James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

‘The Year They Canceled Christmas’ — Featured Short Story

Here’s a holiday ‘gift’ for my readers: this short story was conceived on Christmas Day a few years ago, composed, revised, and circulated to no acceptances. Revised this year (among many other stories), it is presented here in the spirit of the season. The voice, style, and content are meant to evoke the late Southern novelist Larry Brown, a recent influence on my own writing.

 THE YEAR THEY CANCELED CHRISTMAS

James D. McCallister

The old woman’s voice quavered and broke the hollow still of the nursing home, but not so still, as hers was far from the only hollering voice. “It’s just the awfullest thing you ever heard of. Before you know it, they’re just going to do away with every last bit.”

“Let me guess—Christmas again? Please. Nobody’s messing with Christmas.”

“Every last bit.”

The attendant paused and glared flinty-eyed before continuing the frail old woman’s lukewarm sponge bath, which she welcomed and felt wonderful on her skin, though she’d never have owned up to it.

They will have their way, the woman explained, and it will all be over. “Just you wait.”

The attendant, large and dark-skinned like seemingly all of them on staff at the facility, with names Flora Mae could not remember or even pronounce if her life depended on it, bugged her eyes like one of the comedians on TV. “You think anybody could mess with Christmas? It’s the birthday of our Lord and Savior. Woman,” she added under her breath, low and mean, and don’t think it wasn’t noticed. “Now, you not gonna start up with all that mess again today. Enough.”

Flora Mae Harkin harrumphed with her own brand of vicious, biting scorn. “I’ll start up if I please,” she stated, sneering and looking down her nose. “Woman.”

The attendant’s hard stare broke, and she chuckled in a sad and pitying manner that rubbed Flora wrong all over again. “Listen, Missus Harkin, when you go to the common area later—and you know the doctor wants you to get up and move around some, if you can—I want you to look all round at that room, and then I want you to look out yonder on the great lawn, and then when I see you later this afternoon, I want you to tell me what all you seen in those places, all the decorations, the tree, the wreath on the door. Then try to tell me somebody taking Christmas away. Sometimes I wish they would,” she added, prompting Flora Mae to turn on the bed best she could. “I work harder during the holidays than any other time. It supposed to be about relaxing and family, but I tell you what, sometimes I don’t know what it all about.”

Flora Mae grimaced and rolled over with some difficulty, then pulled herself up on one knobby elbow. The brief effort of speaking seemed to tire her. Moaning, she lay back and kept her eyes closed. “Christmas,” she said, a solitary word that seemed not so much to roll off her tongue and scamper over her gums and dry tongue like a spider escaping a hole in a fence, followed by one of its tiny children: “No.”

#

After the sponge bath, the attendant finally gave Flora Mae some peace. But once alone, instead of relief she felt only the cold, empty indifference of perpetual ennui, the sun rising and racing across the sky and night again and sun and naps and meals and the bed and the TV. Yes, there were people all around, but it wasn’t the same as having family in the house. Folks you could trust.

Maybe Hort would appear this afternoon, as he sometimes did in the waning light when the sun made its way over the building and cast the red rays of sunset into Flora Mae’s room. She dozed all day waiting for that light, which didn’t always come. It had to rain sometime, she supposed. And be cloudy.

To pass the time she tried to read, but the words in the magazines and that rag of a town newspaper were but a confused jumble. She squinted at the talk shows and the stories on the television for an hour—or longer—but they all were insipid to the point of bland incoherence. She flipped through the channels; the programs she occasionally settled on made precious little sense to her from scene to scene.

She finally let the remote control fall to the floor with a clatter, not caring if she ever used it again. She stared out the window. She breathed in and out, but it was more in service of a sigh than in getting oxygen to her thin blood.

 

#

The next morning, Flora Mae decided that as soon as The Price is Right went off she’d break up the day by calling her son,DeWayne, who she figured would now be sitting at lunch in the diner of the woman named Louella, right there on the town green along with the other few downtown merchants. She wondered, sometimes, if her DeWayne didn’t eat at Louella’s so often because of its proximity to the town’s wretched watering hole, a place of sin and degradation called The Dixiana. Flora Mae Harkin wouldn’t have set foot in that awful place even if her hat was on fire and Chief Bolden was standing beside his red fire truck informing her that the last spoonful of water on earth was to be had there inside that sordid honkytonk. She’d burn up, yes she would.

Lord, how that boy of hers drank. There were times that with all of his running around he plum worried her to death. It was going to catch up with him. Things like carousing always did, one way or another. People either wound up with little babies they didn’t want, or sick, or in the ground.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. 

“Hey, Mee-Maw,” a tired voice answered. “G’morning to you—or afternoon, I reckon.”

“Son?” She spoke with a pitiable quaver. “I didn’t catch you while you was eating, I hope,” she fibbed. She knew if DeWayne was sitting in the corner booth at Louella’s in the midst of a broasted chicken basket or an Arkansas Traveler with country gravy, he’d at least be still long enough for her to get a few words out of him. “If I did, I sure am sorry.”

