We counted 23 boarded up homes in the three mile drive to my aunt's house where we had Christmas breakfast. Eggs and toast and chipped ham with family. We sat together in the single bedroom, 600 square foot cape cod within spitting distance of the drive in movie theater that still opens during the summer and plays double features.
There wasn't a lot of falling snow on Christmas Day. Just snow on the ground. The crusty kind with ice beneath it on sidewalks and some exposed bits of frozen brown ground or yellow-green grass around oak trees and places exposed to constant sunlight.
Snow falls in fluffy whisps into large piles. Temperatures venture slightly above freezing long enough to turn the fluffy snow to liquid just before it freezes again. A hard shell of snow atop a fluffier interior along the banks. Children climb on it without falling through. An adult's footfall punctures holes in the top crust.
The particle board on the windows and doors of the 23 condemned homes seemed new and pristine, as thought the city had decided recently to make a month of it...boarding up all the empty, dangerous houses at once.
It all looked so new with crisp, freshly posted warnings and notices.
Somebody had already tagged a few of the homes with fresh, green spray paint, which seemed so clean compared to the occasional orange and black Beware of Dog signs of the occupied homes.
At my aunt's house we ate eggs from my cousin's house. His young daughters are in charge of watching over 15 hens. Feeding them. Checking for eggs each morning. This cousin and I are just months apart in age. Like me he heats with wood, has an expanding garden, though I feel a bit one-upped with the chickens which he slaughters when the chickens get on in chicken-years.
The eggs were good.
The catching up, good.
The cooking ham and eggs filled the house with warmth and steamed my glasses as my wife, my two children, and I walked in from the cold. I sat on the floor near my uncle who had two pugs on his lap, next to a Christmas tree, surrounded by Santa pillows, christmas lights, a slip cast Christmas sleigh candy dish...the house from wall to wall had been transformed from the Turkey, cornucopia, and Thanksgiving themed house it was a month ago, or the skeleton, ghost, and witch, Halloween theme house the month before that, to a scene like living inside a Christmas tree...and in the middle of all of it, my uncle talked to me about chainsaws, and cutting wood.
I came in just before another older cousin left.
"You look good? You lose weight?" I asked him.
"Yeah. I guess so. It's my new job."
"Cool...you look good. What new job?"
"Oh, at Walmart. Only place that even ever called me back."
"That's cool...how long had it been before that?" I asked.
His mother chimed in as she threw her scarf on, "Six years."
"Well" he said "I had my own yard work business."
"YEah, I remember that. Gone, eh?"
"It went good for a while and then just tapered off and died a few years ago. But yeah, Walmart is the only place that even calls ya back, it's first come first serve, first to pass the drug test, really."
"Yeah, I dunno...they say everybody there is family. They really play that up...but you just gotta look at your paycheck to know it ain't true, ya know?" He laughed "Would you pay your mom that? Or keep her working under 32 hours a week so you don't have to pay benefits or nothin'? I don't think so. I know guys who have worked there for 7 years and they don't make more than $10 an hour still at 32 hours a week."
"Those jerks. Organize!"
"Ha!" He smiled "Even whisper that and you're out of there."