“It’s a mystery, Christmas, that’s what it is,” the Old Detective grumbled. “I mean Christmas in Hollywood. There’s no mystery to Chanukah in Hollywood, for instance. It’s a celebration tailor-made for creatures of the desert, it’s about victory and oil and counting and Jews, for all their intelligence, are not a basically ironic people, but Christmas in the desert of Hollywood is a kind of puzzle, you’ve got to admit, especially for someone from a more northern climate. Irony is kind of built in, if you see what I mean.”
The old man and I were sitting in a little bar on Hollywood Boulevard, one he’d liked to frequent in older, more violent days, when dolls and sharpies ruled the Boulevard. It was the day before the day that even down here in the chaparral we like to call Christmas. The bar was called the Blue Mechanism, for reasons I couldn’t begin to imagine, and it was frankly run down, a dive, in fact. I had to agree with his remarks about the holiday, however, much as I disliked his choice of hangouts. Through the dark thick blue glass of the windows I could make out Swedish tourists toppling in the December heat wave. Wilted palm trees were festooned with jolly melting plastic Santas. Garlands drooped sadly. We sat as close as we could to a dangerous old fan that vainly tried to stir up the turgid air. My friend was talking, however, and that was good news for me. In fact, he seemed swept up in an odd wave of nostalgia on this searing winter afternoon that needed some cheer to it, given the imminence of the Big Day itself.
“You see,” he said, tapping the battered fedora back on his grizzled head, “I never, in the old days, had any visions of sugar fairies and reindeers and guys named Frosty, because all I knew was the seamy world of the police blotter, the rundown underside of what we called life, back then. Back in those days, if I saw some socks dangling from a mantle, I’d start looking for the rest of the body, see what I mean? There were no smiling faces upturned in their big wooly mufflers asking me for a free turkey.”
I told him his days as a detective had certainly hardened him.
“Now I’m as soft as soft-water taffy,” he said. “But in those days, I was hard, all right. I was as hard as a big rock candy mountain, until one Christmas, years ago …”
I found my notebook and searched for my pen, the one I hoped wouldn’t leak onto my shirt. We were drinking shots of Black Label in the late afternoon and smoking cigarettes just for fun.
“You see,” said the Old Detective, lighting up another with his old brass lighter, “I took on a case one Christmas for a guy named Kringle, an old guy with a white Santa Claus beard and an annoying twinkle in his eyes who beat the elevator up to my office one crisp December day when the new smog hung from the eaves in frozen stillness and the crunch of actual snow could be heard on half the soundstages around town. Kringle was an enthusiastic bird, full of fizz and he poured out a story as old as Time itself. It was all the usual stuff: flying fantasies, chimneys, large ungulates, whips, something about a red nose and implications about Montgomery Wards that couldn’t be proved. I’d been down that street before.”
“What street?”I asked. It was a stupid question, but I already had misgivings about the old man’s tale.
“In those days, Monkey Wards had a store over on Santa Monica Boulevard. You know what I mean.”
“I’m feelin’ good today, I’m feelin’ frisky. Are you getting this down?”
I told him I was getting it down. Actually, I wasn’t. The minute he’d mentioned “Kringle” and “Christmas” in the same sentence, I’d merely written the word “Xmas” on my notepad and was now idly tracing over and over the x. I began to draw a snowman.
“Now, on that day of cheer and goodwill – you getting this all down? – there was a Christmas party goin’ on across the hall from my office. This was when I had magazines in nice magazine racks in the outside office and a great-lookin’ secretary named Ruby who used to sit out there with her legs crossed.
I asked him if the correct word wasn’t “gams.”
“If I’d meant gams, I’d have said gams. Ruby had legs a mile and a half long and a mother who couldn’t remember her name, she was so far gone on hooch. That?’s “hooch”, h-double-o-c-h.”
I pretended to write. Actually, I’d now drawn a reindeer on its back, legs straight up, two x’s for eyes, but the Old Detective seemed satisfied and continued on.
