There was a Christmas tree leaning against the house when I got home from school, and it looked like a nice, fat one. I wondered what they’d do in Stockton: get one for the apartment, one for the house, or just a little one for the bathroom again. I realized that I had no idea at all what Dana and Elenora were used to doing at Christmas time. It probably wasn’t much, but maybe Dana found a tree somewhere and they decorated it with popcorn and berries.
I sure didn’t know what we’d do. Mom and Dad always did the tree, only allowing me to hang a few ornaments which they moved after I went to bed. Dad did the lights, and he used thousands of the little white ones that don’t blink. It took him the better part of a day just for the lights. Mom would take over after that, and she always tried to match the number of lights with an equal number of fancy little ornaments. That’s what it looked like, anyhow, and we always ended up with spectacular trees. Since the move to Brattleboro that hadn’t changed, but I was big enough to have some decorating jobs. I put the electric candles in the windows, hung a wreath on the door, and wrapped the outside lamp pole with greenery and ribbons.
I went inside to change and was surprised to find Hector reading a magazine in the kitchen. He looked up and said, “Hi, amigo. How was school?”
“School was fine. Is something wrong? Where’s Dory? Where’s Gil?”
“Nothing is wrong. Dory and Gil are at the school to talk about a transfer.”
“What, like back to the high school?”
“Exactly. It’s a new semester and his grades and behavior qualify him, so it’s his decision if he wants to transfer mid-year like this.”
“Cool. Where’d the tree come from?”
Hector’s look was surprised innocence. “A forest, I suppose.”
“Did it just choose us and lean against the house till someone came home?”
“Don’t be silly. We picked it out at a tree lot up the road.”
“You got it here in a Volvo? Daisy barely fits in there, and that tree is a lot bigger than the dog.”
“What is this, Paul?” Hector asked sounding annoyed. “You go to school to ask questions; if you have one for me ask the whole thing at once. The tree wouldn’t fit in the Volvo and it wouldn’t fit in the Jeep, so guess what we did, and please don’t phrase it as a question.”
I put on my thinking face for a few seconds and said, “I know! You rented a big trailer truck and brought it home. Boy, that must have been hard to get in this driveway. I think I’ll go out and see Daisy … unless he’s transferring to a new school too.”
“The last time I looked Daisy was scratching his back on a clod of dirt. You might want to change first.”
“Good thinking,” I said as I took a couple of Fig Newtons out of the goodies drawer. I brought them and my school bag up to my room and nibbled on them while I changed into old jeans and equally old high-tops.
I didn’t have any homework and thought I might not until after the Christmas break. My English teacher accepted my codfish book after arguing briefly that I had to read a novel. He recanted when he realized that he’d somehow managed to omit that requirement. I think he was secretly pleased by my selection. It was a real book, seriously written and put out by a major publisher. It was just an unlikely subject and I might come up with a good report.
I pulled on a sweater and a jacket that was probably too nice to wear playing with a dog, but it was already snug on me and this would most likely be its last wearing.
I went downstairs and through the kitchen. Hector was still there flipping through a magazine and I asked if he needed help with the tree, which wasn’t a very bright question.
“I was going to ask you the same thing. This is not my house and I don’t know where you put the tree, what you put it in, or anything else about it. I’ll be happy to follow your lead, but I will be helping you and not the other way around.”
I smiled, “Okay, sure. I’ll be right back; I just want to make sure Daisy’s okay.”
There was an arsenal of tennis balls in Daisy’s toy box and I took one out when I went by. Daisy heard the door and was waiting with his paws on the fence when I came out. “Hey boy, how was your day?”
Daisy was excited to see me and his tail started up, but his position with his paws on the fence kept him from doing much else so I flung the ball to the other end of his enclosure. He dropped down to race after it and I slipped inside his pen. Well, it’s more like his pasture but not that big either. It’s sort of a corral.
The dog came back to ignore me, so I played along and ignored him. He did everything to get me to fight him for the ball but I knew better. Hector couldn’t pry the thing loose from those jaws so I didn’t have a prayer, but waiting him out worked and he dropped the ball on my foot soon enough.
I tossed the ball a few more times before I went in to figure out the tree with Hector. I felt bad leaving Daisy so soon, but we had all learned that he had a kind of never or forever outlook, and he’d find something to do the minute the door closed behind me. I went back inside and said, “Ready?”
Hector nodded and I showed him where we always set the tree up. There was a bit of furniture in the way so we moved that first. Getting the tree in the house meant we would have to come through the front door because it was wider than the rest, and once it was inside there were no other doors to maneuver through. It took me a while to find the tree stand, and we put the tree in it outdoors where there was space to get it straight and to trim branches that that needed it before bringing it in the house.
We were just giving the tree a last look when Dory drove in, so we took a break. We all said our hellos and when Dory started inspecting the tree I turned to Gil, “How’d it go at school?”
He shrugged, “Good, I hope. They said I could go back to high school after break, but now my friends are at this school.” Gil eyed me, “I didn’t know if I could have friends over here, so I took a chance and said I’d finish out the year and go to high school next year. It just sounds easier.”
“You can have friends over any time you want. I mean, your mother makes your rules, but I don’t mind. I told you that before, didn’t I?”
Gil looked down, “You told me I could. I just thought, you know, it’s a nice house and everything. There’s a lot of nice stuff here.”
“Don’t worry, Gil. I have friends over. If we make a mess or break something then somebody yells and we take care of it. Now you’re making me afraid to ask, but how much trouble can you get in at your own house?”
Gil grinned, “Don’t ask that. Don’t ever ask that. I mean, just playing with the dog we already broke a lamp.”
“What? I didn’t see any broken lamp. Where is it?”
“You were right there, don’t you remember? Daisy knocked it down and then I knocked it down.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I remember, but that lamp isn’t broken. It’s just … it’s modified, that’s all; there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“If you say so. It looks crooked to me.”
I snickered, “This whole house is crooked. Take a good look at the tiles in the bathroom some time, you’ll see. Or drop a marble on the floor in your room and watch where it goes. It won’t stop rolling till it hits a wall or something. If we start worrying about crooked around here we’ll all go nuts.”
“So I can have friends over?”
“That’s up to your mother, Gil. Go say hi to Daisy and let us get this tree inside.”
By the time we had the tree up and I’d hauled all the lights and ornaments down from the attic it was time to eat. Dory and Gil had been helping us so I called out for Chinese, which we devoured quickly in the kitchen. Dory stayed there to clean up and Gil fed Daisy before taking him out. I separated the boxes of lights from the ornaments and found the outlet panel while Hector started pulling the light strings out.
“Amigo, if you don’t mind me asking, just how many lights am I looking at here?”
“I don’t know. Lots. Dad said three thousand, but that was a few years ago. Let me get these outlets working and we can count the bulbs if you want.”
Hector said, “That’s okay. It looks like three thousand to me. Do you have spares if some are burned out?”
There was a quadruple outlet on the wall just for the tree lights. Each single outlet led to a separate circuit and the quad thing had a single switch that worked everything. There was a power strip for each circuit, so we had thirty-two outlets available. The tree was out toward the middle of the room to make decorating easier for us. We’d push it closer to the windows when it was done.
I took a string of lights out and looked at Hector. “I can start at the bottom if you want to get going at the top and we’ll meet in the middle. How’s that?”
“It’s fine by me, but show me how you’re going to fit all these bulbs on this one tree.”
