Desmond’s wife Lauren was throwing a party to celebrate the holidays and their remodeled kitchen. Desmond had argued strongly against the party. The guests would be mainly neighbors he hardly ever spoke to and people from Lauren’s work. He would have to brave the traffic on the peninsula to pick up Mother at the Home. Forty miles each way. Desmond had lobbied to put Mother into a facility closer but his sister Caroline wouldn’t hear of it. “Mother’s ninety years old, of course she’s declining,” Caroline replied when Desmond said Mother was not being well cared for.
Caroline never doubted she knew what was best for Mother. Caroline knew what was best for everyone. “The longer you sit on your duff, the harder it will be to get a job,” she admonished him. He knew he should be looking for a new job but he was stuck, paralyzed by resentment. If the kitchen hadn’t been remodeled he wouldn’t have to be looking for work. He might be able to retire.
He had been taken off guard when Lauren and Caroline, who hated each other, teamed up against him. “Desmond, don’t be a tightwad,” Caroline said. “Lauren’s been wanting to redo her kitchen for twenty years. I know a great contractor. He’s on the board at my church. He’s very creative.” Caroline was a rabid Methodist.
One Saturday morning the contractor was at the door. Lauren let him in. Mitt, late forties or fifties, blue jeans, hair like a Texas governor. Soon he was in the kitchen taking measurements. Desmond asked to see an itemized estimate but Mitt would offer only a ballpark figure. “We’re not building a ballpark here,” Desmond said. Lauren wrote a check as down payment based on a figure Mitt pulled out of his ass.
During reconstruction Desmond stayed away from the house. Then he lost his job and he was home during the day. The house was a cavern of dust and the agonizing sounds of money going down the drain. One day Desmond noticed—he hadn’t been paying much attention, but he couldn’t miss this—that Mitt had installed a window over the kitchen sink. “Whose idea was that?” Desmond asked, enraged. He didn’t want the neighbors watching him doing his dishes.
“Mine,” Mitt said. “Let in some light.”
Desmond canned Mitt on the spot which made him feel good about life, but left him with an unfinished kitchen and an unhappy wife. Desmond decided to finish the work himself. He was handy, and there wasn’t that much more to do, tiling around the sink, touching-up the painting, and installing knobs. It gave him something to do. At Home Depot he bought some blinds to cover the window.
Now they were having a holiday party and the guests were about to arrive. Desmond downed a shot of vodka. He might get really drunk later, but not until after he picked up Mother. His goal was simple, to get through the party without a single emotion. He was doing his best to help Lauren fill the tray with hors-d’oeuvres. She was obviously impatient with the way he was cutting the celery. He ought to get credit for trying. The phone rang.
“Your lovely sister,“ Lauren said rolling her eyes and handing him the phone. He was surprised Caroline was calling so early. Usually she waited until they were at dinner to cancel. She was calling to say she had rented a car and they would pick up Mother.
“Did you hear what I said?” Caroline asked. “If the traffic’s not too awful we might get there a little early. Is that okay?”
After he hung up, Desmond asked Lauren. “Is she coming with somebody?”
“Not that I know of,” Lauren said.
“She’s picking up Mother,” Desmond said. “That’s a first.”
Desmond was in the bedroom when the doorbell rang. The vodka was starting to taste nasty, which was a good thing. Consonants were getting evasive.
He squeezed some toothpaste onto a toothbrush and gave his teeth a freshening. The avenue to a fresh mind was fresh teeth. He heard a male voice, and Lauren’s fake-cheery greeting. An insight, like a stroke, crossed his consciousness and fizzled.
Caroline had come with a date. “You remember Mitt,” Caroline sang out, ignoring Desmond’s hostile look. “Mitt,” she exclaimed after making a beeline to the kitchen, “everything looks fabulous. The tiles around the sink were a great choice.” That meant that she had chosen them.
Mitt followed her into the kitchen and took a close look at the sink. “Whoever installed them didn’t know his ass from his nudpecker,” Mitt said. “Bet they leak.”
“Come in, Mother, you’re letting the flies in,” Desmond said to his mother left stranded at the open front door. Joke-y was always the first tone he tried on her.
Mother looked at him with detachment. “Are you my son?” she asked.
“Who else would I be?” he asked.
“The guy from GasPro.
“What guy from GasPro?”
