In the confusion, it seemed that even the pictures on the walls had come to life and were jostling about hugging, kissing, and shouting “Christmas Gift!” So many Phersons! Philip stood against the side of the upright piano, well out of the way, and watched them enter the room by twos and threes and sixes, joining the body of their family, being absorbed into its ceremony.
He was still trying to sort out the headstones on the hill, and the family portraits. But now, here were the living ones as well, all back again, as in October. So much was the same as then, Philip thought; except that this time, instead of standing about eating wedding cake, they were pulling off mufflers, tying on aprons, unpacking presents, and hurrying off to the kitchen with dishes wrapped in linen towels. With all their shifting about, appearing, and disappearing, they seemed determined to undermine the system he had devised for remembering them. For whether they looked out of a daguerreotype or out of a sleet-dripped cap, Phersons all seemed the same. Except for Mae, Philip thought loyally, they all had the same jaw, set against an indefinable purpose; all had the same smile, tilted a shade off innocence; and all, he felt uncomfortably sure, had that same glance, the one that angled past you before you ever fully materialized.
But the thing that he hadn’t noticed until today was that they were not all Phersons. In spite of the similarities in their manner and appearance, some had only married Phersons.
Funny he hadn’t realized that before, he thought now. He must have been too caught up in the wedding excitement. Yet the same group had gathered at the reception and he hadn’t given it a thought. The same aunts and uncles, the same cousins, the same sisters-in-law, nieces, and babies; the same peevish dogs. Surely, it had been just as noisy and warm in October. Wouldn’t it have been even warmer in October? Philip had always found heat distracting. That’s why he couldn’t remember.
But heat shouldn’t be a problem on Christmas Day, with sleet falling outside. He moved over beside one of the tall narrow windows on the south wall of the parlor. The windows there were the original ones, their hand-blown glass wavy and bubbled. Sleet struck the glass, melting and slipping. Glass bubbles magnified ice bubbles, doubly distorting the yard and the hills beyond. Philip touched the windowsill and felt cold drafts of air leaking in around the wooden frame.
As a matter of fact, he thought, heat shouldn’t be a problem any day in the year in a house over a hundred and fifty years old. He turned from the window and looked up at the high, yellowed ceilings, bordered in fine wooden molding, festooned in cobwebs. It occurred to him that Mae and her mother hadn’t done much about cleaning up for Christmas, even with all this crowd coming in. “Oh, they wouldn’t like it not to look like home,” Mae had told him gaily when she was hanging mistletoe. “Remember this has been home to all of them, too, at one time or another, and they don’t like it changed. They can all remember Christmas in this house, back maybe eight generations.” She said it just that way, as if they did remember back eight generations, as if they personally knew all those people on the walls, and on the cemetery hill, as if they might have brought presents for them, too.
Now and then, between the guests, Philip caught a glimpse of the collection of china crowded into the great corner cabinet across the room; the dishes appeared to be put there merely for safe-keeping, not for any beauty the individual pieces might have had. They had to be kept somewhere, Mae said, and through the years, as each new generation of cousins sent teacups and saucers back from Toronto or Chicago, they had been added to that china cabinet. Pointing out the luster teapot in the lower corner, Mrs. Pherson had told him proudly that it was given to Katherine Kissecker for cooking a Cabinet dinner in Philadelphia. Which grandmother was she, Philip wondered. How long ago was that? When on earth did the Cabinet meet in Philadelphia?
The room held other antiquities as well, piled for safekeeping around the parlor floor: seashells, fossil rocks, magazines. Beyond a group of Pherson ankles and feet, Philip could see two hampers of clothes collected for mending. “Have they been waiting a whole generation to be mended?” he wondered, whimsically. “Who died before he ever got to wear them again?”
“Nothing new in this room since time began,” he thought. “Even the cobwebs look old.” Nothing new except his guitar. That had been a wedding present from his mother, and it was a very good instrument, made in Spain and waxed and polished to the russet color of oak leaves. It was a special present meant to replace the cheap thing he had plunked at all through his growing up years. “Sing to Mae,” his mother had told him. “Sometimes, sing to Mae.”
And he had, a dozen times or more since their marriage. Sometimes on cool weekends they had walked in the crisp leaves back up the gully to the upper springhead, and he’d sat with his foot propped on a damp rock, playing and singing folk songs. Mae sang with him then, her rich low voice reverberating from the rocks and surging over him like warm water. How he could play for her then! How grateful he was for his mother’s present! Sometimes late at night, with Mae propped on two pillows in the old bed, her long dark hair falling over the tucks in her nightgown, he’d play and sing again. But she never sang with him at home, in the house.
The guitar lay now in a space Mae had cleared out of the bookshelf. She had put both her hands into that shelf and just pulled out what was in it, letting it all fall into a pile on the floor; scrap-books, photo albums, china dogs; all the savings and leavings of people who couldn’t be saved or left themselves. And none of it mattered at all to her, she said. When she needed space, she just pushed aside or piled up something, and there, where it had been waiting for a hundred years, was the space. His eyes left the new guitar and, between the guests’ gesturing arms, followed the chair molding around to the fireplace, where the great chimney went up the wall to the big bedroom above.
