Xmas in the Lions’ Den
In the second year of the good girlfriend, we spent Xmas with her family. It was a horrible Xmas; her step-father, the doctor, had many children and many grandchildren and they all hated him because his mother had died when he was young so he had the bitterness of a man who grew up without sweetness — so in the face of adversity in the lives of his children he would judge them harshly and cast them out. He was a rich man who kept assembling a family again and again and the next family would fail him and he would judge them, and so on.
The girlfriend I had at that time was good, very good, and so was her sister. So these women had never been cast out by the doctor and their own mother who had died a long time ago had been a peacemaker among the wives and the children and the grandchildren and she had helped the doctor with his heart towards all of them but now this mother was dead.
Still all the children and the grandchildren would return to the old doctor’s house for Xmas because this was the house they had known, and now the old doctor had a new wife. And she would probably get all the money when the old doctor died but the habit had been established in the time of the loving wife, the good girlfriend’s mother, that everyone would come on the holidays to the home of the old doctor, but now it was not a loving home and the holiday was really not such a great one. The doctor’s house was large and outside were many trees, but the house was not cared for. There were small animals dying in the walls, and you could smell their death and the trees crashing around the house and the heart of the old doctor was very bad and everyone watched and waited for his house to crumble and his heart to stop and his things to be distributed among the children and the children’s children though each in their heart suspected the new wife would get everything and so everyone sat around the holiday table that groaned with turkey and cranberry sauce and beans and they would think, Those candlesticks are mine and, This is my chair and, That painting on the wall is mine, but everyone thought these things in silence and the tone of the room was sad. The good girlfriend’s mother was buried outside.
My own name is Daniel, I am a poet, I came to the house of the old doctor that Xmas because I was then part of the heart of the good girlfriend so it was important I take this journey with her. She wanted to see the old doctor, and her sister would also come and their mother’s mother would journey there and at the house all these women would go to the mother’s grave and we did. The mother was buried behind a bush under a tree.
It was illegal of course in Long Island to put human remains in the ground of your own land, but the old doctor had a lot of land and had lived there for a very long time and no one would question anything he would do.
So it was sad, the spot where the good wife was buried, the weirdness and the wrongness of burying a woman’s remains on private property, like a dog’s. But the doctor’s power was very great, and everyone drank deeply of red wine at dinner that Xmas day, and I, Daniel, do not drink wine or any other spirits. Nor did the good girlfriend drink. But her mother’s mother was herself a good woman and yet she did drink a lot of the wine and her son was a man named Nick. He also drank a lot.
And this Nick, who was the good girlfriend’s uncle, was strange and had lived in the house since the dead woman had married the doctor many years ago, in the childhoods of the girls, during the reign of Jimmy Carter.
Nick had done something bad in the land that President Carter had come from — the South. As a young man Nick had committed a crime in his land and he came North and joined his sister and the two good daughters and their step-father. Nick was a chef. So he cooked for them all in the house and he took care of all the animals. There were horses and dogs and hens.
No one knew what his crime had been but he lived in this way, a man in hiding; the legend was that when Nick was young even before his crime he had loved a woman but his mother and his sister got in the way of the love, they stopped him from becoming full and complete, this was the story.
So perhaps he was a man who had never grown up, was partial, was spoiled even before he committed the crime which he did in the South and now he lived in the doctor’s house and would sometimes speak for the doctor on the phone when the good girlfriend would call.
Think of how anger spreads in a man when he is not grown whole and he leaves his home and is in exile, it makes of him a thief. Now because Nick spoke for the doctor when the good girlfriend called the house — to the point where she sometimes would not recognize his voice, she would go: Is that you, Nick? You-Nick, that became his name and he was the prince of the servants of the house.
You-Nick was the good girlfriend’s friend when she was quite young because she lived in the child’s side of the house which was separated by a great door from the loving mother who sadly lived on the other side of the house with the doctor once she became married to him.
You-Nick lived on the girl’s side, the children as well as the food and the animals of the house all being in his charge and he would ask the girls about their feelings and act in loving ways towards them, particularly towards the good girlfriend who was the older of the two. And You-Nick began to go into her room in the night. Once he had become drunken he would go to her room on the dark side of the house and many many ticklish things would be done.
