A Death in the Dining Room
It was years ago, four days before Christmas. Dad was making a fire and had been drunk since we finished the last bit of turkey on Thanksgiving. Janice, Dad’s new wife, seemed high on Ritalin. Maybe it was cocaine. She was running around the house, straightening the perfectly hung stockings, adjusting the garland on the tree, and opening and closing the oven door, basting and re-basting the ham. My brother, Richie was locked in the basement on the computer doing God knows what. I always assumed Internet chess, but it was probably porn. He was fourteen; he could be doing any number of things. I was in the family room flipping channels between football and the MTV top 100 videos of 2002.
Our family holiday party was that night, and we were at crunch time before all the relatives started to show up to drink Dad’s scotch, muss Janice’s stockings and ask over and over again, “Where’s Richie?” Since Dad married Janice two years ago after mom ran off with her secretary (a mirror image of cliché, I know and a bold step forward for fifth wave feminism), she felt it necessary to overcompensate by hosting a big family reunion around Christmas.
“Come on you guys,” she said to the three of us the first year, “family is the most important thing. It’s the only sure thing in life.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that. I mean, let’s not forget that Janice is my dad’s second wife after his first—my mother—left all of us. And we seemed to do just fine before these parties. I was raised seeing any percentage of the extended family maybe once a year and normally only if someone died. But Janice was gung-ho about bringing the entire Daniels family together at Christmastime.
Maybe it was because she had no family, at least no family that any of us knew about. At the wedding, her friend from college was the only guest on her side, and good of my debonair cousin, Ronnie, to have sex with her that night. Janice was twenty-four years old, which was twenty years younger than Dad, and only seven years older than me. She had to play the part of a homemaker if Richie or I were ever going to call her “Mom.” Well, I didn’t buy it and Richie… well, I don’t think he put one iota of thought into it.
“This goddamned fire won’t start!” Dad cursed, the butt of his corduroy pants facing me on the couch.
“Larry, that’s not very nice holiday language now, is it? Andrew, help your father,” Janice said from the kitchen as she finished re-folding all the dishtowels.
Dad turned to me, “She can kiss my goddamned ass is what she can do.” He threw the log into the fireplace, grabbed his drink and sat next to me. Janice came out and leaned down to Dad, whispered something in his ear, patted his leg and then went to the front hall closet to get the vacuum. Dad smiled and threw back the rest of his scotch and water. I could only imagine she said something about sex if he improved his behavior.
After a half hour or so of Janice vacuuming the front hall, Dad’s brother, Uncle Brian and his wife, Aunt Susie and their twins, Michael and Renee, came charging through the front door. Janice turned off the vacuum when she saw them.
“What. No one can answer a door around here? We were knocking for five minutes! It’s cold out there don’t cha know,” Uncle Brian said. “Merry Christmas Janice!” He gave her a big hug and a pat on the butt. “It looks great in here!” He held his overcoat out for someone to take it.
“The house Brian, or her ass?” Aunt Susie scorned.
“Oh, come on, Susie. Merry Christmas dear,” said Janice. “Andrew? Would you please take the coats up to Richie’s room and throw them on the bed?”
I gave the kids a high five, told them to find Richie in the basement—they were about the same age—hugged Uncle Brian and Aunt Susie, took their coats and ran upstairs. Brian was Dad’s older brother. He was a pretty happy guy, but kind of a slime ball. He’d been in sales all his life and no doubt hadn’t been loyal to Susie one day of their marriage. On their wedding night, he felt up her sister in the bathroom at the reception, or so the story went. As I came back downstairs, the door was a steady flow like the gates of hell letting its demons out. Everyone else showed up at once. Grandpa Joe and Nana; Dad and Uncle Brian’s younger sister; Sharon, and her husband Doug with their six hyperactive kids. I swear, Sharon must have had a kid then had sex as soon as the doctors left the room. And the six of them functioned as one big swarm of angry Africanized bees. They were fun to watch because they drove Janice nuts. Her OCD was no match for the power of the Sinister Six.
After sitting in the living room listening to Grandpa Joe bitch at Dad for not making a fire, and letting Uncle Brian pull eleven dollars worth of quarters from my ear, Uncle Doug suggested we eat. “The ham smells great,” he hinted.
“Where’s Richie?” Nana asked.
“I think he’s in the basement with Michael and Renee,” I said.
“Well, call them up, Sweetie. We’re going to eat now. Go on.”
“We can’t eat just yet. Simon isn’t here,” Janice told everyone as she blew out and relit the candle on the coffee table. “Ooo… these wicks never burn right.”
We sat around for another hour discussing the awkward social life Richie must have because, “He lives in that basement and is always on those computer games,” Nana said. The Sinister Six continued to run up and down the stairs, around the dining room table, jumping over our legs and screaming shrills of laughter and possibly code. They eventually knocked over the Christmas tree.
