Thursday, December 2. Today Dad turns 53. He always picks me up precisely when the bell rings at 2:15 pm. No dilly-dallying. No talking in the hall. Today’s no different.
I hop in Mrs. Smith’s old Plymouth Reliant. At least this car has reverse and two working brakes.
“Well, what do ya’ say, child of mine…it’s December 2…your old Man’s birthday! I look pretty good for a 53-year-old man, don’t I?” Dad uses both hands to jiggle his stomach already resting against the steering wheel. “All’s Poppas gotta do is lose this friggen giant gut!”
I grin, “Happy Birthday, Dad.”
“By the way, Daddy’s got a big surprise for you when we get home.”
“What is it?” Shit! No more surprises. It better not be another dumpster find.
Coyly he says, “You’ll see soon enough impatient child.”
The last snowstorm makes it impossible to avoid every pothole in the apartment complex’s gravel driveway. The stones don’t pop beneath the tires this time of year. The car just makes lots of thuds. “Goddamn landlord. They gotta fix this driveway!”
Dad unlocks the brown steel door to our apartment. Like he’s now unlocked a gateway to a new universe. What the–? A tree? A Christmas tree stands in the corner of our living room. Right in front of the water-heater closet.
My mouth hangs open. We never had a Christmas tree. We’ve never had Christmas. No family. No gifts. No Santa Claus. No chocolate chip cookies and milk. No caroling. Nothing, except for a 99-cent canned ham.
“Well what do you think, Jenny? Do you like it?”
“Wait, I’m so confused. Where did it come from?” You’re no expert in these matters but something’s off. No lights? Why is it so high? I spy a clay pot. Dad propped our tree up in an old planter?
“Scott and Mary bought it for us. They knew it was my birthday, and that you never had a tree so they took me earlier. I didn’t want a tree, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They spent good money—they really treat you and Daddy like gold.”
Come on, why aren’t you more excited about this? First Christmas tree! Woohoo! Nope. Nothing there. Sigh. What now?
“Jenny, the tree needs ornaments. Poppas broke until tomorrow, but I know you have that fifty dollars that I gave you last month.”
My face and ears grow hot with fury. You just gave me that money so we would have a savings plan. I’m the bank and I say no withdrawals! No more starving and searching in our coat pockets and couch cushions for pennies to buy expired pot roast.
“No, Dad. We need to save that money!”
“Jenny, Jesus-mother-fucking-Christ! We are not going to have a tree with nothing on it. Don’t you dare tell your Father, ‘no!’ Now come on, let’s get in the car and go down to Fay’s and see what they’ve got there.”
Fuck you, pig-headed bastard! And I’m not going to starve because someone wanted to be nice and buy us a tree. I’ve gone this long without Christmas. Who the fuck cares anymore! I really wish that child-services took me away when I was seven—when some mystery person turned you in for being a total asshole!
Resigned, I hunker into the car. At Fay’s we pick up a few packs of gold and red ornaments, twinkly lights and a tree topper for twenty-five dollars. Half the savings dwindled.
After we decorate the tree, Dad exclaims, “See! Now isn’t that better? You know when Daddy is right. Oh, and I think the tree looks okay in this planter that Daddy put it in, don’t you? We don’t need a stupid tree stand. That’s what everyone has and you know how Daddy hates to be like everyone else.”
Fucking planter looks stupid, but a tree stand would have eaten up the rest of the savings. So I nod in agreement.
As I step back to admire our trimmings, I tear up. Is this a sign? Like a defining moment when our luck might change forever? Don’t hold your breath, idiot.
The glossy reflection that has formed on my eyeballs has to stay in place. Don’t let a single drop fall unless you want this decorating party to turn into a scene from Psycho. I clench my corneas to prevent the tears from draining down my cheeks.
I wish for Dad to hug me, but instead he jabbers on…
“Jenny, do you remember when you were eight and we lived at that scuzzy motel in Lake George?” I roll my eyes up to meet his. “Well, I always knew that you were a very strange child when I found you singing Christmas carols by yourself in the corner of our bedroom. We only had one can of soup to last us for 3 days. No presents. No mother. But you stood there singing goddamn Silent Night! I said to myself, this is one fucked up kid you had, Thomas!”