Jeff Holland kicked the snow looking for the newspaper. It usually landed by the lamppost but who knows sometimes. The newspaper-boy was getting older and his arm probably stronger, so maybe some day it would reach the front door and Jeff won’t have to walk through the snow or rain to get it. It used to land at the end of the driveway. That’s before he bothered to read it, but after the kids were born he cared about the schools, the property taxes, the roads and the new zoning laws that ruined his idea for a pool. (Still trying to figure something out cause the kid that can talk wants a pool.)
The boldest headline said, Attack on Christmas, and the smaller print beneath promised the residents of Brookdaleville Township there would be no such thing. A photo showed the Happy Holidays sign at the entrance to Branchville, the next town over. The article quoted a promise from Mayor Howard Skip that though the threat was closer than last year no way would it be an issue for Brookdaleville, “The last bastion of traditional Christmas”. Jeff didn’t care what signs went up where. The last two weeks Rudolph, Frosty and Santa were all over the TV, the storefront windows and colored lights the shape of the same characters hung over Main Street along with Christmas Trees and candle lamps in household windows. There was a small menorah in the tailor’s window but no one seemed to mind. He’d been the town Jew for decades and people liked their town was open to that sort-of thing.
Jeff put the damp paper under his arm, crumpled the plastic wrap into a ball and pushed it into his old robe’s good pocket, the wet soaking through and chilling his hip. The other pocket was torn by a neighbor’s dog years earlier during an argument over where Jeff parked his car. The neighbor thought Jeff parked it too close to his driveway and claimed backing his hotdog truck in and out was difficult.
Inside it was warm and the TV was quiet, the tree a blinking silhouette in the corner. Someone, most likely his oldest, was brushing their teeth in the bathroom and he could hear the boy’s aggressive strokes against his gums. “You’re going to make your mouth bleed,” he called, unconcerned if he was heard but satisfied he made an effort. He smelled the coffee finished and decided to bring Kathy a cup in bed. The stairs made more noise in the winter. The basement opened up beneath them and it was cold down there. In the bedroom, the windows frozen over with moist air, Kathy rolled over and moaned regret. Her hair, honey colored and wild, covered the side of her face. The other side sunk into the pillow.
Jeff put the coffee on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed. He pulled her hair away from her face and loved her cheeks and that thin nose. She opened one eye as if to say, you still there and if so why, can’t you see I’m trying to sleep, what time is it anyway. He was familiar with those expressions. “It’s seven,” he told her.
She moaned again and slightly moved so her hair stopped itching her nose.
“You got to get up baby,” he whispered, smoothing her hair back from her face, hoping it would help but quickly remembering she didn’t like it as much as he did. She accused his dirty fingers of giving her face the pimples she worked so hard to hide with makeup. He couldn’t help it. He loved to touch her face.
She turned away from him. Still didn’t want to get up.
“What time you go to sleep?” he asked. Outside through the window a small avalanche of snow fell from the roof. “It’s warming up a little.” He pulled a corner of the blanket around her exposed shoulder. Hated to think she was cold. The heat upstairs sucked but right now the money wasn’t there to fix it. “Maybe you should lay off for a while,” he said. She purred like she didn’t want to hear it. He opened the draw on the nightstand and there was the small mirror and the snipped straw and a little left smeared like salt on the road. “Denise is coming today.”
She pulled the blanket away from her face. “Why?”
He drank her coffee. “Terry called last night. They had a big fight and she left. Got on a bus and said she was coming to stay with me.”
It took effort for Kathy to sit up. Her face left an imprint in the pillow. “Oh my god. She got on a bus?”
“Yeah, last night. She called me from Ohio.”
“Oh God. I hope she’s okay.”
“She’s okay. She called again around five this morning from Pennsylvania, said she was a couple hours away. Gonna pick her up in Riverwood a little bit. She’ll be okay. We’ll have a talk with her. Lay off the shit while she’s here.”
“Okay, I’m done anyway. I feel horrible.”
Jeff was about to say something because she said that before. Instead he said, “I love ya baby.” Maybe that would help.
She leaned into his face but covered her breath with a hand. “I love you too.” She waited the little time in between that means more than the words. “Do you have work?”
“The ground’s solid, covered in snow. No machine can dig up a cold ground. Better off. They got us digging over gas lines. Shit came up last week. Someone lights a cigarette you can kiss my ass goodbye.”
“I’m worried about you.” She put her hand on his clawing into the sheets.
Jeff thought about worrying too but stopped himself.
“You gonna pick her up?” Kathy asked.
“It’s been a while.”
“I miss her.”
