I was helping my sister decorate our 7-foot aluminum tree. Nancy was 6 at the time. Her blue eyes were shining with the unknown — the combination of anticipation and doubt that I remember from when I was her age. But I am not feeling great about Christmas. I am 14 and have other things on my mind.
“You’re bleeding,” Nancy says. She is examining the top of my right hand, where a welt covers three of the knuckles. New blood oozes from its edges.
It hadn’t had time to scab over, and I am still feeling crappy about it. It is the only word I can think of, and Kenneth, one of my brothers, says feeling crappy is better than feeling nothing.
At first, Kenneth wanted to brag on it, and Pat, another brother, said I was in the right. But later, after learning the group had come back looking for us with broken bottles and pipes, Pat and Kenneth got really quiet. Nothing like this had ever happened, and certainly not at Christmas.
Earlier that day, just as we had done every December once school let out for the holiday break, my brothers and I had hung our skates over our shoulders and marched off to the Martinique Swamp.
That’s the exotic name we gave to this stagnant pond in our suburban Chicago neighborhood, several hundred yards behind the Martinique Restaurant. The place where we used to net tadpoles in the summer and where we would meet after school in September to smoke the Old Gold’s we bummed from Uncle Eddie.
That day the ice was perfect and smooth, protected from wind by the restaurant building on the south and the stand of spruce trees separating the Evergreen Country Club on the opposite side.
We had urged Kevin, my youngest, lightest brother, onto its black surface, to make sure it didn’t crack, and then the five of us followed cautiously, one by one.
We dragged two dead limbs to serve as goals. We didn’t play nonstop games like on TV. Someone chugged up the ice, pushing the puck along, and then either scored a goal or shot and missed, resulting in the puck sliding far out of play. Then you caught your breath or skated around while someone else retrieved it. If was not below zero, we’d do that all day, or until it was too dark to see the puck.
I had just scored to increase our lead to 7-2, when we heard voices emanating from the stand of trees. Then they showed up: Half-a-dozen boys in street shoes and leather jackets. One, a stocky redhead, was wearing a green-and-white public high school jackets with a big letter R on the front pocket.
They stopped, and we all faced each other. I could hear a semi-tractor trailer grinding gears in the distance.
We didn’t exactly have the Cripps and the Bloods in those days. But boys coalesced according to a locale, like a block or parish, or a common interest, like us with hockey. And whenever a few suddenly showed up together, there’d be a chance for a clash, pretty much like with dogs when a strange mongrel comes prancing down the street.
None of these fellows had gloves, their hands stuffed in the pockets of black jeans. Two of them were slipping and sliding on the ice in their pointy leather shoes with Cuban heels. Nearly all were hatless, their ears bright pink with the cold.
Only the “scout,” the boy at the head of the pack, had any kind of headgear, one of those Russian black fur hats. The loosely dangling earflaps were to let you know he wore it as a goof. Along with, of course, his leering smile — looking for someone to mess with.
I considered staring him down. Let him know from the start that I was on to him. Instead, I did what most 14-year-olds would do: I skated off to resume play.
I started stick handling toward the goal, and Pat and Kenneth skated back to defend. But I saw the two of them stealing glances at the intruders, who were getting louder.
A missed shot, and then I glanced back, too. The kid with the Cossack hat had scrounged a rusty pipe from back in the brush and was using it like a spud to chip a hole in the ice. It’s something I might do myself, new ice practically asking you to crack it. Only he was doing it 10 feet from where Kevin was tending goal.
The others were egging him on with goofy sound effects. Kevin leaned on his hockey stick, staring straight back at us, as if the jokers were invisible, even while ice chips were spraying his legs.
Kids did brag plenty about who could “take” whom, and how whoever got the first punch in somebody’s face would usually win. St. Bernadette’s had no shortage of kids like this jag with the fur hat, who probably got into some kind of showdown every week. I just never seemed to put myself in these extreme situations.
Kevin was still staring back at me, and I skated down to his end. Not fast. Not slow.
“In case you didn’t notice, we’re playing a game here,” I said.
The kid with the high-school jacket — the redhead with the mass of freckles — grinned.
“Relax, Chief,” he said. “Just trying to help the fishies breathe.”
I skated closer, dug my blades to a stop right behind Cossack. He kept chopping.
Not till I tapped his leg with my stick, did he finally whirl around.
Later I would go over and over in my mind the sequences that might have led to a different result. Like maybe if he were wearing skates, or maybe if he were not wearing the ridiculous hat, or maybe if everybody did not laugh the way they did.
