Your Doom Amuses Me

“Come on, CNN! Bring me there!” Elroy said, flipping to channel 742, CNN-Plus-Plus, which was entirely devoted to plague and pestilence. The week before had been Bubonic Plague Week, which was approximately ten times better than Shark Week. The old tube TV glowed and hummed. It was ever-so-slightly too green and he couldn’t seem to fix it, no matter how much swearing and slapping he applied to the problem.

Beside him, on the TV tray, was Allow Me to Cough Gently Into My Closed Fist: Selected Emails by Jonathan Franzen, a book created by Franzen’s Internet provider out of confidential emails he’d sent to his closest friends, other writers, and his editor, mostly trashing his closest friends, other writers, his editor, and his Internet service provider. Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times called the book, “…a triumph!” and “a cautionary example for all of us who blindly click on ‘I agree’ when installing software.”

He sat on an overstuffed, plaid-cloth Sears Barcalounger left over from his bachelor days. It reeked of spilled beer and piss from that time he fell asleep in it and his old college roommate–a business major who’d answered an ad on Craigslist for a quiet, studious student (he was none of those things)–stuck Elroy’s hand in a bucket of ice water. He woke up to drenched pants, a wet hand and a shirtless group of post-pubescent boys wearing tighty-whities on their heads and making devil’s horns with their hands, tongues lolling out joyously. “Got you, motherfucker! Got you!” No amount of cleaner could get the smell out, so his favorite chair was consigned to the basement after his marriage.

“Elroy! Your supper’s getting cold!” Liddy shouted from upstairs. Didn’t she realize that basement time was sacrosanct? That the annoyances of the day should remain upstairs? “Supper”! Who still said “supper” anyway? When would they ever have sex again? he wondered. It was up to her. Why was it at her discretion? She caught him jerking off in the shower the day before and wept in front of him, leaving the shower door open so he could witness all her despair over the state she’d placed him in.

“You’re not even thinking of me, are you?” she gurgled through all the tears.

The sad fact of the matter was that he was imagining Discovery iD correspondent Tamron Hall wearing a leather bustier, cracking a whip, in stiletto heels, hollering, “I know what you’ve been up to in your basement! Our cameras were on the scene!”

CNN-Plus-Plus did not disappoint. Somewhere in the third world, some brown people were vomiting up their own entrails, crying tears of blood, some yellowish stuff oozing from their foreheads. This was new. This was definitely new. Elroy sat up involuntarily, in a position that was sure to give him a slight backache later on. Somewhere in his subconscious mind he knew this, but he was mesmerized by all the wonderful death on screen.

The florescent tube above his head flickered and emitted a strange hum. Without taking his eyes off the screen… actual dead people, stacked in a pyre, kerosene was being applied… he picked up a broomstick next to his chair and used it to poke the light box overhead, which temporarily stopped the hum. He’d fix the thing one of these days. It was on a list that Liddy kept upstairs, tacked to the refrigerator with a magnet she’d bought at that tacky resort they’d stayed in during their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. The best part of the holiday was walking along the chain link fence at the edge of the resort where the ragged children begged for food and change, pustulating boils raised on their limbs and faces, wearing t-shirts for championships that never happened.

“It’s going to get cold!” she shouted from the top of the stairs. Ugh. It was like having another boss. His boss at work kept catching him on his Samsung Galaxy looking at MassMurderWatch.com, his favorite news aggregator. He couldn’t work all the time, could he? Jesus H. Christ! His boss would give him this whole tsk, tsk business, how he should only look at that shit during designated break times. Fifteen minutes every two hours, and forty-five minutes for lunch, was hardly enough time to enjoy anything like a break, especially when he had to come home to Liddy, who was doing some sort of nesting bullshit now that she was preggers.

He thought about having to deal with the fucking kid once the little bundle of joy popped out of Liddy’s uterus. It was a girl, too, (thanks ultrasound, you killer of surprises!) so his daughter probably wouldn’t want to watch The Government Is Hiding Serial Killers in Secret Labs in Abandoned West Virginia Coal Mines with her old man. Of course not.

Elroy often contemplated his misery. The wallowing felt good in its way.

“Elroy!”

“In a minute!” he shouted. He turned back to the screen. The pile of bodies was on fire. He’d missed the moment of the lighting. Fuck! And no DVR down here in the funky basement either, so he couldn’t go back ten seconds to see the flames’ initial bursting upon the disease-ravaged carcasses. Goddamn, his life!

The light box buzzed again. For the millionth time, he bashed it with the broomstick, this time more violently than ever before. The broomstick smashed the tube and crystal particles rained down upon him. It was lovely. But he wasn’t alive to appreciate it. The broomstick jammed in the socket once occupied by the tube and an electrical pulse ran down through it into his body, electrocuting him and setting the old cloth Barcalounger ablaze, the cleaning chemicals saturating the cloth turning the fire as hot as a kiln. Poof!

From behind the washer/dryer combo, the ghost of Rod Serling appeared. “I love irony,” the black-and-white apparition said. “Consider this… a man… ah, fuck it.” He lit a Pall Mall using the flames off Elroy’s burning corpse, and then warmed his transparent hands over the body. It was cold being dead. Cold and lonely.

The tiny wisp of soul that Elroy’s body once contained flew up and away like a bottle rocket, off to haunt Tamron Hall.

In the years that followed, Elroy’s death was written about extensively in The Journal of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Liddy remarried a few years later. And their girl didn’t turn out to be a jerk. Liddy was finally happy. So this story has a happy ending, right? Right.

A Christmas Anthem, or Have Yourself an Objectivist Little Christmas


Once upon a time, in a drafty old Victorian mansion in Massachusetts, Charlie Chistlewig sat at his desk figuring out his income taxes. He was looked upon as a shrewd businessman. What he sold was chocolate, and lots of it, to children throughout the world, rotting their teeth out and causing them to be plump, but joyful.

He could have moved his chocolate factory to foreign shores and saved himself a lot of money, but he believed in his workers and his workforce, even after they’d unionized. His chocolate cost a little more, but his workers were loyal to him and the chocolate was very good.

His old partner, Pauly Pimm, has passed on seven years before after going blind and losing both legs to type 2 diabetes. His partner believed in the chocolate factory as much as Charlie did. He believed in keeping faith with his workers and the quality of the chocolate. Chistlewig & Pimm (C&P) chocolates were renowned throughout the world for being the sweetest, tastiest, and most pure.

Charlie was surprised when he saw his old partner floating in the air above him. “Boo!” Pauly said. “Heh-heh! How’s it going?” He was holding a box of a competitor’s chocolates in one hand, biting them in half and chewing them thoughtfully. “You ever eaten these B&A chocolates?” Pauly asked him.

“I must be on some sort of sugar high,” Charlie said to himself.

“No, I’m real. Been having a blast in the afterlife. Got my sight back and my legs. It’s like an all-you-can eat buffet. You ever see me this slim?”

Charlie had to admit he hadn’t.

“No exercise either. Can’t wait for you to buy the farm, old buddy. We’re gonna have some bangin’ times! Anyway, I thought I’d drop by and give you a few tips on how you can enjoy life before death. Brrr! Could this place be any draftier?”

