The holidays were especially interesting during the time Dad was in prison. This particular Christmas marked the halfway point of his incarceration, but at the time, none of us were sure he would live to finish his sentence. We didn’t know we had hit the worst times; we thought the trend would follow and things would continue to get worse. It seems to have been here, in the throes of yuletide that we began our way out.
The family was gearing up for the best Christmas ever. Dad was in prison and the rest of us: Mom, Cindy, Nan and I were all in different stages of crippling addiction. Friends of my father convinced Mom to sell the house on the hill and downsize into Grandmas’ little house, and we’d lost the Christmas decorations in the move, so we substituted. Dirty dishes, empty beer cans and other quaint décor of the season was strewn, er, that is to say, strung merrily through the house. Yep, the yuletide spirit was in the air!
I don’t remember how the forlorn little tree came to be in the foyer, but I do remember it sitting a long time, stark and silent, like the lone survivor of a prairie fire. Having the orphaned tree standing, mutely begging for at least a scrap of tinsel, became unbearable, so Nan, Cindy and I tried to motivate Mom into revealing to us where the tree decorations were. It wasn’t that Mom was a procrastinator; it was more that talking, for her, involved cessation of the constant gobbling of Placidils; those little green drops of heaven prevalent in those days. Actually, that isn’t quite right either. Mom could talk while buzzed on the placidils, she just couldn’t be understood.
“Hey Mama! Where’s the Christmas tree decorations? MAMA!! HEY!”
“What?” she hissed indignantly.
“Where is that big box of Christmas tree stuff?”
“I jusss wuz thribbling frosh…. Frosh strifflier bffff ppppplllll! Ah, fuck!”
It was getting pretty close to Christmas when we found the box, containing a hopelessly tangled ball of multi-colored lights about the size of a basketball and a gnarled assortment of broken ornaments. Cindy and I sat on the floor by the tree and tried to somehow produce enough wherewithal to get started.
“What’s the fucking point? Just set the bastard on fire and call it done!” I said. Pretending to be festive was wearing on my heart.
“This Christmas is fucked, Cindy, and you know it! Mama and Nan don’t care! You don’t care! Hell, why even do it?”
Cindy looked at me with disdain which slowly softened into something tenderer. “Hey, go look in the cold room, under the bed,” She said.
I dashed into the dark little unheated room and found two sixteen ounce Budweisers, laying there like found hope. I grabbed them, and with a lighter step, returned to the task.
“EEEWWWW!! You got the expensive stuff! I mistook you for an ice cold Falstaff girl!” I chided.
“Well, it IS the holiday season! You’re welcome, you little bastard,” She sat back down among the white trash trappings and we both glanced around, taking stock of the place life had brought us. After a couple of long pulls, Cindy said, “I got a 12 pack in the bottom of the closet in there. Don’t let Mama see you. Help yourself. Merry Christmas, you miserable little fuck.”
Cindy started trying to untangle the lights while I got us a refill, but by the time I got back she had already given up. I picked up the task and began half- heartedly picking at the unruly mess. Cindy started to say something, but her voice cracked. Glancing up from my task, I saw Cindy’s resolve melt as her shoulders fell.
“Shit! Put that down for a minute. I can’t watch you do that right now,” She said, her voice trembling like she was already nursing the hangover which was still to come. The weight of our family’s fall from grace was pushing her into an emotional quagmire. I just sat there, mutely, among the pathetic array of decorations as she struggled to regain her disguise of apathy. A tear perched on the edge of her eyelid, but the second it began rolling down her cheek, I saw the steel return to her eyes.
“I remember the first Christmas after you were born.” She began, a little wistfully. “I was four. You looked like a little monkey! Nan was two and she looked like a little China doll. Y’all were sweet babies. Mama had gotten us little Christmas outfits. You’ve seen those pictures. That was the first year we strung popcorn to put on the tree. I remember the house smelling like cedar and popcorn. At that time, Mama had never drunk alcohol. She didn’t start until a year or so later when Dad finally convinced her to have a little wine. Boy, he fucked up!” Something dark and scary, like a moray eel, passed just under the surface of her eyes. “Anyway, I remember that being a great Christmas. I guess that one was my favorite ever.”
