His mother cupped her palm over the mouthpiece and aimed the black receiver at his chest. “Gino,” she said in a thin reedy whisper, “you talk to him and be civil.”
He slowly backed from the phone. Christ, he did not want to talk to Father Mellon, especially now. Mellon was all capital letters, a list of prohibitions.
“Gino, I never ask very much of you.”
“Ma, Kathy’s waiting for me in the truck.” He watched her eyes go gray and blunt like the heads of two bullets. He sighed and grabbed the phone. Over a bad connection, he exchanged greetings with Mellon, whose smooth voice asked if the campus trouble had been as bad as the media said it was. “Worse,” said Gino, refusing to elaborate. He knew his mother monitored darkly from the doorway.
Father Mellon went on about Truth: “…so hard to find … The Left says one thing…The Right says…Contradictions…Babel…Honest men…opposite sides of the fence…” Gino nibbled at the dead skin on his lips. His cheeks were hot. Outside the window were starlings in the snow; they pecked at each other for the seed his father had left on the ground. “…Truth, in the last analysis, is a chameleon.” Static crackled on the line. There was a long pause.
Gino strained to respond, changed the subject. “Given any good sermons lately?” he asked without bothering to hide his irony.
There came a lofty chuckle. “Yes, as a matter of fact, a good one on the Pill.”
“In which, of course, you considered all sides of the issue.”
“But the Church’s position is firm on this point.”
Gino scoffed. “I thought Truth was a chameleon.”
Mellon laughed. “You confuse faith and politics. We’ll have to discuss that one. Listen, won’t keep you. Do come up some night while you’re home. We’ll have some coffee. Bring your wife; I’d like to meet her.”
“Well, so long. Merry Christmas.” There was a pause. Mellon breathed, waited, and Gino returned a simple “Good bye.”
His mother reappeared smiling. “There, that didn’t kill you, did it?”
The road ran ahead for almost a mile along the river. In the cold gray water, ice floes were slowly drifting toward the cantilever bridge. Up river in the cove, he used to dig clams with his father but now it was posted. The boatyard was full of hauled yachts and thick with masts. So many gold-lettered sterns. Mellon’s sailboat was among them. Gino had been out in it once because he served well and knew his Latin.
Kathy said, “You don’t like anyone, do you?”
He stared at the road.
“What’s wrong with Father Mellon?”
“If you had to suffer the bastard through twelve years of school, you wouldn’t have to ask.”
“Oh, puke. That’s no answer.” She folded her arms and squinted at a snow-bound farm.
There was a brittle quiet. Slowing for the turn onto the bridge, Gino could see the bay, a vast sheet of corrugated tin. The muffler of the old pick-up gurgled and popped. The tires whined on the metal roadway and the bridge struts flew back. Then it was quiet except for an occasional ping from the truck’s heater.
After another five miles, near the crest of a final hill, Gino downshifted and the city slid into view. Hotel Algonquin was still the tallest structure, then the steeples of churches, their crosses dull gold in the haze. Across the river were the giraffe-like cranes in the shipyard where Polaris subs were made.
“You’re still angry, aren’t you?” Kathy asked.
Gino shook his head. She was trying to draw him out, to keep him buoyant. There was a lot he would have to adjust to.
“So we had an accident,” said Kathy, “but at least we can afford it.”
Gino tightened his grip on the wheel. Sure they could afford it. But what about summer? The plans for camping and traveling?
“Come on,” she coaxed, her expression sunny. “I’m not even sure yet. I’ve been late before.”
He nodded. A child would surely please his mother, perhaps his father too. There had been hints. News about high-school friends. Oh, so and so just had another. Three that makes it. Yes, he wanted to say, three the world doesn’t need. But he said nothing, his jaw muscles tight.
At the bottom of the hill, they joined a slow-moving line of traffic. Now there were cars behind them, each adding a segment to the tapeworm. They were locked in. It would be like this all the way to the center of town. Two kids in a new Dodge with high rear-end and wide tires pranked before him. The driver pumped the brakes so that the car rocked violently and a row of lights blasted redly on and off. Gino gnawed at his thumbnail and flew the piece from his tongue. His face broiled.
“Can we what?” asked Gino.
“Aren’t you listening? I asked if we could go to Mass this year? It’s not to bug you but last year was awful. All the drinking at Eddie’s, no Christmas tree, no church. It just wasn’t Christmas. Going to a bar and getting smashed isn’t my idea….” Folding her arms, she looked away.
