12 Plays of Christmas: Some Assembly Required

In the midst of a tantrum burst of emotions, Robson stomped into his room and slammed the door shut so hard the picture on the wall to the right came free of its hook and crashed to the floor. It was one of his favorites, a print of a painting depicting a young boy and girl building a snowman with the caption “Snowmen fall from heaven…unassembled” across the bottom. The glass and the frame were cracked and now it was ruined just like everything else in his life!

He kicked over his wastebasket, the plastic one with Captain America and all the other Marvel’s Avengers on it, and discarded candy wrappers and other bits of broken junk he no longer had a use for skittered across the floor which only made him angrier.

He threw his head back and screamed, “Why can’t you give me what I want? Why can’t I eat what I want to eat and watch what I want to watch on tv? I’m sick of this stupid house and I hate you both! I can’t wait until I get older and leave here forever!”

And the rage kept spilling out until he had expelled all the air from his lungs and the rant became a coughing fit, but he didn’t care. He pulled in a deep breath of new air and let out a frustrated and sustained, guttural bellow so loud it vibrated his eyeballs.

When the red mist of fury lifted from his vision and he was left with nothing more than the fatigue of ages pressing down upon him, he heard a soft rap on his door. He had no desire to respond, so he didn’t but the door handle turned slowly and his father pushed his head inside.

“Got it all out of your system?” his father asked with no trace of anything being out of the ordinary.

Robson didn’t answer, he couldn’t answer, the fatigue wouldn’t allow it. But as his father entered the room and surveyed the damage, the young boy stood firm, and let his breath out through his nostrils in a defiant hiss.

His father picked up the cracked picture frame and examined it as he walked past Robson to sit on the bed. He patted the full-size mattress, indicating for his son to have a seat but the boy didn’t move. “Come on, it’s not going to kill you to sit next to me. I just need you to listen to what I have to say and then I’ll leave you alone to continue being mad at us.”

Reluctantly, Robson dragged his feet as if the gravity inside the room had suddenly increased tenfold and plopped onto the bed as far away from his father as he could manage.

“A shame about this picture,” his father said. “Your mother and I bought this for you because it was the first thing you actually asked for. You pleaded with us and made your case so succinctly that we had no choice. At the time, we didn’t have the money to spare but sometimes the happiness of the people you love is worth more than any dollar amount.

“The reason I’m bringing this up is to talk to you about sacrifices. You’re too young to fully understand this but everybody in the world has to make them, no matter how young or old they are. And you may think the things we ask or tell you to do are unfair but that’s only because you don’t see the bigger picture and there’s no real reason you should at your age. Our job as parents is to take care of the big important stuff so that you can live the easiest life we can manage to give you. But it’s also our duty to prepare you for what’s to come and we planned to wait until you were a little older, but since you’re so eager to grow up, let me tell you what life holds in store for you.

“As you get older, you’re going to learn that even the people who were never supposed to let you down probably will and someone who has the same opinion about you…you will let them down, as well. That includes the three of us, champ. We’re eventually going to let each other down.

“You’re going to fall in love one day and your heart will get broken and it will probably happen more than once, and it will get harder to love with each passing break. And most likely you’ll break a few hearts yourself, even if you remember how it felt when yours was broken and try to avoid doing it to someone else, it’s still going to happen.

“Despite your best intentions, you’ll fight with your best friends, blame a new love for things an old one did, complain because time is passing too fast, wish you had your childhood to do over again to get things right, and you’ll eventually lose someone you love, which includes me and your mother.”

Robson sat motionless, staring at the cracked glass and broken frame, unable to meet his father’s gaze because he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. “What do I do?” he said in a small voice.

“What do you mean?”

“To stop all the bad things from happening. What do I do?”

“Well, you can start by not taking the good things and times for granted, but do take too many pictures, laugh too much, and love like you’ve never been hurt…because every sixty seconds you spend upset is a minute of happiness you’ll never get back. But before any of that, you should go apologize to your mother, she was really upset by some of the things you said.”

Robson hopped off the bed, turned his back to his father and wiped the tears from his eyes with his shirt sleeve. He walked to the door with a purpose, but stopped at the door jamb and said over his shoulder, “I don’t really hate you, you know.”

“I know, kiddo,” his father smiled. “Now, go give your mother a great big hug and kiss and shag your butt back in here so we can straighten this room up.”

The little boy took off like a shot out of the room yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! I’m sorry!”

