I showed up for Christmas hungover, unshaven and wearing Converse All-Stars. I’m 49-years-old. The shoes were in good shape but, still, I’m 49-years-old.
My brother let me in. I was sure he smelled the booze and I caught him looking at my sneakers. I was loaded down with gifts for him and his family but it was my shoes he noticed.
“Couldn’t get dressed up?” he asked.
I was otherwise dressed up, except for the shoes.
“Why’s it matter?” I asked, setting down the presents and bags of gifts.
“Looking nice for Christmas is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s tradition. You couldn’t do it for one day? Couldn’t shave and turn up sober?”
“Maybe next time,” I said.
“I can smell the alcohol,” he added.
“So you got any candy canes? I can suck on one so Nancy won’t notice.”
“No,” he said. “No candy canes. We got nuts and chocolates.”
“Well, you ought to have candy canes,” I said. “It’s sorta tradition to have candy canes for Christmas.”
Nancy is my sister-in-law. She hates me and I don’t much like her or my brother either. She stepped out of the kitchen and wished me a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, then offered me a seat in the living room.
I went to the living room, greeting my niece and nephew and took a seat on the couch. They were watching Die Hard.
“Huh. Die Hard?” I asked.
When I was a kid me and my brother grew up on Miracle on 34th Street. It was our parents’ favorite. But we’d always liked A Christmas Story better so after Mom died and Dad went into the nursing home, A Christmas Story became our Christmas go-to.
“Yeah,” my brother said. “It’s what the kids are watching on Christmas these days. It’s supposed to be edgy or cool or ironic or something.”
“What about A Christmas Story?” I asked.
“This is what the kids wanna watch,” he said. “Plus, we’ve seen A Christmas Story two dozen times so don’t make a big deal about it. Okay?”
“No problem,” I said.
My brother carried the gifts I left by the door over to the tree and placed them there.
“What can I get you to drink?” he asked.
“Eggnogg? We don’t have any. Since when did you start drinking eggnog?”
“Since today. Since we’re sorta hung up on tradition. Eggnog’s a tradition, right?”
“C’mon, Cliff. Stop being a jerk,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Then water’s fine.”
We got about half way through Die Hard when Nancy announced dinner was ready. We gathered at the table. It was most of the usual stuff: ham, scalloped potatoes, veggie tray, rolls and pecan pie. And then there was the non-traditional – the roasted Brussel sprouts that seemed to have replaced our Mom’s baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows.
I ate everything but the Brussel sprouts.
After the meal, I asked my brother out to his garage. We put on our coats and stepped out there.
“Wasn’t cool that you didn’t eat any of Nancy’s Brussel sprouts.”
“Where were the sweet potatoes?” I asked. “That was Mom’s recipe.”
“Nancy wanted to do something different,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said.
Then I pulled his special gift from my coat pocket.
“Here. It’s yours,” I said.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Your special gift. I didn’t want Nancy or the kids to see it. It’s just between us.”
“We’re opening gifts later,” he said.
“Go on,” I said. “Nobody’ll know.”
He took the gift and unwrapped it. It was a “gourmet” fruit caked I’d purchased from Big Lots. I made sure to leave the sticker on that showed it was from Big Lots.
“Is this some kinda joke?” he asked. “A gag gift?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “How about we eat it right now.”
“No,” he said.
“It’s tradition,” I said. “Why you being an asshole?”
I knew he was thinking, because fruit cake tastes like shit. And Big Lots fruitcake had to be even worse.
I stood there waiting for his excuse.
“It’s never been our tradition,” he said.
“Why not? Maybe you and me are just assholes for not observing the tradition. Like me wearing these shoes.”
“I’m already full,” he said.
“Too many Brussel sprouts?” I asked.
He didn’t reply.
“Then after we open gifts? Just you and me? We’ll come back out here. And not just a taste, we’ll split the whole thing. Tradition. Remember?”
“No,” he said. “If you insist on this, then let’s just do it now.”
“I insist,” I said.
He handed the fruitcake back to me. I took it out of its cellophane, then tore it in half and handed him his portion.
He took a bite and made a face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Tastes like shit,” he said.
I took a big bite out of mine too.
“Yup,” I said. “I agree.”
He swallowed, then stood there like we were done.
“Eat it,” I said. “All of it or never say a fucking word to me about tradition again. Especially when I show up bearing gifts.”
“This isn’t much of a gift.”
“I mean all the real shit I bought for your wife and kids. All that shit they’re about to tear into when we go back inside. I even got Nancy exactly what you said she’d want. I bear the pretense of all your traditionalism bullshit so you’re gonna bear this.”
We both finished our halves and it did taste like shit. But, for me, it wasn’t that big a deal since I’d planned on swallowing their shit all day anyway.