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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Presidential Election," by Mary McCluskey (November 22, 2000)
"My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage. He drew up his plan to crack the presidency."

"Fat From Shame," by Clyde Edgerton (October 26, 2000)
"Enter pissed-modern history.... The struggle, strangle, poof, thuppernong, last gasp of religion, art, language, memory, and the electricity of the heart."

"Bluegrass Banjo," by Allison Amend (September 27, 2000)
"The fat musician picked wildly. He wore a pained expression, as though the music were getting away from him, and gradually he looked up from the instrument and into the audience with a wide-eyed helplessness."

"Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries," by Anthony Doerr (August 23, 2000)
"Now that you have successfully deserted your sixteen classmates, three fat teachers, and one pompous Belorussian tour guide in Minsk by skulking past their rooms at dawn and through the empty hotel lobby, take the first train to Lithuania."

"Bienvenue à Dilbrith College, Marie-Claire Tremblay!!," by Simon Fanning (July 19, 2000)
"Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?"

"The Limbo of Infants," by Sandra Riley (June 21, 2000)
"They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

December 20, 2000

The Faithful, by N. M. Kelby

The ice is silver, tarnished and spotty in the moonlight. Harvey, my mother's second husband, not my father, has just gassed up the chain saw. It screeches to life, then hums, all teeth and danger. My mother, whom we have all referred to as Kitty since the early 1970s, pops open a bottle of Moët and Chandon. "Merry Christmas." She laughs up and down the scale. Champagne overflows into her lap, rolls off the coyote fur she's wrapped around herself for warmth. The coat is old, sheds in handfuls. She is sitting on the edge of the frozen lake on a chaise longue. She is wearing a bathing suit, the color of a summer sky, but you can't see it. The coat covers all.

The small lake has no name, we just call it Harvey's lake. His house winds around a good portion of it. On the shore, just a few feet away, the bonfire is edgy. Bits of old doors, lumber from the barn, fuel the fire. It arcs, snaps at the sky.

Kitty: my mother. The phrase always fills me with amazement. Now, at this moment, even more so. She's wearing cat's eye sunglasses, even though it's dark out, and a long white scarf wrapped around her head. She looks like nobody's mother, but indeed, she has children. Two girls. Me and my sister, Dede. I hold the paper cups out for her to pour. For a moment, the chain saw sputters, coughs, then goes quiet, but my ears still ring from it. Overhead, the squawking of geese, late leaving, goes unheard.

"Need any help, Harvey?" I shout over my shoulder but don't know anything about chain saws. He shakes his silver head, pulls the cord again. The saw jerks back, hits the ice chewing. Black diamonds and glass fly into the Minnesota night.

"Harvey never needs help, darling. He's a determined man," my mother says. She should know. He's also my uncle. He and my father were twins.

"So shoot me," she said when they married last year.

Nobody came to the wedding, not even me. It isn't that I don't like Harvey, he's great. Not my father, but great. Really great, that's what I told Kitty. Just really great.

She hung up the phone.

In the shy new moon, nearly a year later, Kitty looks all World War II pretty again, like she was when she and my father met at the USO. He was a sailor on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier. The Intrepid is huge, an Essex Class carrier. "It was my brush with greatness," he told me. I grew up in the shadow of it.

When Dede and I were kids, my father told us all about The Big Boat, every chance he got. He told us how hard it was to land the bombers at night, on the flight deck, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of nowhere. In that thick ink, the ocean and sky blurred into each other, lost the edge of their own horizons. Runway lights looked like stars. Stars looked away.

"And everything smelled of gas and smoke," he said. "Always. Creeps into your dreams."

The USS Intrepid was the backbone of World War II and then Vietnam. Between those wars, it was the primary recovery vessel for NASA. Then it was scrapped. Relegated to rust. The summer after it happened, before my senior year in high school, my father drove us all to the scrap yard to say our farewells. Nearly a thousand miles away. It was the only vacation he ever took, if you could call it that.

He wore his old dog tags. Made my sister and me say a prayer. I blew a kiss. Kitty stayed in the car. Knitted. Tried hard not to cry.

Then, in 1982, an amazing thing happened. The Intrepid was salvaged and became a floating museum in the New York City harbor. Right there on the Hudson River it still floats, with the city leaning into it, sheltering it. A monument to the war effort that's big as a couple of football fields, it's now called The Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum.

The day it opened, I bought my father a plane ticket. Thought we'd go together to see it. "It's in its glory," I said. "They've cleaned it all up and it floats."

He wouldn't go. "Me and The Big Boat have a lot in common," he told me. "But nobody wants to see me float again." He looked at Kitty, then got up and poured himself a gin. No olives.

