The contest is over now, but just for statistical purposes: the word count total is now up to 55,541.
I repeated the last couple paragraphs of the last installment just to give us a running start. The next installment should be either Saturday or Sunday night. We'll see how fast I'm going.
When the mail arrived, Kristy found, among the usual assortment of items, a Christmas card-sized envelope from Dan. Opening it, she found a card with showed a cow wearing a santa hat. Inside was inscribed:
“Kristy, I saw this card, and since you don’t seem to answer your email anymore now that you live in the great Mid-West, I thought more old fashioned greetings might be in order. Happy Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, Holidays and New Year. Things are much as usual at the office, as we brace for the New Years rush of people who follow up resolutions to write wills or get divorces. My Mother made another valiant attempt at finding the Nice Jewish Girl™, but though she is certainly nice and Jewish and a girl, I don’t think either of us sees any future in it. I hope you and your sister are doing well. Have you tipped any cows or met any farm boys? Best Wishes, --Dan”
The card caused a twinge of Kristy’s conscience. Following the well established course of their past interactions, Dan had sent her several emails since she had moved away, and each time she had thoroughly meant to reply, indeed had resolved to reply at a length such that it required waiting until she had time, but as she had not had any pressing reason to contact Dan, she had never actually made the time to write these lengthy responses.
Her first instinct was to pick up her phone and call him. But, of course, it was Christmas Eve. No one made random social calls on Christmas Eve. The day was for event and for sitting around with family.
However, as the thought upon this for a moment, it occurred to her that Katie and her mother were still out shopping, Tom was napping in the easy chair, and Dan was unlikely to have any Christmas activities planned. She picked up her phone and called him.
“Dan. Hi, it’s Kristy.”
“Kristy,” replied the familiar voice. “I wouldn’t expect to hear from you today. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, everything is fine. I got your card. And I was thinking about how I keep meaning to write or call you and not doing it. So since everything else was busy with one thing or another around here, and I thought you might not be busy, I thought I’d call. Is this an okay time?”
“Sure. I’m at the office, but no one is coming in and there’s not much work. In the evening I might fulfill a few stereotypes by getting Chinese food and watching a movie.”
“Sounds relaxing. I think Katie and I will probably end up going to vigil mass with my parents. Christmas and Easter are the two times going to church is so traditional I don’t feel like a hypocrite going along.”
“Ah, but that’s how it starts,” warned Dan, his tone half joking.
“I figured it was the one bit still clinging on. Going to church on holidays seems like it’s just acknowledging traditions and some general sense of order to the year. Going every week would be pretending to be holy — and I’m just not.”
“I can’t pretend to understand how these things work for Catholics, but in my experience, when I started going to temple more than just on High Holidays, it was because I saw that people who went every Saturday didn’t think they were especially holy. It’s a way of keeping the week rooted in order and tradition, not showing off.”
“I don’t know,” Kristy said, striving to close out the topic. “It’s not something I really think about much when I’m not around my family.”
“How has it been back near your family?” Dan asked, accepting the change of subject. “Have you been enjoying seeing your parents more?”
Kristy sketched out in a lightly humorous tone the sequence of events which had led to their parents moving in with them for a couple weeks. This led to an exchange of anecdotes about family gatherings, quirks and tensions. After a while conversation lagged.
“So,” said Kristy, feeling the irresistible urge to take someone far away into her confidence. “The mention in your card of your Nice Jewish Girl problems reminded me that I’ve been thinking of taking a page out of your book.”
“You’ve decided to look for a Nice Jewish Girl yourself?”
“I’m contemplating the Nice Catholic Boy.”
“And just in time for Christmas…”
“Dan, this is my lighthearted attempt to introduce a serious topic that’s been on my mind.”
“Oh, well then.” His tone became more serious. “Tell me about this guy.”
“You won’t believe this… He’s a handyman. My sister called him up off an ad she saw on the back of a church bulletin my parents left around. He worked on a couple things around the house, and I had him come out to put together some plans to renovate the kitchen — which really is bad — and he’s just, interesting. We enjoyed having him around so much we started just inviting him to come over, aside from the work.”
“Well, I. We. Katie and I are kind of like a family, I guess.”
