“I would take an ornament and put it on the tree and you would come right behind me, pull it off the branch and put it back in the box. Then on Christmas morning, all we heard was ‘Open it up’,” Maddie would say imitating Marie in a baby voice. “Half the time they weren’t even your presents, but you handed everybody a box and told them to open it up. And don’t let somebody tell you ‘no’. You would throw yourself on the floor and have a tantrum. You wouldn’t stop until old cousin Tia got on the floor and started hollering with you. You looked at her like ‘wait a minute, lady, you’re stealing my show’ and then you got up and stormed off like an angry midget.”
Marie would have given anything this particular year to have spent it with Maddie, Mercier, and Granny, but instead she and Jason were spending it with Robert—well sort of. He had closed himself up in the bedroom saying that he was in too much pain to come out and spend Christmas with them and Yvonne. Marie and Jason just considered that another one of their presents.
Yvonne had had the house decorated since November with her little figurines of Santa and Mrs. Claus, the nativity, nutcrackers of all sizes, and snow men—which were her favorite. She had a tree that she let them decorate with about fifteen or twenty ornaments, because the tree was only about three feet tall and they had to leave room for lights and garland. But Yvonne liked it anyway and nicknamed it her Charlie Brown tree. She had done her best to make the house feel as cheerful as the holidays had been when they had lived at Mercier’s house. But there was no competing with Auntie Maddie’s ability to turn a house into a winter wonderland.
In addition to the six-foot, lit and elaborately decorated tree, Maddie had everything from a train to a carousel to moving and talking Christmas characters to a completely lit village with little porcelain people standing in front of all the buildings. She hung wreathes and bows on all the doors and stockings with everyone’s names on them over the fireplace. She even left milk and cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve that magically disappeared by the time they got up the next morning.
But this Christmas Marie and Jason were still grateful to have the cheer that came from their mother opening her famous Café Poopoo, talking in her French accent, and serving them a hot breakfast with sprinkled cookies in the shape of Christmas trees. Almost every TV station was playing some holiday movie or cartoon, and she let them watch while they ate.
When they finished, she let them open their presents. They had only about two or three a piece, but Marie didn’t mind. She knew Granny, Mercier and Auntie Maddie would more than make up for that the next time she and Jason visited them. Maddie knew that those three sweet ladies would buy her and Jason toys and clothes and books all throughout the year and hide them in their special places until the week before Christmas when Auntie Maddie would gather them all into her room to wrap them. But she would only bring them out on Christmas Eve when she was sure that Marie and Jason were asleep to give the illusion that Santa had brought at least some of them. Maddie even went so far as to sign a couple of the tags on the presents as being from him. But the one year that Marie could never forget was the one in which Granny and the aunts had bought them so many presents that they all couldn’t fit under the tree. Instead, Maddie had to organize the presents into two piles that nearly touched the ceiling with a piece of construction paper that had Marie and Jason’s names on them taped to the center of each pile so they’d know whose mountain of gifts belonged to whom.
When she opened the presents from her mother, Marie always made sure to be grateful and act surprised even if she wasn’t. This year was a bit harder, because she already knew what she was getting. That was because Yvonne had taken Marie and Jason with her when she bought some of the gifts and told Marie that they wouldn’t get the items until Christmas. And with Marie and Jason’s larger gifts that Yvonne had bought in secret, there simply wasn’t enough room in the house for Yvonne to hide them that well.
In addition to their gifts, Marie and Jason each had a card signed by “Mommy and Daddy”. In Christmases past, Robert would at least scribble his signature next to Yvonne’s, but judging by the handwriting, Marie knew that her mother had done it for him this year. Either way, she didn’t want to make Yvonne feel bad. Seeing her mother sad because of something Marie had said or done was almost worse than getting a spanking from her.
Marie and Jason played with their new toys and had them meet some of their old ones. Jason was happy that Marie had gotten a Barbie since he had been wanting one to go along with his GI Joe. Robert had hit the roof when Jason had asked for a female doll. Robert said he wasn’t going to let Jason end up turning gay by playing like a girl. But neither Robert nor Yvonne knew the real reason Jason wanted girl toys. Marie did though. She and Jason understood a bit more about sex than their parents realized. Being devout Pentecostals, Yvonne and Robert felt it was better not to discuss such topics but rather focus the kids’ attention on the Bible. However, when the two of them were able to play under a little less supervision, Marie and Jason both knew GI Joe was going to help Ballerina Barbie out of her leotards.
