Thursday, December 25, 2008

They rode through the dark to United, along winding roads with rounded hills occasionally outlined in dimly seen snow. Billy watched the roads and tried to recognize where they were going, but apart from the darkness he didn’t take this ride enough to remember it. He knew the route to Arnwood pretty well but not this one. When they suddenly slowed down and turned down a road with houses around it he was surprised. When they got out of the car, mummy pointed high behind them. “Look, Billy,” she said. “You can see the coke ovens.”

“Where? Where?” he cried and then he saw the orange glows in the distance.

“You can see them better on the way home. We’ll pass a little closer.”

They were parked on the hard black coal dust in front of Uncle Bug’s yellow, one- story wood frame house. But only the Christmas lights were on there. Instead they walked up the dark brick walk to the tall gray wood house where Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe lived with his other grandfather, granpap. Inside were Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella and their daughter, Beverly, who was Billy’s age. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella were there, too. They had a baby, a girl, named Carmen. Aunt Beatty had a baby, too, another girl, also named Kathy. Everyone said hello to him, and said how big he was getting.

Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella were the nicest ones, though Aunt Rella talked really loud sometimes. But she laughed a lot, too. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella talked a lot, and so did daddy when he was with big people, but Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe were quiet. They kept their heads down and didn’t move them much, they just moved their eyes.

After a little while, Walt took Billy down to the basement where granpap was. Granpap was very glad to see him. He had shiny black and gray hair, and when he smiled Billy saw gaps in his teeth. He looked at Billy a long time, his eyes shining and his face all bright. Then he joked back and forth with Walt while Billy looked around. There wasn’t much to see, and the ceiling was even lower than upstairs. Pretty soon they went back up.

The adults sat and stood in the kitchen talking with one another and it was not long before Billy was restless. He sat for awhile by himself in the living room, looking up at the low ceilings. His cousin Beverly didn’t talk to him but stayed with her mother and the babies. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to. By now he had to go to the bathroom, but it was a long time before his father would take him out to the outhouse. It was dark and cold and he was a little frightened, but he was glad he only had to do number one.

Daddy said he was old enough to go by himself but he would watch him from the door. He had his coat on but it was still cold. The porch light didn't go the whole way but almost. He opened the outhouse door and it was dark and smelly inside. He went as fast as he could. On the way back up the walk he could see daddy in the door, looking behind him and then looking out towards him. When he got back inside he noticed the pump that was now inside the house. Grandma in Youngwood had a pump outside in the back, but it was just for watering the garden. Here it was where all the water came from.

The adults were sitting around the kitchen table playing canasta and talking. He watched them for awhile.

“So does Santa know you’re living upstairs now?” Uncle Bugs asked him.

Billy wondered that, too. “Yes, he does,” Flora said. “We wrote to him, didn’t we, Billy? And now we have a real chimney for him to come down.”

“Is Father Stephen coming around this year? I mean, the Star Man?” Uncle Bill asked as they played.

“Father Stephen isn’t here anymore,” Uncle Joe said. “Not for a couple of years. The new one doesn’t do it.”

“He scared the hell out of me when I was a kid,” Uncle Bugs said. “With that big hat and long robe. I never knew the answers, either.”

“Well, he shoulda asked you about rabbit hunting, not religion,” Uncle Bill said. “You got the candy anyway, didn’t you?”

“He scared me, too,” Aunt Beatty said, “but still, it was kind of nice. The altar boys carrying that lantern with all the stars, you know, cut out so the light came through.”

“Hey, Billy, what does your other grandfather tell you about--whatshername--Befana?”

Billy looked at his mother but she was looking at Uncle Bill.

“Just what are you talking about, Bill?” Aunt Carmella said. “What do you know about Italian things?”

“I work with Italians,” he said. “This one guy told me that when he was little his mum and dad used to scare the shit out of him talking about Befana--or something like that. A witch. An old witch who comes down the chimney and leaves sacks of ashes and coal for bad kids.”

“That’s terrible,” Aunt Rella said. “Terrible thing to tell a kid on Christmas.”

“So?” Uncle Bill said. “I didn’t make it up. This guy told me.”

“Well, he must be Sicilian,” Flora said, and they all laughed.

Then Billy’s grandfather came up from the basement where he stayed most of the time and everyone gathered around the kitchen table, even Beverly. They all had little glasses and drank a toast. Billy’s glass had root beer in it. Then a big, very thin white wafer was passed around. Everyone wished each other a merry Christmas as they broke off a little piece of it and ate it. They said it was bread but to Billy it tasted like cardboard.

Then it was time to go. Flora got Kathy from the bed upstairs where she’d been sleeping. Kathy cried a little when Flora got her into her coat, but she fell asleep again as soon as the car started up. Billy was almost asleep himself when he suddenly looked up to see the coke ovens glowing on the mountain. It was like orange fires in caves, but all the same size. He watched until he couldn’t see them anymore. He felt himself falling asleep for sure now, but before he did he reminded mummy about the cocoa and cookies for Santa. She said she would remember.

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