S H O R T S T O R Y
CHRISTMAS TREE STORY
b y s t e p h e n g i b s o n ~ o r e m, u t a h
MY DAD'S daily ritual begins when he fills a glass with bourbon and ice then the first quart jar of the evening with water and plant food. He walks to the den and flips on the tree's lights. He sits, waters it, telling the tree about his day. My mom sometimes stands outside the door watching my dad and the tree. Sometimes I watch her.
The needles aren't dry or dropping, aren't crumbling. Its roots have escaped onto the rug, into the room. It grips the floor like a gnarled hand, wrapped around furniture, holding the hardwood like vines grasp walls. The decorations and branches have grown together. During the day, the window lets in a desert full of light.
My dad says to me, "Without labor, nothing prospers. Sophocles." He holds his pipe. We are sitting on the leather couch in front of the tree. Last week I got my Graduate Equivalency Degree and dad is already full of plans for me. I am a punk in the best sense of the word. I skate the streets of Phoenix like my board is a magic carpet.
My mom clangs pots and pans in the kitchen. The cooking noises have been growing louder over the past few months, and she has been saying less.
Dad says, "In idleness, there is perpetual despair. Thomas Carlyle." I consider this. I consider my parents.
He's a thin man with thick glasses. He likes to wear sweaters, plain cardigans, no plaids. He has short, clean-cut hair and he sells plastic. My mom is large, but a teddy-bear sort of big, and soft. Old hairdos. She bakes pies, still puts peroxide on my palms and knees when I need it.
"But, dad," I say, "I'm not in despair. I keep busy. I skate."
He says, "The way to be nothing is to do nothing. Nathanial Howe."
I shrug. I'll get a job with friends. There is no real reason to argue here. I'll contribute, do dishes professionally, whatever.
I am the youngest in my family, born the day my oldest brother, the first-born, was due to come home from the Vietnam War. He would have been discharged late in that December. My parents made careful preparations for Christmas. The tree was weighed down with trimmings, bright and glowing, five hundred and twenty-five bulbs, tinsel, and those round chrome beads strung among the branches, seventy-five ornaments of every color. I am told my parents were the happiest they have ever been. My mother was healthy, flooded with joy and pregnant with me, their seventh. She went into labor and my dad went to the airport. He was planning to arrive back at the hospital with my brother, in time for both of them to see me being born.
Today, the same tree still stands in the same spot, untouched, uncelebrated.
My school troubles all began with book reports. The first was a report on The Dream, a novel by Warren Yoder. The second was the Selected Poems of Christopher Charles, a Victorian. The last report was on Walter Mills' final, and most postmodern, book, Apocalyptic Residue.
The problem wasn't that I had not read these books. I got As on everything. The problem was that Mr. Smith went looking for Mills' book. He wanted to read it. Not only had I not really read these books, nobody had. They had not been written. I made them and their authors up.
They threw me out of high school.
My folks roll with these sort of punches. They've gotten a whole herd of kids up and gone. I am the only one left at home and they are pretty much finished with the family part of their lives. They immersed me in a GED course and left it at that.
When the owner, Dwight something, gives tours for his friends, he swings the door of the dish room at Cafe Bongo wide, smiles a used-car-salesman smile, says, "And this is the armpit of the restaurant." It's a small, squat place, full of chrome and soft shadows, a single sixty-watt bulb. Moldy wet smells. The sinks are deep, the garbage disposal a black hole that grinds like a transmission between gears. The floor is wet, slimy and slick. A conveyer belt fills the dish room with half-full cups of espresso, tasty half glasses of white wines, various beers brewed in house, fine European bread and cheeses, lots of vegetables, vegetarian burritos, and pastas in a rainbow of sauces. The glasses and cups have lipstick on their rims, floating cigarette butts. The meals are half eaten, silverware covered with other people's food.
The best thing about my new job is the free liquor that rides its way to me each night on that little rubber expressway. I hold plates in my right hand, tilt them into the sink, spray food off with the nozzle in my left. The steam made my mohawk limp until I started using Elmer's glue to set it up. It's short, narrow, and as white as Moby Dick. My arms are always wet from the elbows down. Grey water drips from my fingertips. I stand in the humidity, hairnet on my head, covered in sweet sweat.
On slow nights, like tonight, I rest against the moldy walls, worry about my dishpan hands. Talk to the servers, talk to my friends.
"My little sister is taking the LSAT today. Just for laughs," Muriel says.