I couldn’t help staring at Cindy. She was the stoic one and never sentimental like this! I realized for the first time that she was barely holding herself together! We were all slowly falling apart, but Cindy always seemed so much tougher than Mama, Nan or me.
I looked into the cold room for a minute, thinking of all that was lost before saying, “I guess my favorite was when Uncle Phil brought all those Chinese fireworks. Nan and I got roller skates. I guess I was nine. We stayed outside all day Christmas roller skating and shooting off fireworks. Uncle Phil was all pilled up and those little bottle rockets kept popping in his hand, but he would just laugh! Remember? He had to go to the hospital! He was so high! He gave Mama that Janis Joplin album she loved so much. Mama was still ok then. Dad bought her that Dodge Dart for Christmas. Remember how pretty she looked that year? She seemed so damn happy!”
We sat there another minute or two, trying to figure out what to do with the decorations. I broke the knot of silence between us. “You know, I really never thought things could get this fucked up! I felt so… safe, I guess, back then. Everything is falling apart and it’s really freaking me out!” I lowered my eyes, ashamed to have finally stated the obvious. I halfheartedly kicked at the ball of lights, sick of what they represented.
I looked over and saw that Cindy again had tears on her cheeks. Her expression hadn’t changed, but her face was wet with tears. She sat there a minute before snatching the ball of lights off the floor and pushing them into the side of the tree.
“Hand me that extension cord!” She said. I was greatly relieved to hear the control back in her voice. The big ball of lights cast a strange and menacing glow in the foyer as she sat back down, her countenance again that of the tough Cindy, the one who never cried.
“I love you, Joey, so I’m gonna tell you something. It might sound harsh, but you need to hear it. Are you listening?”
I nodded mutely.
“Those days are over! Forever! We can’t ever, ever go back to that kind of naivety. You need to realize that if you don’t already know it. You need to embrace it! It’s gonna kill Mama! It might kill Nan! It’s not gonna kill me! Life is hard! Life is unfair! Get used to it and grow the fuck up!”
She rooted around in the rubble in the bottom of the decoration box before finding the bottom half of an angel decoration. She jammed it onto the top of the little tree and spread her arms, like Jesus.
“There! Our homage to Santa is done!” As she stormed out the front door, she whirled, saying, “Oh, yeah” and tossed me a little waxed paper bag of heroin, “Merry Christmas.” And then she was gone.
Oh well, traditions come and traditions go. Stringing popcorn was passé and violent tree trimming, followed by intravenous drug use, was trending. Que sera.
The following morning broke sullen and melancholy upon our bleak Christmas Eve. The cloud ceiling was low, as was my mood. Eddie, Cindy’s addict/dealer boyfriend, had been unable to find any dope that morning so they were beginning to unravel. I wasn’t physically addicted so I was simply emotionally disheveled. I didn’t see much point in celebrating. Nan was buzzing on her recipe for tolerance of life, Quaaludes, but I was too listless to try to try to talk her out of any. Eddie was gone to Greenville searching for the heroin that would enable Cindy and him to engage in holiday festivities. The whole thing seemed staged, like we were pretending for somebody’s benefit, but we all knew what was going on; we were circling the drain. Mom was aboard her drinking chair in the den, overseeing the whole mess.
“Shouldn’t we hang the stockings, Cindy? CINDY!! Did you find the stockings?”
“Mama, I can’t think about any fucking stockings right now. Ronnie is on the way over here and I gotta be ready. We’ll do the stockings later. Or get Joey! He’s not doing anything!”
“Id love to oblige, but I’m headed to the store! I’m gonna lose my mind if I don’t get a couple beers in me. I’ll find ‘em when I get back!” I smoothly replied. “Surely all these glad tidings can wait.”
I had $3.14 burning a hole in my pocket and I needed to get to the PLEZ U immediately, if not sooner.