His father stood up, righted the wastebasket and carefully tilted the broken glass into the little plastic bucket. He caught sight of the caption on the picture and thought, Snowmen aren’t the only things that require assembly, sometimes family bonds do too.

12 Plays of Christmas: A Tin of Snow

Tin of snow

There was a time many, many moons ago when I hadn’t yet become the noted curmudgeon that I am today, a time when I still believed in magic and Kris Kringle and I put a great deal of effort into crafting the perfect Christmas list, one that was sure to grab Gifty Nick’s attention. Many items on that list changed from year to year but there was one thing that always held the Number One position: A Pet.

And who could blame me? Nearly every book I read or tv show I watched at the time clued me in on the fact that no young boy’s adventure life was complete without an animal companion. Dick had Spot (oh, grow up!) the Cocker Spaniel, Timmy had Lassie the rough collie, Mark had Gentle Ben the American black bear, Sandy had Flipper the bottlenose dolphin, and Sonny had Skippy the bush kangaroo. Who did I have? N-o-b-o-d-y and I only had one person to blame. Somebody in the house was allergic to pet dander, and that somebody’s name was Trista, my middle sister.

Undaunted, I penned (okay, it was in crayon but same difference) many letters to Santa detailing my dilemma and making a request for a non-allergenic pet (don’t look at me like that! If anyone could have pulled off that miracle, surely it had to be the red-coated gent whose belly shook like a bowl of jelly) but year after year no little-boy-bestest-pal-in-the-whole-wide-world ever showed up beneath the family Christmas tree (don’t waste your time naming hairless pets in the comment section below. It was the ’60s and we didn’t know anything about that, or if my folks did, they kept it a closely guarded secret).

Since my pleas fell on deaf Clausian ears, I was forced to take matters into my own hands and come up with a different plan. To my credit (hey, if I don’t toot my own horn, who will? Again, get your mind out of the gutter!) it didn’t take long for me to devise a unique solution to my problem.

Tins were a wonderful thing to me. They were a depository where the things a boy kept precious could be secreted away and tucked into the backs of closets or under loose floorboards. Mostly the contents of tins included stamps, coins, marbles, smooth and colorful stones, and the bits of refuse that could be viewed as a treasure to the furtive imagination of a young mind.

I collected snow.

Not just any snow, mind you—I wasn’t some type of frozen vapor hoarding lunatic—I collected the flakes from the first snowfall of the year and packed little rectangular bricks in the back of the freezer. Why? Because of Frosty the Snowman, who came to life after being imbued with the magical properties of first-fall snow. But I wasn’t going to build some ratty old snowman, no sir, not me. My goals were slightly loftier than that.

I was going to build a griffin. Agrippa the Ice Griffin. I couldn’t see my parents objecting to that, unless Trista suddenly developed an allergic reaction to ice, which she might have done, just to spite me.

I’d be the envy of my neighborhood when Agrippa and I went for a walk, and since I read somewhere how griffins have the ability to sense and dig gold up from the earth, I knew we’d be financially sorted for life. And we would totally rule the airways. That went without saying.

Yup. I saw it all clear as day and my plan was foolproof. Since my childhood predated the internet, I had to go to the New York Public Library with sheets of onion skin and trace pictures from mythology books and experiment with PlayDoh so I’d know how to sculpt Agrippa accurately, and knowing he’d be curious about his heritage, I constructed a fascinating family history that would have made any newly birthed mythological creature proud.

As I collected tins of the first snow and carefully hid them in the freezer, I knew the world was finally mine and I was destined to live the most incredibly awesome life ever imagined, and nothing could have prevented it…

Until I discovered the hard way that refrigerators came equipped with a defrost feature. All my carefully stacked magically imbued briquettes had been reduced to not-so-magical freezer run-off that dripped impotently into a catch tray.

Needless to say, I have yet to bring Agrippa into existence. And life, well, it hasn’t quite reached that most incredibly awesome high watermark yet.

But this year’s snow hasn’t fallen yet in my neck of the woods, so here’s hoping I can still lay my hands on those old tracings…

12 Plays of Christmas: Memory Is The Liar That Whispers Fantastic Pasts In Our Ears (a true story…I think)

Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque-Tiny-litle-snowman-army

There’s a Christmas-adjacent story I’m fond of telling, that hand on heart I swear is true, about a girl I met in a park during a blizzard.

