Christmas Balls

by

12/16/2018

Neighborhood: Woodside

I came up the stairs from the subway. The cold air on Queens Boulevard blew hard. I turned and looked back down to see where my sisters Sara and Carol were. I was relieved to see them coming up towards me. I’d been lost before and it wasn’t fun.

Behind them was my dad. He already had a lit cigarette in his mouth. Dad never wore a hat, except in the army. His jacket never seemed to be buttoned, ever. Carol, Sara and me were all bundled up. Hats, coats, hands deep in pockets. Everything but gloves. We’d left the socks we usually wore for gloves at home this day because we were going to a party at the Elks Club. The three of us were skipping and running down the boulevard. We were going to the annual Christmas party.

As cars drove by fast, Dad let out a warning. “If any of you get hit, I’m leaving you here.” We laughed because we knew he didn’t mean it. He was walking behind us like our personal bodyguard.

Carol grabbed my hand and we walked closer to the building, then the street. “There it is, Dad,” Sara screamed. We hardly ever went to parties, so this was a big deal.

The Elks Club was a great place for a Christmas party. The building looked like a big concrete block with windows. There was a huge stairway that looked as if the Romans had built it. On top, by the entrance, stood a beautiful, large-as-life, green elk.

Dad said, “It turned that color because of the weather. The copper turns green when it gets wet. They should take care of that elk.”

As we climbed the stairs, Dad stopped by the elk and called us over. I thought it was for some last-minute instructions. Dad reached under the elk and grabbed his balls. “Come on now, kids, grab the elk’s balls. It’s good luck.” Carol and Sara ran up the stairs. ”Ewww, no way! Yuck,” they both said. I lifted my arms. Since I was small for my age, I couldn’t reach them. Dad lifted me and I grabbed the magic sack that Dad said would bring us luck. “Thatta boy. A true Reidy,” he said.

We ran past the guy at the door, so fast his head spun around as Dad talked to him. The Club had everything a boy or girl or dad could want. I saw a clown. I stepped on his big feet and he yelled, “Now wait a minute.” It was funny. He said, “Okay, squeeze my nose.” It was big and round and red. It squeaked. So many people were there, in so many rooms with activities, I didn’t know what to do first.

Dad finally came over. He knew what he wanted to do. “I’m going to be over there in that room, at the bar. You kids have as much fun as you can and if you need me, come right in.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I said. I ran into a side room, where a guy was making animals with balloons.
We were on our own. We ate hot dogs, cotton candy, soda, pizza. Being with Dad wasn’t like being with Mom, who would stop us from eating all this junk. He didn’t care. “Eat all you want,” he said. I can still smell the popcorn. I took a big bag with me for my little brother Michael who was sick at home. I was so happy to be there.

The best part was when the cake and ice cream came out, because after that Santa showed up. He put some kids on his knee. Some cried. I know I did when I was small. He’s one scary-looking guy. I hated that red suit and hat, fat belly and scary long white beard. It felt like straw. Dad came and got us. He had half a bag on. That meant he was almost drunk. We took a cab home.
Carol told Mom everything, and she yelled at dad — “John, you’re disgusting,” — for the part about the elk.

In just two more days, Christmas would be here. Mom had checks for all of us: five dollars apiece came in the mail from dad’s brother, Uncle James. We would use that money to go to Barco’s, a local toy store, and buy each other presents. Shopping like a grownup was so exciting.

For the past few Christmases, I’d been disappointed with my gifts, anyway. The only gift I’d liked was a cheap bow and arrow set, the kind with the rubber suction cups on the ends. As soon as the room was empty, I’d removed the rubber, gone into the middle bedroom and lined up shots, breaking the glass balls that hung on the tree. Lights were extra points. One by one, I had busted them all. Boy, my family was pissed off at me. “I didn’t do it,” I lied. I blamed my dog, Charcoal.

Finally the big day came. It was Christmas Eve. For the first year, I was able to stay out of the bedroom we all had to stay in if we were under 12. The year before, Michael and I had been in the room alone until we fell asleep. We talked about noises. We thought Santa was on the roof. He was 6 and I was 11. But now he was in there alone, already asleep, and it was only 7:00 p.m. 

I was now able to help with the set-up for Christmas. My mother and all my sisters were wrapping the gifts we had bought the night before. The apartment was looking festive, with little angels and stockings hanging up and a fake gingerbread house. It had snowed that week, so the ground outside and the streets were still covered with white.

My mom gave me three dollars. “You have to get the Christmas tree this year.”

Why was I all of a sudden elected? “One of the girls or Dad should go,” I said.“You have to get the tree,“ Mom said. She was sitting in her housedress. “You’re the man of the house now.” Hearing this from Mom didn’t sound so good, especially because I didn’t even like this house. I wasn’t even a teenager yet. Besides, the real man of the family was sleeping, drunk, right in the next room.

The smell of chocolate chip cookies seeped from the oven. If I left now, none would be left when I got home. There was no saving anything for anyone in that house.

But Mom gave me an order, and I had to do what she said. I felt a little proud that the whole family was depending on me to bring home a tree. This was probably the biggest thing I ever had to do, and I couldn’t let them down.

I got my jacket and hat on. I found two mismatched gloves. Three pair of socks, because I had holes in my sneakers. I borrowed my sister’s blue scarf. I was ready. I would bring back the best tree three dollars could buy. It would have to be a big one, because that was all we ever had. Christmas was all about the tree and the gifts, and we had the gifts. A live, pine-smelling tree in the house, with lights and decorations on it, captured everyone’s attention. Because we were so poor, it made the whole house perk up. It took away the sadness and the darkness and all the disappointments that lived with us.

I ran down to Northern Boulevard and looked both ways. No trees in sight. I remembered a lot on 58th Street. They’d sold them there once. I ran down that block. I looked into the lot. It was deserted. I got scared. How could I go back with nothing and tell them that I failed?

I saw a man on the corner. He was waiting for the light. There were no cars around. This guy was either a law-abiding citizen, or drunk, or an idiot. No one waited for a light with no cars coming. He looked like an older Clark Kent. He was dressed in a suit and overcoat with a wide-brimmed hat. He carried an attaché case like James Bond.

“Excuse me, mister. Do you know where the Christmas trees went?” I pointed to the lot.
He smiled. He looked happy. “Son, I think that’s a job for your mom and dad. Do you have a dad?”

I wanted to say, “Oh, sure I do. He came home today screaming and beat us with the belt, like he usually does when he gets drunk. Mom says it’s ’cause he’s got no job. This afternoon he drank a quart of Canadian Club and told us all to go fuck ourselves for Christmas. Then he fell asleep on the bed. We’re broke. If he has money, he spends it like he did yesterday at the bar at the Elks club.”

But I lied. “Yes, I do have a dad. He works for the government. He is out of the country doing something for the President, and he called before and asked me to get the tree. My mom is home with my sister. She is very sick. I’m doing the tree picking.” As a truck went by I said, “Asshole,” under my breath.

He looked at me like he might have heard me. He held his chin, then took off his hat to show me he had no hair. Some Superman he was. He scratched his head. I wondered, why do grown men need to scratch their heads just to think of stuff? I turned and walked away.

I heard, “Hey kid, sorry about your sister, and your dad being away. If you go down Northern Boulevard and 65th Street, there are a lot of trees under the El. I saw them when I passed this morning.”

I nodded. “Thanks, mister.” I started to run, because that’s what I did best.

I was at Northern Boulevard and 64th Street. Like a gold mine, I saw them in front of me. I got really excited. I got butterflies in my stomach. They were stacked four deep when I came up to them. The smell of the pine was thick in the air. It swirled around my head, making me dizzy. I thought I was in a forest. Every good Christmas memory came rushing back to me. One was the time I got the new red bike. My heart started racing.

