It was windy and cloudy all day. Late in the afternoon, I was hitching to town. It was Christmas Eve, and the island road was almost empty.
I caught a ride finally with an old black guy, in a van with bald tires, and no heat – he did cleaning at the Beach Club, on the island, but he lived in the projects on the west side of Cassina. They didn’t need him that night at the Beach Club – he was so glad, because it was Christmas Eve – that was all he talked about. We rattled to town in his van. We told each other Merry Christmas a couple of times. I thanked him, and got out downtown, at City Hall, by the river.
The air was humid and cold and smelly. The wind blew coal fumes over from the kaolin plant on the west side. I walked out Sally Avenue, to the Dormer’s house on Medard Street.
Half-dead oak trees lined Sally Avenue – roots cracked the sidewalks on both sides of the road. The bare limbs of the old trees were choked with Spanish moss.
While I was walking, the streetlights switched on. All the stiff limbs in the old trees pitched hard in the wind. Moss blew from the limbs and fell in the street. I turned left on Medard Street. It was only one block to the Dormers’ place.
Spanish moss was all over the place – on the street and on the sidewalk, on porch steps, on the hoods and the tops of all the parked cars. The wind had just knocked a big limb from a tree, and it crashed and blocked the middle of the street.
In these deluded magazine articles about the Old South, Spanish moss is always so romantic and beautiful. Up close it looks like body hair, turned gray, and mixed with cobwebs. It dumps off the trees, and gets rained on, then bugs live in it. I rang the bell at the Dormer’s house and I kicked some Spanish moss off their front steps.
Mrs. Dormer’s Christmas party had already started. You could see everything happening through the front windows of her parlor.
Her dining room table was shoved against the parlor windows. That table was very heavily loaded with bottles. It was a popular spot. I rang the bell again. I could see my aunt Celia, bent over the drink table. She was fixing a drink. Her face was at the parlor windowpanes.
No one answered the bell, so I pushed the front door open. The hallway walls needed painting. The furniture in the hallway was covered with jackets and coats.
The whole downstairs was packed with people. From the hall I could see the parlor and into the dining room. Mr. Dormer was standing in a far corner of the dining room, next to the door that led to the kitchen.
He was entertaining several guests. Mr. Dormer knew a lot of people. He was a short friendly old guy. Mrs. Dormer and my grandmother were best friends. Mr. Dormer’s fire extinguisher company did a lot of business with the port.
Celia was still at the drink table. She was finishing off the drink she had fixed when I came in. She was wearing old blue jeans, and sandals, and a sleeveless silk blouse.
Scotty, her wonderful-supposedly doctor husband, was in the middle of the parlor. He was laughing and joking with some people from the hospital – they were technicians mostly, plus a few nurses. These guys were serious hellraisers– they were only warming up at Mrs. Dormer’s party. They were going to a more intense party later on.
My other aunt, Bette, was standing by the entrance to the dining room, with my grandmother – she was talking to my grandmother and trying to get her attention.
Grandmother, to relax her neck, stared at the ceiling. She was smoking a cigarette and ignoring Bette.
Grandmother was an ordinary-looking old lady from a distance, with dyed brown hair, and a thick waist, wearing a nice dress that didn’t fit well.
Up close, the skin on her face seemed too thin – it swept back to the sides of her head, like somebody flung it on her skull, or she was staring into a wind. She had bright, bloodshot blue eyes – she could stare at you and pinwheel her eyes, like a real maniac.
She noticed me in the hallway, and she frowned at Bette, and Bette scampered over and gave me a big hug.
Bette was wearing a short skirt, and a sporty black jacket, with a white tube top underneath. Bette was barely in her thirties. She was a short, animated person, barrel-chested, with blonde hair, and a hopeful look on her face. She towed me across the room to Grandmother, who asked if I was hungry. I could barely hear what Grandmother was saying in the crowded space. I said no I was fine.
