Starsky galloped up the stairs to his friend’s apartment, prepared to yank Hutchinson from his doldrums, if need be. He hummed his favorite Christmassy tune to get himself in the mood.

“Open up, Hutch!” Starsky banged on the door impatiently. Poor guy had rough luck. First his wife had bitched at him all the way through the police academy, as if being a cop wasn’t a really great job and worthy of merit. Then she’d up and left him three months back, less than a year after graduation. “Hutch, I’m hungry and you’re comin’ to breakfast with me!” Starsky shouted, raising his fist to rap on the door again.

He nearly hit his friend in the nose when the door swung open to reveal Ken Hutchinson, his blond hair tousled and his shirt unbuttoned.

“What?” Hutch asked. “Starsky, I was sleeping.”

“It’s ten-thirty on a Saturday!” Starsky protested, inspecting him from head to toe. Hutch looked like hell—like he’d slept in his clothes. “C’mon, holiday breakfast, a Starsky family tradition.”

Hutch waved his hand to let Starsky in. “Not really hungry.”

“And there’s nothing in your place, still.” Starsky looked around in dismay. The small studio was carpeted, but there wasn’t a chair to sit on. A lumpy mattress on the floor was covered with a sleeping bag. Clothing lay piled in drifts around the bed. The miniscule kitchenette in one corner didn’t appear to have been used in weeks, although there were six empty beer bottles and a half-finished pint of whiskey on the counter.

Hutch had said he would start buying furniture, food, all the trappings of a home once they received their recent pay raise, but in the months since Van left, he clearly had not.

Starsky mentally sneered at the probably ex-Mrs. Hutchinson. “I say, now’s the day for a change. Christmas is coming and it’s time to go a’ waffling!”

In the act of picking a sweater up off the floor, Hutch peered at him with a question in his eyes. “Don’t you mean wassailing?”

“I know that now.” Starsky grinned. He’d hooked him good—and lightened the mood in the dreary place, too. “But not as a kid. Come, my good man, to the Waffle Palace, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Hutch pulled the dark blue shawl-collared sweater over his head. Static electricity from the sweater had Hutch’s hair standing on end. Starsky ran a hand over his fine hair to lay it flat, ending with a playful slap on the back of Hutch’s head.

Half smiling, Hutch glanced at his reflection in the mirror. “My family used to go for waffles after church,” he said, stuffing a wallet into his jeans. “But I never thought of it as a Christmas food.”

“Your chariot awaits!” Starsky led the way back to the car.

Hutch winced in the bright winter sun as if he hadn’t been outside in days. Which Starsky knew was not true since they’d both worked with their respective partners on neighboring police beats the day before. Both cruisers had pulled up at the same time in response to a robbery call at a large variety store. Thieves had robbed the place at midday, clearing out the cash drawers bulging with money from the many customers buying Christmas gifts. After the reports had been taken and witness accounts written down, Starsky and Hutch had walked out together. It had been one of those rare times when their friendship and working worlds had coincided. Starsky had found himself humming along to the canned holiday music playing on the store’s sound system—and hatched his plan to highjack Hutch out of his lethargy.

“When I was a kid, we were Jewish,” Starsky began once he’d started the car.

“Aren’t you still Jewish?” Hutch asked, showing increasing interest as his apartment receded in the distance.

“Yes, even though I work most Fridays and too many Saturdays and haven’t worn a yarmulke in years,” Starsky nodded. Yarmulkes never stayed on his curly hair. “My cousin Patricia—”

“You’ve got a cousin Patricia?” Hutch asked.

“Do I interrupt you when you’re telling a story?” Starsky groused good-naturedly

Hutch raised his eyebrows as if daring Starsky to argue. “Yes.”

The absolute truth. “I have a cousin Patricia,” Starsky said again.

“So do I.”

