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Christmas Distractions

                                    Christmas Distractions                             by Gerald Keep, November 9, 2021

{Trigger Alert – This is not my usual work – it is meant to be a tear-jerker – the struggle of an introvert to deal with an overwhelming grief.}

            Marvin Ringold chose to be outside in the cutting cold December night, beneath the threatening clouds.  Somehow he thought this was the best thing he could do for his family just then.

            He surveyed with satisfaction, and some small pride, the pile of moldy boxes and cobweb-covered plastic totes that he had hauled up from the basement before dinner.  Dinner had been awkward, he didn’t know what to say, and was happy to escape to the solitude of the front lawn.

            He looked with some concern at the evidence of decay, the water that was attacking the glue and fibers of several cardboard boxes.  Cellulose, so strong in its rigid crystalline form, but so difficult to shape into a useful form once the original wood had been striped of the lignin that held it together.  Too bad he had taken the recycle bin to the curb yesterday, there had been some good boxes in that batch.  Ironic that he was trying to save the world, and didn’t even know how to save what was closest to him.

            Savagely, he ripped at the tape that closed the top of the nearest box and hurt his fingers.  “Stress concentrations factors,” he muttered.  He got out his pocket knife, selected the smallest blade while thinking about safety protocols and his sore fingers, poked the stubborn tape, and was happy to see it split easily once cut.  He then put away his knife with elaborate care.

            From the box, he drew forth a tangled ball of green wires and clear glass bulbs.  This he carried toward the front steps to sit and untangle, but he cringed as he heard the high-pitched sound of glass dragging across the sidewalk.  He knew that as hard as glass was, the cement was harder – at least the inclusions in the composite were.  Looking down, he could see that he was trailing several long strands behind him.  He twisted away from the one he could see, took a step backwards, and heard a sickening crunch as his heel came down on another bulb.  So strong a material, yet his entire weight on such a small object produced a huge pressure.  So many things in life were fragile like that, under forces greater than they could withstand.  Never mind, this he could fix.  He had some spare bulbs in the bottom of the box.

            Carefully he swept the dangling strands together, cringing again as more bulbs raked across the sidewalk.  He carried them over to the steps, untangled the plug and inserted it in the socket by the front door.  Of course it didn’t light since the broken bulb broke the circuit.  He fetched the spare bulbs and replaced the broken one and it still didn’t light.

            Was it corrosion?  What little bugs were eating away at the metal contacts, oxidizing the metal so that they could harvest that essential ingredient of life – iron.  Something that Julia needed too, and couldn’t get enough of.

            No, no, the lights were dry; this particular box showed no water damage.  It must be a twisted wire.  Slowly he untangled the strands, wiggling each bulb in its socket as he went.  Two bulbs had dark metal deposits on the glass, showing that the filament was narrowing, heating up as the resistance increased, and losing mass.  They burned brightest before the end.  Was Julia doing that too? 

            He shook his head; since these bulbs would soon fail, he replaced them too, slipping the bad ones into his pocket.  Finally he found the last lose bulb, and the strands burst into brilliant illumination.  His eyes hurt from the light until they…. What was the opposite of dilate?  “Contract”, yes, that was it.

            He noticed the little device that they said made finding bad bulbs easier and sneered at it.  It had never worked as advertised.  Supposedly it sensed broken filaments via an electromagnetic induction effect or something like that.  It didn’t work because e-fields were so weak and easily interfered with.  Like cell phones on airplanes or in hospitals – it was not clear that it really mattered.  He’d never seen an effect on one of the heart monitors he had watched, and watched, and watched…

            Many of the bulbs sparkled more diffusely than the others.  Those were the ones that had been scratched on the pavement.  For all their damage, they gave a more pleasing glow.  Of course glass once scratched was weaker, he knew, at least once it got wet.  The silica bonds hydrolyzed when stressed – that was why in glass cutting you licked your finger and wiped it on the crack before bending the glass to break it.  He would have to be more careful with these fragile things.

            He got out his broom, and begin lifting the strands above his head, hooking them onto the nails he had left along the gutter last year.  Smugly he thought about this innovation which meant he didn’t have to get out the ladder this year.  “I am Man, the tool maker!  See me roar!”  He chuckled at the joke, as if the lions on the African veldt would be impressed by his Christmas lights.  When he finished hanging them, he backed out into the yard to admire the effect, sort of like icicles along the gutter.  A few of the bulbs glowed with a softer light.  Those were the scratched ones – sort of like you had cataracts.  There was a silver lining – at least Julia would never have to work about cataracts.

            He hurried to open another box, this time holding LED lights, which he arrayed over the bushes in front of the house like snow.  Funny how they looked bluer than the incandescent ones – fixed wavelength rather than the warmer look of full-spectrum blackbody radiation.  Did the manufacturer think they looked better that way, or were they forced to that color by the physics of the cheapest silicon junction they could mass produce?  At least they didn’t burn out as fast as the old fashioned kind.  If only they could make them better without changing anything.  He laughed – that was the classic catch-22 of new product development.  He’s spent his career fighting that one.  Of course the LED’s still failed.  Always there was a weakest link, and then the whole system, each system in turn, fails one by one, like co-dependent organs in a body.

