(Author’s note: I wrote this fantasy story for Christmas, 1997, when I was still employed at the Madison Courier. The publisher, for reasons best known to her, would not permit the editor to publish the story. So this is the first time it will be seen by the general public. I’ve tried to do any updating and re-writing to it that I judged was necessary. It’s a Christmas story with an edge: What our society has turned into in this day and age. Also, if some of the characters’ names look vaguely familiar to you, feel free to google them. I decided to have some fun with names, and with a few double entendres, in this story, hoping that readers would notice and enjoy. Merry Christmas, everyone!)
“Well, that’s it — they’ve finally put me under!” growled Hamnet Sadler angrily as he threw a sheaf of papers down onto the kitchen table.
“Who? Is it the insurance company again?” asked his wife Judy as she wiped away the last traces of breakfast from the mouths of Willie and Annie and shooed the children into the living room to watch the morning cartoons.
“Yeah. Ten thousand dollars they want this year to insure the five cabs. Hell, I can’t borrow any more money; the house is carrying so much paper now it looks like a newsstand!” Ham exclaimed, pacing back and forth and wringing his hands. “And the only way I could raise $10,000 in cash would be to sell the cabs!”
Judy frowned at her chubby, soft-hearted husband. “Well, you wouldn’t be in this fix if you’d charge your passengers what their rides really cost you, instead of keeping your fares so low,” she said pointedly. Judy was the practical one in the family; Ham, the idealist.
“Aw, honey, you know a lot of those people can’t afford any more than they’re paying right now,” her husband sighed. They held each other’s eyes for a moment, neither willing to yield, and then Ham sank into his chair and buried his head in his hands.
“But if you have to close the cab company down, then we’re all sunk — your family and your passengers,” Judy continued with frustration, gently raising her husband’s head up with both hands so she could stare into his eyes once again.
At this, Ham looked so woebegone that he could have cried. Judy sat down and put her arms around him. “Now, don’t get all down just yet,” she said, trying to sound as soothing as she could. “Something’ll turn up.”
“Shut the cab line down? Are you serious?” asked Christian Frederick, Ham’s best driver, as they stood between their taxis during a break in calls. “And on Christmas Day?”
“Yeah,” answered Ham glumly. “Our insurance runs out at midnight, Dec. 24. Without insurance, we’re gone.”
“What a rotten deal,” groaned Chris. The big, blond free spirit had drifted into Bardsford two years before, from the hamlet of Denmark, Wisconsin, with his little fox terrier Elsinore. Chris was a happy-go-lucky guy of very basic appetites: Simple food, and plenty of it; a few beers after work; and a little female companionship, and he was content. He had the gift of gab, too, and Ham’s passengers loved him.
The radio phone in the cabs rang just as the two were talking, and Chris went to pick up Mrs. Quickly, one of their elderly — but spritely — regulars, for her weekly grocery shopping trip.
Mrs. Quickly got in at her home as usual, and Chris drove off toward the grocery store. But the elderly passenger could tell that something was wrong; Chris, usually a chatterbox, wasn’t talking.
“What’s the matter, Chris? Cat got your tongue?”
“Nah, Mrs. Quickly. It’s just that — well, I wasn’t supposed to tell our customers this, but if Ham can’t come up with the money to renew our insurance for the new year, by Christmas Eve, we’re out of business!”
“Out of b — but, but, what’ll us folks do who don’t have cars?! You’re the only cab company in town!” Mrs. Quickly’s voice quavered in alarm at the prospect of being stranded, in her old age.
“I don’t know, ma’am; I really don’t. I’m just as stunned about it as you are.” Chris’s usually exuberant tone was barely above a whisper now.
But Mrs. Quickly was a woman of stern stuff. By the time Chris let her out at the supermarket, she leaned through the driver’s window and said to the driver, in strong tones: “Listen, Chris; you tell Ham not to give up hope yet. He’s got a lot of friends among his riders, and I’m going to see if we can’t help him.” She winked then, gave him a jaunty nod, and hobbled purposefully off toward the building, leaning on her cane.
