I have decided that I would like to post the stories from my collection, Kindred Spirits, on my blog over the next couple of week. I intend on posting everything from the collection, but it is also available as an ebook for Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Smashwords, as well as in print via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and CreateSpace.
A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.
…Continued from Part Five…
The prior Christmas Eve was cold but dry. Joyce put on her coat for their short walk to Bruno’s for his yearly feast. “So, this will be my big chance to meet this character you’ve been telling me about.”
Alex likewise put on his coat. “Yes, it is. You might be thinking I’m exaggerating, but I can say without fear of contradiction that he is everything you may be hoping for. There’s no ceiling for how awful this guy can be.”
“I guess Bruno has as good taste in friends as he does in women, present company excluded.”
“Ha, ha, yeah. Well, we can only hope his relationship with this baboon is as short lived as with some of his bimbos.”
“Now, Alex. You know I don’t like it when you call them bimbos.”
They headed outside, and Alex locked the door behind them and twisted the handle to ensure he had indeed done so.
“OK, sure, I can’t call them bimbos, but I’ll have you know your ‘them’ is very telling. It’s almost like saying those people.”
“That’s an entirely different thing.” Joyce smiled as they began their block and a half stroll to Bruno’s place, the lights of which were noticeable the moment they turned in that direction. Going to Bruno’s for Christmas Eve dinner had become a tradition of sorts for Alex and Joyce. For most of their married life, they spent their holidays with Joyce’s brother Ken, his wife Gloria, and their four children. After they moved to Denver to be closer to Gloria’s family, Alex and Joyce visited a few times but had decided to stay closer to home in more recent years.
“Speaking of those people, what do you think she’ll be like this time? At the rate Bruno is going, he’s probably dating one of Jenny’s college classmates.”
Joyce slapped him playfully. “We’ve talked about this before, darling. He does have a pattern. Right after the divorce, Claire, remember? She was 55. Then came Elaine, probably around 50. Then his Christmas party of 1998. What was her name? Mildred? We figured she was 45. Last year it was Kimberly. Bruno was certain to point out that she was a young 41. Every year, he goes down about five years, so this one should be in her mid-thirties.”
“And she shouldn’t be one of those people.”
“What are you on about?”
“Claire was fine, right? But that Elaine, she was a kook. Mildred was nice. We liked Mildred. We were pulling for Mildred. But that Kimberly. Remember? The fake lopsided boobs? And all that makeup? He alternates. This one should be on the ball.”
Joyce laughed, a laugh that still made Alex’s heart jump. “Where does he find them?”
The Paulines, back when Sandra was still around, were always a couple who decorated with enthusiasm. But since Sandra’s departure, Bruno took his decorating to a new level. It was, as Bruno explained one time to Alex, a fuck you to his ex-wife, who, apparently, reigned in a significant portion of Bruno’s Christmas cheer, despite the evidence suggesting that said cheer was already fairly unhinged. When Alex pointed out that Sandra had since moved to California and would never see his display, Bruno countered that he, Bruno, knew he was exacting revenge and that was all that mattered.
His process of decorating was performed in stages, with the lawn ornaments being the final step with plastic figures staged, and, if necessary, inflated, on Christmas Eve in honor of his yearly get together. Among the oversize Nativity scene, the illuminated snowmen, and bedecked pine trees, which Alex suspected Bruno planted specifically with Christmas in mind, an inflated adult bear hugged an inflated cub from behind, which, when the wind blew, danced in a way that could only be described as disturbing.
Joyce pointed to the inflated Santa standing cheerfully within an inflated snow globe. A small motor whirred, circulating fake snow within the globe. “Maybe next year, we should decorate with such vigor. We make assumptions without giving it a try. Maybe we’re really missing out on something.”
“I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that covering our lawn with plastic wouldn’t do much for us. It’s like Jeremiah Allen’s sold off everything in their Christmas show and Bruno scooped it all up and put it in his yard.”
“As I recall, their show was a little classier than this.”
“What, the fluorescent nativity scene with the baby Jesus sucking on a flickering candy cane isn’t classy?”
“I’ll give it some consideration.”
They climbed onto Bruno’s porch. Alex rang the bell and squinted over his shoulder. “Jesus, the glow.”
Bruno welcomed them and took their coats. Alex wore black dress pants, white shirt, gray suit coat and black and red checkered tie. That was about as festive as he liked to dress. Joyce was in a simple green dress with a necklace with an understated holly leaf dangling from the end. She had aged, Alex thought proudly, like a French actress, remaining thin and subtly elegant throughout her years. She never colored her hair, and he found her gradual progression to white endearing. Although she still had a few blond hairs, he could only see them up close. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he would turn on a light to read but would often take a moment to touch her hair and lean in close to find the blond ones.
