A Christmas Car - Part 1
By Lee Hart
Marley was dead; as dead as a doornail. Of that there can be no doubt. The death certificate said so, and Scrooge said so, and what Scrooge said was invariably true (or would become so with a few well-chosen phone calls).
Yet the firm still bore both their names: Mobul-Exon, for Mobul Marley and Exonezer Scrooge. It remained the largest corporation on earth; wealthier than nations, mightier than kings. Marley and Scrooge had poured their lives and souls into it, leaving precious little for anything else.
But Marley was gone, and Scrooge had retired, ostensibly to enjoy a well-earned rest from the inexorable pressures of commerce. At least, that was his story for the gullible masses. In reality, he worked as hard as ever, applying his talents to activities best conducted discretely, unobserved by the prying eyes of the Commerce Department or the circus arenas of Senate subcommittees.
Oh, never was there a more grasping, squeezing, manipulative, covetous old sinner than Scrooge! He was undoubtedly famous, or rather infamous, though he cared not about his reputation. He was most certainly wealthy, but his wealth did him no good; it was but a tool for achieving his ends. For Scrooge had discovered long ago that oil was the life blood of the world economy. He had spent his entire life to put his finger on that vein, and he wasn't about to release it now.
Thus he could be found on that cold Christmas eve, still hard at work in his cheerless office, accompanied only by his personal secretary, Bob Cratchit.
Scrooge kept his office door open, that he might prevent his assistant from meddling with the thermostat. And so he heard the door open, and saw the visitor enter. A moment later Cratchit announced, "A gentleman from the Transportation Coalition to see you, sir. A mister..."
"I know who he is," growled Scrooge. "Since you seem to be incapable of getting rid of him, send him in and I'll do it myself."
Despite this inauspicious welcome, the caller began, "Mr. Scrooge, in light of your vast experience in the oil business, I would like to solicit your support for our Clean Air Initiative. We..."
"What, have the shoe stores all closed?" Scrooge interrupted.
"Uh, not as far as I know," said the caller.
"And are not bicycles still available?", Scrooge asked.
"Yes, but I do not see the relevance," the visitor replied.
"The point, sir," said Scrooge, "is that if you Greens want cleaner air, you can all bloody well walk or ride a bicycle!"
"But Mr. Scrooge, that is hardly practical," came the reply. "Many stores have no provisions to reach them on foot. Few communities are still providing sidewalks. Those who must walk or bicycle in the streets are taking their lives in their hands!"
"All the better," replied Scrooge. "Let them be run down in the streets and thus rid the world of its excess population. Now *that* would do something positive for the environment. Good day!"
"I see your mind has been made up," the caller answered sadly. "Nevertheless I wish you a Merry Christmas."
"Bah, humbug!" Scrooge shouted.
Scrooge waited impatiently for his caller to leave, then snapped, "Cratchit, get Mangles and Craven on the phone. Those cursed Clean Air mongers are at it again. Tell them to step up our campaign! There's no time to lose! More letters, more phone calls. I've bought another Carnegie Mellon study that says..."
"But it's Christmas Eve, sir. They'll be home with their families and friends."
"I don't pay them good money to sit around drinking eggnog and singing insipid songs. Call them at home, then."
Cratchit did as he was directed. "It's no use, sir. All I'm getting are Christmas greetings on their answering machines."
"Humbug! Doesn't anyone do a decent day's work any more?"
"Ahh, that me reminds me, sir. Tomorrow is Christmas, and I was hoping, if you wouldn't be needing me..."
"Yes, yes, I know. I expect you'll be wanting the whole day off, too," muttered Scrooge.
"Yes, sir, if it's convenient."
"Well, it's not convenient, as if that mattered. The law says I have to pay you, too. Very well. But you had better arrive all the earlier next morning, or you'll find yourself looking for another position! Now, get out of here before I change my mind."
"Oh, yes sir, thank you sir," exclaimed Cratchit. "Good night to you, sir, and Merry Chr-- I mean, uh..."
"Bah, humbug!" shouted Scrooge. "Now get out!"
Cratchit was gone like a shot. Scrooge grumbled, and continued to work on his latest scheme to get lead banned as a dangerous toxin. At last, he locked up the office, and drove himself home.
Scrooge parked his huge SUV in the garage of his elegant home. Such luxuries weren't to his miserly tastes, but were inherited from Marley, who had no living relatives.
As was his daily custom, he turned on the TV to watch the business reports while a frozen dinner thawed in the microwave. But the usual announcer's face appeared subtly wrong. Scrooge looked more closely. The features seemed to melt and flow like wax. The more Scrooge watched, the more disturbing it became. It reminded him of someone; but whom? With a sudden shock, Scrooge recognized the face; it had become that of Mobul Marley, Scrooge's dead partner.
The announcer's voice droned on, "Corrected for inflation, gasoline prices are still at a 30-year low, due to deliberate over-production by the oil companies and the needs of oil-producing nations to purchase military weaponry..."
Bah. Scrooge angrily punched the remote. It was another newscast, but amazingly, the announcer still looked like Marley. He was saying, "The World Health Organization reports that cancer deaths among children in Iraq are now 4 times above normal, due to the depleted uranium warheads used in US bombing of water treatment plants during the Desert Storm campaign to secure oil..."
He punched the remote again, and again. Every channel was a newscast, and every announcer had Marley's face! And every word an attack on big oil!
"... USA remains the sole holdout in refusing to sign the treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions..."
"... Exxon Valdez that spilled millions of gallons of oil..."
"... lobbying to defeat California's zero emissions mandate..."
"... burning fossil fuels remains the main cause of global warming and acid rain..."
"... a known carcinogen, is widely used as a gasoline additive..."
"Humbug! Who is responsible for this outrage!" he shouted. He punched the off button on the remote, but the TV kept on playing, madly switching from channel to channel on its own, each with the face of Marley condemning oil with every word. Scrooge threw down the remote, and marched to the TV set. Even the on/off switch had no effect. Grabbing the cord, he yanked it from the wall socket. A foot-long blinding arc flashed, and singed the hair of his hand. But the hateful TV programming did stop.
Surprised and more than a bit shaken, Scrooge finished his uninviting repast, then went up to bed. But as a hint of his state of mind, he checked every room and locked every lock, even that of his bedroom door before retiring.
Sleep was difficult. Every sound in the house seemed amplified and ominous. The clock had just struck midnight when a new sound began; a wet, sticky sound, of muffled clanks and moans, seeming to come from deep below. The furnace? Then came the crash of the locked basement door being torn open, and the noises became louder. Burglars! Scrooge punched at the alarm system on his bedside table, but it was dead! He tried the phone; only silence greeted his ears.
The noises were now on the stairs, louder still. Now they were in the hall. Now outside his door. But one should not suppose that Scrooge was not resourceful. He grabbed his pistol from the bedside table drawer, and hastily loaded it. Shaking, he raised the pistol and shouted, "Don't open that door! I've got a gun!"
He was thus completely dumbfounded when the source of the noise passed into his room, right through the heavy door without opening it.
A fantastic sight greeted Scrooge's incredulous eyes. It appeared to be a man. Draped about him was a most incredible collection of chains, drill bits, guns, stock certificates, dead animals, and cash boxes wrought in steel. The exact nature of these items was difficult to ascertain as the whole of it was covered in sticky, oily tar, which oozed and flowed onto the floor. An intense smell of oil and gas filled the air. And the face was that of... Mobul Marley! Scrooge tried to say "Humbug" but the words died in his throat.
"What, or... Who are you?" Scrooge gasped.
"In life, I was your partner, Mobul Marley," sighed the apparition.
"Now this miserable spirit is all that remains. I am condemned to wander the earth to witness all the suffering and misery brought on by my deeds." With that, the ghost moaned piteously and shook its greasy chains.
"Why are you arrayed so?" asked Scrooge.
"I made these chains in life, link by link, yard by yard. Every greedy, uncaring act forged another link. Now they bind me to these tokens of my evil deeds; the destruction, pollution, violence, and death I caused."
"But you weren't an evil man," said Scrooge. "Just a good businessman."
"Our business is mankind, not money," accused the ghost. "All the activities of our trade are but one drop in the ocean of our true purpose in life. Yet I neglected all but profit. Too late did I learn that profits gained at the expense of others are ill-gotten gains."
"Humbug," said Scrooge. "We didn't force anyone to use our products. They were free to choose, so let them worry about the consequences."
"Do you deny the corrupting influence of money? Or intimidation by the vast armies arrayed against anyone who opposed us? Fool! We were the ones entrusted with the world's future energy resources -- and we have embezzled and squandered that wealth in a single lifetime!"
"Yes, yes; I've heard it all before, and from more eloquent speakers than you," said Scrooge irritably. "So why are you here spouting such nonsense?"
"In life I was your only friend. I have come to give you one last chance to escape my fate. For I have seen the chains you have forged; and they are longer and heavier even than mine!"
Now, that shook Scrooge considerably. "Me? What have I done to deserve this horrible fate?"
The ghost ignored him. "You will be haunted by three spirits. Heed their warnings. Think deeply upon what they reveal. And change your ways, Exonezer, before it is too late." As he spoke, the spirit gradually faded away, until at last, there was nothing left of it.
Scrooge looked around. The gun still lay in his hand, unused. The door was still locked tight. Was it real? Or just a dream? Much preferring to believe the latter, Scrooge willed himself to sleep.
He was disturbed by the downstairs clock striking twelve. Again? No; it struck thirteen times! "Time to get a new clock," he muttered.
But there was another sound. A muted click, and a whir. The creak of tires. Scrooge was not about to be surprised again. He arose, and opened the door.
But he was indeed surprised. A tall black antique car was driving down the hallway. It stopped at his bedroom door. The driver opened the car's door, and said, "Please enter, Mr. Scrooge."
