Big Red was elbow deep in dead pigeon when he heard the crack like an ice-laden branch splitting from the trunk. He heard the shouts and the scream and that new kid with the ponytail, Barkwell, hollering over and over into the rafters. Big Red pulled his arms out of the heating duct and wiped the feathers and pigeon guts off on his Miami Heat t-shirt.
He’d stopped wearing good clothes to work after his manager, Kevin the Walrus, made him clean up a family of dead raccoons down in the receiving docks last September. Ruined his favourite shirt, the Harley Davidson one with the 1957 XL Sportster 883 on the front. His ex-wife had bought it for him down in North Carolina on their honeymoon. The little cubs had left a big yellow smear across the front. It was late December now. Pigeons had cooked alive when management decided to turn up the heat Monday morning. No one had bothered to trace the smell until Friday afternoon.
The younger temps yelled at each other as Big Red waddled down the deck. He spotted the glowing bald head of the Walrus hustling towards them across the liquor warehouse floor below, mouth buried into his shoulder mic. Red could see the crowd gathered around one of the hydraulic lifts, younger guys peering over the shoulders of the veterans.
One of the kids saw him walking towards them.
“Yo! Yo, Big Red! You see what one of your white boy tried to do? Yeah, the Segal motherfucker with the ponytail. He all up on Irwin like Irwin took his newspaper, like Irwin steals his shit all the time, right? Fuck man, Irwin don’t even know Segal, you know? Irwin went wild with the bottle man, chucked it right at that pony-tailed shit.”
Another voice began spitting in Big Red’s ear.
“Nah man, he took Segal’s smokes and then just lied to his face like a bitch. Irwin always doin’ shit like that just ’cause his Daddy drive a forklift on midnights.”
Barkwell was lying on the floor with blood in his ponytail. Little Irwin nudged the body with a steel-toed boot. Hip-hop squeaked out over the concrete between them from a pair of bright red headphones. A shattered bottle of Gordon’s lay diluting the blood dripping from Barkwell’s ear.
Big Red pushed Irwin away and leaned down over the body. Barkwell probably weighed a hundred and twenty pounds. Big Red placed a bag of sawdust under the kid’s small head. Barkwell’s eyes stared up at the ceiling. Big Red breathed in deep, ready to apply mouth to mouth. Red was the only one on the shift with updated First Aid certification. His niece had almost drowned in the bathtub when he was babysitting her back in ’97. He felt the kid’s wrist, the pulse flitting in and out. He placed his lips on Barkwell’s and the air filled his sinuses. Gin and copper and pine trees and pennies and a fork sticking out of his hand like a flag pole. The smell skipped into the receptors of his nose.
Barkwell smelled like Christmas.
The Christmas when Big Red and his two little cousins overdosed on Flintstones vitamins. A hazy blur of purple and orange puke all over the back of the living room sofa where they hid in wait for Santa. A string of pink and purple Wilmas and Dinos arranged on the window sill. Rations to help wait out Kris Kringle. The doctor in the emergency room warned Big Red’s mother that the kids shouldn’t eat any red meat for at least two weeks. He rubbed yellow fingers down her thigh and she asked him for a cigarette. Too much iron in those vitamins, he said and handed her a smoke. Big Red was only Little Red back then, but he still had a gut. The doctor patted his mother on the hip as they left and told her to watch the little porker’s diet. Big Red watched her smile. The doctor waved goodbye through the glass of the emergency doors. His wide grin revealed a missing molar in the back of his mouth.
It was a Christmas when Grandma spilled gravy down her shirt and the dog tackled her into the Christmas tree. The same Christmas when Caleb Jackson smacked Big Red across the face so hard with his new baseball glove that Big Red saw stars. He sat on Caleb’s face for five minutes until he heard him mumble Uncle, you fat stupid fat ass! Uncle! A Christmas when he got another status report from Mrs. Vandervlooten in the mail and a request for a parent teacher conference. A Christmas when his cousins learned the words bitch and dick from Grandpa talking in his sleep. They watched Raging Bull and Xanadu on stolen cable in the living room.
Grandma was scrubbing the puke out from behind the couch when Dad finally arrived. He slid on the ice, holding a box of art supplies that Big Red suspected was his Christmas gift. A collection of water paints and charcoal sticks. Maybe some colouring books with Chinese subtitles. Christmas was supposed to have good presents. It wasn’t like a birthday.
