Chapter 7 – Our Last Christmas
In the weeks following my dad’s December 10th hip replacement surgery, I remember him being pretty depressed. He’d do a little physical therapy in the morning then lay on the couch most of the day watching the MLB network and smoking cigs in the little cove at the bottom of the stairs just outside the basement door. When I’d come home from gutter cleaning I’d stop in the basement to hand him the keys to the truck so he could go to the bar, have his beers and get his dinner or whatever. It was at this point he’d report to me how many laps he’d gotten around the basement that morning, the same way he used to report to me how many miles he’d gotten in the woods each day.
“I got thirty laps today,” he’d say of the route that started at the bottom of the wooden staircase leading up to the first floor in one corner, went to the door of the laundry room in another corner, over to the exterior door in the third corner and then over to the TV in a fourth corner before finishing the lap where he’d started at the base of the internal stairs.
After congratulating him on his laps and encouraging him to keep up the good work, I’d tell him how many jobs we did, what area we worked in, and how much money we made that day while handing him the checks I’d received so he could endorse and cash ‘em. In addition to keeping track of which customers have and have not paid on our “owe list,” I also took care of dividing up the daily earnings between the workers and making sure they get paid. This wasn’t something new that came about once my dad’d been sidelined by his hip surgery, I’d been in charge of keeping the gutter cleaning books for several years at that point. Even though my dad hadn’t been working, I’d still give him the majority share of the money, exactly as I would’ve if he was still out there with us every day getting those gutter jobs knocked out. And when I’d tell him this, every day he’d more or less respond in the same Eeyore-esque kinda way.
“Why do I get this money?” he’d ask. “I don’t deserve it. I didn’t do any of the work.”
“But you do deserve it,” I’d say. “Don’t you see that if it wasn’t for you and this business that you built, there wouldn’t any money at all? You’re not stealing from anyone for not having physically been out there with us. Everyone’s satisfied with what they’re making. This money belongs to you. You do deserve it.”
He’d just kinda sigh and say “whatever” and go on with his day while I went on with mine.
In addition to these face-to-face interactions after work, I’d sneak down to the basement in the morning every day when Dad was still sleeping and leave him a couple items which I’d always set on the coffee table right in front of the couch on which he laid. I’d put an icepack down there for him which’d he’d put on his hip for about half-an-hour before getting up each morning as well as the jumble I’d ripped out of the Chicago Tribune for him which I knew he liked to do every evening after eating the dinner that he brought home from the bar. When I was a kid, he used to be a crossword puzzle guy and then he was into Sudoku for a good ten years, but towards the end he’d just stick to the jumble. He took the jumble pretty seriously and wouldn’t really like to let himself call it a night until he’d unscrambled the four initial words and solved the final puzzle. That said, he wasn’t above asking for help if he was ever stuck on a word and I happened to go down into the basement for whatever reason at night. I’d help him out if I could and, if I wasn’t able to, he’d say, “Alright, I’ll keep looking at it for another half-hour or so.” And if he couldn’t get it after another half-hour and wanted to lay down, he’d sometimes just scribble in some bullshit nonsensical word he’d made up using the given letters because that, he reasoned, was better than leaving it blank. And like, each day’s jumble has the answers from the previous day’s one, so when he’d get the new one the next day, he’d see what the real answer was in comparison to what he wrote and he’d tell me all about it later in the day when I’d see him.
So anyway, while dropping those couple things off down there, I’d also take a glance around to see if there was anything else he needed. For breakfast every morning he’d pour some Wheaties into this magenta-colored plastic bowl and slice up half a banana on top of it, so I’d check the coffee table for bananas and pick up the Wheaties box and shake it around a bit to see if it felt like he was running low. I’d do the same with the pack of Oreos. I’d also glance in the mini fridge over by the basement door to see if he had enough whole milk to get him through the day. If he was missing any of these things, I’d run up to my mom’s perpetually well-stocked kitchen to grab whatever he needed and bring it back down. The last thing I’d check down there was his 7-day pill box. If he was almost out, I’d bring it upstairs and set it on the counter for my mom to refill before she went to work and I’d run it back down there and set it atop the plastic storage bin wedged beneath the folded-up ping pong table that he’d somehow decided was the place where that thing belonged.
