A Child’s Christmas in Guerneville
By Stephen D. Gross
(with absolutely no apologies to Dylan Thomas!)
One Flood was so much like another, in those years around the Stumptown Bottom now and out of all power except for the distant rattle of PG&E’s ladder trucks I sometimes hear when I’ve just fallen asleep, that I can never remember if it rained for 40 days and nights when I was 6 or for 6 days and nights when I was 40.
All the floods roll down toward the brackish sea, like a cold and distended mud pie swelling within the street that was our town, and they thrust their U.P.S.-colored tongues beyond the rim of the brine-pitched waves, and I plunge my hand in the flood and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that coliform-laden cocoa-rimmed swell of holidays roaring beyond the surf of the carol-screeching sea, and out come Efren Carrillo and the Supervisors.
It was on the afternoon of the day of St, Generic’s Eve, (in Ancient times referred to as “Christmas”), and I was on Mrs. McGroin’s redwood deck, waiting for cows awash in the trembling tide rushing seaward, with her son, Kyle. It was raining. it was always raining at St. Generic’s. December, in my memory, is as soaked as the Salton Sea though there were fewer dead petrels. But there were cows. Patient, wet, and callous, our hands bound in fingerless gloves we waited to lance the cows. Sleek and long as weasels, and horrible-whiskered, spitting, lowing and snarling, they would slink and surf past the fern-spangled garden walls, and the shrew-eyed whalers. Kyle and I, harpoon-bearing and slicker-wearing fishermen from New Bedford, off Neeley Road , would hurl our deadly shafts at the velvety brown of their eyes.
The wise cows never appeared. We were so still, gumbooted nor’easter-soaked marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal rains-eternal since Wednesday-That we never heard Mrs. McGroin’s first cry from her fisherwife’s hut at the bottom of the garden. Or if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the wheedling challenge of our enemy and prey, Pat McGroin’s Sea-Cow.
But then the voice grew louder. “It’s Flooding!” cried Mrs. McGroin, causing the
Manx to howl loudly, and Mrs. McGroin to noisily clobber a wok kept on the wall for emergencies.
And we rowed feverishly down the garden with the lances in our arms, toward the house, and turgid river water, indeed, was pouring out the kitchen’s screen door, and the cat was yowling torturously, and Mrs. McGroin was announcing defeat like a rum peddler in Mecca. This was better than all the cows in Duncans Mills standing in line at “Mill Street Thrift” in a row. We paddled into the house laden with harpoons, and tossed anchor in the knee deep water. Something was splashing about all right: perhaps it was Mr. McGroin who always bathed in the kitchen sink after lunch with his duck and a small flashlight. But he was wading slowly across the room saying, “A Fine St. Generic’s Day!” and swatting at the floodwaters with his flashlight.
“Call the fire department,” cried Mrs. McGroin, as she again struck the defenseless wok.
“They won’t be there” said Mr. McGroin, “It’s St. Generic’s Day.”
The floodwaters were quickly receeding, leaving shallow pools of water and Mr. McGroin standing in the middle of them, swatting at them with his flashlight as though he were golfing. “Do something” he said, and we all hurled our lances into the depths of the shrinking pools-I think we missed Mr. McGroin- and we ran out of the house with our cell phones.
“Let’s call the Sheriff as well” Kyle said.
“And the Chamber of Commerce and the Monthly and the Times”
“And Stevie Baxman – he likes floods.”
But we only called the fire volunteers, and soon the fire engine came and a
chubby fellow, a gaunt guy with long red hair and a very fit looking woman brought a pump into the house, but by then the puddles were too shallow and Mrs. Mc Groin had managed to sweep the water out the kitchen door with her broom. Nobody could have a noisier St. Generic’s Day Eve.
And when the firemen turned off the pump and were standing in the sodden, moldy room, Kyle’s aunt, Ms. McGroin, crept downstairs like a kitten and peered at them. Kyle and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing always. She looked at the chubby, the gaunt and the fit firemen, standing among the vanishing puddles and spent harpoons, and she said: “Would you like to listen to the radio?”
Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Monte Rio and birds the color of a pricey Merlot whisked past the bum-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in abandoned schoolbuses that smelled like Sunday mornings in damp condemned summer cottage parlors marinated in ganja smoke and patchouli, and we chased with the jawbones of Building Inspectors, the loggers and the bears, before the stop signs, before the sewer lines, before the realtors, when we rode the green and happy hills on fat tires, it rained and it rained. But here a small boy says: “It flooded last year too.” I built a dinghy and my brother sank it, and I nearly drowned my brother and then we had tea.
“But that was not the same flood.” I say, Our flood was not only shaken from chum-buckets out of the sky, it came yawning out of the hills and swam and drifted out of the brows and burls and bellies of the trees: water rose overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and ancient lake, intricately laced the walls and irrigated the postman, gurgling up the lane like a sullen, smoking, thunderstorm of shimmering mackerel.”
