CHRISTMAS STORY: The Night Of The Magi by Leo Rosten

The Night Of The Magi by Leo Rosten

When Mr. Parkhill noticed that Miss Mitnick, Mr. Bloom, and Mr. Kaplan were absent and heard a mysterious humming beneath the ordinary sounds which preceded the start of a class session, he realized that it was indeed the last meeting of the year and that Christmas was but a few days off.

Every grade in the American Night Preparatory School for Adults each year presented a Christmas gift to its teacher.  By now, Mr. Parkhill was quite familiar with the ritual.  Several nights ago, there must have been a concerted dunning of those who had not yet contributed to the collection.  Now the Gift Committee was probably engaged in last-minute shopping in Mickey Goldstein’s Arcade, debating the propriety of a pair of pajamas, examining the color combination of shirts and ties, arguing whether Mr. Parkhill, in his heart of hearts, would prefer fleece-lined slippers to onyx cuff links.

Mr. Parkhill cleared his throat.  “We shall concentrate on spelling tonight.”

The student smiled knowingly, stealing glances at the three empty chairs, exchanging sly nods and soft chuckles.  Mrs. Moskowitz directed a question to Mrs. Tomasic, but Mr. Blattberg’s fierce, “Shah!” murdered the words on her very lips.  Rochelle Goldberg reached for a chocolate, giggling, but swallowed the sound instead of the sweet the moment Mr. Perez shot her a scathing rebuke.

“We shall try to cover – forty words before recess!”

Not one stalwart flinched.

Mr. Parkhill always gave the class a brisk spilling drill during the last session before Christmas: that kept all the conspirators busy; it dampened their excitement over what would soon transpire; it involved no speeches or discussion during which the precious secret might be betrayed; above all, a spelling drill relieved Mr. Parkhill from employing a rash of ruses to conceal his embarrassment.  “Is everyone ready?”

A chorus worthy of Messiah choraled assent.

“The first word is— ‘bananas.'”

Murmurs trailed off, smiles expired, as “bananas” sprouted their letters on the arms of the chairs.

“‘Romance’ ….”

Pens scratched and pencils crunched as “romance” joined “bananas.”

“‘Fought,’ the past tense of ‘fight’ … ‘fought.'”  Now all brows tightened (nothing so frustrated the fledglings as the gruesome coupling of and h) while the scholars wrestled with “fought.”

“‘Groaning’ ….”  Mr. Parkhill heard himself sigh.  The class seemed incomplete without its stellar student, Miss Mitnick, and bereaved without its unique one, Hyman Kaplan.  (Mr. Kaplan had recently announced that Shakespeare’s finest moments came in that immortal tale of star-crossed lover, A Room in Joliet.)

“‘Charming’ … ‘horses’ ….”  Mr. Parkhill’s mind was not really on charming horses.  He could not help feeling uneasy as he envisaged what soon would occur.  The moment the recess bell rang, the entire class would dash out the door.  The committee would be waiting in the corridor.  The class would cross-examine them so loudly that Mr. Parkhill would get a fairly good idea of what the present was.  And as soon as the bell pealed its surcease, the throng would pour in from the corridor, faces flushed, eyes aglitter, surrounding one member of the committee (the one carrying the Christmas package) to conceal the fateful parcel from their master’s view.

The class would come to order with untypical celerity.  Then, just as Mr. Parkhill resumed the spelling lesson, the chairman would rise, apologize for interrupting, approach Mr. Parkhill’s desk, place the package upon it, and blare out the well-prepared felicitations.

Mr. Parkhill would pretend to be overwhelmed by surprise; he would utter a few halting phrases.  His flock would smile, grin, fidget until the bravest among them would exclaim, “Open it!” or “Look inside the present!”  Whereupon, Mr. Parkhill would untie the elaborate ribbons, remove the wrapping from the box, lift the top, and – as his students burbled with pleasure – he would pluck the gift from its cradle, exclaiming, “It’s beautiful!” or “I shall certainly put this to good use!” or (most popular of all), “It’s just what I wanted!”

The class would burst into a squall of applause, to which he would respond with renewed thanks and a stronger counterfeit of spontaneous thanksgiving.  (It was not always easy for Mr. Parkhill to carry off the feigned surprise; it was even harder for him to pretend he was bowled over by pleasure: One year the committee, chairmanned by Mr. David Natkowitz, had given him a porcelain nymph – a pixie executing a fandango despite the barometer in her right hand and the thermometer in her left.)

As Mr. Parkhill’s remarks concluded, and the class’s, Don’t mention it!‘s and communal fervor trailed off, the spelling drill would resume and the session would drag on until the final bell.

