by Franklin Klavon
Labor Day weekend, the air was cool, boat traffic busy. “Classes start Tuesday, and I was wondering if I can borrow two hundred dollars for the kid’s school clothes?” asked Liza. “Money’s tight since Russell lost his job.”
I looked across the picnic table beyond Liza’s yellow hair at the sparkling water of the lake. A pontoon boat motored past. Ducks descend to a reedy cove. I saw a crow picking at a dead fish on the shoreline, but couldn’t look at my own daughter and reply to her question. Her mother broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Of course we can lend you the money,” said Shelly. “Aaron, tell Liza we don’t mind.”
But we do mind, I thought. We mind very much. I got up from the table and went to the sandy shore, where my granddaughter played in the lake. “Poppa, watch me swim.” She splashed on top of the water, kicking and paddling, but made no forward progress. She stood waist deep in the cloudy waves, wiped water from her face, and smiled.
“You’re getting better,” I said.
The two grandsons came toward me, their feet covered with wet sand. They both held toy shovels and pails. “You gonna swim with us, Pop?”
“Too chilly,” I said.
They pulled off their shirts (their ribs rippled on their skinny bodies), waded into the lake, and dove under. The boys had dug holes in the beach sand and filled them with murky water. A gull hovered overhead, expecting a handout. Tied to the dock, our pontoon boat bobbed up and down with the waves.
I looked back toward the picnic table, where Shelly and Liza drank iced tea mixed with lemonade. Liza was smoking a cigarette. She always had cigarettes but couldn’t afford school clothes for her children.
Later, I grilled bratwurst in the driveway. The boys’ teeth chattered as they lingered in the garage looking at my fishing poles. “Pop, you should take us fishing,” said Wendell.
“Too many boats on the water. Maybe after a while.”
“All right!” They ran off to play.
Shelly came up to me as I tended the grill. “You hurt Liza’s feelings.”
“How?” I said.
“She can tell you don’t want to loan her the money.”
“It’s true, I don’t.”
“Do you mind telling me why not?”
“When are her and Russell ever going to pay back those thousands of dollars they borrow from us every year?”
She shook her head. “It’s not for them. It’s for our grandchildren.” We both looked toward the dock, where the kids sat on the edge, their feet overhanging the water. Liza was talking on her cell phone in the yard, twirling her hair with her finger. Russell, Liza’s husband, the kids’ dad, had gone out of town that morning with a buddy to pick up a car Russell had inherited from his recently departed father: a 1969 Mustang.
“Fine, I’ll give her the money.”
Shelly kissed me. “You’re a good man.”
After dinner, I baited the fishing rods with night crawlers, and the kids caught bluegills off the dock. Shelly took their pictures holding the fish. Danny’s fish was the size of my thumb. Liza sat on the docked pontoon boat sending text messages. “Mom, look at my fish,” Danny called out.
She barely glanced up from the cell phone. “Uh-huh.”
Mosquitos buzzed in the air, attacking our arms and legs. We went inside and had peach pie with ice cream for dessert. I wrote out a two hundred dollar check to Liza, and in the ledger I noted that the money was for school clothes.
“Thank you, dad,” she said. “Russ and I will put it to good use.”
“You’re welcome. Tell Russ to drive safe in that hotrod you guys are getting. I don’t want to hear that he wrapped it around a tree.”
“Oh, he’ll drive safe, or I’ll kill him.”
At dusk, Liza and the kids took off for home, waving and shouting goodbye out the car windows. Shelly and I stood in the driveway holding hands. We gathered up the beach toys and cleared the picnic table. I put the fishing poles away and rolled the gas grill into the garage. It looked like rain.
* * *
September 30th, Russell, Liza, and the grandchildren, stopped by unexpectedly and stayed for dinner. We ate largemouth bass I had caught off the dock. Russell had long hair and gaged ears, his arms covered with tattoos. Liza had died her hair auburn red. They drove Russ’s father’s black Mach-I, and Russ happily popped the hood and showed me the Cobra Jet engine. “Four hundred and twenty eight cubic inches,” he said. “Three hundred and fifty horsepower. My father loved this car.”
“Lotsa chrome.” I inspected the busy engine compartment.
“I’m thinking about getting headers and new mags, and I want to buy a house with a garage, so I can store it in the winter time.”
