General Fiction posted December 18, 2017


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A Christmas Story

Embers

by Mark Valentine


Snowflakes wafted through the illumination of the streetlight. They seemed to pause briefly in their descent to be showcased before gently coming to rest on the now ten-inch blanket that covered West 97th Street. Inside there was work to do, but the beauty of the scene apprehended Ed O’Donoghue and wouldn’t let him go. However urgent they may have been, the claims of Christmas Eve chores were no match for the enchantment of the snow. Its gravity pulled him into the world of the timeless and transcendent. He knew such graced moments were fleeting gifts, indeed they were glimpses of heaven.

It was almost too beautiful to digest. Other worldly was the term that came to mind. He alternated his focus from the micro to the macro. Sometimes, he would follow the path of a single snowflake from its first appearance in the streetlight to its final resting place. Other times, he would focus on a spot and watch the snowflakes solemnly process through his field of vision. Each flake’s journey had beginning, middle, and end, but the snowfall seemed infinite, extending vertically and horizontally as far as the eye could see.

The snow was so deep now that Ed couldn’t tell where the street ended and the lawns began. Lines of demarcation were being obscured. It was as if the snowfall were annexing the city to the rest of nature. As he watched heaven interact with earth on this holiest of nights, he felt the boundaries melt; the internal boundaries that kept the various pieces of him compartmentalized, as well as the external ones that kept him separate from other objects in the world.  

The blurring of the lines made the past seem present. It was as if the snow stretched not only spatially, but temporally as well; reaching back into his childhood to summon fond memories, and forward to grace the generations to come. The phrase in saecula saeculorum emerged from some dormant section of his memory. He was lost in it.

His wife’s voice gently coaxed him back to the task at hand.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

“Heavenly,” Ed answered without removing his gaze from the window.

“Like something from a Robert Frost poem.”

“Yeah.” He continued to look out the window.

“Speaking of which, we’ve got miles to go before we can sleep.”

Wow - well played, Ed thought. Ed knew that Maggie knew that Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was his favorite poem. She had set the hook just right to reel him back into reality. “Where was I?”

“I believe you were on step four of a twenty-three step assembly process. More wine?”

“Just a bit.”

Ed looked at the instructions for the Playskool Kids’ Playhouse, looked at his tools, and looked at the pieces strewn across the floor. He let out a sigh. “Labor me vocat.”

“Ooh, you know how I love it when you speak Latin.”

“How are you progressing?”

“Just a few more to wrap.”

“Which one of those is my sweater?” Ed shot Maggie a coy smile.

“What makes you think that I got you a sweater?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just that whenever I’ve come home unexpectedly lately you seem to be knitting something that you don’t want me to see.”

“I’m knitting a blanket for a friend who’s having a baby.” The pause before this response was a bit too long to sound convincing.

Ed felt a bit guilty at having spoiled the surprise, so he quickly changed the subject. “Need some help?”

“Looks like you’ve got your hands full with that house. Unless you want to trade chores for a while - you can wrap presents and I’ll work on the house.”

“That’s OK. This is man’s work.” Ed lowered his voice to feign machismo. Having put thoughts of romance into Maggie’s head with his use of Latin, he thought he might fan those flames a bit with a little manly tool wielding. “Do you think I should get my tool belt?”

“That might be a little too much. We’ve got tasks ahead of us, you know – miles to go before we sleep.”

“Or, whatever…” Ed reprised the coy smile.

He and Maggie had just celebrated their seventh anniversary the week before. Ed felt certain there would be no itch. He was as in love with her now as he was on the day they were married. It was snowing then too.

Maggie returned his smile. “The kids are going to love that playhouse. I’m glad you talked me into spending the money.” Maggie’s frugality prevailed in nine out of every ten money disagreements, so she could afford to be gracious in defeat on those rare occasions when Ed got his way.

“What’s twenty dollars?” asked Ed flippantly.

“A week’s groceries.”

“Or, a childhood full of memories.”

“Well, you better start assembling then. The memories start tomorrow.”

Ed picked up the instruction sheets and his screwdriver. Before diving back into his assembly chore, he spent a moment taking in the beauty inside the house. There were lights on the tree, a fire in the fireplace, and Nat King Cole on the record player. There was Maggie. Their two children, Julie, age five, and Katie, age three, were asleep upstairs. Heaven was inside as well. He was going to live this night slowly.

“Eternal recurrence”

Ed’s non sequitur took Maggie by surprise. “Whadja say?”

“Eternal recurrence. It’s a term from Nietsche – has to do with your attitude toward life. Would you embrace it if you had to live the same moment over and over?”

