By Grace Heimsness
I’d forgotten what a hassle it was getting ready for the Christmas Eve service.
“Mom!” I shouted, shoving mittens and gloves around in what used to be my sock drawer, “I can’t find my—.”
“I’m in here!” she hollered before I could finish my sentence.
I sighed, slid the drawer shut, and followed the echo of her voice down the hallway. A Flaming Lips album blared from behind Lucy’s door and drowned out the Christmas music drifting in from the living room. My kid sister never bothered to humor our mother, even on holidays.
I smelled Mom before I saw her. Her perfume hit me ten steps before I made it to the bathroom door. I paused a moment to remember its warmth, then leaned against the doorframe and watched her put mascara on in open-mouthed concentration.
“Do you know where my socks are?” I said.
“Oh, Winn. They’re not in your drawer?” she said.
“No, you put all the old gloves and mittens in there after I left, remember?”
“Well, just go in my drawer then. There’s a black pair in the back.”
“Okay,” I said, turning away. I glanced out the window. The snow Dad had predicted earlier was falling in big, slow flakes.
“Did you miss it?” Mom said. She was watching me through the mirror.
“Miss what?” I said, tugging on the socks.
“The snow. Did you miss it in LA?”
“Oh. God, yes.”
“Gosh,” she corrected me, and smoothed out imaginary wrinkles in her pants before clacking down the hallway to check on Dad. I bit my lip, unsure of whether to follow her and witness the inevitable nightly scene in front of the liquor cabinet. After a moment I padded to the kitchen and pretended to look in the fridge for something to drink. They knew it was bullshit, but my parents didn’t bother to throw me out because it was nothing new and because I’d always been the referee anyway.
Mom was gripping the vodka bottle Dad had poised over a high ball. They were staring at each other as if they’d been stuck like that for 25 years. Which, in a sense, they had been.
“Don’t you think you should hold off at least until after church?” Mom said, clenching her jaw.
“Julie, it’s one drink. Can you just let me have one drink, please, so I can relax?” Dad said.
Mom gave Dad another 25-year look and let go of the bottle.
“Fine,” she said.
The remnants of The Argument hung in the air for a few moments before Lucy turned her music up and “Do You Realize” accompanied the taut buzz. Mom walked toward the living room to turn the Christmas music off and concede to my sister, and Dad finished pouring his drink. I watched him toss it down out of the corner of my eye. His suit hung off his frame a little more loosely than I remembered. I grabbed the Coke I’d been staring at for the last few minutes and wandered off to Lucy’s room.
I knocked, but didn’t bother to wait for her to open the door.
“Hey, Goosey,” I said.
“Hey, Pooh,” Lucy said. She was sitting cross-legged in front of her floor mirror, putting on make-up. I sat down next to her and cracked open my Coke.
“You look like Mom when you put make-up on,” I said.
“Oh my God, you did not just say that,” she said.
“Actually I did just say that. What are you gonna do about it?”
“This,” she said, and snatched the can out of my hand.
“Hey, fucker,” I said, but made no motion to reclaim it. Instead, I sat back on my hands and looked at the poster-covered walls. The room looked like it housed a punk kid from the seventies. It had been Disney-princess-themed when I’d left just four months ago, and I was still trying to get used to the change. Ripped jeans and band t-shirts were strewn over the floor, and a turntable, complete with sizeable vinyl collection, filled one corner of the room.
“So what the hell happened, Lu?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“You went from Disney to Sex Pistols in a matter of one semester.”
“I dunno. Princesses aren’t real. I got sick of pretending they were.”
“Ah,” I said, for lack of a better response. “So, Mom and Dad didn’t get into it as much tonight. Actually, they didn’t really get into it at all. They been better or what?”
“Not really. Well, I guess I wouldn’t know, though. I just avoid them. Really, they’re easier to deal with that way,” she said.
“Huh. I thought they might have recruited you to be their new ref once I left,” I said.
Lucy stabbed herself with her eyeliner. “Fucking… eugh. No, they don’t need one,” she said, blinking spastically. “You were always the therapist in the family, anyway. Are you as much of a shrink with your college friends as you were with Mom?”
I was saved from having to answer when Mom knocked on the door.
“It’s three after five, girls, we’re late!” she shouted through the wood and music. Lucy groaned. We kicked through piles of clothes as we made our way to the door.
“Don’t worry, Goosey. I’m sure the organist will play some Ramones for you. Right between “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night,” I said, falling into step behind her.
“Fuck you, Winnifred,” she said, sprinting away from me. I chased her out the door and into the car, where our parents waited in silence.
We blew into the church with the wind and snow at a quarter past five. The congregation was hushed and Pastor Dave had started the announcements already, but Mom marched us up the middle aisle anyway, right up to the empty front pew. Typical. No sane Lutheran ever sat in the front. My ears burned.
