Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 10


It was an evening of traditions that were new to Jill. “Quennedey’s Dance Recital” turned out to be more than just the recital. It was the dancing, and the traditional dinner at Gino’s afterward, and the traditional watching of the video back at Mother’s house after that. Why it was necessary to watch a video of a recital they’d all just seen in person was unclear to Jill. Perhaps it was a thing that wouldn’t make sense to her until she had kids of her own — a phrase which both Mother and Reagan had used on her several times this week alone.

“You’ll love Gino’s!” Reagan gushed as they waited for their table. “It’s authentic Italian food — you just can’t get this quality from a chain.”

Jill was ready to appreciate some good Italian and some good wine. A loneliness was stealing upon her, perhaps fueled by the biological clock Mr. Singh had set ticking. He was here at the family dinner, attending upon Reagan and Quennedey with an impersonal courtliness. Reagan was basking in the reflected glory of having both a man and a child in her wake. Del and her little husband — what was his name? Scott? — sat cozily in a corner, discussing whatever it was they discussed in low voices. And of course Mother had all of them, her descendants, dancing attendance on her, and didn’t she know it.

In all this, Jill was solo, without partner or prospect. In Los Angeles that didn’t matter so much — she had plenty of friends, and at work no one cared that she was the middle child as long as she was competent at what she did. Back in the bosom of her family, she seemed never to have left. Twelve years of independence, of college, of professional certification, of successful career, and she might as well have still been a tantrumming 18-year-old, for all the weight anyone gave her opinions or her expertise. Of course I didn’t act like an adult then! she wanted to shout. But I’m acting like an adult now, here, in this town, at this restaurant, by myself.

As the falling action from the recital had dragged on — flowers, photos, dressing, packing up the costume and make-up — Jill stood in the auditorium, a single island among a seething sea of families and friends. And then Garrett, who she thought had left, reappeared by her side with a look of apology that transformed her island into a shared retreat.

“Did you find your family?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Smoke break.”

“Next time take me with you.”

“For a smoke?”

“For the break.”

They stood and waited together, and while they waited they talked, and Jill found herself pouring out what had been consuming most of her days: the accounting, the taxes, the valuations, even Heath and the garage. she had laid out the case that the Inn was more profitable than it looked on paper, based on the real expenses instead of the padded profit-and-loss statements with which Daddy had warded off the tax man. And this villainous investor, Mother’s arch-nemesis, asked intelligent questions and understood the scale of the task she’d undertaken, and accepted that she was a professional. He responded to her not on Mother’s terms, but on her own. By the time that the others were ready to leave, he’d accepted that he’d undervalued the Inn and needed to raise his offer. 

“Would you like to keep discussing this over dinner?” he asked her.

She did want to, very much, or at least she wanted the dinner with him. But she had already committed to go to Gino’s with the family. She felt her chance of real conversation slipping away, and with it her very self, somehow, and suddenly it was intolerable.

“Later, we’re all going back to my mother’s house to watch the recital video,” she said in a rush. “I know it’s awkward for you there, but at least there are snacks and drinks and plenty of rooms and nooks for conversations. That way I’d be at the family event, which will keep the peace, but we can still talk. It can’t be too exclusive — Mr. Singh will be there.”

“The dark horse,” said Garrett, eyeing the implacable Mr. Singh still dancing attendance on Reagan and Quennedey. “What is he playing for, I wonder?”

“Maybe he loves small town life,” Jill snickered.

“Maybe he loves watching dance recitals,” Garrett sniggered.

“Maybe he loves Quennedey,” Jill almost howled, and they would have collapsed on each other in giggles if the possibility of brushing against his cheek with her own had not suddenly sobered her up. 

But at the restaurant she observed Mr. Singh closely. He did seem to pay particular notice to Quennedey, and Quennedey warmed to the attention, talking rather too loudly about herself.

“I was almost rich,” she bragged, between gulps of a noxious neon soda. “Grandpa was going to give me some land for my college fund. But I don’t want go to college. College is for the elite.”

“You would like to live on the land?” Mr. Singh asked.

“My mom talks about building a house on it,” said Quennedey. “But I don’t think she’ll ever get around to it. She needs a man to take care of all that stuff for her.” 

“Your mother seems more than competent to me, and I have no doubt she can make wise decisions on her own,” said Mr. Singh, gracing Reagan with a judicious smile. Reagan oozed all over the place. 

“There, Jill, what did we tell you?” said Mother, pawing through the bread basket. “Isn’t Gino’s divine? We just scarf these breadsticks. Gino bakes them himself, you know.”

Jill, who had been to several high-end Italian eateries in Los Angeles, could believe that Gino’s culinary skills extended even to the baking of frozen breadsticks. Everything around her — the basic pasta, the undistinguished red sauce, the food-service ingredients, the cheap house wine, the happy family content with a facsimile of good food — suddenly pressed upon her. The creeping loneliness seized her again, and only the thought of seeing Garrett later in the evening gave her the warmth she needed to smile and laugh and breathe.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 9


Christmas in a small town! Everywhere you look and listen, the sights and sounds of the season fill the heart with festivity. The front porches twinkling a welcome. The wreaths on the street lamps. The tinsel in the shop windows. The carolers strolling through the neighborhood, muffled in woolen scarves.

And the Holiday Dance Recital.

The auditorium of Luxembourg High School was filled with milling family members trying to find a block of seats in which to wedge their bodies, coats, and floral tributes to the dancers.. Through the press, Jill saw Reagan waving her down to the front row. 

“Is it okay to sit here?” Jill asked.

I’ve blocked out the whole row,” said Reagan, moving to intercept a white-haired lady trying to take a seat. “Excuse me, ma’am, these seats are reserved.”

“I don’t see anyone sitting here,” said the lady, preparing to get comfortable.

“I’ve got my coat on the last seat,” said Reagan brightly. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to move.” To Jill, she said, “You take the seat on the end and don’t let anyone but our group past.”

“Who’s ‘our group’?” Jill called, but Reagan had already moved to the far side and was chatting with some other dance moms. Heath and his family were in the crowd, but sat with family members who’d come out to be the cheering section for little Jayden at her first recital. To Jill’s astonishment, Mr. Singh materialized like Herr Drosselmeier and bowed to her as he passed down the row to sit by Reagan. Then Del arrived, shadowed by her husband. She sat near Jill. 

“We always leave the center seat for Mother,” she said.

“Nothing but the best for Mother,” Jill agreed, bitterly. “God forbid she should have anything less than perfection. She almost fired a girl today for trying to put Daddy’s old ornaments from the garage on the tree at the Inn. Wouldn’t do to have Daddy’s ratty stuff cluttering up Mother’s decorating scheme.”

“Stop being the center of your own universe,” said Del, unperturbed. “You’re not the only one grieving Dad, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just because Mother is a controlling bitch doesn’t mean she didn’t love Dad. Her grief comes out in grasping at control, because being control feels like being stable to her.”

Jill opened her mouth to snap back, and then shut it. All her life Mother had been a goad, driving her to animal fury. She had learned to manage her own anger through dint of therapy and patient work, but she’d never considered why it was that Mother tried to control everything. Now, as if Del had flipped a light switch, Jill saw clearly: If Mother could find fault with someone else, she didn’t have to find fault with herself. 

Whereas Mother’s first instinct was to control everything, Jill’s own first instinct was to blow everything up. And here she had been, about to lash out at Del, without even thinking about what Del had said. 

“Wow,” she said, finding herself on the verge of a great insight. “Mother and I have completely opposite ways of dealing with frustration.”

“Yes,” said Del, as one would address a particularly bright kindergartener.

When Mother came, Jill let her past without a murmur. 


“Can I sit here?” asked a lady holding an oversized bouquet, eyeing the empty seat next to Jill. 

“I’m sorry, this seat’s taken,” said Jill. She had just spied Garrett French standing awkwardly in the back. As the lady huffed off, Garrett saw Jill beckoning. He came down the aisle with the look of a man who has just caught a life preserver.

“Thank you so much,” he said as she scooted over to give him a seat. “I’ve never been to a dance recital before, and I didn’t know the protocol.” 

“This is my first too,” Jill said. “But I can’t imagine that you came to see Quennedey.”

“My niece asked me to come see her dance, and I said I would,” he said, searching the program for her name among the Olivias and Lilys and Avas. 

“Can you not find your family?” said Jill, looking around helpfully although she had no idea who she was looking for.

“I know exactly where my brother is. I just couldn’t bear the thought of sitting with him for an hour.”

In the suddenly dimmed lights, Jill couldn’t tell whether the set of his mouth was defiance or shame. 

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” A cheery voice blared through the speakers, begging them to enjoy the show and to remember that since it was already being recorded, there was no need for anyone to video the dances. “Please give your dancer all your attention and let us do the filming!”

The curtain rose on a trio of blondes in unitards writhing mostly in sync. Jill didn’t know much about dancing, but she thought if she had been paying lots of money for dance classes only to discover that her child was doing a lyrical interpretation of Pentatonix’s The Little Drummer Boy, she would have asked for her money back. Fortunately, Jayden Albany and the Wee Dance ballet class, up next, were adorable in their tutus. The Tiny Tappers got confused and spend most of their dance waving to their mothers, but the Hip-Hopsters had a boy who actually had a sense of rhythm.

