I could never get warm enough in the winter. Not with the fireplace going, not keeping the heat at the 68 degrees recommended by Georgia Power, and especially not since I had turned it down to 64 figuring that we could save that extra bit of money. The cold wouldn’t bother my husband, Steven, though; his body ran hotter than mine. And though I didn’t like the cold, I’d had long practice putting up with it, with making do. Momma said that as long as we didn’t freeze, cranking up the heat any higher than necessary was just a waste.
I pushed the needle into the quilt on my lap with my middle finger; the steel thimble caged my finger, imprinting the skin with its tiny circles. My gray-sock-covered toes stuck out before me on the La-Z-Boy recliner. The socks were a contrast against the bright scrap quilt of neon rectangles separated by four patches of black and white that covered my legs. I’d backed this quilt with hot pink fleece instead of the traditional 100 percent cotton. Fleece was more trouble, but warmer.
The garage door lurching up rumbled through the house over the droll Will and Grace rerun on television that was keeping me company.
I took a quick look at my gold Timex watch with fake diamonds outlining the face. Steven wasn’t due home for another hour at least. His boss had said he had three months before the office closed down, but promises meant nothing. Georgia was an at-will state. Hire at will. Fire at will. At any time they could tell him that today would be his last day.
And that would be that.
Cold air thrust into the house as the back door leading to the garage opened. I pushed the footrest of the recliner down and stood up. The wood crackling in the fireplace hampered the cold seeping in.
White plastic bags with red bull’s-eye designs hung from Steven’s beige fingertips. I crushed the quilt in my hand, the creases where I had sewn the seams digging into my fingers. The silver needle hanging from the white thread swayed in the breeze from the open door.
He stood there smiling in his army-green trench coat and black fingerless driving gloves lined with fake fur that stuck out from the holes near his wrists. At least he had worn them; he normally went without gloves.
He was short for a man — just a couple of inches taller than me — light-skinned and still thin, even after these seven years with me and eating every concoction that I tried to bake up. The smile on his face was the first one I had seen there in ages, at least since the notice had come down about his job.
He raised an eyebrow and swung the packages onto the kitchen table, which was currently covered with a green and red quilt topper. He was careful not to knock over the Christmas centerpiece — a small votive vanilla candle surrounded by fake greenery spotted with red holly berries.
As he headed toward me, down the long hallway, I turned the quilt so that the needle was away from him.
“Hey, babe,” he said, the sweetness of his breath reaching out to me. Had he been drinking? It usually cost, what? Seven or 10 bucks for a drink? I hadn’t been out in so long I didn’t know. But this wasn’t the time for drinks, and there was never a time for drinking and driving. We should be scrimping now not wasting money and taking stupid risks.
He took my hand in his. Even though his hand was thinner than mine, he had long fingers. It was the first thing I’d noticed when we met in college in a beginning piano class. We were the only non-music majors in the class. We shared a rented key to the rehearsal room to practice at the same time. Three years later, we’d gotten married — with a groom’s cake that looked like a piano — and started our life together.
He sat down in the recliner and pulled me onto his lap.
I pulled away from him, clutching the cold lapels of his coat. “What’s going on?”
“We’re going to win the holiday decorating contest.”
“What contest?” I narrowed my eyes. “Has this got anything to do with the homeowners association meeting last night?”
“No, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. You know, as a way that we can, you know, join in the holiday spirit.”
“We already have lights. White ones. We put them up Thanksgiving night after we got home.” The same white lights that we had for years. The ones that were acceptable. The ones that were paid for.
“That’s what the bags are for. We’ll have more.”
“Steven,” I said, and then slipped off his lap, setting the quilt on the floor. “Let me hang up your coat, and we can talk.”
He’d just bought the lights. He must still have the receipt. We could just take them back.
He shrugged out of his coat. He wore a suit underneath, with a white shirt, pressed and starched and so white that I joked it glowed in the dark, and the red power tie with dark-blue triangle accents. His Blackberry was clipped to his belt, like a black tumor growing on his hip.
The Blackberry doesn’t matter, I thought, hanging up the coat with a clink in the barely used front-hall closet. It’s what the Blackberry represents. Only three weeks to when he’ll be laid-off, downsized, whatever you call it, and they still want his blood. At least it didn’t ring — it just vibrated — but that little buzzing noise was a warning of the impending job loss in a tough economy, no matter what the papers said about the supposed recovery.
But then, he’s happy, right? When was the last time that I saw him with a smile on his face?
Yeah, came the other side of my thoughts, but at what cost? Because there was always a cost.
I took a deep breath, breathing in the stale closet air, looking down at the tiny piece of dark hardwood flooring inside the closet, the only hardwood flooring that I liked. Pushing the door slowly across the carpet, I remembered taking care of hardwood floors as a child. They looked beautiful, but I was not into that much work for so little payoff.
Steven had gone to the kitchen table and begun sorting through what looked like Christmas lights.
I padded down the hall on the soft carpet. The carpet was the one thing I had insisted we upgrade, with extra foam padding, since I’d said no to hardwood floors. The kitchen was still the white that was popular at the time we had our house built. We hadn’t upgraded to the stainless steel appliances and the granite countertops that were popular these days. I saw no reason to do it even though I could tell that Steven wanted them.
It was a miracle that we’d gotten together at all. My parents had been on the same side when it came to money, even if they were from opposite sides of the tracks. But Steven loved to spend money; he had this wide-eyed, hungry look to him, always wanting to have, do, and be everything that popped into his mind.
I’d loved that energy about him when we first got married, but had found myself tempering it ever since.
In the kitchen, he’d laid strings of red, orange, and green bulbs across the quilt-covered table. They were shaped like the clear candle bulbs above the table in the chandelier, about the only fancy thing that we owned, and that was because it came with the house as part of the basic plan. I had wanted everything exactly like the model home. We weren’t going to live here long, right? It was meant to be just a starter home.
He picked up one string. “Isn’t this great?”
I grabbed the back of one of the wooden chairs that I’d picked because their spoked, high backs and rounded seats reminded me of the chairs in the house I grew up in. “What is that?”
“We’re going to decorate for Christmas.”
“We’ve already decorated for Christmas.”
I wanted to ask the question. I needed to ask it. I dreaded asking it. “How much did all of this cost?”
“You’ve got to live some.”
He hadn’t answered the question.
“We are.” I bit my lip hard enough to make sure that my words were careful. The kitchen was still cold from when he had blown in. “We just have the thing coming up.” I didn’t like actually naming the impending layoff. Naming something, putting it out in the world, gave it power. “You know that we have to be careful about expenses.”
“And it’s Christmas. We should enjoy it.” He yanked off his gloves then rummaged around the brightly colored bulbs until he found the plug. The swirled lights glowed on the table. “They’re going to look great outside.”
“We have the white lights. They’re classic. They were what we’ve used since we bought the house.”
“We can use them and these.”
“That’ll clash, Steven,” I bent down and unplugged them. The glow died.
Most places had a good return policy. He had been just a little crazy because of the time, because of the season. I picked up the plastic bag, the crinkling sounds punctuated by laughter floating in from the television in the other room. There had to be a receipt … My hand fell on a slip of paper huddled in the bottom of the bag, hiding. Bingo. I pulled it out.
“Dee,” Steven said. “They weren’t that much. We can keep them.”
“Where is this coming from? We’ve always put up white lights. They’re clear. They’re elegant. And the HOA … I really don’t want to hear their big mouths when they see these,” I said, holding up the big, floppy lights. “I think there was something in the guidelines about only clear lights being allowed.”
“Don’t these look familiar?”
I looked at them. They did; they were the lights people used to string up … back, when? Twenty years ago? Before homeowners associations that dictated garage door colors — which in our case had to be white, not even an ivory or classic cream. Homeowners associations made up of henpecked husbands and retirees who had no problem whatsoever levying fines that we could not afford.
The smell of the burning wood in the living-room fireplace tickled my nose and a memory. “They, um,” I said, “they remind me of the Christmas lights we had when I was a kid.”
Thanksgiving evening back then was for putting up the Christmas tree; getting out the decorations from the attic and attaching the branches of the artificial tree, matching the color-coordinated edge of each branch to its place on the base of the tree. We’d change the house over, and Dad would drag out the ladder and hang the Christmas lights. We’d play the exact same record every year: classic carols with a choir and a full orchestra. Then Momma and I would bake oatmeal raisin cookies.
I grinned. The lights were ridiculous. I didn’t even think they still made the fat, gaudy things anymore.
He clapped. “There it is,” he said. “There’s the smile that I missed. It’s gonna be all right, you know, babe? We’re gonna be fine.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten all the numbers worked out and …” And I kept my eyes on the brightly colored, gaudy Christmas lights. What if there is a bag with a blow-up snowman complete with generator in the car?
His scent, a cologne I’d bought him earlier this year because I thought it smelled like something an anchorman would wear, filled my nostrils. He came up behind me, enveloping me, his arms around my waist. “As long as we’re OK, everything else will be OK.” He planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek and nuzzled my neck “Urphhhh. Everything else we can get again, ’K? We got it once, and we’ll be able to get it again.” He stepped away from me and plucked the receipt from my hand. “But we’ll never have this time again.”
Keeping a brave face, pretending everything was all right, keeping up appearances. What would I really remember 10 years from now when I thought about this Christmas? What was really important?
I picked up the gaudy lights. There was that evergreen hedge in front of the house. Had the kids in the neighborhood ever even seen lights like these? Bright and silly?
My hand skimmed over one of the bulbs, from the round end, that circle of ridges in brass, to the point of the fake flame. “Are you sure that these are safe for outdoor use?” I asked, looking up. “We won’t start a fire or anything if we put them on those hedges?”
“I checked. It will be fine. So,” he said, “we get to keep the lights?”
I sighed. “Would it be Christmas without crazy lights and a possible citation?”
“But think,” he said, “by the time we receive the citation, it’ll probably be after Christmas. If not, we’ll just run the clock for the 30 days they give you to correct ‘the matter.’”
“I know you, Boo.” He rocked me from side to side in his arms. “Of course I checked.”
“Well, we might as well put them up now.”
“I’ve got it.” He stopped rocking me and stepped back. “You can get back to your quilting.”
The quilting would always be there. We could get another house. Steven could get another job. But this moment? This was something that I could not get again. “It can wait,” I said. “It’ll keep.”
I reached down and plugged in the lights. They glowed in all their gaudy glory across the Christmas setting on the kitchen table.
I leaned back into his warm arms, my hands over my stomach. He covered my cold hands with his warm ones, letting his warmth seep into me.
He leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. This one wasn’t sloppy. “Hey,” he said, “isn’t it cold in here for you?”
“No,” I said. “It feels just right.”