Almost all the ornaments on the tree were silver, or silver and gold. The first Christmas that Mark and Emily had dated, he'd told her that he loved to see Christmas trees decked out in silver and gold, without the distractions of colored balls. And white lights, lots of white lights, so that the tree would blaze through the winter nights like the lights of some vast and mythical city. "Every Christmas tree should be a Burning Bush," he had said, one arm around her as they sat on the sofa in her parents' house, "a place where the family comes together at the darkest part of the year to encounter their god." He'd bundled her into her coat and dragged her out the door impulsively, hurrying her along the neighborhood sidewalks in the fog to a house where all the trees in the front yard and the eaves of the roof were covered in white lights. "See what I mean?" Mark had whispered, clouds of mist rising from his face. "It's like the night is on fire." Wasn't that the first night she'd known she loved him?
There were nested boxes in the big closet in Mark's study, with tissue paper already in them, awaiting the return of the ornaments. Emily began methodically removing them from the tree, slipping the little hooks off their tops to store separately so that the surfaces of the silver would not be scratched.
Only one silvered glass ball was left from the first set of ornaments they'd bought -- the first good set, a half dozen glass ornaments to commemorate their first holiday season as a married couple. Each one had had sparkly snowflakes on their sides that caught the light of the white Christmas lights. Emily and Mark had bought other silver and gold ornaments, too, but they were dollar bargain type stuff, not something that you hold on to and keep and remember. Emily always put that first of precious ornaments near the top of the tree, to make sure it wouldn't be bumped and broken. Like that damned gnome.
Some of the decorations were bought in years that she couldn't even remember. They tried to buy a nice set each year, so by their seventh anniversary Christmas together, they were no longer buying sets, but individual ornaments. One year their cat Aphrodite climbed into the tree and toppled it, breaking (coincidentally) nine ornaments. Mark had turned purple with rage when they ran into the room at the sound of the crash. "You dirty bitch!" he'd screamed at the cat as she scooted from beneath the couch, headed for the upstairs. "You just used up all nine of your goddamned lives!" That had been a horrible year, with Emily crying and begging Mark not to take the cat to the pound, Mark shouting and sulking that she cared more about the cat than about him. Two days before Christmas, Emily convinced her friend Louise to take Aphrodite as a pet, and the peace of the holidays was restored, as long as Emily kept her crying out of Mark's sight. They never had a cat or dog after that, and if there was an ornament that was bought in that fateful season, Emily could not remember which one it was.
When the silver and gold glass was nestled safely into boxes, Emily began pulling lights from the tree. There were four strands of them, and rather than fold them up, she just lumped them together and let them drop in a tangle on the floor. The little lights were only about four dollars a strand, so in recent years they were thrown away and replacements bought the next season. When the last wire was freed, she scooped the lines up and carried them to the kitchen table. The tree was now ready for the arrival of the gardener, and it was time to tango with the after-party garbage bags.
Carrying a heavy duty trash bag with her, Emily began in the dining room. Four empty bottles of chardonnay, three of Australian shiraz. Six bottles of white zinfandel littered the table, one still nearly full, but it had been left uncorked and was thus spoiled for having with dinner tomorrow night. There was an empty bottle of Glenfiddich, too, which puzzled Emily because they hadn't bought any, nor had she seen any guests bringing their own booze with them. She dragged the bag back to the kitchen, put the strings of lights in with the clinking containers, and tied the bag closed. Number One is done, she thought, and surprised herself by chuckling. She went back to the dining room and retrieved her plate, all the crackers and grapes gone.
Her stomach had settled pretty well, so she took a couple naproxen sodium tablets to counter the still nagging headache. The glass of ice water felt soothing in fact, so she drank the whole thing. In the full light of the morning, she opened the kitchen door and set the first bag out on the porch. She looked past the koi pond at the garden and counted seven little ugly gnome faces in the garden. Awake and in control, Emily was sure she would be able to get the Stein Dwarf repaired quickly and back in his rightful spot in the shrubs. And then I'll call him Frank. Frank And Stein. She chuckled again, possibly because she was actually funny, possibly because of the glass of wine for breakfast. Wine and a bologna and cheese sandwich for breakfast. Some day I'm going to try that. Some day when she was not hung over. This wasn't the worst hangover she had ever had. The very worst one had been the party they'd thrown to celebrate Mark's elevation to head of his department. At thirty-eight, he was one of the youngest professors ever to become a department head. Their parties were still fairly small at that point, but that one had been quite a coup because the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts had condescended to attend, arriving at their house like a thundercloud stepping down from the heavens, like an iceberg rising up out of the black waters of the Antarctic. That man had so much presence that all the rest of the guests were like twittering sparrows beside him. He had seemed to fill the entire dining room, commanding everyone's attention without even trying. She and Mark had been so overwhelmed by his acceptance of their invitation to the party (although relieved that he and his exotic raven-haired date hadn't stayed too long) that they had stayed up all night after the guests were gone, sipping brandy and congratulating themselves. Emily had fallen asleep as the sun was coming up, and after waking at noon, spent the rest of the day in the bathroom with a class of seltzer water, trying to overcome the puking and dry heaves that racked her body. She'd felt like her entire gastrointestinal tract had been etched by acid and her joints sprinkled with gritty sand for almost the entire next week. She never drank brandy again, and she never drank so much she felt pukey again, either.