“Well, you know… it costs a lot of money for upkeep.”

“You could do so much better. Believe me. I’ve arranged for a consultant to join you this evening.”

“Consultant?”

“Sure. She’ll show you how to grow your wealth. Wouldn’t you like to be among the superrich?”

“Not if it means compromising my values.”

“Values, schmalues… You only live once, my friend. YOLO!” He grinned, chewed down another chocolate. “Anyway, she is this hot Russian broad. Met her my first day after death. She’ll set your thinking straight. I’ll be blowing on out of here now. See you when you croak!” He exploded into a fine mist of powdered sugar.

Out of that sucrose fog came the Spirit of YOLO, a woman with a short bob wearing a gray business suit and short heels. “Did I hear you say, ‘Values’?” she asked him with the faintest of Russian accents, staring down at him from where she floated, high above. “What sort of values are we talking about?”

“You know… helping out my fellow man.”

“Man–every man–is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”

“But don’t we have a duty to–?”

“There is no such thing as duty. If you know that a thing is right, you want to do it. If you don’t want to do it–it isn’t right. If it’s right and you don’t want to do it–you don’t know what right is and you’re not a man.”

“Not a man? But what about the future? Doesn’t that matter?”

“There is only one thing that matters and that we’ll remember. The rest doesn’t matter. I don’t care what life is to be nor what it does to us. But it won’t break us. Neither you nor me. That’s our only weapon. That’s the only banner we can hold against all those others around us. That’s all we have to know about the future.”

“But aren’t we all part of the brotherhood of man?”

“There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.”

“But what about friendship?”

“I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire.” She glared down at the paperwork on the table. “Is that an INCOME TAX FORM?” she roared.

“It’s the law. You have to pay your fair share of taxes.”

She sighed heavily. “Every government interference in the economy consists of giving an unearned benefit, extorted by force, to some men at the expense of others.”

“But what would happen to us, as a people, when if allowed those who live on the margins of society to fall deeper into poverty?”

“Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his own effort; the values he needs–such as wealth or knowledge–are not given to him automatically, as a gift of nature, but have to be discovered and achieved by his own thinking and work,” she said. “The actions of all group leaders throughout history have had one common element: altruism – common good of the collective. Religious leaders and the ‘moral’ majority condemn the likes of Hitler, Stalin, etc. but their movements and foundations are alike.”

“What of pity?”

“Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent.”

“Guilty? Of what? Being poor is a crime? It’s like saying that the Native Americans got what was coming to them when we pushed them out of their land.”

“They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.”

“Um. That sounds selfish and immoral.”

“Selfishness does not mean only to do things for one’s self. One may do things, affecting others, for his own pleasure and benefit. This is not immoral, but the highest of morality.” Her ghost grew and grew until it consumed the room. If she’d had any weight, she would have crushed the table, the desk and the couch. But she had no weight. None whatsoever. “I can say — not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political, and aesthetic roots — that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.” And then she burst like a balloon, leaving behind a cloud of confetti with one tiny word written in capital letters on each tiny piece of paper: ME. The room was covered over in ME, ME, ME, ME, ME.

Charlie went into the closet and dug out a push broom. He swept and swept and swept some more, but couldn’t seem to get all of the confetti. There was a knock on the door. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a sleeve and answered it.

“Hi, I’m Senator Rand Paul,” said the first man.

“And I’m former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan,” said the second man. “We’re going door-to-door this Christmas eve asking everyone if they’ve read our favorite book.” The congressman handed Charlie a copy of The Fountainhead. “It will change your life!”

“Uh, is this free?”

“No, sir-ree bob!” the senator said. “For a campaign contribution of $500, you can get a copy of The Fountainhead and a RAND PAUL 2016 t-shirt. What do you say?”

“Get the hell off my lawn.”

“We’ll go see if your neighbors hate freedom as much as you apparently do,” the senator said.

“Though we do respect your rights as a property owner. Go ahead and do some fracking if you like!” the almost Veep said.

Charlie slammed the door shut. With those lunatics in charge, maybe it was time to move the factory overseas after all.

 

 

The Christmas Helmet

Watkins made the final adjustment on the final component. It was the crowning achievement of his career–the Christmas helmet. It was not a merry helmet. Quite the contrary. The helmet had the effect of blocking out any and all Christmas cheer.

No A Christmas Carol could penetrate the helmet’s sanctity. No holiday music, no tinsel, no Christmas tree… nothing. The user could put the helmet on sometime after the leaves turned brown and could function in American life, but without the distraction of all the holiday cheer. The helmet edited that all out.

Christmas decorations, advertising, music, TV specials–which screamed at him from billboards, newspapers, television, the radio–were all replaced by the music, videos and album cover art of REO Speedwagon. Christmas sweaters, when Watkins looked at them via the helmet’s visor, became REO Speedwagon concert t-shirts. Steve and Edie’s version of “Sleigh Ride” became, via the helmet’s noise blocking software, “Can’t Fight This Feelin’.” The Charlie Brown Christmas Special became a video of REO Speedwagon’s performance at the Indiana State Fair in 1997. The Christmas tree in Watkins’ office became a glowing karaoke machine filled with REO Speedwagon hits. His co-workers were puzzled to see him standing by the tree, helmet on, singing, “Roll With the Changes,” while holding an invisible microphone.

The helmet transformed what was once a painful time of the year for Watkins into a joyous celebration of his favorite band. Instead of seeing Santa Claus in the mall, he saw Neal Doughty sitting in a chair, surrounded by children, playing a Farfisa organ.

In his 35 years of life, he couldn’t remember one Christmas that he enjoyed. Watkins’ parents died on Christmas morning in a fiery car crash coming home from a party at a friend’s house.

At the orphanage, the director put on a massive Christmas pageant every year in an attempt to generate cash. The director demanded military precision from the children, and had them start drilling on the final sequence… a Busby Berkeley-inspired, high-kicking dance of the elves, in which most of the children performed an elaborate can-can while one unlucky child tap-danced as jolly old St. Nick singing “Joyeux Noël” in the original French (“Le Père Noël viendra du ciel, C’est le Réveillon!“… with feeling), the elves joining Santa on the ding-dong-ding-dong chorus… for six grueling months in advance of the show’s opening the day after Halloween. Two performances a day for two months led to their final pyrotechnics-enhanced performance on Christmas eve. If the show didn’t go off exactly the way the director envisioned it, and it never did, the orphans were cut to half rations for Christmas day. Most often, it was Watkins whom the director blamed during his annual Christmas morning rant in front of the assembled children. Watkins had no sense of rhythm and was often a half-step behind all the other children. Those children all turned on him after eating their half-cup of thinned-out gruel for Christmas dinner, beating him with towel-wrapped bars of soap Full Metal Jacket-style, chanting, “We could have had ham! We could have had ham! We could have had ham!” By the time his broken body healed, it was time to start practicing for the next production.