Before I go any further, I need to let you know that I’m probably older than a good many of you who will read this and there are miles and miles of memories between now and when the incident occurred, so the sad fact of the matter is I don’t remember what she looked like. Not exactly. In my fading memory’s defense, I only saw the bit of her frosty red face that was nestled within the fur ring of her hooded parka.

And I’ll admit that my recollection of events might be slightly dramatized and infused with more schmaltzy innocence and devil may care fun, as we built a snow fort to defend ourselves from the invading snow army, but it happened, the girl was real and not some imaginary snow playmate—I’ve had plenty of those and I know the difference—and a good time was had by all…or at least by me.

The memory gets more Michael Bayish with each retelling. It takes on mass and bulks up and challenges me to become a better liar in order to bear its additional weight. But am I actually a liar? If the current version records over the initial memory on the VHS tape in my mind and all I have left is the most recent telling, then I am relaying events as I recall them, no? And why shouldn’t I drape this memory with grace so that it might straighten its back and hold its head higher, as it strolls amongst my other remembrances? I am one of only two people who possess this memory and since I cannot verify that the other party is holding up their end, it’s my sworn duty to keep it alive, embellishments and all.

Just before Christmas vacation, it started out as one of my favorite kinds of schooldays, you know, where you wake up and the world outside is completely white and Alice Cooper’s voice is singing on a continuous loop in your head, “School’s out for-ever!” as you do your victory dance in front of the icy window.

What was that? Just me, then? All right. Good to know.

Anyhoo, after lying about leaving my books at school—thereby avoiding studying to get ahead of the class (perish the thought)—and breezing through my chores, I ventured forth into snowmageddon and discovered… no one else was outside. Oh, sure, people were attempting to dig their cars out, but none of my friends, hell, no one my age was visible in the dense thundersnow.

Cowards, the lot of them!

Undaunted—I wasn’t going back inside, not on a free day like this—I trekked to the local park and that was when I saw The Girl. Out on her lonesome, rolling the lower portion of a snowman-to-be with all the intensity of a Winterland Victoria Frankenstein.

When she eventually caught sight of me, she stopped and glared, trying to suss me out. Was I friend or foe? We stood there for ages, still as statues, locked in a silent Mexican Stare Off. She was determined, this one, to wait me out. She had staked claim to this park and I was the trespasser. If we were ever going to come to an accord, I’d have to make the first move. So, I did the only thing I could do in that situation…

I began rolling the middle portion for her snowman. That seemed to be good enough for her.

You ask me what her name was? Well, there are only two words that come to mind when I think about her: amber and hazel. So, either her name was Amber and she had hazel eyes, or she was an amber-eyed Hazel. Perhaps even something in between like Hazamberel or Amhazelber? I can’t rule any options out at this point.

The park was ours and ours alone, we two intrepid children of The Bronx. We laughed in the face of the snowpocalypse and frolicked—as much as our starfish overlayering would allow—and built an ominous snow army that we waged snow war against, plowed through the snow soldiers, and beat them down to the ground, before turning on each other in the snowball fight to end all snowball fights, tried to sled downhill on a ratty piece of cardboard, discovered how truly fast squirrels are when we tried to catch one, marveled at how far trees could bend under the weight of snow and made a pact to be friends forever.

I learned that day that pacts are not unbreakable—I never saw Hazamberel again—and just how like a delicate snowflake a memory was.

Not a terribly exciting story to hear, I realize, but I’m not telling it for your enjoyment. I tell it so that I don’t lose it and so that it doesn’t fade any more than it already has from the weathers of time or become trapped and freezes to death in the hedge maze like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

That’s part of the duty we owe to our past, to not only remember it but become the architects and build up the bits of foundation that have crumbled away due to neglect.

So, please stop me if I’ve told you this one before, but once, when I was younger, I met a girl in a blizzard, at least I think it was snowing, maybe it was rain, and her name was some sort of color, Vermillion or Fuchsia, maybe…

Tiny Stories: Knight’s First Quest

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

On the twenty-first year of his birth, after proving his bravery and skill at battle, Eldred the squire was called to the dubbing ceremony, where he knelt before the King, who tapped the squire on the shoulder with a ceremonial sword, making Eldred a knight.

Once he took the oath to honor and protect both his king and the church, he was presented with a pair of riding spurs and his very own weapon, the Sword Perilous, crafted by the king’s master armorer and enchanted by a powerful wizard for the sole purpose of slaying dragons. Many a knight wielded the mighty blade, yet the sword always returned to the king unused and ownerless.

