By Rachel Coleman
The older I get, the more ordinary Christmas seems. Maybe that’s what it means to grow up — the glitter and the newness of something that was once magical and wild slowly fades. Or maybe it’s because no Christmas will ever reach the highs and lows of the one I survived the year I turned 13.
That was the Christmas my daddy spent all the money Mama had set aside for presents — again. It was the Christmas I got my first kiss. And it was the Christmas we almost burned the house down.
Of course, that last part would never have happened if it wasn’t for Aunt Janie and her campaign to make the world a more welcoming place for people like our neighbor Felicity Ann. Felicity Ann was a special child, which meant she talked too loud and couldn’t go to regular school, and she didn’t know to keep her mouth closed when she chewed peanut brittle or donuts or even cornbread and milk.
She was also white, but that didn’t matter. Her family lived right across the lot from us. The McCroys — all eight of them — straggled along behind their thin, worn-looking parents, kept chickens, grew a garden and handed clothes down from oldest to youngest same as we did.
When Felicity Ann heard my brothers and sisters and cousins and me talking about the gift exchanges at school, she latched onto the idea like a dog trying to grab a chicken leg from a two-year-old. That actually happened once. My little brother snatched the chicken leg right back and didn’t miss a beat when the dog growled and lunged for the drumstick. Little Man wrinkled up his dimpled face, bloody eyebrow and all and bit that dog right back, on the nose. The dog yelped when Daddy booted it across the room. Little Man went back to working on his chicken leg.
The night Felicity Ann started in about the gifts seemed uneventful compared to that.
“I want a fit exchange,” Felicity Ann announced, the crumbs flying out of her mouth at the crowded table. Felicity Ann always took more than her share, which wasn’t fair, but Mama just shushed anybody who pointed that out.
We didn’t always have our special-child neighbor at the dinner table, but we had somebody extra every night. Sometimes it was wayward souls like Peaches and her friends who stalked up and down the corner wearing too much lipstick. Sometimes it was Aunt Janie who never married or had children of her own, and brought things like jam and advice nobody wanted to hear. Thing was, you didn’t get the first without the second.
I didn’t understand why Mama was so set on hospitality; we hardly had anything ourselves. It was oatmeal every morning for breakfast, and don’t complain, and beans and cornbread for supper most nights, unless something unusual happened and Daddy or his brothers brought home rabbits or squirrels or fish.
Then Mama would smile and instruct my little sisters and me to “come help me in the kitchen, children,” and we’d peel potatoes and stir gravy and watch the skillet. My brothers would come through sweaty and loud and sniffing the air. It seemed like their friends always showed up the nights we had fried chicken or stew. I never could figure out how they knew to follow the best food around the neighborhood, or if they just stopped at everybody’s house every night.
“A fit exchange?” said Percy, Little Man’s best friend. They were 10 years old, and they’d both advanced from fighting puppies for food to standing up against the neighborhood bullies. That didn’t mean they were angels, though, and I thought I heard a snicker in Percy’s voice. “What’s a fit exchange?”
Mama looked sternly at the boys.
“Felicity means a gift exchange, don’t you, baby?”
“Yes, I want to unwrap things and try’n see who it was give it to me,” Felicity said. Then she added, “Santy Claus isn’t real. I know it. But Christmas trees is real and sometimes they get candles on ‘em.”
“Seems like if special children don’t get to go to school and be in the program, they should still have a gift exchange,” Aunt Janie announced heavily. “Felicity Ann is a Child of God just like all of us. Red, brown, yellow, black and white.”
“I’ma be in the program at church,” Felicity Ann said. “We have Baby Jesus there, not Santy Claus.”
But I could tell from the look on Aunt Janie’s face that somebody, somewhere, was going to swap presents with Felicity Ann — and it would probably be all of us children in the Howard family.
I had more important problems to worry about. The very gift exchange that had gotten Aunt Janie and Felicity Ann so excited was no treat for me. Our teacher, Miss Goose, told us we should spend 50 cents “or thereabouts” on a gift for a fellow student whose name we would draw out of the hat.
I pulled the name of Omar Brown, a new boy who had moved to our neighborhood over the summer. He was good-looking and quiet and tall for his age, and his parents had more money than mine. At least, that’s how it looked from the outside of their house, with its lacy curtains in the windows.