“Mama, I love talking to you, but I sure wish we could do it after lunch every time instead of during.” DeWayne’s cadence and tone were dull like an old, tarnished butter knife at the back of the silverware drawer. “This here’s the only time I got to myself all day.”

“Well, mercy me—I didn’t realize the time.” A moment of silence. “What’s Louella got good today?”

He sounded rote in response, like a teenage cashier saying thank you and come again. “It’s Tuesday, so pork chops, flounder, baked ziti . . . you know.”

“Ziti? Do what?”

“Ziti, Mee-Maw—it’s little pasta tubes, with marinara and cheese.”

Tubes?” She sounded disgusted. “I can’t halfway understand you, son. I sure hope you ain’t been drinking in the middle of the day again.”

“Like macaroni,” he said weakly. “And, I’m not drinking, and don’t know why you’d think I would be.”

“Don’t you smart off at me,” she said, snappish and brusque. “God durn your hide, Horton Harkin.”

DeWayne again fell silent, then fairly growled at her the way he would when he’d been boozing. “I told you we’d be by tomorrow or the next day for a good long visit, didn’t I, Mee-Maw? Now let me eat in peace. Go visit with your friends in that common room. Take lunch in there with all them.”

“I was just wanting to talk to you so much that I didn’t consider the time.”  Her heart squeezed and she felt guilt.

She held the phone away from her face and cleared her throat of the thick mucus therein—she just couldn’t abide it when someone called her and immediately started hacking and bellowing into her ear like a dying bull, so she certainly didn’t want to do that to her son. Sometimes Hort would call and start sputtering and going ack-ack into the receiver, and when he did, Lord, it made her just about mad enough to spit nails.

“Well, I’m sorry. I was just so lonesome and all. And I’m . . . so worried about what alls going on out there.”

“What you worried ’bout now?”

“Well . . . this whole Christmas mess.”

Static crackled over the phone. “Mee-Maw,” he said, though she heard it each time as Mama, “not that again.”

“They just gonna do away with it all this year, finally.” Her voice broke. “Like it all ain’t bad enough in the world, with them Russians in Cuba and niggers sitting at the same durn lunch counters as white children and . . . sometimes I think I’ve just lived too long. Too long for this world.”

“The Russians,” he said, laughing. “They’re our friends, now. Has a doctor seen you lately?”

“President Eisenhower, no, I mean President Kennedy, he was on the TV just the other night and he said, he said . . .” She smacked her lips, groping for what the President had said. “He said them Russians are piling into Cuba right now. Your Daddy is fit to be tied, mister, let me tell you what. Just last night he sat down and wrote a letter to the Edgewater Advocate and the Columbia Record about it all.”

“Cuba,” DeWayne said. “Okay. Maybe when I’m there I can talk to one of the doctors about what’s going on with you. What we can do.”

“P’shaw,” she sputtered. “Them’s the main ones, them rich doctors. You think they give a whit about Christmas, and family? You think they care what it means to celebrate Christmas? They don’t give a good god-durn about nothing but them damn golf clubs in the trunks of their Cadillacs.”

Golf disgusted Flora Mae; Hort had taken it up after he retired from the power company, spending his golden years playing often with the other reasonably well-to-do old men up at that ‘god-durn’ country club, as Flora Mae thought of the place. She couldn’t stand to set foot in there herself, no ma’am, not with that bunch of snooty old crows worrying about who all was looking at them to admire their finery and expensive hairdos. But then, she’d hated sitting at home all afternoon with nothing but the stories on television for a companion. What was she supposed to do, though, run up and down the road like a teenager after school? It wasn’t dignified.

“Mama,” DeWayne said, “I tell you what. I promise I’m gonna come by there tomorrow for lunch. I’ll bring us both something good to eat, something from home. How’s that sound? Good?”

“I’d rather have something from Louella’s,” she pouted. “That Abby of yourn couldn’t find her way around a kitchen stove if her life depended on it.”

“Now, that ain’t true, and you know it.”

“Is too.” If you asked Flora Mae, half the time she thought that her son’s wife, coming from over in Columbia like she had, acted like she was too big for her britches. The day DeWayne had walked in with that hussy Abby—no, her name was Laurie, that was it—and her boobs just a-bouncing around under that T-shirt, Flora Mae knew her baby boy was in trouble.

Then: Flora Mae had no idea why DeWayne even brought Laurie up. Wasn’t she dead?

And: Wasn’t DeWayne dead, too?

She pish-poshed and p’shawed. It was all just something she’d seen on those lurid TV stories.

Citing his desire to finish lunch, DeWayne made to ring off, promising a visit like he always did. Flora Mae Harkin reluctantly hung up. She stared at the phone for a while, wondering if it might ring. It did not. She wondered if her son were drinking away the day, again. If it all was a lie.

She thought about calling her daughter next, but didn’t, because DeWayne’s sister Emma Jane wasn’t much more sympathetic to Flora Mae’s concerns. Emma Jane, like DeWayne, ran around far too much. Peas in a pod. She hadn’t a clue where they’d gotten it from—maybe it was just the times. The world outside Edgewater County seemed to have gone crazy, with men wearing their hair long and women with their bodies on display and those awful wailing guitars in the music, like souls crying out, or demons. Christmas-hating demons. DeWayne had gone away at Christmas. He’d come back—why, she just talked to him—but when she remembered that it made her stomach hurt, and she worried about things that were not under her control.

