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“Who was the craziest woman you ever dated?”
“Who was the craziest woman you ever dated?”
That’s how it started. That’s what inspired Nate to tell our group of frustrated writers what is probably the creepiest Christmas story I’ve ever heard—and that was how the discussion had begun, with each of us trying to come up with ideas for something to write about for the Christmas season.
The air in Rob’s apartment that night was thick with everyone’s mutual disdain. Ben, Carrie, and Luke were taking turns scowling over a flame as it bowed down to a generously packed bowl they were passing around amongst themselves, each of their choked-back exhalations contributing to the insalubrious stickiness of the air. We were divided into equal groups, one stoned, the other drunk, and the drunk ones kept casting barely disguised looks of disgust at the stoned ones, who each in turn affected a pose bespeaking more supercilious boredom than any stoned person has any cause to feel. Sipping from a glass of whiskey myself, I almost wished we had some yayo. At least then we might have some real drama to inspire us.
Everyone likes meeting at Rob’s because he has a nice fireplace, and no matter how modern or postmodern a writer tries to be he can’t help being nostalgic for an age when the novel was actually novel, longing for the nineteenth century and all the accoutrements of society’s higher orders. Even the two women in our little group thought of themselves as rightful heirs to scotch-swirling, cigar-smoking aristocrats, milling about in the dancing orange light of the hearth in some preposterously outsize manor.
We’d started talking about Christmas stories because it was late November. (I may have been the one who steered the discussion toward seasonally appropriate stories, but I would’ve done it subtly, since my role in the publications for Encounters, Inc. is something only a few of my closest friends know about.) We’d discussed Dickens of course. Then we’d taken turns taking our principled stances against the commercial dreck of the sort you find on racks in grocery store aisles.
Beneath the surface of all this casual self-assurance, though, I knew there to be a shared sense of disillusionment and failure. Six years after forming our group we were all still eagerly awaiting the moment when even one of us managed to make the tiniest ripple in the publishing world—the actual publishing world. This meeting was our first in over four months. For the first four years we’d met every two weeks. Over the last two, our collective output had diminished precipitously. A couple of us haven’t submitted a single piece of writing to the rest of the group in over a year. (My own efforts have been directed elsewhere, as many of you well know.)
Gathered around that fireplace in Rob’s hazy and stiflingly overheated apartment, we all looked at each other and saw living, breathing emblems of our own failure, never for a moment suspecting our unvoiced creeping disdain was more for ourselves than anyone else. You felt it when Kristen barked out a laugh in the middle of Luke’s ranting about the “vacuity of the visionless visual media culture.” You saw it in the way Rob turned away during Mike’s peroration on the injustice of this or that middling writer going without some much deserved recognition, like he didn’t want anyone to catch him rolling his eyes. Lately, you heard it in the silence, as though none of us would condescend to contribute anything more substantive than a mumbled witticism.
“Well,” Luke said, “if we’ve established anything, it’s that nearly all the Christmas stories out there suck ass.”
Just then, the similarity of the scene to the opening of James’s Turn of the Screw occurred to me. I was about to suggest perhaps narrowing our focus to Christmas ghost stories—again Dickens lent plenty of legitimacy to the genre—when Justin, who till then had barely spoken that night, made a provocative suggestion of his own.
“Let’s try coming at it from a different angle,” he said. “Let’s try asking ourselves a completely unrelated question and see if it sparks any new associations that might be worth pursuing. Every year at Christmas, I find myself thinking about this crazy girl I dated like ten years ago. She was obsessed with Christmas, wanted to go to every event in the city, watch all the classic movies, had the music on constantly. I mean, it was annoying. It was beyond annoying—it was freaky. I started thinking maybe something traumatic had happened to her, so now she was latching onto the season because it brought her back to a time before things had gone so wrong. I don’t know. I never really found out either way. Anyway, I could start to write a story based on that. So here’s what we should do. Stop trying to think of a Christmas story for now, and instead answer this: Who was the craziest woman you ever dated? Or for you two, who was the craziest man?”
“What makes you think I haven’t dated crazy women too?” Kristen snipped.
“Whatever. You get the idea.”
The two glared at each other for a long moment, making me wonder if something had transpired between them that the rest of us weren’t privy to. Before I could remark on it though, Nate broke in with a sudden booming laugh. “Ha! I’ve got a fucking Christmas story,” he said. “It’s so obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. It’s totally Christmas. And it’s one of the most fucked up stories you’ll ever hear.”
