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Saturday, December 23rd 2006
by Devon Pitlor
Zachary had been on the roof all morning positioning the sleigh and
the elves. Before that he had clambered all over the sides of the house stringing lights. He was determined this year to have a brighter house than anyone on the cove. Within hours night would fall and a parade of cars would be winding through the subdivision streets. They would pause before the best decorated houses and take pictures. That gave Zachary great satisfaction. It was part of the spirit of Christmas, and Zachary loved Christmas. His own parents had always boasted the best lit house on the block, and now it was his turn to carry the family torch. Christmas was a time of lights, and Zachary had not skimped. The thought of a late January power bill of over $700 didn't faze him a bit. Everything needed to be perfect. The house would be seen from a half mile away. It would draw the night drivers like moths to a flame. Satisfied with his work, Zachary climbed down from the roof and walked into the house. It was warm and cozy and full of Christmas colors. Robyn had seen to that. Knickknacks of Santas, elves and Alpine villages were spread everywhere. Not a doorway could be found that was not festooned in evergreen boughs, bountiful holly or dangling mistletoe. The tree was huge, but then again so was the vaulted ceiling in the den. At the very top was Gabriel, the angel who announced the virgin birth of the Baby Jesus. Under the tree, behind the multiple gifts, was the manger scene: Shepherds and animals visiting a tiny pink Caucasian baby in a straw-filled trough. The scene was faultless. The tree was splendorous. Christmas would be good this year, and maybe Robyn would crown it by getting pregnant.
At least Zachary hoped so. It was time to start a family, a family to carry on the tradition of the lights if for no other reason. Robyn, wearing a floppy Santa hat, came into the breakfast nook and tossed the mail on the table in front of Zachary. "You open the cards this time," she said wearily. "I've been out at the mall all day Christmas shopping. I still haven't found what I wanted for your brother Evan or for Giffen and Patty either. I'll need to go out again." "It's hard to shop for Evan," sighed Zachary. "All he wants is electronic gear. And more tattoos. You can't exactly buy him a tattoo, though maybe they have gift cards. As for Giffen and Patty, just get them a new LCD flat screen." Zachary began tearing open the Christmas cards which had come in the mail. He mumbled softly to himself. "Ness and Connie...Buff...Chuffy...the Plankermores...Rick's Diner...Warren from Nationsbest Retail...The Porcelain Lady at Fixture City...Arnold what's his face from Zaraguchi's...my old roommate Arreck...and here's one: Dalzall and Lillian Flenze. Who in the hell are Dalzall and Lillian Flenze?" "No idea, sweetie," chirped Robyn from under her hair dryer. "Oh, look here's a note." "Read it...but loud. I can't hear much under this thing." "Dalzall has been really sick, but he still manages to play paintball. He'll be 88 this coming year and has cancer. We're coming to visit before he dies. --Lillian"
"People we don't even know are coming to visit." "It would appear so." When Robyn finally got into her Christmassy best, she and Zachary drove out to meet Harriet and Clayger at Zaraguchi's. The foursome, still childless and each in their mid-twenties, had the habit of spending Saturday nights together and listening to live bands or dancing. They ordered cranberry mint zingers all around and began talking about the untimely death of a television star named Reena Produggan who had recently expired of an overdose. Then the conversation turned to online warring games, and the women quietly speculated on exactly what they expected their husbands might have for them under the tree. "I hope Clayger got me a zircon pendant," said Harriet. "I've so wanted one for ever. I think I deserve it." "I want a Porsche tied up with a ribbon," laughed Robyn. "I think this is the year. We make enough now. Zack just got a promotion." A crowd of happy, young merrymakers swirled around their table in the lounge. The discussions were mostly about telephonic and computer equipment and "apps." It was, after all, 2006. They were all young...employed...and the economy was faring well. On cue, Robyn and Harriet got up and went together to the bathroom. The warm up band was playing a very hip new Christmas song about a cellular reindeer. Zachary and Clayger began comparing their incomes and further chances for promotion. Both kept glancing at their watches. The women were late coming back, as usual, and their
