My Christmas Story for 1991
By Scott Bury
Snow spun, spiraled, swirled downward, slowly covering the lawns and avenues, the roofs and pathways of a suburb. In the morning, commuters would curse as they dug their cars out of the drifts and banks, brushed it off their hoods and headlights, then clutch their steering wheels white-knuckled as they slid to work.
But tonight, tonight all was quiet. All the houses were dark. All except one — one window was lit, the curtains flung aside, the light streaming out, illuminating the falling snow as it flickered past the window pane.
Through the window could be seen the head of one man, hard at work: leaning forward, shoulders and back bent over a slanted table. The head was handsome, seen in profile, if tending toward the corpulent. The forward tilt pushed out the beginnings of a double chin. The hair was dark, the nose long and straight, the mouth full and sensitive.
His name was Andrew, and he was a draftsman. His job was to make an architect’s drawings and an engineer’s proofs into final drawings for the construction crews. Andrew was good at his job, and knew it.
Around him was the darkness and stillness of a sleeping house. If he had listened, had paid attention to the world around him at that moment, he would have heard the small sounds of the night: the intermittent click and hum of the furnace, the rattling of the windows in the winter wind, the rustling from the bed in the room next door as his wife, Lana, turned over, the faint sighing of his five-year-old daughter, Marla, in the other bedroom.
But Andrew was concentrating. He had a deadline to meet on this project, a complete set of plans for a power building at a factory. It was still a week away, counting the day whose morning he was working through, but there was a lot of work to do yet.
In the back of his mind, Andrew knew he should get some sleep. He was slowing down. Refreshed, he could work much more efficiently in the morning. He knew if he went to sleep at that moment, he would finish the work faster than if he kept on for even a minute longer. But for some reason he couldn’t have expressed if he had taken the time to try, he kept plugging away, carefully and ever more slowly drawing solid, reliable lines on drafting paper, his pen carefully clutched in his hand.
He had been doing a lot of work at home over the past two years. It had all started a few months after Marla had been born, when he took on an extra project at the engineering firm where he worked—where Lana had worked, too, before Marla came, and where they had met, eight years ago. Lana wasn’t happy about the prospect of Andrew working in the evenings, especially once baby Marla arrived. Lana thought Andrew should take his turns in caring for the baby, to relieve the mother who was at home with her all day; Lana also felt it was healthy, beneficial for all of them if Andrew spent some time with his daughter.
But then the extra work turned into freelance projects, and the additional money became hard to argue with. Lana accepted Andrew’s increasing late nights, his deteriorating moods. She hoped the situation was temporary, that Andrew would make enough money soon that he would be able to stop freelancing. Andrew had told her that was the plan.
But over the past two years, the freelance work had increased steadily. By the fall, it seemed that Andrew was working into the morning hours two or three times a week, and often sleeping late enough to miss his morning bus.
Lana didn’t say anything, but even Andrew could tell she was hurt, annoyed and worried. He noticed, himself, he often didn’t feel well, that he was more prone to catching cold. He couldn’t recall the last time he had spent much time with Marla, apart from a few hours on the weekends while Lana went shopping. Even then, he had spent as much time as he could reading, keeping Marla distracted with toys or games or videos.
But tonight, he didn’t think about any of that. He finished the sheet he was working on, looked it over one more time, then checked his watch: 2:30 a.m. He stretched and yawned. Enough for one night. He put his pens away carefully and went to bed.
He lay awake a long time before falling asleep. He was too wired to fall asleep. The little details of the job kept flickering through his mind. Details from the office yelped for attention. Just before his eyelids drooped and he drifted off, he remembered that he had to start his Christmas shopping soon.
* * *
The alarm went off loud, jarring Andrew awake. Andrew pried his eyes open and looked at the clock: six-ten. The window was still dark. He turned off the radio and tried to rise. His arms and head felt like lead.
Just ten more minutes, then I’ll get up, he thought. Lana likes it when I hold her close in bed. I’ll just hold her for ten minutes, then I’ll get up and get dressed.
He could skip breakfast at home, he thought, and grab a muffin and a coffee at the office. The place downstairs had good muffins. Or maybe a danish, or a croissant. Lots of choice.