There hadn't been much brandy consumed the night before. Beer and whisky (she wondered again about the appearance of the Glenfiddich -- was someone thinking she and Mark were too cheap to buy quality alcohol?) and vodka and gin and loads and loads of champagne, the latter of which had left bottles strewn everywhere. Emily started clearing the empty bottles from the kitchen counters, their sharp clinking sounds stabbing her headache with sharp little dabs of pain even through the painkillers. She filled two more bags and put them outside the kitchen door. The clouds were starting to part and reveal blue sky as the marine layer receded. Down town and the oceanfront would still be socked in, but here on the hill the sun would warm things up nicely. By afternoon it might even be pleasant enough to sit out in the garden and watch the fish exploring the warmer currents heated by the sun.
Or not. She really didn't want to draw any attention to the garden and the switched statuary. Definitely I'm going to call Dad this evening.
Emily pulled another two garbage bags from their box and shook them, nesting one inside the other. The next step was to walk through the house, making sure that bottles hadn't been left in other rooms. For some reason, there were always beer cans on bathroom counters, as though the guests couldn't wait to top off what they'd released. She started with Mark's den, off the dining room at the front of the house. Mark always managed to drag visitors in there to see his book collection (and of course his book was always out on his big desk) and the rich cherry paneling and expensive matching furniture with its dark green leather seats. He loved that den like she loved her koi pond and her fish.
There was only one champagne flute standing on the glass that protected the polished wood desk, and Emily picked it up to place it back in the dining room. No cleaning ladies were allowed in here. She checked the glass desk top for any gross smudge and jumped a little, seeing flecks of white powder on the surface, her first thought racing back to the plaster dust of the broken garden gnome. She stood there staring at the little bit of powder as though waiting for it to speak and tell her of its origins. The plaster from the breakage could not have come in here. There was no reason for there to be flour or baby powder in here. What other white substances were there in the house? Perhaps someone had brought a cup of coffee in here and spilled part of the packet of powdered sugar on the desktop. Have to clean that up later so Mark doesn't end up with ants in his office. She exited the den with the champagne flute, shutting the door behind her.
Sure enough, there were two half-full cans of beer in the guest bathroom behind the staircase. Emily poured them out and turned on the fan to dispel the beer fumes. She stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up, reluctant to have to check room to room after the invasion of her laundry the night before. Sometimes guests did go in search of their coats or a quiet place to have a cry or a short nap, but to go have sex in the host's laundry? How disgusting could people get? You'd think they'd at least have sneaked into one of the guest rooms. Frowning, she started up the stairs. No, they couldn't have. Tell me that the guest rooms weren't already occupied.
She pushed open the door of the green guest room, a door that should have been standing open, not almost closed. The light of the morning shone brightly in the front windows to reveal two wine glasses with red wine still in them, and a rumpled and soiled satin comforter on the double bed. That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my life. Well, no it wasn't, was it? This was topped by Marcella's little gig atop the Maytag, big time. Emily felt tears sting at her eyes. How could her guests have done this? They weren't low class hillbillies, running around the big house out of control, they were university professors, doctors -- the president of the university, for God's sake!
And guess whose wife was doing the football coach while her husband swilled seven and sevens downstairs? Emily shut the door to the green guest room firmly, her head throbbing again with her anger. I'm not cleaning that shit up until Mark sees this, too. It was supposed to have been a New Year's party, not an orgy!
The other guest bedroom was done in beige with cranberry accents, and Emily pushed its door open brusquely, ready for more outrage. She wasn't disappointed. This bed had even had the covers pulled down, and they lay in disarray on the far side. Highball glasses -- three of them? -- stood on the bed side table, and a bottle of Jack Daniels lay half beneath the bed in a wet puddle. The room was fragrant with whisky. Emily backed out of the room, shut the door, and leaned against the wall. Thank God I kept my bedroom and office locked.
