Daniel Crocker

An Early ’90s Christmas

“Is it almost done?”

I was making super-hot, a touch of ginger, chili. I make it so hot that it almost hurts to eat it, but it’s about the only time I get food that spicy, so my wife puts up with it. “Good, we have to leave at five forty-five, and I’m starving.”

My wife, Margaret, might have been starving, but she looked exhausted. Even her dark hair was limp and tired, resting against her left eyebrow. It was the Christmas season when exhaustion is par for the course. Shopping, trying to make ends meet, more shopping, and the worst is our children’s school. First, there are the “fundraisers” that they send kids, snotty nosed and half-dead with wet-lung, home from school with—dragging them along in their Power-Puff Girls backpacks. It’s ridiculous. Twenty pages of “special items” that you can get at the Dollar Store for a third of the price. Stuff like Santa Bells, chocolate covered cherries for eight dollars (get yourself two boxes at Wal-Mart for a buck), wreaths handmade by some poor granny in Montana (more like some poor kids in Africa), etc. They actually want us to send our kids out in sub-zero temperatures door to door to sell this stuff. It’s for a good cause, they say. It’s for the school. I thought the taxes I paid were for the school. I didn’t know we had to raise a new generation of vacuum salesmen. My older daughter, Allie, usually went about this work with gusto. My youngest, Ashley, however dreaded it so badly I usually just threw her booklets in the trash when Margaret wasn’t looking.

But the topper is the annual Christmas pageant. This year our school district mercifully decided to forsake the traditional White Christmas and have a Christmas Cantina. A Mexican theme—there’s one Mexican family, three kids, in the school. My wife and their mother, Marcy, are good friends. They work together at a school for troubled teens. I hadn’t yet met Marcy, but our plan was to sit by her during the Cantina—apparently so we could talk about how cute our children looked all dressed up like little vacuum cleaner salespeople, and perhaps get the goods on whether or not the entire thing had any hint of authenticity.

“What am I supposed to say to her anyway?” I asked, half a mouth full of chili and my nose watering.

“Dan, don’t start.”

“What? I’m just wondering. You know I don’t understand stuff like that.”

“What?”

“Small talk. I mean, she’ll say ‘hi’ and I’ll say ‘hi.’ Then she’ll ask how I’m doing and I’ll say ‘fine.’ Then, I’ll ask her how she’s doing and she’ll say ‘fine.’ Then there will just be silence, for like ten minutes or something. Both of us staring at each other—Marcy waiting for me to say something, anything. And I won’t know what the hell to say. My forehead will start sweating, and she’ll think I’m on crack. Then she’ll probably rush home and call Family Services on me.”

“She’s gonna want to talk to me, Dan, not you. Not everything’s about you.”

“I guess you’re right. So are they gonna be hitting us up for money tonight?”

“No, it’s free,” Margaret sighed and took another bite of chili.

“I know it’s free, but you know how they are. They’re always asking us for money, with the fund raisers and all. I’ll bet you that they pass around a jar tonight asking for contributions.”

“No they won’t.”

“I don’t know why I have to pay money to see my daughter sing Rudolph or something. We could stay home and sing it all night long for free.”

“They’re not asking for money.” Margaret put the rest of her chili into the sink. She thinks I’m cheap. I am cheap, but it was a testament to her desire for the night to go well that she didn’t mention it.

“I’m not gonna put money in their damn jar. When it gets passed to me, I’ll just pass it on along. I don’t care what people think. Let them think I’m cheap. I spent twenty-five dollars on a goddamn ceramic Miss Claus last year and the thing is ugly. Where’s that money going to anyway? Where’d my twenty-five dollars go?”

“A new playground.”

“What’s wrong with the playground they have now?”

“I don’t know, Dan. They want some more swings or something, I think.”

“You think? You’re letting our kids sell this stuff, and it’s probably scarring them for life by the way, and you don’t know exactly where the money’s going?”

