Chapter 1: Jack’s First Tree
Katherine burst through the door with her arms full of boxes and her cheeks red from the cold.
Jack stood up from the couch. “What’s all this, Ace?” He took a precariously leaning box from the top of her stack.
“Christmas decorations!” She said. She put the boxes down with a clatter and took off her coat. “I bought us some candles and a few red balls—I like red better than silver, don’t you—and gathered some old things from my parents’ house.”
Jack lifted the top off the box he was holding. “This...this the one from your folks’ place?”
“Yeah,” Kat sat down on the floor of their little apartment. “Put it down; let’s look at it.”
Jack set the box down and plopped down next to his wife.
“Nativity is on top, I think.” She rustled around and pulled out Mary and Joseph and animals carved in various shades of polished wood. “This isn’t my favorite one, but Mama insisted on keeping the good ones at her house, and she gave Esther one as a wedding gift.” She set up the Nativity on the rug beside her, like a little girl playing with dolls.
“‘Ere’s baby Jesus,” Jack offered, holding the figure between his thumb and fingers.
The pile grew as Katherine unpacked a shallow box of fragile silver ornaments and long strands of itchy garland. (“But we’ll want some more, I think, for the fireplace.” Kat said.)
“Ah, I remember making these.” Katherine carefully unwrapped a bundle of tissue paper, revealing a hastily painted red ceramic heart.
“Helen.” Jack read the inscription. Kat unwrapped another—a white one that said Esther.
“I should let my sisters have theirs,” Katherine set them aside. “But where is mine?” She pulled out a couple more ceramic rocking horses and angels and mittens. Most of them had obviously been made by Katherine and her sisters as little kids.
“Found it!” Kat unwrapped another heart.
“Jeez, Kat, how many Christmas trees did you have?”
“Just the big tall one in the parlor, usually.” She said. “But Helen and I liked making the ornaments. Mama would let us decorate the backside however we wanted. The rest of the tree was just candles and red and silver balls. Sometimes popcorn. It had to be perfect, except for our little corner.” She chuckled and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “What about you?”
Jack snorted. “Kitten, I ain’t never had a Christmas tree in my life.”
“My folks weren’t gonna spend their hard earned money on something that was just gonna make a mess and die,” he said. “Not everyone’s got maids and butlers.” His parents had worked themselves to death as it was.
“I know,” Kat said. She reached for his hand. “Did you all do anything for Christmas?”
“Did my Irish Catholic parents celebrate Christmas?” He smiled. “Of course we did.” He didn’t tell her that it was getting harder to remember when his family was alive.
“And now that wes married,” he squeezed her hand. “We can makes our own traditions. However we wants.”
“Right!” Kat said, grinning.
Jack gingerly moved a bundle of ornaments from his lap and stood up. “Now, where do we need ta go to get us a tree?”
Christmas Eve 1887
Jack 5, Ciara (key-rah) 4, Molly 9 months Jack’s mother’s name is pronounced Ave-LEEN
It was just starting to snow as Evelyn and the children waited for Patrick to come home from work. Molly, who had just learned to crawl, did laps around the kitchen table. Ciara pulled at the lace collar of her Christmas dress; Jack pressed his nose into the cold window.
“When will Da be home, Mama?” He asked. His breath fogged up the glass.
“Do we gotta go to church tonight, Mama?” Ciara asked. She joined Jack at the window, peering over the fire escape into the darkness. The bow in her hair had fallen down already.
“Of course.” Evelyn came behind Ciara and re-tied the red ribbon in her dark, wild curls. “We’ll go to Mass just as soon as ya da gets home. It’s Christmas Eve.”
Jack breathed on the window and used his finger to doodle in the condensation. “Did you hafta go to church when you were little?” He asked.
“Yes, and we had a much longer an’ harder walk.”
“What was Ireland like, Mama?” Ciara always asked the same question.
Evelyn smiled. “I’ve somethin’ to show you two,” she said. “Somethin’ my nephews loved that I’ve been meaning to do.” She shuffled around in a cabinet for a candlestick and a fresh white candle.
“What are ya doing, Mama?” Ciara asked.
Evelyn sat down at the kitchen table, and the two older kids climbed into her lap. “On a night like this, nearly two thousand years ago, there was a young lady and her husband. They had to travel a long, long way to a town called Bethlehem. The woman was a mighty special lady about to have a very special baby boy.”
