We pulled around a corner and into a gated parking lot. Our flat-block was three stories, L-shaped and dark. We parked the car in front and brought out all our shit. We followed Lucka in the building and walked three flights up to our place. Despite its location, the apartment was pretty nice. It had three big bedrooms, a giant bathroom with a sunken tub, a full kitchen, a family room with a flat-screen, and a balcony with a view of the castle. We got two sets of keys from Lucka and thanked her. She told us we could call her anytime then split. After we unpacked our crap my dad asked me what the plan was.
“Well,” I said. “I made a 7:30 reservation at ‘The Cave’?”
Despite having only been there once, “The Cave” was his absolute favorite restaurant in “Chesky” (my folks’ nickname for Český Krumlov). When he heard I’d made a reservation there his eyes swelled up like two ostrich eggs. I asked him playfully if he wanted to go. He nodded his melon like a thrilled puppy.
“Great!” I said. “Lemme snap a cable and we’re off.”
I drained my guts and we hit the road. We walked up around a hill then down a long, windy pathway through a linden grove. We arrived at the back entrance bridge. Its sad marble statues were gleaming with buttery light and its cobblestones were too. We followed them down towards the center. On our way there, we passed dozens of ancient cafes and shops with daintily cracked walls, orange-lit windows, and cigarette-tip chimneys issuing sweet-smelling smoke. We dipped and turned and came out onto the second bridge. Its wood was black from recent showers and its Jesus-on-cross was bathed in raindrops that twinkled like fireflies in the nightlight. The Vltava chugged underneath our feet like minions of melted licorice. The castle towered above our eyes like a great, rainbow-dipped spear. My mother smiled and spun around in slow circles with her arms out.
“I forgot how beautiful this place was!” she said.
She twirled around a few times. Then her arms almost knocked into a crowd of camera-necked morons. Another crowd of the fuckers came walking by. Then another and another and another, all snapping photos and cackling and scratching themselves annoyingly in the paparazzi flash. I curled my lip and turned.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here,” I said.
We walked up a hill lined with shops and into the main square. It was jammed to the windowsills with morons but there were still those quaint little wooden stands, selling svařák, trdelník, roasted pork leg, homemade potato chips, marionettes, frosted ornaments, etc. A big Christmas tree stood at the center of everything. It was ribbed with baby blue lights and draped in silver tinsel. A white star glowed at its crown. It made me smile.
We admired the scene for a bit. Then I led my folks down a back alley towards the restaurant. We came upon it at the end. My dad looked at the sign and furrowed his brow.
“I thought we were going to ‘The Cave’?” he said.
I’d named it “The Cave” because I knew there was no way in flaming Hades I was gonna get him to say Krčma v Šatlavské ulici. I looked over my shoulder at the man and grinned.
“Just trust me,” I said.
I pushed open the door and we entered. In front of us were the old smoky tables and the arched rock walls, the flickering candle-lamps and the medieval brass kitsch. The servers, in their traditional black and white garb, were threading up and around the place, serving people. And off to the side, the giant firewood grill was blazing and splayed at the grate with sizzling meats of all sorts. My father instantly recognized the place. He smiled goofily and bunched his fists.
“Let’s grab a seat in back,” he said, tiptoeing forward.
“Alright,” I said.
I told the grill-guy we had a reservation and requested a back spot. He said we were lucky, as that’s what he’d put us down for. We followed a waiter over there. He showed us to our table under a giant coat-of-arms then asked if we’d like beers.
“Two big ones, please,” I said. “And a Coke for my mother.”
He nodded and walked off. A few minutes later he arrived with our drinks. He gave my mother hers first. Then he gave me and my dad, ours. After he left, my dad looked down at his beer and smirked.
“This is a Budweiser,” he said.
I rolled my eyes.
“I know that, Dad,” I said. “And like I said four years ago: ‘Restaurants here usually only serve one type of beer.’”
He frowned deeply and pushed out his lower lip. The thing was so big a midget could have sprung off it and dived into his beer. He looked down at his Budweiser and huffed.
