O Holy Night

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Codder stared at the backboard. It was stamped with the mark of the NBA, a player in white silhouette, mid-dribble, driving, feet together like a slalom skier. He heard the ball thud hard off the board, watched it scud across the driveway and vanish into a flowerbed by the garage. Codder’s sister whistled and kicked a pinecone. “We gotta get on it,” said Bonnie. “Mom said we’re eating Mexican in like an hour. She has nightmares if she eats past 8.” Codder nodded, shot Bonnie a bird, and walked to find the ball.

He stepped lightly on the bed’s dark pinestraw, trying to avoid the spot where Breakfast was buried. It had been almost two years since their mother had run over Breakfast, Codder and Bonnie’s first pet, one night after picking Codder up from babysitting the Vermillion twins. “It’s the twins’ fault!” Bonnie said, still wearing her Molly Pitcher costume from the school play that day. Her fingertips were orange from Cheetos. Everybody cried, except for their father, who dug the cat’s grave.

Codder had demanded that they bury Breakfast in an antique chest an aunt had given him. The lid of the chest showed a nautical scene in bas relief, a golden clipper battling a Kraken, the sea roiling.  “That thing’s valuable,” Mr. Woodmuff said. But they let it go- it was his cat, he’d loved it, and he could bury it however he wanted. Before closing the lid on Breakfast, Codder had placed a stiff five-dollar bill under the cat’s tail.

After groping for the ball among some ferns, he felt it, placed it in his left hand, and heaved it into the night as hard as he could.

Bonnie was yelling for him to “hurry the hell up.” She’d always been an unconvincing cusser. One afternoon, Codder had been in the backyard, practicing his serve. He hit the ball into the greenbelt running behind the yard and jogged to retrieve it.

As he got closer to the tangle of trees and brush, he made out Bonnie, crouched and with her back turned, in the middle of an azalea thicket. Codder stopped and listened. Her blond hair was involuted like a nautilus. He couldn’t see her face at all. Codder imagined her turning around, and having hair for a face. Then he heard Bonnie whispering.

“Shit.”

“Fart.”

“Dick.”

“Dingleberry.”

“Cooter.”

“Piss.”

Bonnie said the words gently. Then she paused, and Codder saw her shoulders rise as she breathed in.

“Asshole.”

Bonnie hissed the first syllable, and exhaled the second into the leaves until she ran out of breath. It took her ten seconds to say it.

Codder joined his sister in the garage, where she was waiting beside the murmuring refrigerator. “You know I heard you cussing in the woods that time,” Codder said.

“Which time?”

“You did it more than once?”

“I don’t anymore. I was calling the God of Nasty. He was asleep underground. The more words I said, the less sleepy he felt. ”

“Jesus.”

“Let’s make the tape so we can listen to it on the ride.”

Bonnie picked up the tape-recorder from the concrete slab, opened the refrigerator door with her free hand, reached in a jacketed arm, and plucked out a Diet Rite White Grape. Still holding the recorder, she opened it with her front teeth, took a loud sip (mostly air) and passed the can to Codder. Bonnie distended her cheek with her tongue, and pressed down the ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ button at the same time. Then they sang.

They sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with feeling. They sang “Good King Wenceslas,” slurring when they got to ‘Wenceslas’ because they didn’t know how to pronounce it. Bonnie was off-key on “I Saw Three Ships.” Mid-song, Codder snatched the tape recorder from her and hit ‘Stop.’

“What else is there?” said Bonnie. They thought about it while the refrigerator buzzed dissonance.

“What was that song that Miss Ingrid always sang on Christmas Eve?” said Bonnie. “Don’t know,” said Codder.

“The one that gave you boners when she sang it?”

“What?”

“I heard you say it to Sylvester.”

“When?”

“When you were playing ping-pong in his basement.”

“You weren’t even there.”

“I was too. I was spending the night with Rose. The air vent goes up to Rose’s bedroom.”

