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D E C E M B E R  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Molly pushed through from the pantry, her low bosom and portly middle preceding her. Her neat lace-up shoes pointed outward when she walked. "Now, then," she said energetically, "come get your plates and I'll put some food on them." We lined up, and Molly loaded our plates. We sat down again at the table. Molly was at the stove, her back to us.

"Where's Richard?" Sam asked her politely, his mouth full.

Sam was the oldest, and could ask these questions of grown-ups. I would never have dared: Ree-ard was a comic figure to us, and I could not have discussed him with a grown-up. Some things we talked about only among ourselves, and that was our true world -- where we said the things we meant and where we spoke freely and directly. The things we said to adults were often false, or constrained and mannered. You had to be careful. Talking to grown-ups was like talking to foreigners. They expected to hear certain things; they didn't always understand you.

Illustration by Doug Smock

I had little practice in talking to grown-ups. I was the youngest, and was seldom asked my opinion. I did not understand how to blend the two ways of talking, or how to bridge the gap between them. I knew that if I asked about Ree-ard, I would be scolded for being fresh. But Sam could do it with impunity, his face and voice ingenuous. He asked as though the question were serious, as though we thought Richard were a serious person.

"Oh, Richard," Molly said, at once sounding bad-tempered. "Where is Richard?" she repeated rhetorically, and shook her head. She set the lid on a pot and wiped her hands on her apron, and we said no more about Richard.

Besides Richard, Molly had a daughter named Margaret. We seldom saw Margaret. She didn't live at Weldonmere. She didn't even live in the park. She lived somewhere else, in an apartment, and she worked in an office for a married man. My father worked in an office and was a married man, but somehow these details set Margaret in a mysterious region, exotic and sinister.

In the car my father had spoken to my mother in a voice slightly lower and more private than the one he used for the whole car. It made me alert at once, and I leaned forward, listening. My father said to my mother, "Margaret's going to be there."

My mother looked at him and said, "And?"

My father, not looking at her, said, "I suppose so."

My mother turned away and said, "Poor thing."

I was listening to them as I always listened to my parents, in order to understand the world, though what they said often made things more confusing. The tone of voice my parents used about Margaret meant, I knew, that they would not answer my questions about her. If I asked my mother what she had meant by "Poor thing," or why it was so serious and important that the man Margaret worked for was married, she would smile at me and make her voice louder and more public and say, "Oh, it's just a conversation I'm having with your father, that's all." She would tell me nothing. I knew that this language I was trying to learn could not be learned directly -- that it was something that had to be absorbed blindly and obliquely, and that we were to have no help with it. We would have to learn it through signs, inflections, looks and sighs and tones of voice.

SITTING at the kitchen table, I watched Abby eating. If I didn't eat fast enough, or if I didn't eat the vegetables, she might tell on me, when she was in a spiteful mood. Now she was pretending to ignore me, but I watched her anyway as I ate. I ate the pillowy lima beans one by one, watching Abby's fork across the table. I looked at her face when I was halfway through, and saw that she was watching something behind me. She picked up her milk glass and drank, still watching, her eyes intent. I turned around.

At the far end of the kitchen was the back staircase that led up to the servants' wing. I had never been up it. Now, sitting on the upper steps and looking at us, was a little girl my age. She was pretty, with dark-blue eyes, and brown hair thick around her face. She was wearing a long pale-blue nightgown tucked down over her feet. Her hands were hidden in her lap, and she was watching us. I had never seen her before, this girl my age. She was with us here in the house, sitting on the back stairs, looking at us.

The four of us watched her as we ate, not speaking. The girl did not move. She was watching us through the wooden banisters. Once, she raised her hand to tuck back her hair, which had fallen across her face. Her skin was very pale. She put her hand back into her lap and then leaned her face against the banisters, looking through them as though they were bars.

She was living here in the house. I wondered if she would be there in the morning, opening presents under the tree. Would she have a stocking? I felt a kind of private outrage rise up in me: how could there be a girl like me here, my age, my size, in our house?

Molly, hearing our silence, turned from the stove and saw our stares. She turned to the staircase and erupted.

"You get out of here," she said to the little girl, and started over toward her. "Get back up those stairs. You're not to come down here, and you know that. I told you that. Go on, get up there."

Before Molly could reach her, the little girl stood and ran back upstairs. She didn't look at us; she fled. We saw her feet, which were bare, and the bottom of her pale-blue nightgown, and then she was gone. Molly turned without looking at us and went back to the stove in a temper, banging the pots. We looked at one another in silence and went on eating.

