‘He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end.
That day, the Gulf of Mexico and all the earth was blue and still. The little town of Port Fourchon clung like a barnacle to Louisiana’s southern coast, and behind it the water stretched into the distance for as many miles as the eye could hold. Hidden by distance were the oil rigs and the workers who supplied the town with its economy. At night she could see their lights, ringing the horizon like candles in a vestibule. Toni’s morning shift was nearing its end; the dining area was nearly empty. She liked to spend those slow hours out on the diner’s balcony, overlooking the water. Her thoughts were troubled by the phone call she had received that morning. Gwen, her three-year-old daughter, was offering increasing resistance to the male staffers at the Daylight Daycare, resorting lately to biting them or kicking them in the ribs when they knelt to calm her. Only days before, Toni had been waylaid there by a lurking social worker who talked to her in a gentle saccharine voice, who touched her hand maddeningly and said, “No one is judging you; we just want to help.” The social worker had mentioned the word “psychologist” and asked about their home life. Toni had been embarrassed and enraged, and was only able to conclude the interview with a mumbled promise to schedule another one soon. That her daughter was already displaying such grievous signs of social ineptitude stunned Toni, left her feeling hopeless and betrayed.
It also made her think about Donny again, who had abandoned her years ago to move to New Orleans, leaving her a single mother at twenty-three. She wished death on him that morning, staring over the railing at the unrelenting progression of waves. She willed it along the miles and into his heart.’
—from ”You Go Where It Takes You” by Nathan Ballingrud (North American Lake Monsters)
It’s not just that Eminem is offensive—he’d rap about killing his mom for a good punchline (and has). It’s that in the process of deliberately trying to piss off everyone within reach, he’s managed to tap into the American id with a clarity most artists—rappers or otherwise—don’t have the mettle to. And like any comedian worth his props, he never lets you get a laugh off without forcing you to think about about the tragedies that forged it. From provocations and murder fantasies to gut-turning examinations of his own traumas and travails, here’s the best of Eminem—a definitive artist of his era.
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn. But that’s all right, because I like the way it hurts. Just gonna stand there and hear me cry. Well that’s all right, because I like the way you lie. I love the way you lie…
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
(“We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1857)
Even knowing that christmas ghost stories have roots in fireside winter’s night tales and pre-Christian solstice festivals, one still wonders at the transition. Preceding Charles Dickens, two books are typically mentioned for having associated ghost stories with Christmas: Round About Our Coal-fire: or, Christmas Entertainments: Containing, Christmas Gambols, Tropes, Figures, Etc. with Abundance of Fiddle-Faddle-Stuff; Such as Stories of Fairies, Ghosts, Hobgoblins, Witches, Bull-Beggars, Rawheads and Bloody-Bones, Merry Plays, &c. (1732) and Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819).
Prior to the Victorian era, it’s more common to find references just to the oral tradition, like a 1775 article, “On the Antiquity of Christmas Games,” in which the author wrote “the conversation of the hearth-side was the tales of superstition: the Fairies, Robin Goodfellow, and Hobgoblins, never failed to make the trembling audience mutter an Ave Maria, and cross their chins”1 or a lexicographer writing in 1787 that “ghosts, fairies and witches, with bloody murders, committed by tinkers, formed a principal part of rural conversation, in all large assemblies, and particularly those in the Christmas holydays, during the burning of the yule-block.”2
For these kinds of stories, “ghost story” or “goblin story” were terms used somewhat interchangeably or, paired, “invok[ing] a mood or point[ing] toward a domain: the eerie, the other, the night, the unknown.”3 There are specifically ghosts to be sure, but also demons, vampires, werewolves, mummies, sirens, sociopathic murderers, and more. Would such observations have seemed current to readers, or mainly historical, particularly when it came to families that didn’t have avid storytellers in them? There are reasons to think that many would have seen them as old traditions that did still have life in them.
One possibility is suggested by the dirgelike quatrain above: religious poetry and carols of the Christmas season. Many of the classic ones were rife with ghostly and morbid imagery. The flocking shadows pale Troop to the infernal jail, Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave: And the yellow-skirted fays Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze. “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” John Milton (1629) Vain with the pride of filthy flesh, Which is but dust and loathsomeness, ’Tis but a coffin turn’d with breath, By sickness broached, drawn out by death. “The Fountain of Christ’s Blood” (bef. 1823) Some of the most graphic are those that address the “Massacre of the Innocents,” Herod’s slaying of the children in Bethlehem, an event memorialized by several denominations with its own day during Christmastide. Then Bethlehem grew red with blood, And white with infants’ bones, That nought was heard in Jury land But Children’s mothers’ groans “Augustus Cæsar Having Brought” (bef. 1823) A second possible bridge through time is the theatre.
