The smell hits me as Gary closes the door behind me. Some Scratch ’n’ Sniff abomination – I’d call it ‘December 1983’, but I’m damned if I know what it actually is.

“It’s frankincense,” Gary says. “Off a display at Bed Bath & Beyond. Little spray bottle. Heh.” He shrugs. “Guess I got trigger-happy.”

“Apparently,” I muster as I kick off the snow and remove my boots. “I almost want to put my mask back on.” But as he takes my shopping bag and leads me into the living room, I have to admit, “It does bring back memories.”

“Who’s that?” grunts a familiar baritone.

Gary keeps walking, through the kitchen doorway. I stop under the low chandelier. He’s left it off, in favor of the red lights that wink within the plastic holly lining the walls. Perhaps it looks festive to him. To me, the gloomy glow makes the room feel like a place you’d put one of Santa’s elves in solitary confinement.

“June?” goes the old man’s voice.

“And how’s this music for memories?” Gary calls out, as a scratchy jingling of bells gives way to an even scratchier blast of horns. “You better watch out, you better not cry,” squawks some old-time crooner. His microphone sounds borrowed from the F Train PA, but yes, the whole package is very Valley-Stream-Teen-Age. I answer with a chuckle.

“’Zat you, June?”

I’ve assumed Dad’s voice was coming from the adjacent den. Only when I catch movement in the corner do I realize he’s been calling me – or rather, Ma – from his BarcaLounger eight feet away.

“Oh! Hi, Dad.” I walk over, lean down, and kiss the weathered face beneath that USS New Jersey cap. His stubble scrapes my cheeks.

“Concetta! When’d you get back?”

“Merry Christmas,” I say. “How’re you and your roommate doing?”

His eyes dart. “Where’d June go?” He fixes on me again. “This song.” A male-female duo are back-and-forthing, Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. “She loves it.” He stares across the room, at the screensaver splashing colors across the old PC monitor, a tight smile frozen on his lips.

“Thank God for YouTube,” Gary calls from the kitchen. “I dunno where the old Christmas tapes went. But just a few clicks and you get hours of holiday stuff. Even Ma’s computer can handle ’em. Hey, come here.”

“One sec, Dad,” I say. Dad stares blankly at me, the smile still locked in, then gives a thumbs-up.

Inside the kitchen, Gary holds up two strips of fish. “Smell these, will ya?”

I take a whiff. “They’re fine.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t tell anything.” He sets the fish in a pan, pivots, and plunges his hands under the already-flowing tap. “And all this freakin’ fish, I gotta wash my hands every thirty seconds.”

“I’ll help.”

“No, I got this. You slogged up from Baltimore, you shouldn’t have to fix a Christmas Eve dinner soon’s you’re in the door.”

“But Gary. You?”

“Ah! Ah! I got this.” A hiss springs up under the fish. “And, uh, sorry, tonight we get just some shrimp in the linguini, and this cod. I couldn’t do no eighteen varieties of fish—”

“Seven.”

“Hey, look who remembers after all these years. Ain’t it nice to be Italian again?”

Fantastico.”

“What were your, uh, lady’s people?”

“Her people?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Her parents were a WASPy mix,” I say. “Turkey on Christmas Eve, reheated on the day.”

By this time last year, I woulda heard at least three rounds of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ outta the two of ’em. Now he just sits, takes things in.”

He grimaces. “Welcome home, then.” He adds, “Sorry it didn’t work out. I hope at least you’re happy it cleared your schedule for us again.” He tries a smile. “I’m happy. This is for you as much as him.”

Christmas, Long Island. Ms Angie Gray/Wikimedia Commons

“How is he? Don’t lie. Was he like this last Christmas?”

Gary’s face drops like a popped soufflé. “No. Ma’s death was tough. You were at the funeral. And it’s been, what, eight months? By this time last year, I woulda heard at least three rounds of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ outta the two of ’em. Now he just sits, takes things in.”

“Does he? Take everything in?”

From the living room, YouTube jumps in volume. “’Tis the season,” barks a smarmy ad-voice.

“June?” Dad calls.