After two months now, Philip thought he was going to like Mae’s old home place. That poster bed her mother had assigned to them—the one everybody thought Andrew Jackson had slept in—was certainly a pain in the neck and back. And after sleeping in it with Mae, he could believe all those stories about Grandma Pherson and the feather tick. She pulled feathers out of the tick every time she needed a new pillow, they said, leaving the tick looser and baggier each time. Still, a bride and groom weren’t going to notice the absence of a few antique goose feathers. Philip smiled to no one in particular and said under his breath, “To say the least!” Remembering the softness of Mae against the softness of the feather tick, he thought, “Ah, if Grandma Pherson could see her feather tick now!” No, indeed, as long as he and the lovely Mae slept far enough down the hall not to be able to hear Mrs. Pherson clearing her throat in the morning, he wasn’t going to complain about that bed or its feathers. Certainly the big upstairs bedroom, with its heavy furniture, its draperies, and its fireplace, was every inch and foot a Master Bedroom. And he, Philip Corrigan, was the new master. Philip remembered this with satisfaction and clasped his hands behind his back, swaying out a bit from the drafty, deep windowsill.
He had every reason in the world to feel like the master, too, he thought. He brought home the paycheck from the plant on Fridays—it was big enough for a man just starting out. He could finally pet Mae’s dog, Mutz—ugly bastard. And he could sleep every night with her, with Mae Pherson who was his wife, in that damn bed. What’s more, he’d been doing that since their wedding in October, and he’d be doing that until he died, he supposed, trying not to visualize Mae growing old in her grandmother’s bed. Mae and her mother had nothing left but this old house and its furnishings and land; and they’d never leave it, never even dream of leaving it. Marrying Mae, then, meant marrying the house as well, and assuming its responsibility until he, too, moved up into the northwest corner of the hill reserved for the second James Pherson’s descendants. Philip Corrigan had come into possession of his cemetery plot at the same time he came into possession of his wife, Mae, and her dog, and her mother, and her grandmother’s feather tick, and Katherine Kissecker’s teapot.
Philip was beginning to think about this aspect of his marriage now, the way he thought about the family portraits. “Death is a little like marriage,” his mother used to say after funerals, “It’s about two months before you realize what has happened.” So the two months had passed and things were indeed clearing up. He was beginning to think about the fringed edges of marriage, trying to get comfortable with them, the way he tried to get comfortable with the portraits.
But they didn’t bother him half as much as the portraits did. The portraits hung out from the walls. Everywhere he looked, upstairs in the bedrooms and halls, back in the dining room, here in the front parlor, the heavy picture wire had stretched and the Pherson features angled out at Philip, the eyes all looking somewhere past him. Perhaps he’d rehang the portraits when he got time, he thought, replace the wire, straighten those eyes. That was one thing he could do about this old place.
But what could he do about the heat, today, Christmas Day in the morning? It was getting worse as the room became more crowded. Even though sleet still sidled down the windows, and outside the round hills looked like huge glazed buns, here in this room it was stifling. With the whole clan now apparently here, Mrs. Pherson had put a big log on the fire, and it was blazing full fury up the chimney.
Philip watched the fire for a minute; then he left his window sill, worked his way across the room, saying “Excuse me,” “I beg your pardon,” grabbed the poker and pulled the fresh log forward on the andirons. He knocked out a large red ash against one of the black iron figures. As he hit the clanging iron with the poker, he laughed uneasily to himself. Mae called the andirons Ned and Sam. But they were women. Hadn’t she ever noticed that?
“Phil, my boy! Haven’t seen you since the wedding!” Uncle Frank’s voice clapped him over the shoulder like a hand.
“Hello, sir. Merry Christmas.”
“Christmas Gift, Phil,” said Uncle Prank, “We Phersons always say Christmas Gift, not Merry Christmas. Remember, first thing in the morning, Christmas Gift! Last thing at night, Christmas Gift!” Uncle Frank pumped his hand vigorously and cheerily. “Old family custom.”
Behind Uncle Frank stood his wife, Maude, two of Aunt Helen’s teenage daughters, Uncle Billy, and Uncle Billy’s grandson, Tommy Pherson. At least, Philip thought that’s the way they had been introduced to him. But he really wasn’t sure. Those guests at the wedding had been as indistinct as October’s leaves. And, with the exception of his mother, and the preacher, and his buddies up from Blacksburg, all of them apparently were some branch of the Phersons. Now, at this big family party, he had to tag the Pherson voice and the Pherson face with a Pherson name. He breathed down under his bottom rib, and cleared his throat. He wished Mae would come over and stand with him.
