Christmas day, we climb into Tom’s green pickup with our shoes all wet from the melting snow to go to his parents after my mother braids my long brown hair to make the electricity stop and all the marmalade rolls are gone. Tom, who loves us since the summer and moved into our apartment with his coffee table, has a new marble-ended ponytail holder I gave him out of my pack, and the sideways sun glints off the clear little marbles like they might have some magic in them when he leans over to turn off the emergency brake in the truck. I kept the purple ones and the red ones and gave him the clear ones since we use the same kind and clear is like a boy color. He put down his beer and put one in his long red hair right away when I gave them to him, putting the other one in his pocket. He said he would never lose them.
The sofa and chairs and every single lamp at Tom’s parent’s house are covered in clear plastic and the living room flashes like the quickly turned pages of a magazine because of tinsel and the Christmas tree lights. Even the carpeted steps leading to the upstairs are plastic on top, with mean little spikes underneath. Tom’s parents talk with the Irish accent because they used to live in Ireland before they came to Philadelphia. They give me Baby That-a-way in front of the fake Christmas tree with the big blue bulbs. You squeeze her puffy orange fists, which are cold plastic, and her legs move. She came with red pants and a matching red-and-white polka dot shirt with frilly short sleeves. They gave it to me because they like all my freckles and they said I look like an Ireland kid they used to know that’s dead now. When my mother sees the doll she frowns and smashes out her cigarette like it’s a bug she’s trying to kill, even though she doesn’t kill bugs because it’s against our religion. She probably hates dolls even more than she hates junk food and disco.
I’ve never owned a doll before. We have naked, headless Barbie tied to a cord to turn the light on in the basement since my mom can never find the string in the dark, but I’ve never played with her because my mom said she’s art, not a toy, and plus I’m afraid of her. Lauren and I never play with dolls anyway; we play Office and Boarding School, or pretend we are detectives. Lauren is my best friend. Her dad sometimes goes crazy and she has to come over and stay with us late at night and sleep in my bed with me and my cat, Rascal. If her dad has to go to the mental hospital, we get to miss school the next day and my mom makes us German pancakes. It happened just the other day and Tom took us to Howard Johnson’s and told Lauren to get anything she wanted. Sometimes Lauren goes with her mom to the hospital to see her dad there and crazy people who smell like throw-up and poop ask Lauren if she has any cigarettes even though she’s only nine. I laughed when she told me that because everyone knows nine-year-olds don’t smoke.
After we eat ham and Tom’s dad gets drunk and yells about Tom’s long red hair and the dirty draft dodgers, we leave in a huff and drive back to our apartment and Lauren is on the porch with lips all cracked and white, red nose like Rudolph, and puffy eyelids like Baby That-a-way’s little hands. My mom takes her in the bathroom and tells Tom to put the kettle on for tea and when they come out, I let her play with Baby That-a-way and she drinks the tea and I say out loud that it’s really good that her dad did it in the daytime this time and she didn’t have to go out on the roof to knock on my window and wake me up like that one time, because there was snow on the roof now and that was dangerous.
She says, “We got a white Christmas!” and plays with the doll and doesn’t even try to listen when my mom talks to her mom on the phone. We sit under the real Christmas tree in our living room and make pretend that Baby That-a-way is a boy, and we are grown-up sister detectives who are going to adopt him and teach him karate and turn him into a spy for secret missions. I ask Tom why his dad doesn’t like baseball because it’s been bothering me. “Did one of the players have long hair and it made him mad?”
“What are you talking about, kid?” He likes to call me that.
“He said the draft dodgers didn’t deserve the country and they should leave, and he said a bad word.”
Tom laughs and I know I made a mistake. Sometimes grown-ups talk in very stupid ways. And think kids smoke when they’re only nine and leave the wrappers on all their furniture and go crazy in the middle of the night or Christmas morning when they should be like the dads on television, wearing red and green and smiling. Baby That-a-way is lucky she’s just a fake, plastic kid and she’ll never have to grow up and try to figure all this dumb stuff out. She won’t even have to crawl anymore and she can just stay in my bed and relax because I know for a fact that my mom will never buy me batteries after these ones die.
Photo By: Tim Hamilton
Very creative. Incorporates the mundane with surprise elements. Especially when written from the perspective of a little girl, sometimes innocent, but correctly described as not as innocent as we like to tell ourselves. Shocking combination of plastic consumer goods used in ways incompatible with sensibilities of what feels right and appropriate. Disturbing and honest. Playful and dark.
No doubt most kids growing up during that era could find something to relate to here. Very well written.
What a wonderful Christmas piece. Man we’ve probably all had that harsh Christmas where most things failed but one thing shined. Nice piece Ms. Murphy.
Heather, your writing is such a clear reflection of you and your childhood experiences, with all the emotion it deserves. Congratulations on a beautiful Christmas piece. I love it.