CHRISTMAS STORY: The Last Christmas by Bernard Raymund

The Last Christmas by Bernard Raymund

When they came to his grandfather Mackay’s house early on Christmas morning the game was always to see who could say it first.  But from the time he had been old enough to know anything about it he had always lost.  Always as they approached the steps and his dad shifted the bundles of presents in his arms so he could put a hand under his mother’s elbow, the front door burst open and the whole crowd of them, his grandfather in the lead, rushed to the edge of the porch shouting Merry Christmas!  It was like one great concerted laughing thunderclap, and, no matter how hard he tried, it always caught him unprepared.  And his grandfather would stand, his mouth wide open, his eyes puckered into blue smiling knots, pointing a gnarled forefinger down at him as if to reproach him for not being first.  No matter how warm was their greeting he felt reproachful with himself and scarcely heard when grandfather said, “No, don’t stop to take off your rubbers!  Here Toots, Jim Boy, Mugs (who but his grandfather ever called Russell that?), help Frank get rid of some of these bundles.  And Sadie, got a kiss for your old father?”

This year he really would beat.  He was bigger for one thing, and he had it all planned.  He would not be startled this time, he would not laugh as he always had before – how could he say it when he was laughing?  He would begin to take a deep breath just as they passed Dr. Carr’s yard, where on each concrete post sat an iron dog holding an end of the iron pipe in his mouth.  He would get a good breath and he hoped his mother would not say anything to him so he had to let it out before he got there.  That way he most certainly would beat – that is if he didn’t holler before the door opened.  He could just imagine his feeling of triumph when grandfather would say, “Well, what do you know about that?  Baber beat us this time.  He most certainly did!”

When they had crossed the mounds of frozen slush between the street car and the curb he put his own small load of presents on top of the heap in his father’s arms.

“Here, what’s this?” his father grunted.  “Haven’t I got enough to carry?  Can’t see where I am going as it is.”

“I wanta take a slide,” he explained.  He could not tell the real reason – that would sound silly, and he guessed not even his mother knew how he felt about every Christmas.  His mortification had been too deep to tell anybody about it.  Along here there was a good place anyhow, where the pavement had sunk a bit, and taking a short run, his overcoat streaming behind him, he made two complete exhilarating turns.  Now he would be the first one there, so there would be less likelihood of his mother or dad getting in the way.  Without stopping to pat the head of the nearest iron dog, he filled his lungs with crisp cold air.  Now he was all ready.

But as he came in sight of his grandfather’s house it came over him that something was different, something not as it had always been.  And though it was a small thing and one to be met with everywhere, here in the neat snowy quadrangle of lawn that faced the street it seemed so out of place that it made everything different.  Different, and kind of wrong, as if they had come to the wrong address and this was not grandfather’s house but that of some strangers and not even on grandfather’s street.  And the thought of all the queer wrongness ran down his neck in a small prickling stream of cold and he had a sense in that instant that anything might happen and none of it good.

It was a wooden sign, leaning sidewise with an accumulation of snow; forgetting all the fine plans he had made he stopped to read it, his hoard of air escaping in a long plume of frozen vapor.  “For Sale,” the sign read.  “This Beautiful Residence Property.”  And below, in large red capitals, “See Your Broker!”

He was wondering if the people out in his grandfather’s end of town, the people who would be the only ones likely to pass this way and see the sign, kept brokers in the same fashion that they kept Negro chauffeurs, when his mother leaned over him and hissed, “If I hear one question out of you, young man, you know what will happen to you!”  And though he tried to get another breath ready, somehow it hurt, not in his windpipe where cold air naturally ought to hurt, but in the corners of his eyes and across the bridge of his nose.

But there was no need, for this time the door did not burst open, nor did the family rush out to meet them.  In fact, they were already up the steps and across the icy veranda before the door was opened, this time not by grandfather, but by Russell.

“Merry Christmas!” he crowed, but if Russell answered he did not hear him.

“I beat, that time!” he exulted, though feeling at the same instant foolish and unnecessarily noisy: “I beat, didn’t I?”

“Well?” asked Russ so morosely that any further word he might have uttered seemed to congeal in his throat in a hard and distasteful lump.

His grandmother in her apron had come up behind Russell.  “Children, for Heaven’s sake, get away from the doorway so Frank and Sadie can come in out of the cold!”

The door closed, they stood in the dark of the hall a moment breathing the heavy warmth.  The chill of outdoors departed from him with one last delightful shiver.  The smell of his grandmother’s Christmas dinner floated tantalizing from the kitchen.

“Where’s Papa?” Baber’s mother asked brightly, as if this happened every Christmas morning, as if it could happen and nothing be different from all the Christmas mornings of the past.

“Oh, your father slept late.”  His grandmother’s attempt at a light tone did not quite come off.  “He stays up until one or two over his solitaire and then he don’t seem to get properly asleep.  “Henry!” she called up the stairs, “Come down and see who’s here!”

