Elvis and the Season of Light
December 16, 2014
I’m pretty much a bah-humbug person, especially now that Santa sends me spam emails. (Really, Big Guy? I’m much more likely to open an offer of gifts from someone called Ashley or Courtney or Svetlana. Try changing your name.) Yet, though I refuse to celebrate in an outward fashion, I do love the so-called “spirit” of the winter holidays. Last year about this time I wrote a little essay about the “season of depression,” which ended up on the Superstition Review blog in February. That post mentioned in passing a church tradition of lighting candles on Christmas Eve, typical of the way many (or most?) religions counter the winter darkness by celebrating light. In fact, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, begins tonight.
This year, then, I’ll post a passage relating to our reverence for light and all that it suggests. What follows is an excerpt from my novel The Big Happiness, which I’m preparing for republication as a Kindle ebook. A kind of warped love story, the novel features two protagonists who are each disabled in some way. Allison Roarty (a.k.a. Allison Wonderland) is a 45-year-old, divorced, wacky, sexually adventurous, somewhat overweight alcoholic with brain damage. By sheer accident she meets Leigh Berry, a gangling, half-blind, reclusive, 62-year-old devotee of ancient music. She seduces him and the novel is off and running—or rambling, stumbling and blundering after these weird characters.
Leigh’s language, like his mind, is often archaic and tortured. Through his relationship with Allison he has to learn to communicate again. He also has to deal with the “light,” both literal and figurative, that she insists on shining into the dim haunts of his life. One of her first acts is to throw open his curtains, and being an oddly mystical sort—though an atheist—he begins to suspect that the Light he encounters has meaning for him. On Christmas morning in Allison’s apartment, he wakes before she does and senses rays of a peculiar color—a silvery, otherworldly blue-white—on the windowsill. He’s intrigued and also scared, afraid he won’t live up to what Allison, and the God he doesn’t believe in, are demanding of him.
Then Allison wakes up. The two exchange presents, fool around in bed and listen to Elvis Presley’s recording of “White Christmas.” (It’s Allison, of course, who’s an Elvis fan—she “loved him even before he was dead.”) At last the lovers decide to venture outside:
She yawned, stood up, kissed him and proposed breakfast. “What say we splurge, sweetie? You think that coffee shop around the corner’s open today? Let’s go look. I could use a huge stack of pancakes and I think my Aunt Jemima mix has bugs in it—at least it did a few months ago.”
She dressed quickly and they bundled in their coats and gloves. Down the steps they went, arm in arm, out the door to the sidewalk. But there Allison jerked to a stop and grabbed him with both hands. “My God, look what happened! Careful, don’t fall—there’s ice all over. See it? The whole street’s coated! The rain must’ve froze, why didn’t somebody tell us?”
Leigh tried to peer about but he had forgotten his opticals. That odd silver light glittered everywhere.
“See the streetlight pole? That’s ice on it all the way up, like a, like a real cold condom, honey. It’s beautiful. The city’s deserted, no one’s going out in this. It’s all ours! Let’s pretend everybody else is dead. I mean, except the cook who’s gonna make our pancakes, he better be alive and working today or I’ll kill him.”
She nudged Leigh a step or two forward and pointed. “Look, right next to the building it’s dry, so if we take it real slow and stay close to the wall we can walk. You grab me and I’ll hold you. Those sparkly humps are parked cars, baby. That one that’s like a frozen little man, it must be the fire hydrant ’cause I don’t remember any midgets on this block. This is so cool! Hey, it’s a white Christmas, or close to white, just like Elvis said, sugar.”
The slicing crystal light reverberated in Leigh’s eyes, producing scattered bright spots, ghosts, shadows. He was reassured to learn of a meteorological explanation for the disconcerting rays through the curtains, but the direct glare was most confusing. He crept along beside the building with one arm up to shield himself.
Unearthly quiet in the city. The still air wrapping him in its cloak of silver wintriness. A dream of the afterlife come to this planet in overpowering brilliance.
“Neat-o,” exclaimed Allison when they eased round the corner. “That tree’s got, like, every tiny branch covered in ice.” She was suddenly gone a moment, during which he closed his eyes tight and faced the wall. Then she was back, tugging on one of his hands. “Here, feel this, slip off the glove so you can touch it, it’s so perfect. Trust me, Leigh, take your glove off, it won’t bite you.”
In his hand he felt a thin, hard, angular shape, sucking frostily at his fingers.
“It’s just a twig,” she said. “Off the tree. But see how perfect the ice coats it? It sparkles like diamonds. Or rhinestones anyway.”
The sharp light winked up from his palm, teasing him. A blued bodiless light of the soul—was it indeed God’s own?
“Now you have to admit,” she said, “Elvis can do magic, honey.”
Whether from heaven, humans or the spirit of Elvis, the lights of this season can indeed be magical—and challenging. May we all try to live up to their promise.