|O' Come All Ye...
by Mark Van Sciver
© Mark Van Sciver -- all rights reserved
So I'm a sucker for the holidays. Sue me.
I love the holidays and the holiday spirit that seems to imbue everyone with illusions and aspirations toward "peace on earth".
Christmas in the city is an exciting time. We've got snow on the ground. Some fool is actually roasting chestnuts on the street corner, and some even bigger fools are buying them. Over on the corner of Lexington and Caswell my friend, Avram, is hawking franks and sauerkraut dressed in a Santa beard and his ever present yarmulke.
You know what? There is absolutely nothing better than standing in freezing weather eating a hot dog. Don't believe me? Go try it sometime, see if I'm wrong. There's something about the heat of the hot dog hitting the pit of your stomach while the rest of you is cold. The bite of the sauerkraut and the tangy flavor of the mustard going down while you're stamping your feet on the pavement trying to jumpstart your circulation.
I look at my friend as he slaps the dog in the bun with the precision of an artilleryman load his cannon. Poor Avram. SCABS has played my Orthodox friend a rather cruel trick. The dark east European looks bred over hundreds of generations within his Ukrainian village are gone ... rewritten in a matter of weeks by the capricious whim of Martian flu and -- to listen to Avram -- God's plan for his chosen people.
And so, there's Avram -- he looks almost like one of Jabba the Hut's porcine guards -- with an artificial beard and curls glued to his boar head ("Just because I don't have hair, that doesn't mean that God doesn't want me to look proper"). Imagine a "Pigs in Space" version of Fiddler on the Roof and you get some idea of Avram's appearance. But he seems philosophical, if not resigned to his lot.
"God, my friend, gave we Jews many trials. It's his way of showing us how much he loves us," he says. "Without trials a man has nothing to measure his existence with. As the great Maimonides said to Rabbi ... ."
"Enough Maimonides," I counter. "Give me my hot dog! I'm freezing."
"Patience, my young friend," he says. "Look at me. One day, I'm an elder at Temple. The next day I'm a walking advertisement for sausage."
Turning away from me, he looks up to the grey leaden sky and says, rather matter-of-factly, "So what was it, God? Two thousand years of suffering wasn't enough! You couldn't have me kosher?"
"Merry Christmas," he says warmly and meaning it as he lightly slaps me on the side of the face.
"Happy Chanukah," I answer.
He tells me to be a good boy, and sends me on my way.
Looking at my watch I realize I'm in big trouble. I was supposed to be at the West Street Shelter over 20 minutes ago. And Splendor doesn't "do" late!
It's not like Splendor bites my head off every time she sees me anymore, but I'm not in the mood for her "laser eyes of death" stare either. She told me to be at the shelter at 1 p.m. -- or else. Splendor uses "or else" a lot in her conversations, usually as an end to every discussion.
To date, no one has ever had the nerve to ask, let alone find out, just what "or else" might entail. Jack deMule, who once stood down an armed crowd of Human First'ers armed with nothing but his Clint Eastwood stare, gives Splendor a wide berth where ever possible -- and they're friends!!!
"You know, boy," he once told me. "That woman threatened to rip my balls off and use them for castanets!"
"And you know what," he added, looking furtively around. "I think she'd do it, too!"
Five consecutive blocks of dingy, bleak, run-down, and abandoned buildings -- little more than a stopover for prostitution, drugs and the homeless. An unending line of boarded up and dirty store fronts except for one space. For even on West Street there's one place that's open -- one place where even the hopeless can have hope.
The sign in the window says it all -- West Street Shelter Always open Everyone welcome
Splendor's been running the shelter now for seven years. Up on the walls are displayed Splendor's diplomas from the University -- Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Summa Cum Laude; Master's Degree with honors in Psychology, and early next year, when she completes her dissertation and defends it, she'll be Dr. Splendor.
That's it, too. Just Dr. Splendor, nothing else. I remember I went with her when she signed up for classes her first undergraduate semester. The registrar asked for her last name and she said, "Splendor". Then the guy asked for her first name, and she said, "Splendor ... just Splendor. Have a problem with that?"
It's amazing how few people have a problem when Splendor gets that look in her eye.