“Oh yeah. This is Dad’s way. You take a string and start at the trunk, then go out and back in on each branch. It makes the tree look like the middle of the universe when it’s lit up. Just make sure the plug end is pointed toward the wall when you finish a string. I’ll show you.” I took a string of lights and plugged it in to make sure they all worked, then got on my back and started with the nearest bottom branch. I wound the wire around from the trunk out and back to the trunk before moving over to the next branch and doing the same thing.
“Gotcha,” Hector said. “Except, how do I know where to start?”
“Start at the top. You’ll have to plug your strings in when you get to the end, so check them first.”
Hector started stringing his lights and I went on with mine. I was on the third string when I heard Daisy come running in, and was just about to say something when it hit me. Oh God! Daisy? I scooted out from under the tree as fast as I could scoot and lunged toward Daisy just as he rushed excitedly to the tree to see what it was all about. I got him by his neck in a giant hug and pushed as hard as I could until he slid backwards a few inches. I was breathing hard from the sudden exertion and gasped, “Stay there, Daisy. Don’t you come any closer.”
Daisy sat down and stared at me. I relaxed a little before I noticed he already had a string of lights wrapped around his foot. I put my hand up to his snoot and said, “Daisy, don’t move. Don’t … move,” and looked at Gil. “Help me out here, Gil. He has lights wrapped around his paw. If he takes off he’ll tear this place apart.”
Gil came closer and Hector came around, “Can you hold him, amigo?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you hold him and I’ll get these lights. Go get his leash, Gil.”
Hector took hold of the dog’s collar while Gil disappeared in a hurry to fetch a leash. I took Daisy’s foot in my hand and he growled when I tried to lift it off the floor. “Don’t you snarl at me, Doggie. I can snarl back.”
Reaching for his foot again earned me another growl, so I brought my eyes up close to his and growled back. At the same time, I remembered his whiskers and brushed my hand against them. He blinked and I picked his foot up, dislodging the lights. Daisy didn’t look too happy, but we still had a tree. Gil got the training collar on him and that was all it took. Daisy relaxed back on his haunches and when Gil gave his leash a slight tug the dog followed him out of the room without a complaint, tail wagging.
I looked at Hector and we both shook our heads in silence before we went back to our lights. Gil and Dory left us alone, not that they wouldn’t help, but because we were really spread out. It was a lot easier to work with light strings that were stretched out straight, and the one-hundred light ones reached clear across the room. Dory had our cell phones, so we wouldn’t be interrupted by calls, and I started a Christmas CD playing on the stereo.
It was about two hours later when our lights met at the middle of the tree and there were still several strings left over. I lit the lights and we squirreled in one more string to fill in some gaps. I got an extension cord and plugged in the top ornament, which was kind of an elongated star with a crystal sphere surrounding part of it.
We stood back to admire our work, then I looked in the box of remaining lights and realized there were a lot of them. I looked at Hector and said, “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
That settled, I brought the light boxes back upstairs and we replaced them with the ornament boxes. Then we left for the kitchen. Dory and Gil were talking softly at the table while Daisy, still on the leash, snoozed at Gil’s feet. I smiled my brightest and said, “Your turn.”
Dory looked up, “Oh, are the lights done? Let me see them.”
We turned around and went back to the living room, followed this time by Dory, Gil and Daisy. I went to the tree and flipped the lights on. Gil’s eyes got big, Dory said, “Oh, my!” and Daisy backed away in his surprise. “That’s a very bright tree,” Dory remarked in the understatement of the day.
“Did I have any calls?” I asked.
“Oh, yes you did. I wrote the names on a pad under your phone, and your father left a message that they’re flying into Keene at eight-thirty Saturday morning.” She looked at Hector and added, “You’re supposed to arrange a car and driver from Stockton, but I can pick them up if that’s easier.” She looked at the array of boxes around her and asked me, “Are these all ornaments?”
“They sure are. The boxes are numbered starting with one, and those ornaments go closest to the top, box two goes lower, and so on. You have to go like we did with the lights, starting in near the trunk, else you won’t even fit one boxful on the tree. That flat box has all extra parts.”
“Yeah, like those dangler things, and parts that we found on the floor after last year’s tree was gone. If you find an ornament that’s not all there, the rest of it should be in that box.”
Dory almost made a face but seemed to stop herself, “I see. It’s after nine so I think I’ll do this tomorrow.” She glanced at Gil and said, “You should be in bed.”
“But I have to take Daisy out!”
I said, “I’ll take him for a walk if you want. I want some air anyhow.”
Gil looked at me, “Bring him up to my room after?”
“You got it. Come on Hector, let’s get some air.”
We said goodnight and I got Daisy’s leash and training collar. We bundled up and walked out into what felt like the coldest night yet, our breath forming crystalline clouds ahead of us. Hector walked with me as I led Daisy to the weeds near the property line. If he went there I wouldn’t have to pick it up, though I was ready with a bag if he couldn’t hold it. He lifted his leg by a tree, and when he started walking almost in circles I guided him toward the weeds and he took the hint. When he was done he trotted back to the lawn and kicked a few times with his back feet as if he was covering his mess from ten feet away. He always did that, and I thought it was funny.
I gave him a cookie and asked Hector, “What do you think about Gil?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“I just want to know. I’m sure your company checked them out, so you know the things that happened to him. He talked to me the other night so I know more than I did but … um, I talked too much and I kind of contradicted him.”
“You? Paul, I’m shocked. It’s so hard to get you to say anything at all that I just can’t imagine you talking too much. Say it ain’t so, amigo.”
I grumbled, “Sarcasm is a pretty low form of humor, you know.”
Hector chuckled, “I guess it is in my case, but you have it down to an art, a science even. And you contradicted someone who’s telling you his own story? Does the kid still even know his name?”
I sighed, “Hector, he was blaming himself for what happened, for letting it happen, for not stopping his stepfather. I told him it’s not his fault and that’s what I’m wondering about. He kept coming up with reasons to blame himself and I kept telling him not to instead of really listening. You must have been trained to listen; I want to learn how to do that, how to shut myself up.” I gave Daisy another cookie for his patience. “I always think about listening when it’s too late.”
“You would know when to listen if you grew up in my family. If I didn’t listen at all I’d get my ear pulled, like between thumb and forefinger until it hurt. If I listened and only heard what I wanted to, I got my ear cuffed and that always hurt. That was my training, but you’re kind of big for that, and I don’t think it’s what you mean anyhow.”
“I get that, but what can I do myself?”
Hector stopped walking and I turned to face him. “Paul, you’re a sharp person and you’re very quick to grasp things. I don’t see you asking for second explanations or reading anything a second time because you don’t get it. That quick mind is probably what gets in your way sometimes; you react to what’s been said without knowing that more is on the way.”
I thought Hector was probably right and I said so. “So how do I stop being like that?”
“I don’t know, amigo. I don’t see you doing that very often, but I don’t usually see you with new people either. It’s possible that you work it out unconsciously with familiarity. You’re not like that under pressure either. You handled yourself well with the different police officers in Chile, and I laugh when you and Tom get going. You talk so fast nobody can keep up. You talk at the same time and still seem to know what you’re saying.”
I snickered, “Lots of practice I guess. Oh wait, I get it. That’s what I need to do with Gil, isn’t it? Just keep talking.”
Hector mumbled, “I said you’re quick. I think you’ve got it.”
I smiled, “So will you tell me what you think of Gil?”
“I haven’t spent much time with him, Paul, but I think he’s more fragile than he lets on. He puts on a little macho air to hide it, but he’s definitely a wary little guy. It’s clear that he thinks the world of you and your friends, and I think you’ll do him some good by keeping that at a steady-state. I can’t imagine what he feels about the things his stepfather did. That’s too far gone from normal for me to even conceive, but you said he’s getting counseling. I can have his counselor’s credentials checked out, but other than that we’re dealing with harm that’s already been done. It’s really best left to professionals.”
“But you can find out if he’s seeing the right person?”
“I can do that. I’ll speak with Dory too, and make sure she knows she has the power over the situation. Even if the counselor is highly rated there’s no guarantee that he or she will make the right connection with Gil.”
I said, “You know, Dory seems to be really nice and I can tell she tries her best for Gil. I don’t get how she could marry such a creepy sounding guy. So many things bother me about that setup that I don’t know where to start thinking about it.”
“Don’t ask me, amigo. There’s the old adage that love is blind and a lot of stories prove it true, but this one takes the cake.”
“This cake was laced with poison.”
Hector bopped my shoulder, “Well, cheer up! Tomorrow’s another day, my friend. You be good to Gil and leave the heavy lifting to the pros. I’m getting cold out here.”
“Thanks, Hec. I’m cold myself. Are you coming back in?”
“Nope. I’ll initiate a check on whoever is counseling Gil and then I’m going to bed.”
I didn’t even bother asking how he’d find out the counselor’s name. Things like that just happen in Hector’s world. I pulled Daisy over so Hector could pat his head, and then led him back to the house. I hung up my coat and gloves and led Daisy to the stairs and up to Gil’s room. It looked like Gil was sleeping, so I stroked Daisy’s ears and let him go. With the tree in mind, I closed the door behind myself when I left.
+ + + + + + + +
I was awake and out of bed early on Saturday. I was excited that I’d see Dad and Elenora even though they were only staying through lunch. After that I was going Christmas shopping with Tommy and maybe Jim McNaughton. Gil seemed pretty eager himself since he’d never met Dad or Elenora, and Dory was beside herself shining up the kitchen and making things ready.
I was hungry, but I didn’t want to make a mess where Dory had just cleaned so I poached some eggs and made toast. I hadn’t mastered poached eggs and my luck didn’t improve any that day, but they were edible. The problem was that the largest part of them was still in the water so I did the easiest thing and made more. After we finished them and I cleaned up, Gil and I were still hungry so we went begging at Tom’s house. On the way I told Gil, “No matter what they’re having, it’s your favorite thing. Got that?”
Our timing was good. Tom’s mother had gone out and Tom and his father were at the table when we went in, with big bowls of something in front of them.
I took the lead. “Mornin’ Mr. Timek; Hi Tom.”
Mr. Timek replied, “Hi Paul, Gil … you boys hungry?”
“Not really. What is that?”
“It’s Cream of Wheat. Sit down, sit down. Tom, get two more bowls. I’ll make another batch.”
“Oh, don’t go to any …”
“Nonsense. Sit down; it only takes three minutes.”
I asked Gil, “You like Cream of Wheat?”
He sat down saying, “I love Cream of Wheat. Do you have brown sugar?”
I looked at Gil proudly and sat beside him. Ten minutes later we were on our second bowls of cereal and had a stack of toast in front of us awaiting butter and flea-market jam. When Gil slowed down Mr. Timek sent him to get Daisy. He wanted the dog to feel free to visit, and Daisy’s tongue was good at cleaning up pots and dishes.
I was full when we left, and Tom came with us to go to the airport. We left Gil with Daisy to give the dog some exercise and went indoors. Tom said, “I want to see your tree,” and I followed him into the living room to turn the tree lights on. Tom smiled in appreciation, “Wow. You always have the best tree. I wondered how it would be with your mother and father gone, but it’s as nice as ever.”
“I put the lights on with Hector and Dory hung most of the decorations. Gil helped her after school yesterday.” I admired the tree again myself and said, “It did come out nice, huh?”
Dory came in pulling her coat on. “We should get going. We’re taking my car.”
I had to use the bathroom so I said, “I’ll be right down,” and rushed upstairs. When I came back down they were waiting for me at the car, which was running. I told Tom to sit up front and climbed in back with Gil. Dory took off right away. Hector was waiting in his Jeep across the street and pulled onto the road behind us.
There was a lot of traffic that day, probably everyone getting ready for Christmas, and the ride took longer than usual. We were still at the airport before any little jets showed up, and I was surprised when a hand knocked on my door. I looked out startled and Dana was there grinning at me. I jumped out of the car and we hugged. “I didn’t know you were coming down.”
“I didn’t either. I just decided at the last minute.”
I said, “I’m glad you came,” and by then everyone was out of the car. Tom bopped fists with Dana and I introduced Dory. Gil disappeared on me for a moment and when I looked around he was a little behind me on my left staring at Dana. I had to push him forward a bit. “This is Gil. Gil, this is my brother, Dana.”
They shook hands and Gil said, “You don’t look like brothers.”
Dana’s eyebrows went up and he smiled while he shrugged, “Yeah, well you know … shit happens. You don’t look much like Tommy either.”
I bopped Gil’s shoulder, “Just forget it. Look-alikes are confusing anyhow.”
Dana disappeared into Hector’s hug just as Darius walked over. I was surprised to see him as I wasn’t aware he was back on our security team. I held my hand out, “Hi, Darius. I haven’t seen you since Boston. Did they send you back for some cold weather practice?”
Darius frowned, “I don’t know what I did wrong, but here I am.” His frown morphed into a smile. “I asked to come back. You people eat better than anyone I know.”
I pointed at him and grinned, “There’s no better reason than that. Is Dana teaching you how to ski?”
“I know how to ski. I’ve seen Dana ski too, and no thanks.” He pinched his own cheek and added, “I have this one skin and I want to keep it.”
A breeze came up and I shivered. “It’s cold. I wish they’d get here.”
Hector said, “Let’s go inside. The flight’s already a little late. We don’t have to wait out here.”
Nobody needed convincing, and there was a pot of coffee waiting on a counter inside the building. A little note beside it asked for a fifty-cent donation per cup, so I put a couple of dollars in the dish provided and poured a cup for myself. I sprinkled a little powdered creamer in and took a sip. The coffee was so-so and I said, “There’s coffee if anybody wants some. I paid for four cups so help yourselves.”
Darius poured a cup while everyone else found places to sit. I joined Tom, Dana and Gil at a round table. We were joking around when a man came into the room and asked, “Who are the folks waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Dunn?”
Everyone stood up except Dory and Gil. The man said, “Their pilot just called in. They’ll be landing in another half hour. It’s nothing to worry about, just a little paperwork delay in Miami.”
There was nothing we could do, so we just shrugged it off and resigned ourselves to waiting a while longer. When we sat back down Dana said, “Paul, this is a surprise for Mom and Dad, but I can tell you. Mr. Glover decided to start that repair treatment for his hips and legs. He’s going to Boston next month to get it all set up.”
That was a nice surprise, and I smiled. “Oh man, that’s good news. I bet his family’s happy.”
“I’ll say. They’ve been on him ever since they heard it’s possible. He was all worried about the job, but between Russ and me, we can do the regular things. Heinrich’s around if something big breaks.”
“Everything there is pretty new. Nothing should be breaking yet.”
“Who’s this you’re talking about?” Gil asked.
I said, “I’m sorry. The guy who does the maintenance at our Laundromat got hurt really bad when he was in the Navy. There’s new technology now, and doctors can fix him up a lot better than he is.”
