The outside of the Jablonski house, a small ranch-style domicile, was lit with Christmas cheer. Glowing plastic Santa’s and snowmen lined the yard, lights hung from every tree, and a small manger scene stood next to the street. The Christmas shrine was only punctuated by the small wooden garden gnomes casually placed throughout the yard, a leftover reminder of the non-seasonal yard decorations the Jablonski’s also delighted in.

It was early in the morning and the house was still dark, except for the glowing cherubic faces of Christmas cheer that peppered the yard. No windows were lit. No one was awake.

And, then, one by one, the lights came on.

 

Charles Jablonski sat up in his bed, yawning to himself. He ended the buzzing alarm that had awakened him, just as his wife, Doris, stirred from her rest.

They smiled a polite smile to each other and carefully rose from the bed, stretching and prancing as their bare feet touched the cold floor for the first time of the morning.

Doris enveloped herself in a thick robe and, tying the belt, headed for the kitchen to begin cooking breakfast.

Charles strutted into their adjoining bathroom to take a nice hot shower and begin another morning.

 

The children, too, had awoken and were busily getting up and heading to their bathroom to shower and brush their teeth. Little Chuck would usually sleep in while his year-younger sister, Grace, dominated the bathroom, but on this morning he sat back on his bed, looking over his school books before breakfast time.

 

By the time Charles, Little Chuck, and Grace were prepared and had all converged on the dining area of the kitchen, Doris had finished the preparation of the hearty breakfast of sausage, eggs and toast. They all sat down at the modest marbled blue Formica-and-aluminum table in their padded aluminum chairs on the cream-colored linoleum of their modest middle-class kitchen.

Charles smiled at the glowing angelic faces of his little boy, in his overalls and baseball cap, and his little girl, wearing her pink dress with a large pink bow in her hair. They all shoveled a bite or two into their mouths in silence before Charles thought to make fatherly conversation.

“So, kids, how…” is all Charles managed before the sound of a table saw starting up outside the back door, leading out of the kitchen onto the back porch, cut him off.

It was Pete.

 

Uncle Pete was Charles’ older brother. They hadn’t had much to do with each other growing up. Charles’ few remembrances of him weren’t particularly fond. Pete was 8 years Charles’ senior and, growing up, there had been much more interaction between them and their other brothers than between each other.

Uncle Pete had come to live with Charles and his family very recently. Personally, Charles had very much wanted not to allow Pete into his home when Pete had called, needing a living space, likely on the lam or skipping out on rent. Charles knew the type of person Pete had always been, but Doris, being too kind of heart for her own good sometimes, persuaded him to give Pete a chance. She believed it would be wrong not to give Pete an opportunity to show that he had changed his ways.

And, now, he was busily interrupting their breakfast by sawing a block of wood apart in the backyard, only 10 feet from where they were dining.

Pete, having had quite a hand at woodshop in high school, it being the only class he ever bothered to show up for, had always retained the hobby of making wooden garden gnomes, some of which stood guard over the front lawn’s Christmas decorations. But the hobby had limited itself in his adulthood to the times when Pete was not sleeping and sober. And those occasions where the two coincided were few and far between.

So Charles found it very strange indeed that Pete should be up so early and apparently sober on a weekday, seemingly for no better reason than to make garden gnomes.

 

Charles stepped through the back door, the sawing becoming a deafening roar. Pete stood over the saw, carving the corners off of a small block of wood, rounding it as much as was possible with the shrieking deadly device. As usual, Pete used no safety precautions and wore no protective goggles. As it was, chips of wood cascaded down, bouncing off of Pete’s rugged, sagging, stubbly face and balding head, the occasional chip or shard catching in the thinning hair that was a shaggy brown ring around most of his skull.

The torrent of wood was spraying so fiercely in all directions that Charles was forced to reach up and brush sawdust and wood chips off of his face and out of his short, blonde flattop.

“Hey, Pete…” he attempted to yell over the din.