“Monk” Lewis’s The Castle Spectre, first staged during Advent in 1797, was by 1809 presented as something of a holiday tradition, evoking some of the same bugbears from 1732. did the MONK ever suppose that his ghosts, his caverns, chains, lamps, and rusty daggers, would be laid on the dramatic shelf, merely to be brought forward to decorate a bug-a-boo, or a raw head and bloody bones in the Christmas Holidays?4 Another play, The Mistletoe Bough; or, Young Lovel’s Bride (1834), in adapting the story from the song included herein, added a ghost, goblin, and murder.5 The prefatory remarks by “D.—G.” to its printing referenced a variety of old Christmas traditions, including “stories of hobgoblins, raw-heads, and bloody-bones—Buggy-Bows—Tom-Pokers—Bull-Beggars—witches, wizards, conjurors, Doctor Faustus, Friar Bacon, Doctor Partridge, and such like horrible bodies, that terrify and delight round about a coal-fire at Christmas,”6 all taken from that 1732 book.
One last bridge is the media’s coverage of ghost panics. In late November through late December 1839, for example, two of the most widely-reported were the Limekiln-street ghost in Dover, and a supposed haunting of Christ Church-yard in Southwark. There was a conscious association of such things with the oral story tradition. The inhabitants have been for many days past amusing themselves with a ghost story. Some gentle family has been greatly annoyed by hearing knocks on the walls of the rooms, and the latches of the doors jingle, and have charged the servant girl with the “spiritous” propensity. The girl has denied the charge in a lengthened affidavit, and the wonder-loving neighbours are making a portentous Christmas tale of the event.7
Such stories had been so typical for so long that in 1840 a writer could refer to “the usual ghost story, which country newspapers are expected to provide for Christmas tide.”8 Examples of Christmas ghost story fiction in print do seem to be rare, however, until some years after the end of the Regency and the publication of the first literary annual The Forget-Me-Not in 1822.
The regularly printed Christmas ghost story really does seem to be a thing of the Victorian age, not earlier. Even with the advent of the annuals, while such Christmas gifts would often include Gothic tales (as did monthly magazines throughout the year),9 early on they weren’t necessarily tales of ghosts. When they were, the stories were frequently of the variety that proves to have a rational explanation.10
Those stories may have been in part an attempt to instruct readers, to educate them to avoid ghost panics. The problem with panics wasn’t merely the embarrassing naïveté of the observers, but the consequence of the crowds. The aforementioned 1839 Christchurch “ghost” had attracted 200 people, and pickpocketing resulted—as had also happened in earlier cases.11 Texts might still explicitly conjure the image of the fireside ghost story in passing, though. When cluster’d round the fire at night, Old William talks of ghost and sprite, And as a distant out-house gate Slams by the wind, they fearful wait, While some each shadowy nook explore, Then Christmas pauses at the door.12 When did printed Christmas ghost stories start to become common?
Tentatively one might point to the publication of T. H. Bayly’s “The Mistletoe Bough” and J. G. Lockhart’s “Little Willie Bell” (1827) in this volume, and Sir Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber” (1828) back in volume one. As noted earlier, Bayly’s already morbid song soon had a ghost added to it on stage. The two stories were received well enough to garner wider circulation through immediate reprints by other publications. They received some criticism by bluenoses afraid of fostering belief in ghosts, but such complaints largely diminished over the decades. Scott’s story hadn’t been written with Christmas reading specifically in mind; he’d originally planned to include it in his own Chronicles of the Canongate.13 Nonetheless, the association was created; a mere month later a writer called it to mind among a “train of associations” in a letter under the heading “A Few Ghosts for Christmas-Time.”14
Apart from referencing traditional ghosts, the letter mentioned the Scandinavian nix water sprite or Bäckahäst brook horse, “Der Wilde Jäger” by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794), The Fairy Mythology (1828) by Thomas Keightley (1789-1872), and George Barrington’s History of New South Wales (1802). Scott’s ghost was the only one that had been made available at Christmastime. The inclusion of the others suggested that if one wasn’t a natural storyteller then any weird fiction at hand might do. In fact, such a sentiment was expressed in a review of Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft Addressed to J. G. Lockhart, Esq. (1830): We are very angry with you, friend Murr[a]y, for publishing this delightful volume in September. Why not about Christmas and the fire-side months, when it would indeed most charmingly entertain the family groups now scattered at watering-places, in country quarters, and on tours of pleasure.15
