A Caustic Christmas

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John recalls his last, disastrous Christmas at home.

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A Caustic Christmas

John lived in a small house on the outskirts of town. The building stood alone, a rather unusual oddity that broke the monotony of farmland. It was only a five minute drive into the city, but it might as well have been a thousand miles. John preferred it that way. He rarely saw another person, but when he did, he kept any and all interactions short and to the point. The postman had frequently tried to engage him in conversation, but had never gotten further than the pleasantries.

“Hi, how are you?” he would ask.

“Hi, thanks for the mail,” John would respond, rushing past.

Nobody came to call on him, frankly not many people knew he existed. It wasn’t always that way. Sadly, he recalled the last Christmas he spent at his parents’ house.

People crowded into the small apartment- more than was probably wise. The room was decorated with pictures. John’s parents were big believers in pictures. If it’s not framed and on a wall, it didn’t happen. That’s what their attitude seemed like to him, anyhow. The living room and kitchen were filled with people. His poor mother could barely squeeze past them to lay out food. He stood in the corner, occasionally venturing into the center of the room to refill his plate, munching quietly on crackers and cheese, trying to draw as little attention as possible. But, of course, a large gathering such as that one left him nowhere to hide when conversation did come his way.

A young woman, whom he recognized, but couldn’t for the life of him say from where, approached him and extended her hand,

“Hi, I’m Julia,” she said with a smile.

John did not smile back. “John,” he responded, spitting the word out as if even that single syllable was a great effort to him.

The girl either did not notice, or chose to ignore his obvious attempts to dodge the conversation.

“So, what brings you here tonight?” she pressed, after a moment of awkward silence.

John sighed. He pointed to the window behind her, “You see that window over there? You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it, but this is the only spot in the city where you can get such a fantastic view of the dump, and frankly I just can’t do that if you’re in the way, now can I?” he mimicked her smile.

She stepped aside, and turned away from him, her smile snuffed out. John relaxed back into the corner. His father approached him, a scowl etched into his face.

“That was incredibly rude. Inconceivable that my son could be so rude,” he admonished.

He was quite fond of the word “inconceivable” and used it at every available opportunity, in a fashion that irritated John to no end.

“What’s ‘inconceivable’ is that I even showed up to this hellhole. You may have convinced me to come, but you can’t force me to enjoy it.”

The big man’s scowl deepened. “Can you at least agree not to terrify the guests? We would like our new neighbors to think well of us, if it’s at all conceivable.”

John pursed his lips. “I think not, it’s more fun this way.”

His father’s face turned a deep shade of scarlet, “Fine, you hooligan,” he took out his wallet. “How much do you want to keep your mouth shut?”

John laughed. “I don’t want your money, pops,” he clapped him on the back, harder than was necessary. “No amount of money is going to equal the joy I get from terrifying your guests.”

He mumbled something about ingrates and disinheriting, but left without any further remonstrations.

The contrast between the people whom John had interacted with and those he had not was quite shocking. One could see it on their faces. Julia, as well as John’s father, walked around the room with their heads down, and drawn into their chests. They radiated no light, nor did they seem to have the energy for much more than acknowledgement of the people around them. Those whom he had not spoken to, however spoke with a gregarious nature, and exuded life. Their faces were warm and open, their hearts full of joy. John hated people like that.

It wasn’t long before it was time to eat. The small tink of spoon against glass served as the signal for the guests to gather round. There were just enough seats for them all, John’s mother had seen to that. Everything was just so, aligned at a 90 degree angle, and polished to a shine. The food was done exactly as the cookbook would have it, and was up to the standards of any professional chef one could care to name.

Conversation and laughter filled the room, the overwhelming joy and inherent goodness of the people in it drowning out the bitterness John had introduced into their midst. The woman seated next to John was approximately his age. The sun shone off of her glasses in an immensely irritating way. She smiled at him, and pointed across the table.

“Can you pass the butter?” she asked, precisely how one should ask for butter.

“Yes,” John responded.

She seemed confused. “Well?” she pressed.

John turned back to her. “Well, what?”

Her smile disappeared, “Pass the butter, please.”
John’s face opened in mock understanding, “Oh! You want me to pass the butter. You can see how that might be confusing, the first question you asked me was just if I could pass the butter. Which clearly I can.”

The young woman’s face twisted into a frown. “You know what I meant, though.”

John shook his head. “I had no idea what you meant. You were terribly unclear.”

The beginnings of a tremble appeared in her voice. “Why are you acting like that? I just want some butter.”

John spread his hands, “Acting like what? I’m not being unreasonable, you’re the one making a big deal out of butter and whether or not I could or should pass it.”

A single tear slid down her cheek, “Maybe I’ll just ask someone else, excuse me,” she left the table, and did not return. John put his feet up onto her chair.

The party had continued around them without much regard for this conversation. John’s parents however, had been watching with great intensity. His father rushed up to him.

