The Living Nativity Starring Dominic the Donkey

Shepherds (grade school boys and girls wearing  bathrobes) sat by a smoking brazier.  Tethered goats ate at the hay scattered in front of the Winter Park Presbyterian education building, and Dominic the Donkey stood within a separate enclosure with his head down.  Joseph and Mary entered the lot and took their place beside stacked hay bales and a manger.  Mary wore a pregnancy pillow under her robes, and walked with the confident stride of a woman who was not about to give birth.  Dominic began to pace as if impatient for the impending delivery.  Mary and Joseph disappeared for several minutes, and Christmas carols played over a loud speaker.  Dominic paced.

Mary and Joseph reappeared, and Mary carried a swaddled baby doll which she placed in the manger.  Angels entered from the right and stood before spotlights shining up at them from the ground.  The shepherds turned away from their brazier to absentmindedly study the supernatural beings, and then wandered over to Mary, Joseph, and baby doll Jesus.  Dominic brayed.  The loud speakers drowned him out with more carols, and the shepherds lost interest in their savior and wandered back to their tethered goats.  The wise men entered from the left and briefly confabbed with King Herod.  They then wound in a snake like path over and around the lot, in and out of the “flock” of goats, and timed their arrival at Jesus’ feet with the last falling notes of “We Three Kings”.  Dominic brayed once more.

More hymns played on the speakers; more pre-recorded passages from Luke were read.  Dominic the Donkey ignored Scripture, lay on his back and squirmed from side to side to relieve an itch.  The kings eventually departed.  Mary, Joseph and baby doll exited, and the junior pastor came out of the shadows.  Dominic brayed loud and long as Pastor Emily began to speak.  She paused and introduced her heckler with amused forbearance.  She then invited the children to pet the goats, warned them that Dominic could be temperamental, and advised parents to keep their toddlers away from the flames of the brazier.  She then invited all to come inside for cookies, drinks and more carols, and told them that all were welcome to find a home for worship at W.P.P.C.

Judy and I went inside and took refuge in the sanctuary.   The crowd of adults and rambunctious children in the fellowship hall drove us to find a quieter place to relax.  Candles on the altar and a Christmas tree to the right gave a warm glow to the nave.  Bright red poinsettias and a Christmas banner ( a sheep standing in a Christmas Star lit landscape) added accents to the front of the hall.  Judy and I sat near the back and meditated for several minutes.  I paged through a Bible in the pew where I sat, and I came upon a psalm that asked God how long the arrogant and wicked would be allowed to prosper.

Judy turned to me and smiled.  We held hands and felt the peace of Christmas.


Wedding Bells and Christmas

dsc_0094-2Alan and Amy

My son married his high school and college sweetheart three days ago.  They have known each other since they were four or five, and played together when we visited with Amy’s parents.  Amy asked Alan out for a date when they were seniors in high school, and their romance continued long distance while Alan attended Rollins College in Winter Park and Amy went to FSU in Tallahassee.  About a year ago they became engaged, and three days after this Christmas they said their vows in the Rose Garden at Leu Gardens in Orlando.  This was a climax to a week of frenetic activity what with Christmas celebrations, the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception.  My wife and I had guests and house guests from the 21st through the 30th: my brother and nephew drove down with their wives from Ohio for the wedding;  Judy’s brother Rick flew in from Colorado; and my daughter and her fiance’ and their two dogs drove to town for Christmas and the wedding.

Judy and I lead a very quiet existence, and the sudden bombardment of social activities was quite a break from our usual routine.  Our soon-to-be grand dogs added a lot of welcome noise and commotion to Christmas Eve and Day, and I found it comforting to watch them curl up around folks and fall asleep on a sofa when they finally wore themselves out.

dsc_0066Annie and Shakespeare

Now the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon.  Our daughter and fiance’ have returned to Miami with dogs in tow, and my brother and his wife are on the road back to Ohio.  Rick flew out yesterday, and we spent today cleaning up and reorganizing the house.  The normal business of life presses in and demands our attention once again, and it’s fortunate that we are busy.  If we’re quiet and idle we notice the echoes in the house.  And the sudden absence of loved ones makes our rooms appear too large for our needs.

