Dog Days


Chapter 7


My mother called my cell phone just when I was leaving my room, so I stopped in the living room to talk before going to eat.


“Ma, you’re back!  How was the honeymoon?”


“It was wonderful, everything we hoped it would be.  New Zealand is such a gorgeous country that you could occupy yourself for ages just looking at the scenery.”


“Of course you did a lot more than look.”


Mom laughed, “Of course.  I was with Ally, so if it could be done we did it, except hang gliding.  Ally glid, if that’s how you say it, while I contemplated my navel and tasted wine instead.”


“A lot of wine?”


“Rather a lot, yes, but tell me how you’ve been.  Are there any problems with your new situation?”


“No, no problems at all.  Did you know we got a dog?”


“A dog?  I didn’t know, but that’s marvelous.  Is it a purebred?”


“Sure.  He’s also a virgin and he’s going to stay that way.”


“Ahem, so it’s a he?  What’s his name?”


“Duke, but we mostly call him Daisy.  That’s his last name.”


“I didn’t know dogs had last names.”


“Come on, Ma.  It’s the latest thing in dogs!  The males take their mother’s last names, kinda like Spanish people do.”


“I believe the Spaniards hyphenate both parents’ last names and don’t use just the mother’s.”


“I guess, but the Spanish are people so they usually know who the father is.”

“I see,” she sighed, “Aside from the dog, then, how are you getting along with Doris and … her son?”




“Pardon me?”


“His name is Gil.  I mean it was Gil until Jim got hold of him today; now it’s Torch.”


“Torch …”


“Yes.  I’ll have to get used to his name being Torch.  He never really took to being called Runt.”


There was a long pause before Mom spoke again.  “Of course I called for some reason other than having my brain rattled, but I seem to have lost my train of thought.”


I grinned while I waited.  I still had Mom’s number.  “Oh yes,” she continued, “We’re coming down for Christmas and will be there on Christmas Eve around noon.  I do hope we won’t be intruding on prior plans.”


“Not by me, you won’t.  Dad and Elenora are coming too, but they’ll be staying up in Newfane.  We’re leaving to go skiing the day after Christmas.”


“I’ve spoken to your father already, so there will be no surprises.  I’ll call Dory in a bit to see what we can bring along.”


I said, “Okay.  She’s here, but we were just getting ready to eat so maybe give her an hour.”


“I’ll do that.  Oh, it’s so nice to hear your voice.”


We went on for another five minutes before ending the call.  Gil and Tyler were already eating ice cream for dessert by the time I made it to the kitchen, and I was relieved to see there was a fair amount of roast beef left.  I sliced some off for a sandwich while Dory brought me a bowl of spicy bean soup.  It was spicy because it had Andouille sausages cut up in it, and Dory quickly brought me a big glass of water when I turned red from my first mouthful.


I love onions and garlic, but I’m Irish and putting butter on my potato and sugar on my cereal is usually as daring as I get with spices.  Once I got past the intimidation factor of the spiciness, I actually enjoyed the soup.  It spurred me on to try a little horseradish sauce on a bite of roast beef.  That was going entirely too far, though, and I enjoyed my sandwiches with just butter, salt and pepper.  They were delicious that way, and I made my second sandwich bigger than the first just so I wouldn’t waste any of that yummy roast.


My mother had called Dory while I was eating and they were still on the phone, so I put my dishes in the machine and left without dessert.  I stopped at Gil’s door and asked, “Are you two all set with Hector for tomorrow?  I don’t want to get up early if I don’t have to.”


Gil said, “He’s coming at eight again.  Why don’t you want to go skiing?”


I smirked, “Other plans, and I’ll be skiing every day when we’re in Canada.  Learn a lot tomorrow so you can pester Tom to take you skiing while I’m gone.  Have fun, and I’ll see you tomorrow night.”


Gil said in a sing-song voice, “Have fun with Lisa.”


“I will, and tomorrow night we can compare our fun.  How’s that?”


The only comment was a single thump of Daisy’s tail on the floor and I muttered, “Wise ass dog,” as I walked away.


+ + + + + + + +


Lisa was home with her sister, Dina, when Dory dropped me off in the morning, and I joined them in the kitchen where they were making strombolis.  The kitchen counter was white with flour and Dina was pretty well covered with the stuff herself.  She was wearing cutoff jeans, and I grinned when I saw her.  “Don’t tell me … Frosty, right?”


God, she looked exactly like a smaller version of Lisa.  Her lower lip came out and she pouted, “I can’t help it.  Don’t make fun of me.”


“I’m not making fun, I’m just wowed by the effort you put into enhancing your holiday pulchritude.”


Dina reddened and looked at Lisa, “Tell your boyfriend I hate him, and not to call me any more names.”


Lisa smiled happily, “Don’t worry; that’s just Paul’s way of saying he thinks you’re cute.  He uses weird words so you’ll be too upset to make fun of his hair.”


I looked around and asked, “Did I come in through the wrong door or something?  I thought I was invited for stromboli, not verbal abuse.”


Dina grumbled, “I was making stromboli until you got here. Would you please go stick your hand in the kiln and see if it’s hot yet?”


Lisa grinned, “Now, now, children, let’s not ruin the day.  We should all kiss and make up.”


I grinned when Dina grunted, “Oh, Jesus.  Let me out of here.”


She ran out of the kitchen and I looked at Lisa, “No kiss for me, I guess.”


“Don’t worry.  I’m worth two of Dina.  Maybe she can meet that cute boy who lives with you.”


I think my eyes went wide at that, but Lisa smiled knowingly when Dina’s voice came from the other room.  “What boy?  Do you mean Dana?”  She was at the kitchen door in a second, “Who are you talking about?”


I stayed out of it while Lisa described a version of Gil I hadn’t seen yet to Dina, which I thought was kind of mean and out of character for her.  I didn’t say anything in front of Dina and instead went to watch television while they got the strombolis ready for baking.


I was caught up in watching a show while Archie purred beside me when Lisa said it was time to go a-baking.  I started to get up and Archie stretched to his feet beside me.  “Can Archie help bake?”


“Oh, no!  He’ll get nosy and burn his whiskers off.”


I felt my face and said, “I see.”  I knelt and stroked the cat until he curled up against the sofa arm and went back to sleep. I smiled at Lisa.  “Want me to carry anything?”


She grinned and beckoned me into the kitchen where she handed me a big wooden tray that was piled high and heavy with uncooked strombolis.  Dina picked up a stack of empty metal trays while Lisa brought an armload of insulated mittens and various utensils, and we made our way out to the shop.


Dina checked the gauges for the kiln and Lisa, using notes written by her father, set the feed rate, the dwell time and the exit speed while she explained, “We’ll just cook a few of these all the way through to eat today.  I want to get the others out just before they start to brown so we can freeze them.”


“What’s in these?” I asked, expecting to hear things like pepperoni and mozzarella.


“Oh, lots of things,” Lisa said.  “Most have things you’d put on pizza, but I want to try one with ham, cheese and roasted pepper for lunch.  That big one is just veggies and oil with lots of garlic and, well, you name it and there’s probably one here, even Buffalo chicken.”


“Wow,” was all I could think to say.  “How do you do this?”


