CHRISTMAS FICTION: Two Hollywood families discover the real meaning of the holidays thanks to a transgender plumber. 3,165 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The last Sunday before Christmas, the Strider twins took their Swedish Vallhund decked out in an elf onesie to the Palisades dog park. They’d came home with what to them was ho-hum news. But to their folks, it was tantamount to a shot at the holy fucking grail.
“Some boy Jared and his sister wanna come over next week,” Cody told his mother, Radha.
“Their last name is Pfeffer with three F’s, two E’s and a silent P,” said Cass who’d transcribed the names and the proposed details of a holiday playdate.
“Jared Pfeffer? Not Bobby Pfeffer’s kid?” Radha twitched.
“On the board at the Brautigan School, Bobby Pfeffer?” her husband Rex said. The parents exchanged a telling look, then both grabbed for Cass’ notepad. Indeed, it was the same A-list family.
Thus the most pivotal event of the Striders’ entire lives would transpire three days later when Jared Pfeffer and his younger sister Blair and a couple of friends would be coming over. A previous engagement with the brood of a basic cable star had fallen through, and the Striders were now a last-minute slot filler.
But the real coup was that, after a screening of the Scrooged reboot, Bobby himself planned to stop by for coffee with his new trophy wife.
Radha immediately began assembling dozens of ultra-gourmet beans from all corners of the globe just to make a subtle yet significant impression. Rex arranged for his nephew to loan them a prototype of the new PlayStation 5 he was beta-testing. All for Bobby Pfeiffer. Next year it would be the #1 stocking stuffer on the planet, so the gifting of such early access was a rare perk — even for those who had it all.
Bobby Pfeffer was a mogul who had run studios but now was brokering 21st Century alliances and new media paradigms. And yet he lived for his children, and his children’s friends, and his children’s friends’ families. The Striders knew that, if everyone hit it off, the uber-echelon contacts for Redha’s and Rex’s boutique production company could metastasize exponentially. Right now their three-year dream was a cash burn suckhole. If-come deals and obscene lunch tabs were all that had been produced thus far, while Rex barely made their nut plying his fading marketing skills piecemeal. He also was secretly temping as the night shift manager at Bed Bath & Beyond in Culver City.
Of far more importance, the twins’ acceptance at the Brautigan School could likely become a fait accompli for the new year. Cass and Cody had been wait-listed, being only borderline A-minus special, and the dream of getting into the Mecca of Westside power education had been abandoned. Until now.
The following Wednesday, a FunCo truck arrived and five Day-Glo employees set up a huge array of PC holiday-themed playthings in the Striders’ yard: a bouncy-house Xmas tree, a Kwanza Klaus on stilts, a forty-foot-long Dreidel spin track, and a towering Festivus pole.
An electric Escalade arrived and out hopped several tiny people: little Jared, with an unruly mop of black curls; his even smaller sister Blair, same curls but sandy blond; Avery, their too-thin mixed-race friend with his brother Blu, who almost never spoke, and Xiang Lee, their adopted sister from the Guangxi Province.
“Where’s this PS5?” Jared asked, barely glancing from his iPhone. Little Jared had a wing of a Lautner house all to himself. Two bathrooms—one for number one, the other for number two. Doesn’t everyone? — he’d once asked a friend of Cass.
Servers in kente cloth kaftans served soul food and fruit, a sushi chef from Urasawa made specialty emerald and crimson Emperor’s Rolls, though most of the children opted for the In-N-Out Burger truck.
Rex watched the children sample various offerings — coveting the same game, then walking away in the middle of playing a moment later. Young royalty yawning at the jester’s best.
“Here we are now — entertain us!” Rex hummed.
“What, Mr. Rex?” Flora, the Striders’ housekeeper asked.
“I never had a playdate growing up. Just wandered down the block whenever we moved again. You had to try to dazzle the neighbor girl on her porch or butt into a game kids were playing. Make a bully laugh or get beaten up. Just part of life, you know?”
Rex looked to Flora, wanting solace of some sort, then cringed at what horseshit this must sound to her and whatever struggles she had in Guatemala or Honduras or wherever she’d come from.