Judy and I discussed taking down the Christmas tree this afternoon.  I’m usually impatient to get back to my customary rounds after a prolonged break and to banish Christmas until its due time in the coming year. But I told her that I wouldn’t mind waiting a few more days.  I want to savor this holiday season a little longer.


Raining Spiders

I’m standing in my driveway directing the spray from a garden hose at mud wasp nests stuck to underside beams of the porch roof and at spider webs hanging on the wall in front of me.  After I’ve knocked down both sets of insect homes I sweep dirt and leaves off the porch with a push broom.  Drops of water and what I hope aren’t dislocated spiders fall down on my head and shoulders and inside my collar.  I flinch and squirm and think that this isn’t a chore we used to do in Ohio at Christmas time.  Snow hasn’t fallen, and there are no sidewalks to shovel or icy car windows to scrape.  Instead my porch is raining spiders.

The spiders and wasps are year round porch dwellers, and recently we’ve acquired a swarm of mosquitoes.  The weather has been very dry for the last few months, and the blood sucking pests have responded by going into hyper-breeding mode.  We’ve no standing water anywhere on our property, so it’s a mystery where the little bastards are dropping their eggs.  I wouldn’t call it a Christmas miracle, though the adults who’ve managed to slip inside like to roost in our Christmas tree when they aren’t buzzing in our ears and trying to steal our blood.

A few of the spiders that I’ve dislocated are huddled on the ground beneath the picture window of my dining room.  They’re hunched over with bent legs and looked pissed off to be alive.  A few have found refuge on the underside of the door frame, and one slipped inside and is crawling across my closet door.  He almost looks grateful when I squish him with a tissue.

I only make our arachnid friends homeless a few times a year.  They kill a significant number of bugs that congregate around our front door in hopes of finding refuge within.  But the spiders eventually hang down in dense clusters from the porch roof.  Their masses frighten children.  A Christian missionary and his son came to our door one day, and as Dad tried to save my soul the little boy looked upward with wide eyes and a distressed look on his face.  He interrupted his father by saying in a quiet voice, “Daddy, look at all the spiders!” My soul went unsaved.

And I believe that our suspended, dirty and clotted webs of long legged bug killers invite flyers from realtors who want to buy our house “as-is”.  So I purge them when their clustered colonies draw comparisons between our house and the decrepit mansion in “The Addams Family”.

But I don’t blame the spiders for costing me an evangelical salvation or making us the target of real estate predators.  They’re trying to make a living just like I am, and I feel a twinge of guilt when I knock them down.  I know, however, that given a few weeks time they will have climbed back to their perches above my porch light and picture window and will be lying in wait for flies, moths and mosquitoes.  I envy their resilience.

Grandpa’s Christmas Blues

My grandfather Joe got the blues at Christmas after his wife died.  He outlived her by twenty years or so, and every holiday season after her death he thought about Christmases past and mourned for what he had lost.  On Christmas day he would sit in a chair with his hands clasped and head down and speak in monosyllables.

We gave him presents of clothes, chocolates and whiskey.  He opened the wrappings and briefly looked into the boxes, and thanked us with a few words that seemed to cost him effort to utter.  My sister eventually discovered a horde of unused, untouched gifts sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s old sewing room. I don’t think that he was saving up for a later day, and I doubt if the gifts were piled up in her room as a sacrificial offering to her memory.  I believe that he boycotted Christmas when we weren’t looking.

My mother told me stories about how hard he tried to make Christmas magical when she was a child.  Her favorite tale went like this:  “Your grandfather got up from the supper table on St. Nicholas’ Day and said, ‘Do you hear something in the parlor?  I think that it’s Santa Claus and I’m going to take a look.’  The parlor doors slid shut and locked, and we were told to never look through the keyhole until Christmas Day.  We might get coal in our stockings if we were naughty and sneaked a peek. A rug ran under the door on both sides, and your Grandfather stood on it as he bent down and put his eye up to the keyhole.  The rug whipped out from under him, and he fell on his rear end.  He turned to us and said that Santa Claus had caught him looking as he put up our Christmas tree.  I had been losing my faith in Santa Claus–I was about 6 or 7–but I went on believing for a couple more years.  I found out later that his brother had sneaked into the parlor through a side door and waited.  Your Grandpa whispered a signal, and my uncle pulled the rug.”

