the short story project


Holy Night

Story 14, 2000   Maggie tightens the belt of her coat, cursing the cold, wet night, the sullen stillness. She pulls her woolen hat down over her thick curls, with their gray roots awaiting repair, and adjusts the glasses she’s normally too vain to put on. Her mission, yet another last-ditch effort to get her son out of trouble, hasn’t worked. The failure is no surprise. Life, no matter how she tries to right it, has been an unremarkable assembly line of sin and error. She isn’t even sure now if this is the corner where Dennis told her to wait. It’s one in the morning and storefronts are dark. Christmas has emptied the streets, but she can hear some revelers not far off, conducting services of their own.

Dennis pulls up in the thick snow. The curb is hidden and she takes small, sliding steps toward the passenger door, following a path others carved. He leans across to open it for her, and she gets in. The three days’ growth he had when last she saw him is a beard now. She takes in a breath, suspects he’s been drinking, but can’t be sure. She wills herself to say nothing. She’s been waiting a long while, because the meeting with her brother was short, without ceremony, and the wind has revived the pain in her bones. She’s grateful for the warmth of the car.

“What did he say?” Dennis asks, without so much as a greeting as he pulls the car back into the street. There are no more niceties. When he called the night before, he was frantic, pleading with her to get money for him from her brother.

Dennis got his license back three months ago, and she wonders now if he’s had a single sober day since then, except maybe the few when he knew he was going to see her. He’s wearing the navy sweater she gave him for his birthday, thick and soft. She wants to touch his sleeve, get through to him. The St. Christopher medal, his father’s, still hangs from the rearview mirror, nearly motionless now, its back to them, as if unwilling to be along on this trip. Her husband saw what was coming with Dennis. Takes one to know one. She’s sure now that she smells the drink on him, and she wishes she could slap him. She swallows, pulls her gloves up to cover her crooked wrists.

“Pull over and let me out,” she says, voice trembling. He acts as if he didn’t hear her.

“Did you ask him, Mom? What did he say?”

She can’t bring herself to describe how harsh her brother was, how disgusted with both of them. “I’m done asking anything for you.”

But Maggie has said that many times before, and she’s sure he knows it isn’t true. They seem destined to circle each other this way, like weary opponents continually failing to come in for the kill. 

“If I can’t get the money, Bev is leaving for sure,” he tells her. He grips the steering wheel like a man ready to be sentenced. “I think she’s going to leave no matter what. Her mother’s taking Ryan. I can’t believe she’s doing it.”

Leaving the child is incomprehensible to him, and that alone redeems him in her eyes. He sees how wrong it is, and Maggie wonders if he has some recollection. He was only five years old when she left him, and she was away only three months, but she has always feared he never forgot it—waking in a strange room, crying for someone who was no longer there.

“When did she tell you this?”

“More than a week ago, so I told her they were late with my commission.”

“I don’t understand. What commission?”

“She thinks I got my job back.” He pauses, perhaps expecting her to scold him, but his lies are routine now. “We’re two months late with the mortgage. If I don’t come up with the money, she’s going to Atlanta.”

“I thought the money was for Ryan’s daycare bills? You said the house bills were taken care of?”

Another pause, then his voice again, desperate, like someone told he has days to live. “She’s got a job offer, that bank her old boss went with.” 

She could comfort him, insist that Bev won’t leave, that no mother could do that to her child. But that’s the lie.

The streets haven’t been plowed yet, and the car swerves in the snow. Dennis doesn’t seem to have a destination. He turns down a side street with brownstones and small shops here and there. At the end of the street, there’s a church, a rectory, no footprints in the snow on the steps. He makes another right, circling back to the place where he picked her up. “Are you going to tell me what his answer was or not?” he says, not watching the road.

“He said you’ll get no money till you stop the drinking, get yourself some help.” This is not the answer she got. Her brother gave her one word—no—not bothering to dress it up with reasons. 