“Sarah. Yes. Hello, Sarah.” But here he had to remember that Sarah wasn’t named Pherson because her mother had been a Pherson who married a Morris. Philip smiled and nodded at the plump fourteen-year-old.
“Nancy? Nancy Morris? Yes, we’ve met. Merry Christmas, Nancy.”
“Christmas Gift, Phil,” said Nancy Morris brightly. For the life of him, Philip couldn’t remember seeing that girl before. Had she taken the braces off her teeth? Cut her hair? Grown it? He wished he could nail a walnut frame around each head and push it into line against the wall. That’s the reason for all those portraits, Philip thought, so you could keep the Phersons straight!
“What kind of tires you got on your car, Phil?” Uncle Billy moved into the space vacated by the Morris girls. Philip thought a minute.
“Uh, whatever came on it, sir. Regulars. White-walls.”
“No snow tires in this weather?” asked Uncle Billy. “Boy, you can’t live way up here all winter without snow tires.”
“Well, I thought if I got chains—” Philip began,
“Not necessary if you got the right kind of tire. I just want you to come out after while and take a look at mine. They’re brand new,” said Uncle Billy. “Deep traction cleats. We’d never have made it up here today if we hadn’t had ‘em. I just told Mae’s mama she’d have us here for the night if it wasn’t for those tires. Have to run you and Mae out of your bed!” He winked at Philip and, leaning over, repeated slyly, “Deep traction cleats.”
Philip shifted his feet on the rug and rubbed his wet palms down inside his back pockets. He wondered if he and Mae were expected to give up the poster bed when guests came. It would serve Uncle Billy right. Maybe that’s why they’d kept it all those years, he thought. Nobody would want it more than one night in his life. Even Old Hickory hadn’t come back!
“Philip? Philip? Son!” Mrs. Pherson called to him from the doorway to the hall. It was a large doorway, built in proportion to the old parlor, and leading to the even older hall. The hall, Uncle Frank told him at the wedding reception, was the oldest part of the house, still standing after 169 years on 12-inch square-hewn timbers. Mae’s mother, standing there now, filled the wide doorway, one side of her apron brushing the grooved door jamb, the other fanning out toward the iron latch. To Philip she looked as sturdy and indestructible as a 12-inch square-hewn timber.
“Philip, would you come out here to the dining room, please, dear? We’re trying to pull out both ends of the table while we put two more leaves in. We thought we’d let you help do it.” She said this in that tone designed to reinforce Philip’s masculinity. If it didn’t happen to need reinforcing, her remark made him think it did.
He had only recently become aware of her unique phrase: “I’ll let you help do it.” Saying it each time with that Pherson smile, she had let him help rebuild the dam below the spring, reshingle the roof over the kitchen, and take over the perpetual care and upkeep of the family cemetery on the hill. There was something about these privileges he hadn’t figured out yet. He was, after all, the man of the family now, and though Mrs. Pherson and Mae had been taking care of such matters ever since Mae’s father died, it did seem appropriate that the new man of the family take over. Yes, that’s what she was urging him to do, take over.
He excused himself from the group at the hearth and began to make his way across the parlor toward the door. John and Mary Pherson’s two little boys were pedaling their tri-cycles, one large and red, the other small and blue, toward each other, past each other, around and back again. It reminded Philip of having to cross the Wheel-a-Bump floor at the amusement park. Mutz was ducking in and out between the tricycle tires, just as Philip was forced to do, and for a moment Philip felt a genuine sympathy with Mutz. He reached out to pat his tangled head. Mutz barked sharply and drew back his lip.
Out in the hall, Philip was struck again by the odor of turkey fat. Of all the odors that collect in the woodwork just before Christmas, he thought, surely turkey fat is the strongest. He had been smelling it since he woke up, and now, with it growing stronger in the hallway and the dining room, he decided that he didn’t like turkey fat.
Never before in his life had he waked up in the dark and smelled turkey cooking. Waking up in the night was supposed to mean hearing things, not seeing or smelling them. You heard dogs bark; you heard thunder; you heard the joints in the old house contract and creak; or you heard your wife’s child-like breathing. . But this year, this new Christmas, at 4:30 in the morning, with Mae sleeping curled beside him, Philip Corrigan had awakened to the strong odor of poultry drippings browning under hot fat. It escaped from somewhere deep in the cook-stove oven, floated through the dark dining room, out into the hall, and up the staircase, like a family ghost. And after he’d awakened smelling it, and had known what he was smelling, he couldn’t get back to sleep for the life of him. That strong penetrating odor reminded him of all the noise and bustle and overwhelming confusion that somehow he knew would face him today. He thought he could smell the whole Pherson family floating up and down the staircase.
As indeed they seemed to be right now; except that floating was inaccurate. They were running, hopping, sliding; they were chortling and whining and shouting. Jimmy was on the landing sticking his fat legs through the balustrade; four girls played button-button below him; and the twins were sliding in tandem down the banister. The whole future of the Pherson family seemed to be in ascent or descent on that worn old staircase.