husbands wanted to order and get a table closer to the band. Why did women take so long in the toilet? And why did they always have to journey there in pairs? "Ever hear of someone named Dalzall Flenze?" asked Zachary casually. "Friend of yours?" said Clayger with obvious disinterest. "I dunno. May have been a friend of my parents. We got a card from them saying they were coming over this year. I guess that means around Christmas. Dalzall is supposed to be a paintball enthusiast even though he is 88 and has cancer." "Well, good luck," said Clayger with a marked lack of interest. "Nothing worse than shirt tail relatives or old uninvited family friends. My dad knew these people named the Hagers. They came every year with a fruitcake as hard as a cement block." Forty minutes later, the women re-emerged from the restroom looking exactly as they had before going in. That evening after partying with Harriet and Clayger until around one am, Zachary and Robyn arrived home to hear the hair dryer roaring and water splashing in the shower. "What the..." gasped Zachary. "Who on earth is here, and how did they get in?" A grizzled old man with long stringy white hair emerged totally naked from the shower dripping wet and crossed the living room carpet toward an open suitcase. He glanced at Zachary and Robyn and said
"Wazzamatter? You never seen a foreskin before? We're all family here. Just give me a minute to dress." A few minutes later, an enormously fat woman dressed only in a bulging housecoat issued from the central bathroom with her hair wrapped in one of Robyn's muslin bath towels. She was creased like a punctured mylar balloon and must have been pushing 85 herself. She bustled around the sofa and the open suitcase until she located a huge white bra which looked like it could have been used to catch river salmon. She put it on under her robe, and it snapped with an audible click. By this time the old man was dressed in drooping boxers and a V-neck tee shirt full of brown holes. His sagging body did nothing to fill out these sour-looking clothes. Even though recently scrubbed--with Robyn's vanilla soap no less---both had the redolence of old age, a smell and an aura which conflicted mightily with the gay seasonal atmosphere of the house. "Dalzall," said the old man extending his hand to Zachary. "And you must be little Pete. It's been a long time, boy." "I'm Zachary," said Zachary. "Pete, Zachary...it's all the same," said Dalzall. "It's the spirit that counts. I have terminal cancer, and this will be my last Christmas. I stormed Omaha Beach once, but that was a long time ago. I was younger then." "I suppose you were," said Zachary quietly. He switched on the decorations of the massive tree and punched the wall toggle on his home stereo system. A lighthearted, but nasal and twangy, Christmas song filtered through the house like Muzak in retail outlet. "Where do we know you from, Dalzall, " he inquired.
"No idea," said Dalzall searching through the huge suitcase for something hidden near the bottom. "We get a card from you every year." Robyn looked quizzically at Dalzall. Lillian was still fumbling under her bathrobe with her underwear. She had located a pair of bloomers the size of a small parachute and was adjusting them around her ample girth. Suddenly it hit Robyn. "Yes," she chirped, "you are on our Christmas list. The Flenzes. We've been sending you a card ever since we got married five years ago." "Damn right," grunted Lillian suddenly. "It was high time we got together again. By the way, your toilet is plugged. I needed to use it, and, well, I may have eaten a bit too much yesterday..." "I'll take care of that," said Robyn somewhat horrified and darting out of the room. Dalzall finally located what he was seeking in the suitcase. It was huge, submarine-shaped cigar, which he proceeded to unwrap and light, blowing bilious clouds of noxious smoke all around the room. Zachary coughed a bit and stared at him in wonder. Nobody had ever smoked in the house before. Lillian plopped down on the sofa opposite the tree. "The nativity scene is all wrong," she began. "The shepherds and the animals need to be looking at Mary not the baby. The wise men look stupid, too. They need to look wise." "They came from the Christmas store like that," protested Zachary.