I began to appropriate my space between Mom and Dad as we filed into the pew, but Lucy had already filled the spot. Eyebrows slightly furrowed, I took her old place on the edge of the family. The congregation, feathers slightly ruffled at our late entrance, settled back into silence as Pastor Dave continued speaking.
“And now, please open your hymn books to page 262 and join us in singing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’” he said.
The congregation stood to sing. I leaned forward, crushing my disquiet into a small knot, and smirked at Lu. She smiled back and gave me the finger. As the music swelled into the first chorus, my focus drifted to the stained glass windows. Their translucent colors reflected into the room, bathing us all in a Jesus-disco glow.
I watched Dad mouth the words to the hymn. At least his eyes were only half-closed this year. Mom was singing the melody next to me, and I joined in on the harmony, hoping it would quell the uneasy, peripheral feeling that spread through my throat.
Forty-five minutes later, Pastor Dave spread his arms and said, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” Lucy nudged Dad awake as we chanted in unison, “Thanks be to God.”
We joined the throng of congregants donning heavy coats and hats and shuffled in the direction of the doors. Lucy hit me and pointed to the left of us.
“Your boyfriend’s waving at you,” she said. I craned my neck over the crowd. Isaac stood in the far corner of the lobby, a head above everyone else, beckoning me over with his gangly arm.
“Screw you, he isn’t my boyfriend,” I said, returning the punch.
“Might as well be,” I heard Lu mutter as I turned my back and swam through the crowd toward my friend.
“Hey, Leland,” he said, giving me his signature ear-to-ear grin. It was still crooked.
“Hey, Isaac,” I said, “How the hell are you?”
A few of the older churchgoers nearby gave me dirty looks, but I ignored them.
“I’ve been good,” he said. “Hey I have to go before my family leaves me here. But I’m working at Sherman Park tonight. You should come by.”
“Sherman is open tonight?”
“Leland, it’s Minnesota.”
“Oh, right. That would explain all the snow,” I said. “Okay, maybe I’ll see you later then.” Can I just come with you now? His brother had taken his arm and was now dragging him away.
“You’d better show!” he yelled over his shoulder, smiling. I waved, and turned deliberately back to my family. The remainder of Christmas Eve just got a lot slower.
I lay awake in bed at close to midnight, waiting for the house to fall asleep so I could slip away unnoticed.
Mom slammed the garage door shut in that way she always did, so that everything in the house rattled and shook. I sighed and swung my legs out of bed. Christmas Eve had always been one of those nights.
I dressed in the blue dark of my sister’s room. The snow outside reflected the moonlight, giving everything a cold, muted glow. As I pulled on jeans over my long johns, I listened carefully to the sounds of the house. Lucy’s deep, even breathing, the periodic clanking of the furnace downstairs, the clatter of the ice box, and Dad’s oblivious snore in the living room. These noises fell over one another in their race to reach me, their fresh staleness ricocheting inside my head.
I rescued two pairs of socks from the chaos of the floor, sidled out the door, and tried hard not to gasp as the cold wood beneath me bit at my feet. The floorboards groaned, but I ignored them and continued to the garage door. I took a moment to yank on both pairs of socks and tug my sweatshirt over my head. With my hand on the cool doorknob, I slipped into the role I’d been waiting to re-assume since the beginning of break. The door pulled in the winter air and made a suctioning sound as I separated it from its frame. I stepped over the threshold and braced myself.
She was sitting on the grimy, carpeted steps, next to Dad’s work boots. Marlboro Light in one hand, a Smirnoff greyhound in the other.
“Hey, Mom.” I said, shoving the boots out of the way and sitting down next to her. I pulled my sweatshirt over my knees to keep out the chill.
“Hi, Winnie,” she said. Neither of us looked at the other; there were plenty of other things to look at in the garage. In the 13 years that we’d lived here, objects had been tossed over things that had been heaved onto items, until the place had become an explosion of family history. The workbench lining the wall was strewn with the unfinished projects Mom never stopped nagging Dad about. Everything was covered in dust.
“What’s up?” I said.
In the corner, with a deflated inter tube slung over its handlebars, was my first bike: a pink banana seat with clown heads for valve caps and yellowed playing cards still wedged into the spokes. I had told Dad that I was afraid of clowns, but I was a small kid and he could never see me over the rim of his high ball.
“Oh,” she said, blowing smoke into the air, “not much. Just finished decorating the living room.”
I smiled; “decorating” was Mom’s term for putting gifts under the tree. It took her hours, and the room always ended up looking like something out of a holiday catalogue. ‘Neuroticism’ was the only word for it.
