Thursday, December 25, 2014

Contretemps: A Christmas Story

(A Christmas gift to my readers. Among the great mysteries of modern life is why people who know the benefits that flow from faith reject it, and them, when they need them most. American life, especially, is about as strenuous as the unaugmented human animal can withstand. So why be stubborn? Why not partake? Why not admit that every so often, we come to a pass so narrow that only faith can release us?)

    The sound of his wife’s footsteps approaching pulled at Stephen Sumner’s neck hair. He hoisted his magazine a little higher in hope that she’d walk past. It wasn’t to be.
    “Would you like a ham or a lasagna for the second entree?”
    He dipped the magazine and peered up into her face. Adrienne’s expression was mock-solicitous, almost sappy. A pinpoint-sized eraser to dab at a mural of recrimination and regret.
    “Doesn’t matter.” He pointedly returned his eyes to his reading and listened for her departure. In vain.
    “Steve?” Incredibly, she hooked a finger over his magazine and pulled it aside. “Can’t we make this a good Christmas? It doesn’t last that long, you know.”
    Everything lasts too long with you.
    He bit back his reply, smiled weakly and nodded. She looked into his eyes a moment longer, driving him to the edge of his endurance, and returned to her kitchen.
    His watch made it a few minutes before noon.
    Bob and his brood will be here in an hour. A whole day of bellowing, demands for liquor, and tasteless jokes told at the top of his voice.
    Bob Bushnell was Adrienne’s brother. He and his wife Ruth were notoriously lax with their children. The previous year, Michael and Susanna had run pell-mell through his home from the hellish moment of their arrival to the blessed instant of their departure. Sumner had tried to halt them as gently as he could, which wasn’t very. His reward had been a screaming match with Ruth that had left his head ringing for the rest of the day.
    It isn’t bad enough that I have to put up with them and their mannerless spratlings. They’ll probably bring Scout again.
    He clenched his jaws at the thought. The previous year, the black Lab had left bruises all over Sumner’s shins with his whiplike tail. When Sumner had left off watching him to pursue the rampaging kids, Scout had ruined a priceless antique armoire by piddling on it. Sumner had never come that close to violence before.
    Anticipation of the trials to come pushed him out of his chair and toward the coat closet. He yanked his overcoat off its hanger, pulled it around himself with a savage jerk, and made for the door. Adrienne chose that moment to emerge from her kitchen again.
    She started to say something, took note of the coat, and stopped. He halted as well. For the first time that day, he looked at his wife and actually saw her.
    Adrienne was wearing the black sheath dress that flattered her so, the one she only wore under a blue moon. She’d accessorized it with a thin gold belt, a strand of pearls, and her black opera pumps. Her thick, shoulder-length black hair gleamed like a satin cascade around her face. At forty years of age, she was still a heart-stopping beauty. When she made the effort.
    Twice a year. Thanksgiving and Christmas, when her family comes for dinner. The rest of the time it’s sweat clothes and sneakers.
    It was the extra push he needed. He turned away from her and started out of the house.
    “Steve...?”
    “Later.”
    “Where are you going?”
    He didn’t turn. “To see a man about a dog.”
    “What?”
    He closed the door behind him without replying.

#

    The streets of Onteora were thinly traveled. Few cars passed him as he walked. A bare handful of pedestrians, collars and scarves pulled tight against the thickly falling snow, trudged past him through the five inches that had accumulated already.
    Sumner stalked down Grand Avenue, the city’s main boulevard. Shop windows that had glittered brightly at him, promoting the commercialized joys of the season for weeks past were shuttered and dim. Their proprietors were undoubtedly at home, enduring whatever agonies their own families allocated to the magic day.
    His anger-fueled pace took him swiftly through the city proper and into the dormitory suburb of Foxwood. Commercial buildings gave way to single-family homes on modest lots, each swaddled in a blanket of snow. The trickle of pedestrian traffic dwindled to nothing. As he walked, the spire of Our Lady Of The Pines, Onteora’s Roman Catholic Church, gradually came into view. It drew him forward like a beacon in darkness.
    Presently he stood before the tall oaken doors, glumly regarding the large sign at the entrance.

All The Joy Of The Most Joyous Of Days To You and Yours!
Christmas Day High Masses at 8, 9, 10, and 11AM
Christmas Evening Masses at 7, 8, and 9PM
Glory To The Newborn King!