After hours had passed—it was only minutes, but to her seemed much much longer—she finally dozed off and before she knew it, it was five o’clock, and time for another bland dinner and to look at Wheel of Fortune in the common room.

#

DeWayne Pullman hung up with his grandmother and felt a grim combination of guilt and annoyance—at certain times he wanted to take his iPhone and chunk it into Jensen’s Pond. He dug back into his cooling blue plate special, which today consisted of pork chops, mustard greens and fried squash. A square of cornbread, a pat of butter half-melted on top; his iced tea sat sweet as pancake syrup, his third glass.

He chewed and mused, waving to people that came and went from the bustling lunch buffet. DeWayne hated the fact that he was saddled with such responsibility, these daily, confused phone calls. He tried to be a good grandson to his enfeebled forebear, but when they started to slip away like his grandmother obviously had, it was a burden.

If it weren’t for him, though, who would pay any attention to the old woman at all? Now that granddaddy was dead, and with his no-good mother being the person she was, the responsibility pretty much fell to him—the only other possibility, an uncle, had also long expired, but the man for whom he’d been named had been little more than a shiftless drunk who’d met his end in a car accident that’d killed his young wife as well. All before DeWayne’s time; no help.

No-good mother, another tippling boozehound—it was time for one of his special calls where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to put her in her place. To make her see.

Wouldn’t be easy: Shacked up with yet another new lover, this one a well-to-do contractor who lived on a good-sized spread out past the country club, almost all the way over in Chilton closer to the lake country, she said her drinking couldn’t be all bad, as she’d snagged a real big fish this time. Goody for her, DeWayne thought. Having crested the knoll of fifty, Emma-Jane Harkin’s inveterate carousing was the singular aspect of her troubled personality upon which one could count, and maybe this one would settle her skinny ass down, at least long enough for her to spend time dealing with the grandmother issue.

After several rings, his mother answered in her froggy, groggy, million-billion cigarette voice; the tone of her scratchy words came as low as that of a burly lumberjack’s, but then she hacked a few times and managed to clear her clicking valves.

Ack-ack. “Hey there, sugar—oh, me, what time is it?” 

“Mama, you still in bed?” DeWayne, disgusted, unable to mask this. “It’s almost one o’clock.”

“Well, I ain’t got to keep to your schedule, boy.” Ack-ack. “I ain’t got to keep to no one’s, you hear?”

DeWayne said yeah-yeah. Braced against the December wind, he stood out on the sidewalk in front of Lucinda’s diner—most people, even those not in states of dementia like his grandmother, still called it Louella’s even though she had sold off the eatery ages ago, and worse, had died last year—listening to the clicking of his mother’s lighter again and again, and cursing under her breath as he supposed she tried getting the first of the day sparked up. “You are your own woman. And all.”

DeWayne’s gaze danced across the town green and settled on the front door of The Dixiana, and at that old codger Rabbit Pettus shuffling in to unlock the front door and work the afternoon shift with the sad old redneck drunks sitting all day and chawing and shooting the poop. DeWayne ran the back of his hand across his lips and thought about having a quick, cold one, but he didn’t drink much any more, not now that he was done with college. His Abby’d kill him if she knew he sometimes had a quick, cold Miller High Life with the oldtimers who hung out during the day at the old honkytonk.

The way his uncle had drunk himself to death, though, DeWayne—he was named for the man—knew he needed to watch himself: They said it ran in families, and the Lord knew that, as her own deceased sibling had been, his mother presented as yet another familial cautionary tale.

He reflected on his own marriage and the role alcohol had played: while he and Abby were both from Edgewater County, they hadn’t met until at Southeastern University, but not in class or even on campus: instead it’d been in a bar, in the Irish pub down in the Old Market near campus, on what they called Pint Night, all the draught beer half price, a tradition among the students of the huge school. Abby, petite and sweet and dark-eyed, just a hair under five feet, so small that in some shoes she took children’s sizes. Teenage men were attracted to her, thinking her to be as young as they; old men thought her younger still. DeWayne had loved her since they were both nineteen, ten years ago now. They’d been soused the first time they made love, but it had still been wonderful and perfect and love it had become for real. That’s about all the good alcohol had done him, though.

And furthermore, there’s no way he should risk having a quick snort at the bar: he had to be careful around his big boss at the plant, a pious man named Edward E. Knox, who, too, would shit a brick if DeWayne came back to work smelling of booze, especially since DeWayne was considered a golden boy in the engineering department. He was going places, supposedly, even if it seemed to him that he was taking a step backward by coming straight back to Tillman Falls after college the way he had . . . but Abby, his lovely and true high school sweetheart, wanted to stay close to her own family and once you got married you had to do things the other person wanted to do even if you didn’t really. Even if it involved coming back home. Already.

He didn’t mind. He had gotten a good job, at a great starting salary—they were even going to sport him on paying for his master’s—and he and his best girl lived in a nice starter home, one of the new ones in a subdivision near the interstate, an enclave of single family homes that sported its own ten-acre, man-made lake. Tillman Falls was a good place to grow up, a good place to live. Almost everything felt right to DeWayne. Almost.

“Well, what is it, son? You don’t need no money, I hope.” He could hear his mother exhale smoke, could imagine the blue cloud and the shafts of sunlight through a window—the image a familiar one that’d accompanied all his childhood breakfasts, at least the ones his mother arose in time to experience alongside her boy. “’Cause I ain’t got none right now. And I can’t ask Wade.”

“If I needed money, you think I’d ask you? Really.”

His daddy Kirby had some money, though DeWayne had tried hard not to ask his dad for help, even though such assistance had been offered to him on numerous occasions. Kirby Pullman had done well with the stationary store which is what they used to call places that sold office supplies, but these days he lived in fear of something like Office Depot opening up near the highway, out where the home improvement store and Hampton’s car dealership were located, and he spent his days worrying about going out of business and having ten more years until Social Security started. Not enough call for office supplies in a place like Edgewater County, though.

DeWayne and his dad were good friends; they always had been. After the way his mother had behaved, how could he not have sided with his father?

“Mama—you going to see Mee-Maw today?”

“Nuh-uh,” she rattled and ack-acked. “Why?”

DeWayne explained in measured tones that the eldest of their family line had called him—again—and that he couldn’t abide being the caretaker, not when it was his mother’s job to do so. She didn’t work, for god’s sake, but he didn’t need to point that out. Not again.

Emma Jane Harkin, having none of it. “I ain’t got time to be traipsing back and forth up highway 79 every day waiting on her. What we paying all that damn money for?”

“You don’t mind riding over and sitting your ass on some bar stool all night. Every night.”

She told him to mind his damn business. To get his butt off his shoulders. Like he was better and smarter than her. He wasn’t. She said this.

“Mama—I know it ain’t easy. That she’s not the same. But it’s getting to be Christmas time.”

Emma Jane fell quiet but for clearing her throat a few times. “I know it is. I know.”

“She ain’t gonna be around forever.”

“Ain’t none of us is, son.” She laughed, huh-huh-huh, as though the acknowledgement of their shared mortality an ironic joke. “We all going to the same place.”

Hah, thought DeWayne. Keep believing that.

Enough. “Lookit, don’t you worry your little peabrain about her, or anything—you just keep on with whatever you’re doing, just like you always done.” At moments of high stress his voice broke like that of an adolescent, though it only seemed to happen when he was talking to his no-good mother. He stopped himself from calling her a slut and a drunk—self-evident, this. “I’ll go. I’ll take her some decent food. It’s what she keeps asking for.”

He endured his recalcitrant mother’s standard speech, coming after her aghast and aggrieved response to the impertinence of being called a peabrain. “Ever since you come back from that damn University, you walk around like your shit don’t stink. Well it does, son.”

DeWayne, ending the call with a trembling touch of his index finger to the screen, its protective layer smudged by pork chop grease: bloop.

Going to his car, he realized he’d been holding his ribs tightly, as he had done back when he was nervous while taking exams. He didn’t know why it was all getting to him today—nothing ever seemed to change with his mother. If any of this was new or a surprise, he’d like to know how.

#

Emma Jane cobbled together a second Bloody Mary, l’il stronger, and smoked her third cig and lolled around on the big bed and looked out the big windows at the big backyard for a while. She flipped through a hundred channels or so on the widescreen television then skimmed through an out of date In Touch magazine, chortling derisively at the antics of crazy old Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, as well as one of the rich, dumb Durango twins, Maddie or Vangie, the one who was getting so skinny she looked like a living skeleton climbing in and out of her New York City limousines, her head and feet way too big for her sticklike body.

Ice clinked in her glass and the sanguineness of the bevvie became diluted. She smoked and yawned and took a Zantac, one of Wade’s 150s, washing it down with ice water that made her stomach hurt worse than the vodka.

She thought about what her son had said, scoffed. She had herself another BM, a hair-of-the-dog bracer that was more M than B. It was two-thirty; she knew she had time to go over to the nursing home before Wade got home, but she just couldn’t bear the tiresome burden of it all. She’d go tomorrow.

She went downstairs into the shimmering beautiful kitchen which’d been left a bit of a mess, dirty plates stacked on the island and in the sink, skillets, pots, like college students living there. Wade’s ex-wife had been an accomplished decorator and cook, real handy in that way, but since the day Wade had caught her with a mouthful of his business partner’s high hard fella in the back seat of her Ford Expedition, it had been Wade’s beautiful kitchen, and his alone. Wade had called it the moment he’d been waiting for, ten long years since he’d decided he didn’t love the hag anymore—he didn’t care how many guys came in her mouth, worth it to be rid of the nagging ninny. Said for all he cared a hundred niggers could take turns unloading up her chocolate slide, and making the filthy thrusting motion and bugging his eyes and lips out and making a real show of it, especially down at the bar when he really got going. Have her, he said. Go to town, boys.