Gino chewed at the skin on his lip. The cab was close and moist with the rusty warmth of the heater. His neck began to prickle. He cracked the window slightly. Cars crept and spurted. He continued to shift from first to second and back to first. The transmission whined a complaint as they moved past service stations and used car lots, each with huge electric signs.
Next to the blackened wall of an old furniture warehouse was a newly-made vacant lot with a string of red, blue, and yellow bulbs that went around the perimeter. A sign, jerkily painted, said: V.F.W. XMAS TREES. He waited for her to see it. Then she did and a smile bloomed on her face. He pulled from the line of traffic. “Look at all the pretty trees,” she said, imitating the wonderment of a child. She laughed and jumped from the truck. The snow was covered with needles and twigs from the cut evergreens that filled the lot. Some were tied and stacked, others were leaning against temporary fences. Each had a white price tag that fluttered in the icy wind. A bearish red-faced man in a plaid hunting jacket emerged from a small shack. His eyes popped and had tiny red threads on the white. Silver claws poked out from the loose plaid sleeves.
“Got some nice trees,” he said.
“We’re just looking around,” said Gino.
But the man continued to follow them, to press closely. They went up and down the aisles, sized up the trees. Only the extra-large were full-boughed, the others skeletal. Some had fallen from the poised upright position against the fence. Their undersides were white like the bellies of floating fish. In the street, an old car honked like a goose. The red-faced man picked up a fallen tree for Gino to judge. “Big or thmall houth?” he slurred.
“Big,” said Gino, catching the man’s sour breath.
He snorted in disgust and pushed the tree roughly on its side.
The ritual of getting a tree disappeared for Gino after the eighth grade. Too much bother, said his parents. But yesterday, with Dad, he trudged through deep snow into the woods behind the barn. With pick and shovel, he searched for a suitable spruce or fir which he intended to dig up, roots and all, and replant in the yard come spring. But he found nothing that would look quite right. The best trees were on the other side of the new turnpike which bisected the farm. It was too cold and the snow too deep. As they stood by the woven wire fence and watched a diesel tractor trailer shift on the hill then blackly cough itself over the crest, he asked his father’s opinion of the new road and got a shrug for an answer.
In a more intimate moment Gino asked what Dad had thought about the prospect of having a child. Did he remember the details? Did the responsibility scare him? Another shrug. A puzzled look. Then: “You’re a father, you work, you provide. That’s it.” In his voice there was a hint of pique. Gino was ashamed. Maybe he shouldn’t have tried. On the way back to the house, he pictured a tiny fetus beginning to grow in Kathy’s womb. He could hear trucks groaning loudly on the pike. God, nothing ever stayed still.
The red-faced man picked up another tree. “Nothin’ wrong wit dis one,” he growled. It had two missing branches and looked like a pole. “Go great in a corner.”
Gino shook his head.
In the truck, they waited to cut into traffic. Sweat trickled down Gino’s ribcage. Christ, none of the cars would break to let him in. The red-faced man, miffed and glaring, stood near the front bumper and barked: “You could of bought one, you little piss ant!”
Gino peeled rubber. “I should have run him down,” he gritted.
“Gino! Don’t talk that way.”
They pulled off the main road and drove for ten minutes, turning left and right and going through a number of busy intersections. This time they were on a street with tall trees and there was a sign which read: CHRISTMAS TREES: LIVE AND CUT. In the front yard were two large maples with branches that arched over the house. From an old red lean-to at the side hung wreaths and sprays of holly. Several families were looking hopefully in and out of the rows. A boy with long red hair that escaped from beneath a blue stocking cap lagged behind them. Probably a high-school kid. He was working a wad of gum and had traces of acne. He slouched, was indifferent and laughed for some obscure reason. “You like this baby?” he asked and pointed to a tree with roots bundled in burlap. “Lotta people gettin’ these now.”
“How much are they?” asked Kathy.
“Most of them are twelve,” he said and lifted his brow. “But figure you can dig ‘em up every year.”
Gino looked at Kathy. “Let’s get one,” he said. Excitement spread in her eyes like sunlight on open water. They searched for a good one. Most were giant or runty but soon they found one that was perfect. It was a spruce, thickly green and conical. Nearly six and a half feet tall. Gino and the boy staggered and grunted with the tree until it rested on the bed of the truck. The needles squeaked on the rear window of the cab. “I don’t want to bend the boughs,” he told the boy as he paid him. From under the ripped driver’s seat, he took a length of white nylon cord and tied the tree to the wooden headboard.
