STANDING IN THE SPIRIT
by Janet Kagan
---for David and
Susan Ashmore. They know why.
Molly Rose Hawkins was angry
at Christmas. Imagine! Only twenty-three and already angry at
Christmas, at the whole damn dog-and-pony show of it. Her anger,
kindled in mid-November, was slow and smoldering. It reddened
her cheeks, made her eyes seem as blue as the burning of a gas
flame and pursed her mouth.
Perhaps she thought she pursed
her mouth in disapproval, but you might have thought differently
had you been a young man of the same age. What Molly Rose thought
disapproving looked to those around her much like an invitation
to a kiss.
With much effort, she had kept
her temper throughout the Christmas shopping season and had been
courteous even to customers who were whiney, mean-spirited, and
(all too often) nasty. Christmas was especially hard on younger
children these days, and she had no desire to add to their woes.
For them, she conjured smiles and conjured smiles from them in
Perhaps it was the invited kiss
that caused the young man (of the same age) to hand her an engraved
card and say, smiling, "I know Christmas is an odd day for
an art opening, but it's odd art. I suspect you've got someone
special you'll be spending the time with, but maybe you'll both
drop by. Heather even found us a recipe for smoking bishop---that's
hot red wine poured over bitter oranges, with spices and sugar
to suit---and it's guaranteed to raise the spirits...."
"A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS,"
read the card, in quite lovely Old English type, "Being
an Exhibition of the Fine Art of Raising Ghosts at Christmas-Tyde."
The address was a loft-gallery in a run-down district of town
(the very district in which Molly Rose lived) and the card would
admit two to the private Christmas Day opening.
Any other day, Molly Rose might
have taken the young man's card as the sort of shy pass it was.
Any other day, she might have found a way to say she had no date
for Christmas Day, nor any prospects. But the store was crowded.
Behind the young man, an exasperated mother said, to the two-year-old
at her feet, "Stop that whining, Lizzie," all too sharply.
The young man stepped aside and
gestured the mother to the counter. "I'm in no rush,"
he said, either to the mother or to Molly Rose.
Lizzie wailed again; Lizzie's
mom seemed about to wail as well. Molly Rose leaned over the
counter and gave Lizzie a genuine smile. "Hey, Lizzie,"
she said, patting the countertop. "Come up here and see
all the pretty things." To Lizzie's mom, she said, "Down
there, there's nothing to see but knees and feet. When the store's
this crowded, that's not just boring---it's more than a little
The mother's expression softened
just a little; she lifted the child onto the counter. "Hi!"
said Molly Rose. "What can I do for you and your mom?"
Lizzie took in Molly Rose, took
in the young man. (He smiled at her too.) She sniveled. She might
have wailed again but for the rack of silk scarves beside the
register. In the face of so much color, Lizzie smiled, all wide
eyes and reaching hands, her grief forgotten.
Mama sighed and spit-cleaned
Lizzie's face. Her voice darkened. "I need a scarf for somebody
who will hate whatever I choose."
"Oh, my," said Molly
Rose, as if to say she knew the type. "Maybe you'd do better
to get a gift certificate---"
The woman shook her head. "It
would be from the wrong store." She looked close to tears.
Lizzie crowed, tipped herself onto hands and knees and crawled
toward all that color. Mama's hands shot out to stop her.
"I have an idea," said
Molly Rose. "Is the scarf for a relative of Lizzie's?"
Grappling with the two-year-old,
the mother nodded. "My-sister-the-bitch." It was all
one word the way she said it.
"Then let Lizzie pick the
gift." She pulled a handful of scarves from the rack and
fluttered them through the air before the child's avid eyes.
"What do you say, Lizzie? What color for your aunt?"
Before they were done, they'd
chosen three: a shocking orange and gold for Lizzie's aunt, pale
green for Lizzie's mama, and a small scarf of swirling coral-and-cream
for Lizzie, who approved the flavor quite as much as the color.
As Molly Rose made change, Lizzie's
mama glared suddenly at the invitation propped beside the register.
She snapped, "Do you like Dickens?"
The question was so at odds with
the tone that all Molly Rose could say was, "Yes, ma'am,
very much," as she handed the woman her receipt.
"Here then. They're for
tomorrow; the show sold out two months ago. Every show sold out
two months ago." The woman slapped a ticket envelope onto
the counter and shoved it at Molly Rose. "My-sister-the-bitch
said she hated Dickens and I should take the tickets back and
pick another play and I'll be damned if I'll play that game again
With that, she gathered Lizzie
and her packages and stalked through the crowd toward the exit
doors before Molly Rose had so much as a chance to call out a
"Merry Christmas!" Lizzie smiled and waggled fingers
at Molly Rose over mama's hunched and angry shoulder.
"Thanks for waiting,"
she said to the young man. She might have said more (he was a
singularly nice young man, with singularly dreamy eyes) but there
were more customers to be helped. So instead of asking him where
he'd been all her life, she said, "Now, how can I help you?"
She helped him choose an inexpensive
but very lovely oblong scarf of white lace. Given the crowd at
her counter, she was grateful he hadn't asked her to wrap it
for him. Between the next two customers, she wondered if he'd
done it as a kindness to her or if he was simply the sort who
preferred to wrap his own. Between the two customers after that,
she decided he'd want to make his wrapping personal. As inexpensive
as it was, that scarf was one of the most beautiful she'd seen....