“So a handyman from a church bulletin. What’s he like?”
“He’s… God, that’s a terrible question. How can you just explain what someone is like? Could you describe me to someone?”
“I could come up with a few things. But also, I don’t feel the sudden need to bring you up to people. There must be something that catches your imagination about him. What’s his name, for starters?”
“Paul. His name is Paul Burke. I think he’s a few years younger than I am. Maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He spent some time in seminary and realized it wasn’t for him, started his own company doing handyman work, mostly on old houses. He has 70 acres of land he wants to turn into a sustainable agriculture farm.”
“See that’s… He’s rooted. There’s a solidity to him that’s attractive. He works with his hands and knows how to do things. He has a beard, and wears jeans and suspenders, and plays Johnny Cash songs on his guitar. I feel like there’s something real and solid about him that’s been missing in men I’ve known before. He’s very educated. He just prefers to work with his hands.”
There was a slight pause before Dan responded to this onrush or description, and when he did so it was not in the most gratifying tone. “Do you picture yourself living that life?” he asked. “On a farm and everything?”
“Well.” Somehow picturing herself with Paul had not worked itself out to the point of picturing herself actually living on a farm. “I don’t know. Maybe. His ideas about business are a little unrealistic in some ways. I think I could help him run things.”
“If he’s the sort of old fashioned, hands-on guy you’re describing, do you think that what he’d want is for you to help run things? Maybe those unrealistic ideas are his ideals?”
“Dan, I—” Kristy started off indignantly, but Dan cut her off.
“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know the guy. I’m just asking because what you’re describing to me sounds a lot more like an idea than a real guy. Maybe what you need is a guy totally different from the sorts you’ve known before. But make sure it’s the guy that you’re actually attracted to, not just the novelty.”
From this point the call wound its way rapidly to a close. Kristy soon found herself looking at the darkened screen of her phone with a feeling of general dissatisfaction.
Katie and Pat arrived back shortly thereafter, and began a whirlwind application of holiday cheer to the otherwise restrained bungalow. Kristy tried briefly to join in, but soon found that the Christmas decorating annoyed her. As it was decorated, the house seemed to be becoming gradually less hers, as if she were in her family’s house rather than they in hers. Each piece of decoration began to look garish and cheap.
Sensing that with her looming mood, nothing would please, she extricated herself from the Christmas preparation, changed, and went running instead, trusting in the exercise and the shock of frigid air to clear her emotions.
Three miles later, on her return, the house seemed blazing with cheerful light and warmth. As she pulled off her fleece jacket and tried to rub some feeling back into her face, Katie handed her a mug of cocoa with a candy cane in it.
“Your father and I were going to go to mass tonight,” Pat said, as Kristy sipped her cocoa. “The vigil is always beautiful, and that way we can have the whole day together for family time tomorrow. Do you want to come, Kristy?”
“I’d be happy to,” said Kristy.
“Oh, I guess I’ll come too,” Katie added.
Mass was to begin at 10PM, but Pat had insisted that they arrive half an hour early in order to be sure of getting a seat. Besides, she assured them, the choir would start Christmas carols at 9:30 and this was not to be missed.
Though the weather remained cold, there had been no more snow since the first, hesitant fall the previous week, and that had since melted away. During the days, this left the landscape a dreary brown, all of Autumn’s bright colors leached out by the winter wet and chill. Now, however, with the stars dancing madly in the clear, black sky and freezing air of a December night, the lack of snow simply made for a darker night, and removed the danger of mud and slush.
Kristy led the way up the church steps with the firmness of tread which marks those who know themselves to look to best effect: silk scarf around her neck, fitted black wool coat laying smoothly over her slim, navy blue dress, heels lending the right air of confident femininity. Katie followed less eagerly, hunched against the cold despite the bulky down jacket she was wearing over her sweater and long red skirt, flats leaving her looking distinctly shorter than her sister.
The vestibule was full of milling and talking people, and Tom and Pat soon stopped to talk to another couple they recognized from a retreat they had taken. Over the noise, the choir could faintly be heard from inside the church, belting out an enthusiastic, if very white, rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain”. Kristy, more drawn to the music than the conversation, edged towards the glass doors which led into the sanctuary. She had just situated herself where she could hear better yet still keep her parents and Katie in sight when she noticed a familiar figure also standing near the doors.