Gil just nodded and I turned the conversation to Daisy so he could participate. He took over, regaling Dana with dog stories. After a while, Darius, who had been looking out the window, said, “I see landing lights. I think they’re here.”
We all pulled our coats on and went to the window to see a sleek white jet touch down and roar past our field of view. The roar got louder when the pilot reversed pitch on the engines to slow the plane, and it had turned around and was taxiing toward us by the time we were all outside again.
Gil’s eyes were huge. “Wow! That’s your plane?”
I said, “Uh-uh, not ours. It’s a rental plane if that’s the right one.”
Gil gave me a look, “How could it be the wrong plane?”
I snickered, “I mean that we don’t know who’s on it until they get off. It could be someone else.”
Gil opened his mouth but didn’t say anything else. The engines started spinning down and a couple of men in overalls ran over to it just as the door opened and the stairs folded down. It was the right plane for sure, and Elenora came down the steps just ahead of Dad. They were both wearing parkas and jeans. Elenora’s face was well-tanned and Dad’s was red; they were both grinning.
Dana and I ran over to them and got hugs. I said, “Welcome home,” to Dad and asked, “How was the trip?”
“Everything was perfect. I’ve already forgotten why we came back. Yesterday we were sitting on the beach picking at a basket of fruit, wishing we could just stay forever.”
“You could have,” I said as we entered the building again.
“I know that, but Ellie worried about Dana and you. I told her that between the two of you, I thought you were capable of anything. Then I remembered I haven’t shown you how to maintain a checkbook.”
Okay, so it’s Ellie now. I hadn’t heard him use that name before. “So you came all the way here to show us how to operate checkbooks?”
Dad nodded and spoke with a serious tone in his voice, “That’s right. Let’s find a table by ourselves and I’ll learn you the ropes before that plane out there leaves without us.”
I glanced at Dana and took in his shocked expression, which my own face probably matched. I chose my words carefully and spoke slowly, “Dad, the men’s room is there on your left. You might want to start moving that way because the next load of crap that comes out of you could find an alternate exit, if you get my drift.”
Dad held my stare for the longest time, but he gave first and groaned. “Okay, Paul. You win.” He winked, “Give Ellie ten bucks and I’ll pay you back. She bet me you wouldn’t fall for it.”
I looked at Dana, “Do you have ten dollars? I didn’t bring any money with me.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, reaching in his pocket. Then he gave me a suspicious look and said, “Wait a minute …” and everyone started laughing.
When everything was off the plane and in the vehicle we left for the house. Gil saw the big Mercedes Darius was driving and wanted a ride in it, so Dana came with us in Dory’s car. I was just about to say something when Tom said, “Wait till you meet Daisy! Do you like dogs?”
“Yeah, I like dogs. I never had one.”
I said, “You’re gonna like Daisy. He loves to play.”
Dana asked, “Is he used to that name? I shouldn’t ask; Dana’s a girl’s name sometimes.”
“Daisy’s a dog. I don’t think he cares what you call him as long as you have a ball in one pocket and a cookie in another.”
Dana smiled, “I don’t doubt that. Gil said he’s pretty big.”
Dory chimed in, “Daisy is a big dog. He’s strong, too.”
“Why is he Daisy?”
“We don’t know why; he just is.”
Dana took to looking around at the passing scenery and we were quiet the rest of the way home. The Mercedes pulled up in the driveway beside us almost immediately and we waited for everyone to get out of the car before we went inside. We still had our coats on and Dad asked, “Where’s this Barko?”
I said, “There is no Barko, I made that up. There is a dog, but his name’s Daisy. I thought if I told you that on the phone we might run up a pretty epic phone bill.”
Dad raised an eyebrow, “When did epic phone bills start worrying you?”
“Dad, why don’t you get comfortable? I’ll go get Daisy and bring him in. Look at the tree; I think it came out as good as ever.”
Dory started taking coats and I went to get Daisy, followed by Tom, Dana and Gil. Daisy didn’t hear us come out because he was near the front of the house scratching his back by rolling around on it with his four paws in the air. He seemed to love doing that, but flipped right over when I called him. He eyed us as if we’d embarrassed him and then came running and stopped with his paws on the fence, his tongue hanging out and his tail spinning. I said, “Daisy, this is Dana. He’s family so you can’t eat him.”
Dana grinned with delight and went right up to Daisy. “Oh, man. You are a big boy, aren’t you? What kind of dog is he?”
We all snickered and I let Gil say it. “He’s an Afrish Pittweiler Shepherding Spaniel … mix.”
Dana was nose to nose with Daisy stroking his ears and gave no indication that he heard Gil. I held a ball out to him and said, “Throw this a few thousand times before we bring him in. He has to burn off a little energy.”
Dana took the ball and threw it to the other end of the enclosure and we went in through the gate while Daisy sprinted after it. “Wow! He’s fast! Think he can ski?”
I said, “It’s hard to tell. We haven’t had much snow yet.”
Gil said confidently, “Daisy can do anything!”
“Except give the ball back,” I muttered as Dana tried to get it away from Daisy. “He has an iron jaw. Just ignore him till he drops it.”
Dana stepped back, looked up and twiddled his thumbs. About five seconds later the ball hit his foot and he laughed when he bent to pick it up. “It figures you’d have a wise-ass dog.”
Daisy was well on his way to the other end, and he took backward glances all the way there. When Dana threw the ball, the dog squared off and leapt a little to one side to snag it in his mouth. Dana cried, “He caught it! Did you see that? He caught the ball.” Our lack of enthusiasm wasn’t lost on him, “He always catches it, huh? Oh, well. Catch this one, mister!”
I leaned against the fence talking to Tom while Dana and Gil monopolized Daisy. After a few minutes I heard the back door open and turned to see Dad and Elenora come toward us. Dad was appraising the fence and doghouse while Elenora cried, “Oh, look at the doggie,” and hurried over to meet Daisy.
I looked at Dad and said, “Well?”
He looked around some more, reached out to feel the fence, followed around the perimeter with his eyes and said, “Hm.”
Uh-oh. “Hm what? Was that a good hm or a bad hm?”
He looked around the perimeter again and mumbled, “Not good or bad, just … well, when you said a dog fence I guess I expected something … less. You know, like a piece of chain-link about eight feet wide and maybe sixteen long. This is what? Cedar?”
“Yeah.” I was getting nervous and said, “It’s western red cedar … core wood, so it will last. Oh, it’s a little bigger than eight by sixteen, but we wanted the doghouse inside the enclosure and, admit it, Daisy’s a pretty big pooch.”
Dad paused while he studied the fence some more and asked, “If you had to guess, how much bigger than eight by sixteen would you think this might be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’re the math genius; why don’t you tell me? I remember Mr. Chandler – he’s the contractor – said it would only look right if the proportions were right, so it’s all proportional and I think it looks real nice. You like it, don’t you?”
“Oh, sure. I think it’s terrific. It’s a big, open space though. If the wind starts blowing across it that poor dog’s going to turn into an icicle.”
“No way. He’ll be warm in his house. It’s insulated and …” I gulped, “heated.”
“Really? It looks like you thought of everything then.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad? This is the first project you’ve done on your own and it’s a bang-up job.” He smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture that somehow made me feel a little taller.
I grinned and said, “Come meet Daisy.”
We walked over just as Daisy tore off after the ball again, but it was never a long wait before he came back and he came right to me. I said, “Daisy, this is my father. You gonna let him pet you?”
