March 16, 2016
George walked out of the garage, a ten-pound sack of kitty litter draped over his right shoulder. Long silver tufts of hair pushed their way out of his cap tickled his ears. He tugged the cap down with his free hand, creating a lopsided mess of blue and red knit. He sighed, and his hot breath shot a brief smoke signal into the cold air.
Just before he reached the two-thirds of the driveway that was iced over, George let the sack of litter fall from his shoulders, grabbing it by the top quarter before he plopped it down onto the wet driveway. He slid his hand into the deep left pocket of his robe and pulled out an antique silver letter opener. As he moved the opener toward the top corner of the sack of litter, he noticed the reflection of the rising sun framed by smaller, colorful halos glowing in the middle of the silver. He took a moment then in the twilight to admire the distant sun and fading glow of the neighborhood Christmas lights. To the right, greens and yellows and reds and blues were all strung together along metal porch rails, competing with the white glow of the strands that lined gutters, all of them fighting the sunrise and the beads of condensation covering their bulbs, attempting to mask their glow.
George felt something brush his pajama pants leg, and was startled back from his trance. He dropped the letter opener between his boots. Sandy, a scrawny, pale orange cat that belonged to the neighbors, darted off and shouted a meow that matched the clang of the silver hitting the concrete. George picked up the letter opener and stabbed the top corner of the bag of litter. He took off a rough slice, placed it in his robe pocket, and picked the bag up. He tilted the bag and formed a small mound of kitty litter beside him on the wet driveway. He rubbed his snow boots against the concrete to wet the soles, and then with both feet, stepped into the mound of litter. He stomped a few times into the mound to ensure even coverage. Bending at the knees, George brought both of his shoes, one at a time, to the front of his body to inspect his stomping job. Satisfied, he grabbed the sack of litter and carefully covering the sliced-off corner, heaved it back over his right shoulder.
Just as he began to turn toward the front walkway, through the clouds of his own breath, George noticed a figure coming toward him from behind the garage. He squinted and made out a tall, skinny young man. Conner, a boy his daughter’s age, and the son of the new hired help that stayed in the guest house behind the garage, was signaling something and flailing his arms about as he hurried in George’s direction. Confused, George stood motionless, waiting for the boy’s approach. Panting, and with a dripping nose, Conner expelled with hot breath into George’s face, “Mr. Hardell, please, let me help you with that.” The young man wiped his nose, and with glistening, mucus covered fingers, moved to pull the sack of litter off of George’s shoulder.
“That’s ok, Conner. I’ve got it, really.”
“But Mr. Hardell, You shouldn’t be out here so early and with it being so cold and all.” Conner continued to reach for the sack as George stepped back slowly with each attempt.
“Conner. I’m fine. I appreciate you trying to help, but you see, I’ve already covered my boots and you are in slippers for christsake.” Conner looked down at his feet, confused, as if he had no idea that he had anything covering them at all.
“Mr. Hardell, please, my mother saw you through the window and insisted that I come out here and cover the walkway for you. If I come back having done nothing, she’ll kill me.” He twisted up his face in concern with downcast eyes on a tilted head, a look children often give adults that makes them give-in to just about anything. Avoiding the expression on Conner’s face, George looked past him to the guest house. There in the window, Conner’s mother, still dressed in her house robe with her long hair unpinned, was smiling while she pushed up a gently waving hand to George.
“Fine. That’s fine. Tell your mother I said thank you but that it isn’t necessary that you help around the house with everything. And Conner, make sure you cover everything well. I don’t need to be calling an ambulance this Christmas evening when my sister and her children fall down and break their necks on an icy walkway.”
“I understand Mr. Hardell. I’ll cover everything completely.”
“Very well. And oh, by the way, you and your mother are welcome to join us at dinner this evening. I’m not sure if my wife has already spoken to you or your mother about this, but I’m sure it would be fine.”
“Thank you sir, but we’ll be having dinner together in the guest house after we’re done preparing for you. Thank you though, sir.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you sir. Thank you.”
“Uh huh…we’ll be seeing you later Conner.”
George turned back into the garage, stomping his feet onto the concrete once more, this time ridding his soles of the sheet of litter that he had just so fervently created. Inside the garage he tried to steady himself as he untied his boots and watched as the young man fumbled about beneath the heavy sack of litter. He shook his head as he watched Conner slip and slide over the icy driveway, spilling litter everywhere as he made his way to the front of the house.