“Good to know.” Starsky was flummoxed. Hutch wasn’t as morose as he’d expected. In fact, Hutch seemed in a mischievous, almost playful mood. “Her mother, my aunt Chava, married a goy—”

“Goy means non-Jew?” Hutch clarified.

“You got it.” Starsky nodded, steering into the parking lot of Waffle Palace. “So they celebrated Christmas. Patricia was two years older’n me, and all I wanted every year was a stocking hung on the mantle and Santa to leave me a bunch of toys.”

“Proves you were a typical kid; I always wondered about that,” Hutch said.

He appeared straight-faced but when Starsky put on the parking brake and glanced over at his friend, there was a glimmer in Hutch’s eye.

“So Patricia puts this Christmas record on her little turntable and I must have listened to it ten thousand times,” Starsky paused as they got out. “Here we come a’waffling among the leaves so green!” he warbled to the beautiful blue sky above. “On Christmas morning, Aunt Chava served waffles. I thought it was—what do you call that? Cause and affect?”

“Effect,” Hutch corrected, sniffing the air appreciatively. “Smells like waffles here.”

“In a really short time, you’ll taste waffles,” Starsky promised, linking arms with Hutch to steer him into the restaurant.

The Waffle Palace was packed with hungry Christmas shoppers and decorated in accordance with the season. Fake snowflakes, glistening with white glitter, hung from the ceiling. There were small green wreathes at every table and all the waitresses had red and green holly taped to their name badges.

Ordering took very little time; both wanted the same thing: a stack of waffles and coffee. There were four kinds of syrup already on the table, and the waitress delivered a dish full of tiny pats of butter on ice when she brought over the coffee pot to fill their mugs.

“Starsk,” Hutch said softly.

Working on getting his coffee just the right blend of sugar, cream, and coffee, Starsky stopped stirring to look up at the other man. Something had changed; significant, but not what he’d been prepared for this morning.

“I’m really glad you dragged me out.” Hutch raised his mug and clinked it in a silent toast with Starsky. “I needed it and actually came to that conclusion today. I have to move forward—start a new life.”

“Amen to that.” Starsky took a sip of coffee. He’d gotten it just right. “What’d you plan to do now?”

“Well, I already heard the call ‘go west, young man’,” Hutch said with an ironic twist of his mouth. “Over family objections.”

“And wife’s,” Starsky added.

“That, too.” Hutch smiled sincerely. “Found a career I can be proud of, and a good friend.”

Starsky grinned back at him just as the waitress brought two plates heaped with scrumptious looking golden waffles.

They were delicious. Starsky buttered and maple-syruped with gusto, pleased to see that Hutch was matching him bite for bite. The haunted look that had plagued him for weeks was lifting as if it had never been.

“Mmmm.” Starsky rubbed his bulging tummy when he’d finished the last morsel. He couldn’t eat another bite.

Hutch had half a waffle left of his six on his plate, swimming in melted butter and a glimmer of blueberry syrup. Starsky thought about eating Hutch’s leftovers, but let them lie. Blueberry wasn’t his favorite, or he would have considered the matter further.

“I discovered what I need most is your help,” Hutch said softly after a discreet burp that he covered by drinking coffee. “I knew I had to get out, but had no impetus until you showed up. I know I need to buy food, dishes…”

“Furniture,” Starsky put in. “A real bed.”

Hutch nodded in accord, signalling to the waitress for the bill. “I’ll pay.” He waved away Starsky’s burgeoning protests. “I’ve got cash.” He pulled out a five to pay and two bucks for the tip. “What I don’t have is Christmas spirit.”

Starsky opened his mouth but he wasn’t sure what to say to that.

“You do, and I think—”Hutch flicked a playful finger at Starsky’s, “that you may have enough for both of us.” He looked out the window, across the street at Buffum’s Department store festooned with red, blue, and green lights, giant gold balls, and strings of candy canes. “Christmas was never easy for me, even as a kid. I wanted to feel the joy, the excitement, but I get bogged down in the details, the petty… disagreements that stifle whatever holiday mood I can manage.” He shrugged. “Van moving out just exacerbated all the usual December depression.”