Yvonne laughed out loud as Marie and Jason put on plays with their new toys and made them do all sorts of silliness. Soon Yvonne was in tears and digging through her purse for her inhaler. She took two puffs when she found it, then sat back to watch the children continue. Marie loved seeing her mother put a hand to her chest with her huge smile and her face ruby red. Marie performed to the pinnacle of goofiness just to hear her mother’s bursts of laughter that trailed into breathless wheezes the harder she laughed.
Then the bedroom door opened.
“Keep it down, I’m trying to sleep,” Robert said glaring down at Marie and Jason even though their mother had really been the loudest one.
“Oh, don’t be a Scrooge,” Yvonne rasped to him still trying to catch her breath. He turned his glare on her.
“I’m hurting!” he said, “These pills aren’t working.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “We’ll try to be more quiet.”
He turned and lurched back into the bedroom slamming the door behind himself. Marie looked over at Yvonne who stuck her tongue out at the door as if Robert were still standing there. Marie and Jason both stifled a laugh. They tried to resume their play quietly but Yvonne decided to join in this time. She was the master of goofiness. She made GI Joe sound like Donald Duck and Barbie like a drunken hillbilly. And before Marie knew it, she and Jason had forgotten all about Robert, and they were laughing twice as loud as before.
Suddenly the bedroom door flew open so hard that it hit the wall.
“I told you kids to shut up!” he said his face as red as Yvonne’s then, “Get on the bed!”
“It was my fault,” Yvonne said no longer smiling, “I was making them laugh.”
“Stop trying to cover for them,” he said, “They need to learn to do as they’re told.”
Yvonne opened her mouth to protest again, but Robert ignored her.
“I said get on the bed!” he hollered.
Marie and Jason scrambled up from the floor, ran passed him into the bedroom, and bent themselves over the bed. Marie watched as he came in and shut the door behind him. He did that a lot, especially if he didn’t want their mother to interfere or if the beating was going to be long so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear them screaming.
Robert took the black belt from the hook. Marie knew that one very well by now. The leather had so many cracks and tattered threads from being used on their bottoms so often that Robert couldn’t wear it anymore.
“Your lives would be so much easier if you would ever learn to just do what you’re told,” he said with an eerie calmness as he formed the belt into a loop.
Both Marie and Jason were shaking and crying by now. No matter how many beatings Marie got, she could never get used to it. It was terrifying every time. As Robert came to stand behind them and raised the belt, Marie saw Jason put his hands over his butt.
“Move them!” Robert ordered.
“No,” Jason whined. So Robert whipped the belt across Jason’s hands forcing him to snatch them back out of the way.
“In fact,” Robert sneered, “pull your pants down. Both of you. Underwear too.”
They stood up and did as they were told, crying a little harder then. They bended back over the bed, and Robert started on Jason first. But after only about five swats he had to pause to tell him to shut up. Jason was so loud that Marie’s ears were ringing like the screams were coming from the blare of a stereo with bad speakers. When Jason went silent, Robert started up the beating again. Marie counted the swats. There were eleven so far without counting the first five. They were coming so fast Jason didn’t seem to be able to catch enough breath to scream as loud as before. Marie looked up at Robert.
“Put your head back down!” he said. He never let them look at him while he was beating them. Marie heard him hit Jason with two more swats then nothing. She turned her face a little to see if it was her turn. It was. Robert had the belt raised and was staring down at her behind. She buried her face in the bed and tightened her butt cheeks. The first blow came down so hard it knocked the wind out of her. Her mouth flew open but she couldn’t scream. It felt like a boulder being dropped on her behind then came the stabbing and burning sensation.
He hit her again and again and again. The pain seemed to worsen to more unimaginable levels every time. When she could get up enough breath for a scream, it was muffled by the blankets her face was still buried in. She thought maybe he didn’t think she was hurting badly enough yet. So she lifted her head with the intention of screaming louder. But it wasn’t a normal cry that came out. It was a word. Mercy. Marie hadn’t meant or even thought to say it, yet it came out of her mouth over and over again. Suddenly, she realized she couldn’t feel the belt anymore. She could still hear it hitting something, and thought maybe Robert had started back on Jason again. So she opened her eyes. Jason was looking at her confused though still crying. The belt wasn’t hitting him either. It was hitting the bed frame. Every time she yelled out “mercy”, Robert missed her and hit the bed. Finally he just gave up.
“You both stay on this bed until I tell you, you can get up,” he growled, “And while you’re there, pray to God to help you learn how to be obedient.”
Marie watched as he threw the belt into the closet and stormed from the room slamming the door behind him.
“How did you do that?” Jason whispered to her as they started easing their pants back up over their throbbing behinds.
“God saved us.”