I inhaled the smoke she released into the air and ventured onward. “Dad help you tonight?” I said.
“No,” she said through her signature derisive chuckle. I shifted, uncomfortable at having forgotten its force. “He’s on the couch,” she said, “Actually lasted until the sixth drink tonight. Longer than usual.”
“Mm,” I said. I glanced at the circles under Mom’s eyes and thought of my father lying asleep on the couch while she decorated. Dad had always been the one piece of furniture Mom could never arrange the way she wanted.
“Is he in bed?” I asked, turning back to stare at an oil stain on the garage floor.
“On the couch,” she answered.
“Want me to get him up?”
“That’s alright, Winn. I’ll do it.”
I rubbed my hands up and down my calves, trying to keep away the cold. The sound of Mom’s cigarette burning echoed through the garage.
“So how’s Isaac?” she said.
“Oh, he’s good. He’s working at Sherman Park now.”
“Does he like it?”
“He didn’t say.”
We sat for a few more minutes, sitting in some sort of silence. Eventually, she put out her cigarette and stood up.
“Well, I’m going to bed,” she said.
“Are you and Dad—I mean, are you guys okay? You haven’t said anything lately, and I just wanted, to know- you know, if you maybe wanted to talk,” I finished lamely.
Mom sat back down.
“Winn,” she said, “you need to understand that what goes on between your father and I is a—well, it’s a private sort of thing. You don’t need to have anything more to do with it. I know I dragged you into it a long time ago, but now I’m letting you off the hook. You find your own problems to chase, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. What if I don’t like my own problems? She stood up and opened the door. More air got sucked into the house.
“Love you, hon. Merry Christmas.”
She shut the door behind her.
I stayed in the garage for a few minutes, fighting the growing internal knot and breathing in the smoke Mom left behind. Her cigarettes always did smell best on Christmas Eve.
I found the living room empty when I went back inside. Only the routine indent in the pillow and empty glass at the foot of the couch remained—evidence of my father’s presence. I stared hard at nothing. Before I had left for LA, I’d always fluffed the pillow to remove the indent, and washed the glass in the sink. Almost every night for eight years I’d done it, so that the next morning when the sun rose it would rise on that picturesque living room Mom worked so hard to maintain.
The knot tightened and burned.
The laugh track of an old sitcom playing on TV jolted me out of my stupor. I shut it off and closed the cabinet on the blank screen. With silence finally settling over the room, the scene snapped into focus. Snow was whirling outside. Light from the streetlight outside threw shadows of snowflakes across the oak floor. The Christmas tree lights bathed the room in a soft, warm glow, and the leftover smells from the roast we’d eaten for dinner drifted through the air. Fucking holiday catalogue.
My stomach turned. I left the glass and the pillow, and slipped out to the garage again. The icy air crystallized in my nose and pushed into my lungs. Digging in my pockets, I came up with a smashed pack of Marlboro’s and a near-empty lighter. I yanked a cigarette out and lit it, inhaling hard. Mom would kill me if she knew I smoked. But I had my reasons, just like she had hers.
I stood there toeing the oil stain on the floor, thinking about punk rock and liquor and stained glass. Remembering the night I’d first listened, really listened, to the sound the garage door made when Mom slammed it. The night I’d realized it was up to me to keep this quiet little shit show from blowing up in all our faces. Because I was the only one who ever cared enough to do so.
I thought about cigarettes and oil stains and problems.
Sherman Park was a few miles north of our house. My tires crunched over the snow as I pulled into the makeshift parking lot. Light from the warming house spilled onto the snow through the windows. I opened the door and stomped in. A couple of bare light bulbs covered the room in a grimy glow. Isaac was sitting on one of the wooden benches, watching a black and white, twelve-inch TV. His head snapped up at the sound of the door.
“What’s up?” I said, wiping my shoes on the welcome mat.
“Hey, Leland,” he said, “Long time no see, kid. What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” I said, “just wanted to skate a little while no one else was out. What’re you watching?”
“Rerun of a Gophers game,” he said, gesturing toward the TV and grimacing. “So how was your Christmas Eve?” he said.
“Same as ever,” I lied. “Yours?”
“Disappointing,” he said, making a face. “My parents let me open my present early. It was a gas card.”
He gave me a look.
“How’d your semester go?” I said.
“Lame. I was stuck here for four months, with no one to talk to but myself. Are you aware of how idiotic the kids at RCC are?”
“Aren’t you one of those kids?” I said.
“Watch it, Leland,” he said.
“Well, at least you got to stay home with your family.”
“Ha, yeah, right where my parents want me. So they can go on controlling everything in my life ever. You’re so lucky you got out of here. This town is a fucking death trap, I swear to God.” He shook his head.
