Christmas at Dotty’s by Heather Campbell

The winter of 1989, it snowed on our yearly pilgrimage to Dotty’s. My grandmother, Dorothy, had asked me to call her Dotty years ago. 

“I am too young to be a grandmother,” she said in her smoker’s drawl. “No one would believe you. You may as well call me Dotty so as not to confuse anyone.”  

My mother and father begrudgingly made the trip despite the fact that Dotty despised my father for not being the rich man she wanted her daughter to marry. Our trips there were infrequent, but we always went on Christmas Eve. That was Dotty’s holiday, as if she were Christ herself being anointed. Dotty and her only friend, Mary, would collect the family near the modest-sized tree. It was covered in tinsel and bulbous rainbow lights, but there were few toys beneath, despite the six grandchildren in attendance. I was the oldest at thirteen, my brother and our four cousins ranged from ages five to ten. Instead of toys, we watched each other through cigarette smoke as Mary and Dotty took turns handing out cards, each with twenty dollars enclosed. They’d stand side by side reading the recipients’ names aloud, beckoning us one at a time to collect our goods. Our names, written in sprawling cursive on the front of each envelope, were in quotation marks. I never understood why.

The snow was coming down thick and the sky was dark despite the time, 12:01PM, which lit up the dashboard of our 1979 Saab. Brands mattered to my parents and they’d rather have a ten-year-old Saab than a brand-new Hyundai, an impracticality that infuriated my brother, who learned to worry too young. The heat was wheezing out of every vent, but my brother and I still needed the blankets we brought for the two-hour ride. I wondered how we would make it home, as it had become clear over the years that my mother would rather crash the car into a snowbank than spend a night at her mother’s. 

Despite my parents’ feelings, I loved my grandmother, who fashioned her hair into a bouffant at the beauty parlor every Friday. She was tall and thin, a state she managed with coffee and Capri cigarettes, the classy ladies preference. I found comfort in her presence, even when she hotboxed her Cadillac, my brother and I in the back gasping. 

My mother told me once that Dotty could not afford her Cadillac or the condo we were headed to. She explained that Mary, and her husband Al, had paid for Dotty’s lifestyle years ago. Mary and Al began as Dotty’s landlords, but the three became friends, and Mary and Al spent many afternoons sipping Folgers instant in my grandmother’s kitchen—until eventually Al decided to stay with Dotty. Despite the open nature of the affair, Mary begged them not to leave her, and they all moved in together. I sometimes pictured Mary awake in her twin bed, tucked under her frayed patchwork quilt, two doors down from Al, when he had his fatal heart attack in my grandmother’s bed. I imagined darkly that this must have given Mary some small pleasure, despite my loyalty to my grandmother. 

My mother had explained the situation to me dismissively: Dotty’s drug of choice has always been other women’s husbands, but she was getting too old for that nonsense, and after the affair with Al ended with a heart attack, she decided to give up men once and for all. 

I was pulled from my thoughts when the blinker went on unexpectedly and my mother took a quick right turn into an empty parking lot without consulting my father. I looked up at the massive sign on tall legs, meant to draw people from the highway, “Alley Katz Bowlarama.” My brother perked up for the first time in days.

“Are we going in there?!”

“If it’s open,” my father replied. 

I marveled at my father’s willingness to go along with my mother’s inane ideas without question, but there we were, the only people in the only open establishment for miles. We walked in, stomping the snow off our boots in the entryway and were greeted by an empty counter behind which lay rows and rows of saddle shoes that had long since lost their shine. My father had to lay his hand on the bell for what seemed like minutes before someone made their way over to help us. I thought the guy looked like he’d been asleep and wondered if he just lived there. My father hadn’t even relayed our shoe sizes when my mother came around the corner carrying a pitcher of beer and two glasses stacked inside each other. I hadn’t even seen her walk away. 

We made our way to the last lane, where my mother set up shop. She poured herself a pint and took a long swallow before lacing up her frayed laces. She was suddenly in a good mood, or whatever mood she consistently radiated when she took her first public sip of the day. My father was busying himself entering our initials into the leader board when my patience finally wore off. 

“Why are we here? Isn’t Dotty expecting us?” 

My mother looked at me, amused. 