“But I want a Pilsner,” he said.
My mother and I both laughed.
“Good God, Gerry,” my mom said. “You’ll survive!”
He sucked it up and drank his beer. I joined him and we all opened our menus. We browsed for a little bit. Then I leaned in and asked my dad what he was thinking of getting.
“Well, I was eyeballing the pork ribs,” he said. “But the pork schnitzel looks pretty good too.”
I slapped my hands down and snorted.
“That’s basically all you’ve eaten this whole trip! Don’t you wanna try something new?”
He eyed me with irritation. He closed his menu and nipped at his beer. The waiter came over and asked us our orders. We got smažák (fried cheese) for the table and česnečka (garlic soup) all around. As a main, I got the zander fish with mash. My mom got a simple cabbage salad. My dad opened his menu back up and pointed.
“I’ll have theeeee …”
My hand was involuntarily flattening into a spade. If the words “ribs” or “schnitzel” exited his mouth, I might not have been able to keep from smacking him. He bunched his lips up and twirled his finger around the menu in indecision. When it finally landed on something, I choked.
“Meat skewer,” he said.
“Seriously?!” I asked.
“Yeah, why not. Try something new, right?”
My heart leapt into my throat and clicked its heels. I proudly stated my father’s order in Czech. The waiter wrote it down then looked up at me again.
“And what kind of meat would your father like on his skewer?” he asked.
I turned to my dad and translated. He raised his eyebrows thoughtfully.
“Pork?” he said.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” I spat.
I reluctantly told the waiter and he chuckled. Twenty minutes later he was back with the food. We ate our meals and they were good. We drank a gang more beers then exited “The Cave,” half-drunk and stumbling. My folks were tired and ready to hit the hay. I heard people partying around the corner and decided to stay. I got a cab for my folks and told the driver where to take them. Then I said goodbye and waved them away.
After that, I remember following a group of twenty-something Kiwis to a club. I remember pounding shots with them and laughing and laughing. I can recall telling them a few lewd stories from my past. Then there were more shots and before I knew it, I was staggering out into the night with blurry eyes and a chin full of saliva. It was almost 3 am at this point. The streets were emptied of their morons and beautifully lit by the gas lamps. I took a zigzagging stroll around the little shops and the castle. I reminisced about when I’d done exactly this with my family and all my buddies from Livermore so many times before. I was terribly drunk and nostalgic. I finally made to my big bed, tear-drained and shaking, just before sunup.
The sun peeled through my blinds at 9 am. I snorted and rolled over and slipped back into unconsciousness. An hour later I heard a buzzing next to my head. I looked across my pillow with one half-open eye and saw my cell vibrating.
“Fuck,” I said.
I unknotted my arm and grabbed the phone. I picked open the screen and saw I had a text. The thing was from Tim. It read:
“Be there in twenty.”
“Shit, that’s right,” I mumbled.
Tim was gonna be spending Christmas with us in Chesky. I’d forgotten he’d be arriving so early. I pried myself outta bed and took a dump. Then I walked into the kitchen and guzzled three glasses of tap water. My father was sat on the couch, playing Spider Solitaire on his phone. He looked up at me while I stood there next to the sink in my London Underground boxers – gut distended over chicken legs – sucking down liquid.
“Off to the ballet?” he asked.
“Bite me,” I burped.
I walked to the shower and rinsed down. I threw on my ratty sweats and jeweled up. My phone rang while I was twisting my last ring on. I answered and heard Tim’s voice.
“Hey gaht,” he said. “I think I’m near your place.”
“Well, what street are you on?” I asked.
“Ummm ‘Wishy … Wash-Board-Something’?”
“I see …”
Tim is without question the most frustrating person alive when it comes to language. This is because he believes human communication should be beyond the spoken word and based primarily on telepathic messaging. He believes this so deeply, he once tried to get me to telepathically send him a word while he was in Delhi and I was in Prague. His idea was that we’d both meditate at the same time, and that I’d repeat a single word over and over again in my mind until somehow that word was inhaled by an astral funnel and transported across the planet into his head. I reluctantly agreed to the experiment on the condition that I chose any word I wanted. We mutually meditated for half an hour with no result so I guess the word I’d sent him held water.
