which seems somewhat familiar to me.

“”Well?” I say, for I do not wish to stand on my doorstep all night letting in the cold.

“”Benny,” he says to me, “do you not recognise your old pal Jake?”

“And sure enough, now he mentions it I can see that it is none other than Jake Smiles, with whom I set up in partnership more years ago than I care to remember.

“”Hello Jake,” I say to him, “it is a lifetime since I see you.  What brings you out on such a cold night as this?”

“”Why Benny,” he says to me laughing, “it is Christmas Eve, not just any night, and I get to thinking that I would like to wish you the season’s greetings.” He holds out a paw, and when I shake his hand it feels cold as ice, so it seems like there is nothing for it but to invite him in, although I am by no means in a mood to entertain.

“I tell him that I do not have anything warming to give him, which is not strictly true as I always keep in a little medicinal rye whisky to ward off colds, but he replies that he is not thirsty anyway. We sit down and chew the fat for a while, or at least he does, while I just sit and say yes a few times and no a few times, and throw in a maybe occasionally by way of variety.

“He talks mainly about the old times when we are partners, such as the time I apprehend a felon by the name of the Iceman who is in the process of robbing us by beaning him with a silver cup we are engraving for the State of Iowa Farmers Association. Recalling this story tickles me and I laugh out loud, which is something I do not do in many years, and the sound surprises me.

“”Tell me Jake,” I say, “for I forget, it is so long ago. Why do we ever go our separate ways?”

“”As I recall,” replies Jake, “we disagree over hours. You wish to work another hour either end of the day as you feel it is good for business, and while I agree that you are right I think that I have better things to do with my time, like seeing dolls and going out on the town, and one thing and another.”

“”You know, Jake,” I say to him, “I think that maybe I lose out on a lot of life by making that decision. But it is too late to change now.”

“”No,” says Jake firmly, “it is never too late to change. Anyway Benny,” he says, standing up, “I must be on my way, for I have a long way to go tonight. It is good to see you again.” And although I do not want him to go my pride does not let me ask him to stay and he splits, leaving the house feeling emptier than if nobody is home at all.

“By now I am feeling somewhat low, so I try to make myself busy. I empty the paper sack on to the bureau and commence counting my dibs, which is normally sure to cheer me up, but my heart is not in it tonight and I give up. I am just about to go to bed early and save on heating when there is another knock. I am better disposed towards company now, and I rush to the door to open up, hoping that Jake has missed his train and come back to reminisce some more; and even if it is carol singers I will not chew them out, or maybe just a little.

“However, what I see is a mean looking old guy with a look of the jailhouse about him and a rod in his hand, and the rod is staring me right between the eyes.

“”Merry Christmas,” says the old guy with a smile across his smoosh, but with a look in his eyes as cold as ice, “Remember me, Benny?”  I reply most politely that I do not have the pleasure, for there is no harm in being polite to one and all, particularly when one and all is carrying a gun.

“”Maybe that is because last time you see me you are standing behind me,” says the old guy, “holding a silver cup engraved to the best fat pig in Iowa State.” He says. “My name is the Iceman, Benny.  Do you remember me now?”

“”Why, Iceman,” I reply nervously, “I hope that you do not hold the tap on the noggin personally.  After all,” I continue, “it is many years ago, and at the time you are pointing a gun at my partner, Jake and wishing to relieve us  of  all  our cucumbers.”

“”When you wallop me with that cup, Benny,” says the Iceman, “you do not just give me a headache and a lump the size of an eggfruit, you take away six years of my life, for that is how long they put me away for.

“”While I am inside,” he says, and his eyes are getting colder as he speaks, “my ever loving wife sells my house, withdraws my savings and runs away to Cuba with the Rhumba tutor from the El Dorado Latin Dance Academy, so I guess she is not so ever loving at that. After this,” he continues, and his eyes are so cold now I think that maybe they will frost over, “it seems I cannot keep out of jail, and I watch the next thirty years going by through barred windows. Well Benny,” says the Iceman, “I am out again, and I figure that you owe me, and that tonight you will be in a position to pay me back a little.”

“I think of all the money on the bureau, and although I greatly fear for my life, I fear more for the safety of my lettuce, so I say to the Iceman like this,

“”Why, Iceman,” I say, “I think you have a very fair case of grievance, and while there is nothing I will like more than to make a generous settlement upon you, I regret to say that on this occasion my hands are tied, for when I quit tonight the banks are all closed and I leave my clerk the only key to lock up the day’s takings with the stock in the safe.”

“I am congratulating myself on this statement which seems to cover all the bases, although it is by no means true, when the Iceman replies,

“”Well then,” he says, “we will just have to pay your clerk a social visit. I will be able to wish him the compliments of the season,” he says, and he tells me to fetch my hat and coat.

