Allan Gurganus: A Fool for Christmas
In 2004, NPR's "All Things Considered" reached out to Allan Gurganus & asked him to write something he could read on-air on Christmas Eve. With barely 2 weeks to work on it, he began to write. The result was magical & a new holiday tradition was created. It lives on in Allan's annual readings of his short story "A Fool for Christmas."
- [D.G. Martin]: This privilege of introducing Allan Gurganus
to people who know him very well is kind of complicated.
So Allan, I welcome you
on behalf of all of these people here.
So cuddle back, relax, and hear
one of the most wonderful Christmas stories ever written.
- Thank you, D.G.
I'm so happy to be here.
I'm thankful for "All Things Considered."
When they asked me to write a Christmas Eve story 2004
I had two weeks to do it,
and by God, something emerged
and I've enjoyed it ever since.
Every time I've read it here
I've improved it by six or seven words
and I think it's beginning to be almost finished.
So if you're ready, I am.
Here we go again:
Well, welcome to my mall, stranger,
and merry, merry back at you.
You just come off that highway?
All this ice is scary, isn't it?
They say traffic's backed up clear to Charlotte.
You saving this stool?
Well, aren't you nice.
Me, I'm Vernon Ricketts
and I manage our Fin, Fur, and Fun franchise,
third busiest pet store
in Eastern North Carolina, so they tell me.
Yep, finally closed Christmas Eve.
Not to brag, but my staff and me,
today we moved more animals than old Noah ever did.
And while each of my pups and kittens go speeding home
towards sleeping kids, Mr. Manager has swung in here
for a big old final drink.
Bet you're glad you're off that interstate.
Lucky you found our county's one place still open,
it being a holiday after 1:00 a.m.
Kirsten runs this bar.
There she is yonder.
Still beautiful, am I right?
We went through school together, her and me.
Survived the same crazed Pentecostal church.
Had our big Bibles and our little tambourines.
Kirsten's husband left her flat with two young boys.
Ran off with his horseback riding teacher,
a ex-Marine like him.
That was a shocker.
Oh, but Kirsten dealt with.
Has got lot of spirit.
And for us mall insiders,
tonight only she always makes personal eggnog.
Family recipe, grates her own nutmeg,
brings in the home blender, everything.
Yo Kirsten, we'll need a cup of your famous eggnog,
me and my new pal here.
You'll see, they're super tasty.
Tonight is even more than the start of a whole day off
for Vernon here.
It's secretly my anniversary.
I can't help remembering
with us in the middle of a blizzard and all.
Yeah, this same second be exactly one year ago
in my exceptional pet shop
through that very security screen
I did something.
I still don't know how nor why a certain person trusted me
to help with it.
Got us both in the newspapers,
the Charlotte one plus Raleigh's.
But along with being exceptional store publicity,
turned out to be the best darn thing that ever grabbed me.
Finest gift a woman ever give me.
And right here at the holidays even before it happened
I was a fool for Christmas.
Well imagine me now.
First time I seen the girl that changed me so majorly
poor thing was already being hounded.
We got a no vagrant policy at this shopping center.
Never was enforced, not till Vanderlip stepped in
as mall manager.
He was soon all over our drifters, skateboarders,
even the rich old men nodding off
while wives tried on every shoe at each door.
Vanderlip is one strange bird.
Seems there's lots of the military minded taking
charge these days.
He come up hard like I did.
Attended night school after having two kids
while working three jobs.
You gotta respect that type drive in a family man.
But seems like the better Vanderlip does in life,
the harder he is on those he passed
during his scrappy climb clear up to mall manager.
Man ain't that old, but he's always acted 65,
born taken names.
Too proud of being in charge even of a mall like ours
with just the three working fountains
and that Restoration Hardware.
First we thought he'd be good for the place, you know.
Didn't he bring in bigger palm trees?
Didn't he release dozens of my shop's largest goldfish
in the reflecting pools?
Until the tossed pennies or the chlorine got them, one.
Was then Vanderlip caught a retired couple pocketing
three for a buck canned tuna at Dollar General.
He marches them sobbing into the back room
he's labeled Deprogramming.
Us merchants, we'd first nicknamed Vanderlip The Enforcer.
