Christmas on the Down and Out
It was Christmas Eve. I was living in a dilapidated $400 a month studio in Williamsburg, my first apartment in Brooklyn, and I had passed the better part of the day sprawled across a coffee-stained futon mattress, smoking generic brand cigarettes, alternating between cups of instant Nescafé and malt liquor and rereading “The Plague.” There was an unopened package from my mother at the foot of the bed that had arrived the previous afternoon. I was saving it to open on Christmas day. There were unwashed cereal bowls in the sink, empty bottles standing everywhere and tumbleweeds of dust in the corners of the room. Outside it was raining and cold and the sky was getting dark.
I worked a few blocks away in a warehouse office that made and sent out junk mail, and as we were closed from Christmas through New Year’s, I was effectively broke. I wanted to be a filmmaker, and to the objections of my family had dropped out of school and moved to New York from Maine in the early summer. Six months later, I had nothing going, unless you considered the first three pages of a feature script I’d started writing in August concerning a giant robot who crash-lands in a space ship in Bushwick, only no one seems to notice.
I took a drag from my cigarette, Westports, an experience similar to inhaling engine smoke through a rusted tailpipe, I swear to God. They were all I could afford. There were cracks up in the ceiling and the whole thing looked as though it might split apart and come crashing down in a flood of cold rain water. I imagined myself drowning alone there, pinned under plaster and concrete and asbestos and the rain pouring over me, anonymous. A 30-word obituary would run in my hometown paper, and the world, unchanged, would take no notice. Except for maybe Deijah.
I missed Deijah.
Three days earlier she and I’d been standing out on the sidewalk after we’d crammed far too much luggage, all hers, into the trunk of a little white rental car. She was leaving to visit her fiancée, a law student in Philadelphia, and she wasn’t going to return until after the New Year.
“Promise me you’ll go out,” she pleaded in her soft Parisian accent. It was cold and she fixed my scarf, wrapping it snug around my neck. “Don’t be here alone.”
A white hummer pulled up across the street with the bass jacked up on the stereo, sending seismic vibrations all down the block. The buildings felt as though they might come apart and start crumbling around us. “I will,” I answered, almost automatically, insincerely.
She smiled and insisted, “You must.” She was too kind for the neighborhood we lived in. She pulled the lapels of my overcoat together. The buttons were missing. Deijah was a violinist, played in a quartet and earned money as an Arabic translator at the United Nations. She was 26, three years older than me. Her apartment was big and clean. She had cable TV, a cat named Serge and a bank account. We were neighbors and she had become my only friend in the world.
She touched the tip of my nose with the tip of her forefinger. “And please call me,” she said. “I want to know you’re ok.”
I promised her I would and that I’d feed Serge twice a day while she was away. Then she climbed into the car and was gone.
I imagined myself sprawled out across her soft white comforter and pillows, staring up at her ceiling, and wondered if it might be coming apart like mine. Everything was so comfortable in her apartment, I never thought to examine anything closely. Were there cracks webbing out from around the light fixtures? Plaster chips flaking off the walls? We spent most nights there after work listening to obscure classical and jazz music I didn’t understand. She had thousands of records of all types and shelves and shelves of books, and she knew film and art in a real, unpretentious way. I imagined her on the arm of her fiancée at a university holiday party somewhere, sipping expensive red wine and charming his friends and professors, and it made me feel hollow inside.
I thought about calling home. It had been two months since I’d spoken with my parents and the last conversation had gone badly. I wondered what they’d sent me. The gift box, addressed in my mother’s distinct cursive script and wrapped in plain brown packing paper, made my heart sink. I wondered what they might be doing. Last year I’d gotten stoned with my sister before midnight mass. We snuck out to the parking lot during communion and laid across the hood of my father’s car in the cold, staring up at the stars, the sky clear and wide open. Anything seemed possible, and I confessed my dreams to her of leaving home and living in New York or Los Angeles. She couldn’t stop laughing. Six months later I was gone.
I decided I’d wait til the morning to call them, after I’d opened the package.