My father died five years ago, at his desk. Harvey found him. He told the police he stood there for a long time watching the body grow cold. Just watching. Nobody asked why.

Harvey and my father were identical twins.

It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. "It'll put the fear of God in you better than church." It's so cold when he laughs that his teeth rattle like coffee cups.

It takes him a while to cut through the ice, but finally the hole is ready for us. My nose is completely numb. From where I'm standing, next to the shore, close enough to Harvey's winding house to make a dash for it, I can see the hole is perfectly round and big enough for all of us. My knees are numb. The moonlight is shaky and pale. Harvey inspects the hole carefully. He's wearing an old pair of black galoshes with buckles, and a beautiful cashmere coat, the color of fawns. The chain saw is still screaming in one hand. He waves it to the heavens.

"Happy Birthday!" he shouts. Turns off the chain saw.

The air reeks of gas, feels close. Steam rises from the water. He turns back to us and does something I've never seen him do before. He salutes. All gas and smoke. Creeps into your dreams.

In that moment Harvey is flush and filled with my father. I can hardly breathe. There are tears. I want, so badly, to hear the stories again. To sail The Big Boat. My mother reaches up with a napkin.

"Wipe your face, darling," she says.

"It's just the wind," I say.

She takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are filled with tears.

Harvey comes over to us. "How's my girls? Too cold out here for you?" He puts his arm around me and gives me a hug like he used to when I was just a girl and he was still my Uncle Harv. The champagne turns to slush in my hand.

"It's as bad as incest," my sister, Dede, said. Threw the wedding invitation in the trash. I don't know why I've come.

"Come on, chickens!" Harvey says, all buttered-rum cheerful. He tosses his cashmere coat across my mother's lap. Underneath the coat, he's wearing Hawaiian-print swimming trunks. Baggy. They catch the night air like twin sails. "I've still got it," he says and winks. Poses like a strong man in the side show.

He is, indeed, well-built for his age. Never been married before. Works out with a trainer. Harvey is what Kitty would call "vital."

"Full of piss and vinegar," my father would say. He and Harvey were in the pyrotechnics business together. Specialists in corporate and community events. The plant is right across the border in Wisconsin. Harvey and Kitty just put it up for sale.

They're madmen with dangerous toys. That's what Kitty used to say, but my father was hardly a madman. He worked long hours. Always worried about the business. "I'll vacation when I die," he'd say.

I'm still waiting for his postcard.

Every summer we took our vacation with Harvey. My father stayed behind. Since Harvey designed the shows, it was the logical solution. He always seemed to have the time to take us. After the Fourth of July, there's not much for a designer to do until September, when budgets are approved and contracts are signed. So, every July 18, my birthday, at 6 A.M. Harvey and Kitty and Dede and I waved good-bye to my father, as he stood outside our house in his short-sleeve shirt and tie, and we jumped into Harvey's Thunderbird and headed through the farmlands and the mountains and into the tropical heat. To Florida. Off season. It was all we could afford back then.

The T-Bird was black with lots of chrome and a candy-apple red interior. Kitty, in her cat's eye sunglasses, sat in the front. Her scarves slapping the wind like storm warnings.

The first night we'd always stop at Howard Johnson's, where a birthday means a free sundae to go along with the clam-strip dinner. After dinner was done, we'd go back to the room, and I'd write my father on the hotel stationery. Boxy letters, too big for the lines. "I had an extra scoop for you," I'd say. XXXOOO.

In all those years of all those letters, an entire decade of them to be exact, I never thought of my father being lonely without Dede and me. Never thought of him missing Kitty. Never wondered why, at the motels, Kitty always took a separate room.

Now that my father's dead, I think about it a lot. Harvey had the best of us. Hot summer days on the shore. Birthdays and ice cream. My father had our sickness and sadness and the fights about boyfriends who came and went and the sobbing nights of tornadoes and blizzards and things that were well beyond our control. Love is well beyond our control.

Kitty is pouring champagne in my plastic cup. "Would you like some more, darling?"

"Aren't we going for a swim?" Harvey says. "We can drink later." His smile is crooked, ripples like the lake underneath our feet. He turns to me, and without warning, grabs me around the waist. I can feel his body shaking, mostly from cold. He hugs me like a child would, all sloppy love and need.

"Thanks for coming," he says, as if he's just thought of it. "Means a lot." Champagne spills onto the collar of my red wool coat, slides down the strap of my bathing suit. Leaves a trail of goose bumps and ice. I bite my lip.

"Sorry," he says. He looks at me with my father's eyes, and for a moment we are breathing the same breath, like horses, all steam and heat. "I really am sorry."

I know that he is. He's sorry about it all. I say nothing. The moment rusts. He pulls away, "Gotta go toast up."