By now, he's Terminator.
But yes, a new girl was seen on the mall.
Terminator Vanderlip spotted her first.
Oh, she tried blending in with other pretties that age.
She would settle, keeping her back
to our usual standout blondes
monopolizing the popular benches fountain-side.
Young gals were always dabbing glitter makeup
onto each other, then taking cell phones snaps
of their new naval rings,
sending these to lucky farm boys out in the county.
But this recent gal wore just an old sailor peacoat
sizes too big, had limp brown hair all down in her face,
plastic barrettes pushed bangs into being
a little on and letting her hide in plain sight.
Prettier girls bare midriffs migrate
like birds around our grand concourse.
All at once they'll rush like mad to avoid
or attract some clump of boys just arrived.
I saw this darker new child follow that crowd
but only at a distance
just so she'd fade in a little better.
They ignored her.
She acted like she didn't notice being snubbed,
but at that age that's all you notice.
I guess she was not what you'd call real attractive.
Only tiny, you know, small in a way
that frog gigs the hearts of big old fellers like me.
She kept to herself.
She fell somewhere betwixt 12 and 17.
She fell between looking not too interested
and completely lost.
Well, you know how in your smartphone's photo files
among all the snaps you took of your smiling friends
and new real leather furniture
there'll be some messed up shots,
maybe sky, some jet trail and two flying birds
or even your own knees showing
against the red steering wheel?
What's odd, you flip right past the good pictures
and stare longest at the ones gone somewhat wrong.
It's those ones that make you think
hell, I could have been a photographer.
She was like that, off to one side.
A throwaway, kind of nifty but near about by accident.
Right off I seen she was clever.
Never sat down real long in one place.
Avoiding Vanderlip's catching steady sight of her.
Carrying a different store's bag each day.
Always chatting into her cell phone.
Body turned in odd directions hunting privacy.
But Terminator was right there behind the new palm tree
talking into his wristwatch.
With his nose for sin, Vanderlip guessed her story
before I did.
A man walks in short steps
so he always seems real busy, busy, busy.
Never without the tie.
It's not as big as a thermos.
Just after each Thanksgiving
Vanderlip has signs hung across our malls, four signs.
Jesus is the reason for the season,
and under that in small print, and Happy Hanukkah.
Spelled Hanukkah wrong.
Some say on purpose.
His own church choir has been singing carols here
every Tuesday, Thursday since Halloween.
My new favorite, she now fetched up
only on the rainy, coldest days.
Seems she was saving back our shelter
for when she'd need it most.
Never really stepped into my shop,
but like everybody she would gather
before our snow-sprayed windows full of wriggling pups
all wearing red bows.
I'd see her sort of grinning then.
I willed her to visit Vernon's Menagerie.
I thought out yonder hungry stands somebody's daughter.
I imagined her as being mine, then shuttered.
I felt more scared for her after that.
So it was three weeks before last Christmas I seen something
I wasn't supposed to.
That sweet, sad mouse girl steps into the ladies,
leaves her cell phone on one fountain-side bench.
Well, I figure here's Vernon's chance to be a hero, see.
So I rush out to save the cell
she's been chatting into constant for these three weeks,
especially when Terminator's staring,
but hers is just a toy for kids from Dollar General,
black block of wood.
Cheap decal sticky on its front.
So lightweight I all but dropped it.
I set it down real quick and run off huffing.
I figure let her keep her secrets till she can't.
Girl ate alone at our international food court.
I saw how sly she worked that place.
She'd make off to one side meal out of dispenser ketchup,
leftover croutons, hot water.
She'd garnish this with lemon wedges
and a little Parmesan from Mamma Mia's.
Out of a bin dainty she'd lift one large soda cup,
wash it good at our water fountain,
then drink Classic Coke all day.
One time I saw her stash her cup up high on a ledge
so as Vanderlip's every-busy cleanup crew wouldn't snag it.
Girl's jacket hikes up and underneath I see
she's like 10 months pregnant.
White belly squared off to where it seems she swallowed
a 12-pound dice.
The shopper I really liked best now,
the one I find I'm waiting to see daily, pregnant by 14.
Just Vernon's luck.
