He’s on a walk, one of those random strolls he sometimes takes where he drives his car in some unplanned direction and on a whim parks. He walks to get outside, to get moving, to get alive. He dreads the evening ahead, the engagement dinner for his son, the having to suffer his ex-wife. He walks long, aimlessly, and imagines he’s lost in a desert with nothing but sand, horizon and the sensation of cacti needling his stomach. He inhales and anticipates the relief of coming out of the awful fantasy, of the fleeting flicker of joy on reentering the real world.
He rounds a corner and stops, aghast, in front of the house with the Christmas tree and life-size statue of Santa Claus in the bay window. There’s also a holly wreath on the red front door. This isn’t a mirage. This is real, his imagined desert killed. He feels the ground tilt and has to reassure himself there’s no earthquake, no disturbance, that it’s all in his head. He’s the one atilt and appalled, thinks how can this be. It’s not just that the tree is white and artificial or that Santa Claus is as tall and fat, as dumb and staring, as him. It’s that it’s the middle of August. He scans the house, and the truck in the driveway, and a chill passes over him.
The rest of the day, he cannot get the picture of the house, the Santa, or the gaudy tree out of his head. He concocts explanation after explanation. The house seemed frozen, preserved since last December, or maybe even the December before that? The occupants are dead, he thinks. Or at least one of them is dead. He or she died last December and the loved ones want to keep the house exactly as it was on that last, terrible day. A child, he decides. A beautiful, innocent child died. He feels plunged into icy water. Or it could be a divorce case, he decides, and is immediately less traumatized. A bitter, painful divorce battle much like his own, and neither party can touch the house or truck or any of their mutual property until a supposed settlement is reached. His pulse quickens again, blood whirls again. Of course, with divorce, there is never true settlement.
That night, when he enters the restaurant, he’s still thinking about the house, about the various terrible circumstances of its family. As he nears the table, nears the damp smiles of his son and future daughter-in-law, nears the thin cigar of a woman that was once his wife, he wants to turn and run, to sob at home until he’s spent, until there isn’t a tear or vestige of feeling left inside him. His son stands and shakes his hand. He’s a fine grip, his son, and is a fine-looking man with the best of insides. His daughter-in-law’s also a catch. They’ll do well together. He wants to be happy for them, he does. He’s just not sure he believes in marriage anymore. He’s not sure he believes in much of anything anymore.
Thankfully, strategically, there are four other couples at the table, the bride-to-be’s parents and the rest of the marriage party. They’ve seated him and his ex-wife at either end of the table. Even from that distance, he can feel the molten hostility rise off her and fan out at him. In their divorce papers she’d accused him of gross neglect. She’d told the court, through tears, that she thought she could have dropped dead in front of him on the floor and he would have stepped over her. He never said as much publicly, but he felt it was more true to say that she’d kill him, violently, messily, and step over him, and then go shopping and get her hair done. It was easier to think these grotesque things than to accept that they’d simply loved each other once and then stayed together so long they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. He had a hard time believing other long-timers ever felt any different. It was just some had more stomach than others for those they’d grown to hate. He’d the metal. He’d have soldiered on. It was her who divorced him, her who said he was sucking the life out of even the plants in the house, said he wasn’t going to burn out any more of her.
Throughout dinner, his ex-wife tries to rise him with one taunt after another, but he mind-over-matter turns down his hearing and catches little of what she says. At dessert, in a shout, she tells the waiter her ex-husband takes his apple pie with a good wollop of cream and then grins down the table at him like a shark. She’s the only woman in this world he thinks he could hit. Could hit and would enjoy hitting. Their son looks nervously back and forth between his parents. For several long moments it feels just like it had in their kitchen all those years, him and her going at each other and their son slipping down in his seat, watching them back and forth like they were playing tennis with a grenade. He mumbles his excuses to his son, to the future bride, and rushes out of the restaurant. He doesn’t want to get caught in the post dinner chitchat and awkward goodbyes. His son’s Dad, Wait chases him.
He drives straight to the house where Christmas stood still and parks outside. The bay window is flooded in light and around the side of the tree, in the gap between the branches and the sentry-like Santa, he can see a fire dancing in the hearth and the fat slippered feet of a man and woman in their respective recliners. He quakes with temper, then swells with rage. What if there’s no sad story behind the tree, Santa, wreath, and God knows what other decorations inside the house. What if these people just refuse to play by the rules and insist on their way. He gathers himself, determined to march up to the house, to pound on their door, to exact an explanation. But he sits and watches, and sits and watches. Why don’t you ever do anything, his insides scream, why don’t you act? He stays so long his eyes play tricks. He thinks Santa moves. Thinks the tree sways. Thinks the fire is laughing at him.
He realizes he’s crying and slaps at his tears. These people should know that life doesn’t work that way. You can’t just do what you want, when you want. There are rules to be followed, traditions to be valued, and duties to be honored. If we all went around defiant and feckless and insistent on life on our terms … Well just imagine.