Jameson, the bartender, was at my table. His serving tray was laden with cream-smeared glasses, lime rinds lying inside. I swished my Irish coffee around in my hand, considering my current state of drunkenness. I watched the cream combine with the brown of the coffee and whiskey.
"No thanks," I said. "I don't think grandpa ought to be hungover on Christmas, do you?"
"I suppose not, sir," Jameson replied. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips, but it couldn't get the traction needed to complete the gesture. Jameson did an about-face and retreated to his post behind the bar.
I watched Jameson. Usually, the man was quick with a grin and a quip. After a few moments, however, I came up with a reason for the quiet. It was Christmas Eve, the night before Christmas Day, the biggest be-with-your-family day of the year. Jameson had never married, and most of his family had passed away. I realized that Jameson, the Harrisburg Inn's humble bartender, probably spent every Christmas alone. Yes, I thought, that was it. A case of holiday depression, and I had just aggravated it with my grandpa crack. I mentally kicked myself.
I let my eyes roam across the Inn's lounge, trying to see if any of my fellows had noticed Jameson's melancholy mood. It didn't appear so. MacDonald and Slim were hunched over their traditional Christmas checker game, eyeing each other with a mixture of paranoia and malice. Brix sat in one of the overstuffed chairs in the corner, reading Bret Harte in the yellow glow of an ancient-looking floor lamp. Samuels stood at a floor-length window, watching as the sky dumped a blanket of snow onto Pennsylvania's capital city. All had Irish coffees or Cuba Libres close at hand, all served by our man Jameson.
I was about to get up and apologize to Jameson for my grandpa crack when Jameson stepped from behind the bar. He moved toward the alcove where the red-carpeted stairs stood. The room fell silent. Every eye turned toward the bartender.
Jameson entered the alcove, climbed the stairs, and stepped into the belfry that overlooked the lounge. A large brass bell sat there, the gleaming surface catching the rays from the room's lights. Jameson took the baton from the place it hung on the belfry's wall and slammed it against the bell. The bell replied with a resonant tone. It reverberated off the walls and caused the chandelier to shake.
My fellow loungers knew what this meant. MacDonald and Slim suspended their checkers match. Brix cut Bret Harte off by snapping shut his book. Like my compatriots, I picked up my chair and pulled it into its place in a semi-circle around the fireplace. Our semi-circle surrounded a small round table. We fixed our eyes on it. We watched that table as if it were broadcasting the Nativity live from Bethlehem.
Jameson descended from the belfry. He went back to the bar and dipped behind the counter. He surfaced after a couple seconds, clutching a top hat. He made his way to the table and placed the hat on it, hole up. Jameson looked up and surveyed us, waiting for full attention. In a few seconds, he had it.
Jameson cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said, "I welcome you this evening, and a happy holiday to all. It's twelve o'clock, the witching hour. It's time for us to carry out our holiday tradition.
"If you're new to our lounge, let me explain. The regulars among you know that, each Thursday night, we come together for a story. Each week, we draw a name from our hat here, and that person must tell a story. No begging off, no passing the turn to someone else."
We all listened with rapt attention. Jameson knew there were no visitors tonight, but that didn't matter. This speech was ritual. If it wasn't said, the evening didn't feel right.
Jameson went on. "We've heard all sorts of stories in our little group. Tales of knife duels in Singapore bars. Tales of chivalry in times of war. Stories of safaris in the Serengeti. All of these stories are fine, and we love them all. Christmas is different, though. On Christmas, we set those tales aside."
I leaned in closer. I noticed several other fellows do the same.
"Our nation's Christmas traditions are colored by other countries. This is as it should be; after all, the United States is the great melting pot of the world, and the mix of cultures is what makes it great. However, some holiday traditions have fallen by the wayside. One of the more unfortunate losses is that of the ghost story.
"Each Christmas Eve, those who lived in Victorian England would gather around a fire, as we're doing now. Each participant would tell a ghost story. Contrary to what some may think, this was a thriving tradition, and many fine stories emerged from it, including Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol. Of course, the stories didn't have to be inspiring, like Mr. Dickens's story. The story could be whatever the teller wanted it to be, as long as it featured a ghost.
"As I said, over time that tradition has faded just about everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except here. Tonight, we keep that tradition alive. Tonight, we draw a name from the hat, and that person tells a tale. A ghostly tale."
Jameson dipped his hand into the hat. All of us were leaning forward by this point, but we managed to lean forward even further as the bartender moved his hand in the hat. Eventually, Jameson's hand stopped. He moved his eyes around the semi-circle, his eyes resting on each of our faces before moving on.
Jameson was a bartender by profession, but a showman by passion. It was easy to see that Jameson was loving our attention. His face still looked haggard, but there was a light behind it, an electricity. That electricity sparkled and snapped in his eyes. I thought I even saw a smile start to form across his thin lips.
Slowly, Jameson drew his hand out of the hat. A curled, slender slip of paper dangled from between his fingers. He carefully smoothed out the paper. He let his eyes drop.
Jameson's slight smile faded, replaced with a serious look. Not angry, not sad, just serious, like a man with a mission to perform. Jameson looked up. The sparkle in his eyes was gone, replaced with what I might call the fire of resolve.
Jameson began to speak. "Tonight's storyteller," he said, "is William T. Jameson."
A silence overcame the room. As long as I could remember, Jameson had never put his name in the hat before. Usually, the game went like this: if a fellow decided he had a story to tell, he dropped his name with Jameson, and Jameson dropped the name into the hat. In fact, I had submitted my name myself that Christmas night; I had planned on telling a sordid little tale from my days as a Broadway stagehand. I looked around the semi-circle, gauging my fellow game-players' reactions. Judging by their expressions, I assumed that my memory wasn't playing tricks on me; Jameson telling a story was indeed a rare occasion.
We all watched as Jameson carried out the second part of the game's ceremony. He picked up the table, top hat still on top, and moved it to the side of the fireplace. He walked to the other side of the fireplace and picked up the red velvet chair that sat there. This chair was the one that we regular game-players called "the Throne." This chair was strictly off-limits unless you happened to be the Thursday night storyteller. Occasionally, a first-time lounger would attempt to sit in the chair, but, luckily for the Throne's integrity, one of us game-players were around to oust the unwitting offender. Tonight, we watched as Jameson carried the Throne to the center of the semi-circle and set it down. Jameson settled himself into the velvet of the Throne and got settled.
Jameson's eyes scanned the semi-circle, checking for undivided attention. Once he was certain he had it, he began his tale.