(Some readers may not be familiar with my friend, Eugene. They can read about a hunting trip we once took together in Careful With That Ax, Eugene and see his artistic abilities in A Craft Project With My Friend, Eugene.)
If Happy Hour at the Holiday Inn, with a beefed-up buffet and lots of festive decorations, counts as a company Christmas party and tequila counts as holiday cheer, Eugene left the company Christmas party filled with holiday cheer. As company parties go, it wasn’t bad. At least, that is, until they fired up the karaoke machine.
Eugene downed a quick last shot and snuck out the door before things turned embarrassing. It was snowing out, so he brushed off his truck while the engine warmed, sobering up a bit in the chilly air. After pee-writing his name in the fresh snow he climbed in the truck, remembered to turn on his headlights, and spun out the driveway and onto the highway, eventually finding a lane.
It seemed the whole world was decorated for Christmas and Eugene smiled to himself as he soaked in the holiday displays. Christmas lights made him feel like peace on Earth and goodwill to men was possible, if even just for a moment, on a snowy December night like this. He turned off the highway and drove slowly through the side streets, gawking. Santa waved from dozens of rooftops while hundreds of brightly lit reindeer stood by below in the snow. Electric icicles outlined houses and fences, blinking and changing color. All the trees were defined by illuminated spirals, grids and blobs.
Millions of snowflakes swirled, scattering light through the air. Drops of melted snow on the windshield shone with giant candy canes and magical gingerbread houses, and Eugene began to hanker for some eggnog. The wings and meatballs from the buffet had his stomach growling for something more substantial, so he made his way back to the highway and headed for the Price Chopper.
“Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla-Walla Wash. and Kalamazoo! Nora’s freezing on the trolley, swaller dollar cauliflower, alley garoo!” (Apologies to Walt Kelly)
His radio didn’t work so Eugene was singing loudly, trying to hear himself over the road noise and the roar of the old truck’s heater fan as he pulled into the crowded parking lot. Stepping out of the truck, he zipped his coat and pulled his hat down over his ears, shoved his hands into his pockets and hurried for the door.
The bell ringers were there, with their red bucket, at the edge of the slush, just like always, but instead of avoiding eye contact and hurrying past, Eugene stopped. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket and tossed in five quarters, a dime, four pennies, two balls of lint, a gum wrapper and a ¼” hex nut.
The bell ringer said, “Thank you, sir! God bless you and Merry Christmas!”
It nearly made him cry. Eugene didn’t know what to do. He was suddenly so full of the holiday spirit he thought he’d burst!
The automatic door opened and Eugene stepped into the hot, noisy, brightly lit store. He cleared the slush from his boots by stomping on the saturated red mat and looked around, planning his route. Then, grabbing a basket, he worked his way into the crowd, smiling and saying, “Excuse me.”
First, to the beer cooler for a quick rack, then across the back of the store to the dairy case for eggnog then around the corner for a frozen Mexican dinner. That was the plan but Eugene remembered the big box at the front of the store, where they collect food for the needy, so he detoured down an aisle where beanie-weenies were three for a buck and got nine. Then he got some candy canes to throw in, too.
“Poor kids shouldn’t have to go without Christmas candy,” he thought as he grabbed some for himself.
On his way to the eggnog, he passed a display of indoor Christmas lights and extension cords and decided, right then and there, that he could at least put a few lights around his cabin window and do his part to make the world more beautiful. He chose two strings of lights that blink and then he saw those cookies shaped like Christmas trees with the red and green crystals sprinkled on them so he grabbed a package of them, too.
His basket was full of beans, Christmas goodies and frozen enchiladas and his beer was getting warm. So was Eugene. He hadn’t even unzipped his coat when he came in and now his hands were full. With so many people and their carts milling around he decided to keep moving and began weaving his way towards the checkout.
He chose his line, not based on length, but on the cuteness of the cashier, as if he had a chance, even if it meant a longer wait. The brunette with the sparkly little stud in her nose would definitely be worth the wait, so he stood there with his heavy basket, sweating inside his coat and under his hat, prickly heat breaking out everywhere, humming along with the piped-in music.
Eugene was gazing at the blonde on the cover of a magazine when he was suddenly hit from behind by a shopping cart. Looking up from the blonde’s cleavage, he met the glare of an older gentleman wearing a yellow windbreaker with a red, white and blue, star spangled ball cap on his head.
The man said, “Oh. Are you in line?”
Over-heated and pale, Eugene’s holiday spirit still shined through. He replied, “Hey, no problem. Happy Holidays, man.”
“What did you say to me?” the man demanded.
“I said ‘No problem. Happy Holidays.’”