Sometimes, he regretted not paying much attention to his looks. He wanted to be handsome for her but couldn’t summon the skills and the attention to do so. His doctor recommended diet kept him thin, but no one would exactly mistake him for an aging French actor or even an Italian one at that.
Bruno quickly disappeared their coats and came back with a woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, attractive but not overly so. Sandy blond hair, pleasant figure, easy smile. She and Bruno wore matching green cardigans, his over a white dress shirt and Santa Claus tie and hers over a cream dress with a low neckline. Joyce looked at Alex and smiled.
“Alex and Joyce, this is Judy. Judy is a real estate agent. She just opened up her own business.”
Alex looked at Joyce and smiled.
In addition to Alex and Joyce, Bruno invited his next door neighbors, Gretchen and Bill Gibson, and Bruno’s sister, Marie, and her daughter, Jenny. Marie was a couple of years younger than Bruno and could have passed as his twin, or, as Alex amused himself by thinking, Bruno in drag. Marie’s husband passed away the same year Bruno and Sandra broke up. A rough year for the Pauline family, but those events brought Bruno, Marie and Jenny closer. Alex was impressed with how supportive Bruno was of his sister and niece.
A few minutes after Alex and Joyce arrived, the bell rang again.
“Oh boy,” Joyce said. “This could be the big moment.”
“Remember. Keep those expectations low.”
Bruno answered the door and two attractive women, one in her mid-fifties and one about twenty walked in followed by Charlie King. This was the first time Alex got to meet Charlie’s wife, Nadine, and their daughter, Zoë. Nadine stripped her coat to reveal a simple black dress with a candy cane broach. Alex was happy to see someone else wearing black although Nadine’s attire spoke more to elegance rather than from not having much to choose from. Even in her fifties, she was a knock-out in her classic black dress, which contrasted her bright red, wavy hair and flattered her still fit body. Nadine had a twinkle in her eye and a bright, inviting smile. Alex wondered what transpired in the past to make Nadine fall for such a man as Charlie King or what perhaps made a once lovable fellow into the crude slob Alex was forced to endure.
Zoë wore a miniskirt and spaghetti strap top that showed off her young and well-toned body in defiance of the cold season. The moment Bruno had her coat, Zoë took off to the kitchen to find Jenny and, Alex presumed, to get as far away from her father as possible.
Unlike his wife’s elegance and his daughter’s comfortable young look, Charlie removed his coat to reveal a bulky, seemingly hand-knitted Christmas sweater. The sweater was sectioned off in quadrants: one for a candy cane against a red background, one for a snowman against blue, one for a Santa Claus against white, and one for a Christmas tree against light green. That a hefty man such as King, who already had a preternatural knack for sweating, would wear such a heavy sweater was an act of foolishness or perhaps unthinking devotion to the family member who crafted it.
Bruno’s parties were long, drawn out affairs as he insisted on maintaining his family’s traditional feast of the seven fishes. It was a lot of work for one man, but he attacked the task with gusto and it was quite a feat considering that he spent a good portion of the day setting up the fiasco on his front lawn and that he has a predilection for hitting the holiday cocktails early.
Alex and Joyce, who rarely separated at such get-togethers, usually migrated toward Gretchen and Bill, who they only spoke to two or three times a year when they crossed paths at Bruno’s. Alex found them boring but harmless. In their early-forties, they both worked for some pharmaceutical company out in the far suburbs in some office park off of I-95. Bill had explained what they did several times, but Alex was unable to retain that information out of a lack of interest. All he remembered was that they worked more in the business and/or administrative end of things and not in the potentially more compelling scientific and/or research realm.
Out of habit, Alex started heading toward them, but Joyce grabbed his arm. “I think it would be nice to get to know your new friends.”
“Charlie and Nadine. Let’s go talk to them.” Joyce pointed toward the Christmas tree by which they were standing.
“OK, if you’re willing to risk ruining your Christmas Eve.”
“I always have found your hyperbole charming.”
“It’s not hyperbole if it’s nearly true.”
As they walked over, Judy swooped in and handed them each a glass of sparkling wine and then darted back toward the kitchen.
“We were just commenting on the tree,” Nadine said as they approached.
“How could you not?” Alex asked. “We can hear Bruno’s electric meter from our place.”
