Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the ninth official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
This week, Craig Brewer, of the always fascinating “Weird Christmas“, will read to all of you Chapter Eight of our tale, entitled “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. Within this chapter, you’ll meet the character of Hudson Jackson, an employee of Animal Control Services of New York, and his beloved mother, Violet.
We hope you like it! If you do, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many eyes as possible! Make sure to check your podcast feeds for your regular weekly episode on Monday, in which the elves will cover the second batch of “Home Improvement” Christmas episodes, and next Thursday for the tenth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Nine: A New York Christmas”, which friend of the podcast, Ron Hogan – a.k.a. President Hotdog – of Film Strip Podcast will be reading to y’all!
Chapter Eight: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
December 24th – 7:00 a.m. EST
Hudson Jackson’s alarm went off at seven a.m. on the morning of Christmas Eve, the same time it went off every other day of the year. Groaning, the middle-aged man pulled his duvet completely over his head to block out the dull winter light drifting into his childhood bedroom before reaching an arm out from within his self-made cocoon and slapping his hand blindly in the direction of his bedside table, trying to find his alarm clock. After thirty-seconds of fumbling, he finally managed to bring his hand down hard atop of it, which quieted his blaring alarm and plunged his room into blissful silence once again.
Hudson buried his face in his pillow, breathing deeply as he thought about the long, arduous day ahead. “Gotta pay the bills,” he mumbled to himself, his voice muffled by his pillow. “Gotta pay the bills.” This was his daily mantra and had been for the past three-years of his life. It was the only thing that kept him going throughout the day; the only thing that forced him to climb out of bed each and every morning.
“Hudson! Get your butt out of bed! You’re going to be late for work!”
Well, one of the only things.
“Coming, mama!” Hudson called loudly, as he threw the blankets off of himself with a flourish and climbed out of bed. Scratching his head and yawning loudly, he shuffled out of his bedroom and across the hall into the second-floor bathroom of his mother’s shabby-looking duplex, which seemed to fall further into a state of disrepair by the day. It was a source of constant frustration for Hudson, because no matter how often he complained to his mother’s landlord, the wealthy man seemed like he couldn’t care less about their plight.
Once shut within the bathroom, Hudson took stock of his reflection in the spotted mirror over the sink. There were dark bags beneath his bloodshot eyes, prominently visible despite his black skin, and the mustache growing above his upper lip was in desperate need of a trim. Letting out a wistful sigh as he stared at himself, he wondered aloud, “When did I get so old?”
Thirty-minutes later, after a long, hot shower, Hudson entered the cramped, cluttered kitchen (which looked as though it hadn’t been redone since the seventies) on the ground floor of the brownstone. His mother, a short, thin woman with a lined, tired face and short, curly dark hair, was bustling around the space in a fluffy pink bathrobe, which was overlarge on her. She was piling a stack of pancakes onto a plate near the stove and didn’t even look up from what she was doing when she acknowledged her middle-aged son. “Sit down. Breakfast is just about ready. I was just about to call upstairs again.”
Hudson did as his mother instructed and plopped down in a chair at the tiny kitchen table. At his seat, his mother had already laid out silverware on a napkin, along with a full glass of orange juice and a bottle of maple syrup. “Smells good, ma,” he remarked after taking a long sip of juice.
“Is it ever not good?” his mother, Violet, asked him with a raised eyebrow. She placed a full stack of pancakes in front of him before gently taking the seat across from him.
“I was actually referring to what I can only assume is the turkey in the oven,” Hudson corrected with a smile before taking a bite of his breakfast. “These taste out of this world, per usual.”
Violet laughed. “The turkey is for Christmas Eve dinner tonight,” she explained. “Your Auntie Jasmine is coming over, along with your cousins Darnell and Gina, Andre and Tashé, and all of their kids. Oh, and your nana is coming too, of course.”
