Charlie Price shot himself a long, hard look in the rearview mirror of the convertible mustang he had just rented near Chicago O’Hare airport. “OK,” he tried to convince himself. “You can do this. You can do this.”
True. He could. But somewhere deep inside Charlie’s mixed up, coming-off-the-loss-of-a-pathetic-love-affair mind, he was painfully aware of one thing: He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to spend three long, gonna-retain-water days with his family during the holidays. In fact, if he was smart and actually used the almost-acquired psych degree back in college, he’d return the damn convertible to the asinine rental clerk who’d just mocked him because he insisted on renting a convertible in the middle of December in the first place. Then he’d hop back on the drafty shuttle bus and head right back to Santa Cruz; back home, where all his neuroses would be waiting—naked, unwrapped and ready for the taking—under some sort of imaginary mistletoe. But Charlie was far from home. He was just home.
“I won’t lose it,” Charlie promised himself. Not this time. Not this year. He hesitated before turning the key in the ignition and then … there was no turning back.
It had been five years since Charlie Price had been home to visit his family. Five glorious, mental health years—OK, four. He really couldn’t consider the last year glorious at all after the Peter incident so, perhaps, this would be the one rare occasion his parents’ disapproval over his being gay would actually come in handy. It would save him another painstaking round of verbal roulette depicting every vivid, emotional detail of how he had allowed his heart to be incinerated by a shoddy, con-artist dentist—Peter—who took him for something shy of fifteen grand and left him sleeping alone in the home they once shared. The worst kind of irony, Charlie thought, trying to understand the karmic justice in why the universe would hook him up with a dentist who would leave him with nothing to smile about.
Charlie’s heart sank to his stomach. Peter. He had to stop thinking about him. He forced himself to focus on the road, on the plastic candy cane decorations loosely hugging the lampposts on the street, on the light snow brightening up the evening sky. Snow. Dammit. He cranked up the heat in the convertible, debating whether he should pull over and put the damn top up. But somewhere in the nether regions of his mind, Charlie thought pulling up in front of his old house in a classy looking car would impress his mother. Crazy idea.
It would take him about 20 minutes to reach the Pulaski household; back to the house where he’d given birth to his insecurities in the Chicago suburb of Weaton. So much had happened in five years. He’d turned 30 and then, just as quickly, 35. He’d also changed his name, a professional move for his writing career that his mother and father and pushy sister, Ruth, never quite understood.
Charlie looked up. God. This wasn’t going to be easy.
He reached for his cell phone and called in some reconnaissance—Sally, his older socialite friend back in California. It would be his first wrong move during the next three days.
“Darling,” Sally mused after Charlie emotionally barfed through the phone, “You’ll be fine as soon as chuck your love for being miserable.”
“You could be a little more supportive,” Charlie shot back. “You think this is easy? My mother’s like this walking white glove inspecting everything for dust—and Sally, I’ve got dust. I’m dusty. I’m dust-infested. I attract dust. You know that. I know that. I think even Peter knew that.”
“Oh God!” Sally murmured.
Charlie could hear it in her voice. “What?” But he knew what. He’d uttered the P-word—again.
“Really darling,” Sally moaned, “when are you going to get your ass in a love addicts meeting? The man was a horror and you still go on and on about him as if he were the next best thing since Dolce & Gabbana.”
Sally always did this. Why couldn’t she just nurse his wounds instead of trying to force him to look at them?
“I am not a love addict,” he shot back defensively.
Sally was having none of it. Ten minutes later, she had assured him that he was a card-carrying relationship addict. And by the time he merged onto Main Street in his hometown, he was ready to toss the phone—and Sally–out of the window. But he was preoccupied with the sudden onslaught of childhood memories.
Main Street was Weaton’s prominent thoroughfare, and after a thriving downtown stretch that housed everything from coffee shops to movie theaters, the street turned Middle-America residential. As Charlie made his way through long rows of homes whose holiday decorations and hundred-year-old elms took him back in time, he couldn’t help but recall all of his youthful “firsts”: first bike-ride, first pre-teen fat-ass on the block, first Main Street kid to watch his stern mother scream at his confused father after he’d tossed him out of the house in front of God and the neighbors, using nothing but a wooden spoon and her serious glare. Ah …. home.
Sally’s rant suddenly grew louder. “Technically, it’s not love you’re drawn to, but romance. You’re always swooning, always craving. God—it must be exhausting. Face it, Charlie—you’re a romance addict. Just bend over and take it like a man.”