One thing about sneaking down there in the mornings that kinda bothered me was that I didn’t really like looking at my dad when he slept – during what little he slept, I should say. He probably only got like maybe three to four hours a night. The poor bastard spent the rest of the nocturnal hours fighting his demons and passing the time half-assedly watching whatever was on the MLB Network or maybe trying to unscramble a jumble word that’d been stumping him while taking occasional breaks to smoke cigarettes outside the basement door and eat his nightly half-a-pack of Oreos. During his waking hours, Dad had this neurological problem with his neck that caused his whole head to look like it was tilted and twisted. I’d say he developed it about fifteen or so years before he died. Not only did it cause his head to be in a fucked-up position, but it also caused it to involuntarily twitch back and forth all day every day. Like for example, when doing his jumble every evening, he’d need to put one hand up against his cheekbone to hold his head in place so he’d be able to focus his eyes on what he was doing. He said it hurt too and I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been for him to live like that for so many years. But for whatever reason, his neck didn’t really move all that much while he was asleep. He was always eerily motionless. And seeing him layin there face-up on the couch…I dunno. He was just so gaunt at this point. His cheeks were hollow and the stubble on his chin was gray and white. And that magnificent tan he’d perpetually had over the years – the one that would always make me wonder how a pasty piece o’ shit like me could’ve really been the man’s biological son – had now been replaced by this sickly ashen tone. Like, I’ve never put this into words, but to me when I’d see him layin down there, he looked the way all the old people’d looked when layin in coffins at all wakes I’d been to over the years. The only difference was that those people’d all been in their upper-eighties and not in their early-sixties like my dad. My mind would inevitably return to that thought every morning I was down there and it’d make me feel sick and anxious, so I’d try to get in and outta there doin my little inventory checks as fast as possible.
The two weeks after my dad’s hip surgery flew by and Christmas was at our doorstep once again. We were fortunate enough to finish off the rest of the three-hundred-and-forty gutter cleaning jobs we had that year by the 21st which gave me a few full days to get presents, help bake cookies and do whatever other Christmas-related activities I could squeeze in during those few days. On a slightly different note, on the evening of the 23rd, while I was at home, I’d received a text from one of my buddies asking me to leave a bottle of piss for him out on my porch that night. Now, out of context, I can see why this might seem like a strange thing to ask of someone. But the truth is, it’s a regular occurrence. My buddy likes smokin’ his weed and doin whatever else he likes to do, but has a job that is intolerant of such things. In fact, his employer has a reputation for regularly testing a certain percentage of their employees at random to keep everybody on their toes. That policy puts my buddy in a very difficult position, ya see, because – on the one hand the dude can’t give up his job because he has a family to support and a mortgage to pay and all that shit – and at the same time, he can’t give up the drugs because without them he’d probably go completely fucking insane. And that’s where I come in. A few times a week I get a “piss request” (I always thought that would be a great name for a band) via text and leave a bottle out on the porch for said buddy to come pick up at his convenience. Sometimes he’d take the whole bottle to work with him and sometimes he’d divide my 16 ounces of sparkling-clean, drug-free piss up into smaller bottles and hide ‘em from his wife in the back of the freezer for usage at a later date. What he does with “expired” piss is up for debate. Maybe he drinks it, maybe he hard-boils eggs in it, or maybe he dumps it all over his bare chest while dancing in front of a mirror wearing women’s underwear…I really don’t know. It’s none of my business. It’s up to him to decide what he wants to do with the stuff.