The key to watching a dance recital, it seemed, was to pick out one talented child in each class and watch her throughout the dance. It helped that the kids were cute, and the costumes pretty. Every now and then there was a dance that was worth watching for its own sake. The advanced Tap class did a surprisingly complex routine to a bluegrass version of What Child Is This which Jill and Garrett agreed justified the price of the tickets. But most of the dances were of significance only to parents or grandparents, who could be picked out of a crowd because they all had their phones up, recording. 

The pointe class was up next, and Reagan was explaining to Mr. Singh how Quennedey was the youngest dancer in the group, and how she’d had to be granted special permission to join the class early.

“She’s spent hours working on her showcase solo,” said Reagan, sighing at the dedication of her child to the arts. “She won’t even let me see it. She’s such a perfectionist.”

The ballerinas shuffled out on their points and took a pose. The music was something classical that Jill didn’t recognize. Quennedey looked a bit sullen next to the older girls, but she turned out to hold her own competently enough. Reagan glowed. 

“The solos are coming up,” she whispered, adjusting the focus on her phone.

One by one, the girls stepped up and did sixteen measures of plies and leaps and arabesques. Jill could hear Reagan keeping a running commentary on the class dramas, and wondered if that was supposed to be part of the video. Now Quennedey stepped up, extended her arms, grinned, and broke into a vigorous Hype. The audience roared its approval.

“What?” gasped Reagan, as Quennedey Flossed double-time.

“Stop,” she moaned as Quennedey did a gritty Orange Justice.

“No,” she barked, as Quennedey ended with a sharp Dab.

The poor girls soloing after Quennedey were thrown off entirely and could only make vague approximations of their choreography. Reagan foamed at the mouth. Next to Jill, Del was nodding.

“Did you know she was going to do that?” Jill asked Del.

“I could have told you she was going to do that,” Del replied. “Why would anyone expect anything else?”

After the dances and the applause and the interminable bows and acknowledgments and flowers, Jill felt herself bound in duty to check on Reagan and make sure she would neither die of apoplexy nor strangle her daughter. But Reagan had put aside thoughts of violence. Mr. Singh had praised the dance and said it was quite in keeping with the finest traditions of Bollywood.

“Even Misty Copeland cannot master those moves,” he said. 

“He’s seen her try?” murmured Garrett in Jill’s ear. She snickered.

“I have,” said Mr. Singh, and he bowed his bow to them both as he escorted Reagan and a dozen roses to wait by the dressing rooms for the young ballerina. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

La Guadalupana

Nuestra Señora du Guadalupe has watched over us for another year. As always, our favorite tribute.


This is an interesting year of motherhood for me. As a gift to myself for my 40th birthday, I weaned my youngest child, age 17mo. This is not a bittersweet moment for me. It's a relief, a promise of new things to come. Perhaps this is the last time I wean a child, and that's just fine with me. My oldest will get her driver's license in January, and almost immediately we'll go into driver's ed for the second. My friends: I might not have to drive the children places. Oh, can you imagine?

Ruega por nosotros.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 8


An icy wind whistled through the doors as Mother’s figure receded into the unkind elements. Jill leaned against the ladder and contemplated the box of ornaments still sitting on one of the steps. Such a little thing — a box of baubles, almost worthless, and yet to Mother they were a gauntlet thrown down. Heath wasn’t kidding about not being able to talk business with Mother. How could anyone run a shop with Mother hanging over his head? 

Jill opened the box and felt her breath catch in ragged gasps. Tucked in a nest of tissue paper were her father’s favorite Christmas ornaments, the ones he’d taken to the garage every year and put on a little tree in the corner of the waiting room. Daddy had not been here this year to bring them out of storage. They’d sat alone and forgotten in some cold, dusty corner, like Daddy in his grave…

She would do it. She would hang those ornaments on the tree, Mother be damned. Nobody cared but her, and Daddy was not going to rot forgotten if she could help it. The ladder was already against the tree. Jill climbed up and began decking the halls with a vengeance. On this branch, her third-grade picture in a little frame; over here, a crocheted ball Del had made in scouts; down a bit, a cross-stitched dove in a plastic frame, signed “R” for Reagan. If she reached out just a nip, she could hang the papier-mache star right in the center of the tree…

The ladder tipped and began to sway dangerously. Jill yelped and flailed, and found herself toppling off, right into a pair of arms.

“Your Christmas tree is exquisite,” said Mr. Singh, gently setting her upright. “But it would be too bad if you were to suffer a broken arm for your art.”

“I… I lost my balance,” Jill said unnecessarily. She didn’t know which way to look, partly because Mr. Singh was still holding her arms, and partly because she could barely see through her tears anyway. A clean handkerchief, evincing the merest suspicion of exotic scent, was pressed into her hand, and firm, cool hands were guiding her to a couch. Jill sat and wept. All she had done on this trip was cry in front of men. What was wrong with her? She never cried in Los Angeles. If Daddy had been here, he would have laughed and called her “Hon” and told Mother exactly where she could hang his ornaments…

Mr. Singh sat beside her, neither patient nor impatient, neither comforting nor uncomfortable. He made no judgment over the soggy handkerchief she finally handed back to him, nor did he offer it to her to keep, which men generally did in movies, but tucked it back in his pocket as if it were no different than before. Nothing seemed to phase him, not women tumbling from trees, not torrents of hysterics, not Jill babbling about Daddy and the bookkeeping and everything that had been weighing on her all week. 

“You have been juggling many balls,” said Mr. Singh. “The hotel, the garage, the ag exemption… And what is an ag exemption of yours, may I ask?”

Jill laughed in a snorty, wet way. “Oh, it was one of Daddy’s little cheats. He owned a piece of land down by the highway, and he put some cows to graze on it to get an agricultural exemption on his taxes, and… oh, it’s all so silly. Why do we hold onto these things that do us no good? Daddy inherited that land, and Mother doesn’t want it. It’s useless for farming, and it’s not near anything. And yet Daddy would never sell it, because it was his. And Mother won’t sell it, because it was his legacy. And I’m putting up Christmas ornaments to honor Daddy’s legacy. We keep throwing the word around, but I don’t even know what it means. Legally, yes, I know what it is, but in our case, what is Daddy’s legacy?”

“A legacy is a gift from the past to the present,” said Mr. Singh. “Do you believe that all these things your father has left you are his gifts to you?”

“No,” said Jill, pondering. “No, the hotel, the garage… these are just things. Daddy worked hard to keep them going, but if they have any worth in themselves, then someone else should be able to run them. What I treasure most is his love, the way he raised me and what he taught me about life. That’s what I would want to pass on. I would want to honor the person that he was, not just the stuff he handed on.”

Mr. Singh sighed. “Those who have children to carry on their memories are blessed indeed. A child preserves, remembers, endures.” He hesitated. “My father had a sister who died young. She was murdered by a man because she would not marry him. My aunt was beautiful and well-loved, and many vowed to fight for justice for her and carry on in her name. But that was fifty years ago. Who remembers her now? She died before I was born. She had no children to keep her memory fresh, to protest when her murderer was released from prison. When my father dies, there will be no one on earth who has touched my aunt. I can visit her tomb and pray for justice, but her legacy died out before it was established.”

Although he had not moved any nearer to her, his formality seemed more intimate than if he were whispering in her ear. Jill had never thought of herself as incomplete without children, but something in Mr. Singh’s voice released whatever gear of her biological clock had been frozen in place. Face flushed, lips parted, her whole being was being drawn toward him, toward their glorious union which would culminate in a passel of beautiful, deep-eyed, gently-scented children. She was almost drooling at the thought…

She was drooling, literally. Hastily, she shut her mouth and wiped her face. Mr. Singh seemed to find nothing remarkable in her behavior, and indeed, she had been soppy enough today that one more bit of facial fluid could hardly seem surprising. Jill swallowed hard to clear her throat and restore her wits.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” she said at last, foolishly, reaching for a way to honor his forgotten aunt.

“And I for yours,” he said, standing. When she took his offered hand, he pulled her to her feet. “May your burdens be lightened soon.” And then he disappeared from whence he came, leaving Jill to calm her racing pulse with deep breaths of the lightly-scented air.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 7


Everything is so personal with her. Every disagreement must be personal.

As Jill drove back to the Inn, she pondered how Heath and Garrett, two very different men, had given almost identical assessments of her mother. Heath’s was vaguer, which was not out of character for a man who had rarely lived the examined life. Garrett’s analysis was a bit more honed, although limited; he’d probably never had an agreement with Mother or he would have known that agreement was also personal with her. 

All her life, Jill had known that staying in Mother’s good graces meant agreeing with her. And not just agreeing with her, but agreeing in the way that Mother wanted to be agreed with. How much any particular person did this depended on how much they wanted to stay in Mother’s good graces, of course. Jill had spent most of her teenage years thinking that asserting her individuality meant crossing Mother loudly and often. Even after all these years, as she looked back on the damage that approach had caused to her family relationship, she still reflexively wanted to push back at anything Mother wanted to do. She wanted to make disagreement personal.

