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

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.

2 comments:

Foxfier said...

Oooh, very nice. I want to maim both mother and sister, now.

Anonymous said...

I really love this update (I'm reading it with my sister now). I didn't see it coming that Del was going to pull the dad's sweater out of the closet for the party; nice twist,and good job making the sweater plot-important.

One thing, though - did Garrett stop smoking? When?