Yes, that was it. He would stay in bed for just fifteen more minutes, shower and shave, grab the bus and a muffin downtown after getting off the oven...no, the train. Have a train when he got up.
When he got to work, he could go up to the roof and check out the shingles. From the roof, he had a great view of the mountains in the distance. Down on the ground, the children were singing.
Andrew walked across the roof, awkwardly on the slanting surface, watching out for treacherous shingles that could give way beneath his feet. At the end of the house, where the roof made an "A," Andrew grabbed the eave and swung out into space.
Now it was essentially a test of strength and will. Using just his hands on the sloping surface of the roof above his head, he had to get to the other side. If he failed, the others would laugh at him. He’d be disgraced.
He edged along until his arms ached. But he was nearly there. Just a little farther...
He started awake. How long had he been dozing? The clock read 6:56. He swore. He had twenty minutes to catch the bus.
He showered, dried, shaved and dressed in record time. Stepping out the door, he checked his watch and realized he had thirty seconds to catch his bus. He raced down the street, rounding the corner as the bus pulled up at the stop. Somehow, he made his legs move even faster, waving his hands over his head. He felt like a fool, but the driver waited until he stepped, panting, onto the bus.
He slept all the way to work, waking only to change from bus to train, to streetcar.
* * *
The evening found Andrew back at his drafting table at home. He was making progress on the freelance project. He could hear Lana washing dishes downstairs, chattering with Marla, who was drawing with crayons; Lana kept admonishing her not to mark the table. But Andrew was devoted to the drawing below his nose.
“Ready to go shopping?”
Andrew started, the pencil skittering across the sheet. “What?” Then he saw the marks the pencil made. “Shit,” he said, and started erasing.
“Well, are you coming?” Lana repeated, standing at the door to his studio. Marla was in her arms, looking wide-eyed at the drawing, the pencils and pens, and all the other junk a five-year-old would love to play with.
A couple of years ago, Andrew’s eyes would have lingered over his wife and their little daughter, enjoying their simple beauty. Lana was tall, slender, almost willowy. She had soft, billowing brown hair and big brown eyes. When they first met, Andrew had loved gazing into those eyes, seeing the little green flecks, studying the delicate complexity, the perfection of form fitting function.
Andrew knew he wasn’t objective, but he really thought his daughter was beautiful. She had an oval face like her mother, and big brown eyes like her, too. But somehow, even though both her parents had dark hair, Marla’s was light blonde and curly. Andrew felt light blossom in his heart every time he looked at her face. He promised himself he would look more closely at her more often. She was growing so fast, changing every day...
“Coming where?” he growled, although he knew exactly what Lana was talking about.
“Christmas shopping!” Lana said cheerfully.
Andrew sighed, staring at his drawing. He shook his head. “No, I can’t make it tonight. I’ve got a lot of work to do on this job, yet. Why don’t you two go ahead, and I’ll come with you another time, okay?” He smiled a little bit, to make up for his earlier grouchiness.
Lana frowned. “There won’t be many more evenings to go shopping before it’s Christmas, Andy. And generally it’s the idea to buy Christmas presents before Christmas, not after.”
Andrew forced a laugh. “Sure, I know that. Don’t worry, I’ll find some time. But not right now, okay? I have this very important job, and I have to get it done in three days, and there’s a lot of work to be done. Why don’t you just do some shopping yourselves? You can buy my presents, right Marla? That way, I won’t see what it is. Okay? You buy Daddy a present tonight, Marla!”
“Yeah!” she squealed. “Let’s buy Daddy a present, Mommy!”
“Good!” Andrew said, tickling Marla in the stomach. “And I’ll take you out tomorrow night to buy a present for Mommy, okay?”
“Okay!” Marla was delighted at the prospect of two nights of shopping.
Lana looked annoyed; she knew she had been out-manuoevred. Before she could say anything, Andrew interjected “You two go ahead. You’ll have a lot more fun than with me dragging along. I’ll be thinking about this project all the time. My heart won’t be in it. Another night will be better.”
“Fine,” was all that Lana said as she turned and walked down the hall. Andrew was back at work and didn’t hear them as they closed the door.
He also didn’t hear them when they returned. Andrew looked up and saw them, standing in the doorway again, smiling. “Finished your work for the evening, honey?” Lana asked. “Why don’t you take a break and sit down with us for a while?”