But this is what happened: When he spun around, still clutching the pipe, his feet flew out from under him, and he fell hard on his butt.
Redhead laughed loudest, throwing his head back in an exaggerated fashion. More of a jeer than a laugh, at Cossack’s misfortune.
I could not immediately see his face, since his Russian hat had come down over his eyes when he landed hard on the ice.
When he raised his head, the leer was gone. In its place, a tight-lipped smile.
He made a big production out of getting back up — first on all fours, then kneeling, then up on one leg, then two — like a Laurel and Hardy routine. He looked around him, spied and collected the fence pipe. He raised it over his right shoulder, as though threatening his audience with it.
Then he shuffled to where Kevin was standing and commenced to chipping a new hole directly in front of our goal.
Okay. I could play that, too. I coasted over and behind him and knocked the pipe out of his grasp with my hockey stick.
“Whoa, high sticking!” announced Pat. “Two-minute penalty.”
This time, Cossack’s hat fell completely off. He froze, staring where it lay on the ice. Slowly, he swiveled his head and looked me in the eyes. Glaring.
“Now!” said Red.
“What?” said Cossack.
“Crack him. In the mouth, man.”
He shifted subtly, almost imperceptibly sideways, while closing in. I could hear his breaths. I felt my own heartbeat. He had long dark eyelashes for a boy, I thought, as I aimed just beneath the left one.
He must have seen it coming, and my gloved fist grazed the side of his head.
He got low and came at me in a bull rush. But on ice he had zero traction. I slid aside and caught his mouth with my left fist. Felt his teeth cut into my knuckles.
Though he couldn’t hit me without slipping, he lunged anyway, and I hit him again.
Following the third punch, he managed to straighten up, but in slow motion. I grabbed his shoulders and powered him to the ground and kneeled on his chest so I wouldn’t have to hit him anymore.
He had blood under his nose and in his mouth, and a crooked cut above his left eye. “Are you through?” I asked.
He struggled to extricate himself.
“I’ll let you up. Are you through?”
I released his left arm so he could wipe a bubble of blood from his nostril. The back of his head on the ice, he managed a slight nod.
I rose. He got to his knees. I extended my gloved hand to help him up, but he swatted it away.
“You’ll pay,” said Red. “Big mistake.”
“You want some, too?”
That just came out of my mouth. It was an automatic response, what Lee Marvin might have said in a western, whereas I was feeling like — I don’t know — like somebody I did not know.
Red’s hands were out of his pockets and clenched into fists. His eyes were slits, his face puffy. He did not move.
Cossack, though, had his leer back — at least, it looked like a leer behind blood and snot. You had to hand it to him.
Finally the boys clustered together, made a decision to head back and were picking their way over the ice to the opening in the trees when Red turned and started clomping back toward us.
We were leaning on our sticks, watching him converge, when he crouched and snared the pipe, swung it in the air like a forehand shot in tennis. He gave us the finger with his free hand then made a wide turn to catch up with his gang.
We waited till they disappeared into the brush.
“Man,” said Kenneth. “A couple of jabs to the face and a takedown. Clean and fast.”
I felt queasy. I picked up my stick and started skating. It could have gone a different way, I thought. But I had let it unfold.
“That kid was an a—hole,” said Pat.
“He asked for it,” said Kenneth.
“I meant the redhead,” said Pat.
Nancy lies on her back under the tree, studying her handiwork. The garland is wrapped around what still looks like scrap metal to me.
I am hoping Pat and Kenneth did not clue in our Uncle Eddie about the fight. I don’t feel afraid. I would deal with the gang’s vengeance, if it comes to that. It’s more like sadness. Or shame. No one ever wanted to “get” me before. No one in the world ever hated me.
The old man has Bing Crosby on the hi-fi, singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Everybody is cleaned and dressed up. The tree, the smell of coffee and some kind of meat roasting in the kitchen, all the Christmas spirit, yet I’m feeling dirty. Like a rat right in the same room with everyone else, but hidden behind the couch.
“Jesus Christ, Eddie!”
My father has just come up from the basement. Christmas Eve he spends most of the afternoon down there. My mother used to tell us he was tuning up the space heater for when Grandma and Grandpa and, eventually, Santa Claus, all arrive. Around 9 p.m. we finally go down, and there he is, looking tired and crabby, alongside stacks of festively wrapped gifts pre-delivered by Santa’s helpers.
My father stands in front of Eddie’s chair, so there isn’t room to get up. Everyone’s looking at Eddie now, and his eyes flicker in embarrassment and confusion.
“I told you not to give these kids beer,” says my father.
Eddie looks at the two short glasses in front of Kenneth and Pat. His lips part contritely. “Oh, come on, Mac. When you were their age…”
“I don’t care what you do at that gin mill. This is my house,” says my father. Eddie grins and shakes his head incredulously. But you could see it is more like a mask.
“G—dam louse,” says my father. “It’s the same every year. I’m fed up.”
Eddie raises his eyebrows, which is when I thought he’d stand. Stand up, say something back, or go, “Merry Christmas to you, too, Mac.” Instead, he just sits with that painful grin.
Nancy covers her face with her hands. My father had not seen her under the tree.
I feel bad for her. Damn Eddie. Damn my father. It’s supposed to be Christmas, but it’s all a sham. I stare at the wound on my hand. G—dam myself.
Though there’s no wind, it is cold. I’ve got just a sweater, but I welcome the frigid air.
No traffic. Everyone home for Christmas Eve. The street is quiet and luminous from the string of twinkling lights around the front window of Olson’s Electronics.
I run diagonally across 95th street. The lighted marquee for the Martinique reads, “To All a Good Night,” in big block letters. A soft glow outlines the clearing amid the trees where the ice pond is.
It’s beautiful and secret and I have a feeling of such loneliness that makes me feel like crying. And I can let it out since no one is here. It’s a loneliness for how it used to be. How I used to feel. Coming here tonight won’t get it back, but I understand it’s why I have come.
I stand on the edge of the clearing, on the edge of the glow, waiting — I am not sure for what.
When a ghost appears.
I squint. What else but a ghost in a frozen swamp on the night before Christmas? Except there is something familiar about the cocky way he is walking.
“Scene of the crime, huh?”
Cossack is bareheaded, and he’s holding the fur hat.
“I came for this,” he says, holding up his hat. “Do you live here, or what? You a troll?”
“I guess.” I shrug.
He circles around the ice, approaches. He’s my height. Taller, even.
“You look worse than I do, man,” he says.
Color spreads from the right corner of his lips, like a rash. And there’s a smudge of darkness, like eye shadow, by his left eye.
“Listen,” I say. “Things…”
“Yeah, no, forget about it. I wasn’t exactly Saint So-and-So.” He kicks idly into the hard clay of the bank. “Coulda gone the other way,” and he feigns a boxing stance, freezes. Grins. Resumes kicking the ground to some internal beat.
“Someone said you all came back looking for us.”
“That’d be Dwayne. You know, red hair, freckles like leprosy? Big-mouth Dwayne. I was home getting the royal treatment.”
He stops kicking. We stand in the dark, in the cold, in the thin shroud of light.
“I gotta get back,” he says, finally.
“Right. You, what . . . probably got a little sister. Brothers?”
“A full house, man. You want to come?”
I try to picture it. I can picture it.
“Thanks, no. I mean it. Gotta get back. You know, under the bridge.”
“What? Oh, yeah,” he smiles. He salutes. Turns and climbs back up the bank.
“What’d you say your name . . .?”
He pulls himself to the top of the incline. He spreads his arms and calls out something, but I can’t translate. Torso? Caruso?
Saint So and So.
Once I get clear of the swamp, I start to jog back home. The snow is swirling. Running stops my shivering.
Kenneth meets me just inside the door as I wipe my feet. “Guess who I saw?” I say.
Pat stands just behind him. They sit on the stairs as I tell them the story. I don’t even have to embellish, but when I get to the part where I apologize, I realize I never quite did. That he had done all the talking.
“Saint So and So,” says Kenneth.
They are hungry for what I tell. They wait for more. I realize now that they felt as bad as I did. Worse, even, having had to watch.
They don’t argue when I say it won’t kill us to take the load off, so the old man can relax for a change. I peel off my sweater and hurry up the stairs. I want to see Nancy’s face when Santa arrives.
The family room furniture is all occupied; some of us must stand loosely around the circle. Brothers, aunts, my mother leaning forward in her rocker, her hands on Nancy’s shoulders. My father stands behind his wife, holding a pilsner glass, as Kevin leans in to tell him something.
Then the doorbell rings. Santa swaggers into the room, ringing a hand bell. Kenneth and Pat follow Santa, carrying two white laundry sacks with gifts in Christmas wrapping.
A camera light flashes. And I’m thinking how Christmas may not be such a sham —not some phony idea of what we are. That it’s more a dream of what we can be.
David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage and author of The Territory, a collection of stories. Email him at email@example.com.