When I was a little kid Grandpa Joe’s mood was one of quiet contentment on Christmas Day.  His younger brother Norby and his wife joined us at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a big meal in the early afternoon.  Conversation was light and happy at the table, and Grandpa made a show of pouring wine for his guests, Sauterne for adults and Mogen David’s Concord grape for kids old enough to handle a splash of alcohol.  He and Norby found time in between afternoon naps to sit off to one side to share a joke and a smoke.  I can still hear Norby’s rasping laugh as he leaned in close to Grandpa.

My grandmother died of complications from a series of strokes in December, 1980.  Mom hosted Christmas at our house a few weeks later, and the mood was solemn.  Norby told no jokes and Grandpa stayed mostly silent.  The dinner conversation constrained itself to the weather and “please pass the peas”, and the day couldn’t end too soon.  Everyone’s holiday spirits recovered in the next few years except for Grandpa’s.  We got used to the empty chair at the dining room table, but he could not.

It’s customary these days to expect folks to “just get over it” as if grief has an automatic expiration date.  I met a woman years ago who grew up in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Ingrid survived the fall of Berlin to the Russians and the loss of her mother to cancer, and endured two bouts of the same form of cancer.  Her marriage was difficult and finances uncertain.  She was a generally cheerful person nonetheless, but told me that Americans try too hard to be happy all the time.  She held that sadness was a natural part of life, a valid emotion that required no apology.

Grandpa’s sorrow on Christmas day was genuine and deep, and we learned to let him have his due.  He had the right to feel anyway he wanted, Christmas Day or any other, and we respected that.  His life ended in many ways when his beloved died, and who were we to demand something he could no longer give?


The Best Christmas Ever!

(For Carla who always loved Christmas.)

I can’t remember a Christmas that went according to plan. The volatile mix of alcohol, overheated expectations and subsequent disappointments, and long simmering feuds held by relatives trapped together for long periods of time in cramped spaces, usually led to one or more incidents each year that we all wanted to forget. But why go into all that trauma? David Sedaris’ collection of essays, “Holidays on Ice” covers that ground better than I ever could. I’ve decided instead to respect my wife’s wish that I not mention holiday horror stories at Christmas time (again!), and have cobbled together best moments from two or three Christmases long ago. Let’s pretend that they add up to one relatively peaceful, delightful Christmas.

On St. Nicholas Day my Mom and Dad woke me up at 11:00 at night and led me out to the living room. My sister Carla was already there, but my brother Tony was left sleeping in his bed. He still believed in Santa Claus, and we were about to put up the Christmas tree. (In our family mythology St. Nick brought the tree on his namesake day, Dec 5.) Dad had already wedged a balsam fir tree into a bucket and placed it in a corner of our living room. The lights, tear drop shaped bulbs of orange, blue, red and white, were already laced among the branches. We began to dust ornaments and hang them on the tree. Mom supervised and showed us where we had left open spots. We hung lead tinsel strand by strand.

As we worked Dad went into the kitchen and fried up some cheeseburgers. We sat down and ate our late night snack and admired our handiwork. The tree gleamed and sparkled with light, and the ornaments were old fashioned, intricate and lovely. The manger scene reminded us that Christmas was about Christ, but the stockings full of candy that Mom and Dad handed us (St. Nick also gave us our goodies on Dec. 5th.) told us that the holiday was also about sugar and chocolate.

Tony woke up the next day and found his stocking on the end of his bed, and when he wandered out into the living room and saw the tree we all enjoyed the look of wonder on his face. Carla and I felt older and wiser, and I wanted to gloat to him about my inside knowledge, but my sister and I stuck to our promise to not tell Tony about the true provenance of the Christmas tree.

A few days before Christmas Dad took off work, and we spent our time together opening Christmas cards, watching movies on TV, and relaxing. On Christmas Eve we went to the Schmalstig family Christmas party. We kids played with our 20 plus cousins, drank eggnog, and witnessed our parents indulge in a bit too much booze and get loud and boisterous. Marvelous family secrets were divulged when the adults thought that no child was listening.

The next morning we opened presents, and I got a toy machine gun. It made a rat-a-tat sound when I pulled the trigger, and my finger was sore by the end of the day. I wanted to take it along to Grandma’s house after we went to Mass, but Mom wisely vetoed my request.