“Baby Jesus!” Ciara said.
“And Mother Mary,” Jack added. “Right, Mama?”
“Right, darlin’” Evelyn said. “They knocked and knocked on doors—“ Evelyn knocked on the table. “Hoping to find a place ta stay. But no one had room. Every place turned them away. No, no, no, they said. It was getting later and darker. They was awful tired and scared, and their feet hurt from walkin’. Mary was about to have her baby on the back of a smelly old donkey! Joseph approached an innkeeper, who let them stay in the barn.”
“Mama!” Molly whined at Evelyn’s feet.
Evelyn swooped her up and settled the chubby baby in between her siblings. “I’m mighty glad you weren’t born in a manager.” She added, giving Molly a quick kiss on the head. “So, Our Lord was born in a barn. He was born next to sheep and goats and cows and horses. Mary knew that he was God with us, and she gently wrapped him up just like any mama would.”
Ciara, who was never quiet, nodded solemnly. Jack rolled the candle around on the table in front of him. “What’s this for?”
Evelyn smiled. “Put it in the candlestick,” she said. Jack did so.
“I wanted to do it!” Ciara cried.
“Hush, lass,” Evelyn handed the candle to her daughter. “Take it to the window.”
The kids slid out of her lap and ran to the window. Evelyn, carrying Molly and a box of matches, followed. “Mary and Joseph had no place to stay,” she said. “So, wes light a candle to welcome them in, and ta welcome in any folks who needs a lovin’ home.”
“That’s awful nice, Mama,” Ciara said. She stood on her toes and reached for the matches. “Let me light it! Let me!”
“Let me!” Jack clawed at Evelyn, too. “I’m bigger.”
“Shh,” Evelyn shushed them. “Let me. Here, take Molly.” Evelyn put the baby down in front of Jack and struck a match. It flickered. She lit the candle. Molly reached for it, and Jack took her hand.
The warm, steady flame melted the frost from the window. Evelyn scooped up Molly, and Jack pressed himself into her side. She wrapped her arm around him—had he gotten taller in a day?
Evelyn closed her eyes. Maybe, all the way across the ocean, in a little Irish farmhouse in the Wicklow mountains, her parents and big brothers, nieces and nephews and their babies gathered in front of their own flickering candle. “Emmanuel.” Evelyn whispered. “God with us.”
If you’ve read the Storyteller, you know how it all turns out for Evelyn and Pat and Ciara and Baby Molly. The candle in the window is a real Irish tradition that I just loved when I read about it! More baby Jack to come!
Chapter 3: Gimmel
“ Gimmel ! Yes!” Les cried. He swept two pennies, a nickel, a cigar, and a broken candy cane into his growing pile of loot on the floor in front of him.
“Dammit, kid!” Race said.
Jack laughed and leaned back onto his elbows. He’d never seen his buddy lose a bet. The boys played poker almost every night; Race had a strong poker face and a quick mind for strategy. “Here,” Jack tossed a penny into the center of the circle. So did Davey, Tommy, and Crutchie. Finch was out of change; he pulled a shiny cat-eye marble from his coat pocket.
“Give me that diddle.” Race reached for the top.
“ Dreidel .” Les corrected.
“Wha’ever.” Race said. The top spun and spun until it fell on its side with a ceramic clatter. “Ain’t that the one that means half?”
Davey shook his head. “ Nisht.” He said. “Do nothing.”
Race scowled. Tommy lit another cigar. It was Jack’s turn.
“Nisht.” Les announced.
Crutchie spun the dreidel. Nisht. “How come the miracle one means do nothin’?”
“Beats me.” Davey said.
Tommy landed on Hey. “How’s I supposed to take half a marble?”
“Ya don’t,” Jack said. “That’s gonna be mine.” He’d collected marbles since he was five.
“Is anyone going to add more coal to that fire?” Davey said as he reached across the circle for the dridel. “It’s getting chilly in here.”
“We ain’t made o money, pretty boy.” Race said.
“ Nisht,” Davey sighed.
Finch’s turn. “What’s that?”
“ Shtel.” Davey said.
“Share.” Les said. “Everyone put something in.”
“Stupid,” Race muttered. “Here.” He plucked Tommy’s cigar from his hand.
“You ass!” Tommy lunged for him.
“Hey!” Les cried.
Jack calmly grabbed Race by the shoulder. “ Shtel, Racer.”
