< Here's a preview on what the cover (might) look like. Still tossing a few things around with Toni (thanks!), but this is where we're at for now.
My goal is to get all of my editing done this weekend and have this puppy posted to Lulu.com early next week, so I can get some out there before the holiday rush.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
< Here's a preview on what the cover (might) look like. Still tossing a few things around with Toni (thanks!), but this is where we're at for now.
Posted by Shannon at 5:16 AM
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This song was a big inspiration for my story, just thought I'd share!
A father waits upon a son
A mother prays for his return
I just called to see
If you still have a place for me
We know that life took us apart
But you're still within my heart
I go to sleep and feel your spirit next to me
I'll make it home again
I pray you'll fall in love again
Just say you'll entertain the possibility
I learned enough from my mistakes
Learned from all I didn't say
Won't you wait for me
It may be long to get me there
It feels like I've been everywhere
But someday I'll be coming home
Round and round the world will spin
Oh, the circle never ends
So you know that I'll be coming home
We fight to stay alive
But somebody's got to die
It's so strange to me
A new year, a new enemy
Another soldier gone to war
Another story told before
Now it's told again
It seems the wars will never end
But we'll make it home again
Back where we belong again
We're holding on to when
We used to dare to dream
We pray we live to see
Another day in history
Yes we still believe
It may be long to get me there
It feels like I've been everywhere
But someday I'll be coming home
Round and round the world will spin
Oh, the circle never ends
So you know that I'll be coming home
You know that I'll be coming home
It may be long to get me there
It feels like I've been everywhere
But someday I'll be coming home
Round and round the world will spin
Oh, the circle never ends
So you know that I'll be coming home
Remember what I said about the top ten list of Christmas events in St. Augustine involving my family? Well, although my parents’ wedding might have barely cracked the top ten, their divorce is easily in the top five. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret being too young to remember the night of the 1985 Christmas Pageant when my parents’ marriage came to an abrupt end in front of the entire First Baptist congregation..
In the three years since they said I do, my very young and naïve parents had learned a lot of valuable lessons. Those lessons included (in no particular order):
- Condoms do not always work
- Children sometimes come in pairs
- Football scholarships to do not feed five mouths
- Even the nicest landlords can only be so sympathetic
As a consequence of those lessons, both of my parents had to give up on their dreams. My dad put his football pursuits on hold to take a full-time job and squeeze in the occasional night class toward his accounting degree while my mother put her trophy wife aspirations on the shelf to feed, bathe, diaper, and dress three little babies.
Dad scraped together enough credits for his accounting degree in April of 1985. He did not get to attend his graduation ceremony, however, because he was too busy obeying the rules of his eviction notice by packing up his wife and kids to move back home.
Judge was kind enough to offer my parents the Hamilton family estate--a massive, old, colonial home on the bay in downtown St. Augustine, where generations of the Hamilton clan (my father included) had lived for nearly a century. But before you start tearing up over Judge’s incredible generosity, you should know that the house had been vacated two years earlier by the family’s patriarch and his bride upon discovering a particularly stubborn colony of termites in the home who bred almost as quickly as my parents.
So the house became just another source of animosity between the newlyweds who had clearly jumped into the deep end of the pool. As Christmas neared, the two were rarely on speaking terms with each other, which led each of them to form a lasting relationship with a local lawyer.
Of course, being such a small town, St. Augustine only had a handful of qualified lawyers and as it turned out, my parents chose the same one. Henry Cane was obligated by the lawyer-client privilege not to tell my mom or dad that he was representing both of them. And as I understand it, even if he had not been obligated to do so, he would have abstained from saying a word because he found the whole thing mildly amusing.
Henry employed one process server, his half-brother Harry. It was a pity job that Henry had given Harry to help his little brother pay off the debt he owed him for all the times he’d bailed his drunk ass out of jail. Harry thanked him by showing up sober a few days a week and occasionally finding a way to stumble into someone who needed to be served with papers from Henry’s office.
Two weeks before Christmas, Henry gave Harry the paperwork that was to be delivered to both of my parents with strict instructions that he wanted them to be served at the same time. Harry tucked the papers away and rushed off to the First Baptist church where he was fulfilling his court-ordered community service obligation to society as the director of the church’s annual Christmas pageant.
It wasn’t until a few days later that Harry matched the names on Henry’s papers to the parents of the twin babies who were sharing the duties of baby Jesus in the pageant. Relieved that he wouldn’t have to go out of his way to do his job, Harry waited for my parents to show up together at rehearsal.
Unfortunately, Harry didn’t think about the fact that people who were about to get divorced probably wouldn’t be around each other that much. Every rehearsal, it was always my mother or my father who showed up with Brandon and I to supervise our participation. As Christmas Eve drew near, Harry started to panic. But he figured if nothing else, the duo would have to come to the pageant and accompanying candlelight service together.
Sure enough, on the holiest of holy nights, my parents arrived at the church with my older sister in tow and slid into the front pew. Harry spotted them from backstage and formed his plan. He had to get my parents to confirm their identities before he could serve them, it was one of the only rules of process serving. But he thought he knew just how to get it done.
Harry took to the stage and read aloud his narrative part of the pageant while the church’s children acted out the pivotal parts in the man-made manger scene behind the altar. As the end of the program neared, Harry veered from the script and swooped in on the manger to scoop up the baby Jesus (we are not sure to this day if it was me or Brandon, both of us had equal tufts of our father’s dirty blond hair at that point and so to the crowd, it was impossible to know who was who).
“Who’s child is this?” Harry bellowed in his booming narrator’s voice. The audience murmured in confusion. After a few beats of silence, the Virgin Mary slowly raised her hand while Joseph scratched his head.
“Not you!” snapped Harry. “Who are the real parents of this child?” He turned his gaze on my parents, who were just as confused as the rest of the crowd.
“Um,” my dad finally spoke up, “I suppose we are?” He gestured to my mom seated next to him in the pew. Harry made his way down the steps off the stage, still holding me or Brandon out in front of him.
“You are Jack and Elizabeth Hamilton? Parents of this child?” He asked one last time. The two of them glanced at each other, then looked back at him and nodded. Harry excitedly thrust the baby Jesus into the arms of a nearby stranger and reached into his cloak to remove the two manila envelopes his brother had given him.
“Then these are for you,” said Harry. He handed the envelopes to my parents then leapt back up on the stage to close out the pageant.
But the antics weren’t over yet.
When my Nana Betsy, who was seated next to my mother, looked over at the envelope and realized what was inside, her eyes rolled back up in her head and her body went slack. It was bad enough that her daughter had gotten married and pregnant at eighteen and then again at twenty, but to be a single, divorced mother of three at twenty-one was more than Nana Betsy could handle.
As she slid out of the pew onto the floor of the church, the candle wrapped in a cardboard disk in her hand slid along with her. The tiny flame brushed against my nana’s sweater and quickly blossomed. Several bystanders rushed in to put the fire out, just as the smoke roused Nana Betsy back to life. Paramedics were called and the Christmas pageant came to an abrupt end.
Somewhere near the back of the chapel, Henry Cane snatched up his wife and children and made a swift exit into the cool night air. He made a mental note along the way to cut his half-brother loose after the holidays and hire someone with a little more tact and a lot more brains.
There was, however, a small silver lining to the whole event. After their public humiliation in front of the same people who’d witnessed their vows almost exactly three years before, my parents were humbled enough to sit down together at the kitchen table that night and come to an amicable divorce agreement without the help of Henry Cane or anyone else.
My mother moved out the next day.
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Posted by Shannon at 10:33 PM
Thursday / December 20, 2007
In the time it took for me to return to my apartment from the police precinct, news of Boston’s now infamous “Santa Slugger” had slipped beyond the borders of Beantown, right into the national spotlight. Officer Bill was apparently correct in his assessment that it was a slow news day, because the twenty-four hour national media networks could hardly wait to run the story. Not only did they show the video of my impromptu interview in the back of a police car, they also added a headshot of me from my Facebook page along with an illustration of Santa Claus just in case people were unsure of who I had so viciously assaulted.
Additionally, the Boston PD apparently had some “computer trouble” that rendered them incapable of sending out a follow-up press release to these news stations that “Santa” had in fact turned out to be a stoner with a record.
I discovered all of this by way of listening to the messages left by concerned family members on my voicemail at home .
First, there was this recording from my grandfather, Judge:
“I can’t believe you are the first of my grandchildren to appear on Fox News. I’m real proud of you, pumpkin, but I did hope you’d be on there talking about the good values of the Republican party instead of being the perpetrator of an assault. But I love you anyway. I never did like that Santa character to begin with--in my experience, men that jolly who hang around kids a lot always turn out to be perverts. And this world would be a better place with a few less perverts in it. Anyhow, don’t you worry about a thing. Judge is going take care of everything, starting with your legal team...I‘m going to go make some phone calls right now.”
Next was a message from my half-brother, Robbie, who thinks he’s from the hard, urban side of the suburbs:
“Yo, Sis! I can’t believe you really dropped St. Nick like that in broad daylight! That is so dope, man. You gotta show me the moves you used! Is it true what they said on TV--did you really pistol whip him? That’s just badass, baby. That’s straight Grand Theft Auto style. You’re my hero.”
