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Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn't long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn't a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it. Slowly and inexorably, without once taking a turn for the better, the thing had assumed a life of its own, advancing from a faint, phlegm-filled rattle in the lungs on February third to the wheezy sputum-jigs and gobby convulsions of high summer. All that was bad enough, but in the past two weeks a new tonality had crept into the bronchial musicsomething tight and flinty and percussiveand the attacks came so often now as to be almost constant. Every time one of them started, Mr. Bones half expected Willy's body to explode from the rockets of pressure bursting against his rib cage. He figured that blood would be the next step, and when that fatal moment finally occurred on Saturday afternoon, it was as if all the angels in heaven had opened their mouths and started to sing. Mr. Bones saw it happen with his own eyes, standing by the edge of the road between Washington and Baltimore as Willy hawked up a few miserable clots of red matter into his handkerchief, and right then and there he knew that every ounce of hope was gone. The smell of death had settled upon Willy G. Christmas, and as surely as the sun was a lamp in the clouds that went off and on every day, the end was drawing near.
What was a poor dog to do? Mr. Bones had been with Willy since his earliest days as a pup, and by now it was next to impossible for him to imagine a world that did not have his master in it. Every thought, every memory, every particle of the earth and air was saturated with Willy's presence. Habits die hard, and no doubt there's some truth to the adage about old dogs and new tricks, but it was more than just love or devotion that caused Mr. Bones to dread what was coming. It was pure ontological terror. Subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.
Such was the quandary Mr. Bones faced that August morning as he shuffled through the streets of Baltimore with his ailing master. A dog alone was no better than a dead dog, and once Willy breathed his last, he'd have nothing to look forward to but his own imminent demise. Willy had been cautioning him about this for many days now, and Mr. Bones knew the drill by heart: how to avoid the dogcatchers and constables, the paddy wagons and unmarked cars, the hypocrites from the so-called humane societies. No matter how sweetly they talked to you, the word shelter meant trouble. It would begin with nets and tranquilizer guns, devolve into a nightmare of cages and fluorescent lights, and end with a lethal injection or a dose of poison gas. If Mr. Bones had belonged to some recognizable breed, he might have stood a chance in the daily beauty contests for prospective owners, but Willy's sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strainspart collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzleand to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes. No one was going to want to rescue him. As the homeless bard was fond of putting it, the outcome was written in stone. Unless Mr. Bones found another master in one quick hurry, he was a pooch primed for oblivion.
"And if the stun guns don't get you," Willy continued, clinging to a lamppost that foggy morning in Baltimore to prevent himself from falling, "there's a thousand other things that will. I'm warning you, kemo sabe. You get yourself some new gig, or your days are numbered. Just look around this dreary burg. There's a Chinese restaurant on every block, and if you think mouths won't water when you come strolling by, then you don't know squat about Oriental cuisine. They prize the taste of dog, friend. The chefs round up strays and slaughter them in the alley right behind the kitchenten, twenty, thirty dogs a week. They might pass them off as ducks and pigs on the menu, but the in-crowd knows what's what, the gourmets aren't fooled for a second. Unless you want to wind up in a platter of moo goo gai pan, you'll think twice before you wag your tail in front of one of those Chink beaneries. Do you catch my drift, Mr. Bones? Know thine enemyand then keep a wide berth."
