Sure I felt like an asshole. We’ve all been in tight spots made us think about what assholes we are, gave us time to ponder. I had all night, and then some.
Seasonal work was the best I done last year, working for Mel’s Electronics for the Christmas rush. Black pants, black shoes, white shirt, a Santa Claus hat and red vest from Mel’s with a nametag read, “Happy Holidays! My name is Dean. Ask me a question!” Mel said a year ago was better, but far as I could see, they were raking it in.
It was late afternoon on December 23 that I rung up this lady’s purchase, almost $4000 mind you, and just happened to notice the address on her ID, 1255 Cold Canyon Road, because I used to live in an apartment at 1255 Canyon Boulevard, a different neighborhood altogether, believe you me. I hauled this big-ass flat screen Toshiba TV out to the lady’s Lexus SUV, which was chock-full of presents, and she says, “I got my shopping done just in time. We’re leaving tonight for a party at my in-laws and won’t be back ‘til late tomorrow. I’ve barely got time to wrap.” She gave me a two dollar tip, even though they’re not supposed to.
That night I couldn’t help thinking about all those presents. Mel’s gives seasonal staff a 10% discount, whoop-dee-do, and I bought my girlfriend Jolene an itty bitty Coby TV for our bedroom, but it didn’t amount to much, and that big Toshiba sure would look good on the living room wall, you know how people hang them up like pictures now? And I was thinking this lady’s got insurance for sure, and it’s not like the TV belongs to anyone yet. Or the iPods with Memorex Speaker Systems for her kids, or the Sony HD Camcorder for her husband. That was just what she bought at Mel’s. Who knows what else was in the car. I’m figuring, they haven’t even opened their presents and got time to get attached to anything. They can’t miss what they don’t even know they’ve got.
So I decide just to swing by and look at 1255 Cold Canyon Road, just take a look at the house and the neighborhood. I wasn’t planning nothing, just thinking on it, taking a drive.
Well you wouldn’t believe all the Christmas lights and decorations. Deer made out of lights in the front yards, Santa in his sleigh with a load of presents, all lit up red and green. Long paths lined with giant light-up candy canes. Big houses. Big yards. Lots of trees. 1255 Cold Canyon was set way back from the road, and without thinking I just zipped up the driveway with my headlights off, figured I could always say I had the wrong address, that I was in the neighborhood to hook up someone’s new TV. They’ve got that service at Mel’s and other places, and some of the help do it on the side, slip the customer their phone number when they load stuff in their cars. “If you have any trouble at all with installation, please just give me a call, ma’am. I can fix you up for less than Mel’s will charge you.” I never done that, mostly because I wasn’t sure I could handle all those cables and directions.
I sit in the car for a spell, drinking a beer.
After a while I open the car door real quiet, then freeze, wondering was there a dog. But I didn’t hear nothing. The house was dark, with just one little light in the entry hallway, shining through the thick glass panes in the door. No porch light, no lights anywhere else. I walk through the unlocked side gate into the back yard, just cogitating, scoping it out. I bang into the recycling bin, which gives me a scare. But the neighbors are much too far away to hear or see anything so I figure I’m safe. Someone down the street’s got a repeating tape of Christmas music to go with their Christmas decorations, “Jingle Bells” to “White Christmas” to “Deck the Halls” to “Silent Night” back to “Jingle Bells,” where it starts up all over again. That would drive me crazy. I’m just as glad I don’t live in this fancy neighborhood.
House this big must have a burglar alarm. I’m thinking how would you get into a house like this without using a door or a window. It’s not like I wanted to rob the whole place. I just wanted to scoop up those presents and run, wouldn’t take more than a few minutes tops.
Well Santa must have been on my mind, because it just come to me. Why not the chimney? Chances are the tree’s set up right by the fireplace and the presents are all there for the taking. I was always a good tree climber when I was a kid, and I look around, and sure enough there’s a tall pine tree I knew I could climb. I’d already had a few beers and a peppermint schnapps at home and probably wasn’t thinking my clearest. Hadn’t really thought about how I’d get the presents out without opening a door or window.
I climb the tree. The bark’s all rough, and I get sap on my hands and scratches on my face from the twigs and needles. But it’s also kind of fun. It smells good, makes me feel like a kid again. When I get up there, it’s just a short jump onto the roof.
So I’m up there feeling on top of the world, congratulating myself on my climbing abilities and great idea. It’s a cold night, but not too cold, and the sky’s clear. You can see stars everywhere, and way far off, the lights of the city.
