The bang on the door was vigorous and bad-tempered enough that Starsky almost checked his gun before calling out, “Who is it?”
“It’s me.” It was Hutch’s voice, and Starsky lifted his eyebrows. It was late at night and Hutch ought to be home in the embrace of his loving wife.
Starsky shook his head as he walked away from his kitchen table. Cynicism about the state of that marriage was for Hutch to express, not him. “Just a minute.” Starsky opened the door, and stared. Hutch looked tired, and abashed at turning up at this time of the evening without warning. “Is there a problem, Officer?” Starsky asked, deadpan.
“Not with you,” Hutch muttered and stalked towards the fridge and its beer, his long body stooped slightly. Hutch knew his way around Starsky’s kitchen and Starsky left him to it, lifting himself up to sit on the counter. Hutch twisted off the cap on a bottle and threw his head back, gulping down the drink.
“I’ve heard that water is pretty good for a thirsty man,” Starsky ventured.
Hutch turned to lean against the fridge, an exasperated exhaustion drawn in the lines of his face. “Only if I can drown myself in it.”
Starsky knew who he’d want to drown. “The holiday season is kind of notorious for domestic disharmony. Wanna tell me what’s rocking the Hutchinson marital boat?” He didn’t add ‘this time’.
“It’s so stupid!” Hutch protested.
“It usually is, pal. Doesn’t stop it from bothering people.” Starsky dropped lightly to the floor, and pointed to the couch. “Take a load off. Tell Uncle Davey your troubles.”
Hutch smiled for the first time. “You’re a mensch.”
“Of course,” Starsky said, tickled at the old word coming from Hutch’s white-bread WASP mouth.
Hutch settled on the couch, leaned his head back, and sighed. “It really is stupid. Vanessa and I argued over Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner, Starsk!” He rubbed a hand over his face. “She wants to invite her cousin, you know, the one with the Hollywood connections, and couple of people from her work. Oh, and you, of course,” Hutch said sardonically.
Starsky grinned. “I do have a certain rough charm when I choose to exert myself.” He couldn’t be quite as dry as Vanessa when she’d delivered that doubtful compliment, and Hutch shook his head dolefully.
“I mean, I could live with that if we’re not going back to Duluth this year, but one major reason we’re not going back to Duluth is supposed to be money, and she wants to have the damn dinner catered.” Hutch’s forefinger waved in the air, his hand batting back and forth. “Catered, which is crazy. Her mom taught her how to find her way around a kitchen, she sure as hell didn’t get these ideas from her parents, and I told her that.”
Starsky would bet money that if anyone asked him he could exactly recreate that particular conversation. “And it all degenerated from there,” he said.
“Yes, yes it most certainly did. I mean, hell, Starsky, I’d help her with dinner.”
He could imagine Vanessa’s contempt at Hutch’s suggestion. Chopping onions for the turkey stuffing? Not quite the ‘togetherness’ she required from her handsome husband. “You’re a mensch, too,” Starsky said fondly. But not a showpiece, he thought. Ain’t that a shame, Van?
Hutch took another swig of beer. “Not in the eyes of my wife. More a mutant cross between the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“Sounds nasty.” Starsky pondered his friend a while before he stood and gently slapped the side of Hutch’s right knee. “What you need, pal of mine, is an infusion of Christmas spirit. And this nice Jewish boy is the just the one to arrange it for you.”
Hutch stared, before his lips curved in a quizzical smile. “Is that so? Dare I ask what you have in mind?”
“Grab your coat, schweetheart. I’m gonna take you for a drive.”
“Starsky...” Hutch said. “I just got here.”
“So?” Starsky snagged Hutch’s wrist and pulled him upright. “Getting somewhere doesn’t stop you goin’ somewhere else.”
“Oh for....” Hutch followed Starsky out to his car, a 1970 Chevelle that Starsky had picked up for a song. He’d told Hutch that at the time, and Hutch had rolled his eyes and declared that sure, the Chevelle cost a song, if that song was priced like the front row for Sutherland at the Met.
“Get in,” Starsky said, opening the driver’s door and sitting down.