Harvey runs toward the fire before I can see his face, the tears that have fallen on my coat. As he runs, his boots jingle, like far-off sleigh bells. Like somebody else's Christmas.

My mother and I are silent. She pours herself another drink, most of it, this time, ends up in the glass. She looks out at the hole in the ice, not at me, not at Harvey, not at the wavering bonfire, just the hole, and the blackness of the water.

"It's hard not to miss him," she says and squeezes my hand. Creeps into your dreams. I don't know what to say.

We stay like this for a while, not speaking, looking at nothing, hearing the bonfire behind us kick and spit, the wind brush snow across the tarnished ice. After a time, I think Harvey is watching us. I wonder how we look to him. Sailor's women, waiting. Suddenly, he runs past us. "Come on!" he shouts and runs to the hole in the ice. His arms are flailing. He nearly trips as his boots slide along slick lake. It's like a cartoon. Elmer Fudd. I begin to laugh. It's hard not to. He's beet-red and flapping. My mother's still holding my hand. I can feel her sweat in my palm. With a deep breath, Harvey cannonballs into the water. The lake shoots up like a fountain.

"He loves you," she says. "Always has."

I drink the rest of my champagne in one swallow. "You, too."

She lets go of my hand.

In his perfect hole, in the perfectly freezing water, Harvey is jumping up and down. "Oh come all ye faithful," he begins to sing. A false vibrato, my father's voice. "Joyful and triumphant. Oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem!"

He motions us into the water.

"It's too cold," Kitty says. Her skin is sheer ice. She is watching him, unsmiling.

"Joyful and triumphant!" he sings again. He's forgotten the words.

"I'm sorry you and your sister don't approve," she says.

"It's almost midnight," I say. She looks at me for a moment. Thin-lipped. I take the cup from her hand. "Better go."

She hesitates, then stands, always graceful, always Kitty, and walks toward him, without a word. Doesn't look back.

I drink the rest of her champagne. It smells of her perfume, musk and roses. A cloud silts over the moon. I look at my watch. There's not much time left. It's been agreed that at midnight there's to be fireworks. Harvey's idea. "Just like the old days," he said. The days before me and Kitty and Dede: the days when he and my father would come out to this lake and shoot bottle rockets into the sky and scream, "Happy Birthday!" The days when they knew each other's thoughts.

On the other side of the chaise lounge, there's the box Harvey brought from the plant. It's Chinese. Red and yellow with the names of the rockets in characters and English, side by side. Harvey is still singing while I fumble in my coat pockets for matches. His voice is clear, rises and falls. I rummage through the box. Coconut Grove Song. Fringed Iris. The names of Chinese fireworks are always so beautiful. They transform chemistry into art. Charcoal for gold sparks. Calcium carbonate for red stars. Bismuth trioxide for stars that crackle, what the Chinese call dragon stars. Barium chlorate for green flames. It's all formulas and electrical ignitions and then beauty and hope.

In the bottom of the box there's a large rocket painted with happy children holding lotus blossoms. Mountain Flower in Full Bloom, it says. I pull it out and set it on the ice. Nearly two feet tall, it has a long wick, which means it's a shooter. Goes far, but could explode in your face. I kick the box away from the chaise lounge toward the shore where the bonfire has made its way through the old doors and now, half-hearted, has settled down, smoldering.

I look at my watch. Ten seconds to midnight. I kick the chaise lounge away. It rattles, frozen. I'm standing over the rocket with my matches. "Happy Birthday," I whisper to the heavens. I look out over the lake. In the water, Harvey is still jumping up and down, red-faced in the sickle moon. My mother stands over him on the ice, takes off her scarf. It trails in the wind, a cirrus cloud. I strike the match, but I can't stop watching. Her coyote coat, silver as her hair, as the moon, makes her look like an animal.

Something large and hungry. Something I've never seen before. She takes off her coat. I light the wick. It hisses.

Harvey has stopped singing, stopped jumping. He pulls her into the icy water. She screams. Then laughs. The burning wick fires the rocket. Her fur coat floats on the surface, spreads out. The rocket shoots up. He takes her into his arms. There's a trail of gold stars. Then Boom. She places her hand on his face, studies the curve of his nose. Then blue stars. She pulls him closer. Then Boom. He kisses her face, her hair, her lips. They are floating. Salvaged. The rocket explodes into a fountain of stars, all different colors at once. Red and violet and gold and blue. Chemistry, electricity, then beauty and hope.

"Merry Christmas," I say. Merry Christmas.


Join a conversation on fiction in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

N. M. Kelby's short stories have appeared in
Zoetrope All-Story Extra and Mississippi Review. Her first novel, In the Company of Angels, will be published next year.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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