sound my Aunt Alice’s vodka makes as I pour it down the toilet is like her
old nag mare Riddle pissing on the sidewalk. That always infuriates her,
and my dumping her Smirnoff’s down her toilet is no better. It’s Christmas
morning. Everyone is already blitheringly drunk, voices of anaesthetized
giants. Auntie Al is holding it in pretty well. The only mistake she makes
is to put out her cigarette in an ashtray that isn’t there—a shower of sparks,
a loud “Goddammit,” and another brown spot on the maple coffee table. Al
applies make-up, adding a touch of civility to an otherwise sloppy holiday.
Her teeth are smeared with Revlon Carmine. She is dressed in beetroot purple
and seasonal paste jewelry. She hovers close making sure I have presents
to open and a stocking with my name on it filled with oranges, foil-wrapped
mints, and dimes. She pours a paper cup from a large cut-glass decanter
of vodka punch and pink lemonade and hands it to me. Al puts her hand to
my head as if to feel for a temperature and plants a wet kiss on my lips.
“I hope this is a very happy Christmas for you, honey.” I wonder if she
is thinking about her twenty-six year old son, my cousin Teddy. He is the
only man I know who erased his face from the photographs of his high school
yearbook, leaving images of a well-dressed boy with no features and a pure
white paper head. A few years back Teddy started Agricultural Science classes
at junior college until he knocked up a red-haired girl named Denise. Theirs
was the first baby I’d ever seen up close, a tiny pale creature without
eyebrows. But Teddy went away soon after that, and a few months later the
Miami Police Department telephoned Al to inform her that they had found
Teddy lying unconscious in an alley outside a rooming house in the wrong
part of North Miami Beach. Teddy told the police someone had rolled him
for his wallet. Officers searched his room and discovered a closet full
of empty Turpenhydrate cough syrup bottles. Turps, Teddy called it. They
took him to a detox unit. He was hearing voices. So they shipped him up
north to the State Hospital in Grand Rapids. After a few months I guess
he improved, because they’ve let him out for Christmas.
Al strokes my hair. “You’re not sixteen yet, are you honey?”
“I’m fourteen,” I reply, wincing at the unfamiliar taste of the vodka she’s given me. In a flush of something I assume is drunkedness, I watch her breasts sway inside her blouse. I manage to say, “You look really pretty tonight.” Her cheeks become pink like the inside of a grapefruit, and she turns quickly away.
At her sudden urging everyone meanders over to the folding chairs arranged in a circle around the coffee table. The living room is decorated with flocked boughs Al has cut from her Douglas fir trees out beyond the barn. Frosted lo-ball glasses rest on a metal Coca-Cola tray. She has sprayed the Christmas tree white and covered it with pale blue bubble lights which give the living room a jittery chemical glow.
My cousin Teddy is the last to arrive in the circle. He moves with an exaggerated, dreamlike slowness. After painstakingly closing blinds, drapes, and window shades, he sits. Al attaches a red plastic drink caddy to his chair and hands him a can of orange soda. Al fumbles with an armload of wrapped boxes and passes them around until everybody holds one. She steps behind Teddy, and rubbing his shoulder with her small pale hand she says quietly, “Let’s start with you, honey.” She places in his lap a thin narrow box which might contain a tie. Teddy sits, motionless. “Go ahead, open it, sweetie,” she urges. After a long moment, Teddy slowly raises the wrapped unopened box and presses it to his throat. In a thick baritone voice he mutters, “How does it look?”
The room is silent. I laugh loudly. Teddy smiles at me and nods. Al hustles more drinks into everyone’s hands, and a number of guests stare vacantly at their glasses and shake their heads perhaps because of my jettisoning the vodka earlier. A few half-hearted toasts are made to old friends and dead relatives, and the Christmas presents are opened. Teddy’s gift turns out to be a pair of red and green socks which he drapes gingerly across his lap. Guests toss wrappings in a large plastic trash barrel Al has placed in the center of the livingroom. They stack their chairs in the den, and with sober embraces they depart.
Teddy turns off most of the lights including those bubbling listlessly on the Christmas tree and stands silhouetted in the dim light of the hallway. He tugs habitually at the already closed drapes and disappears into the darkened kitchen, noisily opening drawers and cupboards. “Do you like California wine?” he shouts at me. His invitation feels genuine, even friendly, but it surprises me. I recall the Fourth of July when Teddy had me explode watermelons in Al’s garden with M-80 firecrackers. The Labor Day gathering when I was eight, and he offered me a ride on Al’s mare Riddle. He placed me in her saddle and whacked her flank with a rake, and I kept my eyes closed the whole time Riddle galloped angrily back and forth across the soybean field.
