Mike Sledge’s Christmas Carol
NOTE: Sticky post until after Christmas. New posts appear below.
by Jeff Guenther
It was foggy that night in 1946 as I drove my black ’32 Ford up La Cienega into the Baldwin Hills, heading for the X on the map. The fog was thick, thick as a bowl of day-old oatmeal at an all night diner. I wound my way into the oil fields and gritted to a stop at the end of the unpaved road. Here and there, through the murk, I could see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me like a shattered bottle of muscatel glittering in the headlights of an ambulance.
She was late, but dames are always late. Especially dames like her, dames that know they’re worth waiting for. So I waited. Carol was her name, or so she’d said. She’d slipped into my office the Friday before like desire into a preacher’s heart. My secretary, Miss Medusa, was playing hooky because of a little misunderstanding concerning payroll, so my visitor announced herself.
“Are you Myron Sledge, the detective?” she asked, standing blondly in front of the glass door that said, “Myron Sledge, Private Detective” in gold letters three inches high. I looked up, prepared to make some smart remark, but smart deserted me as soon as I got a look at her eyes, a pair of beautiful, deep brown eyes like left and right jabs to the solar plexus.
“Uh, sure, I’m Myron Sledge,” I drawled. “Call me ‘Mike’.” I leaned back, flicked open my Zippo with one hand, and nonchalantly lit what turned out to be the filter end of the cigarette dangling from my lips. “C’mon in,” I coughed. “Have a seat,” I wheezed.
She smiled a little smile like a day of summer in the middle of a blizzard. After seeing her smile, I’d have forgiven her even if she’d laughed out loud at me. She came in and sat lightly on the weather beaten oak chair beside my desk. “My name is Carol–Carol Christmas.”
“That’s quite a moniker, Carol. Did your parents have it in for you or something?”
“I never met my parents. The orphanage named me. They found me on their doorstep on Christmas Eve.”
“Aw. Gee.” I jabbed the smoldering wreck of my Parliament into the dark gray accumulation in the bottom of the ashtray. “How can I help you, Carol?”
“I need a detective. I’m looking for something. Something hard to find.”
“Finding things is my business,” I said. “I’m good at it.” I waved my hand, knocking over my coffee cup.
Carol was kind enough not to smile again. “This is not exactly a thing I’m looking for, Mike,” she said.
“A person? An animal?…Not a pooch! I don’t do pooches!” I said hurriedly, holding up my hands, remembering that awful night in Pasadena in ’42.
“No, it’s not a dog. It’s…you promise you won’t laugh?” She gave me an earnest look like it was very important that I not laugh, that she’d be embarrassed and turn as red as sunset in Santa Monica if I laughed at her.
I promised. Sometimes my promises aren’t worth much, I’m afraid, but this time I really meant it. I would not laugh, no matter what. You could pull my fingernails out with red hot pliers, and I wouldn’t laugh. No, sir.
She put her hands in her lap and looked down. “I’m looking for the Spirit of Christmas,” she said in a quiet voice.
Her face fell, and I immediately felt like I’d stepped on a little girl’s doll while she was watching. “You said you wouldn’t laugh,” she said in a hurt voice.
“Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh.” The expression on my face must have been something to behold, because she grinned again. I grinned back, and suddenly felt my eyes got blurry, maybe from the Parliament coming to life again. I didn’t see any smoke curling out of my ashtray, but I stubbed the butt one more time, anyway, to make sure.
“Tell me what you’re after, Carol. I’ll try to help any way I can.”
She got this sad, serious look and said, “I’ve never felt that I was a part of Christmas. When I grew up, the people who took care of me were always very kind, and I got presents, but I didn’t feel as if Christmas was for me. It always seemed to be something that just went on around me, something that other people did, but that had nothing to do with me. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” All too well. I made a firm decision not to remember Christmases past until Carol had gone and I was alone in my office again.
“I tried very hard to fit into Christmas last year,” she said. “I went to parties and shopped and gave presents and sent out cards, but I didn’t really feel any different. So I decided that this year I’d try even harder. That’s where you come in. I want you to help me find the Christmas Spirit.”
I took a deep breath. “Carol, I’ve done the same thing, and I’m not sure there is any such thing as the Christmas Spirit.”
“Yes there is, Mike. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen other people that definitely have it.”
I shifted in my chair. “Well, then ask them where they got it. If they’ve got it, surely they’ll tell you where they got it.”
“I’d be too embarrassed to ask. I’d feel like I was a freak if I admitted I didn’t have the Christmas Spirit.”
“But you’re not embarrassed to ask me?”
“You’re a professional–I can tell you anything, and you get paid to listen and help…and not laugh!” She frowned at me like Queen Victoria being not amused.