God. How long had it been since he had done that? A few seconds later, as Charlie realized that his mind had officially ventured into a sexual Pleasantville where the streets were named Jack and Hank and the extra large MANDOCHINO with whipped cream you could order at the corner coffee joint arrived in raging Technicolor, he sat up in the driver’s seat.
“Jesus. Maybe I am a romance addict?” He could have gone on, but the tan, bi-level brick home that sat on 111 Main St. forced him to bring the car to a halt on the middle of the block. He was home. And it was a nice home. At least it appeared nice. So inviting, all dreamy in colored Christmas lights, the big-bulbed kind with long cords, the ones he’d always helped his mother and Uncle Tom unravel in a state of frustration and laughter every year. Charlie smiled. He parked the car, realizing that the plastic, illuminated figurines of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph positioned in the center of the front lawn were the exact same statues his mother had been using for more than 15 years.
The front door of the house opened and Charlie took in the mixture of pleasure and fear. A short, brown-haired woman in her sixties appeared wearing a crimson terry cloth robe. Her arms flew up in the air. She waved both hands hysterically in the air. Helen. His mother.
“Sally,” Charlie whispered into the phone. “It’s time. Helen’s about to welcome me home with open, judgmental arms.”
Sally chortled. “Now, be nice to her, Charlie. We don’t want The Mother Pulaski catching on about your romance addiction.”
Charlie tossed the phone on the passenger seat and stared at his mother. God. He’d missed her. He really had.
He quickly grabbed his suitcase from the trunk and plowed through 2 inches of fresh snow on the front lawn, toward the Polish-Russian woman who’d given birth to him.
Helen immediately shot up a hand. “Not on the lawn, Charlie! The snow. Your shoes. For God’s sake, you’re going to ruin my clean carpets!”
Charlie stopped in his tracks and considered other options, as in heading toward the cleared driveway to his left and working his way around his father’s old Cutlass to get to his eager mother; to get to the “embrace;” to get to the beginning of the next three days.
Helen sensed his confusion. She swung the door wide open. “Good God, Charlie,” she chuckled. “It’s too late. Just come …. Come here.” Her arms reached for him. “Come here and let me see my baby boy!”
Charlie obeyed. He quickened his pace and in the process gave the plastic statue of Mary a concussion with the tip of his suitcase, sending the virgin sliding a few feet away from the baby Jesus. Helen grunted. But it was an accidental move, one, after a few seconds of thought, Charlie’s mind immediately considered may not have been an accident at all. But he could hardly digest the true significance of bumping off the holy mother of God. Not now. Helen was waiting.
When Charlie found his mother on the front porch, she reached up and wrapped her strong European arms around him, squeezing him oh-so tight. Charlie hugged back feeling a surprising comfort in their connection.
“Well, well, well,” Helen chuckled, pulling away a bit. “The prodigal son returns. At last.” She gave Charlie a once over. “Let me see, let me see what Mr. Price looks like.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. It was only a matter of time.
Helen’s hands shot to her hips. “Oh Charlie. You’re too thin! I gotta fatten you up. What the hell are they feeding you in California?”
She’s gotta be kidding? Charlie thought, his mind rocketing toward resentment, where it could orbit for the next three days if he wasn’t careful. For a good portion of Charlie’s youth, Helen had always insisted that her son, like his sister, was too fat. A decade ago he’d shed some major poundage, highlighted his brown locks and had seemingly grown into the lean six-foot man he was always intended to be. Now, his mother was telling him he was too thin? Was this woman ever going to approve of him?
Charlie chuckled nervously and decided this was not the time to tell his mother that, in reality, he was a full-time vegetarian, romance addict that fell in love with a dentist whose borderline personality wreaked havoc and left Charlie’s heart full of cavities. No. Instead, he reached down and hugged his mother again, tighter this time, sinking into an embrace he’d been craving for, well, five years; a realization that made him happy yet frightened him at the same time. He kept his hold on Helen and asked: “So … where’s dad?”
Helen immediately pulled away and slapped Charlie on the arm, the way she did to almost everybody whenever she was either trying to make a point or having some kind of dramatic realization. “Your father?” she grunted, disgust spewing from her breath. “He’s drunk! What else? Passed out—in the crawl space of all places!” She slapped his arm again. “How’d you like that?”
