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Reader writers pour out Christmas stories of divorce, jail, forced intimacy

Tales of loss and desolation

A criticism implied in every gift

I don’t remember Christmas. None in particular. There’s this Christmas thread, an irregular stream of pictograms (orange snowriding disk = delight) linked by an underlying Christmas smell (new plastic, pine trees, chocolate) and an overwhelming feeling of desolation and anxiety. Oh, and that godawful music. You can’t patronize a public building this month without itching to unload an Uzi.

Let me admit right now I don’t like Christmas. Perhaps most people don’t remember and don’t like Christmas. They just bother for the children’s sake.

I talked to my mother about this. She was lying on the couch digesting Thanksgiving dinner, one arm flung over her eyes. This is what she said: “So much anxiety ... so many painful memories.” We had the radio on, and some plaintive tune by Erik Satie began when she made her statement. The first "Gymnopedie," in fact, overfamiliar from sensitive filmic depictions of conversations just like this, delicate appeals for donations to mental health foundations. My sister, beached on the living room carpet, began snickering. Some holly-jolly postcards from my brain:

A plump-legged doll in pink tights, pirouetting when pressed on the top of her head. Julie Bartholomew across the street got one too. We held a competition on the sidewalk iri front of her house (not allowed to bring new toys into friends’ houses, they might get lost). Her batteries ran out first.

The glorious spill from a quilted red plastic stocking, upended on the floor between my sister’s bed and mine. Too early in the morning to be up. Jumpy-stomached with fear the adults will wake up and send me back to bed. A typical haul: walnuts and almonds in their shells, rolls of Lifesavers candy, a plastic squirt gun, jacks, a red ball.

A large, mysterious box decorated with Kennedy-for-President bumper stickers. It lay propped against the wall behind one year’s silver-tinseled tree. It turned .out to be a set of tire chains.

There is a photograph somewhere, taken on a Christmas Eve. I’m sitting cradled in my mother’s arms. I am wearing a green sweater, my feet are bare. My best friend Jamie kneels next to us, holding a candy cane, pixieish. I am bitter about an interrupted nap and have been forced to join in a gathering: immediate family, some neighbors. My mother is resting her cheek against my hair, wearing an exaggerated, beatific smile. Our three sets of pupils are red from the flash.

Christmas Eve mornings begin with the phone ringing. My father’s mother croaking, “Christmas Eve gift!” before we can get the words out of our own mouths. Dismayed, we straddle the blanketed forms of our parents to claim our own early treats. The giddiness of unrestrained greed, permitted this one day of the year, tempered with the fear that someone will realize we have been given too many presents, too much candy.

Christmas Eve was family presents, irresistible under shiny wrappings and bows. I favored the preserve-the-paper-for-reuse method of gift opening but tended to tear it accidentally. Christmas morning was Santa’s presents, for my sister and me, unwrapped and set up like a store display in the living room. One year, all our dolls are dressed in new clothes, sitting atop a Schwinn bicycle and a painted metal doll house, each with an arm raised to salute us as we shuffled into the living room in matching fuzzy slippers (Love From Grandma, opened the night before).

It’s a cold, foggy Christmas morning. My sister and I wear purple velour jumpsuits, mom-sewn, with big paisleys printed on the ankles. We are riding out of town in the back seat of the sedan, Dad driving. Outside you can’t see the sidewalk, the water tower, the traffic signals. To Grandmother’s House We Go, sick-feeling from toothpaste on an unbreakfasted stomach, stale cigarette smell in car upholstery. The travel feeling that means Christmas.

Mom is not in the car. She stands scowling in the kitchen that morning as we head out the door. Dad says he’ll take us for pancakes before we get on the freeway. Halfway across town one of us thinks to ask about Mom.

“She’s not coming. Your mother’s feeling kind of sick.”

There is a picture in my head too of the two of them sitting Indian-style amidst crumpled wrapping paper and ribbons on the living room floor.

My father unwraps my mother’s gift to him: it’s an alarm clock. My mother unwraps his gift to her. It’s an alarm clock too. She smirks at him with half her mouth. She later puts the clock he gave her on the bedstand. He puts his away somewhere. It reappears later that year, on his own rented bedside table in his own rented apartment.

Christmases divided into all the permutations of family entailed by divorce. We must have Christmas with Mom, with her mother (and her husband, son, and daughter), then with Mom’s father and his wife, then with our father, his new wife and children (who have also had Christmas with their father), then with our father’s parents (with him, our stepmother, and stepsisters). We must decide where to have our stockings and whether to bother with a tree at home, when there are trees at Dad’s and three grandparents’ houses waiting. My sister and I debate where to exchange our gifts to each other— in our mother’s presence or our father’s. Christmas is a long series of logistical problems, weighted by the possibility of hurt feelings.

A lot of driving is done. Games and toys with small parts are left inside their plastic wrapping, unplayed with, or lost in the cracks of car seats. Most of the action takes place in the parking lots of roadside restaurants. We are sitting again in the back seat of Dad’s Chevrolet sedan, giggling with our two stepsisters, snapping bubble gum. The trunk is open behind us; Dad and Grandpa pack the presents from the trunk of another car into it. Dad teases, “Don’t peek, now!” The delicious crackling noise of bows and paper being crushed under ever more boxes containing new toys, new sweaters, new books, new hair ribbons, new crayons and felt-tipped pen sets.

The presents become the medium by which our dad, his wife, his parents ensure we have “the necessities.” Our first brassieres are given us as stocking-stuffers. Brushes and combs. Socks. We play, like all divorced children, on their perception of our deprivation. A color television set is given us one year, new sheets and blankets another.

There is food, of course, at all our appointed stops. Massive formal meals of turkey and dressing, ham — the same meal as Thanksgiving, only the paper turkey centerpiece has been replaced with a poinsettia plant. There is eggnog. There is a relentless flow of between-meal snacks: fudge, fudge with nuts, fruitcake, salted nuts, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, frosted cookies in the shapes of bells, stars, trees, camels, Santa heads. Always portions are wrapped up to be borne home at the end of the visit. A foil-wrapped paper plate of cookies from the paternal grandmother voyages (carefully wedged between suitcase and box of gifts) to father’s house, to maternal grandmother’s house, to maternal grandfather’s house, home to Mom.

And there is boredom. Endless waiting on either side of meals, of gift-opening, of morning suitcase-packings. None of us seem to know what to do with each other. There was a year when we went caroling, resentful, tight-throated. There was a year we drove into the mountains to toboggan in the snow. Later years at our father’s house we take long, chilly walks, smoke dope in the deserted school yard in new Christmas sweaters. We listen to new Christmas LPs on our stepsister’s phonograph with the bedroom door shut, make endless entries in our diaries, apply new Christmas eye shadows and colored mascara and flavored lip gloss in front of the bathroom mirror.

Money-saving gift ideas, concocted by Mom, Sis, and me. Endless baskets of bread and cookies, thousands of photographs taken and mounted in frames, sketches done in pencil, hand-drawn “certificates” for back-rubs, candy bars — to be redeemed later in the year. Despite the noble image homemade gifts have been given, they are really no more heartfelt, no more filled with the genuine spirit of Christmas than any other gifts.

Autonomy grows in teenage years. We become more selective about whom to spend our holidays with. A marriage breaks up. A grandfather dies; old age impedes another’s enthusiasm. My grandmother, wiping sink-damp hands on a terry-cloth, reindeer-printed apron, pads down her white-carpeted hallway. “Since I wasn’t sure if I was going to see you this year, I just wrote you a check. That way you can get exactly what you want.”

A first Christmas morning without a parent. I’m 18, sharing a moldy basement apartment with a girlfriend. During the night the cat has knocked ornaments off the tree. Pieces of colored broken glass make negotiating a path to the bathroom dangerous and painful. We each filled a stocking for the other: the cheap and ironically intended (a windup frog, a child’s policeman play set from the supermarket) mixed with beribboned bundles of incense, a dangling pair of earrings from the Third World.

The yearly volume of Christmas Gifts Received steadily declines in favor of Christmas Gifts Given.

I lived with a man once. We had our intimate Christmas morning a deux, cozy under a tree with our cats and the decimated boxes and wrappings left by his son, who had since been dispatched to his mother’s for his second and third (maternal grandfather) Christmases. My mother dropped by; we exchanged gifts. She took our picture under the tree. I am wearing a neck brace and my boyfriend’s silk dressing gown. I’m conscious that there is some sort of pretense at work.

I think I went for a drive that year.

I just sort of ended up with the family cardboard box Christmas decorations, the strings of lights and broken glass ornaments my mother, sister, and I put up every year when we lived together. There are old greeting cards in the box, sent 20 years ago by never-met cousins, dead great aunts. There is a cylindrical container of hand-cut balsa wood snowflakes. My quilted red plastic stocking is in the box, with my name written crookedly on its white top edge, just hidden by a tiny, crumbling pine cone and faded velveteen bow. I wrote it in ink pen when I was very young.

— Mary Lang

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the tank

I. REST YOU MERRY

I was hoping somebody would make trouble. I’d worked on Thanksgiving. I was going to have to work New Year’s. And there I was on Christmas Eve, walking around a warehouse full of strangers instead of being with my family and friends. Jail guards don’t get normal holidays and spend a third of their life behind bars for money, not for anything they’ve done. It would have been unwise for anyone to have asked for special favors. I wasn’t even getting overtime.

My security inspections were pretty cursory — I didn’t feel any warmer towards the county than towards my prize collection of felons. As far as I was concerned, they were two jaws of a conspiracy against my enjoying the holidays.

Instead of my usual silent glide in hopes of catching somebody up to something, I was tapping out a message of ill-humor through the echoing steel and concrete tunnels. Some inmates hailed me from a comer cell, “Hey! Officer Robinson. Come over here!” You bet I will, turkeys.

I was hot to refuse a few requests, even though that particular cell was a soft spot. There were three men in a four-bed cell (this was before we started crowding up to seven men into the same cells) in special confinement isolated from the general population. Tvo were in being threatened by other inmates for debts or snitching, the third was an unpopular anti-war protester — almost a political prisoner, really. I was popular with them (and most of the white inmates) because of the six weeks I’d sat in the control booth with a broken arm, and I’d always turned the radio to a pop station instead of the screaming-meemie soul station that the lieutenant had decreed would be played all the time. No small thing when you can’t turn down the radio; a trustee once told me that if there was a riot I could count on the white inmates to protect me from harm. It was not the kind of thought I find especially reassuring, even if I’d believed it.

I stalked up to the cell bars and was dumbfounded by the transformation they had made in their steel-plate cell. The walls were covered with seasonal art torn from magazines and stuck up with toothpaste. Chains of colored paper loops festooned the bunks and bars. A two-foot cone of green paper, also made from magazines and toothpaste, dominated one bed — a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments fashioned from the metallic paper out of cigarette and candy wrappers. Under the tree were several packages in colorful wrappings. One man smiled as he ostentatiously selected one, then handed it to me through the bars, “Your Christmas present.”

I stared that present down a long time before I opened it, while they savored our relative positions. It was wrapped in red paper from a newspaper ad, tied with a ribbon from God knows where. I unwrapped it, not meeting eyes. It was a small, cherry-flavored cigar from the weekly commissary. The cost less than a dime, the taste too terrible to mention, a meaning I couldn’t begin to fathom. I recall remembering that jail rules prohibit giving gifts to inmates. I remember realizing that these guys were totally broke, had bought these presents with money they needed for shampoo and smokes. I said, “Thank you, gentlemen. Merry Christmas to you all,” turned on my heel and left the cell block. I’d never given a Christmas greeting to an inmate before. It had seemed in bad taste.

Back out on the deck, I sat staring at that crummy cigar. Sorry, I can’t report any wellings of spirit and cheer. I felt shabby. I didn’t like people jerking around with the “have” and “have not” aspects of my world, with the house advantage, or with the relative blessedness of status and events. I was not, at 25, comfortable with the idea that decency, beatitude, and humor seek their own level and crop up where most needed. The ironies and the glee were making me sicker than the cherry smoke from that damn cigar would have. I went back to the “Christmas cell” with the cigar and its stupid plastic mouthpiece in my pocket. I asked those grinning longhair monkeys if they had just bought a present for me because of the radio. No, one for each of the guards on all three shifts. So what could I do? I smoked the damn thing.

II. DECK THE HALLS

I was the only one who really knew why it got to him so hard. He’d told me the story once, a few months before. It was just one more anecdote, something to explain his feelings about his parents splitting up or his attitude about foster homes. I remembered the story but couldn’t really grasp what it was all about from Matt’s point of view. Matt was a hard guy to figure, a lot of spin on him. But maybe I should have seen it coming.

His mother had gone all out for the Big Family Christmas one year. They’d just moved into a new house, and she’d done it up deluxe with white carpet in the living room and all. There’d been some tough times, but the old man was sober and working, the family was together, and she was determined to make everything nice and right.

She bought a white tree and trimmed it in silver. I guess everything was flocked and frosted and draped in silver and white; even the packages under the tree were all wrapped in white. Rewrapped if necessary. Like a magazine picture; civilized home for sophisticated modem woman. But unfortunately his unsophisticated, uncivilized old man got drunk with some of his logging buddies Christmas Eve, and they must have started talking shop because four chainsaws got going on that White Christmas set, and in nothing flat the tree was hacked to pieces, the decorations were trampled to alcoholic oblivion, and everything was covered with oil and smoke. Revenge of the Chainsaw Grinch. I guess that was about the end of the line for the family scenario, and when his Mom started blackout drinking too, Matt and the other kids ended up placed by the state.