Nadine laughed. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it, possibly because I can’t look at anything like it without hurting my eyes.”
“We had to wear sunglasses walking over here,” Alex said. “Sunglasses in December of all the crazy things.”
“Did you really?” Nadine paused. “Oh, you nearly had me there.” Nadine smiled and touched his arm, making him wonder more about this odd pair.
Bruno spread out his feast over a couple courses while people were mingling and then served the rest at the table. Judy came by with their first course: oyster shooters. There were nine on the tray. They each took one and Judy waited for them to consume theirs so she could take the glasses. Alex had never been fond of the sensation of eating oysters and appreciated not only Bruno’s updated version of the tradition but also his heavy hand with the horseradish and vodka.
Charlie raised the glass to his lips, exhaled audibly, and then noisily schlupped the concoction down. Alex couldn’t imagine making that much noise eating anything even if he tried, especially eating something that did not even need to be chewed.
Alex wiped his mouth with his finger and handed Judy his glass. After she had all four, she danced off.
“Where’d the lady go with the rest of them?” Charlie asked.
“To serve the other guests,” Nadine said.
“What? We only get one?”
“There will be seven courses, my love. We need to pace ourselves.”
“Peanuts.” Charlie folded his arms across his chest the best he could.
Nadine turned to Joyce. “Do you two come here every year?”
“We’ve been here the last three years, I think. 1997 was the last time we went to Ken and Gloria’s. Ken’s my brother. He and his wife used to live in the area, but they moved to Denver in 1992. Wow, I can’t believe it was so long ago already. They moved out there to be with Gloria’s family. She’s originally from Denver.”
Judy came back with a plate of fried smelts. They each took one except for Alex who abided by his doctor’s orders against eating fried food, not so much in deference to his doctor but as an excuse to avoid a food he didn’t like all that much.
“I think the first time we were here for Christmas Eve was the year before Bruno and Sandra broke up.” Alex winced as Charlie performed abstract jazz while masticating his smelt. Alex was surprised that Charlie liked food as much as he professed, making, as he did, the process sound like a painful ordeal.
“Charlie has passed along stories about her. She sounded like a real pistol,” Nadine said.
“She was and that Christmas Eve was quite the night,” Joyce said.
Alex lowered his voice, leaned in closer and pushed his glasses up his nose. “They were at each other’s throats all evening. We kept making excuses to leave, but Bruno would have none of that until we ate all his damn courses, and, as you probably know, he can be very persuasive. So, there a few of us were, trying to eat, scared to leave and the two of them arguing. At one point, they stormed off into the bedroom. A few minutes later, we heard Sandra screaming. We’re thinking, he’s, I don’t know, knocking her around or something, although, despite everything, that doesn’t seem like Bruno.” Alex pointed to Joyce. “Anyway, this one calls the cops while me and our neighbor Bill went into the bedroom.”
Joyce interrupted. “You sneaked over, cracked the door open a bit and peeked in.”
Alex looked at Joyce. “We did more than that, but, anyway, there they were having sex. Sex on Christmas Eve with a house full of people.”
Nadine laughed. “Scandalous.”
“I’ll never be able to get that image out of my head. I made eye contact with one of them and I’m not saying which one. Eye contact, I’m telling you.”
Nadine squealed. “Oh my goodness. Not to worry, I’ll never ask.”
“That’s obscene and rude, is what that is,” Charlie said. His comment surprised Alex given some of the unsavory things he had heard him say.
Joyce picked up the story. “Then I had to explain to the police our mistake. Luckily, they just laughed and didn’t arrest me for filing a false report. And, then, a few months later, they were divorced. We had been going out to Colorado for a few Christmases but stayed local that year. But after that, let me tell you, we went back to Denver. Oh, those visits were so fun. Ken and Gloria have four kids and Gloria has three siblings who have kids as well, so it’s always a big, fun, noisy affair.”
“And zero sex on the part of our hosts,” Alex said.
“Think of the children,” Nadine giggled. “Anyway, we go to my sister’s tomorrow and there will be like 25 people there. So, yes, I know all about big, fun, noisy affairs. What are you two doing tomorrow?”
“Oh, just having a quiet Christmas with the two of us,” Joyce said. “Ken and Gloria were our only family in the area. My sister, Betty, passed away a couple of years ago and I was never that fond of her husband, so we don’t keep in touch. Alex is an only child, so we only really have Ken and Gloria.”
