So, I headed to my hometown of Porter’s Bay for Christmas. My parents hosted and BOTH my brothers were there. Here’s what went down…
Sunday (Christmas Eve Day) 9:15 am
I’ve been awake for about ten seconds and I’m running full-tilt down the stairs, holding my nose. I’m only aware of the pain in said nose and that something attacked me in my sleep. I haul ass through the living room and dining room and burst into the kitchen. My mom is making coffee and my dad is at the table, one of maybe six people left on the planet who still reads the morning paper. My mom looks up, startled.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” she asks.
“Something bit me.”
Mom, as she frequently does in a crisis, looks toward my dad. He peers over the top of both the newspaper and his reading glasses.
“Was the door to your room open?” he asks.
I give it some thought, annoyed that I’m answering questions rather than directing Dad to find the shotgun and handle the situation. “Yeah, I think it was,” I say.
Dad looks over to Mom. “Must have been Anastasia,” he says.
My mom nods, relieved, and turns toward the coffee again. Dad goes back to his newspaper. I’m still standing there in my pajamas and holding my throbbing nose.
“What the hell’s an Anastasia?” I ask.
“Language, Joe,” Mom says.
Mom flips on the coffee maker and says, “Anastasia’s our new kitty.”
It’s enough to (almost) make me forget the pain in my nose. “You have a cat? When did this happen?”
“We got her a week ago,” Mom says, “It was an early Christmas present from Rose.”
Rose is our neighbor across the alley. She’s lived there as long as I can remember and you’d need carbon-dating to determine her actual age. She functions as the neighborhood’s Crazy Cat Lady. I assume the hellbeast upstairs is the result of a litter Rose doesn’t have room for. My ignorance of the cat’s existence, though, is my own fault; the result of getting in REALLY late last night and not calling my parents much over the last month.
“Swell,” I mutter, pulling my hand away from my nose and discovering, thankfully, there’s no blood there.
Mom gets a coffee cup down from the cupboard. “I thought you loved cats.”
“I love MY cats. It doesn’t extend to the species as a whole.”
“She’s just a little confused right now. I’m sure you’ll love her. She’s very sweet.”
“Yeah, well, anything that starts our relationship by biting me on the nose is fighting an uphill battle.”
“Try to make the best of it,” Mom says, patting my cheek, “After all, she lives here and you don’t.”
Ouch. For THIS, I came home for Christmas?
I’ve got some coffee and one of Mom’s sweet rolls in me and I’m feeling halfway human. I’ve gotten a proper introduction to Anastasia and she isn’t quite the she-devil I pictured. She’s a teeny little black cat who reminds me of my tuxedo cat, Squiggy. But she’s smaller and lacks Squiggy’s sense of decorum. She’s tried to buddy up to me a few times, but I’m not having it. Besides, I’m too distracted by the pending arrival of my brother Kevin and his family.
Kevin is my older brother and in my younger days, the guy I wanted to be. He was the guy A LOT of people wanted to be in high school: good looking, popular, charismatic, a star athlete and a straight-A student. Someone you’d hope would develop a drinking problem, just to level the playing field. But no, Kevin went to college on a basketball scholarship, got himself into law school at Berkeley and passed the bar on his first try. He married a fellow lawyer, has a growing practice in contract law and is thinking of going into politics. The lovely house and the 2.5 children goes without saying.
But there IS a drawback to Kevin, at least from where my brother Owen and I sit. It would be a little much to expect someone to meet with such unalloyed success AND be humble. Kevin isn’t a braggart, because braggarts tend toward insecurity and Kevin has nothing to be insecure about. Just ask him. No, it’s more in the way Kevin carries himself. It’s how I imagine heads of state and movie stars and CEOs carry themselves; the expectation they will be deferred to. In conversation, Kevin often talks past you, as if the eyes of the public are upon him and he must be scrupulously correct. If YOU fail to meet those standards, he will either ignore you or gently guide you in the direction he feels you ought to go. Dealing with Kevin is somewhere between intimidation and exasperation. One of the reasons I came up last night was to avoid carpooling with Kevin and his family.
Of course, as the saying goes, you can run, but you can’t hide.
Sunday, 12:05 pm
It’s actually my younger brother Owen and his family who arrive first. Owen’s taken an early lunch break from the hardware store my father owns (and Owen essentially runs) so he can be here for Kevin’s arrival. Owen trudges up the front walk, guiding his son Ty (staring at his phone) past the giant plastic Santa Claus my father puts up every year. Owen’s wife, Mary, follows, burdened by about 75 packages and urging their five-year old daughter, Natalie, to hurry it up.
“This is going to be so much fun,” Mom says, watching their arrival through the little window next to the front door.
Only my mother could look at my dour younger brother and his equally dour family and associate it with the word “fun”. It’s among the reasons I both love her and can’t figure her out.
Sunday, 12:10 pm
Owen’s family has finally made it inside. Ty, who’s on the spectrum, immediately talks to me about this racing game he likes, continuing a conversation we started a month ago as if there’s been no discernible gap. Natalie makes no less than seven attempts to run into the living room without removing her boots, each time getting corralled back to the rug inside the front door. Owen and my father head into the dining room and begin talking in hushed tones. I have no idea what’s it about, but I never thought hardware deserved the kind of breathless tone one normally associates with a nuclear crisis. And Mary gives me a brief wave, folding her arms across her chest, lest I get any crazy ideas about giving her a hug.
Something I should explain: I have complicated relationships with my sisters-in-law. Kevin’s wife, Jordan, actively hates me, owing to my brief-but-bitter affair with her sister. (The brevity due to my going back to her hotel room after the wedding reception. The bitterness due to my never calling her again.) Mary, though, is a different story. She’s never said or done anything to convey overt dislike. But there’s a tension whenever I’m in her presence. I used to think it was because Mary does not have a sense of humor she’s aware of and I make my living telling glorified dick jokes. Lately, I’ve started to think it’s something deeper. I get a very strong sense of disapproval. Not over how I behave. Just over who I am.
So I’m not exactly looking forward to the family gathering.
