Well, again I’ve reneged on my sincere vows of personal reform, both last night and this morning, and right before the eyes of my two precious daughters, eight and eleven, who looked upon my seizures with unblinking, dumbfounded eyes. Not that Lea is any stranger to fits. Lea’s very birth was a prolonged fit for everyone involved, given the last minute C-section by a doctor who looked like Dwight D. Eisenhower. And the poor child, according to my wife Casey, has inherited only my chromosomes. “Not a single gene from me in that girl,” Casey often laughs. “She’s straight out of her father’s forehead.”
Hmmm, I’m thinking, that must make me like an ancient Greek god or something. I argue the point with Casey and have so argued for over a decade . . . to no avail. I have noticed with the passage of time that just about everything is to no avail, including the lowliest of household duties, say, changing light bulbs. They blow and blow and blow; you waltz around like a dutiful Toby, change one, the next one dies, and by the time you get around to each one in the house, the first needs changing again.
“My chromosomes got lost in the deal,” Casey always says. “Where do lost chromosomes go? The old chromosomes home?”
“Maybe you don’t have any chromosomes, Cas, you know, like those people who don’t have brains but only cerebral fluid. They get by, make B’s in college, start families, watch tv, do cross-words. Instead of discrete little chromosomal packets, maybe you have some kind of protoplasmic smear in your system.”
“The old smear in the machine, eh? But that’s not the point. You went Italian in front of the girls. You’ve been very good about it, I agree, but how do you think they’ll absorb such a model? And at Christmas time, too. You ought to be ashamed and do penance. Like your hero Martin Luther, you ought to walk across a piazza of ragged bricks on your knees.”
I am ashamed and will do penance, but I don’t mention the occasional explosions of Casey herself, the usual paragon of calm. A slim Buddha she is, usually. But I know after all these fleeting years that no one can or will ever admit to their own lapses or defects. Or even change their minds when presented with incontrovertible evidence that, say, their entire worldview is wrong. Dare I add, especially women? They’ll fight you to the death first. The Martin Luther thing for instance. For reasons unknown, Casey chooses to believe that the monk is a hero of mine. The truth is I have no use for Martin Luther whatever, nor the entire Reformation, which, in my opinion, introduced boredom into the world.
And yet even I, who generously confess to my two recent outbursts, do so only to keep the peace, and because I know I should have spared my children. I should have locked myself in a closet or the bathroom or basement and thrown a full-fledged, calamitous tantrum. Yes, even in this merriest of seasons, as the snowflakes outside gently pirouette in the air, sashay, spiral and then sink to earth; even as chimes and bells and Christmas ditties reverberate throughout the house from every radio and television; even as we all feel a little uplifted (and totally depressed, of course) that the birth of the Savior approaches . . .
. . . yes, all too easy to fly off the handle in the seasonal commotion and bustle, when all you crave is to relax on the sofa with a rosy mug of egg nog topped with flecks of nutmeg and lightly spiked with brandy. And watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with the family . . . again. And savor the twinkling lights of the tree, trek outside in sub-Arctic wind gusts to fetch another log for the back room wood stove, listen with gladness to the roar of warm forced air through the ducts as well as the popping and crackle of logs as they prepare to combust.
And I know why I succumbed so easily last night. Around noon we had gone over to pick out a tree at Ye Olde Yuletide Christmas Tree lot, off Price’s Fork road, where you get hot cider with the deal. Lots of roads in this neck of the woods with the word “fork” in them. I’ve never got used to it. Where I was born and raised they named streets after Catholic saints and the seven deadly sins and colonial governors with names like Alexjando O’Reilly. The deepest South, an exotic creole port, where anything below thirty-two degrees incites collective fear of the next Ice Age. And last week the accursed Jet Stream had dipped to encompass the mountainous region of Virginia where we live. The wind chill registered in single digits, and the wind itself chewed through your multi-layered apparel like spiteful rodents. I was miserable. My toes felt frozen. The hot cider lost its caloric advantage within minutes. But Casey and the children waded merrily among the aromatic trees and finally chose THE one.
