Story — From the December 2012 issue

Christmas Party

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Harold Bilodeau’s ex-wife, Sheila, remarried, and Harold did not, and though he told people there was a woman down in Saratoga Springs he was seeing on the occasional weekend, he was not. The divorce had been, as they say, amicable. She’d had an affair and fallen in love with Bud Lincoln, Harold’s good friend and their Hurricane Road neighbor, and Harold soon realized there was no way he could prevail against it.

“We married too young, Harold and me. Right out of high school, practically, for God’s sake,” she explained.

People in Keene understood.

“I guess love happens,” Harold told folks, and shrugged. “Can’t fight it.”

People respected him for his quiet acceptance of his wife’s love for another man.

Keene is a village in the Adirondack mountains in northern New York with barely a thousand year-round residents, most of whom keep careful track of the births, deaths, marriages, and divorces that occur among them. They monitor remarriages too, especially when both parties are longtime residents of the town and continue, after the dissolution of their previous marriages, to live there, as both Harold and Sheila Bilodeau had done. Bud Lincoln had not been previously married and lived in his parents’ house, but until he took up with Harold’s wife he had been regarded in town as a “good catch,” so people watched him anyway.

After the divorce, Harold bought out Sheila’s interest in their double-wide on Hurricane Road and lived in it alone with their three dogs and two cats—all mixed-breed rescues from the North Country Animal Shelter—and the half dozen chickens, and the Angora goat.

That was three years ago, and now Sheila and Bud had been married for two of those years. While the two men were no longer close friends, they frequently ran into each other at the post office or gassing their trucks at Stewart’s or grabbing coffee at the Noon Mark Diner, and there appeared to be no lingering hard feelings between them. Harold seldom saw Sheila in town, but when he did she was friendly and full of chat, and he, in his taciturn way, reciprocated.

Bud Lincoln was a building contractor, and he had built for Sheila a splendid three-bedroom, solar-heated house with mountain views, up on Irish Hill. In spite of how friendly everyone had been since the divorce, Harold was not surprised when back in October he was not invited to their housewarming party. In fact he was almost grateful not to have been invited. It meant he didn’t have to decide whether to attend or stay home.

But when in mid-December he opened a printed invitation to Sheila and Bud’s Christmas party, he was surprised and almost displeased. It meant he’d have to admit to himself that the divorce and Sheila’s remarriage still stung his heart, and he’d have to invent an excuse for declining the invitation, or else he’d have to test his ongoing pain against the new reality and attend the party. He’d have to act like an old family friend or a distant cousin, something more than merely a neighbor and less than a cuckolded, abandoned ex-husband.

Help us decorate our tree! the invitation said. Bring a decoration! It was from Sheila & Bud Lincoln. So she had taken Bud’s last name, just as she had once taken Harold’s.

Sheila and Bud Lincoln had built their new high-tech log house expressly to establish and celebrate their marriage. It was more than a fresh start; it was a repudiation of the past. Her past, especially. It made a simple case of adultery and divorce into a story about true love and marriage. To Sheila, her decadelong, childless life with Harold was now a closed book with no inner links to her and Bud’s present and future.

Nor was the divorce itself part of their story. Otherwise they wouldn’t have stayed in Keene and built themselves a fancy new house on Irish Hill, barely three miles from Harold’s place. They wouldn’t have adopted an orphaned baby from Ethiopia, big news in an otherwise all-white, all-American town. And they wouldn’t have invited Harold to their Christmas party, which they hoped to make an annual event. That was her story. And Bud’s.

To Harold, however, Sheila was the past that wouldn’t stop bleeding into his present and, as far as he could see, his future too. Nearly every night, as he slept alone in the queen-size waterbed they’d shared since they first bought the double-wide, she appeared in his dreams, looking the same as when they went to Montreal on their honeymoon, a smiling blond swirl of a girl who adored him for his quiet, stoical ways.

Now every morning, before heading to the garage for his truck, when he fed the dogs and cats, the chickens and the goat—creatures they’d acquired at her urging, not his, and that she, not he, had fed and cared for—he had visions of Sheila setting out the pans, casting the corn, filling the bins, gathering eggs in the morning sun with her long, tanned hands, and he ached all over again with the pain of knowing that she’d wanted the animals because he couldn’t get her pregnant.

They had tried every possible solution, from old wives’ folk remedies to in vitro fertilization. Nothing worked. He had even gone through the embarrassment of having his sperm counted. No problem there, apparently, which relieved him somewhat, but only because it narrowed the potential sources of the problem by 50 percent.

It did not relieve Sheila, however. She could no longer blame Harold’s body. She had to blame her own. One by one, month after month, she crossed off the list the possible causes of her body’s inability to conceive a child: ovarian cysts, pelvic infection or tumor, blocked fallopian tubes. None of these. Until finally, after being examined by a female gynecologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy, she was told that her uterus was scarred, perhaps from a burst appendix when she was fifteen. The chances of her ever conceiving were pretty much nil.

By now sex had become a self-conscious chore for both of them, an obligation with a defunct purpose. They ceased making love altogether. Then one spring afternoon, while Harold was down in the valley excavating the foundation for the new Keene firehouse, Bud Lincoln dropped by their place to borrow Harold’s backhoe for one of his jobs, and Sheila had sex with Bud for the first time.

The affair continued and intensified for nearly a year, and on a dark February night Harold found himself drinking late up at Baxter Mountain Tavern, idly watching a Rangers game that wasn’t carried by his home satellite service. Harold had played serious hockey in high school and was a Rangers fan and rarely missed a televised game. One of Bud Lincoln’s old girlfriends, Sally Hart, was tending bar that night. There were no other customers, and the owner, Dave Deyo, had gone home early, so Sally shut off the outside lights and poured herself a rum and coke and took a stool at the bar next to Harold.

The subject of Sally Hart’s ex-boyfriend came up. Harold said, “What’s with ol’ Bud, anyhow? I haven’t seen him up here in months. He avoiding me? Or you?” He laughed to show he wasn’t serious.

In the two years since Sally and Bud had split up, she had gone through two subsequent boyfriends and was five months pregnant by the third, whom she planned to marry. For sure, Bud wasn’t avoiding her. “Me and him are still pals. You, though,” she said, “different story there, Harold.”

“Whaddaya mean, different story?”

She hesitated, then said, “Look, honey, I hate to be the one to say it, but somebody’s got to. When you leave here, I’m supposed to text Bud so he knows.”

“Why?”

She exhaled loudly and looked up at the TV. “All my choices always seem to be bad choices.” She was silent for a moment. “I don’t know. I guess it’s so you won’t run into him when you get home, Harold.”

He didn’t say anything. He put down his beer, paid his bill, and zipped up his parka. The hockey game was almost over. The Rangers were down three. When he got to the door he turned and said, “You might as well send Bud that text now, Sally. I don’t want to run into him any more than he wants to run into me.”

When Harold got home Bud was gone. He stood at the open door and told his wife what he had learned at Baxter’s. Sheila sighed and said she had fallen in love with Bud. And it was more serious than just an affair. She said she would have his child if she could.

He said, “Sounds like there’s no turning back now. Sounds like you’re planning a whole different life, Sheila.”

She said, “That’s right.”

She packed a single suitcase and drove her rusted-out old Honda to Bud’s apartment in his parents’ house down in the valley. Harold did not contest the divorce. He didn’t contest anything.

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is the author, most recently, of the novel <em>Lost Memory of Skin</em> (Ecco/HarperCollins).

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