How We Didn't Save Christmas

I wrote this one about six years ago. It's a prose adaptation of the first few pages of a play I wrote in 1996 called (oh, boy) Mugsy's Merry Christmas.  (To make a long story short, I gave my poor play the worst working title I could think of so that I'd be forced to come up with something better quickly, but my cunning plan did not work.)  Now I'm working on a novel which features these characters and may or may not include this scene.  If it does, there will be major changes - Gareth sounds a lot like Stephen in places, I'm not great with the present tense anymore, and...six years ago. So, because it's not going to be in the new (second) book, I felt okay about posting it here.  Merry Christmas!  (And thanks to Peter Loza for the loan of his photo 'Sad Christmas', first, right.)

How We Didn't Save Christmasres-Sad Christmas by Peter Loza-001

Eyes hurt. Wait. Don’t rub them. My hands were all over the turkey and it’s been smelling weird the last couple days. Mine eyes do itch; Doth that bode weeping?  Why is that in my head? Something I heard or something I read. The sky’s black, snow’s whirling down and the DJ’s are all saying, “stay home tonight if you don’t want to end up road kill.” Stay where you are, Dad. Don’t  try to come home. He won’t. He’ll get here sometime tomorrow, early afternoon. Big hugs, open presents or whatever and then we go to Mom’s place.  Nothing wrong with that. Wish I’d thought of it.

There’s a dead turkey on the table, next to a pile of wet laundry. There’s a box of red glass balls and coloured lights in a box on the floor, and there are Christmas carols all over the radio, because tomorrow it is Christmas. A bright orange post-it note glares up at me: 'Gareth!  Don't forget to wrap Dad's present!' I shift some wet laundry onto the little square, wait for it to disintegrate. Guess I never saw your note, Eleanor. Sorry.

Our house is full of food, too much. Clusters of grapes are getting brown and leaky in a bowl. Big box of clementines, ones on the edges all green and pebbly. Dad’s still buying enough food for five people. There’s only two people living here now, plus Eleanor when she’s in from college, and we don’t eat much.

Mine eyes do itch; Doth that bode weeping? Oh, yeah, it’s Desdemona. The scene just before she gets it. See you around, bitch, thanks for the week of marriage. Mr. Dakin says we have to finish the whole thing over Christmas break, but I read it the first time he asked us. Everybody went nuts when he said that, running for Coles Notes, downloading summaries off the internet, panicking like they were blocking the doors before the Mongol Hordes rode into town. Come on, people. There are worse things that’ll happen to you in life than having to read a book.

bernard-dewagtere 20090323093839The phone starts ringing, for the millionth time today. Has to be Charlotte again. She found out I threw my cell phone in the fish tank, so now she won’t stop calling the house. It is over, it’s over, over, over, over, so why does she want to talk about it? I take the plug out of the wall and shut it up before Eleanor can get to it upstairs. Normally I just love listening to Charlotte going on about what a bad person I am for breaking her heart, how men are scum, bla bla bla. Yesterday, though, when she threatened to kill herself, that was when I quit. You do not say that shit to me. Not to me.

O, who hath done this deed? Nobody; I myself.  Farewell. Desdemona again. Answering her maid’s question about who killed her. But she was lying. Desdemona never killed herself, she begged for her life, even for one more minute. It’s natural to want to live. I’d do the same in her situation.

That has to be just a guess. I doubt Othello would go for some skinny looking geeky guy from the Maritimes, and I wouldn’t be into him either, of course, though it might be nice to get to go to Cyprus. (‘So, Gareth, how would you rate your vacation experience here in Cyprus?’  ‘Well, I’d give the food five stars, and the beaches four stars. Hotel: four stars, Getting Buggered by an Enormous Moor: no stars.’)  

Oh, great, now I’ve got the giggles and I have to sit down. Lately when I start laughing it’s really hard to stop. I don’t like it. I’ve been kicked out of class for this. Teachers probably think I’m on drugs, and sometimes they’re wrong.

"Jingle Bells" on the radio, sung Vegas-style by some woman with a screechy voice. Why would anyone want to listen to this? I open the window. Barney comes running up the dog ramp, tail wagging, in a frenzy of joy to be let into the house. At least somebody’s happy to be here. Dog comes in. Radio goes out. Close the window.

Much better. Gotta stuff this turkey now. Barney shakes the snow off his back and ears, goes trotting along: out the kitchen, through the living room, up the stairs.

“But I just put him out!”  That’s Eleanor, screaming from upstairs.

“Well, it’s snowing!  Jesus!”  That’s me, screaming from downstairs. Living in a big house means you spend a lot of time yelling at each other, even when you’re not mad.

Eleanor has gone completely nuts since she got back. She’s running around with a vacuum cleaner trying to beat the evil out of this house and it’s not working. Painting the nicotine-brown out of Dad’s study. Throwing out seven years’ worth of empty yoghurt containers. Carting ancient boxes of Christmas decorations down from the attic. For what? One thing she will not touch: pictures of Emily, anything belonging to Emily, her clothes, a piece of paper with Emily’s handwriting on it. They sit around the house in these little time-warp islands while the rest of the place gets tidied around them. One place Eleanor will never go to tidy: Emily’s empty room, exactly as she left it. Even the bed unmade.sad little christmas tree AD

What do you stuff a turkey with anyway? Breadcrumbs and raisins and stuff. I’ll just put some bread in. No need to rip it up or anything. What’s the difference?

Here she comes, into the kitchen. Eleanor’s wearing a bright red sweatshirt, because tomorrow it is Christmas, and she’s carrying a branch from our artificial Christmas tree, for what reason I couldn’t say. Yes, we have an artificial tree. On Christmas Eve we used to get together and assemble it as a family. Well, it doesn’t seem so weird when you grow up with it.

