My mother had total control over the parlor in our house. Fifty one weeks a year that room was as lifeless as a museum display. My brothers and I weren’t allowed to touch anything. We were even afraid to sigh because Mom might ground us if our breath toppled any of the knick knacks on the coffee table. The old man wasn’t immune to her parlor wrath, either. He could smoke anyplace else in the house, but Mom would give him hell if she suspected that he was trying to smuggle a cigarette into the parlor.
Mom claimed she needed to keep the parlor on high alert in case company dropped by, but the only guests she ever let inside our house were the usual glum faced relatives who showed up on birthdays and Christmas.
My friends’ houses didn’t have parlors. Their front rooms had normal sounding names like living room, dining room and TV room. My mom thought parlor sounded classier than any of those but parlors gave me the creeps. The Rose’s were the only other family I knew that had one, and they were undertakers.
Mom tried to make our parlor look like the Early American rooms in the home decorating magazines she thumbed through when she got tired of reading “The Power of Positive Thinking” pamphlets she got in the mail every month. Because the “good” furniture was in the parlor, there were lots of other rules, besides not touching anything, that we had better follow.
No sitting on the wood framed sofa that smelled like mothballs and furniture polish. No rocking in the two high backed rockers with dry rooted spindles that Mom claimed were antiques. And no standing on the hollow plastic bricks that were on top of the fiberboard hearth that was stapled to the front of a fake wood fireplace.
But something came over Mom during Christmas week. The parlor looked like it belonged in someone else’s house. Carols poured out of the eight track player. Plastic snowmen and cardboard reindeer were taped to the brown paneled walls. Blinking lights and electric candles bathed the front windows in color. And of course, there was the tree.
I couldn’t decide which I hated more---the miserable mood that hung over the house most of the year or the souped up Christmas spirit Mom superimposed on it that week. But there I was, on the Friday before Christmas, waiting for the old man to come home from work. He was probably sitting on a bar stool drinking away his Christmas bonus. Normally I wouldn’t care where he was, but Mom wouldn’t let us decorate the tree until he got home.
I wasn’t going to wait much longer. While I plotted my escape, my younger brothers weren’t exactly sitting around with their hands folded. Mike wouldn’t stop running his mouth and Steve couldn’t sit still. We were on the verge of mutiny.
“Joey, why don’t you turn the tree a few times so we can make sure the best side is in front? Mikey, go put another Christmas tape on.”
The night before the old man had jammed the tree into a rusted stand with balky legs. That stupid tree got more crooked every time I turned it. Then Elvis started singing, “Blue Christmas.” With each unbearable note I got madder at myself for buying that tape for Mom last Christmas.
“Do I have to listen to this crap while I’m trying to turn the tree?”
“Nobody sings a Christmas song like Elvis. He can put his shoes under my bed any time.”
Mike and I groaned. Steve started dancing. Mom grabbed his hands and together they swayed around the boxes of decorations on the floor.
“Can’t we start, Mom?” I asked for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Daddy should have been home a long time ago.” When I shook the tree in frustration a small branch fell off. I kept shaking it, hoping to turn it into a Charlie Brown tree.
“Joey, the tree looks good where it is. Why don’t you see if the lights work? Plug them in in the other room, though.”
The sockets in the parlor were cracked. I had this nasty habit of shocking myself whenever I tried to plug something into one.
Mike closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then repeatedly jabbed at a socket with an invisible cord. Wincing, he fell on his butt and screamed, “Call the ambulance. I’ve been electrocuted.”
They couldn’t stop laughing. I muttered curses under my breath while I laid the lights out on the carpet near the bottom of the steps. Steve started dancing again. His latest gyrations were coming awfully close to my bulbs.
“Get the heck away from the lights, Fudd.” I’d called him Fudd since he was two because it didn’t look like he was ever going to grow any hair on his bald head.
Steve started crying. Mom put him on her lap and stroked the ringlets of brown hair that had finally managed to cover his scalp. “Let’s play a game. What’s the one thing you want Santa to bring you the most.”
“Santa?” I chuckled.
“Yes, Santa,” Mom replied. She still wouldn’t admit that there was no Santa even after Mike and I told her we knew she hid our presents in her bedroom closet.
“I want a dump truck,” Steve said. He got down on the floor to show us how he’d push one around.
“I want a ten speed bike,” Mike said.
“I want it to be December 26th. That’s my holiday. ” I said. It was quiet after that until Steve began jabbering about the red light he’d seen on his bedroom ceiling last Christmas Eve. Mom was sure he’d spotted Rudolph’s nose as the blinking beacon and the rest of the sleigh team waited on the roof while Santa shimmied down our fake fireplace.
“Rudolph? The sky was clear as could be last Christmas Eve,” I said.
“You know what I’d like for Christmas?” Mom asked. “I’d like not to find anymore surprises in the attic.”
Six eyes looked at me.
Five people shared one bathroom in our house. My bedroom door was a wood slab without a handle or a lock. I needed some privacy, so I went up to the attic to find it.
