THE BEETLEMEYER EXALTATION
I was once
told by a girlfriend that I was an “experience junkie, willing to try anything new because of the adrenaline rush I
got from it.” I admit there’s truth to that. “You’re an addict to thrills,” she told me.
My drug-of-choice wasn’t anything like the heroin
I’d shot into my veins or the coke I snorted up my nose. I never had the fortitude, or the patience, it takes to be
addicted to substances. That takes more time and effort than I was willing to put into any experience. Most of my thrills
– but not all of them – were obtained in the same way others got theirs, parachuting from a plane, jumping from
a bridge with bungee cords tied to my ankles, swimming in shark-infested water. Those sorts of things.
Up until my encounter with Gail Hunnington, any crime I
committed didn’t involve doing something that involved violence toward another person. It had never been a thrill I
sought out. When I saw her standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the street, I didn’t
know who she was. She was just a little old lady with a purse hanging from her arm. My response to seeing how vulnerable she
looked was impulsive and immediate. How was I supposed to know she had enough strength in her scrawny arms to hold onto the
purse all the while being swung around by me as I tried to snatch it? When the straps on the purse snapped free sending her
flying into the lamp post headfirst, she looked as surprised as I was. I hadn’t anticipated bloodshed as part of the
thrill of theft. I tucked her purse under my shirt and ran off, leaving her crumpled body lying on the curb. I ran down the
subway stairs taking three of them at a time. It’s a golden rule that the trains always run the slowest when you most
want them to run ahead of schedule. I leapt into the first train that came along, not even certain where it was going. When
I plopped down on a seat, my heart was nearly pounding out of my chest. I clutched Gail Hunnington’s purse against my
body. Was I thinking about her at that moment? No. I didn’t even know who she was. Did I feel more alive than I had
ever felt in my entire life? Yes.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later and transferring to different
trains several times that I arrived at the station near my apartment building. It was the same station where I once stood
on the tracks deep inside the tunnel and waited until a train was only yards from where I stood before I jumped out of the
way. The whoosh of the train as it sped by and the echoing of its whistle were exciting, but anticlimactic. It left me wanting
to experience actually being hit by the train. Did I have a death wish? There’s no thrill in being dead.
When I got to my apartment, I tossed Gail Hunnington’s
purse onto the sofa, stripped off my clothes and got in the shower. It took nearly half an hour of standing in the spray of
nearly scalding hot water that I felt I had washed the stench of sweat and fear from my body. Have I forgotten to mention
that fear was essential in order to feel what I experienced was real? Fear is an intoxicant and I could get drunk from it.
The smell of it clinging to my skin was both real and imagined. It was nearly dark and I could see the purples, reds and blues
of twilight spreading out across the sky; a bruise expanding to the horizon. I sat down on the sofa and opened the purse and
took out a wallet. It was then, when looking at her social security card, I discovered her name. Gail Hunnington. There was
nineteen dollars in the wallet and a small change purse that contained ninety-five cents. Also in the wallet was her subway
pass card, an identification card with her address and a photo of her face on it, a debit card, and pictures of children and
several photographs of a large cat. The purse also contained a package of Kleenex, keys on a ring, and a prescription bottle
of tablets. Lasix. The only thing of interest to me were her keys that I jingled in front of my face. I had her address.
And her keys.
They burned a hole in my pocket. Those keys. I carried
them around for a week, going to and from my place of work at a travel agency, when I went out with friends, or just walked
about at night in the darkest and most dangerous parts of the city, tempting the fates, looking for an adrenaline rush. When
I was a kid I would spread my arms and jump from top of the garage, waiting for that moment when I would suddenly begin to
fly. Each time I hit the pavement, usually injuring myself in one way or another, it wasn’t the danger of the jump that
I remembered, it was the excitement that at any moment I would rise into the air. The anticipation of flying.
On those streets at night, while carrying Gail Hunnington’s
keys, could I escape a mugger or worse? Could I fly away?
A few times I took the subway to the part of town where she lived and walked up and down
her street, past her apartment building, checked her name on the mailboxes, and gazed up at what I thought were her windows.
They were always dark. There was nothing to prevent me from walking up the steps and going into the building. That would have
been too easy, though. There was no excitement to just opening the door to her apartment with her keys.
I once went to the zoo and climbed over a fence, landing
in the rhinoceros paddock, but I made certain I did it while there were others watching me. The rhinos ignored me and I got
out before the zoo security guards showed up, but like a man who exposes himself on a crowded street, I had gotten my addict’s
I had decided
if I was going to enter Gail Huntington’s apartment, it had to have that same feel. It needed to be risky and border
on the dangerous.
the night just before my twenty-sixth birthday I stood on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from her building.