I turned and watched a roach scurry into a crack at the base of the wall. Everything was horrible. I needed to get out and clear my head. I mulled over a pathetic list of options in my mind. There was a burger place on South 8th where I’d contracted food poisoning a couple months earlier. A 24 hour laundry mat with a busted Ms. Pacman machine on Kent. The Pavilion on South 6th had five dollar movies and bedbugs. Manhattan? I was broke and the idea of trekking into the city, where everywhere you look you’re reminded of what you can’t have, was extraordinarily unappealing. The roach reemerged from the base of the wall. I recalled some weeks ago, Deijah had mentioned a neighborhood in South Brooklyn that was famous for its ostentatious and entirely free-of-charge holiday lights displays. I knew I could afford subway fare and maybe a cup of coffee, so I decided a visit there might be cheap-enough and appropriate-enough to do me some good.
I threw on my overcoat and scarf, grabbed a half-pack of cigarettes and headed downstairs. Nobody was out. The rain was coming down in sheets. It seemed to hit me from all angles and I was soaked almost immediately. I walked quickly. There were a few apartments on the block with multicolored strands of Christmas lights draped over their fire escapes or shining through their bedroom windows, but for the most part South 8th street was dark and cheerless. The Williamsburg Bridge hung over the neighborhood like an enormous iron shadow. The sidewalks were coming apart. There was trash everywhere; old newspapers, broken bottles, ripped apart garbage bags and fried chicken bones. A huge rat crossed a hundred feet before me in silhouette and disappeared behind a group of chained garbage pails. I couldn’t help but imagine my block as a realization of Camus’ Oran, littered with plague-infested rat carcasses.
By the time I’d made the 15 minute walk to the subway platform at Marcy Avenue I was drenched and frozen. I got directions to Bay Ridge from the station clerk, waited twenty minutes for the train, then took the J into Canal Street and transferred to the R out to Bay Ridge. It was a long ride out and the cars were crowded, jammed full with warmly-dressed revelers headed out to their holiday engagements. They were carrying packages, talking, laughing, everyone clustered in groups: families, gossiping teenagers, couples trading hands. Shivering and wet, I thought of holiday parties with my family; loud people crowded into a small house in the snow, talking about baseball and politics and who was sick and who’d died and vacation plans and divorces and heating bills. We drank and passed some hours together and then disappeared from each other like strangers appearing then disembarking from a train. 36th Street. 49th Street. 59th Street. Bay Ridge Avenue.
I got off at 86th Street and took further directions from a Chinese newspaper guy on the platform who told me in broken English I was looking for a neighborhood called Dyker Heights, and when I came up out of the station it was dark and windy and raining harder than ever. Most of the shops were closed but the restaurants and bars seemed to be bustling everywhere, and looking down 4th avenue I could see the arch of a huge suspension bridge lined in white lights and vanishing into the storm. I hadn’t ever been out to this part of Brooklyn but knew immediately that the bridge must be the Verrazano that ran over to Staten Island. The smell of salt on the wind hit me and in a flash I recalled standing on a stormy beach as a boy with my father,
dark grey foaming waves crashing wildly on the shore. A flood of nostalgia welled up inside me, as did an impetuous desire to see the ocean. I wanted to experience the wind and rain and sea all around me again and quickly reasoned there must be a foot path or a bike path that crossed over the Verrazano like there was on the Williamsburg, a bridge I had walked over way too many times on account of being too broke to afford a subway token.
I started up Fourth Avenue looking for signs, but only made it about a half-block. That’s when I first saw him limping across the 87th Street intersection towards me, approaching like some wretched, three-legged, furry mutant. The Ugliest Goddamned Dog you’ve ever seen; repulsive, even from a distance; soaked and mangy as I was. Undeterred by his missing right-front leg, he hobbled himself up the block in what seemed like slow motion, then stopped directly in front of me, where he conjured up a low growl and bared his teeth. I found myself unable to move. We studied each other. His coat was gray and brown and matted and there were little patches missing in places so that his skin showed. One ear looked as though it had been chewed in half and his eyes were runny with what looked like some sort of infection. My head swam and for a moment all felt dreamlike. A car horn sounded somewhere, miles away. I needed to get on up the block. I tried to sidestep him to the right, but he moved in front of me. I attempted the other direction. He blocked me again.
