'TIS THE SEASON
A.J. Simon parked the Camaro in his driveway next to Rick's Powerwagon on this, the second Saturday in December. The blond man was returning home after having spent Friday night, and most of today, with Liz. A.J. walked through the open garage, taking note of eight empty, musty smelling cardboard boxes Rick had left strewn about its interior.
A.J. stopped in the act of walking into his den from the garage.
"What are you doing?"
"Be careful where you step," Rick cautioned.
A.J.'s older brother had pushed the coffee table aside. He was sitting in the middle of the den floor amidst dozens of strings of tangled Christmas lights. Five dozen boxes of brand new strings of lights were piled on the den sofa as well.
A dumbfounded A.J. slipped his shoes off, then carefully tiptoed his way through the den to avoid stepping on any of the glass bulbs. When he reached the relative safety of a kitchen barstool he took a seat.
"I repeat, what are you doing?"
Rick fished around behind himself for a moment before managing to locate a red piece of paper. Without turning to face his brother, he handed it up to him.
"This was left in your mailbox yesterday."
A.J. read the festive flyer that was decorated with candy canes and snowmen.
Rick remained engrossed in untangling a string of lights.
"So? Is that all you've got to say, is so?"
"A.J., your neighborhood is having a Christmas decorating contest!"
"And I repeat - so?"
"So, I thought it would be neat if we participated. Besides, they're gonna award a hundred bucks to the first place winner."
"Ah, the true reason for your holiday merriment."
"Not necessarily, though a hundred bucks would come in handy this time of year."
"Rick, I don't think I'm interested in entering any decorating contest."
For the first time Rick looked up from the task at hand.
"Because I've always found homes that are overdone with decorations to be tacky."
"You're such a scrooge."
"I am not!"
"Oh, come on, A.J. You won't even have to do any of the work. I'll do it all."
"Rick, I'd prefer to decorate my home the way I usually do."
"What?” Rick questioned with distain. “With one measly old wreath on the door and two strings of lights along the garage?"
"Yes. And what's wrong with that anyway? It's tasteful."
"A.J., it's boring. It's redundant. You do that every year. This year it's gotta be grand."
"And why is that?"
"Because even if you don't let me enter the contest, all the other neighbors are going to. Do you know how sad this house will look with hardly any lights or decorations on it, when everyone else on the block is going all out?"
"How do you know everyone is going all out?"
Rick returned his attention to a tangled string of lights.
"Because I already asked a couple of your neighbors if they're entering. Mrs. Kelvin said everyone on the block is."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Yep. I even saw Mr. Gorman hauling three bags of lights and a plastic Santa into his house a little while ago."
"Mr. Gorman?" A.J. questioned with surprised. He wasn't quite able to picture his conservative, next-door neighbor, overloading the exterior of his house with lights and a Santa Claus.
"Yeah. Word is that Mr. Gorman wants to win this thing. Mrs. Kelvin said he's out for blood."
"Now there's a nice thought at Christmas time."
"Aw, you know what I mean. So anyway, how about it? Can I enter?"
A.J. glanced over at the sofa laden with boxes of lights.
"It looks like you already have."
"No. Not officially anyway."
"Where did you get all these lights from?"
"Two of the strings are the ones you use on the garage, and then I got three more box fulls of 'em from Mom this morning. She had 'em in the attic. Edie and Margaret were at her house when I stopped by, and they donated a bunch of their old lights to my cause, too. I'm testing 'em all now to see which ones work and which ones don't. Then the new ones over there on the couch I got from Surplus Sammy."
"Surplus Sammy? Since when does Surplus Sammy sell Christmas lights?"
"He always has. Evidently you don't shop at Sammy's during the holiday season."
"I try to avoid it."
"Well, you shouldn't. He has a fine assortment of gifts and decorations at reasonable prices."
"And whose houses has he stolen them off of?"
"A.J., knock it off! Sammy runs a legitimate business and you know it."
A.J.'s agreement was heavily laden with sarcasm. "Right, Rick. But regardless of whether Sammy's business is on the up- and-up or not, how much did all those new lights cost you?"
"He just gave them to you?"
"In return for one small favor."
"And that favor is?"
"I gotta spell out Surplus Sammy with a string of them on the front of the house."
"On the front of my house?"
"Well, yeah. Whose house did you think I was talkin' about?"
"Rick! I'm not going to have the words, Surplus Sammy, blinking on and off in red and green lights on the outside of my house!"
Rick turned to look at his brother. "Why not?"
"Why not? Because it will look asinine, that's why not."
"Come on, A.J. Be a sport. If I don't spell out Surplus Sammy with the lights then I gotta buy 'em. There's over five hundred dollars worth a' lights here. I can't afford that."
"You should have thought of that before you took them from him."
