Beaner can't stop talking about his new Honda Civic. "It's got the VTEC," he brags giddily, "16-inch wheels. That thing is sooo fast." He is standing in cousin Patty's kitchen holding a beer. He is is 22, 6-foot-3, and maybe 165 pounds, a full-grown man in every legal sense, but his round glasses, bowl haircut and Gumby physiology give the impression of a Japanese cartoon action figure come to life.
It's Christmas Eve 2000, and although this isn't the last Christmas Eve we ever celebrated here in the Connecticut salt marshes my family called home for generations--at least with a critical mass of the family together in one house--it will come to feel like it. "I'm putting a Full Boar exhaust on that thing," Bean says. His eyes are shining.
I ask him the year of the car (1997), the mileage (22,000), what else he's up to (hanging out, working for an optician), how his older brother Bubba is doing (he's still fucked up). I tell him I've moved back to Connecticut, working in Hartford again, and there's not much to layer on top of that.
My own hot rod project, a 1967 Chevy Nova Super Sport, is parked in a driveway miles away, uninsured and unregistered. With an iron V-eight, a four-speed, and spinner hubcaps, it is a relic, no more interesting to a person of Beaner's generation than a Model A or a President Nixon.
Not too many years ago I'd have taken a ride with the kid in his quick new Honda, but this minute, as Beaner swigs the last of his beer, I don't trust him. "Maybe later," I say.
I don't know everybody in the house, nobody does. The girlfriends and boyfriends of the kids who on Christmas Eves past used to rip open their boxes and spill new toys out on the linoleum stand quiet and close to their significant others. Cammy is pregnant, her man--a slight boy three years her junior--due to arrive later, after spending time with his own family, in whose home he still lives. Bubba's girl is pregnant, too, and she looks to be about 15, though she says she's 20. She is quiet and blond, and she doesn't know where to stand, watching Bubba suck on a joint in the freezing shadows of the side yard.
There was a time, not long ago, when this pall of awkwardness would not have been. When every boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, fiancé, and child would have known every other through shared adventures from the rest of the year's parties and outings--the trips to Seaside Park and the Sand Bar and maybe New York City--or the time spent together in the same high school or rival schools.
For 50 years grandma's five sons returned to her (Sears kit) house each Christmas Eve, laden with gifts for each other, and for one-another's kids. It wasn't a long trip--all but Tommy lived less than three miles away, and most years at least one son had temporarily taken up residence in his old room. They cranked up the Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall tunes and got drunk while we kids made a mess and demanded to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Our clan was, like every other family down in the swamp, tight.
If you were a member of my family in Fairfield, Conn., in 1963 or 1975, you were known, confided to, called upon sometimes to fix things. You did not run the town. You did not run with the people who ran the town. But you knew who they were and, more important, they knew who you were, and you mainly left each other alone. If you partied too loud and the neighbors called the police, the responding officer would come up for a drink and to reminisce and the party would go on, maybe a notch quieter. If you turned your suburban plot into a boatyard or a junkyard (which you did), that was nobody's business but yours. If you occasionally shot a duck out of season or dug up a few bushels of clams without a state permit, nobody worried about it. And if you conducted yourself like a cross between Fred Flintstone and Fred Sanford, well, that was appropriate for the time and the place.
But times changed and so did the place. In the 1980s the little swamp houses suddenly got too expensive for anyone with a normal job. The people who bought them were not the gym teachers, travel agents, school nurses, and Schaefer beer truck drivers who had moved out. We did not know what the new neighbors did for a living, but it required yellow-dotted silk ties and Savile Row suits, manicured nails, straightened teeth, and train rides to Manhattan each morning.
My people did not change. The girls finished high school and stumbled into cosmetology classes or community college, becoming office workers, hairdressers, a dental hygienist. The boys went out to find work but could no longer score union jobs at Exide Battery or the Sikorsky helicopter plant like their father and uncles did. They settled for temporary gigs. Bubba did roofing and gunite pool construction. Beaner did tech work making eyeglasses. The generation ahead of theirs favored Budweiser and J&B; the new generation, as it happened, required heroin.
I can't pinpoint when it all began to unravel, whether it was my father's first 30-day rehab stint or Bubba's first commission to a juvenile detention center (both circa 1987), or if it was 10 years later, as alcohol hobbled my dad and Bubba apprenticed himself to needle drugs. But if there was to be a solid dividing line between the Family Christmas Eve Tradition of my grandmother's day and the tentative, ad hoc gatherings of more recent years, one could very defensibly draw it across this night, Dec. 24, 2000.
It is about 10 p.m. when we hear that Beaner crashed on the way to his girl's house. The rumor filters through the living room to the kitchen and then to the back porch where the little kids have snuck away to hide. I don't know if Bubba carried the news in or if it was his mother, Helen. Everybody looks concerned even though Beans is fine. He walked away--crawled, more probably--is what we're told. There is that moment of relief and fear of what might have been. Someone cracks a drunk-driving joke, but nobody laughs. I think about the car, which he bought four days ago.
My sisters and I would cruise slowly by the totaled Honda two days later in Uncle Tommy's Ford LTD, gawk through the chain-link fence of a body shop, marvel at the smallness of it, the parenthetical shape it assumed in conforming to the tree, the complete lack of unsmashed glass, the shiny 16-inch wheels. We'd see the car's front passenger seat obliterated within a mass of twisted sheet metal, and Tom would say what we all realized: "If anyone had been with him . . . " But that would be later. Now, on Christmas Eve, the party is ending.
Bubba announces he is going to pick his brother up. "I'm fine," he tells his mother, who insists he is not and asks three times if Beaner is at the police station, where presumably Bubba will be held overnight if he drives there in his current state.
"I'm fiiine," Bubba insists, the plaintive whine incongruous from a 220-pound man, full grown, bearded, pulling on a windbreaker to face a parka night. His blond girlfriend follows silently as Bubba marches a careful and straight line to his car, gets in, starts the engine, and drives proudly into the darkness with the headlights off.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Old Habits (7/28/2010)
Medicalization is the hot new thing in drug treatment. Just like in 1970.
Room for Improvement (7/14/2010)
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals
Shelling Out (7/7/2010)
Mortgage broker goes bankrupt, seeks mortgage modification as taxpayers face mounting bailout bills
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