The Christmas they left us alone

Did you hear the one about Robert Downey Jr, back when he was struggling with substance abuse? One night, all lit up on some combo of booze and pills and who knows what, he broke into a dark house, went into a little girl’s room, stripped down, and passed out in her empty bed. When the family came home they found him gently snoring. Imagine them there, in the doorway, the girl, the dad, the mom — maybe a brother — looking at this handsome movie star asleep in the bed. The dad said he wasn't threatened, since Downey's clothes were so neatly folded and placed just so on his daughter’s little bedside chair.

I thought of that story when I read news of a fellow who woke to the sound of his daughter crying, and found a strange man holding her in his living room. Imagine being that dad, all bleary, coming into a dark room following your girl's cries and seeing a silhouette there, swaying, holding her. Trying to soothe her with too much boozy emphasis — like a drunk had put too much english on the cue ball of communication and ripped the table felt.

My dad was a drunk. He sobered up and earned his twenty year coin before he passed. That's nearly a third of his life spent making his amends, so I'm not going to begrudge him his successes by picking apart his all-to-numerous failures. But given the day, maybe it's the right time to tell this one story.

It was Christmas Eve. I must have been nine or so, which means Glory was five. You’d think I’d have this timeline all nailed down, but I can’t recall, without looking at records, if my mom had died yet. She wasn’t there, so it's possible. But maybe she died the next year after Thanksgiving, and this was the year she was out of town at the bedside of her own sick mother.

Dad liked a formal Christmas Eve. He roasted duck, with braised greens, a little salad with candied walnuts and mandarin orange slices, and an apple pie. He spread it all on the lacquered table with the lace runner, and killed the lights so we could dine by the soft glow of tall white candles in silver holders. He drank beaujolais; he served us Martinelli’s sparking cider in wine glasses which made us feel so grown up. We talked about Santa coming that night. He told the story of Jesus, but Glory stopped him, because she hated the part when Jesus came back to life. Dad hushed her and said “That’s the Easter story. Let’s talk about Mary and Joseph and the Three Kings.”

I remember thinking about that number three. Three Kings. The trinity. Three ghosts in a Christmas Carol. Three of us at this table, all safe and warm. What was it about threes?

After dinner, after we did the dishes with Dad washing, and Glory drying, and me putting them away, Dad pulled me aside.

“Can you get the presents out after Glory is asleep?”

“Why can’t you?”

“I’m going to midnight service.”

“That's not for four hours.”

“Midnight service is at 10pm,” he said, which is still confusing to me to this day. “I have to help set up.” So Dad went to church and left me in charge.

Glory and I had a nice evening of it. We sang a few carols and made sure the tree was looking sharp. We stayed up later than we should have, and ate all the cookies we were supposed to leave for Santa. Glory cried, worried that Santa wouldn’t forgive us for eating them. I convinced her that Mrs. Claus put Santa on a diet and he would prefer some of Mom’s Wheat Thins, anyway, so we really did him a favor.

I read Glory The Night Before Christmas, the one with pictures by Gyo Fujikawa, the one with the pink stripes on the cover. It was nearly 11:30 when she finally fell asleep.

I knew where Dad was: in the basement of the church where the choir practiced. Sitting at the folding table with Peter Pershing, and Tom Mildebrand. Tom was the church Sexton, so he held the keys to the place. Those three would sit around that table and play cards, drinking rye until there was no rye. We three drunks. Dad would make a late night of it. I figured we’d be opening presents in the morning without him, unless he just drank all night and didn't sleep, in which case he’d be there, still drunk, saucy and cheery, until he passed out in his reclining easy chair.

I pulled all the presents out from under Mom's dresses in her closet. I walked them into the living room and put them under the tree. I made it look nice, too, pretending I was Santa, and I thought about how it would look to Glory when she came in that morning. I ate the crackers, making sure to drop some crumbs, and drank the warm milk. I brushed my teeth and got into bed myself around midnight.