I look over at the wall where the board of directors are framed. I was up for a couple of years. I was even the Chair one year. I was honored until I found out that being Chair meant signing papers Splendor told you to sign, approving policies Splendor wanted to approve, or dealing with bureaucracies that Splendor didn't want to deal with. I declined my fellow board members offer to elect me by acclamation to a second full term. Brian Coe was late for the meeting, so we elected him. He sent each board member a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. Besides the picture of Dr. Bob Stein as Chairman ex officio, the rest of the board this year consists of Tony Cheval; Ellen Sinclair-Lembeck, Donnie's daughter, Malisa Powell; "Lizard Lips" Copernicus; Matteo Borri; Janice Rand, from the city's office of social services; and this year's poor sucker ... Chairman Jon Sleeper, who, whether in human form or whitetail, gives new meaning to the phrase "caught in the headlights."
Jon is so jumpy these days you'd think it was buck season and he had a bull's-eye tattooed on his ass.
One of our favorite pastimes these days is to sneak up in back of Jon and shout, "JON!!! SPLENDOR'S LOOKIN' FOR YOU!" and watching him jump. You should see him -- talking to himself over in the corner -- "Nine more months. It's just nine more months. I can do nine more months. Nine more months is nothing. ... nine more MONTHS!!!!!"
"Where the hell have you been?" a voice behind me growls.
"And my best wishes for this joyous holiday season to you, too, Splendor," I reply as I turn to see our tall redheaded shelter director. As always, you can't tell from Splendor's face whether she means to shake your hand or hit you. She would be beautiful if not for her scowl.
"We've got less than three hours till we start serving supper. So move your butt and get the stew out of the cooler and start heating the soup."
"Yes, oh She-who-must-be-obeyed," I bow, walking bent over and backwards out of her presence.
From the safety of the kitchen I can hear her giving orders to the troops. Patton could have learned a few things.
"Jesus H. Christ! Becky! You and Audrey finish getting those tables cleaned and reset for dinner," she yells. "RANMA! I told you you HAVE to wear a hairnet in the serving line. NOW PUT IT ON! And tuck in those tits for chrissakes. Everyone knows you have breasts -- so how about keeping them in your own time zone!!"
I saw Kim go upstairs earlier. He's been trying to help Splendor get her accounts and other operations computerized. It's hard because the Shelter's been broken into so many times, and Splendor refuses to report them, or to press charges if the cops ever do catch anybody. Now Kim's got her keeping backups in about three or four places so he doesn't have to reinvent the wheel everytime the computer is stolen.
Kim is about the only person Splendor doesn't yell at. He's still pretty sensitive to loud noises and his migraines, although much reduced, still plague him on occassion. But it's more than that. Those two have been tight since their part in blowing open the SCABS slaver ring two years back. Splendor, Kim, Bryan Derksen, and, of course, Lisa (heart pang) Underwood, the reporter.
(No, don't think about her now. You know what that does to you.)
On cold nights like this, and especially on Christmas Eve, the shelter gets crowded early and we have to spend a considerable amount of time getting people fed, finding cots or other arrangements when the cots run out.
The West Street Shelter is a great leveler. SCABS or norm -- it doesn't matter. Both are here. Both are served. I've been given the job of organizing the men into groups for showers. I wave to Avram who comes in just after 7 p.m. with the leftovers from his cart and the rest of the Polk St., Harrison Ave., Mitchell Plaza, and Market Street vendors. Avram organized them on his own a few years back. Both norm and SCAB vendors give what's ever left over at the end of the day to the shelter.
It's getting late and the little ones are getting tired. Not too tired though, because word has spread that Santa's number one helper is getting ready to make his yearly appearance. At 8:15 sharp -- all the little ones have gathered in the cleared dining area. A small stage and "throne" have been set up. Out on the street, if you listen close enough, you can hear the faint tinkle of bells. Yes. He's coming. In fact, he's almost here.
A special ramp is set up so the sleigh can come right through the big double doors of the shelter. At Splendor's signal the doors are thrown open and in comes "Buck" Sleeper (with authentic red nose, don't ask me how he does that) and eight deer-morphs.
"Ho Hee Haw!" shout's the red-clad driver.
"Elf-man! Elf-man!" shout the youngest ones, pointing at Jack's long ears.
