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The Christmas Cradle
They moved to Tyler, Texas from Northern Michigan just out of high school. They missed those Northern Michigan Summer nights where they fished Walleye from the Lake and experimented with weed and sipping Jack Daniels from the bottle around the campfire. They attended school in Texas. She from Baylor and He at TCU. Upon graduation they settled in Tyler because the price was right and they could afford with the help of their families both sides having resettled from Michigan to Texas as everything they did in life was truly a family affair. Their choice of homes was a three thousand square foot house in the center of town due mainly to the plunge in oil prices during the eighties and the depression like economy throughout many parts of West Texas the owner of their home needing to liquidate his personal real estate holdings to keep his business five hundred miles due west afloat.
They were good kids, sweethearts in high school who remained in constant contact through their separate college lives believing in true love especially love blessed by Christ. They both virgins upon their marriage in church of course, a Catholic wedding though he was Southern Baptist and Catholics a small minority in these parts for many years.
They worked their way into the community; Northerners by birth but in these parts the lineage of Tyler hospitality trumping Texas birth rites, and the South at large. Conception was finally conferred in the third year of marriage. A difficult pregnancy and on delivery day the grief of a still birth her wails echoing down the hallway of this small hospital as every employee for a moment frozen in place including the janitor with mop in hand until the door to her room was closed and the priest summoned.
She didn’t blame God but withdrew from the relationship preferring to engage in her work and work she did. Their grief lingered for years and it was not until the second year later that they rejoined each other in emotional intimacy.
Each Thanksgiving and Christmas they journeyed to Dallas or Houston to one set of relatives or the others preferring to spend time with their extended families rather than conquer the quietness of a lonely home.
He built a small barn out back and equipped it with a lathe, jigsaw, band saw, table saw and all the other necessities of a skilled carpenter, cabinet maker and craftsman. He even dabbled in metal work and welding bartering for much of his acquired tool and machine inventory trading his labor for their unused and dusty but functioning equipment his clients watching in amazement as he utilized their equipment stored in their sheds or garages to complete projects contracted by them; their satisfaction that not only were they saving money by trading but they let go of otherwise idle machinery for the greater good of family and friends and most of all that their equipment accumulated on a whim or a dream was finally utilized by skilled hands.
He worked in both the back and front yard attracting drive through traffic and prospective customers who would park in front of this house and request a tour and quotes for a deck, room addition, new bathroom or backyard playhouse for the kids.
Sometimes he would pack his truck and live in the basement of the client home where he was working as his reputation began to exceed commutable distances. On one trip to South Texas and after work one afternoon he walked to the dock and fished until the autumn sky fused with the midnight water and he could see no more. He completed the job was paid handsomely and departed for home.
He arrived late that Friday afternoon and she was seated in the living room the fireplace crackling and brimming with brilliance. The aroma of pies and crock pot slow cooking from the kitchen. He had forgotten. It was Thanksgiving Eve. His mind on work the nuances of completing a job while processing the next supply run and hand drawn drafts of measurements located in a tube on the workbench. His motto, make hay while the sun was shining the additional pressure of client request one after another all before the end of the year. She asked if they could stay at home and enjoy the holiday by themselves. He agreed but had to make the hard call to his Mother who chastised him for his late cancellation but grateful that they were attempting to make a life for themselves during this Thanksgiving. Besides his Mother Trudy blessed with more than an abundant life was playing to a full house for what seemed like the twentieth consecutive year.
