Hutch didn’t bother knocking before letting himself in to Starsky’s place. He could barely push the door open wide enough to get inside. A large box overflowing with tinsel, ornaments and other Christmas paraphernalia sat right in the middle of the foyer.
“Starsky, what is all this?” Hutch grumbled, trying to get past without tripping over the box.
“Christmas decorations!” Starsky said over his shoulder. “For the Big Brother, Big Sister party tomorrow night. Molly and Kiko are coming over later to help me haul it all over to the community center.”
He was sitting at the dining room table, preoccupied with something Hutch could not see. The table was heaped with Christmas stockings, ribbons, Santa coloring books, red and white striped candy canes, a half dozen tiny Christmas trees, plus several menorahs, a sack full of gold wrapped chocolate coins, and three dreidels.
“You must have cleaned out the holiday aisles of several stores!” Hutch exclaimed, leaning over to kiss the bare neck between Starsky’s red sweater and hairline. He smelled strongly of chocolate.
When Starsky turned to grin at him, there was a smear of chocolate on his lower lip.
“Candy at 10:30 in the morning?” Hutch swiped away the evidence with the ball of his thumb, relishing in the opportunity to stroke his skin.
“You ever seen one of these?” Starsky held up a rectangular box about the size of a large children’s book. On the front was a lively scene of Santa Claus distributing gifts under a decorated Christmas tree, plus a beribboned kitten and puppy cavorting on the rug, ready for the festive morning. The picture was punctuated with small flaps numbered one through twenty-four. Starsky had already pried open the first door above Santa’s head, and eaten the chocolate inside.
“An Advent calendar.” Hutch nodded. “Although we had far more religious ones when I was a kid, without chocolate. Usually Bible quotations.”
“What’s it for, exactly?” Starsky asked, pulling up door number two for his second piece of candy. “Except to give a kid a buzz every morning.”
“To prepare the child—“ Hutch poked Starsky in the ribs. “For the birth of Jesus. To remind them that Christmas is more than presents and cookies.”
“As if!” Starsky said with mocking scorn, opening a third door situated over an ornament in the Christmas tree.
“You can’t just open all of them!” Hutch protested. “One a day.”
“Hutch.” Starsky chuckled. “Today is December tenth, so I get ten pieces.”
“Eight,” Hutch countered. “Give me two.”
“So chocolate every morning,“ Starsky mused, pushing his fingernail under the flaps for days four and five, “or Bible quotations, gets you ready for Christmas?”
“You’ve talked enough about Jewish high holidays for me to know that there are nine days between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah has eight days,” Hutch said, taking his candy out of the two open spaces. The chocolate was smooth and creamy on his tongue. “The buildup is important—getting ready, thinking about the event…”
“Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah,” Starsky added, popping the chocolate from doors six, seven and eight into his mouth at the same time. “The festival of lights—Dreidel song and chocolate gelt.”
“What exactly are you celebrating?” Hutch asked, pushing aside some of Starsky’s holiday loot to make room at the table for his arms. One of the menorahs tumbled over, spilling its birthday cake sized candles into the mess. He picked them up, slotting them into the candle holder.
“Way back when,” Starsky gestured over his shoulder.
Hutch had to grin. They’d both learned a smattering of sign language over the years, from Larry and RC, two deaf men they’d met when investigating a crime, as well as some of the kids at the Marshall Center. Starsky had unconsciously used the sign for time passage.
“There was this revolt, and a bunch of Jews only had enough lamp oil for one night. Miraculously, it lasted eight days and the guys survived.” Starsky frowned slightly, opening door nine directly over the kitten. “I guess it’s all about light, and proof of God, that there are miracles all around us, all the time.” He chewed the chocolate thoughtfully as if he’d never considered the story from that angle before. “I’m not up on all the significance. We didn’t go to synagogue all that often.”
“Actually,” Hutch said, putting his hand out for another piece of chocolate. As he expected, Starsky rolled his eyes and broke the last candy in two, giving them each a morsel. “Advent is very much about the same thing; waiting for the light of the world, God’s gift, and that the birth of a little baby is a miracle.” He smiled when Starsky cocked his head, nodding. “My grandfather used to give powerful Christmas time sermons, but it’s been a long time since I went to eleven o’clock services on the twenty-fourth.”
“The birth of any baby is a miracle,” Starsky said softly, pushing aside several bags to reveal a small plastic crèche set. The tiny baby Jesus lay in a hay strewn manger, his arms out as if reaching for Mary. “Whether or not you think he’s the one.”
“Some people act as if there’s all this difference between the way Christians and Jews believe.” Hutch paused, not exactly sure what he was trying to say. “Can’t dispute that Jesus was Jewish. Christians followed in his lead.”
“All the same guy up in the sky?” Starsky quirked a grin.
“There’s a passage—of course I can’t remember the entire thing, but it’s from Isaiah.” Hutch closed his eyes, searching through the vast library of facts and quotes he’d memorized in his life, to Sunday school under the watchful eye of his Grandmother Anna. “A tree will grow out of the stem of Jesse and a branch grows out of its roots.”
“Jesse, King David’s father. Judaism is the basis of Christianity?” Starsky interpreted with a shrug. “Seems to me pretty obvious but I know that’s not how lotsa people think.”
“We’ve never talked about this before,” Hutch said, not really surprised at Starsky’s astute summation. “Religion, belief. You know, before I came to California, met you…”
“The high point in your life, blintz?” Starsky stood, walking into the kitchen. “Want some coffee? Need to wash down all that chocolate.”
“In Minnesota, I’d met a handful of black people, at the university, but I’d never met anyone who wasn’t Christian.“ Hutch frowned, recalling his naiveté. “You hear all these rumors, prejudice nonsense. I’d known you for months at the academy before one of the other cadets called you a hebe, among other things.”
