Bob Cratchit worked at Mega-Mart, which is to say, he worked all the hours his employer allowed him to work but never was allowed quite enough hours to make ends meet for his family, nor to reach that magic threshold that would have made him a real, full-time Mega-Mart employee, with all the benefits pertaining thereunto, such as they were.
From week to week, Cratchit never knew whether he would have to arrive at work at the vast store in the dark hours of the early morning or leave work in the dark hours of the early morning. And all this for the smallest sum per hour that the law allowed Mega-Mart to pay.
On Thanksgiving, Cratchit had had to leave his family during the shank of the evening because Mega-Mart was opening with "door-buster" sales at precisely 12:01 a.m. Thus could Mega-Mart's owner, Ebenezer Scrooge, say patriotically and with technical accuracy that his stores were closed in family-friendly observance of the national holiday.
Bob Cratchit's shins still bore the bruises of the hordes of shoppers stampeding in to do battle over five-pairs-for-$2 packs of tube socks. Yet he was still able to hoist his small son, Tim, on his shoulders and stomp about their little flat so Tim could pretend he was a giant.
Tim, of course, would never be a giant, nor did it seem he would ever be able to stomp about himself. He was a cripple, and at the hospital clinic where they dispensed bare-bones services to the poor, they told Cratchit that he earned too much money for Tim to get for free the surgery that would let him walk again, but too little money to be able to even begin to pay for it himself, because Cratchit had no health insurance through his employmen, and would have had to pay the entire undiscounted cost out of his rather threadbare pocket.
The clinic did give Tim a pair of quite serviceable crutches, along with a rather large plush Teddy bear that also had crutches. That, they told Cratchit, was so that Tim would gain self-esteem by having a cute toy who shared his handicap.
As was his custom, he chose a store where he would personally hand out his usual chainwide holiday gift to his employees: a 10% discount coupon fashioned to look like a piece of currency, adorned with his image in the place where one would expect to find a president.
The coupon was good until New Year's Eve on any single nonsale item purchased anywhere in Mega-Mart. He disliked the concession, but his PR team had told him it would look good for him to reward his employees in some fashion, and so he parted with this with as benevolent a face as he could muster.
This year, Scrooge had selected the store where Cratchit worked, and he positioned himself at the employees' exit. Out they streamed, into the cold, barely looking at Scrooge or at the huge Santa stationed next to him holding a giant candy cane like a gun at parade rest. The man was in fact a bodyguard in Kris Kringle disguise, there at the ready lest anyone try to give Scrooge any lip.
The man needn't have worried. The employees mechanically took Scrooge's proffered coupon with a mutter of thanks and scarcely a glance at the man handing it out — a hustle of people anxious to get home as soon as possible for the one day of leisure they had.
Cratchit came out of Mega-Mart just as the company's PR team began videotaping Scrooge for the annual promotional video for the next board of directors meeting. He had eyes only for his family, hurrying to greet him: wife, two older children and of course Tim, moving with them as best he could on his crutches. "Get that!" the videographer hissed to the cameraman.
As the Cratchit children swarmed their father, Scrooge stepped into the family scrum, glancing nervously at the camera. He thrust his gift coupon into Cratchit's hand and patted the Cratchit daughter tentatively on the head.
From the depths of her old muffler, Mrs. Cratchit looked impassively at her husband's employer, but Tim beamed up as if the man were Father Christmas himself; some of Cratchit's co-workers thought to themselves that that's what was happening, because they'd never known anyone to regard Scrooge in that fashion, and because the bodyguard/Santa had nudged himself into the shot, thinking he could maybe wangle a DVD of the moment to show his own family.
The crowd of workers thinned; the videographer stepped back; Scrooge thrust the remaining coupons into the bodyguard/Santa's hands and slid into the back seat of his car just as the driver came to a stop alongside him on the icy asphalt.
At home, Scrooge's houseman opened the door. Did Mr. Scrooge want a warm drink? Low-fat eggnog, perhaps, in honor of the season? A toddy? Mr. Scrooge did not. He had the man switch on the gas fire in the library and dismissed him for the night.
He settled into the club chair next to the fire and, with a feeling akin to pleasure, began going over the just-arrived galley proofs of his new book. Like his previous five books, this one was an autobiographical variant on the secrets of his success. Sometimes it was five steps, sometimes 12. Sometimes the advice was avuncular, sometimes business-school stern. It paid homage to his bootstraps family, of course, but generously enhanced his own Midas touch. The books sold like crazy at airport bookshops and by the millions in Mega-Marts.