“How’s school Mathew,” piped Bette. “Tell us all about your classes.” Grandmother frowned. She didn’t feel like hearing about my school.
“It's Christmas Bette – fix your hair,” said Grandmother. “Look at you. All I see is ears.”
Bette pushed her hair and patted it right away. Grandmother had programmed Bette from the time she was a kid to believe her ears stuck out too much.
Celia was still at the front windows. She was fixing herself another drink. Everybody was drinking. It was packed in the parlor and the dining room.
I saw Marie Dormer in the hallway, rooting around for her coat – she found it, and she yanked out a pack of cigarettes from one of the pockets. She waved the pack at Grandmother while she headed for the drink table. Mrs. Dormer liked raw hamburger meat. I heard she ate it right out of the package.
At the drink table she gave Celia a big hug. Grandmother was still hassling Bette about her hair and her ears.
I hiked though the crowd, to the drink table, to say Merry Christmas to Celia and Mrs. Dormer. Bette broke away from Grandmother I guess – we got to the drink table at roughly the same time.
Mrs. Dormer chatted with Celia and simultaneously made herself a drink. Mrs. Dormer could put a drink together in less than two seconds. Celia was looking across the parlor and monitoring what Scotty was doing with the hell-raisers from the hospital. She pretended to answer something Mrs. Dormer was asking her.
Mrs. Dormer had a big party on Christmas Eve, every year. She was nice-looking skinny old lady, with an oval face, and hollow cheekbones, and she had wiry, curly gray hair, similar to Spanish moss, and not good teeth.
Bette showed up right behind me, and Mrs. Dormer told her Merry Christmas. “You look great,” she told Bette. She nodded at Bette in a friendly, encouraging motion.
"I’m jogging every day!" said Bette.
“Good for you baby!” said Mrs. Dormer. She meant it too. She was a nice person. “Are you taking anything?" she asked. Mrs. Dormer liked pills, a lot. By then Grandmother had trailed over to see what was going on.
"No, just jogging,” said Bette proudly. She was wearing her sporty black jacket wide open. Her tube top was way too tight for her breasts.
Grandmother was standing there, smoking a cigarette, and to announce herself, she let off a short crazed sobbing giggle, and pinwheeled her eyes.
“Angela!” cried Mrs. Dormer. She gave Grandmother a big hug and a big kiss. Mr. Dormer owed Grandfather money.
"…and before breakfast, seriously, that could be three pounds," Bette was explaining. She did look a little thinner than usual. Nobody was paying attention.
Grandmother poked Celia’s arm. “Fix me a drink,” she ordered.
Celia blank-faced sloshed together a scotch and water and dumped some ice in it. "Mommy, why don’t you try jogging?” she said. “It might cure your asthma.”
Grandmother wheezed and looked hurt. She did have asthma, and neck problems, and her veins didn’t return the blood supply to her heart properly. She took a pull on her cigarette. She hated it when Celia called her Mommy – she preferred Mother, or Mama.
“You could get a treadmill – Mommy,” said Celia. She walked off before Grandmother could think of something to say.
The hellraisers from the hospital had shifted to the dining room. Grandmother flicked the ashes off her cigarette. To relax her neck she stared at the ceiling.
Grandfather was parked in the center of the dining room in Mr. Dormer’s favorite giant smelly reclining chair. He had a shoebox of old pictures that he brought to town to show off for the party. The shoebox was balanced in his lap.
His friend Dr. Forran had showed up, and they were looking at pictures together. Grandfather saw Celia talking to the hellraisers from the hospital – he yelled something to her, but she ignored him.
Scotty appeared all of a sudden at the drink table next to Mrs. Dormer. He kissed and hugged her, and Grandmother, and he complimented Bette on losing some weight, so she started flirting with him.
He was pretty actively checking Bette out. She was showing some skin under her sporty black jacket. She explained her jogging schedule to Marie Dormer. She was batting her eyes at Scotty. He bumped her shoulder to shoulder.