The Winter’s Wreath for 1831 likewise depicted a storyteller turning to a book rather than memory or imagination. “On such a night,” from tome before him spread, To bright and wondering eyes, some awe-struck wight Oft reads how erst have risen the living dead16 That same year, a volume of “The Standard Novels” that bound together Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Friedrich Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer was suggested as one that “might safely and with profit be perused by the young, for whom they are well adapted as cheap and acceptable Christmas Presents, and New-Year’s Gifts.”17 Through the 1830s-40s there would be other ghost stories set or published at Christmas. Aside from Dickens’s 1836 “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” examples include “The Green Huntsman, or, The Haunted Villa” (1841) in volume four of this Valancourt series and “The Necromancer, or, Ghost versus Gramarye” (1842) in volume two. References to the tradition in poetry and articles also grew more common. The ear of the young most greedily feeds, (On nights like thus) upon “Goblin Tale,”— Upon SIGNS and KNOCKS, and murderous deeds, ’Till the eye looks wild and the cheek turns pale.18
If there were any doubts as to the market for Christmas ghost stories by that point, they would have been dispelled by the 1843 publication of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Even though his Carol did not pioneer the genre, it certainly went on to be its biggest success. Dickens can also be credited with adding something to the genre that was entirely new: the anthology. It wasn’t unusual for multiple Christmas ghost stories to appear in an annual, Christmas number, or newspaper, but the idea of having them all tied together with a frame story was. Dickens had edited and contributed to anthologies starting in the 1840s, but they did not feature ghost stories. The Christmas number he edited for All the Year Round, titled “The Haunted House,” combined the idea of the anthology with the idea of ghosts, but without having ghosts per se—they were more metaphorical things of imagination and memory. With the 1860 Christmas number, “A Message from the Sea,” that changed; the tale “My Brother’s Ghost Story” (included here) does feature an actual ghost.
Some monthlies and newspapers copied the idea of such anthologies with editors devising wraparound stories and used them periodically at least into the 1890s. That tradition was revived in films, including Dead of Night (1945), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and A Christmas Horror Story (2015). Remarkably, though, very few of the hundreds of Christmas horror movies that have been made19 have been adapted from published Christmas ghost stories.
As decades passed and the turn of the century approached, complaints about the graphic nature of some Christmas ghost stories began appearing with greater frequency. The lengthiest and most impassioned objection was by George R. Sims in 1893, writing of a Christmas number, “I think I shall take it with me the first time I am invited to a funeral and have to make a long journey in a mourning coach,” and cautioning that if the future brought more of the same, “I shall expect next year to open a Christmas number and find that the double-page supplement is a beautifully coloured picture of Hell.”20 Roughly during the same period of time, a change in Christmas poetry could also be seen. In the latter half of the century, poems that told humorous Christmas ghost stories or that had fun with the tradition were multiplying.
After the turn of the century, humorous ones were practically the only kind; “Woden, the Wild Huntsman” from 1911 herein is a rare exception. The genre of the Christmas mystery was also growing, e.g. Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (1892), Father Brown in “The Flying Stars” (1911), and Hercule Poirot in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” (1923). Despite such inroads, while the Christmas ghost story in both its serious and humorous varieties may have declined somewhat, it would never die—and rightly so! “Do you—do you believe in—well, in Undying Things?” [asked “The Man Who Read All the Christmas Numbers.”] “You mean the Christmas Number Thing,” I replied. “I have not had the honour of its acquaintance for a good many years. The only one I remember had a habit which, I suppose, is common to all of them.” “What is that?” he asked, with visible anxiety. I stood up and pointed towards a corner of the room. “The Thing—came—slowly—on!”21 And they’re still creeping on from the Victorian age to ours . . .
—Christopher Philippo August 2021
About Christopher K. Philippo
Christopher K. Philippo was deeply influenced by Astrid Lindgren’s The Tomten, Norman Bridwell’s The Witch’s Christmas, and Jane Thayer’s Gus Was a Christmas Ghost (photo) in the 1970s and Dr. Demento’s syndicated Christmas broadcasts on PYX 106 in the 1980s.
A Trustee of the Bethlehem Historical Society, a former volunteer for the NYS Historian, and a gravestone conservationist, he finds figuratively or literally unearthing and then sharing the forgotten to be intensely satisfying. His future books will examine the complete works of H. C. Dodge, women horror directors’ movies, and the early film career of Alfred Hitchcock.
1 Thomas Chatterton, “On the Antiquity of Christmas Games,” Westminster Magazine (Dec. 1775): 650.
2 Francis Grose, A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (London: S. Hooper, 1787), vii-viii.
3 Michael Ostling and Richard Forest, “ ‘Goblins, Owles and Sprites’: Discerning Early-Modern English Preternatural Beings through Collocational Analysis,” Religion 44, no. 4: 547-572. For other bogey terms, see Henk Dragstra, “ ‘Bull-Begger’: An Early Modern Scare-Word,” in Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason, ed. Karin E. Olsen and Jan R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2014). 4
5 C. A. Somerset, The Mistletoe Bough; or, Young Lovel’s Bride: A Legendary Drama, in Two Acts (London: G. H. Davidson, [1834?]).