"Oh, A.J., come on. Please. I'll spell it out small, I promise."
"How small?" A.J. asked with distrust.
"Well, it's gotta be big enough so folks can read it on account of advertising purposes and all, but I won't make it as big as Sammy wanted it. How's that?"
A.J. reluctantly conceded defeat on the issue. "I want to approve it when you're done, Rick."
"Okay. Whatever you say. Thanks, A.J."
A.J. craned his head.
"How many lights do you have there anyway? You're not planning to put all those on my house, are you?"
"Well, except for the ones I was gonna put on The Hole In The Water, I am. There's twenty-five hundred here."
"Twenty-five hundred lights!"
"Rick, with twenty-five hundred lights you'll be able to see this place glowing clear to Boston. It will look like a house of ill-repute!"
"But I gotta use that many lights. I gotta have more than Mr. Gorman."
"How many does he have?"
"According to Mrs. Kelvin, he's gonna use a thousand. We gotta outshine him, A.J."
"So we can win the contest. That's what this is all about!"
"I thought Christmas was about giving, and spreading good will to all men, and--"
"I am giving, and spreading good will, and all that other stuff. People will come from miles around to see your house. My decorations will bring 'em cheer, and joy, and ho, ho, ho, and fa la la, and all that other good junk."
"Rick, I don't know about--"
"Come on, A.J. Please. I've already gone to the trouble of gettin' all these lights. And I've already spent over three hours untangling them and seeing if they work. You can't say no now."
"Yes, I can," A.J. informed his sibling.
The look of disappointment on Rick's face was a pitiful sight to see.
A.J. rolled his eyes at his brother's pout. "Oh, all right. You can enter."
Rick's face lit up with delight. "Thanks!"
"When is the judging going to take place?"
"At nine o'clock on Christmas Eve. They've got a teacher from the art department at the university, the mayor, and a professional artist doin' the judging. It will be perfect 'cause Christmas Eve is when we always have our open house. It will look great for the guests this year."
A.J. rose to retrieve a beer from the refrigerator. "I'll reserve the right to decide that until I see it in its completed state."
"Hey, bring me one of those too," Rick requested.
A.J. carefully made his way over to Rick and handed him a beer. The blond man then turned to head up the stairs.
Rick looked up from his work. "Where are you goin'?"
"Upstairs to read for a while. I might even take a nap. Liz and I were out late last night."
"Well, I thought you might wanna help me untangle some of these lights."
"Rick, you initially sold me on this idea by telling me that I wouldn't have to do any of the work," A.J. reminded.
"Yeah...I know. But untangling lights isn't really work. I mean, it's not like I asked you to help me put the lights up on the house or anything. And I'm not really askin' for a lot of your time or anything. It will probably only take another hour or so if you help, but...I guess if you don't want to. . ." Rick finished in a forlorn tone.
A.J. sighed heavily. "Oh, all right. I'll help you for a little while." The blond man picked his way through strings of lights and carefully sat himself down on the floor next to his brother.
"Thanks, A.J. You won't regret it. When I win that hundred bucks I'll even buy you--"
"Fifty bucks? What are you talkin' about? The first place winner will be awarded one hundred dollars. I already told you that."
"Rick, it's my house you're putting all this garbage on. If you win first place, I think that I'm entitled to half the prize money."
"A quarter of the prize money," Rick bartered.
"No way! Half of it!"
"A quarter of it," Rick insisted.
"Look, A.J., I'm the one who got all the lights from Mom, and Margaret, and Edie. I'm also the one who made the deal with Sammy. I'm the one that's gonna be puttin' all this stuff on the outside of the house. So basically, I'm the one doin' all the work here."
A.J. held up the lights he was untangling. "Would you care to rephrase that statement?"
"Okay...so I'm doin' most of the work here. Therefore, I think I'm entitled to more than half the prize money."
"You're just lucky I'm too tired to argue this point with you any further," A.J. stated. "Okay, if you win, you get seventy-five dollars and I get twenty-five. Agreed?"
Rick nodded. "Agreed."
No other words were exchanged as the brothers spent the next two hours concentrating on the task at hand.
The next morning A.J. was up and stirring about his home long before there was any sign of life on The Hole In The Water. Rick had worked late into the night getting his lights in order, even going so far as to tape numbered pieces of paper to each individual string so he would get them on the house in the exact pattern he wanted. The basic design he was hoping to achieve with his decorations had been drawn on a piece of paper while he sat at A.J.'s kitchen table well after the blond man had retired for the evening.
A.J. drank a cup of coffee and briefly skimmed the Sunday paper before going upstairs to take a quick shower. The blond detective was to pick up Liz at eight. The couple was going out for breakfast, then spending the day together at a mall Christmas shopping. A.J. left a note on the kitchen counter for his brother to this effect, right before heading out to the car.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon before A.J. returned to his home, after having dropped Liz off at hers. The back seat of the Camaro was laden with bags of Christmas presents for Cecilia and Rick.