Grandma Reger was busy in the kitchen when we arrived at one o’clock, and Mom helped her with the final preparations. The dining room table was set with the best china, ornate silverware, cups and wine glasses. We kids and my Dad joined my grandfather and great uncle Norby in the living room. Bowls of nuts and chocolates were set out on the coffee table. Presents from our grandparents waited for us under another Christmas tree, but we knew not to touch them until later in the day. Grandpa and Uncle Norby smoked cigarettes and talked about the old days, politics, the current state of degeneracy among young adults, and other topics that I found boring. I cracked open a Hardy Boys mystery that I had received that morning and read until Biff discovered an old cave filled with pirate treasure guarded by skeleton ghosts. I was interrupted just as a bony finger touched Biff’s arm when Mom called us to dinner.

The table was spread with cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, ambrosia salad, and a giant, golden turkey. Grandpa poured everyone a glass of wine, including the kids, and we had a choice between a sugary sweet Mogen David and a bitter white Sauterne. I always went for the sweet wine and enjoyed the soda pop alcoholic buzz. Grandma was in a good mood and urged us to fill our plates and take seconds. Grandpa said a toast at some point, and we clinked our glasses together and cried, “Merry Christmas!”

Grandpa helped my grandmother to clear the table after the feast and to wash up the dishes. When the dining room and kitchen were in order once more, everyone gathered in the living room and the kids were finally allowed to open their presents. I got a winter coat from my Grandma that she had designed herself and hand sewn. The cloth was thick and warm and the stitches neat, and I knew that she had taken a lot of time to make it for me. She looked a little stern when she told me, “I broke five needles sewing that coat,” but I could tell that she was pleased that I liked it.

The mood got a little tense in the afternoon as Grandma Reger waited for her son, Bill, to make an appearance with his wife and newborn. They had spent the day with Aunt Karen’s parents and were due at the Regers’ late in the afternoon. They arrived at five o’clock, and Grandma relaxed and smiled once again. Supper was set out at six, and we ate turkey sandwiches, olives, ambrosia, fruit cake and nut bread. No one was in the least bit peckish, but we ate anyway. Pumpkin pie and whipped cream were served as dessert, and when I staggered away from the table I couldn’t imagine feeling hungry ever again.

Dad drove us home around nine. Mom turned on the lights on the Christmas tree, and we kids inspected our loot once more. I fired the machine gun until Mom told me that I could kill more imaginary soldiers the next day.

Mom switched on the TV and found a holiday movie. Bing Crosby crooned a song about snow and Christmas, and we relaxed warm and content in our little brick home. It always felt good to return to our normal behavior after a day spent at Grandma’s striving to be our most polite and best selves.

We kids stayed up later than usual (our final treat), and I fell asleep almost immediately when I finally lay down. But before I drifted off I looked forward to the next day when I could play with my toys once again, eat more turkey, and enjoy the sense of comfort and security I got when my family was happy together and we had nothing pressing to do.

Honeymoon Oasis: Murray Hill

Judy and I started to have serious roommate problems the summer right before our wedding. We decided to move in together one month before the ceremony, and Judy found a two bedroom house on Murray Hill Drive a bit north of the intersection of Harshman Rd. and Woodman. We were a half mile away from the western edge of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and gigantic bombers rattled our windows when they came in for a landing. The house had a laundry room, an attic, kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms as well as a large garden full of snapdragons, lilies, poppies and black-eyed-susans in the back yard.

I made one bedroom my studio. I crammed in a large bookshelf, a kitchen table for still life set ups, my easel, painting supplies and a box of still life props. We pushed two twin beds side by side in the other bedroom. It had been a child’s. There was a plastic light switch cover on the wall by the door of Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse.

The day we moved in we encountered one problem after another. Judy’s roommate Diane left town for the day when Judy moved out. Diane’s cat developed abandonment issues and kept getting in my way. She curled around my legs if I paused while carrying a box, and blocked the back steps leading down to an alley where my station wagon was parked. I almost tripped on her a few times, and finally nudged her gently aside with my foot. The cat took offense and disappeared under a bush. Judy wasn’t too happy with me. The cat was declawed and could have been torn to shreds by the underfed guard dogs her next door neighbors kept chained in their back yard. The cat tried to bite Judy when she reached into the leaves to pull her out, and Judy went into the house, grabbed oven mitts and pulled it out of its hiding place. We had loaded the last box, so Judy tossed the cat into the kitchen, threw the mitts in after, closed and locked the door, and slid her set of the keys under the door. Judy wondered what Diane would think when she returned home and found the mitts in the middle of the floor.