Al says there is a chemical imbalance in Teddy’s brain, and the large spansules he takes at mealtimes will make it all right again, but that he is an individual and that people have individual reactions to medication, some better, some worse, that some shuffle incessantly, some droop, some slur their words, some talk a little less than one might want, but at least what they say isn’t as crazy as they might say without their medication, that we should be thankful for small miracles, after all they used to chain these people up and throw away the key, and now they can take a pill and perhaps be a little better.
Teddy hauls several wine bottles out of the cupboard and carefully lines them up on the kitchen counter. He fills a crystal goblet with red wine and motions for me to drink. I take a sip and rest the glass on the counter. Immediately Teddy pours its contents back into the bottle, rinses the glass in the sink, uncorks another bottle, and fills my glass again. I drink the wine and set it down. He pours it back into the bottle and repeats the sequence of pourings again and again. The wine is beginning to affect me. The white flocked Christmas tree appears now to be carved from the finest of ivories.
Al emerges half-dressed from the back hallway, “Put that wine back, Ted. Please.” She begins clumsily gathering up the bottles.
Teddy jumps to his feet. “Be of some use, mother, and go close the drapes. Leave us alone.”
“They are closed,” she shouts. “Now go to bed.”
For a long moment Teddy is silent. Then he places his hand roughly upon my shoulder and announces, “We’re going to walk the farm tonight.”
Al thrusts her hands into the pockets of her bathrobe. “Teddy, you’ll get frostbite. The weather’s cooled off.”
“I’m going to wear Daddy’s hunting outfit,” he says, and he carefully draws his father’s tan hat from his pocket and places it upon his head.
“God, I thought I threw that moldy old thing out years ago. Your father never shot anything, you know. He just liked to tromp around in the woods with his buddies.”
Al switches on the television set. “Oh, movie’s on, honey,” she calls, and to my surprise Teddy’s resolve of a moment ago seems to melt before the sound of the television. We spend the next few minutes watching in silence. Al serves us chamomile tea. Teddy jumps up, snorts loudly, and leaves the room. In a moment he reappears fully dressed in his father’s hunting gear.
His mother slowly shakes her head. “It’s your bedtime, son.”
Teddy claps me on the back. “Let’s get a move on, cousin.”
“Where do you plan to go?” Alice asks.
“The barn, mother. Big Red.”
“This place hasn’t been a working farm since your father died, Teddy.” She takes a small key from its hook, holds it in the palm of her hand, and stares at it for a moment. Then she hands it to her son.
A thick layer of winter clouds rides low in the sky. A windbreak of poplar trees stands motionless by the road. Cold air flows over the black unused fields. Teddy struggles with the key in the barn padlock. “Cousin, run back inside and ask my mom for a can of WD-40.” I pull open Al’s backdoor neatly sealed with weatherstripping, and I hear the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass. Al nurses a drink at the kitchen table. Her cheeks are red. She lights a cigarette and rises unsteadily. “It’s so good for him that you’re here, honey. He doesn’t see people. Cut him a little slack, would you?”
Although he is six feet Teddy looks small before the faded red doors. Ineptly he sprays the delicate lubricant all over the lock. He tries the key, but it doesn’t turn. He steps back and kicks at the lock, causing the key to spring loose and drop into the snow. He turns away and stares out toward the main road. I retrieve the key from the snow, slide it into the lock, and pull open the rusted hasp. Teddy is silent as the doors swing open. We are met by the scent of fuel oil and straw. Teddy breathes in heavily. “It smells like a long time ago.” He lurches into the darkness of the barn, fumbles in the pocket of his father’s hunting jacket, and takes out a box of kitchen matches and a candle. “My dad had a ton of livestock in this place once. When I was ten I had more jobs around here than a guy should be allowed to have in a lifetime.” He strikes a match and lights a candle, giving the barn a cold yellow halo. Rusted scythes and plow parts hang from the rough plank walls. Teddy pulls open a gate. “Come on in, cousin.” He holds onto a thick rope which hangs against the wall of a hand-crank elevator. I step in to the small framed box, and Ted draws the gate closed after me. A pulley clanks, and the structure slowly begins to rise. “Very old-fashioned,” Teddy says under his breath. Hand over hand, my cousin pulls at the rope, and the enclosure continues to rise. There is the strong smell of creosote. The candle goes out. Nothing is visible in the dark wooden shaft as we ascend. The wooden platform carries us higher, and a thin vaporous light appears above. Slowly coming into view is a high ceiling fitted with long ropes that hang from eyehooks. The platform jerks to a halt. We are in the hayloft. Teddy reaches slowly into the pocket of his father’s jacket. His voice quiet, conspiratorial, he asks, “Do you like Christmas candles?” His hand emerges holding a small wax candle in the shape of an angel, mouth open in song, a wick protruding from its head. Teddy lights it, places it precariously on a bale of hay, and stares at the flame.
