Catacomb Christmas

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

People say you can’t have love without trust, but Sara found out differently. After her parents divorced, Dil would pop back in their lives in a way that seemed whimsical, but really had to do with his being flush at the moment, to whisk Sara and Spence off to one of his spots along the Sacramento River, where he felt they could have a good time while he wet his whistle, thus killing two birds with one stone.Sara was extra alert on these visits. An anxious tugging went on in her chest between the thrill of being with him and the worry of keeping him on track long enough to make it safely home. Of course she and Spence always swore to their mother that Dil wasn’t drinking, because that would have been the end of it.

The Christmas he lost her in The Man Hole started out differently. This time Dil drew a beat-up wallet from his hip pocket when he got to their mother’s and slid out what he proudly announced as “two Jacksons,” one for Sara and one for Spence, slapping them face up on the table. At five, Sara had never had twenty dollars to herself before.

“Is it mine?” she said.

“Merry Christmas,” said Dil. “That Jackson’s newly minted.”

Her heart spun. The Jackson curled into the bottom of her velvet-tapestry purse like a crisp fall leaf. The purse drew shut with a soft green sash, and the glass beads lacing the front made her feel old beyond her years.

Dil was working construction in a town north of them, and that’s where they’d spend Christmas. Spence, who was two years older and so mysteriously knew such things, said the town had a second town buried deep beneath its streets. Catacombs, he explained, that formed an underground web of haunted, dank tunnels leading to iron-doored rooms where opium smokers used to hide.

Sara wanted to see this catacomb city and imagined, from her brother’s descriptions, the opium dens presided over by Chinese men in long, intricately patterned, hand-sewn robes, reeking of musky smoke that seeped from the mouths of carved dragon statues they kept burning in their temples. When he heard this, Dil’s blue eyes crackled and he knocked back his baseball cap, sending curly black hair tumbling down his forehead. He gave her what their mother called his bowl-you-over grin.

“That’s a good one, Short Stuff,” Dil said. “Chinamen under the streets. Ha ha! You can tell whoppers better than your old man.”

Sara had never thought of comparing Dil’s stories to hers before. As far as she was concerned, hers were based on truth. Dil just said things like, “See you next week, Short Stuff,” and then never showed.

Chastised, she reached into the darkness of the velvet-tapestry purse and smoothed her crisp Jackson. When she buried her face inside the velvet, the money seemed to have taken on the scent of Chinese dragon smoke: incense. She lifted the bill and traced the busy, fluted patterns along its edges. Mr. Jackson’s eyes looked grave in his disembodied head. The Chinese asked the gods for favors and burned their paper money in sacrifice, Spence said. Sara didn’t want to burn her twenty though. She wanted a stuffed koala bear for Christmas.

To Sara’s disappointment, Dil drove them to the river, where his friend from the framing crew waited with a boat. The boat loomed up out of the fog, moored to a rotting wooden dock that sank and moaned as they walked across it.

“Are we having Christmas here?” she asked, shivering in the wet air.

“No, stupid,” said Spence.

“Why not?” said Dil. “Look, here comes your first present.” And she looked up to see a big white ghost bird flying from the mist, dangly legged in a whump of wings. “Egret,” Dil said, jumping in the boat and reaching for her, his nicked and leathered hands circling her waist and his chin hairs poking from his cheeks when he hugged her. “Snowy egret.”

A cold, rank fish smell floated out. Tall, shaggy trees let go the last of their rattly leaves and sent them scooting and twirling over the brown river water. The boat rocked side to side when first Spence and then Dil’s friend, Larry, dropped on. Larry had donned a Santa hat for the occasion, long jawed and droopy eyed beneath the felt; he looked to Sara like the cartoon dog, Scooby Doo.

“You’re not Santa,” said Sara. “I know that.”

Spence rolled his eyes. “She’s only five,” he apologized.

Larry grinned and shouted instructions for untying the lines. He cranked the engine, and Dil pulled out glasses and bottles from the ice chest to make what he called Rob Roys.

They spent the afternoon bobbing around in the mist, ostensibly waiting for Christmas dinner to bite and listening to Larry and Dil shoot the breeze. Sara and Spence pretended to be gold seekers shipping up the Delta from San Francisco in the 1800s. He was a gambler and she a Chinese peasant sold into slavery to save her family from starvation. Cocooned in the fog, the slip-slap of water against the boat sides melted with the clinking of the Rob Roy glasses and the occasional boat shapes sliding past. As a slave, Sara kept secret Chinese money in her velvet-tapestry purse, so she might one day buy her freedom, and it felt good to actually have the reassurance of the Jackson aboard as Dil’s voice grew happier and happier.