I didn’t remember that story when Matt first brought that scraggly tree up to that ratnest apartment we shared with a few other hippie construction bums. We gave him a lot of gas about it, but he laughed it all off, just kept making paper decorations for it and coming in with little baubles he’d scrounged up to hang on it. He actually paid for a string of lights. We’d turn it on at night and sit in the dark, smoking pot and coke, watching the lights blink. We actually liked the tree, whatever crap we gave Matt about it With the lights out and tree lit, things were sort of homey, like sitting around a fire. We felt more like friends or neighbors, not just hipped-out druggies huddling together for survival. In the morning, with the lights on, it was a shabby shrub with a packrat collection hanging on it sitting in the middle of a typical post-catastrophic pigsty.

We cleaned the place up for Christmas Eve, got into the spirit of the party Matt had pumped up. All our pals were coming over to celebrate in our own fashion. Matt scrubbed and swept and got everything as right as he could in that slum. With the lights down, the tree lit, and the candles burning on every flat surface in the place, it looked pretty cozy by the time the party was in swing. Full swing pretty much meaning everyone was stoned; half laid back listening to Pink Floyd on the thrift shop stereo and half shuffling around talking trash. Phil showed up late and made an obnoxious entrance, grabbing joints and drinks from people, bragging and one-upping everybody. Freewheelin’ Phil, life of the party. I remember he’d borrowed a truck from some fool and was going to make a fortune cutting firewood. Right.

Matt went out to make a beer run, probably because he doesn’t dig Phil much and didn’t want his party spirit brought down. Then Kevin came in with a canister of butane like you fill lighters with and some plastic novelty goo that you could blow up into balloons. He blew up some butane balloons and started tossing them around. Jeffy and Alice were sitting and smooching in front of a table so full of candles it looked like a small forest fire. Probably wishing they had some chestnuts to roast. I lobbed a balloon over their heads and it caught fire just above the candles. There was a complex fireball for a second, floating free in the air, leaving a definite after-image. The lovebirds cooed and ahhhhed, theft went back to making out. Phil started making fire balloons and hanging them on the tree. They looked like colored ornaments, very trippy with the lights blinking through them.

Phil got distracted when Mike brought in the chainsaw he was going to loan him for his woodcutter fiasco. Phil was checking it out and putting it down, as usual. When Matt walked in with a quart of beer in each hand, he took one look at the saw and froze, then gave a wild glance at the tree. It was standing there looking better than before, and he relaxed, smiling at the balloons that his buddies had hung on his tree Then Kevin held a lighter under the bottom balloon, said “Flame on, Santa,” and flicked his Bic. The entire tree turned into a fireball, a blue-and-yellow burning bush. The first flash of flame took out the paper ornaments, then the fir needles caught and burned up the lights. It was really beautiful for, like, a second with the lights sparking in the flames, then it got all smoky and smelly and black.

Everyone was clapping and laughing, but Matt just stood there staring at it, pale and twitchy, holding the quarts of Bud in his hands. Then Phil yelled, “I’ll show you how Paul Bunyan opens a beer!” He yanked the rope, starting the chainsaw, and swung it up to one of the bottles of Bud. The chain rattled up the slick neck until it hit the cap, which it grabbed and spun. The cap flew off like a Frisbee, hitting the ceiling over in the comer. Everybody howled over that. I thought it was the only cool thing Phil had ever pulled off. Matt stood there holding the bottle, with a little trail of white foam running down the neck like some rabid ejaculation. Phil stuck a glass out at him and said, “What’re you waiting for, brother? Christmas?”

A lot of people make it sound worse than it was. Actually, all he did was kick the chainsaw. If it hadn’t been running it wouldn’t have torn up Phil’s shoulder like it did. And smashing a bottle in somebody’s face is a pretty everyday thing around this neighborhood. Usually empty ones, I’ll admit In fact Phil was out of the hospital a lot sooner than Matt was. I’d even say Phil had it coming, in some weird way. I never see the guy anymore. I see Matt when I can, but he doesn’t seem to care much for company. He works sweeping floors at the Bon Marche, goes home to a residence hotel, and goes to sleep. What I do is send him Christmas cards. He likes them, covers the walls in his room with them. They cheer him up, bring him into focus a little. I wish I could get him Christmas stuff all year round.

III. WHAT GIFTS HAVE I?

On my 40th birthday I was back in jail in a very different capacity, facing holidays in a tank of 30 other men also charged with violent crimes. As Christmas approached, the mood in the tank got both sullen and manicky, some men alternating brooding and laughing uproariously within an hour. Men with families spent a lot of time on the phone, while loners like me “donated” our phone time to them. Tampers were short, small kindnesses increased. I tried to lighten things up with jokes and complicated running gags, like starting a rumor that there would be a Freddy Krueger’s Christmas Special on TV. On a more practical level, there were preparations for a party.

Several of the mood-medicated inmates were saving up their “meds” and a few of the tank wheeler-dealers were calling in favors from trustees and pals in other tanks to swell the stash of pills. I remember a trustee sweeping the cat-walk and brushing a taped packet into a cell where it was snatched up and stowed away. Later I watched four men pour the contents of one of the white spansules over tobacco, light it, and smoke it. They all got goofy and comatose, so whatever it was, it was right All but that one capsule went into the party stash in the shower rod.

One of my cellmates was not in on a violent rap but with us because he was older and lame, therefore safer in the calmer atmosphere of the “killer tank.” Not having a violence “jacket,” he was allowed out to attend AA meetings in the jail chapel. On his third try he connected with a bakery trustee and brought in some packets of yeast. (On his first two tries the yeast was found in the routine strip-search and he was punished, first with loss of phone privileges, then with loss of “good time” — two more weeks he would have to serve.) He turned the yeast over to the old-timers with prison experience, who already had a collection of oranges, prunes, and apple juice saved up from chow — and the know-how for making “pruno,” the con slang for home brew.

The big plastic garbage bags were contraband but not taken very seriously, especially by seasoned guards who knew we filled them with water and used them for weightlifting — physical exercise among inmates is good for security and tranquility. They filled two bags with water and a disgusting mash of fruit and yeast, then rotated them around various hiding places for the four days of fermentation between the weekly shakedown and Christmas Eve. One sickening smelling bag spent a day on my bed in a pillowcase, during which time I was exposed to some pretty severe punishment if it had been found. I accepted the risk even though I don’t drink and had no intention of swilling that vile brew or joining their raucous little bash. When you have no family and aren’t a Christian, Christmas is just one more day. Especially in jail. Of course, those guys weren’t Christians either. In fact, they were killers, thieves, junkie drug-pushers, rapists. But if they thought that celebrating Christmas Eve was a big enough deal to risk more time over, I could go along with it out of a sense of solidarity and cellblock brotherhood. Or just as a favor to Morrison.

The main ringleader of the party and main risk-taker of the pruno brew crew, Morrison was a stocky, muscular Polynesian whose slanted eyes and long, black, braided ponytail gave him the look of a Malay bandit. He had no chance at all of beating his murder rap and was obviously the kind of guy who would never talk a parole board into letting him out after only 27 years. He had been studying psychology texts, and when he found out I had a background, he took to lounging around my cell and quizzing me, letting me gloss his reading into a comprehensive overview of abnormal and forensic psych. His goal was to fake craziness well enough to end up in some kind of mental facility, where escape might be easier than from Folsom or wherever he’d otherwise be spending his life sentence.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, the block was quiet, waiting for the party to start. A few guys started making paper party hats, which other guys thought was so stupid that they started making them too. The mood was light and warm, with much jiving and joking. One guy told a rustic Mexican inmate it was the custom to draw names out of a hat and exchange blowjobs. The hick was too shocked to react until one of his com-padres couldn’t hide a grin and we all cracked up. Everyone was party-ready, but it would have to wait for transfers, then roll call, then a last walkthrough by the guards.

Nobody had thought much about the transfers, though we had two empty beds and obviously would receive two new tankmates right after dinner. We got a very short, dark Mexican and a tall, gangly black with a long, lean, African-looking face. The Mexican, an illiterate Oaxaqueno awaiting trial for killing the owners of a “mom and pop” liquor store during a drunked-up robbery, immediately fell in with two guys his own size and disposition — the two pint-sized Oaxaca killers we already had. The young black guy didn’t speak to anybody, just looked around him, sizing things up.

Five minutes before roll call, everybody drifted into the dayroom and started assuming approximately alphabetical positions, which would allow everyone to quickly file by the guard and get everything over quickly. Morrison, the assistant tank captain, looked everything over, got the clipboard where he kept the bunk assignments, walked over to the spot on the bench where he sat to coordinate the roll call with the guard. He had been in a cocky, brash mood as Christmas (and his final sentencing) approached, and when he found the skinny black newcomer in his seat, he brusquely ordered him off. The new guy didn’t understand, thought he was getting some sort of hazing he had to stand up to in order not to make his time in the tank miserable. I saw what was coming and took a step over to explain, but Morrison had already pushed the new guy to the floor and told him he’d better learn where he was and get with it or he’d hurt.

The kid was quick, back on his feet and facing Morrison instantly, but anyone could see that he had no chance against the larger, stronger Morrison, who was built like a defensive tackle and highly respected as a fist-fighter. He was giving away four inches of reach and 50 pounds of very solid muscle. But he stood his ground and refUsed to knuckle under. Morrison, having pushed him, could have let the whole thing slide, but he pressed in, demanding surrender. I always try once, and I spoke loudly to both of them, telling them to cool it, that the cops were on their way in. They both ignored me, and there was nothing else to say. The kid offered no fight but politely refused to back down, slowly shaking his head, rolling his eyes around the circle of men, and speaking very softly with a hint of Caribbean lilt. Enraged, Morrison breasted up and reached for him, saying he was going to get a lesson in how to behave in this tank. Almost lazily, the kid looped out a fist and bloodied his nose. Morrison went completely wild. He stormed the kid in a fury, trying to bull him back against the wall and pound him to pieces. The kid hit him twice in the eyes, twirled away graceful as a dancer, and stood calmly awaiting the next charge. Morrison was foaming at the mouth. He tore off his shirt and said, “Okay, homeboy. That’s what we’ll do.” We watched, fascinated, as Morrison moved cautiously in, treading like a cat, his big fists up and ready. The kid slid away from his punch and hit him on the orbit of his left eye, starting a flow of blood that would quickly cut off half his vision. Morrison swung and missed, slipping on the smooth cement floor and falling onto a steel bench. The kid did not move to exploit the fall, but when Morrison moved toward him again, he threw a flurry of punches in his face. None of them looked hard, but they all landed with surgical accuracy, and one knocked Morrison down again. We couldn’t really understand what we were seeing, but Morrison had sense enough to know when he was licked, even though it meant sucking up a lot of shame. He said, “Okay, homeboy. Sorry 1 picked on you. Let’s chill out until the cops are gone.” We were as shocked by this out of Morrison as we had been by the fighting skills out of the skinny transfer.

When the roll call was over, Morrison walked up to the kid, who was softly talking with some rather impressed new friends and watched him coming without alarm. Morrison stuck out his hand and said, “You really know how to get down to business there, Homes.” The kid demurely mentioned that he was the baby of a big family and had needed to learn early how to take care of himself. Morrison sat down facing him and said, “Thanks. I needed that.” The kid was the only English-speaking person in the room not amazed by that statement.

“I mean it,” Morrison continued his uncharacteristic apology. “I’ve been getting really cocky and obnoxious around here. I’m going to the joint pretty soon and don’t need an attitude when I get there. I needed getting taken down a peg, and I guess you were the guy to do it for me.” You’re not really supposed to talk like that in the slam, unless you’re tough enough to back it up.

The kid looked at him, nodded, and smiled, “I don’t want to make any trouble for anybody, you know? Just tell me what’s the system.” Morrison smiled back at him. There had been some question as whether or not to include the new transfers in the party refreshments. They had not contributed and could always be snitches, like the guy in October who ratted us off for pills and cost us two weeks of TV. Morrison made that decision on the spot. He said, “You get high?” The kid looked around and said, “Sometimes I party. On holidays, you know?” Morrison pulled out a sack full of pills and said, “Welcome to Club Meds, homeboy. Somebody get us a drink.”

I went back and sat on my bunk awhile, then pulled out a legal tablet and quickly dashed off a two-page comic parody poem. I can only remember the first two lines now: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the tank/ Everybody and his buddy was yanking his crank... ” I walked out into the dayroom, pushed through the grinning, glassy-eyed culprits, and posted it on the bulletin board. It was read aloud amid whooping and hilarity. Even a few Mexicans who couldn’t understand it yelped out long Hispanic ai yi yis over the din. One of the Mexicans slapped a folded newspaper hat on my head, sideways like Napoleon. He had written “Me Vale Madre” on it. “It means Mother to me,” Mexican slang for “I don’t give a shit.” A guard stepped into the catwalk to check out the commotion, and everyone cheered and waved their hats at him. He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas, assholes,” and everyone laughed. Morrison weaved up to me and handed me a plastic cup of the kickapoo juice. The smell made me a little queasy. He said, “Merry Christmas, brother?’ and raised his cup. I tapped my cup against his, said, “God help us, every one,” and drank. It was the nastiest stuff I’ve ever tasted. □

— Linton Robinson

For a few mouthfuls of booze

There was always something not quite right with it, wasn’t there? The contemporary American celebration of Christmas. In a country so reflexively sensitive to Protestant admonitions of thrift, of, essentially, moral sobriety, the annual coercive campaign of forced spending, forced intimacy, seemed exactly that — forced. In a country so demanding that the public persona express absolutely the intents and desires of the private, it is amazing that the compelled generosity of Christmas ever became confused with true generosity at all.