It was hot and musty up there almost all year round. If I forgot to duck I’d smack my head into peeling plaster that barely clung to the low, sloped ceiling. Stacked in the corners were boxes crammed with black and white photos, old baby clothes, and yellow newspaper. It was a mess, but it was like being in a soundproof box. I couldn’t hear anything going on downstairs, which meant they couldn’t hear me either. That made it the perfect place to jerk off.
One morning after I’d finished in the attic Mom sent me out to mail some letters. When I came back she was standing in the kitchen, holding a T-shirt away from her like she was about to drop it into an evidence bag or toss it into a dumpster.
“Guess where I found this?”
“How should I know?”
“In the attic. Ring any bells now?”
I was a terrible liar under the best of circumstances but I was even worse under pressure. “It’s dusty up there. My allergies were bothering me. I couldn’t find a tissue…”
“So this stuff is mucous?” Mom waved the shirt near my face like she was wiping my soul clean. “How dumb do you think I am, mister? I had three kids, remember?
When Mom told the old man what I’d been up to the only thing that upset him was that I’d gone up to the attic to do it. “Jesus Christ. You didn’t get any of that shit on my HO trains, did you? They’re worth money.”
I couldn’t go near the attic steps anymore without arousing suspicion. Whenever I wanted to be by myself I had to prop something against my bedroom door. That wouldn’t keep anyone out, but I’d get a bit of a warning if someone was coming.
Mom pulled the rocker closer to the window. When she rocked the spindles creaked like old bones. She watched the headlights come up and down our street. Once she stood up because she thought the old man was coming, but that car drove past our house too.
I was struggling with the lights. One stubborn bulb on one stupid strand wouldn’t come on. I borrowed bulbs from sets we weren’t going to use and plugged them into the spot that wasn’t working. If the replacements worked at all they usually caused the rest of the set to stop blinking. I was thrilled when I finally plugged one in and all of the lights worked.
“Okay. I guess we should get started,” Mom said. “Make sure you save the nest for your father.”
Everybody else put stars or angels on top of their tree. We put a green and gold nest with a mother bird and tiny eggs inside on top of ours. Maybe Mom thought the nest was classier than an angel or a star.
The lights clanged like cheap bracelets dangling from an old lady’s wrist as I hung them on the tree. I got mad when I ran into a little trouble and Mom told me to do it the way the old man did. I figured it out myself and the darn lights didn’t look too bad considering I’d never put them on before.
Once I finished with the lights we bombarded the tree with silver and red balls and candy canes wrapped in plastic. Steve stuck all of his decorations at the bottom near the front of the tree because he couldn’t reach very high and Santa always put his gifts there. Mike took his time, as usual. I must have hung ten balls for every one he put on.
Mom wouldn’t put the garland on until we’d run out of hooks and the only candy canes left were cracked in too many places to hang. She’d toss it on the tree and then back away to see how it looked. Then she’d tinker with it, moving the garland inside and outside the branches. No matter how much she fussed with it, the garland always ended up looking the same---thick globby rows that divided the tree into sections.
“Okay, I’ll turn off the lamp. Mikey, you plug the lights in,” Mom said.
The tree lights flickered but they wouldn’t blink. Mike jiggled the plugs and I shook the tree until they did.
“It looks like it belongs in Wanamakers,” Mom said.
“It’s still crooked,” I said. I crawled under the tree to straighten it, but Mom and my brothers begged me to leave it alone.
“We’ll deal with it in the morning.” Mom said. “Stevie, kiss your brothers goodnight.”
Steve kissed Mike on the cheek. Then he stood in front of me with his eyes closed and his lips puckered. I shook his hand instead. Out of habit, Steve ran to the old man’s recliner in the other room Mom followed and grabbed a few of her pamphlets off the table next to the recliner. “Don’t lock the door in case your father forgot his key,” she said. Steve and Mom held hands as they went upstairs. Mike was right behind them.
It was dark in the parlor except for the blinking lights. I stood in the middle of the room and stared at the tree, arms folded across my chest. The top seemed to get more crooked the longer I looked at it. The parlor began to feel as cold and lifeless as it did the rest of the year.
I went into the shed and took a wrench and pliers out of the old man’s toolbox. I must have adjusted the screws in that stand a thousand times. Finally, after inspecting it from every possible angle, I knew it was as straight as I could get it. I wanted everybody to see how good the tree looked, but before I could yell up to them a car began backing into the spot in front of our house.
I wasn’t going to hang around because I never knew what mood the old man would be in when he came home. I didn’t say anything to Mom when I passed her room. She was reading, but I figured she was probably memorizing the speech she was going to give him. There was a sliver of light underneath my brothers’ bedroom door. I could hear voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
The radiator in my room was cold again. The goddamn heat never reached the back of our old house. I tossed some books on my desk chair and propped it against the door. Then I slid under the covers and imagined I was in the attic.
Joseph Lombo’s work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Sub-Lit, Shine, The Northville Review, Chaffey Review, Word Catalyst, BAP Quarterly, The Wilderness House, The Write Room and Avatar Review.