This time of year, there are so many people pretending excitement when they feel none.
“Yes,” she said. “There is. Hannah, put the strainer in the sink for me.”
“Why is having a brothel here bad?” I asked my mother.
She looked surprised at first, rested the pot on the edge of the ceramic sink as the steam flew up in her face and made her sweat. Then, after a beat, she explained, “It brings in a lot of strangers who don’t belong here. It brings bad people in.”
“This guy told Jerry that the johns pee in the elevator.”
There was silence for a beat. Then my mother explained, “The johns are the customers. They don’t care about people who live here. If you see someone like that, stay away from them. Okay?”
I shrugged and drew Charlie Brown in the condensation, his round, bland face and his squiggle of forehead pasted hair.
There was a second meeting in the lobby that Sunday. It went on all afternoon long. The grownups talked about building codes and tenants’ patrols and rent strikes. Everyone who walked in was greeted by Jerry and Luisa. If we knew them because they lived there, they were spoken to warmly and invited to join in. There were also men on their own who came up to the building from the street, saw the meeting through the glass door, and walked away again. Roberto and I got bored, so we decided to race by running up one staircase, then across the lobby and up another staircase again, until Luisa pulled us aside and told us to play more quietly.
Instead, I decided to go upstairs, where my mother was sitting in the kitchen, with the stove on, reading History Will Absolve Me by Fidel Castro.
“How come you’re not downstairs?” I asked.
“Because I’m not going to these meetings,” my mother said.
“Because I’m tired.”
She had rings around her eyes and her hair was mussed and dry.
“Are we gonna have to have a picket line?” I asked her.
“Who said that?”
“They were talking about a rent strike downstairs.”
“A rent strike is where you don’t pay your rent for a while. Until the landlord fixes things. It’s not a picket line.”
“If we have a rent strike, we’ll have more money, won’t we?”
“You don’t get to keep your money when you have a rent strike. You have to put it into escrow.” She saw my bewilderment and added, “It’s a special bank account. You keep your money there until the landlord fixes things. And a rent strike is the last resort. You have to try everything else first.”
She stared out the window then.
“Maybe we could go to Cuba one day,” she said. “They have free medical care and it’s hot there.”
I fell asleep before Jerry came home, and when I woke up, the air was frigid. Light seeped under the door. Jerry and my mother were in the kitchen. I could hear water running, and Jerry pleading: “No!”
“I’m trying to help,” my mother said.
“It hurts,” Jerry explained with a gasp.
The walls were damp with condensation, weeping, clammy. I stood up, felt my way out of the room, found the light switch. When I reached the kitchen, I saw my mother trying to put a dishtowel against Jerry’s face.
“Call the cops,” she said.
“No,” he answered. His face was swollen, a bruise darkening under his eye.
“Did the pimp do that?” I asked.
“Go back to bed,” my mother ordered.
The next morning light, Jerry huddled in a corner of the kitchen while my mother made coffee. His bruise was even darker.
“Couldn’t you call someone at The Voice?” my mother asked. “Don’t you have that friend at The News?”
“A slum in north Manhattan isn’t a story,” Jerry said.
“Maybe you should make it one,” my mother advised.
So he and Luisa came up with a plan: banners painted inexpertly onto old bedsheets. The first read:
MERRY CHRISTMAS! OUR CHILDREN DO NOT HAVE ANY HEAT!
The second declared:
LANDLORD = SLUMLORD
The third one announced:
The banners flapped against the hard, dirty brick. They were supposed to shame our landlord, but they also shamed us. We were the people unfortunate enough to live there. “You make us look bad!” an old man screamed at Jerry on the street. He actually flailed his hands in frustration. The super told Luisa the banners had to come down, but she gave him one of her looks and walked away. And then the New York Daily News ran a story. They had pictures of the banners, a picture of Luisa and her children. And, finally, there was a picture of a beach with an empty deckchair facing the water. This, said the caption, was Miami Beach, where the building’s landlord lived and he could not be reached for comment.
After a beat, she explained, “It brings in a lot of strangers who don’t belong here. It brings bad people in.”
The next day, Jerry got a phone call. It was the landlord’s management company. The landlord would like to inspect the building, they said. The landlord would also like to meet the tenants’ committee. Could Jerry organize this?
Jerry was so happy, he went out and got me a bicycle. It had a banana seat, streamers, training wheels. “Happy Chanukah!” he said.
“Happy Chanukah!” I said back.
I was pretty sure Chanukah was already over.
I rode the bike down to St. Nicholas Avenue and back, and down to St. Nicholas Avenue and back. Roberto ran after me and asked for a chance to ride. Then I rode the bike over to the park and Leah came down with Vera and Lissy. She brought her bike, which didn’t have any training wheels at all.
We raced around, laughing. Then Vera watched our bikes so we could go play on the rocks. She didn’t realize we were planning to go to the Danger Caves. We walked along the top of the stone wall on Haven Avenue. We had to edge sideways and face New Jersey and the Hudson River, and then we would get to the rock caves, which had once seemed huge, but now, as Leah and I were getting older, seemed much smaller. We couldn’t stand in them anymore, but we could crouch down inside, and in the Danger Caves, amidst the condoms and broken glass, I found it: a crucifix.
