Thursday, December 25, 2008

Billy awoke early the next morning in his own bed in his own room. He wondered if it was too early, but he was awake right away. He had a double bed, his mother had told him, because someday he might have a brother. Kathy had her own room, too, but she slept in a crib that mummy said had been his. Kathy is still a baby, just learning things. He has to help her once in awhile because he is older. She is too little to understand what today is. He is going to go to school after the next summer. He thought about that more and more.

The sun was on the other side of the house, but he could see out his own window that it was day. He got up, opened his door and listened. Everybody else was still asleep. He went into the hall and towards the light coming through the picture window into the living room. He saw the tree in the corner, the same as yesterday. And he saw what was different: the packages under the tree.

His eyes immediately went to something that wasn’t wrapped. That meant it was from Santa Claus, mummy told him. It was large, a kind of box, yellow, with blue and red lettering. He knelt down to touch it. The surface was slightly rough. He opened the top. Inside the cover had a red and white stripped picture of Howdy Doody, and then he saw what it was: a phonograph. A Howdy Doody Phono-Doodle.

He ran to get his records. His big record, Tubby the Tuba, was already scratched and worn from use. He had other little records, some bought for him but most that used to be mummy’s and she gave him or let him play. But when he got them he couldn’t play them. Everybody else was still asleep.

He stood up, not knowing what to do. It was then that he saw it on the coffee table: an empty cup with a brown ring around the inside, and a saucer with a little bit of a cookie left on it.

Flora heard Billy in the living room, and not wanting to miss his discovery of his presents, she poked Walt once and got up. To her surprise, he started getting up, too.

As she wrapped the robe around her she glanced out the picture window. It looked cold, but there weren’t as many clouds as yesterday. It was going to be a sunny Christmas.

As Billy found more toys—a Hopalong Cassidy gun and holster set, a cowboy hat and a tin painted gas station--he turned around to see his mummy and daddy in their robes sitting down on the sofa. Mummy smiled at him, and daddy did too, sometimes.

He watched mummy show Kathy her toys—a big yellow duck on a string caught his eye, but mostly he was waiting to open his packages from mummy and daddy, and the ones that Ant Toni had sent. They were mostly all clothes. He went through them fast but mummy wanted to see everything. Then mummy gathered up the paper and put it in a bag. “Are we going to have a fire in the fireplace?” Billy asked. “Not today,” she said. “But sometime this week.” At Thanksgiving, daddy made a fire and put something extra in it that made colors in the flames, like green and blue. He liked looking at the fire anyway, though he was careful not to get too close. But he liked looking for those colors, flickering bright and disappearing.

When mummy went into the kitchen to make coffee, daddy showed him how to work the phonograph. Pretty soon he was playing a new little record, all red, of Gene Autry singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He wanted to play more but mummy said it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for church.

There were mostly big people in church, and they stood and knelt and sat at different times, all together. Billy had been to church before but he was more interested today because he understood that the church they went to was downstairs from the school where he might be going. Sometimes Billy could see the priest and the altar boys and sometimes he couldn’t. But he could always see the six candles lit above the altar, and he heard the organist singing. She sang in Latin. He didn’t understand her, but as the Mass went on and on, he began to make up a story to the way the words sounded. It was about a mother telling her boy to do something. First she called him--
Agnus Dei
I thought I told you, she said:
qui tolis pecatta mundi
and the boy answers no--
me say ray ray no bis
--maybe because he didn’t hear her.

They went from church down to Arnwood. The sun glinted off the snow, though there were patches of brown peeking through. Flora listened as the radio in the Singer truck said there was more snow was on the way, maybe even tonight. She would keep an eye on the weather and try to get them home before it started. She didn’t want to get stuck on the road with two sleepy, stuffed and cranky kids.

The big meal on Christmas day was just after noon. Although Christmas Eve was more elaborate, there was still plenty to do for Christmas Day, especially since mum saved the best desserts for then. They would be eating all day, but first everything had to be made ready.

But mum and dad had presents for the kids, and they stopped their preparations to watch them. Billy was so completely amazed by the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy outfit mum and dad gave him. There were pictures of Hopalong Cassidy on the western style shirt, and a picture of him on his horse with a lariat that spelled out Hoppalong Cassidy on the chap-style pants. They even got him a pair of black cowboy boots to go with it. Knowing this, Flora had brought along his cowboy hat and guns and holster set. Billy ran upstairs to change out of his church clothes and into the cowboy suit.

When he came downstairs, his grandfather greeted him. “Hey! It’s Hopalong Que-ce-dice!” Everybody laughed, as Billy drew his guns.

Her grandmother held Kathy, who gripped her new stuffed doggie and kicked her legs in excitement. She wriggled until she got down, and pup pup got his camera. Walt pulled the piano bench in front of the Christmas tree. Billy sat down with Kathy on his lap. Billy held her with one hand, and pointed a gun at the camera with the other.

Mum asked her about the morning. Flora told her about the phonograph. “He knows the names of all my records,” she said, explaining why she got it for him. “Even the instrumentals. I don’t know how.”

