Invasion of the Inflatables
 by Cindy Brookshire, Co-founder, Write by the Rails
Peggy Groat squeezed behind the wheel of the ’98 Volvo and hearing a rip, eased back out.
 “Great,” she said, fingering the torn sleeve of her red Christmas sweater, a gift the Morning Glories, her Bible study group.  “What else is going to happen tonight?”
Sheffield didn’t respond.  Her 16-year-old son got in and strapped his seatbelt.  He was tall and bow-thin, with low-riding jeans and a red hoodie with black symbols on it, both muddy.
They drove home from the magistrate’s office in silence.
When they entered the front door, she could see that her daughter Lilly, dressed up in red velvet, was lighting candles at the kitchen table.  Hamilton, her fiancé, pulled cartons of Chinese food out of a smiley-face bag.  He was more casual, in a soft sweater and navy dress pants.
“That was fast,” Lilly commented.
“They didn’t charge him,” Peggy said.
“What on earth did he do?” asked Ham. 
“You don’t want to know,” responded Peggy, setting down her purse and pushing up sleeves to wash her hands at the sink.  “It’s like when Lilly stole that glass bear off the cart at the mall.”
“What?” said Ham.
“I wish you’d stop bringing that up,” said Lilly admonished her mother.
“I never heard about this,” he protested.
“I was only 14.  Me and these girls stole some things for Christmas presents,” admitted Lilly.  “It was stupid.”
“So was this,” said Peggy.  The mirror over the sink reflected wrinkles, gray hair.
“I didn’t get caught, though,” corrected Lilly.
“And that’s better?” asked Peggy.  “I used to keep that bear right here on this window sill. It was the one thing that gave me…hope.”
“I made up for that,” Lilly said.
“Where is it now?” asked Ham.
“Salvation Army,” Lilly pronounced.  “She gave it away.”
* * *
Sheffield came to the table. He’d washed his face, changed clothes, even combed his dyed black hair.
“Where’s the hole in your face?” asked Ham.
Sheffield moved his tongue over the scar where his lip ring had been.
“Got tired of it.”
Peggy reached for hands, bowed heads, peace.
“Lord, bless this Christmas Eve dinner and the hands that prepared it.  Bless the retirement home manager and Officer Ashley. Bless the magistrate.  Keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.”
After a responding “Amen” they opened the white cartons, dumping clumps of steaming rice onto paper plates with globs of General Tso’s Chicken or Beef Lo Mein.  They pushed soy sauce, hot mustard packets and fortune cookies to a heap, stripped the paper sheaths from cheap wooden chopsticks and broke them apart.
Peggy measured rice, chicken and steamed vegetables on her digital scale as part of her program to stop eating compulsively and drop 50 pounds.
 “Okay, what happened?” demanded Lilly.
Sheffield shrugged.  “Eric tackled one of the balloons and when I jumped in, it popped.”
“Where were you?” asked Ham.
“Sunrise Assisted Living?” guessed Lilly.  You weren’t messing with the balloon people, were you?  Oh, my God.”  She turned to Ham.  “Remember? We drove past and you said something about Santa in military fatigues with a polar bear on the motorcycle? Penguins popping out of an igloo?  The Snowman snow globe?”
“Oh, yeah. Wow, that place is dwarfed by all those …you know they’re called inflatables.  There must be a hundred.”
“Fifty-four,” corrected Sheffield, before pushing more lo mein noodles into his mouth.
“Were you guys drinking?” Peggy asked.
“God!” Sheffield protested, and threw down his chopsticks.  “Why do you always think I’m on something?”
He got up so fast his chair tipped over.  He kicked it and was gone, slamming the front door after him.
 “Dram-a!” Lilly exclaimed.  “How do you deal with him?”
“Anyone want some hot tea?” Peggy offered. She put the kettle on, pulled a tin of assorted tea bags out of the pantry and made no move to right the chair.
“We have Lipton, Wild Berry Zinger, Gingerbread Spice.”
“Lipton,” Lilly requested. “Mom, what happened?”
“Zinger,” said Ham. Peggy lined up three cups and dropped tea bags in, picking Gingerbread for herself.  Drinking flavored hot water would save 90 calories and douse her craving for the real thing. 
“The boys popped one of the inflatables and the manager called the police,” Peggy said.  “They were arrested for trespassing and destruction of property.  I got a call to go to the magistrate at the jail.”
“And?” Lilly prompted.
“Maybe I look tired and miserable enough or maybe because it’s Christmas Eve, I don’t know,” said Peggy.  “Anyway the manager didn’t want to press charges.  He wants the boys to come over tomorrow and pick up litter on the grounds and do an activity with the residents.  The police and magistrate seemed satisfied with community service.”
“Wow, $184.98 with tax and shipping,” Ham said, holding up his iPhone to show a list on the Internet.  “For just one inflatable.”
 “That’s not even their usual marauding grounds,” said Lilly.  “Usually it’s the mall or the woods by the tennis courts.”
“They bought some energy drinks at the 7-Eleven and cut through,” Peggy explained. “The officer said lawn decorations like these are targets of vandalism.  People just seem to feel the urge to pop them.”
“Which one did they bust?” asked Ham.  “The igloo with Santa’s legs kicking out?”
“The reindeer playing poker?” asked Lilly.
Peggy poured boiling water into the three cups.
“A Nativity scene.”
* * *
Sheffield returned, righted his chair and sat down.  He reeked of cigarette smoke.