They got off the boat and drove into town too late to see any catacombs under the streets, even if there were any. Dil, slung low behind the wheel of his battered Ford truck, had grown sentimental. “Look at all these pretty lights, Short Stuff,” he said. “Spence, you keep an eye peeled for The Man Hole. I want a nice big Christmas celebration with my kids.”

Dil was fond of dark, let-down places from another age, where kids were still allowed at the tables beyond the bar. He liked tall, leather stools and marbled mirrors and laid-back, congenial bartenders who invariably knew his name. Not that this was hard to do. You met Dil and knew his life history in ten minutes flat, their mother always said. He had the gift of gab.

The Man Hole’s green plastic tree was decorated with tiny golden horns and angels. “That’s our tree tonight,” said Dil, squeezing them through the crowd to a table near it. “You still got your Jacksons?”

“I got mine,” said Spence.

Sara felt her purse and nodded. “Me too.”

“Good,” said Dil, waving to the bartender. “After Christmas, you kids can buy yourselves whatever you want.”

Spence nudged his sister as they sat down. “Look,” he said, “old brick walls. That means we’re on top of the buried town.”

“Honest?” Sara studied the floor. It was black and polished. It did seem thin, like the skin of a drum. As if other feet were walking beneath her own. And under the music and shouts and the clatter of dishes in The Man Hole, she thought she heard fainter voices and vague, subterranean shufflings. She pulled her purse onto her lap.

The bartender called out, “Hello Dil,” in a wary voice that made Dil raise both hands, palms up, and call back, “Not to worry, man, I’m flush tonight.” To prove it he ordered them steak sandwiches with fries, another Rob Roy, and 7-Ups with grenadine. While they ate, Sara listened to the sounds beneath the sounds from the catacombs and imagined the tunnels stretching out from her in all directions, like the spokes of a wheel.

After they ate, when the waitress came by to cock her hip at Dil and collect the bill, he pulled nearly all the money from his wallet and left it on the tip tray. He ordered another Rob Roy. He’d grown more sentimental. Sara and Spence grew restless and begged to leave, so he gave them coins to play “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” on the juke box, while he rolled dice at the bar. His jokes wound through numerous thwonks of the dice cup and another Rob Roy, and Sara and Spence watched the crowd thin.

Excluded from the bar, they pulled chairs to the window to study the toy store across the street, its window framed in frost paint and Christmas lights. Tomorrow was Christmas, and they each had their Jacksons. They made lists of the trading cards, games and Lego sets they imagined their Jacksons could buy in there, and Sara bet Spence that one of the catacomb tunnels led directly there from The Man Hole.

Suddenly Dil stumbled up, looking hangdog. “Hey, you two,” he said. “Guess what? I lost the round.” He flashed his bowl-you-over grin. “How about handing those Jacksons back?” he said. “Make your old man a loan.”

Sara looked at Dil and then at Spence. Her face grew warm. As if the winter sun that had finally leaked through the fog this afternoon was still pressing its hand on her cheeks. She gripped the satin cord of the velvet-tapestry purse. The battle in her chest, which raged whenever she was with Dil, went on the march. Whole armies thundered over the fields of her rib cage.

She shook her head, no.

“Come on, Short Stuff,” Dil pleaded. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

She gripped the purse tighter. “You said it was mine,” she said.

“Hell.” Dil frowned. “You’re just like your mother.”

This alarmed her. She shot a pleading look at Spence. But it was clear in that moment that no battle raged in her brother’s heart.

“You can have mine,” he piped up, in a voice that said he and Dil formed a regiment that Sara could never hope to join. He’d already brought his Jackson from his pocket.

“That’s my boy!” Dil said. And he hauled Spence to the bar, where a wink to the bartender included her brother in the next round of dice, as if he’d suddenly grown up.

Sara sank down in her chair, fretting the beads on her purse. She glared at the plastic tree. She kicked the black, polished floor with her toes. She dug her fingers into the brick joints at her back. She hated Rob Roys. They’d made her dad forget it was Christmas. And now he’d taken one of the Jacksons back. Spence’s Christmas money! She ranted on in her head like this until she sounded like her mother, even to herself. Finally, she dropped her cheek against the velvet-tapestry purse and shut her eyes.