“I’m sorry I laughed.” I bit both my cheeks and stubbed the cigarette out again.
“I know. Now I want you to find the Christmas Spirit for me. How much do you charge?”
“Fifty-up-front-then-twenty-dollars-a-day-plus-expenses,” I rattled off automatically.
“Okay,” she said, before I had a chance to tell her I’d do anything for her, slay dragons, climb Mount Everest, stick out my tongue at an IRS agent, do anything not involving pooches, free of charge. She held out an engraved picture of Ulysses S. Grant.
“Uh, how do you propose I go about this?” I asked, taking the fifty.
“Finding things is your business,” she said in a gruff voice. “You’re good at it.”
The room was getting hot. I got up and cranked open the one window that wasn’t painted shut and let some of the December L.A. air in.
“Do what you usually do, I think,” she added in her normal voice, a voice like warm honey poured over English toffee ice cream.
“Okay. I usually ask clients where they last saw the missing object.”
“Hmm. Well, I met a nice salesman last week in the men’s department at Desmond’s downtown who had it. His name was Phil.”
“Good. I’ll start with him. Where else? Any other leads?”
“The little man that runs the newspaper stand at the corner of Fairfax and Third, two weeks ago.”
I pulled out my little book and jotted down some notes. “And?”
“And a waitress named Reba at the White Spot on Wilshire Boulevard, noon yesterday. She’s a blonde, about forty. Maybe a tiny bit older.”
“Good. Those’ll give me something to go on. I’ll call you as soon as I check ‘em out. I’ll need a number where I can reach you…”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“I think I’d better meet you somewhere,” Carol said.
“Here?” I asked.
“No.” She opened her purse and dropped a map on my desk. “Meet me in the Baldwin Hills, at the X on this map. A week from today, at 7:30 in the evening.”
I rummaged around in my top drawer until I found a clean business card, one with some pointy corners, to give to Carol. She put my card in her purse and left, letting a thundering silence take her place. Bad memories of Christmases from years ago rolled around in my head like loose cannons below decks. I pushed them away and went downstairs.
It was overcast outside, and the wind was coming from the west, cold and moist. It looked like rain, for a change. I climbed into my Ford V-8 and took Wilshire Blvd. downtown. I went into Desmond’s and pretended to look at shirts while giving the clerks the once-over. I didn’t see anybody that looked like Carol’s description of “Phil.” Things were slow, but all the clerks seemed to be busy looking busy. Suddenly, there was a presence at my side. “May I help you, Sir?”
Somehow, I knew it was him. “Uh, I’m trying to find a present for my uncle…”
“Do you know his size?” he asked. A good question, but since I didn’t actually have an uncle of any size or shape, an irrelevant one.
“Are you Phil?”
“Why, yes, I am,” he said, puzzled. “Do I know you?”
“Ah, no, but I’m told that you have the Christmas Spirit.”
Phil smiled. “I like to think so.” He kept on smiling.
“So where did you get it?” I asked.
“Why, I’m not sure,” he said. “It just seems to be in the air this time of year…” Phil waved his hands.
“When did you first notice it?” I pulled out my little notebook.
Phil looked up at the ceiling and rubbed his pointy chin for a while. “July!” he said, finally. “Yes, it was July.”
“July? What happened in July that made you feel the Christmas Spirit?”
“Our buyer asked us about what to order this year. He starts his year-end order planning in July, and I remember feeling good that Christmas was coming…”
“And why did you feel good that Christmas was coming? What’s different about Christmas that makes you feel good?”
Phil deliberated. “More customers? Yes, that’s it. More people to help.”
“Goodness, no! I hate working overtime. The extra money just isn’t worth it.” Phil put the back of his hand on his forehead.
“You just like more customers?”
“Oh, I love it!” His face lit up. “So many chances to meet people, to help them find something they like for themselves or for someone they love, to see them go away a little happier than when they came into the store. It’s wonderful.”
I made a brief note in my little book. “You must like your job.” I said.
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Phil smiled.
“And this Christmas Spirit. When does it go away?”
Phil laughed. “I’m not really sure that it ever does, completely. I still remember the fun I had last year. No, I don’t think the Christmas Spirit stops. I just notice it more this time of year.” He giggled.
I underlined my previous note twice. It read: “Phil = fruitcake.” This would remind me never to let Phil measure my inseam.
The next day, it was raining at noon when I reached Fairfax and Third. The newspaper guy was stocky, balding under his rain hat, with heavy features. He was standing under the newsstand awning, wearing a knee-length yellow slicker. I approached slowly, looking for clues from under my umbrella. I didn’t see much evidence of Christmas Spirit here.
He noticed me, eventually. “Hi. Ya wanna newspaper?” he said, holding out a slightly rain-spattered L.A. Daily News.