He hung up the phone and said what about a Turkey? She replied: “Have you checked the patio”. He depressed the metal latch on a can of coke, filled a cup and walked back into the kitchen and topped of the can with a perfect stream of wild turkey purchased just for this weekend. He walked outside to see a circumference of smoldering white clouds seeping from the sides of their red smoker. He lifted the lid to view a very large Bird estimated he calculated at twenty two pounds and overfilled in the main body cavity and the neck with jalapeno, habaneras and a sliver of ghost chili bread stuffing
He turned to view the back of their driveway that dead ended past the double wooden gate through the shed and ten feet beyond; the shed painted red and looking like a miniature barn complete with elevated roof opened from both the front and back to accommodate drive through loads or even machine work on vehicles. He built a customized trailer welding and fitting the various assortments of accumulated metal scrap like assembling a two thousand piece puzzle then pulling it out back and painting it to look as if a newly manufactured hay wagon from International Harvester but with extra goodies like a locking tool cabinet to compliment the one in his work truck and of course a hydraulic lift for loading.
As he turned to view Katie now working over the kitchen sink preparing, the salad and dropping the potato slivers into the heated deep fryer the Rib Eyes now searing the on the front gas burner she flipping them like pancakes the smell of green onions roasting garlic indicating dinner was almost served. She looked up and motioned him to the right. He walked to the gate where a pallet of roof tiles lay neatly stacked and covered in stapled wind resistant plastic with words special delivery and some numbers written by an eccentric with a large circle hook trailing off; a slash and the denominator reading only the letters JB signifying the initials Jim Bastille. He looked back towards her and watched her through the glass enunciate the words: “Your delivery arrived today”.
He showered and returned to the dining room the heavy glass table top covered with a brown cloth with a display of Indian corn and varnished gourd set in crystal bowl with three crystal stem holders representing the trinity now brimming with the radiance of lit tea candles. He lowered his hands palms down over his empty dinner plate the heat soothing his cold chafed skin.
Katie rotated around the room like she had extra hands, lowering the salad bowls, then the fries loaded with extra salt, insulated with a layer of paper towels in a glass bowl returning to the kitchen to open and serve a merlot then the steaks still sizzling when transferred from the wok to their plates.
After dinner Katie loaded the dishwasher showered then retired to the den in the shadow of the brilliance of the fireplace crackling with walnut, pine and cedar logs. He already sitting with his feet exposed to the warmth of the heat blowing from the bottom of his soles through the cracks in this toes his legs extending past the edge of his chair in full tilt. He sighed and exhaled with an old gym towel wrapped around his shoulders his damp soft hair accentuated by the genetic Scottish wave.
She handed him a sifter of Remy Martin and returned to her chair her feet resting on the heated brick landing. He accepted the glass swirling the amber fluid while chewing the tip of a cigar then lighting it and slumping further down in his recliner. This evening there wasn't a hint of the normal conversational pleasantries or quips like: “how was your day” or “how was work” as he with each puff of the cigar reflected even more deeply on the looming deadlines all of which must be met by Christmas Eve.
First there was the early Monday departure for Little Rock, Arkansas to repair the roof of a woman referred to him by his own Priest Father Paul one Saturday Evening after the vigil Mass. Why him the thought? Because he was willing to donate his time, labor and the materials necessary to complete the job. The Arkansas chapter of Christmas in April was willing to donate their labor however they weren’t budgeted for additional expenditures of materials this year or next. The great recession had really taken a toll on those on fixed incomes especially the elderly and widowed and the project was not large enough to qualify for Habitat for Humanity and they were also pressured to keep under budget to complete the four homes in the North Little Rock area that they had committed to build earlier this year.
Father Paul was counting on him and besides he offered one free project per year as an offering of good works and the window on this year was closing fast. Then his mind drifted to the fifty something boxes and bins labeled and stored in the built out space above the floor area of the wood shop. Thank God for twenty foot ceilings he thought as the barn stood just shy of fifteen feet from top to bottom and in the city it wouldn’t be appropriate for the shed out back to be taller than the home even though both were shielded from prying eyes by a ten foot block wall perimeter. He was proud of the ladder he upgraded with machined guides on the bottom and how he laid an oval track barely visible embedded in the concrete floor so when he needed something wood or metal stacked overhead he simply pushed the ladder with one hand until underneath the material sought then dropped the foot brake and climbed straight up to survey and procure the right piece for the job before descending back down unlocking the foot brake and sliding the ladder onto the spur and into the corner and resting against the bumper guards where it remained until needed for the next climb. His thoughts then turned to the next task at hand whether to hang the lights on the roof including the sled and reindeer with a huge teddy bear and wrapped boxes as contents of the sleigh. The rest of the front yard and the perimeter of the block wall must be completed this weekend and he promised to pull the artificial tree down and load the base in its rotating stand so Katie could smooth out and attach the branches then hang the lights and their extensive collection of ornaments from the simple Campbell soup cans tethered by a string and the Wizard of Oz set of crystal one of a kind figurines. He also agreed this year to the great compromise that in addition to the artificial tree they would purchase a real tree to be displayed and decorated on the opposite end of the dining room.