“No, not right now. I want to finish this at a logical place, first. I’ll be ready in a couple of hours, I guess.”
“Come on, just take a break for a couple of minutes,” Lana repeated.
“Look, I just can’t right now. I have to remember where I am. Give me a little while, okay?”
“Do you have to be such a perfectionist?” Lana said, her voice rising.
Andrew looked up at her. Deep inside he felt something rising up, pushing at tide of rage before it — frustration, anger, what was it? Then it burst out. “Only if I don’t want the fucking building to fall down!”
Lana’s face hardened, her lips pursed inward, disappearing into a hundred little creases. She turned on her heel and left the studio. Andrew returned to his work. He didn’t hear Lana giving Marla her bath or putting her to bed. He didn’t realize that another hour and a half had passed when Lana was standing in his doorway again, arms folded angrily across her chest.
“Look, Andrew, I can put up with a lot. I’d just appreciate it if you’d watch your tongue in front of your daughter.”
“Sorry,” Andrew said without looking up.
“You know, you’ve been doing nothing but working for months now. Can’t you spend a little time with us?”
Andrew fixed his eyes on the drawing table. “You don’t mind spending the money from the freelance projects.” He could not believe he had actually said that.
“The money is very nice, but we can get by with your salary.”
“I want to do a little better than getting by,” Andrew growled, still not looking at his wife. “We want to be able to sent Marla to university. We want to save up for a new house, don’t we? And what if you get pregnant, again?”
Lana took a deep breath. Andrew could tell she was holding her response back. She did not want a fight, he could see. And really, he didn’t either. It would take even more time away from the work.
“Maybe you could get ahead at Brenco if you concentrated on your employer, get a raise or a promotion.” Lana put her hand on his shoulder and softened her voice. “Or, I don’t know: just don’t take on as much freelance work. Cut down a little. You’re missing out on a very special time with your daughter.”
That hurt. Andrew felt a great abyss inside him, one that his daughter filled perfectly, like the one that Lana had filled when she entered his life.
“I know,” he said eventually. “But this is temporary. I want to finish this job and a few more, until we’re on our feet financially. Then I’ll have more time for you.”
“Andrew, you said that two years ago. And last year. And you’re saying it again. When does ‘temporary’ end?”
Andrew had no answer. He returned his attention to the sheet in front of him, and Lana went to bed.
The next day at the office, Andrew felt anxious and guilty. He was behind in his full-time job. He was too tired during the day to keep up, and the only work he did at home was for his freelance clients. He felt guilty and nervous at work, stressed and irritable at home. He was afraid his boss would find out about his outside activities and fire him.
He was especially nervous this Christmas season. Rick, his boss, didn’t allay his fears that morning. His face looked long, like it had been stretched by the weight of his responsibilities. “Business is down, way down, Andy,” he moaned as he poured six packets of sugar into his coffee. “The industry is slow. Hell, the whole economy is slow. New jobs just aren’t coming in like they used to.” He shook his head, slurped some coffee, blew across it and shuffled back to his office. He turned at his door and said “How are those drawings coming?”
“I’ll have them for lunchtime,” Andrew promised, even though he knew there was no way he could do that.
“You said that last week.”
“That was last week. I’ve made a lot of progress. It’s almost done.” And that’s almost true, he thought.
He then thought about the Christmas shopping he had intended for lunch. I can shop tomorrow.
He gave most of the drawings to Rick at 3 p.m. The full set required one more drawing, but Andrew calculated that Rick wouldn’t notice it was missing before quitting time, and he could slip it into the package the next morning. I’ll finish it before quitting time, he rationalized.
He wasn’t done by five, so he packed the last drawing to finish at home. He could put in an hour on his freelance client, and one for his day job, too, and still spend some time with Marla and Lana.
“Are you taking me shopping today, Daddy?” were Marla’s first words when he walked in the door of the house. He was shocked; he hand’t expected the little girl to remember his promise of the night before. But then, a promise was a promise. He saw Lana smiling. Was that a note of triumph in her face?
“All right, darling,” he said. “We’ll go shopping for a present for Mommy. But we’ll have to eat supper quickly.”
