Harold Bilodeau’s ex-wife, Sheila, remarried, but Harold did not, and though he told people there was a woman down in Saratoga Springs he was seeing on the occasional weekend, he was not. Their divorce had been, as they say, amicable. She’d had an affair and fallen in love with Bud Lincoln, one of Harold’s friends and their Hurricane Road neighbor, and Harold had soon realized there was no way he could prevail against it.

“I guess love happens,” Harold told folks, and shrugged. “Can’t fight it.”

“We married too young, Harold and me. Right out of high school, practically, for God’s sake,” Sheila explained.

People in Keene understood romance and forgave Sheila, and they respected Harold for his quiet acceptance of his wife’s love for another man. Keene is a village in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York with barely a thousand year-round residents, most of whom keep careful track of the births, deaths, marriages and divorces that occur among them. They monitor remarriage, too, especially when both parties are longtime residents of the town and continue after the dissolution of their previous marriages to live there, as both Harold and Sheila Bilodeau had done. Bud Lincoln had not been previously married and lived in his parents’ house, but until he took up with Harold’s wife he had been regarded in town as a ‘good catch’, so people watched him anyway.

After the divorce, Harold got a bank loan and bought out Sheila’s interest in their double-wide and lived in it alone with their three dogs and two cats, all mixed-breed rescues from the North Country Animal Shelter, the half-dozen chickens, and the Angora goat.

That was three years ago, and Sheila and Bud had been married now for two of those years. While the two men were no longer close friends, they frequently ran into each other at the post office or gassing their trucks at Stewart’s or grabbing coffee to go at the Noon Mark Diner, and there appeared to be no lingering hard feelings on Harold’s part. Harold seldom saw Sheila in town, but when he did she was friendly and full of chat, and he, in his taciturn way, reciprocated.

Bud Lincoln was a building contractor, and he had built for Sheila a splendid three-bedroom, solar-heated house with mountain views up on Irish Hill. In spite of how friendly every one was since the divorce, Harold was not surprised when back in October he wasn’t invited to Sheila and Bud’s housewarming party. In fact he was almost grateful not to be invited. It meant he didn’t have to decide whether to attend or stay home.

It was more than a fresh start; it was a repudiation of the past. The new house turned a simple case of adultery and divorce into a story about finding true love.”

But when in mid-December he opened a printed invitation to Sheila and Bud’s Christmas party, he was surprised and almost displeased. It meant he’d have to admit to himself that the divorce and Sheila’s remarriage still stung his heart, and he’d have to invent an excuse for declining the invitation, or else he’d have to test his ongoing pain against the new reality and attend the party. He’d have to act like an old family friend or a distant cousin, someone more than merely a neighbor and less than a cuckolded, abandoned ex-husband.

“Help us decorate our tree!” the invitation said. “Bring a decoration!” The return address listed them as Sheila & Bud Lincoln. So she had taken Bud’s last name, just as she had once taken Harold’s.

Sheila and Bud Lincoln had built their new high-tech log house expressly to establish and celebrate their marriage. It was more than a fresh start; it was a repudiation of the past. Her past, especially. The new house turned a simple case of adultery and divorce into a story about finding true love. Sheila’s decade-long, childless life with Harold was now a closed book.

Nor was the divorce itself a part of Sheila and Bud’s story either. Otherwise they wouldn’t have stayed in Keene and built their fancy new house on Irish Hill, barely three miles from Harold’s place. They wouldn’t have adopted a baby from Ethiopia, big news in an otherwise all-white, all-American small town. And they wouldn’t have invited Harold to their Christmas party, which they hoped to make an annual event. That was her story. And Bud’s.

To Harold, however, Sheila was the past that wouldn’t stop bleeding into his present and, as far as he could see, his future too. Nearly every night, alone in the queen-sized water-bed they’d once shared, she appeared in his dreams, looking the same as when they went to Montreal on their honeymoon, a smiling blond swirl of a girl who adored him for his quiet, stoical ways. Now every morning, before heading to the garage for his truck, when he fed the dogs and cats, the chickens and the goat – creatures they’d acquired at her urging, not his, and which she, not he, had fed and cared for – he had visions of Sheila setting out the pans, casting the corn, filling the bins, gathering eggs in the morning sun with her long, tanned hands, and he ached all over again with the pain of knowing that she’d wanted the animals because she couldn’t get pregnant.

They tried every possible solution, from old wives’ folk remedies to in vitro fertilization. Nothing worked. He even went through the embarrassment of having his sperm counted. No problem there, apparently, which relieved him somewhat, but only because it narrowed the potential solutions to the overall problem by 50 per cent.