“We really only have my family as well. Charlie has several brothers and sisters, but he only talks to his two older brothers about once a year. He’s fighting with his younger brother, Doug, and his other younger siblings are significantly younger, so they don’t keep in touch.”
“That’s too bad,” Joyce said.
“It is what it is,” Charlie said.
Joyce put her hand on Alex’s arm. “After a few years of going to Denver, this one started getting fearful about traveling in the winter, so we try and get out there during the summer, usually around the 4th of July.”
“That’s just not the same,” Nadine said.
“Fearful is a bit strong,” Alex said. “It just makes sense. There’s less to go wrong traveling in the summer. It snows in the winter, you know. Nothing eases one’s fear of flying like a beautiful clear day.”
“I’m hoping to be able to retire in a couple of years,” Joyce said. “Then we’ll have more flexibility about when we can travel and how long we can go away for.”
“Sounds like you two should just move to Denver.”
Alex laughed. “And, what? Miss these splendid Christmas Eve parties?”
“I know,” Joyce said. “Whatever would we do without them?”
Bruno called everyone into the dining room. It was a tight fit, but all eleven managed to squeeze around the table. Alex sat between Joyce and Gretchen and directly across from Charlie who was between Nadine and Zoë. Zoë sat next to Jenny who sat next to her mother. Bruno sat at the head.
Charlie leaned over to whisper to Nadine, but Charlie was incapable of speaking softly, so Alex had no trouble overhearing. “I hope he’s more generous with dinner. I mean, one shooter? One of that weird fried fish? I kept waiting for her to come back with more.”
Nadine patted him on the arm. “Let it go, Charlie. They were just appetizers. I’m sure there’s no need to worry. There are still five courses left and Bruno doesn’t seem the type to let us go home hungry.”
Alex looked at Joyce for some reaction, but she didn’t look his way having just asked Nadine something Alex didn’t catch. Joyce and Nadine were getting along which evoked a certain level of consternation. The last thing he needed was to have his wife, in addition to Bruno, bond with the Kings.
Judy came by with more wine and filled everyone’s glasses.
Bruno sat at the head of the table with Judy to his right and Marie to his left. He raised his glass and everyone did the same.
“I want to thank you all for being here tonight and help continue the Pauline tradition of a festive Christmas Eve. I’m so thankful for you all and wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Everyone responded with their own “Merry Christmas” and clinked their glasses against as many others as they could reach. They all started putting their glasses down, but Bruno wasn’t done.
“And since I may not see many of you before the New Year, I just want to wish you all a happy and healthy and blessed year.” He reached out with his other hand and grabbed Marie’s. “I know my family has been through a lot the past few years and as the new millennium really begins, I’m feeling optimistic about 2001. Cheers!”
Alex was a bit annoyed that Bruno made mention of the beginning of the new millennium. They had had arguments about whether the new millennium began in 2000 or 2001 and Alex held that the latter was true, but Bruno was adamant about the former. Somewhere along the line Bruno changed his stance but never gave Alex any credit for being right.
The meal then began in earnest. Bruno and Judy got up from the table to serve everyone shrimp cocktails generously loaded with seven shrimp each, followed by a healthy portion of scungilli salad, which garnered a not so whispered “what the hell is this?” from Charlie. In between each course, either Bruno or Judy would come around to make sure that everyone’s wine glass was full, even Jenny’s and Zoë’s.
Next, codfish balls served in a tomato sauce. At a normal event, that would have been plenty of food, but Bruno’s Christmas Eve was no normal event. Bruno and Judy produced a big bowl of linguine and clam sauce and another one of linguine with calamari in red sauce. Given his dietary restrictions, Alex seriously appreciated this feast. His doctor told him he could eat all the seafood he wanted. Alex was certain this wasn’t what his doctor had in mind, but Alex was willing to deceive himself for one night. Dessert, as always, was cannoli from that bakery down in the city, washed down with shots of Sambuca.
After the party was over and Alex and Joyce were walking home, Joyce took Alex’s gloved hand in hers. They were both a little drunk and sleepy. “Promise me something?”
“That next Christmas, we’ll go back to Ken and Gloria’s. I miss it so much.”
Alex smiled a weak smile. “We can talk about it.”
Joyce stopped. “No, Alex. This is important to me. I miss those big Christmases with my family. Their kids aren’t getting any younger. We’re missing some of their best years.”
Alex could see she was on the verge of tears. “OK. I promise. Next year, we’ll go to Ken and Gloria’s.”
Joyce kissed him on the cheek and they continued their short walk home, Joyce smiling more and more with each step.
A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.