The atavistic avatar dropped from space:
“I did it only to see the look on our face.”
On his way across the short overpass that unofficially connects Corson Street to Torqwamni Hill, Holly glances down at a small house below. It’s an ugly little fist-like rental that had gone up during the Second World War—as had countless others of its kind in Charleston. Like the caw of a crow or a bit of dandelion fluff getting stuck to your cheek, this house exists only in the moment you share with it. Yet nearly thirty years gone by, the same house had once unclenched and gave Holly a touch of honesty; thus it had it had earned in his mind its own small history.
Although subsequent tenants never draw the sun-yellowed Venetian blind that covers the house’s only large window, Holly knows that the living-room lies behind it. And he recalls a long gone summer night when, half drunk, he had crossed the overpass and saw three obese people (two women, one man) watching TV. All three were sitting in worn-out easy chairs too small for their rotund shapes, and each one had an immense Corning ware bowl of popcorn balanced on his and her lap. There had also been an equally portly little Chihuahua-mix that made successful rounds from bowl to bowl. It was obvious from the strong family resemblance that the oldest woman was the mother and that the other two were brother and sister. All had that flickering dimness of eye-light you see in the faces of people whose intellects hover between that of the “slow” and the mentally disabled (or “retarded,” which, as a proper pronoun, has gone the way of “Negro.”).
Even though Holly had been well-oiled by Happy Hour schooners sucked down at one of the nearby local shitholes, something poignant and everlasting accompanied him from there on. Although these were the type of people he’d lay silent scorn upon while watching them power-waddle toward the bus, this catching a glimpse of how it goes behind their veil had caused him pain. There was nothing sentimental or phony about what he had felt; yet every attempt at putting words to it failed to recreate the emotion. In time he realized that you cannot effectively describe an emotion until the emotion has ceased. It’s a good life lesson; invaluable to a poet.
Holly stops on the sidewalk, re-adjusts his heavy backpack and gazes into the west. Although the pewter clouds are thick and look pregnant with snow, the timer he always carries in his pocket has alerted him to the coming sunset. He always observes sunset even when it’s not visible. Down on Corson Street, the steady hum of Christmas Eve traffic speaks of a world in which the relative motion of the sun is irrelevant. An endless stream of headlights form halos in the frigid gloaming. Gloaming, now there’s a chestnut for you, Holly thinks. Yet within his insolence he knows that all things have souls in spite of their own indifference. This too is a good life lesson; it makes a poetry matter. He turns and moves east. Onward to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem Shelby hates Christmas. When the topic comes up, normally well-spoke Beth (who only curses here and there for a little spice) instantly falls into a coarse verbal assault on the subject; for her it is “Fucking-Christmas,” and she is seldom heard to refer to it as anything else—save for “Freaking-, Frigging- or Effing-Christmas” on the rare occasion when the sensitive type is present. No, no one hates Christmas more than Beth; and that goes for you and you and you and the Grinch and Scrooge, as well.
Christmas also happens to be Beth’s birthday. This year she turns fifty-eight. Although she is candid about her age throughout the year, and is not considered particularly vain by those few who know her, she refers to this circumstance as “That Goddam-Fucking-Christmas-Birthday.” Here, no euphemisms are substituted for the profanities; and if you happen to be the sensitive type, well, that’s just how it goes.
Although crass commercialization and the way goddam “Black Friday” won’t stop getting bigger until it is held on December, 26th annoy the holy hell out of Beth, it’s the memory of her widowed, working-class mother, Harry, skipping lunches and in all ways scrimping on herself from September on to make sure Beth got presents under the tree and something “special” for her birthday that had begun this hate. She also remembers crying into her pillow for only God knows how long when, at thirteen, she had been informed of this situation by Harry’s best friend Fran, after Beth had launched into Harry the way thirteen-year-old girls will do—even those who have an IQ of 160 and are already working on their Masters in Mathematics. Although Beth is considered a decent human being, the only two things she hates more than Christmas are crying and feeling guilty. And not at all helping matters is the way her Holly knows about this serious business, yet continues to find her attitude toward the holidays as funny as the actions of that fierce and murderous little bunny in Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. Never a year passes without this little joke going up like a fucking-Christmas stocking.
