Acts of GracebyMarshAlien©
For Robin and Grace, with love
Tim Clarke took just a second to remember the moment. His daughter Grace sat beside him on the couch in front of the empty fireplace. She was looking at the cover of the book on her lap with the kind of concentration that only a seven-year-old can muster. He could smell the cookies that had just finished baking; a plateful was sitting on the mantle with the usual glass of milk. He could see the snow falling outside the house, the large flakes dancing in the glow of the front porch light.
He took a half-second too long.
"Are we gonna start?" Grace asked.
"Sure," Tim said. "You go first."
Grace opened the book -- a book that she had owned since her fourth Christmas and no longer really needed to use -- and began to read.
"'Twas the night before Christmas . . .'"
"'. . . and all through the house,'" Tim read, taking his turn.
"'Not a creature was stirring. Hey! You were supposed to start this year!"
Tim laughed. Grace had said the same thing the previous Christmas.
"Too bad," he said, sticking out his tongue. "'. . . not even the Mouse.'"
Grace gave him a mock glare. Tim just smiled. Even now, four years after the accident that had claimed his wife's life, it was sometimes hard to look at Grace without seeing Sarah's blue eyes and blonde hair. And it was hard not to remember that she didn't care for the nickname that Sarah had given her.
Grace returned to the book.
"'The stockings were hung . . .'"
"'. . . by the chimney with care."
"'In hopes that Saint Nicholas . . .'"
"'. . . soon would be there."
Tim watched Grace turn her head to look out the window at the snow. Even in this snow-jaded part of upstate New York, this counted as a big storm. Grace's head slowly turned to the fireplace.
"Don't worry. Santa won't let a little snow stop him."
"It's snowing pretty hard, Dad."
"Not too hard for reindeer, honey."
"That's good. I had a dream about Santa last night and he told me he was going to get me what I asked for."
"I hope you didn't ask for anything that wasn't in your letter," Tim said.
"Sort of," she said, a sly look spreading over her face. "I wished for a mom."
"Yeah. I miss her."
"Me too, Mouse."
"And I know it won't be the same, but I think we need another one, y'know?"
"Don't say 'y'know,' Grace," Tim said. Thirteen years of teaching high school English had left him with certain reflexes. "Santa Claus doesn't usually bring people on his trips. It would be awfully cold in his sleigh."
"He told me he would," Grace said. "Don't you like girls, Daddy?"
"Of course I like girls," he said. "I married your mom, didn't I? And we had you."
"Did you go on dates and stuff?"
"Sure. We went to the movies and out to dinner. And we liked taking walks together and going skating and cross-country skiing."
"Don't you want to do that again?"
"If I find the right girl, sure."
"Well, that's what I asked Santa for," Grace said. "The right girl. Santa told me to ask for anything I wanted. So I asked him for something for both of us."
"And what did he say?"
"He said I would get a new mom before I got a new PlayStation."
Tim laughed. That was a pretty safe bet, given the cost of new gaming platforms.
"I didn't even know you wanted a new PlayStation. What's wrong with your old one?"
"Nothing. It just doesn't play all the new games."
"I'd rather have a mom anyway."
"Well, thank you for asking, Grace," Tim said. "For both of us. That was very thoughtful. Just don't be too disappointed if we don't find a woman under the tree tomorrow morning, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Dad. I love you."
"I love you too. We need to finish so someone can go to bed."
"Yeah, right. I'm gonna catch him this year."
"I meant me, honey. Daddy's tired. And he knows who's going to be waking him up at seven o'clock. Just remember the rules."
"I know, I know. I can't go downstairs before seven. But I can still sleep on the stairs, right?"
"On the landing," Tim said with a nod. "I'll get your pillow and your comforter as soon as we're done. Deal?"
"Deal." * * * *
When Tim's alarm clock went off, he looked over at the red numbers. Eleven o'clock. Just enough time to transform the living room and still get some sleep. He got up as quietly as he could and crept out of the room. The hundreds of miniature multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree cast a festive glow on the staircase. Good thing too, Tim thought. Without the light, he would have tripped over his daughter, sleeping peacefully on the landing.
He stepped over her and silently went about the bittersweet task of creating Christmas. It was something that Sarah had loved to do, even before Grace was born. The old farmhouse that they had bought twelve years ago seemed to come to life at Christmas, as if the other seasons of the year were simply appetizers. After Grace, the decorating had grown to occupy nearly two hours. Tim had scaled it back in recent years, but still spent the time necessary to convince Grace that Santa had visited.