“A new playground.”

“When I was in school our playground was nothing but dirt. That’s right, we just had this big dirt field we played in. We didn’t need swings or monkey bars because we had imagination. My friend Timmy and me, we used to take a couple of sticks and pound them on the ground for hours at a time, happy as a couple of clams. Just poundin’ sticks on the ground to beat the devil. The year after I left grade school, you know what they did?”

“What, dear?”

“They dumped a bunch of gravel over the dirt because parents were complaining about dirty pants. That was our new playground, gravel. You don’t need a fundraiser for gravel.”

“Times have changed.” Margaret knew I was on a rant—as usual when faced with any sort of social activity, and she put up with it with patience and good humor. Later in my life, when the Anxiety got so bad that it sometimes seemed impossible for me to leave the house, she’d be just as understanding.

“I guess so. And not for the better. I’ll tell you this much, if somebody asks me why I’m not putting any money in the jar, I’ll just say that it’s because I’m going back to a simpler time. A time of gravel and stick pounding.”

As it turned out, I didn’t even have to worry about meeting Marcy. For some reason or another, she couldn’t make it to the Cantina. So we had to pick up her son, Perry, and take him with us so he could sing Rudolph, or whatever they were doing. Perry is in kindergarten with my youngest daughter, Ashley. Allie, my daughter in fourth grade, wasn’t performing—she was just going along for the ride, excited as could be. Allie, like her mother, is a social creature. She loves to be around people and if there’s ever a lull in the conversation, you can count on Allie to fill it. Ashley, however, is more like me. She’s what used to simply be known as shy, but now has so many other connotations, like social anxiety disorder. When I was a kid, I was so painfully shy they wanted to put me in an LD class, but I did too well on the test. Margaret had made it a goal of hers to make sure that Ashley eventually came out of her shell, and overall it seemed to be working. Case in point—the Christmas Cantina. She was actually going to participate, and though more than a little nervous, she seemed to be looking forward to it.

***

We pulled up in front of Marcy’s house, and Margaret and the kids jumped out to get Perry. I sat in the car and listened to Tom Waits. They were back in no time, slamming the car doors and giggling.

“Dad,” Allie asked, “Did you fart?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Dan!” Margaret slapped me on the thigh, as if I’d never farted before. I guess company makes all the difference, even if it is just a five year old kid.

“I can’t help it, the chili’s getting to me.”

“Well try, it’s rude.”

“Ashley and Perry think it’s funny.”

They were laughing their little butts off, holding their noses, and waving their hands in front of their faces. Only Margaret and Allie seemed to think it disgusting. And I can remember, wistfully, a time not long ago when Allie would have been laughing as well instead of blushing. But something that I can’t put my finger on happened to her between third and fourth grade. Something that meant dad farting in mixed company wasn’t funny anymore.

We made it just in time for the show. Perry and Ashley were hoarded off into the music room to get ready. The rest of us followed the crowd into the gymnasium, it was like trying to get through a department store on December 23rd. Haughty old ladies, smelling of Vicks, Spearmint gum and Church, shook their fleshy hips to and fro trying to knock all competitors to the side.

There were four or five donkey shaped piñatas floating around in the over crowded gym/cafeteria—a double duty room with a linoleum floor. There were about twenty round tables in the front covered with white table clothes and decorated arrangements of poinsettias sitting in the middle. New playground my ass.

However, all of those tables were full. We, and the rest of the late comers, were regulated to the typical long rectangular lunch room tables in the back. Margaret and Allie sat down by some long-haired fellow and his sour-faced wife whose salt and pepper hair looked like and afro that had been cut in half clean at the top. I could have set a beer and an ashtray up there, used it as a table, and felt a lot better. If only I’d had a beer, that is. And although there were some cold ones in the fridge at home, I wasn’t going to drink before my daughter’s big show. I’d just have to experience this, the good and the bad, sober.

“Have a seat, Dan.” Margaret said.