This being of course the same house we now spent the holidays in and the tone of the house was bad and I did not drink of their wine. And my girlfriend’s family did not accept me as a man. Daniel is not wealthy, they think, and yet he is content to write his poems and travel with the women on holidays. For these reasons the old doctor’s family cannot accept Daniel. And yet I could not be cast out because still I was the girlfriend’s guest. And I did not drink of the wine.
But the mother’s mother drank it and You-Nick always drank of the wine and the doctor drank like a man of wealth and power and so did his new wife. Like people who perhaps do not know each other in their hearts, not minding it, they talked mostly about the things they owned and were making larger and also of what they were reading in the paper.
This new wife had already made one change in the house. She had men come and make a pink bathroom for herself in the doctor’s house which was similar to the bathroom in her own house she had lived in before she married the doctor. For this reason she became known as the pink wife.
All this was in the second year of the good girlfriend. The great tree shook outside the window, it would fall on the house, the doctor’s heart was bad, and these people that year were reading in the paper about Woody Allen. He had gone to high school with the pink wife. And so she intermingled her own greatness with his. And when Woody Allen took his lover’s daughter to lay with him, the doctor and his wife laughed and drank the wine and everyone seemed to think it was okay (“Good for him!”), and they displayed a clipping of Woody Allen and the girl on the refrigerator and the good girlfriend felt deeply sick since the same story had occurred here — I, Daniel, speaking of the many many ticklish things in the dark of the house and so I tried to comfort her yet I also sat in the bathroom and trembled and prayed to the God I knew and the great tree was dying outside.
Accordingly all the presents that were exchanged that first Xmas felt like the great many things slipped in with the coffins of the dead. The doctor himself was soon covered in scarves and gloves and a very fine blue sweater was given him by the good girlfriend and her sister.
I did not see these events truly, for still I sat in the bathroom shaking. Daniel, Daniel, my girlfriend called so that I would come and join them.
I asked the God I knew for the courage to be there and a great peace suffused my insides and I was emboldened to leave the bathroom and go sit down and watch the living corpse of the old doctor smile and laugh and open gifts and I saw the many leaves of secret feeling of the family covering him: the books and the scarves and flattery and tickets to recitals of great music in New York. This last one was given to him by the pink wife, who would just go and hear the cymbals and horns with someone else if the old doctor suddenly keeled over and died. All the gifts were intended to come back to the giver when the old doctor died so I felt fortified in my conviction to not give gifts in this house.
And I sat there on the old dark hairy rugs with the good girlfriend who did now have a present for me which she had some men deliver to the house.
I opened the long and enormous box which turned out to hold a telescope. Which was good because a poet does like to look at the stars.
Isn’t that nice, drawled You-Nick, then walked outside to have a smoke, and the new wife whispered something to the old doctor.
Sam, the doctor called to one of his many grandchildren. Help Daniel get his wonderful telescope up. Sam was one of those geeky guys — he had the telescope up in about a minute. The great telescope now pointed outside. So tell us what you see, Daniel, demanded the new wife. I asked God for some courage and I stepped up to the eyepiece.
I see a great tree, I said, and everyone laughed. It’s not doing so well, I said, wiping my lips, for my mouth was dry.
Tell us something we don’t already know, pushed the pink wife. Sam, will you take a look? And he leapt to the charge, shoving me aside. The geeky Sam made a great production of focusing and adjusting the metal beast. He turned to the family and shrugged. I see birdshit all over your cars.
The Canadian Geese have had their say, pronounced the doctor. Thank you, my dears, that was lovely. Now how about some more wine, and some pie, he called into the kitchen, to anyone. And the house was filled with servants, and everyone was his.
Incredibly, in the third year of the good girlfriend, she wanted to return to Long Island . She wanted to go to Long Island because certainly the old doctor would die this year — she knew it, and her sister knew it and the wives and the many grandchildren all knew and saw the same thing: The great tree might fall. And her sister had moved to California since the last year and she also wanted to go to the doctor’s house. It might be the last year my sister and I can spend Xmas together in the house of the old doctor, my girlfriend said, and if you are truly in my heart you must also come to Long Island with us.