Race tossed in a penny and crossed his arms.
Les clapped his hands. “Okay, boys, this one is lucky,” he said. He rubbed the dridel in his cupped hands and blew on it. “I can feel it. This is my lucky one.”
“Let’s go, shortstop.” Jack said.
Les got on his knees and spun the top in the very center of the circle. The wooden blur spun...and spun...and spun...
“Gimmel! Again! Yes!”
Daisy- 5 ½, Benji and Elliot- turning 2 on Christmas Day
“Mama!” Daisy sprung into Jack and Kat’s bed before the sun was fully up. “Mama! Daddy, it snowed!”
“Did it?” Katherine said sleepily.
The five-year-old bounced on her knees. “Come look!”
“Later, love,” Kat, eyes still closed, fumbled for her daughter’s hand. “Lay down with me for a minute.”
“Can we go play in the snow? Can I get the boys up?”
“Don’t bother ya brothers,” Jack mumbled into his pillow.
Daisy sighed and flopped backwards, elbowing Jack in the back and giving Katherine a face-full of fuzzy blonde curls. “It looks like angels on the window.”
“Come on, a mhuirnin,” Jack hauled himself to his feet and swept Daisy under one arm like a sack of potatoes.
Soon, all five were gathered in their glimmering backyard with coats and hats on over their pajamas. Kat and Jack watched from the back door as the boys toddled behind Daisy in the soft, ankle-deep snow. Benji slipped and face planted, but pushed himself up before Kat could get to him. Ice stuck to his eyelashes, chin, and the edge of his red hat. He blinked, licked the snow from his lips, and commenced waddling after his twin.
“Tough lad.” Jack quipped.
“Come on, Elliot,” Daisy reached for her brother’s hand. “Let’s build a fort.” She knelt down and used her little mittened hands to shove a patch of snow into a pile. Elliot stuck his mittened fingers into his mouth and wandered towards Kat.
“Daddy!” Daisy called. “Help me, please!”
Jack yawned and, at his daughter’s command, packed the snow into low walls. “Like a castle, Daddy.” Snow soaked through his pajama pants, and he wished he’d taken a second to change. He wanted a cup of coffee. Or twelve.
Eventually he and Daisy were surrounded by lopsided, six inch mounds of snow that might be castle walls to a mouse. “‘Ey, Days,” he said. “You know what we oughta do now?”
“What?” Her green eyes--like his and like his father’s--were sparkling. Her nose and cheeks were red from the cold.
“Let’s get ya mama.”
“Yeah!” Daisy laughed.
Kat was standing near the door with her hands in her pockets, watching the boys dig holes. Jack scooped a mound of snow into his fist. “Shh,” he said to Daisy as they approached them.
“What are you playing, Daisy?” Katherine said.
Jack came beside her, sweetly put his arm across her shoulder, and dropped the snow down the back of her neck.
“Oh!” She squealed. “Jack, you rascal!”
Short, I know, but I wanted to get something up tonight. Thanks for reading, friends.
“What do ya mean ya fellas never get a Christmas tree?” Crutchie said. “How do ya not get a tree?”
He and Jack were walking to their selling spot across from the bank on 35th street. “Jeez, kid,” Jack said. His breath froze in the air. “Whens we got time to get somethin’ that just gonna die in a couple weeks anyways? Where the hell would we put a tree?”
“In da living room,” Crutchie insisted. “You don’t think theys pretty?”
“Charlie, I ain’t never had a tree before,” Jack said. “I just seen Miss Medda’s.”
“Really?” Crutchie said.
“My mama might’ve been a maid, but she wasn’t ‘bout to sweep up all them little needles,” Jack said. “You tellin’ me that shitty orphanage of yours had a Christmas tree?”
“Every year,” The ten-year-old said.
Jack shook his head. “You ain’t about to tell me we need Santa to come to the lodge, are ya?”
Crutchie snorted. “Santa only gives presents to rich kids.”
Jack nodded. He knew that too. His coat pulled tightly across his shoulders as he shifted his bag of papes. It was too small already. They all needed so many things: Coats, gloves, socks, and shirts, cigars, cold medicine, and firewood. Better headlines. A Christmas tree, Jack thought, wasn’t anywhere on that list.
