Friday, November 25, 2011

Shades of Green

By Colleen Sutherland

“Keep your mouth shut,” Mama said, as she stowed Abby’s deviled eggs in the refrigerator. “Don’t say anything and Grace won’t get started. She’s worse when you argue with her.”

So when Grace and her husband arrived, Abby kept her mouth shut. She listened to Grace natter on about her two daughters, her clubs, her church, her home, her activities. Abby said nothing about her friends, her writing, her magazine column, her art. She said nothing about the men in her life, current or ex. She bit her cheek and rubbed her fingers against her arm, back and forth, back and forth. A nervous habit. But she kept her mouth shut, collecting affronts to report to her therapist.

Grace made some triumphant point and pursed her lips. At fifty, her lips carried vertical indentations that were turning into a perpetual frown. From her lofty social position as a small town banker’s wife, she knew the world and disapproved of it on Christian principle. She certainly disapproved of Abby, her divorce, her men, her freedom. Grace set her limits. She expected everybody to do the same. But Abby said nothing.

“Mustn’t brag, dear. You know how it upsets your sister,” Mama whispered to Abby over the supper dishes, wiping her hands on her stained polyester pants. Papa had towered over her, brow-beating her to obeisance. When he died, Grace took over. By tomorrow, Mama would be on her sofa with a sick headache, not answering the phone or door bell, escaping with Oprah.

Now finished with worrying about a Sunday dinner for four, Mama began to fret about Christmas. Eighteen people around the table. Eighteen people who did not like each other. Things might not go well. Things usually didn’t. “Could you make cole slaw?” she asked Abby.

Grace came into the kitchen with multiple copies of her Christmas list, suggestions for presents for her husband, her daughters, and her. “I know what you need for Christmas,” she told Abby. “A job.” Freelance writing was not real work, in Grace’s view. As Abby threw the silverware into their slots in the drawer with loud clinks, Grace checked the dried dishes for stains before she put them into the cupboard.

It’s all part of your dysfunctional family,” Abby’s therapist said. “You can endlessly talk about your problems or you can accept things as they are. Or you can avoid the Christmas situation entirely.” 

Abby wished her therapist would give her more answers and fewer choices. She’s like God, Abby thought, never exactly answering prayers, but giving just enough reassurance to keep the patient praying. 

“Use your car keys as a security blanket,” her therapist suggested. “Always have them with you, in your pocket. Then you know you can eventually escape.”

After the dishes were wiped and put away, Abby said nothing. She sat quietly on the print sofa, grasping her car keys, planning her escape. She was quietly good until the keys imprinted themselves on her palm.

I have to get home to Charles,” she said suddenly, using him as an excuse. Her strong-willed son waited at home, refusing to have dinner with Grace.

Oh, Charles,” Grace said, disdainful. Her lips pursed. Abby gazed at the permanently creased lips, and pictured perpetual displeasure, forever etched even onto Grace’s final laying out in the funeral parlor. At the image, Abby felt guilty pleasure."

What a shame you raise him all wrong,” Grace intoned. “Really, Abby, you should never allow him to be so fussy.” Charles did not like Grace’s baked beans. “And why, at his age can’t he do his own cooking?” Charles was twelve. “Now my girls…” And Grace was off for another five minutes as Abby stood mutely by the door. Her head pounded. But she was good. She said nothing. And escaped.

Crucified by criticism, Abby retreated to her own house for a martyr’s sleep. She had this, her home, her bedroom, her green and white haven with its white bedspread, white curtains, mint walls. Spider plants and philodrenda leaves spread over her headboard, a living green drapery. Potted summer plants rescued from her garden lined the space under the windows. Geranium petals fluttered to the floor. An antique olive frame hung over the dresser, empty. It was meant to border a black-and-white sketch of Charles as a baby, a reminder of another task unfinished, another success put off until it became failure. The frame’s ornate plaster was falling apart. She vacuumed up chips from time to time.

The kelly green afghan Grace knit was draped over the old rocking chair. It was always there, even when there was an overnight male in Abby’s bed, ever, ever a reminder of Grace’s disapproval.

“Why do you keep it there?” asked the therapist.

“It’s my style,” Abby nervously laughed. “Sex with guilt.”

The alarm shrilled at 5:30 Christmas morning. It was paper route time. Abby stumbled down the old narrow stairs, barely missing the black cocker spaniel who lay in wait in the dark landing. Vertigo reminded Abby of her premonition that someday she would die on that staircase.

But not this day. “Charles,” she screamed as she filled the tea kettle at the sink.

Charles exited from his room, carefully closing the door as always to hide the contents. He was green, truly green, the color of a squished grasshopper. He didn’t make it to the bathroom. He vomited. He spewed out vomit all over the kitchen floor and half-way up the cupboards. He spared not a glance at the Christmas tree, his presents sprawled out. By clever arrangment, Abby tried to make it look like he was getting more.

What a mother must do, Abby did. First the child. She put him to bed, hers not his, because he probably caught whatever bug he had in that pit of filth and creativity. They stumbled together up the stairs to her bedroom. She strained to lift him onto her bed. Abby scuffed back down the stairs for a bucket and a bottle of tepid soda she found under the sink. Up the old staircase again, she warned Charles to swill his mouth out but not drink until the bubbles were mostly gone. She covered him with Grace’s kelly green afghan. One part of her said, it's warm. The other part thought, perhaps he’ll puke all over it. Decision made for her, she could throw it away.

On Christmas Sunday, at 6:00 a.m , which of Charles’s friends could she call for his paper route? No one, all the substitute carriers had left for Christmas vacations in sunny Florida and other places she and Charles could never afford. Abby realized the route was hers, all eighty papers, three pounds each. On this holy day, the retailers were preparing for the post-holiday sales.  