So, like I said, I get this piss request on the 23rd after a whole day of helping make cookies and prepare some hors d’oeuvres to bring to my uncle’s house the following evening. In the living room’d been a buncha wrapping paper and ribbon and all that good stuff that my mom was using to wrap up all her gifts for everyone. Seein all that stuff on the way to the bathroom with an empty sixteen-ounce plastic bottle in my hand, I got an idea to help make the yuletide even gayer. So, I tied a bunch of red, silver and gold ribbon around the top of the bottle and taped this light blue piece of paper showing snow falling from the sky atop a sled full of presents. In red and green markers, I wrote “Merry Pissmas (friend’s name)!” And below it in blue ink, I signed “Love, Santa” and left it out on the porch. The next morning, I wake up to a text from my friend sayin he thought what I did was hysterical. I replied, “I thought you’d enjoy it” and then in a subsequent text added, “I sure had fun making it.” And then a couple hours later, I get another text from this dude sayin, “Just got drug tested. Holy fuck.” Here’s an unedited transcript of the rest of the conversation…
Me: No fuckin way
Piss Boy: Dude the odds of that are insane. I did not come prepared with my container that holds well over the required amount of urine. Had five minutes and it was at room temp. At best. I pretended to boil eggs, filled a toothpick container with urine and poured the water from the eggs into a mug and put the container in. Cracked two hand warmers and put it under my nuts with tight underwear on. Get there, I sit up to sign something and I see a puddle of piss on my seat and the ass of my pants is soaked. I get in the bathroom and am like, Dear all-knowing piss lord Lally, please spare me enough to pass. She’d marked the cup and what I dumped in was just shy of the mark. But she forgot to put the bleach in the toilet so I took a small amount of toilet water and she accepted the amount and temperature. Should be good. Jesus Christ.
Me: That’s wild. Hope the water in the toilet wasn’t contaminated in any way
Piss Boy: I don’t think it was. I saw a water bottle with blue shit in it. What they typically do is squirt the blue bleach shit in the toilet so you cannot do what I did. I suppose it’s possible that leftover bleach from previous tests could contaminate the sample, but I think (hope) it’s unlikely. If that was the case, it’d probably be such a trace amount that it might not matter. Still, it’d buy me time in case they wanted to retest
Me: Well, Merry fuckin’ Christmas. When will you get the results?
Piss Boy: Next shift apparently
I wished him the best of luck and that was the end of the exchange. To me, that was the most exciting thing that happened on Christmas Eve in a long time. It was a good story and I was glad to have something interesting to tell my brother whom I hadn’t seen in a few weeks when we’d meet that evening at my mom’s brother Al’s house. Uncle Al had been hosting Christmas Eve for many, many years – I believe since the mid-90s when my grandfather passed away and they sold the house where my mom and all her siblings grew up and’d formerly gathered to spread holiday cheer on the 24th of every December. My dad used to go to all these celebrations back in the day – that is, when he wasn’t on duty at the firehouse – but in my estimation probably hadn’t gone for about ten years at this point. The first few years, I was kinda angry and disgusted that he’d rather go get drunk at the bar with strangers than be with us on Christmas Eve, but I came to accept it. I’d be lyin if I said it didn’t still make me sad thinking about him sittin on a barstool by himself during the holidays, but like I said, I stopped bein angry about it years ago. What happens is…I’d just kinda feel the hurt that said image of him sitting in some loser bar would provoke in me then take a deep breath and do my best to just forget about it. And like I said, this year I had a good piss story that I wanted to tell my brother that I could focus on and look forward to to help me ignore the pain.
So, the 24th came and went. It’s now Christmas morning. Even though my dad hadn’t gone to Al’s house for years, he’d still always come up from the basement and have a big breakfast with us that my mom made. Every year she’d go all out with the bacon, the eggs, the John Diamond Irish sausages, the OJ, the toast, the pancakes…the works. And then after that we’d make a fire in the living room, put on some Vince Guaraldi piano music, plug in the tree and turn on all the other lights my sister’d hung up over the fireplace, around the trim of the windows and over the bookcase. Once the Christmas mood had been sufficiently set, that’s when it was time to open all the presents we’d gotten one another that year. Most of the presents under the tree’d always been from my mom for everybody else because, let’s face it, she has the biggest heart and lives to give. And that right there is pretty much the long and short of our Christmas mornings.