I couldn’t imagine what kind of present a person even bought for a boy. I didn’t want to seem cheap or dumb. I couldn’t ask my big sister, Marie, who was glamorous and funny — and older, so that she knew everything about how to talk to boys. She’d moved away to go to Job Corps back in September. Maine was too far away for her to come home for Christmas.
It would be no help to ask Mama, who went to work before we got up for school, and fussed at me every day, it seemed like, for wearing my skirts too short. I couldn’t help it. They were all hand-me-downs, and I wasn’t tiny like my older sisters, who favored Mama. I was long-legged and skinny and even though I kept hoping I’d end up with some curves, so far I only looked like my daddy’s people in being tall.
The day before, I’d gone to the drugstore to see if I could find something boys liked, for the gift exchange. Jacks were too babyish; dice were popular, but Mama would skin me alive if she even heard I even thought about picking them up off the shelf. Same thing with cards. I didn’t want to seem like a bad girl anyhow. According to Mama, you start playing cards and wearing lipstick, and next thing you know, you have a reputation like Peaches. That didn’t solve my problem. I didn’t know if Omar liked comic books. Candy was boring, even if everybody I knew looked forward to getting chocolate at Christmas.
Before I could take a closer look at the rack of comic books, I heard scuffling and shouts from outside the store. Familiar sounds, like Little Man made when he tried to wrassle our older brothers. I pushed through the door in a hurry and sure enough, there he was, rolling on the sidewalk with a hefty boy named Kendrick.
“Take it back!” Little Man panted as he punched at Kendrick’s meaty sides. “Take. It. Back.”
“Snoring on the front lawn,” sneered Kendrick. “If my old man passed out drunk in the front yard, I’d be shamed, too. I’d drag him into the house where nobody would see. You probly can’t even pick up his ARM, you so small.”
Little Man was brave but he wasn’t winning the fight.
“Kendrick Whittleston, when did you start picking on people half your size?” I said loudly. “Oh, wait! Everybody at school is half your size.” Before the boy’s two friends could join in, I stepped close and looked down at their slack-mouthed faces.
“I could knock you over to the curb after I take care of Kendrick,” I said. “Go on!”
The smacking sound my fist made against Kendrick’s face was absorbed by the fat. I know it hurt, though.
“Uhn,” he said, and then spit at Little Man. “Got your big sissy to protect you! I’ll see you later.”
“Ava May,” Little Man said as we turned north on the sidewalk, “does everybody know?”
“Know what, Little Man? And who told you to start fighting right out on the street like that? What if I wasn’t around to help you? You gonna start a problem with the Whittlestons? ‘Cause there sure are a lot of them, and they’re all big.”
“There’s a lot of us,” Little Man said. “And Daddy’s bigger than all of ‘em, and Ricky and Melvin and Elwood, too.” He kicked at a stone and asked me again, “Does everybody know?”
“Does everybody know what?”
“That Daddy’s … that he … you know.”
“That he came home and passed out on the grass last night? Everybody that walked past the house knows that,” I said. “Doesn’t matter. Half their daddies were out at the sugar shack last night, same as him. You need to think about something else.”
Little Man scowled. His thick, bushy eyebrows looked just like Daddy’s, and he hitched up his shoulders the same way when he took a long step.
“Think about … the gift exchange at school,” I said. “Whose name you get?”
“Joanie,” said Little Man.
“Well. You know what you want to get her?”
“Barrettes,” he said softly. “She’s my friend. I have money hid in the yard. Ricky kept stealing it out of the house, so I buried it in a jar.”
Our oldest brother Ricky wouldn’t be part of a gift exchange with anybody, and I admired Little Man for outwitting him.
“You wanna get it now?” I said. “I’ll go back to the drugstore with you.”
So Little Man was all set for his school party, and I had two boring chocolate bars tucked in my school bag before we went home. When it came to candy, Rickie wasn’t the only thief to watch out for. I surely wished I had a purse. Once you were older than 12, a school bag just looked childish.
The Christmas tree at our house was always a country-field cedar, chopped down late at night by Daddy, Uncle Gene and Uncle Leo. Daddy’s brothers liked to ramble out past city limits, where Uncle Leo lived and there was plenty of room to grow gardens, breed dogs and conduct whatever business they didn’t want to carry out in town. But I never saw a lot of evergreen trees near my uncle’s place. It seemed better not to ask any questions, especially the night they returned in high spirits, long after dark.
