“We don't have to do this, you know.” Clarice reached across the car's center console and gave Randy's hand a gentle squeeze. Randy sighed, his breath fogging the windshield. They had been sitting in the driveway for 10 minutes, and the cold was starting to seep through his dress pants and thin loafers, chilling him to the bone. He was anxious to get going, but he knew better than to rush his newly minted fiance.
Randy returned her squeeze, hoping he used just enough pressure to be reassuring. It was hard to tell. His fingers were starting to go numb from the cold, and her mittens were thick. They had been a gift from his mother. They were giant, frightening, furry things, that made it look like Clarice was wearing dead rabbits on her hands. Bizarre, but warm, he thought, wistfully. He had received a pair as well, but had buried them at the back of the coat closet after the neighbor's dog nearly took his hand off.
“Is it too early to start drinking?” Clarice mused aloud.
Randy raised an eyebrow and gave her a sideways glance. He knew this was a rhetorical question, but felt compelled to answer anyway.
“That was the first thing you asked me this morning when the alarm went off.”
“Heh, heh. Just checking.”
“Besides, I know you filled your water bottle with white wine before we left the house,” he said.
“It held the whole bottle of wine.”
“And now it's empty.”
“Oh!” Clarice tipped the bottle up and held it there, hoping one last drop might accumulate and roll out onto her tongue. When that didn't happen, she licked the inside of the bottle neck.
“Well, that explains a lot,” she said. “Maybe we should swing by a store for a refill. Maybe we should swing by a store, get a case of wine and a roasted chicken from the deli and go back home and hide out until Christmas is over.”
“I'm pretty sure everything is closed by now, honey. You'll be fine.”
Clarice and Randy sat in the car a while longer, watching the snow fall. It had been snowing all afternoon, a magical, storybook, Christmas Eve snow. Marshmallow-sized, fluffy flakes glimmered in the headlights and swirled crazily under the streetlights. Randy guessed a good eight inches had fallen already – three of that while they had sat waiting in the car. He sighed again. If they didn't get going soon, they'd have to climb out through the sunroof, he thought. If they could get it open.
“I could call Ma and tell her we had a flat,” Clarice said softly. “Or that the roads are bad and we just don't want to risk it. Or that the dog got out and we have to look for it.”
“We don't have a dog, Clarice.”
“We'll tell her you got me one for Christmas. Adds to the drama.”
“I'm allergic. Your mom knows that. We had a long discussion. A long discussion that somehow segued into gallstones, hemorrhoids and colonoscopies. In great detail.” Randy shuddered at the memory.
“She might have forgotten. She's old.”
“Not that old.” He squeezed her hand again. At least he thought he did. All feeling was gone in his hands, and his teeth were starting to chatter. “Clarice, honey, it will be fine.”
“It will be a nightmare,” Clarice said.
“I've met your family before. Many times. I like them.”
Clarice rested her head on the passenger side window and stared out into the gathering darkness.
“You've never seen them at Christmas.”
Randy cupped his hands in front of his mouth and breathed heavily onto them. It sounded almost like a sigh, he thought, and Clarice didn't seem to notice.
“I survived the Fourth of July party.”
That got her attention. She looked at him and snorted. “Yeah, it only took what, 10 stitches?”
“I didn't realize it was full-contact yard bags,” Randy said, shrugging. “Or that the first rule of Dasher family games is that there are no rules.”
“I told you my nephew threw overhand.”
“But you didn't tell me he had such bad aim.”
Randy sighed again, for real, and tried to slip his hands under his thighs to warm them up. That only made his legs colder.
“Mu-mu-mu-maybe I cu-cu-could just run the heat for a mu-mu-mu-minute.” He reached for the ignition. Clarice shot her hand out to stop him. Randy winced at the sudden contact, certain that at least one frozen finger had shattered.
“No!” Clarice hiss-whispered. “Listen to that.”
Randy tilted his head and listened. “I don't hear anything.”
“Exactly. We must respect the quiet.”
It was quiet, Randy thought. Quiet and peaceful. And he was so tired. But that might have been caused by the carbon monoxide or hypothermia.