Hutch got in on his side, and slammed the door, sitting there, staring out the windscreen with a bemused expression. “We couldn’t just sit in your living room and drink beer?”
“Nope.” Starsky pulled out onto the street, dark now, and made for the freeway. Starsky enjoyed simply handling his baby, while he waited for the inevitable question.
“So, where are we going?”
Hutch turned to stare at him. “That’s miles away. Why Altadena?”
“Why not?” Man of mystery, that was David Starsky.
“Yeah, of course. Why not?”
It seemed that mysteries made Hutch grouchy again. “Hey,” Starsky said, stern suddenly. Damned if he was letting Hutch get away with that, after Hutch turned up unannounced late at night, demanding Starsky’s time and his beer. He’d give them, and gladly, but everyone liked to be appreciated. “You got anywhere better to be?”
There was a telling silence, and then a sigh. “When you put it like that.... Keep driving.”
Starsky smiled, and pushed them forward through the night traffic and the electric glow of the city until they reached Altadena.
“Christmas Tree Lane. I should have guessed,” Hutch said, but his voice was mellow and amused. He’d unwound somewhere along the drive.
“Yeah, you should have guessed. Pretty, isn’t it?” Starsky crawled along, filled with appreciation for the lights and the glow they threw over the hulking shapes of the two long rows of cedars. There were fancier light shows out there, but this one had always taken his imagination.
“It’s a pleasant community attraction,” Hutch graciously allowed.
“And community is so important,” Starsky drawled in fake patrician accents, warmed when Hutch burst out in a laugh.
“Keep that up and you’ll have everyone believing that your forebears stepped off their ship onto Plymouth Rock.”
“Nah. I’m not giving up the family’s Ellis Island stories for anyone.” Starsky’s mother had a stiff manila envelope, filled with mementoes – photographs, the letters his grandmother and grandfather exchanged before they were reunited. He’d show those things to Hutch one day.
Hutch turned to look at Starsky, rather than the lights outside. “You and Christmas. And you a nice Jewish boy.”
“So I like Christmas. There’s plenty to like. Peace and goodwill, and pretty light shows, and I like presents. Everyone likes presents.” Starsky waved at the strands of bulbs festooning the branches. “If it makes you feel better, think of this as me extending Hanukkah.”
That made Hutch laugh again, a light chuckle. “Thank you, Starsk. That makes it all much clearer to me.”
“Wiseacre,” Starsky said. “You want to go ‘round again?”
“We should probably head back. Rumour has it that you and I have to work tomorrow.”
“And rumour would be right,” Starsky said, turning them away from the lights and the small line of other cars which had come to admire them, and taking them back to the great metropolitan area around them and its more mundane lights and decorations. They didn’t need to talk. Hutch even dozed a little on the way, and Starsky shook his shoulder as they pulled up outside his place.
“Hey. Hey, sleepyhead.” Hutch blinked, his face peaceful. “We’re back. You want my couch?”
The peace became a frown. “No. Thanks for the offer, but I think it’ll be more politic if I at least wake up on my own couch.”
Starsky nodded. “Yeah, sure. But you know where to find me. No politics around here.”
Hutch put one hand on Starsky’s shoulder. “I know. And thanks.” He opened the car door and stood, before stooping to look in and smile and say, “Happy extended Hanukkah, Starsky.”
Starsky saluted him with a touch of his index finger to his brow. “Merry Christmas, Hutch.”
“Oh, for....” Hutch regarded the lurid pressed-plastic Santa and bells hanging over the 7-Eleven store door with pinched-mouth disdain. “Thanksgiving was two days ago. It’s not even December yet.”
“This may be true, but that still means that today is the 26th, which means that it’s less than one calendar month until Christmas Day,” Starsky said. “I think it’s cute. And go-getting. Retailers have a right to Christmas spirit as much as the next person.”
Hutch grabbed a bottle of apple juice from the chiller before he fixed his friend with a sceptical stare. “Forgive my cynicism, Starsk, but I don’t think that Christmas spirit is what’s on their mind – unless we’re talking about the special offer on beer in the corner over there.”
