1985. Make us a Xmas list. We created you but do not know you. Nobody understands what my little brother is saying. Three years old, his baby talk has morphed into jumbled nonsense. Mom says he speaks Klingon. I pretend I understand it. They believe me! It becomes my job to interpret. Find out what he wants, tell her. So, that year I got everything I wanted for Christmas. And he got everything else I wanted for Christmas. Ho Ho Ho. Your job in life is to pretend.
1986. Mom gets lingerie on Jesus’ birthday. She is in the rocking chair, dazed and still awake from night shift at the factory. Dad hands out the presents, trudging through the wrapping paper piled on the carpet. She rips the paper off, lifts the lid, pulls out a skimpy black teddy with a thong. Dad looks at her with a big goofy grin. She’s like, thanks. Willie Nelson Pretty Paper playing through the cassette deck. My brother and me unwrap kid-size plastic trikes. Big Wheels. For the grand finale, our cat crawling catnip stoned in the wasteland of the gift wrap. Batting the paper with his paws. Spearing cartoon Rudolph with his saber tooth fangs.
1987. Now I’ll try and find my presents. Dad shoveling snow so Grandma and Grandpa can visit us. My chance. I search the house. I look stupid places where the presents cannot be because I am 6. I will look in the back of the freezer. Inside the wood burning stove. Dig around in the ash. No. No presents in the wood burning stove. The oven? The washing machine? Pound my fists on the plaid couch cushions, maybe they are inside. Oh, better idea, Mom and Dad’s waterbed. I go in their room and I look at the waterbed. My presents must be hidden inside it. How do I get them out? A knife. Get a knife and cut the waterbed and look. Put my swim goggle on and look in there for my Nintendo. On my way to the kitchen, the front door opens. Grandma and Grandpa are here. Grandmas says, “What are you doing with that knife.” That was when I learned Grandma was a cop.
1988. I found some of the presents. The waterbed was involved. They were hidden behind the stupid waterbed, not in it. I reached in the gap between the frame and the wall and pulled out a bunch of toys. Action figures for me. Matchbox cars for my brother. I put the toys on the bed and got pissed I couldn’t play with them for weeks. Especially the Shredder figure, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ chief nemesis. I had all four Ninja Turtles already but they had been fighting the good G.I. Joe. And the good Transformers. Footsteps down the hall, I dove on the floor. Somebody in my parents' bathroom. The toilet flushes. I stuffed the toys back behind the waterbed. Ran out of their room. That year Santa himself brought me razor clawed Master Shredder.
1989. My brother sees me searching for presents. They’ve been moved. He says, Dwid you chweck the wood bwurning stwove? I accidentally discover Dad’s nudie magazines.The presents are on the shelf right next to the naked ladies. I hand the wrapped box down to my brother. He stacks them on the bed. We take turns shaking them. What do you thwink it swounds like? Hmmm, I don’t know. A pwuppy? We vigorously shake all the wrapped boxes. We smell them. We put our ears to them and listen. We conclude we are getting wet suits, roller blades, a puppy, a cross bow, fire works, a train set, two Gameboys, and this heavy one probably has gold bars in it. This one addressed to you is just full of sand, don’t cry. You were bad this year. All your gifts are just gift wrapped sand. I dwon’t cware. Swand is cwool. The presents go back on the shelf. Closet door closed.
1990. Take the presents down. Don’t bother shaking them. Slice the tape with a razor blade. Carefully open the wrapping paper. Inside is Teddy Ruxbin. See his stupid face on the box. Fuck you, Teddy Ruxbin. He reads you bedtime stories if you put a cassette tape in his abdomen. Seal the wrapping paper back up in disgust. Make plans to set Teddy Ruxpin on fire in the future. New scotch tape precisely over the old scotch tape. Next one, Mouse Trap board game. Dumb. Another present—oh this is good—purple slime in a canister. I want to open it up and smear it on the wood paneling. Saintly, I close the flaps, tape them back the way they were. There’s this part in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the eldest prospector insists that his fellow gold diggers return the mountainside to its exact condition, as found before they started pick axing, and making water troughs to sift the nuggets out. Nine years old, already I am exactly like that elder prospector. I return the mountainside to its exact condition. I pile the presents next to the nudie magazines. It’s like I was never even there.