Some two hours later, on her
ten-minute break, Molly Rose found Lizzie's mama had given her
two tickets to the new staging of A Christmas Carol she'd been
wild to see. Standing room was sold out and she hadn't dared
risk the expense of a seat. She paused for a moment: if she went
to the play, she probably wouldn't make it to the young man's
art opening. She remembered his eyes.
A Christmas Carol or an actual
cup of smoking bishop---such a choice should have been enough
to pluck up her anger and root it out---but the day was not yet
over. Before it was, she'd seen two more children slapped (for
being exhausted, as far as she could make out), and another even
dozen surly adults (she'd been snarled at, but so had everybody
else working in the store).
But when a customer had threatened
to have Elise, at the counter next to hers, fired (because the
color he wanted was no longer in stock), she was angry at Christmas
all over again: angry enough to desert her post. She found Elise
in the lady's room sobbing her heart out.
"They won't fire you, honey,
I promise." Molly Rose laid her hands on Elise's shoulders.
The shakes from her sobs ran up Molly Rose's arms and across
her shoulders, transmuted there to shaking anger. "I saw
what happened between you and that Christmas goblin and if Helmut
gets on your case, you send him to me. Come on now...."
She hugged and patted and when the shaking stilled, she said,
"Now dry your eyes and let's get out there and face down
the rest of the goblins."
Elise giggled; the giggle had
a left-over hiccup from the sob in it, but it was a giggle nonetheless.
"Sure. You look: they're
always little pasty-faced things, been working in the mines,
get let out at Christmas just to torment the rest of us. Skrinched
up faces, beady eyes that never see daylight but once a year.
Either that or something about Christmas goblinates some people.
There's nothing to be done about it and, if we're lucky, they'll
un-goblinate after New Years'."
"Oh, dear," said Elise.
"He did look like a goblin, didn't he?" This time the
giggle was soft and warm.
"Yup, and the only thing
that scares a goblin is a smile."
"That'll get 'em, girl,"
said Molly Rose, and on impulse offered her the spare ticket
to Dickens' performance.
"That's family night,"
Elise said. "I can't make it."
There was something in the way
she looked at the ticket. "But," said Molly Rose, knowing
she was right, "but you know somebody who'd love to see
this." Yes, she was right.
Elise made one shot, obligatory,
at returning the ticket, but Molly Rose held up her hands. "Honey,"
she said, "the author is a friend of mine---has been since
I was a kid. Think of this as me doing my bit to promote his
work. You see that ticket gets into the right hands, and a Merry
Christmas to you."
"God bless," said Elise
and, seeming genuinely cheered, she went out to face the goblinated.
Molly Rose sighed and, from force
of habit, pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and jotted
down the word "goblinated." She looked at her own face
in the grimy mirror. "Smile," she commanded. "Even
your editor knows you're 'relentlessly upbeat.'" Her image
stared balefully out at her, goblinated as the worst of them,
and she knew in her heart of hearts there'd be no Christmas story
The last few years she'd made
enough with her writing that she hadn't had to part-time at Christmas;
and, by staying out of the stores when folks seemed at their
most frantic, she'd avoided the worst aspects of the holiday.
Come March, she'd have recovered from the few really nasty encounters
she'd been a witness to (after all, one could hardly avoid nastiness---it
was simply that it seemed nastier because of the time of year)
and then she'd play her favorite Christmas music for a few weeks
and sit down and, thus restored to the genuine spirit of Christmas,
she'd write her Christmas story for the next year's magazines.
This year it wasn't going to
happen. It'd been a lousy year all along and none of her writing
had gone well. She had an umpteen dozen half-stories and she'd
failed to finish a novel and now she wouldn't even be able to
write her Christmas story come March. "And, if you can't
write, you might as well put on a happy face and get out there
and do your job," she told her image, "because you're
gonna need this job reference."
With that parting shot, she pursed
her lips, grabbed hold and dragged herself back into the tinsel
and raucousness of the Christmas Village. The evening wore on,
the crowd got thicker and Molly Rose's smile wore thinner but
she kept it as best she could.
And then the day was over at
last and she fought the subways where folks seemed surlier and
breathed with relief the bitter chill of the air as she emerged
from under the ground. She jammed on her gloves, noticing once
more how tattered the cuffs of her coat had become. Well, it'd
last two more years, at least. Shabby it might be, but it was
proof against the cold.
She peeled back the cuff to read
her watch---ten-thirty on the dot---she hurried her steps, pushing
against the wind. Yes, there was Mrs. Eleanor, checking out the
trash can on the corner of 2nd and 83rd, right on schedule.
Molly Rose had been curious enough
to watch a few evenings and knew Mrs. Eleanor did the rounds
as reliably as a neighborhood cat might. She'd once made the
mistake of offering Mrs. Eleanor a container of Chinese food
and had been soundly and haughtily chastised. How dare Molly
Rose presume! Mrs. Eleanor, it seemed, was only out walking her
There was no dog. Molly Rose
wondered if once there had been.