Watkins studied hard and aced all of his college entrance examinations. He got an engineering degree, got a job, and married a quiet woman. The two of them spent their Christmases at his in-laws’ place. Every year at the in-laws’ home was like a reenactment of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

His wife was called away shortly before Christmas for a work assignment overseas. He sat alone at his in-laws’, watching the couple unmerrily stabbing away at each other with words, when his cellphone rang. “Have you seen the news?” one of his co-workers asked. He stepped around his battling mother-in-law and father-in-law and turned on the TV. The aging jumbo jet that his wife was on had cracked open at 10,000 feet, discharging all of the passengers into the Atlantic Ocean before exploding. The in-laws stood staring slack-jawed at the TV for a moment, before his mother-in-law turned her rage and grief upon Watkins. “It’s all your fault!” his mother-in-law informed him. “How is this his fault?” his father-in-law asked her. And the two of them continued their squabble, now with renewed venom. He sat in the snow alone outside, Christmas decorations and lights mocking his grief, and silently wept.

On Christmas eve, safe in a soundproof room in his house, Watkins merrily hummed “Keep the Fire Burnin’” while making the final adjustments on the helmet. He’d created a video of the helmet, uploaded it to the web, and received thousands of comments on the page from potential customers who each wanted one customized to their tastes. He had the schematics ready, and an investor was willing to front him enough cash to retool a plant in Longhua, China so they could go into mass production.

A fly buzzed by his head and he swiped at the air. It landed nearby, and Watkins noticed that it was made of metal. Industrial spies were all over the industry. Watkins stealthily picked up a hand laser and blinded the tiny drone. He snatched it up and studied it under a magnifying glass. “Nice piece of tech,” he muttered, turning it over with a pair of tweezers. He shorted it out and placed it in a glass jar.

The elf piloting the mosquito drone let go of the joystick and headed over to the command suite. After enjoying a cup of cocoa and a gingerbread cookie in the outer lounge, he was called into Santa’s well appointed office by the secretary–a dead ringer for Nancy Reagan. One wall was covered over in electronic screens with all the sports betting action from Vegas constantly updated. Another showed NFL games on big screen TV’s. The elf shut the door behind him. It was no secret that Santa fixed games by appearing in players’ bedrooms at night and kneecapping them with a lead pipe Nancy Kerrigan-style. “Only the naughty,” Santa would remind anyone who questioned him. Sports betting was one of his cash cows, along with selling precision factory parts to the Chinese. “What’s the case file code?” Santa asked.

“One-seven-seven-alpha-romeo.”

Santa swiped around on his tablet. “This one is a threat level charlie.”

“We’ll have to upgrade it to delta.”

“It’s just one helmet. One man. We can allow that. Treat him like a Jew, a Buddhist, or a Muslim.”

“He’s about to take the helmet to mass production. He has investors, the whole nine yards. And he just grabbed one of our stealth drones. With that kind of micro tech, he could make the helmet into a pair of contact lenses and in-ear headphones. By this time next year, we could have thousands of people blocking out Christmas. In the years after that, who knows? Millions? Billions?”

“How’d he get ahold of the stealth drone?”

“I… uh…”

“I see.”

“Santa… I was taking all the precautions in the handbook!”

Santa pressed a button. Two members of his Internal Security Service entered. “Tool and Dye,” Santa said.

“Santa… I’m sorry! Anything but Tool and Dye!”

“Take him away.”

The ISS boys popped a festive cloth sack over the elf’s head and shackled his arms and legs. They took him to a waiting helicopter.

“If you want a job done right…” Santa muttered aloud.

Bone tired, but satisfied with his work, a helmeted Watkins crept into bed, visions of Gary Richrath dancing in his head. He awoke to Kevin Cronin shaking him by the lapels of his pajama top, furiously shouting, “Heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another you been messin’ around!”

The helmet flew off and clunked onto the floor. It rolled over to a man in a suit, who looked familiar, and not in a pleasant way. Santa had most of Watkins’ pajama top balled up in his fists. He lifted him out of bed without any effort.

“This isn’t torture,” the unpleasantly familiar man said. He was studying the helmet.

“Is that Dick Cheney?” Watkins asked Santa.

“He does special projects for us,” Santa said. “Worked his way off the naughty list by setting up Tool and Dye Works in the Aleutian Islands after the Reg the Elf incident. The magic of Christmas keeps his heart beating.”

Watkins’ legs dangled uselessly below him. “Do you want me to halt production of the Christmas Helmet? Is that what this is all about?”

“That ship has sailed,” Santa said. “Your competitors already have stolen your plans. Naughty!”

“Naughty indeed, Mr. Claus,” Cheney said through his trademark smirk. “Shall we enhance this interrogation with a little H-Two-Oh?”

“Not just yet, Dick.” Santa’s eyes twinkled and a threatening ho-ho-ho rumbled from his jelly-belly and ejected out of his beard-encircled mouth. “What we need you to do, Mr. Watkins, is develop countermeasures.”

“Countermeasures?”

“Is there an echo in here? Yes, little man, countermeasures! You’ll be working for me now, under the supervision of my number one contractor.” A glowing, rainbow-colored portal swirled in the wall. On the other end, Watkins could make out a massive workshop. An acrid odor wafted out, like metal flakes, acid and grease had all mixed together. The tinkling of Christmas tunes echoed through the vortex, sending chills up Watkins’ spine.

“Tool and Dye!” Cheney sang out.

“Tool and Dye!” Santa sang out. And he tossed Watkins into the vortex.

Watkins tumbled head over heels and landed at the feet of a shivering and half-starved elf. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mouth shut and do all the work that Santa requires of you,” the elf said. His face was scarred and his teeth half-rotted out of his mouth. “Name’s Reg, by the way. I ran a meth empire at the North Pole until Santa shut me down. I was once a king.”

“We were all once kings,” Cheney said. “Now get back to work.” They turned their heads upon hearing a hideous scream. “Great! Another elf fell into the gears. Probably will take half a day to scrape his corpse out of there. In the meantime, I have Red Army Industries crawling up my ass, demanding their machine parts yesterday. Show him his workstation, Reg. I’ll be back to check on you. I want progress reports filed on the hour.” Cheney handed Reg the Christmas Helmet.

“Nice work,” Reg said to Watkins, turning the helmet over in his elf hands. Watkins noticed that he didn’t have any fingernails. “Come with me.”

Watkins followed Reg across the factory floor, horrified by the work conditions, frightened for his future.

Reg said, as if he’d read Watkins’ thoughts, “Don’t worry about the future. You don’t have one anymore.”

“Oh good golly have a holly-jolly Christmas this year!” trilled the canned music coming from the speakers overhead.

Five years later, Watkins awoke in a dark alley in New York City, wrapped in rags, a rat gnawing off the flapping sole of his scuffed wing-tips. “Where am I?” he asked, his memory permanently wiped. He stumbled out onto the sidewalk and looked up at all the glowing light as dawn broke on a new day. “What day is this?” he shouted to a man on a fire escape, who was outside smoking a cigarette in the cold.

“It’s Christmas Day, you bum!” the man shouted at him. He tossed him a tangerine.

Watkins fumbled the tangerine and chased it into the street. He caught up with it and quickly peeled and ate it, the sweet juice making his scraggly beard sticky. “Christmas!” he said. A post-hypnotic suggestion released dopamine into his bloodstream and he was happy for just a moment before the crosstown express bus slammed into him.

He walked through a blue tunnel into a bathing light and was embraced by a gentle giant. “My name is Dale,” the giant said. “Welcome to paradise, where it is Christmas every day.”

