Christmas with the Rat King

Citizen Jim Stories Christmas with the Rate King

In which Citizen Jim needs a holiday favor from Chicken Sheets. Written at the end of a terrible, terrible year for the planet. (Yes, 2016)

As has been pointed out by several online publications and Internet memes, the final “F*ck you!” that 2016 has to offer the world comes in the form of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day all falling on the last two weekends of the year. This is extra bad news for me since I’ve been blessed with a Monday through Friday schedule, providing me no opportunity to make any extra money in the form of time-and-a-half on these back-to-back holidays.

Out of the 25 or 30 people who live in our house, I would be the sole inhabitant during the holidays. There were obvious advantages to this (not having to close the bathroom door; not having to coordinate shower times in the morning; watching porn without headphones), but there was a downside, as well, like having to perform all the mundane daily chores by myself. There was also the fact that I would have only my thoughts and a psychotic cat to keep me company.

True, I had invited myself to visit ********* – but I knew that her secretary, Big Jeanne, would only allow me to stand one hundred or more feet from the entrance of the compound to talk to *********, and after only ten minutes, ********* would insist that she was going out of town and I would be told to leave (she never really goes out of town). This always happens on Christmas, but it still hurts my feelings every year.

And, yes, celebrity ceramicist Candaleeza Pryopalooza had invited me to spend time with her, her children Max and Nelly, and her butler, Nicholas, at her residence in King’s Landing. The thing was, I knew I would have to take a new Citizen Jim story with me if I went; otherwise, Ms. Candaleeza’s gracious invitation would be rescinded even as I stood on her porch waiting to be asked inside.

It would not have even been worth it, moving toward this trap of near-blackmail, but for the fact that I was desperate to find favor with Ms. Candaleeza in hopes that she would finally sculpt a hare to go with the tortoise she had made and that I was lucky enough to own. One might think that it would be better to just place an order for the hare with money paid up front and an approximate time in the future when I would be able to take possession of the finished product.

Unfortunately, celebrity ceramicist Candaleeza Pryopalooza was as famous for her moody, fickle temperament as she was for her ceramics. One did not “place an order” for her art; one waited – and sometimes waited and waited and waited – for her to offer her art for sale.

Even then, she might change her mind at the last minute and decide not to sell it to a prospective buyer (with no reason given). As a business model, this was horrible. However, the demand it created among cutthroat collectors had helped make Ms. Candaleeza very wealthy and turned her into a living legend.

Visit Tomato Street Pottery and prepare to have your mind blown!

So I was in quite a quandary.

Though I had never vowed not to write a Christmas-themed Citizen Jim installment, none with even the hint of a Christmas theme could be found among more than one hundred of these tales. This was true even of the few “lost” stories from more than fifteen years ago that (due to various and sundry minor catastrophes of a romantic nature) had been excised from the Citizen Jim canon and deleted from my files. (Sadly, the trouble with Apocrypha is that it can’t be written with apocryphal intent.)

On the other hand, I would be remiss if I wrote a Citizen Jim story without referencing an upcoming holiday with said holiday only a day away. There was also the sad fact that not mentioning Christmas in a story written during the yuletide season would probably be considered a unilateral act of aggression in the War on Christmas. The last thing I would ever want to do is further incite people who already fall on the floor in a fit of eye-rolling and dry heaving and tongue-biting and foaming at the mouth whenever someone says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

I pondered this, weighing my options while driving to the Waffle House for a Christmas Eve meal. My right arm was resting atop the food processor I had brought along so that I could purée my waffles, eggs, hash browns, bacon, toast, Bert’s Chili, pork chops, coffee, and orange juice after it was served to me. (I had a terrible toothache that I knew I would not be able to have treated by professionals until after Christ’s birthday.)

Once I arrived at the Waffle House and explained why I had placed a food processor on the table in my booth, I was asked to leave without being served the cup of coffee I’d ordered. (“You eat it the way we cook it or not at all!” the waitress said.)

On the sidewalk beside the door of the restaurant I passed a man in a neon green Santa suit with leopard print fur around the base of the hat and on the cuffs of his jacket. He was wearing a pair of aviator goggles, and his beard – fake – was bright pink.

I assumed he was a bum, as he was dancing beside a bucket that contained a few quarters and a dollar bill. His boom box was playing a selection from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, but not one of the pieces associated with Christmas such as “The Waltz of the Flowers” or “The Dance of Sugar Plum Fairy.”

No, this guy had “The Battle with the Rat King” blasting.