“For fuck’s sake.” He says it like a plea, his eyes weary. “When is it going to stop? When are you all going to stop?”

“When you do.” The windshield wipers rasp, scraping slowly under the weight of the icy burden.

“Sure, Mom,” he says, snapping his fingers. “No problem.” He applies the brakes, for a reason she can’t see, and the car slides again. “You know what it feels like? You want to know what staying sober feels like?” She says nothing, wanting only for him to see there’s no other way. “It’s like you survived a flood and you’re waiting to get plucked off a roof. But instead, everybody keeps telling you you’ve got wings, use them.”

Again, her heart tears, like a gauzy thing. If he’d just get help, she’d find a way to get him the money. She’d figure something out. But she answers him harshly, the only way she knows how anymore. “You’ve got no choices left, Dennis.”

“I’ll give you a fuckin’ choice,” he says, and the car speeds up. Out the side window, she watches the slushy snow spit from the deep slippery tracks. She doesn’t know if he sees the van coming out of the side street or that they’re sure to hit it. She grabs the wheel, but he fights her, determined to keep her from taking over. He’s strong, and she wonders where he summons it from, this will, when all he ever seems to want is another swallow, another way to be gone.

Somehow their competing hands on the wheel allow them to miss the van. But the car spins, maybe more than once, because the heavy crystals flying in the sweeping headlights make her feel as if they’re being shaken inside a dome of swirling snow. The car lands with a grating thud against a mailbox.

She’s twisted her hand and it’s hurting. She looks to see if Dennis is all right. He’s slumped over, his forehead against the steering wheel, his face hidden. She’s about to ask if he’s hurt, until she sees his body convulse—as if something fearful possesses him—hears him sob. She touches his back, and even through her thick glove she can feel the warmth of him, and what she hopes is longing for something other than an end.

She gets out of the car, walks carefully around to the driver’s side, opens his door. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s walk a bit.”

He doesn’t look at her, but he doesn’t resist, just takes his coat and locks the car behind them. Their big steps are unsteady in the deep snow, lumbering and uncertain. He takes her arm and they lean into the relentless, spotted wind. Tiny Christmas lights wrapped unevenly around brownstone banisters blink weak colors through the thickening coverlet. Laughter escapes from a window below street level, framing a table lit with candles and covered with the remains of too much food. The sated family raise their glasses, to toast a night divine maybe, or express their gratitude, and Maggie prays for something to be born in her son, some hope that will give him a reason of his own.

They walk some more in the heavy silence, Maggie struggling to ignore the pain in her hip, until she thinks she hears something. Voices? Perhaps from a rooftop somewhere? But then they’re gone. 

“How can she do that?” Dennis says. “How can she leave him?”

“Maybe it’s something she has to do, just for a while.” She could try to explain the urge to separate from a life that refuses you everything, a life with no mercy, and he might even understand. But no matter how she describes the items she placed in the bag she packed for him that day, the instructions she tucked into the side compartment, the place meant to hold his toy horses and fire engines, she fears her choice would remain unfathomable.

A large black dog comes out from a doorway, startling them. Ears flapping, he shakes snow from his fur, then stops to sniff their boots, as if they’ve come from a place he knows. Dennis reaches down to touch him, and she warns him to be careful. Spooked by her voice, the dog darts away. Dennis chases after him and falls to his knees.

“For Chrissake, Mom,” he says, slapping snow off his pants as he gets up. “Have you ever gone one day without telling me the world’s on fire?” He makes a kissing noise to woo the dog back, but it turns playfully, seems to want to be chased.

Maybe it’s time to tell him, Maggie thinks. Maybe now. Maybe she can loosen the steel grip he has on the notion that suffering is his exclusive domain. She’s losing him in any case. She knows that. “Yes, I have,” she says, no longer hesitating. A long-buried part of her has found its voice. “When I left your father.”

“When was this? You never left Dad.” His tone is doubtful.

“I did. After the stitches in my temple.” She touches the scar she’d always told him came from falling into a coffee table. “I left you too.”