I LIKE BIG BUTTS AND I CAN NOT LIE . . . . Clarice's phone shattered the silence. Randy knew that was the ringtone she reserved for her mother.
“How long you gonna sit out there in the driveway? Dinner's almost ready.” Clarice held the phone out between them. She didn't have it on speaker. Her mom was just that loud. “Tell Randy I've got a special surprise for him. Hi, Randy!”
Randy looked up. Mrs. Dasher was standing in the front window of the house, next to the Christmas tree, waving at them.
“Hi, Mrs. Dasher,” Randy said towards the phone, while waving back at her through the windshield.
“Ah, geeze, Ma. You promised, no surprises . . . .”
“Pish. I called his mom. She shared one of their favorite family traditions. She's a pip, that one. I invited her and the family down for dinner, but she said they already had plans.”
Clarice put one mittened hand over her face. When she peeked out around the fur, she saw Randy staring at her, his eyes open wide with shock. He silently mouthed My family?
“We're gonna get together after the first of the year. But we can go over all that when you two get in here. Hurry it up. I need you to make the green bean casserole. Your sister's no help. She's been drinking since she got here. At noon.”
Clarice looked at Randy and mouthed I'm already behind! Randy shook his head and tried to suppress a giggle. Clarice punched him in the arm. Randy watched it happen, but didn't feel it. His arm was numb now, too.
“What about Aunt Jan? Why doesn't she help you?”
“She's got her hands full keeping Uncle Jimmy away from all open flames. He's been in the bean dip all afternoon. Your dad and your brother are arguing over the NFL highlight game from '84 – but it's still not changing the outcome. And your nieces and nephews are holed up in the old toy room, 'burning incense'.” Randy and Clarice saw that Mrs. Dasher made air quotes as she said that. Then she snorted. “As if. Little bastards. Think I was born yesterday? I know what frankincense and myrrh smells like. Your brother's latest wife . . . .”
“Shandra. She has a name, Ma. Shandra.”
“No, Shandra was last year's model. This one's Melody, or Melissa, or something. Anyway, she's downstairs with the cousins playing cards. I just hope it's not for money or clothes. You know how your cousin Donnie cheats. And Mel-whatever wasn't wearing much to begin with.”
“You invited the cousins?”
Mrs. Dasher sighed. “Your dad let it slip when he ran into Angie down at the gas station. What could we do?”
“I dunno, Ma, sounds like a houseful. And the snow's really piling up. Maybe we should just head back home.”
“Clarice Lorraine. You live ten minutes away. You could walk.”
“Yeah, but . . . .”
“You are not leaving me alone with this house-full of crazies!”
She's the Queen Crazy, Clarice mouthed at Randy
“I heard that young lady.”
“Ma, I didn't say anything!”
“I read lips.”
Clarice rolled her eyes.
“I saw that, too.”
“Get in here, or I'm bustin' out the slide projector . . . .”
Randy sat up and smiled brightly.
“I said fine. Just gimme a . . . .”
“And the pictures of you as a sheep in the church Christmas pageant.”
Randy's smile grew. Clarice's shoulders slumped, defeated.
“We'll be right in, Ma.”
“Love ya', hon. You too, Randy!” Mrs. Dasher waved one more time, then disappeared from the window.
“Save yourself, Randy. Take the car, drive around the block a couple times. Gimme 10 minutes. Then just pull up to the curb, flash the lights, honk the horn twice and I'll come running out.”
“Maybe you're getting a little carried away, sweetie. It looks pretty quiet from here. No visible flames, no SWAT team, no disco lights.”
“Oh, sure. On the outside, this is just another quaint, cozy, happy family home. That's how they do it, you know. They lull you into a false sense of normalcy, them BAM! Total. Fucking. Chaos. I bet John Wayne Gacy's house seemed pretty normal from the outside, too.”
“Nah, I think there was always something . . . off there. I mean, look at the other houses in your neighborhood.” Randy pointed at the houses around them. “One creepy, dark house, still in Halloween mode – I think, at least I hope; one tacky, over-decorated house testing the endurance of the electricity grid; one giant, hippie, peace-sign – which stays up all year round, by the way; and one yard covered with frightening, jiggling, inflatable decorations. What is that one supposed to be, anyway?”