“You might want to get a canvas car cover, for now,” I suggested.
“I already put one on order.”
“How’s the job hunt going?”
“Any chance of getting back in at Imperial Forge?”
“None whatsoever. I walked out on my shift after the foreman got in my face. He was being a dick. I should’ve punched him.”
“Where have you been looking?”
“Haven’t yet. I’m enjoying the time off. Things will pick up after the holidays.”
“Poppa, let’s fish,” said Wendell, running up from the shoreline.
“Son, you have a one track mind.” I ruffled his hair.
We went to the dock, and I rigged the kids’ fishing poles. Wendell caught a catfish ten inches long, and it swallowed the hook. I cut the line and threw the fish back into the lake. The water was choppy. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead, and Karen squinted, looking toward the sky. Shelly asked her, “Where’s your glasses, honey?”
Karen swiped her long bangs away from her eyes. “They’re broken. Our mom says I’m going to get new ones next month. I didn’t get them this month, so she could get her hair colored.”
“She broke them on the first day of school at the playground,” Liza explained. “Clumsy kid. Now look at her. She’s so blind I hope she don’t walk out in traffic.”
“Guess what, Grandma,” said Wendell. “I’m the tallest boy in fourth grade, and Danny’s the tallest in second.”
“And Karen’s the fattest in third,” Russ teased.
“Hey, that wasn’t very nice.” Liza smacked Russ’s shoulder.
“I meant smartest,” he retracted.
Karen started crying. She dropped her fishing pole and ran off the dock. We tried to coax her back, but she disappeared into the house.
After dinner, I took the family out on the pontoon boat. We circled the perimeter of Loon Lake and viewed the lakefront houses and hilly forests beyond. The maple trees were blazing red, the oaks dull brown. Karen squinted, but couldn’t make out the scenery. Everybody wore jackets in the chilly weather.
When we got back to the dock, the women and children went into the house, and Russell stayed outside with me and helped moor the boat. “When are you planning on taking this raft out of the water and pulling the dock out for winter?” he asked.
“Couple weeks, I guess. I usually keep her handy for when the fall colors peak.”
“Well, I’d like to come out and give you a hand, Aaron, so give me a call.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll call.”
“What about raking leaves in the yard this fall?” he said. “I’d like to help with that too.”
“We have a leaf vacuum on the mower.”
“I can drive the mower for you.”
“That won’t be necessary, thanks anyway.” We finished tying up the boat, and Russ helped carry the fishing tackle from the dock up to the garage.
“I need to ask you a favor, Aaron.”
“Tomorrow’s the first of the month, and I need to borrow two hundred and twenty dollars for the last two-and-a-half months’ power bill.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I’m good for it. I’ve been hanging sheet rock with my brother on the side and he’s got a big job lined up for the middle of the month. It’s a sure thing.” Russ showed me the cutoff notice from the power company.
I leaned the fishing poles in the corner.
“I know I still owe you for the brake job on Liza’s car, and I haven’t forgot you, buddy.”
Inside, I took Russ to the den and broke out the check book. “What’s your account number at the power company?”
“Just make it out to me.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Okay.” He showed me the bill with the account number.
I wrote the check and handed it over.
“Thanks a lot, Aaron. I might be able to pay you back in a few weeks if my brother lands that sheet rock job.”
In the kitchen, we ate lemon cake with chocolate frosting for dessert. Shelly poured glasses of milk for everybody, and Danny accidently elbowed his glass off the table. Liza sopped up the mess with paper towels. “I swear I have the clumsiest kids in town.”
“Tell grandma and grandpa you’re sorry.” Russell held Danny on his lap.
“I’m sorry,” Danny said barely above a whisper. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“All is forgiven, son.” Russell hugged the boy. “All is forgiven.”
* * *
Halloween, Liza and the kids came over for trick-or-treats, and Shelly and I tagged along. Wendell was dressed up as a cowboy, Karen a bumblebee, and Danny as Superman. Liza wore Russell’s high school football jersey over her shirt with a helmet Russ had no doubt permanently borrowed from the athletic department. We followed along Lake Drive on the east shore, where the houses are close together, then returned on the opposite side of the street. Adults shined flashlights up and down the crowded sidewalks, and kids in costumes carried candy in bags and plastic pumpkins.