And so, then once all that morning shit was done, we’d mostly just kinda lounge around and take naps all afternoon before going to meet up with my dad’s side of the family at one of their houses for dinner. My Aunt Helen was often the one who hosted Christmas in recent years, but I’m not sure if the celebration was at her house or not this year. We actually hadn’t gone to Christmas on my dad’s side for several years at that point. It was just kinda like…if my dad doesn’t care enough to go spend time with his own family, then neither do we – ya know what I mean? So, what we’d do instead of going to the party in the evening was go sometime during the day to visit my dad’s parents and spend some time with them exchanging presents and catching up. My mom would call my grandma and make the plans and we’d convince my dad to come along and we’d go and it’d be a pleasant enough time over there, and then we’d go back home where us kids would continue layin around while my mom slaved away in the kitchen making us a ham dinner and Dad went out to get some miles or whatever. Then around six o’clock we’d eat together and after that maybe play a game or two of Scattergories or Hasbro’s Catch Phrase in the living room before Dad went back down to his basement while the rest of us stayed there and chilled to some more Christmas piano music until the fire burnt down to just smoldering embers. And that’s the basic gist of our tradition.
But 2019 was different. About six months back, Grandma and Grandpa had moved to an assisted living facility about a mile away from our house. So, as she was cooking breakfast, what Mom decided we were gonna do this year was right after we ate, we’d go get the Grandma and Grandpa visit over with and then we could come back home, open presents and just lounge around the whole rest of the day while she casually cooked the Christmas dinner at her own pace. Us kids agreed that that seemed like a pretty good plan and, right around the time Mom was done cooking, I went down into the basement to tell Dad about it. He was sitting on his couch with the TV on in the background.
“Hey man,” I said from the bottom of the stairs. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
“I already had my bowl of Wheaties.”
“Okay…well…we’re about to eat and then go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s right after and figured we’ll open up the presents when we get back.”
“Ehh, nah,” he said. “I’m gonna take my shower then go to the woods and get some miles.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “But can’t you just come with for like an hour to see your parents?”
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
“Dude, like, we could take separate cars over there and then you could go straight to the woods from the retirement home and get your miles all day afterwards if you want. But like, I just think you should come with us for this visit because you’ve been tellin your mom for months you’re gonna come see her at their new place and you still haven’t gotten over there yet. That’s kinda shitty.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ll get over there soon.”
I just kinda stared at him and gave one of those Marge Simpson style grumbles of disapproval.
“Do you know any bars that are open on Christmas?” he asked me. “I think Charlotte’s is closed for the night so I don’t know where I’m supposed to get my beers and my dinner from.”
Dad gave up drinking at home a few years back which I thought was a great move on his part, but he nevertheless still had to have at least like three or four beers a day from a bar as part of his daily routine.
“Do I know…,” I was disgusted by the question, but just tried to answer as directly as possible. “No. No I don’t. I’m sorry, man. I don’t know any bars that are open on Christmas. But Mom will be making a big Christmas dinner, so…”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I guess I’ll just hafta drive around later and look for a place that’s open. But right now I’m gonna go get my miles after I take a shower.”
“Um, okay,” I said and went back upstairs to report this news to Mom.
She was so fuckin pissed off, dude. She’s like, “He can’t even come to visit his own fuckin’ parents on Christmas? They move less than a mile away six months ago and he still hasn’t gone to see ‘em? I wish my parents were still alive. I’d visit ‘em all the time. And why’s he gotta go to the woods today anyway? It’s only been two weeks since his surgery. So now what? Now I gotta be worried about him overdoing it and hurting his new hip out there?! Pfff. Yeah, okay. Whatever, Dan.”