It did not relieve Sheila, however. She could no longer blame Harold’s body. She had to blame her own. One by one, month after month, she ticked off the list all the possible causes of her body’s inability to conceive a child: ovarian cysts, pelvic infection, blocked fallopian tubes. None of these. Until finally, after being examined by a female gynecologist at St Mary’s Hospital in Troy, she learned that her uterus was scarred from endometriosis, caused by a burst appendix when she was fifteen. The chances of her ever conceiving were pretty much nil.

By now sex with Harold had become a self-conscious chore for both of them, an obligation with a defunct purpose. They ceased making love altogether. Then one spring afternoon, while Harold was down in the valley excavating the foundation for the new Keene firehouse, Bud Lincoln dropped by their place to borrow Harold’s backhoe for one of his jobs, and Sheila had sex with Bud for the first time.

The affair intensified and continued for nearly a year, and on a cold dark February night Harold found himself drinking late and alone up at Baxter Mountain Tavern, idly watching a Rangers game that wasn’t carried by his home satellite service. Harold had played serious hockey in high school and rarely missed a televised Rangers game. One of Bud Lincoln’s old girlfriends, Sally Hart, was tending bar that night. There were no other customers, and the owner, Dave Deyo, had gone home early, so Sally shut off the outside lights and poured herself a rum and Coke and took a stool at the bar next to Harold.

The subject of Sally Hart’s ex-boyfriend came up. Harold said, “What’s with ol’ Bud, anyhow? I haven’t seen him up here in months. He avoiding me? Or you?” he said and laughed to show he wasn’t serious.

In the two years since Sally and Bud had split up, she had gone through two subsequent boyfriends and was five months pregnant by the third, whom she planned to marry. So nope, Bud wasn’t avoiding her. “Me and him are still pals. You, though,” she said, “different story there, Harold.”

“What do you mean, ‘different story’?”

She hesitated, then said, “Look, honey, I hate to be the one to say it, but somebody’s got to. When you leave here, I’m supposed to text Bud so he knows you’re on your way home.”

“Why?”

She exhaled loudly and looked up at the TV. “All my choices always seem to be bad choices.” She was silent for a moment. “I don’t know. I guess it’s so you won’t run into him when you get there, Harold.”

He didn’t say anything. He put down his beer, paid his bill and zipped up his parka. The hockey game was almost over. The Rangers were down three. When he got to the door he turned and said, “You might as well send Bud that text now, Sally. I don’t want to run into him any more than he wants to run into me.”

When Harold got home Bud was gone. He stood at the open door and told his wife what he had learned at Baxter’s. Sheila sighed and said that she had fallen in love with Bud. And it was more serious than just a love affair. She said she would have his child if she could.

He said, “Sounds like there’s no turning back now. Sounds like you’re planning a whole different life, Sheila.”

She said, “That’s right.”

She packed a single suitcase and drove her old rusted-out Honda to Bud’s apartment in his parents’ house down in the valley. Harold did not contest the divorce. A year later Sheila and Bud Lincoln were married.

A line of vehicles was parked the length of the long, switchbacking, freshly plowed driveway to Sheila and Bud’s house at the broad crest of the hill. Harold pulled his pickup into a cleared spot close to the mailbox, got out and walked slowly up the driveway between two rows of shuddering white pines. It was close to four thirty in the afternoon, and the sun was setting behind the mountains. The invitation had said the Christmas party was from three to six, so he figured he was not too early, not too late.

As he trudged past the parked cars and pickup trucks he recognized most of them. Nearly everyone at the party would be a friend or at least a neighbor. He never knew what to say to strangers, especially at social events, so was comforted. But he knew that nearly everyone attending the party would be checking out how he and Sheila and Bud behaved together in public, and that annoyed him. Well, let them, he thought. Sheila and Bud didn’t invite him to their Christmas party because they wanted a confrontation, and he hadn’t accepted their invitation because he was still angry at them. People move on. What’s over is over and done with. The past is past. That’s what this party is all about, he thought.

At the top of the hill the driveway straightened and led to the two-car garage below the house proper and the wide deck and huge brook-stone fireplace chimney and the soaring glass-fronted living room. Harold stopped for a moment and, breathing hard, took it all in: the snowy meadow, the woodsmoke curling from the chimney, the high-peaked roof and floor-to-ceiling two-story windows facing the mountains. Rose-colored light from the setting sun bounced off the glass front of the house and tinted the field and the snow-draped firs at its edge.