"Throw the sons of bitches out," said Lillian. She huffed up from her seat, swooped the figurines into one hand and tossed them into a nearby wastebasket. "Get some new ones before Christmas," she muttered. "Wise men need to look wise." Robyn returned to the room with a wet plunger in her hand and a harried look on her face. She whispered to Zachary that he would have to call a plumber the next day. "We'll all have to use another bathroom," she said trying to act chipper. "Say, who wants to go to bed? It's getting late." Dalzall and Lillian looked at one another. "Not before my glass of brandy," said Dalzall. With that, he located a bottle of brown liquor in his suitcase, got up and went into the kitchen. He returned with two tall water glasses filled to the top with brandy. He handed one to Lillian and took a sizeable swig from the other, "You two go on to bed. Lillian and I will find our own room in a little while." His voice was commanding, and it seemed like he was only to be obeyed. Zachary, not knowing quite what to do, took Robyn's hand and led her off to their bedroom. "Let's just wait until tomorrow. Let them sleep here, and we'll deal with it tomorrow before church." Robyn looked horror-struck. Lillian had plugged her main toilet with what was apparently a huge turd, and the house was being inundated with cigar smoke. Two seniors dressed only in their underwear were drinking huge glasses of brandy in her Christmassy living room and had just savaged her nativity scene. Her last words before falling asleep were: "We'll have to buy some new wise men tomorrow. Can't we get rid of these people?" Zachary was too overcome with fatigue and wonder to answer. He rolled over and fell into a troubled sleep. He hoped the Flenzes would be gone by morning. Maybe they would just move on automatically, he thought to himself.
But daybreak found the Flenzes snoring and snorting in the middle bedroom. Their clothes were strewn all over the room, and an stale odor of aging flesh choked the atmosphere. A glance at Dalzall showed that he had slept with the extinguished stump of his cigar firmly planted in his mouth. Lillian had taken up most of the space on the bed and was sprawled like some enormous sea creature across the strained mattress. Robyn and Zachary looked at one another. It was the last Sunday before Christmas, and they had promised their parents that they would for this once a year attend church. They got dressed quickly, both hoping that when they returned the Flenzes would perhaps be gone. As the Northside Presbyterian Church was very conservative, Zachary had taken care to don his Rodamar single breasted suit and to wear his best yellow silk power tie. Robyn, as dictated by the season, was attired in green and red with Santa and candy cane pins all over her blouse. Still shocked and not knowing quite how to handle the Flenzes, they stood in the middle bedroom door and stared at their guests, who were belligerently grunting at one another as they woke up. "We'll be back soon," said Zachary timidly, "Make yourselves at home." As Zachary was fumbling in the living room for his car keys and preparing to leave, his cell phone rang out with a loud "Jingle Bells" tone. It was Clayger, who was also planning on leaving for church. "We're leaving now," he said. "We are going down the driveway. Now we are in the street. We will turn the corner at River Oaks. Oh yes, here it comes. River Oaks. Now we are on River Oaks going toward Northside. Harriet is here beside me. Now we are going up Eastridge..."
Suddenly Zachary felt something large, hard and wet smash into his forehead. He dropped the phone and turned around stunned. In the hall stood Dalzall, totally naked, shriveled and holding a black paintball pistol. He had just shot Zachary in the forehead, and green paint was dripping all over Zachary's face, shoulders, yellow power tie and brushed, conservative Rodamar suit. "Put that goddamn thing away," shouted Dalzall. "Devil's own device. Piece of shit. Worse thing ever invented." He aimed and shot another paint ball at the cell phone lying on the carpet. The gooey paint covered the device totally and enveloped it in a sticky paint puddle. Lillian looked on approvingly. Robyn seeing her husband covered with paint, shrieked and gaped at the Flenzes for an explanation. Lillian, wearing only a laced bordered negligee, lumbered forward and said that they hated "these little portable phones." "Oh," said Robyn. "Oh." Zachary was dumfounded. He could not go to church covered with green paint and shook his head in disbelief. "You can't just come here and shoot a paintball gun or smoke a cigar in our house," he said, finally mustering up the courage to confront the Flenzes. "We're family," said Dalzall. "You make exceptions for family." Lillian shook her head in agreement and marched off into the kitchen. Robyn could hear her rattling through the cupboards and clanging the pots and pans.