My maternal grandmother, Nana Jane, had a follow-up message that wasn’t full of so much praise:
“What am I supposed to tell my Sunday school class this week when they ask about my granddaughter, the ‘Santa Slugger’? Clearly you have decided to take after your father’s side of the family. I know one thing, your name is going straight to the top of the prayer list, young lady. And on top of all this, your mother told me you’re dating a minority! Maybe I can put your name on the list twice. You need to get right with Jesus, and you need to do it now.”
Next was my stepbrother Mark, an information technology director in Miami:
“An ice pick? They just said on the news that you assaulted Santa with an ice pick. I wouldn’t even know where to get an ice pick--I mean I know I live in Miami, but still. Aksel says the Nazis didn’t even use ice picks on people! What’s next? Taking out Elvis imposters with piano wire? Give me a call back if they let you out of jail anytime soon. I’ve just got to know where you found an ice pick.”
My older sister Becca, a physical therapist in Houston, was the next person to leave me a message:
“Jesus Christ, a grenade? You found a grenade somewhere and planted it on some poor guy in a Santa suit? I know you’ve got issues with Christmas after everything that happened, but a grenade Bailey? You’ve lost your mind. Do you still talk to that stain on your couch? God, you know maybe you should ask Mom to buy you some clean furniture for Christmas. I’m starting to think that stain has some chemicals in it that are affecting your brain. I mean really…a grenade?”
I glanced over at Fred after that message played, thankful that I didn’t have the phone on speaker. He would have been devastated.
The sixth and final message on my voicemail was from my dad:
“I just got off the phone with Judge. He said you’ve already been released from custody and that no charges are going to be filed. That’s great, honey. Great news. I was getting a little worried with some of the things they were saying on TV, but I just knew you weren’t capable of running over someone with a lawnmower. I mean, where would you even get a lawnmower in the middle of Boston? Anyway, I know you talked to your mother earlier and I’m sorry her famous guilt trips didn’t do their job. I’d really love to see you for Christmas…”
I’m not going to lie, that one put a lump in my throat.
I deleted the messages and decided that I needed to do something quickly to perk myself up, otherwise it was going to be a very long night. Typically my cure-alls for bad days involve one of the following: mint chocolate chip ice cream, a good book, a long hot bath or alcohol. After the day I’d had, however, I felt that I was fully justified in combining all of the above.
So my space heater was returned to its perilous position in the corner of the bathroom while I ran the water and assembled the other necessary items. My one and only cooking pot became an ice chest next to the tub for my bottle of chardonnay and pint of ice cream. John Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” completed the puzzle and soon my cares were evaporating along with the steam from the bath water.
Eventually, I gave up on the book because it was hindering my progress with the ice cream and wine. For the record, mint chocolate chips and chardonnay do not blend well on your taste buds, but they do wonders for the soul.
It was closing in on midnight when I heard the loud buzz of the intercom in my living room, alerting me that someone downstairs was looking for me. I paused with the spoon of ice cream halfway to my mouth and considered who might be trying to pay me a visit at such a late hour.
The mystery visitor (or visitors) could not have been any of my friends in the city. Most of them had gone out of town for the holidays and the few who hadn’t would not have come over so late unannounced. It could have been one of my neighbors who had accidentally been locked out of the building, but in that case he or she could just keep buzzing apartments until someone answered. It wasn’t worth interrupting my bath.
In my mind, I figured it was probably a ballsy reporter who had found my address and decided to try and come get an exclusive interview with the Santa Slugger. I shook the thoughts from my head and let myself sink lower into the warm water.
Just as the last remaining part of me that was even remotely sober was voicing its concerns about what seemed like the imminent possibility of me drowning in my bathtub, I heard the unmistakable tremble of my front doorknob. I put the ice cream down and listened intently for more. When I heard the click of the first of my four locks turn back, I climbed out of the water and wrapped myself in a towel.
In a near panic, I searched the bathroom for weaponry. The wine bottle was the first thing to jump out at me, so I scooped it up, gulped down the last bit of liquid courage, and raised it over my head with both hands on the neck, like a baseball bat. As I crept through my bedroom and into the living area, I found myself wishing that I had the ice pick my brother Mark had mentioned--or even the lawnmower.
I motioned to Fred to stay quiet as I positioned myself behind my front door. My plan was fairly simple. There were four deadbolts on my door, as well as a security chain (you can never be too safe). Once the intruder had mastered the locks, he would be temporarily held back by the chain. Of course, I knew as well as he would that it would only take a few swift kicks to break the old chain, at which point the door would swing wide, the intruder would enter, and I would jump out and whack him over the head with the wine bottle. If there were multiple perpetrators involved, I would use the remaining jagged edge of the bottle to fend them off like they do in the movies.
My intoxicated state of mind kept me close enough to the edge of insanity that I not only believed my plan would work, I failed to see its inherent weakness right up until the moment when the intruder did indeed break the chain with a few swift kicks. Only then, as the door swung back on its hinges at a high velocity did it occur to me that I was standing directly in its path. By then, it was too late for a new plan.
I closed my eyes a half-second before the door slammed into me, knocking me back a few steps and shattering the wine bottle in the process. Shards of dark green glass rained down on my body, which was bare, save for the towel. A stinging sensation crept across the skin on my shoulders and up through my scalp.
“Don’t move!” The intruder said in a deep voice. “And don’t open your eyes.”
I tried to obey his orders, but my body was already starting to tremble from head to toe. When his hands brushed my arms, I instinctively recoiled.
“Get a way from me!” I whimpered. His hands remained firm.
“Stay calm,” he said in a soothing voice. “We need to get you away from the rest of this glass.”
His shoes crunched as he suddenly swept me off my feet, carried me across my own living room, and finally deposited me on the couch. I reached for Fred.
“Hold still,” said the intruder. His voice had a slight Southern lilt to it that I found strangely familiar and comforting. With a gentle touch, he brushed away the shards of glass in my hair and on my shoulders.
“There,” he said a moment later. “You can open your eyes now.”
I took a deep breath and braced myself to face my attacker. I told myself to memorize every inch and detail of his appearance so that I could identify him in a line-up at a later date and then again in court when he was finally brought to justice. But when I opened my eyes, I discovered that I had already spent a lifetime memorizing the face of the man in front of me.
“Memphis.” His name brushed across my lips in a whisper before it was suffocated by the air between us. If I had any doubt that it was him, it vanished in the instant that his mouth turned up at the corners, perpetuating a ripple that went straight up into those eyes that were the color of the ocean on a perfect surfing day. For a moment--a really, really long moment--I couldn’t remember how to breathe.
Very few of my memories between my first steps and my first kiss do not involve the face of Memphis Merritt. He has always been as much of a permanent fixture in my life any of my siblings, and in fact he was the leading source of competition between my twin brother Brandon and I. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been at war over who was Memphis’ best friend. And though we tried every method conceivable under the sun to make him choose between us, Memphis never strayed from his faithful neutrality.
His loyalty to my brother and I had made it that much harder for me to say goodbye to him when the time came. And that much harder for me to see him sitting on my coffee table four years later, his face just a few inches away from my own.
It broke my heart in a thousand places to look at him and see all the tell-tale signs of the Memphis I grew up with--a freckle on his left temple, a scar over his right eyebrow--as well as the signs of the new, grown-up Memphis I didn’t know at all. Last time we’d seen each other, he was in the habit of sweeping his dark hair across his forehead to its dead end at the top of his right earlobe. Now he had a close-cropped adult-do that took away the lackadaisical surfer feel he’d always conveyed.
In all my nostalgia, it took a while for me to swim to the surface and rejoin my childhood friend inside the confines of my dark apartment.
“Memphis,” I said again, with more confidence this time, “what the hell are you doing here?”
“I was wondering when you were going to ask me that,” he said with another one of his all-inclusive smiles.
“And how the hell did you get in my apartment?” I added, as the situation at hand returned to the forefront of my mind. I had to remind myself that I was speaking with an intruder who I’d been trying to knock out with a wine bottle moments earlier.
“Your super gave me the key,” he said. He slipped off the coffee table and joined me on the couch. “When you didn’t respond to my buzzing from downstairs, I got scared that maybe something was wrong. So I pestered him until he gave me the key.”
“Did it occur to you that I might have been sleeping?” I asked.
“It did,” he admitted. “But judging by your current wardrobe, I think my other assumptions were right. You were in the bathtub with a tub of ice cream and--this is just a hunch--a bottle of wine.”
“Damn you,” I told him. There was no point in trying to bluff, my cheeks were already growing hot. “You know me too well.”
“I do,” he said. “Well at least I thought I did. But then the Bailey I know would never have assaulted some old guy in a Santa suit with a hockey stick.”
“Okay these exaggerations have got to stop. I decked him with my wallet, that was the one and only weapon involved. And for the last time, he was trying to MUG ME!” I barely got the last part out before we both burst into laughter. That whole bottle of wine had done wonders for changing my perspective on the day’s events.
“Well in that case,” Memphis began, “maybe you deserve another bottle of wine.” Without being invited to, my former best friend rose from the couch and headed for my refrigerator. While he found another bottle of Pinot, I slipped into my room and pulled on a pair of jeans and a faded Boston College sweatshirt.