The blond man put his turn signal on as he approached his driveway, only to discover he couldn't fit the car in its usual spot - or anywhere else for that matter. The angry man beeped the horn several times, but to no avail. The brother he was attempting to hail didn't appear.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," A.J. muttered under his breath. He wheeled the car back out onto the street and parked at the curb.
Just as A.J. was climbing out of the vehicle, Rick appeared from around the corner of the garage.
"Oh, A.J., glad you're home. I could really use your--"
"Rick! What is going on here?"
Rick looked around in bewilderment. "Whatta ya’ mean?"
A.J. came to a halt in his driveway. "I mean, I can't get the car in the driveway!"
"Oh, yeah. That. Well, it's only for a couple of weeks."
"A couple of weeks!"
"Well...yeah. Just until after Christmas."
"Rick! I'm not going to park my car out on the street until after Christmas!"
"Aw, A.J., come on. It's just until the contest is over. You said I could decorate."
"You told me you were hanging lights. You never said anything about turning my driveway into a replica of the North Pole!"
The blond weaved his way in and out of Rick's display, taking note of six plastic elves, a plastic Mrs. Santa, three plastic penguins, a five foot tall plastic snowman, and a candy cane striped sign that declared A.J.'s driveway to be a Santa Claus Crossing Zone.
Lost among a sea of elves, A.J. asked with wonderment, "Where in the world did you get all this stuff?"
Rick pointed toward Mr. Gorman's. "Look."
A.J. looked over at his neighbor's front yard. "So?"
"So, Mr. Gorman's got a Frosty the Snowman, and Mrs. Frosty, over there with fake snow and everything. I've gotta do better than that."
"Rick, how did you pay for all these things?"
"Uh...mmmmmmmm," Rick mumbled.
A.J. held a hand to his ear and cocked his head. "What was that?"
"I...uh...I charged 'em on the business credit card."
"You what! Rick, I don't want this garbage on the business account. The business account is only for items we can use for the business. Hence the term, business account."
"Well...we'll use this stuff for the business at some point in time, I'm sure."
"Right," A.J. scoffed. "Like when Mrs. Claus hires us to do surveillance on Santa because she suspects he's got some hanky panky going on with one of his elves."
"A.J.! Bite your tongue. You shouldn't talk about Santa Claus that way! Why, that's almost blasphemous!"
"No, what's blasphemous is the way you've made a mockery out of Christmas in my driveway."
"Come on, A.J. Get into the spirit of things here. Just give it a chance. When it's all said and done, you're gonna love the layout I've got planned for this place. You might even like it so much that you'll want to keep it up all year 'round."
A.J. shook his head and began walking toward his car.
"Don't count on it."
"Hey, where are you going?"
"To get the Christmas presents out of my car. If I've got to park my vehicle in the street for the next two weeks, I'm certainly not going to be stupid enough to leave packages in the back seat. I want to get all those things in the house."
"Then are you coming back outside?"
"I wasn't planning on it. Why?"
"Well...I kinda need your help."
A.J. stopped dead in his tracks. "With what?"
Cautiously, and at several arms length away, Rick replied, "I've got Santa Claus, a sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer in the garage. I'm gonna need your help putting them on the roof."
A.J. turned around. Through clenched teeth he pointed out, "Rick, I thought you said this was your project, and that I wasn't going to have to help."
"Yeah, I know I did. But this won't take very long. As a matter of fact, we'll get it done so quickly that it really won't be like you did any of the work at all."
"That will be an interesting concept to watch develop," was all the blond said before continuing to the car and retrieving his packages.
Mounting Santa and his crew on the roof took considerably more work on the part of the two Simon brothers than Rick had predicated, as well as considerably more swearing than should ever take place at Christmas time. On two different occasions tempers got so frayed that a fistfight almost broke out between the two detectives. As it was, A.J. got so angry with his brother that, in a fit of rage, he pitched Santa off the roof and into the canal. The blond ended up having to climb down the ladder and wade into the dirty water to retrieve the jolly old elf, before Rick made good on his threat to pitch A.J. into the canal next.
Over the course of the next week Rick spent several hours each evening stringing lights up along the eaves of the two story home and around the windows. On more than one occasion a vehemently protesting A.J. was drafted to give his brother a helping hand.