All five of us were looking at him now. At first, he was smiling broadly, the eureka smile of the suddenly unblocked writer. Then his smile faded and he looked as though he’d arrived at a troubling, even painful conclusion in some untraveled corner of his thoughts. “God, I don’t know, though. I don’t know if I should tell that story.” He began shaking his head slowly.
Carrie groaned dramatically. “Something interesting seemed about to happen for once in these boring ass meetings, and now you’re not going to let us hear about it. I don’t even know why I come anymore.”
It was the most openly disdainful any of us had been, though we all felt the same way. Before anyone could respond to it, though, Justin approached Nate, put a hand on his shoulder, and said in a solemn tone, “If you feel like telling this story would be revealing too much, then that’s exactly the story you need to tell.”
Now there’s some writer’s logic, I thought. I bet there are some people who’ve had writers in their lives who would bristle at this particular maxim. Nate looked around the room. His expression was now one of unmistakable panic. Then he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and turned back toward the fire. When he began speaking, his voice was low, scarcely more than a whisper.
“Everyone in West Central knows the Santa playing the organ,” he said. “It’s in this little balcony over the front door of the house catty-corner to the Sheridan Court apartment building. All you see when you pass by is Santa’s back, kind of swaying side-to-side. If you’re on foot you can hear there’s actually music playing.”
We all knew the Santa he was talking about.
“Honestly,” I said, “that thing creeps me out. I go for walks around the neighborhood all the time, and I always get a chill down my spine when I pass it. The organ music reminds me of a circus. There’s just something bizarre about it. And the fact that Santa is sitting facing away from you so you can’t see his face—I can’t help imagining he’s actually got some psycho grin on his face, like some demon-clown. I mean, I think it’s great. But I seriously doubt that’s the effect the people who live there were going for.”
“Well,” Nate said, “the people there now aren’t even the ones who originally started putting it up every year. If you remember, it wasn’t there last year.” We all looked at each other and nodded, each of us having taken scant notice of the organist Santa’s absence and then promptly let it slip our minds. “That’s because the new people had just moved in, and they had to be talked into continuing the tradition.”
“Wait,” I said. “So you dated a woman who lived there? I only ever saw an older guy coming and going from that place.”
“That was Carl’s dad. Carl bought the place from him a few years earlier. I think his dad was still helping him with some kind of renovations for a long time, so he was there a lot. I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen the inside of the place.”
Nate went silent. His reluctance to speak, his halting progression—it was unbearably tantalizing for all of us.
“So who was the girl?” I finally asked. Nate’s demeanor as he nibbled around the edges of his story had me wondering already if what he was about to tell us could be of use to me professionally (in my capacity as story scout for Ashley).
“The girl was Erica,” he said. “I met her through my friend at school, Bethany. She told me I had to meet this girl who was really pretty and really smart, but who was also stuck with this horrendous boyfriend. A guy who was really possessive and overbearing, not violent or anything, but—what’s the word? Controlling. He was really controlling. In a passive-aggressive kind of way. Later, I found out the guy she was talking about was Carl. They were living together in the big red-brick house with the Santa playing the organ.”
I was anxious to get more details, but I managed to restrain myself from barraging him with questions. The way Nate had become elated when Justin’s prompt succeeded in helping him think of an idea, only to sink into the somber, neurotically contemplative state he was in now—it had me reviewing all my encounters with him over the past year. Originally, he’d been one of our most active members. I wouldn’t say he was the most talented of our group, but he was a solid amateur who could usually be counted on for a passably competent story. Over the past year, though, he’d only submitted one piece that I could think of, an overstrained prose poem about how trapped he felt in his hometown. Still, I don’t think I was alone in failing to note any change he’d undergone. Hadn’t the whole damn group lost its enthusiasm?
When at last Nate snapped out of his reverie, his eyes darted, first at me and then onto the others. “Seriously guys,” he said, “I can’t tell this story. Carl’s dad—I shouldn’t have even brought up any of their names. Carl’s dad has a lot of money and he knows a lot of people who…” He trailed off again.
“Who what?” I asked. “You mean like politicians?”
“Something like that. There’s a reason none of it was in the news. If I say anything…” He groaned, shaking his head again. Then he laughed nervously before falling silent once more as he stared into the fire, which by now was mostly embers, barely casting any light.
I began forming a plan to meet with him in private so I could give him all the assurances he’d need to share the story. After all, I know some people too. But apparently the urge to unburden himself was busy overpowering whatever trepidation he felt. Without any further coaxing, Nate told us the story.