Emma Jane belched and said hey-hey, lighting another cigarette and thinking that she liked Wade’s moxie and big way about everything, even how he put down his ex. This Wade Bonner? Oh, yeah—she planned to hold onto Wade like a wide receiver catching the big pass in the last few seconds of the game. Despite what her smart-mouth son thought, she was no dummy. Here was a gal who wasn’t getting no younger, though on most days she managed to avoid admitting and went on rockin’ and rollin’ and partying hard as any kid, hard as she always did. Word to that.

On most days. Sometimes the word was shit. She suffered some guilt here and there about things that she might or might not have done through the years, yeah she did and drank it away. Her mother’s precipitous downturn in the last few months hadn’t helped much—half the time the old bitch didn’t know her, and that only made it worse because now Emma Jane’d never get the chance to have her one and true and final say over slights and insults and other grievances, not and have it matter. The more her mother had said no, the more Emma Jane had had to prove herself capable of deciding whether yes the better answer. And doing so, again and again. Deciding. Nobody’d ever taken advantage of her, but, boy howdy, what she had wrought through so many little boy-hearts.

In retrospect, it seemed that she’d made her journey of discovery with a hundred different lovers: She dated them from Byrnes High School and the Tillman Military Academy and from as far away as places like Andrew Jackson and Spring Valley, which was near Columbia; yes, she dated them, but Emma Jane did oh-so-much more than just date, she did anything that those boys wanted, and liked doing it. Liked messing around with dicks, liked comparing them—a wide range! astonishing—and noting the effect she had on them and their owners.

By her junior year, she’d acquired a real reputation; by her senior year, she’d not only gotten an abortion over in Columbia, but had also been in an alcohol-related car accident that had killed the driver, a boy she’d been giving a handjob as he raced down old and twisty River Road, and which ought to have broken her neck, too, but hadn’t, and for which the Harkins had been oh-so grateful, Emma Jane none the least. God looks after drunks and little kids, someone once said; Emma Jane lived her life by that credo, then as now. It hadn’t worked out that way for her brother, but that was another story.

She marked the passage of time by the wrinkles on her face, by the dryness of her womanhood even in moments of ostensible arousal, by the shaking of her hands and the ever-worse hangovers, by the spider veins and circles of callous on her narrow heels, which accumulated with each passing year like rings inside a tree stump and that the grunting Vietnamese (or whatever the hell they were) pedicurist could scrape with an iron file till bloody, it seemed, and would be dry and crusty again in a day, especially in the winter and the last thing she wanted were crusty old woman’s heels propped up on big Wade’s shoulders. Time. And more, stacking up. An old woman in a home, withering and pestering people on the phone. Time could fuck itself—now, another Christmas was coming up, which meant another year over and done. New Year’s—now, there’s a depressing holiday for you, Emma Jane said to no one: the start-all-over holiday. January, definitely the saddest month. Always lists to make and crud to fix. Hard stuff to fix. Impossible. What had time given her but problems and issues and no-good asshole men coming and going, literally, and now another bracer and flipping through to catch the last few minutes of Oprah.

A wave of nausea rolled through her stomach, through her very soul. She prayed that her mother would pass on peacefully, and soon. She puked up into the back of her throat a little bit, washing some of the ice water around and then drank again, belched sharp against her throat, but no acid-puke this time.

She wondered if she shouldn’t have stayed married to Kirby, who was a good enough man, if a bit of a dullard. That had been her one shot at settling down, at giving up on her life of ‘running around’ as her mother had put it with such disdain—but that shot was blown but good, and a long time ago at that. She’d fucked and sucked her way through the marriage as though she were still a single girl, getting it whenever and wherever she could—humiliating, if only he knew the true extent. How many whom he still numbered as colleagues or friends. Oh, the shameless and feckless lot of them. The only surprise had been just how long it had taken poor, dumb Kirby to figure out that it was going on right under his nose. She felt love and pity for her husband. Missed him sometimes. He would cook for her.

She fixed another bracer, stared out into the sloping backyard toward the pine barren that lay beyond and pondered whether she could get away with skipping the visit to the nursing home after all. The old woman probably wouldn’t notice anyway.

How much longer, now, Mama? How long? Everybody’s got shit to do. We’re all still young.

#

The days—weeks?—went by, the children still didn’t call or visit like they should, and Hort was gone most of the time too, spending every minute, or so it seemed to Flora Mae, out on the damned golf course shaving points off his handicap, whatever that foolishness meant—men and their games. And when he wasn’t on the links, he sat there in the chair across from her, smacking his lips and sucking his teeth and clearing his throat, every god-durn habit of his that drove her straight up the wall. Hort.

In spite of it all, though, on most days she was glad to see him—he was all she had, after all, besides the colored girls who looked after her, and it wasn’t as though she could think of them as family, for heaven’s sake. But still, she got so fed up, however, in those moments when Hort was irritated over the whole business about Christmas, who pooh-poohed her like everyone did.

He cleared his throat—loudly—and rocked back in the chair. His legs were crossed; one skinny calf dangled over his knee, exposed by a pant leg that had gotten hiked up. Hort had become as thin as a rail, but for most of his life he’d always been strapping and robust, at least prior to his seventieth birthday. All that hoofing around at the country club had made him skinny.

“One of these years, it’s just going to be over and done with,” she finally said, trying to get his attention before his form faded into the coming dusk.

“What is, sugar?” He rattled his paper and sucked his teeth.

Christmas,” she hissed, pounding her thigh. “Ain’t you been listening to me?”

“Mm-hm,” he replied with grave distraction. He peered out the window at the fading light. Gone. Gone off to his club and his game and his buddies.

She p’shawed to herself, flung a gnarled old hand, the fingers drawn by arthritis inward to the scaly palm. “Just go, then—just go, you old son of a bitch.”

#

DeWayne sat at his desk and rubbed his eyes and closed a few windows and threw a pencil up into the drop ceiling where it stuck there among a few others. On the way into work, he’d become compelled to drive by the old place—his grandparents’ former home—which was now owned by a thirtysomething couple who, like so many now living in the area, both commuted by day to work in Columbia.

The new owners had made all manner of changes and fix-ups to the property; DeWayne was pleased that they hadn’t started cutting trees down to keep from raking, or digging up shrubbery to keep from having to trim, or other crazy irresponsible shit that lazy younger people did when they bought old people’s houses. DeWayne had always felt older and more mature than his peers, as though from his grandfather’s generation. Men he could admire. Who’d served, who’d prospered and lived upstanding lives.

He’d sat there in his Jeep, taking in the yard, which lay in autumnal slumber, holiday decorations in all the yards but this one. When he closed his eyes, he could see the vibrant colors of the coming spring, and felt awash in childhood sense memories: the lavender and blue of the hydrangea, the whites and pinks of the azaleas clustered around the oak trees, the brilliant wine-red of the crepe myrtle blossoms. He remembered what seemed like a thousand-thousand warm and careful afternoons spent there in the yard. He could smell steaks cooking on the grill, as they had on every Sunday afternoon for most of his childhood. After his parents’ divorce, he had spent a great deal of time here during the weekdays as well; when his own mother had descended into her slack and profligate ways, it had fallen to her parents—and of course his own father—to take up the slack.

Clinging to the past—happier times, innocent times. He knew better. You’ve got to live in the now, a roommate once told him. Even if it sucks.

“Look like you’s got a world-class hangover, son,” Loris Mullins said as he loomed in the doorway with a Styrofoam cup of the turbid, crappy swill that passed for Sugeree River Nuclear Station cafeteria coffee. “Got a real head on you last night, I betcha. All you young guys party-hardy, don’t you?”

“Oh—” DeWayne said, sitting up with a start. “I wish, beau. Just—just, a headache, unfortunately. Garden variety.”

Loris Mullins was DeWayne’s superior, but he wasn’t a hard-on or a hard-ass or a hard-anything, not like Edward Knox. Loris was an okay guy, a regular guy. He liked DeWayne. Loris was one of the ones who thought that DeWayne was going places, and far from being threatened by the young man’s intellect, unlike some at the Sugeree River Nuclear Station, DeWayne could count Loris among those pleased by his youthful coworker’s potential and knowledge rather than threatened.

“How’s your grandmama doing?”

DeWayne blew out his lips. “Not so good, Mr. Mullins. Not so good at all. Nothing to be done, of course. A slow fade.”

“Heard that.” Mullins slapped his hard, ample gut and belched coffee-breath into DeWayne’s small office. “Them croakers said Daddy wouldn’t last six months, but he fought and suffered and hung on for five years. Five years. God-aw-mightee if he didn’t. Hating every minute.”

“Were you relieved? When he passed?”

Mullins shot a hard and raw look at DeWayne Pullman. “Shit. My back hurt, too, where his cancer was growing. It was the damndest thing.” He sipped coffee, changed the subject, moved on down the hall.

DeWayne considered the semi-lucid conversations he’d had of late with his grandmother, all about the wanton ways of her daughter. The ire the two shared for Emma-Jane Pullman neé Harkin’s behavior seemed the equivalent, almost, of Loris’s shared cancer pain—a kind of shared-shame and disdain that indeed nettled and even physically hurt, somehow. But eff that, he thought. DeWayne no longer cared what his mother did or who knew it or how it reflected on anything, he only needed some help, and so did his grandmother.

#

Heeey, Mama—how you doin’?” She sounded like a New Jersey goombah—they’d spent the entire day and a night drinking and screwing and watching a Sopranos DVD set somebody had given Wayne at a Christmas party. “Whatcha know good?”

Flora Mae’s voice came hoarse, barely above a tortured whisper. “Hey, darling. I sure hope you’re coming to see me today.”

“Mama, izz already nighttime—I, I can’t come now.” Her stomach twisted and roiled and lapped a brackish tide at the back of her teeth, but Emma Jane felt no less plowed and happy that her head was spinning in that fine as wine way, when all felt at peace and anything was possible, which came when she got about halfway through the bottle. It had been a whole week, now, and a number of bottles since DeWayne had castigated his mother regarding her behavior concerning her lonesome, dying mother, but, hey, she’d finally called. “I’ll come on by tomorrow, or the next day, for sure. That’s a superduper promise, girlfriend.”

