Jan/Feb 2008  •   Spotlight

Just Hear Those Sleighbells Jing-a-ling

by Carolyn Steele Agosta

Photo by Steve Wing

Photo by Steve Wing

The Christmas parade was late that year, which meant the usual mild temperatures had given way to cold winds and overcast skies. Jane Carricker was one of the first spectators to arrive. She had her two younger children, Dodd and Lisa, in tow, and her husband, Gary, would meet them in front of Marzella's Nails & Tanning. Dodd was already jumping up and down, watching for the guy who sold cotton candy and chocolate Santas. Lisa stood still and quiet, watching the crowd, ready to point out any iniquities. Sometimes Jane thought Lisa was too sensitive for her own good; but then, she was 14 years old, that terrible age when the truths of real life seep in.

"Look, Mom. That guy just pushed his way in front of that kid." Lisa nodded at a fellow across the street. "Just stepped right in front of him. That's not fair. That kid was there first."

"Never mind, Lisa. Let the child's mother sort it out."

"But she's not! She's just standing there, telling her kid to be polite. Don't you see? And nobody's telling that guy to be polite, and he's a grown-up—he should know better!" Lisa began chewing her upper lip, as she always did when distressed.

"Don't do that, you'll get all chapped. And mind your own business."

Jane checked her camera. She wanted to be sure to get photos of the band. It was Will's last year, and she was so proud of him. She didn't want to miss the opportunity to preserve the moment.

"How's it going?" Gary had come up behind her, hands in his pockets, breath already beginning to emit a little steam. The temperatures were certainly dropping now the sun was going down. It was, after all, the shortest day of the year. The parade would be finishing up in near darkness.

"Mom! Mom! The cotton candy man!"

Dodd began jumping up and down so hard, Jane had to grab the back of his jacket to keep him from tumbling out in the street. The cotton candy man came toward them, smiling, dragging his wheeled cart full of sweets, toys, inflatable Rudolphs and novelty flashlights. Gary bought Dodd a violently blue cotton candy, shaking his head and saying, "If you throw up tonight, don't blame me." As the cotton candy man walked away, heading toward his next victim, Jane saw his trousers were so low, the crack in his ass was showing. She turned to grin at Gary, who also saw and laughed.

"Oh my god!" Lisa grabbed her mother's arm. "Do you see that? He's mooning the whole crowd. Why doesn't somebody do something?"

"Yeah, you might be scarred for life." Gary put his arm around Lisa's shoulders. "Relax, honey. Don't make such a commotion. He's not doing it on purpose. Maybe he's poor and can't afford better fitting clothes. Maybe he lost his belt. Maybe... "

Lisa jerked away, frowning. "Stop it! You're making that up. He could pull his pants up if he wanted, but he doesn't want to. He wants to insult everyone here. He likes it. You know I'm right."

"Oh, jeez. Here we go again," Gary whispered to Jane.

Lisa heard him and turned her back, muttering, "Oh, I know. You guys think I'm over-reacting. Right. Like I'm over-reacting when I try to tell you about global warming. You'll be sorry when we all freeze to death, like in The Day After."

Jane sighed. They went through this all the time. It was getting a little old.

"Hey, that reminds me." Gary leaned closer, his lips at Jane's ear. "I had the weirdest dream last night. Remember that picture you showed me online of Britney Spears? I had a dream you did that—went out with no underwear, and flashed the paparazzi. Boy, that turned me on."

Jane laughed, almost choking, and turned to whisper back, "Oh, great. That's a nice thing to talk about just before your son marches at his final Christmas parade."

He tucked his hands against her waist and pulled her up against him. "Have you been a good little girl this year? Is Santa gonna give you the big one?" He pressed himself against her backside and despite her awareness of the crowd around them, Jane felt a little thrill run between her legs.

"Oh, my god, do you have to do that in front of me?" Lisa stared at them, aghast. Her eyes were big and round, her face white, her voice unnecessarily loud. "Isn't it bad enough I'm constantly exposed to assaults on my senses through the media? Do I have to witness it right in my own family?"

"For heaven's sake, Lisa, shut up!" Gary kept his voice low, but his message was clear. "No doom and gloom for one afternoon. Do you hear me? Be quiet!"