Gary puts down the spatula he’s been wielding; I stay him with a hand. “I’ve got this. Get the wine from my bag.”

“June?” Dad repeats as I glide through the doorway. “Oh! Concetta. When’d you get in?”

“Just now, Dad.”

The ad ends. Dad shifts, looks hard at me. “No kiss?”

I lean in again, inhaling as I peck his cheek. A sour smell cuts through the frankincense. “Sorry, Daddy,” I cough. “Forgot my manners.”

Some new crooner burbles into ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’. Dad lights up. “Where’s June? She loves this song!” But already I’m through the kitchen doorway.

Gary is holding the lid off a pot, eyes deep-focused on the water like he’s trying to will it to boil. “Hey,” I say. “Is the frankincense for nostalgia or deodorizer?” Gary stiffens. “I just got a whiff of Dad. What’s going on?”

“Whoa, wait a sec.” He wheels around. “I got that spray at Bed Bath& Beyond.”

“So?”

He sighs. “Look, the spray’s a coincidence. Okay, Dad’s having trouble keeping his routines. He forgets to shower, brush his teeth…”

“He’s lucky you’re here, huh?”

“Hey. You try chasing him around with a sponge. He has good days – better’n this – and I make sure he showers then. I do get him clean, I promise. Just not squeaky-clean.”

I want to press him, but with Christmas Eve you’ll find me, where the love light gleams wafting in, I find myself just muttering, “Where’s that wine?”

“Oh! Sorry.” He tilts his head at two wine glasses at the end of the counter. “That’s as far as I got before…”

“Before deciding the water wouldn’t boil without your heat-ray vision?” I pluck the glasses up.

‘You want a shitty holiday dinner made with love, or you wanna starve?’

‘Sorry. Shitty dinner, please.’”

“Oh, zing!” Gary scowls. I shoot over to my bag, a hand diving in for the bottle, vowing inwardly to hold back. As I pour, Gary speaks again, more softly. “You know, I might only have two kinds of fish, but I’ve actually gotten better at cooking since Ma died.” He grabs a pasta spoon, twirls it like a baton. “You’re gonna like this linguini.”

Dad’s voice floats in. “June?”

Gary turns back to the pot.

If o-o-o-on-ly-y-y-y i-i-i-i-i-i-i-in my-y-y-y-y dre-e-e-eams.

“Shit! The sauce!” Gary flies for the pantry, yanks out a jar. He whirls around and dives for the pan drawer. “I tell ya,” he says over his shoulder as he tosses the jar and a saucepan into each other over the stovetop, “cooking’s a fuckin’ dance. An’ up until last Spring, I only ever done the Hokey Pokey!”

“You’ve been saving that line.”

“Oh, you’re on fire tonight!” He digs in a drawer for the wooden spoon. “That’s okay. Nothin’ a dash of Dad’s hot pepper won’t cure.”

I place Gary’s wineglass on the counter, next to a mess of ingredients. “Sauce in a jar,” I can’t help venturing, adding a couple of Ma’s tsk-tsks. “She’ll haunt you.”

He flashes Ma’s Don’t cross me look. “You want a shitty holiday dinner made with love, or you wanna starve?”

“Sorry. Shitty dinner, please.” My hand floats out, rests on his shoulder for an awkward second. “With love.”

“When was the last time you had Ma’s sauce, anyway?”

“Christ,” I half-whisper. “You really want to go there?”

“Go where?” He faces me. “Isn’t it fair for a brother to be concerned when his big sister doesn’t show up for Christmas? Or their mom’s birthday?”

“Gary.”

“Or their dad’s?”

“Stop!”

From the living room comes a faint, flustered “Who’s shouting?”

“You know the answer, Gar.”

“Yeah, I know all the answers. We all did. ‘I couldn’t get time off.’ ‘Cindy couldn’t get time off.’ ‘Cindy’s planned something.’ ‘There’s a blizzard.’ Hah! When Google showed sun from here to fuckin’ Miami!”

My reply is cool, despite the fire inside me. “I wasn’t in control of my actions.”