Sunday, 12:20 pm
In the space of ten minutes, Mom has found places for all of the packages, Natalie has disappeared upstairs in pursuit of the cat (not that I mind a bit) and Ty has been told roughly 97 times to put his phone down. I’m not setting a good example, as I’ve embarked on an afternoon of surreptitiously checking my fantasy football score. Owen finally comes out of the dining room. Dad doesn’t follow him. Again, I’m not generally interested in their business conversations. But I can’t shake the feeling something’s wrong. Owen strolls past, giving me the same curt nod with which he greeted me.
“I gotta get back,” Owen says, pulling on his coat, “We’re open until three.” As if this is news to me. Dad closed the store every Christmas Eve at three pm from the time I can remember.
“You busy today?” I ask.
Owen rolls his eyes. “We had two customers this morning. One of them was Clarence Birch and I think he only came in for the free popcorn.”
Owen’s stroke of genius was to put a popcorn machine next to the cash register. He got the idea after seeing one in the waiting area of a car dealership. He thinks of it as a little Thank You to the customers. Dad, I have it on good authority, thinks of it as something that needs constant maintenance, brings in no money and causes the employees to spend time sweeping up popcorn kernels and cursing Owen’s soul.
Owen takes a few steps toward the door, then stops and looks back at me. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he asks, “I suppose you’re going to sneak out to meet your friend Andy?”
Owen knows I can handle family gatherings for about eight minutes before I need some space. Usually, that involves sneaking out and finding one of my high school friends. And it’s usually Andy.
“Not this year,” I say, “Andy’s at his wife’s parents’ place. It’s the once-every-five-year visit they make to keep the peace.”
“Kind of like Kevin with us?”
Owen clears his throat. It’s that fidgety thing he does before bringing up something he doesn’t want to talk about. Or even something he does.
“What do you guys do?” he asks, “Do you hang out at his place or walk around or what?”
“We usually go to The Village Bowl.”
“The Village Bowl is open on Christmas?”
“You didn’t know? I thought you lived in this town.”
Owen’s mouth tightens. “I don’t usually go out drinking on Christmas. What’s the Bowl like on a holiday? Is it nice?”
“It’s You Can Drink Here on Christmas Nice.”
Again, Owen clears his throat. “I don’t suppose you want to go get a drink with me?”
I’m floored. Owen asked me to race matchbox cars when I was ten and that’s the last time he asked me to do anything. This is an “Only Nixon could go to China” moment. And of course, he completely misinterprets my stunned silence.
“It’s all right,” he says, quickly, “I know you’re not into it. Forget I asked.”
I hear myself saying, “No, not at all. It would be fun.”
“Yeah. Definitely.” I’m not sure, of course. But there’s no turning back.
Owen bobs his head, like he’s not sure if it’s a good idea, either. Finally, he reaches for the door. “See you after three,” he says, hurrying out.
Huh. I wonder if Santa Claus would mind dropping me off at home tonight?
Sunday, 12:45 pm
Kevin and his family finally arrive. He hops out of the mini-van they’ve rented, his long black coat done up just so and his fashionable red scarf nattily tied around his neck. (Five-will-get-you-ten they were purchased at great expense for this trip and this trip alone.) If he’s forgotten how f’n cold it can get in Minnesota, he doesn’t show it. Judging by the tan and the million-dollar smile, he’s ready to go sunbathing. His wife, Jordan, and their two kids (Flynn, age 8, and Tucker, age 6) make no such effort. They huddle together in their ridiculously large coats like a family of entitled polar bears. Mom, unable to contain herself, meets Kevin halfway up the front walk and gives him a big hug. Dad appears over my shoulder at the front door. I give him the briefest of glances.
“I have to go out there, don’t I?” I ask.
Dad puts a hand on my shoulder. “It will only hurt for a minute.”
I stroll down the front walk and get to Kevin just as mom lets him go. I offer a hand and he takes it and then we realize we’re brothers who haven’t seen each other in a couple years and we should probably do more than just shake hands. He pulls me into an awkward hug that best resembles Al Franken at a USO show. Thankfully, Dad claps Kevin on the shoulder and allows us to quickly move on. Mom has just finished hugging Jordan, who has her eyes laser-focused on the front door. Unfortunately, I’m standing in the way. I give Jordan a wave.
“Good to see you,” I say, clearly lying.
“My sister says hi,” Jordan says, shouldering past me.
Flynn and Tucker regard me for a second, maybe thinking, “Ah, so THIS is the rat bastard uncle Joe that mom and auntie Carly keep talking about.” Then they rush after their mother, squealing against the cold. (Have I mentioned Flynn and Tucker are girls?)
I wonder if the Village Bowl is open…
Everyone’s getting settled in. The raft-load of presents Kevin and his family have dragged in spill out from under the tree. The wives and kids are safely tucked away in the living room. Kevin and I are at the dining room table with our parents. Mom pours us all coffee and Kevin and I do our best to grimace through it. (For all her abundant culinary skills, my mom makes the worst coffee known to man.)
Kevin gets through it by discussing his political prospects. “The central committee in San Francisco seems pretty interested in me. The current assemblyman is retiring and they’re looking for a replacement. It’s a safe seat. I could probably serve as long as I want. Just a matter of whether I want to lose the income and spend that much time away from the family.”
I look into the next room. Tucker and Flynn stare at Owen’s kids like they’re watching some kind of behavioral experiment gone horribly wrong (which is not entirely inaccurate). Mary, who usually seems intimidated by Jordan’s glamour, freely engages her sister-in-law in conversation. Judging by the ugly looks they occasionally throw toward the dining room, it’s safe to assume they’re bonding over a shared dislike of me.
Nice that I can bring people together.
Meantime, Dad calmly sips his coffee (either he humors Mom or his taste buds were destroyed years ago). “Politics isn’t a great topic of conversation these days.”
Kevin winces. “Gordie as mayor. I still can’t believe that.”
Kevin may not get home much, but he’s up on what’s happening in his old hometown. Our idiot uncle Gordie was elected mayor of Porter’s Bay last year in what could only be described as an act of town-wide insanity. Since then, what Gordie’s lacked in accomplishment, he’s made up for in insults, tantrums and a general loss of dignity for the office. Gordie promised to get government off everyone’s backs and he’s been successful. Everyone in town is heartily sick of their government.
“If you’re interested in politics,” Mom says to Kevin, “Maybe you can move back here and run against Gordie next year.”