The sun had finally pushed itself above the horizon and painted the sides of the houses on George’s street. The Christmas lights disappeared into the sun’s orange glow, so now every house had only empty wires wrapped around their light posts and porch rails, had only strange dull strands lining their gutters, outshone by the shimmering shingles above and insulted by the plastic Santas and reindeer blanketed with snow. Admiring the wash of sunlight on the brick siding of the house, George squinted and noticed his daughter’s face in the window above the garage. Her light skin glowed tan in the sunlight and her dark hair glimmered with red strands. George lifted a hand, waving to his daughter in the window. Waiting for a response, still squinting behind streams of his hot breath, he suddenly noticed a smile spreading out across his daughter’s lips. He followed her gaze down the length of the driveway only to see Conner bent over the walkway, awkwardly dumping litter all along the front porch steps. When he looked back up into the window, Sara and the wash of peach sunlight were gone. Just before he disappeared into the garage, George heard Conner shout from the front of the house, “Covering everything Mr. Hardell, don’t worry.” In his last puffs in the icy air, George exhaled softly, “I’m not.”
George’s sister and her two daughters arrived at four. Frances billowed through the front door and past her brother like a gust of wind. Marcie, her youngest daughter, hung on for dear life, gripping her mother’s arm as she stumbled through the door behind her. Jenny, who was just about to leave for college in the spring, sauntered in slowly behind the two, her knees so close together that they made a knocking sound as she walked. Her mother was already in the living room gossiping with George’s wife, her high-pitched squeals and thick laughter echoing down the hallway as George offered to take Jenny’s coat.
“That’s ok Uncle George, I’d rather keep it on.”
“Jenny, you’ll burn to death in here, you know how Karen turns the place into a sauna during the winter.”
“I don’t care, I’d just like to keep it on.” The girl flung her eyes down to her black-heeled shoes and her cheeks swelled with a deep peach flush.
“Jenny, what the hell’s going on?” She shot her gaze back up at George and looked as if she were about to cry. She untied the belt on her thick wool coat and pushed it off of her shoulders onto the floor, revealing a thick pillow stuffed with beanbags tied around her waist with a belt. “What the…” George fought himself trying to hold off the chuckles rising from the deep of his belly.
“It’s not funny! Mom is making me wear it. She thinks I’m going to go off to college and get…you know…pregnant.”
Now bent over in laughter, snorting with each breath, George reached out toward Jenny and untied the belt, letting the simulated pregnant belly hit the wooden floor. The bean bag stuffing made a brief swishing noise like a wave washing ashore a beach as George kicked it to the side of the entryway. Sighing behind closed-mouth laughter, George said, “Jen, this time she’s gone too far.”
“Tell me about it.”
The two laughed, then walked together, sans the fake baby-belly, down the hallway into the living room; George’s sister’s laugh was like a homing siren guiding them in the right direction. Frances made quite the fuss when she first saw Jenny without the pillow-fashioned belly, but George spoke to her slowly and convinced her to at least let Jenny go without the belly for the day. After making drinks for himself and his wife, George made a third, for Frances, in hopes it would calm her down enough so that he could bare her visit for the evening. She had been taking Valium for the past two months, since her husband left her for his swimming coach at the gym, but it never seemed like enough to bring her down from the circling whirlwind in her head. Her emotions had nowhere to go but overboard.
George was exhausted already from his sister’s non-stop rambling, but felt sorry for her, felt guilty for dreading her visit. Before he snuck out of the living room, he downed the little bit of whiskey left in his glass and glanced at his wife who was sitting quietly on the chair in front of the couch where Frances spewed. She had her slender fingers atop one of her knees, making tiny circles with her index finger as she smiled and stared just past Frances’s face into the distance, out the window at the snow-covered lawns. He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, or the base of her neck, or her sweater-covered arm, but pulled back just before his fingers would have made contact. Karen had been cheating on him for several months now with the baker from the local grocery store. One day during the summer, George came home from a football game in which Sara was cheering to check on Karen, who declined to go to the game citing sickness. He came through the kitchen door around the back of the house and saw his wife, spread-eagle on the hallway floor beneath a brawny carving of flesh, his cinnamon bun baking hands pushing up his wife’s breasts, his buttered fingers twisting her nipples. George closed the door. After the football game, George took Sara out for ice cream, just to make sure. He didn’t say anything to Karen that night. His rage consumed any words he thought he might say. He didn’t say anything to Karen the next night either, or the next, or the next. He didn’t say anything because of Frances. Her heart would break and so would she. He didn’t say anything because he hadn’t loved his wife for over ten years, but was that the point? He didn’t love her anymore but he still cared. He didn’t say anything because of Sara. She was gone more anyway, about to graduate high school, dating, growing up. He didn’t say anything because he wasn’t going to be that guy in that town whose wife was cheating on him, whose family fell apart for the world to see. He didn’t say anything because he didn’t know what to say. Over time George’s rage melted into quiet disappointment, so that for the last several months he became accustomed to almost touches, almost kisses, and empty-eyed stares from his wife of twenty years. He became accustomed to the deep breaths he took before opening doors, every single door.
