A Christmas Story, страница 10
Immediately after breakfast the next morning, while my brother and I crawled around the house, looking for Easter eggs, my mother turned on the oven to heat the ham ever so slowly. This is important, she told us. The flame must be very low.
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point. The smell of ham saturated the drapes. And on my trip down to Pulaski’s for the Sunday paper, I found that it could be smelled at least four blocks away. Finally, at about two o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot—releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled—and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice.
We usually had our Easter meal around three. Everything was timed carefully around the ham and the Parker House rolls. About 30 minutes before H hour, my mother took the ham out of the oven and laid it out on a big sheet of wax paper, right in the middle of the kitchen table, to let it cool a bit and set—the thick, sweet, brown molasses and sugar oozing down over the sides, the pineapple slices baked brown, the cloves like tiny black insects soaking in the hot ham gravy.
Easter that year was the way all Easters should be but rarely are. Spring had come early, for a change. There were years when winter’s hard rock ice was still visible along the curbs, blackened and filthy, coated with steel-mill grime, until late in May. But this Easter was different; gentle breezes blew through the kitchen screen door. Already the stickers in our yard gave promise of a bumper crop. The air was balmy and heavy with spring passion about to burst.
The spring sunlight slanted in through the kitchen window and bathed the ham in a golden, suffused light, just like any good religious experience should be lit. The old man was in an exalted state of anticipation. Whenever he really got excited, he would crack his knuckles loudly. On this fateful day, he was popping them like a set of Brazilian castanets. He had on the new white shirt that he had gotten the week before at J. C. Penney.
While the ham sat basking in our gaze, my mother busily spread the lace tablecloth on the dining-room table and set out our best china, which was used only three or four times a year at the maximum. My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last us at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash—and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened, he was sitting knee-deep in the Chicago Tribune sports section. I had been called in to wash up. My mother was in the bedroom, removing the curlers from her hair. My Aunt Glenn and Uncle Tom were on their way over to have Easter dinner with us. Uncle Tom always gave me a dollar. It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
I had just left the bathroom and my kid brother had just gone in for his fumigation, when suddenly and without warning:
The kitchen door flew open. It had been left ajar just a crack to let the air come in to cool the ham.
I rushed to the kitchen just in time to see 4293 blue-ticked Bumpus hounds roar through the screen door in a great, roiling mob. The leader of the pack—the one that almost got the old man every day—leaped high onto the table and grabbed the butt end of the ham in his enormous slavering jaws.
The rest of the hounds—squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness—pounded out the kitchen door after Big Red, trailing brown sugar and pineapple slices behind him. They were in and out in less than five seconds. The screen door hung on one hinge, its screen ripped and torn and dripping with gravy. Out they went. Pow, just like that.
“HOLY CHRIST!” The old man leaped out of his chair.
“THE HAM! THE HAM! THOSE GODDAMN DOGS! THE HAM!!”
He fell heavily over the footrest as he struggled to get into the kitchen, his voice a high-pitched scream of disbelief and rage. My mother just stood in the dining room, her face blank and staring, two aluminum hair curlers still in place. I ran through the kitchen, following my old man out to the back porch.
The snarling mob had rolled across the back yard and was now battling it out next to the garage, yipping and squealing with excitement. Occasionally, one of them would be hurled out of the pack, flipping over backward in the air, to land heavily amid the barrel staves and sardine cans. Instantly, he would be back in the fray, biting and tearing at whatever moved.
The ham didn’t last eight seconds. Old Grandpa Bumpus and a dozen other Bumpuses stuck their heads out of various windows, to see what all the yowling was about. Without pausing to aim, he reared back and spit a great big gob of tobacco juice—a new long-distance record—right into the middle of the pack. It was a direct hit on our ham—or what was left of it.
He whooped wildly, wattles reddening with joy, spraying tobacco juice in all directions, while Cletus, his dimwitted grandson, yelled from the basement door:
“GAHDAMN, GRAN’PAW, LOOKA THEM HOUN’S GO! LOOKA THEM OL’ BOYS GO! HOT DAMN!!”
Delbert, meanwhile, circled around the roaring inferno, urging them on, kicking dogs that had given up back into the fray. Suddenly, he looked up at where I was hiding, a sadistic grin on his face, his hair hanging low. Our eyes met significantly for a fleeting instant and then he went back to kicking. A paralyzing fear gripped me. I remembered! That time I threw him out at first! Was this what he meant? Was I responsible for this tragedy? Oh, God, no! I slunk back into the shadows.
Bumpus women, their lank hair streaming down over their red necks, cackled fiendishly. Emil Bumpus, who had been asleep under the front porch, came reeling out, trailing his jug of white lightning. He took one look and practically passed out, wheezing and harrumphing and gurgling with hilarity.
My old man just stood stock-still on the back porch for a long moment, and then he blew his stack. I had never seen him do anything before that came near what he did now. We kept bottles on the back porch to be returned to the grocery store. He reached down and grabbed a milk bottle. His face white with rage, he wound up mightily and, with a sweeping, sidearm motion, hurled the bottle against the side of the Bumpus house with a deafening crash.
Grandpa Bumpus stopped in mid-spit, a big juicy gob hanging down over his chin. Emil dropped his jug to the ground, eyes lighting up with joy. This was back home for Emil. He was in his element. Turning around as if to run for his shotgun, he paused when he saw the old man standing there unmoving—radiating the clearest and most beautiful rage I’d ever seen in my life.
