“What Is It About Christmas?” A Survivor’s Tale

Each year adds a new twist to the family holidays. Here’s a poem from Love in the City of Grudges.

What Is It About Christmas?

That I choose Please Kill Me from eight unwrapped books
to waste the afternoon on the couch, blizzard-trapped
at my girlfriend’s, reading punk rock’s oral history.
Jewish, she’s welcomed my father and brother to celebrate
her first tree ornamented with lights and stained-glass harps
to honor her musical career. She’s watered the tree daily,
adding pennies for minerals to firm needles.
The first time we made love under its balsam scent,
I tossed her black bra on the treetop for a star.
“Leave it,” she dared. “Your family will love it.”
Maybe I should have explained our traditions.

My father, immersed in a three-pound Churchill biography,
slumps in his chair, white-haired, partly deaf, barely
nodding as he paws butter cookies from her plate.
Settled in khakis and reindeer sweater pilled with age,
he’s content with history. He’s knocked off fifty pages
since lunch, pausing to ask twice, as he’ll ask again,
if we think he’ll be safe driving home tomorrow on bald tires.
The orange juice he requested for blood pressure pills
sits unfinished and not on its coaster. Sometimes
I could throttle him, but keep reading instead.
Switching to a World War I doorstopper, he asks if
I knew Ho Chi Minh was a waiter at the Paris Peace
conference of 1919? He thinks I’ll be interested, as a Lefty.
I don’t really answer. In Please Kill Me I read,
“When I wasn’t getting laid elsewhere,
I went to Max’s Kansas City every night.”

My brother stands at the front door in white gym socks,
watching snow pile to the rural mailbox. Earlier,
he’d ripped plastic off everyone’s CDs with a private fury
I didn’t need explained. Now he listens to Shostakovich
as if to boast he wouldn’t slum with Please Kill Me.
He only wore sneakers for this visit, so I know
he won’t offer to shovel. He claims to lift weights
with a personal trainer and drink diet shakes,
but I still see twenty pounds riding over his jeans,
his ass crack whenever he picks up gift wrap to recycle.
A man-child, he lives with my father and studies
year after year for his masters in international relations.
Perhaps he dreams of going somewhere. At breakfast,
he nagged my father not drink eggnog on his diet.
Now he refuses my girlfriend’s butter cookies
with a curt, “Too fattening.” She shoots me a look.

The only one missing is my late mother. In red lipstick
and plaid, she lavished tinsel on the tree, played Burl Ives,
and told us how important Christmas was to our family.
But deep into vermouth she unleashed her fury
when we three men with catatonic baritones
refused to join carolers bearing candles in our drive.
“No wonder everyone ignores us the rest of the year,”
she announced, then accused me, correctly, of being high.

After strokes disabled her rage, we brought Christmas dinner
in picnic baskets to her nursing home lounge, motel like
but festive with plastic garlands and paper snowflakes
cut out by children. My father carved her ham into nuggets.
I snuck peeks at Readers’ Digest abridged books.
Mentally-crippled, she smelled something burning
no matter how often we reassured her the building
was concrete, the tablecloth flame-retardant.

Spending Christmas night at the house, I didn’t join
my father & brother for TV, but lay upstairs
on my teenage bed with Naked Lunch,
started many times since eighth grade.
Who could resist the opening line? “I awoke
from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm
and sane, and in reasonably good health except for
a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh…”
Now William S. Burroughs joins me again, his blurb
on Please Kill Me: “This book tells it like it was.”

Really? Stuck at home after college,
unemployed in double-breasted pinstripes
bought to be a Mafia don one Halloween,
now worn for job interviews, I killed time
between appointments in punk record shops,
thrilling to every ruined guitar chord
in Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation.”
I’d never been a failure before, so I figured:
do it right. On the Bowery I bought a leather jacket
for the clubs: CBGB to study cryptic graffiti
for famous names; the Kitchen to follow the crowd
down emergency stairs in fear my ears were bleeding
from the cranked-up drone; Irving Plaza, where at 4 a.m.,
Johnny Thunders walked on stage in white leather,
though I don’t recall the green junkie skin his friends
remember so fondly in Please Kill Me. To be honest,
I was a club wallflower who never got close to
punk’s sick glamour. I rode the train home alone.

My girlfriend whispers, “What’s with your brother,
staring at the blizzard? Is he afraid to go out?
And you? Obsessively reading Please Kill Me?”
She’d played harp at CBGB in a Dada rock band:
the stage stank of beer, the bathroom stalls
didn’t have doors so junkies wouldn’t shoot up.
“This sucks,” she says. “Let’s go skiing.” So we do.
Dressed in fleece, we strap on touring skis
and pole across the road to a cornfield.
We glide down rows of stalk stubbles,
snow whiskers at dusk, then follow deer tracks
to a field where corn stalks remain standing,
brown as grocery bags and wigged with snow.
In gray light the falling flakes are invisible,
until we open mittens to catch them melting.
“Here’s my favorite winter smell,” my girlfriend says,
holding her wet wool to my nose. I love it, too.

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