November 1, 2016
Wherever I am, in California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, or Texas, as well as those rare occasions when I actually sleep at my spartanly furnished apartment in Denver, the last thing I do before turning out the light is make sure my cell phone is fully charged and within easy reach on the nightstand.
So when the phone rang at 1:48 A.M., I already knew who was calling and why.
“Can’t sleep again?”
“I woke up,” my sister replied. “Freckles jumped off the bed and I had to get up and feed her.”
I shouldn’t sigh when she says things like that, but it’s hard not to.
“Alice. Why don’t you close the door to your room at night? I sent you that nice cat bed. Why can’t the cats sleep out in the living room?”
“But how would I know when Freckles is hungry? Lucy? I was thinking. Why don’t you come home for Christmas this year?” Alice’s voice brightened, as though this brilliant idea, which she had voiced every time we’d talked in the last three weeks, had only just come to her.
I swallowed to banish the dryness in my throat, a side effect of my usual sleep aid, three fingers of single-malt scotch over ice
administered shortly before retiring, and then crooked my right arm across my eyes to block out the glow of the streetlamps from the boulevard below.
I keep promising myself that I’m going to buy some drapes to draw over my standard-issue apartment blinds, but I keep forgetting.
At this point, it probably isn’t worth the expense. In another week or two, I might be moving. Or not. And if not, everything I’ve done in the last three years has been a complete waste of time.
But I won’t think about that, not now. If I do, I’ll never be able to get back to sleep. “Alice, we’ve been over this before, remember? We’re going to go someplace warm for Christmas. Maybe Disney World.” Alice loves Disney World. I took her there for Christmas two years ago and booked us into a room overlooking a man-made savannah populated with African wildlife; giraffes grazed not ten feet from our balcony. Alice was so entranced that I had to coax her to leave the hotel and visit the parks. “Or maybe,” I said, clearing my throat and then drawing out the phrase, trying to add a tantalizing note to my tone, “depending on how things turn out Tuesday, we could spend Christmas in Washington. The decorations at the White House are gorgeous. The tree in the Blue Room is eighteen feet tall.” “Is Washington warm?” Alice asked, suspicion creeping into her voice.
“Not in December,” I admitted. “But the National Zoo has pandas. And I could book us into a very fancy hotel with a Jacuzzi. And a spa. We could get pedicures and massages.”
Alice was quiet for a moment. I could tell she was tempted. Alice loves Jacuzzis. And pedicures. And how many times had she told me that, someday, she wanted to see a panda? A near-drowning accident at the age of eighteen had permanently altered my sister’s intellect, abilities, and personality. But at the core of her being she’s still a Toomey, shackled by the weight of responsibility and the Protestant work ethic. It’s pretty ironic, considering we’re Catholic. Well, Alice is. At this point, I consider myself religiously abstentious. Nothing against it if that’s what works for you, but I choose not to participate. Of course, Mom was born Lutheran. She converted when she married our father, solemnly promising to raise her children according to the tradition and teachings of the Church of Rome,
faithfully following through on her vows. So maybe the whole Protestant work ethic thing came from her side of the family? That made sense and explained why the inexorable pull of duty proved greater to Alice than the promise of pleasure. I wasn’t really
“I can’t leave Freckles and Dave home again at Christmas,” Alice said. “They get too lonely. You come here, Lucy. We could go to the ice sculpture contest,” she said, adopting the same wheedling tone I’d been using a moment before. “And we could decorate our own tree, a really big one. I still have Mom’s ornaments. You could meet my friends and we could go to midnight mass, with all the candles. It’s so pretty. Lucy, you should go to mass more often.”
As wheedling edged toward scolding, Alice sounded so much like Mom that for a moment it was as if Sally Toomey had risen from her grave and pulled the phone from the hand of her older daughter to give the younger a good talking to.
“I know. But I’ve been very busy,” I said, giving the same excuse I’d always used on Mom. “We’ll go to mass at Christmas, I promise. We can go to the National Cathedral. It’s about twenty times as big as St. Agnes’s and has all kinds of stained glass in
The National Cathedral is an Episcopalian congregation, but services there are so formal and the liturgy so similar to the Catholic rite that Alice wouldn’t know the difference. And I love the architecture of the building. It feels more like visiting a museum than going to church, which, as far as I’m concerned, is infinitely preferable.
“No,” Alice said firmly. “I want to have Christmas in Nilson’s Bay. You haven’t been home since the funeral, Lucy. That’s eight years.”
Eight years? Had it really been that long since our parents died?
I did a little calculation in my head, counting back to 2008, a terrible year. The year when both our parents were killed in a
freak, single-car accident, also when my boss lost his job and I lost mine in turn and we both returned to Colorado, the year
everybody expected him to fade into the background and never be heard from again. Except he hadn’t. I made sure of it.
Sixty-, seventy-, and even eighty-hour workweeks, so many frequent flyer miles logged that I could take Alice on a trip around
the world for Christmas, first class, if I wanted, and close to three hundred nights spent in hotel rooms in the previous year alone. No wonder I’ve lost track of the time.
“Lucy? Did you get the card?”