The attendant, a gruff young man who wore only a sweat shirt and dungarees—he didn’t even have on socks beneath his ankle boots!—yanked the tree from its stand and was about to haul it off to be bagged. “Wait,” I said, “let me take a look at that trunk.” After one too many a flawed trunk, you notice such things. You take pains, make scenes, anything to avoid another bit of trouble. Casey and the girls frowned and moaned. “We’ll have a time with this trunk,” I said. The bottom branches are too low. It won’t fit in the stand.”
“Can’t he just trim the trunk?” Casey asked, as if the guy weren’t standing right before us holding a tree.
“Can you just trim the trunk?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said in a faintly pissed-off way. I stress faintly only because I would have been pissed off holding a tree on such a day and then having someone request that I thin out the trunk with a chain-saw. It’s his job, I assuaged myself. Everybody asks him. Except, of course, the rugged lumberjacks who do it themselves with their own chain-saws. I own a chain-saw but it terrifies me. Too many grade-B movies on the subject. Besides, the chain loosened up last year when Casey and I spent hours on the roof during an ice storm cutting to bits a thick, dense pine limb that had cracked and landed squarely on our shingles. I have no idea how to tighten a chain and have no intention of reading the manual for instructions. For better or worse, I’ve given up on instruction booklets. Our chain saw may as well lie rusted solid at the bottom of the sea. The Titanic of chain saws.
The tree guy shaved the trunk a bit, then he and his co-worker or assistant inserted it into a funnel-like contraption; it shot out the other side bagged with plastic mesh and ready to be tied onto the roof rack of our SUV. Both attendants and I exchanged glances.
“Want us to tie it up there for you?” they almost asked in unison.
What the hell? So I’m not good with twine. “Sure, if you don’t mind,” I said.
By this point Casey and the girls had been back in the warm car for nearly fifteen minutes with fresh cups of cider. I figured the least I could do, what with two guys preparing to bind a tree atop the vehicle, was stand out in the cold with them, you know, macho camaraderie, shuffle around a bit, make a wisecrack or two, spit on the ground, show some support—I who would prefer certain diseases to coldness. The unwritten manly code requires that we males endure a lot of spurious suffering for no good reason, so I comply to a limited extent; but, as a poet once said, there is some shit I will not eat.
I’ll stand out in the ice and wind chill, shrivel in the Jet Stream for a while, but after that you can take the manly code and shove it up some burro’s arse. My manliness for a heating pad! Endurance implies misery, unhappiness, stalwart fortitude; you don’t find anyone exhorting you to endure too much rapture, too many orgasms, bliss or peace of mind, do you? So I’ve had it with endurance. Does this make me suspect, a ninny, what my grandfather used to call a “fruit man”? If so, voila, behold the supreme suspect, ninny and fruit man. The only coldness I accept at this point is a plastic bag of ice cubes in the freezer; and I won’t get too close to them either. Ice cubes are to be looked upon with suspicion. Don’t they accrue by a mysterious process called crystallization? Suppose it gets out of hand? So do with me as you will. I have transcended endurance and chosen comfort, warmth, hot cider and heat ducts. Go wrestle the Jet Stream if that’s your trip. Jet Stream, Martin Luther . . . what’s the difference?
So we got home and decided it best to leave the tree confined within its mesh while working it into the stand. Last year’s stand had disappeared from the face of the earth (another recurrent phenomenon in our house—things disappearing off the face of the earth.) We searched from attic no basement, no stand; so off to Walmart we drove to shell out still more money for a new one. Casey picked it out, and I went along, because it’s so much easier to go along. But I had my doubts. “Hmmm,” I said, “think it’s a little too large?”
“The tree’s got bulk,” she said. Which was true. We don’t go in for redwoods or sequoias. Just nice, tidy, you might say, cute medium-sized trees.