Kevin gives that a long, hearty laugh. Best joke he’s heard in a long time. Dad hastily offers his cup to Mom.
“Hon, would you mind getting me a warm up?” he says.
Mom switches gears and takes Dad’s cup into the kitchen. Dad and I glare at Kevin, but he’s oblivious to it. Just as he was oblivious to the fact Mom wasn’t joking.
Sunday, 2:15 pm
Kevin catches me hanging out in my old room, checking my fantasy football scores. He leans against the doorframe as he tells about all the fabulous additions he and Jordan have made to their house. I pretend I’m listening. It’s a little much to suppose Kevin will ask about my column. I’m not sure he’s even aware of what I do for a living. He does ask me about one aspect of my life.
“I remember when you had that crappy little apartment on Summit Avenue,” he says, “The one with the lunatic downstairs. Where you living these days?”
“The same crappy apartment above the same lunatic.”
Kevin nods, as if my answer doesn’t faze him. No shame. Nothing throws him off.
The man really ought to go into politics.
Sunday 3:15 pm
Owen has returned from the store, assuring Dad that all is well. There’s still a strange energy there. Owen, though, is preoccupied with looking from his family to Kevin’s and indulging his inferiority complex. He stands with Kevin and me at the edge of the dining room, making stilted conversation. Kevin nods toward Ty, who’s staring at his phone.
“Ty’s in middle school next year?” Kevin asks.
Owen shakes his head. “This year. They changed it a few years back. Elementary school is K through 5 and middle school is 6 through 8.”
“How’s he liking it?” I ask.
“It’s fine,” Owen says. He looks at the floor and then says, “I get the feeling some kids make fun of him. You know, he’s on the spectrum, so he’s excitable and he talks about things that don’t necessarily interest the other kids and in the kind of detail that doesn’t interest ANYBODY and so….he gets picked on. He says he doesn’t notice. But I do.”
Mom interrupts and reminds us all we need to leave for church in ten minutes if we’re going to get decent seats for the Christmas Eve service. We’re all more than ready to move on to another subject.
“Pastor Tony still in charge?” Kevin asks.
Owen shakes his head. “He retired a few years ago. Pastor Kari handles it now.”
Kevin’s coffee cup stops short of his lips. “Pastor Kari?”
Mom breaks in again. “She’s just wonderful. Maybe you know her, Kevin. You must have gone to school together. Kari Price?”
For the first time since he got here (or possibly ever) something has thrown Kevin off. “Uh, Kari Price. That’s, uh, that’s not a married name?”
“Well, she’s married,” Mom says, “But she kept her maiden name. Do you remember her?”
Kevin clears his throat. “Maybe. Barely. Excuse me.”
He makes a beeline out of the dining room and heads upstairs. I turn to Owen and ask, “What the hell was that about?”
Owen, not wishing to associate with my kind of trouble, moves on without answering my question.
Story of my life.
Sunday, 3:30 pm
Our Savior’s Lutheran is the church my mom and dad have belonged to for nearly 40 years. My brothers and I had our baptisms and confirmations here. Owen and Mary had their wedding and their kids’ baptisms here. And every Christmas Eve, it’s where you’ll find our family. It’s a cavernous place, situated next to a little wooded area on the west end of town. It’s by far the biggest church, Lutheran, Catholic or otherwise, in Porter’s Bay. We park so far away from the building, we might as well have walked from home. Everyone bundles up against the cold and begins the Bataan Death March toward the building.
With the wives burdened with the kids, Kevin, Owen and I wind up walking several steps ahead, trailed only by Ty, who’s preoccupied with his phone. Owen leans toward Kevin.
“What’s the deal with you and Pastor Kari?” Owen says, “You keep getting this funny look on your face.”
Kevin tries to brush off the question, but Owen and I are looking at him. Experience has taught Kevin he will be badgered endlessly until he gives up the answer. He tosses a look back toward Jordan and lowers his voice.
“Kari and I kind of…hung out in high school,” he says.
We’ve been around Kevin long enough to know “hung out” is a euphemism. There would be things hanging and things out, but one wouldn’t generally describe it as “hanging out”. Owen’s eyes get wide.
“You dated Pastor Kari?” he says.
“Who said anything about dating? We were hanging out.”
Owen looks as if he’s going to be sick. “You mean the two of you…”
Kevin quickly waves it off. “No, no. Not for a lack of trying on my part, I’ll tell you. But she wouldn’t do it. Too interested in protecting her virtue. But she was a gymnast and a dancer and a cheerleader. I’m guessing her virtue would have been pretty damn spectacular.”
It’s all I can do not to laugh. “Wow,” I whisper, “You tried getting jiggy wid the pastor.”
“Have no shame?” Owen says.
“I didn’t know she was going to be a pastor,” Kevin says, “At the time she was just some chick from church.”
Apparently, our spirited discussion has carried its way back to the others. “What’s going on up there?” Dad asks.
Before we can issue a denial, Ty, still staring at his phone, says, “Uncle Kevin tried to have sex with the pastor.”
Everyone looks at us like those freeze-frame pictures you see from the haunted houses at the amusement park. Ty walks right past us without looking up from his phone. Kevin holds his hands out.
“If it means anything, she wouldn’t do it,” he says. After getting further mannequin stares, Kevin turns forward and mutters, “No, I, I didn’t think that would mean anything.”
Sunday, 3:35 pm
Ty leads the way into a side door of the lobby, followed by Owen, then me, then Kevin. The second Ty gets through the door, a girl about his age, with glasses and dark features, passes in front of him. Ty says, “Hi.” She rolls her eyes in response. As soon as she gets past us, we hear her say to another girl about her age, “Ty’s here.” The other girl responds with a Valley Girl-esque, “I know, right?”
Ty, thankfully, is oblivious. Owen’s ears turn red and he glares toward the girls. My fists clench. Kevin guides us into the chapel, probably horrified by the thought his younger siblings might create a scene and ruin his sterling reputation.
The chapel is huge. There’s a choir loft at the back, resting over the lobby. Large windows along one side opening on to a small courtyard. Stained glass windows on the opposite side. Lit candles line three of the walls and provide most of the illumination in the gathering darkness. A raised area at the front functions as the pulpit. Behind the pulpit is a huge Christmas tree, decorated only in lights, and a large cross resting atop a tall pole. We find a few available pews nearer the front. Progress is slowed by Kevin working the room, greeting old friends and admirers. Pastor Kari, a prim woman with a nest of wavy dark hair, cocks her head to one side as she studies Kevin. They catch eyes, but Pastor Kari quickly looks away. Kevin stands in the aisle, looking vaguely offended.