And at its base were draped the Pherson things. Never had Philip seen so many snowsuit pants and boots, so many umbrellas, caps, and driving gloves. With only his mother and himself at home, Christmas had been quiet and simple. And private, he thought. Yes, his Christmases had been the way Christmas ought to be; not like this circus! He’d have to see what he could do about Christmas here next year. Maybe the family would all go some place else to celebrate and he and Mae could have Christmas alone. Certainly when they had children. . . . He entered the dining room, walking past Grandma Pherson’s sideboard to reach the table.
The sideboard was as crowded with Pherson foodstuffs as the parlor with Phersons. So much food! How many dishes of corn pudding could be eaten in that one afternoon ? Every woman in the family had brought her specialty, and it seemed to Philip every specialty was corn pudding. He looked at five baking dishes, cuddled warmly in towels. Four of them contained corn pudding and one stewed dried corn. Beside those dishes were bowls of applesauce and baked apples and stewed apples, jugs with long stalks of celery beginning to wilt, dishes of tomatoes stewed with sugar and toast, and platters of deviled eggs surrounded by pickled cherry tomatoes. Pickled cherry tomatoes!
Surveying the sideboard, Philip thought there was apparently no limit to an imagination bent on pickling things. He saw beets, peppers, pimentos, onions, cucumbers in various and wondrous broths, Seckel pears, peaches, watermelon rind, and pigs’ feet, all pickled. And corn. Yes, there in a long, cut crystal pickle dish, were tiny ears of corn; pickled. Nothing before Philip on the sideboard was going to be allowed to taste the way it grew; he could see that. It would all be spiced, or vinegared, or baked in custard, or chopped, stewed, and deviled. He felt again that old uneasiness, like sin. Nothing honest. Nothing plain or unaltered.
He pulled at the end of the walnut dining table, altering it to a feast table, where Mae had said all fourteen of the grown-ups could be seated comfortably. They had set places for the children in the kitchen. There was more food out there for them. More puddings and more pickles, Philip thought. He gave a hard shove to his end of the table, slamming it with an impatience he didn’t understand against the handcarved wooden pegs in the fourth leaf. He wished he could find Mae and go off where it was cool and quiet, upstairs maybe, if the babies weren’t napping in the big bedroom.
He slipped past the aunts’ apron ruffles, under the edge of the lace tablecloth already being billowed from end to end over the dark wood, and back out into the hall. The air there was cool and damp, fresh with sleet melting on the newcomers. Aunt Lou and Uncle Max and their dog were arriving late. Mae said Aunt Lou always arrived late because she liked everyone else to be ready for her. Philip tried in vain to catch Mae’s eye; she seemed caught up in this latest greeting ritual, unwinding a scarf off Aunt Lou’s pale red curls and assuring her that no, her hair didn’t show a sign of grey, even around the temples. Aunt Lou directed Uncle Max not to put her fur coat on a wire hanger, but on a heavy wooden hanger so it would keep its shape. She waited while Mae went upstairs to look for a wooden hanger. When Mae returned, Aunt Lou gave her the little Pomeranian to hold while she took off her coat. His silken hair fell from his legs and tail, his ears and face, but was held tightly confined along his body by a handknitted turquoise sweater.
“Shall I take off Baby’s sweater, Aunt Lou?” asked Mae.
“Oh, not yet, dear. I think there may be drafts in this old house. After while, perhaps. When he becomes accustomed to the air here.” She took Baby back, smoothing his ears. Then, tiny and delicate, Lou Emma Pherson Jones entered the parlor like a virgin queen.
When he’d finished hanging the fur coat, Mae hugged Uncle Max, took the old Navy stocking cap from his bald head and kissed him on its taut, shiny surface. “My favorite uncle!” she said. Aunt Lou called back from inside the circle of relatives gathering for her audience. “Max, let Mae take that shopping bag of packages.”
Mae took the large department store bag from Uncle Max and carried it into the parlor where, one by one, she pulled the presents out and piled them along the edge of the library table. A few large ones she put out on the floor underneath.
It was unnerving to look at that table. Philip tried not to look; yet he was fascinated by what might happen to it when Mae added the new load of packages. Everybody’s Christmas present for everybody else was either on the table or on the floor underneath, and some appeared precariously ready for a spontaneous change from the table position to the floor position. They were all sizes and shapes, some wrapped in waxy store paper with gold seals, others in brown sacks, some with manufactured pom-pom bows, some with red laundry?> string hastily and crookedly tied across the corners. It made Philip tired to think of having to watch them all opened, waiting while the guests took turns shaking, listening, guessing, and finally exclaiming brightly over the contents. He felt quite sour about those pretty presents. “There are too many of them,” he asserted to himself. “Too damn many! They choke the Christmas tree!”