“Were there postmen then too?”
“With squinty eyes and wind-cherried noses, on booted, drowned feet they sloshed up to the doors, pepper spray in hand, and knuckled them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a squishing of sponges.”
“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the door squished?”
“I mean that the squishing the children could hear, was inside them.”
“I only hear the gushing streams sometimes, never squishing.”
“There was slug-squishing, too.”
“No, no, no, in the bat-black blood-darkened alleyways haunted by mortgage lenders and clever cats. And the mollusks inscribed their mucousness over the sluicing town, over the raging foam of the maundering mint jelly hills, over the misting windowpanes of the moss-cloaked cottages and shops. it seemed that a carnival of gastropods had formed a conga-line throughout the village: and the puffins warbled for joy in the bay that had been Safeway’s parking lot.”
“Get back to the postmen.”
“They were run-of-the-mill postmen, fond of creamed herring and pepper spray and St. Generic’s Day and the Pacific storms lined up like daisy chains. They knocked on doors with blue knuckles, and then they stood on the saturated welcome mat on the little wood-rot ravaged porches, and huffed and puffed making ghosts with their breath, calves gripped tightly in jaws of corgi while whimpering like Giant fans trudging home after yet another extra inning implosion.”
“And then the presents?”
“And then the presents after prying the corgi loose. And the soaked postman, with bulbous nose of scarlet, kittling down the hog-wallow-slimed run of the dew-choked hill. He slogged in his water-logged boots like a man with feet garbed in a concrete kimono.”
“His bag sloshed like a hogshead of cabernet, giving rise to a corner-turning pirouette, and then the postman was gone.”
“Get back to the presents.”
“There were the useful presents: engulfing turtlenecks from seagoing Leatherbacks, mittens made for hairless mandrills from Yemen, crocodile shawls like a scaly length of garden hose that could be stretched from Carmel to Calistoga to your carrot patch, Limes and blind lemons from Jefferson, leek-green and faceted as the eyes of jealous chameleons; Gauzy undergarments like lascivious tea-cozies and Barbie-suited garden Gnomes from the tropics of Cazadero; Paxil and Poodles for the victims of head-shrinking tribes; from
sneezing Aunts who each dawn singed and bleached their mustaches, there were macaroons and halvah: and once I received a silver nose hair cropper from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And Railroad Manuals in which small boys, although warned with quotations not to, would tempt the third rail and did, and became cinders; and books with no pictures that told me everything about Republicans, except why.”
“Go on to the useless presents.”
“Bags of stale and moldy Candy Corn, and a toad dissecting kit, and star-shaped earplugs of burnished brass and stuffed sow bugs in tiny circus costumes, a U.P.S.-driver’s cap and a wind-up chicken from Nanking that pecked my little brother’s eye and gave him lead poisoning.
A machine with googly red and white spiraling eyes which leered and cackled like my little sister’s soccer coach; A box of foam-rubber fishhooks, and a flagon of clove-shaped pills which allowed me to make the meadows and orchards, the sheep and the river, any color I pleased, and still etched and burning in my brain, the peach and pea-green kittens are fouling the orange butternut trees with a rainbow mist under a coppery sky streaked with avocado pheasants and tangerine quail, while marzipan monkeys and butterscotch bison gambol nimbly about the cerulean meadows and cobalt hills. Salted echidna eggs, hummus, dried cranberries, chocolate crickets, earwigs, creamed bush baby, eye-custard, carmelized squid, and urchin stuffed with figs, for the wandering street urchins who find sanctuary among the dark, moss-bearded caves that run like blackened veins beneath the shifting shale that is Rio Nido.”
“And troops of Get-Pissed-Again Elmos, who, if they could not dance, could always collapse happily in a pickled heap. And Elephants-and-Ladders, and Hawaiian Scrabble, and Mine-Boss Games for Aspiring Labor Leaders. complete with easy instructions, Oh, “Easy” for Hoffa, perhaps! And Sweat Shop Psycho for those inclined to pursue a career in the Garment Industry. And a Hand-Cranked Mechanical Cat-Yowler to make the dogs bark to awaken all the people in St. Nancy’s Convalescent Home next door to make them slam their walkers into the wall and toss their dentures out the window.
“And a packet of Kools; you put one in your mouth and you stood in the Health Clinic Vestibule waiting for hours, in vain, for nurse practitioners and phlebotomists to scold you for smokng, and with a smirk you’d burn, brown as a bear, little crescents on the soft part between your fingers, and then walk home weeping uncontrollably when no one came to your aid. And then it was breakfast at the Bunny Ranch.
“Were there uncles with cockatoos, like in our house?”
