Elves leave messages for my kids. Sometimes it seems like the elves have been drinking. I bet they get jolly come December with the end of a year’s labor in sight. I know I do. The elves write, “Ganymede, Jupiter’s ginormous moon, is named for a prince kidnapped by an eagle.” Or the elves write, “There’s 22,000 pounds of cheese in a tunnel in New York. That cheese does not belong to you, kids. It’s Nacho Cheese.” Odd facts. Rotten jokes. Usually there are no gifts involved. The elves are frugal, like me. I’m not interested in raising monsters.
I can foresee the questions that might swarm around this elf tradition, like: Is Santa so unfair he sends messages to only my children? Or you might wonder: How do the elves get to my middle-of-nowhere house each night?
Here are your answers: Santa, in harmony with the whole wide world, is unfair. My kids haven’t had a dad for two years. If you want to trade elf messages for a father, you got it. Second answer: The elves don’t have to get here. Santa employs local, seasonal help like any department store. Which probably only triggers more questions in this economy. Does Santa pay a living wage? Can I get a Santa job too?
But zip it. Please. Questions chip away at belief in stuff and we are trying to believe in stuff. It’s Christmastime.
I work on the elf messages after bedtime each night. Having a hand in the supernatural makes me feel devious, righteous — the same rush as finding a good hiding spot in a game. The same rush as fear.
An alien arriving on Earth might ask the people of our planet, “You lie to all the kids?”
“It acclimates them to our other lies: time, history, health care. All the social contracts. Including justice.”
Still, I teach belief. That’s different than lying. I introduce the unseen, the possible, into a stinky reality. Though the similarities between fantasy, screen time, and drug use are plain, I teach belief. Maybe I’m an idiot, but belief can feel like hope and it would be too bleak, too sad to stop now.
I’ll hide tonight’s message in a cereal box or the silverware drawer. Both work. If I don’t make it easy enough to find the elf messages, my kids give up. Both of them are at the age, middle school, where, if I’m not careful, they might stop believing in things all together. Then I’d be left to wonder why I do this.
The tree is lit, Johnny Mathis on the stereo. Why do I do this?
“You want a beer?” I asked him. It was his second job, grooming ski trails, running a snowcat up and down the mountain on the midnight shift after he’d already worked all day.
“Nah. I’m good.”
I didn’t know him yet. This was before our kids. Just wooing. He asked if I’d go with him, in the rig, late at night. It was a date. It was also his job. I got gussied up, then bundled up. Snow pants. Real sexy. I threw a few beers in my backpack. Wore mittens, hat and scarf, but then the cab of that rig, with him in it, was flushed with heat. All that warmth felt so decadent, like going to a fancy hotel. I loved it.
And he didn’t drink. That was a first.
He put the rig in gear and up we climbed. The snowcat was so old it had an 8-track player mounted in the dashboard and a handful of cassettes, K-tel collections, “Emotions,” “The Elite,” and one called “Star Power.” Romance and warm things in this freezing place, as if the cab of that cat were a tropical island. Dreaming, the dashboard sang. I must be dreaming.
When you reach the top of a mountain in winter after midnight, the trees have been standing so long in their thick white coats, bent some but regal with patience and strength, kings and queens. So steady, calm, and wise, their power might be lethal. They let you know, there’s nothing in this world they’re not in charge of. I felt my smallness beneath those trees, totems larger than anything human.
He swung the wheel, spun us round. Back down the mountain we went. All night long up, then down, like a devotion. We groomed the trails. We took care of the hills even though we were small.
Most of us here work for the mountains in some capacity, even the lawyers and doctors. We join ski patrols or run slalom lessons on the weekends. We fry chicken nuggets in the canteens, wear lederhosen to impersonate a Tyrolean. We make some part of our living off tourists who like to ski. To not earn this money, cash that falls from the sky each winter, would make you the fool. The people who come here from elsewhere have a lot. They buy everything brand-new and their money has made them helpless. They no longer know how to do anything, including, say, make a sandwich. We are glad to take their money, make their sandwiches. Especially since snow will be gone soon, and with it, this extra income. Snow will be a story we tell our grandchildren. And guess what? They won’t believe us when we say that some nights, we fell asleep with grass on the ground and woke to a world covered in two feet of dazzling crystals.
No way, they’ll say. No way. We don’t believe you.
In the snowcat, we listened to the 8-tracks without speaking. Old love songs and disco, full of romance. Saturday Night Fever. “How Deep Is Your Love?” I didn’t mind one bit. I felt open, delicate, protected. It is not often I have felt that way. The engine was loud and I was uncertain how to talk to him. We looked out at the snow then smiled at each other across the broad bench seat. I liked his beard, chestnut-colored. I held the cassette up to his profile. He looked like a young Barry Gibb.
The headlights on the snowcat cut a precise cone of visibility. Everything outside the light stays unseen: the forests, drifts and crevasses, the secret places in the woods where spring and summer — moss, asters, rabbits — hide out of sight, underground, deep in sleep.