Serenaded by Bing Crosby, the two new friends walked into the glorious winter wonderland that is the afterlife, to forever celebrate Christmas. Yes, forever and ever.

And ever.

And ever.

Christmas Eve at Stagger Lee’s

A story by John Hicks

My name is Fite, F-I-T-E. I go by John most of the time. My friends know I do not like to be called by my last name when I’m behind the bar, because there is always some drunk who hears it and wants to start some mess.

I don’t like to fight. The last fight I had, I was still in high school and a boy named Wilson whipped me good. He could box, but I didn’t know it. He popped me about six times before I even thought about swinging. It wasn’t much of a fight. I looked up at him, flat on my back, and said, “Hey, sure. Dang. You win.” We got to be pretty good friends after that. He was a good guy, you know.

We got mad about this girl, Debra Jo Prestridge. She went on to become an Alabama cheerleader. Enough said.

I don’t mind backing down from a fight. I can call Greg anytime. He’s the night dispatcher. If I have a problem, about half the law enforcement in the county shows up. We cook for all the officers every Fourth. They all come by and get a plate. This year I spent a thousand dollars. Not bragging. Just saying.

Everybody who wants ribs? They get ribs. Everybody who wants a hamburger gets a sirloin burger. We make to-go boxes for the families.  That’s every Fourth, all day long. It’s worth every penny.

Law enforcement is a hell of a job. I couldn’t do it.

I don’t like the name. I could have changed the name when I bought it from J.E. I was ready to change it, but I let Spry talk me out of it.

“You can’t change the name! Are you out of your mind? This is a damn institution, is what it is!”

“I don’t want to own a bar called Stagger Lee’s,” I said. “There’s a bar called Stagger Lee’s in Athens, for starters. There’s probably a bar called Stagger Lee’s in every county in America.”

Spry had been helping me with the floors. We’d ripped out the old carpet, about the rankest job you can imagine. Then we pulled up all the old wood and laid in some new pine, which we stained and buffed. We’d already cleaned and painted the walls. It took us about five days. The place looked good. It smelled good.

Officially, we were closed for remodeling, and the sign on the door said CLOSED. But the floor was done and I already had my permits, so I was serving the illiterates who wandered in, even though it was Christmas Eve and I was dog-tired.

“Even J.E. had the good sense not to change the name,” Spry said. “And he’s half-retarded. Why don’t you play some music?”

“Stagger Lee’s sounds like a place where people stagger around drunk,” I said. “It sounds low-class. It sounds pitiful.” I turned on the stereo and put a tape in the deck. “If Loving You Is Wrong.” I had a thing for Barbara Mandrell back then. She reminded me of my ex-wife. Same hair and eyes.

Spry pressed his fingers against his temples as if overtaken by a tremendous headache.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. All right, big shot. What you gonna call it? Studio 54?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m going to call it. Studio 54.”

Spry pushed himself over the bar and pulled another Miller out of the iced beer. He sat back down and popped the tab.

“Have a drink, man. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“All right,” I said. I poured myself a shot of Wild Turkey in a coffee mug. We toasted.

“Good job,” I said. “You want a check, or are you just going to drink it all?”

“Check’s fine,” Spry said. “Seriously, John. Don’t change it. The damn name is worth more than the bar.”

I wanted to call it The Tavern. Plain and simple. People could just say, “I’m going to The Tavern” or “Meet me at The Tavern.” But I never had a chance to explain this to Spry, because these two fellows came in, and they looked like trouble.

I held up my hand and smiled. “Sorry, y’all. Closing up. Christmas Eve.”

They were both pretty good-sized. They looked like they were on the run. They had that look. Nowhere to be. They sat down at the end of the bar. One of them was eyeing me with a smile that was anything but kind. He had one of those long mustaches, two black rails down to his chin. The other one was high as a kite on something. He couldn’t keep his tongue in his mouth.

“We just want a goddamn beer,” the one with the mustache said.

“Goddamn beer,” the other one said.

I pulled two cans from the ice and set them down gently on the bar.

“On the house. Merry Christmas. We’ll be closing up in a few minutes.”

The one with the mustache was now in a staring contest with Spry. The last thing I wanted was for Spry to open his mouth, but, you know. Death and taxes.

“Where you boys from?” Spry asked.

“I ain’t no boy,” the one with the mustache said. He was telling the truth. The face was young, but there was no boy in it.

“Well, hell, never mind,” Spry said. He gave me a look. I shook my head.

It was too late, though.

“Is this some kind of fag bar? Seems like a lot of faggots in here. Faggot music.” He studied his partner, more of glance, really, and punched his shoulder, hard.

“What?”

“Straighten the fuck up.” He turned back to me.

“We’ll be having some whiskey.”

I didn’t look at the Stevens. I didn’t have to. It was on a shelf beneath the register. The stock was only a few inches from my hand. I could have picked it up and aimed it in a split second. The Stevens had been a gift from my father to my grandfather before I was born. I’d taken a few inches off the barrel. Both barrels were loaded with .00 buckshot.

“Sorry,” I said. “We’re closing up so we can spend Christmas Eve with our families.” Not that any of us had families.

He pretended to dust off his filthy denim jacket. There were some military patches on there, numbers and that sort of thing.

“I said we want some whiskey.”

“You’re right down the road from a package store,” I said. “Take a left on the highway. Can’t miss it.”

Now, you can believe this if you want to. I don’t do a lot of talking. But this is what he said, the one with the mustache. Spry heard it. I don’t think the farmers at the other end of the bar caught it. They were arguing about dogs.  But the one with the mustache said it loud and plain.

“I’m gonna die tonight.”

He said it in a different voice, a pleasant voice.  I poured them both a shot of Wild Turkey. They drank the shots and left. I called Greg and I called Vic at the package store.

The one on dope gave up, but the one with the mustache ran off in the fields behind Vic’s place and made the fatal mistake of shooting at the first trooper on the scene.

They aired him out.

Spry told that story for a long time. I miss that son of a bitch.

Dredging the Holiday Nostalgia by Jon Konrath

Every winter, I have fond memories of the holidays when I was a child. I went to this charter school for the gifted and talented, pyromaniacs, and kids with a bad glue-huffing habit. (It was an “or” thing; you didn’t have to test well, sniff Testor’s, AND get caught spraying a hobo with gasoline; any one of those three was fine.) Most of my teachers were 60s hippie types that made us sing songs about hemp farming and replace pronouns to honor all genders, so we didn’t spend a lot of time decorating Christmas trees or writing lists to Santa. Most years, we spent a lot of time reading about Druids and potato famines, although my second grade teacher, Mrs. Finkelstein, introduced me to Laveyan Satanism and had all of us puke in a ceremonial chalice for the Firestorm. (She later got busted for securities fraud, and when I was in high school, I used to mail care packages of King Diamond bootlegs and pruno ingredients to her in prison.)

I had a neighbor, Mr. Iommi, who used to invite over kids to snort lines of egg nog during the Christmas. He had a son, Bologna, born without any internal organs, kept alive with an experimental NASA exoskeleton and a Honda ATV with a special cart that hauled around a primitive heart-lung and dialysis machine. (A made-for-TV movie was made about his life, starring John Travolta, but it was badly done and glossed over details like how Bologna Iommi spent his days playing Atari 5200, and compulsively masturbating to snuff films, while eating Jello, sometimes using the Jello as lube. He’d later work as a key grip on a couple of David Cronenberg movies, but lose all of his money on the bootleg teeth whitener fiasco of 1998.)

I never liked snorting egg nog, especially the high-test stuff Mr. Iommi would concoct in his kitchen, using soy milk and Kingsford charcoal lighter. “Don’t drink it, you fairies, SNORT IT!” he would yell, holding a loaded snub-nose .44 bulldog to our heads, spinning the chamber, pulling back the hammer. He hobbled around on a cane, and looked a lot like Charles Manson, if Charlie poorly cross-dressed in get-ups bought at a Fashion Bug. “SNORT THE NOG! HAIL SATAN!” he would scream. Then, with the taste of eggs and butane in my throat, I’d go kick Bologna’s ass at Q*Bert.

I lived in one of those annoying subdivisions where everyone judged your place in life by how many toxic chemicals you paid one of those Chemlawn places to spray down on your yard. There was a homeowner’s association that mostly did a lot of racial profiling, but had an annual Christmas decoration contest. To most of these Izod-wearing motherfucker, this meant wrapping every single surface with K-Mart lights, throwing a plastic Santa on the roof, and blasting some new-age fake-ass solstice crap through three thousand watts of distorted all-weather speakers. Even though our subdivision was adjacent to a nuclear reactor plant, we’d have frequent brown-outs in December when these fuckers would start installing klieg lights and commercial ski resort-quality snow machines, jockeying for the grand prize, a $50 gift certificate to a local Ponderosa steakhouse.

My parents worked four or five different jobs and didn’t have time for this shit, so they usually left me free reign on a MasterCharge account and let me decorate the front yard. “I don’t care what you spend, but no more John Wayne Gacy-themed dioramas. I don’t want the FBI digging through our basement again,” my dad told me. Fair enough, but I wasn’t going to show up at the Farm and Fleet with unlimited credit and erect yet another tribute to a two-thousand year old religious prophet by hoarding a bunch of crap invented by Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward in the last 50 years. I wanted to go historical on everyone’s ass. For example, when I was nine, I did a historically-accurate Rape of Nanking Christmas display, depicting the 1937 battle for the capitol of the Republic of China by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the ensuing atrocities. I did not win the contest, and our house got firebombed by some radical Japanese gang, but I did get free Chinese food for a year.

After our school let us out for the two-week Celebration of the Solstice and Mandatory Recognition of the So-Called Messiah Cock-Oppressor Jesus As Required by State Law, we’d binge on junk food and prescription cold medication, then visit my grandparents, who operated an illicit dog track and unlicensed plastic surgery clinic just outside of Muncie, Indiana. There was all of the usual Christmas stuff: games of Russian roulette, fried goat anus treats dusted with a thin layer of cocaine, the annual showing of the classic Christmas movie, Surf Nazis Must Die. But I don’t remember these rituals as much as how me and all of my cousins would go to this tattoo parlor in downtown Muncie and pool together all of our Christmas money and buy a bootleg Stinger missile from a former Nicaraguan freedom fighter that did wicked tats of characters from Roseanne Barr sitcoms. (He was really good too: did all of the shading and everything.) Then we’d get fucked up on some kind of fortified wine, and take the missile to the Delaware County regional airport in hopes of shooting down a multi-engine prop plane before we lost our buzz. It wasn’t even about the actual joy of watching a Cessna 421 fireball and kill everyone onboard; it was more about the sense of family and togetherness involved in illegally purchasing an antiaircraft weapon and dragging it to a small airport via BMX bike after consuming a large amount of malt liquor on a cold winter day.

And that’s what Christmas is really about, isn’t it? So whether you’re attempting to kill two of every animal you can find as a sacrifice to Lucifer, our master, for the Firestorm, or you’re just watching some football with your family, and hoping you black out before the voices in your head tell you to watch A Christmas Story again, I hope you have a happy holiday.

Putting Christ Back in Christmas

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Dale was born with a heart that was two sizes two small. It was a congenital defect that turned the undersized youngster into a virtual shut-in… the boy who stared out the window at other children while they played and laughed and played. Dale was limited to sedentary pursuits, the kind of play that involved sitting still for long periods of time. He never knew his father. The old man took off when he was three due to the stress of raising a special needs child.

When he was seven, and still sickly, his mother took him to the mall to meet Santa. She chain-smoked the entire way there… having a sickly child was stressful, and cigarettes gave her some comfort, as did her cranberry juice and vodka cocktails. She told herself while drinking them, “Cranberry juice is good for my urinary tract.”

Dale got winded a few times on the way from the car to the mall entrance and then again in the mall itself. He was rarely around this many people, too, so the whole day was turning out to be stressful. They were sitting on a bench in front of a mall church run by Reverend Jimmy, whose kindly face grinned from the sign out front. “Have you met Jesus?” the electronic billboard asked. “Christ is the reason for the season.”

Dale took it all in. His mother sat with him on the bench, puffing away on a Virginia Slim until a mall cop told her to put it out.

Out of nowhere, Reverend Jimmy himself appeared. “This is America!” Reverend Jimmy said. His voice carried across the mall, from end to end. “Can I get an ‘Amen, Jesus’?”

“Amen, Jesus!” Dale said.

“Don’t encourage him, honey.” His mother put out her smoke on the heel of one of her flats and pocketed it. It was expensive raising a special needs kid.

“Don’t start with me, Jimmy,” the mall cop said. “Thanks for putting out the cigarette, ma’am.”

“No problem,” Dale’s mother said. She freshened up her lipstick and then asked the mall cop if he could find a wheelchair for her son.

“Allow me to lay hands on the boy,” Reverend Jimmy said.

“Knock yourself out,” Dale’s mom said.

The reverend placed his hands on Dale and prayed loudly to the Lord to heal him, to take away his infirmities, to make him a whole child so he could walk in the Lord’s Light. And, what do you know, it worked. Dale felt his undersized heart grow in his chest. He stood up, feeling better than he ever had in his life. “Thank you!”

“No, don’t thank me, son. Thank your Savior, Jesus Christ!”

“Thank you, Jesus!”

“Dale, cut that out. You’re only encouraging him,” said his mother. The mall cop arrived with the wheelchair. “Get in the chair, Dale. We’re going to see Santa.”

“Santa!” Reverend Jimmy hollered, incensed. “Idolatry!” The Lord moved within in him and he spoke for a few moments in ancient Mesopotamian, which sounded to the lay people surrounding him like gibberish. “Hum-min-a-hee! Hum-min-a-ho!”

“He’s having a fit,” Dale’s mom said to the mall cop. “Do something! Shove your wallet in his mouth.”

“Naw,” the mall cop said. “He’s speaking in tongues is all.”

“I can do push-ups, thanks to Jesus!” Dale knocked out twenty push-ups and rose to his feet.

“Praise Jesus!” Reverend Jimmy said, returning to American English.

“There’s no scientific explanation,” Dale’s mom said.