Mr. Bones understood. He always understood what Willy said to him. This had been the case for as long as he could remember, and by now his grasp of Ingloosh was as good as any other immigrant who had spent seven years on American soil. It was his second language, of course, and quite different from the one his mother had taught him, but even though his pronunciation left something to be desired, he had thoroughly mastered the ins and outs of its syntax and ,grammar. None of this should be seen as strange or unusual for an animal of Mr. Bones's intelligence. Most dogs acquire a good working knowledge of two-legged speech, but in Mr. Bones's case there was the advantage of being blessed with a master who did not treat him as an inferior. They had been boon companions from the start, and when you added in the fact that Mr. Bones was not just Willy's best friend but his only friend, and then further considered that Willy was a man in love with the sound of his own voice, a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool logomaniac who scarcely stopped talking from the instant he opened his eyes in the morning until he passed out drunk at night, it made perfect sense that Mr. Bones should have felt so at home in the native lingo. When all was said and done, the only surprise was that he hadn't learned to talk better himself. It wasn't for lack of earnest effort, but biology was against him, and what with the configuration of muzzle, teeth, and tongue that fate had saddled him with, the best he could do was emit a series of yaps and yawns and yowls, a mooning, muddled sort of discourse. He was painfully aware of how far from fluency these noises fell, but Willy always let him have his say, and in the end that was all that mattered. Mr. Bones was free to put in his two cents, and whenever he did so his master would give him his full attention, and to look at Willy's face as he watched his friend struggle to make like a member of the human tribe, you would have sworn that he was hanging on every word.
That gloomy Sunday in Baltimore, however, Mr. Bones kept his mouth shut. They were down to their last days together, perhaps even their last hours, and this was no time to indulge in long speeches and loopy contortions, no time for the old shenanigans. Certain situations called for tact and discipline, and in their present dire straits it would be far better to hold his tongue and behave like a good, loyal dog. He let Willy snap the leash onto his collar without protest. He didn't whine about not having eaten in the past thirty-six hours; he didn't sniff the air for female scents; he didn't stop to pee on every lamppost and fire hydrant. He simply ambled along beside Willy, following his master as they searched the empty avenues for 316 Calvert Street.
Mr. Bones had nothing against Baltimore per se. It smelled no worse than any other city they'd camped in over the years, but even though he understood the purpose of the trip, it grieved him to think that a man could choose to spend his last moments on earth in a place he'd never been to before. A dog would never commit such a blunder. He would make his peace with the world and then see to it that he gave up the ghost on familiar ground. But Willy still had two things to accomplish before he died, and with characteristic stubbornness he'd gotten it into his head that there was only one person who could help him. The name of that person was Bea Swanson, and since said Bea Swanson was last known to be living in Baltimore, they had come to Baltimore to find her. All well and good, but unless Willy's plan did what it was supposed to do, Mr. Bones would be marooned in this city of crab cakes and marble steps, and what was he going to do then? A phone call would have done the job in half a minute, but Willy had a philosophical aversion to using the telephone for important business. He would rather walk for days on end than pick up one of those contraptions and talk to someone he couldn't see. So here they were two hundred miles later, wandering around the streets of Baltimore without a map, looking for an address that might or might not exist.
Of the two things Willy still hoped to accomplish before he died, neither one took precedence over the other. Each was all-important to him, and since time had grown too short to think of tackling them separately, he had come up with what he referred to as the Chesapeake Gambit: an eleventh-hour ploy to kill both birds with one stone. The first has already been discussed in the previous paragraphs: to find new digs for his furry companion. The second was to wrap up his own affairs and make sure that his manuscripts were left in good hands. At that moment, his life's work was crammed into a rental locker at the Greyhound bus terminal on Fayette Street, two and a half blocks north of where he and Mr. Bones were standing. The key was in his pocket, and unless he found someone worthy enough to entrust with that key, every word he had ever written would be destroyed, disposed of as so much unclaimed baggage.
In the twenty-three years since he'd taken on the surname of Christmas, Willy had filled the pages of seventy-four notebooks with his writings. These included poems, stories, essays, diary entries, epigrams, autobiographical musings, and the first eighteen hundred lines of an epic-in-progress, Vagabond Days. The majority of these works had been composed at the kitchen table of his mother's apartment in Brooklyn, but since her death four years ago he'd been forced to write in the open air, often battling the elements in public parks and dusty alleyways as he struggled to get his thoughts down on paper. In his secret I heart of hearts, Willy had no delusions about himself. He knew that he was a troubled soul and not fit for this world, but he also knew that much good work was buried in those notebooks, and on that score at least he could hold his head high. Maybe if he had been more scrupulous about taking his medication, or maybe if his body had been a bit stronger, or maybe if he hadn't been so fond of malts and spirits and the hubbub of bars, he might have done even more good work. That was perfectly possible, but it was too late to dwell on regrets and errors now. Willy had written the last sentence he would ever write, and there were no more than a few ticks left in the clock. The words in the locker were all he had to show for himself. If the words vanished, it would be as if he had never lived.