Now, before we go any further with this story, I just wanna quickly give you a brief overview of the area I live in. I think it’s kind of important for understanding what’s about to happen next. So, in Chicago, Harlem Avenue (7200W on the city’s grid system) is a major north-south thoroughfare that cuts along the western edge of the city. And unlike in the neighborhoods closer to the lake on the eastern end of the city where it’s a busy street, around here in the Edison Park neighborhood, Pratt Avenue (6800N) is a quiet side street that extends west from Harlem for half-a-mile. Because the St. Adalbert Cemetery occupies all the land east of Harlem up around these parts, Pratt and all the other east-west side streets around here don’t run east of Harlem – they all dead-end there at Harlem into the westernmost extreme of the graveyard. So, to head east from Edison Park in a motor vehicle, you hafta circumvent the cemetery by either going north up to Touhy Avenue (7200N) or south to Devon Avenue (6400N). Can you sorta picture what I’m talkin about here? I hope so, but if not it’s okay. We’re still gonna get through this thing – just keep reading. What we need to know for the purpose of this story is that the “east on Pratt, to north on Harlem, to east on Touhy” route was the one my dad’d most often take to get around the cemetery to get over to the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve where he’d go rack up his daily miles.
So, now that we got that covered, by the time Dad got done showering and getting dressed and having a smoke outside the basement door, he only ended up getting in his truck to go to the woods about ten or fifteen minutes before we’d finished cleaning up the breakfast mess in the kitchen and headed out the door to go visit Grandma and Grandpa. We all piled into Mom’s Ford Edge then pulled out the garage and drove down to the end of the alley where we made our turn onto Pratt Avenue. We’re heading east on Pratt towards Harlem now. We pass Ebinger Elementary School on the left and go over a couple speed bumps then come to a halt at the STOP sign at Octavia. A block ahead, where Pratt ends at Harlem – an intersection where we’d planned on making a right turn to head south towards Resurrection Senior Living Center – we see some flashing lights. It looks as if there’s been an accident. We get a little bit closer and see there definitely has been an accident. Someone – I think it was my sister, Teresa – says, “Is that dad’s truck?” No one says a word. We could all see it was his truck that’d been broadsided up near the front left tire as he went to make his left turn to head north on Harlem. It was crunched up pretty good.
“There’s Dad,” someone said. “He’s standing on the curb over there in front of that Amish cabinet store.”
He seemed uninjured. He was talking to some tow truck guy. We pulled over and parked. No one wanted to get out and see what was going on. Everyone was already upset about Dad blowing off our family plans for the day and absolutely no one was in the mood to deal with this shit on top of it. My mom wanted someone to get out to go listen to what Dad was talking about with the tow truck guy and to tell him that we have Triple-A and that they tow for free, but didn’t want to go out there herself because she said he’d just yell at her to get the fuck outta there. To me that seemed like a pretty accurate prediction, so me and my brother volunteered to get out and walk over. This big tattooed Italian-American fellow named Dino quickly introduces himself to us then goes to go talk on his radio. We ask Dad what’s going on.
“Someone hit me and this guy’s gonna tow my truck,” he told us.
“How much is he charging you?” we asked.
“I don’t know. But he said they’re gonna give me a loaner I could use free of charge so I can still go to the woods while they’re fixing my truck.”
“Uhhh…I don’t know about that, my man. I don’t think any companies actually do anything like that.”
“Well,” he replied, “that’s what the guy said, so…”
“Where’s he taking your truck?”
“He said the shop is in Elmwood Park.”
Elmwood Park is a suburb about six miles south of where we live.
“Uhh…okay,” we said. “But like…the police aren’t even here yet. Where’d this tow truck guy come from? How’d he even know there was an accident?”
“I think he said he heard it on the police scanner.”
“Oh… So, he just kinda sits around in his truck all day listening to the scanner for accidents then rushes over before the police themselves even get there?”
“I guess so,” he shrugged.
“Doesn’t that sound kinda sketchy to you?” we asked. I mean, to us the guy sounded like a total bottom feeder. “Like, isn’t that kinda like the mechanical version of an ambulance-chasing lawyer?”
“Well, he said they’re gonna gimme a loaner free of charge, so…”
“Yeah okay,” we said. “Well, mom wanted us to remind you that she pays for a Triple-A roadside assistance membership every month for instances just like this and they tow for free to wherever you want. So, if you didn’t wanna pay whatever this guy’s charging to have your car stuck at a shop all the way down in Elmwood Park, you could have it dropped off at Ek Automotive or that other body shop place up on Touhy at Oriole, or we could even just have it towed in front of our house and leave it there until we decide what we wanna do with it, ya know what I mean?”
