Her internal clock went off at exactly five in the morning, as it did every morning in the winter, and every morning at six in the summer. Emily looked at the timepiece on the little table beside her bed with hatred born of pain. Three hours of sleep were barely enough to allow her to sober up, let alone rest, let alone escape the headache that made her wince as she sat up. Confused, she let the blankets fall away from her chest. She was naked, but she didn't remember how she became naked. She never slept naked. What if there was an earthquake?
She sat on the side of the bed and looked at her wool skirt, half slip, pantyhose and underpants lying in a slouchy puddle beside the bed. The cashmere sweater set lay on the floor at the end of the bed, one arm and her beige brassiere peeking playfully around the leg of the sleigh bedstead. Shutting her eyes, trying to see past the pounding behind her right eye, Emily attempted to reconstruct the removal of her clothes, but she couldn't even remember coming upstairs. The last thing she remembered was whispering to her husband, "Mark, aren't the Corcorans ever going to leave?"
What had he answered? Had he offered to suggest to them that the party was over? Had she just wandered off to bed, leaving him to deal with guests on his own? Did he say something sharp to her, and did she then stomp off to bed in a drunken huff? Or had she fallen asleep on a sofa, snoring, and had he then shuffled her off to bed and helped her undress? None Of The Above sparked any memory. Multiple-choice test today on nakedness, Emily thought, massaging her temples. I hope no one heard me snoring.
Snoring was the single reason that she and Mark had separate bedrooms. As Emily had grown older, and heavier -- we can't forget that for one minute, can we -- she had begun to snore more and more loudly. After a few middle of the night arguments and the humiliation of waking to find her husband in a guest room, they had agreed to sleep separately, in order to sleep at all, which was just as well, because he had begun to grind his teeth in his sleep, a habit for which Emily could find no sympathy, either. Just as well, just as well. If he had put me to bed naked, or found me this morning, naked, he'd have jumped aboard and had at it. She slowly moved halfway across the bedroom and then stopped, sending her mind to explore her vaginal sensations to determine if he had, and that she simply didn't recall. No, that hadn't happened. She continued across the chilly room, shivering.
Once she had found her robe and rinsed her mouth with cold water (even the thought of toothpaste made her stomach roil) she opened her dresser and looked at the clothing, trying to decide what to wear. How to dress for the day would depend on what tasks she had to suffer through. The cleaning service would be arriving around eleven, but before the ladies pulled into the driveway, Emily intended for most if not all of the empty bottles to be thrown out. Bad enough to have to have a cleaning service to come in and find the dining room trashed without having them gossip around town about the quantity of alcohol that had been consumed. Emily took out clean underwear and an ivory LizSport long-sleeved cotton shirt to go with the khaki pants hanging in the closet. She'd wear small gold earrings and the necklace made of polished freeform nuggets of garnet, citrine and rose quartz, and amethyst. The colors against the ivory would look like the spots on Paris' scales. Paris! The koi pond! Emily's stomach contracted in fear, sending another surge of pain through her head. That stupid garden gnome was still in the pond! She laid the clothing on the end of the bed and went back to the dresser, yanked open the bottom drawer and found her old gray sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt. She pulled them on hurriedly, jammed her feet into her slippers and peeked out the bedroom door.
All quiet. Thank God. Mark had told her even before their guests arrived that he planned on getting hammered for the entry into the New Year and that she was not to wake him up until he was awake on his own, and by his early estimate that would be after the cleaning ladies had removed all traces of smudged glasses and sprinkles of confetti. Surely he wouldn't decide to get out of bed in the dark. Once again Emily was grateful, this time for her habit of waking early and being unable to go back to sleep in the mornings.
There was an emergency flashlight in the outlet right beside the door of her office. Their neighbors shouldn't be able to see her even if they were looking out their windows this early, not with the Italian cypress hedge between the properties. As she pulled the flashlight from its charger, Emily saw the white tablecloth sticking out of the trashcan, and with a second pang to her stomach, she remembered the spectacle in the laundry room. How am I going to tell Mark about that? Will he tell Marcella's husband? She tiptoed down the back stairs to the kitchen, hoping that Mark was indeed still abed, relieved that he was. She was even getting a jump on the gardener, who was to come by this morning and take the tree down to drag it to the end of the property and cut it up. She could imagine him loudly pointing out the gnome in the pond. "Say, Señora, did you know that the little dwarf is in the pool with the fish? Do you want me to take him out or do you want him to stay in there?" In fact, he'd probably go to Mark and ask him instead of her, since it was Mark who gave the orders on what to do beyond the usual leaf vacuuming and mowing.
