Christmas Eve, 1985. It was another foggy day, near the middle of another foggy week, the fourth or fifth foggy week, here in Foggy Bottom. According to some of the natives, it was the longest stretch that Sacramento had gone without seeing the sun – either obscured by fog or rain or gloom of night. It was enough to make the postman miserable.
It was miserable enough. I had moved to this lovely town but three months earlier. While folks were friendly enough, I hadn’t yet made any friends, save people that I worked with, and all of those seemed to have a full complement of friends and family, especially around the holidays. I had moved west from my last job, which was already further west than most of my family – and this last move, I was well out of a day’s drive from any relation. For the first Christmas season in my quarter century of life, I was truly going to be alone.
Work that Christmas Eve wrapped up early for the day – the boss chased us all out of the plant after lunch, and everyone headed for the loving warmth of their homes, surrounded by loved ones, good fellowship, twinkling lights, and Yule logs burning in the fireplace to hold the chill at bay.
I went home, such as it was, to my apartment. It was an upstairs flat, complete with its 1960’s era six inch deep avocado green shag carpet. It had a ceramic gas log “fireplace,” started by pressing a nearby button. I had the same quality furnishings that one might find in any college student apartment, although a college student didn’t occupy this one. Multi-print couches and chair, with worms eating the wooden legs. A particle board side table, on which sat a lamp. Stereo system on a steel utility shelf unit, beat up Montgomery Ward’s TV sitting on a footlocker in the corner. It had a covered balcony porch, where I kept a small charcoal grill and a couple of folding chairs.
The complex was empty – it was located up the road from the state college, and the students who normally hung out there had all long since bolted for home and hearth. Not all of that was bad – I managed to rescue a forgotten Christmas Tree, apparently removed by one of the vacationing students and leaned up against the dumpster. I had brought it inside a few days earlier, stuck it in an old coffee can full of water, and decorated it with twisted strips of aluminum foil. I cut up Christmas Cards to form a holiday tableau. The tree smelled pretty good, but it was browning fast. I felt a little guilty about prolonging its suffering for my own artificial joy, especially when I couldn’t find much happiness, despite the tin-foil buffoonery and adornment.
I picked up the mail, and tossed the overdue credit card notices into the shopping bag full of other bills. The holiday cards had come to an end, and at that, rather early. The few friends I had from other parts had all lost track of me as I moved further west, and I hadn’t sent many cards out the year before. It hadn’t mattered at the time, and it didn’t matter now.
I opened the fridge to survey the holiday meal I had planned: a canned ham of some unknown date, a bit of warmed over mac ’n cheese, and what was left of a twelve pack of beer. I opened a beer, and walked onto the balcony. The fog and the gloom were still there, so there wasn’t much to look at. The view from the second floor balcony was of the roof of the laundry shed, and a few other smaller structures in the courtyard below. On the roof of one, the management had thoughtfully installed a plastic owl, in order to frighten off the pigeons. The pigeons, of course, had responded by using the plastic owl as their own personal toilet, so the owl looked like he was capped with never melting snow. The crap almost covered one plastic eye, so that the owl looked like Rocky after fifteen rounds with Apollo Creed. A punch-drunk plastic owl, adorned in gloom, and decorated in pigeon shit. That was my winter wonderland.
Looking around that 640 square feet of shag carpet covered Shangri-la, I realized there was no way that I was going to stay “home” for Christmas. I pitched the beer over the balcony.
I was low. I was blue. I was homesick for Christmas Eves I had never had. I had no place to turn and only one place to go. I was miserable. I was alone. But I had a plan. I was going to go where all of God’s miserable souls went to celebrate a miserable and wretched Christmas. I was going to a place where the holiday lights shown bright. I was going to a place where the fellowship of man could be found. I was going to the only place where I could find happiness. And if I couldn’t be happy, at least I could be a miserable wreck, and wallow in my own pity, and nobody would care. I was going to the only place that would take someone like me.
I was going to Harrah’s Casino in South Lake Tahoe.
I threw on an old trench coat, and put on my “duck boots,” so called, as they had rubber soles, but canvas uppers. There’d be snow up there, so good footwear would be required. I grabbed an old scarf, a felt hat, and with a spring in my step and a snarl in my heart, I slammed the door shut, and hurled myself into my car.
