April 15, 2007
The women gathered in Sara and Matt’s living room where waves of “oohs” and “awes” crashed and settled around the furniture as the presents were opened. Dana and Gina perched regally in identical high-backed wing chairs separated by the wood-burning fireplace. Sara had pulled a club chair next to Gina, and she jotted down in a legal pad pressed against her thigh a description of each gift and the guest responsible for it. Cindy’s handwriting was easier to read, but Sara was more detailed-oriented and didn’t punctuate her sentences with smiley faces, so Gina had delegated the administrative task to her.
Dana Cody retrieved a digital camera from her bag and handed it to Cindy, who sat on the four-cushioned sofa opposite her with Abby, Brenda, Margaret, and Jane.
“Could you please take a quick photo of me and my baby sister?” she asked, as if suddenly remembering to have her parking validated.
Wiping her hands on a pink napkin, Cindy put down her plate of food and accepted the assignment graciously.
Dana draped a threadbare arm around Gina, and they posed with her shower gift: A pink onesie with the image of an American flag, of which Gina approved, and a blue-tinted donkey with the words “Tiny Democrat” smeared underneath. Gina’s pert nose scrunched up at the sight, as if her unborn child had already soiled herself while wearing it. The sour expression became instantly cordial with a click of the camera, but her posture remained stiff and formal, like a celebrity posing with a slightly repellent fan at a convention.
“Thank you, Dana,” Gina said, handing off the onesie to Sara with the tip of her fingers. “Not on the registry,” she whispered.
Gina considered the Afghan Whigs tee-shirt Tom and Dana gave her two year old benign enough for one polite photo before being banished to the attic. This onesie, however, would never come in contact with her child. The socialism might seep into the skin.
Dana patted her sister-in-law on her trousered knee.
“Regina doesn’t mind if Tom and I put our liberal stamp on our nieces, right?” She then said, with brittle laughter, to the rest of the group, “We used to call Regina ‘Alexis P. Keaton’.”
Gina moved a strand of wavy blonde hair from one end of her forehead to the other. As a child, she’d developed this habit as a polite replacement for eye rolling.
“Why?” Sara asked.
Attributing Sara’s lack of recognition to their seven-year age difference, Dana kindly explained to her the premise of the TV series Family Ties.
“Progressive politics runs in my family,” she continued. “I’m related to Rebecca Felton on my mother’s side.”
The other women were more familiar with Alex Keaton, so Dana proudly declared, “She was the first woman senator.”
Sara reached for the sterling silver tea service, a gift for the occasion from Matt’s mother, and started to pour herself a cup of Darjeeling.
“She served for just one day.”
“Oh, you’ve heard of her?”
“Yes,” Sara replied as she diverted a stream of her cool blonde hair from the path of hot tea. “She was a slave owner and white supremacist who supported the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899. He was dismembered and burned alive. His knuckles were sold at Atlanta grocery stores.”
Jane Hind slowly and dramatically lowered her dish containing an untouched lady finger onto the coffee table.
“Well, we don’t talk about that,” Dana said with a rhetorical sweep of the matter under the nearest afghan. “We focus on the positive. She did a lot for the woman’s suffrage movement. That’s how history remembers her. Not the other stuff. She’s a Georgia woman of achievement. Her papers are at Athens.”
Teresa Bryan, sloshing out of a slipper chair, asked, “Greece?”
“No,” Gina clarified, “the University of Georgia. In the South, Athens means UGA and UPS means packages.”
“I dated a black guy once,” Jane announced, straightening up in her seat as though addressing the Nobel committee. The ladies’ heads snapped back from the force of the non-sequitur.
“African-American,” Brenda corrected in a nervous whisper, as if speaking louder might summon one to tea.
“Oh, she’s entitled,” Gina wryly insisted, “she gives to Save the Children.”
Wiggles sat cross-legged in rolled-up yoga pants on the floor where she wrapped a piece of smoked salmon around a cinnamon-raisin scone. Gina turned away from the sight and asked Jane, “Would you like to share with the congregation?”
“It was fine for a while, but… ” Jane had retrieved her lady finger and now wiped off crumbs from her own french-tipped fingers. “Whenever we were around babies — my friends’ kids; he never met my family — they would freak out or just stare oddly at him. It was impossible to know if it was because of… you know…” She completed the thought with a twirl of her hand. “Or if they just sensed something off about him.”
“What did you do?” Brenda asked.
“I couldn’t take any chances, you see. Five years ago, it might have been edgy, but there are more parents and kids in my social circle now. It’s like a real thing.”
Wiggles’s broad flat nose trembled in agreement.