Back at our house, the kids dumped their candy onto the kitchen counter, and we inspected the haul. Wendell ate too many sweets, and he got sick in the bathroom. I helped him out of his costume and washed his face. “Poppa, you can have the rest of my candy corn,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”
At the table, we drank apple cider and had donuts. Liza pulled a receipt out of her purse. “Here’s the sales slip for the kid’s Halloween costumes, mom. You owe me sixty nine dollars.” Shelly looked at the slip.
“Also, can I borrow your debit card? I need to put gas in the car, so I can make it back home.”
“Of course, honey.” Shelly went into the den and came back with her debit card and the checkbook. She wrote a check for the kid’s costumes and gave Liza the debit.
“Tell grandma and grandpa thank you for your costumes,” Liza told the kids.
“Thank you, grandma and grandpa,” they all spoke up.
“I’m going to run up to the corner and get gas. I’ll be back in a minute.” Liza carried the football helmet out the door.
I played cards with the kids and ate Wendell’s candy corn. Wendell held his head up with his elbow on the table, chomping on licorice sticks. Karen’s mouth had turned blue from a jaw breaker, and Danny was eating a Moon Pie. “Poppa, look at my tongue,” said Karen, sticking her blue tongue out at me.
“I think you kids have had enough candy,” said Shelly.
When Liza returned, she washed off the eye-black smudges from under her eyes and took off the football jersey. Her shirt came up while pulling the jersey over her head, revealing a tattoo of a rose trellis covering her back.
Shelly looked surprised. “Since when do you have a tattoo?”
“Since a few weeks ago.” She lifted the back of her shirt to show us. “You like it, mom?”
“It’s nice, but it must’ve been quite expensive.”
“Only six hundred. A friend of Russell’s did it.” Liza put her shirt back down. “We need to take off, kids. Tomorrow’s a school day.”
Wendell and Karen moaned as Liza gathered up the candy from the counter. Danny had fallen asleep in my lap. We helped her put the kids in the car, and she quickly backed out the driveway.
“Oh, wait!” Shelly called out. “You forgot to give back my debit card.”
Liza locked the brakes, pulled the car back up the drive, and turned on the dome light. She made a big show of digging through her purse. “I can’t find it. It’s too dark, and I need to get these kids in bed.”
“Well, come in the house where it’s light and look for it.” I held open her door.
“You people!” she huffed, shaking her head. She climbed out and followed me inside, while Shelly stayed with the kids. Liza dumped her purse out on the kitchen counter. She had cosmetics, chewing gum, a cell phone, a bag of marijuana, and five brand new packs of cigarettes. She quickly stuffed the marijuana and cigarettes back into the purse. “It’s not in here.”
“Find it!” I hollered.
She pulled the card out of her back pocket and slammed it on the counter. “Here! Choke on it.”
Anger swelled up inside me. I grabbed her arm. “Don’t get cute with me, girly. We bought costumes for the kids, filled your tank with gas, and now you try to steal your mother’s bank card.”
“You’re the one who wanted the kids here for Halloween,” she shot back. “It’s forty miles round trip, and I needed gas. And I don’t make enough money waiting tables to afford Halloween costumes!”
“But you always have a bag of weed, don’t you.”
She pulled her arm free, scraped the contents back into her purse, and hurried out the door. “Bye, mom.” She gave a cursory wave to Shelly, slammed the car door, and screeched rubber down the street.
* * *
Thanksgiving, Liza and the kids arrived midmorning for late breakfast. After ham and eggs, the boys and I went outside and gathered sticks in the yard which had fallen from the trees. The wind blew in gusts, and the lake was wavy with whitecaps. The boys wore spring jackets, their hands and cheeks red. We could see our breath. We piled up the sticks and lit a fire in the fire pit. The girls stayed inside and prepared Thanksgiving dinner.
Russell drove up in his red pickup truck about noon time. He’d been deer hunting. He joined us by the fire, still wearing his orange hat and camouflage hunting pants. Mud caked his boots. “Hi, daddy,” Wendell and Danny greeted their father.
Russ kissed the boys, wiped Danny’s nose, and held him in his arms. “How you doing, Aaron?”
“Happy to be with the kids,” I said. “What’d you see hunting?”
“Did you catch a deer?” Wendell asked his father.
