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FIRST CHRISTMAS AFTER THE FALL

(excerpted from Moods Over A September Moon)

It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s unlike those of years past. There’s not much under the tree except the sweater we bought for Mother at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Trish and I had wrapped it with the cartoon section of the Sunday newspaper. Also under the tree is a doll for Wendy. It’s a generic Barbie. We’re hoping Wendy will break away from her Cindy.

Tonight, as tradition, we’re going to Aunt Celia and Uncle Johnny’s house. There, it’s as close as one can be to a normal household with a stay-at-home mother and a bread-winning father and well-fed children.
 
My cousins, they don’t know the pangs of hunger. They don’t know how it is to trudge through a foot of snow with shoes that are soled with cardboard and how the cardboard disintegrates after a while, leaving your feet bare to frostbite.

And, nobody will ever know of our condition because we’re “not to discuss it, not to upset the apple cart.” Mom has warned us that if Nee and Papa Joe finds out about us, she’d kill herself. If we dare mention to anybody about her hanging out in taverns and that the fridge is a skeleton, she’d commit suicide, no ands, ifs or buts. “Got it, kids?”

“Yes, Mother.” And then, just like it’s nothing anymore, she flips open a can of beer and guzzles it down.

Nee and Papa Joe will be here in a while, they’d beep the horn like they always do. Never once, had they come up to our apartment. Mom doesn’t ever invite them up either; our efficiency unit (efficient for a family of one) is another guarded secret. Long ago, she probably had both her mother and stepfather convinced that we live in a three bedroom or something. And, thank goodness, they never asked us kids about it. We just hate to lie to our grandparents. But sometimes we do just to protect Mother.

Mom, she’s kind of walking crooked now. And worse yet, she just opened another beer. “Come on, Ricky, stop looking at me like that. It’s fucking Christmas Eve, dammit.” I turn away. I go over to Wendy, who’s sitting on the couch, paying attention to a snowy cartoon on the television.

“How are you doing, Wendy?” She doesn’t hear me. “Wendy, what are you watching?” She says nothing, just stares at the television.

I turn away.

I leave Mom with her beer and Wendy with her television and go into the kitchen where Trish and Lenny are now assembled, sitting at the table, playing cards.

“What are you playing,” I ask. Trish picks up a card from the deck.

Gin Rummy,” she says. And then, she erupts into laughter. So does Lenny. I don’t know what’s so funny all of a sudden.

I turn away, slip quietly into the bedroom where the answer to Lenny and Trish’s laughter lay smoldering in the ashtray. It’s the butt of a marijuana cigarette, filling the air with its stench. I want to vomit. I run to the window and open it. On the outside sill, there’s a layer of white. By God, it’s snowing. And I should be so happy, but really I’m not. I close the window and fall onto the bed and bury my head in the pillow. This is the only escape I have.

As time passes my mind wanders. I’m but a small boy again, oh, five or six years of age. All is perfect now, the world wonderful and new. Everybody is happy, at ease. The house is breezy and fresh—every room, clean and spacious. I know of no hardship, no uncertainty. This world then, unlike the one now, we knew our roles. Then, Mother was a mother. And Dad – a father, a good father. Who went to work everyday, paid the bills.

Lenny, he was brother, a guy little bigger than myself who I really could look up to, who I was very proud of.

Trish, my older sister, the responsible one. She’d baby sit me when Dad and Mom went out together to have dinner or something. I could always trust her. But now, with the stream of smoke from her ashtray suffocating me, I just don’t know.

And Wendy, she was as calm then as her Cindy is now. Oh, how I wish things could be as they were. Oh, how I lay here, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Hey, get up. Nee and Papa Joe are here.” I lift my head off the pillow and look up. Mother, hovering over me, bleary-eyed with a stream of mascara running down her cheeks, helps pull me up off the bed. She’s in a mellower mood now, apologetic.

I’m sorry,” she says, “for yelling at you before.”

I hug her. “I know you are, Mother.” Tears well up in her eyes again.

I wish that things were different, that’s all,” she says. And then, she takes another swig off her beer and sets the empty can down on the table next to the receptacle, where Trish and Lenny’s answer to this new world lies heaped in ashes.

As we roll, and sometimes slide down the streets, I can’t help but notice how things look so different now. And, how I feel like such a stranger now to these people I’m sharing a ride with. Even Nee, who I once felt so close to, seems to be just a caricature of her former self. She used to be so animated, lively but now, she sits quiet, staring out at the falling snow. Once in a while, she’d turn her head to look at Mom as if she’s about to say something but then quickly turns away.

Wendy, to my right, who used to talk up a storm with her many questions, holds on dearly to her Cindy Doll, saying not a word. To my left, Trish and Lenny, forging ahead in rebellious murmur and pot-induced giggle. On this night, they’re cartoon figures, nothing about them is real.