“After awhile, mostly because of Ruby, the party spilled over across the hall to my place. The usual crazies from the Five Star/Hopeless Talent Agency were around. You remember the name Paul Bunyan?”
“The giant lumberjack?”
“Yeah. Well, he was there.”
I asked him how that could be, since I remembered Paul Bunyan as mythical at best and imaginary at worst.
“You’re too young, you wouldn’t remember,” he replied, puffing smoke. “By that time in his career, he was good for occasional guest shots on the Garry Moore Show and such. He was getting bookings, is what I mean. Now Miss Mysterioso, Mistress of Mystery? Played the organ? Everybody remembers her. Well, she was there with some potato and something salad that was really good, as I recall, and she had on a green and red sequined number that showed the two or three things about her that were no damn mystery at all.”
I said I understood him to mean that Miss Mysterioso, the Mistress of Mystery, was a looker.
“You got that right, son,” he smiled. “Curves up ahead or whatever the road sign says, if you subscribe to my meaning.”
I asked him if perhaps she had great gams.
“If I’d meant she’d had gams, I woulda mentioned it,” he said stiffly. “That Argentine guy who had the trained bears showed up with some fruitcake that had candied mushrooms in it, and the girls from downstairs at Henrietta’s House of Hair came upstairs and put on some Chet Baker records and started dancin’ with each other real slow. There was a big ol’ traditional roast albatross with that sage and treacle dressing. After awhile even old Kringle had a few shots of toddy and pretty soon he was doin’ the stroll or whatever they called it in those days. At one point, even the bears were doin’ it. The party got pretty wild and I lost track of Kringle. You see, I’d forgotten to tell Ruby to sweep my rod off the top of my desk.”
I asked if it was common practice in those days for a detective to leave a loaded weapon out on his desk. Was this Kringle so intimidating?
“I wasn’t intimidated by anything in those days,” he said roughly. “But you never know. I was as hard as the big rock candy mountains and thought that Christmas was just a fancy way of spelling burglary. I was on alert, lemme put it that way.”
“Fine,”I said and pretended to cross something out and write something in.
“Now, I was leanin’ in on Miss Mysterioso pretty good – and believe me, there was a lot to lean over – when we heard the shot.”
“That’s what everyone figured.”
“Kringle shot himself?”
“Did I say that? Of course, that’s the first thing an amateur like you would think.”
I suggested that he tell me, then, what actually happened.
“It was the crack of a tree splitting. Seems this Bunyan guy was outside choppin’down a magnolia tree. He wanted a magnolia blossom to give to Miss Mysterioso, because he was so in love with her. Sometimes a guy like that will just go crazy over a woman.”
I replied that, of course, I’d been down that street before.
“Nearly everyone in this town has been down Santa Monica Boulevard, sometimes twice a day. You ain’t heard the half of it, kid.”
“Well, the half I’ve heard isn’t exactly worth writing down,” I snapped back. He stared at me for a long moment.
“Should I be getting royalties for these stories about me?” He looked serious.
“No,” I lied. “Because I don’t get any.”
“Good,” he said. “Royalty is a mistaken idea anyway, much like Christmas, or at least that’s what Kringle found out.”
I said, he was certainly aware – wasn’t he? – that there had been a famous old black and white movie made about a guy named Kringle who looked just like Santa Claus.
“This wasn’t the same guy,” he said defensively. “This guy’s name was Ferdinand Kringle. Ferdinand L. Kringle. I can see the name on the file folder to this day.”
I told him he certainly had a good memory. I looked around in vain for the bartender, who I suspected was lying on the floor behind the bar gasping for air.
“No,” he muttered. “I had the file out last night because I’m thinkin’ of writing up some of my adventures myself. Cut out the middleman, so to speak.”
“You mean me?”
“Do I? You be the judge. You getting this down?”
I started to write. “Yes,” I said grimly, “I’m getting this down.”
“Good. There was a shot later on, by the way, so if you were on a computer, you could save the word “shot” onto a file someplace and have it ready to re-insert when I get to the shot part.”
I said thanks and when was he going to get to the shot part?
