Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His recent fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Asia Writes, Caribbean Vistas, Citron Review, The Dirty Napkin, Extracts, Full of Crow, The Tule Review, Unshod Quills, Write Place At the Write Time, and in the anthology Long Island Noir (Akashic Books).
Dad was antsy. He hadn’t worked overtime for a week. He’d made it home for dinner six nights in a row, a record. He sat at the dining table in a sleeveless t-shirt, looking around at things like he wasn’t sure where he was. The crèche on the china closet. Lights twinkling on the Christmas tree. The wicker basket of holiday cards on the kitchen counter.
“We got anything for dessert?” he said.
Mom sat at the kitchen window. With a damp sponge, she moistened sheets of green stamps and fixed them into coupon booklets. She wore a bathrobe cinched at the waist.
“Whatever you didn’t finish last night,” she said, without looking up.
Dad said, “You didn’t get something for tonight?”
When she didn’t answer, he told me, “Cliffy, go look what’s left.”
I opened the closets, I opened the freezer. I knew there was nothing. I held out my empty hands.
Dad shook his head. He said, “You talk about how I dress at the dinner table, and you sit around the house all day in that robe.”
Mom said, “The house is freezing.”
“Then do something,” Dad said. “Try a little work.”
In a sing-song voice, Mom said, “You’re boring.”
Dad said, “I’ll give you boring,”
With her lips, she made a sound that resembled the sound of farting.
Dad said, “And she calls me vulgar.”
Mom squeezed her sponge over a small bowl and moistened the next sheet of green stamps.
“Cliffy, reach me them cards,” Dad said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the wicker basket filled with Christmas cards.
Mom said, “Are you gonna start that again?”
I leaned back in the chair and grabbed it.
“Don’t lean in the chair,” Mom said.
Dad said, “He’s getting something for me.”
“Not if he falls on the floor he isn’t,” Mom said.
“Watch you don’t fall on the floor,” Dad told her.
Mom sang, “So boring.”
Dad sorted the Christmas cards sent to us by his sisters, his mother, and a nun who was close to his mother.
“Get your crayons,” he said to me, “and give me a hand with these.”
There were some sent by ex-Marines and several current Marines, and others from his co-workers at LILCO. The rest came from bodybuilding buddies from his competition days back in Brooklyn, and from his bodybuilding fans. Three, all women.
He set the cards in stacks on the dining room table.
“Your mother don’t like I have all these fans,” he said. “She gets jealous.”
Mom said, “Fans? The house is freezing and he’s talking about fans?”
I said, “No, he means fans.”
“She knows what I mean,” my father said.
She said, “You know what this means.”
She made another fart sound.
“Hey, come on with that,” he said, “in front of the kid.”
“You come on,” my mother said.
He glared at her, then continued. “She don’t like that total strangers admire my body.”
“Somebody should,” she said, “other than yourself.”
“No one admires yours,” he said, winking at me.
“Touché,” she said. “Isn’t that what I’ve been complaining about?”
He stopped his stacking.
“Enough already, all right? You’re gonna give the kid ideas.”
“What ideas?” I said.
“Never mind,” he told me.
She picked up a basket of laundry and carried it to the basement staircase.
“Cliff,” she said, “don’t forget your list for Santa.”
Neither of them could leave a room without issuing a final order.
“He’s helping me,” my father said.
“Cliff,” she said, “did you hear me?”
“He heard you,” my father said. “And then he heard me.”
I looked at my father.
“Answer her,” he said.
I said, “Yeah.”
“Hey,” my father said, “you don’t say ‘yeah’ to your mother.”
“Yes,” I said, “I heard you.”
“You heard me what?”
“Hey, Jackie, hah? We’re doing something here. Come on,” he said, snapping his fingers, “give me the scissors.”
I pushed him the scissors.
“I want him at his desk in fifteen minutes,” she said.
My father said, “Yeah, yeah.”