When we returned I could see right away that the four inches of trunk would never reach the bottom of the stand, but figured, what the hell, maybe I’ll luck out, and started to twist the screws into place. After a while, of course, you need a pair of pliers. And you’re down, flat on the floor in unbelievably contorted positions, stretching sinews that have been ignored since the previous Christmas. What with my bad knee and lower back, I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing: like lying in a hammock on some Caribbean beach, for example. But no big deal, really, I mean, screwing in four tighteners with a pliers. Not like digging ditches or lifting boulders. Casey held the tree in place as I tightened, and then, when all seemed secure, I asked her to let go. Here’s where basic faith comes in. For that split second or so when you imagine both the best and worst. And, ah, the tree actually stood in its rickety stand, a bit wobbly maybe but stand it did on its own. “Ok,” I said, “let’s cut this mesh off and see what happens when the branches flare out.”
Of what kind of infernal plastic is Christmas tree mesh composed? It required a wire cutter, and then snipping just about every quarter-sized loop from top to bottom. I’ve noticed that over the years plastic has taken a quite sinister turn. Once tearable with the bare fingers, now you need heavy duty equipment to get through it. Soon it will be blow torches. Anyway, I cut through all the loops, pulled the netting up and over the top, the branches flew out everywhere, and—evil tidings!—down it came, right on top of me. “Pull it off, Casey!” I cried, which she did, but only after a moment or so, I noted. Wait until a tree falls on her! (Actually, a tree has never fallen on her, but about a month or so ago when we were out walking, something whipped out of the sky and smacked her in the forehead. An acorn! Beware of acorns dropping at high velocities. They accelerate and cause pain, not to mention bruises. We took it as a very bad sign indeed that a lone acorn chose to boomerang off Casey’s forehead.)
When I raised myself from the floor—here’s where the first fit occurs, an almost subliminal iota in spacetime between my rising and taking one step toward the kitchen—my foot, clad in an old ragged Nike, happened to get entangled in the wretched netting that I had previously tossed onto the floor. One tends to forget all about plastic netting tossed upon the floor. We have hardwood, not carpeting, so my shoe, with worn-out, glistening, slippery soles, started to gain momentum vertically, started, that is, to launch itself above ground level, whereupon I began to slip backwards; luckily, I saved myself by some adroit maneuvering with the other foot. But that first foot refused to come free of the netting, no matter how much I shook it. And shake I did until the frenzy of shaking inspired the mesh to wind itself around my ankle as well as my shoe, and it seemed at the moment that it was possessed by demons intent upon subduing me and sending me straight to hell. Whereupon I lost it, screamed “Satan!” shook the netting even more ferociously and tore at it with both hands, in effect hopping around the floor on one unsteady foot while trying to extricate myself from pure evil.
And it is this sight that my two lovely daughters beheld: their father going berserk over a shroud of stinking plastic, a gridwork really, of mostly octagonal holes, yet solid enough to defeat anyone stupid enough to wear a pair of slippery shoes when putting up a tree, i.e., myself. Lea dropped her jaw, her younger sister Bee dropped an ornament which shattered upon the selfsame hardwood floor, and Casey looked upon the scenario with a look I know well, the, he’s done it again look. Then they all burst into nervous laughter, and Lea, no stranger to the state of being overwrought, cried, “Daddy’s having a fit!”
“Had,” I corrected, seriously, solemnly, for by this point my tribulation was history. I had managed to pull off the netting, wad it into a detestable ball and toss it into the trash can in the kitchen, where I had been heading in the first place. No one heard me whisper the second “Satan!” as I dumped the plastic, but if they had, they would have used it against me, just as I knew in my most primitive blood that I would not hear the end of this ephemeral saga until my dying day. Problem with fits, public fits anyway, is that you lose your leverage. No more could I chastise Lea, or Bee or even Casey for future tantrums or seizures of fits of their own. Like a sanctimonious minister caught with his finger in whatever pie you choose to bake, I had abruptly lost credibility. I could always wait a few months and hope they’d forgot about it, but not likely; it’s always our weakest points, when we’re in our throes, that people most vividly remember. No one notices the elastic until it snaps.
