‘You forget,’ Beth said to the empty car. ‘Everything. Or you think you do. How he smells on the sheets. How your habits are actually his habits. Running a finger around the mouth of a glass right out of the dishwasher. Hating that newswoman’s mouth. Listening to Leonard Cohen.’ She turned right onto Prentiss Place. No other cars were on the road and Beth hugged close to the steering wheel. Through the windshield the houses looked sturdy and warm. ‘Acting like him,’ she said. ‘Literally acting like him and not even realising it.’
The house was on the right. Beth pulled the car up to the sidewalk before the house and sat looking at it through the passenger window. The house was dark but the lights of the tree were visible through the front window. They seemed to hang there in space. Her brother Peter’s station wagon was nosed up to the garage door, covered in a layer of frost.
Jason woke to the swirled white plaster of the ceiling. He stared at it for a moment as his eyes cleared. He thought of cake frosting. The clock said eight-forty. Low, muffled noises like things heard underwater came through the door. He tugged on his penis but without much conviction, then rolled over onto his side and went back to sleep.
Cynthia flipped the bacon with a fork and slid the tray back into the oven. From the kitchen table Beth watched the way her sister moved. She was still so lithe. Her movements were like liquid, she poured across a room.
‘I’m telling you,’ Cynthia said. ‘That kid better be up in the next fifteen minutes. Or?’ She pointed the bacon fork at the living room. ‘OK. I’m sending his sister in there with wet hands.’
‘The Christmas spirit,’ said Beth.
‘Please. Beth?’ Cynthia said. ‘We were seventeen once. Remember? And we were not allowed to sleep till nine. Nine would’ve been unheard of.’
In the living room the twins had tired of their toys and lay on their stomachs before the television. Elsie sat between them, taking turns braiding their hair. They were watching some cartoon, something with a cactus that walked and talked. But the sound was off. Grandpa Lon had insisted. On the old hi-fi Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas. The presents were still wrapped beneath the tree, stockings only until everyone was ready. Peter and Sandy passed a blue mug of coffee back and forth on the couch, each of them reading a paperback. Grandpa Lon sat in his chair looking at the newspaper.
‘How’s everything going,’ Cynthia said to Beth.
‘Fine,’ Beth said and shrugged. ‘It’s nice to see everyone all together, isn’t it? Dad seems all right.’
Cynthia forked the bacon from the hot pan onto a plate lined with paper towels. She closed the oven and carried the plate to the door. ‘We’re all troopers,’ she said to Beth. Then to the living room: ‘Who wants bacon?’
Jason stood naked in the bathroom with the door locked and his hand testing the water of the shower. The bathroom smelled, still, like his grandmother. More than a year and here was Nana as if she’d just left the room. He thought of his dream, of whether he could bring Brittany Grieves into it. Brittany Grieves naked but with boots on. He laughed, it was too ridiculous. And wrong somehow. When the water was steaming up the mirrors he got into the shower.
‘I listen to his show sometimes,’ Beth told her sister. ‘He doesn’t sound happy.’
‘Please don’t do that,’ Cynthia said.
‘He sounds…’ Beth said. She was trying to be as accurate as possible. ‘He sounds annoyed. The radio show’s his baby and it’s like he’s not getting any pleasure out of it.’
‘Well,’ Cynthia said. ‘I say good. Serves him right.’
‘Cynthia,’ Beth said.
‘He’s a dick,’ Cynthia said. She covered her mouth with her hand, grinning.
Beth shook her head. ‘He’s really not.’
Cynthia took her hand away from her mouth. She crossed her arms and said quietly, ‘People heal. They do.’
‘I don’t know,’ Beth said. ‘I’m not sure. I have an idea.’
Beth picked at a loose thread winding from the placemat. ‘I’m still working on it.’
Peter closed his book on his finger and scratched at his beard. It had come to him as a fully formed question. A conundrum. He said it aloud to the room.
‘Who delivers the paper on Christmas?’ he said. It was for anyone that could answer it, but he looked at Sandy.
Lon lowered the newspaper, bending it in half only by dropping his fingers. Not another inch of him moved. ‘What do you mean?’ he said. He was frowning.
‘Who is it that delivers the paper,’ Peter said again. ‘Have you ever actually seen anyone delivering it on Christmas?’
Sandy was giving him a look. She set the coffee mug down onto the low table at their feet and closed her book on her finger. ‘Honey,’ she said but that was all she said.