“Mmm…nah,” he shook his head. “I already told this guy yes. Besides, he said he’d give me a loaner so I’d still be able to go to the woods and get my lunch from Nick’s while they’re fixing my truck.”
“Okay, my man,” we said. “If that’s the way you wanna handle it.”
Danny and I then excused ourselves to go talk to the people in the other vehicle. In the parking lot across the street from the Amish cabinet store we saw a woman standing by the side of a car with a smashed front end. We went up and introduced ourselves. Her name was Svetlana. She was an Eastern European woman in her mid-to-late thirties. She had a young boy with her who remained in the car. The kid was about ten years old. We asked if they were okay. She said yes, but she was a bit upset. She said that she was heading south on Harlem when she crashed into my dad and that…
“My light was green!” she pleaded. “And the truck is coming out into the intersection going to make a left turn. It was so sudden, I could not avoid it even though I’m using the brake. The light was green. Even my son is saying to me, ‘But mom, the light is green!’”
We went back over and asked my dad if he was trying to make a left on red. He said no. Definitely not.
I didn’t know what to believe. On the one hand, it is a dangerous intersection where drivers on Harlem sometimes do blow the red light there and have in the past smashed into cars turning off Pratt who have a green. But on the other hand, at this point in my life I’d been lied to by my dad so many times that I had a hard time believing his version of the story over someone else’s. I mean, sometimes I feel like he’s so gone in his own little world that he doesn’t even know he’s lying because he actually believes whatever truthless bullshit he’s spitting out of his mouth. And on top of that, about a month or so beforehand, my mom’d gotten a ticket in the mail from the Morton Grove Police Department – specifically from one of those intersections where they got red light cameras set up to catch drivers who do shit they ain’t supposed to be doing when they think they can get away with it because the police ain’t around – and the photo on the ticket showed my dad making, you guessed it, a left on red. My mom never told him about that ticket and just wrote a check and sent it along to the MGPD to get the matter settled because she didn’t wanna waste any of her time or energy trying to convince him to care and/or do anything about it. So, was it just a coincidence that Svetlana had been accusing Dad of doing the same thing when she really was the one in the wrong, or was this left-on-red shit a recent trend of my anxious impatient father that finally bit him in the ass? It’s a shame that the intersection of Harlem and Pratt doesn’t have any cameras because I’d really like to know for certain what happened on Christmas morning 2019.
Regardless of whatever the truth may’ve been, I think the police ended up ruling in my dad’s favor and eventually – maybe five or so months after he died – we got a check in the mail from Svetlana’s insurance company to cover some of our costs. In the meantime, however, that greasy Dino character ended up towing my dad’s truck down to their shop in Elmwood Park where they had no intention of trying to fix it and – contrary to what my dad’d been promised – he was never offered a “loaner” to use free of charge. In the weeks following Christmas, we kept calling and they kept giving us the runaround. “Oh yeah, we’re really busy,” they’d say. “We haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. We’ll get to it soon though. Maybe tomorrow.” And as the truck sat untouched in their lot, they charged us a hundred dollars a day storage fee on top of whatever they charged for the towing. When they eventually declared it totaled and offered to get rid of it for us, since my dad couldn’t be bothered to do so himself, me and my mom went down there to clean his belongings out of his truck and to pay whatever exorbitant amount was owed for this highway robbery.
As for the rest of Christmas 2019, after my dad’d spoken to the police and since he’d no longer be going to the woods to get his miles now that he didn’t have a set of wheels to get him there, we asked if he wanted to come with us to visit his parents. He said no and had us drop him off back at home where he immediately retreated to the basement. When we got back from Grandma and Grandpa’s, he refused to come up to open presents with us. He also would not come up to eat dinner with us as a family, so my mom prepared a plate and I brought it down to him to eat by himself in front of the television. After dinner, the rest of us sat in the living room by the fire, inconsolably bummed out by the events of the day and the current situation with my father. When I left for Spain in mid-January of 2020, Dad’s pile of presents still remained untouched in the corner of the living room. This was the last Christmas the five of us spent together as a family.