“Kevin, dear, please sit down,” Mom says.
Kevin and his family wedge themselves into a pew, sitting to my left. Tucker and Flynn show signs of boredom or discontent or bewilderment. (I’m not good at reading women my OWN age, let alone the under-10 set). Jordan bribes them into silence with a bag of M&Ms larger than my car. Owen sits on my right, with Ty next to him and the rest of the family spreading away. Ty stares at the back of the pew, already bored, while Mary works overtime to get Natalie to stop kicking the seat in front of her.
My mother witnesses all of this and will still have the nerve to ask me why I don’t have kids yet.
The 4 pm service on Christmas Eve is the contemporary service. This means the music is something close to Christian Rock and is provided by a few singers and a combo. The pastors wear business casual rather than robes. And some of the hokier, carry-in-the-cross, carry-in-the-Bible elements are omitted. My mother loves it, though my father, who may have come out of the womb a 55 year old man, took longer to cozy up to it. I’m not certain if Kevin is comfortable with it. He keeps bobbing his head, trying to get the pastor’s attention. She ignores him.
“What the hell?” Kevin mutters.
Sunday, 3:50 pm
As luck would have it, the two girls who made fun of Ty are part of a small choir of pre-teen girls singing with the combo. They sit two pews in front of us and, according to the program, they’re singing two songs. Meaning we get to look at them the whole service. There’s five of them all together: an abnormally tall, largely nondescript girl; the one with the glasses who sneered at Ty, a snotty-looking girl with a ponytail and a permanent smirk, a horse-faced girl who just seems happy to have friends, and a blonde with buck-teeth and a fat face. They catch sight of Ty and are off to the races with the giggling and pointing. Owen glares at them, but they ignore him.
Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men. And all the rest of that happy horses**t.
Sunday, 4:00 pm
The service starts with a few words of welcome from Pastor Kari, followed by “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, a prayer, a scripture reading and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. This is followed by a prepared video that imagines the Nativity Story if it had played out on social media. It goes down a smash with most of the congregation, though I wind up staring at the thing like I’m watching a 9/11 replay.
One thing my dad and I agree on is that we don’t care for humor in church. In my case, though, it’s not the irreverence that bothers me. It’s that the humor generally sucks. It’s like Pat Boone trying to tell a fart joke and chickening out before he gets to the punch line. But, as I said, I’m in the minority.
The girls get up and sing “Christmas Canon” and while they’re uniformly awful, everyone gives them an indulgent round of applause. The girls retake their seats and continue to look back and giggle at Ty. He doesn’t notice, though Owen is burning with anger and humiliation. Unpleasant scenes from my own middle school years are coming up. And the girls keep right on giggling and pointing.
I see something out of the corner of my left eye. An M&M arcs slightly through the air, making a path straight to the back of the smirking girl’s head. Upon impact, she grabs her ponytail and turns around. Instinctively, I avoid eye contact. The M&M came from my left side and only one person could have thrown it.
I look at Kevin, who’s stone-faced. He tilts the bag of M&M’s toward Owen and me.
By the end of the second scripture reading, I’ve hit the buck-toothed blonde, the one with the glasses and the horse-faced girl. Owen has hit the tall girl and added to the smirking girl’s damage. Kevin’s put one in the buck-toothed blonde’s ear and rattled one off the glasses of the one with the glasses. As Pastor Kari begins her sermon, the score stands at Mean Girls: 0, Davis Brothers: 7.
After the sermon, the Mean Girls get up to sing. By this time, they’re so rattled, their version of “Silent Night” sounds like four different singers trying to do doo-wop in eight different languages. Even the pastor can’t hide a grimace. Of course, the snickering and giggling Kevin, Owen and I are doing doesn’t help matters. By the time the song’s over, the girls are red-faced and staring at the floor.
Then we realize Mom and Dad are looking at us. Owen tosses the bag of M&Ms back to Kevin, who promptly drops them on the floor. The congregation singing “Joy to the World” covers the sound of scattering M&Ms.
Sunday 5:30 pm
I’m as sentimental as the next guy, but sitting in the kitchen while my brothers and I catch hell from our parents is a childhood memory I’d rather not relive. Still, here we are, three allegedly grown men grouped around the tiny kitchen table while Mom and Dad stand over us. As is custom, we don’t make eye contact with our parents or each other.
At first glance, my father is not an intimidating man. He’s short and dumpy. His stare can be penetrating, but not uncomfortably so. My brothers and I were each blessed with height from my mom’s side of the family, meaning all of us (including my mom) are taller than Dad. But all Dad has to do is use a certain tone of voice and he can cut all of us down to the size of garden gnomes.
My father’s bulldog jowls flap as he says, “May I ask what in the hell the three of you were thinking?”
Owen clears his throat and swivels toward them. “It’s my fault. We were, uh, kind of, defending Ty.”
My parents exchange a look. “Defending Ty?” Mom asks.
Owen tells them about the Mean Girls and how they were acting, though he’s also quick to point out that Ty didn’t notice any of this. But Owen did.
“So you started throwing M&Ms?” Dad says.
Kevin feebly raises his hand. “I started throwing them. I mean…” He looks over at Owen. “Ty’s my nephew.”
I nod. “Mine, too.”
If you were to look at my mom’s eyes, you’d see they’re soft to the point of wanting to tear up. But if you pulled back and got the whole picture, you’d see that’s offset by the tightness in her mouth; a sure sign her sense of propriety has been offended. Still, in matters of discipline, she defers to my father. She gives him a barely perceptible nod and steps out of the kitchen.
Dad glances at each one of us. It’s an old strategy. Each look lingers just long enough to remind us of our part in this. He takes his hands out of his pockets and says, “Next time, use Peanut M&Ms.” Then he strolls out of the kitchen, giving Owen’s shoulder a squeeze as he passes.