She’d fallen asleep. When she woke, a waitress was staring at her like she was an overdue bill. The waitress had a gun-moll face and wore a fascinating amount of black eye liner. The upper lids were drawn so thick she seemed to be leering at Sara from a dark cave, out of which great black wings flew toward her temples.

“Where is he? Where’s your dad?” She shook Sara so hard she nearly fell off the chair. Sara sat up and looked around, confused. Dil and Spence were gone.

They’d left her. How could Spence let this happen? First the Jackson and now this.

“Where do you live?” The waitress acted as if Sara was dumb as a post. Sara started feeling very small and stupid, sitting in that hard chair in a strange town in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve.

“I don’t know,” Sara said. The trouble was, she knew Dil was taking them to his hotel, she just didn’t know which one. She wanted to stay put until he remembered and came back for her, but the waitress, whose name was Geraldine, said nothing doing.

“We’ll leave a note on the door. You’re coming home with me.”

Outside, the fog had crawled from the river and scooped out the town, leaving a silvery mist in its place. The lighted toy store window receded in the mist, as if it had been let go and was floating away. In a park across the street, the shadowy trees wavered thinly, looking oxygen starved. Sara could have been under the streets, in the buried town, it felt so spooky. And the trees were not really trees at all, but the dark, sad ghosts of the dead Chinese whose bones had never returned home, their spirits forever doomed to wander in a foreign land.

Geraldine said her apartment wasn’t far. She took Sara’s hand just like Sara’s mother would do to cross the street, but her mother didn’t have pointy nails that dug into Sara’s palm. Sara looped the velvet-tapestry purse over one arm, and it bumped softly at her side. She glanced back once at The Man Hole to make sure the note was still on the door. They headed into the park’s dark maw.

She was so glad to survive the park that Geraldine’s apartment looked good. Even though Geraldine lived above a store with Oriental vases and a carved jade Buddha in the window. They mounted some dusty, creaky stairs to get there, their shoes tap-tapping on the wooden treads while Geraldine warned her not to make a sound, since children weren’t allowed.

The remarkable thing about Geraldine’s apartment was the shelf of storybook dolls displayed above the couch. Sara had never known a grown woman to have dolls before. They weren’t like regular dolls, either, but held a revered position on that shelf. The girl dolls wore red, orange or pink ruffled dresses and little fur capes and hats. The boys wore satin dinner jackets or smart tuxedos and tails.

Every doll had bright, intelligent eyes with moving lids with black lashes. Their cheeks were scarlet, as if they’d been out running. Their hair fitted like a wig. And they wore genuine, delicate, black high-heeled shoes, black patent-leather loafers or lace-up boots on their feet. The whole thing was wreathed in Christmas lights to rival the toy store window.

“Don’t touch,” said Geraldine, who disappeared into the kitchen to fix scrambled eggs. She sighed when she set Sara’s plate down. Afterwards, she said how surprised she was that a little thing like Sara could eat so much.

Sara was quiet, listening for Dil’s step on those creaky stairs and holding the purse secure on her lap. She’d only eaten to please Geraldine. She knew the waitress was waiting to catch her doing something wrong by the way she hid in the bathroom to count out her tip money.

Sara tried to be extra careful so as not to provoke her. She was sure that any minute Dil would sober up, find the note and come after her. But that was before she saw the bed fall out of the wall.

Geraldine had moved a table, yanked a knob and there it was, thudding down, a mattress on metal legs. “You can sleep in here with me,” she announced.

Sara’s stomach was reduced to a coiled rope, one that Geraldine pulled painfully out of her. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the gap that bed left in the wall hid a secret passage down into the catacomb town. After all, Geraldine lived right over a Chinese store! She’d be asleep in that bed and it would fold up and swallow her whole in the night.

Now that she thought of it, one of those storybook dolls was Chinese (the black-haired one in a straight golden dress, carrying a tiny parasol). And it wasn’t hard to make the leap from being trapped in the catacombs to being frozen as a doll on Geraldine’s shelf. She probably stole a child every Christmas!

“No,” Sara said.

“Come on now,” said Geraldine, coaxing. She’d changed into her nightgown, black and frighteningly low cut. Sara stared at a mole on the waitress’s upper lip that she’d scrubbed into view in the bathroom. It was round, hairless and copper as a penny. “Get in,” said Geraldine.