He pushed Lana and Marla through a record-breaking meal. Lana was furious at Andrew for making Marla gobble her food, and for taking her away from the table before dessert. But Andrew ignored her, bundled Marla into her coat and rushed her into the car.
They went to the nearest mall, not because it was the biggest but because it would take the least time to get to. It was crowded and hot, and there were long line-ups at every cash register. The crowds made Andrew angry because they prevented him from moving as quickly as he liked from store to store and department to department. He could feel the minutes and hours slipping away, time that he wanted to spend at his drafting table.
“Daddy, why do we have to walk so fast?” Marla said more than once. Andrew allowed them to pause in front of a store display of a model train and turn-of-the-century village. Marla gazed for a few seconds, but her blank expression and silence annoyed Andrew. He pulled her across the mall, where a women’s store had pushed a rack outside of its door, into the mall floor space.
“What about this?” he asked, holding a plaid scarf in front of the little girl’s nose. “Do you think Mommy will like this?”
Marla shook her head.
“Why not?” Andrew asked. “Don’t you think it’s nice?”
Marla just shook her head again.
“What’s wrong with it?” Andrew started to raise his voice.
Marla just shrugged.
“Fine,” he snarled, tossing the scarf away. “What do you want to get her?”
“Perfurm,” said Marla in a very small voice.
“Perfurm,” she said a little louder.
“You mean ‘perfume’?”
Marla nodded. “Mommy said she wanted us to get her Mezzither Den for Christmas.”
“Mommy said that?” Andrew hadn’t bought Lana perfume for years. Is that what she really wanted?
“Yes. And she said to try to make you walk through the jewlerry apartments.”
Andrew laughed. Somehow, his little girl had the ability to turn all his anger into laughter. He was helpless, laughing quietly but unable to move for almost two minutes. “So she wants perfume and jewelry, does she? Well, this will be a different Christmas.”
“Yes. Mezzi Therden perfurme,” Marla said, starting to laugh along with her father.
“Okay, Marla. Let’s see if we can find Mezzi Therden perfume.” He took the girl by the hand again, and together they wandered through the department store.
Andrew couldn’t find anything that Marla could have contorted into such a bizarre string of syllables as “Mezzi Therden.”
“Do you know where Mezzither Den is, honey,” he asked Marla after two circuits of the department store. The girl was almost asleep on her feet by this point.
“It has a red colour,” she said.
Andrew looked around. Red, red. Where is there something red? It’s Christmas — everything’s red! Then, across the store, he spotted a display with a red sash. “‘Elizabeth Arden Red Door. That’s it!”
Delighted, they raced across the store. Or, they tried to race. The crowds were too thick, and with a small girl in tow Andrew took a long time to get to the counter. When he got there, six customers, all women, stood between Andrew and Marla and the perfume counter.
Andrew’s mood darkened. Marla sensed it — everyone around him sensed it. When the sales girl looked at him, Andrew barked “Elizabeth Arden Red Door.”
“Do you want eau de parfum spray or eau de toilette spray naturel?” asked the sales girl, who could not have been older than 16.
“What’s the difference?”
The girl seemed to shrink behind the counter. Her big green eyes grew even bigger and glistened. Andrew realized he had scared her, but he did not change his attitude. “The eau de parfum is more ...” the last words were lost to the shopping season din.
“What?” Andrew barked.
The sales girl blinked, swallowed and spoke even lower. “I can’t hear you!” Andrew complained.
An older woman with heavy glasses and a heavier demeanor put her hand on the sales girl’s shoulder. “What seems to be the trouble here?” She looked directly at Andrew’s eyes, and she did not smile.
The sales girl turned to her supervisor. “This gentleman wants Elizabeth Arden. I was just explaining to him ...”
“That’s all right, Chelsea. It’s time for your break. I’ll look after the ... gentleman.”
The sales girl nearly ran out from behind the counter and disappeared somewhere in the crowds.
“Now, sir,” the supervisor said, curling her lips in the nastiest smile that Andrew had ever seen. “How can I help you?”
“I’d just like to get some Elizabeth Arden perfume as a Christmas present for my wife! It’s not that complicated!”
“Not that complicated, but there is more than one choice. Did you want the eau de parfum spray, or the eau de toilette?”
