Bronwen isn’t greeted by anyone at the door, though she knows she can be seen through the house’s large front windows as she walks up the path. A carrier bag holding two boxes of gold-foil Christmas crackers swings from her forearm. She is hardly surprised at the oversight: Carys’ household always gives off a hectic air, despite there being only two adults and one docile child living in it. No one ever sits down, or at least not when Bronwen visits. But she does not feel unwelcome. She is arriving at precisely the time she has been told to arrive, just as she will leave at precisely the time she has said she will be leaving.
Blinking against the morning’s fine snow, she lets herself in and hangs up her winter coat in the hall closet, sliding her cap-toe pumps in small circles on the putty-colored carpeting to dry them.
In the kitchen Carys taps the side of a sieve and powdered sugar drifts over a plate of mince pies, blanketing them. Condensation, like that in a terrarium, clouds the corners of all the windows. The house’s warmth creeps up Bronwen’s neck. Carys has the same dogged look she got as a child whenever she was concentrating on something beyond her easiest grasp.
“Nadolig llawen,” Bronwen says from the doorway after waiting to be noticed becomes tiresome. She looks forward to holidays and birthdays, when she can resurrect the Welsh of her childhood without her children pulling faces.
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” Carys pushes her cheek out for Bronwen to kiss. She smells like frying oil and onions and her hair is cinched back into a thin tail. Greasy strands snake along her shining forehead like scribbles from a pen.
“You’re just in time, Ma. Can you do the custard? Marged’s done it once already but it seized. We’re both hopeless at it.”
“No trouble,” Bronwen says. “I’ll just get an apron on.” She will show them how it’s done. This time, make them write it down. “Should I put these on the table?” Bronwen asks, holding the bag of crackers out.
“Paul can help Sally to set them out. She’ll like to help.” Carys hands Bronwen a stiff holly-patterned bib and she slips it over her head, pulling its stingy strings tight around her hips.
Bronwen bites into one of the mince pies. Shards like mica shatter onto her front. Carys has done them nicely, their elegance not betraying the cook’s anxiousness. Until a couple of years ago, Bronwen handled the whole Christmas meal herself, the girls helping out here or there and Trevor seeing to the wine—opening bottles to air them, putting Champagne on ice—and the music—popular holiday music to start and later a loop of carols, hymns and Gregorian chants. Bronwen never let any of the day’s labor get away from her: any fluster she felt was hidden from the rest of them.
Marged, Bronwen’s younger daughter, comes in holding a bottle of Pellegrino in each fist. “There you are. Come and open your presents, Ma,” she says, leading Bronwen by the elbow to the living room so the task can be ticked off Marged’s list.
“I was just…”
“That’s all right. We can do that later, can’t we?” They leave the kitchen before Carys can answer.
There are four packages of different sizes under the monochromatic tree. Carys keeps to a strict palette of white and cream and gold for the decorations. Many of the ornaments are hand-blown glass or intricately beaded creatures. There is woodland fauna: squirrels and moose and mice. And lots of birds. Birds of all sorts, including songbirds and penguins and a flamingo. But they are all stylized: muted and snowy, with the slightest dabs of brown or blood red for eyes or beaks.
Bronwen has never had an image of a bird in her house. They’re the worst sort of bad luck: avoidable. Besides, Carys’ ornamentation is entirely inappropriate for children. Popcorn garlands like those she had seen as a girl through the windows of the biggest houses in her village would have fit the scheme. Sally could’ve helped string them. But the suggestion had been rejected. Didn’t she know they could attract vermin? At some point in the day there will be the inevitable pop and shatter of glass hitting the high gloss floor, and then Carys shouting, “No one move!” as she runs for the dustpan and brush. The way the tree is now, so delicate and precious, Bronwen can’t see how a normal child might have hung even one ornament, let alone a special child. But still it looks magnificent.