“Shoot a deer,” Russell corrected the boy. “You don’t catch deer, you shoot them.” He put Danny down and said, “You’re getting too heavy, boy.” Danny picked up a stick and poked the fire. The wind kept shifting, and we frequently moved to avoid the smoke. Shelly came out with Liza and Karen.
Liza shivered, her arms folded across her breasts. She kissed Russell. “Keep me warm, honey.”
He wrapped his arms around her.
“How was the hunt?” she asked.
“I hope you didn’t shoot Bambi.”
“Nope. Bambi’s father.”
“You did not!” Liza pulled away, a tinge of excitement in her voice.
“Go take a look.” Russ put a cigarette in his mouth.
“Did you really?”
Liza went across the yard and looked in the pickup truck. “You got a buck!” she shrieked. We all ran to the truck. Russell came over, dropped the tailgate, and pulled the deer halfway out so the kids could see.
“How many points is it?” asked Wendell.
“Eight.” Russell held up eight fingers, his nails stained blood red. Dry blood and deer hair covered the bed of the truck. The deer’s tongue was poking out of its mouth. I grabbed an antler, turned the animal’s head, and gazed into the empty, brown eyes. Russ opened a warm beer from under the front seat, slugged it, belched, and gave us the play by play. He pulled out a camera from the cab, and everybody posed with the buck.
“What’re you going to do with it?” Shelly asked Russ about the deer.
“This evening after dinner I’m taking it to Bob Finch’s, and we’re going to skin it and cut it up in his barn.” Russ sipped his beer. “I’ll save some steaks for you guys.”
“I’d like that.” I nodded.
“Is it okay if I take a hot shower in the house, Aaron?” I need to get cleaned up. Plus, I got a touch of hypothermia.” Russ glanced across the yard as if longing for the warmth in the fire pit.
“Sure, do you need clothes?”
Russ looked at Liza, and she said to me, “I brought his clothes.”
Inside, we watched football on television, and I played cards on the floor with the kids. But Karen couldn’t see the cards, and she got frustrated and quit. The Lions lost the football game. “When are you going to get this girl glasses?” I asked Liza when she came into the living room.
“I’m not made of money,” she shot back. “Are you offering to pay?”
I kept my mouth shut.
At dinner time, we gathered in the dining room and prayed. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, acorn squash, cranberries, green beans, and stuffing. We drank red wine. Liza sent text messages as we ate.
“Put the phone away at the table,” I told her, but she ignored me.
“Liza! Did you hear your father?” said Shelly. Liza put the phone in her lap, looked down, and kept tapping the keypad.
“Daddy’s buying a puppy,” Wendell told Shelly and me. Excited, Liza and the kids gave us more details.
“We’re getting a boy dog,” said Karen.
“Well, not just yet.” Russell spoke with a mouth full of dinner role. “We’ll have to wait until I sell the car.”
“What kind of dog is it?” asked Shelly.
“A Pharaoh Hound,” said Liza.
Russ filled his wine glass. “The bass player in the band I’m jamming with, his brother-in-law breeds them for dog shows. But he said most litters only have one or two show-quality pups and the rest are sold for pets. The show dogs are two grand. The pets are twelve-hundred.”
“They allow dogs at your apartment?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it costs a hundred more for rent. But it’s worth it. Kip, that’s my bass player, he said they’re great dogs. Good with kids. I got the Mach-I up for sale. Hell, you can’t drive a muscle car in wintertime anyway. And I’ll pay back some of the money we owe you guys.”
“Also,” said Liza, “if he sells the Mustang, we’re taking a vacation with the kids on a cruise liner.” She looked into Russell’s eyes, and they kissed.
“That’s exciting,” said Shelly. “When would that be?”
“As soon as he sells it. They have good ticket deals before the holidays.”
I said, “You wouldn’t take the kids out of school, I hope.”
“They can make it up after new years,” said Liza. “And I’m quitting cigarettes.”
“Well good for you,” Shelly and I told her.
“Every time you want to smoke,” I said, “eat a red licorice stick instead. That’s how I quit.”
“I know, Dad, you’ve told me a hundred times.”
After dinner, we watched more football as the kids played on the floor. Danny fell asleep on Liza’s lap, and I dozed on the recliner. The Cowboys lost a close game, and Russell got up to leave. “I need to go cut up that deer.”