We turn onto Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia’s street. This street, unlike the ones closer to home, is bright with Christmas light, every house decorated in fine holiday fashion. You can tell fathers live in this neighborhood. There is normalcy here, something I’m no longer familiar with.

At the end of the block, Papa Joe parks his Buick, right behind Uncle Johnny’s black Cadillac, now glittered with snow. It’s a new car, he gets a new one every year about this time.

Nee, finally she speaks. She tells Mother to stay away from the hard liquor, a few beers are okay, “but believe me you, I don’t want you to make a scene, Janet. Johnny’s having a few of his friends over tonight. And that goes for you too, Joe. Besides, you have to drive later.”

Front of Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia’s house, there’s a large yard, and in the middle of it, a fountain. Sculpted in marble, Neptune rises above the small pond, his form outlined with Italian lights, twinkling with red, white and green. We walk towards the house. Underfoot, a crisp snow—a modified welcome mat to a home— a real home where one could hear the sounds of laughter, real laughter. A home where there’s warmth and the spirit of togetherness, unlike the broken home from which I had come.

Festive is the mood inside as we stand outside the front door, shaking off the snow. I’m almost afraid to enter— perhaps I’d be perceived as an outcast— especially by Uncle Johnny’s friends, who mostly live in the suburbs and wear hundred dollar suits. I can hear them laughing, carrying on.

“Merry Christmas,” Aunt Celia says as we step inside. One by one, she kisses us on the cheek. One by one, she takes our coats and hands them to my cousins, Robbie and Michael. Identical twins, I could almost tell them apart. With closer inspection, I can, a first for me. Robbie has one lazy eye while both of Michael’s eyes are revolving quickly around their sockets, getting a good look at his cousins who probably appear to him as lower life forms.

We’re ushered into the family room. Little John, Aunt Celia’s youngest is sitting in the middle of the room with his train set, laying down track and saying, “Choo, choo.” Little John’s seven, three years behind his adopted brothers, Robbie and Michael.

On one side of the room, the Christmas tree is ablaze in assorted light and multicolor ornament. Interspersed throughout, figurines of fine crystal and golden rounds of miniature family portraits. Underneath, more presents than my eyes had ever seen. Even in the movies. Come tomorrow, my cousins will have a field day. I can see it now, the floor piled to the ceiling with hastily strewn wrapping paper.

Uncle Johnny extends a superficial hand to me and I, under obligation, shake it. He and I were never close, perhaps I remind him too much of my father. Uncle Johnny never seemed to care much for my father. Brother Lenny is Uncle Johnny’s favorite nephew.

Sometimes I think that Lenny’s not really my brother by blood; perhaps he was adopted or something. That would explain why we’re so very different. That would explain Uncle Johnny’s total acceptance of him.

I think Uncle Johnny wants to take Lenny under his tutelage (a word I learned last week reading a history on Plato and Socrates). I heard him say to Lenny that he should perhaps spend a week down at his bowling alley, learn the ropes. Whatever that means, I’m not sure, knew better not to get involved in their conversation.

Later, we assemble around the banquet table. A fine display of Italian beef, ham, lasagna and the traditional fish are strategically placed amid the bowls of salad, roasted potatoes and Aunt Celia’s famous Heavenly Hash. Aunt Celia prods us to “dig in.” Mother, she doesn’t want to eat. She’s sitting at the bar with her gin and tonic and a few of Uncle Johnny’s friends – Tony the Tuna I think, and Little Louie and his wife, Maria.

Nee doesn’t want to hear Mother say she’s not going to eat. “Janet,” she says, “believe me you, if you don’t get yourself a plate I’m going to make one for you and I’ll force-feed you.”

Mother, I’m not hungry right now. I’ll make a plate later.”

Nee shakes her head. Under her breath I hear her say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with that girl.” And then she hands me a plate, tells me to eat hearty and, “believe me you, Ricky, I don’t care for that fish with the eyes looking at me but that ham sure looks scrumptious.”

“And the Italian beef too, Nee.”

“I was never big on the Italian beef,” she says, scooping onto her plate a heap of Heavenly Hash. Your aunt makes the best fruit salad. I bet she spent hours on this dish.”

Aunt Celia, modest as always, blushes. “Oh, it was nothing.”

Papa Joe, right behind Nee, famous for his Friday night fishing expeditions, has no problem filling his plate with a few of the glaze-eyed specimens and Nee tells him he’d better take his plate to the other side of the house, that “there’s no way in hell, you’re eating next to me. Not with those bulgy-eyed sea bass you ain’t.”

Papa Joe, prankster as always, picks up one of the fish by the tail and hangs it like a pendulum before Nee’s eyes. With the fish swaying back and forth, he says, “You’re getting sleepy.”