The car was a 1980 Ford Granada ESS four door sedan. It was the kind of car that a blind man, with palsy, would probably mistake for a Mercedes Benz. The midnight blue metallic paint had long since been destroyed by the previous Texas sun, so that the paint color and texture had become a dusty purple. It saved me having to wash it, as the body was just gradually eroding over time. The outside driver door handle had long since broken, so I had developed the technique of opening the rear passenger door, and hooking my arm around the pillar to open the driver’s door. It was a trolley – the six-cylinder engine hadn’t used all six cylinders in some years, as five seem to be just fine, even if it would vibrate the floorboards a bit. I could trust it to get me from point “A” to point “B,” as long as there were a couple of garages between “A” and “B,” and the distance involved wasn’t more than 10 miles between them.
I sank the key into the ignition, and the vacuum-induced “6-1” coughed to life as if Henry- Freaking-Ford was turning the crank. I slammed it into gear, and peering through low hanging clouds, I headed up the road. The bus station was only six miles away. It was late in the afternoon. I had a couple of hundred bucks in cash. The weather stunk. My mood was bad. My life was awful. I was good to go.
I bought a round-trip ticket at the bus station. The bus would drop me at Truckee, and from there I’d pick up a local gambler’s special, that would drop me off at the door at Harrah’s. I had no intention of driving. I had no intention of being happy. I fully intended on getting loaded, and deepening my bitterness, and pushing myself to win the Great Depression, as if that were some type of Olympic event.
The bus door opened, and I eyed the driver as I boarded.
“Merry Christmas.” he said, with no real merriment, and no real happiness. That suited me just fine.
“And a happy new year, bud” I replied, snarling as I went past. I found a seat, not that it was all that difficult. There weren’t more than a half dozen people on the bus, including the driver, and nobody looked all that freaking merry. In a cloud of diesel exhaust, the bus left the lot, and slowly headed for the interstate. We gradually climbed out of the persistent fog, but the evening dusk in the foothills was only propping up another weather system, and halfway to Lake Tahoe the flurries started. There were Christmas Carols playing on a boom box, sitting near the bus driver. Nobody was singing along. I stared out the window as we drove past homes lit with holiday warmth. I shivered a bit, and hunkered down in my coat, trying to sleep a little bit.
The three-hour trip to Truckee took four hours. It was slow-going up the highway, and better late than dead, I suppose, although dead wasn’t much of a step down from my mood at the time.
The gambler’s special bus was waiting, at least. The doors opened again, and this time a much happier driver was behind the wheel. He looked pretty silly, sitting behind the wheel wearing a red Santa cap. I hoped the ruddy glow in his cheeks and nose was from the crisp mountain air, and not from a bottle.
“Ho Ho Ho!” he chortled. “Welcome aboard, and Merry Christmas! The name’s Otis,” he said, as he thrust out his hand.
That’s a pretty stupid name for a bus line, I thought. I handed him my ticket, and I found another open seat. We lurched down the road, heading south around the lake, to the South Shore. As we moved past Zephyr Cove, I caught site of a very bright light to the east, probably a spotlight from one of the casinos. The casinos wasted little time, but lots of energy, in guiding you to your destination. The beacon in the night continued to blink on and off, and eventually we arrived at the doorway to the Happyless Place On Earth.
Harrah’s, for Christmas Eve, was surprisingly lively. There wasn’t a floor show – the stages were closed – but the Casino was open. There were no lockable doors on the casino, as it never closed for business. 24 hour-per-day gambling, seven days a week, 365 days per year. I wasn’t much for card games, or dice. If I was going to surrender my cash, I wanted to do it the modern way. I wasn’t looking for any human interaction to warm my heart, and I wasn’t looking for any atmosphere. So I wandered a bit, until I came across an empty row of slot machines. I went to the cashier’s cage, and got $50 worth of quarters. I went back over to the machines, loosened my coat, and sat down, slowly dropping in a quarter, and pulling the long arm of fate, watching the wheels spin by.
Soon enough, a waitress came by. She asked me what I wanted. I looked at her, and told her that I wanted whiskey, and that Rye, neat, would do just fine. She returned in a few minutes, and brought me the first of what would be a few bolts of liquid lightning that I would consume that evening. I downed the first, and sent her back for a second. Really cheap Rye – and this was cheap in the sense that it wasn’t top shelf, bonded whiskey – has an electricity all of its own. It burns as it goes down your throat, and the heat that is created from the consumption doesn’t warm you; it singes your throat as if you were swallowing an acetylene torch in a circus act. The first swallow is a convulsion. The second swallow is a reflex action from a muscle spasm, and at the third your tonsils have been cauterized. But the really good thing about cheap Rye is that those reactions are consistent. It never gets better. You never get used to it. You never start to even understand the differences in the taste; after the third or fourth Rye, your taste is gone, anyhow, long surrendered like Frenchmen in the night.