There was just enough room between the hippie and Margaret for me to sit down.

“I’ll stand. I’m fine.”

“Sit down.” My wife jabbed her finger toward the seat, her lips pursed together.

“I’ll stand, thank you.”

I can’t sit down by people I don’t know. I usually only go to unpopular movies, or wait until a good movie is near the end of its run, because there’s less of a chance of having to sit by a stranger. I saw Battlefield Earth while my wife was watching American Beauty, or something similarly interesting, in the next theater over. But I had an entire row of seats to myself. Actually, this guy that smelled like peppermint sat down in the same row as me, but I pretended to go to the bathroom—I even announced, a little too loudly, that I had to use the bathroom so that he wouldn’t suspect anything—then I waited outside until the previews started and I creept back in and sat in a row by myself.

We still had a few minutes before the Christmas Cantina started, so I played count the mullets. I was at thirty four and still counting when some lady waddled out onto the stage. This is one of the things I do when I’m nervous, especially in crowds, I start picking out things that I can exaggerate enough to seem funny, at least to me, and I get a little more comfortable. It’s probably not the nicest way to deal with anxiety, but it helps.

The lady who had walked out on stage was going to be our announcer for the evening. “Hello, and thank you for coming to our Christmas Cantina!” The poor thing, she was trying her best to enunciate, but she sounded like she’d had a half a bottle of Valium for supper and washed it down with a pint of vodka—perhaps she had, teaching grade-school is a notoriously hard profession, and the numbers of prescription drug addicts within the field are staggering. They don’t tell you that at the PTA meetings I assure you. And like most elementary school teachers, she’d developed “the voice.” You know, the “I’m talking to a bunch of little kids” voice. The first thing she did was spend twenty minutes giving us tips on how to get our kids to read better. Read to them, she said, ask them questions, she said. I was indignant for no good reason. First of all, I was about to earn my Master’s in English, so I figured I didn’t need tips on how to get my children to read. Secondly, I was reading before I ever entered kindergarten and my parents hardly ever spoke to me. As a matter of fact, I attribute my early literacy skills to my parents’ silence. I had to do something, and going outside wasn’t going to be it.

After the reading tips, the lady said the principal, Dr. Cole, was going to come out and demonstrate for us how to read to our children. Great. At least they brought out the kindergartners, and we finally got to see Ashley up on stage. She was wearing a skirt and Margaret had warned her earlier not to cross her legs because her underwear showed, she looked a little uncomfortable up on stage and sitting on her knees. I don’t think there’s any bias in this when I say that Ashley was the best looking kid up on stage. I was a good looking guy until my mid-twenties and she took her curly black hair and round brown eyes with long lashes from me. The rest of the kids had that sort of half-starved, blank eyed, small town kid look about them. I mean, there were just as many mullets up on stage as off. One girl looked like a sixth grader. There was this other kid that looked like a half-drowned rat—wide eyed and greasy. And these two were the best of the lot.

Dr. Cole read ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’. I felt sorry for all of us. Dr. Cole sounded like a cross between Tom Petty, a four year old girl, and a young Carol Channing. And every once in awhile, she would stop and ask the kids a question. “Do you know anyone with a fat belly like Santa Claus?” Or “What’s a Sugar Plum?” Then, some kid would stop picking his nose long enough to raise his hand, and Dr. Cole would continue on with the poem before he even had a chance to answer. I tried to distract myself by watching the parents pointing at their kids, or waving both of their arms over their heads so they could get their kid’s attention long enough to take a picture.

After Dr. Cole’s reading, the librarian came out to read ‘The Cajun Night Before Christmas’.

“Watch out now,” Valium lady said. “She’ll read it just like a real Cajun. She’s got one of those kind of voices.”

Now, I’ve heard real Cajuns on the cooking channel—and this lady did not have a Cajun accent, she sounded more like a New Englander to me. Maybe she was from Massachusetts or something, but she wasn’t a Cajun, believe you me.