Church plans were cancelled for that day. Both Zachary and Robyn realized that before going anywhere they would have to deal with the Flenzes before the Flenzes totally trashed the immaculately decorated house. They retreated to their own room to discuss the matter. Who were these people anyway? Neither Robyn nor Zachary could identify them as members of their respective families, but Robyn was still certain that they exchanged cards every Christmas. "We're they at the wedding?" asked Zachary at one point. The two held hands in despair and gazed into each other's eyes. Other than call the police, which would be --they agreed-- rude, they seemed to have no options. By the time they emerged from their bedroom about forty minutes later, Lillian was sitting, still in her floral negligee, in the breakfast nook with a huge mixing bowl full of scrambled eggs in front of her. The eggs were filled with cloves of garlic, anchovies and sardines which Robyn had been keeping for pizza. Mixed in also were dried chips of onions, red pepper, and the sad-looking eggs were slathered with Worcestershire sauce and gobs of ketchup. Lillian spooned one mouthful after another into her bloated face. "Gotta eat well in old age," she chuffed through a full mouth of eggs. Dalzall ate nothing "because he had cancer" but was drinking another water glass full of brandy and weaving about. Zachary noted that two empty brandy bottles were lying sideways across the sink. Dalzall was now dressed in some sort of baggy corduroy pants and wearing a floppy nightshirt. "Christmas spirit," he said, and stumbled out of the room. "This is gonna be my last one. I stormed Omaha Beach once, but I was younger then." "Indeed you were," said Lillian still stuffing her mouth. Robyn and Zachary, fearing the worst, followed Dalzall out into the living room. He was stumbling around the huge tree, splashing
brandy from his glass and humming some tune. "Dancing around the Christmas tree," he sang, precariously lurching back and forth. Finally he crashed squarely into the tree, and it came cascading down, decorations, Gabriel, tinsel, icicles and all. It barely missed crushing the cat, Matrix, who darted into a corner and was seen no more. Dalzall continued "Dancing around the Christmas tree...what a happy jolly spot." The fallen tree took up most of the space in the room now. Zachary could take no more. He needed to get out of the house and call somebody. He changed clothes rapidly and grabbed Robyn, making sure she had her phone. "Let's go," he said in a panic. Once in the car, the couple had no idea where to go. A light snow covered the subdivision, and a cacophony of Christmas songs dribbled from the nearby houses. Zachary drove around the block looking at the lights. He thought of his own handiwork and reflected in pride that come nightfall his house would still be the brightest and most complexly decorated in the cove. No one would have to see the mess inside and the fallen tree. No one would have to see the Flenzes. Clayger offered no relief. Over the phone he said things like "Bummer, man. Family's a bitch. Old people. What you gonna do, man?" Zachary finally hung up. With firm resolve he decided at length to go back home and rid himself of the Flenzes, no matter who they actually were or how many cards he had Robyn had exchanged with them over the past five years. Gripping the steering wheel of his Acura, he gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes. No intruders, no matter what age, would ruin his perfect Christmas. Robyn patted his knee as he drove. She was adept at playing the role of the perfect wife.
Arriving home, both were shocked to see Dalzall sitting in a chaiselongue in the snow covering the front lawn. He was facing the house rather than the street and had some sort of rifle in his hand. It turned out to be Zachary's old pump action Daisy BB gun, a gun which he had kept in the basement, a toy left over from his unblemished childhood. Dalzall was taking aim at....at the Christmas lights on the house. One by one he was shooting them out. "Gotcha!" he would say after each of the colorful bulbs exploded. "Gotcha...gotcha...gotcha" Lillian was nowhere to be seen. Eyes blazing with anger, Zachary bolted from the car and ran to Dalzall's side. A grin of intense satisfaction creased Dalzall's face. "My aim is still good after all these years. I stormed the beach at Normandy, and I'm still pretty accurate." He shot out another light and looked up at Zachary. His drunken, yellow, rheumy and bloodshot eyes seemed dead and lifeless like those of a beached shark. Zachary snatched the BB gun from his hands and tossed it across the yard. "Now see here," he began. Dalzall shifted position in the chaise-longue and reached beneath his nightshirt. "Never come with just one weapon," he muttered. Out came the paintball pistol, and before Zachary could recoil, he was hit squarely in the chest by another paintfilled missile. The impact was closer than intended, and Zachary doubled over in pain. It was red paint this time. "Looks like blood," said Dalzall, but it isn't. "Just paint. Gotcha." About this time, Lillian, wearing some sort of immeasurable housedress came out brandishing a huge chunk of candied ham which she had obviously torn from the Christmas platter in refrigerator. Strings of ham and rivulets of juice dribbled from her mouth. "I have the spirit," she chortled. “And it makes me hungry as hell!”
