I’m a sucker for the holidays. I turn into a little kid around this time of year, whether I like it or not. I have no shame. I watch Christmas specials, listen to holiday music and buy the seasonal beer from my local microbrewery. Our house is decorated from top to bottom.
Yet, somehow, through it all, I’d never written anything holiday related.
A few years ago I decided to do something about it. One of the best things to do over the holiday season is to revisit dear old friends. Though mine are imaginary, I thought it would be fun to give them a call anyway.
In my novel, Rorschach’s Ribs, Part One of the book ends as the last leaves of autumn are drying up and falling to the ground. Part Two picks back up in January, with only the vaguest of holiday reflections.
In Part Two, Escher describes his Christmas season as such:
“Things have sped up here in the last month or so. I have vague, blurry memories of an awkward Christmas with the fam, consisting of homemade gifts, pity and alcohol…the holidays came and went in the blink of an eye and I am not complaining.”
I thought it might be a fun holiday treat to give you a little more insight into Escher’s Christmas. It’s essentially, just like those hokey, Very Special episodes of any given sitcom from the 80’s—minus Joey Lawrence.
This is a bit of a continuation of the novel, so if you haven’t read the book (Rorschach’s Ribs) this delightful holiday story might not make a lick of sense. This book is also available to purchase in physical page turning format, for those of you that still love the feel of a real book in your hands.
So, without further adieu, here we go….
I began developing an overwhelming sense of doom just after Halloween.
One day after, to be precise.
The world changed within the blink of an eye. A feeling of forthcoming, prolonged dread washed over me as I crossed the threshold from the cool and dreary parking lot, into my local Target department store in search of deodorant and toothpaste.
I go to Target a lot. It’s got everything a single, unemployed guy needs; laundry detergent, underwear, frozen pizzas and video games. If you have to leave your house, better to get it all out of the way in one place.
It’s really just a nicer, slightly more expensive version of Walmart. Given my current financial crisis I should have just gone to Walmart, but that’s beneath my social class; Walmart is for white-trash and the county dwellers. It’s the trailer park of department stores.
Hipsters and city folk go to Target. It’s the packaging.
Target hired a better ad agency, I guess. I wonder if they’re hiring right now.
But I digress.
It hit me the moment I was within the warm confines of those hallowed walls of commerce.
I had just been to Target a few days prior, the day before Halloween, to buy socks and body wash. A few days before that, I was there buying boxer shorts and razor blades.
I had to buy my necessities in increments; my unemployment checks were just about to run out, and the job market was bleak. I only bought things after I completely ran out, and had no choice in the matter. Every time I used my debit card it felt like a game of Consumer Russian Roulette. It could be declined at any purchase; it was just a matter of time.
We were all feeling the crunch.
The last time I was at Target, there were witches, bats and various non-offensive Halloween clichés hanging from the ceilings and covering the end caps. The entire back half of the store was filled with children’s costumes, Styrofoam tombstones for your front lawn and thousands upon thousands of bags of candy. I got a cavity and a sugar rush just walking down the aisle.
Two days later, however, I found myself lost in a winter wonderland.
Looking back now, it was more like a blizzard.
Gone were the black cats and spider webs dangling down from the ceiling. In their place were non-denominational snowflakes symbolizing any and every wintertime holiday, without actually representing any of them. A soft hum of holiday music resonated from the ceiling, and a used car lot of artificial, self-lit Christmas trees filled the spot reserved for lawn furniture during the off season.
“It’s too soon,” I sighed to myself. “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
It wasn’t always like this. I could swear that when I was a kid the holiday season didn’t start until the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That was the unspoken rule. When Santa rolled by, preceded by giant balloons shaped like our favorite cartoon characters and a visit from the Rockettes dressed as naughty Mrs. Clauses, mixing childhood innocence and sex with every kick, it was like the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Happy Freaking New Year, Merry Freaking Christmas. It was officially the holiday season.
It seems like the holidays have arrived sooner and sooner every year since. It’s the retailers. They’re playing with our minds. Stores are so eager to get consumers into the holiday shopping (and spending) spirit, they start it just a little sooner as each calendar year passes. I give it a few more years before the “Christmas in July Sale” is actually a sale on Christmas items in July.
This feeling of dread only grew, the closer I got to the holidays.
The week before Thanksgiving, in a moment that could only be described as a premature ejaculation of the holiday spirit, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was aired on TV, and that uneasy feeling washed over me once again.
I wasn’t ready; it was all moving too fast. I felt like Christmas slipped me a rufie and was trying to date-rape me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Christmas. I’m not a Grinch. I watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas Every Year”—I love the smell of pine needles.
Christmas is an expensive time of the year. I was down to my last month and a half of unemployment checks, and I hadn’t even begun shopping for anyone’s gifts.
I couldn’t—that required money.
Unfortunately, so did rent and heat, and while Christmas was coming fast, winter was coming even faster.
So, with every holiday decoration and Christmas special I saw, I was reminded of just how broke I was. Every Very Special episode of a sitcom left me with a nagging feeling of self loathing and impending doom. Every commercial that showed happy consumers dancing around with kitchen appliances while a pop star sang a modern rendition of an old Christmas classic reminded me of how desperate my times were about to become.
I needed a job.
We all needed a job, except for Ted. He broke down within days of losing his beloved automobile, “Thunderfuck”. As he watched the repo man load his pride and joy onto the back of an open-bed truck, something inside him snapped.
Unemployment officially became a harsh reality for Ted.
His inherent work ethic took over, and Ted did the unthinkable—he took an occupational downgrade.
Ted took a job at “Wicker World”, a home decoration store famous for their wicker bedroom sets and scented candles.
It’s a playground for bored housewives who redecorate for sport. He came home smelling like cinnamon mixed with defeat every night and began drinking more—a lot more.
Ted hated his job. He had to shave after spending months cultivating a (quite impressive) beard. He had to wear khaki and a blue vest with a name tag. He was required to smile.
Ted not only took an occupational downgrade, joining the ranks of retail soldiers on the front line, he did it during the holiday season. It was a suicide mission. That meant eight hours a day listening to the same one-hour loop of Christmas songs, day in and day out for two months straight. That meant gift wrapping fragile Christmas tree ornaments covered in glitter and sequins.
That meant Ted came home every night wreaking of artificial pine-scented candles, humming “Santa Does the Mambo” over and over (and over) again.
I scoffed at him when he told me he took the job—I called him a quitter.
“I can’t believe you’re giving up, just like that, Ted,” I said, staring down my nose at him. We were standing in my kitchen drinking coffee when he broke the news to me. “This time last year you were working on a Superbowl ad and now you’re ready to just chuck your dreams off the roof so you can work at Wicker World?”
“Give it a rest, Escher,” Ted replied, taking a drink of black coffee. “I’ve got bills to pay.”
“There’s better ways to earn a living, Ted. I mean, what’s more important? Self respect or a minimum wage paycheck for hard labor and forced smiles?”
“Self respect won’t pay my rent.”
“You’re such a sell out.”
Two weeks later, I asked if he could get me hired there.
I didn’t get the job. Apparently, they were afraid that tattoo-covered arms and bright blue hair might frighten the Prozac generation.
They didn’t want me to ruin Christmas for everybody else.
It was the first of many “thanks, but no thanks” I would receive that holiday season. The only marketable skill I had outside of advertising, really, was coffee. I spent (too many) years on the wrong side of the counter serving up pretentious sounding drinks for even more pretentious acting customers.
Truth be told, I had more experience as a barista than I did as a web designer.
So I applied at every coffee shop I could find in St. Louis, from Starbucks to the little indie shop around the corner staffed by disgruntled hipsters.
Nobody was hiring. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one trying to make an occupational downgrade.
I even tried to get a job as an elf at Macy’s. In a brief moment of cloudy thinking, I was able to convince myself that if I drank enough alcohol and smoked enough pot before (and during) each shift, it could be fun in a surreal, novel kind of way.
It worked for Sedaris.
The thought of screaming, pants-wetting children and over bearing mothers, exhausted and tired from the joyful holiday season never entered my mind.
I really shouldn’t make career decisions during 420 sessions.
