Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Schnickelfritz Christmas

     The Schnickelfritz family, as we all know by now, is one of wealth, power, and wily ingenuity. As with any powerful family, there will be those aberrations of the less successful, less intelligent or perhaps, less mentally stable individual. Surely, you’ve read about Konteradmiral Dietrich Giuseppe Schnickelfritz, the inventor of the Schnickelfritz Absperrventil, the plumbing device affixed to the toilets of many German vessels during the First World War. It failed catastrophically so often, sinking at least one German U-boat per five hundred flushes, give-or-take a few, that Dietrich is credited by many historians with helping the Allies take control of the Atlantic.
     I’ve also told you the story of Robert Downey Schnickelfritz, whose power is derived from his passive-aggressive, sociopathic tendencies as he moves from town to town, setting traffic lights to unwarranted and near-irritating lengths. He is also the inventor of the mind-numbingly bothersome Schnickelfritz Auxiliary Outdoor Boob Tube, the outdoor television sets on top of gas pumps, and the Schnickelfritz Shackle, the motion-sensing anti-theft device that, once attached to a box, ticks maddeningly as you, the shopper, tries to read the features of the product inside.
     But this story is about another Schnickelfritz. Perhaps this one is the most unfortunate Schnickelfritz of them all, but knowing the family, probably not. At any rate, here is the story of Albert Conway Schnickelfritz.


Albert Conway Schnickelfritz stared into the night from his stool behind the counter. It was nearly eleven p.m. and the snow falling onto the road had not been disturbed for some time. Underneath the pale-yellow glow of the gas station’s sign, it swirled on its way to the cold ground. The radio next to him played Christmas carols, not because he wanted to listen to them, but there was nothing else that would tune in, and the old tubed television that normally entertained him at night had broken just two hours before. It was Christmas Eve, he had no employees to watch the station, and no stores were open.
     He reached to the shelf below the cash register, picked the freshly opened can of beer from it, and took a deep swig. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and burped in Eartha Kitt’s direction as she begged her Santa to hurry down the chimney.
     At seventy-four years of age, Albert was the sole proprietor of the gas station and auto repair shop. He had few repeat customers. They were mostly locals near his own age that came in when their thirty-year-old jalopy needed an oil change or when they became bored and needed an excuse to get out of the house. Others were kids coming in for soda pop, candy, or barely-digestible pastries. He loathed them all, but needed their cash to live on. He neither welcomed them nor wished them to come again.
     The road beneath his lighted sign was a remnant of Route 66, and like it, the town in which he lived had been bypassed by the interstate decades before. Like he did most nights, he stared at the road from his stool and smiled without humor. The strip of pavement, now covered by fresh snow, was his, as if it were a bridge and he was its troll. It was cold in the shop, which was by design, for electricity was expensive. The thermostat was kept low, as were his spirits.
     Stubbornly, Albert remained at his post, for there was nowhere to go but his tiny home above the shop, where it was cluttered with automobile-related memorabilia, and featured only an old single bed and another old television. Up there, it was no warmer. In extreme cold, he depended on a small electric heater set next to his bed.
     Albert upended the beer and chugged it down. The next singer to dare sing a Christmas carol on his radio got the same treatment as Eartha. He grabbed the next one from the six-pack he had self-pilfered from the refrigerator along the back wall and opened it. He sipped the foam away and slowly rose from his stool. He realized the need for a trip to the bathroom, grabbing the key he kept attached to a cantankerous block of wood which bore a carving of the words, “Return to Attendent”. Albert was as ignorant of spelling as he was the art of washroom maintenance.
     Even at his advanced age, the chill in the unheated washroom propelled him to finish his business quickly for fear of it freezing midstream. Without washing his hands, he returned to work, mentally giving the finger to the sticker on the mirror which bid him to do otherwise.
     When he emerged from the washroom, the small gas station shop was bathed in the brilliance of a car’s headlights. Albert squinted and cussed as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his oil-and-beer-stained puffy vest. He tugged the hood of the sweater he wore underneath from his head and retook his place behind the counter. With an unwashed hand, he smoothed down his thin white hair. He sighed deeply, noting the would-be customer was not there for gasoline, his prime moneymaker. Albert eyed the handgun he kept next to his can of beer, hoping he would not need it, as the car was not that of his handful of regulars and it was beyond their bedtime.
     The car’s lights went out and the hum of the motor ceased. The driver walked into the store a moment later. He was not particularly tall, nor particularly short. The body of the man was not stocky, but had bulk in the chest and arms. The visitor’s jacket was of a tried-and-true military design, and like Albert, he wore a hooded sweatshirt beneath. The hood cast a shadow on the man’s face, and all the old man could see was a bit of nose and the dark facial hair beneath it.
     Albert leaned forward slightly and set his hand on the butt of the revolver as Burl Ives sang about Rudolph. “Evenin’,” he tried to say without emotion, but his voice gave a creak.
     The stranger nodded. “Evenin’,” he returned. He stood there motionless.
     “Help ya?” Albert spoke the words routinely, barely having remembered speaking at all. His hand gripped the pistol tightly as his customer reached up and took the hood down.
     The stranger appeared to be Latino, dark-haired with light brown skin, which was pock-marked along his gaunt cheeks. His bearded chin and mustache was sprinkled with gray, as was the hair on his head, shaven short on the sides and left longer on the top.
     “Are you Al Schnickelfritz?” he asked.
     Two things about the encounter drove Albert to gather the gun from the shelf and hold it at his side, out of sight but ready. The first was the time of night and the fact that he did not know the man with the spiderweb tattoo injected into his neck. Secondly, no one that did not know him could pronounce Schnickelfritz so perfectly without years of practice.
     “What if I am?” Albert replied. It was at this moment that he realized a feeling of familiarity, which confused him, for he had no friends that still lived, nor had any of them been Latino.
     To this question, the visitor spread his hands palm out, hip-high and apart, as if to plead for mercy. “I’m Rafael−” He took a breath. “Rafael Jimenez.”
     “Jimenez?” Albert repeated. His eyes darted from left to right, recognizing the name immediately, but searching for ways that it might not be so. “Miguel Jimenez’s brother?” He brought the revolver in plain sight, aiming for the man’s face. “You don’t move a muscle!”
     Rafael closed his eyes and put his hands further apart. “Please, Mr. Schnickel−”
     “Shut up!” he shouted, and without realizing what followed actually negated the command, he asked a question. “What the hell do you want?! What are you doing here?!” Despite his best efforts, the gun barrel shook.
     “Mr. Schnickelfritz…just let me explain.”
     “How the hell did you find me?!”
     “It took work,” Rafael answered.
     “What are you doing out of prison?”
     “I served my time.”
     “Sir,” Jimenez stressed gently, “I served the entire sentence. Twenty years.”
     “So now what? Here to kill me? Revenge is it?” Schnickelfritz continued, allowing his voice to become shrill.
     “No, sir.”
     “Then what? Why find me…come all this way? Why…after all these years?” Albert pressed. With effort, he slowed his breathing and tried to settle both his nerves and the barrel of the revolver.
     “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to make amends.”
     Albert remained silent. His eyes narrowed, and he lifted his chin doubtfully.
     “I…I don’t know. I felt the need to find you.”
     Schnickelfritz swallowed. “You’re not here to revenge your brother?”
     “I promise you, Mr. Schnickelfritz,” Rafael said as he shook his head.
     Neither said a word for several long seconds as the Christmas carols played on. Jimenez brought his hands up and pulled his open jacket and the sweatshirt apart, showing the old man that he was unarmed. He shook them in the air to demonstrate that nothing of substantial weight lay within the pockets.
     Something in Rafael’s eyes told Albert that, for whatever reason, he was either speaking the truth, or planned to kill him with his bare hands. Giving a heavy sigh, he waggled the revolver’s barrel toward the ground before trading it for the can of beer. Taking the hint, Rafael lowered his hands.
     Schnickelfritz returned to his stool and took a drink. Then another. “You know, I don’t even know what to say to you.”
     “I understand,” Jimenez said and placed his hands in his jacket pockets.
     “What are you expectin’, exactly?”
     Jimenez shrugged. “I don’t know. I got out a few months back. I found out what happened when I was still on the inside. I’m sorry about everything.”
     “You’re sorry,” Albert said and this time it was full of emotion, but sounded flat. “I’m the one that shot your brother.”
     “I understand−”
     “You understand nothing!” he screamed with the fury of a lightning strike. Rafael, as chiseled by twenty years of prison life as he was, took a step back and blinked in surprise. “You…damned kids. Damned stupid kids! Came into my place of business to rob me…with a toy gun. A damned toy!”
