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"Midnight Clear"

(I wrote this story in one week. Last week, I volunteered to do a reading with Don Evans at Volumes Bookcafe, which would consist entirely of Christmas-themed readings, only to realize that I had never written even a single story that had anything to do with Christmas. So I had to scramble to write this one, and the reading went well. The story is based on "The Bells Will Ring For You", from Where the Marshland Came to Flower, but set forty-five years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1960.)

 

MIDNIGHT CLEAR

Eddie’s eyelids were heavy as he glanced again across the living room toward his father, who slept soundly in his armchair. Martin Cullen had said he would sit for a few minutes, just to rest his eyes, but they all knew his Christmas Eve tradition of resting his eyes for a few minutes after dinner, followed soon after by deep, sonorous snoring.

“Martin, it’s time to start waking up,” Eddie’s mother called from the kitchen, where the slosh of dishwater and the rattle of plates had diminished, which meant to Eddie that dinner would soon be cleaned up and it was almost time to leave for Midnight Mass. Eddie looked at his father, who didn’t stir.

“Marty, come on. Wake up.” Her voice came louder this time, less gentle and with more of an edge. She appeared in the doorway, looked at her sleeping husband and then to Eddie, and back again.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have drank so much at Mike’s office party.”

“He didn’t drink that much, Mom,” Eddie said, still drowsy. “He was fine when I brought him home, and he didn’t drink at dinner, not even the wine.”

She shook her head and turned away, back to the kitchen.

Eddie had been sent, every Christmas Eve since he was ten years old, to fetch his father from the Christmas party at his Uncle Mike’s insurance agency on Chicago Avenue. That night, when he arrived, he saw that only a half-bottle of Canadian Club remained, with five empty bottles standing on the table behind it. Mike Cullen sold policies for Hibernian Benevolent and the big corporate carriers to neighborhood homeowners and the executives and employees of nearby factories, many of whom, along with the policemen and other merchants on the block, shuttled in and out during the afternoon, taking a drink or two and nibbling on green and red sugar cookies and mince pie that Mike’s secretary had baked. Eddie politely declined Uncle Mike’s offer of a drink, saying he had to get Dad home.

“Does your mom really think she’ll get him to Mass?” Mike said, laughing, as Martin retrieved his coat.

“Yes, she does,” Eddie replied. “She always tries.”

Eddie and his father chatted amiably as they walked home, but when they came through the kitchen door Martin fell silent under Kathleen’s stern gaze. Still, the conservation at dinner was spirited -- euphoric, serious and not so serious.

Euphoric, as the family still basked in the afterglow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy -- Martin always stated his full name -- getting elected President.

“I never thought it would happen,” Martin said, eyes twinkling, his elbows on the table and his hands clasped. “A Catholic in the White House.”

“I knew it would,” Kathleen said. “But not this soon.”

Serious, as Martin told of two more families -- the Connollys and the Riordans -- from the other side of Lavergne Avenue who sold and moved out, bound for Berwyn.

And not so serious, as Martin bemoaned the season of his beloved Chicago Bears, who lost their last three games and finished with a losing record.

“Casares and Galimore weren’t that great,” Martin said.

“Yeah, and they really need a quarterback,” Eddie said. “Bratkowski isn’t the guy.”

“They should get a good Irishman. John Brodie, or that Frank Ryan kid from Los Angeles.”

Martin talked on about people from the neighborhood, stories he must have heard that afternoon at Uncle Mike’s office, though Eddie saw how he carefully avoided specifically mentioning the office, and the party he knew Kathleen disapproved of.

As dinner progressed and Martin drank only milk, Eddie saw his father’s speech clear from a mild slur to an even tone, but from there Eddie saw fatigue slowly set in. Martin had worked another twelve hour day, even though it was Christmas Eve, and then stopped by Uncle Mike’s, so Eddie knew he would soon be slumped in his armchair, snoring away.

On the couch, Eddie’s eyes had just closed again when he heard his mother’s voice, sharp and short. “Come along, Edward. Your father obviously isn’t coming.”

At the kitchen door he bundled up, with a wool watchman’s cap, two scarves, gloves and a heavy overcoat, trying to hold as much of the house’s warmth as he could. As they stepped outside, the thermometer read thirteen degrees.

Even at his mother’s slow pace, the walk to St. Albert’s would take only ten minutes, yet they still left the house at eleven p.m. She always insisted on leaving early for Midnight Mass, to get a good seat near the front. For the first few minutes they walked in silence, the only sound the snow crunching beneath Eddie’s dress shoes, now and then where a neighbor hadn’t shoveled the sidewalk.

“Your father is fading,” she said, suddenly, at which he turned toward her, while still walking.

“What do you mean?” Eddie said, his breath rising in a frozen cloud before his eyes.

“Don’t be alarmed. He’s not dying, just slowing down, getting older. And getting more distant.”

They were silent as they approached the church. When they reached the tall wooden doors, she looked above at the massive stained glass window, with clear admiration, but then shook her head.

“He didn’t go to Mass this year,” she said. “Not even once.”

The walk home seemed even colder, probably from the tiredness they both felt. They walked in silence. Eddie could think only of sinking into his bed, buried under blankets, and sleeping late no matter what gifts he might have under the tree. He wouldn’t be getting up at dawn, as he always did when he was a kid.

At home, Kathleen lingered in the kitchen while Eddie continued toward the living room. As he walked in the familiar darkness he realized that he couldn’t hear his father snoring, and a sudden fear came over him. He remembered his mother’s words about his father fading, and for a moment could only imagine the worst. In the half-light he could see his father in the armchair, silent, unmoving. Maybe...

“I’m awake,” Martin said. “How was Mass?”

“It was good...good,” Eddie said, catching his breath. “Lots of people there. Uncle Mike and Aunt Edie, the McConnells, the Flahertys. Even Frank Kelleher and his mom.”

“Father Michael’s homily?”

“Good, the usual.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure I even remember what the usual is anymore. Well, anyway, I’m glad you went. It means a lot to your mother, especially with me...”

Martin paused. Eddie saw his eyes draw inward, in reflection.

“Listen, Eddie. You’re devout, like your mother. And if that makes you happy, brings you peace, I’m all for it. Your mother is disappointed in me, I know that. For not being devout. But it doesn’t do anybody any good -- our family, Father Michael, St. Albert’s -- for me to pretend. I have to be honest.”

“You’ve always been honest, Dad. I’ll say that for you.”

“Thank you for that. Well, it’s late,” Martin said, as he lifted himself out of the armchair. “I’m going to bed. And Santa Claus has work to do.” He winked. “Merry Christmas, Eddie.”

Eddie sat alone on the couch, staring from the distance at the creche that was arranged on the fireplace mantel. The Holy Family, the shepherds, the animals, the star above all the rest that glimmered from the streetlight outside the front window. He thought about his parents, and how both of them were a part of him. His mother for his faith, his father for almost everything else. He remained until his thoughts blurred and his eyelids again grew heavy, tired but not comfortable. The chill of the room had finally become too much; the furnace was turned down for the night, and wouldn’t be up again until daylight. At last he rose stiffly and moved toward the hallway and up the stairs, barely conscious, thinking only of the warm bed that awaited him.

December 8, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink

Comments

No like button, so one must improvise: Like!

Posted by: Robert M Roman at Dec 9, 2018 11:32:56 AM

I know the “fading” — when you begin to wonder whether someone is just asleep.

I especially like the way you presented “euphoric,” “serious,” and “not so serious,” stated all together and then one by one with bits of conversation.

Posted by: Michael Leddy at Dec 9, 2018 7:10:43 PM

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