Walter B. Thompson: Death and Christmas, a short story
Southern Legitimacy Statement
I was born and raised in Nashville. My mother’s people come from Shelbyville, Tennessee, where the pencil factories are. My father was born in Columbia, Mississippi, just like Walter Payton. His mother, who we called Mama Tee, insisted that “damn” was a cuss word until her dying day. I still feel bad when people cuss in my fiction. But they do anyway. Can’t help themselves.
Death and Christmas
I can’t let you ruin your life for me, Yan had said in the email. I love you too much. A month since the lump, three weeks since the diagnosis. Yan had wasted no time in moving back to San Diego. She’d found a good doctor and sliced Jackie neatly out of her life like a bit of chicken fat.
To make matters worse, Jackie knew that something had died under her back deck. She’d smelled it all week. Now she stepped outside to have her morning smoke and the stench hit her even harder. Jackie had worked briefly at a pet store in her twenties, and the smell reminded her of the feculent sweetness of the old fish tanks that had been tossed out the back door but never cleaned. Last week had seen an ice storm then a quick thaw; whatever it was must have frozen to its bone marrow, lost and terrified.
She stubbed her cigarette under her Santa boot and spoke to the morning chill: “All right then, goddammit.”
The government was all shut down on Christmas, so Jackie traversed the street to her nephew Andrew’s front door. She struck her fist against the little window above the knocker twenty times. Finally Andrew opened the door in nothing but his boxers and gazed at Jackie with a stale, drooping expression. He’d been at the Christmas party too.
“What the hell,” he said, looking her up and down.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. “Something died under my house. I need your help.”
Andrew was almost thirty, a sad and withdrawn young man. When he’d been a teenager, Jackie had been bracing herself for his coming out, the inevitable auntly responsibility she would feel to guide him through his gayness. But, as it turned out, he liked girls. A whole parade of them had since broken his heart.
Her nephew rubbed his eyes and sighed. “What do you think it is?”
“It’s dead, that’s all I know. I’m too big to squeeze under there. I need your skinny ass.”
Andrew shook his head, looked at the ground. “I’m so hung over.”
“Come on. I don’t want to do this alone on Christmas,” she said. “Please.”
She waited in Andrew’s kitchen while he got changed. The countertops were disturbingly spotless. After almost thirty minutes he emerged with his entire body wrapped in clothing: a scarf over his mouth and nose, a red ski jacket, heavy gloves, a thick wool cap, and wading boots that went almost to his knees.
Jackie laughed. Andrew’s voice was muffled under the scarf. “Screw you, Santa Claus. I don’t want to touch the dead animal with any part of me.”
When they returned to Jackie’s house, Andrew tried to slide through the small opening in the latticework under the deck. It was immediately clear that he couldn’t fit through while wearing the heavy jacket.
“Just take it off,” she said, lighting up another cigarette.
He grunted and began ripping the latticework from the wood with his gloved hands. Several nails popped out and landed in the frosted leaves.
“Goddammit, I meant your jacket!” Jackie said.
“Too late,” Andrew said, and ripped free a large enough hole. He bent to his knees and began to crawl under. A soft wind blew Jackie’s smoky breath back into her face.
After three minutes, Andrew emerged dragging what appeared at first glance to be a lumpen black trashbag, dotted here and there with stuck wet leaves. Jackie stepped forward to get a closer look. At the back end of the mound, she made out a snout, a few sharp teeth, and a single vacant eyeball.
“It’s a coyote,” Andrew said, catching his breath.
“No,” she said. “It’s just a dog. Somebody’s dog.”
She picked up a stick and flicked a couple of leaves from the area around the dog’s neck. All she saw was stiff glossy hair.
“Maybe the collar came off,” Andrew said with a wave of his arm towards the deck.
Jackie took a drag. “Maybe,” she said.
“I sure as hell ain’t going back under there, Jackie.”
She nodded. “I’ll call someone tomorrow.”
“Well.” Andrew took a deep breath. “I need a shower and a hair of the dog.” He looked down at the carcass. “I mean, you know, a drink.”
“Me too,” Jackie said.
Jackie and her nephew spent their Christmas splitting a pizza, a fifth of Jameson and an eighth of weed. They watched five zombie movies in a row, tried their best to laugh at the outrageous violence like they always did. When Jackie saw that Andrew had fully passed out on the couch, she groaned up from her chair and stumbled home.
She’d left her phone in her kitchen all day, charging next to the microwave. Before she went to bed, she looked and saw that Yan had texted her Merry Christmas. Jackie started to text her back, but couldn’t bear the thought of it. Instead, she powered down her phone.
She stripped out of the Santa suit right there in the kitchen. Naked, she walked out to the trashcan, lifted the lid, and tossed the pile of red and white inside. On the way back to the back door, she stopped by the tarp-covered mound next to the deck. She shivered. The grass was wet and cold against the soles of her bare feet. The temperature was going down again. Soon, it would be cold enough for another ice storm. She bent down to lift up a corner of the grey-blue tarp. The dog was still there, frozen with death.