“What did you say to her?” he hissed in his ear.

John shrugged, “I gave her a grammar lesson. Seemed like she could use one.”

His father put his head in his hands, “That was Rachel. We invited her here to introduce the two of you.”

John snorted, “I don’t need a matchmaker.”

His father clenched his fist, “You’re 20, son. You need someone. She’s a nice girl from a great family, why do you have to ruin everything.”

John turned to look at him for the first time, “Me, ruin everything?”

He stood. Some people stopped their conversations. Others stared, curiously.

“Which one of us just got fired from his job at the bank, huh?” John asked.

His father’s face reddened, “Son, I’m warning you--”

John cut him off, “You mean like the ‘warning’ you got from your manager right before you ‘quit’? How many people here know you were canned for stealing, huh?” John shouted, loud enough for the entire room to hear. Conversations stopped. People’s forks froze halfway to mouths. The silence was deafening.

The silence, in fact, was only broken by John’s father’s heavy breathing. He took a When he did speak, it was with absolute calm. “I took that money to bail you out of jail for the third time this year on assault charges. If I hadn’t, you would still be locked up today, and probably until New Year’s. But, maybe you’re right son. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that money. Maybe I should have just left you in that cell to teach you some manners!”

It was John’s turn to turn red. “Teach me? I’m not the one who needs teaching, I’m not the goddamned high school dropout. How long did you last? One year, two years? But you had time to knock up a ghetto whore. That’s how I was born into this world, in the goddamned gutter. At least I pulled myself out of it! You still live in the gutter. And you always will, pops. You always fucking will!”

Several people gasped. John’s mother’s face turned white. Glasses fell and shattered. John’s father stood trembling. When he did open his mouth, it was with the force of a category 5 gale,

“Ghetto whore?” he screamed. “How dare you? We scraped and saved everything we had to send you to college, that’s why we live in the ‘gutter.’ And look what you’ve done with it. On the verge of getting expelled, your third fight this year!” he was panting, the effort of projecting his voice draining his strength. “Well, you know what? No more! Out of my house, John! Get out! And don’t expect any more checks for your tuition. You can get a job, and your own house in the gutter. Find your own ghetto whore! Out of my goddamned house!” he shoved him into the door. He pressed into John, pushing the air from his lungs. John was stunned at first, but recovered quickly. He pressed his hands into the doorframe, bracing himself to push back. His father was a large man, but John was no weakling. He forced him back from the door, inch by inch.

The room’s occupants were shocked, but some had recovered enough by this point to attempt to intervene. Before they could cross the distance to the other side of the room however, the two men had reached the snack table. Both were trembling with effort, locked in place and unable to gain the upper hand. John managed to free his left arm, and drew back, allowing his father to gain leverage for a fraction of a second. Before he could make use of it, John struck him a mighty blow across the face, sending him tumbling over the table, plates, food and glass crashing to the ground with him.

He lay on the floor, blood leaking from his nose. John was panting, his hands on his knees.

“Fine!” he shouted. “I’m going. I don’t need you anyway! Either of you! Don’t bother coming to look for me!” He slammed the door behind him, and sprinted down the stairwell. He caught a taxi back to his dorm. It was paid up until the end of the month. There was no taking it away until at least then. He spent the next day and a half holed up in there, numbing himself with cheap booze and Law and Order reruns.

John’s job as a janitor at the local 7-11 wasn’t the worst form of employment he had considered, but it was far from the best. He hadn’t seen his parents since that Christmas day, and he had no intention of doing so. In fact, he had seen very few other people since moving into his small home. He spent his days mopping up vomit in the store by day, and puking it up at home by night. Hardly an entire day passed where he was sober. Fortunately, it doesn’t require great mental acuity to scrub floors and toilets. None of his co-workers knew where he lived, nor would they come to visit if they did. He was universally disliked, and had even been reported to his manager several times, the complaints varying in intensity from “Asshole” and “Impossible to work with” to “One of the least empathetic, most obnoxious human beings I’ve had the misfortune of working with. He lacks basic compassion, and it’s frankly shocking that he’s managed to live in civilized society as long as he has.” That last one did sting a bit when his manager had shown it to him, but in a way it was quite an accomplishment to have stirred up that level of anger from a mere acquaintance.

There was little variety to his monotonous life. That particular night, John was sitting in front of his small TV, draining the last drops from his bottle of beer. He had seen the particular episode of SVU he was watching several times over, but the alternative was Wheel of Fortune, and he refused to watch that show on general principle. It was nearing midnight when his body finally rejected the level of alcohol he had poured into it. His stomach, and then his throat warned him of impending disaster. He ran into the bathroom, and emptied the contents of his stomach into the toilet. When he had wiped his mouth, and cleaned it as best he could, he collapsed onto the sofa, and into unconsciousness with the TV still blaring. He knew on some deep level, even as he slept, that soon he would have to wake again, too early, and start the process all over again.

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