I try to do a Christmas story every year, along with the annual “broadcast” of the complete aired version of “The Saint Nick Case.” This is a story based on something somebody told me, once. [Originally published on December 22, 2013]
The War At Christmas
by Hart Williams
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. ~ Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” 1938
It was the best of gifts; it was the worst of gifts.
It was a time of peace on earth, good will and brotherhood to persons; it was a time of black betrayals and vendetta.
It was Christmas in Orange County. Home of Disneyland.
Which meant that, other than some decorations here and there, it was the same place with Palm Trees that it always was. Never a White Christmas in Sunny Southern Calif0rnia.
And, as a result, choked and strapped into a car culture so pervasive that people drove to the convenience store at the end of the block, without ever thinking it odd, where the only pedestrians were the illegals, all dressed in cheap Dallas Cowboys jerseys and Los Angeles Dodgers baseball caps (because they thought that uniform would make them look “American” but accomplished exactly the opposite), it was a peculiarity of chance that each and every protagonist and antagonist in the Greek Tragedy that was to come happened to shop at the same Toys R Us store on Orange, near Katella, which was about two miles down from his week-to-week motel between the 5 and the 55, across the street from the Harley-Davidson dealership and a mere block from a Del Taco — whose free mayonnaise packets, plastic fork mixed with the ripe avocados (which he picked up lying in rotting profusion in the front yards of houses he passed walking to work) made a pretty good guacamole, with some Del Taco hot sauce from plastic packets and pepper from the classic corrugated and stamp-perforated “snap-open” packs.
He had no car, since a car was, at this low estate, a White Elephant he could ill afford, instead taking the Orange County Transit District buses when practical, but preferring the exercise of walking when he could. Which was how he noticed that only illegals occupied the broad, empty sidewalks, and, at rush hour — which it was — he made better time than the gridlocked traffic belching carbon monoxide onto the boulevard.
Even the illegals — when they’d saved some cash — would pool their cash to buy a cheap car, and they’d pile in, five to eight and drive around the streets of Santa Ana, as obvious as their Dodger caps, and he noticed several such cars stuck in traffic as he walked past them towards the giant toy store.
He walked on, passing the McDonalds where the hill had created a retaining wall at the corner, about two storeys high, that started as a little shin-high wall at the strip mall entrance. He remembered all those illegals in their Cowboys jerseys lined up along the retaining wall perpendicular to Orange Avenue, as little Japanese pickups drove up, motioning them into the back three and four at a time, and driving off.
There were none now, at rush hour. No pedestrians at all. Surreal to most, normal to Orange County, the capital of the cult of cars, anti-Commies and new suburbia.
It was the late 1980s, and while the rest of the country was going through that recession that started with Nixon and through Ford and Carter and now, almost Reagan, Orange County was booming. New Glass skyscrapers were juxtaposed, bizarrely with farm fields in the next lot, complete with haywagons. Mexican peasants picked strawberries and lettuce by hand, in clothing not much changed in a hundred years in the reflection of the golden mirror glass of a new corporate headquarters, of a dozen construction sites, rapidly constructing multi-dwelling units (condos, many) that already had banners up proclaiming: If you lived here, you’d be home right now.
Orange County Transit District Buses 1980s
Every restaurant and fast food joint in Tustin and Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Orange, Anaheim and El Toro had a “HELP WANTED” sign in the window, it often seemed. Orange County was drowning in a sea of condominiums and houses: one week you would see an orange grove. Then, one day, it was all cut down, and the trees neatly stacked up on the sidewalk. Then construction and a month or so later, people were moving into a hundred, a thousand new units: apartments, condos, multi-dwellings, detached houses, McMansions.
The Toys R Us was up ahead on his side of the street (old habit from Boy Scouts, always walk on the side facing traffic) and he let the sensor magically open the doors to admit him, and turned left into Toyland.
She had tempted him, and their daughter was the apple. But she had another apple, and her father was both angry at the breakup and hopeful of repairing the rupture.