Sunday 7:00 pm
When I was growing up, Christmas Eve followed a certain set of traditions. We snacked on chocolate-covered cherries, Spanish peanuts and mints during the day. (Mom always put out ribbon candy, too. But I don’t recall anyone ever eating it. For all I know, she bought one bag when we were babies and just kept putting it out every year, safe in the knowledge it was never going to be consumed.) In the evening, we’d have pizza, since Mom saved the big dinner for Christmas Day. Then, at some point, my parents would suddenly hear Santa Claus on the roof. We’d scurry to our rooms and after a minute or so, my parents would give us the all-clear. Then we’d come back downstairs to discover Santa had left our presents under the tree. It was magical.
And none of us ever noticed that only one of our parents would scamper upstairs with us when Santa was making his visit.
Much as we’d love to continue the Santa tradition, it’s simply not feasible. Owen has deferred to Mary’s preference for opening presents on Christmas morning. To avoid confusion, Kevin has explained to his kids that Santa will be coming a little later because they’re at Grandma and Grandpa’s place. So we just eat pizza and sit around.
After dinner, Kevin joins Owen and me in the kitchen. For the first time since he got here, he doesn’t seem to playing to an imaginary crowd. He pours himself a whiskey soda (pilfered from Dad’s liquor stash) and plunks down at the kitchen table.
“The Santa thing gets a little tiring,” Kevin says, “But I’m okay with the girls still believing. I’m not looking forward to telling them the truth.” He looks at Owen. “How did you handle it with Ty?”
Owen clears his throat. “I, uh, I haven’t yet.”
Kevin’s eyebrows go up. “He’s in middle school and he still believes in Santa Claus?”
I break in. “For what it’s worth, my friend Lars is 35 and he still believes in Santa Claus.”
Kevin slumps back, like someone just took a swing at him. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish I was.”
Everyone has gone to bed and I’m back in my old room (though I could swear the damn thing was at least 10 square feet bigger when I was growing up). Tucker and Flynn are in Owen’s old room. Kevin and Jordan are in the little room above the garage (Kevin’s room when he was in high school). Owen and his brood have returned to their place. All is calm. All is bright.
I’ve checked my fantasy football scores and while I have a comfortable lead over Stoner in the Fantasy Bowl, there are still games to be played tomorrow and there’s no such thing as a comfortable lead in fantasy football. It would not be beyond the Fantasy Gods to leave a turd-sized lump of coal in my stocking. The whole thing’s got me too restless to sleep. I head downstairs to see what’s in the fridge or the liquor cabinet.
Ultimately, I choose a little of both. Whiskey from the liquor cabinet. A bag of potato chips from the kitchen. (I’ll be working my ass off at the health club next week.) I grab a seat on the couch and look at the new presents under the tree. The unwrapped toys are the work of Santa, just like when I was kid. The combination of nostalgia and hooch makes things very warm and cozy.
Then I see Tucker standing at the bottom of the stairs.
She looks disquietingly like her mother, what with the long blonde hair and the small mouth. She stares at the new presents under the tree. I nearly drop my whiskey.
“Um, should you be out of bed?” I ask.
Much like her mother, Tucker completely ignores me. “Santa’s been here?” she asks.
“Uh…yes. As a matter of fact, he has.”
Tucker’s eyes get wide. “Did you see him?”
“Oh, well, uh….”
“If you were down here, you had to have seen him.”
“That, uh, that would stand to reason, wouldn’t it?” Congrats, Kevin and Jordan. I think you’ll have another lawyer in the family. “Yes, I, I did see Mr. Claus. Santa, as it were.”
Tucker bounds over to the sofa and sits next to me. “Did you talk to him?”
“Briefly. Y’know, he’s a, a busy guy. This being Christmas Eve and all.”
“What’s he like?”
As you may have surmised from previous things I have written, this is not the first time I’ve been desperate to get out of a conversation with a woman. (Tucker DOES skew younger than the women I normally face.) At a certain point, you simply realize there’s no easy way out and give yourself over to the conversation. In short, if Tucker wants to talk Santa Claus, Santa Claus we will talk. I take a sip of whiskey to lube up the brain.
“Well, he’s not as tall as what you’d think,” I say, “And his voice is a little higher-pitched. I mean, the ho ho ho thing really doesn’t give you an accurate idea of what he sounds like. But he’s very polite. I think the whole Naughty List thing makes him sound more judgmental than he really is. A real champ, I have to say.”
“He didn’t care that you were here?”
“No. Not at all. He’s very cool with adults. He gets a little shy around kids. I think that’s why he insists on the whole No presents until you go to bed thing.”
Tucker’s face falls. “Doesn’t he like kids?”
Like most of my conversations with women, if I talk long enough, I will eventually screw it up “No, no. He loves kids,” I say, “Absolutely adores them. It’s just…you ever had someone that you like a lot–I mean, A LOT–but you get really shy around them because you’re afraid you might say something wrong or let them down in some way? You’re not afraid of them, but you love them so much, you act like you are?”
Tucker nods. “That’s how I feel about Grandma.”
“Really? Wow. I didn’t know that.” My mom. The most approachable human being on the planet. But then again, I know her well and Tucker doesn’t. But back to Santa Claus… “Anyway, I think that’s how Santa feels about kids. I mean, you see everything he does. That’s a lot of love right there, isn’t it?”
Tucker studies the Christmas presents. She bites her lower lip as she thinks. It’s something I’ve seen her mother do. “Our house doesn’t have a chimney,” she says, “How does Santa get into places that don’t have chimneys?”
Even I’M surprised at how quickly I come up with an answer. “It’s pretty well known among adults that every house comes with a Secret Santa Door. Nobody’s quite sure where it’s at. Only Santa knows for sure. But if he comes across a place–like a house or an apartment–that doesn’t have a chimney, he just uses that door.”
Tucker looks around. “Is there one here?”
I jerk a thumb toward the fireplace. “No need.”
She slowly bobs her head as she takes this in. Privately, I’m congratulating myself. I never would have expected to take a conversation like this in my stride. Tucker looks up at me, still biting her lip.
“What about the kids who don’t get presents?” she asks, “Like, I saw on TV this thing about Toys for Tots. For kids whose Moms and Dads can’t afford to get presents. But they didn’t say if Santa brought them anything. I asked my Mom and Dad about it, because we gave something to Toys for Tots, but they didn’t know. And there’s kids at school who aren’t very nice, but they still get presents.” She looks toward the tree. “Santa doesn’t think that being poor means you’re naughty, does he?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Then why don’t those kids get presents?”