Ham was en route to pick up another fare while Chris and Mrs. Quickly were talking. He stared at the Santa Claus manning his Salvation Army kettle as he passed him on the corner by Schmiedermann’s Department Store.
“That’s what I need — a kettle, or a tin cup,” Ham thought bitterly.
Judy Sadler watched Willie and Annie playing around the Christmas tree in their little home on a quiet side street in Bardsford.
“Mom, will Santa Claus bring me a bicycle this year?” asked the 7-year-old, grinning and showing the gap where his permenant teeth were just starting to come in.
“Will I get a home computer?” asked his 5-year-old sister, the freckles dancing on her nose as she peered up at her mother.
“We’ll see, kids,” Judy said with a sigh, giving each a fond hug and pat.
Walking slowly into the kitchen, she stared out the window into the back yard. It was becoming darker by the minute in the early twilight.
“Lord, Lord; will we even have a Christmas this year?” Judy whispered in quiet desperation.
“Honey, I’m home! I may have some good news!” came a boisterous shout from Ham as he entered the front door.
He told her about Mrs. Quickly’s pledge to try to raise funds to help the cab company at its moment of Yuletide emergency.
Judy’s eyes grew bigger as he related the story, and hope started to seep back into her features.
“Ham! Do you think — is there any way — ” Judy stammered.
“I don’t know, but we can hope and pray,” her husband answered, new determination audible in his voice. “And keep trying to help ourselves, too!”
“Hey, brother; wake up!” growled Owen Glendower to his younger sibling, Charlie, in their shabby apartment a few blocks away. “My disability check just come. Let’s go down to Kelly’s and party!”
“Yeah, OK; I’m comin’,” mumbled Charlie, pushing his lank hair from his bloodshot eyes and sitting up on the spring-busted couch, his head still pounding from the drunk the two had come in from early that morning. They had borrowed the money from a local merchant for that one. They were already into him for several hundred dollars, but that had never stopped them from begging another loan before.
Charlie’s mouth tasted like rotten meat, and his stomach churned. But he staggered to the kitchen sink, splashed cold water onto his face, gave his hair a few perfunctory swipes with a comb, and said, “OK, let’s go.”
Booze was their sole reason for living any more, the only thing the two lanky, hard-luck, early-middle age bachelors had to look forward to. They had never been work-brittle, and now their addiction had made them well-nigh unemployable.
As a matter of fact, Owen had followed up on a tip from a drinking buddy of theirs, consulted an attorney who specialized in disability cases, and managed to get 100 percent from the feds. He was certified as “unable to work due to his alcoholism.” Of course, there was a catch: People who drew Social Security disability for that reason were supposed to be “recovering.” And Owen was — several mornings each week, until the money ran out.
Charlie having gotten himself together as well as he ever did nowadays, he and Owen drifted out into the winter night, headed for Kelly’s Tavern and more of their chosen oblivion.
Ham desperately made the rounds of local banks and loan companies, hoping that despite the debts he already faced, someone would take a chance on him to keep Bardsford in public transportation.
But no one would. Christmas is Christmas, but business is business. Besides, none of those loan officers needed a taxi; they all had cars of their own, thank you very much.
On Dec. 23, Ham and Judy sat sipping their coffee despondently at the kitchen table. “Honey, I’m afraid I am licked this time. Nobody’s taken a flier on me. What’ve we got in our account — a few hundred dollars? The insurance company would just laugh at us. They don’t take partial payments.”
“Would any of our relatives lend it to us?” asked Judy, frowning, groping for a solution.
“At Christmas? Everybody’s money’s going for presents. Whatever possessed me to start this cab company just before Christmas five years ago?”
“What about your Uncle Albert? He’s pretty well fixed.”
“Not after I called him a Scrooge at Grandma’s that last Christmas before she died. Remember? He wouldn’t help us out with the Salvation Army donations that year.”