"Is that wise?" I say.
"She says, 'No problem.' " Muriel's hair is a Day-glo red and long down one side of her head. Shaved bald on the other. She is pierced in the usual places. Dwight loves to hire people like us. It's a very upscale yuppie sort of cafe, the Cafe Bongo, and I think our clientele gets an almost sexual thrill out of being served by the dregs of humanity. Dwight, a former ad man, understands the value of rebellion as a marketing tool.
"I hate that my sister is beautiful," says Muriel.
"Many babies with birth defects survive."
"I've got the dangling Marlboro, the split ends, the attitude, clothes. I practice looks in the mirror. Why don't people like me? Where's the record deal?" Muriel plays bass in our band.
"The LSAT," I say. "That's great."
"It's not that great," she says. Her voice is laced with anger, maybe envy.
"I've got to figure out what's going on in my life," I say. "Got to figure out what I want to do with it."
"It's a constant battle," she says. "A constant battle." She watches me, her skin greasy-white against black lips. "Skate professionally," she says. "There's the band. You could work for my pop." These are old options. Muriel, herself, she has no plans.
"My dad," I say, "he says, Begin. The rest is easy. Author unknown."
It's so slow at the Bongo that Dwight sends me home early.
Every dish in my house is broken. My parents never fight, they never raise a voice much less a finger, but here, tonight, in the moonlit foyer behind our open front door, stands my mom, bags packed. She is in a waistless dress and beehivish hairdo. Bent forks and other twisted flatware surround her.
My dad says, "I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams. William Butler Yeats."
Her face is firm, as open to appeal as Mount Rushmore. She says, "A woman can stand anything but being forgotten, not being needed. Mary Stewart Cutting."
He stands in dark leather shoes, dark vest and loosened tie, nightly bourbon still in hand. The other grips a quart jar filled with plant food and water. I can picture him holding these things, interrupted, all through her anger, weaving left and right as she throws plates. I have watched my mother watching him, but I never thought. Tonight his face is baggy, loose, a man whose own death has just dawned on him.
A cab pulls up in front of our house. My mom stoops, grabs a bag in each meaty hand. She steps toward the door.
"Years following years steal something every day. Horace." She is wobbling down the sidewalk, trailing the dust of broken ceramics.
My dad looks at me. I look at him. He covers his face and the drinks tumble from his hands. The jar bursts, becomes a puddle. He steps straight back into the dark tree room, closing the French doors behind him.
I stand there for a while, the broken china under my steel-toed shoes. The moon is glowing tonight, purest silver light.
They have had decades of parenting behind them and nothing I have done ever managed to outrage or even surprise them. After seven kids, they just will not be bothered. They can, of course, still surprise me. Still hurt me. Still leave me casting shadows by moonlight, in an empty room.
I, as is my constitutional right, am in a band.
Is this my future? Will this get me from the 'burbs, out of the house?
We are the Thug Tones and I do lead vocals. When I can't remember the words I just scream into the mic. To be seen as singing is more important than to sing. The band is a lot of work, really, but I like it. We practice every day. Muriel and Mifflin voted me lead singer when we started. BenJamin and Poget, the other guys in the band, they don't mind. I have the proper addict thinness and the right slouches. These are my friends, the people I talk with.
The restaurant closes at midnight. Just after, me and the other Thug Tones will take the stage and sometimes play to a full house of local fans. Like I said, Dwight understand rebellion as marketing. He charges two bucks a head.
We do a killer cover of George Thurogood's cover of Bo Diddly's "Who Do You Love?" We cover Sid Vicious's cover of "I Did It My Way," and Frank Zappa's cover of "Stairway to Heaven."
But, sometimes I am one of those people you could set in a room. Throw me a novel and a bag of Doritos each week and I'd be happy for years.
Maybe I should be a librarian. Go to school. Something.
When I was twelve, my middle brother, Ken, back from his second year at college, said, "Look, isn't it about time to toss out that old Christmas tree? It's a nuisance, bound to attract bugs and stuff."
Our loud preparations for breakfast went silent, sudden as a stereo shorting itself out. My sisters froze in their motions. My dad and Ken, still standing, had been passing plates of food from the kitchen to our dining room table, morning light from the sliding glass door trickling in around them.
My father's jaw clamped shut and his face slowly glowed red. He look at Ken with flat shark eyes, Great White eyes. Milk in one hand, eggs in the other, he wore his long fuzzy robe.
