When my sister Debbie died at 17 of meningitis, she was carrying a fetus. I was told this by a kid named Chuck Botz, holder of all information, whose loud-mouthed brother worked somewhere in the hospital. I kept my knowledge secret for as long as I could, until it tried to burst forth from my belly with a life of its own, then asked my mother straight out if it was true. She clutched me into her chest and told me it was, but we could never tell my father. I named the baby—who I thought of as a girl—Celeste, for celestial, the stars in heaven.
For a while after Debbie, my parents took a vacation from reality. My father, a normally serious state trooper, became so boisterous and off-the-wall he was forced to take some time off. "No matter," he said. "It's Christmas!"
They started drinking and smoking like out of control teenaged house-sitters. They were quite taken with each other as well, and I came and went like a shadow in the corner of their eyes for each other. "Would you like a little brother or sister?" my mother teased me one night. She was tipsy, swaying over me as I tried to watch Frosty, and I felt disgust.
I worried about Christmas. A week to go and still no tree, which was so unlike my father. "If you want to just skip Christmas," I told them, "I understand. You know, with Debbie and all." That seemed to slap him back to reality. That night we went out and he cut down a nice spruce right off the lawn of the police barracks, laughing maniacally as I tried not to pee my snow pants. Then, before getting into the truck, we both peed on the police snow.
On the Saturday before Christmas, we were going to visit the Hansons. That was also weird, because before my father's fall from grace, he had looked on them as low-lives. Ted Hanson was fat and obnoxious, a salesman of frozen foods. He was an alcoholic and a speeder and a light-runner. My father had given him many tickets, which Ted had gotten "fixed." Louise Hanson worked in the post office, where she had recently been caught napping in back amongst the sacks and was in danger of losing her job. And there was something secret about the Hansons disturbing to me. Chuck Botz, of course, who had helped his father do some work in the Hansons' basement, said he saw babies in jars down there, all lined up on shelves. But my mother said the Hansons needed friends, and this was the season for good will.
"Will there be anyone else there?" I asked. "Any kids?"
"Nope. Just us."
"I won't have anything to do," I whined.
"They have a waterbed, and a big new TV," said my mother, stuffing me into my red and green sweater. "And cookies. I think they might be a lot of fun." She smelled like smoke and the Avon she sold. I smiled a little, only because I was picturing Ted Hanson floundering on a water bed, skinny Louise bouncing on his gut like a trampoline.
"There's my young man." She smoothed my hair and suddenly pulled me into her, not wanting to let go. She did that a lot, clutching me wildly. My father had to finally extract me. He tossed me onto his broad back and headed down the stairs, smelling of his Wild Country cologne, that fine Avon product, which was in the little stage-coach bottle on his dresser.
In the dining room he picked up a bottle of booze and carton of cigarettes. "When in Rome," he said, which puzzled me at the time.
"Why don't they have any kids?" I asked this on the drive over. A safe question, I thought, to offset my father's hazardous driving. There was ice on the county road, but he sped with one lazy hand, for no reason I knew of other than his new risk-taking mentality, and I was sure he might fail a breath test if stopped. But then, what cop would say anything to him?
"Some people don't want children," my mother answered, studying her eyes in a tiny, lighted mirror. "Or they can't have any, because something is missing."
"Like parts needed to make babies."
"Ham and eggs, Spam and eggs, sperm and eggs?"
She clapped the mirror shut, and my father snorted. "Did you learn that in school?"
"No. Just that Spam is pork shoulder."
My father spun around a dark corner, and sudden headlights flashed at us. "Be careful!" my mother warned, but I could tell she was excited by it.
"Yes, be careful," I said. "I'm still here."
They came to the door in matching Santa outfits. The suits might have fit them once, but now Ted's was split across his gut, while Louise's hung in droopy folds like a sad curtain. Ted's crazy Santa was growing, while hers was disappearing. He was Christmas present and maybe future; she was Christmas past.
Ted took off his hat and slipped it over my whole head. "Johnny!" he said. While I suffocated in there with the smells of smoke and Avon and booze, he put me in a head lock and gave me a knuckle rub through the fabric while he wheezed and laughed.
Then Louise snatched me from him, her nails in my ribs. She whipped off the hat and plunged my face into the smoky white fur over her missing right breast.
What was it about me, always needing such clutching? Was I falling? Disappearing?
Ted struggled to get me back. He finally caused her to fumble me, and he jiggled me down the hall and into their bedroom and tossed me onto the bed. I heard Louise say, "Don't hurt him," as I rode the breaking waves, which from the first instant made me nauseous and would in no way be entertaining for me for any length of time.
"Holy shit, Ted!" My father said from the door. "Can you get us one of these?"
"Only if you get us one of these," Ted replied, grabbing my head again. "No!" I said, and meant it. I was able to roll away from him.