“We’ll get there eventually. Are you really in such a rush to eat Dotty’s mushroom casserole? I wouldn’t go there hungry if I were you.”

I looked at my mother blankly, trying hard to maintain outward equanimity. She underestimated me. She told me things I was too young to hear, while simultaneously assuming I was too naive to understand her actions, but I could read my mother’s mind when I cared enough to try. She was waiting for her two brothers to arrive at Dotty’s. She thought they could protect her from Dotty’s judgment. It didn’t hurt that her brothers could unapologetically bring beer to Dotty’s and my mother could not. My mother had been to rehab and so she had to pretend like alcohol did not matter to her anymore. She needed to prevent time alone with Dotty.

I continued to look at my mother, almost through her, until she finally shrugged off my lack of response and deadpan adolescent eyes and turned away. 

“Can I have ten dollars for the snack bar?” 

“Sure, just bring your brother back a hotdog.” I pocketed the money and wandered to the back of the alley. I looked down when I walked and shuffled my feet so that my toes scraped along the gray stained carpet with each step, something my mother was always trying to correct. I found what I thought might be the spot to order food and waited for someone to notice me. My gaze made its way from one neon beer sign to the next and I realized that I was alone in a bar where the taps were at eye level. I helped myself to a clean pint glass, took another look around, and let the piss-yellow liquid run into my glass until the foam was spilling over. It took me a minute to figure out how to stop the flow and by then my adrenaline was pumping. I took the glass and made my way to the women’s room where I locked the blue metal door and sat on the closed toilet holding my breath in order to quickly choke down the beer without gagging. I left the glass on the floor and walked out of the room feeling lightheaded and no better than before.

I reentered the alley and joined my family who had nearly finished their first game.

“Where were you? Your brother had to bowl for you, and where is his hotdog?” my father asked. My mother looked at me with a raised brow and I wondered if she knew, but she didn’t say a word. I glanced up at the board. My brother had clearly thrown every one of my balls into the gutter and I could never catch up with my family’s lead . 

“I’m not hungry anymore. Here, get your own hotdog, jerkoff,” and I threw the wadded-up ten at my brother. Ignoring my comment, he took the money and shoved it in his pocket.

The day passed in a haze. I watched my family march through the process of the game. My father took his time holding the ball in his hand, examining the number faintly printed on the side and deciding each time he picked up a ball whether the weight really corresponded to it. My mother, for her part, sat upright despite the downward slant of her facial features. Her manner was upbeat, but her words had begun to slur, and my mood darkened. My father finally called it and said we were as late as Dotty would allow, and our family climbed into our car and drove the final eighteen miles to nowhere, my mother behind the wheel. 

The adjoining condos that Mary bought for herself and Dotty were in one of the abandoned factory mills that had been converted into homes in the same town where my mother grew up. She hated that industrial ghost town, but I thought the apartments were lovely, with their high ceilings and brick walls and floor-to-ceiling large-paned windows rimmed in black metal.

My jeans were three sizes too big for me, an aesthetic choice that both my parents criticized, and in the parking lot of my grandmother’s condo my mother’s face crinkled as she examined me while pulling wrapped gifts from the trunk. It was not lost on me that although I’d been in the jeans for hours, it took Dotty’s impending eyes for my mother to notice them.

“God, did you have to wear those jeans? It’s Christmas Eve. You look like a slob.”

I rolled my eyes, a move I used to extinguish rage quickly, and my mother ignored me, parading to the front door without looking back to see if her family was in line behind her. She knew we were. We rode the elevator up and I was shocked at how quiet things were. It was as if no one lived in the building. The lights were dim in the hallway and the carpet smelled damp. We made it to the fourth floor and were soon enveloped by cigarette smoke and the arms of Dotty and Mary.

“Give your old grandmother a kiss, dear. You don’t think you’re too old to kiss your grandma, do you?” 

I wasn’t sure why I was being accused of anything, but I knew the answer. “Of course not, Dotty,” and I threw myself into my grandmother’s embrace. It was Mary’s turn next, but having to touch her made me feel sick to my stomach. She smelled of decay masked with drugstore eau de toilette. I felt certain that Dotty was in direct competition with Mary in every aspect of life, and so I made sure to end the hug prematurely to show my allegiance to my grandmother. 