It was still early, around 7 PM, and there were people walking past me, returning from work or going out for the evening.
The air was balmy. That sensation – an electric current that surged through my body before I would feed my addiction
– had not begun, but I knew it was coming. I only needed the right opportunity, some moment of serendipity, to present
itself. The excitement about illegally entering Gail Hunnington’s apartment, wasn’t just about being seen doing
it, but going in, getting out, and getting away. In the back of my mind, whatever happened with this minor crime might very
well determine the course of the rest of my life.
When a yellow Taxi pulled up to the curb in front of Gail Hunnington’s building I didn’t realize its
significance until two people got out of the back. As it pulled away, standing on the sidewalk were none other Gail Hunnington
herself, looking frail and leaning on a cane, and a young woman in a blue nurse’s aide uniform. It took no longer than
a few seconds for the adrenaline to pump through my entire system. I ran across the street, stopped briefly in front of the
two women, so that the old woman, in particular, would see who it was dangling her keys in front of her face. She only smiled,
a smile so full of knowing and awareness that I wanted to slug her. What did she know that I didn’t? What gave her the
right to look at me with such pity? I turned and dashed up the steps, into her
building, bypassed the elevator, and ran up the stairs to the third floor where she lived.
Nearly delirious with excitement I unlocked her door, stood still
for a moment as the aromas of dust, age and the unmistakable scent of old books wafted out, and then went in. It was like
a small library. Every wall in the living room was lined with shelves overflowing with books. In her bedroom a twin bed sat
in the middle of the floor surrounded by stacks of books.
At the sound of police sirens my excitement reached a feverish pitch. I quickly looked
about, but saw nothing of value to take. To leave empty-handed would have dampened the thrill. From a stack of books in her
bedroom I hastily grabbed a book without looking at its cover.
I ran from her apartment, down the back stairs, and into the alley. Getting home from
there only required me to take one step after another.
The book I had taken from Gail Hunnington was a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens. The book jacket was ripped, and the pages were yellow with age. On the inside cover was a stamp that
said the book was the property of the city’s library. A goddamn library book! It was worthless. Worse yet, she seemed
like the type who would never keep a library book without good reason or forget to return it. She had probably bought it at
a charity sale to raise money for the library. Her name wasn’t on or in it anywhere. In all likelihood, with as many
books as she had, she’d never notice the one I took was gone. I flung it out my apartment window as I cursed Gail Hunnington’s
name. I had been robbed of my fix. I opened a new travel brochure that I had gotten at the office. It offered a tour of a
live volcano that could erupt at any time, a chance to walk in the crater with molten, boiling lava only a short distance
below. By the time I went to bed at midnight I had decided to book my tickets to the volcano the next morning as soon as I
got into the office.
night I dreamt of Gail Hunnington’s face, the subtle mockery in her expression.
A goddamned useless book of all things!
The feeling of need for revenge, I discovered, was as powerful
as the shock from having live electrical wires attached to my balls. At work I forgot all about the volcano and went through
the day as if in a fog that I couldn’t see through or make sense of. The after-effect of an unsatisfactory thrill
was, like always, to feel as if the earth dropped out from under me. This time I had fallen all the way to China. I had uppers
in my desk drawer, and gave thought to standing on the ledge of the roof above the twenty-first floor and seeing how far I
could lean out, as I always did when I needed a quick pick-me-up, but the idea of taking pills or the thought of placing myself
in danger did nothing to elevate my mood. As much as I tried to suppress the thought, the only thing I wanted was for Gail
Hunnington to pay the price for killing my buzz.
I left work early and slowly meandered across the city, arriving at the spot I had stood less than twenty-four
hours earlier, across the street from Gail Hunnington’s apartment building. I stood there waiting for the juice to kick
in, for the surge of excitement to begin to rise from deep inside me, for the hunger for a fix that would eat at my insides.
Nothing came. I was empty, except for the revenge. I looked up at her windows and shoved aside the thoughts that my feelings
about the old woman were irrational. What fault was it of hers that I had chosen
to steal her purse and then break into her apartment?
When I was a boy, I heard lots of “no.”
“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t touch
the stove. You’ll burn your hand.”
“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t play ball in the street. You’ll get hit by a car.”
“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t pull
the dog’s tail. He’ll bite you.”
Childhood, as I remember it, was a long period of being held back from doing the things I wanted to do the most.