“Oh Janice! I’m so terribly sorry,” Sharon said.
“My tinsel!” Janice cried.
“Sometimes these kids can just be such a handful. I wish I could just give them away,” Aunt Sharon said.
Dad laughed as he made another drink at the wet bar. Janice, Aunt Sharon, Aunt Susie, and Grandpa Joe set the tree back up and started cleaning the rest of the mess.
Just then my cousin Simon burst through the door. “Simon!” Janice shouted. “Your shoes!” He was covered in something dark and thick and he had tracked it on the carpet.
Simon, who was about the same age as Janice, was Uncle Brian’s and Aunt Susie’s oldest. A raging drunk and all-around loser, he had dropped out of college after one semester and came to work for Dad at the sheet metal company. Dad loved Simon despite him either not showing up on jobs or passing out drunk when he did show up. Maybe Dad felt sorry for him. Maybe he liked the idea of tending to the wounded animal. Maybe he saw some latent potential. I don’t know. But I always figured Simon would eventually do something that would totally screw over the business and the family.
Nana and Sharon ran to him checking to see if he was okay. Uncle Brian went outside.
“So, what the hell happened to you?” Dad said.
Brian came back in, “Larry, you gotta see this.” Dad got up and the rest of us followed, except for Janice, she stayed inside spraying the carpet around Simon’s feet with stain remover. Outside, Simon’s Toyota Corolla was parked halfway on the sidewalk and the entire front end had been mashed in. The windshield was cracked and smeared with blood.
“Oh God!” Aunt Susie shouted.
“Simon, what the hell?” said Dad again.
Simon, sat on the curb and pointed to the middle of the street. “Oh, holy shit!” Uncle Brian said as he ran to the mangled lump of something in the street. We all followed, except Janice who was still inside cleaning the carpet. Then I heard the vacuum start up again.
A man wearing a Santa Claus suit lay in the road. His body was mangled. The blood pool was still growing under and around him. His arm was tucked underneath his back and his face looked like it had been smashed in with a waffle iron. Or a Toyota Corolla.
His blood was turning Janice’s white Egyptian cotton bed sheets a deep red-purple. The wetness was dripping onto the floor, into the carpet.
“Is he… did I kill Santa?” Simon said through drunken sobs.
Uncle Brian leaned over Santa to listen for a breath and check a pulse. He was just barely alive. He poked at him with the toe of his shoe. Blood bubbled out of Santa’s mouth. Everyone jumped back three feet.
“Goddamnit. Well, what do we do?” Dad asked.
“We need to get him inside—now,” said Uncle Brian.
“I’ll help you carry him,” Uncle Doug said.
“Alright, Sharon and I will get some blankets,” said Aunt Susie.
“Oh no, you will not use my blankets!” Janice said from the doorway. “Simon already ruined my carpet. No way!”
“Goddamnit Janice, keep it down,” Dad said.
Dad and Uncle Brian started to pick Santa up. “Why don’t we just call an ambulance?” I asked.
“Because Andrew, Simon is drunk. I’m not having one of my workers go to jail on a DUI,” Dad said. “We’ll never win another bid again, and do you know what that would do to our insurance?
“No sense in making more trouble for us,” said Uncle Brian.
“Family has to look out for each other,” said Aunt Sharon.
“Oh, Simon…” Aunt Susie said shamefully.
Janice did everything she could to keep Aunt Sharon and Aunt Susie from getting her blankets and simultaneously tried to keep Dad and Brian and the dying Santa Claus out of the house. Nana and Grandpa Joe rushed the Sinister Six into the basement with Richie, Michael and Renee. Uncle Doug cleared off the dining room table. Dad and Uncle Brian laid Santa on top. He let out another cough and what sounded like, “Help.” His blood was turning Janice’s white Egyptian cotton bed sheets a deep red-purple. The wetness was dripping onto the floor, into the carpet.
Aunt Sharon ignored Janice’s pleas to find another way to keep the floor clean that didn’t include using her best towels. Janice was crying now and looked like a 1950s housewife going through pill withdraws. She was scrubbing the carpet and wringing out the bloodied blankets and towels into buckets.
Santa was dying. I knew it. There was no way around it.
His eyes began to sink into his head and as he stared through all of us to the ceiling, they became listless. Blank. I never knew one person could have so much blood in their body to lose. It didn’t slow its spilling out for but a moment, even with all the blankets we’d wrapped him in. His hands were looking gray from all the blood loss. The carpet was making a squishing noise as it soaked it all in. It sounded like a soapy sponge being rung out. I could feel the wetness with every step. And no one would listen to me. No one would call the hospital.
