"That's 70's Christmas"
By Jim DeBrosse
"Yo, Sleeping Beauty! Yonder castle beckons!"
The words roused Alec Knowles from a road-induced slumber just as Creech brought the microbus to a sliding stop in the mush in front of 1113 Xenia Ave. — a two-story brick ablaze with Christmas lights.
Alec slipped out of the passenger side and retrieved his duffel bag from the back seat while Creech, his freshman roommate, raced the VW's cranky engine to keep it from stalling. Two other passengers were huddled in the very back of the microbus, a couple they had picked up hitchhiking just outside Cleveland during the long drive from Boston.
Delayed two days by a snowstorm, Alec and Creech had left campus that morning, Christmas Eve, at 5 a.m. It was now almost 7:30 p.m. and Alec, knowing his family's collective appetite, knew he had missed the holiday dinner.
In less than five hours, the Knowles family would be partaking in another of its Christmas Eve traditions — Midnight Mass at St. Mary. But Alec, who hadn't been to church in months, was "in a state of mortal sin," as his grade school catechism put it, and would not be able to receive Holy Communion with the rest of his family.
At which point, Alec knew, his mother would totally freak.
"Home, sweet, home," Creech said.
"I'll let you know. They haven't seen my hair yet."
Alec looked a good deal like Charles Manson, having grown out his hair and beard during his first semester away at college.
"If things get really bad, give me a call," Creech said. "I know these two girls who have their own place."
"You would." Alec grinned and shut the door.
Creech flashed him a peace sign as the microbus sputtered off.
Alec entered the front door (it was never locked) and into the warm embrace of his family's sights, sounds and smells. He had hoped his mother wouldn't be the first to see him, but no such luck. She was standing at the dining room entrance as he stomped his boots on the hallway mat.
"Alec? Is that you?"
"Merry Christmas, Mom!"
She stared at him a moment longer, then burst into tears. She bustled past him and up the hallway stairs.
"Mom, are you all right?"
He heard her bedroom door shut. The evening was off to a great start.
"The Prodigal Son returneth!"
It was his older brother Max, holding up his highball glass in a toast. Snuggled beside Max on the living room sofa was his wife of six months, Lydia.
Aunt Mirabelle got up from her rocker by the Christmas tree and gave Alec a hug. Tiny and frail, she felt like a candlestick in his arms.
"You look exactly like great, great grandpa Cletus," she said, smiling into his face. "He was a Civil War hero, you know."
Knowing Aunt Mirabelle, who had suffered from "brain fever" as a small child, there was a 50-50 chance of her statement being true. Well, maybe 40-60.
His father poked his head out of the kitchen. "Would you like a turkey sandwich?"
That was his dad. Forget the formalities, cut to the chase. What really mattered was whether his son was hungry.
"Sure, Dad. Thanks."
"Come join our little party," Aunt Mirabelle said, and she led him by the hand to the recliner next to her rocker.
There was a fire in the fireplace, the familiar bows and greenery around the mantle, the perennial Douglas fir strung with popcorn and cranberries twinkling by the front window — decorations Alec had known since he was a toddler. But this year, 1970, it all seemed different, as though he had arrived on Planet Knowles after eons of traveling through space and time.
"Is Mom OK?" Alec asked.
"You were the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back," Max said.
"All right. I'll shave then."
"Your great, great grandpa Cletus had whiskers down to his belly button," Aunt Mirabelle said. "No one cried."
"Won't help, anyway," Max said. "What's really upsetting Mom is Denise."
Lydia put a finger to her lips. "Keep it down, guys. She's upstairs in her room."
"She moved back two weeks ago with the baby," Max said just above a whisper. "Larry ran off to Amsterdam with one of his students."
"Nope. Watta jerk that guy is."
"Shhhhhhhhhh," Lydia hissed.
"OK, OK," Max said, holding his voice down again. "But she's stupid enough to want him back. If you ask me, the kid is better off without the nutty professor in his life."