If Gail Hunnington hadn’t tried to keep me from taking her purse, she wouldn’t have gotten hurt. When she looked
at me as I dangled her keys in front of her face, just before I entered her apartment, I saw that look also. She was telling
me “no.” No to what? She had just gotten out of the hospital and was in no physical condition to stop me from
there, I showed her an answer to her “no.” I picked up a rock and busted out one of her windows with it. It didn’t
give me the adrenaline jolt I was hoping for, but it was something.
During the next week I walked across a wire strung fifty feet above the ground between
two buildings, wrestled an alligator in an illegal wildlife wrestling event held in a warehouse on the docks, allowed myself
to be forcibly raped by two gang members, and on Friday night I entered Gail Hunnington’s apartment and strangled her
with my own two hands.
# # #
I get a lethal injection, I, Jacob Beetlemeyer, offer my life as a cautionary tale. I’m not being given the opportunity
to sit in the electric chair and have a final thrill, the ultimate in being jolted with electricity. Other than feeling the
mild responses to the drugs they give me that will ultimately put me to sleep for good, I’m being robbed of a last exaltation.
It is the final “no.”
“The Beetlemeyer Exaltation” originally appeared
in the 2020 Issue of Weird Mask.
|Art by Kevin Duncan © 2021
BOY WITH THE STRAW HAT
was abducted. Stolen. I was only four when I was lifted out of the stroller by
Pearl and carried off while my parents had turned to buy fruit flavored ice
cones at a stand at the county fair. I didn’t really comprehend as I was
carried away in Pearl’s arms that it wasn’t part of the plan for the day, to be
smuggled off among hundreds of strangers who all seemed to be having a good
time. They were mostly smiling and laughing, so as I was carried off, I laughed
also. Pearl bought me a large pink cotton candy swirled around a white paper
cone just before we left the fairgrounds. It didn’t occur to me as I stuffed
the spun sugar into my mouth that I should protest in some way as I was carried
to the parking lot where we got into a car that sat idling. In the driver’s
seat, Henry nervously drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
a boy or girl?” he asked Pearl.
boy, I think,” she replied. She lifted the straw hat my mom had just bought for
me from a vendor at the fair and stared at my mop of thick, blonde curls.
“We’ll find out later.” She put the hat back on my head.
slowly drove out of the lot, careful not to draw attention from the security
guards at the exit who apparently hadn’t been alerted yet that a child had been
was thirty years ago.
days after entering the home of my birth parents I sat on their sofa with both
my mother and father gazing at me wordlessly from overstuffed chairs on the
other side of a glass coffee table. They had welcomed me in the same way most
people do an insurance salesman. They politely shook my hand, offered me
something to drink, and showed me the way to the sofa. It was several moments
before anyone said anything.
you have a nice Thanksgiving?” my mother asked.
not really into holidays,” I replied.
had put too many ice cubes in the glass of lemonade she had given me and the
liquid was slowly seeping over the rim of the glass and sliding over my
fingers. I took a sip from it and started to put the glass on the coffee table.
jumped up from her chair. “Oh my, I forgot to put out the coasters,” she
squealed. She hurried into the kitchen and quickly returned holding a stack of
round, cork coasters. She placed them on the coffee table in front of me. “A neat
home is a happy home,” she said as she sat back down.
took the top coaster from the stack, placed it on the coffee table, and then
sat the lemonade on the coaster. As nonchalantly as I could, I licked the
lemonade from my fingers.
looking healthy,” my father said, abruptly.
are these people? I
thought, dismayed and dumbfounded. It made sense that I had forgotten them, but
it came as a shock to me that not only did they seem to have forgotten I was
their child, but they didn’t really have any interest in what had happened to
me from the time I had been taken. When the probation officer called them to
let them know I had located them and wanted to see them, he forgot to tell me
after the call that they really didn’t give a fuck.
prison there isn’t much to do other than workout and read. I like Zane Grey.” I
was a moment of silence before my father cleared his throat and said, “We’re
not ones much for reading.” He glanced over at my mother who was anxiously
playing with the string of beads around her neck. “Are we sweetheart?”
shook her head making the layers of skin under her chin wobble. She twisted the
beads so tightly they looked like a pearl noose.
probation officer said you had been in prison for the past ten years,” my
father said as if I needed to be reminded of it.
mother looked up as if suddenly caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
“Did you get raped while you were in prison,” she asked. “By other men, I
The string of beads broke
as she gave them a
shocked, sudden tug, sending the beads across the floor and under the coffee
table. She slowly rose from her chair and averted her eyes as she said, “You’ll
have to excuse me, Kyle, but I need to go lie down.” She left the room and went
up the stairs.
