Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Swag

 

  

The bungalow looked shabby in the white winter light.  Jack had never found time to take down the striped awning that drooped over the living room window, and the rusty screws and brackets still bled down the plastic siding.  Amy sat in the car and listened to two women shrieking with laughter on the radio.  When a commercial came on, she climbed out into the cold and crossed the yellow flattened grass to plug in the lights.  She never left them on when she was gone for fear of electrical fire.

The blinking colored lights she’d strung around the awning and the little wire reindeer lit up wanly in the dull sun.  When he first saw the deer, Jack had folded his hands, closed his eyes, and pressed his thumbs against his eyelids.  “You don’t seem to get it.  We are in way too deep between this stupid house and the cars ... .”

Amy returned to her Taurus to get the wreath and two coils of swag from the trunk. The snap of her heels against the concrete echoed in the cold air.  Except for the arrival and departure of the mail truck, their street would be still and silent all afternoon.

She hung the wreath on a nail already hammered into the door.  Jack would roll his eyes.  He’d scoff and say, “What is all this shit?”  She’d tell him, “In Atlanta, it never felt like Christmas because it was warm.  I want to have a real holiday.”  She tied a length of swag to the top of the banister and tried to remember in which magazine she’d seen instructions for making ornaments out of wire and beads.  As she tugged the evergreens between the twisted metal rungs, the needles splayed apart and she saw livid, grassy drops on the grey bark.  It appeared to be mist from a spray paint can.

Amy dropped the swag and sat on the freezing step.  If she told Jack she’d bought spray-painted swag, he’d laugh at her.  He’d say, “Amy, you are such a chump.” 

She was a chump.  She’d turned into one.  After years of waitressing, she’d trained as a paralegal, but that dream had melted away when she had experienced the deadly tedium of days spent in a cubicle.  Since they’d moved to Minnesota, she’d applied for a few jobs – at an upscale dry cleaner, an herbal supplement shop, a greenhouse—but gotten no calls.  She and Jack had lived in Minneapolis for four months and she still did not know anyone.  People were elusive, harried by their busy lives—they slipped away after Pilates class.

Jack used to bite her and tell her she was luscious.  Now she looked up and found him staring with wary puzzlement as if he wondered what she was doing in his house.

She was almost certain that she was pregnant.  It was still very early and she hadn’t told Jack yet, but she’d looked at pictures on the internet.  An embryo was the most amazing little thing.  It looked like nothing, a nub of jelly, but it was so dense with possibilities that it constantly unfolded like a fantastic origami.

Amy stood up and took a burning breath of the frozen air.   She finished hanging the swag, then walked back to the curb to see how it looked from the street.

 

 

Jack slept curled on the couch.  Amy put the poinsettia on the coffee table by his head, then sat in the armchair and watched him.  There were minute movements behind his eyelids – he was dreaming.  Of what, she had no idea.  She imagined running her fingertips over the grizzle on his cheeks.  He opened his eyes.

She brought him a mug of coffee.  “You shouldn’t sleep out here.  It’s not long enough for you.”

“Got in late.”  Jack propped his head on the arm of the couch and threw his legs over the end.  He balanced the cup on his chest and felt around for the remote. 

Amy watched the football players pacing on the field.  When they lined up, she turned back to Jack.  “The poinsettia was on sale.  I’m excited about going to the tree farm.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and scratched his neck.  “Can I just wake up?”

“Don’t you feel well?”  Amy moved onto the edge of the couch.  She tentatively scooted back against his legs.  She leaned over to kiss him.

Jack jolted as if shot through with electricity and spilled coffee on his t-shirt.  He yanked the wet cloth off his skin.  “Goddamn it!  Do you mind?  I just woke up and I have a deadly headache.”

Amy got out of his way.  He set the coffee on the table, threw the sleeping bag off his legs, and staggered to the bathroom.

She wrapped herself in the sleeping bag, muted the TV, and listened to the noises coming through the bathroom door—hacking coughs, a snort, a spray into the toilet, the shower gushing on.

Jack flung open the door and came out wrapped in his robe with his wet hair combed straight back.  His head was lowered and thrust forward like a bull’s.

“It’s been a hard week.  I’m exhausted.  Can we just go to the Boy Scout tree lot on Lyndale?  I have work to do.  If we go all the way out to the tree farm, it’s going to burn the entire flipping day.”  His voice was rising.

Amy pulled the sleeping bag around her shoulders.  “You always ... .”  She caught herself.  She would use “I” statements.  She would express her feelings in a positive way, if she could figure out what they were.  Jack’s anger confused her. 

Then she remembered the baby.  She dropped the sleeping bag and stood up.  “I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.  You’ve worked late every night for two months.  And now all these damn parties.  On top of the travel!  Even in Atlanta ... .”

Jack closed his eyes and breathed deeply in through his nose.  To her amazement, he’d taken up yoga; the agency had lunchtime classes.

“Fine.”  His eyelids quivered.  “You win.”

The dry winter air seemed to crackle.  Her gaze was snagged by a white streak at the corner of his mouth.  “You’ve got a little toothpaste ... .”

 

 

They drove in silence out of the city and into the suburbs.  They passed car dealerships strung with tattered flags, parking lots of dusty cars, a movie theater with a huge turquoise façade, a sea of small bleak houses.  Plastic bags fluttered in the branches of spindly trees that grew along the highway.  The sky was a plastic white.

They passed a development of beige townhouses; a single balcony was decorated with swag and a red ribbon.  “God, I hate the suburbs.”  Amy pushed her hair behind her ears and turned up the heat.  “Everything is all the same.  It’s so ... .”

“Gee, I hate when people say things like that.”  Jack turned toward her; the lustrous lenses of his sunglasses concealed his eyes.  “Where exactly do you expect people to live?”

“Well, I guess ... .”

“Never mind.”  Jack threw his head back and fingered his Adam’s apple as if checking for cancer.  He pulled out his BlackBerry.

Amy tightened her grip on the steering wheel.  They were driving past winter fields, billboards, small clumps of trees, dilapidated farmhouses.  A bright orange thought flared in the back of her mind.  Had she remembered to unplug the coffee maker?  She could not remember doing so.  She couldn’t recall locking the front door.  They had been driving forty minutes.  She was seized by a nearly uncontrollable impulse to turn the car onto the median and drive back home.

“We should have been there by now.  If there isn’t a sign soon, I’ll turn around and we’ll forget the whole thing.”

Just after the next mile marker, there was a sign for Carson’s Tree Farm.  Amy had read about the farm in the newspaper.

“Thank God!”  She laughed and turned off the highway onto a county road.  Across a field of frozen clotted dirt was a line of skinny pines.

Jack shoved his sunglasses into his hair and checked the time on his scuba-watch.  A man dressed in a blaze orange jumpsuit waved them over with a flag.  She pulled the car beside the man and poked Jack.  He punched his window button.

The man handed in a map and a rusty saw.  He leaned in Jack’s window with his wind-reddened cheeks, cigarette smell, and stained teeth.  “Got any questions?”

Jack carefully wet his lips and stared over the dash.

“Are you Carson?” she said.

“Nope.”  The man straightened up and looked behind them at the next car.

There was one building, a cabin constructed of bark-stripped logs.  A teenage boy wearing a stocking cap and layers of jackets waved them to a spot at the edge of a bumpy field.

Amy parked and turned off the engine.  She and Jack sat in the ticking car and watched a woman wearing red earmuffs videotape her husband and two children as they examined a small pine.

She threw open her car door.  She climbed right out of the car because you have to smile and decide to be happy.  If you’re unhappy, it’s your own goddamn fault.  That’s what her dad always said, and it was a good thing he tried hard to be happy – she had a vision of his bullet-shaped head and fierce grin—because he died of a heart attack when he was only 42.  Amy’s mother tried to be happy with her marriages and her pack of kids who’d stared at Amy across long ago holiday tables.

Amy took a deep breath and smiled.

Jack got out of the car.  He pulled a scarf she’d never seen before out of his coat pocket.  He wound the scarf around his neck and flung the tail over his shoulder.  The scarf was green and blue paisley, bohemian, a new style for him.

He yawned and made little cracking noises, then shook his head as if to clear it.  Without looking at each other, they started across the field.  She said, “I like your scarf.”  She reached for his hand.  He swung his shoulders away and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“My hands are freezing.”

“You forgot your gloves?”  Amy tripped over a ragged stump.  They were walking through stumps and a patch of seedlings six inches high.  The ground was matted with silvery dead grass and flattened tumbleweeds.

“Since we came all this way, let’s get a big tree!  Let’s ... .”

He interrupted.  “Aren’t you happy?  You got your way!  Here we are.  Is this what you hoped for?”  He waved at the frozen field scattered with trees and huddled families.  The horizon was a dark grey line.

Amy stared at him.  “I think it’s alright.”

He half closed his eyes. “I have a vicious headache.  You would not believe how bad.”  He pushed up his sleeve and looked at his scuba watch.

The month before, Jack had come home wearing the scuba watch with its dials and displays.  When she realized how much the watch had cost, she’d laughed at him.  “Jack, you’ve never gone scuba diving in your life.”  To her astonishment, he leapt out of the armchair and shouted, “How do you know?  You don’t know every detail of my life!”

Jack checked his watch again.

“Jack, we just got here.  Do you have something else going on this afternoon?”

Jack lifted his face and stared across the field.  A few yards away, a baby staggered between a man and a woman.

He shifted his gaze to her.  “I’m not allowed to check the time?  You’re the one who decided we were going to burn the entire day on this idiotic project.”

The baby turned to look at Jack.  The child wore a blue plaid cap tied under a chin luscious with baby fat.  His saggy cheeks were red and chapped with cold.  The man swung the baby up and the family hurried up the path.

“Amy, I don’t know if the realities of my life have penetrated.  Phyllis is going to name the new media director any day now.  I am killing myself.  Peter is only 31.  He doesn’t have anything holding him back.”

“Alright, Jack, I understand.”  Amy tried to make her voice sound upbeat, but as she lifted her foot to take a step, her knee buckled.  “God, I don’t think I remembered to unplug the coffeemaker.”

“I turned it off!”  Jack shouted.  They stood without speaking.  A wind had picked up.  It was getting colder by the second.

Jack shoved out his jaw and marched toward the scotch pines.  As Amy followed, a strange observation passed through her mind—with his long arms and bowed legs in black jeans, his torso puffed out with down, Jack resembled an angry frog.  An angry frog dressed entirely in black with the exception of an extravagant blue and green scarf she’d never seen before.

The scotch pines were big and shaggy as bears.  She felt in her pocket for the car keys and wondered if she’d set the brake—she’d parked on a hill.  She had a vision of the family with the baby walking behind the Taurus just as the gear slipped out of place.

“I don’t like these trees,” said Jack.  “They’re asymmetrical and they have gaps between the branches.”

Jack’s face was mottled from the cold.  A patch of whiskers bristled on his chin.  Every line and furrow on his face had frozen in place making him look ten years older than he was.  The rims of his ears were a sore red. 

Her own face felt stiff with cold; she rubbed it and got make-up on her mittens.

Jack had calmed down and pensively studied the small map.  “Let’s check out the balsam firs.”

As they walked east toward the balsam firs, slivers of snow began to fall from the sky.  Maybe it would stick.  Jack allowed Amy to take his hand—it was cold, even through her mitten.  The snow hitting the frozen ground made a sandy noise.  They were alone, surrounded by the trees.

“Wait.”  Amy stopped walking and concentrated on the moment so she’d remember it.  “Jack, I need to tell you ... .”

“Just one second.”  Jack let go of her hand, pushed up his sleeve, and looked at his watch.  With glossy unseeing eyes, he handed her the saw.

“I’ve got to run to the restroom.  There’s one in the cabin, I think.  You stay here and find the perfect tree and when I get back, I will give you my undivided attention. So hold that thought…” 

Still talking, he jogged down the path through the trees.

She was suddenly alone.  The indistinct voices of other families sounded like echoes from a lost world.  She tried very hard to remember locking the front door, but was unable to do so.  She could clearly imagine smoke rising from the plugged-in coffeemaker.

Amy breathed the way the therapist had taught her.  She forced herself to be present in the moment.  She studied the tender, grey branches and tiny needles of a balsam fir, a tree so delicately wrought it looked like a tree out of a fairy tale.

This large, beautiful living thing had begun as a tiny seed.  As did a baby.  So many things were like seeds or came from seeds.  Secrets were like seeds because a whole unexpected turn of life could spring from one like a thick green Jack and the Beanstalk vine.  Jack.  That made her laugh.

She practiced saying it aloud, “Jack, we’re going to have a baby.  Jack. You and I are going to be parents.  Jack, you’re going to be a daddy.” 

After ten minutes, Jack had not returned.  Amy began to walk toward the log cabin.  She strolled between the trees, swinging the saw, smiling at people she passed.

As she came down the final leg of the trail, she saw the top of Jack’s head behind a row of cut trees. His thick dark hair was unmistakable.   She walked around the trees.

Jack said one more word, shoved the phone into his pocket, and walked toward her with a big empty smile.

“Can you believe it?  I got a business call while we’re out buying our Christmas tree.  What a life.” 

He walked up to her.  His eyes were cornflower blue with chips of a darker color.  He shook the hair off his forehead.  His most boyish smile looked odd, almost pitiful in the frozen furrows of his face.  His milky blue teeth had been bleached by the dentist two weeks before—an absolute requirement for working in advertising.

“What?” he said “What?”

He suddenly bent over and coughed spasmodically.  With watering eyes, he stood up and pointed.  “Holy Moses, that’s the one.”  He grabbed the trunk of a huge balsam fir and shook it.  The tree was twelve feet tall, a cone of cascading branches. 

“We’ll just get them to chop off the bottom.  It’s a beauty.  Let’s see how much it is.   Wow.  It’s really steep, about a hundred more than I was thinking, but you know, if you really like it ... .  Though, look, here are a couple of nice ones.”  He reached through the trees.

“I like it.”  Amy folded her hands over her stomach. 

“You do?  Wonderful.”  Jack flagged one of the teenage boys.

He talked the entire drive home.  He talked about whether the Vikings would go to the Super Bowl, about their odd reclusive neighbor, about whether or not recycling was worth the effort.  He asked, “What do you think of the way the president is handling the situation with Russia?”  She said she didn’t know.

The bound tree hung over the windshield and divided the horizon.  It bounced like a body.  A mile from home, Amy began to listen for sirens.  She scanned the sky for billowing smoke.

 

 

For a few days, Jack tried to sustain the solicitude he’d displayed at the tree farm, but Amy could see the strain around his mouth and eyes.  His attentiveness gradually transformed into an icy irritability as if he was in chronic pain.

She overheard him on the phone with his parents.  He laughed hollowly.  “I’m hoping, I’m really hoping.  This is my last shot.  So keep your fingers crossed.”

When the call ended, she followed him to the bathroom.  “What are your parents doing for Christmas?”

Jack dried his hands and stared into the mirror.  He rubbed the towel between each of his fingers.  “Bermuda,” he finally said. “Why do you ask?” 

His parents had always been a sore point.  The first time she met those tall chilly people, she overheard his mother say, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with her.”

Amy had found a newspaper scribbled with scratch-out calculations.  It looked for all the world like Jack had been figuring out how much an apartment would cost.

Jack had his secrets and she had hers.  Beside the secret of the baby, she knew something about Jack that he didn’t know.  He wasn’t really handsome.  In fact, at times, he was quite ugly.  She’d recently realized this about him.  Jack was like an optical illusion—you looked at him and he was one thing, you blinked, and he was something completely different.

 

 

On the 19th of December, Jack stood at the sink and gulped a cup of coffee.  Amy blocked the doorway.

“You’re going out of town again on the 27th.  You’ve got to spend an evening at home, otherwise I’m going to fly to Cincinnati and spend Christmas with my mother.  It’s really expensive but….”

Jack held up his hand to silence her.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  His lips moved as he silently counted.  “I’ll skip something rather important and be here by eight.”

“Is there a movie you want to watch?”

He set down the mug and caged his head with the fingers of both hands.  “Take charge of this, Amy.  I don’t care.”

At eight o’clock, Jack came into the living room in his reeking sweats and a t-shirt torn under one arm.  He threw himself in the armchair, covered his mouth with his hand, and stared at the blank TV screen.  He abruptly stood and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of ice and gin.  The bare tree loomed in the corner.

Amy went into the kitchen and microwaved a packet of corn.  The popped corn looked like tiny greasy brains and made her nauseous.  She set the bowl on the table next to the poinsettia.  Jack had finished the gin and had taken a piece of ice into his mouth.  The ice clicked against his teeth.

The movie was an action adventure she thought he hadn’t seen, but he stared at the screen without watching.  He felt for his BlackBerry, checked it, then slid the machine back into the pocket of his sweats.  His left hand rested protectively over his stomach.

After he’d checked his messages a fourth time, Amy said, “Jack, I’m pregnant.”  There was a quickening in his gaze as if he’d actually started to watch the movie.

“I said ... .”  Tires squealed; there was a metallic crunch.

“I heard you.”  He turned toward her.  Even unshowered, in old dirty clothes, those eyes, that mouth – for a flash, he was breathtaking.  Jack could do that.  He switched off the movie.

“Wow.”  He leaned over his knees and clapped his hands.  He coughed out a laugh.  “Amy, you really know how to do things right.  You seem so flakey and spaced-out but you’re scheming every minute of the day.  Your timing is impeccable.” 

He covered his face with his hands.  “A baby.  Oh, shit.”

Amy sat back against the couch cushions.  She looked at her hands, at the little sharp diamond, at the dots of color on the couch cushion.  She felt weirdly real.  She picked up the remote, but the TV was already off.

Jack began to rock.  He scraped his fingers through his hair.  “A baby?  Oh, God.  I’m not at the place where I wanted to be.”

He looked small, grief-stricken, beside himself.  She reached over to stroke his shoulder.  “Jack, it’s going to be ... .”