When he was finished, he toyed with the idea of taking her back upstairs; kids that age were like rag dolls when they were asleep. But Mouse would be disappointed not to wake up on the stairs. It would still be dark, but in the light of the tree she would be able to see the filled stockings, the plate where the cookies had been, and the empty milk glass. She would convince herself that she had just missed him. Next year, she would tell herself. Next year, provided nobody had spilled the beans about Santa Claus, she would catch him in the act.
Tim tiptoed upstairs and returned to his bed. He was counting on seven hours of sleep before Grace burst in to wake him up and drag him downstairs.
* * *
The knock at the door was faint at first. Grace wasn't sure how long it had been going on before it finally woke her up. It grew louder and more frantic, becoming more of a banging, until she quite distinctly heard a woman's voice say, "Shit, shit, shit" on the other side of the door.
She glanced upstairs, wondering whether to wake her father. On the one hand, that usually took a good deal of shaking; Dad was a pretty sound sleeper. On the other hand, there was the Christmas Day injunction: she could go to the bottom step, but no further, until Dad was up and ready.
She went to the bottom step. A quick glance at the tree brought a frown to her face. She had obviously missed him again.
"Oh, please," the woman said again, her voice cracking as she gave the door a final blow with the side of her fist.
Grace decided that the woman's obvious distress represented an exception to the rule. She walked over and pulled the door open a foot. The woman had turned around to stare at the snowstorm and hadn't heard the door open. She was wearing a short parka and apparently little else. Her long blonde hair flew back and forth in the wind. Her bare legs were covered with goose bumps. She was wearing high heels that added four inches to her height.
Perhaps she was a retard.
The woman whipped around. She was obviously tired and she had been crying.
"Oh, thank God," she said. "My car skidded into the ditch in front of your house and my cell doesn't work here. Could I, um, use your phone, please?"
Grace's eyes traveled up and down the woman.
"You forgot your pants," she finally pointed out.
"Yeah," the woman said. "I am a little cold standing here, honey."
"Maybe you should have worn pants."
"Sweetie, could I please, please, please come in?" the woman begged. Tears were forming in her eyes again.
Grace rolled her eyes and let the woman into the foyer.
"You're not, like, a retard, are you?"
I'm sorry?" the woman said, turning around to talk to Grace. She had been staring at the tree.
"You're not wearing pants, your phone doesn't work, and you crashed your car."
"What's your name?"
"Hi, Grace. I'm Claire. It's a long story, Grace. Could you tell me where the phone is, honey?"
"In the kitchen, on the wall."
Claire walked through the dining room toward the doorway to which the young girl pointed. Grace was right behind her.
"Thank you," Claire said as she picked up the phone. "I'm just going to call my Dad. He'll come pick me up and you can get back to sleep. I guess Santa's been here already, huh?"
"Yeah. I knew you weren't him anyway. He comes down the chimney."
"That's right. Gracie, are you going to stand right here while I call?"
Grace nodded solemnly.
It was an old-fashioned, black dial phone, one that matched perfectly the house in which Claire had found refuge. She dialed the numbers as the little girl watched.
"Stupid machine," she muttered. "Dad? Mom? Dad! Mom! Are you guys there! Pick up the phone! Hello! Shit. Call me back, please?"
She read the number off the phone and then looked over to see that Grace's eyebrows had shot up underneath her blond bangs.
"You said a bad word," Grace said.
"I'm sorry. Don't tell your parents, okay? It looks like I'm going to be here for a while."
"It's only my dad," Grace said. "My mom is dead. Do you want some pants?"
"Um, sure. That would be very nice. Thank you, Grace. Maybe you should wake up your father."
"I know where the pants are."
She ran off and returned several minutes later with a pair of her father's sweat pants from the hamper in the laundry room. Her eyes widened again as Claire peeled off her coat to reveal a red silk top and red panties.
"I know," Claire said with a shake of her head. "Men. You don't have something like a a sweat shirt, do you?"
Grace rolled her eyes one more time. Several minutes later she had Claire properly and warmly outfitted.
"You don't need to stay up any longer, Grace. Why don't you go back to bed?"
Grace stared her down.
"You don't want to leave me here wandering around your house, do you?"
Grace slowly shook her head from side to side.