Uncle Carl came downstairs and after they had opened all their presents, Billy asked if he was going to play the piano. So he sat down and played some Christmas carols. His hands and long fingers moved fast across the keys. Somehow they were making the music he heard but he couldn't keep up with Uncle Carl's hands. Sometimes it looked like the keys were still moving by themselves after Uncle Carl's fingers were already gone.

Then after he stopped, he and Kathy were left alone in the living room for awhile until mummy came back in from the kitchen and told them pup pup was taking them for a walk and when they got back it would be time to eat. She bundled them up and they went outside with pup pup. They were going to walk down to the railroad tracks. They went slow because of Kathy. Pup pup kept hold of her hand so she couldn’t try to run after Billy, but pup up didn’t want him to run too far ahead either, so he kept circling back. That was until they got to the end of the street, past where Timmy and Mary Ann lived.

Then pup pup said Billy had to hold his other hand because they were crossing over the railroad tracks. Then they got to the trolley tracks but to Billy’s amazement they didn’t turn back. They were going on to the stone bridge over the little creek. They stood on the bridge and Billy looked down, but mostly he looked beyond. On the other side of the bridge there was only the road disappearing into the trees. There was heavy brush there. In the summer when he stayed over at grandma’s he could hear strange sounds that grandma said were frogs. Those frogs lived in the brush there, pup pup said. Billy looked at it, trying to imagine what wild animals might be in there and in the woods beyond. This was as close as he had been.

As they walked back to the house Billy wondered if they would go past it, and up the street to where the drug store and the other ice cream places were. Pup pup took them there in the summer, when his cousin Dicky was here. But this time when they got to the house they went inside.

Dinner began with mum’s soup, the only kind of soup she ever served. Some people called it wedding soup, but hers was a little different, and it was another one of those things she never gave a completely accurate recipe for, Flora thought. She knew it had egg, endive and little meat balls, but Flora never attempted to make it herself. Her mother was just too vague about how it was done.

Then came the homemade ravioli with homemade sauce. Some were filled with cheese, others with meat. Billy cheerfully had several helpings at the smiling insistence of his grandmother. Anything less than several helpings she treated as an insult. Plates of meat balls and roast beef in the same meat sauce were passed around and then kept on the table. Another plate of meat balls without sauce made the rounds.

Then the roast chicken, roast potatoes and carrots. Side dishes appeared. Of these, Billy liked the breaded veal cutlets the best. He also liked salad, which he especially enjoyed with his chicken and cutlets. He didn't eat much of the cooked vegetables, Flora noticed.

Then came the coffee and the sponge cake, the Christmas pannettone, a yeasty, egg cake that Flora’s mother still made herself, even though you could buy it now. There were piles of pizelles, which they had spent hours that morning making downstairs with two large black pizelle irons held over the burners of the stove. There were single pizzelles, some brownish, some light and crumbly. Some had an almond taste, some tasted of vanilla, and some of anise. Some were made into sandwiches with a fig paste between two pizelles.

But now specialty cookies could be more easily bought in nearby stores, some baked in Pittsburgh or closer, and some imported from Italy. The hard and the soft biscotti were easy to find, and assortments of small cookies that appeared at various times of the year. But the imported cantuccini sapori-- the chocolate covered cookie with hazlenuts inside--and the torrone--nougat candy in flavors of vanilla, lemon and orange--were only for Christmas.

And of course, the jello. Even after all that food, Mum was still insulted if everyone didn’t eat the Jell-O.

All day the cookies and candies stayed on the dining room table. Flora put some of her cookie out, too--the snicker doodles, the Christmas sugar cookies in different shapes decorated with icings with different food coloring. Ant was even represented with the nut roll she’d made and sent through the mail.

Late in the afternoon and in the evening they would crack walnuts and hazelnuts. There was always fruit--pears, apples, oranges and tangerines. Billy liked the tangerines best, and then the pears. The relish tray also reappeared, with a special addition next to the celery: fresh anise, which looked just like celery but had its own particular flavor. Billy tried it, and seemed to like it.

He also liked to look at the pictures on the little torrone boxes, of the hand colored cameos of women with the blue ribbons in their hair and men with red vests and bow tie, and the scenes on the other side, of statues and buildings against white clouds and blue sky, or a scene Billy said was of pirates, but that was because the man wore an open blue shirt and white pants with high black boots that Billy only knew from pirate tales on TV.

After dinner, as dad and Walt dozed in the living room and Kathy had her nap while Flora and mum cleaned up, Billy was sent off to the movies with two neighbor kids, Timmy and Mary Ann. Pup pup gave him a nickel for his admission, and he gave nickels to Timmy and Mary Ann for taking him. They walked up the street, and down to where Billy had never been except to go to the movies, though it wasn’t far to walk.

“What they see today?” mum asked as they washed and dried the dishes.

“Cinderella,” Flora said. “ The Walt Disney cartoon.”

“Yes, I hear about it,” mum said. “suppose to be good. Lots music.”

