That was the awkward Christmas. I had come back from my sophomore year at college, visiting my parents for a few days -- the first time I felt like a visitor in the house I grew up in. My younger brother, Randy, had accepted an invitation to go skiing with some cousins, a trip that my other obligations made impossible for me. His absence turned the time with my parents a bit more claustrophobic. Then, with only me and my parents in the house, they decided on a table-top Christmas tree instead of a full-sized one. Their choice made all kinds of sense, but represented one more step away from the Christmases of my childhood and towards the dark chasm of my future. In later years, we would find more common ground and more comfort in amiable silences. That year, although nothing was really wrong between us, I had trouble finding a lot going really right, either.
The weather didn't help, either. There had been a few inches of snow during the previous week. Tonight, Christmas eve, had thawed unexpectedly. Raw but gentle rain built walls of night fog around the houses on our block, isolating each from all the others. It also made going out unattractive, not least because that pretty white snow had turned to graying piles of dirt-flecked sludge.
I think my parents felt some of the same unease I did. Their cheer, like mine, seemed a little forced -- not false, not something different from what they felt (or wanted to feel), just not as easy as it had been in past years. So I helped in the kitchen putting our little Christmas feast together, while my father watched the gazillionth TV rerun of old, familiar Christmas movies. I wondered whether three people count as a feast, but kept that thought to myself.
The last thing we expected was a knock on the back door. We didn't even have the porch light on, since it never occurred to us that anyone would be by. My mother and I looked at each other for a moment, then I went to answer the door. I flicked on the light and peeked past the curtain over the back door's window. Our visitor turned out to be Greg, one of Randy's high school classmates. I didn't know him well, but I knew he was in the advanced classes with Randy, and he was always friendly and courteous to me. His sodden jacket looked way too thin for the weather, and his hair matted wetly against his forehead. When he saw the curtain pull back, he waved shyly and smiled -- but only around the mouth.
I opened the door and greeted him, "Hi Greg! Come on in, and merry Christmas!" This announced him to my mother, too.
He stepped in, shook some rain off, and wiped wetness off his face. "Hi Rachel. Is Randy here?"
"No, he's on a ski trip."
"Oh." Greg's smile faltered. "Sorry I bothered you." He turned to leave.
My mother had joined us at the back door by then, wiping her hands on a dish cloth. "Greg, come on in. Have you eaten? We were just about to sit down. Paul," she shouted for my father. "Set another place at the table. Guess who joined us for supper?"
Neither Greg nor I could wedge a word into the wall of cheerful sound that my mother had built. When she stopped for a breath, Greg said, "It's OK, Mrs. B., you don't have to ..."
My mother cut him off. "Nonsense. Come on in and get that jacket off. And see if this can get the wet out of your hair." She handed him the towel that just dried her hands.
"You're sure?" Greg was a fair-sized guy and reasonably athletic, but looked and sounded like a whipped puppy.
"Of course. We have way too much for just us three. Paul?" She shouted for my father again and headed toward the TV room. A moment later, I heard some kind of conversation out there in lowered voices.
Greg and I stood looking at each other, uncertain what to do next. More to break the silence than anything else, I asked, "Do you want some hot cider? We have a big pot of it going."
Mostly to break the silence, Greg answered, "Sure, that sounds great."
I ladled out a big mug, strained out the chunks of spice, and chatted nervously, mostly to keep from sounding nervous. I think I was talking about Randy's ski trip, but it didn't matter. Greg had always seemed like a nice enough kid, but not much of a talker. Something just gave me the feeling that he didn't want to talk this time, so I didn't push him.
I noticed how red his hands were when I passed him the mug. My fingers brushed his, and they were clammy. The cold outside had gone through him. He shivered once when he took the mug, then wrapped his hands around it. He looked like he had forgotten what warmth was. After a moment, he took a noisy sip, still holding the mug two-handed. "This is great, Rachel. What's in it?"
"Just the usual spices, but I add orange peel and some star anise. Not everyone likes it, but people around here seem to."
By that time, my father was clattering around in the dining room again and my mother was back in the kitchen. I caught a glimpse of him putting out the good plates and rounding up the ones that could have gone in the dishwasher. My mother was back in the kitchen too. "You two make yourselves scarce. Dinner will be about twenty minutes, if I don't have you underfoot." My mother and I usually share a kitchen just fine. She was clearly trying to make Greg feel comfortable.