Well, not this time. She was an adult, here on business that was the very definition of adulting: figuring out the family finances, saving the family business. If the Luxembourg Inn could be kept in the family, she would keep in the family. But it was increasingly looking like the only way to save the Inn itself would be to sell it, and selling it was going to be tricky if she didn’t get the books cleaned up, and soon. It would be helpful if Mother could adult right alongside with her, without getting defensive when Jill asked questions. But the only thing Mother could understand about Daddy’s whole bookkeeping mess was that he’d done a lot of things under the table, which was just how you did business. 

Daddy’s instinct for money was different than Jill’s. Jill was good at clarity and bookkeeping. After all, accounting was the only profession in the world where creativity was a crime. But Daddy was creative with his money — not necessarily illegal, but maximizing its potential.   Clarity was what Daddy had not wanted. His accounts were a masterful work of redirection. He had a novelistic flare for creating the illusion of a family business scraping by, paying nothing but expenses. If those expenses included all the family cars, Mother’s new kitchen, housekeeping, and agricultural exemption — which itself allowed writing off various pieces of equipment that couldn’t be justified by other means — what could a struggling business owner do? 

Leave a headache for his accountant daughter, that’s what he could do. Oh Daddy, I wish we had talked about all this while you were still alive.

***

She wished that even more as she sat in her mother’s office at the Luxembourg.

“Why didn’t Daddy just create a trust?” Jill asked, as Mother sat behind her computer, watching the feeds from the security cameras. “That would have saved us some of these tax woes.”

“Because he didn’t think he was going to die, of course,” said Mother. “Maria at the front desk is doing her online shopping on the registration computer. She doesn’t know I can see her. When I’ve documented 10 hours of it, I’m going to fire her.”

“Why don’t you just talk to her and give her a warning? What’s your policy on internet use during work hours?”

“I shouldn’t have to give her a warning. Employees of the Luxembourg Inn ought to hold themselves to a higher standard.”

“Higher than what?” Jill asked. “The Motel 6 by the highway?”

“Jill, it never fails to disappoint me how uncommitted you are to our family traditions of excellence. We strive to uphold your father’s legacy here, and you want to mock it.” Mother pursed her lips and scrutinized the screen.

This was almost too pompous a piece of manipulation to be worth getting angry over. Perhaps Mother really was losing her touch. In the old days, a sermon like this would have had fewer buzzwords and much cleaner evisceration. This was almost too ridiculous to be worth deflecting.

Still, Jill was working up a comeback, just to keep in practice, when Mother jumped up and exclaimed at her security feeds, her face contorted with genuine anger this time, and rushed out into the lobby. At the sound of her raised voice, Jill jumped up and followed.

Mother was by the Christmas tree, berating a young woman who had set up a ladder by the Christmas tree.

“What do you think you’re doing? How dare you mess with my Christmas tree? I’ve set the position of every ornament on here. Every ornament is significant. We hang the same ones year after year, in the same places. Perhaps you aren’t aware of our tradition? Perhaps it isn’t important to you?”

“But ma’am,” said the girl meekly, “what about this box? It was in the storage room. I just thought I’d put them on the tree…”

“You just thought.” Mother’s voice became deceptively gentle. “You just thought you’d fix my design? You just thought you’d take it on yourself to improve my lobby?”

“No, ma’am, I just…”

“Here’s what I want you to do. I want to get off this ladder. I want you to walk out those doors. I want you to go home.”

“Oh ma’am, please don’t fire me,” the girl begged, her voice beginning to break. “I really need this job. Please…”

“Who said anything about firing? I want you to go home for the rest of the day and think about whether the Luxembourg Inn is the right place for you to be working, if you can’t follow simple procedures.”

Sobbing now, the girl left. 

“Mother, can I talk to you in your office?” said Jill, appalled.

“No, you may not,” said Mother. “I am going home. I am worn out, Jill, worn out with responsibilities and with trying to maintain a standard of hospitality that no one else seems to care about. I wonder why I still work so hard when my friends have all retired to Florida.”

“Mother, you can not speak to employees like that, especially when…”

“I cannot?” Mother wrapped herself in her coat as in a royal mantel. “I own this place. I can do whatever I want.”

The queen of Luxembourg swept out the doors into the swirling snow.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 6


Before she left Los Angeles, Jill had gone shopping for a new pair of boots. She wanted something fun, sexy, kicky. Something to turn heads and make people jealous that they hadn’t left Ohio and become a fashionista on the West Coast. A pair of tall brown leather boots, lined with flannel, little bit of a heel, designed to mold to her calves, beckoned to her from a shop window. They were a splurge, but Jill had been in the mood for some retail therapy.

That was what she should have been wearing today, to see Heath at the garage. But it had been snowing ever since the day she arrived. People shook their heads and said that there had never been such a December for snow. It was slushy and dirty and deep. And it was cold. The first day Jill had worn her boots outside, her toes had been chilly. The second time, they’d been numb. After the gift exchange and her walk with Garrett, she’d peeled off her boots and spent twenty minutes soaking the blocks of ice that had been her feet. Today, she was in an old pair of Del’s boots, found on the back porch at Mother’s house. They weren’t kicky, and they sure as hell weren’t sexy, but they were functional and warm, and pretty much nothing could ruin them.

Anyway, why should she care what Heath thought was sexy? They’d never really gotten along well when they were teenagers. They had nothing in common then, and even less now. He was a married man, for God’s sake. It wasn’t as if she wanted to rekindle their relationship. So why did she want him to flirt with her? 

Because it’s a pulse, she thought, with a flush of shame. It’s a sign that I’m still alive and relevant. All these years I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve paid my own way, I’ve given lip service to women’s rights and feminist ideals, and yet I don’t really feel like I matter unless a man seems attracted to me. And Heath definitely used to be attracted to me. So maybe if he’s not interested anymore, I don’t have it anymore.

But what did I have in those days? Heath was mean. He was controlling. And he scared me sometimes. I felt wanted, but I didn’t feel loved. We drove each other crazy, in every way. We threw sparks and tantrums. He was a status symbol, the hot edgy guy only I could handle. He used me, and I used him. Oh my god, we were so young. 17 and 18, driving around town in trucks, drinking beer, having sex that didn’t bring us any closer to each other. Where were my parents? Why didn’t they put their foot down? But I probably would have done what I wanted anyway. Heath and I never cared what people thought.

We aren’t the kind of old friends who just get together. We always wanted something from each other before. What does he want now?

And I killed his dog, so that’s going to make this a real fun meeting.

***

Daddy had built the garage away from downtown, in a more rough-and-tumble neighborhood. He’d liked the people he knew there, and they’d liked him. As Jill pulled up to the garage, the first thing she noticed was that it had been maintained. It wasn’t fancy or state-of-the-art, but unlike the Luxembourg Inn, the garage was in basic repair. 

Jill was prepared for Heath to look as he did at 18, in a mechanic’s coverall, grease under his nails, with a day or two of stubble and sweat glistening on his biceps. But the 30-year-old Heath that opened the door for her was in a respectable sweater and khakis, freshly shaven, with his curly hair slicked neatly in place. He looked managerial. He greeted her professionally and offered her to make her a cup of coffee. 

Jill had had her share of bad gas station coffee, but she accepted to be polite. To her surprise, the shop had a Keurig machine and a mini-fridge with bottled water.

“The shop looks great,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind sitting here for a few hours while you changed all my tires.” 

“That’s exactly what I’m going for,” Heath said, presenting her with a steaming cup. “I want my customers to feel welcome here. They shouldn’t want to complain about the waiting room right off the bat.”

Jill took a sip of the coffee and raised her eyebrows. “They won’t be able to complain about the java, at any rate. This is gourmet. Three flavors of creamer, even. I hope you’re getting a return on your coffee investment.”

“Sure. Look, you’re hard up, you have a lousy job, it’s your week with the kids, and your car starts acting up. Where do you go — the dirt-cheap, bare-bones cinderblock garage, or my place with free coffee and nice chairs and kids’ table with activities that might occupy your kids while you look at your phone in peace for a minute? When people feel respected, that builds loyalty.”

“Okay, you’ve converted me,” said Jill, caught off guard by his earnestness. “This is a new side of you — the big-hearted businessman.”

“It isn’t new,” said Heath slowly, refusing to be teased. “It’s been a long time since we saw each other. I’m not the same person I was when…”

“When I killed your dog.” 

“Oh my god,” Heath said, blanching. He passed his hand over his eyes.

Years of therapy to practice thinking about what she was going to say before she said it, all thrown out the window. Why did she need to bring that up out of the blue? Was she angrier than she thought she was? Was it a need to throw stuff at Heath, an old relationship habit? Was it a defense mechanism because she thought he might want to get too close? 

Abruptly, Heath asked, “Would you like to sit down?”

Jill felt a little shaky as she followed him into Daddy’s old office. For years she’d dreamed what she’d finally tell Heath Albany when she had the chance — about his immaturity, his controlling nature. She’d wanted to hurt him as he’d hurt her. Now she’d brought up the subject without thinking it through, blurting things out as usual, and all her carefully rehearsed phrases were slipping away in the face of the man himself. 

She sat in Daddy’s swivel chair with the velvet cushion and watched him settle himself carefully across the desk.