Dina said, “First, cross your fingers, then put the stromboli in the oven, press go and wait for it to come out the other side.  We did all the work already, so you can be the cook and sweat to death out here.”


Lisa rolled her eyes at first, but then smiled, “That’s a fine idea.  We’ll stay here until they’re coming out just right.  Dina, get one of Daddy’s leather aprons for Paul.”


I just stared until Lisa, then Dina, burst out in giggles and I knew I was in for it.  Dina handed me a heavy apron which I pulled on while Lisa sprinkled something in one of the metal pans and carefully placed a stromboli on it.  She told me to put a pair of the oven mitts on and pushed the button that opened the kiln.  She said, “Put it on the feed roller and push the green button.  The next time you see it, it will be ready to eat.  I hope.”


“What’s that stuff you sprinkled in there?”


“That’s corn meal to keep the bottom from burning.”


I wondered why I didn’t guess that as I carefully pushed the tray onto the rollers and pressed the button.  The rollers started turning, the kiln door opened, the stromboli rolled in, the door closed behind it, and the digital display started counting down from eight minutes.  I asked, “Is that timer right?  Only eight minutes?”


Lisa shrugged, “We’ll see when it comes out, and we can adjust it from there.”


“You’re guessing?”


“Only a little because of the different fillings.  Don’t worry; they’ll be fine.”


Dina said she had to change and hurried off leaving me alone with Lisa, which is always a good thing.  My heavy apron, mittens and proximity to the lime kiln guaranteed a little heat, and we gave off plenty of our own.  There were three interruptions at eight minute intervals while we fully cooked some strombolis and five minute intervals after that.  Things were good, and Dina had the sense to turn around and leave without comment when she walked in on us.


Kissing Lisa while she kept her eye on a digital timer was an oddly pleasant experience, and I only say it was odd because those five minute intervals went by faster and faster.  After what seemed like no time at all we ran out of intervals.  I hung the apron up while Lisa changed some settings on the kiln, and we took the fully cooked strombolis to the kitchen.  The slices we ate made a wonderful lunch.  After we finished eating we brought the partially cooked strombolis to the kitchen and left Dina to wrap and label them for the freezer.


Lisa and I took Archie outside for a walk.  The snow on the ground had settled and was easy to walk on, but the gray sky promised more snow and it was certainly cold enough.  After all the time beside the kiln the outside air felt frigid and uncomfortable.  It was nice being in the woods by ourselves, though, and we walked quickly to stay warm.  Holding hands wasn’t a good option with gloves on, so we were arm-in-arm as we talked. 


I asked, “Were you kidding when you told Dina that Gil is cute?  That’s not really fair.”


“Why isn’t it fair?”


“What if your sister meets him and says something?  How do you think Gil will feel?”


Lisa stopped and looked at me, “I don’t understand.  What are you trying to say?  Dina won’t try to hurt his feelings.  She saves that for you.”


“Oh, thanks.  So she can go expecting to meet some cute guy and pretend not to be disappointed when it’s Gil?”


“You’re confused, Paul, and you’re confusing me.  Don’t you think Gil is nice looking?”


I shrugged, “Not particularly; no.”


Lisa smiled sweetly, “You were never a twelve-year-old girl then.”


“I think we can agree on that,” I laughed.  “Wait till I tell Gil you think he’s cute and you want to fix him up with your sister.”


Lisa warned, “If you tell him he’s cute you had better mean it, and I never said anything about fixing him up.”


We walked while I thought and I finally said, “Hm.  Maybe I’ll just stay out of it.”


Lisa nodded, “That’s the guy thing to do.  I want all of your attention for me anyhow.”


“I don’t think you mean all of it.”


“Well, I don’t mean all all of it, just all the good parts.”


“Keep digging; it’s a long way to China.”


I didn’t hear a reply so I looked at Archie, who seemed to like walking with us and stayed close by.  I mentioned it to Lisa and she said it wasn’t common cat behavior, but Archie isn’t an ordinary cat.  He proved that when he stopped to sharpen his claws on a birch tree.  Stretched to his longest  he looked like he could have scratched my eyes out without even knocking me down first.


“He sure can make himself long,” I observed.


“That he can, but he can also curl up in Lou’s lap, and that’s a small target.”


I chuckled at first, but asked, “Lou will grow, won’t he?”


“I’m sure he will.  Let’s go back home before the snow gets bad.”


I’d been aware of the flakes falling and hadn’t commented because there wasn’t enough to mention.  “Is this supposed to be a storm or something?  I didn’t hear the weather.”


“It depends on who you listen to.  It’s either going to be flurries or this week’s storm of the century.  I swear they take turns to see who can be the wrongest.”


I laughed at both her observation, which was very true, and her choice of words.  “Lisa, if wrongest is a word then wronger would have to be a word too, and I don’t think it is.”


“Why not?”


“God, think about it.  If wronger and wrongest were words we’d hear them every day of our lives from teachers.  That’s the wrong answer, Mr. Timek, and your answer is even wronger, Miss Mongillo.  Mr. Dunn, it should come as no surprise that your answer is the wrongest of them all, and it may be the most wrongest answer I’ve ever heard.


Lisa tittered and said, “That situation wouldn’t happen in English class.  You must be talking about logic.”  She grinned, stuck her tongue out, and ran ahead of me. 


I chased after her crying, “I warn you, nobody gets away from Paul Dunn!” just before I tripped on a hidden something and went sprawling on my face.


I felt like an icicle by the time we reached the house.  My face was frozen with snow and more snow had gotten under my hat, into the collar of my jacket, and up my sleeves.  Lisa brought me right into the shop and left to get a towel while I took my wet coat and hat off and hung them near the kiln.  I was still cold when she came back with the towel, and I wasn’t even mildly surprised by how much water came off me.


I was feeling a bit warmer when Dina came in with a cup of coffee for me.  I thanked her and took a sip while she stood there looking at me with her eyes wide.  “What?” I asked.


“Oh, nothing; I’m just memorizing your hair so I’ll have something to talk about the next time you pull your big-word dictionary on me.”


I looked at Lisa and pleaded, “Can’t you do something?  She’s your sister,” and when I turned back to Dina she blinded me with the flash from her phone.


She shook the phone at me and said, “Say anything with more than two syllables and you’re going viral!”


I stared at her for a long moment before I decided not to fight it.  I closed my eyes and drank more coffee, but I opened my eyes to see what all the ensuing silence was about.  Lisa had Dina’s phone open in her hand and Dina was pointing at something.  I asked, “Did you delete it?”


Lisa looked up, “No.  Do you want me to?”




She fussed with the phone for a second and said, “It’s gone.  Do you want to see it?”


“How can I see it after you deleted it?”


“Easy.  I sent it to my phone first.  Dina’s friends wouldn’t want it.”


I sighed, “Are you suggesting that your friends would?”


“Our friends.  Of course they’ll want to see it.  The only ones you send are of you standing on mountain tops in Antarctica.”


I gave up.  “Dina, did you put poison in my coffee?”


“No, but only because Lisa wouldn’t let me.”


I held my cup out, “Would you mind?  Let’s just get it over with.”


+ + + + + + + +


Gil and Hector were already back from skiing when Aldo dropped me off, and Tyler had just left for home with his mother.  I said, “Hi guys,” while I ditched my coat and hat.  “How was the skiing?”


Gil said enthusiastically, “It’s fun when you know what you’re doing.”


“You have it figured out now?  That’s good.”


“We went up on the mountain.  It’s a lot easier if you don’t have to push yourself around.”


I looked at Hector for confirmation and he nodded, “Both boys did fine.  The second day pass was good for the whole area and we got in a few good hours on the widest novice slopes.”


“That’s good.  I have some stromboli samples if you want a snack.”


“What’s that?”  Gil asked.


“It’s kind of like inside-out pizza, only not really.”


Lisa had cut some thin slices for us.  I cut those into bite-sized pieces and warmed them in the microwave for a few seconds.  I’d had plenty already and just nibbled a few while Dory, Gil and Hector scarfed down the rest of them, commenting with their mouths full about how good they were.  I watched Gil, wondering where Lisa found something cute about him because I didn’t see it.  It occurred to me that my first impression of Gil, the dirty little jerk in the ugly orange shirt, was still with me clouding my view of him.  Gil still looked like a little punk, but more like the kind of punk who might play the bad kid in a Disney movie and turn out to have a big heart and save the day at the end.  I’d have to ask Lisa if I got it right.


My inspection ended when my phone went off, and I was surprised to see Rhod Daniels’ name as the caller.  “Hi Rhod; what’s up?”


“Oh, Paul, I’m glad I caught you.  I’m in town and I wonder if you might have a spare bed for me tonight.  I’ve been driving for five hours and now my heater quit.  I can’t find any place that will even look at tonight.”


“The bed is no problem.  Do you remember how to get here?”


“I don’t think so, but give me the address and I’ll find a cab.  My defroster is blowing cold air and with this snow I can’t see anything.”


“Where are you?”


He gave me the location of the service station where he was going to leave the car and I wrote it down.


When I was off the phone I said, “Hector, we have to go get Rhod.  His car’s broken and he needs a place to stay tonight.”  I looked at Dory, “He can use my room and I’ll sleep in with Gil, so you don’t have to do anything special.  He might be hungry; I don’t know.”


I didn’t even realize it was snowing out.  There was that little bit when I was out walking with Lisa, but nothing was falling when Aldo brought me home.  I looked outside and it was snowing lightly.  It must have been really sticking to Rhod’s window to bother him. 


Gil came with us for the ride, and I got in the back with him when we got to Rhod so he could have the benefit of the heater.  The place he was at was open, which surprised us.  Rhod said the mechanic had left for the day and it was open for gas only.  That was okay with me.  I was glad to see Rhod to begin with, but I hadn’t told Dory who was coming and was kind of eager to see her reaction.  I leaned close to Gil and whispered, “Does your mother have any heart problems?”


He backed away from me staring and shook his head slowly.  I didn’t press it because I’d find out soon enough.


I had Rhod’s bag on my lap during the ride back to the house, so I brought it inside and dropped it in the hall where we stopped to stomp the snow off our feet and leave our coats.  Daisy came to investigate and scared Rhod when he barked loudly at the intruder.  I didn’t worry because his tail was busy bruising my butt, and Gil quieted him down right away. 


When I turned around Rhod had his hand out for Daisy to sniff and he smiled, “Who do we have here?  What a big dog.”


I said, “His name is Daisy,” with no stress on the his part, but that didn’t slip past Rhod.


“His name is Daisy?  His name?  Oh, poor doggie.  I bet you hate that.”  Daisy, as usual, reveled in the attention for a few seconds before he ran off to find a ball.


I picked up Rhod’s bag and said, “Follow me.  You can have my room tonight.”


Rhod protested, of course, and I assured him that I didn’t mind.  It hadn’t been my room long enough for me to develop any sense of ownership.


When we walked into the room I showed Rhod the doors to the bedroom and the bathroom.  He whistled, “Wow.  You have more space in here than my whole apartment in the city.”


I shrugged, “Yeah, well this was Dad’s room until he abandoned me, and he takes up a lot of space.”


Rhod rolled his eyes and said, “Why don’t you leave me here to wash up and change.  I’ll call you if I get lost.”


I took some sweats and my slippers over to Gil’s room and then washed up in the hall bathroom before I went downstairs.


Dory was cooking while Gil and Hector were outside with Daisy.  I was going to start a fire, but decided to scoop some ashes out of the fireplace first, so I moved the screen and pulled the ash bucket in close before I started shoveling.  There is a pair of gloves hanging right there for this purpose, but I didn’t think to put them on and managed to bump the grate several times with my hand.  I started the fire when I had the ashes out, and went to the bathroom in the hall to get the black off my hands.  I was just drying them when I heard Dory scream, so I ran out thinking she’d hurt herself.


I shouldn’t have worried.  I’d forgotten about Rhod and he had just walked into the kitchen and given Dory a double jolt; the first from seeing a stranger appear in the kitchen and the bigger one when she realized who he was.  I made Rhod jump himself when I came in and said, “I hope there wasn’t a cake in the oven.  If there was it’s now a tortilla.”


Rhod turned to me and smiled, but he looked as shaken as Dory.  Dory said, “Paul, you might want to let me know who your guests are before I have heart failure from shock.”


I said, “Sorry, let me introduce you properly.  Rhod, this is Dory Gilman, the newest member of my mother collection.  Dory, I think you know already, but let me introduce you to Rhod Daniels.”


They both shook their heads at the introduction and Rhod smiled at Dory, “I don’t know how you fit into this mother bit, but Paul has a knack for choosing women who can make a kitchen smell like Heaven on Earth.”


I said, “It does smell great.  What are we having?”


“It’s just meatloaf.  Do you want to get the dining room ready?”


Before I could reply Rhod said, “Don’t go to any trouble for me.  If there’s enough room here in the kitchen it would be my preference.”


Dory looked a little distressed at that so I said, “Rhod’s single and practically lives in restaurants.  He only gets to eat in a kitchen when he’s company somewhere.”


Dory recovered, “Oh.  Well, that’s fine then.  Paul, can you find a wine that goes with meatloaf?”


I grinned, “When Mom wants her meatloaf to sound fancy enough to justify wine, which is always, she calls it American pâté.  How about a California cabernet?”


When we were at the table it became clear to me that Gil didn’t have a clue who Rhod was, and nobody made an effort to tell him.  I think Rhod liked that because he and Gil hit it off pretty well just talking about things in general.


Dinner was comfort food all around:  caesar salad, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green peas with pearl onions in cream sauce.  Dessert was spice cake with butter frosting.


We sat in the living room to watch a video and the next thing I knew Hector was shaking me awake.  “I’m leaving, amigo.  Everyone else has gone to bed.”


I looked around with bleary eyes.  Light was coming in from the stairway, but the only light in the room was from the television and embers in the fireplace.  Somebody had tossed a blanket over me so I was comfy and opposed to moving.  I blinked and looked at Hector, “Okay.  I think I’ll sleep right here.”


Hector said something and I remember hearing the door to outside shut behind him, but the next thing I became aware of was a series of changes on the television.  I opened my eyes and Gil was flipping through channels with the remote.  I closed my eyes for a few minutes more, but I was hopelessly awake.  “What time is it?”


“It’s just after seven.  Why’d you sleep down here?”


“Seemed easier,” I said as I pulled the cover off and sat up.  “I need a shower.  I’ll be back.”


My bedroom door was still closed after I got cleaned up, and I went back downstairs wearing the sweats I’d left in Gil’s room.  Dory was in the kitchen with the coffee already made.  I poured a cup and sat at the table, looking outside while I sipped it.


Dory said, “Do you know if Rhod eats breakfast?  I’m going to make pancakes.”


“He eats breakfast, and I don’t think he’s very fussy.  Pancakes sound good to me.”


“Rhod seems like a nice man.  He’s very approachable.”


“Yeah, he is.  I’m sure he’s grateful that you didn’t make a big deal over him being here.  A lot of people are pushy when they see him and he likes to get away from that.”


Dory set about getting breakfast ready and I looked back out the window.  It was pretty with the little bit of fresh snow, and the gray sky seemed to promise even more.


When Rhod came down we talked for a few minutes before I went upstairs to get dressed properly.  When I came back down Gil had joined Rhod at the table and they were both snickering about something.  When Gil saw me his ears got red which made me believe the joke was on me.  I wasn’t in the mood for a fight so I just got another coffee and sat with them.  Rhod had the syrup cruet in his hand, held up to the light from the window, and he was looking at it.  “Is this the fancy grade?” he asked.


“Yup,” I said.


“I’ve been trying to find some with no luck.  Where can I buy it around here?”


I thought about it and said, “I’m not sure if you’ll find it anywhere.  It’s the first syrup in the spring and the one they get the least of.  Do you know any place, Dory?”


She shook her head, “Your best bet … well, I don’t know.  You might stumble across some in a village store somewhere, or maybe a smokehouse.  It’s more likely you’ll have to wait until syruping season.  You can probably find some medium amber which is next best.”


Rhod said, “Oh.  I didn’t know there was such a thing.  All I’ve been able to find in New York is the dark stuff.  The jars say it’s maple syrup, but I have my doubts about that.  What I bought is thin and has a bitter aftertaste.”


I said, “Well, never mind.  We can give you some of this.  There’s another can, isn’t there Dory?”


“Yes, and I just opened this one so we have a lot.”


I patted the table and stood up, “I’ll get it now, before I forget,” and went to the back room where I found two full cans.  I brought one in to Rhod and his eyes went wide.


“Wait a minute.  How much is in there?”


“A gallon.”


Rod laughed, “Lord, I don’t need a gallon.  It’s just me.”


Dory said, “I’ll find a smaller container for you.  Come and fix up plates for yourselves.”


I had a love affair going with Dory’s pancakes.  She made them small, only about four inches in diameter and nearly as thin as crêpes.  They were as light as a feather and didn’t sop up the syrup so they never got mushy.  We had them with bacon that morning, and I drank two Dana-sized glasses of milk with mine.  Hector showed up in time to enjoy about thirty pancakes before we brought Rhod to get his car.  Dory gave him a quart of syrup that she’d put in a big Dunkin’ Donuts mug.  She had the top of the mug wrapped in foil that was held on by about a dozen elastics and the whole thing was inside a big zippered plastic bag.


When Rhod had everything he thanked Dory for her kindness, and Gil came with us again when we brought him to find his car.  The car was in the service bay when we got there, and there was a small group of women huddled inside the store area waiting for him.  Apparently the clerk had recognized Rhod after the fact the night before and had alerted some female acquaintences.


Rhod was his usual gracious self with the ladies, and the mechanic came out to tell him he’d replaced the thermostat and was warming the engine to test the new one.  The repair wasn’t a big deal and Rhod said we didn’t have to stay with him.  We might have waited anyhow, but Rhod was busy with his fans so we said goodbye and left.


As soon as we were in the Jeep Gil asked, “So is Rhod famous or something?  What was that all about?”


“He’s an actor,” I said.  “He’s on TV.”


Gil made a face.  “He is?  Then why’s he driving such a piece of junk?  My mom’s car is nicer than that thing.”


I craned around to look at Gil.  “Does it matter?  Cars aren’t that important to some people.”


Gil shrugged and shut up.  Hector asked, “What’s on the agenda for today?”


I said, “Nothing, really.  There’s a stack of cards I have to go through before I hang them up.  I’ll probably help Dory if she needs anything, but I’m thinking of an afternoon on the couch.”


Hector stopped in the driveway and said, “I’ll be around if you need me, but I have some things to take care of myself.  I’ll check in later.”


Hector took off and I followed Gil into the house, where Daisy was waiting to greet us.  Gil turned to me and asked anxiously, “Can you let Daisy out?  I gotta go!”


I went out with the dog and threw a ball into his enclosure, laughing when I realized that dog footprints covered nearly every square inch of the space.  There was a layer of new snow on top, and it looked like Daisy was intent on retracing his steps.  He liked snow as much as I do.


I played with Daisy until Gil came out, and I stayed with them for a few minutes before I went inside to open Christmas cards.  There was a box full of cards just like every year, and I knew that about a third of them would be from family and friends.  The rest consisted of about a dozen cards from local businesses we patronized, while the majority were big, ornate things from Dad’s business associates.  I’d open them all, read the ones with personal messages, set aside the few checks that were my gifts from distant relatives, save the envelopes to compare against our Christmas card list, and then find places to hang them all up.  When I was done there would be cards along the banister to upstairs, around doorways and windows, on the refrigerator, and anywhere else I could put them with a reasonable hope they’d stay there.


Gil offered to help when I was looking for places to put the last dozen cards, but I had it covered so he followed me around.


“I like that guy Rhod.  I never knew anyone famous before, and he’s just like a regular person.”


I smiled to myself, “Yeah, he’s pretty much normal.  I could tell you guys hit it off.”


“You think so?  He really listened to me and I didn’t know if he was just being nice or what.”


I didn’t know if Rhod really liked Gil or was just very tolerant, but I said, “Rhod likes people.  He’s an actor, too, and getting to know different people gives him ideas about how they see things and react to them.”  I elbowed Gil, “Maybe he thinks he’ll have to play a runt some day.”


“God, not this again,” Gil growled, and then asked in a serious voice, “You think maybe that’s it?”


“No.  I think he just likes you.”  Gil beamed and I added, “Lord knows why, but use it to your advantage.”


“What do you mean?”


“If there’s a girl you like, tell her you know Rhod Daniels.  She probably won’t believe you but you can prove it, and girls love the guy.”


“Oh yeah.  I could say he studied me so he could be me in a movie.”


I shook my head, “Don’t get carried away.”


“How do you know him?”


“He used to be Elenora’s neighbor when they were growing up.  I met him when we were all at the beach last spring.”  I wanted to change the subject, “Can you give me a hand upstairs for a minute?  I want to open my mother’s room to air it out, but I have to put something in front of the door to keep Daisy away.”


“What’s in here?” Gil asked as he followed me into Mom’s room.


“Nothing, really,” I said.  “I just don’t want Daisy to get the idea that he has a new place to sleep, and I don’t want him knocking things around with that tail.”


I looked around for something that might block the doorway and still let air circulate around.  There was nothing obvious in the room, but the hamper caught my eye when I looked into the bathroom.  “This should be enough,” I said.  It was a wicker hamper that didn’t weigh much.  Daisy wouldn’t know that, and it was bulky, which I thought would keep him from trying his luck.


“You didn’t need help with this,” Gill stated while we easily moved the hamper and put it right in the doorway.  There were a few inches on either side of it but not nearly enough room for the dog to squeeze by.


I said, “You can go.  I thought I’d have to move something heavier.  I’m gonna get Daisy and see if it works.”


“I’ll get him.  You probably need some rest after all that strain.”


I pointed at Gil, “Don’t start.  Just don’t.  Good idea, though; I think I’ll take a nap.”


I went into my room where I traded my shoes for slippers and pulled on a fuzzy sweater before heading for the living room and the comfortable sofa.  I turned the television on and went to the kitchen where, after looking around, I put some Oreos on a paper plate and poured a glass of milk.  I noticed a bowl of bananas on the counter so I added one to my plate and went back to the living room.


The hard part was finding something worth watching.  I was really getting sick of television.  We paid for something like three hundred channels and at any point in time I’d be lucky to find two with anything good playing, and those shows would be ending by the time I found them.  The History Channel is no longer about history any more than Animal Planet is about animals.  Of course it was the middle of the day in the middle of Christmas week so I basically had my choice of news networks, soap reruns, shopping, or learning how to paint pictures on PBS.  I gave up before I got angry, and decided to get started on my codfish book.  I finished the cookies and milk, saved the banana for later, and stretched out to read.


The book, despite the odd subject, was fascinating and I was into it enough that I heard nothing before the sudden touch of Daisy’s cold nose on my cheek practically caused me to levitate.  The book went flying and Daisy cowered at my reaction, so I made amends with him before I retrieved the book.  I had to find the page I’d been reading, and I finished that chapter and put the book aside.  I yawned large and closed my eyes.


Sleep never caught up with me.  I heard some noise in the hall and it was followed by Gil’s voice saying, “He’s in here.  Hey Paul, you got company.”


I looked up and Roger Landry was standing there in his outdoor clothes.  I said, “Hi Roger,” as I sat up.  “Merry Christmas.”


Roger smiled, “You guessed it,” and held out an unwrapped cardboard box.  “This is from us … things Mom made.”


“Really?”  I took the box and saw four jar lids when I opened the top.  “What’s this?”  I pulled out a jar that was hand-labeled Sassafrass Jelly.  “Whoa!  Your mother made this?”


“Yeah.  There’s four different ones you can’t find in stores anymore.  There’s crabapple, sassafrass, black currant, and quince.  I told her you’d probably like some of her wine better but …”


“Never mind wine; we have lots of that.  These sound great.”


Roger smiled, “Oh, they’re good alright.  I hope you like them as much as we liked that roast beef you brought over.”


I grinned, “I was pretty sure you’d like that.”


Roger licked his lips and said, “Oh yeah.  Dad had some fun with it, too.  His brother and sister were over Sunday with their families, and Dad had my uncles almost convinced that the meat was from genetically modified goats he’d been working on.  It was the first time I ever saw him blow a joke because he couldn’t keep a straight face.”


I laughed, “Why don’t you take your coat off and stay awhile?  He really had them going?”


Roger pulled his jacket off, “I can stay till my dad gets back.  He just went to the liquor store for some hooch.”


“Hooch?  I never heard of that one.”


Roger shrugged, “It just means booze, not some particular one.”


“Aged with indifference, huh?”


“Absolutely.  Age makes no difference when you’re being non-specific.”


I smiled and shook my head.  If I got Roger going on a line like that he could keep it up for an hour.  “Do you want something to eat or drink?”


Roger glanced at the table and asked, “Do you have any more bananas?”


I picked mine up and said, “Here you go.  Something to drink?”


“Nah, I’m okay,” Roger said as he looked behind himself and sat in the nearest chair.  He looked up, “I heard you’re going skiing out West; is that so?”


“Sure is,” I said, and I spent the next few minutes telling him about Whistler and Blackcomb, my trip there before I was very good on my skis, and my confidence in the current state of my skiing.  Roger seemed interested and Gil had come back into the room so I had a little audience.  When I asked, Roger said Tom had shown him the video and some of the pictures from our trip to Chile, and that made Gil want to see them.


I got the video from my room and put it on to play while I looked for snacks in the kitchen.  Dory was cooking something and I tried to stay out of her way.  I put things that looked good on a tray thinking I’d sort it out in the other room, and while I was looking in a cabinet Tom and Shea stomped in through the back door.  They didn’t see me and Tom asked Dory if I was around.


“I’m right here,” I said, and shook a box of crackers so they could follow the sound.


I heard them getting their coats and boots off, and when Tom saw what I was doing he said, “Oh, just in time.  Got any Cheez Whiz?”


“Huh?  Oh, you surprised me; I didn’t hear you say hello.”


Tom rolled his eyes and opened the cabinet where we kept the Cheez Whiz.  “Is there one open before I take this?”


“That doesn’t compute.  Why would we keep an empty jar and why would you want one?”


“Just asking.  Who’s that laughing?”


I’d heard it too, and it could only be Roger and Gil so I told Tom and Shea to go join them and I’d be right there.  I plodded around the kitchen for a few more minutes, and with Dory’s help got a tray of food ready.


I didn’t know what they were finding so funny about our skiing video, but Tom and Shea were howling along with Roger and Gil.  I almost dropped the tray when I walked into the living room and was confronted with Dana’s bare butt right there in living color and high definition.  He wasn’t showing off, but Tom had caught him changing out of his ski clothes and when he pulled the pants down everything underneath followed along.  I chuckled myself and realized I’d taken the wrong video from upstairs.  I was on it myself and had no desire for the world to see my debut, so I hurried to eject the disk while the guys booed me.


I held the disk up and ran for the stairs calling, “I’ll be right back.  Have some food!”


I was halfway up the stairs when the doorbell rang and I yelled for someone to get it.  I went into my room to get the right disk and decided I’d better hide the one in my hand now that Gil knew it existed.


When I came back downstairs I found Gary Andrews and his brother, Noel, talking to the guys in the living room.  I was glad to see them even though it was an unexpected visit, and I shook hands with Noel.  “Hi.  What brings you guys here?”


Noel shrugged, “I’m just the driver.  Gary wanted to stop, not that I didn’t want to; I just didn’t think of it.”  He smiled, “How’s your holiday going?”


“Good so far.  When does your new school start?”


“Not until March.”




“Yeah, for sure.”  He grinned, “I’m sure glad you knew about that.  The man I talked to … Mr. Sutton … he said I’m the first person in the program.  I can’t beat that for plain good luck.”


“I guess not,” I said.  “How about something to drink?”


He looked at the tray of food and said, “No thanks, I’ll just have some grapes.”


I nodded and said, “Help yourself.  Let me say hi to Gary.”


I turned around to look for Gary and almost bumped into him.  I returned his smile and asked, “Can you guys stay for awhile?  I just brought some snacks out.”


Gary said, “I’d stay if I could, but I have to be somewhere.  I told Mr. Jenks I’d help him at the kids’ Christmas party.”  He smirked, “I’m an elf.”


I only had my slippers on, but in just his socks Gary was still a lot taller than me so I looked up when I said, “An elf?  You?”


“Well, Santa’s helper then.  I’ll be helping with the food and then with the gifts.  The people running it are nervous that there might be more kids than presents.”


I was a little confused, “What’s this party for?  Don’t they know who they invited?”


Gary shrugged, “I guess not.  It’s for the kids who won’t have much of a Christmas at home, but this year with the economy …”


“I get it,” I said.  “What are they short of; food or presents?  Both?”


“There’s plenty of food.  It’s presents they’re not feeling too good about.”


“Hmm,” I said.  “What time does the party start?”


Gary eyed me, “What are you thinking?”


“I’m not thinking, I’m wondering.  What time does the party start?”


“Five o’clock.”


I looked at the clock and it was just after two.  “What are they buying for presents?  Is the party for all ages?”


Gary stared at me as a little grin formed on his face.  “All ages up through high school.  What are you thinking?  I can call Mr. Jenks and ask.”


“Do that.  Then we can get a little shopping party going.  Does everything have to be wrapped?”


Gary held out his hand and I put my phone in it.  While he called Mr. Jenks I started collaring people to help.  I put my hand on Shea’s shoulder and edged him over to where Tom and Roger were talking, and called Gil and Noel over.  Just when I was about to say something the doorbell rang again, and the McNaughton brothers came in without waiting for a response.  I called, “You’re just in time; we need your sleigh.  Come on in!”


When everyone was looking at me I asked, “Is there a big toy store in town?”


Roger said, “There’s a big one in Keene.  What’s up?”


I smiled, “We need to buy toys … a lot of toys.  Did you guys know about the Christmas party for kids that’s tonight?”


Dan and Jim nodded, but the others just looked at me.  “Well, it’s tonight and Gary doesn’t think they have enough presents to go around.  I want to make sure there’s plenty.”  I had a sudden thought and smacked my head, “Girls!  We need some girls to help.  I don’t know what to get for little girls.  Shea, do you think you could bring Catherine along?  Liam, too.  He’ll know what kids his age want.  Do you think Cheri would help?”


Shea gaped at me for a second before he nodded and said, “Let me call.  Should I ask the mailman, too?”


Tom said, “Hold it, Paul.  What are you planning here?”


I was about to say something when Tom added, “Don’t even bother, I get it.  I’ll help, but not if this is another time when Paul steps in with money to save the day.  I’ll pay for the things I pick up.”


“Me too,” Dan said, “And Jim’s as well.”


Gary came over holding my phone out and whispered, “It’s Mr. Jenks.  He wants to talk to you.”


I took the phone and said, “Hi.  This is Paul.”


“Hi, Paul.  I want to thank you for offering to help, but I can’t ask you to spend money.”


I said, “You didn’t ask.  It just came up, and my friends and I want to make sure you have enough.  Can you give me an idea of what you need?”


“If you’re sure about this then yes, we have a fair idea.  The party was originally going to be for kids in elementary school, and then we added the middle schoolers which brought us up to thirteen or fourteen year olds.  After that we added the high school, so we’ll have kids as old as eighteen.  I think we’re probably good on the little ones, but our best guess shows us short by at least ten gifts for the middle schoolers and we have nothing for the older kids.”


“Do you have any idea how many might come, and if it’s a pretty even split between boys and girls?”


“I’m not sure at all, Paul, but a vice prinicpal at the high school took a guess at about five boys and eight girls.  It could be double that or half of it, or I could be off by a mile.”


I thought for a minute and said, “Okay, we can go with that.  How much have you been spending on gifts?”


“That’s kind of all over the place too, Paul.  We tried to aim for ten dollars but it’s pretty clear that a lot of things that were donated just cost a dollar or so.  Then again, a few people got carried away and bought some pretty expensive looking toys.  Just … do what you can without going crazy.”


“Okay.  Oh, one more thing.  Do you want them wrapped?”


“No.  We have gift bags, so don’t bother, but if you would, mark them with the gender and age of the kids they’re intended for.”


“Okay.  I think we better get going.  I’ll see you in a while.”


When I put my phone away Shea tugged my sleeve and said, “My father’s taking Liam and Cath up to the toy store.  He said don’t worry about the money, he’ll take care of it.”


I smiled, “Thanks.  Call him back and tell him not to buy too much.  They think they have the younger kids covered.  Who do we know in middle school?”


“Huh?  I’ll call my father back, but I don’t know anyone in middle school.”


I did.  I called Lisa and asked to borrow Lou and Dina, and when I told her the reason she went to ask her parents.  After a few minutes she came on and said, “Talk to Daddy.”


“Paul?” Mr. Mongillo’s voice boomed.


“Right here,” I said.


“This is kind of short notice, but I’ll take the kids shopping just to wear them out.  What kind of things do you need?”


“Gifts for kids their age, so let them pick things out.  The Christmas party the different clubs put on is tonight and they’re getting more kids than they expected.”


“Oh, that’s important, then.  Be more specific about what they need.”


“Okay.  They’re aiming for about ten bucks per gift, but it doesn’t have to be exact.  They think they’re short on things for middle school kids.”


“They think?  What if they’re wrong?  What if they’re off by even one?  I’ll get plenty, and they can save extras for next year.”


“This is really great,” I said.  “Let me know what you spend and I’ll pay you back.”


“No you won’t.  I’ve lived in this town all my life and never really had much to spare.  Now that my company’s going to operate and grow here we have to become part of the community.  I think this is a terrific way to start out, so no more talk about money.  Here’s Lisa.”


“This is very sweet of you, Paul,” Lisa said.


“Hey, I’m a sweet guy.  Can you come with us?  Some high school kids will be there this year and I don’t really know what to buy for girls.  I think Cheri’s coming with Shea.”


“I’d love to go.  When are you leaving?”


I looked around and said, “Good question.  Almost now, I think, but we’re not organized yet.  I’ll call you back in a couple of minutes.”


Roger was closest to me so I asked, “Can you come with us?  You look like you need some shopping.”


Roger looked at me worriedly and took a cautious step backwards, so I changed my phrasing.  “We should all go; it’ll be fun.”


I was amused by Roger’s startled look and struggled to keep a straight face when he said, “Fun … shopping and fun; I don’t get the connection.”


“We’ll party after; how’s that for a connection?”


Roger understood that, and after five minutes of what passed for planning we were climbing into cars.  Since our group was buying for older kids we figured we would do fine right in Brattleboro.  Roger rode with me and Hector, and we stopped to pick up Lisa.  Dory drove Gil, and took Tom to get his girlfriend while Dan and Jim brought Shea to pick up Cheri.  Gary went with Noel to find Joanie and we were all to meet downtown on Main Street.


The town was pretty well packed with shoppers.  When we all met up Lisa and the girls said they’d buy girl things and knew where to get them, so the rest of us went to get sporting goods.  We didn’t know who we were buying for other than they were kids in high school like us, and sporting goods would make most guys happy.  They could always return things for the cash or trade with someone else for something they wanted.


It wasn’t hard to pick things out.  I don’t think anything in the department cost less than ten dollars, except possibly the tennis balls, but we got basketballs, footballs and soccer balls for not a lot more.  Shea found a bunch of inexpensive sleds, the blowup tube ones, and we bought the eight that were left.  Those weren’t particularly for high school kids, but for anyone who didn’t get something else.  I saw Roger looking longingly at some work gloves, the kind with inner gloves that didn’t cover the fingerips and lined outer mittens.  Hector was beside me and when I nudged him he got the idea and nodded to me.


I had gifts for almost everyone there and would have felt bad if I left Roger out.  We had a lot of things when we got to the checkout and the total with tax was over five hundred bucks.  I split it five ways with Tom, Shea, Gary and Dan.  When I saw that Roger seemed distressed I said, “I’ve got Roger covered.  I owe him for fishing lessons.”


We had to make two trips to the cars to get everything in, and should probably have brought them straight to the building where the party would be.  It was closer than the parking lot and had bigger doors than the cars.


I called Lisa to see where she was, and that upset her.  “Don’t tell me you’re finished already.  We’re just getting started.”


“Well, I guess finished is kind of a strong term.  We bought a few things at Sam’s and thought we’d drop them at the party before we look for more stuff.”


“You’re not done, then?  Wait!  Let me guess; not is also a strong term, isn’t it?”


“Um, let us drop these presents off and I’ll call you back.  Is that okay?”


Right then phones started ringing all around me.  Shea and Tom reached in their pockets.  They answered at once and it was only a moment before I heard Shea ask, “Jeez, how long is it supposed to take to buy a football?”  After a pause he said, “No, not just a football, but it doesn’t take any longer to buy a bunch of footballs.  I didn’t say we only got footballs …”


I moved far enough away that I didn’t have to hear it and saw that Lisa was still on my call.  “I’ll tell you what.  If Dory will bring you back to my house why don’t you take your time and meet us there when you’re done.  I’ll get some food and we can have our own Christmas party; just our little group.”


Lisa said, “Wait a second; I’ll ask,” and a moment later the guys all looked at their phones so I deduced that Lisa was asking.  After about a minute she said, “That sounds like fun.  Let me get going and I’ll see you at your house pretty soon.”


“Okay, um, see you pretty soon.”


The guys with me put their phones away when I did while Roger turned his head to hide his amusement.  I said, “Someone tell Roger what’s going on, and let’s get going.  How about a Chinese Christmas?”


We got everything into the vehicles and drove up the road to the community building.  We didn’t want to be seen bringing gifts in so I sent Gil to find a door away from the street.  Once we found our way there were plenty of people to take the gifts off our hands.  Mr. Jenks stood there shaking his head with a bemused smile on his face and finally said, “I should have enlisted kids to buy these things in the beginning.  We spent a mind-boggling amount of time in committee meetings deciding what to get.  You fellas call and show up with armloads of things in an hour.”


Tom said, “Oh, this isn’t everything.  Shea’s father took his younger kids out to buy things for the little ones and Mr. Mongillo has Lou and Catherine finding presents for the middle schoolers.  Oh, and the girls are out getting girl things for the high school.”


Mr. Jenks said, “I’m stunned.  Who paid for all of this?”


Gary replied, “We all chipped in for this bunch.  I don’t know what the girls are doing for money; probably the same.”


Mr. Jenks looked around and said, “I can’t begin to say how much this is appreciated, and I want to thank you all.”  He put his hand on Gary’s shoulder, “I hate to ask after all this, but are you still going to help us out here?  These people here already have their assignments.”


“Sure,” Gary said, and he turned to Roger, “Want to help out?  I don’t think we have to stay for the whole thing.”


The rest of us left when Noel, Gary and Roger stayed for the party.  We were going to make plans for a party of our own.  When we were leaving the hall I was dismayed to get a glimpse of Billy Baldwin, a guy I knew from school.  I didn’t know him well at all, but he was fun to be around and I liked him.  He presented well, too, and I had no reason to think he was poor in any way.   Of course, the times being what they were, maybe one of his parents had lost a job; there was a lot of that going on.


I mentioned seeing Billy to Tom and he said, “I know; I saw him too.  Roland Dubois was there with him.  I didn’t know their families were having tough times.”


I said, “Oh, well.  Maybe they’ll have some fun here tonight.  How well do you know them?”


Tom shrugged, “I don’t really.  I mean, I’ve gone to school with them forever and I was in Cub Scouts with Roland.  I just never knew them very well.”


I didn’t say anything else, but I thought about helping them out if things were really bad.  I knew my father didn’t mind me helping people when I could.  I liked to help, but at the same time I found it embarrassing to help someone directly, and if this shopping expedition was a good indication then my friends were getting tired me being there with my wallet out.  I suppose I’d be sick of myself if I was in their shoes, and I felt kind of foolish as we walked back to the cars.


I was quiet on the way back, and Gil met me when Hector dropped us off.  The others all wanted to change and clean up at home, so I had at least an hour to myself to do the same.


I couldn’t stop thinking about money while I showered and changed.  I can’t be honest and say that having a rich father didn’t smooth the way for me because it did.  Until recently, though, I’d never had much of a say in the spending of it, and never actually had my hands on much money at any given time.  I was well provided for to be sure, but was accustomed to spending only my allowance, and that was only average by any standards.


Dad had moved off the mark during the past year and started spending charitably on his own.  I thought he was doing nice things, too, and doing them anonymously.  He was taking baby steps, though, and not really spending much money at all.  If the scholarship program worked out the way we hoped, it would involve some serious sums over time, but would probably never make a real dent in the total either.


It occurred to me that Dad might have made a major change in his will and Elenora would inherit the money if she outlived him.  I’d have to ask about that.  Giving away what might be mine is one thing, but it wouldn’t be nice if Elenora, and probably Dana, were going to share in the loot and learned that I gave it all away.  There was also the likelihood that Dad and Elenora would want to have more children.  Things were more complicated than they had been, but I could worry about it when the time came.


The thing that was bothering me was knowing that kids from my school, my own classes, were going to a town Christmas party because their own family situations were difficult.  We had the wherewithal to help, but I couldn’t think of a good way to do anything to help them that would be anything but embarrassing.


I stopped thinking about it when I was dressed because I had things that needed doing.  I went downstairs to see if Dory was back.  She wasn’t, but Gil had a message from her and told me to call Lisa right away because she wanted to ask someone else to come over with her.


I called Lisa, who asked if she could bring Dina along, and when I asked she said no, it wasn’t so she could get a look at Gil.  I didn’t press her for a plausible reason because, since she brought it up, I knew she wanted to bring Dina for exactly that purpose.  I didn’t mind.  I decided not to give Gil a warning so he wouldn’t have time to worry if he was prone to worrying.  I knew he was okay meeting new people, but I didn’t know how he’d be with a girl who was there specifically to meet him.  He’d probably invite her to play with his dog.


I had to order food and I didn’t have a good idea of how many people would show up.  I sat down in the kitchen and scratched out a list of the people I was pretty sure of and called Panda.  I didn’t know what to get either, so I asked them to put together a variety of things based on their own experience, and added various sodas in half-gallon jugs, with enough plasticware to go around.  If extra people came and there wasn’t enough I could call and get more.


Gil had been rattling around like he couldn’t find anything to do other than go from window to window and look out.  When I was off the phone I asked, “What’s the matter?  You look nervous.”


He actually looked terrified when he turned to me.  “I never went to a party before.”


I said, “You’re not exactly going to one; we’re having it here.  You’ll be too tired to have fun if you keep pacing.”


Gil pleaded, “But what should I do?  Is everybody gonna get drunk and stoned and … and get crazy?”


“I think you watch too many movies.  You know everyone, or almost everyone.  They won’t get stoned or drunk, or even try to.  We’ll just hang out, have some food, maybe listen to some music … I don’t know.”  I had a thought, “Listen, it’s your house too.  If anyone gets out of hand just take care of it.”


Gil looked down, “Yeah, like anyone would listen to me.”


“Gil, these are my friends, not some black-hearted sneaky jerks.  They respect other people and they’ll respect you … unless you give them a reason not to.  Asking someone to behave in your own house won’t bring you any trouble.  Just have fun and relax … get to know them better and you’ll see.”


Gil faced me, “You really think they have respect for me?”


I nodded and smiled, “Yeah.”


That seemed to please Gil and he cried, “I’ll get it,” when someone knocked at the door.  I heard him say, “Hi.  Come on in,” to whoever was there, then “You can hang your coats up here.”


I heard Jim’s voice, “Hey Torch!  Don’t tell me we’re the first ones here.”


“Nah, Paul’s here.  We’re in the kitchen.”


Jim and Dan followed Gil into the kitchen and Jim greeted me by asking, “Where’s the booze?”


“It’s under lock and key.  How about some milk?”


Jim backed away and made a cross with his fingers in front of his face.  “Don’t say it!  Maybe we should go, Dan.  I think Paul’s gone over to the bright side.”


I said, “Come on, don’t be rude …”


Gil ran out when there was another knock at the door, and Shea came in with his father.  Mr. Luellen held out a wrapped package and said, “This is for your family, Paul.  Just put it under the tree if you will.”


I took the gift from him and it gurgled, which made me smile.  “It feels like it could put me under the tree if I peek to see what it is.”


Mr. Luellen smiled, “You and several others, I should hope.  You kids have fun tonight, a nice holiday, and a wonderful skiing trip.  Oh, and give our greetings to your parents when they get in.  We’ll be home if you have a chance to stop by.”


I promised to try and thanked him before he left, but the door didn’t close behind him.  Noel was holding it for Gary and Roger.  I waved them in because the car from the restaurant was pulling in.  I asked Gil and Shea to give me a hand.  That night’s driver was Panda Andy, and between the four of us we had the kitchen table buried beneath sacks of Chinese food just in time for Dory to come in with the girls.  It was the girls minus Lisa, and when Dory saw me looking around she told me that Lisa went home to change and would get a ride.


Gary said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I told Billy B. and Roland they could come by.  They were looking for something to do after the party.”


I said, “No, that’s great.  How was the party, anyhow?  Were there enough presents?”


“Oh yeah, plenty of presents and nice stuff, too.  You better watch out; Mr. Jenks says you can do all the shopping next year.”


“The kids had fun then?”


“I’ll say they did.  Who wouldn’t?  They had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, all the ice cream they wanted, and then they got presents.  Even the bigger kids had a good time.”


I lowered my voice and asked, “How did Billy and Roland make out?”


“Those guys?  They had a ball.  They made good elves.”


“Elves?  You mean they were working there?”


“I wouldn’t call it working.  They were helping out like me and Roger.”


That made me feel better.  I don’t know why I didn’t even consider that they might be there as workers and not guests, but I was glad that was the case. 


Joanie came over and I left her with Gary after some small talk.  The house was getting full when Lisa finally came, and she had both Aldo and Dina with her.  Al had a big, wrapped box along with several smaller gifts and asked, “What should I do with these?”


I took them from him and Lisa said the big one was for me; the others could go under the tree.  I looked at the tags and there was a package for my father and Elenora, another for Mom and Ally, one for Dana, another for me, one for Dad and one for Bernie Sutton, all from the Mongillo family.  The big one for me was from Lisa, and she said, “Go ahead; open it.”


I thought for a moment and set the box on the coffee table.  “I have presents, too.  Let me get them and I can give them out while everyone’s here.”


Aldo was standing there and I said, “Give me a hand?”


He followed me up to my room, and when we went in he looked around.  “Hey, this is pretty nice.  Where do you sleep?”


“This way,” I said as I opened the door to the bedroom.  I had gifts piled everywhere, with the ones for friends along one wall.  Except for one they were all in small packages so I got two pillowcases from the linen closet.  We filled those and had a few things left over.  I said, “I’ll come back for the rest.”


I hadn’t expected Noel to be there, but I had some extras just in case … alpaca scarves from Chile, of course.


I came up alone for the second load, and quickly called Hector.  “What time are you coming over?”


“I’m in the car now.  Give me fifteen minutes; there’s something I have to pick up.”


“Okay.  Did you get those gloves for Roger?”


“Yup, and I wrapped them too.”


“Great.  Thanks.  The food’s here already.”


“I’ll still be there in fifteen minutes.”


I went downstairs and put things around the tree before joining the hungry people in the kitchen.   A few had spread into the other room, so there was a clear path to the food table and I went right over and picked up a plate.  I was hungry and didn’t pay a lot of attention to what I was taking, so when I leaned against a cabinet and popped a little roll in my mouth I was surprised at how good it was.  I thought I’d have another, but that thought was lost when Lisa stood beside me and put her arm around my back.


“What are you eating?”


“I’m not sure, but it’s good.  Help yourself.”


Tom came over with a plate while Lisa was getting some food and we both started munching on what we had.  When Lisa came back she smiled at Tom and looked around.  “Have you seen Dina anywhere?”


Tom said, “Gil’s showing her his dog.”


I thought that came out funny and started snickering.  Lisa socked my arm and said, “That better be all he’s showing her,” which got me laughing out loud.  My laugh earned me another punch as Lisa cried, “That is not funny.  You really have a dirty mind.”


I said, “I know.  I try and I try to be good, but pure thoughts are foreign to me.  It’s been getting even harder since you came into my life, but wait a minute here—you’re the one who had the dirty thought this time.  I was just laughing at the way Tom said it.”


“That’s alright for you and me.  Dina’s only twelve.”


“I know, but she holds her own pretty well.  If Gil tries anything she’ll just bake him in that oven of yours, so don’t worry so much.  You brought her here to meet Gil, didn’t you?”


“Well, sort of.  Okay, let’s not worry.  Did you open your present?”


“Not yet.  I had to bring things downstairs, and I’m hungry.  We can all open gifts when I have a little food in me, so let’s eat while it’s hot.”


We were still nibbling at things when Hector came in.  I was surprised that Arizona was with him because I hadn’t heard mention of her for a few months.  I got a clue as to why when he helped her out of her coat, and I do believe I stared at her without realizing why until it dawned on me that her gigantic boobs were gone.


… more