“And he was really obsessed with race, which is kinda unfortunate in this day and age. For instance, it bothered him that I believe Michael Jackson’s a child molester but Woody Allen isn’t. I don’t even see race, but he made a big deal about it.”
“Really?” Margaret wondered. “Why? There’s like zero racism out here.”
“Yeah, it’s not like it’s the South,” Abby said, and upon the twin glare from the Cody sisters, quickly added, “You know, like, Alabama.”
— from The Wrong Questions
The second half of a chapter from a book I’m writing. The first is here.
Sara slapped her plate onto Matt’s pants, and, picking up her chair, relocated to an empty patch by the sofa. Parris Island, South Carolina, where Pam trained when she joined the Marine Corps, was just an hour from Savannah, Georgia, where Sara had spent the past five Christmases. However, the two women’s experiences in Savannah were distinct enough that it felt as if they were discussing two different cities, separated by an ocean of class and privilege.
More guests blew through the living room and kitchen, moving in triple time with Sinatra’s “The Christmas Waltz.” The German shepherd, overwhelmed by the day’s events, had abandoned his instinctual concern with everyone’s comings and goings and collapsed in a heap under Kay’s feet.
One late arrival, with thick glasses and a wobbly inner tube around her middle, knew Mr. Williams and Kay from the same local writers group.
“So, Mark, I spiced up the sex scene in my story like you suggested.”
“Great! You want to make it real, Nicole. Don’t weigh it down with fluffy romance.”
“I really liked the piece you read Monday. I loved the scene when you told off both the hippies and the country club crowd.”
“Your dad’s writing about his time at Seattle Pacific,” Kay explained proudly.
“You’re writing a memoir?” asked Matt skeptically.
“Oh, no,” Mr. Williams quickly objected. “This is a novel. Memoirs are for when you’re happy with how everything in your life turned out. Fiction is what you write when you wish you’d done things differently.” He patted Kay’s thigh. “If I get around to writing about the past year, that’ll be a memoir.”
As his father spoke, Matt checked the time on his Cartier watch, confirmed it on his iPhone, and even glanced up at the ceiling as if he’d spot the time scurrying across like a winged insect. Then came a snap of pressed trousers and he was on his feet.
“I’m afraid it’s time for us to head out.”
“Oh?” said Mark Williams. “So soon?”
Although they hadn’t exchanged more than a handful of words, Mr. Williams’s expression implied there was much he wished to tell his son but he’d mistakenly believed there’d be plenty of time to do so.
Sara made no movements toward the front door, because she’d learned during their fifteen years together that whenever Matt said he was ready to leave a party, the actual process of extricating himself took at best an hour and at worst longer than Sara had ever wanted to spend anywhere.
She went into the kitchen for more water. The oven clock claimed it was 10 but guests continued a circuit of the pots and dishes until their plates wheezed from exertion. It occurred to Sara that there was no place at this party where one could be safely alone. Gina Merrick always set aside an area at her house for that purpose, ostensibly for private phone calls, but Sara most often used it as a brief meditative retreat before returning to the fray.
Kay’s voice soon entered the room, embracing everyone present while her actual arms were filled with a stack of plastic plates. They all looked licked clean except for Sara and Matt’s, whose dinner had cooled and congealed into something unrecognizable.
“When I was little, we used to wash these plates and reuse them. But not anymore!” Kay smiled and, as Sara’s foot pressed down on the silver pedal to pop open the lid, Kay dumped the plates into the tin cavern as if realizing her own American dream.
“What do you write?” Sara asked.
“Poems, mostly, nothing too fancy. Honestly, I just like hearing other people’s stories. That’s why I go. Although I think what made Mark first notice me was my poem May 26, 1981.”
“What’s the significance of that date?”
Sara knew this was a risky question. Her experience from the bare minimum of literature courses she’d taken in college was that direct questions only erupted geysers of pointless subtext and supposition.
“It’s when Paul was conceived.”
It pleased Sara that the answer was straightforward and not a reference to green lights.
“Absolutely is. I worked it out, which wasn’t easy because his father and I were pretty frisky back then, but that’s really what the poem’s about. You just know when it’s happened. Anyway, I was comparing it to the rain. How when there’s a big storm, you just get pounded and your skin’s all wet, and there’s this smell in the air. After I finished, Mark just asks, ‘Look, what I wanna know is did you have an orgasm or not?'”
A moment passed, during which Sara considered what she’d heard and concluded, “Mr. Williams seems to have a consistent critical focus.”
Once her laughter settled down, Kay leaned in to whisper, “So, how far along are you?”
“Far along in what?” Sara asked innocently.