Charlie rubbed his sore arm. He’d forgotten how strong his mother was—physically and mentally. “The crawl space?” he managed.
“Yep. Back to his old haunt,” Helen shook her head in disapproval. “Started goin’ back down there around Thanksgiving—the night I tossed his drunken ass out of the bedroom—again.” She shot her son a serious look. “It’s no smorgasbord sleeping with a guy who reeks of whiskey, believe you me, Charlie.”
Oh, Charlie believed here, but this wouldn’t be the time to get into how similar he and his mother were in choosing life partners.
“To hell with him,” Helen went on. “ If he wants to lie around on some gravel next to the furnace and cry all night about his miserable life, fine by me! I’m done! Done, I tell ya!”
Helen sighed as if to extinguish from her psyche the grim reality that was her 45-year marriage. Charlie stood there frozen, not knowing what to say but clear on what he wanted to do: Leave—like, four minutes ago.
But it was too late. Helen placed her suddenly age-spotted hands on Charlie’s cheek and milked each of them like the Polish cows on the farm from which she and her clan came. “Welcome home, Charlie, and Merry Christmas!”
Charlie had never been close to his older sister, Ruth. In fact, he always felt she disliked him—immensely.
It all began, Charlie felt, the moment his mother enrolled him into kindergarten in a public school one mile away from their home on Chicago’s west side. This did not sit well with Ruth, who was seven years older than Charlie, and had been enjoying her reign as the queen of all Catholic girls everywhere at St. Angela’s just down the block from their family home.
“Why do I have to go public school?” Ruth had moaned in the family’s native tongue. “Everybody loves me at my school.”
Helen Pulaski shot her daughter a look. “It’s like this Ruth. They don’t have a damn kindergarten class at St. Angela’s and somebody’s got to walk your little brother to school, and it can’t be me. Your father works and I just took a job at the deli to help with the mortgage. We’re not the Rockefellers, you know. Deal with it. Grow up, Ruth!”
And Ruth did. She also grew out. She gained more than 40 pounds during her first year at the Diversy Public School and with each passing season, whenever she walked Charlie to kindergarten, she was mocked by the public school girls.
“Eat too many Baby Ruths, Ruth!”
“I can feel the ground shake ten minutes before you get here, Ruth!”
“Ruth, Ruth, big as a phone booth!”
Ruth never spoke a word of Polish again. And she never forgave Charlie for being her life’s biggest inconvenience.
“You’re a royal pain in the neck,” Ruth had huffed, her hazel green eyes full of disappointment, hurt and fire—so much fire. “I hate you, Charlie. You’ll never amount to anything!”
For Charlie’s part, he took Ruth’s words to heart. He spent the next 30 years people-pleasing, being overly apologetic, going into enormous debt and, according to one Jungian therapist he’d seen, tried to live up to every one of young Ruth’s misguided assumptions.
So, it was of no surprise to Charlie, really, when he found himself wholeheartedly insisting that he join Ruth on a Mall excursion for last-minute Christmas shopping. It would be a perfect opportunity to get his mind off Peter and bond with his sister after five years of stale “hellos-work’s-a-bitch-good-talk-to-you-soons” that occurred on the occasional phone calls Charlie had always initiated to Ruth. A mall run—perfect. The one thing Charlie didn’t count on? His mother, Helen, and Ruth’s hyperactive 5-year-old son, Max—they would be coming along for the ride.
As Ruth, Charlie and Max waited for their Helen to emerge from the Sears Mega Store in Oakbrook Shopping Center where she would be buying new slippers for their eightysomething Aunt Xena, Max looked up inquisitively at Ruth, who had just placed a cigarette in her mouth. “Mommy, mommy, grandma says you’re going to die if you don’t quit smoking!”
Ruth didn’t flinch. She happily lit the unlit cigarette between her chapped lips and sucked it hard as if it were her last dying breath. A moment later, she tossed her large, poorly permed head back in delightful exhale.
According to Helen and a few of Charlie’s cousins, Max had been spoiled rotten ever since Ruth divorced, then later remarried, her Cook County Prison guard husband, Max senior. Charlie wondered what to make of this since this was, really, the first time he had met his nephew. So much had changed in five years. He felt like even more of a stranger to his family. They knew nothing about how his magazine writing had taken off and that his autobiographical, avant-garde play “The Family Moan” had become a big hit locally.