Lon said, ‘The same person who delivers it every other day. What’s wrong with you?’
Peter suddenly wanted to go back to bed. The girls hadn’t looked away from the television. The wonder of the question was already gone. Whatever mystery had been there had disappeared.
‘Disaster averted,’ Cynthia’s husband Craig said when he came in the door shaking his shoulders to show everyone how cold it was and holding up the clear plastic bag to show the two quart cartons of eggnog.
‘Well thank the lord,’ Cynthia said through the kitchen doorway. On the counter sat a loaf of cranberry bread, their mom’s recipe, torn apart and spilling crumbs, the last inch of two-hour-old coffee in the pot, what remained of the plate of bacon, and a stick of butter on its glass tray. Cynthia was pushing half a dozen scrambled eggs around a pan.
‘I was going to make eggnog,’ Beth said. ‘The real stuff.’
Craig entered the kitchen and dropped his coat onto the chair beside Beth. ‘Darling sister-in-law,’ he said.
They kissed cheeks and Beth said, ‘The store stuff tastes like bubblegum.’
‘I know,’ Craig said. ‘I love it.’ He set the bag on the counter. The two big boxes of eggnog showed yellow through the plastic. Then he leaned into Cynthia. His hand curled around her waist and he kissed her below the ear.
‘Ah-ah,’ she said. ‘The cook needs her space.’ She swatted him away with her free hand and laughed.
Beth watched them and thought a million thoughts that she tried to whittle down to one.
Jason came into the living room and waved a hand through the air. His hair was wet and he wore a sweater with a collared shirt under it and blue jeans.
Grandpa Lon said, ‘Look who it is.’
‘Good morning,’ Uncle Peter said. ‘Merry Christmas.’ Sandy had gone off somewhere.
Jason stood there looking at the room. His cousins, Ava and Renee, were on the floor in front of the old television, the kind that was more like a piece of furniture, wooden and heavy and on the floor. His sister sat between them. The tree lights blinked. He watched his uncle rise from the couch and head down the hall for the bathroom. And Grandpa Lon was back to his paper. Something old was on the stereo, so familiar he hardly heard it. Outside the window the world was mostly brown and no different from other days except that the houses up and down the street had lights in the windows and along the trim. He heard his mom and Beth in the kitchen and he waited an extra moment, longer than was necessary, feeling that he was letting everything build.
His mom stood before the stove. As he entered she looked at him, then at the ceiling, her eyes mock-big, and said, ‘At last! I thought we were going to have to drag you out of there.’ She reached over to muss his hair. He wriggled away and dug a piece of cranberry bread from the loaf.
He said under his breath but loud enough for them to hear, ‘You’re the one that let me have whiskey last night.’
‘That was your father,’ Cynthia corrected.
Jason said, ‘You’d think it was Christmas or something.’
‘The comedian rises,’ Beth said from the table. ‘Give me a hug, my hungover nephew.’
‘Oh, Beth,’ Cynthia said. ‘Speaking of your father, he’s trying to get the old skidoo running, you know.’
‘There isn’t even any snow,’ Jason said.
‘There’s the rub,’ Beth said.
‘It is Christmas,’ Cynthia said. ‘You two haven’t heard of miracles?’
The drinks came out at eleven, once the ham was in the oven. Jason was allowed a glass of wine like the adults. Elsie whined. She was twelve, what was the difference?
‘Five years?’ Cynthia said.
They were all in the living room opening presents. Peter and Sandy gave Lon a new watch. It was sterling silver and waterproof. He could swim down fifty meters without taking it off.
‘I can’t swim fifty meters down,’ said Lon. He held the watch up to the light.
‘But you could,’ Peter said.
Sandy looked away, scratching a spot behind her ear.
‘Thanks,’ Lon said. ‘It’s good looking.’
The twins were racing through the house wielding their toys. Ava held a doll and Renee a trailing blue-green kite that was like a bird. Every so often one of the adults would say, ‘No running inside.’
Beth reached under the tree and gathered Jason’s present. She held it out to him but then pulled it back. ‘Oh shit,’ she said. Written across the wrapping paper was ‘From Aunt Beth and Uncle Reed.’
‘Kids, pardon your aunt’s French,’ Craig said.
‘I forgot to change it,’ Beth said. ‘I’m sorry, Jason. It’s from me.’