She averted her face as if he’d struck her. Not looking him in the eye, she gave him a big artificial smile. “Pleased to see you again, I’m sure.”
Lauren shunted Mother to a chair in the corner near the hors-d’oeuvre table where she began chewing on a cauliflower floret. Desmond made a contract with himself to do anything not to live so long.
The doorbell rang and rang. The crowd made it easier to avoid Mitt and to follow him at the same time. The earlier flash of insight had developed into something more limpid. Desmond was nurturing the fantasy— it was ripening into a compulsion—to plant the fireplace poker in Mitt’s skull. He would tell the police he didn’t know what came over him. He would be that idiot guy, that schmuck. He poured himself another shot of vodka. That murderous schmuck was better than the schmuck he was an hour ago.
He saw his mother with her sorry hands, staring into a void. “Do you know who I am now?” he asked her.
Mother had two active expressions, clouded confusion or blue-sky vacuity. She showed both in succession. “Why do I always have to tell you?” she asked.
“Because you’re my mother,” he said.
“You’re someone I used to see on the block, once upon a time. You want more out of me, talk to my lawyer.”
“You’re my mother,” he said.
“Is that what the security people say? What do they know? What is that awful music they’re playing?”
“It’s Christmas music.”
“Would you ask them to put on something more grown-up? It’s giving me a headache.”
A headache! Him too. It was an enormous relief to realize the throbbing pressure at his temples was The Little Drummer Boy’s rumpa-pumming. Rather than being psycho he was a vessel of clarity, or would be if he knew how to squash the little bugger. It wasn’t coming from the CD player on the shelf. It was like poison gas piped in.
He knew he was overheated, overreacting. He made his way to the garden door. Outside he would cool off, calm himself down. The party was in the homestretch.
In the kitchen the contractor was stiffly petting Roscoe the cat and Desmond lingered to witness the moment when Roscoe would whip his head around and sink his teeth into Mitt’s inept hand.
Roscoe came through. “Bad cat,” Caroline shrieked as Roscoe darted through a forest of legs into the bedroom. Lauren, horrified, pulled the bedroom door shut and locked Roscoe in.
A brisk north wind blew through the garden. In the night sky a new moon paired up with a bright star. Probably a planet. Maybe Jupiter. Maybe the star of Bethlehem.
Someone came out the garden door. Desmond intuited immediately it was Contractor Mitt the Methodist, and knew that the moment had arrived, either of redemption or catastrophe, but when he turned he saw two boys, neighbors’ sons. Given their awkward reaction Desmond assumed they’d come outside to sneak a joint. If he hadn’t felt awkward with his slurry words, he might have joined them for a toke or two but it was too cold to stay outside in any case.
Back indoors he sank into the couch. The cold clean air and the bright moon had restored an elevated sense of purpose within him if he could only identify what the purpose was. It no longer seemed to be murder.
As quickly as it had come, the uplift drained away. The noise of the party washed over him with a tidal force. Bing Crosby was singing Silent Night. He wanted everyone to go home now but the party was showing no hint of falling apart. Some people were even dancing.
Where was he? In his house. He was the host and lord over all and his power was useless if unused. He walked to the bedroom. He heard a scratching on the door and opened it.
“Sic em, Roscoe,” he said.
Desmond was thirsty for water. In the kitchen the new faucets pissed him off, made him feel stupid, unable to tell cold from hot without having to think about it. He listened to bits of the conversation behind his back: the cat with diarrhea, the cost of tuition.
Someone put a hand on his shoulder. “Wise you switched to water,” Caroline said.
Desmond had another flash of insight. “You’re not the only one bonking the Methodist,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You and my wife.”
Caroline spun away. Moments later he heard her shout in the bedroom and then without a shred of dignity or restraint she flung open the door and let a big blast of cold air over the party. The contractor hurried after her. In a surprisingly short time the other guests were grabbing coats and vamoosing. Desmond smiled and said how nice it was that everyone came until everyone was gone except Mother either asleep or dead in the easy chair and Roscoe nosing some frosting on a paper plate across the floor. The music continued to hock its nauseating cheer. Desmond found a cord and yanked and something in another room clattered to the floor as the music went dead.
He might be sobering up; he wasn’t sure. Where was Lauren? She wasn’t in the kitchen. It was amazingly quiet in the kitchen except for an almost inaudible dripping.