Well, he wasn’t about to say anything now. Max wasn’t appreciating being ignored. “You’re going to die Mommy,” he insisted. “Better stop smoking.” He folded his arms across his chest and frowned, a site that forced Charlie to laugh only because Max was clad in emerald green, dressed as an elf—floppy felt hat, shoes and jingling sleigh bells and all.
“It’s a phase,” Ruth had informed Charlie when he and their mother squeezed into the backseat of the mini van earlier.
“Oh? Elves are cool,” Charlie said, hand up making the high five.
“Cool.” Max beamed, smacking Charlie’s hand. Then he inspected his uncle for a few long, hard seconds and said, “You know what, Uncle Charlie?”
Charlie grinned. He leaned closer to Max. “What?”
“Mommy says you’re gay. Do you know what that means, Uncle Charlie?”
Helen immediately made a double-play for her children, slapping both Ruth’s thick arm in the front seat and Charlie’s right beside her. “See. See what you two started by being so honest? What the hell does a child need to know about this gay business anyway? For crissakes, the kid’s only five.”
“The kid’s in the car,” Charlie pointed out.
Helen slapped his forearm again and shot him a look. “Don’t start.”
Now, as Max performed his “elf ballet” around Ruth, telling her she was going to die a horrible death, Charlie turned to his older sister and said, “Should I distract him? Sounds like he’s going to go on and on about this.”
Ruth shrugged, her face void of interest. “My weight watchers girlfriend’s sister-in-law, who’s like this really impressive kid shrink on Michigan Avenue … well, she said that it’s best not to pay attention to Max’s inappropriate outbursts.” She shrugged. “Besides, I was watching an episode of Dr. Phil—love him—and I remember some smart-ass doctor saying the same thing.”
Charlie nodded, fully noting that the moment Ruth mentioned Dr. Phil, her face lit up with hope, with happiness, with life, something it had been free of apparently for quite some time. It was a nice thing to see and Charlie wondered if his own face would ever look that way again, and if watching Dr. Phil and smoking a pack of Camels a day could cure his post-Peter breakup trauma. He was still reeling over the fifteen grand Peter took him for and as the brisk December breeze picked up in the outdoor mall, he half-hoped—OK, desperately hoped—his mother would toss aside her criticisms over how he had been “foolishly” handling his finances all of his life, then read his mind, then fork over some cash—a lot of it.
Charlie sighed, pushing that particular want out of his mind. No. This was going to be a smooth Christmas.
Max kicked some snow off his elf booties and spun around and around until he fell on his padded elf tushy. He was an energetic little boy, full of passion, curiosity. Charlie couldn’t help but draw parallels to his own youth, the youth he had before Ruth and his mother went Ms. Pac Man on him. He resisted the urge to hit the brick wall of his past and was about to make some more meaningful small talk with Ruth—bring up Oprah, the new half-the-calories burger at White Castle—anything—when Max appeared in front of the bench they were seated on and announced: “It’s time to see Santa, Mommy! Take me—now!”
Ruth blew cigarette smoke up into the air and whispered, “God … it’s that time.” She tilted her head and glanced at Max. “Sweetie, let’s wait for Grandma. She’ll be back soon and …”
“Now, Mommy!” Max insisted, his award-winning powder blue eyes shooting daggers.
Charlie’s chest tightened. True, he admired Max’s tenacity and secretly wished that when he was five, he’d gone on whatever the hell energy booster Max seemed to be enjoying. But he couldn’t help but wonder why he, himself, hadn’t been that outspoken, that demanding, as a kid? Or had he? And if he was, when had it stopped? And why?
Helen. Ruth. Yes. That must have been it. It didn’t help that Charlie’s father hadn’t been around much and when he had, he’d been too preoccupied with his weekend job: Getting sauced. God. Maybe Charlie shouldn’t have come home after all. Maybe this was a horrible, wretched idea. He could obsess about not being wanted or liked back in Santa Cruz, the battleground where he lost his heart to Peter. Did he really have to fly three-thousand miles to experience the very same thing?
Suddenly, Max morphed into a full-blown cyclone of hysteria, which mirrored Charlie’s inner cyclone of hysteria, which prompted him to turn to Ruth and say, “I’ll take little Maxy to see Santa.”
Max’s very stiff elf booty found Charlie’s shin. “It’s Max, Uncle Charlie. Max! My name is Max.”
Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was holding his nephew’s fierce child-paw near the elegantly decorated—and crowded—entryway to “Santa’s Village” in front of Marshall Field’s. Just outside a nicely lit makeshift gingerbread cabin sat a wholesome looking Santa who sported a real white beard. A cluster of “Santa’s workers” guided a maze of parents and their kids toward the almighty Claus in this wind-chilled Christmas cluster fuck.
Charlie noticed the tall, attractive, dark-haired man standing in front of him and Max. He held his young daughter, her blonde hair pulled back into a nice little ponytail. Charlie smiled.
The attractive man smiled back and nodded, proving to Charlie that Midwestern men could very well be the most attractive guys on the planet—so clean, so orderly, so sweet. He thought of Peter for a moment—so tall, so built, so dripping with dysfunction.
Charlie sighed, loud enough, apparently, for the man to notice. “Hey, man …” he mused, peering down at Max who seemed to be in a state—his hands were cupping the front of his elf suit, and he fiercely tugged on his pants zipper.
“How old is your boy?” the guy asked, rocking his daughter in his arms.
Max released his hand from his elf zipper and looked up. “I’m not his boy,” he announced. “Uncle Charlie is gay. He can’t get married. He can’t have kids. This preacher guy named Jerry doesn’t like him. And Mommy says that grandma will have a heart attack if Uncle Charlie ever brings home some guy!”
Charlie froze. The nerve. How the hell could Max do this to him? But then he thawed—a little—realizing that his 5-year-old nephew would one day rule the free world and that fighting this beast wouldn’t win him any karma points.
The man grinned, holding back the laughter—a classy move.
“Yep, that’s me,” Charlie managed. “I’m just a Will looking for some grace.”
The line moved. Charlie gave Max’s hand a tight squeeze and dragged him a few yards, wishing he could just fling his nephew over Santa’s idyllic village and into the ice skating pond beyond Neiman Marcus. He didn’t utter a word. Max didn’t seem to mind. He was too busy tugging on his elf zipper again—and again, and again.
Finally, Charlie asked, “Max, do you have to use the restroom?” Then he made a mental note to give his sister duct tape for the holidays—perfect for covering her kid’s big, fat mouth.
“Nope. I’m good,” Max replied, tugging on the zipper.
The line kept moving. Max kept on. Before Charlie had a chance to be certain Max didn’t truly need to use the restroom, he was whisked away by a Santa helper and immediately placed on the big Claus’s red-drenched lap. Max’s face exploded into pure joy. Charlie felt relieved. Then he watched as Max began rocking back and forth, rotating his pelvis around as he sat, legs apart, on Santa’s left knee.
Something didn’t feel right. Then, Charlie’s eyes widened. Jesus—Max was going to pee on Santa.
No. Not this. Not now. Not here. Charlie pictured the look of disdain in his sister’s eyes and heard the disappointment in her voice: “You idiot, Charlie! Why the hell didn’t you take him to the bathroom?”
Charlie’s hand shot over his gaping mouth as he stood beside a fake reindeer only 10 feet away from the future puddle of elf urine that would certainly begin gushing down Max’s costume, onto Santa’s knee and all over the mahogany deck. Then, as Charlie analyzed Max’s every movements, he noticed a particular pattern in the way his excited nephew was rockin’ away on Santa’s knee—back and forth, up and down, right and left, ’round and ’round and ’round, with a grand finale that featured a prominent tug-tug on his elf zipper.
Charlie shot Santa a look. Santa squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. Max went ’round and ’round and ’round another round. From nowhere, an angelic voice flew over Charlie’s shoulder. “It’s normal,” the mother standing behind Charlie mused. “Kids that age. You know … they realize that they have genitals and have at it for a few weeks.”
Charlie’s throat tightened. “You mean …?”
The woman nodded. “Boys. I had two. They couldn’t stop playing with their thing at that age and then—poof. Nothing till puberty.”
As Charlie’s mind tried to wrap itself around the horrible reality unfolding before him, he lost all sense of time and space and did the one thing any freaked-out insecure gay guy nursing a relationship wound while trying to make nice with his family during the holidays would do in the exact same situation. “Max! Max!” Charlie hollered. “Stop humping Santa Claus!”
Silence fell over Santa’s village.
All eyes fell onto the 5-year-old elf whose baby blues suddenly melted into a sea of humiliation.