‘It’s cool,’ Jason said. He tore through the paper. Inside was the wool blazer that Beth had found in the consignment shop that summer.
‘It’s from Paris,’ she said. ‘Never worn.’ The pockets hadn’t been cut, she explained.
Jason sat cross-legged on the floor. He was nodding, holding the jacket up to show everyone. A nice jacket, charcoal gray, and when he stood to put it on, a good fit. He put his arms out and turned in a circle.
‘Beautiful,’ Cynthia said.
‘Hey, thanks a lot,’ he said. He kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.
Lon examined the watch Peter and Sandy had given him. And so it was a new watch, one you could go swimming with and not worry about taking off. There was nothing wrong with a new watch. There was nothing wrong with his old watch either.
His family was there, all of them together. It was the one time you could count on it, and it was never as he imagined. But once they left he’d want them back. He knew that. He wanted everyone to stay put for a little longer.
They ate Christmas dinner at precisely three o’clock, just like always. The ham sat steaming on its platter, the table was set. Lon had changed the record to standards by Fiedler and the Pops. The volume was low, just a kind of ambient drone that periodically swelled to claim their attention.
Peter carved the ham and the plates were passed around the table. There was some short and low conversation as they helped themselves to the dishes—mashed potatoes, green beans, carrot soup, a loaf of sourdough bread that Cynthia had made the day before, a big bowl of salad greens, half cobs of corn, Brussels sprouts cooked with onions and garlic and bacon—but once everyone had their food nobody talked. From time to time somebody’d say Good work on the beans or The salt over there? Otherwise the only sounds were plates rocking under knives or silverware tinking off the china.
Then, just like that, everyone leaned back in their seats. They puffed out their cheeks and made their eyes big to each other. Super full, they said. Good dinner. Beth finished her wine and refilled her glass halfway. Cynthia and Sandy were already up and clearing plates. Beth thought about helping but didn’t move. Elsie was still eating. She was a slow eater, always had been, and as her mom and Sandy were bringing out the pies and the ice cream, pouring the coffee, Elsie’d only just started on her potatoes. Nobody else seemed to notice.
The most tenuous thing in the world, Beth thought, is a dinner table. She was the only one remaining when Elsie took her first piece of cherry pie to her plate. From the kitchen came the sound of plates being stacked, the rattle of cutlery, a brief punctuation mark of laughter, the dishwasher rack sliding closed. The family sprawled around the living room like victims, some on the couch, some on the floor, Lon sleeping in his chair, all of them holding their stomachs, their eyes glassy.
‘We should just order a pizza next time,’ Beth said and was immediately sorry she’d said it. Elsie did not look up. Beth breathed in and on the exhale said under her breath, ‘Spirit of light.’
‘What’s that?’ Elsie said.
Beth looked across the table at her. ‘It’s how my yoga instructor ends a practice,’ she said.
Elsie nodded, trying to scoop the cherry filling with her fork. ‘Mom does yoga.’
‘Yeah?’ Beth said.
‘She’ll be all, like, crying after,’ Elsie said.
It was five o’clock and time for the walk. No one needed to say a word. They began pulling on jackets from the hall closet and gathering by the front door. Beth sat in the window seat hugging a knee. Jason was on the floor.
‘You coming?’ said Cynthia.
Jason flopped a hand and Beth said she was all right too.
Cynthia stepped farther into the living room. ‘Take it easy on the eggnog,’ she said with her eyebrows raised. ‘I know how much bourbon’s left.’
‘I’ll make sure he behaves himself,’ said Beth.
‘That’s very funny, sis. I meant you.’
Beth watched them gather on the sidewalk. The light was falling but not gone and they had that wonderful look of people seen through glass. The girls kicked at something against the curb. Craig pointed up the street, and then the group was moving and breaking apart. Cynthia and Sandy the fastest, Lon and Craig following, the girls off in the street, Elsie alone and staring at the ground, Peter coming up last.
‘They’re gone,’ Beth said.
A light snow began to fall as the party met Lambert Street. The twins called to everyone what was happening. It was snowing. Did they see?
‘How about the skidoo now,’ Craig said.
‘We’ll see,’ Lon said.
The light was slipping fast. The houses they passed glowed from within, through golden curtains. The beads of strung Christmas lights lent an unreal feeling to the neighborhood. The evening was blue and the snow shook itself across the lawns. Everything was still.
Beth and Jason sat on top of the picnic table in the backyard, their feet on the bench. They hunched forward as the snow began to fall.
