Editor-in-chief Nate Waggoner sometimes publishes his fiction in a little feature we like to call, “Uncle Nate’s Storytime.” Here is a Christmas story.
Cara, medium height, shiny blonde hair, skinny, red dress with little wreath lapel, mouth upside-down-triangle shaped, kind of perpetual look of pleasant, weathering consternation on her face, the only person for whom I have ever felt romantic feelings, embraces me and squeezes me with a might I can only compare firsthand to the much more malicious squeezings I once received at the hands of one Ed Verantski, who used to actually go so far as to chase me out of class. He would sing softly as he held me in his wrestler’s grip in the hallway until somebody did something about it. This is the opposite of that feeling. Cara smells like the fancy cucumber water they give you in hotels and her voice is like a piano part in a sentimental Beatles song as she, with full poise and presence and not a trace of the fumbling self-consciousness with which I am afflicted, asks how I’m doing.
“Pretty good,” I say. And despite the reverie I’m in, my first comment about the state of my life is, “Pat and my dad were gettin’ on my ass for not believin’ in ghosts, though.”
After 9/11, my friends and I would talk a lot about different ways in which we thought bin Laden should be killed. After a while they stopped but I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about and tried to keep it going, and finally was called into the principal’s office about it. I managed to explain myself but then overheard the principal say, “Yeah, that kid gives me a major serial killer vibe” as I was leaving.
Cara laughs and heads inside. Plenty of ways to interpret that. Maybe she thought it was cool that Pat and my dad were getting on my ass for not believing in ghosts? Hopefully not. It wasn’t like I told a joke, though. Maybe she was reminded of another funny ghost-related thing, like the scene in Ghostbusters where a ghost sucks Dan Akroyd’s dick? I consider asking her, “Were you laughing because you were reminded of the scene in Ghostbusters where a ghost sucks Dan Akroyd’s dick?” but then Mama hollers at me to come in to the kitchen and help.
Mama has laid out on the table the usual Norman family Christmas dinner: pigs in a blanket, hot dog mac and cheese, three pepperoni pizzas, four plates of chicken wings– hot, medium, mild and barbeque– and a bowl of Swedish Fish. She wants me to help carry. I ask why Pat and Dad aren’t carrying anything and she replies that she heard my voice and called my name and would I please just do something for her for once.
My initial impressions of this remark are as follows: A. I have in fact helped her carry things at least once before, so technically when she says, “once,” she is being factually inaccurate, spurious, fallacious, and I think Mama is capable of better than that; and B. Although Mama has no reason to lie about this, it seems unlikely that Pat and Dad are inaudible in any room in the house or at any time of day. Dad, despite being an expert whisperer who mutters grievances to his friend Stephen quietly all through church every week, tends to project his voice much louder at home. Pat has never spoken below a shout once in his entire life, and this dinner will almost certainly double as a two-hour lecture from him on the importance of traditional gender roles, with occasional lighter asides regarding women’s love of shopping and men’s love of using remote controls, and also with occasional pauses to scarf down wings, complain about the food, swill Yuengling, insult me, or recite a joke he heard on Family Guy. He is buff, unlike me, and shaves like three times a day and does mixed martial arts. Dad has a Burt Reynolds mustache he’s had all my life and today he is wearing a brown suit. Dad used to take us through the McDonald’s drive-through and say, “I’d like the Arch Deluxe, the sandwich that sucks” and then drive away. He’d do this long after the Arch Deluxe was discontinued, and we would laugh until we ached. He also makes a point to buy fries from Burger King, then go to McDonald’s for the rest of his meal. He says this “sends the message” that “McDonald’s should stop making their fries taste like they’ll turn you into a space alien.” He used to invent endless variations on the “beans, beans, the musical fruit” song and wake us up in the middle of the night to recite them to us. He refers to Pat and me as “Gilmer and Gomer” or sometimes “Elmer and Homer.” He likes to go on Facebook and get in fights with Vladimir Putin supporters. He calls Windows 8 customer service every day and says, “I’d just like to say that Windows 8 sucks! You can tell Bill Gates that, I don’t care!” and hangs up.
We know Cara from church. She is my age, but I have never moved out of the house and I have a few semesters of ITT Tech, and she has already been to Yale and been divorced. I love her because she does inventions. She has invented an app that tells you whether there’s poop on the ground and she’s also invented a fancy shell you can put over your normal car so it looks like a more expensive car. But also, something else about her, like she’s, I don’t know, more honest than everyone in the outside world, more right? Rather than simply sit through Pat’s lectures, or confront him for being offensive, she starts droning in response on topics wholly unrelated: Rasputin, dog medicine, Chinese emperors, which flies over Pat’s head and invites the whooping laughter of both my parents, throwing the usual family alignments into chaos. She spends much of dinner reorganizing the contents of her plate into different complex map-like shapes, then eats the whole thing at the very end in just a few bites. In general her presence is essential to the family dynamic, but in a way that makes her the only really pleasant person sitting at the table.
Here’s what I guess happens next, based on putting the pieces together retroactively: our nineteen-year-old blind pug Eddie van Halen knocks a curtain onto the stove, which then sets one of the walls on fire. The wall collapses immediately– whether it’s been that vulnerable my entire life or only recently started rotting away is up for debate. Either way, a horde of cockroaches pours out from the wall. You’ll see a few small ones here and there when it gets hot, but I had no idea. They all head for the food. Some of them are on fire.
Pat runs right out the front door without hesitation without even closing the door behind him. My father commences stomping on the bugs, and my mother opens the closet, grabs a can of Raid and throws it into the kitchen. The resulting explosion knocks my father forward, stunning him. Whether she does this consciously but without concern for my father’s well-being, or in a spirit of pure panic, or in a calculated attempt at his murder, will be debated for many years to come over the course of a marriage which will seem to degenerate as they do but which will never end. Eddie van Halen heads in the direction of the front door, and Cara and I simultaneously jump on the dog as one would a grenade, and we lie together for a moment, in between the devastation inside and the cold outside, cradling the grunting animal together.