Upon my arrival home, I noticed Cindy was gone, as was Eddie, leaving Mom and Nan to bicker about who was going to decorate the mantle. Mom had drunk just enough to begin her relentless teasing. She used taunting as a defense against the wolves snarling just outside her door. I was relieved to find Mama had focused on Nan. “Please put on this Santa hat! Joey can take some pictures and it’ll be so sweet! Please!! Here, Joey, help Nan put on the hat.” She tossed me what looked like an old fashioned night cap, not Christmassy at all. Nan was about five fourths stewed on those damn Quaaludes, so wearing the cap might prove entertaining. I joined in.
“Here, Nan. Put it on! There’s another one in that big box. I’ll get it in a minute and wear it. Mama can wear that sombrero in the back bedroom. It’ll be fun!” I jammed it down on Nan’s head energetically, the way Cindy had jammed the angel on the tree. She started to pull it off, but then started gagging. She coughed and gagged for another minute and, by the time she had pulled herself somewhat together, she’d forgotten she had the nightcap on, so she wore it until she passed out about an hour later. It was fantastic! Mom tried to opt out of wearing the sombrero, but when I threatened to search her pocketbook for nerve pills, she relented. She could have called my bluff; I wouldn’t have really taken her current means for survival; she needed her Valium the way I needed my alcohol and Nan needed her Quaaludes. I just wanted her to believe I was stronger than I was, even if it meant I threatened her. Down deep, she would see my strength as a good thing; I could better defend her against the specters of the future. Anyway, Mom wore the sombrero and I wore the ball cap I already had on.
‘Joey, help me hang the holly.” Mama said as she tried to reach the top of the door frame to hang what looked like a termite infested pine cone. My heart settled deeper into my chest.
“I’ve got it, Mama.” Nan said, tossing the cone away and hanging the holly. We didn’t have enough Christmas stockings for everybody, so we hung a pair of panty hose for Eddie. I was determined not to break down as we fought for sanity by pretending to be festive. ‘If you can’t embrace it, scoff at it.’ Quickly became the day’s mantra.
After we hung three filthy Christmas stockings, we put about four packs of icicles all over the mantle and added some old Happy Meal toys. It was beautiful! It was Christmas!
I think Nan had the right idea about a late morning siesta so after she had bedded down on the living room floor, I also took a nice, long, floor nap. Mama actually went to bed for her nap. When I woke up, the short day was about done. I realized right away Cindy had returned because I heard her screaming at Ronnie Quint. After staggering into the den to join the conversation, I began to understand what had gotten Cindy so upset. “What was that shit, you motherfucker?” She screamed into Ronnie’s face. She was shivering like a dog shitting razor blades!
“This isn’t heroin! What was it!! WHAT WAS IT! Oh God! I’m dying!”
“Cindy, calm down! It WAS heroin, or at least it had heroin in it! It’s MDA! Alls that’s gonna happen is you’ll strobe a little bit. The heroin’ll help your jones!
“Ronnie, I swear to God I’m gonna kill you as soon as I am able. You aren’t living this down. I’m taking your worthless life the minute this shit wears off! I need a drink!”
I calmed Cindy by offering to take Ronnie to the liquor store. I felt like a little clearing of the air, and the palette, was in order
We rode home in the last vestiges of the sunlight, the tarnished gold sky achingly beautiful, with pewter colored clouds shot through with burnished silver. The effect of this breathtaking sunset on my badly tarnished soul was almost too much to take. Natural beauty colliding with the ugly inside me produced some sort of odd reaction, a swoon almost. I just couldn’t reconcile that lovely display of God’s talent with what was going on inside me. I searched for the proper response to the deep red sky and found only hollow want inside me. Realizations like this can only be followed by more drug abuse. The only way to soften this collision with nature was to soften my view of it, so on I went.
Cindy was sitting on the porch with Nan; both of them bundled in blankets. Nan seemed much better. I found out later she had been giving Mom some payback, decorating her like a Christmas present, albeit an inebriated one. Cindy, however, seemed even more agitated. She glared at Ronnie as she said to me, “Give me that shit!” She spun the top off the Southern Comfort and took a pull that would have made Janis Joplin proud. She looked more angelic with each slug.