“Yeah. I’d forgotten that.”
Their only other avenue of hope — Mrs. Quickly — did not call. And Ham was too embarrassed to contact her.
Owen and Charlie Glendower trudged through the early evening hours of Christmas Eve, toward Kelly’s. Their step was a little more purposeful than usual, because Owen had come up with what both thought was a great idea.
“Picked up for public drunk on Christmas Eve, then we get a free turkey dinner in jail on Christmas Day,” said Charlie in anticipation. “This is one of your better ones, Boney Oney!”
“Brother, I’ve told you not to call me that!” barked Owen. Both Glendowers were tall and cadaverous. Charlie wasn’t sensitive about his appearance — but Owen was.
Nevertheless, Owen’s good mood quickly returned. “I should have been somebody’s big idea man, shouldn’t I?” he said, strutting a little. “Maybe we’d be big rich guys by now!”
Charlie laughed. It was a stupid notion, but it wasn’t worth commenting on. For the first time in years, the two were going to get a proper Christmas dinner.
Or so they thought.
“All right, you two — you know the routine,” said jailer Jack Ketch a number of hours later, as the tipsy Glendowers were led staggering to the booking station in the county jail. “Drunk again. As usual, I should say.”
“Yeah, and you juss love lockin’ us up, doan you?” slurred Owen. “How many times is it now, Ketcher, ole buddy? A hunnert? Hunnert and fifty?”
“Damned if I know — or care,” sneered Ketch. “I’ve got better things to do with my time.” The mean-faced little jailer didn’t even look up as he filled out their booking slips.
Into the drunk tank he placed the two, where they both dozed off for a while. Waking up an hour or two later, they began discussing their ruse in hushed tones.
“Hope they’ll have mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and all that for us with the turkey,” Owen’s voice murmured from the dark in the tank.
“Yeah; pumpkin pie and ice cream, too,” added Charlie, with an audible smacking of his lips.
“Ha!” came a shout through the porthole in the door. It was Ketch, who had been hiding just out of their sight in the hallway, listening.
“So you two scarecrows thought you’d get yourselves thrown in here and mooch a free Christmas dinner on the taxpayers, did you?” he barked at them. “Well, your timing was a little off, boys. It’s only Dec. 23, and the sheriff told me that anyone in here for penny ante stuff is to be released at noon Christmas Eve so they can go home for the holidays! There’s your free Christmas dinner, you worthless welfare bums!”
Ketch laughed scornfully through the porthole before moving on down the hallway.
Robin, the radio dispatcher, stood in the door near her console and regarded Ketch’s retreating figure with a mixture of pity and contempt on her face.
“Hey, Jack, why don’t you be a good fellow?” called Robin, grinning puckishly. “Let the boys stay here and eat good for Christmas one time. What else have they got to look forward to in life?”
“You mind your own business, missy,” growled the jailer, glancing sourly over his shoulder without breaking stride.
The brothers were silent for several minutes. Then, Charlie mumbled, “Looks like we screwed up, huh, Oney?”
“Yeah; guess we did. Could have swore this was Christmas Eve.”
Owen and Charlie fell silent then, their high hopes for a feast dashed. Charlie sat in the dark, starting to doze again. Then (he was never sure later whether he was dreaming or seeing some kind of a vision), a cedar chest started to materialize in front of him; numerous gaily wrapped gifts, Christmas baubles, and the like, were visible inside its open lid. A light, like none he had ever seen before, like a glow of joy, emanated from the chest, hovering around it like fog … Charlie thought he could hear a choir singing Christmas carols …
Judy Sadler moved listlessly around her kitchen, starting her preparations for Christmas dinner. It was Christmas Eve afternoon, and she didn’t know whether her family might be “out in the cold,” before the year was out.
Ham and his four drivers — all aware by now that their jobs probably had only hours to go — were busy on the last shopping day before Christmas, as people rushed to and fro on last-minute gift buying.