“I know I shouldn’t ask,” Kay admitted, “but you weren’t drinking and you sort of picked at your food. I had the same problem early on with Paul. All I could eat were sweets. Cheesecake for breakfast, chocolate creme pie for lunch, hot fudge sundae for dinner, and I was popping those little Easter egg candies like breath mints.”
Sara exchanged a confused look with the Redskins mascot on Kay’s sweatshirt.
“Oh,” she said, realizing. “I’m not…”
“Ready to tell people about it yet, I know, but if you ever want someone to talk to…”
Pam Kaye marched into the kitchen, her controlled stride not that different from Sara’s, despite the latter’s lack of formal training.
“Looks like you’re shipping out.”
Just a half hour had passed since Matt expressed his desire to leave, which was normally nowhere near long enough for it to appear that he was actually going someplace, but looking past Pam’s shoulder, Sara saw her husband standing restlessly in a dark corner of the living room. He’d already put on his coat, and Sara’s hung limply over his folded arms.
“Just wanted to say good-bye. I really enjoyed talking to you.”
“You, as well,” Sara said, and, as if removing a bothersome splinter, she added, “Could I have one of your cards? I think I’d like to take you up on your offer.”
“Awesome!” Pam smacked her fist into the palm of her hand. “You won’t regret it! Paul does great work. Wow, once we get samples of your session on our site, traffic is sure to spike.”
“And the timing is just perfect,” Kay said. “I wish I’d thought to…” She stopped herself mid-sentence and made a shushing gesture with her finger. “Well, anyway… you’re gonna look gorgeous.”
Two voices had raised themselves, as if on stilts, above the rest in the house.
“You’re spending Christmas at a casino?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Williams replied, “Suquamish. And it’s a resort and casino. Full package.”
“I can’t believe you.” Matt turned to Sara, who’d entered the room along with others lured from the kitchen by the appetizing drama. “Do you believe him?”
“Suquamish,” Sara repeated. “That’s where Mindy Gardner got married. You said you liked it.”
“I said it was charming, which is what you say when you’re being polite.” Matt helped Sara into her coat. “This is what you’re doing for Christmas?”
“Yeah! It’ll be fun. I haven’t enjoyed Christmas since I was a kid. ”
“Mom put a lot of effort into Christmas.”
The party’s unseen guest was now mentioned directly, and Mark Williams struck down their forty Christmases together with a chop of his hand.
“It was all too much,” he insisted. “Three trees… What is it? Arbor Day? All these antique ornaments that can’t be broken…”
Kay attempted to inject levity into the flatlining gathering.
“I’m such a butter fingers. I break an ornament each year. Guess which one it’ll be this time and I’ll buy you an egg nog.”
“Then that big Christmas party,” Mr. Williams continued, “…no, not a party, a gala, with all those important people. The whole season was like jury duty but you got called each year.” His bald head shook defiantly. “No! No, this year’s Christmas dinner is just a simple buffet. Having my dessert on the same plate as my main course. It’s like all my options are in front of me and I’m in control of every one.”
Matt recalled a series of aborted childhood Christmas dinners: His father skulking off into the TV room to watch football, and gravy splattering from carelessly held priceless china onto his mother’s favorite Persian rug.
“Would it have killed you to sit still for one meal?”
“Who has time for the Twelve Days of Courses? It’s just food. Eat it, enjoy it, move on. This is why your generation needs a war. But why do you even care? You stopped coming over for Christmas after you met Sara.”
The occasion of Mr. Williams calling Sara by her Christian name, which he hadn’t done since she’d married his son, was not commented on as Matt instead recoiled at the audacity of his father striking him with a fistful of facts.
“I stopped because…” Matt looked through his father, as if he were a ghost, and explained himself to the parent who felt more tangible to him. “I couldn’t stand watching how miserable you made Mom.”
“Me?” Mr. Williams threw back his head and laughed. “Here’s the punchline. Everything could’ve gone perfectly but your mother would’ve still been miserable. Whatever the event, she’d spend it afraid someone’s gonna spill red wine on her white furniture. She owns most of Woodinville and she’s worried about spilling red wine. My life now?” He turned over a few drops of his beer onto the carpet. “See? No big deal. I’ll clean it up later.”
Matt’s face curdled with disgust.
“Wow. Well, I’m glad you’re comfortable enough to pour one out for your homies.”
The hallway mirror revealed that Sara was wearing her coat inside out, but before she could correct it, Matt’s hand was pressing against the dangling tag and compelling her toward the door.
“Let’s just stop having this same fight,” Mr. Williams called out to the vanishing couple. “What I wanted to say before…” He glanced at Kay. “We’re going to be at Suquamish through New Year’s. Sara mentioned that you’d be back from Savannah by then, so… well, Pam and Paul are coming up on New Year’s Eve. It’ll sort of be a celebration.”
