Try to picture this. It’s a little strange, I know, but bear with me.
Imagine that you can pick up a whole room the way you might pick up a sealed box. Hold it on either side. OK. Now. Imagine that it’s is filled with people. A Christmas Tree. Presents. Right in front of you, as you’re standing there, is a small cut out opening, rather like a door. You with me?
Now imagine that you turn the box with its small door facing the floor. Now shake the box hard one or two times. Out flies Uncle George, back first, his arms and legs straight out in front of him. He slams onto the floor, his head snaps back, crashes into the wall, and he grunts, a sound something like OOOOFHH!! OOHH!
Now imagine this. That was the first thing I saw when we reached the long hallway on the third floor where Nana and Grandpa lived. Uncle George being jettisoned from the apartment, smack into the fucking wall across the hall. Nana and Grandpa lived in a fourth apartment, pretty far down and on the left. As we climbed the stairs between the second and third floors I could hear shouts and screaming and a baby crying. It sounded far away, but I distinctly remember it being disconcerting. It upset me immediately.
My father spoke, but very quietly, like a whisper. What the hell is this now? At the third floor landing the yelling and crying was much louder. I looked down the long, empty hallway lit by a series of four or five bare, yellowish lightbulbs which cast a pallid yellow gunge tone on the hallway walls. The Uncle George thing happened just as we stepped into the hallway; I mean he was propelled out of Nana’s apartment. He was ejected from the room, back first, his arms and his legs straight out, and he flew in that position, just an inch or so off the floor, and smashed into the wall across the hall from Nana’s door. The back of his head snapped into the wall and he grunted as if all the air in his body were pushed out in one violent OOOOMMMPHH! And then he just sat there, slumped on the hallway floor, his head down, chin on his chest, motionless. The shouts and yelling were much louder now and the screaming cry of a baby penetrated all the other sounds.
My father said, Jesus Christ!, dropped the presents he was carrying and ran toward Nana’s apartment, with me running right behind him. My mother didn’t move. I glanced over my shoulder, and she was just standing there, weighed down with Christmas presents, and a look on her face that wavered between stunned and terrified. She wanted no part of whatever unthinkable chaos was causing this sickening racket. Uncle George had not moved, but I could see that his eyes were open, staring straight ahead, at nothing. My father took two steps into the apartment, me just behind him on his right, holding on to his belt.
That was when I saw where the baby’s crying was coming from. My baby cousin, Cheryl, maybe one and a half, was sitting up on the back of the couch. She had on baby blue footie pajamas. Her arms were out as if she were asking to be picked up, but no one was paying any attention to her. Her whole small body convulsed with each screaming cry, and her face was bright red. She was looking all around the room, horror in her red and swollen eyes, trying to catch her breath. The Christmas Tree was knocked over. It was laying across one end of the couch where baby Cheryl was. The lights were still lit, and it looked awful laying that way. It looked frightening. There were presents all over the floor. Some of the boxes were crushed.
Everyone was standing around against the walls of the tiny living room looking at the terrible thing hunched and menacing in the middle of the room amid the crushed presents and the toppled tree. Auntie Elaine was weeping, hard, almost as bad as Cheryl. Auntie Elsie, Auntie Millie, and Auntie Carmella stood with their backs against the wall. Maria, Carmella’s daughter, was holding her mother around the waist. Uncle Ray, Uncle Jimmy, and Auntie Frannie stood focused on the bad thing in the middle of the room. Uncle Dino was just inside the kitchen standing behind Nana. He was next to the stove and the steam from the pot of boiling macaroni rose near his head like a storm cloud. My little cousin Tommy was leaning into Nana who held his shoulders. You could tell by his puffy eyes that he’d been crying.
Just to my right, lying on the floor on his back was Grandpa. He was clawing at the front of his shirt trying to rip it off, and rolling his head from left to right, moaning, I no canna breathe. I no canna breathe. Helpa me! Helpa me! Auntie Minnie was kneeling at his side saying, It’s OK, Daddy. It’s gonna be OK. The ambulance is coming. Auntie Carmella wept and kept repeating Daddy. Daddy. On the couch Cheryl convulsed and screamed.
Standing in the middle of the room, his head hanging from his neck like a massive anvil, stood Uncle Joey. He had on half a shirt. The other half had been ripped off. There were long raw, weeping scratches on his chest. His arms hung from their sockets like weighty iron beams, but his heavy, thick hands were open, all of his fat fingers separated ready to grab something or someone. There was blood coming out of both of his eyes. Not from around his eyes, but from his eyes themselves. Yeah. That’s right. His eyes were bleeding. I squeezed my father’s belt tighter and moved closer to him.