was the first time either of them had called me by my birth name, or any name
at all. I hadn’t been called Kyle since that day at the county fair.
father waited until there was the sound of their bedroom door being closed
before he stood up, crossed his arms, and glared at me menacingly. “What right
do you have to come in here, into our home, and talk about having sex with
asked . . .” I started.
want you to leave and never let your shadow darken our doorsteps again,” he cut
I left, my business there done, I wish I could say I felt something, even a
little sadness, or anger, but a lot happened to me during the thirty years I
had been separated from them, and in place of any feelings, was the foggy
memory of the time I tried to hang myself. I had the same reaction then as I
was having as I walked away from their house; the struggle to breathe.
was several blocks to a street with restaurants and businesses where I figured
I could find a phone or use someone’s cellphone. I needed to call my probation
officer, Kevin Yardley, to tell him I would need to return to the halfway house
where I had been staying since my release from prison two weeks earlier. The
brisk, chill November breeze seeped through the worn, thin material of my
jacket, my gloved hand holding the broken zipper closed. The gloves were the
only purchase I made since being released from prison with the little money
they gave me upon my release. Gloves were an essential item; they had been from
the time I choked my first human victim to death.
street was tree-lined, where dead leaves clung to the branches, shaking and
rustling like the pom-poms of frenetic cheerleaders. I stopped at the corner,
leaned against a stop sign and lit a cigarette.
I knew from my days on the streets of San Francisco that if a car slows
down before moving on, then returns a few minutes later and slows again, the
driver has something on their mind that usually isn’t legal. The car was a
brand new one – a make I wouldn’t be able to identify even if a gun was put to
my head – and painted a dark green. The driver was a teenage male nearing his
twentieth birthday, nondescript other than the straw hat he was wearing.
I reached to the top of my head, and remembered, I hadn’t worn a straw hat in
car stopped and the passenger-side window glided down, noiselessly. The
teenager leaned across the seat. “That weed you’re smoking?”
it’s a cigarette.”
thought it might be a joint,” he said. “You look like a guy who’d smoke pot.”
never liked pot but this wouldn’t be the first time that someone made
assumptions based on my looks. I was six before my hair started turning black
and people on the street stopped telling Pearl what a pretty girl I was. It was
then that she stopped putting ribbons in my hair and quit dressing me as girl
to keep me from being recognized. Cutting my shoulder-length hair took a little
longer. The time spent dressed as and looking like a girl didn’t influence my
sexual orientation, but it did make clear how much others respond to what we
wear, not who we are.
flicked the butt of the cigarette into the gutter. “You got a cellphone I could
borrow for a couple of minutes?” I asked.
I got a phone you can use,” he replied. “If I can have one of your cigarettes.”
but I need to get out of the cold.”
He opened the car door and slid back behind the steering wheel.
got in, closed the door, and handed him the pack. “Find a place to park and
hand over the phone.”
Parked in in the shadows
of a tree with
branches still heavily loaded with leaves, the kid took his time lighting and
smoking one of the cigarettes, which gave me time to get hold of Kevin and try
to explain what had happened at my parents’ home without it sounding like they
had caught me stuffing their silver into my pockets. I told him I was on a
nearby street and needed for him to come get me. The phone call ended and the
teenager finished smoking at the same time. I handed him his phone—and then
choked him to death. Easy-peasy. Walking away from the car I dropped the
cellphone through a sewer grate and heard the splash of water.
showed up a half hour later. When I got in his car, he looked at the kid’s
straw hat that sat askew on my shaved head, but said nothing about it. “It’s
past supper time at the halfway house, did your folks give you anything to
held back a sarcastic guffaw that begged to be set free from the confines of my
throat. “No, but my mother inquired into my Thanksgiving.”
struck Kevin as funny. We drove to a nearby McDonald’s with him chuckling all
the way. At the drive-thru he told me to order whatever I wanted, he was paying
for it. Everything comes with some kind of price—a lesson I learned the first
few days in prison—but as we drove away from the restaurant I thought there was
nothing Kevin could possibly want from me. As I tore into the bag of food, my
mind was on the smell of the French fries that filled the inside of the car,
like a cloud of greasy perfume.
the house, before I got out of the car, he reminded me to check in with him on
the scheduled days and told me to stay out of trouble. I had attempted to do
that for most of my life with little success. He drove off as I pushed the
buzzer on the front door. The evening resident counselor, Mrs. Sothby, opened
the door. She reminded me of what little I remembered of Pearl.
size, Pearl was a huge woman who stuffed her body into tight fitting
sweatshirts and leggings. She was oblivious to how she looked, like a stack of
jiggling water balloons, every part of her one movement away from bursting
through her clothing. She took good care of me, keeping me fed and cleaned, but
she kept her distance emotionally. Whenever I tried to express any kind of
affection, she’d push me away and say, “Don’t get attached.”