There was a laugh. Then two. Charlie was certain more were on the way. His eyelids fell shut for a mili-second as consequence and regret took over. When he opened his eyes, Max was gone.
Charlie glared at Santa. Santa shook his head, his finger pointing beyond Charlie. Charlie spun around, fearing the worst. There, in the distance, between hundreds of happy holiday shoppers, he spotted Max, arms flailing mid-air, screaming, as he dashed off to a God-knows-where refuge that would nurse his shamed face and ease the pang for his own genitalia.
“Way to go,” Charlie moaned. “You just lost your sister’s horny little elf!”
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
The holiday meals Helen Pulaski prepared were nothing short of sumptuous. Everybody raved about Helen’s hearty stuffed cabbage, her sauerkraut with sausage, the tasty, honey-glazed ham she baked, the twenty-two-pound turkey she basted with her own secret basting juice and, of course, the buttery dumplings that Charlie’s Uncle Tom always hogged during the Christmas feast. For weeks, Helen could be found in the kitchen, prepping some sort of food for the big meal, which, this year, would include Charlie, his sister Ruth, and Max Jr.—should Ruth reconsider coming after “the mall incident”—more than a dozen or so of his aunts, uncles, cousins and, of course, his father, who, according to Helen, still had not fully accepted that he had been laid off from the electric company job he’d been at for more than 30 years.
“He’ll drown his sorrows in Scotch—watch!” she told Charlie a few nights ago.
It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve when Charlie found Helen in the kitchen boiling the last batch of her famous Polish dumplings in a big silver pot. She stood there, snug in slippers and her favorite terry cloth robe, stirring the delicacies with a big wooden spoon. Charlie leaned against the kitchen counter and chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Helen asked.
Charlie indicated the object in Helen’s hands. “Is that the same spoon?”
Helen’s eyebrows arched suspiciously. “You mean the one I could have used on you and your sister when you two were animals?” Helen sighed. “Yeah. This is the one. Never got rid of it. You’re damn lucky I was such an understanding and loving mother and never used this thing on you kids.”
Charlie swallowed hard, allowing the “understanding and loving mother” comment to slide. Instead, he conjured up the few instances when Ruth had indeed become so frustrated with her unruly children that she introduced both their asses to the wooden beast.
“You and your sister,” Helen went on, “always fighting.”
“Well, she was a bully.”
“You were too sensitive.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “Charlie, please. You cried whenever somebody looked at you the wrong way.”
“That’s because everybody looked at me the wrong way.”
“Still, there comes a time when a boy has to become a man. I always said, ‘my Charlie’s skin was too thin.’”
Charlie felt the conversation about to head into a game-point-match for Helen’s side so he decided to immediately merge onto another emotional super-highway, the wrong one, but at least it was another one. “You think the $500 gift certificate to Home Depot and that brand new bike I bought for Max will make up for what happened at the mall—with Ruth, I mean?”
Helen’s lips slammed shut. She kept stirring the pot, something Charlie found positively symbolic. Then, like the water in front of her, Helen came to a boil. “Why do ya gotta spend so much money?” She looked up. “God—I swear, this kid’s got beer pockets and champagne taste.”
Helen turned to face Charlie and waved the wet wooden spoon in front of his face. “It’s not like you gave the kid over to terrorists. So Max ran off. You did it a bunch of times; your sister even more, although it was much easier to find her—her ass was so damn big you couldn’t miss her. Kids run off, but they always come back. Max would have come back.”
Charlie wasn’t so certain. It took three security guards and a suddenly alive-and-raging Ruth to lure Max out from underneath the Mall’s central 50-foot Christmas tree. The healthy crowd that had gathered around to watch the scene had cheered the moment Ruth successfully dragged her kicking-and-screaming son out from the tree’s thick branches. “Uncle Charlie made fun of me in front of Santa, Mommy!” Max had wailed.
Ruth didn’t say a word, but her angry eyes told Charlie everything.
Helen huffed now and returned to stirring the dumplings in front of her. “Parents today—sissies! And you—you spend too much money! You think a gift certificate and a nice little bike for that bratty grandkid of mine is going make your sister like you? Where’s your common sense? What the hell did California do to you?”
“It liberated me, Mom, that’s what.”
“Liberated you? Come on. All you people do out there is sit around and pick the lint out of your navels and talk about how your parents screwed you up.” She shot Charlie a look. “I was a good mother!”
