Holiday Funny

It was, allegedly, the most wonderful time of the year. Halloween had been quietly escorted out, Thanksgiving had barely been given a chance, and whether you celebrated it or not, everywhere screamed Christmas: the big department stores with empty cardboard boxes wrapped in silvery paper, the little cafes with preciously named cinnamon spiced drinks, the quaint towns with wire snowflakes glittering on the street lamps. People scurried about all of these places, pretending to admire them, but really, they were all buying last-minute gifts or looking for the kind of trouble that would keep them alive but unable to go home for the holidays.

And then there was Taryn Copland, who did not like buying gifts or looking for trouble, and was, unfortunately, already home for the holidays. Taryn had not caught an early flight or begged off from work for a month. Taryn had technically left home—if the only criteria was moving out of his parents’ house. But as he only lived two miles away from his childhood home, he wasn’t certain that counted. When you lived so close, you were expected to visit for the holidays. There were no plane tickets or snowstorms or delayed trains to stop you.  

Standing at a gas station, trying to decide if the blow-up decoration outside was meant to be a snowman or Santa Claus, Taryn rubbed his hands together as he waited for the gas pump to click. It took an eternity to fill up the gas tank on this car. He would have gotten a new one, but from a young age he’d internalized his dad’s laments about newer cars getting worse every year. His dad worked at a dealership, so he ought to know.

Most years, Taryn managed to scrounge up enough holiday cheer to stand Christmas with his parents and sister and brother-in-law, but this year, his nerves were frayed, and he thought he might simply die if he heard Mariah Carey on the radio again. Maybe it was his age, but everything felt especially tacky this year. Too gaudy, too bright. Too much fake cheer. No one could really be this happy in December, no matter how many gifts they received. The increasingly dire climate situation meant that white Christmases were a thing of the past, and Christmas day was usually a soggy mess, fallen pine needles in mud tracks.

Christmas meant buying gifts that would inevitably not be good enough for his stuck-up sister and receiving gifts he had no use for but pretended to like anyway. He was gifted at screwing his mouth up into a surprised, pleased grin. It was sort of his fault, anyway—he never made a wish list, so everyone had to guess. He wished they wouldn’t buy him anything at all.

The gas tank finally filled, and Taryn hooked the pump back in place, wiped his hands on his jeans, and took his receipt. He added it to the envelope with all the other gas receipts. Another habit from his dad. Keep your receipts. You never know when you might need them.

In nearly 15 years of driving, he’d never needed them, but he didn’t want to risk it.

The gas station was deserted, and Taryn took his time buckling his seat belt and starting the car. He had no other errands to run, and it was nearly 11 AM. As soon as Taryn and his sister were old enough to learn patience, his family had celebrated Christmas at precisely 11 AM. Taryn couldn’t imagine a younger version of himself waking up at six and barging into his parents’ room to exclaim that Santa had come. That Taryn was so far away from who he was now, he seemed like an impossible dream.

As he turned onto the street, he slowed down and looked at each of the neighbors’ lawns, noting who had the most obnoxious display or worst new decoration. He could easily get his mom to talk shit about the neighbors’ decorations for at least twenty minutes. It was usually a Christmas highlight. His parents’ house looked elegant as always: white icicle lights strung across the roof and woven through the bare peach trees. Two delicate deer, a buck and doe, kept watch on either side of the front porch. He gathered the gifts from his passenger seat and started up the stone walkway.

Before he reached the door, his mother flung it open and called, “Taryn! Did you see the monstrosity on the Bells’ lawn?” Taryn made a show of looking over his shoulder and raising one finger to his lips. His mother laughed and waved him inside. She whispered, “It’s absolutely hideous. They must be so embarrassed.”

His dad waited behind the door and clapped a hand on Taryn’s back. “Merry Christmas, Taryn!” he said with a broad, white-toothed smile. After years of refusing, he’d finally gotten dentures, and now he sang their praises, as if he hadn’t spent a decade calling them ‘the devil’s chompers.’

In the living room, Taryn found his sister sitting primly on the couch, tucked under her husband’s arm. They didn’t have children, but Taryn knew it was only a matter of time. Whitney and Patrick were that kind of couple, meant to be parents. Their engagement and wedding photos had been so adorable they seemed forced.

Taryn did not like either of them.

He said hello and placed his presents under the tree. Whitney and Patrick looked away, as if Taryn were Santa Claus himself, in need of some privacy. Taryn just hoped they hadn’t purchased their own set of cast iron pans in the month since Taryn’s mother told him Whitney desperately wanted some for Christmas. Patrick had the kind of high-paying job that made Christmas gifts seem redundant.

Taryn allowed himself a moment to breathe and admire the house. As always, it looked straight out of a catalog, with a perfectly shaped and decorated Christmas tree, blankets draped artfully on the couch and loveseat, and knickknacks—Santas, snowglobes, reindeer, angels—strategically placed on every free surface. The air smelled of cinnamon and bread; in precisely one minute, his mother would appear with a tray of cinnamon buns.

He supposed he should like this more. The comfort, the predictability. There was nothing wrong with Christmas here. But it was the same every year. Aside from the neighbors’ decorations, nothing ever changed. There was never any drama. Everyone smiled politely and made small talk and went home feeling perfectly bland.

“Hello!” his mom said. Taryn’s head snapped up. She wasn’t in the room. He looked at Whitney and Patrick, but they were giggling and grinning at each other. No help at all.

“Hello!” she said again. Was she on the phone? Taryn stood and peeked into the kitchen. There she was: oven mitts on, taking the cinnamon buns out of the oven, right on schedule.

“Mom?” he asked. “Did you call?”

“Hmm? No.”