After the interview, I asked what my chances were. The interviewer told me, matter-of-factly and without hesitation, that I was:
A: Too tall.
B: Too angry looking.
So there it was. I couldn’t even get a job as an elf.
It’s not like I was going for Santa. I know I’m not upper management material.
I just wanted to wear green tights and a funny hat in a very public place for eight hours a day, pretending to be jolly. The very bottom of the ladder.
In essence, I wanted what could be considered the worst seasonal job in the history of time, and even that was out of my reach.
Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have gone to the interview hung over.
It’s probably for the best. I tend to frighten small children.
“Beverly De’Angelo, Donna Reed or Judy Garland.”
“There’s a Christmas scene in Meet Me in St. Louis—that counts”
Shitz and I were at Sal’s playing a rousing holiday edition of our favorite bar game, “Kill ‘Em, Fuck ‘Em or Save ‘Em”. By the time December rolled around, Christmas was in full swing. Every commercial was holiday oriented, and streets were aglow with twinkle lights and reindeer. Sal had begun wearing a Santa hat and the resonance of bells ringing in front of every supermarket and department store hung in the atmosphere like a mass-case of tinnitus.
“I think you’re reaching, but I’ll buy that for a dollar,” I replied, finishing off my Guinness, adding under my breath, “If I had a dollar.” Joking about my poverty was the only way I could deal with it, most of the time.
By mid-December, the holidays had officially beaten me down and broken my spirit. There was no avoiding it. Festive cheer fell from the sky and oozed out of the sewers. I decided my only choice was to embrace Christmas with open arms, as I had when I was a child. I had no other alternatives, really. It was impossible to ignore, and hating the holidays just left me tired.
I went through all the motions; I listened to Christmas music incessantly, watched all the holiday specials my television could spit-up, and mixed instant hot chocolate with my coffee every morning, but it was to no avail.
Somehow, I was immune to it all. I wanted to feel the rush of anticipation the holidays always used to give me as a kid, but the magic wasn’t there. I was going through all the motions, but underneath the surface, there was nothing. I was in a loveless marriage with Christmas. The magic was gone.
Maybe it’s because the harsh truth about Santa had come out years earlier. Maybe it’s because I asked for cleaning products and a gift card to the supermarket instead of Hungry-Hungry Hippos or some Transformers.
“Quit stalling Esch,” Shitz said, swirling around the dregs from his pint. “I need a refill.”
“Okay, well let’s see,” I started. “Let’s fuck Christmas Vacation, save It’s a Wonderful Life and by process of elimination, we’ll go ahead and kill Meet Me in St. Louis.”
“Fuck Mrs. Griswold, eh?” Shitz responded, in nodding approval. “Nice. My turn. Can you try some normal, non-holiday choices this time?”
“Where’s your Christmas spirit, Shitz?”
“I got your spirit right here, buddy,” Shitz answered sharply, grabbing my pack of cigarettes and lighter. “What’s your deal with the holidays this year, anyway, Esch? You’re like Tiny fucking Tim on crack.”
Shitz hated the holidays. He hated everything about them. The music, the specials, the cheeriness—it drove him to the brink of sanity. His was a Christmas-free zone, and my new found attempt at holiday cheer was encroaching on his space.
He also hated puppy dogs and rainbows. I’m fairly certain he was born without a heart.
“Why do you hate Christmas so much?” I asked, as I scanned the bar for a local, non-holiday themed selection for Shitz to kill, fuck and/or save. “Did Santa leave you a lump of coal when you were a kid?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Shitz said, shifting in his seat. “Just give me my choices already.”
“Not until you tell me why you hate Christmas so damned much. You know, according to Andy Williams, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
“Andy can suck it. I’m going to get another drink. Want anything?”
“Another Guinness, please,” I said as Shitz started to get up. “Hey while you’re up there, why don’t you see if Sal has any Christmas spirit– Make it a double.”
Sal’s was hopping. Every table was occupied by post nukes drinking “Christmas-tinis”. (martini’s made with cranberry juice) They weren’t worried about the holidays. Money didn’t matter to them just yet. They’d go out and buy their families nice gifts, most likely with a credit card whose bill went to directly to mommy and daddy.
In essence, the parents were buying themselves Christmas gifts, but nobody seemed to notice.
Moments later, Shitz returned to our table, with two fresh pints of Guinness.
Mine had a candy cane floating in it.
“Do you really want to know why I hate Christmas so much?” Shitz asked after settling back onto his stool. Before I could answer he continued. “I’ll tell ya. When I was younger I had some minor depression issues. To help, my friend Lucy put me in charge of the Christmas Pageant at Sunday school,” Shitz paused, then took a long drink of his stout. I followed suit, taking an even bigger drink of mine.
“Nothing went right,” he continued. “I couldn’t even get a decent tree. Everybody in the play hated me. It left deep scars man.”
“Good grief,” I said sarcastically. “It must have been rough. I bet you got nothing but rocks for Halloween, and that bitch Lucy probably always pulled the football away just before you could kick it, right?” I rock-starred my beer and set the empty glass upside down on the table. “Ready for a refill?”
“You’re a good man, Escher Smallwater.”
Winter snuck up behind us, and then bitch slapped us across the face about two weeks into December. Until that point, things had been strangely mild—unseasonably warm, even. But then one morning, I woke up and found frost on the inside of my bedroom windows and the sun seemed to vanish behind a cold gray blanket of clouds in an eternal overcast that was only replaced by nightfall. The air became razor sharp, and the wind somehow seemed pissed off at me all the time.
To put it another way, it was fucking cold and dreary, all the time.
When Shitz and I left Sal’s, me sucking on a Guinness-soaked candy cane, it was especially harsh outside. The wind jumped from around the corner, nearly pushing us back into the bar, which didn’t seem like a half bad idea given the alternative of walking home as the air stung my face like a million angry sweat-bees.
We only lived about a block away, but with the wind blowing at our front, it felt like a cross-country trek. Rounding the corner, the wind changed its assault from our fronts to our side, blowing my yogi-bear style pork pie hat clean off my head and into an alley. Shitz kept walking as I chased after it, past dumpsters and garages.
That’s where I met him. Homeless Moses.
The wind blew my hat right to his feet, where he gently picked it up, dusted it off and handed it to me. Moses was an old, African-American man with freckles on his cheeks and a long, dirty white beard sprouting unevenly from his wrinkled face. He stood just over six feet tall. He was dressed in threadbare brown slacks and an old polyester shirt, not unlike the big-collared relic of the seventies I was wearing. He had no socks, and he had no coat.
He smiled when he gave me my hat back, and as I moved closer to him, I noticed he had stuffed newspaper into his shirt in an attempt to keep warm.
I put my hat back on, and reached into my pocket, looking for a dollar to give him, but all I found was lint and an empty pack of cigarettes.
Without thinking, I took off my coat and handed it to Moses and smiled. Before he could say a word, I turned and headed out of the alley, back towards my flat.
Suddenly the night felt a little warmer.
Of all the holiday traditions in ole’ Escher Smallwater’s life there is one he holds in the highest of regards. Yes, I just referred to myself in the third person, and I’m fully aware of how un-godly annoying that is, but this is a very important part of my Christmas spirit; It deserves some semblance of reverence.
Every year, just before the holidays, McDonalds releases the McRib, for a limited time only. I think about the McRib all year long, and as the outside world melts into visions of sugar plums, mine eyes turn to that sweet, tangy, porkesque product on a bun. Every holiday season, the McRib returns, spreading wondrous joy and cheer, not unlike a certain fat guy in a red suit.
This has been going on since I was in at least junior high.
I knew that if there was one way to kick-start my Christmas spirit, it was through rib-shaped processed meat, smothered in pickles and onions and dripping with B-B-Q sauce. That was the missing link—the key to a “Very Escher Xmas”.
Fast food is a nasty habit, and one I haven’t been able to fully break. I don’t eat much, and I don’t eat often, but when I do, it’s usually via the drive-thru. It’s easier. It requires no cooking, no mess, no clean-up. Little interaction with humans. It’s much easier to keep a clean apartment when the only food you have in the kitchen is coffee.
When Shitz threw out the idea of grabbing a bite to eat one gloomy, overcast winter evening, I knew it was time. I’d waited all year.
