WHEN HOLIDAYS GO BAD 

True Tales from the Dark Side of Christmas

Riding Santa's Sleigh
by Kathleen Wilson

I WAS ON MY WAY to Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport on Christmas Eve, when out the car window I noticed some fuckers in shorts cavorting around a barbecue in someone's backyard. This was my first trip back to the glorious Pacific Northwest since I'd stupidly traded it for Hades, USA, and it's folks in shorts on December 24 that made the horrific 13-hour journey ahead of me imperious.

I arrived via shuttle two hours early for my flight and killed time in the cocktail lounge, vaguely attributing my throbbing headache to recycled air. By the time I was belted into my seat at 11:30 p.m., I was suffering severe chills, and my nose had begun to alternately run and plug. En route to Denver, the joker pilot began a series of annoying reports about a fat man in a sleigh jockeying for air position outside the cockpit window. At midnight, the flight attendants passed out complimentary flutes of champagne, glory be to God, because by then I could no longer deny I was rapidly coming down with the flu.

Denver airport was under construction and the only place I could find to lie down and die for the duration of my four-hour layover was near a door that kept opening and closing on what I could only imagine to be the tundra winds of the North Pole. And since I'd been living in Arizona for the last six months, my light coat wasn't doin' shit to protect me from the repeated Arctic blasts. The gate attendant said it was time to board my flight to Portland, and I painfully croaked thanks and got on the plane.

Seated next to me was a young pregnant couple. The husband asked if his wife might have my window seat, to calm her nerves. I offered a look that I hoped conveyed my desperation, but I got the stinkeye in return for not complying. Moments later, I began sneezing--covering my face conscientiously, of course--and on the third sneeze I came away with two handfuls of thick, viscous blood, much to everyone's horror and the pregnant woman's revulsion. I ran to the bathroom with crimson seeping between my fingers, worried flight attendants trailing behind me offering ice packs and blankets, which I took back to my seat. Furious that I had made his wife utilize the air-sickness bag, Mr. Pregnant demanded I give my ice pack to Mrs., which I did, but only out of sisterhood.

Finally having arrived at PDX, I waited another eternity before boarding a puddle-jumper bound for Eugene, my final destination. The sun had broken, and out my window I heard a trio of drunken travelers approaching, complaining about there not being any toilets on the plane as they relieved themselves on the tarmac. At this point I would've cried if I hadn't been so goddamn sick that I couldn't muster the energy. We finally landed at Mahlon Sweet Municipal, and I actually had to be helped off the plane. My parents, God bless 'em, took one look at me and drove straight to Sacred Heart Hospital, where I spent Christmas Day surrounded by nurses, physicians, and the ones I loved.


The Dark Ornament

by Monica Drake

CHRISTMAS in the mortgage company meant free lunch at a Mexican restaurant--the kind of restaurant that pushes blue tequila Jell-O shots and turns into a suburban pickup bar at night. With lunch, we'd have an ornament exchange. The rules of the exchange were simple: Buy an ornament and give it away, with a five-dollar limit. How could I go wrong?

The ornament I brought was a small iron rocking horse, a beautifully handmade bit of welded art. I liked the solidness of it. That metal rocking horse could survive even if the Christmas tree tipped over, if the family fell apart, or if the ornament were forgotten, still tangled in branches and thrown into an alley to weather it out till spring.

Most mortgage underwriters and loan processors are women. The mortgage industry is a pink-collar job of counting pennies, checking signatures. Martha Stewart reigns in the breakroom, in magazines and conversation.

When we piled our anonymous, wrapped ornaments in the middle of the Mexican restaurant's table, it was Martha Stewart made manifest through wrapping. Nobody told me we were supposed to spend another five dollars, maybe more, on glittery bags, fuzzy pom-poms, ribbons, tinsel, gift boxes, and tags. I'd wrapped the iron rocking horse in a single piece of folded-over paper with clear tape and a stretch of red ribbon.

Over our meals--me with enchiladas verde and sour cream, the rest of the women with deep-fried tostada-shell taco salads--we chose numbers, then chose from the wrapped packages. There was a lovely white Santa, made of spun fiberglass like asbestos, and all the women wanted that Santa. I got a Fimo-dough elf behind a fake wooden yard sign pointing toward a vague North Pole. My humble bundle of a rocking horse stayed on the table until finally, at the very end, it was chosen. Unwrapped, I was sure they'd see its beauty. The woman, a processor, held the horse by its metal tail, then silently sat it beside her virgin daiquiri. The party was over.

Walking back across the parking lot, a red-haired woman who considered herself my friend said, "You would bring a black Christmas ornament."

It wasn't black. It was welded metal. I gave the red-haired woman my Fimo elf.

Layoffs were coming, sure as the new year. I should've known then that for layoffs, my name would be the first chosen.


Dog Bite
by Stacey Levine

THE TREES WERE ALL BARE and reaching upward in this tiny Missouri town, Sedalia. The sky was colored tin. My dorm roommate had brought me home for Christmas. The folks here slept with doors unlocked at night and rode tractors downtown, she said. Two days before Christmas it was unfathomably cold and there was a layer of snow so fine and clumpless that it looked like baby powder on the streets. Downtown was six storefronts and a shacklike post office leaning against the local bar. My friend pointed up to the town water tower next to a corrugated grain silo and said, "I lost it up there," meaning virginity. People in this part of the world have such archaic values. You could see a rusted ladder and narrow catwalk at the top of the tower.

