The large plastic bell in the Jedermann living room looks as if it has been dipped in glue and rolled in glitter. It hangs from the mantelpiece where a clutter of mismatched and chipped ceramic statues aspire to form a nativity scene. The hand painted figurines sprawl among wooden and metal frames, a hierarchically arranged collection of family faces, one of which invariably belongs to the previous owner or owners of the disjunct wise men and shepherds.
A pull on the bell’s clapper, which isn’t a clapper at all, but a small orb attached to a 3-foot string somehow wound into an internal device, produces a tinny, mechanically repetitive rendition of “Silent Night.”
Carl Jedermann’s mother, Margaret Jedermann, loves the bell. She pulls the string all afternoon, forced to maneuver past Carl whose legs are propped up on the coffee table in front of the couch where he reads. His spot to read has been chosen by his parents, as Carl has been grounded for quite some time and spends too much of it in his room. And after all, it is the holidays, time for families to be together. She drags the string down, all the way till it squeaks, then rushes to sit, jostling Carl and the tree. Glass bulbs rustle against synthetic needles. Each pass at the bell irritates Carl further, and each time Mrs. Jedermann forcibly navigates passed Carl she becomes a little more perturbed. She sits erect listening to the bell, leaning slightly forward, and stares as if is the most amazing thing ever.
The bell has an addictive, hypnotic effect, evidenced by the smoky quartz marbles that were once Mrs. Jedermann’s eyes, and the unnerving half-smile on her lips. The glitter encrusted orb rotates, stops, and then rotates the opposite direction as it slowly climbs into the bell casing. The higher the ball rises, the faster it rotates, and the slower the bell tings and tongs. The last note is never the same and takes forever to sound, leaving the song unfinished.
Mrs. Jedermann tires of providing the entertainment for everyone. Not that there is a crowd in the house, just Carl and Mrs. Jedermann’s better half, Jon Jedermann, who sits in his oblivious spot at the kitchen table, scientific calculator in reach, slothing through the mounds of papers and texts a NASA engineer brings home.
“Carl,” says Mrs. Jedermann, as the ball jerked that one final millimeter into the bell housing. “Could you start the music?”
“Awe, Mom,” says Carl, “Can’t we give it a rest?”
“Carl,” says Mrs. Jedermann, growling through her teeth, “The way you’ve been acting lately you’re lucky to have a roof over your head. Now get up and start the bell.”
Almost a year earlier, Carl’s parents caught him coming through the door at four in the morning with breath that would have anaesthetized a bull moose. Carl had been sneaking out to be with his friends. His mother didn’t like the way his friends looked and didn’t want him to see them at all. The more she objected, the more he wanted to see them. Carl’s hair was growing longer and the Jedermanns were concerned that their son might become involved with drugs. They took away his key that night, an inconvenience that forced Carl to wait over three hours for his parents to arrive home from work after the school bus dropped him off.
Recently they discovered that he was coming and going through his bedroom window, and at midnight when their son rang the doorbell, they ignored it. Carl spent the night in a chaise lounge in the backyard by the pool. It was twenty-two degrees outside, unusually cold for a San Francisco December.
“Mom,” says Carl, in reply to her order, “I’d rather not, I’m reading. Couldn’t it wait?” The bell drives him nuts. Every time it slows he waits for that last note to sound and hopes his mother won’t yank the string again. But she does and he loses his place on the page and has to reread from the start. Every other page in the book has been read twice. There is no way he is going to start the bell on his own.
“I didn’t ask you whether you wanted to ring the bell or not, Carl.” She enunciates slowly and carefully, punctuating each word with a flare from her nostrils or a glare from her eyes, which no longer seem glazed with a milk- white film. “I asked you to ring the bell, so do it before I ring your neck.”
“Mom,” pleads Carl, “It’s driving me crazy. Can’t I just read?”
“Ring the bell Carl.” She glowered at him from behind clenched eye sockets with the ferocity of a wolverine.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” says Carl. He gets up and leaves the room.
“Where do you think you’re going?” screams Mrs. Jedermann, “I told you to do something!”
Soon the sound of water comes from behind the bathroom door at the end of the hall.
Finished, and trudging back toward the living room, Carl is halted by angry shouts in the entryway.
“He’s your son, too!” she shouts. “You do something about it!” Carl stares hard at a spot on the Saltillo tile. He folds his arms mummy-like as Mrs. Jedermann’s charges grow louder. The color drains slowly from Mr. Jedermann’s face. The more Mrs. Jedermann shouts, the whiter he becomes, until his cheeks resemble a mixture of grays and bone-white porcelain the texture of ocean sponge.
“You two are going to have a talk and you’d better get things straightened out, because I can’t take this any more!” Mrs. Jedermann moves to the doorway. Mr. Jedermann blocks her path.
“This is all your fault,” she screams, reaching for the doorknob. Mr. Jedermann’s face is completely white. When she pulls the door open his hands circle her throat and he slams her into the wall. She collapses as her arms and legs flail about. Half-crawling, half-running she makes a desperate scramble and manages to escape through the open door. Mr. Jedermann turns toward Carl, who is frozen to the wall.
