Saturday, 13 December 2014

This Year's Christmas Story: Kurt Vonnegut's "A Present for Big Saint Nick"

This year's Christmas story comes from Kurt Vonnegut. It is perhaps not the first Christmas story you would read to your children, yet it does have that touch of the child-like wonder and charm that we often associate with Christmas. With this, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and lots of holiday cheer!


Big Nick was said to be the most recent heir to the power of Al Capone. He refused to affirm or deny it, on the grounds that he might tend to incriminate himself.
He bought whatever caught his fancy, a twenty-three-room house outside Chicago, a seventeen-room house in Miami, racehorses, a ninety-foot yacht, one hundred fifteen suits, and among other things, controlling interest in a middleweight boxer named Bernie O’Hare, the Shenandoah Blaster.
When O’Hare lost sight in one eye on his way to the top of his profession, Big Nick added him to his squad of bodyguards.
Big Nick gave a party every year, a little before Christmas, for the children of his staff, and on the morning of the day of the party, Bernie O’Hare, the Shenandoah Blaster, went shopping in downtown Chicago with his wife, Wanda, and their four-year-old son, Willy.
The three were in a jewelry store when young Willy began to complain and cling to his father’s trousers like a drunken bell-ringer.
Bernie, a tough, scarred, obedient young thug, set down a velvet-lined tray of watches and grabbed the waist of his trousers. “Let go my pants, Willy! Let go!” He turned to Wanda. “How’m I supposed to pick a Christmas present for Big Nick with Willy pulling my pants down? Take him off me, Wan. What ails the kid?”
“There must be a Santa Claus around,” said Wanda.
“There ain’t no Santy Clauses in jewelry stores,” said Bernie. “You ain’t got no Santy Claus in here, have you?” he asked the clerk.
“No, sir,” said the clerk. His face bloomed, and he leaned over the counter to speak to Willy. “But if the little boy would like to talk to old Saint Nick, I think he’ll find the jolly old elf right next—”
“Can it,” said Bernie.
The clerk paled. “I was just going to say, sir, that the department store next door has a Santa Claus, and the little—”
“Can’tcha see you’re making the kid worse?” said Bernie. He knelt by Willy. “Willy boy, there ain’t no Santy Clauses around for miles. The guy is full of baloney. There ain’t no Santy next door.”
“There, Daddy, there,” said Willy. He pointed a finger at a tiny red figure standing by a clock behind the counter.
“Cripes!” said Bernie haggardly, slapping his knee. “The kid’s got a eye like a eagle for Santy Clauses.” He gave a fraudulent laugh. “Why, say, Willy boy, I’m surprised at you. That’s just a little plastic Santy. He can’t hurt you.”
“I hate him,” said Willy.
“How much you want for the thing?” said Bernie.
“The plastic Santa Claus, sir?” said the bewildered clerk. “Why, it’s just a little decoration. I think you can get one at any five-and-ten-cent store.”
“I want that one,” said Bernie. “Right now.”
The clerk gave it to him. “No charge,” he said. “Be our guest.”
Bernie dropped the Santa Claus on the terrazzo floor. “Watch what Daddy’s going to do to Old Whiskers, Willy,” he said. He brought his heel down. “Keeeeee-runch!
Willy smiled faintly, then began to laugh as his father’s heel came down again and again.
“Now you do it, Willy,” said Bernie. “Who’s afraid of him, eh?”
“I’ll bust his ol’ head off,” said Willy gleefully. “Crunch him up!” He himself trampled Father Christmas.
“That was real smart,” said Wanda. “You make me spend all year trying to get him to like Santa Claus, and then you pull a stunt like that.”
“I hadda do something to make him pipe down, didn’t I?” said Bernie. “Okay, okay. Now maybe we can have a little peace and quiet so I can look at the watches. How much is this one with the diamonds for numbers?”
“Three hundred dollars, sir, including tax,” said the clerk.
“Does it glow in the dark? It’s gotta glow in the dark.”
“Yes, sir, the face is luminous.”
“I’ll take it,” said Bernie.
“Three hundred bucks!” said Wanda, pained. “Holy smokes, Bernie.”
“Whaddya mean, holy smokes?” said Bernie. “I’m ashamed to give him a little piece of junk like this. What’s a lousy three-hundred-dollar watch to Big Nick? You kick about this, but I don’t hear you kicking about the way the savings account keeps going up. Big Nick is Santy Claus, whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t like it,” said Wanda. “And neither does Willy. Look at the poor kid— Christmas is ruined for him.”
