Together, we go down to the lake. It is well past midnight, and the illuminated cradle of the moon hangs high in the sky. Our mother is missing, again. When we returned home from Christmas Eve Mass, we discovered the usual clues of her absence. The needle of the turntable skipped on the last rung of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lopsided puddles of red wine stained the carpet by the stereo cabinet in the living room. Broken glass in the kitchen sink, the shiny, jagged shards collecting there like iridescent pebbles on the silty bottom of a river.
We ride our bikes fast. Plastic bouquets of colorful tassels fly from our handlebars. Our front tires spray thin fans of soot-tinted slush. Distant barks of neighborhood dogs float up in the darkness. We ride down Chestnut to Oak, Oak to Spruce Avenue, and then Spruce to Lake Park Drive. Flecks of snow spit into our faces. Our fingertips ache from the cold. Our lungs are burning.
During the day, the lake is a different place. Couples linger on green-painted park benches. People feed bits and pieces of stale crust from the plastic sleeves of Wonder Bread to the families of ducks and geese that live there year-round. During the winter, snow is shoveled off, and families and children skate along the uneven ice, careful not to catch the serrated tips of their skates on unexpected ruts and bumps.
On this particular night, the lake is not fully frozen. We drop our bikes on the apron of dead grass and run down to the muddy banks. It is cold and dark and wet. Elongated shadows extend from the tall maple trees. An owl somewhere fills the sky with its nocturnal call. We march, like soldiers, in a single file.
It doesn’t take us long to find our mother, sitting on the edge of the dock, crying her muffled cries. She always makes it easy to find her. Why did he leave me?
We don’t know which he she’s referring to—the boyfriend who left her last week, our father who left her five years ago, or our grandfather who left before any of us had a chance to meet him. Given that it is Christmas Eve, and our grandfather died during the holiday season, it’s likely that he is whom our mother is crying about—here, on this cold, ice-crusted dock, in the moonlit darkness.
There was no autopsy. Only a vague story surrounds his early death. An amber-colored pharmacy bottle was found near his body, and loose pills were scattered on the black-and-white tiled floor of the master bathroom like lost pieces of candy. The obituary in the local newspaper listed a heart attack as the unexpected cause.
Much later, we find out that our grandfather enjoyed his poker games and his Scotch. He played with his partners from the brokerage firm. For our mother’s sixteenth birthday, he flew her to New York City, they stayed at The Pierre on Fifth Avenue and saw The King and I.
When we return home, the broken glass still sits in the kitchen sink and Beethoven still skips on the living-room turntable. The multi-colored Christmas lights burn bright on the tree in the far corner. An ornament of baby Jesus is perched at the very top, his miniature body swaddled in a gold-embroidered blanket.
Together, we manage to get our mother up the stairs. We hide the phone book and unplug the phone. We put a tall glass of water and the plastic bottle of Bayer on the table next to her bed. We know that when she wakes up in the morning, she will need the aspirin and lukewarm water. Her head will hurt, swollen and achy, for most of the day. Her mouth will be cottony and dry. Many of her words will contain flares of anger. Who forgot to let the goddamn dog out?!
She is still crying as we pull the covers up to her chin and turn off the lights. We close her door. We whisper good night to each other. We silently say our nightly prayers—now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep—in the darkness. Occasionally, a car throws its passing headlights against the wallpaper of vertical vines and violets. The temporary strobes of illumination swiftly disappear with the fading rumble of their engines.
We wake up early, like we always do. One by one, we file down the yellow-carpeted stairs in our flannel nightgowns and foot pajamas. Our mother is up already. The presents are arranged underneath the tree. Her eyes are red. She is still wearing her jeans and lavender ribbed turtleneck from the night before.
We tear through presents. We eat Entenmann donuts and drink glasses of Tang, with powdery orange specks collecting around the transparent edges. We get dressed in our Christmas clothes and comb our hair and pile into the wood-paneled station wagon, and our oldest brother will drive us to our father’s new home that is an hour’s drive away, two towns over. It is a large, two-story house with black-painted shutters and manicured evergreen bushes dotted with red berries. He shares the house with his new wife, his new baby girl, and his three new stepchildren. In the kitchen, in the door of the refrigerator, there is an illuminated device that spits out crushed ice or ice cubes, depending on your selection.
We open presents again. Our father hangs different lights on his Christmas tree—tiny white pinpricks amid carefully distributed strands of shimmery tinsel and shiny colored spheres. Vivaldi’s Pachelbel Canon plays on the turntable. Our father has an automatic record changer so the needle never skips when the music is over.
We drink Coke and eat candy canes and chocolate Santas. We say thank you and please. We tell our father that he gave us everything we wanted this year.
Within a few hours, our aunts, uncles, and cousins arrive en masse at the new house. They give us hugs and wet kisses on the cheek. They look us in the eye and ask How is your mother? We say that she is doing well. We talk about how she is working as a manager at a stationery store and that she is dating a long-distance runner. We don’t mention that the runner no longer comes around and how our mother frequently asks about our father and his new wife and baby. I heard she had her tubes tied. That the baby was a mistake. That she only married him for his money.
We say our goodbyes, rotating around the rooms to the various relatives. Send your mother our love, they say. Tell her that we were asking about her. We get back into the station wagon and drive along Interstate 94, the stretch of highway that each of us will come to know well during the next ten years. Halfway through the drive, we note the enormous Uniroyal Tire, the midway point between here and there. We spot the airplanes descending over the gray highway, their heavy tires unfolding out of their metal bellies, before they land on one of the runways that radiate out from the control tower.
Our older brother turns up on the radio and cracks open his window after he lights a cigarette. Frigid air spills into the car. None of us asks him to close the window despite the fact that the interior of the car is getting too cold. None of us says a word about the father’s house, the presents, the many sweets, the cigarettes. Instead, we wait for our brother to exit the highway and drive in the direction of the lake. He parks near the dock, and we stumble out of the car, our good shoes squishing against the wet ground. A dotted vee of geese glides effortlessly across the wintry sky. We feed the ducks with the bread we stole from our father’s refrigerator. We feed the ducks until we have nothing left—and then we return home together.