“There are always uncles with cockatoos on St. Generic’s.” The same uncles each year, and the same cockatoos. The birds were longer-lived than the uncles, and Aunt Gwynneth would say, “I can get along splendidly without your uncle, but it’s good to have a cockatoo around the house.”
And on St. Generic’s morning, with Cat-Yowler and macaroons in hand, I would scour the wringing wet town for news of the proletariat, and find always a drowned rat by the Senior Center, or on the third green at Northwood, perhaps a dazed, self conscious squirrel, trying desperately to hide his precious nuts.
“Men and women wading and paddling back from chapel, or bobbing like sherry corks, with white cap-tipped noses and strawberry-bussed cheeks, all mermaids and manatees, hunched shoulders stiffened against the tremulous skeins of rain. Watch caps and drowned socks hung from the timbers in all the cozy cottages; there was amontillado, claret, madeira and 40-ounce pea-green cans of Mickey’s malt liquor, and kiwis and brie and AkMak crackers by the shovelful; Staffordshire terriers with little reindeer antlers watched the fat manx who was watching the cockatoo; and the damp firewood spat and sizzled, leaving the Welsh Hare’s coat sparkling and smoldering in the gathering twilight.
Some few corpulent men sat in the front parlors in ribbed T-shirts three XLs too small, uncles, grog blossoms all, certainly tippling, trying their new smokes, inspecting them judiciously at arms length, inserting them between pursed lips, then hacking and breathlessly rasping, then beaming with admiration as though expecting, at that very moment, to be borne celestially to the throne of St. Generic; and some few tiny aunts, graciously exiled from the kitchen and from wherever else they sought to wander, poised fragilely on the very tips of their stools, like pressed leaves left in an ancient Bible.”
“Not many those mornings buffeted the waves on Main Street; a poor homeless soul always, his wild tapestry of beard snapping at the breeze, piloting a Safeway cart not quite afloat in the broth, circumnavigating Guerneville, as he would take it if the redwoods were afire on St. Generic’s Day or on Doomsday; sometimes a shoal of teens, at a loss to keep their spliffs burning, would sail, chattering like vervets, down to the spreading riverbank, working up an appetite, delighting in their vacuousness as they made their way through the glutinous sludge, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing was left of them but for a churlish, acrid cloud of their diminished sensibilities.”
“Then I would be scuttling home, the succulent aromas of the dinners of others, the nigari tofu smell, the baked baby eels, the provolone gently rubbed with piceli, the absinthe, the pernod, the Rainier Ale, the hagberry, succory, horehound, the bonbons and jujubes, coiling with dazzling virulence up into my nostrils and exploding inside my head, when out of a rain-choked wastewater conduit would come a boy who could have been my sister, smoking while munching a macaroon, surly as a grouper, and muttering in tongues all to himself.”
“I loathed him on sight and would be about to crank my cat-yowler and flush him down the latrine of St. Generic’s when suddenly he, with a primordial grunt, gripped his Yowler’s shaft and cranked so violently the well-fed faces, cheeks bulging with bulgar, would press against their slug-mottled windows, along the whole length of the lagoon that had been our street.”
For dinner we had vole rump remoulade, and snapple pan dowdy, and afterward the uncles, first loosening belts and buckles, gazed dumbly into the fire, put their moist ham-sized hands over their Lions, Elks, Knights of Columbus and Promise-Breaker pins, softly broke wind, and slept.
“Boudicca and Barbie alike ambled to and fro bearing clipboards and barking orders. Aunt Maggie, who had already lost control twice over a misplaced corkscrew, grumbled into her White Russian while searching for a hot tub that
existed only in her wasp-like brain. One of the Staffordshires became intimate with a tub of caramels and was introduced to a crowbar, which succeeded in prying his jaws apart. The Welch Hare became ill and Auntie Bridget, who liked anisette, stood in the middle of the submerged backyard potato patch, repeatedly singing both parts of the Flower Duet loud enough to rattle grandpa’s prosthesis.”
“I would get Uncle Abie’s shofar out of the rosewood chest and sound a few notes, wrenching the uncles out of their dreamland trysts and feeling awe upon seeing how high the manx could actually jump. In the sultry, liquified afternoon, uncles wheezing like walruses and the raindrops doing their showery dance along the lane, I would sit among Lava Lamps and flickering candlelight and nibble Salted Mixed Crustaceans while trying to inflate the life-sized Bette Page doll Uncle Harri got for St. Generic’s, carefully following the instructions for Solitary Bachelors, without waking him up.”
“Or I would go out, scuba gear squeaking, into the submarine world, on to the densely wooded hills, to call on Bruce, Jason, and Cody and to waddle through the silty streets leaving huge footprints on the hidden sandbars beneath the cresting waters.”
“What would you do if you saw a redeveloper coming down our street?”
