As a child, I was a hopeless romantic over Christmas. I loved everything about it, and not in the way children get excited for presents and the potential of seeing Santa. I adored the season, what it meant, how it felt. Everything was frozen in a state of merriment. It was my favorite time of year, hands down.
Even as a teen, Christmas still held its luster. Heck, even through college. It wasn’t until I as an adult with my own children that some of the season’s shine fell away. When you are the one responsible for the memories, the merriment, the joy, it’s a lot of pressure. You trade your own wonderment for theirs. But knowing that I am providing for my daughters what I felt as a child is downright profound and beautiful in ways I couldn’t have felt when younger.
I’m a music lover and a fair amount of my memories are entwined with Christmas songs. It’s impossible with a name like mine, raised as a Catholic, not to enjoy “O Holy Night.” 🙂 I love “The Christmas Song” and am a complete sucker for the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings.” But part of me feels that haunting Joni Mitchell song, “River,” is often more aligned with my emotions these days.
And recently, I’ve been sick, down for the count with the flu. While lying in bed, I watched the entirety of Sonic Highways. It is phenomenal in ways that reach beyond music and Rock and Roll. It is about creativity and the beauty of the process. It inspired me, and it also reminded me of something about my writing, and about a Foo Fighters song that captures the essence of how I feel regarding the holidays.
Years ago I wrote a short story based off a Foo Fighters song, “Times Like These.” It was published in a UK journal, which means none of you has read it. And that’s awful. So, considering all I’ve said, I think it would serve me well to offer you a gift, that short story, and at the end, the song that is the inspiration.
Enjoy. And more importantly, enjoy the holidays. Enjoy your family, your friends, your children, whomever brings you that sensation this season is meant to invoke. Much like the song and the story suggest, we must enjoy the change, because life moves so fast, we miss out on the hidden beauty if we don’t.
This upcoming year is going to be awesome, full of more stories that are powerful, but will also be different. Trust me 🙂 And in the meantime, be merry.
Times Like These
“Waa! Waa! Waa!”
The cry is animalistic, and muffled voices outside my bedroom door rush in its direction. “Get a bottle!” My mom’s voice is sharp and edged by exhaustion.
“What, you want me to…well, um…” Frank, my step-father cannot seem to pick his words out of his sleep. I slide a leg out from beneath my covers.
“Waawaawaa!” Luke’s cry runs together and the decibel rises. I stand.
“Yes, go!” My mom again, and the hinges on Luke’s door crease open.
I resist the urge to go and help because I need a break. All the crying, feeding, pampering and constant juggling that has taken place in the twelve weeks since he was born has only ratcheted up the tension around here. It was manageable while my mother was home on maternity leave, but now it’s on a whole other level, because he just won’t sleep. It’s like Luke’s lost all day without her, so he tries to reclaim her at night.
“Waa! Waa! Wu…wu…wu…”
She must be holding him now, rocking him and shushing against his ear. It’s what she’s shown me to do until the bottle is ready… But where is Frank? It’s not that hard to run the water and scoop in the powder. He’s probably gotten the nipple clogged. Shit, maybe I should go help him. No, he needs to figure something out for himself. I sit back on my bed and wait, like I did at the hospital for Luke’s arrival.
Luke’s “arrival”. It’s as if it hasn’t stopped. His presence is everywhere and multiplying. Bottles and formula and pacifiers and burp cloths are a constant, while a swing and an Exersaucer have just invaded the living room, joining the toys. It’s like a cancer, which makes Luke the tumor. And I know I shouldn’t think like that, because it isn’t his fault, but Christ, it isn’t mine, either.
Frank’s lumbering footsteps sound in the hallway, and Luke’s door opens. The whimpering ceases and the air relaxes.
“You all set?” Frank’s voice is still sleep-laden.
“Yeah, but you could come back in a bit, burp him and make sure he settles.”
I shake my head and mutter, “Like that will happen?”
“Uh, okay, yeah, see you in a bit.” The door opens and Frank is back out in the hall. My mom’s alone with Luke and will remain that way. He hasn’t once stayed up with him, and no doubt as soon as he hits the pillow, Frank won’t rise again until the morning. I could slip in and take over, like I’ve done a few dozen times. But if I do so, if I allow myself as an option, it will just be like it was with dad, and I won’t do that. Not again.
