Ezra's (Almost) Really Lousy Christmas

 

By Jim DeBrosse

Ezra Crowley hated Christmas, but he couldn't tell you exactly why. He was 9 years old, and when he didn't like something, the little space between his eyebrows turned into a twisty knot as though someone much bigger were pinching him there.

This particular Christmas the knot appeared much earlier than usual - the day before, in fact - because this Christmas Ezra had counted on going to his father's place in Michigan, only his father was off someplace called "The Virgin Islands" with his new girlfriend, Holly.

 

So Ezra was stuck in Dayton with his mom, who was acting very cheery and Christmasy, like she always does around Christmas, but Ezra knew better. His mom hated Christmas, too, ever since she and Dad divorced, only she never got a little twisty knot between her eyes. Instead, she got kind of spacey and her voice pitched a little higher and she would rub her hands together a lot like she was trying to get warm and couldn't.

"Guess what?" she told him in her pretend cheery voice, smiling at him across their big dining room table in their big double-brick home in South Park.

"What?"

Ezra looked up for only a second. He was busy swirling a long french fry around in the mound of ketchup on his plate. It was Christmas Eve and his mother had brought him a McDonald's Happy Meal, per his orders, on her way home from the shop that evening.

"I think Santa may have gotten here early this year," she said. "Should we go out to the living room and see?"

"Aw, Mom, cut the Santa stuff. I'm 9 years old."

"I was only speaking figuratively. Now I know how we usually open our gifts on Christmas morning, but I thought this year it might be fun to do it on Christmas Eve. What do you think?"

Ezra shrugged and stuffed another fry in his mouth. The knot between his eyes hardened.

"OK. I'll clean up in here a bit and then we'll go out to the tree. You've got so many things this year, sweetie. Aren't you excited?"

"Sure," Ezra said. He wondered dully if his father had bought him the video game he had asked for, Doom III. He thought he would like to go up to his room and maybe blow up a couple bazillion computerized aliens with a bazooka or something.

Their Christmas tree was in the living room, sitting snugly in the big bay window. It was one of those green artificial trees with white goop sprayed all over it that was supposed to look like snow. Ezra could remember when they used to get real trees, and they would even go out to a Christmas tree farm and cut one down, but Ezra's mom didn't have time for all that now, or the strength to lug a real tree around, she said, so this was the best they could do.

The tree was decorated with lots of old-fashioned stuff, like silk ribbons and candles and little teddy bears, to go with the old-fashioned decor of the room. Ezra's mother had an interior decorating business she called "Madly Victorian" and she was a fiend for "authentic" old-fashioned stuff, including the gloomy dark-green paint on the living room walls that Ezra could remember his father and mother fighting about one Saturday afternoon amidst a sea of paint cans and splattered floor coverings.

It was his mother who had wanted to move into the city and fix up an old house just the way she wanted it. And now that their half of the double was finally done, the workers were busy gutting the other half to make it suitable for renters. Ezra's dad would rather have stayed out in the suburbs, where Ezra had been happy and where he had been allowed to play with the other kids in the cul-de-sac. Here his mother warned him to stay away from the children in the neighborhood - they were "terribly rough" and what she called "disadvantaged" - all except for some geek named Elliot Wickerson who lived two doors down, only Elliott was never home half the time because he always had practice for this, lessons for that. Instead, his mom would drive Ezra over to the houses of his buddies, the ones he knew at the private academy.

His mother arrived at the tree first and started pulling out presents from the piles that went clear around the base of the tree and spilled out into the living room like rolling drifts of shiny paper, ribbons and bows.

Ezra looked around and didn't see any box big enough to fit the thing he had wanted most for Christmas. He wondered if it was outside on the porch or something.

His mother scooted a big, flat rectangular box across the floor to where Ezra was kneeling in the middle of the room, ready for action.

"Here," she said. "This is from your Grandma Miller. I bet you'll like this."

"Aww, another sweater?"

"Just open it."

He ripped off the paper and ribbon in two fell swoops, a skill developed and refined over a half a dozen Christmases, and popped open the box.