By the time I returned to the living room, Memphis was back on the couch with two glasses of wine glistening on the coffee table.
“I love your decorations,” he commented facetiously, with a crooked grin. His eyes were focused on the light-up, plastic pumpkin in the corner of my living room.
“I guess I didn’t make it past Halloween,” I told him. “I have some colored lights somewhere in a closet or something…”
“You could fit a little tree in here,” he advised. “Or maybe one of those tabletop fiber optic ones that changes color. Maybe throw in a few stockings, a couple of candles, nothing major.”
“Thank you, Martha Stewart, for your suggestions. I’ll be sure to keep those in mind.” I fell onto the couch beside him and swiped my glass of the table. As much as I wanted to resist falling right back into an easy cadence with him, another part of me felt warmer by the minute as we reclaimed a tiny corner of the relationship we’d once shared.
“So, Boston is a lot colder than I expected it to be,” he said. He was clearly trying to shift subjects and I knew why.
“I was wearing flip-flops when I got off the plane. I had to stop and dig my sneakers out of my bag right there at the gate.”
“Memphis…” I said again. He took a sip of wine before he replied.
“Why are you here?”
“Don’t lie to me. Respect me enough to just tell me what I already know.”
There it was. I knew it. My mother was really packing a whole new line of tricks up her sleeve this year. She had not only upped the ante on the guilt trip, now she had gone so far as to bribe my best friend (aside from Fred) to fly all the way up to Boston in an attempt to drag me back to St. Augustine. I had to give it to her, she was really going all out this time. I felt a little flattered.
“I’m really sorry you got roped into this,” I told him. “You know I’ve been going around in circles with my family since…well…you know, since the last Christmas I was home. But I’m just not ready to go back there. You understand that, don’t you?” Memphis put his glass back on the table. His kept his gaze down, but I could still see the corner of his mouth twitch from his profile. He was about to tell me something I didn’t want to hear.
“To be honest,” he began, “no, I really don’t understand. You’ve shut them out for long enough, Bailey. I volunteered to come up here and talk to you because I think it’s time for you to stop blaming them for things that were out of their control. They miss you. They love you.”
I leaned back and draped my arm over the arm of the couch, gently stroking the top of Fred’s head with my thumb. He would never have betrayed me like this. Never have switched to the dark side and come all the way up to Boston just to pick up a knife and use it to re-open a thousand old wounds.
My response was formed in the somewhat sober section of my mind, though it wasn’t without its intoxicated influences. I stood up without saying a word, took my glass to the kitchen sink, then went to fetch a blanket and pillow from the top of my bedroom closet. When I came back, Memphis was on his feet, rifling through the duffel bag he‘d left by the front door.
“Here.” I threw the blanket and pillow onto the couch.
“Bailey, hold on.” He pulled a long envelope out of the pocket of his bag and turned to face me. “They sent a plane ticket. A window seat on the one-thirty flight from Logan to JIA tomorrow. Right next to me.”
He held the ticket out to me. I crossed my arms.
“It gets cold in here at night,” I responded. “I recommend socks.”
“Fine.” He put the ticket on my kitchen counter. “Sleep on it and we’ll talk it over in the morning.”
“Feel free to make yourself a cup of coffee before you leave for the airport tomorrow,” I snapped. “Goodnight.”
With that, I retreated to my bedroom and slammed the door. It wasn’t until I was back in my pajamas and settled beneath the warmth of my own covers that my whole body started to shake and the tears began to fall.
Ten thousand emotions raced through my veins as I lay in bed, waiting for the exhaustion of a long day to make them vanish in sleep. They were not all bad and not all good, but every one of them was a reason for why I had not been home in four years.
In the living room, I heard Memphis shuffling around before he settled on the sofa and turned out the light. Outside, cars slid by beneath the gentle curtain of snow that had started to fall just after dusk. I was thankful for their noises as well as those of my neighbors, otherwise I might have been just crazy enough to lie in bed, holding my breath and hoping to hear the hum of Memphis’ low snore. I missed that snore.
Just as I was almost across the horizon into the haze of sleep, a faint buzzing noise caught my attention. On my nightstand, my cell phone was ablaze and dangerously close to throwing itself off the edge with its jarring vibrations. I snatched it up, and, still half-asleep, pressed the receiver to my ear.
“Bailey,” the familiar voice called to me from several oceans, deserts and war zones away, “can you hear me?”
“Brandon!” I shot up in bed so fast I felt dizzy. “Brandon! Oh my God, how are you?” I could hear his weak smile through the phone line.
“I’m alright,” he said. “Maybe a little homesick.”
“Oh Bran,” I started, “I wish you were here.”
“Not half as much as I do,” he told me. “Did I wake you? What time is it there?”
“Oh it’s--” I glanced at the clock, it was almost three in the morning. “It’s not that late. I wasn’t asleep.”
“Good,” he said. “So…what’s new?”
Ha, I thought. Well our best friend is sleeping on the couch in my living room right now because our family sent him all the way up here to drag me back home because I might be losing my mind…
“Not much,” I told him. “Just, you know, work and stuff. Nothing exciting.”
“Are you at home? Is it hot? I hope it’s not hot. I bet you’re probably missing some fantastic snow in Boston.”
“Uh, I’m actually in Boston and it is snowing.” I crept over to the window and peeked out. “It’s pretty heavy, we’ll probably get a few inches. Maybe a foot.”
“Oh man, I’m so jealous,” he said. “Will that affect you flying home then? I assume you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Well…no. I was actually thinking of staying here for Christmas.”
“What? That’s crazy!”
“Not you too, please Brandon.” I got back in bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. “You know what it’s like. I’m not ready to face their insanity again. I still have a twitch in my eye from the last time I was home for the holidays.” Brandon’s laugh may have been a million miles away, but it still made me feel warm inside.
“I do know what it’s like,” he said. “But I’ve got to tell you, Bailey, being here has made me appreciate a lot of things I took for granted before. They may be a few collective french fries short of a Happy Meal, but they are our family. I would give anything to be with them right now.”
“Clearly you’ve become delusional,” I replied. “Should I send some home videos to refresh your memory of the people we’re talking about here?”
“Hey, I need just as much therapy as you do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just one event. One holiday. One time to be with them and just be thankful that you have a family to love you and hug you and share in the joy of the holiday season.”
“Did you get that off a greeting card?”
“Bailey! I’m being serious here. I know it’s corny, but it’s still true. You belong at home for Christmas.”
“Brandon, if you want to be serious, let’s be serious,” I told my twin brother. “I’m not going home. Period. Now you only get fifteen minutes on the phone, so let’s not waste any more time on this subject, please.”
“Actually I get ten minutes at the holidays, so my time is almost up,” he said. My heart sank.
“Dammit,” I muttered. “It’s never enough.”
“Listen to me, okay? If you won’t go home for yourself, to heal your own wounds, then go home to heal mine.”
“Bailey, I have to go. I want to be there so badly and I want you to go in my place. Be my eyes and ears, Sis. I need you. Just say you’ll do it.”
“Say yes! I’m hanging up!”
The phone went dark in my hand. I punished it by sending on a return trip to the same pile of dirty clothes that I’d tossed it in earlier that morning.
I could ignore a lot of people. I could stand up for myself and stick to my guns and hold my own in a lot of situations. I could tell myself that Fred and I were happy together and that my life in Boston was exactly as I wanted it to be. I could get up every morning and force myself not to think about the lose ends I left behind four years ago.
But I spent that entire night wondering if I could possibly ignore my brother Brandon’s Christmas wish.
My bag was packed by daybreak.
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Thursday / December 20, 2007
What my mother didn’t know when I hung up on her was that our little conversation would wind up being the catalyst for my Christmas homecoming debacle. The guilt trips might not have produced her desired outcome on impact, but their residual effects would be a key factor in me getting on a plane to Florida the next day.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After I turned my phone off and returned it to my purse, I tried to clear my head and reclaim my positive feelings from earlier in the day. I pictured Fred’s smiling face encouraging me to continue with my excursion to the mall even though the thought of facing the holiday shopping crowd was making my bowels cramp.
Still, I had just about talked myself out of a funk when I came upon my second subtle geriatric messenger of the day. This one was a leather skinned homeless man with stooped shoulders in a Santa suit outside Bloomingdale’s . The suit appeared to be as old as its wearer. It had faded to a dark pink with enough holes in it that I thought it might have been used once to tame a bull. Now it hung loosely off the old man who was proffering a bright red pail with one hand and ringing a bell with the other.
I saw this as my chance to get right with God, Jesus, Buddha, Karma or whoever the case may be and erase my earlier snub of the old lady. I figured it might possibly even put my own grandparents in good graces. So I stepped over to the man, offered him a bright smile, and started to dig deep in my purse for loose change.
“Merry Christmas,” he said as I started to drop the coins into the bucket. When I reached for my wallet, his tight-lipped grin became an open expanse that showed off his yellow smile. Those few teeth that were still attached to his gums appeared at war with each other over which direction they should turn in, though none of them seemed intent on occupying the vacated spaces left by their former companions.
“I think I have a few more quarters in here,” I said to him as I unzipped the change pocket on the back of my wallet.
