Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - March 6th by Tim Herlihy
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A famous miser begins to backslide in this sequel to a work of classic literature by screenwriter and SNL veteran Tim Herlihy.

March 6th

I

His eyes popped open—abruptly, violently, as was their custom each and every morning since the dreams (he had resolved, after a few weeks of mature inquiry, to refer to what had happened as "the dreams.") His first few seconds of conscious thought unfolded according to the now-familiar routine: a moment of utter terror, followed by a spike of the most absolute, pure, transcendent joy, then a warm afterglow of grateful good humour that lingered for almost the entire day.

Well, maybe not the entire day anymore. Nightfall, lately.

Thursday last, it was gone by lunch.

Still, he took a few contented breaths, staring at his grey ceiling, relishing the particular softness of his blankets, the crisp morning air biting at his nose, the pleasant bustle of humanity already rising from the yard below. Glorious! He had recently removed the curtains from 'round his bed, so he was no longer inclined to speculate as to what might be lurking on the other side (yet he still held a soupcon of unease—one grey morning, he had mistaken the tassel of his night-cap for a spectral spider come to convey him to the nether regions, and soiled himself quite thoroughly).

He sat up and spun his white, spindly legs over the side of the bed. He looked down to the floor for his slippers, but they were, of course, gone, given in one of many ejaculations of charity to that beggar who malingers at the juncture of Fenchurch and Rood Lane—those slippers that served him so long and so well now cheek by jowl with perhaps the foulest stench in the entire—

"Whoop!" he said aloud, interrupting the darkening track of his thoughts as he sprung out of bed to remove his dressing-gown and prepare for the business of the day. In his zeal to rid his life of old bad habits, he had committed to deny himself the use of his favourite expression of disdain, replacing it with the excited but non-dismissive exclamation "Whoop!" He felt it conveyed a courteous amount of surprise at the facts laid before him without implying any diminution in the magnificence of life. Whoop!

As he moved past the window (less a movement than a little jig, truth be told) to fetch his breeches, he could see nothing but fog outside, with wisps of black smoke floating through before dissolving into the greyness. The sight, uninspiring as it might seem, brought forth the second dark thought of the young day, a memory of an evening, not long past; he had stood at the same window and saw a sky filled with phantoms, among them Jacob...poor Jacob! His only friend, who, in his endless torment, had procured the hope and chance that he clung to even now. They had lived together for fifteen years, worked together for twenty and built a prosperous firm that was the envy of every man on the 'Change. They were as close as brothers—and on occasion, he recollected, his face reddening with emotion, even closer than that. Whoop! But it would be folly to dwell upon those isolated instances of moral weakness, seeing as that when two bachelors and a bottle of rum are sequestered together on a frigid winter Saturday, it should not be altogether unexpected for a few regrettable acts of concupiscence to occur. Hallo!

The bell of the ancient church down the yard struck three quarters as he ate his gruel by the fire. Three quarters past what he neither knew nor cared to speculate upon, as he had thrown off the shackles of a rigorous schedule months ago. He stole a glance at the charwoman through the doorway as she dusted the lamps in the lumber-room. She would no longer even look at him, incensed beyond all reason that the miraculous appearance of abundant good humour in him did not extend to his relations with her. Of course, she was unaware that he had knowledge of her plan—no, not plan, for he could not be truly sure if it was an act pre-arranged, or merely a spontaneous post-mortem transgression. But she would pull the clothes from his lifeless body and sell them, he knew it, even if she did not yet. He hadn't the heart to terminate her employ, but, with this gruesome image ever in mind, he could not spare her a single smile.

He whistled a jaunty tune as he pulled on his Wellingtons. They were scuffed and out of fashion, but he would not replace them, bound now by his selflessness as he once was by his miserliness. He had worn the boots every day for seven years, and they were worn by Jacob with similar regularity for many years before that. Jacob often joked that he had pulled them from the body of a dead French fusilier as the Iron Duke himself watched approvingly. But was it truly in jest? The boots were at least 30 years old, and Jacob had committed similar acts of questionable character. But it was indisputable that Jacob Marley was too old to have fought at Waterloo.

Ebenezer put on his topcoat, and walked out into the bleak, foggy morning.

II

Winter refused to surrender its hold upon the City. He blew onto his hands to warm them, and stamped his feet upon the paving-stones to do the same, before beginning his daily pilgrimage to the counting-house of Scrooge & Marley. Ah, but Scrooge & Marley is no more. The sign hanging above the doorway now welcomes friend and foe alike to "Cratchit & Scrooge." After making Bob his partner, in his unquenchable lust to spread gladness and joy, Scrooge had placed Bob's name before his, an unambiguous sign of deference to his long-suffering former clerk. He assumed that Jacob wouldn't mind if his name were painted out (and, he suspected, an icy finger running up his spine, that Jacob was sure to pipe up if he did.)

During the first few weeks of this novel arrangement, Bob carried on fretfully, as if his new position was an elaborate prank which would soon collapse upon him. But after a while, Scrooge saw signs Bob was becoming comfortable with his new stature. He began calling his partner "Ebenezer," as if they were old school chums. Glorious! And Bob scarcely protested when Scrooge insisted that they switch offices—and didn't Cratchit look a sight sitting behind Scrooge's old cherrywood desk!

Yet there were afternoons when Scrooge, in his dismal little cell, merrily engaged in some secret act of charity or (far less likely) attending to the affairs of Cratchit and Scrooge, would look up from his work to see Bob peering in at him from behind that grand cherrywood desk, tapping his lips thoughtfully with his finger. Now Scrooge must have been left with some residual power of soothsaying by one of the Spirits, for in an instant he knew what Bob was thinking: that the dramatic changes in Scrooge were a by-product of a serious mental deficiency, and that perhaps Scrooge should be retired to Bedlam before he made further changes that were less advantageous to Cratchit's position. Those were the exact thoughts an unreformed Scrooge might have in a similar situation, and Scrooge could not help but be perversely proud of Bob for so quickly developing such a keen and scheming mind.

At the far end of the yard, where costermongers and jit-peddlers gathered to offer their wares, there was an interloper: a tiny furnace-man, covered in coal dust, his age indecipherable. Before him stood a marvellous assortment of wooden toys, and Scrooge, who remained a slave to every generous impulse, was drawn over to purchase something for Tiny Tim Cratchit.

"Hallo! This'll make a sailor out of our Tim!" exulted Scrooge as he examined an ingeniously carved wooden frigate, complete with canvas sails and a little tin anchor. He had naturally chosen the Cratchits, who had much suffered at the hand of his former self, as the most favoured recipients of his newfound munificence. Mrs. Cratchit remained suspicious of his motives, but Scrooge's appearance in the doorway of the Cratchits' Camdentown hovel never failed to delight her eldest, Martha (who would soon be a fine lady—a fine, fine, fine lady—a truly fine lady!), as well as brave Peter and sweet Belinda and the estimable Tim, who would scamper toward Scrooge, his active little crutch clattering across the stone floor, his body rocking in an odd, somehow obscene motion, his eyes glittering with an unholy excitement Scrooge knew all too well: the joy of getting, of adding another object to the collection of things that are your own. In truth of fact, he looked less like a human boy than a creature of the deep ocean, unaccustomed to moving about on dry land, greedily scabbering toward some coveted—

"Whoop!" Scrooge mumbled to himself as he gave the peddler three pence for the toy and three pence more for...well, out of habit. He had sworn to himself that he would be a second father to Tim Cratchit, and that is what he had been lo these last ten weeks. For Scrooge knew the fate that would befall young Tim if he faltered in his devotion to the lad: "I see a vacant seat," the Second of the Spirits had foretold, "in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved." But, although Scrooge had not a moment's doubt as to the accuracy of the Spirit's vision—not a single moment!—he sometimes ruminated upon the possibility that there were other interpretations to the things he was shown. Perhaps the seat is vacant because Tim is at the barber's, or playing in the yard? Perhaps the crutch has no owner because Tim had been given a fine new crutch? Indeed, who is to say that the tears Scrooge saw Bob weeping at the mere mention of Tim's name were not tears of pride and joy at Tim's latest accomplishment?