“Don’t touch me.  Not right now.”

She pulled her hand back.  “OK, fine.  But since we’re having a baby, there’s something I need to know.  Do you have a girlfriend?” 

Jack crushed his skull between his hands.  He scrambled off the couch and faced her across the table.  “Let’s get this straight.  I will do the right thing.  But you do not own me.  You do not own me!  And one more thing!”  He waggled his finger at her.  “All your weird neurotic fears are driving me insane.”

Spit bubbled at the corner of his mouth.  He grabbed his jacket and barreled into the kitchen.

“And for your information!” he shouted.  “Phyllis named the goddamned new media director today!”  He slammed the kitchen door so hard the poinsettia tipped onto the carpet.

When Jack finally came home, he slept on the couch.  And that night, in the cold territory of their bed, Amy learned that she wasn’t pregnant after all.  She had been wrong.  She never was pregnant.  She couldn’t believe it.  The baby—she thought of it as a he—was more real to her than Jack.  Despite all evidence, she believed the baby still existed as a possibility, somewhere.  He was a cottonwood seed floating through the universe, a tiny astronaut lost in space.

 

 

Friday morning, Amy drove to the mall under a low solid sky.  She walked around with a coffee and looked at the window displays.  Tinsel ornaments as large as truck tires hung from the high ceilings of the hallways.  She was bumped again and again and the people turned and smiled and said, “Excuse me!”  Late that afternoon, she drove home through the season’s first heavy snow.  It was a blizzard.

At first she was frightened and clutched the steering wheel with all her strength.  But gradually the transformed world relaxed her.  It was so quiet.  The windshield wipers squeaked as they brushed white dust off the glass.  Sheets of snow blew across the road; whirling eddies appeared then vanished.  Snow twirled like ribbons in the yellow cones of light cast by street lamps.  In the dense white air, brake lights winked like Christmas lights.  At least six inches had fallen since midday.

The house was dark, but Jack’s Nissan was parked in the driveway and she pulled in beside it.  She’d heard on the radio not to park on the street as the snowplows would be out.

She waded through the snow to plug in the lights.  The red, blue, green and yellow lights and the little deer lit up.  With the snow, lights, the wreath and swag, their house looked perfect.  Someone lonely driving past might see it and feel a pang.

Amy went in the house with the shopping bags.  She pulled off her boots and turned on a lamp.  Huge and dark, the tree loomed in the corner.  She crossed the room to check its water because it was a living thing, if not for long.  There was one gift under the tree—a small light box sent by her mother.

Jack lurched out of the dark kitchen.  He was still wearing his leather bomber jacket and held a glass.  The windows rattled as a snowplow rumbled down the street.

“Where were you?   I thought you’d be here.”  His eyes were swollen.  He lifted the glass and smelled it, then took a long swallow.

“I was out.”

Jack stared at her, then lowered himself into the armchair.  He held the drink between both hands and looked into it.  “Sit down.”

She remained standing; she could feel the texture of the carpet through her socks.  “I’ll just ... .”

“Amy.”  His face twisted as if it hurt to speak.  “We’re going to have a child.  We need to try harder.”

How odd, how very strange it was to hear the words she had wanted to hear.  She felt alone, as if she was driving by herself on a dark and snowy highway.

“That’s true.  We do need to try harder.  You know what?  I’m going to decorate the tree.”  She tore open a package of Christmas lights.

“There’s one thing you don’t understand, Amy.”

“What’s that?”  She unwound the braided wire of tiny sharp lights from the skeleton of plastic.

His watch beeped.  He squinted down at it as if something mysterious and disturbing had appeared on the little metal face.  His lips moved, but he said nothing.

“While you’re thinking, I’m going to get a kitchen chair so I can reach the top of the tree.”

She went into the kitchen and lifted a chair.  On the small table was a red candle encircled by plastic holly.  This was a kitchen and this was their kitchen chair.  It was almost Christmas.  She heard the front door open.

Amy carried the chair into the living room and set it by the tree.  She walked to the window and stooped to see beneath the dark awning.

Jack stood leaning on the shovel by the deer.  Snow swirled around him as if he was in a snow globe.  She pressed her forehead against the cold glass.  She wanted to make him see how beautiful it was.

 

 

Aurelia Wills has had stories published in The Kenyon Review, New Orleans Review, Salt Hill, Hayden's Ferry Review, and other journals.  She has a story forthcoming in the 2012 anthology American Fiction: Best Unpublished Stories by Emerging Writers.  She teaches creative writing and ESL in Minneapolis, and lives in Saint Paul with her family.