Sunshine warmed the city as the boys settled themselves on the corner to shout the mundane headline. The quicker they sold out, the quicker they could head to Medda’s or Jacobi’s for a bite to eat and a chance to warm up before the evening pape came.
“Where could we go to get us a tree?” Crutchie asked. He was massaging his bad leg, but Jack didn’t say anything about it.
“We ain’t getting a tree,” Jack said. “The nuns will bring us supper and hopefully some hand-me-downs, and try to get us to go to church. We’ll sell plenty of papes Christmas Eve. That’s it. That’s how it been the whole time I been around here.”
“Sounds nice,” Crutchie said. “Be better with a tree.”
It was pitch dark by time the boys all arrived back at the lodge. The evening headline had stunk. Almost everyone had lost money; they'd barely scraped together a dime a head for everyone's bed and dinner.
“Nobody wants no papes when theys just trying to get home before the sun sets,” Finch complained. He rubbed his hands together to warm them.
Crutchie limped up the stairs alone to their freezing bedroom. He sat down on his bottom bunk, took a sock from under his pillow, and dumped a pile of pennies and nickels into his lap. Last year he was homeless. This year, he would get a Christmas tree.
A dollar and sixty-three cents. He counted it a second time, and then a third, just to be sure. A dollar and sixty-three cents. Surely that could get him something .
He carefully siphoned the coins back into the sock with his cupped hand, then put the sock in his pocket. He buttoned his coat. He tied his boots tightly, put on his gloves and a scarf, and picked up his crutch. A dollar and sixty-three cents. Christmas tree time.
Crutchie’s brothers, too exhausted for being only 13 and 14, didn’t notice he was gone. As the boys lit the little coal stove, ate dinner, and stretched out on the floor to play cards, they assumed Crutchie had gone upstairs and fallen asleep.
It was just about bedtime when Race saw something out the window. The figure was limping towards them with slow, heavy steps. Who was that? The street lamps flickered. Were they carrying something? He stared for a while, then gasped. “Holy shit, fellas!” he said. “Crutchie’s outside!”
A dozen boys tripped over each other to open the door. Crutchie came resolutely towards the lodge, panting, with his crutch under one arm and dragging a scraggly little fir tree with the other.
“I told ya!” he shouted. His cheeks were cherry red from the cold. “I told ya I’d get us a tree!” He laughed.
A couple of the boys ran to grab the tree from him. It was maybe three feet tall, maybe, and nearly bald on one side. Green and brown pine needles fluttered to the ground around them.
Jack stood on the sidewalk, the front door wide open behind him. He just stared at Crutchie and his stupid little tree and his brothers, all gathered in their sock feet on the cold, chipped cobblestone. “Jesus, that kid!” he exclaimed.
Tommy and Finch were arguing already, trying to get the tree to stand up straight. “Well,” Jack finally shouted to Crutchie. “It leans a little bit, but so does the whole damn house. Come on inside ‘fore ya catch ya deaths, boys, and let’s set it up!”
Protective Jack is protective. This is just after Tugboat has left and he's putting a lot of pressure on himself as a leader. Trying to play catch up this weekend! Let me know what you think!
The sun set too early in the winter. By the time the boys trudged home from selling the evening pape, it felt like midnight. They ate quietly, then gathered around the heater in the living room.
“Up for a quick round of poker?” Race asked. He lit a cigar, then coughed into his fist.
Tommy Boy pulled a deck of cards from his coat pocket. “Ya have a couple too many cigars, there, Chimney Top?”
Race coughed again, then took another puff and blew a shaky smoke ring. “Shut up,” he said. “Just gettin’ a cold.”
“There’s our headline for the morning,” Finch said. He was laying on the floor with his head in Elmer’s lap. “Christmas plague claims another.”
“Ah, don’t ya fuss.” Race sat down on the floor next to Jack, who draped his arm around Race’s shoulder.
“‘Bout tradition by now, yeah?” Jack said.
The boys passed a terrible cold between them every single winter. Crutchie was usually the first struck down, around Thanksgiving, then the rest of them knew it was only a matter of time. Race had been sick last Christmas, and the year before that, and seemed to be going for a third year in a row.
A couple of the younger boys joined the circle in a tangle of arms and legs and worn blankets. Grey, slushy sleet settled outside. Race sniffled; Tommy dealt cards. For once, Race lost every single hand.
When the morning bell rang on Christmas Eve, Race only slowly rolled over. He’d been in bed for two days.