No one wanted Simon to get into trouble. He just stood there, like a scared puppy ready for a beating after chewing up a favorite pair of shoes. And then it hit me: Who was this guy? What was he doing in a Santa suit and why hadn’t any of us thought to take his beard off?
I grabbed it. It was drenched in sweat and blood, fastened around his ears with an elastic strap. I lifted it over his head and he looked at me. I think he was thanking me with his eyes, because he took a deep breath of air like he’d been having trouble breathing then he winced. His face was so swollen and bloodied that none of us could tell who he was.
“Simon! What the fuck happened?” I shouted as I started to cry.
“Watch your mouth, Andrew!” Janice said as she put on a new pair of rubber dishwashing gloves.
As Santa bled out and our carpet became soggier, Janice worked feverishly to keep things in as much order as she could. Uncle Brian and Aunt Susie did their best to reassure Simon that everything was going to be fine. I was concentrated on Santa’s face. Who had Simon killed? He wasn’t dead yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Even if we called 9-1-1 right then and the ambulance instantly showed up, he had lost too much blood. And he probably had a punctured lung or a ruptured spleen or internal bleeding or all three, or more.
But still, I tried to reason, “We need to get help.”
Then Richie came up from the basement. He took one look at Santa. “It’s Mr. Spayer,” he said.
Of course. Mr. Spayer lived a few houses down from ours, across from the Fitzgeralds. Mr. Fitzgerald died of cancer over the summer and Mr. Spayer had been spending a lot of time at their house as, I guess, a male figure for the three young Fitzgerald sons, and to help Mrs. Fitzgerald out in any way she needed. Mr. Spayer was the nicest man in town. Of course he was dressed like Santa.
Janice ran to Richie and hugged him and started straightening his clothes and hair. “Is that what you’re going to wear to our family holiday party?”
“Goddammit Janice,” Dad said.
“I saw the whole thing,” Richie said.
“How?” I asked.
Just then, Grandpa walked up from the basement. “You should see the set up that kid’s got down there. There’s more shit than we had during the war.”
I knew Richie was into computers, but as it turned out, he was always one step ahead of everyone in the neighborhood. My little brother was an amateur spy. He had installed tiny cameras and microphones throughout the house. Somehow, he’d managed to place them in the few locations Janice didn’t dust daily. He set up cameras up and down our block creating a surveillance system of the whole block. He never left the basement because he didn’t have to.
All of us but Janice went into the basement where Richie played back the tape of the accident. Our house sat a half block from a tight curve. Simon, drunk, and the roads icy, lost control. He hit a patch of ice on the turn, fishtailed a few feet before regaining control, then sped up and ran into Santa as he was crossing the street after leaving the Fitzgeralds' house. Simon was moving so fast, it was a miracle he didn’t plow through the front of our house.
“Now that we know it’s not Santa and he won’t magically get better, can we please call someone?” I pleaded.
“No. Let him die,” Uncle Doug said. “There’s nothing anyone can do now. We just have to accept that. We need to get Simon’s car out of here. Richie, has anyone been outside since the accident?”
“Not since I’ve been watching the cameras. But someone may have seen it through a window. The cameras aren’t that good. I’m saving up for higher end stuff.”
“Speaking of that,” Dad chimed in, “how have you paid for all this stuff?”
“Your bank card. I memorized the number.”
“How come I didn’t notice it?”
“Probably because you haven’t balanced your check book in years. And you’re always drunk,” Richie said.
Dad laughed and toasted Uncle Brian. “The kid’s got a point.”
Was this happening? Were casual jokes being thrown around our living room with a dead man in it? A dead man my cousin ran over? Where did this sadistic behavior come from? And did it skip a generation? Obviously not, Richie was now in on it. My kid brother, an accomplice. I went back into my initial shock.
“Alright, so we can move Santa into Simon’s car. Is it drivable? Simon?”
“Huh? Yeah, I think so.”
“So we’ll put Santa, the blankets, and the carpet in his car, take it to the CalSag and dump it all in the channel.”
“You idiot, Doug,” Aunt Sharon said. “What about the neighbors. Our little spy here isn’t sure about no one seeing us. And what if they find the car? Huh? What about the VIN? Registration?”
Dad suggested that they bring Simon’s car to the sheet metal shop and strip it of all serial numbers and VINs. They can get rid of the license plates at the quarry on the way to the channel. “After all,” he said, “you don’t want to get pulled over for not having the proper registration, especially with a dead Claus in the trunk.”
And so they all got to work. The car was moved. Grandpa helped wrap up the mostly dead Mr. Spayer in the blankets and put him in the garage. Nana kept all the kids in the basement where they watched from Richie’s command center. I asked Richie if he wanted popcorn to watch the show. He gave me the finger. Aunt Susie, Aunt Sharon and Janice worked on tearing up the carpet and padding. Mostly Janice picked up the little carpet pieces from the floor. The blood had soaked through the pad to the floor. I watched, locked in my shock. The way Janice was scrubbing every surface, I realized that she was the perfect person to have on hand when covering up a murder.