6 “D.—G.” was probably George Daniel, author of Merrie England in the Olden Time, Vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1842). An abbreviated version of the comment about “stories of hobgoblins” appears in Merrie England at p. 5, n. 1.
9 See, e.g., Katherine D. Harris, The Forgotten Gothic: Short Stories from British Literary Annuals, 1823-1831 (Zittaw Press, 2012); Jennie MacDonald, Schabraco and other Gothic Tales from the Ladies’ Monthly Museum, 1798-1828 (Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2020).
10 See Harris (2012), xxxi. E.g., Barbara Hofland, “The Regretted Ghost,” Forget-Me-Not; A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1826 (London: R. Ackermann, 1826): 79-101; John Roby, “The Haunted Manor-House,” Forget-Me-Not; A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1827 (London: Ackermann, 1827): 133-159.
12 Edwin Lees, “Signs of Christmas,” in Christmas and the New Year: A Masque, for the Fire-Side (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827): 10-11.
13 David Douglas, ed. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott: From the Original Manuscript at Abbotsford (New York: Harper & Bros., 1890): 117.
14 Mem., “A Few Ghosts for Christmastime,” New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (Jan. 1, 1829): 77-80.
15 Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Fashionable Weekly Gazette (Sept. 27, 1830): p. 4, col. 3.
16 William Brownsword Chorley, “The Wreath,” in The Winter’s Wreath for 1831 (London: Whittaker, 1831): vi-vii.
17 “Standard Novels and Romances,” The Sun [London] (Dec. 23, 1831): 1, col. 2.
18 “Moon-Light Reflections; Induced by the Depopulated Appearance of the Streets of Bury, on Christmas Night!” Suffolk Chronicle (Jan. 8, 1842): 4, col. 2.
19 See Kim Newman, “You Better Watch Out: Christmas in Horror Films,” in Christmas at the Movies, ed. Mark Connelly (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001): 135-142; Paul Corupe and Kier-La Janisse, Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (Toronto: Spectacular Optical Publications, 2017); “Christmas Horror Movies: A History—updated for 2019,” Popcorn Horror, Christmas Special 2019, available at https://payhip.com/b/bBgE; Richard Mogg, Giftwrapped & Gutted: The Trashiest Christmas Horror Movies (RickMoe Publishing, 2019).
20 The Referee (Dec. 17, 1893): 7, cols. 2-4.
21 L.F.A. “The Man Who Read All the Christmas Numbers,” Illustrated London News (Dec. 23, 1893): 13, cols. 2-3.
It was my father’s belief that nothing built character better than an after-school job. He himself had peddled newspapers and delivered groceries by bobsled, and look at him! My older sister, Lisa, and I decided that if hard work had forged his character, we wanted nothing to do with it. “Thanks but no thanks,” we said.
As an added incentive, he cut off our allowance, and within a few weeks Lisa and I were both working in cafeterias. I washed dishes at the Piccadilly while Lisa manned the steam tables at K&W. Situated in Raleigh’s first indoor shopping center, her cafeteria was a clubhouse for the local senior citizens who might spend an entire afternoon huddled over a single serving of rice pudding. The K&W was past its prime, whereas my cafeteria was located in the sparkling new Crabtree Valley, a former swamp that made her mall look like a dusty tribal marketplace. The Piccadilly had red velvet walls and a dining room lit by artificial torches. A suit of armor marked the entrance to this culinary castle where, we were told, the customer was always king.
As a dishwasher, I spent my shifts yanking trays off a conveyor belt and feeding their contents into an enormous, foul-mouthed machine that roared and spat until its charges, free of congealed fat and gravy, came steaming out the other end, fogging my glasses and filling the air with the harsh smell of chlorine.
I didn’t care for the heat or the noise, but other than that, I enjoyed my job. The work kept my hands busy but left my mind free to concentrate on more important matters. Sometimes I would study from the list of irregular Spanish verbs I kept posted over the sink, but most often I found myself fantasizing about a career in television. It was my dream to create and star in a program called “Socrates and Company,” in which I would travel from place to place accompanied by a brilliant and loyal proboscis monkey. Socrates and I wouldn’t go looking for trouble, but week after week it would manage to find us. “The eyes, Socrates, go for the eyes,” I’d yell during one of our many fight scenes.
