‘Twas the night before Christmas, 1977, and if some goofball in a Santa suit had’ve walked through the door, I probably would’ve clocked him with a candlestick, drug him out back, and delivered one kick to the ribs for each of the twelve days of Christmas.
It was bad enough just being fifteen, just being there in that house with my ten year old brother who was all keyed up over the gaudy tree, the liquor-less eggnog, Burt Case and the idiotic reindeer radar, the cookies with green sugar, and the even sweeter violins of the Perry Como record my Mom felt made a holiday grand slam: Silent Night and Rudolph.
I thought of the smell of reindeer steak. I hated the fake smile on my face. I wanted to be away.
So when Mr. Hempshaw called, I only pretended to be put out, told him I’d be right over with a dry copy of the Jackson Daily News, as the bag on his had ripped on the sharp rocks of his driveway.
It was dark and cold and raining. I forgot my jacket on purpose just to irk my Mom, grabbed a spare paper, backed Dad’s VW Bug out of the carport fast, slammed it into first and popped the clutch, kicked on the windshield wipers and pushed the headlights down empty streets into the night.
I longed for a thousand decibels of Aerosmith or Led Zepplin to peel Perry Como out of my brain. But the Bug had only a crappy AM radio. I left it off, shivered as the rain picked up, bumped the wipers to high and slowed my pace. I was in no hurry to get back home.
Old Man Hempshaw lived in a trailer park behind Mart 51. He was the hardest to collect from, the first to hear complaints from. He smelled bad and didn’t seem to do anything. He was alone, and I didn’t feel sorry for him. I looked down on him. I felt I was better than he was.
I knocked on the door, and he opened it and looked at me standing there in the rain.
“My paper’s wet,” he said.
No shit, Sherlock, I thought, and handed him the dry one without a word. My lack of a comeback seemed to change his expression. He looked over his shoulder at a board and milk crate coffee table and said, “Want a hit?”
I could see overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles of Early Times, and one two-thirds full bottle of Wild Turkey. My eyes came back to him, and he shrugged.
“Christmas,” he said.
Inside it was only a little warmer than outside. There was no TV and no music and no decorations, just the sound of the rain on the roof of the trailer. I did not feel threatened, but I couldn’t tell if the ice cubes were clean. I drank the sharp whiskey like I was used to it, which was a good trick. We didn’t have much to say to each other, and he didn’t seem to really want me to stay or go, but instead of that being awkward, it wasn’t, and I relaxed for a minute.
Then I got out of there and made it back home, the rage within me dialed down one notch. The rest of the evening went the way it always had, I’m sure. The details have faded away. Why, you may wonder, did I maintain such a high level of hatred and disgust with my world? Well, I’ll tell you. It was my parents’ fault, for they had committed the unpardonable sin of surrounding me with some murky armor that seemed to allow girls to like me, just not in “that way.”
The guys that girls liked in “that way” only took their heads out from under the hoods of their souped up Cameros long enough to make sure the passenger doors were shut after the girl was inside. Then they’d roar off into the night, and the next day snicker among themselves about “getting some.”
My lust was reverent, and it was dying, unvoiced and unappreciated. To Lisa and Laura, I was a guard rail. To Nancy and Sherry, I was a kickstand. To Candy and Daphney, I was a half full sack of dirt. It was the end of the world. Maybe it wasn’t good grades and my Dad’s VW Bug that was holding me back. Maybe it was the failure of my hurricane level telepathy, which had it succeeded, would have persuaded the entire cheerleader squad to trap me in an empty classroom, lock the door, and overpower me with their superior numbers.
That Christmas day after the regular hoopla, after I’m sure I received much more than I gave, my little brother tried to get me to go outside and throw the football with him. The rain was gone, the sky a stark blue. He thought the moment would be special. I decided it would be special to go by myself to the Jackson Square Cinema’s matinee showing of “Tora, Tora, Tora,” the detailed and lengthy cinematic story of the missteps and bad decisions leading to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was important. It was big. It meant something.
Thinking about sitting alone in the dark theater on that blue sky Christmas day, I remember the Japanese commander on the deck of the aircraft carrier peering through binoculars into the rain slashed seas, resolute, stoic, doomed with the knowledge of the long term costs. At the risk of spoiling the ending, the nations gave up on words. They let their true feelings show in honest expressions of carnage and mayhem. The Zeros broke over the hills, and I was with them. Sailors scattered on the decks, and I was with them. It took me along. I was not where I was. I was somewhere else.