Just when A.J. had thought that his home and yard could hold nary one more bit of Christmas cheer, he discovered himself to be wrong. The sun was just beginning to rise over the canal three days before Christmas Eve. Still in his bathrobe and slippers, A.J. retrieved the morning paper, poured himself a cup of coffee, then headed out to the deck. The detective was engrossed in the headlines as he opened the French doors and stepped outside. He tripped over a four foot high plastic object, only to send it tumbling into a multitude of other four foot high plastic objects, causing everything to tumble to the deck with a clatter in a domino effect. By the time A.J. was struggling to his feet his newspaper was saturated with hot coffee.
Rick Simon poked his head over the railing of The Hole In The Water.
"Man, A.J., what are you yellin' for? Do you know what time it is? You'll wake the whole neighborhood."
"Rick, what the hell is this stuff on my deck?"
Clad only in his khaki boxer shorts and an old pair of tennis shoes, Rick jumped the boat's railing and walked to the deck.
"Geez, you knocked everybody down."
Rick began righting the plastic figures.
"And just who is everybody?" A.J. ground out between clenched teeth.
"Don't ya' know?"
"The closest I can come with a guess at this moment is to say Snow White and the seven dwarfs are paying us a visit, except that there's considerably more than seven...whatever these are, here."
"It's twelve drummers drumming," Rick explained.
"And eleven pipers piping."
"And ten lords a leaping."
A.J. shook his head. "Don't tell me."
"And nine ladies dancing. And eight maids a milking. And seven swans a swimming. And six geese a laying. And five--"
"Stop! Enough already. I know the song. What in the hell are you going to do with all these things?"
As Rick continued to right his performers he warned, "You know, A.J., you should really watch your mouth. You've been doing entirely too much swearing lately, considering how close it is to Christmas and all."
"You bring out the best in me, Rick,” A.J. snarled. “Now, I repeat, what are you going to do with all these things?"
"I don't know yet. I'll find a place for 'em."
"Where? You've already got an entire North Pole neighborhood relocated to my driveway. Santa and his reindeer are on my roof. And the three Wisemen have decided that the star of Bethlehem has led them to my kitchen steps. I practically have to climb through a window to get in and out of my house any more. Now just where do you think this little group is going to take up residence?"
"If nothing else I'll put 'em in the side yard in front of The Hole In The Water. Some of 'em can even go on the deck of the boat. Maybe the seven swans a swimming can go in the canal. I've got to give it some thought."
"Well, just hurry your thought process up and get these stupid things off my deck," A.J. ordered.
Rick looked down his nose at his brother.
"A.J., you don't rush something like this. Every decoration must be carefully woven in with the rest. The placement of every character must be a well thought-out, painstakingly tedious process. It can't just look like a buncha' Christmas decorations thrown here and there at random. It all has to flow together to form a colorful, yet tasteful theme."
"The tasteful part of the this whole arrangement left us the day you decided to enter this stupid contest."
Rick brushed past his brother, not deeming a response necessary to one of such a low intellect level as to not understand the basics of a neighborhood Christmas decorating
While Rick poured himself a cup of coffee A.J. asked, "Are there anymore surprises waiting for me? Any other guests that may be coming to festoon my lawn that I'm not aware of, whom I might be in danger of tripping over on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night?"
"No, none that I can think of."
"Good." A.J. made his way into the den. He picked up the T.V.'s remote control off the coffee table. "Since my newspaper is ruined I'm going to watch a few minutes of A.M. San Diego before I get ready for work."
Just as A.J. was about to drop into his favorite easy chair Rick shouted from the kitchen, "No! No!" He plunked his coffee mug down and ran into the den.
A.J.'s knees were already bent, and his backside almost in the chair, when Rick reached underneath him. "Geez, A.J. Watch it! You almost sat on the baby Jesus!"
"Where did he come from?"
Rick laid the plastic baby on the dining room table. "From the manger. Where'd you think he came from? Come on, you know the story. Mary and Joseph. She was a virgin. They had Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem 'cause there was no room in the inn. Then--"
"Yes, Rick, I know the story. I didn't mean where did the real baby Jesus come from. I meant where did that baby Jesus come from?"
"Oh, well I got a good deal on him when I bought the twelve drummers drumming and all their pals. I got all of 'em at a wholesale Christmas warehouse Sammy told me about."
A.J. shook his head as he clicked off the television. "I'd like to think that I can still go somewhere in my house without encountering little plastic people. I'm beginning to feel like I'm the main character in a bad Stephen King novel. I'm going to take a shower and shave. If you want to make this entire mess up to me...and I highly recommend that you do, you could cook breakfast for both of us. I'll take my eggs over-easy this morning with three sausage links and a piece of toast with butter and strawberry jam."
"Yeah, sure. Okay." Rick agreed. "But...uh...which shower were you plannin' on using?"
A.J. turned around with narrowed eyes of suspicion. "The same one I always use. The shower in the master bathroom. Why?"
"Cause...uh...I stored Mary and Joseph in there last night."
