White Elephant, by Matt Perez

He won every time, which was part of the game. Because John McClane does not lose. Nor would we want him to. In the end, Uncle John always found my egg timer bomb in time to deactivate it by turning the dial counterclockwise until it went ding. But little did he know I was in the living room, standing defiantly atop the ottoman with Aunt Holly in my evil clutches. She’d be tolerating us with that smile of hers, the one that looked like sarcasm sounded, and I’d be clutching my stomach, pretending to be shot and teetering close to death. 

But I wouldn’t fall until he said it. 

“Say it.” 

Uncle John looked around for adults, winked at Aunt Holly, then smiled and raised his fingers in six-shooter position. 

“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” 

Bang. 

I smacked my forehead and fell back on the couch, my arms outstretched, a wide-eyed look of desperation on my face. As the cushions hugged my shoulders, I closed my eyes and plunged into darkness. I liked that part, when everything went black. Was that what Hans Gruber felt like? In those last moments as he clung to Aunt Holly’s wristwatch? Hanging like a gingerbread man from a wind-lashed skyscraper? Did he feel cheated? Angry? Alone?  

Then the release. A moment of shock. Terror. 

Then what? Did he feel falling? All the way down? What was he thinking about while floating in the sky? It would have taken almost fifteen seconds to fall thirty stories – fifteen seconds; a meaningful slice of time. Was Hans in love? Did he have kids? Did he have a horny Doberman named Maximillian? Was he surprised by the sudden turn of events? That one man, one stubborn and violent man, could spoil his perfect plan? 

Reliving Hans’s awesome death with Uncle John and Aunt Holly was a guilty secret. Had Mom and Ray known, they would’ve signed me up for therapy a decade sooner. So I kept it to myself, and like all secrets, this one got weird after I held onto it too long. Because what I was really telling myself was that only the three of us – Aunt Holly, Uncle John and I – knew what it felt like to watch a man fall to his death, and in that moment we were united. Clearly, I was a lonely kid with a hyperactive imagination who was trying to write an old story; I didn’t like my parents and wanted new ones.  

Which is fine. Who wouldn’t want parents like the McLanes? Not like Mom and Ray, watching Wheel of Fortune and getting like EVERY GUESS wrong. (Hello? Like, I’d like to buy a clue, Pat.) The McLanes ate things like quiche and fennel for dinner, sipped on well-chosen wines, while Mom and Ray bought a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store every night and named it supper. Sometimes they changed it up with Italian hoagies, but both meals were always accompanied by Ray’s favorite vegetable – potato salad. The McLanes were famous, invited to the White House for dinner. Twice! Meanwhile, Mom and Ray drank cherry Kool-Aid out of measuring cups and obsessed over the moods of their cats during commercial breaks. 

But me being a McLane wasn’t real. I was born a Kinney. And since I was young enough to believe in the whimsy of impossibility, yet old enough to recognize futility, I knew it painfully. With longing. I wanted a hip brother and sister. I wanted cool parents. I wanted a nice house. I wanted people to be a little afraid of my dad, and a little hot for my mom. But wish in one hand and shit in the other, that’s what Mom and Ray taught me, so I stayed on the couch and kept my eyes closed as long as I could, until my personal moment of silence was trampled by happy sounds drifting from the kitchen: clanking plates, clapping cupboards, running water, mom’s shrill laughter, all piercing my Hans Gruber death scene like sharpened icicles. 

Uncle John swatted my feet, and I opened my eyes, sanctified by our family hero to resurrect myself from the grave. He smirked, with the out-of-balance ceiling fan wobbling like a halo above his head. 

“C’mon, champ. Sleep when you’re dead.”   

Next thing, we were around the table and Uncle John was holding a glass of Beaujolais in one hand and an electric knife in the other, and as he and loomed over the ten-pound molasses glazed ham, he looked up and arched an eyebrow, and I knew he was going to say something awesome. And then he did. 

“Welcome to the party, pal.”

 But that was, what, 20 years ago? Before Lucy and Jack stopped talking to him for good. After rehab. After counseling. After his, like, millionth relapse. After the lawsuits started piling up again. Then the Russia thing. Then the FBI supervision. Then mom’s sister was killed, and Uncle John fell apart for good. Don’t get me wrong – Aunt Holly was amazing, so we all fell apart, but Uncle John was never the same. 

I mean, he had saved her life like a hundred times, and then what happens? Somebody cuts Aunt Holly off on Route 15; she slams on the brakes, and her lunch – a bag of amazing Mexican food from Rio Galante – slides off the passenger seat and dumps on the floor. Then, when Aunt Holly leans over to salvage her # 19 nachos Guadalajara from the footwell … Wham! She swerves into oncoming traffic, and a Coke-a-Cola truck hits her head-on. 

And that was her death scene: Crumpled beneath a Prius dashboard with tortilla triangles

and jalapeño slices decorating her fiery red hair. Guacamole everywhere. Cola cans hissing, spinning like tops. The wail of sirens approaching.