She once slapped me when I called her ‘mama.’
It was the only time I made that mistake and the only time she struck me.
was no better. He was a brutish man with a mean streak. I learned how to choke
a living thing to death by watching him do it to stray dogs that wandered onto
the property. My first kill was a large German Shepherd.
truth be told, I was glad when Pearl and Henry sold me to drug smugglers for a
hefty price when I was eight years old to be used as mule to carry cocaine and
heroin into the U.S. From Mexico. After all, it was why they had taken me in
the first place. They had taught me well how to be obedient, cold and fearless.
In the last six months with them they fed me small latex packets filled with
powdered sugar to train me how to swallow and crap out what I would be carrying
as a drug mule.
probation officer called you and said I need to come back,” I said to Mrs.
Sothby who was staring at me as if looking at a case of walking, breathing
he said you’d be returning. Smart of you not to take your things with you.”
tapped the brim of the straw hat. “I picked up new belongings.”
was sitting on the commode, his boxers down around his ankles. “How long were
you a mule?” he asked. The prison cell smelled like shit.
years,” I replied. “Surprisingly, I was well taken care of by one of the
largest cartels in Northwestern Mexico, but I knew that if I made one mistake
my life wouldn’t be worth the gum on the bottom of my shoes.” I lifted my foot
and pushed the springs under Danny’s mattress on the top bunk making it bounce
up and down. “If I hadn’t run away, I would have been shot at some point
anyway. Everyone who stays with a drug cartel is killed by a bullet in one way
or another, eventually. By age fourteen I had already strangled at least a
dozen people, mostly innocent Mexican farmers who were standing up to the
cartel, but gloves on my hands wouldn’t have stood up to even one bullet killing
me if it struck the right body part.”
the dim light outside the prison cell, I saw Harper, one of the night shift
prison guards walk slowly by. He briefly glanced in and continued on.
fragrance of Anna’s shampoo still follows me around like a kind of ghost,” I
woman who posed as my mother each time we drove across the border and back. She
was the one who taught me how to read and write, both in English and Spanish.
She provided the only schooling I ever got. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d be
one stupid bastard.”
still a stupid bastard,” he replied with a laugh. “What happened to her?”
did happen to her? I’ve
wondered about that ever since she
suddenly disappeared while coming home from the market. I made myself disappear
within hours after finding out she had vanished. Crossing the border legally
between Mexico to the US in the middle of the night was easy. I had fake papers
and despite my black hair which suggested I was Mexican, there was no mistaking
that I had Anglo white skin, Caucasian facial features and blue eyes. I got as
far away from Mexico as I could without any money in my pocket, carrying my
gloves in a back pocket with a straw hat on my head. I hitched a ride to San
Francisco and choked the driver to death while in his car in Golden Gate Park,
where he insisted we had to stop so that he could take a leak. Blocks away, I
crawled into the bushes with his wallet full of money tucked into the waistband
of my pants. The park became my new home and it cost nothing to stay there, so
for the first time in my life I had free and easy money to spend however I
wanted to. That lasted for about three weeks before I had spent the money on
food, a new pair of gloves and a new straw hat, followed by three days sitting
on a picnic table watching the tourists walk by and scavenging the park trash
cans for scraps of food. Then I began wandering the streets in search of food
and choking to death homeless men and women who were sleeping by themselves in
month later I was lucky enough to find a job washing pots and pans at a Chinese
restaurant. The owner, Mr. Ling, rented me a room in the back of the
restaurant. Eight years turned out to be a long time washing pots and pans. Out
of maddening boredom, I first tried to hang myself from a rod in the closet,
but just before I passed out, the belt around my neck broke. Lying in the
bottom of the closet I came up with another scheme. I put rat poison in the Won
Ton soup that was served to about a dozen patrons. Most of them ended up in the
emergency room or spent a few days in the hospital, but they all recovered. I
was found out to be the perpetrator of the crime and was sentenced to fifteen
years in prison for attempted murder, but was paroled after ten years for good
was the middle of the night when the door to the room in the halfway house
where I was sleeping opened and the lights turned on. In the doorway stood Mrs.