“Can you just spell me the name of the street, please?” I asked him.
“Uhhhh … ‘V’ and then some kind of ‘S’ and then ...”
“Is it ‘Vyšehrad’?”
“Ait, go all the way down until you see an L-shaped building. I’ll come out there and let you in.”
I grabbed my keys and went down there. I found Tim in the middle of the parking lot, hunched over his backpack. He was in an oversized grey jacket and jeans. His incredibly long hair was bundled up underneath a Jamaican flag beanie. He popped his black eyes over his shoulder and grinned at me with all his teeth. Then he unwound his wiry frame and stood up slowly.
“You blow up last night?” he asked.
“Haha, is it that obvious?”
“Well, ya kinda do look like Tom Selleck’s grungy balls.”
“Oh, fuck off. You look like a Rastafarian stick bug in a parka!”
He exposed his fronts and made a goofy laugh. Then he held up a bouquet of fingertips with a symmetrical joint balanced vertically at its center.
“Wanna loll?” he asked.
He handed me the joint and I sparked it up. I took my usual two hits then passed it to him. He inhaled the rest like a popcorn kernel. Then he grabbed his pack and we went in the building. I took him up to the flat and showed him his room. He dropped his crap off there then we went in the common area. My father was still on the couch playing Solitaire. My mother was in the kitchen brewing tea. She greeted Tim and gave him a big fat hug. Then she smiled so hard I thought her face muscles might herniate.
“Why so chipper?” I asked.
“Oh just looking forward to going into town today,” she said.
I didn’t think much of her comment. She poured us each a cup of tea and we drank it down. After that, we got in our street clothes. We were out the door by noon.
We took the Octavia down to the main area. We parked it at the back bridge and walked in towards the center. As we strolled along, my mother got giddier and giddier. She was like a terrier being gradually fed methamphetamines in its kibble. I asked her what was up. She smiled sweetly at me and said:
I shrugged and kept walking. I picked at my phone and shared another joint with Tim. We dipped down and rounded a corner. Then like a beebee from a greased urethra, my mother shot forward and vanished.
“What is her deal?!” I said.
We turned left and found her in front of a white building. She was red-faced and panting and smiling so widely she almost looked wicked. Above her head, hung a sign that explained everything. It was inscribed with a single word: “Blomus.”
“Oh my God,” I groaned.
Blomus is a ceramic shop my mother had fallen in love with her first time in Chesky. She’d spent hours across days in the place, snailingly selecting teacups, teapots, spoons, trays, etc. I knew the death of the sun was at hand. As my mother walked in, I turned out.
“Tim and I are gonna go look at jewelry and shit,” I said to my dad. “Wanna join?”
He folded his hairy meat poles and scrunched down on a bench.
“Nah, I’m gonna wait for your mother,” he said. “You guys go ahead.”
I rolled my eyes. Tim and I cut to do our thing. We checked out a few rock shops and piddled around. We slipped into a few jewelry stores and tried some stuff on. I was in the market for a big thick silver bracelet. Tim was on the prowl for a juicy hunk of raw moldavite – a bottle-green stone formed by an ancient meteor blast in South Czech. He wanted the shit because he claimed it gave him more vivid dreams.
“I have a piece at home that I wrap in my beanie and wear around my head before bed,” he’d once said. “It tells me the future sometimes.”
We browsed for a good hour. By the end of it, I was still sans bracelet. Tim had found his moldavite though. It was the size and shape of a small stalactite. He’d dropped €300 on it. And another twenty on a leather band so he could wear the rock around his neck. It looked like an ogre’s green booger dangling there. I poked at it and exhaled.
“Think that thing’ll predict how much longer my mom’ll be in that fuckin’ shop?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. “I’d prolly need a piece the size of a Big Mac for that.”
We laughed and continued browsing. Hours faded into centuries. We finally decided to check on my pops. We walked back up to Blomus and found him still sat on the bench outside. He was a withering shell of a man. His skin had turned grey and his eyes to stone. I nudged him with my elbow to get his attention. Then I looked at him pointedly.
