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Friday, December 14, 2012

A Long Winter’s Nap

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-five years ago, I was able to sneak a short story into Metroland from time to time, typically as holiday filler. Here’s one such item.


I’M NO SCROOGE. You'll never hear a “humbug” cross my lips as the old year wallows its way through the holidays. But the year I celebrated Christmas two days in a row robbed the occasion of much of its sentimental pleasure.

Illustration by Brian Pearce
It started when Uncle Ned drank too much during Thanksgiving dinner and entertained my brother and me with a litany of flatulence impressions: that is, he portrayed town notables with his notion of how each discharges pent-up wind. The sheriff gave a shoe-quivering blast; bank president Neff erupted with high-potency soundlessness. Our parents interceded by banishing Ned from the house. I slipped him a pumpkin pie in conciliation.

The big news after the meal, besides the missing pie, was word of the return of my oldest brother from overseas. Gary was in the army and had gotten that rarest of treats, a Christmas furlough.

My father, not the world’s greatest cook, planned a holiday extravaganza centered around a baked ham. My mother went on more of a shopping frenzy than usual, buying clothes for Gary despite my little brother Tim’s observation that the military currently was satisfying his sartorial needs.

I was happy enough just to be let out of school for a while, making up for what promised to be a dull load of gifts. What appeared under the tree a few days before Christmas—that is, with my name in the TO: spot—was suspiciously small and light, with the rattle of a plastic model.

The tree was a five-foot plastic job intended to save the new carpet from needles and sap. We protested, Mom included, but my father insisted on buying the thing and kept it fully trimmed in the attic. He lugged it down year after year to the clatter and smash of an ornament or two.

Another annual rite was the visit to Aunt Ruth, actually my father’s aunt, who lived by herself in a smelly little Cape Cod a couple of towns away in Hillsdale. Because Gary wasn’t expected until early on the 25th, we were doomed to spend all of Christmas Eve sitting in Ruth’s overstuffed hying room being entertained by her and three of her widowed friends who fancied themselves a string quartet and played hour after hour of bad Beethoven and mind-numbing Mozart. I grew up thinking that chamber music was a bizarre adult form of self-punishment.

What none of us knew was that Gary had finagled some travel connections—this was back when the uniform could get you patriot-minded favors—and arrived a half-day early. And ran into Uncle Ned in a gin mill. They guessed our location, which Gary was delighted to avoid.

Where they got the next idea I sure don’t know. Where they got the tree is even more baffling, although several residents claimed to own the yard it was chopped from. In any event, Gary and Ned dragged a real one into the house, their hilarity increasing in proportion to the amount of Haig & Haig they were putting away.

We got out of Ruth’s with the usual excuse of midnight mass, a ritual we never actually attended—in fact, for years I thought “mass” was adult slang for “departure.”

“Sure you don’t want to come?” Dad asked his aunt every year, to which his agnostic relation fervently shook her head. Entering the house, we first found the mess on the dining room table where Ned helped Gary attack the simmering ham, which had sliced and consumed in mustard-messy sandwiches. Then there was the devastation in the living room. A couple of branches had broken off the new tree, scattering needles like green snow, and there was wet mud lodged in the carpet pile. Ned was in an armchair, in his waistcoat, snoring; Gary lay across the sofa, supine, one arm thrown over his eyes. And they got away with it. Or at least Gary did. Mom roused Ned and sent him home before Dad could get violent, but she refused to awaken my brother. I could hear the gurgles of his sinuses as I went to sleep; when I got downstairs at six-thirty the next morning I could hear them still.

Tim joined me, staring at the body. “Now what?” he whispered, eyeing his yet-to-be-unwrapped presents. “This’ll spoil everything.”

“He had a hard trip,” said Mom, flying down the stairs. “Let him sleep.”

When Dad came down soon after, the four of us sat silently at the barren breakfast table, contemplating this dreary day. Mom at first planned to wake Gary for lunch and some present presentation, but at noon she stood in the living room and stared at him for a while with a disgustingly sweet expression. Then she forbid us even to enter the room.

“But Mom!” Tim protested with a gurgle of rage. “It’s Christmas!”

She decided we could open one present apiece, but that we’d have to wait for Gary to waken before we opened the rest. Finally she relented: we could have our Christmas, but quietly, and in another room. She tiptoed the goodies out to the kitchen and supervised the noiseless unwrapping of packages. “We have to save the wrappers,” she said without further explanation.

Gary stirred several times without actually coming out of his drunken coma. I admired the X-15 model I wouldn’t put together that night while Tim spread the components of his Boy Scout Nesting Mess Kit all over the table to see how fast he could reassemble it.

“We’re going to have to wake him up,” Dad said, sitting in the sack of a too-large sweater. “It’s silly to let him sleep right through Christmas.”

“He probably gets no sleep at all until he comes home,” Mom declared. “We’ll just wait till he wakes up. Then we’ll have a proper Christmas.”