At the top of the mountain he shut off the engine.
“Let’s get out.” He swung his body onto one of the treads. From there he climbed to the roof.
The engine ticked a few times but really, beyond that quiet ticking, never has a night been so silent. I followed him out. There was little wind, not the Arctic blast one might expect at 2,000 feet. Now, I thought. Now the smooching’s going to happen. And I was right: We kissed on the roof of the cat. I worried I’d eat him whole that first night of loving. So I stopped the kissing to make it last. I looked up. The darkness, the stars and their surrounding velvet. Holy night. He was tall, lovely. He was one of those frozen trees, sharply cut and unwavering.
He pointed to the few lights far below. “Town,” he said. Our village at this distance was simple. He scrunched up his shoulders and spoke in an old-lady voice, pretending to be someone down there. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills whence cometh my help.”
“Are you quoting the Bible on our date?” I asked him.
“That’s the Bible?” Back in his regular voice. He had no idea.
“My grandma cross-stitched a sampler with that phrase.”
“Mine too. My granny too!” he said. “But I thought it was from The Sound of Music.”
“One or the other.”
Then more kissing because our grandmas’ twinned samplers were telling us, this union was meant to be. My head was angled, getting as close as I could, heaving into him. His body was a warm wave that could swallow me in flesh and love. We could make a life together. Such a twoness that I suddenly, starkly felt how something else was there, a third thing. An outside thing was watching us. I couldn’t say good or bad. Just something that was not us.
My eyes popped open and it moved in the woods. “What’s that?” I spoke quietly, pointing to the trees. “Something’s there.”
He looked. The forest was thick. “What?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I see it.”
“What is it?”
We waited. We watched. We did not call out hello. And while I was not raised to trust myself, he saw it too. Something was in the woods watching us, bigger than us. This thing, there, then not there, moved across the hard land with ease, going in a way nothing living could ever go. It let us see it.
“I think we should leave now,” he said. Still unhurried, no panic on his part, but maybe concerned he had exposed me to something I wasn’t ready for. He had infected me with the woods. I didn’t mind. I was ready for infection. I was ready for him and anything he brought. It was honestly a relief to know there were things that cannot be explained. Even if they scared me.
The snowcat moved swiftly down the mountain. I kept watch out the back window but couldn’t see anything. Those old love songs started up again with the engine. “Well,” he said. “Now we know.” I almost asked what it was that we now knew. Ghosts? Bigfoot? Bad guys? But I stopped myself. I thought it might be safer, healthier for both of us if we never named the thing, whatever it was, watching us in the woods that night.
I need to finish my elf message before I fall asleep. Single mothering is hard. I’m tired all the time and even though everyone says I should rest while my kids rest, these hours I get alone, nighttime, children asleep, a bottle of red wine and so much quiet, are the only peace I know.
I fill my glass. A lot of things hurt but with the first sip, that burn of booze, you know, those things hurt less. My living-room desk faces the window. From the desk I watch the street. Not much is happening outside. Snow, trees, a light left on in the garage. Nothing is going on in my town. I like it that way. I like nothing. The wind lifts yesterday’s dry snow off the boughs. The wind gathers the snow together in a draft, a shape that floats through the dark air as a white blur, a bridal veil taking flight.
Tonight’s elf message is about communication via alpenhorn. I found the information in a National Geographic.
Seated at my desk, my back is to the door and the hall where my kids sleep. My neck prickles. Maybe I heard something but when I turn, nothing’s there. I start my work again but halfway through, “Alpenhorn music travels five miles—” the prickles become ice. I see my reflection in the window and a horrible thought arrives. What if my daughter or son is behind me, a knife in hand, having uncovered the truth about my forged messages from the North Pole. “You’re a liar, Mom?” My sweet kids prepared to commit violence now that their beliefs — Santa exists! — a testament they’ve fiercely defended over the years — appears to be a story made up by an evil Mommy who couldn’t make the unreal real, so lied about it instead.
I spin in my chair. It’s not my kids. Standing behind me there’s a woman in an oversize, navy blue peacoat.
“Shite!” A word I use so as not to use the other word. I forget to simply swear in front of adults since I spend a lot of time with my kids. I also sometimes, embarrassingly, still say the words potty and boo-boo.
“Oh!” She acts as if I’d scared her, in my living room. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The stranger holds a small wrapped box, a Christmas present the size of a baby doll’s head or, maybe a beef heart. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” and grimaces. She’s young, 20s, but a tough girl, rough kid. Her makeup looks old and over-applied as if to calm or cover up what’s underneath. If she were my friend I’d tell her, You should lay off the foundation.
I regulate my breath back to unfrightened levels. It’s not like I turned and found a man in my house. Or an elf. “I’m okay. Whew. Yeah. You did scare me.”
“I knocked but you didn’t hear.”
“No. Probably not.” The Johnny Mathis carols are loud. “My dog usually hears everything but he’s asleep. You need some help?”
“Nah. I’m going house to house tonight,” the woman says.