I was at Aunt Sugar’s house, using her irons to straighten my hair. Everyone said it was good hair, easy to smooth into a pageboy that looked like the Supremes. Maybe that was true, but it still took a long time to flatten the curls. I liked to go down the street to Aunty Sugar’s because she played the radio. Nobody asked me to work on their hair. Aunt Sugar and Uncle Gene had only one girl, my cousin Verna, and she was grown.
“Gone south where all the protests are, and won’t come back,” Aunt Sugar would sigh. “Don’t know why that girl wants to live down there, when we worked so hard to get away.”
I knew why. Verna was so smart, she had her pick of colleges and she wanted one as far away from Kansas as possible. More than 20 years had passed since the family moved away from the cotton fields, but to hear the aunties and uncles talk about it, we were all just a whisper away from sweating over row crops.
That night, there was no time to talk about Verna’s latest letter, because Uncle Gene’s voice boomed out from the front yard.
“Oh Lord,” said Aunt Sugar tightly. “I knew they’d be late.”
“Babydoll!” Uncle Gene warbled a bit on the first part of the word. “Babydoll, come on out!”
Aunt Sugar threw the kitchen door wide open. She stood right in the middle, one hand on her hip, the other braced on the door frame.
“Did you get a Christmas tree, Gene?”
“Babydoll, I sure did,” my uncle hiccuped. In the dark yard, his silhouette blurred. He wasn’t walking steady. In the pickup parked askew in Aunt Sugar and Uncle Gene’s driveway, I saw two red buttons of glowing cigarettes. Was that a bundle of bushy cedar trees bristling over the truck bed? I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, Uncle Gene threaded his way closer to the porch light. With both hands, he held a spindly branch in front of his face.
“Sugar, you can’t see me, can you?”
Aunt Sugar sighed.
“Not again,” she said. “Go with Leo, Gene. Go with Will. But don’t you dare bring that sorry little branch up here and try to sweet talk me.”
She turned and slammed the door and bolted it and said, “Call your Mama and tell her you’re staying here tonight. I’m not going to unlock that door.”
On the radio, Diahann Carroll’s voice asked, “Do you hear what I hear? Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy, do you hear what I hear?”
“I do not,” snapped my auntie, her voice low and fierce. She stooped in the hallway and snatched Uncle Gene’s boots. Outside, we heard him calling “Babydoll!”
“I hear a man who should be looking for another place to sleep tonight!” She opened the door and chucked out the boots. “I told you,” she yelled, “not to come home liquored up.”
“… Let us bring him silver and gold,” the song continued.
“Don’t you wish they’d do that, honey?” Aunt Sugar said. She sat down at the table and smoothed the edge of a place mat. “Bring some silver and gold instead of all this mess?”
The next day, I saw what Daddy and his brothers had done. A lopsided tree perched in the corner of our front room. It looked as uncertain as my Uncle Gene hanging onto his cup of coffee at the kitchen table. Mama set down a plate of biscuits, and Daddy grabbed three as he edged toward the back door.
“Come on, Gene,” my father said. “Birds are singing, singing.” He hummed a bit, then added, “singing, who’s that beautiful lady?”
His jolly words didn’t fool me. Mama’s face tightened as Daddy shuffled past the stove, reaching his biscuit toward the cast-iron skillet.
“Don’t you put your hands in that gravy,” she said. “Will.”
Daddy and Uncle Gene skulked out the back door and Mama let out a ragged sigh.
“Mama,” I said. “What’s wrong?” We hardly ever had biscuits and gravy. Shouldn’t this be a happy breakfast?
She sniffed hard.
“Those men. Went running all over town last night, saying it was for getting trees, and why would I think he’d do right just because he gave me the grocery money first? Did he save anything for Christmas?” She pointed at the leaning tree. “Look at that spindly old thing!” her voice shrilled. “No more than a weed!”
So Daddy had spent all the money, I realized. Mama’s biscuits and gravy were just a hopeful mistake, something she started before she realized nothing changed.
The tree at Aunt Sugar and Uncle Gene’s house was just as sad, pieces of broken tumbleweed sticking out from one side, the other rusty and dry.
“Those mens,” said my Aunt Mary, who’d come over to commiserate. “I don’t know why they think we gonna trust them at their word.” Her broad face looked calm. “That’s why I set back a little bit every otha week,” she whispered. “For Christmas. Don’t need to have that last-minute aggravation.”