“Actually, what I’m looking for is the Christmas Spirit,” I said.
“Da Christmas Spirit?” He looked up and down the racks of newspapers under the awning behind him. “Da Christmas Spirit… da Christmas Spirit… I don’t think we got no ‘Christmas Spirit,’ Mister.” Ya sure ya wouldn’t settle for da Phoenix Sun? Or da Milwaukee Globe? Or how ’bout da Miami Herald?” He smiled and his eyes twinkled, or maybe it was raindrops in his eyebrows. It was hard to tell, the eyes and the brows being so close together.
“I was told that you had the Christmas Spirit.”
“Who told ya dat? Musta been somebody with too much Christmas spirit.” He made a gesture like a wino glugging down the last inch of a bottle. “I don’t got da Christmas Spirit…no more dan anybody else. Hold it a sec.”
He ran over to the curb to sell a paper to some guy in a big Buick. The guy took off in a hurry and splashed water over both of us.
“Moron!” I muttered, brushing the dirty water off my trousers.
“Well, maybe to you he’s a moron. To his muddah, he’s really somethin’. It’s all in your point o’ view, ya know?”
“You don’t think he’s a moron, then?”
“I din’t say dat. All I’m sayin’ is dat it don’t matter to me what he is. I sell newspapers. I ain’t a judge. If he’s a moron, he’ll find out soonah or latah, wit’out me tellin’ him. Meanwhile, I sell a lotta newspapers, don’t get no ulcers.”
“But he got water all over your legs…” I said.
“It’s just watah, it’ll dry. It don’t mattah dat much, ya see. What mattahs right now is sellin’ newspapers. ‘Speakin’ o’ dat, ‘scuse me a sec. Customer.”
He sold an Examiner and chatted briefly to a lady in a leather coat. I noticed that she started smiling when she talked to him. I tried to hold my umbrella and make a few notes at the same time while he wasn’t looking.
“Where was we?” he said when he came back.
“We were talking about morons.”
He waved a stubby finger at me. “No we wasn’t! We was talkin’ ’bout not judgin’ people.”
“Ah, yeah. Right.”
“Look. Ya wanna judge da guy in da Buick, go ahead. I don’t judge ya for wantin’ to judge him, okay? Not my business. But ya’ll be takin’ time an’ energy away from what ya do best, ta do it.
“But what if people say you’re a moron? What about them?”
“Well, if dey wanna judge me, den dey’re wastin’ time, an’ I refuse to waste my time worryin’ about dem wastin’ deir time.”
I took this in. “Umm. You may be right,” I admitted.
“Course I’m right. Judgin’ people, it’s a total waste of time. An’ half da time, ya’ll be wrong, anyway. If yer judgin’ quick, yer not really seein’ da whole pitcher, ya know? Oops, gotta go.”
He took care of a customer. I made another note…and crossed out the earlier one about “Phil = fruitcake.”
It wasn’t far from the newsstand to the White Spot. I walked in, shook off my umbrella, and went up to the cardboard-holly-bedecked cash register. I asked the gal behind the counter which tables were Reba’s. She sat me at one of them and I looked for Reba over the top of the menu.
Reba was in her 40’s, at least, slightly chubby, a “summer blonde” (summer blonde, and summer not.) She was wearing a white uniform with a little cap. “So, whatta ya want, Hon?” she asked around her wad of spearmint, setting a paper cone full of luke cold water in front of me in a metal holder.
“Do you have the Christmas Spirit?” I asked.
“We don’t have a liquor license, Hon,” she said. “Sorry.”
“I didn’t mean that. I mean like being in tune with the season, like having peace and good will toward men…”
“Oh, good will toward men, I got that, all right.” Reba smiled ruefully. “Maybe too much of it. I’ll bring you a cup o’ coffee, and then we can decide what you want for lunch. Okay, Hon?”
I nodded and watched her walk away. She moved without grace, I thought at first. But I remembered what the newsstand guy had said about judging and not seeing. I looked again and saw that when Reba was working, there was no wasted effort, no false moves. She used both hands in perfect synch, and even used her feet and elbows to close doors and drawers, turning and moving in the crowded space behind the counter with the joy and timing, if not quite the agility, of a dancer. She served two short orders and returned to my table a minute later with a cup of coffee.
“Here ya go,” she said, placing it in front of me with a smile.
The coffee was hot, there was none spilled on the table or in the saucer, and there was no lipstick on the rim of the cup. I plopped in a couple of sugar cubes and watched them melt away like hope and innocence dropped into a pool of decades. I stirred the cup and wondered why I was there. Reba stood patiently, pad in hand, waiting for my order.
“Know what you want, Hon?”