“The eau de parfum spray is sixty dollars for 50 millilitres, and the eau de toilette is a lighter concentration. It’s available in two sizes: 50 millilitres for sixty dollars, or 100 millilitres for seventy-five dollars.” She pulled her face into that caricature of a smile again and waited for Andrew’s answer.
“Double the amount for twenty-five percent more money? No-brainer! I’ll take the larger bottle!”
The supervisor’s face went blank again. “Very good choice, sir,” she said, voice flat as she turned away.
“Well, finally,” Andrew said to Marla. The little girl was looking at the floor.
Andrew cursed to himself: he had ruined Marla’s naturally happy mood twice in one evening — within an hour, in fact.
Marla was very quiet as they walked out of the store and drove home.
When they arrived back home, Lana asked “What’s wrong?”
“I think she’s tired, that’s all,” he said. “The malls were really crowded and hot and everything took twice as long as they should have.”
“There, there sweetheart,” Lana said to Marla as she undressed the little girl. Lana took her daughter for a bath and to put her to bed. Andrew went to his drafting table.
“Don’t you want to tuck your daughter into her bed?” Lana said an hour later, surprising Andrew.
“Huh? Oh, sure,” he said, and went to Marla’s room to kiss her on the forehead.
“Sleep tight, darling,” he said.
“Okay, Daddy,” Marla replied. “Good night.”
Andrew returned to his drafting table. But Lana was there, touching up some of his work. “Why are you working on Brenco stuff at home?” she asked.
“I’m a little behind at work,” he answered.
“Is your freelancing making you fall behind at work?”
The anger flashed to the surface again. “Look, let me handle the work, okay? I know what I’m doing!”
Lana’s face hardended again. “Fine. I’m just a little concerned about our daughter, Andy. She sure doesn’t seem to have enjoyed shopping with you.”
“What do you mean? We had a ball. I told you, she just got tired from all the crowds and the heat and having to stand in line for so long. That’s all.”
“Well, we had to put up with the same crowds last night, Andy, and Marla was much happier when we got home.”
“How the hell do I know?” he snapped. “Maybe she’s just a moody kid. Now if you don’t mind, I have a lot of work yet to do.”
Lana stomped out of the studio without another word, and Andrew went back to his work.
Somehow, Christmas Eve snuck up on Andrew before he did any more shopping — or anything but work.
His guilt compounded. He felt guilty about having cheated on his job, for not keeping up and for relying on his boss’s better nature to get away with it. He also felt guilty for not having bought his wife a present yet, and yet more guilty when he realized she had taken care of all the Christmas chores herself: she had sent out the Christmas cards, bought presents from the two of them for Marla, for both her and his presents, made cookies and other goodies.
He remembered years before when they had done all these things together, and both of them had enjoyed it: the acts themselves, as well as the fact they were doing them together. What had happened?
Andrew snuck early out of the office Christmas party. He had caught up on his work, but there was one more freelance job to finish before the end of the year, which would take at least twenty hours.
He ran down to the jewelry supermarket, a large shop made up of several independent jewelers, each with a length of counter. He knew he could get a good price on a pair of earrings or a necklace or something ... anything.
The shops were packed with people, mostly other men in business suits. There was a lot of shoving, a lot of pushing through crowds to get to the counters.
There were also no price reductions. The jewelers knew they had these men at an advantage. While they sold the items for half the price marked on the little tags throughout the year, tonight, shoppers were lucky to get twenty-five percent off.
Andrew selected one jeweler, a fat Armenian fellow loaded down with heavy gold chains and rings on every finger. He had never particularly liked this guy, but he did have good prices, and the best selection of all the merchants. Andrew asked for gold earrings.
Standing at the counter, balancing his portfolio and a tube of drawings while haggling over the price of a pair of earrings, he noticed the time on every clock and watch under the counter. He had just missed the early train to the suburbs. He gave up, paid the jeweler what he wanted, and drummed his fingers on the glass countertop while the Armenian gathered the jewels, put them in a gift box, wrote up a bill, took Andrew’s credit card, checked his credit and at last presented the slip for Andrew’s signature. Andrew glanced at his watch; with luck, he could catch the late express train home. Lana wouldn’t be happy, but she’d be furious if he were even later.