“How much longer is Mom gonna be in there?” I asked.
He stared at me with pure and simple defeat in his eyes.
“Hans, your mother came to Chesky especially for this,” he said. “She’ll take however long she takes.”
“Fine,” I said. “Tim and I are gonna go do more shit.”
He waved sleepily at us and we left. We decided, since we had the time, that we’d take a little jaunt to a monastery just outside of town. On the way there, we met these two beautiful girls. We quickly fell in love with them. Then we all traveled the world together. We went to Spain and India, Bali and Greece. We scaled the mountains of Patagonia and sailed the Caspian Sea. When the world wasn’t enough for us anymore, we built a spaceship. We blasted off to distant galaxies and spent eons in cryogenic sleep. We met alien nations and explored alien worlds. We grew older and younger at the same time, had families, lost them, had more. By the time we landed back in Chesky, it had been at least twelve millennia. We were certain my mother would be finished selecting her teatime accessories by now.
We rounded the corner and found my father still sat on that bench. His flesh had all rotted away and he was but a giant skeleton. I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder bone. He turned his skull and stared at me with two black sockets.
“Is she fucking finished?” I asked.
He inhaled air into his ribcage. Then he split his teeth.
“Hans, your muah …”
His jaw dropped off and landed in his lap. He picked it up and lazily flung it into the trash. Just then my mom came walking out. She was carrying a ginormous brown box.
“Have you guys been waiting long for me?” she asked cheerily over the box top.
I picked my father’s jaw up from the trash and clicked it back under his skull.
“Nah, not too long,” I said.
“Great!” she said, setting the box down. “I’ll just be another minute.”
When the Blomus escapade finally ended, it was time to concentrate on dinner supplies. Christmas Eve was the next day and everything would be closed so we had to buy all our shit fast. The first thing on the list was the carp. We found a little stand selling fresh specimens just around the corner. The guys who worked the joint were fat, bald and pasty. They both wore green raincoats and white rubber gloves. I asked them to pull me up a three-kilo baby. The head fish butcher nodded and reached into a big blue bucket of water by his side. The carp he grabbed out was round and scaly. He weighed the thing and it was three kilos on the nose.
“Perfect,” I said.
He took the fish off the scale and put it on a cutting board. He picked up a wooden mallet with one hand and steadied the fish with the other. The fish flipped and flopped and flailed. It sucked at the air desperately and googled its giant eyes around. The butcher held it as firmly as he could and readied his mallet. He zeroed in and out on its forehead a couple times then WHACK! The fish bent in half with shock. The butcher lifted his mallet again.
“Oh dear,” my mom said.
WHACK! The fish stopped moving. The butcher slid it into the sink and lifted a knife. He sliced the fish’s gills open and bled it out. Then he lifted it back onto the cutting board and started gutting it. I looked over at my mom who was now sitting on a step next to her box. Her face was white as cocaine and her eyes were sad little tears. I looked back at the butcher. He lobbed the fish’s head off with an axe then put its body in a plastic bag.
“That’ll be 329 crowns,” he said.
Tim and my father argued playfully over the bill. I went over and sat down next to my mom. She was on the verge of fainting. I put my arm around her shoulder and hugged her in. She looked up at me with her sad eyes.
“That poor little fish,” she said.
I coughed away a snicker. Then I rubbed at her shoulder.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I think he was retarded anyways.”
“But how can you know that?!” she cried. “I mean, how do you know his little soul didn’t know what was happening to him?”
I crinkled my eyebrows.
“I’m not sure that even makes sense, mom.”
“Oh, you know what I mean! I just feel bad, that’s all.”
Now I was starting to feel like a piece of shit. I had to think fast.
“How bout we name him?” I said.
“Yeah, like we’ll call him ‘Bill’ or ‘George’ or something.”
“But he has no head.”
“Sooo? Lots of people with no heads have names. Look at Dad!”
“Haha, OK, why not. But I like the name ‘McGillicuddy.’”
