Ken Hutchinson lay on his back and stared at the bedroom ceiling. Christmas morning. A day when the world was supposed to be cheerful and happy, full of good spirits. A day when he had planned to be far away from here, back in his native Duluth, spending Christmas with his beautiful wife, and his in-laws. He had begged and pleaded to get this time off, rearranged, worked extra hours, all to be able to bring Vanessa home for the holidays. And then less than a week before they were to leave, she had dropped the bad news.
“I’m sorry, Ken, this just isn’t working. I had meant to wait until after the holidays to tell you, but I just can’t go through another Christmas pretending everything's alright. I’m leaving.” And she had packed her bag, taken her plane ticket, and was gone, and the world was gone with her.
He supposed he could have gone back to Duluth anyway, seen his own family for the holidays. But his sister was away with her husband, spending Christmas in Hawaii, and his parents… well, he didn’t really feel spending this Christmas with them would have been a very good idea.
He knew should have turned his vacation time back in, so that someone else, someone who had a reason to be off work for Christmas, could have it instead, but somehow he hadn’t gotten around to doing it. Another reason to feel like a failure, keeping someone else from having a good holiday while he brooded all alone. Good work, Hutchinson, he thought sardonically.
So here he was with nothing to do all day except lie there. Later on he might get up the energy to start drinking. That was the stereotype of what cops were supposed to do, wasn’t it?
Just then there was a knock on the front door. Who the hell could that be? Go away and let me sulk in peace.
But whoever it was didn’t go away. The knock was repeated, more firmly this time. He continued to ignore it. Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any. No, wait, door-to-door salesmen wouldn’t be working on Christmas. Carolers? Not likely! Maybe I’m really lucky and it’s a burglar, trying to see if anyone’s here before he breaks in. Wouldn’t that be ironic, breaking into a cop’s house while the cop was home?
The knocking was a pounding now. And a voice. “Come on, Hutch! Open up! I know you’re in there!”
“Starsky?” What the hell was his friend from the academy doing here now?
“Come on, Hutch, hurry up! This stuff is gettin’ heavy!”
Stuff? Hutch pulled himself out of bed and shuffled over to the apartment door.
As soon as he had the door unlocked it practically burst open, and Hutch found himself pushed backwards by an enthusiastic curly headed blur, that was carrying…
“A Christmas tree? What the hell are you doing, Starsky?”
“Merry Christmas, Hutch! I figured you wouldn’t have decorated, under the circumstances ‘n everything, so I brought you a tree.”
At least it was a small tree. "Circumstances?"
"Aw come on, Hutch. I heard about Vanessa. Word's gotten around the department." Starsky's bright blue eyes looked at him reproachfully around the tree he was arranging on Hutch's coffee table. "You should have told me. Didn't have to deal with it alone, Blondie. I'm here. We're gonna' be partners some day, remember? That's what a partner's for." He stepped back and admired his handiwork with the tree. "There. That looks pretty good, doncha' think?"
Hutch felt a warmth well up inside him. He wanted to be angry at Starsky for this invasion of his privacy, but he couldn't be. "You're right, Starsk. I should have told you; I'm sorry. I just didn't feel like talking about it."
"OK, so we won't talk about it. She wasn't worth it anyway. Instead we'll talk about Christmas!"
"Christmas? Starsky, correct me if I'm wrong, but I've been under the impression you were Jewish."
"So? You aren't. You need some Christmas cheer. And I got some right here." He stepped outside the front door, and came back in with a large bag. "Couldn't carry everything at once so I brought it all up before I knocked. Knew you were here 'cause that trash heap you call a car was outside." He ducked out again and came back with a second, equally large bag, and then a third.
"Starsk? What is all that stuff?"
Starsky grinned. "You'll find out," he said mysteriously. "First thing I want you to do is just sit down in that nice comfy chair and let me bring you something. And stay there. I'm taking over your kitchen. Vanessa didn't take everything when she left, did she?" He vanished into the kitchen and Hutch heard rattling noises.
