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Penny McPincherton's Christmas Reckoning
written by: Melissa McNallan
Janet Marley was dead. There is no doubt about that. Old Ms. Marley was as dead as the sky-high, ratted-out bangs of the 1980s.
Ms. Marley was dead. Penny knew she was dead? Of course she did. How could it be otherwise? Penny and she were business partners for I don’t know how many years. Penny was her sole executor, her sole friend, and her sole mourner. Penny was an excellent woman of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Ms. Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Janet was dead. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Patrick Swayze’s Sam Wheat was shot and killed in a mugging at the beginning of “Ghost,” there would be nothing remarkable in Oda Mae Brown telling his girlfriend Molly that Sam’s ghost said “Ditto.”
Penny never ordered a new sign to replace McPincherton and Marley, the name they’d gone by since they had opened their commercial real estate office together. It would have cost a ridiculous amount.
There the sign stood, years afterwards, above the office door: McPincherton and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called McPincherton, McPincherton, and sometimes Marley. She answered to both names. It was all the same to her.
She was a tight-fisted one, that Penny McPincherton! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within her froze her aging features, nipped her pointed nose, shriveled her cheek, stiffened her proper gait, and made her thin lips blue when bare. McPincherton painted them red each morning and afternoon. Lipstick. Recession-proof. All was dollars and cents to her.
The woman spoke shrewdly in a matter of fact clip. Her eyebrows were a severe shade of black that matched the DKNY dresses she wore. Her hair was a frosty shade of blond. She carried her own low temperature always about with her. External heat and cold had little influence on Penny McPincherton. No warmth could warm (not even a Ho Ho Mint Mocha with white chocolate, skim milk and an extra shot of espresso from Caribou Coffee and those really are so warm and delicious), no wintry weather chill her. No wind that blew was bitterer than her, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose. Foul weather didn’t know where to have her.
Nobody ever stopped her in the street to say, “Ms. McPincherton, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored her, no children asked her what time it was. Even the menacing-looking men in black t-shirts screaming about the coming judgment as they stood by the orange and white caution construction signs on Nicollet Mall fell silent as she clicked past in her heels. McPincherton liked edging her way along the crowded paths of life, warning all humanity to keep its distance.
Once upon a time, on Christmas Eve, Penny McPincherton sat busy in her office. It was cold, bleak, biting weather. Her iPhone had marked the hour as three, but it was dark already. Fog came pouring in every time a door found itself ajar and was so dense outside that the tall buildings opposite were mere phantoms. One might have thought a blizzard was brewing on large-scale. McPincherton could hear people along the tree-lined mall wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon pavement stones to warm them.
The door of McPincherton’s office was open that she might keep her eye on her assistant, Stella Cratchit, who in a dismal little gray cubicle beyond, was typing eviction notices on a dreary old laptop that had to be rebooted a minimum of three times each day. McPincherton had a ceramic mug filled with warm tea and just a half teaspoon of sugar mixed in. Stella’s mug was almost empty and quite cold. She couldn’t replenish it, for McPincherton kept the teapot in her room and so surely as the assistant came in with her cup, McPincherton would predict that it would be necessary for them to part ways. Stella tried to warm herself by the light of her computer screen. Not being a woman of strong imagination, she failed.
“A Merry Christmas Aunt Penny!” cried a super cheery voice. It belonged to McPincherton’s niece, Faith.
“Bah!” said McPincherton. “Humbug!”
Faith had so heated herself with rapid walking, going in and out of stores along Nicollet that she was all aglow. Her cheeks and nose were both a cheerful shade of rose. “Christmas a humbug, aunt! You don’t mean that.”
“I do,” said Ms. McPincherton. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“What right have you to be dismal?” Faith set her leather Prada Cahier shoulder purse on her aunt’s desk and her many shopping bags on the floor. “What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
McPincherton having no better answer ready to leap from her brain to her lips and speak, said, “Bah! Humbug!”
“Don’t be cross.”
“What else can I be?” returned McPincherton. “When I live in such a world of fools as this Merry Christmas! Out upon Merry Christmas. What’s Christmastime to you but a time for charging your love on plastic; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer. If I had my way every fool going about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on her lips, should have her Jimmy Choo heels stabbed through her heart.”
“Faith! Keep Christmas in your way,” McPincherton gestured to the shopping bags of excess now on her office floor, “and let me keep it in mine.”
“But you don’t keep it!”
“Let me leave it alone then,” said McPincherton. “Much good it’s ever done you!”
“There are many things I have reason to be grateful for that I have not profited from.” Faith ran her fingers along her Michael Kors chunky, gold chain choker, gathering her thoughts before speaking. She knew her aunt had little patience for rambling. “I have always thought of Christmastime as a good time - a kind, forgiving, charitable time. The only time I know of when people seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave. Therefore, though it has never put a dollar in my bank account or a new pair of Louis Vuittons on my feet, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Stella applauded. Becoming sensible of the impropriety, she stroked the keys of her clunky laptop, typing with vigor.
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said McPincherton, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your position.” She turned to her niece. “You’re quite a powerful speaker, miss. I wonder you don’t run for office.”
“Come! Dine with us tomorrow.”
“I’d be more likely to see you in hell,” said McPincherton. “Good afternoon.”
“I want nothing from you. I ask nothing of you.”
“I am sorry to find you so resolute. Merry Christmas Penny!”
“And a Happy New Year!” Faith left the room without an angry word. She stopped by Stella, who, cold as she was, was warmer than McPincherton. “A Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
“Merry Christmas Faith,” said Stella.
McPincherton had overheard the insipid small talk, meaningless chatter. How she loathed the idea of dinner parties! Patience for the trivialities of being asked how she was and what she did by someone who wouldn’t remember what she’d said was something she did not possess.
“There’s another fool,” she muttered. “My assistant, four hundred a week, an unemployed husband, and three children, talking about Merry Christmas. I’ll retire to the asylum.”
Stella Cratchit, in letting Faith out, had let two droll hipster men in, goofy moustaches and all. They now stood, hats off, in McPincherton’s office. Books and papers occupied their hands. McPinchrton doubted much occupied their minds.
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Ms. McPincherton or Ms. Marley?”
“Ms. Marley has been dead seven years today.”
“We have no doubt her generosity is well represented by her surviving partner,” he said.
He was right. It was, for she and Marley were kindred spirits.
“At this festive time of year,” he continued, poising his pen above the list. “We provide comfort for the poor and destitute, who suffer at the present time. Many are in want of common necessities, hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, ma’am.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked McPincherton.
“Plenty of prisons,” he returned, resting his pen.
“And minimum wage jobs? Are they still available?”
“Yes. Since one can hardly afford to purchase items of Christian cheer of mind or body on such low wages, we are raising funds to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time when want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing,” replied McPincherton, turning her attention back to her own papers.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone.” McPincherton stood up from her desk. Her Christian Louboutin heeled boots stretched her frame to over six feet tall. “Since you ask me what I wish, that’s my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. If there wages are too low, they might endeavor to put more hours in.”
“Many work two jobs all ready to make ends meet, some more,” said the Hipster. “If they worked more hours, they’d die.”
“They had better do it and decrease the surplus population. Good afternoon!”
Seeing that pursuing their point would be useless, the men left. McPincherton resumed her work with an improved opinion of herself.
Fog and darkness thickened. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of Nicollet Mall, some labourers were repairing the gas pipes and had lighted a great fire in an old metal garbage can, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered, warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze. Water from a long forgotten, nearby fire hydrant had turned to misanthropic ice.
The brightness of shops made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Beer stores, wine shops, and butchers became a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do with them.