He seemed to take a moment to recognize her, then smiled. “Kristy, I hadn’t expected to see you here. I thought you said you didn’t go to mass?”
“My parents asked us to come. It seems like the right thing to do for Christmas.”
“Yes,” Paul looked away, as if slightly uncomfortable. “That makes sense.”
Paul was wearing a heavy tweed coat, open-collared white shirt, slightly rumpled khakis, and what appeared to be his usual battered brown work boots. This seemed peculiarly appropriate to him, and Kristy found herself charmed by it, though it was not something she would have approved on anyone else.
“You haven’t met my parents yet,” she said. “Come over, I’ll introduce you.”
Paul hesitated a moment, casting a quick glance at the main part of the church, then followed her.
“Mom. Dad,” said Kristy, breaking in on the conversation her parents had been conducting with the couple from the retreat. “I want you to meet Paul. I was telling you last night about how he was helping us redesign the kitchen.”
Greetings were exchanged and hands were shaken.
“Are you here with anyone?” Katie asked, and when Paul responded in the negative she urged him to join them.
“We should probably go in soon,” Paul said. “The pews are filling up fast.”
Tom and Pat said their goodbyes to their friends and the whole group made its way into the main body of the church and occupied a pew half way up the aisle.
The choir, whose members were formed in ranks on the steps in front of the altar, all of them wearing matching red sweaters, was beginning “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Paul, who was seated between Kristy and Katie, shifted slightly in the pew and remarked in a low tone, “They could try to sing some good Christmas music.”
“I like that they’re singing so many ones that I know,” Kristy offered.
Paul shrugged. “There’s so much sacred music out there they could have picked, but they seem determined to do only popular carols.”
“What would you like to hear them sing?”
“‘O Magnum Mysterium’,” Paul replied promptly.
Whether appreciated or not, the choir’s singing seemed to encourage silence. Kristy found her attention captured by the large manger scene set up to the left of the altar. The church which her family had gone to when she was a child had possessed a similar, large, nativity scene, and among each year’s Christmas pictures was, inevitably, one of Kristy (and later Kristy and Katie) in her Christmas dress, posing in front of the plaster people and animals. The most memorable of these featured a twelve-year-old Kristy, looking as if she felt too old be pose in front of a mock stable, and a two-year-old Katie who had, unaccountably, become terrified of the plaster cow and was sobbing and trying to hide behind Kristy, despite all the coaxing and threats of her mother behind the camera.
The mass itself held fewer strong memories or impressions for her. There was a certain calming solemnity to the words and the changes of sitting, standing, and kneeling. Kristy found her mind wandering back over her conversation with Dan earlier in the day, but she did not feel the draw to put herself in this place very week that he had described.
When communion came, Kristy sat next to Katie, watching Paul and her parents move together through the long line towards the front of the church. It seemed somehow strange that Paul, whom her parents had not met until that night, should have this in common with them and yet not with her and Katie. She could not resolve in her mind how she felt about this element of universal, instant familiarity which believers shared and she was excluded from.
After mass, as they were waiting for the crush of people in the aisle to die down enough for them to get out of the pew, Katie asked Paul if he would like to come to the house briefly for hot chocolate in honor the day. Paul seemed to hesitate, but Kristy and even their mother joined in the urging, and the result was that Paul agreed to come. Soon they were gathered around the dining room table. Katie passed around steaming mugs of cocoa, and Katie produced a large tin of fudge which she had bought from Andrea’s “Christmas for the troops” fundraiser at the office.
Paul seemed to accept being the center of attention with equanimity, as Tom asked him about his business and his farm and Pat asked him about his time in seminary and his family. Kristy, once again, found it strange to see her parents interacting so naturally with someone she had thought of as belonging to her and Katie’s world.
“But you must have someone to have Christmas dinner with?” Pat objected.
Paul shrugged. “I haven’t spent much time with my mother since she remarried when I was in high school. I’d always lived with my dad, and I never got along with her husband. Since Dad died, I’ve seen even less of her. I used to spend holiday’s with my buddy Joe’s family, but he just got married this last year, and he and Maria moved to Green Bay. Joe’s family invited me anyway, but I felt odd about going when he wasn’t going to be there.”