I was sizing trees up, grabbing what I thought were the best ones. When I found a good one, I would put it off to the side. I kept looking for the owner to help me, but he wasn’t there. All the trees seemed to be skinny, and not like the usual ones we had, big and fat. I was thinking these were reject trees. Kind of how I felt sometimes.

Finally, I found a decent one. I stashed it with another. I kept looking. This was a time in my life where I could shine in my family’s eyes.

A weird feeling came over me. Where is the guy who owns these trees? He’s not here. I’m alone with a few hundred trees.

A big car pulled to the curb and a sharp-looking Italian guy got out. He flicked a skinny cigar that landed a few feet away. It was the kind Al the bookie smoked. This guy wore an expensive suit, red tie and alligator type shoes. He had a diamond pinky ring and a big, hundred-pound shiny gold watch on his wrist. He looked like most of my dad’s mobster friends and smelled like a bottle of cologne. His hair was slicked back like one of those Vitalis commercials.
Holy crap! He is a real mobster, I thought.

He eyeballed me, then walked over to a tree, holding it up and inspecting it. “Hey kid, how much?”

I looked around to make sure no one else was there. I said, “Hey, it’s Christmas Eve. Take it. It’s on the house.” He smiled like it hurt. Then the biggest grin came on his face. I could see he was happy. He walked to his car, popped the trunk and slid it in. “Hey kid, get over here.” I figured he wanted me to tie the trunk down. He wrapped his arm around me and said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone ever did for me.” He pulled out a gigantic fist full of rolled-up cash and gave me two crisp ten dollar bills. He shook my hand and rubbed my hat. It covered my eyes. He straightened it. “I’m Augie. I’m from 69th Street and Grand. The club on the hill. Stop by, say hello. I like you.”

I shoved the money in my pocket. “Thanks a lot, Augie.” I smiled. He got in the car, pointed to me, and smacked the driver on the shoulder. They both laughed, waved and drove off. I couldn’t believe I got away with it. Boy, did I make their day.

I wanted to leave, but an old Ford pulled up with an elderly couple. I was 23 dollars up, with a tree on the side, and I was ready to split. But I decided to stay. I’d become the new proud owner until the real guy showed up. Then it dawned on me: he might not. If he stayed, he would have to get rid of all those trees. He probably abandoned them. He made his money, so now it was time to make mine. I was a little scared.

The couple got out. They looked like Mr. Wilson and his wife from Dennis the Menace. She grabbed a tree. Then a young teenager about eighteen came up. Now I had two customers.
I asked the couple what they wanted to pay for the tree, because I had no idea. She said, “Five.”
I countered with, “Okay, give me four. It’s Christmas.”

I helped her to the car. She gave me five for helping her. This being nice stuff was contagious. I sold trees for four, five and six dollars. I took three dollars from the young kid because that was all I’d started with. He was really happy. Another lady stopped by; I sold her one and asked her the time.

“Ten P.M.,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” She drove away.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been out here selling two hours. I had to get home. I had a pocket full of cash and a mobster who liked me. I looked at the two trees I had stashed and decided to grab them both.

Before I could get going, a yellow Dodge pulled up and this guy got out. He was dressed like my dad when he worked. I figured he was either a mechanic or a truck driver. He wore a pea cap and looked really tough. His face looked like an eagle. Big nose, fierce eyes.
He yelled over to me, “How much for this one?” He was holding a shabby-looking tree.

“Pick a better one,” I said.

“Where’s the owner?”

“Pay yourself.”

“What?”

“You’re the new owner. I just quit.”

His eyes widened, not knowing if I was serious.

“Look, mister, I was the owner for the last two hours. Now you are. I got to get home.”
I dragged the trees as fast as I could. I didn’t want any trouble. About a block away, I needed to rest. The pine needles were cutting into my hands through my cheap gloves. I turned around and saw two cars pulled over. Eagle face was talking to them. He had taken over the business. I watched him put a tree on a car.