            These wires were less tangled somehow.  He must have taken more care in keeping them all lined up when he stored them.  Like those wire leads in Julia’s long hair, all flowing together.  He remembered when she stood by the bed, and straightened her long hair, with all the heart monitors and IV lines mixed in.  It was at once sexy and horrifying.  Later, she’d had to cut off her beautiful hair.  She could still stand easily back then, thanks to those long hours of physical therapy.

            As he put the wires over the juniper bushes, he noticed the fallen leaves that had accumulated behind them – red, yellow, and brown.  Those colorful pigments that people raved about in the autumn, yet were there all year, hidden beneath the green, which faded with the cold.  Those were the colors of sunset, when the red end of the spectrum shown through and the blue scattered away to pigment somebody else’s sky.  Blue was better than yellow, the color of jaundice. 

            He glanced up at the cloudy sky.  No hope of seeing the northern lights tonight, as the solar wind danced down through the earth’s magnetic field at the poles.  The poles that were wandering now that climate change was redistributing masses of ice and changing the Earth’s moment of inertia as it spun on its axis.  And rather than move like a rigid solid, it crumbles and gives us earthquakes along with the fires, just like the predictions of the End Days.  What did the ancients know and try to warn us about?  How could we leave such a mess for little Buddy’s generation?  Will he ever forgive us?

            The next box showed serious water damage.  Maybe they should make cardboard boxes with drains, to keep them dry.  Drains – like Julia had in her abdomen.

            Quickly he broke into this one, the cardboard giving way before the tape did.  Inside, all over the green garlands, were webs.  Not spider silk, like they used in surgery, but cocoons of moths.  The things had eaten through the cardboard – it wasn’t just horses and humans that ate cellulose.  How many people knew they were drinking hydrolyzed cellulose when they had a thickened milk shake?  Oh, and rats.  At least the moths were just trying to find a safe place to pursue their metamorphosis into winged beauty.  Silver moths were almost as good as butterflies; at least they could enjoy some silver years.  Rats were worse.  They would eat anything.

            Eating – he’d had enough a couple days ago at Thanksgiving dinner to last a lifetime.  But Julia didn’t, for the second time in a row.  It was just a year ago when she couldn’t eat, and we realized she was sick – how sick we had no idea.  “Enough to last a lifetime,” what a bed choice of words!  It was like walking on eggshells these days.

            He turned to the first plastic tote.  It had a lid that bent back, an integral part of the molded body.  It must be made of polypropylene – it was the only plastic that crystallized when it bent like that to form a “living hinge”.  It could be bent back and forth over and over again and never break.  They made daily pill holders out of that.  Like for Julia’s pills – all three sets, morning, noon, and night.

            Polyethylene didn’t do that.  In fact it aged poorly, the polymer chains just unzipping when the sun hit it.  You either had to put stabilizers in it, that were more expensive than the base polymer was to begin with, or count on it being disposable.  Like all that plastic tubing and stuff they had in the hospital that they had to constantly change out.  Of course that was to avoid infection – nothing lasted long enough to worry about degradation.  Nothing lasted.

            He put the finishing touches on things, winding garlands around the iron railings that ran up to the front door.  Fireproof these things were.  As if there was going to be a fire starting on the front steps.  Maybe somebody would have a lighter in their pocket and brush up against it – not as if there was welding going on here or something that would throw sparks.  No oxygen tanks around here, not outside, only inside near Julia.

            Julia.  She and Buddy were inside.  He’d done all this for them.  One of the many things they had done to make Buddy remember her last days as a happy time, rather than filled with the grief of hospice.  He was still young, still could grow up with hope.  Time to go get them and show them the lights.  He had left them by the Christmas tree, that they had put up in the afternoon.  Rather – he had put up, while Buddy napped and Julia directed.  Time to give them one more bit of joy.  He opened the door, went inside, and had to take off his glasses as they fogged up.  As he waved them in the air, he wiped the moisture out of his eyes.

            Moving to the living room, he paused in the door.  Julia sat on the sofa, oxygen tube running to a portable tank, drains tucked away discretely, in a night gown, short hair a tangle – but she was smiling.  Little Buddy was exploring the Christmas tree with the delight that only a toddler could show.  He ran around it, touching the tinsel, the toy soldiers, the bright glass ornaments.  In his left hand, he clutched a candy cane – the red dye was smeared on his wrist and mouth.  Julia turned to him and her smile broadened.  “Buddy loves it; this is truly wonderful.”

            Marvin choked back his response, and watched his son lie on the floor and peer up at the tree lights above him.  All the poor man could do was nod.

            “He will remember this for the rest of his life, and he’ll remember me being here with him.  This is just what I wanted.  Thank you.”  She cocked her head and looked at him.  “Why are you wearing your coat still?  Was there something you needed us to see?”

            Marvin looked puzzled. “I…..”  He looked again at his son, who was putting a string of tinsel on his head.  “No, nothing.”  He shrugged off his coat, draped it over a chair and sat down beside his wife.  He put his arm around her and looked at his son as the toddler discovered another shiny ornament on the tree.

            “No,” he said, “this is what really matters.  Sorry I was outside so long, missing all of this.  This is where I need to be.”

            He hugged her tight and they smiled at each other.



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