By Dashiell Walraven
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If cooking is the canvas upon which my mother paints, then Christmas Dinner is her defining work. She starts planning it in August, and by the time Halloween rolls around, all the staples are garnered into the pantry in preparation. Those who have never enjoyed Christmas goose, as lovingly prepared by my Mom, have truly missed something. The massive ovens in the kitchen of the lodge, perfectly suited for the large birds, ran all day long, releasing tantalizing wisps of deliciousness every time Mom cracked a door to peek inside. On the burners bubbled pots of boiling potatoes, beans, turnips. Plump piles of dough for fluffy dinner rolls proofed beneath towels over steel bowls; the air in the kitchen was moist and yeasty smelling, fogging the cold window on the back door.
The guests and their children worked joyfully throughout the day to transform the great room into a gaily festooned wonderland. Garlands of pine boughs and ribbons draped along the rails of the second and third floors, and one down the stairs. Tinsel and lights sparkled in the branches of the huge tree that sat opposite the fireplace; ornaments of glass and tin swung on wire hooks to catch the light. Dad had rigged a record player to speakers hung on either side of the room and it was normally my job to load the changer up with five albums at a time. With Mom's collection of Christmas music, there was little chance of running through it all in one day. Brian Coopersmith assumed the task gladly, and undertook selection of each album with great consideration.
By the time Neal and I came back to the lodge, dinner preparations reached their zenith as bowls of food started to make their way to the tables. With everybody in their seats, Pastor Dave stood and raised his hand. A great silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire, as we collectively bowed our heads.
"Heavenly Father," Pastor Dave said earnestly, "heed the prayers of your flock, as we give thanks for the fine feast we gather to partake of your bounty. Bless this feast before us, that it may nourish us body and mind, just as your boundless and matchless grace nourishes our souls. As we celebrate the birth of your only son, Jesus Christ, we take a moment to remember those who cannot be with us tonight, and pray that you take them under your protective care. Father God, we especially pray for Garrett and his parents tonight, that healing be swift and complete for him and all those who hurt with him. We pray all these things in Jesus' name, Amen."
"Amen" came a heartfelt chorus from around each table, soon followed by a rising tide of clinking and clattering as food quickly transferred from platters to plates.
"Hey Coop!" Neal called over to Brian, pointing to the idle record player, "Slackin' off, are ya?" Brian jumped back from the table, tossed his napkin into his seat, and quickly pulled the stack of records on the turntable back up the spindle and pulled the play-lever. He didn't seem to care now that the records had already played, determined to be back at the table by the time the candied yams got passed around. Being the oldest of the kids, myself, Neal and Lizzie-B presided over the "children's table", making sure all the younger ones put their napkins in their laps, minded their manners, didn't hog all the yams. For some reason, the turnips didn't seem to be going all that well, which mystified me because my Mom's turnips are creamy and delicious. The yams were always a big hit, with their gooey, generous dollops of caramelized marshmallow. The more exotic fare, like butternut squash with a puddle of butter and brown sugar in the middle, pearl onions in a cream sauce, and my beloved turnips, just didn't seem as popular with the little kids.
I could tell that Eddie Parnell wasn't terribly happy with the fact that he wasn't quite old enough to be one of the "in-charge" kids like me, Lizzie and Neal, and not quite young enough to require supervision like the others. So, when a little boy next to him was having trouble cutting his goose into manageable bites, I suggested Eddie help, which he eagerly did. I watched Eddie casting shy glances at Lizzie-B throughout the meal. At times, he was outright staring at her chest; she was wearing a nicely ribbed sweater which roundly accentuated her breasts. I always figured Lizzie an attractive girl, but seeing Eddie lust after her so, made me chuckle to myself some.
"What's so funny, Neal?" Lizzie asked lightly. I looked up at Lizzie, her gaze fixed on Neal. I saw a smirk on Neal's face and concluded he'd watched me chuckle while I looked at Eddie as he gawked at Lizzie's little tits. We all looked at one another and seemed to reach the same conclusion at once, and burst out laughing; except for Eddie, who just look befuddled. Eventually, the kids around us started laughing too, even though they had no idea why. Eventually Eddie laughed as well, but I could tell he was just joining in because he didn't know what else to do.
My fork fell from the table, and as I bent down to pick it up, I saw Eddie's leg nervously bouncing about six feet away from me. Squinting my eyes against the dim light beneath the table, I watched one of Eddie's hands dart beneath the table, pressing his palm against a bump in his napkin. The bump didn't yield, so it must not have been a wrinkle in the fabric. Eddie continued to press it down, but it stubbornly refused to go away. Then is when it occurred to me that he was trying to squash an erection. That was going to be a difficult maneuver, given Eddie's predilection for wearing ridiculously tight pants. Finding the fork, I sat up again and returned it to the table. One of the boys between he and I suddenly announced he needed to go to the potty.
"Eddie," I asked, casually stabbing a piece of goose and cranberry sauce, "you want to take him?" Eddie blanched, his face suddenly blotchy, he looked at a loss for words. I was looking at Eddie, but could see out of the corner of my eye, Neal on the other end of the table, boring holes in me with his eyes. I swear that boy is psychic, he seemed to immediately catch on to the pickle in which Eddie found himself, as it were.
"I... uh... can't..." he stuttered, "because I... uh..." Lizzie looked at Eddie quizzically as the he fretted uncomfortably.