Ronnie, the worst judge of emotional climate I’ve ever met, said, “Now maybe you’ll cut me a little slack… bitch.” The last muttered under his breath, though not quietly enough. Right before my eyes, Cindy metamorphosed from an angel to a banshee, screaming, “I’ll cut your fuckin’ head off, you cocksucker!” She threw the bottle at him, much to my dismay, hitting him directly in the chest. I grabbed Cindy before she could reach Ronnie, who had fallen on the front steps clutching his midsection.
“You ought to leave, Ronnie.” I said as I retrieved the liquor, which still had a good four fingers in it.
“Get out of here, Man! Eddie’s gonna be back soon and you do not want to see him after he sees Cindy! Look at her!”
That huge drink had done something to her, something scary! She was sitting beside one of the azaleas in the front yard, talking to it like it was our friend David Greene, whom she hadn’t seen in months. She even had her arm around it like it was her buddy.
“David, I need to shploth for the snizzbth.” She was becoming incoherent, and fast! This probably should have frightened me worse than it did, but it seems brushes with death or incurable brain damage were taken philosophically, as if we had signed up for the eventuality, so, of course, I sought the lighter side of psychosis.
“Goddamn, Cindy, Eddie’ll be jealous of that bush. Look, Nan, Cindy loves that bush!”
Nan joined in. “Cindy, azaleas can’t cop dope like people can. You better find you a person to love.” It was getting pretty cold out, so we took Cindy inside, swaddled in a blanket, leaving Ronnie outside, still clutching his midsection.
Late Christmas Eve
Eddie made it home about an hour later, and by then Cindy had fallen into a fitful snooze.
“Don’t wake her up, Man. She’s had a tough couple of hours.” I warned.
“Hell, I don’t have any reason to wake her up. All the dope in the world has dried up and blowed away. I’m sicker’n hell, Man! I’m goin’ to bed. Merry fuckin’ Christmas!” Eddie shuffled slowly into the middle bedroom where Cindy was sleeping, closing the door behind him.
When we moved into my grandmother’s house the previous summer, I took Dad’s old bedroom, the small one in the back of the house. I usually slept on the couch, but since it was Christmas and Santa was due, I collapsed on my bed. Before I fell asleep, I heard Cindy and Eddie quietly talking, Cindy snuffling softly. I think she was crying and I didn’t blame her one bit. They were just going to have to ride it out and hope for a Christmas miracle.
That night I dreamed everybody was disintegrating right before my eyes. I was the only one of the family who remained intact and vital. Dad kept saying, rather gruffly, “What are you looking at, Son?” as the whole family sort of blew away; it was as if they were drying out like the dope to which Eddie had referred, but they didn’t seem to notice. Finally, they were all gone and I stood there in tumbleweed desolation. I awoke and sat on the side of the bed, thinking. Remembering. Thinking about the old man, Joe S. Holland, ward of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. He’d been a state congressman until right before his incarceration. Things rapidly fell apart afterward.
It felt wrong, but I was so very thankful Nan had agreed to go with Mama to visit Dad that morning. I had been there last Christmas, we all had, and it was almost unbearable. Dad cried almost the whole time. We gathered around him, hugging him and telling him it would be all right until he slowly gained some composure only to again fall apart upon remembering where he was and what had happened. Spending Christmas with a couple of sick junkies was the better alternative.
I awoke Christmas morning to the sounds of Mama and Nan leaving for Columbia to see Dad. I remembered it was Christmas and tried to garner some Christian gratitude, but my self pity wouldn’t allow it. I walked into the front room and said to no one in particular, “Merry Christmas!” Nan responded, “Are you trying to be a smart ass?”
“Sorry. Tell the old man I love him and me and Cindy’ll see him next week. Tell him Merry Christmas for me, without the irony.”
“You better remember this, Joey! Even though Dad told us to stay home, he would be crushed if Mama didn’t come and she can’t go by herself! You’re welcome!” Nan was good that way. She liked people to accurately chronicle the things she did for them. “Cindy can’t go.” Nan continued. “Did you hear them this morning? I think they’re down for the count unless somebody brings them some dope.” Mama came in saying, “We better go, Sweetheart. The quicker we go the quicker we can get back.” “Merry Christmas, Mama!” I tried again.