When we were finished, we were sent through the pantry into the dining room and then the living room beyond, where the grown-ups were. They were sitting in front of the fireplace, on big sofas and chairs covered in blurry flowers. Huge lay on the rug. He raised his head when we came in, his tail thumping.

Coming into the living room, we passed the Christmas tree, tall and glittering. We stopped, staring at the packages beneath it, eyeing them for size, trying to decipher names on the tags.

"I have more than you do," Jonathan said to me under his breath.

"You don't," I said, tilting my head sideways to look for my name.

"Come over and say hello," my father said. Sam was nudging a package with his toe, trying to shift it so that the tag was visible. "And leave the presents alone. Don't start pushing them around."

"I wasn't," Abby said virtuously, and went over to sit on the sofa beside Grandmère.

"Sam," my father said, and Sam left the packages and went over, giving an athletic kick in the air on the way, to show that he had really been practicing soccer, not nudging presents. I went over by the fire, and I felt the heat on my face. Outside, snow covered the long lawn that sloped down to the pond. The Christmas tree in the corner rose in shimmering tiers, fragrant, brilliant, intricate. This was the reason we were here -- stockings, presents, the ecstasy of anticipation -- but the grand moment was all ahead of us still. We could do nothing now but wait. The night ahead was endless, and I felt myself filling with impatience and excitement. Our parents and grandparents seemed content here, however, sitting by the fire and talking, indifferent to how slowly the time moved.

I climbed onto the flowered sofa on the other side of Grandmère. I loved the way she smelled, powdery and soft, and I loved her silvery curled hair. She smiled at me and patted my hand. "Sit here with me, Joanna," she said, though I already was right beside her. Grown-ups were like this -- awkward in their speech, saying things you already knew or things you couldn't understand. I smiled back at her and put my hands in my lap. I gazed into the fire, waiting for it to be Christmas morning.

MY father was talking about his work. I don't know when, exactly, I began to hear the noises from the kitchen. I looked across at Sam, who was leaning against my father's chair. He looked back at me, and we both listened. Everyone else seemed to be listening to my father's story.

"It's hard to get people from below the poverty level involved with community projects," he was saying. "We try to encourage anyone who's willing. We try to make it easy for them, and whatever they want to do, we try to help. Well, one woman, a single mother with two children, was pretty far below the poverty level. She had volunteered once or twice at school, and she told the counselors she wanted to set up a kids' summer program."

In the kitchen something was happening. I could hear muffled noises, bumps and crashing sounds and then voices, but they were indistinct. I had a hard time imagining anything boisterous going on in Molly's kitchen. Unless -- it was too much to hope for -- Tweenie had attacked someone?

"We advised her, and helped her set it up, but she really did it all herself. And she paid for everything -- supplies, refreshments, whatever her costs were. She took eight children, five days a week for two months, and she charged nothing." My father paused and took a sip from his coffee cup. He was sitting in an armchair across from Grandpère. "I knew she couldn't afford it, and I heard afterward she'd done a very good job. In the fall I wrote a report on the program, and when I applied to the state for a community grant, I included a few hundred dollars to cover her costs for the season and start her off for the next, if she wanted to go on."

I heard a real crash now in the kitchen. Sam and I looked at each other.

"Tell about going to see her," my mother said. She was holding her cup and saucer in her lap and watching my father.

"She lives way outside town, and doesn't have a telephone, so I couldn't let her know I was coming," my father said. "I got directions and drove out there. She has a trailer by the road, at the edge of a big field. I knocked on the door, and after a minute she opened it. She's in her thirties, overweight, with a pretty face. She seemed a bit wary, but she invited me in and offered me some coffee. The trailer was pretty crowded. Plants were everywhere, in jars and coffee cans, standing under the windows, lined up on the floor."

More noise came from the kitchen, a sort of subdued shout. I looked again at my mother, but she was smiling at my father.

"I thanked her for setting up the program, and congratulated her on how well she'd done it. She looked at me for a moment, and then she thanked me, but she didn't smile. Then I told her about the grant. I was pleased about it, and I watched her face, waiting for it to change, but it didn't. When I finished, she didn't say anything. I thought she hadn't understood me, so I explained it again. She had small, very bright blue eyes, very steady. She sat with her hands tucked tightly between her legs. When I finished, she still didn't answer for a moment. Finally she said, 'I don't want the money.'"

Something again in the kitchen. I looked at Sam. His face was solemn.