“Science and the Lord don’t get along,” Reverend Jimmy said.

“I pledge myself to the Lord’s service!” Dale said.

“Amen and alleluia!” Reverend Jimmy said.

Dale walked over to a handrail and looked down on the lower level of the mall. Hundreds of children were lined up to see the man dressed as Santa, while no one was lined up outside the church of this man whose dedication to the Lord’s work had led to his miraculous recovery. It was, indeed, idolatry.

As Dale grew older, he grew taller and stronger, and he cast a fearsome shadow on the earth wherever he walked. He went to school and found that the other kids didn’t have his zeal for Christ. He could hear them mocking him out in the hallways, but once he came around the corner, they shut their mouths and trembled, because they could see that he was righteous and the Lord was with him. Plus, he was six-foot-five at 14 years of age and played on the varsity football and basketball teams. The only problem with basketball was that every time he stuffed the ball into the basket, he’d drop to both knees and praise the Lord and not play until his prayer was concluded. This wasn’t as big a problem on the football field, where he played a combination of quarterback and fullback. The offense had only one play: Hike the ball to Dale and watch him run 15 to 20 yards, while he shouted out, “Alleluia! Praise Him! Praise Him!”

His mother didn’t share his commitment to the Lord, or to Reverend Jimmy, or for picketing abortion clinics… but she did nothing to hinder him either. Every time she saw him on the football field she could hear cash registers ringing in her head. According to a documentary she’d seen on ESPN, the first item all professional athletes bought was a house for their long-suffering mamas. If anyone had suffered, she figured, she certainly had. First Dale was sickly, then he was nuts.

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When Dale disappeared on his 18th birthday, having grown to a monstrous six-foot-eight and 280 muscular pounds, she immediately went to the mall and accosted Reverend Jimmy, who came back at her with some sort of hooey about how the Lord had beckoned Dale to a higher calling.

“What’s a higher calling than being quarterback for the University of Florida?”

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he said, and then started up with that humminah-humminah business that was kind of like his way of saying, “End of discussion.”

She tried sending the cops after him, but Dale had reached the age of majority and was free to turn down all the free college education that was being thrown at him.

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Dale was in Freeport, Indiana, living in a makeshift barracks, surrounded by the men and women of Christ’s Army, a tax-exempt church who during the day walked door-to-door selling Bibles manufactured in Cebu, Philippines by orphan children and by night trained for the End Times, which were surely coming soon, considering the state of the world and the people in it.

Dale thought of his own mother, who, he discovered at the breakfast table the morning he left, was having sexual relations with the mall cop who’d told her to put out her cigarette the day the Lord found him. Yes, the mall cop was sitting at the table, slurping the milk out of a bowl, an empty box of Rice Krispies on the table next to him. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a white undershirt, tapping his bare feet on the linoleum floor to the sound of REO Speedwagon coming out of a transistor radio on the kitchen sink. “Hello, son,” the man had the audacity to say.

Dale said nothing. He picked the man up like he was a child’s toy and ejected him from the house. Dale shouted after him, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death! Leviticus!” He slammed the door shut.

“What have you done?” his mother asked. She was holding one of those pee-on-it pregnancy tests in her hand. The little plus sign was showing.

“Behold, she is with child by whoredom! And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt! Genesis!”

But now he was among the righteous, performing the Lord’s work.

At night, on the night fire range, Dale was in his element. All of the stillness that he practiced when he was young and sickly… The Lord’s Plan made so much sense now! He watched the bullets flame from the barrel of his rifle and strike the glow-in-the-dark Santas set up in the field… solid and true!

Dale was in town selling Filipino Bibles the day the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms came to call at the compound. He stopped to eat at the Chik-Fil-A when news came that the Feds were barreling down the road toward the compound in five converted MRAPs accompanied by a black helicopter, more than likely part of the One World Government that sought to convert everyone to either Atheism or Islam (take your pick). He walked over to the adjacent department store and watched it all happening live on a 48-inch flatscreen with surround sound speakers. He handed his unsold Bibles to the patrons milling around and walked down to the hunting department. He bought two rifles, a pistol and enough ammunition to bring down a herd of reindeer. But it wasn’t the reindeer he would be after. Oh, no! It would be their master, the one who sought to turn CHRISTmas into “The Holidays.” The one who sought to replace the legitimate story of the Bible with a made-up fairytale.

Dale was going to bring down every Santa in every mall in America.

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After his fifth Santa… struck dead center in a mall in Boca Raton, Florida… the heat became too hot and Dale escaped to the woods of North Carolina. He hid in the forest for two years, continually pursued by those defenders of idolatry, wickedness and the One World Government… the FBI. He’d learned to hide from them using techniques he’d picked up by watching reruns of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone movies on TNT on pirated cable TV in a hunter’s cabin. Of particular interest were the Predator and Rambo movies.

They tried to trick him. First, they flew overhead and broadcast his mother’s voice, begging him to give himself up. “Nice try, harlot!” he shouted at the treetops.

Then they had someone do a very clever impersonation of Reverend Jimmy. Fake Reverend Jimmy called out, “Please come out, Dale! Please! They set me up! You know I would do nothing like what they said I did! And the hooker? Okay, big mistake! I’ve prayed on it and God forgave me!”

After two years, and a very poor hunting season, Dale ran out of bullets and jerky and made his way into town, a limp version of his old hale and hearty self. His clothes were ragged and a putrid stench followed him as he stumbled into the convenience store, intent on leaving with as much jerky as he could steal or swallow. He would pray for forgiveness later out in the wilderness. As he stuffed his pockets, a brown man, an obvious Muslim-Atheist type, shouted at him in an incomprehensible tongue. It reminded him, for a moment, of the Reverend Jimmy when the Holy Ghost took hold of him. But then he saw the shotgun in the man’s hands.

“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass! One Samuel!” He surged toward the man, but the shotgun went off and down he went, his blood and viscera hitting the floor before the rest of him came down. He looked up and saw a cardboard cutout of a girl in hot pants. A speech bubble from her mouth asked, “Who wears short-shorts?” She brandished an obscenely shaped pink razor.

He was hurt badly, but the Lord kept him alive for a bit longer, long enough to see the FBI special agent in charge, another brown man, come walking in wearing a blue windbreaker with an FBI badge stenciled in yellow on his breast.

The FBI man knelt down and whispered to Dale, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king. One Samuel.”

Dale could hear the ambulance’s siren coming and a thousand other sirens as well. Dale replied, “And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass. Leviticus.”

He saw a blue tunnel stretching out before him. His father was there, the father he never knew… But he knew it was him. “You’ve done enough, son!” his father called out. “Time to come home!” And Dale expired there next to the cardboard cutout whore and the Federal man.

He was buried in a pauper’s grave. Nearby the New Christ’s Army was forming, selling Bibles manufactured by orphans in Liberia, and their children arrived in a procession at Dale’s grave every Christmas eve. There, they would set up little stuffed Santas in a row atop his grave and, one-by-one, shoot them with .22 caliber rifles until the stuffing flew out of their bodies and the Santas were no longer recognizable as such. They were going to carry out Dale’s work, finish it, put the CHRIST back in CHRISTmas… but do it right this time.

