The long rectangular box, which was just large enough to make any position one held it in uncomfortable, had traveled from New York to Dallas to Denver to LA. Direct flights during the holidays cost more than a black market kidney, something Judith had said to her daughter, Amanda, after explaining her travel trajectory. Amanda hadn’t responded although she’d wanted to point out that a kidney could sell for a cool quarter of a million in the U.S. despite it not exactly being known as one of the sexier organs in the human body. If the heart was Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love removing his shirt then the kidney was Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl, striking up a relationship with a mail-away sex doll. The box was currently sliding to and fro in the trunk of a silver Prius. Its contents, albeit a bit frazzled, had completed the mile-high journey relatively unharmed, unless of course you counted the potential psychological damage resulting from having flown in the cargo of the plane.
“Did you hear the mouth on those anal beads?” Angel, who was not, of course, a real angel but rather a plastic ornament assembled in a Chinese sweatshop, had whispered to those ornaments who hadn’t been lulled to sleep by the movement of the aircraft—namely, the soccer ball and dachshund, neither of whom responded due to having reached deep meditative states. The nutcracker was most likely dreaming of the German wars in which he’d never fought, sucking on the warm teat of delusion and ego. Angel’s first introduction to anal beads had been back in Judith’s formative and youthful years when someone had gifted them to her as a practical joke and she’d draped them around her neck as if they’d been prized pearls only to scream in horror when her sister had pulled her aside and divulged just which canal her gift was designed to navigate. That set of anal beads had gone by Mateo, or Leonardo, or Marco, or some other vaguely exotic name that inspires wistful eyes in girls when they recall their semester abroad. Once all the gifts had been opened, the ladies made their way to a local bar to bat their eyelashes at men and repeatedly contract and relax their pelvic muscles. Mateo, or Leonardo, or Marco, having spotted Angel, hitched a ride with the family dog over to the tree then shimmied his way up to the top, misquoting a dead human’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet. Angel hadn’t been proud of her actions that day, but that was a different story.
In fact, most of the Christmas ornaments buzzed with feverish anticipation of their Great Unveiling. That’s what Angel had named, so many Earth rotations ago, the occasion on which the dusty ornaments were sprayed with mist from a can of Pledge and massaged with a clean rag and finally hung on their Douglas fir stage for all to see—at least all who lived in or entered the house, a figure which generally hovered somewhere between one and five, depending upon the year. Ever since Amanda had moved out and Judith’s husband, Stanley, had run off with the family’s financial advisor who liked to wear women’s lingerie under his Armani suits, the number was typically closer to one. Of course, in the event that carolers stopped by, Angel used it as an opportunity to educate the others about the Secret Threshold that the carolers were forbidden to cross.
“Humans who attempt to mimic music with their inadequate voices are banned from entering the sacred ground of our home,” Angel had said the previous year from her position on the top of the tree—her soapbox, if you would. Angel could be a bit tough sometimes but she loved preparing for the birthday of that Jewish carpenter who may or may not have been a hunk, depending on who you asked and how pigmented their flaky (in the winter) permanent (unless one was skinned by Buffalo Bill) armor was.
Soccer Ball, who had been given to Amanda by her fifth grade boyfriend, along with a Dave Matthews Band CD, and thus, was tired of being associated with an underwhelming musical heathen charged with the audiological crime of inspiring countless frat guys to attempt to learn acoustic guitar on a lawn, didn’t mind the carolers so much.
“I think their voices are quite nice actually,” Soccer Ball had said between sneezes (she was, as it turned out, allergic to Christmas trees—no doubt the universe’s way of saying FUCK YOU, SOCCER BALL), gently swaying from her branch and admiring the handsome father with the caramel eyes who wasn’t singing so much as moving his mouth in a convincing way so that his four plump, beach ball daughters with Minnie Mouse voices didn’t reprimand him. Once upon a time Soccer Ball would have been too passive to oppose Angel, but that weekend she’d spent in a trash can in ‘02 had changed her perspective on life. Amanda had dumped her boyfriend due to her friends’ relentless teasing—more often than not, his hair gave off the impression that he’d recently been electrocuted—and had thrown Soccer Ball out in a hormonal rage, only to retrieve the ornament once her ears had stopped steaming.
“Even when you’re worth something, someone will find a reason to dispose of you anyway,” Dime had said, standing on her edge and attempting to carve her name into the bottom of the metal can. Having spent some time in a hippie’s sock in Berkeley, Dime had picked up some of the hippie’s resentment and she too became bitter about the throwaway culture. Now she believed it was her cosmic duty to impart her wisdom upon those less worldly than she was.
