When Charlie, the coal millionaire, left suddenly, even unexpectedly, for Pittsburgh on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1949, only Bert and I remained as lodgers in the huge, old house with the big wrought iron gates that guarded the deep courtyard at 931 Chartres St. in the French Quarter.
Bert and I made sure that Charlie got on his plane. We also made sure that he had his ticket and his money and, if only to ensure 6-to-5 odds on his arriving in Pittsburgh, we pinned a tag on his lapel that gave his name, his destination, and the name and telephone number of the brother in Pittsburgh who reluctantly had issued the last-minute, pro forma invitation.
For Charlie was a kind of remittance man, exiled to New Orleans (or anywhere else suitably far away) by his two coal baron brothers who felt that is was better that way because of Charlie's condition. It seemed that Charlie's condition was one of staying pleasantly waxed on sour mash bourbon most of the time.
Bert and I sort of looked after Charlie. We got him back into bed when he fell out. On his really bad mornings, we spooned into him the hot, strong beef broth that we fetched from Tujague's restaurant over on Decatur Street, and we kept the con men away from him, at least most of the time.
Bert and I hung around the airport in New Orleans until Charlie's plane left. We hung around because we had no place else pressing to go and because an airport on Christmas Eve day was a rather interesting spot for two such seasoned humanitarians as Bert and me. Also, we didn't want to miss anything diverting or dramatic, such as Charlie's plane crashing on takeoff.
"He'll never make it past Chicago," Bert said after we watched the plane safely into the air.
"I thought he got closer than that last year," I said.
"Cincinnati," Bert said. "He got to Cincinnati last year."
"Well," I said, "that's not too far from Pittsburgh."
Back at 931 Chartres St. the weather remained warm and fair so Bert and I set out the chess pieces on the table in the courtyard. He beat me two quick games before he said, "You haven't got any money, have you?"
"Not till the first," I said. "It's the 24th."
"Christmas Eve," Bert said.
"Charlie had invited us to dinner, you know. Christmas Eve dinner. At Antoine's. I haven't been to Antoine's in five years."
"I've never been there," I said. "I guess he forgot."
"Why don't you go see the doctor tonight?" Bert said. "She's a nice kid."
"She's on duty tonight at Charity."
"Oh," Bert said, and then after a pause: "Well, you're 23 and I'm 50 and that makes a combined age of 73 and if you're 73, you oughta be old enough and smart enough to figure out how to raise money enough for a goddamn Christmas Eve dinner."
I went over his logic in my mind, found it flawless, and said, "I hocked the typewriter last week."
"I know," he said. "How much you got left?"
I counted it. "Eighty-seven cents."
"That's enough," Bert said. "Gimme a dime and go put on your suit. You haven't hocked your suit, have you?"
"Somebody might offer me a job some day and when they offer you a job, they like you to wear a suit, or so I've been told. What do you want the dime for, a phone call?"
"Yeah. A phone call."
"A repo," I said. "You don't want to do a repo, Bert. When you do that you yell at night and wake everybody up."
"A repo's worth $15 cash money and there's nobody here but you. Did I ever tell you how I made my living in 1933?"
I nodded. "You told me."
Bert decided that he had time to tell me again. "I repossessed baby cribs. That's what I did in '33 and, by God, I was snake mean. I'd go in there, mother crying, baby bawling, father cursing, hand 'em the papers, rip the covers off the kid, hand the kid to somebody, and then I'd take the crib out just like that -- cover and all, if they owed for them, too. That's what I did in '33."
"It was a job," I said.
"Go put on your suit."
"All right," I said.
The Desire bus cost us seven cents each and after about a three-mile ride we got off and walked a block until we arrived at the house we were looking for. It was what I had expected: a paintless, wooden shotgun design resting on a foundation of mortarless brick piles. It was the house of somebody without much money, or perhaps without any money at all.
Bert gave the place what I took to be a cool, professional appraisal. The shades were drawn and the front door was closed. Bert smoothed his carefully clipped, gray guard's mustache with a knuckle. "It looks a little quiet in there," he said.
"Too quiet," I said, just as a veteran Indian scout gazing out over Apache land might say it.
