The finished result was not what Fred expected of his haphazard arrangement of tinsel with boughs of holly and the tacky collection of red, green and silver bulbs, not “balls” as my brother jokingly referred to them as he tossed them to me to hook onto the tree branches. It was Christmas yet again. I was in my senior year of college at the end of 1986. One semester to go. Staying with my parents in their apartment mere miles from campus didn’t seem like any homecoming at all. I was there half the time on any given weekday, lamenting my confused state-of-affairs and taking sham classes just to graduate, not fully committing to the university’s teacher training program but fooling myself about being months away from a six-figure salary, too.
That injurious hook was in my mouth (not sure who sold me that hollow truth. I’d like to punch him in the face today) but I had no one to blame except myself and circumstance for the direction I took, like a meandering brook, easily stopped by rocks and sand bars. It was my choice to spend four more years in school, rote classes, with little guarantee of getting any kind of satisfying job. I lied to my family about the promises I made to myself, that I could really cash in on that college degree. Plus, I’d be the first kid in my family to earn a degree, not that it meant anything. A B.A. in English wasn’t bad for a poor kid from west Nebraska, progeny of migrant farm workers and Union Pacific railroaders. I could say buh-bye to blue collar jobs. Success story and all that, it made my Mom proud. I lived the farce of what she believed was the American Dream.
When I got to my parents’ place, there wasn’t a tree or presents, nor Mom there to greet me with a hug. In fact, there was no one there except for my brother, who stopped in mid complaint about the lack of Christmas decorations, much less the lack of spirit, and whether anyone had thought about exchanging gifts.
Forgive the foggy details, but the parents must have given their better angels the holiday off that Christmas Eve. Mom rested in bed with a paperback to her side, eyeglasses askew on her face. She must have fallen asleep at one of the more cliché passages of her formulaic romance novel, when the heroine was overcome by a half-naked brute on a pirate ship. A cold cup of coffee sat on her nightstand. The drapes were drawn to keep it as dark as possible. She had her slippers on in case someone knocked at the door, which was unlocked when I came in. Fred, a senior at Bonita H.S., sat on the couch surprised to see me. Pops was at an AA meeting down at Club Baba Lou on White Avenue in Pomona across from the L.A. County Fairgrounds, avoiding the wrath of Mom. I’m not sure how that nickname for a den of recovery and refuge came about except that I always thought my parents were as popular there as the Ricardo couple who performed every night at the original club on ‘I Love Lucy.’
I blamed Reaganomics for my parents’ lack of funds. Intermittent jobs. Layoffs. Lack of raises. Or, high enough wages. Trickle down didn’t work. Who knows. Bottom line was they didn’t have enough money, or so they told each other, and that report reached the rest of us via Fred. There was probably a roll of dollar bills hidden under their mattress, what my Pops called funny money, what you needed to get out of a jam. My mom had her version of it she kept in an ugly pink piggy bank along with a bunch of other odd decorations and curios on one of the bookshelves in the living room. She liked handing out coins to the grandkids whenever they came to visit, which was rare, but she had to be ready for their spontaneous appearances. Fred talked through checking the mattress, a flawed plot to begin with.
“What if she wakes up dude, what do we tell her?” he said.
“You, not me, this is your idea.”
“Yeah, but should we try it?”
That’s when he eyed the pig, which stared back at him, and seemed to squeal. “Oh brother, you’re in big trouble buddy if she ever finds out!” He ignored the pig’s warning, pulled out the plug from its belly, pouring its contents on an old bedraggled brown and black striped couch. There was more than I thought as we watched the coins form into a small mound on one of the cushions.
“I’ll be back,” he said, as he scooped up the change and jammed it into his pockets, as many of the coins that would fit.
“How much is there?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Guess I’ll find out when I get there.”
He planned to walk over to Target to see if they had any trees left. Excited and on a mission, he slammed the apartment door on his way out. That part worked. There were about a half dozen left, 60 to 70 percent off. Real Douglas Firs going for $18. They were discounted down to $6 plus tax just to get them off the lot. Target was counting on desperate last-minute guys like my brother to get rid of them. He dug out the change, but only had a little more than $5. Hustling back to me in the apartment, I took what I had from my pockets, the last few remaining dollars from a poor college kid, and handed it over to him. In my mind, I had earmarked the measly tender for beers. Fulfilling a Christmas wish was more important. I could mooch off friends when I got back from the winter break, while I waited for more funding support from a generous financial aid package and work study. Fred ran back to Target. He must have sprinted, because he was back in 10 minutes.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Where’s the tree?”
Out of breath, he said he could only drag the six-footer about two hundred yards before his hands fatigued and he lost grip.
“Need your help.”
I donned my green cycling jacket to watch him scamper ahead of me, an ex-jock running back speeding down the sidewalk. I stayed right behind him. The crisp cool air shot up my nose, my out-of-shape college body fighting me. Nearing the prone tree, I saw that he didn’t get too far, only across the busy street that separated the strip mall from the apartment complex. I thought briefly about how we were lucky no one saw it, or they would have strapped it to the roof of their car, finders-keepers. Fred thought the same way, which is why he shifted into high gear. I was bending over when I asked him he had brought a pair of gloves.
Shaking his head. “Nope. You?”
Then he said no more, as we both plunged our bare hands into the branches, needles poking at our faces as we tried in vain to avoid scratches. To ease some of the pain, he began singing Christmas carols.