Suddenly, the saw ceased its scream and Pete held up the rounded remains of the wood block, looking satisfied with his work.

“Um… Pete, you’ve started a little early this morning, haven’t you?”

Pete continued to consider his work for a few more moments, scratching at the stubbly five-o’clock shadow that perpetually hung around his jaw and at his bushy moustache, causing wood dust to spill down from his face like dandruff. Charles was about to speak again, thinking that maybe the saw had finally driven his brother into deafness, when Pete finally replied.

“Hmm… Well, it helps me think. And I needed a little thinkin’ this morning, right? You get me, don’t you, Chuckie?”

Charles hated that. He had always hated that.

“And I figured that I’d get to a few sales this morning… Do a little Christmas shopping…”

Charles found the idea of Pete waking up early to “shop” absurd, unless the shopping was for bourbon or bets at the dog track.

“In fact, I been up an hour or two already…”

Charles was unaffected by what was either very strange behavior or complete lies. “Sure. Could you just tone it down until we’re done eating?” Something in his voice implied that it wasn’t really a question.

Pete scratched his jaw with a large wood chisel. “I’m done with that, already. I’m just going to work on shaping this for a bit, then it’s off to the store.”

Charles turned to walk back inside. “Thanks,” he said without meaning it at all.

 

Charles had left for work at seven. The children had gone at the same time to catch the bus. It gave Doris a bit of time to herself to take a bath, get dressed, and relax, before the daily work of being a housewife began.

Doris had been sitting on the couch, watching morning television and thumbing through the new issue of Women’s Home Magazine, when Pete walked into the living room.

“Good morning, Pete,” Doris said with as little feeling as was possible.

Pete didn’t seem to notice. “How’re you this morning, Doris? Keeping busy, I see.”

She didn’t really feel the need to respond to him, but she didn’t want to be blatantly impolite for no reason. It’s not as if he had done anything yet that day. “I’m fine. Just looking at a few recipes.”

“Well, I hope I get to sample some of that good cooking of yours sometime soon…” Pete chimed in.

Doris didn’t really know what to think. Pete rarely ate with the family anymore. He was more often than not at some bar, already drunk, or otherwise sleeping during dinnertime. He rarely attempted to eat with them and the closest he usually came was in foraging for leftovers in the refrigerator while dinner was going on.

“Well, I’m sure I’ll have something tonight… the same as usual, Pete.”

If Pete noticed any sarcasm in her comment, he didn’t show it. “I may have to take you up on that, dear…” he said, before roaming through the foyer and out the front door.

 

Since his arrival, Doris had not taken to Pete. Nor had Pete taken to working, being sociable, be considerate, or being sober.

Too many occasions had come and gone where Pete had caused problems that the family had felt required to bail him out of monetarily. He stayed drunk, a state that Doris would not abide. He was a thief, he was a liar, and he was a cheat. He compulsively gambled away any cent he could find. He never kept a job for more than a week, if at all. He would drunkenly bring home the worst sort of floozies and trash to his “bedroom”, a small wood and sheetrock addition that had been quickly pasted onto the rear of their home, but didn’t resemble anything so much as a tool shed or a storage closet, with a small door opening out onto the back patio area where Pete kept his workbench.

She detested his “room” and refused to clean in there, a fact that didn’t affect Pete in the least. How it didn’t bother him, she couldn’t imagine. It was wretched with the smell of stale cigarette smoke, the floor was littered with butts and ash was casually flicked across most surfaces. The only amenities the room offered were a small, worn-out chair in the corner facing a tiny television, sitting on a small aluminum rolling stand and a tiny, badly-constructed twin bed.

Pete’s contributions to his furnishings were his bamboo bar where he kept various mainly-empty liquor bottles and his matching Hawaiian hula-girl velvet painting.

Only a thin layer of industrial-use carpeting covered the floor. Everything reeked of the stench of smoke and alcohol.

It was horrible. It suited Pete perfectly.

