Walking around downtown a glimmer of light hooks the corner of an eye. Glance down the alley spy a little match girl kneeling over a diminutive bonfire. Her entire wares crackling up in flames, she feeds the fire with Chinese take-out boxes. She gets them from a nearby dumpster, darting between the cold, and her ever growing spot of heat. Sometimes she nibbles a bit of stray lo mein.
A hobo shivers out of a doorway. Fire is a magnet for the frozen. Icicles dangling off his beard he makes his way towards the flame. His patchwork suit, made of carpet samples, crackles as he moves. The little match girl whips out a switchblade. Hissing like an alley cat, she juggles the knife to hint at her skill with it. The hobo slumps, though his frost stiff suit maintains the same pose from a moment ago. He continues on his way, aiming for the lake shore where he'll be found, a frozen statue on the beach. Come Spring there'll be dozens with him -- Winter's grim statuary. Not all used to be homeless, but it's only by walking among the dead anyone can maybe tell the difference.
And it feels like the right year to take that stroll; however, I have other places to be. Better? That's always the hope.
Parking out front of my parents house I take note of the lights. One side is covered in Giftmas lights, the rest is bare. Glittering half finished Christmasy arabesques tumbling into a sloppy kabelsalat, where I presume Pops decided fuck it, and went back inside. It's rare to see even that degree of effort. Usually he hooks one strand on a side of the door, walks around the house, stapling the wire at random to the siding, and the circle complete, plugs the lights into a timer -- done.
Gather the goodies from the trunk. There's going to be bountiful bribery this year. So much so I almost feel bad for not being worse, a 72 inch 4K flatscreen buys a lot of forgiveness. Gifts balanced on the TV, I lug the load to the front door.
Before I can press the buzzer the door flies open. Mom sticks her head out. Frowning at the lead grey sky she sighs.
"It only snows when no one wants it to," she says.
"I'll make it snow if you give me a hand here."
She doesn't so much open the door as forget to close it. Grunting, I manage to cart the gifts inside just in time for a controlled fall. The crunching noises some boxes make tempt me to change the labels, not who for, but whom from, yet I decide to play it honest. Leaving the pile in the foyer I find Pops in his recliner.
He puts a protective hand on a nearby bottle of scotch, "Glad you could make it."
"Free food. Free booze. Why wouldn't I?"
He snorts, "Nothing is free."
Hustle back to the Giftmas goodies, and return with a tin of cookies. Handing them to Pops gets the permissive wave allowing access to the liquor cabinet. Amidst the bottles I find an old favorite, liquid reminder of misspent youth, and pour a glass.
Into the kitchen to ask Mom if she needs help with anything.
She smiles, "I'm good honey. Oh! and never mind the ghost."
A hooded specter hovers in one corner escorting a miserable looking pig. The forlorn swine, looking daper in a waistcoat, watches itself cook in the oven. It puts me in a vegetarian mood. However, I don't want to have that fight with Pops again. His response is simply to eat twice as much meat. One National Christmas Kick-off Day (Thanksgiving) he hate half a turkey, and ended up vomiting. So, for the sake of familial peace, I decide to eat the ham. Besides, in a way, it's already dead.
Mom says, "I picked out this ham special. You know how much your father hates communists."
"He is a man of his time," I remark.
The doorbell rings, and soon the house is flooded with relatives galore. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends close enough to be considered kin pour inside. A whirlwind of greetings ushers the way to a rain of small talk. Few conversations embark into anything deeper than, "Hi, how ya doin'?"; and, "Whatch ya been up to lately?"
"Same old, same old."
No sense going into details. None of them want to hear about selling pills to winos down at the local pub, poker games won thanks to desperate risks so the rent is paid, or the girl who tried to set me on fire -- Heureux au jeu, malheureux en amour; Winter's statuary... the road goes both ways because I'm certainly not here to hear about the daily grind polishing bones for the grave, the growing concern over thoughts about disemboweling their own children, fantasies getting steadily more real:
"Where's your son?"
"Never had one."
Moving on, we gather in the dining room to tell old jokes, ancient family folklore, and compliment the cook before ever taking a bite.
Mom insists we join hands, while she leads us in prayer, "Dear Lord, who is wearing that awful perfume? It smells like a baby hooker. I don't want some pimp wandering in here, slapping a baby for her money. It would ruin Christmas. Amen."
"Amen," in one word we collectively echo the sentiment.
Discretely my cousin's girlfriend sneaks to bathroom to wash off the fragrance of baby whore. Meanwhile, Dad slices into the ham muttering, "Marx can't help you now." Passed along hand to hand side dishes orbit the table. Mom salts her mashed potatoes with a private shaker full of salt and Hydrocodone. Corks pop free from wine bottles which drain empty before the sound fades. A steady static buzz of chatter fills the room, but no one mentions anything more serious than a desire for more food.
Afterwards I help clean the dishes, while the gorged lounge throughout the house. Through the kitchen window I can see old man Diefenbach. He's collecting a bottle of booze left in the snow to chill. He and his wife used to take part in the procession down main street, parents carrying candles and photos of the children they lost, taken by Krampus, but it's been years since he did that. His limp seems part of the reason why. Still, seems more like he stopped once his wife died. He held the candle. She held the photo.
The sound of tearing paper rips me away from the window. The youngest kids have plunged into the presents. Their eyes light up as if this junk will somehow make them happy forever, and we adults bask in it, trying desperately to absorb some of that feeling. The booze helps. And it isn't long before our own gift greed is being satisfied. All karmic debts between us are ended, or at least suspended indefinitely thanks to the right blu rays, gift cards, books, games, clothes, speciality ammo and booze, art prints, and kitchen appliances. It's amazing what forgiveness a panini press delivers -- blessed are the sandwich makers.
Like all things the night eventually ends. My family parts pleasantly. It's been a relatively madness free evening, and yet I feel a twinge of displeasure. A nagging tought at the back of my mind prodding. Lighting a smoke in my car I glance over. I can see old Diefenbach sipping schnapps in his living room. Alone.
I get out of the car. Knocking on his front door, it isn't long before he answers.
He cocks his head to the side, "Wie geht's?"
Recalling what little German I know, "Es gehts mir gut. Uh, mind if I come in?"
"Please, I vouldn't mind ze company."
"I had a feeling."