She lit a cigarette and sent a diabolical stream of blue smoke into the room.

Sara was more scared of getting in bed with her than refusing. “I won’t.”

Geraldine squinted through the smoke with dangerous eyes. “Do you know what I’m going through for you?” she said. “And on Christmas Eve, no less? You ate three of this week’s eggs and drank the last of my milk. And I could catch hell. I could be arrested for kidnapping. So don’t be any more trouble.”

“I want to go home,” said Sara. Why had she ever left The Man Hole with Geraldine? She longed to run back. But it was too late. She couldn’t remember the way. Her legs felt heavy as bricks, as if her heart had fallen down to her shoes.

“You heard what I said,” Geraldine said.

Sara balked. Then she crossed gingerly to the bed and set down her velvet-tapestry purse. She drew open the sash and pulled out her Jackson. She placed it on the mattress between them.

Geraldine’s lips parted and smoke dribbled out. “Twenty bucks?” she breathed. “Where’d a shrimp like you get twenty bucks?” She eyed Sara suspiciously and glanced at her bathroom door.

“Daddy gave it to me for Christmas,” Sara said quickly. “But you can have it.” She left it on the bed and hurried to the couch, where she sat huddled with her empty purse.

“Jesus, kid.” Geraldine took another drag on her cigarette, got off the bed and came over carrying the Jackson, this time the smoke descending from her lips in a waterfall. She rose above Sara until her black nightgown brushed Sara’s face like scratchy wings. When Sara looked up, Geraldine had taken a storybook doll from the shelf, not the Chinese one, but a blonde in a snow-white cape. The doll’s dress snapped in back, and she opened the snap, rolled up the Jackson and tucked it inside. She snapped the dress shut before replacing the blonde on the shelf.

“For twenty bucks you can sleep in the bathtub naked,” Geraldine said. “Goodnight.”

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

She turned off the light. Sara curled up on the couch and pulled a cushion over her legs for warmth. Above her, the Christmas lights shuttled and winked over the dolls. She could hear the subterranean voices again, only louder, with the echoes of shuffling feet; a muttering, throbbing cacophony that rose up like ether and encircled her like a wreath. The storybook dolls eyes began to quiver. She shuddered. They were looking down at her.

Dil would never come. She lay there forever waiting for his step on the stair, his knock at the door, his “There you are, Short Stuff!” reprimand. But, when the sounds came, she knew it wasn’t Dil. He’d never beat on the door, yelling and shouting.

She ran to Geraldine, who sat up and whispered, “Quiet!” as she switched on the lamp. “Someone’s trying to break down the door.”

“Who?” said Sara, trembling.

Geraldine glared at her as if her presence had brought a string of bad luck. “You’d better get over here.”

Sara stood shaking next to the bed, still not willing to get into that contraption with the waitress, but not wanting to be stuck on the wasteland of the apartment floor. The door shivered. It wasn’t putting up much of a fight. Pretty soon the jamb splintered away from the casing.

“Laura!” a man roared through the crack he’d opened up. “You in there?”

“Laura doesn’t live here!” Geraldine roared, making Sara jump. “Grab the phone!” she ordered Sara. Sara shook her head. The area around Geraldine offered a safe circle she’d be foolish to step out of. But Geraldine’s murderous look made her heart slam. She ran for it, snatched the phone from its table and ran back.

Geraldine swore and punched in a number, hissing into the mouthpiece, “Laura, call the police!” she said. “Your old man’s here. He’s broke down my door!”

The door emitted a low groan, like a cranky tree in a wind. It dropped toward them and stopped, hung up on one pin, twisting.

A department store Santa stood where the door used to be, sweat running down his scowling face. His felt suit was stained and torn, and beneath his Santa hat his face bulged oddly, like a bag full of marbles. He was winded, as if he’d just now dug his way up from the bowels of the earth. He stormed into the room but stopped when he saw Sara, blinked and stared at Geraldine. Geraldine grabbed Sara and drew her close.

“You’re scaring the kid,” she said coolly.

“I know Laura’s here someplace,” he cried. “You’d better tell me where!”

“Laura lives down the hall, you big ape,” Geraldine said. “You’ve got the wrong apartment.”

The door pin finally let go. The door crashed to the floor, and dust billowed up. A siren wow-wowed in the distance, and the fake Santa hung his hands as if waiting for the cuffs. Then he gathered himself and stormed back into the hall. But he didn’t have the energy to break down another door and came storming back.