I watched teevee the night before Xmas. There was a nature show on the glowing tube. I watched a lion devouring its prey. A beautiful golden lion with reddish hair. In its jaws was some little brown bear, later a screaming hyena. I, Daniel, was sprawled on my red couch transfixed by this spectacle of something living — a breathing pulsing creature — being devoured. What is it to be in the jaws of a lion, how must it it feel to be eaten!
In some ways I knew. All day I had been buying gifts. Though I had insisted for weeks and months I would not to go to Long Island again — because last Xmas had made the good girlfriend so miserable — the doctor and the new pink wife were crazy, they ignored the good girlfriend, and You-Nick was creepy and covetous towards her. The good girlfriend understood all this, she agreed. But still she had to go, and her sister was going and because this was “a relationship” I had to go too.
I got in my car and I drove to the East, slowly crawling among a great many cars on the L.I.E., still thinking about that lion and I got there on Xmas Eve.
The doctor’s oldest and first daughter lived in the North and she had three sons. All of these were men grown and this daughter herself shared her bed now with some alcoholic wretch named Frank, who’d had an affair this year and the oldest daughter left him. And then her mother, the old doctor’s first wife, a great ancient woman with wild hair who herself had wealth (and owned a great many dogs which she trained), this woman sent her first and oldest daughter on a boat trip so that the daughter would forget her pain. That daughter was now looking at distant water and warm sun and meanwhile this woman owned a dog. A big blonde golden named Lundy. An old dog of about twelve years who was spending that Xmas at the doctor’s house since its owner was away.
My girlfriend had arrived at the doctor’s house with our own dogs the night before. The three dogs met and intermingled. Yet something was amiss.
On Xmas Eve the youngest pup couldn’t sleep. He kept looking out the window at the moonlit night, pacing the room, jumping on the bed, jumping off. He was driving the older one crazy. And Lundy, the oldest and largest animal of the three, the one owned by the doctor’s first daughter, was roaming freely around the house. Sometimes sleeping outside our door. I could hear his mammoth breath. We took the dogs on a walk the next morning, which was Xmas Day. All three had blazing red velvet bows around their necks. You-Nick, the animal-keeper, had done this. Rosie was pissed. And this was my dog and Rosie was of nine years then. And yet she had seemed at least two scores and ten the day she was born. Rosie’s eyes were not the same as God’s, yet they were always so sad and forlorn because Rosie knew we were all compelled to do the completely wrong thing and she had to watch. So she accordingly scowled around the perimeter of the field in a red velvet bow and Hoover the puppy then began doing something interesting, which was warning I, Daniel, something bad was about to happen. Hoover was part shepherd part chow and in keeping with this nature he began herding me away from the dog Lundy.
Hoover ! laughed the good girlfriend, for as many times as I would try to chat Lundy up, this orange puppy Hoover would cut me off at the pass. I think he’s jealous, the good girlfriend teased. Hoover thinks you’re hi s, she said, squeezing my arm.
Then the girlfriend and I went for a run. On that same Xmas morning. The paved hills gleamed black in the daylight of the neighborhood in which she grew up. There’s where I went with Mariah Carey, sang my girlfriend, and we ran past an old red high school. The warm black hills challenged us, were hard on our legs and we began to fight:
Daniel why don’t you control Rosie more? — because the dog kept running into the yards of the neighbors, and, Why are you so unhappy about spending time with my family? and, Daniel you think so much about yourself — And I, Daniel, would turn to her with my swirling gray poet eyes, and she said: See, you are not even listening to me now —
I said nothing, seeing the white columns of the doctor’s house peeking from the bottom of the hill. And in my heart I began to feel dread, about all of it, and I felt I should not have come.
After our run on Xmas day, I went downstairs to get some clothes out of the car. My girlfriend was upstairs lowering her strong white body into the tub, a nice steaming bath. I held some shiny pants on hangers, a suitjacket, a soft expensive shirt and a small wool hat from Agnes B with a pom pom. It was a gift from my girlfriend. And I had given her a cd player to listen to while she ran.