“Well, the next day’s Christmas Eve,” Flora Mae replied, aghast. “I would sure hope that you’d come and see me then, at least. Your daddy’s fit to be tied as it is about you young’uns. You know how he gets.”

Emma Jane was bewildered, not so much by the reference to her deceased father as she had come to expect such remarks from her mother, but by the fact that Flora Mae had asserted that the holiday loomed so imminently—Emma had no idea what day it was. Was it already the 23rd of December? The happy pillowy days all rolled into one. Last night, a blur: She and Wade had gone to The Dixiana for happy hour and shots and beers and then out to eat at the Seafood Shack, where Emma Jane had drunk one-dollar Coors Lights one after another while her boyfriend had gorged himself on buffet popcorn shrimp and crab legs and Coronas, and then home and into a few vodkas to help rinse out the grease from the buffet. For some reason, the heat and plenty of the food at the restaurant had made her feel queasy and guilty: Her father had loved eating at that buffet.

“What you want from me for—” Emma Jane cursed as she dropped her cigarette. She bent over to pick it up but the cherry had been knocked off, which along with an empty glass and the need to get off the phone presented another shitty development in her lousy happy pillowy life. “I mean, what you want from us, Wade and me, for Christmas, sugar?”

Flora Mae’s words, now, could be heard more forcefully. “I just want for there to still be a Christmas.”

“Well it ain’t like they gonna cancel it, Mama.” Emma chortled at the thought. “You been watching too much Bill O’Reilly and that other one. You and Wade both.”

“Just you watch,” her mother said. “One year, it simply won’t come.”

#

DeWayne and Abby had already been in the car on the way to the home when the person from the assisted living facility called. The couple had packed with them baked goods and gifts and new magazines for the common area, the ones Abby brought home from Dr. Williamson’s office where she worked as a dental hygienist, magazines she held in her lap, flipping through while DeWayne drove. And then the phone rang.

The couple, already terrified and elated at the news they carried—that very morning Abby had peed on the strip, and the two bars had appeared—and both reacted with grief at the report that Flora Mae was apparently dying. They wanted to tell her, DeWayne’s Mee-Maw, the news a Christmas gift sure to buck up his grandmother’s spirits—not only were her unseen malefactors demonstrably not, in fact, getting rid of Christmas, but now he had the most magical message of all: The gift of life, the knowledge that the wheel would continue to turn.

He’d been grinning from ear-to-ear when the phone had blipped at him, a siren-like ringtone he’d assigned to the nursing home number. He steered with one knee and cursed and rang off with them. Speeding them down the graying asphalt of Highway 79, Abby said what’s wrong what’s wrong slow down, and he explained. He called his mother.

By the time they got there, she’d gone, gone away, a frail husk left lying under the sheet, a cottony shrouded chrysalis bearing away the remains of his forebear, and DeWayne wept, wept not with relief at being free of her, but in grief for that childhood spent with this woman. His mother. His true mother, as he’d considered her. “Everything good about me came from you and Pa-Paw,” he said to the room, and Abby put her hand on his shoulder and comforted him best she could.

After her much-delayed arrival, at the sight of her son and of her mother’s body, Emma Jane wailed and fainted on the floor, and if it wasn’t an act DeWayne would be damned. He didn’t let Abby tell his mother about the baby, wouldn’t allow it, he’s said in a hushed rage-filled threat. Abby had looked frightened of DeWayne, maybe for the first time. He would have to explain. He would take back that look he’d had, that feeling of anger and violence. He’d put it away, like they were going to bury his grandmother, in the cemetery there next to her husband Horton Harkin.

#

The cell phone went off with its distorted ringtone, a low-fidelity version of the chorus from ‘Margaritaville’ that startled Emma Jane into a half-heart attack—as she stumbled out of bed and over to the dresser where her phone lay buzzing, her squeezing little ticker pounded and went flippy-floppy in her chest, which was peeling from where she’d lain out during that warm spell last week and gotten a sunburn. SON, the read out informed. Her head swam, the little glowing screen doubling and tripling.

She gurgled a greeting, and DeWayne sounded mean as a snake, telling her to get her ass over to the nursing home and that Mee-Maw was slipping away.

She staggered down the hallway, naked, toward the kitchen. Bashed her little toe on the leg of an occasional table one of Wade’s grandbabies had pulled out from the way last time that brood was running roughshod over the house, and mercy but his daughter had cut her eyes at Emma Jane the whole time, snapped at her the way DeWayne always did, and maybe it was something about their whole smartass little generation. “Damn you,” she barked into the phone, “I told you I’s coming over there later with fruitcake and Mama’s present, didn’t I?”

“There ain’t time for that.” DeWayne’s voice broke and it cut into her heart like a knife, made her remember with a startled yelp when he was little and Kirby was taking care of them and all was all right and before she started running around on him, on them both, really, when you thought of it, and she never had, not before right now, and this hangover was the worst she had had in a long long while. And now his voice and deepened and sounded like not her father, but her grandfather, a man dead fifty years and who had yelled at her one time as a toddler for running out into the traffic there around the town green in Tillman Falls. “She’s—she’s slipping away, they said. So get your skinny ass over there, woman.”