Liza stood and hugged him. “Sorry about the game, honey.”
“Aren’t you going to stay for pumpkin pie?” asked Shelly.
“Not after that football game,” he said. “I lost my appetite.”
I went outside and walked Russ to his truck.
“Thanks for having us, Aaron.” Russ shook my hand. He slammed the truck door and drove away. The scent of smoldering wood from the fire pit wisped in the wind.
Inside, we had pie and coffee, and the kids had cupcakes. I drenched my pie with whipped cream. Liza said, “Mom, I need money to buy winter coats, hats, and mittens for the kids.”
“I didn’t forget, honey.” Shelly went to the den for the checkbook. Liza pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes from her purse, tamped the end on the table, and tore off the cellophane.
“Why don’t you and Russell buy the kids coats?” I said.
She put an unlit cigarette in her mouth. “Mom always gives me money for coats this time of year.”
Shelly came back, wrote a check for two hundred dollars, and gave it to Liza. Liza looked at the check and said, “Can I have fifty more for boots?”
Shelly glanced at me and opened the checkbook again, but I stopped her. “Liza, I think you can buy boots for your own kids. We’re not made of money.”
“Oh, but you sure had enough money to put in a new boat dock this summer,” she quickly pointed out. “You have two boats, you dine at Steak & Pub every Friday, and you vacation in Florida every winter.” Liza pulled a cigarette lighter from her purse. “When are you getting your Christmas bonus at work, mom? You can give me some of that money for boots.”
“When’s Russell getting a job?” I raised my voice.
“None of your damn business. Russell’s got a job playing in the band.”
“Then make him buy the boots.” I slammed my fist on the table.
“He can’t afford boots. He just lost a hundred on that lousy football game.” She lit the cigarette. “What kind of people are you? Won’t even buy snow boots for your own grandchildren.”
“Go outside and smoke that!” I stood and towered over her. “I thought you were quitting.”
“This is my last pack, if it’s all right with you.” Liza pushed her chair back and headed for the door. She turned toward us and screamed, “Sorry, kids, your feet will be froze all fucking winter.” The kids ate cupcakes, drank chocolate milk, and didn’t breathe a word.
* * *
Eight days before Christmas, we stopped by Liza’s apartment on our way to the Christmas tree farm. The sun shined deceptively bright on a cold Saturday morning. Russ’s pickup and Liza’s car were parked at the curb, and the kid’s bicycles lay in the yard. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s out of bed yet.” Shelly looked toward the balcony of their second floor apartment.
I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost nine o’clock. “Then we’ll wake them up.”
We climbed the outer steps and knocked. Inside we could hear the kids scamper across the floor. The door swung open, and Shelly stepped into the foyer and hugged the kids.
“Hi, grandma. Hi, grandpa,” they greeted us.
I hoisted Danny. “Poppa, that’s our new dog.” He pointed at the dog. The excited brown puppy with big ears and long legs jumped around at our feet.
“His name is Devil,” said Karen. Devil hopped up on my leg, and I petted his head.
“Poppa, we’re watching cartoons.” Wendell led us into the living room. The kids wanted us to sit down and watch the big screen television, but Shelly and I were too horrorstruck by the condition of the apartment.
Liquor bottles, pizza boxes, empty beers lay everywhere. The ashtrays overflowed. You couldn’t see daylight on the tables and counter tops. Pretzels and popcorn covered the furniture. The dog had pooped on the carpet, and a puddle of pee glistened on the kitchen linoleum. A torn open garbage bag emitted a foul stink. And a pair of red panties dangled on a Christmas tree branch.
“Where’s your mom and dad?” I asked.
“Does your mom always keep the house this clean?” Shelly picked a lamp up off the floor.
Wendell and Karen laughed. “We had a Christmas party last night.”
“And the police came,” said Danny.
“Yeah, the fuckin’ cops shut us down.” Wendell threw the dog off the couch.
“Watch your mouth, boy,” I said.
“Grandma, guess what,” said Karen, “we went on two airplanes and rode a big boat on the ocean for a week. And we didn’t have to go to school.”
“Cruise ship,” corrected Wendell.
“Yeah, and they had a swimming pool and a water slide.” Karen mimed swimming, stroking her arms.
“And golfing!” said Danny.