He was looking at Sheila’s dream house, the house he knew she had always wanted, which he would never have been able to give her. He was an excavator, that’s all. A guy who dug holes for people who were contractors, people like Bud Lincoln, who were smarter and better educated than he was, who knew how to negotiate and estimate cost and profit, who could talk easily to people and turn them from strangers into clients. All Harold Bilodeau knew was how to run machines that dug foundations and trenches. He had started out in high school buying a used lawn mower at a yard sale and mowing his neighbor’s lawns and shoveling their walks in winter and had gone on to borrow his father’s tractor and cut people’s fields and meadows and plowed their driveways, and after graduation he had bought a used backhoe and a few years later a ten-year-old bulldozer and flatbed trailer and got the artist Paul Matthews to make him a sign, Harold Bilodeau, Excavating. The sign was bright yellow, like a highway sign, and had a black silhouette of a backhoe on it that Harold liked enough to have tattooed onto his left shoulder. At first Sheila thought the tattoo was sexy, but after a while she decided it was ugly and cheap and told him he ought to get it removed, which he was planning on doing when he found out about her and Bud. After that he decided to keep the tattoo.

He walked up the stairs to the front deck and entered the crowded living room through the sliding glass door. At a glance he recognized nearly everyone. People smiled and nodded at him, but their attention was on the Christmas tree in the far corner of the room, a ten-foot-tall blue spruce, heavily decorated and brightly lit.

She kissed him on the cheek, which surprised him; she had never kissed him on the cheek before, or anyone else that he could remember.”

Harold stood by the door for a moment, trying to get his bearings. Finally he shrugged out of his parka, found a pile of coats behind one of the sofas and dropped it there. He made his way to a long table that had been set up as a bar and asked the pretty kid tending it for a beer.

She said, “Sure, Harold, but you can have whatever you want. They got hard stuff. Eggnog even, with bourbon in it.”

He said a Pabst would do fine. The girl worked as a waitress part-time at Baxter’s, and he wished he could remember her name, but he didn’t know how to ask her for it without seeming like he was hitting on her. She had a tattoo of a thorny rosebush on her arm that disappeared under the sleeve of her black T-shirt and reappeared with a bud at the side of her neck just below her ear. She’d probably like his backhoe if he showed it to her.

Sheila was beside him. She was wearing a red dress with a bow on one shoulder, which reminded Harold of a valentine. She kissed him on the cheek, which surprised him; she had never kissed him on the cheek before, or anyone else that he could remember. She said, “You’re almost too late to help decorate the tree. We’re practically finished, except for the star at the top. What’d you bring for a decoration?”

“I guess I forgot. I mean, I didn’t know.” She looked like she was putting on some weight, a bit thicker through the face and shoulders and waist. Or maybe it was the red dress. He felt his chest tighten and his arms grow heavy. She was still beautiful to him, and she was growing older, and he wasn’t going to be able to watch it happen, except from a distance.

“It was on the invitation, Harold. We’re starting a tradition,” she said. “Next Christmas we’ll fill a box with all these decorations for people to pick from and take home for their own trees, and we’ll put up a whole new set. It’s like recycling. Except for the star on top. That stays. It’s from Bud’s family.  Look, aren’t some of these great?” She pointed out carved wooden animals, gingerbread men with M&M for eyes, delicate glass bells and balls, large and small candy canes, chocolate Santa Clauses, plaster angels, and birds with real feathers.

“So where’s Bud?” Harold asked, looking around the room.

“Getting a stepladder from the garage. To put up the star.”

“Say, by the way, congratulations.“For…?”

She wasn’t looking at him and was about to step away in the direction of a red-faced couple in matching ski jackets who had just come through the door –  summer people, he noticed, up for the holidays to ski at Whiteface and go to parties.

“I heard you got a new baby,” Harold said. “Adopted a baby. Congratulations.”

“He’s fabulous! So handsome, and so smart! Oh, there’s Bud!” she said, as tall, blond, smiling Bud Lincoln eased his stepladder through the crowd that had gathered around the Christmas tree. He opened the ladder legs and climbed the first three steps awkwardly, carrying in one hand a large, gold-plated, five- pointed star and in the other a plastic cup half filled with eggnog. Sheila left Harold’s side and made her way to the ladder, grabbed its sides and steadied it for her husband. A couple of people nearest the tree shouted for Bud to be careful and laughed. Bud laughed back and told them not to worry, he had everything under control.

Harold set his can of beer down on a side table and found himself edging away from the crowd, backing toward the sliding glass door, and then he was standing outside on the deck, coatless, shivering from the cold, watching Bud slowly reach with the star in hand toward the spindly top of the tree. He lifted the star over the last few limbs and hooked it properly in place, turned and raised his arms in triumph. Everyone applauded. Sheila let go of the ladder and clapped with them.

At that moment, to Harold, she looked very happy. She was proud of her husband, of her fabulous, handsome, smart new baby, of her beautiful house. Proud of her life. There was a light emanating from her face that Harold had never seen before.

He wished he’d grabbed his parka when he left the living room, but there was no way he could retrieve it now without people noticing that he was leaving the party early. People would think that he wasn’t over her, that he hadn’t moved on in his life.”