Before George could escape unnoticed from the living room, Frances shot up off the couch cushion and demanded that George go out to their car and get Marcie’s cello. She had been taking lessons for a few months and wanted to show off her new talent. George looked at Marcie who sat in the corner of the room with a box of Sara’s old dolls. She frowned when she heard her mother’s declaration and threw a naked, tangle-haired Barbie against the carpet. With folded arms she pouted at George who sent her a sympathetic smile as he hurried out of the living room.
Just across and down the hallway, Conner’s mother, the new maid that Karen hired last month was cooking Christmas dinner. Since the dawn of her affair, Karen stopped cooking, stopped cleaning, and stopped doing laundry. She was gone most of the day, and spent her nights in bed with a romance novel. Unable to handle all the chores himself, George asked around town and found a maid. Cecilia was a poor woman of unfortunate circumstance who George found instantly beautiful, charming, and useful. Her husband died unexpectedly in a fire, and she and Conner were left to fend for themselves. George set them up in the guest house where Karen’s parents lived before they passed away the year before. So far Cecilia had proven apt for the extra money George had to dish out each week for her services, and her son, Conner, hadn’t been a problem as of yet. Both kept mostly to themselves.
George inhaled deeply and pushed the kitchen door open just a crack. He smelled clove and garlic and onion. He tilted his head back and let the scents creep into his wide-open nostrils, the scents of rosemary, of thyme, of basil, the scent of stuffing baking inside a turkey, the scent of the bird’s fat dripping down and melting into its flesh, seasoning every centimeter of it’s once-puckered skin. With another deep breath, he pushed the door open even further and watched Cecilia sway around the kitchen, turkey-baster in hand, as she began to hum a song George had never heard. Her blue apron was dotted all over with clouds of flour, and her light skin shined with slick red smears of cherry pie filling. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that swung in unison with her wide, heavy hips. The hem of her skirt fell just above her chubby calves, those too dotted with starch white baking flour. Before she could turn around and catch George’s gaze, George let the door close gently against the palm of his hand. Once he heard the handle’s click, assuring the sturdiness of the door’s barrier, he leaned back onto the heavy wood and let his chin fall into his chest. He thought of what it would be like to have a woman like Cecilia, how it would feel to have her chubby legs wrapped around him as he made love to her and to hear what her moans of pleasure sounded like, or how it would feel to come home to her smiling face and warm kisses just before they would sit down for a freshly-made dinner.
Darkness comes early in the winter, and George began to notice the deep purples and blues of the evening sky as he looked out the windows. He hadn’t seen Sara since this morning. Every other holiday she was usually downstairs socializing, playing with Marcie or flipping through fashion magazines with Jenny, or entertaining Karen’s sister’s baby boys when they came down every other year for the holiday. Sara enjoyed the Christmas holiday, as George could never understand. He trekked up the front stairs; the prickly plastic garland that Cecilia had wrapped around the railings poked him as he accidentally placed his palm down to help himself up the steps. He went to her room and tapped on her door before opening it slowly. The light beside her bed glowed softly in the corner, but when George asked, “Sara?” no one responded. He shut the door and continued down the hallway to the guest bedroom. It was also empty. Confused, George came back down the stairs and passed into the living room to ask if anyone had seen Sara. Frances had definitely not seen her but wanted to tell her something and something else. Jenny hadn’t seen her. Marcie sounded as if she was mauling small animals as she tried to tune her cello, and Karen was slouched over in the chair with her head to the side and a faint smile on her face as if she were daydreaming. Now frustrated, George yanked his coat off the hook in the entryway, pulling the wreath off the back of the front door as the bottom hem of his coat swung behind him. He opened the garage door, pulled on his boots, and without tying them, headed back into the house. Pushing open the kitchen door, George burst in and startled Cecilia so that she dropped the baster into the pool of bubbling fat in the bottom of the roasting pan. “Have you seen Sara? I can’t find her anywhere.” Trying to fish out the dripping-covered baster with bare fingers, Cecilia said,
“I haven’t seen her since breakfast Mr. Hardell. Maybe she just went to a friend’s house. Is everything ok?”
