There were no ornaments for the tree but there was beer. So I drank the beers and hung the empties in the branches.
It was Christmas Eve. My father was half reading, half retelling the nativity story over speakerphone from my parents’ place in Pacifica, California, where he and my mother and my sister and her husband and their kids were all fanned around the living room and scattered on up the stairs. I imagine the adults watched the kids listen while the kids counted their gifts under the tree. I was sitting on the floor, leaning into the foot of a corduroy couch half listening to my father and at least half if not more than half watching ice gray out the yellow coming off a light bulb on the front porch of my one-bedroom, half-kitchen cottage. Outside, the snow was sheeting down, and it was really starting to bury me there on a hill across from another hill that passed as a ski slope in Strawberry, a little two or three-gear town at the base of the Sierras.
I was alone but hadn’t planned to be. That morning when I climbed back up the hill with a tree, my girlfriend June’s car was packed from the seats to the ceiling. She said she was leaving to see her folks before the snow really hit. She called it a visit but she’d taken the television. I could see it jammed between two of her bags. She was tired of being cold, she said and pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her newly dyed black hair. Plus, she knew I was thinking of leaving for New York and had talked about Sedona or Cheyenne or even Mexico City. She said I didn’t know what I wanted and she didn’t either. And don’t forget the fact that you don’t seem particularly over your ex-wife—maybe this is too soon, June said. Maybe she was too just late, I told her and she dropped into the driver’s side, lit a cigarette, and turned the car on and with it the stereo blasted my copy of Black Sails in the Sunset. She backed down the driveway and disappeared down the hill and the snow really started to drop.
This story could take time.
The same shepherds would shuffle in and out of the same old stable and inn. And the stable would be very dirty and very glorious and also pretty brutal. The whole setting was nothing if not gnarly, my dad would tell everyone. It was important that he set the scene so that you understood what would be won and that we had won, that Christ’s win was ours, his pain ours, ours his, and so on. Jesus was one-hundred-percent God, my father would tell the family. He was also one-hundred-percent man. This story of a Savior could sound a lot like Yogi Berra. Sometimes it was déjà vu all over again.
I’d called at more or less the time we’d agreed on and got my mom first. She was peeling potatoes and checking the turkey every couple minutes with an infrared temperature gun.
I start it earlier and earlier, you know? You remember that one year?
I did. We didn’t eat until almost morning and that was only after wrestling the turkey into the microwave. It looked fine but tasted like gum you’ve chewed forever.
So what’s the plan? she asked, and wondered whether the skiing resort, where I worked, was really open Christmas day, and how was June, who she still hadn’t met, she reminded me. She asked if I’d heard about Reese and the guys who’d recently licensed and sold a few songs that I had written on when I was still playing music with them. One of the songs ended up on a Ford commercial with twenty-somethings sliding out of a blue sedan at dusk. They wander around an overlook with this perfectly universal American panorama of a forest bleeding into some blue and silver metropolis. They look casually off camera. The sun flares around them. I saw it play at the bar one night in Strawberry and couldn’t even try to explain things to June so I kept it to myself.
Now, are you still planning on taking that job in New York? my mother asked. It could be good. I can see that it’d be great resume-building opportunity, but aren’t there teaching jobs closer, like, say, here, here in nice, warm California? What did you do with all your stuff in Sacramento? I mean, you can store some of it here in the attic but not too, too much.
It’s cheaper there, I said about my storage unit in the valley where I’d piled my adult odds-and-ends, my cut from the divorce. There was a king-sized mattress, a teak end table I’d picked out, my half of our dish set, which I told my ex to take, but she refused and packaged mine separately. And I’m getting time and half tomorrow, I said.
It was true that I had mostly agreed to a job teaching five or six composition classes at a community college in downtown Brooklyn. A friend of mine there, an academic who never laughed and always talked quietly so you had to lean in to hear him, said the job was pretty good and not too time-consuming. If you wanted, you could teach the same class four or five times a semester and only have to prep once. He’d published a short novel and a few books of poetry since we graduated and he knew someone at the school and quickly became the head of the English department. He could hire his friends, he told me and even offered a room in his apartment until I found my own place. I didn’t dislike him enough not to go and there was nothing in California except an easy job and a place to write, and for a few months a girlfriend who I was pretty sure was on her way out, which hadn’t sunk in—that I might never see June again. Her and her navy blue, almost violet eyes. Her laugh. Just having someone.