"Let me get this straight. Basically what you're telling me, is that Mary and Joseph are showering together in my bathroom."
A frown crossed Rick's features. "I never really thought of it that way...but yeah, I guess you could say that."
“Okay.” A.J. took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Then I'll use the shower in the guest bathroom."
"Well...uh...now there's a slight problem with that idea, too. The shepherds are showering together in there."
"But you can use the shower on The Hole In The Water. I--"
The older detective flew past his irate sibling and took the stairs two at a time.
"Or I could just get Mary and Joseph outta your way! The shower will be free in just a minute!"
A.J. looked heavenward.
"Why do I get the feeling this is going to be an extraordinarily long holiday season?"
Christmas Eve day dawned sunny and warm in San Diego that year, as it did most years. Rick was relieved that his prayers for no rain had been answered, while A.J. was simply relieved that his prayers for the end of this stupid decorating contest were close at hand.
Both brothers were busy and managed to stay out of each other's way. A.J. was in his glory, having all day to put his culinary skills to the test as he prepared a variety of hors d'oeuvres and main dishes for the evening's buffet table. Cecilia appeared shortly before noon to take charge of the two large hams that she popped in the oven, and to help her youngest son do some last minute cleaning and decorating before the first guests arrived at six o’clock.
Rick was absorbed outside most of the day stringing the last few sets of lights and placing his last few decorations. He didn't appear in the kitchen until four p.m. He whistled along to the Christmas carols A.J. had playing on the stereo as he prepared a big bowl of potato chip dip, and another bowl of salsa for the corn chips, all of which were his contributions to the evening's meal.
Right before A.J. headed upstairs to shower and shave he asked, "Do you have all your decorations ready?"
Rick looked up from his work, smiling.
"Yep. It's gonna be great, A.J. We're gonna win for sure. Boy, you shoulda' seen the look on Mr. Gorman's face a little while ago when he came over here to see what I've done. You could just tell that he already knows he's gonna lose."
"He might lose, but at least his place doesn't look like it was decorated by a band of renegade elves," A.J. muttered to himself.
"What was that?"
"I said, I think that there's more wine glasses on the shelves. Would you get them for me please, and set them on the table with the other glasses?"
As Rick placed the glasses where his brother requested, he took in the sight of the live Christmas tree in one corner of the living room, its many lights twinkling gaily in synchronization. The den furniture had been carried out to the garage earlier that day by the two brothers, and now three borrowed tables were set up in there covered with red tablecloths and adorned with holiday centerpieces, green plastic plates and utensils, holiday napkins, and what food could already be set out.
"Everything looks great, A.J.," Rick praised. "Between what you and Mom have done in here, and what I've done outside, this will be one Christmas Eve bash our friends will be talking about for a long time to come."
"We always aim to please," A.J. agreed.
"Speaking of Mom,” Rick asked, “where is she?"
"She's in the guest bathroom cleaning up and changing her clothes. She'll be down in a minute. I'm going to get cleaned up, as well. If I know Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud, they'll be here at least a half hour early."
"And in separate cars, and yellin' at each other at the top of their lungs," Rick added. "Do you figure they'll be threatening to divorce one another this year?"
"They have at every other Christmas Eve open house we've ever had. And at every one Mom and Dad ever had, too. Why should this year be any different?"
"Yeah, you're right,” Rick smiled. “Damn, but I love the holidays."
A.J. laughed. "Yeah, so do I. Even when they involve Bud and Edie, and a brother that makes the outside of my house look like the Christmas version of the Bate's Motel."
"Hey!" Rick exclaimed in protest, throwing a dishtowel at his brother in the process.
The laughing A.J. threw the towel back at his sibling, then headed up the stairs to shower.
By eight-thirty that night the Simons' Christmas Eve open house was in full swing. People from all walks of life filled A.J.'s kitchen, living room, den, and spilled out onto the deck. There were cousins, aunts, and uncles of the brothers’, personal friends of Rick, A.J., and Cecilia, a smattering of the brothers’ clients, as well as half the San Diego police department. Some people stopped by only long enough to wish the Simons a Merry Christmas and take one pass around the dessert table on their way to other family obligations, while others would be there for the duration of the festivities, which generally ended around midnight.
At fifteen minutes to nine Rick began to herd everyone out to the front of the house. He was due to set his Christmas display ablaze at nine o'clock, when the judges would slowly drive up and down the block.
Other neighbors and their families began to spill out of their homes in preparation of illuminating their own displays.
Carlos quickly scaled a ladder up to the roof of A.J.'s garage. He positioned himself behind the industrial sized fan he and Rick had mounted there earlier in the evening.
Cecilia turned to A.J. “What’s Carlos doing on the roof?”
