YULE TIMES • by Jenn Q. Goddu

A glowing wife wraps a “Baby’s First Christmas” bib for her husband’s stocking.

***

Sean bashes his rattle against his wooden high chair. His parents dance close to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

***

Sean leaps onto his sleeping parents shrilling, “Sanna’s been. Sanna came!” It is 5:18 a.m.

***

“Deer Santa,” Sean writes. “I bin god. I wan scates and a socker ball. Hi Rudolf.”

***

“You know it’s Mom and Dad, right?” Sean sneers. Lyla’s tears blur her painting for Santa. Guilty, Sean suggests a tea party, eager to see his little sister smile again.

***

After earning extra cash serving hors d’oeuvres at his parent’s holiday party, Sean and his best friend sneak upstairs with heavily spiked eggnogs.

***

Sean’s able to forgive his parents the lump of coal in his stocking when he unwraps a set of keys to the Honda Civic.

“It’s yours now,” his Dad says.

“Be careful,” adds his Mom.

***

Lyla delivers Christmas dinner to her brother laid-up in bed.

“They’re still pissed?” Sean asks.

“D’uh. You totaled the car and your knee. What do you expect?”

“I wasn’t drinking,” Sean lies.

“Whatever. Way to ruin Christmas.”

***

Sean works the night shift at Canadian Tire stocking shelves in anticipation of Boxing Day shoppers. On break he offers half his pizza sub to Marisa.

“It’s okay.” He balls up the sandwich wrapper to stop from reaching out to wipe her tears away. “Your daughter’s too young to remember you’re working on Christmas.”

***

Assistant managers have to start early, but before his shift Sean visits Marisa. His girlfriend’s daughter is agog when presented with a stuffed panda twice her size.

***

“When we’re married, it’ll be different,” Sean reassures Marisa. He reaches for her hand across the card table they’ve covered with a red tablecloth to make their microwave turkey dinners more festive. Angelica pushes her plate away with still pudgy hands demanding mac and cheese.

***

Sean rests a hand on Marisa’s back as her body shakes with sobs. He stares blearily at the Dora curtain they strung across their studio apartment to give Angelica her own space. He imagines killing the antler-wearing asshole whose skidding stop sent Angelica flying from the crosswalk and out of their lives.

***

Lyla’s curls tickle Sean’s nose when she leans against his shoulder on their parents’ sofa. “I’m glad you’re here, big brother,” she says.

“You think he’s ‘the one’?” Sean nods in the direction of Lyla’s college boyfriend helping their Dad with his new camera.

Lyla’s flushed cheeks belie her off-handed shrug.

“I’m sorry about what happened with Marisa,” she says.

“She just needed some time alone,” Sean says, slamming back his eggnog. “She’ll be back.”

***

Sean slumps in the kitchen doorway watching his parents trying to elicit a smile from Lyla’s baby boy.

Sean’s Mom beams, “My first grandbaby to wear the bib!”

Lyla’s husband claps Sean’s shoulder. “One more semester?”

Sean answers, “Then my BS will be official!”

***

Lyla laughs under the mistletoe as her husband bends down to kiss her swollen belly. Sean’s nephew claps delightedly.

Sean smiles distractedly at the nativity scene in front of him. He’s not jealous this year. He’s wondering if Sheila from accounting will still smell of peppermint when they go out to dinner next week.

***

Sean smiles at his nephews toddling down the church aisle in red and green velvet vests. Sheila approaches next all in white with mistletoe and holly berries in her bouquet. Sean blinks to keep from crying.

***

Sheila reads “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to Lyla’s boys. Sean tells her on the drive home, “You’ll be a great mom one day.”

***

Christmas in Hawaii is a letdown. Sean misses the snow. Still, it’s good to be away from all the sympathy. Seeing Sheila happy again is worth the cost. Anyway, this trip is nothing compared to all they owe for the fertility treatments.

***

Sean stares in wonder at the precious three-month-old in his arms. He cradles his son while his mother coos at Eric to look at the camera while wearing the “Baby’s First Christmas” bib.

***

Eric snorts with laughter then begins again the song he learned from his cousins: “Jingle bells, Batman smells…” Sean tightens his grip on the steering wheel, trying to keep from shouting “shut up.”

***

Eric’s young face contorts in an almost adult anger. “You lied!” He yells. “Santa’s not real!”

***

Sean stands over the Christmas dishes, water rushing into the sink. Out the window Eric, only 11, reaches behind a fence slat to claim his hidden cigarettes.