My mother said she hoped I had decorated. Maybe, when you have your own kids, some day—which I hope is very, very soon—you’ll understand, she told me and let the call go quiet. She added something to the effect of how beautiful it was to celebrate so many things at once during Christmas time. Last night your father preached all about that, more or less, she said. It’s incredible, the way new life works, she said and went on to describe the scene at the house, from the height and shape of their tree to what everyone was wearing. Everyone misses you, Wade, she said.
I raised her scene with the fact that I had snow. This place couldn’t look any more like Christmas, I said going to my oversized tree in the corner of the living room. I’d started at the bottom and my tree was silvering up nicely with Coors Light cans.
Oh, you, I guess you do have the snow on your side, she said.
The water for the potatoes started to boil and my mother passed me to my father who asked me more of the same questions about Strawberry and sweet, gone June and told me how many days there were until pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training.
Then, he quietly explained the poor couple who would be joining the family for the evening. They’d backsliden and now they were back in the fold and there was nothing better than returning. Plus, the stragglers got along nicely with my sister and her husband who both got along with everyone including each other. Sometimes it could make you a little sick to see how good a time my sister and her husband were always having.
Throughout the night I would hear these stragglers at the edge of the call. The man’s laugh was a whine and the woman’s was kind of a cry. They sounded worse off than my parents thought I was and they couldn’t help saying thank you over and over. I could hardly keep up. I was drinking for two, or three, really. First, for the guy sitting on the living room floor next to a speakerphone call on Christmas Eve. Second, I drank for the one on a holiday without a girlfriend or wife, which I’d had until last year. Third, I was drinking every time one of the stragglers said thank you or sorry for having intruded on such a special family day. Thank you. No, thank you, I said to the muted phone and drank.
After a full rundown of the plan for the evening and an update on the church, he gave me to the kids, who kept forgetting they were on the phone with their uncle. I slid into my spot at the base of the couch and I listened to them pretend. For a while they were in Afghanistan, in the desert. They played Army. There were sergeants and generals. One of the kids was very insistent on being the cook. The kids went this way, bunkered down together, cooking veggie casseroles and making plans until one of them suggested they copter out of there because they could. There was a helicopter warmed up and waiting. By the time they hit the ground they’d started writing a play about a teenage baby Jesus but quit and took turns playing cashier. It seemed like the kids always found a way to pretend to work when they played. I drank and placed cans in the branches of the tree. I’d been a cashier, a janitor, a forklift operator, a nanny, a teacher, a professor, and now had circled back around to chair lift operator and occasional ski instructor. I knew all about work.
After three, maybe four beers and the kids screaming into the phone for about an hour, one of the boys dropped the phone on the couch next to my father as he was starting the story.
He drew the scene, starting early on, as always, with the birth of John the Baptist in Luke chapter one, instead of with Mary and Joseph winding toward Bethlehem to pay taxes and arriving to find there was no room for them.
Here was terrible King Herod. Here was the priest named Zacharias and his wife named Elizabeth. And Zacharias and Elizabeth were as righteous as they were old and as they were barren. At barren, my dad laughed and stopped. So what is it barren means? he asked, his large voice small through the phone. One of the kids said barren meant important. The adults laughed in the background and my father went on to explain what barren really meant.
I put on a denim jacket over the one I was wearing. If June wasn’t coming back I could stretch the final lines of firewood I had stacked along the fence if I didn’t think about it too much.
I propped a window open with a 2x4 and sat in the sill and smoked. There was a heavy live oak at the edge of the driveway with these perfect branches for holding snow. The tree shook a little there in the wind in the last reaches of a streetlight down the road. All week it had grown larger and lower and now the tree was curved like a question mark. I ashed into the snow and leaned further out the window and looked around the empty neighborhood. The highway echoed off the mountain. The whole town was gone or going and it was just me and a few sets of out-of-towners waiting quietly inside rental cabins for Christmas morning.