The supply of quarters was slowly dwindling. As the transfer of wealth was nearly complete, an abject jerk of the arm set off a small cacophony of bells, followed by the chug-chug-chug-chug clanging of change in the payout tray. Somehow, I had hit a small jackpot payout of about $240. In the television commercials, when the pretty young couples win a hand of blackjack, or hit the slot machine jackpot, you usually see the young couple jump up in the air, the teeth in their mouths shining as they smiling brightly, their eyes alight in anticipation, and hair bouncing just so. Happy. Happy Times. In reality, or at least that night, there was no jumping in the air. I was a bit flabbergasted, and sincerely disconcerted because I felt it would take me forever to lose all of that, and winning in the casino wasn’t in the plan. No beautiful young women came over and congratulated me. No friends, old or new, came over to shake my hand and pound me on the back. Nobody, especially me, jumped anywhere, at anytime. I just wanted to be miserable, and nothing more. Gambling, apparently, wasn’t going to help in that quest.
With a deep sigh, I filled three or four plastic buckets with my unwanted booty, and lugged them to the cashier. I cashed them out for paper currency, and the soothing pictures of dead presidents, while not as weighty as the coins, were at least easier to handle. The time for child’s play at the machines had come to end. Crushing my hat down on my head, I slumped into my trench coat, and wandered off in search of a quiet casino lounge bar. They weren’t hard to find – casino’s have plenty of bars, and plenty of tables, and plenty of slot machines. But try to find one clock….
The bar only had a couple of patrons, and a young barmaid serving drinks. She eyed me up as I approached.
“Why if it isn’t Phillip Marlowe,” she said.
“Marlowe is dead,” I said through half-lidded eyes.
“Ok, then, well, Ebenezer,” she replied. “What will you have?”
I ordered a beer. I needed something familiar to extinguish the fire from the half a dozen Ryes that I had consumed, since the back of my throat felt like I’d been chewing on sandpaper.
As she pulled a draft beer, I surveyed my surroundings. The bar was your typical casino variant, with a few video poker machines adjacent, a barmaid and bar-boy working in leafed blouse and vests, and a thousand ashtrays everywhere.
The barmaid returned with my beer. She wasn’t hard on the eyes. She was pretty young, or seemed like she was younger than me. She reminded me a bit of Donna Reed from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” although that may have been the whiskey my eyes were swimming in. I took a glimpse at her nametag. Her name was “Mary,” and it said her hometown was in the San Francisco bay area.
We bantered back and forth a bit. My mood was still pretty bitter, and I wasn’t looking for much company. I just wanted to drink, to numb myself like my hands in winter. There was no warmth from me, and even the drink inside of me had turn gray and cold.
I kept ordering beers, and she kept bringing them to me. I wasn’t downing them rapidly, but I wanted to develop a very slow buzz that wouldn’t fade quickly, and especially wouldn’t hurt hard the next day, whenever that was. So the beer suited me. It was nothing special, the usual watered down pilsner that is passed off as America’s best from Milwaukee or St. Louis. But it didn’t have to be good. I wasn’t there for the taste.
After a few hours, I was suddenly aware that I had company around me. Three women had taken the stools right next to mine- a brunette, a redhead, and a stunning blonde. The blonde sat closest to me, and I could smell her perfume, despite her cigarette, and I could see the small curled hairs at the nape of her neck, and I could admire the drape of her dress as it fell over geography heading south. She was good looking. Hell, she was gorgeous. And it didn’t matter. As I studied her in clinical detachment, she did nothing to lift my mood.
The three of them, whom I had nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Chastity, were chatting away, and Chastity, the blonde, was paying more attention to me than a guy in a rumpled trench coat on Christmas Eve deserved. I bought them a few drinks, just to be social, and expecting nor wanting anything in return. They had pretty good taste, and soon they were eying up a bottle perched high on a shelf behind the bar, a bottle bathed in an eerie blue light, a bottle of VSOP Cognac. They said it was $150 a shot, and while they had never seen a bottle of it before, nor tasted it, they had heard it was available in this bar. They weren’t getting it from me, not at that price. So we stared at the bottle bathed in the blue glow, braying at it like sheep seeing angels in the night.
In another hour, Chastity put her hand on my back, and her head on my shoulder, and asked that I should buy her another drink, a good drink, and maybe, a little more.
I missed the inference, as if I had brought the fog around me from the valley floor below. I started chatting harmlessly to Chastity and the gals about how Mary the Barmaid was looking pretty cute, which brought a laugh from Faith, who said that I might as well romance a virgin as to hit on that barmaid, the “Virgin Mary” she said, crossing herself, and rolling her eyes.