Just for a moment bitterness rose in Hutch. "No, she wouldn't take anything from the kitchen."
"Not really the domestic type, was she? Never got that feeling from her anyway. Well, doesn't matter. All the better for me." Starsky came back into the living room with a mug in one hand. "Here," he said handing it to Hutch. "And I told ya' ta' sit down!"
Hutch lowered himself into the armchair, and gingerly took a sip from the mug. Eggnog but... "Wow! Starsk, how much whisky did you put in here?"
"Good, huh?" Starsky grinned impishly.
"Good? Starsky, I haven't eaten anything today, if I drink this you'll have to pull me down from the ceiling, I'll be so high!"
Starsky shrugged. "So just nurse it slow. I'll bring you some stuff to snack on til dinner's done."
"Dinner? Starsky, what are you doing?"
"I just told you," Starsky said patiently. "Making you dinner. My ma's best beef brisket recipe."
"You’re making me dinner on your… hey, wait a minute." Hutch suddenly thought of something. This wasn’t Starsky’s day off. "Aren't you supposed to be at work? You didn't get today off."
Starsky shrugged. "Yeah, I'm working, but somehow I got lucky, pulled the night shift. So I got all day before I have to go. I have my uniform in the car, I figured I'd just shower and leave straight from here."
“Why?” Hutch was bewildered.
“’Cause I’d be late otherwise,” Starsky said in the same patient tone. “Geeze, Hutch, I said that already, how much of that eggnog you had?”
“No, goofball, I meant, why are you making me dinner?”
“Oh, that. ‘Cause it’s Christmas, and you’re alone, and no one should be alone on Christmas. Least of all my best friend. Now here, have some of these." Starsky produced a plate of Christmas cookies and set them down on the coffee table with a flourish.
For the next hour or so, Starsky was busy popping in and out of the kitchen. Mysterious noises and tantalizing odors started to fill Hutch’s apartment, along with badly sung Christmas songs, the words mangled in spectacularly Starsky-esq fashion. Hutch nibbled on cookies and sipped at the eggnog and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to make small-talk with Starsky as he bustled around.
Finally Starsky settled down onto the couch across from Hutch, heaving a sigh. “Whew. That’s done. Now it all just has to cook for awhile. I figure we’ll eat around 4:00 or so, then we can watch stuff on TV ‘til I have to go.”
“I don’t get it, Starsky. What’s with you and Christmas? You aren’t doing all this just to cheer me up.” Though it had cheered him considerably, he had to admit. Starsky's bubbly enthusiasm was contagious.
“Actually, Hutch, when you were planning on going back to Duluth, I was planning on spending Christmas with John and Maggie Blaine like I did last year. But when I heard you were gonna’ be alone, I figured I’d rather be here. They said they understood.”
The Blaines were some of Starsky's oldest friends. Hutch was touched that Starsky would prefer his company, and slightly embarrassed. “Why were you spending Christmas with anyone at all, Starsk? You are Jewish, right?”
“Yeah, of course, I’m Jewish. I just happen to love Christmas, you mind?" Starsky growled pugnaciously. Then he softened. "I grew up with a bunch of Gentile friends and we traded holidays. ‘Sides, I heard that Jesus wasn’t really born on Christmas anyway, and it’s just an excuse to have a big party in the middle of winter.”
“Well, that’s true enough, if the Bible can be trusted,” Hutch agreed. “Shepherds don’t tend their flocks in the fields by night in December. The real date was probably in March or September, I’ve heard both, and I don’t know enough about it to guess which one is right. The church took over pagan solstice festivals, because everyone, especially in the north, wants a celebration at midwinter.”
“So if it doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus’ real birthday, there’s no reason I can’t celebrate it too,” Starsky concluded triumphantly.
“The logic is inescapable,” Hutch muttered. A bit louder he added, “Well, you can celebrate it for me from now on, Starsk. Don‘t get me wrong, I’m glad you‘re here, but all this Christmas stuff,” he gestured at the tree, “It just isn’t me.”
Starsky looked at him in disbelief. “Whatta’ you mean? You don’t like Christmas?”