That was where Bea Swanson entered the picture. Willy knew it was a stab in the dark, but if and when he managed to find her, he was convinced that she would move heaven and earth to help him. Once upon a time, back when the world was still young, Mrs. Swanson had been his high school English teacher, and if not for her it was doubtful that he ever would have found the courage to think of himself as a writer. He was still William Gurevitch in those days, a scrawny sixteen-year-old boy with a passion for books and beebop jazz, and she had taken him under her wing and lavished his early work with praise that was so excessive, so far out of proportion to its true merit, that he began to think of himself as the next great hope of American literature. Whether she was right or wrong to do so is not the question, for results are less important at that stage than promise, and Mrs. Swanson had recognized his talent, she'd seen the spark in his fledgling soul, and no one can ever amount to anything in this life without someone else to believe in him. That's a proven fact, and while the rest of the junior class at Midwood High saw Mrs. Swanson as a squat, fortyish woman with blubbery arms that bounced and wiggled whenever she wrote on the blackboard, Willy thought she was beautiful, an angel who had come down from heaven and taken on a human form.
By the time school started again in the fall, however, Mrs. Swanson was gone. Her husband had been offered a new job in Baltimore, and since Mrs. Swanson was not only a teacher but a wife, what choice did she have but to leave Brooklyn and go where Mr. Swanson went? It was a tough blow for Willy to absorb, but it could have been worse, for even though his mentor was far away, she did not forget him. Over the next several years, Mrs. Swanson kept up a lively correspondence with her young friend, continuing to read and comment on the manuscripts he sent her, to remember his birthday with gifts of old Charlie Parker records, and to suggest little magazines where he could begin submitting his work. The gushing, rhapsodic letter of recommendation she wrote for him in his senior year helped clinch a full scholarship for Willy at Columbia. Mrs. Swanson was his muse, his protector, and good-luck charm all rolled into one, and at that point in Willy's life, the sky was definitely the limit. But then came the schizo flip-out of 1968, the mad fandango of truth or consequences on a high-voltage tension wire. They shut him up in a hospital, and after six months of shock treatment and psychopharmacological therapy, he was never quite the same again. Willy had joined the ranks of the walking wounded, and even though he continued to churn out his poems and stories, to go on writing in both sickness and in health, he rarely got around to answering Mrs. Swanson's letters. The reasons were unimportant. Perhaps Willy was embarrassed to stay in touch with her. Perhaps he was distracted, pre-occupied with other business. Perhaps he had lost faith in the U.S. Postal Service and no longer trusted the mail carriers not to snoop inside the letters they delivered. One way or the other, his once voluminous exchanges with Mrs. Swanson dwindled to almost nothing. For a year or two, they consisted of the odd, desultory postcard, then the store-bought Christmas greeting, and then, by 1976, they had stopped altogether. Since that time, not one syllable of communication had passed between them.
Mr. Bones knew all this, and that was precisely what worried him. Seventeen years had gone by. Gerald Ford had been president back then, for Chrissakes, and he himself would not be whelped for another decade. Who was Willy trying to kid? Think of all the things that can happen in that time. Think of the changes that can occur in seventeen hours or seventeen minuteslet alone in seventeen years. At the very least, Mrs. Swanson had probably moved to another address. The old girl would be pushing seventy by now, and if she wasn't senile or living in a trailer park in Florida, there was a better than even chance that she was dead. Willy had admitted as much when they hit the streets of Baltimore that morning, but what the fuck, he'd said, it was their one and only shot, and since life was a gamble anyway, why not go for broke?
