The Last Christmas Letter

I opened my eyes as the train, the IRT #1, was just pulling out of the station at 135th Street and knew in a moment I was headed in the wrong direction.  I glanced quickly at my watch and saw that I had been headed in the wrong direction, this time, for at least three hours, give or take.  It was early, very early, on New Year’s Day in the mid-60’s, about in the middle of that decade when the nation, and much of the rest of the world became afflicted with that paroxysm of self indulgence which continues today; worsening down the decades since. Hours before, together with my friends, most of whom are dead now, I had taken liberties with my body and soul to mourn the old year’s passing and greet the new one before the chance for a massive hangover in its honor escaped me. I had succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings

I was in the car with only one other person.  He was a “long drink of water”, taller than me, slim and neatly dressed in white tie, wearing a well polished shoe on his left foot and an old style high topped canvas Keds sneaker on his right foot; very sloppily laced and tied.  I knew he was taller by the length of his legs reaching almost beyond the pole, one of three down the length of the middle of the car placed for standees; none of whom were now here, and would not probably be for at least forty-eight hours.

As I slowly returned to the state I was beginning to wish I hadn’t, I noticed something else about him.  He was playing a harmonica, not well, but not horribly, and barely audible above screeching wheels and echoing roars and rattles coming from the empty train.  He looked at me and winked, smiled behind his cupped hands and kept playing.  He was playing, I determined, something of Wagner’s, The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, from Das Rheingold.  And, I thought, entering something like consciousness, why not??  What better thing to hear than a Wagnerian march-dirge played in time to the Cage-like screeches and roars of a 60′ tin can in a dark, wet, cold tunnel.

We were alone, but I thought none of this was at all unusual.  New York City, I’d long ago learned, was a big enough place to handle a waking drunk and an oddly dressed virtuoso harmonicaist (?) by themselves in a subway car so late in the night that the hours are probably not on the clock.

He stopped around 96th Street and I clapped, bringing my hands slowly together and making as soft a sound as I could stand, and managing a weak “Bravo!”  Well, it was brave, anyway, his performance.  For that, I thought, he should receive recognition, small as it might be.  This made him smile.  “You like it?”  And , it was my turn to smile.  And nod, slightly, my head not yet fit for much more movement.  He rose, stretched and galumphed across to sit next to me.  I realized he was that kind of tall person who occasionally appears; the ones two sizes too big for their ability to do little more than sit; who, once upright, appear always on the very edge of tumbling into a mess of separate parts and pieces, like a pile of Legos the dog just ran into.

Tucking his harmonica away in his jacket he offered me his hand.  “Photius Jarndyce Le Pense,” he nearly trumpeted in a squeaky tenor, perfectly matching the rest of his presence in the world.  “Photius for the heretic.  My mother is one.  Jarndyce for the case.  My father is an attorney.  Le Pense is French.  We are all thoughts.  Of God, don’t you think?  Very pleased to meet you!”

I returned the gesture and the sentiment, though I wondered then how much pleasure I had to offer.  But, I gave it my best shot.  “I’m French.  Are you?”  I hadn’t spoken my name, I supposed, loudly enough for him to hear it clearly.  So, I repeated it, and added, “No.”

And there began a friendship that endured across time and distance until just a few months ago.  It was a strange one, I’ll admit, but, nonetheless ..

By the time I had arrived at my own stop in The Bronx, the sun was making great advances on the night.The sky above the hill that framed the eastern edge of my neighborhood, Kingsbridge was beginning to glow a warm and delicate pink.  The last stars and a slice of moon hung approximately above the station platform I was standing on; still a bit unsteadily on legs not long ago washed in a storm of inibriation.

I felt a steadying hand on my arm, and Photius’ said, “Nice place, this.  I’ve never been here.  Let me help you home.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t a thing to do today.”  He spoke like a telegram.

I was grateful for the offer, because I had figured out that I could either wait in the cold station until full light came, and with it one sight and sobriety, or reach the street below the only way then possible; by tumbling down three flights of steel stairs.

So off we marched.  It was a short three block walk to the door of the old apartment house, and along it I answered a few questions from him, and he answered a few of mine.  We exchanged nothing of either a deep or profound nature along the way.  He told me he preferred three minute eggs, and loved creme fraich on his breakfast cereal.  I learned what creme fraich was, who, in fact, hadn’t known it existed until then.  He learned that there were thirty two taverns along Broadway and the neighboring side streets between the 225th Street El Station and the line’s end at 242nd Street.

Upon the foundation of such confidences was our life long friendship built.

Photius delivered me to the door of my apartment on the ground floor shook my hand, wrapping his long bony fingers about twice around my hand firmly and bowed slightly while wishing me a “Happy and Holy New Year.” Then, with a word of thanks for the company, and a quick glance at my watch …he carried none…he left, saying he would be in time for the 9:00am Mass at Holy Name down on 110th Street..  I stumbled through the door and was asleep, probably, before he crossed the old bridge over the railroad tracks across the street.