Daisy sat and looked at Dad. He still had the ball in his mouth but dropped it when Dad stroked his head and ran his hand down the dog’s snout. That was something that Daisy really loved. It’s a good thing he was sitting because sometimes if I did that while he was standing he’d stretch his head up so high he’d lose his balance.
Hector and Darius came out while Dad was making baby talk to Daisy, and Daisy surprised us when he turned to Darius and snarled. You could tell it was for real because the fur on his back stood up. I grabbed his collar and held on tight while Gil stood right in front of him, blocking his view of Darius.
I didn’t know what was going on; Daisy had been even tempered since we got him and this behavior frightened me. Darius said calmly, “I bet that dog’s never seen a black person before. He’s not sure what I am. Let me go inside and sit down. You can bring him in then and I won’t be so intimidating. He can get a close-up and we’ll see what he does.”
Dad asked, “Are you sure?”
Darius looked at Daisy and then Dad, “Give me a couple of treats to use. I’ve done this before lots of times.”
I said, “Okay. Gil, go get that training collar and the short leash,” and said to Darius, “Go on inside and get comfortable. Dory can give you some snacks for the dog.”
Gil came running out with Daisy’s training collar, which for some reason the dog loved. It was probably Gil’s enthusiasm for it. “Look, Daisy! You want to put your jewelry on for our company?”
When Dad saw the shiny chain with all its hooks he said, “I don’t believe it. The dog likes that thing?”
Gil was slipping it over Daisy’s head, “He loves his collar. You watch; he’ll go around and make sure everybody sees it on him.”
Hector leaned close to Dad and I heard him whisper, “Next thing you know that dog will be rapping.”
When the collar was on I stuck my head inside to make sure Darius was ready, and then went in with the others right behind me. I hung my things in the back hall and pulled a chair over beside Darius. Gil gave me a questioning look and I shrugged, “Bring him over. Make sure you have a good grip on that leash.”
The fur was standing on Daisy’s back again, but he approached cautiously. Darius was wearing black jeans, and he’d traded his usual muscle shirt for a plaid flannel which is something Daisy was very used to. I put my hand on Darius’ shoulder and talked to the dog. “Daisy, this is Darius. He’s a friend, so don’t get snippy with him. If you sit down and behave, Darius will give you a cookie. Just be good”
Thankfully I looked around before we proceeded, and Daisy looked around as well. “Jeez,” I said. “Why not just all of you stand there and stare so you can intimidate the dog more than he already is? Let’s leave Gil and Darius alone with Daisy and we can hear about the honeymoon.”
I got up and went into the other room where I sat in an armchair. Elenora and Dana sat on a loveseat opposite me while Dad and Tom sat on the sofa beside me. Hector sat between them and I asked, “Isn’t Dory coming in?”
Hector shook his head, “Not if you want lunch she isn’t.”
Dad said, “I don’t really know where to start. We rented a house on the beach in Ecuador. It was a lot more than we needed really, but the location was perfect.”
“The house was just gorgeous,” Elenora added. “We spent most of our time outside. There were decks and terraces everywhere, and an outdoor kitchen, dining room and living room. We had beautiful flowers all around us and a white sand beach that was almost deserted all the time. It was just wonderful, and we didn’t have to lift a finger unless we wanted to.”
Dad said, “We had this amazing cook named Rico. He was like a gourmet chef, always with something unexpected and really exceptional. We only ate out twice in all that time, both times on his night off.” Dad had an odd expression on his face. He stood and straightened the lampshade beside Elenora and sat back down. When he wasn’t looking Elenora reached over and put it back the way it had been.
They talked until Dory called us to lunch. It really sounded like Dad and Elenora had a good time. They’d even done some sightseeing in a little Miata Dad rented, so it wasn’t all fun and games in the house.
Daisy was now friends with Darius, and Darius went with Gil when he brought Daisy outside to wait while we had our meal. Dory served lunch in the dining room, and Lisa showed up just as we were finding seats. I’d asked her to come, but she had to go Christmas shopping with her mother and wasn’t sure she could get there on time. She was a bit harried looking when I opened the door, but a nice, healthy kiss and a minute in the bathroom to wash up made all the difference. She was pretty in a soft white sweater with her little Chilean rune in front; she was hungry, and she was eager to see everyone. When I brought her into the dining room I whispered, “Sit next to Elenora if you want to hear about the honeymoon. They just told the rest of us.”
The welcome for Lisa was warm, and Dory warned us that if we wanted a hot lunch we should get ready to eat. She had a soup tureen in front of her and we each passed our soup bowls to her and got them back filled with Creole shrimp bisque. The soup was delicious, and a spicy bisque was something that I’d never thought of. Next up was a warm red cabbage salad that seemed to please everyone but Gil, who ate only a few bites of the tiny portion he was given before gently pushing his plate out of his way.
The main course was beef Stroganoff. I loved it, and when we were almost done my father said, “Paul, you went to Russia. Did you have Stroganoff there?”
“Twice,” I said.
Dory asked, “Was it made like this?”
I shrugged, “This is delicious. The first time I had it in Moscow was at our hotel and it was awful, but everything was awful there. I had it again at a popular restaurant and it was a bit strange tasting but pretty good. The sauce was kind of red and Ally guessed they might have mixed beet juice in the sour cream, but Mom thought there was a liver flavor to it. I don’t know what it was, but this is better.” I smiled at her, “This is way better.”
Dana looked at me and said, “You never told me you were in Russia. I was a communist when I was little.”
I grinned, “You never told me that, either, so I guess we’re even.”
Elenora shook her head, “Dana, you were never a communist. We lived in a commune for a while, and that’s something altogether different.”
I butted in, “Yeah, now you’re living with Das Kapital and I think you’re taking to it pretty well.”
Dad laughed, “I’ll say!”
Gil screwed up his face, “Are you talking American?”
Tom said, “No, Gil. Paul is speaking in Paulish which is his native tongue, and not unlike gibberish.”
I gave Tom my best you die look while everyone had a laugh at my expense. Everyone but Gil had a laugh; he still looked confused so I wiggled my finger at him and said, “We’ll have to sit down and start your education one of these days.”
Dory served apple cobbler with ice cream for dessert, and when we finished Lisa and I brought our coffees into the living room so she could see the tree. Dana, Gil and Tom followed us. Lisa loved the tree. After telling me that, she did the feminine thing; she got up close and started looking at individual ornaments. That was fun sometimes because not everything there started life as an ornament. There were personal things like Mom’s childhood charm bracelet and my First Communion Rosary. Other items were souvenirs from various places, even some corny ones. There were a few odd chess pieces, knitted baby socks, an HO gauge train caboose, a little Santa in a Red Sox cap, a larger Santa in a Yankees cap and all kinds of other things, plus enough shiny balls, bells and other danglies to sink a good-sized ship.
I said, “If you think this tree is something now, just wait till Christmas morning after Santa comes. There will be presents everywhere, and I mean everywhere.”
“You still believe in Santa?” Gil asked before Tommy could shut him up.
I turned on Gil, “Are you serious? You know, once Tommy tried to tell me there was no Santa Claus. Do you want him to tell you about that?”
Tom shook his head, but Lisa said, “I’d like to hear it.”
“Me too,” Dana added.