The new knight, determined to make his mark and break the curse of the Sword Perilous, traveled the desolate road through the forbidden forest for three moons until he crossed paths with a maiden fair. Eldred’s eyes feasted upon her—the aureate waterfall of her hair, the glimmering emerald of her eyes, flawless diaphanous skin, and the elegant and fawn-like neck that supported the most pulchritudinous face he had ever seen.

The moment he laid the enchanted steel upon the mossy earth, he discovered that this delicate creature, whom he would have sworn his life to protect without question, was in fact the dragon he had been ordered to slay.

Can You Keep A Secret?

Walton had done the calculations. The building stood twenty-two stories tall which was approximately two hundred and forty feet and his freefall wouldn’t last longer than four seconds, reaching seventy-five miles per hour on impact.

That should do the trick, he thought as he closed his eyes, held his breath, and stepped off the building ledge.

A hand caught the crook of his arm in a vise-like grip and yanked Walton violently back onto the roof. He was confused when he opened his eyes and saw…

A ghost?

No. Although she was so pale she almost looked faded and thin to the point of anorexia, skin stretched over bones, the woman standing over him was definitely corporeal. Walton wasn’t one to judge a person’s appearance but she wasn’t attractive. Her hair was baby-fine and lifeless and it collapsed onto her shoulders. He was in midair when she grabbed him but there was no way this frail, bony woman could have yanked him back onto the roof.

“I didn’t mean to manhandle you like that. I just didn’t know your story,” the woman said. Her voice was mousy but her tone was strong.

“Are you insane? What are you talking about?”

“I wasn’t the one about to swan dive into concrete, so let’s not judge anyone’s sanity here, okay? And I’m talking about your story. Everybody’s got one and it would be a shame if you did what you were about to do and nobody knew your story.”

“Wait, you stopped me because you wanted to know my story? Not because I was going to kill myself?”

“Let’s be honest here, if you aim to top yourself, you’ll find a way to do it, and there’s nothing that I or anybody else can do to stop you. I’m just curious to know who you were.”

“You mean are.”

“I mean were. You’re going to kill yourself after all.”

“You really are crazy.”

“There you go again, with that label. Hello, pot, meet kettle.”

“What are you doing up here anyway?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

Walton pointed toward the building ledge. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Look, I don’t have time to waste talking nonsense with a stranger,” Walton said, rising to his feet and dusting himself off.

“Vonda Darleen Honeycutt,” Vonda said, extending her hand.

“What?”

“My name. We’re not strangers anymore. And you are…?”

“Not interested.” Walton walked past her to the roof’s edge.

“I’m just going to go downstairs and rummage through your gunky remains until I find your ID, so why not save me the trouble?”

He let out a sigh of exasperation. “Walton.”

“Got a last name there, Walton?”

“Summers, all right? Walton Mayson Summers, are you happy now?”

“Hey, we got something in common, you’re a three-namer like me. Ever wonder why middle names went out of fashion?”

“No, now if you’ll excuse me…”

“Uh-uh, not so fast. I still don’t know your story. It must’ve wrapped up in a shitty day to bring you to this.”

“How about a lifetime of shitty days?”

“That would certainly do it. Wanna get it off your chest? You may not know it to look at me but I’m a helluva listener. Besides, I’m only gonna keep snatching you off the ledge until you tell me.”

“Then I’ll take you with me,” Walton said.

“Are you a murderer?”

He wasn’t. Walton sat on the ledge and asked, “If I tell you my story, will you let me do what I came here to do?”

Vonda made the sign of a cross over her left breast. “Cross my heart and hope to…well, you know.”

And with that, Walton told her the story of an unsuccessful author whose work failed to connect with an audience of any kind, who turned to alcohol, an addiction that chased away his wife, his family, and his friends, relationships he wasn’t able to repair even though he had been sober for almost five years.

“Not exactly a life worth living,” Walton concluded.

“What if I could show you something?” Vonda asked.

“Let me stop you right there, I’m not religious, never have been, never will be.”

“I’m not proselytizing, not trying to sell you on a cult, but what I have to show you will damn sure feel like you’re having a religious experience.”

“What have I got to lose? This will all be over in a minute, anyway, so go on, show me.”

