I stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly cornfields, the barns with their hex signs. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and my folks and I were headed out to pick out a Christmas tree. Feliz Navidad blared into my ear from the stereo speaker directly behind my head.
“Anything you want to do tomorrow?” my mother asked from the front seat.
“I can barely hear you,” I yelled. She turned the music down slightly and twisted around to face me.
“You haven’t changed your mind about seeing your grandmother before you fly back, have you?”
“I told you, there’s no point. She’ll just prattle on complaining about her health and the Puerto Ricans like I’m not even there.”
“She’d be happy to see you.”
Don, my stepfather, stared straight ahead, tailgating every car into pulling over to let him pass.
The gravel parking lot of Unangst Tree Farm was nearly full. Screaming children ran around everywhere. My stepfather muttered to himself as he circled the lot, finally screeching into a spot and leaping out of the car as if it was about to burst into flame. My mother and I hurried to catch up with him as he marched directly toward the section of Douglas Firs. He pointed to the third one in the row and looked at my mother.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Spin it around,” my mother said. I took it and turned it slowly around, my hands instantly covered in sap. She looked at it critically, then nodded. “Looks good. Stay here and guard it while we go pay.”
Back at home, she put on the radio while we strung the lights. I counted six versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside within an hour.
“This song creeps me out,” I said.
“It’s not my favorite,” she admitted.
“Where’s Don?” I asked. “I thought he was going to help.”
“Oh look, my mother made these for me last year,” she said, holding up a pair of leering wooden Santas with feathers for beards.
“I know. They’re supposed to be earrings I think. I should just throw them out.”
She handed me one and we hung them both around the back of the tree, facing the wall.
After dinner I got a call from Sarah, whom I’d known for years but never been close to, though I’d always had kind of a crush on her. She’d told me to look her up when I was back in town. I’d left a few messages for her when I’d arrived, but she hadn’t gotten back to me until now.
“You busy?” she asked.
“Just finished trimming the tree with the family.”
“Great, we’ll come pick you up.”
An hour later the car pulled up and I climbed in to the back seat. A stocky man with glasses and a crew cut was driving.
“Hey buddy, long time no see,” Sarah said. She jerked her thumb at the driver. “This is my buddy Gabe.”
“Hi, Gabe,” I said. Gabe said nothing. A sign on the back of the passenger seat read “Hi, I’m Gabe, thanks for choosing me as your Uber driver. Help yourself to bottled water from the cooler, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your ride a pleasant one!”
“So where we going?” I asked.
“Strip club,” she said.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be fun,” she said, patting my knee from the front seat.
I opened the lid of the cooler. It was empty.
“Eight dollar cover for a Monday night?” I muttered. “This better be good.”
“It will be,” Sarah said. “That is if I don’t get kicked out again.”
“Don’t worry, it was a long time ago. They won’t remember me. Probably.”
I watched her from behind as we stood in line. Even in a baggy shirt and jeans she looked good. I forked over my eight bucks and looked up at the purple neon sign. “I think my dad used to come here when we were kids.”
“I think everyone’s dad used to come here when they were kids.”
Gabe bought beers for Sarah and himself and they both walked off, leaving me to fend for myself. The only whiskey they had was Jim Beam, so I ordered one and followed them to the rail. There were a few scattered people in the place, mostly guys with dates. A young woman was onstage in a black leotard, strutting to the techno music. A man’s voice started yelling something over the PA system and the woman snatched up the few bills lying around and vanished into the darkness. Another woman appeared in her place and started twirling lazily around one of the poles. She didn’t come anywhere near us or look in our direction.
“Aren’t they supposed to take their clothes off?” I asked. Sarah shrugged and took a slug of her beer. Two dancers had approached Gabe and were laughing at everything he said. I looked at Sarah. She was staring straight ahead with those huge, beautiful eyes that always looked a little sad, though right now they seemed more bored and unfocused.
“So what have you been up to since last year?” I asked.
“Well, my back’s fucked up so I’ve been out of work since June,” she said. “I go in for surgery after Christmas.”
“Shit, that sucks. You scared?”
She shrugged again. “I’m planning on developing a good painkiller habit.”
A new dancer got on stage. This one actually approached us, smiling. Sarah leaped up and shoved a few dollars down her top. The woman thanked her and looked at me expectantly. On her thigh was a tattoo of an old fashioned sewing machine.
“Nice sewing machine,” I said.
“You’re the first person to ever notice that,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised. I tucked a dollar into her panties and she blew me a kiss and shimmied off, once again without removing a single item of clothing.