“OK,” she said a bit hesitatingly. “Are you about to launch into one of your philosophical treatises? Just asking so I’ll know how much wine to pour.”

“Nope. Just saying that I would gladly live this moment over and over – in saecula seculorum.”

“If we didn’t have to finish wrapping these gifts, we’d do it right here, right now, in front of the fireplace.”

Just then a child’s voice came from the top of the staircase.

“Dad?”

Ed turned to Maggie – “Hold that thought.”

“What is it, Julie?”

“We can’t sleep.”

“Try.”

Maggie looked at Ed incredulously and mouthed the word “Try?”, as if to say “Is that the best you can do?” Julie’s response underscored the feebleness of Ed’s attempt at redirection.

“I don’t think you can fall asleep by trying. Come tell us a story.”

Ed looked at the unassembled house and the unrealized potential of the space in front of the fireplace and muttered a begrudging “Okay. One quick story and then right to bed.”

Ed made his way up the stairs. Though he feigned frustration at being inconvenienced, the truth was he cherished these repeated nighttime story and prayer rituals. There was a predictable form to them. Julie was the point person. She initiated the requests. Once Ed was upstairs, Katie would take the lead. She would outline the story to be told in great detail, supplying the cast of characters and dictating most of the plot points. Ed would playfully protest her insistence on rigid editorial control. Julie would occasionally be the arbiter of these disputes. The result was a narrative co-created by Ed and the girls that bore little resemblance to anything one would find in a children’s book, but was nonetheless a wonderful world in which to dwell - a world of their own, if only for a few moments. The rituals would always end with the ‘God blesses’, a litany of prayers said for various family members and whatever other names the children could think to add.

Once Ed had assumed his position, kneeling at the head of the bed that the girls shared, Katie began.

“A Christmas story. Make it be about Santa and Rudolph and the baby Jesus.”

Ed answered with a dutiful “OK”.

“And it has to start with ‘Once upon a time’ and end with ‘Happily ever after’.”

“OK.”

“And make there be snow so we don’t know if Santa will be able to make it, but then Rudolph helps him.”

“Do you want to tell the story?” Ed feigned exasperation.

Katie’s look grew stern to let him know just who was in charge here. “No, YOU have to tell it.” She folded her arms to make sure Ed knew she meant business as she added, “And NO monsters!”

“But monsters add drama.” Ed couldn’t help but egg her on a bit.

“Monsters are scary. Don’t put any monsters in the story.”

Ed relented. “I know – just Santa and Rudolph and the Baby Jesus.”

Julie chimed in with her contribution. “And Frosty.”

“And Frosty.” Ed looked at the girls in mock protest, “Is there any part of the story that I get to make up?”

Katie reassured, “You can make up the whole story, except for the parts that I tell you.”

“Hans Christian Andersen didn’t have to work under these conditions. OK, here we go.” Ed was ready to launch into the story, but Katie, afraid that protocol had already been violated, interrupted.

“ONCE UPON A TIME.”

“I know, I know. I didn’t start yet.”

“You said ‘here we go’. You can’t start it with ‘here we go’, you have to start it with ‘once upon a time’.”

Ed looked squarely into her eyes and said, “ONCE UPON A TIME- happy?”

“Yes, keep going.”

Ed thought about Maggie and the fireplace before continuing. “Santa was getting ready to leave the North Pole, but it was snowing – ooh it was snowing so hard, Santa didn’t know he’d be able to make it. But he did. The end.”

“No, Daddy! You’ve got to put more in the middle.”

“But it’s late and Mommy is waiting for me downstairs.”

“Is there a fire in the fireplace?”

“Yes, why do you ask?” Julie’s question took Ed by surprise. Could it be that, at five years old, she knew about adults and fireplace sex?

“How is Santa going to get down the chimney?”

Ed was relieved upon realizing the innocent nature of the question. “We’ll put it out before we go to bed.”

Julie persisted, “What if you forget?”

“Then Rudolph will put it out. That’s part of his job, you know. Putting out fires.”

“How does he do that?”

“He pees on them.”

The children laughed, prompting Maggie’s inquiry from the bottom of the stairs, “What’s going on up there?”

“Nothing.” Maggie did not approve of bathroom humor, so Ed gave the girls a ‘this-is-just-between-us’ wink.

“Now you have to start all over.” Katie glared at him, and just to make sure he went back to the beginning, she started him off, “Once upon a time…”

“Okay. Once upon a time, there was a lot of snow. So much snow. You wouldn’t believe how much snow there was. It was taller than Grandfather and it wasn’t stopping. It just kept snowing and snowing and snowing and snowing and snowing and snowing…”

“Daddy!”