Though I was sometimes annoyed by my sister’s habit of abruptly dropping one topic and taking up another without any kind of transition or lead-in, I was only too happy to suspend discussion of Christmas plans, though I knew we’d revisit the subject during Alice’s next wee-hours wake-up call. It’s the same every year. Alice always wants me to come home for Christmas and I always resist and, in the end, get my way. I know how bad that sounds, but it really is better this way, for both of us. Think
of all the things Alice would have missed otherwise. Without my influence, my sister might never have traveled farther than Milwaukee. And as far as me missing Nilson’s Bay? I don’t. I spent the first stifling eighteen years of my life in Door County, tucked up in the remote reaches of Wisconsin, and don’t need to make a return trip, not ever. Nilson’s Bay never changes. But I have, thank God.
I yawned, my eyes still shut. “What card?”
“The card,” Alice replied, sounding a little testy that I wasn’t following her line of logic. “There’s a picture of a red panda on
the front, also known as a lesser panda, which doesn’t seem like a very nice name. I don’t know why they call it a panda at all. It
looks more like a fox, a teddy-bear fox. It was hard to draw. I mailed it on Wednesday so it would get there in time for your
birthday. Did it?”
“Oh, the card! Yes. Thank you, Allie-Oop,” I said, using our dad’s old nickname for her. “It’s beautiful. I’m going to put it up
on the bulletin board at my office with the others.”
Truthfully, I hadn’t opened or even seen Alice’s birthday card or, until this moment, remembered that today is my birthday.
When I came home from my final East Coast swing, not quite three hours before, I poured myself a scotch and sat staring at nothing while I consumed it, trying to empty my head and calm down enough to sleep, then got undressed, plugged in my phone, and collapsed into bed without bothering to open the mail or even my suitcase. I’d look for it tomorrow and, just as I promised, pin it to a bulletin board alongside her other drawings.
The fact that Alice’s ability to draw was not impaired and has even improved since the accident is one of the oddities of my sister’s condition. In many ways, she’s just like anyone else. People meeting her for the first time, people who don’t know what she was like before, often have no clue that anything is amiss with Alice. They just think she’s a little slow. That’s one of the reasons, aside from the obvious career complications it would cause, that I’ve never urged Alice to move in with me. Alice
loves Nilson’s Bay; they suit each other. Both are a little slow. “Will they give you a party at work?” Alice asked.
“No. Maybe a cake,” I said, once again stretching the truth for my sister’s benefit.
At thirty-seven, Alice is seventeen months older than I am, but in regard to certain subjects, including the celebration of birthdays, her mentality is still that of the teenager she’d been at the time of the accident.
“Just a cake?”
“Jenna is taking me out to lunch,” I lied.
“What about the governor? Will he come to lunch too?”
“No.” Much as I know Alice would relish the picture of me enjoying a birthday lunch with the possible next president of the
United States, I’m willing to stretch the truth only so far. “He’s too busy. The election is next week, remember?”
“I know. I put a red circle around the date on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget.”
I smiled. “Good. Who are you voting for?”
“Governor Thomas W. Ryland for president of the United States, Lindsay R. Bell for governor of Wisconsin, Charles Skoglund for mayor, and Peter J. Swenson and Arlene Bloom for Village Council.”
“Be sure to tell your friends to vote too.”
I rolled onto my side and opened one eye. The red numbers on my digital clock were blurry without my glasses, but I could still see that it was 2:06 A.M. In two hours and twenty-four minutes the alarm would sound, rousing me for another sixteen hour workday.
“Alice, I’ve got to go back to sleep now. You should do the same.”
There was a pause on the Wisconsin end of the line, followed by a deep, drawn-out sigh, the kind of worrisome exhalation that I hadn’t heard from her in a long time.
I opened both eyes, wide-awake now. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. But . . . Lucy? Are you happy?”
“Sure. Of course I am.” I propped myself up on the pillow.
“I miss you.”
“We’ll see each other soon. Christmas will be here before you know it.”
“I just wish you’d come home for Christmas. I really, really do,” Alice said, a teary rasp in her voice.
I closed my eyes again and rubbed my forehead. I couldn’t deal with this right now. I didn’t have the energy.
“We’ll talk about it later. But not tonight, okay? Let’s wait until after the election.”
Alice went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “Come home. There are things I want to show you, things I want to talk to you
about. . . .”
I sighed again, tired of disjointed conversations that lead nowhere and night after night of interrupted sleep.
“Things,” she repeated. “Nilson’s Bay things. It’s not all bad here, Lucy. You’re remembering wrong.”
Remembering wrong? I very much doubted that, but it wasn’t a debate I wanted to have at two in the morning.
“Alice,” I said, “I just got home. I’ve been up for twenty hours straight. I have got to get some rest.”
“It’s okay,” I said more gently, regretting my impatience. It wasn’t Alice’s fault. She didn’t want to be like this. “Just go to
sleep now, all right?”
“All right. Lucy? Just one more thing. . . .”
I felt my jaw clench. “What now?”
Alice took in a breath and, after a moment, began to sing “Happy Birthday” in a clear, soft soprano. When she was finished, I smiled.
“Thanks. Good night, Allie-Oop.”
“Good night, Lucy.”