Poppa spit chaw into his little Sanka can and told ma and the two progeny, “Put your thermals on. We gonna trek to the woods and haul back our Christmas tree.”
Momma rubbed the breading for the okra off her fingers and sniffed them once before wiping them clean on her checkerboard patterned apron. “Snow likely by evening. You sure ’bout this?”
Daughter Amy smiled a big gap tooth grin. “Let’s get the best one, Daddy. Missus Merton letting us make ornments during free time.”
“Dress like you mean it,” reminded Ma. “If the squall comes early, lil’ brother gonna have a hard time keeping up.” Lil brother was Malcolm, called simple by those who loved him and half-wit by the crueler town folk.
Poppa smiled “I’ll wear my bright red flannel lumberjack shirt for y’all to follow and cut a swath with my ax if need be.”
“I’ll bring my tinsel to decorate,” volunteered Amy.
“Wait’ll we get home to decorate. Laws mercy, child. Christmas still a month away.” Momma made the clicking sound of disapproval with her teeth that irritated most folks who had ever heard it. Poppa reckoned Malcolm’s defects as coming from her people. The Clancy side of the family had his Bryson side beat three to one in idiosyncratic mannerism.
“Can’t fight the Christmas spirit, darling,” said Poppa, throwing his big meaty free hand around his bandy little wife’s shoulder. He raised the Sanka can toward his mouth and expunged a thick dark stream of liquid into it. “Tis the season and what not.”
“You got a little in your beard, Daddy,” noted Amy.
Momma lifted the hem of her apron to his chin and rubbed his cold weather whiskers clean. “Get you a bath when we get home. Hear.”
Poppa had spent the morning shoveling fertilizer out near the shed and even Malcolm had pinched his nostrils when his Daddy had walked into the house for lunch. Momma had ordered him to leave his boots on the porch.
“We’ll get the best ‘un out there. No Charlie Brown tree for us.”
Momma hadn’t caught the seasonal enthusiasm of her husband and eldest child. “Maybe I ought to stay home with Malcolm, case he swallows his tongue again.”
“Do the boy good to get a little fresh air.”
“Don’t want neighbors thinking he some Boo Radley,” opined Amy.
“Who?” chorused Poppa and Momma.
“Book we read at school. Boy kind a like Malcolm ‘cept he a grown man in the story. He kills a man in the end. But a blessing really. That Bob Euell were a real S.O.B.”
“Mind your tongue, daughter,” hissed Momma. “And I’ll be talking to your teacher about what garbage they givin’ you to read in the school house.”
Amy sighed. Her Momma might know a thing or two about breading cutlets and the right mix of bacon grease and flour to make a good gravy, but the woman didn’t know all. And if Amy wanted to show her Christmas spirit by bringing pockets of tinsel to make the afternoon magical, she’d face whatever punishments and dessert deprivations were in store when they got back. Who wanted that banana pudding anyway? She preferred meringue pies.
“Malcolm, quit eating your boogers,” ordered Papa, stopping in a thick stand of Juniper. “It’s unseemly.”
The Brysons were bundled up like mummies and wearing the full coverage wool caps that Momma had knit that had holes for the eyes, nostrils, and mouth but covered up everything else. If they had walked into a bank, they would have appeared as one giant bank robber trailed by three munchkin accessories. Malcolm and Amy’s stature – much like Malcolm’s affliction – appeared to come from the Clancy side of the gene pool.
“These seem some perfect good trees,” suggested Momma. “Pick one and let’s get on with it.”
“Nah. Let’s keep going till we get a Douglas Fir.”
“First flakes are already dropping,” warned Momma. “And Amy, do try and keep up. Lolly-gagging in dreamland ain’t helping matters.”
The snowflakes, tumbling from the sky like white confetti at ticker-tape parade, increased in intensity as the family worked their way deeper into the woods. Momma blinked her eyes into the swirling whiteness and gripped Malcolm’s hand more tightly. “Better find one quick. These ain’t familiar woods and our tracks’ll be covered lickity.”
“Lookin’ for one with the right symmetry,” answered Poppa, his stubborn streak rising like a tide against the self-righteous I told you so timbre in his wife’s voice.