Huh. Just when I think I’m knocking this adulthood thing out of the park… I look at Tucker and all I can do is shake my head. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I guess…Santa leaves that one up to us. We have to decide if we’re naughty or nice.”
I’m not sure that answer satisfies her. But Tucker senses it’s the best I can do. We sit on the couch and look over the presents. Finally, I tap her on the knee.
“I think your parents might like it if you went back to bed,” I say, “You want to get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow. Lots of presents to open.” Tucker reluctantly gets up and heads for the stairs. My voice stops her. “Hey, ask Grandma if you can help make the Christmas cookies tomorrow. She always likes it when kids help her out with the cookies. And she’s really easy to talk to when she’s in the kitchen.”
“Okay.” Tucker looks at me. “Merry Christmas, Uncle Joe. You’re a lot nicer than Mommy says you are.”
With that, she scampers up the stairs. I sip my whiskey and look through the window, watching the falling snow. I wonder if everyone out there is having a decent Christmas.
Monday, Christmas Day 9:00 am.
I foolishly thought my status as the Only Adult Without Children would spare me the “pleasure” of waking up at the asscrack of dawn to open presents. How naive I was. My father rouses me at 7:15 am and lets me know I’m expected downstairs for the gift opening. The kids are already there and everyone is waiting for me. He leaves the room before I can muster an argument (or a coherent thought, really). So I pull on my robe and go downstairs for precious memories and all the rest of that bulls**t.
The gift opening ends. The kids run around, playing with their various new toys. My mom scrupulously collects all the wrapping paper and puts into a giant trash bag. Dad chats on the phone with my uncle Mel, exchanging Christmas wishes. I look over my presents; a pile of booty that feels rather ill-gotten.
You see, I’m not a great gift-giver. I’ve grown out of my youthful tendency to give people gifts I would like, but I don’t have a lot of money to give large and spectacular gifts. My family, on the other hand, is much more comfortable, financially, and much more willing to spend at the holidays. So it’s very difficult to compare their generosity to my meager offerings and not feel like I’m the family charity case. Typical of this is my exchange with Kevin. He got me an XBox and I got him that aftershave he likes. I envy the kids. Christmas seemed a tad easier when you weren’t expected to give anything.
Dad gets off the phone and comes downstairs. He reports that Mel, a sheriff in rural Minnesota, is doing well and giving some serious thought to retiring next year. Owen’s eyes light up when he hears this. He’s been trying, gently but insistently, to move Dad toward retirement so he can take over the store. If one of Dad’s younger brothers is looking to pack it in, maybe it will put ideas in Dad’s head. Speaking of Dad’s younger brothers…
“You talked to Gordie today?” I ask.
Immediately, Dad stiffens up, like I just stated an intention to urinate on the floor. Mom and Owen exchange panicked looks. Mom, as always, comes to the rescue.
“Henry, I’m having some trouble with the stove,” she says, “Could you take a look at it?”
My father, alive to any issue that might result in the house blowing up, hastens into the kitchen. As soon as he’s out of sight, I pull Owen aside and ask him what the hell’s going on.
Owen frowns. “Okay, you remember that one of Gordie’s campaign promises was to get rid of the ban on big box stores?”
I should fill you in on something about Porter’s Bay. The town is situated on the North Shore of Lake Superior and draws most of its income from the tourist trade. As a result, it deals heavily in “quaint”. To the unguarded eye, it feels like they’ve driven into the 1950’s whenever they pull into town. Toward that end, Mom & Pop stores and family eateries and antique stores are welcomed. Walmarts, on the other hand, are persona non grata. The townspeople felt so strongly about it that, back in the 80’s, they passed a ban on big box stores into law. It’s the reason my father has been able to keep a family-owned hardware store going in an age of Home Depot, Menard’s and Lowe’s.
“Gordie made a lot of campaign promises,” I say.
“Yeah. And he hasn’t kept any of them,” Owen says, “But this one had a few guys on the City Council interested. They have friends who own land that could be leased for big box stores.”
“And the City Council guys wouldn’t DREAM of getting kickbacks on that land,” I say.
“Exactly. Bottom line is: there were enough Yes votes on the Council to force a tie. In which case, the mayor casts the deciding vote.”
I get a sick feeling. “Tell me Gordie did the right thing.”
“If he was interested in doing the right thing, he never would have run for mayor in the first place. No, he voted to get rid of the ban. Might as well as have put a knife right in Dad’s back.”
Sheesh. No wonder Owen wanted to grab a drink at the Bowl today. There’s no way he can drown his sorrows under Mary’s watchful eye. Best to claim he was coerced by his ne’er-do-well brother.
I guess I can at least give Owen a decent Christmas present.
The Christmas spirit has carried us to the Village Bowl. For Christmas spirits. Kevin asked to tag along and neither Owen nor I felt like we could refuse him. Owen’s a little mortified to confess his fears about the future to Kevin. But he’s also extremely grateful for Kevin getting the M&M assault started yesterday. And hell, the dude bought me an XBox. The least I can do is buy him a cheap drink. (Come to think of it, that really is the least I can do.)
The Bowl is your standard rundown lounge with a bowling alley attached. Fred, the owner, is checking the Christmas lights along the paneling when we arrive. The bowling alley is somewhat busy, with a few large parties occupying several lanes. The bar area contains a few hearty souls who share our desperation to avoid the embrace of a loving family. We grab a round of watered-down drinks and find a rickety table in the corner. Owen fills Kevin in on the big box store issue.
“Now that it’s gone through,” Owen says, “We might have Home Depots and Targets and whatever other big box chain you can think of coming in here. Dad’s store won’t stand a chance.”
Kevin sips his watery scotch rocks. “What are you going to do?”
Owen shakes his head. “It’s not about me. I mean, I’m wondering. But it’s Dad I’m worried about. He put his whole life into the store. What’s he going to do if it goes away?”
It’s a good (and sobering) question. While Dad would certainly welcome the additional time to sit on the crapper and read the sports section, there’s the complete lack of income to think about. I get nightmare images of my parents being forced to eat cat food to survive. And who could help them out? Kevin lose some income if he goes into politics. Owen certainly wouldn’t have the money. And MY income barely supports cat food as it is.