“I mean it,” she said.
He started crossing out the greetings written inside the cards.
“Oh,” he said, looking up as if surprised to see her. “You still here?”
I started laughing.
“Laugh now, mister,” she said. “You have fifteen minutes.”
She opened the basement door.
“You ever gonna change out of that robe?” Dad asked her.
She said, “You ever gonna change out of that shirt? I can smell it from here.”
He yanked the shirt over his head and threw it at her. It hit her chest. She let it fall to the floor.
“Pressed and folded,” Dad said. “No starch.”
She left the t-shirt on the floor and descended, pulling the door behind her.
My father circled a finger around his ear. “You hear what I’m saying?”
“I know,” I said. “I already did my list. I told her.”
“Well, do it again,” he said. “And don’t call your mother her. She’s your mother. Come on, give me the crayons.”
I passed him the crayons.
He filled out addresses in various colors on the backs of envelopes: purple, orange, brown. Above or alongside the crossed-out greetings inside the cards, he crayoned in new greetings. “Yo, schmo,” he wrote, or “Howdy, putz.” He slid the cards into envelopes and handed them to me. I licked the stamps.
“Don’t we like any of these people?” I said. “Aunt Elsie?”
“We like them all,” he said.
“So how come we do this?”
“Send used cards to people we like. Why don’t we send them new cards, like they sent us?”
“Because it’s wasteful. All the money.”
He looked up abruptly.
I said, “Yes, but—”
“And it’s nonsense,” he said, gesturing all around him at the crèche, the wrapping paper, the tinsel. “All this Christmas bullshit. The lights, the tree, the reindeers on the roof. We don’t like it.”
I said, “Mom likes it.”
“I said, we don’t like it.”
“I like it, too.”
“You’ll see,” he said. “Come on, work while you talk.”
“Mom says you don’t like it because of your unhappy childhood.”
“That what Mom says?”
“Is that true?”
It was easy to believe. Nana was full of gloom, and Poppy, while full of fun, was also full of Rheingold and whisky. Garbage water, she called it. Poppy’s wallet was never full.
“Your mother’s been watching too much Channel 13.”
“But was your childhood miserable like she said?”
He swept his arm across the table, pulling in the envelopes near me as if he was raking in poker chips.
“Go ahead,” he said. “You better go downstairs, finish your list.”
I said, “It’s finished.”
“Yeah?” he said. “What’s on it?”
I said, “It’s for Santa.”
“Well I might be talking to him later, you know, save us a stamp.”
“You can talk to him?” I said.
My father shrugged. “Yeah, him. His wife. A elf.”
“I asked for a dog,” I said.
He nodded. “That’s it?”
“Guns,” he said, “what kind of guns?”
I told him every kind of gun I could think of. A Winchester, an M-1, a snub-nose .38.
“You don’t want the B.A.R.?”
“The Browning Automatic Rifle.”
“What does Wally have?”
“Your brother? I don’t know—a bolt-action Springfield, I think. Thing went out in the Depression. But the B.A.R., Cliffy, that’s the strongest rifle there is. For the strongest Marine.”
I liked the idea of having a gun stronger than Wally’s, but I knew that I wasn’t as strong as Wally.
“I want a pearl-handled Colt .45.”
“Colt .45?” he said. “You want to be a cowboy, or a Marine?”
I chose a cowboy.
“All right. You better go do what your mother tells you.”
“But I already did.”
“Now,” he told me, gesturing with his head toward the stairs. He resumed with the crayons and the cards like I wasn’t even there.
I stopped at the top of the stairs. I said, “My childhood is miserable, but I still love Christmas.”
He looked up. “What, you’re still here?”
For my Uncle Vic, Mom had purchased a pair of gloves. They were leather on the outside, fur on the inside. They came in a flat box with a red top and a black bottom. She set the box upside down in the middle of shiny gold wrapping paper, then she dragged an open pair of scissors in a straight line along the wrapping paper’s roll.