Sothby, Kevin, and behind them about half a dozen cops with their guns drawn.
you went to see your parents, you killed them, didn’t you?” Kevin said, his
voice filled with anger and disappointment. He may be the only really decent
human being I ever met.
could I deny it? I sat up and put the straw hat on my head. “Yes, they had it
coming for the life I’ve led.”
Song for Christmas
Ma’s upright piano stood against the wall in the
dining room where it had been since Ma and Pa were married. It was Grandma’s piano,
but she gave it to my Ma as a wedding present. It was made of mahogany and Ma polished
it almost every day. I was sitting at it just plucking randomly on the black keys when
Ma placed a bright red runner across the top of the piano and, a few minutes later, placed
the crèche on the runner. She arranged the figures of Mary and Joseph around the baby Jesus
lying in a manger.
“You’re late puttin’
that out this year, Ma,” I said.
“Each year there are
more and more boxes of Christmas decorations to sort through,” she said.
strummed several keys with an unmelodic result and heaved a loud sigh.
“Have you decided yet
which song you’re going to do for the Christmas service?” she asked.
rapidly tapped the D flat key three times, producing a discordant sound. “Not yet,
Ma,” I said.
This was going to be my first solo in
front of the congregation of the Piney Creek Baptist Church, and on Christmas morning to
boot, so I wanted it to be perfect, something everyone would remember.
is only two days away,” she said.
“I know, Ma,”
I said. I closed the cover over the keys and got up from the stool. “Where’s
“He’s out in the barn gettin’ the
wagon ready for tonight’s hayride,” she said. “If you’re not going
to practice your music, you should go help him.”
Ma,” I said.
Sitting on the coffee table was the three-tiered
candy dish Ma set out every Christmas. It looked fancy, like it was made of etched glass,
but it was plastic. Pa had given it to Ma their first Christmas together as a married couple,
back when, as Pa always liked to say, “They didn’t have two sticks to rub together
to make a fire.” They still didn’t have much money, but me and my little sister,
Kaylee, never went without. Starting on the twelfth day before Christmas, Ma loaded all
three tiers of the candy dish with homemade chocolate fudge; sugar cookies topped with
icing made from powdered sugar and colored with blue, green and red food dyes; and possibly
every kind of nut known to mankind. I took a cookie from the top tier, stuck it between
my teeth, and held it there while I put on my coat, hat, and gloves.
bit into the cookie as I opened the door. The front yard was covered with a light dusting
of snow. On the other side of the road, our corn fields looked bleak and barren, with broken,
brown stalks sticking up here and there out of the frozen ground. I swallowed the piece
of cookie and marveled at how the icing tasted like their color, although Ma never added
flavoring to it. The red tasted like cherry, the green like mint, and the blue like berries.
I stepped out onto the porch
and closed the door behind me. As I ate the rest of the cookie, I watched Canadian geese
flying in a V-formation as they crossed the sky. Kaylee came around the side of the house
and ran up the porch steps. She had our pet Manx cat, Stinky, in her arms. Stinky was the
same age as Kaylee, ten. Kaylee had tied a large silver bow to Stinky’s collar. The
cat was used to being decorated for the Christmas holidays. Kaylee had been doing it to
her since both of them were four.
“Pa says I can go on
the hayride tonight,” she said excitedly. “If Ma says it’s okay.”
nuzzled Stinky’s light gray fur. “Do you know what song you’re going to sing?”
brushed cookie crumbs from my coat front. “Not yet,” I said. “Why?”
like that song about the drummer boy,” she said. “Bum, bum, bumty, bum, bum,”
she intoned. “That one.”
“Yeah, I know it,”
I said. “I’ll think about it.” I started down the steps.
you think Ma is going to say no?” she asked.
over my shoulder at the worried, gloomy look on her face. “I’ll talk to her
if she does.”
“You’re the best brother
ever,” she shouted. She went into the house loudly humming the tune to “The
Little Drummer Boy.”
I walked around the house and to the
barn. The ground crunched beneath the soles of my sneakers.
The warmth inside the barn enveloped me as I walked in and closed the door. Pa was
up in the loft and pitching hay into the wagon positioned beneath the loft. He was wearing
his favorite blue flannel shirt, the one Ma had given him two Christmases before.
“I’m here to help,”
I yelled up to him.