The rocking chair gently thumps along the wooden floor and mixes with the whir of the white noise machine nestled into the corner of Luke’s room. It lulls me, pulling me into a stupor. I cannot resist, and instead of rising, I get back under my covers and settle in deeper.
* * *
I prefer Luke’s scream to my alarm clock, which is still ringing in my head. I slide my legs off the bed, set my feet on the floor and cradle my noggin. The sound is subsiding and the house is quiet. In spite of the hectic nights, most mornings are like this, where I’m the first one awake, and for a moment it’s as if there’s nothing wrong, everything’s fresh, and who knows what will happen?
Which is nothing like the way my mornings were when I was Luke’s age. Because as my mother tells it, my dad had always been struggling, and my birth exacerbated his incapacitation, to the point that when I was in fourth grade the only sensible action was to leave him. After, my mornings were a panic, a rush to get out the door, because there could be no excuses for my mother at work. Without her job…
That phrase was her guiding mantra. “Without my job” and the rest would simply be filler, some calamity that would befall us, followed with, “So I need you to take care of things, Gus, like you did with your father.”
The sun stretches across my floor and I breathe deep and then pull on some jeans, a T, and a hoodie, and slip out my door.
I stop in the bathroom to piss, but not to shower, since I always do so at night. Have since, forever, because I never knew what would be when I woke up: my dad passed out by the toilet, face partially submerged in his own vomit, or my mom trying to apply mascara through tears and lipstick over the swelling. Seven years since and I still cling to the habit.
The coffee pot gurgles as I tiptoe down the hall, headed toward the kitchen. Setting the pot the night before might be the one aspect I like about Frank. The man needs his caffeine just about as bad as he needs his commissions. He gets plenty of the coffee. I snag a mug, set it on the counter and wait for the bubbling and grunting to stop. The other morning Frank said, “Luke sounds like this pot.” I half-understood and looked at him, confused. “The way he grunts when he’s taking the bottle, it’s like he’s percolating.” He and my mother laughed at his joke and I stared into my mug, muttering, “How would you know?”
I pour the coffee and unwrap a Pop Tart. There’s a stirring down the hall and a whoosh of air. My mom’s slipping out of Luke’s room and heading toward me. “Is he all right?” I indicate behind her with a jut of my chin.
She pulls her robe, tightening it around the bulge to her belly. “I don’t know.” She shoots me a glance, but locks on the coffee, and I wait until she’s had her first sip before continuing.
“When did you get back to bed?”
She turns, leans against the counter. “Did we wake you, again?”
I pause before answering, because my brain just defaults to “no” as soon as I hear that question. She asked me it so many times when she was married to my dad, and every time she did I could tell by the way she looked at me, with that jittery, on-the-brink of-tears look that the answer needed to be no. She couldn’t bear that I tried to sleep through the cursing and the slapping. “Yeah, but don’t sweat it.” I bite my Pop Tart and the piece that comes off is enormous. I have to let it melt against my tongue so that I don’t gag.
She sighs, sips her coffee, and when she looks up, her eyes are heavy with that same expression. “I’m sorry, honey. He’s…Luke’s not like you were, so easy going.” She stares at the floor for a long moment. I manage to swallow the pastry. “I’ve been in there all night. He just won’t settle without me.”
I take another bite.
She blows across the lip of her mug and watches me. “Hey, how are you?” She runs a finger across my cheek.
My insides well up and I can’t answer. Instead, I turn sideways.
“Your eyes are like mine.” She traces around the bridge of my nose. “But I’ve got a cream for that.”
Her touch is unexpected and disarming. I try to speak, to tell her about last night, about how I wanted to help, but that I just couldn’t, and that I’m sorry. I want to say, “I’m fine,” but have her know I’m not, like before, but a door slams and Frank billows out, rapidly buttoning his shirt.
“Can’t believe I forgot. Breakfast with a client this morning.” He looks through my mother, to me. “Hey, Gus, hook me up with some of that joe. I’m in a fog.” He finishes buttoning his shirt and loops his tie beneath his collar.