“And a exercise room,” said Wendell. “And daddy lost five hundred dollars playing black jack.”
“See,” said Danny, showing us his baseball hat with a cruise ship emblem on the front. Just then, gunfire erupted on the television, and the kids turned to watch the cartoon.
“We’re going to a farm to chop down a Christmas tree,” I said. “We thought you kids might want to go.”
“All right!” shouted Wendell. They hopped off the couch.
“First you need to ask your mom and dad,” I told them.
All three ran down the hallway and peeked into the master bedroom. I could hear hushed tones as the kids talked to Liza. The kids came back, excited. “Mom said we can go, but she needs to ask our dad, and he’s still sleeping,” said Karen.
“You kids need to eat breakfast first,” said Shelly.
“Okay.” Wendell hurried to the kitchen and came back with a big bag of caramel corn. They all dipped in and took handfuls.
Shelly frowned. “Let me find something better than that for you to eat.” Her and I went into the kitchen. An empty box of Captain Crunch lay on the counter, and the refrigerator was nearly full of long neck beers. Venison packed the freezer.
I looked through the mostly bare cupboards. “We’ll take the kids out for breakfast.”
Liza came out of the bedroom, wearing a flannel nightgown. “Hi.” She scratched her head. “Sorry about the mess. We had a few people over last night.”
“Do you mind if we take the kids for a couple hours to the Christmas tree farm?” I asked.
“It’s fine with me, but I need to ask Russell.” Liza picked up the dog. “Did you meet Devil?” She rubbed his ears. “Russ wants to have him professionally trained to compete in dog shows. First prize at the big shows is fifty thousand dollars.”
“Well, if you’re going to put him in competition, you might want to give him a better name,” I suggested.
“Hell, I don’t know, Clifford, Skip, Rudy.”
“Russell wanted to call him Ozzie, but everybody voted on Devil.”
“How was your vacation?” asked Shelly.
Liza yawned. “It was nice.” She looked over at the kids eating caramel corn and watching television. “Turn that TV down, and put that popcorn away! I need to make you kids breakfast.” She lit a cigarette then pulled a box of pancake mix from the cupboard.
I went into the living room to where Russell’s black Les Paul leaned in the corner. At least he didn’t sell his guitar for a puppy, I thought, taking up the instrument. I sat cross-legged on the floor, fingered a D-chord, and strummed the strings with the back of my index finger. As a young man, I always carried a guitar pick in my wallet, I remembered. I also recalled selling my own Les Paul in college to pay overdue tuition. That was a sad day at the pawn shop, but a tough choice had to be made.
After the kids had pancakes and orange juice (Liza tasted the juice to make sure it wasn’t spiked with alcohol before serving it), the women took them to the bedrooms to get dressed. The deer horns from Russell’s eight point lay on the floor as Devil chewed on a tine. I sat on the couch, and the dog tried climbing up on my lap. I cupped my hand over his nose, and he chuffed and turned away, and then we played tug of war with a sock I picked up off the floor.
The kids came out of the bedroom, and Liza pulled their new coats and hats from a closet by the front entrance. She knelt down and helped Danny with his zipper. She put mittens on his hands and said to Shelly, “I’m sure it’s okay, mom, but I better ask Russell if the kids can go.”
“I’ll go tell daddy.” Wendell ran off to the back bedroom.
Shelly and I took our coats from the coat tree and bundled up. “We’ll only be gone a couple hours,” I told Liza. “We’ll ride on the horse drawn wagon back to where the trees are planted, find a nice one, and cut it down just like when you were a little girl.”
“I remember. That’ll be fun.”
The bedroom door opened and closed. Wendell clomped into the living room, crying. “Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t…”
“What, honey?” Liza knelt down and hugged the boy. “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t have b-boots.”
“Oh—” Liza kissed Wendell’s forehead. “I’m so sorry.”
Karen and Danny started to cry.
“But, honey,” Shelly said to Wendell, “there’s no snow on the ground. You don’t need boots.”
I took Shelly’s hand. “Let’s go.” We hugged the kids, and Liza followed us to the front door.
“Sorry, mom and dad.” She hugged us.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We should’ve called first.”
Shelly agreed. “But we’ll see you Christmas day, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Liza sniffed and wiped tears with the back of her hand. We went outside into the frozen morning.