Look at her. Eleanor, my only sister. I want to hug this girl, but she’s so annoying. Going on about the messy house, talking about chores, firing questions at me, did you do this, did you do that. Better answer ’yes’ to everything. What’ll I put in this turkey?  Couple clementines. Good. And some grapes. They’re almost raisins, or they’ll turn into raisins when the oven gets hot enough, right? What else…spices?  Pretty sure we’ve got some packs of pizza spice around here somewhere, unless Eleanor threw them out. She’s still going on. Did you take the DVD’s back, did you do the dishes, did you clean up the kitchen, get Barney’s food out of the car, you an amphibian, yes, yes, I did, yes, yes, sure, yes. Then she’s giving me a long stare and I realize the last thing she said was actually “Are you an amphibian?” and I’d said yes. Oops.

“I’m so glad we can talk like this, Gareth.”  She’s leaning over the sink staring at the mile of dirty dishes. “It makes me feel so much less alone in this house. So I guess you know how sick I am…” Turning on the hot water and squirting Joy on everything. “How sick I am of cleaning up after you and Dad. It’s supposed to be my vacation…” Dishes groaning against each other, sound of glass breaking, “It’s supposed to be my vacation and all I do is follow the two of you around wiping up your messes for you and you don’t even care.”

“Something wrong, El?”

Big sigh. “I can’t find the rest of this tree.” She’s holding up the one green spiky branch, looking defeated. “We’re all going to have to gather around a house plant tomorrow. Unless you know where I can find an axe.”

“Might be one in the basement,” I say, but she doesn’t move. I wonder if you stuffed it with popcorn kernels, would they turn into popcorn inside the turkey when it got hot enough? Only one way to find out.

“Why didn’t you at least take the DVD’s back?” Grapes go in the garbage, bowl in the sink. “It’s only a three-minute walk”  Wet laundry thrown into the basket. “It’s only a three-minute walk, and it‘s the only thing I asked you to do today.” Bags of onions go in the fridge, handful of pens and pencils clatter into a can on the window sill. “The only thing I expected you to do, anyway.” Stack of pictures. She picks them up, puts them downJingle bells stickers again.  

It’s not a big collection.  Emily giddy on a tricycle in the driveway, at the age of three.  Emily at twelve, playing piano in a recital at the church. Emily at thirteen, shooting pool in our uncle’s rec room. Emily in her gangster girl costume from the school play, sixteen.  Drunk and grinning with her arms around Eleanor, now she’s eighteen. Making a cross-eyed face at me when I snapped her picture trying to use up a roll of film this summer. Nineteen years old.  

Nineteen and that’s it, that’s all you get. No sadness in her face. No warning. O, who hath done this deed? Nobody; I myself. Farewell.  

Farewell, farewell. Sayonara, tout le monde. Fuck off and good luck, everybody, welcome to the ‘coping with death’ part of your lives.  

Eleanor’s tapping the edges of the pictures on the table, lining them up together in a perfect square. Emily’s baby face smiles up at us on her yellow tricycle. “You shouldn’t,” says Eleanor, stops herself. Shouldn’t what? “You shouldn’t leave these out like this, Gareth.” Her voice seems to be coming from far away. “It’ll upset Dad.”

“So it’s like a big secret or something?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You never talk about her. Nobody talks about her anymore. Why?”

She takes a step back, stares at some point over my head, still with the pictures in her hand. For a moment all I can hear is the clink clink clink of Barney’s licence tags jingling as he scratches at a flea in the next room.  Finally she speaks.  

“We have to get this place cleaned up. For Dad.” Looking so lost, suddenly, in her red sweatshirt. “I’d like it if you could help me.”      

What I want to say is, ‘Don’t worry about the stupid house. Dad doesn’t want it to be Christmas tomorrow. I don’t want it to be Christmas tomorrow. I’m pretty sure you don’t want it to be Christmas tomorrow either.’ But that’s not what I say.  

What I say is, “I’m sorry, Eleanor. I should have helped you. I guess I got sidetracked with the turkey.”

“That thing?” She gives the side of the turkey a smack, then stares at her hand for a moment, repulsed and unsure of what to do with it. “You’ve had that sitting out here for the past week. It’s probably got bacteria cities growing in there by now. It’ll kill us all!”

“You don’t have to eat it.”

Waving her hand with the dead turkey germs on it vaguely in the air. “Well, I’m not going to, and neither is Dad. If you want to kill yourself, that’s fine.”   

“I don’t!”

“I didn’t mean it that way.” She looks down, her hand still in the air, not wanting to touch anything. And the sky is black and the snow is whirling down, and upstairs there’s a room that’s always dark because there’s nobody there to turn on the light. There’s a book open face down on the desk. It’s on page seventy-eight, and she’ll never know what happens next, half a story in her head forever, and I know it sounds old fashioned and dumb to say it but my heart is breaking, breaking, breaking. Nobody;  I myself.  Farewell.  Farewell.

“Gareth, are you okay?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” I clutch at Eleanor’s elbow, hold on to an inch of red sweatshirt. Eleanor’s fingernails brush the back of my neck, and I think it’s almost sweet she doesn’t want to get turkey germs on me.

“You’ve been acting so weird lately,” she says, “What’s the matter with you, are you on drugs or something?”

Oh, great. Now what do I say? Yes? No? Maybe? It’s legal now if you’re really sick. Maybe I’m really sick.

“Don’t remember,” I mumble and suddenly Eleanor is gripping my shoulders and staring into my face with wide eyes.

“I was kidding! Gareth, you’ve been taking drugs?”

“Well, yeah, but don’t…”  

 This night could only get worse.

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