Read an Excerpt
A Texas Jubilee
Stories from the Lone Star State
By James Ward Lee
TCU PressCopyright © 2012 James Ward Lee
All rights reserved.
Xmas Tree, O Xmas Tree
Grady Dell hated Christmas.
And he hated Homer Brantley.
At least he hated Homer around Christmastime because Homer ordered a lot of packages parcel post that filled up the back seat of Grady's old 490 Chevrolet. He couldn't leave the packages at the mailbox. He had to walk what seemed like a mile up a muddy drive to put them on the porch if Homer wasn't home.
This Christmas Eve Homer not only had three packages, but, what was worse, Homer had a registered letter. That meant that Grady had to stop his car, get out, and track Homer down to sign for the letter.
There was never any telling where Homer was rambling around on any given day. Homer, who had lost an arm in the war, had what Grady thought was a cushy job as caretaker for the Bodark Springs Waterworks out on Eastis County Lake, and Homer was always off somewhere looking at the dam or using his good arm to skim rocks across the lake.
"Sometimes I hate that one-armed son of a bitch," Grady mumbled to himself.
"Christmas gift!" Homer hollered from behind Grady's car.
"Goddamn, Homer, you scared me out of a year's growth," Grady said, "slipping up on me like that and screaming in my ear."
Then Grady relented and said, "Christmas gift yourself. I am glad you showed up. I got all these damned packages and a registered letter that you have got to sign for. Who the hell would send you a registered letter anyway? And on Christmas Eve."
"I bet it's from old Sam Rayburn up in Congress."
"Naw, hell, it ain't from Congress. That would be on the return. This is smeared but it says something about the war department."
"I guess they are telling me one more time how sorry they are that I lost an arm in the Argonne Forest. They may be sorry, but they don't never send no money. That was one sorry battle for me, but you was in the Argonne, so you know how shitty that whole deal was."
"Yeah," Grady said, "we went into that massacre led by a colonel and came out led by a corporal." Grady always said mass-a-cree like the old folks who had been out West in the Indian Wars said it. And he always brought up the fact that they lost so many men and had to come out with nobody higher than a corporal. Grady had been a PFC and figured if it had been much worse, he might have been leading the 18th infantry regiment out of the forest himself.
Grady was over hating Homer and would be till Homer ordered a bunch of heavy parcel-post packages next year. Grady remembered how Homer was usually near the mailbox when Grady brought the mail. He lived alone and was about as desperate for company as anybody on Grady's rural route, which covered part of Eastis County and part of Fannin. Grady had been delivering mail out of Bodark Springs Post Office since he got out of the army in 1919. Besides that, he had been born and raised on the edge of Eastis and Fannin and knew nearly everybody in both counties.
"You got your tree up yet?" Homer asked Grady.
"How come? It's already Christmas Eve."
Grady laughed. "You don't have to tell me it's Christmas Eve. The only time worse for a mail carrier is when the Sears and Roebuck catalogs come out. But tomorrow'll end the worst of the Christmas rush."
"You government men are about the only people I know who have to work on Christmas Day. You ought to write old Sam a letter about it," Homer said.
"Which Sam? Uncle Sam or Sam Rayburn?" Grady asked.
"I guess either one of 'em. It'd do about the same good, wouldn't it?" Homer laughed.
"Yeah, I reckon so," Grady said. "No good at all. If Calvin Coolidge wants it hauled on Christmas Day, it'll get hauled on Christmas Day. Still, the only good thing about working on Christmas Day is that it'll hold off Mamie from bellyaching about me not puttin' up a tree."
"You don't never have a Christmas tree?"
"Not if I can help it," Grady said and sighed, remembering all the times Mamie and Jackie had practically begged him to go cut down a tree and drag it home on top of his car and build a frame to hold it up. But he always squirmed out of it somehow.
"Don't that little girl of yours ever want one?" Homer said, refusing to get off the subject.
"Well, sometimes, but not as much as Mamie does. Once Mamie made her a stocking to put on the fireplace and another time she fixed up some possumhaw on the mantelpiece. And then I brought in an armload of mistletoe I picked off of that bunch of scrub oaks out on the road to Rowena. That seemed to satisfy Jackie, but Mamie is always at me. I know it will come some day, but I am holding out the best I can."
"And you holding out satisfies Mamie, does it?" Homer still wouldn't leave it alone.
"I didn't say that, did I?" Grady made a face. "Mamie's always at me to go out to Henry's and cut her a cedar for a Christmas tree. Old J. B. Adams always has a tree that looks like it come out of Sanger Brothers Department Store down in Dallas. She wants me to put up one just like his."
"And you ain't gonna do it?"
"Not till I have to," Grady said, "but it's beginning to look like I can't hold out more than another Christmas or two. Jackie's four now, and I figure by the time Mamie has another year to work on her, the two of them will wear me down."
"And then I guess you'll have to put up a tree."
"Ha! I guess I will. Wouldn't you?"
Homer laughed, too, and said, "Who wears the britches in your family?"
Grady said, "Well, Homer, I wouldn't like to say I did. My daddy always said, 'A feller who claims to be boss at home will lie about other stuff.'"