A grey haired old man in a heavy coat stepped out of a corner grocery, opened a black umbrella and watched us for a moment. “Jesus, that’s one ugly dog you’ve got there,” he said in a thick Italian accent. “What’s his name?”
“He’s not mine.”
He looked us over. “Funny. He looks like he belongs to you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe you should call him ‘Tripod.'”
He turned and walked slowly up the block.
I took a step back. Tripod moved towards me. I again moved to the left. He followed. We regarded each other there for what was possibly a moment but seemed like forever. My head started to ache. I wiped the rain away from my eyes.
“What the hell, man?”
Tripod wheezed out a half-bark, half-cough in response. He was wearing a partially-shredded blue collar and what looked like a tag, so he probably wasn’t feral. I looked around to see if there were any policemen on the block, anyone who might help me out, but there was nobody.
“To hell with this,” I declared to no one in particular, then turned away from the bridge and back towards Dyker Heights. Maybe I’d see the Verrazano on the way back. Tripod stopped growling, turned with me and followed alongside. I looked down at him. He eyed me as he hopped along. “Perfect,” I thought. “Just perfect,” and we continued on like that through the rain up 86th street, lined with its department stores, delis and restaurants, Christmas lights in each and every window.
My legs stung and my temples were throbbing. My hair was soaked and cold and I couldn’t feel my face anymore. Was this the scenario Deijah had envisioned when she’d encouraged me to not be alone on Christmas Eve? I remembered her tightening my scarf, how warm it felt. Tripod and I passed the retail district then a golf course and made a left at 11th avenue as instructed into Dyker Heights. The houses kept getting bigger and bigger, until we came to blocks with rows of mansions and Mediterranean villas with sloping sculpted lawns and marble driveways, stone fences and fountains, statues of rams, lions, gargoyles and angels. Each one seemed to be lit up with millions and millions of white lights. Enormous wreaths hung in front windows and pine garlands draped over wrought iron balconies. Each front yard seemed to be a bizarre pageant of electric snowmen, glowing white nativity recreations, wooden reindeer, mechanically animated Santa Clauses and motorized carolers with 12 foot nutcracker soldiers guarding the entryways. It was dizzying. I couldn’t believe that homes like this existed in Brooklyn, only a few miles away from me. I wondered what sort of Holiday parties might be going on in each living room. I imagined Old Italian men in Christmas sweaters, women wearing pearls and blazers and sequined holiday pins. I imagined beer and wine, anisette cookies, eggplant parmigiana, trays of turkey and ham, a different music in each house, and beautiful girls with warm and inviting eyes. Outside in the rain, it all seemed like a fantastic dream, ridiculous and unreal and unattainable.
I was freezing. My jacket and clothes and shoes and socks were soaked through. I tried to light a cigarette but the lighter kept going out. We walked and walked, past 12th to 13th avenue, where we came to a little Italian bakery that was closed and took shelter under the awning as the rain poured down. Across the street was a church, Saint Bernadette’s, where a Christmas Eve service was letting out. There was an iron statue of the Saint over the church entrance. She was wearing a nun’s habit and held a rosary loosely in her right hand, her eyes turned towards a God no one else could see. I had a vague recollection of Saint Bernadette from childhood, having watched the old black and white movie about Her life when I was seven or eight. I remembered that her family home was basically an abandoned prison cell and she was sick all the time. I thought of the Hail Mary, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners…” I stood there for some time, until it seemed like most all of the parishioners had filed out and then something seized me and I decided to go inside.
We moved quickly across the street. I turned to tell Tripod to stay, but when we arrived at the entryway it had already found a spot to sit. “Wait here,” I said, and I went into the church.