I had a superstition about cars. It seemed that whenever I filled the tank my car broke down, so I never put in more than a few dollars. Judy had noticed my reluctance to buy a lot of gas at any one time and told me to top off the tank that day for the many back and forth trips we would be making. When we pulled up to the house on Murray Hill she noticed a puddle of fluid spreading under the rear of my Pinto. I bent down and sniffed and realized that gas was leaking out, and that there must be a hole high up on the side of the tank. Judy refused to ride in the car any more until the tank was fixed, and didn’t want me to drive a potential death bomb. I called a garage and was told that the cost of repairing the tank was about half of what I had paid for the car.

Judy had a little, aquamarine Suburu that was normally dependable. We went out for some groceries after a makeshift supper, and her car broke down at the intersection of Smithville and Linden Ave. I pushed it into the parking lot of a convenience store, but the clerk wouldn’t let us leave it there. We found a pay phone and had it towed to a garage on Smithville a few blocks from our house. As we walked a mile back to our new home we found plenty to argue about. We were hot, tired and annoyed with each other.

I found other ways to bother Judy in the coming weeks. I cooked recipes I had learned from my mother and added lots of onions to our supper dishes. Judy came down with intense abdominal cramps after eating my Texas hash, chili, spaghetti and fried potatoes. She also objected when I mixed my painting solutions of paint thinner, linseed oil and varnish in glass jars on our kitchen table. She pointed out the obvious fact that eating on a surface coated with toxic chemicals would be bad for our health. I took note of her requests and quartered the amount of onions I put in my recipes and mixed my solutions outside on the back steps. She had seemed eager to marry me before we moved in together, but I grew ever more worried that I might pull off enough boneheaded maneuvers to drive her away before the appointed day. I had been living with men who didn’t demand much of anything from me beyond very basic, sanitary maintenance of my surroundings and prompt payment of rent. I didn’t know if Judy had any faith left that I was trainable in the art of civilized living.

My parents, who had never visited me while I lived away from home, decided to stop by at random moments. We had lied to them about sharing a house before our wedding day: our official story was that I was the sole resident and Judy, while moving a few things in ahead of time, was still living at Diane’s.  (My mother was an old school Catholic dead set against anything premarital activities beyond kissing and holding hands.)  Judy and I would be sitting on the sofa after supper enjoying a few moments of privacy and peace when we’d hear the brakes of my Dad’s car squeal by the curb. We’d dash around throwing Judy’s bras, panties and assorted bits of laundry under the bed or behind boxes left over from the move. We’d answer the door out of breath with guilty and exasperated looks on our faces.

I had to leave for work one night about a half hour after they showed up unannounced. My Pinto still hadn’t been repaired, and I drove away in Judy’s Subaru to go to the hospital. Judy was left to answer my mother’s nonchalant questions about how she was going to go to Diane’s if I had the only working car. My sister reported that my parents had figured out our deception after that visit, and that my mother had asked her, “Do you think that the two of them are doing anything wrong?” I smiled and told Carla that we were doing it just right.

Judy and I took care of a lot of the preparations for the wedding and reception ourselves as Judy’s parents lived 12 hours away. Judy made her bouquet from flowers picked from our garden, and I drew illustrations and designs for our invitations. We drove to Maine for a long honeymoon trip that ended up being more about endurance than romance, and I was happy when we came back home and returned to our normal routines. I was eager to get to know Judy on a daily basis.

Judy had never shared a bedroom before with a man, and one night I woke up and heard her crying. I put an arm around her and asked what was wrong, and she told me that she couldn’t sleep, that she hadn’t been able to get a good night’s sleep ever since we moved in together. She told me that I breathed too loudly. I spent the next few weeks trying to breathe softly as I fell asleep. Judy finally asked me one night why I was holding my breath. “I’m trying to breathe more softly,” I told her. She sighed and said, “I was just trying to be polite. You snore.” I sighed and took a deep breath.