“What do you mean?” he says, searching her face, maybe for the reassurance he’s come to expect to find there. He blinks hard, as if something doesn’t make sense, and she sees he’s afraid she may be telling the truth. “How old was I?”

“Barely three.”

“You mean that time you were in the hospital?” His voice is up.

“I left you with Aunt Kate.” She remembers the weight of him in her arms as she put him on her sister’s couch. He struggled to keep hold of her, not understanding why she had to go.

“You were gone so long. And Dad never came to see me.”

She remembers how wrong it felt to leave him. “Three months,” she says. “I wasn’t in the hospital. I left your father. He didn’t know where you were.”

He looks stricken, confused, as if he’s not sure anymore who she is, why she’s saying these things. “Where did you go?”

“To my friend. Linda.”

“In South Carolina?”


The snow on their shoulders glistens in the streetlight. “But you knew you’d be coming back?” He says this as if it needs no confirmation.

 “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. She can’t see the point of sparing him anymore. She expects more questions, but he doesn’t ask them. If telling the truth was a mistake, there’s no correcting it now. She reaches to touch his arm, but he steps away. “I should have told you long ago,” she says, “tried to explain.”

“Explain? How the hell do you explain something like that?” He stares down the street, as if trying to spot someone who should be here by now.

Remembering him as a teenager, desperate to be rid of her, she speaks into his sullen, angry back. “Dennis, listen to me. I know what it’s like for Bev.”

He sways, losing his footing, then raises his arm to right himself. Pointing at her, he shouts, “I’ve never hit her, never.  I’m not like him.”    

“That’s not what I’m saying at all. Try to imagine how desperate she is. It’s been years now. And there’s no sign of an end to it.” He stands very still for a time. The footprints carved between them are losing their shape. When he walks off, she hurries after him, but she can’t keep up. The falling snow gradually blurs his silhouette, but as he turns the corner the streetlight illuminates him briefly, shoulders slumped, head down.  

Breathless, hip aching, she walks toward the corner, follows his tracks in the snow, but he’s too far ahead for her to catch up. He’ll turn back, she thinks. He won’t leave her here. But she knows how stubborn he can be. She wonders why she told him anything tonight. What was she thinking? What was the point? This isn’t the first time she’s attempted to connect with him, hoping some breakthrough would follow. It never does. She will always be to blame, and she’s tired of it. 

She pulls her scarf up over her mouth, but there’s nothing she can do to warm her feet. She can hardly move her toes. The buses don’t seem to be running, and there’s no sign of a cab. She doesn’t remember the number or even the name of the cab company that brought her here. She can’t stay out like this. She’s frightened. Getting closer to the main street now, she hopes she can find a tavern still open, some place that will let her use a phone. Her cell is in her pocketbook in the car, and she has no other way to call a cab. 

She listens for approaching cars, remembering how they used to sound on the street when she was young, when tire chains were needed in the snow. She’d pretend they were sleigh bells and imagine carriages and women in long coats, their hands tucked into fur muffs. She would tuck herself into a blanket near the window beside her bed, open the sash a sliver and close her eyes, imagine the sounds of a different life, where a key turning in the lock was not a warning, where someone crying in the night was something rare.

There is no other life, not then, not now. The emptiness her son pulls around him is impassable. His eventual apologies, even tears, arrive like clockwork. Six months ago, her insides shuddered as she listened to his pain, his head in his hands. But she wonders now if these tearful eruptions aren’t involuntary, like spasms the body produces when it can find no other way to ward off what’s coming. She carried this child, cared for him, tried to keep him safe. But he doesn’t want this life.

Pulling her scarf closer around her face, she tries to warm her skin with her breath. The main street isn’t far now. Head lowered, she lifts one foot, then the other. When she hears the voice, she isn’t sure it’s him at first. “Mom,” he says again, and then he’s moving toward her. “I’m sorry,” he says, touching her shoulder. “Let’s find the car.”

