“Shipping and mishandling,” Martini says, lifting packets of broken gingerbread out of a dented box. “Geez. All the Grande Dame had to do was get the kit home from the store.” Martini gets an idea as Fizz pokes listlessly at the rock hard fragments.
“Hey, Fizzy, let’s make it look like Santa’s sleigh crashed into the roof.” The suggestion puts the Christmas pizzazz back into the nine-year-old Fizz, who immediately decapitates one of the gingerbread men then runs to the kitchen for red food colouring.
As Martini looks for tin foil for sleigh building, their mother’s voice cuts through the air like a sharp shiny blade: “No, Virginia, there most definitely is not a Santa Claus!” The siblings tiptoe from the kitchen to stare silently at the door to the den. The Grande Dame is in there talking to herself.
Her name is indeed Virginia, although no one calls her that anymore. As a child she was Ginnie; as a teenager she became Gin. No one is quite sure whether the sobriquet begat the drinking habit or vice versa but – Tanquiri, lemon or bathtub – Virginia took to the juniper infusion at an early age, like a rat to garbage.
When she was twenty-one, a forty hour labour produced her first child. Before she asked to see the baby she asked for a drink; under the influence she named him Tom Collins. Eventually his name got shortened to TC because calling him became tiresome: “Bedtime, Tom Collins!”
Three years later, following a blessedly easy labour, her second child arrived and got named after Gin’s favourite cocktail. The name did not get shortened, as “Marty” sounded too working class (an impression Gin got from the movie of the same name). So how many times had the wee one come running at the bark of “Martini!” only to find Gin was actually ordering a drink? Eight years after Martini, Fizz was born, an afterthought, an aperitif, a nightcap, with a name so short the child hardly heard it sometimes.
Now the Grande Dame sweeps through the living room in a long black velvet dress and her seasonal scowl, leaving in her wake the mysterious scent of Shalimar. Her kids scurry back to their project, and their mother stops to look at the gingerbread catastrophe as Fizz splashes food colouring on the mangled cookies.
“Is this what the birth of Christ has come to mean?” Gin hisses. “Broken gingerbread houses and blood-spattered gingerbread men?” Martini looks at Fizz and sees the merriment drain out of the little girl’s already too pale face. The last vestiges of Christmas spirit are crumbling like so many assembly-line gingerbread houses and Martini feels the desire to run away from the circus.
For years Martini has longed to leave the Grande Dame far behind and find an exciting life that she can’t rain on. But leaving Fizz alone in the downpour would be out of the question. TC got out, fled two years ago without regard for siblings. Of course, it helped that Gin banished him; no one remembers why anymore, except perhaps TC, whom they haven’t heard from since.
Martini stares into a silver ball hanging from the Christmas tree and sees the distorted reflection of a changing face: one moment the mirror image echoes a glamorous movie star, the next it suggests a wounded six year old. Just what is in store for Martini, the alleged son of a wastrel who split years ago and a gin-soaked mother who also seems to have split years ago, is uncertain – he could kiss his mirror self with its evolving identity or crush the emerging authenticity under his shoe.
“What would Kate do?” Martini asks his silver ball self.
Every birthday Martini adopts a new celluloid role model then watches all her films, plucking lines and bits of business to use as life hacks. Last year for sweet sixteen the model was Anna May Wong (“I dance in that – or not at all.”) This year it’s Katharine Hepburn.
“The calla lilies are in bloom again.” These words have brought many an argument with Gin to a sudden end. Oh the argument is never really over but this scrap of dialogue resonates with his mother just long enough for Martini to make a quiet exit. Stage Door, the flick from which the line is lifted, holds special meaning for Gin, echoing as it does her own youthful love affair with the theatre. She has been left muttering “calla lilies” beneath her lethal breath more than a few times as Martini escaped the contretemps du jour.
Martini’s favourite Hepburn flick is Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant and Kate sing to a leopard named Baby in order to calm it: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby…” This movie suggests a useful bit of business for Martini’s purposes now.
Gin is mixing her favourite cocktail at the kitchen counter when her second born sidles up and spears an olive. She glares at this complicated teenager of hers as he balances the olive on the back of his hand. With a slap to his fingers the olive is catapulted into the air. Dipping with open mouth to meet the airborne garnish he misses and it lands in the cat’s water dish. Fizz lets out a yelp of laughter at the tiny plop.
Kate couldn’t catch the olives in Baby either, resulting in Cary slipping on one, landing on his ass and crushing his top hat. It’s a hilarious scene that the whole family has laughed over in countless screenings. But that was before TC left. Things have taken a sour turn since then: Gin Sour.
Martini flips another olive, this time catching it and provoking a howl of laughter from Fizz. Gin fixes her youngest with a steely stare that could bring the Grinch to his knees. Then, scooping her drink up, she vanishes back into her lair, slamming the door behind her. Christmas always did this to her. Ah, life always did this to her.
Martini chews on the salty catch as Fizz picks at a blue Smartie from the gingerbread wreckage. The clock chimes seven. Christmas eve. The siblings are about to give up on the cookie fiasco and go play video games when from behind the den door comes the sound of their mom’s voice, not talking to herself this time but singing: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”
Martini and Fizz stare at the door. The disembodied voice chirps: “That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.” The sibs look at each other, count a beat, then sing: “Dream awhile, scheme awhile…” The door opens a crack, Gin’s auburn head pops out: “We’re here to find…” Martini and Fizz take a step closer: “Happiness, and I guess…” Gin steps outside the door and the three harmonize: “…all those things you’ve always pined for.” Musical pause, then all together: “Gee but it’s good to see you looking swell, baby.”
Gazing at tinsel and ornaments on the tree the three croon like the chorus from an MGM musical: “Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby…I can’t give you anything but love.” Christmas has arrived in the Frost household.
First in the Frost Family series.
Photo by Aaron Schwartz