We went out to the living room. I don't think Greg had ever seen our house before. He made polite compliments about everything, and spent some time lost in the bookshelves. Soon, he had wandered over by the piano. He lifted the lid over the keys, and asked, "Is it OK if I ..."
I just nodded. I had no idea when the piano had last been tuned, probably years ago when Randy had briefly taken lessons. It acted more as décor than a musical instrument, most of the time. I'd be happy to hear him play 'Chopsticks,' if it made him happy.
He sat down, shifted the piano bench to a comfortable distance, and played. I think I recognized one of Bach's Brandenbergs. I know I didn't recognize everything. Randy had told me that Greg played the piano, but I had no idea he was this good.
After the third piece, loud clapping startled him back to the present. My parents were standing at the door, giving him enthusiastic applause. "That was wonderful! We almost never have anyone here who knows how to play. Dinner's getting cold, by the way, but hearing you play is worth it."
Greg's certainty at the keyboard faded back to shyness. I could even see the set of his shoulders droop, once the musical muse was done with him. "Thanks, Mrs. B."
The dinner table was gorgeous, complete with candles. I noticed that the baked potatoes had turned to gorgeous pan-browned chunks. My mother had carved the game hens in the kitchen and served the meat on a platter. There were a few other last-minute changes, too. I knew there were originally three baked potatoes and three Cornish game hens, one for each of us. My mother had turned it into a meal for four, as if that had been the plan all along.
We passed serving dishes around while my father opened the champagne. He poured for my mother and himself, then asked, "Greg, how old are you?"
"Well, that was drinking age when I was eighteen. I don't think one glass will kill you. Rachel, would you get another glass?"
He filled my empty glass and passed it to Greg. ("You won't tell on me, will you?" His conspiratorial wink would have humiliated me when I was fourteen.) My father filled the glass I brought back from the cabinet and put it in the empty spot at my place. Then he stood and offered a brief prayer, the only one I had ever heard from him. He sat, raised his glass, and said, "Health, happiness, and a merry Christmas to all of us."
We clinked glasses all around, then dug into the meal. My mother is a great cook and had outdone herself. Green beans (were they on the original menu? I guess there had been some in the freezer) glistened under slivers of almond. Potato chunks lounged in warm pools of gravy. Tender bird and crunchy bits of fried skin went down easily. I had a pretty good idea what the meal was originally going to be, and was amazed that my mother did something so much more elegant on no notice at all.
Christmas tunes from the radio largely took the place of conversation. No one would talk with their mouth full, and our mouths were full until the last roll wiped up the last drop of gravy.
I was almost too stuffed to move when my mother stood up and started collecting dishes. Greg stood too, and asked, "Can I help, Mrs. B?"
"You just sit and relax. Rachel you come out here and act useful." I finished clearing the table and was cleaning up in the kitchen. My mother hung up her apron as she left the room, saying "I'll be back in a minute." That phrase usually meant she was on her way to the bathroom, but she headed in the opposite direction.
"Mrs. B? Is it OK if I use your phone?" Greg called as she passed by.
"Sure, go ahead. It's in the hall. There's also one in the office, over there," she pointed.
"Thanks." Greg headed toward the office.
He was still on the phone when my mother got back to the kitchen, after a longer interval than I expected. She leaned over and whispered. "Ask him if he wants to sleep over."
"What!?" It came out louder than I intended. I had no idea where this was coming from. Years later, it was one of the things that showed me just how intelligent she really had been all through my teens and early twenties.
"Ask him if he needs a place to spend the night. Just do it." She had that look, the one that ends arguments before they start. That look usually says, 'I'm furious at someone but not you, not yet at least. Keep it that way.'
Greg had a neutral look on his face when he came back through the office door. Closing the door behind him seemed to be my mother's cue to announce, "Dessert's on, for any who want it." The cheer in her voice sounded authentic, but I wasn't sure. I wasn't going to test it, either.
The standard trio of pies presented themselves: mince, apple, and pumpkin. A week's worth of cookie-baking appeared too. Exactly five of each kind graced the plates (no one had to take the last of anything), but I stopped counting after ten different kinds. Of course, most of them went back into the cookie tins, but they made the table into a cornucopia.