Clarice tilted her head sideways to get a different perspective.
“I think Mrs. Snowman fell over and pulled Mr. Snowman with her, but he's still . . . . Oh, dear, sweet baby Jesus!” Clarice started laughing. “We're gonna be over-run with snowbabies!”
“And then there's your family's house. Tasteful wreath on the front door, soft glow from the Christmas tree in the window. An oasis of calm.”
“When we were little, Dad would put a Santa on the roof. That stopped after Bobby added a string of yellow lights to make it look like Santa was taking a leak. We had a plastic nativity scene, but Dad put too big a bulb in Joseph and he melted and slumped over. Looked like had gas pains. Then Ma switched to those lighted deer. Until the cousins repositioned them . . . not unlike our neighbor's amorous snowmen. Last year they hung one deer from the tree by a hind leg, like they were gutting it. Ma. Freaked. Out. She said no more outside decorations. Ever. I think she underestimates the rest of the family. Mark my words. By the end of the night, somehow these modest decorations will be re-arranged into something obscene or sacrilegious. Or both.”
“I dunno, Clarice, your mom can really lay down the law.”
“Dad says she keeps a loaded Supersoaker by the door. She's on hyper-alert. She's already accidentally doused the newspaper boy and the mailman. Dad gave them each a bottle of whiskey to apologize.”
“A thoughtful man.”
“Not so much. The paperboy is 12.”
Randy coughed to cover his laughter. He sensed Clarice didn't see the humor.
“We should have gone to your folks',” she said.
“No way! I put you through that hell last year. You deserve a respite.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I'm talking about crazy, as in my family.”
“They're not crazy. They're . . . quiet. They just sit there so politely. And they talk. Quietly.”
Randy snorted. “Yes, they are quiet, but no, they don't talk. That's how crazy they are. No one talks to anyone about anything. Anything! As if that's not a recipe for misunderstanding! Just because they're quiet doesn't mean they're not crazy. The Donners are the poster family for dysfunctional. It's a quiet dysfunctional, but it's still dysfunctional. And crazy.”
“I'll take quiet crazy over loud crazy anytime,” Clarice said. “And I bet they never throw stuff.”
“That's a bet you would lose, sweetheart. Believe you me. Besides, I don't think dysfunction is a competition.”
Mrs. Dasher flashed the porch light on and off. Then she appeared in the window holding a slide carousel tray.
“I guess we'd better get inside.”
“Darn, I was really hoping to see the sheep show.”
“You know she'll show that to you anyway,” Clarice said, wearily. “I'd just like to explain ahead of time: I was five, the costume was hot and itchy. And it smelled. And Ma should have made me wear something under it.”
Randy chuckled, then leaned over the console and kissed Clarice gently on her nose. “I can't wait to see how our crazy, dysfunctions combine.”
Clarice pulled him closer and kissed him. It was a long, slow kiss, full of promise. Randy felt his extremities begin to thaw.
“Maybe we should head back to our place,” he whispered in her ear.
The porch lights flashed urgently. Randy and Clarice looked up to find both Mr. and Mrs. Dasher standing in the doorway. Clarice's brother and sister and her husband were all standing in the window. Clarice's brother was dancing inappropriately with the tree.
After shucking their coats and adding their presents to the pile surrounding the tree, Randy and Clarice joined an assortment of Dashers in the kitchen.
“Oh. My. God! You win the ugly sweater contest, hands down!” Clarice's sister Karen said to Randy. “That is hideous!”
“That was my Christmas gift to him. It's cashmere,” Clarice said, gritting her teeth.
“Oops! My bad. Still . . . .” Karen shrugged, then tried to change the subject. “So, what were you two doing out there? Workin' on a last minute Christmas gift?” She winked at Randy and elbowed him in the ribs.
“Christ! They were out there long enough to conceive and deliver a Christmas gift,” Clarice's brother Bobby said.