 

“Yes, sir?” the girl behind the counter chirped, eager to please even after the long Christmas deluge of customers, a maniacal smile painted across her face.

“Um…” Uncle Pete breathed the stench of whisky into her face, causing her eyes to blink and water. “My nephew likes those dolls… Y’know, those figures? I can’t remember what they’re called…”

She sighed under her breath. “Can you be more specific, sir?”

“Baby, I’ll be anything you want me to be…”

Her smile withered slightly. “Do you remember anything about them?”

“I don’t know… They’re those action guys with the guns… I wasn’t really paying attention at the time. I was on my eighth Jack & Coke…”

“Well, maybe I can help you find them…”

 

“Hmm… They did kinda resemble that.” Pete scratched his chin. “Maybe it’s the ones down on that bottom shelf.”

Pete smiled and ogled as the girl bent over to retrieve a Bla-Storr, Master Of The Mighty figure. Her ass was under intense examination for those few moments until she stood upright. “Does this look like it?” she said impatiently.

“I’m not sure.” Pete looked around. “What about the ones on the top shelf?”

The girl sighed and stretched up to reach the Mike Johnson: Kung-Fu Attorney figure on the top shelf. Pete watched, delighted, as she couldn’t quite reach it. She continued to stretch and claw with her fingertips, while poking her ass out toward him. He licked his lips and moved in closer.

“I don’t think I can get it…” she managed before Pete grabbed onto her waist and lifted her up with a stifled grunting noise.

She was mildly taken aback, but reached to grab the action figure anyway. As her fingers slipped around the package, Pete’s hands began to slip up her body. She struggled in his grasp and fell back into his arms, the two of them tumbling to the ground.

Pete was quickly upright and helped her back to her feet. She was mildly flushed and looked very angry.

The girl shoved the figure into Pete’s gut. “This it?”

“I’m not sure…” He looked over her chest… Pete hated uniforms. They hid far too much for his liking. He found women in oxford shirts and button-ups and slacks horribly unattractive. Or, at least, it was unflattering for them.

Pete preferred the uniforms down at Honker’s, where the requisite dress was skintight bicycle shorts and low-cut tank tops. How could he even check out the jugs on this girl in a shirt like that?

He tried anyway.

His gaze shifted right, onto her nametag. “Um… Cindy, huh?”

The girl said nothing, still red and gripping the action figure tightly in her hand.

“So, Cindy… Don’t imagine you have a boyfriend, huh?”

Cindy’s eye began to twitch, slightly.

“You know, you’ve got a nice rack. A real good set o’ cans.”

Her mouth gaped slightly and the action figure was thrust forward and backward in tiny motions, as if her hand was begging Pete to just take the damned toy.

“I bet you’re pretty hot in the sack.”

Her eyes glazed over. All motion stopped, possibly on the molecular level.

“So… You wanna scrump or what?”

 

Pete rubbed the mildly burning red mark on his cheek as he tried to meet the intense, hateful gaze Cindy gave him as she rang up the action figures.

“$35.27,” she said bitterly.

He produced a credit card and she ran it through the credit card machine like she was trying to slit his throat.

He smiled sheepishly, looking almost apologetic. If she noticed or bought it, he couldn’t tell.

 

Pete sauntered into McAfee Jewelers, the blossom of redness on his cheek fading away as to be unnoticeable.

An older gentleman behind the counter in a respectable brown tweed suit and wearing a pair of wire-frame glasses looked up, eyes widening in dismay at the sight of Pete, hair unkempt, clothes sloppy, wearing his usual brown coat over a Hawaiian shirt and dirty khaki pants with his pair of brown, tasseled leather shoes. The man straightened his already perfectly-groomed, thinning white hair and walked towards Pete.

“Can I help you with something, sir?”

Pete gave a sly half-smile. “Sure enough, old man. Point me towards your stones… And I don’t mean your balls.”

The man’s mouth opened and closed like a fish’s several times before he turned and walked toward the diamond counter.