I turn to the counter, retrieve a travel mug and mutter, “You’re always in a fog.” I snap the lid in place but almost knock the mug over when he says, “You know, I heard that if you go back to nursing you might slim down.” He tacks on a chuckle, but my mother doesn’t.
I turn and hold out the mug and Frank grabs it. “Talk about service. My man, Gus.” He smiles, spins on his heel, yells over his shoulder, “See you around six,” and is out the door in one fluid motion. The house rattles, and as if not to be outshined, Luke lets loose a wail that echoes in the hall, and sounds absolutely nothing like percolation.
* * *
I can see my breath this morning, so I shift my mug of coffee between hands, alternately tucking the free one into my sleeve. Despite the weather, I actually enjoy walking to school, because it’s similar to how I feel when I wake up. But being so close, there’s never really a good excuse for being late, and I never feel as if I get away, like so many kids, who drive off over the hills, out of town. I used to take the bus when we were with my dad and lived out over those hills. I have pictures of him standing at the bus stop with me for the first day of school. He was bright-eyed and clean-cut, not the scraggly mess he became.
Thinking about back then, though, turns my stomach, and the coffee rests uneasily in my gut. I’ve been doing too much of that lately, thinking about the past, about my father, about those years that molded me. It’s impossible not to feel like I’m slipping back into a familiar pattern. But I had no choice then. Now, though, I’ve been fighting ever since Luke popped into the world. Ever since my mom said, “Meet your brother,” and I hesitated to hold him, because I knew that once I did, I’d be committing to this new family.
And I can’t do that. Frank’s an idiot. My mom’s a bedraggled mess, and Luke, well, he’s not my responsibility, even if he is my half-brother. I think in that hospital room I understood exactly what they were going to do: use me. My mom had no problem when I was younger. But I partly understand that. Who else did she have? Now, though, she’s pulling the same without-my-job-shit. Yeah, I know, but she’s got Frank. To which she responds, “Frank earns on commission and children need stability, a regular paycheck.” Somehow we managed, though.
I roll up to the crosswalk before the school and my friend Jeff is crossing the street. I trot over. “Hey, what’s up?” Jeff, his hoodie clinging to his head like a second skin, moves past me, his thick shoes clunking along. “What the hell?” I reach out and grab his shoulder before he’s fully past. He spins around, eyes wide and unsure, but then he recognizes me and smiles.
“Gus, shit, didn’t see you.” He pops out his ear buds and music continues to pump around his neck. It sounds like something by the Foo Fighters. We clasp hands and walk on. “You look like shit.” Jeff shoulders me and laughs.
“Thanks. Same to you.” He’s right, though. No one else but the burnouts and head cases at school have the same black, raccoon circles under their eyes. However, I looked the same in fourth grade, and it faded. So will this.
“Luke wailing all night?”
“Yeah, it sucks being right next door. You know?”
Jeff nods. “You should sleep in the basement.” We turn toward the main entrance. “Or maybe you really like listening to the little dude?”
A crowd of kids, huddled together against the cold, and unwilling to go inside, flanks the walkway. Jeff scans them and I know who he’s looking for. He finds Emily and I hang back, sip my coffee and think about what he just said. I considered moving my room before, back when my mom was pregnant, early in the summer. But I never brought it up because Frank was out all hours making his “connections” and “securing his leads” while he had the chance. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. And now? Well, there’s something about the night-time ritual. Luke’s has his bath and then settles in with his bottle and my mom rocks him asleep. The white noise claims the air around me and the angst of the day slides away.
* * *
I walk into Biology and sit in the back. My teacher doesn’t say “hello” or “good morning”, just continues to read the website he’s on and chuckles to himself. I’ve got no friends in this class, so sitting in the back makes sense. I crack out The Perks of Being a Wallflower and pretend to take notes on cell division. It’s nest-like back here, and despite the urge to sleep, I slip into the pages and am free. It’s sad, but I’m compelled to escape into books. I think it’s because my own life so thoroughly knobs it. More than that, though, if I just read and keep to myself, here, no one cares. Everyone simply leaves me alone. Not like at home.