Zachary, now dripping with red paint, regained his footing and marched through the snow toward Dalzall. "I don't care who you are or what beach you stormed. You need to pack up and go...now!!" Dalzall dropped his paintball gun and pulled himself slowly to his feet. A look of intense sadness filled his weathered eyes. He glanced at Lillian who was still tearing off mouthfuls of sugary ham. Stooped and broken, he trudged off toward the house. Lillian followed him at his side. Beside his shrunken frame, she looked like a protective giant. Angry and shaken to the core, Zachary stood outside glaring at his ruined Christmas decorations and thinking about the fallen tree. Robyn stood at his side but had nothing to say. There was nothing in either of their experiences to prepare them for what had happened and how their Christmas had been ruined. Life had not yet taught them enough lessons on how exactly to act in such circumstances. Epilogue Years later, there were some children who had new games that Zachary could not understand and which Robyn didn't want to. The incident of the Flenzes had become a sort of historical legend which was recounted among the adults each year as the children played oblivious to whatever conversations filled the air around them. They were attached to devices of a new era which didn't even have names in 2006. Clayger and Harriet had long since divorced, but Clayger, now graying slightly, sat beside his new wife and watched his own savage children blend with Zachary's. None of them understood exactly what the kids were doing. None of them cared to be honest. Zachary was finishing a rum and eggnog and re-enacting what had become a Christmas tradition, the telling of the legend of the Flenzes. Although
Clayger had heard it all before, Zachary once again finished the story. It was almost a ritual. There were certain places to pause and then start up again. "And then?" Clayger urged. He knew the end was coming. "And then," said Zachary, still squeezing, Robyn's hand. "And then we finally went inside. Dalzall was stretched across the sofa in the main room. He was dying. At his side was Lillian. She was patting his chest. 'He stormed the beaches in Normandy,' she said time and time again. 'Now it's his time.'” The story drew to its usual conclusion: Lillian brought out another half gallon bottle of brandy. This time they all drank, even Robyn. A very light Christmas tune was playing in the home audio system. Lillian had placed some candles on the two end tables near the sofa where Dalzall lay. They all had decided to get drunk. Zachary always said he had no idea why. It just seemed like the thing to do. In the distance, bells were ringing. It was past midnight and already Christmas day. As the somber bells tolled, Dalzall looked one last time around the room, heaved his chest, and passed from this life into whatever follows. "Merry Christmas," said Lillian. They clinked their glasses and each wished the other a merry Christmas. Zachary felt Dalzall's wrist. He was dead. By noon a mortuary van had come to collect his body, and Lillian, fully dressed, followed it. Robyn and Zachary did not know to where. She was never seen again. "That is my Christmas story once again this year," said Zachary, squeezing Robyn's shoulder. Robyn looked on in obvious approval. Zachary had become a compelling narrator.
"It gets better as the years go on," said Clayger. His new wife nodded. They looked at the insensible children attached physically to their games. The past was a foreign country, and the future something that they all were now prepared to explore with a greater sense of courage borne from experience. "Every year," Zachary sighed, "it seems to take on more meaning. I mean like it was authentic, something too real, but real just the same." "Yeah, real," agreed Clayger, glancing again at the children and his later-in-life wife. "I'm glad they came," said Robyn. She pulled out a browning card from a rubber banded stack of old papers. In it was a somewhat younger picture of Dalzall and Lillian. Under the season's greeting, one of them had written: "Some day we'll find time to visit both of you." They all read the card as it was ceremoniously passed around. "And finally they did visit," said Zachary conclusively. The Christmas legend had been retold for another year. And next year, its meaning would even grow deeper. They all knew that. _________________________________//// Devon Pitlor December, 2009
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