We never met in person again.  Ours was to be an epistolary friendship, his first letter, a charming and amusing description of his life as a student at Morningside Heights, and comments on students, professors, food and drink, music and art, on life, arriving a few days later.  I did my best to keep up, but I couldn’t.  Photius was a river.  I was a little pond, more often a puddle.

His Christmas letters were the best, and I shared them with friends and family, quite a few of them becoming friends with him themselves.

He never married.  He never published anything, though many people often urged him to do so.  He was simply happy writing, I came to conclude.  It really didn’t matter to him if he was ever read by anyone.  But, he was.  Maybe it wasn’t millions, or even thousands. Perhaps several hundred people at most knew of him, and enjoyed what he did for them, the places he went, the things he saw, the people he met, and his stories about them all.

But, it had to end, and it did.  The letters suddenly stopped, and we wondered; myself and the few of my own friends I had introduced to Photius over the years.  For a year there was silence.  And, then, on Christmas 2001, the week before to be exact, I saw his familiar scrawl on an envelope and opened it to read this, Photius’ last letter to me, or to anyone else.

Believe me, I tried to  find out if there were others.  I reproduce it here for you.  Don’t let his first sentence confuse you.  I think Photius lived “in” Christmas, and considered all of his letters, perhaps everything he did, to be taking place during Christmas, and to be about things and people taking place and being in Christmas:

Christmas, 2001:

As you know for some years now I have been in the habit of writing an annual Christmas letter at least once a year.  I know that as well.  So, we agree.  That is good.

I used to have a lot of time to do it, and unlike what many people do with Christmas letters, I took pride in making sure everything I wrote was Gospel truth.  I checked my sources and my facts, reviewed my notes and recordings of my conversations with all of you.  I worked for weeks assembling the vast amount of data I knew you would examine closely with microscopic attention to detail, hoping for some notice from me of your role in my life, or a mistake about it.  Have I ever failed you?  Honestly, now.  Remember, God is watching you.

Well all that has changed, and who knows it may all be for the good.  I don’t mean, I am not speaking, about failing you, but about having the time to put together an accurate and interesting Christmas letter.  What to do about it has been troubling me a bit lately.  I thought of asking one or two friends to sort of ghost write one for me, figuring that presidents and such have staff writer who do things like that.  But that wouldn’t be me.  It’s deceptive, and I have never lied when I didn’t have to.  In that matter I have always followed the advice of my friend’s Uncle Dennis, a very wise man,  given to me personally many years ago, “Never waste a lie, Photius, lad.  If you do, you’ll always be one behind.”  The man, God rest him, never passed up a drink, either, and for the same reason.  he believed in something he named, alternatively, the Economy of Truth, and Alcohol.  Conserve the former and consume the latter.

I thought about sending out some form of  letter full of blamk spaces that might be filled in by you, whoever you ar, with whatever was exciting in your own lives.  You could then read it to your friends as if it came from me.  But, I decided that wouldn’t do.  It would rob you of experiencing my own wit and style, no small reason why there is, I have been told, a brisk trade in bootlegged copies of past letters copied on Xerox machines i places as disparate as Xingiang, China and Peoria, KS.  I don’t say this with any sense of hubris at all.  Well not with so much as to be disgustingly smug.

It happened that I was thinking what to do with this year’s letter the other day when in the mail arrived the answer.  it was the Christmas letter of my good friend Homer Timolean Clinch originally from an real American town, Rubberlip, TN.  Homer had moved here about six months ago and started a business, Homer T. Clinch Pasta, right out of his kitchen. He’s already got ten employees, eight of them family from Rubberlip, living in his apartment, and is in production “most every day it matters” as he says.  His stuff has become pretty popular around here, especially the Alfalfa Linguine with Hog Ear sauce.  It’s an acquired taste I’ll warrant, but don’t knock it you people back east.  So are chocolate covered ants.

Here’s what Homer has to say to his “Frayuns and Famlee” this year:

“Hy, Y’all, it’s me again, Homer.  By now most of you are missing me, and those that ain’t I ain’t sending no letter to anyway.  Me and Alma Jean and the Spawn moved up North to the other side of the Ohio.  It was business took us.  Most f the folks here are nice people, but, this ain’t no joke, they talk funny…and too darn fast.  I have got to figger me some way to listen faster.  And stop laughin at ’em.

Take last Friday.  I was in the kitchen stirring up a mess of dough for my special Christmas pasta, Green and Red, from collards and red beans.  It was comin’ real good, too.  the phone rung and I put down the oar I was using for stirring.  I don’t use it for rowin’ no more since some folks complained about the pasta tasting like pond water.  I may go back to it when I come out with my Algae pasta in the spring…and from it, ha, ha.

