“It’s Grandpa!” said Cody, Suki’s nine-year-old nephew. He wore a black stocking hat on his head and a pair of black velour sweatpants that were tucked into his Aunt Suki’s untied, steel-toed boots. Cody straightened the navy-blue towel that was fastened around his neck with a tab of Velcro. “He’s back,” yelled Cody, placing his fists on his hips. “Come see!”
“Good god,” said Suki. “We had better open presents soon, or else that boy will explode.”
Suki and her mother stopped trimming the turkey and went to the front door of the house to hear the music. Falling snow quickly erased the footprints of the Senior Citizen County Band. Suki sighed in relief. She had spent December selling hats from a hat tree on various Boston street corners. Unlike the Midwest, most of the streets in Boston were crammed with at least four lanes of surging traffic. The honking, exhaust fumes, sirens, and constant movement had drained her. In the absence of cars, Suki’s hometown suddenly seemed small and clean. The snow on the street, a bed where she could fall and sleep for days.
“I wish Nancy were here to see this,” said Suki.
“Maybe next year,” said Suki’s mother.
Suki imagined Nancy leaving the auto repair shop where she worked in Boston. Nancy would climb the stairs to their third-floor apartment, and scrub the oil from her hands with soap and a fistful of sugar. Then Suki imagined Nancy settling down in the one armchair that they owned. Nancy would plug in their one string of colored lights and then read from the book pile that served as an ever-shifting coffee table. At that very moment, Nancy was probably slouched in the chair with a mystery perched on her belly. She would be bra-less and her nipples would poke at the front of her green cashmere sweater. It was fraying at the collar and begged to be mended and straightened, yet Suki liked watching the progressive unraveling. Any fifty-year-old sweater still being worn deserved to unravel with dignity.
The snow patted down and Suki saw her father swaying blissfully, as if the tuba wrapped around his middle were an extension of his body. Her father, with tuba, stood over seven feet tall. An old sofa cushion was belted to his behind to help hold up the gigantic horn. As the band played, Cody leaped around them. He whirled on occasion, the dark cape wrapping around him.
“What is that boy doing?” said Suki.
“Dancing,” said Grace. “He’s been inspired by Riverdance.”
Suki chuckled. Cody lived in Seattle where it rarely snowed. The boy flopped down and made five snow angels before the band quit. The band members wished each other a Merry Christmas, and moved on, leaving Suki's father behind. They rang their sleigh bells as they disappeared up the alley.
“Artie,” Grace said to her husband. “Are you sure they wouldn’t like cocoa?”
Artie banged the outer rim of his tuba against the doorframe as he came into the house. “Oh, Pumpkin,” he said to his wife. “Each of us has had a plate of cookies per stop.”
“That’s too bad,” said Grace. “Christmas dinner is ready and the table is set.” She unwound the red scarf from her husband’s neck and kissed his nose.
“Come to think of it, I’m hungry,” said Artie. “Give us a smootch, now,” he said, puckering up.
Cody looked at his grandparents and was disgusted. “Oh gawd, isn’t it time for presents?” he said. “I've only been waiting all day, and all year.”
“Not yet,” said Grace. “We always eat first.”
Cody ripped the Velcro fastening holding his cape at his neck, then reattached it.
Suki’s brother Clyde came in the front door behind his father. He was unshaven and his wool trousers were too short. Kelly green socks flashed from his ankles when he walked. He must have washed and dried his ensemble, for his sweater had lost its shape and was destined for the Salvation Army; a blessing, thought Suki, for argyle was not his best color. As a family, they held the giant tuba, while Artie ducked out beneath it. They then set the tuba on the floor in front of the Christmas tree.
The boy dragged himself to the table, and for the first time in his life, sat in a chair without a dictionary to boost him up.
“Give it up, now,” said Clyde, gently tugging the ends of Cody’s cape.
The boy glanced at his father and looked away.
“We're in negotiation,” said Clyde. “Big boys don't wear capes.”
“What do you get for giving up the cape?” said Suki.
Cody wiped his nose on his sleeve. “A new computer with more megawhoops,” he said. “And maybe a trip to the out-of-state fireworks stand for extra bottle rockets.”
“And Roman candles,” said Clyde.
“I'm not allowed to light anything when I wear a cape,” said Cody.
“You’re a smart little business man,” said Grace.
“Well, I like the cape,” said Suki. “It's Christmas. I say you wear it.”
