Christmas was always a special time at the Hilltop House Hotel. My fellow employees and I always had a grand time decorating the old girl in her holiday finery. Fat red ribbons entwined the spindles of the grand staircase, ribbons of gold hung from every portrait in the hallways and stray strands of tinsel were forever the bane of our housekeepers. The normal pleasing, nondescript musak that was piped through the lobby and hallways was replaced with the smooth crooning of Harry Connick Jr. and Bing Crosby, with the addition of a few non-traditional Christmas songs pirated into the soundtrack by myself and a few of the younger staff members. Branches of holly were strewn everywhere, the smell of cinnamon and apple cider filled the air, bringing warm and cozy thoughts to the mind of everyone.
I was always on tree detail. Being one of the larger of the staff members, I was a natural selection for the crew that brought in the big old pine tree into the lobby. One of the crew would visit the forest, there are PLENTY of free trees in the woods if you know where to go, and bring back the best candidate for the hotel’s tree. The tree would have to be full, green and vibrant. Jerry always brought back a winner, and everyone would smile and cheer when four of us would wrestle the giant pine into the lobby. The herculean effort was always rewarded with a hot cocoa and a huge slice of Chef Bill’s peach pie, making the entire task completely worth the effort. We always knew the day we would be getting the tree, because amidst the varied, cakes, cookies and breads that chef Bill would make, there would be a solitary, lone peach pie.
One particular Christmas season somewhere in the late 90’s, I was pulling on my coat and gloves to, once again, enter a battle royal with the tree. My friend John and I were the two largest guys on staff, so naturally the rest of the staff thought we could handle it on our own. John and I agreed to the challenge, after all, it was the two of us who moved the old piano and organ by ourselves after 4 of the smaller staff members failed. We laughed and joked about how each of us were “gonna eat half that dam pie by ourselves.” We looked like two warriors gearing up for the conflict…slapping each other’s shoulders…grunting “ready?” “I’m ready!’ to each other and other such nonsense that dripped with the idiotic machismo of youth. We stepped outside to let the air chill us and for myself to have a cigarette. We watched from outside, through frost chilled glass at the others decorating the hotel. My mom hung up a yellowed snowman that had seen more Christmases hanging from the wall than I had seen in my life. (the decoration was older than my parents) Branches of holly, cut from the hilltop’s own holly tree, were tied along every possible surface. Boughs of wonderfully scented pine were tied into wreaths and placed with loving care wherever they could be placed. And one corner of the grand lobby stood bare. In stark contrast to the rest of the hotel. It awaited the tree that was arriving.
John and I chatted about our plans for the holidays while I blew a plume of bluish grey smoke into the cold December night air. We didn’t wait long before Jerry, driving his beat up old red Ford pickup, came into the circle in front of the hotel. “Allright boys…” he said with his unfailing good cheer. “Let’s see what ya got.”
The tree was massive. Easily 12 feet tall and a perfect cone of pine needles, John and I knew we had our work cut our for us. A breeze picked up and blew the last remnants of dry leaves around us. The thing weighed easily 300 pounds if it was an ounce. John and I chuckled and shook our heads.
“We can do it ourselves, John…It wont be that heavy…” He said mocking me with a grin. “Come on Hercules. Let’s get it.”
I laughed and shook my head, flicking the cigarette into the sand filled ash bucket. I smiled and did a parody of flexing like the wrestlers I had watched in my youth. Slapped myself on my chest and gave a roar at the night sky.
Jerry laughed like a hyena. “you guys…”
We grunted and groaned, more than a few choice four letter words escaped our lips. The few guests that were in the hotel (invited to help with the décor and they always graciously accepted the invite) laughed and took no offense to the gruff language we used while battling the evergreen beast. Our effort was not in vain.
We got the thing into its antique base, and stood it up. the tree dominated the lobby now. It was if a forest had sprung up in a corner of the lobby in an instant. The aroma of the woods was flung throughout the lobby when the strings were cut and branches became unfettered and burst forward. The gathered people, employees and guests, gave a small round of applause. John and I made our bows, graciously.
The gathered ensemble took a break from the festivities to gorge themselves on cookies and coffee. john and I smiled.
“Job well done sir.” He said and clapped me on my back.
“Agreed, buddy, next time tho…” my words were cut off by a rustling in the branches and boughs of the pine. Something stirred in the hidden depth of the tree.
“Uh….john…” I said as I squinted into the green shadowed limbs, “I think that something is in there.”
He turned and looked with me into the branches…
The thing lept forth from the greenery like an angry yuletide spirit. It dashed between the pair of us with a blur of reddish grey fury. We watched, wide-eyed, as the thing dashed into the grand dining room…where everyone had gathered for the pre-tree trimming coffee break.
Under our breath, and simultaneously we whispered…”oh crap.” (that is paraphrased for a PG version)
It was mere seconds before we heard the first shriek from the dining room. Then another, followed by a gentleman laughing boisterously. We could hear chairs being overturned, someone shouting “there it goes!” and a general uproar of mayhem caused by the critter.
John and I rushed into the dining room. There the culprit was, perched atop our peach pie nibbling the crust with a malicious gleam in his dark little eyes. his tail twitched with a mocking little glee as he munched the perfectly baked, buttered crust.
“Oh…..that little bas***d has made it personal now…” I said as I laid my eyes on the spiteful creature.
John’s eyes narrowed as well. “Go ’round one side…I’ll go ’round the other. He said and snatched two folded crimson table cloths from a nearby stack. He tossed me one and unfolded the other. We approached stealthily towards it from flanking positions with the table cloths held before us like nets.
The gathered crowd watched in anticipation. The ladies gathered watched giggling from behind their chuckling husbands as we ever so slowly crept forward. The dam squirrel sat there munching away. He saw us approaching and, was either indifferent or simply wanted to taunt us. he didn’t stop eating. The little furry devil kept nibbling and munching away. We were so close now…I could almost count the hairs on his twitching little tail.
“Hey, what’s going on?” The door that led to the outside in the main dining room was flung open, and Jerry wondered in confusion at what he was seeing. The squirrel sat up quickly at the intrusion.
“NOW!” john said and jumped forward. I did the same. Our table cloths billowed out like the cape of a crusading hero as we both went airborne. The taunting red grey squirrel saw this……
And lept from the table with a sizeable chunk of crust in his mouth. He scampered with a chorus of chittering noises across the hardwood of the dining room floor, paused in front of Jerry who simply stepped aside, and dashed outside into the night…
It took the barest of seconds for that squirrel to vanish into the dark. But in those scant seconds, the flight of our intrepid heroes ended in tragedy. We saw it dart off and realized in dread, our fatal error. We crashed into each other with a sickening thud, knocking the wind out of each other and toppled into the table. Cookies flew like gingerbread and sugared confetti, a cake toppled into the fruit salad and John and I fell onto our pie. The uproar of laughter from the guests and employees covered the less than pleasant stream of curses that we let loose as we wiped peach pie from our hands, chest and face. Yes, we made a mighty mess of it.
Jerry walked over to us grinning and laughing. “Squirrel 2….you guys 0”