Tom said, “Oh God, why me? Somebody take notes, okay? I want to print this up, and next year I’ll just hand out flyers. You may as well sit down.” Tom sat on the floor with his back to the tree. “When Paul first moved here it was in the summer, and nothing stopped us from being friends. The Luellens moved in around the same time but they stayed by themselves. There weren’t any other kids around here, so when Paul showed up we were kind of stuck with each other anyhow, but we got along and did a lot of things. We did until Thanksgiving that year, anyhow, and then Paul was talking about Santa. I thought he was kidding at first and said the same thing Gil did.” Tom looked around to make sure everyone was listening. “Well, when I said I thought Paul was a little old to believe in Santa, he went off on me, calling me a Fascist and a Republican, that Santa was real and not some political football and yada, yada, yada. You know what he did then?”
Everyone said they didn’t.
Tom smiled, “He proved it to me. I’m serious. He told me the history of Saint Nicholas of Myra right off the top of his head, with dates and everything. Saint Nicholas lived in an area of Greece that’s part of Turkey now, starting in the third century. I’ll try to get this accent right. In the language there, Saint is pronounced sant and Nicholas is Nickloss, and if you say it together it comes out SantNickloss. It’s not a big stretch to see how that sounded like Santa Claus to people who spoke other languages.”
Tom had them listening to every word, and told the rest of the story well. “Now who believes in Santa Claus?”
My hand shot up, and everyone followed pretty eagerly. I hadn’t seen him come in, but Hector said, “I do, I do,” from behind me, and when I turned to look his hand was up.
Tommy said, “I bet you all feel better, too,” which led to a room full of pleasantly surprised faces.
I loved that story. I learned it when my parents took me on a vacation to Turkey and Greece when I was nine. We visited the St. Nicholas church in Demre and our guide told us the story. There was a book in the gift shop about St. Nicholas and my father bought it for me. I read the story, and re-read it on every long drive, every train ride, every ferry crossing and every flight during the rest of the trip. I was still a good little Catholic at the time and I read stories about Saints whenever I found one. St. Nicholas was my favorite by far, and I’d used the story to prove the existence of Santa Claus ever since my return to Barent’s that year. At Barent’s, all the proof I needed was right there in the library. These days, an Internet search returns half a million items. It’s not a legend.
We started talking about other things, and it wasn’t long before Dad came in and said they had to leave.
“Already?” I whined. “Can’t you stay longer?”
“I’m afraid not, Paul. We have a lot to do getting ready for the holiday and for our skiing trip, and the business needs looking after. We won’t be here for year-end and there are things that need doing for tax accounting. We also have to learn how to actually close out the year and leave a plan with the staff.” He grinned, “We’ve had our fun; now it’s back to work. We’ll be back for Christmas and leave for Canada from here.”
I said, “I understand. How about one day on vacation we go skiing together, just you and me?”
“I’d like to,” Dad said softly. “We should do other things like that, too. You know … from time to time.”
I walked over and hugged him, “I know. I’m here because I want to be, so it’s my job to get used to it.” I didn’t add that I wished it wasn’t so hard. I hugged him tighter and whispered, “I love you, Dad.”
We all followed them out to the car, and when I hugged Elenora I said, “I never got to say this at the wedding and I meant to. Welcome to the family.”
“Why thank you, Paul; that’s so kind of you to say.”
“Um, what should I call you now?”
“Ooh, let’s think about that. Your father has taken to calling me Ellie, so why don’t you try that?”
“Ellie? I like that. It makes me wonder if I could call Mom Nellie. Then I could have Ally, Ellie and Nellie: my three moms. It’d be like a triple-play.”
Ellie smiled and stepped back, “Yes, well … you work that one out. Let me know how it goes.”
I laughed and said, “I’ll do that,” after I kissed her cheek.
Dana was in the driver’s seat with the door open, so I stuck my head in. “You’re driving?”
“Yeah, I am. All I ever drive is the Subaru and the Jeep. I’m not passing this up.”
I looked at the dashboard and said, “It looks complicated. You can borrow my Fiat if you leave this one here.”
Dana smirked, “I have to close the door now.”
“You sure you can reach the pedals?”
“Goodbye, Paul. If I can’t work the pedals I’ll just steer and let Darius do the footwork.”
I got out of the way when Dana reached for the door handle. The door clunked shut and the window came down. “What do you want for Christmas?”
“Something nice. Something real nice. What do you want?”
Dana thought for a second and said, “Something nicer than I get you.” He tooted the horn, put the car in gear, and they were off as I stood there and waved goodbye. Again. Saying goodbye was becoming a habit, and one I didn’t like very much.
Still, I turned around and Lisa was right there, and her look appeared to say she sensed my dismay. She smiled softly and asked, “Can I get a ride home?”
I returned her smile. “Sure, just let me find out who’s taking us to town.”
I asked, and Hector had been elected so I told him we had to drop Lisa at her house on the way. Tom ran home to get his money and, right at the last minute, Gil asked, “Can I come?”
Hector heard him and held up four fingers. “I have four seats. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be back with another car.”
He drove off in the Jeep and I went to my room to wash up. The distraction turned out to be worthwhile because I discovered that I had exactly no money with me. I didn’t have much on hand either, but I did have a credit card and an ATM card and I stuck both of them in my shirt pocket.
On the way back out I thought to check on Daisy, who’d been outside alone for quite a while. He was glad to see me and it was clear that he wanted me to stay, but the best I could do was bring him in so he could spend the afternoon thawing pork chops with Dory. Dory was glad to have the company. She said she trusted Daisy, but asked me to put the wrapped chops on top of the refrigerator where they would thaw more evenly.
A minute after I went back outside Hector drove up the driveway in a big, dark-blue car. I had to read the insignia to discover that it was a Buick, and still asked, “What the heck is this?”
Hector scowled at me, “This is a five passenger car. It has a seat belt for each of us so we’ll all be safe.”
I said, “Hector, don’t get me wrong, and I’m not saying this would happen, but let’s just say a big jet goes overhead and it’s all full of bulldozers on their way to market. What if the plane suddenly tips and one of those bulldozers breaks loose and falls five miles straight down and lands splat on top of this car? Are those seat belts going to save us? I mean, what will we look like then?”
Hector looked at me in apparent amazement and asked, “This is hypothetical, right?”
“If you say so; I mean yeah, it’s all hypothetical.”
“My hypothesis is that we’ll all be squashed as thin as sheets of paper.”
I balked, “Not Lisa, though, right?”
“Of course not Lisa. I wasn’t including Lisa because we’ll need a survivor, and she’ll have a job to do.” He grinned when Lisa’s jaw dropped, “Lisa can roll us up and slap labels on us so people know who’s who.”
Lisa cried, “Oh, that’s sick. Disgusting.”
Hector nodded, “It’s also unlikely.” He faced me and continued, “Here is something I can promise. If I ever see you unbelted in a moving vehicle I will personally flatten you and roll you up small enough to fit inside a mailing tube, and I’ll mail that tube to the Institute for the Terminally Stupid. They can keep you for however long it takes to retrain you from the ground up.”
I retreated a step and noticed Tom and Gil nudging each other, laughing merrily at my discomfort. I briefly considered the mechanics of murder and was heartened a bit by the array of methods available to me. To Hector I said, “Well … if we’re going shopping it probably makes sense to go before the stores close.”
Hector smiled, “I like it when you make sense. Get in, amigos, amiga.”
We got in the car, and I took the middle of the back seat for the short ride to Lisa’s house. That gave us a precious few minutes of closeness, and I walked her to the door when we arrived. I asked, “Are you doing anything tonight?”
“No plans. Do you want to do something together?”