"Don't ask me. I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
The guests stood under the night sky laughing and talking as they awaited the big event. From somewhere down the block a child's voice could be heard calling, "They're coming! They're coming!"
Rick ran to the curb to see the Chevy convertible that was carrying the three judges, gradually making its way toward A.J.'s house. One by one homeowners up and down the block threw the switches on their displays. The Simons' guests murmured with delight as the neighborhood was slowly transformed into a holiday wonderland. Homes were awash with lights of every color, some blinking on and off, while others remained stationary.
Rick ran for the switch in A.J.'s garage that would bring his display to life.
"Ready, Carlos?" He called up to the roof.
"Okay, everybody!” Rick shouted. “Here it goes!"
And for one glorious minute it was beautiful. Lights came on within the plastic bellys’ of the penguins, the elves, Mrs. Santa and the snowman. A string of green Christmas lights illuminated Santa's sleigh and reindeer on the roof. The star of Bethlehem shown brightly over A.J.'s kitchen doorway, leading the Wisemen and shepherds to where Mary and Joseph had their babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Rick's boat was bedecked with red lights. His twelve drummers drumming, and the rest of the cast, seemed to dance merrily in the side yard in the glow provided from the vessel. Marlowe wasn't exempt from the festivities either. A red bow had been tied around his neck and a Santa hat placed on his head. He sat next to Mrs. Claus as Rick had commanded him to do, and patiently waited for the judges to pass.
Every light Rick and A.J. had painstakingly strung over the past two weeks on the eaves and around the windows came on as one. The Simons' guests clapped loudly in appreciation of the holiday sights before them. Surplus Sammy and his employees let out a cheer when Sammy's name began to blink on and off from where Rick had outlined it in green and red lights on the garage.
A.J.'s neighbors looked over with envy, as Rick's display truly outdid all of theirs. Even Mr. Gorman's.
When the judges' car was almost abreast of the house. Rick turned on another switch. Bing Crosby began to croon White Christmas from the stereo speakers Rick had set up outside the garage. With that Carlos turned on the fan. Rick had purchased four large bags of fake snow days earlier from a theatre supply store. One by one Carlos emptied the bags in front of the twirling blades of the fan. The guests looked on almost reverently as the snow slowly fell down onto Rick's North Pole scene in the driveway, then they began to sing along with Bing.
Just as Rick turned to his brother, smiled, and said, "It doesn't get much better than this, A.J.," the lights went out. Every light. All throughout the entire neighborhood. No more lit penguins, or Santa Clauses, or nativity scenes, or snowmen, or houses awash with thousands of lights. No more electricity whatsoever. And, most importantly, no more contest.
The judges waited a few minutes. When the electricity didn't come back on, the mayor apologized to the people that had milled around the car.
"Sorry, folks. We can't judge a contest we can't see. Maybe next year."
A loud chorus of disappointed groans went up as the convertible turned onto the next block and drove away.
A.J. and his neighbors stood out in the middle of the street consoling one another and wondering what had happened.
Just then Mr. Gorman came storming out of his house, fists waving in the air.
"Where is he? Where is Rick Simon?"
Rick began to slink toward the back of the crowd.
"Hold it right there, Simon!" Mr. Gorman ordered.
A.J. stepped in-between the furious man and his brother.
"Now, Mr. Gorman, just calm down. There's no reason to be so angry. Rick didn't have anything to do with the power outage."
The seething Mr. Gorman turned on the blond man.
"The heck he didn't! I just got off the phone with the power company and they said the outage was caused by an overload the house at 2604 Grand Canal put on the circuits. That's your house, Simon! So this is your bother's doing!"
Mr. Gorman caught sight of Downtown Brown. "Officer Brown! Officer Brown! I demand that you arrest this man!"
"Arrest who?" The unflappable black man questioned.
"Well, Richard Simon, of course!"
"Arrest him for what?"
"For...for...for obstructing a Christmas decorating contest, that's what for!"
Town laid a calming hand on Mr. Gorman's arm.
"Now, Mr. Gorman, I realize you're upset over what has just occurred, but I can't arrest a man for unintentionally causing a power outage. That's not against the law."
Town turned to A.J.'s angry neighbors.
think you should all go home and continue with your own Christmas Eve
celebrations. Since Mr. Gorman has
already put a call into the electric company, I'm sure a crew will be here soon
to restore your power." With a
wave of his hands Town urged, "Now, go on, folks. Go on home."
Mr. Gorman wasn't about to let Rick get off that easily.
"There won't be any crew here to restore our power! No one's coming until mid-morning tomorrow!"
No amount of crowd control could stop the angry villagers from descending on poor Rick. Only poor Rick was nowhere to be located. The angry villagers found poor Rick's brother to be a satisfactory substitute for their wrath.