Most of the presents have been opened already, including those that Bronwen had delivered earlier in the month, arranging them carefully under the tree with their nametags turned under. Mainly gifts for little Sally, they now lay in sizeable stockpiles in various corners of the room. The tiny girl is no doubt already bored with her new toys and is parked, slackjawed, in front of a screen somewhere. Sally’s parents do not flush the child out to kiss her gran, relieved she is occupied for the moment. Never mind saying thank you for the presents.
Marged puts the three remaining, unopened gifts on Bronwen’s lap. “Carys! Mom’s opening her presents,” she shouts toward the kitchen. “Go ahead, Ma. God knows where she is. Probably doing reiki on the turkey.”
“What?” Bronwen says.
“Nothing. Laying on of hands. To make it taste better.”
The gifts are unoriginal, but a propos. Each year, she can just about wager on a utilitarian item of clothing: a sweater for warmth or a set of pajamas or a robe for “lounging,” as the girls say. She does love to lounge, if that’s what sitting on the couch with a cup of tea and counting the warblers and the finches at the feeder is, but she doesn’t think of it in these terms. It’s just what she does when she’s done all she’s had to do and isn’t ready to begin what will need doing later. Lately, she thinks more about what can be put off. Thankfully they’ve stopped with the gloves and the scarves. She has a drawer filled with them, a lifetime supply.
Marged snatches the torn paper and ribbon out of Bronwen’s hands the moment she has pulled it from the boxes, shoving it all into a plastic garbage bag she’s produced for this purpose. The two of them make an efficient, if bleak, assembly line.
Carys comes in as Bronwen presses a chunky rust and forest green cardie with large horn buttons to her chest. It is surprisingly dowdy, not her taste at all. Elegant grays and lots of black in expensive flat weaves have always suited her best—they set off her wavy salt and pepper hair. She can offload anything she doesn’t care for to Donna, her friend from the widows’ group, who is about the same size as she is and is always tight for money. “Marvelous,” she says. “Thank you, girls.”
“Hope you like it. I have the receipt if you need it.”
“No, that’ll be fine. It’s lovely. Thank you both.”
There’s a book as well, a recent hardback mystery, but since neither of them mentions it, she doesn’t tell them she’s already borrowed it from the library, read and returned it. It had disappointed her. The writer, who has enjoyed more success than one person should be entitled to, is clearly just churning out nonsense twice a year.
Carys reaches under the tree for the remaining box. It’s smallish, about the size of a brick. “This is one I got for Papa last year. I thought you might want it. To remind you of him, I mean. If not, just chuck it.”
Carys rests the box in Bronwen’s palm. It has a distinct weight to it and she can feel liquid shifting from end to end in a satisfying glug. She doesn’t need to open it. Bay Rhum. Trevor’s favorite. The girls have never done the math, though. Already there are a half dozen bottles sitting in Trev’s bathroom cabinet at home, each filled to a different level, a fresh bottle started every December, a few times as he sat by this same tree, in fact. Dabbing and dousing himself, he always made a show of the most requisite of his daughters’ kindnesses. She hasn’t thrown the dusty bottles out, though. It’s not as though they go off. As the girls suspect, she has liked returning to his smell. She seeks it out. Just running her fingertips along the stout bodies of the bottles and lifting one to her nose seems to release the clove and cinnamon headiness of the cologne. “Handcrafted by the Crown’s rankest seamen to stave off the stench of naval life,” Trevor had said. Despite the pull of these cozy remembrances, she doesn’t want to reminisce now, in their company.
“I do want it,” Bronwen says, smoothing the cologne’s brown paper wrapping with her fingertips. “Diolch.”
“You’re welcome,” they chime.
Paul, Carys’ husband, walks in from the downstairs playroom where he’s been hiding with Sally. He crouches to give Bronwen a kiss. “How’s the haul? Anything good?” he asks.