Currently more peeved with Holly for again being late for their trip to the hospice than she is with the Season, Beth stands at the window and gazes out. The sun has just gone down and she knows that Holly is observing the event as though he were a goddam Inca priest. The silver sky has taken on a pinkish hue, which is indicative of snow. Beth lights a cigarette. Snow for fucking-Christmas, she thinks. Doesn’t God know He’s dead?
There are few clocks and calendars to be found in the rooms at the Catholic Hospice of Charleston. Nor is there a division of day and night that isn’t controlled by a switch. This matters little to the residents, for the mindless exist in a state of absolute now that requires no measurement, and the thinking dead live almost entirely in the past.
Fran is as exceptionally strong as a hospice patient can get. She is also a favorite of the nuns and the staff because she had once been an ER nurse who had later worked in geriatrics. She still thinks and speaks coherently and has yet to degrade to the point where soiling the bed doesn’t bother her. Of all the things she has lost or is losing the ability to do, Fran has steadfastly held onto using the toilet. Every time this goes her way, she prays extra hard for death to come, as to let her go out with this much dignity intact.
Fran should be dead by now. She has outlasted her original “expiration date” by two years since her original cancer diagnosis, yet nothing about this survival has had anything to do with advances in medicine. God’s will, she thinks without irony. She had insisted on leaving Beth’s house for the hospice on the Monday after Thanksgiving; she had figured that it would “be a short drive to Heaven from there”; but nearly a month has gone by, in which time Fran has heard the bell toll in the courtyard seven times. Donne was right: you must hear the chimes as your own, as others must accept yours as theirs.
A lifelong, progressive Catholic, Fran often sends God ironic prayers, but no matter what horrors befall her and the world, she has kept her faith as diligently as she has held her toilet. Perhaps a bit slack with the Sunday attendance during baseball season, Fran has never missed Christmas Mass, and this year has been no different. Although it is only Christmas Eve, time is a precious commodity at the hospice. Mass is held in the chapel on the hour every hour, and will be through tomorrow. It’s brought to the beds of those too fragile to be moved.
There are few private rooms that have windows in the hospice. But, in life (and, yes, in death and the church), if you’ve got the money you can die in a private room that has a window. Fran is seated in the expensive rocking chair that wealthy Beth (who had also “bought” the room) had given her as an early Christmas present (nearly all Christmas presents are of the “early” variety at the hospice). She is fully dressed and is wearing shoes for what she knows will be the last time in her life. She doesn’t want Bethlehem or Holly to find her lying in bed when they come by tonight, even though she’d very much would like to lie down. She looks out the window, which faces west. She spies a snow flurry spiraling down from the aluminum sky in the weak light of the winter sunset. Snow for Christmas.
Behold Harriet Shelby lying in her hospital bed. Harry’s a big-eyed pretty little thing who looks remarkably fresh for someone who had given birth to a daughter just two hours ago. She’s gazing out the window as the first flakes of snow drift down from the oddly back-lit salmon-colored sky. Snow for Christmas, she thinks. God lives.
Harry loves Christmas and snow, and this time both are a thousand times better than ever because she is seeing things through the recently discovered filter of morphine. At twenty, Harry has never had anything stronger than an aspirin. Just a little splash in a needle changes things so.
An equally young, extremely tall and wholesome young woman wearing a candy striper uniform appears in the doorway. She is carrying an almost comically large black purse, and she makes a great show of looking left, right, down and up before entering the room.
“Jesus H.,” Harry says. “Who the hell are you looking for, Frances—Santa?”
“You know goddam well who,” Fran says on her way over to the bed. “If Bull Nurse catches me giving you this stuff, I’ll be on bedpan duty till Valentine’s Day.”
“I didn’t know that nurses and stripers did that sort of thing,” Harry says with a highly affected shudder as she snatches her purse from Fran.
“Who do you think does it, Harriet, the Bed Pan Fairy?”
“Why yes,” Harry says, “I do think that—Oh, did you see Dan and the horde on their way out?”