* * *
Lunch is just the shit food I threw together because now my mom rarely shops unless it’s for Luke. Therefore, I eat some stale cookies while Jeff sits next to me and gorges on the school’s offering: some yellow, greasy, “nugget” creation. It reminds me of Luke’s shit, but I don’t mention this to Jeff. Not because I don’t want to gross him out, it’s just physically impossible. He’s got his i-Pod streaming into his head and he’s twitching at the neck along with the beat. Again, I can’t discern the song, and wish I had my own to listen to, but I didn’t ask for one for my birthday when I should have. There’s no money now.
Jeff grunts between shoveling spoonfuls of slop into his mouth and creates a disgusting rhythm of which he is unaware. I sit quietly and pretend that this isn’t my life, that I’m watching someone else’s unfold around me.
* * *
I’m shoving textbooks I won’t look at and homework I won’t do into my bag, and there’s a slight frenzy all around as kids try to get organized in the five minutes they have before the buses leave. The girl next to me squeals, stamps her foot and says, “Where is it?” She then flings herself at her locker in a violent attempt to uncover the elusive item.
“You coming?” Jeff’s ears are plugged in as always and his voice is awkwardly loud, even amidst the tumult. The girl at her locker jumps at the sound, and I nod because speaking would only elicit a response like “What?” or “Huh?” I shut my locker and shoulder my bag. The hall is awash in students and stress and feels as tense as the moment before a fight, reminding me of what I’ll be facing once I get home.
* * *
Recently I’ve seen a few movies about life with infants. My mom’s way into them, and they all display this one scene: a parent exhausted, passed out on the couch, with the child asleep atop his or her chest. The room is cluttered with empty bottles, changed diapers, an open-mouthed wipes container, and toys. What I haven’t seen is the clean-up, the ensuing time when the first person with the energy takes stock and then starts scrubbing.
That has always been me. The refrain hovered over me as a child, like the chores themselves: Without my job… So my contribution has been my tidiness, my ability to bring order to our disheveled life. My mother appreciated that, then. But now my afternoons are that deleted movie scene and today is no different. The living room is as described, but the mess doesn’t cease there. No, the sink is bursting with dishes, and formula has congealed across the countertop, leaving a sticky, yellow puddle.
When I was younger and it was my dad’s mess, my concerns were beer cans and whiskey bottles and the occasional broken knick-knack from his drunken lurching. That was a simple job, requiring a dust pan, garbage can and fifteen minutes. He always thanked me, patted my head and said, “What a good son. I don’t deserve you.” At the time, I didn’t comprehend what he meant, but lately, as I come home and take in all the little messes amidst the backdrop of clutter, I do. “Fuck this,” I say, but run a hand through my hair and decide where to begin.
My mother’s arrival coincides with my first chance to sit down. She busts through the door, tottering with the awkward weight of Luke in his carrier and kicks the door closed with a squeaky, wet thwack. I look out the window and notice the spraying mist of rain. I have no clue when that began. Probably when I was elbow-deep in dishwater.
“I’m drenched,” my mother says, but kicks off her shoes, leaves her coat on and moves toward the hall. Luke squirms, his face dotted with rain and his irritation evident by the way he’s pushing the pacifier around his mouth.
I watch her recede and mutter, “You’re welcome.”
She continues down the hall and bangs around in Luke’s room. He lets loose the cry that was building. “Gus, get in here!”
My mom’s hovering over Luke, who is now purple-faced angry, flailing his arms and rolling his head. Her coat’s dripping water onto the floor and him. “I need to change and so does he. All right?” She doesn’t give me an opportunity to respond and rushes out, her coat whipping the air.
I scoop up Luke and bounce him. He screams and so I tuck him against my cheek and start “shushing” as loudly as I can. His little body wriggles against me and I lose my grip. He wails louder and as I hoist him back into position I say, “Hey, hey, come on buddy, relax.” His eyes widen at my voice and the crying pauses. “That’s right, just chill. No more Crazy Luke.” I roll my eyes and pop them wide, and he eases in my hands, begins to relax, and soon he’s placid. I set Luke onto the changing table and make a fart sound. His eyes pop even wider, so I do it again and he smiles. “Okay, fart noises, that’s what you like. I’ll tell mom, see if she can’t hook you up with a different noise machine.” I make the noise again, louder and longer, and this time he squeals.