The little Christmas tree stood in the center of the large library table, buttressed on all sides by the packages. It wasn’t much bigger, Philip thought, than the wedding cake which had sat in that same spot in October; and certainly, with that log-jam pushing at its trunk, it didn’t look half as important. It was a small, densely green cedar out of the back of the barn lot that Mrs. Pherson had cheerily and with considerable ceremony let him help her chop down. He had chopped it at her direction, carried it into the back porch at her direction, and stood it there, also at her direction, against the wooden shelves that stored every garden gadget for the last three wives in this house. Mrs. Pherson stuck the little tree into a crock of wet dirt. Then he carried it in to the parlor table and Mae laid the decorations on it. That’s just what she did, he thought, laid them on it: a few shiny balls, a long winding string of tarnished tinsel she’d found in one of the back storerooms, and lots of knotted metal icicles that had been used and saved and used again since she was a little girl, maybe since Grandma Pherson was a little girl. The icicles were so thick and so clumped that they hid most of the limbs. Philip wondered if the tree were having trouble getting air.
The trees he knew and liked were large and open; white pine, he thought, with secret places deep in the limbs for hanging ornaments. He used to spend Christmas Eve counting them. In his freshly ironed pajamas, he’d sit in the quiet while his mother read, and hug his knees up to his chest for warmth, and count. Six tinsel stars and a blue trumpet; eleven red balls, some large, some small, three with gold bands around the middle; two manger scenes with little carved babies; a cotton snowman carrying a broom; and four angels of assorted persuasions. Sometimes he would lose count and have to start all over; but he did start over, again and again, hoping to get them right. It was a way he had of tying Christmas up where he could keep it, like a mysterious package, never opened. There were no tumbles of people and noise, no avalanche of packages; just his tree and his ornaments. His special favorite was the red violin, the violin played by a paper angel who hung in its strings, plucking the gold metallic threads.
“Philip, dear, come over here and I’ll just let you put another log on the fire.” Aunt Lou was calling to him from the large armchair near the hearth. Two of the men stood behind her laughing heartily and gesturing, and one of the little boys solemnly watched, but did not touch, the little dog in her lap. The dog watched, but did not touch, the little boy.
“You don’t think about it now, you young people,” Aunt Lou said, “but when your bones get old, you need more heat. And as you see, my old bones haven’t much insulation on them.” She laughed lightly and stretched one small foot out on the top of a petit-pointed stool. She wore a low-heeled shoe of soft black leather, with a silver buckle over the toe. She looked, as Mae once told him, just the way she planned to look. The ruffle of peach-colored cloth around her neck reached almost to her jawbone, hiding what must have been the loose skin he saw so often in the old portraits—the Pherson jowl. He wondered now, thinking about it, if Mae’s jaw would sag like that when she got older, and if she would wear some kind of ruffle to hide it. Certainly Aunt Lou was remarkably well preserved, even if she did have to resort to a ruffle here and there. Her appearance even now strongly suggested her girlhood picture hanging upstairs next to Mae’s dressing table. He saw it every time he watched Mae before the mirror.
“Philip.” Aunt Lou said, her voice low and meditative. “Philip.” She paused over the name, listening to it. “I don’t think I like that name Philip. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like you.” She smiled delicately. “May I call you Phil?” Her voice had a nasal quality that was almost sweet; it curved snugly about the words, rounding them off with innocence.
“Well, if you like Phil better, of course you may,” said Philip. “Though I have always preferred to be called by my real name. My mother, as a matter of fact, was very particular about it.” He paused, then decided to ask, “Why don’t you like Philip?”
“Too prissy,” said Aunt Lou, fluffing the little sweatered dog’s appendages across her lap. He yawned at the disturbance and settled his long silk tail on her dress. “You’re the man of the family, now,” continued Aunt Lou, “You ought to have a good short masculine name. Pete, or Tom, or Jim would be better, but Phil is as close as you’ll be able to come, I supose.” And she smiled up at him in a way intended to make him think she was really smiling.
But Philip knew the deadly seriousness with which she manipulated names. For Aunt Lou herself had been named in caprice, and the story of her naming had been told to her repeatedly, with an emphasis that varied from the sympathetic to the spiteful, depending on the occasion and the teller. The first baby in her generation of Phersons, she was to have been a son and a progenitor of the family name. But when she arrived, a tiny, skinny girl-baby, her parents were forced to reconsider her potential. She gave them early hints; and after only a few clays’ acquaintance, Grandma Pherson began calling her Lou Emma, after her two Jersey milk cows. “She’s got skin soft as a cow’s udder,” Grandma had said, “gums hard as horn, and the way she holds her breath when she can’t have something, she acts stubborn as both cows yoked together.” LOU EMMA was entered into the family Bible. According to Mae, the names were to prove extremely disagreeable to their owner. And when she grew old enough to ride prettily in a Model A, she asked her young men to call her Lucy. (Philip looked at the peach ruffle and imagined Lucy.) At Teachers College, she signed her name Louisa M., sounding literary. When she got married, she herself made the Bible entry in her precisely slanted hand: Louisa Emmaline Pherson to Percy Maxwell Jones.Philip looked across the noisy parlor toward Uncle Max, round and bald as ham-fat.