Then there was the Toys for Tots party where their friends from church, the neighborhood and everywhere else brought new unwrapped toys to set under the trees and on that special Saturday evening in early December which happened to be next weekend as three or four Marines in full dress uniform and other Marines in suits and ties or blue jeans accompanied by girlfriends, wives and children arrived to a gala event of home cooking, welcoming and thankful smiles for their service to this great country and intermittent photos ops for children of all ages with Santa who occasionally had to be prodded out of the upstairs bathroom complaining that the costume was to hot, as he inhaled and flicked the nub of a cigarette out the window prior to re attaching his beard from his neckline to his face and emerging to walk down the stairs taping the bells in his hand against his thigh and inner wrist as if playing a tambourine the stereo muted until Santa properly seated greeted his first lap guest and then the volume of conversation and Christmas themed rock selections including the entirety of the Trans Siberian Orchestra four volume opera escalating to pre Santa entry decibel levels and at the end of the evening the Marines backed their truck into the driveway and volunteers from a party of two hundred or so guests passed each gift from the tree out the door person to person thirty people in length of this fire line to the back of the rental for toy stacking by the sergeant and corporal.
Lauren laughed at the thought of how some photos of Santa posing, as a joke, with a nude stripper in a back room had made their way onto a few copies of the annual photo CD and distributed to a few family and friends lincluding a lawyer for the school board who promptly notified Katy so the distribution could stop until the fun photos were purged from the Family Archives now hidden but not deleted.
The sound of the soft voice of his wife brought him back from his daydream and mental checklist of things to do prior to Christmas. “Did you hear that, Katy whispered”; “Hear what, he replied” “There was a knock on the door”. “He fitted his cigar in the molded groove of his burnt orange ash tray and hoisted himself to his feet using his arms to propel himself up from the chair and walked to the door, opened it and looked out across the front yard and surveyed only a car easing out of the drive way, then starting its engine and turning its lights on revealing with appeared to be California or Chihuahua license plates then quickly making a three point turn towards the highway and accelerating off into the night emitting the sound of a muffled wail from within as it sped off into this breezy cold Texas night.
He walked onto the stoop in his bare feet and examined the night sky illuminated with level five and six star patterns, one of the benefits of living in a small town he thought and then looked down and saw two huddled children and one babyin a car seat. He summoned Laura who appeared instantly and upon viewing the children barked at her husband “Well don’t just stand there in the night air, bring them inside”. He shepherded the two children no more than five or six years old and picked up the car seat and handed it to Lauren. She brought the children inside next to the fireplace and then attended to the baby placing the car seat on top of the dining room table and gently lifting the veil that covered the face of the baby. Upon removing the veil she exclaimed: “My! My! This is the most beautiful child! Lauren glanced over her shoulder kissed her on the back of the head and said yes darling she certainly is beautiful while keeping is own thoughts to himself but wondering what type of facial deformity this child suffered.
Katy sat the table and invited the two other children to join her. She fed them come cereal and toast spread with peanut butter, bananas and honey from their famous sue bee plastic bear container.
She warmed milk for the baby and bottle fed her with the plastic set retrieved from deep into the back of the cabinet buried there after the death of her first and only child.
All Summer long
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