“How’d you get it so straight?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Practice,” she said.
She taped one edge of the wrapping paper to the bottom of the box, then she pulled the cut sheet tight over the top, folded it, and brought it around to the bottom again where it met the first piece of tape with just a quarter inch of overlap.
“Tape,” she said.
I handed her another piece of Scotch tape.
Now she trimmed a little excess wrapping paper from either end of the box. She pressed in the empty edges so that the open ends folded over. With her fingernail she pressed a crease along the edge where the paper met the box, folded the end over, and asked again for tape. She repeated the process on the other side. When she was finished, the box was wrapped as neatly as my father made beds – tight, no creases, pinches, bulges, no excess paper. It was as if the box had been wrapped by a machine.
“How do you get it so perfect?” I asked.
She said, “You have to love the person the gift is for.”
“But Dad says Uncle Vic is a jerk.”
She shook her head. “Your father loves my brother.”
“So why does he call him a jerk?”
“Your father says a lot of things,” she said.
“But is he a jerk?”
“Who doesn’t your father call a jerk?” she said. “Or worse?”
“So is Dad a jerk?”
“No,” she said, “who told you that?”
“In school,” I said. “Miss Thornhill says calling names makes the person who says them the jerk.”
“Well, maybe she’s right,” she said. “He is a jerk, sometimes. Sometimes I’m a jerk.”
“No you’re not.”
“Oh,” she laughed, “you don’t know.”
“OK, I’m not. Tell it to your father.”
“He already knows.”
“That’s not what he tells me.”
“It’s what he tells me and Wally.”
“Really?” she said. “What does he tell you?”
“He says, whenever we hear the two of you fight, no matter what it is, no matter how wrong you sound, that we should be on your side because he’s the jerk.”
She looked at me.
“He said that, huh? No matter how wrong I sound.”
“He said, ‘Your mother is always right.’”
“Hmm,” she said. “That’s interesting.”
She took the gift wrapped for her brother and set it under the tree on top of other boxes already wrapped perfectly. They might appear to have been just tossed under haphazardly, but Mom placed each box with great care, after which she’d step back and study the arrangement before making final touches, either to the placement of boxes, or to ornaments hanging from the tree. Once she took us to the city, to Lord & Taylor’s on Fifth Avenue, where she stood silently in front of the display windows as if memorizing the details. Santa Claus occupied every corner, shaking music from bells.
Snow came on Christmas Eve. Wally and I knelt on the couch at the picture window and watched it gather like icing on a cake. First it was an inch, then it was two. Then the phone rang.
My mother looked at my father.
“You’re not going in,” she told him.
“Hand me the goddamn phone,” he said. “Yeah?” he said into the phone.
As he listened, he snapped his fingers and pointed for her to hand him a pencil and a pad. She started looking through drawers.
He covered the phone.
“I told you always keep a pad and pencil by the phone.”
She said, “And I told you you’re not going in. My brother and his family are coming.”
“No one’s going anywhere in this weather,” he said. Into the phone, he said, “Sorry, one minute.”
He snapped his fingers at Wally and me. “One of youse, find me a goddamn pencil.”
I handed him one from the TV table.
“Go ahead,” he told the phone. He started writing on the wall.
Her jaw dropped, then she folded her arms.
“Got it,” he said, and hung up.
“Cliffy, find my keys. Wally, boots from the garage.”
“You’re not doing this,” my mother said.
“I need my long underwear,” he told her.
She turned from the kitchen. “Don’t expect anything when you get back,” she said.
We all braced for the door slamming. It slammed.
Dad winked at us. “When I install a stop on that door, it’s gonna close as quiet as a mouse pissing on cotton. That’ll fix her.”
Wally said, “Mom says you don’t know how to fix anything.”
He looked at us.
“Come on, the two of youse. Off your ass. The boots, the keys.”