“Now,” she said, apologetically. “One more thing?”
“I need a few things at the Mall.”
He bit his cheek, shifted, and headed across town. Using all the side streets and short cuts he knew, he drove fast, downshifting and braking hard. Twice there were one-way signs on streets that were formerly two-way. His face was hot and his undershirt soaked. He moistened his lips. They had to hurry. The first shift at the shipyard would soon be out. Traffic would be even worse on the way home.
The Mall had a huge parking lot but from the cloverleaf overpass he could see there was no space. Thousands of carroofs reflected the weak hazy sun. Gino decided to park on the other side of the highway. The truck would be pointed in a homeward direction. They could cross to the Mall on foot. It was downhill, too, and he could keep an eye on the tree.
“I’ll wait here,” he said and stood just inside the door.
“Okay, I’ll be about ten minutes.”
By the enormous plate glass wall, he watched her disappear in the tide of shoppers. Christmas carols rang tinnily from speakers along the concourse. There was a roped-off Santa receiving kids with hopeful faces; one by one they told him their wants.
Outside the door, an old yellow Pontiac with body rot and broken exhaust idled roughly and discharged a mother and five children. The mother was wrapped in a faded blue coat, her hair in curlers covered by a white scarf. Her face was puffy and dark and had a cigarette tucked into a corner of the red mouth. Gino watched her waddling toward him, herding her chicks through the door.
The concourse roared. Minutes seemed to scab his lips, salt his throat. The truck, small and green, sat on the hill. Twice, several cars slowed suspiciously past. Where was she? The shipyard would be letting out any minute. Gino hurried down the concourse. Jostled by the crowd past Santa, he made his way to the store. He walked down an aisle that was narrowed by boxes of extra stock. Shelves, heavily piled, rose almost to the ceiling. He turned left then right and at last came to a clearing. A fake evergreen stood before him; it was seven feet high and looked almost real. The boughs were made of twisted wire segments, each like a green bottle brush. A printed card proclaimed: IT WILL LAST FOREVER: $15.00. He could still see their tree on the bed of the truck. Two men were probably lifting it onto another pick-up. Christ, where the hell was she? He was walking, looking, rising on his toes. From the left came the sound of chirping birds. Canaries and parakeets.
“Excellent price on that table. Ten per cent off.” The voice was deep, husky. The man, broad-shouldered, fashionably dressed and wearing gold-rimmed glasses, rocked on his heels.
“I’m just looking for my wife,” murmured Gino.
“What?” His sideburns were like knives, his trousers sharply creased. He was all edges and too close for Gino who moved away and looked down an aisle to the right where there were gold and silver cages in tiers. Gino’s face felt red. He bit at the skin on his lip. “What did you have in mind?” The salesman stationed himself in Gino’s view, feet apart, rocking on his heels. His hands, big and hairy, glittering with rings, wiped his mouth then cradled the chin.
“My wife, now bug off.”
“What? I can’t hear you.”
The canaries cheeped louder. Past the salesman’s shoulder they were moving yellow blurs. Gino’s ears rang. He averted his eyes, turned and walked away.
A little boy with dark curly hair stood in the aisle holding a toy rifle. Gino stopped. It was a replica of the M-16. The boy looked up, placed it back in the box, and ran off. Gino’s hands went out and brought it back; they closed around the grips and remembered the feel. Nearly the same size though much lighter than his .22 Winchester, long unused, home rusting in the shed. This was made of plastic but surprisingly real with the sling and square magazine on the underside. Gino gazed down the aisle and saw the woman with the faded blue coat and white scarf. The coat was open now and he could see that her stomach bulged with an unborn child. The ragged children flocked about her legs and tugged at her skirt. She scolded them in a foreign language. They were probably Puerto Ricans. The husband was with them now; he was wearing a leather jacket and gray T-shirt, hair tufting from the collar, a gold chain around his neck. One of the children began to stare at Gino.