     Rafael nodded lamely. He had prepared himself to take some grief from the old man. He had thought through the conversation thousands of times in prison. He had envisioned killing the old man, the old man killing him, the two of them embracing and crying together, and so on. None of that energy spent in deep thought had truly prepared him.
     “It was stupid, Mr. Schnickelfritz. I know that,” Jimenez said.
     “Oh, you know that. Good. Great.” Albert downed the next beer, crumpled the can and threw it to the floor. “You have no idea. None at all. Now look at you. Twenty years older. How old are you now?”
     “Yeah, well you look like your seventy-one,” Albert hurled.
     “Well, you look ninety-one,” Rafael returned hotly. “Look, I came here to talk it out.”
     “There’s nothing to talk out! Nothing!”
     “There is!”
     “What?! What’s there to say?!” Schnickelfritz pushed, thinking to retrieve the gun. Instead, he opened his fourth beer of the night.
     “I wanted to…apologize in person,” Rafael said.
     “For trying to knock off my shop? Your brother got killed for it. You got the worse end of the deal.”
     “Maybe,” Jimenez went on, “but you didn’t know the gun was fake.” He eyed the collection of liquor on the wall behind Schnickelfritz. “Look. How about I buy that…that up there? The one with the glasses.” He dug out his wallet from his jeans pocket.
     Albert turned to look up. The bottle of Canadian whisky sat in a purple box, complete with two glasses. He reached up, expecting Jimenez to stab him in the back with a switchblade, but he accepted the risk. He brought the box down and faced Rafael. Without thought, he set it on the counter and said, “Put your wallet away.”
     “Mr. Schnickelfritz−”
     “You wanna drink dontcha?” he said and looked his visitor in the eyes. “Well, fine. Here’s a drink.” He tore open the box and set the two glasses on the counter. “You think money means a damn thing anymore? After what’s happened between us…I tell ya, kid, it doesn’t mean squat. Not after what we’ve been through.”
     A lone truck slowly drove by, casting its headlight glow through the window. In a few seconds it was out of sight.
     Albert peeled the plastic from the top of the bottle and filled both glasses halfway. He picked one up and held it as if to propose a toast. He looked to Rafael, then to the glass, and waited. The younger man picked it up.
     “What’ll we drink to?” Albert asked. He could not think of anything appropriate to the situation.   “Life? Death? Forgiveness? Your gettin outta prison? I tell you, Jimenez, I have no idea.”
     Rafael did not know what to say. The possibility of sharing a toast with his brother’s killer had never, not once, occurred to him in the twenty years he spent in prison. In the silence between the men, the Christmas carols on the radio went on, mercilessly commercial-free. At that moment, Bing Crosby was singing about the ones he used to know. For Albert, it was the second time it was played that evening.
     “How about just, Merry Christmas?” Rafael proposed.
     Albert sighed, thinking it an obvious, ridiculous notion. The very thought threatened to infuriate him, but after a moment, he realized there was nothing else. Nothing. He gave a single nod and murmured lowly, “Merry Christmas.”
     Both men took a drink, never taking their eyes from the other. After another couple of sips, and not knowing what else to do, Rafael took a long look over Schnickelfritz’s establishment. He paced while Albert watched warily.
     “This is smaller than your old place back home,” Rafael commented.
     “Yeah, well this is all I could get.”
     Jimenez wandered back toward the counter. “What do you mean?”
     “That shop never earned that much cash, you know. After…after what happened…business sort of dried up. Not immediately, but month after month, when people found I what I did, a lot of ‘em just stayed away.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     “Shut up about it,” Schnickelfritz said glumly. “It wasn’t the first time I’d been held up. It was the reason I had a gun to begin with. That neighborhood was going to hell.”
     Rafael set his empty glass on the counter, expecting nothing. In a blink, Albert had refilled it. He looked beyond the window at the falling snow. It was not a night to drive even slightly intoxicated, but he took it just the same.
     “You know, you had a reputation in the ‘hood,” Jimenez said. “You overcharged people for working on their cars.”
     This struck Schnickelfritz as humorous. “Yeah, I know. People who didn’t know a thing about cars were an easy mark.” He took a drink of the whisky and followed it with beer. “I’ll have you know, my friend,” he said with emphasis on the irony, “I never fixed anything that wasn’t wrong with a person’s car. I may have exaggerated necessity wherever I saw the opportunity, but I never took anyone that couldn’t afford it.”
     “We thought you had money.”
     “That’s no excuse to commit a crime.”
     “Didn’t say it was,” Rafael said and drank some more.
     “It wasn’t your first time knocking off a place either. That all came out in the trial.”
     Jimenez said nothing. He nodded and shrugged.
     Albert retook his stool and continued drinking and listening to the music. He wondered when Jimenez would take his leave. The snow continued to fall, the music continued to play, and the whisky glasses were again refilled.
     “I heard about your divorce,” Rafael said a time later. “And after that, your place closed.”
     “You might call that collateral damage,” Albert replied. “Everything went to hell after your stunt. I haven't seen my wife or my daughter for years.” He regretted his choice of words. An incident that resulted in the death of a minor was so much more than a stunt.
     Rafael swallowed his whisky and set the empty glass down again. This time, there was nothing left to refill it. He leaned across the counter and met Schnickelfritz’s tired, drunk gaze. “I want you to know that I don’t blame you for what happened. I got my brother killed. I disappointed my parents, not you.”
     “I don’t blame you for the failure of the shop or my marriage…or the fact that I’ve driven my daughter away,” Albert replied. “Or the fact that I can’t forget that I killed a child to protect a measly ninety bucks.”
     “That’s all you had?”
     With the whisky now gone, the two fell into an uncomfortable silence once more. More minutes passed by, and Albert stared into the incessantly snowy darkness. “Silent Night” began playing on the radio, sung by a young woman. Abruptly, Albert left his stool and smacked the radio’s off switch.
     “That’s damned enough of that crap,” he grumbled.
     “Well, look, I better go,” Rafael said. He zipped up his sweater and jacket. He slipped his hood onto his head, casting his eyes in shadow once again. “I just needed to talk to you. I hope you understand.”
      At that moment, Albert could not honestly say that he did, but he nodded. After a second, he realized that was all he could think to do. With a nod in return, Rafael Jimenez stepped through the door, bringing the winter breeze into the shop for the moment it took for him to pass through it.
     Albert watched Rafael walk to his car and get inside. The snowfall had become more severe over the short time the man had been in his shop, and the wind had begun to drive it sideways. The clock read five past twelve, closing time. He looked to the empty whisky bottle and hopped to his feet. Although he was too old and too inebriated to run, he burst through his door and went to Rafael’s car. He knocked on the window, which came down a few inches.
     “Hey, you know, it’s a really bad idea to drive,” Albert said over the sound of the idling engine.
     “I’m okay,” Rafael answered.
     In the dim dashboard lights, Albert Schnickelfritz could tell otherwise. Rafael’s eyes were bloodshot, and he appeared exhausted. The snow was driven hard, and the wind made Albert’s bones ache.
     “Don’t try it, the roads are terrible. Come on inside, Rafael,” Albert all but pleaded. “I’m closing the shop and going to bed. There’s a couch.”
     Jimenez thought about it a moment, then decided the old man was right. He shut the car down and followed him back inside.
     Albert showed him to the tiny living space’s couch and, almost as an afterthought, turned the thermostat up to a level more livable. He retired to his room and fell asleep without undressing.