Aunt Janie nodded.
“The best laid plans are plans we follow all the year round,” she said.
Aunt Sugar just sighed, unwilling to revisit the disaster.
It was fine for my aunts to recite their tidy sayings, but they didn’t have a houseful of hungry children, either one of them, I thought. Aunt Janie was a single church missionary, free to take on projects like Felicity Ann. Uncle Leo and Aunt Mary had two boys who both worked at good part-time jobs after school. I never saw my cousins wearing patched jeans.
Mama, who was prettier than either one of the aunties, wore the same few dresses to church year after year, refreshing her hats with a piece of ribbon or a new button. She went to work at the dry cleaner’s and cleaned houses and took in washing, so that her fine-boned hands always looked red and rough. Maybe my daddy was just harder to handle than his brothers. Or was Mama too forgiving? When I tried to take a deep breath, my lung felt cramped, and I swallowed hard. There was no use wondering about it when I had a long Saturday of work to do.
“Just turn that tree around so the dead part faces the wall,” Aunt Janie instructed Aunt Sugar. “By the time you put tinsel on it, nobody will see where it’s dry.”
“That will work, I say,” Aunt Mary nodded. “With the glass balls, it will be just fine.”
Our tree wouldn’t glisten with shiny ornaments. We had bright colored lights that Mama wrapped carefully every New Year’s Day in an old tablecloth. We made paper chains and paper stars and sometimes my little sisters stuck cotton balls on the branches even though Mama said the sight of ball cotton gave her the shivers.
The star for the treetop still looked fancy to me, though, just like the day Daddy brought it home when I was in grade school. It seemed to me that was the last time he helped. But maybe I was thinking too much like my aunties and not enough like my mama.
Back at our house, the younger children started to improve the appearance of the drunken tree. Little Man was stranded. He was too old to wonder with the little sisters about what presents he might get; he knew better. Still, he was too young to give up hope completely.
“Wait!” he said as Joy pulled out the star and begin to climb up a chair. “Daddy puts that on! Keep making chains.”
Joy stuck out her lower lip.
“The glue sticks to my fingers,” she whined, wiping her fingers on the back of her skirt.
“Well you all can always come on in here and wash the baseboards,” Mama called from the kitchen. “Before I start my ironing.”
Every Saturday, Mama ironed basket after basket of dress shirts, work pants and even blue jeans for Mr. Firestein. His wife said Mama did a better job than the dry cleaners. The Firesteins liked Mama so much, they bought her a new washing machine, and came to drop off and pick up all their laundry once a week. When Mama finished starching and pressing the cuffs and collars, she’d wrap the laundry bundles inside clean sheets to keep everything safe. Most weeks, she expected all of us children to help scrub the house from top to bottom, but the tree had taken up everybody’s attention.
Once Mama mentioned cleaning, “I still have to make more chains,” Joy said. “There’s not enough.”
Little Man rolled his eyes and turned to Baby Josie, who was trying to wriggle her way out from the high chair. She was fascinated by the tree and he had strapped her to the chair when he got tired of putting decorations back on the branches.
“Sit up,” he said, and pushed a soda cracker across the tray. While Josie broke the cracker into pieces, he looked longingly out the front window. It was a warm day for December, and we hadn’t had a speck of snow.
“What’s this?” I asked Lydia. She’d gathered a box full of toilet paper rolls and had smeared several with glue. Torn squares of wrapping paper lay in a neat row next to where she sat, cross-legged on the floor.
“I’m making candlestick ornaments,” my little sister said. “See, the cardboard fits over the cord, and the light bulb sticks out of the top like a candle. Maybe I can even put some tissue on the edges to make it look like fire.”
“You’re so smart,” I told her. “How long you been saving toilet paper rolls?”
“Since Halloween,” she said. “I clean the bathroom anyhow, so,” she shrugged. “Might as well make something pretty.”
“Can I help?” Felicity Ann pushed into the room behind her two brothers.
“Wanna go play football?” they asked Little Man. “We got everybody coming to the lot.”
Relief wiped the frown from Little Man’s face.
“Can we go by Percy’s house?” he said.
“I’ll tell Mama I can help finish the tree,” I said.
“Can I go?” Clyde asked, poking his head out from behind the tree where he had curled up with a blanket.
