The Magical Christmas Test

By  |  December 19, 2012

Let me just start by saying that I love my father very much; he really is a very decent man. In my lifetime he has volunteered with orphans, taught Sunday school, coached little league teams to district and state championships with minimal cheating, and, despite repeated threats to this effect, never actually took off his belt and whipped another man with it. He was always threatening to, particularly over matters of honor, such as the price of head gasket repair or the best place to obtain a largemouth bass in situ. Quite often he did his menacing over the telephone, which was best because we lived deep in a Mississippi wood and gasoline was far too expensive, even then, to burn driving around the countryside beating people just because they deserved it. It was more fiscally responsible to work out his anger by beating his sons, who could be located on foot.

Like I said, he was a decent man.

But I am not here to mourn for my youth, nor to accuse my father of domestic violence. No, that will come later, possibly after Christmas. I am here to discuss another, more pressing, concern. The time has come, on the eve of that sacred holy day when the great hero of mankind took corporeal form to right the wrongs of human history, to right a lesser wrong, to let the healing begin, perhaps by creating a fresh wound. As a wise man once said, you cannot make an omelet without publicly humiliating your loved ones.

You see, my father has a condition.

There is no name for this condition, and I am sure our nation's richly endowed research foundations have more pressing infirmities to fund than this cryptic and nameless malady. One day, perhaps, there might be a Race For The Cure, or at the very least a well-organized car wash. But I dream.

What is this condition, you ask.

My father says things. Inappropriate things. To women.

I search my mind for an example, and lo! The mind reels at such rich troves of anecdote. Which precious bauble durst I choose? I feel like young Bilbo in Smaug's golden grotto of dwarfish delights! Ah! And there it is, a gem for our narrative study:

It was five months ago, following a family funeral. We had gathered at the ancestral farm to mourn the passing of our patriarch. The great and august man was buried in the sacred earth of a North Mississippi hill, and we were back at the house disabusing ourselves of woolen slacks and hateful neckwear and preparing to baptize our heads in buckets of wine and Kentucky Fried Chicken, whence came a knock at the door. It was a family friend, bearing one such bucket. My grieving father met her at the screendoor and transformed instantly into a garrulous, chipper troll, which is his reaction to all but the homeliest women. Because he likes them, and likes speaking to them about their many physical attributes in a way that is not quite vulgar but rather endlessly suggestive. Also, he is honest with them. Which is perhaps worst of all, as there are many things to be towards a woman, but honest is best left to the Lord.

Pop remembered this woman from many moons ago and dressed her down with questions of family, engaging her with the intensity of a French furrier scrutinizing a fresh mink pelt. I remained in the hallway at a safe distance, as is always best in hostage situations. And then it happened, his comment.

"I believe you've gained some weight," he said to the nice woman who brought us food. The remark, as sudden and surprising as a summer tornado, sucked the air from the house. "Seem like your legs is thicker."

I peeked through the doorway to get a look at the poor woman, who'd believed she had come here to assuage the bereaved with battered meats, only to discover that it would be her, and her ample hocks, who got battered.

Later, after the woman had left and likely piloted her car into a nearby ravine, Mom said: "Why would you say such a thing?"

"What?" Pop said. "I like big legs."

Poor mother. She has her own private demons but is a dutiful and longsuffering wife. Pop is no philanderer; he simply treats women like Russian nesting dolls that must be pried, and opened, and pried, and opened, until there is nothing left but a restraining order. It is unclear how he ever convinced my mother to marry him, although there has been speculation that the deal involved a number of soul records and a carton of Winston Lights.

"I like you," he must have said. "You got big arms like what can hold a baby good."

She must have really wanted those cigarettes.

I can remember witnessing his perverse flattery from an early age, at churches and Christmas pageants and our nation's many lovely Shoney's franchises.

"Can I take your order?" the server would say. Her name was always something like Tina or Rhonda or Shirley, and she was always missing one of the more important teeth, but Pop didn't seem to mind.

"Tina!" Pop would say.  "Tina-Tina-Bo-Beena!" 

"That's what they call me," Tina says, smirking into her pad of tickets.

His right eyebrow would lift ever so gently, as if tugged by some lecherous puppeteer.

"Oh, I bet they call you all kinda things," he says.

"What would you like to drank?" she says.

"I'll have a sweet tea!" he says. "Sweet, sweet tea! Sweet, sweet chariot!" He then starts to sing the gospel tune in the voice of a drunken revivalist preacher. "Do you swing low, Tina Bo-Beena?"

When Tina departs to fetch drinks, Mom stares over the precipice of her menu and looks at Pop like he's just ordered an appetizer of edible panties.

"You make me want to throw up," she says.

"Oh, hush," he says. "I'm just being friendly is all."

"She practically put her bosoms in your face," Mom says.

"I can't help it where a woman wants to put her bosoms," he says.

"Between your dentures and her missing teeth, you two would make a lovely couple."

"You hear this, boys?" Pop says, but we don't, because we are slowly sliding underneath the booth, in hopes that we can crawl under the breakfast buffet and live there until college.