Matt could only guess at what type of celebration his father was hinting at, and his only response was to slam the door shut behind him.
“That was unnecessary,” Sara said as they walked toward Matt’s car.
“Look, I don’t care what my father does now.” He gestured wildly in the direction of Kay’s house, as if they’d just left a pagan ritual. “But I hate how he’s so obsessed with assaulting my mother’s memory that he’ll lie about his life.”
It had started to rain, and drops of water struck Sara and rolled down her cheeks.
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice? Dad’s miserable.”
“How did you reach that conclusion?”
“Are you blind? That woman. That house.”
“Mr. Williams says he’s happy now.”
“He’s lying!” Matt screamed, practically begging Sara to agree with him. “Don’t you see? I took everything from him!”
Sara’s tone was neither comforting nor confrontational, merely curious.
“What did you actually take from him?”
“He was always going on about money and freedom, how money was freedom, and now he’s getting by on social security, spending his Mondays listening to blog entries, and living with that cartoon. He can’t be happy.”
“Perhaps your actions forced him to re-evaluate his priorities.” Her next words were intended to comfort: “You might have helped him.”
When Matt realized Sara was right, all he could do was slam his fist into an unfortunately placed traffic sign.
“That’s not what I wanted,” he whispered.
At the end of the block, a cloudy lamppost hovered over a gray Mercedes that Sara and Matt entered on opposite sides. The trickles of light falling through the passenger-side window was enough for Matt to see Sara struggling with her seat belt, as hot tears mixed with the cold rain on her face. When the belt finally clicked in place, she started to laugh.
“Gina told me this was the only reason you wanted to come.” It was now Sara’s turn to quote her friend: “You just wanted to see Mr. Williams… ‘in hell.'”
Matt pulled away from the curb.
“Maybe so,” he confessed, “but you weren’t there. You didn’t see how awful he was to my mother…” He added perfunctorily, “…to me. You can’t judge me.”
“No, I’m not judging you. It’s just…” She’d stopped laughing. “I guess Gina knows you better than I do.”
They drove home without speaking but not in silence. Once they reached the interstate, Matt, with a defiant flourish, switched on the radio, which had already started playing Christmas music.
November 22, 2012
The house in Kent, Washington where Matt Williams’s father lived now was a single, faded brown brick, with gasps of smoke wafting up from the narrow chimney like hot breath on an icy night. The roof was primped and pomaded with spirals of multicolored lights, like a sparkling fright wig. Shining garland shadowed the facing windows, whose snowflake-shaped irises twinkled flirtatiously at the moonlight.
There was a solemn nativity scene with plastic newborn and doting parents on one side of the dim brown lawn and on the other, a flashing Snoopy dressed as Santa Claus drove a sleigh with Frosty the Snowman and a confused wise man as passengers.
“I guess they couldn’t wait until after the weekend to kick off the eye pollution,” Matt said disgustedly, pausing on the neutral ground of the driveway to check his iPhone. “This has to be the wrong house.”
Glittering soft tinsel twisted around Snoopy Claus and sprinkled flickering salt on Sara Richter’s black leather boots, which crunched along the short gravel driveway as she continued toward the front door.
“It’s the correct address,” she said. The incongruous lawn decorations hadn’t diminished her certainty, and Matt, carrying a bottle of mid-range wine, hurriedly joined her on the stoop. Both the porch light and his wife’s face radiated a competing stoic glow, and he quickly pressed his lips against the warm streaks of honey lying across her cheek.
“Should we sing carols?” he whispered.
Sara smiled, and two tiny lines appeared briefly in the corners of her eyes as her gloved knuckles rapped against the door.
“That won’t be necessary.”
And it wasn’t as the door soon swung open to release an onslaught of Christmas music that leapt onto Sara and Matt like poorly trained dogs.
Mark Williams greeted them in khaki shorts and a red plaid shirt with enough buttons undone to reveal a white, coffee-stained tee and a silver bristle of chest hair. His craggy face boasted at least two weeks of beard growth. It struck Sara that, for the first time in her memory, Mr. Williams looked like a retired person.
“Come in! Come in!” he ordered the two guests. “You’re letting out all the heat.”
Father and son shook hands efficiently, and the former startled Sara with a hug.
The distance from the front door to the living room was crossed before Sara had fully removed her coat, which Mr. Williams hastily took and flung onto a libidinous pile on the double bed in the room across the hall. The door was wide open and Matt noticed matching cans of Rainer beer on each bedside table.
