Chapters 21 - 24

Chapter 21: That Glorious Song of Old

In Plasticopia, time follows the Gregorian calendar commonly observed in the human world, the emphasis being on the word "follows". Time does not flow smoothly in Plasticopia, it goes in fits and starts. Sometimes entire weeks and even months will pass in the blink of an eye; other times a single day will take eons to unfold. This kind of erratic time keeping is unfamiliar to humans, who are accustomed to go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow. But Plasticopians are used to their whimsical clock, and don't mind at all. In fact, they rather like it, as the important days like Christmas can last an entire week and awful horrible ones, such as final exams or bad hair days, will pass in a flash.

So it is that while the holiday season has come and gone in the human universe, in the world of the plastic people it is still two days before the Big One, and the children are still anxious in anticipation of the impending visit from the jolly old elf.

In the Smalley household, the family is having a merry time decorating the tree with the aid of lots of hot chocolate and cookies. Even little Randi is applying her tiny fingers and attention to the job, while her mother (the plucky Mitzi) is out expending her earthly savings on gifts for her dear ones.

Randi is oblivious to the dangers that threaten Christmas, but Mikey--who is eight--is old enough to stress over them.


"What is it, Sweetheart?"

"What if Santa gets busted for breaking and entering before he reaches our house."

"That's never happened, dear."

"But what if it happens this time?"

"Santa has been breaking and entering for hundreds of years, Mikey. I'm sure he's learned a few tricks of the trade by now."

"But methods of crime detection are much better now than they used to be. And what about burglar alarms?"

"Everyone turns their burglar alarms off on Christmas Eve, Sweetie Pie."

"Well, what if he comes down the chimney and catches on fire?

"He wears an asbestos suit."

"What if he gets asbestos poisoning?"

Jeff intervenes, as wise fathers are wont to do. "You've got to have a little faith in the Nickster, Mikey. He's been around longer even than your old dad, and I'm sure he plans on being around when your daughter is eight."

"I'm not gonna have a daughter."

"Oh, you're not?"

"Nope. Me and Alice are gonna be astronauts and spend all our time exploring galaxies far away."

Little does Mikey know that right that minute--unbeknownst to all the Smalleys, in fact--a monkey wrench is being thrown into the gears that control these ambitious plans. But that's another chapter, and I only mention it here to remind our dear readers that, even in Plasticopia, life rarely unfolds according to one's blueprints.

So all Jeff says is: "Exciting. Say, isn't this your favorite cookie? Why don't you come over here and I'll share it with you?"

Jeff pulls Mikey up on his knee, a place that is familiar to her. "I've been meaning to tell you," he whispers in her ear, "that I heard from Santa last week, and he promised to come by our house first if I waited up and let him in the front door, so he didn't get stuck in the chimney or cut himself trying to jimmy a window. In fact, it's a deal we've had every year. It works for the both of us, as I spent a good portion of one Christmas--back before you were born--trying to pry him out of the chimney. He promsied to go on a diet, but I don't know if he's been able to stick to it, what with all the cookies left lying around at every stop."

Of course what Jeff knows is that it's very convenient for Santa to put the Smalley house at the top of the list, since Laska is so close to the North Pole. There's a slight incongruency in that Christmas Eve is reputed to come to the other side of the world at least a half-day before it hits the land of the Midnight Sun (and the Mid-day Gloom), but such details only trouble physicists and airline pilots and the ilk--never Santa and never true-believers.

Mikey smiles happily at her dad, and it is apparent from his expression that he holds his daughter with the highest and most tender regard. She is his Achilles heel, even more so than his beloved wife; he is blown away, every time he looks at her, by the sweet innocence of her smile and the adoration in her eye. Jeff himself did not grow up with tenderness, but rather with military precision.

Soldier, atten-hup.

He was summoned to the breakfast table with a bugle, punished for missteps with a score of push-ups, required to keep his shoes shined and his bed made so tightly his father could bounce a quarter on it. His earliest memories are of walks to the park with his parents and siblings, the whole family singing together as they walked : "Had a boy, his name was Pam, Hup two three four, Went to school with a girl named Sam, Count off! One two three four..."

Only in the safety of his small family--his wife and daughter-- is he able to exhibit the depth of tender emotion that stirs in his soul, the expression of which was denied for so long. He is utterly devoted to his loved ones. His subordinates would never recognize the man with the little girl on his knee, cajoling her smiles with cookies and stories about Santa.

Margaret, who has been methodically hanging ornaments, turns to the room suddenly and says, "You know what is missing. Christmas carols."

Everyone else immediately recognizes the truth of this observation. The Smalleys are a musical family, and rarely do they forget to at least hum as they go about their daily affairs. In fact, Mabel teaches piano and Jeff plays the cello, although he has refused to play since he has returned from the Rocky War. He says it makes him melancholy, but he will not or cannot explain any further to Mabel. He rarely talks about his experiences over there, but she understands that bits and pieces of emotional shrapnel remain lodged in his mind. He is a complex man as well as a detailed man, so she does not press him.

"Why don't you play for us, Mikey?" suggests Mabel. She has been teaching her daughter already for several years.

