A person could try to destroy the holidays in Jennifer Aniston’s house, but they’d fail, crushed under the weight of wealth, comfort, pleasure, and what I’m sure are lots of crawl spaces where the Christmas offender could hide out if things got too heavy. East Texas mobile homes, on the other hand, are just waiting for a chance to host a rumble. And my Aunt Erma Jo’s double-wide trailer in Mineola, Texas, deep in the middle of trees and guns, was east enough of Dallas to keep bad city people away most other times of the year. It almost goes without saying that Christmas has no choice but to be ruined in that kind of place.
On Christmas Eve 1993, I brought along Anne, a college friend with no place to go for the holiday. She didn’t care that it was going to be a backwoods hillbilly event. She wanted free food and a place to sleep. We arrived late, nearly midnight, expecting we’d have to be quiet and not wake my parents and other relatives. Instead we walked in to a hoedown in progress that showed no signs of wrapping up.
My mother kissed me and whispered, “Sorry.” Everyone except her, my Aunt Erma Jo, and my oldest uncle, Ben, was drunk. Tennessee Ernie Ford carols rumbled out of the stereo. My stepfather, my pothead cousin, Martin, and my other uncle, Dick, were loudly discussing the problem of race. Their problem with race. It was agreed, they slurred from beer-disposal throats, that if they ran things then “the niggers and the wetbacks” would get shipped back to where they came from. Failing that, they’d find another way to keep them all in line.
Anne stared at me with horror and a smirk. I had warned her, the smirk said, but the eyes reminded me she was still freaked out. People who casually toss around the least acceptable skin-color epithets are fascinating on TV, even funny in that “look at what that idiot hick just said” way, but much less so when you’re outnumbered by them in real life. I was used to it.
“Welcome to the New Racism,” I whispered. “It’s exactly like the Old Racism. But for Christmas. Consider it their gift to you.”
“Is that your girlfriend?!” barked a short, round, troll-dollish woman seated on my Uncle Dick’s lap.
“No,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m your new Aunt Betty!” she yelled, extending her hand to both of us. “Why ain’t she your girlfriend?!”
“Because I’m gay,” I said. “But it’s cool.”
I had come out to my immediate family earlier in the year and had stupidly assumed that my mother had spread the word. I probably should have checked on the status of that one before showing up. I wasn’t informed that Uncle Dick got married either, so in hindsight it makes sense.
“Wow!” new Aunt Betty hollered, and then elbowed my uncle Dick. “You didn’t tell me that!”
“Nobody in this family tells me a got-damn thang,” croaked my uncle.
“Well, there you go,” I said. “That’s what it is.”
I didn’t speak again. I wasn’t there to start shit. And no one started it back in my direction, so I considered the matter closed. The drinking and loud n-wording resumed. Anne and I went to the living room area to unpack.
“They don’t know?” she asked quietly.
“I thought they knew,” I said. “Whatever. No one’s chasing us out with a rifle.”
“Not yet,” she said.
At 1 o’clock, following my mother and Uncle Ben’s lead, Anne and I went to bed, unrolling our bags by the tree, attempting to sleep through extended drunken race-war scenarios. The booming voices subsided around 3 when my Uncle J. D. shuffled to his room, guided by my Aunt Erma Jo. My cousin Martin found a couch and my stepfather passed out at the dining room table. My mother liked letting him do that because then he didn’t wake her by tripping over the dogs in their bedroom. Anne wisely brought earplugs with her and I hoped she’d fallen asleep, but I didn’t want to disturb her by asking. And when Betty and Dick got into their zipped-together sleeping bags, six feet away from us, I really didn’t feel like asking. Because that’s when they undid the bags and began to fuck.
When drunk people try to sex each other, it takes a long time. They enjoy themselves, I guess. But it’s not something you want to witness. It’s especially not something you want to witness your uncle and weird new wife doing next to a Christmas tree.
On that O Holy Night, I learned that during extremely drunken boning, responses tend to lag and orgasms fail, though the whale songs they belch to the world like perverted caroling would almost make you believe otherwise. Half horrified and half wishing I’d brought a tape recorder, I thought about waking Anne. Then I prayed that she wasn’t already awake.
Time became abstract. What was a minute? Did they go at it for twenty of them? Twenty times twenty? I lay motionless on the floor, silent, wishing for invisibility. A Manson family “creepy crawl” taking place right next to me would have felt more Christmassy.
The moaning died down, shifting gears to big-rig-engine blackout snoring until about 6. I slept badly and woke up immediately when I heard footsteps down the hall. In the evaporating dark, I saw the tall, lanky figure of my Uncle Ben walk into the kitchen. From my wide-awake spot on the floor I watched him in the stove’s low-wattage overhead night light. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a cast-iron skillet and a metal spoon. Then he stood in the kitchen for a moment, thinking about his next step. Then he took that step.
The sharp clanging of the metal spoon on the metal skillet is the reason autoworkers wear those big headphones to protect their ears on the line, and my Uncle Ben’s shouts of “Wake up! It’s Christmas!” might as well have been a murder victim’s cry. Anne screamed, terrified and disoriented, the way a person tends to do when she wakes up to angry shouts in a strange
almost-house. I bolted upright, shaken but not shocked.
“It’s my Uncle Ben,” I said. “The avenging angel.”
The cast-iron bells lasted several minutes, until every hungover person woke. Erma Jo went straight to the kitchen and invented hot biscuits and sausage gravy out of thin air. Anne and I ate them in greedy silence, watching everything, as eventually all the players found themselves in the same spots they’d occupied hours before, furiously drinking coffee, half-heartedly opening gifts, and calling Ben “a fucking asshole.”
Except for new Aunt Betty, who was all smiles and still happily drunk. She asked, “Is Anne your girlfriend?”
“No,” I said, my mouth full. “We’re just friends.”
I left out the reason why. It didn’t matter. I knew somewhere in me that I wasn’t ever
I was right. Two weeks later, my mother received a letter from Erma Jo. In the letter, my aunt told my mother that I had ruined Christmas by “running around telling everybody” that I was gay. The letter went on to say that, according to my Uncle J. D., a man my aunt usually obeyed, I was no longer welcome in their home. In 200 words I graduated from benign oddity to disowned. Now that’s how to ruin the holidays.
Dave White is the author of the memoir Exile in Guyville, is featured in the anthology Love Is a Four-Letter Word, writes for Movies.com and MSNBC.com, and contributes to KCRW’s UnFictional. Find him at imdavewhite.com.
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