"That's right! It's me! Santa's number one elf, Muley Claus!" he calls, as in to his performance as any of the kids. The first year we did this, Jack tried to play the big man himself. But Jack propensity for letting his ears grow out at inopportune moments was spotted by a sharp-eyed three-year-old. Santa quickly became one of the elves who was substituting till Santa came by later. The problem was we gave out all the toys we had, and the kids were convinced that Santa would be by later.
Don't ask me how, but Jack got Kiddee Korner to open up on Christmas Eve long enough for him to just about buy it out. He's been doing it that way for the past seven years. He comes in as Muley Claus when all the kid's are still up, and he returns after they're in bed and every kid -- and I mean every one -- get a present from Santa a.k.a. Jack deMule.
That Jack, what a softy.
Just after 10 p.m., the party is breaking up at the shelter. I walk back to the Pig with Copernicus. Ever since Donnie remade the Pig into a private club, it's become more of a family establishment than just a bar. Since Donnie remarried and became a grandpa, he's become even more mellow. He met wife at advanced signing class. They just hit it off. Betsy Callan has been deaf since birth. Her norm friends and family were horrified that she could be seen, let alone interested in a SCAB like Donnie. Yet, they blossomed together. At their marriage ceremony Donnie signed a couple of lines from Robert Browning:
Come love, grow old with me The best is yet to be.
There wasn't a dry eye -- norm or SCAB -- in the church.
Ellen married a third-year resident her senior year in college. Dr. Harry Lembeck, an polymorph with saurian leanings, has a thriving practice over in the Oakwood district, yet he devotes three afternoons a week, and most holidays at the West Street shelter. Donnie's three-year-old granddaughter, Patrice, already has Grandpa wrapped around her fingers. Ellen is about five months into her current pregnancy and all indications are that the next baby is going to be called Donald.
Harry and Copernicus get together once a week to exercise their Raptor forms. They're constantly on the lookout and advertising for others with saurian morph ability. They want to form a hunt pack along the lines of the Lupine boys.
Donnie has closed the Gin Mill to the public for the evening. Most of the action is going on upstairs where the crowd is having a grand old time. Eddie -- I mean, Edwina is stationed at the head of the stairs, acting as hostess. She's wearing one of those mistletoe headbands. Before I realize it, she's pulled me over and planted a wet one. I look her over. She's got on a single piece knit dress that looks spray painted on -- it's got "Sugar" printed over her left breast and "Spice" over her right. As she turns to find another man, I notice "Everything Nice" is proclaimed across her ample butt. Where ever does she find her clothes?
Up on stage Wanderer has just finished conducting the club's choir. I was surprised how well most of the Lupine boys sing. But as wolves, I guess it should be expected. Wanderer has done a great job. In addition to the usual favorites, he worked in some lesser known old English and Medieval pieces. Anybody can try out for the choir, but they must be willing to work to Wanderer's idea of standards. Just listening to them do Handel's Halleluiah Chorus is worth coming for the evening.
Mike Prischelli, Regal, Tony Cheval and Dexter Herron are getting ready for their famous -- or some would say infamous -- Christmas Carol, with Barney Storfe, our octopod plumber as Ebenezer Scrooge and Donnie, our 640 pounds, auroch-headed Tiny Tim. How those guys are able to take a wonderful Christmas story and turn it into something that mothers have been known to take the kids out of the room over is beyond me. But every year they get better and better -- funnier and funnier -- and dirtier and dirtier.
I happen to look over to my left and spot Lisa. She and Ellen are in deep conversation. I must be about their mutual pregnancies since Lisa has pulled up her maternity top and is comparing her belly size to Ellen's. Her laughter stops when she sees me. She walks over and we exchange pleasantries.
"Hello, Mrs. Derksen, a very Merry Christmas." I say.
"And a very Happy Holiday to you," she answers.
We don't know what else to say to each other. Fortunately Bryan rescues us both. Marriage and Lisa have been good for him. I guess the two of them falling in love was inevitable given the circumstances they were under during Addis Ababa affair, when Lisa, Kim, Bryan and Splendor almost single-handedly broke up a ring of SCABS slavers who were using fronts in places like West Street to kidnap homeless or indigent SCABS and sell them as forced labor in Third World countries.
The sight of Lisa and the others being tortured is what broke Bryan out of his cockroach morph-lock allowing his full polymorph powers to reestablish themselves. Bryan -- one of the quietest men in the world -- went berserk. Kim told me he never realized how sickening the sound of an insect jaw closing on its prey sounded. Kim was at Regal's house for Thanksgiving last year when somebody cracked a walnut. He threw up on the spot.