Oh, crap. Another word I use so as not to use the worse word. She wants money, or to sell me Mary Kay, or she wants to talk about the superiority of her religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been out in droves lately. Ditto the Mormons. But she’s wearing pants.
My husband could make the unreal real. He’d take the kids and me into the forest to cut down a Christmas tree. There was a special dance he did there, made us all do. Join hands, whoop and leap in a wild circle around the tree. He’d say, “In tree talk, this dance means, ‘Hey, you want to come home with us?’” My kids would listen hard with their dad, waiting for an answer. He taught them how to speak Tree. I don’t know what they heard but each year they all received an answer. “Nah, this tree’s not ready,” or, “All right, this one says it’s game.”
After he was gone, that first year, I dragged the kids into the woods. “Come now, let’s dance,” I said. They mustered a lame shuffle around a spruce. “What’s the tree saying?” I asked them. They shrugged. “I don’t know,” they said. “We don’t really hear anything the trees say, Mom.”
The woman’s wide-eyed, gathering in the sights of my unimpressive living room. A sofa, a loveseat, a rocking chair handed down from an elderly neighbor who passed. Our TV is old, resting on a console that houses a handful of books. There’s an electronic keyboard for my kids’ piano lessons. Two strings of Christmas lights zigzag across the ceiling. And a cheap rug. One more red-wine spill and I’ll toss this rug to the curb.
If she’s casing the joint, she made a bad choice of joints. We don’t own anything of value. Maybe she thought she’d find a trove of presents under an overburdened tree, gifts she could steal for her own kids. Or maybe she’d just sell them for cash, for a fix. That’s a big problem around here. I guess it’s a big problem everywhere now. 72,000 overdoses last year. You could fill a football arena or two with the ghosts.
She doesn’t look like a thief.
“You mind if I sit down?” she asks.
“Knock yourself out.” I’m not afraid of people. I work in the hospitality industry. Despite an ambitious start in life — always thought I’d be my own boss — I’ve now come to enjoy serving people because ambition’s a drug like any other, a toxic waste of my life, thinking I was special. Service is my antidote to ambition.
Plus, I’ve been in and out of 12-step programs for nine years. People don’t surprise me. Women don’t frighten me.
She sits heavily. Tired. I get that. “Glass of water?” I ask her.
“Been a long night, huh?”
“Long week. Long year.” The woman smiles. “Long life.”
“Or, you want eggnog? I’ve got eggnog.” I’m proud that I, a single mom, not much money, manage to make my home a place of comfort and kindness. Special attention paid to Christmas and the soul-cleansing shenanigans of potpourri, tea lights, and a carton of eggnog; markers of goodness. With these objects in my house, it’s clear to all I’m steeped in the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of Christmas is love, generosity, and forgiveness. I need all three.
“Nog?” This excites the woman. “Yeah. Thanks.”
I bring two glasses back to the living room, little splash of rum in mine. Tonight’s for the stars. “Cheers.” Plus, I’m cutting the rum with eggnog. It’s not like I’m drinking it straight from the bottle.
The woman sips, swallows, smiles. “There was a time I wouldn’t eat eggs.”
“Yeah. Eggs are complicated.”
“I thought they were food for dead people. I had some crazy idea that the dead needed to eat a certain number of eggs, raw eggs, in order to come back to life.”
“Gross.” I lift my glass again. “Merry Christmas.” Weirdo.
“Merry Christmas,” she says and we drink. “But now I love eggs. Even raw ones. I can’t get enough of them.” To demonstrate her love of raw eggs, she drains her glass and I think, this gal is nutty but, as long as she’s here, I’m not drinking alone. “You like Christmas?” She wipes some of the mascara off from underneath her eyes.
“I do.” And to demonstrate my love of rum, I drain my glass too. “Don’t you?”
“I like it. Even though we’re not supposed to,” she says.
“Nah. People think you’re dumb if you like Christmas.”
“Yeah. Buying things is stupid. Buying things is killing us.”
“I’m with you there.”
“And, you know, old white dude sneaking into your house at night? Creepy.”
I’ve never been scared of Santa. My dad was an old white dude. He knew how to fix things and how to be quiet. He knew how to take care of people when he wasn’t drinking. I miss him. I suppose I confuse him with Santa. As a person does.
She goes on. I begin to wonder when she’ll get to the point of whatever she’s looking for door-to-door. “Yeah,” she says. “Santa’s a little bit like date rape.”
“Think about it. When Christmas is over, you’re broke, your kids are spoiled and your liver barely made it, but it’s your fault. You knew the guy. You let the guy in.”
“Wait,” I stop her. “You know Santa?” It’s a joke but she cocks her head at me, confused. “I think Santa’s a metaphor for love.” I say it quickly. I’m ready for bed. I finished my rum and want to kick her out and blah, blah, blah, entertaining angels unawares. It’s a tough time of year. “What can I do for you?”
“Do your kids still believe in Santa?”
“How old are they?”
“How’d you know I have kids?”
She jerks her head toward three stockings hanging on the wall.