"Let me try my mom's cell phone, okay? Maybe she has it near her bed and I can wake her up."
She dialed the number.
"Mom? It's Claire! Thank God I got you. I'm stuck out here on . . ."
"Coleman Road," Grace said.
"Coleman Road? Anyway, I -- you what?"
Her body seemed to sag as she listened to her mother talk.
"Yeah, sure, but I --"
She listened some more.
"John had a . . ."
Claire looked down at Grace.
"He had somebody else with him when he came home.
"Yeah, Look, I know you never liked him. Oh, you did not. And you were right. So when will you guys be home?
"The fifth? Are you serious?
"Okay. No, I have an audition on the third. I'll see you guys in a while.
"No, no. I'll be fine. As soon as this storm is over, I'll find a motel. Then I'll head back and stay with Susan or something. Have a great time, okay? Love to Dad."
Claire hung up the phone and slumped into a kitchen chair. After a few moments she looked over at Grace.
"I guess I'll be sleeping here tonight, if that's okay with you."
"Sure," Grace said. "You can share my bed. We only have two bedrooms that have heat. Come on."
* * * *
One of the advantages of living in a farmhouse on a long driveway was that Tim seldom saw a need to close the red-and-white checked curtains that Sarah had picked for their bedroom. Blinking his eyes open, he watched the big flakes of snow that were falling at a forty-five degree angle outside the window.
It took him only a moment to realize that it was well past dawn. And that he had awakened on his own.
Tim got up and pulled on his bathrobe, fully expecting to find Mouse still asleep on the bottom step. She was not there, however, nor was she downstairs gazing at her presents. He returned upstairs, two steps at a time.
"Mouse?" he asked through the closed door to her bedroom. He knocked lightly on the door and began to reach for the knob. His daughter appeared at the door, her eyes still heavy with sleep.
"Shh," she said. She put a finger to her lips and quietly pulled the door shut behind her. "You'll wake up Claire."
Tim smiled. It was the indulgent smile of a rural single parent accustomed to his only child's imaginary friends. He winked at Grace and tiptoed downstairs with her hand in his.
"How 'bout some Christmas music?" he asked when they reached the living room.
"Dad! That'll wake Claire up for sure. Jeez maneez."
"Okay," Tim said after a brief pause. "Shall we start with our stockings?"
"Of course not, honey. Tell me something. Did you and Claire stay up late last night?"
"Not that late. She was pretty tired when she got here."
"I see. So how about we have some breakfast?"
"Sure," Grace said. "Maybe then she'll wake up. "
Tim stopped abruptly in the dining room and Grace ran smack into him.
"Honey, whose coat is that?"
"Claire's. And those are her shoes."
"The high heels there?"
"Yeah. Other than that she was kinda just wearing this weird-lookin' underwear. I was afraid she might be some kind of retard."
"Grace, you know I don't like you using that word."
"I didn't call her a retard," Grace said. "I just asked her if she was a retard."
"I know. Still, when you see her . . . Anyway, she said she was cold so I gave her some of your sweats and turned my heater up last night. Is that okay?"
Tim turned and squatted down in front of his daughter.
"Grace, is the woman who left this coat and these shoes here sleeping in your room?"
"Was that bad? After we were in bed, she said she'd sleep on the couch but I told her we weren't allowed downstairs before seven. Plus, I was sort of afraid she might steal my presents."
"Daddy's just going to look in on Claire, okay honey? Why don't you go get yourself some juice?"
"Okay. Make sure you're quiet, Dad."
Tim pushed open the door and was met with a blast of hot air. The small electric heater that his daughter used to supplement the house's poor heating system had evidently been running for a while. As a result, the woman in his daughter's bed had kicked off the bed covers and was lying in the bed dressed only in a red negligee and red panties. Her sweats were on the floor beside the bed.
He should have stepped back and knocked on the door. But she was facing away from him, in her side and he was caught by the way her long blonde hair was splayed out on the pillow. He watched the effect of her rhythmic breathing on her slender figure. His eyes lingered on the creamy white skin that lay exposed by the high cut panties arcing across the middle of her firm, round butt. And then there were those legs. Those long legs that stretched out the length of the bed. Long legs that moved with sensuous slowness as they straightened and twisted toward him as he stood there watching. Long legs that suddenly disappeared beneath the comforter as the young woman yanked it up.
It was a shriek of embarrassment and stunned recognition. As he stared into her wide blue eyes, Tim realized that he knew her as well.