Inside it was dry, warm, mostly silent and dark, except for a small spotlight that pointed up to the altar, which was a huge stone recreation of the grotto, the cave where Bernadette had her visions, the Saint kneeling in reverence at the feet of the Holy Mother there. A wreath of candles hung before the apse and a few candles still burned in the chancel. More wreaths hung all through the church, empty except for a few devotees scattered throughout the pews, either praying or reciting rosaries. The words “I Am The Immaculate Conception” arched above the altar in large letters.
I found an empty pew, sat down and stared up at the altar, at Bernadette there on her knees before Mary, who was cloaked in a blue shawl. She looked beautiful and kind and somehow detached, and Bernadette so innocent, so full of wonder. I was broken and lost. Something inside me shattered, and I felt a melting in my chest and the heat of tears on my cheeks. I found myself kneeling, weeping, my head in my hands against the back of the pew before me and everything around me dissolved into darkness.
After a while, a small, balding priest came and tapped me on my shoulder and told me to leave. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but everyone else in the church had left. Outside, the wind had died down and the rain had turned over to snow, big white flakes that had already accumulated to a dusting on the sidewalks. The dog, sitting in the same spot I’d left him, brought himself up on all three legs when he saw me and shook the snow from his fur. I felt strangely comforted that he’d waited.
“What’s your real name?” I asked him.
He cocked his head to one side in response. I approached him cautiously. He didn’t seem defensive, so I bent down and patted him on the head. His fur was filthier than it looked and left my hand coated with a film of wet grime. I wiped it off on my jacket then examined the nametag attached to his collar. It was blank on both sides. I gave him another pat.
I had a bit of a dull headache, but my body somehow felt invigorated, lightened. I decided to walk back to my apartment, thinking the fresh, snowy air might feel good in my lungs. I wasn’t sure how far the trip would be on foot, probably hours, but I didn’t really have any place to be so long as I made it back before morning to feed
Serge. I lit a Westport and headed in what seemed like the most reasonable direction home, north up 13th avenue, with Tripod hobbling along beside me.
The air was electric with snow. We passed block after block of darkened shop windows and store fronts, delis, hardware stores, Italian and Chinese restaurants, pharmacies and grocers, until we happened upon a dimly lit diner. I was hungry and decided to go in, leaving my companion out in the storm to guard the front stoop.
It was surprisingly warm inside and the whole place smelled vaguely of shit and mostly of strong coffee. There were maybe 10 tables and some stools pushed up to a counter, and it was empty inside, except for a fat old man who was seated in a wheelchair at the window. It was immediately clear he was the source of the shit-smell. He had a white beard and wore a grey vintage army coat and a black knit hat and sunglasses. Christmas music was playing on an old radio, a big band instrumental version of “Sleigh Ride.” I brushed some snow out of my hair, took off my jacket and grabbed a stool at the counter.
A young, damaged-looking brunette waitress in a powder blue uniform came in from the kitchen, pushed some silverware and a napkin in front of me and asked if I needed a menu. I didn’t and ordered eggs over easy and coffee. She brought the coffee straightaway and disappeared back into the kitchen. I fixed it with milk and sugar then stole a glance over at the old man near the window, who was working a toothpick around his teeth. I turned back to the cup in front of me and took a sip. It was good. Strong. Immediately I felt warmer, life pouring into my heart and back out to my extremities, thawing arms, legs, hands, toes. Small blue pearls of light appeared in the ether around the coffee urns and flickered out into nothing. I closed my eyes, rested my elbows on the counter and felt a subtle hum resonating through the granite, almost like a dull electric current.
“The sad part about happy endings is there’s nothing to write about,” the old man said from across the diner, solemnly. He had a thick Southern accent and he sounded as though he had smoked about a million unfiltered cigarettes.
I opened my eyes and turned around. He seemed to be staring at me through those sunglasses of his. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Dreams are real as long as they last.” He held up his coffee mug in salute, then turned it upside down. It was empty. “Bring me some coffee, will you, Sugar?”
“The waitress be back in a minute,” I said.
“No. She won’t. She’ll take her sweet time. Look, it’s just behind the counter there. Bring it over, will you?”
