Tag: short

A Christmas Story

Sometimes a Christmas story is about a reverence for snow, cold cheeks almost burning, wet socks, the smell of guava punch with apples and cinnamon, the heat of a wood stove with gingerbread baking in its oven, half burnt potholders with crows to protect the fingers, an Aunt that plays French songs on the phonograph and, half swooning, lays her hands splayed across her chest, just above her dove-like bosom that smells ever so slightly of mothballs and talcum powder.

She was a Catholic—me a diluted Protestant—and it was the Church, she said, that had kept her single because the men of Ireland had never learned to love women, only the Virgin, and tended to abuse them—not to mention themselves—because of the nuns’ warning not to touch. Not even with the heart.

I had no idea what she was talking about, except that I wondered now and then what it would be like to touch her, perhaps when she was asleep and not so sad. I was almost fifteen and curious about bodies, not the least about my own. In a moment of questionable trust, I told my father I found myself wondering about women’s bodies. He took his pipe out of his mouth and told me that was all right and natural enough, and then said with a humpf that I shouldn’t get anyone pregnant.

That remark caused me embarrassment, and I think I blushed—which made it harder for me to see myself as the man my father was. He had seen straight into my deepest secret, which, when I look back on it, overwhelmingly had to do with Nature’s plot to make babies.

My Aunt’s name was Georgina, and I suppose she wasn’t much older than twenty-five at the time. She already had a reputation in our family for not being responsible, for herself or anything else. She forgot to take things off the stove and didn’t tighten the tops of jars, so you had to be careful that the contents—oatmeal, for example, or popcorn—gripped  by their lids, didn’t slip away and crash on the straight-grained fir floor of our kitchen, creating two messes, not just one.

Georgina loved my mother’s guava punch—a fruit that was shipped from Florida each winter by her brother Antonio, and that arrived only half rotten. Georgina would carry her cup into the unheated front parlor and add sherry to it. She let me try it, and I thought it was awful, except that it made her a little less concerned about the young men in Ireland that still, at age forty, lived with their mothers and spent too much time in the pubs drinking Guinness and listening to fiddlers rattle their strings with angry jigs and reels, all the while complaining that Ireland should be fighting on the side of the Germans.

One evening near Christmas, my parents drove away in their 1943 Ford station wagon through falling snow to a cocktail party at the end of a dark New England road, to the house of two German bachelors, Herbie and Hans Wanders, who never spoke German, because of the war. That left me and Georgina alone in the house. A pot of guava punch sat thinking at the edge of the stove top. Georgina pushed it with one of the burnt crows to where it would heat up—with me watching her. Then she poured herself a cup and headed for the front parlor. I followed since, in many regards, she was my leader. She clicked on the phonograph, its orange eye lit up and, with another click, the plastic arm came alive and dropped the needle onto Edith Piaf’s “C’est lui que mon Coeur a choisi”—He’s the One My Heart Has Chosen.

I didn’t understand a word of it, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. We sat next to each other, with just the light of a distant street light, on the small settee upholstered in pale flowers, with our hips practically touching, and passed the cup—now fortified with my mother’s cheap sherry—back and forth, and I tried not to stare at my Aunt’s knees, which had somehow glided forward from the edge of her corduroy skirt and, at least to my memory, gleamed as if touched by moonlight.

The more I drank of the awful brew, the more I thought about things. How I too was still living with my mother—as well as my father—and how it was somehow wrong to be drawn to my aunt’s exposed knees. The punch made me warm all over, at the same time that I felt perched on the edge of nausea. The song was a walz and very emotional, and right then Georgina took hold of my jaw, brought my head up and around toward hers, and gave me what I think must have been a very un-Catholic kiss square on my lips.

I stared shocked into her eyes, at that moment lit up by the headlights of my parent’s Ford which, returning early, crunched to a halt the front of the house. The bridge over Prospect Creek, on the way to the Wanders, had collapsed, and my parents had seen the gaping black hole just in time and had stayed only long enough to drag brush across the road to warn motorists coming from the same direction. Back in the kitchen, while my mother studied us with a curious expression—possibly suspecting loose lids, my father marched to the phone on the wall, told all the listening busybodies to get off the goddam line and called the police about the fallen bridge.