“Fuck you, Joey! Leave Mama alone!” Nan warned.
“Nancy Ann!” Mama said. “Merry Christmas, Baby! I love you.” And she did. I was my mother’s favorite and everybody knew it. Nan checked to make sure they had everything they needed. Picnic basket with hamburgers and fixings, change for Cokes and two joints; one for the ride there, one for the ride home. Mama had her prescription of Valium. We heard Cindy and Eddie beginning to stir, so Mama and Nan headed out.
Cindy came vibrating into the room, snot running out of her nose. She looked like 40 miles of bad road.
“Merry Christmas!” I began, trying to find a ray of hopeful, yellow sunshine, but was extingusished by, “Fuck you Joey! Don’t start that shit!” I could hear Eddie moaning in the middle bedroom. Something that had been really itching at me surfaced, a ghost of an idea that now seemed ready to solidify and maybe to redeem. I still had my bag of heroin. I had been saving it for Christmas day. Even though I was trying to make light of the bleakness of this Christmas, I really was hoping for some sort of… redemption. As much as I hated it, I knew what I had to do if I wanted any shot at a holiday miracle.
“Guess what I got?” I asked Cindy.
“Yeah, I know what you got! A fucked up sense of humor and a holier-than-thou attitude, that’s what you got.”
“I also got that bag of dope you gave me for Christmas. Y’all can have it. I know it won’t quite do the trick, but hopefully it’ll be enough to get Eddie up and on his way to Greenville. Eighty mile round trip, he can be back in three hours.”
The words tumbled out and fell on the floor between us, unexpected and miraculous in their conception and promise. Cindy’s attention immediately turned to Eddie.
“Thank you, Honey! Give it to me! EDDIE! Joey gave us a bag to split! Get your flabby white ass in here!” They met in the kitchen and immediately began screaming at one another. “I’m going first!”
“No you’re not, goddammit!”
“HEY! Split the shit even!”
“Just sit down! Shit, I’m the one that’s gotta ride all the way to Greenville with fuckin’ Ronnie.” Mama and Nan had taken our car.
“OK, but hurry, Eddie, OK?” Cindy implored, as I walked outside for a little quiet.
I wasn’t outside ten minutes before Ronnie came pulling up in his old truck. I considered the faith the intrepid dopers had to have just to entertain the notion that Ronnie’s piece of shit truck would even make it to Greenville, much less take them on a dope hunt and return them unscathed.
“They here?” Ronnie asked.
“Yeah, they’re too sick to go anywhere. Well, except to Gvegas for essentials.” I responded. Evidently the now happier couple had heard Ronnie pull up because Eddie quickly came out, obviously in a hurry. “Don’t get out, Ronnie! Let’s go!” They pulled out, leaving a pall around the house.
“Merry Christmas!” Cindy sang as I came through the door.
“Fuck you, Cindy!” I retorted, but mostly for effect. I was glad she felt better. I was happier still that she looked better. Her eyes were clearer and, while her skin was still kind of gray, it was a more pleasant shade. After trying to be pleased about it being Christmas for a half hour or so, we were exhausted. Even though we’d only been out of bed for about an hour and a half, we decided on a nap.
When I woke up, it was close to two o’clock. Mama and Nan were due back in about an hour, maybe a little longer. Eddie was still gone and Cindy was still asleep. I doubt she had gotten much the night before. My family’s cosmic position began finally to sink in and I realized how close we were to… disintegrating or something. My dream of the night before returned to me in a way that forced me to look at things frankly. The drugs couldn’t always keep the despair at bay. In fact, they seemed to be magnifying it. I was completely bewildered, and, with the despair and bewilderment echoing in the empty chamber of my soul, the hopelessness was palpable. I couldn’t find the guts even to get out of bed for a few minutes, especially when I didn’t know what to do once I was vertical, but I couldn’t just lie there, not on Christmas day. I decided to try to clean the house a little. I washed the dishes, swept and mopped and then rearranged the mantle to make it look a little less desperate. I left the tree alone. It seemed an icon, a representation of how this Christmas felt. I opened the front door to air some of the despair out of the house, hoping to transform our little patch of hell into a place to enjoy Christmas night.