“When I’m good and ready,” he snarled. “We better think about modernizing some. I think you ought to buy a computer and then you could get online and do some networking and maybe we could make some money off of these stories about me.”
I replied that I had every hope than in the future there might be some money from these stories, and of course, some of that money might be his and in the meantime I might see my way clear to advancing him a little something.
“Aha,” he said. “That’s the Christmas spirit. Now we’re talking. You write and I’ll talk. I’m thinkin’ of getting a hot tub, you know? I’ll soak and reminisce and you’ll get it all down on the mainframe. Now, Christmas was all humbug to me, remember? You’ve already got that down, right?”
“So, that night, when the boys in blue found Kringle under the Hollywood Christmas Tree of Light, strangled with those awful twisted green and red double wires they used to have, and bearing strange marks on his body, they normally wouldn’t have come looking for me. Unfortunately, he had my card in his pocket.”
I asked him if they thought he’d killed Kringle. He looked pensive and faraway for a minute.
“Well, they were hoping I’d done something. I didn’t have too many friends down at Hollywood Division in those days. I’d embarrassed those boys one too many times. They hauled me down to headquarters in a black and white and set me up under that one bare light bulb they were so proud of and they all sat back in the shadows and started firing questions at me that I couldn’t answer. Most of them seemed to be about a drunk reindeer and Mongomery Wards. I didn’t think much of it had to do with Christmas, frankly.”
I gritted my teeth and asked him if, by any chance, we were somehow talking about “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” a Christmas ditty that was originally composed, as I understood it, by a man in Chicago who worked for Wards.
“No,” he said firmly. “Wrong again. There was no singing on this one. This turned out to be only about a hard-drinking reindeer who may or may not have had a red nose. It’s immaterial whether it was red or not. Seems like he’d been letting himself out of those cages where he hung out with his buddies on top of that real estate office on Crenshaw. They had reindeer cages and white Christmas trees. I think they sprayed the reindeers white. Anyway, this one had been breaking into Wards and stealing power tools to take back to Alaska and sell for big bucks. It was logical. Kringle worked as a Santa at the same place, waving to cars. He must have caught on. The forensic boys noticed that the marks on Kringle exactly matched the dado head on a Power-Craft table saw, lucky for me. After twenty-four hours of questioning, they had to let me go.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Here’s the heart of the story,” he smiled. “When I got back to the office, the party was still goin’ on. I managed to find Miss Mysterioso. Paul Bunyan had her backed up against a moonlit brick wall covered with variegated ivy and was telling her a lot of lies. I said “Is this guy bothering you?” and she said, lookin’ up at me through half-closed eyes, “You bother me, big boy. This guy is just plain annoying.” I took a deep breath and told Bunyan to take a hike and he launched off into the same story he’d already told on the Merv Griffin show about some hike he took once with a Blue Ox and I pretended to look interested – same as Merv had – and after awhile he got so wrapped up in laughing at his own jokes that I just walked her away into the moonlight and the rest is history.”
“Where,” I asked, looking up from my notes, “is this history written?”
“In the newspapers. The print boys loved it: ’Ripsaw Rudolph Ripsaws Santa!’ You get the picture. But the real story went right to the hearts of mankind,” the Old Detective answered, seriously enough. “You see, she was very, very good to me. Kinda changed my mind about Xmas, after all. She had a pair of gams on her that would melt the heart of Black Peter himself.”
So there was some justice to the season after all in those long-gone days. I like to think there was, anyway, back when Santa had a tan and Mrs. Santa was named Monica and wore a bikini and sunglasses and high heels and after the parade down Hollywood Boulevard they’d get together a bunch of their friends and they’d all pile into the big old turquoise convertible and bomb out to Palm Springs for Christmas because it was the kind of place where the Prince of Peace himself might feel right at home, out there among the roadrunners and the cactuses and the Joshua trees, with the stars out at night – so many you couldn’t hope to imagine them all – and the natural evils of the human spirit damped down for once and calmed, on this one night of all nights in our mysterious town.
This story was included in the 2004 edition of “Mirth of a Nation,” an anthology of humor from Harper Collins.