Christmas Eve 1962, my older brother Artie told me Santa wasn’t real and christened me Scrooge. We were in back of our Cleveland split-level. He flew down the ice-glazed slide attached to our swing set, readied the plastic soles of his shoes to hit the icy run at the bottom, then found himself sprawled on the snow.
He said, “Very funny,” the way a kid says it when he really means he needs a moment to figure a way to get you back. “And by the way, punk,” he sneered, “there ain’t no Santie.”
“Santa,” I said, pretending I’d outgrown the endearing term I routinely used for the Jolly Old Elf, when I really hadn’t.
“Right,” he laughed. “There ain’t no Santa.”
“There is so!” I shouted, but knew it was in vain. Artie may have been a jerk, but he was a sincere jerk, so said my reflection in his studious horn-rimmed spectacles flecked with snow powder. I hauled him to his feet. I knew he might be right. So it was my turn to exact revenge, the way a kid does when he doesn’t want to believe something and changes the subject.
“I want my Realtone Six back!” I said.
“Fat chance of that, Scrooge!” he said.
Later that afternoon, Artie shoved me along a hallway to Mom and Dad’s bedroom and revealed the apocalypse — scads of wrapped presents stuffed just above Mom’s hatboxes, some tagged with the most damning evidence of all, tiny stickers saying “From: Santa,” one showing little kids caroling, mouths in little ‘o’ shapes; another, a shot of the North Pole with Santa’s mailbox stuck atop a gigantic candy cane; and most heinous of all, what had always been my favorite, Rudolph smiling with his red nose aglow. That red nose! Now, it lit up like a lie detector!
I suppose Artie thought if he provided proof positive that Santa did not exist, I’d forget about the Realtone transistor radio I’d loaned him. But I hadn’t. I turned on one heel and sped down the hall to the bedroom we shared. Artie pursued. He lunged and tackled me at the knees. As I crumpled to the carpet, I let out the war cry every younger brother knows.
“Mom!” I shrieked as I came to rest under Artie, who tossed his horn-rims aside, took me by the wrists, and started slapping me with my own hands.
“Why are you calling Mom, huh? ’Cause you’re hitting yourself? You gonna tell Mom why you’re hitting yourself, spaz?”
Mom came upstairs, hands ghostly white with flour, and pulled Artie off me. She shoved me toward my bedroom and said, “Go!”
Artie got up and started after me, but she took him by the head and somehow wrangled him by his ears into the kitchen.
I used the temporary armistice to gather my things, not all, just those I knew Artie would miss, stuff he was always borrowing — my Realtone Six, my tackle box, my Atomic Cape Canaveral Missile Base Set, a massive box that barely fit into Dad’s musty old Navy duffle bag. I also loaded my books, though Artie’d never asked to borrow them. Considering where I was going, I figured I’d need something other than my Realtone to keep me from going nuts. I packed Treasure Island when I remembered how Robert Louis Stevenson had been bedridden as a child and wrote his adventure to take his mind beyond the walls of his room. I took London’s Call of the Wild because I was feeling just that. I tossed in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; I suppose since it was the season, and I hadn’t read it.
I marched with the duffle downstairs and through the kitchen, where Artie swiped at me despite Mom’s vigilance. I dragged the duffle to the stairs leading to the half-basement, then lugged it downward, step by step, into the bowels of our house, a place Dad had been measuring, nailing, and spackling for what seemed ages to make it into a family room.
Behind, I heard Mom ask, “Where you going?”
“I’m living down there from now on, away from him.” I heard her laugh a little. “And I’m taking all my stuff!”
“Mom?” I heard Artie say, then add, “You see? He’s a twerpy little Scrooge!”
I settled into my new home. Despite cobwebs festooning the rafters above, splotches of spackling resembling large leering faces suspended in snow squalls, cold floor tiles, and drab cinderblocks, it was far preferable to ever sharing anything with Artie. I set my things around me, lay down on the tile floor, bunched-up the duffle, and slid it under my head.
My back was nearly numb from cold by the time I heard Dad come in from his job at NASA’s Lewis Research Center. We didn’t know what he did over there. He said it was for the best in case Soviet spies kidnapped us and made us talk, which wasn’t that far-fetched since the missile crisis in Cuba had just ended. We hoped.
I expected Dad to come in and, like Artie, nudge his own horn-rims up his nose. He’d point with one arm stiffly skyward to signal my inevitable return to bunk upstairs with Artie. But then I heard Dad dragging my box spring down the stairs, its hard corners clunking on the steps, one by one. He dropped the box spring in front of me, smiled, and went to get my mattress. When he returned, he set my bed up in one corner.
In a little while, Mom came down and left a box of Cracker Jacks and a Coke. She made my bed with a bedspread embroidered with an image of Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys. Roy was kneeling over a maverick calf on its back, four feet roped together, waiting for Roy to pick up the delinquent beast, fling it over Trigger the Wonder Horse’s saddle, and take it back to the herd. Was Mom slyly hinting that soon I’d find myself similarly roped and saddled? I studied her face, but found no hint of deceit. My dread subsided. To a kid, the half-basement was perfect — I had shelter, a place to sleep, my Realtone connection to the outer world, great literature, and now food stores. I had everything, all to myself.
That night, winter whipped up a snowstorm. The howling wind drifted as high in my mind as it did along roadsides, like white barriers against Artie, Santa, everything. I didn’t need anyone. As I stood at the window, I felt far removed from the warmly lit interiors of the other homes I could see. I didn’t need such things. I didn’t need Santa, his stupid reindeer. I was in a snug, peaceful state of self-exile, far from any human habitation.
To pass the time in my new home, I opened A Christmas Carol and started reading. Having been accused of being Scrooge, I was intrigued by the character. After a while, Artie interrupted. He stood at the door, mouth open, pretending he was seeing the half-finished basement for the first time. I put my face behind my book.
“This place suits you, twerp,” he said, then reluctantly added, his voice a little higher over the sharp pitch of the wind whining against the siding. “Dad wants to know if you’re coming to look at Christmas lights.”
We did it every Christmas Eve — piled into Dad’s underpowered, unsafe-at-any-speed Corvair and circled neighborhoods endlessly in search of the chromatic glow of goodness strung about the eaves and trees of the snowbound homes.
When I grumbled “humbug,” Artie immediately ran upstairs and called, “Dad!”
After Artie’s exclamatory Dad! I fully expected to be shanghaied for the trip to see lights. But Dad merely stuck his head a little way into to the doorway and said, “We won’t be gone long. If anything happens, you can call the Breedings next door. Number’s by the phone.”
This time, I peered out from an edge my book. Of course, Dad’s worrying could easily have been twofold. He was concerned for my being alone, but also for the fate of the Corvair. Last winter when he was late home from work, Mom called the cops, who found the Corvair — and Dad — stuffed into a snowbank like a blue Popsicle.
“OK,” I said, and cavalierly turned a page of the Dickens classic.
He closed the basement door and I soon heard the shush of wool-blend coats as Mom, Dad, and Artie suited up for their trip to look at lights. I heard the wind take the back storm door and whip it open, its chain squealing against the frame. Then Dad slammed it shut. The Corvair sputtered to life.
I sat up, put my back to the cinderblock wall, and tucked the covers over my legs. I liked how my book felt in my hands, its fake pebbled leather and cheap binding, the scent of new printer’s ink. More and more I believed I belonged in my new cinderblock quarters, buried in snow, my imagination spreading beyond its walls in the pages of a novel. In a world devoid of Santa, of the magic of Christmas, I believed this was as good as it got. Soon I began to read the part in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge first hears Marley’s ghost wail, his clamorous chains on wooden stairs, ascending, higher, closer, all while my spine numbing against the cinderblock wall. I supposed Dickens was trying to scare me. But I was wise to him. No Santa meant no spirits. No Marley. No ghost. There was only me and my precious, dingy room … But how I wished it were truly so! After a time, I heard a second chorus of clanking chains coming from outside our house! Not believing my ears, I read on — hearing Marley’s shackles rattling inside and outside of my head, mixed with the moaning snowbound wind outside my room. I pressed an ear to a cinderblock.
The sound was unmistakable.
I shivered. I was too paralyzed to run upstairs for the phone. I threw the book aside and buried myself in my King of the Cowboys bedspread!
The chains continued to clank when I heard our back door open, Dad’s Corvair puttering, Artie stomping upstairs, running water in the sink. When Dad and Mom came inside, I heard him tell her, “Snow’s getting deep out there. I saw Breeding next door putting chains on his tires. Guess I better get ours on the Corvair pretty soon.”
I slipped my head outside the covers. I lay there a long time staring up at the cobwebbed floorboards. I should have been relieved. I tried to convince myself that Marley’s ghost was humbug. Santa was humbug. I told myself I was safe in the half-basement. Why not? If the missiles launched from Cuba, the fireball would surely burn the house above to the floorboards leaving only the cinderblocks — and me, alone, but alive. I should have been fine, but I wasn’t fine, the way a kid isn’t fine when one scare turns out to be nothing, but then that scare gets him thinking about some bigger scare. Who would take care of me if everyone on Earth were suddenly gone?
Despite my harrowing encounter with Marley’s ghost and Breeding’s tire chains, I held out in my downstairs fortress the rest of that night. I never shared a room with Artie again. Over the next year, Dad finished the half-basement. But I’ve never forgotten Marley’s warning, “I wear the chains I forged in life.” Nor have I forgotten Artie’s yearly taunting, “Hey there, Scrooge!” Perhaps I am that Scrooge of 1962, yet I am he after Marley’s visit. Christmas mornings, and so many more to come, despite my disillusionment with Santa, despite the world’s trembling in fear of destruction, through the floorboards above my little room, I still hear the reassuring voices of my family, the wrapping coming off their gifts to one another, one special night of the year peeling my willpower away, sending me upstairs to be with them, unlocking my frightened heart, link by link.