Another contribution from the Beginner’s Creative Writing course. And another participant who was far from a beginner. Karen’s writing always surprises and delights me and I’m so glad that this collection includes something from her.
Over to Karen…
Emmaline and the Christmas Ham by Karen Huber
Christmas made her vomit.
Well, not Christmas so much as her aunt’s ham. Thick, salty shards of cured pork, juice pooling at its base. Emmaline grew to hate this winter excursion, knowing what awaited her on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
She sat alone on the red vinyl backseat of her mother’s Plymouth Reliant, queasy with anticipation. The car was a beast, a camouflaged one, threading it’s way along the narrow, winter-white Kansas highway. Emmaline’s stomach shrunk with every mile marker.
She can’t remember how it began. She assumed ham had always been a Christmas staple, cut into manageable bits for her baby teeth, rejected by her chubby fingers. Aunt Cora swore up and down she’d never had a problem with it before, but Emmaline wasn’t so sure.
“Come on, Emmaline,” her aunt had begged, oversized knife and fork in hand, “I know you like it. Ham is what we’ve always had for Christmas dinner.” The knife a honey-tongued menace as it folded her a hefty slice. “It’s this or nothing. No pie. No ice cream.”
Aunt Cora paused, giving weight to her words and the seriousness of the crime.
“Nothing, till you eat your ham.”
That was three Christmases ago. Like a pleasing child in want of dessert, Emmaline ate the ham. Two fork stabs went in and within five minutes, more than her fair share of breakfast, lunch and dinner came flying out. She spent the rest of the weekend in the basement, hiding her head inside the pilly, purple sleeping bag her grandparents gave her that year. Not even a day old and it was the first vomit casualty, washed and dried three times in two days. She waited out her sentence until it was time to go. A long weekend was all her mother could afford and a Christmas off work is woefully short.
The following year Aunt Cora and her five boys came to Kansas, filling Emmaline’s tiny house with dirty socks, G.I. Joe action figures and the smell of baked ham. Then it was Easter and another Christmas at Granny’s, another ham and another ruined sleeping bag. Now, at ten, Emmaline found herself back in the Reliant, headed the way of Colorado ham and a holiday of misery.
What most don’t know about Colorado is that its eastern half is flatter than Kansas, the belly of burnt fields hidden by snow and fog. There’s not a mountain in sight, at least for a while. Emmaline hated this part most: leaving her home behind and the safety of the Kansas prairie, heading deep into a Colorado-nothing, hoping for a peek at something spectacular. Waiting forever for a sign.
“Pit-stop, hon,” her mom called from behind the steering wheel, peeling off the road and into a nearly empty parking lot. It was their last chance, literally. Last Chance, Colorado; at least, that’s what the sign said.
Emmaline perked up, lifting her head from the crook of her elbow. “Oh, right, ice cream.” A gargantuan effort was required to open the car door against both the wind and her angst, but the desire for a dipped chocolate cone overcame the ham-inspired dread.
Frozen air hit her lungs hard. Mom fidgeted with her purse by the restaurant’s door.
“Emmy, come on, sweetie. It’s almost closing time. Gotta order and get going. Christmas Eve, baby.”
Her mother called her baby, even though she’d be 11 soon. Emmaline was, in fact, Deb’s only baby, so she let it be. She knew her mother loved her, worked hard for her and made sure these trips were as painless as possible. In the house of her big sister, Deb would soon find herself useless. Emmaline’s eyes would trace her mother’s steps as she wandered aimlessly through a country kitchen, unsure of which dish needed reheating or what pot needed stirring. These were their last few hours of peace. And her mother needed the treat as much as Emmaline did.
A bell decked with mistletoe rang as they entered, placing their order at the counter, a mere pass-through from the small diner’s kitchen to its dining area.
“Why do they call this a Dairy King and not a Dairy Queen?” Emmaline asked her then. It was a safe question, an easy one to answer, having trained herself to swallow the hard ones, the questions without an answer.
“That’s just how they do it out here, I think. A small town thing,” Deb answered absentmindedly, drumming her fingers on the linoleum. Who knows why they do the things they do out here? Who knows why they even make this trip? Who can even remember the first time they came, when it was the three of them on an adventure? Who can remember a dad sneaking bites from his daughter’s cone?
Her mother’s sighs filled the air between them; Emmaline turned to look at her. She squinted in the florescent lights and tried to picture Deb at ten. Did she have her daughter’s freckled face? Did Granny braid her hair? Apart from the obvious height gap and the crinkled lines fingering Deb’s eyes, they alone were like each other: blonde curls and crooked smiles and dainty hands. This gave Emmaline comfort, knowing they would face the holiday together. Two yellow stars in a sky of darker hues.
In that moment – the road of family and mountains and honey-glazed nightmares stretched wide before them – Emmaline remembered the sad answer to all her hard questions, a Polaroid memory clearing, sharpening under the glare of diner lights:
On that day they stood together at the door, her mother holding a document too big with hands too small. Her memory felt their twin hearts break into a million shards as he drove away in the snow. A lukewarm ham left on the Christmas table, the juice of salty tears pooling at its base.
As Deb grabbed their treats and headed for the door, Emmaline made a silent promise to not throw up this time. I can do it, she thought to herself, grabbing the dipped cone from her mother, remembering the curve of his smile, wide with chocolate at the corners.
Find out about Karen Huber and her writing
on her blog River Into Words
or follow her on Twitter @karenohuber