“I’m sorry. But I wasn’t drinking, okay.  Lay off of me about that.”
“Sorry,” said Peggy.  “I had no right to say that.”
Sheffield picked up the chopsticks and resumed eating lo mein noodles. 
Lilly rolled her eyes.  She was dying to push buttons, but Ham distracted her by opening the cellophane of a fortune cookie. “Allow compassion to guide your decisions,” he read.
Peggy cleared the table, stacking leftovers in Gladware tubs neatly in the refrigerator. 
“Coming to church with us?” Peggy asked her son.
He pushed his plate away, wiping his mouth on a crumpled napkin. “I’m not dressing up.”
“You’re fine,” she said.
* * *
When the kids were little, she and Reggie would take them to the early service with the Christmas pageant.  Lilly was once an angel in a tinsel halo and wire-hanger wings.  Sheffield donned a Wise Man’s tablecloth robe.  But now Reggie was remarried with a new family and a new church.  Now Peggy, Lilly, Ham and Sheffield sat shoulder to shoulder on a wooden pew in the late service. White linens, vestments and ornaments on the tree beside the altar magnified the illumination.  They sang the familiar carols. As a tradition, the rector always made his sermon a humorous one.  He would bring out a shopping bag filled with all the craziest things one could buy at the last minute from the corner drugstore, like a can of green Floam or an edible greeting card for your pet.  He used a plastic gun to shoot plastic discs out into the congregation, and then pressed a button on a stuffed dog that started singing, “Well, you know you make me wanna (Shout) come on now (Shout).”  When the dog sang “shout,” his ears shot straight up.  Everyone laughed and started raising their hands when the dog ears went up.  The rector pressed the button for an encore, and then, when everyone was laughed out, he put the dog away and talked about the real meaning of Christmas: that God had become human so that he could dwell among us.  “That’s what Emmanuel means,” he said, “God with us.”
Peggy felt stinging tears.  Reggie was gone, Lilly and Sheffield were finding their own paths, even if they did sometimes veer into inflatable lawn decorations.  Without even food to comfort her, she felt so alone – until she grasped what “God with us” meant for her.
The air was cold enough to blow smoke when they left, and the dark, clear sky was brightened by the moon.  Ham drove them home.  At a stoplight near Sunrise Assisted Living, Peggy saw the ghostly glowing inflatables, lit from inside.  In one, Santa’s sleigh was pulled up to an igloo with a drive in window.  A sign over top read “North Pole Hot Cocoa.”  A movable penguin popped up to wait on him.
“There’s close to $10,000 bobbing on that lawn,” said Ham.
* * *
He retired with Lilly, giggling, behind the guest room door. Sheffield warmed a plate of lo mein in the microwave and settled in front of the computer in his bedroom.  That left Peggy to put presents under the tree and fill the fireplace stockings.  She lingered with one of the Hershey’s York Peppermint Patties before letting it drop inside.  It’s not the extra green bean, it’s the thought behind it.  The next one she brought up to her nose, to smell the chocolate.  What’s one? I deserve a treat.   
“Hi, Charlene?  It’s Peggy.”  She had forced herself to call her sponsor in a 12-step program for compulsive eaters.  “Is this a good time? Well, I’ve had a tough day.”  As she connected to another person in the rooms, she felt the release, the surrender to a higher power.  While still on the phone, she finished filling the stockings with candy, threw away the empty bags and shut off everything except the tree lights.
“I’m worried about my son,” she shared. “No, eating compulsively isn’t going to help him.  No.  My plan is to go to bed and think about three things I’m grateful for before I go to sleep.  Okay.  God,” she began haltingly, as they prayed together by phone.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.”
* * *
A knock sounded on Peggy’s bedroom door.
“Come in.”  The door creaked open and Sheffield lay on the bed.
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
Peggy patted his head.  “What if you’d fallen on something sharp?  Or frightened one of the residents? ” she said.  “It’s not like you.”
“I pulled a cord,” he admitted.  “I wanted to see what would happen. It was like, I’m melting, I’m melting,” he flailed in the bed.  “Then I plugged it in again; it swelled up like ghost … stretching out … getting brighter … with this weird motor hum.  Nyat-ah-ah!”
“Okay, but why not pop a snowman or penguin?” asked Peggy.  “Why the Nativity?”
He curled up.  Peggy covered him with the blanket from the foot of the bed.
“Eric said, ‘Look, I’m going to dive bomb Balloon Baby Jesus!’  I told him, ‘Don’t do that.’  It wasn’t respectful.  But he goes to the driveway to get a running start.  One, two, three.  I had to stop him.  I rushed him and he pushed me down. I couldn’t breathe.  I just laid there and boom, next thing I know Mary and Joseph and the whole scene was swallowing him.  That’s when the manager came out.”
Sheffield stood up, swaddled.  “I don’t think Baby Jesus belongs out there. Not with cartoon characters. It’s not funny.  He’s real.”
“Love you,” Peggy called as he wandered off, starting her gratitude list.
* * *
Christmas morning Ham got a guitar; Lilly, a laptop; Sheffield, computer games; Peggy, new card-making supplies and a novel.  She made a pot of coffee, baked cinnamon rolls and ate plain oatmeal.  She called her sponsor and then curled up with the book.
Later, Eric came and the two boys walked over to Sunrise Assisted Living.  They picked up two bags of trash on the grounds, and played Battleship with some old guys, who regaled them with pranks they pulled as teenagers. 
“You should have seen this one guy’s tattoos.  They were awesome!” said Sheffield.
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