I tried reasoning with them again. No one would listen. Dad even asked me to get him another drink. “Me too, pal,” Uncle Brian said. Then I gave them the finger. I went to sit out back on the porch where Simon was hiding. We didn’t say anything for maybe fifteen minutes. All that I could think about was how horrible it was that Mr. Spayer had to spend his last moments on Earth in the hands a family full of sociopaths—a family that let him die. A family that killed him. My guilt was building.
But I couldn’t do anything. Or could I have? Simon sobered up as we sat there staring at the stars, me looking for some excuse I could use to tell myself so that I could live with myself. I imagined that Simon was doing the same. Finally, I turned to him and said, “You’re a murderer. You know that right?”
“Yeah. So are you.”
We all were. Simon, Dad, Janice, Uncle Brian, Aunt Susie, Aunt Sharon, Uncle Doug Grandpa Joe and Nana. Even Richie. My 14-year-old brother had seen all this happening. Watching it like a voyeuristic freak and didn’t do anything. But then again, neither did I. Simon was right.
“I hope you’re not vomiting on my new floor mat!” she said from the bottom of the stairs.
An hour later, Mr. Spayer was now a cold bluish color. He looked like he was completely drained of all of his blood. With him and the blankets and the towels and the soaked sections of carpet and padding packed into the car, they were ready to move him.
Uncle Brian wanted to be sure the car and body were dumped before daylight. I was concerned about Mr. Spayer missing. How could no one have heard the hit? How could the Fitzgeralds not have wondered what happened to Santa Claus? Richie assured everyone—except me—that Mr. Spayer lived alone, had no family and that the Fitzgeralds hadn’t so much as come to the window when the crash occurred. My baby brother: the Wicked Omnipotent Richard. I felt sick.
Uncle Brian and Simon took the car to the shop to be stripped and then to the CalSag Channel to be dumped. Dad and Uncle Doug followed. It was just Janice, Richie and me in the house. Everyone else had gone home. I was in the upstairs bathroom debating if I should throw up or climb out of the window and run to the police. Janice was shouting to me to get out of the bathroom and help her clean. “I hope you’re not vomiting on my new floor mat!” she said from the bottom of the stairs.
Christmas morning, we opened our presents with little enthusiasm. With every torn ribbon, Dad refilled his glass with scotch and a splash of water. Richie knew what every gift was—he’d seen us wrap them. Janice couldn’t stop staring at the bare floor under and around the dining room table. And I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the blood that was spilled in that room just four days before. I kept waiting for the doors and windows to break open with the S.W.A.T. team flying through on lines from helicopters, guns blazing and ready to take us in. In my mind, the rest of the family was already captive, bound and gagged in the paddy wagon. I kept telling myself it was only a matter of time.
In the afternoon, we went to Uncle Brian’s and Aunt Susie’s to open gifts with the rest of the family. At their house my imagination went from reasonable S.W.A.T. attacks to visions of a team of detectives knocking on the door. Dad would answer and a detective would immediately shoot him in the chest. One would call for backup while the other came into the living room. He would tell all of us to remain still and quiet. Uncle Doug would dash for the back door and the detective would put six rounds into the back of his head. The rest of us would be taken into custody and marched straight down Death Row. No trial—it wouldn’t be needed. The entire long walk, Janice would complain about the dirt. There would be eighteen electric chairs lined up, one chair for each member of my family including the Sinister Six. A cop dressed like Santa Claus, just to add a little insult to their punishment, would throw the switch. Everyone would squirm and scream as they cooked and burned. Everyone but me. I wouldn’t get a chair. I would be made to watch them slowly and torturously die just like I did with Mr. Spayer. Once they were dead, Santa would walk to me, put a shotgun in my mouth and kill me. I would hear the bang then see Santa through the hole in my head as my still working eyes slid down the wall behind me.
After the party, we drove straight home. Aside from Dad’s occasional, “Goddamnit” in traffic, we were silent. As we turned onto our street, we saw the lights. There were two cop cars outside of the Fitzgeralds’. One was an unmarked detective’s car, the other a cruiser. We pulled into our garage. Dad, Janice, and Richie ran into the house. I stood in the garage looking at the cops talking to Mrs. Fitzgerald and her new husband, whatever his name was. She pointed to me, or our house, or both. The cops turned and looked at me. They shook hands with Mrs. Fitzgerald and her new husband. I saw the detective give him a business card. Then they walked across the street right to me.
“Hello, son,” the detective said as he looked around, I think noticing one of Richie’s cameras. “Are your parents home?”