For Hermey, those snowy, lamp-lit evenings had lost their luster. Once, as a younger man, he would frequent the queen bars in the Village: bottomless glasses of bourbon and crushed up Klonopins. But he was six years sober and Karim could sense when he had been in the proximity of liquor. (He didn’t mind the nannying. Besides, those bars had been bought up by uptown carpetbaggers and stripped of their louche decadence.) He was supposed to call Karim when he finished with his last patient—an injury attorney with an impacted molar and low threshold for pain—but had forgotten to follow through on his promise.
He was walking along East 35th through Midtown (yes, Midtown). The plan was to stop at Macy’s for a scarf. A gift for Karim. Something tartan and utterly forgettable. They never failed to find new ways to disappoint each other. For months he had suspected Karim of infidelity, an accusation he hadn’t articulated, although he feared it wouldn’t be long before the words found their voice. (His clues? Periodic calls taken outside the apartment. A new French cologne.) Hermey had never ventured outside the relationship. At a conference in Boca Raton, he engaged in light flirtations with a toothpaste rep, but it hadn’t evolved to physical intimacy. The man wore a chintzy gold watch that reminded Hermey of his old friend Yukon Cornelius. A lot of things reminded him of Yukon these days. Red winter caps and silver fillings. Those impeccably waxed mustaches of Brooklyn baristas. He kept a photograph of Yukon in his office desk, which, to his knowledge, Karim hadn’t discovered. They avoided discussing details from his past, as there were some things he preferred to keep to himself.
After crossing over 5th, he slowed to light a cigarette. Garlands of orange light limned the darkened awnings. Wreathes adorned store windows, trimmed with tinsel and ribbon. On the corner a Hispanic guy in an oversized Santa hat passed out flyers for a nightclub. Hermey thought of his time at the North Pole. His memories seemed to reside in some far-flung recess in his brain, removed from the concerns of everyday life. At times he wondered if he hadn’t imagined the whole thing, fabricated the episode to add a little color to his upbringing. Every few weeks he would visit a toy store to see if he could recognize the craftsmanship, a detail suggestive of one of the elves on the line, though he supposed most—like him—had moved on with their careers.
Hermey guessed Karim would have started on dinner by now. He had no appetite. He dreaded returning home to this pretense of a relationship. There was no sincerity in their salutations, no solicitude in his questions. He wished he could turn back the dial on their courtship, to when they still talked about adoption, about closing the practice and moving upstate. Karim had found him when he was at his lowest of lows. Hermey could hardly get through a routine dental cleaning without excusing himself to swallow down more pills. Karim had taken him in and gotten him started on a program. He owed everything to this man.
Hermey approached 6th street. A crowd had gathered on the corner. He edged alongside the growing mass of spectators. A young man lay in the street unconscious. There was a car looming over his motionless body. The driver was standing behind the open door while “My Cherie Amour” crooned audibly from the car speakers. Hermey yearned to leap into action, declare his credentials to the audience. (“I’m a doctor. Stand aside.”) But what could he possibly do for this man? Bleach his teeth? He inched closer to the whispering chorus of the helpless and the horrified. Seconds carried the weight of minutes. Oh, cherie amour, pretty little one that I adore. He wondered when the ambulances would arrive. He thought about the man’s family. Did he have children at home? A dog scratching at the door waiting to be fed? There was no justice in tragedy—or time, for that matter. He remembered the letter he received from Cornelius’s benefactor, notifying him that Yukon had fallen into an icy crevasse during an expedition in Nepal. But this time there would be no resurrection or second chances. Yukon was gone for good. The executor of his estate mailed Hermey a compass as a keepsake. Some nights when he couldn’t sleep he would take out the compass from the top drawer of his dresser and roll it around in his palm, letting the metal casing cool his hand. The crowd began pointing off in the distance. He could hear the sound of approaching ambulances, drowning out the music from the car speakers. If he leaned forward, he could still make out Stevie’s voice, dulled to a low hum. How I wish that you were mine, he sang.
Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies. His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, The Collagist, Wigleaf, and Tin House Online. He keeps a blog at ravimangla.com.
[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]