Maybe if I hadn’t been so caught up in doing what I thought was a good deed, I would have been more observant and possibly noted that this man’s red bucket was rusted at the edges and in fact had no signs of any recognizable charity. Or maybe I would have given a second thought to the way his gray eyes darted around nervously or the way he had positioned himself so that I was between him and the street, my hands and purse blocked from the sight of passersby.
But no. My mother’s words were still ringing in my ears so loudly I didn’t think to question the old man with a bucket standing in front of Bloomingdale’s in broad daylight. At least, not until the moment when his bony hand dropped the bell into the bucket and then reached out to grab my wrist in one fluid motion.
He was much faster than his skin and his slopped shoulders implied. By the time I realized what was happening he was smashing my wrist up against the rim of the bucket, trying to get me to drop my wallet inside.
“Be a little more generous you selfish bitch,” he sneered at me. He was close enough to spit on the collar of my jacket, which pushed me from a state of fear to a nation of anger. I gave him a swift kick to the shin hard enough for him to release my hand. With my wallet still clutched between my fingers I swung wildly at his face and managed to connect with his right cheek. He should’ve let me get my quarters out first because there were enough to knock him to the ground and send the bucket clattering off the curb.
I was proud of myself for a full two seconds, just long enough for me to turn and catch the wide, watery eyes of a little boy no older than my brother Eli who appeared to have been the only witness to my almost mugging. Of course, from where he was standing directly behind the now fallen Santa, he didn’t see any mugging. He saw a twenty-three year old, able-bodied girl deck his childhood savior with a leather wallet.
I braced myself for an inevitable scream from the little boy who I’d most likely traumatized for life. Only instead of a helpless cry, the little boy (who had clearly seen too many action movies) decided to avenge Santa’s honor. He came at me so swiftly, his little legs pumping and his head down, that I had no time to move out of the way. His little brown-haired head plowed into my stomach and laid me out flat at the edge of the sidewalk.
Another foot and I would have been in the street, beneath the tires of the afternoon traffic.
While Santa rolled around next to me with his hands over his face, the little boy stood above me triumphantly. It was only then that he decided to scream--and it wasn’t a pathetic little boy cry, either.
“SHE KILLED SANTA!” He declared with a little finger directed my way in case there was any discrepancy. His mother, who had been sitting on a nearby bench talking on her phone, rushed over with about a dozen other spectators.
With all of the air in my lungs now circulating through Boston, I found myself wholly unable to defend my honor in front of the growing mass of people. Santa’s nose was bleeding profusely, which gave his injuries a superior gore to my own tightened stomach. Add in the kid, and I got the distinct sensation that everyone thought I was in the wrong.
My eyes were starting to roll back in my head when the first police officer arrived on the scene. All I could see of him was a square jaw and a few tufts of blond hair. He checked my pulse, then Santa’s, radioed for an ambulance, then let the kid tell him what happened.
I was in the back of the police car with handcuffs on before the ambulance ever arrived. A couple of outspoken women (the kind only bred in Boston) sauntered up to the window of the car while the cop was taking statements and engaged in taunting me through the glass. Curse words and spit were hurled at equal frequency while I hung my head and squeezed my eyelids together.
Santa was eventually loaded onto a stretcher and placed with utmost care inside the waiting ambulance. The crowd applauded for him and he graciously waved back at them from inside the vehicle, then gave them a thumbs up to let everyone know he was okay. I had a different gesture in mind, but with my hands cuffed behind me, no one could see it.
After the ambulance took off, the crowd dispersed with just a few more jeers and leers in my direction. The square-jawed cop slid into the driver’s seat and caught my eye in the rearview mirror.
“Did you really deck that old guy?” He asked me.
“He tried to mug me.” The cop grinned.
“That guy was like eighty-seven years old.”
“I know, but--”
“And you probably outweigh him by twenty, th--”
“EASY BUDDY!” I shouted. “You finish that sentence and I will pop these handcuffs off and come through this cage!”
“Did you just threaten an officer?” He turned to face me and I hung my head again. Be like Fred, I thought. Less words. More smiles.
“No sir,” I said, chagrined. He turned back around and started tapping the keys on his laptop. I slumped against the backseat, visions of prison cells and orange jump suits floated through my head. With my eyes closed, I tried not to think about what would happen to Fred without me.
My nightmarish visions were interrupted by a sharp wrapping on the window. I jumped, expecting another round of curses and saliva, but instead I was greeted by the paint-by-number face of a somewhat familiar Boston TV reporter. Behind the heavily make-upped woman, a camera guy in a black trench coat aimed his lens at me. I couldn’t even hold up a hand to block my face like the criminals always do on TV.
The cop jumped out of the car and raced around to my side. I thought he was going to shoo the reporters away, but instead he opened my door and invited the crew to conduct an interview.
“Is it true you attacked Santa Claus?” The reporter asked before jamming the microphone in front of my face.
“No! He tried to mug me, I--”
“We were told if it wasn’t for the brave heroics of a little boy, you would have beaten Santa Claus to death.”
“That little boy attacked me!” I pleaded.
“So you’re accusing a brave young child who stepped in to save the life of Santa Claus of assaulting you?”
“Can you please stop calling him Santa Claus? He was just some old guy who tried to mug me!” The reporter pulled the microphone back and turned to face the camera.
“You heard it here first, folks,” she said. “The Santa Slugger not only sent the holiday’s most beloved character to the hospital, she wants all the children of Boston to know that Santa is really just an old guy who mugs people.”
“That’s not what I said!” I tried to shout before the cop closed the door in my face. He adjusted his belt and ran a hand through his hair before giving his own statement to the young reporter. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave his arm a playful squeeze. I felt like I was going to throw up.
By the time the cop got back in his squad car, three more news crews and two newspaper photographers had shown up at the scene.
“Apparently it’s a slow news day,” the cop said with a chuckle. I chose not to respond. He let the camera crews creep up on the vehicle while I bent over and tried to put my face between my legs to keep it off the TV.
After what seemed like hours, the cop finally put the car in drive and headed for the police precinct. Although I wasn’t thrilled with thoughts of what would happen there, I was relieved to get away from the news media.
The Chestnut Hill police precinct was buzzing with activity when we arrived. The cop was pushing me through the lobby and into the back hall when another officer--an older guy with dark skin--rounded the corner and nearly ran into us.
“Hey Jim,” said the blond cop.
“Bill,” the other cop, Jim, responded. He gave me a once over and then asked, “Is this the Santa Slugger?”
“The one and only,” Bill replied with a beaming grin. I thought about kicking him in the shin, but then I remembered where that had already gotten me.
“You didn’t hear the latest?” Jim asked. Bill shook his head, the grin faded.
“Nope, I just got here.”
“Well your assaulted Santa took his reindeer and headed for the North Pole.” Jim chuckled at his own joke. My heartbeat quickened.
“What does that mean?” I asked him.
“It means, when he got to the hospital and one of the ER doctors recognized him, he had a
sudden, miraculous recovery and ran away.”
“No kidding,” said Bill. Jim nodded.
“Turns out Santa’s actually a repeat offender,” said Jim. “He’s got a history of possession and assault--nothing real bad. Just a little pot and a few muggings.”
Vindicated didn’t even begin to describe the feeling that washed over me in that moment. I looked at Bill who looked at Jim who looked at his watch.
“Better go,” said Jim. “See you later.”
“You can let me go now,” I snapped at Bill. “And I’d like to have my purse back, please.”
The officer reluctantly unlocked my handcuffs and returned my purse to me along with the evidence bag he’d put it in. I clutched both to my chest and marched out of the police station indignantly.
If I’d felt half as brave as I looked, I would have demanded to see the chief and threatened a lawsuit. But at that moment, I really just wanted to get home and tell Fred how scared I was when I thought that we would never see each other again.
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Roughly a month after I began working on my first full-length novel, Ancient City Christmas, I'm absolutely *THRILLED* to announce that it is FINISHED! No matter what happens with it, I'm just immensely proud of myself for sticking with it and producing something that I feel is pretty good, for a first novel at least.
I know I've only posted the first three chapters up here so far, but I promise I will start adding more soon! I'll also post the information on where you can buy a full copy of the novel just as soon as I get all that stuff set up.
Posted by Shannon at 4:31 AM
Friday, November 14, 2008
Thursday / December 20, 2007
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the second beginning of my story. Five days before I got myself into a bind (literally and figuratively speaking) at the Jacksonville International Airport, I was rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 2:00 p.m. by Alvin and the Chipmunks’ infamous Christmas song. Although I was a huge fan of the group as a child, nowadays the shrill harmonies of the Chipmunks make me want to scoop out my eyeballs with a spork and eat them for breakfast. Ironically, I feel the same way about my mother--hence the reason I made that song her ring tone on my cell.
After two choruses, the phone went silent only to start up again just as I was about to return to the peaceful land of dreams. I unceremoniously whisked the phone off my nightstand, turned it to vibrate, and tossed it into a pile of dirty clothes on the floor.
I buried my own head under my pillows in a vain attempt to go back to sleep, but it was too late. My brain was awake enough to recognize that it was both really, really cold and really, really bright in my apartment, neither of which was conducive to sleep.