“Come on Frank, you’re in that singing group. What is it? Chamber singers?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You missed it. We went all around downtown La Verne singing to people bundled up like it’s the North Pole. It was funny. Lot of people thanked us and shook our hands, wishing us a happy holiday. Felt good, I guess.” What I said wasn’t cool, but corny. I felt the rush of blood to my face.
We started out with something simple, what he could remember from grade school choir. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, but couldn’t get past trying to remember the names of all eight. We said, “what the heck” and dove into the song anyway, humming through the words we forgot, or didn’t know. Nearing the end of our half mile march, I sighed in relief of seeing the apartment’s front door. We had gotten to “Silent Night, Holy Night.” We dropped the tree at the stoop, collapsing against the wall, and I asked him how we were going to get it into the apartment, now that we were there.
“Where there’s a will…” he said, and hopped over the tree and into the living room. “You push, and I’ll pull.”
And like a cork in a bottle, we popped through with a few good heaves. Once in, we heard my brother Jason say, “what’d you guys go and do?”
“None of your business,” Fred replied. “We have to keep the tradition going.”
“Where’d you guys get the money?” he asked, knowing full well where. He’d seen evidence of the crime, and by his own clumsiness became an accomplice. When he arrived at the apartment with a bag of El Pollo chicken and tortillas – he worked at the restaurant as a cook – he sat down to watch TV and crushed the pig’s ugly pink snout and round body. Pieces of porcelain stuck to his pants. Mom, when she appeared in the hallway, brushed off his denials.
“Then, mom knows?” Fred asked.
“Yeah, she knows,” Jason said. “She just got up. Her hair is all crazy, you should see it.” He cackled about her curly bed head.
Mom waddled out in her beat-up bath robe, ignoring the tree on the floor. She got as far as the kitchen table. Jason had deposited the chicken and sides of beans and cole-slaw in dishes. Sitting down, she ordered us to join her in having dinner. Fred said, “before we do, you got a tree stand? Needles are getting all over the place.”
“It’s in the hallway closet, along with some decorations,” she said. “You get them, don’t make a mess.”
When the tree was standing next to the large living room window, Fred finally apologized. “I’m sorry mom, but we needed the money,” he said. “You were sleeping.”
“Where’d you get it?” She asked. She could see his confusion. “The tree.”
“It’s nice, isn’t it. At Target. Didn’t cost much. Frank pitched in,” Fred said.
“It is nice,” she replied. “But you still should have asked.”
When Pops walked through the door, we had nearly finished decorating the tree. We’d already wrapped it with several strands of lights, needing only to plug them in to bring it to life. It also needed the star to be placed on its highest branch. Although a six-foot Fred was tall enough, he waited for my stepfather to give him the honor. He paused, soaking in the moment. By then, my Mom had slipped away to freshen up. She emerged dressed to the nines, wearing a pin-striped jacket and skirt, a feather adorned fedora and a red scarf around her neck. It was clear she meant business. Fred handed Pops the star without saying a word.
“Mercy,” he said as he set his brief case, a large tumbler filled with mixed sodas, and a Star Trek lunch pail to the side on the floor. He took the star in his large hands, with his six-and-a-half-foot giraffe like figure, leaned toward the tree with the same gracefulness as the long-necked beast, and crowned the tree, gently, perfectly. Then, he stepped back to admire our handiwork as Fred stooped to the floor to plug in the lights. They flickered at first, then stayed lit, seeming to grow brighter with each moment.
Pops looked my Mom up and down and remarked even louder than he did with the tree. “Mercy. Mercy. Merceeeeee! Ooooh Weee! Baby! You look good enough to eat,” he said, and wasn’t done yet. “Merry Christmas baby!” Then he grabbed her in his big paws and held her tight.
Mom held up her little pinky finger which signaled his failures. The gesture was both a sign for making amends and a warning that whatever differences they may have had were now in the past and should forever remain there… though sometimes they didn’t. “You’re a fool,” my mom said. “If you couldn’t tell, you’re taking me out tonight. It’s Christmas.”
“Damn skippy woman!” he said as he held open the door.
“Don’t break anything else,” she told Fred on her way out.
I returned to the kitchen table, and the chicken meal. Jason and Fred bantered about their ridiculous friends at school while “It’s a Wonderful Life,” played on the TV. The conversation turned to ghosts of Christmases past, when we could count on the grown-ups to be grown-ups and all we had to do was open presents and grouse about who got the biggest gift. I concluded that maybe all that holiday stuff was passé since we had grown up and stopped believing in Santa. But I also thought about how even in a poor family, especially a poor family, the holiday couldn’t be overlooked, because that day of good feeling produced so many miracles, one of them being, my parents making up. Even my college woes seemed far away. I was glad to be on break.
As the night wore on, we munched on cheap Christmas sugar cookies and chased them down with store-bought eggnog. Jimmy Stewart blubbered on, his family in the black-and-white classic surrounded him in a mass embrace. The movie ended with a frog in my throat. Off to bed, where I slept soundly but not before saying goodnight to our work of art and recounting our triumph.
“Thanks for saving Christmas, Fred.”
Waking up in the morning, the glowing Christmas Tree was surrounded by presents, and on the stereo turntable my Pops let the needle fall to play The Staple Singers, “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas.” And that damned frog stayed in my throat.