His being sorry is nothing new and nothing she cares to hear, but he holds out his arm to her and she takes it, exhausted. Without the wind in her face, it’s easier. She tries for the last few soundless blocks to pretend they’re all right.

“So will you tell her? Tell Bev?” He says this as if they were never interrupted, as if there was something she was about to say before he left her.

“Tell her what?” she says. She stops to look at him.

“That it was a mistake. What you did. That you shouldn’t have gone away like that.”

Nothing has changed. He’s not a single step closer to understanding the pain he’s causing. “Dennis, I don’t think that will make much difference. I’m sure she’s desperate.”

He takes his arm away. He doesn’t want that. It’s as if she’s given him something too heavy to carry. He leans against a car, clearly at a loss for what should happen next.

She looks down at their footprints in the snow, overlapping, indistinguishable. “You’d have to tell her you’ll go back to rehab.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t go back.”

She watches his breath leave him, wonders if he has any real idea what Bev is going through, what’s at stake. “Then you need to be ready to lose her. Lose your child too.”

His turns to her, as if she’s cursed him. His eyes are deep set, dark and haunting, his hair wild. The beard, red and uneven, makes him seem like someone else, someone with a purpose that will never be understood.

“Dennis, that’s what can happen,” she says, because she’s tired and she has no way anymore to protect him.

He steps away from the car, and when he takes her arm again to move on, he’s trembling and she senses he’s frightened. The flakes of snow seem icy, almost sharp on her face. She pulls her scarf up to cover her nose, but it slips down almost immediately. She holds it in place, wishing they could walk faster. She wants to be home, although she knows she won’t sleep. But she’ll start getting things ready for Christmas dinner. She’ll stay busy. She’ll talk with him again afterward, when the others have left.

Before long they can see the car, fully covered now, its rear jutting oddly into the street as if some urgent letter had to be posted. “Okay,” he says then. “I can tell her that.”

She doesn’t ask him what he means. It’s too cold, too late. She clings instead to what she wants it to mean.

“Listen. Thanks for going to Uncle Peter.” He touches her forearm reassuringly. “I’m going to get this straightened out,” he says. “I know what I need to do.”

The thrill of hope engulfs her, and she doesn’t really want to see beyond it.

“I love you,” he whispers, but she already knows love isn’t a cure.

A few feet ahead, beside the driver’s door, the black dog sits, with an impatient glance in their direction, as if a command is long overdue. Maggie hears Dennis laugh. He unlocks the doors and reaches in for a brush to clear away the snow. As he works, the dog stands by, more expectant now, as if familiar with this routine.

Dennis opens the door for Maggie to get in, and she watches him come around to the driver’s side. Then he waits, but the dog doesn’t leave. Dennis gets into the car, but still it stays. With no more than a glance and a grin at his mother, he gets out of the car again and lets the dog into the back. Its hair is long and it shakes itself off with purposeful indifference, treating his new companions to one last spray of white.

“We can stop somewhere,” he says, “put a bow on him for Ryan.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Maggie. “You don’t know where this dog’s been. It could be diseased.” She’s uneasy with this new purpose of his, suspecting he won’t return to the promise he just made, distracted by a new, shiny thing.

“We can call around to the shelters tomorrow, see if anyone reported him missing. If not, I’ll get him to a vet.” He pulls away, plowing through the mound of snow that borders the treacherous street. Turning the radio on, he lets a carol fill the car, and the dog places his head over the space between them, watchful, as if alert to landmarks they might miss. She’s grateful for the heat from the vents, the dog’s unquestioning company, but her insides tremble. She can’t change how things will go.

She knows only that by morning the footprints they made will be imperceptible. The dented mailbox will be replaced, and then the snow itself will be gone. Before long, the sun won’t set until well past dinnertime, and the dog’s coat will be thick and shiny. Eventually roads will become impassable again, the streets slippery, but the stars will seem as if they haven’t moved, and the cold will be no less sharp or surprising. The powerless days have begun.







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