The holidays closed in and The Van Man had finished the Ibsen play. Post-show blues infiltrated his consciousness. To add to it, the Christmas Season was a traditional time of year for all people to visit the dark side. Van Man was not immune. People thought about things during the holidays that they did not want to think about in their daily lives. Dieting. Childhood abuse. And how much their ex was getting fucked. Van Man had always been brought to memories of Christmas Eve Past. The experiences were folk lore among family.
When Van Man was eight years old, the greatest thing in the world was Batman. Not just to Van Boy. To every child he knew. Even the sixties television show of the Caped Crusader was huge. Batman was a religion. The Gospel According to Joker. Robin, Three-Sixteen. And if Batman was the religion, the toys were Sunday Service. Van Boy wanted so desperately to pray at the alter of the Bat Cave. It was the grandest of all the Batman toys. It was the one true object of his desire.
Van Boy came from a single-mom upbringing. His parents were divorced which meant that he visited his father's family for Christmas Eve. A stable of Italians that cooked in twenty-four hour cycles, were way too loud and cried at everything. His father was a hustler, a man who always knew which grocery store had free food samples. He was a man that never came across a bet he did not like. The Hustler would whisk him off to the festivities early just to make a mad dash to bring his son home even earlier.
It was time to open gifts at the end of that particular evening and Van Boy was excited beyond all imagination. Tradition had Van Boy and his Younger Cousin open presents together. Most of their presents were alike, as always. They were usually given similar gifts because the Italians thought it was "cute". However, Younger Cousin would normally win at the end of the night, receiving one big present that trumped Van Boy's. This was due to the fact that the Younger Cousin was a grandson and nephew to the Italians while Van Boy was not. He was only a cousin. Politics.
Van Boy and Cousin tore through the wrapped boxes as the Italians looked on in delight. Only a few boxes remained when Van Boy realized there would be no Bat Cave for them. The disappointment was not heavy because he was not alone. Cousin had come away empty handed, too. Then the two children were told they each had one more gift that had been hidden away. The Hustler handed Van Boy a small gift that fit into the palm of his eight year old hand. A large box was dragged over to Cousin. The gift was nearly as tall as the boy and twice as wide. Van Boy looked down at the small box in his hand. He looked over to Cousin who ripped off the giftwrap. Inside the box he went. Cousin pulled out various Batman figures. That was not so bad to Van Boy. He already owned an Adam West Batman. Then Cousin pulled out a Batmobile. Van Boy handled it nicely. He had already begun using his Ecto One Ghostbuster Car as a substitute. Then Cousin's eyes popped out of his head. Van Boy watched as his Cousin pulled out the Bat Cave. That was an image Van Boy could not handle. He looked down at his present. He opened the little box. It was a mini, hand-held Batman video game. The graphics were a step up from Pong. It was hard to tell if the dark blob was Batman or The Penguin. Might have been the Bat Wing. It was real shitty.
Van Boy stared at his game and pushed the buttons. His eyes filled with water. An old hag leaned over to him and asked if he was happy with his gift. A tear ran down his cheek and he nodded. He just looked at the game in his hand. He could not look at his Cousin and the Bat Cave. It was all too painful. The Hustler leered at his son from a scratchy couch. "You like that, boy?", asked The Hustler. "That's what you wanted, ain't it, boy?" Van Boy could only nod. It was a lie, but he felt the eyes looking at him from around the room. He wanted to avoid any further humiliation. Had The Hustler planned the cruel embarrassment? Was it some Italian initiation he had to go through? Then The Hustler mumbled something that would stay with Van Boy for the rest of his life. "Hey, what's that?" Van Boy lifted his wet eyes towards The Hustler. "You see that, boy? Over there behind the tree?" Van Boy was confused and heartbroken, but acquiesced. He walked to the plastic tree. He did not see anything. "You don't see it?" Van Boy did not. The Hustler walked to the tree and knelt behind it. "What the hell is this?", said The Hustler as he pulled the big gift out and handed it to Van Boy. "Santa musta' forgot it over here." Van Boy ripped off the wrapping and opened the box. There it was. The greatest present he had known since the Christmas of Eighty-Eight. The Bat Cave. Van Boy was beyond happy. The Cousin smiled and was happy for him, too. "How 'bout we trade this for that game?", asked The Hustler. Van Boy let out a loud "No".
There would be other Christmases and the nineties ushered in video games and puberty. Van Boy would see less and less of the Italians. The Hustler got old and The Van Man moved away. The holiday never captured his heart quite like those old days. And maybe that was a good thing. But he would never forget the lessons he learned. Never let them see you cry and always check behind the tree.