“I can’t blame you for still being angry about that dog,” he said. “I had hoped… I’d wanted to move on and just forget about it, but that’s not really fair to you.

“I’m not angry, I think,” she said, appalled by his sincerity. “I didn’t mean to bring that up like that. You know how I just say stuff without thinking. I know you loved that dog…”

“I was scared of that dog,” said Heath, looking down at his tightly clutched hands. “I thought it made me intimidating to have this big unmanageable animal, but I didn’t know how to train him or handle him. I thought it was funny that you would hide behind me when he was around. When I was angry because you were going away, I wanted to you to feel threatened by him. And when he charged you, I was terrified because I didn’t know how to stop him.”

“But I ran him over,” protested Jill. “I murdered him, because I hated him and I wanted to show you.”

“He attacked you, Jill. I was honestly afraid he’d kill you.”

Jill suddenly relived the moment when she screamed that she was leaving, and the dog pushed out of the door and charged at her. She felt the adrenaline rush as she sprinted for the truck and slammed the door, snarling jaws snapping at her heels. She jammed the key in the ignition and rocketed forward, catching the animal under her wheels. And then she’d lurched back and felt the nauseating thump a second time. In the background, Heath was screaming her name, but in her memory’s newly attuned ear, the rage in his voice was transposing itself into fright.

Heath was wilted before her now. The last vestiges of the smouldering teenage boy melted away, leaving a middle-aged man weighted with regrets and responsibilities. She saw him now as someone else’s husband and father.

“I go to church now,” he was saying. “I’ve been saved, I’ve accepted Jesus’s forgiveness. But it’s hard for me to believe it sometimes. It’s hard for me to shake the burden of all the ways I’ve hurt people over the years. I look at myself in the mirror, and I can barely see myself. I can’t believe I used to think that nothing I did would have any consequences I couldn’t handle. I was so wrong.”

“I’m sorry, Jill. I’ve needed to tell you that for years. I was a bad person for you to date — for any girl to date. I have a daughter now, and I think about how I’d feel if she met someone as screwed up and demanding and violent as I was then. If I were a better person I’d have realized that about myself on my own, but sometimes you just can’t see yourself clearly until a kid sees you. I pushed you too hard because I wanted to control something. I couldn’t control myself.”

Jill had her hand on her mouth, but the sobs were bursting through. Heath knelt down in front of her and put his arms around her. “I’m sorry,” he repeated as he gently rocked her. “I’m so sorry.”

After a moment she felt herself able to breath again, and her back was starting to seize up from the awkward position. She shrugged him off, and he stood up and took a step back as she squeezed past him to the bathroom to wash her face. In the harsh white light, she looked at her face in the mirror. Could she see herself as she was? Could she see herself now? Was there any continuity between all the Jills she’d ever been? Which Jill was she now? What did this unfamiliar humble Heath want from her, and did she have anything to give him?

When she came out, he was sitting at the desk again, nudging some papers around. “I’m guessing,” he said, with a feeble attempt at lightness, “that you’re not going to be interested in talking about selling me the garage.”

“What?” said Jill. “Yes! Of course I want to talk about that.” She took in the carefully arranged papers and Heath’s business casual attire, and suddenly her perspective on the whole encounter rotated and came to rest upside down. “Is that why you wanted to see me?”  

Heath shifted in his chair. “Yes, but we don’t have to do it now. Maybe you still hate me. Maybe after our history, you don’t want me to have your Dad’s garage.”

Jill grabbed a tissue from the box on the desk and blew her nose with purpose. “Stop right there. Look, I know we had a dysfunctional relationship as teenagers. But I don’t hate you. And even if I did, I’ve spent most of the past twelve years valuating businesses. I think I can be professional about this. It’s what I do.”

Heath took a moment to grapple with their changing dynamic. “You want to do business with me?”

“Business is what I do.” 

He sat back in his chair and breathed out the tension in his shoulders and face. Then he gave a laugh of relief. Jill realized he’d been as nervous about this meeting as she’d been. It hadn’t been open-ended for him as it was for her — he’d known what he wanted, but not if she would be willing to sit down with him.

“When your dad was alive, I loved working for him,” said Heath. “I know he was a little dirty with the accounting, but he had a head for the books and the management and the human side. I’m not any good at the accounts. I need someone to run that side for me.”

“Have you talked to my mom about hiring someone?”

Heath became very cautious. “Your mom is… not a business woman. I had a hard time making her understand how I needed to manage the garage.” 

Jill was nonplussed. “But Mother has run the hotel for years. That’s a very complex business.”

“Yes,” Heath admitted. “But she is not easy to work with, and I would never feel secure at the garage knowing that she had the final authority over my decisions. I can’t talk business with her the way I can with your dad, or like we’re doing now. Everything is so personal with her. ”

This was the second time this week that Jill had heard this assessment of mother, and she had to acknowledge its justice. Mother seemed to be tearing down the things she was trying hardest to preserve. Of course Heath would want to be free to run the garage his way without Mother trying to run interference.

“Now I think I’ve got the financing secured,” he was saying, fishing papers out of a file and lining them up neatly for her inspection. The meeting became a brisk and professional discussion, two colleagues working on a mutual strategy. 

The shop door opened, and little voices called for Daddy. Heath brightened.

“It’s Angie and the kids,” he said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”

Angie was a forceful woman in scrubs, managing Happy Meals for the two children hanging on her legs. “Daddy, you take Jaxon,” she said, thrusting the boy at Heath. “Make sure he eats his dinner. They’re so wound up after school,” she explained to Jill. “It gets dinner time and I can’t get them to settle long enough to get anything down. Hon, I’ve told you before that you have to put the straw in the milk. When you just give him the open carton he spills it all over.”

“I want screen time,” fussed the little girl, slightly older than Jaxon. “Mommy, you said I could have screen time.”

“After dinner, honey,” said Heath, balancing Jaxon on his knee as he scrubbed him with napkins. 

“No, Heath, we’ve discussed this. Jayden is not having screen time until she’s checked everything on her chore chart. We have to have a checklist,” Angie explained again to Jill, who was backing toward the door. “That way everyone knows what I need from them. Hon, I just said no screen time. Don’t let her take your phone.” 

Jill had never spent much time around small kids, and she didn’t know if the fussing now was normal, or was the result of a long day, or of spoiled children, or what. She was glad it wasn’t her problem to deal with.

“I’d better go,” she said, edging toward the door. “I don’t want to interrupt your family time.”

“Here, let me gather up all that paperwork for you,” said Heath. He stepped into the office. Jill stood awkwardly with Angie and watched the kids bicker over their chicken nuggets.

“I’m really glad to meet you,” said Jill. “Your kids are adorable.” 

“They’re spoiled rotten,” said Angie. “All these electronics, you know? Screens in the car, phone time. I told Heath I didn’t want a TV in this waiting room. That’s one place the kids aren’t going to be sitting in front of a screen, and then he goes and lets them have his phone.” 

“I guess it’s hard to raise kids anytime,” ventured Jill.

“Heath is a good father,” said Angie, with fierce protectiveness. “He works so hard so that I only have to be part-time. Lots of men out there wouldn’t care who watched the kids as long as their ladies were bringing in money. I know you only knew him a long time ago, so you can’t know how much he loves this family. The kids are his life.”

“I believe it,” said Jill, fervently wishing to be anywhere but here. “You guys have a lovely family.”

She repeated that to Heath as she stood by the car with him. “Your family is lovely. I’m glad I met them.”

“Angie really wanted to meet you,” said Heath, eager for her approval. “I know she can be kind of intense. I hope you didn’t think she didn’t like you.” Jill had felt that way, but she was willing to credit Heath’s superior knowledge of his own wife. “She’s about to go on a twelve-hour shift, so she’s a little stressed. There’s administration problems at the hospital, and they’re always short-staffed, and she has this one co-worker who’s always pulling passive-aggressive bullshit…”

He probably would have gone on, detailing to Jill the dramas that affected his life intimately and hers not at all, but she took the file from him. 

“I’m so glad you’re doing well,” she said, and she meant it. “Merry Christmas. Give your family my best.”

“Yours too,” said Heath, opening the car door for her. “Hope your holidays are peaceful.”

They would not be, but she accepted the thought in the spirit it was given. 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 5

For years Jill’s image of the Luxembourg Inn, filtered through burnished childhood memories, was of a perfect 60s time capsule. Every ash tray as gleaming as the day it was purchased, every divan perfectly tufted, every hanging pendant with its wooden accent. As the Mad Men aesthetic of mid-century chic brought mod back in vogue, she came to think of the Inn as vintage rather than passé. And now she was looking forward — no, actually excited — to see the the Inn shine forth with the full glory of a Camelot-era Christmas.

Clutching her gift, Jill allowed herself to be swept inside the Inn with the press of arriving guests. She made her way to the center of the lobby and turned, coat swinging around her, ready to relive the magical Christmas parties of her childhood. Everything was there: the lights, the spice, the noble tree glowing against the backdrop of the picture window.