It was a good night. Another ten minutes and I’d be home. I felt like I’d just gotten an A on a test, and that never happened. Walking up the blocks, my arms were heavy and my hands were sore. The trees glided on top of the snow-packed sidewalks. They weren’t getting damaged. I had the will and determination to get those trees home. I pulled and dragged. I was a little late, but I did what I said. I got the trees. My family would be happy.

I dropped them in the front yard and ran into the house. I was shocked to see Dad sitting and talking to Mom in the living room. His pants were on and he wore a shirt, very unusual for him. He always took his pants and shirt off the minute he got in the house and only put them on when leaving. They were smiling. Laughing. It looked like they’d made peace. The house looked so good.

Christmas lights were up on the walls, a string with garlands and icicles hung up. On the wall was a big picture of Santa Claus with a bottle of Coke in his hand. Carol brought me a cookie. Sara was cutting out more stuff to hang. Mary was stringing popcorn for the tree. With all the gifts, it almost looked like someone else’s house.

Dad said, “Reidy, how did you do?”

“I did great. I got two. I need everyone to come downstairs and pick the best one.”

Everyone stopped and followed me. Even Charcoal, my dog, came.

Carol said, “Don’t make too much noise. We might wake Michael up.”

Everyone took turns holding each tree and turning them around. They looked the same. Finally Dad spoke up. “Take ’em both upstairs. We’re going to tie them together.”

I didn’t believe it. Who could think of such a thing? Sure enough, Dad tied them together with bonding wire. They took up the whole corner of the room. It was the biggest tree we ever had. Nails in the walls with string to steady it. He stood them in a big pail. In our house, it was all or nothing.

The girls and Mom started to decorate the tree. It was the best Christmas ever.

I followed Dad to his room. I pulled out the cash and handed it to him. “I made this selling trees. The guy abandoned them.”

Dad took the money, grabbed ten for himself and handed it back. “Give your mother some of this.”

“I will,” I said. “I’m going to have to say it came from you. Okay?” He nodded. “Dad, I met Augie from 69th and Grand.”

Dad smiled. “Be careful, Reidy.” He pushed his nose to the side of his face. “You know they’re wiseguys.”

“I know,” I said.

“Reidy, you know why this happened, right?”

I thought about it a second and said, “Cause God wanted it this way?”

He hugged me, smiled and said, “No, It’s cause you grabbed the elk’s balls. You got the luck.” I laughed. “Good job, Reidy. But remember, never try to get the luck from a live elk.” 

***

In the years since the events this story describes, John Reidy has worked as a writer, director, and producer of award-winning independent films, and appeared in TV shows and major motion pictures. His most recent film is “The Signs of the Cross” 

Before any of that happened, however, he was homeless, jobless or incarcerated, a journey THE WOODSIDE KINGS (tentative title) describes. Since 1982, he’s been in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, attending twelve step meetings in the New York City area, helping himself and others overcome obstacles and achieve long-term sobriety. He’s married and raised three children, and retired after 27 years at a local utility company. He is also a cancer survivor, just completing 5 years of chemotherapy. Hooray!

(photo by Nick Carr)

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§ 6 Responses to “Christmas Balls”

  • Eileen Miller says:

    What a wonderful Christmas story from the heart of Woodside. A story of hardship turned to hope and
    Promise for a family who were poor but through intervention from above had a very Merry Christmas!
    🎄🎄

  • Candi Lee says:

    I feel like I just visited NYC! My friend fromQueens has shared amazing memories with me too! Thank you for making Christmas brighter! Congrats on your adventures and accomplishments and mostly for being a blessing to others!

  • Jackie Minghinelli says:

    This is a great Christmas story!!! Wonderfully told, John!

  • Kathy curkey says:

    Wonderful story John. So vivid and memorable. Thank you!

  • Don MacLaren says:

    I loved this story, John! Merry Christmas!

  • Kathy Lau says:

    Thank you John, Itd good you put charcoal in. Love you for getting this story published and I love the photos of the elks club. Love Kat

§ Leave a Reply

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