They had a nice long walk around the neighborhood. In the mid-afternoon light, they were able to look at and, of course, criticize the Christmas displays that had already made their way to lawns and houses.
"What the heck?" she asked at a home that offered up Santa and his reindeer dashing in the front of a row of yew, a snowman as tall as the two-story house, a jack-in-the-box with the clown out and waving int he breeze, a single giant Rudolph, and an inflatable Nativity scene, complete with camel, three wise men, and an inflatable manger that was empty, awaiting the birth of the inflatable Jesus on Christmas eve.
"It's actually not an inflatable baby," her cousin advised. "There's one of these in my subdivision and the baby is actually a doll for those who like to add the baby on Christmas Eve. There was no way to get the baby in there and have him inflate so the company added a doll that was weighted to stay in the manger."
She stopped and looked at the electric cords and how there was no spot left at all for anything else.
"I wonder where that was made," she asked aloud.
"China, of course," said her cousin. "Subdivision guy is pretty friendly and more than willing to share info. He keeps hoping someone else will challenge him to a Christmas lawn battle but no one's into it. The Hindus think it's crazy. The Muslims think he's crazy and keep to themselves. The Buddhists keep to themselves, too, and don't say anything about the craziness. The Christians in the neighborhood are mostly older folks whose kids have moved away so they don't feel compelled to decorate but don't find him particularly addled. The Jewish families think the Christians who decorate big like that are crazy. Atheists and agnostics and the generally unobservant? We're certain he's crazy. There is a Wican family and she doesn't think he's crazy, just wasteful. The craziest thing is that he assumes everyone's a Christian."
"I like your neighborhood," she said. "I like some religious diversity. We just have Christians of differing varieties. The next block has the inflatables and lights and giant pines with lights and porches laced with lights and those nets you toss over bushes to make your life easy. My block does it big or else it's an apartment building. Next door has ten of those Christmas-tree-shaped spirals of lights and five ropes of lights coming from the roof and a 50-year-old plastic creche."
"I remember that place," said her cousin. "Don't they also pipe in music for everyone to hear?"
"Yeah," she said. "Music box Christmas music and what sounds like fifteen harps. On a steady loop after dark from 5 pm until 9 pm. Not loud but loud enough. There used to be an artist across the street -- you know the yellow brick building with the wrought iron fence? -- who decorated during the year with strings of Christmas lights that he must've gotten for nothing the day after Christmas. He had a light installation covering a wall that's about 20 feet long and eight feet high. The whole wall! I saw it once when I was talking on the phone with my lights out and he had his shades open. Blink blink blink blink blink and every now and then all the lights would catch up to each other and the whole thing blinked."
"Wow, I'd love to have seen that," said her cousin.
"His building was pretty old and his landlord was ancient and forgetful and kind of lax about building maintenance and they had an electrical fire and he moved away," she advised.
"The artist's fault?" asked her cousin.
"No," she answered. "It was the landlord himself. He only had one outlet in the whole kitchen and had the refrigerator, toaster, microwave, coffee maker, hot plate, toaster oven, and a blender all hooked into the one outlet with a bunch of extenstion cords. He didn't even have three-pronged extension cords for the fridge and microwave -- the third prong just hung out, all wild and free."
"Good grief!" exclaimed the cousin. "But I know that building. It's still there. What happened afterward?"
"His daughter got him declared incompetent and since the fire department got there so fast, the damage wasn't too bad. They were able to fix what needed fixing and rewired everything. She made her dad come live with her and her family -- I guess they're not all kinds of nuts and get along -- and she rented out that unit for a fuck ton of money," she said. "I went and looked at it, which made my landlady freak out. It was lovely but they wanted $600 a month more than I could afford. When I got home my landlady said, 'Expensive, yes?' and I agreed."
"And you hate moving," said the cousin.
"I really hate moving," she said.
"So how is that job of yours going?" asked the cousin.
"Fine. The office I'm in is pleasant, my coworkers aren't too nutty, everyone works, and our manager is quite sane," she replied.
"What happened to that other manager? The guy in the other building?" the cousin asked her.
"Still there," she said. "But people got sick of working for him and started transferring out. The clients are mad because they have new people to work with all the time. He's such a jerk that no one is loyal to him. They might like the client -- I know I did -- but he's a despot and no one can stand that. His bosses are not pleased because the client isn't pleased. He's squirming, I hear."
"Ha," said her nice cousin. "Serves them right."
They had wound their way around and were back at the host cousin's home. They walked up the walk to the door.
"Brace yourself," said the nice cousin.
Sometimes in life, a dynamic will change for one reason or another -- your mom gets a job; your neighbor whose kid mowed your lawn and shoveled your walks moves; you take evening classes to learn French -- and nothing is the same again. Sometimes it's a horrific event but sometimes it's a simple thing that makes everything work out for the best. She and her cousin experienced just this.
Everyone in the house was laughing and having a good time. The football game had been turned off and adults and kids were sitting around enjoying themselves, swapping stories and telling corny jokes. Smiles were from ear to ear and when they walked in, everyone howled with joy.
"Here you are!" screamed her aunt. "We need you two to tell about the bottle rockets when you were kids."
They swapped a look and her nice cousin sweetly told about their affection for the whiz and the bang and how they especially cherished the 8-ounce Coca-Cola bottle they found in the alley that was perfect launching pad. She told how they scoured the neighborhood for empty bottles and cans which they would turn in at a recycling center, using the money to buy more bottle rockets. They had to trust the working older brother of their friend from ballet class, but he never let them down, always giving them change along with their explosives. They saved the change for more bottle rockets.
At the end of the story, her cousin and aunt leaped to their feet and shouted, "Let's eat!" and they all poured into the dining room.
She never found out what had happened that day, and the Crazy Train found its way back onto its track, but the rest of the day was filled with love, mutual respect, and stories she'd long forgotten that brought tears to her eyes. She put Handsome and the giant into a cave that day, put a boulder in front of the entrance, and let them suffocate for the rest of the weekend.