She had pigtails tied with bright red ribbon and wore a coat that was too big. The face was dirty and the nose ran freely. Nearby were cash registers chugging up sales. The sound grew louder and louder. Things bought and soon discarded by people like this. So many of them all over the country breeding mountains of garbage. With a fresh butt in her mouth, the mother, child in her arms, also began to stare at Gino. Finally all of their eyes were on him. He threw off the safety and cut loose with the M-16, blew the baby from the woman’s arms. Her mouth, round and moaning, was a ruby hole. The long cigarette, from her lower lip, fell end over end. The rifle bucked against his shoulder. He fired again and watched her fly against a shelf raking dozens of dolls to the floor. The dirty children were lifted from the ground like puppets on a wire. The father shook his head, pleadingly extended his hand, then shot backward with another burst. He lay on his back, a pink stain spreading and reddening on his shirt. The noise was terrible yet Gino fired again. The bodies jumped with the entering of each slug. He whirled to cover his back. The salesman stood in the mouth of the aisle, his jaw slack. Gino gave him a burst too and watched him bounce against a stack of boxes which toppled and buried him so that only his legs were in sight. The ringing finally subsided. Again he could hear the tropical birds, the cash register still on a binge.
“What are you doing with that?” asked Kathy.
Gino looked down at the rifle. “Nothing,” he said, putting it back in the box.
“Let’s get going,” she said, handing him some lip ice. “Here, your lip is bleeding.”
The truck tires keened on the metal roadway of the bridge and Gino’s stomach was tight; it felt as if a piece of ice had left the river and lodged in his belly. He kept seeing the family, the woman lying on her back, her head oddly twisted, blood leaking from the nose. The jungle birds were making a din.
At last he drove up the long dirt road between the two front fields. The house was white clapboard with black shutters. There was a barn and a shed, both weathered to the color of an old beehive. A wall of trees stood in back and at the side of the house. His father, a slight man with a leathery face, gray hair and smiling eyes, came out to help and together they worried the tree into the front hall.
“How much did it cost?” asked Mom.
“Twelve dollars,” said Kathy.
“My Lord,” said Mom, “we used to pay a dollar. Remember, Dad?” She turned around. “Now where did he go?”
“To get some floor covering, I guess.”
She turned to Kathy. “That husband of mine,” she said jokingly, “spends more time in the barn, the yard, and the Lord knows where. Goes out with the trash and stands there looking at the trees like he’s never seen them before. What you’d call a real Nature Boy.”
Kathy laughed and conspired. “My father’s something like that too,” she said.
“Is he? Well, I’m a city girl. I may be here but my heart’s right down there at the corner of State and Main.” She paused and looked more closely at the tree. “Well, dear, what are you going to put on the limbs?”
Gino left the room and went to the shed. The door window still showed the two B-B holes from his early teens. He put his fingertips to the rough round craters. His father moved quietly in the semi-dark and when he bent to retrieve something on a lower shelf, the X-ed mullions seemed to rest on his back. Finally he emerged with a folded canvas. “Should do,” he said and they walked back to the house.
Gino and his father set the tree on canvas and stepped back to see it poised between the two front windows. Too close to the radiator. They moved it more to the side. That was better. But Gino would still have to spray the limbs now and then with water from a Windex bottle to make sure they didn’t dry out. Kathy was telling his father that the ornaments would be strung popcorn and cranberries, candy canes and snowman cookies with white glazed frosting. Nothing electric. She said that the stringing would take time and everyone had to help. His father laughed and gave her a hug. Gino studied the tree. They must not put too much weight on the branches. He tested their spring, the needles prickly to the touch, then smelled the resin on his fingers.
In the kitchen his mother was preparing supper and Kathy was popping corn for the tree; she shook the pan and it exploded like gunfire. Gino winced, took a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, and prized off the cap. His mother gave him a dark look. His drinking had caused her pain in the past.
The glassed-in porch, which ran the length of two sides of the house, was warmed by the sun even in winter. It was always comfortable until after dark. Gino sat in a chaise longue, sipped his beer and gazed at a red streak of sun on the snow. He followed with his eye the set of tracks he and his father had made into the trees yesterday afternoon. You’re a father, you work, you provide. That’s it. He put down the beer and took up the Russian novel he had bee trying to read.
Kathy came out to the porch, straddled the chair and sat on his thighs. The corners of her mouth lifted into a smile. Her teeth were even and very white. But what would they be like when the fetus began to draw on her calcium? Dark from the loss. And what of the apple in her cheeks? The baby with its secret needs would take that too. She leaned down until their foreheads touched. The plain gold cross he had given her as a birthday gift slipped from her blouse and dangled near his face. He let his eye travel the chain to her dark throat and then to the eyes, round and sea blue. “Your Mom and Dad are in a great mood,” she said. “We’ll have a good time tonight, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. There was a moment of quiet, then Gino said, “I was thinking we might go to midnight Mass tomorrow.”