When I think about that man whose daughter’s cries awoke him, I think about how you never really hear the first cry in the night. You only wake, aware and concerned, in the darkness of your room. You wait for a signal, some noise or triggered sense to explain why you are not asleep, to explain why your heart is thumping and your endorphins are whispering “danger”. Then comes another cry, another “Mom!” or “Dad!”, or if you’re in my adult house, today, a knock at the wall that separates your room from your child’s.

So it was that Christmas Eve I woke suddenly, panicked. My room, in the attic, was sometimes drafty, but the cold in the room right then was unnatural. My flesh pimpled at it, and I pulled the covers up over my mouth. Yes, it was snowing outside, but this cold was deeper, more unsettling. This cold felt cruel and intentional.

Then I heard what woke me. A three-sound knock: Knock. Knock. Knock.

It wasn’t from the front door. It was almost wood-on-wood, like it came from inside the walls. Years later I lived in an old building in New York City and the radiator coming on had this quality — like the building itself was calling out to you. Like our old house, the house my Dad grew up in and the one his Dad grew up in, too, was trying to warn me about something. Danger! Be aware! Tonight is not still and safe!

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The breath coming out of my nose was visible in the chill. Was it Dad making that noise? Was he home? Every fiber of my being wanted to stay in bed — begged me not to move — but I had to know. I feinted a few times, then got my nerve together and threw back my comforter. I ran to the window, wiping the fog from the pane with my pajama arm, and looked out front to see that his car wasn’t there. No tire tracks in the fresh sheet of snow lining the street, even.

Dad wasn’t home.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Was it Glory? Did she need me? I felt absolutely defenseless and alone, but Glory was so young. I had to protect her. I pulled on my wool robe, shivering against the insane chill — it felt like I would never be warm again — and with my teeth clattering, crept down the stairs, each groaning under my foot.

Opening her door, I saw her there by the yellow nightlight, asleep in bed. She was whimpering, as though her dream had been infected by the chill in the air. As if the house were trying to warn her by making her dreams unsettled.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The sound was just as mysterious — as placeless — in her room as it was in mine. It came from all around, but if you turned as it sounded, its source was no clearer to you.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

I put my hand on her forehead, which was clammy.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

She tightened her brow, and looked like she was about to cry.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Was it getting louder? My teeth clattered, the cold pulled my muscles taut, and a panic was rising my spine.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

But I didn't want her to worry. I said “It’s okay, Glory. It’s okay.” She let out a sigh, and her furrowed brow loosened.

It was like an exhale, then. The room warmed. It just felt normal, like waking from a nightmare and the still of your room feels like true comfort.

I sat on Glory’s bed for as long as I could stand it, just listening to the old house ticking and settling in its normal way. I waited for another knock, sure one would sound any minute, but none came.

The hall clock read 1:30 when I went back up the stairs to my own bed. I cursed Dad for leaving us alone. He should be here now. Why did I have to get out of bed to check on Glory? That was his job. That was a job he gave away so easy. I hated him so much right then. I hated him for not caring. I hated him all the way back to my bed, still unnerved over that sound and where it came from. I hated him all the way back into sleep.

It was a child’s cries that woke me second. No stillness of the room this time — no wondering what it was that woke me. The cry was continuous, penetrating. I stumbled down the staircase, slipping and falling on my behind and thunking down two stairs. When I reached Glory's bedroom and flung open the door, sure I would see her sitting up in bed with tears in her eyes, she was still asleep, in the same position that I left her.

I can't explain that feeling of looking at my sleeping sister and hearing another child wailing. The mental shear of this information had the effect of misfiring all my logical neuron patterns. It was a storm of impulses and confusion in my head, that calmed, like a growing dark, into a pure, heart-seizing panic.

I went over the facts: there were no other children in this house. There were no other children on this block. But there was a child crying, and it was coming from downstairs. From inside the house. From down by the tree.