"Who are you?" he inquired.
"I am the ghost of EV's passed," she replied, for the ghost was a woman. Thin and gray haired, but with a resolute demeanor and a commanding voice as clare as a bell.
"What do you want?"
"You were told of my coming. Now stop dawdling and get in!" she ordered, thumping the seat beside her.
Scrooge did as he was told. It was a very strange car. The interior had the feel of grandma's parlor. There were tie-back window curtains, cut glass vases with red roses, and a comb and brush case where the dashboard should be. The driver sat in the rear seat, holding a tiller which apparently did the steering. The two front seats, more like overstuffed chairs, actually faced rearward.
Scrooge could see no gas gauge, but did spot a voltmeter and ammeter. "What manner of car is this?" he asked.
"It's a 1916 Detroit Electric," she replied. The spirit pushed a lever, and with a soft click, the car moved silently forward. Straight for a wall. Scrooge gasped and braced for the impact, but somehow it did not occur. The car continued to move majestically forward, but they were now cruising serenely down a city street. The cold and darkness of winter had also vanished, for it was a warm sunny day.
And the traffic! Pedestrians everywhere, dressed in antique styles. Bicycles by the score. Men on horses, and horse drawn carriages of every description. A streetcar, loaded with passengers, went by in the other direction.
"It looks like the days of my childhood," exclaimed Scrooge with a smile. "I could walk or bicycle all over town. And I remember those streetcars.
They were electric too, as I recall. Very clean and silent, and you could go anywhere for a nickel. My, it was such fun! I roamed the whole city."
"And was it 'fun' when you saw to it that the streetcar lines were all dismantled, so they could be replaced by buses?" the spirit asked?
The smile vanished from Scrooge's face. "That was business," he declared. "How can you expect me to sell more gas and oil with alternatives like electric trolleys? I was just making sure that no matter how people got to work, they would be using my gas and oil. The streetcars were doomed anyway; I just helped the process along. And GM took the heat, not me. 'What's good for General Motors is good for the USA', you know."
A loud clattering noise came up from behind. The motorcar paused for an opening in traffic, then roared past them, leaving an oily cloud in its wake.
"Now there's a real car," Scrooge coughed. "A Duesenberg, if I'm not mistaken. Three tons if it's a pound, and six miles to the gallon. A real man's machine. Ah, if we only had its likes today!"
"And its pollution, too?" the spirit asked.
"Back then we were replacing horses. Their 'emissions' had to be worse. All natural, too! Which would you prefer? Although," he mused, "I recall Henry Ford testing an engine in his wife's kitchen. Smoked 'em right out of the house in nothing flat! Maybe a horse would have been cleaner."
They pulled up to an elegant estate. "Well bless my soul, it's my old club", exclaimed Scrooge. "Everyone who was anyone was a member. Look, that's Henry Ford just getting out of his wife's car. Hmm; now that I think about it, she refused to drive anything but electrics."
The spirit smiled knowingly and said, "Perhaps she remembered the consequences of a gasoline engine in her kitchen."
Ford walked over to where a group of men were gathered around a car. Hatches were open front and rear, and an older man was excitedly explaining something to the crowd of onlookers. "I remember that day! That's Tom Edison. He drove his Baker electric to the club to show off his new battery," said Scrooge. "He'd been working to perfect it for years. It looked like he'd finally succeeded, too. He was giving people rides when it died unexpectedly. Ford had to tow him home. Edison was so humiliated that he gave the whole thing up. He never did figure out what went wrong."
The group moved away from the car to examine some sample batteries around the corner. A young man loitered behind, near the car. He looked about furtively, then unscrewed the vent caps and unzipped his pants. A trickling sound was heard.
"Why, that's me!" said Scrooge, blushing slightly. "Sorry, spirit. I guess I was a bit of a scalawag in those days. A youthful prank, you know."
"Indeed," said the spirit icily. "And were they 'youthful pranks' to sabotage or buy up every alternative technology, to keep them in the laboratory and off the market? Why do the oil companies own all the solar cell companies, Scrooge?"
"Oh, that. Uh, well, there were stockholder interests to protect, you see, and..." His voice trailed off unconvincingly.
They traveled on, witnessing the growth of the gasoline automobile and the decline of electrics. Somehow, it was not quite as honorable as he remembered. He saw himself conspiring with wealthy auto tycoons, lobbying government officials for special tax breaks, bribing ruthless dictators to insure cheap oil supplies; his ever-growing wealth always used to further his own power and crush any opposition.
At last, they returned to the hallway outside his bedroom door. "Farewell Exonezer," the ghost said. "I hope you have learned from our journey."
"Well," began Scrooge, "I'll admit that I was perhaps a bit underhanded at times, and something of a bully in getting my way. But electrics never had a chance anyway. They'll never be a car for anyone but timid old women."
"We shall see," said the spirit. With that, she silently drove off, the car fading into insubstantial mist until it disappeared completely.
Scrooge felt drained; tired to the bone. He threw himself into bed, and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
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