December 1998
s m u g
by Joe Procopio

A Christmas Story

Or maybe A Star Wars Story.
Or maybe A Basketball Story.
I haven't decided yet.

Episode IV: A New Hope.

It was almost exactly two years ago when fate played the happy trick of seating the Ghost of Christmas Past directly across from my table at a little Dinner Club on the lower east side. I was in the city for the weekend advising Dennis Rodman on a plan I had devised to get him thoroughly cleaned up for a coveted post as spokesperson for the AARP. I know what you're thinking, but Dennis is very fond of the senior circuit. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard him say something like, "Joe. This is very important to me. The hair, the nose-ring, the tatts, all hype. But I got mad love for the old folks." Plus, you know the kind of money the AARP swings. They were looking for a new image and the scratch for this gig rivaled Jordan's deal with Nike.

Halfway through the soup course, Dennis recognized the Ghost and invited her to sit at our table. This upset me at first, as I'd grown increasingly territorial about my clients, and I didn't want some semi-fictional spirit-tramp leading my boy down the wrong path. It's like a Jedi thing. Maybe if Darth Vader had finished his training, that whole trilogy would have been different. More like Starlight Express, but in space and with less singing.

These days I don't care as much if my people test the waters every now and then. For instance, I didn't tell Dennis to go marry Carmen Electra. That fiasco reeks of the dark side and it happened behind my back and without my blessing. I've learned to deal with it. I'll even accept him back with a warm hug when he annuls the damn thing, which I expect to happen shortly (because, you know, Mom Rodman's gonna harp perpetually about what went wrong with "that nice Christian girl Madonna"). Anyhow, let Dwight Manley figure that one out. It's not my area.

It turns out the Ghost wasn't interested in Dennis at all. In fact, this became quite evident after the meal, when she rejected his marriage proposal (which, by the way, I should have seen as foreshadowing of the dozens of ill-advised proposals that would follow). Well, Dennis got all huffy (as Dennis does), and took off to the 58th Street Senior Center for a book signing, some desert, and some "sweet lovin'," leaving me and Ms. Christmas Past alone at the table.

Ironically, she wasn't even on duty.

"Plans for the holidays?" I asked.

"The usual," she replied, "I'll fly home on Christmas Eve for dinner and a big fat dose of my mother's incessant bitching about me being here in New York instead of home helping out with the harvest season on the moisture farm."

"So you're from the Midwest?"

"Originally. Then it's off to scare the shit out of greedy people."

"Oh," I replied, "So then you're not here for me."

"Nope. I'm here for the sushi."

And then I got an idea. A great big grinchy idea.

A partnership.

I mean, she was sitting on a pot of gold. The poor chumps she was visiting already had one foot in the moral grave, so to speak. And if I could weasel my way in before Christmas Present and Christmas Future got there with their hoity-toity hard sell, I could open up a whole new market. The kicker is, everybody wins. You know how the original story ends, with Scrooge buying the biggest goose for the Cratchets and what-not. Geez, throw a camera in there and you've got a photo-op that's nothing short of career gold.

I kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner. I bought Christmas Past a couple of Sapporos and we drew up the contracts that night. The salad days began.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Flash-forward to today and I'm doling out more advice to the NBA than you could wave an adidas contract at. All I have to do is stand by while the players and the owners clobber each other and delay the season, then I step in, with absolutely no loyalty, and deliver the right information to the right side and collect my fee.

Last week I'm back in the city advising Shaq to get into a quick movie role during the lull when Spike Lee beeps me. I give him a ring back and he asks me to meet him at the Garden. I excuse myself and then I notice Shaq looks all anxious as he walks me to the limo Spike has waiting for me. As the limo pulls away, I hear Shaq shout, "Wait, Joe, it's a trap. It's a trap!"

The Garden is dark, lights out, except for one spot shining down on center court. So I make my way down to the floor when I hear heavy, raspy breathing over the PA.

"Stop that, Spike" I call out.

"Sorry," he says, "But it's time to pay up."

"Oh my God," I spit out, "You're the Ghost of Christmas Present."

"Side gig," he answers, "I need something to do. I've got no movie coming up and my boys aren't playing. Which is the reason I've brought you here. You're destroying the game."

"I take no side," I shout into the darkness.

"Oh yeah?"

And then, to my left, the lights come up on a dinner-table scene at Christmas time. There's a happy family excitedly preparing a meager Christmas supper. Mom is placing the napkins, and a little boy and a little girl carefully set the silverware next to each plate. It's very touching. Then the little boy, who is pale and hobbling on crutches, speaks to his mother.

"Mommy, won't this be the best Christmas ever?"

"Of course it will darling," Mom replies, "Even though times are tight and we can barely make ends meet, your father is working very hard to provide for all of us."

"Mommy! Mommy!" The daughter cries, "Daddy is home."

And then Daddy walks through the door. It's Patrick Ewing.

The kids greet him with hugs and kisses.

"Daddy," the boy says, "Mommy was just telling us that this will be the best Christmas ever."

"Why, of course it will son." He replies.

"Daddy, I hate that evil Mr. Stern," the boy crossly announces.

"Why Tim," Daddy replies, "Don't ever say that. It's just not right. We'll make it somehow son. I promise."

And then Ewing turns to glare at me and the scene fades.

"Join me," Spike blasts over the PA, "And together we can create a new league and rule the merchandising."

"I'll never join you!" I shout, and then the Garden fades to black.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Later that same night it took me many, many dark rum drinks to forget about what had just happened. I finally slipped off into a thick, sweet slumber in my sitting room chair. I dreamt restlessly of Rodman and Carmen, of Ewing and Stern, of Spike. But most of all of little Tiny Tim, and what the future held for him.

I was awakened by the clock as it struck midnight and, as I was jolted back into consciousness, I found myself staring at Latrell Sprewell, sitting across from me in the other chair, surrounded by muppets. Latrell stood and closed in on me, arms outstretched. The muppets held me down and, just as Latrell's fingers closed around my throat, the highball glass slipped from my hand, crashing to the floor, awakening me yet again.

It was morning.

There was still time.

And thus, I ask you, each and every one of you, celebrity or not, powerful or meek, human or muppet, to remember what Christmas really means. Go out and do good things. And do them just for the sake of doing them. Go to the mall and find one of those Christmas trees with the gift requests for the little kids and fill them. Stop by the homeless shelter and ask what they need. Go out to a little diner for a cup of coffee and leave a twenty-dollar tip. It doesn't matter what you do.

Just do it.

And may the force be with you.



in the junk drawer:

and such
and such

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