“Sounds like it’s going to be a fun party,” Hudson remarked, his mouth full of food. “I’m sorry I have to miss it.” His words were only half-true; part of him was glad that he’d be missing that evening’s holiday celebrations, given how his lot in life had shaken out compared to his cousins of the same age.
His mother, however, seemed to sense the defiant, underlying sarcasm in his voice. “Boy, what are you talking about, missing Christmas Eve?”
That’s when Hudson realized he hadn’t yet told her. “I’m working a double-shift today, mama. Eight-to-twelve.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve!”
“Why on earth would you volunteer to do a double—”
“Because Ronnie asked me to fill in for him today,” Hudson insisted. “So he could leave on vacation a day early with his kids. Besides, we need the money.”
It was a legitimate excuse. The two of them had been struggling financially for three-years now – ever since Carl, Violet’s husband and Hudson’s father, died of a heart attack. Without his second income, Violet – a housekeeper at the local Super 8 hotel – couldn’t make ends meet on her own, even with her deceased husband’s pension from the post office. As such, Hudson, who was struggling to make ends meet himself and was bouncing from job-to-job, moved back into his childhood home to help take care of his beloved mother.
“But do you need to work on Christmas Eve?” Violet asked.
“It’s an extra shift, for which I’m getting time-and-a-half pay because it’s a holiday, so yes,” Hudson explained. After shoving another forkful of pancakes into his mouth, he added pointedly, “If you’d consider moving out of this house and into someplace smaller—”
“Boy, you better shut your mouth before I slap you!” Violet threatened seriously. “Your father would haunt me until the day I die if I left this duplex! It was our first home – it was where we raised you! You must be out of your damn mind for even suggesting such a thing!”
Hudson stared down at his half-empty breakfast plate in resignation. They had had this argument more times than he could count, and Hudson knew that nothing he could ever say would get the woman to change her mind. So instead of arguing, he settled for, “Sorry, mom.”
“Hm.” Violet stood up and cleared away Hudson’s plate before he could protest, walking it over to the trashcan to dump the remainder of the food into it. “Your auntie and nana are going to be so disappointed if you don’t show up tonight,” she noted, walking over to the sink to run his plate under hot water. “So will the kids.”
“They’ll live,” Hudson replied, noticing that his mother refused to say whether or not his cousins would be disappointed that he wouldn’t be there. After downing the rest of his orange juice, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up. “Besides, I’ll see them tomorrow.”
Violet spun around to face him, placing both hands on the kitchen countertop behind her. “But Christmas Eve is just as big a deal as Christmas day! Why can’t you get a job that gives you the holidays off like a normal person?”
“First of all, it’s not even a legal holiday today.” Hudson let out a humorless laugh. “Second of all, it’s not that easy for a black man, mama. You know that.” He walked from the kitchen and made his way toward the front of the house.
“Don’t you do that!” Violet hurried after him, wiping her hands dry on a dishrag as she walked. “Don’t you dare do that! Your father and I never played the race card, and you shouldn’t either!” As her grown son stopped just before the front door, pausing beside a coatrack to shrug on his winter jacket, she squeezed past him to block his exit. “You can’t find another job because you’re lazy! Because you don’t want to! I have no idea where you get that attitude from, because we sure as hell didn’t instill those values in you! Every single time your father and I got knocked down, we picked ourselves up and were stronger for it!”
Hudson sighed deeply as he stared down at his mother before looking past her into the living room that was beautifully decorated for Christmas. The Christmas tree within it twinkled proudly in the front bay window overlooking the street, and the grown man marveled at how the holiday adornments almost managed to completely hide the fact that the room was in desperate need of refurbishment.
“At least try to get a job you actually like,” Violet continued in a softer voice, as she removed his scarf from the coatrack. “Regardless of the hours or pay.” She began to wrap the winter accessory, that she herself had knit her son, around his neck. “Money’s not everything, and it would be less soul crushing than the one you have now.”