“Oh,” the man said. “You’re one of them people against Christmas, aren’t ya?”
“No,” Eugene said. “I’m not against Christmas. Why?”
“You said ‘Happy Holidays!’ The ‘holiday’ we’re celebratin’ is ‘Christmas!’ gosh darn it!”
Eugene didn’t know what to say. It didn’t matter, though, because the man wasn’t done.
“It’s a Christian holiday, celebrated by Christians! This is a Christian nation and I won’t have good American traditions spoiled by a bunch of left wing whackos who are afraid they’ll offend someone! If you mean “Merry Christmas!” say “Merry Christmas!” darn it!”
“Look, buddy … .”
“No, you look! I’ve had it up to here with you people tryin’ to kill Christmas! Did you know there’s places I can’t even shop at anymore because they stopped sayin’ ‘Merry Christmas’? We’re boycottin’ ‘em ‘til they start sayin’ it again, that’s what we’re doin’! There’s thousands of us, all across this great land of ours, boycottin’ stores that started sayin’ ‘Happy Holidays!’ They’re neglecting our heritage and we’re gonna make ‘em pay for it!”
“Are you going to make me pay for it?” Eugene asked.
“Oh, you’ll pay, alright. Don’t you realize that our faith is under fire, more and more, every day? You people are trying to take God out of everything! ‘Community Trees’ and ‘Winter Festivals!’ what kind of whacko crap is that? You Liberals that hate God are taking over! It’s a war!”
The check-out line was not moving along very well and it was obvious they were going to be here a while. Eugene had already heard everything the man was saying, word for word, on the radio at work and he tried very hard to tune the man out but all he could hear when he did was Bing Crosby on the P.A. system. He wondered how much money old Bing’s estate makes on royalties this time of year, as Bing crooned in one ear and his new friend prattled on in the other.
Eugene felt hot and cold at the same time and his stomach began to churn. He was beginning to regret that last shot at the party. The fluorescent lights were buzzing and the automatic doors kept opening and closing and the bell ringers were really going at it out there. It was almost too much to take.
Eugene started to feel sick. His eyes began to water and his throat started to close. He got a strange taste in his mouth and he realized that something smelled bad. What was it? The stench was nearly overpowering. For a moment, he wished it really was overpowering so he could lose consciousness and not smell it any more.
Eugene had smelled nasty stuff before but he wasn’t sure how to rank this odor. Otter? Dead frog? Camp latrine? No, this scent actually rippled the air around him.
It was perfume!
Something brushed by Eugene at waist level and he looked down to see the top of an older woman’s head. She was nestling into the space between Eugene and the man who’d tried to cut in front of him. She put her hand on the man’s arm, looked up at him and said, “I couldn’t remember which you prefer, so I got you both the cream and suppositories, dear, but I got the generic. It’s cheaper.”
Then the woman put her hand on the man’s cheek and said, “What’s the matter, dear? You look upset!”
The man said to his wife, “Honey, this fellow said ‘Happy Holidays.’”
The wife turned and looked up at Eugene through her thick, smudged, tri-focals and said, “Why can’t you just say ‘Merry Christmas’ like a normal person? Why do you hate the baby Jesus? It’s getting to the point I don’t even feel safe anymore!”
The automatic doors opened again, the cold air dissipating the woman’s perfume a bit. Eugene lost most of the urge to vomit but now he was mad.
“You’re bent out of shape because I said ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas?’ Dude, get a grip! ‘Happy Holidays’ pisses you off?”
Evidently, the volume of Eugene’s voice was being controlled by that last shot at the party and apparently that last shot liked things loud. Eugene began to holler.
“I didn’t say the words you wanted me to? I’m killing Christmas?
“I was drivin’ around, looking at all the pretty lights and wanted some eggnog so I came here! I put money in the little red bucket out there and it felt good! I never do that! I’ve got nine cans of beanie-weenies here for the poor people! I even got candy canes for their kids! I’ve got blinking lights to put up and make the world prettier and I’ve got red and green cookies shaped like trees! How am I killing Christmas?”
The woman looked up at Eugene and said, “None of those things have anything to do with the real meaning of Christmas. Don’t you see? The God haters have pushed Jesus out of everything! They’ve ruined our holiday and made it into their own twisted pagan celebration! They take no prisoners in this war and we’re fighting back!”
Eugene wasn’t quite stunned, but it took him a second to speak.