"Oh my God. This is your house? Oh my God."
"I'm sorry, Claire. I, um, was just making sure you were okay. Why don't you put those sweats on and come downstairs?"
He backed out of the room and fled down the stairs. Back in the kitchen, Grace was breaking eggs into a bowl for him to scramble. Claire joined them in a few minutes.
"Hey, Claire," Grace said. "Merry Christmas."
"The same to you honey. And, um, you too of course, Mr. Clarke."
"You guys know each other?" Grace asked.
"Claire was in twelfth grade when your mom and I first came here to teach," Tim explained.
"Your mom was my first drama teacher," Claire said, smiling at the memory. "She was just so encouraging."
"She means in contrast to me," Tim said.
"He gave me a B-minus."
"She deserved a B-minus."
"Your mom thought I was a wonderful actress."
"She still deserved a B-minus."
"I so did not. It was the only grade I ever got lower than a B-plus. That grade got me wait-listed at Juilliard."
"But she got in."
"After months of waiting."
"You're an actress?"
Tim and Claire both stopped to look at the young girl, whose eyes had been darting back and forth between the two as if she were watching a tennis game.
"That's cool," Grace went on without waiting for an answer. "Can you cook the eggs now, Dad? I'm hungry. I put in some extra for Claire."
"Thank you, honey," Claire said. 'That was very sweet of you."
"Coming up," Tim said. "You handle the toast, okay?"
Grace ran back to the pantry to get the toaster as Claire and Tim continued to talk.
"Look, I'll be out of here this morning, Mr. Clarke. Like I said, I didn't know it was your house. It turns out my parents are on some cruise in the Caribbean, but I'm sure I can get somebody to pull me out of your ditch."
"Have you looked outside yet?"
"No," Claire said. Her eyes drifted toward the window. "Shit."
"That's a bad word," Grace said, returning with the toaster.
"I'm sorry, Gracie," she said. "How old are you, honey?"
"I'm seven. How old are you?"
"I'm, um, thirty."
"Okay," Grace said. "Were you telling Daddy why you came to visit us in your underwear?"
"She was just about to," Tim said with a smile. He poured a dollop of milk into the bowl and turned on the burner.
Claire gave Tim a glare before deciding how to proceed in Grace's presence.
"Maybe we could just say that my boyfriend and I had a disagreement last night, so I left the house without really thinking and headed home."
"Well, I think you're going to be stuck here for at least the next three days," Tim said. "So where do you live?"
"I did live in Brooklyn," Claire answered. "I'll have to find something else when I get back. It was his place."
"Before your 'dition?" Grace asked.
"My what, honey?"
"You told your mom you had a 'dition on the third."
"An audition," Claire corrected her. "I can stay with a girlfriend until then."
"That's right," Claire said.
"She remembers everything she hears," Tim said. "So be careful what you say around her. All right, Mouse. Start toasting and I'll start cooking. So what are you auditioning for?"
"A play by Richard Whitman. Habitrail."
"Don't tell me. You're auditioning for Katherine."
"As a matter of fact I am. You say it like there's something wrong with it. And how do you know about it anyway? It's brand new."
"It's not as new as you think. I saw it back in college, when he was still working on it. It's just never been to Broadway before. And there's nothing wrong with Katherine. She's the pretty one, right? Gets the guy, lives happily ever after?"
"But you'd make such a much better Stephanie."
"Stephanie?" Claire screwed up her face. "But Stephanie is a whack job."
"She's also the emotional center of the play," Tim said. "That's been your issue all along, Claire."
"What are you talking about?"
"Sarah loved your acting, the way you could command a stage and draw an audience's attention. But you always went for the pretty girl roles."
"You're saying I'm not pretty?" Claire asked.
"I think you're pretty," Grace interjected.
She was now toasting her third set of bread as Tim divided the eggs up among three plates he had taken down from the cupboard.
"Of course you're pretty," Tim said. "You're a beautiful woman, Claire. But pretty girl actresses are a dime a dozen. You could be such a good actress. A real actress. Doing real acting. There are lots of women who can play Katherine. And do a good job. But there aren't many actresses who can play Stephanie."
"If I'm such a good actress, how come you gave me a B-minus? Mrs. Clarke gave me an A-plus."
"Sarah taught a drama class. I taught a literature class about drama. And in my class you never applied yourself like you did in hers."