Madeline glanced over at Savannah’s face and thought: “it’s slumped. Her very face is slumped, not just her body. I did not know such a thing was possible.” Not only that, but she managed to radiate jaw-clenched, seething malcontent like waves carrying forth from a gigantic ocean liner. It was impossible to be in the room, which was quite large, and not know the intense level of her well-broadcast suffering.
Madeline’s phone rang in the other room. When she saw the name on her caller ID, she walked to the back of the house to answer. “Hi,” she said.
“Don’t tell anyone that it’s me. Please. Please, Maddie.” Billie’s voice was so soft, so nearly not there at all.
“What’s going on, Billie? How are you?”
Billie cried quietly on the other end of the line for quite a while. “I am so sorry, Maddie. So so sorry. I’ve let everybody down. Again. I’ve let everybody down again.”
“Everybody wants you here,” was Madeline’s first lie. “But everybody understands,” was her second.
Billie’s gentle crying turned to great, racking sobs; she audibly snorted the torrent of liquid that poured from her nose. “I just can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.”
“Are you OK, Billie? Are you someplace safe?”
“I can’t I can’t I can’t. I’m so so sorry.”
“Your sister is worried about you. Can you call her? Or text her? Can you text Savannah? Wish her a good Christmas? Can you think about doing that? Try to do it before the end of the day tomorrow. Just think about it. Please just think about it, OK?”
“Don’t tell anyone I called,” Billie said, and abruptly hung up.
Madeline remained in the back room, weighing the pros and cons of keeping the call to herself. Talk about your lose-lose, she thought. Marie counted on knowing every single thing, all the time, even when the information made her infinitely more miserable.
Just then, Marie stealthed into the room and said to Madeline, “Who was that? Was that my mother?”
“I’m not sure,” Madeline replied. “Depends on: what’s the right answer to that question?”
“God damn it!” Marie said. “What did she say?”
“Not much. She doesn’t sound good. I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t be seeing her. I tried to get her to think about talking to her sister, and to Savannah.”
“Where is she? What else did she say?”
“She didn’t say much, Marie. Mostly she cried. And repeatedly apologized. Repeatedly.”
The two women looked at one another across the dark expanse of the room, saying nothing. Marie stealthed back out, leaving Madeline to gaze out at the back yard, the fat colored lights ablaze in the neighbor’s tall pine.
Right after Madeline returned to the living room and took her seat on the couch, the front door opened, and Dan came in. “Fuck, I should have known,” Madeline thought. She knew well by then that any time Dan spent with any piece of his family entailed a heavy amount of drinking on his part – plenty in their presence to manage the togetherness, and even more in the car as he drove to his next destination. A particularly tough family gathering could end up being a three-to-five-cans-in-the-car adventure. Not until he walked through the door did Madeline realize it: she had held out the hope that Christmas Eve would be different, that maybe there would be warmth and traditions and laughter and such that would have him sipping daintily at a homemade toddy instead of slugging back brew after brew.
Dan still perplexed her as a drunk. Large amounts of alcohol seemed to render him both woozy and intense. There was a coiled-snake vibe, ready at any second to strike, hard, unless he happened to slip into a peaceful stupor instead. He plopped onto the couch next to her, but sat at the very edge, so he needed to turn his head to see her. “Wow,” he said. “Look at this cozy family scene.”
“Yep,” Madeline said. “It is.” It was both a command and a plea.
center photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and family