"Oh, great," he said. "A junior chemistry set."

"I thought you liked science."

He tossed the box aside. "I said I liked the Science Guy on TV. What am I going to do with a crappy old chemistry set?"

His mother tried to think and then said, "Oh well," and started stacking up other presents in front of him. Ezra ripped through them expertly while his mother watched, an anxious smile on her face.

The things Ezra liked, like the Nintendo Gameboy 64 system from his Dad and the deluxe Talk Boy tape recorder (just like the one Kevin used in Home Alone) from his Grandpa Miller, got a definite vote of "cool" before being tossed aside and the next package ripped into.

But then there were the "uncool" things his mother and aunts and uncles got him, like more Power Ranger and Batman stuff - including a whole stupid Bat Cave from his Uncle Bob - when what he was really into now was Beetleborgs and ID4 stuff, like one of those alien action figures that screeches real loud when its head splits open and there's an even uglier face inside. Now that was awesome.

He groaned when he opened a Power Ranger Megazord from his mother. "Mom, I told ya, I've already got two Megazords. What am I going to do with three Megazords?"

"How do I know everything you have, Ezra? Your room is such a mess these days I can hardly even walk in there."

"Mom, you promised you wouldn't go in my room without asking!"

"I know, dear. But I do sometimes wake you in the mornings."

There were also toys he didn't know quite what to think of, like the giant electric crane tower from his Grandpa and Grandma Crowley, who were vacationing that Christmas in London and so set him an especially huge package of things, including a couple of remote-controlled race cars and monster trucks to add to his collection.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" he said, plopping the box with the electric crane on his growing pile of "uncool" stuff.

"Well, you could maybe build some things."

"Build things? Like in school? No way!"

His mother sighed and took a seat in the cushioned rocking chair by the fireplace. She looked tired. Still, she managed to brighten up as she said, "One more present. It's in the basement where Santa left it."

Ezra smiled, and the knot between his eyebrows gave way for a moment. "Is it what I asked for?"

"Well, go and see."

He raced out of the room and through the big country kitchen and down the steep flight of basement stairs and, sure enough, there it was next to the furnace - shiny black and chrome with a red bow tied around the handlebars - a Pacific Avalanche dirt bike, with 18 speeds and a leather travel pouch underneath the seat, just what he'd asked for.

"Awesome!" he said, and kicked up the kickstand and sat on the seat. He had visions of racing up dirt hills at break-neck speed and suddenly going airborne and never coming down.

"Just let some redneck kid try to catch me on this!"

His mother was standing now at the bottom of the stairs. "Ezra, I told you about using that word in this house."

"Dad says 'redneck' all the time."

"Your father says a lot of things he shouldn't."

Ezra got off the bike and announced, "I'm taking it for a spin."

"Oh no, you're not. It's dark and there's ice and snow all over the streets."

"Aw, Mom. That's the whole idea. This bike can go through anything!"

"It can wait until morning."

"Awww, Mom."

"Bring it upstairs where you can really look at it. Come on. And I'll fix us some hot apple cider."

"I want hot chocolate."

"OK, OK."

"With little marshmallows."

"Yes. Anything. Just please bring the bike upstairs."

Ezra didn't need any help from his mother because the Avalanche was that easy to carry - made of ultra-lightweight metal alloys and space-age construction. He'd read that somewhere in the ads.

The phone rings

He took the bike upstairs and out to the living room with all his other presents while his mother stayed in the kitchen and started the hot chocolate. He got back on the bike again and pretended it was a racing motorcycle, twisting his hands on the grips and making engine noises with his lips. He started riding it real slow on the carpet, barely keeping his balance, a shaky route out from the living room and around the big dining-room table and back to the living room again - something he knew his mother wouldn't like.

He was thinking of popping a wheelie under the dining room mistletoe when the phone rang in the kitchen. He stopped and listened.

His mother said hello in her bright, business-like voice. It was followed by a long silence and then a new voice, a little hoarse and very cold. Mom's "Dad voice," Ezra called it.