Celia drifted back to the drink table. Mrs. Dormer and Grandmother were comparing two prescriptions they were swapping with each other. Bette cut her eyes at Celia. She was thrilled that Scotty was flirting with her.
Celia did some body language like she wasn’t happy, but she didn’t actually say anything. She made herself another drink. She took her time while she did that.
Then for some reason Bette lost her head completely, and she mentioned last year’s Christmas party. At last year’s party, Scotty and Bette got really drunk, and they slept together afterwards. It was a huge hassle for everybody. The effect of that party lasted a long time.
Bette didn’t have the nerve to reference anything specific – she only threw out she’d “been looking forward to the party this year, god,” or something like that. She put it out casually, but she leered at Scotty when she said it.
Celia was standing there. She was moving her body around – light flashed on her silk blouse. She was sexy really, in her own sorority-queen, underwear-ad way.
“I guess I just love to party,” said Bette lightly. Scotty’s eyes were all over her. She was getting tons of energy from that.
Celia was frowning and rattling the ice in her drink. She kept her mouth shut. She scratched on the top of the drink table, with her fingernails, and she ran her eyes over the table, like she was counting the bottles and glasses. It took everybody six months to get over last year’s party.
Bette laughed. She tossed her head a little. Her jacket was wide open. When she laughed her breasts moved in her tube top. Scotty laughed practically simultaneously with Bette laughing. Celia looked up from the drink table – her eyes were slits.
“What are you drinking, Sealy,” smirked Bette. She held out her glass, like Celia should make her something.
“Fuck you, come on,” Celia said, “you worthless fat bitch.” This was straight in Bette's face too, without bothering to be polite about it. Bette started sobbing and blubbering right away.
“God Celia,” said Scotty.
"What," said Celia. She was staring and waiting for Bette to say something.
Bette sobbed – she cut her eyes at Scotty – he was watching her breasts heave under her tube top.
"Jesus Celia be nice for one minute,” said Mrs. Dormer. She barely looked up from talking to Grandmother.
Celia was tracking Bette with her eyes. She was practically baring her teeth. Bette got nervous - she was still crying, and cutting her eyes at Scotty, but she took a step towards Grandmother, and leaned into her for support. Grandmother shrugged her off.
“What you need,” Scotty told Bette, “is a big glass of cold water, from the kitchen.” He put his arm around Bette, and they walked off. Bette went on tiptoes. She slung her arm around Scotty's shoulder. She was relaxing into him, and he flexed his upper body.
Celia watched them go. Bette was looking upwards and talking rapidly to Scotty – through her tears she was smiling.
"I worry about you and Scotty sometimes," Grandmother told Celia.
“Why, Mommy,” said Celia.
"I’ll just be glad when you start a family,” Grandmother said angrily. She really hated that Mommy thing.
Scotty did want to have children. But Celia was telling him they should wait another year, because she was going to probably divorce him. She was already having an affair with somebody else.
“Why will you be glad Mommy,” said Celia.
Grandmother frowned hard and pulled on her cigarette. “Stop calling me Mommy,” she said.
“OK,” said Celia. “So mind your own business.”
“I’m your mother,” snarled Grandmother. “Don’t talk to me that way.”
“I paid my dues with you Angela, from being your kid,” said Celia.
I thought that was funny. I laughed, and Celia heard me. “Shut up you piece of shit,” she said. Celia could be a violent, horrible person.
“You and Scotty could be so happy with children,” said Grandmother relentlessly.
"I can’t have children,” said Celia. “I have syphilis. They might catch it."
“HUSH talking like that," said Grandmother.
"I have polio Mommy. I need a liver transplant."
“SHUT UP,” wheezed Grandmother. Marie Dormer was looking at her knees, like she was checking her dress hem.
Celia stared in the direction of the kitchen. Absent-mindedly she listed more diseases she might have.
I was thinking it was impossible, basically, that this conversation could have a happy ending. I faded away towards the dining room, towards Grandfather in the reclining chair.
