December 31, 2010
I know people that still live on my old street, and occasionally one of them will send me a picture of whatever Dad is doing at the house. This time he stretched a banner across the second floor of the house proclaiming JESUS CHRIST THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. There was a string of lights along the top, illuminating the sign like a Broadway marquee. Then he constructed an elevated platform on stilts to house his nearly life-sized Nativity scene. Then he installed speakers up in the trees and had wires running from them into the house, where he was spinning records of Gregorian chants. You could see and hear the house a quarter-mile away.
Dad was hunched over the DVD player when I walked in, trying to get A Christmas Carol to work. His eyes crawled over my shoulder and he asked me if I was alone. I made a show of looking around to see if I was surrounded by ghosts.
“I hope I’m alone,” I said.
“I hope not,” Dad replied. “Didn’t you get my orders?” He’d left me a message to bring along Mom or Mary or anyone else from the family, even if I had to beat them over the head and drag them with me.
“Well, they know how to get here if they want to come,” I said. “I can’t drag anybody.”
“Sure you can,” he chuckled. I just rolled my eyes. But since nobody came with me, he made a surprise visit at my aunt’s house the following night. Dad knew Mom and I went there by tradition every year, and he showed up at twenty after midnight. He walked inside, stood in front of her chair and said, “If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, then the mountain will come to Mohammed.”
He had a six-pack of O’Douls with him and I noticed that two were missing already. “Did you drink two of them on the way over?” was the second thing I said to him after, “Happy New Year’s.” He didn’t seem to appreciate that, because I’m sure there was a bite of truth in what I said. And it was just as well that Bill had to work and couldn’t make it, because if Dad walked in and saw him sitting there laughing and carrying on, that would have sent him off the deep end.
My aunt was funny though. She asked Mom if she should get rid of Dad. “If you tell me you don’t want him here I’ll kick his ass out,” she said. Mom told her it was okay, so my aunt went into the kitchen where Dad was cracking open one of his beers. “Okay, John, you have my permission to stay.”
“I need permission to stay?” I heard him ask.
“Yes,” my aunt declared. “It’s my house – if I don’t want you here I’ll tell you to get the hell out of here,” she said. Then she started needling him to “stand up straight and stop saying stupid-ass shit.” Oh, it was great. He sat down with us in the living room for a few minutes before we all moved into the dining room to have some lasagna and cold cuts. My cousin and I traded jokes (I wrote some of his down), and Dad started reeling off his century-old Prairie Home Companion one-liners.
Sprinkled in here and there were more of his usual dumb remarks, and every now and then he just sat there at the table looking downcast. I’m sure he was crying into his beer after we left, because Mom just gave him a little wave and said goodbye. He stood there looking she had slapped him in the face instead. I guess he was expecting a hug and kiss? But she can’t do that without giving him “false hope,” which he’d accused her of doing in the past.
As we were leaving I heard him say, “Sorry for spoiling your evening.” Before I closed the door behind me I heard my aunt’s final retort:
“Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not that important that you’re going to spoil anything.”