With a last glance up at the windows (there was no hung-over husband looking out over the garden) Emily knelt beside the koi pond, and in the light of the flashlight saw the gnome's legs beneath the water lily pads. She pushed the sleeve of her sweatshirt up as high as she could and reached in. The cold water touched the edge of her sleeve, but she was unable to touch the gnome in his watery grave. Paris brushed past her arm, with London following him. Emily shook the excess water off her arm and stood up, her feet beginning to burn with the cold that her bedroom slippers could not keep out. In sudden inspiration, she strode quickly to the kitchen door. The warmth of the house after the chill of the morning garden sent a wave of dizziness through her head, the beam of the flashlight wavered, and she bumped into the work table with the same hip on which she'd fallen the night before. For a moment, the pain in her head was less noticeable. She turned off the light and stood in the dark, wishing she knew more curse words than she did.
In a drawer at the far end of the kitchen counter were the barbecue implements. All of them were long compared to the kitchen spatulas and turning forks, the tongs no exception. She eased them from the drawer, moving slowly and quietly, so that a rattle from a dark kitchen wouldn't bring her husband downstairs to check for intruders.
Kneeling, she reached into the water of the pond with the tongs and captured the feet of the gnome and began to draw it upward. The statue was almost to the top of the water when the black and orange fish Oslo nudged the stein the figure held in its hands, causing the tongs to slip and the gnome to fall to the bottom again. "Dammit!" she whispered, shooing Oslo away with the tongs.
Her knees felt as though they were being stabbed by icy knives, her toes burned where they were pressed against the stony deck, and bending over the pool was making her head hurt so much she thought she might have a stroke at any moment. Great, I'm going to die because of a stupid fish and a stupid gnome. She sat back, easing her knees, letting her ample rear insulate her a little.
The figure wasn't really a gnome at all, not like the ugly little statues made en masse and sold at landscape and garden stores everywhere. The little man in white pants and red coat holding a beer stein was one of a set of seven statues created and cast by Hans Schroeder in Germany in 1925, years before the Disney movie made Snow White and her seven diminutive companions household words and stars of the silver screen. Schroeder had been inspired by the Grimm fairy tale and modeled his seven dwarves in their sitting, reclining, and carrying images for people to enjoy in their gardens. Schroeder's studio had produced a limited number of the hand-painted statue series before his bankruptcy and death in 1934. The price Mark had paid for the complete set on EBay could have easily bought a small luxury car, and he made sure everyone who visited the garden knew it -- not that anyone who saw the creations could tell the difference between the wizened, ugly little dwarves and their mass marketed ugly, wizened little statuary cousins.
The sky was looking lighter and Emily could see the outline of the neighbor's tall Italian cypresses above the roofline of their house. She rolled onto her belly and reached into the water again with the barbecue tongs. This time the tongs took hold under the little man's ears, and Emily slowly drew him upward again. Oslo made no rash moves, and the rest of the fish took their cue from Paris and stayed away, Paris having decided there was nothing interesting going on that involved food. "Got you, you ugly little turd," Emily breathed, pulling the dwarf onto the patio deck. Her hand ached from the squeezing of the tongs and the cold. She stood up, brushing dust from her legs and side, drying her arm on the inside of the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Flashing the light over the pedestal where the statue had lately stood, she reached down and picked up the gnome by the head, imagining herself to be an eagle carrying off its prey to a lonely aerie. Smiling, she swung the little statue forward, only to have its wet painted surface slip from her hand and fall to the aggregate deck, breaking into three distinct pieces with a crackling thud. Powder from the seventy-year-old plaster made an outline around the dwarf's neck and knees where he had broken.
Emily clicked off the flashlight and stood looking down at the white dust that was now plainly visible in the dim but growing light. Surely there was some way to go back a few moments and reenact the scene, replacing her cavalier grasp on the artifact's head with a more reverent and secure two-handed carry. Then all she would have to do was to have a glass of tomato juice and begin pulling ornaments from the tree, and the day would go smoothly, if not comfortably. She waited, but time did not reverse itself, but instead, hatefully rolled forward, dragging the dawn with it.
Mark is going to scream at me over this one. I'm going to have to listen to the whole story of how he found the statue set online, what an investment they were, how much money they cost and how much money he could have gotten for them yesterday; he's going to tell me I threw away thousands of dollars with my clumsiness, that I have no respect for his decisions, that if I had been in with the guests like I was supposed to be this never would have happened. He's even going to blame my fish for being here in a pond.