“McGillicuddy it is then.”
We stopped at a jewelry shop on the way to the car. I bought myself a honkin’ silver bracelet then we cut up to the parking lot and split. We drove to a nearby Kaufland. We were there for a good three hours and got all the ingredients to make potato salad (the classic side dish to go with the fried carp at a Czech Christmas dinner), eggs, bacon, and sausage for breakfasts, pork chops for my father who hates carp, flour and bread crumbs to fry the carp and pork with, three Italian reds, dozens of bottles of beer (mostly Pilsner, of course), a frying pan, a spatula, tea, lemons, honey, and bag after bag of really healthy candy. We rang the shit all up and it came to three hundred bucks. My dad paid the bill gracefully and we carried everything out to the car in crates and giant shopping bags.
When we got back home, we packed the fridge. The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking, lounging and ball-handling.
The next morning we had our work cut out for us. Tim and I raced into town to buy a few last minute gifts then we cut back to the flat and got to making Christmas dinner. My mom was already boiling the potatoes for the salad. I went into my room to get the recipes my student and I had worked on so everything could be prepared “Czech-styly” down to the last dash of salt. I rummaged all through my pack. When I came up with the papers I’d thought were the recipes I realized that instead of them, I’d packed a bunch of old homework assignments that my students had doodled on. I went back in the kitchen with a long face. My mother asked me what was wrong.
“I forgot the recipes,” I said.
She smiled while turning the spuds with a wooden spoon.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I’ll just make my good ol’ American potato salad.”
“OK … I’ll start the fish then.”
I walked over to the fridge and opened it. I looked down and saw McGillicuddy stiff as a grizzly’s dick in the vegetable drawer. I picked him up and plunked him in the sink. Then I ran warm water over him. As he soaked, I grabbed my tablet and looked up how to fillet a carp. I found a video on YouTube that made it look easy enough. The dude just sliced it down the spine with a paring knife. Then he cut away the sides from the ribs and used a sushi knife to remove the skin and fins from the meat. What he ended up with were two perfectly shaped fillets of equal size. After watching the video twice, I figured I had this bitch in the bag.
I went over to the sink and pulled McGillicuddy out. Then I placed him on our wooden cutting board.
“Grab me a sushi and a paring knife,” I told my mom.
I heard her open the drawer and pull out two instruments. She placed them on the counter next to me and I looked down.
“What the fuck are those?” I said.
“Your knives!” she replied.
My “knives” were hardly appropriate for filleting carp. The smaller one was merely a sharp butter knife and the larger was a flimsy, serrated joke more suited to “Wonder Bread” than any kind of meat. I’d have been better off with a Q-tip and a pair of beaver tweezers. But hey, it’s what we had, so I dealt.
I picked up the butter knife and started in on the spine. This prompted my father get up off the couch and walk over with his wine. He arched his neck and pocked his head over my shoulder. I could feel his breath on my ear.
“Want me to get in there and help ya?” he asked.
“No!” I barked.
Back in Livermore, my father always handles the big Christmas meats. He usually does a Butterball Turkey, and without question, the motherfucker’s got the process on lock! He knows just how to bake it and just how to baste it. He uses his knowledge of chemistry and physics so when that bird comes out the oven, it’s as juicy and crispy and golden brown as a Brazilian bikini model’s ass. I, on the other hand, can barely cut the cranberry sauce. So this time, on my fuckin’ turf, I wanted to show the old man I could hold my meat!
After a wicked bit of cutting, I finally got the sides off. They were mangled and thumb-printed to shit but they were intact. I laid one out on the board and grabbed the bread knife. I stuck the blade to the tail end of the side and sliced upwards. The going was tough, wet and slippery. I felt like I was raping a tortoise with a plunger. My father eyeballed me and sipped his wine. I could see his haughty thoughts prancing around my head like dukes in pink tutus. I worked and worked and worked. The filet came up in jagged chunks and small nubs that’d be nearly impossible to fry. I finished one side and then the other. By the end of the forty minute debacle I had a baking tray full of carp hunks even a beagle would laugh at. My father set his wine glass down and patter-clapped.