I laugh and look down at him and fully see him and hear the words I’ve just spoken: I’ll tell mom. My head lists and I stop laughing and look at what I’m doing, already a diaper in hand and the wipes container opened. Luke gurgles, though, no longer upset, and so I push the feeling away and undo his diaper, which is yellow and swollen like a pustule. No wonder he was angry. I lay a diaper over his cock just as soon as I finish wiping. I learned that lesson the hard way. He almost got it in my mouth.
“You all set?” My mom steps back into the room wearing a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeve shirt. It’s practically her uniform, and I wonder when the last time was she washed it, because the spit-up stains across the shoulder and down the back are encrusted.
“Yeah, he just really needed that thing changed.” I step back from Luke and she scoops him up.
“Huh, I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The babysitter shouldn’t be letting him go so long.” She bounces Luke on her hip but looks at me. “Hey, sorry about just now. Rough day.” She pauses and shakes her head just the tiniest bit. “Anyway, thanks for the cleanup. I know it was a disaster.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” I laugh because I want to lighten the mood. I hate when she’s like this, so worn it’s impossible to see her as vibrant as she used to be.
She laughs along and ruffles my hair. “Always my neat-nick.” She looks at Luke. “Pretty good with him, too, huh?”
The smile breaks across my face, surprising me, and I turn toward the window. “Yeah, I guess so.”
She laughs to herself. “Well, you certainly made him happier than I was. Now if we can just get him to start sleeping through the night again.” She chuckles and leaves the room.
I stay in place because I don’t like how easily I flipped the switch, stepped up to the plate, filled the spot, or whatever cliché fits. I can accept that my role might be the maid, but nanny? No, I won’t take that on.
Frank’s car pulls into the driveway. He kills the ignition and his hands linger on the steering wheel for a moment before they fall away. He looks through the windshield, now mottled with raindrops, and to the house. Though his image begins to blur, I see him sit back and rub his eyes with his thumbs. He stays in this position so long that he might be asleep, but he stirs, pulls a hand over his face and then gets out of the car. He approaches the house, moving slowly, in spite of the weather, as if he’s carrying something heavier than the papers in his briefcase. It strikes me how I’ve never seen him in this capacity. He’s always hustle and game. Shit, maybe he’s not that good. What if all that time hounding his leads didn’t produce anything? He never talks about it, so how could I know? But it wouldn’t surprise me, because he bumbles everything else. Bet even Luke was an accident.
I remain in Luke’s room, floored by that possibility and listen to him come through the door.
“Hey.” My mom’s voice matches her washed out appearance.
“Hey,” he says, as enthusiastically, but Luke squeals.
“Oh, hey, how’s my big boy?”
Luke squeals again and I imagine the smile spread across his face. I’ll give him that, Frank manages to elicit happiness out of his son. But then he is lumbering down the hall and might as well have just patted Luke on the head or scratched his ears. “Total fuck-up,” I mutter to the room.
Frank’s feet crescendo into their bedroom, and once the noises of his disrobing clamber out, I step from Luke’s room and feel an immediate jolt of pain. The living room is already littered with toys spilling from the coffee table to where Luke resides in the comfort of his Exersaucer. I sigh and move down the hall.
My mother’s in the kitchen and the sound of searing meat punctures the air: Tacos. I turn the corner, and sure enough, the counter is awash in the clutter of the meal: empty hamburger package, ripped cardboard box, torn salsa and cheese packages, a dusting of seasoning mix, and a mound of discarded cut vegetable scraps lying in the center of a cutting board. I close my eyes for a moment and am back in my childhood, standing in the kitchen of the beat up apartment we rented just after we left my dad. She was making tacos then, and crying into the browning meat. I remember thinking that it was because she didn’t like the meal, but know enough now that it was over something else altogether. I open my eyes and she’s looking at me.
“Tacos tonight. You hungry?”
“Not really.” I lean against the wall and open my mouth to ask something. Maybe a question about her day? Maybe about my memory? Maybe about that something else altogether? But I don’t, because Frank bounds down the hall, as spry and as energetic as if he changed his entire body, not just his clothes.