“You think there’s a war going on! What war? Where’s the war? No one said you can’t celebrate Christmas! No one is stopping you from celebrating anything you want! Knock yourself out, for crying out loud! I thought I was full of Christmas spirit and holiday joy when I came in here! I was feeling good about my fellow man and everything was beautiful to me! But then he bashed me with that cart. Did I say, ‘Watch out, jerk’? Did I say, ‘Your nose sure is big’? Did I say, ‘Your wife’s got a very wide butt and smells like a gut wagon’? No! I didn’t say any of those things! I said ‘Happy freaking Holidays!’!”
Eugene was getting louder, his head was spinning and spittle was hitting the woman’s glasses.
“When you ran into me,” he screamed at the man, “I said, ‘No problem!’ Then I smiled and said ‘Happy Holidays!’ and you started giving me grief! You’re the one killing Christmas! You sucked the spirit right out of me! You don’t like it when someone says ‘Happy Holidays’? You gotta have it just the way you want it? Okay fine! Cream or suppository? Huh? What do you want? Are you ready?”
Eugene took a deep breath and bellowed at the couple, “MERRY CHRISTMAS, YOU MORONS!!!”
Except for Andy Williams on the P.A., the store fell silent. All eyes were on Eugene and the couple. Eugene looked around and saw all those people staring, but he was not embarrassed. He was hot, prickly, drunk and wild-eyed, but he was not embarrassed. He was hurt and insulted that someone would accuse him of killing Christmas, and he was mad.
He looked back to the couple but they avoided his eyes.
Eugene allowed the music back in his head and tried humming along as the store returned to normal. The cute cashier with the sparkly stud in her nose began ringing up his purchase. She looked up and smiled at him several times, and as she handed him his change, she said, “Two forty seven is your change, sir. Have a — a very nice evening!”
As he turned to leave, Eugene took one last look back at the people who had accused him of trying to kill Christmas. The woman was fanning herself with a copy of the National Enquirer and the man was shaking a pill from a bottle.
Waving his plastic bags full of goodies in the air, Eugene shouted just as loud as he could, “Happy Holidays to all, whether you like it or not!” Then he slammed the beanie-weenies, candy canes and cookies into the big box at the front of the store and stomped out, into the cold.
Eugene decided to spike his eggnog that night, but when he got to the State Liquor Outlet he couldn’t decide between bourbon and rum, so he grabbed some vodka. Then he realized he’d lost his wallet and only had $2.47, which wasn’t really a problem (unless he got pulled over) because of the “emergency” twenty he kept in his sock, so he paid for his booze and headed home.
He fixed himself a drink and hung his little lights around the window while the enchiladas cooked in his tiny oven. When dinner was ready, he plopped down in his recliner and turned on the tube to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and before eleven o’clock Eugene was passed out in his chair with a half-eaten cookie stuck to the front of his shirt, glued there by drool, vodka and eggnog. Bells were ringing, an angel was getting his wings, and the blinking, colored lights illuminated Eugene’s smile as he slouched in his ratty old chair, waving his right hand and mumbling, over and over, “Merry Christmas, morons!”
The movie ended and the news came on, but one bell kept right on ringing. It wasn’t the clear tintinnabulation of a temple bell or a peal from a steeple. It sounded more like a bicycle bell, stuck through a hole in a wall, which it was. Slowly, Eugene emerged from his eggnog stupor and realized that someone was at the door.
He stood up, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, knocked the cookie from his shirt and stumbled to the door. Snowflakes swirled around his bare feet when he opened it and he had to blink hard in order to see who was there. He blinked even harder (and may have actually gasped) when he saw it was the cute brunette with the sparkly little stud in her nose!
“Hurry up and let me in!” she said, and he did.
Closing the door behind her, she held out Eugene’s duct tape wallet, a box of candy canes and a six-pack of Long Trail Brewery’s “Hibernator” beer (a mighty tasty brew with a label that shows a bear sitting in front of his fireplace with two old hunters’ heads mounted above the mantle).
“You forgot these at the store,” she said. “Wanna fool around?”
Who knows what visions danced through their heads that dark December night, but in the morning the world outside was white and pure, beneath six inches of new snow. Clothes were strewn throughout Eugene’s cabin, beer bottles had replaced the rabbit-ears on top of the TV, and the vodka bottle was on the floor, done spinning for now.
The low, feeble sun that shines on the darkest day of the year managed to poke a shaft of light through Eugene’s bedroom window, illuminating the shape of two lovers beneath the blankets. A contented sigh warmed the room as the figures shifted and Eugene poked his head out into the morning light.
He had two candy canes stuck in his hair and another to his cheek. Candy canes were everywhere – on the floor, in the sheets, and especially in the feminine hand that reached out and gently pulled him back beneath the covers, which is where Eugene and the cute brunette with the sparkly little stud in her nose spent the shortest, darkest day of the year, sharing peace, love and light.