“Aaaaah, now,” said Bernie, “it ain’t that bad. It’s real warmhearted of Big Nick to wanna give a party for the kids. I mean, no matter how it comes out, he’s got the right idea.”
“Some heart!” said Wanda. “Some idea! He gets dressed up in a Santa Claus suit so all the kids’ll worship him. And he tops that off by makin’ the kids squeal on their parents.”
Bernie nodded in resignation. “What can I do?”
“Quit,” said Wanda. “Work for somebody else.”
“What else I know how to do, Wan? All I ever done was fight, and where else am I gonna make money like what Big Nick pays me? Where?”
A tall, urbane gentleman with a small mustache came up to the adjoining counter, trailed by a wife in mink and a son. The son was Willy’s age, and was snuffling and peering apprehensively over his shoulder at the front door.
The clerk excused himself and went to serve the genteel new arrivals.
“Hey,” said Bernie, “there’s Mr. and Mrs. Pullman. You remember them from last Christmas, Wan.”
“Big Nick’s accountant?” said Wanda.
“Naw, his lawyer.” Bernie saluted Pullman with a wave of his hand. “Hi, Mr. Pullman.”
“Oh, hello,” said Pullman without warmth. “Big Nick’s bodyguard,” he explained to his wife. “You remember him from the last Christmas party.”
“Doing your Christmas shopping late like everybody else, I see,” said Bernie.
“Yes,” said Pullman. He looked down at his child, Richard. “Can’t you stop snuffling?”
“It’s psychosomatic,” said Mrs. Pullman. “He snuffles every time he sees a Santa Claus. You can’t bring a child downtown at Christmastime and not have him see a Santa Claus somewhere. One came out of the cafeteria next door just a minute ago. Scared poor Richard half to death.”
“I won’t have a snuffling son,” said Pullman. “Richard! Stiff upper lip! Santa Claus is your friend, my friend, everybody’s friend.”
“I wish he’d stay at the North Pole,” said Richard. 
“And freeze his nose off,” said Willy.
“And get ate up by a polar bear,” said Richard. 
“Eaten up by a polar bear,” Mrs. Pullman corrected.
“Are you encouraging the boy to hate Santa Claus?” said Mr. Pullman.
“Why pretend?” said Mrs. Pullman. “Our Santa Claus is a dirty, vulgar, prying, foulmouthed, ill-smelling fake.”
The clerk’s eyes rolled.
“Sometimes, dear,” said Pullman, “I wonder if you remember what we were like before we met that jolly elf. Quite broke.”
“Give me integrity or give me death,” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Shame comes along with the money,” said Pullman. “It’s a package deal. And we’re in this thing together.” He addressed the clerk. “I want something terribly overpriced and in the worst possible taste, something, possibly, that glows in the dark and has a barometer in it.” He pressed his thumb and forefinger together in a symbol of delicacy. “Do you sense the sort of thing I’m looking for?”
“I’m sorry to say you’ve come to the right place,” said the clerk. “We have a model of the Mayflower in chromium, with a red light that shines through the portholes,” he said. “However, that has a clock instead of a barometer. We have a silver statuette of Man o’ War with rubies for eyes, and that’s got a barometer. Ugh.”
“I wonder,” said Mrs. Pullman, “if we couldn’t have Man o’ War welded to the poop deck of the Mayflower?”
“You’re on the right track,” said Pullman. “You surprise me. I didn’t think you’d ever get the hang of Big Nick’s personality.” He rubbed his eyes. “Oh Lord, what does he need, what does he need? Any ideas, Bernie?”
“Nothing,” said Bernie. “He’s got seven of everything. But he says he still likes to get presents, just to remind him of all the friends he’s got.”
“He would think that was the way to count them,” said Pullman.
“Friends are important to Big Nick,” said Bernie. “He’s gotta be told a hunnerd times a day everybody loves him, or he starts bustin’ up the furniture an’ the help.”
Pullman nodded. “Richard,” he said to his son, “do you remember what you are to tell Santa Claus when he asks what Mommy and Daddy think of Big Nick?”
“Mommy and Daddy love Big Nick,” said Richard. “Mommy and Daddy think he’s a real gentleman.”
“What’re you gonna say, Willy?” Bernie asked his own son.
“Mommy and Daddy say they owe an awful lot to Big Nick,” said Willy. “Big Nick is a kind, generous man.”
“Ev-ry-bo-dy loves Big Nick,” said Wanda.
“Or they wind up in Lake Michigan with cement overshoes,” said Pullman. He smiled at the clerk, who had just brought him the Mayflower and Man o’ War. “They’re ne as far as they go,” he said. “But do they glow in the dark?”

