This year my family decided to congregate at my brother's. To set the scene imagine a man near forty who has elected to do everything in his power to become white trash. Unlike others who attain that dubious title through generations of inbreeding and almost super human incompetence, my brother aspired to be the lowest rung on the human ladder. Following a map of redneck stereotypes he adorns his home in the latest trailer park chic. From a smattering of broken toys across the front lawn to a rusted out Firebird in the driveway, his home is proof that all although some aspirations, dare I say dreams can come true that doesn't mean they all should.
Waking up the front steps I say hello to David Whence, a mycologist from San Francisco. David shows up two or three times a year to study the remains of couches moldering on my brother's front porch. A straight decade of untold sofas left to decompose in the elements -- all so my brother can sit on the front porch in his underwear drinking beer, to which I say god bless but fuck-all at least clear off the mold-melted couch corpses instead of just piling new alley acquired ass pads; David is studying a new breed of mushroom growing in the couch compost. David says hello without a glance. He seems fascinated by the way the mushrooms sway as if following his movements like the eyes of Jesus.
My parents and I are the last to arrive. The rest of the family is already present, not to mention pissed which I mean in the English sense. I won't lie. I may have had a few road beers on the drive over, but that was only to take the edge off Pops' backseat driving, and Mom's insistence there are octopi in the sky. I keep my disgust at the relatives reckless consumption suppressed. This is Giftmas after all, not a time for one's true feelings to come out. Happy day, happy day. No reason to complain, even though Cousin Louis is here, and the motherfucker knows I told him I'd break his face if I ever saw him again, but it's Giftmas! Forget the fact he owes me ten thousand dollars -- that pawn store robbery was my fucking idea, and he has the balls to shoot me in the leg then make off with the cash... breathe, just breathe. Revel in Uncle George's annual solicitation:
"Well, now that we're all here... finally, we can get down to the business at hand. My wife, Elizabeth, the light of my life, my only reason for existence, was recently kidnapped by the Yakuza. Now I know I say that every Christmas, but the poor woman is a plagued by bad luck."
"No kidding. Look who she married," Pops says to me, though I'm pretty sure he's aware the whole room heard him. But Uncle George doesn't miss a beat.
"Fuck you Larry. Elizabeth is in trouble. So I'm asking if you will all contribute to her ransom."
Then on cue, out comes his little burlap sack that I swear to everything I hold holy, may I forever lose the ability to get intoxicated if I'm lying, there is a fucking dollar sign on the side of the bag. It's like having your fingers crossed when making a promise you know you'll break; the one bit of honesty about the man's begging. However, it should be noted there is a possibility Uncle George donned a distinctly racist disguise then kidnapped his wife in order to lend some validity to the notion she was kidnapped by the Japanese mafia... every year for 15 years.
But now is not the time for cynicism, so we all put a few dollars in the bag. My brother's current wife -- number four I think -- directs us to the dining room. We assemble around three folding tables lined end to end. While she brings seven extra large pizzas, purchased the night before and heated in the oven earlier, my brother says to me that this is going to be a long winter. I make the mistake of asking him to elaborate. As soon as he mentions the Jews I zone out. Conspiracy theories about Zionist weather manipulation don't exactly sit well with me. Mom insists we draw the curtains so the octopi in the sky don't spy on us, and I oblige her, if only to get away from my brother.
The cousins huddle at one end of the improvised dining table. Tim is wearing a shirt made of fuse wire, and giggling as he plays with a lighter. Cousin Myra picks her nose like she's digging for the reset button on her life. Will keeps phasing out of reality thanks to his extreme ADD; his molecules vibrate into another reality ever so often, and he always looks disappointed when he flickers back to here and now.
Mom chews on a slice of pineapple and giardiniera. Uncle Jordan asks her how things've been. She smiles, and tells him, "I saw you die in a dream last night. You didn't enjoy it. Dying. It was a real mess, and you know your wife can't clean for shit."
Uncle Jordan glances at me, and I give him the finger. I can see the blood welling up in his eye, and if history is any indication, when he gets pissed enough that blood will come shooting out. We just have to keep pushing him.
My brother's kids don't eat with us. Instead they run back and forth serving drinks. It's a constant stream of icy fresh beers, soda, and booze. I can't help wondering if it's like this year round: the kids waiting on the adults then left to fight over whatever scraps remain. It might explain why my brother and his wife are a collective six hundred pounds while their children are thinner than twigs.
After dinner the family shuffles into the living room, a mess of ripped thrift store furniture flanked by the world's latest and most expensive entertainment system. Presents get passed around. I've often suggested we should do the gifts before we start drinking, but no one's ever gone with me on this. I recommend it because, as usual, everybody gets at least one present that elicits the response, "What the fuck made you think I'd want this?"
To which Pops responds, "Because the sales chick said it was specifically designed for cunts."
Nothing scars a Giftmas into memory like two middle aged men -- my Pops and Uncle George -- throwing haymakers at one another over a meat thermometer; or witnessing my Aunt Beam explain that she gave Myra, her daughter, perfume because the girl smells, not bad, but strange. As the generosity of the season evolves from presents to punches and screams, I step outside with a glass of bourbon. Lighting a cigarette I blow a cloud into the sky, and am surprised to see an octopus the size of a VW Bug swimming through the air. Truth is always stranger than fiction, but nothing is stranger than family.
I say that because the evening ends with everyone hugging and kissing and saying farewell as if we all can't wait to do this again. And the truth is, we can't. Despite the homemade stitches, the black eyes, and the reckless gypsy curses, there's love.