“Erica told me that when she and Carl had first started dating she was really big into Christmas. So when he invited her to move in with him, she was stoked. She was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m going to be living in the house with the Santa playing his organ.’ I guess Carl’s parents always went all out decorating and all too—obviously. But Erica said Carl himself really wasn’t that into it until he found out she was. Then he took it to an extreme, like he was so eager to please her that it actually got a little disturbing.
“That was the theme for their whole relationship. He was overly solicitous, intrusive—you know, meddlesome. But he acted like it was all for her sake. He interrogated her whenever she left the house. He always tried to find out what she was reading so he could read it too. It was the same with movies and music and everything else. He tried to do everything for her, like she was his delicate little flower. I guess he even spoke to her like a toddler half the time. When I first heard about all this, I thought it was just the kind of stuff you say about an ex when you’re breaking up, figuring it had to be exaggeration. But Bethany told me if anything it was worse than what I was hearing from Erica.
“That was the story I got, that Erica had broken up with Carl—or that she was ‘going through a breakup.’ I had all the reservations any of you would have about moving in on a woman so soon after her last relationship. I mean, she was obviously still living in the house with the poor idiot. But there was something about Erica that I felt really drawn to, a quietness that made me think there were much greater depths to her. I don’t know. Plus Bethany kept insisting we were perfect for each other and that things were completely over between her and her ex.
“I’m embarrassed to say it went on pretty much just like that for about three months. Looking back, I can see that the whole notion that she was breaking up was nothing but a convenient cover. No, we were cheating, plain and simple. Only neither of us wanted to believe it. So one night I get a text from her. I remember it was right after Thanksgiving. Erica had just gotten back to town after going to visit her parents in Grand Rapids. But she said Carl was still in South Bend with his family. Since he wouldn’t be back until late the next night, she wanted to get outside. ‘I want to go for a really long walk through the neighborhood,’ she said. ‘And maybe we can go downtown too. I just want to be outside in the cold and look at all the Christmas decorations.’
“Well, that’s what we did. We bundled up and walked around West Central, over on Main Street as far as the big Santa and his reindeer, down to the giant wreath. We walked for hours, talking about our best and worst Christmas memories from when we were kids, and about what we would want Christmas to be like for our own kids someday. As we were walking back, I felt this thrill—it was like a ball of tension in my stomach. I thought for sure we were passing some milestone in our relationship. I was even starting to wonder if I should ask her to move in with me, even though until then I’d hated the idea of her moving out of Carl’s house directly into my apartment. Anyway, I felt like something had changed between us.
“We walked down Berry Street holding hands, both of us with these stupid grins on our faces like we were a couple of kids who’d just raided the cookie jar. When we got to the front of their house, Erica did this ta-dah, saying, ‘And now we come to West Central’s famous Santa Claus playing his organ.’ For me, that was the first time the thing creeped me out. I don’t know if it was just the significance it had taken on—the only thing I could think about when I looked at it was how Carl had decided he was all about Christmas just because Erica was. Or maybe it was my conscience. I knew I was about to take her away from him, and however weird he sounded to me it wasn’t like I could fucking rejoice in causing anyone so much heartbreak. Maybe it was the cold. Whatever it was, I shuddered as I stood there. But then Erica pulled me to her for a kiss.
“It was one of those times when you’re with a woman and everything feels so perfect you just have to do something. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to ask her to move in with me. Hell, I wished I could pick her up and carry her away from that place back to my house. We kissed for a long time, and I was thinking the whole time that as soon as she pulled away I would do it, whatever it was. But then I heard something.
“We’d been making out with quite a bit of abandon, you know, right in the middle of the damn sidewalk. So you can imagine how any sound would startle you in that situation. We pulled away from each other a bit, but we just stood there with our eyes still locked on each other. I think I probably still had a grin on my face. Not Erica though. Erica looked terrified. The sound was like this gravely, staccato rumbling at first. Then it started to sound like someone was mumbling. We both turned toward the house. When I realized that the sound was someone laughing—laughing like he was trying to scare us—that’s when it dawned on me why she looked so terrified. But when we looked at the front of the house there was no one there.
