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And so it was that his days were accomplished.
James couldn't remember the last time he could be found sitting in his office, waiting for the phone to ring, at 7:50 in the morning. The support staff, dragging their backpacks, wouldn't arrive for at least another hour, and the editors and sales managers they supported never began to meander in until after ten. Solitude wasn't unpleasant, he decided, even briefly considering whether he ought to become a morning person. It was actually calming, having a few quiet moments to scan the titles of the volumes jammed into his bookshelves, a reminder of the relative importance of things, of the transitory nature of daily crises and urgent deadlines. Many of these books had once been well reviewed. Several had won prizes. More than a few had been prominently featured on best-seller lists. Sic transit gloria mundi. The few lucky ones, the award winners, now lived quiet, uneventful lives as paperback editions, languishing on the shelves of Barnes and Noble for years, waiting to attract a buyer's interest. The others had been banished to remainder tables or used-book bins, destined to be forgotten altogether. He jumped to grab the receiver as the phone shrieked, startling him from his reverie, and tipped a Starbucks Venti Morning Roast into his lap.
"Fuck!" he shouted, not exactly the warm greeting the highly respected but overbearing Washington D.C. super-agent expected from the editor who had won the bidding war to publish the as-yet-unwritten presidential campaign "autobiography" of his client, a charismatic and ambitious junior senator from a swing state rich in electoral votes.
"And a Merry Christmas to you too," the super-agent snorted.
"Sorry. Sorry," James apologized, trying to mop up the mess with a damp, wrinkled napkin. "I just spilled a cup of scalding hot coffee all over my pants."
"Ouch," the Senator snickered. "You've got to protect your most valuable assets."
James was taken aback at the unexpected sound of the voice he knew only from CNN and Meet the Press; the author-to-be, whom James had yet to meet, wasn't scheduled to be on the call. The leering undertone was clearly at odds with his reputation as a devout family man, the father of six, a husband admired for his deep, spiritual connection to his Episcopalian minister wife.
"No, no," James assured him. "No permanent damage."
But he couldn't shake the feeling this Starbucks catastrophe was an omen that this book wasn't fated to be one of defining successes of his career. By the age of forty-six, James had acquired and edited a long string of successful history and political books, including a former Secretary of State's Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicle of the democratization of the Balkan nations, a former President's literary memoir of his hardscrabble childhood, the definitive biography of William Howard Taft, and the autobiographies of an unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee, a beloved First Lady, and a long-shot neophyte who had landed the vice presidential slot on a winning Republican ticket largely on the strength of the manuscript James had painstakingly coaxed out of him. The Senator was a prestigious addition to his stable of authors (though he wouldn't actually write a single word), and the bulk sales to his political action committee ensured at least a brief run on the New York Times bestseller list. Things had gone well so far, despite the super-agent's insistence on ungodly early meetings for scheduling convenience, his, not James's. James had engaged the perfect ghost to capture the Senator's colloquial style. He'd hired the best photographer in the industry for the cover shoot. And, thank God, the staffer the Senator had assigned to be James's primary contact seemed to be bright and responsive.
"So, what are your Christmas plans?" the Senator asked, clearly not interested, but feeling the need to make small talk.
"Going home to my mother's."
The Senator's interest was piqued. For one, brief, fleeting moment, James existed as something more than a faceless fungible unit in his campaign apparatus.
"I thought I detected an accent," the Senator claimed.
"I hope not! I've spent the last twenty-five years trying to clean up my hillbilly pronunciation!"
Big mistake, he quickly realized. The Senator spoke with a thick, musical drawl. James clearly was off his game, paying the price for rising before dawn with too little caffeine to kick-start his engine.
"Pure West Virginia, as Hannibal Lecter once observed about another native of the Mountain State. I always wanted a Carolina Piedmont accent like yours," James said, effectively recovering the fumble.
He wandered out of his office after finishing the call, carrying several pages of handwritten notes for his assistant to type. The floor was still dark. The only signs of life were the burning lights in an office at the opposite end of the hall. Damn, he thought, remembering it was December 23, and that the holiday sabbatical had begun at five yesterday afternoon. He was officially on vacation now, having just completed the last meeting on his calendar for the year. He headed back to his computer, deciding to type the notes himself while his recollection was fresh, knowing he wouldn't be able to decipher his own chicken scratch when he returned in ten days, leaving him unable to translate for his frustrated assistant. After he finished, he answered the e-mails in his in-box and deleted his opened messages before shutting down his computer, determined to start the New Year with a clean slate, then turned off the lights and locked the door to his office.