This entire time my ass cheeks were clenched tighter than a drum. To put it plainly, I had more gas than Iran. Somehow, I managed to keep it to myself. But my stomach rumbled with discontent, and I could feel the crowd pressing in on me. It’s a tough feeling to explain to people who don’t mind crowds, but it’s like being crushed. This was before I had, or had even considered, medication for anxiety. I’m not sure I even understood a lot of it, I just knew that if I didn’t watch it, and if I kept thinking about the crowd pushing in on me, I’d start to have trouble breathing.

I couldn’t blame Margaret for wanting to push Ashley out of her shell a little. Shyness can sometimes be impossible to live with. It’s not that it’s that bad, all the time, for the person who is shy, it’s often worse for the people around them. They feel you’re standoffish, or that you just don’t like them, even when you actually do. You’re just not going to talk a lot to them until you are more comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very difficult for a shy person. You might be forced to read out loud in school, or worse, stand in front of the class and give a presentation. People will make assumptions based on your shyness that range from them thinking you are stupid, or the old cliché that still waters run deep. None of that really cuts it though, like everyone else, shy people come in a wide variety of personalities.

Finally, after almost forty five minutes, we got to see what we came for. Our kids were actually going to get to sing. However, Valium lady had an announcement to make first.

“I’d like to thank the PTA for sponsoring our last fundraiser. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to afford our new state of the art stage. A stage like this, with rails for the steps and everything, doesn’t come cheap you know.”

Playground my ass.

Ashley was squirming on stage like a worm on a June sidewalk. Finally, she just had to cross her legs. She looked down to see if her underwear was showing, and there was a faint splash of blue. She tried unsuccessfully to push her skirt down enough to cover it and then looked to me as if to say Daddy, what do I do now?   I gave her a thumbs up and smiled. Who cares if you show a little underwear, dear, you’re only five and being comfortable is much more important than saving face at your age, take advantage of it while you can. Margaret pursed her lips into a duck mouth.

Fortunately, Ashley didn’t have to show her unmentionables for long. It was time for the kids to sing. The first song they sang was, of course, Rudolph. Then, they did Frosty the Snowman. For this, they brought out some adult dressed in a snowman outfit. The thing is, the snowman outfit was just loose fitting cloth. Frosty looked half-melted, sort of like a hairless bulldog. And the lady under the suit had to be drunk because she was grinding her hips like a cheap stripper—her hands hooked behind her head. The kids had their mouths wide open—looks of horror on their faces.

I bet, however, that that lady didn’t have one ounce of panic about her exploits. Were she the type to have panic attacks, she’d have found a way out of it, or at the very least, she’d have not danced, costume or not, with such abandon. I, on the other hand, were I forced to do such a thing, would have trouble sleeping for weeks. I’d obsess over it, even knowing that it was forgotten by everyone else.

It was time for the last song. That’s it, we were there for an hour and we’d only gotten to see our kids sing three songs. The whole thing, if they’d have just gotten down to it, could have lasted fifteen minutes and we’d of all been a lot happier. Well, I would have been happier.

The last song rocked. They sang “Feliz Navidad.” The kids got to get down from the stage, clap their hands, dance and basically have a good time. All the Baptists on the school board somehow let this slide. Ashley clapped her hands and stomped her feet and wiggled her butt with the best of them. Where as before, it was breaking my heart watching her stiff and nervous up on stage (it was all I could do to keep from rushing up there, sweeping her up in my arms, and getting her the hell out of there), it was now making my heart glad. I wanted, with all of my soul, to join them. To shake my head, move my feet and sing Feliz Navidad at the top of my lungs.

I realize that I probably project my own personality on Ashley more than I should, maybe all parents do this to an extent. Sure, she’s shy, but she’s not me. Maybe she’s been made to feel a bit more comfortable in her skin by me and her mother. My parents, who I love dearly, weren’t very talkative or socially active themselves, and once when I feigned sick so I didn’t have to say one line (What will we do now, Santa) in a school play my mom didn’t bat an eye. She let me stay home without question.

