Suburbia: Tales of Affliction, Chapter VII
You Would Even Say it Glows
[Previous chapters here: as noted before, these are non-sequential chapters which will tie together eventually with a story line. Also, I'm looking for a new name for the book. Suggestions welcome.]
In my mother’s attic, I find a battered box; strands of Christmas bulbs snake from its opening. The flashlight beam bounces against the box and the lights glitter like new snow under moonlight. I feel wintery all of a sudden, that magical kind of wintery, where the whole season exists in snow globe of Christmas and snow.
I pull a few lights from the box. They are at least thirty years old and some of the bulbs are cracked and faded. The bulbs are huge, by today’s standards. My mother’s street is already alight for the season, each house strung with carefully placed, tiny white lights that hang like strings of icicles from eaves and gutters. It’s supposed to pretty. Charming. Quaint. But Christmas is none of those things. Christmas is merry, joyous, loud and fun. Christmas is colorful. I think back thirty years or so and I remember stomping through snow as we walked the neighborhood, the red, green and blue lights that adorned the homes on our street giving off a glow of excitement. The neighborhood was lit up like a Lite-Brite board and just being part of that, just walking around and bathing in the color made you feel it in your heart, in your stomach even, the whole anxiousness of waiting for Christmas morning, the butterflies in your stomach as you wondered if this would be the year you got the stereo system, the glorious feeling of being free from school and homework and how we owned those winter streets, filling them with the sounds of snowball fights and skitching and off-key Christmas carols. And it was all because of the colored lights; they gave the night the right atmosphere, the one where winter and Christmas held such possibility. Now? I look out the small attic window and see those white lights from one end of the street to the other and it looks like an airport runway. I want to go from house to house handing out colored bulbs, shouting like some deranged elf hell-bent on making the proper arrangements for Santa or...or what? I imagine a child answering the door and there I am in a Santa cap, holding a basket of colored, huge bulbs and I’m untangling wires, spitting my words out at the poor kid who just wants to slam the door in my face, but I stick my foot in the door and scream: Santa’s not going to come down your chimney, little boy. You know why? BECAUSE YOU HAVE WHITE LIGHTS ON YOUR HOUSE!
In my perfect Christmas world, everyone would have oversized, electricity-sucking colored bulbs on their houses. Red, blue, green and yellow. It would be snowing all the time; fluffy, soft snow that piles on the lawn and fences, creating a picturesque scene that is worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. The glow of the colored bulbs would reflect off the snow, giving the entire street the effect of being bathed in wide swatches of color. We would all don our rubber boots and hooded parkas and trudge through the streets, our feet making crunching sounds as they packed down the foot or more of snow with each step. And that would be the only sound you hear for a while - no trucks or cars or snowblowers, just the crunch, crunch, crunching of snow underfoot and the occasional giggle of a small child who captures a snowflake on his tongue. Later, you would be able to hear the soft, off key voices of those children as they went door to door, serenading the neighbors with Christmas carols in exchange for mugs of hot chocolate, held in hands covered with snow crusted woolen mittens.
And then all the kids would go home to their respective houses and put on their feetie pajamas and sit around the fireplace while their parents read Christmas stories to them.
I’ve watched too many movies. Or Leave it to Beaver episodes. But I can’t say we didn’t try to have that picture-perfect Christmas season.
We intend our forays into Christmas caroling to be idyllic, in an innocent, 1950's kind of way. We have good intentions. We have the parkas and the rubber boots and the off key voices. We just don’t have the right amount of Wally and the Beaver in us to pull it off correctly.
Our trudge through the neighborhood is not quiet at all. We’re like a pack of rabid dogs who turned on each other. Lori wants to stand in front all the time because she thinks - mistakenly - that she has a beautiful singing voice. She’s the only one who can’t hear that her whispery vocal stylings sound more like helium escaping from a balloon than Roberta Flack (Lori's rendition of Killing Me Softly is to die for. Literally). So Lori runs up ahead of us, trying to gain the coveted spot of bell-ringer and first soprano. The boys pelt her with snowballs and Lori ends up face down in a foot of snow, crying that we’re just jealous of her. And thus another night of our bizzaro world Norman Rockwell Christmas portrait begins.
Our intention is to hit at least five houses tonight. We know our neighbors aren’t that keen on carolers and instead of making us hot chocolate, they’re just going to hand each of us a quarter - probably mid song - and give us a faint smile as they close the door on our efforts. Which is all we want. A few quarters a night, pooled together, means a trip to Murray's and candy for everyone.