She told him she’d pull herself together, shower and put on makeup and get her things and then she’d be there, which made him all the madder and he hung up.

After the line went silent, for a few seconds Emma Jane thought it was only one of those pauses that you get on cellphones, that instance of cold, digital blankness before the person on the other end speaks up yet again. But then she looked at the screen, and it read Call Ended.

She shook her head at the time, at her condition, and at the supposed news from her worry-wort son. Wade had his grandbabies coming over later, and both were sure to be on a holiday rampage. A nightmare, in other words—Emma Jane had such a head on her today.

And now this.

As she surveyed the wrecked kitchen she was stunned to see that the half gallon of Grey Goose vodka they’d bought only two days prior sat on the granite countertop quite devoid of ethanol but for a trace. She had no memory of even coming back to the house the previous night. She felt a vague soreness ‘down there,’ which meant she and Wade had gone at it, but she had no clear recollection of such activity. Not only was he as big as a horse, but when he was drunk it sometimes took him up to an hour to finish. They’d be going every which way, pausing to turn on porno, giving him head for a while, fighting him off about getting himself backdoor action, which with a doorknob like his was like, no way, José.

Then, the headache thrummed into life, the bile lapped into the back of her throat, and she no longer required specific memories to fill in the facts of her behavior—she gagged and puked into the stainless steel sink she always forgot to Comet out at the end of the cleanup and over which Wade would yell at her and call her a dumbshit cow who couldn’t keep a kitchen if she tried, and that if she weren’t a good lay she would have been on the street a long time ago, but that wasn’t him that was the booze and afterwards he would cry sometimes and fuck her silly and none of it mattered, not even when he pushed her down and slapped her that one other time, a big man with a big slap and she’d gone end over end and bonked her head on the step and she had had double vision ever since, but hadn’t told anybody.

She gagged and heaved again, into a film of greasy bits of salmon and avocado and beans from the Southwestern meal Wade had put on for her while she made drinks and laughed and shot pool on table and looked out at the lake best she could through her vibrating double vision. She plopped down on a stool by the kitchen’s breakfast bar, her heart going flippy-floppy again. She got herself together as best she could—she smoked a cigarette, sat with her head in her hands, trembled, felt ill, tried to drink water, but started coughing and ended up spitting it up all over Wade’s wife’s sink again. A good start on cleaning it, which she would need to do after getting herself together and before she rode over to the nursing home.

She shook and thought about a bracer and went to get some orange juice, just a swallow or to to complement the swallow or two in the bottom of the bottle—a bit more, really, almost a finger, which in that half-gallon would make one or two little bracers and maybe a pack of Nekot cookies or Nip-Chee crackers would make a decent enough stomach on her for a drive. She would come back and help Wade feed everyone. And clean out the sink. She would not forget, even if they got to the bottom of another big handle of vodka tonight, which if people came over they might and would and could.

She went into the master bathroom. Wade was still passed out flat on his back like he’d been for hours, snoring like a rusty lawnmower. His thing stuck up like a flagpole under the sheet. A man-machine. She felt raw at the thought.

Her complexion, sallow—without her make-up, she looked fifty going on decrepit and shriveled and there was all those days spent laying out, writ large across her face. Years and lines and nights gone by, oh my.

She thought about it being Christmas, and about her brother DeWayne up in heaven, her sweet baby brother for whom she’d named her sweet sweet baby boy. God, how she had looked up to DeWayne when she was little. The year he died Christmas had been the worst one she could ever remember, except maybe the first one after the divorce, when she had had to drop her baby off at Kirby’s house and just leave him there to have his Christmas morning apart from his mommy.

It had never occurred to Emma Jane before that it was right after her brother had been killed when she herself had gotten wild—DeWayne Harkin had been shot in the head over nothing: a watch, a fifth of Henry McKenna, a few crumpled bills in his wallet. Some of the light had gone out of her parents’ eyes that holiday season. Once she started acting out that next year, she realized that the light had never really come back, except, maybe, the year after her own little DeWayne had come along.

She was dizzy, again, and sat down on the toilet, holding her temples with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. She would take a couple of Tylenol, lie down for a while, then shower and try to eat those crackers and have those bracers and get on her way. Her mother had been dying for ages; the old coot would surely wait until after Christmas to go, since the holiday was such a big fricking deal to her.

–end–

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

2 Replies

  1. Angel Prosser

    Don, my man, you sure can write. This story was the first thing I encountered when I turned Face Book on. I was hooked by the second line; you undoubtedly have a knack for reality. It always amazes me how you are able to be so accurate in the way people of all walks of life think and act. One day I bet you will be one of the famous authors with a little exposure. I truly enjoy reading your writing and am glad you share it with all of us.
    Merry Christmas Dmac…and much love to you and Jenn! angel

    1. Thank you so much, Angel. Many holiday blessings to you and your family!

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