The gentleman proprietor crossed to the back of the counter, coming to a stop in the center. Now that the man was facing him again, Pete could see that the salesman’s face had become one large angry crease. The lines of the man’s face seemed to swallow every other feature.

“And what is sir looking for today?” the older man spat more so than asked.

Pete grinned. “I don’t know what sir’s looking for, but I’m here about something in diamonds. Something nice. Maybe a necklace or a bracelet…”

“Is this gift intended as… romantic?” The old man raised his eyebrow in anticipation.

“Oh… Hell no! I hope not. This is for my sister-in-law… Jesus, that’s a scary thought. Though I have considered…”

The man grimaced more than Pete thought possible for such an already-taut and tortured face. “Perhaps this emerald necklace would be to sir’s liking?”

Pete leaned over, considering the necklace, looked back up, mouth opening as if he were about to ask a question, before he decided against it and glanced back at the gem.

“No… This won’t work. How about that bracelet?”

The jeweler seemed to sputter. “Does sir realize that this particular item is of a cost of nearly eight hundred dollars?”

“Yeah… whatever,” Pete said, waving a credit card in front of the man’s face. Pete pursed his lips, licking them in thought, then squinted his eyes and raised one corner of his mouth. “I’m thinking that ain’t classy enough.”

Yet again, the mouth of the old salesman opened and closed.

“Ahh…” Pete breathed, the stench of cheap Scotch blowing over the counter. “That necklace…”

 

Pete sidled up onto a barstool at Hogan’s, the cheapest, dirtiest joint seen in Oberwalz since Prohibition ended.

“Hogie… two bourbon’s, straight up to the rim.”

The bartender took the order with what one could only politely call annoyance.

“You dirty fucker. I told you not to come back in here until you had my money… You’ve already drank forty-eight dollars worth of my liquor that I want to get paid for before you see one drop more…”

Pete grinned and showed off the yellowed, chipped teeth in his mouth. “Hogie, Hogie, Hogie… Ye of little faith.”

Pete dug into his pocket and produced a wad of twenty-dollar bills.

“What the hell?”

Mike “Hogie” Hogan, a middle-aged fat man with a habit for smoking bad cigars, nearly had a heart attack.

“Cash advance,” Pete said as he downed the first glass Hogie handed him in one gulp.

 

It wasn’t the bumping noise. Charles was used to that. It wasn’t the sound of women squealing like sows. That seemed to come with the territory. It was the fact that it sounding like Pete was having more fun that usual.

As Charles walked down the hallway from his bedroom to the kitchen, he could hear giggling and the bump that was indicative of Pete stumbling into things while drunk.

Charles exited through the kitchen door onto the back porch and knocked at the entrance to Pete’s room.

The door opened after a moment and Charles found himself face-to-face with Pete, clad only in a sheet wrapped around his midsection like a kilt.

Behind Pete, semi-collapsed onto the floor was a giggling middle-aged woman in a small black dress who was obviously soused. She looked around from behind Pete and waved hello.

Charles grumbled. “Pete… Could you keep it down? I have to work today.”

Pete nodded quick agreement. “Of course, Chuckie… Really sorry about that. We were about to… wrap some presents…”

Charles was considering Pete’s use of dirty euphemisms when he noticed the large bundle of bags and packages taking up a good quarter of Pete’s room and overflowing his single chair.

Charles turned and went back to bed before he could begin to question things.

For the rest of the night, giggling continued to emanate from Pete’s addition, followed by an occasional thud.

 

The morning of Christmas Eve came quietly.

Pete stumbled out of the bed, stepped on an empty John Dooley Brown Label Whiskey bottle, and tumbled headfirst onto a small plastic motel ashtray, stolen from a Sleepy-Comfort Inn outside of Left Car during one of Pete’s more scandalous “liaisons”.

Brushing ash out of his hair and moustache, Pete crawled upright on his hands and knees to his chair. Unsteadily pushing himself upright, he veered toward the door.

Pete had woken up drunk again.