Foggier yet, and colder still. A piercing, searching, biting cold that hung on well after one was within warmth. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed by the hungry cold, sang outside McPincherton and Marley’s and could be heard within. At the first sound of “God bless ye, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!” McPincherton swung open the door and shot a look so severe that the singer fled in terror. The hour of shutting up the office arrived. With an ill-will McPincherton dismounted from her office chair and went to the assistant’s cube to have their annual holiday pocket-picking conversation.
“You’ll want all day tomorrow I presume?” said McPincherton.
“If quite convenient, Ma’am.”
“It’s not convenient,” said McPincherton. “And it’s not fair. If I were to stop your wages for the day, you’d think yourself ill-used.
“It is only once a year.” Stella smiled faintly, knowing this conversation had not once changed from year to year.
“A poor excuse for picking my pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” She buttoned her black Michael Kors jacket to the chin and raised the fur-lined hood over her head. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning!”
Stella promised that she would be and McPincherton walked out with a huff. The office was closed in an instant. Stella wound her knit scarf around her neck three times, pulled her Viking stocking cap over her head and down to her eyebrows, and put on her red pea coat so worn that the stitches in the lining were coming undone. An uber pulled up, once she was outside and drove her fast to Dinkytown, where she cuddled up with her family for the long winter’s night.
McPincherton had dinner in her usual spot, where prices were modest and the food was plentiful, Keys at the Foshay. She caught up on her Twitter feed, consuming all the day’s news she could handle from Marketplace Money and The Wall Street Journal. Once the server had packaged up what was left of her roast beef dinner (she planned to have it for lunch), she tucked her iPhone into her purse, picked up the briefcase holding her laptop, and went outside to make the short walk to her penthouse on the 26th floor of the Nic on 5th residences.
The penthouse had once belonged to her deceased partner. Its decor minimal, modern, and cold. The walk was one McPincherton had made every night these past seven years, since her partner’s demise. The night was so dark, fog and frost hung about so low that it seemed as though Mother Nature was sitting in mournful meditation.
Dark and late enough that no one stood in the construction zone screaming fire and brimstone. Metal now covered the windows and doors of stores closed until after the holiday.
Now it is a fact that there was nothing particular about the brushed nickel knocker on the door to Penny McPincherton’s penthouse, except that it was large. It is also a fact that McPincherton had seen it, night and morning during the seven years she’d lived in that place. Let it also be known that McPincherton had not thought on Marley once since her last mention of her seven-year’s dead business partner that afternoon. She had never been one to ruminate or reflect. And then, let any woman or man explain to me, if she or he can, how it happened that McPincherton, having her key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, Marley’s face.
Janet Marley’s face was not angry or ferocious. Her Yves Saint-Laurent gray and black cat eye glasses looked as if they’d dive off the tip of her nose at any moment, her loose black bun looked as if it were coming undone as it had often looked in danger of doing - she looked like Janet Marley. Her eyes were wide open and still. That and her face’s livid color made it horrible, but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control. As McPincherton fixed her stare at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.
Goosebumps covered McPincherton’s skin and she felt a terrible sensation throughout her body. She knew better than to assume that every thought she had was true. Seeing Marley in the door knocker wasn’t possible according to McPincherton. She decided that her tired eyes had been fooled. Without further hesitation, she turned the key, walked in, and flipped on the dim entry light. Half-a-dozen streetlights wouldn’t have lit the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was still pretty dark with one lone light.
She did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before she shut the door; and she did look behind it first, as if she half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley’s loose bun sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, so she said, “Hmph,” and slammed the door shut behind her.
A sound resounded through her penthouse like thunder. Every room seemed to have a separate peal of echoes of its own. McPincherton was not a woman to be frightened by echoes. She fastened the door and walked down the great hall with caution. Her great hall was plenty wide to fit a GMC Yukon in sideways with room to spare, which may be why McPincherton thought she saw the tail lights of a hearse going before her in the gloom.
Darkness is cheap and Penny McPincherton liked it. Before she shut her heavy door, she walked through her rooms to see that all was right. Living room, kitchen, bedroom were all as they should be. Nobody was hiding under the dining room table, nobody under the sofa, nobody in any of the closets, nobody under the bed, nobody in her nightgown, which hung askance on its hook. She closed her door and locked herself in. She took off her coat and changed from her dress to her nightgown.