He was kicked back in Mr. Dormer’s reclining chair. He had his grubby pictures in his lap, and Doctor Forran was sitting on the arm of the chair.
Dr. Forran was an actual medical doctor. He had a small practice, doing life insurance physicals mostly, three days a week in an office in downtown Cassina. He and Grandfather hung out in the afternoons at Jones Bar on Fell Street, across from the main post office. Grandfather served in the navy in World War Two, and so did Dr. Forran. They bullshitted about that all the time.
Grandfather was holding this picture of himself as a very young guy – he was standing by the door of what he called “a little inn” in Honolulu. He had his arm around some Hawaiian girl. Dr. Forran perked up after he puzzled out that image. "Who's that cute gal Hugh," he yelled.
"She was the hostess, at the inn," said Grandfather. They got a big laugh out of that.
Evan Whitmire was hanging on the back of Grandfather’s chair. He was laughing too. Evan was about Celia’s age. His wife had a busy law practice in Cassina, and Evan sold insurance I think, or real estate. I don't know if he actually worked, but possibly he did. A couple of other guys similar to Evan were looking at the pictures also. They were all drinking and making noise.
The hellraisers from the hospital were in a separate group fairly close to us. They had already sized up Grandfather and his crowd and decided they were boring. The hellraisers were making a lot of noise as well.
Dr. Forran told this rough story about Genoa, Italy, in WWII, after the Italians surrendered. Basically, if you paid an Italian girl two packs of cigarettes, she would sleep with you. That was the basic point of the story. So, Dr. Forran told his story, which was about meeting some girl and paying her the cigarettes. They went to her mother’s house, and he slept with her.
"The bombing broke down… the walls inside the house, Hugh,” he yelled at Grandfather. I’d heard this story at least five times at Jones Bar with Grandfather. “They had curtains up for partitions – that was all there was to it.”
“Jesus Christ,” yelled Grandfather. He was looking through the pictures in his shoebox.
“Her bed was behind one partition in the god-damned dining room. I was with her, and the kids and the mama ate soup for dinner."
"That's a hell of a note," said Grandfather. He dug a new picture out of his box.
"Was she good-looking?" said Evan Whitmire.
"Hell yes," said Dr. Forran.
Evan was a real alcoholic. And his wife was a nice person. She dumped him eventually, and she married another lawyer.
"The whole town was bombed to pieces," said Dr. Forran. "We were working on the port."
"Ha ha ha,” said Evan.
"The locals worked with us," said Dr. Forran. His head was wobbling. "They were friendly. God some of them were.”
“Look – we’re doing laundry,” said Grandfather. He held up one of his pictures.
“One boy, from the ship,” said Dr. Forran, “met some old queer at the port. The boy didn’t realize what a queer was. Not at first.”
“Look here,” said Grandfather. He peered at his picture and laughed. Three navy guys were standing at the curved rail at the back of a ship. The ship’s wake and some of the ocean were in the background. They had odd pieces of clothes tied at intervals on a long rope.
“The old queer… asked the boy to his house,” said Dr. Forran. “In the main part of town.”
“Shit,” said Evan Whitmire.
Evan did get through detox a couple of times eventually, after his wife got rid of him, and he straightened out, and the last I heard he was selling cars, and doing pretty well with that.
“Hell yeah and the queer started to fool with him,” said Dr. Forran. “The boy thought something bad… might happen to him, if he didn’t.”
I’d heard this story twice already, at Jones Bar. God knows how many times Grandfather had heard it.
“And the boy was in a chair, and that old queer got out a little rug,” said Dr. Forran. “He was all fours, and he was playing with the boy, and sucking on him…. he was playing with himself too.”
Grandfather was holding his laundry picture. He and Dr. Forran were both pretty drunk. Evan Whitmire was really alarmed – obviously he hadn’t heard the story before.
