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Merry Christmas, Wordman

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Tuesday, December 24, 1963

While much of the country was still mourning the recently martyred President John F. Kennedy, Christmas still came on, just as it did every year. As the holiday approached, Eddie Wilson decided that the Cruisers would not play Tony Mart’s on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. When he told Doc Robbins, the band’s manager, and Tony “Mart,” the bar’s owner, Tony tore into Eddie with a vengeance: The Cruisers were his house band, he yelled. How could his house band not play Christmas Eve? Eddie yelled back just as loudly: The Cruisers were not going to play the holiday, and that was it. Eddie, Tony, and Doc ended up in a furious three-way shouting match, with Eddie and Tony shouting at each other, and Doc shouting at both of them. In the end, however, Eddie got his way. He always did.

As soon as Eddie told the band that they were going to have the Christmas holiday off, Joann set out on a whirlwind shopping trip to buy Christmas presents for her nieces and nephews on Long Island. Sal headed off to South Philadelphia, bragging about his grandmother’s meatballs and “gravy.” Kenny waved good-bye and caught a bus to visit his family in Mountainside. Eddie said he was going over to Vineland to visit his folks. Only Frank Ridgeway had no plans.

Frank and his parents were not on good terms. They had yet to forgive him for dropping out of college, and the news that he was playing piano in a rock-‘n’-roll band had done nothing to improve the situation. Frank accepted that he was going to spend Christmas alone. Christmas dinner would be a hot turkey sandwich at a local diner that was open every day of the year.

Still, Frank was determined not to spend his solitary holiday feeling sorry for himself. He found a small Christmas tree, which he set on the table underneath the window of his one-room apartment. He bought a single strand of Christmas lights, a box of glass ornaments, some tinsel, and a star to top off the tree. He was happy with his little tree, but on Christmas Eve, in spite of all his efforts to remain cheerful, he found himself fighting a losing battle against depression and loneliness.

The apartment was dimly illuminated by the lights on the Christmas tree and the lamp on the bedside table the short distance across the room. Frank lay on his threadbare little sofa, legs propped up on one armrest. He was listening to the radio with the volume turned down low. A local station had begun playing Christmas carols and other holiday music at four o’clock that afternoon, and Frank was trying without much success to keep his spirits up by listening to the music. He was just about to doze off when he heard a knock on the door. Frank looked at his watch. “A little early for Santa,” he said to himself. He got off the sofa and answered the door. In walked Eddie. Under his arm he held a large, flat, rectangular package wrapped in Christmas paper.

“Hey, Merry Christmas, Wordman!”

“Eddie! What are you doing here? I thought you were going to your folks in Vineland?”

“That’s tomorrow,” Eddie said. “Here. I got somethin’ for you.” He handed Frank the package.

Frank took it. With a puzzled look on his face, he said, “For me?”

“Sure, for you!” When Frank, not moving, continued to look back and forth between Eddie and the package, Eddie prompted him, “Go ahead! Open it!”

Frank had recently added a small, used coffee table to the furnishings of his little apartment. He sat down on the sofa and placed the package on the coffee table in front of him. He opened it carefully. Under the wrapping paper was a box from John Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia.

Eddie sat down next to him. “Joann wrapped it,” he said. “I can barely tie a shoelace.”

With the package unwrapped, Frank took the lid off the box. Inside was a brand-new leather jacket. It wasn’t the same style as Eddie’s leather jacket (of course Eddie needed a distinctive look; it went with his role of fast-rising rock-‘n’-roll star), but the leather gleamed softly in the light from the lamp on the nightstand, and the jacket had that wonderful smell of new leather. Frank, stunned, took the jacket out of the box and turned to look at Eddie, saying nothing.

Eddie grinned at him. “You gonna be a rock-‘n’-roller, you need a leather jacket.” When Frank continued to stare, Eddie said, “C’mon! Try it on!”

Frank stood up and slipped his arms into the jacket. It fit perfectly. Slowly he broke into a smile, and, watching him, Eddie smiled, too. Frank went into the bathroom and turned on the light to check his appearance in the medicine cabinet mirror. Eddie followed, leaning on the doorjamb, watching and smiling as Frank turned this way and that to check out himself and the jacket in the mirror. He stepped aside to let Frank back into the living room.