I mean see, I basically even romance-wise run animal rescue
even while retaining brand new creatures.
I'm really running an orphanage.
It's the same even on blind dates
which my dates mostly are.
I guess gals don't like it when you act real kind to them.
I try holding back and sounding semi-mean.
But look at me.
I am on sight a softie.
I don't know why gals all feel there's too much of me
to be much of a catch,
but Christmas week coming in hard.
We got us a bad ice storm like tonight's.
Driving slow to work I think good,
she'll be an easy sight today.
Does show up around noon.
I notice orange mud is caked knee-high on her jeans.
I guess she's not used to being this dirty.
You can tell from how she moves
her boots are soaked.
My runaway is still too used
to regular home bubble baths, see.
Nobody can live anymore at ease in ditches
and out in the woods.
Even pioneers, you wonder how they managed.
And her with child, to use Bible talk.
Coat collar up, she looks all shivery
talking her grownup secrets into a dollar toy.
So well, I carry on our blondest possible cocker puppy,
that big plaid, taffeta bow around his neck naturally.
Hold it down where she slumps
beside the Ann Taylor bag fooling absolutely nobody.
Meanwhile, Vanderlip stands describing her
into a walkie talkie lots more real than her phone.
I go, "Hi, I'm Vernon in charge of that there pet store.
Would you mind picking up a little change
for sitting out here holding
like the cutest dog in the whole mall?
Because I've been looking somebody
to demonstrate this animal for potential buyers.
When folks stop and pet young Butterbean here,
meet Butterbean, you just refer said customers
to my shop yonder.
Pretty easy money.
And I think you are just the charming gal,
the very mall regular to pull this over."
She finally whispers, but right toward our pup's brown eyes,
"This one's such a young one, ain't it?"
Gal holds that licking puppy so close
its nose is hid under her hairdo,
but from certain shoulder motions I can tell she's crying.
Then I say, "Look, I am going to laugh
because Security is like so onto you.
I'm about to pretend you're funny
and we we're friends already." [laughs]
I do that, then, you know, I chuckle.
People expect that from guys my jolly size.
But under my breath, like, I start telling her
I know her cell phone is a block of pinewood.
I know she's crying 'cause this here's a baby dog
and she is toting another baby all over creation in my mall.
I add is how I'd like to help if I can,
especially seeing how it's the holidays and all.
I say if she does carry Butterbean
clear from Penney's down to our Dillard's,
even a couple, three times,
expect to meet me at Chungking Express around two
for her free demonstrator's lunch, okay.
I warn her, I go, "Don't you cry now.
You get me started, there's no stopping it.
Some say I'm a fool for Christmas, some say just a fool,
but don't be feeling mopey and too bad, child,
'cause Vernon, he knows your story now."
Well at the food court over fried dumplings and Butterbean
I ask her what I usually ask my dates,
who her kid's real father is.
Holding the pup between us, this girl speaks extra soft.
I tilt near to hear her go,
"He's Warren. Just started his third tour of Afghanistan.
He's in Bravo Company.
They got him carrying his rifle
through a city made out of clay like flowerpots,
and Warren, he's clearing it one apartment at a time.
Says he never knows what he'll find
from door to door.
Warren swears he won't be shot.
Says third tour's the charm.
Says a person just knows these things.
Three's always been my lucky number.
Warren doesn't sound like a name that's too exciting,
but he is."
Before tour three I wondered
what I could do to help him back here.
Didn't want the boy to just get blown up like them others.
I hated he would have nothing left
to show for even being on earth.
Figured he deserved at least a junior.
"Oh, Warren can play three instruments,
and talk about can sing.
When he gets through this tour
he is going to Nashville to produce CDs
that are half rap, half country.
He'll be the biggest thing in music
since the King, that Warren.
Having his son was all my idea.
He don't even know about my project.
See, I stuck one of my barrette wires
through all our protections.
My dad, he preaches part time
and he told me if I ever got in the family way
not to even bother coming home.
So I left before I showed any.
Warren, he give me $1,500.
Still got most of it."
I see Vanderlip about to head our way.
He will ask her if she's had a complete browsing
by mall holiday experience
and what had been her purchases these last few weeks.