"She said, 'I started this program, and it feels like it's mine. But if I take money from the state, it will be the state's program. I'll start worrying if I'm doing it right, or if I should ask someone how to do it, and I'll worry that someone will come in and start telling me how to run it. So I don't want the money. I'd rather do it on my own.'"

Grandpère was watching my father. He was sitting in a tall wing chair, facing the fire, and I could see the firelight on his face. "And what did you say to her?" he asked. His face looked warm, as though he was about to smile, and I felt safe, watching my grandfather look that way at my father.

My father shook his head, rueful, smiling slightly. "I couldn't think of anything to say. The program was hers. I wanted her to have the money, but I couldn't make her take it. And I admired her for refusing it. When I was thanking her and congratulating her, she hadn't said anything. She'd just looked at me. Her silence had made me uncomfortable at the time, and afterward I wondered if I hadn't been doing, myself, just what she was talking about -- trying to intrude on something that belonged to her and the children she'd helped, instead of being helpful." My father shrugged his shoulders. "I really couldn't do anything. I told her I understood her position, and that if she wanted help, we'd give it to her in any way we could. I thanked her for the coffee and left. She was an impressive woman."

"My goodness," Grandmère said, smiling. She shook her head. "A lady of principle." She looked at me and patted my hand. I smiled back at her.

Now the noise seemed too loud and too persistent to ignore. My father said to Grandpère, "Do you hear something in the kitchen?"

Grandpère's face had changed; he looked serious. He set his coffee cup down on the little table next to the sofa. "I wonder what's going on in there," he said. "Sometimes Bud outdoes himself at Christmas revelry." He stood up.

I looked at Sam. Bud! The fabled Bud!

"I'll come with you," my father said, and stood up. Sam straightened up too, but my mother shook her head.

"I think you children should stay in here with us," she said.

The two men walked through the big arch into the dining room, toward the long portrait of Grandpère in his scarlet hunting coat. As they pushed open the pantry door, we could hear a voice, suddenly loud; then, as the door swung shut, the voice was muffled again.

Grandmère and my mother looked at each other. Grandmère looked worried; her mouth had lost its smile. "I hope Bud isn't making trouble again," she said. "It's so hard on Molly when he does that." She didn't move. The living room was quiet. The fire hissed and murmured, and its light flickered on the silver ashtrays. On the mantel was a round clock with a white face, a black sphinx on either side. In the silence we could hear its steady ticks. The Christmas tree towered in the corner, covered in riches. My arm was getting hot from the fire, and I moved closer to Grandmère. She patted my shoulder, pulling me toward her.

We heard a roar from the kitchen. "You think I don't know that?" It was a man, shouting, wild. Sam and I looked at each other. We heard Molly's voice.

"Bud, don't, for God's sake. For God's sake."

Sam and I stared at each other. We would never have wanted to hear that tone of voice from Molly, pleading, helpless.

Then we could see them. They had come out of the pantry, and they were at the far end of the dining room, standing beneath the big portrait: Bud, Molly's husband; Molly, strange in a blue dress; and Grandpère and my father, in their dark tweeds. Bud had pushed through the door, and the others had followed. He was a big man, not as fat as Ree-ard, but tall and heavy. His shoulders looked as though they had had air pumped into them. His face was swollen and red, and his small blue eyes were inflamed. Molly, our Molly, the absolute ruler of the kitchen, was hanging onto one of his shoulders and weeping.

"Get out of here, Bud," she said, frantic. She was pushing at him, though this had no effect. "Come along, get out of here. Come back with me."

Bud ignored her. He was staring at my grandfather. "You think I care about your fancy manners?" he asked. His voice sounded strangely slow, as though he didn't know how to use his mouth. "You think I care about your fancy place?"

"Ah, get out of here, Bud," Molly said, her voice high and anxious. "You're not yourself. You're not thinking. Come along with me."

My grandfather said nothing. He was watching Bud, his head slightly lowered, his chin drawn in. His hands were down at his sides. He said nothing, but his eyebrows were drawn together.

"Here's what I think about your fancy place," Bud said, leaning into Grandpère's face. His hulking shoulders swam closer. Molly scrabbled at him.

"Bud!" she said. "Leave this! Get out of here! Leave Mr. Weldon alone, for God's sake."

But Bud was in the grip of something stronger than Molly. He leaned further into my grandfather's face, his own face glowing, his little pink eyes lit up, as though waiting to see what would happen. Then I heard a noise from him, a disgusting noise. I couldn't see what had happened, but I saw Grandpère blink, and his head jerked back slightly.

"That's enough," Grandpère said. Now he was very angry. "I will ask you to leave this house."