More to the point, and let’s be honest, the celebration of Christmas in Southern California was always a fairly ominous affair. It was those decorated trees, dried to an exquisite combustibility by the Southern Californian air. Each year they become, collectively, a roaring forest fire of Christmas cheer. Each year we watch with the same slack-jawed imitation of pity the sooty faces of the firemen, the charred doll salvaged from the inferno, the dumbstruck faces of the newly orphaned. And what Christmas in Southern California would be complete without its somber story of the migrant laborer family asphyxiated by the charcoal grill they’d brought inside to warm them in their tar-paper shack? These local scenes, this local cast of characters, have been repeated so frequently, with such ritualistic regularity, that they have become indistinguishable from the other elements within the holiday’s traditional narrative line — the Three Wise Men, the Star in the East, the Virgin, the blue-faced families of Mexican farmworkers, the home engulfed in flames...

This is not, of course, to say that these events are necessarily predestined to happen. But there is much our society consciously does to enhance their lurid and familiar morality-tale-quality in the popular mind. (Don’t homes burn down all year ’round? Don’t migrants meet pathetic deaths in the spring? Why does waiting for Santa make these things more real? What is our fascination with these events? What purpose does our fascination serve?) And this in itself points to the very genuine flaws in our ability to see the world around us, acknowledge its many problems, and find some way to solve them, if that’s what we hope to do, after all. Take, for example, the various “charity” drives organized around the holiday. At Christmastime, newspapers and television tell us, poor children are suddenly without toys; the abandoned elderly are suddenly more lonely; and those who sleep outside, while the worst of the winter still awaits them, are most acutely uncomfortable on or about December 24.

Coincidentally, the most flimsy sort of short-term good-will gestures seem far more potentially effective than they did a few months before: send some used clothes to the miserable of Tijuana; spend Christmas Eve at a soup kitchen; take a box of cookies to the ancient paraplegic who lives alone next door. In short, the giving associated with Christmas often resembles a rite of unburdening.

Perhaps it is this symbolic tension — things being other than what they appear— that generates the odd, morality-tale atmosphere that is so pervasive at Yuletide. But what exactly is the moral to this tale?

The answer more than likely lies, or is more readily perceived at any rate, in the grand public gestures made during Christmas. These acts, committed by the government ostensibly on behalf of its citizenry, do, by their own ham-handedness, deftly betray us all:

Several years ago a friend and I, on Christmas Eve, visited the “Mayor’s Shelter for the Homeless” that Maureen O’Connor had installed in the Community Concourse downtown. It was raining; the shelter was full. Till tarpaulin barriers had been erected to divide the vast floor space into “departments” in which the homeless could avail themselves of various services, or simply sleep, or lounge about. In one area meals were served, in another medics tended wounds. In yet another barbers gave haircuts for free. My friend and I wandered hand-in-hand through the makeshift shelter lighted starkly by free-standing, high-wattage lamps. We pulled aside one tarpaulin and saw bums snoring, pulled aside another and saw grimy men and women packing roast turkey into their mouths. We were about to leave when we heard a woman squeal behind us. She was scampering to the far dark end of the room. Her head — and this is important — was about two sizes too small. Too small, that is, in proportion to her frame, which was draped in a long tattered housecoat and fitted with boots. She was, properly put, a giggling pinhead. And this defect was enhanced by the topknot, obviously coiffed by one of the volunteer barbers, which wiggled atop her head as she ran. She trotted past us. We followed, and in the dim tarpaulin corridors we lost her. But we could, and did, follow her laugh.

Turning a corner, we came upon the source of her glee. Behind one of the broad tarpaulins, back-lighted by one of the free-standing lamps, she and a trio of male companions were unmistakably sharing a bottle. But in the Mayor’s shelter, as in the larger world outside, Christmas generosity was not exactly what it at first seemed to be. My friend and I slowly realized we were watching a tax-subsidized performance of a kind of Indonesian shadow-puppet play. In this very local interpretation, however, good did not win over evil. The shadows we saw depicted a pinhead performing fellatio on a derelict in exchange for a few mouthfuls of booze. There was no mistaking it: his hand grasping the topknot for leverage; his erection; the abnormal smallness of her bobbing head; all projected against the tarpaulin in shadows that were, one would assume, larger than life. My friend started weeping. We hurried outside to the rain.

That our Mayor had deigned to provide these people a comfortable refuge in which to act out their degradation, rather than seek to assuage their actual degradation at all, is the obvious plot of this particular Christmas morality tale. That she no more sincerely cares about the wretched than do we, though not explicit, is its implied theme. And the moral, the Yuletide message is that while citizens actually spend and give a great deal at Christmastime, they are, in reality, buying the right to pay lip service to high ideals at virtually no personal cost at all.

— Abe Opincar

Ice-piqued

Eighteen hundred dollars. Eighteen hundred stinking dollars in Ulysses S. Grant notes, tucked into the bottom of my sock, like every other boob off the boat in New York City. Dazed, the wife and I wander outside Port Authority, possessions strapped to our backs.

Dark now at 42nd and 8th. Sex World, menacing windshield raggers, hustlers, crazies, noise.

It’s an Eternal Night. There may be daylight, but never any sun. I’ve seen the Nickel in L.A., Sixth Street in San Francisco, but here the hell seems so permanent and definitive.

We were newly married then, Robin and I. I’d strayed too many times before and baited her with the band of gold as proof of my new stick-to-it-iveness. Connubial bliss soon degenerated into mirror-shattering psychotic episodes brought to a head by drug dabbling and nonstop boozing. These Liz ’n’ Dick style recreations seemed to correlate with R’s body chemistry, whether the Kentucky bourbon agreed with the day’s dosage of Lithium.

The bad smells of the boulevard strangely didn’t diminish our appetites, though we couldn’t finish the two-day-old pieces of rubber masquerading as pizza at an Eighth Avenue dive. Shelter was another problem. Now that Sid Vicious had made a sleazy kip like the Chelsea famous, rooms were going for 120 bucks a night. With 50 pounds of deadweight strapped to each of our backs, we were happy to alight upon an SRO named the Allerton, where a week’s residence set us back 100 simoleons. No preview of the rooms, and it’s just as well. On our way up the stairs to the fourth floor, we came to realize that the rats were pets and the walls Abstract Expressionist masterpieces painted with live roaches. All the toilets are shattered and functionless; the tenants crap in the hallway and piss out the window.

The next day, the Voice comes out with an expose of the Allerton as the worst example of slum-lordism in Manhattan. I swell up like a tick with pride. Only a day in New York and already I’ve achieved a certain celebrity.

Scanning the Voice apartment listings for a more-or-less permanent spot leaves me gasping. Even deep down the alphabet in the East Village, two tiny rooms rent for over a grand. Does not include functioning bathroom or even glass on the windows. In 1985, year of the merger boom, even the stockbrokers have taken to squatting.

In a shambly real estate office down on Ludlow Street (one block East of Orchard), two Jews out of a Milt Gross comic novel talk me out of 1200 bills for temporary dwelling privilege in a storefront (no windows, shower, or tub, just one sickly green room and a hole cut in the floor through which the previous tenant’s dog took a haphazard shit).

Though it’s late November, there’s no heat inside. “What you worry?” says Irv. “You’ll have heat. We just pay off the guy down the street. You’ll get it, don’t worry yourself.” Days pass, the weather turns ugly, and the landlords insist gas heat is a millisecond away. “Irv didn’t get that fixed for you?” exclaims Hyman. “I’m gonna call him at home and let ’im have it.” Next day: “Hym said that!?” exclaims Irv. “He told me that he paid off the gas guy. We’ll get you up in no time.”

December now and the only things moving on this four-degrees-above-zero-minus-wind-chill-factor afternoon are the junkies sticking their arms into the building across the street for a fix. Robin’s in the sleeping bag, under an electric blanket turned high, shivering, coughing, looking tubercular. Thank God she no longer has the strength to complain. Clinging to her neck is an adopted tomcat in a Walter Keane-style tableau.

I hear about a wood-buming stove for sale, drag it home, jury-rig an aluminum flue out the window. Scrounge combustible material where I can find it. Fire! What an invention! On a day when discarded furniture and wooden pallets are scarce, I locate a cache of wooden police barriers by the Houston Street projects and spirit them home past a purposefully oblivious NY cop.

Maybe the cop knew the barriers were treated. Creosote fumes back up from the stove and into the apartment, forcing us phlegm-coughers into the street.

While we’re pouring buckets of water on the flames, two characters from SS training camp burst into the sanctity of my home, yelling, “Rolfe, Rolfe!” insisting in fractured English that I must know the whereabouts of their Bavarian buddy. After they’re persuaded to leave, a lanky, beard-shadowed skinhead in a thigh-length leather jacket accosts me. “Hallo. I’m Rolfe.”

Down to my last few dollars, I take the first job I find, a $4.50-an-hour stint at the Strand, a bookstore run with the efficiency and empathy of a concentration camp. Tb instill fear into the arty types who work the store, the owner has set up a sadistic employee-harassment system in which high-paid kapos (“Supervisors”) keep on your tail and note every infraction aloud in stentorian voices. Every few minutes, a Supervisor would importune me to carry backbreakingly heavy bags of reviewers’ copies downstairs for an unsavory assortment of graft-mad publishing industry weasels.

On Xmas eve, in lieu of a bonus, the owner of the bookstore lets the employees out 15 minutes early. While trudging home in the cold, I notice that my $8 thrift store overcoat sports a puke stain on the front lapel. At home the wife frantically attempts to coax Brick the cat out of the walls. The cat apparently found a perch between the gypsum and older lathe-and-plaster and is now miaowing as if tortured by rodents. Screams of “Careful. You’ll kill him!” as I hacksaw through the drywall to rescue the imbecilic feline.

As if in answer to my prayers, Robin tells me of her imminent return to California; we spend the evening poking the embers in the stove and guzzling cheap brandy. That cold evening we discover our drinking water has frozen in its glasses.

The sound of pounding on the front grate interrupts a pleasant nightmare. One eye opens. More pounding. The AM-FM clock radio reads 7:03 a.m. Pounding.

“Who is it?”

“Police!”

Unlatch the door, lift up the grate. The first snow is falling, muffling the usual tenement rattle. A fine Xmas mom. Red-faced NYPD stands accusingly in front of me, his partner and two ambulance workers working in the background.

“Know this guy?” asks the cop.

“What guy?”

He points to the ground. A well-dressed black man lies face down, blood leaking into white snow. An awl or icepick sticks out of the back of his top coat.

“No, I don’t know him.”

“Did you hear anything going on last night?”

“Just the salsa from the after-hours club a couple doors down. Is he dead?”

The cop doesn’t answer, walks away. Ambulance men lift the lifeless body onto a gurney. An arm falls, swinging loose. Snowflakes fall on his expressionless face. They don’t melt. — Adam Parfrey

Win friends, influence people, lose yourself

Chapter I

In Which Old Marlow Encounters a Salesman Aboard a Train-, and Begins to Digress into the Sorry Tale of His Niece

AS A GENERAL RULE, OLD MARLOW liked to take two facing seats when he rode the 11:02 from Old Greenwich to Grand Central Terminal. He could sit in one seat and prop his feet upon the other (after first covering it with his stinking Aquascutum raincoat — $25 at a Junior League rummage sale in Hobe Sound, Florida!). Thus ensconced, he could snooze away or read the New York Times or fiddle with paperwork from his three-days-a-week sinecure at the Snodgrass Foundation for the Fellowship of Man. (What did the foundation do? “Beats me,” said Marlow when asked. “And I’ve been director for 15 years.”) He trusted that anyone wishing to sit across from him would resist the temptation after a moment’s thought, for Marlow appeared to be such a crotchety old gentleman!

But today Marlow’s luck failed him. At Cos Cob a fellow boarded the coach and sat down beside the raincoat. Marlow awoke from pretended slumber and eyed the criminal: a chubby, redfaced fellow of about five-and-forty who wore a green glen-plaid suit and carried a squarish black bag that appeared to be a sales case. The fat man smiled and nodded at Marlow as though greeting the parson; then he produced a paperback book from his suitcoat pocket and began to read. It was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Through slitted eyes Marlow watched as the salesman beetled his brow and slid his tongue to the corner of his firm, wide mouth. The salesman nodded again, then again; and finally smiled, opened mouth and eyes wide and exclaimed, “Ah, that’s rich! That’s the stuff!” Bouncing up and down in his seat, he waved the book at Marlow (who evidently had failed in his second attempt to feign sleep) and said, “You ever read this, old feller?”

Marlow cleared his throat and then sniffed in a long, coarse-sounding rumble. “I believe my niece read that book,” he replied. “It completely destroyed her sanity.”

“Pshaw! How did that happen?”

“Her name was Margot. In fact it still is. She was a quiet, bookish girl when young, so quiet that parents feared for her future. At every occasion she would be dragged out to sing and tap dance for friends and relatives. She balked and cried, but her parents assured her that she would never amount to anything if she didn’t learn to be entertaining and gregarious.

“While she was yet a tiny tot, she was forced to warble ‘Less Work for Mother’ alongside her elder sister on a Sunday afternoon television program entitled The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour. Three weeks running she did this, and after each performance her sister and father mocked her and beat her and crowned her with thorns for not singing up to par.”

“And her mother?” asked Marlow’s newfound traveling companion.

“I believe she beat her too, but much of the time the mother was off in the insane asylum. Anyway, by the time Margot was in her teens, she was totally in thrall to the family philosophy. In high school and college she joined every school organization in sight, regarding it as her sworn duty to be one of the most popular characters around. But she was still dissatisfied with herself — she was innately shy, and she’d leave every bright, engaging social encounter feeling sick and hollow inside. She decided that what she needed was to toughen herself up — get a baptism of fire, if you will. And so, the summer after her freshman year at Yale, she took a job selling books door-to-door for a company based in Nashville, Tennessee.