Last year, Dad had hung a fleet of preassembled and painted World War II planes from the Big Red’s ceiling. An epic dogfight stretched across the room for three months before Mom tore half of them down after she’d gone out one night with Aunt Shirley. Big Red stashed the remains of his fleet under the bed behind piles of Hardy Boys books and medical texts he’d lifted from Caleb Jackson’s garage. Caleb’s dad said he didn’t believe in doctors. You could teach yourself all that stuff if you put in the right amount of time and effort. Caleb’s leg never healed right after he jumped off the roof playing Indiana Jones.
Birthdays. That was when Big Red’s dad always came up short. Over his last ten birthdays, Big Red had amassed three velvet painting of his dad, two badminton sets lifted from unsupervised backyards, one stuffed donkey with Kiss My Ass branded into the polyester, and four sketches of his dad’s alternating cast of girlfriends drawn by Larry B., Dad’s oldest, wisest, friend. Larry B. still had three months left on his sentence before he’d be eligible for parole. Dad sent him some magazines for Christmas, but they never made it past the guards.
A Christmas when the Miami Heat finally won their second consecutive victory after a gruelling opening to their inaugural ’88-89 season that saw the team go 2-20 before Boxing Day. Always supportive of the underdog, Big Red’s Dad walked across the icy driveway decked out head to toe in Heat gear. He had a ball cap on his head with all the tags still attached.
“I heard you chewed up Bedrock last night, little man!”
A Christmas when Big Red sat at the dinner table as his dad tried to explain the will and grit he attributed to players like Kevin Edwards, Rory Sparrow, and Rony Seiklay. About overcoming the adversity they saw on the court and how they were always willing to press on despite devastating losses. A Christmas when Uncle Rod cautioned Big Red’s dad about mixing wine and gin together and Big Red covered his ears as his Grandma started belting out Christmas carols to announce the food was ready. His two little cousins did the same.
“Get your hands off your ears kids! Grandma likes everyone to hear her singing.”
After failing at running an auto shop, a catalogue sales business, and eventually losing his fishing boat to the tax authorities, Big Red’s dad had a lot in common with the Miami Heat. For Big Red’s last birthday, his dad and Larry B. took him to Red Lobster. They made him try everything gross on the menu before dine-and-dashing. Oysters. Crab legs. Scallops like rubber stamps. Larry fell and got caught in between the double doors after Big Red pushed them the wrong way. The police arrested Larry, claiming he’d broken his parole. Big Red’s dad got so mad he left Red downtown for five hours. Grandma finally found him outside the Genosha Hotel, watching the men in big coats sneak out the backdoor with women in tall shoes.
A Christmas when his dad’s plates were from the States and a new girl’s photo dangled from the rearview mirror. She was covered in sand. Just like the Heat, Big Red’s dad was often on the road, delivering water and air purifiers for one of those infomercial guys with the fake hair and smooth orange skin. The ones Big Red saw on TV when he stayed up late at Caleb’s house. Sleep is for the weak, Caleb’s dad would say. He drank twenty-five cups of coffee a day. Big Red counted the mugs stacked around the desk in the basement. Caleb’s dad didn’t like to keep clocks in the house.
Big Red watched as his grandma set the dishes down on the three tables his mother had pushed together in the dining room to make one long, haphazard peninsula she could disguise with white tablecloths. Splotches of cranberry stains from another Christmas stood out in faded halos on the underside of the sheet. Big Red’s mother hadn’t applied the cold water in time, and she was afraid of bleach.
“I think my favourite player has to be Pearl. Oh come on, you don’t know Dwayne fucking ‘Pearl’ Washington? First round pick in’86? Looks tiny out there, ‘cause he’s only like 6’2 . But he’s so quick, so good.... he’s definitely a core part of the team. He drives for it even when you can see the others are slacking. Even if they’re down by twenty points in the last quarter and no one else seems to care, Pearl’s working like they only need one more shot to seal the deal and net another win... you know like a real champion. Like a black Larry Bird, but like shorter and you know... curly hair...”
A Christmas when Big Red’s dad stopped taking his lithium. A month earlier his girlfriend’s brother raised all these health concerns at a kegger outside of Tampa. Muscle damage, bone loss, hypertension, and early onset adult diabetes. Her brother was a diabetic selling his needles for two dollars a pop at this kegger. Health, man, he said, revealing a mouth of gold fillings. It’s the only thing you’ve got in the end. Big Red’s dad nodded. He off-loaded the prescriptions on the brother for forty dollars apiece. Enough money to buy his son a good Christmas present. Make up for that whole birthday thing when he forgot Big Red downtown and the cops put Larry B. away for another six months.