“You have any other options?” Kevin asks, “Any way to appeal it?”
“Not that I know of,” Owen says, “The only thing we’ve got going for us is that most people are REALLY pissed about it. Even there, I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference. The people with money got what they wanted. They figure everyone will get over it and move on.
“That’s kind of cynical,” Kevin says.
I snort. “And you want to go into politics?”
As we should have expected, our uncle Gordie is frequenting the Bowl. He certainly wasn’t going to let a holiday interrupt his drinking. He sits at the bar for 20 minutes before working up the nerve to come over to our table. Owen immediately stands up and heads for the restroom, not even looking at Gordie as he walks past. Gordie weaves his way into a chair. His big face is red and his thinning hair sprouts in all directions. Kevin and I exchange a look, silently wondering which of us is going to tell Gordie his fly is open.
“I guess you heard about your dad not inviting me to Christmas,” he says, drowning both his sorrows and a lot of his mustache in his drink.
“Owen told us,” I say.
“I’m doing what’s best for the town,” Gordie says, staring at the tabletop and delivering what sounds like a rehearsed speech, “We let some of these bigger stores in and it’s going to create jobs for people.”
“Absolutely,” I say, “Jobs for all those people you put out of business.”
Gordie keeps rolling. “It’s going to bring in property tax money. Sales tax money. It’s going to put Porter’s Bay on the map.”
“I Googled Porter’s Bay,” I tell him, “It’s already on the map.”
Gordie ignores me, still locked in his stump speech. “That’s progress, right? That’s why I was elected. I’ve been working all year for the people in this town.”
“Except all those afternoons you take off to go bowling,” I say.
“I’ve been the most successful mayor this town’s ever had.”
“If you don’t count all the more successful mayors,” I say, “Which is nearly all of them.”
But Gordie’s on a roll and he’s not going to let me stop him. “And what thanks do I get? Your dad’s not speaking to me. Just because of this big box store thing.”
Kevin speaks up. “It’s because he’s poured his whole life into that business, hoping he could pass it on to one of his sons and you’re going to take it away to score cheap political points.”
Gordie looks up at Kevin. “Yeah, but does he have to be such a dick about it?”
We’re sitting in Kevin’s rented SUV, staring at our old high school. The afternoon’s turned out to be a bit of a bust. Owen was in no mood to remain at the Bowl as long as Gordie was there and Gordie didn’t intend to leave anytime soon. So, we piled into Kevin’s car to check out some old haunts.
Porter’s Bay High School was built back in the 1920’s. It covers a city block (a genuine city block, not the small town version) and is made of brown brick, cement and marble. It’s a throwback to a time when the town’s participation in the iron ore industry meant money was everywhere. In those days, though, it was expected the money would flow back into the community. God knows what would have happened if someone like Gordie had been in charge then.
Kevin, though, doesn’t wish to discuss Porter’s Bay’s impending doom. “Dad told me you’re on the church council now?” he says to Owen.
“Yeah, I took Dad’s place,” Owen says.
“So you know Pastor Kari pretty well?”
Owen stifles a groan. “We’re friendly. I wouldn’t say I know her really well.”
“But you’re friends.”
“Sure. I guess.”
Kevin turns fully toward Owen. “What’s her story? She wouldn’t even look at me in church yesterday. I haven’t seen her in almost 20 years and I don’t even get a friendly ‘hello’. Or an unfriendly ‘hello’.”
Owen looks at the door, maybe contemplating throwing himself into traffic. “You’d have to ask her.”
“That’s a good idea,” Kevin says, “Give me her number.”
“I could just look it up on the church’s website.”
“Then do that.”
At this point, I poke my head into the front seat (a risky deal, since I might not be coming back with it). “Kevin, I’ve got to ask: what’s the dream here? You’re married. The pastor’s married. I’m assuming both those marriages are happy. What do you gain by calling her up?”
Kevin drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “I get the feeling she regrets what happened. I mean, back in the day, she stopped me at second base…”
“Oh God,” Owen mutters.
“And now I get the feeling she didn’t want that to happen. Like I’m a regret or something.”
“I’ve been there,” I say, “I’ve had a few girls who regretted taking up with me.”
“Really?” Kevin asks.
“What’s it like?”
We’ve dropped the Pastor Kari conversation and are cruising down Howard Street, looking at the Christmas wreaths strung overhead. The shops are closed and the streets are largely empty.
“I hate to agree with Gordie,” Kevin says.
“Then don’t,” Owen says.
Kevin ignores him. “But he’s right about one thing: this town never changes. Looks exactly like it did when we were growing up.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Owen asks.
“Depends on how you look it,” Kevin says, “Staying the same is either steady or stagnant.”
“I like it just fine the way it is,” Owen says, “And I don’t hear anyone complaining.”
“You don’t have to act like I’m a stranger,” Kevin says, “I grew up here. I have fond memories of this place.”
“Yeah, but that’s all it is to you,” Owen says, “Some of us still live here. It’s not a memory. It’s not nostalgia. It’s home.”
They’re quiet, maybe waiting for me chime in. But this isn’t my home, either. Just as Mom was quick to remind me. I don’t have a dog in this fight. Kevin, maybe sensing there doesn’t need to BE a fight, looks at the clock on the dash.
“Mom’s going to have dinner on the table soon,” he says, “We better get home.”
We drive back in silence. Kevin and I look at the sights. Owen looks at the dash.
Our dining room table can hold about 8, comfortably. There are 7 adults gathered around, meaning my mom will point out that any time I want to add that eighth person, I’m more than welcomed. Clearly, we need to get a smaller dining room table.
It’s my dad’s job to say Grace. In recent years, he’s tended to speed through it, knowing the kids at the table don’t have the patience for it (especially when they’re at the farthest possible time from concerns about the Naughty List). This year, with a full table of adults and the kids ensconced in the living room, he’s tempted to be a bit more loquacious.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you for the food we are about to receive. We thank you for the gift of family and togetherness. That despite our differences in location, in age, in personalities, we can all come together as a family. We thank you for the gift of love that transcends these differences. And we ask that You help us remember these blessings when go our separate ways. That You help us hold on to those bonds of love and family. We ask these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
We sit and just as we start to pass around the food, there’s a knock at the front door. Everyone pauses. Dad, looking a tad confused, gets up to answer it.