“Lovely things, Paul. Thank you,” Bronwen says. Paul is loving and easy. Carys has married her father. Trevor had relished Paul, parroting the snippets of trivia his son-in-law always has handy. (“Bay Rhum?” Paul had said the first Christmas they had spent together. “Known the world over for its many uses. During Prohibition people would actually drink it.”)
Bronwen still wonders, every so often, if Trevor had ever raised one of the flask-sized bottles to his lips. But the thought is a silly one. He wasn’t the type to sneak around.
“Anyway, Judith just called from the train. She’ll be pulling in soon. I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” Paul says.
“I need you here, Paul,” Carys says. “There’s so much to do.” She turns to Bronwen and raises her eyebrows, “Do you mind going, Ma? You know she always loves spending time with you.”
“Not at all. I’ll just get my coat on.”
“You’re a lifesaver,” Paul says.
“It’s nothing.” And it really isn’t: Bronwen is happy for the reprieve. Though the two women seemingly have very little in common, Bronwen is quite fond of Paul’s mother. Judith is miniscule and wiry and plays paddle with her “gang” four times a week, even in the snow, but she also says things she then has to apologize for, and Bronwen finds this funny. The baby’s head was shaped like a Rubik’s Cube at first.
Judith is coming down the steps from the platform as Bronwen pulls up to the curb. They both wave and then embrace stiffly in the car, their reach restricted by their winter coats.
“Do I stink of cigarettes?” Judith asks. “I snuck one while I was waiting. Paul will go nuts.” Her husband—Bronwen always wants to call him Harold but his name was Harvey—died of lung cancer a dozen or so years earlier.
Bronwen hears a chirp in her purse.
“Sorry, Judy,” she says, scraping around in her giant bag. There is a text message from Marv Katz: Merry Xmas. Sorry to disturb. Got an offer: forty-five below asking. How to proceed?
Take it, she types. She starts to type Happy Chanukah but when she stumbles on the spelling, she deletes the letters and hits send.
“My apologies,” Bronwen says. “Where were we?”
“Who was that? Anyone cute?”
“No. It’s nothing.”
“I’m not ready to go in there yet, Bronwen. I need some fortification,” Judith says and pulls a water from her bag. “Don’t tell on me. Paul will flip. Holidays. Something radical is in order.” Judith thumps the plastic bottle on the steering wheel, swigs, and hands it to Bronwen. “To something radical.”
Bronwen raises the rim to her mouth and before she tastes anything, she knows what’s in it. The vodka burns, but in a mellow way, and the two grandmothers continue to take tiny sips as Bronwen takes them back to Carys’.
As they wait for Carys and Marged to get the food on the table, Bronwen looks at the wall of cards Carys has displayed. There are dozens of the things: most are not actually cards at all, but photos and photo montages. Bronwen had liked when people sent actual cards—when she was a newlywed, Currier & Ives five-color sketches of sleds in snow storms and later, in the seventies, Matisse block prints of doves carrying olive branches from UNICEF—signing them and even inscribing short greetings or familiar bullets to catch people up.
The cards Carys displays are lockstep, appearing to have been ordered from the same website. “Happy holidays!” they shout, or the even vaguer “Cheers!” Sometimes the plain silly “Holly jolly!” (Always the exclamation point.) Photos take the place of words. A rich family that travels far afield has wide-angle photos of glaciers or elephant herds or rattan huts on stilts in very blue water. The names of pets are listed alongside those of the children. And she feels a sympathetic slight at the families whose children’s names all begin with the same letter as the dad’s: the mother’s name the only outlier. Alliterative exile.
A type of newsletter has taken the place of some of the cards. A long-winded round-up of the prior year’s expenditures and braggable achievements: vacations taken, renovations endured, victories and near-victories earned and performances given. There is the odd completely honest letter listing jobs downsized, cancers uncovered, or rehabs entered. (Never a mention of a marriage cleaved, though. People in the midst of a divorce apparently skip the cards altogether.) Bronwen finds the vulnerability in these messages comforting, sometimes going back to reread them several times.