The cocker spaniel had eaten most of the vomit. Abby cleaned up the rest. She shrugged on an old army coat and lurched through winter drizzle to hump in the five bundles left on the curb, two of newspapers, three of inserts. She began the laborious task of stuffing and folding. 

Insert, insert, fold. Insert, insert, fold, stack.

After twenty papers, she ran up to check on Charles. He vomited one more time into the bucket, then there was nothing else in his stomach. He retched and sipped warm soda. Abby hurried down the stairs to empty the evil-smelling mess in the toilet, rinsed the bucket and took it back to Charles. 

Inert, insert, fold, stack. Insert, insert, fold, stack.

The tea kettle whistled. Abby found some lime Jell-O in the cupboard, old but still good enough for Charles’s lunch. She made herself a cup of mint tea to take on the route. She listened at the stairs. No sound.

Insert, insert, fold, stack. Insert, insert, fold, stack.

At 7:00 a.m., Abby drove her old Buick through the dark town. She parked on each block and slogged, slipped and slushed through the route, referring to the newspaper route cards by the greenish glare of street lamps. Where do I put the paper? She wondered. In the door, or in the mailbox? Rather than ring doorbells, Abby decided to use the door every time. How should I know? she excused herself. Besides, everyone would be using their front doors today. It was Christmas! She jerked at each storm door, flipped the paper up and slammed the door before the paper fell. Wreaths jingled, bells rang.

After twenty papers, she hurried back to check on Charles. He slept, forehead damp and hot. She stirred the hardening Jell-O and rushed back to the streets.

By 9:00, she had delivered forty more papers. Charles was still sleeping. She showered quickly, hoping her hair would be dry soon enough to go out again. She wished once more for a hair dryer that actually worked. She took three phone calls, customers complaining that the paper was in the wrong place.

“You mustn’t rude to the customer,” she always told Charles. “Don’t talk back.” She apologized calmly and explained her son was ill. One lady told Abby how sorry she was for Charles, such a little boy to have to work so hard. “But I suppose he has to since you don’t work.” A bellicose male said being sick was no excuse. “A job worth doing is worth doing right.”

Mama called. “When are you bringing the cole slaw over,” she asked querulously. “Aunt Ruth and Uncle Archie are here already. “ Exasperated, Abby chopped savagely at a head of cabbage to make the slaw for the family dinner, dressing it with a jar from the store.

She went out in the cold air, hair still wet, to deliver the last twenty newspapers, then dashed home to check on Charles, still sleeping under the green afghan. His color was better, his forehead cooler. She woke him up to force feed him soda and Jell-O. She carefully brought up the television, installed it on the dresser, and gave him the remote control. “Why can’t we have cable?” he asked, knowing the answer. They could not afford it.

I’ll be back in ten minutes,” she said.

Abby drove the cole slaw the two blocks to Mama’s house. Ten of the family were already there, her fat, self-satisfied, married brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. Abby placed her cole slaw in the refrigerator and slipped gift certificates under the tree. She turned to see Grace parade through the house with her husband and daughters, each of them laden with baskets of gaudily wrapped gifts.

“Feliz Navidad!” Grace shrieked, drawing attention to herself. She had been taking Spanish lessons for the trip to Mexico she and the banker were taking in the New Year. As if she would go anywhere near anyone of Hispanic descent, Abby thought. Grace prided herself on finding resorts with “white” staff that could speak English.

Grace waited for a response.

“Another year,” Abby said hastily. “I have to go home. Charles and I won’t be here for Christmas dinner.”
“We must all be together on Christmas,” her mother whined, tears forming. “That is what being a family is all about. If you don’t stay, Christmas is ruined for us all.”

“Charles has a bad case of the flu,” Abby said. “I can’t leave him home alone and I can’t bring him here or you will all catch whatever it is he has.”

“You know why he’s sick, don’t you?” Grace, knowingly nasal, pulled the jacket of her chartreuse pant suit over her complacent belly. “It’s a plea for attention. You spend too much time away from home. Now I think a woman should stay home with her children. I never worked away from the house….”

“Shut up!” Abby screamed. “All of you, just shut up! Can’t you mind your own business!” Abby cried out her frustration. “I work at home just so I can be there when he gets home from school! I do the best I can!” She howled out her anger and guilt. “What is the matter with you? Can’t you leave us alone?” She burst into tears.

Mama started to cry, too. Grace settled into her chair, glancing around at the relatives. Their eyes gleamed. Like Grace, they knew it all along. Abby couldn’t control herself. That’s the way she was.


“I haven’t seen any of them since Christmas,” Abby told her therapist at the end of their first session in January.

“This week, think about what you really wanted to tell them. We'll discuss it next time.”

“It doesn’t make any difference! You don’t understand! Grace won!” Abby sobbed. “She won again!”

In the winter's early mornings, Abby lay quietly in her green haven, the spider plant babies dangling over the bed. She practiced deep breathing exercises. She read philosophy. She listened to the sparrows singing in the bushes outside. Everything was as it was, except for one thing. Grace’s afghan was folded away in her closet.

“Why keep it at all?” her therapist asked.

“It goes with my room,” she answered. “It goes with my life to keep things, to keep them hidden.”


Easter came early that year, with Mama’s ham supper and Grace.

Abby said nothing.   

(Note:  This is the third in a series of depressing Christmas stories.  They date back to a beautiful Christmas Eve when I came back from church services all aglow and paused on the steps to look up and down the street.  Some houses were filled with merriment, but others were dark, though I knew the families were home.  I began to wonder what their Christmases were like. How do dysfunctional families spend the holidays?  "The Rapture" and A Candle in the Window" have already been posted here.  There are more to come.)   

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