“Middle school,” I tell her.
“They still believe? Good job.”
“It’s important to me.”
“I’ve failed them in other ways.”
“Their dad’s dead.”
“That’s not your fault. Is it?”
“Can I help you with something?”
My kids are the only ones in middle school who still believe in Santa, tooth fairy, leprechauns, all of it. I try to do a really bang-up job convincing them magic is real. Few families can make such a claim, not even those more intact and appropriate than my family, headed by a single mom who likes her drink.
I once shushed another mother at soccer because she was going on about what Santa was going get her kids that year and where she was going to buy it. After, out of earshot, she asked me, “You mean your kids still believe?”
She chewed on that one a moment then asked, “Where’d you go to college?”
It took a while to dig those barbs out of my skin.
The woman in my living room licks her empty nog cup. “Speaking of letting dudes in,” she says. “You find a new one yet?”
“A new guy. Since yours died.”
“Sorry. None of my business.”
“No. I haven’t.”
I don’t want a man around the place. A man might complain about oatmeal for dinner or the Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, and Olivia Newton John songs I love to play all these years after their first magnificence. Have you never let someone else be strong? Not really, Olivia. That would require trust. Will a little more love make it right? You know it will, girl. Is it still good to ya? When you’re around, Teddy. Yes, it is. Another man might mess with my memories, might not remember K-Tel or the Bee Gees singing Everything we are will never die. A man might not understand how these songs are still relevant now that our world’s coming unraveled. I don’t want to have to explain. Like I said, I’m tired. I am a single working mom, trying to make sure my children still believe in things, still hope for goodness, kindness, and love in a world that lately favors greed, rage, bullies, fire.
This exhaustion is my own fault. I stay up too late and I can’t sit still. When we’re granted a moment of rest, say, a Saturday with no softball or soccer, I load the kids in the car. We drive to the ocean, or the border, or a campground by a lake where I spent a weekend as a girl. When I’m driving, I’m not sad. So even though we return home from these drives more tired, more broke and cranky; even though the car’s filled with disgusting empty, or worse, half-empty food containers, I do not stop driving. We set out on these journeys, and it is foolish, it is not right thinking, but, if I am honest, I do it because I believe one day I’ll finally drive far enough that one of these roads will become a highway or maybe a mule path, back to a place where the dead are still alive.
We didn’t ever go back to the mountaintop. He stopped running the snowcat, transferred to lift operator. That’s how he broke his finger, snapped it on a moving chairlift. It got caught and I wonder sometimes, where I’d be if that particular chairlift hadn’t ever been a thing my husband knew. What if he’d been wearing mittens instead of gloves?
“Do you have a man?” I ask her.
She looks at my cheap rug. “Every now and then I remember a guy.”
“What do you mean? Like you forgot him?”
She stretches, thinking. “I forgot everything for a while. You know?” And she winks at me slowly.
So, then I do know. I get who she is now. The bottle of red I opened a few hours ago is almost gone. Lots of things hurt this time of year. “Who sent you? My sponsor? I’m doing fine. I promise. Tell her I’m good. I’m going to stop drinking as soon as the new year comes. Promise.”
The woman smiles, nods. “So. No man for you.”
I hesitate. “There’s one man who would be perfect for me. It’s just not going to happen.”
“Who is he?”
I brush away my blush. “Barry Gibb. You know him? From the Bee Gees.”
“The disco guy? I’m pretty sure Barry Gibb’s already married. Or dead.”
“The real Barry Gibb is definitely married and too old for me. I’m interested in an idea of Barry Gibb, like when he was younger and I was, say, 6.”
“You’re going to date an idea?”
“Remember the way he styled his hair and sang falsetto? He was smoking hot. He was into girls, but he was also kind of like a girl. Plus, he was a romantic. I mean, in my head. He might have actually been an asshole, a drug addict. I don’t know. A lot of them were. But to me, he was a romantic and at the same time, he would definitely beat the crap out of anyone who messed with you. Even in his tight clothes. He was fierce, and you were, you know, his woman. His girl. I mean, I was. I mean, I am. He just doesn’t exist, but if he did, he’d beat up the bad guys and then we’d go home and brush each other’s hair before screwing like horny monkeys all night. That’d be amazing.”
The woman looks a little surprised but she’s in the program. She’s heard
“You asked,” I say.
“I did.” She smiles. And for a moment, in the living room, we both stare at a chunk of air floating a foot below the ceiling. In that chunk of air, young Barry and his brothers dance in tight slacks through a world where love reigns and hope remains. It’s not the past. It’s a better place. There’s no sound but we can tell when Barry’s hitting the high notes. His stomach muscles, cheekbones, and Adam’s apple convulse. It’s very sexy.
“I used to believe men like that might exist,” I say, still watching Barry dance on air, light as spirit and lovely.
