Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gift

By Joseph Cunningham

I wrote this a long time ago when I was a seminarian, obviously. It won the Christmas short story competition at my college and, even though there were only two other contenders, I still take advantage of the bragging rights.

I concocted the story from two sources: the first, two great short works of literature: one, no doubt, most will recognize; the other needs slightly more of a hint of an explanation. The rest comes from personal experience. As to the gap between what is true here and what is fiction, I will leave for you that mystery.

It was the twenty-second of December and the first blizzard of winter. I remember trudging through snow drifts to the train station on my way home to Buffalo for the holiday. We had left Stamford at a quarter to seven and were making our way up the Hudson when I suddenly became aware of a tall, clean-cut gentleman in a trench coat sitting in my cabin in front of me. I had been so enthralled by the Times that I hadn’t noticed his entry. He was middle-aged, as was I, of fair countenance and complexion, and sat silently staring out the window as if mesmerized by the storm. I thought I’d break his reverie with a word or two.

We discussed astronomy and astrology, the finer points of Irish eggnog, the average annual snowfall in Buffalo, and the incoherence of modern man. He said that his brother would be waiting for him in Syracuse and, if I didn’t mind – which I didn’t – he’d tell me a story of his childhood there and of a Christmas long ago, a Christmas never to be forgotten.

It was my 10th birthday,” he began, “St. Nicholas Day, December the 6th, in the morning, when I awoke and ran to where I had left my shoe for St. Nick the night before, as was our family custom. Santa, we were told, would come not only on the Eve of Christmas, but also on the Eve of his feast and drop chocolates and other goodies into the shoes of good little boys and girls, as he had once left gold in the shoes of poor cobblers and the like. My many siblings and I all fought for one of father’s shoes – because they could hold more chocolate – and that year I had gotten one, naturally, being the second oldest and the oldest of the boys. My elder sister Lucy got the other. On inspecting the treasure that morning I was in for a surprise. For there in that dark hole I saw nothing, and after quickly reviewing the past year’s misdeeds and finding none that in my mind merited such cruel punishment I reached my hand inside the shoe and felt something.

It was paper, some sort of card, and I pulled it out quickly. On the front was an old Byzantine icon of St. Andrew, and on the back, the words of a prayer.

A Prayer to St. Andrew,’ it read:

For whosoever shall recite this prayer thirteen times a day from the 30th of November [which is the feast of St. Andrew] to the midnight bell of Christmas, SHALL OBTAIN any favor asked.’

There was one lonely chocolate quarter taped to the bottom. ‘Any favor.’ I looked down the hall. Apparently we had all received the same from Santa and my brothers had all discarded their holy cards and candy wrappers and were running across the hall in pajamas with chocolate smeared across their faces. But Lucy’s door had shut quickly and I surmised that she had had the same idea as I.

I closed my door as well, quickly crossed myself and prayed, pausing at the end of my words to decide just what it was that I would ask for. Anything. My mind became a giant toy store, and I floated through the seemingly endless possibilities. But why just toys? There was an entire world of marvelous objects I’d never imagined, never mind the things on the far-off planets they’ve not yet discovered? This was an ingenious trick indeed, for Old Saint Nick knew a boy’s chief desire could change 371 times before Christmas, and surely no one knew the very best thing to ask for. I would not be fooled. I simply stated,

For the best and most magnificent gift, um – in the whole world – no…ever!’ And I added, ‘Please,’ to seal it. ‘Amen.’

Thus the countdown to the holiday began. Thirteen times a day, without wavering, I prayed my St. Andrew prayer assiduously. I had asked my father and mother, who were infallible on these matters, and they had both assured me that the fact that I began my ritual a week late did not disqualify my efforts, since I could not be blamed if I hadn’t received it on time. That was Santa’s fault, not mine. When they asked me what it was I prayed for, I wouldn’t tell them, since that would surely jinx it. Besides, I didn’t want them to worry whether or not I had been suddenly transported to the Taj Majal when they found my bed empty on Christmas morning.

Finally, Christmas night arrived: the night on which it seems no child in the world gets any sleep at all, and I was no exception. I lay silently in my bed, listening to the muffled bumping and banging of Santa Claus downstairs, as was my custom. What sort of shape and noise had my prize package? I knew not, but listened. Then, I heard something I had never heard before: slow and heavy footsteps on the stairway, which stopped outside my room. The door opened. My heart began to pound. Whoever it was turned on the light and walked over to my bed. I had shut my eyes and was feigning sleep, trying to muster up the courage to suddenly open them. But I couldn’t. I felt a rough and gentle finger trace a cross upon my forehead and then I felt a kiss; and the most spectacular things that followed will remain forever in my memory.
I suddenly felt icy wind rushing by and I opened my eyes to find myself in a sleigh, not a tiny, two man sleigh – but a great flagship of the sky, flying high above the sparkling cities down below. To my right and left, in back and as far as my eyes could see were children, all dressed in nightgowns like me with giggling glows upon their faces. I saw Lucy, and I called out to her, but she did not hear me, we were traveling so fast. Far ahead I could see a shiny red ray of light, followed by reindeer, galloping wildly through the sky.