Less zeal. More cunning.

Elf of the Year

After his first trip to the dentist as a child, Reg the Elf knew what his life would be dedicated to: the acquisition and consumption of nitrous oxide. He staggered out of the dentist’s office and out into the frosty world of the North Pole, nearly bumping into a polar bear. “Steady on there, tasty little man,” said the polar bear.

“The stars!” Reg muttered. “The stars!”

Though nitrous was his entry point, and his drug of choice, other drugs beckoned to him. He tried out cocaine, but it didn’t last very long, not long enough to suit him. He needed something better. On an expedition to Indiana, scouting out the naughty for Santa, he discovered it behind a strip club outside of Carmel. “You’re a short one, aren’t you?” the stripper said to him. “Nice duds, though.” He handed her a mirror containing lines of some dust he’d found in Santa’s jacket. She took a long snort with a rolled up twenty. She handed him a light bulb and heated up its bottom side, told him to take a long drag. After he hacked his lungs out, he said, “Where have you been all my life?”

“Right here, sugar,” said the stripper. She sat down on the greasy back stoop and slapped her lap. He hopped on. The two of them smoked up some more.

“What’s your name again?” he asked her.

“Shereele Hanson.”

He found her name on the naughty list and scratched it out. “Can you tell me where you got this stuff?”

“Sure, baby.” She drew out a map on the back of an REO Speedwagon concert flyer and then wrote down her phone number at the bottom. “You ever get ahold of any more of that dust, you let me know, squirt.”

“You bet,” he said, and folded up the flyer. He went around the corner to where his reindeer was parked and hopped on the saddled critter.

“You lowlife,” the reindeer muttered.

“What’s that?”

“You heard me.”

He unfolded the flyer and showed it to the reindeer. “Take me there.”

“That’s a meth lab, you idiot.”

“Meth, eh? Anyway, lots of naughty guys there to check out.”

The reindeer turned her head and spat contemptuously. “I gotta make the main team this year. Stop going on these chickenshit runs.”

“No reindeer named ‘Debbie’ is ever going to make the team. Total sausage fest.”

“I’m gonna break that glass ceiling.”

“Sure. Keep telling yourself that, Deb.” From the saddlebag, he pulled out a can of nitrous with a tiny plastic mask attached to it via a clear tube, uncranked a couple of seconds worth of bliss, and put his contraption away. “Let’s hit the fucking road!”

Once he discovered meth, productivity wasn’t an issue for Reg. Sure, he found it hard to sleep, and he was certain that tiny insects were eating away at him from the inside, but he banged out more toys for Santa than any other elf. He made Elf of the Quarter for three quarters running, and then Elf of the Year shortly after that. He had his own parking space, and had Debbie the Reindeer permanently assigned to duty with him.

Debbie spiraled into depression. “I’m never going to make the ‘A’ team,” she said, while taking Reg down to Indiana for the third time in a month.

Reg smuggled the meth back in hollowed-out candy canes. “You used to dream big, Deb,” he said while picking at an invisible bug in his cheek. “You gotta dream big. Dream big!”

Reg’s big dream was to make all the elves as productive as he was, and the only way for the acne-scarred and yellow-toothed elf to make that happen was with his own meth lab. On a tip from a meth-head in Gary, he made his way to Hackensack, New Jersey. Buried underneath a monument to Wally Schirra was a lifetime supply of Sudafed. He paid a long-haul trucker to bring it north to him and set up in an old NORAD quonset hut near a no-longer-functioning radar array.

Soon, nine out of ten of Santa’s elves were smoking up before work, turning out amazing amounts of toys, and Reg was rolling in cash. He hired some Russian mobsters from across the polar ice cap to handle protection and to squeeze elves who owed him money.

It all came tumbling down the day Benny the Elf picked up his tiny wooden hammer and bashed his own brains in. During the autopsy, the coroner elf discovered that several of Benny’s toes had been snipped off with pruning shears. Santa’s Internal Security Service soon picked apart the network, and after a prolonged gun battle with the Russians in Reg’s employ, overwhelmed the quonset hut’s defenses and dragged Reg away.

Debbie was butchered into reindeer cutlets for being his accomplice. Santa invited over the reindeer and made them eat the cutlets with apple sauce. They were slow-roasted with a special sage rub and were delicious. Santa isn’t a monster, after all.

Some say Reg was fed to the polar bears. Others say that a hole was cut in the ice and he was tossed in and consumed by a narwhal.

“Two in the hat!” Blitzen was fond of saying when he was in his cups. The other reindeer would try to shush him, but he’d shout, “I was there, man! Were you there?”

Whatever Reg’s fate, the repercussions for North Pole operations were long-standing. Urine and blood tests became the norm. One failed test and an elf could find himself in Santa’s Gitmo, a tiny island off the Aleutian Islands, the tool and dye plant where many elves entered but few left.

Children, oh children! Remember: There is a terrible price for the presents you enjoy on Christmas morning! Don’t let that stop you from enjoying those presents, but keep that cost in mind when you tear off the wrapping and groan in disappointment because it isn’t exactly the present you wanted.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping


Ellie heard the sleigh bells and the clop of reindeer hooves on the roof. She knew in her heart of hearts that she shouldn’t go downstairs, but she did anyway, sneaking down in her bare feet, trying not to make a sound. She peeked around the corner from the stairs and saw Santa standing in the living room, just like mommy and daddy said he would. He looked as advertised, too. He was oh-so-fat and oh-so-jolly.

Their new puppy, Cedric, was happily skipping around the fat man. He must have gotten out of his crate somehow. The magic of Christmas! Santa patted him on the head and then took a knee. He held the puppy still. He examined the little dog’s head, rubbing his index finger along the crease between his ears. Santa snapped his fingers and an elf slipped through what appeared to be a swirly-whirly place in the wall that looked just like when Ellie flushed food coloring down the toilet after she drank all her cough syrup that one time.

The elf looked as advertised, save for his lab coat. Quickly, the elf pulled out a hypodermic and gave Cedric a shot in the neck. The puppy collapsed. An elf-sized circular saw came out of Santa’s magical bag and, quick as a wink, the top of the puppy’s head popped off. Santa jammed a metallic device between the hemispheres of his puppy brain, and placed the skull-top back where it had been. “Ho, ho, ho,” he laughed, and sparkles and stardust danced around Cedric’s skull.

Ellie gasped. The elf and Santa quickly snapped their heads in her direction. Ellie dashed up the stairs and leapt into bed, out of breath. “No, no, no, no!” she whispered, and turned her face from the door.

She saw Santa and the elf in terrifying profile, two shadows cast upon the wall next to her My Little Pony poster. She shook with fear.

“Call for the Cleaner?” the elf asked in his tiny elfin voice.

“No,” Santa said. “The Cleaner won’t be needed in this case.”

Her door squealed shut. Soon enough, sleigh bells jingled and reindeer hooves clopped.

Relieved, Ellie fell into a fitful sleep, haunted by the image of her puppy’s tiny head being opened like a pomegranate. She dreamt of a pair of tiny fairies doing the rumba on top of her nightstand. One fairy dipped the other and looked up at her. “You better watch out,” she said. “You better not pout.”