“That’s terrible!” Starsky said. He’d suspected Hutch was the opposite of his natural exuberance. Hutch seemed to brood, feel slights, and the plight of his fellow man very deeply. He had a sensitive soul, no doubt about it. “You want me to hold your hand and brave the crowds at Buffum’s?”

“That and a shot of whiskey will probably do it,” Hutch said, standing up as if he’d made up his mind: come hell or high water, he’d march across the street. “I do need a bed.”

“And a Christmas tree,” Starsky said, eyes on the beautifully decorated tree near the exit.

“That’s not a necessity.”

“I think—” Starsky held open the door of the restaurant, looking straight at Hutch. They’d get through this, together and forge a deeper bond. “For you, it is. Especially this year.”

“But I don’t have ornaments or tinsel.”

“You don’t have a lamp; we can work with this. That is a department store.” Starsky laughed, linking arms with Hutch again. “Here we come a’waffling…”

“Among the leaves so green,” Hutch warbled in his ear.

~*~

At five pm that evening, Starsky surveyed Hutch’s apartment with satisfaction. If anything, it looked even more like a disaster area than it had that morning. Discarded boxes littered every inch of the room.

They assembled Hutch’s bed frame first thing, put down the mattress, and covered it with brand new blue and white striped sheets. Hutch had banged his thumb with a new hammer trying to put together the new end table. It leaned a bit to the left, but the lamp Starsky had placed on top shone at just the right brightness so that Hutch could read in bed later. One of the few things that Van had left in a closet, a weird sculpture of two kissing cherubim, counterbalanced the table’s slant.

Starsky placed the small evergreen in the corner near the kitchenette while Hutch warmed up their takeout pizza. Starsky decorated it with the string of colored lights, red balls, and requisite strands of silver tinsel he’d insisted on buying. He was saving the last ornament for Hutch to place on the tree himself.

“Looks like a home, now, huh?” Starsky asked, suddenly feeling like maybe he’d pushed Hutch a bit too hard. Hutch had grown quiet over the last hour, and he looked exhausted.

“Once the maid comes through, it will,” Hutch quipped gently, handing over several slices of pizza on one of the new blue and white Corelle plates. “There’s a detective’s exam in January.”

“I know.” Starsky sampled the pepperoni. Very tasty.

“We’ve always said we should be partners,” Hutch continued, staring at the Christmas tree as if he’d just seen it. He sat down on one of the new folding chairs that matched the card table. “I want both of us to take the exam.”

“Y’know, Hutch, I don’t—” Starsky hesitated. It wasn’t very often that his lack of a college education concerned him, but he’d never actually considered taking the exam. He didn’t have those kind of book smarts. Working together as detectives did sound terrific.

“Don’t second guess yourself,” Hutch stomped on the end of Starsky’s objection. “Look what you got me to do. You have determination, skill, and an intelligence you hide under that goofball exterior. We’re going to do this.”

“Found the waffling spirit, didn’t you?” Starsky grinned, warmed through from Hutch’s praise.

“With a little help from a friend.”

“Oh, I got you something when you were telling that store employee that their sign had incorrect punctuation,” Starsky said, pulling out the last bag.

“There didn’t need to be an apostrophe!” Hutch declared, then stopped when Starsky put the ornament in his lap. A gold colored square, indented with smaller squares, shimmering with a tiny bit of glittery fake sugar. “A waffle,” Hutch said.

Starsky thought he detected a hint of choked emotion in Hutch’s voice, but it was more likely a bit of pepperoni stuck in Hutch’s throat. Hutch coughed, and took a quick swallow of beer.

He hung the waffle high on the little tree, on the top branch. “Looks perfect.”

“A little to the left,” Starsky said, just to be contrary.

FIN

Waffle ornament

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