“You stay put,” he tells him. Then he moves out the door calling, “Margaret? Margaret?” But Margaret is gone.
Carl hides in his room, squashes the bed against the door, piles it with clothes and books for added weight. He skitters to the window, opens it, but stays put.
Carl hears his father enter the master bedroom across the hall. The click as the door closes. The squeak and thud as the closet slides open. The loading of the gun kept locked in a box below suits, which need to be pressed.
The gun is one of the few things kept in the box. The flag placed over Carl’s grandfather’s coffin is also there. Patches of cloth are missing from years of disintegration and there were only 48 stars to begin with. A knock sounds at Carl’s door.
“Open up, I want to talk with you.” Mr. Jedermann rarely speaks to Carl, but when he does, he does so with authority.
Carl does not answer. He does not want to move or breathe or make any noise whatsoever. He waits.
Mr. Jedermann knocks again, softer this time. “Carl?”
“Carl, would you let me in?” Mr. Jedermann’s voice is quiet, not commanding, but it wavers between otherwise frighteningly calm words. “I just want to talk, Carl.”
Carl stays down low next to the open window ready to squeeze out past the bushes and run, still not wanting to move. He stares intently at the brass doorknob, waiting.
More silence, then Carl, knowing he must speak or risk his father entering to investigate, manages to squeak out, “I don’t think so, Dad.”
It is Mr. Jedermann’s turn for silence. A long silence that urges Carl to flee through the open window, but he doesn’t. He stays there waiting for his father to move. He will hear the rustle of shoe on carpet or the creak of a slow turning doorknob and that will be his cue. He hears fingertips grasp the knob. They stay there for while, and then release, soft as moths.
“Carl…” says Mr. Jedermann, “I’m going to walk tot the post office and get the mail, when I get back we’re going to talk.”
The post office is three miles away. It is a long wait there by the window. A long cold wait. The San Francisco air has the same bone-numbing quality Carl had known in the little town they had moved from on the East coast, where his grades were always A’s, escape meant riding bikes with his friends, and a knock at the door around Christmastime usually signaled the arrival of neighbors who bravely tugged at their thick scarves, exposed their faces and sang exuberantly of good tidings and cheer.
Carl stays by the window and lets the air sink into him. He traces a finger around the window frame. Things are not so bad. Back East he would not have been able to sit with the window open. He would have been trapped by the frozen frame and the ice crystals spread across the glass like translucent ferns. But here he can see and he can run if the need arises. As his muscles and joints begin to stiffen, he thinks about all the nights he hadn’t snuck out, and how the loneliest thing in the world must be a window. He crosses himself tightly with his arms and rocks.
It is well after dark when his father returns. It is also well past the time for him to return. Carl has not heard the screen door creak open on its hinges He has not heard Mr. Jedermann’s footsteps come down the hall or the fingertips on the doorknob once more. He doesn’t open his eyes until long after the footsteps creep back up the hall, until there is a distinct shuffling of papers and glasses on the table.
The footfalls return.
“Open the door, Carl. I want to talk to you.”
Carl could barely move. But he knew he must answer his father. Perhaps the danger has passed. “I don’t know, Dad. Is everything all right?”
“No, everything is not all right. I’m not mad at you. I just want to talk.”
The footsteps move back down the hall to the kitchen.
Carl blinks at the darkness outside the window, then up at the walls and the ceiling. The light in the room seems yellow and casts thin shadows around everything. His father is home and wants to talk. Carl stretches an arm out, rests his palm on the tile and shifts his weight. Stiffly, he rises, contemplates the window and bed, then very silently pulls the barricade back a foot or so and opens the door.
Mr. Jedermann is at the kitchen table. It is clean. All the papers and books are piled near the door leading to the garage. He is still wearing his jacket, a thick blue one with lamb’s wool lapels left over from that small town back East. There is an unmistakable bulge on the left side where the inside pocket would be. He still has the gun.
“Sit down,” he says. Carl sits, but never takes his eyes off him. There is a bottle in a brown paper bag on the table, and two shot glasses.
“Did we get anything in the mail?” asks Carl.
“I don’t know,” says Mr. Jedermann. He pulls the bottle out of the plain brown cover, a fifth of rum, 151 proof. Carl isn’t accustomed to seeing alcohol around the house, but he is familiar with this. He’s had it before with some of his friends. It is strong stuff.
“We’re going to have a drink, just you and me, like men.”
“I’m not thirsty, really,” says Carl. He isn’t. Not for anything. He is barely awake and if there is one thing he knows for sure, he does not want a drink, not rum, not now.
“We’re going to have a drink, you and me.” He fills the glasses.
“Dad, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
He leans toward Carl, face turning white.
“Drink,” he says. Carl drinks.
The shots come one after another. Mr. Jedermann pours and Carl stalls as long as possible. Finally, with a deep breath, Carl leans his head up and throws the harsh liquid down his throat. Mr. Jedermann follows, and then pours again.