* * * * *

Bernie O’Hare was the front-door guard at Big Nick’s house on the day of the party. Now he admitted Mr. and Mrs. Pullman and their son.
“Ho ho ho,” said Bernie softly.
“Ho ho ho,” said Pullman.
“Well, Richard,” said Bernie to young Pullman, “I see you’re all calmed down.”
“Daddy gave me half a sleeping tablet,” said Richard.
“Has the master of the house been holding high wassail?” said Mrs. Pullman. 
“I beg your pardon?” said Bernie.
“Is he drunk?” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Do fish swim?” said Bernie.
“Did the sun rise?” said Mr. Pullman.
A small intercom phone on the wall buzzed. “Yeah. Nick?” said Bernie.
“They all here yet?” said a truculent voice.
“Yeah, Nick. The Pullmans just got here. They’re the last. The rest are sitting in the living room.”
“Do your stuff.” Nick hung up.
Bernie sighed, took a string of sleighbells from the closet, turned off the alarm system, and stepped outside into the shrubbery.
He shook the sleighbells and shouted. “Hey! It’s Santy Claus! And Dunder and Blitzen and Dancer and Prancer! Oh, boy! They’re landing on the roof! Now Santy’s coming in through an upstairs bedroom window!”
He went back inside, hid the bells, bolted and chained the door, reset the alarm system, and went into the living room, where twelve children and eight sets of parents sat silently.
All the men in the group worked for Nick. Bernie was the only one who looked like a hoodlum. The rest looked like ordinary, respectable businessmen. They labored largely in Big Nick’s headquarters, where brutality was remote. They kept his books and gave him business and legal advice, and applied the most up-to-date management methods to his varied enterprises. They were a fraction of his staff, the ones who had children young enough to believe in Santa Claus.
“Merry Christmas!” said Santa Claus harshly, his big black boots clumping down the stairs.
Willy squirmed away from his mother and ran to Bernie for better protection.
Santa Claus leaned on the newel post, a cigar jutting from his cotton beard, his beady eyes traveling malevolently from one face to the next. Santa Claus was fat and squat and pasty-faced. He reeked of booze.
“I just got down from me workshop at the Nort’ Pole,” he said challengingly. “Ain’t nobody gonna say hi to ol’ Saint Nick?”
All around the room parents nudged children who would not speak.
“Talk it up!” said Santa. “This ain’t no morgue.” He pointed a blunt finger at Richard Pullman. “You been a good boy, heh?”
Mr. Pullman squeezed his son like a bagpipe.
“Yup,” piped Richard.
“Ya sure?” said Santa suspiciously. “Ain’t been fresh wit’ grown-ups?”
“Nope,” said Richard.
“Okay,” said Santa. “Maybe I got a electric train for ya, an’ maybe I don’t.” He rummaged through a pile of parcels under the tree. “Now, where’d I put that stinkin’ train?” He found the parcel with Richard’s name on it. “Want it?”
“Yup,” said Richard.
“Well, act like you want it,” said Santa Claus. Young Richard could only swallow.
“Ya know what it cost?” said Santa Claus. “Hunnerd and twenny-four fifty.” He paused dramatically. “Wholesale.” He leaned over Richard. “Lemme hear you say t’anks.”
Mr. Pullman squeezed Richard.
“T’anks,” said Richard.
“T’anks. I guess,” said Santa Claus with heavy irony. “You never got no hunnerd-and-twenny-four-fifty train from your old man, I’ll tell you that. Lemme tell you, kid, he’d still be chasin’ ambulances an’ missin’ payments on his briefcase if it wasn’t for me. An’ don’t nobody forget it.”
Mr. Pullman whispered something to his son.
“What was that?” said Santa. “Come on, kid, wha’d your old man say?”
“He said sticks and stones could break his bones, but words would never hurt him.” Richard seemed embarrassed for his father. So did Mrs. Pullman, who was hyperventilating.
“Ha!” said Santa Claus. “That’s a hot one. I bet he says that one a hunnerd times a day. What’s he say about Big Nick at home, eh? Come on, Richard, this is Santa Claus you’re talkin’ to, and I keep a book about kids that don’t tell the trut’ up at the Nort’ Pole. What’s he really t’ink of Big Nick?”
Pullman looked away as though Richard’s reply couldn’t concern him less.
“Mommy and Daddy say Big Nick is a real gentleman,” recited Richard. “Mommy and Daddy love Big Nick.”
“Okay, kid,” said Santa, “here’s your train. You’re a good boy.”
“T’anks,” said Richard.
“Now I got a big doll for little Gwen Zerbe,” said Santa, taking another parcel from under the tree. “But first come over here, Gwen, so you and me can talk where nobody can hear us, eh?”
Gwen, propelled by her father, Big Nick’s chief accountant, minced over to Santa Claus. Her father, a short, pudgy man, smiled thinly, strained his ears to hear, and turned green. At the end of the questioning, Zerbe exhaled with relief and got some of his color back. Santa Claus was smiling. Gwen had her doll.
“Willy O’Hare!” thundered Santa Claus. “Tell Santy the trut’, and ya get a swell boat. What’s your old man and old lady say about Big Nick?”