Louise and my parents were creeping closer. They all said, "Go!" at once, and dove onto me, like they were about to devour me to fuel their evening. Only the water saved me from being crushed. There was an airspace between Ted's chest and my face, where wild hairs peeked and reeked from his suit. A tidal wave tossed us.
I screamed, "This thing will break!"
"Impossible!" Ted proclaimed. Everyone giggled except me. I held my breath against their conflicting odors. How could they be so piled up already, when they hardly knew each other? This was a little too much Christmas spirit.
After tickling me for a little while, they turned their attention to the TV, which my father hailed as the greatest thing since the waterbed. "Is that mahogany?" my father asked, stroking the huge cabinet. He pressed his cheek onto it.
"Lookee here," Ted said, tossing me a dense, rectangular object. "This is called a remote control. You can change channels without getting up."
"Wow. How many channels can you get?" asked my father.
"Well—three. But you don't have to get up."
They finally forgot about me, headed out to the kitchen to whip up some drinks and smoke some cigarettes. "I'll bring you some of my famous cookies!" Louise shouted back to me. "You want milk or cocoa?"
"Milk's fine," I said, bouncing out of the creepy bed and onto the floor.
I took a trip around the room, studying the pictures on the dresser and the bedside stand. They were all of the Hansons in younger, fresher years, or at least of people who looked like them. In one Louise was holding a baby. The baby was wearing a long white dress, like a Christening outfit.
I sat cautiously on the bottom of the crazy bed and turned on the TV. I had news for Ted: this TV was rotten. No matter how many times I pushed the button, there was only one station, or there was the same thing on every station. There was a dial thing on top of the set, something we also had, which supposedly turned the antenna on the roof. I spun the dial, but then I heard a creaking sound from above and suddenly imagined the antenna plunging through the ceiling like a spear, puncturing my chest and then the waterbed. The picture remained rotten. It looked like some variety show, but with a bunch of people milling about like they didn't know the camera was on.
I pressed the button to turn the TV off and on again. I pressed the third button, which didn't seem to do anything, and a moment later Mrs. Hanson stood in the doorway and said, "You rang?"
"Here's your cookies." She swung a paper plate from behind her. There were thin wafers covered with red and green crystals. "They will melt in your mouth, like air." She produced a glass from the folds of her outfit, like a magician. "And your milk. Like mother's milk."
Now why did she have to go and say that, reminding me of her missing boob? Maybe the babies downstairs were hers, and she'd stored her milk in jars as well. "Thank you," I said, relieved at least the glass was cold.
"Louise!" Ted called to her. "We're partying without you!"
"I'm coming!" To me she said, "Don't eat those cookies too fast."
As soon as she was gone, I melted all those cookies in my mouth. I took a tentative sip of the milk, which was crisp and delicious. I heard Jingle Bell Rock start up from the other room, along with some heavy swishing and grunting noises, like they were trying to dance. I giggled—that would be a sight. I thought I should sneak out and take a peek, but my body felt suddenly as heavy as a stone, one that could sink to the bottom of this bed. I found myself crawling up the bed to the pillows, propping them behind my back, and gazing in a hypnotized fashion at the TV screen.
It was the weirdest show, not a Christmas special at all, just a bunch of stars on one big stage, having or delivering babies. Time was skewed—the TV stars were the wrong ages to be together on one stage, but as I watched, it all made perfect sense somehow. I began to suspect the cookies.
A young Jack Benny was delivering a baby from Lawrence Welk. Lawrence was on a shiny grand piano, his hairless legs propped on candlesticks, and Jack was saying, "Breathe, Welk, but don't stop smiling." Lawrence was breathing: "a-one-and-a-two-and..."
On another part of the stage, Ed Sullivan delivered something long and dark from Ed McMahon. "Congratulations, it's a really big shoe," he said.
Lucy was popping them out one after another, all by herself. She cried, "Waaahhh!" and the babies cried, "Waaahhh!"
The babies shook the goo off, fashioned their umbilical cords into bow ties, and formed a chorus line in front. They danced around for a little while until the Grinch, snickering, crept out and collected them all into a giant sack, where you could see them wriggling. I smiled at the horror of it, closing my heavy eyes.
"Yoo-Hoo! I'm back!" Louise kicked the side of the console and the picture sizzled and disappeared. "I hate that show," she said, rubbing a purplish bare foot.
I could hardly open my eyes.
"Yes, you go to sleep now. There, there. You sleep. You ate all the cookies? You will sleep." Her voice was slurred. She pressed on the bed and made waves which rocked me. I didn't care about anything. The music and laughter from down the hall sounded warped and tinny. Someone called, "Louise," or maybe, "Please."
"Mr. Hanson won't be happy about the TV," I murmured.
"Screw him." She sat on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair with her sharp little hand. I knew she wasn't as old as she looked, and I felt sorry for her. She looked like a wizened elf, like something soaked in water for too long.