Codder looked out into the yard. “It’s ‘O Holy Night.’ But I didn’t say that.”

“Yes, you did.”

They sang “O Holy Night.”  Bonnie intoned the high note on ‘oh night…DIVINE’ with seismic vibrato, but managed to hit it with startling accuracy. Codder thought it sounded beautiful, but didn’t tell Bonnie. They rewound the tape to hear Bonnie sing the high part again. Codder pressed ‘Play,’ and Bonnie finished her White Grape, head thrown back. They listened. “I didn’t know you could harmonize like that,” Codder said.

 

Codder put the tape in his pocket just as Mr. and Mrs.Woodmuff emerged from the house and into the garage. Everybody got in the station wagon. Codder and Bonnie were in the backseat, and stared at the mannequin in the garage. Three years ago, Bonnie had caught their father hauling it from the trunk of his ’92 Pontiac Bonneville. He’d put it in the garage, and had dressed it up for every holiday since. The mannequin was clearly female, but their father had sharpied in a five o’clock shadow to prove it was male. Its facial expression was frozen in what appeared to be adrenalized terror. Neither Codder, Bonnie, nor their mother ever asked him about it.

This past Halloween, Mr. Woodmuff rented an expensive gorilla suit, and spent an entire afternoon struggling the mannequin into it. During the summer, it was granted a “reprieve” and stayed nude, except for on the Fourth of July, during which it was draped with an American flag, one breast left exposed.

This Christmas, it was dressed in crimson and white St. Nicholas robes, a preposterous beard, and Papal hat.

“Put in the tape, Dad,” said Bonnie.

“What?” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“The tape we made.”

“You made a tape? Of what?”

“Christmas,” said Bonnie.

“We’ll listen to it after we eat,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mr. Woodmuff caught Bonnie’s eye in the rearview, and screwed up his face. “Keep your eyes on the road, Bill… precious cargo,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Quetzalcoatl’s Folly was the Woodmuffs’ favorite restaurant. In the waiting area, Codder and Bonnie always looked at the framed photographs of the softball team the restaurant sponsored every spring. Each year, the team’s “MVP” had signed the photo, in sweeping cursive, filigreed with hearts. Bonnie read aloud: “Rhonda Armbruster,  MVP, 1993.”

“Which one’s Rhonda, you think?” Bonnie said.

“None of them look real athletic,” said Codder.

“They look pretty sad to me. And pimply.”

“Maybe they’d just lost.”

A hostess wearing a sombrero covered in lit Christmas lights showed them to their table. An extension cord ran from under the hostess’s skirt to an outlet in the wall by the kitchen. The waiters wore Santa hats, faded to pink, that bunched up around the ears and foreheads.

“Bonnie, I saw you practicing your basketball tonight,” said Mr. Woodmuff,  navigating a particularly large chip into his mouth.

“Dad, you dripped salsa on the menu.”

“That’s why they’re laminated.” He blew a raspberry into his forearm.

“Don’t do that,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mrs. Woodmuff went to the bathroom. Mr. Woodmuff ate another chip. “What I was going to tell you, Bonnie—and you too Codder—was what our guest speaker said at the Lion’s Club meeting yesterday.”

“Was it about lions?” said Bonnie.

“It was about basketball. And it goes a little something like this,” Mr. Woodmuff said. “He said that there was some study where there was Group A and Group B. Group A practiced shooting free throws for like an hour. Group B just imagined that they were shooting free throws for an hour. After the hour was up, everybody in Group A shot twenty free throws. Then everybody in Group B shot twenty free throws, for real this time. The guy said that the folks in Group B, the ones that sat in the gym and just thought about shooting free throws, only did slightly worse than the other group. Or maybe it was slightly better. I can’t remember. I’ll call Dino in the morning and ask. He does the minutes.”

“I think you told me they did worse,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Maybe so, maybe not. Dino’ll know for sure.”