"Fine." Lisa turned her back on her parents, wiping her face on her sleeve. "Look at the wind storms in Oregon this week. The snow in Colorado. Don't you people learn anything? The earth is spinning out of control. We're all going to die, and all you care about is Christmas shopping, and how much it's going to cost to send Will to college next year. Don't you realize? He's never going to make it. Our whole civilization will be collapsed by then."

Jane traded glances with Gary. Really, this whole thing was getting ridiculous. A teenager had no sense of context, no realization that in every generation there was some big scare about the end of the world, and for what? The world was still ticking along, wasn't it?

The parade had started at last, along with a pattering of sleety rain. The JROTC kids marched down the highway with the United States and North Carolina flags. Jane took a couple of practice shots with the camera. The Red Hat Society ladies went by, Brownies and Girl Scouts in straggling lines, the 4H club doing a snappy rake-and-leaf-blower drill routine.

The sleet fell fast. People began to murmur and retreat further into their blankets, hoods and scarves. Jane made Dodd zip his jacket all the way up and put his gloves back on. His fingers were nearly scarlet with cold—combined with the blue stain, they looked purple. "You better watch out before they fall off," she teased him. Dodd just stared at her, snow beginning to catch on his eyelashes. "Dodd?" she asked. "Are you okay?"

"I can hear the band!" Gary leaned out over the road. "Yep, that's them. I see the flags of the color guard."

Lisa sat down on the curb, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. "I'm cold," she said. "It's really getting cold."

Jane checked her camera again. The sleet had definitely turned to snow. All around her, she could hear people talking. They hardly ever got snow. Maybe school would be closed tomorrow! A few of the kids tried to scrape together enough to make a snowball.

As the band drew nearer, Jane jostled for a good spot on the curb. Nobody was going to make her miss this shot. She felt, rather than saw, Dodd sit down on the curb to her left. "You're not going to be able to see anything," she warned, but he just leaned against her leg, huddled up in the cold.

It really was cold. She was having trouble holding the camera with her gloves on, so she took them off, shoving them in her pockets. Trouble was, the camera itself was so icy, she could barely stand to touch it. "Gary, we ought to have a fire in the woodstove tonight," she said. "In case the power goes out."

Now the first lines of the band were in view. Woodwinds—clarinets and flutes—followed by the saxophones. The drum line was always in the middle. So many familiar faces passing her by, each one concentrating on their playing, despite snow falling harder than ever, despite the flakes sticking to their lips and eyelashes. Jane kept the camera to her eye, even though her fingertips were frozen now, even though she had no feeling as far as her middle knuckle. She couldn't miss this shot. Lisa huddled against her right leg. Dodd against her left. "Turn me loose, guys, I'm about to fall over!" She laughed a little and glanced down at them. Before she could get more than a brief impression of two snow-covered mounds, she could hear the percussion section and looked up again, pressing the camera to her eye.

There was Will! He was beating away on the drums, his face set, intent on the cadence. His cap had fallen a little to one side, so his dark hair was pushed up against the brim. She yelled, "You go, Will!", hoping to make him smile, but he remained at attention, staring straight ahead even when the tip of one drumstick snapped off in the middle of a beat. He just continued playing and marching, the red stripe on the side of his white trousers emphasizing the staccato regularity of his steps.

"They look fine. Don't they look fine?" she asked Gary over her shoulder. "Well, looks like Lisa was right about the storm. That ought to cheer her up for once."

Gary didn't answer. She turned to look and he was leaned against a lamppost, his eyes shut, his collar pulled up high. Snow lay almost in drifts on the folds of the muffler across his face. Jane started to put the camera back in her purse and two of her fingers broke off, snapping cleanly at the joint.

It was the damnedest thing. Didn't hurt. Not really, but... Jane looked down again. Both the kids were buried under the snow already and most of the people around her were indistinct masses of white. "But this is crazy," she said. Half a block away, the band continued down the street to the strains of "Good King Wenceslaus", their red capes waving jauntily as one by one they began to fall over sideways, like slow-moving bowling pins. "It's crazy, isn't it? Gary? Gary?"