The living room was crammed with tchotchkes of no purpose aside from sentiment. They so crowded the space, it seemed as if every little ceramic owl or glass pear absorbed all the light from the half dozen or so authentic imitation Tiffany lamps.
Sara felt her way forward, her lithe arms outstretched as though struck blind, and the gray sleeve of her sweater dress rustled against the wallpaper’s dark floral print, which seemed to grow a little into the room and smelled of stale tobacco.
Mr. Williams’s thick fingers squeezed into Sara and Matt’s shoulders and he compelled them further inside where a caravan had assembled among the mismatched furniture. A slender German shepherd patrolled the room, never feeling quite settled until it could see to its satisfaction that everyone else was. However, the guests formed a cheery merry-go-round along the living room and through the kitchen, so the dog was never entirely still either.
“Everybody!” Mr. Williams shouted, and the crowd briefly turned away from raucous conversations, plastic cups of beer, and the football game on the TV. “This is my son and daughter-in-law.”
No further introductions were provided or apparently required, and indeed, everyone afterward referred to Sara and Matt by their first names, as though resuming a previously established acquaintanceship.
Matt removed his glasses and glanced around the house again before resting his dark eyes on his father, who leaned against the painted cushion of thick leaves on the wall.
“Are you hallucinating all this, too?” Matt whispered to Sara, who didn’t look at all surprised because, having had no expectations of her own, she merely accepted whatever she saw and heard.
The scent of pepper, geraniums, and cloves, which Sara noticed on Mr. Williams when he’d hugged her, exploded into the room, as if someone had smashed a perfume bottle.
A booming, deep voice asked, “Are the kids here?”
“Yeah!” Mr. Williams responded eagerly. “They finally made it.”
There was a blur of movement, which jostled the pre-lit Christmas tree, and a woman in her middle fifties swept over to Sara and Matt. Her peaked face was powdered with thick clumps of makeup that gave the impression of an aggressive ski slope, and a black varnish covered her head, which glinted blue from the fiber-optic flames of plastic candles on the mantel.
“Well, it’s mighty good to see you two.”
Matt looked askance.
“It’s good to be here,” Sara said quickly. “Have you known Mr. Williams long?”
The woman rejected Sara’s extended hand and threw her stout arms around her.
“Oh, we’ve been shacked up for a few months now. ” She pulled Matt close and he bent forward stiffly and with resistance like a rusty lever. “Mark helped me put up the decorations. I can never wait until December. A month just isn’t enough time.”
An old woman, who Matt thought might have been a leftover plastic skeleton from Halloween, shuffled past them.
“She calls it Thanksgivingmas,” the old woman muttered as she eased open the bathroom door.
The assertion was conceded through snorts of laughter, and Mr. Williams pulled himself loose from the wallpaper to finally introduce his lady friend.
“This is Kathleen Kaye,” he said brightly.
“But you can just call me Kay.”
“So,” Matt said deliberately, “Kay Kaye?”
“She’s the New York City of gals — so nice, they named her twice!”
Kay nudged Sara in her ribs, which were still mildly bruised from her embrace, and winked at Mr. Williams.
“That’s what he says!”
“We brought wine,” said Matt, grimly accepting that it was Kay to whom he should offer the hostess gift.
“Ain’t you sweet?” she exclaimed, seizing the bottle by its neck. “If Washington takes it home, we’ll celebrate in style! Now, come on, let’s get you some food.”
The kitchen was just a few feet away, where the leafy wallpaper had spread like weeds, and inside, pots and pans simmered on the stove, and casserole dishes kept warm in the white chrome oven or rested over cork board hot plates on the gray countertops.
A train of guests loaded their hupcap-sized red plastic plates with turkey slices, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, stuffing with sausage, and assorted pies. It was a stark change from Thanksgivings at Gina Merrick’s where the kitchen was closed to all but a couple authorized sous chefs, of which Sara was one, and her husband Charlie was posted like an usher by the stage door to ensure no one else entered.
Sara noticed how the kitchen actually looked like a large, expansive meal had been cooked there — even the closed set at Gina’s was in a perpetual state of thorough cleanliness as if the food had just appeared. Gina insisted on a Creationist approach to dinner parties, rather than revealing the cold brutal evolutionary truth of food preparation.
Kay’s long red acrylic nails clattered over Sara and Matt’s backs like a puppy scampering across hardwood.
“I was a little nervous about feeding a chef but I said to myself, give someone food made from the heart and it’ll always taste good.”
“Yeah, well,” Matt said, peering mournfully into the pot of buttery mashed potatoes, “this will definitely go straight to my heart.”
“Help yourselves!” Kay said before returning to a tense-sounding moment in the football game. “There’s plenty.”
