Christmas, with its depression, rage, disappointment, alcoholism, family feuds, marital discord, and longing for the years before his family became “broken” was always made worse for Turner because it was his birthday. In all of his nineteen birthdays there had only been one that was happy, his fifth. He remembered it with the fond, warm, nostalgic clarity that a kitten recalls being licked by its mother.
Christmas Eve, 1965, had begun like any other. Grandpa Jake had arrived in the rusted out Ford, tired by the long drive from East Texas down to Galveston. “Jake,” Granny Gro had scolded as he grinned at his grandsons through his one good eye, “don’t start drinking before dinner!”
“Why, ‘course not!” he said, then leered at the boys, handed them each a five-dollar bill, and as soon as granny turned away he whipped out his hip flask and took a long pull of his favorite bourbon, Old Forester.
Turner and Cason got a quarter allowance a week from Pops, which was enough to buy Now ‘n Laters, a Slurpee, and four comic books at Delasso’s Mart just around the corner, so the five-dollar bill from Grandpa Jake was like a winning lottery ticket.
By nine o’clock, after the dishes had been washed and everyone was seated in the living room by the fake gas logs, Grandpa Jake was profoundly drunk. Turner’s dad was drunk too, and so was Turner’s mom. Pops stretched out on the throw rug in front of the fake logs, and Grandpa Jake motioned to Cason. “C’mere, sonny,” he said with a grin.
Cason ran over. “How you like them apples?” Grandpa Jake said, opening his massive, wrinkled, liver-spotted hand and revealing a handful of firecrackers.
Cason greedily scooped them up and ran over to Turner, who was sitting on the staircase. They carefully examined the treasure, turning over each Black Cat between their fingers, smelling the gunpowder and twirling the paper fuses with delight.
“We can set ’em off in the alley tomorrow!” Turner cackled.
Cason shook his head. Pops had nodded off and Mom was happily chatting with Granny Gro at the dining room table. “Watch this!” said Cason, and he casually walked over to the fireplace. He reached the firecracker into the flame, then, amazed at what he’d done, stood there for a split second looking stupid while the fuse caught fire.
It sizzled, showering sparks. In a panic, Cason tossed it in the air. So far, everyone had been too drunk to notice. The firecracker landed next to Pops’s ear and exploded with a bang.
Turner watched in amazement as Pops flew into the air, then flew into a rage. He’d never seen a grown-up jump so high. “Goddamn you, you little sonofabitch!” Pops roared, grabbing Cason by the arm and stripping off his big leather belt in the same motion.
“Clyde!” Mom screamed, and Cason, knowing the next step in the dance, set up a preparatory wailing to match the beating he was about to receive.
Seated safely on the fifth step of the staircase and partially protected by the banister railing, Turner watched the pandemonium with glee as Pops beat the shit out of Cason, as Mom pleaded with him to stop, as Cason screamed like he was being murdered, and as Granny Gro looked on, horrified more at the breach in etiquette and the cursing than the actual physical abuse.
Grandpa Jake looked on, his deeply drunken expression never varying a whit. Pops finally tired from the whipping, and as he stopped to catch his breath he shouted at Cason, “Where the hell did you get that goddamn firecracker?”
Cason blubbered and sobbed, and pointed at Grandpa Jake, which let the air out of the whole drama balloon. Pops was now in the awkward position of having to be angry at Grandpa Jake, which wasn’t permissible on so many levels.
“Well why’d you put the goddamn thing in the fireplace?” he shouted at Cason. “That could have blown out my goddamn ear!”
Turner was enjoying every second of it. He loved his big brother and the crazy stuff he did and the awesome whippings he got. “Get your ass up to your bedroom!” Pops yelled, half-throwing Cason up the first few steps. “And you too, Turner!”
The two boys dashed up the stairs and ran into bed. Cason kept sobbing. “Are you okay?” Turner asked.
“No,” Cason wailed, punching him in the side.
“Hurts pretty bad, huh?”
Cason whacked him in the head, still sobbing. “‘Course it hurts, dummy. But what about Santa? What if Santa saw us? We won’t get any presents!”
Turner’s mind went blank, then he broke out wailing along with his brother. Five years old was a hard age to be.