All of Uncle Johnny’s friends as well as a couple of their wives, witnessing Papa Joe trying to hypnotize Nee with a fish, break into laughter, one so much that he dropped his entire plate into the bowl of Heavenly Hash.

Now there’s a fish head in the fruit salad and everybody’s in hysterics, especially Lenny and Trish, who had just returned from their little walk “around the block to look at the decorations” but in reality, to toke on Trish’s new pipe, a gift from Bryce, her real true love. I would like to say to them, “No Sister and No Brother, you may fool the rest of the family with your red eyes and clothes reeking of marijuana smoke but you’re not fooling me. And I’m not your mother, not your father so there’s nothing I can do. I can only say, ‘I wish it didn’t have to be this way.’”

Later, after I fill myself with enough food to hopefully last for a few days, weeks I go with Michael and Robbie to their bedroom so they could show me their baseball card collection. On our way, we pass Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia’s bedroom. Their door’s slightly ajar. In the corner of their room are the presents. The presents for us kids, the presents for Nee and Papa Joe, the presents for Uncle Johnny’s friends.

 By tradition, the presents under the tree are for the immediate family to be opened on Christmas Day, the rest of the presents are for those outside of the immediate family—to be passed out Christmas Eve. And in passing, I see it. The bicycle.
 
My wish has finally come true. All these years, all I wanted was a bicycle. Dad had promised me he’d get me one numerous times but that promise never panned out. Probably my bike lost out to a pair of Aces or a few nights slung low at one of  Dad’s favorite taverns. But that was then. And now, finally, I had won over Dad’s gambling and his drinking and come this spring I can tell my friends: “I’ll be able to join you on your bike rides through the city and out to the suburbs, Oak Park and River Forest.” 
 
We gather in the family room, presents retrieved from Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia’s bedroom, now piled in front of the tree. My new bicycle, I don’t see it. Oh, because it’s not wrapped, that’s why. They’ll bring it later, save the best for last.

Mother, she’s sitting at the bar with Tony, not paying attention to the goings-on behind her. She’s content with her drink and occasional chuckle, a response to Tony’s lazy jokes; he says them loud enough for the whole world to hear. Nee doesn’t like what she hears, some of Tony’s words are not the kind you’d hear in the church. She shakes her head, and then sits down between Wendy and me on smaller of the three sofas.

Believe me you,” she says, “if they’d made these couches any smaller I’d stop eating altogether.”

Mother, it’s a love seat,” Aunt Celia says, standing behind us.

Nee wiggles, repositions herself sideways. “Maybe love between two midgets,” she says.

Everybody breaks into laughter including Tony, who almost falls off his stool. Trish and Lenny, they’re on the big sofa, stoned. While I was looking at Michael and Robbie’s baseball cards, they must’ve gone out for another “nature walk.”

Their eyes are redder than beets, their laughter uncontrollable. As the topic turns to a more serious tone, they’re still cracking up and now Nee, she shakes her head again, probably wondering how Lenny and Trish could possibly find anything funny about the news that Grandma Leonatti is relating about her sister in Italy who had just been diagnosed with bone cancer.

Aunt Celia begs attention. “Okay, we’re going to do the grab bag gifts first.” As custom, this is where all the big people pull out of a Christmas stocking a piece of paper with the name of a person they’d get a present for. This is done sometime after Thanksgiving. It used to be a big hit with Uncle Johnny and his friends, especially when a few of the gifts exchanged between them were “dirty gag” and Nee had to tell us kids to go into the other room for “just a little while.”

This Christmas the grabs are supposed to be less gag I guess; nobody seems to be worried about us kids. And besides, I’m sure Nee had already interrogated Uncle Johnny’s friends –those guys with the funny names.

Aunt Celia pulls from the heap a cigar-shaped wrap and says: “To Little Louie.”

Little Louie spins his three hundred pound body away from the bar and gestures to Little John, his godson to retrieve the gift for him. My cousin readily obliges and with all eyes on Little Louie, he raises his drink glass and salutes “the health and well-being of my family and friends.” He sets the drink down and with huge knobby fingers, unrolls the wrap off a “very-expensive Cuban Cigar.”

From Fidel’s private collection,” says Jimmy, another one of Uncle Johnny close friends.

The grab bag ritual had concluded with Uncle Johnny getting a very fancy looking beer stein, the kind you’d see in the old war movies where the German officers are sitting around a big table and laughing. I never could understand what they were laughing about – because a few seconds later you’d see real skinny people in striped pajamas being herded into big jail-looking rooms and that made me sad, oh really it did.

And soon, the big event. My bicycle will be wheeled out of Aunt Celia’s bedroom and I’ll act so surprised, oh I will. First though, there are other gifts to open, stuff we need. Socks for Lenny and pajamas too, but I don’t think he’ll ever wear those—and I don’t know why —at least they’re not the striped kind those poor concentration camp men and women and children were forced to wear.