“I like this.” I said to Margaret.

“Shhhhh!” It was the hippie’s wife—her index finger rigid and flushed vertical against her upper lip. The hippie looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I nodded.

When the song ended, people actually applauded—and it wasn’t polite applause, every mullet-head, soccer mom, and hippie was genuinely pleased. But it couldn’t be left at that. Valium lady had another announcement.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming. Please sign our guest book before you leave and vouch for the fact that we taught you how to read to your child. That way we can get more grants and buy more needed equipment like our hi-tech stage here. Thank you. Oh, and don’t forget about our Valentine’s Day fundraiser. We’ll be sending a brochure home with your children on Monday. In the meantime, think about donating some money to our “tip jar” right up here on stage.” She pointed to a giant bucket on the stage that I had somehow not noticed. No one applauded. She looked around, flustered.

“Oh, we’re going to serve soda, cookies and tamales!”

Applause, although they were school cafeteria tamales—which are basically generic beans (last thing I needed) wrapped up in a piece of white bread and sprinkled with government cheese.

“Can we go?”

“Just a minute,” Margaret said. “The kids want to eat.”

“Eat? We had chili.” And boy was my stomach feeling it.

“Yes, I know, dear, but the kids didn’t eat any of it. It was too spicy for them, remember.”

“When I was a kid I ate what was put in front of me, or else I got the strap.” That’s not true, of course, but I’m not above making up stories about my childhood to get a point across to my wife.

“I know, dear. Things were so much better back then.”

“Can you get me a Diet Pepsi?”

“Where are they?”

“On that cart over there.”

“They’ll bring them around.”

“What if they run out before they get to us. There are a lot of people here, and we are in the cheap seats, you know.” I really wanted that Diet Pepsi. I couldn’t smoke, and having something in my hand, something to do, makes me feel a lot better in crowds. If I can focus my attention on something as simple drinking a soda, then I feel less like I’m being rude to people who try to talk to me.

“They won’t run out.”

“How do you know that? How can you possibly know that?”

“Just wait here and you’ll get one. Me and Allie are going to go find Ashley and Perry. She’s probably still back in the music room.”

I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there, by myself, looking at my feet. It wasn’t long, however, until Ashley—Margaret, Allie and Perry nowhere in sight—found me.

“Hi Dad.” She was smiling, looking around at bit suspiciously at the crowd herself.

“Hello. Where’s your mother?”

“I dunno. She said something about the tip jar.”

“Son of a bitch. Well, you want a cookie?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, see that cart over there?” I pointed to the cart loaded down with soda.

“Yeah.”

“Grab me three Diet Pepsis, and you can have a cookie.” I know I’m a horrible human being.

“Ok.”

Ashley walked right over, as if the earth wouldn’t collapse if she snatched three sodas off the “school’s cart” (probably bought with fundraiser money for the “new playground”). Ashley got the sodas, carried them the best she could cradled in her arms, and brought them to me. Some young girl with a nose ring that was walking around with a tray asked me if I wanted a cookie and I took four—all of them shaped like Christmas trees and gave them to Ashley.

“Dad?”

“Yes, honey.”

“Did I do good?”

“You were excellent.” I leaned down and kissed her on top of the head. “You were the best.”

“I was nervous.”

“That’s okay. It didn’t show.” It wouldn’t be until years later that we’d find out there was something way more serious than a little shyness wrong with both of us.

“I had to fart,” Ashley said.

“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”

Published 10-15-17

Daniel Crocker is the co-host of the podcast, Sanesplaining. His latest book, Shit House Rat, was just released by Spartan Press. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, Big Muddy, New World Writing, Stirring, Juked, The Chiron Review, and many others. His last collection of poetry, Like a Fish (Sundress Publications) is still available.

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