Maybe in Santa Fe I’d be hit over the head by a heavy jug and lose my memory. Somewhere in Utah Socrates might discover a satchel of valuable coins or befriend someone wearing a turban, but at the end of every show we would realize that true happiness often lies where you very least expect it. It might arrive in the form of a gentle breeze or a handful of peanuts, but when it came, we would seize it with our own brand of folksy wisdom. I’d planned it so that the final moments of each episode would find Socrates and me standing before a brilliant sunset as I reminded both my friend and the viewing audience of the lesson I had learned. “It suddenly occurred to me that there are things far more valuable than gold,” I might say, watching a hawk glide high above a violet butte. Plotting the episodes was no more difficult than sorting the silverware; the hard part was thinking up the all-important revelation. “It suddenly occurred to me that . . .” That what? Things hardly ever occurred to me. It might occasionally strike me that I’d broken a glass or filled the machine with too much detergent, but the larger issues tended to elude me.
Like several of the other local cafeterias, the Piccadilly often hired former convicts whose jobs were arranged through parole officers and work-release programs. During my downtime I often hung around their area of the kitchen, hoping that in listening to these felons, something profound might reveal itself. “It suddenly occurred to me that we are all held captive in that prison known as the human mind,” I would muse, or “It suddenly occurred to me that freedom was perhaps the greatest gift of all.” I’d hoped to crack these people like nut s, sifting through their brains and coming away with the lessons garnered by a lifetime of regret. Unfortunately, having spent the better part of their lives behind bars, the men and women I worked with seemed to have learned nothing except how to get out of doing their jobs.
Kettles boiled over and steaks were routinely left to blacken on the grill as my coworkers crept off to the stockroom to smoke and play cards or sometimes have sex. “It suddenly occurred to me that people are lazy,” my reflective TV voice would say. This was hardly a major news flash, and as a closing statement, it would undoubtedly fail to warm the hearts of my television audience — who, by their very definition, were probably not too active themselves. No, my message needed to be upbeat and spiritually rewarding. Joy, I’d think, whacking the dirty plates against the edge of the slop can. What brings people joy?
As Christmas approached, I found my valuable fantasy time cut in half. The mall was crazy now with hungry shoppers, and every three minutes I had the assistant manager on my back hollering for more coffee cups and vegetable bowls. The holiday customers formed a loud and steady line that reached past the coat of arms all the way to the suit of armor at the front door. They wore cheerful Santas pinned to their baubled sweatshirts and carried oversized bags laden with power tools and assorted cheeses bought as gifts for friends and relatives. It made me sad and desperate to see so many people, strangers whose sheer numbers eroded the sense of importance I was working so hard to invent. Where did they come from, and why couldn’t they just go home? I might swipe their trays off the belt without once wondering who these people were and why they hadn’t bothered to finish their breaded cutlets. They meant nothing to me, and watching them move down the line toward the cashier, it became apparent that the feeling was mutual. They wouldn’t even remember the meal, much less the person who had provided them with their piping hot tray. How was it that I was important and they were not? There had to be something that separated us.
I had always looked forward to Christmas, but now my enthusiasm struck me as cheap and common. Leaving the cafeteria after work, I would see even more people, swarming out of the shops and restaurants like bees from a burning hive. Here were the young couples in their stocking caps and the families clustered beside the fountain, each with its lists and marked envelopes of money. It was no wonder the Chinese people couldn’t tell them apart. They were sheep, stupid animals programmed by nature to mate and graze and bleat out their wishes to the obese, retired school principal who sat on his ass in the mall’s sorry-looking North Pole.
My animosity was getting the best of me until I saw in their behavior a solution to my troubling identity crisis. Let them have their rolls of gift wrap and gaudy, personalized stockings: if it meant something to them, I wanted nothing to do with it. This year I would be the one without the shopping bags, the one wearing black in protest of their thoughtless commercialism. My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become and why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly cafeteria?”
My boycott had a practical edge, as this year I wasn’t expecting to receive much of anything. In an effort to save money, my family had decided to try something new and draw names. This cruel lottery left my fate in the hands of Lisa, whose idea of a decent gift was a six-pack of flashlight batteries or a scented candle in the shape of a toadstool. Patently, joyfully normal, Lisa was the embodiment of everything I found depressing. Nothing set her apart from the thousands of other girls I saw each day, but this fact did not disturb her in the least. In her desire to be typical, my sister had succeeded with flying, muted colors. Unlike me, she would never entertain deep thoughts or travel to distant lands in the company of a long-nosed proboscis monkey. None of them would. Along with everyone else, she had traded her soul in exchange for a stocking stuffer and now would have to suffer the consequences.
As the holiday season advanced, so did my impatience. Four days before Christmas we were seated in the dining room, celebrating Lisa’s eighteenth birthday, when she received a phone call from what sounded like a full-grown woman with a mouth full of gravel. When I asked who was calling, the woman hesitated before identifying herself as “a friend. I’m a goddamned friend, all right?” This caught my attention because, to my knowledge, my sister had no adult friends, goddamned or otherwise. I handed her the phone and watched as she carried it out into the carport, stretching the cord to its limit. It was a forbidden act, and because I felt like causing some trouble, I told on her. “Dad, Lisa carried the receiver outside and now it looks like the phone is going to spring off the wall.”