The sound came from the front room, and Judy jumped in alarm, because the kids were at her mother’s for the afternoon.
Judy hurried into the living room. There, sitting on the carpet just inside the front door, was a cedar chest, its lid closed. She could detect a strange, heavenly aroma, something like Christmas cakes and cookies just out of the oven in an old-fashioned bakery, mixed with the scent of Christmas candles, glowing on a mantelpiece, background to a happy family Yuletide.
Judy shook all over, half terrified, not knowing whether to approach the chest or not. What was this? Could there be a bomb inside? Who had left it? She ran to the door, opened it, stepped out onto the porch, looked around. No one was visible in the twilight; no car was speeding away.
She approached the chest again, took a deep breath, bent over it, then noticed a note taped to the lid. In a shaky, old-person’s script, it said: “Ham and Judy, I hope this is enough to keep things going for you. We need you folks in this town; keep those taxis running! And Merry Christmas to you, your family and your loyal drivers!”
There was no signature.
Judy grasped the hasp on the lock of the lid, raised it up, slowly opened the chest.
Looking inside, she stared dumbfounded. Then she grabbed her cellphone, clicked on Ham’s number. When he replied, she cried, “Ham! HAM, honey! Come home, baby! Come home NOW!”
About an hour later, insurance agent Liz Tudor stared at Ham Sadler in disbelief. He had just come running into her office as she was preparing to close up for Christmas Eve.
“Tonight?! You want to renew your cab insurance tonight? Ham, are you nuts? It’s Christmas Eve! I’ve gotta get home! My kids and grandkids are coming in right after dinner!” she cried.
“If I don’t get this renewed tonight — Christmas Eve or not — I’m out of business! Can’t you understand that?!” Ham yelled in a frenzy. “I couldn’t get here any earlier! I didn’t have the money!”
Jack Ketch ushered the two Glendowers out the jail door with mock gallantry, shouting, “Happy holidays, gents!” before slamming it behind them.
Owen and Charlie stood, staring hopelessly at each other. Then, by a common impulse, they sat down on the sidewalk.
“What in hell are we gonna do now, Owen?” asked Charlie.
“Damned if I know,” sighed Owen.
Charlie stared at the pavement for a long time. Then he finally looked at his brother, and said, hesitantly, “Listen, Oney; I saw something in that drunk tank. Or maybe I dozed off and dreamed it. Don’t know for sure. But it was — can’t hardly describe it. Kind of a Christmas vision, or something like that. I don’t know where it come from or nothing, but it got me to thinkin’ that maybe we can still turn ourselves around.”
Owen gazed at his brother, who had always had a mystical side that the rougher-spoken Owen didn’t share. “Whadda mean, ‘Turn ourselves around’? ” he said doubtfully.
“Well, for one thing, there’s gotta be more to look forward to in this life besides gettin’ drunk every time we can scrape up the money to do it,” Charlie said, and this time he held Owen’s eyes steadily. The older brother stared back, then finally dropped his gaze.
“Yeah, I’ve kinda thought along those lines a few times, too, when I was cold sober,” he said.
“You know you’re not supposed to be drinkin’ anyway, with that alcoholism disability,” Charlie went on, a little more emboldened now. “What if somebody turned you in, and you wound up losin’ it? Where’d we be then?”
Owen nodded, reluctantly. “Yeah, I’ve thought about that, too. Trouble is, I get a couple of poppers down me and I forget all about it.”
“Jeez Louise, brother, we used to work and earn our daily bread, so to speak,” Charlie said, emotion audible in his voice. “It ain’t too late to turn this around. It’s hell living like we been doing!”
Owen’s shoulders sagged. “Guess you’re right, brother. Couldn’t guarantee we could stick to it, but we can damn sure try. We’ve tried everything else; maybe it’s time to try sobriety.”
Just then they heard a window open in the jail. A female voice called, “Hey, you two!”
They looked around. It was Robin, the dispatcher.