    He’d married Adrienne in this church, fifteen years before. She’d insisted on a religious wedding. Though a lapsed Catholic who’d ceased to practice it upon graduating from high school, he’d made no protest. He’d walked in as a free man, walked out with a shackle on his arm, and had not returned.
    As if of its own accord, his hand reached out to grasp the antique wrought iron door pull. He realized what he was about to do and consciously jerked himself away.
    That was the beginning of a slow ride to hell. I should have put my foot down then and there and hauled her to a Justice Of The Peace.
    Snow from his collar slid down his back. The shock of the wet cold on his neck made him spasm and mutter an oath. He shook himself and slapped awkwardly at the icy lump, then turned back toward the church doors as if compelled.
    Why am I standing here? I’m not going in there.
    Struck by a sudden premonition of danger, he wheeled and ran down the church steps toward the gate. In his confusion, his muscles did not register the change in traction beneath his feet, and his hearing did not detect the burble of the pickup truck accelerating down the street.
    At the walkway’s edge, he lost all control of his motion. He found himself skidding helplessly into the street as the truck came rumbling past.
    In a panic, he cast himself backward, deliberately flopping onto his back on the walk. The back of his head struck the icy concrete with an unanticipated force, sending swirling blue worms through his world to steal away the day and deliver him into darkness.

#

    He awoke sitting in the rear pew of the church, his coat pulled tight around him, hands thrust deep into its pockets. The church was dark, except for a single candle that lit the tabernacle upon the altar. The dim sun of winter did not pierce the stained glass windows. It could well have been midnight.
    A male figure stood at the altar rail, facing toward the rear of the church. The man was dressed in ordinary street clothes. He wore no coat. His hands were clasped before him. His eyes were on Sumner’s face.
    “I haven’t seen you here in quite a while, Steve.”
    Sumner carefully hoisted himself erect and approached the other. His face seemed familiar, but Sumner could put no name to him.
    “I’m sorry, have we met?”
    The stranger’s face was unreadable.
    “Perhaps not. Not that I haven’t been waiting for it. But you’ve been more than a little reluctant to stop by the house.”
    Sumner blinked. “Are you the pastor? What happened to Father Schliemann?”
    Schliemann’s more of an institution than the church. If he’d died or retired, I’m sure I’d have heard of it.
    The man smiled. “No, I’m not the pastor. Let’s say I’m an interested observer. Very interested.”
    “Then—”
    “Later, perhaps. What brings you out today? Why aren’t you with your family?”
    Sumner’s confusion receded before the returning tide of his anger. “What family? Adrienne’s family? Sorry, Adrienne’s—”
    “Your wife. Yes, I know.” The man’s low, mellifluous voice dropped still further. “You took her to wife here, at this altar. Promised to love and cherish her, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death did you part.”
    Sumner stared. The stranger couldn’t be more than about thirty years old.
    Is he one of Adrienne’s cousins?
    “Forgive me, please. Were you there that day? I confess I can’t remember you.”
    The man’s face darkened. “Yes, I was there. I like weddings. I go to all of them. Every wedding holds infinite promise, even if what comes after isn’t always for the best.” He turned to gaze at the altar and the tabernacle upon it.
    “You and Adrienne had all the possibilities of any other newlyweds, Steve. All of life stretched before you. Your paths were yours to choose. But today you’re a bitter man, prematurely drained of life and isolated from all that might freshen your spirit. What happened?”
    The question, so directly put, staggered Sumner where he stood. He stumbled forward a pace and planted his hands on the rail to steady himself.
    “I don’t know. I... we just lost it, somehow. We—”
    The man looked sideways at him, knowing and monitory.
    “‘We,’ Steve? Adrienne’s still trying. She weeps sometimes, when you’re not around to see it. She tells me over and over how much she loves you. It hasn’t been easy for her, she’s gotten just about none of the things she hoped for from marriage, but she’s still trying to rescue you. What have you been doing?” He faced Sumner squarely. “Are you even trying to love her back?”
    Sumner stood aghast, mouth hanging open. The man nodded.
    “Yes, I knew. I don’t miss that sort of thing.” He turned back toward the tabernacle. His face seemed to glow in the steadily deepening darkness.
    “I don’t like to take a direct hand in these domestic matters. I prefer to leave that sort of thing to my mother. But every now and then, someone who has absolutely no excuse catches my eye, and I do this. They say a word to the wise is sufficient, Steve. Got the idea?”
    Sumner fought down his shivers and found his voice. “What do you want me to do?”
    The stranger cocked an eyebrow. “What do you want to do?”
    “Is... is it up to me?”
    The man nodded. “It always has been. Each man is the master in his own house, from the day he takes his life into his own hands until the day he dies. What do you want from your marriage, Steve?”
    “Love. Companionship. Support. Children... once.”
    The stranger cocked an eyebrow. “Children? It seems to me you did your best to defeat that particular goal of matrimony.”
    Sumner said nothing.
    “Well, it isn’t too late. But for the rest of it, what do you propose to do to get what you and I would both love for you to have?”
    “Uh...”
    “How about providing a few of the things you said you wanted to Adrienne? Wouldn’t that be a start?”
    It was more than a disinterested suggestion.
    “Yes, it would.”
    The man nodded. “Those things come more readily if you learn how to forget yourself a little, now and then. This is one of the places where that’s easiest to do.”
    “Sundays?”
    “Sundays, yes, but the other days are good, too.” The glowing face was overcome by longing. “I’ve missed you, Steve. I hate to see anyone in pain. There’s relief from that here, if you open yourself to it. The doors are never locked.”
    Sumner tore his eyes from the luminous visage and let them roam the church. The pews and font, statues and sacred images were reminders of his youth, gentle prods to memories of a time when little had seemed impossible, when life had been lit with promise. Even in the darkness, now nearly complete, it was a supremely welcoming place.
    “I’ll be back.”
    The man nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”
    “Will I... will I see you again?”
    The glowing face was touched with a wry humor, knowledge of unnameable secrets blended with an impish delight in the twistings of time and chance.
    “That depends. Now go home and be the master in your own house. Gently, but firmly. As I am in mine.”
    Sumner was seized by vertigo. He staggered back, lowered his head and fell to his knees.
    The church whirled and became formless.