“Well, I was told that you have more of the Christmas Spirit than most people, Reba. Why is that? Where did you get it?”
“Who, me?” Reba smiled and leaned against the table. “I don’t know about Christmas Spirit. This is the way I always feel.”
“Where did you get your attitude about life?”
Reba swabbed the table and put my menu in the chromed rack. “From my Dad, I guess. He taught me everything I know about being happy.”
“Your dad was a happy person?”
Reba laughed. “Nope. He had an okay life, but he complicated it by wanting fancy stuff: Money, expensive cars, big houses, all that. He was so busy wanting and scheming and thinking about what he was going to do when he got rich, that he missed great chances and happy times right under his nose. Then he’d go nuts regretting what he’d missed. He was miserable all his life.”
“But you still learned to be happy from him?”
“Yeah. He taught me what not to do. He taught me not to live in next year or next week or even tomorrow. He taught me to live life right now.” Reba smiled and said, “I owe my old man a lot. Now, what’ll it be?”
“Just the coffee, thanks.” I opened my notebook when she was gone, not sure what to write.
I spent the rest of the week trying to make enough sense of my notes to give my client an iron-clad answer, a fool-proof way to get the Christmas Spirit. The three people I’d talked to all liked what they were doing, but I wasn’t sure it was that simple. Anyway, I was a private eye, not a career counselor.
By Friday, I was at my wits’ end. I finally gave up and went shopping. I thought about Carol’s smile and how warm I felt when it shined on me. I went into a jeweler’s and bought a little rhinestone pin in the shape of an angel with what was left of Carol’s fifty dollar retainer.
At 8 o’clock Friday night, I was still waiting there in the cold oil field, leaning against my car, listening to the music of Kay Kyser and his orchestra on the radio. I was nervous as a nudist at the front of a crowded elevator. The fog was lifting and I could see the lights of L.A. below. Its beauty was almost lost on me, because Carol hadn’t come. But I thought about Reba’s dad and let myself enjoy the view, anyway. Instantly, the city became a carpet of jewels spread out before me.
I figured I’d wait another half hour and then go. It was just one of those things that happen in my business. That’s why we ask for a retainer up front.
Suddenly, without a sound, Carol was there, walking towards me out of wisps of fog, backlit by the city lights and wearing a long white dress. It was satin, I guessed. I thought she looked like a million bucks.
I told her, “You look like…” My face felt hot, and words failed me. “…Like a million bucks,” I said weakly.
She smiled. “Thank you. Sorry I’m late. Did you have any luck?”
“Yes and no, Carol. Did I find the Christmas Spirit for sure? Maybe not. I did learn a few things, though.”
“What did you learn?” she said, putting her hand on my arm.
“Well, the people you said have the Christmas Spirit are happy right where they are. They seem to have a Christmas attitude every day. Phil gets happy from making other people happy. The newspaper guy never judges other people. And Reba lives for the present and does this sort of dance as she works.”
“Is that what it takes to have Christmas in your heart?”
“I can’t guarantee it, Carol. That’s what works for these people. I don’t think it’s any one thing they do. I think it’s in their attitude, their personal outlook.”
“I was hoping for something more specific…”
“Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Uh, here, I got you a little present.” I pulled out the box from the jewelers. “Merry Christmas, Carol.”
Carol opened the box. Even in the dark, the little angel sparkled like Los Angeles at night. Carol’s eyes sparkled, too, as tears filled their corners.
“It’s…it’s…heavenly!” she said.
“Ah, well, it…it reminded me of you.”
“Thank you, Mike. It will remind me of you, too.” She kissed me so fast I could remember being kissed, but couldn’t remember feeling being kissed.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t find the Christmas Spirit for you, Carol.”
“Oh, but you did find it, Mike. It’s right in here, now.” She pressed her hand against my chest. My heart tried to beat a hole through my ribs and jump right into her hand.
“It was supposed to be for you,” I said.
“I wasn’t exactly truthful, Mike. I didn’t want it for myself. I wanted it for you.”
“For me? But why?…”
“There were some things you needed to learn about life and about Christmas. Don’t forget those three things, Mike. And now…” She looked at her watch. “Oh! I’m running late. Give me a hug, then I really must fly.” She put her arms around me and her head on my shoulder.
I held her for only a brief instant before she stood back and looked at me. “Now close your eyes. I have a surprise for you,” she said.
I closed them and waited. “I feel silly. What’s the surprise?”
No answer. When I opened my eyes, she was gone. Totally gone. I looked all around the car and in it. No Carol.
I was alone, alone with just a memory. I remember her like she was tattooed on my soul. I can still see her smile, her eyes, feel her small shape in my arms, and the funny texture of the back of her dress. It felt really strange. Do they make dresses out of feathers?