“We haven’t had a man in this house since Mae’s daddy died, Phil.” Aunt Lou’s eyes came almost squarely onto Philip’s face. He wondered if she included in that Uncle Max whom she had surely refused to call Percy. “You have a big responsibility here, young man. You do realize that, don’t you?” Philip tried to think of something to say. But then he saw that she was not really looking at him, exactly the way none of them really looked at him. Instead, she was looking just past him, toward the hall where Mrs. Pherson stood wiping her hands on her apron.
“Ruth, dear, do you need me for a little job?” Aunt Lou called out gracefully. “I brought my special nut cake, you know. I let Max make it only yesterday, so it would be nice and fresh.” She began to gather up the sleeping dog in her lap. “But I’ll be glad to get out napkins or something now, if you’ll just show me what you want.” Her voice wasn’t exactly curved, Philip thought. It was serpentine!
Aunt Lou never looked at him again, but got up firmly on her pretty feet, and, carrying the sweatered muff, walked toward the door, ending the audience.
With his back still turned toward the room, its stew pot of people and guttural noises, and the small, sad Christmas tree, Philip leaned his head on the hand-carved mantelpiece and stared at the fire, now briskly consuming Aunt Lou’s log. He wondered if he were hot because he had been standing beside the fire, or because he had been talking to Aunt Lou. Perspiration beaded and rolled down the side of his face, shining like the stove-polish skin on the andirons. Funny, Philip thought, funny about Ned and Sam being women. Yet, in spite of himself, he too had begun to think of them as Ned and Sam, just like the rest of the family.
“Oh, they’ve always been called Ned and Sam,” Mae had told him when he first started coming to see her. She sounded as if she had never questioned the logic of naming andirons; and naming them Ned and Sam when they were clearly large-bosomed didn’t seem at all remarkable to her. She saw them with the eyes of eight generations of unquestioned habit. “They used to be out in the slave kitchen,” she had told him. “It was a big fireplace there, big enough to walk into, and the cooks would split sticks of firewood over their heads.” Mae had picked up a small apple log and demonstrated. The log broke easily over the kerchiefed iron heads, but the figurines stood motionless under her attack. “When the slave kitchen burned down—that was when Grandaddy was little, I think—they brought Ned and Sam into the parlor. They’ve been here ever since.”
Now, with their breasts sagging into iron skirt folds, Ned and Sam were holding up the logs for still another Christmas. They were slaves, Philip thought with wonder, doing the same job for the family, generation after generation, never wavering, never protesting, iron slaves made to look like those real slaves buried on the hill in the sunken graves outside the cemetery fence. They were carrying some kind of burden, bags of cotton, he thought, black iron cotton; and they kept on standing there patiently while kitchens and Christmases burned down around them. Philip looked at the inscrutable expressions on their black iron faces, and the worn surfaces and nicks on their mutilated heads. For some reason he couldn’t define, he felt as uneasy as he had at smelling that turkey fat in the night.
“Phil, I want to speak to you about something.” Uncle Frank came round the high-backed chair and stood facing Philip in front of the fireplace. “That big mower that Mae’s daddy used to take such good care of is sitting out there in the barn lot rusting.”
“Oh,” replied Philip. “Well, sir, I mowed the cemetery hill with it. That was just two weeks ago, I think. Mae’s mother said I ought to get rid of all the tall dried grass before bad weather set in. I needed the big mower.”
“Well, it’s all right to use the mower, of course; that’s what it’s for. But you should have put it away when you finished with it. Mae’s daddy set great store by that machine.”
Philip shifted out a few steps from the hearth. The fire spit with heat and he found he was very uncomfortable. In the dining room a brass bell rang out, and Mrs. Pherson and Mae came to the door clapping their hands for attention.
“Christmas Gift! Come eat your Christmas Gift!”
The women gathered up children and tricycles; the men scoured out damp cigars; and the roomful of people changed directions two or three times, swung about, rethreaded, and channeled toward the hall. Philip was the last to follow.
Suddenly, Baby ran yelping frantically back into the room, his flash of turquoise sweater darting between quick-stepping feet. Mutz snapped at his plume of a tail and chased him like a broom under the library table, knocking over the heap of Christmas packages, catching toe-nails in ribbons, and landing finally against the back table leg.
That table leg supported a tall package that seemed responsible for holding all of Christmas up. The tall package fell, the gifts above it lost balance and slid off onto the book shelf next to the table, then onto the floor. A large red foil package fell on the top of Philip’s guitar, thumping it hollowly like a flat hand.
Philip walked quickly over to the guitar, removed it gently from under the package and carried it to the other side of the parlor, where he placed it on the top of the upright piano, under the watchful eyes of Mae Pherson Corrigan’s wedding portrait.
“Have some more sweet potatoes, Frank.” Mae’s mother scooped up a large serving spoon of buttery, yellow potatoes. Uncle Frank declined firmly; then as she seemed not to hear him, he protested aggressively, picking up his plate and moving it over toward his coffee cup. But the spoon followed the plate’s arc and succeeded in depositing the sweet potatoes exactly where the last helping of sweet potatoes had been. That was next to the last helping of mashed potatoes and cream gravy, and between the third helping of corn pudding and the second helping of string beans.
For two hours, it seemed, this ritual had been going on. Philip really didn’t know what he would do if she came by his plate again with that serving spoon. But, dedicated as a missionary bishop, Mrs. Pherson continued moving among her communicants, sometimes in solitary authority, sometimes followed by Mae, who carried things like biscuits and corn muffins. There seemed to be no end to what had come out of that cook stove: the vegetable and fruit dishes, the breads, the pot roast, the stuffed bass, the country ham. And, most imposing of all, the turkey, that large, thoroughly browned bird that apparently had cooked all night and had been set down in front of Philip’s place at the end of the table.
“You’re the man of the house this Christmas,” Mae’s mother had said to him with great emphasis when they first went into the dining room. “We’re going to let you carve the turkey.”
Let him carve the turkey! Philip had never carved a turkey in his whole life! He didn’t even know where to begin; and the whole Pherson family sat around the table, racked like enormous spoons, watching him and the turkey. Mae, his own wife Mae, came and laid in front of his plate a large silver carving set, engraved on the handle with an Old English P. “That’s for Philip!” she laughed, lightly touching his cheek. The tools were scratched and worn; the P, he knew, stood for Pherson.
For the first time since early that morning Philip could hear silence. No one had his plate yet; no one had lifted a fork. And, except for the subdued clatter of children back in the kitchen, all laughter and talking seemed suspended like breath while Christmas approached its climax—the carving of the turkey.
Philip wished for partridges or ducks, or something exotic that would confound them all, anything, he thought, except this enormous, brown, glistening, familiar, traditional turkey, lying supine on Grandma Pherson’s mother’s platter. Its wing-tips lay dry and exhausted on the platter; the breast bone broke out like a crag through the skin; the legs, erect and knobby, embraced a sullen bouquet of celery leaves, propped and spread to screen the body cavity. The leaves were wilting. As was Philip.
He began to wipe at the sweat beading on his forehead, using his napkin instead of his handkerchief. He thought his nose was going to run. Looking quickly at Mae, he wished the two of them could go eat in the kitchen. Ah, but the children were in the kitchen. Maybe in the parlor, he thought, or on the stairs. He wished they could go somewhere, anywhere, and have Christmas. . . .
The family watched. They were not able to eat, or pass any other food, or even converse, as long as the turkey had to be sliced and served onto the enormous stack of plates in front of Philip. Nor did they advise. They were absolutely quiet, watching his performance and judging his merit, not as the young host, Philip Corrigan, but as a new and malleable addition to the Pherson family. And Mae herself, sitting halfway down the right side of the table, was also watching.
It was not easy to do. Carving a turkey takes self-assurance and a considerable flare for performance. In his position at the head of the table, on his first Christmas after joining the family, Philip Corrigan was certain only of his deficiencies. He felt the family would see only his deficiencies. But today there was no place for him but here, and in this room no time but now. With acute awareness of his arms and hands and fingertips, he picked up the carving knife, and then the fork; and while the family still hung without speech on his movements, he sank both tools into the Pherson Christmas.
He found the skin like hide after its night in the oven; there was no convenient entry except through the celery leaves. He ran into tendons that looked like bones, and sliced up gristles that looked like meat. He got drippings on the lace tablecloth. And his fingers began to stick together with something like glue.
But one by one, with some dark meat and some white, the plates were served and started clockwise around the table. The first one went to Philip’s left and was passed all the way down, across the end, and back up the other side to the person sitting on Philip’s right. The next plate followed, stopping one short, and so on, until everyone was served and the plate remaining in front of him was his own, empty and ready for his holiday feast. Giving way to the confusion of relief, he blew his nose on his napkin and wiped his hands on his handkerchief.
“You’ll learn, Phil, my boy,” said Uncle Billy, finally. “With Mae’s mama to give you some lessons, you’ll learn in a hurry.”
“Yes. Yes, sir, I expect so,” said Philip.
And the rest of the meal was served. Each bowl and basket and platter in its turn began the clockwise rotation around the table, being lifted and guided into the orbital pattern by the family’s hands. Everything returned miraculously to the spot it had left.
When the serving and eating began in earnest, so did the talking. “Sissie, pass me the pepper relish.” “Max, that’s not good for you and you know it.” “Is there another little piece of that liver? Baby does love liver!” “You need bread. Here, have another corn muffin!”
Philip heard questions and answers passed round the table like plates. It was difficult to identify the speaker before new helpings of questions and answers were spooned out.