Why hadn’t he done this days before? It had taken less than an hour; he could have come here at lunchtime. Next year, he promised himself, next year I’ll do this in bloody November.
He bought some wrapping paper at the stationery store at the train station and clumsily wrapped the present on the ride home. It wasn’t a neat job, but on the other hand, he had never been known as a great gift wrapper. He thought Lana would be happy.
“Glad you could make it!” Lana said when she opened the door.
Andrew had been prepared for a dressing down, but his lovely wife was smiling. He dropped his portfolio and drafting things and gave her his best holiday kiss.
Marla came running to the door from the kitchen, squealing “Merry Christmas, Daddy!” Andrew hugged her close, while Lana said, “Maybe we should close the door before we all catch colds.”
Andrew put Marla down and fished the little jewelry box out of his coat pocket. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he said, offering her the awkwardly-wrapped package.
Lana laughed. “Put it under the tree. We’ll open it tomorrow.”
“Did you get me a present, too, Daddy?” Marla said over and over, jumping up and down and pulling on Andrew’s coat. “Did you get me a present, too?”
A shock surged through Andrew. Of course not. He had expected Lana to buy their daughter’s presents. Once again, Lana came to the rescue. “Daddy’s presents for you are already under the tree, sweetheart,” she said.
Dinner was animated. Marla was naturally excited, babbling about a hundred different subjects. Lana kept up with the child’s every shift of subject while serving dinner and managing to ask Andrew about his day.
“Not too bad,” he said. “Although I didn’t manage to get much done, what with everybody coming by to chat and say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Still, I’ve pretty much caught up on the projects there.”
“Oh, that’s good. Now you’ll be able to relax during the holidays.”
“No, not quite,” Andrew corrected. “There’s that last freelance job for Basker — I’ve got about twenty hours of work left to go, and it has to be done by the end of the year.”
“Oh, Andrew,” said Lana, but before she could go on, she was interrupted by Marla, who wanted to tell both her parents what her dolly said.
Andrew set up his drafting things on his work table while Lana washed the dishes. He could hear the clatter of plates and cutlery, and Marla playing with her dolls in the kitchen. He felt sneaky, guilty, as he started on the calculations for the final set of drawings. Lana didn’t know he was working up here.
She came up about half an hour later, and standing in his doorway, she looked like an avenging angel. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“The Basker job. I told you, I have a lot of work left on it and it has to be in their offices on New Year’s Eve.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to work on it Christmas Eve!”
“Look, Lana, I just thought I’d work on it in spare moments while I could, so that I didn’t have to take as much time later on. You won’t miss me for a few minutes at a time, will you?”
“It’s never a few minutes, and you know it. You can’t get anything done in a few minutes. It takes hours. For crying out loud, Andrew, we never see you anymore. At least spend some time with us at Christmas!”
“Okay, sure. I’ll be right down. Just give me a minute.”
“What about church? Are you ready to go?”
“Church? It’s seven-thirty.”
“I want to go to the eight-o’clock children’s mass.”
“I thought you wanted to go to midnight mass,” Andrew protested.
“You know as well as I do that’s too late for Marla. I told you last week that I want to go to the earlier service at eight o’clock. Besides, it’s not as long. I told you that!”
Andrew looked down at his drawings. Only twenty hours to go ...
“Okay, tell you what,” he said, trying to sound cheerful, like what he had in mind was a great idea, and Lana would think so too, even though he knew the opposite was true. “You two go ahead to church. I’ll stay here and work. You’ll be gone about two, two and a half hours, and I’ll work really hard and really fast in that time, and I’ll be able to spend that much more time with you after. How does that sound?”
“Andrew, we only go to church two or three times a year. Is it so hard to ask you to put your work down for a couple of hours on Christmas Eve?”
“I know. I know,” Andrew said. “I really need just a couple of hours to make a real dent in this work. You won’t even miss me.”
Lana face became hard. “You do what you like,” she said. “Marla and I are going to church. Now I’ve got to get dressed and get Marla ready, too.” She left the studio.
Andrew could not concentrate on his work. He could hear his wife and daughter getting ready for church: the sound of Lana putting Marla into her best clothes; Marla chattering about Baby Jesus; the sound of zippers being zipped and a door opening; the sound of the car starting, doors slamming, and then the rolling crunch of the car backing down the driveway and driving up the street.