My parents manufactured some safe chitchat while we dawdled over dessert, mostly about school and about his piano music. He answered amiably, but didn't volunteer much. One thing shocked me, though. I forget what the exact phrase was, but something about our piano being in the house.
"Where's yours, Greg?" Where would it be, if not in the house?
"My parents make me keep it in the shed, out back. It's OK out there. The shed's dry, and I have it up off the ground." I was too stunned even to chew, and my parents' smiles froze in place. Greg seemed not to notice. Chatter resumed a moment later, as if that bombshell hadn't landed. It looked like Greg didn't think anything out of the ordinary.
Even that dessert had to end sooner or later. I started to clear the table and my father turned toward the living room. My mother called out, "Paul? Would you be a doll and clear the table for me? Rachel, you go keep Greg company."
He headed back toward the piano, and I joined him. In a low voice, I said, "Greg, do you need a place to stay tonight?"
He didn't look at me. "I couldn't ask ..."
Taking a cue from my mother, I interrupted him. "You didn't ask. I did. Do you need a place to sleep?"
He stopped, looked at his shoes, and spoke in a voice so quiet I could barely hear. "Well, yeah. I kind of got thrown out."
"Oh, Greg." I almost started crying right there. "Let me check with my mother." I knew darn well what her answer was going to be.
I found her in the kitchen and whispered, "He said yes. He said he got thrown out."
"Oh, Rachel." Her voice was gentle, even though her knuckles turned white around the pan she was holding. "Put him in Randy's room."
"I'll go change the sheets."
"I already did." I half expected that answer.
"Thanks, Mom. I ... just thanks." She turned back to the sink without answering.
Greg was playing again when I got back to the living room. My father sat quietly, gazing at nothing. I sat next to Greg on the piano bench, careful to stay out of his way. The piece soon ended. My parents started clapping, my mother from the other room. I leaned over, hugged his shoulder, and whispered. "It's OK. You can stay."
My father set a fire in the fireplace. That's one of his big joys, for some reason, even if it drains the house heat up the chimney. Once Greg finished, we all sat for a while, letting the flames hypnotize us. Soon, my mother stood up, took my father by the hand, and said, "Well, us old folks need our sleep. See you in the morning. And don't forget to close the door when you're done down here."
They turned out the hall lights on the way out. One small lamp and the fire lit Greg and me. Although I was comfortable around Greg, I wasn't sure what to do with the silence between us. I stood up and said, "I'm going to get some more hot cider. You want some?"
"And a little rum in it? That's what I'm having."
"Well, you parents ..."
"It'll be OK. I promise. You want some?"
When I came back with our mugs, I sat where I could feel the fire's warmth directly. I set Greg's mug on the floor next to me and waved him over. We just sat for a while, staring into the flicker. I spread my legs out so my knee touched his leg. Without looking at him, I said, "Your parents threw you out. on Christmas eve."
I turned to him then. "Greg, I'm so sorry."
He gazed impassively into the fire. "It's OK. They've done it before."
Clearly, it was not a topic for conversation. I just put my hand on his thigh and sat with him. When I saw that his mug was empty, I asked. "Are you done?"
Greg looked down into it and said, "I guess so."
I took the mug from him and said, "I'm getting tired. Can I show you your bed?"
He got up quickly and said, "Yeah, I need to turn in, too."
I left the mugs in the sink on the way past the kitchen. When we got to Randy's room, I reached in and turned on the light. "This is Randy's room. I hope it's OK." My mother had not only made the bed -- Randy never does -- but left towels and a new toothbrush on the bed.
"It's great. Really. And thanks, Rachel. I really appreciate this."
I stood on tiptoe and gave him a peck on the cheek. (Good things come in small packages -- I keep trying to convince myself of that.) "Good night."
I woke up early on Christmas. It had been years since "santa" left a stocking of goodies at the foot of the bed. I still missed this ploy of my parents' to get another few minutes of sleep on Christmas morning -- childish of me, and annoyance at my own childishness elbowed disappointment out of the way. This was supposed to be a happy morning, though, so I got up, replaced my pajama bottoms with some soft sweats, and stuck my feet into warm, fuzzy slippers. I pulled a sweatshirt over the flannel pajama top, and padded out of my room.