"A.J. Simon, I'm expecting thirty people over for Christmas dinner! I have a twenty-five pound turkey that has to be in the oven at four a.m., and a ten pound ham going in at six!" One furious woman exclaimed. "If my meal is ruined because of your brother I won't look the other way the next time that dog of yours does his business in my yard!"
"Uh...yes, ma'am. I hope your dinner isn't ruined either. But he isn't my dog, he belongs to my--" A.J. stammered only to be interrupted when he was confronted by an irate man.
"Simon, Santa's bringing an electric train to my house that's supposed to be running around the tree when a certain little boy wakes up in the morning! How am I going to explain to my five-year-old that his train won't work 'cause some
bozo-neighbor of ours overloaded the circuits?"
A.J. took a step backwards. "I...uh...don't know, George. But I'll certainly have a word with my brother about--"
"Not so fast, Andrew Simon!" A.J. was confronted from behind. He turned around, only to have a rotund, buxom neighbor waving an angry finger under his nose. "I'm supposed to sing at my church at eight o'clock tomorrow morning! How am I going to shower and put my makeup on if there's no electricity in my house?"
A.J. was grabbed roughly by the arm and spun around. He found himself nose to nose with another upset woman.
"My children and I spent weeks decorating our house for this contest, A.J. Simon! Now look what's happened! The children are so disappointed. You've ruined their Christmas!"
"It wasn't me, Sally. It was my bro...ouch!"
Sally's ten-year-old son had landed a swift kick to the detective's right shin. His eight-year-old sister didn't offer the blond any sympathy either. As A.J. hopped around on one foot cradling the injured appendage, the little girl stuck her tongue out at him.
Downtown Brown took pity on the youngest Simon brother and, with the help of the other police officers in attendance, began dispersing the crowd that had gathered.
"I can assure all of you that Mr. Simon is truly sorry for what has happened here this evening. But please, everyone go on home now. Nothing will be gained by standing out here in the middle of the street shouting at one another."
With one final, "I hope you're happy, Simon!" growled at A.J. by Mr. Gorman, the grumbling neighbors did as Lieutenant Brown ordered, heading for their homes while griping and complaining about the Simon brothers.
A.J.'s guests began to make their way back into his home as well. Several offered sympathy to the youngest Simon over what had just occurred, while others laughed and teased him about it as they passed.
Cecilia came up from behind her son. "Are you okay, honey?"
A.J. lightly brought his battered leg back down to rest on the ground. With control that had been hard fought to maintain he replied tightly, "Yes, Mom. I'm fine. You haven't, by chance, seen that worthless creature around anywhere that you gave birth to five years before me, have you?"
"No, dear. I haven't. But I'm sure he'll turn up sooner or later. He always does." In an effort to give A.J. some time to gain control of his hot temper, Cecilia encouraged, "Come on with me. I need you to show me where you keep the candles and matches. We'd better get some kind of light in that house before our guests trip all over themselves...as well as our food tables."
Cecilia's ploy worked wonders. A.J. followed his mother into his house, and with her help soon had candles shining brightly on every table. Rather than putting a damper on the festivities, the old-fashioned means of lighting seemed to enhance the Christmas spirit.
It was quarter to one in the morning when the last guests bid A.J. and Cecilia farewell and walked out to their cars. Carlos climbed down from the roof as his wife Eva waited at the foot of the ladder. It hadn't been lost on A.J. as to where his brother had sought refuge from the angry masses earlier in the evening. Footsteps and voices had been heard up on the roof on and off throughout the rest of the night. A.J. had been fairly certain that it wasn't Santa Claus walking around above, but rather his brother and Carlos, and whatever assortment of friends decided to join them.
Carlos gave A.J. a clap on the back as he passed. "Good night, A.J. Good night, Senora Simon. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Carlos," mother and son said as one.
"Oh, and...uh, A.J.?"
"Uh...Ricky's sorry about what happened earlier. He told me to tell you that."
"He did, did he?"
A.J. tipped his head back and yelled in the direction of the roof. "Well, you can tell Ricky he's going to be a lot sorrier before I'm through with him!"
Carlos laughed at what he knew was an idle threat, said a final good night, and walked his wife to their car.
Cecilia turned toward the house. "I'm going inside to put the leftovers in the refrigerator and clean things up a bit."
When Cecilia realized A.J. wasn't following her she turned and asked, "Aren't you coming?"
A.J. began climbing the ladder. "In a minute."
"Go easy on your brother, dear,” Cecilia advised with amusement in her tone. “Remember, it's Christmas."
"Don't worry, Mom. I won't hurt him...too badly."
When A.J.'s head became visible at the top of the ladder Rick said from where he sat leaning back against Santa's sleigh, "Mom will be really mad at you if you throw me off the roof."
A.J. took a seat next to his brother. "She'll get over it."