Soccer Ball had listened to Dime’s lessons closely, nodding where appropriate, and making the occasional utterance of agreement. It was miraculous! Some objects got to travel the world while others, namely Soccer Ball and her ornament associates (Dime had taught Soccer Ball to use the word “friend” sparingly, to reserve it for those who did things for her without expecting anything in return, simply because they liked to see her happy), were condemned to a life in a box with the exception of one month out of the year. Soccer Ball learned about existentialism, the 1%, crash diets, the stock market, tofu, the purpose of clowns, the enslavement of humans by objects, among many other things, but what she took to her little glass would-be heart, if she were to have any internal mechanics, was that of conviction—even in matters as trite as the voices of Christmas carolers.
“If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, who will?” Dime had asked, tapping Soccer Ball’s greasy exterior. Soccer Ball, who wasn’t exactly used to contact with other inanimate objects, had blushed, and shrugged her nonexistent shoulders. She’d quivered at the thought of standing up to Angel, to knocking her off her pedantic pedestal. That weekend quickly turned into a boot camp in which Soccer Ball’s passivity was intellectually beaten out of her. She hung from her branch with a newfound swagger after Amanda had retrieved her from the trash, put her in the dishwasher next to the rank dishes, commented on how something seemed different about the ornament, then promptly hung her up in the back of the tree closest to the wall where only the paint chips and flies could view her. Amanda missed her boyfriend but not that much.
One year ago Soccer Ball had been humming along with the dear carolers. It is worth noting that the ornaments never understood where, exactly, the outsiders came from; to them, humans who were not their precious owner (or her family) walked through a magical opening, referred to as a door. They understood that this was a normal custom, but they couldn’t comprehend how the humans arrived at the magical opening, nor where they had existed prior to the ornaments’ immediate vision.
Dachshund had joined Soccer Ball in humming the tune of Jingle Bells. Who was Dachshund? What had he been doing this entire time? Certainly eavesdropping on the conversation. It was nearly impossible not to, sharing such close quarters. Although, perhaps he hadn’t been. After all, Soccer Ball had taught him to meditate, an old trick from the Dime. Dachshund took meditation very seriously; he was, in his words, “bettering himself” through mindfulness and attempting to shed the reactive part of him that responded with clenched paws and bared teeth whenever someone made a dick joke about him. He’d heard all the nicknames: Hot Dog, Sausage Shaft, Johnson, Cock-a-Wiener, Sex Pistol (that one he didn’t mind so much), and beyond. Judith had purchased him for infant Amanda as a poorly veiled present to herself all those years ago, and when Amanda decided to move to LA, transporting her Christmas ornaments had been near the bottom of her list, just below figuring out the difference between the Clippers and the Lakers, yet above learning Spanish (she was self-aware enough to know that she could barely conjugate in English).
“I suppose you’re entitled to your poor taste,” Angel had said haughtily, “but watch—they won’t be allowed into the kingdom.”
As Angel had predicted, the carolers had closed their music books and smiled, then made their way to the next house, perhaps in attempts to enter that one with their musical prowess.
“See?” Angel had huffed. Grumble, grumble.
Christmas was an exciting time for everyone involved. The ornaments had never traveled before and Judith didn’t normally like to leave the house, save her excursions to book club and the local Dollar Tree. Judith hadn’t seen her daughter since she’d moved out west to pursue a career in telling hip patrons at her gluten-free, meat-free, humor-free, and taste-free restaurant that she could have been an actress if she were a bit more angular, and the ornaments hadn’t seen Amanda since her face had been covered in stubborn pustules and she’d been afraid to lose her tampon string. Now she used one of those sustainable menstrual cups that marked one’s conversion from a nondescript human to a pretentious Los Angelean.
“Boy, there’s a lot of traffic out here,” Judith said, glancing at her daughter behind the wheel. It was a Monday morning and Amanda had missed her usual hot yoga class, something she did as penance for her Sunday evening cocaine binges with her underwhelming neighbor, Todd. The one that her coworkers at the restaurant said had a Dad Bod.
“There are a few more people than in Iowa, Mom,” said Amanda.
“I know, but don’t they sleep?” The sun was working on rising, but hadn’t gathered up the energy yet; perhaps he too was recovering from a cocaine-fueled night.
“No. No, they don’t.”
“But where is everyone going?!”
“I don’t know, Mom. They probably wonder where we’re going. How were your million layovers, anyway?”
“Just fine, thank you. I read my newest book for book club. It was on Oprah’s book club list,” said Judith.
“Then it must be good.” Amanda rolled her eyes.