Grandfather was already coming – not, as Baber was used to seeing him Christmas morning, in his maroon smoking jacket with gilt braid, but wrapped in a faded flannel robe, worn mules on his bare feet that slapped on every step.

“Merry Christmas!” he called out from the landing – and when his eyes twinkled down on them, what difference did it make that he wasn’t dressed?

He folded Baber’s mother in a hug, gigantic for so small a man, and accepted her kiss; while Baber, clinging to the edge of his robe, danced about crying, “Grandpa, see what I got for you!”

He took the narrow package, done in white tissue and tied with silver cord.

“Open it!  Open it, Grandpa!”

“Wait.  Let me guess what it is!”  His grandfather closed his eyes, running his fingers over the package.  “I would say it is the kind that doesn’t have to be tied.  Nothing to fuss with, just slip the ends under your collar.  Am I right, Baber?  And the color, let me see.”  He held it to his nose, his eyes twinkling.  “Black?  Or is it blue with white polka dots?”

Baber clapped his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing outright at that, while his grandmother flounced her apron exclaiming, “Oh, Henry, don’t be foolish!  Here, Frank has something for you and you haven’t paid the least bit of attention.”

“Ah, cigars!  How did you guess it, Frank?  I was clear out.  Just going to send Muggsy out for some.”

Baber tried not to notice Russ’s air of injured unbelief.  It made him want to take a swat at him, again.  If grandfather said, so, why … then and there his grandfather drew out his amber cigar holder from the pocket of his night shirt and lit his first Christmas morning smoke from the match Baber’s dad held for him.  “You know, Frank,” he explained, “I’ve never attempted to buy a gift for you since that Christmas we both gave each other, remember, Kipling’s ‘Many Inventions.'”  And at the recollection of that, the most ridiculous of Christmases, they guffawed and slapped one another on the back and spilled cigar ashes on grandmother’s hall rug.

The bell pealed and his grandfather opened the door with a “Merry Christmas” that almost blew the postman from the veranda and returned with a tightly rolled cylinder.

“Here’s your present to your old father, Sadie Mackay!” he cried.  “Every week, right on the dot!  Now,” he slit the cover with his thumbnail, shook out the copy of the Outlook, “we’ll see what Lyman Abbott’s bright young men have to say this time.”

“Henry,” Mother said, “aren’t you ever going to get dressed?”

But grandfather, having retrieved his spectacles from the mantle had settled deep in his leather rocker and with a sigh of content, had cocked his feet before the fire.

The tree stood in the corner of the parlor as always, no change could touch that, giving off the exciting, resinous smell of Christmas, colored electric bulbs shining from its dusky interior in place of the candles that at home had to be lit with so many precautions, and after too brief a display blown out – the lowermost for him, the top ones for his dad’s strong lungs.  Under it were parcels still unopened, that he knew without telling were for him, and sitting on the floor he opened them hastily.  Captain Marryatt’s Japhet in Search of a Father, and the larger package a marble game with a labyrinth of brass pegs and a bell that counted one thousand if you rang it.  It was foolish how grandfather continued to insist that Santa had left them there for him; he seemed really to believe it and Baber had stopped trying to convince him that he was wrong.

While they were at work coupling on the new cars to Russ’s electric train, he heard his father stretch himself heavily on grandfather’s leather sofa in the sitting room; from the kitchen came the voices of the womenfolk, his mother in an apron many sizes too large for her, grandmother, and Bilikims, who limped about complaining that they were in her way.  There was a rustle on the stairs and Toots, a vision in pink with many flounces, descended slowly, calling, “Merry Christmas!” and giving them a wide smile over the banisters.  Perching on the piano stool, she sleepily looked over the pieces of new sheet music, her present evidently, and then swung herself by one toe absently watching their railroad operations.

“Her fella’s takin’ her sleigh-riding,” whispered Russ.

“Gosh!” Baber exclaimed.  “Suppose we could ride on the runners?”

His aunt had overheard.  “I’ll say you can’t!” she laughed shortly.  “Not much!”

And presently there came a jangle of sleigh-bells outside, hearing which grandfather flung down his magazine, laid his cigar and spectacles aside, and gathering his robe about him, clattered to his room.

Mother answered the door while Toots slipped into her fur coat, wound a pink “Alice” veil about her dark head.  Her sister looked anxiously round the edge of the dining room door.

“Be back in time for dinner, Toots?”

Toots shook her head.  “Don’t set a place for me, Bilikims.  We’re eating at the Neil House.”  And in a draft of icy air, Toots swept grandly away before Baber could even see what the “fella” looked like.

His grandfather composed his features, shut his eyes tight, and said the briefest possible grace.  As all unfolded their napkins, the big Christmas ones with fringed borders, Russ asked, “I get a drumstick, don’t I Papa?”