She switched on the gas fireplace located near the floor to ceiling windows in her living room. Then she went to the kitchen, heated up a mug of water, mixed honey and lemon in it to soothe her sore throat. With her mug of tea in hand she went back to her fireplace and sat close so that she could extract some warmth without adding to her gas bill. The fireplace emitted no smoke, yet a haze built within it and formed the face of old Marley.
“Humbug!” McPincherton walked across the room and paced. After several turns, she sat down again. As she threw her head back in her chair, her glance happened to rest upon a small . She had been given the bell when she was a young girl in her church’s handbell choir. Its placement on the shelf above the fireplace was not for nostalgia or the season. To her it was one less piece of decor to purchase, one less trip to Ikea.
A brew of astonishment and inexplicable dread filled her as she looked at the bell again and it began to swing. At first, it swung so slow and soft that it scarce made a sound; but soon it rang loud. Every item that could chime or ding began to. McPincherton’s phone, microwave, stove timer, alarm clock, doorbell and fire alarm, started a chorus of their own.
McPincherton clasped her hands over her ears. The buzzing, dinging, and ringing might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. All fell silent, together. A deep clanking noise seemed to start a floor below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain. McPincherton then remembered being told once that ghosts in haunted houses drag chains. The noise was coming towards her door.
“It’s a humbug still!” McPincherton’s skin flushed, when, without a pause, it came through the heavy door and passed into the room before her eyes.
The same face, the very same. Marley in her loose bun, usual winter cowlneck sweater dress, tights, and boots. The chain she dragged was clasped about her middle like a goth-girl belt gone wrong. It was long, wound about her like a tail, and consisted of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.
Marley looked the phantom part through and through. Her body was transparent. Though McPincherton felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes, she fought against her senses. “What do you want with me?” McPincherton asked. Impatient to sleep and move onto the next day’s tasks.
“Much!” Janet Marley’s nasal voice - no doubt.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was.”
“Who were you then?” McPincherton raised her voice.
“In life, I was your business partner. Janet Marley.”
She didn’t know whether a ghost so transparent might find herself in a condition to take a chair and didn’t want to be tormented with a long, embarrassing explanation. Manners required she ask, “Can you -- can you sit down?”
“Do it then.”
The ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if she were quite used to it. “You don’t believe in me.”
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond your senses?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you doubt your senses?” Her cat eye glasses, the downward tilt of her chin, and the direct, penetrating stare that the ghost gave McPincherton made her feel like she was back in first grade being questioned by the irascible Ms. Johnson.
“A little thing affects them,” said McPincherton. “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of roast beef, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”
McPincherton tried to be smart in an effort to distract her own attention and keep her own terror down. The ghost’s voice disturbed the very marrow in her bones. It sat motionless, yet its hair and dress moved as if by hot vapour from an oven.
“Do you see this toothpick?” asked McPincherton.
“But you’re not looking at it!”
“Yet I see it.”
“All I have to do is swallow this and for the rest of my days I’ll be persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you. Humbug!”
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise and in such an unladylike fashion that McPincherton held tight to her chair to save herself from collapsing.
“Mercy,” she said, dropping to her knees and clasping her hands before her face. “Why do you trouble me?”
“Do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said McPincherton. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth and why come to me?”
“It’s required of every person that the spirit within should walk among humanity and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It’s doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” Marley raised another cry, shook her chain, and wrung her shadowy hands.
“Why are you chained?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard. I made it of my own free will and of my own volition I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
McPincherton trembled at the thought of it being familiar.
“Or would you know,” pursued Marley, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was as heavy and long as this seven Christmas Eves ago. You’ve worked on it since.”
McPincherton looked about her on the floor, expecting to find herself surrounded by some ninety or a hundred yards of iron cable, but she could see nothing. “Janet! Janet Marley! Tell me more,” implored McPincherton. “Speak comfort to me Janet.”