Flora gave Rex her standard weary smile and thought: Nicaragua estupido! And my tenth Feliz Navidad was up the side of Mt. Mogoton where Somoza—with help from your government—chased my family. So cold in the rains and everywhere land mines waiting to take your legs or your life. So pardon, Mr. Rex, if I don’t get all so weepy about Christmas past and good old days.
The possibility of a freakish arctic front had been “Breaking News” on local news for days and cold torrential rains suddenly commenced. The carefully selected gift bags on the tables in the backyard were soaked through.
Given the downpour, FunCo called it a day and started packing up. Radha demanded a full refund, settling for a thirty percent rebate after repeatedly wielding the Pfeffer name in hushed umbrage. She then sent Rex out for replacement gift bags. The Striders were willing to further max out their mountain of debt on the crux of this one day. All for Bobby Pfeiffer.
Inside, the tykes were sequestered in bored aggression. But any inklings of new friendship were not the least bit burgeoning.
The PS5, being a prototype, had major glitches and that alone put everyone in a petulant mood.
Then Cody brought even worse news to Radha.
“I didn’t do it. I think Jared’s friend Avery did. He was trying to flush Christmas pine cones. But every toilet in the house is backing up."
“Sweetie, it’s just the rain. No one’s fault. But thank you for your honesty in telling me,” she said calmly, then went flying batshit into the kitchen all in a steaming pink panic, calling eight emergency plumbing places — finally finding one willing to work the holiday triple overtime.
And if any other plumber had come, other than the one that did, how different everyone’s lives might have been.
A Round-The-Clock Rooter van made good time, and Radha ran to the intercom when the plumber rang the doorbell.
“Do what you need, charge what you will — just deliver us from fecal! And hurry, please,” she said, then buzzed entrance. Radha never saw what the children did — the incongruous Frankenstein-shaped hulk that entered the home. The kids were all agog.
“Is that the clown?”
“No, Cody, shhhh,” instructed Cass.
Whispers spread amongst the play-daters that an alien creature had entered their realm. One by one, they collected at the doorways to watch it stomp from the kitchen sink to the van to the bathrooms. Like Chewbacca. like Shrek. Back and forth. Forth and back.
All the young eyes affixed upon the six-foot-four, pale-skinned, bewhiskered, tattooed, lantern-jawed, beer-bellied, huge-breasted, badly made-up, red-haired and mulleted plumber. The name on the grime-stained lime-green jumpsuit said JERY.
And then it spoke.
“How really fuckin rude — that staring and those whispers,” Jery muttered in a low scratchy voice, then opened a closet door, pulling up a floorboard, and ventured down the rickety stairs inside.
The F word hushed the kids for a moment, but the children exchanged looks and kept following. Finally, they sat in a neat row on the stairs, looking down at Jery.
“I didn’t even know we had a basement,” Cody whispered.
“And we’ve lived here all our lives,” said Cass.
The unfinished room had been planned as a bomb shelter back in Cold War days. An old case of preserve jars had fallen over and smashed their contents on the rough cement during the last quake — black and dusty now, covered with a gray mold fur. Boxes of mildewed, newspapers and other junk rotted in the corners. An array of u-shaped pipes descended from the ceiling, webbing of insects clung to everything.
Jery wielded a huge monkey wrench and metallic squeaks echoed as it strained against frozen threads. On the third strike, the wrench hit a huge hairy thumb and Jery moaned “Cocksucker!” jumping up, banging the bare hanging bulb, which swung wild shadows in dizzying ellipses, making things all the more monstrous. As the light slowed its arc and the pain subsided, Jery went back to work.
“OK kids, come closer. Don’t be meek. Despite what you may have heard, God does not love the meek,” Jery said, waving them over.
All came down the stairs and sat cross-legged, forming a perfect semicircle around the work area. The bulb settled motionless again.
“Anybody got somethin’ they wanna ask me?” Jeri queried.
“Are you—” Avery began, then faded into silence.
“What I am is a monumentally sad and angry plumber. Just trying to make the best of it now.”
The clean-out drain finally opened, spilling an alluvial mess onto the floor. Jery sifted through it as the little ones held their noses.
“Lesson one, children — do not flush down any john or pour down any sink that which you truly never wish to see again. Oh, the secrets it holds!”
