Sure, people get depressed during the holidays. But maybe, for some, it's their own damned fault.
Elaine calls me at ten past seven on a Friday night, the night before Christmas Eve. "Come over," she says, like she knows I have nothing better to do. "I've got a bottle and a couple of videos. We'll have fun."
My first impulse is to tell her I've made plans, but there's nothing more depressing than hanging around watching cable by yourself on a weekend night, especially during the holidays. So I say yeah, sure, why not, and she says terrific, and the line falls dead.
I pick up the remote and shut off the TV. I'd been watching "It's a Wonderful Life" for the tenth time this season, half hoping that this time the angel won't show and George will just kill himself and get it over with. Elaine says she can't understand how somebody could jump out a window on Christmas Eve like that guy up in Winslow did the year before last, but I can see it. I can understand how that happens. You're off from work, you've got nothing to do, you're moping around the house by yourself and every time you turn on the TV you see people with families and people in love. I mean, it gets to me after a while, and my life's really not that bad. At least I've got Elaine.
I guess I should say right now that Elaine and I are not a couple. We have never been a couple, and we are never going to be one. She's a nice enough person, I guess, but there's something that's just not there. The subject has only come up once, about a year ago, a month or so after we started hanging out. She was very up front, said she was interested and asked if I might be too. I said no, and that was that.
That's not to say we haven't slept together, because we have. But it's always been strictly a one-time thing.
Elaine lives a couple miles out of town, in a fifty-unit complex called Fox Run Apartments. I've never seen a fox there, which is not surprising considering that the only woods within ten miles of the place are on the golf course across Route 22. There are five buildings with ten apartments each, arranged around a horseshoe loop of road called Fox Run. That's not an excuse for the name, though, because I'm pretty sure the complex was there before the road was ever built.
On the drive out I count four-way stops and Slow Children signs -- eleven of each. Forty-seven two-story bungalows, thirty-eight minivans, seven trees with tire swings. The last time I visited my brother, his wife was eight months pregnant with their second child. He doesn't drive a minivan yet, but it's probably even money he's shopping for one.
When I get to Elaine's there's a note on the door that says "it's open" and another that says "homicidal maniacs, please ignore." Elaine is the patron saint of Post-Its. She leaves a trail of them stuck to doors and walls and windows wherever she goes, until I sometimes feel like some kind of post-modern dung beetle, creeping along behind her, my pockets bulging with her wadded-up waste. These ones, though, I leave as they are. If she wants to cover her house in paper scraps I guess it's nobody's business but her own.
Inside, Elaine's sprawled out on her fat, black, flower-print couch, with a glass of something in one hand and a remote control in the other. She looks up and says, "Didn't you see the second note?"
I shrug out of my jacket. Elaine sounds like she's already buzzed. As I step into the living room she sits up, finishes her drink and asks if I want anything. I say I'll have whatever she's having, and she gets up and goes out to the kitchen to mix up two more of whatever that is.
You're probably thinking that the reason I'm not with Elaine is that she's not pretty enough, but that's not it at all. She's tall and big shouldered, thin at the waist and hips, with short brown hair and deep-set blue eyes and a way of looking at you that makes you feel like a field mouse, scrambling for cover under the eyes of a circling hawk.
Elaine brings me my drink. It's yellowish-green and sugary. She calls it a parrot. I down half of it in one long swallow. Elaine says, "Careful, Jon. That stuff is stronger than it tastes."
I take another drink. "If I get drunk enough, maybe I'll let you take advantage of me."
She shakes her head. "I don't think so."
Elaine sips from her parrot. I sip from mine.
"You know," she says, "I had a dream about you last night."
"Really?" I say. "What happened?"
"Nothing much. It was a little strange. We were in school together, and you were sitting behind me and poking me in the back of the head. I kept whispering for you to quit it but you wouldn't stop. Finally I turned all the way around and punched you, and the teacher came and grabbed me by the arm and dragged me up to the front of the class. You were laughing, and you reached up and pulled off your face -- you were wearing one of those rubber masks like in the movies -- and underneath you were actually Richard Nixon. That's when I woke up."
There's a long moment of silence before I realize she expects me to say something.
"Wow," I say. "So what do you think it means?"
"I don't know," she says. "Now that I look at you, though, you are getting a little jowly."
We finish our drinks. I put in the first video. Elaine goes to the kitchen for refills. When she comes back I say, "What do you think about kids?"
"I love kids," she says. "But I could never finish a whole one."
"Very good," I say. "Really, do you want one?"
"What, you mean now?"
The movie is starting. It's an old one, something about Martians who come to Earth to kidnap Santa. It reminds me of a preacher we had when I was in grade school who started every Christmas Eve sermon by reminding us that you only had to move one letter in Santa to get Satan.
"No," I say, "I don't mean now. Eventually."
"Sure. Yeah, I guess so." She sips from her drink, curls her feet up beneath her and turns to the screen.
Later, while a couple of kids in the movie are being chased by a guy in a bear suit, I say, "So what about now? I mean, you're thirty, right? If you're going to do it, you have to do it pretty soon."