With great reluctance, I slid out of bed--taking the covers with me of course--and trudged into the ice cave that sometimes masquerades as the world’s smallest living room and kitchenette. Although I knew that my poorly insulated walls and windows would release the hot air faster than my heater could generate it, I cranked the thermostat up, put on a pot of coffee, and headed for the shower.
I bravely put my life on the line in exchange for comfort by setting up my space heater in the corner of the bathroom. Like I was playing double-dutch, I swiftly hopped into and out of the hot water before it ran out. Though I didn‘t want to, I wrestled my hair dryer out from under the sink and exchanged it for the little space heater (I have learned from experience that I can’t run both without shorting the circuits to my entire floor). Normally, I hate drying my hair (it requires way too much effort) but it just so happens that I hate hypothermia just a little bit more.
Thirty minutes after I went in, I emerged from the bathroom feeling like a new woman--albeit a new woman who was still wearing last night’s pajamas and wrapped up in an IKEA bedspread. Back in the kitchen, I prepared my waffles and coffee, then took both to the couch and said good morning to my roommate, Fred.
Just to be clear, Fred is a soccer ball-sized stain on the arm of my Goodwill couch that sort of looks like a smiley face. He’s kind of like my man in the moon, only his expressions are captured in a brown circle of indiscriminate substance and unknown origin on my faux-leather surface.
Fred also happens to be my best friend.
I turned the TV on, checked the clock, and felt my heart flutter when I realized Fred and I were up just in time for Lifetime’s afternoon showing of our favorite show, The Golden Girls. It was, of course, one of the Very Special Christmas episodes that always relays the same message about love and peace over presents and candy. There were funny parts filled with laughter and touching moments when Fred and I both found ourselves in tears.
Just as the episode ended and I slurped up the last bit of syrup from my plate, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been out of my apartment in almost a week. As a freelance graphic designer, I do most of my work from the desk in the corner of my living room. It has its perks, I have to admit that most days it feels good to roll out of bed in the early afternoon and make the five second commute to my desk without even having to take a shower or get dressed.
But every few weeks I am blindsided by the sudden fear that I might be turning into an agoraphobic. In all fairness, it is very easy to convince yourself that staying inside a lot is totally acceptable in Boston in the winter time. I mean it’s been gray and cold out there for months now--who wants to get involved in all that when the Internet can bring you anything you want?
I looked over at Fred, who just smiled at me in that hapless, hopeless way he always does. Usually I know I’ve been inside too long when Fred starts to talk back to me. Although Fred was still maintaining his monastic silence that Thursday morning, I felt that I was close enough to hearing from him that I needed to get myself out of my apartment before things took a turn toward padded walls.
Besides, I was up before three o’clock, had breakfast, coffee, a shower and had even blow-dried my hair! How could I waste such accomplishments on Fred and my indoor plumbing?
Jeans, a jacket, three pairs of socks, two sweaters, a scarf and a knit cap later I shuffled out of my apartment and into the icy streets of Boston. It was less than a block to my nearest bus stop where I stood anxiously at the edge of the city’s motley crew of public transportation travelers waiting for my chariot to arrive.
By the time a bus headed in my desired direction finally came up the street, I had started to develop icicles on the end of my nose, which was one of several extremities that I no longer felt connected to. Somehow I still managed to climb the steps and assess my seat choices in a quick fashion. There were exactly two open chairs--one in the back next to someone who could have passed for Charles Manson’s long lost sister (or brother, I couldn’t be sure) and one closer to the front, next to a little blue-haired lady.
As I plopped down in the chair beside her, the old woman gave me a bright smile framed neatly in wrinkled skin. Her emerald eyes sparkled as she offered me an exceptionally cheery Merry Christmas greeting. I returned the sentiment with true sincerity. It’s rare to find someone who is both kind and sane on the city bus (which is another reason I prefer staying indoors) so I felt quite grateful.
“Where are you headed?” She asked me. Her warm smile melted all the ice on my nose.
“To the mall,” I replied. “I’m going to do a little last minute Christmas shopping. How about you?”
“I’m going to my grandson’s house,” she replied happily.
“That’s great.” I settled back in my seat, content with our succinct, casual conversation. She apparently was not feeling the same.
“I have seventeen grandchildren,” she said proudly. “And I can name every one of them in order of when they were born.”
“That’s…great,” I said again, silently praying she wouldn’t think I was calling her bluff.
Unfortunately she was already reaching for a billfold tucked away in her purse that I just knew was filled with pictures. I glanced back longingly at Charles Manson’s gender confused sibling.
“First there’s Eric,” the blue-haired lady began with a gnarled finger pointed at the photo of a teenager in a members only jacket. “He was born in August of nineteen seventy-one and he lives in California….or is it Connecticut?”
I decided to change my strategy.
“It sure is cold today isn’t it?” I rubbed my hands together for emphasis. At least if I couldn’t get her to shut up, I might get her off track.
“Yes it is,” she nodded and let the billfold sink into her lap. Relief passed over me as though she’d just lowered a gun from my head. She paused just long enough for me to think she was done, but then it turned out she was just catching her breath.
“It’s colder where my second grandson, Joshua, lives though. He’s in Colorado...or is it Costa Rica?” The billfold came back to life and she flipped ahead a few pages to a girl with crimped hair that was affixed to the side of her head by an enormous bow. “Then there’s Penny…or is that Jill? I think it’s Penny. She lives in…well it’s right by…hold on, I’ll think of it in a minute…”
I sat up straighter in the chair and silently cursed myself for not bringing my iPod. (of all the roles the iPod can play, social barrier is my personal favorite). Fortunately, right at that moment, I felt the gentle vibration of my cell phone from inside my purse. I was so excited to drown out the babbling of the old lady I didn’t even glance at the caller ID before I whipped my phone open.
“It’s about time!” My mother shouted in my ear. “I was starting to think you were avoiding me!”
“I was,” I told her with a heavy sigh. “I know why you’re calling me.”
“Well Merry Christmas to you too,” she quipped. “Can’t a mother just want to catch up with her favorite daughter who she never, ever hears from? Not even an e-mail or a text or anything?”
“We both know that’s not why you’ve been trying to hunt me down,” I muttered. My elation at being relieved of my duty to listen to the old woman’s list of second generation spawn was fading quickly.
“Alright, have it your way,” my mother said defiantly. “I’ll get right to it.”
“I want you to come home for Christmas.”
“Oh gee, let me think about that one,” I tapped my finger on the tip of my nose as though I was thinking. “I’m going to have to go with…no! Now aren’t you glad we got that out of the way? What else is new?”
“Bailey, please,” my mother insisted, her voice softening. “This is getting ridiculous. It’s been four years.”
“So?” I asked her. “Is there a law that you can’t spend more than three Christmases away from your family?”
“Maybe there’s a rule in this family that you can’t,” she snapped. “You know all of your brothers and sisters are coming home for the holidays, it’s the only time of year that everyone gets together.”
“Good for them.”
“Bailey! Why does this have to be such a touchy subject?”
“Oh please. You know exactly why! That’s just a stupid question.”
We both paused to break the tension and allow the words that we couldn’t say to peter out in the sound waves somewhere between Florida and Massachusetts.
“Honey,” she continued in an almost whisper, “we would really love for you to come be with us for Christmas.”
“I appreciate that, but I have plans here with my friends, okay?”
That wasn’t exactly true. Two weeks ago I’d bumped into a girl I used to work with at Starbucks who extended me an invitation to her Pimps & Ho’s Christmas party. I politely told her I’d see if I could make it, even though I knew I was probably going to spend my Christmas Eve with my two favorite companions: Fred and a bottle of wine.
“You can see your friends anytime,” my mother insisted. “This is the time of year for visiting with your family.” She emphasized the last word like it was special.
“Right. And if I came to visit with you people, would you pay for the therapy I would need when I left?”
“Bailey, please.” As she said it, I could just see her standing in the immaculate, unused kitchen in her oceanfront estate with one palm pressed against her forehead to fend off the coming headache.
“I’ve already said my peace, what more do you want?”
“I want to see my daughter!” She slammed her spare hand down on the granite counter top. I heard it. “I want to catch up on what’s going on in your life! I want to know if you still like your job! I want to find out if you have a boyfriend or…or a girlfriend--”
“Mother!” I hissed.
“Well I don’t know! How can I know these things when you keep all of us in the dark down here?”
“Okay, fine. Consider this my Christmas present to you: My life involves working from home all day and occasionally going out to dinner with friends. I still like my job just fine. And yes, I have a boyfriend. His name is Fred.”
Beside me, the old lady flipped ahead a few pages in her billfold and pointed at chubby, brown-haired kid with glasses and a tuba.
“That’s Fred,“ she said. “He lives in New York…or is it New Hampshire?” “Fred?” My mother asked incredulously. “What kind of name is that? Is he cute? What does he look like?”
“He’s kind of brown…maybe a little yellow. But he has a great smile.”
“Brown? Yellow? Is he biracial?”
“Well why don‘t you bring him down and introduce him to the whole family!”
“I don’t think they’d let me bring him on the plane,” I told her. Not to mention the fact that poor Fred would certainly lose his illustrious smile in Florida.
“He’s fat isn’t he? One of those people who’d have to buy two seats or else spill over on somebody else, right?”