I padded down the hall. My first step down, in my bare feet, was like stepping into a pool of cold water. It was that cold, again, settled like a fog over the first story of the house, and here I was, descending into it, following the cry of a child that could not exist.

On the wall, a light from the street hit the reproduction of Christina's World that Dad kept there, the emaciated body of Wyeth's model climbing that dry wheat hill. It was almost animated in this light, a sickly, crawling animation that felt insectile, cursed.

Two steps more and I was up to my armpits in freezing cold, the cries echoing, growing, changing, and turning into a kind of word I couldn't quite resolve.

My feet were nearly numb with the cold, but down I went, white-knuckling the bannister. There was some light, I could see. A glow from the living room, and then my bare foot touched the frigid wood of the floor, I turned the corner of the stairs to look down the hallway where I could see just a bit of the tree, and saw that the white lights were turned on, and glowing brighter than I remembered them being. The whole living room was glowing.

But part of it wasn't glowing, I saw. Part of it was shadow. The shadow had a form, and the form was a man, standing there, arms at his side. Swaying a bit, as he blocked lights on the edge of his shadow when he moved across them, and it seemed like they blinked on and off. A man, in my living room, standing in front of my tree, and somewhere near him was an unhappy child.

That cry! That desperate wail! And the words made sense now "I hate you!" they said. "I hope you die!"

Then a large dark blur, the shadow of the man moving across the hallway entrance, blocking the light of the tree as he went across, throwing me into dark cold for a moment. A sound — that sickening sound of hard flesh on flesh, the dull muffled sound of a punch that is so different from that sharp thwack of movie violence.

The child's cry louder, more intense: "I hope you die!"

My breath like clouds in the hallway. I gasped, stepped backward into the wall, bumping the painting of the farmhouse. It clunked, twisting on its nail. I reached to steady it.

The cries stopped. A heavy footstep. A man's voice "Who's that, now? Who's there?" The light on the trees shimmered, as if the man asking made the electricity swell in their green cables.

Then that shadow blocked the tree again. That shadow in the entrance to the hallway. That shadow taking booming steps, coming from the living room towards me.

I shrunk down the wall, teeth clattering in fear and cold. I pulled my arms over my head to stop this devastating strangeness. I felt like a shivering skeleton, all the flesh of my body and soul stripped and flayed on the open rime furnace of horror.

And the footfalls came closer. The man, whoever he was, came to me with waves of ice. He was right there in front of me. I could see his foot, in a brown boot, and I was about to look up at him and see what terror he was about to unleash.

"Is it Santa?" came the voice, the familiar voice of a little girl.

On the stairs, there, half way down in her cotton nightgown with the little red flowers, Glory.

And in front of me, nothing. An empty hallway. The tree with its lights off. The house warm, again. And I, on the ground hunched.

"Is it Santa?" she repeated.

I stood. Stepped tenderly the living room, but all was as it should be. The fear left me, like I was a cask uncorked. It drained from me, and relief came in. My feet were cold on the ground, but the normal cold of bare feet on hardwood at night. Not the unnatural frozen fear of before.

I felt a soft hand in mine. Glory, beside me, looking into the darkness at the tree.

"He did come!" she whispered, like we were in a church looking at a sign of divinity.

"It's not morning yet," I said. "We can't open them yet."

"Okay. I'm having bad dreams. Can you sleep in my room?"

I was glad she asked, because I wanted that too, but didn't want her to think I was too chicken to be on my own.

"Sure," I said.

On the way back upstairs, I looked out the front window. Dad's car, still not home. The clock said: 2:30. Glory and I crawled under her blankets. I was sure I wouldn't sleep with everything that night had held, but fear has its tolls, and on me the stress of it acted to put me right out. We both fell asleep in minutes.