“What?”

“You’re spending too much time on the snowing - get to Rudolph.”

“OK – just a little more snowing … and snowing, and snowing. And then Rudolph came and Santa saw his nose and said ‘You’re the best reindeer and you can help me’, And so Rudolph pulled the sleigh and they were way high up in the air and there were no monsters anywhere, except that Santa thought maybe he saw one behind a  tree…”

“NO!” Katie protested.

“...but it turned out not to be a monster – it was just a large squirrel that sort of looked like a monster, but it wasn’t.” Ed looked at Katie for approval. She nodded. Before he could continue, Julie chimed in.

“Don’t forget baby Jesus.”

“I’m getting to that.” Another look to Katie for a green light before proceeding, and another nod.

“And meanwhile, in Bethlehem, baby Jesus was all excited because it was Christmas Eve and he was hoping that Santa would bring him some myrrh, - he was pretty sure that he had been a good boy, what with him being God and all, but still, you never can tell. “

“If it was Christmas Eve, how could he have been born yet?”

“I didn’t say it was the first Christmas. Where was I…, oh yeah…baby Jesus was all excited about the myrrh and he was happy because there were no monsters. And, unbeknownst to him, Santa did in fact have myrrh for him, Santa also had oranges and different types of cheese for all the boys and girls all over the world.”

“And toys too.” Julie added.

“Of course, that goes without saying. There were some toys and mittens, but it was mostly cheese.”

“Do you think Santa will come tonight?” Julie asked. With the girls’ attention now diverted to the issue of Santa’s impending visit, Ed saw his chance for escape.

“Absolutely. The news said that he was just seen leaving Milwaukee. He’s probably just waiting for all the kids in Chicago to go to sleep so he can start here.”

Julie took the bait and turned her thoughts to sleep. “Daddy, I’m cold. I think I need another blanket.”

“This one will suffice. It’s the special blanket mommy made for you. You just have to pull it around you. That’s how the magic works. It locks in all the mommy love and keeps you warm.”

Ed tucked the blanket tightly around the girls, gave them each a kiss on the forehead, and started toward the door. Katie interrupted.

“Wait. You have to do the ‘God Blesses’.”

Ed sighed. “Okay. God Bless Julie and Katie, and Mommy and Daddy, and Gram and Grandfather, and Aunt Lori…” Ed sped through the litany. He had just gotten to President Nixon when the ringing of the doorbell stopped him in midsentence.

He knew who it was. But how can it be her?

He felt a bit disoriented as he slowly arose from his kneeling position at the foot of the bed.  His knees audibly creaked as he got up, and he grimaced at the pain of the arthritis. As he made his way to the bedroom door, he cast a backwards glance at the bed to orient himself. Empty. Slowly he made his way down the stairs, feeling his age with each step. It was so much easier coming up the stairs, he thought. Recognizing that he was moving more slowly than usual, and not wanting his visitor to leave, he yelled, “Coming, just a minute”.

He thought about the irony of what he had just said and repeated the phrase “just a minute” to himself before opening the door to greet his daughter.

“Hey, Julie.”

“Hey, Dad, I didn’t wake you, did I? I saw the lights on and figured you were still up.”

Ed’s experience with doctors in recent years had given him a thorough knowledge of the Mental Status Examination. He quickly went over the checklist in his mind as he looked at his daughter.  My name is Ed O’Donoghue. It’s 2017. Donald Trump is the president. Wait, is that right? I think it is. I’m standing in my living room with my fifty-year-old daughter. While he regained his bearings he tried to keep a normal look on his face so that Julie wouldn’t suspect that he had been having “issues” again. “Yeah. I was just doing some, um… straightening up upstairs. What brings you by?”

“Just wanted to make sure you weren’t shoveling snow.”

“I’m quite capable of shoveling snow.” The mental fog had lifted and Ed’s feet were a little more firmly on the ground now.

“I know, but they say we’re going to get fourteen inches by the time it’s done and besides, Carl can do it when we come by in the morning. He got home from college Tuesday. You won’t believe how big he’s gotten. It seems like just yesterday he was just a baby.”

“It seems like just yesterday YOU were just a baby. Tempus fugit.”

“Speaking of Latin - you’ll love this – Carl’s changed his major to philosophy.”

“That’s my grandson!”

“Yeah, maybe he can come live with you when he graduates and is unemployed.”