‘Oh,’ Beth said when she noticed. ‘Oh.’
Jason kept his smoke in and held the joint toward her. Beth took it between her fingers like a cigarette, watching the sky and what was falling from it. She smoked it like a cigarette too, holding it at the ends of her first two fingers, taking a drag and exhaling.
‘It’s pretty good,’ Jason said.
Below the empty feeder a lone sparrow scratched in the dirt for seed.
‘We should fill that,’ Beth said.
‘Yeah we should,’ Jason said. He giggled but choked it back.
Beth said, ‘I’m a little fucked up.’
‘What kind of bird is that,’ Jason said.
Peter watched his girls twirling in the middle of the street and didn’t say anything. Sandy and Cynthia were up ahead, their heads down, talking in low voices. His father was behind them. In the street Renee grabbed Ava’s sleeve and tilted her head back, her face to the snow, her mouth open and tongue gathering it in. Ava did it too. They all continued walking. Peter was thinking of the long drive home. It was two hours to Auburn and though he was tired the idea of the darkened car was like a gift. Sandy silent, gazing out the window, the twins asleep in the back. There was so much time yet. In the car, Peter knew there’d hardly be a single word spoken once they made the interstate. For two hours it’d be like that, the only noise the hum of the tires over the road, the soft rustling of tired bodies finding the perfect temporary adjustment. And then once they were home and everybody put to bed he would turn on the small lamp on the end table and play a certain Gram Parsons album he had not listened to for years. There was a song already in his head, just a few measures, no lyrics but the notes. He hummed them to himself. Peter closed his eyes and pictured the dark room, the clear notes coming through the headphones, the peace of the oncoming moment.
Jason tapped the roach out against the ground and climbed back onto the picnic table beside Beth. From his pocket he produced a pack of cigarettes. He placed the roach inside and offered her one.
‘Oh my god,’ she said. ‘When did this start?’
‘It’s just from time to time,’ he said.
Lon saw the house appear before them through the blue dark. He didn’t want to get there yet. A car drove slowly up the road without headlights.
‘Hey,’ Lon said and everyone looked.
He was stopped on the sidewalk. Everyone was stopped. The girls stood across the street, reaching to pull cones from a pine tree on the corner of the Verkis lot.
‘What’s wrong?’ Cynthia called back.
He watched the car rising away from them. It slowed at the meeting of Lambert Street and turned left, its lights still off. Lon stamped his feet against the sidewalk.
They began moving again. Lon knew what everyone was thinking, if they were thinking anything. Old Grandpa was getting close to it. The point of no return. He was seventy-nine years old. ‘Soon,’ Lon said. The family hunched their shoulders against the cold as they met the street.
Jason was telling her about his dream. ‘I was driving down this little road. It was in the woods, but I could see the backs of buildings. Like the behind of a strip mall or something. And at the end was this storage building. You know those store-it-yourself places?’
Beth blew her smoke away from him. ‘Self-storage,’ she said. ‘There are always self-storages at the ends of roads like that.’ She passed him the cigarette and Jason took a quick drag and held it a little awkwardly, out away from his body.
‘I went into it,’ he said. ‘Inside were hallways full of orange doors. Metal doors. Car doors. No, garage. Garage doors.’ He hadn’t remembered it but now it was there in his mind as if he were dreaming it again.
‘You push them up into the ceiling racks,’ Beth said.
‘Exactly. The hallway must have been ten miles long. That’s what it seemed like. And there were all these other hallways branching off it. Identical ones. Just orange as far as the eye could see.’
‘Jeez,’ Beth said. She pictured it, how it must have looked. Not just to her but how it must have looked to a seventeen year old. For a moment Beth thought she was floating up off the table. She reached out and gripped Jason’s elbow, the cold wool of the jacket she’d given him. ‘Corrugated,’ she said. ‘I think that’s what you call them. What did you do?’
‘I just walked,’ Jason said. ‘It seemed like days. All those doors that aren’t really doors. You know? All that people’s stuff in there.’
Beth took the cigarette back from her nephew and looked at it. Jason was looking across the frozen lawn, the empty trees. She placed the cigarette under her foot, against the seat of the picnic table. For a moment she thought of saying something, but didn’t. She looked at Jason. Snow was gathering in his hair and on the shoulders of the jacket. It was clear from the way her nephew told it that he knew it was a nice dream.