When we reached the place we were expecting, we were escorted to the main square by elves that looked and talked just as I had imagined: dressed in green and brown and scarlet, with pointed hats and pointed ears, and varying degrees of whiskers – looking like short, grumpy old men with all sorts of smiles on their faces. The chief elf, nearly as tall as a man, introduced Santa Claus, who drew a wild applause from the audience. We clapped and cheered for what seemed like a full five minutes.

But then, instead of a long speech and presents for one and all, Christmas songs and magic; instead of the ringing of bells, and a showing of the reindeer – he looked at me. I turned and looked at the boys and girls around me – everyone seemed frozen, gazing at the Toymaker. His lips did not move – he spoke not a word, but looked deep into my eyes with a mysterious smile, and I heard these words:

In the morning.’

I awoke suddenly. Bright light filled my eyes and the scurrying of my siblings in the hallway rang in my ears. It was Christmas morning! I sprang from my bed and threw my robe on. Downstairs my parents led us into a children’s paradise. We dove into the pile of presents and tore and squealed with glee for the most joyous half-hour of the year. When the giggling died down and all the big and mysterious packages had been opened, I sullenly piled up my new sweaters and my undershirts, and patted the stuffed teddy on the head, to charm my parents, who exchanged happy and exhausted glances. There was still Aunt May’s house in the afternoon, but I was certain I had not gotten what I had wished for.

We dressed, shined our shoes, combed our hair, and left – late, a family tradition. I grumbled into church that day, and sat through a high-pitched, off-key choir and a sermon that was much the same. They sang my favorite carol for communion, but I didn’t care, until my eyes caught my sister kneeling at the rail. She had just received, and was still kneeling there after a good thirty seconds, before walking back to the pew like an angel. She hadn’t looked like that since First Communion, and even then it was only just for show.

I went up to the sanctuary and knelt. The priest came with the altar boy and I opened my mouth, closed my eyes, and felt the host lie there on my tongue. I didn’t open my eyes for a long time. I saw a bright light at first, and then figures in the light moving to and fro, but their features were indiscernible. At the center, where it seemed the light was coming from, I saw a child in a manger, and the most beautiful young lady I have ever seen beside him. She was very young; her skin was somewhat tan and her hair, the darkest brown; her eyes were pure and she was smiling. She looked at me, pointing to the infant.

I felt a hand take mine and lead me back to the pew. I still kept my eyes shut, and peered into the crib. No words can properly describe the warm sensation of joy that flowed through me. His face was sweet and his infant skin soft; he opened his eyes, and I knew – it was something akin to faith – I knew I had him in me, and I had gotten what I’d asked for.”

There the stranger stopped and smiled, seeing the incredulous look upon my face. I searched for words, but found none. Then the whistle blew for Syracuse and the storyteller stood to go. Before exiting the car, I caught one last glimpse of him that shall be ever engraved in my memory; for that story and what I saw made of me a fervent churchgoer ever since. He gave his, “Merry Christmas!” and the scarf that had been wrapped so tightly round his neck opened for an instant, and I saw a Roman collar underneath.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

If By Any Chance

By Joe Cunningham

If by any chance
You read this.
Know that I was thinkin about you.

It’s still everyday. But not all the time

My friends all wouldn’t approve of me writin this.
They all say I should “move on.” “Let go.”
What does that mean anyway?
I was hoping
By some chance
You could tell me.

I’ve become a better man, I think.
I’m James Deaning the shit outta things now.
My son and I. We spend a lot more time together.
I like it.
I finally like the person I’ve become.
I just miss you.

The other night I was high with my brothers and I felt pretty good about things ya know.
Like a peaceful easy feeling.
But I still missed you.
I just felt this reckless abandon.
But it wasn’t reckless.
It was probably the most sane thing I’ve ever felt.
I’m glad I felt it.

There’s a freedom in music. Good music and film - a truth.
Something you hear, something that rings.

I’m working on a new film. Something really good.
It’s about the most horrible things that go on everyday around here under our very noses.
Was talking to a guy who knew shit last week.
Cops followed me for the rest of the day.
My search history is full of girls who were taken.
I’m gonna save some of them.
‘Cause I’m Batman.

I saved one a few months ago.
By some chance.

And if by some chance you ever watch my movie,
Know that you were one of the characters.
I play the main character.
You were the one I didn't see until it was too late.

I think I feel what you are looking for.
I’ve thought about it quite a bit.
Compared myself to that.
Not gonna lie.
I’m not that.
I’m not sorry either.

I can’t get rid of the feelings.
I just can’t.
I banged a couple of my friends
One was good.
But she’s gone now.
I was trying to forget about you.
And I can’t.
I have this horribly good memory.

I’m seeing a shrink.
He tells me things I already know.
I talk most the time anyway.