“I’d go like this, bang and pigeonhole him and ask him about infrastructure and affordable housing and toss him into a blighted neighborhood and tickle him under the ear, and then he’d raise his eyebrows and squawk like a chicken!”
Red faced and muttering to their boots a pair of Redevelopers crawled and sputtered through the endless rushing water toward us as we passed Mr. King’s house.
“Let’s festoon his satellite dish with boughs of rosemary”
“Let’s inscribe his window glass with slug-trails”
“Let’s write ‘Mrs. King wears an inordinate amount of eye shadow’ all over his greenhouse.”
Or we waded through the shoreless town. “Do the sockeye and shad know they can swim up Main Street?”
The silent steely firmament drifted East over the spongy meadowland and the darkening forest. Now we had become dolphins chasing shoals of herring, flanked by yellowfins and diving gannets while enormous blubbery sea lions shambled by on their upriver voyage toward Hacienda and beyond.
We returned home through the saturated streets past upturned newsstands and a badly floundering Taco Wagon, its armada of burritos helplessly adrift in the
saucy tide, the cries of Surf Scoters echoing off the shuttered Bank and shops, shadowy interiors glittering with floating greeting cards, Third World chachkes and devalued currency; arms of sweaters and waterlogged pant legs kicking and struggling like sinking cruise ship passengers trying to break free from a watery grave.
And then, brandy glasses in hand, the reanimated uncles would be brash and bawdy, and the monolith-like fruitcake loomed in the center of the table like the Berlin Wall. Auntie Megan laced her tea with Mangosteen because it was only once a year.
Unload the pile of bull now, stacking up in a ripe parfait by the fire as the Lava Lamp bubbled with ghostly spirits, and seasoned uncles spun their yarns. Harpies howled like wolves in the enchanted forest while the boot heels of Death crunched in the dry twigs behind us. Flesh-eating marmot and hagfish lurked in the nook under the stairs, and the refrigerator complained miserably to the water heater, itself humming back consolingly.
And I remember we went out tagging doorways once, the squid-ink-clouded moon unwilling to kiss the treetops, and at the end of a rubble-strewn street lurked a midnight alleyway pulsing with the smell of decay, and in the dank tunnel of the alleyway stood a door hewn, seemingly, by a hand belonging to
neither woman nor man, each of us gripping our cans of colored pigment, too brave to say a word. Down the alley a wind cold as ice flew, rasping and clawing at our ears, like banshees. “What shall we spray?” First the Puce? “No,” Jason said, I think an undercoat of burnt Roman ochre….”Saffron, definitely,” chimed Bruce, “perhaps highlighted with crocus”, and we huddled fearfully close together near the darkened door, the house enveloped in funereal crepe whose residents were perhaps only there in spirit. “One-two-three” counted Cody and we all began to feverishly spray, taupe and hyacinth undertones, exquisite apricot highlights, faint echoes of beryl green, cinnabar and lemon chrome….and then an agonized shriek as hinges unused in centuries scraped together and a sweet melodic voice, pale and translucent as an eggshell crept from deep shadows and whispered, “white, only pure snow-white, lactescent, lilly-white, chalky, milky, ghostly, albino white, hoary, befrosted white.”
We dropped our cans and when we stopped running the cheery warmth of our house loomed before us; the front room glowed, a sanctuary of love and reassurance. Everything was Rosy again, the town illuminated in rivulets of light .
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” said Jason.
“Or”, Cody said, “ a member of the D.A.R.”
“More likely some Interior Decorator from White City”, suggested Bruce.
“Let’s see if there’s any Long Island Tea left, ventured Cody. And we did that.
Always on St. Generic’s night there was music. Uncle Finnbar twanged his Jew’s Harp. A masochistic aunt played the accordion, a cousin sang “The Fairy Glen” until interrupted by Uncle Levon, who favored “Wooly Bully”. Auntie Colleen, who had got onto the Jamaican Rum sang a song about Bleeding Kidneys and Infirmaries, and then another in which she employed every nasty word she’d learned as a Librarian and then everybody chuckled approvingly; and I went to bed. Looking through my ice-wreathed window, out into the moonlight and the endless sepia-stained stream, I could see the luminous joy radiating from the windows of all the other cottages and cabins in our town, and hear the music and comforting voices rising up from the station they call The Bridge and sweeping through the canyons and hills, sweetening and lifting the chilly veil of night. I climbed into bed, mumbled words of gratitude to the close and loving darkness, and then I slept.
Note: No animals were injured, mistreated, or humiliated during the creation or production of any part of the above parody, (with the exception of the Staffordshires who were overrun by frightened cows, deservingly so, after having decimated the Manx the morning before, just after she caught the cockatoo napping between Aunt Gwyn’s legs as she lay on the day bed.)
© 2010 Stephen D. Gross