He struggled up the stairs, a lifetime of memories, regrets, heartache and heartbreak holding him down. One palsied, spotted hand on the rail and the other on his gnarled cane, all of his experiences and wisdom won't make a flight of five stairs any easier. A picture of his wife in the distance decorates the wall in black-and-white blurs; familiarity scumbles it back into focus. Untamed, flaxen hair, carefree eyes, one hand on his heart and the other on the wheel. She died in a car crash in 1977 on the way to a bowling tournament; they still haven't fixed that intersection. One person at a time, he supposes, will pay for a bright new stoplight in pretzeled metal, pinwheeling pulses, buckets of blood. It was after dusk, he knows, and he also knows she saw the unknown as she gazed upwards; stars, as if a dream.
It's Christmas time, 2007. His son picked him up from the neighboring city's hospital with his grandson and they traversed the ten miles in relative silence. They know he's depressed, but they don't know what to say; they both are also depressed. The sun doesn't shine as bright in deep December, and words, no matter how heartfelt, never ring as clearly in the cold. It's a white Christmas, and the blanketed fields remind him of the cotton sheets of his hospital bed. The discomfort on his progeny's face reminds him of the blasé industriousness of the ICU staff, if only by contrasting it. He remembers his wife, and he's not sure he wants to live anymore. Thirty years is such an awful long time to miss someone.
Whereas some lose religion upon catastrophe, he slowly found it. While he won't begrudge the true believers their ardent worship, the teeming crowds consuming food in the aftermath of service are the real draw. He loves certain persons and hates people; the screaming children in Sunday School sound like shells knelling nocturnes in the North Atlantic; the Nor’easter dusting muck on the streets feels like the sea before the rescue; the priest's haunted eyes on the parishioners like spotlights sweeping the water clean of sailors. The Bible in his hand is too heavy, the hope too impossible, and he places it back behind the pew with a relieved sigh. The service takes a lifetime, but it numbs his heart and kills the pain.
His son takes a seat at the dinner table. Faces stare at him or around him, all seeing, none remembering. Two sons and a daughter, two kids more than at Thanksgiving, the majority paying lip-service during Grace. He worries that his daughter resents him; since finding God, she resents most things remaining from her earlier life. They make eye-contact, and she quickly breaks it, glancing to a brother; they make eye-contract, and she severs that just as quickly. The man looks to his wife, knowing there's no remnant within her of the person he married. Since her affair, he had slowly, quietly, determinedly rebuilt himself; what affection that was left smelled repugnant, like a rotting carcass in the sweltering July sun, but he needed her. He didn't know why, but he did, and he secretly hated her for it. Sometimes not so secretly. His daughter turns twenty-one in February; that demon turns seven a week later. No one knows it, but at midnight, on the anniversary of knowing, he sneaks into himself a fifth of brandy. Drunk and depressed, he hides in the basement, turns on the TV to any channel, buries his head in his hands, and cries. Seven years is such a long time to hate someone you love.
The younger of the grandsons plays with his food. Carefully, and thus lovingly, he presses his fork into his pliant mashed potatoes, scraping them and sculpting them into a miniature mountain range. He is passed the gravy and delicately pours on snowcaps, a slow smile spreading across his face. His brother across from him cocks an eyebrow in conspiratorial amusement; the Alps? he mouths, his posture inquisitive. The artist gives him a surreptitious nod. Add climbers. Considering the suggestion entirely germane, a small party of corn kernels finds a home on the slopes. Barely maintaining a straight face, his brother whispers, Nice work. The younger glances up to find his aunt frowning at him; she has grown old quickly, early, and too unrepentantly. Like some deity in a culinary world, he levels his mountains and begins to eat.
He doesn't say much, really, but just silently goes about the business of eating. A spoonful there, a forkful there, mouthful after mouthful, and it all felt meaningless to the moment. His parents worry about him, he thinks, and he doesn't know what he can do to alleviate their fears. Smiling, he listens to his brother's story about grad school. Inwardly, he knows he'll never be that successful. Only grateful. He promises himself to never stop being grateful. Putting a slice of spiced ham into his mouth, he stargazes around the table at the galaxy in which he lives; stars, as if a dream.
After dinner, when night has fallen like an atomic bomb, he steps onto the patio and gratefully breathes in the frigid radiation. He is lonely, but so is his father, and his mother, and his grandfather. A lot of people are lonely, and he tells himself this; it helps make him less alone. The cigar in his mouth ashes into his own eyes as the wind hits him. He cries a little, only partially sincere. Without removing the cigar, he drinks a beer through the corner of his mouth. A nice beer, a Christmas beer; he is his father, but too early. The hushed conversation in the house escapes the windows in scraps of whispers; the world likes to present itself in scraps of whispers, he thought, and he finished his beer. The fifteen year-old thermometer that occasionally works hung on the screen wall. Twenty-two, like his age. He laughed a little, only partially sincere. Will ice thaw when he turns thirty-two? Will June only come once he turns seventy?
Seventy years is such a long time to wait for summer.