“Me too.” Jeff closed the draw to the nightstand and wished he never opened it.
Kathy smiled apologetically. “I’ll stop.”
She put her hand against his prickly cheek. “Hey.”
He worried. “What?”
“She’ll be okay.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. This shouldn’t be your problem.”
“I got the whole package when I married you. If a daughter with another woman years before is part of it then so be it. It’s okay. She just needs her dad. Is she gonna stay with us for Christmas.”
“Tonight’s Christmas Eve so I’m guessing she is.”
Jeff drove his pickup to the bus stop in nearby Riverwood. There too was an attack on Christmas. Beside the giant tree in town there was a manger and a sign that read, PLEASE RETURN OUR BABY JESUS. The infant was missing from the straw cradle at the center of the Wise Men’s attention. At the buss stop small Latinos waited in big coats, their arms gone in their pockets. A wind picked up and they turned away, the hard cold against their dark hair.
Jeff waited. His cell phone rang. Just a normal ring, no songs or jingles. He couldn’t stand hearing songs from another man’s pocket. Forget the death of Christmas, he thought, what about the death of humility. MOM CELL on the phone’s screen.
“Hey Mom,” he said.
“Is she with you yet?”
“Not yet, I’m waiting.”
“What if she got off the wrong stop?”
“Then she’ll call and I’ll go get her wherever she is.”
“What if she doesn’t know where she is?”
“She’s a smart kid.”
“Why did she have to take a bus? Why couldn’t she take a train? If she was so smart she would’ve taken a train.”
“I don’t know.” He knew, but if Mom didn’t what’s the point of explaining. Kids don’t take a train when they run away from home. They take a bus, most likely, but who knows now days.
“Are you waiting in the car?” his mother asked.
“Can you see the bus stop?”
“It’s across the street. I can see it fine. How’s dad?”
“He’s fine. He’s worried too but he doesn’t want me to know cause he knows I’ll worry more.”
“Well, don’t worry. Go back to bed.”
“Oh right, like I can sleep now. I’m up early anyway. The doctor changed my pills now I’m not so tired. How’s Kathy?”
“Good. She’s busy with school.”
“I have a jacket she might want. I don’t wear it anymore.”
“She’s got plenty.”
“Well, I’ll bring it when we come by. If she likes it she can keep it. If not I’ll ask your sister. But it probably won’t fit her.”
“When are you coming?”
“We want to come by tonight and see Denise.”
“I thought you were coming tomorrow.”
“We are but your father misses her. We thought we’d have a quick Christmas Eve dinner out with Lynne and John and then stop by to see you guys for a drink afterwards. Just us though not them. They’re gonna see their grandkids. You want to talk to your father?”
“What’s he doing?”
“I think he’s in the bathroom.”
“Then no. Let me go. I’ll call you when she gets here.”
“When is she supposed to get in?”
“Call me as soon as she does.”
They hung up, didn’t always say goodbye and I love you anymore. It’s not necessary after thirty-nine years. He remembered when Denise stopped saying it. At first he’d remind her but she sounded so discouraged, no longer comfortable using those words, like they carried no weight.
A light went on in the deli across the street from the bus stop. A short latino came out with a shovel and pushed the snow away from the entrance. He waved to some friends waiting at the bus stop. They yelled something in Spanish back and both sides laughed.
The truck was low on gas so Jeff killed the power. The heavy engine bounced to a halt and hissed while the rotary belt continued to spin. He opened the door and dropped his work boots into the snow, stood. He closed the door and zipped up his flannel coat. Should’ve worn a hat. The morning wind made his eyes tear. He jogged across the street, careful not to slip on the road’s packed snow. Before entering the deli– its warmth among the shelves of chips– he watched a bus appear down the road. It stopped at a light. A knot formed in his stomach. It had been awhile. Last time they spoke was a few months back, but she was brief and unfamiliar. He always knew that age would come. He hadn’t seen her in over a year, with money tight on both ends, traveling and taking off from work made it difficult. But now he realized there was no good excuse. They were close once and a little distance between them shouldn’t have brought it to this. Maybe, if he’d stayed involved, been the father figure she needed, they wouldn’t be meeting at a bus stop in the freezing cold on Christmas Eve. Life got busy when the kids came. Life gets busy.
The light changed and the bus’s exhaust clouded up the pale sky. The brakes squealed when it stopped, its breath steamy on the snow beneath. The doors opened and a couple of Latinos leaped out eager to get to their indoor jobs. Her small frame was the last to exit, revealing she was uneager. She was hooded but not clothed for the current weather. A gym bag, patched with skulls and crossbones, hung by her side.