Scrooge had half-forgotten that the books were ghostwritten, and among his amused fellow magnates he was known to begin a line of conversation with the earnest phrase, "Us authors …"
This book would make an even half a dozen, and he ticked an invisible box in his head to remind his staff to plan for the complete set to be packaged as gifts to be sold at the checkout lines in time for next Christmas. Maybe he could even include an audio-book version; perhaps that handsome actor what's his name would record the audio book, in exchange for a large donation to the actor's favorite charity. Scrooge gazed into the fire and imagined his words, his story, told in that distinguished voice. His head, his eyelids, began to droop …
The voice that awakened him was a strange one, not his houseman's. It addressed him by name, and said that it was the Ghost of Christmas Past, and commanded him to rise and come along. Scrooge felt perplexed at his inability to resist, and together they drifted through walls, through time, through space, to the town where Scrooge's grandfather had lived and begun the family business.
"Behold," said the spirit, and there was Scrooge's grandfather, doing business in a fair and honorable fashion, at lower profit margins but greater inventory turnover, buying and selling products his countrymen made and reinvesting his earnings, driving a modest car and living in a modest home rather than dwelling in marble halls behind gilded gates, in the purlieus of the Upper West Side, the Yellowstone Club or Kauai.
He saw the whole Scrooge clan of relatives visiting at Christmas, crammed merrily into the snug house, the kids making cookies, the grownups playing board games as they had before the patriarch hit it big. And yet his grandfather, wealthy as he became, was respected and admired by employees and neighbors and strangers, in a way that reminded Scrooge that even his own circle of magnates only tolerated him and, he suspected, mocked him behind his back.
The scene faded and dropped, like a bad dial-up Internet connection, and Scrooge awoke to find himself in his chair in his library. Flashbacks, he told himself. That visit to the store today triggered unconscious memories of the old homestead.
He picked up his book galleys again, but the words soon swam and sank before his eyes. And there arose from the page a figure so gorgeous that Scrooge had never seen his like, half-Bacchus, half-Santa, with a boisterous beard and generous belly and uncontained merriment,
He bellowed that he was the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Scrooge felt himself wafted against his will from his library, lined with complete sets of Great Books whose expensive bindings perfectly matched the upholstery, to a little home, a very little home, a long way from Scrooge's gated neighborhood.
"Behold," said the ghost, and Scrooge felt his face being pressed against the cold glass. Inside, he recognized the family that his company videographer had recorded that day.
Cratchit senior sat at the kitchen table. Mrs. Cratchit looked anxious as she sorted through lists and figures, consulting a pile of coupons at her elbow. Cratchit slid his Mega-Mart Christmas bonus 10% off coupon across the table to her, along with a Mega-Mart ad for weatherproof women's boots.
She shook her head and slid the coupon back to him, this time with an ad she had found for a Mega-Mart man's winter coat. He reached for her hand and held it there for a moment, atop the coupon that lay between them.
The moment dissolved, and Scrooge then saw Mrs. Cratchit bearing to the same table a roast chicken so small that it looked more like an overfed pigeon, while Cratchit was making his children laugh by dancing and singing with Tiny Tim's stuffed bear as his partner.
Three Christmas stockings hung limply from a window frame. Tim himself sat in the only comfortable-looking hair in the room, looking tiny indeed; his lap and his matchstick legs were covered with a blanket crocheted from haphazardly colored skeins of remnant yarn. His crutches were nowhere to be seen, as if they were no longer of use, as if the very
"Spirit," Scrooge began, turning to ask the ghost, but the ghost's crown of candles had dimmed, his girth shrinking until he vanished entirely, and Scrooge saw that he was at his own fireside again.
Really, he told himself, this is what happens when I don't get enough protein. No more egg-white omelets.
He picked up his new book again, and looked for the index, to see whose names to strike out, thinking that they'd have to buy the book to find themselves in it rather than just flip to the page listed in the index. He was pleased with his cleverness and was so engrossed that he only looked up when he sensed another presence.
A diaphanous figure stood before him; even the flames in the fireplace seemed to retreat before the chill it emanated. By now Scrooge knew better than to resist the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and followed obediently, to a place he knew very well — the stock exchange. He relaxed; the place was gratifyingly frantic, and he scanned the monitors for his own corporate listing, the way a beautiful woman looks in a mirror.
