Best of the Net 2011  

Home for the Holidays

My father came home last Christmas. It was a cold, clear night and you could see the lights blinking from the General Edwards bridge over Side Beach. I looked out the living room window and he was standing in a hole next to a white stone statue of Saint Francis of Assisi. We hadn't seen him in twelve months. He must have tunneled there from his grave by the lake in Peabody. He had a small garden spade in his hand and his clothes--the ones we buried him in, white shirt, red tie, blue blazer--were dirty, I imagined, from the long trip underground.

He was standing knee deep in the frozen grass and the colored lights from the trees in the neighbor's yard were blinking red and green behind him. I could tell by the way he looked up at me, he wanted me to come outside.

A thin second skin of ice had formed on his cheeks by the time I got there. Without speaking I took his hand and helped him out of the hole. He was a little unsteady as I guided him up the front cement stairs. We stopped on the landing and he stared up and down at the green roped laurel around the door trim and the Christmas wreath hanging on the glass, the red ribbon, the tiny pieces of plastic fruit.

When we stepped into the living room, it took people a few seconds to notice him. When they did, the conversations stopped, one after the other, and I led him past the Christmas tree and the punch bowl on the coffee table to the couch by the window where I first saw him. I cleared a spot next to a pile of red wrapping paper and some open cardboard boxes. No one yelled; no one cried "zombie" or fainted. They just looked: my sister still in her nursing scrubs, my brother in a tie-dye cotton shirt he brought home from Tanzania, and my other sister, fresh off the farm she drove from four hours north of here. They stared and slowly went back to talking to the nieces and nephews that came with them, mostly middle school kids, and my brother's son, a recent graduate from the Columbia School of Business. He was tall and skinny, white shirt, black tie, and glasses.

It was just about dinner time, so I asked my father if he wanted something to eat. He stared, his eyes blinked, and I took that as a "yes" and helped him to the dining room table. It was set for the holidays, red table cloth, crystal glassware, a white platter piled with turkey meat (a brown crusted leg on each side). There were steaming bowls of mashed potatoes and squash and canned cranberry sauce sliced on a silver dish. My mother dropped a basket of hot rolls in the center of the table, looked quickly at my father sitting there. She may have been startled inside, but she didn't show it; she just straightened a few of the forks on the linen napkins next to her and called into the living room where everyone was speaking in exaggerated hushed tones.

As I sat him down I noticed for the first time that he was barefoot and a few small clumps of earth were stuck to his toes and I thought of the undertaker and wondered if we had given him shoes.

Everyone came to the table and sat, my sisters, my brother, the kids, sixteen of us counting my father, who had taken my farmer sister's seat. "What the hey," she said, her hands on the hips of her jeans. "I had it set for fifteen." My mother hustled another place setting at the other end of the table where my brother and the Columbia grad made room between them.

My older sister, the nurse, leaned over a few people to whisper to me. "There's dirt smudged on his forehead," she said. "It looks like Ash Wednesday." Everyone at the table broke into nervous laughter, except for my mother, who was concentrating on cutting my father's meat into little pieces.

I leaned into my father's ear. "Drink some wine," I said, "no one will care now."

"Ya," my farmer sister said, "let's all drink some wine," and the crystal decanter made its way around the table.

My brother held his high, saying, "To Dad," and we all followed, clinking glasses.

"Remember the time," my brother said, "he brought home the little chicks for Easter and we all thought they could fly and we threw them off the back porch."

"That's horrible," my farmer sister said.

"We could have skinned them and eaten them," the nurse chimed in.

"Did we?" I asked. "Did we skin them and eat them?"

My mother stopped cutting the meat. "No. We buried them in a hole under the willow tree."

Everyone got silent after that. Lots of bowls getting passed back and forth, forks scraping plates.

"I can't wait until you open my present," my farmer sister said. "You're going to love it." She had a thing for getting her presents to the front of the line.