“You’d miss it if you left.” I said, blowing air into my skates to warm them up. The commentators on TV were exclaiming over a fight that had broken out. I remembered this one without having to look. It was epic; even the goalies started in on each other. Well, I thought, they are playing Wisconsin.
“How’s home been? It nice to be back?” Isaac asked.
I jammed my right foot into my skate. “Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“Wow, that good, huh? You told me a couple weeks ago you couldn’t wait to get home. What happened?”
“I dunno. It just feels a little different than I expected. Like I forgot certain things that were here, and I remembered some things that weren’t ever here in the first place, and it’s just weird,” I said, tightening my laces. The friction of the cloth on my fingers burned my skin.
“Well, things get different. That’s what they do. It’s either what home does when you move away from it, or it’s what you do,” he said. He egged on the players.
“Do what? Change?” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered, punching an invisible opponent in front of him. I tightened the last knot on my skates and grabbed my stick.
“You got a puck?” I said. He reached behind him, grabbed a puck, a tossed it to me.
“I have to close up in an hour, so make sure it doesn’t go into overtime,” he said.
“Nice,” I said, rolling my eyes.
The ice threaded tendrils up my legs as I hoisted myself onto the rink, and I set off at a fast pace to envelope myself in the catharsis. The rip, rip of my skates echoed against the roughly hewn boards. The faster I went, the further behind the night fell. My feet fell into their rhythm, and home solidified around me. In my elation, I swung around to the puck and slapped it toward the net.
My elbow bounced hard off the ice and I slid into the boards. I squinted at the net in pain. The puck lay in a snow bank to the left of it. Groaning, I rolled over to my back and stared up at Ursa Major, letting the cold seep into my sweatshirt and jeans. The night came crashing back down. I fought tears. The stars blurred.
Eventually my skin started burning from the cold, so I rose slowly to my feet and coasted to the warming house door.
Isaac was stretched out on the bench with his hat over his eyes when I came in. “Who won?” he asked.
“The puck,” I said, collapsing onto the bench and bending over to untie my skates.
“Aw, you lost it? How the hell did you do that?”
“I picked it up and threw it into a snow bank. Just to spite you,” I said. He laughed through a yawn. I was trying to loosen the knots in my skates, but my stiff fingers wouldn’t cooperate.
“So which is it?” he said.
“Which is what?” I said.
“Which of you changed? You, or home?”
I glanced over him.
“How should I know?” I said. I rolled up my sweatshirt sleeve to inspect the damage on my elbow. It was already a rainbow of purples and blues.
“Holy shit, Winn. What’d you do?” Isaac said, coming closer to get a better look.
“Jesus. I guess so. Let me see if there’s an ice pack in the first aid kit.” He ambled into the back to look.
“That was a seamless deflection, by the way,” he said, rummaging around. I pretended not to hear him.
“Aha!” he said, reentering with a pack. He sat with one leg on the bench, facing me. “Hold still,” he said, and wrapped it around my elbow. He held it there while I tried to untie my skates with one hand.
“I know you heard me, Leland,” he said.
I sat up and sighed. “Can we talk about something else, please? Like the weather, or politics, or how you had a crush on me in high school?”
“Oh, sure. Now you want to talk about it,” he said.
“Your crush? Please tell me you’re over that,” I said.
“Completely,” he said, adjusting the ice pack. I returned to my laces.
“Look,” Isaac said, “I’ve known you for way too long. I know when you’re full of shit. So why don’t you tell me what the fuck is going on?”
I sat up again. “Because maybe there is nothing going on, Isaac” I said.
He stared at my elbow. “Winn, don’t do it.”
“What?” I looked up at him, bewildered.
“You’re thinking about moving back here. About quitting school and coming back to go to RCC instead. And don’t look at me like that. I know you are. Because I know you. So don’t you dare,” he said.
I stared at my skates for a long time.
“Okay,” I said.
I tugged my left skate off and Isaac took the right one off. We sat in silence as I threaded them onto my stick and stepped into my shoes. I stood up and stretched.
“Well, I’ll call you sometime before I leave, I guess. I have another week here,” I said.
I opened the door.
“Hey what?” I said.
Isaac looked at me for a second longer than he should have.
“Merry Christmas, Leland.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” I said, and shut the door.
I drove home at a quarter past one in the morning on Christmas Day. Snow blew across the deserted streets and collected against buildings. My ’89 Nissan Stanza spluttered along the empty roads, and the wind battered the Christmas decorations hung from lampposts. The stoplights alternated between red and green, trying to conduct the weather.
It was a ghost town. I sank lower in the seat, trying to stay unnoticed by the people who weren’t looking for me. The snow screamed silently around the car. I sped home, ignoring the red lights holding no one back.