“For reasons known only to God and Robert Browning, the company assigned her territory in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a place she had never been in her entire life. And I’m afraid she felt dreadfully inept on this mission. But much as she dreaded knocking on the doors of small-town strangers, she didn’t dare give up. The con men who ran the operation in Nashville had warned her that if she failed as a door-to-door dictionary salesperson, she would fail at everything else in life! So she stuck it out for one month and then packed up her small valise and hitchhiked all the way to the house of a friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“For a while she was proud of this hitchhiking adventure; it seemed to redeem her from the shame of having jumped ship in Chippewa Falls. However, when she started her sophomore year in the fall, the words of the con men in Tennessee came back to haunt her: having washed out of door-to-door book-flogging, she must now proceed to fail at everything else. Within a few months her distress was so great she withdrew from college. She spent most of the next three years in a deep depression.”

Chapter II

Marlow Continues the Story: In Which Margot Learns Some Pratfalls of Adult Life and Samples an Extended Vacation in San Diego, California.

Seeing that his fellow-traveler was rapt with attention, Marlow continued the tale “Margot eventually graduated from college Then she spent the best part of a decade again trying to normalize herself into a popular, sociable young woman. She took her cues from her peers in Big Business — she labored first for Touche Ross & Co. and then American Express. With every passing year she tried to incorporate a new layer of conventionality into herself. She didn’t like high heels, but three-inch heels were the norm for businesswomen, so she wore them, along with $150 Hermes scarves and tailored suits from Paul Stuart. She spent many an evening playing squash, running in corporate footraces in Central Park, and volunteering to teach crippled colored children to read.”

“Busy girl! Hope she didn’t get raped!”

“Oh my! It gets much more pathetic than that. These efforts to remake herself kept her pacified for a while, but inevitably she backslid, ending up an unhappy hermit who dwelt in lonely cold-water flats in Hoboken and Manhattan. The only companions she had (apart from coworkers) were other lost souls like herself, generally unemployable young men who devoted their time to hatching or exposing one conspiracy or another.

“Margot survived psychologically by telling herself that somehow, someday, a drastic change in fortune would turn her life around. But in the dark night of her soul, she suspected that the old hicks in Nashville had been right all along: she lacked the essential temper to get on in the world; she would fail at everything she did.

“That turn in fortune seemed to arrive in the spring of 1990. Margot ran into a long-lost friend whom she’d had a secret crush on in college. The old friend — we shall call her Terri — resembled Margot in shape and personality, but her career had been diametrically opposite. Whereas Margot had spent the past decade making herself ever more mainstream, the old friend had followed her own lights and worked out a successful career as a freelance video producer and screenwriter.

“Elated as she was at finding the old friend, Margot was also bitter. She sensed that Terri had taken the right path and she had taken the wrong one. Worse: Margot felt that the old friend had stolen her life.

“Now. By one of those odd coincidences that are commonplace, both Terri and Margot were planning to move to Southern California at the end of that year. Between summer and autumn, Margot fashioned herself after Terri, trying to meet all of her friends. Margot was so excited and blissful — you would have thought she’d found the philosopher’s stone. No doubt she was telling herself, ‘I was wrong in trying to meld into the faceless, corporate scene. But now, I shall make myself popular among boho queers and artistes, and I shall have it made.’

“You may find this difficult to believe, sir, but young Margot now applied the glad-handing bit to acquaintances in Terri’s circle. Most of Margot's old friendships had expired —save for a conspirator or two — and she was ready to suck up to any new crowd that came her way.”

“We all need friends,” said the salesman. “Yes. Well. I’m afraid our Margot must have seemed a rather odd bird to the nose-ringed photographers and lesbian performance artists with whom she now consorted. Her spoken idiom was pure MBA-yuppie; her sphere of reference was AdWeek and Forbes. And she was literally astonished to find that her new SoHo pals had never heard of George Will or Barron’s.

“But all this is prologue. At the end of October 1990, Margot attended Terri’s going-away party.

She drank from the moment she arrived, always keeping herself one drink short of nausea. Thus intoxicated, she made herself the life of the party. A crippled man arrived, so Margot and her red-haired Spanish dancing partner grabbed the lame fellow’s crutches and devised a hilarious ‘crutch dance’ — sort of a tango done while balancing a crutch on one hand.

“At this pre-Halloween shindig, Margot made many new acquaintances, but we are concerned here only with the two who by Christmastime would make her life hell. One of them, sporting the odd name of Susy Jupiter, was a sort of burlesque performer who had recently appeared on the cover of On Our Backs, an intellectual porno magazine for female inverts. Margot had never heard of her, but they became fast friends. Susy had broken up with her girlfriend in Hell’s Kitchen and was looking for another apartment. Margot suggested Susy take over her sublet on East 26th Street, and Susy seemed quite interested.

“The second acquaintance was a slatternly woman in her 50s named Mona McNutt. Once upon a time Mona McNutt had been an up-and-coming photographer: during the ’60s she received some mild acclaim for a series of pornographic photos. Since then, drink, drugs, and infirmity had taken their toll. Professionally she hadn’t made a dime in years, but she managed to maintain an East Village loft and a West Hollywood flat by combining a small inheritance with a penchant for welfare scams.

“Keep these two in mind as we return to Margot’s adventures.

“In November she traveled through New Mexico and Arizona, winding up finally in San Diego, where she took a lease on an apartment in a pleasant, verdant area called Hillcrest. Susy Jupiter’s family lived near San Diego, so Susy and Margot got together around Thanksgiving when Susy came west to visit her kinfolk. By this point Margot and Susy had talked a number of times and firmed up Susy’s plans to take over Margot’s Manhattan apartment.

“Now, during this period — several weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas — Margot was staying in a La Jolla motel; her new apartment was still bare and unfurnished. Margot’s schedule was equally bare. She started each day intending to explore the farthest nick and cranny of San Diego County but usually wound up sacked out on her motel bed, watching TV and fitfully trying to read. Deep melancholy would set in around 5 p.m. as she watched fresh-faced newscasters grin and try to pass off flimsy local rubbish as hard news. For the next two hours she’d drink beer, then go for a swim in the outdoor pool. A 40-minute swim — the high point of the whole day.

“ ‘What went wrong with my life?’ she’d ask herself in her depressive moments. ‘I’ve been cheerful and alert, a good partier. People seem to like me. I’m brighter and more attractive than most people. But I’m always sad and lonely.’ She took solitary meals by herself in restaurants, pretending to be deeply absorbed in writing in her journal so no one could look at her and see how pitiable she was. Christmas was near, so her mind inevitably went back to other sad Christmases, such as the one in 1976, when she feasted all alone on a bad roast beef sandwich at a Holiday Inn in New Haven.”

Chapter III

In Which Marlow Relates How His Niece Avoided a Jolly Christmas and Reconciled Herself to Failure

“I have already told you that Margot’s apartment was bare, and she needed to return to New York to pack up her things. First she needed to get to the airport”

“In San Diego,” prompted the salesman.

“No! Not in San Diego!” Marlow exclaimed. “She had rented a car in Santa Fe, and the rental company told her they’d charge her an extra $500 if she didn’t drive the car back.

“Do you know how long it takes one person to drive from San Diego to Santa Fe? Margot had done it before, and she knew: two days. So it was that she stopped one freezing December night in a crumbling inn in Flagstaff, Arizona. All seemed deserted. An old dust-covered hag at the front desk gave her a key to something called the Walter Brennan Room on the fourth floor. The Walter Brennan Room was not made up. Margot collapsed upon the unmade bed and cried. ‘Perhaps for the price I’m paying I don’t rate a tidy room with clean sheets!’ ”

“I been in hotels like that!” said Marlow’s companion.

“Shut up,” said Marlow. “Margot finally composed herself and called the front desk. The old woman downstairs tsk-tsk’d and reassigned Margot to the Gary Cooper Suite.

“And what a suite was the Gary Cooper! Three times the size of the Walter Brennan, with an enormous, plush bed, acres of chiffarobes, and a seven-foot cheval mirror on a brass stand in the comer! Margot perked up. She washed, put on new makeup, and went back downstairs.

“ ‘Any place around here where I can get a drink?’ she asked. It was nearly ten at night, and the entire town seemed closed down.

“ ‘Well, there’s the cocktail lounge right there,’ said the old crone

“ ‘Sounds good to me,’ said Margot, and it was. The hotel’s cocktail lounge proved to be a tiny tavern whose entrance was gaily decorated with dusty plastic red-and-green wreaths. Inside, a young bartender named Joe was holding court with his drunken contemporaries, bohemian young men of the sort Margot understood: they had migrated to Flagstaff for some reason and then forgot what it was.

“After two Jack Danielses, neat, Margot was her old convivial self: a close buddy to the other good-for-nothings in the bar. She chatted for a while, then went to the jukebox and started up a nonstop set of old country hits.

“Margot was singing along with Hank Williams when a new person arrived, a twentyish girl in black leather jacket, nose ring, and red-red lipstick. This girl Jill invited Margot out to a Western bar nearby. They ended up two-stepping with drunken cowboys. ‘Watch m’ shoulders. Watch m’ eyes,’ Margot’s cowboy repeated. Margot was drunk and kept collapsing in laughter.

“Jill said she’d call Margot the next day, but she didn’t, so Margot left for Santa Fe. Three days later she was back in dark, cold, blustery New York. There were ten days left to the year, and Margot had a fat agenda for each of them. She had to pack up her belongings, call a mover, and make final arrangements for Susy Jupiter’s sublet.

"Just before Christmas, Susy backed out of the sublet. This was a disappointment, but not nearly as much of an annoyance as some other information Susy dropped in passing:

“ ‘Oh, and I was so surprised to find out that Mona McNutt photographed you 25 years ago. I had no idea you were that old,’ said Susy. “And Margot said, ‘What?!’

“In a breezy, befuddled fashion, Susy explained that Mona McNutt had told anyone who would listen that Margot had once been a prostitute and photographer’s model who had posed for Mona sometime between 1965 and 1967. Mona had suggested, furthermore, that Margot and she had been on-and-off lovers for six months.

“And Margot asked, ‘How old was I supposed to be in 1965?’

“ ‘Then? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe 20, 25.’

“ ‘That would make me 50 now. Surely I don’t look 50.’

“ ‘Oh yeah?’ said Susy. “Well, what do you know? I don’t go around with a calculator all the time.’ “ ‘And I never laid eyes on Mona McNutt before or after Terri’s party. Say, when did Mona McNutt tell you all this?’

“ ‘Oh, it was like the day after the party. She called me on the telephone.’

“ ‘You mean to tell me that all the times you’ve seen me since then, here and San Diego, you’ve believed that crap and never bothered to tell me about it?’

“ ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, Margot. In high school I got called a slut!’

“As you might imagine, Margot blew a gasket. She continued to hiss for three days. She dialed up Mona McNutt and asked her why she had been spreading that story. Mona was in the middle of hosting a Christmas party at her Bleecker Street loft — ‘Oh, look, Taylor Mead just came in. Hi, Taylor!’ — and she was in no condition to carry on a rational conversation.”

“Hold on,” said the salesman. “Who is Taylor Mead?”

“A Lower East Side layabout who appeared in some dirty movies 20 years ago. Anyway, this drunken McNutt woman finally caught on to what Margot was calling about. She turned hostile and defensive. ‘Oh, what the fuck do YOU want? I don’t know you.’

“ ‘Right,’ said Margot. ‘You don’t know me. So why are you spreading these ridiculous, filthy stories about me?’

“Margot spent the next few days calling up acquaintances and asking if they’d heard the stories that Mona McNutt woman was trying to spread. Friends weren’t sympathetic. ‘Oh, cool your jets, Margot,’ they’d say. ‘I don’t .care one way or the other about your past.’

“When she couldn’t get anyone else on the phone, Margot turned to phone harassment of the McNutt woman, who, drunk or sober, refused to apologize. Susy Jupiter finally phoned Margot to ask her to lay off. She also told Margot, ‘At this point, I wish I had never met you.’ “Christmas to New Year’s was a bitter time for Margot. Fantasies of revenge clouded her mind. She would print up thousands of little stickers and plaster them around New York: ‘For a good time, call Mona.’ She would subscribe to six dozen magazines under McNutt’s name. Record and book clubs and the Franklin Mint would send McNutt endless buckets of unwanted rubbish. McNutt’s mailbox would fill with rejection letters from credit cards she hadn’t applied for.

“The last couple of nights in New York were sleepless ones for Margot. She’d stare at the ceiling of her creepy East 26th Street apartment and go back over the events of the last two months. Once again, possibly for the last time, she’d put her faith in her ability to Win Friends and Influence People. But Dame Nature had had the last say. The most Margot could ever hope for was the chance to eke out a hole-and-comer living someplace. She laughed softly about it all — imagining that up and down the byways of America, in Carlsbad and in Cripple Creek, folks were all gossiping about her and Mona McNutt.

“I said these nights were sleepless, and they were. She tried drinking a glass of wine; she tried reading The Pickwick Papers— to no avail. There was nothing for it but to rise and finish packing her belongings for San Diego. And Margot told herself that when she got back to San Diego she’d finally resign herself to being a hermit, a nothing, a nonentity like the elderly folks in funny old shoes and hats you see whiling away the afternoons on park benches.” The salesman spoke again. “So, she resigned herself to being a hermit?”

“Don’t be silly,” Marlow said. “Life is a never-ending loop of folly. We play out the same errors, worship the same delusions year after year after year — till finally the loop breaks and we’re spared any further humiliation. Now, my loop is a good deal closer to breaking than yours is, and that is why I am a happier man than you.” “You don’t look very happy.”

“I don’t have to. And that, Mr. Salesman, is bliss.”

