Roasting by an Open Fire
Arriving tired and hungry to my mother-in-law’s house for Christmas, a wave of cinnamon scent fills my nostrils, as I swing the front door open. The scent is so thick I have to breathe out of my mouth so I don’t choke.
My eyes still red, I’m greeted by the two-foot-tall porcelain Santa statue positioned at the door entrance.
“Hello,” says Marian, my wife. “We’re here.”
We hear rustling from upstairs. “Be right down.”
Earlier that week, I had to plead with my son Tommy to come.
“It’s boring,” he said. “They’re not my grandparents.”
“I know,” I said, “but look, at least the food will be good.” I paused and continued, “You know I want us all to be together.”
As I glance into the living room, I see stockings with Marian’s name, and our son Bobby’s, hanging over the fireplace. There are no stockings for me or Tommy.
Bags still in our hands, Blair, Marian’s mom, rushes to the door and asks, “What took you so long?” Blair pushes a tray of herring into Tommy’s hands. She hands a tray of olives to me and shoves a cheese plate at Marian. Then Blair dashes back up to the upstairs bathroom, yelling that she still has to get ready.
I’ve been holding my in pee since before we arrived. I put the tray of olives down and hurry to the bathroom. I haven’t even taken my coat off yet.
After a flurry of activity, putting food on the table, we take our jackets off.
Now, as we’re finally sitting down in the living room, Blair emerges from upstairs. She runs her hand through her dyed blond hair, eager to tell us something.
Kirk, Marian’s dad, is stoking the burning logs in the fireplace. The fire snaps and pops as the hot coals flare.
“Did you know that we’re in the newspaper?” asks Blair, handing us a copy of Newsday. The newspaper ran a profile on their house because it was once owned by a rich woman who married a mobster.
As I read the article, Tommy hungrily eats the cheese and crackers. He’s starving; we’re all starving. Kirk sips his scotch. I’m not eating the appetizers; I hate cheese and herring.
“This is so interesting,” Marian says. She is happy that her mother and father are in the news and that their house is a relic of local history. It’s not like they killed anyone, or robbed a bank. The picture of them on the mantle shows Blair in Christmas red, white and green, leaning on the piano, holding Kirk’s hand. The only thing missing from this picture is a pitch fork.
“Kirk, bring the red wine over here,” shouts Blair.
Kirk looks to see if the wine is in the living room.
“Kirk,” Blair shouts again, louder.
Kirk automatically jumps up and runs into the kitchen.
Turning to us, as if nothing had happened a moment ago, she says, whispering now, “Well, when Fanny bought it, it was a little farmhouse. She refurbished it, adding the doors by the stairs, and even broadened the stair entrance.”
As I look over to the stairs, out of the corner of my eye, I see Tommy piling another heap of herring on a cracker, stuffing it into his mouth quickly before anyone sees him. We smile at each other.
“She made the stairs bigger for her dramatic entrances,” adds Blair.
I look down at the article in my hands. I notice it doesn’t mention that the actress’s husband was a gangster.
Blair tells us that the actress and her husband loved to throw parties in the house. Her favorite anecdote is that once they had a fire during a party. When the firemen came, they put out the fire and stayed for the party.
I’m curious about the history of the house. Did her husband murder anyone in it? Did he have gangsters over? Did they cut someone’s head off in the basement? Maybe they just threw great parties, drank prohibition alcohol in great barrels, and listened to jazz musicians playing in the living room while naked girls had hot sex on the couch. I imagine Lucky Luciano sitting on the couch across from me, his domino shoes white as bone, drinking a scotch. As I’m lost in fantasy, Bobby walks in the room with his pacifier. He had slept on the train coming in and was now waking up.
“We’re retiring the pacifier this week,” I say. At three, even Bobby seems embarrassed by his attachment to the pacifier; he’s the only toddler in daycare still clinging to it.
“You’re going to do it a little bit at a time?” Blair demands to know. We’ve had this conversation a number of times. She’s adamantly against taking the pacifier away from him. She plops it in his mouth as soon as he peeps hello.
“No,” I say, flatly. “We’re going cold turkey.”
Tommy shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He looks at me, then places a wedge of crumbling Roquefort cheese on a cracker. He leaves a guilty trail of flakes on the plate.
“Is this all about your ego?” asks Blair, loudly.
“Sounds like you’re more attached to the pacifier than he is,” I say.
Tommy darts another look at me. He doesn’t know whether to leave or laugh.
“Is this some kind of Sicilian thing?” asks Blair.
“Maybe,” I say. “It’s a common sense thing.” I’m doing everything I can to not bare my teeth and growl.
She storms out of the living room to get more herring.
When she’s gone, Tommy asks me what that was all about. I say “don’t worry, it’s nothing.” It’s hard for Tommy and me to balance the impact of my divorce with his mother. He always wanted a brother, but not fifteen years later with another mother. There’s a hurt in him that makes me want desperately to protect him.
Blair returns to the living room with a full glass of red wine. There’s a hissing fire going. The Christmas tree is lit with green and red lights. I hear Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing.
“Let’s open presents now,” Blair says. Marian agrees. Kirk doesn’t say anything. I’m hoping they remembered to get a decent present for Tommy. He’s not their grandson, but they knew he was my son when Marian and I got married. They’ve slowly managed to forget about him since Bobby was born. I’d asked Marian to get a present for Tommy, just in case.
I start separating the gifts into piles. There’s a pile of gifts for Marian, for Bobby, for Blair, for Kirk. I keep looking for Tommy’s gift. I finally find what looks like a bottle in silver wrapping. I put his gift aside, along with the one we brought.
After opening five or six gifts, Bobby is bored. He wants to play with one of the many toy train pieces he’s received from grandma and grandpa.
Tommy finally opens his gift and shows it to me, making a face. It’s an “indestructible” water bottle. I shrug my shoulders. What the fuck is that? I am simmering.
Tommy then goes out to the back yard to make a call. He’s talking to a girl, I know, though he won’t tell me.
Blair asks where Tommy has gone.
“He’s outside.” She wants to know why he couldn’t stay in the living room. Remember, he’s seventeen, I say. I didn’t say that he’d just received the worst present ever.
The living room is now ablaze with Christmas red.
Kirk and I retreat to a corner sipping our scotches.
“I’m going to lean on you now,” he says. He’s been asking me to get genealogical information for his family tree. He wants to complete Bobby’s family history. His own chart, displayed on Marian’s old bedroom door, goes back to the 1500s, showing his family that came from Leipzig, Germany.
“I’ve asked my mother again to give me her birth certificate,” I say.
“All you’ve got to know is what city they were born in, their name and date.”
I say that I know my mother’s grandparents are from Sicily and my father’s family is from Naples. “You see, Kirk,” I say, “When the southern Italians left Italy, it was more like fleeing a miserable situation. They left because they didn’t have anything and they didn’t look back. They didn’t give a shit what town they were leaving; they were going to America.”
“Naples is in the north, right?” Kirk asks.
“No, anything south of Rome is considered southern.” I’ve said this before.
I want to say “Kirk, you know, I eat with utensils, too” or “You should have seen my grandfather, he was as hairy as an ape and only grunted.”
Tommy comes back in asking for something to eat. At six feet three inches, he can’t seem to eat enough. Marian gives him a plate of leftover chicken. Marian is good to him; she takes care of him. He devours the chicken, then runs out to the backyard again.
It’s now six o’clock. Marian pleads with her mom to get dinner ready. Usually calm and even, Marian is now ravenous. We haven’t eaten all day.
“Stop pushing me,” Blair shouts at Marian. I can hear her shrill voice from the living room.
“Please help me set the table,” Marian says, out of breath, as she comes rushing at me.
I get up and rush to the kitchen. I grab plates and bring them to the dining room.
Everyone is now speedily walking in one direction or another. I can hear water boiling. The stove is on. The Christmas tree begins to tremble like it’s ready to take off. It feels like the house is going to explode.
“And I have to hurry dinner because Tommy is hungry,” says Blair, loudly.
Blair now comes storming toward me out of the kitchen saying, “We had better get dinner on the table before Tommy goes begging to the neighbors for food.”
I turn to her and say, “He’d have to at this point. We’d all have to.”
Blair huffs and turns away.
I set the utensils down. Somehow I can never remember whether the forks go on the right or left or whatever. Blair comes back into the dining room moving the forks and knives into place.
Now an hour later, maybe seven o’clock, dinner is ready to be served.
I go to fetch Tommy from the backyard. As I walk through the field of trees to find him, I feel at home. I can breathe. The tall trees are swaying in the wind. Suddenly, I see a tall lanky shadow emerge from the trees. It’s Tommy.
“Dinner is ready,” I whisper, knowing he’s on the phone. I’d rather have dinner out here with Tommy, squatting amongst the trees. It’s cold, the black winter sky is ribbed with dark blue and white. The thick darkness and quiet are calming and perfect.
“I’ll be right in,” he says, holding his hand over the phone, hinting for me to leave him alone.
I give him a hug; there is something permanent and abiding in our embrace. I then walk back to the house, hearing him returning to his conversation.
Now we are all sitting down to a Christmas dinner.
Staring down at my plate, I am quiet. I push a slice of beef around. I’m not really hungry anymore, but my stomach is empty, gurgling.
Not knowing what else to talk about, I start discussing the book I’m reading.
“I’m reading an interesting book,” I say. “It’s called Iceland’s Bell, by Halldor Laxness. It’s about the terrible abuses of power the rich Danes and aristocratic Icelanders held over the poor people of Iceland in the 1800s.” I describe how the main character is jailed for stealing cord used for wrapping fish.
“That’s ridiculous,” says Blair.
“That’s the point,” I say.
“That sounds like a horrible book,” Blair says.
We all go to bed early. I can’t sleep the entire night. I am plagued by the aroma of cinnamon. Marian says she can’t smell it.
The next morning, I take Tommy to the train station to go home. Marian wants me to stay to see her uncles and cousins in the afternoon.
Before we leave, Blair says, “Tell Tommy not to forget his gift.” She says that he’s often disappointed with his gifts and leaves them behind.
“You give a kid coal,” I say, “he leaves coal behind.”
As soon as we walk onto the gravel driveway, Tommy launches the “indestructible” bottle thirty feet into the air. He retrieves it and brings it back to me. It’s broken into bits.
I’m trying hard not to laugh. Silent tears of joy streak down my cheeks.
“I guess it’s not indestructible after all,” says Tommy.
“My two short story collections Hallucinating Huxley and Freud’s Haberdashery Habits & Other Stories were published by Alien Buddha Press in 2018. — said Mike Fiorito about himself — My writings have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Narratively, Mad Swirl, Pif Magazine, Longshot Island, Beautiful Losers, The Honest Ulsterman, Chagrin River Review, The New Engagement and many other publications. In 2018, I was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I am currently an Associate Editor for Mad Swirl Magazine. I am married and live in Brooklyn, NY.”