Jeff waited rather than call her name. She spotted him and pulled down her hood, a small smile, more like an apology. Her nose was pierced and so was her lip. Her head was shaved around the side so the curls on top stuck out like a mad clown, part flamingo part raven. She was beautiful, still, never mind all those things on top. Jeff took off his jacket while crossing the street. He wrapped it around her small shoulders, hugged her and together they reached the car. Once in the car Jeff noticed some of her hair was blue, too. “You look different,” he said.
“Cool.” He started the trcuk and messed with the heat dial.
She was surprised. “My mom doesn’t like the way I look.”
“Well, parents don’t like when their kids try so hard.”
“I’m not trying hard. This is just me.”
“Okay,” he said. “I got no problem with that.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“I should be.”
“But you’re not?”
“You’re mom is.”
“She’s always mad at me.”
“What do you feel like?”
“It’s a little early. Don’t think pizza’s ready yet. How bout a diner? Eggs, bacon.”
“Okay. I don’t like bacon though.”
“You don’t like bacon? Who doesn’t like bacon?”
“Okay, but… your loss.”
“It comes from a pig though.”
“So do hotdogs. You love hotdogs.”
On the way he watched her look out the window, her slender neck a pedestal to her wild head. He handed her his cell phone. “Call your mom.”
“Yeah, you better. She’s worried.”
“Are you going to make me go home?”
She smiled. He missed that smile. She was beautiful, despite the metal piercing her flesh, the short buzz circling her head and the candy colored springs of hair sticking out of her scalp.
Jeff pulled up the phone by the power chord attached to the cigarette lighter. “Call your mom.” He let it fall on her lap. “Tell her you’re okay.”
“Why does she care?”
“Be quiet. That sounds stupid. Even you know that.”
“Whatever,” Jeff echoed, his voice a mocking squeal. “Call her,” he reverted to a baritone.
Denise pulled off her tight, knitted gloves and watched the growling snowplow clear a path ahead. “She’s gonna be mad.”
“I would think so. Why shouldn’t she be?”
“Well, then I guess you’re right. Cause.” Jeff turned down Garden Place, a corner mailbox on his left.
She dialed, put the phone to her ear. “It’s me. I’m with him now.” She listened, pretended like she had something better to do, playing with the hoop circling her bottom lip, turning it like a ring on a finger. “I know.” Something her mother said stopped her. “I’m sorry. I love you, too. Okay. Bye.” She closed the phone and put it on her lap.
“Everything good?” Jeff asked.
“How long you want to stay?”
“I got to go back to school January third.”
“You don’t want to be with your mom on New Year’s? You’re already not gonna see her for Christmas. That’s a first, no?”
“I don’t care.”
“You should. She’s all by herself.”
“That’s her fault.” Denise blamed her mother for not having a Dad, that she knew at least.
Jeff navigated the truck into a spot in the diner’s parking lot. They high stepped through the snow. Once inside they followed the host to an empty booth by the window. The floor was covered in wet footprints. They ate quietly. Jeff watched Denise mostly. Her movements were angelic. There was a peace in her presence he couldn’t get any where else. For that moment he knew his daughter was okay because she was with him. Most nights he lay awake thinking about her. This Christmas Eve he planned to sleep well for the first time in a long time. They left quickly after finishing their food. He pulled into his driveway not long after. He’d shovel later, probably work up a sweat, take off his jacket and come down with a cold just in time for holidays.
They exited the truck. Rather than follow the path Jeff carved through the snow earlier Denise stepped into the soft bed of snow and up to her knees. She lifted her knees leaving small but deep footprints behind. Jeff shuffled down the slightly shoveled walk.
“Is Kathy home?”
“Is she mad at me?”
“Nah. She could never be mad at you. That’s why you’re not aloud to be alone together cause she’d let you do whatever you wanted.”
Denise found that idea appealing and that smile lit up her face.
“Yeah, she’s cool.”
They dusted off inside, a pile of wet shoes and gloves in a puddle next to the door. Kathy appeared in the kitchen, finished wiping her hands with a towel before she came over and gave Denise a hug. “School was cancelled,” she told her husband. “Went all the way over there before I found out.”
He looked around the doorway and into the den where his children watched TV, mesmerized by the colorful puppets singing the alphabet. “Great.”
“What’s going on?” Kathy asked on her way back to the kitchen. “Want some hot chocolate?”
“Nah,” Denise said.
“Have some,” Jeff told her. “She’ll make it for you.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Take off your coat, or whatever you call it. Sweatshirt. Why don’t you have a coat?”