— Margot Sheehan

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Had his hand in: Padres, Westgate Hotel, Westgate Tuna, Yellow Cab, Kona Kai, Fashion Valley

C. Arnholt Smith was the ultimate Mr. San Diego

A criticism implied in every gift

I don’t remember Christmas. None in particular. There’s this Christmas thread, an irregular stream of pictograms (orange snowriding disk = delight) linked by an underlying Christmas smell (new plastic, pine trees, chocolate) and an overwhelming feeling of desolation and anxiety. Oh, and that godawful music. You can’t patronize a public building this month without itching to unload an Uzi.

Let me admit right now I don’t like Christmas. Perhaps most people don’t remember and don’t like Christmas. They just bother for the children’s sake.

I talked to my mother about this. She was lying on the couch digesting Thanksgiving dinner, one arm flung over her eyes. This is what she said: “So much anxiety ... so many painful memories.” We had the radio on, and some plaintive tune by Erik Satie began when she made her statement. The first "Gymnopedie," in fact, overfamiliar from sensitive filmic depictions of conversations just like this, delicate appeals for donations to mental health foundations. My sister, beached on the living room carpet, began snickering. Some holly-jolly postcards from my brain:

A plump-legged doll in pink tights, pirouetting when pressed on the top of her head. Julie Bartholomew across the street got one too. We held a competition on the sidewalk iri front of her house (not allowed to bring new toys into friends’ houses, they might get lost). Her batteries ran out first.

The glorious spill from a quilted red plastic stocking, upended on the floor between my sister’s bed and mine. Too early in the morning to be up. Jumpy-stomached with fear the adults will wake up and send me back to bed. A typical haul: walnuts and almonds in their shells, rolls of Lifesavers candy, a plastic squirt gun, jacks, a red ball.

A large, mysterious box decorated with Kennedy-for-President bumper stickers. It lay propped against the wall behind one year’s silver-tinseled tree. It turned .out to be a set of tire chains.

There is a photograph somewhere, taken on a Christmas Eve. I’m sitting cradled in my mother’s arms. I am wearing a green sweater, my feet are bare. My best friend Jamie kneels next to us, holding a candy cane, pixieish. I am bitter about an interrupted nap and have been forced to join in a gathering: immediate family, some neighbors. My mother is resting her cheek against my hair, wearing an exaggerated, beatific smile. Our three sets of pupils are red from the flash.

Christmas Eve mornings begin with the phone ringing. My father’s mother croaking, “Christmas Eve gift!” before we can get the words out of our own mouths. Dismayed, we straddle the blanketed forms of our parents to claim our own early treats. The giddiness of unrestrained greed, permitted this one day of the year, tempered with the fear that someone will realize we have been given too many presents, too much candy.

Christmas Eve was family presents, irresistible under shiny wrappings and bows. I favored the preserve-the-paper-for-reuse method of gift opening but tended to tear it accidentally. Christmas morning was Santa’s presents, for my sister and me, unwrapped and set up like a store display in the living room. One year, all our dolls are dressed in new clothes, sitting atop a Schwinn bicycle and a painted metal doll house, each with an arm raised to salute us as we shuffled into the living room in matching fuzzy slippers (Love From Grandma, opened the night before).

It’s a cold, foggy Christmas morning. My sister and I wear purple velour jumpsuits, mom-sewn, with big paisleys printed on the ankles. We are riding out of town in the back seat of the sedan, Dad driving. Outside you can’t see the sidewalk, the water tower, the traffic signals. To Grandmother’s House We Go, sick-feeling from toothpaste on an unbreakfasted stomach, stale cigarette smell in car upholstery. The travel feeling that means Christmas.

Mom is not in the car. She stands scowling in the kitchen that morning as we head out the door. Dad says he’ll take us for pancakes before we get on the freeway. Halfway across town one of us thinks to ask about Mom.

“She’s not coming. Your mother’s feeling kind of sick.”

There is a picture in my head too of the two of them sitting Indian-style amidst crumpled wrapping paper and ribbons on the living room floor.

My father unwraps my mother’s gift to him: it’s an alarm clock. My mother unwraps his gift to her. It’s an alarm clock too. She smirks at him with half her mouth. She later puts the clock he gave her on the bedstand. He puts his away somewhere. It reappears later that year, on his own rented bedside table in his own rented apartment.

Christmases divided into all the permutations of family entailed by divorce. We must have Christmas with Mom, with her mother (and her husband, son, and daughter), then with Mom’s father and his wife, then with our father, his new wife and children (who have also had Christmas with their father), then with our father’s parents (with him, our stepmother, and stepsisters). We must decide where to have our stockings and whether to bother with a tree at home, when there are trees at Dad’s and three grandparents’ houses waiting. My sister and I debate where to exchange our gifts to each other— in our mother’s presence or our father’s. Christmas is a long series of logistical problems, weighted by the possibility of hurt feelings.

A lot of driving is done. Games and toys with small parts are left inside their plastic wrapping, unplayed with, or lost in the cracks of car seats. Most of the action takes place in the parking lots of roadside restaurants. We are sitting again in the back seat of Dad’s Chevrolet sedan, giggling with our two stepsisters, snapping bubble gum. The trunk is open behind us; Dad and Grandpa pack the presents from the trunk of another car into it. Dad teases, “Don’t peek, now!” The delicious crackling noise of bows and paper being crushed under ever more boxes containing new toys, new sweaters, new books, new hair ribbons, new crayons and felt-tipped pen sets.

The presents become the medium by which our dad, his wife, his parents ensure we have “the necessities.” Our first brassieres are given us as stocking-stuffers. Brushes and combs. Socks. We play, like all divorced children, on their perception of our deprivation. A color television set is given us one year, new sheets and blankets another.

There is food, of course, at all our appointed stops. Massive formal meals of turkey and dressing, ham — the same meal as Thanksgiving, only the paper turkey centerpiece has been replaced with a poinsettia plant. There is eggnog. There is a relentless flow of between-meal snacks: fudge, fudge with nuts, fruitcake, salted nuts, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, frosted cookies in the shapes of bells, stars, trees, camels, Santa heads. Always portions are wrapped up to be borne home at the end of the visit. A foil-wrapped paper plate of cookies from the paternal grandmother voyages (carefully wedged between suitcase and box of gifts) to father’s house, to maternal grandmother’s house, to maternal grandfather’s house, home to Mom.

And there is boredom. Endless waiting on either side of meals, of gift-opening, of morning suitcase-packings. None of us seem to know what to do with each other. There was a year when we went caroling, resentful, tight-throated. There was a year we drove into the mountains to toboggan in the snow. Later years at our father’s house we take long, chilly walks, smoke dope in the deserted school yard in new Christmas sweaters. We listen to new Christmas LPs on our stepsister’s phonograph with the bedroom door shut, make endless entries in our diaries, apply new Christmas eye shadows and colored mascara and flavored lip gloss in front of the bathroom mirror.

Money-saving gift ideas, concocted by Mom, Sis, and me. Endless baskets of bread and cookies, thousands of photographs taken and mounted in frames, sketches done in pencil, hand-drawn “certificates” for back-rubs, candy bars — to be redeemed later in the year. Despite the noble image homemade gifts have been given, they are really no more heartfelt, no more filled with the genuine spirit of Christmas than any other gifts.

Autonomy grows in teenage years. We become more selective about whom to spend our holidays with. A marriage breaks up. A grandfather dies; old age impedes another’s enthusiasm. My grandmother, wiping sink-damp hands on a terry-cloth, reindeer-printed apron, pads down her white-carpeted hallway. “Since I wasn’t sure if I was going to see you this year, I just wrote you a check. That way you can get exactly what you want.”

A first Christmas morning without a parent. I’m 18, sharing a moldy basement apartment with a girlfriend. During the night the cat has knocked ornaments off the tree. Pieces of colored broken glass make negotiating a path to the bathroom dangerous and painful. We each filled a stocking for the other: the cheap and ironically intended (a windup frog, a child’s policeman play set from the supermarket) mixed with beribboned bundles of incense, a dangling pair of earrings from the Third World.

The yearly volume of Christmas Gifts Received steadily declines in favor of Christmas Gifts Given.

I lived with a man once. We had our intimate Christmas morning a deux, cozy under a tree with our cats and the decimated boxes and wrappings left by his son, who had since been dispatched to his mother’s for his second and third (maternal grandfather) Christmases. My mother dropped by; we exchanged gifts. She took our picture under the tree. I am wearing a neck brace and my boyfriend’s silk dressing gown. I’m conscious that there is some sort of pretense at work.

I think I went for a drive that year.

I just sort of ended up with the family cardboard box Christmas decorations, the strings of lights and broken glass ornaments my mother, sister, and I put up every year when we lived together. There are old greeting cards in the box, sent 20 years ago by never-met cousins, dead great aunts. There is a cylindrical container of hand-cut balsa wood snowflakes. My quilted red plastic stocking is in the box, with my name written crookedly on its white top edge, just hidden by a tiny, crumbling pine cone and faded velveteen bow. I wrote it in ink pen when I was very young.

— Mary Lang

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the tank

I. REST YOU MERRY

I was hoping somebody would make trouble. I’d worked on Thanksgiving. I was going to have to work New Year’s. And there I was on Christmas Eve, walking around a warehouse full of strangers instead of being with my family and friends. Jail guards don’t get normal holidays and spend a third of their life behind bars for money, not for anything they’ve done. It would have been unwise for anyone to have asked for special favors. I wasn’t even getting overtime.

My security inspections were pretty cursory — I didn’t feel any warmer towards the county than towards my prize collection of felons. As far as I was concerned, they were two jaws of a conspiracy against my enjoying the holidays.

Instead of my usual silent glide in hopes of catching somebody up to something, I was tapping out a message of ill-humor through the echoing steel and concrete tunnels. Some inmates hailed me from a comer cell, “Hey! Officer Robinson. Come over here!” You bet I will, turkeys.

I was hot to refuse a few requests, even though that particular cell was a soft spot. There were three men in a four-bed cell (this was before we started crowding up to seven men into the same cells) in special confinement isolated from the general population. Tvo were in being threatened by other inmates for debts or snitching, the third was an unpopular anti-war protester — almost a political prisoner, really. I was popular with them (and most of the white inmates) because of the six weeks I’d sat in the control booth with a broken arm, and I’d always turned the radio to a pop station instead of the screaming-meemie soul station that the lieutenant had decreed would be played all the time. No small thing when you can’t turn down the radio; a trustee once told me that if there was a riot I could count on the white inmates to protect me from harm. It was not the kind of thought I find especially reassuring, even if I’d believed it.

I stalked up to the cell bars and was dumbfounded by the transformation they had made in their steel-plate cell. The walls were covered with seasonal art torn from magazines and stuck up with toothpaste. Chains of colored paper loops festooned the bunks and bars. A two-foot cone of green paper, also made from magazines and toothpaste, dominated one bed — a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments fashioned from the metallic paper out of cigarette and candy wrappers. Under the tree were several packages in colorful wrappings. One man smiled as he ostentatiously selected one, then handed it to me through the bars, “Your Christmas present.”

I stared that present down a long time before I opened it, while they savored our relative positions. It was wrapped in red paper from a newspaper ad, tied with a ribbon from God knows where. I unwrapped it, not meeting eyes. It was a small, cherry-flavored cigar from the weekly commissary. The cost less than a dime, the taste too terrible to mention, a meaning I couldn’t begin to fathom. I recall remembering that jail rules prohibit giving gifts to inmates. I remember realizing that these guys were totally broke, had bought these presents with money they needed for shampoo and smokes. I said, “Thank you, gentlemen. Merry Christmas to you all,” turned on my heel and left the cell block. I’d never given a Christmas greeting to an inmate before. It had seemed in bad taste.

Back out on the deck, I sat staring at that crummy cigar. Sorry, I can’t report any wellings of spirit and cheer. I felt shabby. I didn’t like people jerking around with the “have” and “have not” aspects of my world, with the house advantage, or with the relative blessedness of status and events. I was not, at 25, comfortable with the idea that decency, beatitude, and humor seek their own level and crop up where most needed. The ironies and the glee were making me sicker than the cherry smoke from that damn cigar would have. I went back to the “Christmas cell” with the cigar and its stupid plastic mouthpiece in my pocket. I asked those grinning longhair monkeys if they had just bought a present for me because of the radio. No, one for each of the guards on all three shifts. So what could I do? I smoked the damn thing.

II. DECK THE HALLS

I was the only one who really knew why it got to him so hard. He’d told me the story once, a few months before. It was just one more anecdote, something to explain his feelings about his parents splitting up or his attitude about foster homes. I remembered the story but couldn’t really grasp what it was all about from Matt’s point of view. Matt was a hard guy to figure, a lot of spin on him. But maybe I should have seen it coming.

His mother had gone all out for the Big Family Christmas one year. They’d just moved into a new house, and she’d done it up deluxe with white carpet in the living room and all. There’d been some tough times, but the old man was sober and working, the family was together, and she was determined to make everything nice and right.

She bought a white tree and trimmed it in silver. I guess everything was flocked and frosted and draped in silver and white; even the packages under the tree were all wrapped in white. Rewrapped if necessary. Like a magazine picture; civilized home for sophisticated modem woman. But unfortunately his unsophisticated, uncivilized old man got drunk with some of his logging buddies Christmas Eve, and they must have started talking shop because four chainsaws got going on that White Christmas set, and in nothing flat the tree was hacked to pieces, the decorations were trampled to alcoholic oblivion, and everything was covered with oil and smoke. Revenge of the Chainsaw Grinch. I guess that was about the end of the line for the family scenario, and when his Mom started blackout drinking too, Matt and the other kids ended up placed by the state.