Christmas spirit, here I come.
When we got to McDonalds, Shitz threw me for a loop by driving his car, the “Nancy Mobile”, past the drive-thru lane, parking near the front. The sun was just starting to set and the neon, golden arches flickered to life, casting a reflection on the windshield.
“What are you doing, Shitz old pal?” I asked, seatbelt still tightly fastened. I could hear the wind moaning outside around the Nancy-mobile.
“We’re dining in tonight,” he replied as he shut off the engine and pulled the key from the ignition.
“You’re going to make me get out of the car? You’re going to make me go into public?”
I stared out the passenger-side window, seatbelt still on.
I’ve always hated going inside fast food restaurants—the seats are hard plastic, the lights are too bright and somehow, it’s never fully clean inside. The dine-in crowd is a depressing lot of retired old men with nowhere better to be, and the homeless, waiting for the bus.
“Look how nice and warm it is in there, Esch.” A bright glow emanated from the large windows, cutting through the harsh December twilight. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I thought about the McRib.
“Alright. Fine. Let’s go,” I said, releasing my seat-belt and opening my door.
“There’s a good lad,” Shitz said with a clap of the hand.
Inside, nondescript Christmas music was muffled by the hustle and bustle of the dinner time rush. Only one cash register was open. Ahead of us in line, an ancient looking man haggled over ten-year-old coupons he’d been saving for a rainy day with the poor, frazzled high school kid manning the cash register.
“If we’d gone through the drive-thru, I’d be enjoying a tasty holiday McRib right now, Shitz,” I said as my stomach began to grumble.
“The wait will only make it taste better, trust me,” Shitz responded as he scoped the menu.
Ahead of us the old man continued to raise hell as a manager was called over. My patience was wearing thin. The old man was pushing my buttons. A part of me wanted to jump ahead in line and pay for his damned meal.
Another part of me wanted to throw his decrepid ass through a window. The rest of me waited, shifting my weight from foot to foot, sighing heavily.
When our turn finally came, I could nearly taste the heavenly goodness as I placed my order.
“One McRib Extra Value Meal, please,” I said as a giddy smile broke across my face.
“We’re no longer serving the McRib.”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked, as my heart froze. “What do you mean you’re no longer serving the McRib?”
“That promotion ended two weeks ago. We’ve been serving the McRib since the day after Halloween,” the timid high school kid replied with a crack in his voice.
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” I could feel my adrenalin begin to pump.
“Escher,” Shitz interjected, noticing the crazy look in my eyes.
“What do you mean you’ve been serving it since Halloween?” I asked, ignoring Shitz completely.
“That’s when it was on our menu,” he responded timidly.
“C’mon, Esch. Just order some McNuggets or something,” Shitz pleaded.
“That’s a bunch of crap. The McRib is a holiday treat. It’s the Macy’s Day Parade, Rockefeller Center, and the north fucking star all rolled up into one merry fucking sandwich. What the hell were you thinking, serving it on Halloween?” I barked at the kid. “Have you no sense of decency?!”
“Jesus, Esch, calm down. It’s not the kid’s fault. He just pushes the buttons and puts food on a tray. It’s not like he pals around with Ronald on the weekends–he doesn’t call the shots,” Shitz said. Overhead I could hear the faint whispers of “Deck the Halls”. Shitz continued before I could respond. “It’s a fucking sandwich. It’s not available. Life goes on. End of story. Now order something else, you’re holding up the line.”
I turned around and looked at the line of people, all shifting from foot to foot, all sighing heavily, just as I had when the old man argued over expired coupons. I was the grumpy old man. I wasn’t even in my thirties yet, but I was already one angry letter to my congressman away from being a bitter old man. Suddenly, I felt like an ass.
“Holiday LNF: Thurl Ravenscroft, the man behind that famous low voice that sang You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch in the hit 1966 cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was famous, but not for that. He didn’t even get a credit at the end of the cartoon. You and I know him as the voice of Tony the Tiger in the Frosted Flakes commercials. He coined the famous slogan, They’re Grrrreat!”
It was 420 and as was the norm, Phil was dazzling us with his latest round of LNFs. (Little Known Facts—it’s a copywriter joke, don’t ask.)
He’d been on a holiday kick for days.
“Did you furthermore know that Dr. Seuss himself disputed casting Boris Karloff as the narrator/Grinch? It’s true. He was afraid Karloff would make the Grinch too scary, and frighten all the kiddies.”
“That’s funny,” Shitz said, cutting Phil’s holiday LNFs short. “Hey Esch, isn’t that why you didn’t get the elf job? Because you frighten children?”
“Hardee-har, Shitz,” I responded, as he handed me a consolatory bong hit. “Kick a man while he’s down.”
Lighthearted humor and witty banter aside, I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach again. I needed to find a job. Christmas was just around the corner and I hadn’t bought any gifts yet. I hadn’t set foot in a single store since that fateful day at Target.
I still hadn’t found my holiday spirit. Christmas was looming like a dental appointment.
I handed our community bong, Sacajawia, back to Shitz as Jack Johnson began singing an acoustic version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We were listening to one of many holiday mix CDs I’d authored in an attempt to force the holiday spirit down my throat. I approached my illegal holiday music downloading with as much vigor as I did my regular music collection. I had every version of every Christmas song imaginable. I had Twisted Sister singing Deck the Halls, and an all sitar version of Oh Come Emmanuel. I had some guy I’d never heard of singing the most depressing and morose version of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time ever, complete with the sound of a ice clinking in a glass (presumably of bourbon) in the background. I had bluegrass and jazz versions, punk and metal versions—It was a constant background noise in my home.
“Jesus Esch,” Shitz said, passing Sacajawia over to Ted, who was still wearing his blue vest and wreaking of blackberries. “Can you put on some regular music for once? I can’t handle it anymore.”
“Seriously,” Ted added. “It’s bad enough I have to listen to this crap all day at work. Do you know how many days in a row I’ve caught myself singing Santa Baby? That’s just not right, man. And you’re not helping.”
“Holiday LNF: In 1649 Oliver Cromwell outlawed Christmas Carols in England,” Phil said as Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues began playing.
“That man was a genius.”
“You’re a funny guy, Shitz.”
Shitz was a very good salesperson. His official job title before the layoffs was “Account Executive” but it all boiled down to sales. He never took no for an answer. Eventually, most people would say yes.
His powers of persuasion got me into a lot of trouble growing up.
It was this power of persuasion that got me out of the warm confines of my flat against my better judgement on the coldest day of the year. I hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, and all the gray was taking its toll. I found myself slipping into hibernation mode. I started wearing flannel pajama bottoms at all hours of the day. I usually found myself closing out the night on the couch, under three Mexican blankets leftover from my hippie phase, listening to holiday music while watching a random Christmas movie with the sound off.
This is exactly what I was doing when Shitz burst into my living room from our shared balcony.
“Get dressed. I need a drink. Let’s go to Sal’s and tie one on.”
“I’ll pass, Shitz. I’m comfortable right here,” I said pulling the blankets over my head.
“Bah. Humbug. You need to get out of the house, buddy. More importantly, I need to get out of the house, so chop-chop.”
“Don’t make me put on pants, Shitz,” I started.
I wasn’t really opposed to going to Sal’s, but my budget was tightening, and I needed to save some money for Christmas presents for the fam.
“The place is going to be packed with post-nukes anyway. They’re all back from college on winter break,” I argued.
The holiday season brought the post-nuclear generation out in hordes. They all came home from school for the holidays, free from the burden of homework and tests, happily devoid of jobs. The holiday post-nukes were much worse than the regular ones. The girls wooed a little louder, and the guys high-fived and gave out their platonic man-hugs more frequently.
“It’s still early, Esch,” Shitz reasoned, as he shifted into salesman mode. “We can be there and gone before they even show up.”
“It’s cold out there,” I countered.
“It’s cold in here, Esch.”
“I’ll buy. C’mon, Esch, it would be rude not to.”
And that was that. I put on some pants, and grabbed my new used coat from the thrift store. It was brown and corduroy with a thick wool lining. It was much warmer than my last coat.
I hated letting Shitz buy me a drink, at least under these circumstances. I hated getting handouts from anyone, outside of the government, and even in that case, I’d have rather just had a damned job.