Winter snow, Long Island. Terry Ballard/Wikimedia Commons

“Dad used to say that.”

“Who to?”

“Ma. She was hurting.”

I wince. “Okay. I get it. But he was right.”

“I know.” His face softens. “It took me some time, but I know, now.”

From the living room comes another ad. “Turn it down!” Dad hollers. Gary rushes in, clicks something; behind him Dad nags, “Gary, what’s the time? Is June back?” The jingle-heavy intro to ‘It’s a Marshmallow World’ quells him.

Back with me, Gary muses, “It’s funny. One reason I didn’t get things was ’cause of what you said.”

“What?”

“Heh. In college. Ninety-eight? You’d just come out.”

My stomach drops. “I think I know it.” My tone begs him not to go on.

The tone-deaf bastard keeps talking, whisking the lid off the now-boiling water. “You’d just told Mom and Dad, like the week before. They were taking it… hard but not awful.” He upends a strainerful of linguini, chases it with olive oil, and stirs. “I was still figuring you out. It was like you’d pulled off some Halloween mask you’d been wearing your whole life, and your real face underneath, that was the mask to me for awhile.”He chuckles. Here it comes. “We were in your room. I asked you, ‘What’s it like,’ or something.”

“Something stupid.”

“Hey, I was trying. Anyway, you said, ‘More women should go this way. No danger of a wifebeater husband.’” He watches the pasta start bubbling, as the sauce sends up steam and the lid rattles over the fish pan. His eyes flit to meet mine. “Funny, huh?”

My civility appalls me. “Think of the times. I’d spent my whole life trying to conform, choose the godly path, whatever. That was the first week ever that I let myself be myself without feeling ashamed. And other than giving me an opportunity to needle you, it seemed like a true upshot to ruining Mom and Dad’s life.” I gulp down some wine.

“Needle me?”

“Needle, yeah.”

“For what?”

I wave a dismissive hand while I swallow another gulp. “Oh, who knows? Being a man, being straight – you are straight, right?”

He answers with his middle finger.

“And come on, I was giving up on ever being the favorite! I wanted at least to think of the positives to this ‘lifestyle’.” I scoff. “Like I needed your damn approval.”

“But you’d already been seeing Cindy.” He flashes a weird, pitying half-smile that I’d like to rip off of his face. “You were naïve.”

“I was nineteen.”

“You married her at thirty-three. Were you naïve then?”

The wine greases my tongue. “Fuck you.” I set the glass down and cross my arms. “If you’d been barred by law from something like that, and suddenly it was allowed, it might have affected your decision-making.”

“Ah. Marriage as activism. How very like you.”

“Oh! A smartass! How like you!”

From the other room: “June? Who’s fightin’?”

“Keep it down,” Gary hisses at me.

“What do you expect?” I spit back. “You dredge up this bullshit from twenty years ago, reduce it to some attention-seeking act. And you want me to laugh it off?”

“Okay, sorry. We’re good.”

You’re good, Gary.” I grab my wineglass again. “I was never good.” I drain its contents and set it down. It’s full again and swirling in my hand before I know what I’m doing.

Gary raises his eyebrows. “Oh-ho! I’m the favorite! You get into fancy-ass Columbia, and I’m the favorite. You go off to live in some big house in Baltimore—”

“I don’t live in a big house now, do I?”

“—and I’m the favorite. Every day, Ma asks, ‘Can’t she call? I miss her so.’ And I’m the favorite.”

“She used to say that?”

“Every. Day.”

I stop swirling my glass for a few seconds. “Shit.” I stare at him a moment longer before remembering all the ways he’s fucking wrong. “What about you? Huh? Mama’s boy? Chip off the ol’ block? You who’s always been around for them?”

“You’re gonna do this?”

“You who they’d always tell me were there for them, every time I did call? Like I needed to know how they could always count on you…”

“I lived here.”

“… to do whatever needed doing. I knew what they meant. They didn’t need me. Why would they, with goody-two-shoes around to clean up their old-age mess.” I snort. “Like you haven’t had Felicia coming and cleaning every Thursday all this time.” Gary starts grumbling; I mow him down with my words. “Did they ever charge you rent? All those meals Ma made you? You know, all this time I was supposedly AWOL, I wasn’t just wining and dining with Cindy’s family. I had a job. You ever had one of those?”

