“Wake up sweetheart, it’s Christmas morning, your dad is going to jail.” – Sergeant.
My father and I are living in our home town, a small steel-mill town outside of Pittsburgh that boomed back in the early 60′s but dissolved into a poor hole in the earth where one can’t shop for clothes, but can purchase any drug of choice and attend church on Sunday. At one time in history, our town was referred to as “little Chicago” until the destruction of the manufacturing industry leveled this place and sucked the marrow out of the bones of the hard working people who lived here.
Our tiny, one-bedroom apartment bucked up against the banks of the Monongahela River. A river that once swallowed up an older cousin of mine a decade earlier; he drank a few beers, hit his head on the rocks, and died in the river’s belly. My maternal side of the family, with whom I lived during that time, cried all day. I cried, too – only because it seemed appropriate to display sadness despite the fact that I’d never met this beloved man. More importantly, my mother was crying and I had never seen her cry out of true sadness, so in my desperate attempt to be a part of her, I shed tears in solidarity. I was, in all of my child-filled confusion, trying to prove that I was her daughter.
But now, I’m seventeen. I jump up, rub my eyes and squint, only to see a giant of a man leaning over my bed on Christmas morning. His badge is bright. I think I’m having a typical, vivid pot-hangover dream, so I plop my head back down on the pillow only to realize a split second later that it really is Christmas morning and my dad really is going to jail.
There are at least five police officers rummaging through the shoe-box in which we live. Our eight-foot tall Christmas tree takes up the majority of this tiny home. We had, at least, attempted to try and live a normal life, my dad and I. We didn’t know each other long– this was only our second Christmas together and I insisted upon having a humongous, live Christmas tree, an object I pretend will fill the void of 15 years without a father while suffering alone with a sociopathic mother. I see this object of our faux-normality first, as I stumble out of my bedroom. I notice the presents- ripped open as if an excited child had woken up hours earlier and dove into Christmas’ morning magic. But I was not that child and I had not ripped open those presents. All I can hear are the clanging of keys; it is rhythmic in its chaos. This has become a search and seizure musical. Someone had apparently tap-danced all over the apartment because the seat cushions are curiously cocked upright, lamps laying on their sides, and the drop-tiles that make up our ceiling have been randomly pushed an inch to the left or right, every few square-feet. With all the movement, I have not yet seen my father.
I look to the left of our tilted tree, and peek toward the wall that separates the living room from the kitchen. From this angle, all I can see are my father’s feet and I can only assume he is lying on the floor of our kitchen. From this angle, the storm that tore through this morning, before I’d woken up, had picked up our apartment building and my father may as well be wearing red sequined witch heels. Except, he’s not. He is barefooted. I can barely bring myself to walk around the corner of the wall and into the kitchen where my father is lying on the linoleum floor in handcuffs. He tells me to come closer.
“I need you to put socks on my feet.”
All I want to do is go back to bed and force myself into a sleep that would allow this reality to turn into a drug-induced dream where I will then reawaken to the smell of coffee and my father smoking a cigarette on the sofa. But this morning, I am not a seventeen year old girl, I am a soldier. I follow my father’s every eye-signal and quiet instruction. I find a pair of warm socks, kneel down, and slide them over his cracked feet. His lips are shaking, but he does not cry in front of his little girl. I am still a little girl but I am a soldier. He tells me to make sure that I put on my blue jacket before going to my grandmother’s house. A woman who has already been contacted and is putting on her face to come and get me. There is sugar and cereal dumped and piled into our kitchen sink. All of our cupboards are open.
I realize they’ve already found the stash.
What I didn’t know was that when the police knocked on the door, my father ran to the bathroom and tried to flush the 50 weighed, sorted, and packaged packets of heroin down the toilet. But he didn’t flush fast enough. Someone now has the unfortunate job of dipping their hands in our toilet and pulling out the little blue baggies.
Meanwhile, I put on the blue coat, per my father’s instructions. This is not my coat. This is a coat with a pocket on the inside where my father keeps his money. I know this. I know this because we’ve talked about the inevitable but we do not talk about my problems with getting high. We do not talk about the reasons why I stay out all night with unsavory friends, why I had stayed out all night, last night, and came tiptoeing through the door Christmas morning at 6:00 am as opposed to just waking up.
I fell asleep, instead.
And now there is a musical in my apartment. Now there are police questioning where I got my jewelry, why I’m wearing a coat that looks much too large for my petite frame. They steal my jewelry. They steal the few presents under the tree. They are stealing my father. They have stolen christmas and turned it into a chorus of keys, cuffs, static filled walkie-talkies, and booming manly voices. There isn’t a woman in sight. Only me, a small girl soldier, my grandmother who is still at home putting on her face but will soon enter stage-left, and a father who tried in the only way he ever knew how, to be a mother. Stashing money to buy the outlandish Christmas tree his daughter asked for and the few presents beneath it. Some smokes for the both of us. This is how we bonded and continue to bond: I put warm socks on my father’s feet because we know full well he’s going to a place that is lonely and dank.
Later that day I realize the cops knew the coat wasn’t mine. They’d already found and pocketed the money, but let me keep the coat anyway; a cruel joke of sorts. I found my jewelry floating around the streets weeks later. Dirty cops in a filthy, small mill town. Those same cops call me out by name and order me to go home to my grandmother’s house when I’m hanging out at night, still getting high with friends.
I soon find out the reason my father went to prison that Christmas was because he sold one bag of heroin to the brother of my cousin who passed a decade earlier in the river behind our apartment; he snitched on my dad when the flashing lights of a cop car summoned his freedom and forgot about the child sleeping in that home was the same little girl who cried when his brother died, just to prove she belonged to her own mother. Our blood is nothing but water.
I wear that blue coat all winter long. I finally belong to something: the musical that lives in the mouth of the Monongahela River.