It did mean a lot to know my friends enjoyed my company so much that they were willing to pay my way now again. It’s always nice to know you’re loved.
I never asked for it, though.
At five o’clock in the evening, Sal’s was back to the way it used to be—dark and empty, save for a few regulars sitting at the bar drinking Busch and Sal, still wearing his Santa hat, leaning against the bar.
Behind him, all-Rat Pack renditions of holiday favorites danced out from the CD player. Another Escher original.
It was better than a boring old Christmas card.
The Post-Nuclear generation wouldn’t roll in for a few more hours.
“For fuck’s sake. I can’t escape it, no matter where I go,” Shitz said as Frank Sinatra sang a drunken-jazzy version of “Away in a Manger”.
“Jesus, Scrooge. What’s your deal?” I asked, setting down my pint. “I mean, look at me. I’m probably the most bitter, cynical, angry old son of a bitch you know…”
“True, true,” Shitz agreed as I continued.
“I hate pretty much everything most of the time. But even I like Christmas. Even I’m doing my best to find some Christmas spirit.”
“No you’re not.”
“No. You only think you are. You’re not buying into the Christmas spirit. You’re buying into the commercialism of the Christmas spirit,” Shitz said, stealing my last cigarette.
“Is that right…” I asked, somewhat defensively.
“That’s right,” he said, taking a drag. “You don’t give a damn about peace on earth or good will to men. You’re all about the shallow stuff. Christmas songs and holiday specials—it’s all a bunch of crap that someone’s making money off of. That’s not the Christmas spirit. It’s just cheerful consumerism.”
He was probably right, but I wasn’t ready to entertain that thought. Instead, I fell back on my standard argument.
“Why do you hate Christmas so damned much, Shitz?”
“I have my reasons.”
“I’d love to hear them,” I said reaching across the table, grabbing my cigarette out of Shitz’ mouth.
“Do you really want to know?”
“I do, Shitz. Tell me a story.”
“Alright, fine. Let me go get us fresh pints, and then Uncle Shitz will tell you a story.”
Shitz was gone for what felt like an eternity. I was dying to find out why he hated Christmas so much. When he returned, beer slopping over the side of the pint glasses as he set them down, he cleared his throat, and began.
“The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was eight years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer.” Shitz paused for dramatic effect. “Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart.”
I was riveted to the edge of my seat. I’d known Shitz since junior high, and I’d never heard this story before. Yet somehow, it seemed familiar.
“It was snowing outside,” Shitz continued, The house was freezing, so I tried to light up the fire place. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top, and me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly.” Shitz took a solemn drink of Irish stout. “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”
I sat there, dumbfounded for a moment.
“Jesus, Shitz. That’s horrible. No wonder you hate Christmas,” I said. I could feel my heart breaking for him a little.
And then it occurred to me:
“Wait a minute. Your father isn’t dead. I saw him two weeks ago when he came over to help you fix the washing machine.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Esch,” Shitz said, feigning a sarcastic innocence.
“Like hell you don’t,” I responded. “You just recited Phoebe Cates’ big dramatic monologue from the movie Gremlins, didn’t you?”
“I might have.”
“Wow. You are something else, Shitz,” I said, shaking my head.
“Hey, give me some credit, at least I referenced a Christmas movie. Besides, I had you going for a second.”
“Gremlins is not a Christmas movie, and you didn’t have me fooled. I was being nice.”
“Bullshit,” Shitz said. “Gremlins happens during Christmas.” He finished his pint and slammed the empty glass down, exclaiming, “Christmas movie. Now let’s go get a chili-dog–I’m starving.”
I finished my beer and we headed back out into the cold, across the street and over to 7-Eleven for chili-dogs and cigarettes. On our way back, I noticed ole’ Homeless Moses poking through another dumpster in the alley behind the bar. He was still wearing his threadbare slacks and ugly, polyester shirt, but the coat I gave him was missing.
“I’ll meet you at home,” I said to Shitz as I turned and headed towards Moses. “Hey, man. Where’s the coat I gave you?” I asked in a mildly peeved tone.
Moses pointed down the alley to a scrawny man climbing into the dumpster behind the pizza place next to Sal’s. He was wearing my coat.
“He needed it more than me,” Moses said in a low, gravelly voice that was somehow rich and warm. He smiled.
I handed him my chili-dog and unzipped my coat. I took it off and gave it to him, then headed home, ready to ditch my pants in favor of elastic waistbands and flannel, ready to pass out under the warm covers on my couch.
“Americans buy close to 37.1 million real Christmas trees each year,” Phil said as we pushed through the cold wind. It was the week before Christmas, and I still couldn’t find the spirit.
In a last ditch effort, I decided to buy a tree; something apartment-sized. I was hoping the smell of real pine needles (as opposed to the man-made pine scented candles at Wicker World) would help get me excited. I budgeted myself $30.00. We were walking in an attempt to save money on gas. The nearest tree lot was only a few miles away. Phil and Shitz came along because they simply didn’t have anything better to do with their time.
It could have been 2:PM or 6:PM. I quit wearing a watch, and the eternal winter overcast made most days androgynous. It was either daytime, or night time. There was no in-between.
“See Esch,” Shitz said through tight lips as a cigarette bounced up and down. He was practicing hands-free smoking so he wouldn’t have to take his hands out of his pockets. “37.1 million. Way to buy into yet another consumer trap.”
“Why do you hate Christmas so much?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I die a little bit every day I don’t, Shitz.”
“Alright. Jokes aside, this is a painful memory.” He paused, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to share such deep dark secrets. “When I was a kid, there was only one thing in this world that I wanted for Christmas. I begged for it. I left subtle reminders around the house. I wrote an essay about it for school.”
“What was it?” I asked, lighting a cigarette.
“It was…” we stopped walking and Shitz looked down, taking a deep breath. “It was a Red Ryder Carbine Action Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.”
I shook my head and started walking. Shitz chased after after me and said, “But I never got one. My mom kept telling me I’d shoot my eye out.”
“Shitz?” I asked when he caught up to me.
“You’re a real son of a bitch.”
“LNF: Scott Schwartz, the actor who played Flick in A Christmas Story—you know, the kid that gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole—he’s a porn star now.”
We walked in silence for the next few blocks, listening to the sound of cars driving by, and the whistle of the sharp December wind. I was doing my best to not imagine the kid from A Christmas Story doing porn. My newest used coat, courtesy of Value Village, was about as ugly and obnoxious as a coat can be, but it was warm as hell. It was a bright orange puffy-coat, about two sizes too big. I looked like a bloated marshmallow.
I can’t put my arms down.
“This is nice,” Shitz said, finally breaking the silence.
“What is, hiking through the cold?” I asked as Phil reached into his pocket and produced a flask.
“No. Listen. What do you hear?” Shitz asked.
I paused for a moment as Shitz and Phil kept walking and listened to the sounds around me.
“I don’t hear anything,” I answered as I jogged to catch up, my arms bouncing at my sides.
“Exactly,” Shitz said as Phil handed him the flask. “Finally, a moment without Christmas carols. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, and all is right.”
“LNF: Silent Night was written in 1818, by an Austrian priest. The day before Christmas the church organ broke. The thought of Christmas without music broke the poor padre’s heart, so he wrote a carol on a guitar. Later that night the people in the little Austrian Church sang “Stille Nacht” for the first time.”
“That’s fascinating, Phil,” I said in a mildly patronizing but not altogether insincere tone.
The Christmas tree lot was sponsored by a men’s club and located in a Lutheran church parking lot. Old bullhorn speakers, bolted to poles around the outside of the lot, pumped out a generic instrumental version of Jingle Bells and old, multicolored lights were strung up overhead. We wandered down the rows, inspecting the perspective choices. I was waiting for the right tree to call out to me.
In the farthest corner of the lot I found it. Nestled between two sad little Charlie Brown trees sat the most absolutely perfect Christmas tree in the history of time and/or space; It was the type of tree you saw on sitcoms or on Christmas cards. A light shined down on it and I could swear I heard the sound of angels singing as I approached. It would be impossible to live a life devoid of holiday cheer with a tree like that in your home.
I imagined the members of the House of Pain, decked out in cheesy, tacky holiday sweaters drinking egg nog and singing carols as we sat around the tree, unable to resist the Christmas spirit. It would be a freeze frame away from rivalling any Very Special episode of any popular sitcom in the history of television.
Sadly, upon checking the price tag on the most perfect Christmas tree in the history of time and space, all sugar plum visions of A Very Escher Christmas washed away and the angels voices singing out overhead crashed to a halt.
“$85.00 dollars?!” I shrieked out in crushing astonishment. “Are you kidding me?”
It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me—like Christmas had just punched me in the gut. This is why you should never get your hopes up about anything until it’s a done deal. It’s as true with the Holidays as it is with every fruitless job interview you hope will be your last job interview. Every time you raise your hopes, the kick-in-the-groin disappointment stings even more.
“Well crap,” I thought as I looked around at the other, less perfect trees. I looked over at the pitiful little tree sitting next to my Very Special Christmas tree and sighed. Perhaps this was meant to be. Perhaps I was the living incarnation of that hopeless loser, Charlie Brown, and this was my chance to save that little tree, finding my Christmas spirit along the way.
Then I looked at the price tag.
“$50.00 dollars?!” I asked rhetorically. I couldn’t even afford to be Charlie Brown. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked a portly older man with a bushy mustache, wearing a hunter’s cap, “What can I get for $30.00 dollars?”
He chuckled, then said, “Follow me.”
I followed him back through the used car lot of Christmas trees, all out of my price range, back up to the front, by the cash register. He handed me a $25.00 dollar wreath.
Only I didn’t say fudge.
We headed home, wreath in tow, as the streetlights began to flicker to life and car headlights were turned on. Phil was wearing it around his neck. I could see little patches of sap staining his “Plain White Shirt” as cars passed by. Nearing our flats, I noticed a dark figure curled up in a door way.
It was Moses, again without a coat. He looked up a smiled as we passed, and without missing a stride, I found myself removing my stay-puffed marshmallow coat, dropping it gently in his lap.
“I wonder who he’ll give this one, to,” I thought to myself as I caught up to Shitz and Phil.
“LNF: The modern Christmas custom of displaying a wreath on the front door is borrowed from ancient Rome’s New Year’s celebrations.”
I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Christmas was only two days away and I hadn’t even started my shopping. Time was running out and if I didn’t get started, I most likely never would.
So I bit the bullet and entered one of the seven gates of hell: The mall at Christmas time.
On any random day, I hate the mall. From parking, to walking, to the constant flow of teenagers killing time and getting in my way, there are few redeeming qualities in a mall.
The mall during the final shopping days before Christmas transcends the common horrors of daily commerce and reaches a whole new level of crowded, desperate misery.
If I had thought ahead, I would have gotten everyone’s gifts online, and been done with it in September. There’s nothing you can get at the mall that you can’t find online and have delivered to you for half the price if you look hard enough.
Sadly that’s not how I’ve ever operated—and that’s why I was at the mall, two days before Christmas, amidst the hustle and bustle of hundreds of panicked, tired shoppers in search of heartfelt gifts for my Mother, Father, Sister, Brother-in-law, two nephews and one niece.
I had managed to put away about $100.00 dollars (total) for everyone. This was going to be a challenge.
I was flying solo on this suicide mission. Shitz had taken to boycotting any place that played Christmas music, including my flat. He stood outside on the balcony, shivering and pouting, during 420 sessions.
He made an exception for Sal’s.
Ted was suffering his own retail holiday hell at Wicker World, thanks to Phil, who was up there harassing him. This had become a new form of sport for Phil, replacing his usual evil-spirited consumer guerillaism; He liked to follow Ted around the store, pretending to be a very demanding, very hard-to-please shopper.
Somehow, Phil had convinced Ted’s twenty-two year-old manager that he was a “Secret Shopper” assigned to their store by the corporate office for quality control during the holidays. Ted had no choice but to treat Phil like the most important customer on earth through gritted teeth as his college-aged boss watched.
You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
Christmas with the “fam” was on Christmas Eve, that year. We were on the every/other year rotation with my step brother’s family. Next year we’d do Christmas on Christmas morning, and my sister and her clan would spend Christmas Eve with the in-laws. It was a complicated web of scheduling, as my brother-in-law had a sister who was also on the every/other rotation with her husband’s family, who in turn had three brothers, all whom were on their own rotation.
I just showed up whenever they told me to.
Now, I love my family. We have always gotten along great and cared about one another’s general well-being, but I didn’t really know much about them. Not the shallow, surface details at least. I didn’t know what their hobbies were, or who their favorite musician was—I understood them on a deeper level. I knew they were beautiful human beings that were inherently kind and genuine. I knew they were important to me…
This did not, however, help me find them Christmas gifts. I had no idea what to get them. Nobody gave me a list to check twice.
I wandered aimlessly from store to store, falling in and out of the current of people moving past the shops like a river. It felt hopeless. I sniffed perfume, looked at ties, played with toys…I dodged and parried my way through racks of clothing, though I didn’t know anyone’s size or personal tastes.
Every store was playing its own mix of holiday music, barely audible above the roar of desperate shoppers bustling about in a panic as zero hour approached. The shops were a mess; the shelves and end caps were picked clean and left bare. It felt like we were in the middle of a riot, looting the stores.
It was no use. I wasn’t having any luck, nor grand inspiration. I fought through the crowd and sat down on a bench and watched everyone around me. It was sheer madness. Was this the holiday spirit? Maybe Shitz was right; maybe this was nothing more than cheerful consumerism.
I closed my eyes and thought about Moses. I wondered if he had a coat. I wondered what he worried about during the Christmas season. It probably wasn’t buying some meaningless trinket out of obligation to the holiday. While I was bitching about McRibs and Christmas presents, Moses was worrying about eating, and finding a safe place to sleep. Moses was worried about surviving.
My cup was only half full, but his was empty.
I decided to make one more stop.
Two days before Christmas and the malls were completely nuts. From an hour’s worth of lurking through the parking lot, following consumers heading towards their cars in the hopes of nabbing their space, to the full-bodied crowd that makes the idea of personal space a farce, it was a grueling test of self control and anger management.
The Value Village Thrift Store, however, was just as dead as it would be on any random Tuesday. Were it not for the table full of used ornaments, you wouldn’t have even known the holiday was looming.
When I entered, I walked past the aisle of big collared polyester shirts that normally consume my attention and wardrobe allowance and made a b-line for the winter coat section.
I grabbed every coat available off the racks. Plaid coats, tweed coats, parkas and trench coats. Puffy coats and leather jackets, it didn’t matter. I headed to the check out counter bear hugging the coats.
Fifteen used coats cost me $93.47.
The elderly lady behind the counter stuffed the coats in two large trash bags. I flung them over my shoulder as if they were Santa’s sack of toys, and headed back out into the cold dark twilight.
I drove around my neighborhood for close to an hour looking for Moses before I found him sitting at a bus stop.
He, of course, had no coat.
I pulled up to the curb and jumped out of the car, engine still running, and grabbed the trash bags from the passenger side.
I handed them to Moses and smiled.
“Try to keep one for yourself this time,” I said, as I got back in my car.
I had a fine childhood. I grew up in one of a million sprawling suburbs just north of St. Louis called Gerald Valley.
The suburbs of St. Louis are essentially split into three counties: South County, West County and North County. There is no East County. East is across the river. They don’t have strip malls, just strippers.
West County is the rich part of town. Huge, million dollar homes on large lots in semi-private subdivisions litter the landscape. They have more jewelry stores and Starbucks per capita than the rest of St. Louis combined. Collars are white. The women all drive sport utility vehicles, the men all golf. It’s the prozac part of town.
It’s the part of town that votes Republican, every time.
I am not from West County.
North and South County are locked in an eternal battle for redneck supremacy. Both are blue collar, working class counties full of factory workers and auto mechanics. Women have big hair, men proudly display mullets.
Everyone wears hockey jerseys.
North County has the upper hand, though—we invented monster trucks, as evidenced by the two-story high Ford Bigfoot towering over the exit ramp of the highway.