“Now I’m a grown man and I’ve never been big on all that Halloween, haunted-house type of shit. But in all of my adult life I’ve never felt the kind of—I don’t even know what to call it. It wasn’t fear, not like the kind you feel when you almost get into an accident in your car, or when you think you’re about to get jumped coming out of a bar. It was a completely different kind of fear, like you’re in the presence of something that’s just not right. Shivers shot all through my body in like a second or two. My limbs felt shaky and weightless. I wasn’t charged up, you know. I didn’t even want to run. All I could do was stand there, every inch of my skin tingling.
“So now I’m looking up at the damn Santa, and the fucker is turning around with this big fucked up smile on his face, still doing his evil laugh. I swear the psycho must’ve rehearsed it. Then Erica mutters to me, ‘You should go.’ So I’m standing there thinking, I’m not going to leave you here with this freak. Before I say anything, though, Carl starts clapping, with his big Santa gloves, making this damn popping sound that echoes off of Sheridan Court. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle,’ he shouts like he wants to be heard all over the neighborhood. ‘True love—how amazing. How beautiful.’ Now he’s sitting on the bench, clenching his hands together in front of his heart like this, still with the big smile, titling his head to the side. Then he turns off the smile and glares at us. He says, ‘You two have been awfully naughty this year.’ I’ve got to hand it to the nutjob—he definitely went all out.
“Next thing he does is throw his leg over the side of the balcony and start climbing down. Erica must’ve sensed that now I actually was getting ready for a fight because she grabbed me by my coat and said, ‘Please trust me. Let me take care of this. Please, the best thing you can do right now is go.’ Of course I was all, ‘Like hell I’m leaving you with him!’ But she was adamant. She kept pushing me away. I looked over and saw Carl struggling to climb down. He must’ve had a rope or something on the side of the balcony. And he didn’t look like he was in very good shape. I half expected him to fall and break his neck. The whole time Erica was pushing me, saying, ‘I’ll be fine. He won’t hurt me. Please, you being here just makes it worse.’
“Finally, I start walking away really slow, looking back the whole time to see what he would do. But she went over to him and as soon as he had both feet on the ground they disappeared through the front door. So what the fuck do you do? I thought about going back and listening at a window or something. I thought about calling the cops. Hell, the guy obviously belonged in a padded cell somewhere. Eventually, I went back and stood in front of the house, listening for shouts or crashing noises or anything. After a while, though, all I could do was go home.
“After that, I kept blowing up her phone, but she wouldn’t respond. I’ll never forget that stretch of time. It was torture having no idea what was going on like that. I called Bethany but she hadn’t heard anything either. It wasn’t for like two weeks until she was finally able to tell me that she’d talked to Erica and she seemed fine. Apparently she said I was blowing everything out of proportion and that what really happened wasn’t that big of a deal. I was shocked. I mean, how many ways are there to interpret seeing a guy dress up like fucking Santa Claus to catch you making out with his girlfriend? I kept pestering her, though, trying to convince her to see me, even though it was obvious whatever plan I had to take things to the next stage with her were moot now.
“What I didn’t know when I finally did see Erica was that Bethany had been putting a lot of pressure on her too. This was about three weeks after Carl’s… whatever. We were supposed to have lunch together. I’d been insisting—pretty much demanding that we needed to talk. But it ended up going down in the alley downtown behind Dash-In. I don’t think she wanted to go inside because she was afraid someone might see us and report back to Carl. Right away she told me she wanted some time to figure out what she needed to do. I couldn’t help myself, you know. Those two weeks I’d been going out of my mind with confusion and worry. ‘What you need to do?’ I said. ‘What you need to do is get as far away from that psychopath as you can.’ ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘but what I definitely don’t need is another fucking man telling me what I need to do.’
Nate stood silently jabbing with the poker at the embers in the fireplace for a long time before going on. “I went off on her,” he said at last. “I wasn’t in my right mind, you know. And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t believe she was staying with him. Unless of course he was threatening her, holding her hostage basically. She insisted he wasn’t. I accused her of defending him, said she must have battered wife syndrome or something. I’m cringing just thinking about that day. I said a lot of really nasty shit. And to think—on the way to Dash-In I had still been planning to tell her I loved her. But I guess she was right. I must’ve sounded almost just like that nutcase. What I remember most is that when it was over and I turned to walk back to my car, I said, ‘Have fun being a fucking doormat for the rest of your life.’
