We should have arrived a week earlier. We should have had a taste, a hearty taste, of Hanukah. We should have been in the New York City flow. But we had been delayed by an ear infection — the boy’s — and then a spider bite on my leg that got infected. I refused to believe it was a spider bite. Then I refused to believe the antibiotics the doctor called in were not working. But then the leg swelled, and I reluctantly went to the emergency room and was told, to my amazement, that I would have to spend the night.
There was some weirdness during those first hours in the emergency room triage, as there often is. Some lunatic lady out in the hall was yelling. “Get away from me!” and “Bring me water!” and “I am going to sue you all for not bringing me water!”
It went on and on. Eventually I yelled, I mean really bellowed, “Shut! Up!” An anonymous voice rolling down the hall. It achieved nothing except it was cathartic. Around midnight I was wheeled to my room.
I spent two nights. It was glorious. I had been having a fantasy, a distant, dreamy fantasy, of staying in bed for a day or two. The sort of absurd fantasy a parant of little children might fleetingly entertain. The fantasy had been given form by a riff by Charles Bukowski who spoke persuaively about the rejuvenating effects of a few days in bed. I dreamed of it but never seriously entertained it. Then the dream came true.
On the second morning, I lingered an hour past when I was clear to go. The orange-hued light of early morning gave way to breakfast light and then everyone-is-at-work light. In my hushed compartment, it was all far away. I sat up on the edge of the bed and thought that I should really get out of there. I staggered onto Prytania holding the back of clothes my wife had brought, my computer bag. I felt like a released convict. My first few hours in the real world were unsteady and not just because I took the streetcar home. I realized I been being sucked down into a kind of helplessness in the hospital; it’s amazing how quickly stasis creates its own momentum.
A few days later we were stepping off the plane at JFK. It took about ten seconds to feel as though I was surfacing in the ocean and breathing real air. About twenty minutes later I saw someone I knew. Not even someone I liked, but someone from my life. Something about being from here, perhaps. It was freezing. The wind was whipping. We had weather shock in the taxi line. But it was brief. The cab was pristine. The driver was agressive. He wore a jaunty cap, a scarf, and a black leather coat — cool as cucumber except when Evangeline threatened that she might throw up (just a threat, but it has happened) and I saw his neck stiffen.
The wind off the river practically blew the door off the cab when we arrived at the building. The apartment, and my mother in it, was burinished and glowing. The children were overjoyed. Dusk was descending and inside, it was warm; the cozy factor was epic. I must have taken a hundred pictures with my iPhone that first night, my thumb tapping without looking at the screen.
And that first morning we did a touristy thing and went to see the tree. On the way we stopped in at French Roast for cappuccino and granola and fruit at the bar. The light was so bright. The place pakced and festive. Sympathy for The Devil played on the sound system. The guy next to me, who I complimented for his sing along ‘woo woo,’ said, “You know, when you and your family came in and sat down I, for some reason, thought of Keith.”
The subway down was fun beyond all reason. The crowds in midtown not too bad. I bought a hat for five dollars. The boy was in the stroller with his red crocodile boots. Evangeline with her brand new white coat. She was hoping to ice skate. I thought it was unlikely. But I have been thinking about The Catcher in the Rye. I liked the idea of her ice skating. If not now, then soon.
The tree, the huge tree, looked tired, droopy. In the bright daylight the colorful lights did not look so sparkly. It was windy. The skating rink had a huge line and anyway it had not opened. I held the boy in my arms and explained what a Zamboni was.
There, in Rockefeller Center, I breathed the unhealthy air of a world meant entirely for tourists. Though the art deco made it much more pleasant than Times Square. The wind gusted. Evengaline whined about not getting to ice skate. We sought refuge inside Rockefeller Center. We bought treats at Godiva. The kids ran around and chased each other. Everyone looked pretty on the black marble floor.
A few things about that crowd by the tree: To the guy wearing a purple sweatshirt that said, “Phoenix,” and a black baseball cap with the letters “NRA” on it, you bummed me out.
To the lady who complimented Evangeline on her pink tights and said she wished she had tights like that growing up, a big thank you.
To the blind drummer on the downtown side of the 50th Street subway platform, delicately tapping his big drum with two hands while keeping time with a drum pedal on a wood block with his right foot — he was there when we arrived and still there when we returned on the other side of the tracks to go home — thank you. I should have tipped you.
Then it was time to shop for the tree. The boy was getting cranky and I had sent Eizabeth home with him for his nap while Evangeline danced around coatless amidst the trees and I talked to the saleslady from North Carolina. Evangeline picked one out. It was very big. The sky towered above us, blue, endless. Evangeline dancing around saying, “That one! Daddy I want that one!”
The lady gave me a deal. She offered to have it delivered.
Secretly, I was thinking, “Where are the Quebecois? The crazy hippie Quebecois who are always selling trees in this spot and living in the van?” But it was the day before the day before Christmas. Time for action. I took the big tree. That she offered to have delivered should have been a sign. In the past I would carry it home on my shoudler.
The tree showed up in the lobby a few hours later. It was brought up in the service elevator. But we were going out. A Christmas party. Me and the doorman had to struggle to get it out of the service elevator. What was I thinking out there on Broadway? I left it in the back hallway. It was huge. I was in a rush. I will bring it in later, I thought.
We returned. Bathed the children. Brushed the teeth. It’s like crossing a dessert, these last rituals. Then it was over. I was still up. I snacked. I read. I wrote. I was in a state of agitation. It could have been provoked by so many things. I have so much work to do. I am home but it’s not home but it is my childhood home but I am not a child. I have children with me to prove it. But what are they proof of other than themselves?
What was making me anxious, I think, was knowing there was a tree in the back hallway that I had to wrestle into the living room.
Finally, it was time to confront the tree. I pushed open the doors that lead to the back hallway. A lovely smell. A giant tree. I struggled to get it into the base. I stood it up. I had sticky hands. The skirts of the tree were enormous.
There was no way it would fit inside the house. It loomed before me, not reproaching me, but somehow aware it was not where it supposed to be. It should not be standing in the back hallway of an apartment building. The key thing here is that it is pre-Christmas Post christmas the carcases of these trees are everywhere. But now was a time to live. But where could it live? It was too big.
It stood there, quite majestic, gravity expanding its girth. No chance at all of getting it into the apartment. None. And the superindendant would get very agitated about it sitting back there blocking the back staircase. A fire hazzard. Fines could be levied. It would have to be thrown out before it was ever put to use. I went back inside.
Right now I sit at the kitchen table. It is still and quiet. It is after one in the morning, which is to say the world has quieted enough so that I can think. I can hear the ticking of a clock. The back door is shut. Just beyond it, like a sentry, stands that gigantic Christmas tree. Maybe we should trim it with lights and have Christmas out by the service elevator. It would be the apartment building version of a manger, a kind of urban nativity scene.
But no. It will have to be removed. I will have to buy another tree. Smaller. It will be difficult to explain this to Evangeline. But facts are facts. The tree does not fit. This giant outside the door will be a memory. Like a performer who made it to side stage but never got under the lights. It will always be a kind of ‘what if’ tree. I will probably recall it as an illustration. The whole predicament has the quality of a children’s book. The Christmas Tree That Didn’t Fit Through The Door.
UPDATE: My wife, who was asleep through all that, woke to the news that the tree was stuck in the hall and I would need to rush out to get a new one. She inspected the thing,and then announced -as I went on about how “There is no way this thing is going to…” etc -that the pines were not shedding much and that we could together pull it feet first through the doorway, which we did. Problem solved. (Wives. So useful!)
Here it is in the back hallway’s morning light.
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