It was not there. In a nanosecond, the screens rippled and displayed the names and numbers again and again, Mega-Mart was not among them.
He looked over at another screen where young traders were gazing, and he saw, with a start, himself — Scrooge the benevolent, bundled up in coat and gloves, standing there handing out his annual discount coupons to employees. But in a moment his face had morphed into a smirking skull with a Santa hat — a YouTube mash-up of his corporate footage into a video with a hip-hop soundtrack about money and "The Man." The traders laughed and clicked "replay."
The ghost was moving him yet again, this time to stand before his own home, his own gates, which had always swung open as he approached. They were barred now, and as he drew closer, he saw a "foreclosure" notice hanging askew from one gilded upright.
"Spirit," he pleaded, "spirit!" Panicked, Scrooge grabbed for the ghost's arm, and found himself wafted to an enormous emptiness.
It seemed familiar and yet strange, a huge building, his cathedral, his Valhalla, the corporate Versailles he had built, the monument to his colossal self. Yet there it stood, not just darkened but with a menacing sense of neglect, long neglect, from the through-growing weeds in the cracked asphalt of the executive parking spaces to letters fallen from the massive corporate logo, so that it now read, "ME … ART." At the base of the bronze statue of Scrooge himself, someone had spray-painted, "Scrooge you!"
Scrooge fell senseless at its foot.
When he awoke, he was in the armchair in his library. The fire was not so bright as the daylight glowing through the window; Dec. 25, said the digital display on the phone in his bedside charger cradle. Christmas Day.
Christmas! In the space of a night, he had seen his life, and his life's work, destroyed. In his race to the top, he had seen himself tumble to the bottom, by undermining his own foundation: the fair-play, fair-wage, fair-price principles that had made his grandfather prosper and his neighbors and his employees thrive.
Scrooge leaped to his feet and grabbed the phone, as he had every morning of his adult life, to begin commanding men and millions. He punched the speed dial, again and again, and gave his orders. His voice sounded so different, so gleeful, that two or three of the most cynical of those he called insisted on calling him back to make sure they weren't being pranked.
To his platoon of startled lobbyists, one after the other, he ordered them to stand down. Stop working against the minimum-wage increase and take the lead with their fellow business lobbyists and make it clear to Capitol Hill: no minimum-wage hike, no campaign money. No employee of his would any longer have to be given company tips on how to get
And when Congress comes back from its holiday recess, he insisted, it must drop the crusade against affordable health insurance. What kind of country lets a man or a woman work all their lives only to get financially wiped out by a child's illness?
Scrooge hung up the phone with a giddy feeling of fellowship, so different from how he had felt before, the day before, an eternity before, when he worked the levers of his power like a puppeteer. Oh, it felt good to be at one with the community, his community, the human community!
Christmas Day passed slowly — it always had for Scrooge, but before, he had waited it out impatiently, waited for the stores and the markets to open the next day. Now, he was impatient for a different reason. His stores would open, as planned, at 12:01 a.m., and before they did, he would be back there at that one store's same employees' entrance.
He waited, excited as a child, and as employees began to show up, having dragged themselves reluctantly from their hearths on Christmas night, Scrooge shook each heartily by the hand and told them their pay would be raised, with a bonus for coming to work on this night, and more predictable hours.
And then Scrooge spotted Bob Cratchit, moving sideways against the wind in his thin coat. Scrooge shook his hand and clapped him on the back.
"Fine family, Cratchit, fine family!" he said. "You go straight to the manager's office, my boy — I'll join you there. Something special for you, and for your charming wife and those dear children."
Scrooge was as good as his word. Bob Cratchit's hours were increased to full time, and he got transferred to a job that did not exacerbate the repetitive-stress injury that had never been given time to heal.
Mrs. Cratchit was able to go to the doctor to treat her worrisome cough, which in fact was a chronic low-grade infection that went away in a flash with a good course of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
And Tiny Tim? As Scrooge had seen, his crutches did disappear — but now it was because Bob Cratchit's new health insurance covered the procedure that allowed Tim to walk again, to stomp like a giant, to study and thrive and one day to go to work himself, and not depend on the capricious charitable impulse of one benefactor.
And Scrooge was thereafter a happy man, not only because he had put Christmas back in his own hear, but because he had helped to restore a spirit of fellow feeling and neighborliness and opportunity and fair play to his country, God bless it, and every one of us, equally.