“They say they owe him a lot,” said Willy dutifully.
Santa Claus guffawed. “I guess they do, boy! Willy, you know where your old man’d be if it wasn’t for Big Nick? He’d be dancin’ aroun’ in little circles, talking to hisself, wit’out nuttin’ to his name but a flock of canaries in his head. Here, kid, here’s your boat, an’ Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you,” said Willy politely. “Please, could I have a rag?”
“A rag?” said Santa.
“Please,” said Willy. “I wanna wipe off the boat.”
“Willy!” said Bernie and Wanda together.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Santa. “Let the kid talk. Why you wanna wipe it off, Willy?”
“I want to wipe off the blood and dirt,” said Willy.
“Blood!” said Santa. “Dirt!”
“Willy!” cried Bernie.
“Mama says everything we get from Santa’s got blood on it,” said Willy. He pointed at Mrs. Pullman. “And that lady says he’s dirty.”
“No I didn’t, no I didn’t,” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Yes you did,” said Richard. “I heard you.”
“My father,” said Gwen Zerbe, breaking the dreadful silence, “says kissing Santa Claus isn’t any worse than kissing a dog.”
“Gwen!” cried her father.
“I kiss the dog all the time,” said Gwen, determined to complete her thought, “and I never get sick.”
“I guess we can wash off the blood and dirt when we get home,” said Willy.
“Why, you fresh little punk!” roared Santa Claus, bringing his hand back to hit Willy.
Bernie stood quickly and clasped Santa’s wrists. “Please,” he said, “the kid don’t mean nothing.”
“Take your filt’y hands off me!” roared Santa. “You wanna commit suicide?” Bernie let go of Santa.
“Ain’t you gonna say nuttin’?” said Santa. “I t’ink I got a little apology comin’.”
“I’m very sorry, Santa Claus,” said Bernie. His big fist smashed Santa’s cigar all over his face. Santa went reeling into the Christmas tree, clawing down ornaments as he fell.
Childish cheers filled the room. Bernie grinned broadly and clasped his hands over his head, a champ!
“Shut them kids up!” Santa Claus sputtered. “Shut them up, or you’re all dead!”
Parents scuffled with their children, trying to muzzle them, and the children twisted free, hooting and jeering and booing Santa Claus.
“Make him eat his whiskers, Bernie!”
“Feed him to the reindeers!”
“You’re all t’rough! You’re all dead!” shouted Santa Claus, still on his back. “I get bums like you knocked off for twenty-five bucks, five for a hunnerd. Get out!”
The children were so happy! They danced out of the house without their coats, saying things like, “Jingle bells, you old poop,” and “Eat tinsel, Santy,” and so on. They were too innocent to realize that nothing had changed in the economic structure in which their parents were still embedded. In so many movies they’d seen, one punch to the face of a bad guy by a good guy turned hell into an earthly paradise.
Santa Claus, flailing his arms, drove their parents after them. “I got ways of findin’ you no matter where you go! I been good to you, and this is the thanks I get. Well, you’re gonna get thanks from me, in spades. You bums are all gonna get rubbed out.”
“My dad knocked Santa on his butt!” crowed Willy.
“I’m a dead man,” said O’Hare to his wife.
“I’m a dead woman,” she said, “but it was almost worth it. Look how happy the children are.”
They could expect to be killed by a hit man, unless they fled to some godforsaken country where the Mafia didn’t have a chapter. So could the Pullmans.
Saint Nicholas disappeared inside the house, then reappeared with another armload of packages in Christmas wrappings. His white cotton beard was stained red from a nosebleed. He stripped the wrappings from one package, held up a cigarette lighter in the form of a knight in armor. He read the enclosed card aloud: “‘To Big Nick, the one and only. Love you madly.” The signature was that of a famous movie star out in Hollywood.
Now Saint Nicholas showed off another pretty package. “Here’s one comes all the way from a friend in Italy.” He gave its red ribbon a mighty yank. The explosion not only blew off his bloody beard and fur-trimmed red hat, but removed his chin and nose as well. What a mess! What a terrible thing for the young to see, one would think, but they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

After the police left, and the corpse was carted off to the morgue, dressed like Kris Kringle from the neck down, O’Hare’s wife said this: “I don’t think this is a Christmas the children are going to forget very soon. I know I won’t.”
Their son Willy had a souvenir that would help him remember. He had found the greeting card that came with the bomb. It was in the shrubbery. It said, “Merry Christmas to the greatest guy in the world.” It was signed “The Family.”
There would be a rude awakening, of course. The fathers were going to have to find new jobs, ho ho.


Source: Vonnegut, Kurt: Bagombo Snuff Box, London 2000, 159-169

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