Taryn frowned and turned back towards the living room, but in the hallway, he heard it again. He walked slowly down the hall, towards his old room. It was unlike his family to play tricks on him. On anyone, really. They weren’t practical jokesters. He turned the doorknob and stepped into the room, where he came face to face with a parrot. “Hello!”

Blinking, Taryn paused before spinning around and briskly walking back to the living room, where his mom passed out cinnamon buns. “Uh, when did you guys get a parrot?” he asked.

His parents looked at each other, eyebrows up and lips pursed. Whitney and Patrick stared at the ceiling. No one answered.

Agitated, Taryn said, “Tell me I’m not the only one who can see and hear the parrot in my old bedroom.”

Finally, his dad sighed and said under his breath, “Damn.”

“It was supposed to be a surprise!” his mom wailed, nearly dropped her tray.

“I told you the thing couldn’t keep its mouth shut,” his dad snapped.

What is going on?” Taryn demanded.

Whitney rolled her eyes and said, “Mom and Dad got you a parrot for Christmas.” She placed a hand on her chest. “I swear I had nothing to do with it.”

Taryn snapped his gaze back to his parents. “Why?”

“You must be so lonely in that house,” his mom said sadly, reaching one mitted hand towards his shoulder. “We thought you could use a friend.”

“So you got me a bird? Not like, a cat? A cat would have been fine. What am I supposed to do with a bird?”

“Here,” Whitney said, handing him a small package. Taryn narrowed his eyes at her and unwrapped it. A book slid out of the paper. How to Care for Your Parrot.

"I thought you said you had nothing to do with this?"

Whitney shrugged.

Taryn was speechless. He had been wrong. Christmas wasn’t always the same.

Later that day, after several arguments, Taryn found himself back at his apartment with the parrot. His parrot. What on earth was he supposed to do with a parrot, of all things? He and the bird stared at each other through the bars of its small cage, where it perched on a small branch taken from one of the peach trees. Could birds smirk? This one certainly could.

“I suppose we’ll have to get you a bigger cage,” Taryn finally said, reaching a finger toward the bars. The parrot squawked, and Taryn pulled his finger away. “How do I teach you words?” The bird cocked its head, a gesture that seemed a bit surly. Equally surly, Taryn said, “Well, it’s not like I asked for you.”

With a sigh, Taryn sat down in a worn reading chair. "Talking to the bird," he muttered. The parrot didn’t break eye contact. Now it seemed to smile, unblinking and taunting. As if to say: You’re stuck with me now, buddy.

Taryn looked away and wondered if he could pinpoint the exact moment in his life when he’d doomed himself to this path, where he’d become so lonely that his parents resorted to a surprise bird as forced companionship. Was there some alternate timeline, one where he’d pursued a dream job, or traveled the world? Or fallen in love?

No, Taryn had dreams, but falling in love was not one of them.

There were plenty of things Taryn had wanted from life. But as the years passed, they seemed impractical. At work and with friends, he often talked about how this was the year he was going to make a change. This was the year he was going to go on a road trip to see the west coast. Or the year he was going to take a pottery class and open his own shop on Etsy. Or the year he was finally going to take his money out of that evil big bank and move it to a community bank. Or the year he would grow his hair out.

But year after year, Taryn stayed put. He bought coffee mugs instead of making them because it was cheaper than taking a class. He kept his money in the evil bank because moving money was a hassle. He got his hair cut once a month because he worried someone would think he looked unkempt. He went to his parents’ house for Christmas because it was what he’d always done. And so on. And so forth.

“Hello!” the bird said in his mom's voice, tilting its head to the other side and bouncing on its perch.

“We’ve got to teach you some new words,” Taryn said. "And maybe a new voice." He reached for the book Whitney had given him and opened it. Resisting the urge to skip the introduction, he settled back in the chair and, under the watchful eye of the parrot, began to read. 

December 26, 2020 01:53

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A.Dot Ram
17:37 Dec 28, 2020

I like the way you ended this-- learning new words as the first step to getting out of a rut. I also like Taryn and his mom making fun of people's decorations. Yes, that's a fun gauge of character.


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Julie Ward
22:52 Dec 28, 2020

I have a lot of hope for Taryn after reading your story, Natalie! I love your descriptions of him and how he feels about Christmas at his parents house. So many relatable moments, really great lines - "He thought he might simply die if he heard Mariah Carey on the radio again." Ha! Haven't we all felt that way?


01:46 Dec 29, 2020

Thank you, Julie! I think a lot of people have complicated feelings about the holiday season that aren't necessarily about the holidays themselves - the feelings just come up because it's such an intense time of year. And that's what I tried to explore here. And yes, the first time I hear "All I Want For Christmas Is You" in December, it's great, but by the millionth time? Just the first few notes send me ducking for cover. Definitely best enjoyed in moderation!


Julie Ward
18:51 Dec 29, 2020

You did a great job! I really enjoyed it!


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Kristin Neubauer
11:45 Dec 26, 2020

This was so sweet, but balanced out by the gruff cynicism of Taryn. I thought the concept of the parents getting him the bird because they were concerned about los loneliness was so smart - it told so much in a simple gesture. Loved it!


01:53 Dec 27, 2020

Thanks Kristin! I've been struggling with writer's block recently and made myself finish this, so it's not really my favorite thing I've ever written, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wanted to make sure that Taryn's frustration with visiting home had little to do with his parents, so I thought it'd be nice if they were lovely, worried people who just happen to give misguided gifts.


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Vanessa Waltz
15:48 Dec 28, 2020

I was hooked from the first line - what a great first sentence! Really enjoyed this story, especially the character development.


01:47 Dec 29, 2020

Thank you Vanessa! The 'allegedly' was a late addition to the first sentence. I think it makes it more effective and I'm glad you liked it too!


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