“Jonathan, get down here please,” Marged calls to her husband who has been reading the newspaper in the den. “Soup’s on, everybody!”
Bronwen waits to be shown where to sit, but when everyone else takes a place, she pulls out the chair closest to Sally’s high chair. Paul lowers the girl, limp and smiling, into her seat and Bronwen leans over to kiss her. “Hello, gorgeous. You’re looking splendid today.”
“I’ll sit by you two,” Judith says, taking Sally’s head gently in her hands and kissing it lightly. “The fun section.” Sally wads up her linen napkin as Judith plunks her wineglass down and reaches for a full, opened bottle of wine.
“That’s for everyone, Mother,” Paul says softly. “That’s why it was in the middle of the table.”
“Well, there’s none here by the kids. Don’t worry, we know how to share.” She leans into Bronwen as she settles herself into her chair and winks, “That’s if there’s any left. Right, Bron?”
“Right, Judith,” she whispers back.
Judith rubs her hands together and sighs, “This is really something, Carys. Breathtaking. Paul, your dad would’ve loved this. Done one of his famous toasts.”
“God, don’t start, Mom. He was insufferable,” Paul laughs.
“I know. But he meant well,” Judith says and lifts her glass. “To those who aren’t among us. You are missed.”
Bronwen reaches toward her glass, which is empty, and looks at the tablecloth.
“They are missed,” she hears Carys say. And then Marged, “Yes. They are.” Jonathan, a sensitive type, pulls Marged in for a consolatory nuzzle.
It is nice that Trevor has been evoked. And Harvey, too. It is easy for Bronwen to forget that Judith has been through what she is going through herself. Judith inhabits her widowhood as though she has never been any other way. She talks about Harvey easily and often, wringing sympathy from character traits like cheapness or sloth that would otherwise be taken as unseemly. To what must this freedom be owed? Time, Bronwen thinks. Or maybe that’s what happens when one is given the chance to prepare.
Carys went into labor on the morning Sally was due, so Bronwen and Trevor were poised to pick up on the first ring. “It’s really happening!” Paul had said from the hospital. They put the breakfast dishes in the sink and Trev threw their bags into the trunk, running back to grab a bottle of Taittinger. Bronwen drove and Trev chattered on about the births of Carys and Marged. He remembered everything: names of nurses and the other dads, details like the types of flowers people had brought Bronwen and that there had been a garbage strike one of the years. His powers of recall ripe, he recited a couple of Dylan Thomas poems he had committed to memory at school, his voice booming nobly.
“A stranger has come to share my room in the house not right in the head, a girl mad as birds,” he bellowed.
“A bit morose, wouldn’t you say?” Bronwen said. And then Trev reached under his seat and retrieved the champagne.
“I think a bit of the bubbly is in order, don’t you?”
“Not really,” Bronwen said, her stomach tightening. It was only ten o’clock.
“Can’t let it go warm,” he said as he unpeeled the bottle’s foil hat.
By the time they reached the city, Trevor was singing Frank Sinatra and had drained the bottle, its heavy glass mouth clacking against his teeth as he tried to keep it steady. There was a length of droplets on the front of his sweater. Bronwen couldn’t help but smile. He was so excited, so optimistic. All of this was part of Trevor’s charm, why most Americans, men and women, couldn’t help but compare him to Richard Burton, another endearing Welshman who regaled everyone around him with his deep, velvety voice and mesmerized them with his fractured, pock-marked handsomeness. And then there was the drink. Neither man would have gone a day without it if given the choice. It was part of the package.
In the white glow of the hospital room, Trevor’s cheeks blazed crimson. He leaned down to kiss Carys, who was holding her cotton-swathed infant tightly to her, but she put her hand on Trevor’s chest and shoved him away. “Wash your hands Dad!” she said.
“Of course, love,” Trevor said, looking around for a sink. They all saw him stumble minutely, and Carys’ face slackened, her eyes helpless.