The next morning, Albert Schnickelfritz awoke to sunlight. He lay in bed for a moment until he remembered Rafael Jimenez. The drunken trust he had built was gone, and his aching mind conjured visions of a shop ransacked and a cash register cleaned out. It was just past seven in the morning.
     Rafael was no longer on the couch and the entire floor was too warm. Albert turned the thermostat down and, after a quick trip to the bathroom, rushed downstairs, expecting the worst.
     Poking his head inside the garage where he worked, he noted his tools were undisturbed. A customer’s car, waiting for an alternator, was untouched.
     Albert took a deep breath and entered the store. The empty whisky glasses and bottle were still on the counter, but the box was gone. Through the window, the snowy morning could be seen clearly and Jimenez’s car was gone. Walking around to the register, he found it closed, the money inside also untouched. The remnants of the box were in the garbage can, save for a square torn from it. On the square, Rafael had written a note and left a ten-dollar bill.

Mr. Schnickelfritz,

Thank you for understanding why I wanted to find you. I hope one day you talk to your family again. They’re too important to let go, especially when they are on our minds so much this time of year.

I helped myself to a bottle of orange juice and a snack for the road. Keep the change.

Merry Christmas

Rafael Jimenez

     Albert returned to his apartment and stumbled through his morning, the memory of the previous night and Rafael’s note fresh and clear. He ate a meager breakfast and considered his words.
     It was Christmas morning and historically, a bad day for business along Route 66. The alternator his customer needed would not arrive that day. Seeing no reason to open, Albert sat at his kitchen table and fumbled through his address book. Finding the number he was looking for, he took the receiver from the wall-mounted phone and punched it in.
     The call was answered on the third ring.
     “Um…hi,” Albert said. “Hi, Rhonda. Yeah, it’s me, Albert. Well, I’m just calling to say Merry Christmas.” Her utterance of surprise made him chuckle. “No, it’s really me, Albert. It’s just that I had a visitor to the shop last night that made me think a bit…yes, I had a few, but that’s not the point, Rhonda. Listen, did you hear from our daughter? She’s there? Yes, I’d love to talk to her. Please. Yeah, okay.”
     As he waited for his daughter to come to the phone, Albert Conway Schnickelfritz blushed with a joy he had not experienced in years.

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