"Round in back," Bert said.
Round in back was a 1941 Mercury sedan. A lean dark-haired man in his 40s was loading cardboard boxes wrapped with twine into its trunk. A woman of about 35 sat in the front seat holding a baby. In the back seat were four or five or possibly even six children, none more than 10 years old. The man finished putting the box into the trunk and then turned toward Bert. He didn't say anything.
"You Mr. Broussard?" Bert said.
The man nodded, saying nothing.
"We're from the finance company," Bert said and I wondered how many times he had said it just like that with that same note of dead finality. The man turned back to his car and looked at it for a while. Then he turned back to Bert.
"I got a job in Lafayette starting day after Christmas," he said. "We was gonna stay with her folks. I aimed to send in a payment." He said it all without any hope. He could have been reciting a list of things to do that would never get done.
"You're three payments behind," Bert said.
"I got this job in Lafayette starting day after Christmas," the man said. It was fact, one he could cling to.
"We've gotta take the car," Bert said.
The man nodded, reached into his pocket, brought out the keys, and extended them to Bert. "Not much of a Christmas Eve for you either, is it, mister?" he said.
I'm still not sure whether Bert actually reached for the keys. I remember there was a long pause and that Bert then turned to me and said, "Let's go kid." Over his shoulder he used his gruffest repossession tone to issue what he must have hoped was a warning, the dire kind. "Make sure you send in the part payment, Broussard."
"Yeah, I will," the man said. "Thanks, mister."
We walked to the bus stop in silence. Just before the bus arrived, Bert once more turned to me and said, "If that Cajun bastard had wished me a merry Christmas, I'd have taken his goddamn car."
"That's because you're a snake mean, Bert," I said.
Back once more at 931 Chartres St., fortune smiled on us in true Micawber fashion. A Christmas card had arrived from my aged aunt containing a check for $20. That night I took Bert, the man of good will, to dinner. He grew a little sentimental over the Dexie Belle gin he favored and made me promise him something.
"When you get tired of screwing around down here in the quarter and get squared away and get your own family and all, do me a favor, will you?"
"Sure," I said. "What?"
"Have a real Christmas like the one I had in Winnipeg in 1908."
"When you were 7."
'Yeah, when I was 7, and it snowed a-- deep to a giraffe and we sang carols and we had this big damn tree and you know what that tree had on it? Candles. Real wax candles. Do me a favor, kid; when you get squared away and all, have a tree with real wax candles."
"When I get squared away, Bert, I will."
Not quite 10 years later I wasn't exactly squared away, but I was in another country and it was Christmas Eve again. I was staying in a Gasthaus in a small village on the River Weser not too far from the town of Hamelin of Pied Piper fame. The Gasthaus proprietor and I were idly discussing West German politics when Ilse came in to tell me that it was time.
Even though it had snowed heavily that day we decided to leave the Porsche and walk to her mother's house. We both agreed that the snow made the village look like a Christmas card, although I thought that it may have been not quite deep enough.
"How deep should it be?" she said and I remember replying that according to one American expert on Christmas whom I knew it should be about a-- deep to a giraffe, which she didn't fine particularly amusing.
We climbed the stairs in her mother's house and then had to wait, sitting there together on the stairs like two very small children. "It takes a while," Ilse explained.
Finally, Ilse's mother, flushed and beaming, opened the door and we went in and there it was, the first I'd ever seen: a Christmas tree with candles. Real wax candles. We admired the tree and exchanged presents and then gathered around the piano and sang carols such as "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." After the carols there were the cakes with a ton of whipped cream and the sweet liqueurs and the toasts. I proposed a simple one which went: "Merry Christmas, Bert," and both mother and daughter drank to it because they were polite and I was their guest and, after all, it may have been some weird American custom.
Later, Ilse asked, "Who is Bert?"
"He's the American Christmas expert I mentioned earlier."
"Did he keep Christmas like this -- like Mutti and I do?"
"No, but he thought everybody should."
"Maybe he kept it in his heart," Ilse said.
"He'd have to keep it there," I said. "It was the only place he could afford."