“Directly that queer came all over the little rug, where he was kneeling,” said Dr. Forran.
"What did the boy do?" demanded Grandfather, on cue.
"He was coming too," said Dr. Forran in a hushed voice.
“That's a terrible thing," said Grandfather, and he thumped Dr. Forran on the arm.
"Jesus Christ," said Evan Whitmire.
Grandfather pointed to his picture of the guys on the ship. "Look at this," he said. “Look how we did the laundry."
“God I remember that,” said Dr. Forran. “Five minutes for your socks and t shirts.” He put his hand on Grandfather’s shoulder, to lean over, to see the picture better. “Lord have mercy,” he said nostalgically.
"More like ten, for pants and a dress shirt,” said Grandfather.
"You had to be careful," said Dr. Forran.
"Oh the sea could beat your clothes to pieces," said Grandfather.
“What’d the boy do?” said Evan Whitmire. “What about the queer’s house?”
It’s just as well the hellraisers from the hospital were ignoring us. Half of them were gay.
“I left my seaman’s cap – at that gal’s house, said Dr. Forran loudly. “Behind the partition. I had to go back. I banged on the door, and the mama cracked it open. I made a sign to tell her what I needed. She closed the door, and a minute later, she slipped out my cap. The bombing had settled the goddam house, in such a crazy way – the door closed six inches off the floor. She slid my cap under the door. I could see her fist."
"Look at these sacks," said Grandfather. He was pointing to another picture. “Gunpowder. That's a sixteen inch gun."
"Sixteen," said Dr. Forran. He bent over to look closer at the album.
Celia and Grandmother were still bugging each other. They were louder and you could hear them in the dining room. Grandfather finally handed off the pictures to Dr. Forran – he bent forward abruptly, like he was about to throw up, but he was shifting his weight to stand.
“I love all my girls,” he bellowed after he stood up. Celia said something straight in Grandmother's face that I didn't catch, but Mrs. Dormer’s eyes bulged out of her head. Grandmother hissed at Celia, and waved her hands.
Grandfather saw I was standing there, and he patted me on the head. "Come on boy, help me get some eggnog," he said. He ambled off, and I followed him.
Scotty had Bette against the refrigerator in Mrs. Dormer’s kitchen, and he was kissing her hard on the mouth, and pressing into her – he was practically fucking her right there against the refrigerator. The wind rattled the kitchen window.
"MMM," vocalized Grandfather. "Get me a TRAY, Mathew,” he said. Look in a CABINET."
Bette and Scotty realized we were there, finally, and they slid out of the kitchen.
I found some trays in one of the cabinets. I helped Grandfather fix ten or twelve ice tea glasses full of two percent milk, plus ice cubes, plus huge shots of brandy - Grandfather called that eggnog.
I carried the tray, and I followed Grandfather back to the dining room. I focused on balancing the tray while Grandfather handed out the eggnog. He gave some to Grandmother first, then to Mrs. Dormer, and to Celia, with a big swagger, and he kissed and hugged them, and he kissed and hugged every other person he gave a drink to. Grandfather was a real master of the sweeping empty gesture.
Scotty and Bette made it to the bathroom off the hallway, past the dining room. They got inside and locked the door.
Celia saw that, and she plowed through the crowd, and pounded at the bathroom door. Scotty and Bette didn’t respond really. The hellraisers from the hospital watched Celia pound on the door.
Two weeks later, I was at Jones’ Bar with Grandfather, and we ran into Mrs. Dormer. She and Grandfather raved about the party that year – they had blocked out Celia and Scotty and Bette, who were peripheral to them anyway.
Grandfather and I made more trips to the kitchen for eggnog before the party was over. Scotty and Bette never came out. Celia stood by the bathroom door for quite a long time. We had to pass her on each of our eggnog trips. "Wear a rubber," she kept screaming at the closed bathroom door.
Doggedly Grandfather and I fixed more eggnog anyway – by the end of the party, we did three or four batches.