The last straw for Tim was when she decided that we would re-wrap our presents, put them back under the tree, and pretend we hadn’t seen them yet. “I don’t believe how stupid this is,” he grumbled, discovering that his mess kit would never go back together quite as compactly as had been when he opened it.

At about six the next morning Gary rolled off the sofa. This also took the tree down with a tremendous, shattering crash, rocketing all of us out of our respective beds. Mom was downstairs first, cradling the creep’s head.

“Hey, I’m okay,” he insisted, pushing her away. “Merry Christmas, dammit. I miss anything?”

“Oh, no,” she told him. “Everything’s under the tree.”

“I’ll clean it up, don’t worry.”

“The presents,” she said. “We waited to open them.”

“It’s Christmas?” he asked groggily.

I could see her mind working. If Gary wanted it to be Christmas morning, Christmas morning it would be. “Don’t tell him,” she said, herding us into the kitchen. “And act surprised.”

“This is retarded,” declared Tim.

It did seem a dumb length to go to just to keep from embarrassing a guy who drank himself stupid and overslept. So rarely did Tim and I agree on anything that there was a unique and enjoyable strength to our common feeling. When we were steered back to the tree and our stack of re-wrapped gifts, I followed Tim’s lead in mocking the enthusiasm expected of us. “Why, look at this,” said he, rattling a box. “Could it be the Boy Scout Mess Kit I so long have craved?”

“My goodness,” I said, echoing his tone and mimicking his motion. “It sounds like an X-15.”

But Gary was oblivious. “Socks,” he was saying, holding up several pair. “Underwear.” He continued to chant the name of each item as if he were newly learning the language. “A shirt. Pants. Another pair of pants. T-shirts.”

“Do you like them?” asked Mom.

“Oh, sure, they’re great. I need some real clothes, I guess. When’s dinner going to be ready”

Tim laughed. “You and Uncle Ned ate the dinner!” he shouted.

“You mean it was supposed to be that ham?”

My father’s face got ruddy.

“We’ll make you something, dear,” Mom said soothingly.

“And where’s Ned? He said he was coming back.”

Dad spoke up with his public orator’s voice. “Your Uncle Ned isn’t welcome in this house.”

“Because of that stupid ham? Hell, if there was a store open I’d buy you another one.”

“It’s much more than that.” He went into a declaration of Ned’s crimes, some of which I’d never heard before. Like the time he built a rude snowman on the police chief’s lawn, using a carrot he borrowed from the chief’s wife.

Gary shook his head. “I don’t know, Dad. Doesn’t sound like a whole lot of Christmas spirit here. Can’t you even forgive a little? I know you’ll never forget. I mean, it is Christmas.”

“It is not!” My father was on his feet. Gary looked perplexed. “We got a new system of holidays?”

“It’s the day after! You slept through Christmas!”

Mother sadly confirmed this with a nod.

“And you’re doing this whole let’s-pretend business for me? That’s great!” Then his face clouded. “I’m supposed to meet Ned today.”

This got Dad going again on Ned and his disgusting habits, but the Christmas wedge already had been planted and we prevailed upon him to ease up on the guy. “Let’s all go out an meet him,” Mom suggested bravely.

Gary’s appointment was at the Ancient Mariner, a popular pub I’d never ventured into before. The bartender sure knew Ned, though. “Nah, he ain’t been here today,” the man said. “I’m surprised. Must be tapped out.”

We embarked on a tour through the various barrooms in town, from steakhouse to saloon, with no luck. We also tried the news store, the Western Auto store, the barber shop. Everyone thought they must have seen the man that morning; nobody could say for sure.

But I’m sure you guessed what happened, and it was really rather simple in the end. Mom got the family reconciliation she desired and Dad got his revenge. Gary got rid of his Christmas clothes.

We found Ned in his apartment, a second-floor walk-up in the back of Widow Richardson’s house. He was sprawled on the bed in waistcoat and trousers, and when he heard us come in he sprang up and shouted, “Merry Christmas!” Then he rubbed his eyes, recognized the contingent and sprang back as if fearing physical wrath.

“We’re here in the Christmas spirit,” said Gary.

“Is it Christmas already?” said foggy Ned.

“Sure is,” my father told him, “and we want you to come over for dinner. It’s a sacred holiday. We expect you to behave yourself.”

None of us dared contradict him—after all, the day shift originally had been my mother’s idea. Dinner may have lacked the imaginative entertainment of a month before, but Ned was never in better form than when actually invited someplace, a rare occasion for him.

Gary drove him home afterward, with some hastily wrapped packages addressed to my uncle. I doubt if Ned really ever noticed the loss of a day—New Year’s Eve has a way of straightening you out—but the windfall of clothing at least had a side effect my father enjoyed without ever realizing it. For weeks to come, Ned avoided my parents. He figured out the provenance of Gary’s gifts to him, and decided it would be prudent to stay out of their sight while wearing his new set of civvies. Sometimes it’s best to that Christmas spirit to yourself.

Metroland Magazine, 24 December 1987

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