I began to paint still lifes of objects I picked up by the side of the road, at flea markets and second hand stores. The best one featured a carburetor, a pink cloth, a shot glass and a toy pistol. I thought of it as portrait of sorts of my father, and I remember spending long hours studying the effects of light striking the surfaces of the table and the motley objects. I felt like I was exploring a world that had been hiding in plain sight as I studied a fading tone reflected off the surface of a glass, as I tried to mix a warm gray that captured the color transition from a rusty patch to a cold and shiny area on a piece of metal.

I usually took a break about midday and rode a bicycle down to a grocery store about a mile away. I started supper for Judy later on in the afternoon, and when she came home we would eat and talk for hours.

We went for walks in the neighborhood and discovered that our part of town got increasingly dodgy the further down Third Street we wandered. Men sat out on their stoops during the day in warmer weather and sipped from bottles wrapped in paper bags. They looked grizzled and hollow eyed, and didn’t welcome a greeting or friendly nod. Around Christmas I passed through a block just east of downtown and noticed a house with a black wreath on its front door. A sign in the window read “Have a Merry Christmas. We won’t. Bobby died.”

Judy and I went out on a cold day in January after it had snowed, and we heard children yelling and laughing as they played. We turned a corner and came to a park with a baseball field down a slope from the parking lot. Kids were sledding down the hill to the diamond below, and parents stood talking in clusters around metal drums with logs burning inside. The orange light from the fires contrasted beautifully with the long, blue shadows on the snow. Folks warmed themselves from time to time by the barrels and passed around Styrofoam cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Judy and I enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie amongst the parents, but knew that we didn’t really belong. We wouldn’t be staying much longer in Dayton, in this neighborhood, and our children were still a distant dream.

Judy was in the process of finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Dayton. We planned to move to Delaware in February if everything went well. She got up early one morning to go to her lab to do one more experiment. Her advisor had been dropping hints about tearing apart a crucial piece of machinery that Judy needed to finish her research. She set up the equipment before Dr. Geiger arrived, and stayed at her post guarding it until she had the required data. She even timed her bathroom breaks for Geiger’s appointments outside the lab, not trusting that he wouldn’t dismantle the machinery while her experiment was still running. He seemed oblivious to her urgent need to get out of his lab and start her professional career elsewhere. At times it seemed like he was purposely sabotaging her in order to hold onto an intelligent, trustworthy lab assistant.

Judy decided to write her thesis at home. She sat in the living room while I painted in my studio. I was working on a series that required a lot of intense focus. Judy was a nervous eater when she wrote, and would compulsively dig into a bag of chips or cookies and crunch, crunch, crunch as she scribbled and typed. I closed my door but could still hear rustle, rustle, crunch, crunch coming from the living room at regular intervals. The repetitive sounds disrupted my concentration and eventually drove me crazy. I burst out of the studio and yelled, “Stop that!” Judy was unhappily surprised when I explained how annoying her habit was, and was probably offended. The next day I heard her setting up for another writing session and the sound of her cutting something soft on a cutting board in the kitchen. I peeked out from behind my studio door and saw that she had a plate of cheddar slices. She was indulging in her habit but with a quieter fix. I waited until I heard her begin to eat and write, and leaped out of the studio and cried, “Stop that! You’re making too much noise eating that, that CHEESE!” I pointed to her plate in mock outrage and gave her my sternest look of condemnation (eyebrows arched, nostrils flared, eyes bulging out). Judy stared at me wide eyed. “Are you trying to drive me mad? MAD??” I added with a theatrical wave of my arm, and then she started to laugh.

Judy survived her thesis defense with little help and some hindrance from Geiger. We began to pack up the house, and I quit my job at the hospital. We moved on a gray day in February, and as we drove out of town I thought about how I would miss my family and worried about the challenges we would be facing in a strange city on the east coast. I had never lived anywhere else but Dayton and had no idea what it would be like to move to a place where I knew no one but Judy.

As we took the exit off of I75 onto I70 and headed to Columbus I wanted to turn around and head back to our little home on Murray Hill. It had served as our honeymoon hideaway, as an oasis of happiness.  I believed that we would have other times together that would be peaceful and full of contentment, but already knew that our six months there had been special.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part II–Christmas Party

In 1981 some friends and I rented a house in a neighborhood known as Slidertown near the southern edge of downtown Dayton.  We were a group of artists and students from the University of Dayton, and used the building as a collective studio.