So just to talk, I start quizzing her about where she lives.
Then she gets all stiff,
speaks real cold into her fortune cookie.
"North of here with my aunt, why?"
I thought yeah, north of our parking lot
in the woods with more ants than one probably.
So when Mr. Mall Manager does bob up,
I explain that she has this dog out on approval,
a trusted regular.
"Merry Christmas," she smiles up to Vanderlip
and he just looks her over.
With eight days till Yuletide proper,
she finally steps to the back of my shop
bringing in Butterbean in
from her latest demonstration tour.
Before I even see the girl, there comes this hush.
Now, my animals don't usually react to a customer
one way or the other.
Maybe her being so pregnant struck them
or a quiet habit of taking not one thing for granted.
Even two full-grown jumping Maine Coon cats shift forward
in their cages.
My all-time smartest African grey parrot says
in a Vernon-like voice
that cracks up our beauticians next door,
"Hey, who did that to your hair?"
Well, hearing that, she laughs like a kid then.
Under bangs, I see her teeth.
She shows part of one great eye, brown.
Soon I had her helping my trusted assistant manager LaTanya
do preliminary grooming.
I leave the big labs and shepherds
for our sturdy after high school boys.
One thing is I have an amazing staff.
Listen, you cannot sell 119 holiday pups plus
52 kittens without having you some able helpers.
Are you kidding?
I liked seeing our new girl use the blow dryer
on an apricot toy poodle.
She looked totally into it.
Finally training for something, you know?
During one of her many bathroom trips,
LaTanya and I found a wallet in her peacoat,
us scouting for some family phone number
but she'd smartly marked the contact info off of everything,
that determined to do all this alone.
I noticed she was down to $99, mostly ones and fives.
Like me, LaTanya had already offered her a place to stay,
but our little girl, she was too proud.
Kept talking about her being
a guest of that fancy aunt of hers.
Well, to judge from the muddy boots,
that aunt must've lived in a cave.
Was three days before Christmas
we had downpours, sleet, high winds,
and she goes missing.
Naturally, I'm worried sick.
Already I'm picturing this pale gal dead in a ditch
beside her new baby.
Used to I'd go crazy waiting for my mom and grandma
to get home from the box factory.
Now I had LaTanya checking three times daily
all women's rooms mall-wide.
So that night right after work
I aimed my Camaro out toward our lot's far north corner.
Leave my brights on.
Whip out my cell phone's flashlight app.
Go squishing through puddles.
I aim toward huge walk-in concrete pipes
all lined up to be part of the new Target
going in next door.
They've been dropped in among our last few sassafras
and sweetgum trees,
all that's left of old American woods here abouts.
Then before one big pipe
I see flooring made of scrap plywood laid just so.
Bricks circle a cold campfire.
Inside that four-foot pipe, my flashlight finds garbage bags
stuffed with leaves for bedding,
two empty cans of Old Milwaukee,
and hooked to one wall a little round hand mirror.
Hanging onto it, I see an old Smurf doll.
I hear another body shoe slush in the dark nearby
and Vernon jumps like from a horror movie
but calling to her, crying almost, "That you, babe?
You say you're safe."
And here stands Vanderlip.
Strange to find him in his suit snooping out this far.
Sunset flashes his lapel pins red
with all the rest of him left dark.
He's like, "So Vernon, come out here after work, do you?
Get a little steam off?
Girl that low living back out here like some rat in a hole
and you stand in front of her pipe, that's it, isn't it?"
Old as I am being 40, you forget you can still feel shocked.
But I have been living so far past
such filthy thoughts as his,
first I didn't even understand him.
Defending her, I knew I was gonna say
what I'd never dared speak before
to any hall monitor like him.
"Might could surprise you, Mr. Vanderlip,
with your praying into our loudspeaker
every morning for sales,
with your church choir handing out sin leaflets
noon and night, but there's still
some good folks left on earth.
You feel so fine about yourself,
you expect everything but good from others.
There's way more sin in your mind than you'll find out here
at the edge where most people just try and live.
She's one of the good ones, sir.
She's your daughter Tammy's age and no worse.
You invent an enemy a day.
That's your caffeine that wakes you up.