“You’re a grouch, you know that?” Starsky said, grabbing a packet of peanuts on his way to the counter, where a young woman rang up their purchases with a wry purse to her mouth that suggested she might be trying not to laugh.
Hutch had drawn himself up, tall in his righteous indignation. “I don’t think that it’s grouchy to object to over-commercialisation. I’m not a number on some ledger, slaving to earn my crust so that the wheels of the corporate economy can roll over us all.”
They exited. The door chime had been reconnected to play Jingle Bells. If Hutch could have blasted it with a searing laser-blue gaze, he would have.
Starsky frowned. “You know what? I take it back. You’re not a grouch, you’re a Grinch. This is a lead-up to how you’re not going to do anything fun for Christmas, or give anyone any presents, right?” They were riding in Hutch’s bone-jarring heap today, and Starsky leaned back and morosely dug into his packet of peanuts.
“Au contraire,” Hutch said smoothly, sliding his bottle of apple juice behind the seat, from where Starsky suspected it would next reappear fermented into something that would sear the hair from his nostrils, if he was ever stupid enough to let said nostrils get that close. “I can learn. Especially when you aren’t exactly subtle about pouting.”
“Yeah?” Starsky roused himself to turn to Hutch with enthusiasm, but also some wariness. “Does this mean that my parcel is going to be worth opening this year?”
“I certainly think so.” Hutch smiled in a suspiciously bright and serene way. “I’ve decided to finally convert you to the idea of healthy living. Joining up Christmas with New Year’s resolutions.” Stricken, Starsky felt his eyes widen. “I’ve put together some favourite cookery books, and a hamper of good food.” Hutch gazed at Starsky with an earnest, innocent expression that made Starsky yearn to pop him one right on his handsome nose. “I’ve actually put a lot of effort and cash into this one, because I don’t ever want you to doubt what a dear friend you are to me.” Well satisfied with Starsky’s horrified silence, Hutch pulled out into the traffic.
“You may not be a Grinch but you are a hypocrite,” Starsky finally said. “What exactly were you eating at Huggy’s last night?”
Hutch ignored the question. “It’ll get both of us in tune,” he rhapsodised. “Fit for life on the streets. Working together in harmony, like a perfectly meshed piece of machinery.”
“You can sure spin a line there, Hutch.” Starsky licked his finger and dug it to the bottom of the peanut packet to collect as many crumbs and grains of salt as possible. “Still,” he said, entering into the spirit of the conversation, “our solve rate should be great. Given how mean and hungry we’re both gonna be.”
Hutch merely smirked, before he turned his attention back to the rain-slicked street.
“If I’d known that you were going to turn into the Stepford Hutch, I never would have agreed to this.”
“I am no such thing,” Hutch declared with icy dignity. “And hold the ladder steady, will you.”
“I am holding it steady,” Starsky said. “It ain’t my fault that you think you have to go mountain climbing to put up some tinsel.” Irritation washed through him, because he was holding the ladder rock steady and if Hutch went ‘timber!’ like some blond redwood it’d be his own fault. He was the one who had the decoration mania. Just because Starsky couldn’t stretch out above his head the same way he used to. The muscle flexibility was coming, it would come; like Christmas the smartass part of his brain supplied, except that here Christmas was, and there Starsky was, grounded and holding the ladder.
“Damn,” Hutch said, taking one step down on the rungs.
“I dropped the thumbtack. Pass me another one and don’t step on the one I dropped.”
“No, I see it, I’ll get it.” As Starsky bent, he jarred the ladder, and Hutch yelped.
“I am watching it. Nobody said that you had to be up there in the first place. And here,” Starsky said, extending the tack, “stick that damn tinsel up and then get down from there.”
Hutch, on his high horse in more ways than one, reached for the tack, anchored the tinsel, and climbed down. “If you don’t appreciate my decorating, you only have to say so. I’d hate to commit felony Christmas,” he said, at his most annoyingly sarcastic.
“According to you when you’re in your right mind, Christmas actually is a felony. So excuse me for finding all this,” Starsky’s hands waved in lieu of finding the words, “stuff kind of weird.”