The woman looks away from the chunk of air. She looks at me and I look at her and that chunk of Bee Gees disappears. Poof. An engineered product of the money men and the music industry. We stare at each other and after a few beats, we start to laugh and laugh. We can’t stop laughing because, isn’t that funny? The dreams girls once had? I feel it down in my belly, laughing so much. It’s a punch in the abs, a jab in the side. Isn’t that hysterical? Rescue fantasies and illusions that someone somewhere with a recording contract will take care of you? Ha.
She laughs more. Holds her stomach even. “Ooo!” she says. “That was a good one.” The woman wipes her eyes. Eventually we both recover from such hilarity. “Which bad guys?” she asks. “Who’s Barry going to beat up?”
I shrug her question off, though I know who the bad guys are. The doctor who gave my husband an Oxy script, the dealer who got him heroin when the script ran out, and the asshole who cut the junk with fentanyl. There are a lot of bad guys around here.
The woman clears her empty nog glass back to the kitchen, leaving her Christmas gift on the sofa. “I should let you finish your message for your kids. It’ll be morning soon.”
“Yeah. Right.” I don’t ask how she knows about the elves. Christmas magic. Or the rum. Or I’m still thinking about the bad guys and the last Christmas he was alive. Our kids were younger and everything was belief.
At this point in the night, the booze has stopped keeping the bad at bay.
When she returns, she fingers the slip of paper I’m working on. Santa loves you, it reads. “Why do you care if they believe?”
I don’t really want to get into it. I’m not sure I could even say why.
“Santa equals dad?” she asks.
She sits on the floor in front of me. “That’s big.”
“Well, you got me thinking here. What if Santa’s dead? Like your guy.”
“Have you been drinking too?” I ask.
“It would explain how he travels the whole world in one night. How he flies. How he gets inside people’s houses. Right? We let the dead in. Or else they just walk in, or float in. The dead are with us everywhere.”
“Santa’s a ghost.”
“All right, but if Santa’s dead why’s he so hung up on naughty or nice?”
“Seems kind of judge-y for a dead person. Also, small point, but Santa’s not real. I buy the presents. You know that, right?”
She taps her chin. Her nails are filthy. “You don’t believe in Santa?” she asks.
“I believe in some things.”
“It’s getting harder.”
“All the gentle men are gone,” she says. “Or they never existed.”
I can see how she got there but I’m not ready to agree to that yet. I’ve got a boy to raise and everything about him is perfect. “Poor Barry. All his brothers died.”
She nods. “You get used to it.” And she wipes her smudged mascara again.
My dog finds dead things all the time. He grinds his back into the stinking creature like diving in, swimming through a rare treat. He’s never happier than when rubbing death into his fur. Then I come along and, before I smell it, I pet him. Then I’ve got death on me. How do I get death off my hands before I touch my kids? Why does that idea scare me? Maybe I should smear death all over them. Maybe I already have. It would be better, it would be easier, if we were prepared to rub our faces into it, loving and knowing the deeply complex odors instead of pretending death is far away, hiding out somewhere up near the North Pole.
Another draft of dry snow lifts off the branches outside and takes flight. I don’t know why snow does this, huddles together, makes a shape. This one looks like someone’s bed sheet cut for Halloween, two eyes and a mouth, blowing down the street.
The doctor gave my husband three Oxy refills for a broken metacarpal, a tiny finger bone that could have healed in five weeks. Aspirin would have worked. Or nothing. Nothing would have been great. Why shouldn’t a broken bone hurt a little? The doctor saw our kids with me in the waiting room. He gave the prescription to me to hold because my husband’s hand was bandaged. He made me play a part. And we filled the prescription because, at that time, we still believed that doctors try to make people healthy. The doctor tousled my boy’s hair in the waiting room. That doctor told me he was taking his own kids to the beach for summer vacation. That sounded real nice, and I told him so.
Sometimes now I think about how he paid for that vacation.
“Who sent you?” I ask her. “Tell them I’m fine. It’s just a little drink. Holidays can be hard, you know.”
The woman touches my knee kindly but says nothing.
“What’s in the box?” I ask. “If it’s a sobriety coin, you better hold onto it.”
She smiles. “It’s fun to try to guess. Isn’t it?”
“Nah. I prefer ripping them open.”
“You do? Has any gift ever been better than your imagination?”
“People aren’t gifts. I mean something like this.” She shakes the present.
“There could be keys to a new house inside this box. There could be a good man.”
“He’d be pretty small.”
“Maybe it’s just his finger. You’d have to plant him, grow him.”
She smiles again.
“Plus, I thought people weren’t gifts.”
One year for Christmas, he got me a baby cactus. This was a long time ago, before our kids. He put the baby cactus in a brown paper bag and at the bottom of the bag, on the inside, he drew a heart and wrote, I love you, inside the heart. This seemed perfect, seemed like he knew and understood all the complexities of me. I love babies. I love cactuses. And I love throwing things together that don’t belong together.
The cactus has grown a lot. The cactus is doing great.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her.
“I’m just making the rounds tonight. Checking up on people.”
“You’re part of the program though, right?”
“The program? Sure.”
“They never sent anyone before.”
“Well, then, you want a drink?” I stand up.