“Look Mom, as delightful as this conversation has been I’m really ready for it to be over.” I started to gather my things as the bus approached my stop. “I really appreciate the offer, but I’m not coming home for Christmas. End of story.”
With my purse on my shoulder I sat and waited for the final blow. Our holiday ritual wouldn’t be complete without the closing argument. It was the very reason the rest of my family turned to my mother after all of their e-mails, voice mails, text messages and Facebook posts went unanswered. Elizabeth Bailey Hamilton Danforth is known for a lot of things, but she is famous for only one.
“You know,” she began softly, “Your little brothers and sisters really miss you. Eli was just asking about you this morning. He’s almost eight years-old now.”
My mother is a licensed travel agent for guilt trips.
“I know how old he is, Mother.”
“But you haven’t seen him since he was four,” she added. “He’s grown up so much you probably wouldn’t even recognize him. And you know, Taylor came over the other day. She and Maggie spent the whole afternoon talking about how much they wish their big sister would come home for Christmas.”
Just to clear up any confusion here, Taylor is my half-sister on my dad’s side and Maggie is my half-sister on my mother’s side. By a weird twist of small town fate, they wound up in the same kindergarten class and have not been separated since. They are fifteen now and though it has been eight years since I was that age, I seriously doubt that when the two of them get together they spend a whole lot of time talking about me.
“Look you can lay that stuff on me all you want, Mom,” I told her confidently. “It’s not going to change my mind. Besides, I’ve already put their presents in the mail and we both know that’s the only thing they really want from me.”
I stood up as the bus pulled to a stop in front of the mall.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, please, I’ve got to go.”
“Hold on, Bailey,” she pleaded again.
Last but not least, this was the moment when my mom usually slipped from subtle guilt to flagrant bribes. It’s like our own little version of “Deal or No Deal.” Over the last three years the banker’s offer has gone up from a diamond bracelet to a seven day cruise to a brand new car. This year I was hoping for cold hard cash, possibly in the high five-digit range.
“There is one other thing…” she said softly. Here it comes. “I hate to bring this up, but you know your grandparents are getting a lot older. Who knows how much longer they’re going to be around…this could be their last Christmas.”
My feet hit the sidewalk and stopped moving so suddenly the guy behind me nearly knocked us both to the ground. As I stepped out of his way, I tried to close my mouth, but I couldn’t get it around the new rotten apple my mother had thrown out.
The bus started to pull away and I found myself staring at the blue haired lady in the window as she slipped away.
“That’s really low,” I said quietly. “Really, really low.”
“It’s the truth, honey. You never know about these things.”
“Bailey wait! I can write you a check!”
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Although it occurred two years prior to my birth, I feel as though I had a seat in the front pew of St. Augustine’s First Baptist Church for the Ancient City’s wedding of the century on Christmas Day, 1982. I’ve heard the story a thousand different times from every affected party who took part in the affair, every one of whom remembers that day with an alarming amount of detail and clarity.
Even within the greater realm of St. Augustine folklore, the tale of my parents’ wedding remains as one of the most popular stories passed down through generations of North Florida natives, lagging just behind the tale of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ founding of the city in 1565 and Ponce De Leon’s great search for the Fountain of Youth.
You see, from the time they first started dating in the spring of 1980 at St. Augustine High School, my parents were labeled as the Romeo and Juliet of the tiny seaside village.
My father, John Andrew “Jack” Hamilton was the youngest son of North Florida’s most revered judicial servant, the honorable Judge Raymond Q. Hamilton III. For centuries, the Hamilton family had been sculpting the history of St. Augustine through politics, justice and the power of an iron fist. People held passionate opinions about the Hamiltons in only one of two directions--adulation or fear. Many people who subscribed to the latter belief felt that the family was a long line of criminals who forced their way into the city’s political landscape.
That’s not an entirely false perspective.
By 1982, Judge was the reigning family patriarch who had already ascended to the highest ranking judicial position in the county. Everyone knew he had plans to move up into the broader spectrum of the district in the following election season, and he was grooming both of his sons--Raymond Q. Hamilton IV and Jack--to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately, while Ray IV had agreeably accepted the family business and headed to law school at the University of Florida, Jack had decided to build his own business as a personal act of spite against his father. He barely maintained a “C” average at SAHS and found his love not in politics, but in the dewy grass of an open football field. Judge was somewhat pacified with his son’s athletic prowess (which is a quick path to fame in a small town) right up until Jack decided to continue his athletic career at Florida State.
An ardent Florida Gators booster, fan, and alumnus, Judge would sooner have seen his son walk through town in a dress than a Garnet & Gold uniform. To Judge, it was an embarrassment, a crime, and an act of pure betrayal for Jack to march off to Tallahassee and play football for Bobby Bowden.
But he did it anyway.
To make matters worse, before he left for the capital city he also decided to invite the daughter of the St. Augustine’s most beloved Baptist minister (and Judge’s most outspoken critic) to his senior prom.
Elizabeth Jane Bailey, my mother, played the role of a pastor’s daughter to a tee. To every adult she came in contact with, the shy brunette with the sharp blue eyes was nothing but sweetness and sweaters. Inside the bathroom stalls of SAHS, however, the writing on the stalls indicated that when the sweater came off (as it was known to do on a frequent basis), the sweetness went with it.
Although they would never admit it, those rumors and the combined pain it would cause their fathers were the chief reasons behind the start of my parents’ relationship. No one really knows when it turned from lust to love, but even after Jack went off to Tallahassee, the two continued their ill-fated romance.
My maternal grandfather, Pastor James Bailey, has always told me that every gray hair on his head (and there are a lot of them) sprouted during the two-year courtship of his only child and the son of St. Augustine’s most notoriously corrupt politician.
I believe him.
In fact, I think the majority of those gray hairs were probably born during the last few months leading up to my parents’ Christmas wedding. It was then that the infamous judicial servant and the respected Baptist minister had to put their differences aside to unite for a common cause.
While some people in St. Augustine were encouraged by the sudden softness of the relationship between the two families that followed my parents’ engagement, most folks just saw cause for suspicion. Once that ring went on my mother’s finger, the city should have become a battle ground between the two that would have made the previous entanglements of the French and Spanish in the area pale in comparison.
To add fuel to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, rumors flew around town about the mysterious disappearance of the bride and groom at the end of the summer. Although both had gone up to Tallahassee for school, it would have been common place to see them around town on the weekends or especially during the Thanksgiving holiday. So the fact that no one had caught even the slightest glimpse of the two since Labor Day was somewhat troubling.
With all the gossip slipping through the cobblestone streets, it was no surprise that such a large crowd turned out on Christmas Day for the wedding. Hours before the doors of the church were even opened, people lined up from the steps of the church, down the sidewalks, and deep into the downtown historic district.
According to my Nana Jane (my mother’s mother), there was a last minute effort to find someone to act as a bouncer and check for invitations at the door of the church. Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand up against the masses, and so it was that the large oak doors of the church swung out into the cold December morning and invited everyone in to its warm chapel.
Gorgeous poinsettias, holly boughs and pine wreaths still hung throughout the church from the previous night’s candlelight service. Some of the church ladies in attendance murmured amongst themselves that the bride and groom had taken advantage of the holiday decorations bought with the church’s budget, but none of them dared to say so to the pastor.
While the parishioners, gossip mongers and other interested parties vied for the best seats upstairs, my mother donned her gown inside her father’s basement office. Had it not been for pictures, I would not know what my mother‘s wedding dress looked like. After the events of that day had transpired, not one of the 250 guests could remember a single detail about the handmade gown.
Fortunately, a photographer was on hand to document everything, including the hideous nature of my mother’s dress. Although, at the time, I understand that fancy, beaded bodice work, long sleeves made of lace, and balloon-sized shoulder pads were all the rage, that style does not translate well into modern times. I am forever thankful to my parents’ first dog, Skippy, who had the good sense to shred that dress one afternoon while he was home alone so that I would never be offered the chance to revive its glory.
At any rate, my mother squeezed into her gown with the help of her bridesmaids and stood back to take a long look at herself in the mirror. It wasn’t exactly the glamorous wedding the eighteen year-old reigning prom queen had imagined, but it was her wedding day nonetheless.
Moments before the ceremony began, my grandfather slipped into the room and immediately burst into tears at the sight of his only daughter in her full wedding day regalia. An uninformed bystander would easily have been fooled into thinking that his tears were of joy and nostalgia, when in fact they fell out of shame and embarrassment. Once he stepped into the chapel with his daughter on his arm, my grandfather knew his life would be changed forever.
Back upstairs, someone shoved a bouquet of red roses mixed with holly into the bride’s hand just before the doors swung open into the vestibule and the crowd leapt to its feet.
My other grandmother, Judge’s wife Paula (who refuses to go by Grandma, Granny or any other derivative of the word for fear that it will make her sound old) stood up along with everyone else and tugged her skin-tight red dress down to reveal more cleavage than the Baptist church had ever seen. She held her head high and pasted a bright smile across her red lips which she was prepared to maintain throughout every painful minute of what was about to happen.