But seated at grandfather’s left, Baber could see that there was no use asking, for it was a roast of beef – and on Christmas!  Grandfather carved deftly, without comment, flipping the pieces on the plates, dishing up the mashed potatoes and the scalloped oysters, Baber’s mother adding the gravy, the creamed cauliflower, the cranberry jelly.  But of course there was no dressing.  From her end of the table grandmother circulated the hot biscuits, the butter, the celery hearts, and stuffed olives.  And when grandfather had served everyone, Bilikims brought him two poached eggs.  He looked at them on his plate, and it seemed to Baber that he saw two tears run down grandfather’s nose and drop on them.  But of course that couldn’t be, not on Christmas.

“Henry is so cranky about his eating,” grandmother said across the table.  “I declare, Sadie, you have no idea the notions ….”

“He always was cranky; weren’t you, Papa?” Baber’s mother laughed.  “Papa do you remember ….”

“Aw, Sadie!” grandfather howled, his napkin held out in his fist as if he would leave the table if she kept on.

And after that, nobody said anything.  Only Baber’s mother kept putting things on grandfather’s plate: first one of the hot biscuits to sop up the egg, and then a bit of scalloped oyster, and pretty soon his grandfather seemed to feel a lot better.  But he would not touch his mince pie, but passed it over to Baber when his mother wasn’t looking; he never did eat it anyhow.  And when he complained that grandmother had put cream in his coffee when she had known all her life he always took it black, everybody knew the worst was over.  Even if there was something wrong that no one wanted to talk about, the Christmas dinner was not spoiled after all.

Afterward, when he and Russell were playing the marble game, grandfather came and stood over them to watch, his cigar between his thumb and forefinger, and made so many wisecracks that Russ said, “All right, Papa, if you’re so smart, why don’t you play too?”

So grandfather woke up Baber’s dad, and got paper and pencil to keep score with; then they both got down on the floor with Russ and Baber and went to it.  Between them they thought up a lot of trick rules, such as if you hit the bell with your first marble, it counted a thousand off your score, and if you shot out of turn whatever you made was taken off.  And just when they had got to the most exciting part and grandfather and Russ were tied at fifteen thousand, grandmother came with Russ’s overcoat and said that if he was going to take his present over to Johnnie Jabo, he’d have to go now.

When they got back, his grandfather was reading out loud.  The words he could not distinguish, the rich, rounded syllables, like spoken music, stopped him in his tracks.

“Boys,” grandmother spoke from somewhere, “I set your ice cream in the ice box.  Guess you can share Toots’s between you; it will be all melted before she gets back.”

“Is it N’apolitan?’ Russ wanted to know.

They heard grandmother sigh.  “If it’s Neapolitan you have to have young man, you’re going to be disappointed.  The almond macaroons are in the dish on the dining table.  Please try to leave some for someone else!”

Although Russ bolted for the back hall, Baber could not leave the doorway to the sitting room.  Only the reading lamp was lit and all he could see was his grandfather’s wisp of fine hair, the red-covered book he held up before him.  Baber’s mother sat on the edge of her chair, facing grandfather, while in the shadows beyond the fireplace he saw the glint of his dad’s spectacles, the glow of his cigar.  Oh, why hadn’t he stayed so he could hear it all?

For just then grandfather closed the book with a snap.  “And that’s all!”  He rubbed his big nose on the back of his hand, sniffed delightedly.  “That’s Mark Twain for you, ageless and undimmed!”

“Like you, Papa.”

Grandfather shook a warning finger at her.  “Enough of that, Sadie!”

“Frank, be sure to write the title down so we can get it sure; I want to read it again.  Will they have it at the library do you think?

“They will not,” grandfather smiled maliciously.  “I’ve tried them, just as an experiment.  Don’t you know, Sadie, that the libraries are afraid of books like that?  I’d lend you my copy quick enough,” he lowered his voice, peeped around the back of his chair to make sure that grandmother was not within hearing, “only I promised it to Dr. Carpenter.”

“Of the First Methodist?” Baber’s dad sounded as if he did not believe it.  “Aren’t you afraid of his orthodoxy?”

Grandfather cleared his throat, smiled mischievously, “Frank, this is what the legal brethren would call a privileged communication.”

This time when Baber’s mother said they must go, that Aunt Tassie would be expecting them this evening, he did not protest.  He did not say, “Aw, Mom, do we hafta?  This is Christmas, Mom!”  No, he was as surprised as his mother how quickly he got his rubbers on and put on his muffler and overcoat – and even remembered to help his dad into his.  I want to go now, he said to himself, I want to go before grandmother turns on the overhead lights, so I can remember grandfather sitting there like that, so I can remember how his voice sounded, I want to go before I break down and bawl.

 

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