"Why is that?" Neal asked, his eyebrows raised innocently. Eddie's discomfort was obvious, but I wasn't gonna let him off the hook that easily, it was too much fun. For all Eddie's bravado about being a lady's man, it seemed like he kind of deserved it. I felt a little cruel and guilty, but not for long.
"What's that matter with him anyways," he shot back, "ain't he old enough to go the bathroom by himself?" A flash of anger in his eyes made me think I might have pushed things too far, but Neal was the one who jumped up and rescued him.
"Don't worry about it Eddie," Neal said with a slightly patronizing air, patting Eddie's shoulder as he passed by, "I got this one for ya." He took the little boy by the hand and lead him off while we returned to eating. By the time they returned to the table, dinner was mostly done and we started dabbing little chins and helping everyone clear the tables. The children gathered near the hearth to sit and wait impatiently for the signal to surge forward and dive into the presents under the tree.
Of course, the mayhem that ensued resulted in a lot of torn paper and ribbon scattered all over the floor as kids delighted in new toys, and gave half-hearted thanks for new clothes and shoes. I was having so much fun watching, I didn't even see Neal walk up next to me until he set a large, carefully wrapped box in my lap. I looked up to see his eyes sparkle back at me.
"This is from my parents and me," he said quietly, "go on, open it." I looked down at the gaily decorated box resting heavily on my legs.
"Oh my God, you guys," I said, smiling up at Neal and to his parents, who were beaming at me from across the room, "Thank you so much!" I gently started to peel back an edge of the wrapping paper, trying to lift the tape off.
"Oh for Pete's sake," Neal cried, "open the darned thing." I didn't need much more prompting than that. Tearing away the paper, the printing on the box was quickly revealed, and I drew in a sharp breath.
"Whaaaat?" I gasped, "Is this really what's in there?" Neal nodded enthusiastically. I sat there, the box on my lap, the wrapping in ruins around me, just looking at it with wide eyes. Other kids started to stand around me, making appreciative murmurs.
"Dude," Eddie whistled, "no way."
"Open it Oliver," Brian said in a whisper, "we wanna see it."
Slowly, almost reverently, I pried open one flap, pulling gently at the big staples. Nobody could rush me now, this box would be opened with great care. Once open, I pulled a large piece of molded Styrofoam from the top, revealing my new, Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope, wrapped in plastic, glittering darkly in all it's black glory. Cradling the instrument in my hands, I lifted it from the box to a chorus of approval and applause. I was speechless.
"Dad says it's a pretty good one," Neal said, proudly.
"Uh, yeah!" I nodded in agreement, "I'd say so." Still stunned, I looked up to Neal's father, walking over to me.
"I had `em throw in a camera mount too," he said, smiling around his pipe, "Neal said you had one."
"That camera is actually mine," my Dad spoke up, "but Oliver is constantly `borrowing' it."
The plastic and metal of the telescope warmed in my hands as I clutched it to my chest. I couldn't believe it, the very thought of my very own telescope made my mind whirl and chest heave. Suddenly, I felt absolutely heartsick; tears welled into my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
"What?" Neal asked, alarmed, "is the wrong kind?" I put the telescope gingerly back into the box and closed it, missing it already.
"I can't accept this," I said, my voice choking with sadness.
"Why not?" Neal asked, his almost-whisper sounded hurt. I stood up and hugged my arms around him as tight as I could. A nervous silence filled the room as the others looked on.
"We didn't get you anything near as nice as that." I said into his neck, "It's too much, I can't take it."
A warm ripple of "awwww" and laughter echoed around the room, followed by a short smattering of applause. Neal's father patted me on the back and chuckled warmly.
"Don't you worry about that Oliver," he said, so all could hear, "G. Fox, the department store I work for, lets me get stuff at cost, it's not as expensive as you think."
"Besides," my father chimed in again, "we worked it all out ahead of time, so don't worry, it's all yours."
"Really?" I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my scratchy sweater sleeves.
"Really," Neal said, "now let me go, you're getting my neck wet."
More laughter surrounded us as I let go of Neal and tried to muss his hair, without success. I quickly cast about for Neal's gift and found my Dad already there behind me with it. Neal sat down on the hearth as I handed the smaller box to him. He took a painful amount of time to read the tag, and announce it was from me and my parents, and then methodically started to neatly open the wrapping. I stomped my foot in a quick show of impatience; he took the hint and gleefully tore the wrapping away. When he read the top of the box, an expansive grin spread across his face.
"Oh yeah!" he said, nearly giddy, "if this is what I think it is, we are totally even-steven Ollie." His nimble fingers pulled at the small tab holding down the top flap of the box, and he opened it to show two model race cars, laying belly to belly amid foam and plastic.
"Slot racers," Eddie gasped, "holy cow, you got slot racers!"
"They're a matched set," my father said proudly, "1/24th scale Ford Mustang and Thunderbird." Neal lifted the Mustang gently from the box and turned it over and around, admired its sleek lines.
"Ooh," Brian said, "can we see it go?"
"Sorry Coop," Neal said, smiling broadly, "This kind of car only races on a professional track."
"There's a slot car racing club with a sixty foot track just outside of Hartford," Neal's father said, "about twenty minutes from where we live." Neal carefully repacked the car in the box, and hugged my Dad and Mom, and then me.
"Thanks," he whispered in my ear, "that's almost the best present ever."
"What's the best one?" I whispered back. He squeezed me extra hard.