#

    “Mister?”
    “Huh?” Sumner struggled up from the murky depths. He found himself on his back, on the rearmost pew of Our Lady Of The Pines. A short, slight figure loomed over him, hands gently chafing Sumner’s face: a young man about twenty years old, with a smooth, solemn face and piercing dark brown eyes. He noticed Sumner’s return to consciousness and gave a sigh of relief.
    “Thank God. I’ve been trying to wake you up for an hour. Are you okay?”
    “I think so.” Sumner heaved himself upright. As he did, he was visited by a spike of pain from the back of his head. He put his fingers to it and winced. At least there was no blood.
    “Did you haul me in here?”
    The young man nodded. “I was driving the truck.”
    Sumner looked him over. He looked to weigh about a hundred fifty pounds. “All by yourself?”
    “Well, yes.”
    “Never mind. What’s your name?”
    “Louis Redmond.”
    “Thank you, Louis. I’m sorry if I worried you. Could you do one other thing for me?”
    “Sure, what?”
    “Drive me home? I walked here from Chedwick. It’s only about three miles.”
    The young man grinned. “No problem. Come on, let’s go.”
    As Louis navigated the slippery roads through the city, Sumner asked him, “Am I taking you out of your way?”
    Louis shrugged. “It’s no big deal. I wanted to spend an hour in church, and I did.” He grinned. “I didn’t expect to spend it that way, but what the hell.”
    Sumner chuckled. “Well, it’s time for both of us to get back to our families.”
    Louis said nothing. From the corner of his eye, Sumner saw a delicate thread of tension run down the boy’s cheek. He knew at once that Louis had no family, that chance had reaved them from him, that he’d gone out into the snow that Christmas day for a reason exactly the reverse of the one that had launched Sumner from his home: to mourn.
    They pulled up before Sumner’s house in Chedwick moments later. Louis set the handbrake and turned toward Sumner.
    “Careful on the walk, okay? If you don’t pay attention, you can go really wrong really fast.”
    Sumner nodded. “I know.” He stuck out his hand. “Thank you, Louis. Merry Christmas.”
    Louis shook it. “You’re welcome, uh—”
    “Steve Sumner.”
    “You’re welcome, Steve, and all the joy of the day to you.”
    “And to you, Louis. Good-bye.”
    He strode up his own walk with new purpose. Every window of the stately Federal colonial, the chief prize of his twenty years’ labor at law, was bright. The Bushnells’ car was nestled behind his in the driveway. From the house came the light and sounds of an incipient party: seasonal music, laughter, and the multifarious jostlings of a family gathering.
    “My house,” he murmured. He let himself in and made for the kitchen, where Adrienne was holding court as she finished assembling her lasagna. Ruth was weakly cajoling her children about not making trouble. Bob was already flushed and sweating, complaining about his dry-goods business over the carols from the bookshelf stereo, waving a half-filled glass for punctuation.
    Sumner reached for the stereo and switched it off. The others fastened on him at once.
    “Yo, brother-in-law!” Bob said. “Got a few new ones for you. Heard the one about the blind mime and the nun?”
    Sumner fixed the half-drunken man with a determined look. “Bob, come this way a moment, would you please?”
    Bob’s forehead crinkled momentarily. He glanced at Adrienne for an explanation, shrugged and followed Sumner out to the living room, his wine glass dangling from his hand.
    “What’s up, bro?”
    “Bob,” Sumner said, “first, thank you for not bringing Scout. Second, I’ve decided we’re going to have a nice Christmas this year. And that means no shouting, no crass jokes about priests, nuns, or private parts, and no ugly stories about anyone in the family. Okay?”
    “What—”
    Sumner plucked the glass from his brother-in-law’s hand. “Third, you’ll be drinking coffee, tea, or soda for the rest of the day. You’ve obviously had enough alcohol already, and I don’t want you to get sloppy at dinner, the way you did last year.”
    “Steve!” It was half protest and half whine.
    “This is my house, Bob.” Sumner let the implications hang unspoken.
    Sobriety seeped back into Bob Bushnell’s features. He seemed to come to a belated recognition of his surroundings.
    “All right. Ruth made a comment about it before we left our place. Peace?”
    Sumner grinned. “Peace. Merry Christmas, Bob. Let’s rejoin the ladies.”
    Adrienne and Ruth were seated close together, talking in low, anxious tones. They stood as the men reentered the kitchen.
    “Is everything all right, Steve?” Adrienne’s hands were balled tightly, white at the knuckles.
    “Just fine, sweetie. When do you expect to serve dinner?”
    “About three.”
    “Good. Then we can make the seven o’clock Mass at Our Lady Of The Pines.” The children immediately began to shout their disapproval. Sumner glared at them, and they subsided sulkily. “Ruth, do you think you can get Michael and Susanna to behave for that long, or shall I have Michelle Stevens come over to babysit them while we enjoy our day?”
    The momentary silence was a thing of crystalline perfection.
    “You haven’t been to Mass in years,” Adrienne said. “Why—”
    “I was invited. Of course, I could go alone.” He peered at his wife from under his brows.
    “No, I’ll come. Ruth? Bob?”
    The Bushnells exchanged puzzled glances. Their children’s eyes were wide. “Dressed as we are?” Ruth said.
    Sumner smiled and nodded. “It’s not a problem for the management.” He moved up to Adrienne and took her hands in his own.
    “I love you, sweetie,” he murmured. “You look wonderful tonight. Thank you for everything.”
    “I love you too,” she whispered, barely audible.
    It was a start.