He dumped a pitchfork full of hay into
the wagon. “Shouldn’t you be workin’ on your song?”
do it tomorrow,” I said. “I just have to decide which song I’m going to do.”
always been partial to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’” he said as he leaned on
the handle of the pitchfork.
“I can’t sing
that in church,” I said.
“I guess not,”
As Pa dropped hay into the wagon, I spread it out, building
a comfortable bed. Pa did the hayride during Easter and Christmas for the teenagers in
Piney Creek. Being a small town, there was usually no more than twenty teenagers who
participated. Pa started doing it when I turned thirteen, and I suspected he enjoyed it
more than I did.
Chernay sat with me huddled under a quilt with cloth cut-outs of Christmas trees, candy
canes and reindeer sewn onto the squares. She had her head on my shoulder and the coconut
fragrance of her shampoo filled my senses. I was certain I was in love.
the clouds, bright stars glittered in the night sky. When the crescent moon appeared, its
glow blanketed the fields in pale moonlight. The rhythmic clip-clop from the hooves of
the horses was as relaxing as a lullaby. Pa had strung small, silver bells on the sides
of the wagon. They tinkled gently as the wagon rocked and swayed.
sang “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph The Red
Kaylee sat on the seat next to Pa, snuggled
against his side.
Ann didn’t attend Piney Creek Baptist
Church. I don’t know how she found out I was going to sing a solo in church, but
she asked, “Are you nervous about singing at your church on Christmas?”
can’t decide what song to sing,” I said.
you know ‘Ave Maria?’” she asked.
not a Christmas song.” I sighed. “I’m beginnin’ to wish I had never told Reverend
Smith I’d do a song at all.”
When Pa pulled the wagon into
our driveway, everyone quickly jumped down and rushed into the warmth of our house. Ma
had placed trays of sandwiches, cookies in the shape of Christmas wreaths with green butter
cream frosting, and chewy Rice Krispy Treats on the dining room table. The entire house
smelled like hot apple cider Ma served to everyone in red plastic cups
her parents arrived to take her home, Ann kissed me on the cheek before she went out the
door. “I’ll be at your church Christmas morning just to hear what song you
“Oh, great,” I said. My stomach
quickly tied itself into a knot.
morning before Christmas day, Ma and Pa cleared the place in front of the living room window
where the Christmas tree would go. Ma placed a white sheet on the floor and scattered silver
glitter on it. Pa placed the tree stand in the center of the sheet and Ma bunched it up
around the edges to give it the likeness of miniature snow drifts. Boxes of tree ornaments
were stacked against the wall.
comin’ with me to get the tree or are you practicin’ your song?” Pa asked me.
glanced at the piano and was overcome with a sense of dread. “I’ll go with
you,” I answered.
I was happy Ma didn’t insist that
I practice my song, or any song for that matter.
and I put on our boots, coats, hats, and gloves and went out the back door. The
ice crystals on the frozen ground shimmered in the dull morning sunlight that
was filtered through thin, wispy clouds. Inside the barn, Pa hitched our mare,
Gertie, to the sleigh. Before leaving the barn, Pa handed me the axe. He led
Gertie down the driveway and into the woods while I walked alongside him. The runners
of the sled glided easily over the icy ground. The air was heavily scented with pine.
Ma says you’re still strugglin’ with findin’ the right song to sing,”
I grunted. “Nothin’ I think of is what I
want to sing.”
will gum up the works worse than over-thinkin’ somethin’,” he said. “Sing
whatever you think the baby Jesus would want to hear. It’s his birthday, after
We didn’t go very far
into the woods before we found the right tree.
looks like it grew specially to stand in our living room,” Pa said.
For the second year in a row, I cut down
our Christmas tree. We tied it on the sled and Gertie pulled it back to the barn.
For Christmas Eve, Ma fixed a ham topped
with pineapple rings for dinner. Ma always said the Christmas Eve dinner was “light,”
which it never was. Along with the ham, it included mashed sweet potatoes topped with miniature
marshmallows, steamed asparagus, homemade applesauce, yeast rolls, and for dessert a Yule
log smothered with chocolate icing. She covered the table with the white lace
tablecloth that my grandmother passed on to her and set candles in silver
candlesticks on each end of the table. Before dinner began, I played “O Holy
Night” on the piano while my family stood around me and we sang it.
Ma timed it so that we began decorating the tree at
the same time the movie White Christmas started on the television. Pa strung the
lights on the tree, and then Kaylee and Ma hung the strands of popcorn and cranberries.