He went silent again, though it was clear the story wasn’t over yet. As I thumbed the phone in my pocket to pause the recording, I thought about how many of the stories I’d been collecting over the past few years featured moments like the one Nate had just told us about. Looking around the room, I wondered if the real problem for our whole group is that fiction—pure fiction—simply holds no interest to anyone anymore. Who cares about a guy getting visits from three ghosts if the whole thing is nothing but make-believe? That’s why we’d all been reviewing memories of our actual lives, trying to find some real-life incident that would make for a good story. People want their narratives to be authentic, at least in some sense true. Or, if not, they’d better have wizards and dragons in them.
The problem is that true stories always involve other people, and everyone disagrees about which version is the most valid. You can’t blame them, I thought. As much as Nate is beating himself up over how he acted and what he said, he’s still telling a story about a woman who’s a doormat, isn’t he? Not many of us possess the self-assurance to sit idly by as someone else puts forth a story that stars us but that we have no control over. You change the names (and in this case expunge all of the physical descriptions), but reputations are so sensitive, and people get so paranoid, the obfuscation as often as not only leads to more suspicion and indignation. People hate hearing the sound of their own voice in a recording because they have no control over how they sound in real time. They hate hearing someone else tell a story they feel is theirs and theirs alone to tell even more. To write good stories that people are actually interested in anymore, you have to be as much a thief as a storyteller.
“It was Christmas Eve,” Nate began again, “when I heard from Bethany. She said Erica and Carl had gotten into a huge fight—apparently over her insufficient enthusiasm for his excessive efforts to make her Christmas unforgettable. I never got the details about what all he did. I can only imagine it was something totally batshit. But here’s the thing—Erica had told Bethany that she was finally ready to leave him. I guess the argument had really escalated. Bethany said she’d never heard Erica sound like that before. This was basically good news, but I was worried about her. I thought the best thing to do was wait a while. With any luck, Erica would get in touch with me and we could go from there. According to Bethany, though, Erica actually wanted me to come see her. She’d said she needed to talk to me. So I texted her. And she responded right away, asking when I could make it over to her house.
“When I walked up to that fucking house on the sidewalk, I saw that she was already outside waiting for me. And Bethany was right—she looked different somehow. Just the way she was standing. I don’t know how to describe it. All I know is that my heart sank as I walked up to her because my intuition told me I wasn’t about to hear any profession of love. If anything, I was about to get told off. But as I approached, she turned and smiled at me and reached out for my hands. I was so relieved I almost felt like crying. I remember she kissed me and I wrapped her up in this big hug, lifting her off the sidewalk. It was one of those experiences that’s like an eternity in the span of a few moments. I had the thought again that I should hold onto her and just walk carrying her like that all the way back to my apartment.
“I asked her where Carl was, and as soon as his name passed my lips I involuntarily shot a glance over at that fucking Santa Claus. She said, ‘I can honestly say I won’t ever have to deal with any of that man’s shit ever again.’ I drew back a little, still holding onto her. Something about the way she was looking at me, or something I’d seen—I didn’t know what it was—started to give me that feeling again, like my heart stopped beating and my blood went cold. Her eyes were locked on mine, and they had this sparkle to them. I would have thought it was like this loving gaze, but there was something off about the way she was smiling at me. I let go of her and stepped away. It was that same horrible feeling, like my limbs were hanging weightless and my skin was on the verge of breaking into a cold sweat. I took another step backwards, and then another, and the whole time she just kept looking at me, with that damn smile fixed in place.
“I think I muttered her name. ‘Erica?’ And, still smiling, she was like, ‘Do you like the modifications I’ve made to the Christmas decorations this year?’ It’s like everything after that point was only a dream. Everything went perfectly silent, except my heart. It started beating again. But I couldn’t hear it so much as just feel it. I turned and looked at the Santa Claus again. Before I knew what I was doing, I had run up to the front of the house to try and get a better look at its face. I stood there staring at it—until something fucking ricocheted of its head. It was a rock or a log or—I don’t know. I never found out. When it hit him, I actually fucking screamed. Erica had thrown whatever it was and hit him right in the head, knocking him over sideways so he slumped over the rail, his vacant eyes staring right at me.
“I had my hand over my mouth and I felt myself backing away slowly, as if I didn’t want her to see me moving. But I kept staring at him—at those fucking dead eyes—even as she marched up to the front door. When she pulled the latch and opened the door, that’s when I finally looked down at her. She stopped before going inside, turned toward me, and said, ‘You can tell Bethany how grateful I am to you both. I really doubt I’d have ever been able to overcome my problem with being a fucking doormat without you two. Merry Christmas asshole. Now get the fuck out of my yard.’”
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