“Have you been drinking, Dad?”
“Just a toast. For the baby,” he said, facing the wall and attacking his hands with the foam soap.
“You’ve got to be joking, Ma.”
“It’s all right, Carys. He doesn’t mean any harm.”
“Dad, look at me,” she said. “You are going to leave now and sober up. If you want to see your grandchild again, you will never ever come near any of us drunk. I mean it.” The gravity in Carys’ voice was formidable. Her demeanor was feral: a breast, the nipple mottled and lavender, poked out from her thin robe, her face laced with broken blood vessels and her hair damp and waxy. This was no hormone or exhaustion-fueled telling off. The seriousness of her stare was unmistakable, the ultimatum clear, like any other quid pro quo: you stop drinking, I release the baby. That was that.
“Now go,” Carys said, turning in toward the baby. “Please.”
“Right then. We’ll be back soon,” Bronwen called. How strong these girls are, Bronwen thought, and took Trevor’s arm and steered him to the door. A couple of cups of the watery cafeteria coffee and three or four times around the block would do it.
“Back soon,” Trevor mumbled. “I’m ever so sorry.”
“I’ll dim the lights, Ma,” Marged says. “Everyone be quiet. Grandma’s coming with the plum pudding.” They wait around the dining table as Bronwen, in the kitchen, pours Captain Morgan over the glistening tar-colored dome, and then ignites the liquor pooling on the plate with a tapered kitchen lighter. The flame takes and blue peaks jump and course over the surface of the cake, licking the dark air around it as she cruises to the table.
Everyone watches in silence for a couple of minutes, the fire burning longer and higher than usual—an omen of a good year to come—until the cobalt dance slows and the last wisp of flame goes out with the tiniest sizzle. They all clap. “It’s going to be a great one!” says Carys. “So much better than last time.”
“How’d you do it, Bronwen? Is it magic?” Judith keeps clapping long after everyone else has stopped. Bronwen has never known Judith to cook and she seems genuinely impressed, though she is slurring her words now. “Bravo!”
“Mom, please,” says Paul. “That’s your last one.”
Judith drains her glass.
“I warm the rum before pouring it over,” Bronwen says, smiling. “Helps it burn.” It’s a bit of a cheat, but this last resort is called for, considering all that has happened. She can’t withstand another year like the last, or anything near it. It goes without saying. But her daughters have no idea what she can or cannot take. The shape and scale of her suffering is inaccessible to them; they don’t know her out of the context of themselves. They see her as something akin to a competent and tireless workhorse, void of the dynamism with which they imbue themselves. (They call it chutzpah, as in, “Really, Marged, a Playboy bunny costume for Halloween? At your age? I’ve gotta give it to you: you’ve got chutzpah.”)
They choose not to know her.
As a young woman, at her village school, she had been Head Girl. No one here knows what Head Girl is, that it is an elected position. She had been chosen by her peers, for her charm and, yes, her enthusiasm. She had been full of delight, the kind of child who fears nothing, not even her sarcastic brother, seven years older but self-consciously lazy, who smacked her on the head in jealousy whenever no one was looking, which was most of the time. Her gentle, beloved father had been off soldiering. Her mother had worked two jobs, and once a week took Bronwen with her to collect all the neighbors’ ration cards. They’d take these and buy as much butter, sugar, flour and eggs as they could carry. Bronwen’s mam would stay up half the night baking the ingredients into dozens of simple but pretty cakes and pies. When Bronwen woke up, the house quiet, the air would be thick with caramelized sugar and browned butter, every surface covered: Battenberg cakes blanketed in smooth fondant, Victoria sponges with jam flowing out like lava from between the layers, tightly coiled Swiss rolls, and Bakewell tarts without the almond paste (a war was on, they wouldn’t see nuts for years).