“She didn’t go to a friend’s house. She would have told me or her mother.” George retorted as if he were debating the most important issue of all time. Cecilia tilted her head, looking concerned, and watched George fumble with the doorknob. Sighing and flinging open the back door leading from the kitchen to the outside, George hurried into the now pitch-black night toward the guest house. He headed there with an instinct he could not explain, but he remembered Sara’s smiles in the window, her smiles for the clumsy, skinny boy who was strewing cat litter all over the ground with every step he took. Like a magnet pulling him against his will, George made his way through the streams of his breath in the freezing night to the guest house where he could now see a single light shining in the upper-level corner room. He crunched over pieces of kitty litter that peppered the driveway and cursed beneath his breath. Just in front of the main door to the guest house George inhaled deeply before he grabbed the doorknob and twisted it violently. Before he was about to stomp up the stairs to that room with the single shining light, the room that he knew, without knowing how he knew, his daughter was in, with some strange new son of the voluptuous woman cooking Christmas dinner in his kitchen, George took another deep breath. The heated air in the guest house traveled through him as he inhaled and calmed him. He stepped up the stairs gently, trying not to make a sound.
He noticed pictures hung on the walls of each side of the stairway: a younger, leaner, but still beautiful Cecilia, Conner as a baby, and a man in a firefighter’s suit. The pictures made his stomach ache; he did not know why. George saw a thin strip of light glowing beneath one of the doors upstairs. Making his way slowly in front of it he stopped when he heard voices. Sara’s sweet, soft laugh parted a deeper, trembling chuckle, like a bird and a lion trying to carry on a conversation, each making the only sounds they know how. George gently fingered the doorknob and twisted it silently. Through the inch he parted, George made out bare skin, slowly gliding on top of bare skin. He saw Conner’s hairy legs on top of Sara’s downy-haired limbs. Just as quickly as he had opened the door, and just as silently, George pulled the door shut. He shook his head and bent his neck back so that all he could see was the pale white ceiling above him. George closed his eyes and wondered if this was what his life had turned into: a series of opening and closing doors, never knowing if he wished to see what lay behind them, deadening his initial rage because he couldn’t find the right words when words were the only thing he needed, because guilt was too powerful, because he was a coward. He descended the stairs and went back out the front door.
George puffed deeply in the outside air. Beneath the moon he let his breath cloud around him and wrap him in a disguising fog. He pulled his coat tighter around him and then sat down on the driveway. He put his hands down onto the ground and crystals of kitty litter crushed under his bare palms. The cold wetness, what hadn’t turned back into ice for the night, seeped through his jeans and began to numb his manhood. He cried. He let hot tears drip down his cheeks. He didn’t bother to wipe them away. He watched the twinkling Christmas lights flash in the night, all the greens and reds and blues and oranges finally had their time. Through his tears, the lights made a sort of halo around every house, little beacons among the deep darkness overhead. The sound of footsteps scurrying off sounded behind George, somewhere at the end of the driveway. The crunch of litter, and ice just beginning to form warned of someone’s approach. As George pushed the tears off of his cheeks, a lion’s voice sounded off behind him asking, “Are you ok Mr. Hardell?”
“Conner. Yes, yes I’m fine.”
“What…what are you doing out here?”
“Just looking at the Christmas lights, they really are something, aren’t they?”
“I guess so, they’re alright. Say um, doesn’t my mom have dinner ready for you guys now?”
“She probably does.”
“Well, I was going to go in and help her set the table, you should probably come in now.”
“I’ll be in in just a moment, thank you Conner.”
“Should I leave the door open for you then Mr. Hardell?”
“Um…the door….should I just leave it open?”
“Oh, yeah. Yes. That’d be great. I’ll be right behind you.”
George pushed himself off the wet concrete and dusted the litter off of his hands. Just behind Conner he wiped his boots on the mat below the back kitchen door. As he took his wet boots off and set them just beside the bottom row of cabinets that met the edge of the inside door sill in the kitchen, George looked around the kitchen. In the warm golden glow he looked at his wife who still in her daydreaming daze was carrying the cherry pie to the dining room; he looked at Frances eager to help, to be given something to carry to the dinner table, who was following Cecilia around like a hummingbird searching for sugar water. Conner and Sara were smiling at each other and blushing as they let their hands brush against each other as they each grabbed a handful of silverware and napkins. George noticed Jenny in the corner, hunched over beside Marcie, both of them looking as if their mother had been replaced by some strange disease there was not yet a cure for. George sighed as he watched everyone, except Cecilia, file out of the kitchen toward the dining room. He noticed she hadn’t taken the turkey yet. It was still shining among its crown of root vegetables, which were neatly arranged where the bird’s neck used to be. Just as Cecilia wrapped her hands around the edges of the serving dish on which the turkey rested, George placed his hands just over hers. Her warmth surprised him, but he couldn’t move. Cecilia looked into George’s eyes and smiled. Like a reflex, the corners of George’s mouth pushed themselves up into his cheeks. He lifted the dish from her hands, and with matching flushed faces, Cecilia and George made their way to Christmas dinner.
Amanda Allison is a native southerner who lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Georgia State University in 2009.
What motivates her to create:
Writing is the only way I know how to make sense of the world. Feelings come in, words come out.