The others ain't enemies at first
but they start being once you treat them like that.
Her boyfriend's off serving in Afghanistan, sir.
I ain't never been out here before tonight.
It says she's missing.
How'd you even know about her camp?"
She's been building offsite fires, code violation.
Why, what'd you do with her body, Vernon?
You're the type.
I know you've been slipping her the odd tenner.
I have my sources.
Funny, when I started here as manager
you struck me as a real retail leader, Vern.
You knew how to mix up the big
and the little breeds of pups.
Great Danes beside chihuahuas
all wearing Easter bunny ears in one old English window.
And you got points with me for that, you know.
But you could always stop 30 customers dead in their tracks
out in front of your shop.
Sure, you need to drop about 150 pounds,
but once that's done you might could find a future
even higher up in management.
Instead you got half the high school working for you
where one qualified adult would do.
You overpay them out of your own pocket.
And now you put that little skank on payroll
right at Christmas.
God knows what other bag boy she's been nailing in a pipe
and doing back here for pocket change.
Wise up, Vernon.
She's carrying somebody else's load."
I felt tempted to tell him
about his daughter Tammy's reputation.
I was about to sound off
about what lessons maybe Jesus's stable taught,
but I just let it go.
There is too much to explain to any man this sure
he's the Baptist angel greater good.
So finally, after her going missing three full days,
come Christmas Eve closing times
I see the Terminator's security boys surround a small person
at our grand concourse fountain.
LaTanya alerts me, "Vern, it her, okay.
She back, but she looking real shook."
I rushed out.
I tell him she's my niece
and I'll handle my own family mess.
You'd think Vanderlip was off chasing
Dillard's formal wear shoplifters
in their day-at-the-beach tanning parlor.
As I bend down to help her,
the poor child says, "I hitched halfway home,
but they're too churchy to take in no bad girl like me.
This old lady outside of Hot Springs picked me up,
carried me to her house,
but she kept trying to get in the bathtub with me.
Vernon, it got to where it was almost kind of weird.
But right along I kept thinking
I just have to get back to Vern and them pups.
But I'm hurting some."
She stares right up at me,
her face dead white, emergency.
Then I see is how her jeans are soaked clear through.
Her waters had done broke.
If I knew little, she knew less.
At least I had the delivery of 800 pups and kittens
under my belt.
In the valley of the blind, you know?
LaTanya, knowing my tendency with strays, tried to warn me.
She stands behind the girl shaking her head no.
And I understand LaTanya's right,
so I tell the child, "We need us a hospital, girl.
This one's beyond even me, glad as I am you're home."
Then that child sandwiches both her little paws
around one of mine.
Gal says louder than ever she has spoke before,
"Got no insurance.
My folks has probably already told the police I'm missing.
Be a world of trouble if I step into an ER.
I don't want to get you in no bad fix on my count.
Us not being kin, doctors would send you off anyways.
But I couldn't stand for this to happen
among strangers, Vern.
Please, see, with Warren away,
I'd done come clear back to you for this.
Please, I'm strong."
Well, when somebody's chosen you,
however much you might want 911,
you are, well, you're chose.
So while Vanderlip is scaring naked folks in tanning beds,
LaTanya and me get her back into our storeroom,
a trail of water on linoleum.
Hiding from Security,
LaTanya, a big CSI fan, mops up evidence.
The DNA, what have you, it all tells a story.
Right off I run to my beloved Internet.
Vernon Google's keywords baby, human, delivery of.
Kept the printout folded in my back pocket
all that busy day.
Things stayed pretty hectic sales-wise,
it being Christmas Eve and everything.
We do 39.3% of our business after Thanksgiving.
Yes, Vanderlip goes rushing everywhere,
grilling everybody about where she's got to.
Man never knew we'd locked her safe back here with us
behind stacked bags of every Hartz Mountain Canary product.
So, so yeah, it was right at a year ago tonight
about this exact same minute, see,
I moved my Camaro clear down to the Hardee's lot
toward old Raleigh Road, then hiked back huffing.
If Vanderlip had seen by '67 cherry red nearby
he'd have barged into my shop with cops, social services,
and his own crazed finger-wagging preacher probably.
For once I locked my store from inside.