What had begun as an offer to market his drawings had spiralled into an affair (he had not known she was married), a pregnancy, a child a long series of moves and maneuvers, including the jilted husband showing up at three in the morning, after racing hours in the desert night from Palm Springs, where he was working a “signage” event, and which ended, hilariously, with angry husband sprawled in the darkened kitchen, with all his cheap, Sears particle-board and printed wood “veneer” kitchen furniture on top of him in a sort of Giorgio de Chirico sculpture in the twilight from the kitchen’s Mickey Mouse nightlight (switched off when the trap was set).
Her parents had sided with the other apple’s sire and all parties were united in the opinion that he, the interloper, ought not be admitted, although they were happy to accept his daughter, along with the legal fiction that she had actually been the biological daughter of the other father.
But he was no cuckoo. It was not his intention nor choice as to the listing of father.
They did not know HER. Neither, he thought sometimes, did he.
Had he thought about her devious ways with her parents, husband, boss and others, he might well have rethought it, but love and chemistry are blind and — more importantly — blindING, and thinking about it wouldn’t have changed anything, in all probability. When we want something, really WANT something, there are many ways to ignore the obvious signs that perhaps something is a bit amiss.
But he had thrown caution to the winds and accepted the need to start a new life in booming Orange County. He had moved into her detached quadruplex in Whittier, and the other father had moved out, but not without a series of peevish dramas and clichés off of any tawdry “real life” cop show. Nothing dramatic, but enough yelling that their landlady had tried to evict them for sinful cohabitation, except that the police had to explain to her that she didn’t get to make that call. Then, her lawyer found other means.
She and the two girls had moved into her parents’ house in Anaheim, and he had moved into the Bluebird Motel at a price that, when he sat down and really worked it out –phone, laundry service, utilities, maid service, television, pool — was actually a bargain. Another reason not to have a car. They were saving up for the deposit on another place. First, last, deposit, cleaning fee, security fee, background check fee, added up to a little over three months’ rent for one month, and good luck ever seeing the other two months’ worth.
But love is blind, and it was Christmas.
They were both practical adults, but at the same time, ridiculously ‘romantic’ in that “love will find a way for us” malady that famously infected Romeo and Juliet, with nearly the same results, as it would turn out. So, she was living with her parents and he was living at the Bluebird Motel, and she was working for 0ne of the Japanese electronics giants headquartered on the Artesia Freeway, and he was typesetting for a shop that did defense typesetting and whatever other technical typesetting it could, having spun out of the printing department at Cosmodemonic-Yoyodyne, and whose typesetting, classified and unclassified, they still did.
It had been a rough year, and now that his daughter was just turned two, he was beginning to trust himself with the notion of cherishing his daughter. He had, after a Mister Mom experience, lost his son a few years earlier in one of those divorces that could only happen in Hollywood, even though there was nothing glamorous about it. It was a dull ache that he was not quite ready to accept his daughter as a plug to fill.
And, when she could get away … with or without the girls … she reminded him of why none of this seemed impractical or impossible.
And love closed his eyes again.
The PC revolution was just getting into high gear (although there was no internet, as yet) , and the big toys were all fake computers and computer-like toys without an actual processor to be seen anywhere.
What would prove to be the year’s top toy, the Nintendo Entertainment System was $99.99, and still available, but the girls, two and four, were too young and would not ever be particularly interested in gaming. There were Barbie dolls (not really a toy, but an invitation to a lifetime of shopping for accessories) , but someone had given the elder, not his daughter, a Barbie doll last year at age three, and various pieces of Barbie’s drawn and quartered carcass still turned up in various places — boxes, papers, even a leg that he would find in a pencil cup. Sometimes the disembodied head would show up, its outré painted and mascara’ed eyes staring accusingly as the blonde comet was righted. And would turn up again when they moved into a house in Trabuco Canyon the following year.
It was still far enough ahead of Christmas that there would be a good selection.
