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Richard Baran
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The Jacket

Chapter 1
Almost every word Kid Scream ever said to his oldest son combined a gruff command and shouted warning that pierced the core of Tidge’s soul. Not this time. What had been gravel coated, frightening threats now oozed out as cough punctuated gasps. The Kid’s shriveled mouth, set in what had once been a square tough jaw, forced out each word. Even Kid Scream’s last words to Tidge emerged as commands, the once feared bark and bite absent, a trinity of frail warnings. His father’s right hand made a twitching motion and Tidge moved closer. His father gasped and his hard, steel blue eyes flickered as he pronounced the first of his orders, “Get your head out of your ass and toss Brew’s goddamned jacket into the trash.”
Tidge nodded.
The second order followed, sounding like a giant exhale. His eyes didn’t flicker. “There ain’t no Santa Claus,” he wheezed. “So stop acting like every day is goddamn Christmas.” His father emitted a deep, raspy phlegm coated cough. His breath, a mix of decay and the cheap wodka that sustained him through life, collided with the revolting antiseptic aroma that permeated the hospital room.
Tidge swallowed hard and shut his eyes. “Yeah, Dad,” he whispered, the rancid odors gagging him. He grabbed at the disfigured side rail of his father’s bed. His father’s chest heaved, lungs struggling for a last breath of air. The Kid’s eyelids opened. Tidge bent closer. Kid Scream choked out his final words. “The screwed up Natives are yours now,” he managed. “Unscrew them.”
Tidge understood. Now compassion replaced–too late–the dread Tidge felt for his father. Sometime before, he realized that he feared his father more than he loved him. He nodded to the skeleton lying on the hospital bed. Then he saw his father’s eyes close again, heard a relieved sigh and knew the torch had been passed.
Tidge straightened, his hands slipping off the hand rail as he backed away a few steps, still staring at his father’s body. He understood why Kid Scream referred to his son’s family as screwed up. His father and his bigotry had screwed it up. The Kid had

estranged his sons and alienated Tidge against his brothers. Kid Scream could never comprehend why three of his sons couldn’t marry girls just like the girl he had married. “Look at those goddamned kids of yours,” he once said to his wife.
Mary Rose Callahan Mackiewicz could have been Maureen O’Hara’s older sister. She had been dubbed “Mother Mary May I” by her children; a term of deep respect because of her constant correcting of their use of the word can and may. Her long red hair spent most of its time curled in bobby pins. It framed her calm look of disapproval which, when aimed at her husband’s language, always stopped his tirades in mid-sentence. She would permit none of his demeaning comments about any of her daughters-in-law whom she cherished as if she had gone through the pains of child birth with each. “Your sons are good husbands and fathers who married beautiful women who are loving mothers,” she would say in a brogue that could thicken when necessary.
Tidge resented his father’s bigoted imprecations about his sons’ wives. Bits and pieces of his father’s comments chipped off to include Tidge’s wife, Sissy. Then there was the rubble of his divorce and Tidge joined his brothers in banishing Kid Scream from the family. The Kid called his daughters-in-law natives, though never to their faces. He, however, never considered his hurtful comments as bigotry. One of his daughters-in-law came from Native American heritage, another descended from Asian-Americans and another from African American parents. When Kid Scream wanted to specify one of the women, he used the names “Squaw”, “Slant” or “Spade”. He did not understand why his sons found these sobriquets offensive.
His father regarded Tidge as the only one who married a real American even though he disliked the black haired, self-centered fashion plate at first sight. “I can’t believe he’s going to marry that stuck up broad,” he said to Mother Mary May I, then dodging her look of disapproval. Kid Scream garnered more looks over time from Mother Mary May I describing Tidge’s wife, Sissy. Among other things, he said, “She’s lazy, useless as tits on a nun, and stopped being a mother to our three granddaughters about the time the afterbirth appeared.”
Over time, Tidge came to agree with his father even though he loved Sissy, at least in the beginning. Then the love vanished along with the marriage.
Tidge looked down again at his lifeless father and, to his surprise, began to cry. He didn’t weep for his father. Tidge wept because he didn’t want the responsibility that his father had passed to him.
He understood his three brothers resented him for being his father’s favorite and he knew they wouldn’t want him to be the Mackiewicz family patriarch. Even before the anointing, they ignored almost everything he said to them including polite questions and expressions of concern such as, how ya doin’, how’s the wife and take care of yourself.
If his mother had been alive, he would have been spared his siblings’ animosity. Mother Mary May I would have forced her sons to respect all courtesies. If her sons deviated one step from what she often described as the path the Lord’s sandals trod on, she would give them a gentle though firm reminder that they had been named after saints, each word smothered in her gravy thick brogue. Reminders changed to warnings when a second step went awry. Her brogue would thicken and with stern looks of disapproval her words of warning became spicier and filled with censure as she would say, “You boys will certainly get the what for from Saints Thomas, Peter, Paul and John if you don’t mend your ways.”