Little Man ignored him.
“You can help me put these chains on the tree, Clydie,” I coaxed him. “It’s too far for my arms to reach.”
“They never let me go,” Clyde said. “Someday I’m going.”
I knew just how he felt. I was the youngest of the older girls. Seemed like my big sisters explored every new thing before it was my turn, and by the time I got around to trying out for the school play or going to an eighth-grade dance or taking advanced classes, they’d rubbed the shine of newness right off. Now they were far away, Louellen married with two babies already and Marie at Job Corps. Here I was, picking dried glue off my fingers and wondering how it would look if I was ever allowed to paint my nails.
“Hey!” Lydia said. “Don’t pick that up!” Felicity had ambled over to the cardboard candles.
“But I can help,” Felicity said. “I’m a Child of God. Aunt Janie says I’m the same as everybody else.”
“Don’t mean you can just grab things that aren’t yours,” Lydia snapped. A quiet girl with her nose always in a book, she didn’t often raise her voice. Mama came to the doorway, her face shining with sweat.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“Miz Howard, I want to help,” said Felicity Ann. “I want to deck the halls.”
“Wish I could deck you,” muttered Lydia. Mama gave her a sharp look.
“Well, I have the perfect job for you, Felicity,” she said. “You can put the snow on the tree.”
I raised my eyebrows as Mama handed Felicity a brand-new bag of cotton balls.
“Just stick ‘em on the branches all over, and it will look like beautiful snow,” Mama said. “Watch out you don’t get stickers from the pine needles.”
By the time my sisters and their uninvited helper finished, the tree looked like it had been dipped in marshmallow frosting. Cotton balls clung in clusters to every branch. Lydia’s candlestick ornaments poked through the fake snow with bright-red puffs of tissue-paper flame.
“Is that candles?” Felicity Ann asked. “I saw those in a book. They put fire on their Christmas trees.”
“These are just pretend,” Lydia said. “You can’t light them.”
“I can do things,” Felicity said stubbornly. “I put the snow on the tree. I’m in a program.”
“Yes, but these aren’t real,” Lydia told her. “They’re just to look at.” With the soft-colored glow of the Christmas tree lights shining through the paper, the ornaments looked good to me.
I’m not sure anybody noticed that evening, though. After she finished the laundry job, Mama spent the rest of the day making cake and popcorn balls and candy and scolding the boys into helping her set up a refreshment table in the living room. From the shed out back, they brought in empty milk crates, and set an old, bare tabletop above them. Mama spread a freshly ironed tablecloth over the whole arrangement and it did look like a banqueting table.
“You made a lot of food, Mama,” Little Man said, sounding pleased. He reached toward a dollop of frosting on the lemon cake, but Mama swatted him away.
“You keep clear of all that, Little Man,” she said. “Now go and take a bath and make sure Clydie washes up, too.”
She never called Christmas Eve at our house a party, but it always turned out that way. Before the evening turned dark, church people and family friends started to show up at Sister Howard’s house. Mama did this every year, started with what she could bake and serve, and people just kept adding on until food crowded to the edges of the banqueting table. Around 9 o’clock, Peaches and her two friends slid in the doorway, carrying cases of strawberry soda.
“How’s my Little Man?” Peaches crooned, leaning down to kiss my brother on the forehead. He stared at her, awestruck, like he’d never seen fake eyelashes and sequins before.
“Merry Christmas, Peaches,” he said. He snatched the soda she’d offered him and tore through the room.
Before I stopped shaking my head, the McCroys arrived. The brothers’ button-up shirts looked too tight, and their pants rode a little bit above their ankle bones like always. They’d shined their shoes and carried tiny little red-wrapped packages they handed solemnly to Mama.
“Oh my, oh my,” she said as she unwrapped the bundles. Each one held something for her sewing — a safety pin strung with buttons, a spool of thread, a few needles fastened to a piece of flannel. “Thank you, babies. You are sweet.” She leaned forward and kissed each boy on the forehead. Then she took Felicity’s hands in her own.
“Now, Miss Felicity Ann, what do you think about our tree? Does it look like Christmas to you?”
“That’s snow on the tree,” she said. “Pretend snow. I put a lot of snow on there.”
Mama tried to make conversation with weary-looking Mrs. McCroy.
“Have some refreshments, there’s so much over there, Miz McCroy,” Mama said. “You need to sit down and rest a while.”