And, as long as he had the time, he walked all the aisles of the giant Toy Arena, not having been in a proper toy store since college, when he and his college sweetheart went Christmas toy shopping at a mall in Texas, looking for what would turn out to be the top toy of 1975 in 1974, when it did not yet exist. A lot had changed in nearly fifteen years.
But he HAD seen a lot of modern toys. His previous wife — who had begun collecting baby toys even before she was pregnant — had brought home such a profusion of toys that his son had never gotten a moment to really PLAY with any of them before a new set of toys — age appropriate and the latest thing — would appear. And he found nearly all of those toys in the store.
And he realized something important as he looked through endless aisles of playthings, gizmos, doo dads, whatchamajigits, fooferols and macguffins:
For ten bucks …. good lord! what you could buy!
No matter how poor you are as an adult, y0u’re still rich for a kid.
And it came flooding back on him: all those lost toys, all those Christmases; all the taking his lawn mowing and snow shoveling and paper delivery money downtown to Hesteds in the basement and buying squirt guns and superballs, and caps for his cap guns, and SillyPutty® and every gee-gaw and hoogley around. And Twelve cent comics and marbles, and Hot Wheels® and Matchbox® guns, and whatever weird stuff Mattel™ would come out with that year, like “Six Finger” or Kenner’s Girders and Panels, or Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, and the rest of it. And then he realized what it was that the girls didn’t have.
It had always been his talent to find the gift that would be the “heart’s desire” of the gifted.
If there was a reason that he was not permitted in her parent’s home, he didn’t know what it was — other than a general sort of disapproval on categorical grounds: what you are doing is bad, daughter, and he is the one you are doing it with, therefore HE is bad, by definition.
She had driven him and the girls to a campground where her parents, RV’ers from way back, were ‘camped’ belly-to-butt around a county lake in a county park, a sort of Manhattan without walls. He had shown the grandparents the archer Sagittarius pointing his arrow at Scorpio’s red heart, Antares, in the dark skies, and the Grandma had told her husband — his beloved’s step-father — that he was always pointing his arrow at her heart. That explained everything, Grandma said, and all laughed.
But he was forbidden from seeing the Grandparents, and, as it turned out, anyone living at their home.
Which meant that every time they went to their “retirement home” at Lake Elsinore (the house was under fitful construction, but their RV could occupy the ground, and there were utilities hookups) he was spirited into their home.
The high stairs up into the second-floor master bedroom scared him, of course, as his daughter had once gone into his love’s closet, put on a pair of gold lamé pumps (her tiny feet all the way up to the open toes, and walked out onto the top landing, PROUD of her new ability to walk, and, oh yes, by the way parents, “CHECK OUT THESE HEELS!”
He had raced up the stairs and snatched her before she could fall two stories onto a concrete slab covered with a little carpet.
No: what scared him was that there were exactly three pieces of literature in a house dominated by a fifty-inch large screen TV, a large kitchen TV, a downstairs bathroom TV and a master bedroom TV: TV guide, a hunting and camping equipment catalog in the bathroom, and a complete set of the TIME-LIFE “The West” subscription series in embossed faux-leather bindings, most of which had never been opened, some of which were still shrink-wrapped, and all of which were covered in a thick layer of dust.
Far more frightening than a toddler in high heels at the top of a free-standing staircase.
There was a spinet piano in the house, bought with the intention of being learnt, but never realized. He could play the piano, and wrote a little song for each of the girls, which he would play for them when they asked, over and over again. Later, they would almost spill the beans to their Grandma, who didn’t understand why they were asking “play my song, Gramma!”
But by then, the Grandparents had, for their own –obviously not all that literate — reasons, decided that they hated him and so, would not see him.
He knew them only by their spoor.
He bought some gift wrapping paper at a stationers up in the strip mall that the McDonalds had cornered. It was just enough and a little more, when he got back to his room and borrowed some scotch tape from Bob, the night clerk at the front desk, along with some scissors.