While Scrooge took care to remind himself that such alternative theories could not be conclusively proven, neither could he dismiss them entirely, which of course called into question the absolute necessity of his interventions into the life of the Cratchit family. But even if Tim would live—perhaps even thrive!—with no assistance whatever from Ebenezer Scrooge, why should Scrooge deny himself the pleasure of aiding this fine and deserving family? Why, Sunday last he had sat by the fire at the Cratchit home, as content as could be, the children gathered round—though you could scarcely call Miss Martha a child—at 16, on the delicate cusp of womanhood, her ripe little mouth made for kissing—Whoop!

III

Scrooge had, for several weeks, quite effortlessly taken exceeding pleasure from the kindnesses he bestowed upon all he encountered. He thus endeavoured to commit benevolent acts whenever possible, in order to luxuriate in the resultant bliss. But this was not the natural way—certainly not his natural way—and as the pleasure faded, what replaced it was fear, the fear that had stood behind the pleasure all the while. Jacob—dear Jacob—had warned him, "it is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." So he would walk the streets of his city and see not bankers and bakers and mudlarks but blacksmiths all, forging the chains they were destined to wear for all eternity, link by link, yard by yard. The dreadful knowledge of their fate—and that even a moment's lack of vigilance on his part would set him back upon their doomed path—was quickly becoming the sole engine of his charitable inclinations. It was a burden Scrooge bore alone, an unease that fettered him in this life, a descending yoke that Scrooge was desperate to escape.

It was at a moment when his craving for release from this terror was at its very apogee that he reached the intersection of Seething Lane and Fenchurch Street. The way left led to his counting-house. The way right led to Whitechapel.

It was old Fezziwig who introduced him to the illicit delights of Whitechapel. Scrooge needed no Spirit to summon the memory of the night he walked in on Fezziwig and a fat Irish prostitute, the old man playfully inspecting her ample bosom with a looking glass before tossing it aside, plunging his face betwixt her quivering udders and making odd, guttural sounds. His shock soon turned to curiosity, and Scrooge and Fezziwig were soon regular patrons of the painted ladies of Bucks' Row. Scrooge later introduced Marley to the practice, although Marley had pitiful luck—he always seemed to end up with a wench who had a discomfiting abundance of facial hair and a depth and gravity to the voice that no coquettish falsetto could hide.

Scrooge still visited the gay maidens, but he gave them money now with no expectation of a service rendered in kind. They typically reacted, as many unfortunates do in the face of an unexpected boon, with deep suspicion, wondering if his many gratuitous expressions of human kindness were merely installment payments on a future bacchanal so depraved it must be arranged over the course of months, with utmost delicacy and restraint.

Of course, Scrooge reckoned he might someday be faced with a fallen woman who, in a frenzy of wild, uncontrollable gratitude, would forcibly perform acts that even within the scope of her profession would be considered absolutely corrupt. That plump Welsh redhead who frequented Mitre Square—why Scrooge was certain she'd be willing to don the mask and harness that—

Bah! Hu- Whoop! Are those the thoughts of a Christian man? Or of someone doomed to spend eternity dragging chains of iron, moaning in regret? He turned right on Fenchurch toward his offices.

He soon passed Fenchurch and Rood and saw his slippers, now grey with disturbing splotches of red, on the feet of the beggar there. He looked for a sign of gratitude or even recognition in his eyes, but found only dull want.

IV

The most direct route to his destination would take him past the 'Change, but lately he had been taking a more roundabout route, both to enjoy the lovely cart of flowers that a one-eyed Greek matron pushed along Cornhill Street, and, he was obliged to admit, to avoid his colleagues and trading partners who congregated outside the 'Change. Not that those gentlemen were displeased to see Ebenezer—in point of fact, they were too pleased by half, laughing and shaking his hand vigorously and slapping him on the back. He had over the course of weeks deduced that such bonhomie was less a reciprocation of his present friendliness, and more a consequence of the vast sums Ebenezer had been losing in his dealings with them.