At any rate, Molly Rose had gotten
stubborn and prideful in her own way. Now she ducked into the
space between the two buildings at this end of the street and
set the shopping bag she carried in the only ray of streetlamp-light
that penetrated the gloom. Since they'd given Molly Rose the
job of cleaning the employees' fridge, she'd damn well see the
leftovers went to good use. (Well, maybe, she had no real way
of knowing if Mrs. Eleanor would take them. But if Mrs. Eleanor
didn't, somebody else who needed them might.)
She nipped out of the alleyway
just in time and zipped back the way she'd come, around the corner
of 82nd to her own building. The blast of icy air almost knocked
her over when she hit the patch of ice from the broken hydrant
in front of Harry's Barbershop (now closed forever), but she
worked her way up the four steps and rummaged her pocket for
As she pulled off her glove,
cursing the icy keys and the icy lock and the icy wind and Christmas,
Mrs. Eleanor rounded the corner. She was carrying the shopping
bag. "Thank you," Molly Rose whispered to nobody in
particular. Aloud, she said, "Good evening, Mrs. Eleanor.
'Evening, Susie. You've been shopping, I see."
Mrs. Eleanor smiled and lifted
the bag an inch. "Christmas is so rushed," she said.
"You know how it is. Stay, Susie."
She stood in the lamplight and
Molly Rose, watching Mrs. Eleanor, could almost see the little
dog tug with excitement at the end of her leash. Mrs. Eleanor
wore a dozen or so ratty old sweaters---not enough for a night
like this. Pinned to the outermost of these was a bright red
"I see you're all gussied
up tonight," Molly Rose said. If Mrs. Eleanor could be "brave
in ribbons," she could damn well be brave too. Mrs. Eleanor
would have her head otherwise.
"'Tis the season,'"
said Mrs. Eleanor. "Merry Christmas, dear."
"And God bless us every
one," Molly Rose said. Then she added sternly, "You'd
better get Susie out of this wind before she takes a chill. Merry
Christmas to you too, Susie," she called as afterthought.
As she turned back to the door, she was suddenly blinded by her
own tears. She found the lock by the sheer cold of it, and when
she closed herself inside, she could just make out Mrs. Eleanor,
gone across the street to check the garbage cans beside Bemeli's
Grocery. She held the wriggling Suzie in her arms now, and Molly
Rose was bone-sure that Suzie sniffed out the good containers
Then Molly Rose did at last burst
into tears. Damn the little ghoul in the back of her head for
making stories out of other peoples' tragedies. She fumbled with
the interior lock, got it open against all odds, and went sprawling
over a package laid dead-center of the long entryway. The shock
of falling startled her from her tears and she grabbed up the
package hoping she hadn't broken somebody's Christmas gift.
She hadn't. Or at least she hadn't
broken somebody else's Christmas gift---it was addressed to her.
Scribbled on the package was a note from the man in 1A, "I
didn't want to you pass it by: you always assume the packages
are for somebody else. Your Uncle Oscar sends hugs and he's sorry
he missed you."
Molly Rose climbed the two long
flights of stairs to her apartment to be welcomed home by Mary
and JayCee. She fed them first.
Exactly one year ago to the day,
a lovely little gray tabby had come up to her on the street and
inquired, Had she need of a cat?
Until that moment Molly Rose
hadn't known she had. "Come on," she'd said, and the
cat had followed her down the block to her building, in, up the
stairs. The cat had checked the apartment, nook and cranny, then
plumped herself in front of the fridge and Molly Rose had fed
her the left-over half can of tuna. She'd given the cat water,
devised a make-shift cat-pan, and gone over to Tomi Esposito's
When she returned (with a formal
cat-pan and supplies), she'd found the little gray tabby nested
on her laundry bag, no longer plump and nursing a single new-born
kitten. Since it was Christmas Eve, there was nothing she could
do but call them Mary and JayCee.
As things had turned out, JayCee
was also a female, but that was fine by Molly Rose, who thought
them both the nicest Christmas present she'd received in many
When they'd all eaten left-over
stew from the fridge and when Molly Rose had described her day
(and told them wistfully about the young man and angrily about
the slapped children) and been well and truly soothed by purrs
and stroppings, Molly Rose remembered the package. With luck,
there'd be ribbon for Mary and tissue paper for JayCee. No luck
needed invoking---the package was from Uncle Oscar, after all,
who worked in the rag trade and loved effects and knew the cats'
tastes as well as hers.
"Dear Molly Rose,"
read the note (in Uncle Oscar's lovely copperplate hand), "A
few years ago, one of your characters said wistfully that there
were colors she'd never seen the dye-makers capture. She wanted
'a coat the color of snow-sky, that clear pale blue with silver
shimmers hidden in it....'"
God, that line was over-written.
Molly Rose cringed and hunched her shoulders because she hadn't
found the words to describe the color she meant. Odd that Uncle
Oscar had remembered the words, but then Uncle Oscar was a sweetheart.
JayCee was growing impatient,
so she read on. "You tell me if I got it right. Love, Uncle
Oscar. P.S. This is from our sample run but it should fit you
just fine. The coats won't be on the market until next year,
so you'll be predicting the future, as usual. More love."
With considerable help from Mary
and JayCee, she opened the inside package and unfolded the tissue
paper. "Oh!" she said. Nestled within the tissue paper
was a down coat the color of snow-sky. She drew it from the box
(JayCee immediately dived into the tissue to dance in noisy joy)
and shook it out. The fabric shimmered with silver highlights.