“It’s one of my presents, Dad,” said Cody. “Besides, it doubles good as a napkin. Look.” He daintily wiped his mouth.
“All right,” said Clyde.
“Mom said she would send a dressy one,” said Cody. “For a present. She promised something in velvet, ala Federal Express, but it hasn’t got here yet.”
They were all silent for a moment. Clyde played with his watch, and Grace shifted uncomfortably.
“Presents?” said Artie. “I thought Santa came after midnight.”
Cody’s brow wrinkled. “Mom is not Santa, she's Mom. Spare me,” he said. “I know the truth.”
“What is the truth?” said Suki.
“There is no Santa,” said Cody. “It’s all been a cruel hoax.”
“His mother told him,” said Clyde. “Before—you know.”
“She did not,” said Cody. “Lucy Hootykai set me straight.”
“But Cody,” said Suki. “When you came to Boston for Thanksgiving, you and Nancy had a great time seeing Santa. What happened?”
“All a pack of lies,” said Cody, pretending to plug his ears.
“And who is this Lucy, anyway?” said Suki. “What does she know?”
“Cody’s girlfriend,” said Clyde, winking knowingly.
“Not true,” said Cody. He shook his head.
“Well,” said Artie. “The damage is done. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy presents.”
“Grandpa,” said Cody. “How old were you when you learned the truth?”
“The truth is he still exists,” said Artie. His horn-rimmed glasses had fogged over from the heat in the house. He took them off and cleaned them with his shirttail.
“You know what I mean,” said Cody. “When did you find out Santa was a fake?”
Artie thought for a moment. “When I was about your age, I wanted to play in a band more than anything in the world. But it was during the Depression. There was no money for musical instruments, let alone store-bought gifts. It was tough times. My grandfather lost everything. Farm after farm in Black Hawk County. I stopped asking for what I wanted most, and that was a horn of any kind.”
Cody looked at the tuba on the living-room floor. Without Artie carrying it, the tuba stood almost four feet tall, and the brass and silver had fogged over like his grandfather’s glasses.
“So what did you do?”
“We made presents for each other,” Artie said to Cody. “Scrap quilts. Scrap sweaters from random yarn. Paper kites and mittens. Basic necessities.”
“Like this good cape Aunt Suki made for me from Grandma’s good towel?”
Artie gave a nod.
Clyde rolled his eyes.
“Good capes are hard to find,” said Suki.
“After a few lean years,” said Artie, “I knew there was no such thing as Santa. But life is strange, boysie. Don’t ever forget that. Come Christmas Eve in ’35 there was a knock at the door.”
“It was Santa!” Cody said, wide eyed.
“Not exactly, but it might as well have been,” said Artie. “Santa came in the form of crazy Jake.”
“The giant’s brother!” said Cody.
“That’s right,” said Artie. “Crazy Jake was giant Maurice’s brother.”
“The tuba player with a custom-built tuba!” said Cody. “Their family was rich and he could have anything he wanted, made for him special.
“That’s right,” said Artie. “You have a marvelous memory.”
“Giant Maurice had died!” said Cody. “And crazy Jake brought you his tuba in a wheelbarrow! And you've had to wear extra pillows ever since, because it’s so big.”
“The second biggest tuba in the world,” said Artie.
“According to the Guinness Book of World Records,” said Cody.
“That's right,” said Artie. “So my point is, Boysie, I wished for a horn and I got a horn, all right.”
Grace served the turkey and Suki served the potatoes.
“Come now,” said Artie. “Let's say grace.”
They all took hands and bowed their heads.
“Thanks are offered to Whom-It-May-Concern for this lovely meal,” said Artie. “For bringing my kids together from opposite ends of the continent. Thanks are offered to the rains that made everything grow this year. Thanks are offered to the International Order of Odd Fellows who sold every last Christmas tree that came from our farm. Praise is offered for the people who bought all of the wreaths that Gracie made from Kudzu, and for the poinsettias that filled Gracie’s Corner Garden Shop. Praise is offered for the growers of the coffee who have made my son so rich, and praise is offered for the cold that made the people buy my Suki’s hats. Thanks be for those who are here, and blessed be for those who couldn’t make it to our table this year. We miss you. Thanks be to all, Amen. Pass the squash.”
“How is the hat business?” Clyde asked Suki, passing her the beans.
“Good, I guess,” said Suki. “I worked seven craft fairs in Boston.”
“Your sister’s hats are beautiful,” said Grace, “and so warm, too.”
“I still think you should open one of my stores,” said Clyde. “You and Nancy together.”
Suki knew Clyde was after her to open up a franchise of Wampum Coffees, one of his chain stores.
“Consider it a Christmas gift, if you like. My seven stores in the Boston area have net 1.4 million since August.”
Artie whistled. “Wow, toots, how could you say no to all that money?”
“Name the town, sis, and if the demographics are right I’ll set you up. Pass the gravy.”
Cody pushed a Santa-in-his-sleigh gravy boat towards his father’s plate. “Dad. Dad!? You want some meat with your gravy?”
“Just taters, please. What do you say, sis? You could have a drive through coffee joint anywhere.”
“But I like my life as it is,” said Suki. “And you know, Nancy loves working on cars. She’s gotten so good at fixing older models.”
“What is so great about working a street corner at Christmas?” said Clyde. “You sound like you’re the Little Match Girl. And need I remind you, you’re not getting any younger.”
“Clyde,” said Grace. “Leave your sister alone. It’s Christmas.”
Cody, who had been gnawing on a turkey drumstick, decided to join the conversation. “You know what?” he said. “I think Grandpa was right about missing people from the table. I wish Uncle Nancy were here.”
“I wish she were, too,” said Suki.
“Why does she have to be fixing cars?” said Cody.
“So people can get home for the holidays,” said Suki.
“I love Uncle Nancy,” said Cody. “She took me to the dog races and showed me how to place a bet. I won five bucks. She didn't knock my cape the whole time I stayed, either. Uncle Nancy is refreshing.”
“It’s Aunt Nancy,” said Clyde.
“But you call her Uncle Nancy all the time,” said Cody.
“Well, it’s Aunt,” said Clyde.
“Oh,” said Cody. “How come?”
“Because she’s a girl,” said Suki. “Here, have some of grandma’s green beans.”
“Eating green things can kill you,” said Cody. “How come Aunt Nancy is so fat?”
“Because she has a glandular problem,” said Suki.
“Oh,” said Cody. “Is that why she has a mustache?”
“Probably,” said Suki.
Grace cleared her throat. “So why don’t we talk about the arts and crafts projects we’ve all been up to this year. Suki, dear, how many hats have you made and sold this season?”
“108, I think,” said Suki.
“Oh how nice,” said Grace. “I made 257 wreathes that sold at twenty bucks a pop, and all from that dreadful vine that is positively choking everything in the woods. Then I made 97 mini Christmas-tree arrangements. Tell them about the rocking chairs you made, Artie.”
“I made twenty four,” he said. “Solid oak! From the trees that were pulled down by that damn kudzu. You, son, what have you been making this year?”
“Fourteen million,” said Clyde.
“Oh!” said Grace. “Splendid!”
“Uncle Nancy made a giant naked woman all out of car bumpers,” said Cody. “It’s behind the auto-mechanic shop. It’s cool!”
Everyone was silent.
“What I wonder,” said Cody, “is how can Uncle Nancy be a girl if she isn’t embarrassed to fart? Mom said girls don’t fart in public.”
Grace blushed. “Cody darling, instead of sharing about your arts and crafts, why don’t we open your presents first?”
“It’s time?” said Cody.
“Be a good boy and run along to fetch them. I’m just sure your presents will be lovely.”
Cody went upstairs and Suki and her father started to laugh.
“Oh don’t look so embarrassed,” Suki said to her brother. “People call Nancy ‘Sir’ all the time.”
“I know, but he doesn’t have to be so ornery,” said Clyde. “He’s been difficult since his mother left.”
“I sent her a hat for Christmas,” said Suki. “Do you know if she got it?”
“I haven’t heard from her since before Thanksgiving,” said Clyde. “You know, I can’t thank you enough for keeping Cody over that holiday. The new store in Cambridge took all my energy, and it didn’t dawn on him that his mother was gone for good until we got back to Seattle.”
“He can stay with us anytime,” said Suki. “He and Nancy went everywhere together. He's Batman, she's Robin.”
“Who are you?” said Grace.
“I am Alfred,” said Suki. “The butler of the Bat Cave.”
“Hark the Herald Angels sing!” Cody sang. He came down the dining room stairs carrying a pile of boxes. On his head was a halo made from a coat hanger, wrapped in tin foil. At the foot of the stairs, he dropped his cape.
“I am the ghost of Christmas presents!” he bellowed.
Suki laughed in surprise, for her nephew was wearing a white negligée much like a nightie she herself owned and wore whenever she wanted to seduce Nancy. The negligée looked chaste on Cody. The filmy white hem draped past his knees, and where breasts were meant to bulge, the fabric was slack, emphasizing the golden crisscross of a Grecian toga.
Clyde stood up from his chair. “Mister, you go right back upstairs and change this instant.”
“But, I’m an angel,” said Cody. He looked at his Aunt Suki with pleading eyes and she laughed.
“I think you look fetching,” she said.
“Please, don’t encourage him,” said Clyde. “Upstairs, mister. Go on.”
Cody looked at his grandfather who nodded. His grandmother looked away as though she were distracted. Up the stairs he went.
“That was one of the things Debby left behind,” said Clyde, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry,” said Suki. “He must miss her something fierce.”
“He does,” said Clyde. “And so do I, and I would throw the nightgown away, except it once meant something to me.”
Cody reappeared, glum faced and dressed.
“There now,” said Grace. “Let’s see what Cody has been up to. It appears that he’s inherited the craftsman’s genes.”
Cody passed out his gifts. His grandfather opened a glitter-speckled picture frame. Under the glass was a photo of Nancy welding the bumper arm on her bumper lady.
“That’s swell!” said Artie. “Studebakers for tits!”
“Artie!” said Grace.
“Cody’s become a regular shutterbug,” said Clyde. “Haven’t you, son?”
“Uh huh. I even know how to take my own picture,” he said, “and then I put them on my web site.”.
Grace opened a frame with a set of four photos taken that day in a booth in the mall.
“How in the world did grandpa get the tuba in the photo booth?” said Grace.
“Carefully,” said Suki.
“Here, Aunt Suki,” said Cody. “I hope you like it.”
Suki unwrapped a photo of Nancy at the racetrack, holding a hot dog in each hand. On Nancy’s head was a baseball cap that said “Hawkeyes.” Nancy was grinning and grinning. Suki suddenly wondered why she was in Iowa. She was at home with her family, but she was far from the family she called Nancy. A tear pricked the corner of her eye, and she had a desperate impulse to run to the phone and dial her Boston number. Where was Nancy now? Suki imagined her sitting in the easy chair where they sometimes made love. On Nancy’s lap, in Suki’s place, would be a kitty, quite comfy. Suki imagined donning the Grecian-goddess nightie, and straddling both Nancy and the chair, where she would spread herself for Nancy's purple strap-on. She imagined wearing the warm-wool socks Nancy had stuffed into a hand-made piñata the year before. She imagined riding Nancy until she couldn’t ride fast enough and Nancy was obliged to slide the nightie up over her head, to be flung across the room. Suki remembered peering out the third-floor window into the treetops below as she held all of Nancy inside her and then let her go a thousand times. With each pulse, Suki felt like she was in a free fall over the trees.
“Why are you smiling?” Cody said to Suki.
“It’s Christmas,” said Suki. “I love my picture. Look at Nancy, isn’t she the best?”
“She is,” said Cody. “She should be here.”
“You’re right,” said Suki. “You know, you can come stay with us any time. Even when you’re a grown up.”
“Cool,” said Cody. He moved on to give his father a present. “I’m thinking you’ll hate it,” he said. “It’s a self portrait I did at home.”
Clyde unwrapped a photo of Cody in his angel costume. His father nodded and gently wrapped the present again to keep it to himself.
“I thought if I wore it, you’d love me like you used to love mom.”
“I love you, fine, son,” said Clyde, patting the boy’s back. “I love you, fine.”
Annie Gauger's latest book is The Annotated Wind in the Willows, published by W. W. Norton. Her novella, "A Bowl of Cherries", can be found in Ultimate Lesbian Erotica, 2006. Her latest project is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk (for ages 9-12). "Where..." she dares to ask the Disney machines of our time "will my daughter find a fairy tale where her life is accurately reflected?" Gauger answers this question by recasting Jack-the-hero as a girl with two mothers. “If gay marriage is the new normal and legal in all 50 states, then certainly there has to be room for a book with a princess who has two mothers.” Working for a game and puzzle manufacturer by day, she drives for LYFT after hours. Annie lives south of Boston with her wife and daughter, and three perfectly useless dogs.
Photo credit: © Christ Close (author-portraits.com)