I nodded curtly. Just that small gesture sent ricochets through my brain.
As I walked from the room, I heard her voice call out behind me, “I’m so happy you’re home!”
The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.
—A Christmas Carol
The following morning I made a breakfast fit for royalty, which to me Taylor was. Lots of thick bacon, home-baked corn muffins, and fluffy eggs. I poured myself a cup of coffee, breathed deep its heady scent, and looked for the hundredth time toward the stairs.
“When’s he coming out of his room?” Miller asked, reaching for a muffin.
Alistair glanced at me, equally curious.
“When he’s ready,” I said, taking a sip of coffee. “He isn’t feeling well.”
“He must be dead if he can’t smell that bacon,” Miller said.
“Don’t say such a thing!” I said, appalled. “Why, that was heartless. His being alive is an answer to our prayers.”
“Sorry,” Miller mumbled, muffin crumbs flying from his mouth. I couldn’t be too angry with Miller when I also thought the scent of bacon would have drawn Taylor out.
“Is he just going to sleep all day?” Miller wanted to know.
“He’s just returned from war. With injuries,” Alistair said sternly. “He can sleep as much as he damn well wants.”
Miller’s eyes narrowed at being reprimanded.
“Eat up,” I said to Miller. “You’ll be late for school.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Miller glanced at the clock, then pushed back his chair and rose, sticking another piece of bacon in his mouth. “Gotta go.”
“Your lunch!” I shouted after him, a paper bag in my hand.
Miller grabbed the bag, enduring my kiss the way only a ten-year-old can.
“Come straight home after school.”
“I wanna go to Dill’s.”
I shook my head. “Not today, honey. It’s your brother’s first day home.”
“Mama . . .”
Alistair lowered his newspaper and said with finality, “You heard your mother.”
Miller’s face darkened, but he nodded in compliance before stomping out the back door.
I grabbed the dirty dishes and carried them to the sink. “He’s still holding out hope for that puppy. I can’t bear to think of him going back there and playing with him again. It’ll be too hard on him.” My hands stilled at the sink and I turned to face Alistair. He was reading the paper again. “I’ve got some money put aside. It’s not enough, but if I don’t buy you anything for Christmas, and you don’t buy me anything . . .”
Alistair snapped the newspaper shut and set it on the table. He said in measured tones, “You know buying that dog’s the cheapest part of owning it.”
I turned back toward the window. “I suppose. But we’ve always made do before.”
I heard the warning in his voice, but I couldn’t let it go. I turned toward him. “He’s such a good boy. . . .”
Alistair shut his eyes for a moment, pained. “Don’t you think I want to buy him that dog?” He opened his eyes. “You know all the boats are hurting now. The captains are trying, but they can’t give me enough work. As it is, I’ll probably have to go to Florida in January.”
“Oh, no . . .”
Alistair’s face was creased with despair and he said loudly, “What else can I do?” He paused, then lowered his voice. “I didn’t want to tell you this till after Christmas. I kept hoping something would turn up.” He met my gaze. “We could lose the house.”
The sponge dropped from my hand. “Not the house. But how?”
“The usual way,” he said darkly. “When you don’t make the payments, they foreclose.”
I slumped against the sink, filled with dread and a new fear. I let my gaze sweep over the kitchen, my colorful pottery collection on the shelves, my sweetgrass baskets collected over many years. I gazed out the windows facing the river. I couldn’t lose my house . . .
“I’m trying,” he said, a flush creeping up his neck. “I’m looking for carpentry work, handyman jobs, anything I can find. But it’s tough during the holidays. People put house projects on hold. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall every day, going around town with my hand out.”
I could see in his face how demoralizing this was for him, a man once held in the highest of esteem.
His voice rose. “Hell, yes, I’d like to get my boy a dog! But we can’t add anything more, hear? Not one thing. We’re hanging on by our nails.” He looked down at his hands and added with a roughness in his voice, “Miller might as well learn now as later that life is tough. Money don’t come easy.”
I didn’t respond. I hoped my boy would never have to learn that harsh lesson. When Alistair was in this mood, I’d learned that it was best to let him settle himself down rather than corner him. He was quick to flare and his temper was fearsome, but he was also quick to cool.
He reached out to me. I sighed, recognizing the movement as an apology, and swiftly crossed the room to step into his embrace.
“We’ll get by,” he said reassuringly. “We always do.”
“I can try to get more cleaning jobs. Demand picks up during the holidays. I’ll put the word out.”
“I never meant for you to clean houses.”
I closed my eyes and breathed in the salty scent of his skin. Back when shrimp was king, I ran a small shop by the dock to sell product to the public and a few local restaurants. There was shrimp, of course, but I also sold a few specialty items such as my cheese straws, key lime pies, stone-ground grits, and lemons. During the holidays my pickled shrimp in red sauce did a good business. We weren’t rich, but we brought in enough so I could be close to home when Taylor and Miller were young. And the shop gave me my own niche in the close-knit shrimping community that I could be proud of. Though shrimpers were independent by nature, they banded together when the chips were down. Their wives were like that, too. Always at the door with a hot dish and a helping hand when someone was sick, a baby was born, or a family member died.
When the imported shrimp began being dumped on local markets at a ridiculously low price, the local shrimpers began to feel the pressure of a shrinking market. I hung on as long as I could, but eventually I had no choice but to close my shop. I didn’t know what else I could do for work. Substitute teaching was spotty at best. When a friend asked me to help out in her housecleaning business I thought it was good money, and I was accustomed to hard work, so I agreed to give it a try. With each passing day, the temporary position was becoming more permanent.