A Christmas Story

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

I moved home when Daddy was dying but he’s dead now. So this story’s not going to be about that. He’s been dead for two weeks. Next week is Christmas.

I live alone in the only house I could afford to rent around here. At night my neighbors' cars get broken into. It’s an old, old house with no insulation. So keeping gas out in the propane tank is too expensive for me to afford. No one back here wanted to hire me anyways. They saw I had a college degree on my resume and wanted to know why the fuck I was back.

Mama didn’t have room for me at her house and that’s fine. She’s been drinking alot since Daddy died. Last night she called me drunk and crying.

“Can you believe it,” she said, “Barbara called Dan to come get me.”

Barbara is our cousin who owns the bar Mama was drinking in. Dan is another cousin who came and drug her out.

“They said it was time for me to go home,” Mama kept crying to me.

I was alone on my couch looking at the wall and then at my fingers picking into the couch fabric. It’s not a soft fabric. It kinda feels like a burlap sack.

All I could do was listen to her and tell her I love her and just pray that she got off the phone. And when she finally did I did everything I could to forget it while still trying to be responsible. I took the last of the wine I had and flung it out the back door. I watched as many Youtube documentaries on Tchaikovsky as I could. I wanted to sleep and dream. I wanted Sugar Plum Fairies to dance in my head.

When I was little and came down the stairs in the morning with knots in my hair, Daddy would say that little mice had a dance in my hair.

Anyways since I don’t have a job, I don’t have much food. And I rely on family members to help me. Aunt Nell is coming to pick me up. She wants me to ride with her to Ahokie to help her pick out toys for the Lottie Moon offering. Lottie Moon is Aunt Nell’s favorite missionary. “She starved to death on a boat back from China,” Aunt Nell loves to tell, “Because she gave all her food to everyone else around her.”

Aunt Nell grew up with twelve brothers and sisters and there wasn’t a lot of food to go around. They didn’t get birthday cakes much less Christmas presents. I’ve only heard her talk about it once. Now she fills shoe boxes full of as many toys and socks and stickers as she can for needy children. Then the Southern Baptist Convention sends them to China.

But going to Ahoskie always means going to Bojangles because Ahoskie is where the Bojangles is and Aunt Nell loves their chicken supremes dinner. And because Aunt Nell loves me she’s going to buy me a chicken supremes dinner too.

And she does and I get Cajun fries for my side and she gets pinto beans. And it’s the most wonderful meal. The honey mustard sauce is so nice you want to swim in it. And it’s such a pretty color. So warm and sweet.

There’s not much to talk about between me and Aunt Nell. I’m thinking about Tchailkovsky. Strings swirl in my head, and there a flock of fairies start to appear in my head. Their wands glinting and poking through the memory mist. And then it all stops when Aunt Nell says she’s been praying and praying for me. Praying that me and Mama wouldn’t fight this Christmas. “Your mama’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown,” she says.

I swallow the chicken I’m chewing and then look at my Cajun fries. The last time I saw Mama I started crying because I feel sad and stuck and trapped here and I’m grieving and trying the best I can and Mama yelled at me like she always does. Yelled at me to stop crying because she can’t stand it. I yelled back at her. I said, “Look, that’s like asking me to perform a trick I can’t do.” I held my hand up in the air in front of me like I was dangling a treat. I got up and left. Slammed the door and everything.

There was a woman in Bojangles sitting across from us with her elderly mother. They were both wearing sparkly Christmas sweaters with bells jingling and jangling every time they reached for their tea. They had lightbulb earrings too. And the daughter had a very big scrunchie that kinda looked like one of them pretty red bows you stick on top of a present. Her hair was a long thin slick of a pony tail and it looked like it was being strangled by that dumb bow srunchie.

Back before Daddy got sick when my folks had more money, wrapping presents was my favorite thing. I laid out all the bows in front of me and mulled over which one to use like I was some real designer. But it’s been a long time since I’ve wrapped a present. It’s been a long time since Mama’d been able to get me anything.