“Look. You can watch his face melt.” Slowly one side of the angel’s head gives way and flows into the molten circle surrounding the flame. We sit in silence as the small figure begins to cave in upon itself.
“You ever experience radiation burns?” he asks in a measured way. “Walk outside on a night like this and you can get mild poisoning. Solar flares reach out tens of thousands of miles from the sun. It affects radio transmission which the FCC readily admits, and it certainly affects as delicate an organ as the human skin.” He stands up and says, “Do you remember the garden?” He smiles. “With the sprinkler?”
I glance at the candle, now an unrecognizable puddle of wax burning dangerously close to the straw. Ted points at me, pretending to be holding a pistol. “You were playing with mother’s sprinkler like it was a damned toy. Click click click. Hmmm?”
“I remember,” I respond.
His eyes are fixed on me, and the memory is intensely alive for him now. He doubles over with laughter, his eyes tightly shut, face turning red, like he is trying to tear himself out of his body and propel himself into the memory itself. He straightens up and stares at something in front of him. “Mother ever tell you about waking up that night? My dad was sitting on the edge of the bed looking pale. He doesn’t look at her. She touches him on the shoulder and he smacks her. Tells her he’s gonna kill her and us kids, and himself too. ‘How’re you going to do it, Carl?’ my mom asks.” Ted smiles broadly and points at me with both hands. “With a garden hose, cousin. With that same goddamned garden hose.” Ted guffaws loudly until a sharp cough halts his laughter. He savors the effect of his joke for a moment and pulls a piece of staw from the haybale and inserts it into the molten candle wax, twirling it slowly. “My dad used to bring me a new wrist watch every two years. You wind this one by shaking your wrist, has a spinner of some sort inside.” Teddy pushes back the sleeve of his father’s hunting jacket and taps the crystal of his watch. “Doesn’t work anymore.” He slips the watch off and hands it to me. It is a child’s watch. On the face is a bucking bronco.
I think about his father, Carl—vague memories of the man who was my father’s younger brother, wearing a blue serge suit, carrying a sales sample case, fingering an airplane ticket or travel itinerary. I remember Uncle Carl’s fleeting tepidness, the look of apology in his eyes. He always hung back, embarrassed, tentative. When he got angry he would take it out on Teddy with sudden slaps and screaming rages that would subside as quickly as they erupted.
A look comes onto Ted’s face like he is watching something that is making him abysmally sad. “You hear warnings? From the planets?” he asks gravely. He looks terribly fragile now, hollowed out, as though his long low moods and the medication have worn deep gullies inside him. He bends slightly. He is withdrawing from me. He begins to cough. I slap him on the back, but he shoves my hand away and wraps his arms around his chest and rocks back and forth.
“What in hell are you two doing?” At the far end of the barn Alice stomps jerkily across the hayloft toward us. Teddy coughs uncontrollably. His mother quickly lifts up his arms and holds them over his head. Teddy looks like a prisoner of war. Al grabs the candle and pinches out its flame. “You’re going to start a fire, for God’s sake.” She leads Teddy by the arm down the wooden steps. Teddy gazes at his mother with the muted, childlike embarrassment of a man inured to being told that his mind will eventually get better, that sleep is the best thing for him now.
My aunt swallows the remainder of her drink that has come from a fresh bottle of vodka, heats up some bear claw pastry in the microwave, and boils water for tea. She looks relieved that her son is finally asleep. “I’ll get you a towel and washcloth and make sure your bed’s made up,” she says, walking unsteadily into the guest bedroom. She tosses the covers aside and motions for me to get into bed. I undress and lay my clothes on the rocking chair. Al leans heavily against the doorway. I lie down and allow my eyes to close. Then I hear the sounds of my Aunt Alice’s gentle drunken disrobing, the sliding of cotton and rayon across her skin, the click of her bra fastener. She lies down beside me. “Do you want to do spoons? Carl and I used to do spoons together.” She inches toward me, contouring her compact middle-aged body to mine. I reach blindly behind me. My fingers brush her cotton panties. She arches her back pulling herself away slightly and touches my hand. I slide toward her and touch her buttocks. They are wide, dimpled, and soft. She breathes deeply, and in a quiet dusky voice she asks, “Did you get a good feel?”
I stare at the Old Colonial pattern on the bedroom wallpaper. After a long silence she says, “You can visit him in the hospital if you want. You’re family, you know.”
Out on the road the sounds of late night Christmas traffic are softened by a heavy wet snowfall and my aunt’s small muted snores.