Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas

...and stop smoking crack with Leon Spinks, plus other tales of blue yules past

He Wears a Crown of Hamster Bones and He Kills People
By Olive Hunter (not her real name)

My dad married Kathy sometime during my sophomore year in college. He appeared constipated the entire day, and in every wedding picture he looks less like a newlywed than like a monkey baring his teeth before a battle. Given that my mom had recently married Bill, a con artist and swindler who used "party" as a verb and drove my mom into bankruptcy, I knew that the year would be about as much fun as the time I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom closet for 12 hours with the cat's litter box.

On Christmas Eve of that next year, I arrived at my dad's suburban home where I was greeted by his eight-year-old stepson, Robert. "Oh, it's only you," he said. "I thought you were the hamster massacre-ist." He let out an exaggerated sigh and fell into a heap on the entryway floor.

I knew I shouldn't ask, which is precisely why I did. "What is a hamster massacre-ist, Robert?" I thought that by using his name, the question took on the wearily sophisticated tone of a Salinger story, as if I was conversing with a precocious eight-year-old about why fossil fuels were bad for the environment.

He jumped up from the floor and I noticed that his newly shaven head was full of fresh nicks and chunks of long hairs. A home job, I would later learn, which he'd done using his mom's disposable Lady Remington. "The hamster massacre-ist comes on Christmas Eve," he informed me. "He wears a crown of hamster bones and a belt of hamster bladders, and he enters houses and kills people!" Robert tossed his patchwork head back and laughed maniacally. "He's coming here tonight. For you and your dad!" I didn't bother asking Robert if he still believed in Santa.

Kathy walked down the stairs, the banister of which was draped in garland and red bows. She held a full glass of eggnog and wore a giant plastic bell as a necklace. She looked like an anorexic version of Dinah Shore. Kathy always was perky and upbeat. I was waiting for the moment she'd crack like one of her fake nails, revealing the brittle and bitten-down nubs underneath.

She was probably the only person, other than me, who understood my father. She'd call his name from the kitchen and shout, "I love you!" as if she thought he was sitting in the bedroom staring at the stock ticker on MSNBC and wondering if anyone really loved him. Truth is, he probably was.

"Come in the great room and talk to Mama Sis!" she said. In Kathy's world, the living room was called the "great room." And because she was only 15 years older than I was, she wanted me to use her self-spun nickname, which I refused to do.

"Okay, we've got to talk," she said, whispering and grabbing my arm as if she was about to tell me whom we should elect for homecoming court. "We had a few 'incidents' last night and today. We found out Amanda's pregnant. And Robert's not taking it too well. Hell, no one is." Amanda, her daughter, was 15. "Can you believe it? Mama Sis is going to be a grandma!?"

No. And I couldn't believe she was so freaking giddy about it.

"Anyway, last night was all about the Amanda drama and now Robert's trying to get attention. I found him in my room today totally passed out in my clothes and makeup. He gets like that with the Ritalin and all--he just falls asleep wherever. But I don't understand why he was in a dress and makeup."

I shrugged and said the first thing that came to mind. "Maybe he thought that if he dressed like a woman he'd get pregnant, too."

This pissed off Mama Sis. But I thought a young-male immaculate conception sounded like a true modern-day Christmas miracle.

At this point I figured I had three choices: Go to my mom's a day early, drive the two hours back to school and spend Christmas with a bunch of equally miserable locals in a bar, or sleep over at my dad's and possibly get murdered by a bald hamster massacre-ist wearing a navy dress from Talbot's.

"You might want to wait and come over Christmas morning when we know Bill will be gone," my mom told me over the phone. "He'll be back soon, and I know he's been with that Leon. Who knows what kind of shape he'll be in."

"That Leon" was Leon Spinks, the former heavyweight boxing champion. The previous summer, Bill had bought a teal-blue Camaro and personalized the license plate with "Gambler." My mom's evangelical neighbors, who washed their lawn with Palmolive and a scrub brush if a rabbit jumped across it, wouldn't even look at her after that thing landed in our driveway. Sometime after Bill was carried into a time warp on the Pegasus wings of a Steve Miller Band album, he befriended Leon Spinks.

"It's disgusting," my mom said, like she was talking about a scandal at the country club. She secretly was hoarding money and counting the days until she could leave the Gambler. "That Leon," according to rumor, had sold his gold belt for crack. I wondered if Bill had sold his crack to get a display case for Leon's gold belt. This, I thought, would be a beautiful, modern-day version of "The Gift of the Magi." Crackless Bill and Beltless Leon would realize that the true meaning of Christmas wasn't about the gifts, but the illegal activities you do to get them.

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