“Rise and shine, boys!” Tommy called down the line of bunk beds. “Sooner we sells out, sooner we gets our Christmas dinner!”
“Shut up!” Jack snapped. “Race’s still sleepin’.” He grabbed his shirt from his bunk and pulled it over his head.
“Sorry,” Tommy said.
A voice came from the washroom: “Gimme my toothpaste!” then the quick footsteps of a scuffle.
“'Ey! Shut the hell up!” Tommy yelled back, barging into the bathroom. “No fighting on Christmas!”
Jack looked around the empty bedroom and into the washroom: Buttons and Henry, the two youngest, were arguing in overlapping voices. Crutchie dressed slowly, stiffly. Winter was so hard on him. Race was huddled in a pitiful heap of tangled blankets. It was going to be a long day.
Jack approached the top bunk nearest to the window. “Ya a’right, Racer?” he asked quietly.
Race turned towards him. “I feel like shit,” he said hoarsely. “Can you shut them up? My head hurts ‘nuff as it is.”
“We’ll be outta your hair soon, buddy,” Jack said.
Race coughed heavily into his pillow, and wheezed, struggling to catch his breath. His blonde hair stuck up at odd angles, and his blue eyes were glassy and unfocused. Heat practically radiated off of him. “You...you sure you good stayin’ here alone?”
“Yeah,” Race replied, barely audible. “I’s fine.”
Jack nodded. He quietly got Race a glass of water, buttoned his coat, and rounded up the boys to sell papes.
Everyone felt sorry for the boys working on a holiday, so they always sold out quick. They were out only a few hours before they met back at the distribution center two and three at a time.
“One lady gave me a whole extra nickel!” Henry held it up in his mittened fingers. “Just ‘cause it’s Christmas!”
Crutchie smiled as he massaged his leg. “I sold fifty papes.”
“What do ya think the nuns are gonna bring us for supper?” Elmer wondered.
“Ham!” Finch said.
“No, turkey!” Henry said. “Or both!” The twins pelted each other with snowballs in a empty lot across the street.
Jack just stood with his hands in his coat pockets. “Let’s head back, fellas!” He shouted. “C’mon! We gotta get home.” At least the wind had died down.
He plowed ahead of the group, head down, catching bits of the chatter behind him.
“Apple and pumpkin!”
“Thirty...forty...one...two...holy smokes, fellas! I made forty-two cents!”
“Hell yeah!” Mike laughed loudly.
“Jack,” Crutchie called. “Jackie, slow down!”
Jack turned and looked over his shoulder. Crutchie was moving as fast as he could to catch up. Jack paused and Crutchie fell into step beside him, panting.
“What’s the matter wit ya, Jackie?” Crutchie said. “It’s Christmas.”
Jack shook his head. “Race’s sick, in case you forgot.”
“Shoot,” Crutchie chuckled. “Racer’s sick every dang Christmas, poor guy. He’ll be fine by the weekend. You know that.”
“No,” Jack said. “No, I don’t just know that.”
His chest had felt tight all day; he couldn’t explain it. Jack pressed his lips together, took a long inhale of biting, cold air through his nose. “I...I...shit, Crutch, you saw ‘im this mornin’. What we gonna do?”
Crutchie was quiet a moment, which felt even more frustrating.
“Let’s...see how he’s feelin’ when we get home, huh?” Crutchie said. “Maybe the sisters have got some remedy laying around.”
Nine Christmases ago, the flu had swept through Jack's apartment complex and stolen away his mother and his wild-child little sister. His best friend. Jack claimed he didn’t have folks, but God, not a day went by he didn’t think of Ciara’s contagious laugh and dark curls, of his mother’s busy hands and firm, lilting voice, of the endless energy and imagination they both possessed.
“No,” Jack said. His own voice startled him somehow. He felt so restless. “Yeah, you right. Race’ll be fine.”
This was so hard to write and duh, of course it's about grief. (My English major friends and I joke that everything we write is about grief). Y'all know I'm a sucker for sickfics. Part 2 will be up later this week. I had the worst day at work. Leave some love. <3
The boys filled the little living room with laughter as soon as they returned to the lodge. Tommy and Finch held each other by the shoulders, play wrestling. Buttons climbed onto Spec’s back, and snatched the hat from his head. Crutchie sank into a chair and laughed at something Romeo said. Jack lit the stove and watched the orange coals flicker. “I’m gonna check on Race,” He said. No one heard him.