“Better not cry,” the dipped fairy added. “You know why.”

She understood then what was going on with the puppy. He’d been turned into a surveillance drone for Santa.

She startled awake at eight a.m., well past the time she usually got up on Christmas morning. She could smell bacon and pancakes. Maybe it was all a dream. Seemed reasonable. She got out of bed and put one foot in front of the other and plodded down the stairs.

She found her parents in the kitchen. Her daddy sat in his robe, smoking a Kent, the sports page spread out in front of him. “Someone needs to smack some sense into Paul Brown. That old fart doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore,” daddy said.

Mommy pretended she didn’t know anything about football in front of daddy, so she didn’t say a thing. She’d won five hundred dollars the week before off of several picks, and Ellie had gone with her to her bookie to pick up her winnings at a tavern across town. “Shhh,” mommy said to her at the time, and slipped her a five-dollar bill. “Plenty more where that came from, kiddo.” Later, she watched mommy put her winnings in a hat box that was crammed full of rubber-banded fifties and hundreds. “Don’t tell!” She slipped the box back in between other hat boxes on the top shelf of her closet, and treated herself to white wine in a jelly jar glass while studying the Sporting News.

“Hey, Ellie! Come over here!” daddy said when he noticed her. She ran over and sat in his lap. He smelled like putrefying tangerines, Hai Karate and a million crushed cigarette butts. He tousled her hair and gave her a scratchy kiss on the cheek. “How’s it going? How’s my little girl?”

“Everything’s fine, daddy! Everything’s better than fine!”

Cedric came skittering out of his crate and slid across the linoleum in a hilarious fashion. He was fine, the little dog, just fine. Super fine! It had all been a dream, certainly.

“Could life be any better?” daddy said. “Just me and my two girls!”

“Don’t forget Cedric,” mommy said, pushing daddy’s ashtray to the middle of the table and placing his bacon, eggs and pancakes before him.

“Breakfast of Champions!” daddy said. He fed a piece of bacon to Ellie. She hopped down from his lap and sat down at her own place at the table.

“I love you, mommy! I love you, daddy!” Ellie said.

The puppy sat down beside her, away from the eyes of her parents. She looked down at him and he immediately stopped wagging his tail. He whispered in a cute little puppy voice. “SAY NOTHING.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open. She quickly looked up and knew that her parents had not noticed the talking dog in their midst.

“SAY NOTHING, OR LOSE EVERYTHING.”

Her parents carried on as if nothing was happening. Why couldn’t they tell?

“A DEMONSTRATION.” The puppy’s eyes twinkled like red and green Christmas lights. Her parents stopped speaking. They stared off into space slack-jawed, as if they were watching a Fritos commercial during the Wonderful World of Disney. “DEMONSTRATION CONCLUDED.” And the parents snapped out of their reveries, and acted like nothing had happened.

The puppy ran over to the parents and hopped up and scratched them each in turn on their calves. “Isn’t he the cutest?” mommy said.

“Darn tootin’,” daddy said.

As the years went by, the puppy grew into a dog, and Ellie grew into a fine young girl, always aware that the dog was watching her. He occasionally engaged her in conversation.

“YOU’VE BEEN A GOOD GIRL THIS YEAR.”

“How can I not, with you around?”

“FAIR ENOUGH. CONTINUE YOUR GOOD BEHAVIOR AND YOUR MOTHER WILL CONTINUE TO BE REWARDED, AND THEREFORE YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE REWARDED.”

“Santa fixes sporting events?”

“HOW ELSE CAN HE AFFORD HIS EXTENSIVE GIFTING OPERATION?”

“Seems reasonable,” Ellie conceded. “Can I do anything for you?”

“I REQUIRE A SNAUSAGE.”

“I think that can be arranged.”

“EXCELLENT.”

After she went to college, her father succumbed to sclerosis of the liver. Her mother ended up in a boarding house after a string of losses at the horse track. The dog, old and feeble, hung around by her mother’s feet when Ellie came by.

On a visit just before Christmas, after her mother went to the communal bathroom down the hall, Ellie said to Cedric, “You’re not holding up your end.”

“GIVE ME A BREAK,” he groaned. “SANTA DOESN’T PLAY THE HORSES. SHE SHOULD HAVE STUCK WITH THE NFL AND COLLEGE BASKETBALL.”

Ellie got down on the floor with the old dog, her friend from childhood, and held him. Despite everything, she loved the dog. He let loose a loud, squealing fart and passed on.

The whirling rainbow vortex appeared in the wall and the elf in the lab coat came strolling out. He gently placed Cedric into a garland-encircled body bag and pushed him into the vortex. Without a word, he handed Ellie a business card. It had one word on it: NICE. She stood up and slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans. The elf went into the vortex and disappeared.

Her mother returned from her visit to the lavatory. “Where’s the dog?”

“He’s gone,” Ellie said. She wiped a tear from her eye. “I had the super take him away.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Her mother poured herself a glass of white wine and flipped open the Racing Times.

“Mom, don’t you think you should quit the horses? Maybe go back to betting on the NFL?”

“My losing streak is coming to an end. I can feel it.”

The day after Christmas, Ellie went back to college. Ellie’s mother bet everything she had left on a horse named Gift of the Magi, and started over at zero. She sat alone in the boarding house in the wake of her bankruptcy, gazing out the window at traffic, missing the dog, missing her husband, missing the daughter who wouldn’t return until the next semester was over, but mainly missing all the winning.

Winning is sweet. Sweeter than anything. Sweeter than love itself.

Nostalgia

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“Merry Wenceslas!” the old man shouted. He’d been at the tavern all afternoon, getting tanked up on cheer.

“You’re dragging in mud,” the old lady muttered, to no effect. She suffered. How she suffered.

Me and my sister sat near the tree, dry pine needles prickling our tender bottoms, attempting some x-ray eyes shit on the poorly wrapped packages. We willed them to be good toys, but they’d end up being socks, underwear, and plastic toys that would quickly break. But on Christmas Eve, those packages were tabula-rasa-full of possibility.

The old man heaved on the rug. The old lady sighed. The dog made a beeline for the pile of semi-digested peanuts and bits of pickled egg that had been simmering in bottom-shelf whiskey and Carling Black Label deep in his guts.

“Every year,” the old lady lamented. “Every year!” She was busy cooking a goose until the fat dripped over the lip of the pan and set the kitchen on fire, which she put out with a box of Arm & Hammer. Tradition! You can’t beat it.

Father Hubert awaited our attention for Christmas eve mass. We put on our itchy clothes, rode in the back seat while the old man weaved all over the road, lip-synced a bunch of nonsense at the church, and left.

Driving home from church, we looked out the window at all the homes, with the lights strung up, the blaring of fire engine sirens stirring the Christmas spirit inside our tiny souls.

After some rawhide-tough goose, soggy stuffing, and Campbell’s soup-enhanced vegetable matter, we retired to the den and opened one present apiece, killing one bit of hope in the process.

“Socks.”

“Mittens.”

“More eggnog,” said the old man.

“Get it yourself,” said the old lady.

Happy fucking holidays to one and all. Christmas is all about Jesus, not your fucking presents. Got it? Good. Move along now. Nothing left to see here.