(fiction, previously published in the short story collection, A BETTER PLACE, in 2002)
Grandma hollers from the kitchen, “Somebody better go upstairs and check on Kelly. I think she’s crying.”
I’m 12 years old. Sitting on the big green velour couch. Feeling itchy. I’m wearing this new Christmas sweater Mom bought me to wear to Grandma’s. It’s red with little white snowmen on it. I can barely stand it. My brothers, Dustin and Dan, are sitting with me. Peering into the pile of gifts under the tree. We’re waiting to dive into the goodies to see what we’ll come away with this year.
I see one of mine wrapped in newspaper and I don’t even have to guess who it’s from. Aunt Jane, the recycling queen, has stashed these beauties all over under the tree. Some are wrapped in editorials. Some in the finance section. And some in the sports pages. Mine’s half comics, half A&P ad. The Peanuts Gang is on the side facing me. Hillshire Christmas Hams are on the top. My name is printed neatly in thick red letters on a piece of white masking tape that runs over Snoopy and Woodstock. The newspaper-wrapped boxes are all the same shape and size. Aunt Jane works at Lancaster’s shoes and can’t stand to see a Nike box go to waste.
Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bob are late as usual, and all of us are stuck waiting on them. I hear Aunt Tammy chirping to Uncle Sam about Aunt Kelly and I’m wondering what’s going on. Aunt Tammy’s round, rouge coated cheeks are jiggling like canned cranberry sauce as she talks to Uncle Sam. I can tell by her lowered voice that whatever she’s saying about Aunt Kelly, it must be scandalous. Uncle Sam is shaking his head and picking his nose. Aunt Tammy stops talking just long enough to slap his hand, then keeps right on chirping.
“I’ll go check on her,” Aunt Jane says.
I’m still wondering what’s up and look to my Dad. He’s talking to Uncle Jake. Uncle Jake, of course, is drinking. I see he’s getting loopy and I’m thinking about how hard it must be for Dad. They both have gold-rimmed glasses, reddish-blond hair and beards. Their resemblance is remarkable. The only difference this year is that Dad’s hand is without the shiny aluminum can.
Grandma comes wobbling into the family room. One hand holding her glass of wine, the other her cigarettes. She’s wearing Levi’s and a pink, fuzzy sweater that sort of just hangs over her bony frame. She’s got one of the glowing sticks in her mouth and through some puffs of smoke she comments on the tree.
“Kids, I think this is the best tree yet!”
I look to my brothers and they’re laughing. The tree looks like a bush wrapped in aluminum foil, with all the gaudy tinsel. Our laughter though, is cut short by our cousin, Jesslyn. She’s wearing an emerald dress with white stockings. She looks cute and all, but it’s a look that’s definitely deceiving. I try to look past her, searching for other boxes that belong to me, but she starts waving her hands in my face.
“Santa was here!” she says. “Santa was here!”
There’s thumping upstairs and the room shakes. Everyone looks up at the silver chandelier hanging in the middle of the ceiling. Dangling from it, on about a foot of fishing line is a golden angel holding a harp. It has a wiry halo over its head and bells dangling from its feet. The more thumping there is, the more the angel sways. Everyone is silent. I’m just waiting for the whole unit to come crashing down, or at the very least for the bells to ring. The silence between the thumping is terrible. I can hear Grandma’s wheezy breathing. And outside ice is cracking against the windows. Mixed in with a series of heavy thumps is a horrendous crash, like a dozen glass bowls being dropped, then suddenly all is quiet upstairs. In seconds, everyone is going about Christmas business as usual.
“Is Aunt Kelly okay?” Jesslyn asks, still waving her chubby arms in my face.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My brother Dan leans forward and shoves her.
“Beat it, dork!”
Jesslyn falls backwards into the coffee table and knocks a dish of red and green M&Ms onto the floor. She starts bawling like crazy, so Mom gets up from the recliner and pops me in the back of the head. It doesn’t hurt, but messes my hair enough so that Dustin starts laughing at me. I’m more embarrassed than anything, so I slug him. Mom pops me in the back of the head again.
“Jesus, Ma! I didn’t do anything.”
“You’re the oldest, you should know better!”
“Better than what?”
“Don’t get lippy with me, mister. I’ve got enough on my mind, right now. I don’t need to be worrying about what you kids are doing.”
