Remember the Christmas when you got into Mom’s purse? They caught you in the closet, lipsticks and keys and coins and tissues on the floor, encircling you like a wreath. You were building a little pyramid of pills, your fingers chalky with pink dust.
“What did you eat?” the nurse demanded. You didn’t answer. “What did it taste like?” I was sitting next to you on the examining table because I’d screamed until they’d let me. We were drawing on the crinkly white paper beneath us with one crayon each. I’d convinced you to take the stubby brown one (“Whoa. This is Wookiee brown.”) and took the newer-looking red one for myself.
“What did it taste like?”
You looked up from your picture and said pepperoni like it was a question and Dad giggled, clamped a hand over his mouth. “How many did you eat?” One hesitant hand holding up four fingers. Then five. Then two. Then one finger up your nose, excavating. Dad cracked up. “This is no laughing matter,” the nurse scolded. “This child could die.”
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was playing in the corridor when they dragged us out of there by our hands. I pointed at the speaker in the ceiling, a perfect circle of perforated dots, but you weren’t listening. Remember you fell in the parking lot and ripped the knee of your snow pants? That’s when they noticed you didn’t have your mitts but Mom said I’m not going back in there.
You sure loved pepperoni. I ate that red crayon on the ride home.
THE GROUCH AND JONAS GRUMBY
Remember the Christmas when your present was an Oscar the Grouch finger puppet and mine was a Skipper from Gilligan’s Island action figure? We filled a big bowl with Rice Krispies, called it quicksand, and made them sink in it. The arm of the couch was a cliff and we made them fall off. It was an inspired idea, you had, to make the toilet tank Oscar and Skipper’s secret sewer hideout, but I dropped the top of the tank on the floor, it was a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be, and it broke into two pieces and that was that for that Christmas.
Remember the Christmas when we moved? It was minus-twenty and we ran out of boxes and Mom pulled out the kitchen drawers and we carried them one by one to the car and dumped their contents into the trunk. Remember your feet got so cold that Mom sat you on the edge of the tub with your feet soaking in hot water? She told me to stay with you and good thing, too, because you fainted, fell backwards, and I caught you. You woke up and you were screaming and your nose was running and Mom gave you a Children’s Aspirin and we got in the car and drove. Mom looked small behind the wheel but then she moved the seat up. I thought she was going to take you to the hospital again but we went to McDonald’s. The manager was wearing a pointy green elf hat with a bell on top that jingled as he walked back and forth behind the counter. We had cheeseburgers and glasses of water. You and I got extra because Mom split her cheeseburger in half and then split one of her halves in half. She placed those two smaller pieces on our flattened, yellow cheeseburger wrappers. My extra had the pickle in it.
Remember the Christmas we spent at Roger’s? He gave us each a slim box of peppermint patties. Like miniature hockey pucks with bumpy chocolate tops and smooth chocolate bottoms. A white goo inside that made our breath feel cold. You hated the mint but you liked the chocolate. You had one of your two front teeth and you were so meticulous, biting the top off a patty. You scooped out the mint with a sweep of one finger and then you ate the bottom. You did that with your whole box, The Sound of Music on the black and white TV in Roger’s basement, and you wiped the mint extractions on the walls. On the drive home Mom said you’d deserved that slap but she hadn’t and that’s why she was mad at you.
G.I. JOE AND FROZEN DEAD TAUNTAUNS
Remember the Christmas when Dad came back? He had grown a beard and shaved his head to stubble. Mom laughed and rubbed his scalp and called him G.I. Joe. He had two green Krazy Karpet sleds in one arm, a paper bag of groceries in the other. Dragging our sleds, we marched down the hall, following Dad’s snowy boot-prints to the kitchen where he said ta-da! and from the grocery bag produced a lobster. It was suspended in water inside a transparent plastic bag that looked about to burst. Brown and alive, slow motion antennae probing and seeking, it had pink rubber bands wrapped around its claws. You cried when Dad told you the lobster wasn’t a pet and you locked yourself in the bathroom when you found out it was dinner. You came out when they promised not to eat it and they sent us outside with our sleds to wait for Dad to take us to the hill. We walked around and around the house, our legs sinking into the snow past our thighs, pretending we were stranded on Hoth and our tauntauns were frozen dead. We kept our eyes to the sky for signs of a rescuing snowspeeder.
We rang the doorbell to ask when were we going to the hill and they kept saying soon and after a while they just stopped answering the door. When the sun was gone we decided to try the snowbank out front. The ride down was short and bumpy but the road was icy enough for us to make it all the way into the driveway across the street. The neighbour stormed outside and escorted us back home and rang the doorbell and we told him they’re not going to answer that but he banged on the door until they did.
“Do you have any clue what your kids are doing? In the dark?”
Dad, his lips greasy, a plaid tea towel tucked into his V-neck like a bib, said, “Do you have any clue what I’m going to do to you if you don’t get out of my sight?”
You saw it first, clutched in Dad’s hand, the lobster’s red claw, the rubber band gone, and you ran, wailing, and we drove around looking for you forever. We finally found you in the playground at our school, sitting at the top of the slide that, because of the snow, was half its usual height. The front of your scarf was stiff with frozen saliva. They said you were definitely on the naughty list.
The next morning Dad was gone again but he’d left the Karpets behind.
RÉPONDEZ, S’IL VOUS PLAÎT
The dépanneur across the street from my building sells boxes of Rosebuds. They’re smaller than peppermint patties but they don’t have any mint inside.
I’m thinking about putting them in a bowl.
So, if you’re not doing anything, could you – would you – come over for Christmas?
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. He is a past winner of the 3Macs carte blanche Prize and Geist’s Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest.