Richard Gin

Scenes From a Marriage

What’s it like?,” Natalie said quietly. “Marriage, I mean.” Mathilde said, “Kipling called it a very long conversation.” A short story

THE SUN SHIFTED to reclining. It was at night. Mild, end of autumn. Chill in the air like a premonition.

Susannah came through the garden door. She found Mathilde alone, tossing Bibb lettuce in vinaigrette in the galley kitchen.

“Did you hear? We’re sick about it,” Susannah said, but was struck silent when Mathilde turned her face toward her. Earlier, Susannah had thought that walking into the apartment with its new coat of bright yellow paint had been like walking into the sun, blinding. But now the color played with the cinnamon freckles on Mathilde’s face. She’d gotten an asymmetrical haircut, her blond hair lopped at the right jawbone and at the left collar, and it set off her high cheekbones. Susannah felt a pulse of attraction. Odd. All this time, Mathilde had seemed plain, shadowed by her husband’s light, but now the pairing clicked. Mathilde was ravishing.

“Did I hear what?,” Mathilde said.

“Oh, Mathilde. Your hair,” Susannah said. “It’s wonderful.”

Mathilde put a hand up to it and said, “Thanks. What did I hear?”

“Right,” Susannah said, and picked up the two bottles of wine Mathilde indicated with her chin. She said, as she followed Mathilde out the entryway, up the back stairs, “You know Kristina, from our class? In that a cappella group the Zaftones? Inky hair and, well, zaftig? I think Lotto and she—” Susannah made a face to herself, Oh, you dummy, and Mathilde paused on the step, then waved a hand as if to say, Oh, yes, Lotto and everybody screwed like bonobos, which Susannah had to admit was true, and they came up into the garden. They stopped, autumn-struck. Lotto and Mathilde had spread out thrift-store sheets on the grass and their friends had arranged the potluck in the middle, and everyone was lounging quietly, eyes closed in the last morsel of chill fall sun, drinking cold white wine and Belgian beer, waiting for the first person to reach in and take food.

Mathilde put her salad bowl down and said, “Eat, kiddos.” Lotto smiled up at her and took a mini spanakopita from a warm pile. The rest of them, a dozen or so, huddled over the food and began talking again.

Susannah stood on her toes and said into Mathilde’s ear, “Kristina. She killed herself. Hanged herself in the bathroom. Out of the blue, only yesterday. Nobody knew she was miserable. She had a boyfriend and a job and an apartment in the nice part of Harlem and everything. Makes no sense.”

Mathilde had gone very still and lost her constant small smile. Susannah knelt and served herself watermelon, cutting the big pieces into slivers: she wasn’t eating real food anymore, because she had a new TV role she was too embarrassed to talk about in front of Lotto. For one thing, it wasn’t Hamlet, in which he’d shined so brilliantly their last semester in college. It was just a job as a teenager on a soap opera; she knew she was selling out. And yet it was more than anything Lotto had gotten since they’d graduated. He’d been the understudy in a few off-off-Broadway things; he’d had a tiny role at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. That was it for a year and a half. Lotto returned to her again as he’d looked at the end of Hamlet, bowing, having sweated through his costume, and she’d felt awe, had shouted “Bravo!” from the audience, having lost the role of Ophelia to a girl with huge boobs bared naked in the pond scene, that ho-bag slut. Susannah bit into her watermelon and swallowed a pulse of victory. She loved Lotto more, in pitying.

Above the scrum, Mathilde shivered and pulled her cardigan closer. A burgundy leaf fell from the Japanese maple and landed upright in the spinach-artichoke dip. It was chilly in the shade under the tree. Soon there would be the long winter, cold and white. An erasure of this night, the garden. She plugged in the strand of Christmas lights that they had twined through the branches above, and the tree sparked into a dendrite. She sat behind her husband because she wanted to hide, and his back was so beautiful, broad and muscled, that she rested her face there and felt comforted. She listened to his voice muffled through his chest, the smooth edge of his southern accent.

“… Two old men sitting on a porch, shooting the sea breeze,” Lotto was saying: so, a joke. “This old hound dog comes out and circles around in the dust and sits down and starts licking at his junk. Slurping and gulping and loving the heck out of his pink little stump. A tube of lipstick all the way extended. So one of the old guys winks at his friend and says, ‘Man, I sure wish I could do that.’ And the other old guy says, ‘Pshaw! That dog would bite you.’ ”

They all laughed, not so much at the joke, but at the way Lotto delivered it, the pleasure he took. The warmth of her husband through his polo shirt began to break up the clod of dread in Mathilde. Kristina had lived on her freshman floor. Mathilde had walked in on her once crying in the co-ed showers, had recognized her beautiful alto voice, and had walked out again, choosing to give the gift of privacy over that of comfort. Only in retrospect was that the worse choice.

Lotto reached behind him for Mathilde and scooped her sideways into his lap with his paw. His stomach rumbled, but he couldn’t eat more than a bite or two: he’d been waiting for a callback for a week now, unwilling to leave the apartment for fear of missing it. Mathilde had proposed the potluck to get his mind off it all. The role was for Claudio in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare in the Park next summer. He could see himself in a doublet in front of thousands. Bats darting. Dusk shooting pink flares overhead. Since graduation, he had worked steadily, if in small roles. He had gotten Equity. This was the next step skyward.

He looked inside the apartment, through the window, where the phone persisted in unringing on the mantel. Behind it was the painting Mathilde had brought home a few months earlier from the gallery where she’d worked for the past year. After its artist had stormed out, flinging the canvas against the wall and breaking the stretcher, the gallery owner told her to toss it in the dumpster. Instead, Mathilde took the broken painting, restretched it, framed it, and hung it behind the brass Buddha. It was a blue abstract and reminded Lotto of the moment every morning before dawn, a misty dim world between worlds. What’s the word? Eldritch. Like Mathilde herself. He would come home some days after auditions to find her sitting in the dark, staring up at the painting with a glass of red wine cradled in both hands, a vague look on her face.

“Should I be worried?” he’d said once, after an audition for a part he didn’t even want, when he found her sitting there in the darkening room. He kissed her behind the ear.

“No. I’m just so happy,” she had said.

He didn’t say that it had been a long day, that he’d had to wait in the drizzle on the street for two hours, that after he finally went in and read his lines and went out the door, he’d heard the director say, “Stellar. Too bad he’s a giant.” That his agent wasn’t returning his calls. That he would have relished a nice dinner for once. Because, in truth, he didn’t mind. If she was happy, it meant she wouldn’t leave him, and it had become painfully apparent over their short marriage that he was not worth the salt she sweated. The woman was a saint. She saved, fretted, somehow paid their bills when he brought in nothing. He had sat beside her until it was fully dark, and she turned with a rustling of silk and he carried her to bed without eating.

Now Mathilde lifted a piece of salmon burger to Lotto’s lips, and though he didn’t want it, she was looking at him and the gold specks in her eyes glittered, and he took the bite off the fork. He kissed her on the freckled bridge of her nose.

“Disgusting,” Arnie called from his distant sheet. His arm was around some tattooed chick he was dating from his bar. “You’ve been married for a year. Honeymoon’s over.”

“Never,” Mathilde and Lotto said, at once. They did jinx pinkies.

“What’s it like?,” Natalie said quietly. “Marriage, I mean.”

Mathilde said, “Kipling called it a very long conversation.”

Lotto looked at his wife, touched her cheek. “Yes,” he said.

Chollie leaned toward Danica, who leaned away. He whispered, “You owe me a million bucks.”

“What?” she snapped. She was dying for a chicken leg, but had to plow through a heap of salad before she would allow herself anything fatty.

“Last year, at their housewarming,” Chollie said. “We bet a million bucks they’d be divorced by now. You lose.”

They looked at Lotto and Mathilde, so handsome, the still axis of the garden. “I don’t know. How much of it’s an act?,” Danica said. “There’s some sort of darkness there. Probably that he’s pretending to be faithful and she’s pretending not to care.”

“You’re mean,” Chollie said with admiration. “What’s your beef with Lotto? Were you one of his vanquished millions? They all still love him. I ran into that girl Bridget who was calling herself his girlfriend in college, and she burst into tears when she asked about him. He was the love of her life.”

Danica’s eyes and mouth tightened. Chollie laughed, revealing a roil of lasagna. “Naw, it’s the opposite,” he said. “He never went for you.”

“If you don’t shut up, you’re getting salad in the kisser,” she said.

They sat for a long moment, eating, pretending to eat. Then Danica said, “Fine. Double or nothing. But I get longer. Six years. Until 1998. And they’ll be divorced and you’ll pay me 2 million bucks and I’ll get an apartment in Paris. Enfin.”

Chollie blinked, bulged. “You’re assuming that I’ll be able to pay.”

“Of course you will. You’re the kind of slimy little man who makes a hundred million dollars by your 30s,” Danica said.

Chollie said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone ever said about me.”

When the shadows had thickened just enough for the gesture to be hidden, Susannah gave Natalie a pinch on the rear. They laughed into their cups. It had been tacitly agreed upon: another night they would end up at Susannah’s. Only Natalie knew about Susannah’s new role as the bratty daughter of a soap-opera villain; only Natalie knew about the new rising sea of feeling between them. “My career would die before it was born if everyone knew I was a big fat lesbo,” Susannah had said. Something had sat wrong with Natalie, but she kept it in, let Susannah blaze inside her all day while she stood at her sad gray desk trading commodities, her bank account spinning richer second by second.

Natalie was looking better, Lotto thought, watching her brushing her hand over the last of the mint. She had bleached the moustache, lost weight, was dressing with flair. She had found the beauty he’d known was there all along. He smiled at her, and she blushed, smiled back.

Their eating slowed. The group fell silent. Caramel brownies went around. Some of the friends watched the creamy unfurl of a contrail in the darkling sky, and there was a poignancy in the way it disappeared, and this made most of them think about the dead black-haired girl, that they’d never again feel her arms around their necks in a hug. She had smelled like oranges.

“I found a boy who’d hung himself in prep school,” Lotto said suddenly. “Hanged himself.” They looked at his face with interest. He was pale, grim. They waited for the story, because there was always a story with Lotto, but he didn’t say anything more. Mathilde took his hand.

“You never said,” she whispered.

“Tell you later,” he said. Poor pustulous Jelly Roll dangled ghostly in the garden for a breath; Lotto passed his hand over his face, and the boy was gone.

Someone said, “Look! The moon!” and there it was, hove up like a ship in the navy edge of sky, and it filled them all with longing.

Rachel sat down beside Lotto, leaning into her brother’s warmth. She was up for fall break, had pierced her ears all the way around, and wore her hair long in the front, shaved in the back. Radical for a 10-year-old, but she needed to do something, otherwise she looked a slight 6 with jittery hands, and from her studies of her cohort, she understood that it was better to be weird than twee. She had just gone in and put the envelope with her last year’s allowance in Mathilde’s underwear drawer, dabbling her hands among the silks; it had not escaped Rachel that her brother’s cabinets were bare, that Mathilde had called Aunt Sallie last month, that Sallie had sent cash. Now she was watching the window on the second floor where she had seen a fluttering edge of curtain, half a fist, one eye. Rachel pictured an interior with wallpapered ceilings. Cats with infirmities, Cyclops cats and cats with nubs for tails and gouty, swollen-pawed cats. Stink of joint rub. Bowl of minestrone heated in the microwave. Sad old woman inside. Their mother was heading fast toward that same future, the tiny pink beach house a tomb of figurines and chintz. Muvva loved the sound of the sea, she told Rachel, but Rachel had never even seen her go out onto the sand. She just stayed in her little pink aquarium of a house like a suckerfish, gobblemouthing the glass. Poor Muvva. I will never be old, Rachel promised herself. I will never be sad. I’d scarf a cyanide capsule first, kill myself like that friend of Lotto’s everyone is crying about. Life isn’t worth living unless you are young and surrounded by other young people in a beautiful cold garden perfumed by dirt and flowers and fallen leaves, gleaming in the string of lights, listening to the quiet city on the last fine night of the year.

Under the dying angel’s-trumpet plant, the old lady’s tabby watched. Confusing, these people lounging around their food like enormous cats sated from the kill. She longed to pad in and investigate, but there were too many of them, and they were so sudden, so unpredictable. Just so: at once the people rose, shrieking, gathering things up in their arms, rushing about. The cat was startled that they were startled, because she had smelled the rain long before she heard it. A spoon fell from a bowl of tabbouleh and spun into the dirt and was abandoned, spattered by the mud kicked up by the first raindrops. The people were gone. A hand came out of a ground-level window and unplugged the tree lights. In the plunge of darkness, the yellow cord writhed into the window like a snake and the cat hungered to chase it, but it disappeared and the window closed. The cat dabbed her paw delicately at one fat drop on the edge of a leaf, then galloped across the yard and went inside.

THE DOOR TO the apartment opened; in leapt the goblin. It was nine at night, unseasonably cold. Behind the goblin came Miss Piggy, a skeleton, a ghost. Albert Einstein, moonwalking. Samuel came in wearing a lampshade for a hat, and around his waist a cardboard box painted to resemble a bedside table, with a magazine and two condom wrappers glued on top. Lotto, in a toga and crowned by gilded bay leaves, put his beer down on Samuel’s tabletop and said, “Hello! You’re a nightstand. A one-night stand. Ha-ha.” A murdered prom queen froufroued by, muttering, “Wishful thinking.” Samuel said, “I think that was my ex-girlfriend,” grinned, went to the fridge for a beer.

“Since when does it snow on Halloween? Global warming, schmobal schwarming,” Luanne said, stomping her boots on the rattan mat. She was Mathilde’s friend from the gallery and was painted up cleverly as Picasso’s Dora Maar, the one with the bitten apple for a cheek. She kissed Lotto lingeringly, saying, “Oh, hail yes, Caesar.” He laughed too loudly, pulling away. Luanne was trouble. Mathilde came home most days with stories about how she tried to seduce their boss, some gross bulgy-eyed man with vaudeville eyebrows named Ariel. “Why?” said Lotto. “She’s pretty. She’s young. She could do way better.” And Mathilde shot him a look and said, “Babe. He’s rich,” and, of course, that explained it. Together Lotto and Luanne went toward Mathilde, who was resplendent in full Cleopatra, eating a cupcake beside the Buddha on the mantel adorned with sunglasses and a lei. Lotto dipped his wife and licked the crumbs from her lips as she laughed.

“Yuck,” Luanne said. “You guys can’t be freaking real.” She went to the kitchen, took a Zima from the fridge, moodily sipped, made a face. She’d gauged the low state of Lotto’s mind by the size of his belly and how crowded the apartment was with used books; in his low moments, reading was all Lotto could do. Funny, because he seemed like such a huge goofball, and then he opened his mouth and quoted paragraphs of Wittgenstein or something. It unnerved her, the gap between who he appeared to be and the person he held inside him.

Someone put on a Nirvana CD and girls got up from the leather couch Lotto had rescued from the sidewalk. They attempted to dance but gave up, put Thriller on again.

Chollie, a green goblin, sidled up to Lotto and Mathilde, slurringly drunk. “I never noticed how close-set your eyes are, Mathilde, and how wide yours are, Lotto.” He made a stabbing motion with two fingers at Mathilde and said, “Predator,” then stabbed at Lotto and said, “Prey.”

“I’m the prey and Mathilde’s the predator?,” Lotto said. “Please. I’m her predator. Her sexual predator,” he said, and everyone groaned. Luanne was gazing at Arnie across the room. She made an impatient motion with her hand. “Shut up, you guys,” she said. “I’m ogling.”

Mathilde sighed, backed away.

“Wait. Who? Oh, Arnie,” Chollie said, spiteful. Disappointed? “Please. He’s so stupid.”

“Dumb as a dead bulb,” Luanne said. “Exactly my point.”

“Arnie?” said Lotto. “Arnie was a neuroscience major in college. He’s no dumbo. Just because he didn’t go to Harvard like you doesn’t make him dumb.”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s pickled his brains with booze,” Luanne said. “At your last party I overheard him say that Sting is his spirit animal.”

Lotto gave a whistle across the room; Arnie-as-the-Hulk looked up from the sea of girls for whom he was making chocolate martinis. He made his way over to Lotto, clapping him on the shoulder. Chollie and Arnie were both painted green. Side by side, Arnie was the pneumatic before and Chollie the punctured after.

Lotto told Arnie, “Luanne said she’d jump your bones if you can define hermeneutics in a satisfactory manner,” and he steered the two into the bedroom, closed the door.

“God,” Chollie said. “I’d die.”

“They haven’t come out of the room yet,” said Lotto. “Some Cupids kill with arrows, some with traps.”

“Shakespeare again?,” Chollie said.


Chollie stalked away. Lotto was alone. When he looked up, he saw only himself reflected in the night-blackened windows, the belly that had developed during his blue summer this year, the shine at the temples where his hair was going. Three and a half years out of college, and Mathilde was still paying the bills. Lotto rubbed the Buddha’s head sadly and walked past a covey of witches hunched over someone’s Polaroid paper, faces summoned out of the murk.

Mathilde’s back was turned, and she was speaking low to Susannah. Lotto crept forward and knew she was talking about him. “—better. Coffee commercial in September. Father and toddler out on a fishing boat at dawn. Apparently the kid fell in and Lotto fished him out with an oar and saved his life. Our hero!”

They laughed together, and Susannah said, “I know! Folgers. I’ve seen it. Dawn, a cabin in the woods, the kid waking up on a rowboat. He’s so striking, Lotto. Especially with a beard.”

“Tell all the directors you know, get him a job,” Mathilde said, and Susannah said, “For what?” and Mathilde said, “Anything at all,” and Susannah gave a half-mouthed smile and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Lotto, stung, hurried away without letting them see him.

Mathilde was never unkind, but she wore her passive aggression like a second skin. If she didn’t like her food at a restaurant, she wouldn’t touch it, keeping her eyes low and saying nothing until Lotto was forced to tell the waiter the food was too salty or undercooked and could they please have something else, thanks so much, buddy. She once maneuvered an invitation to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard by standing next to the bride-to-be all night, a big-time Broadway actress, smiling gently but not speaking a word until the bride impulsively asked them to come. They attended, danced; he charmed a producer and got a callback for a revival of My Fair Lady, though his voice was not great, and he didn’t get the role. They sent the actress a very nice set of antique silver grapefruit spoons they’d bought in a thrift store and polished to appear expensive.

Up before Lotto rose a vision of himself attached to a hundred shining strings by his fingers, eyelids, toes, the muscles of his mouth. All the strings led to Mathilde’s pointer finger, and she moved it with the subtlest of twitches and made him dance.

The Chollie goblin came to a stop next to Mathilde, and together they watched Lotto across the room in a ring of boys: a bottle of bourbon hung between the hook of two fingers, the gold circlet of leaves flapping off the back of his head.

“What’s eating your ass?,” Chollie said. “You seem off.”

Mathilde sighed and said, “There’s something wrong with him.”

“I think he’s fine,” Chollie said. “We only have to worry if he’s way up or way down. He’s coming out of the dip from the summer.” He paused, watched Lotto. “At least he’s losing his potbelly.”

“Thank God,” she said. “All summer I thought he was about to jump in front of a train. He needs to get a role. Some days he never leaves the apartment.” She shook herself resolutely. “Anyway. How’s the used-car business?”

“Quit,” Chollie said. “I’m in real estate now. In 15 years, I’ll own half of Manhattan.”

“Right,” Mathilde said. Then, suddenly, “I’m leaving the gallery.” They both looked startled. “Okay,” Chollie said. “Who’ll support the genius?”

“I’ll work. I got a job at some Internet start-up. A dating site. Begin in a week. I haven’t told anyone yet, not Luanne or Ariel or Lotto. It’s just—I needed a change. I thought my future would be in art. It’s not.”

“Is it in the Internet?”

“All of our futures,” she said, “exist in the Internet.” They smiled together into their drinks.

“Why are you telling me?” said Chollie, after some time. “I mean, I’m a weird choice of a confidant. You know?”

“Don’t know,” Mathilde said. “I can’t tell if you’re benign or malignant. But I feel like I could tell you all my secrets right now and you’d keep them to yourself, waiting for when best to deploy them.”

Chollie went very still, watchful. “Tell me all your secrets,” he said.

“Fat chance,” she said. She left him and went across the room to her husband and whispered in his ear. Lotto’s eyes widened, and he bit down on a grin and didn’t watch his wife as she skirted the party and went out the apartment’s front door, turning down the dimmer switch on her way so that the only illumination in the room was from the flicker of the jack-o’-lanterns.

After a minute, Lotto went out the door with ostentatious nonchalance, up the stairs, and found Mathilde outside the old lady’s door. Their party churned below; from within, he hadn’t been aware it was so loud. He wondered why the old lady hadn’t called the cops yet, as she usually did. Still before 10, perhaps. There was a flush of cold as the front door opened and a clump of clowns clattered down the stairs to the party, and Lotto’s exposed buttocks prickled with goose bumps. But the front door closed; the door to their apartment opened and the party swallowed the clowns. He loosed Mathilde’s left breast from her bustier, his mouth on the curve of her throat.

He turned her around to press her cheek against the door, but she struggled back, her eyes flashing, and he submitted to the standing missionary.

Inside the second-floor apartment, Bette was eating a runny egg sandwich alone in the dark, kept up by the festivities below. Now, unmistakable, a creak on the stairway, and Bette thrilled to the thought of a burglar, the tiny gun she kept in the fern stand. She put the sandwich down and pressed her ear to the door. But here was another creaking, a murmur. Some preparatory thumps. Indeed! This was happening. It had been so very long since her Hugh, but what had passed between them still felt fresh to her, a peach bitten into. Felt like yesterday, all that bodily joy. Begun so young they didn’t even know what they were doing and they wouldn’t give it up, so when they were old enough, they married. Not the worst thing to build a marriage around, such juice. The first years had been delirious, the latter ones merely happy.

The girl on the landing moaned. The boy was muttering, but not so distinctly that Bette could understand the words, and the girl’s moans became louder, then were muffled as if she were biting something—his shoulder? The rattling of the door was strenuous. Bette pushed herself against the heaving wood. Such athletes. Put Bette in mind of the monkey house on a Sunday visit to the zoo, the capuchins’ gleeful whoring.

A mingled half-shout, and Bette whispered to her tabby figure-eighting her ankles, “Trick or treat, old girl. Indeed.”

Out on the landing was hoarse breathing and rustling. Oh, she knew who it was, the strange-looking giant from downstairs and his tall, plain wife, though she would pretend that she didn’t, to save embarrassment when they met in the foyer. Then the footsteps down, away, the music intensifying then quieting as their door opened and closed, and Bette was alone again. Now for a stiff scotch and a toddle off to bed, dovey, like the good girl you’ve become.

“HALLELUJAH,” Chollie said, knocking back an eggnog, mostly brandy. It was 11 o’clock. “Christ is born.” He and Lotto were silently competing to see who could be drunker. Lotto hid it better, seemed normal, but the room spun if he didn’t blink it straight.

Outside, a thickness of night. Streetlights were lollipops of bright snow.

Aunt Sallie hadn’t stopped talking for hours, and now she was saying, “… course, I don’t know nothing, being not as sophisticated as all y’all college grads, and I sure as heck can’t tell you what to do, Lotto, my boy, but if it was me, which it isn’t, I know, but if it was, I’d say I done gave it my all, be mighty proud of the three-four plays I done these past years, and say, ‘Well, not everybody can be Richard Burton, and maybe I got something else I can do with my life.’ Like maybe, oh, take over the trust or something. Get back in your mother’s graces. Get undisinherited. You know she’s faring poorly, that sick heart of hers. Rachel and you both stand to gain a lot when she passes, God forbid it be soon.” She looked at Lotto cannily over her canary’s beak.

The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train and the trucks arriving in the night.

“I’m struggling,” Lotto said. “Maybe. But come on, I was born wealthy, white, and male. I’d have nothing to work with if I didn’t have a little struggle. I’m doing what I love. That’s not nothing.” It sounded mechanical, even to his own ears. Bad acting, Lotto. His heart wasn’t in the fight anymore.

“What’s success, anyway?” said Rachel. “I say it’s being able to work as much as you want at whatever lights you up. Lotto’s had steady work all these years.”

“I love you,” Lotto said to his sister. She was in high school, as skinny as Sallie. Her friends couldn’t believe that Lotto and she were related. Only Lotto thought her stunning, planar. Her thin face reminded him of a Giacometti sculpture. She never smiled anymore. He pulled her close and kissed her, feeling how tightly she was coiled inside.

“Success is money,” Chollie said. “Duh.”

“Success,” Sallie said, “is finding your greatness, hush puppies. Lotto, you were born with it. I saw it the moment you came screaming out of your mother. Middle of a hurricane. You’re simply not listening to what your greatness is. Your father told me he always thought you’d be the president of the U.S.A. or an astronaut. Something bigger than big. It’s in your stars.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Lotto said. “And my stars.”

“Well. You also disappointed our dead father,” Rachel said, laughing.

“To our disappointed dead father,” Lotto said. He raised his glass at his sister and swallowed the bitterness.

Mathilde came back in the door, carrying a tray. Glorious in her silver dress, her hair platinum, in a Hitchcock twist: she’d gotten fancy since she’d been promoted six months earlier. Lotto wanted to take her into the bedroom and engage in some vigorous frustration abatement.

Save me, he mouthed, but his wife wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m worried.” Mathilde put the tray down on the counter in the kitchen, turned to them. “I left this up there for Bette this morning, and it’s 11, and she hasn’t touched it. Has anyone seen her the last few days?”

Silence, the clicking of the heirloom clock Sallie had brought in her duffel. They all looked ceilingward, as if to see beyond the layers of plaster and floorboard and carpet into the cold, dark apartment; it would prove silent save for the refrigerator hum, a large cold lump on the bed, the only thing breathing the hungry tabby rubbing against the window.

“M,” Lotto said. “It’s Christmas. She probably left yesterday for some relative’s place, forgot to tell us. Nobody’s alone on Christmas.”

“Muvva is,” Rachel said. “Muvva’s alone in her dank little beach house, watching the whales with her binocs.”

“Bull honkey,” Sallie said. “Your mother had her choice, and she chose her agoraphobia over spending Christ’s birthday with her children. Believe me, I know it’s a disease. I live with it every dang day. I don’t know why every year I buy her a ticket. This year she even packed. Put on her jacket, her perfume. Then just sat on the couch. She said she’d rather organize the photo boxes in the spare bathroom. She made her own choice, and she’s a grown woman. We can’t feel bad.”

Her pinched lips belied her words. Lotto felt a rush of relief. Her scratching at him tonight, her picking and prodding, arose from her own guilt.

“I don’t feel bad,” Rachel said, but her face was also drawn.

“I do,” Lotto said quietly. “I haven’t seen my mother for a long time. I feel very bad.”

Chollie heaved a sarcastic sigh. Sallie glared at him. “Well, it’s not like you kids can’t go see her,” Sallie said. “I know she cut you off, but all you have to do is spend five minutes with her and she’ll love you both. And that’s a promise. I can make it happen.”

Lotto opened his mouth, but there was too much to say, and it was all sour toward his mother, un-Christmasy, and so he shut it and swallowed the words back.