I leaned over the counter and heard muffled conversation behind the swinging kitchen doors. He was right. She was in no rush. I snuck around, grabbed the pot and brought it over to the old man.
He was pleased. “You’re all right, Sugar. Merry Christmas.” He smiled up at me. He smelled like a stew of dysentery and cigar smoke.
I poured his coffee.
“Care to join me?” he asked.
It was just the two of us in that diner and no excuses were coming to me. “Sure,” I said, reluctantly, “Why not,” and set the pot of coffee down in the middle of the table. I brought my own cup over.
He took a long slurp from his mug. “Sleigh Ride” gave way to Sinatra’s “Christmas Waltz” on the radio. He hummed along for a few bars. “I do love Christmas music,” he wheezed. “Both the secular and the sacred.” He set his mug down.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
My mom had brought me up Catholic, but truthfully, everything seemed equally meaningless. “Sure,” I said.
He stared down into his black coffee in a sort of strange meditation. “Do not explain anything to anyone unless asked. Nor to one who asks improperly,” he muttered in
quiet recitation, as though he was reminding himself of something. Outside, the snow fell silently all around us, over the diner, over Brooklyn, over the city. I got the feeling we were all dreaming this thing, when suddenly he reared up, cleared his throat and spit a wad of phlegm onto the floor. “You Christians have been raping and pillaging and ruining the world for Everyone, forever.” He paused, seemed to look up towards the kitchen to see if anyone was approaching, then returned to me in consideration and added, “No offense.”
I noticed my reflection in his sunglasses. My face was distorted, thin, pale. He seemed to be waiting for a response.
“It’s ok. I don’t really care.” I really didn’t care.
“I know you don’t. I’m more of a Hindu, myself,” he said, stroking his beard. “I follow the path of dharma.” He paused, then straightened up in his chair and said, somewhat dramatically, “Treating pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and victory and defeat alike, engage yourself in duty.” He slouched back down a little. “That’s me.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I wondered what time it was, what Deijah was doing in Philadelphia. She was probably asleep by now.
He cleared his throat and wiped his nose. “I apologize,” he said. “It’s terribly rude of me to carry on like this without properly introducing myself.” He held out his right hand for me to take. His fingernails were caked in mud. “I’m Ms. Tammy Wynette,” he announced, beaming.
There were at least four teeth missing from his smile. His beard was full of crumbs and ash and his skin was covered in soot, as though he’d been sleeping in a chimney or a furnace.
“Tammy Wynette?” I asked cautiously. “The country singer?”
“Yes, Sugar. The First Lady of Country Music. That’s me,” she said proudly, hand still outstretched.
I carefully put my hands on my lap and looked down at the placemat set before me. It was decorated with pictures of mixed drinks and their names; the “Black Russian,” the “Manhattan,” the “Harvey Wallbanger.” Did people go insane gradually, the result of thousands of little unconnected incidents or circumstances eating at them over decades, or did it shine out from inside a person all at once in a burst of realization, like someone turning on a light switch?
“Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” I asked, studying the placemat.
“You don’t recognize me. I imagine that’s to be expected.” She withdrew her hand. I was suddenly acutely aware how simple it would be for her to reach across the table and stab me with a fork. I tried to think of an excuse to leave but nothing was coming.
She laughed. “You’re so young.” She sipped at her coffee. “My third husband, George Jones, introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita, a text which I’m absolutely certain you’re unfamiliar with, given your youth, your denomination and your vacant expression.” I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted or not.
“What is it you do?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s your vocation, Sugar?”
“My vocation?” I considered telling her about the junk mail processing center, but decided against it. “I’m a screenwriter.”
“No shit?” She seemed impressed. “You’re in the entertainment business, too. We’ve got that in common.” She leaned forward. “What have you written?”
I rubbed the back of my neck and looked down. “I’m, ah, working on a story about a giant robot.” I felt embarrassed to have even said it out loud. I hadn’t even told Deijah about the subject matter of my script.
She fell back and stared at me for a moment. “Well, I’ll be. A real honest-to-God screenwriter, at my table. Maybe we’ll have to do a project together. Maybe you can write a part in for me.”
