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The last thing I do every Christmas Eve is go out in the yard and throw the horse manure onto the roof. It is a ritual. After we return from making our attempt at the H Street Sledding Record, and we sit in the kitchen sipping eggnog and listening to Elise recount the sled ride, and Elise then finally goes to bed happily, reluctantly, and we finish placing Elise’s presents under the tree and we pin her stocking to the mantel — with care — and Drew brings out two other wrapped boxes which anyone could see are for me, and I slap my forehead having forgotten to get her anything at all for Christmas (except the prizes hidden behind the glider on the front porch), I go into the garage and put on the gloves and then into the yard where I throw the horse manure on the roof.
Drew always uses this occasion to call my mother. They exchange all the Christmas news, but the main purpose of the calls the last few years has been for Drew to stand in the window where she can see me out there lobbing the great turds up into the snow on the roof, and describe what I am doing to my mother. The two women take amusement from this. They say things like: “You married him” and “He’s your son.” I take their responses to my rituals as a kind of fond, subtle support, which it is. Drew had said when she first discovered me throwing the manure on the roof, the Christmas that Elise was four, “You’re the only man I’ve ever known who did that.”
But, now that Elise is eight, Drew has become cautious: “You’re fostering her fantasies.”
I answer: “Kids grow up too soon these days.”
And then Drew has this: “What do you want her to do, come home from school in tears when she’s fifteen? Some kid in her class will have said — Oh, sure, Santa’s reindeer shit on your roof, eh?”
All I can say to Drew then is: “Some kid in her class! Fine! I don’t care what he says. I’m her father!”
I have thrown horse manure on our roof for four years now, and I plan to do it every Christmas Eve until my arm gives out. It satisfies me as a homeowner to do so, for the wonderful amber stain that is developing between the swamp cooler and the chimney and is visible all spring-summer-fall as you drive down the hill by our house, and for the way the two rosebushes by the gutterspout have raged into new and profound growth during the milder months. And as a father, it satisfies me as a ritual that keeps my family together.
At the top we scanned the city blurred in snow, sat on my brand new Christmas sled, and set off.
Drew has said, “You want to create evidence? Let’s put out milk and a cookie and then drink the milk and eat a bite out of the cookie.”
I looked at her. “Drew,” I had said, “I don’t like cookies. I never ate a dessert in my life.”
And like I said, Drew has been a good sport, even the year I threw one gob short and ran a hideous smear down the kitchen window screen that hovered over all of us until March when I was able to take it down and go to the carwash.
I obtain the manure from my friend Bob, more specifically from his horse, Power, who lives just west of Heber. I drive out there the week before Christmas and retrieve about a bushel. I throw it on the roof a lump at a time, wearing a pair of welding gloves my father gave me.
I put the brake on the sled in 1975 when Drew was pregnant with Elise so we could still make our annual attempt on the H Street Record on Christmas Eve. It was the handle of a broken Louisville Slugger baseball bat, and still had the precise “34” stamped into the bottom. I sawed it off square and drilled and bolted it to the rear of the sled, so that when I pulled back on it, the stump would drag us to a stop. As it turned out, it was one of the two years when there was no snow, so we walked up to Eleventh Avenue and H Street (as we promised: rain or shine), sat on the Flexible Flyer in the middle of the dry street on a starry Christmas Eve, and I held her in my lap. We sat on the sled like two basketball players contesting possession of her belly. We talked a little about what it would be like when she took her leave from the firm and I had her home all day with the baby, and we talked remotely about whether we wanted any more babies, and we talked about the Record, which was set on December 24, 1969, the first Christmas of our marriage, when we lived in the neighborhood, on Fifth Avenue in an old barn of a house the total rent on which was $72.50, honest, and Drew had given me the sled that very night and we had walked out about midnight and been surprised by the blizzard. No wonder we took the sled and walked around the corner up H Street, up, up, up to Eleventh Avenue, and without speaking or knowing what we were doing, opening the door on the second ritual of our marriage, the annual sled ride (the first ritual was the word condition and the activities it engendered in our droopy old bed).
At the top we scanned the city blurred in snow, sat on my brand new Christmas sled, and set off. The sled rode high and effortlessly through the deep snow, and suddenly, as our hearts started and our eyes began to burn against the snowy air, we were going faster than we’d planned. We crossed Tenth Avenue, nearly taking flight in the dip, and then descended in a dark rush: Ninth, Eighth, Seventh, soaring across each avenue, my arms wrapped around Drew like a straitjacket to drag her off with me if a car should cross in front of us on Sixth, Fifth Avenue, Fourth (this all took seconds, do you see?) until a car did turn onto H Street, headed our way, and we veered the new sled sharply, up over the curb, dousing our speed in the snowy yard one house from the corner of Third Avenue. Drew took a real faceful of snow, which she squirmed around and pressed into my neck, saying the words: “Now, that’s a record!”
And it was the Record: Eleventh to Third, and it stood partly because there had been two Christmas Eves with no snow, partly because of assorted spills brought on by too much speed, too much laughter, sometimes too much caution, and by a light blue Mercedes that crossed Sixth Avenue just in front of us in 1973. And though some years were flops, there was nothing about Christmas that Elise looked forward to as much as our one annual attempt at the H Street Sledding Record.