Anyway, I put down the oar and Dolph, my hound with the chewed ear, begun ‘a likin’ on it.  “Damn Dolph,” I said, “You’re mor trouble than hungry wet twins.  Don’t I always give you a lick when the batch is done?”  He just looked at me with them goober eyes of his and went back to licking and scratching while I answered the phone. 

Howdy, Homer here,” I said, real pleasant.  Was a lady on the line and she said, “Help!”  I got that clear.  Oh I do good on one word at a time.  And then she took off… 

She begun about a three minute mess on how she was planning a big supper for some outta town friends who ain’t never been down this far before.  They was, I figure, the tie, jewelry and powder wearing kind, you know?  I was able to make out she wanted a mess of pasta from me for one of the courses on this hog waller she was puttin’ on.  So I run down the list of what I got.  And the only thing I heard her say clear was, “I don’t boil Hog Ears!”  That was real clear.  Well, I told her, who does? I’d chop ’em. I told her I’d take off most of the hair since she had Yankees eatin’. So, after some back and forth, we worked down to where I thought she’s ordering a mess of my special holiday Hog Ear sauce.  So I thought she wanted me to do it up and bring it over hot and ready.

How many was all I wanted to know , and I mad out her sayin’ thirty.  I guessed that was the number of folks at this party.  At two ears a plate, that figgered out to 120, give or take.  A big order, and I could use the ten bucks. “What time you eatin’, Miss,” I asked her, and thought she said Saturday at 8:00pm.  I told her since I don’t stay up that late unless there’s a game on, I might have to charge her more.  I thought she said, “Don’t matter.”  Then I hung up and commenced to cooking for real.

I was at the door with a mop pail full of steamin’ pasta at 7:58PM.  Big house, lots of windows and curtains on every one as far as I could tell, even on the top floor.  Some fella from the army opened the door and let me in, and even took my coat which I asked him to put on the chair.  He put it in a closet as big as our downstairs.  He wanted to take the pail of pasta, too, but I said , “The lady of the house is waiting.”  I bust right past him into a big room with more candles than a church and about the most dressed bunch of folks this side of one of them walt Disney cartoon movies all sitting around a big long table talking real low and drinking from skinny glasses; not a jug in sight.  I heaved the plate up on the table and said, “Y’all pass your plates on down this end and lemme slop some of the best stuff you ever wrapped your lips around onto ’em!” 

One of the ladies way down the other end, I recognized her whe she started talking, she was the one placed the order, said, “Excuse me, but just who are you?”  I said, real loud ’cause this might be a good place to advertise, “I’m Homer Clinch from Homer’s Pasta, and I brung you the best mess of Alfalfa with special Holiday Hog Ear sauce, you ever swallered.”

Two ladies got up and ran from the room right then.  A couple of fellers got up after them and started moving my way.  I figgered they was coming to help until they grabbed me and begun to hustle me back to the door and the army guy.  The lady followed and another army guy come up and took the pail of pasta and sauce off the table. “Hey, I thought you wanted me to bring this stuff on over tonight, lady,” I said.  She got all stiff all over and said, “What I told you, Mr. Clinch.”  I got all this now on account of she was talking real slow, “What I told you after hearing your list of revolting products, was “Don’t soil my ears.”  “Now, ” she continued, “I’ll be happy to see your back and the last of your (here she shook all over like someone who just stepped in a mess of stuff real soft would do) Hogs Ears.”  “Not so fast, Miss,” I said while the two guys held me and the first army guy was draping mu coat over the top of my pail of sauce.  “Not so fast.  It took me some time to make this up and I’m out $7.00 for the ears.”  She turned to the army guy and said, “Give him enough to get him out of here.”  The she left to go back to her long table, skinny glasses and whispers.

I took a chance and told him I wanted $12.oo, so I made four dollars on the night, and sold the pail full of pasta to Millie, down at her Diner for their Sunday Dinner Special, for another $3.50 and a mess of sweet potato pie.  I threw in the use of the mop pail for a week.  She got a mop but no pail and been using the dish sink water on the floor. 

I don’t figure I’ll be doing no deliveries soon,a nd it’ll be a while before I break into the city market

Me and Alma Jean, the kids and Lump wishes you a Merry Christmas,

Homer

This is all I have of him.  I’d kept all of his letters in a box in the basement of the house we just moved from to this place on the river not far away.  Somehow the box, along with a couple of thousand old photos I was sure I had, never made the journey.  The other place is empty now, echoing with the ghosts packing their own gear.  I’ve left them the new address.  They have a standing invitation.

I’m hoping Photius, wherever he may be, picks one up.

I miss the odd fellow.  My memory is clouded about what took lace all that long ago.  It is working on data that was hazily acquired at best.  But I remember the voice, the tall thin awkward fellow, the stilt like legs in their formal dress.  I remember his Adam’s apple oscillating as he spoke. And I remember his kind eyes.  Blue, like the lightening sky.

I never did find out how he wound up with one shoe and one sneaker, though for years I kept meaning to ask him.

Here is my friend’s show piece:

The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla

 

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