Jery separated condoms from wads of balled up porn and cigarettes, removing three pinecones as well.
“Were you always a plumber?” Avery asked Jery.
“My old man and his old man were plumbers. Never thought I would be. For a while, when I was younger, I was a swingin’ playboy and a would-be jetsetter. Now I’m a plumber, too. Who knows where the word plumber comes from?” Jery asked.
One child wiggled his hand furiously. “Plumbum. Latin for lead. Pipes used to be primarily made of lead/”
“You read, don’t you, son?”
“All the time.”
“Well bully for you. Burn your games, kids, and buy books,”
Jery smiled. Rarely seen, it was very pleasant and human.
“Gang, I can see the screaming curiosity all over your little mugs, and I am so far beyond bullshit now, it ain’t funny/ So go ahead and ask me anything.”
“Are you gay?” Jared asked.
Jery sighed. “Tried it in my previous incarnation — group situations, couple soft-core flicks. But unlike most self-righteous bastards who never dared explore any man-man love, I can honestly say, tried it and nope. I am not.”
“Are you a transgender person?” Cass asked.
“That would be an accurate observation.”
“Were you born a woman trapped in man’s body?” Avery asked.
“Sadly, I never was. But now I’m a man trapped in half a woman’s body. And it ain’t the good half, believe me.”
“Are you pre-op?” asked Cody.
“Wish it were so, then there’d be some hope of making it back to manhood. All the way gone now. Pounding massive testosterone though—hence the hair, the voice and the hostility.”
Radha found the house silent now, but for the rain tattooing the tile roof. She swept back through the kitchen, the downstairs bedrooms, the media center. No PS5, no music, no little voices. Her panic went to purple. Where had the children gone? What had they traded up to this time?
Radha remembered the debacle of the twins’ birthday party at Staples last year — a Laker luxury box they could ill afford. Networking through progeny was nothing new to the Striders.
“Mommy, Cody and I are going over to Bettina Wilson’s box. They’re at half court,” Cass had said, then both abandoned their own party.
Radha had a blow out fight with Rex that night.
“We’re moving to your aunt’s in Bismarck. Tomorrow! Our spoiled little beasts can rise at dawn in the Midwest subzero — slop hogs and pluck chickens. And I don’t give a shit if they’re free range or not.”
“Radha, we just have to try to—” Rex interjected.
“We are their ruination, you know that don’t you, honey?”
Rex didn’t disagree, he never did. Later, after the twins came home in their friend’s limo, they’d only been admonished a bit about proper appreciation and punished with a slight reduction in television time.
Now Radha’s smartphone vibrated in her palm.
“Yes? Oh, hello, Mr. Pfeffer. Bobby, sure. Yes, looking forward to it, too. Oh, everybody’s having a great time,” she said, eyes scanning the empty terrace out back. “Merry — uh — whatever—.”
Radha checked the garage, the neighbors’ yards, front and back, as the rain fell heavy again — temperature plummeting even lower.
Bobby Pfeffer was on his way, and all the children had vanished.
“Believe it or not, I was once a handsome dude,” Jery told the children, fishing out an old photo and spinning it across the floor. “That’s me.”
They all took turns looking at it.
“Plus I packed, let’s just say, quite a pocket rocket. Knew how to use it, too, which allowed me into certain social circles I might ordinarily not be privy to. Thus I partied my ass off.”
“You mean sexual activity?” little Xiang peeped.
“Wild crazy sex, yeah. Tons of drugs. Every night for years.”
“Are drugs and promiscuity bad?” Blu asked.
“Not gonna try to pull your chains and scare you straight to just say no. You’re rich kids and you’ll ‘try everything no doubt when you’re ready and it’ll be on your own souls how you deal. My advice is just put it off as long as you are able. Savor your innocence. The road to ruin will always be out there waiting for you whenever you want it.”
Cass prompted Jery to continue.
“Can’t remember the half of it now, just as well, but in the end somehow a miracle happened. I fell in love. For the first time. Utterly. Her name was Darla. An angel, for sure, or so I thought. We were married on Maui by a Kahuna.”
Jery set the wrench down, exhaling a long pained breath.
“Are you okay, Jery?” asked Blu.