"Oh," she said again, and to Mary, she added, "He
got the color---he really got the color! Will you just look!"
Mary was, truth be told, more
interested in the ribbons, and she and JayCee held tug-of-war
while Molly Rose tried on the coat. The fit was perfect (of course).
When she'd had enough of admiring
the snow-sky coat in the mirror over the bathroom sink, she reluctantly
hung it away in the closet. As she did, she caught up the cuff
of her old coat. Good for maybe two more years, she thought again,
and it should fit Mrs. Eleanor. How late did the play run? If
she took the coat to the theater with her and left during curtain
calls, she might just catch Mrs. Eleanor at her rounds. Her head
full of frantic plans and the rustle of tissue paper in her ears,
she fell asleep the moment her head touched her pillow.
The cats woke her early, which
was just as well. With great joy, they helped her trim the tree.
Putting on her new coat, Molly Rose dashed out to the store for
a few last-minute goodies. Everybody else in the world had had
the same thought, of course, so that took an hour. The supermarket
had a small section devoted to pet toys, where she got the cats
their traditional Christmas catnip mice...and where she paused
a long moment and, on impulse, also bought a small dog's chew-bone.
She and the cats sat down to
a formal Christmas dinner of roast chicken, after which she pulled
the plug on the Christmas tree lights, dressed and rushed off
to the theater, leaving the cats to fling their mice about in
wild abandon. She did not forget to shove her old coat into a
spare shopping bag.
This she settled under her seat
in the theater. She'd made it with time to spare and, as her
feet brushed the bag, she wished there were something more she
could do for Mrs. Eleanor. After a moment, she had it. She fished
in her purse for the pretty little Chinese silk pouch she kept
her change in. She took out two tokens, one to get her home,
the other to get her to work, and tucked the pouch into an inside
pocket of the coat. On second thought, she checked her wallet:
two twenties left. She could make one more meal of the stew and
dole out the remainder of the chicken to the cats...that'd last
till she could cash her paycheck. She tucked one of the twenties
into the silk pouch and zipped it into her old coat pocket.
Then she settled back and let
anticipation have its way with her. Dickens had believed Scrooge
could change...maybe all those goblinated customers would too.
"Excuse me, ma'am,"
said a voice. She rose to let the young man ease past and into
the seat beyond hers. He was maybe fifteen, dark-skinned, with
even darker freckles, and a wild mop of jet-black hair. He settled
himself (then re-settled himself, all gawk and long arms and
longer legs) and then fixed his bright dark eyes on the stage
with such anticipation that Molly Rose smiled at him and said,
"Yeah, I can't wait, either."
"You're Molly Rose, then,"
Startled, it took her a minute
to get it: this was Elise's friend.
"Elise said, 'Look for the
only smile in the place, and that's Molly Rose.' Thank you. I
wanted to see this, but I could never afford...."
"Me neither. A customer
gave me the tickets because I said I liked Dickens." (And
his joy at once made up for the spirit in which they'd been given.)
He nodded enthusiastically, as
if to say he liked Dickens quite as much. "Merry Christmas,
then," she said, and he smiled a beautiful bashful smile
and said, "Merry Christmas," and the house lights went
Three lines into the performance,
Molly Rose was appalled. This version was not simply bad; it
was insulting. Someone (someone who didn't trust his audience)
had excised all the "difficult" words and replaced
all the unfamiliar phrases with modern phrases and, in so doing,
had lost the beautiful rhythms of sentences that Dickens had
worked so hard to achieve. Even with a free ticket, Elise's friend
had been purely ripped off. (My-sister-the-bitch probably would
have loved it.) Molly Rose's anger at Christmas was back, hotter
At the end of the first act,
as the lights came up, she saw to her amazement that the kid
next to her was still glowing. "This is wonderful,"
he said. "Hey, I didn't introduce myself, I'm sorry. I'm
Tim White, and if ever there's anything I can do to thank you---like
maybe you need some bookshelves hung or something...."
"I'll remember," she
said. Not wishing to bring him down with her foul mood, she found
a smile somewhere. "And there is something you can do for
"Read the original story.
You've got to hear him---Charles Dickens, I mean---tell it in
his own words." She jerked her thumb in the general direction
of the stage. "They won't tell you about the game of Blindman's-buff
the way he does, and how Topper goes after the plump sister in
the lace tucket." Remembrance made her smile genuine; she
met his eyes. "The plump sister's one of my favorites; she's
such a joy. ---If you've got younger kids in the family, read
it aloud to them. That's how it was meant to be heard; A Christmas
Carol is music."
"O-kay!" he said. "I've
got two little sisters"---the shy smiled turned mischievous---"and
one of 'em's plump."
As he followed her to the lobby
to stretch those gawky teenage limbs, she realized she couldn't
bear to sit through the second act. She couldn't even hang out
with him through the intermission: he'd want to talk about the
performance. He loved it and she didn't and there was no need
to ruin the rest of it for him.
She looked down at the shopping
bag in her hands. "I can't stay for the second act,"
she said, "I've got one last present to deliver and it's
now or never."
