Monday, December 3, 2007

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Finding a parking space was difficult. We were always the last to arrive and the last to leave. It was my first New Year's Eve outside of Detroit, and although it was only Livonia, there is usually less Happy New Year gunfire.

We pulled up along the curb; three houses down. The snowflakes were dipdancing down to the browned grass. It was pretty. Under the circumstances, it seemed really out of place. Walking to the house, I could see where others' prints were already being filled with newfall.

I felt the heaviness as I walked through the door. Uncle Mike and Aunt Maggie owned a sauna/massage parlor that occupied the front part of the house. Aunt Charlotte, with her nose reddened to match her hair, set down her drink rather clumsily—liquor lapping up the side of her glass. Nabbing our jackets, she swayed around the corner to one of the sauna rooms.

The refreshments were being served in the lobby of the massage parlor. Ritz and cheese and relish trays laid out on a massage table. The Faygo was in one of the sauna rooms. The damp cedar smell settled in my senses. Warm. Old. The bulk of the party was back toward the house. Miles away. I poured a Styrofoam cupful and pushed myself toward the gathering.

The house was full. Kids I didn't know rolling Tonkas across the floor, playing video games and plotting schemes that inadvertently lead to small fires. Unfamiliar faces that were there for the same reason I was. And I know I'm a bastard because of it.

I cut through the crowded kitchen and found a spot in the living room with the few relatives I recognized. Most around my age-old enough to drink or almost there. I put myself in the middle of a foam green couch and suffered through the same small talk that surfaces every time. How much snow do you have in Marquette? How can you go to school 500 miles away? When are ya gonna get married? Blah blah blah blah? Et cetera, Et cetera.

The Christmas tree was still up. It was decorated with a medieval motif. Wizards and warriors, sorcerers and swords, crystal balls and castle walls. But Uncle Mike and Aunt Maggie were always that way. Two years prior, they celebrated their 25th anniversary in grand medieval fashion. The whole party in full costume. The cancer was probably just starting then.

My sister and her three-month-old son sat next to me on the couch. She let me hold him. I hugged him to my body and I could feel his heart rumpthumping against mine, its calm easy cadence—rumpthump…rumpthump…rumpthump. Slowly it drowned the sound of a houseful of Catholics motivated to celebration by escaping a sense of impending guilt.

They say Uncle Mike has until March. Rumpthump…Rumpthump. And all of these faces that I've never seen before are dutifully here ringing in the New Year. Rumpthump…Rumpthump. Exchanging phone numbers they know they'll never use. Waiting for Uncle Mike to wake his wearied body and make his grand entrance. Rumpthump…Rumpthump. So they can leave and say they were there. That they loved him.

Finding myself red-faced and swollen-eyed, I hand my nephew off to my sister. I cut through a cloud of cigarette smoke and lies, back to the massage parlor lobby. The Ritz are gone. I need some air. Some quiet.

My shoes chew the new powder lying on the sidewalk. Step, step, broken-back, step, step, broken-back. Ahead of me, a man leaves a party store with a 12-pack in his hand. Twelve lowly, robed apostles with their heads hanging. And he makes thirteen. No, Da Vinci makes thirteen. Everyone who wants to be in the picture, get on this side of the table. Judas took the last Ritz.
I step through door of the party store with a tinkling of the bell overhead. I wander around the store looking for something to buy, not wanting anything. I grab a Baby Ruth and take it to the counter. I slide a five-dollar bill under the bulletproof barrier and it's taken by a small Jewish man who looks afraid of me. He turns to the register. Tapitytapching! I leave without my change. Tinkletinkletink. Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. The guy outside Wal-Mart has been making angels for two-weeks.

I retrace my reversed treads to the house.

Someone spilled Red Pop on the massage-table cloth. I take it to the sink and rinse the stain out. Its red swirls chase themselves down the drain. I ring it out and put it back on the table. There is quite the ruckus coming from the house. Eleven-thirty and counting.

I slipslide my way through the group of…of…are they relatives? And surprisingly, there is still a space available in the middle of the couch. Some cousins are flipping through a photo album. The picture is worth a thousand words, yet the conversation lives in two dimensions.

The handle to the room in which my Uncle Mike has been sleeping turns and the door creeks open. His deflated frame emerges from behind the door. Everyone gathers for the grand entrance. It's the moment they've been waiting for. So they can go home and not feel guilty.
His black robe hangs from knobby shoulders. Six-foot-three and he can't weigh over one-forty. A few gray hairs wisp around his weathered head. His cheekbones are so big that they bury his dark eyes in their cavernous sockets and his steps are measured and full of effort. He shakes some hands, gives popsiclestick hugs, and finally takes a seat next to me on the couch. My eyes wrap a 1996 banner over his shoulder.

-I'm so glad you could make it, Geoff, he said.
-I wouldn't miss it for anything.
-How long are you down here for?
-A few more days. I have to leave again for school on Friday.
-And today is?
-It's Sunday, Uncle Mike.
-Someday it is? It's been Someday for the last week. That's what happens when you sleep through them.
People are slowly slipping out of the house. I sit here trying to make shallow conversation, being oversensitive to his lack of faculties.

Five minutes until the New Year and someone turns on the TV. Dick Clark is in Times Square and he commands the collective conscience of the room. Somewhere in the house three little boys are chasing a cat they'll never catch catchascatchcan. And outside some gunshots are being fired by people with fast watches.

A few commercials later the clock goes on the screen. Confetti is falling in New York. And at the one-minute mark the ball starts to drop. Tick…Tick…Tick.

Rumpthump…Rumpthump…Rumpthump.

5…4…3…2…1…HAPPY NEW YEAR fills the house in one giant chorus.

People gather together and give each other hollow hugs, being careful not to spill their drinks and in unison they all begin:

“Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.”

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