“Where’s the men’s room?” I asked Sarah. She pointed to a glowing doorway way in the back of the room. I wove between the tables and ducked inside. By the door was a man wearing a red waistcoat and Santa hat. A small table was covered with mints and lotions and cologne samples. A glass fishbowl was stuffed with bills. Shit, I thought. Do I really have to tip this guy? Will he be pissed if I don’t? How much are you supposed to tip? I felt awkward just having him in the same room as me, and it took me a while to go. Finally I shook off and zipped up and before I could make it to the sink the man rushed over and squeezed a blob of soap into my hands from a dispenser. When I was done washing he handed me a paper towel.
“Thanks Santa,” I said, and dropped a dollar into the bowl.
“Thank you and a very merry Christmas to you, Sir,” he said.
I grabbed another drink on the way back. The woman with the sewing machine tattoo was chatting up Gabe. “He’s going save her,” Sarah said. “Just watch.” She took a long swig and leaned closer. “He wants to fuck me but he never will.”
“Well, there they go,” I said, as the dancer led him off into a back room somewhere.
“Told you,” she said. “God I’m tired.”
“Me too.” I wondered how much a cab ride back to my mother’s house would cost. We sat there in silence for a while. I couldn’t help but notice that Sarah was prettier than any of the women working at this place.
“You still talk to any of the old gang?” I asked to fill the void.
“Eh, they’re all pieces of shit. Except Troy. God I loved that guy. He’s married but he still calls me when he’s all coked up.”
“I know, everyone’s married at this point. Me, I can’t even get a coffee date. Just wait, you hit your forties and you turn completely invisible to the opposite sex.”
“Maybe you’re secretly afraid of commitment? Women can pick up on that stuff you know.”
“No… I mean, sure, I used to be when I was young. But I think at this point in my life, I’m ready to be with someone. It’s just there’s nobody out there.”
“Huh. Here, look at me.”
I looked at her. Her face was lit blue red blue red by the flashing strobes; it was as if she was standing beside a crime scene. She gently took my face in her hands and kissed me, one long, open-mouthed kiss on the lips. She pulled away and looked into my eyes and nodded, then sank back into her seat and stared straight ahead.
I felt like I had just failed some sort of test.
Just then Gabe and his dancer friend reappeared and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”
We all walked out to his car, where the dancer gave him a long, lingering kiss before heading back inside. Sarah insisted that I ride in the front seat. She sat behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. I took her hand for a moment before she pulled away. When I looked back she was passed out, her mouth open. I tried making small talk with Gabe but he merely grunted and eventually I gave up and stared out the window at the strip malls and fast food places.
“Someone had a good time last night,” my mother said with a smile as I shuffled over to the coffee maker. “Want some eggs?”
“Thanks,” I said, sitting heavily down at the kitchen table.
“Any thoughts on what you want to do today?” she asked.
“You know, I was thinking it would be good to go see Grandma. I mean, if you don’t mind driving.”
“Oh honey, of course I don’t mind. I’ll call to tell her we’re coming.”
“You know what, why don’t we let it be a surprise?”
I’d only been to the nursing home once before. The place was crammed with wreaths and wooden angels and all kinds of holiday crafts. The couches and loveseats were littered with tiny, frail bodies wrapped in blankets, staring at the televisions. When we got to my grandmother’s door, I hesitated.
“Go on, knock,” my mother said. I knocked.
My grandmother opened the door. Her look of bewilderment changed to recognition and she smiled. “Oh my goodness, would you look at who’s here!”
I bent down to hug her tiny, hunched frame and said, “We came to surprise you!”
Eh? You’ll have to speak up, kiddo, I’m just about deaf. Come in, come in. I’ve been working on the tree for my door.” She held up a jagged triangle of green construction paper. “All you grandkids’ names will go on the lights.” She spoke in a strange squeak, like a cartoon character.
My mother sat down with her on the bed and I sat in a little rocker splotched with magnolias.
“You probably noticed that my voice sounds funny,” she said. “The doctor said my spine is pressing against my voice box and from now on I’m going to sound like this. Ain’t that something?”
“I need to use your ladies’ room, Mom,” my mother said, patting her on her hunched back, and disappeared into the bathroom. My grandmother and I sat there in silence. She had a huge grin on her face. Piles of paper and knickknacks covered every surface of the room. Above the bed hung a tapestry of a lighthouse, its beam shooting out over the choppy waves that exploded against the rocks.
“How much do I tip a men’s room attendant at a strip club?” I suddenly asked her. I’m not really sure why I asked. It just kind of came out.
“What’s that?” she asked, the grin still frozen on her face. Just then the toilet flushed and my mother came back into the room.
“What did I miss?” my mother asked. My grandmother looked up at her, still smiling. My mother sat down and squeezed her shoulders.
“You’re such a good son,” my mother told me later in the car, patting my hand.
“I know,” I said, and stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly fields, the barns with their hex signs, stared out at the specks of snow that floated aimlessly through the air, too light to ever touch the ground.
About the Author: Sean McCollum
Artwork: Sean McCollum