“Yes, that ‘Bibbety Boppity Boo’ song is in it. I hope they don’t make it too scary. When Billy saw “Sleeping Beauty” the witch and her poisoned apple really scared him. That’s when he started imagining the mirror upstairs was a monster’s face.”

When Billy got home from the movies, his eyes full of color and head full of songs, everybody was in the dining room playing a game. He thought it was cards but it wasn’t. Everybody had a cardboard square.

“It’s called Tombala,” mummy explained. “It’s like bingo. You’ve never seen it before--or you don’t remember seeing it--because we only play it on Christmas.”

Kathy was sitting on mummy's lap watching but then she tried to get down. Mummy held her and began to bounce her up and down and sang to her:
How much is that doggie in the window
Woof! Woof!
The one with the scraggily tail?
How much is that doggie in the window
I do hope that doggie's for sale.

Kathy laughed. When mummy stopped to play the game Billy began singing, imitating Jimmy Durante shaking his head and singing Inka Dinka Do. Everybody in the family liked Jimmy Durante. Billy watched him every time he was on Colgate Comedy Hour (though he usually hoped for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.) Jimmy Durante always did a big number at the end with his friend Eddie who wore a big top hat, when they marched all around the stage, waving their hats. Then at the very end Jimmy put on his rain coat and hat and said, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are," and walked away through pools of light. Billy wondered if he ever would say who Mrs. Calabash was. He didn't want to miss that.

When they laughed he tried to roll his eyes all around like Eddie Cantor. Kathy looked at him for awhile but turned away. He started singing to her like Vaughn Monroe. He did it by putting his tongue at the roof of his mouth way in back. "Silly Billy," mummy said, smiling.

They were all waiting for Aunt Toni to call from Maryland, so when the phone rang the game stopped and pup pup turned down the radio. Everybody took turns talking to Ant Toni, though not for very long because it was long distance and cost a lot of money. Billy tried to imagine how far away Maryland was. He got a turn to talk to Aunt Toni and to Dickie. He told Dickie about going down past the railroad tracks and Dickie said he wanted to do that when they came up in the summer. They were just getting used to talking on the telephone when Billy had to get off.

It was getting dark when they were all in the living room. First Billy bounced on pup pups knee, pretending he was Hopalong Que ce dice going after bad guys. Grandma had Kathy on her lap, playing patty-cake. Then they switched, and Billy and grandma sang:
ting a ting un violino
pling a pling un mandolino
toot toot toot la saxaphona
tippety tippety top!

But when Billy played the drum he got for Christmas, daddy told him to stop. “That’s enough now,” he said. But Billy looked around and nobody else got mad, so he stopped for awhile and then started playing it again. Nothing happened so he kept playing, and this time daddy really yelled. “I told you stop that now!” Billy started to cry. His father got even more mad. “Stop that or I’ll give you something to cry about!” he shouted.

Billy ran upstairs and lay down on the bed in the middle room and cried. Later he went back downstairs and stood out in the hall. Grandma saw him and told him he could go sit at the desk if he wanted, and later pup pup would get out the viewmaster. He nodded solemnly and went to the desk next to the living room windows. He turned on the desk lamp. The desk was very shiny and clean, not like the rough, banged up desk at home. He usually wasn’t allowed to sit there or ever to play there because it was good furniture. But he could sometimes if he was careful. Grandma gave him some paper and a pencil and he sat drawing for awhile. He drew a man standing on the ground, with the sun above him, and a house behind him. He drew a tree and a bird in it. Trees were where birds live. Maybe the bird was a robin. They were called robin red-breast in the Book House books, but really they were orange.

Then pup pup got out the viewmaster. It was black and heavy, but not too heavy for Billy to hold up to his face by himself. Pup pup put one of the white flat circles into it and Billy put his eyes to the two places to look, and when his eyes got used to it he could see a color picture of mountains. He pushed the clicker and another picture came on.

By the time grandma’s rosary came on the radio, Billy was very tired. When it was over, he lay down on the sofa. Just then the doorbell rang, and a big man in black came in. It took a minute for him to recognize Father Derrick.

“Flora, Merry Christmas,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be here, but I was up at Holy Cross today--one of their priests went home to see his parents and I was filling in. So I thought I’d stop, but I got held up until now. How’s Walt? How are the children?”

They talked some more and then suddenly Father Derrick was in the living room. He looked huge standing above him. Billy didn’t know what to say, so he answered Father Derrick’s questions very quietly. He was just starting to get interested when he felt a big hand on his head and saw that Father Derrick was saying a prayer and making the sign of the cross over him with his other hand. Then he squeezed his shoulder hard, and he was gone, into the dining room.

Billy dozed until mummy told him quietly they were going home and to get his coat on. Daddy had already put all his presents in the truck. He kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye and said thank you. They hugged him and said Merry Christmas once more.

The truck was cold but he could lay down in the back, and the thrum of the engine put him to sleep again. He awoke once and for a second he didn’t know where he was. He was confused and a little mad but then he realized he was on his way home, and soon they would walk up the steps in the cold night, he would get ready for bed, his mother would kiss him goodnight, and nothing else would happen, he would be asleep in his bed in his room in his home.

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