We all hung the ornaments while Stinky lurked about under the tree and swatted at the hanging
bulbs. Kaylee had attached a large green bow to the cat’s collar. Pa put the
antique golden angel on the top of the tree. It had a small key on the back,
that when turned the tune to the song “Angels We Have Heard on High”
played. He turned the tree lights on
just as Bing Crosby sang “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
Like every Christmas Eve, Ma and Pa brought out one
gift for my sister and me. Kaylee tore apart the shiny blue paper wrapped around a large
box Pa had placed on her lap. When she opened the box, she screamed with delight. She pulled
out a large stuffed gorilla, the one she had seen in the window of Tiswell’s
Department Store. As she hugged it, I said, “I thought you said you were
getting too old for dolls.”
isn’t a doll,” she replied curtly.
hopped up onto the sofa, sniffed the gorilla, meowed softly, and then laid down against
For several minutes, I stared at the
flat package wrapped in red tissue paper Ma had set on my knees before I opened it. It
was a framed photograph of Grandma sitting at the piano. She was the first person to tell
me I had musical talent. The smile on her
face in the photograph was inscrutable. There was an envelope attached to the back. The
words “For Music School” were written on it. Inside there was a hundred-dollar
Before we went to bed, we
went out on the porch and watched as large snowflakes began to fall.
I awoke Christmas morning not thinking
about the presents under the tree, or the aroma wafting from the kitchen of Dutch baby
pancakes, something Ma only made on Christmas mornings. Tunes of Christmas songs cluttered
my brain. Most of the night my dreams had been filled with panicky scenarios where my voice
was gone or I forgot how to play the piano. I climbed out of bed with a headache. I
dressed in my best pants, put on the tie Pa had given me for my birthday, and
joined the rest of my family in the kitchen. Ma had placed a large Dutch baby
heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar on my plate. I sat down at the table,
avoiding looking at anyone, although I could feel their eyes on me.
“Merry Christmas,” Ma said as she kissed me on the forehead.
She put a glass of orange juice by my plate.
Christmas, Ma,” I said, staring at the puffed-up pancake in front of me.
Peripherally, I could see Kaylee stuffing
large forkfuls of her Dutch baby into her mouth, hoping to speed breakfast along in order
to get to the business of tearing open the gifts.
let this singin’ at the church ruin Christmas for you,” Pa said to me after
several minutes of silence from everyone.
had been a long time since I had done it, but right there, while staring at my
Dutch baby, I began to sob. It surprised my family as much as it surprised me.
They affectionately huddled around me as if I had just told them I was dying from
a terminal illness.
“Let’s go open the gifts,”
Pa said. “That’ll make you feel a little better.”
Kaylee exclaimed as she ran from the kitchen.
the living room, gifts had been placed under the tree during the night by Ma
and Pa. Kaylee passed them out, and as we opened them, for that little while, I
forgot all about singing at the church service.
leaving wrapping, ribbons, bows, and our gifts, strewn about the room, we put on
our boots, coats, hats and gloves, and left the house. There was about a foot of soft snow
on the ground and our boots sunk in it as we walked to the car. I helped Pa clear the snow
from the windows and then got in the back seat with Kaylee.
we go,” Pa said as he started the car.
grabbed my hand and held it all the way to the church.
pews were full as they always were for the Christmas service, but we found a
pew near the front of the church. Reverend Smith’s pulpit was wrapped in gold
foil with a large red bow in the front.
Smith was a tall, lanky man, who moved very slowly despite not being very old. As
he crossed the podium, he glanced at me and smiled warmly. Once behind the pulpit, he gazed
out at the congregation. “This morning, instead of starting the service with a prayer,
we’re going to begin it with a gift to our Lord and Savior. Most of you know has
a song prepared for the occasion of the miracle of the Christ Child’s birth.”
He nodded to me and then gestured for me to come up onto the podium.
mouth was dry and the palms of my hands were sweaty. I could hear the thumping
of my heart.
“Sing what your heart
tells you to sing,” Pa whispered to me as I stood up.
passed by the piano and walked up to the podium. I looked at the expectant
expressions on Ma and Kaylee’s faces. And then I looked at Pa who winked at me.
I heard his voice echoing in my head, “It’s his birthday, after all.”
opened my mouth, and sang.
Birthday to you,
“Happy Birthday to you,
Birthday, dear Jesus,
Birthday to you.”
“A Song for Christmas”
originally appeared in the Galway Review in November 2021.
Steve Carr, from Richmond,
Virginia, has had over 600 short stories— new and reprints— published internationally in print and online magazines,
literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A
Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers, came out in January 2022. His paranormal/horror
novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.