I stuck water for coffee into the microwave then moved on to the living room. I had unplugged the tree on the way out last night, so plugged it back in. I checked the fireplace, too. I couldn't feel any heat left and no sparks showed when I stirred the ashes, so I closed the damper. Back in the kitchen, I got out the big French press and put about a centimeter of coffee in the bottom. My parents were up before the coffee finished brewing, and the noise must have woken Greg. I was eager to open presents, but my parents insisted on breakfast first.
Greg tried to act invisible through our breakfast of coffee cake, and diffidently polite when anyone addressed him. A little later, we took our coffee mugs into the living room. Greg found a seat in one corner. I acted as Santa, handing out presents from the small pile. After my parents and I had each opened one, my mother said, "How about that one on the left there -- no, I mean on my left." I read the tag. It said, 'To Greg. Merry Christmas, Santa.'
Greg looked startled when I took it over and held it out. "For me?"
"Look at the tag."
He looked, blushed red, and started to open the package. He's one of those maddening people like my mother, who carefully undoes the tape on each package so the wrapping paper looks almost unused. It was a book, the latest in a popular series that Randy follows. I realized that it probably was Randy's, but he wasn't here to claim it. My mother smiled at me in her 'Whatever you say, I'm ignoring it' way. She had plenty of time to replace it before Randy got back from his trip.
Greg seemed stunned. "Thank you, Mr., Mrs. B. Thanks." He opened it, thumbed through it, and set it in his lap. That really did something to Greg, even if it didn't show in his expressionless face. He didn't say much, but he moved to a closer chair. He seemed to feel like he was more part of the group after that, not some kind of trespasser.
The day passed quickly. In the afternoon, I heard him talking to my mother. "Mrs. B, you've been really great. Thanks for putting me up."
"Not at all, Greg. We loved your concert. That made last night really special for us."
"Uh, would it be OK if I stayed tonight, too? Maybe I won't need a place, but ..."
"Greg, you're welcome here as long as you want."
"Thanks, Mrs. B. I have to go out for a while. I'll call later." Greg left then.
I puttered around for a while, packing my loot to take back to school. I finally took a shower, got some real clothes on, then went down and found my mother. "That book was Randy's, wasn't it?"
"Not once it had Greg's name on the tag"
"Mom, you're a saint." We talked for a while. I knew a little about Greg's older sister, the one who had found a foster family for herself so she could finish high school. (I tried to imagine doing that for myself when I was that age, and drew a solid blank.) My mother filled me in on more of the story about Greg's family. Greg was such a nice guy, I couldn't imagine how he came from the nutjobs I was hearing about.
Greg didn't call, but he did come back later that afternoon, well before dark. He gave my mother a card, the kind that must have come from one of the few stores open Christmas day. She returned with a big hug. The evening went much the same way as the day before, a pleasant (if less impressive) dinner followed by live music after supper. My father got the fireplace going again, and my parents made a point of turning in early.
Greg and I sat in front of the fire again, listening to the Christmas program on the public radio station. I sat closer than the previous night. In a while, I leaned onto his shoulder and put my arm around his waist. Being small made it easier to lean onto him -- tall girls always look gawky when they tried that with their boyfriends, or like a Great Dane puppy that hasn't figured out it's not a lapdog any more. He put his arm around my shoulder in a brotherly kind of way. That's all, though, just brotherly. When it came time to kiss goodnight, I let it linger a bit longer. Greg accepted the kiss, but didn't really answer in kind. Well, there was no real reason for him to.
If this were a story, it would have some real 'ta-da' kind of ending. It doesn't. Greg left shortly after breakfast the next day. My father had already left for work, but Greg thanked my mother profusely despite the unemotional tone in his voice, and gave us both big hugs on the way out. He didn't come back that night. My mother said he was back in his parents' house -- she didn't use the word "home." I went back to school the next day. I talked to my brother a few days after that, after he got back from skiing. He enthused about the book, the replacement for the one my mother had given to Greg. (I kept my mouth shut and acted surprised.) Randy mentioned Greg a few times through the school year after that, but I never heard much after he and my brother graduated.