Just as Mama ushered the neighbor lady across the room, I heard the distinctive huff of Daddy’s pickup truck. I wasn’t the only one. Over near the door, Little Man raised his head with a watchful expression, and Clydie inched toward his favorite hiding spot behind the tree. The truck door slammed and moments later, Daddy’s towering frame filled the doorway. His brothers shambled along behind him.
“Did you make peanut brittle, Amy?” Uncle Leo hollered. “Nobody makes peanut brittle like you do.”
“What is there to eat?” Daddy said, weaving a bit in his boots. Now that he was inside the house, I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Lots of things, Daddy,” Little Man said. “We got all kinds of things made.”
“Help me get these boots off, boy,” Daddy said, sitting down on a chair near the door. Mama shot across the room, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Will! Not out here,” she said, her voice low. She turned to Little Man. “Help your daddy get his boots off in the back.”
“Woman! This is my house,” Daddy said, “My house and I can take off my boots right here.”
“Miss Amy,” Peaches poked her head around the doorway. “Can I talk to you?”
“What’s that girl doing in my house?” Daddy said loudly. “I see her out walking the streets, I don’t want her in my house.”
“Will,” Mama said. “That child isn’t hurting you.”
Peaches pursed her lips and flounced away. Little Man’s face darkened.
“Why you say that, Daddy?” he muttered. “She just wants to have Christmas.”
“Don’t talk back to me,” Daddy said. “Pull at this boot. I’m tired. I want a bath. Amy, did you run me a bath?”
By this time, our friends had moved to the other side of the room, trying to ignore the fuss. Mama turned and went to the bathroom door, shaking her head. Little Man yanked one boot free, then the other, tossed them down and ran out the door.
“Peaches!” I heard him call. “I got you a candy cane!”
Moments after Mama had coaxed Daddy out of the living room to take a bath, I smelled smoke. Had someone tossed a cigarette in the trash can? I went to the kitchen, checked the oven, found nothing but a plate of extra fried chicken. When I straightened up, I saw a haze of smoke in the living room.
“Something’s on fire,” I said, then more loudly, “Something’s on FIRE.”
“It’s just the candles, honey,” said Sister Owens.
“We don’t have candles,” I snapped. “Look at all that smoke!”
I pushed past the church ladies and Uncle Leo, who’d collected two plates full of food, and saw Clydie’s face peeking out from behind the tree. He had the same “not me” expression he wore when he’d eaten two donuts instead of one, which meant somebody wouldn’t get one, or skipped his turn to do the dishes.
“Clydie,” I said. “What are you doing?”
He shook his head, his eyes on the floor, and that’s when I saw it: Lydia’s cardboard candles were burning with real flames, real fire. I grabbed Clydie’s arm, pulled him free of the tree and hollered, “it’s on fire! The tree is on fire!”
By now, the paper chains had lit up with a flash and you could see dark smoke stringing up and away from the branches.
“Felicity Ann did it,” Clydie muttered as I shoved him toward the front door. “She got her some matches.” I was looking for a blanket, a sheet, something to smother the burning tree.
“Uncle Leo!” I yelled. “Daddy! Mama! Help!” And then, to the crowd of people still chewing on their cake and chicken, “Get out of the house!”
Uncle Leo stood up just as Daddy came tearing out of the bathroom, a towel flapping around his waist.
“Get out,” he said, shoving me hard. “Take the baby. Get outside.”
“Where’s Clydie?” I heard Mama scream. “Josie! Where’s Joy? Little Man?”
The front yard looked so sad, paper napkins crumpled on the ground, and discarded plates of food set any-which-way. Little Josie pulled at my shirt and tried to wipe her nose. Joy clutched my hand; I knew she was scared. Sister Owens and the church ladies clustered around the mailbox, chattering excitedly. I could hear Aunt Janie’s reedy voice:
“Never know with that man,” she said. “And those brothers of his. Drink the money away, come in at all hours. Set the house on fire.” She nodded her head in a nearly-satisfied way that made my hands itch and my face burn. It was her precious Felicity Ann who’d done this.
Inside the house, I heard the men holler and thump. The crooked little tree flew out the front door and landed on our lumpy front sidewalk. Festooned with charred paper, trailing smoke, the tree smelled of scorched sap and burnt glue.
“Criss-mas tree broke?” asked Josie. “Daddy broke it?” Joy’s eyes met mine, asking the same question.