“After six months of marriage, she came to me and said she realized that she was probably a lesbian. She loved me, but we could never really be together again.”
“Unless…” Cass said.
“Yep, you got it. Unless. For her, I became what you see. She did not make me. If that was what she needed, then I needed too. She didn’t even ask. I chose. For her, for Darla, for love.”
“And did you live happily ever after?” Blair asked.
“For almost another year we did,” Jery said, with quivering lips. “Then she dumped me. On Christmas Eve! All that and she up and fuckin’ left. And dig this sorry shit — she left me for another dude, not a gal. How fucked up is that? My Darla was a little confused to say the least, and I, hideous now and dickless, had nothing whatsoever to say. For a long, long time. Nearly mute a couple years. Now I just say whatever the fuck I want.”
There was a long silence.
“If I can impart only one truth here, never ever fall in love! Do not jump into that abyss. Let others love you. Go through the motions of it all, marry and fulfill the social contract if you must, but never let another rule your heart. Love equals ruin. I am monument to that.”
“But what if you met someone and you really fell into exactly the same kind of love again?” Blair asked.
Several others murmured, “Yeah, what if, Jery?”
“Then, I gotta confess—that whole last rant was straight-up bullshit,” the plumber laughed. They all did. There was still hope of a happy ending. With that, Jery packed up the giant tool chest.
“Thanks for letting me vent a little here today. Really needed that. What say we all clean this place up?”
Cass led Blair up to the kitchen where Flora kept the cleaning supplies. All the kids hauled and cleared and swept and scrubbed. They were a team — coordinating work efficiently, wearing masks for the dust, gloves for the glass and noxious filth. Blu started to hum, and the offspring joined in singing, Whistle While You Work.
“Very nice little elves. Very nice,” Jery laughed, admiring the progress. “And they say American kids today won’t do menial labor.”
Then the plumber left without saying good-bye. The Round-The-Clock Rooter Van roared away just as Bobby Pfeffer’s Corniche pulled up. Headlights found Radha, shivering in front of the garage.
Bobby got out, trying not to stare at the wet silk clinging to Radha’s Pilates-toned body. He was shorter than expected but the rain was not even allowed to collect upon his skin, so tanned and flawless was it.
“Would you like coffee? I can offer either a robust Rwandan which much of the profits go into a gorilla sanctuary or a really special Belize blend partially financed by micro loans to a previously impoverished woman’s collective.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” Bobby said. “Everything all right here?”
Radha closed her eyes. On the cusp of confession, the children all came pouring out the front door. Jared and Blair ran to their father, radiating glee. “Can we stay a little longer, Daddy?” Blair squealed.
“We wanna finish cleaning out the basement!” Jared piped up. He’d never piped up about anything before.
“Okay now — who kicked who’s butt on that PS5? Who’s my number one?” Bobby asked, but the kids didn’t seem to care.
Jared and Blair took their father out back to show him all the detritus they’d removed from the basement and neatly stacked into piles, all bagged and labeled for recycling: Dirt, Glass, Metal, Newspaper, Icky Stuff, and Really Icky Stuff.
Bobby hung up on three calls he was juggling as his children tugged on his arms with a giddiness both welcome and strange.
With a whisper in the sky—the rain fell silent suddenly as snowflakes began to drift down, swirling all around them.
“We’re in a snow globe!” yelped Jared.
“Can we come back again?” Blair asked.
“I’m sure that could be arranged,” said Radha.
“The basement could be our clubhouse!” Jared proclaimed.
Bobby thought about his childhood fort which the lonely ones like him had come together that summer to make their own special place. Built down in the cracked foundation of that fire-gutted house near the Christmas tree lot. It’d been a rickety mix of tin signage, bent rebar and warped plywood, skinned with packing blankets his friends had boosted from a moving van. Trenton Makes — The World Takes in perfect view from their jerry-rigged porthole. Bobby’s lips and hands moved with the memory of their secret passwords and elaborate handshakes.
Suddenly, his trophy wife was inside the Striders’ home, rolling her eyes and tapping her Patek Philippe. They were late for something somewhere. He looked at his children — filthy, humble and proud. And for the first time in years, Bobby Pfeffer began to cry.
This story first posted here on Dec 23, 2015.