I had hoped this rant was more poetic.
But it’s not.
It was supposed to be beautiful like the song I’m listening to right now.

My friends say I’ll “get over you.”
I don’t really know if that’s gonna happen.
I really just wish you the best.
And that’s not me.

I don’t think by any chance you’ll ever want me back.
But if you do
I don’t know if I’ll be there

But for now:

If by any chance you’re looking for me
I’m downtown by the river
On that path we walked down
When we were just friends
And we felt like we could fly

By some chance.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Enjoy Your Meal

A Few Things You Should Know When You Go Out to Eat
By Joe Cunningham

I’ve read so many posts like this on the internet: BuzzFeed and whatnot. This one won’t be dramatically different or comprehensive; but I have been a waiter for half my goddam life and I’ve seen everything (except that pube hair stuff on the movie Waiting), so I know what I’m fucking talkin about.

Take this as a public service announcement to all the assholes, bitches, and cunts out there that this applies to. You know who you are.

And to my brothers and sisters in “the hospitality industry” - these shots are for you!


  1. I don’t like you.
See this smile on my face? It’s fake. Me asking you how you are doing? I don’t give a shit. I’m really good at pretending: I make a living off it and have 3 Academy Awards.

So don’t ask me if I’m having a bad day, try to give me a hug, or expect me to remember any part of your life story. Order your food, eat it, pay me, and then get the fuck out.

  1. We have menus for a reason.
When you give us a fucking laundry list of special preps for your “make your own sandwich” and then say “I hope that won’t be too much trouble” and add “I’m sorry” with your suburban mom smile, know that we wish you were slow-burning in hell at that moment - you and your whole fucking family.

And when we reply, “That won’t be a problem,” with a smile on our face, we are lying. It will be a problem. And we hate you.

  1. You know what’s gluten free?
Sucking on my dick is gluten free. Also shutting the fuck up and driving yourself off the nearest gluten free bridge works for us as well.

  1. Acting like we are stupid.
I have a college degree, was a professor, and worked many desk-jockey jobs just like yours before I decided I hated those more than this.

So when you - every suburban mom not getting fucked by her cheating husband in the entire world - tell me not once but three times to “put $30 on the blue credit card and $40 on the red one,” and then you ask me “if [I] can do that”! - I am moments away from bitch slapping your face in front of your cunt friends.

We don’t do this because we got nothin else. And we’re not fucking stupid; we are probably smarter than your wrinkly dumb ass every day of the week.

  1. To asswipes that leave no tip:
I been stiffed about a dozen times over about the same number of years I been a waiter. I might have deserved it once when we were busy and I was new.

The other times I didn’t. I busted my ass for you. On an average busy night I walk about 5 miles back and forth from that goddamn kitchen for your ass so you can sit there and chew your goddam food and not wash dishes that night. (That’s no lie, you can track it on your smartphone.)

When you leave $0.00 for a tip, it ain’t funny. That’s my rent, my son’s food, and the gas I put in my car to come here to serve your ass. And when you do it with a credit card, guess what? I get to pay a fee to process the payment for your goddam food so - that’s right - I just paid you to serve you your fucking dinner.

If you ever walk in that door again, I refuse to serve you.

  1. If you have to wait a few minutes.
First of all, shut the fuck up. Look the fuck around. I’m not standing here jerking off. I’ve probably got 6 other tables that are just as “special” as you that are waiting for me as well.

If we are good servers, we have you on a rotation, so we don’t have to get all your shit at the same time. Trust me, it’s probably above your I.Q. level.

Don’t give me that fucking shrugging your shoulders thing, if you ordered a well done steak, it’s not coming out three goddamn minutes later. There are about five cooks busting their asses harder than you ever prostituted yours to get everyone’s food out.

So shut the fuck up and wait.

  1. “So what else do you do?”
I do this. Yeah, I’m a writer and stuff but this is a “real job” bitch. I make real money and pay real bills and have a real life when I’m not here pretending to like you and every stupid thing you say.

Be a little more condescending why don’tcha?

  1. If we close in 15 minutes, you didn’t just make it!
I see this all the time. You just made it if you got here maybe an hour before close. Otherwise take your fat ass to Mickey D’s.

If you sit down at 10:57 and “kitchen closes at 11,” we hate you with everything we got you inconsiderate bastard.

I don’t come into your 9-5 at 4:55PM and expect a full rectum check right then and there because “I just made it.”

Trust me, I got something in my rectum just for you fuckers.

  1. Just be nice.
The truth is, I’m not an asshole. Some of the best people hands down I know work as servers/bartenders. We are usually brutally honest, hardworking people and it’s a tough goddam job. And we know most of you are well-intentioned, good people. And we don’t hate, most of you.

Just remember to “treat others as you want to be treated.” You wouldn’t treat your dog the way some of you treat us. We aren’t your personal slaves, strippers, or shrinks. You can go pay for that elsewhere. We give you food and drinks and somewhat honest smiles and you give us money; that’s how it fuckin works.

So don’t fuck it up, and “enjoy your meal folks!”