I turned my head under her hand and looked at the frame next to the bed. "Whose kid is that?"
"My sister's kid. That's my sis and her husband. He's dead. She looked just like me, although nowadays she looks much better than I do."
"I think you look okay."
"You're such a sweetie." Her voice was raspy with emotion. She stroked my cheek with a finger, and I drifted off across some strange sea on this raft of a bed.
I woke up and looked at the clock. I'd only slept an hour. They were really going at it in the other room—clinking glasses and rattling plates and laughing over Bing Crosby's voice.
I decided it was a good time to have a look in the cellar. I kept to my hands and knees, like a little drunk myself, creeping down the hallway under the stratus cloud of smoke, under the radar, until I found the door with the dark stairs going down. Something swept across my forehead, and I shook, but it was just the string to a bulb, which I tugged carefully. I slid down the narrow steps on my butt. Not that they could hear me—the rowdy crew was thumping the floor in some kind of alcohol and nicotine and Bing Crosby induced frenzy.
Something called to me from down there, seduced me, as it would continue to do for the rest of my life. It was the musty smell, hidden beneath the newer smell of damp cement and freshly cut wood. It stirred something ancient and unborn.
The first part of the floor was concrete and clean, where lawn chairs and wooden crates of empty beer and booze bottles and other cardboard boxes were neatly stacked. I flipped open one of the boxes and found some crisply folded baby clothes, which made me nervous. I continued deeper, pulling on another light chain, until the floor beneath my feet became smooth dirt. It was like slipping past normal into some kind of madness, where cobwebs stirred and those quick centipede things darted in the corners of my vision. Back there the foundation walls broke apart like bad teeth. Then I saw them, the sagging wooden shelves against one wall, the jars glinting under the bulb and containing, maybe, some barely discernable movement.
I moved closer. There was something plump and red in one jar. Just as I reached for it a hand gripped my shoulder, and I shot forward, grabbing a jar in each hand as if they would hold me up. I twisted so I fell on my back, instinctively, I guess, to save the glass, and as I went down I glimpsed the contents of the jars spinning wildly.
With the wind knocked out of me I looked up at Louise, who said to me calmly, "Thank you, for saving my babies."
Each jar was warm, pressed against my trembling pectoral muscles, and I could feel the throbbing movements. Louise helped me up. God no, I thought. It has to be the cookies.
She whispered into my ear. "Look." She took the jars I was holding and placed them lovingly back on the shelf. "Just those two, and this one." She pointed to the one next to them. I leaned in. Her hand was on the small of my back, pressing lightly, its heat tremendous.
"This one just looks like tomatoes," I whispered. "And this one pears, maybe. This one definitely peaches."
She laughed. "That would be all the rest. But these, you have to look closer."
"I don't want to. I'm afraid."
"Look at them." Her nails entered the flesh of my neck, and she thrust my head forward, inches from the shelf. Some ancient dust flew into my nostrils and made my eyes burn.
"I see them," I said, just to get her off, but then I did see them, the three fetuses, their different pigmentation maybe due to age or some other factor I couldn't dream of.
Her hand on my neck relaxed and began to stroke the back of my hair. "I lied," she said, "There are four of them. The pears are actually a pair. Twins! They're joined. Constance and Merricat. Do you know Merricat?"
"No." I tried pulling away, but she clamped down again.
"They suck each others' thumbs." With her free hand she lifted some loose Santa fabric and wiped her eyes. "This of course is Peaches. She doesn't do anything. She's quite dead." She bowed her head for a second, then perked up as she pointed to the red one. "But here, this is Tommy. Tommy Tomato. You can see why. He's very bad, that's why he's so red. He's frisky. Sometimes he gives me the idea to take him out, but I'm afraid of what might happen."
As I looked at Tommy, he twisted, tomato cheeks and buttocks changing position so he could see me with that flat shark eye. I had to look away. I choked out some words and instantly regretted them: "Is my sister's baby down here?"
Her eyes grew. "Heavens, no. But—where could I get it?"
This time I was successful in breaking away. I tripped over some loose stones, disrupting a pair of glowing, skittering eyes. I was already on the stairs before I heard her call, "Wait!"
I woke up. Debbie was sitting in the chair, holding her huge belly. "Hey, Dipshit, you look about as good as I feel," she said.
"I think she drugged me. I know she did, because you're not real."
"Hey, that hurts as much as this hurts." She poked herself. "Of course I'm real. I came from the TV. There's some weird shit going on in there, let me tell you."
The TV hummed softly, still with no picture.
"It was the cookies," I said. "She put something in them."
"Whatever. Listen, I'm going to have this thing soon." She grimaced. "Not soon enough."
"You can't have it here," I whispered. "You have to get out of here. She'll want to take it."