Hudson rolled his eyes. “I like my job.”
“Don’t you dare lie to your mother, boy.” Violet stuck a threatening finger in his face. “I don’t care how old or big you get, I’ll still whoop your ass!” She lowered her finger slowly as she gave a snort of derision. “You like your job – give me a break. You used to love animals, and now you’re picking them up off the street to lock them away in cold cages and be put down.”
“The Animal Care Centers of New York do it in a humane way, mom. I promise,” Hudson explained for what felt like the umpteenth time.
“It doesn’t mean you like doing it!”
“I’m getting stray animals off the cold winter streets,” Hudson insisted. “I’m helping them.”
“By taking them to a place they have to wait to die.”
Hudson knew that he and his mother had arrived at an impasse, so instead of arguing his point any further, he gently pointed out, “I’m going to be late for my shift.”
“Just promise me you’ll think about it, alright?” She implored him, a stern glint in her brown eyes. Hudson nodded in response, knowing it was the only way he was going to be allowed to leave the house. Violet smiled. “Good.” She stood on her toes to kiss him on the cheek before grabbing his hat from the coatrack and tugging it comfortably over his ears. “Now, you be careful on the roads today! We’re expecting that snowstorm to roll in at any time now!”
“I’ll be fine, mom,” Hudson replied, doing his best to keep the exasperation in his voice to a bare minimum. Reaching past her, he pulled open the front door of the house to reveal a light snow had already begun to fall from the sky. He also had a clear view of his white, dingy box truck that read ‘Animal Control’ along the side of it, where he had left it parked on the street the night before, directly in front of the house.
As Hudson hurried down the front steps, Violet called after him. “We’ll save you a seat at St. Patrick’s! Mass is at 6:00!”
Hudson sighed deeply as he reached the driver’s side door of his truck, turning to call back to her. “I told you, I’m working until midnight!”
Violet crossed her arms across her chest in the doorway of her home, raising an eyebrow as she did so. “You get a dinner break, don’t you?”
Hudson laughed in disbelief. “I’ll try to make it,” he lied, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be able to.
“Try hard!” Violet pointed her index finger skyward. “God’s watching!”
“Bye, mom!” Hudson rolled his eyes.
“Love you!” Violet pulled her robe closed more tightly around her, shivering as she stared up at the gray sky, noticing that the snow was starting to fall heavier by the second. After waving at her son one last time, she stepped back into the house and shut the door carefully behind her.
Hudson climbed into the freezing cab of his truck and let out a sigh of relief at the eerie quiet that it offered him. He placed his keys into the ignition and fiddled with them for a few moments in an attempt to get the vehicle to start. “Come on, come on,” he muttered to himself. Finally, with a loud Bang!, his car backfired as the engine roared to life. Smiling to himself, he merged carefully out into the road and started off in the direction of midtown as the clock struck eight o’clock and his shift officially began.
His work days always started with the exact same routine. The moment he climbed into his truck and drove it out of Washington Heights, heading toward his assigned route, he called up his shift supervisor to let them know that he was on the road. Despite it being Christmas Eve, today was no different. After two rings, a voice on the other end of the line answered briskly. “James Miller.”
“Hey, Jimmy, it’s Hudson.” He placed his phone on speaker before throwing it onto the empty passenger seat beside him. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m on the road—”
“Excellent.” James cut across him before asking in a businesslike manner, “What are the conditions like?”
“They’re normal so far,” Hudson replied. “Usual amount of traffic—”
“Well be prepared for them to get worse,” James interrupted again. “They’re going to get real bad, real quick.”
“Merry Christmas to me, huh?” Hudson joked.
James, however, was apparently not in a joking mood. “Just be careful with the truck. Any accidents will result in our insurance premiums going up, and we’ll be forced to take the difference out of your paychecks going forward.”
Hudson’s stomach dropped, as he straightened up in his seat seriously. “Understood,” he assured his supervisor. “Uh – speaking of paychecks – I was hoping that I could talk to you about a possible raise.”