That year I worked full time at Godfather’s Pizza to save up for a return to school to finish my B.F.A.  I decided to throw a party for my coworkers while the studio artists were away on Christmas vacation.  I tidied up the main room, hung some garland, made a huge pot of barbecue using my Mom’s recipe, set up a record player and bought a six pack of cheap beer.

Folks arrived in twos and threes and brought snack food, wine, beer and booze.  There was a keg outside of dubious origin that may have been lifted from the restaurant’s premises.  The party was subdued for the first hour or so, but picked up as more alcohol was consumed and inhibitions began to fall away.

I stepped outside to get away from the noise and burgeoning chaos and talked to a day manager and Debbie, a night shift manager from another store.  Snow was falling lightly in big, puffy flakes and started to accumulate.  Street lights sparkled on the surface of the snow and on the ice in the bare branched trees along the street, and the night became hushed and still.  We heard a jingling sound and muffled clop-clops, and when we turned to look up the street we saw a man wearing a buckskin coat and cowboy hat riding a large white mare.  The horse had a belled blanket on its back.  The man dismounted, tied his horse to a post in a bent chain link fence and helped himself to some beer.

I never learned the cowboy’s identity and never found out why he was riding a horse on Brown Street–the nearest stable was at least 10 miles away–as I was nominated to drive Billy home.  Billy was the son of a friend of the restaurant owner.  He had the eyes and lips of a young girl, seemed very thoughtful but was a little mentally slow.  He appeared to be sensitive, and while he could do the work at the store he often seemed on the verge of tears.  Now he was on the verge of passing out, and I had to help him into my Pinto station wagon.  He lived in Centerville, a wealthy suburb on the far south side, and I had to stop for gas.  Billy began to dry heave when I pulled up to the pump, and I ordered him to open his window and hang his head outside my car.  I was flustered as I filled my tank, and discovered the next day that I had forgotten to put the gas cap back on.

We made it a few miles down the road when Billy threw up on the side of the car. He was rendered speechless for another mile, but was able to give me slurred directions when we got nearer to his home and he began to recognize familiar landmarks. We eventually made it to his neighborhood.  The houses were mini-mansions set far back from the road amidst stands of maple and oak trees.  Billy got out of the car when I slowed to a stop as I tried to decipher his final directions, and he started to stagger through shallow drifts of snow beneath the trees.  I called out to him to try to get him back into the car, but he waved and shouted something unintelligible to me as he stumbled up a driveway that may have belonged to his father.  I waited to see if he got inside as I feared that he might freeze to death in the cold, but he waved me off as he pounded on the front door.

When I returned to the party three fourths of the booze, beer and wine was gone, nearly all the food had been eaten, and folks were scattered all over the house in small clusters.  I could smell spilled beer and pot and the delicate aroma of boozy vomit.  Dee sat in the upstairs hallway holding her stomach and moaning.  She told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she had drunk too much.  I offered to take her to a hospital, but she refused.  She was afraid that her abusive husband would find out that she had gotten sick on Jack Daniels again.  Megan, a dark haired beauty too young to be drinking anything stronger than root beer, told me again and again as she struggled to remain standing that Dee was all right.  Buford was lying on his back a few doors down, and he gurgled to me with a smile on his face when I checked up on him.  Downstairs someone cranked up Molly Hatchet on the stereo, and it was nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of a crash.  I ran downstairs and found an overturned trash can on the floor in the main room.  Beer cans, bottles, paper plates and plastic cups were spilled out in a nasty jumble, and there was broken glass nearby.  A couple rolled around on a sofa a few feet away, and the throes of their passion may have caused one of them to kick over the can.

I retreated outside again, lit a cigar and stared at the stars, and pondered my folly.  The snow stopped and the temperature dropped down to near zero, and the chill did wonders to clear my head and force me to reconsider nearly all my choices in life.

Around 2:00 I went back inside and told everyone to leave.  They staggered out in twos and threes, Dee among them having recovered as predicted by the raven haired Megan, and they wobbled and wavered their separate ways.  I got up at noon the next day and started to gather trash and sweep up party debris inside the house and out in the yard.  (Nothing calls the spirit of the holidays to mind like the sight of a crushed beer can next to a pile of cigarette butts in the snow.)

When I went back to work the next day Buford shook my hand and thanked me for throwing the best party ever.