Ah, Willy. He had told so many stories, had talked in so many different voices, had spoken out of so many sides of his mouth at once, that Mr. Bones had no idea what to believe anymore. What was true, what was false? It was difficult to know when dealing with a character as complex and fanciful as Willy G. Christmas. Mr. Bones could vouch for the things he'd seen with his own eyes, the events he'd experienced in his own flesh, but he and Willy had been together for only seven years, and the facts concerning the previous thirty-eight were more or less up for grabs. If Mr. Bones hadn't spent his puppyhood living under the same roof with Willy's mother, the whole story would have been shrouded in darkness, but by listening to Mrs. Gurevitch and measuring her statements against her son's, Mr. Bones had managed to stitch together a reasonably coherent portrait of what Willy's world had looked like before he came into it. A thousand details were lacking. A thousand others were muddled in confusion, but Mr. Bones had a sense of the drift, a feeling for what its shape both was and wasn't.
It wasn't rich, for example, and it wasn't cheerful, and more often than not the air in the apartment had been tinged with sourness and desperation. Considering what the family had been through before it landed in America, it was probably a miracle that David Gurevitch and Ida Perlmutter managed to produce a son in the first place. Of the seven children born to Willy's grandparents in Warsaw and Lodz between 1910 and 1921, they were the only two to survive the war. They alone did not have numbers tattooed on their forearms, they alone were granted the luck to escape. But that didn't mean they had an easy time of it, and. Mr. Bones had heard enough stories to make his fur tingle. There were the ten days they spent hiding in an attic crawl space in Warsaw. There was the monthlong walk from Paris to the Free Zone in the south, sleeping in haylofts and stealing eggs to stay alive. There was the refugee internment camp in Mende, the money spent on bribes for safe conducts, the four months of bureaucratic hell in Marseille as they waited for their Spanish transit visas. Then came the long coma of immobility in Lisbon, the stillborn son Ida delivered in 1944, the two years of looking out at the Atlantic as the war dragged on and their money ebbed away. By the time Willy's parents arrived in Brooklyn in 1946, it wasn't a new life they were starting so much as a posthumous life, an interval between two deaths. Willy's father, once a clever young lawyer in Poland, begged a job from a distant cousin and spent the next thirteen years riding the Seventh Avenue IRT to a button-manufacturing firm on West Twenty-eighth Street. For the first year, Willy's mother supplemented their income by giving piano lessons to young Jewish brats in the apartment, but that ended one morning in November of 1947 when Willy poked his little face out from between her legs and unexpectedly refused to stop breathing.
He grew up American, a Brooklyn boy who played stickball in the streets, read Mad magazine under the covers at night, and listened to Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Neither one of his parents could fathom such things, but that was just as well as far as Willy was concerned, since his great goal in life at that stage was to convince himself that his mother and father were not his real parents. He found them alien, wholly embarrassing creatures, a pair of sore thumbs with their Polish accents and stilted foreign ways, and without really having to think about it he understood that his only hope of survival lay in resisting them at every turn. When his father dropped dead from a heart attack at forty-nine, Willy's sorrow was mitigated by a secret sense of relief. Already at twelve, just barely on the brink of adolescence, he had formulated his lifelong philosophy of embracing trouble wherever he could find it. The more wretched your life was, the closer you were to the truth, to the gritty nub of existence, and what could be more terrible than losing your old man six weeks after your twelfth birthday? It marked you as a tragic figure, disqualified you from the rat race of vain hopes and sentimental illusions, bestowed on you an aura of legitimate suffering. But the fact was that Willy didn't suffer much. His father had always been a riddle to him, a man prone to weeklong silences and sudden outbursts of rage, and more than once he had slapped down Willy for the smallest, most trifling infraction. No, it wasn't hard to adjust to life without that bag of explosives. It didn't take any effort at all:
Or so reckoned the good Herr Doktor Bones. Ignore his opinion it you will, but who else are you prepared to trust? After listening to these stories for the past seven years, had he not earned the right to be called the world's leading authority on the subject?
