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.

A line of vehicles was parked the length of the long, switchbacking, freshly plowed driveway to Sheila and Bud’s new house at the broad crest of the hill. Harold pulled his pickup into a cleared spot close to the mailbox, got out, and walked slowly up the driveway between two rows of shuddering white pines. It was close to four thirty in the afternoon, and the sun was setting behind the snow-covered mountains. The invitation had said the Christmas party ran from three to six, so he figured he was not too early, not too late.

As he trudged past the parked cars and pickup trucks he recognized most of them. Nearly everyone at the party would be a friend or neighbor. He never knew what to say to strangers, especially at social events, so was comforted. But he knew that nearly everyone attending the party would be checking out how he and Sheila and Bud behaved together in public, and that annoyed him. Well, let them. Sheila and Bud hadn’t invited him to their Christmas party because they wanted a confrontation, and he hadn’t accepted their invitation because he was still angry at them. People move on. What’s over is over and done with. The past is past. That’s what this party is all about, he thought.

At the top of the hill the driveway straightened and led to the two-car garage below the house proper and the wide deck and huge brook-stone fireplace chimney and the soaring glass-fronted living room. Harold stopped for a moment and, breathing hard, took it all in: the snowy meadow, the woodsmoke curling from the chimney, the high-peaked roof and floor-to-ceiling two-story windows facing the mountains. Rose-colored light from the setting sun behind him bounced off the front of the house and tinted the snowy field and snow-draped firs at the edge of the field.

He was looking at Sheila’s dream house, the house he knew she had always wanted, which he would never have been able to give her. He was an excavator, that’s all. A guy who dug holes for people who were contractors, people like Bud Lincoln, who were smarter and better educated than he, who knew how to negotiate and estimate cost and profit, who could talk easily to people and turn them from strangers into clients. All Harold Bilodeau knew was how to run machines that dug foundations and trenches. He had started out in high school, buying a used lawn mower at a yard sale and mowing his neighbors’ lawns and shoveling their walks in winter, and had gone on to borrow his father’s tractor and cut people’s fields and meadows and plow their driveways, and after graduation he had bought a used backhoe on time and a few years later a ten-year-old bulldozer and a flatbed trailer and got the artist Paul Matthews to make him a sign, harold bilodeau, excavating. The sign was yellow, like a highway-department sign, and had a black silhouette of a backhoe on it that Harold liked enough to have tattooed on his left shoulder. At first Sheila had thought the tattoo was sexy, but after a while she had decided it was ugly and cheap and told him he ought to get it removed, which he had been planning on doing when he found out about her and Bud. After that he had decided to keep the tattoo.

He walked up the outside stairway from the driveway to the front deck and entered the crowded living room through the sliding glass door. People smiled and nodded at him, but their attention was on the Christmas tree in the far corner of the room, a ten-foot-tall blue spruce, heavily decorated and all lit up.

Harold stood by the door for a moment getting his bearings. Finally he shrugged out of his parka, found a pile of coats behind one of the sofas, and dropped it there. He made his way to the long table against the wall that had been set up as a bar and asked the pretty kid tending it for a beer.

She said, “Sure, Harold, but you can have whatever you want. They got hard stuff. Eggnog, even, with bourbon in it.”

He said a Pabst would do fine. The girl worked part-time as a waitress at Baxter’s, and he wished he could remember her name, but he didn’t know how to ask her for it without seeming like he was hitting on her. She had a tattoo of a thorny rosebush on her arm that disappeared under the sleeve of her black T-shirt and reappeared with a bud just below her ear. She’d probably like his backhoe tattoo if he showed it to her.

Sheila was beside him. She was wearing a red dress with a bow on one shoulder that reminded Harold of a valentine. She kissed him on the cheek, which surprised him. She had never kissed him on the cheek before, or anyone else that he could remember. She said, “You’re almost too late to help decorate the tree. We’re practically finished except for the star at the top. What’d you bring for a decoration?”

“I guess I forgot. I mean, I didn’t know.” She looked like she was putting on some weight—a bit thicker through the face and shoulders and waist. Or maybe it was the red dress. He felt his chest tighten and his arms grow heavy. She was still beautiful to him, and she was growing older, and he wasn’t going to be able to watch it happen, except from a distance.

“It was on the invitation, Harold. We’re starting a tradition,” she said. “Next Christmas we’ll fill a box with all these decorations for people to pick from and take home for their own trees, and we’ll put up a whole new set. It’s like recycling. Except for the star on top. That stays. It’s from Bud’s family. Look, aren’t some of these great?” She pointed out carved wooden animals, gingerbread men with M&Ms for eyes and coat buttons, delicate glass bells and balls, large and small candy canes, tin Santa Clauses, plaster angels, and birds with real feathers.

“So where’s Bud?” Harold asked, looking around the room.

“Getting a stepladder from the garage. To put up the star.”

“Say, by the way, congratulations.”

“For . . . ?”

She wasn’t looking at him and was about to step away in the direction of a red-faced couple in matching ski jackets who had just come through the door—summer people, he noted, up for the holidays to ski at Whiteface and go to parties.

“I heard you got a new baby,” Harold said. “Adopted a baby. Congratulations.”

