Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Spirits

(House on Merritt Avenue, painting by Xavier Viramontes)

Christmas Spirits

Daddy was accomplished at practical jokes, we all agreed, unless you were the on the receiving end. And even then, we usually appreciated the humor. He came from a long line of jokesters, who didn't mind spending hours hand-crafting an item necessary to the gag. He had a general rule against destroying property or causing physical harm to another person, which were good guidelines to have.

When we could get back to our grandparents' homes for Christmas, we all looked forward to Daddy making eggnog from scratch. He'd use two saucepans to gently cook the nog, one of which was laced with bourbon, a smaller pan for us kids. His parents were what they called Bible Baptists, who didn't hold with dancing or card playing of any kind, and who frowned on Christmas trees because they were idolatrous. (Another term for pagan.) They of course didn't drink, so Daddy would always lie about the alcohol content of his nog, swearing the strong taste was from all the spices he used. They were either naive enough to believe him or so avid to get drunk once a year, they readily tossed cups of his nog down the hatch.

Then, invariably, Grandmommy the non-stop quoter of scripture would suddenly begin telling dirty jokes -- so filthy that my raunchy mother would gasp and I often didn't understand the punchline. (Where was she hearing these, I wonder now?) My grandfather Renza would go out to the chicken coop and return with a bantam hen which he would hypnotize. After that, he do card tricks which revealed a sleight of hand the man should not have had. When I was a teenager, an older cousin let slip that Grandaddy had been a domino sharp during World War II. Ah, the revelations of eggnog time.

My other grandmother, Sook (nicknamed for how she called in the hogs as a girl), also did not drink but once she'd had her nog, she tended to get sleepy, not scatological. Daddy used other games with her, involving fake sticks of dynamite or pretend dog vomit. The best year was when she'd had the front sleeping porch walled in to create an extra bedroom, which meant it was now a comfortable place for us to hang out on December nights. The floor was still concrete, accommodating the do-no-damage part of Daddy's rule. As we sat around the gas heater, Sook dozed off in her rocker, her legs akimbo. She had severe "rheumatiz" and wrapped Sunbeam bread wrappers around her lower legs to keep down the swelling. She put her orange-colored stockings over these, so her legs bulged and crackled when she moved.

Daddy squirted a large pool of lighter fluid under Sook's chair, on the floor beneath her knees. He ran a fuse line of fluid from the pool back to the doorway, where we clustered together, watching with our hands clamped over our mouths to keep from laughing so loudly she'd wake up. As he struck a match to the end of the line, he called her name. She woke up to see flame shooting her direction and blowing up with a brief whoosh between her legs. She flipped over backwards in the rocker, yelling "Shit" as she went. Fortunately, she was not injured, and we had the delightful memory of having heard her swear -- the only time I heard so much as a "damn" pass through her lips.

My father laughed just as hard at the pranks we were able to pull on him. One time as he lay asleep, barefoot and snoring, on the couch, my mother painstakingly tied his big toe to the couch arm with kitchen twine. Then she yelled "Fire!" and he wound up on the tile floor, trussed like a calf, roaring with glee once we'd established his toe was not actually broken.

He was great at telling stories on long car trips as we moved from one back of the beyond to another. He knew doggerel, tall tales, and brain-stumping riddles. He's the one who taught me this verse whose words I had to go look up:

O the sexual life of the camel
Is stranger than anyone thinks
In a moment of passion untrammeled
He tried to bugger the Sphinx.
But the Sphinx's connubial orifice
Was clogged with the sands of the Nile
Which accounts for the hump on the camel
And the Sphinx's inscrutable smile

When I was fifteen, that autumn a clueless science teacher decided to instruct our rural class in certain chemical processes by explaining how wine is fermented from grape juice, with a little hands-on demonstration. Immediately we all began brewing wine at home, deadly stuff that went as long as three weeks before we skimmed the scum off the top and drank it for a cheap high in that dry North Texas county. One Friday night I went out with the two boys who were my best friends, Dale and Virgil, hiding a half-gallon of Chateau d'Maggie under my coat as I left.

We drove around the dirt roads of that rural county, slugging back wine and listening to Steppenwolf as loud as it would go on the 8-track in Dale's Dodge Charger. Eventually we ran out of hooch but didn't think we were drunk enough, and we brainstormed as to which adult might let us beg a shot or two from them.

We settled on old Henry Overstreet, a septuagenarian who lived in a one-room fetid shack whose yard was decorated with empty pints. He could never afford to buy more than a pint at a time, but we scraped our money together, came up with two bucks, and decided he'd sell us a pint of his own if we sat and talked with him a while. Henry was very lonely, and it was the day before Christmas -- he'd want company.

Our plan worked, and even turned out to be fun because he had two soft little puppies to play with. The local funeral parlor was called Owens and Brumley, so he'd named the puppies Owens and Brumley. We passed them around with a bottle of extremely bad whiskey. By the time we left, I was virtually comatose.

At our trailer, Dale pushed me out the car door into the bitter December cold, hissing at me to clean up my act. His mother had grown up with my mother, her best friend all those years. Dale's grandfather Tobe had been lifelong friends with my grandfather Bill. In fact, Dale and I had an ancestor in common, and had come out to each other when we were both 13. He didn't want to get in bad with my parents by bringing me home drunk.

My bedroom was right inside the front door, so if I could make five or six words of conversation without slurring or falling down, I could escape to my room and sleep it off. When I came into our trailer, I looked toward my mother's chair, and realized I was in luck: She had already gone to bed. My father was waiting up for me but had, of course, gone to sleep on the couch in just his khakis -- no shirt or socks. All I had to do was say a brief hi and disappear into the safety of my own space.

But I was too gone to think things through. Daddy woke up and asked me groggily if I'd had fun. I walked very carefully toward him and stood between him and the coffee table, announcing we had gone to visit Henry Overstreet because it was Christmas and we were extending charity toward an old man. Daddy looked up at me doubtfully. I decided I had to cover my tracks better, and I began talking about the puppies. He laughed when I said their names, and I felt emboldened. I starting raving about how very, very cute they were, and I got so worked up about their cuteness, I began crying. Now he was staring at me in bewilderment. I gave a sob, and vomited the entire contents of my stomach onto his bare chest.

He was airborne instantly, swearing a blue streak and running headlong for the bathroom down the hall. I knew I'd blown it, then. I went into my bedroom, weeping, and collapsed in the "half bath" off my room, which was really only a toilet in a tiny cubicle. I hugged the commode as I alternated between puking and crying.

After ten minutes, Daddy returned, having showered and put on a shirt. He wet a washcloth and wiped my face, sitting down on the floor beside me. He asked me what I'd had to drink, and I told him. He said I was a fucking idiot. Then he told me stories about the crap he'd pulled as a teenager and young man in the Air Corps, wiping my face again after each vomiting jag.

As he tucked me into bed, he extracted a promise from me that I'd never again ride around drinking with my friends. "It's not the booze, it's the driving" he said. "You want something to drink, come here, I'll give it to you, you can hole up in your room and drink yourself stupid, but no driving around."

When I got up the next day, sick as a dog, he told my mother what I'd done. She went ballistic but he got her to laugh by describing in detail what it was like to see that vile stream of upchuck cascading down on his bare flesh. He told her we had a deal, me and him, and nodded at me to verify it. I swore my oath again. And I kept it. What's more, because I was sticking to my guns, Dale and Virgil were inhibited from drunk driving as well. In fact, a lot of the fun went out of getting high after that.

Merry Christmas, ya'll. If you drink, do it with old people and give 'em a good time, but don't drive yourself home afterward.