***

Cutting up overcooked turkey with a plastic knife, Sean smiles grimly at a hopeful Sheila. Eric ignores them. Sean wonders how a holiday dinner together at the center helps Eric’s substance abuse treatment.

***

Sean and Sheila are already in bed watching a Christmas special on TV.

“It’s only 6 in California,” Sheila says hopefully. “He might still call.”

***

Sean sits beside a big bag of donated presents. His forced “Ho Ho Ho” echoes in the church basement as the children come to receive gifts. He’s already planning for his monologue about this when he visits Sheila’s long-term care facility.

***

Sean’s hip replacement aches, but he still sounds jolly when he gives the church kids their donated presents. They’re all he’s got this year.

***

Eric stands on the doorstep with a carton of store-bought eggnog introducing the woman at his side as his wife. “You going to invite us in?”

“Of course,” Sean says. “Merry Christmas!” He hasn’t felt this merry in years.

***

Sean’s threadbare Santa suit sags where the buttons once strained at his belly. “Ho Ho”-ing makes him cough. Tears fog Santa’s glasses as Eric places newborn Colton, wearing a long familiar Christmas bib, in Sean’s lap for a photo.

***

Colton refuses to sit in Santa’s lap at the church party.

“What’s up?” Eric asks.

“That’s not Santa,” Sean’s grandson complains.

“You sure?”

“Santa laughs like grandpa did. That’s not Santa.”


Jenn Q. Goddu is a transplant from Canada living in Charlotte, NC, after a 10-year stint in Chicago. She has an MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte, where she teaches. She is also a freelance writer/editor/writing coach. Follow her at @jennqgoddu or, if you love birthdays, enjoy her blog birthdaysarebest.com.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.9 stars • 30 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Lisa Walpole Finch

    I think it’s extremely rare for a story to bridge a time span such as this and still somehow conjure up so much emotion. This one definitely hits all the right notes. Well done!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    He’s got a fabulous grasp of grammar * He can’t spell * He’s rotten * He’s not * He’s rotten * He’s not…

    I was thrown off in the very beginning when Sean is “shrilling” at 5:18 a.m. Parents love the cute little bib but aren’t quite prepared for a real live boy?

    What ought to have been the pathos of killed Angelica just seemed like filling up the grocery list of life’s little mishaps we can toss at Sean.

    The through-the-years technique can be effective in flash. But here, with no clues at all as to what shapes Sean, it didn’t produce any effect on me except bafflement. Two stars.

    • MPmcgurty

      Words are, indeed, meaningful in flash. “Shrill” is defined as “high-pitched and piercing”. It was a perfect word to me. I’ve experienced it on Christmas morning and never thought of the ones emitting the shrieks as “pain(s) in the neck”.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Yes–little children can have remarkably piercing voices, with the adults around them wincing. But the whole tone of this was off to me. Not long afterwards, Sean is sneering.
        And–“piercing” to me is a slightly less negative word than “shrilling.” How much of literature is filled with “shrill women” who we are intended to dislike?

        As a reader I was continually baffled by the portrayal of Sean as such a generally unpleasant person, with a few flashes of decency. In such short bursts of history here, every single impression counts. As a nightbird I certainly would be groaning at a 5:18 am awakening. And in a longer or more detailed piece, the writer can mitigate the effect of some words with a fuller picture of Sean’s family life. To me it seemed the poor kid was behind the 8-ball from the beginning…

        • MPmcgurty

          But now you are inserting gender language issues into a scene about a small boy shrieking in excitement. You can’t do that – well, you can, but I think it would taint much of what you read. Sean’s sneering comes a few years down the road, which is in line with this technique (even though I don’t care for it). Perhaps the author did intend for us to get a negative vibe from that snippet at 5:18am, but I didn’t get one.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I know I am obsessive about words…”shrieking in excitement” gives me a good vibe; “shrilling in excitement” gives me a bad one…and I only used that gender reference to try to better explain my feelings.
            It’s true that in a timeline Sean’s sneering is a bit later, but in the eye-trail left here by very short paragraphs, it hits the reader pretty fast. There’s only his misspelled letter to Santa in-between.

