Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Louie Story

This is a family chestnut, originally written about 10 years ago. I think the restaurant mentioned here is still in business, but the antagonist in the story has probably passed on. If he was a relative of yours, I'm sure he wasn't quite like I portray him-please indulge the vagaries of a memory from childhood.

The Louie Story

Christmases where money was tight (which happened often), my family called “Thin Christmases.” As in, “You remember Christmas ’78? That one was a little thin.” Such holidays were hard on my mother, because the effort to provide the perfect holiday often brought her to the breaking point.

This story starts with a Christmas tree-- or rather without one. In the seventies, unemployment in Buffalo was rampant and my father had long been jobless. By December, it was a struggle to find money for anything, let alone for gifts and decorations. When my brother (age five) and I (age seven) began to fret about not having a tree, were told we would get one. We stopped worrying. Our parents always came through. So when the day finally came to get a tree, we would get a tree, come Hell or high water. We didn’t go to Hell, but we did run into the devil.

Most of the trees in our town had already been sold. We stopped at every stand, but the remaining trees were brown or ugly or expensive.

Mom didn’t want to go far out of town for a tree. The closest place left was Louie's Restaurant on Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda. Louie had sold trees for years and always had lovely ones, even late into December.

We went to Louie’s. The place, ringed in twinkling lights and frosted with meringue drifts of snow, was the stuff of fairy tales. A picture-book forest greeted us; the lot was full of deep green, incense-fragrant, painfully perfect trees. My brother and I were bouncing around the inside of Mom’s decrepit black Ford. “Look, the lights! Look, the trees! Let us OUT!" Mom barely got the car parked as Bill and I tumbled out. Mom followed, less enthusiastic.

"Help youse guys?"

It was Louie. He was short, with receding hair and a big nose. I knew it was Louie because of his greasy, red satin jacket-- his name was embroidered on the front.

How could someone so horrid have such good trees?
"Help youse guys?"

"Just looking." said Mom. Bill and I peered into a tree’s bristly depths, looking for a bird nests. A nest was a twiggy sales clincher.

"Nice tree," said Louie, looking like Lucifer.

My brother and I scuttled closer to Mom.

"Just looking," Mom was wearing an old booger-green parka with a hood trimmed in wretched fake fur, gone all clumpy from wear. The parka had been mended several times. Mom looked tired.

"This one?" Billy found a tree. It had a beautiful, perfect wedge shape. It had a bird’s nest. It had a cheery red pricetag announcing $65.00

"What an eye the little guy’s got! Nicest tree on the lot! You’ll take it!" exclaimed Louie. My brother and I recoiled, expecting Louie to offer up a poisoned apple, a la Snow White.

"Can't afford it." stated Mom.

“Awwww.” Our parents had sadly explained “budgets” several times. There would be other trees, ones we could buy. So we said “Awwww” and let it go.

Louie did not. "The kids really like it.”

"My children understand." Mom said softly.

"Look, Lady, it’s Christmas. Your kids..."

“Look, Louie, I have thirty-five dollars.”

Louie obviously didn't believe her. "You wouldn't buy your kids the tree they want?"

My brother and I were baffled. Why would Louie think Mom had more than thirty-five dollars?

Maybe Louie needed budgets explained to him.

“You think I just fell off the turnip truck?”

“Then please show me something I can afford.”

Suddenly, Louie began waving his hands and looking more and more like the Devil himself, what with that red jacket and all. The tail end of the long conversation was burned indelibly onto my young mind:

"Look, I have thirty-five dollars. I’m not lying. If you really want to sell me that tree, you’ll have to do it for thirty-five or I have to go somewhere else.”

Louie was not prepared for what happened next (neither were we).

"Ah, you're too goddamn cheap to buy it for your kids. . ."

That was it. My mother wanted to buy that tree for us more than anything. Suddenly, Mom’s ratty old parka was a queen’s ermine-trimmed velvet cape and our mother looked regal and fierce and beautiful.

"You can take your tree," said our elegant mother in a royally glacial tone,

Louie was expecting to be told “I’ll take it,” not told to shove the tree up his nether region. He went ballistic! His face turned as red as his jacket. It would have been no surprise had he sprouted horns and a tail!

My brother and I, shocked by our mother’s use of an expletive, were unable to move! Our mother NEVER cussed! We thought it was Armageddon. We waited for the Four Horsemen of the Parking Lot Apocalypse to appear. We were paralyzed, looking like two codfish with our mouths open in great, round "O's!" Surely, in revenge, that devil Louie would grab us and take us to Hell (a frozen lot full of ugly trees, no doubt)!

Before Louie could do so, Mom hurled us like snow-suited shot-puts into the backseat of the car. She got in, slammed into gear, and we went fishtailing towards home.

My brother and I began to cry.

"Don't cry, we’ll find a tree. I promise." Mom said, tearing up.

Our mother misunderstood our reaction. We weren’t upset about the tree. We had just realized that even at Christmas, people were mean, even to our mother…and maybe we were upset about the tree – but just a little.

Then, despite her tears, Mom giggled.

"What are you laughing at?" I asked.

"Boy, did he get mad." she snickered.

In awe, I said "You told Louie to shove his tree up his a--"

"Et, et..." Mom shushed me. "I shouldn't have said that to him, it wasn’t nice and it's Christmas." She choked back another laugh. The more Mom thought about Louie’s reaction, the funnier it got. I believe she looked at the confrontation scoreboard style:
Connie: 1 - Louie: 0

"He was mean!" said my brother.

"Some people are like that, even at Christmas. We'll go find someone nice to buy a tree from."

Eventually we found a stand where a man let Mom have a nice tree for twenty dollars, which was less than what was written on the price tag. It wasn't perfect like Louie's, but when the man said "Merry Christmas," we knew he meant it.

A few days after Christmas, Mom took a leisurely drive past Louie's lot. The tree was still there.

Connie: 2 - Louie: 0

1 comment:

Saka-Chan said...

I love connie...