Turned out all the lights except aquariums' lights.
Now I tell you, the sounds of a pet shop is
easier to notice in the dark.
Fish tanks bubbling becomes like ticking clocks.
A sweet background, calming.
Lights off, you can even hear our reptiles move
their own sand.
Around 1:00 a.m., her and me perked up and felt a bit afraid
when the mall's great outside metal doors slam shut,
then echoed everywhere like inside a whole castle.
My girl kept trying not to scream
but then her jeans were off
and I had our storage area space heater putting pink light
to all sides of her.
I tell her, "Just us chickens, don't hold back none now."
Well then she flat let loose.
Shrieks echo across a sleeping mall
bouncing off each glassy storefront.
This place will feel forevermore alive for that for me.
She screams in waves and rows,
and I called down into the heat from her breath and body,
a little stove.
I found a way to coach her.
"We're getting there.
You can, you can.
You are, girl."
I see now every creature must be valuable
if each birth takes this much work.
It was not no holiday night off
but I guess I might call this
the most testing, flattering thing
that's ever once been asked of old Vernon here,
to be so trusted on a known Christmas Eve
and hid with her among my animals.
Then it got so sudden
and even the top of the head looked like a human head
because it was, it was one.
Somehow it got out whole.
We got it out.
Amazing that she'd hung around my mall
and drew me a bit forward, found me.
I cut the cord with my highest end dog nail clippers
but brand new, plus sterilized.
Amazing that when the time was right
she had hitched clear back to be with me here,
and then I could get down there
and pull and coax and catch it,
then hold his ankles up like it was some lizardy pet
but slapping into it the air that made it go human.
I'd saved back one tartan plaid
Burberry cashmere dog jacket,
softest thing in the store beside birds
and our most expensive.
I wrapped her child in that
and laid it in his mother's arms.
By the end she says small but meaning it,
"This here's the first real thing I ever done,
and you was with me every step, sweet Vern."
I goes just, "Thanks."
Well, it was a male one.
I mean, it was a boy.
Oh, he was a pretty little thing.
Black hair spread out like damp feathers.
But of course I would call him pretty.
I would as his whatever as her substitute,
as at least a fairly good pet store manager.
Then I did something foolish but it felt great.
I let out all the puppies and kittens,
ones that had not been sold in time.
And it did not take them long to drift back here
and find where all this mewing was coming from.
My best African grey flew over
to perch on a pegboard partition
and looked down at her and the baby and asked,
"Ew, who did that to your hair?"
Well, she cracked up.
Yeah, was just last Christmas Eve
lit by salt water tanks behind the staff lounge
in my dark, beloved pet store
in a mall with just us three
and other animals surrounding us,
locked up tight from the outside in together.
Of course I couldn't keep her and him hiding
in my storeroom forever.
Even I knew that.
And she didn't think it right
her staying long at my place
without us being married or nothing.
I understood, but she'd have forever been safer than safe
living life with Vernon here.
Whatever she wanted, I'd have dealt with it, really,
even being an ample person.
What, with 1100 square feet I had plenty of room
for little folks like them.
Finally, I did get the parents' phone number out of her,
called them, told them she'd had a son
named both for Warren and for her father
which would make that boy the fourth.
There came a stillness
and the mother finally said, "How are they?"
I drove them both to the Raleigh airport
in my Camaro waxed perfect.
I got as near the gate
as the person without a ticket can go nowadays.
And just before the X-ray machine, she turns back,
tells me she will make Vernon an extra middle name of his
which was quite a Christmas gift.
Sometimes her mom still sends me
pictures of this ideal baby on the web.
I sure saved every attachment.
Just did what anybody would have really.
Still, I've taken his best baby picture
and, well, he's my screensaver now!
Oh man, I'm sorry, blubbering here.
Can be such a pushover, and a big old boy like me too.
But hey, this time of the year could be getting
a little sentimental's legal, right?
You've been so nice to talk to, really.
Yeah, well that was last December 24th,
and I guess I have to say it was of all Vernon's Christmases
his most personal.
Oh, I know people say I tend to be a fool for Christmas,
but I swear once a year
maybe we should all just go ahead and admit it.
Ain't people wonderful?