* * *
December 21st, I hung the bicycles in the garage on hooks suspended from the ceiling. I wanted to clear out floor space for a canoe I’d bought at the boatyard for Shelly’s Christmas present. Russell, Liza, and the kids drove up the driveway, unexpected, in Liza’s white Impala. I greeted them at the car.
“Just dropping off that venison I promised,” said Russell. Liza went into the house. Russ opened the trunk and pulled out a grocery sack, nearly full of frozen steaks, chops, and a roast.
I put the meat into the freezer chest in the garage. “Thanks, Russ. I’ll ask Shelly to make that roast for Christmas dinner.”
“Why are you hanging the bikes on hooks?” asked Wendell.
“I bought grandma a canoe for Christmas, and I’m going to store it in the garage.”
“Poppa, our bikes got stolen,” said Karen.
“Well, you kids need to take better care of your belongings.” I put my arm around her. “I saw that you’d left your bike in the yard by the street the other day.”
Danny said, “My bike got stolen too.”
I said to Russell, “You didn’t need to make a special trip out here just to bring the meat. You could’ve brought it Christmas morning.”
“Oh, no problem,” he said. “Glad to do it.”
“What’s your plan for the rest of the evening? Have you had supper?”
“We can’t stay. I got band practice with those guys I’ve been jamming with. We’re starting to sound pretty good, too. It’ll be fun to get back on stage.”
We went down the sloped yard to the lake. The water had frozen over, and the kids ran and slid on the ice in their shoes. Me and Russ walked around on the smooth surface as the wind blew gusts of powdered snow. I slipped then caught myself. “We’ll have to get you guys out here ice skating pretty soon.”
“I know it,” said Russ. “Wendell’s been begging to go.”
“Too bad he didn’t bring his skates. This ice is like glass.”
Shelly came out of the house and called down to the lake, “Aaron, will you come inside for a minute.”
“I’ll be back, Russ.” I trudged up the slope to the house. My glasses steamed up as I opened the door.
Shelly stood waiting. “Liza has something she wants to ask you.”
In the kitchen, Liza sat at the table with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. I had a flashback of her as a little girl. “What is it, honey?” I asked, taking my hat off. Shelly sat down next to her.
Liza spoke barely above a whisper. “Dad, Russell and I have fallen two months behind on our rent. If we don’t give the landlord eleven hundred and eighty dollars tomorrow, he said he’s going to throw all our stuff in the yard and change the locks.” She slid an eviction notice across the table.
I sat down and scanned the document. “Can’t you pay part of it now and the balance next month?”
“We tried, but he wants us out.” She struggled not to cry.
I pushed my chair back. “You should’ve thought of that before you went on vacation and bought that dog.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“You’re gonna be.”
Shelly went to the den, came back, and sat down with the checkbook.
Liza said, “Can you make it out for twelve hundred, so I have money for the kids’ lunches?”
I looked at Liza our little girl, almost thirty, a nice looking woman like her mother. A suede leather coat with fur collar and cuffs was hanging on the back of her chair. She wore a braided gold necklace, her brown hair in a long bob. Her pearl earrings no doubt cost more than a pair of eyeglasses would for Karen.
Through the window, I could see the sun setting across the lake. Red and yellow highlights streaked through the clouds above the barren tree line. Soon it would be nightfall, and Liza and her family would be driving home, in turmoil. “Nope, we’re not paying for it,” I said abruptly. I grabbed the checkbook from under Shelly’s pen. Shelly looked surprised as did Liza. “We’re not paying any of it.” I glared at the two flabbergasted women.
Shelly protested, “Aaron, it’s almost Christmas, and we can’t have homeless grand—”
“Never again!” I stood and slammed my open hand on the table. “Let them figure it out.”
Liza narrowed her eyes. “It’s because of Russell, isn’t it? You’ve never liked him from day one.”
“Not true.” I paced the floor. “I liked him well enough until you two dropped out of high school and ran away from home.”
“Liza grabbed her coat and headed across the kitchen. She turned and screamed at me, “We gave you deer meat!”
“Take it back!”
She stomped her high heels, and slammed the door. Outside, Russell and the kids waited in the running car. She climbed in, and they backed out the driveway, snow flurries in the headlights. We watched out the window as they disappeared over the hill.