Now Charlie was boiling. He looked away and swallowed hard. He wanted to defend himself; wanted to tell his mother he had never felt understood at all; respected at all—at least not from his family—and that this trip home after five years was, like Peter, a big fat mistake.
But somewhere deep inside of all that misery, Charlie managed to grab what was left of the flimsy life preserver dangling off the edge of his psyche. He forced himself to smile. Then he gently placed his hand on Helen’s shoulder, reached over and kissed her on the check. “I love you, Mom. Merry Christmas. See you in the morning.”
So far, Charlie had only interacted twice with his father. The first time had been the morning after he arrived. He had been sitting in the kitchen, drinking green tea, talking to Sally on his cell, when suddenly, from the basement doorway, his father appeared, his black hair a mess, his boxer shorts hiked too far up his waist, his white T-shirt stained from the dirty crawl space. “Hey Dad … ” Charlie managed, moving the phone away from his ear, half-hoping his father would, for once, walk over and hug his only son.
Stanley Pulaski managed a loose wave, cupped his dentures in his free hand and rushed off to use the bathroom.
The second time Charlie and his father attempted to connect was after the mall incident. Stanley had been doing a crossword puzzle in the living room when Charlie and his mother flew through the doorway toting last-minute Christmas gifts. “Close the door,” Stanley groaned. “Heat’s on. This ain’t a barn, you know.”
“How are you feeling, Dad?” Charlie asked.
Stanley’s big brown eyes gazed over his crossword booklet. “How do you think I feel? Your mother’s kicked me out of my bed. What kind of wife do I have?”
Helen smacked Charlie’s arm. “Don’t get him started. Come. Come help me wrap these presents. You always wrap them so nice.”
All this was on Charlie’s mind now as he waited for the rest of the Pulaski relatives to arrive for Helen’s Christmas feast. Fortunately, Ruth had caved in, opting to attend the family soiree, but Charlie knew it had more to do with Max Senior picking up a double-shift at the prison than forgiving Charlie for nearly losing her son at the mall. So, as Max frolicked around the living room in his elf suit, and Helen and Ruth fiddled away in the kitchen, Charlie watched his sixty-something Uncle Tom—always the first to arrive—stake out his corner seat at the dining room table. Underneath the same seat he would hide an entire platter of potato-filled dumplings.
“Let it be our secret,” Uncle Tom waved a hand at Charlie. “You have to take what you can get, Charlie. It’s all about survival. Trust me. After what I went through during the war, I know.”
Charlie nodded, thinking about all the conversations—and nonconversations—he had had—and hadn’t had—with his family since he arrived. He wished—deeply—for more connection. Instead, he felt hollow, misunderstood and out of place in a house that was beginning to reek of a Polish deli.
“I still like you, gay Uncle Charlie,” Max mused during one of his dashes past the illuminated, gift-packed Christmas tree. “Mommy said I would be scarred for life for what you did to me, but I don’t even know what that means. When can I open my present, Uncle Charlie? When?”
“Soon,” Charlie answered. “Soon.”
Helen and Ruth appeared in the dining room, each carrying holiday goodies. Helen placed a pitcher of eggnog on the table, then smoothed over her Christmas-red polyester dress. “It’s official,” she addressed the room. “Your father will not be joining us for dinner.”
Charlie gazed over the couch he was on. “Why?”
“Why do you think?” Ruth snapped, indicating to the floor, which, in the Pulaski household, meant, “dad’s in the crawl space.”
Uncle Tom sat up in the dining room chair. “Good. More dumplings for the rest of us.”
Helen smacked her brother’s arm. “If you think you’re going to hog my food again, you got another think coming.”
“Max!” Ruth suddenly shouted across the room. “Stop opening Uncle Charlie’s present!”
Max jumped up and down. He tugged away on his elf zipper and pointed to the children’s bike that he had just unwrapped, the one Charlie had just charged and had no idea how he would pay for. “Look, a bike, mommy!” Max sang, dancing over the Christmas wrapping. “But it’s the wrong color. I think gay Uncle Charlie screwed up again.”
“Enough with the gay,” Helen screamed across the room. “What is this, an adult book store?”
Uncle Tom looked around the room. “Who’s gay?”
“Nobody!” Helen roared. “Ruth, get a grip on your son before he destroys my house!”
Max pointed to Charlie. “Uncle Charlie’s gay!”
“He is?” Uncle Tom stood up, shooting his sister, Helen, a look.