Ezra sat on his bike and stared over the handlebars and down at the fat, knobby wheel. He wasn't sure he wanted to talk to his father just then, not with his mother around, anyway. She always got so weird.

"Yes, I know the agreement, Phillip," he heard his mother say, her voice louder now but still hoarse.

Ezra rocked back and forth on his bike pedals, keeping his balance. The knot tightened between his eyebrows like a rubber band.

"Well, that's your problem, Phillip. You should have thought about that before you went traipsing down to the Caribbean. Don't ... Don't you threaten me . ... "

Ezra started off on his bike now, as fast as he could, around the dining room table and a slingshot back to the living room. He slammed the bike into one pile of toys, crunched over it, turned and started for the other pile when he lost his balance. He got his feet back on the pedals, then popped a giant wheelie and slammed the front tire right down on the Bat Cave.

He liked the sound of it, all those crunching, popping noises under the bike's big fat knobby tire, so he did it again and again and again...

"Ezra!"

His mother stood in the entry from the kitchen, her hands throttling the phone.

"Go to your room!" she shouted. She pointed a finger at the hallway stairs. "Did you hear me! Now!"

He got off the bike and let it fall on its side to the carpet. His mother was trembling now, on the verge of tears, but it only made Ezra madder.

"I don't care!" he shouted. "It was a bunch of crappy old stuff anyway!"

"Go to your room this instant!"

He ran out of the room and up the stairway to his bedroom, where he slammed the door and, still breathing hard, sat down at his computer screen.

Mother sobs

He was lying in bed watching TV - some old black-and-white movie about this geezer who kept seeing Christmas ghosts, none of them very scary, really, except maybe the one who came clonking up the stairs in chains and moaning, which was pretty cool, actually - when his mother tapped at his door.

"Ezra, may I come in?"

"No," he said, but not very insistently.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Well, then, turn off your TV and go to sleep. It's late, honey. We can talk in the morning."

"I don't want to talk."

"Just go to sleep, honey. OK?"

"Why? There's no school tomorrow."

"I thought we might go to church in the morning, honey."

"Why?"

"Because it's Christmas, Ezra."

"So what."

"Ezra, don't talk like that."

He heard his mother sob, and that always got to him.

"I'm sorry, Mom."

Her voice choked. "Just go to bed."

"I will."

But when he turned off the TV and snapped off the light, he lay wide awake on his bed, the little twisty knot tightening as he thought about how much he hated Christmas and hated his father for not being there and hated himself for having behaved so badly and hurting his mother.

He twisted and rolled in his bed until his covers were whipped around him like a tornado, and then suddenly, he heard a church bell tolling somewhere in the soft glow of the city outside his window. It was a deep, echoey, calming sound, like the familiar voice of someone he knew from long ago but had somehow forgotten.

Bong ...

Bong ...

Bong ...

Bong ...

And he was fast asleep.

Christmas ghosts?

When he woke early the next morning, it was still dark outside. The wind rattled now and then at the big back window next to his bed. In between the icy blasts he swore he heard voices out there - children's voices - sharp little cries that were either gleeful or frightened. He couldn't tell.

He hopped out of bed, still dressed in his socks and street clothes from the night before, and knelt at the big window, hugging himself against the chill in the room.

There was a big security light on a pole in the alley and it cast enough light that he could see most of the back yard and a good stretch of the alley to the right, including the big Dumpster where the workers tossed the stuff they tore out of the house. There was no one out there, that he could see.

Were there maybe ghosts in the house? He snapped his head around and looked behind him in the dark room and felt the little hairs at the back of his neck stand on end.

Oh, come on, he told himself. He was much too old to be afraid of the dark.

The wind rattled the window again and then - yes, he'd heard it for sure that time - a child's squeal of delight out there somewhere in the cold. Still, there was no one he could see.

He was about to run to his mom's bedroom at the other end of the hallway when he saw a small boy's hooded head pop out of the Dumpster. It was followed by another head, this time a little girl's in a pink stocking cap, and, finally, the head of a small boy with glasses and no hat.