I cowered next to the railing on the back porch. Even the dogs felt his hatred. One by one, they fell silent. The bare, shiny bone of the ham lay in the sun. Big Red licked his chops.
After a long, pregnant moment, the old man turned, walked back into the kitchen and slammed the door. He stood for a minute by the kitchen table, looking down at the big sheet of wax paper dripping warm ham gravy. The heavenly aroma still hung heavy in the house. The old man just stood there—and came as close to crying as I’d ever seen him come.
Finally, he spoke, in a low, rasping voice: “All right! OK! Get your coats. We’re going to the Chinese joint. We’re going to have chop suey.”
Ordinarily, this would have been a gala of the highest order, going to the chop-suey joint. Today, it had all the gaiety of a funeral procession. The meal was eaten completely in silence.
That was the beginning of the bitter Shepherd-Bumpus feud. Relentlessly, the old man beleaguered the Bumpuses at every moment. He had tap-dancing cleats put on his shoes, which proved to be quite a nasty surprise to Big Red the first day he tried his usual ankle grab and caught a cleat behind his left ear. The old man took up tobacco chewing and arched long, undulating gobs onto the Bumpuses front porch when the wind was right. Every time the Bumpuses cranked up for a Gene Autry record festival, the old
He took to throwing beer bottles out of the kitchen window and hurling coffee grounds onto the roof of the Bumpus truck when it bellowed by, taking the Bumpuses down to pick up their weekly relief check. He put bottle caps and tacks in the driveway and laughed uproariously every time one of the Bumpus women fell out the back door. He planted stickers in the cave that the Bumpus hounds lived in under the garage and took to jumping up and down on the garage floor late at night, when the hounds were asleep. Once he even bayed at the moon louder than all the hounds put together. I still remember the startled look on Big Red’s face when the old man let out a long, drawn-out, quavering howl that he had learned from 20 years of watching Tarzan pictures.
The only trouble was that nothing he did—but nothing—made the slightest dent on the Bumpus way of life. They didn’t even seem to know he was doing anything. The bottle caps and tacks he threw in the driveway never even scratched their feet, horny-hard after generations of shoelessness. The only thing that came of it was that we got two flats in one day on the Olds. His pitiful tobacco juice added as much to the sea that the Bumpuses themselves produced as a raindrop in the ocean. Nothing he could do had any effect. One night, he told my mother he had concluded that the Bumpuses planned the ham raid, the dogs carrying out their orders like guerrilla fighters. He hinted that he had something up his sleeve that he was working out in the basement that would really settle the score once and for all. He was biding his time.
The Bumpuses, meanwhile, went on with life as usual. There wasn’t much they could do to us that they hadn’t already done without intending to. Grandpa Bumpus jacked up his output of tobacco juice a little, but the rest of them just went about their business—collecting junk and piling it in the yard, tossing potato peels out the window, brewing moonshine, hollering, hitting each other and scratching themselves.
Then one night, without warning, everything changed forever. I awoke suddenly about three A.M. with a strange feeling that something was wrong. It was. For a couple of minutes, I couldn’t focus my mind; then, gradually, it became clear to me that something was up. I heard my father in the next room. He had apparently awakened about the time I had.
He said hoarsely to my mother, “Hey, wake up!”
Then a long period of silence, while he listened in the darkness. We were always having alarums and excursions, but this was really different.
The bedsprings squeaked and the old man’s feet pattered across the bedroom floor; the usual thump and groan of excruciating pain as he stubbed the foot of the dresser. A rustling silence as he peered through the curtains into the blackness of the night.
Another pause. I waited, scared and anxious in my bed, my kid brother mewing softly across the room.
“I’ll be damned!” the old man said aloud in wonder. “You’ll never believe it.”
“Believe what?” whispered my mother, who had gotten up and joined him.
“Just take a look out there,” he said with disbelief. “They moved out! They’re gone!”
I realized why I had awakened. For the first time in many months, the sound of Gene Autry records had ceased; the continuous whine and yelp of the Bumpus hounds had been silenced. Everything was—quiet.
My father sniffed noisily.
“The smell is gone. Even the smell is gone!”
It was true. The air in my bedroom was clear of cabbage, dog urine and corn whiskey for the first time in six months.
The next morning, the truth was there for all to see. The Bumpuses had packed up and moved on, leaving behind a sagging shambles of a house, the back yard rutted and ground to gray dust by the endless clawings and scratchings of the Bumpus dogs and the Bumpus chickens, with great, tangled rat’s nests of rusting junk and weather-beaten barrels, and smelly gallon jugs and empty bean cans that told everything there was to know about the way the Bumpuses lived out their days. They just ran up a big enough rent bill and then moved out in the middle of the night. We never heard another word about them.
At first, my father seemed to be glad. Then, about a month later, a nice old couple moved in next door and soon had the house and yard looking like an illustration for an insurance company that sold retirement plans to nice old couples. They went to bed every night at 8:30 and had a canary as a pet.
One night at supper, after a couple of beers, the old man finally said it:
“You know, they cleaned out just when I was going to hand ’em my crusher. I’ll bet they did it on purpose.” He got kind of moody for a while after that. We never found out what he had planned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For many years a cult radio and cabaret personality in New York City, JEAN SHEPHERD was the creator of the popular film A Christmas Story, which is based on this book and has become a holiday tradition on the Turner Network. He was also the author of A Fistful of Fig Newtons and The Ferrari in the Bedroom, as well as In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, both of which are available in Broadway paperback. Jean Shepherd passed away in 1999.
Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story