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The Ninth Candle


Harry Buschman

From The Westlake Village Collection.

The Christmas season in Westlake Village is composed of avarice and benevolence in equal measure, as well as acrimony and good will. All of these qualities are pushed to the extreme, and while most of us are glad to be here for the Holidays, many of us wish we were somewhere else.

From December first onwards, it is possible to hear six Handel Messiahs sung by Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, starring housewife soloists with lacquered hair, bowstring neck muscles and popping eyes. Not to be outdone, Our Lady of Hope is doing L'Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz in costume, or so the calendar says on the back of the pew. (I've always wanted to see Hector Berlioz in costume.) Crèches spring up like weeds on the lawns of Christian and Jew alike and the red robust face of jolly old Father Christmas burns like Big Brother in every window. Stores along Westwood Avenue are ablaze with blinking lights, cotton snow and windows liberally sprayed with plastic frost.

Advertising reaches a climax at the Westlake Village Guardian. We switch from biweekly to weekly during the month of December and the paper grows in bulk as the magic day nears. It can no longer be stuffed in your mailbox or wedged between the knob and the jamb of your door but must be flung like a sack of potatoes on your front lawn from a speeding van. The Volunteer Fire Department sells Christmas trees for the benefit of the Fireman's Fund, the Ladies Rosary Society sells poinsettia plants from door to door for the benefit of the poor, and, (apparently for no one's benefit but his own) the Town Supervisor raffles off a color television set and ten turkeys.

Lucas Crosby and I are busy day and night with copy. The printer sends a man over with his clip art collection to work with us. It is so easy these days -- so easy in fact that blunders are unavoidable, and a smiling Santa may well find himself embedded in the chimney in the greeting from O'Dell's Funeral Parlor.

We mustn't forget it is Hanukkah as well, but Lucas will have none of that. He is up to his ears in Christmas. "Let them get a holiday of their own," he says to me, unaware that the Festival of Lights is far older than Christianity.

"Whadd'ya mean Festival of Lights is Jewish?! Just take a look around Westlake Village! Take a look at the Esposito place .... Holy Three on the lawn, moose up on the roof and blinkin' lights in every window." I wonder how he has survived his 64 years; he has crawled into a cocoon of his own making and will not emerge.

The "Guardian" must abandon its day to day coverage of school news, its "High on the Hog" dining column and its "Golden Page" for senior citizens. Our doors are closed to news of any kind, we are riding the Christmas/Hanukkah juggernaut and it seems to me that Christian and Jew alike will be sick of the hoopla before December is closed out.

I am assigned the problem ads. Lucas, as well as being short-sighted, is short-tempered, and when confronted with the unconventional he can be strangely Scrooge-like. So when the Sum Lum Duck Vietnamese Cuisine and Takeout called for a half page, he signaled me from across the room.

"Here, you take it, it's them Chinks from up the street."

"Hello," I answered, "how may I help you?" I hoped both he and Stacey, his secretary, heard me; I've been trying to teach them to say that instead of,  "Watch'ya want?" or the even more brusque, "Yeah?"

"We rike to ad in your "Goddyon," an ad for your horriday at Clistmas time." I knew this would be difficult over the phone, so I told Brian Ho, the manager, that I'd be right over.

Sum Lum Duck wanted to offer a cut-rate American Christmas dinner .... "for  all American family in honor of the passing of your Savior." I could only imagine how Lucas would have reacted to that. We discussed the basic difference between the birth and death of Christ and how the menus differ for Christmas and Easter. Turkey with one and lamb with the other. Sum Lum Duck was flexible. It would be a special all-American dinner for Christmas and Easter with both lamb or turkey on the menu. They wanted to include a picture of the front of the restaurant with the chef standing between the two brothers, Brian and Don Ho.

Christmas at this particular stage of my life is less a time of wonder than it is a time of loss. My children are gone and delight in children of their own. My wife is gone -- unalterably gone, and I am left with doddering neighbors and friends who grow fewer every year. All of us have loss in common, but most of us have retained a grotesque sense of humor and a slim hope that there is something left to life worth living, and that our personal candle may yet be rekindled.

I returned to find Lucas standing on his rickety swivel chair, tacking a sprig of mistletoe to the ceiling tiles above his head.

"I suppose when you're the least likely to be kissed you'll go to extremes, Lucas. First you've got to take that cigar butt out of your mouth."

Stacey said, "I hope he falls off that chair and breaks his neck."

He came back to earth with a grunt. "What did the Chinks want?"

"They want to participate in the Christmas season. Half-page ad for a Christmas dinner, and they're Vietnamese, not Chinks."

"Jesus, who'd wanna eat in a place like that on Christmas?"

I don't know how many years it's been, five or six at most I guess. Lucas was 64, I was 80. We were both old enough to know better, but I was suddenly fed up with his gung-ho God Bless America the Beautiful. Rickety as I am, I walked over to his desk and climbed up on his old swivel chair. Stacey let out a shriek --

"Get offa there, Mr. Buschman -- you'll kill yerself!"

