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December 28, 2010

Karen Abbott: My Best Christmas

Posted by Anonymous

KarenAbbott.jpgEx-journalist Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of two fast-paced books about the glitz and glamour of early 20th-century America: SIN IN THE SECOND CITY: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul and AMERICAN ROSE: A Nation Laid Bare, the Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, available in stores today. Below, she recollects her best (and bloodiest) Christmas ever, and the book that made her holiday misadventures worthwhile.

I’ll admit it: I’m a Scrooge. I don’t much care for Christmas. As I kid, I leapt off Santa’s lap, ran screaming through the mall, and hid behind the sales rack at J.C. Penney’s, my mother in hot pursuit. I haven’t decorated a tree since entering adulthood. I like my chestnuts unroasted, thank you very much. Carolers make me homicidal. So does the forced cheer. I much prefer Halloween, when the masks are literal.

Christmas of 2006 loomed, promising greater stress than usual; I was on deadline to turn in my first book. I was living in Atlanta at the time, and my husband and I decided not to take our usual trip north to see family (mine in Philadelphia, his in New Jersey). Instead, we would go to a dinner party hosted by another couple in the city. This decision brought such an overwhelming sense of relief that, for the two weeks leading up to Christmas, a succession of tiny joys piled up in my brain, a mental stocking stuffed with the rarest of goodies. I would not have to drive 12 hours in a car with our two parrots screeching in the backseat. I would not have to watch my uncle open his traditional gift (from his octogenarian mother-in-law) of an extra long beef log and a subscription to Playboy. Perhaps best of all, I would not have to cross the border into the wilds of New Jersey. I even got into the spirit of the season, putting the Run-DMC classic “Christmas in Hollis” on repeat and draping a sprig of tinsel across the mantel.

At around 4pm on Christmas Day, we were ready to go. My husband bagged a bottle of wine and a cherry pie and went out to warm up the car. I was in charge of putting the parrots away. We have two African Greys, which are known for their intelligence (they are able to use entire sentences in proper context), mimicry skills and desire for constant attention. They’re incredibly neurotic and prone to depression; there is even a “birdie Prozac” you can slip in their water. Most of the time, they’re affectionate and playful companions, but they’re also only one or two generations removed from the wild, and so can be irascible and unpredictable. They’re like four-year-olds who never grow up, four-year-olds who can live to age 70. At the time, Poe (named for Edgar Allan) was nine, and Dexter (named for the author Pete Dexter) was six. We’d raised them both since they were six weeks old and scrawny, featherless clumps of squirming cartilage and tender bones. We syringe-fed them and swaddled them in blankets until they fell asleep, and waited for their first words.

I’d always had parakeets growing up, and back in 1998, I decided I wanted another bird, and I wanted to upgrade. My husband thought I was nuts. We were 24 years old, newly married, more than $100,000 in debt from student loans, and had just bought our first house. African Grey parrots cost $1500 a pop, not including food, cage and accessories. I went to the bird farm anyway, put a $500 non-refundable deposit on my credit card, and brought Poe home. My husband, who is the kindest, most even-tempered person I know --- to this day, I’ve never heard him raise his voice --- looked at me with a quiet, heartbreaking fury.

“He’s your bird,” he said, and walked away. My mother had to pay off the balance.

A few days later, I traveled to Los Angeles for work. When I returned, I found my husband watching football on the couch, cradling the bird in the crook of his arm. Poe has been his bird ever since. Three years later, Dexter became mine. 

On that Christmas Day, Poe obediently stepped off my hand and into his cage. But Dexter was obstinate, curling his talons around my finger and staring at me with one quick and wily eye. With my other hand, I patted his back and told him we’d be home soon. He swiveled his neck and fixed me with his other eye. Then he seemed to sigh and settle his wings, sinking into himself. He is a zaftig creature --- the vet categorizes him as a large bird instead of medium and charges extra to groom him --- and this wing-settling always makes his neck disappear. It’s rather endearing. I felt guilty leaving him, and sought out a patch of neck to kiss. 

He bit me. Hard. Through my upper lip.

After 10 minutes of howling and stifling an urge to bring Dexter as a side dish, I decided I still wanted to go to the dinner party. I pressed an icepack to my mouth, and my husband put the bird away. He was still standing on the floor where I’d dropped him, saying “Sorry, buddy” over and over in a soft and gentle voice. I didn’t respond.

We arrived, and my friend immediately plied me with painkillers and a glass of wine, which I tried to drink with a straw. Dumb idea --- pursing my lips around the plastic caused too much strain. The bleeding accelerated. I did a shot of whiskey instead, no mouth maneuvering involved, just a warm burn tunneling through the throat. It gave me hope. We sat down to dinner. The first course was a splendid pumpkin soup. Eating soup, of course, requires a pursing of the lips. I tried my best. I slurped loudly. A sliver of skin on my lip flapped open. Everyone was polite enough not to mention that I was now bleeding into my bowl. My husband stood and announced that I might needed stitches, and we should probably head over to Grady Hospital. 

I’m pretty confident I was the only parrot-related casualty in the waiting room, which was doing swift business. I perused the other wounds: a knife fight, an alcohol-induced lump on the head, black eyes and broken arms and other domestic-related horrors. I forced myself to look at the TV. Rocky IV was playing. “We can’t change what we are,” Sylvester Stallone mumbled. “We can only hope to go with what we are.” I was having Christmas at home anyway, by proxy, only this time no one around me bothered to feign joy.

A half-hour passed with my face in cloud of tissues. My husband tapped my arm. My friend was there. “I wanted to give you your gift,” she said, “in case you couldn’t come back.” It was a first edition of PARIS TROUT, my favorite book of Pete Dexter’s, and one of my favorite books of all time. I tried to smile and the lip skin gaped. My friend winced. “At least that Dexter doesn’t bite --- that we know of,” she said. This time my mouth insisted and smiled wide, dropping a brilliant speck of blood on the cover. I didn’t wipe it off, and it settled and dried on the paper. Today I keep the book turned out on my shelf, where it reminds me of my best Christmas yet. 

Tomorrow, check back for yet another double holiday treat, as Rachael Herron and Sally Gunning reflect on two unexpected gifts that meant the world to them.