January 19

Michael S. Miller: “Blue Christmas”

I.

Christmas is just minutes away, but the boy thinks it may never be Christmas again.

Blue and red lights splash across him and the apartment, flickering for indifferent dominance. The result is a repulsive purple far removed from any connotation of royalty.

The colors do not emanate from a festive pine, nor do they wash over one. They can be traced in their silence to the unjolly plastic globes of a Wood County police car and the light bar of a white ambulance. Smoke twirls from exhaust pipes in a cold December drizzle, the not-quite snow, not-quite  rain unique to Northwest Ohio. Deputies stand in solemn witness mode. Medical workers push a wheeled bed as a small group of apartment dwellers, too remote from contact to be deemed neighbors, crane curious necks and pretend to be more concerned than delighted at the unexpected holiday drama. It would not be accurate to say visions of dancing sugar plums are momentarily forgotten, for such seasonal niceties are not known among this group of whispering revelers. The boy looks at them through the open door and thinks that in another place, in sweeter circumstances, such a collection of people might burst into “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” But these revelers wear coats hastily pulled over nightclothes, not top hats and Christmas bonnets; their fingers cradle cigarettes and bottlenecks, not sheet music. The boy is annoyed that the cops allow them to stand there, staring at the woman they normally wouldn’t bother to notice at all.

The woman on the threadbare couch is silently foaming from one end and noisily shitting from the other. Her eyelids are closed with such conviction that her face reminds the boy of the mask from the Pink Floyd T-shirts he has seen at school, a smooth and blank cipher into which normalcy and contentment disappear like an errant, drifting meteor knowingly but uncontrollably tumbling in to a black hole.

She is not dead, but the boy hopes she soon will be. The hope persists despite his certainty that wishing a Christmas Eve death for his mother is surely no way to impress Santa or Jesus. It strikes him as unfair that he should be held accountable to a jury consisting of two men who present him only with guilt, and offer zero guidance on how to please them. The boy is not sophisticated enough to understand the connection between his cartoon images of Claus, Christ and his long-absent father, but eventually he will consider them all to be fictional constructs designed to comfort and weaken others.

She is not dead, but she wants to be.

Her right arm languishes on a coffee table beside the couch. The dark walnut-brown table rests on the apartment carpet, having long abandoned any pretense for aesthetic appeal. It is a functional table with a flat, generous surface and two doors that cover modest storage space. It is not wood, though its laminate was designed to look like it could be under the right furniture store light. It once stood on four tapered legs, but when the right front one broke under the weight of the boy’s 10-year-old body being slammed on it, the other three legs were unscrewed so it could rest evenly on the floor. It is comically low to be used next to the couch, but it supported TV dinner trays, coffee mugs, beer bottles, and the rings they left without complaint. The table’s left door still brandished its handle, a dingy metallic knob that had to be yanked with enthusiasm if were going to open the warped panel. Behind that door was the father’s legacy: a dozen Playboy magazines that featured slick-page illustrations designed to inspire lust for women, cars, clothes and image in equal measure. The boy glimpsed the women in the magazines through stolen, furtive glances at every opportunity. They were the opposite of the primary female presence in his life. They wore make-up, dressed in a spectrum of clothes that ranged from party dresses to maid ruffles, and kept their lips parted in permanent promises of special, undivided attention. They offered solace, softness and caresses. None of them looked like they would hit, yell or punish. They offered themselves without demand, inspiring desire, yes, but also anger at their teasing unattainability. It was an emotional cocktail the boy would find comforting later in life until coveted women reversed the ratio of the ingredients. The table’s right door shielded a cave for opened and ignored bills, discarded school art projects, stolen comic books and long forgotten photos of people with familiar features but no names or emotional resonance. That door did not have its handle; to access its mundane treasures, a butter knife needed to be slid between the door and frame, which bore the scratches and scars of many openings. That Christmas Eve, the table was strewn with what could charitably called rubbish: a folded TV guide from the neighbors’ discarded Sunday newspaper, useless as the apartment did not house a television but kept for its black-and-white montage of cartoon holiday characters, Grinch and Scrooge and Charlie Brown and Frosty the Snowman shown in a summit of Yuletide celebration; crushed cigarette butts; a Pepsi can with the ring tab resting in a shallow swamp of warm, brown syrup; and two empty prescription bottles from Lane’s drug store. The plastic, orange-brown bottles once contained thorazine and valium, but the boy could not tell the emergency workers how many pills were in them when the mother swallowed their contents. If the coffee table knew, it wasn’t speaking.

Ambulance workers and policemen tried to lift the woman on to the gurney but she was too heavy. The boy once heard the woman lament about being close to 400 pounds, but it was not a statistic he felt like offering to the men who now stood in a half ring around her. Two of the men moved the coffee table to the side, and for a horrified moment the boy was sure the treasured magazines would spill forth and the women in their oft-admired pages would scream his secrets to the gathered workers; he was less concerned about the humiliation than he was about their certain confiscation. The emergency workers rolled the gurney beside the couch and lowered it as close to the apartment floor as it would go. The men started to roll the woman, who was wrapped in a bed sheet — her long flannel nightgown from Woolworth’s at Woodville Mall had long given up its battle to cover her flesh — onto the gurney. The ambulance worker moving the woman’s legs stepped back and choked in disgust as his hand slipped in the shit running from the sheet onto the couch. He wiped his hand on the sheet and brusquely pushed the woman onto the wheeled bed. The boy witnessed this without emotion. He and the younger boy had been enlisted many times to clean up the woman’s sheets and clothes.

The thought of his brother jolted the boy. The younger one was sleeping through the drama; he had gone to sleep whispering dreams of Santa and presents while the boy listened and debated squashing the visions. They slept in bunk beds, the younger brother on top. The younger boy’s litany of potential Christmas joy burst forth in heated excitement, but by the time the words reached the lower bunk, they hung like frozen particles in the air, unable to find a warm home in the older boy’s heart.

Christmas! Toys and Hot Wheels cars and candy and maybe books and new clothes under a tree shining with lights and tinsel! It was okay there was no chimney, or plate of cookies, or even a tree; Santa could bring it all. Surely the two boys had been good enough, had endured enough, had suffered enough, to warrant one magical visit like all the other kids would receive this special night.

The boy chose to let his brother babble, even allowing himself, against all reason, to share the dream. He knew better than to shelter the vision beyond the sound of its words, but it held such power that he found himself hopeful as he started to sleep.

He had been shaken awake by the woman, who told him to come downstairs. She was slurring and wobbly, but that was not unusual so it was not alarming. The woman staggered to the couch, dropped her girth on it with a carelessness that made the frame creak in protest, and motioned the boy close.

“Go next door when I fall asleep,” she said. “Tell Kathy I took all my pills. But wait for me to fall asleep.”

The boy stood, knowing that waiting until she slept was a very bad idea. He started for the door.

“No,” she said, with surprising insistence given the mix of chemicals now seeping through her veins. “Wait.”

The boy stood, afraid to disobey, afraid not to. There was no telephone in the apartment, so any help would have to be called from the neighbors’ next door. Years later, the boy would debate whether the impulse to save his mother’s life was stronger than the desire to avoid the cringing embarrassment of knocking on the neighbors’ door this late on Christmas Eve. He would deny but never forget the nagging voice telling him to go back to bed; to let the overdose do its job and take her to the death she so clearly valued over the lives and wellbeing of her two young boys.

Her eyes closed, she feel silent.

The boy stood, knowing that waiting was a very bad idea.

He stared at the door.

He stared at the stairs leading to the bunk beds upstairs.

The door meant the woman would get her drama but live.

The stairs that mean the woman would die.

There would still be drama, but …

Two thoughts slammed together in his head and galvanized him toward the door, toward the neighbor with a telephone, to help.

Less than an hour later, a police officer sat with the two boys. The woman was gone. The ambulance was gone. All but one of the neighbor were gone. The younger one had finally been jarred awake by the commotion, and though the older boy never asked him, he hoped for many years that his waking moments were birthed in the certainty it was Santa he was hearing, a brief flame of hope and excitement to counter the dreadful business waiting downstairs.

The officer was thankfully uninterested in assurances and comforting platitudes. He had two questions for the boys.

“Who can take care of you while your mom is in the hospital?”

“Why was your mom so sad to do something like this on Christmas?”

The two boys had spent many hours in interviews with authority figures, and they knew their roles. The younger boy said nothing.

“Our dad will be here by morning,” the boy lied. “He works at a bar and it closes late.”

The officer and the neighbor made eye contact. The woman from next door shrugged. She knew the boy was lying, and knew why.

When the knock came on her apartment door, she was arranging a few modest presents around a wooden manger with porcelain figures from the Christmas birth. She believed her two daughters were sleeping and anger flashed over her that the unwanted visitor would wake them. She covered the distance to the door in two strides and yanked it open without looking through the tiny peephole to see who it was. Standing there in the sleet was the older boy from next door, in what looked like one of his father’s T-shirts and pajama bottoms that rode up too high on his ankles. His look frightened her; she saw panic, anger and a determination not meant for such young faces.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s late, but my mom took all of her pills and told me to tell you,” he said. It sounded like “I’msorryIknnowit’slate,butmymomtookallofherpillsandtoldmetotellyou.”

She pulled the boy inside and started toward the olive green phone attached to the kitchen wall, its cord knotted and twisted.