“Hardly anyone else in this part of the joint—you’re the only mother in the entire ward,” Fran replies. “Your folks look elated, Dan seems sort of dazed…I suppose it won’t matter if I tell you there’s no smoking in bed?”
“Nope,” Harry says as she fetches her Winstons and a box of Red Devil matches out of her purse. Fran pulls the ashtray out of the bottom drawer of the nightstand. Harry brings a match off the stand’s top and takes a heavy drag off her cigarette. Fran suddenly breaks out a first magnitude smile.
“What’s the gag, Frannie?”
“Oh nothing,” Fran says as she motions Harry to lean forward. Fran sits down on the bed behind her closest friend and she begins to weave Harry’s long dark hair into a French braid. “I was just thinking about you having to change loaded diapers for the next eighteen months or so. It makes me feel good inside to think that Harry, real good—Holy shit! When did it start snowing?”
“Just now,” Harry says. “I really oughtn’t be giving you this,” she adds as she fishes a small gift-wrapped box from out of her purse. “Not with that wisecrack and all this volunteering at the hospital and reading to old people and all the other selfless Christly stuff you do. You make me look real bad, Saint Frances, when you do that sort of thing. We both know I was selfish, but really, was there a reason to put it out there in neon?”
Fran opens the package. It’s a charm bracelet. Somewhere deep inside, Fran knew that this was coming. Upon the passing of their mutual friend, Elsbeth Allison, that spring, only days after Harry’s death, Ellie’s granddaughter had told the tale of how her grandmother had been visited by Harry’s ghost in her final dreams and that there had been a charm bracelet involved.
Current day Fran stirs in her rocker. Her faith allows her to believe in such visions. She lets the happy dream go on without question.
Neither Beth nor Holly drive. Beth has never learned how, and Holly gave it up after he no longer could convince himself not to get behind the wheel while drunk (oddly, he never had an accident nor had he ever been cited for anything other than driving on expired license tabs). Beth’s inability is a longer story; boiled down it involves some kind of hitch in her powerful mind that doesn’t allow a “by the seat of the pants” sort of thinking to usurp what should be a mechanical process only. She does better in the abstract than she’d ever do merging on the highway.
They rely on cabs. Beth is such a fine and well-paying customer of Burl’s Taxi that she never has to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a hack, even on Christmas Eve in what is becoming a driving snow storm.
For a while they ride together in the backseat, in silence. The cabbies know Beth to be friendly, but not overly conversational. The only sounds are that of the car’s wipers and fucking-Christmas music on the radio.
“How was the sunset?” Beth asks, finally ending the Silent Treatment she had laid on Holly after he had arrived nearly forty-five minutes late. “Do we need to stop for a sack of goat blood, Inca priest?”
“They don’t keep time at the hospice, Bethlehem,” he replies. “As Harry would have said, ‘that’s awfully barn door after the cows.’” Holly winces. He usually doesn’t regret flipping Beth shit; it’s what they do—give and take. But regardless of Beth’s disdain for the holidays, this is the first Christmas she has spent without Harry and Fran and sometimes Ellie coming over to the house and getting squishy on wine while watching It’s a Wonderful Life. He almost apologizes, but he squeezes her hand instead.
“Will it be tonight?” Beth says with the purr she speaks in only when talking to herself or Holly.
Holly doesn’t answer the question directly, but Beth knows he soon will. She never looks too hard at it, but under certain circumstances had during the better than the fifty years they have known each other, Holly often sees the future.
“Ellie Allison once told me that ‘A life is the gift you get after the dream has died,’” Beth purrs. “I never knew what she meant by that until this year. You know how she’d get all philosophical around her third loganberry flip. I just thought it was another bit of drunken horseshit; but I know better now. “
“You’ve always known,” Holly says. “I recall that flick in which Marlene Dietrich told Orson Welles that he had no future—‘it’s all used up.’ But that doesn’t go for us just yet, Bethlehem. Come spring we’ve got a tree to plant and a grave to rob.”
She smiles and asks the cabbie if she may light a cigarette. It’s against the law, but he doesn’t mind.
“And the question remains,” Beth says as she brings a match off her thumbnail.
“Yes,” Holly says with a sigh. “It will happen tonight.”
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