It was all of nine-thirty as he walked to the elevator. The deserted offices and cubicles were decorated with dollar-store holiday trappings—red and green garland, plastic wreaths and holly, cutout Santas and snowflakes—that would be tossed into storage boxes or garbage pails when the occupants returned in January. He was tempted to steal a miniature Charlie Brown Christmas tree from a desktop to take home with him, but his good judgment prevented him from causing an innocent janitor to be fired for theft. To reach the elevator he had to pass the one brightly lit office, where Rhonda Brinkman, children's chapter book editor extraordinaire and workaholic, was chained to her desk, probably putting the final touches on the galleys of another Newbury Medal instant classic. She looked up and waved as he passed; he shrugged his shoulders and pointed at his watch, feigning urgent business, not wanting to waste an hour whining over their workloads, bitching about that year's meager annual bonus, and speculating over rumored editorial layoffs.
"See you next year," he hollered as the elevator door closed behind him.
Traffic, both street and foot, was light for a weekday morning at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-fifth. The city was slowing down for the holiday. Commuters from Westchester and New Jersey had taken vacation days to finish their shopping. The wind whipping through the concrete canyons was brisk; it was chilly on the shaded side of the street, but unseasonably warm in the sun. James was comfortable going coatless, wearing only a cashmere sweater and a scarf knotted around his neck, an accessory chosen for color rather than warmth at the last minute before leaving the apartment. He grabbed a Daily News from the newsstand and easily found a seat at the counter of his favorite coffee shop, a relic from a bygone era before fast-food franchises and the caffeine purveyor from Seattle conquered the world. He left a five-dollar tip on a twelve-dollar check for coffee and juice, a bowl of Special K, and an order of wheat toast, and decided to walk to Madison rather than taking a cab. He hadn't bought a gift for Ernst yet and had no intention of going to lunch that afternoon empty-handed.
Rockefeller Center was surprisingly, pleasantly, uncrowded, with just enough shoppers and skaters for it to seem a postcard-perfect holiday tableau. The women were well dressed, wearing leather coats and high, polished boots, and their children belonged in the glossy pages of high-end retail catalogues. The stampede of tourists in garish parkas and dirty sneakers had returned to their undesirable zip codes. Manhattan belonged to its residents again. James resented the hordes of slack-jawed visitors from Minnesota and Belgium, the lumpen masses staring through the lenses of their Nikons and clutching their tickets to the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. He missed the gritty and dangerous island of his youth, the Golden Era of Gotham when needles and broken bottles littered Ninth Avenue and six dead bolts on the door of his fourth-floor walkup never deterred the junkies from breaking in to steal his television two or three times a year. He paused to linger beside a sidewalk vendor, inhaling the aroma of roasting chestnuts (another dying tradition) and was surprised to hear himself humming along to the instrumental "Silver Bells" piped over an outdoor loudspeaker.
Why shouldn't he feel cheerful as the holiday approached? It was two days after the solstice, and here he was sauntering across Midtown wearing sunglasses, not needing a coat. Global warming certainly had its fringe benefits. One of these years the daytime highs would never dip below fifty and the nighttime lows would hover above freezing the entire winter. Wishful thinking, he knew, but definitely a possibility in his lifetime. He was young enough to expect to be alive when the environmental apocalypse finally arrived. He suddenly realized he'd squandered an hour doing nothing more productive than staring at the Saks window displays and cruising the college boys who had taken to the streets in cargo shorts and flip-flops, enjoying the benign December weather. He picked up the pace, his armpits damp with sweat as he charged the front door of Paul Stuart to choose a cravat (as Ernst, with European formality, insisted on calling a necktie) for his oldest (literally) New York friend. James still felt a thrill each time he entered the hushed cathedral of haberdashery and paused to admire the plush carpets and polished wood surfaces, the slouchy leather sofas, and the expertly crafted wares artfully displayed on the tables and racks.
A clerk, old enough to have been working the sales floor when Mary Martin headlined on Broadway, approached and led James directly to the ties. He considered and rejected an assortment of more traditional foulards and reps in standard reds and greens and blues. His eye was attracted to the more risqué selections, soft, rich silks of dazzling colors, cheeky plums and bold scarlets, arresting emeralds, and blinding sapphires. He finally settled on a brash blood orange, a small extravagance at two hundred dollars. Ernst, seventy-eight, bald as an egg and ugly as a box turtle, relied on an eccentric wardrobe to cut a dashing figure.
"Unusual color," the clerk commented as he rang up the sale.
"I'd like a bow for the box, if you don't mind," James asked, slightly perturbed by what he considered to be an intrusive remark.