It's all threes. All of these stories happen in threes, don't you see? That's the point of them. They want to show you the pattern early on so you'll know. What have we met yet? The holy ghost? The Ghost of Christmas Past? The son? The Ghost of Christmas Present? What is left, then? Who is coming? Who is left to break into this house? To breach the barrier we all hope guards with our walls?

I don't know what woke me the third time. Maybe it was Glory, who was all elbows and knees in her sleep; who somehow ended up sideways in bed, and stole all the covers to boot.

It was quiet in the house. I did not feel that supernatural chill, and I was not scared. I remembered, as palpable as recalling the taste of grape bubble gum, the fear and cold of before. But I didn't feel them now.

I rose, left Glory to her slumbers. I went down the stairs again, down into the entry hall. Down into the living room to see all the presents. The pine smell of that tree hit me, and it was a comfort I can't quite place, like being outside on a crisp night in the woods when everything is well and that scent makes makes the animal in you whole.

I crouched on my heels, just smelling the air, a certain rare Christmas spirit filling me. It was welcome, that animal peace of love and safety, of security and hope, that even in the most desperate times can find its way into your deepest self.

"Do you think she'll like it?" came the voice. That deep voice, deep from his chest, a man used to being heard and followed.

There, in the dark, sitting in his easy chair. Dad. Home, now.

"The house. Do you think she'll like it?"

I could see it then, in the dim light — it wasn't there when I put out the wrapped presents. A doll house, made by hand. A three story cut-away with a thatched green roof. It was tucked under the tree. Did he make this for her? Did he bring it home tonight? It was marvelous craftsmanship. Gabled windows, with scroll work around them. Fully furnished. A family inside. Couches, stoves, toilets, everything.

A little decorated tree in the living room. By the tree, a man, holding a child with one hand, the other raised as if to strike.

"Was your dad mean?" I said, quiet, under my breath.

He didn't answer. Not for a long time. It was quiet, and I studied the doll house as best I could in the dimness, looking at the little brass doorknobs, the curtains, the comforters on the brass beds. Then his voice broke through, sudden and booming.

"There was a man who used to live in this town," he said. "A man who everyone knew was good. He was kind, set aside time for people in need. Set aside money to help those without. The kind of man we all would like to be, but who so rarely we can find it in ourselves to act like.

"This man had a sleigh, and he would load it with children every Christmas Eve, given enough snow, and he would hitch up his horses, and he would drive them on a ride through the dark. They'd go up the lake onto the hill, around that bluff curve to the top where they could see the town. Then he'd ride them back. They'd gather back at his house where their parents were making merry, and there would be hot chocolate, and gingerbread cookies, and everyone would sing carols.

"Except one year a boy who was older, and hated the man because the boy's own father had not achieved the things that the man had, decided he was going to play a joke. He snuck up on the hill, to the part where the road curves on the bluff, and he spent the afternoon making himself an arsenal of snowballs. His plan was to pelt the man and the children in the sleigh as they went by. He was going to get them cold and wet under their blankets. He was going scare the little ones, and scare the girls, and just show that not everything is perfect all the time. He was going to show them what the world was like for real. Not everybody gets what they want. Not even for Christmas."

He stopped. I looked over at him, but his face was in the shadows. I looked away. It felt wrong to watch him when he seemed to be having trouble telling the story. I waited, looking at the roof of the doll house, built tile-by-tile. Looking at the front door with the inset panels. Looking at the window boxes full of tiny wooden painted flowers. He started again when he was ready.

"And so he waited, and as he waited he pictured perfectly what the moment would be like, and how they'd all cry and get pulled away on the sleigh, their upset floating on the wind as they went into the distance. He thought about how this memory wouldn't be a storybook tale for the kids. He saw how they would learn their lesson.

"He planned how he would let them go by to have their view of the town, so they'd think on the way back down the hill that everything was just dandy. They'd be on the decline of their ride, the last moments when nobody would expect a thing.