Mother Mary May I never handed the gravy ladle to Kid Scream. Nonetheless the boys lived in fear of their father’s tyranny even after their mother’s death and they were adults. When Kid Scream died what for didn’t matter. What mattered to Tidge was that not one of his brothers bothered to be with their father at the hospital when he passed away. He knew that Mother Mary May I would have been so incensed if she knew her gravy ladle would have been in splinters.

Over the next several years Tidge’s failure to reconcile with his family nagged at him. His father’s final orders became a debilitating burden. Tidge, however, never stopped believing that every day was Christmas, and his belief ruled every stage of his life.
After his father’s death he continued to embrace the total spirit of Christmas. Despite an incident at age six when Tidge reviled a department store Santa, calling him a “fat bastard”, he hoped that Santa Claus would someday leave him a special present that would help him unscrew his screwed up family.
Tidge waited and believed, but he had no intention of following one of his father’s last commands. His late Uncle Brew had passed an old aviator’s jacket on to him and the jacket became his coat of arms. Tidge believed the jacket possessed a magic that would one day provide the solution to carrying out his father’s three demands. The story his Uncle Brew attached to the jacket acted as Tidge’s shield and sword: The German Luftwaffe had shot down Santa Claus over Germany on Christmas Eve of 1944 and, according to his uncle and several other eye witnesses, Santa survived.
Mother Mary May I even believed the story of Santa’s war heroics. Her brother-in-law, a Navy pilot and Korean War hero himself, once possessed Santa’s flight jacket. Now her son wore it. She however saw Christmas as sacred, not jolly.
Tidge’s mother taught him that Christmas decorations should adorn every square inch of table space with religious figurines nestled in layers of surgical cotton. The Infant Jesus was her favorite. She displayed with reverence statues of the Christ child in a variety of poses throughout her house. Baby Jesus statues outnumbered his closest competitors, Santa and Frosty, by twelve to one.
Tidge, without a trace of disrespect, reversed his mother’s priorities. He had an Infant Jesus or two, but his Santa collection, and conglomeration of snowmen, Rudolph and the other reindeer, Uncle Mistletoe, Aunt Holly, Mrs. Claus and Suzy Snowflake, overwhelmed his mother’s religious figurines. His demoting of his mother’s blessed iconic statuettes turned out to be not so great a reduction in rank. Mother Mary May I had her favorite decorations, but so did her first born son. His centerpiece, spotlighted in the front window of his house, portrayed the Nativity scene with antique hand-carved figurines. Carvings of tiny, curious children, heralding angels, snoozing cows, bored goats, grazing sheep and visitors’ camels graced the front window. His grandfather shipped the set from Poland to Tidge’s father and his new wife about the time Hitler was putting on his hob nail boots to crush Poland. The battered cardboard carton was the last the Mackiewicz newlyweds in America ever heard from Dziadziu. The Mackiewicz children of Ignatius and Mary Rose only knew their grandfather, who they called, Ja-Ja from several cracked photographs, the square jaw and stern eyes replicated in their own father.
Tidge saw Christmas as giving and giving and giving. He always completed his Christmas shopping by the Fourth of July. He stacked boxes of Christmas decorations in closets one day exactly after the official end of the Christmas season the way his mother did. He recalled her coming home after Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand’s and announce to he and his brothers: “Get out the boxes, boys. Christ has been baptized and Christmas is officially over.” The boxes wouldn’t appear again until the day after Thanksgiving according to Mother Mary May I’s edict.
When Tidge and his brothers were carefree kids and life was a happy sand pile, Christmas almost always meant presents of all types. Mounds of festive wrapped packages jutted out from under their Christmas tree, the tree almost hidden by ornaments, strings of lights–half burned out, silver, recycled tinsel and spirals of colored paper loops each son had made in kindergarten and saved by Mother Mary May I. There was always a toy or a game or a ball that represented a sport. Even receiving an item of clothing was a delight though no one’s favorite.
However, a Christmas or two had been sparse. Once their father had been temporarily laid off from working on the shipping and receiving dock at a meat packing company across the street from what remained of the Union Stock Yards. No packages bulged out from under the tree on that Christmas morning, but each of the boys received a present thanks to a frugal Mother Mary May I. She had gone into her contingency savings account, the currency and coins stashed away in one of several cracked tea cups that had belonged to her mother who had died in Ireland. The cups were stashed behind two chipped oval serving platters in the back of two cabinets above the kitchen sink.
Each Mackiewicz boy got to open a festive package thanks to Mother Mary May I, the queen of recycled Christmas wrapping. Her first words to them after wishing them a Blessed and Merry Christmas were, “Be careful not to tear the paper or ruin the ribbons and bows.” One Christmas morning Tidge opened a package that had his name on the front of the name tag and, written on the back, To: Iggy. From: Bruce.