“Nah,” she says. “I’m good.”
The drive I take most often is back to the town where I grew up. It’s not too far and my kids like to go there because they know it. They know the playground, the diner. They have a handful of friends there even. Last time we went, I asked, “Should we stop by Nanny’s?” That’s what everyone called my grandma, even my friends from school. She was pure love like that, everyone’s Nanny.
My daughter said, “Umm.”
My son said, “She’s not there, Mama.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
They rolled their eyes. Nanny had been dead four years. But I still carry the keys to her condo in my glove box and when we drive past a thought arrives or I dredge the thought up myself. Hard to tell. If I’m quiet, if I promise the universe up and down that I won’t tell anyone, I think I could unlock that door and Nanny would be there in her living room. “You want lunch, honey?” she’d would ask. “I’m making a sandwich for your dad.” Her hair would be freshly styled. She’d wear her pink skirt trimmed in white rick rack and wedged espadrilles to match. Though I packed up her condo years back, everything would still be intact, her crystal tchotchkes and china dishes.
“Something to eat?” she’d ask again.
“I’m okay, Nan. Thanks.”
“How about a Mallomar? I’ve got a box in the cupboard.” I’d follow my grandma into her kitchen and sure enough, my dad, dead even longer, would be there too wearing the Lee jean jacket he lost back in the 1980s, eating a sandwich at her Formica table, sitting underneath that cross-stitch. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
“Hi, sweetheart.” He’d wipe his lips on a napkin as if he just saw me yesterday. I’d be full, so happy but still, I’d peel off from them, let them eat their marshmallow cookies because I’d know that somewhere in the condo, he was there, too. The bedroom or den. And this is messed up, but, even more forbidden and magnificent than that first night in the snowcat, touching his body for the first time, would be touching his body for the last time.
I’ll say it again, if I’m real quiet, if I promise to not tell anyone, he could wrap his arms around me once and I could smell him, a much deeper smell now. I’d know him fully, inside and out, dead and alive. I don’t need much time, one minute, his arms, and then I’d leave and, Universe, I promise, I’d never breathe a word of it to anyone. I’d take it with me to the grave.
“Let’s go to the playground, Ma,” my daughter said.
“Yeah. Good idea.” We passed Nanny’s. My kids steered me away. Which is right and good even if sitting in the park later felt a bit like biting into an apple and finding a yellow jacket in my mouth. The sweet fruit of my kids mixed in with rot and venom and the sting of being left alone.
I fill my glass with red.
“You’re thinking of him?” she asks.
I nod. I almost forgot she was here. Who is she?
“I bet that wine doesn’t help,” she says.
“What do you mean? Wine’s the best thing for thinking of him. Why do you think they
call booze spirits? That shit is haunted.”
“I meant, I bet wine doesn’t help you not think of him.”
“Why shouldn’t I think of him?”
She shakes the present again and listens to it, as if it might tell her.
“You know what? One time,” I say, a little angry, a little annoyed. “He came back from the dead.”
“Yeah. He did. He was dead and then he wasn’t.”
“How’d he manage that?”
For a moment I don’t supply the answer. I let her think maybe he really was as special as I say he was. “Yeah,” I finally tell her. “He came back. An EMT with a shot of Narcan.”
“He came back to life.”
“People used to tell ghost stories at Christmastime,” she says. “You ever do that? A spooky tale for Christmas Eve?”
“No. I never heard of that.”
“It was a tradition. Back in the day. When I was young.”
“You are young.”
“Where do you go to meetings?” I’m wondering if I’ve ever met her before.”
“The ghost stories didn’t have anything to do with Christmas.”
“Why’d they tell them?”
“Something about the dead and this time of year. The darkness. The veil thinning. Or maybe because we miss the dead when it’s quiet.” She blinks a lot, quickly. “People would tell these stories. They’d scare each other. At Christmas.”
“I don’t get it.”
“A lot of the stories start after a meal. Everyone’s well fed. Maybe even drunk. Overdone, spoiled. And it’s night, cold out but warm by the hearth. There’s one old ghost story called, ‘Smee.’ Big rambling house in the countryside. Smee is a game, like hide-and-seek sort of, only players sneak up on another and whisper, ‘It’s me. It’s me.’ Right? Smee.”
“That’s not scary.”
“And the other players answer back, ‘It’s me.’ Except for one player, the one who is it, he doesn’t answer when you say ‘smee.’ Just silence. That’s how he catches you. Then you have to be silent too.”
“Still not scary.”
“Okay. Except for one night, the night of the story, there was an extra player, an uninvited player, a player no one knew, quiet as a ghost. And when he didn’t answer your ‘smee,’ well, you know.”
“Who was he?”
“You should read the story. Christmas is coming. Read it to your kids.”
“I don’t know. That does sound a little scary. Or just weird.”
“And shop ‘til you drop? Nothing scary or weird about that? Huh?”
“What’s in the box?”