“Not that much. Seems like just a reason for commercialized hype.”
Starsky shook his head. “Hutch, that is just sad. What about when you were a kid? Didn’t you like Christmas then?”
Hutch thought back to his childhood Christmas memories. His father drinking, his mother getting upset, the fights, his sister trying to calm things down... He sighed. Try explaining that sort of thing. “Not really,” he finally said. “There was a lot of family stress, and...” he shrugged and trailed off.
“Oh.” Starsky looked away for a moment, then brightened. “Well it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, and you are going to start enjoying Christmas now,” he said firmly.
Hutch laughed. "Maybe I will at that," he said affectionately. It was good not being alone, and better that it was Starsky who was there. He reached out and ruffled his friend’s curls, earning him a slightly startled look. He wasn’t normally a physically affectionate person, but there was something about Starsky that brought out his tactile side, making him want to touch. After a moment's hesitation, Starsky leaned into his hand and grinned.
“Now we gotta’ decorate your tree,” he said, smiling as he moved away.
“Decorations? Starsky, this is really too much…” Hutch trailed off.
Starsky stood and reached into one of his huge bags and pulled out some boxes. “It's not a Christmas tree without decorations. I didn’t get much, Hutch, just a few cheap ornaments and some tinsel. Come on, help me put them up.”
For the rest of the afternoon they decorated the tree. They joked and rough-housed, and Hutch ended up with tinsel down his shirt and in his hair. He was amazed to find how much he really enjoyed it all, how happy he was on a day when he had expected to be miserable.
At last it was time for Starsky’s carefully prepared dinner to be served. The brisket was perfect, served with bread, and a plain side of vegetables. Starsky had brought a bottle of red wine too. He found Hutch's wine goblets and poured them each a generous glass.
"A toast," he said, holding his glass up. "To my best friend and future partner, Hutch."
Hutch blushed. “All right, then, another toast. To Starsky, the man who gave me the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
Starsky grinned at him and they both drank.
“Honest, this is the best Christmas you’ve ever had?” Starsky asked after he’d put his glass down.
Hutch shrugged. “That I can think of off-hand, anyway. Last year Van and I spent it at my parents, and it was… pretty grim.”
“What about when you were a kid? Wasn’t there anything about Christmas that you liked?”
Hutch laughed. “Well, every kid likes getting presents, but…” he made a dismissive gesture.
“Presents! That reminds me! Hang on a minute, Hutch.”
"Oh no, Starsky! You didn't..." Hutch felt his heart sink. He hadn't thought to get Starsky a gift. They hadn't exchanged gifts last year, but then, they hadn't known each other long at that point.
"Sure I did! Wait." Starsky stepped into the living room and popped back in with a brightly wrapped box, pulled no doubt from one of the paper bags he had brought.
"Starsky, I'm sorry, I didn't get you anything... no, wait." He pushed away from the table, and went to rummage in his bedroom closet. The box with the red pullover was in there somewhere, he knew. “If you don’t mind a recycled present, Vanessa left in such a hurry,” he couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his voice, “that she forgot the gift I bought to give her father. Here, you might as well take it. It’ll look better on you than it ever would have on him anyway.” He found the box and handed it over to Starsky.
"A recycled present is better than none at all. You can make it up to me at my birthday." Starsky tore into the package with an enthusiasm that Hutch couldn’t help but find touching, and made admiring noises over the pullover. "This is great Hutch, thanks!"
Hutch took his own time with Starsky’s gift, which turned out to be a very good, expensive bottle of scotch.
“But don’t go drinking it all tonight, or anything stupid like that,” he said warningly. “Save it for when we can have an evening together or somethin'. ’Cause tomorrow I don’t want you hung over. I got plans for you.”
“Plans?” Hutch asked dubiously.
“Nothin’ too big,” Starsky reassured him. “I’m working another night shift, so I’ll have the afternoon free. I thought I’d take you to lunch to meet my new snitch. Dude named, get this, Huggy Bear. Runs a little bar and restaurant, serves pretty good food. Then after that, we’ll go over to my friend Jackson’s house and shoot some hoops. Just guy stuff.”