And everything was the wrong size. The lobby had shrunk somehow, until its grand reception area was no more than an oversized living room. The rich pile of the carpet was faded and flat. Everything had grown old, but it had not grown beautiful. What should have been improved was not even being maintained. In the unparalyzed part of her mind, Jill was doing a calculation on how much cash would need to be infused into the Inn to make it live again, and the answer confirmed to her that the Inn was going to die, and very soon.

“Hello, darling!” her mother said, bearing down on her. “I wondered what was taking you so long when we have guests.”

Guests she had indeed, for she tugged Garrett French along like a trout on a line. Garrett was too polite to actually resist her, but it was clear that he was not eager to spend more time in Regina’s company this evening.

“Now I want you to meet Garrett French,” said Mother, squeezing his arm. Jill wondered why Garrett hadn't told her that they had already met. “I want you to set him straight. I want you tell him just how much this place is worth. Not just the worth, in dollars. The value, the investment in time, in community, in family. Look around. Have you ever seen the Inn as glorious as it is tonight?”

Mother believes, thought Jill. For her, the fantasy is real.

“The Inn holds a special place in all of our hearts,” said Garrett. Jill could see him doing what she had so often been unable to do: tailoring his words to Regina, speaking her language so that she would hear him. “It deserves to remain glorious for years to come. But worth is not the same thing as value. If you don’t act soon, value is all the Inn will have left.”

“Perhaps you can’t value a father’s legacy,” said Regina, drawing herself up to an untouchable height. “You speak to the man of money, Jill. Don’t undervalue your inheritance. I know you’ll want to prove that you loved your father. ”

“Love,” whispered Jill, to Mother’s back. “I love him still.”

“What a gift it must be, to know exactly how to wound,” said Garrett, “and to have the absolute confidence to wield it.” He laughed, but his hands hung wooden by his side. “Nothing is abstract with your mother, is it? Every disagreement must be personal.”

“I don’t think she does it to be cruel.” Some strange impulse drove Jill to defend her mother. “She’s never really known herself. She tries to persuade. She says what comes into her mind. Del does it too, only Del doesn’t care if you change or not. Mother wants to see a change.”

“What happens when she gets a change?” said Garrett. “Does the other person ever get to speak their mind? Or does this dynamic only work as long as someone else is willing to be the adult in the room?”

“Look, you’re talking about my mom,” said Jill, boiling into protective anger. “She’s a bitch, and she’s always been a bitch, and if you want a change you’ll have to change yourself, because you’re not going to dent her. Only God can get through to her, and you’re not God.”

She armed herself to unseat him in the next joust, but instead his silence hung heavily in the din of the party.

“No,” he said at last. “I’m certainly no one’s higher power.”

Then the swirl of the crowd pushed them apart. Garrett made no effort to rejoin her. I’ve just made an enemy, Jill thought, and the feeling that welled up in her, stripped of its earlier rage, was strangely like grief.

She wanted to find her sisters. She wanted to eat. She wanted to slip into a dark room with Heath and see if the old passion could dull the old pain. What she did not want was to be part of a large, laughing group, and yet the White Elephant exchange was already being organized. Her gift was taken from her and added to a large pile, and someone waved her over to a spot so that the games could begin.

The White Elephant party had become a tradition after Jill’s time. The rules seemed clear to everyone but her. She saw Reagan instructing Mr. Singh in the finer points of retaining your present against all challenges. Mr. Singh caught Jill’s eye across the room, and smiled in the gentle way of the man who needs fight for no gift because he already has everything. Quennedey was inspecting the gifts, and surreptitiously shaking one or two of the more intriguing packages. Del sat large and serene. Her husband nestled in her shadow. Garrett French sat exactly opposite from her, on the other side of the mound of packages.

And next to her shoved Heath Albany, bearing two glasses. He handed one to Jill.

“You look like you need this,” he said.

“God, I do.”

While Mother gave a welcoming speech and reminded everyone of the White Elephant procedure, Heath whispered, “You look amazing.”

“Do I?” said Jill. “Glad I haven’t let myself go after all these years.”

“Your dad missed you. He was always telling me your news, about your jobs and your vacations. Sounds like you’re doing well.” He swallowed his drink. “Getting out of town was good for you.”

“I remember that the last time we talked, that’s not exactly how you felt about my leaving.”

“I was wrong about a lot of things.”

He was looking directly at her. She could sense the effort it took to say those words, and to look at her as he said them. Instead of seeing the boy he’d been under the heavier features of the man, she could see the man as a maturation of the boy. She wondered whether she and the man were more compatible than she and the boy.

Then he raised his glass and said, “To better times.”

“To better times.”

Mother was finished, and the White Elephant had begun. People were deliberating over packages and opening them. Jill almost rose to grab her paisley-wrapped box, but realized that people were taking turns around the circle. She began to keep a watch on her present. That bourbon was going home with her, by hook or by crook.

There was a lot of hook and crook going on. Apparently you could pick a present and open it, or pick a present and swap it. The hot gift being traded around was a pink camo snuggie. Jill could see Del fix her eye on it with determination. It wasn’t the gift she’d brought, though; the newsprint box was still in the pile.

Heath, beside her, opened up an Otterbox phone case. “Look, Mom!” Quennedey said loudly enough to be heard over the room. “There it is. Are you going to trade for it?”

“Of course not,” said Reagan. “Why would I want that phone case?”

“I want that phone case,” said Quennedey.

Reagan opened a holiday scarf that was acceptable to her. Mr. Singh discovered Big Mouth Billy the Singing Bass, and seemed enchanted. To great applause, Garrett French found a Jackalope, a gag that made an appearance year after year. Jill selected her own paisley box and opened her bourbon. She was prepared to fight all comers, but no one challenged her. One of the last guests picked up Del’s box and tore off the newsprint. Peeking inside, he and all his neighbors whooped and held up for display a terrible Christmas sweater, red with holly leaves, and in the center a big white “Ho3”.

Heath cheered as well. “The dad sweater! That’s awesome. I haven’t seen it for ages.” He turned to nudge Jill, but she wasn’t in her seat.

“How could you do that, Del? Dad’s sweater!” hissed Jill.

“It was just sitting in the closet,” said Del in a comfortable tone of voice. “No one wanted it. I thought it would be funny.” It was like Del to finally develop a sense of humor just in time to toss out a family heirloom.

Jill sat down, the ringing in her ears mercifully drowning out the howls from the sweater brigade. Why had she not packed away Dad’s sweater the other day? How could she have hung it back up so casually after crying in it? She clutched the now worthless bourbon. Perhaps she could make a private bargain with…

But the game wasn’t over. There was a second round. People were passing or trading again, and the room was getting intense. Jill readied herself for the main chance. As soon as the turn passed to her, she pushed her bourbon at the jovial sweater fellow and seized it from his lap. The trading passed on. Jill folded the sweater, and made ready to pack it up.

“We’re not done yet,” said Quennedey, materializing behind Jill’s chair. “There’s one more round, and it’s the trickiest. When it gets to your turn, you can trade, or you can back out of the game and take your present with you. I’m going to make my mom get the phone case, and then I’m going to lick it so no one else wants to touch it.”

The round started. Del, having acquired the pink camo snuggie, bowed out, and her husband obediently removed himself and his Christmas socks from the lists. Almost immediately, a lady in a sweater with Rudolph’s nose blinking red snatched the sweater from Jill’s lap. “Gotta have this!” she crowed, leaving Jill with a box of chocolates. The circle tightened as people departed with their loot. Reagan angrily accepted the phone case and walked off with Quennedey hanging on her arm, asking if she could put it on her phone right now. Mr. Singh arose with his singing bass. Jill’s chocolates were taken away, and her own bourbon put in their place.

And Garrett French traded a strange brass objet d’art, a likely priceless contribution from Mr. Singh, for Dad’s sweater. He looked at her, but she couldn’t read his expression. Triumph? Mockery? Determination? He knew how much it meant to her. It was cruel to taunt her like that. Heath understood. Heath would get it back for her.

Heath walked away with the Jackalope, waving it in triumph as he headed to the bar. The field was narrowing. There were still people left, and the man who’d first gotten the sweater was still in the running, but Jill had to move. She marched across to Garrett French and shoved the bourbon in his face. “Give me that sweater,” she said.

A murmur rippled through the room like the aftershock of a quake. In the sudden silence that followed, Del irrelevantly hummed a snatch of “O Christmas Tree”. Garrett turned very white. For a moment Jill thought he would push the bourbon back at her, but he took it and set it on the floor. She retreated to her chair and hugged the sweater to herself, but no one else looked at it, or her. In fact, the entire game seemed to drift apart. She had put her foot in it somehow, ruined everyone’s fun, but no matter, as long as Dad’s sweater was hers.

“That was charming,” said Reagan. “I’m impressed, Jill. I didn’t know you had it in you. I’ve seen you explode, but calculated humiliation is new for you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jill, her stomach suddenly churning.

“Didn’t you know Garrett French was a drunk? Twelve Steps and everything. You must have wanted that sweater pretty badly.”

“I did,” said Jill faintly. “I thought I did.”

Mother, who as hostess had not participated in the gift exchange, now joined them. “Darling,” she gushed. “You certainly took Garrett French down a peg or two. I’m so proud to see you standing up for Daddy like that.”

“Daddy wouldn’t have done that,” said Jill. “Daddy didn’t humiliate anyone.”