Georgina, as it turned out, left for New York on the morning train and returned by ship to Ireland, which zigzagged all the way, she wrote, to avoid the torpedoes of German U-Boats. And I went on to lead a life only occasionally drawn to sherry, and more often to guava in any form—for its intoxicating smell. I no longer live with my mother, and I often thought of Georgina and her knees, until I met my first love—and then, like the men of Ireland, I forgot her.


I hope I’m not misleading you on the subject of your research. You’re ready to record? All right—I’m trying to remember when it began. Probably with the usual things, like imitating my father’s voice and style with a note to the principal of the elementary school, excusing me from gym class, then from arithmetic because of my brain tumor, then from lunch period—so I could go out behind the baseball backstop and slip into the woods, where I smoked Philip Morris cigarettes and met with girls too brain impaired to attend school.

How did I get them to come there? By imitating the principal, with invitations to join a softball team that would consist equally of elementary school children—without concern for mental development.

Later, when I was in high school, I studied, then submitted—without return address—unknown works by Hemingway, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters. I submitted them to publishers, claiming they had been discovered in this or that archive nook or rare book library.

At first, there were nothing but rejections. Then, gradually, experts began to pay attention. A letter here, a short story there, a poem, even a thin novel hitherto unknown. Literary and library journals could not resist the fact that priceless pieces had been discovered, and they began to publish them and attribute them to the Brontës, Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway.

I studied other languages and with the years managed to place essays by Camus and Thomas Mann, in clotted Courier type. Once even a pornographic piece by Richard Wagner. The submissions were always anonymous, but written with such skill—on blank pages ripped from old books—that academic journals fought with each other over who presented the best argument for their authenticity. All the while, I worked as a quiet librarian in Orange, New Jersey.

In time, I grew bored with these shenanigans and began submitting work of my own—with the result, over and over, that I was accused of borrowing, i.e. stealing the style and vocabulary of known authors.

I had a few successes with small literary magazine, where the gatekeepers—usually severely male—were so schooled in mimicry and where so many of their submissions were youthfully imitative, that my own lingering trickery went undetected.

I married and had a daughter—a delightful child with equally generous measures of intelligence and heart. When she went away to camp, I wrote her news and stories I had not made up. By college, she began to complain to her mother—we were no longer together—that she no longer knew me and—more troubling—that there was something inauthentic about me.

When my ex-wife told me this, with an expression between gloating and reprimand, I spent the rest of the day and night drinking enough whisky to kill an elephant.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to a psychiatrist, who told me to explore my relationship with my parents, both of whom had had careers in persuading people to trust them. My father, a financial advisor, had been warned a few times by his firm, for irregularities. And my mother had been a painter of modest talents, who openly painted copies of Breughel, Rembrandt and the Impressionists for clients in Santa Monica, California with blue hair and rooms to decorate.

After some years of therapy, I joined an ashram to learn how to meditate and give up wants in the material world. I spent time with a number of the lovely apostles of the promised more spiritual life, practicing the arts of defense and rendition. While my daughter, though always polite, grew ever more remote from me.

When my granddaughter was born, my daughter softened and allowed me to play my role as grandfather. She even allowed me to tell the child bedtime stories. And over time, something happened whereby I began to tell stories that were different from my earlier ones and clung more to the questions my granddaughter asked me. About whether bears could talk with children, and had I ever talked with a bear or an elephant. I did not want to lie to her, so I said I hadn’t. She was three or four, and so she suggested we could go to the zoo and try to talk to a bear and maybe an elephant.

And so we went to the zoo. And then we went again. And then, again. We tried other animals as well. None of them actually talked to us, but we made up stories about what they said and laughed because some of the stories were funny. And besides, we were happy to be with each other.

I began to go back alone, and when other people weren’t around I talked to the animals by myself. And something changed, and I learned something that seems too trivial to say. But I will. That there is no reason to disguise who you are. My granddaughter and the elephants were who they were—and pretended nothing more.

My time to leave the earth has come now—as you can see for yourself. On her last visit, my lovely ex-wife held my hand and said it was too bad we had not spent more time together—in every aspect—over the last twenty or thirty years. My daughter weeps uncontrollably when she visits. And my granddaughter—now a wonderful writer at the age of twenty-five—sits beside my bed and tells me in many different ways which animals I should visit and what I should say to them when I go to join them.

That is my story about forgery. It may not have been what you wanted. But there it is.