The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
It’s not the most wonderful time of the year. If that upsets you, I suggest you stop reading right now. Go and enjoy the holiday season. This is not a story about Christmas.
Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I apologize but I can’t promise it won’t happen again. This is a personal essay, after all, and personal essays are like Christmas trees. A personal essay is what happens when you stand the corpse of a truth in your window for everyone to see and decorate it with blinking lights and shiny ornaments.
So allow me to make a correction. This is absolutely a story about Christmas. It’s about music and family and cocaine. There are two main characters, and they’re both pretty lonely.
It’s also important that I mention that this is not a story about me. This story happened to a friend of mine. His name is Don. Don JeVore. He’s an old friend. We talk occasionally. He told me this story, long ago, over a couple of pints of seltzer water.
Don is a typical American male. He drinks bourbon. He eats chicken fingers. He’s got too much of everything that’s not really good for him. He has brown hair, and glasses. He likes to wear t-shirts with ironic sayings on them like “I have a drinking solution.” Don is funny. Funny enough. Ask him to help you move and he’ll show up after the couch is in the truck. A nice guy? Don’t loan him books, though.
My friend was never the type of person to wish anyone a “Merry Christmas,” because his largely useless education got in the way. But he loved Christmas as a child because Christmas is for children.
The other person in this story is Don’s next door neighbor in a permanently filthy fifth floor walk-up in Queens. The guy is a classic weirdo: bump into him in the hallway and he’ll avoid eye contact and hiss.
Which I suppose isn’t that weird. New York City is a panic attack that charges rent. But Don thought his neighbor was weird, and you know that ancient saying, “weird knows weird.”
Don nicknamed his neighbor “The Phantom of 25th Street” because all he did was play piano. Maybe professionally, he was that good. He was almost Mozart good, or at the very least, Elton John good. His piano playing was the only thing that would lead you to believe he wasn’t a serial killer.
How his neighbor got a piano up the narrow staircase was a mystery to Don. Eventually, he concluded, the building was built around the piano.
He played, constantly, and sometimes Don had to throw shoes at the bedroom wall they shared to get him to stop. Which he didn’t. So Don would then scream at the wall he shared with The Phantom. That never worked either. Don’s usual last resort was pressing his forehead against the wall and trying to telepathically set his neighbor on fire.
Don would have called the police to complain about the racket, but that definitely would have invited interaction with law enforcement, which is a big no-no if your apartment smells like a bong swamp.
So this is a story about my friend Don, his neighbor, and Don’s dead dad. Everyone has a dead dad, and if you don’t, you will.
Don’s dad loved Christmas because all dads want to be Santa, the way little boys want to be Spider-Man or all little girls want to be Spider-Man.
But he also loved it — embraced it, huffed it, rolled around in it — because he grew up a poor preacher’s kid, and when you’re born with little, having something is everything.
Don’s old man sat him down the Christmas before he died and spun him a story about his childhood. Don was home for the holidays and stoned as his father suddenly, without warning, told him about the time there was a fire at the mine and he had to help his father, my friend’s grandfather, preside over nine individual funerals on Christmas day. There wasn’t enough ash for nine coffins. Christmas had been cancelled that year. They both sat across from the other silently, except that Don’s father was wheezing, because he had one lung, and, also, crying.
Don didn’t know how to deal with this spectacle. He didn’t even really know his grandfather. So he hid in New York City until he got the panicked call that his father had passed eight months later.
My friend was unnerved by his father’s death. To say the least. But he coped with it as best he could. Grief is like a snowflake. Each hurt is different. Special. Everyone deals with it in their own way. Don drank alcohol, and snorted cheap bags of cocaine. He smoked marijuana. His stitches were crooked but at least they kept the guts in.
When Christmas rolled around that year, Don decided to cancel the holiday. It hadn’t really hit him that his own personal Santa Claus had been hoovered up into the unknowable abyss until tinsel hung from street lamps.
Canceling Christmas seemed like a reasonable plan, and here’s how Don did it: No songs. No good cheer. No presents, no nothing. Tear up “Holiday Cards.” Ignore invitations to Christmas parties. This is how you cancel Christmas, if you’re interested.
When your friends ask what you’re doing for the holidays you tell them you’re flying home. Then you call your mother and tell her you’re too busy to visit. Adults are busy, mother. You’re an adult! Sorry about dad, but we’ll get through this, I love you, goodbye, you have to go sing Christmas carols. You hang up the pay phone, and walk to the liquor store. This is what you do.
On Christmas Eve, it’s total radio silence. No one in, no one out. You nail tables to windows, push the couch against the door, caulk up the seams in your heart. You bunker down. If you were planning on canceling Christmas, this is the checklist. This is what you might do. You might spend the silent night getting drunk and high, watching horror movies, eating pizza, masturbating numerous times. Then around ten you’d wonder what’s next, and storm out into the cold.
You’d stumble into the bar around the corner. The bar is open. Always open. There are people there. It’s warm. Windowless. A small man with long hair is sleeping at the bar. Don’t wake him up, you’d be warned. An old man is arguing with his vodka. A local who spends his day singing songs he makes up on the subway stares into the jukebox’s lights. After a few drinks you whisper into the ear of a woman with thin lips that you have enough blow for a couple of bumps off the tip of a door key while she rubs the inside of your thigh like a magic lamp.
This is you. If you were him, my friend, Don. That’s how he spent his Christmas Eve many years ago, and that’s how, if you were him, you’d spend your Christmas. This is what he told me. This is his story.
It’s two in the morning the day baby Jesus is born and he’s back home. He doesn’t remember how that happened. There are no messages on his machine and he realizes he succeeded. No one cares. He’s the last man on Earth. Almost extinct.
Don stumbles to the bathroom and as he vomits in his bathtub, he hears it.
That shitty song about the most wonderful time of the year.
Only it’s not being sung. It’s being played on a piano. Slowly. Each note deliberate, as if the keys were squirming and the player had to squint an eye and aim with a single finger. Don crawled from the bathroom, stood up, and stumbled to the wall, which reached out and caught him as he fell.
His neighbor was drunk and playing the worst Christmas carol in the history of Christmas carols. A loathsome ditty that kneels on your chest and insists that you smile and show your teeth. Each note was thick with anger and longing and secrets and they seeped through the wall.
My friend mashed his forehead against the wall and caressed it like a maternal cheek and drank in the off-key hammering, and became part of the plaster and concrete and wood of the apartment and slept until the following afternoon.
I called Don the other day. It’s been so long since he told me this story. He’s doing okay, I think. I wished him a “Merry Christmas” and he did the same. It’s that time of the year.