This should have tipped me off immediately. But it didn’t, and the next thing I knew I was being pelted from behind, filberts, walnuts, almonds, and crab apples clocking me on the head and falling like hailstones on the asphalt of the parking lot while I was putting the unused food processor in the trunk of my car.

I turned around. “What the hell?”

“What the hell yourself!” the man in the Santa suit yelled. “You just walk by without giving a thin dime to your best friend in the world when he’s dancing his heart out?”

Citizen Jim: it was a Christmas miracle!

I ran toward him and had to fight my way through a hail of nuts being launched at me in handfuls.

“I didn’t know you were in town,” I said when I finally reached him, my face aching from being hit so many times with unshelled filberts.

“Well, my wife got sent to this Waffle House to work during the holidays because they were short-handed,” he said. “You gotta go where the work is.”

“When did your wife start working at the Waffle House?” I asked.

“Listen, we can’t live in a city like Birmingham on what she makes as an alchemist,” he said. “And folk dancing gigs are few and far between until all those fertility festivals start up in the spring.”

“True,” I said and nodded, remembering that his wife had a degree in Alchemical Studies from the Organic University of Fairhope. He’d mentioned once in passing that her minor had been Folk Dancing.

“So anyway, it’s good you showed up. I’m gonna need you to take my mother and my sister out for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”

“Why aren’t you taking them since you’re down here?” I asked.

He fired a Brazil nut at my forehead from point-blank range, then flew into a rage after it bounced off me and hit him in the chest.

“God DAMN it!” he yelled. “I just told you money is tight in my house! Why should I expect my wife to be the sole breadwinner? I hafta stay here and pull my weight, too.”

I glanced at his collection bucket just as a gust of wind took the lone dollar bill and carried it toward Greeno Road. “Gah! You go get that money! We are broke as a joke!” he yelled, jumping up and down.

“Here,” I said, and reached into my pocket to pull out a five, folding it up and sticking it in the waistband of Citizen Jim’s Santa suit pants.

“Listen, you better keep your money. My mother and my sister can tuck away some food when they know someone else is paying,” he said.

“Jim, I think you should have Christmas dinner with your family,” I said. “I wouldn’t feel right.”

“Hey, that’s better than how I’d feel,” he said. “You know how mean my sister is to me—I never leave a family function without a black eye or a cracked rib. On Thanksgiving this year she broke my nose and split my lip in three places—and that was just because I walked into the house without ringing the doorbell!”

This sounded infuriatingly familiar. Over the years, I’d had to fetch Citizen Jim from the ER many times after dinner with his family got out of hand.

He went on. “And I’m afraid Mama’s not off her kick about asking me for a grandbaby.”

I winced. Citizen Jim’s wife hates babies like a dog hates mail carriers. “Well, I mean…”

He grabbed my arm and yanked it behind my back, pushing me forward until my face was pressed against the glass of the restaurant window. Inside, the waitress who had ejected me was pointing at the window and yelling. I couldn’t hear her, but her lips were easy to read: “Break it off! Break it off!”

“Can’t you just do this one thing for me? After all I’ve done for you? Where’s your Christmas spirit?” Citizen Jim asked.

“Okay,” I croaked. “Let go of my arm.”

“Listen, you better take ’em somewhere nice, or I’ll make sure you never get off Santa’s naughty list for as long as you live!” he said, then released me.

“I hope you have more luck with winning bread out here, Precious Lamb,” I said, pointing at his collection bucket.

“Don’t just hope! You go in there and give my wife a big tip!” he yelled.

“I think she’s the one who made me leave without even serving me coffee,” I said.

“You can hold a grudge longer than any damned woman I’ve ever known!” he said. “Fine! Get lost! I told Mama you’d pick up her and Dena at 11:30 tomorrow.”

“But –” I started.

Citizen Jim interrupted me. “And don’t try to take them too far from my mother’s place or they’ll swear I’ve arranged to have them kidnapped to collect a ransom. I mean, I did that one time, and they just can’t let it go.”

“But—” I tried again.

“Don’t be late, or I’m the one who’ll get the snot whacked out of me the next time I’m in town! And don’t you dare tell Mama you saw me!”

While putting on my seatbelt I decided not to write a Christmas-themed Citizen Jim story for Ms. Candaleeza. She wasn’t the only person who could make others desperate for a fix of art.

As I pulled away from a moon-walking Citizen Jim I realized the only restaurant open on Christmas Day near to where Citizen Jim’s mother lived was probably the Waffle House.

Oh well. I’d blow up that bridge when I came to it.