Christmas Eve 1965

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Lex Williford is founding director of the online MFA program at University of Texas at El Paso and chairs UTEP’s on-campus bilingual creative writing program. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Southern Review and Prairie Schooner. Coeditor of the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, Williford’s book Macauley’s Thumb won the 1993 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and his chapbook, Superman on the Roof, won the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Press Flash Fiction Award. This story appeared in Water~Stone (Fall 2016).

The first Christmas Eve after my kid brother Jesse died, I was eleven.

He’d fallen into his first coma almost two years before—a sickness of the blood, our mother told us—and he’d died just after his third birthday.  My best friend Kenny Ryffe had just shown me the terrible truth about Santa—unwrapped presents hidden in closets all over his house.  I was fierce in my belief till the end, but Kenny, a child of divorce early on, was a fierce skeptic by then, a full-time investigator into the deceptions of adults.

I was eleven and dead tired, the eldest of five who’d spent a lot of his time watching his other brother and sisters while our parents were shadows within shadows, driving to Wadley Clinic before work every other morning to donate their platelets just to keep their youngest son from bleeding to death a little longer.

I didn’t know it then, but I was in a lot of trouble, too, depressed like I’ve been for most of my life, all the classic signs—insomnia, anxiety attacks and the ability to smile convincingly in front of parents and other adults even when I felt that I’d been tossed into a deep, cold well, like the black-gumbo grave my brother lay in, his lips stiff and cold the last time I kissed him at St. Jude’s, cold as the freezing rain that fell the day we buried him at Restland in the dead of November.

My father was dead tired, too, walking around like a cold gust of wind through a just-opened door, sipping Johnny Walker Red half the night the few nights he came home, the ice in his smoky glass tinkling as he paced the dark hallway outside my bedroom door.

Christmas Eve of 1965, our mother laid out fudge and milk for Santa and put the kids to bed, and when my father held me back, I expected the worst—the bundle of switches he was always laughing about if we weren’t good that year—but he whispered, “Santa could use some help tonight,” and he smiled at me and winked, his eyes red-rimmed, and I smiled back at him, meeting him for the first time as an adult.

Andy Williams sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on my father’s RCA record player, and he and I sat on the living room floor, pliers and screwdrivers and unfolded directions scattered around our feet, and we put together a doll house for my sister Hanna and a red Murray bike with training wheels for my sister Maddie and we set up a train set for my brother Nate, the train clicking across a figure-eight of track.   Then we took down the presents hidden in the attic and wrapped them and stacked them around the bright-blinking tree, and I ate all the fudge and drank Santa’s milk and my father took me to bed.

“Santa’s big helper,” he said and kissed me, then stood a long time watching me, a shadow in my doorway, till I’d fallen asleep.

He and I mostly fought after that—over Nixon and Vietnam, over pot and my hair, which fell to my belt most of my teenage years, over Reagan and Bitburg and through all the Bush wars—and though I’d always wanted kids myself, I was too afraid to have them, afraid of the world men like him might leave them, afraid I’d do to them what he’d done to me, raising his voice and hand so many times it’s hard to remember, hard to forget.

A few years back, I called him—in his eighties and deep into the shadows of Alzheimer’s—and when I asked him if he remembered Christmas Eve 1965, he said he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.  “Christ, I can barely remember what happened yesterday,” he said.  Then he told me an old Texas Aggie buddy had died just the week before, someone he’d grown up with who’d gotten polio when they were both ten.  That was all a long time ago, my father said, and he’d spent most of his life trying to forget.  For him, forgetting wasn’t a curse but a gift.  For a short while, somehow Alzheimer’s made my father kind.

As I talked to him on the phone, my kids—Maddie, three, and Jesse, two—ran around our living room, laughing and screaming and chasing after each other.  They’re beautiful kids, really.  I’m not sure how they could be so beautiful coming from me, even my son Jesse, who’s as beautiful as my almost-perfect blonde, blue-eyed brother all those years ago, now about the same age as Jesse was when he fell into his first coma, just three days after Oswald shot JFK from the Texas School Book Depository.  Our kids came to me as a complete surprise, at a time in my life long after I’d accepted that I’d never have children, and I felt an indescribable tenderness every time I saw them, even if I’d just been away from them for an hour or two.

A few weeks later, on the eve of Christmas Eve, my wife and I drove the eleven hours east to Dallas, and for the last time, at 57, my hair almost as white as my father’s, I watched my son laugh in my father’s lap, while the old man growled and and blew raspberries into his belly.  In ten years, I’d be 67, I thought, my father long dead, lost in forgetfulness, and I might even be dead then, too, but seeing the old man laughing with my son as he’d laughed with his own son some fifty years before, I felt for just a moment that I was watching him and my kid brother again, finally come home for the last time.