She has tried to describe these specialties to the girls, but they hold no charm for them. It hardly matters, these things are tremendously rare in the States. Even the idea of these negligible luxuries, these unremarkable treasures, being dear, is foreign to them. Bronwen was expressly forbidden to touch any of it. The money the confections brought in, once mother and child had scrambled all over the rich section of the village, delivering them to servants and old people in the big stone houses, was divided among the neighbors. The extra shillings were all that had kept them going, in her mother’s view, so Bronwen was to keep her hands bloody well to herself. She blames all of this for inflicting her with a constant ravenous hunger for desserts of all kinds.
“I’ll pass, Bronwen,” Jonathan says. “That stuff’s too rich for me.”
“Me too, Ma,” says Carys. “I’m totally full.”
“Suit yourselves,” she says. The others take small spoons of the rich pudding, and ladle heaps of silky custard over the top.
Marged digs in. “This reminds me of the gruel at St. James’.”
“Gross. Don’t remind me,” says Carys. “Remember Miss Temperley, the ropes of saliva she had in the corners of her mouth? The way she ate?” Carys bares her teeth and claps them together like a horse, her lips flaring.
“Someone should throw a bomb on that place. I never want to think about it again,” says Marged. “Systematized child abuse. They all should’ve been locked up.”
Bronwen stiffens, though she’s heard all this before. When the idea of sending the girls to boarding school first came up, she and Trev had thought they were doing the right thing. Carys was thirteen when she left, and Marged followed two years later without a peep. It wasn’t as if they had been eight, or seven, even, the age Trevor had been when he was sent off. So young—too young, definitely. He couldn’t yet write properly so in his letters home drew pictures of his riding lessons and rugby matches. With the girls, there had been no need for letters. St. James’ was less than an hour from their house. Bronwen and Trevor frequently showed up just to take them out for a meal and a bottle of wine at one of the local inns. They never seemed unhappy. But she can see now that the experience—or the memory of the experience—has made Carys brittle and Marged sour. But then, both the girls had met their future husbands along those despairing halls.
“Any plans after the holidays, Ma?” Marged asks.
“I’ll have to see. Bridge and Bagels, I expect. Not much else.” She waits, hoping not to be asked to help with errands or anything else, as her daughters often do this time of year. They ask after her schedule and then wedge in their requests, thinking their false curiosity is imperceptible. They can never recall the names of her friends and don’t ask about gentlemen, as though this will be it for her. She hasn’t told them about the two or three men she has gone out on dates with—inadvertently, of course—it is far too early for that. In Bronwen’s nearby, more rural town, news of a fresh widow circulates quickly. A man from Trevor’s regular golf game swooped in particularly fast, leaving breezy messages on her voicemail: “Thought you might like to leaf-peep on Saturday. We could stop in and catch the Surf ‘n’ Turf at the Club after,” or “I was just driving past your place and saw the lights on. I’ve got a good Bordeaux in the trunk I’d love to open.” She finds it unseemly, and worse, predictable.
As Bronwen and the girls clear the table together, she thinks of her own desires—her sexual dormancy. She still has orgasms, though they only arrive in her sleep, vividly, always as she dreams she is engaged in physical labor of some sort—a shovel handle pressing rhythmically against her crotch, or as she kneels, her heel wedged between her legs while peeling the mature leaves off giant purple cabbages. There is never a man—or even a person—with her in these dreams, and this is comforting, as it should be in this in-between time.
“So, Ma. Are we still good for you to dog sit over Easter?” Marged asks.
“Sure. No problem,” Bronwen says. There will be time for Marged to make other arrangements.
Bronwen had initially loved the girls with a fury and a force that has gradually shrunk to a weak but steady, somewhat distant, concern. Or merely interest, even. For this she blames herself. She has always been easily bored. But she did love them, she is sure of that. Almost painfully so. And she took very good care of them, spending every minute in their company if they were not at school. When they were out from under her, she filled those few short hours with activities that were challenging but not maddeningly so, all popular hobbies that have now slipped out of favor: batik, yogurt and curd-making, hooking rugs. Nothing too distracting. Things that could be dropped at a moment’s notice.