She seemed to be considering this possibility with a great deal of thought and honestly, I felt a strange twinge of excitement that somebody might be actually interested in my project. She straightened herself up and took a sip of coffee. “What were we discussing? Oh yes… the Gita.” She leaned forward. “The Gita, you know, unravels the mysteries of dharma.”
I looked out the window. The snow was falling harder now. The street was empty. Time had seemed to stop, or at least to slow down.
“It’s all about a great warrior who falls into despair on the battlefield and loses the will to fight. In this moment of existential crisis, his teacher reveals himself and sets him on the path of dharma.” I wondered if the waitress was ever coming back. Tammy Wynette leaned back in her chair. “Don’t get me wrong. Christmas is a wonderful Holiday. Santa Clause and all that… The miracle of the birth of Jesus… We all want to believe in miracles. But life is rarely miraculous, Sugar. It’s a struggle all the time and if you ask me, it’s a true miracle if you can just manage to see things as they are and not lose yourself to despair and self-pity.” She adjusted her glasses. “As an artist, I’m sure you can appreciate this philosophical point of view.”
I felt odd, dazed. “I’m unhappy,” I confessed, almost thoughtlessly.
“We are already well aware of that fact,” said Tammy Wynette.
The waitress came back and set a steaming plate of eggs, orange potatoes and white buttered toast down in front of me. There was a gingerbread man cookie on the side of the plate, which she told me was free on account of it being Christmas. Then she topped off our coffees and went back into the kitchen.
It felt good to eat something. Tammy Wynette told me she was hungry, too and asked for a little food, so when she finished her coffee I shoveled half the orange potatoes into her cup and gave her the gingerbread cookie. When we finished we fell silent for a few moments. A look of solemnity fell over her and she took a long breath, held it, exhaled. “Do you know what your dharma is, Sugar?”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“To find out who you are.”
The Nameless dog, Tripod, was shivering outside in the snow. I wanted to go home. Where was that? The Beach Boys came on the radio. “The Man With All The Toys.”
“Listen,” Tammy Wynette said earnestly. “You’ve been undeniably kind, keeping me company and all. I know it’s late and its Christmas Eve and you need to get home to your life, but I was wondering if I might trouble you for a small favor.”
I attempted to mentally calculate how far I was from my apartment, if I’d make it home before daybreak. I asked her what she wanted me to do.
She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. “There is a dead body in the alley behind this diner.”
“A dead body?”
She shushed me, then looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was listening. The waitress was still in the kitchen. She continued in a whisper, “Dead as a proverbial doornail. My second husband, George Richey. We were out back yesterday afternoon, practicing a duet, when an eight-foot Christmas Tree fell from the sky upon his tender head, bless his soul.”
“A Christmas Tree fell from the sky?”
“Yes. And we need to go out back, burn the body and most-probably the tree.” She picked a crumb out of her beard and tasted it. I hoped it was a crumb. “George always wanted to be cremated,” she added thoughtfully.
I had never seen a dead body before. I mean, I had never seen a dead person’s body. I had seen plenty of dead animals where I’d grown up. Road kill, mostly; deer, fox, skunks. There was even a black bear one time that our neighbor had run over with his jeep when I was a teenager. My father gutted it in our garage. The floor became soaked in blood and we ate bear steaks for months.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we called the police?” I asked.
She picked more debris from her beard. “Sugar, just come have a look, will you?”
I paid the check and Tammy Wynette took me out to the alley behind the diner. Tripod the Dog had been waiting out front and followed us back, where there was a dumpster and a stacked pyramid of large industrial PVC pipes, maybe twenty or so in all. A tenement apartment building, perhaps six stories tall, loomed overhead and sure enough, right in the middle of the alley an enormous Christmas tree, snowed-upon and ornamented and tinseled, lay in a heap over a human-sized mound, blanketed in white and speckled with silver shards of smashed holiday balls. Broken appliances, a microwave, a VCR, pots and pans were littered about the alley as well. Looking up into the shadow of the tenement overhead, it became clear someone had thrown all these things from an open window or a fire escape. It wasn’t fair. I could have used a VCR. I mean, what I wouldn’t have given to be watching taped Christmas specials on a functional VCR.