Mama and Nan arrived home around three, about ten minutes before Eddie, who came in without his usual ‘I got some dope’ swagger. “Wadn’t nothing goin on in Greenville. All I got is a few Percs. Let’s get high.” We never actually shot the dope in front of Mama; it was just understood that if she didn’t want to see it, she should stay out of the kitchen when we were in there conferring. Oxycodone, the ‘magic’ in Percodan, wasn’t heroin, but it would ward off the worst of their symptoms, and would positively change my world. I could only talk Eddie out of two Percodan but they beat a snowball, in the way a sno-cone beats a snowball.
After Eddie, Cindy and I finished “conferring” in the kitchen, things were much better. Nan was heeled with her ubiquitous Quaaludes and Mama had good news about Dad. “He was so much better! He got good news from the Social Security people. We also found out he’s moving to Spartanburg Pre-Release at the end of February. Bill McCrary works there!” Bill was one of Dad’s oldest friends. Dad had helped Bill beat about five DUIs during his time in the House of Representatives. “Your father really seems to have turned a corner. He might live through this thing after all… Who cleaned the house?” Mama asked the nodding crowd. Cindy smirked, “Nobody cleaned the house. Joey picked up and swept some. Nobody’s actually cleaned this house since we’ve been here.”
“You’re welcome, fuck face!” I said.
“It looks good, Joey! And thank you, Sweetie!” Cindy returned, cloyingly.
“No, thank YOU for the patronizing… Bitch!” I countered.
“Y’all don’t fuss. Things really are looking up.” Nan said.
“What smells so good, Cindy?”
Cindy came in from the kitchen. “We had a Hostess ham in there! I put it on. Anybody know where it came from?” Nobody did. Eula Mae was the family bootlegger. Many times, when I went by there on Sunday for a few half pints of ‘Bourbon de Luxe’, Eula sent home tomatoes or beans or maybe some homemade jam. She had probably given it to Mama, but I didn’t remember seeing it.
“Joey, will you come help me? Hell, let’s all go in the kitchen.” Our family, before the worm had turned, had always congregated in the kitchen. All of Mama’s family reunion pictures were taken in the kitchens of different relatives who’d hosted the festivities.
We all went into the kitchen, probably for the first time since we had been living in Grand mama’s house. Some of us had been in there to shoot dope or maybe to throw a quick meal together, but this was the first time we had all come in there to make a family dinner. All the women in my family were good cooks, but Cindy was the best leader, so she took command. “Joey, grab those sweet potatoes off the porch and put them in the oven. It’s already on. Be careful, the ham’s in there. You have to wash the potatoes first! Are you an idiot?”
“Mama, will you put some pintos on? There’s fatback in the fridge.”
It began to dawn on me that we were all thinking about something other than our problems. We weren’t marinating in self-pity. We hadn’t really questioned where the mystery ham had come from. We were just enjoying Christmas, cooking together and talking of past holidays. Something inexplicable had happened. Nan said, “Remember that Christmas we got the skates and Uncle Phil was so fucked up, Joey?”
“Me and Cindy were just talking about that one! Yeah, that was a good one for sure.” How about you, Mama? Do you remember your favorite?” Mama thought a minute before saying, “I loved every Christmas with my children. I hope you will all one day know what it’s like to have children. Ya’ll have been a gift to me every day, not just Christmas days. I love ya’ll so much!” This last said with tears in her eyes.
Mama’s genuine expression of love melted any hard feelings any of us had had concerning our new station in life. My mother was and is the sweetest person I have ever met. She… changed us that evening in that little kitchen in that little house. Forget that we were all pretty high, either from the dope or the holiday beers, or both. Forget that we still had a thousand things to do before we could say we had made it through this particular storm, forget all the woes that lay ahead and behind. We were still a family; one that cooked together in the kitchen.
On Christmas day, 1979, my family courageously looked into the abyss… and grinned.