1990 Part II. Football in the street with the kids from the bus stop. More snow. Chimney smoke. Dad had a meeting at the volunteer fire hall. Mom gone. I came home when it was dark out. A little bloody. My brother was supposed to be at the table doing his homework, hahaha. There was a blue light flashing in the living room. Nintendo. “What’s this?” He didn’t even look up, “Adventures of Bayou Billy.” I sat down on the couch. He was fighting an alligator. Sweet. “When did we rent this?” He kicked the alligator in the face and said, “We didn’t.” Then I noticed the wrapping paper on the floor by the coffee table. He’d done a really shitty job getting the present out of the paper. Bayou Billy died. It was my turn. “No,” he said. “It’s my game. You’re not playing.” I said, “Aw come on, they didn’t give it to you yet ...” He handed over the controller and I was promptly killed. We tried to get the game back in the original wrapping but that didn’t work. The paper tore at the corners. We tried to rewrap it but the roll of paper was gone. We put the obviously tampered-with game back in the ‘secret’ stash. We waited to get in trouble for it but we never did. Our parents simply stopped hiding the presents in their house. They were either at Aunt Marnie’s trailer, or Grandma’s house. Those places were Fort Knox.
1990 Part III. Grandma was still scared shitless of red M&Ms. Hysteria in 1976 over red dye #2. Tumors in Russian rats. She had a candy dish full of green M&Ms, the red ones separated out, thrown in the trash. Each time we took some of the M&Ms she’d say, “Don’t eat the red ones. They’re poison.” Okay grandma. ”Poison.”
1990 Part IV. The entire extended family gathered around a white tree with blue lights. Arms wide, Noelle’s boyfriend hands her this huge box. She smiles and unwraps it. Inside is a smaller box. She unwraps that. Inside is an even smaller wrapped box. And inside that is a smaller one. And so on and so on, incrementally, forever forever. What a horrible person. A mountain of wrapping paper fills up the farm house. All spectators lean back and cringe. Now a microscopic box reveals a box so small it’s less than invisible. “Open it,” he says. She opens that box and a diamond ring grows out of the box big enough to impossibly fit on a human finger. The boyfriend attempts to transform from a boyfriend into a fiancé. He says, “Noelle, will you marry me?” And her eyes flash, but before she can respond the whole family screams, “No! Don’t do it!”
But they do get married. It happens before Easter. Noelle transforms into a wife. And then she transforms into a mother. Two children. They live in New England and the leaves get pretty. And the snow falls. Melts. And then rainbow trout jump out of the frigid Pemigewasset River and try to kiss the lemon sun.
But it all works out! Noelle and the guy who thinks matryoshka dolls are hilarious get a divorce! And the family is happy! Noelle transforms from a wife, back into just Noelle, a person everyone missed. But she stays a mother. The ring rematerializes, and has no significant meaning. Everything important: your family, my family, all our hopes and dreams, things we were warned against that felt good anyways—these things get placed in a small box, that gets put by a prankster into a bigger box, until it makes up our whole life, in the end, forever eaten by the earth anyway. Worm food. The past like a tiny light, blipping off. And the future, like a new light, swelling into illumination. Oh, there you are. I see you now, again. I warned you not to do it. We all did. Welcome back to us. What a funny thing that was.
1991. A new development. Uncle Luke is dating a woman with a daughter. Hollie. Caring people. They just don’t have much money. Welfare. Hollie’s school calls my mom. Someone had volunteered to be a benefactor for Hollie’s Christmas. My mom tells me to get in the goddamned car, we were headed to the rich part of town. We drive out of the campground, away from the nuclear power plant, and the junkyard and cross the highway to were the Christmas lights got brighter and where the houses got so big that they birthed sub-houses on their very own property. Mom pulled into the driveway, our ticking time bomb car parked right behind a brand new Mercedes. We knocked on the door and the wife and husband answered together. They were wearing matching turtleneck sweaters and full of holiday cheer. We were led to the parlor, they kept calling it the parlor, and the interrogation began. They wanted to know all about Hollie. What did she like? What were her hopes and dreams? What could they do to make her Christmas special instead of miserable. I looked at my mom, who didn’t look exactly happy at the line of talk. Hadn’t these people seen those Feed The Children commercials? Couldn’t they just send some cash to children starving in Africa and shut the fuck up about it? No. What they wanted was a Christmas gift list. Break out the toy catalogue and point to things that Hollie would like. They didn’t want to give my mom the money because maybe they thought she would steal it. Give us the list, we’ll do the shopping, than you very much. Do you think she would like this Barbie Doll? Yes/No/Maybe. Check the box on this complicated graph. It took forever and made Mom and me feel like shit because we weren’t rich enough to help Uncle Luke and his girlfriend. But it was Christmas too that was out of control. Parents having to compete with the other kids’ parents to make sure their kids get enough because the kids will talk, will contrast and compare on the playground. No thank you, keep your hot cocoa you stupid yuppies. Keep your designer sugar cookies. Leave the rich house. Drive across the highway. Away from the fat houses and the extravagant lights. Return to the real world. Return to the real world and think, thank you for your charity you wealthy scumbags, I hate you so very much for your performative public kindness. Hope the stock market crashes and we get to watch you eat mud.
