Planted in spring, firs squat roadside on Sound Avenue. When you drive past in June and see their Charlie-Brown silhouettes back-lit by a bruised twilight sky, you scoff, secure in summer. Your mom steers the decade-old Isuzu Trooper around the corner of Pier Avenue and your butt slides on the bench seat during the skateboard lean. Pink skin and freckles radiate warmth from a day at the Long Island Sound. You lick the back of your hand and taste salt.
A BMW flies by on Sound Avenue, carrying tourists to vineyards, New American restaurants, roadside farm stands, wine and cheese bistros and summerhouses. Waving as they pass, Douglas-firs sprout conical ornaments. Called pinecones on dry wreaths in winter, but seed or conifer cones in textbooks, they’re plated with scales like a grenade, and they hang heavy on branches that fork and split like cracked glass. When no one’s looking, they drop.
The morning after Thanksgiving, the Long Island Expressway is full of cars heading east (the bumper sticker yours reads: My Child is an Honor Student at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School). Your dad sings carols along Elvis and John Lennon and Joni Mitchell on the radio. Later, the westbound lanes are full of families that have run out of things to talk about (all are coming down from cocoa sugar-highs, one sister has dried snot under her nose, the other is squeezing and separating two fingertips tacky with sap). Trees are tied down to the roofs. Some seem divided in three, segmented by bungee cords into the rudimentary sections of a body: head, middle, legs. The head is frenetically trying to rise from the prostrate position; its top-most branches bounce with the rhythm of the road, like a ponytail during jump rope. Others are wrapped in white sheets that flap like frenzied wings. The trees look like swaddled infants, or the celery your mother wraps in paper towel and pats to dry (she covers her fingertip with towel and runs it through the ribbed valley, absorbing skinny, lingering streams).
November 30th, 4:30 PM
Your dad hoists the Christmas tree off the roof of the car and carries it on one shoulder. It drops needles like confetti. Your mother follows him with the dust buster, beginning the struggle to keep most of the needles attached to the tree rather than tracked through the house in the rubber creases of sneakers and the soft cracks between the pads of the Labrador’s black-sandpaper paws.
Your parents struggle to secure the cut stump in the stand. The ornaments smell of the attic. Your dad uses fishing line to tie the topmost bough to a white hook in the ceiling that used to hold a tendriled plant your mother killed. The tree leans now, but stays standing.
The tree falls on your mother while she tries to string the lights on.
Your father reties the tree with 20-pound test line. (You ask him what that means and he tells you it’s meant for catching bigger fish, like the ones he catches when he goes out on the boat in Montauk. He rolls his eyes when you ask him how it works on Christmas trees.)
Your sister drops a glowing golden ball and the delicate shell breaks on the carpet, embedding shards in the rug’s curls. She cries, adds to the dried snot on her upper lip.
What a baby, you think, and carefully hang the Star of David you made in art class with Popsicle sticks, blue paint and gold glitter. That year in Language Arts you read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil’s Arithmetic. You’d rather be Jewish now.
You lay under the tree and look up into its cathedral of needles, its vaulted branches slumping under the weight of a hip-swinging Elvis ornament, a tiny, crystal rocking horse engraved with the date of your parents’ wedding, a porcelain pair of shoes with your sister’s name scrawled in script across the sole, and a stippled piece of tinfoil scotch taped onto a coffee can lid that reads World’s Best Sister!
Your dad crawls underneath the tree with water in a plastic New York Yankees cup. A faceless, pinstriped player in mid-swing satiates the tree’s first thirst since being cut. He lost his cleats to the dishwasher.
Your sister lies on her back beside you until a needle falls in her eye. Your mother holds her lids apart and pinches out the green shrapnel with the tips of her index finger and thumb.
You are the first of your sisters off the school bus. You run up the slushy driveway, between the Trooper and Mazda pickup. The owl permanently perched in the tree in the decal on your dad’s truck’s back window follows you with yellow pupils. You grab the Yankee cup and give the tree a drink.
The Labrador tries to spread her favorite blanket near the tree when no one is home. She belly-crawls under the boughs, drags herself forward with her dog-elbows, crosses her front paws and rests her head under the unlit fir.
No one waters the tree.
A needle falls in your eye as you lie under the drying tree but you don’t tell your mom because you don’t want her to think you are a crybaby like your sister. You are old enough to stretch your lower lid down and poke around in the rising well of tears yourself.
You bring your paper plate, heavy with baked ziti and garlic bread, under the tree and lay on your stomach. Next to you, your cousin recites his Christmas list: Nintendo, pogs, a binder for his Pokemon cards, a wooden baseball bat, more Pokemon cards. The windows in the house are fogging with the heat of everyone’s breath. Your sister is writing her name in the condensation on the sliding glass door. When your Aunt goes outside to smoke a cigarette on the porch the cold breeze pierces the stillness, making the legs on your hair stick up through your black stockings. You wonder why she had to do that.
Church smells like pine, hair spray and old ladies. You swing your shiny shoes across the ceramic floor tiles and listen to the sandy scrape they make. The crucifix that hangs above you is warped and reflected in the shine of your right shoe. Jesus’ forehead looks bulbous. You mom puts her hand on your knee until it’s time to kneel. She cries when the congregation sings Silent Night and dams her tears with a neat, folded triangle of tissue before they escapes the lid and turn to black streaks on their cheeks.
Before you leave to catch the school bus, you eat two strawberry frosted Pop-tarts and watch the channel four news. You juggle the molten insides of the Pop-tart with your tongue, trying to suck air between your lips to cool the filling. Your tree is splashed with muddy slush from the school bus as it lies on the curb. Your hood is pulled up, eyes full of windy tears, nose the color of smoldering coals. There is no colder place on earth than the bus stop on a winter morning. You turn your back to the wind and the tree.