He opens the door and there’s Gordie standing on our front step, hands buried in the pockets of his ratty coat. He and Dad stare at each other, wordlessly, for several seconds. You can feel the cold rolling into the house. Finally, Dad lets out a sigh and opens his arms wide. Gordie breaks into a gap-toothed smile and spreads his arms as well. When he steps toward my dad, Dad shoves Gordie into a snowbank and closes the door. And locks it.
Dad strolls back into the dining room. “Well, that was fun. Let’s eat.”
Monday 10:45 pm
With the Monday Night Football game over and my fantasy football championship secured, I head into the kitchen to grab a celebratory beer. I’ve just returned to the living room when Dad comes down the stairs.
“You still up?” he asks.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
He chuckles and grabs a seat in his favorite chair. “Did you enjoy dinner?”
“Yeah, it was nice. I particularly enjoyed the pre-meal entertainment.”
Dad looks down and I can’t tell by the look on his face if he’s embarrassed or proud. It’s a sheepish look, nonetheless; one Dad doesn’t get too terribly often. If I had to guess, Mom had a few words with him.
“Maybe I could have handled that differently,” he says, “I could have punched him in the face and then I’d be taken to jail for assaulting the mayor.”
In the 34 years I’ve known him, I don’t recall seeing my dad throw a punch in anger and I’m not anxious to see it now. Still, I’d be tempted to do the same thing if I was in his position. And I tell him so. Dad shrugs.
“It’s you boys I’m worried about,” Dad says.
My eyebrows go up. “Really? Because we’re worried about you and mom. Your retirement and everything.”
Dad swats that concern away. “The first thing your grandpa taught me was how to be responsible with money. The house is paid off. The store isn’t carrying any debts. I could close forever the day a Home Depot opens and not owe a thing. And we’ve got a nice savings. Hell, I could have retired five years ago. But Owen wasn’t ready to take over yet.” He folds his hands on his stomach. “And if I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t ready to quit yet. Spend my days doing crossword puzzles or playing checkers. Getting into your mother’s hair.”
“How about now?”
“Oh, I guess I’d be ready for it if it happened. But Owen’s a young man. He’s just starting out. And he’s got a family. What’s he going to do?”
I say it with a little less conviction than I ought to. “He’ll be okay.”
“He could probably get a job at a Home Depot. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but you find you don’t have much pride when it comes to feeding your kids.” He rubs his chin. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s me being vain. I just wanted to leave you kids something. Something more than getting jobs at a place like Home Depot.”
I say this with a little more conviction. “We’ll be okay. All of us. You taught us how to look after ourselves. You gave us plenty.”
Dad claps a hand on my leg. He isn’t quite able to look at me. “You’re good boys. All of you.”
If this keeps up, we’re both going to be crying. Fortunately, the smartass instinct kicks in. “I’m pretty sure Jordan doesn’t think ALL of us are good”
Dad laughs. “Next time you sleep with her sister, make sure you call her.”
“I don’t think I’ll sleep with her sister again.”
“Who are you kidding?”
Tuesday December 26, 11:00 am
I’ve packed up the last of my things and loaded the car. I don’t HAVE to go back to the Cities. My job allows me to work anywhere that has an internet connection. But there’s no one to look in on my cats, so it provides me a convenient excuse to head out. Anastasia spent the night at the foot of my bed and has made multiple attempts to crawl into my suitcase. I try to explain to her that I already have two cats and they would not welcome a third. She just looks at me like I’m nuts.
I say a quick goodbye to Tucker and Flynn, who are playing in Owen’s old room. They both give me half-hearted waves. Jordan is on the living room sofa, reading a magazine. She glances up as I come down the stairs.
“I heard you talked to Tucker the other night,” she says.
I stop cold, shocked that Jordan is actually speaking to me. “Um, yeah, I did.”
“She said you got drunk and told her about Santa Claus.”
“Uh, well, that’s not exactly–”
“Have you no shame?”
I stand there under her penetrating, largely hateful gaze. Finally, I just head for the kitchen.
“Well, this has been great, Jordan. Let’s do it as little as we can.”
Kevin is sitting at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad. They all get up the second I walk in. I can’t help noticing Kevin’s been looking at the church website on his phone. Mom gives me the standard hug and whispered request that I call my dad more often. Dad gives me the standard handshake and whispered request that I call Mom when I get home. Kevin and I stand, awkwardly, and he finally pulls me into a hug that does nothing to dispel the awkwardness.
“I’ll call you when we get to the Cities,” he says, “We can have coffee or something before we fly out.”
I give them another round of goodbyes then step out the kitchen door. I’m almost to my car when Kevin pokes his head out.
“Hey, I forgot to tell you,” he says, “I really liked your column on The Hangover movies.”
“Thanks,” I say, “I didn’t know you read that column.”
“I read all of them.” Then he disappears inside.
Tuesday 11:30 am
I make a quick stop at the hardware store on my way out. Owen gives me a tour of the (very few) things that have changed. I munch popcorn and pretend to be interested. The tour finishes at the front counter and we both look over the place.
“I’d hate to see it go,” Owen says, quietly.
I tap the counter. “Maybe things will work out. People don’t want big box stores here, maybe they won’t come. Maybe someone will think of something. You just have to hope.”
“That’s all I’ve got.”
We say our goodbyes and I toss my popcorn bag in the trash. Owen tells me he’ll pass my goodbyes along to Mary and the kids. I pause in the glass doorway.
“Assuming she’s cool with that,” I say, “I always get the sense Mary doesn’t really like me.”
“Nah. Mary likes you just fine. I don’t think she can understand you, but she likes you. Jordan’s the one who can’t stand you.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Tuesday 12:20 pm
I’m on my way out of town. I pass all the shops along the main drag. I even make an unnecessary run past Cobb-Cook Elementary School. The whole thing gives me the strangest feeling. Like I’m holding sand and it keeps slipping through my fingers. And the harder I grasp it, the faster it slips away. I finally talk myself into getting back on to main street and heading for home.
As I pull out of the city limits, I watch downtown fade in my rearview mirror. “Do me a favor,” I whisper, “Don’t change.”
JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.