Mathilde put a bottle of red wine down hard. “Listen. Your mother’s never been inside this apartment. She has never met me. She chose to be angry and stay angry. We can’t be sorry for her choices.” Lotto saw her hands trembling; rage, he realized. He loved the rare times she showed how thin her calm surface was; how, beneath, she boiled. A perverse part of Lotto, it’s true, wanted to lock Mathilde and his mother in a room and let them claw it all out. But he wouldn’t do that to Mathilde; she was far too sweet to spend even a minute in his mother’s company without coming out maimed. She turned off the chandelier so the Christmas tree with its lights and glass icicles overcame the room, and he pulled her onto his lap.

“Breathe,” Lotto said softly into his wife’s hair. Rachel blinked in the tree’s gleam.

Sallie had been speaking hard truths, he knew. It had become evident over the past year that he could no longer count on his charm, which had faded; he tested it again and again on baristas and people reading in the subway and during audition gauntlets, but beyond the leeway given to any moderately attractive young man, he didn’t have it anymore. People could look away from him these days. For so long, he had thought it was just a switch he could flick. But he had lost it, his mojo, his juju, his radiance. Gone, the easy words. He could not remember a night when he hadn’t fallen asleep drunk.

And so he opened his mouth and began to sing. “Jingle Bells,” a song he hated, and he was never the world’s best tenor anyway. But what else was there to do except sing in the face of dismay, the image of his fat mother sitting up alone by a potted majestic palm strung with colored bulbs? The others now were joining in, miraculous, all of them save Mathilde, still rigid with anger, though she was softening, a smile cracking her lips. At last, even she sang.

Sallie watched Lotto, cleaving. Her boy. Heart of her heart. She was clear-eyed, knew that Rachel, being of finer moral stock, kinder, humbler, deserved her affection more than Lotto. But it was Lotto for whom Sallie woke praying. These years of distance were hard on her. [In a one-horse open sleigh.] It came back to her now, the Christmas before he’d finished college, before Mathilde, when he had met Sallie and Rachel in Boston, where they stayed at a redoubtable ancient hotel and were snowed in under three feet of powder, like being stuck in a dream. Lotto had maneuvered a rendezvous with a girl at another table at dinner, his smoothness so like his mother’s when she was young and lovely that it took Sallie’s breath away. Later, Sallie waited in ambush until midnight, standing at the diamond window at the end of the hallway where their rooms were, the endless snow falling onto the Common at her back. [O’er the fields we go.] At the other end, in minuscule, three hotel maids with their trolleys were laughing, shushing one another. At last, her boy’s door opened and he emerged, bare but for a pair of running shorts. There was a towel around his neck; he was going up to the pool. The sin he intended to enact so glaringly obvious that Sallie’s cheeks burned in imagining the girl’s buttocks gridded with tile marks, Lotto’s knees scabby in the morning. Where did he learn such confidence? she thought, as he became smaller, going toward the hotel maids. He said something and all three pealed, and one gave him a little flick with a cloth, and another sent a slow glitter, chocolates, at his chest. [Laughing all the way, ha-ha-ha!] He caught them. His laugh rumbled back to Sallie. How ordinary he was becoming, she’d thought. He was turning banal. If he weren’t careful, some sweet girl would glue herself to him, Sallie saw all those years ago, and Lotto would drift into marriage, a job as some high-paid menial, a family, Christmas cards, a beach house, middle-aged flab, grandchildren, too much money, boredom, death. He’d be faithful and conservative in old age, blind to his privilege. When Sallie stopped crying, she found herself alone, the cold draft of the window at her neck and on both sides the rows of doors went on and on, diminishing to nothing at the end. [What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight, oh!] But glories! Mathilde came, and though she appeared to be the selfsame sweet girl Sallie had been afraid of, she was not. Sallie saw the flint in her. Mathilde could save Lotto from his own laziness, Sallie had thought, but here they were, years later, and he was still ordinary. The chorus caught in her throat.

A stranger hurrying as fast as he could over the icy sidewalks looked in. He saw a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children, who were already sleeping in their beds, to his wife crossly putting together the tricycle without the screwdriver that he’d run out to borrow. It remained long after his children ripped open their gifts and abandoned their toys in puddles of paper and grew too old for them and left their house and parents and childhood, so that he and his wife gaped at each other in bewilderment as to how it had happened so terribly swiftly. All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like.