He started out of his chair before my mother said, “Leave her alone, for God’s sake, it’s her birthday. If the phone breaks, I’ll buy you another one for Christmas.” She gave me a look usually reserved for eight-legged creatures found living beneath the kitchen sink. “You always have to stir the turd, don’t you?”
“But she’s talking to a woman!” I said.
My mother crushed her cigarette into her plate. “Big deal, so are you.”
Lisa returned to the table in a hurried, agitated state, asking my parents if she might use the station wagon. “David and I should be back in an hour or so,” she said, grabbing our coats from the front-hall closet. “David who?” I asked. “This David’s not going anywhere.” I’d hoped to spend the evening in my bedroom, working on the pastel portrait of Socrates I planned to quietly give myself as an anti-Christmas present. We stood negotiating in the dark driveway until I agreed to join her, no questions asked, in exchange for three dollars and unlimited use of her new hair dryer. Having settled that, we got into the car and drove past the brightly decorated homes of north Raleigh. Normally, Lisa demanded strict control of the radio. At the sight of my fingers approaching the dial, she would smack my hand and threaten to toss me out of the car, but tonight she gave me no grief, failing to complain even when I settled on a local talk show devoted to the theme of high-school basketball. I couldn’t stand basketball and only tuned in to get a rise out of her. “How about those Spartans,” I said, nudging her in the shoulder. “You think they’ve got what it takes to defeat the Imps and move on to the city championship?”
“Whatever. I don’t know. Maybe.”
Something had clearly placed her beyond my reach, and it drove me wild with something that felt very much like jealousy. “What? Are we going to meet up with the mother of your boy friend? How much do you have to pay her to allow him to go out with you? You have a boyfriend, is that it?”
She ignored my questions, quietly muttering to herself as she drove us past the capitol building and into a defeated neighborhood where the porches sagged and a majority of the windows sported sheets and towels rather than curtains. People got knifed in places like this, I heard about it all the time on my radio call-in shows. Had my father been driving, we would have locked all the doors and ignored the stop signs, speeding through the area as quickly as possible because that’s what smart people did.
“All right, then.” Lisa pulled over and parked behind a van whose owner stood examining his flattened tire with a flashlight. “Things might get a little rough up there, so just do what I tell you and hopefully no one will get hurt.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and stepped out of the car, kicking aside the cans and bottles that lined the curb. My sister meant business, whatever it was, and in that instant she appeared beautiful and exotic and dangerously stupid. LOCAL TEENS SLAIN FOR SPORT the headlines would read. HOLIDAY HIJINKS END IN HOMICIDE.
“Maybe someone should wait with the car,” I whispered, but she was beyond reason, charging up the street in her sensible shoes with a rugged, determined gait. There was no fumbling for a street address or doorbell; Lisa seemed to know exactly where she was going. I followed her into a dark vestibule and up a flight of stairs, where without even bothering to knock, she threw open an unlocked door and stormed into a filthy, overheated room that smelled of stale smoke, sour milk, and seriously dirty laundry — three odors that, once combined, can peel the paint off walls.
This was a place where bad things happened to people who clearly deserved nothing but the worst. The stained carpet was littered with cigarette butts and clotted, dust-covered flypaper hung from the ceiling like beaded curtains. In the far corner of the room, a man stood beside an overturned coffee table, illuminated by a shadeless lamp that broadcast his shadow, huge and menacing, against the grimy wall. He was dressed casually in briefs and a soiled T-shirt and had thin, hairless legs the color and pebbled texture of a store-bought chicken.
We had obviously interrupted some rite of unhappiness, something that involved shouting obscenities while pounding upon a locked door with a white-tasseled loafer. The activity consumed him so completely that it took the man a few moments to register our presence. Squinting in our direction, he dropped the shoe and steadied himself against the mantel.
“Why if it isn’t Lisa Fucking Sedaris. I should have known that bitch would call a fucking bitch like you.”
I would have been less shocked had a seal called my sister by name. How was it that she knew this man? Staggeringly drunk, the wasted, boozy Popeye charged in our direction, and Lisa rushed to meet him. I watched then, cringing, as she caught him by the neck, throwing him down against the coffee table before gathering her fists and dancing in a tight circle, thoroughly prepared to take on any hidden comers. It was as if she had spent a lifetime dressed in a black gi, breaking two-by-fours with her bare hands in preparation for this moment. She never faltered or cried out for help, just gave him a few swift kicks in the ribs and proceeded to carry out her mission.