I think Drew wants another baby. I’m not sure, but I think she wants another child. The signs are so subtle they barely seem to add up, but she says things like, “Remember before Elise went to school?” and “There sure are a lot of women in their mid-30s having babies.” I should ask her. But for some reason, I don’t. We talk about everything, everything. But I’ve avoided this topic. I’ve avoided talking to Drew about this topic because I want another child too badly to have her not want one. I want a little boy to come into the yard on Christmas morning and say: “See, there on the roof! The reindeers were there!” I want another kid to throw horse manure for. I’ll wait. It will come up one of these days; I’ll find a way to bring it up. Christmas is coming.
Every year on the day after Halloween, I tip the sled out of the rafters in the garage and Elise and I sponge it off, clean the beautiful dark blond wood with furniture polish, enamel the nicked spots on the runner supports with black engine paint, and rub the runners themselves with waxed paper. It is a ritual done on the same plaid blanket in the garage and it takes all afternoon. When we are finished, we lean the sled against the wall, and Elise marches into the house. “Okay now,” she says to her mother: “Let it snow.”
On the first Friday night in December, every year, Elise and Drew and I go buy our tree. This too is ritual. Like those families that bundle up and head for the wilderness so they can trudge through the deep, pristine snow, chop down their own little tree, and drag it, step by step, all the way home, we venture forth in the same spirit. Only we take the old pickup down to South State and find some joker who has thrown up two strings of colored lights around the corner of the parking lot of a burned-out Safeway and is proffering trees to the general public.
There is something magical and sad about this little forest just sprung up across from City Tacos, and Drew and Elise and I wander the wooded paths, waiting for some lopsided piñon to leap into our hearts.
The winter Drew and I became serious, when I was a senior and she was already in her first year at law school, I sold Christmas trees during vacation. I answered a card on a dorm bulletin board and went to work for a guy named Geer, who had cut 2,000 squat piñons from the hills east of Cedar City and was selling them from a dirt lot on Redwood Road. Drew’s mother invited me to stay with them for the holidays, and it gave me the chance to help Drew make up her mind about me. I would sell trees until midnight with Geer, and then drive back to Drew’s and watch every old movie in the world and wrestle with Drew until our faces were mashed blue. I wanted to complicate things wonderfully by having her sleep with me. She wanted to keep the couch cushions between us and think it over. It was a crazy Christmas; we’d steam up the windows in the entire living room, but she never gave in. We did develop the joke about condition, which we still use as a code word for desire. And later, I won’t say if it was spring or fall, when Drew said to me, “I’d like to see you about this condition,” I knew everything was going to be all right, and that we’d spend every Christmas together for the rest of our lives.
One night during that period, I delivered a tree to University Village, the married students’ housing off Sunnyside. The woman was waiting for me with the door open as I dragged the pine up the steps to the second floor. She was a girl, really, about 20, and her son, about 3, watched the arrival from behind her. When I had the tree squeezed into the apartment, she asked if I could just hold it for a minute while she found her tree stand. If you ever need to stall for a couple of hours, just say you’re looking for your tree stand; I mean the girl was gone for about 20 minutes. I stood and exchanged stares with the kid, who was scared; he didn’t understand why some strange man had brought a tree into his home. “Christmas,” I told him. “Christmas. Can you say ‘Merry Christmas’?” I was an idiot.
When the girl returned with her tree stand, she didn’t seem in any hurry to set it up. She came over to me and showed me the tree stand, holding it up for an explanation as to how it worked. Close up the girl’s large eyes had an odd look in them, and then I understood it when she leaned through the boughs and kissed me. It was a great move; I had to hand it to her. There I was holding the tree; I couldn’t make a move either way. It has never been among my policies to kiss strangers, but I held the kiss and the tree. Something about her eyes. She stepped back with the sweetest look of embarrassment and hope on her pretty face that I’d ever seen. “Just loosen the turn-screws in the side of that stand,” I said, finally. “And we can put this tree up.”
By the time I had the tree secured, she had returned again with a box of ornaments, lights, junk like that, and I headed for the door. “Thanks,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
Her son had caught on by now and was fully involved in unloading the ornaments. The girl looked up at me, and this time I saw it all; her husband coming home in his cap and gown last June, saying, “Thanks for law school, honey, but I met Doris at the Jurisprudence Ball and I gotta be me. Keep the kid.”
The girl said to me, “You could stay and help.”
It seemed like two statements to me, and so I answered them separately: “Thank you. But I can’t stay; that’s the best help. Have a good Christmas.”
And I left them there together, decorating that tree; a ritual against the cold.
How do you like it?” Elise says to me. She has selected a short broad bush which seems to have grown in two directions at once and then given up. She sees the look on my face and says, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Besides, I’ve already decided: this is the tree for us.”
“It’s a beautiful tree,” Drew says.
“Quasimodo,” I whisper to Drew. “This tree’s name is Quasimodo.”
“No whispering,” Elise says from behind us. “What’s he saying now, Mom?”
“He said he likes the tree, too.”