“Not everyone is as quick at . . . wrapping as you are, darling,” Mel-whatever said, exiting the kitchen.
“Oh yeah? Well, I got a Yule log with your name on it, right here, baby,” Bobby shouted after his wife.
Mrs. Dasher, Clarice and Karen shared a look.
“This is why we don't bother learning their names,” Clarice whispered to Randy. “He'll have a new one next year.”
“Yule log? That gives me an idea!” Karen's husband Eddy said, grabbing her by the waist.
“Oh, please. Yule twig maybe,” Karen said, rolling her eyes.
“Twig? What? I'm talking lawn ornaments, here,” Eddy said. Two of the cousins nodded in response.
“We got just the thing for superior exterior illumination in the truck,” the cousins said.
“What are you talking about?” Eddy said to Karen.
“What do you mean, 'lawn ornaments?' There will be no 'exterior illumination'!” Mrs. Dasher shouted.
Clarice pulled Randy into a corner. “Let the holiday chaos commence,” she said.
“Twig? Twig? What are you talking about woman?”
“Oh, please. It's not as if . . . .”
“No decorations! Do I make myself clear?”
“I remember my high school sweetheart,” Aunt Jan said. “Talk about a Yule log.”
“What the . . . .”
“None! No lights, no inflatables, no nothing!”
A heavy, metalic thunk cut through all the yelling and shouting and planning, and the normal clattering of plates and silverware and dishes heaped with food. The hand-held can opener rocked slowly on the tile floor, beneath a hand-held can opener-shaped indentation in the drywall. An indentation that had not been there just moments ago.
The fighting stopped. An uneasy quiet settled over the room.
Each member, soon-to-be member or soon-to-be-ex-member of the extended Dasher family looked sheepishly at each other, trying to determine who the appliance-thrower was. The dent in the wall had appeared in the small gap between Mel-whatever and Bobby's son Rocky. Another couple inches either way, and one of them would have been impaled. Or at least bruised. But who had thrown the unwieldy manual appliance? It had been years since Bobby had raised a finger to help with food preparation. Would he even know which drawer the can opener was stored in?
“THAT'S. IT.” Mrs. Dasher's voice was strong and clear. She smacked the counter with a kitchen towel for emphasis.
Clarice looked at Randy, her eyes filling with tears. This was a new level of crazy, even for her family. She wouldn't blame him if he asked her to return his engagement ring – which she had only received that morning.
“We have . . . .” Everyone in the room held their breath.
“A winner! Ladies and gentlemen, check your lottery charts!” A happy shout went up.
“What? Ma? What the hell is going on?” Clarice looked on in astonishment as the rest of her family pulled papers out of their pockets, unfolded them and compared notes.
“Who had 'something gets thrown' and 'kitchen'?” Mrs. Dasher asked.
“R.D. – Randy Donner!”
“Alrighty then! The winner of the first annual Dasher Family Lotto is Randy! Now, help me get this food to the table before it cools off. Get! Go! Let's eat!”
“Congrats Randy, my boy. And welcome to the family,” Mr. Dasher said as the rest of the family carried dish after dish laden with food to the dining room. All traces of bickering had been replaced by teasing and laughter.
For the moment.
“I'm gonna need you to repair that divot in the wall, you know,” Mr. Dasher said, as he hoisted the platter overflowing with turkey. “I didn't know you had such bad aim.”
“I don't.” Randy grinned.
“What just happened here?” Clarice asked him.
“That's my nice, quiet family's favorite tradition,” Randy said. “Christmas Lotto. Typically accompanied by lots of egg nog. Heavy on the bourbon, light on the nog.” Randy showed Clarice his lotto chart. It was a grid of squares – ten wide, ten deep. Along the horizontal axis were written a variety of times and places; the vertical axis was labeled with random events, including “something gets thrown,” “someone requires stitches,” “a punch is thrown,” “tree is knocked down,” and “someone gets naked.” The initials of each family members were scattered throughout the grid.
Clarice looked at Randy in astonishment.
“This is your family Christmas tradition?”
“Like my mom always says, 'it's not Christmas until someone throws a can opener'.”