"Yeah, I reckon so," Homer laughed as Grady drove off.
It was nearly four o'clock when Grady got back to the Bodark Springs Post Office, and it was four thirty before he checked in his money orders and registered mail slips, put up the mail he couldn't deliver, and looked in his pigeon holes at the mail that had come in late.
It was starting to get dark when Grady Dell headed north on Center Street in his three-year-old Chevrolet 490. He and Mamie and Jackie lived in a four-room house sitting on a slight rise out on the north edge of Bodark Springs. Grady always backed the fifty yards from the road to the house so the car would be headed down the hill. It saved cranking, he said; all he had to do was let the Chevy roll a few yards, throw it into second gear, let out the clutch, and let it jerk to a start on compression.
Every day when he got home from his route—usually two hours earlier than today—Jackie would run from the house to the car screaming at the top of her voice, "Daddy's home! Daddy's home!" She always cried it over and over until she got to the car and Grady grabbed her and held her high over his head. But today there wasn't a sound from the house. The lights were on, but he couldn't see any movement inside. He quickened his pace across the swept, packed-dirt yard.
"What if ...?" he said half aloud, but he couldn't finish the sentence containing the vague fear that always edged into his mind when he came home. Before he could think of a disaster to scare him, the door opened, and Jackie and Mamie stood looking at him as if he held the keys to all human happiness.
"We got us a tree, Daddy! A tree! We got us a tree!" Jackie screamed as she jumped up and down in the doorway.
Oh, Lord, thought Grady, now I'll have to drive back into town to the Ben Franklin store to get icicles and tinsel rope for that damned tree.
"When did y'all get it up?" Grady asked. And then, "Who put it up for you? Where'd you get the tree in the first place?" He asked his third question and paused for breath. He couldn't make head nor tail of the jumble of words that Jackie began pouring out. The only words that he heard over and over again were "Uncle Henry."
So, he thought, my danged brother has cut down a cedar and brought it over for them to have a Christmas tree. I guess Mamie must have nagged him the way she has nagged me for four years. But that still don't keep me from having to drive back into Bodark to get icicles and an angel and Lord knows whatnot to put on it.
Grady looked up, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, y'all get your coats on and let's go back into town to the Ben Franklin's to get some ornaments for Henry's tree."
"We already got 'em, Daddy! We got 'em!" Jackie screeched out, grating on Grady's nerves—nerves frayed by the long hours of the Christmas mail rush.
Mamie hadn't said a word throughout all this commotion.
"Well," Grady said, trying not to let an edge creep into his voice, "let's go in and see how you all have decorated your tree."
"It ain't up yet." These were Mamie's first words.
"Ain't up yet?" Grady asked, "What do you mean 'ain't up'?"
"I mean it ain't been put up. And the first thing you'll have to do is build a stand to put it on. And you better get started because J. B. Adams is going to walk down here when he gets his decorated about nine o'clock and see how you done with yours." Mamie said all this in one breath.
"And how does J. B. Adams know we got a tree anyway?" Grady was starting to edge toward the door to get in out of the cold.
"I told Mrs. Adams when I walked up there to borrow some ornaments off of them. And Mrs. Adams, she said, 'J. B.'s been waiting for four years to see you put up a Christmas tree.'"
Telling the Adamses about the tree that Henry had brought was Mamie's way of making sure Grady put up the tree. Now she had him trapped for sure.
"And how am I supposed to make a stand for this tree?"
"I guess you are gonna have to bust up that big packing box that the icebox come in and use them two-by-fours for a stand." Mamie had it all figured. Now she was smiling.
"All right," Grady was resigned. "Let's have a look at this li'l old tree that your Uncle Henry has cut."
"It ain't little, Daddy! It ain't little!" Jackie said.
"Okay, baby, let's see this big ol' tree then," Grady said and ran his hand through her hair. It can't be too hard, he thought, but I sure hate to spend Christmas Eve messin' with a damned tree.
Grady Dell was sparing in his use of profanity. Except when Homer made him mad or when the Chevy got stuck in the mud on his route, he tried to keep his language clean. Even in his most secret thoughts he had avoided it ever since he got out of the Argonne Forest in 1918. He had seen and heard too much that was violent and nasty. So he resolved to drop army talk and army ways as soon as he got home from the war.
But when he saw the tree, he said, "Jesus Christ!" It slipped out before he could stop it.
"Grady!" Mamie screamed.
"Daddy! Daaaddy!" shouted Jackie.
Grady had walked almost across the living room before he spotted the seven-foot tree that Mamie said Henry had cut and put in the second room in the little shotgun house.
"Jeeeeesus Christ!" This time under his breath. A whisper.
"Mamie! Just how do you think—" He stopped and tried to remember all the things he had promised himself when he had married Mamie five years before. She had been sixteen and he had been thirty-two when they got married. She is still just a kid, he thought, and just because I'm getting old, I shouldn't take it out on her and Jackie.
While he had been thinking, Mamie had been talking. "And so that's all there is to it," she finished the sentence that he had not heard the first part of.
Mamie repeated what she had said, "I said that all you have to do is make a stand, brace it up good, and put it in that corner over by the stove." She pointed with her chin at the Warm Morning heater that stood in front of the sealed-up fireplace that was all the heat the house had when they moved in. Mamie said she couldn't stand to live where all they had was fireplace heat. So Grady had borrowed twenty dollars from Henry and another twenty-five from the bank. Then he had Thurmond Whitmire from Eastis County Furniture come out and put it in. When Mamie asked Grady why he didn't just order the stove from Sears and Roebuck or Monkey Ward and put it in himself, he told her, "Because I ain't handy."
And now this, he thought.
"I ain't handy!" He had told her that a thousand times, but he told her again tonight, "Mamie you know how unhandy I am. I doubt I could ever make a tree like that stand up. That thing'll fall and kill somebody if I try to put it up."
"It won't do no such of a thing! If J. B. Adams can make one stand up, so can you!" Mamie figured that since J. B. was a bookkeeper for the T&P Railroad, he had to be less adept at carpentry than Grady, who had been raised on a farm. Grady never could convince her that being raised on a farm didn't necessarily make you handy with a hammer.
"Didn't you ever have to fix nothing when you lived out there near Windom with your momma and them?"
The "and them" were his father and his brothers Henry and Grover. Tonight she was explaining to Grady as if he were a child, so she said, "Your momma and them." She usually ran it together and said, "Your mommanem."
"Nope, I left all that fixing to Henry. He was the handy one. Grover was the strong one. I was the one that left the farm and took a job." He almost said, "And I was the one that married you." But he didn't.
He said, "Henry is as handy as the pocket on a shirt and could put this thing up in ten minutes, but I'll probably break a damned arm fooling with it."
"No you won't. Why don't you get the hammer and start bustin' up that crate while I get your supper on the table."
It was always "his supper."
It was as if she and Jackie did not eat with him but stood behind his chair to serve him "his" meals. The truth of it was that Grady cooked more than Mamie, who was often abed with one of her "jumping" headaches.
While Mamie put "his supper" on the table, Grady went out to the garage that was not a garage but a storehouse and barked two knuckles breaking up the packing box. He found a rusted saw that had belonged to his father—a fair hand at carpentry—and cut the two-by-fours into two-foot lengths. He thought, Well, maybe it won't be so hard. I'll just make an X for a base, and then I use four of these pieces to steady the tree on the X.
So, in a considerably better spirit, Grady went back into the house carrying his six short lengths of wood and thinking, This can't be too hard to do. If old J. B. Adams, who walks like he's got a cob stuck up his ass, can do it, I guess I can.
So after eating his supper, Grady went into the living room to put the tree up before J. B. could get his set up and decorated. He knew J. B. would finish about nine o'clock and then walk the quarter mile to the Dell house.
An hour later, Grady had his X made, but he had no luck getting the seven-foot tree to stand up. Mamie and Jackie had held it at first and had dropped it on him three times while he tried to put the base on. Then he tried to steady it by leaning it in the corner while he pounded nail after nail into the base of the tree. But by eight thirty, the trunk of the cedar looked as if it had been shot with a twelve-gauge shotgun. Grady then sawed off some bottom limbs and some of the trunk and tried again. He thought about cutting off half of the tree and seeing if he could turn the big tree into one about three feet high.
But Jackie started to cry and Mamie said, "I ain't gonna be shamed before the Adamses. If you'd wanted to, you could of put that tree up for this baby's Christmas."
By this time, Grady had stopped talking altogether. But he was thinking furiously. And he thought, it ain't no baby that you are worrying about. It's showing off in front of them Adamses. It's getting me to do something that I don't want to do. It's making me look like a fool that you want. But, as always, he kept his mouth shut.
By nine thirty, Mamie had figured out that she had better leave the living room and get as far away from Grady as she could. He still wasn't talking, and his lips had lost all color. He had broken out in a total and complete sweat. He wasn't even mumbling now—and hadn't mumbled since eight forty-five. He was dead quiet. And he was pounding nail after nail into the helpless trunk of the cedar.
At ten o'clock, Grady went to the window to look across the field to J. B. Adams's house. Just as he pulled the curtains back, he saw the Adamses' porch light come on.
"Well, I-God, old J. B. can walk across that field and down that street and right through these two back yards if he wants to, but he ain't gonna see no damned Xmas tree standing in this living room," mumbled Grady. And then a thought hit him that was simplicity itself.
Mamie heard the front door slam. In a few minutes she heard it slam again, and then she heard a banging from the front room that seemed as if it would break every window in the house. "Oh, my God," she said out loud, "what if he's lost his mind? What if he got some of that shell shock from the war? What if he comes back here with that claw hammer and kills me and this baby?"
"Mamie!" Grady screamed her name from the front room.
"Mamie! You and Jackie get them ornaments and come up here right now! Yonder comes J. B. Adams, and I want this tree decorated before he gets here!
"—Come on! Now! I mean NOW! Y'hear me?"
Excerpted from A Texas Jubilee by James Ward Lee. Copyright © 2012 James Ward Lee. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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