Andrew stared at the sheet in front of him. The neat, orderly array of straight lines and elegant curves dissolved before his eyes into a blue and white blur.
Angry at himself, he went downstairs to make himself a drink. He switched on the radio. Every station was playing Christmas music, until he found one that played an endless selection of empty pop tunes. Then he returned to his drafting table and tried to work.
It was no use.
He kept thinking of Lana’s face when she said “fine” that last time before she walked away. The expression was a combination of hurt and anger and a deep disappointment.
He thought of Marla’s cheerful chatter as Lana dressed her. “Where’s Daddy,” she had asked as Lana had pulled her hat on.
“Daddy’s too busy to come to Mass tonight,” Lana had answered.
“Is Daddy working?” Marla had asked.
“Yes, honey, Daddy’s working.”
“Is Daddy going to work on Christmas Day, too?”
Lana hadn’t answered.
Andrew realized he had been sitting at his drafting table for five minutes without moving. He hadn’t seen the sheet on the surface. His drink sat on the side table, untouched. The only sound in the house was a commercial from the radio downstairs, another idiotic singing beer commercial.
The commercial ended, and the next began. It was a Christmas greeting from some company. “This Christmas, we hope you’re spending the holidays with your loved ones,” said the announcer.
What am I doing? Andrew thought.
Pulling his coat, he ran over to his neighbour’s house, surprising the family in the midst of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Andy! Merry Christmas! Jeez, we haven’t seen your face in weeks! How you keepin’? Come in, lemme shut the door before the cold gets in.”
“Sorry to bother you, Bob, but I gotta borrow your car. It’s urgent.”
“Oh, jeez, an emergency on Christmas Eve? What’s wrong?”
Bob was a heavy-set, middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and a permanent friendly, slightly confused expression. At the moment, Andrew found the man’s concern exasperating.
“It’s not life or death or anything, but I really gotta borrow your car. I’ll be back in about an hour or so.”
Bob thought about this for a minute, staring at the floor and looking for all the world like a cow chewing its cud. “Well, maybe I should just check with ... ”
“Come on, Bob, really, I’m not doing anything dangerous. I just can’t explain right now, and I don’t have much time.”
“Who is it, dear?” Arlene, Bob’s wife called from another room.
“It’s Andy from next door,” Bob answered.
If he has to ask Arlene’s permission, I’m sunk, Andrew thought. Before Bob could tell his wife any more, Andrew jumped in again. “Please, Bob, if it weren’t urgent I wouldn’t ask. You wouldn’t turn down your neighbour on Christmas Eve, would you?” God, what a low blow, he thought.
A look of alarm crept across Bob’s bovine face. “Gawd, no. Sure, Andy, what am I thinking?” He reached for a set of keys hanging from a wooden rack beside the door. “It’s in the driveway. Good luck.”
“Thanks a lot, Bob,” Andrew said, already stepping out the door. “I’ll be back in an hour. I really appreciate this. Merry Christmas.”
Bob’s car was a big old Buick, long and heavy. Andrew piloted it carefully down the slippery road to St. Michael’s.
The church was already packed. The children outnumbered the adults, it seemed, by two to one — but maybe that was because they were moving around so much. Babies cried, toddlers whined, brothers teased their sisters, sisters asked questions of shushing parents.
Yet somehow, an feeling of peace permeated the gathering. Father Patrick was wrapping up his homily. “The meaning of Christmas is this,” he said in his nasal voice. “It is a time to celebrate the birth of our Lord, a time of hope, a time of peace, and a time to spend with family and loved ones, to reflect upon this meaning. God bless you all.”
Andrew found Lana and Marla in one of the last pews. He squeezed past the others at the end of the row. Lana looked up and smiled, in spite of herself. Marla laughed and said “Daddy!” before Lana hushed her. She picked up the little girl and sat her on her lap, making a space for Andrew to sit.
“You’ve missed most of the service,” Lana whispered.
“That’s okay,” he whispered back. “I’m here for the most important part.”
Andrew tickled Marla on the stomach and her giggles sent surges of joy through his body. He put his arm around his wife and lifted his voice to join the congregation in “Joy to the World.”