As far as machines go, my family for the holidays, or any collection of days, would never be confused with a thing well-oiled. For machines, we have always been most similar to my dad’s old two-door Monte Carlo, with its bench seat and busted driver-side door. Where only the passenger door works, and it only works if you manually plunge the window into its housing, and pop the door’s lock from the outside. And then it only works if all seven kids and a cloud of cigar smoke spill to the sidewalk each time the driver, my father, wants to groan his way across the bench seat to hit the stationary store for a pack of Denoblis. And it only works in reverse if six kids hop about in tee-shirts in the holiday weather, waiting for my dad’s return, not to slide back and forth all day long with the baby.
We are that kind of machine–only moderately functional, and only at the whim of tricks and quirks and cigar smoke. We are a thing that only we know how to operate, and often at the expense of fire codes and any kind of quick escape. We are predictable, not to be confused with reliable or efficient or legal. But we could have done worse.
Not much changes from year to year inside the snow globe of my father’s holiday house. And as each year blends into the larger montage, memory no longer cares to include tree-bulbs with dates or popular culture references, and only sometimes will memory endure the labor of determining if grandma or michael jackson are dead yet. And similar to a schedule of missed oil changes, every 1500 miles or so, and certainly every christmas if christman happens to happen first, we beg my father to invite my mother for christmas dinner. And it’s not for an ounce of guilt at stealing my father’s christmas lobster and stuffing it–along with sausage bread and scampi–into his prized freezer bags and sneaking off to meet my mother for a 711 coffee, where we hand the stuff over like ransom money. No. He owes her more than that. It was just…
“She’s all alone,” Marie whines to my father, for the umpteenth time in the lifespan of a Monte Carlo, echoing my exact thoughts.
My father, an obliterated cigar stub stuck in the corner of his mouth, just stares up from shucking his shrimp, his fingers hanging over the done-pile like more shrimp. The look on his face is mechanical; it conveys “come on, huh. Stop busting my fucking balls.” And it is spoken in a voice that my father and Joe Pesci share.
“Are you embarrassed of your bouillabaisse,” Marie asks teasingly, and I wear a therapist’s interest for the sure source of my father’s shame. My father shakes his head and brings the shrimp outside to chill in the natural elements of a NY suburbia. I look to Marie because his refrigeration methods recall the time he thawed burgers in the summer sun, on the hood of the Monte Carlo, and gave Gina worms. But I say nothing, mostly because I don’t want to hear his tale of hitchhiking a garbage truck through Vietnam and all the revelations pertaining to third world children and wartime, dumps and maggots.
As far as machines go, my father is always an asshole in the days leading up to Christmas–right to the moment where his meat board goes live with its perfect plastic wrap like a set of second skin. The perfect plastic wrap wards against the thieving fingers of my siblings who would otherwise snag a capicola before the guests arrive. God forbid. My father likes to do everything himself, then ask Al to get ice to Al’s predictable failure, then hold a grudge for not having any holiday help despite his seven adult children. He likes to hobble around on his shrapnel leg, hauling various items of Christmas from the Monte Carlo to the house, so that when Marie asks if she can carry something he has a reason to grate: “Yeah. Like my fucking balls because their dragging on the ground.” We are never allowed to forget that my father has balls, just like we are not allowed to forget that my father has trauma. And we are supposed to be scared of his trauma, the way we were when we were kids, trying to scramble across the bench seat but trapped by the mechanisms of that old Monte Carlo. Now we just laugh, or make sounds like trying to hold laughter in our sinus cavities, the way we did when we were kids and someone got beat who didn’t know it was coming; who had a bad draw for seating or couldn’t slide fast enough.
The machine of my family spent its racing days tormenting my father for the holidays. And that’s not to say he didn’t deserve it–he was abusive to my mother, addicted to drugs, addicted to work, addicted to himself as a swell guy, and emotionally unavailable with his camcorder that never panned in brother Phil’s direction at Christmas. Now a days, he’s like an adorable aged-out Nazi war criminal. You know? Where you wonder how a charming old-timer with a hunched back and failed memory for the nuance of genocide is capable of such monstrosity. When I was a kid however–when me and my seven siblings were seven kids–my father would eat his Christmas dinner alone in the bathroom. Without drawing any parallels to trusty old Monet Carlos–my dad’s house had all sorts of light switches in the wrong places, and the one for the bathroom was in the hall. So called to active duty myself or al–perfectly middle enough not to dwell on beatings–to gyrate that light switch and turn his dinner sanctuary into vietnam all over again. I mean… he brought Vietnam home himself–we only erected the thing like the mini village around the Christmas tree.