She'd disappointed him. She couldn't
leave him with such saddened eyes. "Hey, I know," she
said. "All those folks in standing room?"---she handed
him her ticket stub---"Make one of them the Christmas present
of a seat." Yeah, his eyes brightened. "Pick a date
or a seat-mate, just so long as it's somebody who can share your
joy in this."
Leaving him shining in new anticipation,
Molly Rose rushed away. Her smile vanished; it had been only
a reflection of his. She tried to cheer herself with the thought
that she'd make Mrs. Eleanor's rounds in good time, but that
wasn't enough. The fact was, Scrooge wasn't reformed: they hadn't
heard Dickens. If they couldn't hear Charles Dickens, what good
could any tale of hers do?
She left the coat in the usual
alleyway and wandered glumly down the street instead of going
home. A bowl of smoking bishop, she thought; better that than
sit home and fume all evening. Besides, she'd always wanted to
taste smoking bishop. (Perhaps she'd see that lovely lace scarf
at the neck of the young man's lovely young woman....)
She turned a corner and found
Mrs. Eleanor walking Suzie. (Mrs. Eleanor was early tonight,
or perhaps she made two rounds of the same area, but Molly Rose
was very glad circumstance had brought her home in time.) "Mrs.
Eleanor," she said. "Good evening to you and Suzie."
"Good evening. A lovely
Christmas day eve, isn't it? Down, Suzie." The little invisible
dog was obviously jumping at Molly Rose; Mrs. Eleanor bent down
and picked her up.
"A lovely Christmas day,"
Molly Rose said. "You smell my cats, don't you, Suzie. And
maybe this as well." She reached into her pocket. "I
hope you won't mind, Mrs. Eleanor. But I got a little present
She found she didn't quite know
what to do with the chew-bone, but Mrs. Eleanor had it covered.
"Why, thank you," she said, taking the dog-toy. She
leaned closer. "If I give it to her now, she'll be too excited
to mind. I'll see she gets it the moment we get home."
"Thanks, and Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas to you,
too." Mrs. Eleanor put the dog down where Susie bounded
enthusiastically about her ankles, wrapping her in the leash.
"Suzie says Merry Christmas to the cats, too."
She went her way and Molly Rose
went hers. The gallery-loft was only ten blocks away and, warm
in Uncle Oscar's snow-sky coat, if not in heart, Molly Rose walked.
Better that than run the subway gauntlet of the goblinated a
second time this evening.
The gallery-loft was chilly but
welcoming, and so were the art works. Christmas ghosts, all---running
the gamut from the jaunty and cheerful to the truly nightmarish.
She liked one Ghost of Christmas Present enormously and stood
before it to let it warm her.
Behind her, a young man said,
"Too much. I loathe Dickens---he's so manipulative, always
wringing your heart."
Molly Rose swung on him. He was
the very nice young man who'd given her the invitation but she
was suddenly furious. Loathe Dickens? How---? All too sharply,
she said, "Do you write?"
He looked at her, even seemed
to recognize her, then shook his head. "No, why do you ask?"
"You think Dickens was dishonest---that's
what you're actually saying." Hands on hips, she glared
at him and spoke from all the banked heat of her anger. "I
don't. I write and I think Dickens got just as manipulated by
his characters as his readers do. I think they wrung his heart,
and I think he wouldn't have spent the ink on them if he hadn't
cared for each and every one as much as he wants you to."
The young man drew back as if
she'd struck him, and Molly Rose stood aghast at her own goblination.
She tried to form an apology but before she could get it out,
someone yelled, "Mintern---give us a hand with the punch
bowl, will you?"
"'Xcuse me," he said---and
Now that he was gone she saw
him in her mind's eye, and now she saw that he'd dressed for
Dickens' period, in a frock coat and stiff collar. At his throat,
he wore that lovely white lace scarf, loosely bowed. Dressed
like one of old Fezziwig's lively young 'prentices for the Christmas
His invitation yesterday had
been his shy version of a pass. Today, he'd tried to strike up
a conversation, and she.... Tomorrow, Molly Rose was never going
to forgive herself.
Feeling like my-sister-the-bitch,
Molly Rose edged from the room, looking for a place to hide,
the deeper and darker the better. She didn't look where she was
going, only for shadows, and she found a library. (A library
much like her own: a long narrow hallway made narrower by being
lined on either side with bookshelves.) The books were beautiful
and lovingly read, and Molly Rose couldn't help but read the
titles, to see what sort of lover they had. Not the young man
she just yelled at (he wouldn't have called it yelling, but Molly
Rose considered it such and hunched her shoulders again) for
there was a full collection of Dickens. Her hand went out to
touch the spine of the well-worn copy of A Christmas Carol.
"May I offer you a cup of
The voice, so close, startled
her hand away from the shelves. At her elbow stood a young man
with flyaway sideburns and long wavy hair brushed and cut as
if to keep his ears warm. Like the young man with the lace scarf,
he too was dressed in frock coat and stiffened collar, a soft
bow at his throat.
"Oh. Thank you." She
took the cup and, with it, a close look at the fellow. His face
was familiar; his name wouldn't come to mind.
"Thank you, my dear, for
your passionate defense. I am much obliged." He made a slight
bow. "Tiny Tim was quite as real to me as you are."