“Liar!” he yelled. He crossed to the wall bed and in two strides had snatched Sara.

“No!” she begged. But Geraldine didn’t even try to hold onto her.

“Tell me where Laura is, or say goodbye to your kid.” Fake Santa smelled like cigars and sour beer. His Santa hat fell off and with it his cotton-ball Santa hair.

“She’s not my kid.” Geraldine shrugged. “I found her in The Man Hole after my shift.”

Disbelieving, the fake Santa snaked his hand through Sara’s hair and lifted her up until her face was eye level with his. Her teeth knocked together with a mind of their own, but the rest of her was frozen. He shook her gently, as if she were some curiosity he’d just come across. Then he yowled and tossed her across the room. She flew, like the snowy egret at the river, moving so handily on whomping wings. She stopped flying when she met the couch, but the couch took over and threw itself against the wall, and the wall shuddered, and the storybook dolls leapt out and rained down around her.

The Christmas lights came, too.

“Now you’ve done it,” Geraldine yelped. “You’ve killed her!” Sara thought maybe Geraldine meant one of her dolls, since she was still alive, and she could see the blonde with the white-fur cape lying broken in half on the floor. Her Jackson had popped from the doll’s dress.

She squeezed her eyes, waiting for the spinning to stop. Her heart had come unhooked and was pounding in her head. She was glad it wasn’t the Chinese doll he’d killed. She prayed he wouldn’t see her Jackson, lying roped in the fallen, twinkling lights.

He didn’t have time. When she opened her eyes, a woman clung to the Santa’s back, hugging his neck as if she loved him. But his face was as red as his suit from getting choked, and he spun, trying to throw her off.

“Damn you, Laura!” he spluttered. “Let go!”

It was like watching a cowboy ride a bull. They went bucking and kicking around the room. Sara was riveted to what would happen next.

She never found out because just then Dil showed up. The way things happened, crunched together in time, made Sara believe that Dil had for some reason been in Laura’s apartment. And it comforted her to think he’d known where she was all along.

Later, Dil swore he didn’t know and referred to it for years as “the Christmas the catacombs got you.”

In his defense, he did look stunned, standing in the gaping threshold to Geraldine’s, white-faced and rumpled with his cap gone. “Short Stuff,” he cried. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Wait, Daddy.” She wasn’t dizzy anymore, but she couldn’t move. Later, it seemed strange, but at the time she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave. The sirens were practically in the room. Laura and her boyfriend were careening around, and Geraldine was giving Laura instructions on how to poke Santa’s eyes out. Geraldine, in her low-cut nightgown, was so excited she was bouncing on the bed, and what Sara longed to see was for that bed to rise up and swallow her.

Dil kept waving to Sara from the doorway. He didn’t seem capable of coming in the room. Sara looked back at Geraldine, who wasn’t paying attention. She looked down at the blonde doll, broken on the floor. Her Jackson lay beside the doll. Why should Geraldine have the Jackson now? She’d as much as told that fake Santa to go ahead and kill her. Sara jumped off the couch, grabbed the Jackson and ran for the door.

She ducked past the spectacle of Laura and her boyfriend and headed straight for Dil, her velvet-tapestry purse still looped, remarkably, on her arm. When she got to him, Dil caught her up and hugged her hard enough to split her in two.

“You left me,” she said, as he smothered her with kisses.

“You’re safe,” he wailed. “Your mother is going to kill me.”

But of course Sara never told her mother. She still loved Dil, even if she didn’t trust him. And, although she never quite got over being mad at Spence for leaving her behind, she knew it was only because he loved Dil, too. Besides, he swore he’d fallen asleep himself and that Dil had just been taking turns carrying them to the hotel.

Sara didn’t cry in front of Dil when he found her. But Christmas night, back home at their mother’s, she took off her jeans and discovered a bruise on her shin. It was a big, black and green streak gone soft like a spoiled banana. Seeing that bruise, she started to bawl.

When she stopped bawling, she opened the velvet-tapestry purse and brought her Jackson out. She rubbed it between her hands. It felt fine and gritty, like sandpaper, and now smelled a dense, jungle green. It was too late to spend it on a koala bear. It seemed best to hang onto it, knowing what she knew, that another town existed, buried deep beneath her own, safe ground.