My sister, June, though she denies it lately, said, "That would be like throwing Alan away."
My brother laughed a clear, merry laugh at her and my dad dropped the food and shoved Ken, who scurried, tottering after his balance.
I remember a spoon of wet cereal in my right hand and my Dad screaming: "Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me…" He pushed Ken again. "…for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men." There was a third shove through the glass door. "Saint Matthrew 16:23." Thick glass shards flowed through the air after my brother, following him to the concrete patio. He fell like a hanged man, cement jerking him to a stop.
My mom took Ken to the hospital for 37 stitches. His blood stained the carpet of our Buick, was sticky on the dash for days. He has never been back home, though mom and he did write.
My dad sat down and spread ketchup on his hash browns.
Late after work and band practice, I wander home. The stars and the low dark shapes of adobe houses line the streets.
Various Thug Tones volunteer their spare rooms as I tell them about my folks. Muriel and I walk and BenJamin skates loops around us. We talk the usual drunken talk, the old "Let's go to L.A." thing until her turnoff. For the next few blocks, Ben loops me in silence, finally says, "Who knows. Like Morrison says, People are strange." He glides into my view from the right, wheels humming on asphalt, poised on his board, hands in pockets, rolling out of sight on the left. The sound continues behind me. Eventually, I watch him disappear into the darknesses between streetlights.
It is about three a.m.. The last six blocks are mine alone. Streets empty, silent. The air still and black. I'm just buzzed from work, ears ringing from practice and I walk between the double yellow lines in the center of the street.
Can I blame dad for loving his son? I wonder what he was like, what made him so special, so important. My mom has been living alone, really, for too many years, for most of my life. Ignored because of a tree.
A sudden bit of wind explores my skin, the fuzz on my chest, through holes in my shirt, holes in my jeans. I once thought that the tree was somehow connected with my being born. Even, at first, when I was very small, that it was for me, that it was mine, being so close to my birthday and the Christmases that we no longer celebrated. Later I understood the holiday and even after that the politics of the MIA-POW movement and what it meant to dad.
The tree lights and those of the room behind it light up the big bay window at my house. He has always been long in bed by the time I get home. I can see, though, tonight, like a man on a distant TV screen, my dad. He waves his arms at the tree, shakes his fists at it.
I walk on, stumble, trying to keep him in focus. I can see my dad's red-faced screaming. A baby-blue cardigan. He throws his bourbon at the branches, squirts something from a tin can onto the green needles, the soft lights.
I start to run, but my feet get confused and I fall, scraping hands, my chin. I see my dad flicking matches at the tree, his lips twisted, curled harshly and his eyebrows pressed low on his forehead.
At the house, I fumble with our garden hose, stand on it and try to drag it, to connect it to the valve on the side of the house, but my hands are too thick and the world is gently spinning itself, sort of spinning to my right. I can't seem to get a grip on the valve, connect it and the hose. The tree goes whoosh and orange light all across our lawn. Cracks appear in the glass.
No sign of dad.
A giant candle flame fills the window. I get the hose threaded, spin the valve open. Cold water hits the hot glass; it shatters, falls, sounds like chimes in a storm.
We peel up the turf, the sod, pile the earth. In our backyard, my dad and I move with shovels. It is so early the horizon has only the softest glow.
My dad rests a large green trash bag full of a blackened stump and tiny shards of glass in the grave we have dug. He pours palmfuls of dirt. Eventually, we hand pat the ground firm.
His face is wrinkled, strained. I have wondered what our history would be without the tree, but that is pointless, really, something I can't ever know. What good would knowing be? We walk up into the house, side by side, his long pink robe flapping behind him in the wind. Mud covers our hands.
Late that night, he talks into the phone. He holds it away from his face like a hot iron, like something that could scar. He says, "Conscious of the fact that I cannot separate myself from the time in which I am living, I have decided to become a part of it. Albert Camus."
I can hear, squeaking out of the space between my father's ear and the phone, my mom say, "The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on; not all your piety nor your wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it. Omar Khayyam."
When I pouted instead of immediately starting those book reports that eventually got me kicked out of school, dad said, "That which we are capable of feeling, we are capable of saying. Cervantes." I remember this as he holds the letters from her lawyer, the divorce papers, folded in neat thirds, nested between his hands, and I ask him what he feels.
I say, "Speak softly and carry a big stick?"
He looks at me from behind his large glasses.
"Roosevelt? Theodore?" I say, and he says, "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words? Marcel Marceau."
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