"Mrs. Hanson. She's collecting."
Debbie laughed. "Don't worry. This one will be too big for her." She looked down and said, "Uh-oh. I think my water's breaking." She struggled to her feet and wobbled. "Nope, I was wrong. It's your bed leaking."
I jumped up, my socks soaking up some of the leakage, which was not water at all, but some kind of reddish ooze.
"You better get out of here," Debbie warned, swaying on her tiny feet. "If that bed gives birth, who knows what might come out. A monster."
"Take me with you! I want to see how you turn out!"
"You know how I turn out, Kid. I'm dead. You can't come with me."
She touched the TV screen and a wash of static took her arm.
"Wait! Where does your baby go?"
She was gone. The picture bloomed from a center dot and there she was on the screen, walking away, waving at me over her shoulder, her other hand holding onto the ruffled sleeve of Desi Arnaz. I knelt in the warm slime and pressed my cheek to the screen until I felt a soft little pop and the picture faded once more. I intended to go get my parents, but I was paralyzed. I slumped into the fluid and let it rise over my face. Oddly enough, I wasn't afraid, and I didn't need or want to breathe. After a while I started to swim around and do somersaults, feeling like little Tommy Tomato. Through the fluid I could feel a heartbeat, or maybe the vibrations of their party out there. How could they be so oblivious?
I woke up. I was dry. Someone was slipping under the covers next to me. It was Louise, but a much younger and sexier version. Her Santa suit fit her nicely. She was still thin, but she filled it out with womanly curves. Her hair was long and dark and it clung to my neck, snaked around it, pulling me in. She didn't smell like smoke or booze; she smelled good, like shampoo, and beneath that of something similar to the call of the basement, something damp and fertile, Mother Earth.
She purred against my neck. "I need you to give me a baby."
"No. What? I can't. I have no Spam yet."
"I have no Spam. I'm too young."
"Hah. Story of my life. No meat!"
She reached down and touched my tiny erection. "Wait, what's this? Here it is."
"Please," I said.
"Oh, well," she sighed, and tickled me instead.
I fled to the living room, smack into Ted's huge ass, where the split seat of his Santa suit rippled with odor. They were playing Twister. The real Louise was there. "Look who's here," she said, stretching her arm with a lit cigarette close to my father's crotch. Right hand red.
"I have to go home," I said to my mother. "I feel sick."
She was laughing with her cheek against the mat, like a wrestler being tickled. "You'll be fine, honey. Just go back and lie down."
I didn't like this. This wasn't my mother.
"You shouldn't be out here," Louise hissed from between my father's legs. "No babies allowed."
"If you stay out here," said Ted, squeezing a fart at me, "we'll have to eat you."
They broke into hysterics, collapsing like drunken dominos. Louise's cigarette added to the many burn holes in the mat.
I woke up...
My mother bounced gently next to me, her hand on my forehead. "Honey, are you okay?"
I sat up and looked around the room. "Is this real now?"
"Have you been dreaming?"
"I hope so. Mom, is that really you?"
"Of course it is."
I held onto her, her booze-breath burning my eyes. "I want to leave now. I don't like this place or these people. I think they drugged me. Don't eat the cookies, whatever you do. And listen..." I whispered into her ear. "There are babies in jars downstairs. I saw them... and she wanted Debbie's..." I started to cry, aware my heaving body would make this creepy raft drift off again to someplace new. I pulled her off the bed. "We can't stay on this thing. And don't touch that TV..."
She sat me in the chair and put the blanket around me. "My, those were awful nightmares. But listen, the Hanson's are very nice people. Just misunderstood, and very lonely." She pulled an Avon-scented tissue from her blouse and dried my tears. "So just let your father and I make them feel needed and funny for a little while longer. You sit here, or come out to the sofa."
I nodded, taking a ragged but cleansing breath. I started to follow her out, then changed my mind. "I'll just stay in here," I told her. "I'm better now." I put on my brave face, like I had done at Debbie's funeral. Since I knew I was really awake this time, I'd slip down to the basement for real. I would know for sure.
I watched her go down the hall and turn the corner, disappearing at the moment when some loud, hollow banging broke out, like someone drumming on a pot. "Bongos!" Ted exclaimed.
I walked out confidently, not sneaking this time. What could be worse than what had already happened? But confidence slipped away as I discovered I knew exactly where the door was, when the same string to the same bulb was there, the same steps and boxes and baby clothes and concrete giving way to dirt; and that smell, beneath it all, triggering deep and mysterious longings.
The shelves were there, just as before.
I was afraid to go on, but I had to. I had to know. I wanted Chuck Botz to be full of shit. How dare he know that about my sister? Maybe, if Tommy Tomato really was here, I would let him out, with instructions to kill Chuck Botz. I took a deep breath and stepped forward.