Ours is a part of town eternally stuck in 1978. Hair is feathered, classic rock is king and Cameros are still considered cool. Men still keep combs in their back pocket, and when you see someone wearing a “Player’s Club” jacket, it’s not a form of ironic, retro fashion.
North County, or as we like to call it, NFC (that’s North Fucking County) is not a bad place to grow up. I rode my bike all over town at all hours of the day and night without fear of kidnapping. We trick-or-treated without parental supervision by the time we were seven.
It’s a part of town where nothing happens.
Aside from the random domestic dispute or teenager with a tail light out, the police have very little to do with their time.
I moved to the city as soon as humanly possible.
I don’t make it back to NFC too often, outside of random holidays. It’s too long of a drive and, aside from my family, there’s no real reason to go out there—that’s why god created email.
My parents live in a nice ranch-style home in the very back of a suburban maze of dead end streets and cul de sacs. What was once my bedroom is now my father’s office, and the oil stains left in the driveway by my car, Little Bastard, are all but faded away.
It’s almost as if I had never existed.
The house was decked out in holiday merriment from floor to ceiling. My mother’s creepy porcelain doll collection, filling every flat space and chair in our house, all had little Santa hats on. The regular doormat was replaced with a Christmas tree-shaped doormat; garland adorned the stairwell and doorways and wound through the countless nutcrackers from around the world standing guard on the mantle. Their Christmas tree was always real, and the smell of pine permeated every nook and cranny. My parent’s home was a no-holds-barred winter wonderland.
I loved their house during the holidays. I always reverted back to a childlike wonderment. For one day of the year, I actually entertained the thought that Santa Claus might actually be real.
Perhaps, I thought, I might finally find some of that elusive Christmas spirit.
My family’s motto has always been. “Till we eat again”; and this point was driven home as I entered the threshold and into the kitchen/breakfast nook, where the table and counter were covered with finger foods, cookies and appetizers galore.
When you haven’t eaten for three days this sort of event is a god-send.
Now, I love my family very much—I want to make this point very clear. I don’t, however, keep in very good contact with them. It’s not intentional. I just don’t have much to report. I’m unemployed, I have no love-life—no hobbies.
I’ve got nothing.
Conversation is painful when it’s little more than a sad reminder of how bad your life has become.
Inevitably, it always worked its way around to the same subject:
“So, how’s the job hunt going, Escher?” my father asked as we hovered around plates of cheese and a croc-pot of Lobster Bisque. I know he asked because he genuinely cared—he was worried about his son. He probably should have been.
But the answer hadn’t changed in months. And neither had the question.
“Trust me, Dad. If I find a job you’ll be the first to know.”
“Are you wearing a suit to the interviews?”
“I would if I had any interviews.”
“Maybe if you didn’t have blue hair…”
“I haven’t even gotten an interview yet. Nobody has seen me.”
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression, son…”
“My first impression is a PDF of my resume and an online portfolio, neither of which are any better or worse than anyone else’s.”
“Sometimes you’ve gotta get out there and pound the pavement.”
“I think the pavement’s been pounding me.”
Ours was a vicious circle of the same recycled conversation. It’s the type of conversation you just try to ride out, hoping the subject will change sooner than later.
I missed the good old days when we would just argue over politics and religion.
Needless to say, this was a fine occasion to drink—heavily.
Christmas music floated out of the formal living room, inhabited only by the creepy dolls, stereo and a couch nobody ever sat on, wafting past the kitchen and into the family room, where It’s a Wonderful Life played on mute. Presents exploded out from under the tree.
Most of them were for my niece and nephews, toys are a lot more fun to give than socks and toiletries. I couldn’t help but scope out the tree for gift tags with my name on them, of which there were a few.
In the farthest corner beneath the tree sat a little plastic grocery bag with my gifts to the fam, unwrapped.
They were homemade. It was the best I could do.
I stayed up most of the night making them, and put as much thought as I was capable of into each one, but I still couldn’t help but feel as if I had fallen short—way short.
With a single clap of her hand, my mother signaled us into the family room to assume our usual positions around the tree. It was time for presents.
Some families like to take turns opening gifts, taking time to relish each person’s moment.
Ours was a battle royal; a savage assault on anything with a bow. Wrapping paper and tissue flew through the air as everyone simultaneously tore into various boxes and gift bags with reckless abandon, pausing only occasionally to yell a quick thank-you, barely audible above the sounds of ripping paper.
My sister and brother-in-law gave me a laundry basket full of non-perishable food items like red beans and rice and Raman Noodles mingling with laundry detergent and boxes of fabric softner.
I gave my sister a mix CD of every show tune I could find, from standard musicals like Oklahoma and Cats to obscure shows like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (an irony that was not lost on me as I set up the playlist and designed the album art in the wee hours of the morning)
I wasn’t really sure what she was into these days, but when we were in high school she was a theater-geek, through and through.
She certainly had the drama part of it down back then, though most teenage girls do.
She smiled warmly and started reading off the songs she was most excited about. Most likely, she had every one of these soundtracks at home, but she seemed genuinely happy when I gave it to her.
I had no idea what my brother-in-law listened to, so he got an eclectic mix with a little bit of everything. I gave him songs of every genre from my ever-growing MP3 collection, including (but not limited to) Coltrane, Blind Melon, Hank Sr, Fugazi and Spearhead.
I told him if he didn’t like what he was listening to, he should wait a song or two, and he’d probably find something he liked. Kind of like St. Louis weather; if you don’t like it, wait a minute.
“Thanks, Escher,” he said, scanning the playlist for something he recognized. “I can’t wait to listen to it.”
My mother gave me a gift card for Target, and told me not to spend it all on boring, everyday items.
“Get something fun,” she said as she handed me the envelope.
Too bad they don’t sell bourbon or tobacco at Target. That would have been fun.
In return I gave her a Double CD of all the traditional and classic versions of the holiday standards; Nat King Cole melodically painting the mental image of chestnuts and open fires, a charming, slightly drunk Dean Martin trying to convince a lady to stay by arguing about the weather, and Ella Fitzgerald singing about New Year’s Eve mingled seamlessly with David Bowie’s strange yet classic duet with Bing Crosby and Ray Charles’ spirit of Christmas. Without a word, she stood up and walked into the living room, and put the CD on repeat, then came back and gave me a hug.
“I love it, Escher.”
It has since become a holiday mainstay in our family, playing every year while we ferociously attack our presents as if we had been raised by wolves.
I made a double-disc set of corny old folk acts for my dad. A blend of Kingston Trio, Smothers Brothers, the Seekers, Limelighters and various other “er’s”, all whom would later record a children’s album or two in the vein of Shel Silverstein, all of which my dad bought for me before I was old enough to contest songs about bullfrogs, boa constrictors and toys that make noise.
My four-year-old niece got a CD of old folk musicians singing children’s songs about bullfrogs, boa constrictors and toys that make noise.
My nephews, 12 and 14 years old, respectively, each got a special mix of early 90’s grunge bands, in an attempt to explain what “indie”, “emo” and “screamo” music used to be like before it began sucking. I hoped that forefathers of alternative rock like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood and Eddie Vedder would emancipate the boys from the horrible noise bleeding out of their iPods at every family function.
They gave me a raised eyebrow and sarcastic “thanks” in return.
I probably would have gotten the same milquetoast response had I bought them something expensive. Kids today, I tell ya.
Once the presents were out of the way, piles of balled-up wrapping paper infesting every corner of the family room, my mother took a deep breath and slowly rose to her feet. A whole new level of madness was about to be unleased on the Smallwater household:
Every year my mom slaved the day away preparing the Christmas goose, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet-potato pie with marshmallows, and a half dozen other traditional holiday dishes, all of which she carefully coordinated to finish cooking at the same time.
She usually freaked out moments before everything came out of the oven, as she whirled around the kitchen at break neck speeds trying to finish all the dishes simultaneously. First she’d sigh heavily until my dad caught the guilt-trip and made his way in to mash the potatoes. The more she freaked out, the more members of the family would groan, rise slowly and join the fracas in the kitchen in a (vain) attempt to help. The more people that entered the mix, the more crowded and hectic it became, as elbows would jab ribs and bump serving trays. Gravy would spill, rolls would fall to the floor…I’m fairly certain the old saying about “too many cooks in the kitchen” was born out of the Smallwater holiday meal.