"Oh," she said, recognizing
him then. What a lovely idea to have a re-enactor present at
the festivities. She'd once spoken to 'Mark Twain' and still
remembered him with delight. "Mr. Dickens," she said.
"Forgive me for not recognizing you from the first. I admire
your work, sir." She held up the cup in offer. "May
I drink your continued good health?"
"And I yours," he said,
clinking his cup to hers. They drank and the smoking bishop went
down warm and soothing. Molly Rose held the cup in both hands,
letting more warmth seep into her, and smiled. "I always
wanted to taste a smoking bishop, because of Ebenezer Scrooge
and Bob Cratchit. I never dreamed I'd have the honor of having
that taste with the fellow who introduced me to them. I wish
I were half the writer you are."
"You must only believe,"
Something cracked inside Molly
Rose. "That's just it. I don't, not this year, and I can't
lie about it."
He replenished her cup from the
steaming cut-glass bowl at his elbow. "Please," he
said. "Be seated and tell me why you don't believe."
The cup burned her tongue and
the spices stung her eyes, and Molly Rose sat down and told him
everything. All about the goblinated people who, being tired
themselves, slapped tireder children, about the fearful people
who bullied and threatened, about the hatred she saw around her
in the world that seemed all the stronger for its being Christmas.
Finally, she told him about the
butchered production of his tale she'd seen earlier that evening,
which seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with Christmas
these days. "It's as if the world has taken Scrooge---the
unreformed Scrooge---as the genius of the age. This age doesn't
deserve your carol," she finished bitterly.
She stared into her cup, having
found it grown cold. When she finally raised her eyes to meet
his, she found them cold and hollow and so deep the hair at the
nape of her neck rose in fear.
From his writing desk, he gathered
up a sheaf of papers. Stacking them (the way she always stacked
her manuscript pages: absently, out of habit), he held them toward
the fire. "Shall I take it from them, then? I've only to
throw this in the fire, and the odious Ebenezer Scrooge need
never have been."
The fire leapt high, as if in
"No!" said Molly Rose.
She rose to her feet. "Oh, no, you mustn't!" In her
sudden terror, she snatched the manuscript from his hands. (Though,
truth be told, he gave it into her hands.) Hugging it to her,
she sat down, well away from the roaring of the fire. "You
mustn't," she said again.
"And why not? If, as you
say, the story was not the sledgehammer against poverty I intended,
why not burn it and have done?"
Why not, indeed, thought Molly
Rose. What use if your readers didn't hear what you said to them?
"Because"---she faltered, trying to put it into words---"because
the world would be so much poorer without the hope that Ebenezer
Scrooge might reform, the hope that Tiny Tim might live because
of something we might do if only we understood what Christmas
meant. Because you mustn't take that hope from us. Without hope,
people won't try."
She riffled the papers, squinting
to decipher his scrawled words, looking for that last lovely
hope in the unfamiliar sprawl of ink, amid his crammed-in corrections
and coiling deletions.
It wasn't there! Disbelieving,
she fought her way through his handwriting a second time. Then
she stared at him through the smoky light of the oil lamp in
shock. "You didn't write it," she said. Her voice sounded
dead to her; as dead as Dickens.
"Didn't write what?"
He came to the settle and leaned over her shoulder.
"Here, at the very last
minute, it should say---" Her fingertip on the next to last
paragraph, tears welling as they always did, Molly Rose recited
the missing line from memory: "'And to Tiny Tim, who did
NOT die, he was a second father.'"
He bent over her. As his finger
traced the paragraph, he laughed and shook his head in wonder.
"Why, bless my soul!" he cried. "And bless you,
my dear. I've rehearsed the words so many times in my imagination
and before my glass that I thought I had written them down."
He laughed again. "Never fear, I've ample time to correct
the omission before the book goes to print."
"You will go to print then."
She held the manuscript fiercely, protectively.
"I will," he said.
"And Tiny Tim will live?"
He smiled at her fondly. "Could
I do less for him than Ebenezer?"
Thus reassured she allowed him
to take back the manuscript. He laid it on his writing desk and
offered her another cup of smoking bishop.
She took it gladly, still shivering
from the cold draft that blew through her heart. "Perhaps,"
she said, "perhaps the world did listen, does listen. Someone
somewhere read your carol and took it to heart...."
"Oh," he said, "I
know that for fact. Had not Ebenezer Scrooge reformed, Mrs. Eleanor
would have died of the cold tonight. I have some small evidence
of my success---as do you of yours...."
She raised her eyes to him quizzically.
"You have a coat the color
of snow-sky." She did indeed; Uncle Oscar had heard her.
Maybe others had too.
Suddenly startled, she rose from
the settle. "How---" How did you know, she had meant
But he had taken her hand, raised
it and kissed it. When he straightened, he once again caught
her in his regard and she could not speak.
"I beg of you, don't be
too hard on the young man," he said. "I did, albeit
innocently, complicate his childhood." He patted her hand.
"You have lightened my day, my dear. It's rare to meet a
colleague of such similar philosophy."
Then, just for a moment, his
eyes turned deep again. This time, they did not chill her. He
leaned closer and whispered, "If ever a dog were wild with
joy, it's Suzie with her chew-bone. If ever Mrs. Eleanor were
wild with warmth and joy---why, it's this very Christmas day."
