I have lots of things planned for 2017. A young adult dystopian novel coming out late winter, a fantasy novel to be released late spring and a thriller set in the northern winter, ironically being released during the summer. Somewhere in there I’m releasing a small book of poems and mushroom pictures.
While you wait for all these goodies, here’s a Christmas story for you:
The carollers were off key again. Hank took a swig from the bottle in an effort to drown the exuberant caterwauling coming from next door. He glanced at the label Laphroig it said, twelve years aged in oak casks. It didn’t matter Hank had stopped tasting anything after the first bottle. It was his father’s booze anyway, or at least it had been before tonight. Now it was Hank’s.
Marge would be furious. She would say that he should have kept his father’s scotch collection as a souvenir and sipped careful drams on special occasions. Marge wasn’t here either. The love that had burned so hot twenty years ago had slowly dissipated until all that was left was a cool regard and a reluctance to spend money on divorce lawyers. Marge had gone to her sister’s right after the funeral. Candace did have cancer. She needed her older sister’s help to manage her house and four kids. Candace’s husband had no qualms about paying divorce lawyers.
Hank could hear the carollers laughing and talking as they walked past the front door. They wouldn’t stop at this door. Hank’s father hadn’t believed in Christmas. To be truthful, Hank’s father hadn’t believed in much of anything except his own correctness. That he was right in every argument was as much an article of faith with him as transubstantiation was for the Pope. Hank swallowed the last of the Laphroig and carefully dropped the bottle in the blue recycling bin. Hank had brought it from home. His father didn’t believe in recycling either.
Hank staggered out of the kitchen and just managed to catch himself on the doorjamb. He was drunk. Hank hadn’t been drunk since…. well he couldn’t actually remember the last time he got drunk. Seeing all those bottles of scotch, it seemed a reasonable response to the old fart’s death. He manoeuvred himself over to the couch and half sat, half fell onto it.
His father wouldn’t have got drunk on scotch. He was too full of life to waste it getting drunk. He would have walked ramrod straight out to the top of the line Mercedes Benz he drove and started it up. He would have revved the big eight cylinder engine to hear the roar and feel the power in the steering wheel. Then he would have driven away at speeds that made lesser men pale. (He didn’t believe in speed limits.) He would have raced in and out of traffic keeping up a running commentary on the shortcomings of the other drivers, until he hit that tiny patch of black ice. The law of physics didn’t care whether Hank’s father believed in them or not. The bridge abutment cut the car in half. It pretty much cut his father in half too.
Hank lay on the couch and felt tears leaking from his eyes. For all the old man’s faults, Hank would miss him. They had never celebrated Christmas, not all of his wife and family’s pleadings would change his mind, but he wasn’t a miser. At each graduation of Hank’s children the old man had quietly handed his grandchildren a check that would pay their tuition for university. When Hank’s youngest had spent it on carpenter’s tools instead, Hank had expected an explosion. Instead the old man hired his granddaughter to work on the house.
Hank’s tears flowed harder and sobs wracked his body. He was alone in the world. Marge had her life taking care of the kids and her large family. The kids were all independent. They tolerated their mother’s meddling, but Hank didn’t know how to talk to them any more. His father was the last person Hank could pretend needed him. The alcohol that brought out his tears carried him into a merciful sleep.
Hank woke to the sound of singing at the door. He pushed himself to his feet and listened. This wasn’t the raucous carolling from earlier. It was a single, pure voice. Hank could hear each word clearly, but understood none of them. Maybe it was Latin. He looked at the clock on the mantle. Two o’clock in the morning. Who sings Latin at two in the morning? Who sings Latin at all?
Hank through the door open and looked in astonishment at a young child who stood singing with his eyes closed. Hank half expected an angel chorus to leap out, or maybe a camera man. He recognized the tune of one the Christmas carols they sang at Marge’s church. The boy finished the tune and smiled at Hank.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” Hank said, “What are you doing here?”
“It’s two in the morning. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“Yup,” the boy said, “but I felt like singing. Mom said this was a sad house. I thought I could cheer it up.”
“Sad,” Hank said, “Yes, it is sad.”
“My father was buried yesterday,” Hank said, “He didn’t believe in Christmas.”
“That is sad,” the boy agreed, though Hank wasn’t sure whether he meant the death or the lack of Christmas. The boy started another song and Hank stood listening as it washed anger he didn’t even know he felt away. The tears started again, but Hank didn’t care. He remembered how his father came to all his school concerts and games. He remembered the great booming laugh. The unbelief only became hard and uncomfortable when Hank’s mother died. She had believed in a great many things, but mostly in her husband. Without her love, his father had become uncompromising. Hank realized his tears were as much for his father’s pain as his own. He thought of his father at the grave side saying ‘Well that’s it then,’ and just walking away.
The boy’s song finished and he beamed at Hank again.
“Thank you,” Hank said.
“Merry Christmas!” the boy shouted than ran away through the snow. Hank looked to be sure he left footprints behind.
“Well that’s it then,” Hank said and closed the door. He walked through the house letting it tell him stories. At first they were of the unbending man that was Hank’s father, but gradually they took him further back to when his mother and father would read to each other from books with long and boring titles. Hank didn’t remember what they said, but he remembered the passion his parents’ voices held. He remembered arguments too. His mother and father often shouted at each other trying to make the other see. The only time Hank remembered seeing his father cry was after one argument when his mother had walked out in mid-sentence. When she returned later, his father had held her tightly and cried unashamedly.
His father did believe in something. He dialled his sister in law’s number that Marge had given him before she left.
“Hello?” Marge sounded barely awake.
“Hello,” Hank said.
“What time is it?”
“What do you want?”
“I just needed to talk to you,” Hank said.
“Alright then,” He heard Marge settle herself more comfortably.
“She had a rough day,” Marge said, “I made her unplug the phone in her room. She needs her sleep.”
“How are you?”
“I don’t know,” Marge sighed, “I’m scared to death that I’ll lose my sister, but I can’t let her see.”
“Dad was scared of losing Mom, but he showed it.”
“I always thought he never recovered after her death.”
“No, he didn’t,” Hank sighed, “Maybe you should let Candace know you don’t want to lose her. It is easy to let people drift away because we assume they know.”
There was such a long silence that Hank wondered if Marge had fallen asleep.
“Are you coming home today?” she said finally.
“I thought I would come by Candace’s and give you a break.”
“That would be nice.”
“See you later.”
“Later then.” Hank heard the click of the phone hanging up. He hung up the phone then went to find his bed. He decided that he believed in Marge. He lay in bed trying to find the words he would use to explain. Just as he was falling to sleep he whispered.