When I was very young, Pop sometimes made me the messenger of his goodhearted misogyny, as he did one morning in first grade. My teacher was Mrs. Jones. It was widely known that all the dads believed her a fox, but this was because they only observed her from afar. Up close, she looked wild-eyed and tense, like Gertrude Stein during a Brazilian wax. Also, she was mean, brutal in her pedagogy. One morning, Pop took me to the dentist, and I was relieved for the brief, antemeridian respite from my teacher.

"Mrs. Jones thinks she's cute, don't she?" Pop asked in the car. I explained that I thought she was mean. "Well, you tell her if she's mean to you, tell her I'll take off my belt and give her a good whipping, hear."

Did he mean for me to tell her that, in exactly that way? Because that's what I did, in front of everyone.

"Your father said WHAT?" she said, her red eyeballs swelling like a pair of overfilled kickballs.

"He said he wants to spank you," I said. The sickening feeling of knowing I'd said something uncouth rose up through my shoes and shorts and up over my shoulders like liquid sin. Is this how Pop felt when he said things to buxom, toothless servers? I didn't think it was.

Moments like these, I think, are why God invented diarrhea, or some other reason to run screaming from a classroom.


"He was just being friendly", 7.5" x 7.5", acrylic on index, 2012, Katherine Sandoz

"A fool's mouth is his destruction," says the writer of Proverbs, "and his lips are the snare of his soul." Sometimes, a fool's mouth is his son's destruction, as I learned with my father at fall festivals and football fundraisers. There we'd be, Styrofoam plates piled high with charity poultry, me sitting with cheerleaders in streetclothes and hoping to charm my way into someone's heart, or at the very least, to learn the difference between bloomers and panties. Pop would amble up, grinning.

"How you fine ladies feeling?" he'd say. "With your hands?"

Everyone looked left and right and waited for someone else to yell rape.

"Oh, Coach Key, you're so funny," they would say, lying. "How are you?"

"Me? Shoot. If I was any better, I'd have to be two people."

The whole "two people" thing sounded vaguely sexual, or at least vaguely biological, suggesting that Pop was about to undergo cellular mitosis right there in the school cafeteria. Having one of Pop was enough; having two might require me to move to Cuba, where government quotas prevented having two of anything, and often one.

"Your daddy's so funny," the cheerleaders would say.

"We plan to have him murdered after the rainy season," I would say.

As a result of his rambunctiousness, I spent high school and college finding ways not to bring girls home.

"Who are you seeing now?" Mom would ask. "Why can't you bring her over for dinner?"

"She doesn't eat," I would say.

"Oh, is she on a diet?"

"She has no mouth," I would say.

I knew this evasion wouldn't work forever, though, as one cannot keep dating imaginary mouthless women without raising certain questions. Anyone I was going to marry would likely require a mouth and would need to reckon with my father. And then I met a girl with the prettiest mouth I had ever seen. I told her I liked her, and she didn't call the police, and I decided she must be wed before coming to her senses.

"We have to meet her," Mom said.

"Of course," I said, reluctantly.

I knew it would be risky. Pop had not been around such a striking young woman for many years, and here she'd be, in his immediate line of sight, with a bellybutton ring and everything. And yet, at dinner, he was behaved, tame, almost soporific, as though mother had tranquilized him with Benadryl and a claw hammer. All was well. We married. But by the time of our first Thanksgiving, when they visited our miniature newlywed apartment, the antihistamines had worn off. We sat in our little shoebox living room and watched a Christmas movie. My wife returned with a bowl of popcorn and sat down, and I noticed Pop looking at her with that old Puppeteer grin.

"You know," he said to my young wife, "I think your thighs may be getting bigger."

When he said it, I coughed, and a kernel of corn lodged itself in the vestibule of my nasal cavity, preparing to rappel from my nostrils and subdue the man with a flash grenade. My wife's eyelids appeared to have been removed, or perhaps burned off by the plasma rays emanating from her eyeball gelatin. I fully expected her to burst into tears and run from the room, but my wife was no crier. Instead, she looked at her new father-in-law in a way that indicated he might want to insert his head up a mule's ass. Mom, compelled to say something nice, defended my wife's thighs, which were, it should be noted, not large.

"I think she looks great!" Mom said.

"She does!" Pop said. "It's a compliment. I like big thighs."

"I'm right here," she said.

"Can we please stop saying thighs?" I said.

"Haunches is what I mean," Pop said.

"She's not a horse," I said.

My wife left the room.

"I'm sorry," I said later. "It's just – he played football before helmets."

"Do you think my thighs are big?" she said.

I found it best to say nothing and instead focus on removing the popcorn from my Eustachian tubes.

Over the next few holidays, Pop said all sorts of obliquely untoward things to my wife and others in our general area of holiday mirth. One Christmas, babies were the rage: Would we be having some, and when, and why not right now, while we're all here waiting? The implication was that my wife and I should lock ourselves in a hallway closet and not come out until there were at least three of us.

"Just whatever you do," Pop said, "I shonuff hope you don't breastfeed it."

