I might've been 5, 6. Dad was 3 sheets to the wind. I remember him standing in the southwest corner of the living room holding a beer, grinning with his cap pushed back. There was a knock on the door, and Uncle Wheelbarrow came in, dressed as Santa Claus. He was carrying a glass of something dark and evil-smelling. I imagine it was bourbon because that was a favorite drink of my father and his friends. Mom had her arms crossed, and, as Dad got a chair for Uncle Wheelbarrow, declared she was going to bed. She made a brief argument that it was time for me to go as well, but Dad repelled this attack, and she steamed away to bed.
"Come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas, little boy," Uncle Wheelbarrow said. I didn't want to. Before, I hadn't wanted to go to bed, but now, I'd have given anything to be out of there, even if it meant going to bed early on Christmas Eve.
"Come on, Boy," Dad said.
I sat on Uncle Wheelbarrow's lap. His bear was coming off. He still held the glass of liquor, and it sloshed and spilled on his leg, making him curse: "Sit still!" I was terrified. There was no novelty in this, only confusion about the rules of a game I didn't understand. Uncle Wheelbarrow leaned over me, his hot breath in my ear. "Tell Santa what you want for Christmas."
Here was something every child understands: when the strange man in the red suit asks what you want, it's time to unleash the greed. I listed some things--I don't remember what, exactly. The last thing I said was a Nerf football.
"Football?" Uncle Wheelbarrow roared. "What's wrong with you? Don't you want a woman, Boy?"
I may have started crying; whatever happened, Dad deemed it no longer funny, and I was sent to bed.
* * *
Again, maybe I was 6, though this was a ritual we repeated every year. Christmas Eve, my sister and I snuck into our brother's room and stole his longest socks. We raided the kitchen for treats -- oranges, almonds. Julie had managed to acquire candy bars, so we stuck them in. We drew pictures for everyone and put those in, as well, until the socks were full. Then we hung them and waited for Christmas morning.
Dad's best friend, an old army buddy named James Kennedy, gave us giant trash bags full of presents when we were younger. It was like manna from heaven: toys, games, never clothes, culminating in a box full of quarters he'd saved all year. This was our college fund. Christmas morning while Dad was working, Julie and I would sit on the floor by the tree counting quarters. There was usually a couple hundred dollars worth. When the bank opened, we'd take it all and watch it slide through the change counter.
* * *
Christmas Eve, I'd come home from college to see a girl I used to go out with. I went to a party with her, but things went bad. I went home and slept on Dad's couch until he woke, after dawn, then I headed out, back to college, ahead of a big storm. I made it to Ozark when I hit the ice, slid around backwards, and careened off the road into a tree. I managed to get the car back on the road and limped along until a patrol car came and pointed out that my axle was bent. The policewoman gave me a ride to the station after the car was towed. An old convict fed me Christmas dinner -- turkey and stuffing. The cop took me to a motel where I spent the next two days until my friends, who were stranded along various parts of the interstate as well, could come. Arkansas was frosted with a blanket of ice. I read Flannery O'Connor, and an ex-girlfriend I'd dumped called to check on me.
* * *
Last night, I played with Ellie in front of Jillian's parents' Christmas tree. Jillian and her father played a duet in the other room -- Jillian on violin, her father on piano, while I dive-bombed Ellie with a stuffed-chicken. She squealed and laughed every time I brought the stuffed animal close to her and reached for it in anticipation, until, finally, I made it nuzzle her head. Then she would squeal with joy. As the music was played, Ellie turned and stared at the tree. I couldn't help kissing her head.