I was soon out returning the over-sized stand to Walmart and scouting around for something more suitable, after having unscrewed and cursed the hooks, shoved the entire apparatus into its box and somehow found the missing receipt (it hadn’t disappeared off the face of the earth yet). To be brief, I found another stand, drove home in howling wind and some atmospheric trauma I guess you could call sleet, repeated all of my hitherto motions, and got the tree up free-standing on its own. But by then it was too late to decorate and the little girls went to bed frustrated and disappointed. Casey did manage to string the lights, however, and afterwards we both sat on the sofa, in the dark, and enjoyed the little glowing dots of white. We almost fell asleep then and there, but things to do, things to do, so many things to do before retiring for the night in kerchief and cap.
The next day, the last day of school before the holidays, I led the girls out of the door, and we carefully descended the two sets of steps, both coated with frost, only to find that the entire car was smeared, glazed, enameled with ice. The usual scraper kept in the trunk had disappeared, and I had nothing to wipe the windshield with. We were already late. I tried Kleenex but the tissues simply disintegrated. I used the edge of an old styrofoam coffee cup to dig in. I hacked at it with my car key. I tried my fingernails, even my elbows. The ice seemed invincible. Credit card! It cleared a portion of the glass so I could drive, and I also managed to create view-holes in the two side windows. School wasn’t far away, so I figured I would drop the girls off in time, creep back home and ransack the back shed in search of the official scraper that had vanished.
And thus commenced my second fit of the season. I had indeed cleared three peepholes, enough, if I drove carefully, to get us to school. I do not understand the physics of condensation or caloric exchange or temperature differentials or even the properties of glass; all I know is that within seconds after starting the ignition, the peepholes fogged over both inside and outside the car. I flooded the windshield with wiper fluid but it transformed instantly into a kind of plasmic membrane. Two feet up the road and I couldn’t see a thing. I pulled to the curb, scraped again with the credit card, made new peepholes, got back into the car . . . and the same thing happened all over again. You’re in the middle of the road, inching along at one mile per hour, and you’re totally blinded by the shenanigans of frost and ice. You don’t like it; you have two little girls in the car. I crept along to the corner, turned, straining my head in every possible direction for a view, and suddenly, of all things, the sun blasts through the windshield and truly blinds me. My eyes are painfully sensitive to light.
“I can’t see!” I screamed. “What’s this shit all over the windshield. The sun! The sun! I’m blind. We’ll crash! I can’t see!”
Then I heard Lea whisper to Bee, “Daddy’s having another fit.” Bee giggled. What innocence! Not to gauge the danger in driving blind!
“Stinking ice!” I cried. “Nothing like this where I come from. We have hurricanes. Give me a hurricane any day; they’re warm. Ice, you can’t deal with ice! It knows no mercy!”
I hear the girls titter again.
“It’s not funny,” I declared. “This is how wrecks happen. I’m pulling over to the side and we’ll just have to wait until everything melts, IF it melts.”
“We’ll be late, Daddy,” Bee said with sudden concern.
“Blame the ice! And the sun! Imagine, contradictions—ice and sun—skewering you at the same freaking moment!”
By this point the defroster was cutting through the inner glaze a bit and if I hunched way down with my eyes peering only an inch or so above the wheel, I could actually see. So I pulled out and proceeded again; we turned a corner; the sun returned full blast! Blind again. “I can’t drive if I’m blind!” I nearly howled. Back to the curb after flapping the visors every which way. Then I notice a plastic shovel on the sidewalk beside us. It’s handle had broken off, but I didn’t need the handle. I jumped out of the car, snatched up the shovel and began grinding it across the windshield. I pushed with a vengeance. And, lo, much of the ice and muck simply fell away.