“Oh, stop it. Ever since you moved out here you’ve been on your high horse about everything. Can’t an old woman like her Oprah without being chastised for it?”
“What high horse?”
“The one where you think you’re better than everyone back home. I mean, whatever happened to good old fashioned fishing and four-wheelers? You used to love doing those things with that nice boyfriend of yours, Al. Whatever happened to him anyway? I hope you two keep in touch. He comes from such a damned nice family.”
“First of all, I’m a vegan and vegans don’t fish. Secondly, four-wheelers are a waste of fuel and damage the environment. Thirdly, Al used to speak like his entire life was inside of a video game. He used to call you one of the bosses he had to beat to get to the next level, so,” said Amanda. She peered at her mother and raised her eyebrows as if to say, “He’s the last gamer I’ll ever let inside me.”
“But darling,” Judith began slowly. “You drove a car to pick me up. That burns fuel too. A lot of it.”
Amanda chose not to address her mother’s comment, as was her typical line of defense against winning arguments. Just a few months prior, Amanda had found herself slipping and sliding around in the sweaty arms of a guy she’d picked up at the bar. His name had been Jungle. Normally she would have snuck out and headed home to shower but she’d have been late for work if she’d done that, so she’d accepted the formidable challenge that is operating someone else’s shower and climbed in while he was still asleep. What she found was terrifying. Suave brand shampoo and conditioner! She grabbed the shampoo bottle and read the label carefully, scanning for Cocamide diethanolamine or DEA, a cancer-causing chemical found in many popular hair products and when she found those two magical little words she threw the bottle so hard at the glass shower door that it awoke the Man of Sweat (she’d been too shaken to hear the tiny cry of Shampoo Bottle who had never been handled so roughy before). Jungle’s drunken and groggy pursuit into the bathroom could only be classified as that of a basset hound puppy learning to walk.
“What the hell’s going on?” He’d asked, barging into the bathroom without knocking.
“Your shampoo. It causes cancer.”
“What the fuck. Who cares.”
“Do you have a frontal lobe? Do you even know what cancer is?”
“I’m just saying, I only use all-natural, cruelty-free products.”
“What, like ones that say, ‘No soap was harmed in the making of this soap?’” Jungle had said, hoping that she’d get out of his shower and life soon enough.
“Very funny. I’d rather not get cancer.”
“Alcohol causes cancer. And I’m not sure if whatever it was you were sticking up your nose last night causes cancer but I’m willing to bet it can kill you.”
Similar to the situation with her mother, Amanda ignored the rebuttal and asked Jungle if he knew where her thong was. He left the bathroom to search for it. He didn’t care much whether he won the fight or not. Once Amanda had gotten out of the shower (hair unwashed, body merely rinsed) and toweled off, Shampoo Bottle gave Conditioner Bottle a little kiss and told her his near-death experience had made him realize that he wanted to be with her and only her—that polyamory wasn’t for him after all.
“Mother, just because I’ve learned a little something about culture since graduating in a class of 84 students, all of whom know how to chew tobacco none of whom know how to meditate. Don’t even know what it is to be mindful.”
In the trunk, Soccer Ball and Dachshund, who had been listening to Nutcracker regale them with his lineage (“I am descended from a long line of original German nutcrackers brought over by the American soldiers after World War II,” he’d said. “Most people don’t know this but nutcrackers actually fought in the war. We weren’t just going to sit around with nuts in our mouths while our owners died.” “Cut the shit. I saw your tag when you came home 3 years ago. You’re from the Dollar Tree,” Dachshund, whose self-improvement project was still very much in progress, barked, which Nutcracker responded to with a firm “Hup 1-2-3-4, hup 1-2-3-4.”) perked up at Amanda’s last word.
“Meditate! I knew she was our one true owner,” whispered Soccer Ball, unsure as to why she was whispering.
“Judith can suck it,” agreed Dachshund, referring to his dick-shaped body. Self-deprecation was a defense that also needed to be dropped, according to Soccer Ball.
“You two don’t deserve Judith. She’s done nothing but be kind to us all these years. Hell, she could have tossed all of us out ages ago, but she’s stuck with us. She believes in us to spread the spirit of Christmas,” Angel said, her words slightly muffled by the fact that her face was pressed up against Nutcracker’s back. Judith had lost her box the previous year so now she was forced to trade dust particles with the other peasants, but she tried to keep a positive attitude about it. Judith was an old and sometimes forgetful woman. The least Angel could do was cut her a break, especially because before making her daily spam and ravioli breakfast she made sure to turn on the news, which Angel, being an honorary sidekick of God and all, was most pleased about. Half of California was currently on fire and how Angel loved her death and destruction; it was God bringing his babies home.