 

In the living room, the children were playing while Charles watched TV and thumbed through a magazine.

Doris was in the kitchen, stuffing the Christmas turkey, when Pete clumsily ambled though the door. Doris looked at him contemptuously before returning to her turkey.

Pete smiled and moved on, trying to walk in some semblance of sobriety, toward the bathroom.

Doris spooned another dollop of breading into the turkey’s orifice. She pressed the stuffing down into the hole, until the action became punctuated by the sound of retching from the direction of the children’s bathroom. She paused and thought to continue until the sound repeated itself.

Charles put the magazine down and looked up as the sound copious vomiting filled the house. With every retch and choke, Charles seemed to flinch, as if he could visualize only too well the almost-ritual emptying of Pete’s gullet into the toilet.

Doris closed her eyes and tried not to think about the sound.

She raised her spoon, but didn’t do anything.

There was one last gag and she decided the turkey had been stuffed enough, sliding it quickly into the mouth of the hot oven.

Pete strolled back through the kitchen, smiling to himself as he wiped the cuff of his dingy bathrobe across his mouth, and out the back door.

 

Dinner was served.

Doris sat the dishes out on the cramped table wherever she could find room. Normally, in the confines of the dining area of the kitchen, there was just enough space for everyone, but that excluded the possibility of Pete eating dinner with them. This was usually not a problem, as Pete’s level of sociability was somewhat more akin to bar-hopping than family dinners.

But tonight Pete sat at the table, bathed and sober, waiting to be served. He had even made a vague attempt at cleaning himself up, throwing on an old white-and-brown-print polyester shirt over his white undershirt and wore a matching pair of brown polyester slacks. For some reason he wore his brown jacket at the table. And he had slicked back the few dark strands of hair remaining on the top of his head, like flowers growing out of a sidewalk that had been carelessly trampled flat.

Despite having shaved, Pete still had a five o’ clock shadow.

“Looks good,” he muttered, smacking his lips hungrily.

He got no real response, other than nervous looks from the entire family. Even the children knew better than to trust their Uncle Pete’s appearance at the Christmas dinner table. Every eye watched him with an expectation of the worse.

Pete smiled to himself. “Yep… Looks real nice. Tasty lookin’ turkey.” All the eyes stared coldly. “Don’t look too dry at all. Nice and moist, just like I like it.”

Doris’ stare broke. She nodded slightly and looked down at her plate and started to serve herself.

“So…” Pete’s eyes surveyed the table. “How are you kids doing in school? You’re in first grade now, right, Gracie?”

Grace’s stare never wavered. “I’m in fourth grade.” Her voice was as flat as a sidewalk.

“Wow… And how about you, Little Chuckie?”

“I’m in sixth grade now. I don’t like school… and I don’t like being called ‘Chuckie’.”

“You know, I didn’t care much for school myself, there, Chuckles. Never did really get through it. I got through tenth grade, but those last two years were all coasting… I was hardly even there…”

Charles finished serving himself and shook his head silently.

“If I got any advice for you, Chuckie,” Pete continued, “it’s that you should coast as much as possible. Life’s too short, I say…”

Charles broke into a coughing fit, eyes bulging out of his head, his face reddening exponentially by the second.

He desperately took sips from his glass of water while Doris patted him on the back.

“Ooh… You okay there, Chuckie?” Pete cooed.

Charles raised his hand and nearly collapsed across the table in spasms of choking.

 

A mouthful of juicy turkey was slurped into Pete’s throat. For a man who usually subsisted solely off of liquor, he was a ravenous eater.

The rest of family sat in silent awe as the man stuffed another buttered roll into his head and swallowed it nearly whole.

The children had finished their small portions first and had fidgeted nervously in their seats ever since. Next, Charles finished up his portion, not having nearly the appetite he possessed before his choking fit. Last, Doris completed her meal, hungry from the day spent cooking and preparing for the family’s Christmas celebration.