The rafters above me vibrated with merriment, making the bulb flicker, lending a strobe effect making the contents of the jars seem to move. I watched the slow-motion of my hand reaching. It was like someone else's hand. The dream had seemed more real than this. Then, as in the dream, her hand was on my shoulder. This time I was cool, like I'd practiced not jumping.
"Goodness. Johnny?" When I didn't respond she said to herself, "He must be sleepwalking."
That was perfect. I'd pretend to be sleepwalking. Did people talk while sleepwalking? I didn't know. Maybe I could be more like having a walking nightmare, where I could say all sorts of weird things without drawing suspicion. I reached out my arms and fingers stiffly, like a Frankenstein, touching the jars with my fingertips. I made my voice monotone and said, "Where are the babies."
"Good heavens, Johnny, come back upstairs."
"Save the babies," I said, moving my legs like I was walking in place.
"There are no babies. Look." She held Tommy Tomato's jar before my face, and like a suitable sleepwalker I made my eyes wide and unblinking and unfocused. But I could still see it was just a plain old jar of stewed tomatoes, not like before.
"It's just all my fruits and vegetables," she said, almost like trying to convince herself.
Right, I thought. Vegetables.
Then she did something pretty perverted, I suppose because she was drunk and starved for love and thought I was asleep and wouldn't remember. She put one of her hands under my sweater and ran her nails down my spine and under my pants into my crack. Her other hand brushed the front of my pants while she pressed her face into my neck, nuzzling and kissing it a little. I stopped my walking in place. I was paralyzed, just letting her do what she was doing. I almost started to cry. If I told my father, that would be the end of Mrs. Hanson, but I felt sorry for her. She was just mixed up. She was doing me terrible harm, mixing up my first erotic feelings with Santa Claus and the smells of smoke and alcohol and mustiness, associations that would become my curse forever. But I forgave her.
Finally I turned and did my wide-eyed and stiff-legged and stiff-wienered zombie walk back towards the stairs with Louise staggering behind me, her claw hand still wound in my sweater. I let her believe she was guiding me back to the bed. I let her tuck me in, too, although I was prepared to run and tell if she tried crawling in next to me. But all she did was kiss my forehead and head back to the party, which had quieted down without her.
I was not going back to sleep or staying in that creepy bed. I sat in the chair all drawn up in the blanket, shivering like Scrooge waiting for his next visitor. At two o'clock the music and voices and thumping from the other room stopped, and I thought it was high time to go home, but when I went out there, trailing the blanket behind me, I found them all passed out: Louise face down on the Twister mat, a snoring Ted mountain near the fireplace, my parents spooning together in a corner like Pompeii people. My mother was now wearing a green elf outfit, complete with curly-toed shoes. My father was drooling slightly into a big beard he was wearing, and there were torn scraps of green fabric clinging to his shoulders and his thighs, as if he had tried to don some elf clothing as well and failed, bursting from it. It was a crazy scene, best forgotten. I managed to turn Louise onto her back so she wouldn't suffocate in the plastic. She looked even more shriveled now, like a kernel of some life-form waiting to fill out its red cocoon. The tip of Ted's hat was dangerously close to the dying embers, so I moved the little white pom-pom onto his nose, causing him to snort and say, "Ho, ho..." I put out a cigarette which still burned in an ash tray. With safety issues taken care of, I was free to investigate the house, while they slept it off.
I searched drawers and closets for incriminating evidence: hallucinogenic crystals which could be put on cookies, perverted snapshots, baby-pickling kits. I didn't spend a lot of time in the cellar; it was especially creepy being the only one awake in the house, so I took time only to grab Tommy Tomato's jar. I hid him under my sweater and then in the trunk of our car, under some blankets.
That one and only night at the Hanson's was the beginning of something, or many things. None of us talked about it. I think my parents were ashamed of drinking and forgetting so much. I felt guilty for having stolen the jar of tomatoes and hidden it deep in the darkness of our own basement. And I still burned with Mrs. Hanson's touch and neck kisses. When the new year came, I masturbated for the first time, feeling her small hand and smoky alcohol breath and soft Santa suit, and thinking also of the younger Louise with the damp womanly scent who had slipped into bed next to me in the dream.
Shortly after, Louise disappeared from the post office, and my father, who had returned to work more seriously than ever, reported he had arrested Ted for "Driving While Pickled." He felt bad, but Ted was crossing the center line. He could've kill someone. When my father took Ted to the hospital for a blood alcohol, Ted stayed because his liver was failing. He'd been killing himself all along.
When spring bloomed, my mother discovered she was pregnant, at 40 years of age. She seemed frightened and guilty. I could almost read her thoughts: Debbie gave up two lives, how could I make a new one of my own? My father was crazily happy, bringing her flowers every other day, slapping Wild Country onto his cheeks with new abandon. He stopped smoking so he could be around longer. But my brother—who I named Joey—must have gotten my mother's vibes and couldn't make it without more hope than that, and he came out way too soon, tiny and blue and unformed. He, too, became a baby in a bottle, and I pictured him sitting on the hospital shelf next to Celeste. In my mind I began to plot a daring raid involving Chuck Botz's brother.