Back in the car, I wiped the inside condensation with tissues and, get this, my sleeve. The windshield was actually clearing, but I didn’t dare shoot it again with wiper fluid. And thus after three or so minutes we were creeping along the road again, the sun dark behind a cloudbank for the moment, and all seemed slightly normal. Things got better as we proceeded, until, finally, I managed to drop off both girls, only modestly late, and head back home, determined to raid Advance Auto Parts for some kind of chemical that would destroy ice instantly and permanently, and buy some dark, dark sunglasses to block out the potent early morning sun. What I wanted to do was crawl back into bed and plunge into the bliss of unconscious darkness, but . . . Yuletide, many last minute gifts to buy, packaged bows for presents, gift bags, much to take care of, the merriest of seasons.
Casey picked the girls up that afternoon, and the first thing they told her was about my new fit. “Daddy hates ice!” little Bee exclaimed. Of course they were intent on reading Casey’s reaction, hoping she would chastise me, I suppose because they themselves had been chastised so often for one fit or another. Since misery loves company, I plunged once more into shame and contrition.
“Well?” Casey said. That’s all. Amazing how many distinct flavors the word “well” can take, the countless permutations.
“Well,” I said.
“The sad thing,” she sighed, “is that you have nothing to complain about. Think if you’d been blown apart in Iraq and came back with no limbs. Or suppose you were a victim of the Taliban, and who knows what those people do to the genitals of their enemies. Hell, look what we’ve done to them! What if you lived in the Sudan and were exterminated? Had a dread disease?”
I tried to remind her of Freud’s explorations in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. I cited the latest research on stress-induced maladies: it’s the accumulation of minor crap that counts, not the Apocalypse. I reminded her of a former Surgeon General’s report that any movement at all damages the system, the implication of which is that we should become trees.
“Trees sway in the wind,” she sighed. “Imagine how stressful that must be.”
“Yeah,” I said, “or being a tree in an ice storm. Can’t even run for it. Forget trees.”
Casey didn’t make much of a deal over the second fit, which disappointed the girls, but I, I wallowed in guilt. And the girls taunted me all day. “Remember your fit this morning, Daddy?” they would chirp, ambushing me as I puttered about the house. Oh, how children are so eager to torture.
That evening I gathered Casey and the girls together in the living room and informed them that atonement was in order, that my remorse over losing control felt like a set of sharp teeth pecking at my heart. I needed negative reinforcement, I explained, some painful lesson that would keep me in line. Like a flagellant of old (except that I was physically incapable of whipping myself with switches of barbed wire). “If you send a jolt of voltage through an earthworm traveling through a maze,” I said, “the earthworm will soon learn that one path leads to pain and suffering, while the other, voltage free, leads to equanimity. This is science, not me talking. If it works for earthworms, well . . . .”
“So what exactly is the point?” Casey asked guardedly.
“I know this will sound bizarre,” I said, “but I want you, my beloved family, the three people I cherish most in the world, whom I would die for . . . I want you to, well, how can I put this delicately? I want the three of you to beat the living shit out of me. I mean it. Not just horsing around. Be the Taliban. You caught me. I’m suspect. I’m a spy. Now I’m in your hands. See what I mean?”
Casey, Bee and Lea looked at me as they might a cactus.
“Are you all right, Daddy?” Lea asked.
“I will be,” I smiled, ever more enthusiastic.
“Why don’t you just hire that guy on Ebay who for the highest bid will come over and thrash you to a pulp?” Casey asked.
“No, it has to be the people I love and who love me. If some stranger shows up and lays you low, what’s the lesson? You take it as ultra bad luck and wind up looking over your shoulder every moment. You start packing a rod wherever you go. It’s not the same. But just think, if your loved ones really punished you, you might just reform.”
“You really believe this garbage?” Casey asked.
“Daddy wants us to beat him up,” the girls laughed.
“Yes, like I believe that the moon revolves around the planet and that the planet revolves around the sun. I can’t prove it. I just believe it.”
“I don’t know,” Casey shook her head.
“But I do!” I said.
“You want the three of us to beat the shit out of you.”
“Yes, it’s the only way.”
“Not a game, I mean, really hurt you.”
“With our hands or with weapons? You know, like clubs.”
“Soft weapons would do. No hammers or swords or brass knuckles. I mean, I don’t want to die.”
“Like, say, yardsticks or rolled up magazines or shoes?”
