A Christmas Story

July 27, 2008
By Will Mantell, Chappaqua, NY

Edward Munich’s hair was snow white. Or whatever was left of it, anyway. There was a time when he had a full and thick brown mane, the time he taught at the university. It seemed like lifetimes ago—he had been an authority, a man to whom people listened. He had been married with young children, beloved by his older and venerable colleagues, who were aged well beyond his years and appreciated his somewhat reckless youth.
But on this Christmas Eve, he was twenty years divorced, that woman deceased now anyway. His children were out and about in the world, taught at universities of their own, had children of their own—his youngest grandchild was about five or ten years graduated out of one of those universities. His colleagues were long dead.

And so it was in this matter that Edward Munich had come to be a lonely man. He was relatively fit for a man of his age and stature, and so had no trouble going out and about, but it had been a generation since any of his tenants really knew his name, or knew whom he was. There had been a time where he was Professor Munich—to the waiters at the diner, to the inebriated frat boys who had staggered their way off campus, to his tenants, elderly and young, who had been honored to pay the rent to the established Chairman of the Department at the prestigious university. But now he was simply an old man, older than his rather brisk walk and expressionless—and fairly lacking in wrinkles—face would tell. Those frat boys had gone on to head major corporations and earn millions of dollars, purchase the finest rugs and estates and beluga caviar. The younger tenants had moved on to rent out apartments of their own, or move to a dream country house with beautiful spouses. The older tenants had simply moved on.

Edward Munich’s apartment was empty. Or nearly empty, at least. There was a refrigerator and a rocking chair and a bed, and as it was now Christmas Eve, a royal evergreen smack in the center of his apartment, branching its arms out to flood the apartment in a deep forest green. He did not know why he had placed it there. He could’ve put it in a corner or by his bed, that certainly would have been more convenient. But it was a reminder to him—every time he walked in that door, it was the first thing he saw, and surprisingly it did not raise his spirits, but rather lowered them instead. Occasionally the children and grandchildren came to visit, but this Christmas, the old man was all alone. He now sat in the rocking chair and looked out a small window to the world outside.

Children dressed in red and green, with rosy cheeks and chilly hands, frolicked about in the streets. They jumped rope and played hopscotch and other games and waited and prayed for the first snow of the season. It was their school vacation, and as they had little better to do, they went outside, clothed in warm woolen sweaters and delightfully colorful mittens. And to the old man, it appeared as though each one had a slightly different hat. They were so happy—it did not seem to matter whether they played with their mothers or their brothers and sisters or other boys and girls of their age. They were happy. And Mr. Munich, sitting in his rocking chair, gazing out the window, was reminded of his better days. He abruptly sat up and moved towards his drawer. He pulled out a red and green cardigan sweater—might as well blend with the season, he thought—and walked out the door of his apartment.

He was going to the hardware store. He thought that would be a good place to find some rope.

It was not at all difficult for him to get to the hardware store—he was old, but for sure he could still walk and still remembered where things were. But it seemed like there were so many hardware stores in town these days; Munich had always been confused with the springing up of multiple coffee shops, multiple hardware stores, multiple department stores, in his day, one figured coffee was coffee, a hammer was a hammer and a well-priced but elegant suit was a well-priced but elegant suit. The old man was not particularly fond of choices.

He had some trouble with the steps, as a man of a certain age should, but quickly entered the store anyway, and it did not take him long to find the rope he desired. Christmas is an interesting time to kill oneself, he thought to himself. He had once read that most people killed themselves on Christmas or on their birthdays. Edward Munich shared a birthday with Jesus, and ironically, thought the old man, he could quite literally kill two birds with one stone. He quickly grabbed the firm brown rope that would make the perfect noose and a footstool, with which, well, he was not as tall of a man as he had once been.

