He was aggravatingly merry, one of that happy kind always waving to people on the street, smiling, asking about their health and family, and not just for Christmas either -- though around this time, he grew even more sickeningly sweet than usual.
You'd think the fool didn't have a care in the world, no rent to pay, no family to keep, not crippled daughter to worry over.
You can you blame me for not paying him much; yet he seemed satisfied with his meager check, thanking me profusely each time I begrudgingly handed it to him on Fridays.
When my partner, Marley, was alive, this happy man even used to sing, or hum as he worked, hum by candle light even when I'd neglected to pay the electric. This humming grated on my nerves so much, I had to yank the fool aside and tell him to stop.
"Mr. Robinson," I said sternly, looking into his happy eyes, round watery eyes framed by red, puffy cheeks. "I do not want you to turn this establishment into a burlesque."
This made him smile. Smiling at me, damn it! As if I had just given him a raise or commended him on his work.
"Thank you, Mr. Temple," he said, and moved off, back to his files, back to his reports, back to the endless nightmare of paper work I subjected him to. Less than a half hour later, he started humming again.
After Marley's death, things changed.
I took sole position of the business, and of Mr. Robinson. I let him know the day of the funeral that I would not lessen his work load just because my dear partner had passed on.
"I'll have no change of habits just because Marley had the misfortune to die on us," I said.
"Of course, not, Mr. Temple," Robinson said, and went on his way.
My mind was boggled with him, with his constantly cheery demeanor, even under worsening conditions, as work expanded and he grew more and more weary under its weight.
His reaction appalled, yet fascinated me, too. I needed to know how such a man ticked. What made him go on and on in that merry way of his, and perhaps I might have delved more deeply into that mystery if I had not a more substantial task to make money. And since my partner's untimely demise, I saw more and more money to make.
For this reason, I flew into rages when Robinson asked me for time off.
"Are you out of your mind!" I shouted, pointing my crooked finger into his unreasonably merry and unblinking face. "This is the busy season. I can't let you go home now!"
This asking for time was new for him, and something that puzzled me greatly. His merriness had never interfered with his ability to work. Robinson was never one to shirk his responsibilities.
"I know, Mr. Temple, but I really do need the afternoon off."
"Today? This afternoon? Do you know what day this is?"
"Yes, Mr. Temple, It's Christmas Eve, and that's why I need the time off. I have to pick up my daughter's present at Macy's before the store closes."
Christmas Eve? Really? I had not realized. I had simply thought it another Friday, and as a typical Friday, the busiest day of the week.
"No, Mr. Robinson," I said, firmly. "You may not have the afternoon off. We have work to do and if you had to pick up a present for your daughter, you should have done it on your own time."
Then, for the first time in all the years Robinson had worked for either me or my partner, he blushed, bit his lip and glared at me with such a look of rage I swear he might have murdered me on the spot.
"I'm afraid that won't do, Mr. Temple," Robinson said. "My daughter is quite set on me getting her this particular gift. And if I don't get it now, I won't be able to get it before Christmas."
"Then go, damn it!" I shouted at him, alarmed by his change of attitude, an attitude that suggested he might quit if I didn't allow him the time off. "But I won't guarantee your job will be waiting when you get back."
The redness vanished and was replaced by a much paler color. He stared at me, and then, after a very significant swallow, nodded, and turned, gathering his hat and jacket from the closet as he made his exit. I had no more expected him to actually leave than I had his previous outburst or his request for time off.
For a moment, I pondered my own previous conception of the world. For years I had presumed people to be divided into two kinds, the important and the insignificant. Peons like Robinson made up the greater number, inhabiting lower Manhattan like cockroaches, scrambling to keep their jobs at the expense of their egos. Most chain themselves to their desks out of some foolish mistaken and misguided loyalty, believing men like me would show such loyalty in return.
Robinson had previously shown complete loyalty, and his rebellion confused and puzzled me. When he left, I left right behind him, curious as to what unexpected thing could have sparked such a change in him.
I found him on the snowy street outside, glaring at my window, and had he had a brick, I am certain he would have cast it through the place where mine and Marley's name was painted in gold on the glass.
I kept to the shadow of the door. It was dark day, hinting of more annoying snow, though the sky and its potential seemed to draw Robinson's attention away from the window, and seemed to drain the anger from his face.
"It's going to be a white Christmas," he said, his voice cheery again.
I saw nothing romantic in snow, miserable white, inconvenience that slowed down travel, made my employees late, and left my toes cold -- costing me more in fuel oil to rewarm them.
Then, Robinson began to stole down the sidewalk with me trailing curiously behind him. His old merry ways returned to him. He waved at the cab drivers. He waved to the women on the street. He even waved to the jolly side walk Santas, whose insistent bell-ringing grated on my nerves as I passed. Robinson even fished in his pocket for a coin to drop in the bucket of one of theses, as if I paid him more than he needed to barely survive. These Santas looked at me with the same expectations, and I scowled.
"Isn't one sucker enough?" I inquired. The Santa's blush showed even under his beard. I moved on.
At Macy's, I nearly lost Robinson to the crowd, but his bright green cap floated along the sea of human folly like a cork. I followed it.
"Monstrous people," I thought. "Each of these fools drunk of holiday spirit. And what is all this madness about? To throw away their money more quickly than they usually do!"
When I saw Robinson again, he was in the sports department, laying out his precious cash for a box marked "bicycle." Only at that moment did I remember Marley once mentioning something about Robinson's daughter being a crippled: legs unusable, arms dwarfed.
Was this man mad? Spending his hard-earned salary on a present his child could never use! I could not resist the temptation to approach him.
Robinson's mouth fell open when he saw me, as if he thought I was the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future rolled into one.
"Mr. Temple?" he said.
"Don't looked so shocked!" I shouted. "How can you waste your money on a gift like that?"
I pointed at the box with the tip of my cane.
Robinson smiled and blushed.
"This?" he said, sort of petting the side of the box. "This is for my daughter. She's always wanted one."
"But she's a Goddamn cripple!" I yelled so loud that people stopped in the aisle to stare at me. But so wound up was I at the monstrous waste of money, I continued. "She'll never use the blasted thing!"
Then for the second time in the same day, I saw Robinson's face grow red, his face taking on a look of defiance, shaded with pride, yet a sad pride, one that admitted to me the truth of my statement. He nodded.
"The doctors don't think she'll live much longer anyway," he mumbled.
"You mean to tell me she's dying?" I asked.
Robinson nodded again.
"And you still went and bought the bicycle for her?"
"But that's what she wanted for Christmas," Robinson said, helplessly, then recovered his box, and began the long struggle to carry it out of the store, through the streets to the subway. I followed behind him until he disappeared down the stairs with the crowd. His words resounding in my head. "But that's what she wanted..."
All the way to the office, I could hear nothing else, not the ring of the sidewalk Santa's bells, not the beep of horns I had the misfortune to step in front of at the curb.
The fool! Just because the child wanted a bicycle didn't mean he should go and buy it. Where were his priorities?
And the more I thought on Robinson's craziness, the more determined I became to set him straight, if not for the good of my business, then for his morale. I couldn't safely have a man of his habits in my employee.
I looked up Robinson's addresses in my dead partner's Rolodex, and once more ventured out into the cold. The wind was up. The sky was gray. It seemed as if the damned romantics would have their way and get a White Christmas after all.
I thought of taking a cab, but changed my mind, and after a long wait with the wind whipping at my face, I forsook the bus and descended into the subway. It had been many years since my last visit to this dark world, and the nature of the place proved worse than memory painted it, all shadows and shadowy people, and a train whose wheels racked so loudly, my few teeth ached from its coming. I was relieved that Robinson's stop was not as far along that line as I had thought, even though the relatively short ride seemed interminable. But when I exited, I was instantly struck by the deplorably nature of the neighborhood in which Robinson lived, buildings so near to ruin I thought the city would have condemned them against human habitation.
"How can he live in a place like this?" I wondered. "Certainly his salary can afford better!"
His building proved the worst of the lot, the bricks of its front steps crumbling to pieces under my step, and I would not have managed the climb up the sagging inside stairs if not for my cane. I tapped the head of this on his door when I came upon it.
Robinson's mouth fell open for the second time in a few hours when he opened the door and found me on the other side.
"Mr. Temple?" he said, in a voice that lacked breath. "Wh-What brings you here?"
The bicycle box, now completely decorated with paper bearing Santa Claus' face stood behind the man, leaning against the wall near a larger Christmas tree. My purpose fled from me. I stood, suddenly, as if at the mouth of Marley's grave, not knowing why I had come, but with an overwhelming urge to flee.
"I..." I said and halted, then started again. "I must go."
And I tried, but found Robinson's hand on my shoulder, gently turning me back towards his door.
"Please, Mr. Temple, come in and join us," he said. "We don't have a lot, but we'd be more than willing to share with you. No one should be alone on Christmas Eve."
"No!" I said, feeling those soft fingers of his pulling at me, yanking me not into a warm apartment, but a cold grave, Marley's face taking the place of Robinson's, Robinson's smile replaced by Marley's cackle.
"Come in, come in," the mocking Marley face said, and I actually took a staggering step towards him before the chill struck, and my cane fell, and I fled down the stairs, with much more agility than I had in climbing, Robinson's voice mixed with Marley's calling for me to come back.
And then, on the street, I came to a stop, leaning on a parking meter, the chill of its metal touch chilling me to the soul. Something white touched my face -- something I might have mistaken for the flutter of a butter fly except for its cold kiss.
"Snow!" I thought, and stared at its flow in one of the few remaining street lights. "White Christmas."
And now, I felt so utterly alone.
What did fools like Robinson see in such a night, I wondered as I hobbled back towards the subway and my ride back to my cold office. I had work to do.