It ended, as these things do, with paramedics and ten pounds of stale hard candy.
Back in the early seventies, long before the good folks of Wyoming discovered the concept of cultural appropriation and that religions other than Christianity and Capitalism existed, we celebrated the onrushing holiday with an actual Christmas party in our ornament-bedecked elementary school classroom. Chained loops of green and red construction paper snaked around the tree, doorways and bulletin boards. Apple juice was guzzled and homemade, non-individually-wrapped baked goods were brought from home and devoured. Kids who brought popcorn balls were shunned and relegated to the bottom castes forevermore. Twenty-three ten year-olds, ripped to the gills on sugar and Elmer’s glue, shouted carols and produced blizzards of glitter as our teachers counted the seconds until the end of the day and the snort of holiday hooch in the teachers’ lounge that signaled the official start of Christmas break.
And this was not just any school Christmas party, no siree Bob. Holiday season 1972 would be ushered in by the fifth-graders of Southridge Elementary with a genuine Mexican Christmas Fiesta! This meant we all wore the cheap straw sombreros we had decorated earlier in the day (hence the glitter dusting the eyelashes of the newly beguiling girls and nestling deep in our lungs, sowing the seeds of romance, and, possibly, silicosis). We belted out Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad and the traditional La Cucaracha (because hey, what says Christmas better than a song about Pancho Villa’s weed-powered car?).
Our teacher, Miss Fernmeyer, always a sport, wore a serape. The grand finale (or “grand finally,” as I heard one classroom aide mutter to another) of this multicultural extravaganza would be the breaking-open of the Christmas piñata, a four-foot tall, green and red papier-mâché Santa, replete with sunglasses and pompom-topped sombrero.
I waded into this giddy melee with a pre-adolescent heart full of Christmas spirit and hope. Two glorious weeks filled with sledding, skating, presents and a visit to Grandma’s house awaited, and even more auspiciously, my parents’ resistance to my demands for the Daisy Safari Mark I Repeater seemed to be waning. Knowing glances were exchanged between them as they told me no, no BB-gun, absolutely not. Did they think I was an idiot? I spent my hours in a daze of anticipation.
Also, I was in love.
Maggie Collins, my best pal and neighbor from three houses over in the cul-de-sac, the tomboy with whom I had spent endless hours over the years doing homework, hunting fossils, playing kick the can and red rover on long summer evenings, or making snow forts after spring blizzards, had suddenly taken on a lustrous new sheen. She had wavy red hair and deep green eyes, pale skin festooned with vast constellations of freckles. That day she wore denim overalls over a festive Christmas sweater, which all seemed to fit her a little differently, somehow. I had no idea what was happening to her, or to me, but I was bewitched and decided to roll with it. From deep in my mother’s jewelry box I had stolen a bracelet I knew she never wore and would never miss. I wrapped the bracelet, much more carefully than I had the suction-cup dart pistol I had brought for Joey Padilla, my Secret Santa partner, and carefully hid it among the books and supplies in my classroom cubby.
My plan was to give Maggie the bracelet, along with some cookies my mom had baked, on the walk home after school, and to ask her to “go steady,” an activity suddenly sweeping the fifth grade like an epidemic. I had no idea what going steady entailed, I just knew I wanted to do it with Maggie. All party long I had been casting her glances filled with wonder and apprehension. She would catch me, scowl, and mouth, “What?” while checking for something amiss with her ensemble. I just shrugged and smiled dreamily.
It was in this state of mind that I heard my name being called. Piñata time. I was presently relieved of my sombrero, with its brim filled with ornaments and plastic holly. I was blindfolded, spun around several times, and handed a Louisville Slugger. What could possibly go wrong? I took a deep breath, settled into my well-practiced little league stance, and before anyone might intervene, stepped into the swing as I had been taught.
I connected, but the piñata had much less give than I had anticipated. And it sounded a bit like someone dropping a coconut on the sidewalk. For a second the room was filled with a terrible silence. Someone smart removed the bat from my hand. I struggled to untie the bandanna with which I had been blindfolded as around me all hell broke loose. A teacher shouted a word not appropriate for a school setting, while twenty-one students gasped as one. The twenty-second, of whose identity I was yet unaware, emitted a sort of strangled “eep.” This was bad.
I learned just how bad when I finally solved the knot and the bandana fell away, revealing Maggie Collins, love of my life, somehow still on her feet, hand clasped over the already visible knot rising above her right eye, face the color of a ripe persimmon, shaking, fighting back tears and skewering me with a look of unadulterated hatred. Going steady, apparently, would be out of the question.
I was walked past the forgotten and desultory piñata, with its cargo of Jolly Ranchers and party favors, to a nearby classroom, where I watched, distraught and worried, as Maggie, strapped to a gurney and headboard, was wheeled down the hall and out the front door. I walked to the window, watched the ambulance roll away slowly through the slush.
Maggie escaped with a mild concussion and a headache. I returned the bracelet to my mother’s jewelry box, gave Maggie some flowers instead. She forgave me, let me read her a few pages of the book we’d been assigned to finish over Christmas. As for the Daisy Safari Mark I Repeater, well, you’d have to be crazy to give a firearm to a kid who stole jewelry and clocked people in the melon with a baseball bat, right?
Not where the only thing more sacred than the baby Jesus on Christmas was giving a kid a gun. On Christmas morning I opened that long, narrow box in a state of giddy disbelief. The next day I handed the air rifle to Maggie so she could take a few shots at the target affixed to a haybale in my back yard. Before taking aim she stroked the stock and barrel of the little gun with a surprising tenderness. Big flakes fell softly all around. She hoisted the gun to her shoulder, pulled the trigger, shuddered softly as the pellet pierced the target dead center, her mouth a little O of pleasure and surprise.
Brent Terry is in lockdown in the forests of southern New England, where he recites poems and performs interpretive dances for tiny woodland creatures. His stories, essays, reviews and poems have appeared in dozens of journals, and he is the author of Four collections of poetry. The Body Electric, a novel, was published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press. Terry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry. He was the 2017 winner of the Connecticut Poetry Prize. He is an accomplished spoken word artist and has collaborated on work with visual artists, musicians and dancers. He teaches at Eastern Connecticut State University, but yearns to rescue a border collie and return to his ancestral homeland of the Rocky Mountain West. Image by Thomas Hawk (Flickr).