But before I could approach Chuck Botz, he came to me, taunting over the gym hardwood on our first day back to school. "Hey, guess what, douche? Your brother had an extra head growing out of his shoulder, and 12 fingers. My brother saw him. Or should I say 'it.'" I slammed his head into the wood, bouncing it like a basketball until there was a puddle of blood. I'd never experienced rage like that; it was for Debbie and Celeste and Joey, of course, but also for the fact that my mother had turned zombie-like and had stopped clutching me when I really needed it. She was suddenly telling me to grow up. And worse than that, there was a different look in her eye—she seemed to blame me for everything.
The Chuck incident only distanced her further from me. While I was serving my two-week suspension, she asked me, "Why did you try to kill that boy?" She was slurry and hoarse and cross-eyed because she'd been drinking and smoking and watching the soaps non-stop. I'd explained it all the day it happened, but she still kept asking me. She was forgetting everything. "He called Joey a monster," I reminded her.
"Your baby, Mom."
She slapped me across my face and shook me. "There was no baby! It died before it could be anything, do you understand? There was no name!"
"I named him." I held my burning cheek.
She shook me one last time. "You just can't go around doing whatever you want." She pushed me away and locked herself in her room.
Fine. I couldn't go around doing whatever I wanted? We'd see about that. My father was working second shift lately, so I took some rotten tomatoes from our garden and peppered the streets and stop signs pretty good. Then, shaking, I went home and fantasized about grown women who were shrunken and in jars in my closet. I could take them out, watch them swell to normal size, have my way with them, and then put them back in the jars until next time.
I was out every night, discovering the darkness of our town, throwing the occasional tomato from the edge of the woods at the occasional passing car. One night I ran into Ronnie Feltz, a kid in eighth grade. Just ran smack into him in the darkness. He was dressed all in black. His mother was depressed and had lost track of him, too. He had binoculars under his sweatshirt. "I have something to show you," he said. "Come on."
We walked up the county road a ways, and I told him if a car came, we had to duck into the trees because my father the trooper might be cruising around. "No shit?" he said. We cut through some woods and came out at the edge of someone's backyard. He whispered, "You know Miss Morganstern? The science teacher?" I told him I'd had her last year.
He pulled out his binoculars. "She's a night-time nudist. Take a look."
I focused her with trembling hands as she walked across her living room, curtains wide open. She was definitely naked, but not alone. All of a sudden someone came behind her, and I watched a pair of big, hairy hands land on her breasts. I focused on the face over her shoulder and dropped the binoculars. It was my father. "Hey!" Ronnie hissed. "Be careful!"
"I think she saw me," I said, backing off into the pines. "We have to get out of here."
"Shit, man. She couldn't see anything."
"Come on." I ran, tripping over fallen branches and rocks and slipping on pine needles. I was glad I could run; otherwise I'd be hyperventilating.
I let him catch up, and we followed his flashlight beam. "We'll take this trail here," he said, puffing a little himself. "This will take us to the back roads."
We came out across from the Hanson's, and I felt another wave of panic. We stood in the middle of the dirt road, and I could see her head in the window.
"That's old lady Hanson," said Ronnie.
"She's not that old. Here, give me the glasses."
"Nothing to see, unless you like freaks. I think they killed a kid or something, years ago."
"Where'd you hear that? Chuck Botz?"
"Maybe. I don't remember."
Louise was sitting at the dining room table, looking down sadly and shuffling her fingers around, maybe playing cards.
"People say cruel things," I said, scanning all the lighted windows.
"Yeah, I hate this fucking town."
I handed back the glasses. "I'm going to go knock on the door, to see if she needs anything."
"Jesus! Why would you do that?"
"Don't worry. I've been in that house. Oh yeah, I've been in the basement."
I left it at that, and Ronnie said good luck and see you in the obits and slapped off down the hard-packed road.
I rang the bell, not at all sure what I was going to say or do, but just believing it was part of the new me, the risk taker, like my old man.
I could see how easy it was to push someone over the edge.
Here I was on the verge of something, having lost a sister and a niece and a brother and now maybe a mother and father.
Louise stepped back when she opened the door, as if the look on my face frightened her. The memory of her through the binoculars made her seem even smaller now; there was hardly anything left to her, and some thick glasses made her eyes huge in contrast, adding to her look of alarm. "Johnny? What brings you here? Is something wrong?"
"I... I just had to see you." Maybe my father had said these exact words to Miss Morganstern. I thought of my mother curled up on her bed with that empty spot inside her, and how she wouldn't even know her two men were out cheating on her.