“I have and you fucking know it.”

“Right! Who could forget? You always looked like they were wiping you out at Blockbuster. Why didn’t you claim disability after quitting? Or better yet, sue the bastards for making you stand instead of sit behind the counter?”

Insignia of the USS New Jersey, 1982–1991. US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

“You done?”

“How backbreaking, schlepping those heavy videocassettes every hour when someone actually rented something.”

He starts softly clapping. “Bravo. Touché.” I turn away, partly to refill my again-empty glass, mostly to hide the redness in my face. “That was decades ago,” he says. “I’ve had other jobs. It’s hard to hold something down when the only jobs up for someone without a degree are in retail.”

“Whose fault is that?”

“I dunno, Con, ask the American Legion. I was up for the same scholarship you’d gotten. My grades weren’t far off from yours. Maybe they just had more applications the year I tried.”

“What kind of sparkle does a daily pot habit put on your résumé?”

“Ooh! Zing again!”

Dad’s voice, timidly: “Who’s yelling? June?”

“Then again,” Gary’s finger shoots up, “did your in-laws even ask you for a résumé?”

“Well, that’s not my job anymore, is it?”

“Pretty convenient when you’ve got—” His face falls. “Oh. They could do that?”

“Pretty inconvenient when you’ve got charges pending against the heir to the company fortune.”

“Where did that leave you?”

“The short version? On a friend’s couch.”

“And the long version?”

“There is no long version.” I sigh. “She’s just an acquaintance, really. She seemed pretty relieved when I arranged this trip.”

Gary looks at his shoes.

Hear those sleigh bells, jingle jangle, what a beautiful sight!

“Shit, Con.” He looks back up.

“I know a bed won’t fit in my old room, with your TV console up there. I thought I’d maybe use the den down here for—”

“Dad sleeps there.”

“What?”

“He doesn’t handle the stairs so great. I set him up with your old bed down here. Less likely I’d find him crumpled on the bottom step one morning. I sleep easier.”

“I’ll bet!” I’m suddenly three inches taller, leaning toward him. “Tucked in nice and snug in Mom and Dad’s king-size bed, with the park right outside your—”

“I’ve stayed in my room.”

I shrink back an inch. “Oh.”

“Too many ghosts in theirs.”

“Just one.”

He cocks his head at the doorway. “And counting.”

’Cause Santa Claus comes toni-i-i-i-ight.

“You take it. Long as you need it. If Ma’s ghost is in there, she’ll be happy to have you.”

The song’s on ‘Four calling birds’ when Gary and I stumble into the living room, turning perplexed eyes from each other to the old man, who gapes at the computer across the room as if Jesus is climbing out of the screen.”

A familiar clarinet trills in the other room. Dad grunts.

“She loved you. They both did.”

A low croon: On the first day of Christmas…

“June?”

“They forgave you.”

I gasp. “Forgave me?”

On the second…

“Gar?”

“No, Connie, that’s not what I—”

“Gary you assho—”

“Connie! Gary! Come here!”

The song’s on Four calling birds when Gary and I stumble into the living room, turning perplexed eyes from each other to the old man, who gapes at the computer across the room as if Jesus is climbing out of the screen. His lips move as the male-female duo trade lines, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

He turns to us, eyes moist but clear, shining under the bill of his cap. “This!” He jabs a finger at the PC, and then bellows along: “Five golden rings!

Suddenly he’s off and running, like a horse at the Belmont Stakes, “Four calling birds, three French hens…” leaving Gary and me speechless in his dust.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…” With every line he sits up taller in his seat. “C’mon!” he barks before Seven swans a-swimming. Gary gives him an Are you crazy? laugh. But Dad’s eyes are firmly on me.

It could be the wine or butterflies that make my stomach press into my diaphragm. Whichever it is, it adds a quiver to my voice as I join in with the old man.

Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying…

Dad starts whispering every other line; before Eight maids I clue in. So does Gary; each line the female voice takes, he points a finger at me. Dad stops singing those lines, and beams at me as I stammer them in shaky falsetto.

Dad’s ear-to-ear grin leaves no doubt how much he cares if I can keep up. After watching me mumble, slur and na-na-na through too many lines, he turns back to the PC. His smile stays, even as he picks my lines back up. And he will not let up except, on cue, when the flutes flutter through an extra bar after Eleven pipers piping, and then when the snare drums roll after Twelve drummers drumming. At the top of the last round he points at Gary, who clears his throat and joins in. Gary and I stumble through the words, Dad’s word-perfect recitation lighting the way. We finally coalesce at the last outburst of Five golden rings!, and from there we’re together for a loud sprint through calling birds, French hens, turtledoves, and two euphoric repetitions of And a pa-ar-tri-idge in a pear tree! Dad collapses back in a breathless heap, face glistening. Gary claps the old man’s shoulder, then dashes over to kill the ad that follows the song. Dad squints through the dim light at me. “Connie.”

Winter sunset, Long Island. Terry Ballard/Wikimedia Commons

“Daddy.”

“That song. Remember? Ma and me?”

“I remember, Dad.”

“Wherever we were, if it came on. ’Member?”

“Tough to forget.”

“Remember K-Mart? You were, what? Fifteen?”

“Gah!” I cover my face, leaving a gap to show my smile. “The worst age!”

“That song on the PA? Us at the register? Everybody staring at us?”

“And me!” I laugh.

“The applause at the end?”

“I wanted to crawl in a hole and die!”

He cackles. “I know! And June! Your mother knew.” He pauses. “She felt bad, you know. Worried we’d scarred you.”

“She did?” I crouch by the armrest. My hand floats out, touches Dad’s elbow.

“She loved you. You know that.”

I turn, cast around for Gary. He’s behind me, nodding.

“And Connie. She’d never’ve said it, but I will.” He takes my hand. “Your Cindy. She’s hurting you. Nobody should hurt you. Get out while you can.”

I weigh telling him what’s happened, but find I can only nod. “Yes, Daddy.”

“Lotsa girls out there, Connie. Find one that loves you.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Like your Ma loved me.” His eyes well. “Right?”

“Yes, Daddy.” His image swims in my field of vision.

“Gary’ll take care of you. Right, Gar?”

“Always, Dad.” Gary’s hand falls on my shoulder.

“He’s good, Connie.” His eyes wander the room. “Look at all this.” The red lights twinkle in his eyes. “And with no Felicia anymore.”

“No?” I look back. Gary turns up a palm.

“No money,” Dad says. “But look at this, an’ the house all clean. Who knew he had it in ’im!” He laughs as he wipes his nose with his sleeve. “He’s a good one. You’ll have each other. You’ll be okay.”

Gary squeezes my shoulder. “We know.”

“That song,” Dad says. “Remember K-Mart, Con?” He shakes his head. “Of course you do. June…” A tear escapes his eye. He sighs, looks at me again. “She’s gone. Did you know?”

“She knows, Dad.” Gary squeezes my shoulder again.

“I keep losing her.” His gaze sinks to the floor. “She keeps getting away.” His voice is bewildered. The next song plays, but Gary’s turned the speakers down; all that comes through is the occasional trumpet blast and the constant jingle of bells.

Gary sniffs loudly. I turn, expecting to see him crying, but instead his eyes are wide. “Shit! The cod!” The burning smell hits me as he disappears through the doorway.

“What’s that?” Dad asks.

Over Gary’s cursing and the sizzling of the pan under the tap, I say, “Sounds like it’s just one kind of fish tonight.”

“Oh. That’s okay. June’ll take care of it.” He looks deep into my face, the red lights again glittering in his worried eyes. “Concetta? Where is she? Where’s June?”

 

Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories and other writing have appeared in publications including The New Plains ReviewThe Impressment Gang, PopMatters and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. The Upsetter Blog is out now from Owl Canyon Press.
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Author portrait © Roxanne Fontana

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