by Linda Sillitoe
[p.221]Barbara replaced a few fallen pale blue icicles on her flocked tree and waited for the doorbell to chime. Life had taken one of those jolts again with Roger’s return, yet he was absorbed into the seasonal routines faster than Barbara would have thought possible.
So odd, she mused, that one can carry on day after day, year after year, decade after decade, and everyone approves without noticing. Yet someone like Roger could disrupt the pattern so treacherously, snapping threads and leaving them dangling, and then simply patch it over. Oh, he and Robyn had been doing some marathon talking, yet the overriding consideration seemed to be simply that he came back. He was weaving the raveled ends back into the pattern again and everyone was tactful. Amazing. And meanwhile, Barbara thought wryly, the rest of us carry on.
She, of course, was not only carrying on but leading the way. Fred had taken the children sledding this Saturday after Christmas. Barbara wanted to propel the plans for her parents’ anniversary as top priority for the new year. The sizzle of beef, browned earlier for stew, wafted through the upstairs rooms, and homemade cloverleaf rolls swelled in the oven. She always tried to have the aroma of baking bread or rolls filling the house just as her guests arrived. She could hardly wait to show Roger, Cait, and [p.222]Marly the footage she had for the video—and she must persuade them to cooperate in completing footage of their own families, maybe get some more of Mom and Dad. No more procrastinating!
Barbara always decorated the upstairs tree herself, while the children adorned the downstairs tree with their conglomeration of school-made ornaments, homemade chains, and popcorn strings. This was a noisy occasion which Barbara frequented only to bring in mugs of cocoa and a plate of Christmas cookies, or to referee arguments. Later, as the family watched Christmas specials on television, Barbara would resist the temptation to rearrange the lopsided lights or tipsy ornaments, or to straighten the gluey chains.
The upstairs tree was her pride, fitted out in ribbons of the blue tartan she and Fred had selected as their family’s signature, cylindrical silver ornaments, and blue-feathered birds. This year she made a tree skirt with silver and blue sections, trimmed in blue plaid ribbon, a pleasant contrast to the plethora of red and green tree skirts she saw all over the neighborhood. Also this year she had allowed Stacy to help hang the first batch of icicles before Christmas.
The side door’s chime rang, and Caitlin opened the door by the time Barbara reached for the knob. “Are we first?” Marly asked.
“You are, but Roger should be here any second.”
Her sisters shed their coats and wandered toward the living room. “Your tree looks lovely,” Caitlin said. “Ours is drying out fast.”
“Oh, thanks.” Barbara stowed their coats in the front closet. “You might like the kids’ tree downstairs,” she teased. “But this one’s easy. We store it in the attic between seasons.”
[p.223]“Oh, the tree’s fake?” Caitlin asked. She reached out to touch a branch. “I thought I smelled pine.”
“You did,” Barbara chuckled. “I spray it on. It looks real, smells real, but the carpet doesn’t have to absorb a million needles.”
“There’s something to be said for that,” Caitlin told her, joining Marly on the sofa.
Barbara thought Caitlin looked tense despite her apparent determination to harmonize. Even Marly seemed preoccupied. Darn them! She had such high hopes for this lunch. Well, she’d get them focused soon enough. “Oh, I think the rolls are done,” she said, hurrying out.
“They smell heavenly,” Marly called after her.
Roger knocked the moment she set down the hot baking pan. He gave her a quick hug. “Hi, Barb. Did Marly come with Caitlin?”
“They’re both in the living room.” He sauntered past her.
“I’m here, the token male,” he announced. There was silence as Barbara brought the tureen of beef stew into the dining nook.
“Pull up a chair,” she said cheerily. “No fighting over who gets to sit by Roger.”
“It used to be fighting over who had to sit by Roger,” Roger said. They all laughed although it wasn’t true; everyone was a bit embarrassed by his status as prodigal.
They ignored the strain with chitchat as they enjoyed the meal. Roger told tales of his children on Christmas morning. Marly grabbed his near hand. “Happy new year?” she said, and they all clinked their glasses of homemade root beer.
“Must be time for dessert,” Barbara said, rising to collect the plates.
“When do we see this video footage you keep crowing about?” Roger asked.
[p.224]As it turned out, they never saw Barbara’s footage, for as she summed up what she expected as a contribution from each family, Roger raised an objection. “Aren’t you leaving out somebody?”
“Who?” Barbara asked.
“Boyd. You haven’t said a word about Boyd.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course Boyd’s included with all the photos when we were kids. I haven’t written the narration yet—maybe Cait should write it—but I thought we’d mention his accomplishments there.” She smiled at Roger reassuringly, but the line between his brows didn’t disappear.
“What about Boyd’s death?”
Barbara felt as if she’d been slapped. “What do you mean?”
“Losing Boyd was one of the major events in this family’s life, maybe the biggest. How can you let that go without a word?”
She stared at him. “I know it was, Roger. But this is a happy occasion, and we’re doing this video for Mom and Dad. What do you expect me to put in?” She looked to her sisters for support. They looked back, evidently surprised though maybe not as shocked as she was.
“What did you have in mind, Roger?” Cait asked then, trying to sound casual. One hand sought the back of her neck and squeezed.
Oh, don’t get a headache now, Barbara thought impatiently. The delicious beef stew rumbled in her belly.
“Nothing too definite, but I think a little memoriam would be appropriate, especially since Boyd’s death was so slicked over at his funeral.”