“I do but I don’t like it.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”
“What’s not to like about it? It keeps you warm…” He stopped when Kathy looked through the doorway and gave him a look telling him to stop. He watched his daughter peel off her sweatshirt and hang it on a hook next to children’s little winter coats. “Go sit down in the kitchen.” She went and Jeff entered the den, leaned over and kissed the baby in the cradle. He tried to kiss his son but he squirmed in his little comfy chair. He didn’t like being bothered when watching shows. It was a video he’d seen a thousand times. Maybe a million. Jeff watched for a second.
The kitchen was quiet and warm, except the surface of the table was for some reason cold so Denise kept her arms at her side.
Jeff came in and flipped through the paper he left on the counter earlier. “Say’s it’s going to snow again tonight.”
“I hate snow,” Denise said.
Jeff laughed. “You hate snow. On Christmas Eve. Why? How could you hate snow? You’re a kid.”
“I don’t know. It gets all wet and dirty.”
“You used to love the snow.”
“Yeah, I guess. So.”
She was turning the ring in her lip again.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” he asked.
“No.” Denise left the room. Jeff and Kathy wondered why. She returned wearing her sweater, zipping it up and pulling the sleeves over her hands. “I’m cold.”
“Put on a wet sweat shirt. That’ll keep you warm.”
Kathy’s look told him to stop. She still felt like shit but laying in bed was not an option like she thought it would’ve been that day. She had presents to wrap later but that’s it. “What’s new? How’s school?”
Jeff looked up from the paper. Didn’t like hearing that.
Kathy said, “Yeah school’s pretty stupid but if you don’t do it now you’ll be doing it when you’re my age. And that’s really stupid.
“It’s just, like, they teach us stuff I don’t care about.”
“I know. I used to think that, too. Who cares what the square root of five is, right?”
“I know. Like, why do they waste my time?”
Jeff tried to refrain but couldn’t. “They’re not wasting your time. You’re wasting their time.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
Kathy dropped a spoon on purpose. “Anything you’d rather be doing?”
“We’ll…” she continued with her back to them, mixing cups of hot chocolate. “Find something you’d rather be doing this way you don’t have to go back to school when you’re my age. You got hobbies?”
“I don’t know. Hanging out.”
“You like movies?”
“You like books?’
“Yeah, I guess.”
“What books?” Jeff asked.
Denise looked past him. “Is it too late to change my mind for a hot chocolate?”
“No way, sweetie,” Kathy said. “I knew you would so I made you one.” She turned and carried two mugs to the table. A third on the counter was hers. Denise went to take a sip. “Wait,” Kathy said, opening the cupboard. “Got marshmallows.”
“Got whip cream?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Kathy said disappointed. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Denise assured her.
Kathy sat with her mug and the bag of marshmallows. Dropped a few in each. Together they smelled before their first sips and all umm-ed at the same time. Snow fell from the roof and past the window looking out at the backyard, the tree limbs heavy white and the houses past the old wooden fence a real winter wonderland.
The house was quiet the rest of the day until dinner, which came late because they’d forgotten to remove the steaks from the freezer until last minute, had to defrost them under a hot faucet. After dinner Denise said she wanted to walk around the house in the snow and look at the stars. They assumed that meant sneak a cigarette. What could they say? They wanted to do the same but quit years earlier when the kids were born. Some habits are easier to kick. Others lingered. Kathy approached the draw beside her bed, its little knob electric by touch. Maybe. Shouldn’t. I’m tired. Just a little. Got presents to wrap. While Jeff sat with his feet up in the living the room– the soft fabric a cozy swallow and the kids occupied by the TV– in the dark Denise smoked weed from her little pipe under a window in the deep snow beside the house and his wife inhaled cocaine above in a chilly bedroom, the space heater starting to smell like burnt paper. What’s so funny about Sponge Bob? He would’ve read something about the Civil War but the print was so small it gave him headaches. So did the overhead lights. Sometimes the kids did too, when they cried in disguise of demands.
The front door opened, inviting the cold, and light toes tapped down from upstairs. Denise leaned over to untie her wet boots. Kathy appeared, her nose a little runny.
“What you guys doing?” Jeff asked.
“Nothing,” they replied almost simultaneously.
“Gonna start desert,” Kathy continued. “Ya hungry?” she asked anyone listening.
“No,” said the boy on the floor, never looking away from the TV.
Jeff adjusted his feet. “What do you mean no?”
“I don’t wanna eat.”
“You gotta eat desert of Christmas Eve.”
Denise remained at the door, afraid her smell would give her way.
Jeff dropped his feet and sat up. “You don’t want to eat desert on Christmas Eve?”