I was supposed to meet her family, but only a strange, empty house greeted us when we walked in, with food and newspapers on the kitchen counter, as if the family had left earlier that day due to some calamity. My friend grew more and more tense, sitting on a ripped armchair, reading an old Christian magazine called Grit. There was little heat. At one point her surly brother came home in a pea coat, only to say nothing, then go out again with a pair of pliers. An hour or two passed. My friend disappeared. I walked outside at mid-afternoon, and the sky and air were now quiet and yellowish, the way it is before a snowstorm. A skinny crow paced the roof. From the backyard, I heard my friend shriek.

She ran around to the front of the house, crying. She said she'd been bitten by a dog that had run by. "We have to find it," she said, implying that she wanted to make sure the dog belonged to someone and didn't have rabies. So we went out into the desolate neighborhood, calling, "Here dog," to blank, empty streets, as if in a dream. There were no sounds of traffic, airplanes, or other voices. We walked through streets further and further remote, ruining the thin membrane of snow. At a street dead-ending in woods, we made our way to a little creek and my friend drank the water there noisily, cupping her hand, the way children in fairy tales drink the potion that will cure them of evil curses. The water must have been freezing.

"Were you really bitten by a dog?" I asked.

"Can we just leave?" she said. "I always hate it here."

We drove to Kansas City. We ate Christmas dinner at a restaurant called Big Boy. She said her family did terrible things on holidays. But she didn't explain.


No Gifts at Hanukkah
by Allie Holly-Gottlieb

HANUKKAH ALWAYS MADE my mother crazy. She was a special-occasion Jew, working hard on holy days to wrest meaning from a religion she otherwise found sexist and illogical. One year, she freaked out on me while trying to make Hanukkah into a big deal.

Mom was independent and smart. She was a successful freelance writer who researched medical topics for trade journals in New York, an English Ph.D., Miami's first female cab driver, and an Emma Goldman anarchist. She was firm in her politics and distinguished herself by being more extreme than the extremists (I once took her to an "anarchist" meeting with some friends, where the topic was abortion. Everyone there was pro-choice, but Mom left them speechless when she described a fetus as a parasite living off a host). Which, thinking back, explains a lot about my relationship with my mom.

My parents were divorced early on, and it was just the two of us living in the first floor of a corner house in New Haven, Connecticut. We were close, but she had a way of alienating and sometimes frightening me as a teen, with her sharp intelligence and authentic moods. But things were always worst on Hanukkah.

Mom's Hanukkah was laden with ceremony: It was a serious holiday with significant connections to a significant history. She would retrace stories about Jews as abused but triumphant underdogs. Then she would symbolically make up for historic oppression with eight days of gift-giving.

Just before Hanukkah in 1984, Mom asked me for her Polaroid camera, which I had borrowed and taken to school just before my school's two-week Christmas break. I had forgotten to bring it home and it was irretrievably stashed in my locker until classes started again in January. She fumed. She stomped her feet and threw a fork at the kitchen floor, which bounced and landed near my foot. She was very scary when she yelled (12 years after her death from bone cancer, I can still hear her nasally New York angry voice. It makes me sweat a little). Sometimes she smoked pot and would calm down. I wished she was high on the day I forgot the camera. She didn't talk to me for 24 hours.

Because it was Hanukkah, the punishment for my crime was exaggerated. She had me unwrap my biggest gift (a stereo with a turntable), which I loved. Then she returned it to the store. When I went back to school, I located the camera and brought it home. I don't remember what she said when I presented it to her, but she gave me the camera to keep.


"Merry Christ-Ass!"
by Jamie Hook

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, my older brother--I'll call him Henry, because all fuck-ups are named Henry--was hitting the sauce but good. This was the year before he was saved by Christ, when the Devil still made him do silly, awful things.

I am a bit more protective of my mother and father, so I will simply refer to them by their respective nicknames, Screech and Doom. Our worst Christmas ever was the sodden, brutal Christmas of 1985, which ended only when the Swiss slut from down the street finally sobered up enough to return to her own home at noon on Christmas day.

Eighteen hours earlier, Henry had begun drinking. Screech brought up her father from Philadelphia. This would be my last Christmas with my grandfather Arthur (he's dead, so I can use his real name), who was British, and, after two brandies, a racist. Doom had little patience for Arthur, while Screech, on the other hand, evinced a neurotic thrill in filling the house with people who made her uptight. As the party progressed, her voice rose in shrillness, and her eyes began to burn with the commanding dyspepsia of the overwrought host.

I went into the kitchen to steal liquor. There was a crash and a cackle, and Henry came rolling in to pour himself another drink.

"Hey. Hey!" Screech screeched, grabbing his arm. "You've had too much to drink."

"Oh, why don't you go wrap your head in hot towels for the next hundred years," Henry countered, pouring himself another whiskey. Behind them, the living room had fallen silent.

"You are not welcome at this party anymore," Screech said in a sharp whisper. "You can just go upstairs."

"You can just go to hell in a handbasket," Henry laughed, pushing beside her into the living room, where he tried to take a seat, but missed and spilled himself onto the floor. Arthur reached his hand out to him, scolding, "You are acting the fool, don't you know? Why don't you just go upstairs."

"Ah, go march off to war, you old hag," Henry replied, getting to his feet and gaining presence. Screech stood vibrating at the back of the room; Doom had vanished. Henry held his drink aloft, in a wobbling toast.

"Merry Christ-Ass, you stupid shits!"

When I awoke early the following Christmas morning, Henry was fucking the Swiss slut from down the street on the floor at the south end of the hall. He was still drunk--you could smell it. All I could see were his balls underneath the Swiss girl's ass, and I retreated into my room. An hour later, I ventured out again: Henry and the Swiss girl were both passed out in his room with the door open, still half naked. Downstairs, Screech was scowling as she drank coffee; Doom was outside working obsessively in the yard. God was certainly not in our house that morning.

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