That left Willy alone with his mother. She was hardly anyone's idea of a good time, but at least she kept her hands to herself and showed him considerable amounts of affection, enough warmth of heart to counterbalance the periods when she nagged him and harangued him and got on his nerves. By and large, Willy tried to be a good son. At those rare moments when he was able to stop thinking about himself, he even made a conscious effort to be nice to her. If they had their differences, they were less a result of personal animosity than of starkly opposing world views. From hard-won experience, Mrs. Gurevitch knew that the world was out to get her, and she lived her life accordingly, doing everything in her power to stay clear of harm's way. Willy also knew that the world was out to get him, but unlike his mother he had no qualms about fighting back. The difference was not that one was a pessimist and the other an optimist, it was that one's pessimism had led to an ethos of fear, and the other's pessimism had led to a noisy, fractious disdain for Everything-That-Was. One shrank, the other flailed. One toed the line, the other crossed it out. Much of the time they were at loggerheads, and because Willy found it so easy to shock his mother, he rarely wasted an opportunity to provoke an argument. If only she'd had the wit to back off a little, he probably wouldn't have been so insistent about making his points. Her antagonism inspired him, pushed him into ever more extreme positions, and by the time he was ready to leave the house, and go off to college, he had indelibly east himself in his chosen role: as malcontent, as rebel, as outlaw poet prowling the gutters of a ruined world.
Lord knows how many drugs that boy ingested in the two and a half years he spent on Morningside Heights. Name an illegal substance, and Willy either smoked it or snorted it or shot it into his veins. It's one thing to walk around pretending you're the second coming of François Villon, but feed an unstable young man enough toxic confections to fill a dump site in the Jersey Meadowlands, and his body chemistry is bound to be altered. Sooner or later, Willy might have cracked up anyway, but who would argue that the psychedelic free-for-all of his student days didn't accelerate the process? When his roommate walked in on him one afternoon in the middle of his junior year and found Willy buck naked on the floorchanting names from the Manhattan phone book and eating a bowl of his own excrementthe academic career of Mr. Bones's future master came to an abrupt and permanent end.
The loony bin followed, and then Willy returned to his mother's apartment on Glenwood Avenue. It wasn't the ideal place for him to live, perhaps, but where else could a burnout like poor Willy go? For the first six months, not much good came of the arrangement. Other than Willy's switch from drugs to alcohol, things were essentially the same as they had been. The same tensions, the same conflicts, the same misunderstandings. Then, out of the blue, in late December 1969, Willy had the vision that changed everything, the mystical encounter with blessedness that turned him inside out and set his life on an entirely different course.
It was two-thirty in the morning. His mother had gone to bed several hours before, and Willy was parked on the living room sofa with a pack of Luckies and a bottle of bourbon, watching television out of the corner of one eye. Television was a new habit for him, a by-product of his recent stay in the hospital. He wasn't particularly interested in the images on the screen, but he enjoyed having the hum and glow of the tube in the background and found comfort in the gray-blue shadows it cast on the walls. The Late Late Show was on just then (something to do with gigantic grasshoppers devouring the citizens of Sacramento, California), but most of the airtime had been given over to chintzy exhortations on behalf of miracle breakthrough products: knives that never went dull, lightbulbs that never burned out, secret-formula lotions that removed the curse of baldness. Yak yak yak, Willy muttered to himself, it's the same old suds and blather. Just as he was about to stand up and turn off the television, however, a new commercial came on, and there was Santa Claus popping out of someone's fireplace in what looked like a suburban living room in Massapequa, Long Island. Given that Christmas was just around the corner, Willy had grown used to commercials that featured actors dressed up as Santa Claus. But this one was better than mosta roly-poly guy with rosy cheeks and an honest-to-goodness white beard. Willy paused to watch the beginning of the spiel, fully expecting to hear something about rug shampoos or burglar alarms, when all of a sudden Santa uttered the words that would change his destiny.
"William Gurevitch," Santa said. "Yes, William Gurevitch of Brooklyn, New York, I'm talking to you."
Willy had drunk only half a bottle that night, and it had been eight months since his last full-blown hallucination. Nobody was going to trick him into swallowing this garbage. He knew the difference between reality and make-believe, and if Santa Claus was talking to him from his mother's television set, that could only mean he was a lot drunker than he supposed.
"Fuck you, mister," Willy said, and without giving the matter another thought, he clicked off the machine.
