Rituals I Can Live Without
Holidays. That festive time of year marked by Mom and Dad falling clumsily down the stairs. Propped up by tables of crackers and cheese. Too close to the punch bowl. Decorated like Christmas trees, lit up like cigars. Mom’s ruby smears rimming all the glassware.
Dad in a panic, eyeing his watery brown drink, hands me his half empty glass. “Freshen me up bartender,” he winks. At ten years old, I’m excited to be mixing drinks, so I pour him a hefty shot.
“Now that’s just fine,” he beams at his overflowing mug.
The doorbell rings and in walks Uncle Joe, who scoops me up in a too tight “hello.” He makes me ride his pumping leg like a circus pup while Aunt Mary counts wooden beads on her rosary.
I see the Beeson’s baby scramble out from under our scrawny tree, scratched up by festive pine and wrapped in a labyrinth of wires and lights. Tempting sockets. Mrs. Beeson’s busy with a drumstick. And I’m busy watching Cousin Dale who has a tic and steals. I find him in my room, buried in the closet, smiling big and suspicious, licking chapped lips.
Neighbor Elmer limps over on legs swollen with gout. He drags along a skewered pig in sugared sauce, and then slaps the overwrought delight under glass and sterno. A shivering mound of cherry jello glistens on a platter next to nose drips landing splattered on the table. And all this groveling in grub and chewy toothpicks, guzzling and sweating through layered cakes lasts for days. Like the long march to Bethlehem. Or was it Jerusalem.
On Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad stay up late, shaking shakers and scooping crushed ice. Wrapped up in yards of paper, cutting lemons, cutting fingers, cutting ribbons and tape. I shudder in my room under cozy flannel sheets, cowering against the wall, fearing another visit from Santa Claus.
At two a.m. a lurid cry drags me from my bed. I tip toe to the window, peering sideways through loose and dusty slats. Everything is still. The only sounds echo off walls of shiny tile from the subway’s concrete tombs. Rumblings. I wait and watch. Leaves rustle. Limbs twist and bend. And then the voices, growing louder. A car door slams. A brick spirals and crashes through the windshield, raining shattered glass. Another brick bounces off the trampoline hood, pelted by hollow hollers.
“Give me my phone.”
“I ain’t got your phone.”
“Give it back”
“Get your kids and get the hell out.”
The door shuts out the silence. The curtains zip up quick and tight. Just like the last nights. Its “lights out” and everyone is counting sheep, counting blessings in their sleep.
Dawn breaks a fresh and bright blue sky. Flashes of pink and yellow ribbons in neatly brushed hair. Red and lime green backpacks. An Easter parade of Mom and Dad and little ones march Steady-Eddie down the porch steps to the car, ready for school and church and movies and picnics.
“Just kick that brick out of the way Susie,” Mom says with a mini smile, careful not to split her cut lip. “Lay a towel over those shards and hop in my Billy boy.” Dad winces a wink from his shiny purple eye.
No Good Deed
“Sorry, I must have leaned on the bell.” Margie breathlessly choked out the words. “We’re storing these downstairs.” She added, pointing towards the basement between monumental gasps.
I was staring at my upstairs neighbors, Margie and Tina, on the landing outside my door, standing over a shipyard full of boxes. At this point, I’d managed only three hours of sleep after clocking a double at Porter Memorial. My next shift starts in four. Margie was wincing, favoring her right knee, and Tina had one hand in the middle of a wide orthopedic brace that was propping up her lower back. They’d managed to shove the boxes out onto the landing, but both were bent over, red faced and puffing hard.
And I was already contemplating… How the hell will these two get those boxes down that narrow staircase and into the storage locker, and most importantly, how long was it gonna take. It didn’t’ look good. Now I’m not a whole lot younger, but I am a back brace free dude about half their weight. Mostly, I needed sleep and I didn’t see another option. So I offered to help.
“Lifesaver, that’s all I got to say …,” Margie squealed. “Come on in while I look for the keys to the basement.”
Both “gals” completely disappeared into a minefield inside their apartment. There were stacks of books and magazines, unopened mail, dusty Christmas decorations and random bags from nearby “discount” stores. Much of the furniture was covered with huge piles of laundry, scattered like bales of hay. I wondered what the place looked like before they boxed up all the shit in the hallway. The upholstery was filthy to the point where I hesitated to even sit down. And it smelled like pee too…probably the dog…..maybe.
As feared, I sat and waited for way too long. I began to feel under appreciated, and my mind cycled through a series of whys, which morphed into fed up and disgusted. Where are they anyway!? I was hit hard with the flight instinct. But I talked myself down. I knew Margie and Tina were just “good people” and innocent neighbors. They’d both been out of work for a long time. In fact Tina just went back. Somehow, I turned it around to where I was feeling guilty.
Finally Margie reappeared with a big smile and a giant plate of oatmeal cookies. She handed me a sticky, very full glass of Orange Crush.
“I haven’t even had breakfast yet Margie.” I said.
“Think oatmeal and orange juice,” she grinned.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I shoved a cookie in my mouth. She flopped down into a crater on the couch, sending up a mushroom cloud of pee and dust that enveloped us both as she rattled on. As I listened, what I followed was the disconnect between thought and speech. I could see it on her face. I heard it in my own voice. Then she reached deep into her pocket and pulled out a tiny baseball bat key chain. She held it up and jiggled it triumphantly.
“Keys to the basement!” She beamed.
I felt like I’d already been there for hours. But now I was completely stuck, and totally conflicted. My mind flashed a déjà vu of the last tenant, Heather, who lived in the apartment before Margie and Tina. She’d been out of work too, and had severe fibromyalgia. I remember moving her boxes, and searching for missing keys… and a ton of cat hair. I was finding myself too familiar with the neighbors’ aches and pains, becoming more and more involved, usually while devouring a sausage and pepperoni pizza or Sloppy Joe’s, or in this case, oatmeal cookies.
In the end, it took most of the day to move the boxes. When I got back to my apartment, I fell onto the bed, achy and lethargic with a queasy stomach. I had to call off work, which negated the double shift. By this point I didn’t think I could sleep. I stood up, loosened my belt and felt my back and knee start to give as I hobbled over to the kitchen and opened up the fridge.
About the author:
Elizabeth McGuire is a writer and artist from Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Burningword, Hermeneutic Chaos, The Monarch Review, Molotov Cocktail among others. She is currently at work on her first novel. Every year she does a cross country road trip with her husband and their rat terrier, usually in the dead of winter.