“Bravo,” he said. “Bra-vo.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
An hour later, we were eating. The potato salad was tasty, as was the pork schnitzel, but my mom had burnt the carp black on one side which made it tough to consume. This hardly affected my father, however. Not because he doesn’t mind burnt carp, but because, as mentioned previously, he despises the bottom-feeding fish in all forms, thus he’d only served himself a piece the size of a mouse tit. The rest of his plate was all slabs of fried pork and mounds of American potato salad; a hearty meal to be sure, but hardly the “traditional Czech Christmas dinner” I’d envisioned for him (or any of us, for that matter).
When we finished eating, all that was left to do was drink. We broke open the beers and some more wine. Then I brought out a bottle of whiskey I’d been saving. The night ended with me and Tim out on the balcony puffing joints in our sweats. The last thing I remember after that is microwaving a plate of Christmas leftovers then stumbling towards my bed for what seemed like a decade.
I slept in fits. I vaguely recall dreaming about some woman or another. She was pretty, with blue eyes and red hair. We were kissing and I was fondling her breast. I went to go lift her dress. I reached down there and pulled it up and out popped this long, green, bushy thing. I stared at it for a moment, thinking it was a dick. Then I snapped awake.
“WE FORGOT THE CHRISTMAS TREE!” I yelled.
I shot up from my sheets and ran to my parents’ room. I found them passed out on their bed in usual fashion. My mother was on her left side, snuggled up into a little ball and purring. My father was splayed out like a sunbathing walrus, snoring violently under his “American Airlines” sleeping mask. I charged up to the edge of the bed and poked them.
“Guys! Guys!” I whispered. “Wake up!”
My mother let out a tiny fart. My father choked on his snore and lifted his sleeping mask. His eyes were two red coals. For a second there, I thought he’d kick me.
“You or the flat had better be on fire,” he spat.
I chuckled nervously.
“No, no, no,” I said. “It’s not any of that. And I mean, I’m sorry to wake you up, but it’s just that we forgot the tree, and we can’t have Christmas without it!”
It goes without saying, that a Christmas tree is an essential part of Christmas. But in our family, it’s not just the tree that’s crucial, it’s the ritual around decorating it (and the rest of the house). Every year my sister and I perform this ritual. It starts with us pouring up big mugs of egg nog and brandy then heading out to the garage for the ornaments, lights and other holiday kitsch. We bring all the boxes (twenty or so) to the living room, where the tree is. Then we turn on Tchaikovsky’s, “The Nutcracker Suite” and get to it. My sister always does the lights around the tree first. This is a joy for me because I can get drunk on the sofa and make lewd comments while she bangs out all the prep work. Once that’s finished, the two of us start in on the ornaments. We do the store-bought ones first – comparing them to balls and dicks and other genitalic parts – then we do the homemade ones. Most of them are mangled beyond belief and hanging with macaroni and glitter. But some of them are still intact, with sweet little pictures and memories attached. When the tree is all dolled up, we put the angel on top and hook the stockings across the fireplace. Then comes my favorite part …
My mother is a great lover of stuffed moose. She has about two dozen of the things and every Christmas she sets them up around our giant stairwell. She usually just seats them in boring and placid positions with their legs dangling over the ledge. So I like to get in there after she’s finished and spice things up a bit. I generally wait until just before our guests arrive at our Christmas Eve party. That way when our family and friends walk into our home, they’re greeted by a parade of stuff moose, butt-fucking, sixty-nine-ing, and jerking each other off all up and down the stairwell. This year in Chesky I got none of that. Christ, I didn’t even get to make one measly moose give himself a BJ. This is why I just had to have a little tree. It’s also why I busted in on my folks at 4 am.
“Fuckin’ A!” my father said. “I’ll figure something out in the morning.”
“You promise?” I asked.
“Yes, now go to bed!”
I smiled sweetly and skipped outta the room. I went into mine and slipped into bed. Sleep came like a sugarplum fairy. I could hear her moans as I drifted off.