“We set off down the street with me in front and the Iceman just a gun barrel behind, but the snow is knee high and in no time my bags are soaking wet and I am colder than charity, in fact between shivering with cold and trembling with fear I am shaking so much I have to hold my cheaters to stop them from falling off my nose. The Iceman is feeling it too, although frankly I am surprised that it can ever be colder outside than it is in his heart, and before long he tells me a little about what he will do to me if I play the wise guy, and then he hails a short. He bundles me in and tells me to tell the driver where to go, and we set off. The driver has been putting it away no little and quite some, and starts off quite gabby about Christmas and all that, but before long the Iceman tells him to shut up, and he obliges.

“We drive through some shopping streets and I look out at all the guys and dolls rushing in and out of the shops, smiling and laughing, with their arms full of parcels. Normally it will make me mad that they can look so happy when they are throwing their money away, but tonight I wish with all my heart that I am among them, and if I am then maybe I will even throw away a little money myself.

“But the neighbourhoods get worse, and the buildings get shabbier, until finally we get to a very seedy neighbourhood indeed and the cab pulls up at the old brownstone where Scratch rents an apartment. The Iceman pays the driver and the cab heads off fast, for it is not the kind of neighbourhood where you will hang around if you do not have good reason.

“”Well,” says the Iceman, “I can see that you do not waste too much on wages, so there is all the more for me.”

“The Iceman opens up the door with a jack-knife as he does not wish to trouble the residents, and we walk along a dark corridor and up some steps. The door to Scratch’s apartment is open a crack and I can hear voices inside, and I am very surprised indeed when I realise that one of the voices belongs to my daughter Carole.

“”He is nothing but an old skinflint,” she is saying, “and for two pins I will pinch enough money for Li’l Gimpy’s leg operation and run away to Europe with you. We will get married on the boat,” she says, “and Li’l Gimpy can be the page boy.”

“I am distressed to hear Carole speak like this, especially the bit about the old skinflint, and I am ready to walk right in and demand an explanation, but the Iceman hisses at me to keep still, and I hear Scratch say to Carole like this, “You know that we cannot do that, Carole. You are all that Benny has in the world, apart from money, and if you leave him it will break his heart.

“”No,” he continues, “I will wait until I gain his respect, and then I will ask him for your hand, man to man.”

“I can see from what he says that he is an honourable guy, but if I am in there with him I will tell him that he can have Carole’s hand when hell freezes over thick enough for all the lawyers to go skating.  Anyway, the Iceman whispers me another warning about funny business and knocks on the door.  After a moment Scratch opens up and I can see that he is most embarrassed to see me, although does not let on that Carole is in the apartment with him.

“”Hello Benny,” he says to me nervously, “what gives?”

“What I will say to Scratch at this juncture is what the you-know-what he thinks he is doing with my daughter in his apartment after midnight, but before I can say anything the Iceman raises his fedora most politely and says, “I am very sorry to disturb you so late, Mr. Scratch,” he says, “my name is Mr. Featherstonehaugh. I only realise an hour ago that I forget to buy Mrs. Featherstonehaugh a gift for Christmas, and if you know Mrs. Featherstonehaugh you will know that she is not the sort of bim to forgive such forgetfulness lightly. In fact,” says the Iceman, “if she finds out I forget to buy her a gift for Christmas I might as well just get a rope and hang myself right now. So I visit my old friend Benny to see if he will open up the shop as a favour, so that I can buy her some trinket, and he explains that he leaves you the keys to lock up tonight.”

“You can see from this that the Iceman is a pretty good off-hand liar, and although all the time he is talking I am winking at Scratch like Admiral Nelson I can see that Scratch does not get wise to me, for all he says is sure, he is happy to help out.

“He disappears inside for a few moments and comes back wearing his hat and coat. The Iceman will be happy with just the keys, but Scratch insists on coming too, and there is not much that the Iceman can do to stop him without raising his suspicions, so he just shrugs and lets Scratch tag along. I figure that all Scratch is thinking about is getting me away as fast as possible so that Carole can sneak back home, and I am not sorry for his company, at that.

“It is just a short walk from Scratch’s apartment to my store, and while we are walking the Iceman asks Scratch how business is doing, which causes me great embarrassment as Scratch seems to think he is doing me a favour by telling my friend that I am doing very nicely indeed. While they are talking I am racking my brains about what I will do when the Iceman discovers that I have been kidding him on about where the money is, and the more I think about it, the more I fear for my life, for the Iceman does not seem to me to have a great sense of humour.

“At last we get to the store, and Scratch opens up, and while he does the Iceman gets that thing out of his pocket and asks Scratch to give him the keys. Scratch looks very surprised by this request, but he is too polite to ask questions of anyone who is pointing a gun at him, so he hands them over, and then the Iceman says to me like this,

“”Benny,” he says, “I have the keys to everything you own now, and I will lay plenty of six to five that you are hurting pretty bad inside.  But no amount of money,” says the Iceman, “can make up for the six years you take from me. I figure that six years is about what you have left in you, give or take a few,” he says, “so I am going to take them away from you now. Goodbye Benny,” he says, and he points the rod at my waistcoat, and squeezes the trigger.