When Dotty was done telling me that I’d better marry rich and that it was too bad I didn’t have a wave in my hair (two things she told me on every visit) I made my escape into the next room. I was exhausted by the limited exchanges, and walked away looking to find a corner to hide in as the women distracted themselves with the rest of my immediate family. My mother had timed our arrival perfectly. My uncles, aunts, and cousins were in the adjoining room, adding a raucous air to the place, making it easier for my mother to hide her day drinking. The fading effects of my single beer were making me agitated. I wondered how my mother managed it day in and day out. 

I wandered into the living room quietly, trying to avoid my well-meaning extended family, and wished I was there alone with my grandmother and Mary. I liked sitting with them, listening to their complaints about the neighbors and the ways in which everyone else had it wrong. When they were tired of talking, we would watch TV. The times my brother and I would visit alone, they’d sit us down in a row on their loveseat, and after careful examination of the TV Guide, the small 4×6 version that fit neatly in my grandmother’s hands, we’d inevitably watch America’s Most Wanted on Fox. Dotty would let me flip through the TV Guide if I asked, but she would not let me choose the program. My brother complained once about never getting to watch cartoons and so Dotty let him watch TV in her bedroom alone. I preferred sitting next to my grandmother, so I never said a word. 

My extended family had not yet noticed me, and I tried to remain invisible by occupying myself with an oil painting my grandmother had made when I was an infant. It hung against the red brick wall and its colors were in line with its backdrop—muted and dark, shadowy. I had grown up looking at the man in the painting. He wore thick circus makeup and was of indeterminate age and he sat on a chair looking quite tired. His head rested in his hand and his elbow was propped on his knee. His hat was askew and he looked as if he might tumble forward if forced to stay awake much longer. 

The subject of the painting was one thing, but I was always struck by my grandmother’s name in the corner, “Dorothy ’41.” Maybe my grandmother didn’t know that you were supposed to sign your work with your last name, or maybe she didn’t like her last name. Greiner was an ugly word to get off the tip of your tongue and I supposed it wasn’t much better to look at. Maybe Dotty agreed. Regardless, I was impressed that my very own grandmother had made this painting with her signature to prove it. In my mind this painting made my grandmother a famous painter. It was there for all to see, although Dorothy had framed her own work and put it in her own living room and so really no one had any choice but to look at it. 

I asked my grandmother about the man in the painting a few years ago. “He’s just some hobo,” she replied. I turned the word over in my mind. I’d never heard it before, and it felt offensive, like something my grandmother should not have said, but I didn’t ask any more about it. 

Over the years, I heard people whisper about the man. Most thought he was a clown and found him creepy. Everyone was put off by the painting, but my mother was the biggest critic of all. 

“Why the hell would you want to look at a painting of some depressing old homeless guy in a clown suit?” My mother laughed to herself.

My memories were interrupted when I heard my grandmother calling everyone in from the other room. 

“Ok, who is coming down with us to neighbor Jimmy’s place?” I wandered in and raised my hand. Dotty liked to show off her friends, so she brought us all down to Jimmy and his mother Gladys’s condo each year. Their world was unlike anything I had seen before and left me with a mixture of pity, fear, and awe. My brother’s anxieties made him worry while mine made me into the girl who would try anything. 

Dotty led me, my mother, and my two uncles out in single file through the dank hallway and down a flight of stairs. She rang buzzer 2B. The door opened slowly, and there stood Jimmy’s mother, Gladys, looking much the same as the Christmas before. She was shorter than her son, but her presence was large, and she looked us each in the eye without a smile as we passed the threshold into her home. Jimmy was pale and sweaty despite the frigid temperature both inside their home and out, and his eyes never left his mother as he waited for instructions.

“Well, go ahead Jimmy, don’t be shy. They’ve come for you this time. Go on, show them what you’ve done.”