“The old Ketcher will be off Christmas Day,” she said, a conspiratorial note in her voice. “If you fellows were to show up right here at — say 11 a.m. tomorrow — I’ll bet that door just might swing open long enough for you to slip in. And you could eat your Christmas dinner in the kitchen without him being any the wiser. Cook said it was OK with her — she doesn’t like the old grouch, either.”
Charlie and Owen stared silently at her. Her face shone with a sweet radiance in the afternoon winter sunshine.
Finally Owen spoke, with a catch in his voice: “Thanks, ma’am. Glad to see somebody in that lock-up has got the Christmas spirit. A Merry Christmas to you, ma’am, and I mean that. You must be an angel, sure enough!”
Robin gave a mysterious little smile as she watched the two lanky brothers amble down the block and disappear around the corner.
Bardsford Taxi’s four drivers sat around dejectedly in the little office, watching as the clock neared midnight on Christmas Eve. Just a few more minutes, and the company — and their jobs — would be history.
Suddenly they heard footsteps thundering rapidly up the walk. The door burst open and Ham rushed in, waving a fistful of paper.
“It’s renewed! We’re alive for another year!” he shouted joyfully.
The drivers jumped up, surprised and delighted and thankful all at once.
“What? How? What did she do? Where’d you get the money?” the questions flew.
“I didn’t tell you guys, but Mrs. Quickly told me she was gonna try to raise the money from our riders. I guess she did it,” said Chris Frederick, grinning from ear to ear.
“I’m gonna call her! I’m gonna call her right now and thank her,” chortled Ham, grabbing the phone and phonebook.
“Now? Ham, it’s midnight and she’s an old lady. Don’t wake her up now; call her in the morning,” Chris pleaded.
Ham waved him away, listening to the phone ring four times before a sleepy, old-lady voice said, “Hello?”
“Mrs. Quickly! God bless you, lady! You saved us all!” cried Ham.
“Who is this? Ham? Oh — oh, Ham, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do,” Mrs. Quickly answered, more alert now.
“What?! But — but what about the chest with the money in it, and the note, and — ”
“Chest? Note? Son, I called every customer of yours I could think of, and some other people besides. Your customers didn’t have much money to spare because they never do, and it’s Christmas besides. And the others weren’t much help, either. Everybody seemed to think that because you own a business, you’ve got plenty of money.”
Ham stood, silent and uncomprehending, staring at the papers that said his insurance was renewed.
“I’m sorry, son, that I couldn’t be of much help. What I raised was so little I was ashamed to even give it to you. I donated it to charity.”
“That’s — that’s OK, Mrs. Quickly. We — uh — somebody gave us the money. Enough money to renew our insurance. I thought it was you. We’re still in business. You have a Merry Christmas now,” said Ham, sounding dazed.
“Somebody gave you that much money? Why, who? Who was your benefactor?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Quickly. I just plain don’t know,” Ham answered. “It just — kind of appeared. That’s the most I can say.”
“Well, anyway, a Merry Christmas to you, your family and drivers, Ham,” said Mrs. Quickly, ending the conversation.
Chris looked at his stunned boss and laughed at the mystified look on his face.
“We came this close — ” Ham held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to losing it. We had to get the district insurance manager in the state capital out of bed to fax him the check, so he could fax us back the renewal papers.”
Suddenly the phone rang. A customer wanted a ride.
“Hey! We’re still in business, and as senior driver I’ve got dibs on this fare,” declared Chris happily, and he began to whistle a Christmas carol as he strode out to his cab.
Pancho Sanza, a Chicano driver from Windmill, Texas, stared at Ham, his brown eyes wide with wonder. “How is it you say it in English? The Magic of the Season? Feliz Navidad, bossman!”
Owen and Charlie slid uneasily into the pew at St. Aloysius Church for Midnight Mass. They felt conspicuous in their unpressed, out-of-style suits. Even their prodigious efforts earlier with soap and water, razor, and comb left them still feeling like what they knew most people in Bardsford saw them as: Boozy misfits, staggering along on the fringes of society, with no standing and no hope.