She ignores me. “My favorite ghost stories are where you don’t know the ghost is a ghost. At least not at first. Maybe you don’t even find out until three-quarters of the way through. Then suddenly you start to suspect, Hey, maybe she’s dead too.”
“Yeah. Women make better ghosts. You know, cause no one believes in us.”
“For instance,” she says. “You’d make a great ghost.”
A really creepy comment but I don’t take it that way. I’ve been drinking and I’m almost proud she recognizes this quality in me. “Yeah,” I say. “Thanks. I think I’d make a fucking phenomenal ghost. Thanks.”
When people learn what has happened to my family they have many questions. They want to know if we were good people. Did we deserve what happened? They want to make sure it won’t happen to them through some calculus of morality and virtue and self-righteousness. They want to know why I didn’t make it stop before it was too late. And they want to know what it looked like, how I found him, in our house, needle in his arm, just like that, a dead man.
A week before the end, he took us shopping. He was happy, peaceful. I guess he was high. He told us to grab everything we needed at the store. “Stock up,” he said.
He winked. “Yeah. We’re good.” Which wasn’t always our situation. The kids and I filled a cart: clothes, food, new sheets and bath towels. I bought that stupid, cheap rug. “More,” he urged us. “How many boxes of Cheerios have you got?”
“Make it eight.” We filled two carts.
In line to pay, the kids and I were smiling. It was exciting to be so well taken care of. We loaded everything onto the conveyor belt. He gave me his ATM card and I used it to pay. Over four hundred dollars. The kids and I packed the goods up into bags, loaded it back into the carts. I pushed the first cart past the cashier, “Thank you!” I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was smiling. I was heading toward the doors.
“Ma’am,” the cashier called. I turned to see what she wanted. My husband was standing behind the second cart, still in line, our goods all loaded. He had piked over at the waist, collapsed on the cart. He had nodded off in line at Target. Only his hands were moving, very slowly, a ballerina in a gentle breeze.
“Dad,” my son said, flushed with coming embarrassment. “Wake up, Dad.”
“He’s been working so hard,” I said it loud, really loud. I wanted everyone to know he was tired from work. That was it. That was all it was. He just fell asleep standing up. In Target. If my husband had been having a heart attack, I would have screamed for help. I would have screamed and demanded help. But he was nodding off from heroin and all I could think to do was to get him out of that store as quickly as I could so no one would know, no one would see him dying a shameful death, a death most people think he deserved.
I gave my daughter the first cart to push and, like a mother teaching her child to walk, I went behind my husband, keeping most of his weight on the cart, and I forced him out of the store, pushing him from behind. I tucked him into our car, loaded up the goods he’d bought us, all the while saying,
“He’s so tired. So tired.”
Finally, my daughter asked, “Mom, can you just stop?” So, I did. We drove home in silence. We left him in the car to sleep it off.
After he was gone, that shopping trip meant that he knew where he was going and he wanted his kids to have enough cereal before he went. That’s something like love. And if I hadn’t been worried what the cashier at Target thought of my family, maybe I would have put that message together before he was dead. Maybe I could have stopped it.
“What’s in the box?” The prickles return.
“Is it for me?”
“You can have it. You might not want it.”
“Who wouldn’t want a present?”
She shrugs again. “You know A Christmas Carol?’
“Like ‘Deck the Halls’? I know a ton. I love Christmas carols.”
“No. It’s another ghost story. Dickens. Christmas Past, Christmas Future, Christmas Present? Tiny Tim?”
“Yeah. I saw it on TV.”
“Right. Well. The Ghost of Christmas Present.” She holds up her present, her beef heart. Whatever it is. “I think that’s funny. Like a gift could get haunted. The ghost of the Christmas present. Get it?”
“What’s in the box?”
“Maybe it’s a ghost story,” she says.
I look out the window. I look back to her.
“Want to hear it?” she asks.
I don’t make a sign either way.
But, “Okay,” she says. “A ghost story,” she says. “Once there was a man who loved his family. Then he died. He didn’t want to die. And he misses you al—”
“Stop. I never said I wanted to hear it.” Taking a big gulp, I finish my wine. A moment of violence swells up in me, thick and boiling in my body. I swallow the wine to meet the rage. It doesn’t work. I stand, lifted by furor, as if this stranger has stolen him, as if she has him now. “Where is he?”
She smiles again. Laughs even, crazy like before. Her chin rolls forward. When she lifts her face, she lifts her arms, opening the wings of that pea coat.
At some point, a person is closer to the dead than the living. A person thinks about the keys to that condo more often, about having a sandwich with their dad. Hugging their man. Listening to all those good songs almost no one plays anymore.
The woman wraps me in her coat. Her embrace is tender. She takes me in her full arms. I don’t resist. I tuck into her neck. I want to be forgiven. I want to be alive. I want to stop drinking. I breathe deeply, rolling in it, getting her on my hair, on my face. I dig my nose into her scent, inhaling past fear, and sadness, our porous skin, and the shortness of time.