“Mind your tongue, Manfred,” said Momma so sharply that even Malcolm’s head whipped toward the sound. Amy rarely heard her Momma use Poppa’s birth name and the use thereof normally predicated crisis. “No need to roust the dead with foolhardy words.”
“Mabel,” answered Poppa, giving tit for tat. “Symmetry ain’t a final resting place. Means proportion; like arms and legs and head being the right size on a paintin’ instead of the ones of those peckers you were looking at in that Japanese art book that the library has no right to be lending out to decent-”
“Little ears!” she scolded, cutting him off. “I wouldn’t misunderstand if you’d just speak plain. And learnin’ a smidge of world culture in my free time ain’t breakin’ no law.”
“Makes a man wonder what goes on in a woman’s head.”
“Phooey,” she said, waving off the comment. Having let go of Malcolm’s hand, he dropped into the gathering snow, lay on his back and began to wildly swing his arms and legs.
“Look. The boy’s makin’ a snow angel,” announced Poppa.
Amy alarmed, rushed forward. “I don’t think so.” She gripped him under his armpits and tried to pull him to his feet.
“Swallered his tongue again I bet,” moaned Mama. “Poppa, hold his head and pry his jaws and I’ll get the tongue.”
Amy watched her folks work like a fine oiled machine in fixing what ailed her brother and realized there was nothing more likely to end a family squabble than a medical emergency. Lesson to be learned perhaps for when she got older. A properly feigned seizure at the height of a disagreement might be just the thing to save a marriage some day.
Malcolm caterwauled his displeasure for a minute before a calm silence finally set in. “Well, we’ve braved the worst of it, I ‘spose,” declared Momma. “Let’s chop us a tree.”
It might not have been the perfectly proportioned tree that Poppa envisioned with its backside as ample as its front but it was what he deemed, close enough for government work.
“This a Douglas Fir?” asked Momma, knowing it wasn’t.
Poppa harrumphed and bent over to deliver a mighty whack into the bottom of the trunk. “It’s six foot and green. It’ll do.”
If he had been chopping at waist height, he could have felled the evergreen in a few strokes; working low proved more cumbersome. “Timber!” he shouted triumphantly when the grail of their quest finally tipped and fell with a soft whoosh into the three inch depth of snow that had fallen.
Poppa hoisted his trophy onto his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and that’s the moment the family realized their plight.
“Which way is home?” asked Momma.
Poppa spun in slow circle and let out a sigh. The falling snow had obscured all their tracks. “Durn it all,” he said, the clouds so thick and dark that they masked the location of the sun that he could have used as at least a rudimentary guide for getting home. “I’ve no idea.”
“Laws mercy,” moaned Momma. “It’ll be full dark in an hour.”
“If Spike were here, he’d lead us home,” lamented Poppa, still angry about that incident with the neighboring Brumbaughs that forced them to put their Collie down because of his taste for chickens.
“Well, he ain’t. And he’s dead as we’ll be if we don’t find a way outta these woods ’fore nightfall.”
Malcolm chose that moment to let out an anguished cry the portents of which meant he was either hungry or had go to the bathroom. Or, thought Amy, maybe he understood more than they realized and Malcolm had decided that verbally articulate or not, he didn’t want to die.
Amy scanned the horizon and a silver glint captured her attention. Her eyes gleefully crinkled under the knit stocking mask and her lips curled upward into a wide gap toothed smile. “Follow me,” she said confidently.
“But what if it’s the wrong way?” Momma asked. “I don’t think that’s the way we came.”
“But it is,” she said. “There’s tinsel on that tree, Momma, and I can see a glint of more on one just beyond it.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said Momma, chuckling. “You defied me and brought that tinsel I told you to leave at home.”
“And you marked our path,” sang out Poppa.
“Laws mercy!” shouted Momma. “You saved us.”
“We don’t need no chicken eating dog,” laughed Poppa. “We got us a resourceful daughter.”
“And now we got us a Christmas story to tell that’s like them ones in books,” chimed Momma.
“Yep,” said Poppa, striding purposefully after his family, the burden of the tree no more than a pillow on his shoulder. “And Malcolm may not be able to say ‘God bless us everyone’ at the end, but he’s thinking it. You can bet the biscuits in the oven he’s thinking it.”
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