The chimney’s got some kind of grate on top, and at first I think I’ll have to give up my plan. Wondered for a bit if I could saw a hole in the roof instead, but of course I don’t have a saw. But then I feel around, and the grate’s got four screws on the corners and it turns out you can unscrew them with a quarter, which I do, feeling pretty smart. Looking down, the chimney is kind of scary dark, but the opening looks big enough, and I figure I’ll feel fine once I’m in the living room looking at all those presents.
I picture Jolene watching “American Idol” on this big screen Toshiba in our living room, painting her toenails like she does, calling out to me, “Come in here. You got to see this, Dean.” The two of us cuddling on the couch, her sitting with her feet across my lap, cotton balls between her pretty toes.
Or me kicking back with some of the guys for a football game, pizza boxes and beer bottles all over the coffee table.
“Jeez man, where’d you get it?”
“It was a floor model at Mel’s,” I’ll say all modest. “Discontinued. You just got to be in the right place at the right time for a deal like that.”
I get a good grip on the sides and lower myself into the chimney. Turns out there’s a ledge not too far down where I can rest my feet. I angle my butt against the side and reach down to grip the ledge. Wish I’d thought to bring a flashlight, but none of this was exactly planned, know what I mean? I can feel soot rubbing off on me, especially where I’m all sticky from the sap. I don’t know how I’m going to explain that to Jolene, and it’s getting darker as I look down. There’s a goddamn bird nest on one corner of the ledge, but at least there’s no birds. I’m farther down, barely holding onto the ledge with my fingers now, squeezed inside the chimney, feeling around with one foot, then the other, for another toehold. The chimney’s narrower below the ledge. I’m wondering how far down it will be if I just let go.
So you know what happened. I slipped and got stuck in the chimney.
Newspapers say I was wedged in there for ten to twelve hours. I don’t know about that. I only know it was a fucking long time, and for hours and hours all I could see was a small square of night sky and stars above me, and only if I bent my head back, which gave me a crick in my neck but was worth it, since otherwise everything was black. I knew Jolene must be wondering where I was at, and my cell phone was in the car between the seats. Not sure what I would have said if I’d had it. “Honey, I’m stuck in a chimney?” I was thinking about all the dumb things I done, mostly with my high school buddy Roger, thinking this was a two-man operation, and if he’d been along, things might not have played out this way. And thinking how Jolene says I should grow up and maybe it was time.
The stars started to disappear as the light got gray, and then lighter, and then kind of washed-out blue with wispy clouds. By now I’m sober as a judge. Leaving the car in the driveway was a dumbass move, but at least they’d know someone was here, so it was a good dumbass move. “You won’t be here forever,” I kept telling myself, trying to keep my spirits up. Especially when I felt like I couldn’t breathe, with my elbows jammed against my rib cage like they were, and me fearing the worst. I’d suffocate. I’d fall asleep and crash down into the fireplace. Or they’d light a fire and I’d cook to death before anyone heard me calling out. Or the family would die in a car crash, and I’d starve to death here waiting for someone to find me. I closed my eyes sometimes, did this yoga breathing thing Jolene taught me. “Long exhales,” she said, “long slow breaths,” and I think that saved me much as anything. A few times I heard cars on the street and tried to yell “Help,” but it was like my voice didn’t work, and they were too far away anyway.
Finally, after what felt like days, I hear car doors slamming in the driveway and then kids’ voices in the living room. “Ho ho ho,” I shout out, my voice kind of squeaky. The kids are shrieking “Mom, Dad, Santa’s in the chimney!” and the lady from Mel’s is saying “Oh my God! Get out of there!” Everything’s quiet again.
It takes a while, but there’s sirens, then clomping on the roof. Two cops silhouetted against the sky, shining flashlights down the chimney. I was never so glad to see cops in my life.
The whole family’s outside on the front porch when they lead me to the squad car in cuffs. I couldn’t look that lady in the eyes. All I can think about is that two dollar tip and, “You really screwed up this time, Deano.”
“You have the right to remain silent.” Well I didn’t have much to say, did I? All night to think about it, and ponder other mistakes I’d made in my life, and I couldn’t even come up with an excuse for this one.
Jolene visits weekends, says she really likes snuggling in bed and watching that Coby TV I gave her. I hope she’s snuggling alone, that’s all. We’re aiming to marry when I get out, have kids, do the whole grownup thing. It’s time.
Author Bio: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay. Her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Ninth Letter online, South Loop Review, Southern Indiana Review, and Confrontation. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She teaches at California State University, East Bay and can be found online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.
Artwork: Alexandra Herrington