“He’s going to be with that team a hell of a long time man, putting up the numbers like he is. Oh I know he doesn’t look like it. Funny they look so short on TV right, ‘cause they’d be like fucking giants if they came in here right now, you know? I wish I’d seen him like playing for Syracuse, or even the Nets...well obviously the Nets ’cause Jersey needs a power forward...and yeah I know he’s small, but like...he could...like change the whole nature of the game...play on a brand new level...shit, you know what I’m saying Rod? Let me top you off there, alright?”
A Christmas when Big Red would reach for a dinner roll while his grandma sang “Good King Wenceslas” and laid the sweet potato pie out on the table in front of his mother. The same Christmas when his dad would seize his fork and jam it deep through his eleven-year-old son’s hand into the soft top of the card table under the tablecloth, grinning at Uncle Rod over a glass of wine spiked with gin. A Christmas when everyone started screaming and his cousins were crying and the living room still smelled like puked up Barney Rubble and the dog knocked over the Christmas tree three times during the afternoon. Grandma kept shrilly singing, “When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even!”
“Wait for Grandma to say grace, Red. You’re getting too big for your belly.”
The ambulance that took Big Red to the hospital decided to stop at every red light along the way. He stared at the four metal prongs glowing like alien bones in his flesh. The same yellow-fingered doctor from the night before asked him who did this and was he the same one who made him eat all those vitamins last night? This was a Christmas when Children’s Aid asked Big Red a series of questions in the hospital bed while his mother stood outside the room, running her hand through the doctor’s hair, ignoring the missing molar, the yellow fingers, and the high pitched laugh because she had a mortgage three months in arrears. A wide lady with too much makeup quizzed Big Red about his dad and about his school and about the time his grandpa left him at Tim Horton’s in Sault Ste. Marie after a fishing trip and his mother had called the police.
A Christmas when Big Red forgot his Ghostbusters in a snow bank and his dad got arrested for the third time in as many years. The following June his dad would plead out to institutional observation for a period of no less than three months. Around the same week, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington would finally receive his release from the Miami Heat after fifty-four games, never to play in the NBA again. This was a Christmas when Big Red finally got his report card from Mrs. Vandervlooten. He had been answering all the math questions with drawings of animals—a lot of ducks and pandas. She said she was concerned, very concerned with his performance. This was a Christmas when Big Red realized ‘concerned’ didn’t mean much at all as a nurse eased the fork out of his hand.
Walrus stared at Big Red. His moustache was damp with sweat. The warehouse was almost empty now, forklifts pulling into their parking spots on the floor to recharge for the day shift. The chill outside still made the whole place damp and Big Red felt the day’s sweat cooling all over his back and along the creases of his skin.
“I want this cleaned up in the next twenty minutes before the guys from Labour get here, alright? The puddle makes it look worse than it is. Nobody died here. The kid is going to be fine. I mean the one that got hit, not that other fuck with the glasses. They already picked him up in a car with cuffs. He’s not our problem anymore. But the puddle needs to go. Now.”
Walrus handed Big Red a mop wet end first.
“And Red? Next time you want to make out with a boy, do it on your own time alright? If I want, I can watch that shit at home on the internet. I swear you just about passed out on that kid and suffocated him with those tits of yours. Smothered him with your endless love. Ha, you like that? You wanna be Big Love or Endless Love? That’ll be good. I’ll let you choose. I say go with Big Love, it suits you best. Don’t worry; you’ll get time and a half for the OT tonight. All fifteen minutes of it. Get it done before the lights go out.”
Walrus walked away, shaking his bald head. Red stirred the gray water in the bucket beside him. He spotted a fly trying to crawl out of the muck and pushed it back down with the mop. The warehouse floor was tacky with blood and gin. The sawdust made it stick even worse. Under his breath, Big Red began to hum Christmas carols. His old t-shirt was still dotted with pigeon guts and now spackled with Barkwell’s blood too. He kept mopping.
After a while, Big Red went to change the water.
Andrew F. Sullivan is from Oshawa, Ontario. His fiction has been published by Joyland, EVENT and Little Fiction, among other places. His debut short story collection All We Want is Everything is forthcoming from Arbeiter Ring Publishing in June 2013. He no longer works in a warehouse. Find Sullivan at www.andrewfsullivan.com.