Max had strong opinions on everything, only they had a way of changing from week to week.
"Don't worry," Aunt Mirabelle cooed. "It will all work out. You'll see. My Aunt Ree had a baby out of wedlock and …"
She suddenly stopped herself and stared into the fireplace as though there was nothing more to say.
Alec and Max rolled their eyes and smiled. Dear Aunt Mirabelle.
Alec's father came into the room with a thick turkey sandwich on rye and a soft drink. At least that's what Alec thought was in the glass until he took a gulp and almost choked. "Dad, this is a highball!"
"Yeah, with a double shot. I figure we could all use one tonight."
"You're 18 now, the new drinking age," Max said. "And don't tell me you haven't been drinking at school."
"Well … beer mostly."
"It's the holidays. Highball time," his father said, and vanished again into the kitchen.
"Where's Bobbie?" Alec asked.
"Hiding in his basement lair," Max said. "He's refusing to go to Midnight Mass because Father DiAngelo supports the war."
Alec was still thinking of an excuse for not going himself. That might be as good as any. Somewhere along the way, after the murders of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the interminable war in Vietnam and then Creech's older brother being shot and killed there, Alec had lost his faith — if, indeed, he had ever really had any. Religion had been drummed into his skull since first grade, like memorizing his times tables.
"Can't we just skip it this year?" Alec said.
"Mom won't hear it. Says we've gone to Midnight Mass at St. Mary every Christmas since Denise was born."
Alec got up from the recliner. "I'll go talk to him."
"You do that, Clete," Aunt Mirabelle said, smiling.
Alec knew Bobbie looked up to him. Still, he had no idea what he could say to his younger brother that wouldn't seem two-faced.
On his way to the basement stairs, Alec was surprised to find Denise sitting at the kitchen table, having a highball with their father. Alec wondered how much of the conversation in the living room she had overheard.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
Denise stared at him. He could tell from the red in her eyes that she'd been crying.
"You, too, huh?" She was glaring at his beard. "Has the whole world gone nuts?"
"It's only dead protein, you know."
"Then why don't you shave it off?"
His father only raised his eyebrows at Alec. "You still hungry?"
Bobbie's bedroom was at the back of the basement, the home's fruit cellar until their father had fixed it up for him. The door was shut but could barely contain the thrashing chords of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze blaring inside.
Alec rapped on the door.
The music was turned down, the door opened.
"Hey, man, look at you! Far out!"
"Yeah. Way out," Alec said, flipping his long locks with his fingertips.
"Man, I wish I could do that. But they still have a dress code at school. Can you believe that?"
Instead of long hair, Bobbie had grown mutton chops, creeping like fungi halfway down his cheeks. They looked awful, Alec thought, but he didn't say so. If that was Bobbie's "thing," it was no business of Alec's.
Alec took a seat in the lime green bean bag chair, next to the lava lamp. Bobbie sprawled out on his bed, underneath the neon poster of The Grateful Dead.
"You like college?" Bobbie said.
Alec nodded. "I have to study a lot, though."
"Do you smoke lots of doobie?"
"You know — pot. Weed."
"I don't care much for it."
"Don't tell me you're doing pot, Bobbie, or I'll have to kick your butt."
"No, man. No! Well, I guess just once. We were camping out in Highland woods and somebody brought a nickel bag."
"Bobbie, you're too young. And, besides, it's against the law. You don't want that on your record. You hear me?"
"OK, OK. I hear you, big bro."
"Now tell me why you won't go to Midnight Mass."
"So who told you already?"
"Max. He says Mom's upset about it."
"Yeah, well, did he tell you what Lydia announced during dinner?"
"I can only imagine."
Lydia could be even more outspoken than Max.
"She's, like, passing the Christmas ham and all of a sudden she lets out that she and Max have decided not to have any kids. You know, because the Earth is, like, way overpopulated."
