“On your way back,” Mom said, “stop down the bin and bring
the Christmas tree.”
Damn, Mary knew he was thinking. Can’t
even enjoy my fuckin’ beer.
The “Christmas tree” was old, like two feet tall. Silver,
with gold balls already on it. Who has time to trim a tree? Mom
Not you, Mary thought. Mom just had time for cigarettes
and soap operas.
A “Charlie Brown tree,” Mary wanted. From that new TV show
they just saw. A tiny, real tree that smelled so good. Each time they passed
the lot, that fresh Christmas tree smell almost made her cry.
She bet St. Jude’s other fourth-graders had real trees. Even her
weird friends, like Dizzy Deb, whose mom did dope.
Just once, Mary thought, can’t
we get a real one?
dangling from her lips, Mom wrapped a gift for the super’s daughter. Cheap
paper, she used, with Santas on it, even though the kid was like fourteen. Mary
was nine, but had never believed in Santa.
Dear Santa, she might’ve written, bring
me a Mom who likes me. And a school with no nuns. And no mean kids, like Ricky
five minutes, Pop was back with the tree.
“Back so fast?” Mom said, through her smoke. “Lenny out of
Pop dumped the tree on the rug. “Fuckin’ Ferdie
Mom’s lip curled. They both looked sideways at Mary, who
left the room.
In the bathroom, she sat on the tub’s edge. Ferdie was the
super’s son. Or . . . something. Nobody was sure what. Sometimes he looked
like a guy, with blond hair, and too many
freckles. But lately, his wavy hair was getting longer, and blonder. And he
walked like a girl.
“Hi, ladies!” When they saw him in the hallway, Mom squeezed
Mary’s hand hard.
“Filomena!” Ferdie even talked like a girl. “My mom says
her. Mary . . . gorgeous sweater, girl!”
Mary beamed. The pink sweater hid her oversized St. Jude’s
uniform. Ferdie liked to make people feel good.
“Wishes he had one like it,” Mom sneered.
Nobody cared if Ferdie heard them. People were so mean.
Like Ricky Kelly, Mary thought.
At Lenny’s Bar, people like Pop left when Ferdie walked in.
Perched next to Pop, Mary drank ginger ale.
This week, Ferdie wore a Santa cap. “Take that stupid thing
off,” Lenny said. “Mrs. Claus.”
Smiling, Ferdie had taken off the cap and set it on Mary’s head.
He winked, like they had a secret.
“Get offa her,” Pop said, but Mary winked back.
At home later, she ate Devil Dogs while Mom cooked dinner.
Mom began. “Ferdie is a . . . freak.
He doesn’t like girls.”
a girl,” Mary said. “He likes me.”
Mom picked up the salt shaker, then put it back down. She rarely salted meat. “God said
. . .”
stopped eating. All day at school, she’d been hearing scary things God said.
“ ‘I made man and
woman.’ For a reason.” Mom’s eyes gleamed. “People do piggish things.
Disgusting things, with each other. But when they’re married, it’s beautiful.”
“Huh?” Mary crumpled the wrapper.
“That’s how babies are made.” Mom angrily lit a cigarette. “But when two men do
it . . .”
They go straight to hell, Mary thought.
When the door opened, they both jumped. Pop trudged in, carrying beer in a
cardboard container. “Hey,” he said, drunkenly. “Guess who’s outside, handin’
out fuckin’ presents?”
you going?” Mom said, as Mary snuck
out the door.
ho, ho!” On the front steps,
Ferdie was playing Santa, for real. Or one of his elves. “Merry Christmas!” Out
of a large sack, he pulled beautifully-wrapped packages. Some had big bows,
others little dolls, and toys on top.
But few kids had come for the loot. Mary just saw Billy Ruger,
whose dad had hung himself, and another neighborhood kid, Eddie-Somebody, who
Pop said was retarded.
As Mary sat beside him, Ferdie looked sly. From behind, he brought
out a small silver box, with a huge gold bow on top. It looked like their
Christmas tree. “Special, for you,” Ferdie told her.
She handled the gift as if it was actually made of precious
“Not gonna open it?” Ferdie said. “Wanna wait till Christmas?”
Mary set the gift down. “At school, right? There’s this boy,
Ricky . . .”
“You like him?” When Mary shook her head, he said, “Calls
names? Makes you cry?”
Mary felt like crying, now. “Says, ‘Hey, Zilenski, how many
Devil Dogs you bring for lunch today? A thousand?’”
Ferdie pulled out two candy canes, handed her one. “Wow. I can
only eat five hundred.”
Mary smiled. “He put this tack on my seat. They all laughed.
‘Now you’ll pop, like a balloon,’ one kid said. It hurt so bad.” Like she still
felt it, she got up and rubbed her butt.
Ferdie tried not to laugh.
“Sister yelling at him just made it worse.”
“Didn’t tell your folks,” Ferdie said, knowingly. When Mary
looked at him, he added, “Never told mine anything.”
She studied his face. Wisps of blond hair stuck out from the
Santa cap. His eyebrows were thin, like he’d tweezed them. And skin was
lighter, so you didn’t see his freckles as much. Makeup, she realized.
“We’re alike,” he said. “We keep stuff to ourselves.”
Mary stared across the street. It was late afternoon, so
nobody’s Christmas lights were on. But tinsel garlands were twisted all over,
up people’s banisters and along window frames. Next to the tinsel, the dead
bulbs looked so depressing.
“Our selves . . .” Ferdie said, “is all we’ve got.”
It started snowing. Mysterious, tiny flakes that Mary might’ve
imagined. House by house, the colored lights went on. You could almost smell
families’ real Christmas trees.
Maybe Ricky has a fake
tree, she thought. Or
. . . none.
Maybe his folks were weirder than hers. Maybe he got his meanness
Back inside, Mary opened Ferdie’s gift, secretly, in the
Smiling, she ran one finger through them.
Outside, suddenly, there was lots of noise. Footsteps, and yelling.
Something bad was happening. Not a fire, ‘cos she didn’t hear sirens.
Out in the kitchen, it
was quiet. The tasteless roast simmered on the stove.
Mom stood in the doorway, whispering to neighbors in the hall.
Nosy Mrs. Lynch from A-5, anyway.
What? Mary thought. But if she went out there,
Mom would smack her back in.
By the time Pop got home, the roast was dried up. Thinking Mary
couldn’t hear, he and Mom talked in the hall.
“He’s . . . dead,” he said. “They . . . bashed his
in.” He didn’t sound like himself.
“Who?” Mom said. “Who did?”
Pop didn’t say. “Don’t let her
go out.” If he was drunk, he wasn’t, now. “Fil, there’s blood . . . all over
Later, when things had got quiet, she sat in the dark kitchen,
As usual, Pop had drunk himself to sleep. In the next room, Mom
whispered on the phone, about Ferdie’s mom.
My God, to lose a child,
and at Christmas, yet,
she bet Mom had said.
In total darkness, they couldn’t see she had on false eyelashes.
After crying so hard, she was surprised they’d stayed on.
Yes, even a freak like
Cindy is a Jersey girl who looks like a Mob Wife and talks like
Anybody’s from West Side Story. She works out a lot, so needs no
excuse to do whatever she wants. She hates shopping
and shoes, chick lit and chick flicks. She’s been published
in the usual places, such as Hardboiled; Shotgun
Honey, Twisted Sister,
A Twist of Noir; Beat to a Pulp; Pulp Metal;
Thrillers, Killers, n’ Chillers; Mysterical-E; and Powder Burn Flash.
She is the editor of the ezine, Yellow Mama. She’s also a Gemini,
an animal rights activist, and a Christian.