I smiled, “How about we go out to eat … just you and me? We’re always surrounded by people.”
“Oh, I’d love that. Where do you want to go?”
I thought about it and said, “Why don’t you choose? I like most things.”
“Can I surprise you?”
I chuckled, “If you like. Are there surprises in Brattleboro?”
“Of course there are; I’ll make a reservation. What time do you want to go?”
“Is seven good?”
“Perfect.” Lisa took both of my hands in hers and kissed me. “Oh goodie! Now I have something to look forward to.”
I looked forward to it myself. Lisa and I had been seeing each other for over eight months and I could count the times we’d spent alone together on my fingers. There was a good side to that; it meant we had friends and a decent social life as well as families that treated us like the couple we were. I was still enthusiastic about the prospect of a night out for just the two of us, and hoped Lisa knew of a nice candlelit restaurant where we could eat well and dawdle afterwards.
There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it because we were already in town and Hector asked where he should drop us. I didn’t know if he was staying to shop, nor did I know what Gil was doing so I said, “Find a place to pull over. I think we should talk first.”
Hector pulled over to a curb in a no-parking area. He said he wanted to do some shopping himself, and offered to take Gil with him. I asked Gil if he had money, and gave him forty dollars when he said he only had twenty. Tom and I decided to get out where we were, and Tom told Hector about some places where he might find parking.
When Hector and Gil drove off I looked around until I saw a bank and said, “I have to use the ATM. I didn’t bring much cash and now Gil has it.”
Tom eyed me hopefully and said, “I only brought twenty dollars myself.” I almost fell for it, but Tom lost his straight face when he realized I was calculating how much money to withdraw. I gave him a quarter and two dimes from my pocket and told him I hoped it would help.
When I had some money we shopped, and we had a pretty good time doing it. When I saw a sweater I thought Lisa would like Tom passed a warning from his father on to me. Never pick out clothes for a woman, and never, ever give an appliance as a gift to a woman. The logic didn’t escape me, and Tom didn’t think that particular sweater would fit him so we moved on to a jewelry store, where everything makes an acceptable gift for a lady. There was a big sale going on, which was a nice plus.
We looked around on our own, and I found a little bracelet I thought Lisa would love. It was silver with small, really pretty green onyx stones cut into rounded squares. I talked to a sales lady about it and asked if it was included in the sale. The onyx was real and the silver was fine, which means pure. After all the markdowns it cost a hundred and ten bucks instead of over two hundred, so I bought it after showing it to Tom. He spent a little more on a bracelet made with a braided string of pearls for Bridgette. We were both happy when the bracelets were put in fancy little boxes and elegantly gift wrapped.
We poked around in there some more and I found some neat, hand-painted egg coddlers. I bought a pair for Mom and Ally because I thought they’d like them just for looks, and they might even coddle up eggs someday given the presence of such fine coddlers. We left that store, and then Tom had second thoughts and went back in to get egg coddlers for his mother.
We stopped in the ski shop. Dana didn’t need skis, but he did tend to dress like a flood victim after skiing so I got him three nice turtlenecks in white, black and gray, and a good quality, deep red sweater. I was paying for those when Tom came over holding an orange sweater. I winced and he asked, “Gil likes orange, doesn’t he?”
“No, definitely not. He used to like orange; but not any more. Actually, I don’t know what he likes, but if he wears orange it’s me that has to look at it. Put that back, and if you can guess his size, see if they have a blue one, or black, or any color but orange.”
“I didn’t mean exactly that. Never mind, I’ll look.” A ski sweater was a good idea for Gil. He had sweaters from Shea, but they were all either bulky or dressy, so probably not so great for sports. I didn’t trust Tom to choose a color. I found a nice navy one, and when I described Gil’s size to the clerk he picked one out that he thought would fit.
We looked in some other stores but didn’t find anything until we got to Sam’s outdoor shop which sells all kinds of sporting gear, camping equipment, work clothes and everything else of an outdoorsy nature. I liked a lot of things, but I was having trouble putting anything together with a particular person. After a while I found myself wandering around looking at the same things over and over again. I turned around and wandered in the other direction hoping a different angle might help, and darned if it didn’t. I noticed what they called barn coats in the work clothes department and took a close look at a few. I’d seen a lot of people wearing them but had never heard what they were called. I decided to get one for my father.
I found a nice, heavy canvas one with a corduroy collar, big pockets and a zip out lining. My father isn’t fussy about clothes and never bought much that made him look like a Vermonter. The barn coat wasn’t high fashion by any stretch, but it looked nice enough to wear almost anywhere. I picked one out that was a dark grayish green with tan corduroy trim.
I had a lot of packages already, and the coat was hard to hang onto by the hanger so I put my bags down so I could tuck the coat under my arm. When I picked the bags up I was facing the woman’s clothes and there were barn coats for them too. I dropped everything into a pile and started poking through the racks with Elenora in mind. Some of the coats were more stylish than the men’s, and I pulled one out that I liked. It was black canvas with a dark red woven collar, and some of the same red material accented the pockets and cuffs. I liked it, but had no idea at all what size she wore. I was puzzling over that when Tom joined me.
“I think I’m done,” he said. “Do you have a lot more to buy?”
I nodded and held the coat out so he could see it. “I’m thinking about this for Elenora. Do you know anything about ladies sizes?”
“I don’t. You’re going to buy clothes for a lady after all?”
I considered his words, “I think that means wives and girlfriends. Elenora’s my mother-in-law.”
Tom snorted, “Hell she is. She’s your step-mother, not your mother-in-law.”
“Whatever; she’s some kind of mother. How do I know what size to get?”
Tom laughed, “Some kind of mother, huh? I like that. Call Dana and ask what size.”
I guess I was getting tired because I should have thought to ask Dana. I called from the store. He was at the Danamat and didn’t have any idea what size clothes his mother wore. He put me on the phone with Marsha, an employee who did the wash-dry-fold service. She told me to get a small, but not a petite small if they even had those, and gave Dana his phone.
“That was fast,” he said.
“Hey, at least the lady knows what she’s doing. Did you do your shopping yet?”
“A little. I’m going to Rutland with Dad tomorrow. I think Mom did most of it already. She’s staying home to wrap things while we’re out.”
“Is this Christmas a lot different than what you’re used to?”
“Oh, yeah. We never did much before. We had this little fake tree with two strings of lights and some silver balls. It wasn’t fancy but it was nice enough. When I was in elementary we always made decorations and cards in school and Mom has holiday dishes and things she put out, so the apartment looked good at Christmas. There wasn’t much money for presents, but I always got something, and I drew pictures for Mom.”
“Did your school have a Christmas party or anything like that?”
“Not a party, but there was always an assembly and we sang carols there. The town has a carol sing too, and they have cider and cocoa with cupcakes and brownies. That’s fun, and the firemen have a Christmas party for kids up to ten. Everybody gets a present at that one.”
That interested me. “Did you mention that to Dad?”
Dana giggled, “Yeah, I did. I’m pretty sure we bought all the presents this year.”
“Good going. How was that Mercedes? Did you crack it up?”
“How’m I supposed to smash it up when I have a bunch of old ladies with me? That car has some balls; you can feel it, but with everyone yelling at me to slow down it was like they put wheels under the living room and told me to steer.”
I laughed loud enough to draw stares from other shoppers, so I ended the call and found that the coat I’d been looking at was the right size. I asked Tom if he’d stay with my other packages while I paid, and he was happy for the break.