"Ah, good old Scrooge!" they'd cry. "Hail and hullo, Ebenezer! Be a good man and pull my finger!" they'd roar, tears of laughter moistening their rugged countenances. He accepted his new status with his now customary good-humour, though he could not help lamenting that the legendary financial acumen of Ebenezer Scrooge, had, like all else about him, softened considerably. This development, coupled with his continued panic-fueled fits of charity, had had a deleterious effect upon his situation, to say the least. Around the middle of January, he gathered his wits enough to look at his banker's book, like a remorseful sailor surveying the pecuniary damage of a drunken revel. His net worth was half what it was on Christmas Eve.

He hadn't had the stomach to look since.

As he watched—or, rather, sensed—a fortune acquired over a lifetime slipping away in the course of months, he wondered why had he been singled out for the redemptive visits of the Spirits. After all, he did not flaunt his wealth, hunting grouse or playing at ecarte or faro; everyone knew Ebenezer Scrooge lived as meanly as a potboy, a sober steward of his honestly-gotten riches. Of course, the fate of his finances was a triviality compared to the fate of his immortal soul. Indeed, what good were earthly riches to Jacob Marley now? But Scrooge's now continual business reverses troubled him beyond their economic effect, for they seemed to reveal that, in becoming pleasant and kind, he had become flaccid and bland as well.

Once, when Scrooge was quite young, his father, the fearsome Long Dan Scrooge, came home from a trip to Glasgow with a ragged-looking hound. It was, his father explained, for the protection of the family during the times when Long Dan was attending to "business" elsewhere. Ebenezer took an immediate disliking to the beast, and the dog, a disagreeable sort to begin with, returned the feeling in kind. But dear Fan, Scrooge's kindly sister, showed the dog much kindness and affection, and in so doing, slowly earned the dog's trust. One evening, Long Dan returned to the family home to find Fan scratching the contented hound's belly in front of the fire. He became apoplectic, and kicked at Fan with hellish intensity, propelling her across the room like a pile of rags. Fan had made the dog useless, he roared. By offering his belly to be scratched, the hound had evinced his submission, and irretrievably turned his back on his fierce animal instincts. Long Dan took the dog outside and slaughtered it, and the Scrooges' had dog for a week (which was surprisingly tasty). But Scrooge thought of that dog often lately, for he had himself, in redeeming himself from eternal damnation, in effect, shown his belly to the world entire.

His progress slowed. The crowd thickened before him, as an itinerant clarinet player had attracted a small audience directly opposite a group of costermongers, effectively narrowing the thoroughfare.

As Scrooge passed slowly through the strait, he could make out the delightful melody of "Old Jack Barrow," and he reminisced (not, to his discredit, without some affection) about his former self, the hell-bound Scrooge of yore, who would have blasted through the crowd like an ironclad ship, intent upon his purpose, muttering the words he had presently forbidden himself.

Is there anything so ridiculous as forbidding oneself the use of an expression, especially one so irreplaceably evocative?... How he longed for even a brief visit with his old friend...The belligerent parting of the lips, the startling expulsion of air that comprise the "bah"...the soothing "hum," lulling the unwary into a false sense of tranquillity, as if the storm had abated...then, finally, an inarguably ugly word, a sound that unmistakably conveys one's revulsion, impossible to say unless one's mouth is curled in a sneer...

Bug.

V

The door to the counting-house swung open, and Cratchit walked in. It was too dark to see that Scrooge was sitting, smiling, at his old cherrywood desk, his long, bony fingers skittering merrily over its smooth surface; too dark, in fact, to see much of anything at all. But darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it. Lord forgive him, he loved it.

About the Author

Tim Herlihy has written or co-written eight feature films, a Broadway musical and 110 episodes of Saturday Night Live. Suck on that, Charles Dickens!