"Yeah well, I'm kind of missing something, aren't I? Anyway, thirty isn't that old. Plenty of women have babies in their forties."
"Maybe. But you don't want to be sixty and just sending your kid to college, do you?"
She pauses the video, picks up our empty glasses and takes them out to the kitchen.
"Look, Jon," she says. "If you're trying to get over on me tonight, you can forget it. I'm not doing the weekend play-toy thing any more."
"Give me some credit," I say. "I am not trying to get over on you."
"Good," she says, but she doesn't sound convinced. She comes back with two different drinks, these ones thick and syrupy and purplish red. I take mine and sip. It tastes almost exactly the same as the others.
Elaine starts up the movie again. Santa's on a spaceship to Mars.
"Anyway," I say, "I don't see what's so bad about playing when neither one of us is with someone real."
There's a short silence, and it's like I can see my words floating in front of me. Too late to take them back.
"Real?" she says, very quiet, very calm. "What does that mean?" She has that hawkish look now, eyes narrowed and features taut, and I realize I may have crossed over some line. "Has it ever occurred to you that we'd probably have an easier time finding someone real if we didn't waste so much time hanging around with each other?"
We stare each other down through a long, awkward pause. The children and Santa are planning their escape. "You're right," I say finally. "You're totally right." She picks up the remote and turns up the volume as I stand, pull on my jacket and walk out the door.
Real. Here's a real story for you: My last girlfriend was Catholic. I don't mean Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, I mean church-going, God-fearing, no-sex-before-marriage-and-I-mean-it Catholic. I put up with that for about six months before I realized she was serious and broke it off. I told her it just wasn't working out. She smiled and shook her head and said, "Do I look stupid? Your cock is hot, and you're looking for someone to stick it into. And you know what? When you find her, I hope she turns around and sticks it right back into you."
If there's one thing more depressing than sitting around by yourself on the night before Christmas Eve, it's driving around by yourself on the night before Christmas Eve. It's colder now, and snowing a little -- wispy white flakes that reflect back my headlights and stick to the windshield until I have to drag my wipers across the almost-dry glass. I drive once past my building, turn around and pass by again. Every window in the place is dark. I keep going. There's a song playing on the radio. It's something soft and sappy, and after a couple of minutes I turn it off. I take a left on Route 17, and a half mile later I pull into the almost-full parking lot of a club called The Shark Tank.
I've been here before and it's always been pretty crowded, but I didn't expect many people to be here on the night before Christmas Eve. There's a two-dollar cover. A live band is playing. When I ask who they are, the bouncer yells something back at me that sounds like Cult of Crud. I nod and keep moving.
The area back by the bar is pretty empty. Almost everybody in the club is either down in the pit or hanging around the fringes. I'm talking to the bartender, telling him to bring me a beer -- a bottle, not a draft -- when Colonel Klink sits down beside me and says, "This round's on me."
I lean back, look over. He's older, tall, thin and bald, wearing black shiny boots and a long gray overcoat and a monocle, for Christ's sake. All he needs are black leather gloves and a swagger stick.
"Hi," he says. "I'm Wilhelm." He offers his hand.
"Jon," I say. We shake. The bartender brings us our beers. Wilhelm hands him a twenty and tells him to keep a tab. I take a long pull from my drink and look over at the stage. The band doesn't seem to know much about their instruments, but the drummer is steady and the singer is loud and as I watch a guy comes up out of the crowd and onto the stage, takes a run across the front and dives out onto a sea of hands. They catch him, pass him around for a while and put him down.
"That's insane," I say.
"Not really," says Wilhelm. "As long as the floor's packed it's actually pretty safe."
I shake my head and take another drink. The band finishes playing, and the singer says thanks, you guys are the greatest, we're taking a break. The club's sound system starts playing something by New Order as the crowd breaks up and heads back toward the bar.
"So," I say. "You're Colonel Klink, right?"
"Right!" he says. "I'm glad you noticed. A lot of the kids I meet in this place are too young to recognize me."
"Well, the show's been off the air for a while..."
"No, I mean why Colonel Klink?"
He shrugs. "Look at me. I don't really have much choice, you know?"
"Yeah," I say. "I guess I see your point."
A girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, slides up on the bar stool next to me, flushed and panting and dripping sweat. "Hi," she says. "Is Willy getting you drunk?"
"Absolutely," Klink says. "Carrie, this is Jon." Carrie smiles and shakes my hand. "It's very nice to meet you," she says. She's thin and dark-haired and pretty, and I hold her hand just a little longer than I have to.
"So what are you doing here?" Carrie says. I look over at Wilhelm, but she's talking to me.
"I don't know," I say finally. "Is there somewhere else I should be?"
She shrugs. "You look like the home-with-the-family type."
"I guess looks can be deceiving, right?"
"Sure," she says. "But they're usually not."
The bartender comes by. Wilhelm orders three more beers. I finish my old one in one long, lukewarm pull.
"So," I say to Carrie, "what are you doing here?"
"I never miss these guys," she says. "I'm sleeping with the drummer."