When Jack got upstairs, Race was in the same spot he’d been in when they left that morning. “‘Ey,” Jack said. “We sold out real quick. How ya doin’?”
“I can’t fuckin’ breathe,” Race said hoarsely. He pushed himself to sit up, and erupted into a fit of hacking coughs.
“You look like shit.”
Race was coughing too hard to answer. He took a slow, shaky breath, and pressed a hand to his ribs.
“Want some water?” Jack asked, and Race nodded. Jack filled his glass from the pump in the washroom.
Race drank half of it in three gulps. “Don’t...don’t ya dare baby me,” he said.
Jack shook his head. “Ya sicker than the rest of us been,” he said. “Sicker than ya usually are.” Their wisecracks about the Christmas plague didn’t feel funny anymore.
A chair clattered downstairs followed by a roar of laughter. Jack marched across the long bedroom to the top of the steps. “Knock it off!” He shouted down the stairs.
“Sorry, Ma!” Tommy yelled back. More raucous laughter.
Race coughed again and spit into his hand. “Oh, Jesus, that’s gross,” he muttered. Jack could hear his breathing from where he stood twenty steps away.
“Sounds bad,” Jack said. The anxiety was swelling in him again, like a balloon below his breastbone. Keep your damn head, Kelly. He thought.
The nuns would come soon with Christmas hams and apple pies in their arms. They’d come with blessed are the poor and Merry Christmas and big, patronizing smiles in their mouths. None of that sounded like a lot of help right now. Church hadn’t been a bit of help when his mama and sisters had been sick.
Jack could nearly hear his Irish Catholic mother scolding him for his irreverence. He ground his teeth, and he pressed a hand to Race’s burning forehead. “What?” Race said, blinking stupidly.
“I gotta get us some help,” Jack said. “We...ya need somethin’, Racer.” He licked his lips. “I got an idea.”
Jack ran down the steps, past his brothers, out the door, and past the church, dodging carts and people in the pale, fading sunshine. He ran, and he ran, and he didn’t stop running until he reached the back door of the theatre.
It was locked. He pounded on the door, panting. “Miss Medda!” he shouted. “Open up!”
Medda came to the door in a glimmering party dress. Of course she had somewhere to be. “Jack?” She said. “Come in, baby. Everything alright?”
Jack sat down on a crate of costumes, pressed his hands into his knees, and said, “Race’s real sick, Miss Medda. I don’t know what to do.”
The next thing he knew, Medda was walking Jack to her carriage with a firm, comforting hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good friend, baby,” she said. “I’ve a doctor friend who can help us. Miss Medda’s got you. Miss Medda’s gonna take care of you boys.”
Christmas dinner had just arrived when Jack got back.
“Jackie, where ya been?” Crutchie asked. His eyes widened as Medda and the tall, skinny doctor came in on Jack’s heels.
“Shit, we can’t afford no doctor!” Tommy said.
“Don’t you worry a bit about it, boys,” Medda said. She smiled warmly at the startled nun. “Well, Merry Christmas, sister!”
The doctor disappeared upstairs. Jack collapsed into a chair between Crutchie and Specs.
“Race actually that bad off, Jack?” Specs asked.
“I think so,” Jack sighed. Medda squeezed his shoulder and handed him a plate full of food.
“Everyone's going to be okay, baby,” Medda said. “Eat up.” He did, quietly.
Everyone looked up when the doctor came back downstairs. “Bronchitis,” he announced, as he buttoned his coat. “The boy’s sleeping now. Fever's already coming down. He'll be right as rain by New Years.”
For the first time all day, Jack relaxed. The tension melted from his shoulders and he leaned against Crutchie. A nun handed him a piece of pie.
As Race slept dreamlessly through a cough syrup induced haze, the boys and Medda and the two shy nuns had Christmas dinner. They sprawled out on the floor with plates in their laps or crowded knee-to-knee around the table. The fire was warm, and the conversation was warm. Their bodies were exhausted, and their bellies were full. What a Christmas.
“It's Christmas!” Buttons shouted as the sun was coming up. A pillow sailed across the room and smacked him in the head. But soon the boys emerged from their bunks one by one to a clear, crisp day.
Race sat up and looked around at his brothers all getting ready. “Morning, boys," He croaked. Every head swiveled to Race. He was disheveled, but clear-eyed. He coughed and tried to talk again. "Mornin'," he said, stronger.