Uncle Johnny hands Lenny two more presents and Lenny wastes no time, his ravenous hands attack the wrapping paper like an alley cat would a carcass of pigeon. Out of the box come a colored pencil set and a pad of sketch paper followed by a torrent of more socks and underwear, which he quickly conceals under his leg. No shame in covering the butt, you would think, but Lenny, he’s embarrassed, especially in front of Uncle Johnny’s friends.

Wendy, animated now, a smirk smeared across her face, jumping up and down, humming and jabbering, oh sister, I’m glad you’re back. Aunt Celia caters to her wishes—more dress-ups for her Cindy Doll and an etch-a-sketch and Nee and Papa Joe adorn her with a couple of new blouses, one frilly and white, the other of woolly red. Oh, and a nice new pair of sneaker shoes and a rack of the customary socks.

Mother, who has really taken advantage of the liquor selection and Tony’s deft hand at shaking up a mix, spins the stool a few times and losing more equilibrium than a lazy fat man on a rapid-water canoe, capsizes and laughs out real loud how “Wendy’s now got more socks than I got bras and that’s good because come summer I’ll be bumming with Trish and her hippie friends and won’t need a bra.” 
 
More laughter is imparted by Tony and a few of Uncle Johnny’s other friends but Nee, she takes serious to the issue and rushes over to Mother’s casualty and warns her that she’d had enough and better stop the embarrassment. Tony, who now realizes his blunder, turns stern in the face and helps Mother up off the floor.

The interruption of gift passing extends further into the night as Aunt Celia leads Mother into another room for a “sister-to-sister” chat. Probably to tell her that she’s sorry about “Vincent” leaving on that miserable Thanksgiving Day and not to worry, things will get better and then she’ll tell her how Nee loves her and doesn’t want to see her become an “alkie-hallic” and “besides, now that Vince is gone, your kids really need you, Jan.”

Mother returns. You could tell she’s been crying but is ashamed, her head hung low—her eyes disallowing contact with other eyes that follow her as she shadows past the Christmas tree and into obscurity.
 
Breaking the focus, Tony steps down from the bar area and offers Nee a dance. Laughter erupts once more as Nee spins a heel and takes Tony’s offer up full tempo. You could tell he’s trying to keep up but too many cigars and an abundance of girth only allows him half the song, the other half’s given to another partner—Little John. That kid can move and now it’s Nee’s turn to bail out and deny an encore as we all stand and applaud and chant, “One more song, one more song . . ..

Believe me you, one Jingle Bells song is enough,” Nee says as she plops down on the sofa pulling Wendy and me down with her.

Finally, more presents are distributed. All eyes now turn toward me. Aunt Celia hands me a pretty box topped with a bow and candy cane. “From Nee and Papa Joe, “ she says.
 
I look up at Nee and she’s smiling broadly while Wendy’s pinching me to hurry and open it. I mustn’t be too fast; I don’t want to rip up the pretty wrapping paper because who knows, maybe next year I’ll have lots of gifts to wrap. I really hope so because I just hate not having anything to give, I really do. I feel so bad and a bit embarrassed too. All the bigger people are supposed to understand that we don’t have any money, especially now that Mother’s going to go on the welfare but still, I don’t like to come empty-handed. It makes us look cheap I suppose, especially to those other people with the fancy dress ups and shiny shoes.

I carefully and methodically remove the wrap and pull from the box a warm-looking sweater and a pair of earmuffs and three pairs of tube socks. Expect a long, cold winter I guess. A heavy parka coat –a gift from Aunt Celia and Uncle John, validates my suspicions. But after a long, cold hard winter comes the spring and that’s the time I’ll jump aboard my new bike and ride like a boy is supposed to ride—through the thick of the city and out to the suburban lane where tall trees and blossom of lilac adorn my way.
 
Suddenly a silent treatment has succumbed to my reverie as I ride freely and unchallenged through the wooded areas, plush with foliage and fawn and then around the perimeter of the big pond where bass fish and trout frolic about. And then down the county road, where fields of wheat bristle the breeze and stalks of corn seize the sun. Into a faraway town I go, where crowds of friendly folk call my name: “Ricky, Ricky, Ricky . . ..

I open my eyes. “Ricky,” Nee says, “how do you like your brother’s new bicycle?”

I look up and then across the room where Uncle Johnny’s crowd had assembled. Between the hips of Tony and the sequined dress of his wife, I see the red frame. As Tony moves to adjust his jacket I see the shiny silver and chromed handlebars. And through the spokes I see Lenny, who is as excited as I am sick, suddenly taken ill by perhaps too much soda, too many cookies, and too many bites off the lasagna.

I jump up and run past the happy crowd and pass the silhouette of Mother in the corner and into the bathroom where I fall onto my knees before the bowl.

 

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