The snow was falling still more heavily now and the old man had a difficult time rolling his wheelchair through the accumulation. My feet, which had dried significantly in the diner, were soaked and cold again.
We stopped in front of the tree, which the dog eyed intently, growling low and steady under his breath.
“Jesus,” Tammy Wynette said, “That’s one ugly mutt. What’s his name?”
“Tripod,” I said. “He followed me here.”
She considered him a little longer. “He looks like you.”
Snowflakes were gathering in her beard and on her hat. And there I was again, reflected in her glasses. She motioned to the mound beneath the tree. “Oh, George. Loneliness surrounds me without your arms around me.”
“That’s him?” I couldn’t make out his face on account of him being covered in snow and pine needles and shattered ornaments and eight feet of Christmas tree.
Tammy Wynette decided to answer in song, completely out of tune, “When the dreams that you’ve chased have all gotten away, And you stand at the end of a long lonely day, You’ll never be far from these arms of mine, Keep me in mind…” Her voice was terrible and she looked pathetic sitting in her wheelchair covered with snow, believing she was Tammy Wynette. Life was sad and cruel and lonely and unbearably random and everything was taken away in an instant.
“He wrote that for me a long time ago.”
Under the great fallen tree, I could see George’s fingers sticking through the snow a little, outstretched and rigid, almost like they were frozen in a moment of questioning, “Why?” I thought of last Christmas stretched out on my father’s car and all the stars. It seemed so far away. You never saw the stars in New York.
Tammy Wynette rifled through her inside coat pockets, produced two aerosol spray cans and handed one to me. She then handed me a lighter, found another for herself, held it in her outstretched hand, ignited it, aimed the spray can, and fired away. A dramatic rush of flame roared forth for several seconds, then she released the trigger.
“All systems go,” said Tammy Wynette. “Let’s torch my poor dead 2nd husband, George Richey.”
“Can’t we stop and think this over for a minute?”
There was a sudden crash, an explosion of sound. We turned and saw a black metal stereo amplifier bouncing off the pyramid of PVC pipes, which were now giving way, tumbling down over each other. I looked up and saw someone in silhouette hanging from a top floor window, lobbing some heavy odd-shaped component down towards us. I jumped away as it crashed in the spot where I’d been standing. An espresso maker. Fuck. I could have used one of those. The amp, too. And the tree. The VCR. Everything.
Tammy Wynette looked up then over to me. “Sugar, this is some bad goddamned prarabdha karma that’s falling on us tonight.”
There was another crash just to my left. I backpedaled and caught a slick patch of ice or maybe it was wet snow with my heel, fell backwards in slow motion. A computer hard-drive bounced off the snowy cement. Just beyond that, PVC pipes rolling down over each other, a giant raccoon scrambling from the mouth of one, now running towards us full bore. Now frozen. My shoulders, then head, hitting the alley floor.
All was silent. I was on my back in the snow, warmth spreading all through my body, heart opening, snowflakes hanging suspended in air, spinning on their axis like diamond whirligigs, while silver Christmas ornaments and home electronics and appliances fell all around me in a slow infinite stream; digital alarm clocks, vacuum cleaners, blenders, television sets. Tammy Wynette and Tripod were twin pillars of flame on either side of me, and directly above me was a soft golden light with a beautiful lady’s face shining faintly in its center, universes spinning in Her eyes. I was in my childhood bedroom and there was the smell of new Star Wars wallpaper. I was in Brooklyn, trapped in my apartment, staring down South 8th Street. I was lying with a fever on the floor of a schoolhouse in South India. I was at the bottom of a cold flood of rainwater. I was floating through space. I closed my eyes.
I felt the tongue rapidly licking my cheek, my lips, my nose. Dog slobber. His breath was putrid. I shoved him away. The world rushed back.