I don’t have to address Aunt Nell’s pray concerns, thank goodness, because the daughter woman with the bow on her head starts squalling to the table next to her that she’s only got twenty seven dollars in her Christmas fund and she’s worried to death about it.

Aunt Nell looked at me with her mouth open. “What in the world you reckon she’s going on about that for?” She says, “In here of all places.”

“Ain’t no telling,” I say.

When I bought whiskey from the ABC store ladies one time I walked in on one of them playing the Christmas money game. You get all your dollar bills together and the ones that have the same code numbers on them you set aside and save them for your Christmas money. The ABC store lady told me she done it every year. She had $300 so far.

I wanted to tell this daughter woman about that. Maybe that would help. But you could just tell by the look of it all that it wasn’t about that. She just wanted attention. She probably felt very alone. Her mama ignored her and kept shoving dirty rice in her little mouth with her spoon.

Her daughter kept on about all her grandbabies and nieces and nephews.

A woman at another table told the daughter woman to get a job.

But she just kept talking for all of Bojangles to hear. How Little Bryan wants Jimmie Johnson sheets and she’s done looked all here and everywhere for them.

Aunt Nell splits her biscuit with her hands. “I asked them for a real done one,” she said. “This one here ain’t half cooked.”

“I’ll take it,” I say.

“Oh and here,” Aunt Nell reaches into her pocketbook, “Before I forget it,” she says.

She hands me some money and I don’t count it. I just put it in my pocket. “For your gas bill,” she says.

I thank her.

And now the way the sun’s coming in, it falls on the Christmas tree on the daughter woman’s chest. It makes the walls glint and shimmer with sequins.

I don’t have a tree. Mama don’t have a tree. I think Aunt Nell put up a little one but I ain’t gonna ask. See, Uncle Ray died this year too. And what we always do every Christmas is fry oysters Christmas morning down at Aunt Nell’s house and then we all eat together and then go read the Bible in front of the tree and pass out little presents Aunt Nell’s brothers and sisters sent for everyone. But Aunt Nell’s already said she ain’t frying oysters this year. And I don’t want to be alone Christmas morning looking at the wall, playing Tchaikovsky again. It’s always so cold in my house.

“Remember when you knocked over the Christmas tree?,” Aunt Nell laughs. “You were playing in the front hall, dancing around like you always loved to do.”

And there it was. The big Christmas tree Uncle Ray’d always cut from the back of the McDaniel farm. I smelled it. Felt the sticky bristles of it brushing down my cheek. Ornaments all my family before had made on paper and felt. Scrawl handwriting in pencil, names and dates in cursive from before I was born. People I never knew but heard of. Cotton ball snowmen. Crosses made of popsicle sticks. Pipe cleaner reindeer. Candy canes old as Methuselah.

Yes. Uncle Ray was supposed to be watching me. He’d come in from the field packing cotton. He was tired. Asked me to rub his head until he fell asleep, told me he’d take me to Slade’s store for a Snickers when he woke up. I went in the front hall for dancing and knocked down the tree.

Aunt Nell laughed again. “I won’t never forget it,” she said. “I walked in and there was that big ol tree laying there in the floor, you ain’t seen such a mess.” Then she smiled real big, “And your Uncle Ray said Mama, I just left it. I figured you’d know what to do.”

Aunt Nell always called Uncle Ray, “Daddy.”

And he called her, “Mama.”

“Mama,” the daughter woman said, “Mama, c’mon let’s go.”

When they left the daughter waved to everyone bye and wished them a Merry Christmas. She was jingling and jangling, leading her mama out the door.

“Let’s look to see what they drive,” Aunt Nell said.

Walking out to the car, you could see them together side by side. At a distance it was hard to tell which was which but they both were still shimmering.

“C’mon and let’s get us a refill before we go,” Aunt Nell said.

“Daddy liked unsweet tea,” I said to myself in my head. The words echoed in me the whole ride home. The fairies did a dance to it.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from Woodland, North Carolina. Her debut collection, Sleepovers, was picked by Lauren Groff as the winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize and is forthcoming from Hub City Press in May 2020.