“You know the policy, Jackson; raises won’t be considered outside of annual performance reviews. If I’m recalling correctly, you still have seven-months to go until yours.”
Hudson expected nothing less. “How about extra shifts then?”
There was a short pause before James replied, “We’ll talk after the first.”
Hudson smirked. It wasn’t a fully-fledged promise, but it was better than nothing. “Don’t forget, I’m working a double today—”
“And your next paycheck will reflect it,” his supervisor cut across him, barely able to conceal his impatience.
“Thank you, sir. Merry—” There was a loud click on the other end of the line, indicating that the call had been discontinued. “Christmas,” Hudson finished lamely.
Staring out of the front windshield at the falling snow, Hudson settled into phase two of his daily routine – the phase that took up the majority of his day: driving aimlessly up and down the streets of midtown Manhattan, looking for stray animals he could pick up. It was dull work; most of the time, he didn’t come across many wandering the streets on his own, so he would spend their days listlessly daydreaming in-between calls from dispatch directing him to specific locations at which a furry creature had been spotted.
Hudson didn’t mind this for the most part. But this morning, it allowed him to focus on the conversation he had had earlier with his mother, which had begun to replay on a loop in his head. She had been right, as much as he hated to admit it. He hated his current job of picking up innocent animals and essentially sentencing them to death. (Sure, some of them were lucky and ended up getting adopted, but the sad fact of the matter was that more animals were picked up than would ever find their forever homes. The New York shelters were always overcrowded, so putting them down was necessary to consolidate space for the new intakes.) He constantly had nightmares about the whining of the many dogs and cats he had picked up over the years, and while he – thankfully – never had to put any of the animals down himself, nor was he ever in the room when it happened, Hudson had been forced to walk and carry a few on their final death walks in the past. He would never, as long as he lived, forget the mingled sadness, fear, and resignation in their eyes, nor the way they trembled in fright. Just thinking about it at that very moment made him feel physically sick.
But a job was a job, and while it didn’t pay much money, it helped Hudson make ends meet, however barely. And frankly, it was the first job that he had been able to keep steadily in years – at least since his father died. Before he landed his gig with the Animal Control Centers of New York, he had a brief, unsuccessful stint driving trains, and before that, a job working to unload trucks at a warehouse in the Bronx.
Before the warehouse job, he had held a mid-level office job performing customer service for a coffee manufacturer. He had really liked that job; he was happy there. That was when he had still been married to his high school sweetheart, Cindy. Unfortunately, one night after work, he was arrested for trying to buy weed from an undercover cop. It was a miniscule amount, but enough to send him away to jail for a few months despite having a clean record. His lawyer had argued that the overly harsh sentence was due to the color of his skin, and was successful in getting him released based on said argument (in exchange for a year-and-a-half’s worth of community service), but by then the damage had been done; he had lost both his job and his wife.
Hudson had never truly recovered from the arrest. The loss of his job and abandonment by the woman he loved so deeply had sent him spiraling into a depression, while his now tainted legal record made it harder for him to get his life back on track and find a job in general, let alone one that he truly enjoyed. He had brought it all upon himself though by being careless, he knew that. His mother was right when she said it was his own fault that he couldn’t find a new job, but that was hard to admit even to himself, let alone aloud to anyone else, so he doubled-down on the race excuse, much to the woman’s ire.
He refused to take his chances trying to find a new job that he would love now that he had finally found a steady job, even though it was one that he hated. He didn’t believe that it would ever happen and getting him to change his mind would take nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Besides, hopefully in the New Year, he would be able to pick up additional shifts and, if he was lucky, maybe even get a raise.
And with that prospect of earning more money at the forefront of his mind, Hudson – with a new, steady resolve – guided his truck down the street into slow-moving traffic, which was getting heavier by the second, in order to do a job that chipped away at his soul.