Hutch found himself smiling. It actually didn’t sound too bad. “Well, OK. Long as you aren’t expecting me to be too social just yet.” He just hoped Starsky wasn’t going to try and fix him up with someone else less than a week after his wife left him.
"Naw. No pressure. In a couple of weeks I'll hook you up with a hot girl, but for now let it rest for awhile." Starsky reached over, grabbed Hutch's wrist and peered at his watch. "Oh man, it's getting late; I'd better start the dishes."
"Starsk, no, leave them. I'll take care of it. You already cooked the whole dinner," Hutch objected. Starsky had already worked so hard.
Starsky shook his head emphatically. "Wouldn't be fair for me to leave you with them all when this whole thing was my idea." Then he smiled engagingly. "But you can help me with them if you want."
So they did the dishes together, and it was all going pretty well until Starsky started splashing Hutch with the dish water and Hutch retaliated by snapping Starsky's rear with the dish towel. After that it turned into a free-for-all. Somehow the dishes got cleaned and put away without breakage anyway, even though Hutch ended up on the floor laughing hysterically.
Starsky gave him a hand and pulled him up. "Now that's what I wanted to hear," he said in satisfaction. Without releasing Hutch's hand he looked at his watch again. "Now I really do gotta' start getting ready to go."
After he was showered and dressed neatly in his uniform, Hutch saw him down to his car.
"You know, Starsk, this really has been the best Christmas I can remember in a long while. Even from when I was a kid."
Starsky gave him a concerned look. "Seriously, Hutch, wasn't there anything you liked about the Christmas season as a kid?"
Hutch had been considering just that question while he had waited for Starsky to finish his shower. "Well, yeah, there was one thing. You know what you said about Christmas being an excuse to have a big holiday in the middle of the winter? It's because as the days grow shorter, people want something to remind them the light is coming back."
"Yeah, I knew something about that."
"Well, there's another holiday about light that's celebrated in the Scandinavian countries in midwinter that got turned into a Christian holiday, St. Lucia's Day. It's December 13th."
"I never heard of it."
"I don't think it's celebrated much in America, but my grandmother was born in Norway, and she wanted to keep the holidays the way she remembered them. So for as long as my grandparents lived with us when I was a kid, on St. Lucia's Day she would have my sister dress up in a white dress and wear a wreath of candles on her head, and bring my parents coffee and saffron buns in bed. And we'd all eat in bed with them, and sing songs."
“It sounds… nice.” Starsky sounded dubious.
“Yeah, yeah, it was." Hutch assured him. "Because we were all together, and it was warm and cozy, and it really felt like we were a family. And it was something different that other families didn’t do, so it was special.”
“So who is this St. Lucia, anyway?”
“I don’t really know. I think she only got pulled into the Christmas thing because ‘Lucia’ means ‘Light’. The songs we sang were about bringing light into the dark of winter, and chasing away the shadows and gloom.”
“Sounds nice. You going to sing me one of those songs?”
Hutch shook his head. “I don’t think I remember all of the words. I’ll have to ask my sister the next time we talk.”
“Then you teach it to me, and next year if you want, I’ll bring you breakfast in bed and sing it to you.” Starsky waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“No, really, you don’t have to do that. I can’t see you in a lacy dress,” Hutch laughed, though privately he thought Starsky might look good in a more masculine white robe, with a crown of light on his dark curls.
“That’s OK, I’ll skip the dress.” Starsky grinned impishly. “But the wreath of candles sounds cool. I’d kinda’ like to do something like that." He climbed into his car. "Well, I’ll see ya’ tomorrow.”
Hutch watched him out of sight, feeling happy for the first time in days. How had he gotten so lucky as to have a Starsky in his life? That was the best Christmas present he could have. You don't need to wear the wreath of candles, Buddy. You already did do something like that for me. That’s what this visit was about, wasn’t it? Bringing me light in a time of darkness.