“Attention!” Yelled Nutcracker, to which no one gave their attention.
“She’s done nothing but hold us back from our true selves,” said Soccer Ball, remembering all the years in which Judith was the only person they saw all of December. No one came to appreciate their Christmas spirit. If an ornament was hung on a tree and no one but a dull Midwestern woman was there to see it, was it hung at all?
“I am Soldier Nutcracker, leader of this army!”
“Why are you called a nutcracker if you are incapable of even cracking nuts?” Angel hissed into his back.
“What?” He shouted.
Angel repeated what she’d said and he spat. She knew just how to hurt him when she wanted to. His ancestors had been used to crack nuts centuries ago. He’d always wanted to know what that glorious, satisfying sensation felt like. To break the shell of a nut and spit its center out into the large sweaty wasteland of a human palm, lined with markings that may or may not mean anything about their lives.
Amanda swerved in and out of traffic, twitching each time her phone vibrated in the cup holder (“Who are all these people texting you?!”), and occasionally dipping her neurotransmitters in acetylcholine before showing off her slender middle finger to fellow drivers. Don’t hold the anger inside, said her therapist. You eventually fill up with fire and that’s how humans spontaneously combust. “You don’t want to spontaneously combust, do you?” Her therapist had asked. Amanda was fairly certain she’d seen her therapist working as a Walmart greeter in the San Fernando Valley a few weeks after she’d begun seeing her.
“My, oh my, the west coast has stolen my daughter! And they call this the City of Angels? Phooey!” Judith cacawed.
“My therapist says to let it all out,” Amanda explained, exhaling slowly.
“Therapist? What do you need a therapist for?”
“Mental health is a thing, Mom.”
“Yes, but for you?”
“What do you mean for me? For everyone.”
Judith sighed but didn’t say anything. She wondered if it was something she’d done wrong, if she’d somehow fucked her daughter up irreparably in spite of giving her a relatively normal, dial-tone childhood. In this way, Judith was just like every other mother who’d ever existed in this big, farting planet.
“What do you think she means?” Soccer Ball asked Dachshund.
“She, who? And means about what?”
“I’ve never heard of a therapist. What is it? Do we have one? Is it contagious?”
“You two are ridiculous,” asserted Angel before Dachshund could respond. He growled quietly in her direction but she was undeterred and proceeded just as a college student might down another vodka shot despite the topsy-turvy room. “A therapist is another word for a gravedigger. You go see a gravedigger before you die so that you make sure it’s all done properly, that your body will fit in your grave, that it’s deep enough, that the soil is the right acidity. There’s a lot that goes into it, but some people don’t think you need a gravedigger until you’re already dead.”
“Ohhhhhhhhh,” everyone, including Nutcracker, hummed in unison. Sometimes Angel was good to have around. She was an anchor in the ocean of confusion in which they lived.
Through his dirty window, Todd watched Amanda pull her Prius into the slim parking space in front of her apartment. He noticed an older woman—probably Amanda’s mother— with her hair pulled tightly back sitting in the front seat. He wondered if her brain knew she was trying to tear its rooftop off. He also wondered if she too liked to keep her crystal necklaces on during sex. Opening chakras and such. The two women climbed out of the car like old dogs getting off the couch—one most certainly due to her come-down and the other due to the natural weathering of her cells. Before the two women could notice him and have an uncomfortable conversation about his role in Amanda’s life, Todd retreated from his lookout position and returned to his bed where he masturbated to Grinch porn then fell asleep. ‘Tis the season!
Amanda and her mother unloaded the car and settled into Amanda’s studio apartment (“I thought LA was supposed to be glamorous, sweetheart,”). The ornaments were yet again buzzing.
“What do you think her place looks like?”
“What kind of tree do you think she has?”
“Will we have visitors?”
“Will we become movie stars?”
“Do you think we’ll get to meet Meryl Streep?”
That last question was asked by Nutcracker, who blushed as brightly as the lights on a Christmas tree as he said it. Nutcracker rarely slept due to his self-assigned night duty. He liked to think that he was guarding his fellow ornaments and the tree itself from intruders although they’d never had a night-time intruder, not even a welcomed day-time one. More often than not, when Judith couldn’t sleep, she’d slip into the living room and put on the film, “It’s Complicated”, and drink a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. That was the film that made Nutcracker wish he could vote for the Academy Awards. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, wooooo! What a combination!