Ezra rubbed his eyes: What in the world are those little rednecks doing in our Dumpster? And so early in the morning? He glanced at his digital clock above the TV. It was just past 7 o'clock.

He had an idea.

He grabbed his flashlight from the dresser, checked under his bed, then rummaged through several piles of toys around the room until he found his Supersonic Ear - just like the real spies used. The headphone set was there, too, still attached to the gun, but it took him forever, it seemed, to untwist and untangle the wires.

When he finally had it straight, he hurried to the back window. The little boy and girl were climbing out of the Dumpster now. There was no time to waste.

Ezra opened the window just enough to stick the gun-shaped dish of his Supersonic Ear into the icy cold. He slipped the headphones on his ears.

"Help me! Help me!" It was the little boy, the one with the glasses. He was still in the Dumpster and couldn't climb out.

"Here, Tommy. I'll ...," said the little girl, stretching out her arms, but the wind cut off the rest of what she said.

"Wow! Look at all this neat stuff!" said the older boy. He looked about the same age as Ezra and was wearing an old baseball jacket over a hooded red sweatshirt. He was crouched over a pile of things just below the Dumpster. Ezra couldn't see what it was.

He had another idea. He went to his dresser and got his junior telescope and brought it back to the open window. It was almost icy in the room now, but Ezra didn't notice. He was having too much fun playing spy.

The telescope came into focus just as the little boy in glasses dropped into the girl's arms. She couldn't hold on to him and he fell hard on his behind in the dirty snow.

Ezra didn't need his Supersonic Ear to hear the crying.

He turned his telescope to the little pile on the ground where the older boy crouched on his knees.

Ezra gasped.

His toys! His Christmas things! Those kids were stealing them right out of the Dumpster!

LESSON IN SHARING

He scoured his room until he found his Power Shooter TS-8 - eight air-powered weapons in one! - and ran downstairs to the hallway closet, where he pulled on his winter coat and slipped into his LaCrosse boots. He'd show those little rednecks!

He burst through the back door, his breath making big steam clouds in the cold, down the back steps and through the back yard, fully expecting the three kids to high-tail it once they saw him charging at them with his Power Shooter TS-8.

Instead, the oldest boy waved to him from the alley and said, "Man, come here! Look at all this cool stuff some kid thrown out!"

Ezra slowed down and walked to where the three were huddled around the pile of toys in the snow. It was all the broken things from last night his Mom must have dumped.

"Lookie!" said the littlest. He wore thick round glasses, the kind that make your eyes look bigger than your face. His tiny ears were a bright red in the freezing cold and his nose was streaming. "I got BAT-man!"

The boy gripped the action figure, minus an arm, and flew it around in figure eights, all the while making airplane noises.

The girl in the dirty pink stocking cap had picked up one of the Megazords. She was cuddling it in her arms. "And I gotta a baby robot. I'm gonna call him Darrell, just like my baby cousin."

"That ain't no baby," said the oldest boy. "That there's a Megazord."

"I don't care. I'll call him what I want to."

The oldest boy rolled his eyes and turned to Ezra. "Come on, buddy. Dig in. There's lots of stuff here for everybody. We can all take a bunch of stuff home."

Ezra was quite dumbfounded. He couldn't very well tell the kids to quit playing with his broken toys when his mother had thrown them out. He rested his Power Shooter at his side and said, "Uh, no thanks."

"Suit yourself," said the oldest boy, and got down on his blue-jeaned knees in the hard-packed snow and started pushing a remote-controlled Monster Buggy around. He was having a great time, even though the buggy had only three wheels.

The whole group stayed close to the big Dumpster, a shelter against the cold wind that gusted now and then down the alley and sang through the phone wires.

The littlest boy pulled a Samurai stunt motorcycle out of the pile, the one Grandpa Miller sent, and handed it to Ezra.

"Here," he said. "You play dis one."

"That's OK," Ezra said, and added with a voice that sounded like his mother's. "You should have a hat on."

"I told him that, too," said the little girl. "But he won't listen, not when Mama's gone off to work."