It occurred to him that he had left the room and stepped out to the deck because he hoped that Bud would fall from the ladder and the goddamned overloaded Christmas tree would come crashing down with him. He might have broken a leg or an arm. He would have been humiliated. Harold had wanted it to happen, had even expected it. It would have been the perfect ending to his story of betrayal and abandonment, especially if he’d been able to watch it from a safe distance, out here on the deck alone.

It was dark now, except for the cold light of the moon blanketing the snow-covered slope below. Harold knew that no one inside the bright, warm living room could see him out here. He wore only a flannel shirt and fleece vest against the December night. His breath drifted from his mouth like smoke, and he wished he’d grabbed his parka when he left the living room, but there was no way he could retrieve it now without people noticing that he was leaving the party early. People would think that he wasn’t over her, that he hadn’t moved on in his life, that he was angry at Bud and angry at Sheila, too. And jealous, maybe envious, of their new house and their adopted African baby.

He walked to the north corner of the house, where the deck continued past an adjacent room, a den or maybe a guest bedroom. Like the living room, it was lined with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. When he got there he saw the crib and an overflowing toy chest and animal pictures on the wall and knew that it was the new baby’s room. He recognized the babysitter sitting in a rocking chair with an open schoolbook in her lap; she was one of the architect Nils Luderoski’s two teenaged daughters, he wasn’t sure which. Luderoski must have designed the house, Harold thought. Luderoski was expensive. Harold had never been hired to work on a building he’d designed. The blueprints probably had the word Nursery written on this room from the start.

The glass door was unlocked, and when he slid it open he startled the girl. She looked up wide-eyed, then recognized him and cautiously said hi.

“Your dad design this house?” he said and smiled, closing the door behind him, as if finishing the tour. She nodded yes and put a finger against her lips and tilted her head toward the crib.

He crossed the room to the crib and looked down, expecting the baby to be asleep, but he was wide awake, on his back, looking intently up at a brightly colored mobile suspended from a metal arm clamped to the headboard. He didn’t seem at all interested in the man staring down at him. Harold had never seen an African baby before except on television. Sheila was right, her new baby was very handsome. Harold reached down and slid his hands under the baby’s body and lifted him gently from the crib.

The Luderoski girl said, “Better not do that, Mr Bilodeau.” She put her book on the side table and stood up and walked toward him, her hands extended to take the baby from him. “Mrs Lincoln wants him to sleep. He has trouble falling asleep.”

They were singing Christmas carols in the living room now. He could hear the slow, muted strains of thirty or forty adults singing ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’. Holding the baby close to his chest, he turned away from the girl and moved toward the glass door. “What’s his name?”

“They’re calling him Menelik. The name he had in the orphanage. In Ethiopia,” she said. “Better give him to me now, Mr Bilodeau.”

Harold held the baby in the crook of his right arm. With his free hand he grabbed the blanket from the end of the crib. He carefully wrapped it around the baby, leaving only his shining face exposed. As if he were used to being held by strangers, the baby stared up at the man, unafraid and incurious.

“Hello, Menelik,” the man said.

From behind him, her voice rising in fear, the girl said, “He needs to go back in his crib.”

Harold slid the outer door open, and cold air and darkness rushed into the room.

“What are you doing?” the girl said. Moving quickly, she placed herself between Harold and the open door and grabbed the baby away from him. “You better go back outside,” she said. She stood facing him with the baby in her arms, and he stepped around her onto the deck, and she drew the door shut behind him. He heard the click of the lock.

He walked slowly around to the front of the house, opened the door there, and entered the living room as if he had never left it. No one seemed to notice his return any more than they had noticed his departure. They were all standing around the beautifully decorated Christmas tree singing ‘Silent Night’.

He walked over to the bar and asked the girl with the tattoo for another beer. She flashed him a smile and fished a can of Pabst from the cooler and passed it to him. She wished him a merry Christmas.

He said, “Same to you.” He took a slow sip of the cold beer. “I forgot to bring something for the tree.”

She said, “That’s okay. They got more than enough.”

“Tell me your name,” Harold said. “I know it, but I forgot.”

From the collection A Permanent Member of the Family, published in the UK by Clerkenwell Press.

Russell_Banks_290

Author portrait © Nancie Battaglia

Russell Banks is a literary icon whose works probe the deepest recesses of American life. His profound and resonant stories have appeared regularly in anthologies and collections including The Best American Short Stories. A past president of the International Parliament of Writers and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He lives in upstate New York and Miami.

A Permanent Member of the Family contains twelve stories that showcase a master at the peak of his powers, and demonstrate the range of his narrative virtuosity and a panoramic vision of humanity as he explores provocative themes with pathos and sharp insight.

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