The alarums rang at the appearance of the word breastfeed, and I quickly called in a Code Red. "Let's watch a bass fishing program!" I said. But my wife took the shiny bait.

"Nursing is the best thing you can do for a baby," she said.

"Please, no," I said.

A minor fracas broke out over the merits of synthetic versus natural fluids for the infant, and it became clear that my parents had read an article sometime in the early seventies explaining that breastfeeding was a primitive custom and that modern American mothers should instead nourish their young with Tang and Mr. Pibb.

"You people are crazy," my wife said.

"Aint nothing will ruin a lady's chest like giving a baby too much titty milk," Pop said.

Silent night, holy night.

I could see the disappointment in my wife's face at having married into a family where the word titty could be passed around at Christmas dinner as freely as a basket of warm crescent rolls. She looked at me.

"He can't help it," I said. "He grew up on a dairy, surrounded by animal teats."

"Teats is titties," Pop said.

"It's all nipples, really," I said.

"What kind of people talk like this at the dinner table?" my wife said, looking at me. I hoped it was a rhetorical question, because I was having my own problems—not at home, during holidays, but at work, where a sort of verbal dysentery had begun to manifest itself.

"Morning!" a colleague would say in the hallway.

My brain, desiring both to say morning and hello, simply combined the two.

"Horny!" I would say, as they ran for the fire escape.

In elevators, I would find myself trying to be congenial but just being disturbing.

"Have we met?" I'd say to some attractive new colleague.                                  

"Yes," she says. "I'm Katherine. We met last week. I never forget a face!"

"Oh, I forget faces all the time," I would say. "Actually, what I remember best are smells."

The elevator would lurch, slowly, giving us all plenty of time to smell one another.

Worst, though, were office kitchens, where I often stumbled upon nursing mothers heaving out their bosoms like sacks of English peas. It would be in these moments that I felt a natural kinship with my father. I would get so flustered, so desirous to fill the blank canvas of the moment with bright, colorful acrylics that I end up staring at the mother and saying something like, "I prefer skim!" or "He's so cute, the part of his face that I can see!" or "Why do people say suck like it's a bad thing?"


"A fool's mouth", 7.5" x 7.5", acrylic on index, 2012, Katherine Sandoz

I kept my condition hidden from my wife for several years, until Sunday school one morning, when the word afterbirth came out of my mouth.

"It's a disease," I explained. "It just came out."

"Afterbirth doesn't just come out."

"My brain picks its own words. I can't control it."

I can't even remember now why I said it. We had been discussing the Book of Ephesians, which contains almost no references to placental matter.

"Why do you do this?" she said.

What I want to say is: It's the guileless, childlike part of my brain that desires to speak. The other part, the one designed to stop suspect words at the security gate of my mouth and request identification, is easily fooled by words like afterbirth.

"Let me see your papers," the security guard says.

"I have them here somewhere," afterbirth says, searching his pockets, then finding an old coupon for a Dairy Queen blizzard. "Here it is!"  The security guard inspects it carefully, hands it back, waves afterbirth through.

Soon came other words and comments and remarks too delicate to mention, pouring forth from the wild cataract of my imprudent lips at dinner parties and staff meetings, on playgrounds and building tours.

What kinds of words, you ask.

Words like vulva.

Again, nothing you wouldn't find in a high school health class, but still. Because now everybody's thinking vulvavulvavulva.

"Stop," my wife now says, when it's about to happen.

Sometimes, I can. Sometimes, I cannot. Because see, I have a condition. Like my father before me. And we are sorry. We are. I am. And I am sure Pop would be, had he not lost his conscience many years ago in a hunting accident. And while this disease disturbs our wives and ensnares our souls, as Solomon suggests, it also binds us together. Some people inherit land and bullion and horses, but not me. No, I have inherited the ability to say hemorrhoid at a baby shower.

Sometimes, I enjoy it. Because when it happens, it can be a magical moment. Everything stops, the bustle of polite quotidian life halts, manners give way to quietude, heaven and hell open up before us, the membrane pierced, the veil rent, nothing audible but the sound of shame and regret. And that's what Christmas is all about. My parents will be here this week, for the holiday, and I am looking forward to what Pop might say. My wife has been losing weight and her jeans hang off her hips like old socks. Yesterday, she reached into a low cabinet, and I saw the crack of her bottom.

"You have to get that fixed before my father gets here," I said. "Maybe wear some pants with elastic."

Of course, we have three children now, and the presence of little girls has tamed Pop. He will watch cartoons with them, and they will entertain him with stories about unicorns marrying dinosaurs and living in castles made of candy. It will all be very clean and appropriate. He loves them very much, one can tell, and seems to have no desire to make uncouth remarks in their presence. And of course, they are happy and well-behaved children, which is likely a result of their frequent access to my wife's nourishing teats. They seem to be turning out fine, or at least better than me. Like the wise man said, I can't help it where a woman wants to put her bosoms.

As for me, I blame the Tang.

Harrison Scott Key is a contributing editor at Oxford American. His writing has been featured in The Best American Travel Writing, the New York Times, and Outside. His first memoir, The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and his second, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, was released on November 6. Watch the trailer for his new book here.