“Philosophers are never unemployed, they just go long stretches without paychecks sometimes. “

Julie smiled as she noticed the sweater her father was wearing. “I’ve always loved that sweater. It still fits you.”

“Your mother gave this to me for Christmas. Let’s see, must be about forty-five years ago now. It’s my favorite. I want to be buried in it, you know.”

A far-away look came over Ed as he finished that sentence.

“You doing OK?” asked Julie.

“Sure – what time are you coming in the morning?”

“About 7:45. We’ll go to eight o’clock mass and then back here. Carl can shovel your snow then. Is that OK?”

“Sure”

“You sure you’re OK, Dad?”

“Yeah, why do you ask?”

“Mrs. Carlson called me the other day. She mentioned you were asking her about what to get mom for Christmas?”

“And you’re worried I’m losing my marbles, because mom died six years ago.”

“You do see my point, right?”

“Look. I know mom is dead and I know that it’s 2017, and I think Donald Trump is the president – can that be right?”

“Afraid so.”

“I was just asking Mrs. Carlson about getting a present for mom, because I didn’t want her to know that I’m really shopping for a present for my new girlfriend. Did you ever consider that?”

“Yes, that was my very first thought. Dad must have a new girlfriend. What’s her name? I’d like to meet her?”

“Halle Berry. She’s an actress. Maybe you’ve seen some of her work?”

“An Oscar winner - I’m impressed. You guys thinking about marriage? Cuz I’m not sure I’m ready to have a step-mom who’s my age?”

“No, don’t worry. It’s mostly just sex.”

Julie put her hands over her ears. “Eeew! OK you win – end of conversation. Just one last point. I know I’ve said this before, but you’re welcome to come stay with us. I’m sure the same goes for Katie.”

“Katie’s too bossy. Not sure I could live with her.”

A wistful smile came across Julie’s face. “Remember how, when we were little, she used to tell you, almost word for word, how to tell bedtime stories.”

“Yeah – I was just thinking about that.”

“Is it any wonder she’s a copy editor now?”

The two of them smiled and sat in silence for a moment, before Julie added, “We’ve got an extra bedroom you know?”

Ed interrupted. “Sometimes Halle will bring over her friend Anne Hathaway for a little menage a…”

“OK, OK. I’m done.”

Ed stopped smiling. “Look, I know you mean well, and I appreciate the offer, but I’m not ready to take that step. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. The dementia’s not that bad yet. I can still feed and dress myself. I remember to turn the stove off. I still can do the New York Times crossword with the best of them. It’s just that the lines get a little blurry sometimes – is that so bad? It’s not like I’m reliving Viet Nam – I’m visiting the best years of my life. Ask Charlie if he knows about eternal recurrence. Maybe down the road a bit, my brain will deteriorate to the point where I can’t live independently. I promise I’ll let you know when that happens. For now, though, it’s sort of a gift when you stop to think of it -- something to wrap around me on cold days.”

Julie had been anticipating a little more sarcasm. His sincerity took her by surprise and made her tear up a bit, a development she hid by pulling him in close for a hug.

They stayed in the embrace for a long while, each anticipating the void they would feel when it ended. Having just been jolted from one experience of familial bliss, Ed now focused on staying in this one. He supposed it was the sign of a blessed life – consistently having to be pulled away from graced moments. Up until now, there had always been other graced moments waiting in the wings. He knew someday the sequence would end -- someday there would be, a final graced moment. He knew, too, when that day came, the only appropriate response would be “Thank you.”

They separated. With glistening eyes, Julie looked sympathetically upon her father’s face and said, “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Jules.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Ed nodded and held the door open for Julie.

As the snow blew in around him, Ed stood in the doorway and watched Julie make her way to the car. The snow was getting heavier now. Julie brushed the snow from the windshield. Ed thought about helping, but knew that by the time he got there, she’d have finished the task. She didn’t need him to brush off snow, or assemble her play houses or tuck her in and tell her bedtime stories. Nevertheless they were still connected. They would always be connected. Julie and Katie and Maggie and Ed. They had co-created a narrative that neither the passing of time nor the deterioration of neural pathways could destroy. Like the story of Christmas itself, it would endure.

As her car drove away he followed the taillights until they disappeared in the snow. He stood there for a minute or so afterward, gazing at the beauty of the snowflakes in the streetlights. Other worldly.

He smiled as he closed the door and turned his gaze back to his living room. Standing there for so long with the door open had let in the cold. He studied the fireplace. The fire was down to embers now. He considered adding another log before deciding that the embers would suffice to get him through the night. He pulled his sweater around him, sat on the couch and watched the snow fall.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


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