==<O>==

(Available for free, in all ebook formats, at Smashwords.com.)

7 comments:

  1. It wasn't lasagna, it was baked ziti. ;-)

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  2. HoundofDoom voiced my exact thoughts.

    Thank you,Fran! Merry Christmas.

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  3. Merry Christmas to you, the C.S.O., and the menagerie.

    And thanks for the story -- always nice to visit with my two favorite characters of your creation.

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  4. I love this story. Thank you, Mr. P. A blessed Nativity of Christ Jesus to you and yours.

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  5. Nice story, very touching, actually. A brief observation: some people are strong in their faith, and some are lapsed, for any number of reasons. Some are disbelievers because they must be, and others because it's trendy to disparage the beliefs of others. The latter two of each group (the lapsed faithful, and the trendy atheists) are the most interesting cases, but each requires entirely different approaches to enlightenment. The lapsed are easy wins, they already believe, they only require motivation. The trendy atheists though, they are the difficult ones. Mystical, heartwarming stories are not the answer, and may never yield results. They will require rational, practical guidance, primarily focusing on the fact that "not everyone is as atheistically-moral" as they are, and some may even REQUIRE a belief in a higher power to adhere to a moral code resembling that of a Judeo-Christian society. Essentially, the trendy atheists' egos are larger than a God, and they project this on everyone else, pre-emotively arguing that "no one needs a 'false' God...see, _I_ don't".

    The big question it seems to me is, how do you convince the militant atheist that not everyone is as "morally strong" as they are, and that it might benefit these less-inherently-moral individuals, and thus society as a whole, for them to embrace or at least tolerate a harmless-but-potentially-beneficial belief system such as Christianity?

    At any rate, Merry Christmas to those who celebrate Christmas, and to those who don't...Merry Christmas.

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  6. Thank you, sir.

    I'm not sure if it was your intent or just a side effect of your writing ability, but I felt a genuine inspiration from reading this.

    Like Steve, I have forgotten how to be master in my own house. Thank you for the reminder.

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