Vonda began feeling the air. looking like a mime trapped in a box. Walton rolled his eyes and was about to swing his legs off the side of the building when the odd woman found what she was looking for. She traced her fingers down an invisible seam in the air and dug her fingers into it. With a bit of effort, the bony woman pulled back a piece of reality.

Walton’s eyes grew wide as saucers as he looked upon a sight that altered his perception of himself, his life, everything. It was similar to the overview effect reported by astronauts who viewed the Earth from outer space. What stared back at Walton from the rift in the space/time continuum allowed him to see, for the first time with his mere mortal eyes, the big picture: his life in relation to the universe at large.

Vonda closed the rift, making sure it was sealed tight. Walton walked to where the rift had opened and felt around. He had to see it again but his hand touched nothing except air.

“I never knew,” he said.

“And now you do,” Vonda said. “But there’s a catch.”

“What sort of catch?”

“What you just witnessed has to remain a secret.”

“I’ve just had a cognitive shift in awareness, how can I not scream this from the mountaintops?”

“Them’s the rules,” Vonda shrugged. “In exchange for this experience, you can never tell anyone about what you’ve seen. You can’t even write about it, not in a story, journal entry, email, or text. You are forbidden to utter or issue a single word referring to it.”

“Then why show it to me?”

“You’re about to kill yourself, who are you going to tell?”

“Well, I don’t want to kill myself now, do I?”

“I don’t know, do you?”

“You know damn well I don’t, which is why you showed it to me!”

Vonda shrugged again and held out her pinky. “So, do you promise to keep this a secret?”

“You want me to put it on a pinky swear?”

“It’s universally accepted as a binding contract,” she smiled.

Walton locked his pinky with hers and agreed to keep the secret.

Then something occurred to Walton. “Wait, if this is such a big secret, how were you able to tell me?”

“I have special dispensation, you should have been able to work that out on your own by my ability to peel back reality. Besides, I didn’t tell you anything, I showed you. Big difference.”

“Will I be able to do that, too?”

“Learn to crawl before you walk, pal.”

It turned out that Vonda had been sleeping on the roof since she had no place to live. How could Walton not allow her to crash at his rundown apartment? She was the keeper of the greatest secret unknown to mankind, after all.

Sheer proximity to one another and the sharing of a perception-altering experience led them to become involved in a serious relationship and through her encouragement, he sold his first short story. Vonda turned out to be his good luck charm because published short stories turned into published novellas and Walton’s life soon improved as his struggling writing career became wildly successful.

The couple eventually married and had two beautiful children. The years rolled by as years were wont to do and Walton’s career continued to blossom, however, he had written so many books that he exhausted all of his ideas. Yes, he had earned enough money and invested wisely enough for him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and if he needed to work there was always the lecture circuit or he could have sculpted aspiring author minds by teaching a masterclass, but a writer in the pit of their soul wanted to write, wanted to be read, and if he was being honest with himself, fame was a difficult thing to let go of.

Walton had written forty novels at a rate of four books a year and on the tenth anniversary with his publisher, his agent thought it would be a spectacular idea to mark the occasion with a new release. He agreed, even though his new idea well had run dry, because he felt he owed it to his fans to attempt to put out at least one final book before announcing his retirement.

The road to hell was always paved with good intentions.

He wrote in secret, and Walton’s conscience should have plagued him to no end but he somehow convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t a breach of his promise because he wasn’t detailing the wonders his wife showed him ten years ago. He wrote a fable in allegory and metaphor, craftily altering elements and tweaking details until they in no way resembled the precise details of the truth. But the moment he put the finishing touches on his manuscript, Vonda and the children appeared in the doorway of his study.

“All you had to do was keep one secret and the world would have been yours,” Vonda sighed heavily, letting her head drop. Her teardrops beat patterns on the hardwood floor.

Vonda held out her pinky, a reminder of the vow he made, and Walton watched her pinky fade into nothingness. She screamed and clutched her two daughters tight, who emitted a heartbreaking wail as they began to unravel corporeally and dispersed into so much stardust.

And after they were gone, his current reality followed suit. Films and television programs based on his books became unmade, audiobooks were unspoken, novels melted away from bookshelves, his words vanished from the minds of fans and his publishing company, deals were unsigned, his house unbought, all the positive things that paved the path to his success were undone and time reversed on itself, speeding faster and faster until he was back on the ledge of the building again taking that first big step off.

But this time there was no hand to pull him back onto the roof and gravity did what it was designed to do.