The traffic uptown was heavier than he'd expected, and he fidgeted in the back seat of the taxi, knowing that Ernst demanded strict punctuality and that he could expect a cold greeting and biting remark at best if he arrived after the appointed hour. If the old man were in a particularly foul mood, James would receive a haughty dismissal by the maitre d' informing him that Monsieur Belcher had decided to leave when his guest was more than ten minutes late. Much to his relief, James had the good fortune to have entered the cab of a particularly aggressive Sikh driver and was delivered to the door of The Box Tree restaurant with six minutes to spare. He stood, finger on the bell under the brass nameplate, Augustin V. Paege, Restaurateur, and despaired. How the fuck had he forgotten he wasn't wearing a jacket? He was sweating profusely as the door opened, expecting to be banished with a withering glance. But because of either the early hour or an abundance of forgiving holiday cheer, he was warmly greeted, his handsome scarf complimented as he was led to the table.
"Don't gawk, Jimmy. I know you better than you know yourself and as soon as you realize Betty Bacall is sitting at the next table, you're going to go all moonfaced and slack jawed and embarrass me to death."
James was pleased to find Ernst in a jovial mood, for him at least, and asked Severin their waiter, a man as austere and stern as his name, to bring him a bourbon and water, hoping for a quick buzz. Ernst was obviously on his second Tanqueray martini; these days he was blotto by four in the afternoon.
"Merry Christmas to you, too, you mean, cranky bastard," he teased the old man, knowing the septuagenarian reveled in his contrarian nature.
"Is that gift for me?" Ernst asked, his interest piqued by the box James had set on the table. "Don't make an old man crawl over the place settings to get it!"
"What makes you so sure it's yours?"
"Very funny, Jimmy. I suppose you want to pay for your own lunch, in which case I'm ordering the most expensive bottle of Cabernet in the cellar and having Severin charge it to you."
"You win. Your taste in Cabs would set me back two months of co-op maintenance fee. Please accept this small token of my affection," James laughed. "Merry Christmas, Ernst." Ernst, like many gentlemen of means whose emotional attachments required significant financial support, took an almost childish delight in receiving gifts. He tore off the ribbon like a greedy boy and held up the tie to admire.
"Unusual," Severin commented, unimpressed by the loud, bright color.
James was shaken to hear the same critical judgment of his taste repeated within a single hour.
"Well, I love it!" Ernst declared, insisting Severin help him from his chair and lead him to the men's room so he could replace his own canary yellow cravat with James's gift.
James sipped his bourbon, potent as rocket fuel, and stared at the menu, not bothering to read it. He hated everything about this pretentious little bandbox, its Tiffany glass panels and Wedgewood china and Christofle silverware and, most of all, the haute-faggot affectation of a red rose at every place setting. He knew the lunch selections by heart; nothing ever changed here, nothing ever new, let alone, God forbid, nouvelle, on the menu. The routine never changed. Ernst would stuff himself with bread and butter, avoiding the wasteful extravagance of an appetizer because, despite his taste for luxury, he was, like many wealthy men, at heart a cheapskate. He would order the escargot, complaining they weren't as well-prepared as they had been his last meal here, and vow never to return until Augustin V. Paege himself descended on their table to flatter and mollycoddle him, soliciting Ernst's undying loyalty. James, as always, would order a salad, the sole, and a dessert.
Excerpted from Remembering Christmas by Tom Mendicino Frank Anthony Polito Michael Salvatore Copyright © 2011 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 8, 2011
To many of us, the holiday season brings fond memories and trips back home, which create new memories, hopefully also pleasant. Such memorable trips are the focus of these short stories penned by three of Kensington's talented authors.
In Tom Mendicino's "Away in a Manger," James, a middle-aged single workaholic, sets off from NYC for another routine trip home to West Virginia, but his car has other ideas, stranding him in a small Pennsylvania town. Directed by his motel clerk to the only eating place open in town, a depressed James encounters an engaging, cute bartender at a family-owned café, and gets a new perspective on what "home for the holidays" might really mean.
Next is "A Christmas to Remember," in which author Polito recycles his main characters from his "Band Fags" and "Drama Queers" young-adult novels, now five years later. Jack is a senior at Michigan State University, with a crush on a straight roommate who is vacationing with his girlfriend. Deciding to come home to his small town of Hazel Park, Jack spends the holidays with family and old friends, while encountering a few surprises at the local gay bar.
Finally, Michael Salvatore spins an intriguing "Missed Connections," in which Theo, still smarting from the unexpected end of a "forever" relationship, encounters a childhood friend (and his first crush) in a busy airport waiting room. Unlike the first two breezy stories, this tale is a bit heavy in the rehashing and second-guessing of their previous assumptions about their friendship.
All are well-written, and just the thing ... to distract you enough to survive your own holidays with the family! Four stars out of five.
- Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Posted November 23, 2011
No text was provided for this review.