Starsky turned from the coffee pot, the can of Yuban still in his hand. “You slugged him!” he exclaimed. “I remember hearing that Hutchinson had attacked Douglass. I couldn’t believe it!”
“Nearly got me expelled.” Hutch shook his head. “I had to do a lot of mea culpas, swear it would never happen again. Funny thing was, I didn’t even actually know what hebe meant.”
“Hebrew,” Starsky explained, spooning coffee into the pot. He sounded sad, remote.
Hutch stood, pulling Starsky into his arms, some of the coffee grounds spilling on the counter. “I didn’t know and I didn’t care. By that time, I’d already formed an opinion of a good, honest, caring guy. You were Jewish? That was new and interesting but didn’t change what I thought about you.”
“You’re one of a kind, Hutchinson,” Starsky twisted in the embrace so they were facing each other, close enough to kiss. “In New York, when I was a kid, it made a lot of difference, all right. You knew who was a Jew, Catholic, protestant. It marked you for life. Laid down a line in the sand…put you in a separate gang.”
“But at least you knew there was variety,” Hutch mused, troubled and vaguely angry at his past self. Why, he wasn’t quite sure, but all sorts of feelings of inadequacy were suddenly emerging as if he should have dealt with this years ago. “For the first fifteen years of my life, I thought ninety-five percent of Americans were blond and blue eyed. The only black guy I’d ever seen before college was an African in a damned Tarzan movie.”
“You’ve been holding out on me!” Starsky accused with a glint in his eye, playfully smacking his arm.
Hutch stared at him, still caught up in his own guilt. Belatedly, he realized Starsky was using one of his distracting tactics to take the sting out of the discussion.
“Never told me you went to Tarzan flicks!” He grinned. “Which one?”
“It had Tarzan, Jane, some apes, and what does it matter?” Hutch colored his response with a hint of irritation because it was expected. “Stop changing the subject.”
“Hutch, yeah, where we come from matters some, just like what our parents think about stuff,” Starsky said sensibly, pouring two cups of steaming coffee. He doctored his own with milk and sugar, and pushed the other cup to Hutch.
“Nature versus nurture, Dr. Freud?” Hutch teased, wondering how their conversation had ranged so far from the meaning of an Advent calendar. He took a sip of the coffee. Starsky did make a fine cup.
Starsky narrowed his eyes. “This one of those you-didn’t-go-to-college cracks?”
“No, you’re absolutely correct,” Hutch surrendered, smiling. “I’m impressed. It’s what we learn as we go along, right? Look past the clichés to see the real person.”
“Open doors,” Starsky said thoughtfully, glancing at the calendar on the table. “If you were defending…” he chuckled, “my honor way back at the academy, long before I saw you as more than a Ken doll with a quick brain and a bitchy wife…”
“You thought that?” Hutch groaned, pretending insult. Truth be told, it was another pretty accurate assessment. He’d been a stickler for the rules in those days, still half in the law school vibe he’d tried to escape, and chronically confused with Nan-Van’s conceited view of life and their marriage. “Starsk, you…got through to something in me on that first day at the shooting range. I’d never even held a pistol before, but you were there, coaching, giving pointers while the teacher never even noticed a thing.”
“I almost forgot that.” Starsky leaned closer, one hand on Hutch’s waist. “You caught on quick. Faster’n Colby.”
“God, he made up for it, though, didn’t he?” Hutch grimaced at the memory of their former friend turned assassin.
Starsky cocked his finger as if taking a bead on Hutch’s chest. “He got what was comin’ to him. You’ve got a good heart, Hutch, through it all, you always want to believe the best about people. What your little baby Jesus would want, isn’t it?”
“It’s what we should all want, but don’t have,” Hutch said, tucking his chin to kiss Starsky on the mouth. The taste of coffee flavored chocolate invaded his senses.
“Mmm.” Starsky licked his lips. “This is what I want every morning until December twenty-fourth.”
“Only in December?” Hutch chuckled.
“Can I make a New Year’s resolution to kiss you daily?” Starsky laughed, giving him a quick peck on the lips.
“I don’t think it’s valid until New Year’s,” Hutch said loftily. “But I’ll spin the dreidel for a kiss tonight, and you can earn a kiss a day opening those little doors.” He flicked his finger at the calendar.
“See how easy it is for two religions to come to a consensus?” Starsky nodded with satisfaction. “We got time to move this discussion to the bed? I didn’t even smooth out the sheets this morning…”
“I never stand on ceremony.” Hutch started for the bedroom, only to freeze when the doorbell rang. “Damn,” he whispered.
Starsky snickered, palming the rising thickness over his groin.
“Starsky!” Kiko called from the front step.
“Hutch!” Molly chimed in.
“How’d they know I would be here?” Hutch asked, libido shrinking as fast as Starsky’s erection.
“I’m gonna guess cause your car is parked in the driveway?” Starsky shot over his shoulder, going to open the door. “Hey, kids, you’re early.”
“Ho ho ho!” Kiko crowed.
“You ever had an Advent Calendar?” Starsky ushered them over to the table, pulling out two more of the flat boxes decorated with Santa delivering gifts.
Hutch collected his coffee cup, enjoying the noise and happiness of two teens in the house. He and Starsky would probably never have any children of their own but these two, plus the special needs kids at the Marshall Center, had their own places in his heart. This is what the holidays were about: love, family, generosity and friendship. Didn’t matter how or what you believed in.
“Nope.” Molly grinned, examining hers. “Smells like chocolate!”
“Tastes like chocolate!” Kiko opened the first two doors to collect his candy.
“Gets you right in the mood,” Starsky said, glancing over at Hutch with a sultry expression.
“For Christmas!” Hutch added, crossing his legs suddenly and gulping coffee.