Lundy was strolling around the circular driveway surrounding the house. Trees were dying in every direction. You-Nick stood with his schoolteacher girlfriend tugging shopping bags full of brightly wrapped gifts out of the car. Lundy was decorated in a red velvet bow. I, Daniel, closed the car door with clothes hanging off me. Click .
Lundy shouldn’t be in the driveway, complained the new wife. She was in a pink quilted coat, policing the grounds as I turned towards the house, one foot already on the concrete front stairs. Lundy doesn’t know the neighborhood, the pink wife continued.
This crazy big dumb dog from Maine, so casually strolling out into the road across from the high school — Mariah Carey’s high school. In front of the whole world, this famous plac e, Lundy, poor Lundy, will get killed. You-Nick was being summoned into action. He would help. You-Nick of the animals. You-Nick of the House.
What would You-Nick get when the doctor died? he would absolutely get some .
Lundy, I called. For they did not think I was a man. I was certainly more of a man than You-Nick. And I could do his job. Lundy, hey Lundy. I grabbed the dog’s worn leather collar. In a moment I was on all fours in the snow. I kneeled helplessly, and dark red blood gushed from my wrist as Lundy’s huge fangs plunged deeper and deeper into me.
The trees crowded in. Green, green, smothering.
I slurred, “Oh baby,” words slurped out of my mouth: nonsense words, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. My wrist was a fog-horn. I radiated: numb, numb, pulsating waves, waves of something tiny riding far from some timeless spot in the distance on the other side of pain. Over it and past. Like all of time was a recording of this pain, a wavy bacon of me. Give me drugs. Oh, wine.
It was fine and reedy, a raditating feeling. Oh baby .
Lundy struck again, teeth sunk into the fat underside of my left forearm. I collapsed, threw my whole body on the dog’s body and the new wife did this too. Whip, whip, whip. The trees began springing back. The pink wife saved me. Strangely, she did it, she totally saved me. I got up and staggered away from the animal. My blood in the snow. I was sobbing.
The good girlfriend was upstairs puking in the toilet. Because of her mother’s death, she could not tolerate physical distress. Meanwhile my girlfriend’s younger sister wiped my face and held my hands and found my gloves and held on to them. The old doctor half blind came stumbling out. The trees crowded in. It’s not so bad, my dear, just clean it up.
He looked into my eyes, gleaming.
Oh yeah I know your step-dad, the emergency room doctor told my girlfriend as he was sewing me up on Xmas day.
The woman in triage had followed me with her eyes as the two good daughters lead me into to the lobby and up to her window. I held my arms out before me with huge bloody bandages taped to my wrists.
So what’s up, Daniel, she said. She was talking really tough. She slid me a chart. I can’t write, I told her. I had gauze piled three inches high on each of my wrists. I’m a holiday suicide. I’m a gift, right?
My wrists hurt today. As I write. Each word pulls these veins and ligaments, a caravan of pulsing thought — these words appear before you, like my heart.
Under the white lights of the operating room the doctor explained, We don’t want to stitch this too tight because dogs’ teeth are very dirty — it’s almost impossible to avoid an infection with this deep a bite.
A few hours later I was back at the house. In my running clothes, my arm in a dark blue sling, and the dumb pom pom sitting on my head. Later we washed it and it shrunk and my girlfriend’s sister had a baby and we gave it to him. Maybe it’s quietly sitting in his drawer. In California .
The pink wife continued to show concern. Before dinner she invited me to join her in the den. The chairs were thick leather and dark. I loved the chairs and so did my girlfriend. It was a pediatrician’s office. He had a good practice. A way with kids. That’s how he got the good wife.
The walls of his office were dark and old.
So what do you do, she asked. I told her I write and her eyes looked deeper, waiting for the truth. She was looking all around the room. The pink wife was kind. Do you work, she asked. I teach workshops, sometimes. Oh, she said, seeing me now. You teach. And she breathed again. I teach . We just want to know that you’re going to be okay, and she patted me on the shoulder and walked out. I liked her. And I think she liked me.
I was sitting on the bed with the good girls after everyone had gone to bed. We were having some tea.
Do you think she was wondering if you were going to sue? My girlfriend’s sister asked.
God, do you think that’s why she was talking to me?
She looked at me, and she looked at her sister. Yeah, I do.