Christmas on the Plains
a very short story by Francis Strand
He had the generosity of the unfaithful, whispering over the phone, promising endlessly that he would be there.
"Yes," he said.
He leaned into the phone, his eyes hungry, his lips opening and closing, hanging onto the cigarette as if to a rosary.
"Yes, I promise," he sighed.
He was not listening, but instead hearing only the children singing as if down to dirty shepherds, singing from high above and behind a scrim. Children who were really just on the radio.
He had decided a week earlier that he most certainly would go, no matter the difficulties it posed for him. But as soon as he promised, he knew it was impossible.
* * *
When the family sat down to eat, they wished that he hadn't come home after all. It was awkward, and he was pointedly answering questions they hadn't even thought to ask. Questions they would never have imagined could have the answers he was giving them. He insisted on smoking even as they ate.
"Shall we open the presents now?" the mother managed to interject finally.
He nodded, and they all stood up. She pulled a clean cloth from the kitchen drawer and covered the meal they had barely touched in their astonishment and discomfort, covered it with a white cloth until they would come back to finish the sweet potatoes, the stuffing, the oily green olives, after the tumult of the presents.
And they all walked numbly into the front parlor, the tree suddenly pathetic, the tinsel and lights and glass balls an insult to its dying there in front of them.
* * *
"Hark," they sang, "the herald angels-"
And although they prided themselves on the simple fact that they were a musical family, it was all most of them could do to pull their own part, whether soprano, alto or bass. Except him, of course. He couldn't sing a note.
They didn't even bother to join hands around the tree.
"I'm so tired," the mother said, and they all agreed.
Carolyn, the oldest, sat up with him long after the rest of the family had gone to bed, and they drank first one scotch and water, and then another, and another, as he lied to her about this and that. He knew she didn't believe a word, would never believe a word he said, but he couldn't stop himself.
* * *
After they had all gone back, back to their own homes, it all seemed so bleak to the mother, who loved the holidays with such desperation, who worked so hard to make it a pleasure for everyone. As she broke down and wept, she thought her heart would break, and she could not console herself.
- copyright 2001 Francis Strand
p.s. The Swedish word phrase for the day is en riktig god jul. It means a very merry Christmas.