I felt the cold snow on my neck, the wet snow soaking through my jacket, my shirt, my pants. Head ringing, I opened my eyes. Infinite snow falling through the sky. I turned and saw Tammy Wynette there in her wheelchair, head bleeding, a giant raccoon perched on her lap. “What happened?”
“Welcome back to the world, Sugar. You’ve been out for 23 minutes. I was beginning to think we might need to incinerate you.” She was stroking the top of the raccoon’s head. “Allow me to introduce my second husband, George Richey,” said Tammy Wynette.
I pulled myself up and looked around. Shattered electronics everywhere. And the Christmas tree. And the corpse. Tripod climbed into my lap and nuzzled my hand up over his head. I heard police sirens approaching in the distance. “What the hell is going on?” I half-shouted. “What do you mean?”
Tammy Wynette looked carefully up at the tenement building, then back at me. “Don’t you see, Sugar?” she asked, “This is George.” She meant the raccoon, which was now licking her face. “I don’t know how or why, but I do believe my George has transmigrated into the body of this raccoon.” George picked some crumbs out of Tammy Wynette’s beard and nibbled on them.” It’s a Christmas Miracle!”
And she repeated that sentiment many times over.
The walk home seemed surprisingly quick. The snow had tapered to flurries, but had already accumulated a little past shin deep, piling up on top of the parked cars and blanketing Brooklyn in a remarkable quiet.
The image of the altar at Saint Bernadette’s kept flashing through my mind. I tried my best to remember her life’s story but the images were all hazy and disconnected.
Her life was hard. Harder than most anyone’s ever could be. The Lady of Lourdes appeared to her in a grotto, the town dump, and she was thought to be insane. And even after she was vindicated by the miracles that happened there, she suffered physically and died young. She never complained and accepted everything. Was that what Tammy Wynette was talking about in the diner? Accepting pleasure and pain in the same way? Was it faith that Bernadette had that allowed her to accept all that suffering? Faith that all the sadness would eventually pass? You need a miracle for that kind of faith, something to show you that even in your darkest moment, everything’s going to be all right. I couldn’t even imagine what that might feel like.
And what did Tammy Wynette mean when she told me my dharma was to find out who I am? What the hell kind of shit is that?
My head was ringing and my neck and shoulders ached and I wondered if I should see a doctor. Tripod limped along the entire journey, which was fortunate for me as whenever I felt unsure about the direction back, he seemed to know the way. He quietly vanished just before we reached my block. I didn’t see him leave and was a little disappointed in his disappearance, but it was just as well.
I headed up to Deijah’s first thing to feed Serge. Fumbling for her keys in my pocket outside her door, I heard a faint murmur of noise inside.
I got it open and called out “Hello?”
There were footsteps and then suddenly Deijah was there in the doorway and then just as suddenly her arms were flung around me.
“It’s so late. Where have you been?” she asked, hugging me tightly.
“You’re supposed to be in Philadelphia,” I said.
She released me and looked up into my eyes. She looked like a vision. She had been crying. She turned to the floor.
“Things don’t always go the way you’d like them to,” she said sadly.
It was three a.m. She’d brought some chocolate back from her drive and we stayed up til dawn finishing it off, drinking espresso and watching “Christmas in Connecticut”. I fell asleep at the foot of her couch and when I woke up in the early afternoon the snow had stopped and the sky was turning a lighter shade of grey. I opened the package my mother had sent me, an L.L. Bean hat and a check for $150, then called my parents. It went surprisingly well. Later, we thawed frozen samosas for our Christmas dinner and I told Deijah about Tripod, the Three-Legged Dog that escorted me through Dyker Heights to Saint Bernadette’s and my Christmas Eve with Tammy Wynette and the miracle of the transmigrated soul of George Richey, stuffed into the body of a raccoon. Later, she dug out an old record from her collection called “Christmas with Tammy Wynette,” that she’d found at a thrift shop in Greenpoint a few weeks back. The first side was all sacred songs, starting with “Silent Night” and ending with “Away in a Manger.” We put that side on repeat and listened to it well into the evening.
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