I think about asking what’s up with Aunt Kelly, but decide against it. Intoxicated Uncle Jake is peeved at his cute little daughter for knocking over the candy. Through a slur of syllables, he orders her to pick it up. I smile to myself for this moral victory and look to Mom for an apology. She’s eyeing up Dad though, thinking about last Christmas no doubt, wondering if maybe this is the year Dad’s going to stay sober. Uncle Jake hands his can to Dad then returns to scolding Jesslyn. Dad stares at the beer can like he’s never seen one before. His lips disappear beneath his thick mustache. I wonder if maybe he’s licking them.
“You boys have to sit there and wait. When Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bob show up, we’ll open presents. Until then, you’ll sit still and behave. If you know what’s good for you.”
Mom says all of this without taking her eyes off Dad. Tension is about as thick as the smoke rolling from the cigarette on Grandma’s lips. I’m still watching Dad. My gaze is fixed on that silver can. I start thinking back to last year when Dad was so drunk Mom and Uncle Jake had to take him to the hospital.
Everybody was talking in whispers that Christmas. Dad was stumbling around the presents, joking about Aunt Jane’s “fancy wrappin’ papers” when he fell. I remember him laying there, his body kind of jerking around and Mom shoving her fingers down his throat to get him breathing again. I wasn’t scared until Grandma started crying, just numb. As soon as Grandma started though, my throat tightened. I held on a bit longer until Dustin, then Dan began to cry. The three of us slid as close together as we could on the green couch and bawled. Aunt Kelly came over to us and sat down. I crashed my head into her shoulder and closed my eyes. The only thing I remember after that was Grandma waking me up with her cigarette breath and a plate of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies.
“Jesslyn honey, it’s okay, don’t cry.”
Grandma’s voice snaps me out of it and I’m glad. Her knees are cracking and popping as she lowers herself to help Jesslyn pick up M&Ms. Before I know it, I’m down there too. Mom tells Grandma to sit down and relax, but Grandma ignores her. Instead, she stretches one of her bony arms into the darkness under the coffee table, cracks some more, and comes up with three reds and two greens. I’m thinking about asking Grandma about Aunt Kelly, but the late ones finally show up and Grandma groans her way back to her feet.
They come stomping into the house like cows, snow flying everywhere. I pick up one last M&M and see that Jesslyn is watching me. I toss it into my mouth and smile. She tries to tell on me, but Mom’s already heading to greet the blizzard people. Grandma doesn’t notice either, she’s busy lighting another cancer stick and sizing up her wine.
“Merry Christmas!” Uncle Bob yells.
Uncle Jake mumbles to my Dad, “It’s about goddamned time.”
Aunt Sarah makes up an excuse for being late and it’s better than last year’s anyway. They make the rounds, hugging, kissing, shaking hands—all that cordial jazz—and I’m looking out the window. The ice and snow is coming so hard that it sounds like someone’s throwing pebbles at the house.
So here we are. The whole family. My brothers and I are waiting for the goods, but Aunt Kelly is still upstairs. Suddenly, the talking stops. Cigarette smoke freezes in mid-air. And all eyes are on Aunt Jane as she stands in the doorway. Dustin’s a smart-ass and notices the mistletoe over her head.
“Fat chance of her gettin’ a kiss,” he says.
I chuckle at this. Mom shoots me the look of death. Aunt Jane opens her mouth.
“Okay, everyone. Kelly’s coming down. Act normal!”
I’m lost. I don’t know why I’m supposed to act normal. I don’t even know what normal is. So, I glance over at Dad for some direction. He winks. Smiles. Tips his hand in a drinking motion. Only his hand is empty. I’m confused but keep watching. He goes round and round with his pointer finger by his ear doing the “crazy” motion just as Aunt Kelly comes down. Rumbling down that is. Like a sack of potatoes. And I can’t believe my ears. Each step she hits shakes loose a different obscenity. When reaches bottom, nobody goes to help her. She gets up like nothing has even happened. Eyes red. Sweater inside-out.
She staggers into the room. Mascara is smudged all over under her eyes like she’s been crying. Ruby red lipstick is smeared on her cheek like crayon. Her fly is wide open showing off satiny red-and-white striped underwear. She plops herself onto the floor.
“I’m Sahntah Closs thish yahear!” she shouts, fumbling around, looking for name tags on the gifts.
Aunt Jane and Aunt Tammy are whispering. Grandma’s praising the tinsel tree. Mom walks in with a coffee mug in her hand just as Uncle Jake offers Dad a beer. Dad is staring at Aunt Kelly. Mom is staring at Dad. He lifts the mug to his lips and I can’t help but notice the trembling of his hand.
~ © 2016 K.J. Stevens