"Well... then come in." She looked nervously past me out the door.
I sat on the sofa, discouraged to see her in a pantsuit, but what did I expect, the Santa suit? "I've been thinking of you," I said. "I've been thinking about last Christmas."
"That seems so long ago. Things haven't been too good since then."
"Yeah, tell me about it."
Just as she sat next to me, Ted groaned from the other room. "Louise? Who are you talking to?"
"We have a guest, dear. It's Johnny." To me she whispered, "He's still very sick."
"Johnny!" His voice sounded muffled and gurgly. "Bring him in here!"
"Just go to the door and say hello," she whispered.
I stood in their bedroom doorway, seeing how dangerously fat he was now, a whale in red pajamas with yellow skin and a blue nose. The bed frame groaned like the boards of an old ship. I thought about the water pressure, like the pressure of whatever was inside me. One more little movement, and it might go.
"Staying out of trouble, Johnny?"
"I'm trying, sir."
"Good boy." Then suddenly he was asleep, snoring.
I returned to Louise and sat closer to her. She strained to smile. "Do you have any cookies?" I asked. "Have you made any lately?"
She seemed relieved to have something to do. "Well, let me take a look. I haven't really been in the mood, but I'll see what I can dig up."
She disappeared into the kitchen, and I could hear metal lids popping. I stretched out on the sofa, sniffing it. I thought about the Twister game, picturing her there on the floor. I tried to understand why I was here, but realized only it was something I couldn't stop, the way you can't stop during that final wave of whacking off.
"These are a little old, but I think they're still okay. Do you want milk?"
I sat up and gobbled down the cookies, some light and lemony things, and chugged the milk like a junkie who had waited too long.
"Goodness, is your mother feeding you?"
I wiped my arm across my mouth and started blurting things out. "My mother's sick. She doesn't talk to my anymore... and she lost her baby, but it wasn't really a baby yet... but I named it... and she hit me..." I threw my head onto her shoulder and sobbed.
"There, there." She stroked my hair, sending the familiar charge down my spine. "She'll come around. I lost a baby once, too. It's hard, but you get over it."
I thought about the dream where the young Louise had asked me to give her a baby. That fertile smell returned to me, overwhelming, and I swept my arms around her and pressed my face into her bony chest, kissing at the skin above her blouse and nibbling at her neck, until the old Louise threw me onto the floor. "Johnny!"
"It's the cookies!" I cried, grabbing at her kicking foot and trying to kiss it, too.
She was frightened enough to drag me—pleading and still latched to her leg—down the hall. "I'm calling your parents! Do they know where you are?" I could feel her shaking.
"They don't even care!"
Past the bedroom, where Ted snored through all of this, I let go and escaped into the basement, sliding down the dark stairs chin first. I lay crumpled at the bottom, my head feeling loose on my shoulders, and looked up as the door slammed and the lock clicked softly. I crawled back up on my hands and knees, and stood with no bearings and yanked the string, but my lids sagged and everything stayed dark. I leaned on the door and heard her labored breathing. God, what had I done—I deserved to be locked up. "Please," I whispered. "I need you." And I heard her whisper in return, or thought I did—it was hard to hear beneath the roar Ted was letting out, a sound like a dying elephant. I thought she whispered: "You shouldn't have taken Tommy. He's dangerous. He'll be in your head." I tried to hear her, but her voice sounded like water, trickling at first, then rushing, until finally it poured under the door and swept me down again.
Something brushed my nose, searing my brain and sitting me bolt upright. My father was holding the smelling salts. After reviving me, he walked away from where I was—back on the sofa, wearing only my underwear and wrapped in a blanket. I realized he was here not only for me, but for something to do with Ted. He talked with a paramedic, who was trying to decide if Ted would fit through the door. My father shook his head and muttered, "Damn waterbed," and they both chuckled.
Louise was spreading towels all over the place, saying something about insurance, and then something about my clothes being dry in a few minutes. But she didn't come near me or look at me.
Out in my father's cruiser, in my nice warm clothes, I said to him, "I saw you with Miss Morganstern."
He just laughed. "Boy, you really did bonk your head."
Soon he moved in with Miss Morganstern, and soon after that, I saw her at the post office with her belly popping out. Something was growing in me, too, in my brain, swelling and kicking to get out. I had blinding headaches and couldn't go to school. I was sure I had a tumor, or maybe one of those undeveloped twins attached to my brain, but all the tests showed nothing. One of the doctors, trying to be a card and flirting with my mother, said, "It's all in his head," and I tried to kick him in the nuts.
My mother came back to her real self, babying me, believing I wasn't faking, putting cool rags on my head and clutching me again. It was nice. Then one day as I was thinking of Louise, I remembered something she'd said. He'll be in your head. Of course! I knew what I had to do. I got Tommy Tomato's jar and released him into the woods. It was only symbolic, of course—he was just a pile of stewed tomatoes—but the next day I felt much better.