            And funny about the misspelling device–sometimes it’s used to show childlike innocence. Sometimes it’s used to show the ignorance of a dislikeable character. Here, it didn’t leave me with tender feelings of endearment towards Sean, and perhaps I can’t blame the author. But I swear I began to see Pugsley’s face everywhere in this narrative…

          • JAZZ

            Shrieking, piercing, shrilling. Why so much emphasis in picking just the right word?
            Perhaps to the childless this is important, but to parents it all sounds the same.
            Incidentally, “Wincing” is not a word commonly used in Canada but we know what it means so no other is necessary.

          • MPmcgurty

            “Why so much emphasis in picking just the right word?”

            Um…it’s what writers do?

          • JAZZ

            Of course writers get to pick their own words – it’s the reviewer who is having difficulty with the writer’s choice.

          • MPmcgurty

            That’s the reviewer’s prerogative. Comment sections don’t exist for just warm and fuzzy remarks. I appreciate well-expressed critique and praise more than remarks that are little more than pats on the head. You might try it sometime.

  • Aside from the title, I loved this. Really good work here. You use this style rather well. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tony Acarasiddhi Press

    I was with this one all the way. Strong stuff.

  • MPmcgurty

    I like the full circle theme, but I’m almost always impatient with this technique.

  • Michael Stang

    Got lost with whose 15 minutes were coming and going. Honestly expected the dog to wear the bib next. What, no dog in the story? See what I mean.
    The effort is there, god knows, but the format is a hard sell.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      Perhaps the author should have stayed with the parents’ perspective. The story opened so tenderly–and quickly became a “when did they drop him on his head?” sort of mystery in trying to unravel Sean’s less than delightful personality.

      • Michael Stang

        Honestly, Sarah, I thought the story had little to do about Sean. More to the point a travelogue depicting family tragedy and a come back kid. As good attention, I would advise the author to limit the scope of the work (way too many names to think about), and perhaps if Sean does mean something the last line makes sense

  • JAZZ

    Don’t let the Scrooges get you down, Jenn, it was a fine story. Congrats….

  • Jack Tilley

    It started out with all the lively pep and promise of the Seven Ages of Man. “Sanna’s been!” and “Hi Rudolf!” is cute and funny and the reader, like the boy, are full of expectation – anything might happen! Unfortunately, all too soon, it grinds down into days and days…I was a flagged and beaten pantaloon by the end.

    My one plea to Santa: Please bring me a story world where no mention of druggies or drug culture exists. Not for moral reasons, but aesthetic. Both in real life and on the page they are the most seethingly uninteresting characters alive (or dead). It’s a personal thing, but whenever they bob up, I leave. Unhappy people might be unhappy in their own way, but not druggies – they’re the most predictable, regimentally cookie-cutter dead-enders around. Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.

    • Jack, about your second paragraph: it’s absolutely fine to have a preference for stories that don’t feature people with addictions but I think a context such as this is not an appropriate one for the expression of such deeply dismissive views about what is many people’s dismal reality.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Perhaps, Suzanne, not every dismal reality makes for good storytelling…

        • You misunderstand my comment, Sarah. I said preference with regard to story telling is not the issue, it’s the prejudicial commentary on real world issues in the context of a site dedicated to fiction that I find unacceptable.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Perhaps it was postjudicial…and it’s far from the first time that readers will have brought real-world reactions to the comments thread…

            Anyway–Merry Christmas…

          • This isn’t a reaction, it’s a direct reference to real people with real problems and as such it’s unacceptable in its discriminatory and prejudicial tone. But this isn’t the place to tackle such issues. If anyone wants to pursue a discussion on mental health and the impact of stigmatising commentary, I’m happy to do so elsewhere.

          • Jack Tilley

            I don’t mind being told my comments are wrong or rubbish or whatever, but the suggestion I learn to pre-emptively self-censor is not too flash! There’s an unthinking template artists too often use when it comes to portraying drug-addicts — one that only exacerbates a vicious-cycle subculture — and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have a crack at it. Perhaps my horrible predilection for polemical overkill is a bit OTT for a place like this, and I’ll bear that in mind.

          • Again, it’s not your comment on the story I object to, that’s always fair game, it’s your reference to a real group of people in the real world that concerns me. This is what you said, “Both in real life and on the page they are the most seethingly uninteresting characters alive (or dead). It’s a personal thing, but whenever they bob up, I leave. Unhappy people might be unhappy in their own way, but not druggies – they’re the most predictable, regimentally cookie-cutter dead-enders around. Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.”

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The upbeat beginning was great. However, once Angelica went flying from the crosswalk, it felt like Christmas with Scrooge would have been more fun.