The crucifix was made of pewter and was on a broken chain. I picked it up and wiped it against my pants.
“That has germs on it,” Leah said. “You better clean it.”
When I got home, I washed the crucifix in soap and water and I put it underneath my pillow. “I love you, Jesus,” I said to it, silently, at night, as I prayed for heat.
I kept the crucifix in my pocket and rubbed the contours of its surface whenever I needed reassurance. I told the crucifix, “I accept you into my heart.”
“You’re going back to work?” you asked, when I got ready to go back to the studio after dinner.
I reminded you I was working on The Christmas Story.
Walking through the town at night, if I looked into all the lovely homes with their Christmas trees, I could believe I’d spirited myself into the world I wanted to live as a child.
There are no fewer than five bookstores in this two-street town. The copy shop is run by a collective. You once saw James Baldwin sitting at the window table at Judy’s. The town’s population swells when the colleges are in session, to more than 35,000 people. I get to do an event at each institution involved in the Five Colleges Consortium—with the buttoned up students of Amherst College, the privileged hippies of Hampshire, the serious young women of Smith, the isolated feminists of Mount Holyoke, and, most happily, with the chaotic crowds at the state university. A free bus system takes all the students from place to place, keeps their cars off the roads when they’re drinking. Almost every musician touring the northeast stops here and plays the Mullins Center, or the Iron Horse, or Academy of Music.
It was the kind of place everyone wanted to live, wasn’t it?
People called this—half-jokingly—the Happy Valley.
A blast of warm air hit me when I opened the door to the studio. I’d forgotten to turn the heat off. The snow on the skylight had melted and the room was bathed in moonlight. There was an enormous desk on trestles, a Herman Miller desk chair, a tan sofa, a glass coffee table, and, off to the side, a small bedroom. My place for the year I am writer-in-residence.
If you had not come into my life during my first week in town, this is where I would sleep at night.
Two days before Christmas, the landlord came, and as he arrived, a photographer from The Daily News arrived also.
Jerry hadn’t contacted The News about this. So who had? The landlord?
The landlord looked different than I thought he would. He was short and fat. And he was old, older than my father, even. He wore a wool coat and was darkly tanned, like someone who spent every day on the beach. New York was freezing, gray. Luisa had sent Roberto to ring everyone’s bells and tell them, “The landlord’s here. The landlord’s here.” And then we all came out. We surrounded him. People began to shout things all at once. The super stood by the landlord and folded his arms across his chest.
Someone shouted at the super, “What are you, his mamaguevo bodyguard, you fucking gusano?”
“Alright, simmer down. Simmer down,” the landlord said. “I’ve come to tell you the boiler will be fixed.”
“When?” someone asked.
The landlord said, “Today.”
A flashbulb went off. A reporter scribbled on his pads.
“I was unaware that there had been any problem—”
Luisa spat something under her breath that I couldn’t understand.
“I was unaware,” he continued, like an exasperated father, “there were problems here. Now, of course, I have an investment in this property, and I’ll do my best to rectify the situation. I’d like to meet with some of you to see how we can work together. Let’s set up a time to talk some more. For now, I want to all of you a merry Christmas.”
And then, then he reached for a plastic garbage sack, and he started to pull out toys. A very little girl took a doll and a boy behind her took a truck. The landlord held up another doll and smiled. Everyone was silent for a moment. Then another little girl came and accepted it. The girls got dolls, and the boys got model cars. Luisa clung to Roberto, and my mother kept her hands on my shoulders. The landlord searched the crowd with his eyes, smiling creepily at the kids. And then his gaze alighted on me.
I told the crucifix, “I accept you into my heart.”
I turned away and looked at the plastic car the boy held. The landlord noticed and asked, “This?” He had dropped the doll back in the bag and was holding one of the model cars. My whole body tightened. I wanted that car. But my mother kept her hands firmly on my shoulders.
“No,” my mother said to the landlord.
And after that, nobody took anymore toys.
The landlord shrugged. He followed the super into the pee-smelling elevator. He rode upstairs and back down again. He walked from one end of the dirt-caked lobby to the other.
“Obviously, the management firm I have hired hasn’t been doing their job,” he announced. “I’ll figure it out after the holidays. For now, merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah!”
And then, just before he went out the door, he muttered, “You people live like pigs.” He glanced at my mother when he said this.
And then he was gone, swept off in the chocolate brown Cadillac that had been double-parked on the street.
That night, the heat came back on. We threw off our coats. We took hot baths and I stayed in the tub until my fingers wrinkled.
I washed the crucifix with soap and hot water.
We had a full day with heat, and then another day with heat, and then one more day until, on Christmas night, the radiators went cold again. There was no heat or hot water.
“Put your coat on,” my mother said.
She lit the oven in the kitchen.
“I hope there’s a special hell for landlords.” She was trying to sound angry, but her voice almost caught in a sob.
A few hours later, the blue lights of police cars and ambulances bounced off the walls of the apartment and the brick of the building across the street. Jerry ran downstairs to find out what was happening.