"At work? Your mom works on Christmas morning?"

"Just till 7:30. She works nights at Sarah Jones nursing home. When she gets home, we're all goin' to church."

"What about your presents?" Ezra asked.

"Oh, we ain't allowed to open those until after church," the girl said. She had stringy blonde hair that needed a good washing, but pretty blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when she smiled. "I asked for a Barbie this year and Darrell's gonna get a dump truck and Tommy wants a cowboy gun."

Ezra waited for the girl to continue and when she didn't, he said, "Is that it?"

"Is that what?" the little girl said.

"Well. ... Nothin.''

Back to reality

Ezra looked at the littlest boy sitting now in the snow. His nose was a runny mess, which he kept licking with the pointy tip of his tongue. His ears looked like they were on fire. Still, he kept on playing with that dumb broken Batman, not even seeming to notice the cold.

Something ached inside Ezra's chest, an icy hand gripping him there that wouldn't let go, until he had an idea.

"You guys wait here a minute," he suddenly announced. "I'll be right back."

He ran inside the house and grabbed an old ski cap from the hallway closet and was about to run outside again through the kitchen when he caught sight of the Christmas tree through the entryway, its lights glowing in the dark.

There was still a pile of unbroken toys just in front of the tree.

Ezra got down on his knees and started sorting through it and, sure enough, there was the Batmobile from his mother, still in one piece. The Turboblaster track with the mini-race cars was there, too, still in the box. He scooped them both up, then thought, I need one more, one more - for the girl. He scanned the pile. What the heck would a little girl like?

As he searched, his heart was racing with a new kind of excitement, one he wasn't quite sure of but he liked. It was exhilarating, like the first time he rode on the big roller coaster at Kings Island.

Hey, the ID4 alien! She'd like that - well, maybe. You never knew with girls. He pressed the button that cracked its head open.

Screeeeeeeeech! went the deformed baby head inside. Wow - just like in the movie!

Naaa, I'll keep that one, he thought. But when he looked around he saw nothing else a girl would even consider having, so he picked up the alien and ran.

Outside, the three kids were still playing in the shelter of the Dumpster. The broken toys were scattered around the alley now and the morning sun was just beginning to peak above the housetops, casting long golden streaks across the snow.

"Hey, look," the oldest boy said. "He brung some of his own toys!"

"Lookie! A BAT-mobile," said the littlest boy.

"Here," Ezra said. He dropped the toys in the snow and pulled the old cap out of his coat pocket. "You gotta

put this on," he told the littlest boy.

 

"No! Want no hat!"

 

"I'll give you this nice Batmobile if you do." Ezra held the toy out. The boy reached for it but Ezra snatched it back. "Nooooo, not until you put on the hat."

The boy licked his nose, thought a moment and said, "OK."

Ezra pulled the cap down over the boy's ears and felt his own heart warm as he did. Then he handed him the Batmobile.

The boy held it up in the air and squealed, "Dat's a BAT-mobile!"

Ezra picked up the alien and gave it to the girl. "Here, you can have this."

"What is it?" the girl said, her eyes wide with wonder.

"It's an alien. Didn't you see Independence Day?" The oldest boy spoke up. "Mama says we're goin' to rent the video."

"Yeah," the girl said. "Then we make our own popcorn."

"Never mind," Ezra said. "Just take it. See? Push the little button there." The alien's head popped open and it screeched.

"Why look at that! Just like a real baby," the girl said.

The oldest boy spoke up. "Lindsey, Mama says we can't take no presents from strangers."

"I'm not a stranger," Ezra said. "I'm a kid."

The oldest boy scratched his head. Ezra had him there.

"Here," Ezra said, picking up the Turboblaster box and handing it to the oldest boy. "This one's yours."

The boy took the big box in his hands, but held it away like it was something he wasn't supposed to touch. "Where'd you get this stuff?"

Ezra almost said it was his, but thought better of it. "It was for some kid I know, a buddy of mine, but he didn't want it. You can have it. You like it, don't you?"