Charlie had wanted to attend Mass, as they hadn’t been to church for years.
“If we’re going to turn over a new leaf, it might as well be in a prayer book,” he told Owen.
But his older brother was skeptical.
“Remember what happened the last time you went to the church? You was drunk and wanted to go to confession, and you freaked out when you thought you saw the Virgin Mary comin’ up the outside steps!”
“Well, how was I supposed to know it was just the cleaning lady?”
But Charlie’s sincere enthusiasm prevailed, and there they were, seated in a pew like they hadn’t done for years.
They thought the other parishioners at the crowded Mass might look down their noses at them. People in small towns know reputations like the backs of their hands.
But they received only welcoming words and Christmas greetings in the church which they hadn’t entered in years. The pastor, Father Stratford, an avoncular man, looked surprised when he first spotted them. But then he gave them a conspiratorial wink and grin.
Owen and Charlie gazed open-mouthed at the beauty of the altar, the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross on the stained-glass windows, the elaborate Christmas decorations which had been put up just that afternoon.
“Wow! I’d forgot just how pretty this place was inside,” whispered Charlie with awe.
“Yeah,” agreed Owen. “Been a long time, ain’t it, brother?”
The Glendowers made it through the responsive readings, the Christmas carols, the offering (they had to pass, being flat broke), and the pastor’s Christmas homily.
But when it came time for Holy Communion, their courage flagged.
Charlie looked up toward the altar longingly, then whispered to his brother, “Owen, you think we can go up there?”
Owen gazed, too, his eyes shining. But then his face sagged as he recalled something.
“You ‘member what we decided outside the jail, don’t you? Well, that ain’t Methodist grape juice in that chalice up there. We better just sneak out of here while we’re ahead.”
So they did. Owen had to nudge Charlie to genuflect, when they reached the center aisle, and Charlie grinned with embarrassment. His brother had always had to remind him when they were kids, too.
Outside the church Owen lit a cigarette, exhaled heavily and gazed around. It was starting to snow, and the air was brisk.
Behind them, the chimes in the belltower of St. Aloysius began playing the old Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” The notes of the immortal song fell on their ears like a memory of their childhood.
The Glendowers started their walk toward home. Suddenly one of the Bardsford taxis rolled past. Chris Frederick stuck his head out the window, yelled, “Yahoo!”, gave them a broad grin and drove on.
“What was that all about? I thought they was going out of business,” said Owen.
“Maybe they got a new lease on life, too,” offered Charlie.
He glanced back toward the church — and suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, staring up toward the night sky.
“Hey, Owen, what was the name of that comet they had this year?”
“Uh, Haley … Bobby … oh, I don’t remember,” said his brother. “Why?”
“Because it’s still up there! Look at it!”
“I don’t care nothin’ about it,” said Owen, as he walked on and didn’t bother to turn around. “And besides, they said the comet was in the northwest. You’re lookin’ toward the east.”
Charlie gazed skyward, transfixed, then suddenly drew in his breath sharply, exhaling, “Man! I can’t believe it!”
“Will you come on? We’ve gotta get to bed, so we can get that turkey dinner tomorrow,” said Owen, annoyed and still refusing to look.
His brother finally moved slowly ahead, looking behind him the whole time. As he pulled up beside Owen, he suddenly shouted, “Merry Christmas!!!”
“Ouch! For Christ sake, brother, you didn’t have to pop my ear drum! I’m right here!” cried Owen angrily.
Charlie laughed with the merriment of a child, bending over to slap his knees. Then he threw his arm around Owen’s shoulders.
The older brother didn’t like to be touched, and he started to shrug the arm off. But then — he wasn’t sure why — he let it stay.
“I’m sorry about your ear, Boney Oney,” said Charlie, with a pat on his brother’s shoulder. “But you know what? I wasn’t talking to you …”