“At this very moment he is hit wap! in the eye with a snowball, and his shot goes wide and knocks a robin off a lamp post across the street. Scratch takes advantage of the confusion to hand the Iceman a left hook wrapped up in a right cross, and the Iceman goes down like a snowman on Miami Beach.

“I look around to see who saves my life with that snowball, and who hops out of the shadows all out of breath, but Scratch’s brother, Li’l Gimpy.

“”Why, Master Gimpy,” I say to him, “you are nothing less than a crack shot.”

“”It is nothing,” says Li’l Gimpy, “I pop him southpaw just to make it interesting.” Then he turns to Scratch and says to him, “Carole goes down to Gingham Charlie’s for a copper like you ask her to.” So I can see that Scratch has been wise to the Iceman all along.

“Scratch, Li’l Gimpy and me sit down on the Iceman, and I take the equalizer from his hand, as it makes my seat lumpy.  Scratch tells me how he recognises the Iceman because his picture is all over the evening blats, and then I proceed to chew him out no little and quite some about Carole, until finally she arrives with enough coppers to throw a party just as the Iceman is beginning to wake up, which is just as well because he makes a very uncomfortable seat kicking and shouting, and also using language unsuitable for the ears of the kid.”

At this point Benny breaks off from telling his story, for who walks in but Scratch, carrying Li’l Gimpy on his shoulder, with Carole beside him arm-in-arm and smiling all over her face. They come over to Benny and me, and I get up to go, as I do not care to be around when Benny starts in on leathering Scratch, particularly in front of Li’l Gimpy and Carole, as I figure that this will be a most acrimonious scene, and not at all festive. But Benny lays a hand on my arm, and says to me, “Wait a minute,” he says, “I do not finish my story yet.” Then he turns to Scratch, hands him the envelope and says, “This is for you, Scratch,” he says, “I think you know what is inside.  Merry Christmas.”

I am thinking that it is a very sour crack indeed, for Benny to wish Scratch a merry Christmas as he is handing him his cards, when Scratch opens up the envelope and pulls out enough lettuce to paper out Mindy’s walls, and maybe the ceiling as well.

“There is enough there,” says Benny, “for two big tickets to Europe and one little one,” he says, “and for employing the services of the best leg-quack in town. If you are going to pitch for the Yankees, Li’l Gimpy,” he says, ruffling the squirt’s hair, “you must be able to run, no doubt about it.”

Then Benny pulls a stern face and says to Scratch, “I also trust,” he says, “that there will be enough left over to buy a marriage licence.  If there is not,” he says, “you will wire me for more.”

Then he gives Scratch a little box.  Scratch opens it and inside there is a ring glittering with so much ice that it is uncomfortable to look at straight on, although Carole seems to manage without too much difficulty.  Scratch starts to protest but Benny just holds up a hand to him and says to him like this, “Scratch,” he says, “do not worry about the cost.  You can pay me back on easy terms when you come back from Europe.  I do not think it will be too difficult now we are in partnership together.”

At this point things get a little confused.  Scratch offers the ring to Carole, and she throws her arms around him and guzzles him, then she throws her arms around Benny and guzzles him too, and before you can say ‘rutabaga’ one and all are throwing their arms around one another and guzzling each other as if it is Christmas, which of course it is.  I try to put myself in the way of Carole, as I figure that if there is a little off-hand guzzling going around I will be pretty dumb to pass up on the option, but all I get is one in the puss from Li’l Gimpy, who seems to have been putting on the candy no little, and I figure it serves me right for my presumption.

It is all commencing to get a little disgusting for me, particularly the candy, and besides which I seem to have got something in my eye, so I wipe my smoosh with a napkin and say to Benny, “Well Benny,” I say, “I can see that it all ends happy ever after like all the best stories, so I will be on my way. Thanks for the coffee.”

Benny is all mixed up in a clinch with Carole and Li’l Gimpy, and maybe Scratch too for all I can tell, but he sticks his head out for a moment and says to me, “It is true what you say about it all ending happily,” he says, “but it also ends very strangely indeed.

“You see, when the boss copper is cuffing up the Iceman,” says Benny, “I say to him, “Mind you lock him up for a long time, Officer, as I do not wish to renew our acquaintance for many, many years.”

“”No, Mr. Benny,” the copper says to me, “we will not lock him up for a long time at all. We will lock him for just as long as it takes them to warm him up a chair at Sing Sing,” he says, “for when he pulls off a heist at J.S.Miles Jewellers this afternoon he blows a guy away, and the law in this state takes a very poor view indeed of guys blowing other guys away, especially in front of witnesses.”

“”Why this is a tragic business,” I say to the copper, “when Jake visits me tonight he does not tell me that the Iceman robs his store today.”

“The copper looks at me kind of funny, and says to me like this, “Jake Smiles will not be saying anything to anybody this Christmas,” he says, “for Jake is the guy who the Iceman shoots dead at four-o-clock this afternoon.””

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