Molly began to make a strange sound, jerky and high. "Don't do this," she said, and she beat her fist against Bud's shoulder.

"I will not leave this house," Bud said loudly.

"I am going to call the police," Grandpère said. He stood straight and stiff, his chin now lifted, his head high. A kind of heat, a fine outrage, came from him in waves so powerful that it seemed almost as if he were doing something violent, though he did not move. "Go back into the kitchen and wait for them to come. Leave this room, sir," Grandpère said, and the way he spoke was so menacing that I wanted to leave myself, to get away from it. "Leave this room," he said again.

Bud smiled, his swollen face splitting in a manic grin.

"I'll leave when I'm ready to leave," he said to my grandfather.

Grandpère, without turning his gaze from Bud's face, spoke to my father. "Robert, go and telephone the police. I'll stay here."

My father hesitated for a moment. He didn't want to leave his father, we could see that. Then he came urgently through the dining room, toward us, his face tense, before going into the hall to the telephone.

"Yes, get your son to do your work for you," Bud said sneeringly, putting one hand on Molly's shoulder. "It's a nice way to live." He nodded blearily, contemptuous. "Of course, I don't have the opportunity myself. Since my son does your work for you too, driving you around in your shiny car." He nodded again. "My son's no help to his father, no more than my daughter is." Now Bud's face changed; it was no longer triumphant but dark. "My daughter does someone else's work as well. And whose work does my daughter do? What manner of man does my daughter work for? What manner of work does she do for him?" He waited for a moment, his face still full of rage, still wild, but now tortured. His rage had somehow turned inward, or had become general; it seemed as if he was angry now at the whole world, though he leaned toward Grandpère. "My daughter can do nothing for her father. Her time is taken up by looking after someone else's child. And who is that? Satan's child!"

The way he said those last two words chilled me with fear. Satan's child! Margaret had had Satan's child!

Grandpère looked steadily at Bud, not moving.

"Bud!" Molly was shouting at him now, and pummeling. She pushed at him as hard as she could, but he was huge, massive, leaden.

"She's here with us for Christmas, Margaret's little girl, here with her family, same as your precious grandchildren," Bud said. He raised his chin at Grandpère and looked for a moment toward us. I felt invaded by his eye, and pressed against my grandmother.

My father reappeared from the hall and said, "They're on their way." He spoke to Grandpère, who did not stir, whose gaze did not leave Bud's.

"Now, leave this room," Grandpère said severely.

"I will not," Bud said, raising his chin even higher. "I know you think you're too good for anyone, so maybe you're too good for a fight."

My grandfather said nothing to this. My father, next to him, looked very dark now too. The blood came into their faces. Huge was on his feet, his ears pricked, alarmed. My mother put her hand on him.

Molly moved in front of Bud and threw herself at him, shoving him backward. "Get out of here," she said, beside herself. "Get out of here."

It seemed now that Bud was running out of steam somehow, or energy, and when she pushed at him, he was off balance and took a staggering step back. "Get out of here," she said again, furious, her voice cracking. "Get out, get out, you fool."

She pushed Bud, step by lumbering step, through the pantry door, and then it swung shut behind them. For a long moment my father and my grandfather stood still beneath the giant portrait of Grandpère, looking majestic and benign in his scarlet coat and black boots, holding in his hand a long, coiled hunting whip.

I WAITED for someone to speak. I waited for the next thing that would happen, for the grown-ups to take charge again. I didn't understand these things, and I knew that no one would explain them to me. All of it -- the blue nightgown and the bare feet, Molly's terrible frantic voice and Bud's glaring pink eyes, even the fat woman in her trailer with all the plants -- was part of the language I still could not speak.

And part of what I felt was shame -- shame for something I didn't understand, shame for other people's misery, shame that it had lain naked and exposed before us, shame that we'd seen it. I felt sorry for the wild, wretched, sweating Bud, pushed back into the kitchen, waiting for the police. I felt sorry for the daughter of Satan, pressing her pale face against the banisters. I felt sorry for Molly, weeping and shoving at her husband.

The only ones I didn't feel sorry for were the woman in the trailer and Tweenie. I liked the woman in the trailer. She seemed strong and free, and I liked thinking of her, plump and blue-eyed and messy, living on the edge of the big field with her plants in coffee cans lined up below the windows. It seemed that she would escape shame and misery, that she had somehow risen magnificently above them. And of course I still hated Tweenie.

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Roxana Robinson is the author of Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life (1999) and four works of fiction, including This Is My Daughter (1998).

Illustrations by Doug Smock.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Family Christmas - 00.12 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 6; page 97-105.