Sunday, May 6, 2012

An Old Gold Christmas (Yes, I know it's May)

My father was a newspaper rewrite man, and he smoked Old Gold Straights, a brand of cigarette so harsh, hot, and brassy they made Chesterfields seem cool and smooth. He smoked them because none of the other deadline-frenzied, nicotine addicts on the City Desk would stoop to bumming an Old Gold. Not if any other brand were available. His strategy may have worked downtown, but it didn’t keep me from swiping an Old Gold and lighting up while I burned the family garbage behind the carport after supper. My parents were recidivist reproducers. There were four brothers, four sisters, and the two of them in the house. Burning the garbage was an opportunity to be alone, and I leapt at it. I would light the garbage, light an Old Gold off the same match, then stand upwind, tend the fire with an old rake handle, and contemplate my life in the glow and the stench. This Christmas story begins here, with me, fifteen, Old Gold hanging from my lips, rake handle in hand, contemplating Christmas-About-to-be-Present, recalling Christmases Past, doughy and petulant—a five-foot-seven, two hundred and fourteen pound Hamlet looking for something, anything, about which to brood. It was only mid-December, and already my traditional Holiday funk had set in. Christmas in a house with nine children was a practical affair—a less-than-magical celebration of new socks, new underwear, new, stiff-bristled, and Fuller Brush toothbrushes. To this day, I can’t hear Christmas music without hearing—ever-so-faintly—my mother on her portable Singer sewing machine knocking out Butterick Sewing Pattern flannel pajamas and night gowns in the middle of the night. On Christmas Eve night, when we opened our presents, there was that frenzy of unwrapping, followed by alternating waves of disappointment and self-recrimination. “…Rats… Nothing good again… I’m an ingrate… Rats… Nothing good… I’m an ingrate…” I had a two-page essay due in English the following week: “What Christmas Means to Me.” Christmas meant disappointment and a churlishly-heavy and selfish heart. Christmas meant feeling even more unhappy and misunderstood than usual. I squinted through the cigarette smoke, prodded chicken bones into the fire, and tried to shrug the funk away. Life wasn’t all bad. I had the Holiday Hop to look forward to. The theme was, “Wonderland by Night.” It was to be in the cafeteria. The posters were up in the halls, and, while I nursed a sullen apprehension about Christmas at home, I was eager to suspend disbelief about a dance in a room that smelled of canned government string beans, and stale milk, a room where, Monday through Friday, I spent twenty-seven frenetic minutes cramming down starchy carbohydrates at a table with three other doughy, gawky, fifteen year-old guys. Then there was that girl. There is always that girl. In this case, an unattainable vision in a bouffant hairdo, short skirt, and angora sweater, a sophomore from the fast-and-loose end of the school district. She held all the sophomore boys, most of the junior boys, and one or two seniors in thrall. Testosterone-addled, I, too was smitten. But there was no use asking her to the dance. That ship had long since sailed. Even if it had not, any number of more handsome, more worldly, and less tongue-tied young men were lined up ahead of me. I puffed my Old Gold. I mulled. I schemed. One dance with her. One long, slow dance. That was all I wanted for Christmas. One dance would put everything right with the world, and bestow serenity upon me—serenity I would need in order to accept the Christmas at home I could not change. I had an after school job at the local drugstore—a good and happy place with a five-stool soda fountain that was the town crossroads Sooner or later, everyone who was anyone, teen or grownup, dropped in for a phosphate, milk shake, or a soda. I count the drugstore the best place I have ever worked to this day. Mr. Wilson, the pharmacist who owned the store, was naturally jovial any time of the year—a William Powel Thin Man gone to seed. But he became as festive as Fezziwig at Christmastime. The sight of Holiday shoppers buying his Timex watches, Whitman Samplers, and perfume counter toiletries brightened his mood even more. He passed out free cigar counter cigars to the regular customers (the better the customer, the better the cigar). He accepted bottles of Holiday whiskey from jobbers and wholesalers who dropped in to wish him Merry Christmas. He slyly motioned doctors, businessmen, and any fellow Rotarian into the back room for a conspiratorial Holiday bump. This was my world that Christmas—the stage upon which my Holiday pageant would play out. Home to school. School to the drugstore. Drugstore to home. House to this smoky little fire behind the carport. One dance… One slow dance… One of perhaps six slow dances the girl’s gym teacher, the faculty advisor to the Holiday Hop Committee, would allow to happen. It would be three fast songs, then a slow one, three fast songs, then a slow one. I had ten days to shoulder my way to the front of the line. I flicked my Old Gold into the fire, and went into the house to finish my homework. Later, in bed, listening to two of my brothers