Owner and publisher Fred Koelpe didn’t see that he had a choice. One more issue of the Amidaville Banner before Christmas and then everyone got an unpaid two weeks off. There wasn’t enough money in the account to buy newsprint and keep the office open, so Koelpe did neither. He didn’t mind putting his small staff on the streets without a paycheck — never mind a Christmas bonus — but he did worry that all too few in the dying town would miss the weekly newspaper.
Koelpe was the first one out the door. He told his office and circulation manager, Sharon, to turn the thermostat down to 45 degrees before she left. Then he got away from the dirty looks and the general lack of understanding.
“Consider it a Christmas miracle I’m not just closing the place permanently,” he barked over his shoulder.
The office was chilly when Sharon hobbled in to unlock it after the new year began. She turned up the thermostat, but the old boiler wasn’t going to warm the place up quickly. Sharon got the coffee pot going and then collapsed onto a chair in the back room, which was used as a staff lounge despite its still smelling like the darkroom it had once been.
The rest of the Banner staff, including Fred, began to wander in. Steven, the Banner’s single advertising salesman, took note of Sharon.
“So what did you do over the holidays, Sharon?” he asked.
“Tom got a big bonus from the foundry, thank goodness,” she said, shooting her boss a quick look that he missed. “We took it and went on a family ski trip.”
“That would explain the leg cast and crutches.”
Sharon blushed. “I didn’t do that on the slopes. I tripped getting out of the hot tub.”
None of Sharon’s colleagues laughed outright, but there were smiles around the room.
“What about you, Lucinda?”
The young reporter shrugged. “I couldn’t afford to fly back to be with my parents and my sister’s family. Of course, the weather there was terrible and I don’t think I could have gotten in anyway. We talked on the phone, though.” She paused, remembering. “I watched the parades on TV and then did a Christmas movie marathon. Other than that, I just stayed home, not doing a whole lot.”
“That’s a damn sight better than the holidays I had,” Fred offered, too loudly as usual. “Foghorn Fred” was one of the kinder things his employees called him behind his back. “Christmas Eve service went on forever. I have no idea what that idiot minister was droning on about. I had a hell of a time staying awake. And then the organ was so loud I couldn’t hear the people right next to me singing.
”Christmas Day we were with my wife’s family, of course. How not? Anything you want to know about their medical histories and conditions, I’m the guy to see; I heard it all. All their rotten kids were running around her mother’s house and screaming and laughing. The turkey and stuffing were dry. So was the table itself, since her mom and sisters are all teetotalers. Not so much as a shot glass for my nerves or to toast the holidays.
“We unwrapped our gifts. I don’t remember how many sets of golf tees I got. I can use ’em, sure, but how unoriginal. That’s what I expect from them, though. I thought we’d never get out of there.”
Koelpe’s employees exchanged pained looks. They hadn’t been paid in two weeks, but the boss was self-absorbed enough to recite his minor woes to them.
“Then, New Year’s Eve, we’re at her brother’s place, like always,” Fred continued. “He’s the lush in the family and there was plenty to drink. But the only time I ever get a hangover is New Year’s Eve after being at her brother’s party because he kits out the bar wholesale. The wine had been grape juice the week before. And did he have champagne for the midnight toast? He did not. He had some hideous cold duck. Barely chilled. My head the next day was just pounding. The only thing worse than a drunk is a cheap drunk.
“But all his seedy damned friends kept badgering me about why there hadn’t been a paper since before Christmas. They all wanted to read it at the library. I let a few of them really have it, telling them they weren’t supporting us so they didn’t get a fresh issue. They think we’re running a public service here instead of a business. Like the Banner is a year-round gift for them to unwrap. All that crap didn’t help my head any, I’ll say that.”
Amanda, the newspaper’s senior reporter, didn’t look up from a press release that had been shoved under the Banner’s door. “The holidays can be tough, Fred. I read about one Christmas where this pregnant, unmarried teenager had her baby in a barn, with all the livestock around, because there wasn’t anywhere else for her to go. She had to use the hay trough for a bed for her new son.”
Only Steven looked straight at Fred and grinned; the others carefully controlled their reactions and stared into their coffee mugs.
Fred grimaced more than he had been. “Fine, fine. I don’t get any sympathy at home. I don’t know why I should expect any here.” He quickly refilled his mug and let the door slam shut behind him.
“No reason you should, Fred,” Sharon said quietly.
After a moment of silence, Steven spoke up. “OK, here’s the plan: We have a séance, contact the spirit of Charles Dickens, and get Fred moved up to the top of the list for a visit from the three Christmas ghosts.”
“I’m in,” Amanda said immediately. Sharon laughed and Lucinda just smiled.
A telephone rang in the office. Lucinda rushed out to answer it, leaving the door open behind her.
“It’s a good morning at the Amidaville Banner,” she said dutifully. “Sir? Sir? No one got a paper for two weeks. We were closed. There was a notice in your last issue before Christmas. It was on page five. In the lower left corner. No, sir, I’m not joking.”
Sharon struggled to stand up. “I should get out there. It’s my job to handle those calls. If Fred’s story rings true, there may be a lot of unhappy library patrons calling today.”
“Transfer them to Fred,” Amanda suggested.
“That would work once.”
Another telephone rang.
“At least somebody missed us,” Sharon said. She made her way to her desk as quickly as she could. Steven and Amanda shrugged and refilled their coffee mugs.
“We’re being paid again, I assume,” Amanda said. “We might as well get out there.”
Steven snorted and went to his desk. “Surely somebody wants to buy an ad this year,” he mused softly. “Maybe for a going-out-of-business sale.”