I wake later on the couch like a real drunk. I am not a good mom. But at least it’s still dark. There’s still time to hide my elf message before the sunrise and cartoons. It’s important to me. I tuck the message underneath the remote control. They’ll find it there.
The woman is gone. Maybe she wasn’t ever here. I’m not reliable. I’m often drunk, you know, and how can you trust a woman who’s had a couple of drinks?
I pull on my boots. I bring the bottle along. You can’t.
My kids are still asleep in their warm beds, making sense of this world in their dreams.
Outside snow crunches under my foot. The dark cold is sparks off a flint, sharp and brief and shocking. Cold, alive as a knife, breath visible. I crunch over the field where rabbits sleep. I crunch the ice and snow underneath the moon. Each step I take, crust breaks. My feet dip into the world below. Snow is loud at this quiet hour. Does the moon, the mountaintop hear my steps? The field’s bright, the moon inside the snow.
A forest begins at the edge of the field, a sharp delineation from the meadow to the woods. With one step into the forest, the world is changed. The light is different. The deepest blue, brighter than the woman’s pea coat. This blue enfolds me all the same. The trees are many. They surround me. They stand as I drop down to my knees. The snow doesn’t let me fall far. Such kindness. I can’t believe we killed snow.
I dump what’s left of the wine. It cuts through the icy surface. A purple stream. A last toast to the things underground.
This is where he would take us to harvest our trees. The growth is thick. It’s a most secret place. You could believe anything in here. I see the stumps of Christmases past and lift myself from the snow to perch on one as if I am that tree, cut down, but somehow still here growing. You can believe anything in the woods.
“It’s me,” I try but very quietly, really only a whisper because in this world of beauty — trees, snow, and the darkest dirt below — that thing we saw in the woods so long ago feels near. I’m frightened it will appear, will take me away from my kids to a place I don’t want to go. Or else, yes, I am also, at the same time, frightened it will never ever appear again.
“It’s me,” I try once more only the tiniest bit louder. Then I listen so hard, tuning my ears for any sign, a drop, a crunch, a breath or creak.
Do you hear that? Listen.
No? Me neither. No matter how much I pretend, no matter how much I drink, the dead don’t talk. Or the dead don’t talk to me. Or the dead don’t exist anymore once they are dead.
From the woods, the light of my living room is a small square of brightness. In that small square there are children and neighbors and music and sometimes there are even strangers from AA who stop by just to see if everyone is doing okay. I want to stay in that square of light. I cross back over the field.
The mountains surround me. Their darkness is more than the darkness of night. Greater than the night. The difference is slight, mountain to night, but there’s a difference. I lift up my eyes to that greater darkness. All the things I’ll never understand that hold me just the same. Creatures of all spots and stripes, monarchs and moose. This vastness overwhelms. I don’t know if help will come or not. I suspect not but I lift up mine eyes. I like to believe it will come. Kings and queens and trees and roots and moss and rot and rabbits and rain. I don’t know if help will come or if, perhaps, it already has.
My kids are awake when I get back. They found the alpenhorn message. It’s crumpled on the sofa between them. “What are you guys watching?” I never acknowledge the elf messages.
They’ve fallen into the hole of Saturday morning programming, beyond language. The TV is a mysterious box. Sometimes I know the difference between screen time, drugs, and belief. I brew coffee and bring my cup into the living room. I watch cartoons with them, slipping into the zombie hole too. A little ache in my brow, but we are together. The tree, that bit of the woods we take inside our home, is here, a sentry of roots and underground secrets. I’m looking at its lights a little bleary-eyed still so that it takes me a bit to realize my daughter’s asking a question. “Huh?”
“What’s in the box?” She’s dug a present out from the place where parts of our sofa meet. Silver paper and a familiar red ribbon, the same ribbon I bought for wrapping this year. The box is the size of a beef heart, or just a regular heart. My daughter lifts the gift to her face and ear. She shakes it gently.
My son turns. “What is it?”
“Is it for us?” they ask.
“I think so. Yes.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who’s it from?”
“It’s from your dad.”
“Some lady dropped it off last night.”
“She knew dad?”
“Can we open it?”
“Do you want to?”
My daughter looks at me, like, Are you an idiot? Of course, I want to open it. It is a present. It is the present. She holds the gift loosely in her palm like a pet mouse that needs space to breathe.
“What is it?” she asks.
“What is it?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
She gives it a shake.
“But once you know what’s inside the box, you can’t unknow it,” I say.
“Maybe it’s better not knowing?” The difference between snow and spirit.
She hesitates then gives me the, You’re crazy look again. I get that a lot from her.
“Open it,” he tells her. “It’s from Dad?”
I nod. Sitting here with them, the cold and coming brightness outside, it seems plain.
They tear at the paper and ribbon. They tear into the present, throwing the box open. “Wo-ah,” they say. “Wow.” They are beautiful with certainty.
From here, I can’t see what’s inside. “Something good?” I ask. I bet it is.
But they don’t respond immediately. Instead, they look into the box, smiling as if they alone can hear and understand the thrill of hope and a glorious sound blown in from a long way off.