The cashier at the counter was completely and utterly oblivious. He was a young man, maybe even a college student, no, no, thought Munich, far too old to be a college student. He looked about thirty and he had a somewhat disheveled look to him; perhaps the man’s untidy black beard transmitted that message to the old man. Edward Munich did not care that the young man would probably notice, as it was one of the most common times to commit suicide, that his old customer was probably not going to be around much more. But the young man simply told him, gruffly and ignorantly, “You buy two ropes, you get one free.” The old man chuckled and politely told the cashier he didn’t think he’d be needing another rope. He said he didn’t need a bag, handed over the cash (he still didn’t quite understand credit cards), and walked out of the store. He walked eight blocks back to his apartment carrying a rope and a footstool, but nobody seemed to care. Some hoodlums seemed to laugh at his cardigan sweater, and one of the little boys playing in the street thought that the old man might’ve been his grandfather, but Munich told the boy that, “he was much too old for that.” And so Edward Munich made his way back to his third-story apartment building and opened the door to that vibrant Christmas tree. Jesus Christ, how he hated it.

And because that damn Christmas tree was in the way, the old man had to hang the rope right by that old window from which he could see the little children playing. It was getting dark now anyway, their mothers were calling them in for supper—although supper meant a hell of a lot less nowadays, the old man noticed. Sometimes the families were together and sometimes they were not, sometimes the mother cooked and sometimes she did not, sometimes they watched the television and sometimes they did not. And so as it got dark, Edward Munich rocked in his rocking chair and fell asleep peacefully. He supposed that it would be the last time.

That next morning, Edward Munich woke up to bright white flurries streaking down from the sky. He went to his closet and put on a well-priced, but elegant suit he had gotten at the one department store in town. He had bought it fifty years ago. That department store had since closed down and been replaced by two new ones, both which seemed to have far too many choices and far too high prices. The suit was a little too big for him—he was not quite as tall as he once was—but it was not much of a problem. As he walked over to the footstool, placed precariously under the rope by the window, he gazed out the window at the children in their little sweaters and mittens and hats slowly starting to accumulate like the snow outside on the streets and in the playgrounds. For the first time, Munich debated whether he wanted to leave the Earth. He opened his window to get a better look and saw joyful mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and friends and frat boys and waiters and cashiers from the hardware store all enjoying their morning, throwing snowballs, building snowmen with button eyes and carrot noses. He smelled the cool winter air, felt the snow fall on his face.

He was not particularly happy, though. His children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on had not called in weeks. His tenants did not speak to him; they simply gave him checks. The waiters and cashiers and frat boys and children did not even realize he was there; whether he had helped them mold their lives or just given them a friendly tip, he had simply become part of their surroundings, part of their setting, a tree, a plant, something that was simply there and not to be noticed. Whether Edward Munich died or Edward Munich lived, nobody in particular would care.

And so he climbed up onto the footstool and was about to place his head in the fateful noose when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. A poor young boy and girl, dressed in shabby clothing, with no sweaters and hats and mittens, skipped together, arm in arm. It was unclear if they were brothers and sisters or simply friends. A man dressed as Santa Claus—the old man had played that role for many years back in the day—came up to the boy and gave him a package wrapped in glossy red paper and tied with a beautiful blue ribbon. The boy thanked Santa, as a good child should, and quickly tore open the gift. Inside was a beautiful, new, red-and-green sweater. Edward Munich smiled for the first time in a long time. He began to step off the footstool, but alas, he was a man of a certain age.

He slipped and seemed to fly out the open window with the cool wind and pure white snow—he had become part of the Christmas morning’s weather report. And so he fell to his impending doom, but, it was only three stories, and the old man landed in a patch of bushes. Somewhat thankful for his life, the old man dusted himself off and walked out of the bushes. He looked like quite a fool, walking down the boulevard, green leaves scattered across his backside.

Two young hoodlums, no older than twenty, approached the old man with a gun, asked for his shoes and the suit jacket. He gladly obliged. The hoodlums had never seen anyone so happy to be robbed. As they walked away, he wished them a Merry Christmas. They almost sunk to their knees laughing. For days, they would speculate about the old man who took too many pills.

And so Edward Munich, in a jacket-less suit and socks, walked back up to his apartment and put on his red-and-green cardigan sweater. He walked outside and frolicked, as best as he could for a man of a certain age, in the snow. As usual, nobody seemed to notice the old man with the snow white hair. And so Edward Munich, thankful for his new start in life, walked to church that evening for the first time in years. On his way, his body intercepted two bullets seemingly intended for someone else.

Very few people attended the funeral.

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