“Who said anything about humiliation?” said Mother. “He shouldn’t come to parties if he can’t handle even the idea of alcohol. It’s an obvious present at a White Elephant.”

Jill broke free. Garrett was nowhere to be seen. Why would he hang around? To talk to her? To be insulted again? She pulled on her coat and started for the door.

Mr. Singh appeared to hold it open for her. “Good evening, Miss O’Leary.” He raised her hand to his lips. “I pay my respects to your mistletoe.”

Remembering, Jill patted her hair and pulled out the sprig from her bun. Del, passing by, took it from her. “You won’t be needing that,” she said, and she held it over her husband’s head and gave him a loud kiss.

Outside, the snow was falling more thickly than ever. Lamps illuminated the driveway all the way down to the street, where the peace of the evening was broken by the sound of tires whining and slipping in the parking lot. In the gazebo in the lawn, a cigarette glowed red. Garrett French stood in his hat and long coat, looking out toward the distant silver maple. Jill walked over and stood quietly next to him.

“Can I give this back to you,” said Garrett, handing her the bottle of bourbon.

“Thanks,” said Jill, handling the cold neck of the bottle gingerly. After a moment she added, “Would you like the sweater.”

“No, thanks,” said Garrett. “I’d only taken it so I could give it to you.”

“Ah,” said Jill. They stood in silence again. A surge of people poured out of the Inn heading for the parking lot. Loudest among them was Heath Albany, singing “Last Christmas, you gave me your heart.”

“The blasted Heath,” murmured Garrett.

Jill felt that this public display of drunkenness laid an obligation on her to open the subject. “Look. I’m really sorry. I had no idea. I thought you took the sweater to spite me.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I offended you earlier.”

“How?”

“Because I said you weren’t God.”

Garrett laughed, a sound free of rancor. “I’m not.”

“Neither am I,” said Jill, suddenly shaking. “I’ve been gone for years. How could anyone expect me to know I shouldn’t give you a bottle.”

Garrett turned toward her. “Will you take a walk with me?”

“Sure.”

They walked on the salted edge of the driveway through the gates, and then through the thickening snow on the sidewalk. Garrett halted before the twisted silver maple.

“Do you remember this tree?”

“Yes, but something’s wrong with it. It used to be so straight, but it’s all off angle now.”

“I’m wrong with it. I came around this curve too fast one night years ago, drunk, and I hit the tree and knocked it back like this.”

“How fast were you going?” said Jill, awed.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember anything about it. Pretty fast, I guess, to push a tree that size.”

“How come you weren’t killed?” said Jill.

“I don’t know.”

They turned back up the driveway, toward the house this time.

“Mother should take the tree down,” said Jill.

“She won’t,” said Garrett. “It’s an object lesson about drunk driving. Look, children, what could happen to you if you end up like Garrett French.”

“You haven’t ended up all that badly,” said Jill. “You can buy property, which is more than a lot of people can do.”

“That’s my dad’s money, not mine.”

“He trusts you with it.”

“He’s dead.”

Jill started to say something, and remembered that Mother had made a remark to Garrett about a father’s legacy. She shut her mouth.

At the porch, Garrett reached out to open the door for her, but it was locked. She searched around her purse for the key, but slowly. She had not said anything right all evening, and Garrett seemed as if he very much needed someone to say something right to him. The key revealed itself, and she put it in the lock, but paused for a moment.

“You haven’t ended up all that badly,” she repeated. “And anyway, you’re not done yet.”

He put his hand over hers on the doorknob. “It’s too bad you lost your mistletoe. It would have been a nice thing to have about now.”

Then he bid her goodnight and left. Closing the door, she turned and saw the ball of mistletoe hanging in the hallway, with Mother’s antique table still underneath it. She almost called him back again, but the thought of the silver maple, the monument Mother maintained to his alcoholism, stopped her. She would not kiss him on Mother’s property.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

I Remember MrsDarwin: Forty Years I Endured edition



Today is my fortieth birthday: I am 40 today!

In honor of such, I revive (by actual reader request) I Remember MrsDarwin, these four years extinct, to make a birthday request of all of you: a piece of flash fiction. As I toil for your reading enjoyment, don't let me toil alone! Brighten my journey into the darkness of middle age with the spark of your creativity.

Write me a little story, or a poem, or a six-word memoir ("For sale: baby shoes. Never worn."), or, if the spirit moves you, follow the actual rules of the game:

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.

You can find all sorts of mendacity of this sort in past installments of I Remember MrsDarwin.


Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 4

Patel Brothers was indeed worthy of Mr. Singh’s recommendation. When Jill dropped his name, the younger Mr. Patel nodded sagely and led her to one of the few obtainable bottles of Eagle Rare bourbon in the nation. The purchase made, the bourbon was nestled into a padded box. The box was wrapped in a warm paisley paper that smelt faintly of cardamom. It would stand out among the pile of White Elephant gifts, which was handy since Jill meant to end up with it herself.

Who was Mr. Singh? she wondered. Why was he at the Luxembourg Inn, and why did Mr. Patel breath his name with reverence? What did he do, and where did he do it? How could anyone be so outrageously handsome and yet have such deferential grace? It was almost as if he was…

“A prince!” sighed Jill, and for one moment she forgot that she was 30 years old and that she had not read a fairytale in years. She could almost see Mr. Singh in a cape and a turban, riding in state on an elephant, acknowledging his subjects. Come to that, she had almost seen him like that, in one of Amitra’s Bollywood movies. Maybe he was an actor, scouting out locations for his next film! Did actors scout locations themselves? What kind of Bollywood movie could you shoot in the wilds of Ohio?

These pleasant reveries accompanied her most of the way home. Patel Brothers was out in an opposite direction from downtown, so Jill approached the house from a direction she’d not yet come on this trip. Carefully rounding the sharp curve at the edge of her family’s property so as not to skid in the snow, she passed a huge silver maple tree just outside the gates of the Inn. There was something unfamiliar about this tree she’d known all her life. Once it had been straight as a sentinel, but now it listed strangely away from her. As her lights flashed across the tree, a raccoon on a branch glared at her and dove into a hollow. Jill shivered and pulled up the driveway. The bottle of Eagle Rare seemed more appealing than every, somehow.

Del was leaving the house as Jill came in.

“I’m all set for tonight,” she said. “See, here it is, cheap as it comes, and I even wrapped it in Mom’s newspaper.” She held out a box covered in the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal.

“I don’t think Mom had read that yet,” said Jill.

“She can read it if she picks this present,” said Del, walking over toward the Inn.

Jill inventoried the slim pickings in her suitcase. Everyone was going to be at the party, Reagan had said. The regal Mr. Singh would be there. Heath, blue-collared and rough of hand. And Garrett French, with his hat and his “ergo”. What did one wear to appear with distinction before three very different men? It was an academic question, as there was only one option in this case: a little black dress.
She surveyed herself in the hall mirror as she pulled on her coat. Black dress, plaid scarf, red lipstick — so simple as to be forgettable. And above her head, the dull gleam of white berries. She looked up to find a ball of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Pulling Mother’s antique side table underneath it, she climbed up, broke off a sprig, and tucked in her bun.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 3

Saturday afternoon found Jill not accounting, nor relaxing, nor shuffling in irritation through a gift shop looking for just the right thing for the White Elephant party, but shivering on the sidewalk along Main Street in the company of her two sisters, watching the Hometown Christmas parade pass by. Main Street glowed: streetlamps flickered, shop windows beckoned cheerfully, and sunlight filtered down through the snowflakes to diffuse the light into the sourceless illumination of a Thomas Kinkade painting. From a passing car the scene would have been entirely charming. Standing out it in, Jill was miserably aware that she had acclimated to Los Angeles’s seasonless warmth. Her coat was not proof against the chill, and her toes were numb. She reflected with gloomy satisfaction that the precious snowflakes were hitting the paraders right in the face as they marched.

Reagan and Del were impervious to the cold in their individual get-ups. Del was wrapped up in a Doctor Who scarf (Tom Baker, of course) and a Lands’ End parka she’d bought during the Bush Administration. Reagan, Jill’s older sister, sported a North Face parka and matching cashmere gloves, hat, and scarf. Her hat sat lightly on her blond hair (dyed; the O’Learys were Black Irish). Under her gloves, her manicure was unchipped. Wedge boots lined with fur raised her almost to Jill’s height. Her manner was as honeyed as her hair, and just as studied.

“I pulled a few strings to get the dance studio’s float second to last in the parade, right before Santa,” she confided, with that giggle that had always set Jill’s teeth on edge. “Quennedey’s going to be Clara. Her class was all supposed to be mice, but I told Miss Gabi I wouldn’t put the deposit on the float if Quennedey was going to have to wear an ugly fur suit.”

Jill had never met young Quennedey, but the photos she had seen of the child did not suggest that she would make a very winsome Clara. Perhaps the snow would soften her glower.

What Jill thought, Del said. “Why do you make that girl take ballet? She hates it. If you’re trying to relive your youth, get plastic surgery. At least then only you have to suffer.”

“Isn’t our Del charming?” drawled Reagan in an accent that Jill classified as “catalog country”. “Baby of the family, always gets to say whatever she wants. Del has every word in her vocabulary but ‘tact’.”

