“I’d better walk Thor once more,” I said, lifting my plate.
“I’ll walk him,” Miller volunteered. “It’s my turn.”
“Yeah, sure,” I teased. “I know you’re just trying to get out of KP duty.”
We all laughed at that. Miller bolted out of the room to grab his coat and gloves and returned with Thor’s leash.
“Come on, boy,” he said after he hooked up the leash. “Let’s go.”
I watched as Thor trotted happily beside Miller. It was comical but I didn’t dare laugh. Thor’s head was almost as high as Miller’s.
“Mutt and Jeff,” I said.
Mama, catching the reference, laughed and shook her head as she carried plates to the kitchen.
Mama and I made short work of clearing the table and washing the dishes. We didn’t talk much; we were both tired and eager for bed. We were just finishing when we heard the front door swing open. We hurried into the front of the house and saw my father standing at the door, wide legged, arms out. Or rather, teetering. The door was wide-open and the cold wind was blowing in. He weaved from side to side, his coat open and his cheeks ruddy, as much from drink as the cold.
“Oh.” Mama’s voice rang with disappointment as she hurried to his side.
“What?” he said in a belligerent tone.
Mama pushed him out of the way so she could close the front door. “You’re drunk,” she said accusingly.
“I’m not drunk!”
“I thought you were working.”
“I was! Then me and Bill, we went out for a few drinks. It’s Christmas, right?”
“Yes! It is Christmas! And you should have been with us at Miller’s play. It would have been nice to have you with your family. But instead you got drunk!”
“I’m not drunk,” he slurred back with less arrogance, weaving with the effort.
“You are drunk. And to think we were worried about you.”
“No need to be. I deserve to enjoy the holidays a little, too.” He staggered farther into the front room.
Something in the way he said that, angrier than anything else, convinced me trouble was afoot.
“Sit down, Alistair. I’ll get you something to eat.” Mama took hold of his arm to guide him to the table.
My father lifted his arm from her grasp and turned away, giving her his shoulder. “I’m not hungry.”
Mama slammed her hands on her hips. “Did you eat?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Oh, great.” She rolled her eyes. “Sit down, hear? I’ll get you some water, too.”
“I don’t want any damn water. I need a drink.”
“You’ve had enough to drink.”
He shook his head and lifted his arms to ward her off. “I haven’t had near enough,” he said.
I moved forward to help my mother, but she waved me away firmly.
“No more drinking,” Mama said, going toe to toe with my father. “Now stop it, hear?” She was mad now. “We were having a perfectly lovely evening, and you had to come in here and ruin it. Getting drunk . . . You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s Christmas!”
I watched as his face mottled and he worked his jaw as if he were going to really fire off some choice words. My hands formed fists at my sides, ready to intervene. I could feel my heart rate zooming.
“Christmas, huh?” my father said angrily. “Let me tell you about Christmas.” He said Christmas like a sneer. “I killed myself to make this deadline. You know I did. And I made it, too. Only a few piddly-shit things left on the final checklist to finish.” He waved his hand so hard he teetered. “Not important. But is she satisfied? Nooooo.” He drawled out the word. “She says she won’t pay until the job is done. When I say I’ll come back tomorrow to finish up, she gets all uppity and says it’s Christmas Eve and she doesn’t want any more work done until after the holidays. How it wasn’t her fault the job wasn’t done on time. The hell it wasn’t!” he bellowed. “She changed her mind on the tile three times! Do you know how long it takes to get tile in?” He shook his head, then put his hand on his forehead.
He weaved a bit with his eyes closed and I thought he might stumble. Then he lowered his voice and said almost in a cry, “She’s not going to pay me until after the holidays.” He looked at Mama with his eyes red from drink and, though I shuddered to think it, crying. “I don’t have the money I was counting on for Christmas. She stiffed me.”
I felt for my old man. He had always been the rock that his family counted on. The Captain. He was the best out there and never disappointed. This final insult had to come as a crushing blow. My father had his disillusionments, too. I knew how much he’d sacrificed year after year, spending long hours on the sea doing backbreaking labor, to see it all go up in smoke. Sometimes, I thought grimly, hard work doesn’t pay off.
Mama put her hand on his sleeve and was about to say something when the front door swung open again. Miller and Thor walked in. Miller was pink-cheeked from the cold night. With the dog at his side he never looked more like the innocent child.
“Daddy, you’re home!” he exclaimed happily.
Daddy merely cast him a hooded glance, nodded brusquely, and ran his hand through his hair.
Miller unhooked Thor’s leash. The dog trotted to my side, giving my father wide berth.
“I see that mutt is still here.”
I frowned and put my hand on Thor’s head in a protective gesture.
Miller sensed the tension, and I knew he’d do what he always did when Mama and Dad were fighting. He’d try to make peace.
“Hey, Daddy,” he said in a cheerful voice, full of enthusiasm. He slipped off his hat and looked at our father, his eyes shining. “When are we going to get the tree? Tomorrow, right?”
It was a defining moment, and we held a collective breath. The voice of Christmas Present sang out in Miller’s voice, full of possibility. The Christmas tree! It felt as though our entire Christmas was held in the balance. Mama, too, sensed the importance of this moment. She looked to Alistair, a silent plea in her eyes.
My father looked at my brother for a minute, processing Miller’s words in his drink-sodden brain. Then his face wrinkled in scorn and the die was cast.
“We can’t afford no damn Christmas tree!” he shouted. He slammed his arm down like a guillotine.