1992. Aunt Marnie wins the lottery! It happens in the summer. She’s able to move out of the muddy trailer park into the trailer park with paved roads. I mean, she actually won the lottery. Over a hundred thousand dollars. Yes! We’d never exchanged gifts with Aunt Marnie. But when she came for Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house. We gave her a list of demands. Here. We demand these Super Nintendo games. We demand these high powered squirt guns. We demand these insane far flying, bounce-off-the-moon Nurf footballs. We demand these high speed radio controlled mini monster trucks. We we we we we we. Aunt Marnie laughs an evil and confident laugh, “Hahahaha!” She points at Mom and says, “Robin! Get your rotten kids away from me!”
1993. My friend brings over SEGA CD. It sucks. The games are stupid. We are playing the video game version of the Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger, when Uncle Luke arrives. He’s got no legs now. They were cut off because he got diabetes and some wounds wouldn’t heal and the legs became gangrenous. Sawed em right off. Mom and Dad helped him into the house. This is the first time we are seeing him in a wheelchair. His new way of being. He wheels himself into the living room. We are at a part of the game where Sylvester Stallone’s rock climbing avatar is snowboarding down a steep mountain as he outruns an avalanche. Dodge a falling boulder. Lean left, lean right, to keep Sylvester Stallone from plummeting into the dark implied abyss below that will one day consume us all. No peace. No joy. Only suffering on this mountain of misery. I steal a look at Uncle Luke. He’s staring at the TV. Through the TV. My brother jams the buttons and jump over logs and dodges trees only to be overcome by the snow thundering down at his back. Shit! My turn. I go to hand Uncle Luke the controller, “Want to try?” He just stares straight ahead. Unblinking. Finally he and let’s out a sigh. “Nah, that’s alright, Buddy.”
1994. Grandpa goes into the convalescent home and finishes dying of stomach cancer. Grandma doesn’t want to put up the Christmas decorations at her house, where she now lives there alone, with Sam the stinking, Cocker Spaniel. My brother and I ride our bikes over, barge into the house. “We’re decorating your house for Christmas!” She says, so quietly, “Please don’t.” We shout, “Too late! We are decorating your house for Christmas!”
She sits there in the chair, depressed, probably wanting to die too. My brother and me put up the artificial tree while she watches. “Please don’t.”
And we put on all the tinsel and the colored lights and then those wooden decorations from the 60s that look like they came from Santa’s workshop. “It looks good!” She says, a little louder, “Please stop.”
We dragged the choo choo train out and set it up. And we dragged the nativity scene out. Jesus being cradled by the Virgin Mary in a barn lit with a tiny orange light bulb. She shouted. “Listen to me! Please stop it!”
Hahahahaha, Grandma, you’re so funny. We got out the nutcracker and the candy dishes, dump all the green M&Ms in, throw out the red ones. Then when I turned around, Grandma was up out of her Lazy Boy chair! It was a Christmas miracle! She’d been sitting in it ever since he died. She was yanking the lights off the tree. And knocking over the nativity set. The camels fell out onto the stone hearth. One of the wise men’s heads snapped off. She knocked over the train set and the train went errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. She picked up the nutcracker and threw it all the way down the hallway and hit her bedroom door. “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” Tears were streaming down her face.
We left her house. Rode our bikes home. Everybody is teaching you some lesson. You don’t have to learn. Go on, keep pedaling. Mom was cooking dinner. Standing at the stove. Stirring. “How’s Grandma?” In unison, my brother and me said, “Normal.”