Then, just before he wrapped it, he had a brainstorm, and bought a copy of the Orange County Register from the machine by the office. He read it, quickly, and then opened the large box and carefully crumpled paper and packed it tight, so that the contents would make no noise, nor shift in the box. Then, he resealed the box, wrapped it, even made a little paper ribbon, a skill he’d been taught by a little old lady at a church event when he was a kid.
It was a reasonably good job of wrapping, since as a typesetter, he hung out with graphic artists enough for some cut and paste skills to transfer, if only by osmosis.
Later, she left the girls with her mother, and came over to remind him why he was living in a $175 a week motel room, typesetting aerospace equations and fireplace parts catalogs.
She took the package when she left, in the wee hours of an athletic night.
Christmas came and when they could get away, she came with both girls.
And she was angry with him. She would not say why at first, but finally she explained it in her own way, at her own pace.
First, her estranged husband had evidently gone whole hog. Ultra-Princess Barbie with perfectly-coiffed hair complete with rhinestone-encrusted tiara. Complete with her own display glass case, and three changes of clothes for his four-year old daughter. And for his pretend two-year old daughter, a “My Little Pony” with a special brush so you comb her tail and mane, which caused trouble, since in Whittier, she and he had refused to allow “My Little Pony” but insisted on watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse which was on directly opposite “My Little Pony,” and both girls started crying, and the older girl started to pull Ultra-Princess Barbie’s tiara’ed head off, but was stopped, and the girls were mollified with the grandparents’ gifts, and forgot the Pony debacle.
Somebody else’s little pony™
“You can imagine how I felt!” she told him. But he could not.
The parents had bought VERY expensive pseudo computer gadgets (which she would bring to him to read the instruction manuals on, and insert the proper batteries into — the grandparents had bought D-cell batteries for gizmos that took AA batteries, or, batteries the size of a plum for batteries the size of a grape.)
And the estranged husband had bought MORE fake computer speak-n-spell kinds of stuff. THESE had the right-sized batteries, already in, and not only got HIS toys to work for the girls, who were properly happy and joyed — but ALSO took the batteries out and put them into the Grandparents’ toys, which then clicked and whirred and talked. And everyone was impressed that they were all ALSO educational toys so that the girls would get used to computers, which were The Wave of the Future.
And all of them knew exactly how much everyone had spent, because EVERYONE had shopped at the same store. And, as he knew how much THEY had all spent in their war of Christmas attrition (hundreds of dollars apiece), they all knew how much HE had spent.
For the toy that was just to BOTH girls, that both immediately began playing with, and refused to play with anything else, and were still playing with at midnight, when they were forcibly put to bed, and Grandma hid the blocks the next morning, but the girls cried for them, and then, having gotten them back, played with the unfinished wood blocks for the rest of the day and the week and the year.
Which Grandma would never forgive, for reasons that were never articulated, least of all to herself, since it would sound petty as I/we spent hundreds of dollars because we love those girls, and that lowlife buys them a cheap $9.95 box of blocks and those poor girls love him for it. What a BAD man!
To which he would never be able to say: children don’t care how much a toy costs. Only adults do.
Or: all of the adults, save one, had thought about toys the way ADULTS think about toys and NOT the way that kids think about toys. And each had, subconsciously, separated the sisters. Christmas moved into New Years and thence to Valentine’s Day and Memorial Day.
He and She moved with the girls to a converted cabin from an old Dude Ranch in Trabuco Canyon later that year, and spent their next Christmas there. And the simple, old-fashioned unfinished wood blocks continued to be a favorite medium for every kind of imagination imaginable for years thereafter.
But no one ever forgave him for giving a cheap gift in a price war.
A war at Christmas.
And Ultra-Princess Barbie?
They found her head in the medicine cabinet the next April.
Close to the top shelf, they found Ultra-Princess Barbie’s perfectly-coiffed head complete with tiara. No one has explained what she was doing at that altitude.