“Come on Dad,” Marie whines.
Al has drunk-induced sleep apnea that sounds like the slow motion crash of two two-door Monte Carlos, and all the people trapped inside of them. This would seem unrelated to all things fa-la-lol, but we sleep on couches in my dad’s house for the holidays, and Al still has a habit of losing the draw, and so his lax tongue is everyone’s Christmas problem. “Tell your fucking brother to go down stairs,” my dad says, pointing his tongs in the direction of Al’s car crash snore, before returning to his rappini, and moving the stuff about the sizzling garlic oil, like there is some kind logic to it.
This year, my dad is in a worse Christmas mood than ever. That is because we all came home drunk last night, and got into the capicola like a litter of inebriated Italian puppies. I wouldn’t tell my father that Al wasted a couple of perfectly rolled tubes by slapping his own face with the greasy meat to make Frank spit out his nightcap laughing. My father was jarred awake from dreams of getting eaten by dogs, to the sound of sibling absurdity. And like a caricature of himself–or more aptly like an old wreck that was jump-started in the cold–he came rumbling from his room, quite smokey, eyes and doors still swollen shut. He scattered us wordlessly, then forgot we were there, which he is quite good at, then leaned on the counter in a runner’s lunge and trauma-ate whatever was sitting there. In this scenario, he scored a few speckly stars from the Entenmann’s holiday box, and broke into the italian cookies, somehow coherent enough to locate the pignolis.
My dad decided to “fix us” this morning the way one might fix an old Monte Carlo. First he announces that he’ll fix us, then he rouses us at five am via “drop your cocks and pick up your socks” and we are forced to remain awake, alongside him, through his grueling holiday labor. But he doesn’t really fix us, because we are not really broken; but also not exactly un-broke; but certainly not fixable in any case. He sort-of jimmy rigs us with duct tape and garbage ties. But Al simply sleep-apnea(s) his morning into the appetizers. Frank just goes home to his wife. Phil finds his own holiday hack, by climbing into bed with my grandma because my dad wouldn’t dare fix his own aged mother. Or is grandma already dead? Either way, neither Marie or myself mind the early mornings; Gina is exempt from fixing; Kate has her own fix, subsisting herself on coffee and cigs, in lieu of sleep and food.
My step mother -Jeanie- is like a Tasmanian devil but the opposite–everything is clean when she passes, and you’re not allowed to use it again until the guest arrives, and your holiday world becomes smaller and smaller until it’s an atari game of stepping stones and fingerprints. And she is a skipping-record of already answered questions: “Whose glasses are these? Anyones water? Whose calcium bicarbonate?”
Marie tries her petition on Jeanie. “Can we invite my mom to Xmas,” she whines. Gina is in and out wearing who-the-fuck-knows-what, but it reminds me of my dad’s meat board and perfect plastic wrap and second skin.
Jeanie watches her come and go then speaks like the thing is a secret. Always. “I already told your father,” she says, barely moving her mouth. “No one should be alone for Xmas.”
“Come on. Huh. Stop busting my balls,” my father interjects in actual language. Then he leans through the kitchen door and claps his hands like scattering a couple of old beaters shown up for the car show. Al sounds like peeling-out when he startles from sleep. “If you’re gonna sleep all day, go downstairs,” he says. Al asks what time it is, but doesn’t stay awake long enough to apply the information to his holiday itinerary.
Christmas dinner comes and goes, and though the details are no-doubt lively, I cannot remember them from the year before or the year after. Even so, I can safely assume that my father did not invite my mother for dinner and that she spent the holiday alone. A machine, that one. And I can’t recall if this was the year that the Monte Carlo was sold, or junked, and now I wonder if I am confusing the Monte Carlo with the old imperial which had no engine, and lived in the garage with dust on its velvet seats, which was marked with racoon prints. Hmm.
When I consider the imperial, as far as machines go, I suppose that my family could do worse. Yes. We could do worse.