The idea of Mark being angry at her fish stirred Emily into movement. Certainly Mark was going to be insane about this, but he could go insane on a day in which she did not have a hangover. She turned to the garden again, and spotted the Plate-Holding Dwarf whose head was just visible above the geraniums. Perfect, she thought. Careful not to disturb the tender branches of the plants, Emily gingerly lifted the statue over the greenery and set him on the pedestal of his broken relative. If Mark glanced outside today, he might not notice the change. Good thing Hans Schroeder repeated the color scheme of white pants and red coat with both of the figurines. The Reclining Dwarf and the Sitting Dwarf had blue jackets, red hats, and black and white striped pants, and the Candle Holding Dwarf had a nightgown.
Emily knelt and picked up the three pieces of the dwarf, making a hammock for the pieces with the front of her sweatshirt. Holding the gathered hem of the shirt so firmly as to whiten her knuckles, she clicked on the flashlight again and carried the evidence around the north side of the house to the garage. There she set first the flashlight, then the broken statue on the workbench. The edges of the break were relatively clean and quite dry. She tried fitting the knees to the torso piece, and could barely see the line of the break. An antique dealer might know someone who could repair this. Daddy knows a bunch of people in Carmel who know about art and antiques, I'll call him and maybe I can get this fixed before Mark ever finds out. Maybe I'll be dead before he finds out.
She found a box in the cupboard that was only half full of old magazines, and made a temporary sepulcher for the dwarf, cushioning him beneath with the paper, and covering his body with the periodicals as well. She shoved the box back in the cupboard, shaking with her worsening headache and fear of being discovered while hiding the evidence of her crime. Did Mark count his dwarves every time he looked at them? Would he automatically notice that there were only six in the head count when he strolled out onto the patio to admire his landscaping? Was there any reasonable way she could blame the breakage on the neighbor's Siamese cat, who frequently tried to torment and catch the fish in their pond? The last was unlikely, as the statue weighed more than a cat, and a toppled gnome would have come to rest in the plants, not the deck. She closed the garage door gently behind her, intending to look at the garden again to see if the spot where the little man was missing was obvious. As she passed by the covered wood stack, she stopped, and then looked at the neatly cut rounds of oak. The eighteen-inch lengths of fire wood were just about the height of the broken gnome at the shoulders. An idea thrilled through Emily, a way to perhaps get through the day without being caught. She turned and entered the garage again, and pulled the dwarf's makeshift coffin out of the cupboard. The break at the neck was nice and flat. Once again she cradled the head in the fold of her sweatshirt. From the wood stack, she chose a sturdy round log about six inches in diameter -- a nicely stable pedestal. She took wood and head back to the garden, and in the gray light of morning, placed the log upright among the geraniums and set the head atop it. She stepped back to the edge of the koi pond and looked at her handiwork. Only the eyes and nose and hat of the dwarf were visible, nothing indicating that the gnome had been a victim of accidental decapitation.
Emily's shoulders sagged in relief, and she knelt again on the stony walkway, dipped her hand into the water of the pond, and scooped splashes onto the white chalk residue, washing it away into the edge of the garden. "Fish, don't tell on me, okay?" she whispered to her koi.
Shivering as she shut the kitchen door behind her, Emily hugged herself and rubbed at her throbbing temples. She knew she should eat or drink something so that she could take some painkillers, but everything she thought of made her stomach wince. What is it that Middi takes for a hangover? She could nearly hear her father's wife loudly banging around in her kitchen, cursing and rattling bottles while she concocted some elixir of tomato juice, a raw egg, tabasco, and was it -- vodka? The thought of vodka reminded her of the Grey Geese and tonics of the night before. No, no vodka for Emily. "The hair of the dog," Middi would shout. "This will cure whatever you got biting you!"
The hair of the dog. What the hell, it's worth a try. Otherwise this headache is going to make me puke. Emily opened the refrigerator and took out the capped carafe of white table wine. She poured some into a highball glass and sipped. Not bad. A little sour, but it didn't make her stomach cramp. She poured the rest of the glass full, and carried it up the back stairs to the second story, and the semblance of sanity in her bath.
By the time she was showered and dressed, her stomach had settled somewhat, her head was not aching quite so badly, and she felt almost well-disposed towards the tasks of the day.
I've been up and down these stairs so many times in the past twenty four hours I should be a size twelve by now. Too bad it doesn't work like that. Crackers, I could eat some crackers. Emily took a salad bowl out of the cabinet and put some saltine crackers in it. And a small bunch of grapes. The empty highball glass she'd carried back to the kitchen was again the recipient of some table wine, but this time only about a third of the glass. The rest was filled with ice water, and Emily was ready to remove the ornaments from the Christmas tree.