As this continues, Carl notices the taste become less harsh. The burn in his throat and stomach subside to a dull throb. It is getting very warm.
“It’s getting awfully hot in here. Don’t you want to take off your jacket, Dad?”
“Drink,” he says, and Carl does. Shot after shot after shot. Every time Mr. Jedermann pours and his tight gripped fingers slap the bottle back onto the table top, its contents roll and wave and curl inside. The only way Carl knows that he is not in an out of focus silent movie is the slow pace, and the smell of strong rum mingling with his own anxious sweat.
When the bottle is almost empty, Mr. Jedermann slaps both hands on the tabletop. Carl wants to look down, to look away, to spring up and run like hell, but he can’t. His legs are dead logs, fingers and toes numb, and his eyes feel as if they’re growing hair. But he is awake, wide awake.
“We’re going to have a talk now.”
Carl says nothing.
“We’re going to have a talk now. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand you.”
He leans even closer. “Yes, I understand you… what?” Each word hit Carl’s cheek.
“Yes, I understand you… Sir.”
“Good,” says Mr. Jedermann, and leans back. Carl concentrates on his father’s coarse beard, blue jacket, the tell tale spot that conceals cold steel.
“A father never lies to a son,” he says. “Never.” He pauses, refills the shot glasses, then speaks slowly. “Everyone thought my father was crazy. He wasn’t. He was an alcoholic. You never met your grandfather did you?”
“No, Dad.” But Carl knows he drank. The whole family knew. Carl spoke to the old man once, over the phone. He gulped words up from his stomach, past his cirrhotic liver where they emerged incomprehensible, but Carl was sure he knew what his grandfather was trying to say.
“I spent a lot of time with my father. He was a good man. He wanted to quit, he really did. When he’d stop for awhile he would yell and scream a lot. People were scared of him, the neighbors, your grandmother. But I stayed with him.
“I was there when the spiders came out of the walls. I was there when the demons were wailing, telling him to do horrible things. I saw them!” he shouts. “I heard them!” The tone in his voice drops off. “I was the only one who knew the truth. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t.”
Shaking, he raises a shot to his lips, lets the liquid drain into him. He clasps the small empty glass between his hands, stares down at it, and remains silent for a very long time. Carl dares not disturb him.
“He shot himself you know.”
“What?” replies Carl.
“You know the gun I keep in that box in my closet?”
Carl tried not to look at the bulge in his jacket. “What about it?” he says cautiously.
“He killed himself with it. A few years before we moved here, on Christmas.”
Carl can not respond.
“He was a good man, he really was. He taught me to play stickball in the street. We used to go to Ebbets Field and watch the Dodgers. I always took the mitt he gave me. We would sit up in the stands, and he would tell me to be ready if the ball came my way. I always spit and rub it into the leather just like he showed me, hoping Duke Snider would pop one up just for me.” He raises the other glass to his lips and drains it. Again he falls silent for a minute.
“You never met your grandfather, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Drinking can destroy a family. Remember that. Your grandmother was a strong woman, but she couldn’t live without your grandfather. They both drank their lives away on Christmas.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“She kept a bottle of Pine-Sol under the cabinet in the bathroom.” He reaches for the bottle, then withdraws his hand.
“I think I need to rest.” He pulls himself over to the couch and leans back. Carl waits, then stands. His head reels, forces him to stop, to steady himself for a moment. Mr. Jedermann’s eyes are closed. Carl begins to make his way slowly past his father toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Just going to wash my hands, Dad.”
“I don’t want you going anywhere. Sit down.”
Carl sits next to him in the chair by the tree. “You must be awfully hot, Dad. Why don’t you take your jacket off?”
“I think I’ll keep it on,” he says, then closes his eyes. He is out.
Carl rises again, this time slowly, and creeps toward the door. He gets down low, hoping his father won’t see him if he wakes. With only a few inches of wood and steel blocking his escape, Carl reaches up and carefully twists the latch to unlock the deadbolt. A loud “click” echoes through the room.
He pulls himself up, turns the knob as he goes. His father is still asleep. Carl withdraws, leaving the door open, and makes his way quickly down the street.
Mr. Jedermann remains on the sofa, his jacket still on, zipped tight, arms firmly folded on his chest. Beside him, glass ornaments hang by thin metal hooks from the limbs of a faux blue spruce, roped in thick silver strands and bulbs that remained colorless, waiting for electricity. At the top an angel sways, its arms outstretched as the ceiling fan hums and rocks, circulating the air from window and door, the whole scene framed by the high bookcases on the wall.
Carl walks in the chill night, his own jacket left on the heap on his bed, houses and trees lit and blinking bright, a blurring fog gusting from his mouth with each calming step. He hesitates before ringing the bell at a friend’s house, miles from home, uninvited and very late on Christmas Eve. He wonders what his father will do when he wakes up, as cold as it will be in that house, on that morning, alone.