The fevered madness would continue on like this until my mom would ultimately and inevitably scream at the top of her lungs:
“EVERYBODY OUT OF THE KITCHEN!!!!!”
By the time I was fifteen, I knew better. I sat quietly in the family room and stared blankly at the Christmas tree lights, as I had for the last thirteen years until everyone was seated at the dining room table. I helped by not helping.
This is the Smallwater Family Christmas in a nutshell.
On my way out the door at the end of the evening, my father stopped me and shook my hand, slipping five crisp, one hundred dollar bills into my palm.
“Take care of yourself, son. Your mother worries.”
Which meant he worried. I put the money in my pocket and gave him a solemn nod before lugging my laundry basket of food and cleaning products out to the car, and then headed back to the city. A smile crept onto my face as I hurried past Bigfoot, adorned with a lit wreath, and got back on the highway heading south.
It’s good to be loved.
When I got back to the House of Pain, I found a note from Shitz haphazardly duct taped to my front door with two words written in sharpie:
I didn’t bother unlocking my door—I just turned back around and headed to Sal’s.
The wind was gusting from every direction as I walked in a crooked line down the sidewalk toward Sal’s. I could almost taste the nice, rich, thick stout as my face began to burn from the cold. As I turned the corner, I saw the all-too-welcome reflection of neon beer signs reflecting in the half frozen puddles in front of the bar. It was as beautiful a vision as any Christmas lights display.
Inside, the bar was remarkably slow. A few regulars sat at the bar talking to Sal, while a hipster couple played pool in the back. Shitz and Ted sat waiting at our usual table, a pint waiting in my place. There was a candy cane hooked to the rim.
“Merry Christmas, baby,” Shitz said sliding the pint towards me as I took off my coat and sat down, leaving my homemade, fingerless hobo gloves on. I always cut the fingers off my gloves—it’s easier to smoke.
“Gosh, Shitz, I didn’t get you anything,” I said, sniffing a fake, sentimental tear.
“You can get the next round,” added Ted, who was still wearing his blue Wicker World vest and name tag, having just finished his final shift of the holiday season.
“That’s about all I can afford,” I said with a sigh. “Where’s Phil?”
“He went on a search for egg nog,” replied Shitz as he stole a cigarette. “That was about four hours ago.”
“That somehow doesn’t surprise me,” I said, stirring the candy cane around in my stout.
The bar was playing noticeably non-Christmas themed music. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five quietly rested beneath our conversation.
“What gives with the music?” I asked. “Isn’t it Christmas Eve? I could swear I just spent all day eating and drinking with my family in NFC. I’m fairly certain gifts were exchanged.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Shitz asked in a falsely cheerful tone. “Sal’s Christmas gift to me: One night of holiday-free music.”
“Swell,” I responded flatly.
While I had a good time with the fam that day, somehow I still felt lacking in the holiday spirit department. I had a renewed fondness for my family, but I still wasn’t feeling the cheer.
We all sat back, quietly nursing our beers, lost in our own worlds. It was Christmas Eve, but there were no miracles. Tomorrow we’d still be unemployed, or underemployed in Ted’s case, and we’d still be as unsure about our futures as we were before the holidays rolled around to distract us.
A collective sigh arose from our table, our minds simultaneously resting in the murky pits of financial crisis, when the door to Sal’s burst open, jarring us from our thoughts. Phil swaggered in wearing a Santa hat, snapping his fingers Sinatra style, singing a lounge version of Deck the Halls.
“Drinks are on me tonight, boys,” Phil said pointing a finger to Sal, who responded with a nod, then began pouring pints. “I just found the easiest gig on Earth, and it’s a one-night-only kind of thing.”
He stood behind Shitz and me, putting a hand on each of our shoulders.
“The most amazing thing just happened at the Save-A-Lot.”
Before we could respond he was back at the bar grabbing the first two pints, swinging back around and dropping them on the table, then back up to the bar. Ted, Shitz and I shared a look, as Phil bought the regulars at the bar a round. He returned with a Lone Star for Ted and bourbon, heavy on the rocks, for himself and pulled up a stool as we waited in eager anticipation for the yarn he was about to spin.
He took a drink of his bourbon and made his usual grimace, as if he were swallowing hot coals, then lit a cigarette, exhaling little smoke rings.
“So I was standing outside of Save-A-Lot, drinking my egg nog,” Phil started. “Folks were hustling and/or bustling about, in and out of the store in search of last minute holiday items. They all looked so tired, frustrated—mildly frightened. I felt sorry for them.”
“Wow, that’s amazing, Phil,” I said in a sarcastic monotone.
“Patience darling, patience,” Phil responded before continuing. “So I was humming Joy to the World which had been playing inside the store, as I watched the huddled masses scurrying about. Without thinking about it, I found myself singing, loudly.” He paused to take a drink. “So there I was holding an empty container of egg nog, singing Joy to the World at the top of my lungs, when someone walking into the store drops a five dollar bill in my nog. Then another person dropped in some change. This went on for about an hour. I sang every Christmas tune I know, and by the time I was finished, I had almost $200 dollars in my pocket. I think they thought I was affiliated with the Salvation Army or something.”
“Don’t you think there’s something a little wrong about taking charitable donations under false pretenses, Phil?” I asked, as he shifted in his seat.
“Hey, I’m starving, too. I’m as charitable of a cause as anyone else.” With that he began counting his egg nog soaked bills, laying them out to dry on the table.
Shitz looked at the money, then at Ted, who looked at me, as I looked at the money.
“We’re going to hell for this,” I said as we rockstarred our drinks.
We stood out in the cold, under a lit porch light, as the front door opened, warmth leaking out. An elderly lady stood at the threshold, unsure if she should smile or call the police. Then Ted strummed a chord on his guitar and we began, quietly at first.
“Siiiilent night, hoooooly night…”
After Sal’s, we made a quick stop at the House of Pain and went to work. I threw a pot of coffee on and revved up my Mac Pro, ‘Ole Bessie, and designed a very official, very bland looking holiday-themed logo for the “Non-Denominational Yuletide Foundation for Unemployed Starving People” with a generic looking Christmas tree surrounded by a wreath constructed from the hand prints of children (thanks, Google images) to help tug at some heart strings.
While I printed out the logo and taped it to an old coffee can, Shitz and Ted went down to their respective flats to Google Christmas song lyrics and guitar tabs.
When the coffee maker sputtered to a stop, Phil spiked it with bourbon and put it in a thermos to keep us warm.
Then we headed out into the cold winter’s night to raise money for starving people: us.
This was our seventh house. The first few were a bit of a train wreck. We sang in different keys at different times—at the second house we sang different songs at the same time to a bewildered middle-aged couple holding a plate of cookies while forcing a mildly nervous smile.
By the third house we were at least on the same page, singing most of the songs in key—by the time we reached the fifth house we were starting to harmonize.
By house number five we were also up $300 dollars, with no signs of stopping. House by house we knocked, waited than began our set, holding the coffee can out to them as we finished each song. Remarkably, nearly everyone put something in the can.
“We like the kind that jingles,” Shitz would say.
“But we prefer the kind that folds,” Phil would add.
“Every dollar raised goes to the unemployed and hungry,” I would then say, satisfied that I wasn’t lying—technically speaking, of course.
As we made our way to the next block, it began to snow lightly.
“Too bad we don’t know White Christmas,” Shitz said as he blew in his hands for warmth.
“Did you know that Vera Ellen, the Barbie Doll looking actress from White Christmas had all of her costumes, down to her robe and sleepwear, specially designed to cover her neck,” Phil said, taking a swig of spiked coffee. “It was aged beyond her years due to an eating disorder—Anorexia.”
“Does anybody feel guilty about this yet?” I asked as we pressed on.
“Hey, we’re just caroling,” Shitz answered defensively as Phil passed the thermos over to Ted. “We’re not forcing them to give us money.”
“LNF: The word carol is derived from the old French word caroller which derives from the Latin choraula. This itself was derived from the Greek choraules.”
“What’s the Greek word for fraud?” I ask as Ted passed the thermos to me.
