The Christmas I was eight my dad quit smoking and I stopped believing in Santa Claus. He announced his decision at the dinner table pushing himself back so that his chair was on two legs while my brother, Wayne, sucked on a smoked pork chop and I tried to drop fat on the floor for our dog, Gertie, without my mother catching me. My dad’s belly stuck out white from underneath his t-shirt, a testament to late nights at the American Legion drinking with his buddies and my mother’s fried potatoes. “Buy me some hard candy when you go grocery shoppin’ tonight,” he said taking a long, slow drag on his cigarette and blowing the blue-gray smoke towards the ceiling fan. “This is my last smoke for as long as I live.”
My mother snatched my plate. “Stop feedin’ that damn dog,” she said smacking my hand. A crispy piece of fat flew across the room and stuck to the wall. We sat in silence as Gertie licked at it while the fat slowly inched its way down the wall.
I took a long time in the bathtub that night because I wanted to be up when the candy came. We weren’t allowed to have candy except in our stockings at Christmas. It was also the only time we had fresh fruit; oranges and tangerines, which I loved, along with nuts, Brazil and almonds, which I didn’t. My dad figured me out though and made me go to bed even when I begged him to let me stay up. I was dead sure mom would need help unpacking the groceries. He wouldn’t give an inch. I pouted and dragged my feet into the bedroom. “You’re gonna trip on that lower lip.” “What an asshole,” I thought, but I knew better than to sass him back.
The next morning there was candy all over the house. On the coffee table next to my dad’s Lazy Boy recliner and in the telephone nook in the hallway near the stairs. It was in the bathroom in a Parkay butter bowl next to the baby blue crocheted toilet paper caddy my Aunt Betty had made. I sifted through the bowl with the sink water running pretending to brush my teeth. Butterscotch surprises, rootbeer barrels, peppermint curliques, and cinnamon bombs sifted through my hands like pirate treasure. I stuffed my pockets and headed for the front door. My mother was waiting for me with my Partridge family lunch box. “That candy is for your dad. You hear?” She waited as I emptied my pockets and then checked both my hands for strays. “I need candy too,” I explained. “I need it ‘cause I’m givin’ up butter. I’m givin’ it up for good.” Mother snatched a peppermint curlique out of my hand and shooed me out the door. “He’s gonna ruin Christmas.” I heard her say under her breath. “Ruin Christmas.”
My dad always ruined Christmas. Every year he found new and unforseen avenues to let the fizzle out of the holidays. He sparked no Christmas cheer and he wouldn’t be satisfied until we all were miserable and inpatient for the day to be done. I don’t think he was an evil man. Like I said, he was just an asshole who, for whatever his reasons, hated Christmas. Last year he yelled at me because I was scared of a piggy bank he bought me.
And who wouldn’t be? It was a haunted house with a smooth green hand that came out of the roof and grabbed your money. It gave my dad no end of pleasure – “Arlie! Looka that! It swiped that penny right outta ma hand!” I watched from the far side of the Christmas tree, quaking in terror. “Arlie! Arlie! Here’s a penny. C’mon and try it!” Why had Santa brought evil into my life? Hadn’t I been good? Hadn’t I? My dad’s voice sliced through my thought. “Dammit, Arlie. Git over here and put a penny in this here house. Where’s yer sense, girl?”
I came out from behind the tree and walked over to my dad. It was the only way out. Obey. I took the penny from his sweaty hand and held it out towards the house. “Yer got to git right up on it afore it kin retch it.” I moved closer. I held out the penny with my eyes closed. Creak! Whiz! The hand sprang out and snatched my penny. I swear it caught hold of my hand into the bargain. My dad let out a whoop. “A’ll be damned, if it didn’t do it again!” Apparently, like me, he could see the thing wrote its own rules. I screamed and ran to my mother. My dad’s face twisted up and he threw the bank across the room.
“I’ve never seen such a spoilt kid. You and yer mother you spoilt that girl, Pearl. Made her ‘fraid of her own shadda. Arlie- go pick up that bank and brang it here.” I stood there staring at him. “You hear me? Go pick it up and brang it here.”
It was wrong in every way. Curse the elf who built the plastic injection mold for that house. That house would torture my dreams until it burned up in the flames that were to engulf my room only two months later on one blistering cold February night. “Arlie! Pick up that gawd-damned bank and brang it here!”
Damn you Santa. Damn you Santa.
I reached out and picked up the house. It coughed out the hand and I screamed. A warm stream went down my leg soaking into my pink slippers and spilling onto the cherrywood floor.
Thank you for the humiliating memory, Santa. I wish I could die.
“Ruin Christmas.” My mother repeated as she shoved me out the door. I walked to school sucking on a cinnamon bomb I’d hidden in my shoe, convinced that. like my dad, Santa was bent towards the perverse.
To be continued…