stood at the top of the stairs in the second floor hallway,
staring out the window at an icicle that murmured faintly of
the soft, gray stories being told at the sky's zenith, and that,
faintly murmuring, repeated the rich, violet tales whispering
in from the west, where the light from the setting sun still
seeped through the gaps between the clouds. Clear and cold tonight,
the weatherman had predicted.
had been in his bedroom, trying out the Christmas presents Ann
had given him: kidi and sogo, his two favorite Ghanian drums.
As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, twenty years earlier,
he had studied West African drumming, and ever since he regularly
would revisit the complex and entrancing rhythms he had learned,
to escape from the pressures of everyday life. When his emotions
were on the verge of boiling over, an hour of drumming would
leave him calm. He sometimes wondered whether, if he drummed
more often, he would drink and take drugs less often. But then
a hollowed-out, sickly face appeared before him, the face of
one of his old teachers…
had met Kwadzo Addy near the end of the Ghanian’s life. Kwadzo
was naturally a small man who had been turned nearly skeletal
by cancer and chemotherapy. When he demonstrated dance steps
his movements were graceful, but slowed as if he were dancing
underwater. His voice was like gravel rubbing together and his
eyes sunken deeply in his skull. Soon enough, he was gone, and
Morris was playing at a concert in his memory.
of Kwadzo led Morris’s thoughts to his parents, whom he would
see in a few hours. The strong man and woman who had raised
him had departed, and their replacements would need their son’s
help to walk up the hill from the driveway; they, too, would
soon be shades with the shade of Kwadzo Addy.
Kenner’s party Maria Robinson had talked about the recent death
of her father, confessing how helpless and vulnerable she had
felt during the last stages of his fatal illness. No one listening
had been able to find an appropriate response, so an uncomfortable
silence descended on the group. The passing of the previous
generation marked a grim milestone, which Morris and his peers
tried to avoid noticing; their parents and their friend's parents
had stood between them and an unobstructed vista on their own
final destination. Morris imagined himself at his father's funeral,
standing before a gaping hole in the earth, while his mother
clung, weeping, to her son’s arm. Anxious to occupy his mind
with something other than that image, he headed downstairs and
immersed himself in dinner preparations.
Ann by the stove, preparing the hollandaise sauce for the broccoli.
The roasted goose was sitting on the counter. Potatoes, rice,
green beans and corn simmered on the stove. Pies, cakes and
pastries, baked over the previous few days, lined the kitchen
table. That morning, Ann had lashed into him for being so negative
about the holidays, so now Morris did his best to be of good
looks and smells great, honey. Is there anything I can do to
First, see if the kids are still presentable, and then you can
slice the goose."
went to perform his assigned tasks. He found his children in
the family room, entranced by some television program. They
were surrounded by the litter of the morning's frantic opening
of presents: ripped cardboard boxes, shreds of green and red
wrapping paper decorated with trees and angels, cast-off ribbons,
stray pieces of tinsel, and empty Christmas stockings. Isa and
Rudy might be a bit more ragged around the edges than they had
been a few hours earlier, but Morris thought they still looked
fine. He turned from them and climbed the half-flight of stairs
back up to the kitchen. As he was slicing the goose he saw his
parents' car pull into the driveway, so he walked outside to
help them. He noticed that his mother's hands were shaking more
than last time he had seen her, just a couple of weeks before.
arrived several minutes later. The six adults had a couple of
cocktails each, along with cheese, crackers, shrimp, and olives,
in the living room as a warm-up for dinner. The kids appeared
for long enough to greet their grandparents and open their gifts.
Then the children drifted back into the family room to watch
the rest of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ann had to
remind them to turn off the TV when she called them for dinner.
from the electric chandelier in the dining room scattered tiny
stars across the dinner table, reflecting off crystal and china
and silverware. Morris led grace, after which he began serving
the goose, and the other dishes were passed around the table.
Morris's father, Roger, had trouble chewing meat with his false
teeth, so he took only vegetables. All the while his mother-in-law
chattered with hardly a pause, punctuating her remarks with
occasional pokes to Ann's arm.
been able to go to Calf Pasture Beach in years. Those little
black kids are running around everywhere. And the older ones
have their radios up so loud that you can't even hear."
should have let 'em in Norwalk in the first place," Roger remarked
while releasing a blob of mashed potato from his mouth.
aghast. "Grandpa, you're dribbling!"
her that she was being rude. Isa looked for a moment as if she
would argue, but then she yielded, realizing that her case would
not get a fair hearing with guests present.
she's only five," Morris said quietly to Ann.
his attempt at discretion, his mother heard him, moving her
to reminisce, "Oh, I remember how cute you were when you were
her age, Morris."
felt himself flinch, anticipating an embarrassing tale.
such a little adult. One time we took you to the zoo, I remember.