 

Uncle John’s not the kind of man who lets go of things easily, which is great when you’re hanging from a ventilation duct in an elevator shaft, or hunting down an army of former special ops commandos, but it’s a curse if you’re grieving. Because the past haunts everyone, and when the chains of memory rattle in the attics of our hearts, all we can do is move on and pretend the ghosts don’t exist. But they do. 

And Uncle John, the toughest asshole on Earth, never figured out how to live with Aunt Holly’s ghost. I know he tried. For years, the holidays would roll around and Uncle John would inevitably dig in and go dark from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and then on Christmas Eve he’d hit the road and disappear. We’d get a call around Groundhog Day from the drunk tank of a police station somewhere warm, like Tucson or Miami, and then someone would go get him. 

Last year he turned up in Las Vegas. And guess what happened there? Casino heist. And then what happened? You know what happened; Uncle John went into full-on, raw-dog Roy Rodgers mode and killed like twenty more creeps with European accents and blew the shit out of Caesars Palace and broke Shania Twain’s ankle with a Ducati motorcycle. And then guess what? Boom. Another lawsuit. The FBI was super pissed. And Bam. Uncle John is on house arrest and doing community service again. 

Which brings us to Thursday. 

Volunteering for the Meals on Wheels program on Christmas Eve was Uncle John’s idea. It was on the list of approved charities, so he thought we could drive around for a day and do something different, something kind. Which is what I thought we’d do – hang out, have a few laughs, drop off some dinners, get Uncle John home by curfew. 

But Uncle John is John Fucking McLane. 

No lie, he looked like a hot pile of shit when I picked him up at noon. I had been at the United Presbyterian Church since 7:30, helping with the cooking, assembly, labeling and loading. And even if he was diagnosed with PTSD and harbored paranoid delusions about Germans and tall blonde men, all Uncle John had to do was get dressed, call his P.O., and get in the passenger seat. It’s not like we didn’t plan it two months ago. But when I pulled up in the church delivery van, a sun-bleached, baby-blue Econoline from the Clinton years, he was sitting on the curb in sweat pants. The tank top he was wearing used to be white, I guess. And maybe his leather jacket was cracked and discolored on purpose to match the purple scars running like archipelagos over his lumpy pink head. Or not. Uncle John hauled himself off the curb, flicked a cigarette, and stretched his back. 

Fat. Squinting. Slow moving. My hero.  

When he climbed into the Econoline, I overlooked some smells – wet dog, salty sweat, fresh gin, old cigarettes – and said Merry Christmas as cheerfully as I could. Because attitude counts, especially if you’re a lot famous in a little bit of a bad way like Uncle John is. I was trying to make this a good thing.  

It didn’t last long. I should have checked the list – the first stop on our route was one Rudolph Eberhardt. 

Uncle John tilted the clipboard into the light and leaned back, putting some space between himself and the text. As always, he forgot his reading glasses because he’s too vain to wear them and he kind of likes being a pain in the ass. 

“Eberhardt, huh? Sounds like this guy’s a fucking ‘kraut, champ.” 

“I dunno. Stay here. I’ll get it.” I unbuckled my seat belt. 

“What?” he scoffed. “And miss the party?” 

And he was gone. The door slammed and the van shook. The shocks felt like they were made of gelatin, and I swayed in the driver’s seat like I was at sea. “Get the food,” he yelled. I watched him trudge past the van, he in his world and me in mine.  

“Want to put a shirt on?” 

He laughed, smirked, said, “Me? I’m a master of public relations. Now go get the fucking food.” 

 So I did. The back of the van was dark and lined with four catering racks bungied to the walls. On the racks, a small army of red, insulated coolers that looked like large, soft lunch boxes stood at attention. I rooted around in the dark, swimming in the smells of butter rolls, jarred spaghetti sauce, musty car seats and gasoline until I found Mr. Eberhardt’s soft cooler. I checked the order. Two boxed lunches: one roast beef, one tuna fish, both with fruit and pretzels. One of each dinner option: a spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, and one ham pot pie dinner, both with salad (ranch dressings). Four chocolate chip cookies. Looking at all those neatly lined and labeled coolers, I was hit with an appreciation for the work that went into the effort, and that someone once cared enough about a lonely old stranger to say to him or herself, “Y’know what? That could be me.” 

Feeling pretty good about charity, and pretty good about myself, I headed for the Eberhardt’s, a brick duplex with a large chimney in a neighborhood that used to be nice.   

The door was hanging open. I heard before I saw. 

Inside, Uncle John was laying on the floor with Mr. Eberhardt in an arm bar. The old man’s left arm was stretched across Uncle John’s chest, and Uncle John’s legs were reticulating like pythons around his neck. Mr. Eberhardt’s hair was thick and white and his eyes were rolling back in his head and his lips were purple and quivering. He wasn’t gasping; he was rattling. Uncle John’s face was red and his jaw was set and  he was breathing heavy through his nose, like he was having sex and trying to keep it quiet. 

I kicked something. It was one of Mr. Eberhardt’s Isotoner slippers, knocked from his body when Uncle John took him down. Then the other slipper dropped from Mr. Eberhardt’s gnarled, yellow-pink toes with a horse-like clop as his foot shuddered, then stopped. 