“‘Accept’ ….” called Mr. Parkhill.  “Notice, please the word is ‘accept’ … not ‘except’; be careful everyone; listen to the difference: ‘except’ … ‘cucumber’ ….”

And after the final bell rang, the whole class would cry, “Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!” and crowd around him with tremendous smiles to ask how he really liked the present, advising him that if it wasn’t just right in size and color (if the gift was something to wear), or in shape and utility (if something to use), Mr. Parkhill could exchange it!  He didn’t have to abide by the committee’s choice.  He could exchange the present – for anything!  That had been carefully arranged with Mickey Goldstein in person.

This was the ritual, fixed and unchanging, of the session before Christmas.

“‘Nervous’ … ‘goose’ … ‘violets’ ….”

The hand on the wall clock crawled toward eight.  Mr. Parkhill tried to keep his eyes away from the seats, so telling in their vacancy, of Miss Mitnick, Mr. Bloom, and Mr. Kaplan.  In his mind’s eye, he saw the three deputies in the last throes of decision in Mr. Goldstein’s Arcade, torn by the competitive attractions of an electric clock, a cane, spats, a “lifetime fountain pen.”  Mr. Parkhill winced.  Twice already had “lifetime” fountain pens been bestowed upon him, once with a “lifetime” propelling pencil to march.  Mr. Parkhill had exchanged these indestructible gifts discreetly once for a woolen vest, once for a fine pair of earmuffs.  Mr. Parkhill hoped it wouldn’t be a foundtain pen.

Or a smoking jacket!  He had never been able to understand why the committee, in his second semester at the A.N.P.S.A., had decided upon a smoking jacket.  Mr. Parkhill did not smoke.  He had exchanged it for a pair of fur-lined gloves.  (That was when Mr. Goldstein told him that teachers were always changing the Christmas presents their classes gave them: “Why don’t those dumbbells maybe ask a teacher some questions in advance, they could get a hint what that particular teacher really wants?”  Mr. Goldstein had been quite indignant about such foolhardiness.)

“‘Pancakes’ … ‘hospital’ … ‘commi—'”  In the nick of time, as a dozen apprehensive faces popped up, Mr. Parkhill detoured disaster: “‘—ssion.  Commission’! ….”

The clock ticked away.

Mr. Parkhill called off, “‘Sardine’ … ‘exquisite’ … ‘palace'” – and at long last the bell trilled intermission.

The class stampeded out of the room, Mr. Pinsky well in the lead.  Their voices resounded in the corridor and floated through the open door.  Nathan P. Nathan was playing a harmonica.  Mr. Parkhill began to print “bananas” on the blackboard; he would ask his pupils to correct their own papers after the recess.  He tried to shut his ears to the babbling from outside the door, but the voices chattered like shrill sparrows.

“Hollo, Mitnick!”

“Bloom, what you chose?”

“Ees eet for wear?’

“So what did you gat, Keplen?  Tell!”

Mr. Parkhill heard Miss Mitnick’s “We bought—” instantly squashed by Mr. Kaplan’s stern, “Mitnick!  Don’t say!  Averybody comm don mit your voices.  Titcher vill hear soch hollerink.  Be soft!  Qviet!”  Mr. Kaplan was born to command.

“Did you bought a Tsheaffer’s Fountain Pan Sat, guaranteet for life, like said?”  That was Mrs. Moskowitz.  (Poor dear Mrs. Moskowitz; she showed as little imagination in her benefactions as in her homework.)

“Moskovitz, mine Gott!”  The stentor was Kaplan.  “Vhy you don’t use a lod spikker?!  Cless, lat’s go to de odder and fromm de hall!”

The voices of the beginners’ grade dwindled as they marched to the “odder and” of the corridor, rather like the chorus in Aida (which, in fact, Mr. Nathan was playing, off-key) vanishing into pharaoh’s wings.

Mr. Parkhill printed “horses” on the board, then “accept” … “except,” and he began to practice the murmur: “Thank you … all of you … It’s just what I wanted!”  Once he had forgotten to say, “It’s just what I wanted!” and Miss Helga Pedersen, chairman of the committee that year, had been hounded by her classmates well into the third week of January.

It seemed an hour before the gong summoned the scholars back to their quarters.  They poured in en masse, restraining their excitement by straining their expressions, resuming their seats with simulated insipidity.

Mr. Parkhill, printing “cucumber” on the board, did not turn to face his congregation.  “Please compare your own spelling with mine—”

Came a heated whispering: “Stand op, Mitnick!”  That was Mr. Kaplan.  “You should stend op, too!”

“The whole committee,” Mr. Bloom rasped.