Noise in the living room woke me. I tiptoed to Wally’s room.
“Wally,” I said, shaking him.
“I’m awake,” he said.
“Listen. Is that Santa Claus?”
“There is no Santa Claus, you idiot.”
“Then who’s out there trying to be quiet?”
He sat up. “You’ll hear in a minute.”
I listened. Soft footsteps in the living room, the kitchen. The refrigerator door sucked open. I could picture Dad guzzling milk from the carton, wolfing cookies. Then his footsteps approached their bedroom.
“Now,” Wally said.
First there was whispering. Then shouts.
“I don’t care who I wake up,” she shouted.
“How do you expect me to pay for all this shit?” he shouted back. “That sled? Those rifles?”
“It’s Christmas,” she shouted.
“You lower your goddamn voice,” he shouted.
She shouted, “You lower it.”
In the morning we opened our gifts. Wally got a sled, a Flexible Flyer. “From Santa Claus to Wally,” the card said. Wally snickered.
“What’s that about,” my father said, pulling on his coveralls.
“Santa Claus,” Wally sneered.
“Yeah?” my mother said.
“Nothing,” Wally said.
My father said, “Right.”
I got a B.A.R., the Browning Automatic Rifle. It was made of hard plastic but it looked like a combination of real wood and metal. It came with a bipod and a bayonet.
“You like it?” my father asked. He was lacing his boots.
Wally said, “It’s too big for him.”
“This is more powerful than your carbine,” I told Wally.
“Seven times more powerful,” my father said.
He handed me a can of 3-in-One oil and showed me where you poured it into the B.A.R.’s muzzle. When you pulled the trigger, the oil made smoke.
“You don’t point that at anyone,” my father said on his way out the door and back to work, “you hear me?”
“Can we go play guns?” I asked my mother.
My mother said, “I don’t care what you do.”
Outside, it was the Battle of the Bulge, with thick heavy snow falling on a thick layer of snow. Our galoshes sunk past the top buckle. Still, no matter where Wally hid I found him with my B.A.R. I left the bipod on so I could just fall in the snow, find him in my sights, and pull the trigger until I was lost in a cloud of oil smoke and he was so dead. In less than half an hour he quit. He said he was too cold.
No kids were outside playing.
It was Christmas.
I walked up and down the block, shouldering the B.A.R. I aimed it at nativity scenes on lawns. I aimed it reindeer on the roofs. I aimed it at lights flickering along gutters and around door trim. I wondered when Dad started hating all those things. I wondered if he’d feel any better if I blew them all into dust with the B.A.R.
Mr. Di Lorenzo came outside. He said, “Hey, Cliffy, don’t point that gun at this house.”
“I’m not,” I told him, setting the gun on my shoulder. Right-shoulder arms, like the drill sergeants say.
Relatives from the city pulled into the Di Lorenzo driveway. They climbed out of the car, their arms heavy with gift-wrapped packages adorned with ribbons and bows. If they could come out, I wondered, why couldn’t Uncle Vic?
“Merry Christmas,” Mr. Di Lorenzo called to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
I wandered inside with nothing to do.
My mother watched TV in her bedroom with the door closed. Wally and I ate Oreos in the kitchen.
“How do you think that B.A.R. of yours makes smoke,” he asked me.
“The oil,” I told him.
“I know the oil,” he said, “but how?”
We looked in the instructions, but they didn’t explain, either.
“You want to find out?” Wally asked. He went downstairs and came back with a ball peen hammer and a flat-head screwdriver.
“Are we gonna be able to put it back together?” I asked.
“Sure,” Wally said. “If we’re careful.”
We spread newspaper on the floor, and the B.A.R. on top of the paper. Wally set the screwdriver against the stock, and reached back with the hammer.
Half an hour later, the plastic fragments and the metal springs and coils on the floor looked distressingly like garbage. We had broken it completely apart, but we were no closer to an explanation.