But Pete was still eating. The children had been taught to politely sit at the table until everyone was done and Charles and Doris just stayed to watch the spectacle of this man who could seemingly consume everything placed before him.

What would essentially have been enough leftovers to feed the whole family for a day or two was presently residing in Pete’s stomach or was quickly being put there.

After much more munching and chewing, Pete sat back and, with an unbearably loud belch, patted his stomach.

“Good eats, Doris. You sure know how to cook… Now I see why Charles married you.”

Doris took this pseudo-compliment with as much dignity as she could manage and nodded in recognition of Pete’s praise.

“Eats like this make a man want a smoke and a crap…” And with those parting words, Pete excused himself from the table, commandeering a magazine from the counter, and headed toward the children’s bathroom.

Slowly, everyone began to leave the table, cleaning up their plates and taking everything to the sink to be washed, making as little eye contact as possible.

 

Charles laid down in the bed, straightening the comforter around him.

The day had gone well enough, considering Pete’s presence. Aside from the occasional rude comment, Pete had been as tolerable as Charles could remember.

Pete had started to get mildly out of hand when they had served the glasses of Christmas eggnog before bed and Pete had slipped the contents of a flask into his glass. But he had gotten neither rowdy nor drunk, so Charles couldn’t really complain.

 

Pete laid back in his dirty bed, took a swig of Ronnie Jumper Scotch out of the bottle. The food had been nicely filling and it had been ages since he had a real meal… Probably not since he was boning that housewife who had cooked him the occasional dinner. Of course, her husband had proven a problem in their relationship, but, as he always liked to remember, he had gotten his.

With a few more pulls off of the bottle, Pete set it aside and drifted off into a deep slumber.

 

The outside of the Jablonski house, a small ranch-style domicile, was lit with Christmas cheer. Glowing plastic Santa’s and snowmen lined the yard, lights hung from every tree, and a small manger scene stood next to the street. The Christmas shrine was only punctuated by the small wooden garden gnomes casually placed throughout the yard, a leftover reminder of the non-seasonal yard decorations the Jablonski’s also delighted in.

It was early in the morning and the house was still dark, except for the glowing cherubic faces of Christmas cheer that peppered the yard. No windows were lit. No one was awake. Absolutely everything was quiet.

And, then, one by one, the lights came on.

 

The children squealed with delight as they rushed into the living room, where toys surrounded the tree, displayed as Santa had left them during the night. They slid across the thick shag on their knees, desperate to make contact with the precious new gifts that Santa Claus had left for them.

Little Chuck hefted his tin robot that walked and shot sparks from its mouth above his head and made zooming noises as he waved it back and forth with glee.

Grace was already in the midst of brushing Little Mary Does-A-Lot’s golden locks, purring motherly words to the doll under her breath as Chuck ran by, simulating a dogfight between a plastic jet and his tin, sparking automaton.

Charles and Doris smiled to themselves and held each other, basking in the parental joy of seeing their children happy.

Pete strolled into the room after a few more minutes and seated himself on the couch. All the action in the room seemed to die down momentarily and the children put down their toys in confusion.

“Um… Children, let’s settle and down and get ready to open some presents from the family,” Charles mustered.

Pete smiled to himself happily as the parents and children took places around him and settled in for the traditional gift-giving.

 

The presents were divided up and handed out to their appropriate recipient. Small piles grew in front of every person. Every person except Pete.

The children had substantial amounts of presents, their parents had a fraction fewer, and Pete… Last of all the presents beneath the tree, Pete was handed a small square box, wrapped in green, shining metallic paper, with a red bow. His one gift.

The children anxiously began, but Charles put his foot down quickly. “Now, children, we know better than that… Everyone takes a turn. One each… Now, Grace, you go first.”

Little Chuck pouted slightly as his sister tore at the wrappings containing a gift, at least until his turn came.

And so it went, as each opened their presents…

 

As Doris finished off her last present, she turned to Pete. He had abstained from every round of gift opening, retaining his one present.

“Go ahead… You got so many to open,” he had said as he let the next round begin.