I'm not sure what to say to that. The bartender brings our beers. Carrie takes hers, hops down off the barstool and walks around behind me. "Thanks, Daddy," she says, and kisses Wilhelm on the cheek. He smiles and nods, and she disappears back into the crowd.
After another beer I say, "So that was your daughter, huh?"
"Yeah," he says. "She's a beautiful girl, isn't she?" And what I want to say is what do you think it does to a kid's psyche to have her dad dress up like Colonel Klink and hang out with her in a bar on the night before Christmas Eve, but instead I say yes, she is, and leave it at that.
We drink some more. Wilhelm says, "You're here alone."
I shrug. "I don't have a daughter to hang out with."
He laughs. "What about a wife?"
I shake my head.
"Well," I say, "I've got a friend who's a girl, but it's really not the same."
"I hear you," he says. He's looking right at me now, not down at his beer like guys usually do. I was going to say something about Elaine, maybe tell him about the time in this very same bar that she said she thought I'd make a great father and I just sat there and stared at her until she said don't flatter yourself, I was just making conversation, but instead I shrug again and say, "yeah, well."
Klink takes another drink, then leans in closer and says, "Are you looking for some company?" Understand that at this point I'm feeling a little drunk and a little lonely and I'm assuming that he's talking about Carrie. And even though I think it's kind of sick for Colonel Klink to be pimping his daughter I turn to him and say, "Why do you ask?"
And then he kisses me. He pulls back and I say, "But..." and he does it again, and it suddenly strikes me that I'm thirty-one years old and it's the night before Christmas Eve and I'm sitting on a barstool making out with Colonel Klink. I can't help it. I start laughing. Klink takes his hands off of me and I get up and start for the door and I don't make it two steps before I'm doubled over, tears running out of my eyes. Klink asks where I'm going and I say home and he says you're drunk, let me drive you, but I wave him off and keep moving.
By the time I get outside I'm almost under control. I stop half way to my car, wipe my eyes and rub my face and breathe the cold night air. There are three or four inches of snow on the ground, but the sky is clear and dark and starry, and I'm feeling better, almost ready to go home, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn. The bouncer's standing behind me. He says one word, faggot, and hits me in the face.
It's an arm punch, no weight behind it, and as I stagger back a half-step and he swings again, part of me is thinking that even drunk I could take this guy, that considering he's a bouncer he really can't fight, but instead of getting my fists up I'm saying wait, I'm not gay, he kissed me, and he catches me with a roundhouse and down I go.
"Stay home next time," he says, kicks me once in the belly and goes back inside.
It's a little later and I'm still lying there, almost comfortable in the snow, looking up at the stars and wishing someone would run me over when Carrie leans over me and says, "Hi. How's it going?"
"Pretty well," I say. "What brings you out here?"
"Daddy saw the bouncer follow you outside. He wanted me to find out what he did to you."
I close my eyes, and after a while I hear the bar door open and slam closed. There is silence for a while, and then the rumble of a car out on 17, coming closer, gearing down, skidding a little on the gravel as it turns into the lot. I feel headlights sweep across me and I think well, this is it, either get up or don't, but the car stops before I have to make a decision. The door swings open and I hear Elaine's voice. "Jon? Jesus, is that you?"
"Yeah," I say. "Come on over. Have a seat."
I open my eyes. Elaine cuts the engine, cuts the lights. A man comes out of the club. He glances over at me and hurries off in the other direction. Elaine's boots squeak in the cold new snow. She stands looking down at me for a while, then shakes her head and sits down next to me. She looks a little like Carrie in the starlight -- softer and smaller, and a little hazy around the edges.
"Are you hurt?" she says.
"No," I say.
"I didn't think so."
A black cloud is pushing across the middle of the sky. I sit up, touch my hand to my face. It isn't even swollen much. The cold probably helped.
"You're not going to tell me why you were lying in the snow in the middle of a parking lot."
I shake my head. "I don't think so."
"That's good. You'd probably lose my respect." The wind is picking up now, whistling past the building, and the snow is coming down again in fat, wet flakes. Elaine hugs herself and shivers. Her shoulder touches mine.
"So anyway," she says.
"Right." I climb to my feet. I offer her my hand, but she gets up by herself, brushes the snow off her pants and says, "Look, I'm sorry about what I said before..."
"Whatever," I say. She smiles, touches my hand, asks if I need a ride. I shake my head. She turns and gets back in her car, and I stand there and watch her in the falling snow. After the door bangs shut and before she starts the engine I hear a song in my head, an old Christmas carol I can almost remember, and at first I'm thinking concussion, but when I hold my breath it's even clearer -- a gentle, muffled chiming, ringing in Christmas Eve.
Edward Ashton (email@example.com) is a research engineer by necessity and a fiction writer by choice. His work has appeared in a number of online and print magazines, including Blue Penny Quarterly, Painted Hills Review, Brownstone Quarterly, and The Pearl.
InterText stories written by Edward Ashton: "The Rock" (v5n3), "Danielle" (v6n2), "Christmas Carol" (v7n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Edward Ashton.