Elise is not convinced and after a pause she says, “Dad. It’s Christmas. Behave yourself.”
When we go to pay for the tree, the master of ceremonies is busy negotiating a deal with two kids, a punk couple. The tree man stands with his hands in his change apron and says, “I gotta get 35 bucks for that tree.” The boy, a skinny kid in a leather jacket, shrugs and says he’s only got 28 bucks. His girlfriend, a large person with a bowl haircut and a monstrous black overcoat festooned with buttons, is wailing, “Please! Oh no! Jimmy! Jimmy! I love that tree! I want that tree!” The tree itself stands aside, a noble pine of about 12 feet. Unless these kids live in a gymnasium, they’re buying a tree bigger than their needs.
Jimmy retreats to his car, an old Plymouth big as a boat. “Police Rule” is spray-painted across both doors in balloon letters. He returns instantly and opens a hand full of coins. “I’ll give you 31 bucks, 55 cents, and my watch.” To our surprise, the wily tree man takes the watch to examine it. When I see that, I give Elise $4 and tell her to give it to Kid Jimmy and say, “Merry Christmas.” His girlfriend is still wailing but now a minor refrain of “Oh Jimmy, that tree! Oh Jimmy, etc.” I haven’t seen a public display of emotion and longing of this magnitude in Salt Lake City, ever. I watch Elise give the boy the money, but instead of saying “Merry Christmas,” I hear her say instead: “Here, Jimmy. Santa says keep your watch.”
Jimmy pays for the tree, and his girl — and this is the truth — jumps on him, wrestles him to the ground in gratitude, and smothers him for nearly a minute. There have never been people happier about a Christmas tree. We pay quickly and head out before Jimmy or his girlfriend can think to begin thanking us.
On the way home in the truck, I say to Elise, “Santa says keep your watch, eh?”
“Yes, he does,” she smiles.
“How old are you, anyway?”
It’s an old joke, and Drew finishes it for me: “When he was your age, he was seven.”
We will go home and while the two women begin decorating the tree with the artifacts of our many Christmases together, I will thread popcorn onto a long string. It is a ritual I prefer for its uniqueness; the fact that once a year I get to sit and watch the two girls I am related to move about a tree inside our home, while I sit nearby and sew food.
On the morning of the 24th of December, Elise comes into our bedroom, already dressed for sledding. “Good news,” she says. “We’ve got a shot at the record.”
Drew rises from the pillow and peeks out the blind. “It’s snowing,” she says.
Christmas Eve, we drive back along the snowy avenues and park on Fifth, as always. “I know,” Elise says, hopping out of the car. “You two used to live right over there before you had me and it was a swell place and only cost seventy-two fifty a month, honest.”
Drew looks at me and smiles.
“How old are you?” I ask Elise, but she is busy towing the sled away, around the corner, up toward Eleventh Avenue. It is still snowing, petal flakes, teeming by the streetlamps, trying to carry the world away. I take Drew’s hand and we walk up the middle of H Street behind our daughter. There is no traffic, but the few cars have packed the tender snow perfectly. It could be a record. On Ninth Avenue, Drew stops me in the intersection, the world still as snow, and kisses me. “I love you,” she says.
“What a planet,” I whisper. “To allow such a thing.”
By the time we climb to Eleventh Avenue, Elise is seated on the sled, ready to go. “What are you guys waiting for, Christmas?” she says and then laughs at her own joke. Then she becomes all business: “Listen, Dad, I figure if you stay just a little to the left of the tire tracks we could go all the way. And no wobbling!” She’s referring to last year’s record attempt, which was extinguished in the Eighth Avenue block when we laughed ourselves into a fatal wobble and ended in a slush heap.
We arrange ourselves on the sled, as we have each Christmas Eve for eight years. As I reach my long legs around these two women, I sense their excitement. “It’s going to be a record!” Elise whispers into the whispering snow.
“Do you think so?” Drew asks. She also feels this could be the night.
“Oh yeah!” Elise says. “The conditions are perfect!”
“What do you think?” Drew turns to me.
“Well, the conditions are perfect.”
When I say conditions, Drew leans back and kisses me. So I press: “There’s still room on the sled,” I say, pointing to the “F” in Flexible Flyer that is visible between Elise’s legs. “There’s still room for another person.”
“Who?” Elise asks.
“Your little brother,” Drew says, squeezing my knees.
And that’s about all that was said, sitting up there on Eleventh Avenue on Christmas Eve on a sled which is as old as my marriage with a brake that is as old as my daughter. Later tonight I will stand in my yard and throw this year’s reindeer droppings on my very own home. I love Christmas.
Now the snow spirals around us softly. I put my arms around my family and lift my feet onto the steering bar. We begin to slip down H Street. We are trying for the record. The conditions, as you know by now, are perfect.
Ron Carlson is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the novel Return to Oakpine. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harpers, and Gentlemen’s Quarterly, among other magazines, as well as in The Best American Short Stories, The O’Henry Prize Series, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and on NPR’s This American Life.
This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Reprinted from A Kind of Flying: Selected Stories by Ron Carlson. Copyright © 2003, 1997, 1992, 1987 by Ron Carlson. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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