Jimmy pushed his damp hair back along his receding hairline, an unfortunate trait that made his indeterminate age even harder to figure, and reluctantly led us into a room solely dedicated to his model trains. The room was bigger than any room in our house, and yet the six of us only just fit between the tables that were purposely placed so that spectators could access every corner of the miniature world. The lights in the room were off, but the world he created gave off enough light to read by. We tried to spread out to examine the intricacies of his hard work and what was very likely every penny he had ever made. I listened to the train’s engine as it zipped through the towns and I watched the miniature people’s arms waving up and down at the imagined family and friends aboard the vessel, their arms heavy with Christmas gifts and their faces full of cheer. Happy children played in the snow and small mechanical snowballs flew from ice fort to ice fort as happy parents leaned against light posts covered in plasticine snow and watched them play. 

The scene was impressive and appalling all at once. Jimmy gave up a life outside to create the one in this room. I knew my mother was scoffing, despite or maybe because of the fact that Jimmy was her contemporary. I could feel her judgment from across the room, but mostly my attention was on the creator of the scene. Jimmy was squat and had dark thinning hair and his knuckles were stretched thin and white where he gripped his remote control. My eyes darted from the man to his mother and back again. I was only thirteen, but I knew that someday soon I was supposed to move out of my mother’s home. This man had long since passed that expiration date. 

Gladys had small black eyes that darted from person to person, watching their reactions. Jimmy, on the other hand, never let his mother out of his sight. It was clear he was terrified of her.  Gladys was old, but the kind of old that doesn’t drink or smoke, the kind of old that would never die. I saw Psycho at a friend’s house the week before. The movie gave me nightmares, but now I had an appropriate reference. I sat watching the mother and son with a thinly veiled look of fascination and horror as my mind wandered to what life must be like for the two. I imagined Jimmy, in particular, never left the apartment and the sudden onslaught of visitors might have him on the verge of a meltdown. Meanwhile his mother dared him to keep it together in front of her company with her dagger-like eyes.

Something shifted in me as I watched this motley crew together observing the laughing children’s faces frozen in mock cheer: Jimmy’s wet eyes, Gladys’s scowl, Dotty’s arms crossed tight across her chest, my uncles with matter-of-fact smiles, and my mother laughing openly at poor Jimmy, the meek creator of the scene. In that moment, I could see exactly why Jimmy created the world as he stood surrounded by the people he was hiding from. I watched the spinning children on ice skates go round and round and closed my eyes, willing myself to be as happy as they were. Gladys interrupted with a quick clap-clap of her hands. The lights went on and the marvels in front of us ground to a halt. 

“Ok, the party’s over, Dotty. Thank you for bringing your family by, but Jimmy and I need to get back to our dinner.” 

Dotty thanked Gladys politely and we followed my grandmother out in single file. I kept my head hung as we snaked out the door and through the hall to the service stairs. Dotty thought we should stretch our legs before dinner and we began the four-story ascent to her apartment through the cinderblock-lined hallway. 

The stairs were cement and unpainted and I began to count each step as we moved along. …four, five, six… The adults spoke louder than they should have and their voices ricocheted off the institutional walls …fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… counting had the effect of speeding up time and I felt I could imagine myself in the ages I whispered…. twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one… I looked ahead to my mother, who loathed exercise. I knew she begrudgingly took the stairs. It occurred to me that my mother pretended to look down on Dotty, but really, she was afraid of her. Just like Jimmy was afraid of his mother. …thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine… My mother was thirty-nine and was still following her mother up dark staircases because she told her to.  

We made our way back into Dotty’s place and took our seats around the dinner table. The mushroom casserole sat at the center of the table in a floral mustard ceramic crockpot, and Dotty declared we should serve ourselves. I excused myself to the bathroom and made my way back to my grandmother’s painting. 

I looked up at the sad, tired man as I put my hand in my pocket and felt for the figurine I had taken from Jimmy. A smiling child holding a present in outstretched hands. The man and the figurine were both from worlds that Dotty and Jimmy created in order to survive the one they were living in. 

I heard my mother laugh in the other room and wondered if I’d be strong enough to create an escape like Dotty, or if, like my mother, I’d die of shame for not trying. I held the weight of Jimmy’s figurine in my palm, tracing my fingers around the shape, surprised by its sharp edges. I felt badly that I had taken a piece of Jimmy’s world, but reasoned I could always give it back next Christmas.

Heather Campbell is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in HerStry and she is delighted to be included in the current issue of The Coachella Review. You can send her a note at if you’d like to be in touch.