327: “Fruitcake Chronicles,” a serialized holiday story, Part 1

(and a gift for you today)

FRESH OUT OF THE University of Michigan writing program more than 30 years ago, my first paying job as a writer arose during a brief revival of “serialized fiction” in daily newspapers. I wrote 72 chapters of contemporary pulp fiction called, “Summerset Saga.”
    That brief period in American journalism now is thankfully forgotten. It occurred during a moment of panic when publishers first glimpsed that young people weren’t as interested in newspapers as they should be. So, a shocking amount of money was poured into serials like the “Saga.”
    I am not making this up: I was 21, proudly sporting a handlebar mustache and a couple of writing awards from my university years and — for the better part of a year — I sat at the helm of a rollicking adventure story that roved from romance to murder. To promote this experiment, there were “Summerset Saga” billboards along freeways. A team of professional actors produced advertisements for clear-channel WJR Radio. No kidding — there was even a “Summerset Saga Iron On.” I still have a set of pillow cases featuring the Saga’s heroine, Terry Anne Maxwell.

    Maybe journalists didn’t understand the real meaning of the panic we were experiencing back in the mid ’70s. And maybe serialized fiction never should have been hauled out as an answer to the crisis. (No, I’m not about to republish “Summerset Saga.”)
    But we are going to publish — starting today — a serialized saga written by Doug Bursch, a pastor and an inspiring writer from the Pacific Northwest. (To read more about him: Check out his new venture: “The Fairly Spiritual Show.”)
    And, please, as you find time during this holiday week, read along with this fun, 6-part series. If you’re away from the Web with friends and family for a day or two — that’s terrific — just pick up the story as we go: We’ll keep providing easy links to all parts in the serial.
    Please, tell us what you think! It won’t spoil this tale to say it’s a mingling of Frank Capra’s “Wonderful Life,” National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” with a good dose of classic pulp fiction sprinkled on top. And, in the end, if you stay with us, I think you’ll enjoy where we all land, in the end.
    So, without further ado …

The Fruitcake Chronicles:
An Old-Fashioned Christmas

By Doug Bursch
(Part 1 of 6)

(LINKS TO ALL PARTS: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Parts 5 & 6)

“SIR, I’M NOT GOING TO ASK YOU AGAIN. Put the fruitcake down and step away from the Santa.” The officer’s voice was measured and deliberate, unaffected by the disconcerting scene before him.
    “I can’t do that officer! If I put it down, no one will eat it. I can’t let that happen.” Steve Forester’s left arm tired under the weight of the five-pound, fruit-laden cake. Unwilling to relent, he waved the loaf defiantly before the growing crowd of officers and bewildered holiday shoppers. Steve’s fruit baton waved more furiously with each passing second.
    “This fruitcake’s tired. It’s tired of being passed around — person to person — season to season — never eaten!”
    The officers slowly inched forward.
    “This isn’t a decoration. It’s food!” Steve was an angry prophet. “Food is meant to be eaten! And I’m not leaving here until someone takes a bite of this — this — deliciously fruity cake.”
    A young boy moved forward to accept the invitation. His mother quickly pulled him back.
    Steve began to cradle the loaf and whisper words of reassurance. “They don’t understand us. They think we’re crazy. But, we’re not crazy. We’re what Christmas is all about. They just need a taste — that’s all — for the love of GOD, someone? Just one taste!”
    Steve’s final plea silenced the mall. Only the faint, distant scream of an over-tired toddler could be heard.
    Even Steve was caught off guard by the silence. “Fine. Fine. If no one wants it, I’ll eat it myself.”
    Steve’s teeth tore into the homemade fruitcake, plastic wrapping and all. As he bit, the police rushed the platform, shoved Santa to the side and tackled Steve.
    Under the weight of a dozen officers, Steve’s assessment was muffled but audible: “This tastes like crap.”

    Every breakdown has a beginning.
    For Steve, it began five days before Halloween. His eldest daughter Lystra wanted to be a fork for Halloween. After a few concerted attempts to dissuade her from a cutlery costume, Steve assented to his 10-year-old daughter’s artistic vision. Like her mother, Lystra could change Steve’s plans with one prolonged, strategic smile.
    Consequently, Steve found himself alone on a Thursday night, wandering the aisles of Home Depot, unsuccessfully searching for inspiration in building a fork costume. Steve lamented not opening Lystra to the possibility of being a spoon. As the minutes and aisles passed, his normal “don’t worry” demeanor slid into “ship sinking” panic. As he turned the final corner of the big store — entirely forkless — his breakdown officially began.
    Steve beheld a long row of Christmas decorations — a dizzying array of giant blow-up Santas, snowmen, and penguins. The inflatables were surrounded by an expansive plastic forest, replete with automated, white-wicker woodland creatures.
    Steve slowly stepped into this land of faux firs, automated reindeer and air-blown holiday mascots. He met a giant bear in a Santa suit, waving his paw and whistling, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” A 6-foot nutcracker chattered holiday wishes toward a row of pint-size Rock and Roll Santas. The miniature dancing Santas responded to the nutcracker’s good tidings with syncopated pelvic gyrations.
Model trains aplenty chugged and chew chewed through the polyurethane snow as myriad lights blinked, flashed, and strobed within the trees and along the walls. Steve’s vision blurred. Before him was one big fuzzy glow of holiday excess.
    When he reached that last aisle’s end, a blinding luminescence confronted Steve. His eyes strained to discern some form in this radiance. When the spectacle came into focus, Steve realized he was staring at a front-yard manger scene. Although half-size in stature, the plastic figurines radiated such fierce light that Steve was tempted to kneel in honor of their glory.
    Steve tried his best to make out the beaming baby Jesus. As he did, Steve had a clear and simple revelation. “Whatever this is — I don’t want it anymore.”

    With this simple thought, Steve headed out the door. Surely, a solution for Lystra’s fork would avail itself on the ride home, he thought, dismissing his costume concerns. No, in that moment, Steve already had begun a very different quest: making this the best Christmas ever. But a Christmas with no flash, no gaudy glare, no over-the-top excess.
    This year would be different.
    This year, Steve vowed to celebrate a simple, old-fashioned Christmas. Unfortunately, even the purest of intentions can go terribly wrong.



    FOR HANUKKAH (AND CHRISTMAS): Meet Rabbi Schulweis in a Conversation about his provocative and hopeful new book on “Conscience.” Or, enjoy the remarkable history of “The Bagel.”
    GIFTS? Check out our list for the “young in heart and spirit.”
    ANOTHER KIND OF CHRISTMAS STORY: The Spiritual Wanderer’s Christmas tale.
    SHARE STORIES OF GENEROSITY: Dr. Wayne Baker invites readers to “pay it forward — and backward” this week by sharing heart-warming stories at www.OurValues.org

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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