“Did you guys know that the word wassail comes from the Old Norse ves heill—to be of good health.” Somebody groaned, probably me. “It’s true. This evolved into the tradition of visiting neighbors on Christmas Eve and drinking to their health. Then the puritans got in the way and messed it all up by replacing the drinking with singing.”
This continued for another hour or so, Phil’s LNFs interrupted by the occasional stop for a round of carols. As the night drew on, fewer houses had their porch lights on, as families began dreaming of sugar plums and reindeer.
We eventually headed back to Sal’s to count our loot, and wassail one another, as the midnight hour nudged us closer to Christmas.
I took off my coat, sat down at our table and began counting as Phil, Shitz and Ted bellied up to the bar for (more) Christmas pints. The final tally for our “charity” was $836.47, three chocolate chip cookies, a block of homemade fudge and a partridge in a pear tree. Not bad for a few hours of work.
I felt horrible.
Christmas wasn’t supposed to be a time of greed and cons. I was fairly certain fraud would put us permanently on the naughty list.
I looked over at the bar, and watched my best friends toasting one another. Shitz looked over at me and raised his glass. I looked down at the money, then back at the bar, then again at the money. The next time I looked over at the bar, everyone had turned back around towards Sal, who was pouring a line of shots.
Then, something inside of me snapped.
I put the money back into the coffee can, and took a deep breath, then slipped out the back door into the cold dark night.
When I hit the cold air in the back alley behind Sal’s, it energized me. I took off running, as fast as I could, clutching the coffee can in both hands. I didn’t even realize I forgot my coat until I was four blocks away, and completely out of breath.
I put the can on the ground then buckled over and rested my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath as little clouds of steam escaped with every short breath I took. I was sweating, my face and hands burning from my wind blown sprint.
A chill lifted me up off the ground for a moment as I stood back upright. I grabbed the can and began walking aimlessly through the maze of South City neighborhoods, gazing upwards at the thousands of colorful lights strung upon everyone’s gutters. I didn’t know where I was going; I just kept walking, marveling at the holiday displays all around me.
I kept thinking about my current situation. I thought about my chances of landing a fulfilling job, and they were about as good as a snowball’s chance in hell. I thought about all the bills left unpaid, and the hundreds of unanswered job applications sent out. I thought about my nonexistent love life and laundry list of bad habits.
I thought about how hopeless things felt all the time.
I kept walking, lips frozen, teeth chattering—my numb hands were stiff. I couldn’t even tell if I was still holding the coffee can without looking down to check. My ears were burning and my toes felt like they could crack and fall off.
I navigated my way to a covered bus stop, hoping for a temporary shield from the arctic blast of wind that had been pushing me forward for the past hour. I sat on the bench and closed my eyes as my entire body shivered uncontrollably.
I listened to the sound of the wind pushing up against the bus stop, cars rushing by and a ringing bell off in the distance.
Then I felt something warm fall across my shoulders and back.
I opened my eyes to find a coat draped over my shoulders. Moses was sitting next to me staring out into the street. He wasn’t wearing a coat, not anymore at least.
“Merry Christmas,” he said as he patted me on the knee, then rose to his feet.
He smiled, and turned to leave. He had just given me a lot more then a coat.
“Hey Moses,” I said, standing up to follow him. “Wait.”
Moses stopped and turned back around.
“Thanks,” I said, handing him the coffee can. “You just gave me the best gift I could ever hope for.”
We shook hands, then headed our separate ways.
I wasn’t cold anymore.
When I returned to the House of Pain, it was well after last call at Sal’s. I walked up the stairs to my flat and found Ted and Phil sitting in my living room. Ted was playing Silent Night on his acoustic guitar, Phil was rolling a joint.
“Merry Christmas, Smallwater,” Phil said. “Nice coat.”
I sat down and watched Phil light the joint, small rings of smoke rising out of the tip as he turned it for an even burn.
We sat and listened to Ted play lulling acoustic versions of holiday songs, the music stopping only long enough for Ted to take a hit and pass it back around to Phil.
Nobody ever asked me what I did with the money. It was almost as if they knew we didn’t deserve it.
It was as if they knew what I did with it the moment I vanished from Sal’s.
“Where’s Shitz?” I asked as Phil grabbed a pack of zig-zags and began rolling another joint to add to the rotation.
“No clue,” Ted said, putting down his guitar to better devote his attention to the roach I was trying to fingertip over to him. “He said something about the East Side.”
No sooner had I asked the question when I heard the sound of my front door opening, then slamming shut, followed by jingling bells and heavy foot steps running up the stairs. Moments later Shitz stood in the doorway, bells around his neck and his hands behind his back.
“Merry Christmas, folks,” he said, grinning ear to ear.
“Well deck my halls, and jingle my bells,” Phil said lighting the second joint. “He returns.”
“And I come bearing gifts,” Shitz replied.
“Where ya been?” I asked as Phil passed the fresh joint to me.
“I was on a clandestine mission in search of a little Christmas spirit for you, Esch old buddy.”
“You found the Christmas spirit on the East Side?” I asked.
“I once thought I found the Christmas spirit on the East Side,” Phil said as I passed the joint to Ted. “Turns out it was just a bad case of the crabs, but the Stripper’s name was ‘Merry’ with an ‘e’.”
“Hardee-har, Phil,” Shitz said as Ted gave a “Ba-dum-dum”. “I did indeed find a little Christmas spirit on the East Side, and no strippers were harmed. It turns out that on the Illinois side, McDonald’s didn’t stop serving a certain tangy, B-B-Q soaked sandwich some of us know and love.”
My mouth began to water as I noticed an all too familiar smell wafting out from behind Shit’z back.
“Oh my god,” I said as a tear formed in my eye. “You don’t mean…”
“I do indeed, old chum,” Shitz responded as he produced a McDonald’s bag from behind his back and set it on my coffee table. “McRibs for everyone.”
We all leaned in over the table and grabbed a holiday McRib, the glorious smell of onions mixing with B-B-Q sauce and pickles floated through the room. I closed my eyes for a moment, then took a bite. It tasted like it was made by a Christmas angel.
“You wanna know why I hate Christmas so much, Esch?” Shitz said, quietly as I took a bite. “The truth is going to blow your mind. Are you ready for your mind to be blown, Esch?”
I wiped some stray B-B-Q sauce off the side of my face and set down my holiday McRib.
“Blow my mind, Shitz,” I said as Ted passed me a joint, mid-bite.
“The truth is,” Shitz started, leaning in, “I don’t hate Christmas. I actually love Christmas.”
My mind had just been blown.
I gave him a puzzled look.
“Bull shit. I’ve been listening to you rant and rave and bitch and moan all winter long. There’s no way you love Christmas.”
“It’s true, Esch. Don’t get me wrong, I hate all the cheesy consumer driven bullshit that swirls around with the holiday. The songs, the commercials—it’s overkill. They stuff it down our throats like pop music until we wanna puke. But that’s not Christmas, my friend. Look around. Do you see a fancy tree or mistletoe hanging anywhere in your flat?”
I looked around my apartment. There was nothing holiday related, aside from the wreath on my front door.
“Nothing’s out of the ordinary,” I replied.
“Now, how do you feel right now?” Shitz asked.
I looked at Ted and Phil, each eating a holiday McRib, talking about something irrelevant yet riveting and noticed soft snow falling outside through the balcony window. I thought about Moses, and his gift of the Christmas spirit to me, and hoped he and his friends were someplace warm this holiday. I thought about my family, and how much they enjoyed their gifts, not because of how much I spent, but because of the thought I put behind them. I thought of the blind, trusting generosity of all those kind people we conned into donations for the Non-Denominational Yuletide Foundation for Unemployed Starving People, and I thought about the McRib sitting in front of me. I felt warm.
In a few days it would be back to business as usual; rent would be due, resumes sent out—
I’d keep pushing forward. But at that moment in time, all was calm and all was right.
“This is why I love Christmas,” Shitz said, pulling me out of my reflections. “It’s not the holiday spirit, it’s the human spirit.”
I sat back and smiled as Phil pulled out his flask, took a swig then passed it over to Shitz.
“So…” Phil said, leaning forward. “What are we doing New Year’s Eve?”