“I ain’t done nothing,” the man moaned, turning to me with his bloodshot eyes. “You there, tell that bitch I hadn’t done nothing.”
“I beg your pardon?” I inched toward the door. “Oh, golly, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just, you know, I just came along for the ride.”
“Guard him!” Lisa yelled.
Guard him how? Who did she think I was? “Don’t leave me,” I cried, but she had already gone, and suddenly I was alone with this shattered man, who massaged his chest and begged me to fetch his cigarettes off the sofa.
“Go on, boy, get ’em. Fucking bitches. Lord Jesus, I’m in pain.”
I heard my sister’s voice and looked up to see her fleeing the back room, dragging behind her a clownish, tear-stained woman of an indeterminate age. Her face was lined and puffy. The thick, fat, mottled body had a lot of mileage on it, but her clothing was unseasonable and absurdly youthful. While my mother’s crowd favored holiday maxiskirts and turquoise squash-blossom necklaces, this woman had attempted to offset the ravages of time with denim hot pants and a matching vest that, fastened together by a cross-hatching system of rawhide laces, afforded an unfortunate view of her sagging, ponderous breasts.
“Out!” Lisa shouted. “Hurry, now, step on it!”
I was way ahead of her.
“My shoes and, oh, I better take a jacket,” the woman said. “And while I’m at it . . .” Her voice faded as I raced down the stairs, past the other equally dark and volatile doorways where people fought over the noise of their screeching televisions. I was out on the street, panting for breath and wondering how many times my sister would be stabbed or bludgeoned when I heard the screen door slam and saw Lisa appear on the front porch. She paused on the stoop, waiting as the woman put on a jacket and stuffed her feet into a pair of shoes that, in their bulk and color, resembled a matching set of paint cans. Instructed once again to run, her friend proceeded to totter down the street on what amounted to a pair of stilts. It was an awkward, useless style of walking, and with each step she ran her fingers through the air as if she were playing a piano.
Two young men passed down the sidewalk carrying a mattress, and one of them turned to yell, “Get that ho off the street!”
Had we been in a richer or poorer neighborhood, I might have searched the ground for a gardening tool, fearful that once again I might step on the thing and split my lip with the handle. Ho. I’d heard that word bandied about by the cooks at work, who leered and snickered much like the young men with their mattress. It took me a second to realize that they were referring either to Lisa or to her friend, who was squatting to examine a hole in her fishnet stockings. A whore. Of the two possible nominees, the friend seemed the more likely candidate. At the mention of the word, she had lifted her head and given a little wave. This woman was the real thing, and I studied her, my breath shallow and visible in the cold, dark air. Like a heroin addict or a mass murderer, a prostitute was, to me, more exotic than any celebrity could ever hope to be. You’d see them downtown after dark, sticking their hatchety faces into the windows of idling cars. “Hey there, Flossie, what do you charge for a lube job,” my father would shout. I always wanted him to pull over so we could get a better look, but having made his little comment, he’d roll up the window and speed off, chuckling.
“Dinah, this is David. David, Dinah.” Lisa made the introductions after we’d settled ourselves into the car. Apparently, the two of them worked together at the K&W and had come to know each other quite well.
“Oh, that Gene is a real hothead,” Dinah said. “He’s possessive, like I told you, but, Lord, that man just can’t help himself from loving me. Maybe we’ll just drive around the block a few times and give him a chance to cool off.” She lit a cigarette and dropped it, lowering her high, teased head of hair before sighing, “Oh, well, it won’t be the first car I’ve set fire to.”
“Found it!” Lisa held the cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply, releasing the smoke through her nostrils. A beginner would have gagged, but she puffed away like a withered old pro. What other tricks had she learned recently? Was there a packet of heroin tucked inside her pocket? Had she taken to throwing knives or shooting pool while the rest of us were asleep in our beds? She stared thoughtfully at the street before asking, “Dinah, are you drunk?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am,” the woman answered. “I surely am.”
“And Gene was drunk, too, am I wrong?”
“A little bit drunk,” Dinah said. “But that’s his way. We like to get drunk in the winter when there’s nothing else to do.”
“And is that good for your work-release program? Is getting drunk and having fistfights something that’s going to keep you out of trouble?”
“It wasn’t nothing but horseplay. It got out of hand is all.”
Lisa didn’t seem to mind making the woman uncomfortable. “You told me yesterday at the steam table that you were ready to break it off with that sorry little bastard and work your way up to carving. A person’s got to have steady hands if she wants to carve meat all day, don’t you know that?”
Dinah snapped. “I can’t remember everything I said at the goddamned steam table. Hell’s bells, girl, I never would have called if I’d known you was going to hassle me half to death. Turn around, now, I want to go home.”
