There used to be a small, tranquil town, two mountain ranges over. It was supported by a steady stream of goods from local traders and the secondary economies that one will find in rural mountain burgs: a drug store, a diner that served delicious cakes, a cloth shop, and so forth. After November, the snow blanketed this little community, and because motor traffic was light, the town would remain as white as linen until the spring thaw several months later. It was a festive little village and the holidays were a time of great joy and celebration for its denizens. What I’m getting at here is that Christmas was a big deal in our idyllic township.
As the eldest child, at the start of every school year, I received a new pair of boots, and the older ones were passed down to my first younger sister, who handed hers down to our brother, and on they went down the line. The same descending transaction occurred with coats and nearly every other item that we owned. But Christmas was a different matter. Mother made a small economy out of selling goose fat to the larders, and that money went into a tin that once held Royal Dansk Cookies all the way from Denmark. Father resented the cookie tin as a construction of foreigners and because he believed that mother had had sexual relations with someone to get it. But the truth wasn’t all that scandalous. She had exchanged the tin for an old plowshare, but to sweeten the deal, she’d kissed the merchant. Like, the guy wasn’t going to give her the tin unless he also got a kiss along with the plowshare, so she relented. In any event, the goose fat money bought us each a new present wrapped in the previous year’s cruddy Christmas paper. That is, until silverfish forced mother to buy a new roll every so often. There was no money for ribbon, and instead of tape, mother learned to fold the wrapping paper into interlocking joints.
During the month of December, the roads became impassible, and without the flow of goods from neighboring cities, workdays shortened. The hills were teeming with delicious game, so the men took advantage of their free time to hunt fresh venison and wild foul to fill the hungry bellies of their wives and children during the festive Christmas season. All of the town women each had their own specialty dishes. Mrs. Cawbernathy candied boar back. Mrs. Hazelmont, the minister’s wife, made a wonderful squirrel yam casserole. Mother was known for her spiced quail cobbler recipe and often made gifts of the savory dish for the neighbors. During the hunting trips, the men would share stories by the fire and pass around flasks of brandy and whiskey to help against the chill. As men will do, they often engaged in sport and wagering, which is what led to the eventual downfall of my father.
Father was a first-rate tinker. It was an occupation of modest means, but in our town, his income was sufficient to buy groceries and heat our cottage. One winter, however, Samwell Mugswallow brought a bottle of tequila—which I’m told is a sort of Mexican whiskey—on the hunting trip. Father, being the lightweight pansy that he was at the time, took a couple of sips and got obnoxiously drunk. He was doing the whole “No, I really love you, man” thing when Wise Old Bart Smickering talked him into a bet that he knew my inebriated father would agree to, but had no way of fully covering. In fairness to Wise Old Bart, it really is how people got ahead in our town. This sort of transfer of wealth made things more interesting than all of us just happily scraping by together, so I bear him no ill will. No one knows what the wager was about, but you could be sure it was humiliating and unwinnable—Wise Old Bart never lost a bet, and my father rarely won. Father lost it all: his tinker tools, his blunderbuss, the lard money, the tin from the Royal Dansk Confection Company—all of it. Mother argued that he had no right to bet with her money, but with the reputation of our family at stake, she eventually relented and handed it over.
Christmas was spare that year. Each child was given a lump of coal that we “could burn whenever we wanted, but only as a family.” We were told that we each got our own piece, but when we combined them, we could see that it was really one large block of coal broken into sixteen or seventeen pieces. (I can’t remember if that was before or after the year that Li’l Sally Fay died of consumption, which makes me kind of a shitty brother, I know, but there were a lot of kids in my family).
Over the course of the next twelve months, father’s drinking became worse. Well, it was both better and worse. He drank a lot more, but he built up a tolerance, so it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing. I watched someone who I had known for the entire eleven years of my life transform from a sweet, jovial man to someone cruel and bereft of love. We knew that we weren’t getting presents that year—maybe not even coal—but it’s possible that all we really wanted was the one thing we wouldn’t get: to have our daddy back. When my brothers and sisters went to hang their stockings over by the potbelly stove, I told them not to even bother: we had neither a hammer with which to bang nor nails to penetrate the wood. We had learned at an early age that there was no Santa Clause, only our parents, and when they let us down, there was nothing.