He smiled at her wordlessness.
"I'm glad you like the plump sister; so do I." He winked
and added, "And now I'll leave the two of you alone."
Someone jostled Molly Rose, spilling
hot wine steaming onto the floor. She jumped and turned and,
when she looked back, Charles Dickens was gone. In his place
was the young man who loathed Dickens, the young man in the lovely
"Thank heaven you're still
here," he said. "I wanted to apologize for my earlier
behavior. I really put my foot in it...."
Molly Rose shook her head to
clear it. The study was gone; so was the fireplace. Once again,
she stood in a narrow book-lined hallway, one hand clasped about
a cup of bishop and the fingertips of the other poised atop a
copy of A Christmas Carol on the shelves.
She'd zoned out...lack of sleep
often brought her flashes of vivid daydream. Usually, though,
the flashes were bits of whatever story she was working on at
There was no Dickens' re-enactor,
let alone the ghost of Charles Dickens himself; there was only
her overwrought imagination. 'An undigested bit of beef, a blot
of mustard,' she thought. (That was Scrooge's explanation for
"---The smoking bishop,"
she added, aloud. (That was hers.) "What on earth went into
it? That's much stronger than I expected." She set the cup
atop a hissing radiator.
"No such excuse for me,
I'm afraid, Ms. Hawkins," he said. "I've been tasting
it all week while we adjusted the recipe." He held out his
hand. "My name's Eben Mintern."
"Molly Rose," she said.
His hand enclosed hers, warm and tingling. "I'm sorry. I'm
so exhausted I'm acting like my-sister-the-bitch." The book
tipped from the shelf into her other hand. "I'd better go
home before I fall over."
He nodded and released her hand.
Not meeting her eyes, he looked instead at the book she was holding.
"Do you know, I've never actually read that? I've always
assumed from the films...." He shook his head ruefully.
"I can be a such an ass sometimes. I am sorry. If I promise
to give Dickens himself a try, may I walk you to the bus or the
subway or wherever it is you're going?"
"I'm going ten blocks to
my apartment and it's cold out there," she said with a smile.
"The offer still goes. And
"I'd like that, Evan."
"Eben," he corrected,
still not meeting her eyes. "E. B as in 'braindead'. E.
N." He spelled his last name as well, and the change in
manner between the spelling of the first and the spelling of
the last required Molly Rose's full attention.
"Eben," she said, at
last, "Would that be your full first name or...?" When
he tinged with color, she knew all too well how Dickens had complicated
his childhood. "Ah," she said softly, "your grudge
against Charles Dickens is personal. All I can say in our defense
is: we've got call our characters something."
He laughed, then, and shook his
head. "In Dickens' defense, he was hardly to blame for my
mom's taste in names."
Very shyly, Molly Rose said,
"I love your mom's taste in names. 'Ebenezer' is full of
hope and generosity and old Fezziwig's Christmas party and---'to
Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father.' It suits
you, right down to the white lace scarf."
"Then you," he said,
in all solemnity, "may call me Ebenezer." Again, he
smiled, and Molly couldn't have been more warmed beside a roaring
fire. She knew for certain that no one else had ever been granted
"I'll get your coat,"
he said. When he had (and had admired the color of hers and she'd
thanked him on Uncle Oscar's behalf), she took his arm and they
stepped into the cold.
A light snow was falling, and
the city air swirled with the reflected colors of Christmas lights.
As cold as the night was, Molly Rose felt warmer than she had
for days, and she paused on the steps to watch the play of snow.
When she remembered at last that
she was not alone, she found Eben gazing down at her. His (very
beautiful) eyes held that same dreamy look she remembered from
their first meeting. "Forgive me," he said. "I
was sketching you in my head, the way you watched the snow."
Embarrassed (but pleased), she
went down the steps watching her feet.
"Josie," he said, in
a change-the-subject tone, "asked me to ask you your friend's
real name. She'd like to thank him; he really made the evening."
"That Charles Dickens guy.
He was really very good, she says, and Josie should know: she's
a Dickens' fan to end all Dickens' fans. That's why she chose
Christmas Spirits as a subject for the show."
Molly Rose stopped in her tracks
and drew away to stare at him. The wind was chillier now. "He
wasn't mine---I mean, I didn't bring him." (Then who did?
she thought, and the study, and the fireplace?)
Molly Rose played fair when she
wrote (or that's how she'd have put it); she wouldn't ask a reader
to believe a thing she couldn't. The ghost of Charles Dickens?
Was he asking her to beli---
("You must only believe,"
Charles Dickens had told her.)
"I thought I'd imagined
Eben held up one hand, boy-scout
fashion, and said, "No, you didn't: he was there, and he
knew you. He must have, from the way he spoke." A flush
spread across his face, or perhaps the coloring was only reflected
light. "He said your name was Molly Rose Hawkins and you
were angry at Christmas and, if I knew what was in my own best
interest, I'd offer to see you home like a proper gentleman."
And if Molly Rose couldn't believe
in the ghost of Charles Dickens, she could believe in Ebenezer---
She couldn't help but laugh.
(If she had seen a ghost on Christmas Day, what better ghost
to see?) "In those words?" she asked.
"Well, no, but I've never
been good at remembering exact words---pictures, yes, words no.