The boy pushed a toy with wheels away from him. “No.”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s not a good enough reason.”
The boy looked at his dad, unable to respond logically, but surprised that logic was necessary. I don’t know had always been a good enough reason. And at that moment the boy was a day older, no longer allowed to ignore rationality but expected to reply with reason. “Why do I have to?”
Jeff thought. “Because you do.”
The front door opened again inviting the solstice sounds that accompany a winter's night. Denise, still nearby, was immediately embraced by Mimi. Poppy not far behind, his knees not what they used to be. “Hey,” he called into the house. “Why’s the walkway all icy?”
Jeff pushed himself up, certain his knees would go just the same. “I shoveled earlier. Been busy all day. Grab a shovel.”
Poppy smirked. “You’re mother almost fell.” It was really him who slipped.
Mimi was still holding her first grandchild. The one that changed everything forever. “You made us worry,” she whispered.
“Sorry,” Denise said. “I didn’t mean to.”
Mimi held her away so she could get a better look. The metal in her face and the blue hair was distracting. “Why you make every body worry?”
Poppy stomped the snow from his feet. “Where you going?” he asked Denise, still in her boots.
“Hi Poppy.” She wrapped her arms around his thick waist. “I was just playing in the snow.”
“You take your brother out in the snow? Maybe you can see Santa in the sky.”
“You should. He’d like that. His big sister taken him out in the snow.”
The boy was on the carpet in front of the TV, an eager look on his face. He would’ve liked like that.
Kathy came from the kitchen, her eyes wide and smile broad. “Hey.” They exchanged hello pecks and loose hugs. “You guy’s want a drink?”
“I’m okay,” Poppy said, unzipping his coat and mysteriously hurting his elbow in the process. “We had a few at dinner.”
“You got rum?” Mimi asked and laughed like she shouldn’t but why not.
Kathy winked, decided she’d have one too.
“Make me a vodka,” Poppy decided.
A little later they sat at the kitchen table. Denise attacked her ice cream but ignored her cake. The boy picked through his plate but found nothing he liked. Mimi fed the baby a little melted ice cream. Kathy didn’t touch anything but her drink. Poppy watched the dark windows reflection of his family, sometimes smiling when he’d hear the children. But there was that look he’d give Jeff. Why is she here and what’s all that stuff in her face? Jeff finished desert first and sipped from a beer bottle. He watched the clock. Eventually his parents left said see you in the morning. Jeff put the kids to sleep and laid down in bed. He listened to Kathy and Denise talk, TV sounds between their laughs.
In a dream Jeff watched himself operate a backhoe. Someone on the ground, bundled up like an Eskimo, called out so he opened the little window on the door. The man was inaudible over the wind so Jeff chose to pretend he heard and closed the window. Another man, not as bundled, waved for him to dig. He pushed the stiff lever forward and pulled another back. The bucket stabbed the Earth and the machine shook. He tried again, this time lifting the machine’s front end off the ground. He’d tried several times to brake the surface with the bucket while the others shivering nearby waited against their shovels. The one in charge waved his hands but Jeff already had the bucket coming down and felt like this time it would break through. When it did something exploded and sent the backhoe and the men on the ground tens of yards in the air, landing hard on the dirt. The backhoe fell on its side, Jeff still belted into the seat, the fan hot against his neck. The world looked sideways. The way things had always looked for Jeff Holland. A geyser of gas exploded from where he tried to dig. Some of the others ran to his aide, climbing up the yellow machine, the door’s rusty hinges cranked when they opened it. He couldn’t hear much but droned out voices carrying over one another. The men handed him down to the ground. The smell of gas was overwhelming. He couldn’t move and them his eyes were opened and the ceiling above was his bedroom. He realized it was a dream. Kathy was sleeping beside him. She did what he asked and stayed off the shit.
Jeff slipped out of bed and felt around with his feet for his slippers. He tried to be quiet on the stairs but the old wood yawned. He found the living room in the dark and in the little moonlight coming through the window he could see Denise on the couch, a giant comforter swallowing her hole, but for her head. That beautiful head. She moved a little but didn’t wake. He watched. She was safe. He sat in his chair nearby and closed his eyes so in the morning he’d be there beside her.
What happened to the jacket Mom was bringing...she forget to bring it? Denise don't like her jacket, maybe she'll take the one Mom was going to give to Kathy or Jeff's sister. I have a feeling it's a phat retro piece that Denise would dig but shit what the hell do I know. Mr Cheese.
I LOVE THIS LINE..."Mimi was still holding her first grandchild. The one that changed everything forever."
THE "REAL" POPPY
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