I didn’t remember that story when Matt first brought that scraggly tree up to that ratnest apartment we shared with a few other hippie construction bums. We gave him a lot of gas about it, but he laughed it all off, just kept making paper decorations for it and coming in with little baubles he’d scrounged up to hang on it. He actually paid for a string of lights. We’d turn it on at night and sit in the dark, smoking pot and coke, watching the lights blink. We actually liked the tree, whatever crap we gave Matt about it With the lights out and tree lit, things were sort of homey, like sitting around a fire. We felt more like friends or neighbors, not just hipped-out druggies huddling together for survival. In the morning, with the lights on, it was a shabby shrub with a packrat collection hanging on it sitting in the middle of a typical post-catastrophic pigsty.

We cleaned the place up for Christmas Eve, got into the spirit of the party Matt had pumped up. All our pals were coming over to celebrate in our own fashion. Matt scrubbed and swept and got everything as right as he could in that slum. With the lights down, the tree lit, and the candles burning on every flat surface in the place, it looked pretty cozy by the time the party was in swing. Full swing pretty much meaning everyone was stoned; half laid back listening to Pink Floyd on the thrift shop stereo and half shuffling around talking trash. Phil showed up late and made an obnoxious entrance, grabbing joints and drinks from people, bragging and one-upping everybody. Freewheelin’ Phil, life of the party. I remember he’d borrowed a truck from some fool and was going to make a fortune cutting firewood. Right.

Matt went out to make a beer run, probably because he doesn’t dig Phil much and didn’t want his party spirit brought down. Then Kevin came in with a canister of butane like you fill lighters with and some plastic novelty goo that you could blow up into balloons. He blew up some butane balloons and started tossing them around. Jeffy and Alice were sitting and smooching in front of a table so full of candles it looked like a small forest fire. Probably wishing they had some chestnuts to roast. I lobbed a balloon over their heads and it caught fire just above the candles. There was a complex fireball for a second, floating free in the air, leaving a definite after-image. The lovebirds cooed and ahhhhed, theft went back to making out. Phil started making fire balloons and hanging them on the tree. They looked like colored ornaments, very trippy with the lights blinking through them.

Phil got distracted when Mike brought in the chainsaw he was going to loan him for his woodcutter fiasco. Phil was checking it out and putting it down, as usual. When Matt walked in with a quart of beer in each hand, he took one look at the saw and froze, then gave a wild glance at the tree. It was standing there looking better than before, and he relaxed, smiling at the balloons that his buddies had hung on his tree Then Kevin held a lighter under the bottom balloon, said “Flame on, Santa,” and flicked his Bic. The entire tree turned into a fireball, a blue-and-yellow burning bush. The first flash of flame took out the paper ornaments, then the fir needles caught and burned up the lights. It was really beautiful for, like, a second with the lights sparking in the flames, then it got all smoky and smelly and black.

Everyone was clapping and laughing, but Matt just stood there staring at it, pale and twitchy, holding the quarts of Bud in his hands. Then Phil yelled, “I’ll show you how Paul Bunyan opens a beer!” He yanked the rope, starting the chainsaw, and swung it up to one of the bottles of Bud. The chain rattled up the slick neck until it hit the cap, which it grabbed and spun. The cap flew off like a Frisbee, hitting the ceiling over in the comer. Everybody howled over that. I thought it was the only cool thing Phil had ever pulled off. Matt stood there holding the bottle, with a little trail of white foam running down the neck like some rabid ejaculation. Phil stuck a glass out at him and said, “What’re you waiting for, brother? Christmas?”

A lot of people make it sound worse than it was. Actually, all he did was kick the chainsaw. If it hadn’t been running it wouldn’t have torn up Phil’s shoulder like it did. And smashing a bottle in somebody’s face is a pretty everyday thing around this neighborhood. Usually empty ones, I’ll admit In fact Phil was out of the hospital a lot sooner than Matt was. I’d even say Phil had it coming, in some weird way. I never see the guy anymore. I see Matt when I can, but he doesn’t seem to care much for company. He works sweeping floors at the Bon Marche, goes home to a residence hotel, and goes to sleep. What I do is send him Christmas cards. He likes them, covers the walls in his room with them. They cheer him up, bring him into focus a little. I wish I could get him Christmas stuff all year round.

III. WHAT GIFTS HAVE I?

On my 40th birthday I was back in jail in a very different capacity, facing holidays in a tank of 30 other men also charged with violent crimes. As Christmas approached, the mood in the tank got both sullen and manicky, some men alternating brooding and laughing uproariously within an hour. Men with families spent a lot of time on the phone, while loners like me “donated” our phone time to them. Tampers were short, small kindnesses increased. I tried to lighten things up with jokes and complicated running gags, like starting a rumor that there would be a Freddy Krueger’s Christmas Special on TV. On a more practical level, there were preparations for a party.

Several of the mood-medicated inmates were saving up their “meds” and a few of the tank wheeler-dealers were calling in favors from trustees and pals in other tanks to swell the stash of pills. I remember a trustee sweeping the cat-walk and brushing a taped packet into a cell where it was snatched up and stowed away. Later I watched four men pour the contents of one of the white spansules over tobacco, light it, and smoke it. They all got goofy and comatose, so whatever it was, it was right All but that one capsule went into the party stash in the shower rod.

One of my cellmates was not in on a violent rap but with us because he was older and lame, therefore safer in the calmer atmosphere of the “killer tank.” Not having a violence “jacket,” he was allowed out to attend AA meetings in the jail chapel. On his third try he connected with a bakery trustee and brought in some packets of yeast. (On his first two tries the yeast was found in the routine strip-search and he was punished, first with loss of phone privileges, then with loss of “good time” — two more weeks he would have to serve.) He turned the yeast over to the old-timers with prison experience, who already had a collection of oranges, prunes, and apple juice saved up from chow — and the know-how for making “pruno,” the con slang for home brew.

The big plastic garbage bags were contraband but not taken very seriously, especially by seasoned guards who knew we filled them with water and used them for weightlifting — physical exercise among inmates is good for security and tranquility. They filled two bags with water and a disgusting mash of fruit and yeast, then rotated them around various hiding places for the four days of fermentation between the weekly shakedown and Christmas Eve. One sickening smelling bag spent a day on my bed in a pillowcase, during which time I was exposed to some pretty severe punishment if it had been found. I accepted the risk even though I don’t drink and had no intention of swilling that vile brew or joining their raucous little bash. When you have no family and aren’t a Christian, Christmas is just one more day. Especially in jail. Of course, those guys weren’t Christians either. In fact, they were killers, thieves, junkie drug-pushers, rapists. But if they thought that celebrating Christmas Eve was a big enough deal to risk more time over, I could go along with it out of a sense of solidarity and cellblock brotherhood. Or just as a favor to Morrison.

The main ringleader of the party and main risk-taker of the pruno brew crew, Morrison was a stocky, muscular Polynesian whose slanted eyes and long, black, braided ponytail gave him the look of a Malay bandit. He had no chance at all of beating his murder rap and was obviously the kind of guy who would never talk a parole board into letting him out after only 27 years. He had been studying psychology texts, and when he found out I had a background, he took to lounging around my cell and quizzing me, letting me gloss his reading into a comprehensive overview of abnormal and forensic psych. His goal was to fake craziness well enough to end up in some kind of mental facility, where escape might be easier than from Folsom or wherever he’d otherwise be spending his life sentence.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, the block was quiet, waiting for the party to start. A few guys started making paper party hats, which other guys thought was so stupid that they started making them too. The mood was light and warm, with much jiving and joking. One guy told a rustic Mexican inmate it was the custom to draw names out of a hat and exchange blowjobs. The hick was too shocked to react until one of his com-padres couldn’t hide a grin and we all cracked up. Everyone was party-ready, but it would have to wait for transfers, then roll call, then a last walkthrough by the guards.

Nobody had thought much about the transfers, though we had two empty beds and obviously would receive two new tankmates right after dinner. We got a very short, dark Mexican and a tall, gangly black with a long, lean, African-looking face. The Mexican, an illiterate Oaxaqueno awaiting trial for killing the owners of a “mom and pop” liquor store during a drunked-up robbery, immediately fell in with two guys his own size and disposition — the two pint-sized Oaxaca killers we already had. The young black guy didn’t speak to anybody, just looked around him, sizing things up.

Five minutes before roll call, everybody drifted into the dayroom and started assuming approximately alphabetical positions, which would allow everyone to quickly file by the guard and get everything over quickly. Morrison, the assistant tank captain, looked everything over, got the clipboard where he kept the bunk assignments, walked over to the spot on the bench where he sat to coordinate the roll call with the guard. He had been in a cocky, brash mood as Christmas (and his final sentencing) approached, and when he found the skinny black newcomer in his seat, he brusquely ordered him off. The new guy didn’t understand, thought he was getting some sort of hazing he had to stand up to in order not to make his time in the tank miserable. I saw what was coming and took a step over to explain, but Morrison had already pushed the new guy to the floor and told him he’d better learn where he was and get with it or he’d hurt.

The kid was quick, back on his feet and facing Morrison instantly, but anyone could see that he had no chance against the larger, stronger Morrison, who was built like a defensive tackle and highly respected as a fist-fighter. He was giving away four inches of reach and 50 pounds of very solid muscle. But he stood his ground and refUsed to knuckle under. Morrison, having pushed him, could have let the whole thing slide, but he pressed in, demanding surrender. I always try once, and I spoke loudly to both of them, telling them to cool it, that the cops were on their way in. They both ignored me, and there was nothing else to say. The kid offered no fight but politely refused to back down, slowly shaking his head, rolling his eyes around the circle of men, and speaking very softly with a hint of Caribbean lilt. Enraged, Morrison breasted up and reached for him, saying he was going to get a lesson in how to behave in this tank. Almost lazily, the kid looped out a fist and bloodied his nose. Morrison went completely wild. He stormed the kid in a fury, trying to bull him back against the wall and pound him to pieces. The kid hit him twice in the eyes, twirled away graceful as a dancer, and stood calmly awaiting the next charge. Morrison was foaming at the mouth. He tore off his shirt and said, “Okay, homeboy. That’s what we’ll do.” We watched, fascinated, as Morrison moved cautiously in, treading like a cat, his big fists up and ready. The kid slid away from his punch and hit him on the orbit of his left eye, starting a flow of blood that would quickly cut off half his vision. Morrison swung and missed, slipping on the smooth cement floor and falling onto a steel bench. The kid did not move to exploit the fall, but when Morrison moved toward him again, he threw a flurry of punches in his face. None of them looked hard, but they all landed with surgical accuracy, and one knocked Morrison down again. We couldn’t really understand what we were seeing, but Morrison had sense enough to know when he was licked, even though it meant sucking up a lot of shame. He said, “Okay, homeboy. Sorry 1 picked on you. Let’s chill out until the cops are gone.” We were as shocked by this out of Morrison as we had been by the fighting skills out of the skinny transfer.

When the roll call was over, Morrison walked up to the kid, who was softly talking with some rather impressed new friends and watched him coming without alarm. Morrison stuck out his hand and said, “You really know how to get down to business there, Homes.” The kid demurely mentioned that he was the baby of a big family and had needed to learn early how to take care of himself. Morrison sat down facing him and said, “Thanks. I needed that.” The kid was the only English-speaking person in the room not amazed by that statement.

“I mean it,” Morrison continued his uncharacteristic apology. “I’ve been getting really cocky and obnoxious around here. I’m going to the joint pretty soon and don’t need an attitude when I get there. I needed getting taken down a peg, and I guess you were the guy to do it for me.” You’re not really supposed to talk like that in the slam, unless you’re tough enough to back it up.

The kid looked at him, nodded, and smiled, “I don’t want to make any trouble for anybody, you know? Just tell me what’s the system.” Morrison smiled back at him. There had been some question as whether or not to include the new transfers in the party refreshments. They had not contributed and could always be snitches, like the guy in October who ratted us off for pills and cost us two weeks of TV. Morrison made that decision on the spot. He said, “You get high?” The kid looked around and said, “Sometimes I party. On holidays, you know?” Morrison pulled out a sack full of pills and said, “Welcome to Club Meds, homeboy. Somebody get us a drink.”

I went back and sat on my bunk awhile, then pulled out a legal tablet and quickly dashed off a two-page comic parody poem. I can only remember the first two lines now: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the tank/ Everybody and his buddy was yanking his crank... ” I walked out into the dayroom, pushed through the grinning, glassy-eyed culprits, and posted it on the bulletin board. It was read aloud amid whooping and hilarity. Even a few Mexicans who couldn’t understand it yelped out long Hispanic ai yi yis over the din. One of the Mexicans slapped a folded newspaper hat on my head, sideways like Napoleon. He had written “Me Vale Madre” on it. “It means Mother to me,” Mexican slang for “I don’t give a shit.” A guard stepped into the catwalk to check out the commotion, and everyone cheered and waved their hats at him. He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas, assholes,” and everyone laughed. Morrison weaved up to me and handed me a plastic cup of the kickapoo juice. The smell made me a little queasy. He said, “Merry Christmas, brother?’ and raised his cup. I tapped my cup against his, said, “God help us, every one,” and drank. It was the nastiest stuff I’ve ever tasted. □

— Linton Robinson

For a few mouthfuls of booze

There was always something not quite right with it, wasn’t there? The contemporary American celebration of Christmas. In a country so reflexively sensitive to Protestant admonitions of thrift, of, essentially, moral sobriety, the annual coercive campaign of forced spending, forced intimacy, seemed exactly that — forced. In a country so demanding that the public persona express absolutely the intents and desires of the private, it is amazing that the compelled generosity of Christmas ever became confused with true generosity at all.

More to the point, and let’s be honest, the celebration of Christmas in Southern California was always a fairly ominous affair. It was those decorated trees, dried to an exquisite combustibility by the Southern Californian air. Each year they become, collectively, a roaring forest fire of Christmas cheer. Each year we watch with the same slack-jawed imitation of pity the sooty faces of the firemen, the charred doll salvaged from the inferno, the dumbstruck faces of the newly orphaned. And what Christmas in Southern California would be complete without its somber story of the migrant laborer family asphyxiated by the charcoal grill they’d brought inside to warm them in their tar-paper shack? These local scenes, this local cast of characters, have been repeated so frequently, with such ritualistic regularity, that they have become indistinguishable from the other elements within the holiday’s traditional narrative line — the Three Wise Men, the Star in the East, the Virgin, the blue-faced families of Mexican farmworkers, the home engulfed in flames...

This is not, of course, to say that these events are necessarily predestined to happen. But there is much our society consciously does to enhance their lurid and familiar morality-tale-quality in the popular mind. (Don’t homes burn down all year ’round? Don’t migrants meet pathetic deaths in the spring? Why does waiting for Santa make these things more real? What is our fascination with these events? What purpose does our fascination serve?) And this in itself points to the very genuine flaws in our ability to see the world around us, acknowledge its many problems, and find some way to solve them, if that’s what we hope to do, after all. Take, for example, the various “charity” drives organized around the holiday. At Christmastime, newspapers and television tell us, poor children are suddenly without toys; the abandoned elderly are suddenly more lonely; and those who sleep outside, while the worst of the winter still awaits them, are most acutely uncomfortable on or about December 24.

Coincidentally, the most flimsy sort of short-term good-will gestures seem far more potentially effective than they did a few months before: send some used clothes to the miserable of Tijuana; spend Christmas Eve at a soup kitchen; take a box of cookies to the ancient paraplegic who lives alone next door. In short, the giving associated with Christmas often resembles a rite of unburdening.

Perhaps it is this symbolic tension — things being other than what they appear— that generates the odd, morality-tale atmosphere that is so pervasive at Yuletide. But what exactly is the moral to this tale?

The answer more than likely lies, or is more readily perceived at any rate, in the grand public gestures made during Christmas. These acts, committed by the government ostensibly on behalf of its citizenry, do, by their own ham-handedness, deftly betray us all:

Several years ago a friend and I, on Christmas Eve, visited the “Mayor’s Shelter for the Homeless” that Maureen O’Connor had installed in the Community Concourse downtown. It was raining; the shelter was full. Till tarpaulin barriers had been erected to divide the vast floor space into “departments” in which the homeless could avail themselves of various services, or simply sleep, or lounge about. In one area meals were served, in another medics tended wounds. In yet another barbers gave haircuts for free. My friend and I wandered hand-in-hand through the makeshift shelter lighted starkly by free-standing, high-wattage lamps. We pulled aside one tarpaulin and saw bums snoring, pulled aside another and saw grimy men and women packing roast turkey into their mouths. We were about to leave when we heard a woman squeal behind us. She was scampering to the far dark end of the room. Her head — and this is important — was about two sizes too small. Too small, that is, in proportion to her frame, which was draped in a long tattered housecoat and fitted with boots. She was, properly put, a giggling pinhead. And this defect was enhanced by the topknot, obviously coiffed by one of the volunteer barbers, which wiggled atop her head as she ran. She trotted past us. We followed, and in the dim tarpaulin corridors we lost her. But we could, and did, follow her laugh.

Turning a corner, we came upon the source of her glee. Behind one of the broad tarpaulins, back-lighted by one of the free-standing lamps, she and a trio of male companions were unmistakably sharing a bottle. But in the Mayor’s shelter, as in the larger world outside, Christmas generosity was not exactly what it at first seemed to be. My friend and I slowly realized we were watching a tax-subsidized performance of a kind of Indonesian shadow-puppet play. In this very local interpretation, however, good did not win over evil. The shadows we saw depicted a pinhead performing fellatio on a derelict in exchange for a few mouthfuls of booze. There was no mistaking it: his hand grasping the topknot for leverage; his erection; the abnormal smallness of her bobbing head; all projected against the tarpaulin in shadows that were, one would assume, larger than life. My friend started weeping. We hurried outside to the rain.

That our Mayor had deigned to provide these people a comfortable refuge in which to act out their degradation, rather than seek to assuage their actual degradation at all, is the obvious plot of this particular Christmas morality tale. That she no more sincerely cares about the wretched than do we, though not explicit, is its implied theme. And the moral, the Yuletide message is that while citizens actually spend and give a great deal at Christmastime, they are, in reality, buying the right to pay lip service to high ideals at virtually no personal cost at all.

— Abe Opincar

Ice-piqued

Eighteen hundred dollars. Eighteen hundred stinking dollars in Ulysses S. Grant notes, tucked into the bottom of my sock, like every other boob off the boat in New York City. Dazed, the wife and I wander outside Port Authority, possessions strapped to our backs.

Dark now at 42nd and 8th. Sex World, menacing windshield raggers, hustlers, crazies, noise.

It’s an Eternal Night. There may be daylight, but never any sun. I’ve seen the Nickel in L.A., Sixth Street in San Francisco, but here the hell seems so permanent and definitive.

We were newly married then, Robin and I. I’d strayed too many times before and baited her with the band of gold as proof of my new stick-to-it-iveness. Connubial bliss soon degenerated into mirror-shattering psychotic episodes brought to a head by drug dabbling and nonstop boozing. These Liz ’n’ Dick style recreations seemed to correlate with R’s body chemistry, whether the Kentucky bourbon agreed with the day’s dosage of Lithium.

The bad smells of the boulevard strangely didn’t diminish our appetites, though we couldn’t finish the two-day-old pieces of rubber masquerading as pizza at an Eighth Avenue dive. Shelter was another problem. Now that Sid Vicious had made a sleazy kip like the Chelsea famous, rooms were going for 120 bucks a night. With 50 pounds of deadweight strapped to each of our backs, we were happy to alight upon an SRO named the Allerton, where a week’s residence set us back 100 simoleons. No preview of the rooms, and it’s just as well. On our way up the stairs to the fourth floor, we came to realize that the rats were pets and the walls Abstract Expressionist masterpieces painted with live roaches. All the toilets are shattered and functionless; the tenants crap in the hallway and piss out the window.

The next day, the Voice comes out with an expose of the Allerton as the worst example of slum-lordism in Manhattan. I swell up like a tick with pride. Only a day in New York and already I’ve achieved a certain celebrity.

Scanning the Voice apartment listings for a more-or-less permanent spot leaves me gasping. Even deep down the alphabet in the East Village, two tiny rooms rent for over a grand. Does not include functioning bathroom or even glass on the windows. In 1985, year of the merger boom, even the stockbrokers have taken to squatting.

In a shambly real estate office down on Ludlow Street (one block East of Orchard), two Jews out of a Milt Gross comic novel talk me out of 1200 bills for temporary dwelling privilege in a storefront (no windows, shower, or tub, just one sickly green room and a hole cut in the floor through which the previous tenant’s dog took a haphazard shit).

Though it’s late November, there’s no heat inside. “What you worry?” says Irv. “You’ll have heat. We just pay off the guy down the street. You’ll get it, don’t worry yourself.” Days pass, the weather turns ugly, and the landlords insist gas heat is a millisecond away. “Irv didn’t get that fixed for you?” exclaims Hyman. “I’m gonna call him at home and let ’im have it.” Next day: “Hym said that!?” exclaims Irv. “He told me that he paid off the gas guy. We’ll get you up in no time.”

December now and the only things moving on this four-degrees-above-zero-minus-wind-chill-factor afternoon are the junkies sticking their arms into the building across the street for a fix. Robin’s in the sleeping bag, under an electric blanket turned high, shivering, coughing, looking tubercular. Thank God she no longer has the strength to complain. Clinging to her neck is an adopted tomcat in a Walter Keane-style tableau.

I hear about a wood-buming stove for sale, drag it home, jury-rig an aluminum flue out the window. Scrounge combustible material where I can find it. Fire! What an invention! On a day when discarded furniture and wooden pallets are scarce, I locate a cache of wooden police barriers by the Houston Street projects and spirit them home past a purposefully oblivious NY cop.

Maybe the cop knew the barriers were treated. Creosote fumes back up from the stove and into the apartment, forcing us phlegm-coughers into the street.

While we’re pouring buckets of water on the flames, two characters from SS training camp burst into the sanctity of my home, yelling, “Rolfe, Rolfe!” insisting in fractured English that I must know the whereabouts of their Bavarian buddy. After they’re persuaded to leave, a lanky, beard-shadowed skinhead in a thigh-length leather jacket accosts me. “Hallo. I’m Rolfe.”

Down to my last few dollars, I take the first job I find, a $4.50-an-hour stint at the Strand, a bookstore run with the efficiency and empathy of a concentration camp. Tb instill fear into the arty types who work the store, the owner has set up a sadistic employee-harassment system in which high-paid kapos (“Supervisors”) keep on your tail and note every infraction aloud in stentorian voices. Every few minutes, a Supervisor would importune me to carry backbreakingly heavy bags of reviewers’ copies downstairs for an unsavory assortment of graft-mad publishing industry weasels.

On Xmas eve, in lieu of a bonus, the owner of the bookstore lets the employees out 15 minutes early. While trudging home in the cold, I notice that my $8 thrift store overcoat sports a puke stain on the front lapel. At home the wife frantically attempts to coax Brick the cat out of the walls. The cat apparently found a perch between the gypsum and older lathe-and-plaster and is now miaowing as if tortured by rodents. Screams of “Careful. You’ll kill him!” as I hacksaw through the drywall to rescue the imbecilic feline.

As if in answer to my prayers, Robin tells me of her imminent return to California; we spend the evening poking the embers in the stove and guzzling cheap brandy. That cold evening we discover our drinking water has frozen in its glasses.

The sound of pounding on the front grate interrupts a pleasant nightmare. One eye opens. More pounding. The AM-FM clock radio reads 7:03 a.m. Pounding.

“Who is it?”

“Police!”

Unlatch the door, lift up the grate. The first snow is falling, muffling the usual tenement rattle. A fine Xmas mom. Red-faced NYPD stands accusingly in front of me, his partner and two ambulance workers working in the background.

“Know this guy?” asks the cop.

“What guy?”

He points to the ground. A well-dressed black man lies face down, blood leaking into white snow. An awl or icepick sticks out of the back of his top coat.

“No, I don’t know him.”

“Did you hear anything going on last night?”

“Just the salsa from the after-hours club a couple doors down. Is he dead?”

The cop doesn’t answer, walks away. Ambulance men lift the lifeless body onto a gurney. An arm falls, swinging loose. Snowflakes fall on his expressionless face. They don’t melt. — Adam Parfrey

Win friends, influence people, lose yourself

Chapter I

In Which Old Marlow Encounters a Salesman Aboard a Train-, and Begins to Digress into the Sorry Tale of His Niece

AS A GENERAL RULE, OLD MARLOW liked to take two facing seats when he rode the 11:02 from Old Greenwich to Grand Central Terminal. He could sit in one seat and prop his feet upon the other (after first covering it with his stinking Aquascutum raincoat — $25 at a Junior League rummage sale in Hobe Sound, Florida!). Thus ensconced, he could snooze away or read the New York Times or fiddle with paperwork from his three-days-a-week sinecure at the Snodgrass Foundation for the Fellowship of Man. (What did the foundation do? “Beats me,” said Marlow when asked. “And I’ve been director for 15 years.”) He trusted that anyone wishing to sit across from him would resist the temptation after a moment’s thought, for Marlow appeared to be such a crotchety old gentleman!

But today Marlow’s luck failed him. At Cos Cob a fellow boarded the coach and sat down beside the raincoat. Marlow awoke from pretended slumber and eyed the criminal: a chubby, redfaced fellow of about five-and-forty who wore a green glen-plaid suit and carried a squarish black bag that appeared to be a sales case. The fat man smiled and nodded at Marlow as though greeting the parson; then he produced a paperback book from his suitcoat pocket and began to read. It was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Through slitted eyes Marlow watched as the salesman beetled his brow and slid his tongue to the corner of his firm, wide mouth. The salesman nodded again, then again; and finally smiled, opened mouth and eyes wide and exclaimed, “Ah, that’s rich! That’s the stuff!” Bouncing up and down in his seat, he waved the book at Marlow (who evidently had failed in his second attempt to feign sleep) and said, “You ever read this, old feller?”

Marlow cleared his throat and then sniffed in a long, coarse-sounding rumble. “I believe my niece read that book,” he replied. “It completely destroyed her sanity.”

“Pshaw! How did that happen?”

“Her name was Margot. In fact it still is. She was a quiet, bookish girl when young, so quiet that parents feared for her future. At every occasion she would be dragged out to sing and tap dance for friends and relatives. She balked and cried, but her parents assured her that she would never amount to anything if she didn’t learn to be entertaining and gregarious.

“While she was yet a tiny tot, she was forced to warble ‘Less Work for Mother’ alongside her elder sister on a Sunday afternoon television program entitled The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour. Three weeks running she did this, and after each performance her sister and father mocked her and beat her and crowned her with thorns for not singing up to par.”

“And her mother?” asked Marlow’s newfound traveling companion.

“I believe she beat her too, but much of the time the mother was off in the insane asylum. Anyway, by the time Margot was in her teens, she was totally in thrall to the family philosophy. In high school and college she joined every school organization in sight, regarding it as her sworn duty to be one of the most popular characters around. But she was still dissatisfied with herself — she was innately shy, and she’d leave every bright, engaging social encounter feeling sick and hollow inside. She decided that what she needed was to toughen herself up — get a baptism of fire, if you will. And so, the summer after her freshman year at Yale, she took a job selling books door-to-door for a company based in Nashville, Tennessee.