"In front of Mom and Denise?"
Alec buried his face in his hands and shook his head. This was turning out to be the most bizarre Christmas Eve since Uncle Will relieved himself in the cold air duct and put out the furnace.
"Then you should go to Mass to make Mom happy."
"And listen to that warmonger priest?"
"Where did you learn a 10-cent word like 'warmonger'?"
"Well, that's what he is. You know what he said in his sermon last week? He said we should be in Vietnam because Jesus wants us to kill all the commies."
Alec shook his head again. Down was up, up was down. It was as if everyone in the world was losing their bearings at once. Maybe he and Bobbie should just go off somewhere together that night. But where? It was Christmas Eve.
The phone rang. Bobbie snatched the receiver in his room before anyone upstairs could get it.
"Who do you want? Oh. OK."
He held the phone out for Alec.
Alec put the phone to his ear and heard Creech's voice come over the line like a singing choir of angels. Swing low, sweet chariot.
"What's happenin', dude? I'm a block from your house, at the 7/11. I've got Lisa and Jolene in the love bus. We are ready to par-TAY!"
"I don't know, Creech. It's Christmas Eve."
"And what better time to partay with your best bud?"
Bobbie was studying Alec with intense interest now.
"I kinda promised my mother I'd go to church tonight."
"Come on, man. Papa's got a brand new bag. You haven't touched a girl since Colleen."
Colleen had been his steady girlfriend all through high school. She had gone to a different college and wrote him a month later when she had found someone new.
Alec looked at Bobbie, who looked away, pretending not to care.
"OK, just for a while. I gotta be back by 11."
"Eleven? Are you crazy? That's when the fun begins."
"Just don't drive here. OK? I'll meet you at the 7/11."
"Gotcha. Better hurry. The babes are getting impatient."
Alec handed the phone back to Bobbie.
"Can I go with you?"
Alec shook his head no. "Mom would kill me."
"She's going to kill me anyway for not going to church."
"Go to church then. You still live in her house."
Alec started for the bedroom door.
"Ten to one you don't make it to Midnight Mass," Bobbie said.
"It's none of your business."
Alec grabbed his coat from the hallway closet and started toward the front door, hoping no one would notice. But Aunt Mirabelle, sitting alone now in the living room, spotted him and smiled.
"Don't you worry, grandpa Clete. Everything will be all right — as long as we Knowles stick together."
Alec blew her a kiss and was out the door.
The microbus was parked with its engine running and the lights out. The windows were so heavily fogged Alec couldn't see who was inside.
He opened the sliding passenger door and a blue haze rolled out. Creech and one of the girls were passing a joint in the front seat. The second girl was alone in the middle seat, staring out the window. Alec vaguely recognized the two from his high school's vocational program.
"Creech, do you have to?" Alec said. "It's Christmas Eve."
"Joy to the world, man!"
The girl in the front seat giggled. She had long auburn hair and freckles. The girl in the back, a blonde, kept staring out the window.
Alec sat a respectful distance from the blonde as Creech turned and offered him the joint.
Alec shook his head. "You have any beer?"
The blonde at last turned from the window. "We just bought some. It's in the back."
Creech exhaled and pointed to the blonde.
"Alec, that's Jolene and this sweetie up here is Lisa. Two of the finest foxes ever to graduate from Tillson High."
"Pleased to meet you both."
"I don't remember you at all," Lisa said. "Did you really go to Tillson?"
"He was only president of the senior class," Creech said.
"Yuck. An in-crowder," Lisa said. "No wonder."
"I remember him," Jolene said, with no intonation at all.
"Thanks," Alec said. "I guess I did go to Tillson then."
Jolene smiled, a pretty smile, and the whole bus brightened.
"I gotta a great plan for tonight," Creech said, snapping on the headlights and wiping the fog from the front windshield. "Hang on!"