snore, I decided I had to cultivate a bad boy image for her, and to cultivate it fast. I had to be troubled and aloof, and position myself where she could not help but notice me. The troubled and aloof part would be easy. I really was troubled and aloof. Adolescence and the prospect of another practical Christmas will do that to a guy. But how could I be troubled and aloof at a place and in a style where she might notice me? Or actually care? Beautiful, unattainable girls didn’t notice fat, troubled, aloof sophomore boys. Still, I had to try. I slipped out of bed, and down the hall to the living room, and I filched three Old Golds from the pack my father had left on the coffee table. The next morning, I arranged myself as aloofly as possible against a lamppost across the street from school, where she could see me as she got off her bus. I lit a cigarette. I posed with what I thought to be studied insolence. I leaned against the lamppost with one foot on the ground, and the other flat on the lamppost itself. I crossed my arms, and let the cigarette hang in the corner of my mouth. It was not great studied insolence, but it was good enough, and she saw me as she got off the bus. I tried to smolder as our eyes met, but the moment had passed. She disappeared into the building. The bell rang and I tossed the cigarette and ran for home room. Later, in geometry class, I began to affect a cough—an understated, persistent, dry chuff—little more than a perfunctory clearing of my throat. “Smoker’s cough,” I explained to the guys at the lunch table, hoping I could remain aloof and that they would carry word of my affliction to her during afternoon classes. She walked past with her lunch tray. I chuffed. After school, walking to the drugstore, I lit my second Old Gold. Her bus passed and I felt her eyes on me. I suppressed the thrill, and curled my lip into a bitter little sneer. I turned my jacket collar up, and tried to look more troubled and aloof than ever. That night, burning the garbage, I smoked the last stolen cigarette. I leaned on the rake handle and smiled to myself. The plan was beginning to work, For the next few days, I posed in her line of sight whenever possible. I was there, leaning against the lamppost, smoking, when she got off the bus. I leaned in doorways and against walls between classes. I leaned against bookshelves in the library, and against lab tables before biology, the one class we shared. My smoker’s cough went from affectation to habit. I had become an aloof, troubled, insolent, antisocial, overweight, young consumptive with some sort of balance problem. There is a fine line between romantic mystery and just plain weird in the male heart, a hormonally-blurred line that begins in one’s teenaged years and extends well into middle age, when passion down-throttles into something more reflective, serene and appreciative. At fifteen, though, romance and weirdness oscillate, overlap and masquerade as one another. Young men are left to figure this out for themselves. I was leaning within earshot of the Angel in Angora on the Wednesday before “Wonderland by Night,” leaning beside a fire extinguisher on a bare patch of wall close to her locker. She was talking to her girlfriends. The subject was at once mysterious and fascinating. It was shaving her legs, and she was telling them how she loathed, simply loathed, using her father’s Gillette for the job. I was tried to appear not to be paying attention, but she caught me in the act, and she pointed at me. Her girlfriends turned and stared. “That boy is weird,” she said. My heart thrilled. The bell rang. The hall cleared. That night, watching the label on a creamed corn can scorch brown, listening to potato peels hiss in the heat of the garbage fire, I came up with the idea that would complete the plan. Of course. It was obvious. It was foolproof. After this, she couldn’t possibly refuse when I asked for that dance. It was the blue Lady Norelco electric shaver with floating heads and replaceable blades in the display case in the drugstore gift section. It came in a hard-sided carrying case, complete with a little brush for whisking the heads clean, and, after I negotiated a wholesale price with Mr. Wilson, it cost me nine dollars and ninety-five cents. I was making a dollar and a quarter an hour. I hurried home with this treasure on Thursday night, and when the whole house, all four brothers, four sisters, and both parents had gone to sleep, I got up and wrapped it. I thought of the surprise and delight she would feel when she opened it; of how she would suddenly and clearly understand how I felt, even if I myself didn’t understand how I felt. Friday dawned a grizzly December gray, and I got to the lamppost, and lit up early so I could watch her get off her bus. She arrived, saw me, rolled her eyes, and went into school. I dropped my cigarette, ground it out, and ran for the door. She was at her locker, and talking with the same girls as I came up, sauntering now, aloof again. I handed her the present. “For you,” I said. “Merry Christmas.” And I chuffed. And I left. “Weird,” I heard her mutter under her breath. “Open it,” one of her friends urged her. “Go on, open it.” And then they were out of earshot. My troubled