Helen shrugged. “I think it’s a phase.”
“It’s not a phase,” Ruth countered. “It’s a choice.”
“It’s not a choice,” Max corrected his Mommy. “It’s the way he is. My friend’s two mommies told us all that during kindergarten recess one day.”
“Great.” Helen huffed. “They teach young kids about this weird crap in kindergarten now. What’s the world coming to …?”
And, as Charlie sat there watching the scene unravel into the mess it was destined to be, somewhere, deep inside of his mind, he actually felt the twig crack—and then the branch, and then the entire tree, with all of its family roots, lifting up from the hardened ground only to come crashing down into a forest of sudden clarity.
Charlie looked long and hard at the people in the room—his family, his loud, when-are-you-gonna-get-off-my-back family—and suddenly came to terms with the gross error in judgment he had made—with them, with Peter. How could he have ever expected this group—Peter—to give him what he thought he wanted? He had been asking too much of them. He saw that now. And somewhere, in a beautiful clearing in his brain, it dawned on him that perhaps instead of spending so much time wishing to be understood, he could—oh God!—be content understanding himself. And maybe that was enough. No, that was more than enough. Maybe he was the one who was supposed to be doing the loving, doing the understanding—for his family—because he could. You can’t teach blind men to see. But you can help them across the street.
Charlie leapt off the sofa, his heart racing. He made his way across the room, scooping up a hysterical Max along the way. He hugged him hard and said, “I love you Max. You’re a pain in the ass, and I love you!” He tossed Max into Ruth’s arms and sped past his mother and Uncle Tom.
“Where the hell are you going?” Helen hollered.
But Charlie didn’t answer. He had it in his power to give—or at least attempt to give—his family an unforgettable Christmas and there was no stopping him now. He sped down the stairway, through the basement family room and toward the hot water heater next to the opening of the crawl space. Stooping low, he found his father in nothing but boxer shorts and a T-shirt. He was passed out next to the furnace, an emptied bottle of Scotch resting beside him. Charlie looked up, reached for the container of distilled water on top of the washer nearby, unscrewed the damn top and proceeded to baptize his father into the Christmas season.
When Stanley Pulaski came to, he looked at his son through hazy eyes and murmured, “I love you.”
Five minutes later, Charlie watched the look of horror drain Helen’s face in the dining room as he dragged his disheveled father toward the family sofa. He covered Stanley with a knitted shawl and demanded everybody to join him in the living room.
“But I’ll lose my place at the table,” Uncle Tom moaned.
“Put that dirty drunk back in the crawl space where you found him,” Helen demanded, rushing over to Charlie.
Charlie shook his head. “No. Come here. Everybody.”
“God, Charlie,” Ruth moaned. “You’re not gonna be all California woo-woo on us now are you?”
“No!” Charlie said. “I mean, yes. I am. And it’s good.”
He stared everybody down. “Now shut up and listen to me—all of you.” He grabbed his sister’s hand, then Max’s, who stood on the other side of him, which in turn forced Max to grab Uncle Tom’s hand, which made Uncle Tom grab Helen’s hand, which prompted the slightly conscious Stanley Pulaski to reach out for his wife’s hand, which she Helen allowed, looking away.
“OK,” Charlie breathed. “We can do this. We can do this.”
And for once, Charlie meant it. “We don’t have to like each other, but let’s just face facts: there’s no doubt we love each other! Now, let’s all shut the hell up, smile and try to have a frickin’ merry Christmas before I really lose it and send the California mothership to destroy this dysfunctional shack of Polacks. Got it?”
Silence. Then the doorbell chimed. The guests had arrived.
And Charlie sighed—deeply.
He scooped up Max—still fondling his elf zipper—from the carpet, held him tight on his waist, and as Helen opened the front door, Charlie watched the entourage of Polish relatives—big, small, colorful, perfumed and happy—parade into the Pulaski home bearing gifts and plenty of arguments.
And standing there, Charlie sank into the expanse of knowing that maybe, just maybe, it was best to work with the family you already have—no matter how nuts and diabolical they all may seem.
Enlightenment at last.
Charlie felt a warm tingling sensation rush down his body, washing away all the angst, Peter—everything. He squeezed Max tighter.
And then, from nowhere, Helen’s stern voice shot across the room, identifying the source of Charlie’s moist epiphany. “Max. Max! Quit pissing all over your Uncle Charlie!”