Apparently Miss Mitnick, a gazelle choked with embarrassment, could not mobilize the fortitude to “stend op” with her comrades.

“A fine represantitif you’ll gonna make!” frowned Mr. Kaplan.  “You t’ink is for my sek I’m eskink?  Mitnick, stend op!”

“I can’t,” whinnied MIss Mitnick.

Mr. Parkhill printed, “violets.”

“Lest call!” barked Mr. Kaplan.  “Come op mit me an’ Bloom!”

The anguished maiden’s eyes were glazing.  Even Mr. Nathan’s cheerful “Rosie!” fell on paralyzed ears.

“Class …” began Mr. Parkhill.

A clarion voice cut through the air.  “Podden me, Mr. Pockheel!”

It had come.

“Er—yes?’  Mr. Parkhill beheld Messrs. Bloom and Kaplan standing side-by-side in front of Miss Mitnick’s chair.  Each was holding one side of a long package, wrapped in green cellophane and tied with great red ribbons.  A pair of tiny hands, their owner hidden behind the box, clutched the bottom of the offering.

“De hends is Mitnick,” explained Mr. Kaplan.

Not for a second did Mr. Parkhill avert his gaze from the tableau.  “Er—yes?”

“Lat go,” Mr. Kaplan whispered.

The hands of Mitnick disappeared.

The diminished committee advanced with the parcel.  Mr. Kaplan’s smile was celestial; Mr. Bloom’s nostrils quivered.  Together, the staunch duo thrust the package toward Mr. Parkhill’s chest as Mr. Kaplan proclaimed, “Mr. Pockheel, is mine beeg honor, as chairman fromm de Buyink-an’-Deliverink-to-You-a-Prazent Committee, to prezant you mit dis fine peckitch!”

Mr. Bloom dropped back two paces (it resembled the changing of the guard, so well had it been rehearsed) and stared into space.

Mr. Parkhill stammered, “Oh, goodness.  Why thank—” but Mr. Kaplan rode over his words: “Foist, I have to say a few voids!” He half-turned to the audience. “Mitnick you still got time to join de committee!”

The maiden was inert.

“She fainted!” cried Mrs. Yanoff.

This was not true.

“She is stage-fried!”

This, despite the solecism, was true.

Mr. Kaplan shook his head in disgust and re-faced Mr. Parkhill, smoothed a paper extracted from his pocket, and read: “To our dear titcher (dat’s de beginnink): Ve are stendink on de adge of a beeg holiday.  Ufcawss, is all kinds holidays in U.S.: holidays for politic, holidays for religious, an’ plain holidays.  In Fabruary, ve got Judge Vashington’s boitday – a fine holiday.  Also Abram Lincohen’s, iven batter.  In July comms, netcheral, Fort July, de boitday of America de beauriful ….  Also ve have Labor Day, Denksgivink (for de Peelgrims), an’ for victory in de Voild Vide Var, Armistress Day.”

Mr. Parkhill studied his chalk.  “Thank—”

Mr. Kaplan scorned impatience at such a moment.  “But arond dis time year, ve have a different kind holiday, a spacial, movvellous time: Chrissmas.  All hover de voild are pipple celbraking.  Becauss for som pipple is Chrissmas like for odder pippe Chanukah – de most secret holiday fromm de whole bunch.”

(“‘Sacred,’ Mr. Kaplan, ‘sacred.'”)

“Ven ve valkink don de stritts an’ is snow on de floor an’ all kinds tarrible cold!”  Mr. Kaplan’s hand repelled winter’s tribulations.  “Ven ve see in all de chop vindows dose trees mit rad an’ grin laktric lights boinink …  Ven de time comms for tellink fancy tales abot Sandy Clawss—”

(“‘Fairy tales’ …:)

“—flyink don fromm de Naut Pole on rain-emimals, an’ climbink don de jiminies mit stockings for all de lettle kits.  Ven ve hear de beauriful t’oughts of de tree Vice Guys, chasink a star on de dasert to Bettelheiim.”

(“Mister Kaplan!”)

“Ven pipple saying, ‘Oh, Mary Chrissmas!  Oh, Heppy Noo Yiss!  Oh, bast regotts!’ – den ve all got a varm fillink in de hot, for all humanity vhich should be brodders!  Ve know you got de fillink, Mr. Pockheel; got de filink; Caravello, Matsoukas, iven Mitnick” – Mr. Kaplan was not one to let perfidy go unchastised – “got dat fillink!”

feel my feet dying,” muttered Mr. Bloom.

“An’ vat do ve call dis fillink?” cried Mr. Kaplan.  De Chrissmas Spirits.”