“You can’t have Christmas dinner alone, though!”
“It’s usually a pretty quiet day for me anyway.”
“No, no. We can’t have that. A nice boy like you eating alone on Christmas. If you don’t have somewhere else to go, come here for dinner. Katie and I are making a ham and pies and all sorts of things, and it’s just the four of us. I’m sure the girls would love it. They like you.”
Paul looked startled at this abrupt invitation and set of observations. “Umm.”
“No um-ing about it. You come right on over for dinner. You don’t mind, do you, Kristy? I don’t mean to be rude inviting people to your house, but it’s a family dinner, and Paul is a friend of yours after all.”
The exchange had come so fast and so unexpectedly that Kristy had sat watching it happen without thinking to participate.
“You’re certainly welcome here, Paul,” she managed. “We’d love to have you, if you don’t mind. But don’t feel pressured. Mom is just so… generous some times, she can be a bit overpowering.”
Paul looked from Kristy to Katie and then back to their mother. “Well… Okay then. Thank you. I’d be glad to come. Is there anything I can bring?”
That night,when Kristy and Katie were lying next to each other in the dark of Kristy’s room, Kristy asked her sister, “What do you think?”
“It’ll be nice to have Paul over for Christmas dinner,” Katie replied. “But… God! That was just so weird! What is it with Mom?”
Oddity aside, the meal proved to be a social success. Paul arrived at three with two bottles of wine as his contribution to the feast. Katie and Pat had been in the kitchen since ten that morning, and laid out, when the time came, a ham, mashed potatoes, curried vegetables (according to Katie’s recipe) and green bean casserole (according to Pat’s), cranberry sauce, fresh baked rolls, and three kinds of pie. Kristy had pointed out that this amounted to more than half a pie per person, but Katie had countered that pie leftovers made the perfect breakfast and predicted that Kristy would sample all three kinds.
Conversation ranged freely and, to the relief of both sisters, did not consist unduly of their mother’s probing Paul for personal details or relating embarrassing stories about their own youth. At last, Tom, Katie and Paul retired to the living room, and Kristy and Pat gathered the dishes into the kitchen and began to clean up.
“I’ll be glad when Paul gets the dishwasher installed in here,” Kristy said, at a juncture when the silence had stretched to several minutes between mother and daughter.
“A dishwasher is one very nice thing to have,” Pat agreed. “Though Mom never did get one. She said that she had five dishwashers.”
This oft-repeated story elicited its usual laugh.
Silence descended again, except for the clinking of items in the sink and the running of water, and Kristy felt working on her the urge to intimacy which dish washing sometimes brings between female family members.
“What do you think of Paul?” she asked, failing to imbue the question with the casualness she had intended.
Her mother contemplated her for a moment. “He’s a very nice boy,” she replied. “I like him.”
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot, the last few days,” Kristy confessed. “He’s not like other men that I’ve known, certainly not like the kind of man I would have imagined being interested in, but there’s a lot I admire about him.”
Her mother made a prompting sort of noise but did not respond. Kristy plunged on. “But, even if he’s not the sort of guy I’d pictured… Maybe I’ve been unrealistic, or maybe my ideas haven’t been right. I’ve been thinking lately, that Paul’s a really good guy. Maybe I need to forget all the kind of ideas I’ve had and settle for like him. Maybe having too many ideas ahead of time just results in passing up guys you could be happy with.”
“I really like Paul,” Pat replied after a moment, but tone already indicating the ‘but’ that was coming. “But I’m not sure anyone wants to be settled for. You’d better work it out in your mind whether Paul himself is what you want most, and if not, not kind of ‘settling’ will make up for it.”
“No, you’re taking it all wrong. I don’t mean settling for something I don’t like. I mean, dropping my preconceived ideas and just looking at the person.”
“Well, if that’s what you mean, make sure you say that. No one wants to hear ‘I’m settling for you’. And there’s just one other thing you should probably think about a bit too.”
“Is he interested in you? It does take two, they say. Has he shown any interest?”
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