“Tacos? All right.” He glides past me, pats my mother’s rear and steps to the fridge for a beer. He pops it open, takes a long swallow, and I concentrate on my mother. Her neck tightens in direct proportion to his drinking and she looks away. It’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking, but I have to wonder if she’s going there, making the comparison, because I’ve seen this body language before. But with my father it was so different. He didn’t sip a beer, he swallowed the energy from the room with each gulp. Frank’s harmless, at least in comparison to the ways my father was not.
Behind me Luke cries and we all turn, she with her eyes holding fast to worried, and Frank with a bubbled blankness to him, like a dog. Without thinking, I go to Luke and pull him out of the Exersaucer. He glares at my face for a moment, as if not expecting me, probably matching my own expression. It takes a moment, but I just go with it and roll my eyes like I did before. Luke cracks a smile.
“Would you look at that, the kid’s got my grin.” Frank sips his beer and nods like a proud father should.
* * *
My eyes are heavy and I set aside my copy of Perks. It’s almost 9 pm and I should shower and get to bed. Undoubtedly, Luke will wake in five hours, and maybe tonight, I’ll help. I touch the corner of the novel and wonder how it will be once he’s ready for books at bedtime. How will that sound through the wall? I can’t imagine Frank stumbling through Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
My dad sometimes read to me before bed, even when he was sloshed. Good Night Moon was my favorite, and was rivaled only by his presence. I was so enamored with him being there, he could have just read the newspaper.
“What, do you think I should sleep in his room?” My mom’s voice is low, nudging in from the hall. She’s obviously trying to be quiet enough to not startle Luke, but loud enough to be heard by Frank. He chuckles.
“No, I don’t want you to do that, at least not all night.”
My mother mumbles something indecipherable and Frank responds, “Hey, now that was unnecessary, or are just trying to get me riled up?”
Luke cries out. It’s one of his short yells, like gunshot, which forces me to hold my breath in anticipation of more. We all seem to be listening, though, and then finally my mom speaks. “I’m going to shower, now. You’re on guard.”
“Okay, just gotta check my email, but I’ll keep an ear out.” My mom mutters something and then I hear the bathroom door click shut. Frank says, “What? What?” His footsteps retreat from the door and head toward the living room. Luke remains quiet and I breathe again.
The water patters off the shower curtain, sounding very much like rain. I stand, move to my bed, and lie down. The sound is soothing and hypnotic, and through the wall Luke’s white noise machine is audible. The two sounds envelope me and I think again of Jeff and his suggestion of moving to the basement. I’d miss this, the wash of noise, feeling separate, although connected, an argument he’d understand. And with that, the song from this morning, emanating from around his neck, comes to me: “Times Like These”.
I smile at the irony of the line about learning how to live again and fall deeper into the white noise and the song. I don’t care that I’m still dressed and haven’t showered. I just want to sleep.
Luke cries and I jolt at the noise. He cries again, twice more, and I open my eyes. I sit up and wait, but there are no footsteps in the hall and the water’s still running, as are Luke’s cries, one into the next.
I stand and shake off sleep and step into the hall. The shower runs and down the hall the blue flicker of the TV plays off the wall. I wait and Luke cries and the volume on the TV rises. I could go down the hall and speak to him, but I won’t. Or can’t. I look to the bathroom door. I could knock and she would attend to Luke, but I know I shouldn’t. She still needs my help.
The room is dark and soothing and the white noise fills my senses. I scoop up Luke and sit on the rocker and ease into the cushion. He squirms but then finds a pocket against my ribs and curls up. He sucks his pacifier and a warmth spreads through me, similar to the way I felt when my mother stroked my cheek. I look down and can see Luke’s profile. He is halfway like me. Or maybe more fully than I’ve realized. “And he deserves better.”
Luke shifts at my words and I rock. He settles again and does not cry. The lyrics from the song stream through my head and I hum them as a lullaby. I’ll stay here until he’s asleep, amidst the white noise, against whatever exists beyond these walls. I’ll stay and do for him what he needs, and possibly the same, for myself.