Barbara felt as if she’d wandered into the wrong house. She stared at her Christmas tree for reassurance before she said calmly, “No, it wasn’t, Roger. Boyd had a beautiful funeral. Maybe you were too young to understand.”
Roger turned furious eyes on her. Lines she had never seen [p.225]before grooved his cheeks from nose to chin. “It was slicked over, Barb. Every damn speaker said he was called on a higher mission, when he actually died in the loneliest way possible.”
“When did you start swearing?” Barbara took a deep breath. Her heart pounded in her temples. “Look, I don’t want to talk about Boyd’s death,” she said softly but intently. “He and I were too close. Maybe the rest of you like poking around in the past, but I don’t. I think we should show a little respect.”
“I love him, too, Barbara, and I think we should acknowledge who he really was,” Roger said just as intently. “Maybe when he was alive we were too young to do that. Maybe Mom and Dad were too ignorant to understand, or to acknowledge him then. But I won’t sit by and deal him the same insult now.”
Barbara felt tears spring from her eyes and hit the tablecloth. Her voice broke as she said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Boyd was gay, Barbara,” Roger said patiently. “I thought we’d all figured that out.” He glanced again at Caitlin and Marly then back at her. “He was gay, and he couldn’t serve a mission and get married in the temple and have children without being a hypocrite. So he took the only way out.”
“You don’t know that! How can you say that?”
“I’m sorry, Barbara. It hit me hard, too. I didn’t mean…” He looked around helplessly then finished, “Anyway, it’s a fact.” Roger walked across the room and gazed out the window.
Barbara looked from his stiff shoulders to her sisters’ still faces.
“It’s not true,” Barbara said. “What do you mean, it’s a fact?” She had never known a homosexual and assumed her siblings didn’t either. She couldn’t believe this was happening.
Roger must have had a breakdown after all; he was mentally ill.
“No, it’s not a fact that Boyd was gay,” Caitlin said evenly, [p.226]though her hand clutched the back of her neck again. “It’s a conclusion. We don’t know for sure.”
Roger seemed to sag against the window then, but he came back and sat down. “I didn’t mean to shock you, Barbara,” he said softly. “I know it takes a while for the idea to sink in.”
She shook her head at him, wordless. She wished Fred would come home—without the children. The children must never hear this, certainly not see it on the screen at the anniversary party.
“I understand what you mean about honoring Boyd,” Marly said then to Roger. “I’m just thinking of Mom and Dad and all their friends. How would we go about really including Boyd without ruining their anniversary?”
Before Roger could answer, Barbara slid forward in her chair, clasping her hands and finding a tremulous smile. “I have an idea. Why don’t we look at the footage first and get an idea of where the project as a whole is going?”
Now why was Caitlin flashing her that warning look?
“Not right now,” Marly said quickly. “We need to think about this some more.” Sounding unusually assertive, she added, “Roger and I can form a subcommittee to work this through. Caitlin has plenty to worry about—and so do you.”
Before Barbara knew it, all her siblings were on their feet. “Lunch was delicious,” Caitlin said, but she looked so pale that Barbara knew her migraine had blossomed.
“Want to lie down, Cait? We can watch the footage on the television in the bedroom. It has a VCR.” But Cait was shaking her head slightly, as if the motion hurt. What had happened to the afternoon?
“No, I’d better go. Marly can drive. Are you okay, Marly?”
“Why wouldn’t she be all right?” Barbara asked. “You’d think I’d poisoned all of you!”
[p.227]“Sure, I’m fine,” Marly said, taking Roger’s elbow. “Well fed and content.”
Roger looked at Barbara and his jaw unlocked. “Sorry, Barb,” he said. “That was a great lunch. Really terrific. We’ll figure out something.”
“Well, it’s pretty well mapped out,” she began, but they were finding their coats in the front closet. “It’s just a matter of getting the rest of the footage and narration,” she tried again.
Furious, Barbara watched as they got into their cars and pulled out of the driveway. She’d like to know the last time any of them had gone to this much work to put on lunch.
How dare Roger cause trouble—he’d been trouble enough this winter. She paced the living room angrily, then began picking up china. Should they spell out his disappearance for their parents’ friends, too? And what about the next generation? Should they inform everyone that Brad still wet the bed? And when the cousins played board games, Caitlin’s twins could be depended upon to cheat, flashing each other secret signals. Maybe Barbara ought to make up a list of neglected subjects—Caitlin never laughed at Jake’s jokes any more and she was having lunch with other men. Marly—who knew about Marly? But Barbara had seen Robyn spank little Kerry three times while Roger was missing. Plus Robyn had bounced a couple of checks, and Barbara and Fred had loaned her money to cover them. Whose fault was that? Besides, she remembered Boyd better than any of them; Boyd and Barbara had been a pair before Caitlin, Roger, and Marly carne along. The Bobbsey Twins or Jack and Jill, Morn had called them, buying them similar outfits. Why did these—neophytes— act as if she were so ignorant?
Her irritation wore through by the time she had the dishwasher loaded. Grief began to howl underneath. How could they say that about Boyd? She wept as she vacuumed the dining room. [p.228]Sobbing, she locked herself in her blue bathroom off the master bedroom, ran a hot bubble bath, and soaked with an ice pack over her eyes.
She had to compose herself. Her family would be home soon.