Ahhh … Christmas was in the air again; you could smell it — that odd, friendly stink of burnt cookies, wet galoshes, and aluminum paint on hot radiators. Dime store poinsettias, candy-apple red and fake as a cheap toupee, sprouted everywhere, and the living room floor was a minefield of broken glass ornaments.
My mother, who wasn’t exactly in a festive mood yet, flitted about the kitchen like a gypsy moth on speed. Right now, she was busy reading my Old Man the riot act.
“That thing’s a monstrosity. I do NOT want it in the house!”
She wasn’t about to give in. My mother wasn’t one to mince words, especially around Christmas, when potato salad fever was raging and there were still mountains of boiled spuds to conquer.
“Aw, c’mon,” the Old Man argued, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He lifted a glass of apple cider, gesturing grandly — a connoisseur in his gallery. “This is really special. It’s hand painted!” Hand painted! That clinched it for my father, whose collecting tastes ran to naughty postcards and dried armadillos covered with pictures of donkeys and napping Mexicans.
The object in question was a life-size cardboard Santa Claus that the Old Man had schlepped home on the subway after his office Christmas party. With a fluffy white beard and massive beer gut, it was actually a primo Kris Kringle, except that this jolly old elf had the face of a serial killer. Still, I was more than impressed with the weird twisted smile, spooky eyes and all. In fact, I loved it! How could my mother be so closed-minded? Why couldn’t she recognize an artistic masterpiece when it was staring her in the face?
Suddenly, a string of flashbulbs went off on the dimmest recesses of my eggnog-addled brain. “Hey, how about this?” I blurted out. “I could take him to the Christmas pageant.”
My parents stared at each other; they were thunderstruck.
“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” the Old Man mused, stroking the stubble on his chin. There was a faraway look in his eyes. “Yeah, share it with the kids at school.” He cocked his thumb and forefinger at me like a pistol and let out with a spectacular belch that spanned an octave. I chortled with glee.
The Old Man definitely had that magic touch.
My mother just rolled her eyes, which made her look like Little Orphan Annie. When I tried my hand at an impersonation, she shot me one bodacious evil eye. Even a peace offering of a half-empty glass of cider didn’t help much.
“Ooh! How can you drink this? It’s turned,” she said, making a sour face. “Put the jug with the garbage on your way out, honey. Okay?”
I grabbed the jug along with my Elmer Fudd hat and jacket and was off to P.S. 13, the demon Santa strapped to a beat-up Flexible Flyer that scraped along the slushy sidewalk with a sound like fingernails on a blackboard.
A half-hour later, I was furiously trying to con Mrs. Van Devanter into a Santa/pageant tie-in. “My father calls him Saint Nicotine because he works for this tobacco company, and it was an ad for …”
“Old V.D.,” as we kids referred to her when she was out of earshot, had obviously heard a generous plenty of malarkey in her time. She looked at me as if she’d just spotted a spittoon under somebody’s desk, then silenced me with an index finger to her lips.
“William,” she said condescendingly, “the Santa’s not bad — except that his face gives me the goose bumps. You’ll have to cover that awful slogan on the toy pouch, though. May I suggest a traditional holiday message? ‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night’ would be nice. Oh, and get Peter to help you. Remember, he’s in the pageant this year.”
Hoo-boy! Peter Marcucci — a pudgy nerd of a kid who knew the entire periodic table of elements by heart and could give tedious recitations of bad poetry for 20 minutes at a clip. But the actual written word remained an elusive butterfly, my friend.
Marcucci may have been dyslexic, or just a space cadet; even as a sixth-grader he could barely get a grip on “The Little Engine That Could.” I was assigned to be his “reading buddy” or whatever they called it in 1956 — penance for accidentally breaking the head off Cornelia Street Cal, the school’s prized stuffed woodchuck. It’s a long story.
Anyway, Marcucci did pretty well with the Santa project. He stared at the offending slogan for several long minutes, then scissored a perfect circle of green construction paper to glue over it. I hand-lettered the politically correct new message, and that was that. Or so I thought.
Pageant morning dawned bright and cheerful — for a December morning in Brooklyn, at least. As I meandered toward school, skillfully crunching dull black lumps of city snow under a pair of new Thom McAn wingtips, I heard a sunny voice calling out my name.
Whoa! It was the siren call of Becky Parmelee! — the very same Becky Parmelee who traipsed merrily though my lushest fantasies, excluding those devoted to firecrackers and chemistry sets, of course. At age 12, she was a genuine carrot-topped, tin-grinned love goddess. Becky threw her arms around my shoulders and actually hugged me! My knees were rubber, my brain cells jelly. It was true love!
“It’s so-o-o nice what you’re doing for Peter,” she cooed. “He really looks up to you. I think it’s just wonderful.” Without mentioning the thing about the woodchuck, I took the lead. “Well, ahem, I always like to … you know … uh, help out.” I couldn’t believe this drivel was coming out of my mouth. Peter Marcucci was a pest and everybody knew it!
Suddenly, I was vaguely aware that Becky was saying something again; her lips were moving, her voice coy and seductive.
“Maybe we could catch the Winter Cartoon Festival at the Evergreen after the pageant.”
What? I nearly hawked a mammoth pink wad of Dubble Bubble gum into the slush, but recovered with considerable aplomb.