I woke up in the morning with the sun in my eyes. I was smiling so hard I thought I’d break my face. I kicked up from my blankets and pulled on my socks. I twisted and snapped my bling on then I grabbed my gifts for people and opened the door. As I walked down the hall, I was whistling. I could smell the hot cocoa being brewed and hear “The Nutcracker” playing softly on someone’s iPad. I envisioned the tree my father had selected. It’d most certainly be shorter, but full and proud in its stature just the same, with a rich and woody sent glowing from its branches. My father would surly have gotten up early and gone to the one open lot outside of town to pick it up. He’d have it ready and waiting for me to decorate with the ornaments that he and my mother had secretly bought in anticipation of this moment.
I pushed open the door to the common area, ready to be stunned. My father was in his sweats on the couch, picking at his phone. My mother was in her apron at the sink, washing her hands. Tim was sat Indian style in the middle of the room with red irises and a giant checkered scarf wrapped around his mouth. My eyes darted from him, to my mother, to my father. A tree was nowhere to be seen in between. I walked in further and passed the adjacent couch. Then I saw the thing. It was a potted plant my father had grabbed from the balcony. It was shaggy and ill-shapen and half dead. To call it a Christmas tree would have been an insult to all Christmas trees. I stared at it in dismay for a moment. Then I looked over at my dad. He was smiling brightly across his beard. He proffered a hand and said:
I lowered my chin and glared at him under my brow.
“It looks like some old hippie’s matted ass-hair,” I said.
He threw back his head and laughed. My mother came walking in from the kitchen.
“Here,” she said, bumping my arm with a box. “You can decorate it with these.”
I looked down and smiled. My folks had brought candy canes.
Tim and I did the decorating. We used the candy canes, plus some little cookies and ornaments my students had given me as gifts. Once the “tree” was all done up it didn’t look half bad. It didn’t look half good either, but shit.
Afterwards, my folks went and got the gifts. They set ‘em underneath our ugly, potted friend then we poured up some hot cocoa and got to it. As per usual, I was Santa. I handed each person their cards first, then started in on the presents. The first one I grabbed for myself was a softy from my mother. I knew it’d be some article of clothing or another so I wanted to get it outta the way. I unwrapped it and sure enough. It was a sweater the size of a firewood tarp that was riddled with more crap than a 50’s cartoon computer. I lifted it in front of my face and simpered.
“Thanks Mom,” I said.
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she replied.
In the back on my mind, I was scowling. I’d explicitly told her in an October email that I didn’t want a single stitch of clothing. Clearly, she’d ignored me, which makes me think she must have this innate and insatiable need to dress her children, especially her son. As to why, I can only guess. Maybe she thinks I’m actually going to freeze to death without her help? Or maybe she just deplores my sense of fashion so greatly she can’t help herself? Whatever the case, the clothing she picks for me is always horribly and hopelessly wrong. And this blows me away cuz’ she’s seen what I wear a kagillion times, so how can she go to the mall, knowing full-well I like thin flannels, old-school hoodies and slightly baggy jeans, and think, “Alright, I’ll buy the boy a giant tasseled lama sweater.”
After the softy, I moved onto my books. I’d asked for them specifically so I knew exactly which ones they’d be. Their titles in order of least to most prized were: “Letters from Iceland” by W.H. Auden, “A Night of Serious Drinking,” by René Daumal, “The Complete Short Novels,” by Anton Chekov, “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace, “Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” by Chris Hedges, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn, “Barney French-Kisses His Mother’s Clit,” by Jean-Jacques Le Fete-Caque, and at the very tippy top, “Dago Red,” by John Fante. I know you might be wondering why I placed a book by Fante at the apex of my Christmas list. Suffice it to say, the motherfucker kicks ass beyond reality and is my literary granddaddy, who sits on a platinum throne, picking his teeth and swilling wine behind Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski – my literary mother and father, respectively.