Death comes in threes, they say. First it was Ted, not unexpected. But then, a week later, Chuck Botz was found locked in his father's car in their driveway, sitting in the back seat, quite stiff. Because the car had been pelted with tomatoes, foul play was suspected, but in the end it was concluded Chuck had most likely died of some undetected heart abnormality. Chuck's brother released his own unofficial statement: his brother had died of fear. No mistaking that look on his face. And if he ever found the son-of-a-bitch with the tomatoes...
And a week after that, Louise took a whole bottle of sleeping pills and really did become the ghost of Christmas past.
Maybe it should be fours. Something in me died, too, like the belief I would ever lead a normal life. At Louise's burial I saw Tommy and Celeste and Joey playing around the gravestones and trees. It was cold, but they wore only little white nightgowns, angel dresses. Except for Tommy, who was naked, the red-devil. Joey was so tiny, his dress kept falling off his shoulders, but I was relieved he didn't have an extra head there to hold it up. Celeste was white-blonde with icy blue eyes piercing me, and she stopped to wave to me or beckon me. I started to walk from my mother, entranced, following them, and when I saw them near the creek, taking Tommy's naughty lead, I shouted at them to get away from there, to sit in the grass and just behave. It was in the middle of the service, so everyone turned to look at me. My mother pulled me by my sleeve. My father sidled up and walked me away from the group.
"What's going on?" he said.
"I'm seeing all the babies, Dad. All the ones not born. Do you see them?"
"I know you have a lot of stress, son. I'm so sorry. But I love Linda, and your mother just wasn't there anymore."
I wanted to tell him he should have waited, that Mom would get over it and be back, but that wasn't really what I cared about at that moment. I grabbed him suddenly by the tie and made him promise to not let Miss Morganstern, Linda, lose her baby. "What are you doing here?" I scolded. "You get back and take care of her."
"John, you know I took care of your mother, right?"
We sat in his car then and cried, mourning for everything, steaming up the windows.
There were certain things I wanted for my future, but they didn't include college or moving away. I should have gotten far away, really, to get a life, but when my mother got sick, I had to take care of her. I owed that to her. And the things I wanted? To work in the post office, to find a nice girl who would fit into Louise's Santa outfit (which I had obtained from her sister), and to buy the Hanson's old house, which had seen a series of renters come and go amid rumors of weird phenomena, the unseen patter of little feet, the basement lights going on and off, things like that.
I ended up with Marcia Baldwin, who worked at the post-office with me, 35 to my 18, a skinny and lonely smoker and drinker, a good sport, someone who didn't mind having sex in a Santa suit in the basement and playing Twister every night, at least not at first.
My mother didn't like it, of course, her baby with that woman, but then she showed up at the reception, still frail but in remission, and moving up in the Avon ranks. My father, now retired, danced a little with my mother, because Linda wasn't there, then drank way too much and between falling down episodes showed me pictures of Estelle, his little girl. He slapped me on the back. "Johnny! The Hanson place? I guess that isn't a bad buy. Water damage all fixed?"
My babies would only come to the edge of the lawn. Even the rabbits and squirrels would come closer. Naked Tommy would do his somersaults and giggle; Celeste would skip and hum something which sounded like Jingle Bell Rock; Joey took his tiny steps with his dress falling down. If I approached them, they would scurry into the woods, where they were impossible to find. I wanted them to know I had a home for them, any time they were ready to come. I had the baby clothes waiting in boxes. Why couldn't they pitter-patter around the house, now I had come home?
Marcia got tired of my weird creeping around the lawn talking to nobody, and of being sea-sick on the waterbed, and of the coughs from the basement, and of her runny nose from my Wild Country, and of having sore muscles and blisters from gardening and canning. She was counting on a baby from me. She was running out of time, and it wasn't happening. She could have put up with my crap if it was.
Late one night she came down to the basement where I was sitting in my chair in front of Ted's old TV, which no longer worked. "We have to go to a doctor," she said. "We have to find out why we're not getting pregnant."
It was totally reasonable of her, so what I did was unfair, the way I giggled inappropriately and said, "It's because you're not her."
"What? Not who?"
"You're not Louise." I felt myself smiling.
"You're fucking nuts." She picked up an ashtray and hurled it through the TV screen.
"Get out of our house," I whispered.
And even after I heard her slamming around and driving off, I still sat there watching the console and waiting. I fingered the dusty remote on my lap, pressing the third button.
After a while I called my mother. "She smashed the TV, Mom."
"John, it's the middle of the night."
"Can you come over?"
When she arrived, it was me doing the clutching, trying not to disappear. "Is this real now?" I asked. Weak and tired, she hugged back hesitantly, holding the blessing and the curse which was me, her lone survivor.