"Uh...A.J...look, I'm sorry about everything that happened. The lights, the neighbors...the whole mess. I never meant for it to turn out this way. I just wanted our display to be the best."
The total darkness that blanketed the neighborhood hid A.J.'s smile.
"Oh, so now it's our display."
"Yeah...well, whatever. Didn't you think, though, that it was pretty good while it lasted?"
"I'll give you this, Rick. While it lasted, it was...interesting. But once it came to an end, it was hell."
"I am sorry about that."
"Forget it," A.J. offered generously.
Rick gave his brother a wary look. "Forget it? Do you really mean that?"
"Yes, I really mean that. Consider it a Christmas present."
"Oh. Okay. Thanks. But...uh...this doesn't mean that I'm not gettin' any other presents, does it? You know, the new tool set you bought me, or the cassettes you got me, or--"
"Rick! You were snooping again, weren't you?"
"No, I wasn't!"
"Okay then, if you weren't snooping, how did you happen to run across cassettes that are hidden in a pocket of one of my sport coats in the back of my closet? Or how do you explain finding the tool set that's under the bed in the guest room?"
"Uh...just lucky, I guess."
"You're lucky all right. Lucky I don't take everything back and forget this Christmas entirely. Which, believe me, about four hours ago was a very tempting thought."
Rick draped an arm around his brother's shoulders. "Aw, little brother, you wouldn't do that to me. You know how much I love Christmas."
A.J. couldn't help but smile fondly. Rick would never completely lose the spirit of the little boy he had once been.
"Yes, I know how much you love Christmas."
The brothers fell into a companionable silence. The dark sky was lit only by one bright star off in the east.
"You know, with all the street lights out, and how quiet the neighborhood is at this hour, and bein' up here on the roof and all, a guy kinda' gets a different view of the world. Know what I mean?"
“Yes.” A.J. gazed up at the lone twinkling star. "I know what you mean."
Rick gave the shoulders his arm was draped across a squeeze.
"Merry Christmas, kid."
"Merry Christmas, Rick."
Soon thereafter, A.J. broke the Christmas spell by rising and heading for the ladder.
"Where you goin'?"
"I think we'd better get down from here and help Mom clean up the kitchen. Otherwise, she just might take all our presents back."
Rick rose to follow his brother, dusting off the seat of his jeans. "We can't have her doin' that. I guess we'd better give her a hand."
A.J. descended from the roof, while Rick remained for a moment gazing down upon his decorations one last time.
"You know, A.J., I've been thinkin.’ I'm kinda' glad the decorating contest fell through this year. I bet next year I can make this house look even better."
"Rick," came A.J.'s warning from somewhere near the bottom rung of the ladder.
Rick began pacing along the edge of the roof, planning his strategy.
"No, really. Just listen. First of all, we'll have to get an electrician over here to put in a couple of extra circuit breaker boxes."
"Yeah, you're right. Two probably won't be enough. Three would be better. Maybe even four."
"Rick, I don’t think--"
"And then I'm gonna add some caroling children to my collection. I saw some that moved, and sang, and everything. Honest, A.J., they looked real. And they sing fifteen different Christmas songs, too."
there’s no way--"
"Oh, and hey, I saw this huge electric train. You can buy as much track for it as you want, and set it up to run out in the yard. It pulls three boxcars that are big enough for little kids to ride in. We've got enough friends who have kids. I'm gonna see if they'll dress some of their kids up as elves next year, and
we'll let 'em ride around in the train as the judges come by."
"Rick, absolutely not, I—“
"And more lights. We definitely need more lights. Let's see, I had twenty-five hundred this year. I think I'll shoot for thirty-five hundred next year. Of course, we'll probably have to start putting them up around Thanksgiving, but I guess that's okay. We're usually kinda' slow at work during the holiday season anyway. It will give us something...hey, what are you doing? A.J., where are you going with that ladder? I need to get down from here yet. A.J.! Hey, A.J.! A.J., get back here! A.J., where'd you go?"
Rick dropped to his belly on the roof. He looked out over the eaves, straining to catch a glimpse of his brother.
"A.J.! A.J., get back here with that ladder! A.J., this isn't funny! A.J.! Hey, A.J.! A.J.!”
Right before he entered the house, A.J. called, “Hey, Rick!”
“Have a Merry Christmas, big brother. See ya’ next year!”
“Huh? Next year? A.J.! A.J., get back here with that ladder! A.J.!”
And for just a brief moment, when Rick paused in his yelling, he swore he heard the deep-bellied laugh of that famous jolly old elf. But it couldn’t have been, could it? After all, the only Santa Claus on the roof with Rick that night was made of plastic.
Or was he? Perhaps, given the magic of Christmas, Rick would never know for certain.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~