He roared off in first gear. Alec and Jolene looked at each other in mock terror.
Creech pulled the VW into the empty, snow-covered parking lot at Tillson High, then spun and weaved all the way to the football stadium. He stopped just outside the fencing next to the end zone.
"Come on," he said, opening the driver's door. "This is something I always wanted to do."
There was hole cut in the bottom of the wire fencing, just big enough for a person to crawl through. Creech slipped through quick as a rabbit and stood up again.
"We're gonna par-tay on the 50 yard line!"
Lisa, giggling, slipped through the fence next, then Jolene. Alec pushed the 12-pack of beer through and followed.
Creech was already running a wild victory lap around the stadium, letting out rebel yells and raising his middle finger at the imaginary crowd.
Creech's older brother had been the star quarterback at Tillson, the year the school went to the state finals. Creech had never made the football team.
Alec and the girls formed a circle, as near as they could figure, on the 50-yard line. The snow was powdery and dry and soft to sit on with your legs crossed. Alec tilted his head back — the sky was clear and cold and filled with a thousand stars.
"I like this," he said.
"Me, too," Lisa giggled. "I never went to one football game at Tillson."
Alec broke out the 12-pack and offered each of the girls a beer, then took one himself.
Creech finally joined them, panting and out of breath. Alec offered him a beer, but Creech turned him down. He pulled a flask of Jim Beam out of his coat instead.
Jolene glared at Alec to do something.
"Creech, the keys," Alec said. He put his palm out.
"Sure, man." Creech fumbled around in his pockets, handed them over. He took a long swig on the flask and lay back in the snow.
"Ohmygod! I'm in the Twilight Zone!"
He started chanting the theme song: "Dee, dee, dee-dee … dee, dee, dee-dee …"
"Did you go to any of the games?" Alec asked Jolene.
"A few. I used to work Friday nights at Liberal supermarket. I guess I still do, come to think of it."
She laughed a little. "I remember going to a game as a freshman, though. It was kinda exciting. Ronnie threw four touchdowns that night."
Creech suddenly sat up straight at the sound of his brother's name.
"And what the hell did it get him!? A sniper bullet in the back. For what? Tell me — for friggin' what!"
They were all silent a moment, listening to Creech's panting.
"I think we ought to go," Jolene said, standing. "I can make some hot chocolate."
"Hot chocolate!?" Creech laughed out loud. He took another pull on the whiskey.
Alec stood up, jangled the keys in his hand.
"Yeah. Let's go. I'm freezing."
He looked at his wristwatch. It was almost 11. Bobbie had been right — he wouldn't make it to Midnight Mass.
Creech was snoring loudly by the time they reached the girls' tiny cottage on Haynes Street — as it turned out, just a block from St. Mary.
Alec felt a twinge of guilt as he turned off the engine in front of the house. Alec held Creech in a bear hug and each of the girls took a leg. They carried him inside and deposited him on Lisa's bed.
Lisa slipped off his Army surplus combat boots and covered him with a comforter. Creech curled up in a ball.
"Men are such babies," Lisa observed, but not unkindly.
"I wish I hadn't mentioned Ronnie," Jolene said.
"It's not your fault," Alec said. "It's been eating at him for a long time."
Jolene took Alec's hand, squeezed and let go. Alec thought he had never seen such a serene, beautiful face.
"Well," Lisa announced. "I'm taking a hot shower. Why don't you two kids make yourselves comfortable in the living room."
"I'll start the hot chocolate," Jolene said.
Alec sat alone on the overstuffed sofa in the living room, facing a small Christmas tree — the inexpensive, long-needled kind — dripping with lights and ornaments and tinsel. It was far too busy to have met his mother's standards for good taste.
There were just a few gifts under the tree, and Alec felt a little sad, wondering what kind of future the girls would have without a college education.
The only furniture was the sofa, an old recliner, a tiny TV set with rabbit ears.