But now his gift was all that was left.

“Looks like it’s down to you, Pete,” Charles said impatiently as the children eyed their new toys and dutifully ignored all their new clothes.

“What?” Pete seemed almost confused. “Well, I could have sworn there were some more…”

Charles was about to reply, but Pete had already sprang from his seat and crossed to the corner, where he pulled two large sacks that had been wedged between the end table and the wall.

“We can’t forget these,” Pete smiled, passing out gifts to each of them in turn. The piles that grew in front of them rivaled those that had already been opened.

Charles watched his children’s eyes grow wide at the sight of so many gifts. He reminded himself that those bags couldn’t have been there the night before. He hadn’t seen them as he was setting up the children’s toys… Pete would have had to have brought them out this morning.

“Go ahead,” Pete said. There was a brief silence before Grace tentatively began picking at the first package’s wrapping. Every eye watched in expectation of the worst.

 

Another wrapping came off and another toy was placed in the growing pile of action figures, dress-up sets, dolls, cars, miniature toy horses, and god-only-knows what else was piled between the children.

In silent awe, Doris thumbed through one of the new cookbooks Pete had provided her, while nearby Charles examined the beautiful but expensive deluxe toolset that Pete had given him to replace the cheap hammer he had destroyed while trying to open a jar of olives while drunk.

It was unreal. Charles’ mind fought vainly to explain how Pete could have afforded to give all these gifts to his family… if they could really be considered such.

Charles tore into the wrapping of the next one and stopped himself part way. “It’s… It’s a…”

“It’s a belt sander,” Pete finished. “I figured we could do a duet… We can be a match pair in the mornings now, between that and the table saw.”

Pete “haw-haw-haw”ed to himself and Charles smiled blankly in shock as a reply.

“You’re a man,” Pete said. “Every man needs a belt sander…”

 

Pete stood on the front porch, cigar clenched in his fat lips, looking out across the front lawn. The door opened behind him and Charles joined him, holding two steaming cups of coffee. They admired the light snowfall for several seconds in silence before Charles offered a mug to Pete. Pete took it with a nod of thanks and admired the snow for a while longer before taking a sip. His face twitched and wrinkled in surprise and mild disgust. “I forgot how this stuff tasted straight… I always mix my own.” He smiled and, for once, Charles joined him.

“You know, Pete…” Charles had to brace himself before continuing. “What you’ve done for the family, for the kids, this Christmas… It’s been great. It’s been too much.”

“Charles, after all you’ve done for me, letting me live here, putting up with me, making sure I don’t end up in the gutter… You’ve really done so much, I had to do something to make it up to you. I wanted to show you I’m not a total bum. Maybe I don’t know you like you do, but I do think about you guys… And I was worried you were sick of me, that you didn’t want me around. I was getting to feel like you were gonna kick me out.”

“No, Pete. We… Well, we’re very happy with this Christmas. We’ve had a very good time.”

“Well, Merry Christmas to you, Charles.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Pete.”

 

The next several weeks were quiet. The carousing, whoring, drinking, profanity, and general loud, lewd, obnoxious rudeness were kept to a minimum. It was almost like not having Pete around at all. At least not like the old Pete, the Pete that they had all come to know so well.

But things were happy, much happier than before, and Pete was finally almost like a real member of the family instead of an outsider, a loner in their midst.

 

That is, until Charles and Doris’ $6715 credit card bill arrived.

 

They wanted to kick him out. They wanted to kill him. But he owed them too much to let him go. If they kicked him out, he would disappear forever. He would forever drift away into a nicotine-stained, alcohol-induced haze. And $7000 was too much to pay to get rid of Pete.

So they were stuck with him, stuck with them until he could pay them back. They were stuck with him until he could hold down a job, until he could get off the drink, until he could stay out of the bar, until he could stay away from the track, until he could get rid of the whores, until he could lose his vices, until he could make money, until he could pay back all of his debts.

They were stuck with him forever.