“I have none to give,” Marley replied. “A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. In life, my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-making endeavors. Weary journeys lie before me!”
It was a habit with McPincherton, whenever she became thoughtful, to put her hands on her hips. Pondering what Marley had said, she did so now, without lifting her eyes or getting off her knees. “You must have been very slow about it, Janet,” McPincherton said in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.
“Seven years dead,” mused McPincherton. “And traveling all the time?”
“The whole time,” said Marley. “No rest, no peace, incessant torture of remorse.”
“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said McPincherton.
Marley, on hearing this, clanked her chain and shrieked so hideously in the night’s dead silence that a noise complaint to the police would have been justified. “I am captive, bound, and double-ironed,” she said. “Mortal life is too short for its vast means of usefulness. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s misused opportunities!”
“But you were always a good woman of business, Janet,” faltered McPincherton, who now began to apply Marley’s words to herself.
“Business!” cried Marley, wringing her hands again. “Humankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the ocean of my business!”
“At this time of the year,” Marley said and held up her most unfashionable chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all her futile grief and flung it heavy upon the ground again. “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds with my eyes turned down, never raising them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have led me?”
McPincherton began to quake, unable to control herself. Her mind was so overwhelmed by the ghosts’ words that she could not be bothered with worry about the neighbors being roused below them.
“Hear me!” cried Marley. “My time is almost gone.”
“I will,” McPincherton whispered. “But don’t be hard on me, Marley! Please!”
“How it is that you can see me now I cannot say. I have sat invisible beside you many a day.”
It was not an agreeable thought. McPincherton tried to forcibly dismiss it through her shivers.
“That is no light part of my penance. I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope to escape my fate. A chance and hope that I procured for you Penny.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said McPincherton. “Thank you!”
“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”
McPincherton felt her own hopeful spirit plummet. “Is that the chance and hope you mentioned?”
“I -- I think I’d rather not,” McPincherton said.
“Without their visits you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow when the bell tolls one.”
“Couldn’t I take them all at once and have it over with, Janet?” McPincherton suggested. “Perhaps this process should be expedited a bit after all. Remember how we held hurry up as a higher virtue than patience. And for such good reason -”
Marley rolled her eyes and lifted her hand as if to indicate that McPincherton should talk to it or be silent. “The second will arrive on the next night at the same hour. The third on the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Remember what has passed between us. You shall see me no more.”
Marley walked backward from McPincherton. At every step she took, the window raised itself a little so that when she reached it, it was wide open. Marley beckoned McPincherton to approach, which she did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up her hand warning her to come no nearer. McPincherton stopped.
Not so much in obedience as in surprise and fear. She became aware of confused noises in the air. McPincherton heard incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret, sorrowful, self-accusatory wailings. Marley, after listening for a moment, joined the mournful dirge and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
Desperate in her curiosity, McPincherton went to the window and looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost. Some few were linked together, perhaps they were guilty corporations or governments. None were free. Many had been personally known to McPincherton in their lives. She had been quite familiar with one old ghost in enormous, gorgeous Manolo Blahnik heels and a proper Chanel skirt suit with a monstrous iron safe attached to her ankle - crying piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant who it saw below, pushing a stroller. Their misery was that they sought to interfere for good in human matters and had lost the power forever.
Whether these creatures faded into mist or mist enshrouded them, she could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together and the night became as it had been when McPincherton walked home. She closed the window and examined the double-locked door Marley’s Ghost had entered by. She had locked it with her own hands, she knew it and remembered it; and, the bolts were undisturbed.
McPincherton tried to say “Humbug,” but only managed the word’s first syllable. The emotion she had undergone, the fatigues of the day, her glimpse of the Invisible World, the dull conversation of the Ghost, and the lateness of the hour led her to exhaustion. She went straight to bed without undoing her robe and fell asleep upon the instant.