I look at Lisa now and think of the "might what have beens" between us. But she couldn't wait for ever for me, and I just always thought I'd have time ... time ... that's what we chronomorphs are supposed to have a lot of.
Bryan is hovering around his expectant wife like he expects her to break. Lisa is tougher than that. I know.
"Does it still hurt?" she asks, her eyes full of a friend's concern.
"No," I lie, turning to watch Radiox, Jim Chandler and a Stephanie launch into "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."
How those two chronomorphs ever convinced Stephanie to let them regress her to a six-year-old is beyond me. But there they are -- not a front tooth between the three of them -- lisping and spitting their way through the song for all it's worth. When it's over, Stephanie, hair all in curls, does a pretty curtsey, while the two boys give the raspberries. The routine gets a huge laugh.
It seems like everyone is in couples these days -- except me. I guess it's my own fault. I don't know if I'm built for relationships like other people. When Lisa's unborn baby is as old as the oldest person in this room, I'll still pretty much look about as old as I do now. Barring accidents, or some unknown illness, I could live well into the 23rd century. That's the blessing and curse of a loop-chronomorph like me.
Even Rydia, our Garbo, seems to have someone these days -- and Jack deMule at that -- a feline and mule. Go figure! She's seems to be breaking out of her self-imposed exile from the human race. I saw her having lunch the other day with Spots from Zoomin' Being, Edwina, and Lady Death. Right now she's up on stage singing "The Coventry Carol" a cappella. It's as lovely as she is:
Lullee, lullay, thou little tiny child
It's just past midnight. Jack, still dressed as Santa, with Rydia on his arm is leading every in "Deck the Halls."
I grab my beer and push out to the backdoor fire escape on to the landing. The snow has stopped and it's moon bright. The reflection of the moonlight off the snow makes it look even brighter than normal. It's still bitter cold but, for once, I don't feel it. Although I don't want to, I'm feeling sorry for myself. I look around but fail to see a light in the east. And Wise Men on camels seem in short supply. So I guess I'm going to have to keep figuring life out on my own.
I turn and notice that Splendor is outside on the landing with me standing by the window watching the people inside. Her face is soft in the light from inside, she radiates a loneliness that you can almost touch. Yet in this light, and this time, she is as beautiful as any woman who has ever lived.
I can see tears on her cheeks. She looks up and sees me. There's none of the normal Splendor there, just another outsider, like me, looking in.
"How long have you been standing out here?" I ask.
"A while," she shrugs. "Doesn't matter."
"Why don't you go in?"
"I don't belong."
"Everyone belongs somewhere, Splendor. Even you and me."
A shadow looms over the two of us and the entire landing is creaking. Donnie, all 640 pounds of him is standing in back of me. He's holding a bottle of Irish Whiskey and a couple of glasses. There's a Christmas ball hanging from each of his horns.
"What's the matter, my friends?" he signs me.
"Nothing that really matters, Donnie," I sign back.
Pointing to Splendor, I sign, "She won't come in. She thinks she doesn't belong."
"You belong here," he signs at her. "Everyone belongs here."
"Not everyone," Splendor says.
"EVERYONE!" Donnie insists.
"I wouldn't argue with him," I say. "He outweighs both of us by a few hundred pounds."
Donnie hands both of us a glass and pours us out a drink. Putting the bottle down he signs, "Merry Christmas, my friends."
"Merry Christmas," I answer, lifting up my glass in a toast.
All three of us finish our drinks in silence, looking out over the cold white city scape. Inside, the strains of Silent Night are being taken up. Slowly, hesitantly, Splendor takes up the song. I join in. From out of the darkness I feel a hand -- Splendor's -- take mine and slowly, through hand and song, we rejoin the human race. Donnie places a hand on each of our shoulders and slowly, gently, but insistently turns us toward the door.
Splendor leans toward me and softly kisses my cheek.
"Merry Christmas," she says, going in the door.
"Merry Christmas, Splendor," I answer, following her.
In the darkness before the door, Donnie pauses for a moment and looks inside -- family, wife, children, grandchildren, friends.
"God bless us, everyone," he signs to the universe and rejoins the party.
Website Copyright 2002-2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org