Mikey needs little coaxing. She loves an audience, like eight year olds everywhere. Unfortunately, the piano stool is away being fixed, having been utilized too frequently as the jumping off place for manned expeditions to the Lower Pleiades. However, she drags in a kitchen chair in its place.

Even perched on the very edge, her feet barely reach the floor, much less the pedals.

But she manages and soon is fingering her way through Tingle Bells and It Came Upon a Christmas Near and other seasonal favorites.

The rest of the family sings along. They all have lovely voices, even little Randi--but most especially Margaret, who sings like an angel. The family has urged her to try out for Plasticopian Idol, but although she is fierce in her defense of right, justice and free medical care for all, Margaret is shy about putting herself on display and terrified of being found wanting. She fears the very public criticisms of Seymour Cowl, the venonmous judge on the show, and can only imagine all of Plasticopia laughing at her expense. And so she sings only in the company of her family, at church (when dragged along by Mabel), and in her choir class at the local college, where she is a freshman with joint declared majors: one in political science and the other in environmental science.

But for the moment, she sets aside her concerns about the plight of the common plastic man, as well as her fears about vanishing polar bear habitat, and lets her voice ring out with the others, a sound so sweet that the angels themselves pause to listen.

If a passerby had come by the Smalley house at that moment, he would have been so overcome with the Christmas spirit from the cheerfully lighted windows and the sound of caroling from within that a tear would have sprung unbidden to his eye, as he recollected Christmases lost and promises wasted; he would have stood frozen in his tracks, his mouth involuntarily forming the joyful words so long ago dismembered and buried in his chaotic childhood past--lovely words that his heart, if not his mind, can still re-member.


While the Smalleys are giving voice to the Christmas spirit, it's a rare moment of relative calm at the Ratchet house, where Betty is fussing with the baby. She doesn't notice Bob come in.

"Ho ho ho."

Betty looks up and smiles, pleased to see her husband home from work. "Oh, hi, honey. Did you get it?"

"Right here."

"Oh, goodie, I was afraid you weren't going to get a bonus this year, with the economy in the pits the way it is."

"Well, it was there, waiting for me when I finished up for the day. But don't get your expectations up, it's likely to be less than last year, with things so slow at the shop."

"Didn't you look?"

"Nope. Thought I'd come home and get comfortable before I opened it."

Betty comes over and sits beside him. "It will sure come in handy this year, with the energy bills so high and food prices jumping every time I go into the grocery store. I had to put all the Christmas presents on layaway."

"Well, what I've got in my hand should take care of that. And maybe we can even pay back that money we took out of the kids' college funds."

"You know, I was thinking, we should send your boss some cookies, and maybe a bottle of good wine. "

"I'm sure he'd like that. Okay, let's see what we've got here.." He rips open the envelope.

A long moment passes while Bob and Betty stare, trying to comprehend what Bob holds in his hand. What is not a bonus check, is pink, and comes in a plain envelope the day before Christmas Eve?

Both Betty and Bob's eyes stray to the Christmas tree, and the fireplace mantel where the children will hang their Christmas stockings the next night in hope that St. Nick soon will be there.

Bob 's eyes return to the pink slip. He finally finds his voice. "Twenty-two years of my life I gave to that company. I gave them my flesh and blood. What about this scar on my cheek? I'll carry it until the day I die. I was loyal, hardworking, prompt and neatly attired. What kind of Scrooge lays a person off right before Christmas?"

Betty jumps to her feet. "Listen, dear, we can pull through this. I'll get a job. I'll take back all the Christmas presents. "

"And what will we tell the children when they wake up tomorrow morning with nothing under the tree? "

The baby whimpers. Betty sighs as she drops onto the sofa and absently rubs his back. "We'll blame it on the Grinch, or...or tell them we just found out Santa imported all their toys from China. What kind of parents would let their children play with toys full of lead and melamine? They'll understand."

"I'm going to go down to the shop and let them know they can't treat people like this. Where's my gun?"

"You don't own a gun, dear."

"Well, lucky for them."

"Where are you going?"

"Doesn't Henry have a B-B gun?"

"You can't take that. You'll shoot your eye out."

"Well, then, I'm going down to the shop and make mean faces."

"Oh, sit down, please. Going down to the shop and making a fool of yourself won't do anybody any good. Besides, things might look up in a few months and they'll be hiring again. You don't want to blow your chances."

"What? You think they won't hire me back just because I set fire to the shop?" But Bob sinks back into his chair; if he must fume, he might as well do it in a good comfortable fuming chair. Although even the most comfortable chair is little comfort when you're the father of five, the family's sole breadwinner, and you've lost your job one day before S. Claus is due with his pack full of toys.

"What am I gonna do now?" he frets. "How am I going to support all these children?"

"We'll think of something. We always do."

"If I could afford the shipping to Rebraska, we could return them."

"You don't mean that!" Betty exclaims, and of course he doesn't, really. Bob is proud of his family, but when you've built your self-identity around your prowress as the breadwinner, when you see your role in life as the provider, the loss of a job is not merely a bump in the road. It's a threat to who you are.

to be continued....