“Feelin’ better, kid?” Jack asked.
Race nodded. “Feelin’ human again.” He slowly climbed out of his top bunk. “And don’t ya kid me. Wes the same age.”
“Nah, you still a kid."
“Thanks for getting that doc.” Race swung an arm around Jack’s shoulder. “You’re a real pal.”
“Ya smell like a junkyard.” Jack gave him a shove. “Go take a shower.”
It was rare for the boys to have a day off, and they settled in for a lazy day of poker and marbles and grazing on leftovers from their feast. Medda came around noon with even more food and her arms full of presents.
The boys tore into their gifts. Medda enveloped Race in a long hug. She stood between Race and Jack, dwarfed by both, with a hand on each boy's shoulder. "Now, you all take care, boys," she announced. "Once y'all are healthy, I want you to come to Miss Medda's for New Years!"
Ha-choo! Little Henry sneezed. Jack groaned.
this is a hot mess of me projecting my anxiety onto Jack lol. Part of my brain says Race was always smoking cigars because that was an actual asthma treatment at the time.
I'm gonna try to write something shorter and happier yet this weekend.
Chapter 8: Names
Jack and Kat woke up one Sunday morning to their whole house coated in ice.
Kat, who was seven months pregnant, stood in the living room with a quilt around her shoulders. “Well, there goes our errands,” she said. She wiped frost from the window and looked out at their small yard, sparkling with half a foot of snow.
“We needed a lazy day, Ace,” Jack said. “I’ve got coffee on. We’ll get a fire going so it ain't so cold in here, and make us some breakfast. Read and draw and put our feet up, yeah?”
Kat’s hand drifted to her round belly. “You know, what we really ought to do today is name the baby.”
“Fred,” Jack grunted.
He tiptoed behind her and wrapped his arms all the way around her. “We can’t call ‘im baby all his life?”
“Might be a girl.” Kat pointed out. Jack kissed the top of her head, and she sighed happily.
Jack pulled away and started for the kitchen. “I’m making pancakes,” he said. “Want some coffee?”
“Yes, please,” She said. She turned to the coffee table and picked up a little notebook. “What do you think of Magnolia? Or Hattie Ann?”
Jack appeared at the doorway with a coffee mug in each hand. “This kid’s gettin’ a newsie nickname whatever ya christen ‘em, ya know.”
“Or William? Michael?” Kat took her coffee from him and sat down on the couch.
He sat down beside her and pulled some of her blanket into his lap. “Maeve would be a proper Irish gal.” He took a sip of his coffee.
“I like Maeve." Kat nodded. "Boy ideas?”
“Fred,” Jack grunted.
Chapter 9: Babies and Bubbes
Davey attempts to teach 4 kids under 6 to make latkes.
Daisy 6 ½, Benji and Elliot 3, turning 4 on Christmas Day, Lilah 5 months
The twins were inexplicably already covered in flour. They sat on tall stools at the kitchen island with their little legs dangling, and hunched together over the flour canister, scooping and digging and stirring with spoons. David shrugged. At least they were occupied.
He turned to Daisy, his eager six-year-old sous-chef. “Alright, Days,” Davey said. “Our first order of business is to shred lots and lots of potatoes.”
“Oh! I can do that!” She picked up the grater and a wedge of potato that Rebecca had peeled earlier.
“Watch--watch your fingers!” David came behind her and put his hand over hers. “Let me help you. Here, we’ll do it together.” He guided her little hand in short, smooth motions. Her red hair bow was so large it almost smacked him in the face.
They’d made it a third of the way through their mountain of potato hunks before Daisy got bored. “My arm is tired!”
“Fine,” Davey said. “I’ll finish it real quick, then we’ll do the next part.”
The task was faster but not quieter by himself. Daisy knew her parents were off Christmas shopping, so she rattled off her wish list: a pretty doll with pretty clothes, new crayons, maybe a puppy (“because Mama’s ‘llergic to cats”), and big books of fairy tales “because I want to read about princesses and knights and big scary dragons and creepy fairies, Uncle Davey.”
“Good for you,” Davey said, still robotically grating potatoes. “Learning to read is very important.”
“I’m not learning,” Daisy said. “I already know how to read. I’m almost seven!”
“No!” Elliot squealed. Benji was flicking flour at him.