"And so when the horses went by up the hill, he let them go. The horses were panting with the effort, steam coming from their nostrils. The sleigh bells danced and sang, skids shushed on the crunchy, fluffy snow."

"Some time later his patience paid out. The sleigh came down the hill, and maybe, according to some, it was going too fast and the man who everybody loved should have been holding the brake tighter. But maybe it was just fortuitous timing, one of those acts of fate nobody could predict, least of all a jealous boy who can't imagine the world past his own narrow purview.

"His moment upon him, the boy stood, and he took aim, and he let loose a volley of snowballs aimed at that sleigh of children looking forward to their hot chocolate; a sleigh he had been party to in previous years, under whose blankets the chill was kept at bay, under whose pull he felt safe and warm for the all-too-brief amount of time he was away from his own parents.

"A young one, all of four, cried as a snowball hit his face. He aimed for the youngest, and hit a girl about his own age with a particularly slushy ball. He pelted them, laughing, guffawing and finding it hard to throw through his merriment at their confusion. Children were screaming, pointing. It was the kind of chaos he had wanted. It was all going according to his plan, just perfect.

"And then a wild throw hit a horse, right on the blinder, right on the eye. A skittish mare. She bucked, and scared the other horses. An animal panic took them, and they pulled the sleigh off the road, and one skid went up on some rocks.

"Imagine that boy, holding snowballs in his hand, dozens more stacked and ready to go, watching as that sleigh slipped down the slope and crashed onto that lake, partly frozen. As the sleigh teetered for a moment, before a horse, struggling, cracked the ice with its hoof. As they broke through. As children, too young to swim, were tossed into black water. As all of them weighed down by wool and boots and gloves, went in right at the point where the lake goes deep, and the only thing that connects the water to land is sharp, iced, slippery rocks. Imagine the inhuman cries of the horses, attached to that heavy sleigh. Imagine the sounds children never had time to make."

I could picture it. I could picture that boy, his frozen face as he saw things go terribly wrong. I could picture him knowing he had to decide: go help at the edge of the water, or run. One of those moments in life you could never forgive yourself for if you make the wrong choice.

"What happened?" I said, and I noticed my breath in the air. The cold was here again. I was freezing. "Did people die?"

A wind at my back, a crash, a sound. I turned, and there in the open front door was Dad. Slumped against the frame. His car, half on the snowy lawn, behind him. His keys dropped his hand to and clattered on the floor.

His chair? Empty. The doll house? Gone. The chill was from the open door. For the first time, the cold I felt had a source.

I walked to him. "Come on." I yanked his hand and he stumbled inside. I closed the door. Locked it. Placed his keys on the hook. I didn't even bother with the stairs, I just led him to the living room, his arm around my shoulder, leaning on me. Mumbling to himself. Thanking me. Saying he loved me.

I put him in his chair, and reclined it with the bar on the side. Took off his soaking wet wingtips. His thin cotton socks, his feet were pure ice. I ran up the stairs and got his pillow and his comforter from his bed. Covered him so that he'd warm up. Made sure his feet were tucked under the blanket.

As I walked away, "turn the lights on," he said.

"The lights?" I asked.

"The tree. Turn the tree lights on," he said.

I did. I plugged them in, and the tree glowed. You could see the presents underneath so clearly. You could see little white glowing dots reflected in every window. You could see the crumbs on the plate and the empty milk glass. You could see Dad, in his chair, his eyes listing, his head lolling.

"Beautiful," he said, his puffy face warm in the glow. And then he was asleep.

3:34 said the clock on the wall as I walked up. I was out in minutes, this time. Dad was home. Maybe he was passed out, but he was here. I was off duty.

I slept until Glory jumped on my bed to wake me.

"It's Christmas! And Santa's come! He ate all the crackers!"

We went downstairs together to wake Dad and see what was wrapped in those presents under the tree. We went down into the warm old house, a place in the universe moving across time.

A place in time moving across the universe.