Smiling broadly, Frank nevertheless shook his head, not looking at Eddie. The jacket was wonderful, he thought, but how could he possibly accept it?

“You like it, Frankie?”

“Like it? I love it!”

“Good!” Then, “Oh, shit,” Eddie exclaimed, “I almost forgot.” He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out a business-size envelope. He handed it to Frank.

Frank opened it. “A bus ticket?”

“A bus ticket,” Eddie echoed. “First thing in the morning, I’m takin’ you to the bus station. You’re gonna go see your mom and dad for Christmas.”

“Eddie, you know Mom and Dad and I. …” Frank started, but Eddie put his hand on his shoulder and interrupted him.

“Trust me, Frankie. Your mom and dad will be so happy to see their boy on Christmas Day they’ll forget all about that other stuff.”

“You think so?” Frank was skeptical.

“I know so.”

For some moments they stood looking at each other, saying nothing. Then, hesitantly, Frank said, “I got a six-pack in the fridge. Want a beer?”

“Sure!”

“I got some whiskey, too.”

Eddie laughed. “Boilermakers! Aww-right!” He sat down on the sofa while Frank got them each a bottle of beer. Then he brought two glasses and the bottle of whiskey. He put the glasses and the bottle on the coffee table, then took off the jacket and carefully folded it back in the box before he sat down next to Eddie.

Eddie poured whiskey into the glasses, then handed one to Frank. He clinked his glass against Frank’s. “Merry Christmas, Frankie!”

“Merry Christmas, Eddie.” They each took a swallow of whiskey. Frank put his glass down on the coffee table. He stared at the jacket in its box while Eddie took a swig of beer. Then he turned to Eddie. “Thanks, Eddie. The jacket’s beautiful, but this is too much, the jacket, the bus ticket. I can’t possibly. …” His voice trailed off.

“Actually, the bus ticket’s from Joann. She chipped in a little for the jacket, too. The jacket was my idea.”

“But I don’t have a present for you.”

Eddie put his beer bottle down on the coffee table. He put one hand behind Frank’s neck and pulled him close till they were almost nose to nose. “Frankie, you’re a present to me every day,” he said quietly.

Frank couldn’t look at him. “Now you’re embarrassing me.”

Eddie laughed a little, softly. “I like seein’ you blush.” Then he gently pulled Frank the rest of the way to him and kissed him long and softly.

When they finally separated, Frank, shyly but hopefully, asked, “You wanna stay?” Oh, how Frank wanted him to stay. Eddie was his idol, and nothing compared with feeling his idol’s arms around him.

“Sure, kid.” Eddie said quietly. Standing up, he took Frank by the hand and raised him up off the sofa. Not looking at each other, they took the few short steps to Frank’s bed.

They had long since moved on from their frantic, almost violent coupling in that predawn hour behind the Benton College bleachers. Now the sex was slow and gentle, but nonetheless passionate. It was making love, really, though neither recognized it for what it was. Frank wrapped his arms and legs around Eddie, whispering, “Fuck me, Eddie! Please!” while Eddie kissed his throat and ran a thumb over Frank’s right nipple.

“Oh, Frankie! Oh, Jesus Christ, Frankie!” Eddie moaned as he eased himself into Frank, thrusting first slowly and then faster and harder until they both erupted at the same time. As they both came down from their climax, Eddie rolled off Frank and collapsed next to him. They lay next to each other, sweaty, panting, and smiling. When they finished the usual post-coital cigarette, Frank turned, smiled, kissed Eddie, and promptly fell asleep, a blissful smile on his face.

Eddie could not fall asleep. Instead, he lay propped on one elbow, looking down at Frank’s smiling face. He wondered, What was going on? What was it about Frankie? He was a guy, so why did he stir up feelings in Eddie that no woman, not even Joann, ever had? Sure, the kid was handsome and sweet-natured, and he idolized Eddie, but he was a guy, so what difference did any of that make? He was a guy. Eddie just couldn’t figure it out. Finally, he lay down on his side with one arm around Frank. “Merry Christmas, Wordman,” he whispered into Frank’s ear. Then he reached over and turned off the bedside lamp.