“Don’t hit!” Daisy chided, grabbing Elliot by his chubby wrist.
“Lemme go!” Elliot screamed.
“Hey!” Davey called. He clipped his knuckles on the grater. “Shit!”
Daisy’s mouth fell open. “That’s a bad word!”
“Yeah!” Benji, Jack’s mini-me, echoed.
David was beginning to envy his deaf wife. Rebecca, who was in the nursery down the hall feeding baby Lilah, probably couldn’t hear any of this.
“Sorry!” Davey said. He looked down at his mass of hash browns. It was more than enough. Why had Rebecca peeled so many potatoes? The cut on his hand stung, but what’s a batch of latkes without a bit of blood?
Davey took a deep breath and handed each of the twins a cup. “Boys, can you get us some flour? Daisy, I’ll let you stir.”
Unwilling to eat eggshell pancakes, Davey put himself in charge of cracking eggs. He lifted the twins up to sit on the counter so they could see and they took turns tipping flour into the bowl. Daisy dutifully stirred and stirred, still talking, this time about playground spats and “secret clubs, Uncle Davey, just for the girls who like to play jump rope and fairies.” He didn’t remember first grade being this much drama.
Rebecca appeared just as their batter was coming together. “How are we doing?” She asked. “Lilah is almost asleep.” She was nice enough not to say anything about the blanket of flour coating the floor, Davey’s shirt, and both boys.
“Miss Becca!” Elliot held his arms out for a hug. Rebecca scooped him up onto her plump hip and brushed the flour from his dark hair. He laid his head on her shoulder and fidgeted with the string of silver flowers around her neck.
The five of them migrated to the table. Davey and Rebecca patiently showed the kids how to pat the batter into small round pancakes. A vat of shimmering fat waited on the stove. “When they’re done we’ll eat them with applesauce,” Rebecca said.
“What!” Davey cried. “No. No, all they need is salt.”
“Wait and see, kids. Miss Becca is right.” Soft constants turned to slush in her mouth. Rebecca shook her head. “Goodness, Hanukkah was so much work for Bubbe and Mama and me. I had four younger brothers and a baby sister to make latkes for!”
“Wow, I only have two little brothers,” Daisy said. “Hmm, I could get a baby sister.”
“Stick to a doll for now, love,” David advised. He told Daisy how he could still see how his family’s beloved gold menorah shone in the window of their fifth floor apartment, flickers of hopeful light visible even from the street. The three of them had taken turns each night lighting candles: Sarah then him then Les.
The little girl turned this over in her mind. “So you don’t have a Christmas tree, right?” she said. “And you don’t go to church like us?”
“Nope,” Davey said. “We’re Jewish, so our holidays are a little bit different.”
Benji took a bite of raw potato, then immediately spit it out. Rebecca laughed and handed him a napkin. Davey stood at the stove frying the latkes in batches while Rebecca directed Daisy to sweep the floor. The twins sat together on top of the counter, watching Davey’s pile of golden pancakes grow.
There was a knock at the door. “Come in!” Davey called. He tapped Rebecca on the shoulder. “Jack and Kath are back.”
The kids ran to the door. Katherine scooped Elliot up as Jack stamped the snow from his shoes. “Did you behave?” Jack asked. “Did you wear Uncle Davey out?”
“We made latkes!” Daisy announced.
“Please, come eat some,” Davey said. “It was a labor of love.” Katherine chuckled.
The baby started crying as they all sat down, and Rebecca went to get her. “Someone wanted to join in the fun,” Rebecca said.
“Hi, Baby Lilah!” Benji exclaimed. He’d discovered the latkes tasted much better once cooked.
Katherine held out her arms. “Oh, let me see that sweet baby.” Rebecca handed her daughter over. “Yes, yes, big girl,” Katherine cooed. “Yes, you’re looking like your pretty mama.” Lilah had Rebecca’s round face and Davey’s curious eyes. She giggled, and Katherine hugged her. “Oh, I miss having chubby babies.”
Davey raised an eyebrow at Jack, who shook his head sharply. “I told ya I would get a baby sister!” Daisy cried. Jack choked on his latke.
Daisy took this one over! It was fun to play with Rebecca and develop her back story a little more. And to write Davey! I never write Davey for some reason.
I'm officially on winter break, which means I'm halfway through my first year of teaching, and even more importantly means I have more time to write!