“Oh, I’m taking you home all right,” Lisa said. The sorry neighborhood receded into the distance, and Dinah turned in her seat, squinting until her eyes were completely shut, and she fell asleep.
“Mom, this is Dinah. Dinah, this is my mother.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” my mother said, helping our guest out of her shoddy rabbit jacket. “For a moment there, I was afraid you were one of those damned carolers. I wasn’t expecting company, so you’ll have to excuse the way I look.”
The way she looked? Dinah’s mascara had smeared, causing her to resemble a ridiculously costumed panda, and here my mother was apologizing for the way she looked? I took her aside for a moment.
“Whore,” I whispered. “That lady is a whore.” I’m not certain what reaction I was after, but shock would have done quite nicely. Instead, my mother said, “Well, then, we should probably offer her a drink.” She left me standing in the dining room listening as she presented the woman with a long list of options delivered in alphabetical order. “We’ve got beer, bourbon, gin, ouzo, rum, scotch, vodka, whiskey, wine, and some thick yellow something or other in an unmarked bottle.”
When Dinah spilled her cocktail onto the clean holiday tablecloth, my mother apologized as though it had been her fault for filling the glass too high. “I tend to do that sometimes. Here, let me get you another.”
Hearing a fresh, slurred voice in the house, my brother and sisters rushed from their rooms and gathered to examine Lisa’s friend, who clearly cherished the attention. “Angels,” Dinah said. “You’re a pack of goddamned angels.” She was surrounded by admirers, and her eyes brightened with each question or comment.
“Which do you like better,” my sister Amy asked, “spending the night with strange guys or working in a cafeteria? What were the prison guards really like? Do you ever carry a weapon? How much do you charge if somebody just wants a spanking?”
“One at a time, one at a time,” my mother said. “Give her a second to answer.”
Tiffany tried on Dinah’s shoes while Gretchen modeled her jacket. Birthday cake was offered and candles were lit. My six-year-old brother emptied ashtrays, blushing with pride when Dinah complimented him on his efficiency. “This one here ought to be working down at the cafeteria,” she said. “He’s got the arms of a busboy and eyes like an assistant manager. Nothing slips by you, does it, sweetheart? Let’s see if he can freshen up an old lady’s drink.”
Woken by the noise, my father wandered up from the basement, where he’d been sitting in his underwear, drowsing in front of the television. His approach generally marked the end of the party. “What the hell are you doing in here at two o’clock in the morning?” he’d shout. It was his habit to add anywhere from three to four hours to the actual time in order to strengthen the charge of disorderly conduct. The sun could still be shining, and he’d claim it was midnight. Point to the clock and he’d only throw up his hands to say, “Bullshit! Go to bed.”
This evening he was in a particularly foul mood and announced his arrival well before entering the room. “What are you, tap-dancing up there? You want to put on a show, do you? Well, the theater’s closed for the night. Take your act on the road; it’s four o’clock in the morning, goddamnit.”
We turned instinctively to our mother. “Don’t come into the kitchen,” she called. “We don’t want you to see your… Christmas present.”
“My present? Really?” His voice softened to a mew. “Carry on, then.”
We listened to his footsteps as he padded down the hallway to his room and then we covered our mouths, laughing until our sight was watery. Swallows of cake revisited our throats, and our faces, reflected in the dark windows, were flushed and vibrant.
Every gathering has its moment. As an adult, I distract myself by trying to identify it, dreading the inevitable downswing that is sure to follow. The guests will repeat themselves one too many times, or you’ll run out of dope or liquor and realize that it was all you ever had in common. At the time, though, I still believed that such a warm and heady feeling might last forever and that in embracing it fully, I might approximate the same wistful feeling adults found in their second round of drinks. I had hated Lisa, felt jealous of her secret life, and now, over my clotted mug of hot chocolate, I felt for her a great pride. Up and down our street the houses were decorated with plywood angels and mangers framed in colored bulbs. Over on Coronado someone had lashed speakers to his trees, broadcasting carols over the candy-cane forest he’d planted beside his driveway. Our neighbors would rise early and visit the malls, snatching up gift-wrapped DustBusters and the pom-pommed socks used to protect the heads of golf clubs. Christmas would arrive and we, the people of this country, would gather around identical trees, voicing our pleasure with worn clichés. Turkeys would roast to a hard, shellacked finish. Hams would be crosshatched with x’s and glazed with fruit — and it was fine by me. Were I to receive a riding vacuum cleaner or even a wizened proboscis monkey, it wouldn’t please me half as much as knowing we were the only family in the neighborhood with a prostitute in our kitchen. From this moment on, the phrase “Ho, ho, ho” would take on a whole different meaning; and I, along with the rest of my family, could appreciate it in our own clannish way. It suddenly occurred to me. Just like that.❄️