Nevertheless, I managed to stand upright and pull the mistletoe down. I suddenly realized I was in a very precarious position for a man my age and I got down as gently as I could. Why had I done that? I stood there with the mistletoe in my hand -- Lucas's mistletoe. For some reason I dropped it on the floor and stomped on it -- again and again, then, feeling as awkward and stupid as I've ever felt before, I flung my muffler around my neck and headed for the door.

As I flung open the door, Lucas looked at Stacey and said, "Boy, somebody's got a hair across his ass today."

Not being able to think of a suitable retort, particularly one in Stacey's presence, I stalked out.

"Now what," I thought? "Here it is one o'clock in the afternoon and you're in  such a huff you can't go back to the paper. How old will you have to get before you learn to control your temper?"

I had two choices, lunch at MacDonald's across the street or a few beers over at the Hollow Leg Saloon. I knew what would happen at the Hollow Leg -- probably get my Irish up, come back and punch Lucas in the mouth. Bad decision! "Suppose he punches me back? .... spend Christmas in the hospital -- that's what." MacDonald's seemed to be the wiser choice.

I love the smell of MacDonald's in the winter, the fatty beef and the fatty fries, the scent of sweet onions and the cloying aroma of ketchup fill the air. It's a peculiarly American smell quite unlike the fragrance of an Italian, Chinese or Greek restaurant. It's a scent that gets into your clothes, under your fingernails, and in your hair. You go to sleep with it and wake up with it in the morning. It returns to full power when you burp, and the burning of the burp is made more endurable. Ardsley was sitting alone at a table.

We shook hands like brothers, a white fist in a black fist. The black fist wearing a ring on every finger but the thumb.

"How'ya doin' Ardsley?"

"Cool Mr. "B," whyn'tcha getcha mess and come sit down?" I'd love to talk street with Ardsley, but I'm not good at it, and he isn't much better. He'll just sit there, shake his head and tell me to talk like a white man.

I got a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato, fries and a coffee, then went back to sit with Ardsley. He was wearing a sprig of mistletoe in the buttonhole of his old army field jacket.

"Merry Christmas, Ardsley."

"Bound to be, bound to be. We ain't had snow yet. For me, leastways, that's what can ruin Christmas. I hate snow."

"You from the south, Ardsley?"

"Yeah, come up from Tennessee with my little lady right after Korea."

"I didn't know you were married."

"Oh, I ain't. Not now anyways. Wife died in," he paused and counted laboriously. "1974. Have mercy, Lord."

"I lost my wife in '87."

We sat there, the two of us, a world apart in culture but sharing a mutual loss of something that had meant a great deal to us. He watched me as I squirted my cheeseburger liberally with ketchup and generously salted my fries.

"You gotta good appetite for an old man, y'know?"

"I always eat when I'm mad, Ardsley."

"S'no way to be, man. It's near Christmas. You gotta loosen up -- y'oughta come over to my church some Sunday."

"The new one over in Castle Gardens?"

"Yeah, The Road to Glory Evangelical. Reverend Gabriel will blow you away. Full Gospel preacher just like we used to have back home. That man'll lay it to ya -- I swear when you come back out into the sun y'feel like a white man. I don't mean like a white skinned man, y'feel clean and white all over. Like whatever was dirty on you when you went in has been washed and scrubbed away."

"I go to Our Lady."

Ardsley grinned, "I know -- with that skinny-assed Father Stan .... y'said you wuz mad, what'cha mad at?"

"Lucas Crosby."

"What about?"

"He's a bigot -- a redneck, you know?"

"Ah, Lucas ain't so bad."

"Oh ain't he now. You oughta know. Bet you wouldn't go over there and ask him  for a favor, would you?"

"I wouldn't ask you for a favor, Mr. "B". But lemme' tell ya, when I had my bypass Lucas done me a favor I'll never forget."

"Gee, Ardsley, I didn't know you had a bypass."

"Lucas did. Him and me was in Korea. Buddies never forget. Don't matter much if they ain't the same color -- they hang offa the same tree, know what I mean."

"I was in WW two, Ardsley."

"I know you wuz. You told me. That wuz different. That wuz a world war .... y'had guys in the Pacific, guys in the Atlantic, guys in Africa, Italy, Alaska. You wuzn't a family -- you gonna finish them fries?"

He slid my container of fries over to his side of the table and reached for the ketchup bottle. Then he wiped his eyes with his dirty napkin.

"We wuz all together in one place, like a family. Din't matter shit what'cha color wuz. Even the Gooks .... if they fought with us, they wuz family too. So when y'say Lucas is what'cha call bigoted, remember he didn't forget ol' Ardsley."

"What did he do Ardsley?"

"Got me outta the Vet hospital --- it's way out in Port Jervis, y'know. Got me into Saint Mary's. Real nice there .... nuns lookin after ya. Could'na paid for that myself on Medicaid. Hospital told me Lucas picked up the bill."

"Merry Christmas, Ardsley."

"You too, Mr. "B," say hello to ya kids."

I left him there finishing my fries. I swung my muffler around my neck and pushed my way out the door. What was I going to do, tell Lucas I was sorry? The hell with that! I walked over to Georgia's Greenery and got him a fresh sprig of mistletoe.


This is an excerpt from Mr. Buschman's Novel
"Westlake Village."

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