“They found the family upstairs unconscious,” Jerry explained when he came back. “All of them. The cops think they turned on the oven to heat the place and they must have fallen asleep. The flame must have gone out.”
My mother’s eyes became enormous. Her brow tightened. This was one of the things she had warned me about—the gas seeping out when there was no flame anymore, the apartment filling with gas while we slept. She knew people did this to heat their apartments when the boiler broke down, and she did too, but she always did so fearfully.
“I’m going down to the hospital,” Jerry said.
“For God’s sake,” my mother cried out. “What can you do there?”
“I can tell people about it,” he said, getting his tape deck. Then he said to my mother, “Call Danny and see if he can get someone there from The Voice.”
“Can I come with you?” I asked Jerry.
He was about to say yes, but my mother looked at him.
“The hospital will be warm.” Jerry said to her.
My mother hesitated, then said, “Alright.”
I scrambled down the steps with Jerry. There were two cop cars outside and an ambulance. A small crowd was gathering, some of them people we knew. Jerry nodded hello to them all. The back of the ambulance was open; the driver stood waiting. Jerry walked over and introduced himself. “C’I talk to you?”
“I live here,” Jerry said. “I’m on the tenants’ committee.”
The driver looked away from him, looked straight ahead.
“You going down to Columbia Presbyterian?” Jerry asked.
Columbia Presbyterian was the nearest hospital.
The driver shook his head. He said, “We’re going to Sydenham.”
Sydenham was all the way down in Harlem.
“Columbia Pres is a zoo,” the driver said under his breath.
Two cops came out carrying a woman on a stretcher. Then another couple of cops came out carrying a stretcher with a woman on it too. The stretchers were loaded the back of the ambulance. The ambulance attendant climbed in and the doors slammed shut and the cops held their palms out to the driver to send them off.
Jerry backed away and the ambulance joined the traffic on Broadway.
“I’m sorry to tell ya,” one cop said to the other one. “I’ve seen this before. It’s too late for them.”
Jerry’s eyes clouded over. He grabbed my arm and guided me towards Broadway, but there were no taxis. There were never yellow taxis uptown. We were going to have to find a gypsy cab, and you had to look hard for them, because they weren’t real taxis—they were unlicensed, unmarked.
There was a man behind us hailing every single car that went by.
“Hey,” Jerry asked the man. “You looking for a taxi?”
The man nodded. He had wild eyes, an edgy walk. He looked like he’d been punched in the stomach.
“You going to the hospital?” Jerry asked.
The man nodded.
“We’re going there too.”
“There’s a taxi!” I screamed, and hailed a big, old grey Impala. We all got in.
“I’m Jerry Hill,” said Jerry, turning to the man. “And this here is Hannah.”
The man stared straight ahead, his face ashen.
“Landlord,” he mumbled.
“What?” Jerry asked.
“Landlord,” said the man, “gave me a present.”
Jerry watched him and asked warily, “What do you mean?”
“The landlord gave me a present.”
Jerry didn’t say anything.
“I got a dead mother and sister. Landlord gave me a present,” the man said again. I looked at Jerry, who covered his face with his hands. I looked out the window. Broadway was a blur, the blur a blessing, because it wiped everything out.
“Landlord gave me a present. Landlord gave me a Christmas present.”
“I heard you,” Jerry said now. “We’re gonna be at the hospital soon.”
“I got a dead mother and sister,” said the man. “Landlord gave me a present.”
Jerry told me to stay in the waiting room when we got to the hospital. He went into the ward with the man from the taxi. I sat in one of the plastic chairs. Stretchers glided past me. A man in a wheelchair screaming disappeared behind double doors. A doctor complained to a nurse that he couldn’t stand seeing one more gunshot wound that night. Then I got up and wandered unnoticed in that way children can. I felt for the crucifix in my pocket. I stroked my fingers over its pewter curves for the last time before I put it into the garbage can.
Anyway, that’s what happens when I try to write a Christmas story.
I know—you wanted something magical, and hopeful, and heartening. You wanted something for the kids. And I don’t have anything against that. I don’t even have anything against the gifts and the music and the tree. Sometimes, I even go into the living room when I wake up in the middle of the night and, while you’re still sleeping, I plug in the Christmas lights and look at them blinking in the dark. And my heart goes, boom boom. I imagined a life like this when I was a kid.
But now—it’s just not a good fit now. It’s just not what I want.
I know that this place demands mandatory cheerfulness, and that this time of year there are so many people pretending excitement when they feel none. And I know how many people there who are barely surviving, broke and hating everything about their lives, or trying to survive in a violent family. And I know the pressure to say everything’s okay and everyone’s at peace and everything’s holy this time of year is bullshit—everything is not.
You will not be able to leave here, or at least you won’t be able to leave here for a long time—not if you want to be a father to Emma and Rosa (and you do).
I will not be able to stay here. It’s not that I want to go back to where I grew up. I don’t want to go back to that time and place ever again. I just don’t want to be somewhere that erases that time and place. I don’t want to be somewhere that erases stories like this one.
Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction, most recently This Way to Departures, a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.