And an old man said, about the ducks in the pond there, that
is, he said, 'Sonny, do you like the quack-quacks?' and you
said, Lord bless us, 'They're not quack-quacks, they're ducks.'"
the adults except for Morris laughed heartily, but the children
both looked puzzled. Morris was relieved when the conversation
meandered on to politics, to local gossip, and to stories of
the old days in Norwalk.
used to be able to take the trolley straight across town, all
the way from Roton Point to Winnipauk, for only a nickel," Roger
recalled. "Bet it’d get you there faster than those buses they've
got running around now, too. And the buses are always empty
of how the corporate headquarters boom of the eighties had changed
the character of the area, of the days when you could trap muskrats
right in town, and other memories of the previous seventy years
of the city's history. Soon dessert was served, followed by
a last round of drinks back in the living room. Then everyone
said their goodnights; Ann's mother nearly smothered Rudy and
Isa with farewell hugs. Morris, accompanied outside by Ann and
the kids, lent each of his parents an arm as he led them to
their car. Rudy and Isa waved at and shouted good-bye to their
grandparents until the taillights of both of their cars disappeared
around a bend in the road.
of his family went back inside, but Morris lingered in the front
yard. After a couple of minutes, Ann’s head poked out of the
coming in, or are you sleeping out there tonight?"
chuckled. "I'll be in a minute."
I won't have the energy to deal with a frozen corpse in the
morning." Ann's countenance vanished as the door closed.
pulled his coat more tightly around his body, watching white
wraiths of breath escape his mouth and coil upward through the
crystalline air. It was brisk, but not deathly cold – maybe
twenty degrees. A thin layer of snow coated the ground from
the morning's flurry. It alternately glowed pink and blue in
sync with the blinking Christmas lights Ann had laced around
the front windows. From off to his left came another blue glow,
which he traced back to the nativity scene squatting on his
neighbors’ lawn. Ultramarine snowflakes rode gusts of wind past
Jesus, Mary, Joseph, four sheep, and a donkey.
the manger advanced three wise men, following a star. Morris's
eyes drifted upwards, to the south. Over the roof of his house
a dead tree raised two stumpy branches, as though making a belated
gesture of surrender. Just above its lifeless limbs glittered
Orion, a familiar figure striding across the heavens pulling
along his hounds in his wake. Since boyhood, Morris had been
captivated by the winter constellations. Orion was perpetually
poised to combat Taurus, and the bull to gore the hunter with
his horns – and yet they never consummated their incipient battle.
For centuries bull and man had awaited the slightest narrowing
of the space between them, so that one might strike a blow.
Would they ever tire of the dumb show that, night after night,
they performed for the billions who gazed up at them? Together
they had greeted mankind's birth, mesmerizing humans with fiery
gems bejeweling the night sky. They had looked down upon the
Nile when the pyramids were built. They had watched Greek civilization
arise and give them the names by which he knew them. Beneath
their cold, indifferent eyes a child had been born in Bethlehem.
He grew to adulthood, and tried to tell people that they were
free, that they could live together in peace. The stars had
remained unmoved when his message, anathema to those addicted
to power, who relied on fear and war to maintain their status,
had put him to death. In the centuries that followed his execution,
others, claiming to follow him, read his words as endorsing
their own dominion over their fellow men. Countless wars and
inventions and lovers and poets had passed under these stars’
silent gaze; still they did not flinch, still they stood tensed,
ready to strike a blow should the heavens offer the chance.
bird mesmerized by the stare of a cobra, for a long while Morris
could not look away from those isolated fires burning amidst
the vast, empty expanses of the dark universe. He, too, was
fixed in space, unable to make contact across the surrounding
void, even if just to land a blow. Like Rigel and Aldebaran,
like Betelgeuse and the Pleiades, the fire burning in his core
would at last consume all of its fuel, leaving behind a cold,
spent lump of useless matter.
gust of cold wind swept his unmoored thoughts back to the yard
and house. Shuddering a little, he turned and slowly walked
inside. He heard Ann washing the dishes in the kitchen, but
he drifted noiselessly to the living room. He sat facing the
TV without bothering to turn it on, instead simply staring at
the lifeless screen. After a few minutes, unable to think of
anything better to do, he rose and mixed himself a tequila sunrise.
Libation in hand, he sank back into his armchair and idly observed
a spider descending towards the carpet on a silky thread it
had suspended from the ceiling.
of the water running in the kitchen changed from a strong steady
stream to a regularly spaced drip, its pick-pack-pock-puck tapping
at the edge of his thoughts. A few seconds later, he sensed
that Ann was behind him. She placed her hands softly on his
shoulders, and then began to knead the taut muscles she found
have an OK Christmas?" she asked.
groped for words that would at least hint at the trackless immensity
of the wasteland into which he had strayed, but he was no more
able to descry them than he was a path back home. Instead of
answering her, he again rose and perfunctorily walked to the
bar. As he was pouring his drink, Ann tentatively approached
him and asked what was wrong. He downed the contents of his
glass in one gulp before he looked at her, with eyes as cold
and alien as Orion’s. The years he had spent with this woman
he now read as a brief, insignificant passage plucked at random
from a tome that, despite its enormous length, was without significance.
An icy wind swept across the barren landscape of his soul, across
its dry fields, across a lonely snow-covered plain. Amidst its
chorus of ghostly voices he heard clearly only one, and he repeated
the lyric it sang almost as if in a trance: "Ann, I need a divorce."