Recycled Christmas wrap never stopped Tidge from believing in Santa Claus. His divorce and the resulting fallout may have dampened his spirit, but he still believed. Even his father’s bigotry couldn’t get in the way of his getting excited about Christmas. Excitement was what Christmas was all about. Little had changed for him during the brief interlude starting the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas morning. Still he and his brothers missed searching the family house for hidden presents weeks before Christmas. Like intrepid archeologists they sifted through every inch of their tiny Cape Cod house and never found a thing: nothing in the attic, nothing in the garage and nothing in their parent’s bedroom closet. Christmas morning found them dejected, but still optimistic, as the four of them rolled out of the two single beds they shared. After a stumbling race down the stairs to the living room, the sight that greeted them banished all traces of dejection. The Mackiewicz boys always found something under the tree for them.
One morning the something under the tree was Santa Claus. As they discovered, it wasn’t Santa but, instead, their Uncle Bruce. Uncle Brew, as he was also known because of his voracious thirst for anything alcohol, had passed out Christmas Eve and spent the night snoring under the tree, still wearing his, stained, faded red suit and hat. Joining the snoring was their father, Kid Scream who was nestled in his favorite chair, his body twisted in a geometric curve that gladdened the hearts of chiropractors. The Mackiewicz boys didn’t care. They extricated their presents from under the tree without disturbing Santa and their father.
Christmases came and went. Then Uncle Brew, their Santa Claus, was gone. He was followed by Mother Mary May I who almost took the spirit of Christmas with her. Kid Scream departed soon after, his final orders to Tidge gathering dust along with the Natives staying screwed up.
Tidge’s belief in the magic of Christmas stood solid even though he developed an earnest desire to shed the mantle of family leadership. Through it all, he clung to an optimism that refused to die thanks to his second wife, Willy whom he married less than two months before his father passed away. If his special present didn’t come from Santa Claus this Christmas, next year awaited. At one tick-tock past midnight to start December 26th, he would swallow the bile of his disappointment like he had in the past, tell himself he understood and started waiting all over again.
As October gave way to November, Tidge’s hopes heated up from a simmer to a low boil. Thanksgiving to him transcended gluttony and televised football. It was time to once again pass underneath the archway to the start of another Christmas season. This Christmas, he was convinced, would be the one.

Chapter 2
“I'll betcha this is the year,” Tidge said to Willy, as they took their daily walk. “I know it.” They savored the late fall afternoons of the Northwoods and walking along the black top county road surrounded by a canyon of pine and birch of the Chequamegon National Forest. Inhaling the incredible fragrances of the crisp and clear air seemed to accelerate the coming of Thanksgiving and, finally, Christmas.
Tidge had been married to Wilhelmina Schneider-Jones going on three years. She was fourteen years his junior, his youngest daughter’s former eighth grade teacher, a widow, and the love of his life. He adored her. His devotion to her nosed out his affection for the Yule Time, Santa Claus and his aviator’s jacket, but not by much.
Willy looked up at him, her head surrounded by the fur halo of her hooded parka, and said, “This is the third time I’ve heard you state that this is the year Santa Claus will bring you your special present.” She tried to be sympathetic, her near arm looped with his, as they strolled together shuffling their feet through the October leaves that grudgingly lingered as Thanksgiving approached. “I still can’t believe how disappointed you get, and then how philosophical you become about being let down by your hero, idol and role model, Kristopher Kringle.”
“Into each life some leaves must fall,” he said, acting philosophical. “A man’s got to believe,” he continued, his optimistic enthusiasm crackling like the delicate sound of the leaves under their hiking boots. “He’s got to have a dream.”
“Even if your dream is what my father used to call a pipe dream,” she said, then wishing she could reach out with her deer skin, fur lined mittens and snatch her words back.
“A dream by any other name,” he said, a cherubic smile twinkled back at Willy. “I dream therefore I am,” He loved the way her frosted brown hair blended with the hood’s fur trim and how her sugar brown eyes, his description of them, seemed to flash a continuous message telling him he was her one and only. His head did a dance as if he were listening to Gene Autry singing about a red nosed reindeer. “Santa’s a busy dude at Christmas,” he continued. “There are lots of little kids on his list who also have dreams.” His optimism climbed like a psychedelic colored hot air balloon at a summer Wisconsin art festival. “Once he takes care of the kids, he’ll bring my special present.”
“You’re the biggest little kid I’ve ever seen,” she replied, her voice now lacking any signs of sympathy. “Just don’t walk around here down in the mouth until Easter because Kris the Dude let you down again.”
Tidge smiled at her, his mischievous blue eyes sparkling, and then pointed at himself. “Me? Down? No way, dearest wife.”
He saw her squeeze at his arm with her mittens, but felt only a gentle pressure through the padded thickness of his layers of a wool lumberjack shirt, ski sweater and the scarred World War II Army Air Corps leather jacket he wore with pride as if he had flown in combat over the ack-ack filled skies of Europe. “Santa’s my main man,” he said, an impish grin teasing her. “If you believe in him, he believes in you.” The expression on his face underscored his statement. “This is the year he makes my dream, pipe or otherwise, come true.”
She gave his arm another squeeze and looked straight ahead. “If your main man doesn’t make your dream come true, are you going to stop believing in him?” she asked, the sing-song lilt of her voice sounding like elevator music punctuated with a Brubeck rondo.