“Ya’ never saw old Johnny McLane comin’, did you, Rudolph?! Well, merry Christmas, asshole!” 

And with one last tug, Mr. Rudolph Eberhardt – a maker of cabinets and other fine works of wood, a card carrying NRA member and veteran who volunteered at the art center to teach teenagers woodworking twice a week – went limp between Uncle John’s suddenly muscular thighs. 

I dropped the Meals on Wheels. The bag spilled over my feet. A container popped open and ham pot pie bled onto the floor, where it seeped in-between some very nice mahogany floorboards. “What the fuck, Uncle John?” I asked. “What did you do?” Then I covered my mouth and said, “OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod,” a few times. 

“I’ll be damned,” Uncle John said. “It worked.” He laughed a little and untangled himself from Mr. Eberhardt’s inert limbs. “I saw that on TV.” He reached out, shot a smile. “Help me up.” 

I stood there for a second, looking at the broken pensioner who looked like he just fell from heaven and landed in his foyer. 

“Relax, champ. I didn’t kill him.” 

I pulled Uncle John to his feet. He placed a cigarette between his lips as he looked at Mr. Eberhardt. “At least I don’t think I killed him.” Uncle John kicked Mr. Eberhardt’s calf. “Hey,” he joked. “You dead, old timer?” 

Chuckling, he lit the cigarette. 

Floorboards creaked upstairs. 

I looked at the delivery. 

Meals for two. 

Uncle John put a finger to his lips. I nodded. He crept towards the staircase. 

A voice that sounded very much like a frightened old woman screeched from upstairs. “You boys leave him alone! You get out! The police are on their way! You boys take what you want and you get out!”  

Sirens wailed in the distance. An old woman sobbed atop the staircase, chanting her husband’s name like a prayer. And there went Uncle John, jogging to the United Presbyterian Church van. 

“C’mon, Johnny,” he called over his shoulder. “You’re driving.” 

By the time we hit the freeway, my phone was ringing and it did not stop. Uncle John puffed on his third cigarette with his boot propped against the dash. He was watching the passenger side  rearview like he was studying a blueprint. I tried to get his attention a couple of times, but he didn’t acknowledge me. We drove on. All of a sudden he rolled down his window and adjusted the mirror. 

“How about it,” he said. “How about it!” he emphasized. I had no idea who he was talking to. I assumed the police. 

But then I saw it. 

The Coke-a-Cola truck merging behind us was tarted up for the holidays, sporting snowflakes, wreaths of holly, and grinning polar bears. Uncle John mumbled words like cocksucker and fucker as he got up and squeezed between the seats, making his way to the back of the van. The mirror was still in his hand, and as he passed, he smashed it on the roof above my head, trying to keep his balance. Glass peppered my hair and twinkled in the sunshine. 

“Hold it steady, Johnny.” 

So I did. We were doing 70. 

I listened to the bungee cords release one-by-one, with Uncle John cussing at them every time they snapped his knuckles. Then the rickety catering carts squealed and scraped across the van’s rusty floor. When the back doors kicked open, the Econoline filled with wind. 

“Dinner is served, assholes!”  

And Uncle John pushed all four fully-loaded carts out of the van, one after another. The compassion of their preparation was matched by the fury of their destruction. The Coke-a-Cola truck plowed through them first, because John McLane’s aim is true; unfolding sandwiches and ham pot pies and spaghetti and meatballs and apples and oranges and large bent pieces of metal broke like fresh snow before the plow. The Coke truck locked up its brakes, skidded sideways, hit the retaining wall and flipped triumphantly, tumbling across the lanes at full speed. It rolled and rolled, tearing itself to pieces, and as the cargo doors on both sides either broke open or off, a spiraling spray of cola cans fanned hundreds of feet into the air, gleaming before the clear blue sky. It was beautiful. 

Then the cars. A symphony of squealing brakes and crumpling metal and shattering glass. They careened and collided and flew into the median backwards, sideways, forwards and all points in between. 

“Bullseye!” 

Uncle John’s silhouette was hooting and hollering, and when I looked back at him, half-terrified and half-thrilled, he was looking back at me and there was only one thing left to say. 

“Say it!” I yelled. 

“Say what, Hans?” he taunted back. 

“SAY IT!” 

And he did. He looked to the sky and he roared it. 

As soon as he said it, I floored the Econoline and the old van shuddered. Uncle John was dangling from the rear, swinging merrily on the double doors under a cold, low sun. The van’s shitty shocks were rocking and rolling and the wind was howling and my phone was ringing and the wind was in my hair and it felt like we were falling. We were both laughing now, and when I yelled, “Yee-Haw!,” I didn’t know where we were going exactly, but Uncle John and I were going somewhere wonderful, somewhere without pain, somewhere without memory, somewhere without a road behind us to fear, or a holiday before us to dread.

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Matt Perez is a writer, teacher and line cook. One of these thing happens at home, one happens at Penn State, and the other happens at an Italian restaurant. He is an Assistant Editor at Barrelhouse and co-captain of the magazine's special teams unit. You can ignore most of the things he says on Twitter @MattPerez18. (Or in person, because he's standing right behind you.)   

[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]