Murray’s an old man who runs a small candy/cigarette/expired milk store on the corner. We prefer 7-11, but none of us are allowed to cross the big, bad street to get there. So we settle for Murray's, where the Bazooka gum often has teeth marks courtesy of Murray's snarling, vicious, child hating dog.
Brian comes up with the brilliant idea of singing Christmas carols to Murray. We’re excited at the prospect, thinking it would soften his heart, as if life is nothing but a sappy tv movie and we’re writing the script. So we march down to the corner and burst into Murray’s store singing Silent Night. Murray doesn’t applaud, his heart doesn’t grow three times it size, he doesn’t offer us free hot chocolate in the holiday spirit. No, Murray shrinks back in horror. I have this vision of Murray as the wicked witch, melting under Dorothy's thrown water, but instead of screaming “I’m melting!” Murray is yelling:
"I'm a Jew, you idiots! A Jew!"
Gloria steps forward, staring him down.
"Yea, well, Ricki and Larry and Jews and they're singing!" She points to the siblings, who stare at the floor.
"Well, they should be ashamed of themselves. Get out of my store, now!" He’s waving a limp loaf of Italian bread at us as he yells. Crumbs fly out of the bag and land in the dog’s fur.
Gloria stares at Murray defiantly. She’s the oldest of all of us and moved here straight from some crime-ridden pocket of Queens. Leader of the Pack, complete with black leather jacket. It falls on her to defend us all the time. She sneers at the old man. "Face it, Murray. You just don't like us singing because we're happy and you're not." Murray stares silently at us. I immediately begin forming this scenario in mind in which Murray says that Gloria’s right, he’s lonely and unhappy and maybe the beautiful children of the neighborhood who have voices like golden angels and hearts filled with love and charity will look kindly upon this old man and forgive him all his transgressions, including rancid milk and dog-chewed gum. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, everyone! And we all hug and do a rousing rendition of Dreidel, Dreidel for Murray while the neighbors pour out of their houses to join us.
Apparently that scenario is not going to happen.
Murray spits at Gloria. Spits! The wad misses her by a few inches and lands on the counter. The dog immediately licks it up. We hightail it out of there and as we gather in the parking lot everyone is laughing at Murray's lame attempt at spitting. Except me. I’m dejected. I want Murray's heart to grow three times its size. Unfortunately, it’s my cynicism that grows.
So we trudge on, making our way through the gray, slushy snow which no longer crunches under our feet, thanks to a light drizzle and heavy local traffic. Our rubber boots go squish on the way down and sound something like a plunger being removed from a toilet bowl on the way up. Squish. Pop. Squish. Pop. Almost in unison, a marching band of wet, freezing kids who just want to spread some holiday cheer and maybe make a buck or two in the process.
Lori insists on going to Scott's house. Scott is the grade school equivalent of the high school quarterback. King of the playground, center of the lunchroom, best looking kid in any K-6 school for miles around. Lori, who fancies herself the female version of Scott, has been trying to convince Scott that they would make a lovely couple. Scott, all of eleven years old, still hasn’t made the transition from swapping baseball cards to swapping spit. Lori, meanwhile, has been queen of Spin the Bottle since third grade. It’s her contention that she will make Scott her boyfriend and teach him a thing or two about what it means to be a man. Lori’s a girl ahead of her time, mature in ways that are dangerous. She grew tits before any of the girls in school. Even the sixth grade girls are jealous of her bulging shirt. Lori has this habit of wearing her coat open wide even when it’s freezing out, showing off her ample bosom. She wears shirts that accentuate her womanhood and there are whispers around the fourth grade were that Lori has gotten her period already. She’s a woman. A woman! And it’s only right that a woman has a man and Scott, who has the faintest hint of facial hair and whose voice is already changing, is the prime candidate.
So we head over towards Scott's house. On the way there, Lori lectures us about the caroling protocol. She’s to ring the bell. She’s to stand in front. She’s to sing all the key verses to Rudolph, while we do the background vocals. We’re about to fight her on all issues, but Gloria silences us with a glare. Whatever. We'll just let Lori have her way, collect a few quarters and make the mad dash across the forbidden street to 7-11, now that we’re no longer welcome at Murray's.