“I think the line starts here,” Sara told Matt, and she stood behind a young woman no older than twenty whose plate wobbled atop her very pregnant belly.
“This is something,” he whispered. “Our first visit to a soup kitchen.”
Sara exhaled sharply, which had become her unconscious reaction whenever Matt was melodramatic.
“Can you imagine what Gina would think of this formica horror show?” He ran a finger over the countertop as if wearing a thin white glove. “She’d have a stroke.”
In the past year, Matt had begun ascribing to Gina Merrick the same reactions his mother might’ve had to a situation if she were alive. It had steadily developed into an irritating pattern.
Sara folded her arms and stared at the gray drywall ceiling, which was chipped and cracked.
“Why don’t you go visit with Mr. Williams?” she said flatly. “We can share a plate.”
Matt looked gloomily at the food line and then the living room, and in a deliberate display of martyrdom went to join his father.
The young woman standing by Sara’s elbow turned and introduced herself as Donna. She played wanly with her hair, which was in a transitional state between bleached blonde and brown, as if she’d walked out in the middle of a color treatment.
“How do you know Kay?” she asked Sara.
“We just met actually.”
“You come for the food?” she whispered confidingly. “Lots of people in the neighborhood do.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Down the street. My guy’s a cop so he’s working today. This is a lot better than takeout from Jack in the Box. It just feels wrong not having turkey on Thanksgiving.”
The woman behind Sara in line was also pregnant, and her condition was so advanced that the kitchen could conceivably become a delivery room. She was around Sara’s age or more accurately had lived for the same number of years. Her hair was ash-gray and lines populated her face like a cramped urban city center. Despite the gap in years between her and Donna, the present and the future converged from a position of mutual physical states, and soon, like the spread of a contagion, the subjects of strollers, car seats, and diapers consumed the conversation with merciless efficiency.
Whenever mothers discussed their children in her presence, Sara felt the same dull ache in her ear she’d experienced when high school classmates would talk about their boyfriends or whichever girl wasn’t present at the time. Her blue eyes scanned the room for something else to occupy her attention until the seizure of reproductive frenzy had passed.
“Do you know what you’re having, Laura?”
“A girl, which is great after three boys.” Sara let Laura toddle ahead of her in line, and she and Donna heaped their plates with every available dish. “You know what my oldest said?” Laura imitated a small child: “‘I’ll protect her!'”
Donna cooed appreciatively, while Sara perused the magnets suffocating the refrigerator door. Kay apparently had spent a lot of time in Washington state casinos.
“My middle one said, ‘Eew, I don’t like girls.'”
“That won’t last long.”
“And my youngest wonders if she’ll want to play cowboy and Indians with them.”
“They play cowboys and Indians?” Sara asked, unintentionally joining the conversation.
“Oh yeah, but I told him that they have to let her be the cowboy sometimes,” Laura replied proudly. “Do you have kids, Sara?”
“No, I don’t.”
Laura’s expression was a mixture of pity and suspicion, and Sara spotted another pregnant woman sneaking in line for a slice of pumpkin pie.
“Are you married? Seeing anyone?”
“So, what do you do?”
Sara started to answer as specifically as possible given the generality of the question, and as she spoke, the absence of drudgery and financial necessity in any of Sara’s daily activities thoroughly bewildered the two mothers.
“It’s great that your husband gives you the time to just relax,” Laura said after a moment. “I had the hardest time getting pregnant with this one because I was doing double shifts.”
Donna, who had to be at work at 8, took her plate into the other room. Laura continued giving Sara advice, which she accepted charitably as she prepared a plate of her own. Sara had long ago concluded that childbirth imparted upon a woman an area of expertise that, no matter how otherwise limited her experience, allowed her to lecture professorially and with great indulgence.
Matt sat across from his father in the living room on a creaky metal folding chair within a cocoon of contempt. He remained on the outskirts of the festivities, sipping from his plastic cup and refusing to be drawn into the surrounding pleasantries.
Sara carried a full plate over to her husband, but he now indicated that he didn’t want to risk marring his black, uncreased trousers with Kay’s meal. So Sara sat down with the plate that was intended for two and draped a red-and-green napkin over her lap. Taking long, orderly swallows, she drained a plastic cup she’d filled with water from the tap and placed it momentarily on a side table, where it intruded on a miniature nativity scene composed entirely of ceramic cats.
Kay attended to all the guests with no obvious distinction between family member, friend, or neighbor. She didn’t appear to have acquaintances. Two men who worked with her at the bank had sat quietly listening to the scratchy, tape-recorded Christmas music until the spirits in their red plastic cups possessed them with the spirits of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and they soon joined Kay in a tuneless but joyous rendition of “Marshmallow World.”
