Story — From the December 2012 issue

Christmas Party

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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.

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

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