“No, baby, Daddy kept it from burning up the house,” I said. Then, for good measure I repeated myself loudly: “Daddy saved us.”
For once, I thought. But I wouldn’t say that to my baby sister. I scanned the yard, looking for Little Man. Our house wasn’t burning down, there was no emergency — just another mess — but I wanted to see my little brother’s face all the same.
“Wash that down there, boy,” I heard Daddy’s voice. “Haul that water up, now, you know you can.” On the front step stood Little Man, hoisting a bucket nearly half his height. “Put those ashes out.”
Little Man lugged the bucket to the edge of the porch, then tossed the water over the smoking tree. He staggered back and looked up.
“That’s right,” Daddy said. He looked across the yard, as if addressing spectators at a sports event. “That boy works like a man. He’s a Howard. Strong.” Little Man dragged the bucket back into the house.
“I’ll get another one just to be sure,” he said. “Just makin’ sure.”
Josie wiggled in my arms, which ached. I walked over to Aunt Janie and handed the baby over with the explanation, “I’ma check on Mama.”
Maybe Aunt Janie would be able to handle a two-year-old better than that fire-happy Child of God, I thought. It was wrong to lie, but I wasn’t going to the kitchen door yet. I was pretty sure I’d seen Omar’s head across the yard, amid the crowd of nosy neighbors.
Sure enough, I found him by the lilac bushes that bordered our yard and Miss Minnie’s house.
“Omar,” I said — too loudly, I realized as the words came out of my mouth. “I was hoping you’d stop by.” Then again, I wished he’d come earlier, before my Daddy staggered in and the house burned up. Sometimes, it was just embarrassing to be a Howard.
“I came to thank you for the present,” he said. “Nestle Crunch. That’s my favorite.”
I looked down at my feet. Between hollering for help in the smoky living room and lugging my sisters out in the yard, I worried I was smelly with sweat.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Are you all right?” Omar asked. “It looks like you’re having a wild time here.”
“Oh, it’s just … nothing that strange,” I said. “I mean, someone lit the tree on fire.”
“Did you call the fire department?”
“Nah. My daddy got it out. We’ll be fine.”
“You Howards. Tough as nails, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, I wanted to say Merry Christmas,” Omar said. He leaned toward me in the dim light. Just like that, he kissed me. “Sneak attack,” he said.
Lights flashed across his face, and I turned back toward the house. Had Aunt Janie seen? Or Sister Owens? Or, God help me, one of my uncles?
But it was the wide, low headlights of a car that had illuminated the yard. The Firesteins’ wood-panelled station wagon, which we only ever saw on Saturday afternoons, was back on Poplar Street.
“Now, you have a Merry Christmas,” Mr. Firestein reminded me of Santa Claus pictures, with his red face and big white teeth. “Miz Amy takes care of my clothes all year long, it’s my turn to do something for her.”
“Here you go, hon,” said Mrs. Firestein, handing a stack of gift-wrapped boxes to Lydia. “Take those in to your mother. Oh my,” she said as she noticed the smoking remains of the tree. “What on earth happened?”
“We’re all right,” said Lydia as she struggled to balance the boxes. “Daddy put out the fire.”
“Fire?” Mr. Firestein said. “Was it an electrical short?”
“It was matches,” said Felicity Ann, who’d pushed her way to the front. Probably hoping for presents, I thought sourly. “I lighted the candles. Just like the pictures. Candles on the tree.”
The Firesteins looked confused.
“This is our neighbor friend,” Aunt Janie announced importantly, like Felicity had told the Firesteins her name and address, not confessed to small-time arson. “She has her different ways but she is one of God’s valuable children.” Josie pulled at Aunt Janie’s hair, and my aunt winced.
“Is Miz Amy here?” asked Mrs. Firestein after a long pause. “We want to wish her a Merry Christmas.”
“I’ll get her,” I said loudly. Last thing Mama would want was visitors coming into a torn-up house. “Mama?” I called as I ran up the steps. “Mama? You in here?”
LIttle Man pushed the screen door open, his shoulders square and strong. The pride still shone on his face, but “You don’t wanna go in there,” he said, shaking his head. “They doing sump-a-thing.” Then, as he caught sight of the station wagon, “what’s going on?”
“It’s the Firesteins,” I said. “Now you go down there and be poli