“For reasons known only to God and Robert Browning, the company assigned her territory in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a place she had never been in her entire life. And I’m afraid she felt dreadfully inept on this mission. But much as she dreaded knocking on the doors of small-town strangers, she didn’t dare give up. The con men who ran the operation in Nashville had warned her that if she failed as a door-to-door dictionary salesperson, she would fail at everything else in life! So she stuck it out for one month and then packed up her small valise and hitchhiked all the way to the house of a friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“For a while she was proud of this hitchhiking adventure; it seemed to redeem her from the shame of having jumped ship in Chippewa Falls. However, when she started her sophomore year in the fall, the words of the con men in Tennessee came back to haunt her: having washed out of door-to-door book-flogging, she must now proceed to fail at everything else. Within a few months her distress was so great she withdrew from college. She spent most of the next three years in a deep depression.”

Chapter II

Marlow Continues the Story: In Which Margot Learns Some Pratfalls of Adult Life and Samples an Extended Vacation in San Diego, California.

Seeing that his fellow-traveler was rapt with attention, Marlow continued the tale “Margot eventually graduated from college Then she spent the best part of a decade again trying to normalize herself into a popular, sociable young woman. She took her cues from her peers in Big Business — she labored first for Touche Ross & Co. and then American Express. With every passing year she tried to incorporate a new layer of conventionality into herself. She didn’t like high heels, but three-inch heels were the norm for businesswomen, so she wore them, along with $150 Hermes scarves and tailored suits from Paul Stuart. She spent many an evening playing squash, running in corporate footraces in Central Park, and volunteering to teach crippled colored children to read.”

“Busy girl! Hope she didn’t get raped!”

“Oh my! It gets much more pathetic than that. These efforts to remake herself kept her pacified for a while, but inevitably she backslid, ending up an unhappy hermit who dwelt in lonely cold-water flats in Hoboken and Manhattan. The only companions she had (apart from coworkers) were other lost souls like herself, generally unemployable young men who devoted their time to hatching or exposing one conspiracy or another.

“Margot survived psychologically by telling herself that somehow, someday, a drastic change in fortune would turn her life around. But in the dark night of her soul, she suspected that the old hicks in Nashville had been right all along: she lacked the essential temper to get on in the world; she would fail at everything she did.

“That turn in fortune seemed to arrive in the spring of 1990. Margot ran into a long-lost friend whom she’d had a secret crush on in college. The old friend — we shall call her Terri — resembled Margot in shape and personality, but her career had been diametrically opposite. Whereas Margot had spent the past decade making herself ever more mainstream, the old friend had followed her own lights and worked out a successful career as a freelance video producer and screenwriter.

“Elated as she was at finding the old friend, Margot was also bitter. She sensed that Terri had taken the right path and she had taken the wrong one. Worse: Margot felt that the old friend had stolen her life.

“Now. By one of those odd coincidences that are commonplace, both Terri and Margot were planning to move to Southern California at the end of that year. Between summer and autumn, Margot fashioned herself after Terri, trying to meet all of her friends. Margot was so excited and blissful — you would have thought she’d found the philosopher’s stone. No doubt she was telling herself, ‘I was wrong in trying to meld into the faceless, corporate scene. But now, I shall make myself popular among boho queers and artistes, and I shall have it made.’

“You may find this difficult to believe, sir, but young Margot now applied the glad-handing bit to acquaintances in Terri’s circle. Most of Margot's old friendships had expired —save for a conspirator or two — and she was ready to suck up to any new crowd that came her way.”

“We all need friends,” said the salesman. “Yes. Well. I’m afraid our Margot must have seemed a rather odd bird to the nose-ringed photographers and lesbian performance artists with whom she now consorted. Her spoken idiom was pure MBA-yuppie; her sphere of reference was AdWeek and Forbes. And she was literally astonished to find that her new SoHo pals had never heard of George Will or Barron’s.

“But all this is prologue. At the end of October 1990, Margot attended Terri’s going-away party.

She drank from the moment she arrived, always keeping herself one drink short of nausea. Thus intoxicated, she made herself the life of the party. A crippled man arrived, so Margot and her red-haired Spanish dancing partner grabbed the lame fellow’s crutches and devised a hilarious ‘crutch dance’ — sort of a tango done while balancing a crutch on one hand.

“At this pre-Halloween shindig, Margot made many new acquaintances, but we are concerned here only with the two who by Christmastime would make her life hell. One of them, sporting the odd name of Susy Jupiter, was a sort of burlesque performer who had recently appeared on the cover of On Our Backs, an intellectual porno magazine for female inverts. Margot had never heard of her, but they became fast friends. Susy had broken up with her girlfriend in Hell’s Kitchen and was looking for another apartment. Margot suggested Susy take over her sublet on East 26th Street, and Susy seemed quite interested.

“The second acquaintance was a slatternly woman in her 50s named Mona McNutt. Once upon a time Mona McNutt had been an up-and-coming photographer: during the ’60s she received some mild acclaim for a series of pornographic photos. Since then, drink, drugs, and infirmity had taken their toll. Professionally she hadn’t made a dime in years, but she managed to maintain an East Village loft and a West Hollywood flat by combining a small inheritance with a penchant for welfare scams.

“Keep these two in mind as we return to Margot’s adventures.

“In November she traveled through New Mexico and Arizona, winding up finally in San Diego, where she took a lease on an apartment in a pleasant, verdant area called Hillcrest. Susy Jupiter’s family lived near San Diego, so Susy and Margot got together around Thanksgiving when Susy came west to visit her kinfolk. By this point Margot and Susy had talked a number of times and firmed up Susy’s plans to take over Margot’s Manhattan apartment.

“Now, during this period — several weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas — Margot was staying in a La Jolla motel; her new apartment was still bare and unfurnished. Margot’s schedule was equally bare. She started each day intending to explore the farthest nick and cranny of San Diego County but usually wound up sacked out on her motel bed, watching TV and fitfully trying to read. Deep melancholy would set in around 5 p.m. as she watched fresh-faced newscasters grin and try to pass off flimsy local rubbish as hard news. For the next two hours she’d drink beer, then go for a swim in the outdoor pool. A 40-minute swim — the high point of the whole day.

“ ‘What went wrong with my life?’ she’d ask herself in her depressive moments. ‘I’ve been cheerful and alert, a good partier. People seem to like me. I’m brighter and more attractive than most people. But I’m always sad and lonely.’ She took solitary meals by herself in restaurants, pretending to be deeply absorbed in writing in her journal so no one could look at her and see how pitiable she was. Christmas was near, so her mind inevitably went back to other sad Christmases, such as the one in 1976, when she feasted all alone on a bad roast beef sandwich at a Holiday Inn in New Haven.”

Chapter III

In Which Marlow Relates How His Niece Avoided a Jolly Christmas and Reconciled Herself to Failure

“I have already told you that Margot’s apartment was bare, and she needed to return to New York to pack up her things. First she needed to get to the airport”

“In San Diego,” prompted the salesman.

“No! Not in San Diego!” Marlow exclaimed. “She had rented a car in Santa Fe, and the rental company told her they’d charge her an extra $500 if she didn’t drive the car back.

“Do you know how long it takes one person to drive from San Diego to Santa Fe? Margot had done it before, and she knew: two days. So it was that she stopped one freezing December night in a crumbling inn in Flagstaff, Arizona. All seemed deserted. An old dust-covered hag at the front desk gave her a key to something called the Walter Brennan Room on the fourth floor. The Walter Brennan Room was not made up. Margot collapsed upon the unmade bed and cried. ‘Perhaps for the price I’m paying I don’t rate a tidy room with clean sheets!’ ”

“I been in hotels like that!” said Marlow’s companion.

“Shut up,” said Marlow. “Margot finally composed herself and called the front desk. The old woman downstairs tsk-tsk’d and reassigned Margot to the Gary Cooper Suite.

“And what a suite was the Gary Cooper! Three times the size of the Walter Brennan, with an enormous, plush bed, acres of chiffarobes, and a seven-foot cheval mirror on a brass stand in the comer! Margot perked up. She washed, put on new makeup, and went back downstairs.

“ ‘Any place around here where I can get a drink?’ she asked. It was nearly ten at night, and the entire town seemed closed down.

“ ‘Well, there’s the cocktail lounge right there,’ said the old crone

“ ‘Sounds good to me,’ said Margot, and it was. The hotel’s cocktail lounge proved to be a tiny tavern whose entrance was gaily decorated with dusty plastic red-and-green wreaths. Inside, a young bartender named Joe was holding court with his drunken contemporaries, bohemian young men of the sort Margot understood: they had migrated to Flagstaff for some reason and then forgot what it was.

“After two Jack Danielses, neat, Margot was her old convivial self: a close buddy to the other good-for-nothings in the bar. She chatted for a while, then went to the jukebox and started up a nonstop set of old country hits.

“Margot was singing along with Hank Williams when a new person arrived, a twentyish girl in black leather jacket, nose ring, and red-red lipstick. This girl Jill invited Margot out to a Western bar nearby. They ended up two-stepping with drunken cowboys. ‘Watch m’ shoulders. Watch m’ eyes,’ Margot’s cowboy repeated. Margot was drunk and kept collapsing in laughter.

“Jill said she’d call Margot the next day, but she didn’t, so Margot left for Santa Fe. Three days later she was back in dark, cold, blustery New York. There were ten days left to the year, and Margot had a fat agenda for each of them. She had to pack up her belongings, call a mover, and make final arrangements for Susy Jupiter’s sublet.

"Just before Christmas, Susy backed out of the sublet. This was a disappointment, but not nearly as much of an annoyance as some other information Susy dropped in passing:

“ ‘Oh, and I was so surprised to find out that Mona McNutt photographed you 25 years ago. I had no idea you were that old,’ said Susy. “And Margot said, ‘What?!’

“In a breezy, befuddled fashion, Susy explained that Mona McNutt had told anyone who would listen that Margot had once been a prostitute and photographer’s model who had posed for Mona sometime between 1965 and 1967. Mona had suggested, furthermore, that Margot and she had been on-and-off lovers for six months.

“And Margot asked, ‘How old was I supposed to be in 1965?’

“ ‘Then? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe 20, 25.’

“ ‘That would make me 50 now. Surely I don’t look 50.’

“ ‘Oh yeah?’ said Susy. “Well, what do you know? I don’t go around with a calculator all the time.’ “ ‘And I never laid eyes on Mona McNutt before or after Terri’s party. Say, when did Mona McNutt tell you all this?’

“ ‘Oh, it was like the day after the party. She called me on the telephone.’

“ ‘You mean to tell me that all the times you’ve seen me since then, here and San Diego, you’ve believed that crap and never bothered to tell me about it?’

“ ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, Margot. In high school I got called a slut!’

“As you might imagine, Margot blew a gasket. She continued to hiss for three days. She dialed up Mona McNutt and asked her why she had been spreading that story. Mona was in the middle of hosting a Christmas party at her Bleecker Street loft — ‘Oh, look, Taylor Mead just came in. Hi, Taylor!’ — and she was in no condition to carry on a rational conversation.”

“Hold on,” said the salesman. “Who is Taylor Mead?”

“A Lower East Side layabout who appeared in some dirty movies 20 years ago. Anyway, this drunken McNutt woman finally caught on to what Margot was calling about. She turned hostile and defensive. ‘Oh, what the fuck do YOU want? I don’t know you.’

“ ‘Right,’ said Margot. ‘You don’t know me. So why are you spreading these ridiculous, filthy stories about me?’

“Margot spent the next few days calling up acquaintances and asking if they’d heard the stories that Mona McNutt woman was trying to spread. Friends weren’t sympathetic. ‘Oh, cool your jets, Margot,’ they’d say. ‘I don’t .care one way or the other about your past.’

“When she couldn’t get anyone else on the phone, Margot turned to phone harassment of the McNutt woman, who, drunk or sober, refused to apologize. Susy Jupiter finally phoned Margot to ask her to lay off. She also told Margot, ‘At this point, I wish I had never met you.’ “Christmas to New Year’s was a bitter time for Margot. Fantasies of revenge clouded her mind. She would print up thousands of little stickers and plaster them around New York: ‘For a good time, call Mona.’ She would subscribe to six dozen magazines under McNutt’s name. Record and book clubs and the Franklin Mint would send McNutt endless buckets of unwanted rubbish. McNutt’s mailbox would fill with rejection letters from credit cards she hadn’t applied for.

“The last couple of nights in New York were sleepless ones for Margot. She’d stare at the ceiling of her creepy East 26th Street apartment and go back over the events of the last two months. Once again, possibly for the last time, she’d put her faith in her ability to Win Friends and Influence People. But Dame Nature had had the last say. The most Margot could ever hope for was the chance to eke out a hole-and-comer living someplace. She laughed softly about it all — imagining that up and down the byways of America, in Carlsbad and in Cripple Creek, folks were all gossiping about her and Mona McNutt.

“I said these nights were sleepless, and they were. She tried drinking a glass of wine; she tried reading The Pickwick Papers— to no avail. There was nothing for it but to rise and finish packing her belongings for San Diego. And Margot told herself that when she got back to San Diego she’d finally resign herself to being a hermit, a nothing, a nonentity like the elderly folks in funny old shoes and hats you see whiling away the afternoons on park benches.” The salesman spoke again. “So, she resigned herself to being a hermit?”

“Don’t be silly,” Marlow said. “Life is a never-ending loop of folly. We play out the same errors, worship the same delusions year after year after year — till finally the loop breaks and we’re spared any further humiliation. Now, my loop is a good deal closer to breaking than yours is, and that is why I am a happier man than you.” “You don’t look very happy.”

“I don’t have to. And that, Mr. Salesman, is bliss.”

— Margot Sheehan

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