Kay’s thirty-year-old son Paul was a cherub inflated pneumatically to adult proportions. He referred to his wife Pam repeatedly as “my love,” “my darling” and “my sweetie” with such passionate insistence he might have believed it himself. He spoke in a low wheeze, as if the air was leaking from an unseen hole in his fleshiness. At some point during the afternoon, Paul had acquired a streak of dark brown stuffing on his round dimpled chin, but Sara could never find a pause in his filibuster to inform him of it so later in a burst of sudden intimacy, she wiped it off with her napkin like a mother cleaning a baby’s bottom.
Pam sat on the sofa with her legs spread wide apart and the balled fist of one hand pressed into the thigh of her faded sweat pants. She cheered along with Mr. Williams when Washington won the game.
“Cool Hand Luke did it!” she shouted, trading a high-five with Matt’s father. “What’d I tell ya, Mark!”
“Do you follow football closely?” Sara asked politely.
“You bet!” Pam spoke her words as if counting off push-ups. “It’s what I missed most when I was in Iraq.”
“You’re in the military?”
Matt believed only regimental life or a serious illness could explain Pam’s close-cropped haircut.
“Not the ‘military.'” Mark Williams gruffly corrected, adding with a touch of paternal pride, “The marines. No one in the service says ‘military.'”
Matt’s mouth tightened, but icy words seeped through the tiny crack in his face.
“You’re in the ‘marines’, Pam?”
“Was,” she answered genially, and her veiny, muscular hands kneaded Paul’s doughy shoulder. “Served two tours then came back to my man.”
Kay, appearing in a puff of perfume behind Sara’s chair, stuck a plastic candle in the pumpkin pie slice on her plate.
“Little birdie told me your birthday was on the 11th.” She batted plastic eyelashes at Mr. Williams. “You’re nineteen, right? That’s why you’re not drinking.”
“No,” Sara replied. “I’m thirty-four.”
Extended and frequent interactions were required before Sara could tell when someone was joking, so she was left wondering how Kay could have possibly confused her for a teenager.
“Sara doesn’t drink,” Matt said curtly.
“Good for her! More people need to find Jesus.” She winked at the portrait of Christ on the wall. “He’ll keep you on the right path.”
“You said it, Mommy!”
“Mommy?” Matt repeated in impulsive shock.
“It’s my little nickname,” Paul laughingly explained.
“A bold choice.”
Sara cut off a piece of pie with her plastic fork. It was the only item served, including the macaroni and cheese, that didn’t contain meat — although there was a curious aftertaste that aroused her suspicions.
Paul Kaye reached across the battered coffee table and passed Matt a business card with the illicit secrecy of a note exchange in grade school.
“‘Pam and Paul Pan-Media’,” Matt read aloud. He paused as he considered the amateurishly drawn figure on the card’s face. “Is this a goat man?”
Blonde hair brushed across Matt’s crisp blue shirt as Sara leaned over to examine the image.
“I believe that’s Pan, the god of fertility.”
Matt tapped the card idly against his nose.
“So, what’s the service exactly?”
“We’re an all-inclusive, boutique creative co-op,” Pam answered.
“That’s a mouthful!”
“Aside from fertility,” Paul said with a giggle, as if repeating a naughty word, “Pan represents wooded glens… like the ones in Seattle.”
“I see.” Matt had stopped looking at Pam and Paul and instead stared at Kay, whose wide hips spread across the arm of his father’s plaid Barcalounger. The couple shared a plate of food and a cup of beer.
“We put your dreams on stage,” Paul continued.
“What does that mean?” Sara asked.
“Oh, it doesn’t mean anything specific. It’s a slogan. It captures your attention.”
“Just like the goat man did, honey,” Matt noted.
“We utilize the entire media sphere to help people self-actualize their grandest dreams,” Pam explained, and her husband joined her for the next word, “Pan-Media! Paul’s a photographer and videographer — he’s the Chief Cinematography Officer — and I specialize in a holistic, life-affirming approach to nutrition and fitness for effective weight loss.”
“She’s our Chief Energy Officer,” Paul boasted.
Sara swallowed some more pie and asked, “Losing weight is a dream?”
“Absolutely! You know how many women I meet who allow their weight to become an obstacle to what they want out of life? They won’t start dating until they lose that last twenty pounds. And, of course, they can’t go to that great new restaurant by themselves or go on vacation alone, so they never take time off…”
“Yes,” Sara agreed, “that doesn’t make sense.”
“Right, so I help them lose the weight, so they can truly live. And if you think about it, what do you want most after you lose weight?”
Matt’s wide shoulders shrugged wearily.
“New photos!” Pam and Paul said in unison.