* * *
Christmas morning, a light snow had fallen overnight and blanketed the pines in the yard. Rabbit tracks circled the birdfeeder, where the cardinals had dropped seed to the ground. Shelly and I ate cinnamon rolls and drank coffee by the wood stove. I stood and stretched. “I need to bring in more firewood before the kids get here.”
Shelly kissed me and took my empty cup. “I’m going to get the family breakfast started.”
I put on my boots and coat as she dug potatoes from a bin below the kitchen counter. Outside, a frigid wind blew across the lake, and I covered my ears with a stocking hat and pulled on a pair of gloves from my pocket. Deer tracks crossed the yard to the weeping crabapple tree by the wood pile. The Christmas tree in the house sparkled through the picture window.
I hope Russell remembers ice skates, I thought, and I debated clearing a skating rink on the lake with a snow shovel. But the stiff wind made me think it was too cold. Maybe the sun would come out in the afternoon, and if not, Russ and I could go ice fishing toward evening.
I picked an armload of wood and hauled it into the garage. Snow squeaked beneath my boots. Shelley’s canoe, a red fiberglass sixteen-footer, sat on the floor. I was looking forward to paddling into reedy coves and slaying largemouth bass in the lily pads next summer. After several armloads of wood, I took the bundles inside and filled the log rack. The kitchen smelled like fried potatoes. In the living room, gifts waited to be opened beneath the Christmas tree.
Shelly checked the kitchen clock. “I wonder what’s keeping Liza and Russell?”
“You’re sure they’re coming?” I took off my coat and hung it on a hook.
“I talked to Liza yesterday. She said they’d be here for breakfast. They plan on spending the whole day.”
“Maybe the roads are slippery.”
She turned the gas down on the stove and let the potatoes simmer.
“Did they get everything settled with their landlord?” I asked.
“I haven’t heard. I was afraid to bring it up.”
I poured a glass of eggnog from the fridge and ate a peppermint pinwheel from a platter of sweets (starting new years I was panning on losing fifty pounds). I made another pot of coffee and watched the snow fall out the picture window. Shelly pulled a baking sheet from the oven and transferred sugar cookies to a wire rack. Liza’s Impala turned up the driveway. “Russ and Liza are here,” I announced.
“Oh good.” Shelly came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I put on my coat and went through the garage to the driveway. But when the car drove up, Russell was all alone. He climbed out, avoiding my eyes, the engine running. I extended my hand. “Merry Christmas, Russ. Where’s Liza and the kids?”
Russ kept his hands in his coat. “Sorry, Aaron, it’s not happening this year. I just came to get the kids’ Christmas gifts.”
Silence, like I’d been shot with an arrow. “What’s the matter?”
He didn’t answer, turning his back on me. He opened the trunk of the car. “The kids are home waiting for their presents, grandpa. Don’t fuck up their Christmas.”
More arrows. I hesitated then walked slowly through the garage past the red canoe.
Shelly waited eagerly inside. “Are you okay, Aaron? You look ill.”
“They’re not coming,” I said.
“They’re not coming. It’s only Russ. He came to pick up the kids’ gifts.”
“What!” She turned quickly toward the door. “I’m going to give him an earful.”
“No, you’re not.” I grabbed her arm. “This family will not fight on Christmas. Now pull the kid’s gifts out from under the tree.”
At first she didn’t budge, her eyes red with anger and hurt.
I hauled the presents outside, while she cried on the floor, sorting through the giftwrapped boxes. I put them in the trunk of Liza’s car. Russell watched by the wood pile, smoking a cigarette. The last gift barely fit. “That’s all we got.” I closed the trunk lid.
Russ flicked his smoke in the snow, came to the car, and opened the door.
I offered to shake hands. “Tell everybody Merry Christmas.”
Russ hedged, then grasped my hand. “Merry Christmas, Aaron.” He climbed in and backed out the driveway. I quaked to the depth of my bones as the white car disappeared over the hill.
Franklin Klavon has written a novel, Bubba Grey Action Figure, and a collection of short stories, Lemon Wine. His fiction has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, at storychord.com, verdadmagazine.org, schlock.co.uk, and aphelion-webzine.com. In a previous life he played lead guitar for Bubba Grey and has produced five alternative rock compact discs. Mr. Klavon is an avid chess player and has a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. For more, visit franklinklavon.com.