“Uh, yeah, I guess I’ll be able to make it this afternoon,” I answered, mustering up as much world weariness as an almost 13-year-old could. “How about 1:30?”
Becky’s face lit up with a smile so achingly soulful it would haunt me for years to come. With that, I tripped on my shoelaces and went sprawling into a pile of snow, if it could still be called snow after aging to perfection on the sidewalks of New York for close to a week. I should have seen it as a warning.
P.S. 13’s annual Christmas pageant was a humiliating ritual that called for otherwise normal kids to dress up like snow fairies and elves. Worse, there was a new wrinkle that year — a stage-managed “holiday culture quiz.” It was a shameless fraud, and I was in up to my armpits.
The big shindig got underway at around noon when Mr. Feigenbaum, a.k.a. “Basket Ass Barney,” launched into his pageant message, a stem-winder in the classic style. Endless and stupefying, it was the kind of speech that grade school principals everywhere have managed to elevate to an art form. It truly was Barney Feigenbaum’s finest hour; he was on a roll and he knew it. We were lectured on Judeo-Christian traditions, early pagan rituals, Charles Dickens, and so on.
What did I care? Not one wit. Bring ’em on! The Israelites, the Druids! Tiny Tim! Yawn. It would all be over in an hour or so, and I had a date with Becky Parmelee!
The pageant dragged on.
Ingrid Lillycrap (I swear that was her name) gave an excruciating rendition of “White Christmas” on the violin, and the McSween brothers, bad to the bone in real life, now were dressed in cutesy green rayon elf costumes as they lip-synched a few Bing Crosby hits. Tony Giordano, who fancied himself to be Ridgewood’s answer to Gene Kelly, performed a sprightly tap dance to an accordion arrangement of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — a surprising crowd-pleaser.
Saint Nicotine stood defiantly at center stage, taking everything in, saying nothing.
Finally: My debut as Holiday Quizmaster. I tossed out a few carefully rehearsed questions:
“On what day is Little Christmas celebrated?”
“What were the gifts of the Magi?”
“The carol ‘Silent Night’ was first performed on what musical instrument?”
No problem. The quiz was rigged; each kid who raised his hand knew the answer in advance. It was all an act!
At last, the wrap-up question, directed to my protege, good old Peter Marcucci.
“Peter,” I ventured, “what did Santa yell as he drove out of sight on Christmas Eve?”
Dead, stone-cold silence.
Little beads of sweat formed under my collar. This wasn’t in the script.
“Peter, uh, remember Santa?” I ad-libbed, casually waving toward the smirking devil doll we’d rigged with the “Merry Christmas” message. A faint flicker of recognition spread across Marcucci’s face. He winked at me.
Marcucci rose purposefully and looked directly at the audience. His voice was strong and confident: “L.S./M.F.T. — Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Rich, smooth Luckies are always at the top of my Christmas shopping list!”
There were a few chuckles at first. Then hoots of laughter and derision exploded from the audience, rising in a deafening crescendo of whistles and catcalls.
I covered my eyes and sunk into an armchair decorated to look somewhat like a reindeer.
Mr. Feigenbaum, who had worked himself into a dervish-like frenzy over our screwup, snatched the microphone from its stand and began pleading for silence.
“Okay, that’s it for this year’s Christmas pageant,” he shouted over the feedback. “Nice comic touch at the end there, boys. Let’s have a big hand for William and Peter.” Then, covering the mic, he turned to me and whispered menacingly, “I’ll see you in my office next week.”
It didn’t get any better. Becky Parmelee was furious. She loathed me!
“How could you do this to Peter?” she hissed. “I’m so-o-o disappointed in you. Come on, Peter — I don’t think William is interested in going to the cartoon festival with us.”
Marcucci, bewildered by all the fuss, stared at the sidewalk and whistled tunelessly.
My world had crumbled like a stale kaiser roll. I watched for what seemed forever as Marcucci — who had utterly ruined my life — walked off hand-in-hand with my beloved Becky. I was devastated.
The apartment was empty when I got home. The Old Man — a master of aluminum paint technique — was out helping the D’Angelos spruce up their radiators for the holidays. My mother was at Aunt Rose’s, whipping up still more potato salad.
I rescued the cider jug from the garbage and poured myself a glass. Then another. And still another. Not bad at all. It had a great tangy edge, a merry fizzle on the way down. Pretty soon I was feeling kind of warm and fuzzy.
Pff-f-t! Becky was gone. So what? There were other girls to dazzle with my charms. Yeah, Mr. Feigenbaum would be on my case like stink on a monkey. But that wouldn’t happen until next week. Hey! It was Christmas!
Before long, I felt a little too warm and fuzzy; a small, sickish feeling had blossomed in the pit of my stomach. I cranked open a window and breathed deeply. The air was cold and snow-flaky damp. Suddenly I detected the “delicate” aroma of garlic and pepperoni from Mama Laguzza’s Pizzeria just down the street. Now I was in trouble… big time!
A few blocks away, Dickie the janitor was sorting through trash in the basement at P.S. 13. Dickie, who’d been known to take a nip or two on the job, screeched like a boiled owl when the leering face surfaced in a pile of soggy Christmas wrap and dead composition books. Then he broke into a loud, braying laugh, shaking his head as he tossed the cardboard dummy into the incinerator, where it vanished in a starburst of golden sparks.