You probably think that this is a story where love saves Christmas and we all learned the true meaning of family and the irrelevance of material items. It’s not. My brothers and sisters were toddlers and infants, and I was barely an adolescent. Subtle life lessons were often beyond our grasp. Still, as the oldest of that mewling little band of savages, I was the one they would look to when our impoverished state became too much for their well-conditioned hides to bear. For small children, two years of heating-fuel gifts was beyond their breaking point.
For a few months prior, I had been keeping a stretch of wire that I was hoping to make into a radio over time. I lacked a crystal, a tube, a power source, or the requisite knowledge to construct such a device, but I knew that electronics contained wires, so I kept it. Using the resources that I had on hand—lint, human hair, mucus, and a lot of love—I fashioned a crude dirk and concealed it in my waistband. This was no easy task with my trousers falling from my boney, emaciated hips, but I found a way to walk that kept the dagger from slipping down my leg and skittering on the ground. Setting out late Christmas morning, I located several of the town’s children playing in the square. Each had a single new toy that they seemed to love and cherish. All of the youths were sharing their new prizes with one another, and there was peace, tranquility, and goodwill in abundance.
Because children without money weren’t allowed to use the bathroom at the drugstore or diner, if we needed to relieve ourselves, we would find a place in the stand of poplars that bordered the west end of the square. Consequently, none of the children thought it was strange when I sauntered past them and entered the tree line, nor did they care when I didn’t emerge a few minutes later. The sad reality was that my family had become outcasts in the village, and I probably wouldn’t have been invited to play had I emerged.
I didn’t wait long for William Pennington to come bounding into the woods. I suspected that he’d be first because his parents let him drink coffee and he was prone to frequent bathroom visits, which resulted in him earning the nicknames “Bladderless Bill” and “Bathroom Billy.” I had tried “Pissington” for a while, but it never caught on. William had just begun his business when he saw me walk out from behind a tree.
“M-merry Christmas, Tommy. I didn’t see you there,” he stammered. I edged closer to him and brandished my weapon. “What you got there? Is that your Christmas present, Tommy?”
“No, you spoiled little fuck,” I said. We weren’t allowed to use cuss words at home, but it was important to make an impression. “This is the pick that’s going to end your life if you don’t hand over your present and keep your trap shut, piss boy. What you got there?”
“I don’t mind sharing it. It’s like pole that you put rings on. It’s all my folks could afford, but it’s not that much fun.” I’d seen them in the wish books. You stacked colorful plastic doughnuts onto the pole in a certain order. It was a stupid present for babies, but it was all he had with him. Mostly.
“We’re not sharing it. It’s mine. Hand it over, or I’ll give you a full frontal lobotomy. Although, in your case, it will probably only set you back a year or so. I’m also taking your boots. You can wear mine home.”
“What will I tell my folks,” young Pennington asked.
“You can tell them you felt a twinge of charity and you dropped them off at the church.” I closed my distance and William started to shake uncontrollably. The point of my weapon found it’s way into his right nostril.
“Say a word about this, and I’ll come back in the dead of night and drive this all the way in. You got that, you bag of piss?”
No one in the town had ever seen Bladder Bill run home so quickly, but if the other boys thought anything of it, it didn’t deter a few more of them from walking into the woods and offering up their belongings in exchange for their lives. It was a mostly non-violent affair, but when one of the children got mouthy, I gave him a mild bludgeoning with the blunt end of the makeshift dagger. For a bit of flare, I rubbed his cheek up and down the bark of a tree until it bled.
When I came home later that afternoon, I had the ring toy, some ridiculous plastic ball that you used to teach kids about shapes, a Slinky™, a can of blue Play-Doh™, and a bag of molded army men. I knew that mother and father would notice my new boots, pants, belt, hat, and coat, but instead of asking questions, they went into the kitchen, and from what I could hear, discussed Charles Darwin, who it may interest you to know, was the first to discover turtles.
That evening, John Tuttlehorn, the drugstore owner, appeared at our door with an urgent telegram announcing that our miserly old grandfather, a railroad magnate worth untold millions, had died and left his entire fortune to our family. The presents that I had stolen from other children—the ones that my siblings had prized so highly just an hour before—were thrown into the potbelly stove because they just weren’t good enough.
It was the merriest Christmas ever.