I blew through the first eight books, no sweat. Some were white, perfect and new, like blocks of fresh-cut marble. Others were yellow, wrinkled and old, like dear friends who’d been through a war with you. After they were all unwrapped, I put them in a neat stack next me to me. Then I lifted my jewel. I knew it was my jewel because it was wrapped different than the rest. The others were in dull blue-wreath, but this baby was swathed in Laughing-Santa red that crackled under my fingers like skillet-butter. I delicately unpeeled the tape from the folds and pulled them apart. My eyes grew bigger as each tiny inch of the book’s cover was exposed. As I slipped the paper over its shoulders and down its face, I began salivating. Then in big crimson letters appeared the words: “Dago Red.” I was beside myself with joy. I leaped up from a sitting position and squeezed my mother. She was always the one who shopped for my books at Christmas. And even if she didn’t agree with the politics of the titles or the dirty content, she still bucked up and bought me the damn things.
I unhooked my arms from her and sat back down. I lifted my jewel again and lavished its contours with my sweet black eyes. It was one of the few remaining novels I’d not yet read by Fante. And I’d heard from a bookish friend, that it was up there with “The Bandini Quartet,” and “The Brotherhood of the Grape,” two of the man’s other greats. To add to this, it was a first edition paperback my mother had found online. Its pages were olive with fingerprints and love and its corners were lightly dog-eared from resting carefully in a dozen backpacks. I could smell the laughter of the people who’d delighted over its pages across the years. I could hear their tears dripping during the sad parts; the tiny plop-plop-plops on their starchy jeans. I saw the readers of the book in various places and at various times: a woman at sunlit café in Rome in ‘76, a man in a bordello waiting room in Philadelphia in ’82, a grandfather in his dusty California study in ’88, and that same year, a little boy on the shit-pot, eating chocolate chips with one hand and flipping pages with the other.
When I came outta my reverie it was time to read. Not the whole book, not even a chapter, but the first paragraph, which I knew from experience, would be a work of art in itself. I pulled back the cover and closed my lids. I could feel the thrill of a dozen beautifully written sentences tiptoeing across my eyes. I inhaled deeply and released. Then I looked down and read:
C’era un vecchio baule nella camera da letto di mamma …
“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I yelled.
My mother nearly exploded from her seat.
“What is it?!” she asked.
I turned the open book at her and pointed at the page.
“The entire thing is written in Italian!” I cried.
Her mouth collapsed into her neck. She stared at me for a moment, blinking. Then she closed her mouth up and shrugged.
“Well maybe it’s a sign you’ll meet a nice Italian girl soon?” she said.
My father snorted.
“Yeah, or a nice Italian guy,” he said.
I scoffed and put the book down with the others. Then I reached for my smallest and final gift. I knew what it’d be too because I’d asked my dad for it. And lo and behold, it was indeed the iPod Nano. I spent the rest of the morning downloading songs onto it. Then we all got dressed and went out for the fancy Christmas dinner my dad had booked at a French place in town. Our meals were tasty but way overpriced. After we sauced them, my folks went shopping and Tim and I went for hookah. We beefed it at a little teahouse on the river. Then we made for home. It was a slow walk as I was both full in the belly and stuffed at the nose. When we finally got to the flat, we slipped into our comfies, put on our traditional end-of-Christmas movie, “National Lampoon’s: Christmas Vacation,” and vegged out. Within thirty minutes, my father was snoring. Within an hour, we were all in our beds.
The next morning, Tim left early. I’d woken up and said goodbye to him on his way out then slept till noon. When I finally got outta bed, I felt like Christ on a Pringle. My head was ringing something fierce and my nostrils were plugged with phlegm. I went to the John and hacked everything up. Then I took a long, hot shower but still felt like shit. I got dressed and went out to the common area. My folks were both sat on the couch, looking woozy. I asked them the matter and they shrugged.
“I think we’re coming down with something,” they said.
I thought back to when they’d first arrived. I remembered having had an incipient cold that’d never fully bitten. The adrenalin around the holidays must have kept it at bay. But now that the bulk was over and life was cooling down, it’d evidently picked now to strike. Bitch of it was, I seemed to have infected my folks. Good thing we were only going to a little spa town the next day.
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.