“He’s fabulous! So handsome and so smart! Oh, there’s Bud!” she said as tall, blond, smiling Bud Lincoln eased his stepladder through the crowd that had gathered around the Christmas tree. He opened the ladder legs and climbed the first three steps awkwardly, carrying in one hand a large, gold-plated five-pointed star and in the other a plastic cup half-filled with eggnog. Sheila left Harold’s side and made her way to the ladder, grabbing its sides to steady it for her husband. A couple of people near the tree laughed and shouted for Bud to be careful. Bud laughed back and told them not to worry, he had everything under control.

Harold set down his can of beer on a side table and found himself edging away from the crowd, backing toward the sliding glass door, and then he was standing outside on the deck, coatless, shivering from the cold, watching Bud slowly reach with star in hand toward the spindly top of the tree. He lifted the star over the last few limbs and hooked it properly in place, then turned and raised his arms in triumph. Everyone applauded. Sheila let go of the ladder and clapped with them.

At that moment, to Harold, she looked very happy. She was proud of her husband, of her fabulous, handsome, smart new baby, of her beautiful house. Proud of her life. There was a light emanating from her face that Harold had never seen before.

It came to him that he had left the room and stepped out onto the deck because he had hoped that Bud would fall from the ladder and the goddamned overloaded Christmas tree would come crashing down with him. He might have broken a leg or an arm. He would have been humiliated. Harold had wanted it to happen, had even expected it. It would have been the perfect ending to his story of betrayal and abandonment, especially if he’d been able to watch it from a safe distance, out here on the deck alone.

It was dark now, except for the cold light of the moon blanketing the snow-covered slope below. Harold knew that no one inside the bright, warm living room could see him out here. He wore only a flannel shirt and fleece vest against the December night. His breath drifted from his mouth like smoke, and he wished he’d grabbed his parka when he’d left the living room, but there was no way he could retrieve it now without people noticing that he was leaving the party early. People would think that he wasn’t over her, that he hadn’t moved on in his life, that he was angry at Bud and angry at Sheila too. And jealous, maybe envious, of their new house and their adopted African baby. And hurt that he was still hurt by her and couldn’t accept that she was happy in her brightly lit new life.

He walked to the north corner of the house, where the deck continued past a den or guest bedroom. Like the living room, it was lined with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. Looking through them, he saw the crib and an overflowing toy chest and animal pictures on the wall and knew that it was the new baby’s room. He recognized the babysitter sitting in a rocking chair in the corner with an open schoolbook in her lap; she was one of the architect Nils Luderoski’s two teenage daughters, he wasn’t sure which. Luderoski must have designed the house, Harold thought. Luderoski was expensive. Harold had never been hired to work on a building he’d designed. The blueprints had probably had the word nursery written on this room from the start.

The glass door was unlocked, and when he slid it open he startled the girl. She looked up wide-eyed, then recognized him and cautiously said hi.

“Your dad design this house?” he said, smiling and closing the door behind him, as if finishing the tour.

She nodded and put a finger against her lips, tilting her head toward the crib.

He crossed the room to the crib and looked down, expecting the baby to be asleep, but he was wide awake, on his back, looking intently up at a brightly colored mobile suspended from a metal arm clamped to the headboard. He didn’t seem at all interested in the man staring down at him. Harold had never seen an African baby before, except on television. Sheila was right, her new baby was very handsome. He reached down and slid his hands under the baby’s body and lifted him gently from the crib.

The Luderoski girl said, “Better not do that, Mr. Bilodeau.” She put her book down, stood up, and walked toward him, her hands extended to take the baby from him. “Mrs. Lincoln wants him to sleep. He has trouble falling asleep.”

They were singing Christmas carols in the living room now. He could hear the slow, muted strains of thirty or forty adults singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Holding the baby close to his chest, he turned away from the girl and moved toward the glass door. “What’s his name?”

“They’re calling him Menelik. The name he had in the orphanage. In Ethiopia,” she said. “Better give him to me now, Mr. Bilodeau.”

Harold held the baby in the crook of his right arm. With his free hand he grabbed the blanket from the foot of the crib. He carefully wrapped it around the baby, leaving only his shining face exposed. As if he were used to being held by strangers, the baby stared up at the man, unafraid and incurious.

“Hello, Menelik,” the man said.

From behind him, her voice rising in fear, the girl said, “He needs to go back in his crib.”

Harold slid the outer door open, and cold air and darkness rushed into the room.

“What are you doing?” the girl said. Moving quickly, she placed herself between Harold and the open door and grabbed the baby away from him. “You better go back outside,” she said. She stood facing him with the baby in her arms, and he stepped around her onto the deck, and she drew the door shut behind him. He heard the click of the lock.

He walked slowly around to the front of the house, opened the door there, and entered the living room as if he had never left it. No one seemed to notice his return any more than they had noticed his departure. They were all standing around the beautifully decorated Christmas tree singing “Silent Night.”

He walked over to the bar and asked the girl with the tattoo for another beer. She flashed him a smile and fished a can of Pabst from the cooler and passed it to him. She wished him a merry Christmas.

He said, “Same to you.” He took a slow sip of the cold beer. “I forgot to bring something for the tree.”

She said, “That’s okay. They got more than enough.”

“Tell me your name,” Harold said. “I know it, but I forgot.”

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

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