Chastity leaned over and pressed her lips against my ear, and asked if she might tuck me in? And all for the price of a drop of cognac? And did I have a room?
The fog around me started to clear, and I hastily went over to the bartender, at the other side of the bar, the virgin Mary having apparently been summoned elsewhere.
“Joseph! My good man!” I hollered.
The bartender looked at me like I was an idiot. The badge on his vest said “Alex from Santa Fe.” But tonight, I thought, it had to be Joseph.
“Joseph! I’d like a glass of your finest cognac- the VSOP- to be poured for the wee lassie at the end of the bar” – and I gestured at Chastity with the jerk of my thumb, and looked over my shoulder at the Christmas present I suddenly wanted to unwrap.
And there was the Virgin Mary, saying something strident to the three women, and with a whish they were gone into the smoke-filled casino. I looked back at Joseph and shook my head.
I walked back to my barstool, and Mary came back my way. I had thought perhaps her intent was to rescue me, to save me for herself, a holiday treat of her own. The look on her face said nothing, but her mouth said it all.
“Sorry, Scrooge. Those were working girls, as if you didn’t know- and they can’t do that work here- at least not in this lounge.” And she picked up a glass, and began to polish it with a cloth.
“No big deal.” I said. “This was my worse Christmas ever. I’m alone, I’ve got no family nearby. I live in a strange and unfamiliar town. My Christmas tree is decorated with aluminum foil—and it’s practically dead—and there’s no dose of Christmas cheer that I can find anywhere. All I was hoping for from Chastity-“
“That’s not her name,” said Mary.
“I was trying to change it,” I said. “All I wanted was a little holiday warmth, and somebody to care about me, if only for a few minutes. But that’s ok. My life is pathetic enough, and I don’t need your help to make this day any worse.”
Mary rolled her eyes, and stopped polishing the glass, and with a sigh, she looked straight at me.
“Listen, pal. Christmas doesn’t come from decorations, or from carols, or from cognac, or from cheap whores. Christmas comes from within, from somewhere inside of each of us.”
She grabbed my shoulder, and twisted me on the stool so that I was looking at the bottle of cognac.
“Look at that, buddy, not the bottle, look at the mirror behind it. Do you see yourself? Do you see your reflection? Well, do you know how that reflection is created? It comes from light. Not the cheap lights that we have in the bar, not from the searchlights from outside- it comes from the light from within. That light is inside of you. It’s a small flame burning now, and all of the drink in this bar isn’t enough to put it out. You can try to freeze it, you can hide it, and you can try to stamp it out, but the embers of the Christmas spirit stay glowing inside of you. It’s a gift passed on to every child, and it’s a gift that started with one child, a long time ago.
“You’re a nice kid. You’re not nearly old enough to be hanging around in a trench coat and hat, and roaring about how you feel sorry for yourself. You’ve still got some holiday spirit in you. I know you do. I can see your reflection. Now get out of here, and go home and enjoy your holiday. And Merry Christmas.”
And she leaned over, and kissed me on the cheek.
Stunned, I left the lounge, and wandered out of the casino. I waited for the bus in the morning air. It was daylight, and still snowing outside. The surrounding mountains would soon be full of skiers on holidays, and kids with new skis and skates. As the bus pulled up, a gaggle of older women got off the bus. They were all singing Christmas carols, and laughing and passing around tins of Christmas cookies. I tried to pass by, and they reached out and pressed a few cookies into my hand. I jammed them into my pockets, and tipped my cap and mumbled a “Merry Christmas” and clambered onto the bus, not daring to look to see if my reflection was in the mirror.
I made the transfer at Truckee, and rode the bus home quietly. While the fog thickened as we banked back into the valley, the gloom that had pervaded my soul was quietly burning off. I couldn’t even feel the buzz of the alcohol anymore, and the numbness in my hands was gone, and with it, the numbness in my heart.
I got home that afternoon, and put the ham in the oven, and warmed up the leftover mac ‘n cheese. I fired up the gas log fireplace, and found a radio station playing Bing Crosby. I brewed a pot of coffee, and sat out on the porch, thinking about the day. I reached into the pocket of my coat, and found a cookie from the bus ride that morning. It was made of shortbread, star-shaped, with red and green sprinkles of sugar. It was light, and sweet, and brought back memories of other sweet things from another time, in another place. And I shivered in the remembrance of that warmth, rekindled anew.
I slowly sipped my coffee, and watched the short evening sun slowly dim across the courtyard below. As I looked about, I saw one last reflection from a plastic eye, in the owl.
“Merry Christmas, you owl.”
And to all, a good night.