"Yeah, but. ... This ain't charity now, is it? Mama always says we can't take charity."

"It's not charity. It's yours."

"Well, thanks, but. ... Gee, I don't know. This is like an awful expensive present, ain't it?"

"Just take it. And Merry Christmas, OK?"

The littlest boy held up his Batmobile and said, "Merry 'ismas!"

The little girl shouted even louder, hugging her alien. "Merry Christmas!"

A moment later another, deeper shout came rolling down the alley. All four kids snapped their heads around at once. The sunrise lit up a big woman in a white uniform standing at the foot of the alley.

"Darrell! Lindsey! Tommy! What have I told you 'bout leavin' the house! You come here this very minute!"

The oldest boy dropped the Turboblaster box and scrambled up the alley. "Mama," he shouted, "it's Lindsey's fault! She said. ..."

"You know better than that!" the woman shouted.

Lindsey handed the alien back to Ezra and said, "Thank you, sir, but I ain't allowed to 'cept this." And she ran up the alley after her brother, her stringy hair trailing from under her pink hat.

The big woman shouted again. "Tommy! Did you hear me!"

The littlest boy was stuffing the Batmobile inside his coat. He looked up at Ezra through his thick glasses, whispered "thank you" and tore off as fast as his little legs would carry him on snow and ice.

Ezra watched the woman swat each of the kids once on the behind and herd them off in the direction of Park Street. Only Tommy cried.

He could hear the little boy's voice trailing off as the family disappeared, leaving Ezra all alone in the alley, surrounded by his toys and the cold silence of the snow.

He felt sad until he remembered that Tommy had the Batmobile. That made him feel better. Please dear God, he thought, let him keep it.

SEASON OF GIVING

He looked around and wondered what to do with all the things scattered now in the alley. Back into the Dumpster, he thought, and let out a sigh, just like his mother.

He was stooping to pick up the broken Batman when the church bells he'd heard last night began to ring, this time quick and sharp, like the loudest of the angels crying out that it was Christmas morning and that everything was fresh and new again.

Ezra knew then what to do. He ran to the back porch and found a big empty straw planter there and went back to the alley and started gathering all his toys. He filled the planter and was lugging it up the steps of the back porch when his mother stepped outside, her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee.

"My, you're up bright and early," she said. She was wearing a big bathrobe and her Christmas smile again.

Ezra set the planter on the porch. "Mom, isn't there like a place where I can take these things and have 'em fixed?"

"Wouldn't you rather have new things, dear?"

"No, I mean, like a Goodwill or some place like that. They can fix stuff, right?"

"Maybe, honey. But you'd have to give them away."

"That's exactly what I want to do. And I have a bunch of old stuff, too, I can give away - you know, so I can clean up that mess in my bedroom and. ..."

"Ezra," his mother interrupted, "are you feeling all right?"

Ezra picked up the planter and started through the door. "Yes, Mom. I feel just great right now. And you know what else I'd like to do?"

"What's that, honey?" His mother closed the door behind them. She had a concerned look on her face, like she was getting ready to take his temperature or something.

"I'd like to go to church this morning," Ezra said.

"Well," his mother said, taking in a deep breath as though she were suddenly dizzy, "I guess we'd better find out what time the service starts."

She started off to find whatever it was she needed to find when she suddenly stopped and turned to Ezra and, beaming down at him, cupped her hand against his cheek.

"You know I love you, don't you, kiddo?"

"Mom. Sheeeeesh."

"OK, OK."

She had just pulled her hand away when the phone rang and, for a moment, she got that hurt look in her eyes that told Ezra who it was. She rubbed her hands and let it ring again, and Ezra thought for sure their whole Christmas Day would be ruined now. But then his mother broke into a smile that said everything was OK.

"You'd better get that, dear," she said.

"OK, Mom." Ezra raced to the phone.

"Ezra?" his mother said, just before he lifted the receiver. "Wish him a Merry Christmas for me, too, won't you?"

Ezra smiled. "I will, Mom. I will."

Copyright, 1996, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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