I'm sure of the 'angry at Christmas' though; I could sketch it
for you. In fact, I will sketch it for you. Are you angry at
"No, not quite that. I was
angry that I couldn't make people feel Christmas the way he could
make me feel Christmas."
"He said I might doubt his
sincerity all I liked, but if I read your stories, I'd never
doubt yours. He said you believed and you wrote from the heart."
Eben smiled again and added, "He said if I happened to need
a Christmas inspiration of my own I'd best apply to you."
They'd almost walked past her
corner. Molly Rose pointed and led the way to her steps.
"He was right about that:
I'd like to sketch the way you watched the snow. I'd like---may
I have your number? And did he give me your real name? I faithfully
promise I'll read A Christmas Carol before I call...and something
of yours, as well." He brought out a sketch pad and pencil
and held them out to her.
"Come in," she said,
"and warm yourself by a roaring radiator."
As she fumbled the key into the
lock, he bent and said, "What's this?" As they stepped
into the shelter of the lobby, he held out a package, "Here,
it's addressed to you."
The package was wrapped in pink
foil that had been used once before. Affixed to it was Mrs. Eleanor's
Christmas ribbon and Molly Rose's name was written in a large,
Wildly curious, Molly Rose opened
the package, taking care not to dislodge the ribbon or the printing.
Inside she found a worn copy of A Christmas Carol and a note.
"Miss Hawkins," read
the note (part of a brown paper bag, the edges neatly torn),
in the same hand. "This has been in my family for many generations.
I thought you would treasure it as I have. Suzie loved her present.
Merry Christmas from the two of us." The note was signed,
"(Mrs.) Eleanor Roosevelt."
"Mrs. Eleanor is a friend
of mine. I met her one night when she was walking her dog, Suzie."
"There's more to the story
than that," Eben said. "I can see it in your face.
Eleanor Roosevelt? In the family for generations? That edition
was remaindered all over the stores just this year. I know; I
bought one for the Rackham illustrations." He suddenly threw
up his hands, as if in surrender. "I'll read it!"
Molly Rose cocked her head at
Eben. "Come up. You can meet Mary and JayCee and I'll tell
you the story and maybe you'll understand."
Together they sat in the warmth
of her kitchen and ate leftover stew. JayCee curled herself in
Eben's lap, Mary in Molly Rose's, and Molly Rose told him all
about Mrs. Eleanor. As she did, she cradled Mrs. Eleanor's gift.
The book had been read almost to tatters and the weight was cozy
in her hands.
As she finished telling Eben
about Mrs. Eleanor, she let the book fall to a natural opening.
Mary purred and stretched a paw and claws onto the page, as if
to snag to her favorite line:
"The curtains of his bed
were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent
attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor
who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing
in the spirit at your elbow."
The phrase had been twice underscored---rough,
uneven underscoring born of cold ink and worn nib.
Scratched in the margin, by the
same pen and in the same sprawled hand she'd earlier struggled
to decipher in the pages of his manuscript, were the words: "And
so I am. ---Boz."
Eben rose, setting JayCee carefully
back in the warm spot he'd left in the chair. "Now I've
got to read that book," he said. "He caught you up;
he made you stop to reread a passage." He put on his jacket.
"May I call you tomorrow?"
Still caught in the book's pages,
Molly Rose nodded. "Please do," she said. "I'd
like that very much."
"If I see Mrs. Eleanor,
I'll say hello. I'll know her when I see her now, even if I can't
see Suzie the way you can. He was right about you, you know."
"He?" She paused, with
her hand on the door.
Eben said. "Whoever he was."
"Boz," she said, glancing
at the little book in her hand. "Tell you friend Josie,
he went by the name of Boz when he wrote this."
Eben got the reference; his smile
was brilliant. "Yes," he said, "oh, yes! Josie
will love that." He touched her cheek, very lightly, with
the very tips of his fingers. "So do I. That would be something
to tell the children, wouldn't it?" His voice and eyes were
full of mischief.
"Why, that on a certain
Christmas Day, many years ago, the ghost of Charles Dickens introduced
an Ebenezer to their mother...." He kissed her startled
mouth, then, quickly, warmly. "Merry Christmas."
He bolted. Half-way down the
flight of stairs, he added, "---and I'll call you tomorrow."
Laughing, Molly Rose closed the
door and leaned against it. (Her lips still tingled. That would
be something to tell the children---how like Boz to toss love
and laughter into the midst of her anger.) Her finger still marked
the passage he'd underlined. Once again, she opened the book
and reread his message. Ebenezer's kiss was still on her lips,
and Dickens' voice was warm and clear and strong in her ear.
"All right, Boz," she
said. She sat once more at the kitchen table. "I'll write
my Christmas story. If we've got to reform Ebenezer Scrooge every
damn year, we might as well get to it. Between the two of us,
maybe we can get it to take." Laying aside the book, she
drew paper to her and picked up her pen.
With Mary in her lap, JayCee
draped across her toes, and Charles Dickens standing in the spirit
at her elbow, she began to put her hope to paper.
"Standing in the Spirit" ©
1997 by Janet Kagan. First published in Asimov's Science Fiction
Magazine, December 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author,
Janet Kagan, which was not significantly hard to obtain, this
being the Christmas season <g>.