But in the corner next to the sofa was a lighted display case filled with beautiful pottery. There were plates and cups and bowls, hand-painted and brilliantly glazed, with intricate patterns of flowers, bees, birds and butterflies.
How could they afford these, Alec wondered.
"You like them?" Jolene said.
She was standing beside him with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. She handed one to Alec.
He nodded toward the display case. "Gorgeous. Where did you find these?"
Jolene smiled. "I made them."
"You're very talented."
"I know," she said, quite matter-of-factly. "I'm saving my money to open up my own studio. I'm taking some business courses at Sinclair."
"I'd buy one in a heartbeat. I mean, if they're for sale …"
Jolene smiled again. "You're cute. You know that?"
Alec blushed to his feet.
"Can we sit on the sofa?" she said. "I don't bite."
They sat together, sipping their hot chocolate, staring at the tree. Alec wondered if he dared put his arm around her.
"Don't you just love Christmas?" Jolene said. "So many lights and colors. We should do this year-round, don't you think?"
He looked at her, and she looked at him, and the next thing happened so naturally it seemed to have been destined from the start: They kissed.
Jolene rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. "That was nice."
Alec's heart was racing, but he felt somehow calm, reassured with Jolene's hair against his cheek. He took her hand in his.
Suddenly, she was up from the sofa and standing at the front window. "I have to show you my view."
She hoisted the blinds, and framed within the picture window was an enormous lighted star. The Christmas star between the steeples of St. Mary.
Alec nearly gasped. He looked at his watch. It was 10 minutes to midnight.
He stood from the sofa. "Listen, Jolene. I'm sorry to do this. I really am. But I've got to be going."
Jolene looked disappointed. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, I just have to be somewhere, that's all."
"Will I see you again?"
He reached for her and they kissed again.
"Not a doubt in the world."
He raced up the steps and into the side entrance at St. Mary. The choir was singing "Silent Night" so sweetly Alec thought he would cry.
Alec turned toward the congregation and despaired of ever finding his family — every pew was jammed all the way to the back of the church. But then, about a dozen pews back, he saw a small gloved hand waving high in the air.
Alec genuflected toward the sanctuary and hustled toward the hand.
Aunt Mirabelle stepped into the aisle and gave him a hug. "I knew you'd come."
Alec squeezed into the pew next to his mother, who smiled and pecked him on the cheek. He would just have to excuse himself from communion and explain to his mother later.
Next to her was his father, holding the grandbaby like a precious treasure, fast asleep in his arms.
Denise, just beyond her father, bent forward and beamed at her brother — scraggly beard, long hair and all.
Alec felt a tap at his shoulder. Max and Lydia were in the pew behind.
"Glad you could make it, bro," Max whispered.
Max shrugged. Lydia shook her head.
Alec turned back to the altar and said under his breath, "Forgive me, Lord."
Aunt Mirabelle squeezed his arm. "Don't you worry. He'll be here."
But the pre-Mass concert ended and the long procession of altar boys, each carrying a red glass torch, reached the communion rail. Father DiAngelo and the incense bearers were just behind. And still no sign Bobbie.
I should have stayed home, Alec thought. I should have set the right example. But then I would have never met Jolene.
Aunt Mirabelle jabbed him with her bony elbow. He looked ahead.
There was Bobbie at the side entrance to the church, looking lost and lonely.
Aunt Mirabelle stepped into the aisle and waved at Alec to come out as well.
She put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a little shove.
Bobbie was leaving again through the side door when Alec caught up with him. He grabbed his younger brother by the shoulder.
Bobbie grinned and shook his brother's hand. "So you really did make it."
"Wouldn't have missed it for anything."
They could see Aunt Mirabelle waving again, this time with both hands high in the air.
"We'd better get moving," Alec said, "before Mirabelle lights a flare."
"Merry Christmas," Bobbie said.
"And peace on Earth, bro."
Copyright, 2006, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.