“Well, moccasins maybe. No steel-studded boots, though. Come on, you know what I mean.”
“Well, girls, what do you think?” Casey said.
“Let’s beat him up!” Lea cried.
Casey gathered them in her arms. “Girls, Daddy is serious. He thinks this will help him. It’s not like when we play around with the empty paper towel roll. This time, we pretend Daddy is a really bad man, a burglar, a criminal, a monster, and we beat him up good. No holding back. You know, he may be right. We’ll cure him of fits. What do you think, girls?”
The girls looked at each other, raised their eyebrows. Sweet little things, they had their doubts.
“Bee, Lea,” I assured them, “Don’t think of it as being mean or hurting me. You’ll be doing me a wonderful favor.”
They nodded sadly.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t be sad. This will be a very good thing. You’ll be helping me.”
“Can we kick you too?” Lea asked.
“Sure,” I laughed, “break a few ribs.”
“No, Daddy!” Bee cried, Bee, the sweetest of the sweet, yet a regular cannon ball once set in motion.
“Bee, this is for my own good. I’ve got to stop having fits over nothing. I have a fantastic life, a wonderful family . . . not much money, but enough. I should thank God every day for what I’ve got, but what do I do? I whine, complain, have fits. Do you understand, little girl?”
“Does she understand?” I asked Casey.
“She says she does. Are you sure this is what you want? Because let’s just get it over with, ok? And don’t come crying to me over bruises and lacerations. Maybe a concussion.”
“I’m ready,” I declared, “I ask only that you spare my eyes. What good would I be begging on the streets with an accordion and tin cup?”
“You’re sure?” Casey asked with tentative finality, offering me one last exit.
“I’m sure. If you don’t, I’ll have fits every single day. I feel one coming on as I speak.”
“Ok, girls,” she said, “let’s give your daddy the beating of his life.”
I arose from the sofa, walked to the middle of the room and sank to my knees like an ancient supplicant.
“When I close my eyes,” I said. “That’s the signal. And please spare my eyes.”
For a long, tense moment nothing happened. Then I heard shuffling; they were positioning themselves. And suddenly they came at me, my daughters, my wife, my beloveds . . . like wolves. The first blow, a jab to the back of my head, a slap; then a rather gentle jab at the kidneys, someone’s foot I believe, followed by whacks to my already enfeebled spine, my chest, forearms. They kicked and punched, bashed me with soft implements, bit me, pulled out some hair, they just about knocked me over. As I collapsed to the floor, I knew I would have wounds—bruises, scratches, a minor laceration here or there. All the same, they had restrained themselves, let me off easy, could not go for the jugular. They could not bring themselves to injure me beyond the mere formality of my request. Which meant I would have more fits. Which meant that they loved me despite my fits. I could have burst into tears when Bee asked, “Are you all right, Daddy?” I rolled over on my back and saw them towering above me, cardboard tubes from rolls of paper towels clutched in their hands.
“Torquemada would not have used cardboard tubes,” I said.
Casey laughed; the girls took her cue and also laughed. A merry moment in the homestead, a private, happy, ephemeral deliverance.
“Did we beat you up good?” Casey asked.
“Nah,” I said, “but maybe that’s the better lesson. Now if I verge on a fit maybe I’ll feel too guilty to let it get out of hand. Maybe mercy is greater than punishment after all. But guess what. You’d all better run fast because now I’m coming to beat you up. Give me those tubes!”
As I arose from the floor, they scattered, screeching and squealing and laughing, into different rooms. I picked up the fattest tube and beat it steadily into the palm of my free hand.
“I’m coming!” I growled. “Do unto others! Prepare to suffer!”
They were hiding, giggling, but I would find them, smack them on the head a few times, then hug and cling to them as if my life depended on it. For I know the time is short. Time is always short. Just yesterday the girls were infants in bassinets, and Casey, ah so young, and I, well, younger anyway. ‘Tis not the season for fits, for dismay and howling. That season may come, but by then it will be too late and the light we saw yesterday will have streaked across another universe.