Her own daughters spend their time in fundamentally the same way, though they insist on putting much fancier labels on everything. Some activities are facsimiles of paid work (Humane Society volunteer, treasurer of the Parent Teacher Association), and the rest seem to be helping Carys and Marged work out various unfulfilled childhood fantasies, complete with specialized equipment and uniforms. They drum, they take endless tennis clinics. Bronwen must keep reminding herself that Carys has just recently “returned” to work, though she doesn’t recall a period in which her daughter has supported herself. She is in marketing of some sort. It all sounds vaguely military with its “blasting” and “targeting” of who knows what on the Internet. She works at home but won’t pick up Bronwen’s calls during the day. She’s trying to carve out a space for herself, she says.
Brownwen tried to get into the swing of things when Sally was born. To keep up with Trevor’s almost embarrassing enthusiasm, fueled, no doubt, by his new sobriety, she had aimed to appear eager herself. He was completely overtaken with joy at the arrival of the dense parcel of baby. Bronwen volunteered at every turn to hold the infant, she could surely show her keenness that way. After all, she had cared for two daughters of her own.
But everything was so much more complicated now. According to her overanxious and research-fortified parents, this baby had to be held with a certain pressure and tilt while eating or being soothed, neither of which she could ever get right, the tiny mewling intensifying into the most unbearable spine-curling shrieks. She had given up soon after, but continued to offer Trevor bits of encouragement while he stubbornly carried on changing Sally’s nappies and thumping her little back. He joked about having put down one bottle and gone straight to another.
When Sally was not yet making eye contact at eighteen months an aide was secured who not only fed and dressed the child, but consistently employed reinforcing behavioral techniques and generally acted as steward for her right and proper development. Trevor had been heartbroken, asking Carys for daily updates and repeatedly offering to “sub-in.” The offers were ignored. Bronwen and Trevor were unofficially relegated to observational status.
“Then I’ll have to stop,” Trevor had said in the car on the drive back home from the hospital. Whether he was still scarlet in the face from the champagne or the upbraiding from Carys, she couldn’t tell. But that had been that. His last drink, as far as Bronwen knew. There had been no reason to believe otherwise, though it was hard to imagine how difficult, really, it must have been for him. One day he drank—was drunk, as unsteady and content as a puppy waking up from a nap—and the next he had given it up. The only direct request for help he’d made was for Bronwen not to lay in any booze anymore. Could they not have it around the house? Would she be bothered? Everyone noticed, of course, and when friends asked him about it he was direct and easygoing. “Didn’t suit me,” he would say. Other friends, mentioning “troubles” and “habits” for the first time, wanted to talk about “hitting bottom” and “the Program” with him, how they had done “it,” always stopping two beats shy of naming what they were so earnestly confessing.
Bronwen isn’t sure he ever got help or did anything organized, but a phrase he repeated more than once struck her: When I enjoy drinking I can’t control it and when I control my drinking I don’t enjoy it. It explained Trevor perfectly. But there were no daily meetings that she knew of. No thirty or sixty or ninety day chips to finger in his pocket. And no bibles—for alcoholics or otherwise. And that was what had given rise to a pride in him that filled her chest with a warm ache. She had never been so aware of his goodness.