A commotion arose in the hallway. More yelling. And then three firemen pushed my father and me out of the way and jostled their way into the crowded apartment. I clung to him. The third fireman was carrying a stretcher which they had a hard time fitting into the room. “Get out of way! Everybody back up! Move! Move!” But everyone was already squeezed so tightly into the apartment that there was nowhere to go. People shuffled a bit. Uncle Dino backed into the tiny kitchen and Nana and Tommy backed in, too. I couldn’t see Grandpa anymore. The big firemen were all kneeling around him. Auntie Minnie started to cry again. Daddy. Daddy.
When the fireman pushed us into the room he shoved my father closer to Uncle Joey, who hadn’t moved. He was still standing there in that terrifying position, head hung heavy, bloody eyes looking straight ahead, a blank stare on his red face, his big arms hanging from his shoulders, his hands open wide ready for something, anything.
I don’t know what they were saying, but the firemen’s voices sounded urgent. Then one of them stood up and shouted, “OK! Everybody move back! Move back!! Make room here! We gotta get this stretcher out! Move back! Move back!” Cheryl looked at the fireman and her wailing escalated. The other two firemen each took an end of the stretcher and managed to maneuver it toward the door. They brought the stretcher right past me and I could see Grandpa all wrapped up in a white sheet, moving his head from side to side and moaning.
Just before they got Grandpa all the way out of the tiny apartment, Uncle Joey, the monster in the center of the room, spoke.
“See, Pops. I’m a red-head just like you. It takes six fuckin’ guys to bring me down.”
What happened next happened so fast, so immediately, that there was no time for me to react. Uncle Joey had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when my father blasted forward, drove his shoulder into Uncle Joey’s chest, and the two of them fell back violently into the TV set which exploded with a loud POP! and the sound of shattered glass which rained on everyone in the room. There were screams. My other uncles jumped on my father, trying to get him off his kid brother. There was commotion, banging, yelling, these big men swinging and grunting. As they rumbled around on the floor, three cops appeared in the little room. One had his pistol drawn. The other two started hitting the pile of my uncles with their night sticks. At this point there was nothing to see except the backs of my uncles, my father, and the cops bringing down their billy clubs on the backs of anyone in front of them. And the distressed sounds of frightened human beings continued to fill the air.
When the cops finally managed to gain control of the brawl on the floor my uncles and my father stood up and backed away toward the wall, each seeking his wife. My father found my mother and me standing in the doorway. I think my mother must have come down when the cops got there. Uncle Ray went to Auntie Millie. Uncle Ralph to Elsie. Auntie Elaine picked little Cheryl off the couch and rocked her, trying to calm her down. Two of the cops lifted Uncle Joey off the floor and that’s when I saw that they had him handcuffed behind his back. His head was still hanging. His eyes bleeding. But for a moment I felt a tiny spark of comfort through my terror. Uncle Joey was handcuffed. This could stop now.
From the moment they left the little apartment, Uncle Joey cuffed – from that moment all the way to the evening of December 27, I have no recollection of anything. It’s a complete blackout. I don’t remember what we did just after the cops took him away. I don’t remember Christmas morning at home opening presents. I don’t remember Christmas Day or Christmas dinner or who, if anyone, came to our house. I remember nothing until the evening of December 27.
My mother and father were in the den watching TV. I was sitting at the kitchen table. The whole house was dark except for one light over the table where I was, and the light from the TV in the den. It was a soft light, I remember. It all felt good. After the horror of Christmas Eve this calm quiet felt really nice. I was working on a model car. The light was so soft. Kind of yellowish. The house was completely quiet, except for the sound of the TV in the other room.
And then there was a knock at the door.
I got up from the table and opened the door. And there stood Uncle Joey. His face was swollen and disfigured. Both of his eyes were blood red, kind of the color of raw salmon. I felt a horror come over my body like I had never felt before. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t speak. I just started walking backwards, until I bumped into the stove.
That’s when Uncle Joey said, “It’s OK, Kid. I ain’t gonna hurt you. Don’t worry about it. Go tell your old man I’m here.”
John L. Stanizzi is the author of 6 collections—Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, and High Tide–Ebb Tide.Published widely, he’s had poems in Prairie Schooner, American Life in Poetry, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, The Cortland Review, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, and many others. He’s been translated into Italian and appeared in El Ghibli, in the Journal of Italian Translations Bonafinni, and Poetarium Silva. A former New England Poet of the Year, John teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry.