Authors: Nancy Thayer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
“David!” she cried. “Amy! And Jehoshaphat!”
Amy’s brown braids were looped on the top of her head in a kind of Fräulein milkmaid look. Instead of a coat, she wore a hairy brown poncho. Jehoshaphat’s chubby baby face stared over his mother’s shoulder from her backpack.
They were really here! Polly was so thrilled, she nearly burst into a flamboyant flamenco. At her feet, Roy Orbison danced and barked his hoarse old dog bark. “Come in, come in.”
David bent to pat the basset hound. He smelled faintly of manure and Lysol. “Mom, why is it so smoky in here?”
“Oh, darling, I lighted a fire, and I need to—” There were so many things to do at once, she couldn’t finish her sentence. “Let me hold Jehoshaphat while you take off your things,” she told Amy, reaching out for her grandson. Amy allowed her to lift the little boy from the backpack.
“Mom, something’s wrong.” David pushed past her, still in his coat.
“Darling, it’s just—” Carrying Jehoshaphat, who was squirming around, looking in all directions at this new environment, Polly followed her son down the hall and into the living room.
“Jesus Christ!” David exclaimed. “Mom, call 911! The house is on fire!”
But Polly was paralyzed as she stood in the doorway to her living room. What she saw was so bizarre, her mind couldn’t, for a moment, force it to make sense. Flames shot up from the mantel, where her organic greenery was crackling and popping as it burned, and her wooden candlesticks glowed orange.
“Oh my God!” Amy shrieked. Lunging forward, she snatched Jehoshaphat from Polly’s arms. The little boy began to scream along with his mother as she flew back outside.
The dog, confused and frightened, stood in the middle of the hall, threw back his head, and bayed like a lost soul.
David had his cell phone out and was dialing 911.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” a choir sang from the CD player.
Breaking out of her stupor, she ran into the kitchen, found her big lobster pot, set it in the sink, and turned on both faucets. The water ran and ran, and yet, as if she were caught in some kind of nightmare, the pot would not fill. Slowly, slowly, the level of the water rose, while black smoke drifted down the hall and into the kitchen.
Finally the pot was almost full. Polly hoisted it from the sink, turned, and started to run toward the living room. But with her first step, the water sloshed out of the pot, spilling onto her slacks and puddling onto the floor. Slipping, slithering, she almost went down.
Carefully, slowly, Polly regained her balance. She moved her legs as quickly as she could while keeping her upper torso and arms completely still, to prevent more water spilling. Arms stiff, she walked zombielike to the living room.
David was by the fireplace, poker in hand, knocking the burning greenery and blackened candleholders onto the tile hearth and into the fireplace.
“Oh, David,” she cried, “be careful! Don’t burn yourself!”
“It’s all right now, Mom. I’ve got it under control. When the fire department gets here, they can check whether it got into the walls somehow, but I think we’re okay.”
Polly stood helplessly, holding her heavy pot of water. Above the mantel, the wall was streaked with black, and the beautiful oil painting she and Tucker had inherited from his family was scorched and curled into fragments of ruined canvas. Roy Orbison had stopped bellowing and sniffed nervously at her feet.
“Aaah, Mom, it’s all right.” David put the poker back in its stand. “I’ll put the pot here on the hearth. In case we need it.” He lifted the heavy vessel of water from Polly’s hands. “Look,” he said, trying to cheer her up. “The tree, the stockings, the presents—none of them burned.”
Polly’s lip quivered. “That’s right. That’s good.” “Come sit down here,” David said gently. “You’ve had a shock.”
Polly had forgotten how to move her legs.
“Mom.” David put his arms around her and hugged her for a long time. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s really okay.”
He ushered her to the sofa. Docilely, she sat. Her dog sat, too, leaning against her legs for comfort.
“I’m just going to check on Amy and Jehoshaphat.” David left the room.
Because the front door was open to let the smoke escape, her son’s conversation floated in with perfect clarity.
“It’s okay now, Amy, come on in.”
“I’m not going in there! I’m not taking my child into a burning house!”
“The fire’s out.”
“I’m not taking a chance. What if a spark got up in the ceiling? Everything could go at once!”
“When the fire department says it’s safe, I’ll go in.”
“Then take Jehoshaphat and sit in the car. You’ll freeze out here.”
Sirens sounded in the distance. Then, closer. The wails pierced the Christmas Eve air as they screeched to a stop at Polly’s house. Moments later, Polly heard men speaking with her son and then two firemen stomped into the living room, garbed in rubber coats, boots, and gear.
Behind them came Amy, David, and the baby. Amy stood in the doorway, refusing to enter the room, which was just as well, because the room was crowded. Somehow the firemen were twice as big as normal persons. Roy Orbison waddled around, wagging his tail and sniffing the firemen’s interesting ankles.
They checked the walls, ceiling, and hearth. They stomped upstairs and down again.
The older one, with grizzled hair, had kind eyes. “This happens more often than you’d think,” he assured Polly. “Christmas candles, dry greenery, there you are.”
The younger fireman said to Polly, “I notice you have smoke alarms upstairs and down. Didn’t they go off?”
Polly cringed. “I took the batteries out this week. I was doing a lot of cooking, and they’re so sensitive, they were going off all the time and driving me crazy.”
Behind him, Amy’s mouth crimped disapprovingly.
“Yeah, that happens a lot,” the older fireman said. “You’d better connect them.”
By the time the firemen left, all the smoke had dissipated. Polly longed to pour half a bottle of rum into a cup of eggnog and chug it down.
But instead she rallied. “Sit down, now, please. We can still have Christmas Eve,” she told David and Amy. “The presents and stockings are okay. And I’ve made some delicious—”
“I think we’d better go home,” Amy said. “The smoke gave me a headache, and heaven knows what it did to little Jehoshaphat’s lungs.”
“But the smoke’s gone!” Polly protested, waving her arms.
“Yes, and it’s freezing in here,” Amy pointed out.
“It will warm up soon,” Polly promised. “I’ll make you some tea. I’ve got so many different kinds—”
With a sigh, Amy acquiesced.
The next hour dragged by. With the patience of Mother Teresa tending to the ill, Amy accepted Polly’s Christmas gifts and allowed her son to touch his. The entire time, Amy darted frightened little glances at her husband, making it clear she was terrified that the house was about to spontaneously combust. She did not allow Polly’s grandson to taste any cookies—too much sugar— or to drink any of the juice Polly had bought. Instead, she pulled a juice bottle from her woven bag.
Amy and David’s gift to Polly was a set of woven reed place mats that Polly had seen on the sale table of the Andersons’ little store over the summer. But Amy did permit Jehoshaphat to touch the set of natural wood blocks Polly gave him, and for five blissful minutes, Polly was allowed to sit playing on the floor with her grandson.
In spite of the herbal tea Polly brewed, Amy complained that her headache was growing worse.
You need caffeine, honey, you need chocolate,
You need a personality transplant.
She walked them to the door, waving until their pickup truck was out of sight. For a moment, she stood looking out at the black sky with its frosty stars. All the houses up and down the block glowed with Christmas lights.
Polly returned to her smoke-stained living room. Her artistically decorated brown wrapping paper and yarn ribbons lay discarded on the floor like yesterday’s trash. The present from Amy and David, the woven place mats, looked like hair shirts for a clan of masochistic dwarves. Roy Orbison sniffed through the crumpled paper and found a bit of unsalted cashew. From the CD player, the little drummer boy drummed for the fiftyninth time that evening. Polly turned off the music.
“Merry Christmas, humbug!” she told her dog, and collapsed on the sofa.
It was only a little after eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. If only Hugh had been here! He wouldn’t have let the place catch fire. Or he would have assured everyone, with his gentle physician’s authority, that everything was really all right. He would have lent authenticity and gravity to Polly’s gifts and food.
But Hugh wasn’t here, and he wouldn’t be tonight.
Tonight Hugh was spending with his grown children, their spouses, and his ex-wife, Carol.
Carol was—Polly had seen pictures—a tiny size six, and if that wasn’t irritating enough, she was also a dependent little princess. Hugh and Carol had been divorced for several years now, but Carol, who had kept the house in which she and Hugh had raised their three children, was forever phoning him when the downstairs bathroom’s pipes froze, or a bat got into the attic, or one of their grandchildren lost a tooth. Carol desperately needed daily conversations with Hugh, and Hugh took it all in his stride, listening to her complaints and soothing her with the same kind manner with which he spoke to his patients when they phoned. Also, he was diligent about attending his grandchildren’s plays, recitals, and soccer games as often as possible. Polly admired him for this at the same time she hated how it limited their time together.
When they’d discussed their holiday schedules, Polly had thought it made perfect sense for Hugh to be with his children—and their mother—on Christmas Eve, while Polly was with her son and his family. Tomorrow, when she got to see Hugh, she would be glad to have the Carol part of Christmas behind them.
But tonight she was irrationally lonely. For a while, she indulged in a morass of negativity, imagining everyone else she knew celebrating the season in the bosom of their families. Quickly she got bored with that scenario. She’d spent too many holidays in the home of her mother-in-law, Claudia, Queen of Disdain, to believe all other families in the world were happy.
Besides, it wasn’t celebrating she missed—she did a lot of that, with Hugh and with her Hot Flash friends. It was a sense of being useful, of being part of the world, that made her feel so solitary now.
But then, how useful could someone be who set her house on fire on Christmas Eve?
MARILYN DIDN’T KNOW WHETHER HER MOTHER WAS truly an exceptionally pretty woman, or if it was just that Marilyn loved her so much.
Ruth came out of the guest bedroom, dressed for Christmas Eve dinner in a red wool dress and a strand of white pearls. Red lipstick brightened her pleated lips and cheerful rouge blushed her wrinkled cheeks. From her ears dangled shiny little Christmas ornaments, one red, one green. Her snowy white hair bobbed around in curls, and the bit of pink scalp showing through made Marilyn’s heart ache. Her mother had had such thick hair when she was younger.
“You look great, Mom,” Marilyn said.
Ruth’s face lit up at the compliment. “Well, thank you, dear! I believe, no matter which God you believe in, it’s important to keep rituals in your life. It helps you remember to be grateful. To reflect on the cycle of birth, life, and dirt.”
Marilyn bit her lip. Ruth had been a brilliant biology professor. Now, at eighty-five, her discourse was peppered with little malapropisms. Marilyn had phoned her sister Sharon about it, and they’d agreed it was probably a result of Ruth’s mini-strokes. They decided not to mention it to Ruth, who always seemed puzzled when they tried to correct her.
Ostensibly, Ruth was visiting her daughter for a few weeks, an unexceptional, ordinary thing for a mother to do. Tacitly, Marilyn was supposed to watch Ruth for signs of senility so she could share her observations with Sharon and help her decide whether or not their mother should be “persuaded” to go into an assisted care facility.
“I can’t make this kind of decision by myself,” Sharon had insisted during one of their many phone conversations this fall.
“I agree. You shouldn’t have to,” Marilyn had assured her. She already felt guilty because Sharon had remained in the same Ohio town where they’d grown up, while Marilyn had moved east for college and remained east all her life. Marilyn flew back at least once a year to visit her mother, and she sent Ruth cards and gifts and phoned her often, but that didn’t compare with the time and care Sharon gave. But then Sharon, who was the older sister, and always bossy, liked to be in charge, while Marilyn, a paleobiologist and professor at MIT, craved huge quantities of solitude for her studies.
Marilyn’s intellectual preoccupation was no doubt genetic, although nurture played its part as well, since both her parents, who had taught biology at a large state university, had spent much of Marilyn’s childhood lying on their stomachs in the backyard, observing insects.
For a few halcyon years when Marilyn and Sharon were children, they’d been extraordinarily popular, because their parents loved to talk about nature and were full of amusing anecdotes, complete with illustrations.
The flatfish have both eyes on the same side of their
heads, and the eyes can migrate from side to side! Some
snakes have two heads! When the sea elephant becomes
angry, his nose swells up like a balloon!
During their adolescent years, however, their peers began to consider their parents dorky and even weird. Their father loved to tell jokes—
Two hydrogen atoms
walk into a bar. One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The
other asks, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “I’m
—which made the teenagers groan and roll their eyes.
It didn’t help that the professors, both of whom could describe in detail the colors of a deer botfly, dressed without any consideration of fashion. They wore clothes to keep from being cold or naked in public—the latter of which, they were always ready to discuss with the sisters’ contemporaries, was practiced in other cultures.
Sharon had rebelled, becoming obsessed with clothing, hair, and current styles. She’d majored in economics and, after trying a number of jobs, had ended up as a corporate headhunter. Sharon was slick, stylish, and savvy. Marilyn had been the child who adopted her parents’ ways. But Marilyn had moved away, while Sharon remained in Ohio.
So Sharon had been the one to help both parents, ten years ago, move out of their sprawling ranch house and into a small apartment in a comfortable retirement community. She had been the one to phone Marilyn when their father died, at seventy-eight, and when Marilyn flew back for the funeral, Sharon had been the one to suggest Marilyn help their mother sort through their father’s possessions.
It had nearly broken Marilyn’s heart to give away her father’s beloved paraphernalia: the insect light traps and transparent insect-rearing cages, the beautiful ant house she’d built with him when she was a child, the Schmidt boxes filled with specimens caught and mounted with exquisite care.
mineral hammers and rock cabinets,” Sharon had argued when she caught Marilyn trying to sneak her father’s into her own luggage. “I’ve seen your house and your lab. You don’t need another bit of old equipment!” Sharon was strong-willed and assertive. They’d ended up giving anything useful to a children’s museum and taking much of the rest to the dump.
Finally they had the apartment sorted out, clutter-free and airy. Ruth had been sad to see the scientific equipment go, but only because it reminded her of her husband. After retiring from teaching, she had turned her attention to other things, small things, and lots of them, including knitting, doing crossword puzzles, and compiling a recipe collection. During the past five years of her widowhood, Ruth had accumulated a rather daunting mass of clutter of her own. Her increasing inability to part with her new possessions was one of the reasons Sharon thought she was no longer fit to live by herself.
Still, Ruth could shop for herself—she didn’t drive, but took the shuttle provided by the retirement community. She cooked for herself and kept her kitchen clean. She bathed daily, and her clothing was fresh and spotless. True, she was developing a tendency toward keeping her food around longer than it should be . . . the refrigerator was crammed with foil-covered packets. As with her needlework, Ruth tended to lose interest in her current meal, and being a child of the Depression, she wrapped it up and saved it for the future rather than throwing it out.
Ruth’s health was good enough. She’d had a hysterectomy years before, and suffered a few very minor strokes that hadn’t paralyzed her, only slowed her down. She was active; she had friends she played cards with in the lounge. Her sense of hearing was failing, she’d had cataract operations, and she needed a cane to walk because of arthritis, but still she was self-sufficient, goodhumored, and happy.
And, perhaps, failing. She often forgot appointments, names, where she put something, but then, Marilyn thought, who didn’t? Occasionally, Ruth’s speech was jumbled. Most worrisome: she’d fallen a month ago, while stepping out of the bath. She hadn’t told anyone, hadn’t wanted to make a fuss. But a week later, at her annual physical checkup, the doctor had seen the bruises, still purple and yellow, along the front of her torso, and had told Ruth—and Sharon, who’d accompanied her to the appointment—that she had most probably had a transient ischemic attack, a momentary blockage of the blood supply to the brain. He’d suggested follow-up tests. Ruth had stalled. He’d suggested she use a walker. These TIAs were transitory, but often recurring. They were mini-strokes, the doctor warned her. They could happen anytime. Ruth had delicately rejected the walker, saying in her gentle way she would think about it, but didn’t feel she needed it
“I really can’t tell if I want to move Mom into assisted living because it would make
feel better, or make
worry less,” Sharon had told Marilyn. “You have to help me evaluate.”
So Marilyn had invited her mother to visit for a couple of months, and Sharon had helped Ruth pack and board a plane, and now, here she was.
After her divorce, Marilyn had moved out of the huge Victorian where she and Theodore had raised Teddy— what a mind-warping, backbreaking project that had been! Much of her personal scientific paraphernalia and most of her books were in a storage locker until she decided where to live permanently. For the time being, Marilyn was renting a bland, furnished condo in Cambridge. She’d never been one to fuss about her surroundings or attempt coordinating curtains with carpets, and she found the small, practical space worked well for her life. Especially since she was thinking about taking a sabbatical and doing some traveling.
Now they were preparing to leave for Christmas Eve dinner with Marilyn’s son Teddy, his wife, and their family.
“I’ve got all my presents tucked away in these big shopping bags,” Marilyn told Ruth, gesturing to the bags sitting by the front door. “Where are your presents?”
“Ooops! Left them in the bedroom.”
“I’ll get them,” Marilyn offered.
“No, no, I’m not helpless.” Ruth toddled away, returning in a few moments with a large book bag. “I’ve got all my fits in here.”
“Um, well, good, Mom!” Marilyn leaned toward the mirror in the hall, checking her hair. She looked rather messy today. Her Hot Flash friends would want to fix her up somehow, cut her hair, give her a different lipstick, brighten her up with a colorful scarf. But having her mother with her was pretty much like having a toddler around. She didn’t have much free time for herself, and what time she had was often interrupted.
“What time is Fraidy coming?” Ruth asked.
“His name is Faraday, Mom,” Marilyn reminded her for the hundredth time. “He should be here any minute.”
She knew she sounded cranky when she talked about Faraday. Faraday McAdam was a charming man, also a scientist, always fascinating and courtly and attentive. When Theodore left Marilyn for a younger woman, Faraday’s flirtation had buoyed her up, convincing her as never before in her entire life that she was attractive.
The problem was that Faraday, who at his best, when they first met, had been only a one-minute wonder, was now completely impotent.
Whenever Marilyn tried to discuss this,
with Faraday, he changed the subject, turned on the TV, or left the room. Occasionally, Faraday hinted at their living together, traveling together, marriage . . . and Marilyn dreamed of Barton Baker, the cad who had betrayed her, but also had shown her just how amazing good sex could be. Marilyn didn’t want to live the rest of her life alone. But did she want to live it without ever having delicious, skin-heating, heart-thumping, artery-flushing, serotonin-surging, passionate sex again?
“Are you having a hot flash, dear?” Ruth asked.
Marilyn jumped. “I am,” she replied honestly, abashed. How could she
of sex with her mother in the room!
As Ruth adjusted a bow on one of her presents, she said, “Marilyn, did I tell you about Jean Benedict’s daughter? She’s about your age, you know. Well, she ran off with her gardener to the Dutch West Guineas! It was a shock to us all, because she had been a pillow of the community. But you see, you’re never too old for romance . . .”
Marilyn gaped at her mother. Had she developed a talent for mind reading?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Here he is!” Marilyn opened the door.
“Ruth! How nice to see you again!” Faraday, large, ruddy, and jolly, made a little bow to the older woman.
Ruth smiled sweetly. “Hello, Fruity. Good to see you, too.”
Mother!” Marilyn quickly corrected.
“That’s what I said, dear,” Ruth placidly assured her.
“Hello, Marilyn.” Unfazed, Faraday leaned forward to kiss Marilyn’s cheek. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Faraday. You look festive.”
“I try,” Faraday admitted modestly. Today he wore his most replete and elegant apparel: a Clan McGregor kilt in a handsome red and green tartan, perfect for Christmas; his Prince Charlie jacket with the handsome buttons on the sleeves; a tartan tie; and a dress sporran. Between his high wool socks and the hem of his kilt, his legs, massive and covered with fine red hair, were bare.
Marilyn’s mother threw her hands up in astonishment. “You look wonderful! I’ve never seen a real live man in Scottish garble!” Ruth bent forward, peering. “I’ve always wondered about the purpose of that little fur purse you’ve got hanging down. Is it to advertise the male’s reproductive equipment? Like a stag’s antlers or a peacock’s tail feathers?”
“Mother!” Marilyn admonished.
“Well, dear, it
draw the eye,” Ruth calmly pointed out.
Faraday seemed amused. “It’s called a
and it’s exactly as you named it,” he informed Ruth. “It’s a little fur purse. The kilt doesn’t have pockets, so this began as a leather pouch for carrying our necessary items. This sporran is for dress only. It’s made from Greenland sealskin. Everyday sporrans are usually just leather.”
“And what do you wear under the kilt?” Ruth asked.
“Mother, stop it,” Marilyn intervened. “Come on, let’s get your coat on.”
“Why shouldn’t I inquire?” Ruth argued. “You’re never too old to learn.”
“Allow me.” Faraday helped Ruth into her coat. “Marilyn tells me you taught biology. Obviously you were asking in the spirit of scientific inquiry.”
“Obviously,” Ruth agreed, pleased.
“So I’ll tell
” Faraday bent to whisper in Ruth’s ear.
Marilyn rolled her eyes but smiled. “I’ll just get the presents.”
She gathered up the bags full of gifts and followed her mother and Faraday out to his car. Faraday opened the trunk and set the gifts inside, next to his offering of several bottles of Champagne and wine.
“Now, then,” he said, as he got behind the wheel. “Is everybody comfortable? Marilyn, do you have enough room for your legs?”
“I’m fine, Faraday.” Why did he irritate her so much today? He was behaving beautifully!
Faraday started the car and they were off, driving toward Marilyn’s son’s house.
“I know a joke about what’s under a kilt,” Ruth announced.