(“Spirit,’ Mr. Kaplan, ‘spir—'”)

Now I’ll prezant de prazent.”

The class leaned forward.  Mr. Parkhill straightened his shoulders.

“Because you a foist-cless titcher, Mr. Pockheel, an’ ve all oppreciate how you explain de hoddest pots gremmer, spallink, pernonciation, vhich ve know in planty hod to do mit greenhors, ve all falt you should gat a semple of our – of our” – Mr. Kaplan turned his page over hastily – “Aha! – of our santimental!  So in de name of de beginnis’ grate of American Night Priparatory School for Edults, I’m prezantink de soprize prazent to our vunderful titcher, lovely Mr. Pockheel!”

(“‘Beloved, Mr. Kaplan …”)

A hush gripped the chamber.

Mr. Parkhill tried to say, “Thank you, Mr. Kaplan ….  Thank you, class …” but the phrases seemed so timeworn, so shorn of meaning, they stuck in his throat.  Without a word, he untied the big red ribbon, unfolded the green cellophane wrapping, lifted the cover off the package, fumbled with the inner maze of wrapping.  He raised the gift from the box.  It was a smoking jacket.  A black and gold smoking jacket.  Black velvet, the lapels a lustrous gold.  On the breast pocket, an exotic ideograph sparkled.  And a dragon was embroidered all across the front and back; its tongue flickered across the sleeves.

“Horyantal style,” Mr. Kaplan confided.

Mr. Parkhill coughed.  The room seemed very warm.  Mr. Bloom was peering over Mr. Kaplan’s shoulder, mopping his bald head and clucking like a rooster.  Mrs. Moskowitz sat stupefied.  Moist-eyed Olga Tarnova moaned from the depths of one of her many passions.

“Th-thank you,” Mr. Parkhill succeeded in stammering.  “Thank you – all of you – very much.”

Mr. Bloom blared, “Hold it op everyone should see!”

Mr. Kaplan turned on Mr. Bloom.  “I’m de chairman!”

Rose Mitnick was bleating.

Miss Goldberg cracked a pistachio nut.

“I—I can’t tell you how much I—appreciate your kindness.”  The dragon, Mr. Parkhill noted, had green eyes.

Mr. Kaplan beamed.  “So plizz hold op de prazent all should see.”

Mr. Parkhill raised high the jacket for all to behold.  The symphony of admiring, Oh‘s and Ah‘s, was climaxed by Mr. Kaplan’s ecstatic, “My!”

“It’s—beautiful,” said Mr. Parkhill.

“Maybe you should toin arond de jecket,” suggested Mr. Kaplan.

As Mr. Parkhill revolved the jacket slowly, the dragon writhed in the folds.

“A volk of art!” sang Mr. Pinsky.

“Maybe ve made a mistake?” whispered Hyman Kaplan.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Maybe you don’t smoke.  Mitnick vorried abot dat.  But I sad, ‘Uf-cawss a titcher smokes.  Not in cless, netcheral.  At home.  At least a pipe!'”

“No, No, you didn’t make a mistake.  I do—occasionally—smoke.  A pipe!”  Mr. Parkhill cleared his larynx.  “Why—it’s just what I wanted!”

The class burst into cheers.

“Hooray!” laughed Mr. Trabish.

“I knew it!” boomed Mr. Blattberg, whirling his grandson’s tooth.

“Hoorah,” growled Gus Matsoukas.

“Bravo!” chimed Miss Caravello.

“In Rossia we song in all the chaurches,” droned Olga Tarnova.  “On differont day but.”

“Vear it in de bast of helt!!” cried Mr. Kaplan.

“Thank you, I will.  Class, you have been most generous.  Thank you.”

“You welcome!” came the congregation’s response.

It was over.

Mr. Parkhill started to fold the dragon back into its lair.  Mr. Bloom marched to his seat, acknowledging the praises due a connoisseur who had participated in such a choice.  But Mr. Kaplan stepped closer to Mr. Parkhill’s desk.

“Er—thank you, Mr. Kaplan,” said Mr. Parkhill.

The chairman of the committee shuffled his feet and craned his neck and – why, for the first time since Mr. Parkhill had known him, Mr. Kaplan was embarrassed.

“Is anything wrong?” asked Mr. Parkhill anxiously.

Sotto voce, so that no ears but Mr. Parkhill’s could hear it, Mr. Kaplan said, “Maybe mine spitch vas too long, or too formal.  But, Mr. Pockheel, avery void I sad came fromm below mine heart!”

For all the unorthodox English, thought Mr. Parkhill, Mr. Kaplan had spoken like one of the Magi.

 

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