Hutch bent to pick up the box of decorations, which he thrust against Starsky’s chest where it nearly dropped until Starsky got a grip. “And thank you so much,” Hutch seethed, “for the implication that I’d have to be crazy to want to do something nice for a friend.”
“That’s just the problem. You’re always being nice.” Starsky’s voice was rising.
“And what the hell is wrong with that?” Hutch replied, his voice louder still.
Starsky’s voice dropped low, like thunder in the distance. “Maybe, maybe I don’t want nice. Maybe I’d just like normal, without you swanning around my apartment in an apron like you think that I can’t do anything for myself!”
Hutch visibly took a deep breath. “You like tinsel. You like all the ridiculous excesses of the season. And if you think I was letting you up that ladder then you’re crazy.”
There was an implication that made Starsky see red. He planted his feet, and he held the box of cheesy decorations lightly, lightly; he didn’t want to crush anything.
“If you think that you get to ‘let’ me do anything, then you’re way crazier than I am, Hutchinson.” It was as venomous as anything that Starsky had ever said to Hutch, and he regretted the words the moment that they spat into the air. But he couldn’t take it back, and he couldn’t stop dipping in the well-spring of the venom – frustration, and fear, and the memory of pain.
Hutch’s fair skin flushed red. The admonitory Hutchinson forefinger made an accusing appearance. “Oh, absolutely, clearly I am crazier than a shit house rat. Well, tell you what, buddy, I’ll just get myself and my apron and my Stepford ways out of your hair, and let you celebrate things your way.” The apron (a plain, dark green caterer’s apron, worn to scrub out Starsky’s kitchen cupboards) was flung over the back of the couch, and Hutch grabbed his jacket and keys and was gone, with a slam of the door.
“Fuck.” It seemed to be all that Starsky had to say. He went to his kitchen and made himself a cup of strong, sweet coffee and sat at his table, staring out the window at the wall of the house next door, and the ferns in pots on its balcony, fresh and green in the afternoon light. His little menorah stood on the table. Hutch had been with him to light the candles last night. The first night of the season he’d gone to see his uncle and aunt. He sighed, and sipped at his drink. Light and heat - a little too much of the latter, tonight. He ought to be glad. He ought to be happy, because he was alive, and he had his friends and his family, and most of his health, even if something did catch across his chest sometimes. It was just that he wanted all of his health – and for Hutch to stop treating him like something fragile.
He gave Hutch time to get back to his place. One of them would pick up the phone in the next few minutes, and it didn’t matter which one of them it was. As it happened, it was Starsky’s phone that rang, just as Starsky was checking the time and thinking that Hutch must likely be home by now.
“What was that about?” Hutch asked. He sounded genuinely confused, and weary, and a little sad.
Starsky leaned back in his chair, his eyes shut. “I think that was the last surge of the shit tide of 1979, my friend.”
“That’s poetic but not informative.”
Starsky grinned. “Who the hell writes poems about shit, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a librarian somewhere who could tell us.” Hutch paused. “I’m sorry. I was being overbearing. But I really wanted things to be nice this Christmas.”
“Yeah, I know, baby-blue. And I was being kind of tetchy. Call it quits?”
“That’s getting pretty edumucated for two cops, isn’t it?”
“We can be as edumucated as we want.” Hutch sounded better over the phone now – less exhausted, and more amused.
“Wanna come around and light the candles with me this evening?”
“Sure,” Hutch said.
“Bring some of those little sugar cookies with you – you know, those imported ones from Trader Joe’s.”
“I thought that me being Stepford Hutch annoyed you.”
“Yeah, that’s right. So just bitch about the calories and how you don’t know why my teeth haven’t turned black when you get here.”
“I suppose that I can do that,” Hutch conceded. “I’ll see you later.”
“You betcha.” Starsky hung up, and made himself another cup of coffee. The year’s tide of troubles might be hopefully receding, but 1980 had the roar of coming storm too – not least Gunther’s upcoming trial, and the question of just how much further Starsky could push his recovery. Tonight, though, Starsky planned on candles and sugar cookies and his friend’s company. He grinned, speculating how deeply he could prod Hutch on the question of Christmas gifts. After all, Hutch was the one so damn determined to make it a ‘nice’ holiday season this year....