Trevor started on the fit kick soon after. Hours that had been filled cradling sweating pints and tipping stems of Burgundy while muddling through crosswords or studying World War II chronicles were now vacant. He read a bit before bed but avoided sitting with hands idle. Starting with walks through the sparsely developed neighborhood, he soon progressed to jogging lengthy distances. He went on for a bit about getting a dog to join him on his runs, but lost interest and instead bought a serious pair of trainers—he called them running shoes—for which he paid close to $200. Apart from the shoes, his outfits were ridiculous. He despised “gearheads” and wore regular clothes as much as he could. On a cold winter day, his heavy grey sweats and orange, wool safety hat made him look like someone who should be living in a mental home. In the summer, he sometimes wore swim trunks and, to keep the sweat out of his eyes, one of Bronwen’s stained kitchen towels twisted into a halo. He’d be gone two or three hours, never skipping a day, as faithful to these outings as he had been to the booze. His gut shrunk by half; he uncovered the waist that had disappeared around the time that Carys was born. And then he collapsed and died in the middle of a ten-miler. The lady who ran the kennel out on Route 8 clueless as to why all the dogs in the yard were jammed in a knot, yapping and lunging at the fence. She couldn’t get to him for the animals, and not knowing CPR anyway, she ran the hundred yards back into the house and dialed 911. “Massive coronary event,” the nurse from the hospital explained apologetically, as if it were the party of the century and Bronwen hadn’t been invited.
In the basement, Bronwen declines Carys’ perfunctory urging for her to stay the night. She kisses Sally goodbye—the child doesn’t look up from the television—and embraces her daughters and their husbands and Judith in the doorway. Driving home she plays a game that she and Trevor had often played over the years. Glancing at the passing homes, she utters a score for every holiday light display. Colored lights automatically get a two-point deduction. Déclassé. Always out of ten, the lowest scores lolled in the twos and threes. The arrangement of these lights was haphazard, as though they had been propelled by a slingshot up into the trees’ limbs rather than threaded or wound around them. Bronwen wondered why they even bothered. Too perfect wasn’t good, either: rows of lights spaced precisely at regular intervals suggested an obligatory bent to their installation. The best ones were abundant and random, evoking joy and happiness and, above all, love. Messy love.
At the airport, Bronwen leaves the car miles from the terminal, so that Carys and Marged won’t be upset by the parking fees should one of them decide they want the green wagon. She opens the back and heaves out her rolling bag, folds up her heavy wool coat with the beaver collar and leaves it in the spot where the suitcase had been. She slams the hatch shut and presses firmly until she hears the lock click. The front passenger seat is covered in things Carys and Marged have pressed on her: packets of food in foil, a pile of horrid crayon slashes on colored paper, her gifts, and the unopened Christmas crackers, which Carys had forgotten to set out. She plucks out the Bay Rhum and settles it like a baby in a cradle in the center of her suitcase.
They will be stunned, of course, when they scrutinize her actions in the days leading up to Christmas, learning that she had met with a lawyer three times, first to transfer power of attorney, then to change her will, redirecting life insurance and other possible monies to be split equally among the grandchildren, and a third time to hand over keys: to the 4B/3.5b neo-Colonial; to a storage locker at the halfway point between her house and Carys’ with twenty-four months paid upfront; and to her Subaru Outback, which she keeps like new though it is seven years old. They will suss out that she has drained her bank account, wiring the bulk of it to a bank in Mexico earlier in the week, and keeping a thick envelope full of cash in her handbag since then. They will discover the one act she may, if only for their sake, come to regret: bagging up Trevor’s clothing and dropping it off at Goodwill.
Choosing where to go had taken time. She studied airline route maps, as though the convergence of colored lines culminating in clumps of dots could divine her destination. She looked at brochures, hoping the photos of sunsets and empty beaches would beckon her in one direction or another. But they didn’t. There was a picture in her mind’s eye: descending from the plane, she would scan the crowd and immediately locate a man in black trousers, a white guayabera and a giant sombrero cradling a pineapple with a straw poking out of its crown in his right hand. In his left there would be a small sign: Welcome to Paradise: Sra. Bronwen.
But as often as she evoked this vision it never helped her decide. She almost flipped a coin; she almost asked the travel agent to pick for her. In the end she chose at random, responding perhaps to the way a place name rhymes with the name of a fairground she had visited in Wales, or because she remembered Burton and Taylor had bought a house there and made it a second home—away from the real world where everyone had wanted something from them.
Frances Key Phillips is a writer and editor living in Connecticut. She is working on a novel.