from the book
I wake up early on Christmas morning. The world is enveloped in a thin layer of frost. All the cars are covered in sharp crystalline stars, and even the road is coated in a thin black sheet.
At mother’s house, a small child swims in a shimmering sea of emerald wrapping paper, burgundy bows, and silver foil. He smiles wordlessly and topples over into the soft piles.
I sit on the floor sipping hot coffee and staring at the decorative branches that were once apartment complexes. Plastic apples hang from metal wires where once a family of birds nested, or a squirrel paused. I almost can see its nose twitching in the cold as his bright black eyes beam curiously.
Mother walks back and forth between the kitchen and the living room in a new white bathrobe. She brings us platefuls of strong-smelling breakfast sweets strung with white icing. I take a bite of cinnamon, cake, apple, raisin—
And then the little toddler tackles me, and hands me a fistful of ribbon. His father laughs from his leather chair while mother, exhausted, curls up on the floor in a plush new sleeping bag.
At my father’s house two children wrestle for supremacy of butterfly nets. The older is determinedly poised and the younger is a kicking maniac. Their mother runs interference while father takes deep, amused breaths and rolls his eyes knowingly.
He’s sitting at the piano now, disconnected from his body, the bookshelf to his left, and the large synthetic tree decorated in plastic picture frames and tangles of silver to his right. His fingers wander the keys like blind serpents. They hear something—some accident—and run backwards looking for it.
The children are tearing apart simple microscopes, plastic mansions, dinosaurs, books, jackets, and mouthfuls of chocolate.
Outside, an old cat stretches in the few and fleeting patches of sun that grace the short wooden porch.
At grandmother’s apartment we are refined and jovial on comfortable furniture.
Years ago all this—the rugs, couches, cookware, cabinets, coasters, chairs, tables, trays, televisions, photographs, and paintings, were strewn about in a massive house on the river. Now everything is condensed and cozy. The fake fireplace is gone. The Christmas tree is streamlined, and where once a lengthy table stretched just inside the front door, is a narrow hallway and small coffee table for coats and keys.
But life is sort of like that. When you’re young, the world is infinite and expanding. You want your legs to stretch, and your eyes to conceive and wander. You need all the room possible. As you grow older, you begin take those relics out of experience and condense them in an ever-smaller setting.
Now all those memories are stacked neatly in a large oak cabinet in the living room.
Grandmother feeds everyone nicely spiked eggnog while grandfather flips through football games and reminds his youngest grandson of a nearby plate of frosted sugar cookies.
At dinner we indulge in tender beef, crisp biscuits, soggy salads, sliced potatoes, and slick green beans. And it’s so quiet you can almost hear the candles flickering.
At home I unravel on the floor amid a sea of emerald wrapping paper, burgundy bows, and silver foil.
Timothy Lloyd stands in the doorway. His eyes look black and glassy like my imaginary squirrel.
"How was Christmas, Charlie?"
"Pretty much the same."
"What’s going on tonight?"
"I think I’m going to Sid’s in a little while. You’re welcome to come."
"Do they have anything to drink?"
Sid, Isaac, Eve, Able, Henry and Jude are strewn about the living room like so much wrapping paper.
Henry and Jude talk about a band they were in during high school.
Sid and Tim talk about a band they were in during high school.
Eve and Able talk about a band Sid and Tim were in during high school.
A blonde girl walks through the door. She’s not very interesting looking. Her face is sort of plain and round. Her features are arranged like an unimaginative still life. Henry and Jude went to high school with her.
I’m a year older than everyone else in the room. Everyone I went to high school with has moved and had two children, six jobs, three divorces, fourteen fences, eighty addictions, and an innumerable amount of lawnmowers, mailboxes, backyards, therapists, plumbers, and haircuts. I haven’t had a good haircut in a while.
Eventually everyone filters into Isaac’s room. A poster on the wall reads, Marijuana—at least it’s better than crack.
Everyone is reciting names.
"Have you seen Watson lately?"
"God—I ran into Casey on Tuesday…"
"Fell? Fell—are you alright? Fell?"
There’s no shape in this ceiling. There’s no body. There are no legs. It’s all just blank.
I stand up and walk out. I walk out the door and run down the stairs. I run through the front door and down the street. I turn left and then right. It’s cold outside. And yet, it’s oddly peaceful.
I run across the highway and down one of those endlessly stretching streets unique to the small town lower class. I run by the chain link fence of the middle school where I used to run the mile in 6:04. The gate is open, but no one is there.
My lungs hurt a little. Images of everyone I’ve ever known are dancing on my unborn grave.
I hit the front yard. The grass is covered in cobwebs of frost. My streetlight is burnt out.
I am in the street now looking down the open length of road that runs through the horizon. I am in the street thinking how far this life does stretch, and what little courage it would take to walk.