“At least I’m still married,” said Del, and that shut Reagan up.

Back in the middle, thought Jill. Reagan all sugar and Del all spice. And me, I’m not even in the same cupboard. I’m more like the liquor cabinet. Maybe I’m the bourbon — kinda rough going down, but warm inside? Does that even mean anything?

Shaking off her metaphors, she asked, “What are you bringing for the White Elephant party tonight? Are we supposed to get gag gifts? How expensive should it be? Who’s coming, anyway?”

“You want to play it safe,” advised Reagan. “Everyone’s going to be there, even hotel guests. Get something classy that you could give to anyone.”

“Just pull something out of the closet,” said Del. “That’s what I’m going to do. The cheaper and tackier the better.”

A float for Vineyard Fellowship moved toward them, blaring “Mary, Did You Know?”. Mary and Joseph were a pair of teenagers staring adoringly at a doll in a manger, and the shepherds wore cowboy hats. A herd of fluffy sheep were pitching candy out to the crowd. Children darted into the street and squabbled over Tootsie Rolls and Starburst.

Del was irate. “I called every single registered group in the parade and told them that this year we should ban candy tossing. It leaves litter all along the parade route. And it’s just irresponsible. Some child could get hit running out in the street like that. ”

“Has that ever happened?” Jill asked.

“No, and we ought to keep it that way.”

Jill wanted to argue the point more, but as the Vineyard float pulled even with them, she recognized the driver. Heath Albany, a little older, a little heavier, waving at crowd, a wedding ring definitely on his hand. He nodded at Reagan, then Del, and then his eyes met Jill’s. The float came to a full halt. Jill’s pulse beat madly in her temple as she measured her effect on him after all these years. Then she realized that Heath had stopped driving because the traffic cop at the corner had paused the parade to let the backed-up traffic through the intersection.

“Jill!” Heath beckoned to her. There was a nervousness in his voice she’d never heard when they were younger. She stepped out into the street without exactly willing it. Maybe it was good that their first meeting would be in full view of the public. They’d never been good for anything in private but fighting or… Jill felt the snowflakes melting on her hot cheeks.

“Heath,” she said hastily. “How’s business?”

“Good, good,” he said, and she realized that he’d taken her literally. “The shop is doing great. This is one of our trucks, actually. Everything’s going well.”

“That’s great,” she said.

“I’m running the place just as your dad would wanted me to,” he said. “Maybe you’d like to come around sometime, for old time’s sake.”

It was an innocent enough suggestion, but the hesitant intensity behind the invitation put Jill on her guard.

“I heard you got married,” she said. To her surprise, his face brightened with a pride that seemed entirely out of keeping from a man who’d pretty much just propositioned her.

“Yeah, that’s my son,” he said, motioning back at one of the children on the float, a tiny bored sheep absorbed in an iPad.

Jill felt expected to say something, so she asked, “How old?”

“He’s five now,” said Heath. “Jill, listen, I have to talk to you. You’re the only one who…”

The parade lurched into motion once again.

“I’ll be at the shop,” called Heath. Jill stood in the street and watched him looking back at her in his mirror as the float moved on. And then Del pulled her back onto the sidewalk, out of the way of the advance of the high school marching band.

“Are you going to get your claws back into Heath Albany?” asked Reagan, with apparently genuine interest.

“My taste doesn’t run to married men,” said Jill with dignity. “I’m sure he just wants to catch up.”

“A man like that only has one thing on his mind,” Del muttered.

“You think so?” said Jill, not sure whether to be flattered or affronted. “He did introduce me to his son.”

“I don’t mean sex,” Del said. “I mean his mind isn’t big enough to hold more than one idea at a time. Well, see you later.” She strode off down the street, having reached her quota of sister time for one afternoon.

“Quennedey!” screamed Reagan. Jill turned to see a majestic Christmas tree drifting past, surrounded by toy soldiers and mice and snowflakes, all with brightly rouged cheeks and perfect ballet buns. Clara and her prince sat on thrones, graciously greeting their subjects. Clara’s gelled golden ringlets and lip-glossed smile remained unchanged as Reagan bawled at her.

That looks like a child who almost deserves the name Quennedey, Jill thought. Then she saw that Reagan was not looking at the oblivious Clara, but at a girl sitting next to the driver, wearing a black beret jammed down to her bushy eyebrows. As she saw her mother, she flicked her hand in a wave that somehow seemed to involve mainly her middle finger.

“I’ll kill her,” Reagan hissed. “Does she know how much I had to shell out for that truck to guarantee that she’d be Clara?”

The set of Quennedey’s beret suggested that she was reveling in her mother’s every wasted dollar. Jill resolved to treat her niece to hot chocolate at the first opportunity that presented itself.

As the parade wound to a close, the sisters walked down Main Street. Jill peered into the various shops, looking for an elegant yet tacky gift within the price range of the gift exchange. Suddenly she was drawn up short by Reagan seizing her elbow.

“It’s him,” she whispered. Jill craned her neck, looking for Heath Albany or maybe Garrett French, but Reagan was dragging her toward a tall, dark, and handsome stranger.

“Mr. Singh,” she purred. “It’s so good to see you. Have you met my sister Jill yet? She’s back in town for Christmas.”

To Jill’s astonishment, Mr. Singh bowed to her.

“I have been enjoying your mother’s hospitality at the Luxembourg Inn,” he said.

“Will you be staying with us long?” Jill asked, taking refuge in the standard phrase of front-desk hospitality. This polished man seemed as if he’d be more at home in Luxembourg Luxembourg than the Ohio variety.

“I have been here a few weeks,” he said. “I find this region entirely charming.”

“Is that so?” Jill had intended this as a polite nothing, not as the incredulous snort it actually sounded like. She tried to salvage her manners. “Maybe it takes a fresh set of eyes.”

“You see no potential in your hometown?” Mr. Singh shook his head with urbane regret.

“We’re just looking for presents for the White Elephant party tonight,” Reagan cooed. “Maybe you can tell us what you want? Mr. Singh will be joining us, Jill. He’s dying to see what a small-town Christmas celebration looks like.”

Jill’s eye roll must have been too obvious, for Mr. Singh smiled and said, “You do not have the Christmas spirit?”

To her horror, Jill automatically replied, “I wish I had some Christmas spirits.”

“We’ll see you this evening,” said Reagan hastily, nudging Jill along.

Mr. Singh held out his hand to Jill. As she took it, he moved a step closer to her. She caught a whiff of expensive scent as he murmured in her ear, “May I recommend Patel Brothers Liquor on State Route 48?”

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 2


“But honey,” Mother said, “I always have a White Elephant party on the first Saturday of December. It’s going to be in the lobby of the Inn. Everyone comes, of course. Your sisters will be there. Even hotel guests can come, if they wish.”

Years of therapy had taught Jill that her first impulse to snap back that it was so good of Mother to give the guests a choice was probably not the the correct response. She sat back from the table covered with tax returns and receipts and various papers she’d been trying to sort out, and let out her breath in a controlled fashion that could not be called a sigh.

“I’d hoped to relax on Saturday, Mother. All finances and no play make Jill a dull girl.”

“I know, darling. I’ve barely seen you since you came home. After twelve years you might at least eat dinner with me. I know you only had two days to attend your father’s funeral, but now that you can spare some time I think we ought to see more of each other.”

What Jill was seeing was red, clouding her vision, taking her back to the days when Mother could and did get under her skin, until shouting and smashing seemed like the only way out. I’m not 18 anymore, she thought. I’m an adult. I will not be provoked.

“I suppose you’ll see me on Saturday at your White Elephant party, since it’s important to you, but until then my first priority is the job that you asked me to do.”

“Well, I can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with. Your father poured his heart out into his businesses to support this family. I know you won’t let that Garrett French get away with another lowball offer for the Inn. You were always Daddy’s girl. Don’t undervalue his work.”

And Mother shut the door gently, leaving Jill to choke on her responses. I don’t “come up” with numbers! The figures are all here, somewhere. The inn is worth what it’s worth, no matter how much you or I or Daddy valued it. 

“That Garrett French” was the stock villain of Mother’s life, an investor who was snapping up local properties. According to what mood Mother was in, he was either preventing progress by refusing to modernize outdated buildings, or destroying history by recklessly renovating the crumbling charm out of the downtown historical district. Jill didn’t remember him well, as he’d been several years older than her, but she pictured him now as the Old Man Potter, rubbing his hands and cackling as he lowballed the worthy property owners of Luxembourg, Ohio.

Jill stretched and then shivered in the chill of the old house. She was at work in the library, and had been, it felt like, since she’d arrived. She knew, if she cared to cast her mind back, that Mother had an array of snacks out for her as she’d lugged her bags, and that she’d slept in an elegant room that had not been her bedroom for twelve years. The bedroom, as the dining room and the rest of the house, was spotless and fresh, because as best Jill could tell the inn staff were cleaning this house along with their standard housekeeping duties next door. And the books were being fudged so that somehow this counted as a business expense. So many things, in fact, counted as a business expense that the inn was barely running at a profit. And the same went for Daddy’s garage, and several other ventures that fell under the heading of “family business”.