Upon her first step into the chapel, my mother was greeted by a chorus of gasps and murmurs echoed by the high arches of the wooden ceiling. The sounds, however, were not related to the beauty of my mother in her white dress or the joy of the moment. Instead, they were actually the product of a watermelon-sized bump that could not be concealed beneath my mother’s hand-beaded bodice.
Paula smiled on bravely while Judge dabbed at the sweat on his brow in the front pew beside her. Across the aisle, Nana Jane closed her eyes and started to pray out loud as her sobbing husband and chagrined daughter drew closer to the altar.
From his spot next to a foursome of grizzly-bear sized men (all former offensive linemen for the SAHS Yellow Jackets), Jack decided to adopt his mother’s approach. He plastered a bright smile on his face even as his heavily gelled mullet started to condensate with sweat--all of which made its way down the collar of his suit jacket. He was sweating so profusely in fact that his dark jacket was noticeably damp when he accepted his bride’s hand from her weeping father and turned his back to the crowd.
My grandfather took his spot at the altar where he paused to gulp down a glass of water and attempt to collect himself before beginning the ceremony. Lucky for him, the crowd was still so stunned at the sudden turn of events that no one paid much attention to him as he stumbled through the service. Instead, the bodies in the pews whispered amongst each other and even passed notes written on the back of the wedding programs wondering how this could have happened and why nobody had known about it.
By the time everyone re-grouped at the National Guard Armory on the bay front for the reception, however, the story of how that lump came to be had made its way through the crowd. As it turned out, the Hamilton-Bailey Ancient City wedding of the century was not in fact the first ceremony shared between the town’s young star-crossed lovers.
Apparently, during a secret trip to Daytona Beach (St. Augustine’s sin city neighbor to the south) with friends over the summer, the couple made an alcohol-induced decision to visit Wally’s Wedding Wonderland, a shady beachside chateau sandwiched between an IHOP (site of the rehearsal dinner) and a bar (site of the reception). With the same wedding party who presided over the second ceremony on hand, my father put down his solo cup long enough to pay Wally $29.99 for the summer wedding special. Twenty minutes later, a surprisingly valid marriage license was issued and the happy newlyweds stumbled off to the nearby bar (a place called the Rough Seas, which I personally think was a foreboding sign).
Days later, once they had returned to St. Augustine and sobered up, the high school sweethearts realized their impromptu wedding may not have been the best idea they’d ever had. Plans for an annulment were discussed, but before any papers could be filed, my mother used Walgreens’ entire supply of pregnancy tests to confirm her worst fears.
Without a better alternative, the Ancient City’s own Romeo and Juliet committed their own double suicide in the form of a full confession to their respective parents.
Both agreed later that poison would have been easier and less painful.
Judge flew into a rage so severe he heavily damaged his custom-ordered painting of the South defeating the North at the battle of Gettysburg. Paula, meanwhile, disappeared into the kitchen with a flask and a pack of cigarettes.
Pastor James made a beeline for the St. George Tavern and drank openly in front of others for the first time since he had left seminary. Nana Jane stayed at home and began feverishly knitting a new scarf while alternately taking long swigs from a bottle of wine.
In the end, the two families came together and decided to try and make the best of a bad situation. A lavish wedding on Christmas Day was planned to try and take the focus away from the obvious focal point. But even though no one involved ever said it out loud, everyone was aware that all the poinsettias and holly in the world wouldn’t be able to take the attention off the real guest of honor; my older sister, Rebecca.
As the bride and groom rode off from the reception that day in a horse-drawn carriage, people were already busy rehearsing the story they would tell their children of the most infamous moment in St. Augustine history since the massacre at Matanzas Inlet.
Of course, what they didn’t know (which I have learned the hard way) was that twenty-five years later, the Christmas Day wedding of 1982 would barely crack the top ten on the list of Christmas spectacles involving the newly formed Hamilton-Bailey family.
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Monday / December 24, 2007
I should not have yelled at the nice lady behind the ticket counter.
Incidentally, I also should not have thrown a piece of luggage at a fellow traveler, cursed at a young skycap, taken a swing at a security guard, and basically caused a disturbance that brought the entire ticketing lobby of the Jacksonville International Airport to a standstill for half an hour on one of the busiest travel holidays of the year—Christmas Eve.
I have come to these conclusions by way of a long, quiet hour of reflection, which I observed in complete silence and solitude. And by solitude, I mean controlled confinement inside some sort of holding cell reserved for potential terrorists and unruly travelers.
I might have arrived at said conclusions sooner if I’d been able to pace around and contemplate the many mistakes I’ve made this evening. Unfortunately, such pacing has been rendered impossible by the small size of the room and, to a greater extent, the giant plastic twist-ties (handcuffs of the new millennium, apparently) that have me bound at the wrists and ankles.
Unlike the interrogation rooms you see in police stations on television, the one I’m in has no two-way glass or glaring light to direct into anyone’s face. Instead, it is the epitome of plain. The concrete block walls are painted a bland shade of gray, the floors are dirty white linoleum, and the fluorescent light fixture overhead constantly flickers. Even less pleasant than the appearance of the room is its rather distinct odor, which falls somewhere between cat pee and dead bodies—with just a hint of strawberries.
In addition to the aforementioned folding chair, there’s also a small brown card table and another chair crammed into the tiny space. Just those three pieces of furniture (if you can even call them that) take up almost the entire room, the rest of which seems to be filled with the incessant buzzing of the lights that would be driving me crazy if it weren’t for the fact that I passed crazy and entered sheer insanity when I attempted to throttle several people at the ticket desk.
Hence the reason I’m here in the first place.
But before you rush to judge me, let me say that I think I have a pretty damn good defense. I know things aren’t looking great for me right now, but I assure you that I am typically a very docile, laid-back individual not unlike yourself. I consider myself friendly, intelligent, and well mannered in most situations.
My biggest vices in life are mint chocolate chip ice cream, good books and Dog the Bounty Hunter. I’m a twenty-three year old recent college graduate who borrowed more money than I care to think about in order to buy a creative writing degree from Boston College so it could collect dust in my apartment where I work as a struggling freelance graphic designer.
I’m not saying all this to pat myself on the back (literally speaking, I can’t pat myself on the back thanks to these plastic handcuffs), I’m saying it to try and make you understand that it would take a series of extenuating, unusual, and chaotic circumstances to send me into a tailspin like this. In fact, it would take something along the lines of a Perfect Storm of events to bring me across the border of sanity into my current predicament—and that’s exactly what has happened.
If you think I’m being overdramatic and you would like a little evidence to back up my claim, feel free to soak in my current attire from head to toe.
Although my taste in fashion is somewhat quirky, I would not ever voluntarily dress myself in a shapeless, ankle-length, long-sleeved dress, covered in blue sequins and lined at the hem, collar and cuffs with faux white feathers. With it’s NFL-sized shoulder pads, it looks like it came straight from the back of Bea Arthur‘s closet circa 1983 (where it was buried with the things even she herself would never wear).
The outrageous outfit is part of a costume I was forced to wear for my stepmother’s blasphemous Christmas parade float entitled “Jesus Through The Years.” I know you’re just dying to know more about that, and I assure you, I will get to it in time.
But the point I’m trying to make right now, is that if I was still the same, sane person I was when I arrived in Florida four days ago, I would not be wearing this attire. Unfortunately, I lost all the clothes I brought along for my trip in a tragic hujta (that’s hoo-ta) fire within my first twenty-four hours on Sunshine State soil. Therefore, my wardrobe since then has been largely sculpted by need and not option.
Now I don’t think I need to go into more detail beyond “blasphemous float” and “tragic hujta fire” for you to understand what I’ve been dealing with for the last few days (which, for the record, have felt like decades). Nor do I need to explain further why I was so irritable when I arrived at JIA by taxi just after dark and saw fit to skip the switchback line of customers piled in front of the ticket counter.
In a tone just a notch below hysterical, I informed the woman behind the counter that I needed to be on the next flight to Boston or anywhere between here and Boston at any cost. I had my credit card out, ready to charge my way back to sanity, when the woman informed me (in a rather sassy tone, I might add) that there are no more seats available on outgoing flights tonight. She said if I wanted to get in line and wait like everyone else, she could see about putting me on standby.
At that point in time, my only intention was to utilize a firm, but compassionate touch to convey to this woman how urgent my request was. However, some of the people in line who saw me climb across the counter, seize the woman by her ridiculous bowtie, and lift her off her feet, seemed to think that what I was doing actually fell under the category of assault.
The security officers at JIA apparently believed that to be the case, otherwise I don’t think they would have used a taser gun to subdue me (I suppose I should be thankful it wasn‘t a real gun). Nor would they have dragged me into this little room, handcuffed me to a folding chair, and left me to sit here alone with my thoughts.
Although I can see how my actions may have been misconstrued, I maintain that I am an innocent person who was driven to the point of desperation by forces out of my control. It is not my fault that there are no lifeguards in the gene pool. I did not ask to share DNA with a troupe of individuals whose light bulbs have been permanently dimmed. I am the lone Halogen among them and I have paid the price for it.
These are the same people that I ran away from to go to college in another state. I haven’t been home since Christmas four years ago when I spent nine whole days (eight days too many) visiting my family and getting a refresher course in why I decided to go school in Boston in the first place.