“Wait,” the boy said. He took a deep breath and spat the words out. “When the ambulance comes, they can’t know our dad’s gone. They will take us away and split us up, my brother and me. We can wait until they send her home in a day or two, like last time.”

The woman said nothing, promised nothing. She turned her back to him and picked up the phone to call for help.

“Please,” the boy said.

Being taken to different places was the boy’s looming, constant fear, the anxiety that ate at him every time a teacher or neighbor showed suspicion at a bruise or a cut or rumbling stomach or an unyielding series of yawns. He could take care of the younger boy, understood the younger boy, and he would not allow his mother’s latest episode to endanger their family. He had, with a former neighbor’s help and his mother’s remaining comprehension, learned to navigate the church food banks, the lines at the food stamp and welfare office, and had things set up to keep them off almost all the community radar. That had been the first thought that got his feet moving toward the door as his mother lost consciousness. The second had been the dawning sadness that if he did nothing and she actually did die this time, his younger brother would always link Christmas to his mother’s death. The power of the the two thoughts rose in his mind like smoke, but rather than fill his head with haze, brought clarity and urgency to his choice to try and save her, again.

“Please,” the boy said.

The woman shrugged, just as she would when the boy lied to the officer less than an hour later.

“Why was your mom so sad to do something like this on Christmas?”

“I don’t know.” That was the only truth he told that night.

II.

Several years later, on what would be her last Christmas Day, the boy asked her, as he had scores of times, why the holiday season depressed her and made her so sad. This night, to his and his brother’s shocked silence, she chose to answer.

“We lived on a reservation in Texas, not far from Oklahoma,” she said without emotion. “Me, my brother Floyd, who was 4 years older than me, our mom and our stepfather. We all worked to keep the house in food; we did not have electricity or phones.

“I was 12 the first time my stepfather raped me. He would come into the bedroom I shared with Floyd when Floyd was out for the night, working. I don’t know how many times he did it. After the first time, I told my mother. She told me we needed him in the house to survive and that she would make him stop, but that I must not tell anyone else.

“So I did not. But she did not make him stop.

“The last time he raped me in real life was two days before Christmas, when I was 14. Floyd was supposed to be at work, but something happened that sent him home early. I never knew what. He came in and saw what was happening. He pulled the old man out of my bed and began fighting him. Floyd was screaming and screaming and just beating the old man. Our mother came in and started yelling and tried to stop Floyd but, he was gone behind the eyes. Our stepfather was rolling on the floor. His face was a red mess. Floyd left the room and our mother tried to get the old man to speak, but he could not. I sat in bed crying.

“Then Floyd came back. He was carrying the old man’s hunting rifle. Our mother grabbed me and dragged me from the room. I tried to look back but she threw me in front of her.

“I did not see the shot, but I heard it. I hear it.

“The rest was real quick. The men from the other houses ran over, they grabbed Floyd and took him to the reservation main house. At some point the police came for him. I never talked to anyone. My mom cleaned me up and we went to a neighbor while the men took the old man away and cleaned up.

“We were allowed to go see Floyd on Christmas Day. I remember my mother took some of the baked things the neighbors had brought to us, hoping she could give them to Floyd. I took something but I can’t remember what it was. A ribbon I had, maybe. All I had.

“They made us wait all morning. Then a man came out and asked for my mom. They walked down a hall. She started wailing. I ran to them and she was on her knees, sobbing and punching her fists at the man’s legs as he tried to calm her.

“I remember saying, ‘Mama, is it Floyd? Is he OK? Is it Floyd?’

“Floyd hanged himself that morning in his cell. With a sheet.

“He had saved me, like Jesus. But he did not wait to Easter to die. He died Christmas.”

III.

The woman died 11 months later. Natural causes, but the young man knew the years of chemicals and depression and weight gain (an issue he would have to keep an eye on himself as he aged) were not the the result of anything natural. It was as if, once she shared her story, she was not obligated to live through even a solitary extra Christmas.

IV.

Christmas is just minutes away, and the man can’t wait.

Blue and red lights splash across the living room.

The colors emanate from a festive pine. They caress snow globes, a plate of cookies, and several tantalizingly wrapped presents. Smoke twirls from a fire, up the chimney flue. Nutcrackers stand in solemn witness mode. Two young kids sleep upstairs, grandchildren to a woman they never knew, never met. The man and his wife look at them through the open door and he thinks there could not be any sweeter circumstances. He is ready to burst into “Jingle Bells” but does not want to wake them. The parents softly walk back downstairs to fill the stockings, take a bite from a cookie and pour the milk back into its carton. They decide to leave the tree lights on.

As they head upstairs, the man takes one look back at the warm and festive room. The lights cascade over a shelf of framed photos, and his eye catches a framed picture of a woman who, in life, few bothered to notice at all.

She is dead, and he does not want her to be.

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