What happens next is really Lori's fault. She won’t shut up. She’s going on about how she deserves to be Scott's girlfriend, that she’s the prettiest and most mature girl in school, that her voice is so much better than all of ours and we’re just kids, after all (Lori had been left back in first grade, so she’s a whole. year. older. than all of us, except Gloria). We’re tired of Lori’s yapping mouth and boastful monologues. We’re tired of trudging in slush that has now formed into some sort of icy glue that won't let go of our boots. We’re cold and hungry and I could swear I hear my mother calling me. But we walk on. We’ll just get Scott’s house over with, collect our coins and go home. I don’t even want to go to 7-11 anymore. I just want home, fireplace, pajamas, hot chocolate. But to leave now would be to earn the wrath of Lori and Gloria and that’s not a thing I needed to deal with once back at school. I like to eat my cafeteria food, not wear it.
So we get to Scott's house and, according to plan, Lori - her coat unbuttoned to reveal a tight, pale green, fake cashmere sweater - rings the bell. Scott's mother answers the door and we immediately burst into the first chorus of Rudolph. Lori whirls around, throws a look of burning rage our way and whispers through clenched teeth, "I told you not to sing except for the background. And we are supposed to be singing for Scott. Not his stupid mother." We back off. Lori turns on her sweet voice and asks Scott's mom to fetch her son. I hear the boys behind me giggling and whispering and when I turn to see what they’re up to, Steve just holds a finger to his lips. Something’s up. Judging from the laughter coming from the back of our group, it’s going to be good.
Finally, Scott comes to the door. Lori's eyes meet his and she gives him a sultry smile, something she’s learned from toothpaste commercials and soap operas. It’s not the same on a twelve year old. Oblivious to looking like she swallowed something sour, Lori launches right into her solo effort.
Rudolph the red nosed reindeer...
Each word, each syllable is sung in a throaty whisper and I just know that Lori'simagining herself in a slinky white dress, singing birthday wishes to the president. It’s Christmas carol porn.
We’re meant to sing the backing vocals; words that have been made up and inserted over the ages to give the song a funny (to a kid, anyhow) edge.
Lori: Had a very shiny nose
Us: Like a lightbulb!
Lori: And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows
Us: Like Pepsodent!
I have no idea what that means. Does Pepsodent glow? No matter, the lore of the added verses had been passed down from grade to grade and we have to do our part to carry on the tradition, even if it makes no sense to us.
And on the song goes; Lori’s doing her best Marilyn Monroe, the rest of us are shouting the added lyrics in unison in a terrible cacophony of missed notes and Lori turns to glare at us every time. Finally, the last verse is here. Lori puffs her chest out a bit more, making sure that Scott notices the fine, shapely lumps emerging from her sweater. She has her right hand on her hip and she uses her left hand to keep flipping her hair. Her hips sway as she sings. The combination of the tits, the hair, the hips and the swaying are, I suppose, supposed to be sexy in a twelve year old way, but make her look like more like a spazz who has to pee really bad.
Rudolph the red nose reindeer, you'll. Go. Down. In. Hist-or-y. All breathy and teasing. This is where we’re supposed to chime in with LIKE COLUMBUS! and get a nice round of applause. But during the "reindeer games" verse, the instructions came from the back to the front. No one was supposed to say the Columbus line. Everyone just stay silent. I shrugged and went along with the game.
Lori: Rudolph the red nose reindeer, you'll. Go. Down. In. Hist-or-y.....
Boys: LORI STUFFS!
Silence, save for a few stifled giggles from the rear of the chorus. Lori pulls the flaps of her jacket tight, turns on her heels and goes running down the steps. Scott looks rather amused, while his mother looks a bit horrified. The rest of us just stand there, feeling rather awkward. As Lori maneuvers her way around us trying to flee Scott's yard, she trips over a cord that’s haphazardly strung around a hedge at the end of Scott's walk. She falls to the ground, pulling some of the lights from the bush down with her. And there she lays face down in the snow, silhouetted by a dozen or so big, colored lights, looking very much like a forlorn toy from Misfit Island. She stays down until Gloria helps her to her feet.
I know right away that this is the end of many things - our caroling for candy scheme; our otherwise tight knit group of misfits; Lori's plans to be queen to Scott's playground king. It also means the end of the lumps under Lori's sweater, as everyone within five miles of our school will find out in no less than 24 hours that Lori's tits are no more than artistically folded socks.
We don’t see Lori for many days after that, as she chooses to sequester herself in her bedroom, with only visits from a revenge-plotting Gloria to cheer her up. I hears from Lori's brother - who was part of the "Lori stuffs" chorus - that his sister burst into tears when their grandmother gave her socks for Christmas.