“How did you get started in this endeavor?”
Pam placed her hands on her knees.
“Oh, things were pretty tight for us when I got back. Paul had a few gigs here and there, but I was getting tired of sending out resumes and then sitting around waiting for someone to call me back.”
“So, we thought, heck, we live for each other; why not work for each other?”
Pam nodded, smiling, and added, as if suddenly remembering, “We’ve also started wedding planning.”
“How does that fit into your business model?”
“You don’t need a license for it, right?” suggested Matt.
“No, you don’t! Just a strong social media presence: Facebook, Twitter, and your own Web site. It’s what we call ‘Pan-Media’ in action. Paul takes the wedding pictures, and I get the bride and groom in excellent shape for the big day. And we both organize the wedding.”
“That’s an interesting idea,” Sara said.
“Entrepreneurship!” Mr. Williams bellowed over the TV. “Backbone of the nation. It’s what sets America apart.”
Matt mockingly saluted his father while Pam examined Sara’s lengthy frame from head to foot.
“I don’t think there’s much we can do for you,” she admitted. “You’re married and in great shape!”
“I’m happy to photograph you both, though,” Paul said. “Everyone needs more photos, especially happy folks.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Sara said, starting her polite refusal, when Paul suddenly grabbed her hand and squeezed.
“You know, Mark mentioned that you two own that Italian place in Ballard.”
“Matt does, yes.”
“We’ve been wanting to go ever since it opened,” Pam said, “but it’s a little…”
She laughed nervously, and Paul supplied the missing adjective by rubbing his thumb against the tip of his fingers.
“The menu’s priced at the appropriate level to convey value,” Matt replied shortly, quoting Gina Merrick.
“Perhaps you’d like to join us one…”
“Come by on a Monday,” Matt interrupted, pausing to look at his wife as if she’d taken leave of her senses. “Tell the hostess I sent you and they’ll give you the royal treatment.”
Mondays were the one day of the week when Matt didn’t stop by at least one of his restaurants.
“That’s so nice of you! Now, you’ve gotta let us shoot you two. Have you posed for your Christmas card yet?”
“That’s OK,” Matt said, coldly polite. “Don’t worry about it. We can call it even for Iraq.”
— from The Wrong Questions
Charlie looked up from his Surface tablet.
“That photo of you and the girls in matching sunglasses is a big hit on Facebook.”
“It is a nice shot of me,” Gina corroborated. “How many ‘Likes’ did it receive?”
“Lemme check. You know, people complain that Surface doesn’t have the Facebook app but you can access the Web version just as easily through Internet Explorer.”
“I’m sure,” she replied, only half-listening, as she read quietly from the Wall Street Journal app on her iPad.
“Forty-eight likes,” Charlie declared. “That’s funny. You’re not one of them.”
“Liking your own photo is tacky, Charlie. Besides, I tend to filter the profiles of people who post a lot about their kids.”
“Especially you,” Gina confirmed. “I can’t make personal exceptions or I lose all credibility.”
The most populous and prosperous city in Regina Peyton Cody’s native state of Georgia was Atlanta, which was also sensibly its capital. She had to adjust to the dissonance of Olympia or Salem having that honor over Seattle or Portland. It ran counter to what she perceived as the natural order of existence — the biggest and most powerful is the best: a simple rule she’d mastered early in her life. And that’s what was important to understand about Gina Merrick, as she was now known: She always followed the rules. So, after graduating from Lovett in 1997, she’d left Atlanta for Seattle, advancing several ambitious but still conservative rungs up the metropolitan ladder, and enrolled at the University of Washington, a school that ranked higher than her older brother Tom’s alma mater, UGA (when he was there in the early ’90s, she’d refer to it as “Ugh!” in that way younger sisters had).
Tom graduated from “Ugh!” in 1994 and leaped straight to New York, the largest city in the country. He’d floundered there without any real agenda, which was regrettable but nonetheless worked to Gina’s advantage. The Northwest was easier to sell to her parents now. It boasted fresh air and actual trees, all in stark contrast to that urine-tinted garden of hobos and gang members planted in the middle of Manhattan.
Tom had also moved to New York with a girl of questionable background named “Jasmine.” (People of questionable backgrounds always named their children after nature… for instance, some form of shrubbery — “Rose” or “Violet ” — or even the elements — “Rain” or “Storm” — because they had nothing else.) Gina was not so reckless as to entertain a relationship with someone socially unacceptable; however, she allowed her parents to believe it was possible (there was power in unpredictability), so a city that restricted its diversity to its foliage had a natural appeal to the Codys over New York and even Atlanta.
So Regina Cody headed west.
–from The Wrong Questions