I had to wait for two other people at the checkout and then one of the coats wouldn’t ring up so the clerk had to do a price check. When that was done I paid and asked for gift boxes. She only had one large one left so I stood aside and waited for someone to bring more out.
I was tired and I could see that Tom was too, but we both still had people to buy gifts for. We rested up for ten minutes in a café where we had coffee and cheese cake. We spent more money in a bookshop and a music store, and by then we were spent ourselves. We had passed a sign earlier advertising that some group was wrapping gifts to raise money, so we brought our haul to a community building and sat in chairs while our packages were skillfully wrapped.
Tom mumbled, “I’m glad this place is here. Wrapping is the worst part of the holiday.”
“I think it’s the best part.”
“Yeah, it means everything else is done. Anyhow, it looks like they’re doing a fine job.”
Tom elbowed me in reply, and then snickered, “I can’t believe you got that shirt for Elenora.”
I just smiled. In a devil-made-me-do-it moment I had slipped out of the book store and went next door to a tee shirt shop where I had a shirt lettered for Elenora. It was a plain tee, almost white but actually a cream color and it now read I am some kind of mother. Tom warned that I might get hurt, but I felt the wording could be taken many ways, at least one of them positive.
Hector and Gil showed up while we were waiting. Tom had called to say where we were. Hector’s hands were empty and Gil was overloaded. He had a huge armload of packages, others wrapped around his wrists, and still more clutched in his hands. Hector had a benign smile on his face while Tom and I helped unload Gil, whose face was red and sweaty. Tom said, “Let me guess: you ran out of money and borrowed more from Hector. Am I right?”
Gil looked at Hector and then turned to Tom, “How do you do that? Hector told you, didn’t he? He gave you a signal or something.”
I said, “Oh sure, Gil. We have secret handshakes and codes for everything.” I held back a laugh when he stared open-mouthed at me. “It’s simpler than that. I gave you money too, so when our things are all wrapped you can carry everything to the car. That’s how it works here; there’s no money for nothing and no free rides.”
Gill seemed confused, “You mean if I carry all this stuff I don’t have to pay you back?”
“Oh, sort of, I guess. When you carry everything you are paying us back.”
Gil said, “Tommy didn’t give me anything.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “It’s not all tit for tat, Gil. Tom does things for you and doesn’t ask for anything in return, so it’s up to you to decide if his time is worth some of your time. He can carry his own bags, or maybe I’ll carry them.”
Gil blushed and hung his head for a few seconds; then he smiled and said, “I get it.” He smiled at Tom and asked, “Carry your bags, sir?”
Hector and I laughed, and we laughed again when Tom said, “Nah, I can manage.” He patted Gil’s shoulder and added, “Thanks anyhow.”
Hector said he’d get the car, so we should wait outside when we had everything because there was no place to park and we’d have to get in the car quickly. When he left I noticed that it was already after five and called Lisa to find out where we were going for dinner. I wanted an idea of how much time I had to get ready. She said the restaurant was right downtown which meant I didn’t have to rush, and I said I’d pick her up about ten minutes before seven.
+ + + + + + + +
Hector dropped us off. I’d probably walked past the restaurant, which was just half a block off Main Street, fifty or sixty times without giving it a glance. It was a very small place with a minimal street presence. We had dressed just right, Lisa in a simple party dress and me in a blue blazer with an open-necked shirt. The interior was very attractive with wine red walls hung with original paintings, tables set with white linen, heavy silverware and crystal glasses.
The maitré d was an older gentleman who greeted us warmly and offered to take our coats after he brought us to our table. The exterior told no lies; there were only about ten tables in the place and they were spaced for privacy. Only a few were occupied when we sat down, but the place filled up soon enough.
Lisa and I talked softly until the waiter came to take our drink order. We obviously couldn’t order alcohol, and when he mentioned that the bartender made special holiday eggnog we both ordered some of that. The eggnog, when it came, was really good, but heavy and quite sweet so one was going to be enough. Our water glasses were full and we soon had a basket of warm rolls to chew on while we looked at the menu.
I asked, “Do you want an appetizer? These sound really good.”
Lisa looked a bit confused and said, “I don’t know what some of these things are. Why don’t you order and we’ll share?”
I looked at Lisa as if she’d gone mad. The last time my father told me to order the appetizers we ended up sharing seven dozen oysters on the half shell, foregoing meals altogether, and that was one of my lesser sins. “If you’re sure …”
Lisa smiled, “You go right ahead.”
Well heck, this place only listed five items, so rather than deciding I ordered one of each, which I explained by saying, “We’re going to share.” The waiter raised an eyebrow when he wrote the order on his pad, but he was too polite to say anything.
Lisa looked at me and said, “You’ll tell me what I’m eating, won’t you? I’m sure I’ll recognize the salmon and the clams.”
The waiter brought the appetizers out one at a time. That was so they’d stay hot according to him, but there was really only room for one at a time on the table. Lisa was a champion and ate some of everything, requiring only a gentle prodding to try an escargot. She loved them, of course, and ate four of the six we’d been served. She’d never had duck liver either, but dug right into the pâté and said it was amazing.
We sat back to relax a little before the entrees came, and the waiter gave us the time he had promised before he brought them out.
We ate well that night. I had lamb chops and Lisa surprised me by getting a steak, which she confessed to ordering only because at eight ounces it looked like the smallest thing on the menu. We had coffee afterwards, and lingered for almost an hour before ordering crème brulee for dessert. I called Hector at ten and said we wanted to walk for awhile. I knew better than to just take off, and he wanted us to wait for ten minutes before going outside. It took that long to pay the bill and get into our coats, and we were escorted outside by both the maitré d and the chef, who didn’t seem surprised at all to hear that we loved the food. He was pleased for sure, but not surprised.
It was our surprise to find that it was snowing lightly outside, and had been for a while judging by the inch of it on the ground. Brattleboro is a small town, not a ghost town, and there were other people out and about. The Christmas lights were on and the display windows in the stores were lit, which made for a cheery scene that we were soon part of. It would have been bad form to make out, but we stopped at a lot of windows to look in and that let us stand cheek to cheek and sneak some little smooches.
All good things end, and my phone vibrated once just before eleven, which was Hector’s signal. I gave Lisa’s hand a squeeze and said, “It’s the witching hour. Our pumpkin will be here any second now.”
Lisa sighed audibly and said, “We did say eleven o’clock, but I don’t remember saying which day of the week.”
“I know, and we should be more creative with that next time. I want to be around to remember tonight, though, and that probably can’t work if I’ve been baked in a lime kiln.”
Hector pulled over to the curb then, still driving the Buick. We got into the back seat laughing, and Hector was smart enough to forego questions about how we enjoyed ourselves. When we got to Lisa’s he told me to take my time because he wanted to turn the car around, which was a nice way to let us know he wouldn’t be watching.
When we got to the door we kissed, and Lisa pulled back smiling. “I think … I think this is the first really romantic thing we’ve ever done. I had a wonderful time, and in a way I wish it wouldn’t end. But …”
“Well, seeing that it’s us it is better that it ends before we sit in moose crap or get all stuck together with burrs.”
I laughed and pulled her close. “So true, but there will be far better ways when we’re older. Anyhow, it’s the night that’s ending, not the romance.”
“Oh Paul, you are so sweet. I love you, love you, and love you.”
Her next kiss proved that, and I walked dizzily back to the car. Hector asked, “All done?”
“Huh? Oh, done … um … done? I really hope not.”