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to leave things as they were. Because he was curious, or because he wanted to make sure he wasn't having another breakdown, Willy decided it would be all right if he turned the television back onjust for a peek, a last little peek. It wasn't going to hurt anyone, was it? Better to learn the truth now than to walk around with that sack of Yuletide shit preying on his mind for the next forty years.
And lo and behold, there he was again. There was Santa bloody Claus, wagging his finger at Willy and shaking his head with a sad, disappointed look in his eyes. When he opened his mouth and started to talk (picking up precisely where he had left off ten seconds earlier), Willy didn't know whether he should burst out laughing or jump through the window. It was happening, folks. What could not happen was happening, and right then and there Willy knew that nothing in the world would ever look the same to him again.
"That wasn't nice, William," Santa said. "I'm here to help you, but we're never going to get anywhere if you don't give me a chance to talk. Do you follow me, son?"
The question seemed to call for a response, but Willy hesitated. Listening to this clown was bad enough. Did he really want to make things worse by talking back to him?
"William!" Santa said. His voice was stern and reproachful, and it contained the power of a personality that was not to be trifled with. If Willy was ever going to squirm out of this nightmare, his only hope would be to play along.
"Yeah, boss," he mumbled, "I read you loud and clear."
The fat man smiled. Then, very slowly, the camera moved in on him for a close-up. For the next several seconds Santa stood there stroking his beard, apparently lost in thought.
"Do you know who I am?" he finally said.
"I know who you look like," Willy said, "but that doesn't mean I know who you are. At first I thought you were some asshole actor. Then I thought maybe you were that genie in the bottle. Now I don't have a clue."
"The thing I look like is the thing I am."
"Sure, pal, and I'm Haile Selassie's brother-in-law."
"Santa Claus, William. A.k.a. Saint Nick. Father Christmas himself. The only force for good left in the world."
"Santa, huh? And you wouldn't happen to spell that S-A-N-T-A, would you?"
"Yes, I would. That's exactly how I'd spell it."
"That's what I figured. Now rearrange the letters a little bit, and what do you have? S-A-T-A-N, that's what. You're the goddamn devil, grandpa, and the only place you exist is in my mind."
Notice how Willy struggled against the apparition, how determined he was to thwart its charms. He wasn't some pea-brained psycho who let figments and specters push him around. He wanted no part of this one, and the disgust he felt, the downright hostility he expressed whenever he recalled the first moments of the encounter, was precisely what convinced Mr. Bones that it was true, that Willy had experienced an authentic vision and was not making the story up. To hear him tell it, the situation was a scandal, an insult to his intelligence, and merely having to look at that bovine lump of clichés brought his blood to a boil. Let someone else make with the ho-ho stuff. Christmas was a fraud, a season for quick bucks and ringing cash registers, and as the symbol of that season, as the very essence of the whole consumerist shebang, Santa was the biggest fake of them all.
But this Santa was no fake, and he was no devil in disguise. He was the true Father Christmas, the one and only Lord of the Elves and Spirits, and the message he'd come to preach was one of goodness, generosity, and self-sacrifice. This unlikeliest of fictions, this contradiction of everything Willy stood for, this absurd display of hokum in the red jacket and the fur-fringed bootsyes, Santa Claus in all his Madison Avenue gloryhad sprung forth from the depths of Television Land to debunk the certitudes of Willy's skepticism and put his soul back together again. It was as simple as that. If anyone was a fraud, Santa said, it was Willy, and then he let him have it in no uncertain terms, lecturing the frightened and bewildered boy for the better part of an hour. He called him a sham, a poseur, and a no-talent hack. Then he upped the ante and called him a zero, a douche bag, a dunderhead, and little by little he broke down the wall of Willy's defenses and made him see the light. Willy was on the floor by then, weeping his eyes out as he begged for mercy and promised to mend his ways. Christmas was real, he learned, and there would be no truth or happiness for him until he began to embrace its spirit. That would be his mission in life from now on: to embody the message of Christmas every, day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.
In other words, Willy decided to turn himself into a saint.