Okay, you’re judging me again.
I am not a horrible person. Do I need to reiterate my previous paragraph of self-praise? I’m a good person, I swear. I love my family, I really do, but they’re crazy people. All of them. They make me, even in my current state, look like I’m as put-together as a Martha Stewart gift basket (pre-prison Martha, not the new Martha).
I know you’re mumbling to yourself that all families are a little crazy and maybe I’m just over-exaggerating, but who are you to judge levels of craziness if you’re talking to a book?
Listen to me, okay, I’m not completely uncultured. I know that everyone’s family has a little craziness to it. Everyone has skeletons in the closet, everyone has a black sheep, everyone has a few family gatherings that go awry. I know that. But my family has storage units full of skeletons, a flock of black sheep, and not one family gathering that has ever, EVER gone well.
Including this very Christmas.
Although technically the holiday is not over yet…something that scares me more than the current odds on me getting a cavity search sometime in the very near future.
No sooner has that disturbing thought passed through my head (though not for the first time in the hour or so that I’ve been confined to this place), than the door to my tiny cell flies open and the hulking frame of Tony the Security Guard takes up a position in the doorway that completely eclipses my view of the hall behind him.
“You still thinking about taking a swing at me?” He asks. I shake my head vigorously.
“No sir, Officer,” I reply. “I apologize for that, I got a little carried away.”
“Just a little,” says Tony with a short chuckle. He moves into the room and shuts the door behind him with a thud. I unconsciously kick my feet to move my chair as far back into the corner as it will go, feeling a bit claustrophobic now that Tony (who I’m sure someone at some point in his life has been called “Big Tony”) has cut the size of the tiny room in half.
“Listen, Officer,” I begin, “I know I caused a major spectacle out there at the ticketing counter, but it’s been a long couple of days.”
“Tell me about it,” says Tony as he sinks into the folding chair across the table from mine. The chair creaks loudly and I’m terribly afraid it’s going to explode, but Tony seems unconcerned. He reaches across his inflated body to pluck a candy cane from the breast pocket of his uniform.
“I really don’t want to waste your time,” I insist from my side of the table. “I’m sure there are much more dangerous airline travelers out there that you should be questioning instead of me.” Tony peels back the plastic wrapping on his candy cane and happily shoves the straight end into his mouth, leaving the curved portion to hang off his lips like a festive cigarette.
“You’re not wasting my time,” Tony says with a crooked smile. “I’d rather be in here eating my candy cane then be out there listening to all those people bitching and moaning about getting to wherever they’re going. Matter of fact, I’m good to sit right here with you until my shift ends.”
“And when might that be?” I ask hesitantly. Tony glances at the silver watch on his wrist that would probably fit around my calf, then folds his arms across his thick chest.
“About six hours,” he replies. His smile doubles in size and the candy cane moves from one corner of his mouth to the other.
“Well Officer, as much as I would like to sit here with you for the next six hours and watch you eat that candy cane, I really need to be getting on my way. I’m not sure if the nice lady at the ticket counter had a chance to put me on the stand-by list for the next flight to Boston before I threatened her, but at any rate I need to be making the necessary arrangements to get on that flight as soon as possible.” I offer Tony a big smile of my own, hoping to come across as pleasant and completely sane. He doesn’t seem convinced.
“You have some explaining to do first,” Tony says in a serious tone.
“Well for starters…what in the hell are you wearing?” He has a valid point there. My outfit is cause for concern.
“It’s a costume,” I tell him. “I was in the Christmas Parade in St. Augustine earlier today and I haven’t had a chance to change.” That’s not exactly true. I did have a chance to change, but believe it or not that outfit would have been more disturbing than this one.
Tony doesn’t seem wholly convinced by my rebuttal, but he lets it go for the bigger issue that I was really hoping wasn’t going to come up.
“Alright then,” he says. “Then how about you explain to me why you was all over the news a few days ago for punching Santa Claus in the face.”
“Okay first of all, he wasn’t Santa Claus. He was an alcoholic homeless guy in a Santa costume.”
“Oh really? And here I was thinking Santa took time out of his busy day at the North Pole to hang around outside a mall in Boston ringing a little bell for charity.” Tony’s sarcasm is palpable.
“The bottom line is, no charges were filed,” I insist. Tony hesitates before he poses his next question.
“You know what the problem is with people like you?” Tony asks, leaning forward and placing his forearms on the card table. “You can be in a crowd of hundreds, and yet you can’t see past the three feet of space you’re taking up on this Earth.”
“I don’t think I’m one of those people,” I reply a little tersely. I’m in no mood to be patronized by a giant, candy cane-eating security guard.
“Of course you don’t,” Tony says coolly. “But you are.”
“If I was one of those people, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because if I was one of those people—a selfish person like you’re implying—I would be in Boston right now enjoying my Christmas holiday with my friends and a good bottle of wine.”
“I see,” Tony says with an amused raise of his eyebrows. “And for what unselfish reason did you come spend Christmas with us Florida lowlifes instead of your buddies in Boston?”
“Well it’s sort of a long story,” I say. “I guess I came down here to give my family another chance. I wanted to see if they’d really changed in the last four years.”
“How does that lead to you trying to throttle one of my fellow airline employees?”
“My family is crazy. Absolutely, unequivocally crazy. I would have sworn them off years ago if they hadn’t still been paying my college tuition.”
“That sounds totally unselfish to me,” Tony says sarcastically.
“It’s not what you think,” I tell him. “My parents are divorced—“
“So are mine.”
“—and they’ve both remarried.”
“So have mine.”
“I have ten brothers and sisters.”
“So your family is large, big deal.”
“I also have an adopted African boy living in my dad’s backyard.” This gives Tony pause. His jaw goes a little slack and the candy cane slips forward a bit, but he quickly regains his composure and leans back in the chair, which elicits another loud creak.
“Okay that’s a little strange,” Tony admits, “but that still doesn’t give you cause to disrupt airport travel on Christmas Eve.”
“No, but the events of the last four days do,” I reply.
“Where do you want me to begin?”
“Well I suppose the beginning would be a good place,” Tony says with that nasty tone of sarcasm again.
“You mean the beginning as in my parents’ marriage at a shady wedding chapel in Daytona, or the beginning as in when I accidentally burned down my adopted African brother’s tribal hut?”
Tony tries hard not to show it, but he’s definitely intrigued.
“Wherever you need to start to convince me that I need to let you out of this room so you can get on a plane and take your ass back to Boston.”
“Alright then…we’ll start at the wedding chapel and work our way forward.”
“I’ve got six hours, let’s go.”
“Tony,” I say sincerely, “I’m not sure that’s enough time.”
PROPERTY OF SHANNON L. O'NEIL. DO NOT PUBLISH WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
Welcome! I'm excited to launch this blog because (I hope) it's going to bring me one step closer to my dream. Since the tender age of eight, I have had two passionate, lifelong dreams:
(1) Go to Florida State
(2) Be a writer
I achieved the first in 2003, spent five years enjoying every moment of it, and now I've found myself back at square one with two degrees in gorgeous frames on the floor of my closet in my parents' house. Regretfully, it took me two months at home to move past my bitterness on the job front and realize that I have been presented with the perfect opportunity to re-visit dream #2.
So here we are.
After great internal debate, I've decided to make my first full-length undertaking a humorous Christmas tale with a serious undertone. The characters in this story first started coming to me a few years ago out of a selfish need for a good Christmas story. Every year, I trek off to the bookstore in search of a good holiday book to get me in the mood. And every year, I find myself mostly disappointed.
With few exceptions, it seems that most Christmas fall into two categories: romance or sappy. The romance novels always involve seductive single dads, bear-skin rugs and roaring fires (which has its appeals), but it's generally not my cup of tea. The sappy novels, on the otherhand, always involve multiple boxes of tissues, homeless people, sad children and The True Meaning of Christmas.
Obviously there is a contingent of folks who enjoy those type of books, but I'm banking on the notion that I'm not the only person out there who does not find an interest in either of those subjects.
And so I came up with the Hamilton-Bailey-Flowers-Danforth family of St. Augustine, Florida, the nation's oldest city. Their story goes something like this:
Our story begins inside an interrogation room at Jacksonville International Airport on Christmas Eve, where twenty-three year-old Bailey Hamilton has found herself in handcuffs for the second time in less than four days. Now she has to convince "Big" Tony the Security Guard to let her get back to Boston before she loses what tiny shreds of her sanity are left.
With no other option, Bailey begins the two, intertwining tales that have brought her to this point. The first, is the overall story of how her family--four grandparents, two parents, two (almost three) stepparents, two whole siblings, four stepsiblings, four half-siblings and one adopted African brother--became the motley crew they are today. The second, is the shorter tale of what's happened to her in the last four days--from decking an old man in a Santa suit to burning down a hujta to being booed off a Christmas parade float, and everything in between.
Although there may be a few kernels of truth in this crazy tale, I can assure you that my family (although non-conventional) is not the real-life version of this modern American family unit. But I have come to love these characters for all their faults and idiosyncrasies and I hope you will to.
So read along as I post chapters (and revisions of chapters, most likely) and slowly pull this story together.
Thanks and enjoy!
Posted by Shannon at 12:04 AM