Shafts of light shot through the cracks in their box and illuminated Angel, who frankly didn’t need any reminders that she was celestial.
“Everyone settle down,” she said. “Let Judith and Amanda get situated (a word Judith pronounced like “sitchiated,” which means that Angel did too) before we start breaking down the barricade and demanding we be hung up to enhance the holidays. God would want us to exercise patience in this situation. Plus, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. We must not forget that God gave us this ability to spread Christmas cheer.”
“We’re ornaments, you psycho. We can’t sin and we don’t die. Sorry, that wasn’t very nice. I mean, we’re ornaments, you—” said Dachshund.
“He has a point,” agreed Soccer Ball.
“Attention!” Shouted Nutcracker, who had recovered from his break in character and to whom no one paid attention.
“Of course we can die,” Angel laughed. Her eyes bulged out of her head as if they’d mistaken themselves for Todd’s pre-Grinch sausage shaft in his pants. “We rip, we break, we rust, we unravel. And what do the humans do when that happens?”
“Oh, I know!” interjected Soccer Ball. “They toss us in the garbage. It’s the throwaway culture,” she stuck out whatever part of her she considered to be her chest.
“Yes, precisely. That is our death. And it is a sad one,” said Angel.
“Do you think we should get a gravedigger?” asked Soccer Ball.
“Shut up, think rationally about this. We don’t get put in graves. We get chucked in the damn garbage for Christ’s sake.”
Angel gasped but couldn’t speak.
“Hold your fire,” Nutcracker commanded Angel. He knew, instinctively, that she was the one to fear the most. She could be diabolically persuasive, but as much as the others believed in her, he didn’t trust her God sidekick spiel one bit.
Judith bustled around the studio apartment, as her mother did, and her mother before her, and her mother before her, and all mothers leading back to the early hominids (who were, I imagine, bustling around cleaning up animal bones their spawn had splayed about). Frankly, it seemed, mothers had no idea what to do if they weren’t behaving frantically. Amanda opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses in attempts to slightly sedate her mother. Judith took a few sips of wine then began to unpack the ornaments. Nutcracker, Dachshund (oh, how she loved that little guy!), Soccer Ball (“Remember Jake, Amanda?”), and of course, Angel, along with many others. Judith bought Amanda a new ornament every single year regardless of whether Amanda wanted one.
“That’s how you make traditions, dear. You’ll understand when you’re older and have a family,” Judith had said on Amanda’s ninth Christmas when she received a Tinker Bell ornament and had a crush on three boys in her class, all named Zach. Todd, as it were, was the closest thing Amanda had to a significant other, and his most redeeming qualities were that he’d once played Ulysses S. Grant in a Civil War Reenactment and that his body odor typically smelled like paprika.
One by one, the ornaments were hung on the tree—a fake tree, mind you. Soccer Ball whispered “Thank you” since she’d no longer have to sneeze and sniffle her way through Christmas. Dachshund grumbled about positivity when he was hung close to Soccer Ball in a stroke of luck. Nutcracker shouted, “I will not surrender!” as he was plucked from the box and Angel smiled smugly from her usual perch atop of the tree. At first, Judith and Amanda tried to make civil conversation. After all, it was the holidays—a time to be together.
“What’s your New Year’s Resolution going to be, sweetheart?” asked Judith, sipping her wine.
“Maybe to stop acting like such a cusp Taurus, Leo rising,” mused Amanda.
“A what, what?” Her mother laughed.
“That’s why I can be so difficult sometimes. I’m such a Taurus.”
“You’re such a brat is what you are. Stop blaming it on when you were born.”
“Whatever. What’s your New Year’s Resolution, Mom?”
“Okay, so I have two goals: I’m going to start thinking about gardening, and I’m going to befriend that woman, Linda, from my book club with the neat hair and sassy comments.”
“One of your goals can’t be to simply start thinking about doing something,” laughed Amanda.
“And why not?”
Amanda couldn’t come up with a solid reason so she refilled their wine glasses and they drank deeply.
Once Judith and Amanda had killed the bottle of wine and were getting a bit loosey-goosey around the topic of the dumber sex and coital exploits (they both wondered, separately, what Stanley—Amanda’s father, Judith’s ex-husband— was doing with his boyfriend for Christmas and if he’d bought him new and exciting lingerie), Soccer Ball leaned towards Dachshund.
“I think my New Year’s Resolution is to find a gravedigger. What do you think?” She whispered.
Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Drunk Monkeys, The Zodiac Review, among others. She currently lives in San Diego with her fiancée. You can read more of her work at www.marisacrane.org. Her twitter handle is @marisabcrane.