The waiter came and took drink orders. Mrs. Woodmuff ordered a margarita. “Make that two,” said Mr. Woodmuff. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians sang from the wall-speakers. A woman in heels and a sequined blouse tripped over the hostess’s extension cord, overcorrected, and crashed to the floor.

“You know what I was thinking about today?” said Codder.

“No,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Remember how Breakfast always had the crustiest nipples?”

“We’re at the dinner table,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“It’s cause she was always pregnant and up to her teeth in milk,” said Bonnie.

“I’m going to talk to the Kleinpeters for a minute,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“She was always pregnant, it seemed like,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“But we never saw any of her babies,” said Bonnie. “I wonder what she did with them. She’d be huge fat one day and then like the next day she’d be skinny again. Do you think she took them to the woods and killed them cause she didn’t want to take care of them?”

“Who knows,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

The waiter appeared and asked for orders. “My wife will be with us in a moment,” said Mr. Woodmuff. “But as for me, I will not be enjoying an entrée tonight, for I have filled up on chips.”

Back in the car, Codder pulled the tape from the pocket of his jeans, and thrust his arm, tape in hand, into the front seat. “Put it in.”

“Put what in?” his mother said.

“The tape,” Codder said. “You said we’d listen to it on the way home.”

Mrs. Woodmuff, in the passenger’s seat, didn’t look back. She raised her arm from armrest and opened her palm.

They listened to the tape. Codder and Bonnie grinned, but didn’t look at each other. The recording was scratchy. When they got close to their house, Mr. Woodmuff didn’t slow down.

“What are you doing?” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“I want to see the lights,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“You’ve seen them a million times.”

“Want to see them again.”

On tape, Codder and Bonnie were struggling through “Good King Wenceslas.” Mrs. Woodmuff leaned her head against the window and groaned. “Take it out,” their mother said. “Turn it off. It’s making me nauseated.” Mrs. Woodmuff never said “nauseous,” only “nauseated.”

“The tape’s making you sick?” said Bonnie.

“You don’t like the sound of your spawn in perfect harmony?” said Codder.

“Yes. No. Cut it off. I’m serious.”

Codder and Bonnie cackled. Mr. Woodmuff turned the tape off, and pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Woodmuff held her hand out over the center console, and Mr. Woodmuff squeezed it. They went into the house and turned on the television. “I’m going to bed,” said Mrs. Woodmuff. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

At midnight, Mrs. Woodmuff groped her way into the bathroom. Without turning the light on, she shut the door, and lifted the lid of the toilet. Something large crept up her esophagus. Mrs. Woodmuff parted her lips, and pale light, like an emanation from a dying star, illuminated the embroidered hand towels above the toilet. She clapped a hand over her mouth and the room went dark. What felt like a banana covered in fur inched  past Mrs. Woodmuff’s uvula and onto the back of  her tongue.

Getting down on all fours, she closed her eyes, reached into her mouth with both hands, and pulled. Water splashed from the bowl. Mrs. Woodmuff , blinking droplets from her eyelashes, looked into the toilet.  Nestled inside were three tiny kittens. A thin opalescent caul partially obscured their silvery blue bodies. Each had eyes as big as saucers. The kittens stared up at Mrs. Woodmuff. She flushed. The kittens circled around the bowl; light flickered on the ceiling. They were still there. Mrs. Woodmuff took the plunger from behind the toilet.

***

Codder woke up in the middle of the night, sort of. In his half-sleep, he’d heard repeated thumping coming from the backyard. The sound continued, thump then silence. Codder went to his window. The garage light was on and he could see Bonnie in the driveway. The light reached just shy of where a free-throw line would have been. She flung the ball at the backboard with both hands. It missed the goal entirely, and sailed into the black yard. When Bonnie came back to the line from the dark, she didn’t have the ball. She raised her empty hands and flicked her right wrist. Codder heard a thud and saw the backboard shiver. Then Bonnie sat down Indian-style at the edge of the light. He couldn’t see her face. Codder watched his sister for a few minutes, then went back to bed.

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