“Well, Phil, my boy, we’ll have another member of the family here by next Christmas, won’t we?”
“Uh. Well. Haha. Um.” Philip tried to chew a piece of dark meat.
“Would you like some more corn pudding? Here, Frank, you need some more.”
“No, really, I’d prefer—” He spoke through a biscuit.
“So, you didn’t get to Vietnam, son. Well, don’t feel bad. I didn’t get out to the Pacific either. Fought the battle of Hampton Roads, you might say.”
“Was that for the Navy, Uncle Max?”
“Mae, have we any more biscuits, dear? I’ll just let you check in the oven for mother.”
“Hush, Max. Phil isn’t interested in building ships.”
“Oh, but Aunt Lou, I definitely am—”
“Phil, I think the dam is going to need more timber on the upper side. I’ll let you cut what you need off my back lot.”
“But sir, I think when the earth packs down—”
“No, you’re wrong there. Mae’s daddy would never have left such a weak bank. You’ll have to fix it.”
“How about potato salad? Can I pass you the potato salad?”
“Well, darn it, I will tell him about ships if I want to!”
“Max! Oh. Why, Max, dear. Whatever has come over you?”
“Would you like another stuffed orange, Helen? You always like anything stuffed.”
“Here, I’ll let you have mine. I’m full.”
“Well, I’ll say one thing, we Phersons were never rich. But we never went hungry either!”
“Mae! Here! Get this dog. I will not have him coming in here under the table and tearing up somebody’s stockings. You take him outside right this minute!”
“Yes, Mother. Come on, Mut/. Come on, boy. Mutz! Mutz, you come on, right this minute!”
“How about some more sauerkraut, Frank. I stood up and cut cabbage for two days last summer making this for you.
“Phil, it looks to me like you could have brought that big mower into the shed. Or at least put some kind of cover on it.”
“Mae, your skin is looking so much better now. I think marriage must agree with you.”
“More pickled beets anyone? More pickled corn?”
Philip listened to the room, with its cutting and chewing and swallowing, listened to the little speeches that cut and chewed and swallowed. Upstairs, he could hear one of the babies crying; out in the kitchen, children shouting. The banished Mutz was barking at the porch window; Mrs. Pherson was clearing her throat. In a precise line between Aunt Lou’s shoulder and a dim portrait of the second James Pherson, Mae stood, holding out a plate of corn muffins. Philip looked at her. He looked at all the eyes, and the jaws, and the smiles. Then he looked out the window where sleet was still falling, on across the road to the white barn lot, and up the hill to where the gravestones were just visible. “They can all remember Christmas in this house,” Mae had said, “back maybe eight generations.” And now he, Philip Corrigan—without ever thinking what he was about—had become an accomplice to still another generation. He would be one of them. With Mae and her mother and her family, there would be no stopping things, or changing them, just as there had been no stopping or changing them since the first James Pherson had put up those square-hewn timbers.
Philip felt extremely hot, and thought he might have a fever. When he lifted his hands to wipe across his upper lip, they smelled strongly of turkey fat.
“Would you—would you excuse me, please?” he said softly, to all the people not listening. “I think I’ll go check on the fire.” And he arranged the carving knife and fork with the Old English P neatly on the edge of the large antique platter, put his napkin in a rumpled fold beside his plate, got up and walked quickly out of the room.
In the parlor the air was cool at last, fed by little drafts around the old windows. The logs had burned through and fallen off the andirons into a bed of red coals and grey ashes. Ned and Sam stood silent as antiquity, cooling.
Philip walked to the little Christmas tree, studied its sagging chain-mail limbs and its tumbled field of presents; then he turned and crossed the room to the upright piano where he had put his guitar. Mae’s portrait smiled past him toward her invisible wedding photographer. Philip picked up his guitar, took it over to the hearth and sat down on the petit-pointed stool in front of Ned and Sam. He tuned it softly, a string at a time, strummed and tuned some more; then he began to play. At first almost inaudibly, he played a mountain ballad, then a Christmas carol.
“Philip! Philip? What on earth are you doing in here? Come on back for dessert! Everybody’s waiting for you.” Philip turned and over his shoulder saw Mae standing in the doorway, her apron almost as wide as her mother’s, her feet small, set apart, with silver buckles on the shoes. “Mother’s serving her special ice cream. You know, the kind with eggs in it and all top cream. You don’t want to miss that!”
Philip kept picking at the guitar strings, shifting his fingers across the frets to change the harmony. He began to hum.
“Philip, you come on now, right this minute. It’s your Christmas dessert. And it’ll melt!” Mae stared straight at him, but only for a moment; then she turned on her buckled shoe and went briskly back to the Pherson table. Philip kept humming as he watched her cross the hall into the dining room. Then his eyes circled the parlor walls, lightly passing each sagging picture without focusing on a single one of them. And he began to sing. He put his left foot up on the base of an andiron, and, huddling toward the dying fire, he played to Ned and Sam, and sang and sang.