The implications of this needed to be hashed out, but for now, all Jill wanted was something warm to wear. She pulled open the closet door in the hall before she remembered that she didn’t live here anymore and wouldn’t have a jacket hanging up. And then, as she stared at Daddy’s old Christmas sweater on its wooden hanger, she felt her heart pounding like a leaden lump of grief. 

It was in the closet because he’d worn it all year round, and because in the four months since his death no one had had the heart to move it, and so here it was in all its faded glory. Oversized — for Daddy, anyway; he’d never been a big man. Red, with holly leaves, and in the center was knit a big “Ho3”. That was Daddy’s kind of humor. He’d seen fit to wear it on balmy Spring days as well as by the glow of the Yule log. Jill pulled the sweater on and wrapped herself in her father. Here she was in his arms again, pressing her face against his shoulder, smelling his warm Daddy smell, wiping her tears on this very sleeve. Why had she not come home? Why had she let her mother keep her away? Why did she think emails and calls could substitute for Daddy in his sweater?

The big sob she could no longer hold back broke forth, and with it all the temper that she’d curbed for the past two days. She looked around for the the nearest thing to grab, just as she used to do. A string of chaste white lights, framing the doorway, was within her grasp. She yanked them down, opened the door to hurl them out onto the porch, and yanked her arm back to avoid hitting the hat of the man standing outside the door, shaking the snow off of his shoes. 

His flinch brought Jill to her senses, and she realized how she must look. Ancient Christmas sweater, frizzy hair, red eyes, nose welling up with a big drip, and the lights of fury still glowing in her fist. She hadn’t even pulled them out of the plug.

“Trouble with your lights?” asked the man, who had recovered himself as well. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Jill had already formulated a story about the difficulties of Christmas decorating when her mouth said instead, “I was angry.”

He nodded, and studied the Christmas sweater, and asked, “Are you Gillian?”

“Jill, yes,” she said, too startled to deny her full name. “How did you know?”

“Well, you’re holding lights, and you’ll forgive me if I note that you are probably not one of the Luxembourg Inn staff members that Regina usually pulls in to do her menial decorating tasks. Plus, I used to see your dad wearing that sweater all the time. Now here is someone wearing Chuck O’Leary’s Christmas sweater — out of love, I assume, because no one would wear that sweater otherwise. You look like your sisters Reagan and Del, but I can’t imagine either of them wearing your dad’s sweater or crying. So, a family member, the prodigal daughter coming home to paper over the accounting problems. Ergo, Jill.”

Jill stepped out on the front porch and carefully closed the front door before availing herself of the clean tissue the man provided her. “Love” was a word that she had heard her mother say often over the years, in many different contexts, but to hear someone say that the Christmas sweater was evidence that she genuinely loved her father destroyed her for a moment.

“Will you be okay?” the man asked, concerned. “Should I call someone?”

Jill hiccuped through her sobs. “Did you really just say, ‘Ergo’?”

He laughed. “I did. I’m pompous that way.”

The sweater was as convenient as the soggy tissue, so she wiped her eyes and nose on it as well. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then she was angry again. “Though there’s no reason I should apologize. I can cry if I want to.”

“You don’t have to apologize for that at all,” he said, “Your dad was a good man.” 

Jill wailed. “And I didn’t even hit you with the lights, so I don’t have to be sorry for that either. You shouldn’t have been right outside the door.”

“And I won’t be, much longer. I can see that this isn’t a good time. Would you tell your mother I’ll stop by to see her another time?”

He handed Jill a business card and another tissue, and tipped his hat to her as he turned to go. Who wears a hat? Jill wondered. Who says “Ergo”?

Looking down at the card, she read the name “Garrett French”.

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 1

For most people, going to Luxembourg for Christmas would be the chance of a lifetime. For Jill O'Leary, it felt more like a life sentence than a month of vacation.

“You’re going to Luxembourg for Christmas?” squealed Jill’s co-worker Amita. “I would kill to go to Luxembourg. Beautiful scenery, pine woods, and snow. And I’m stuck here in L.A., again.”
“Luxembourg, Ohio,” said Jill, shoving her laptop in her bag and glancing wistfully out the 19th-story window at the palm trees below. “There’s not much besides woods and snow. And believe me, I wish you could go in my place.”
“Is that where your home is? I didn’t know you were from the Midwest,” said Amita.
“My home is here.” Jill zipped the bag with more force than was necessary. “The Midwest is a place you’re from. You grow up there, and then you get out as soon as possible.”
“If you hate it so much, why go back for Christmas?”
Why go back, indeed? “Because my mother told me to,” was Jill’s lame answer. “Isn’t that pathetic? You think you’re grown up, you think you can do what you want with your life, and then you find yourself sitting up and begging when your mom tells you to. And not just for Christmas. For the whole month of December.”
“Girl, I have a Indian mother,” said Amita. “You don’t have to tell me.”


It had been twelve years since Jill O’Leary had last been home for Christmas, twelve years since she’d helped out at the family inn, twelve years since she’d revved it out of town in her rusty pick-up, stopping only to back over Heath Albany’s dog for good measure. At 18 she’d thought there was no way she’d ever be going home again, so it seemed like she should burn all her bridges at once. She’d considered actually setting fire to the covered bridge outside town, as a sort of vengeful pun, but she hadn’t wanted to make things harder for Daddy than they needed to be. He would have understood, though. “You take things so literarily,” he always told her, as their private joke.

Now Daddy was dead, and Heath was married last she heard, and Jill was being summoned home for Christmas to save the Luxembourg Inn. “Summoned” sounded like a court date, which wasn’t a bad way to describe any occasion where Mother was likely to sit judgment on your life and find it wanting. And Mother — perhaps Regina O’Leary’s daughters had called her “mama” before they’d learned to talk, but “Mama” was too soft and flowing a title for a woman who could not bend — had issued an ultimatum. “Jill, if you don’t find some way to fix the finances before Christmas, I will be forced to sell the Luxembourg Inn. I cannot carry this tax burden on my shoulders alone. Do you want to do that to your mother? Do you want to explain to your sisters that you wouldn’t help save their inheritance?”

Jill doubted that her sisters would listen to any explanation from her, but all the same, she was going back to Luxembourg to rescue an inn she didn’t care for, for a mother who’d never cared for her.


On December 1, Jill was unwillingly driving the familiar highway towards home. Unwillingly, because at the airport she’d tried to hire a ride, and the driver had laughed. “You want me to drive all the way to Luxembourg without a return fare lined up? Good luck with that.” She’d had to rent a car. And now she was driving toward home, where there were probably six or seven cars she could use sitting behind Daddy’s garage. Granted, they were probably mostly rusting, or in pieces, or being repaired for people who couldn’t afford to pay, because Daddy had been like that.

Heath was running the garage now, she guessed. Daddy had always liked Heath, and Heath had liked Daddy, which had frustrated Jill no end in high school. She’d wanted to be rebellious and edgy in those days, to prove her independence, and taking up with Heath had seemed like the way to stick it to her parents. He was big and rough, and a bit mean, which meant that they were always fighting. Certainly Mother had disapproved.

“You can do better than that, Jill,” Regina O’Leary said, adjusting her perfectly frosted hair in a carefully calculated gesture of dismissal. “It’s tedious of you to act out this way, but if you want to bring home a brute, at least make sure he’s housebroken.”

Jill had expected Daddy to toss Heath out, or demand to know his intentions, or get protective of his little girl. Instead, Daddy had invited Heath to the garage, and Heath had been as respectful as he knew how. It was absolutely infuriating when Jill realized that not only did her father like Heath more than she did, but that Heath liked her father more than he liked her. Jill and Heath had only ever had animal attraction between them. Daddy and Heath had shared interests. And with Daddy, Heath was not ashamed to admit that there were things he didn’t know, and things that he wasn’t good at yet, which was more than he’d ever been willing to admit to her.

Jill hoped he’d gotten better at forgiving, because they were probably going to have to talk about that dog.


“Welcome to Luxembourg, population 12,000,” boasted the sign at the town limits. Why 12,000? Jill wondered. Why anyone? Why does this town exist, in the middle of a forest in Ohio? Why would anyone settle here? And who in their right minds would build an inn in a place that no one ever comes?

Her grandparents, that was who. Her mother never ceased reminding her that this was a family business, that people had obligations to family, that you didn’t just walk away from family. You didn’t just walk away from a inn built in the 1960s to look like a Swiss chalet, even though the actual Luxembourg was not in Switzerland, was in fact its own country that just wanted to be left alone. And when family needed you, even a successful accountant from Los Angeles came trotting home.

Well, here she was, sitting in a rental car, driving down old Main Street, cruising past the old brick downtown, all festooned with garlands and poinsettias. And here, just past downtown, was the old house with the front porch meticulously tricked out with the appropriate amount and style of holiday decor. And here, next to the house, was the Luxembourg Inn, all half timbering and balconies and genteelly crumbling away under a quantity of evergreen swag.

As Jill’s headlights illuminated the potted Christmas trees along the driveway that looped around to the inn’s carved doors, the first snowflakes began to fall. “Welcome home to Luxembourg,” she thought. “Ho ho ho.”