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