aloofness would not allow me to lean against a wall, watch, and eavesdrop. Did she open the present? Did she put it in her locker to open later? I couldn’t tell at lunch, or in biology class, where we had a pre-Holiday lab exam. There was hardly time to look up from the dissection tray, even though it seemed my own heart had been laid bare there. As I left school that afternoon, the Holiday Hop committee was hard at work, turning the cafeteria into a Wonderland by Night. The drugstore bustled until ten that evening, and again all day Saturday. I was on some sort of romantic adrenal float the whole time. Counting the hours. When business lulled around four, Mr. Wilson sent me home. There is no privacy in a house with eleven people when one of them is readying himself for the night of his life. He can bathe, brush, gargle and groom as much as he wants. He just can’t be alone. Some younger sibling will always dog him, always hang at an elbow, always look into the mirror and ask, “Whatcha doing?” An apt question. What was I doing? Was it weird or romantic? I would find out soon enough. I hulked my forty-six short torso into my father’s brown plaid forty-two regular sport coat, and, heady with Holiday cheer and the prospect of romance, I headed for, “Wonderland by Night.” The music was already playing when I walked in, and it seemed like the whole school was there—everyone from the beautiful people of the senior class to freshman boys so gawky they made my crowd look suave. The Holiday Hop Committee had moved the cafeteria tables and chairs into the teacher’s dining room, and hung holiday lights and stacked empty, but gift wrapped boxes in corners. They’d bought pine boughs from the Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, and spread them around to mask the stale milk and givernment string bean smell. The ambience was beguiling. This really was a Wonderland by Night. And there she was, a vision in white, dancing a slow song with a varsity linebacker, a junior. I leaned against the cafeteria wall, and, with all the troubled, aloof, studied insolence I could muster, I drank her in. She was the picture of serene young beauty at Christmastime. Her eyes sparkled and her perfect white teeth flashed as she smiled and flirted with the linebacker. Damn the linebacker. I knew she was not quite innocent, still, I had placed her on a pedestal, and I could see she had no idea what kind of guy he really was—a locker room practical joker, a towel snapper. I would have gone over and cut in to save her from him, but the song was ending. The clock on the cafeteria wall said twenty after eight. I had two hours and forty minutes. I adjourned to the refreshment table to quell my anxiety with cookies and eggnog. My ticket for the dance had set me back fifty cents, and I planned on getting my money’s worth. Six cookies, two eggnogs, and three fast songs later, I was ten feet from her, and closing fast, only to be cut off by the sophomore class vice president, a basketball player, fully eight inches taller than me. Damn the basketball player. Damn, too, the sensitive artist, the class Adonis, and the Dale Carnegie of a kid with the great future in sales. They snatched up the next three slow dances with her. With every missed opportunity, my Holiday spirit frayed just a bit. The crepe paper sagged a little more. The empty, gift wrapped boxes seemed a little more phony. The prospect of another practical Christmas loomed higher. It was five minutes to eleven—now or never. The music started. The song was, “Wonderland by Night,” and I was there, in front of her. She looked for someone taller, or more handsome, or more important, or more slender, but no. It was me. Me. Me alone. A look of resignation came over her face. She sighed, shrugged, and stepped into my arms, and it was Christmas. It was a gauzy, sparkly, glamorous, midnight blue, three minutes and seventeen seconds. It was rapture. She was there, in a diffused aura that smelled of Aquanet, Fruit Stripe gum, pine boughs and, ever so slightly, as far off as lunch hour on Monday, string beans and stale milk. “You’re weird,” she said, somewhat accusatorially, after a moment. I didn’t say anything. I knew. I was weird. Our dance continued for another minute before she said, “Thank you for the shaver.” “It has floating heads,” I said. She nodded. We danced on in silence. In truth, I was the one with the floating head. That dance was everything wonderful, everything magical, everything that sets the Holidays apart from everyday life. I would have made a Christmas deal with the devil to have that song go on and on and on, but it ended. It was over, and so was “Wonderland by Night.” The girl’s gym teacher flicked the lights on and off impatiently. My angel and I stood there awkwardly for a moment, then turned and walked away from each other. Except I wasn’t walking. I was floating. I couldn’t sleep when I got home, so I stole an Old Gold, collected the garbage and went out to burn it. The fire was warm. The Old Gold was remarkably smooth for an Old Gold. The air upwind of the fire was fresh and cold as Christmas. “Yep,” I thought, “Come to think of it, a new pair of homemade flannel Christmas pajamas are going to feel pretty darned good.”