"I'm sure I will," I answered.

Soon after, the whispering started again, like a parlor game, each person saying something to the next and so on in a circle. Finally my mother asked my father out loud, "How long are you staying, Dear?"

But he didn't answer. He just looked from one person to the other and kept his hands folded on his lap, still holding the garden spade he came with, the small pieces of cut meat getting dry in front of him.

He sat that way until the pumpkin pie was gone and the tea pot was cold, then I moved him back to the living room while people opened more presents.

The kids started to gab about school and sports and the neighborhood. Then I overheard my sister, the nurse, talking to my brother with the shirt from Tanzania. "He lives a few doors down and I think he's gay," she said.

"So," my brother answered.

"So nothing," she fired back. "I'm just saying."

My other sister yelled out that she'd seen an old neighbor skiing in the White Mountains, to which my brother replied, "He's a racist, did you know that?"

"No," my farmer sister said, "I only saw him skiing." A few minutes later she told everyone about the birth of a horse in her stable, how she rolled up her sleeves and pulled it from the womb.

Just then my mother ran the vacuum near my father's feet. She had the hose attachment on it and she swept it up and down his pants, then took the shovel from his hand and vacuumed that too. I think my father smiled a little at this, but it was too quick to tell if I was imagining it.

Most of the presents were opened, some button-down shirts with striped ties, some hard cover books (two people got the same book, a history of Nelson Mandela, about a thousand pages). Someone else got an Irish knit sweater. I still hadn't opened mine. My farmer sister pushed a white box with a red bow in my direction.

Just then the Columbia grad stood up in the middle of the room and cleared his throat. "I have some news," he said. "I'm getting married."

There was a collective "Hey" in the room, a hug from my mother, my brother grinning proudly.

"That's great," my farmer sister said. "When and where?"

"That's the thing," the Columbia grad said. "We can't invite everyone."

"What do you mean, everyone?" the nurse quipped. They were both standing in the middle of the room now.

"Family," he said. "Just a few of you, not everyone. It's a small wedding."

"Where is it?" the nurse asked, "in a shoe box?" and my mother backed away from them and grabbed the vacuum attachment and started on my father's feet again.

"It's not what you think," my brother said.

"This wouldn't happen if Dad was alive," my farmer sister yelled and everyone stopped and looked in his direction and the nurse came up to me and whispered, "How long is he going to sit there dead like that? I think I just saw a fly."

* * *

The fight over the wedding waged on as I took him by the arm and walked through the living room and back down the stairs to the side yard and it was just the two of us again, staring into the hole he had dug, at the roots poking out of the dirt walls and the tiny frozen puddle at the bottom. I wasn't quite sure how he was going to fit back down there, but I figured he knew what he was doing since he'd come one way already.

"You know that time I hit those free throws in that tournament game in Boston Garden after all that shit with the coach," I said. "I should have gone to dinner with you after, not out drinking like I did."

We looked at each other for a moment, the music from the house next door suddenly louder, like someone had opened a window. It was a version of "Silent Night." I'm pretty sure it was Dean Martin; it had that cowboy crooner twang.

We both turned toward it and listened, looking at the colored bulbs twinkling off the neighbor's trees. We stayed that way until the tracks switched to another song, "Here Comes Santa Claus." "You were the loudest in the stands in those days," I said. "I could always tell you were there." He lifted his hand and brushed a swollen finger over my cheek. I looked past him to the living room window and they had all crowded around to watch us. I turned him that way and my mother waved, then my brother waved, then the Columbia grad, and the nurse, and the farmer and soon they were all waving before peeling off one by one into the living room.

My father looked back at me. "It's just too soon," I said. "Next year will be better."

We stood that way for a while longer, taking in the neighborhood. Some thick white flakes started falling from the dark sky, and I heard someone banging on the window and saw my farmer sister looking impatient, holding up a present with a big red bow.

-Kevin Carey (from Apple Valley Review)