The upstairs guest bath was devoid of beer cans or drink glasses. That left the scene of the horrid crime, the laundry room. The doorbell rang, saving her from the wretched task of going in there again. Emily dropped the doubled garbage bags by the closed laundry room door and went downstairs to greet Mr. Maldonado, the gardener.
"Good morning, Mrs. Fatzer! Happy new year to you and your husband!" Mr. Maldonado smiled broadly under his thick dark moustache, nodding his head a little as he spoke, like miniature bows to acknowledge the station of his employer. Emily had always hated to see people do that, just as her father had. He would not hire people who were obsequious, or pretended to be so. If you wanted to deal with Mr. Storm, you had to hold your head high and look straight at him. Mark, on the other hand, didn't care, as long as the gardener spoke respectfully, got the job done right, and was cheap.
At least he doesn't just focus on the cheap part. "Happy new year, Mr. Maldonado! Did you have a nice Christmas holiday?"
"Oh, we're still having a nice holiday! My brothers are up from Hermosillo and my wife says we have to celebrate the real Christmas season all the way to the six of January -- ah, Epifanía -- Día de los Reyes, sí? When the kings visit little Jesus? I don't know how you say in English."
She nodded. "Epiphany. That's a wonderful custom."
"Ai, we have a good time! The wives all cook so much we all get fat! Do you want to open the gate for me, so I will get this big tree out of here for you?" he said, gesturing at the denuded Christmas tree, pulling his leather gloves from his pockets.
"Yes, let me get that." She hastened to the side of the house and took the hook from the gate latch and swung it open. With Mr. Maldonado, she walked to what she thought of as "the stable" and unlocked the door. The door opened like a garage door, folding up to reside next to the ceiling. The keys to the riding lawn mower were in the ignition, and Mr. Maldonado climbed aboard it and started it up. The noise sounded like a helicopter engine to Emily's abused senses.
There was less of a mess than Emily had thought there would be once the tree was out the front door and chained to the rear of the tractor. On a whim, she got a jacket from the closet and followed the tractor and the Christmas tree as they traveled up the gentle slope of the hill to the end of the lot. While the gardener took the chain off the tree, Emily opened the back gate and walked a few yards into the forest, looking to see if there had been anyone passing by. The leaves were undisturbed, lying flat and russet-colored against the forest floor. No one had been by to find out her little secret. I'm just getting full of secrets. My hideaway friends, my journal, now the stupid Stein Dwarf.
"Señora, do you want me to cut the branches today, or can I wait until Friday when I trim the rest of your plants?" He seemed a little impatient, and Emily didn't mind at all not hearing a chainsaw this morning.
"That would be fine. It seemed a shame to wake up the neighbors on New Year's Day, anyway."
Mr. Maldonado grinned again. "Yes, too many people have the big heads this morning, right?" He held his hands up beside his head, a few inches from touching his ears. "But now I can go to Mass with my wife and the kids and she won't nag me to go by myself the rest of the day."
"Oh, let's get you going, then. I didn't know you start the New Year by going to Mass." She turned and started down the hill towards the house.
The gardener was waving goodbye by nine fifteen, and she still had another two hours to wait until the cleaning service arrived. Emily went to the pantry and found a jar of cranberry juice cocktail. Cranberry juice was what they told people to drink if they had urinary problems, maybe it would speed the toxins out of her body. She rinsed out her highball glass from earlier and filled it with ice, and poured the juice over top of it. Very pretty. Matches the garnet beads in my necklace.
Well, sipping juice and pretending everything was fine was not going to get that ugly little job done. There was chlorine bleach in the laundry room already, and everything else she needed, except the courage to open that door.
She trudged up the stairs from the kitchen and down the hall to where she'd left the garbage bags. She picked them up and put her hand on the doorknob. I'm not even going to look. Emily turned the knob and pushed, walking past the door and turning immediately to the left. She opened the cabinet beneath the utility sink and got out a roll of paper towels, the bleach, and a pair of rubber gloves. She'd made a decision on the way up the stairs, and the decision was this: she was not going to clean up anyone's sexual messes using her washing machine and dryer. She pulled on the rubber gloves, and with eyes averted as much as she could, took the somewhat mussed folded laundry from the top of the dryer and stuffed it into the garbage bag, placing them outside the laundry room door in the hall. Then she ran a little water in the sink, added chlorine bleach, and with the paper towels, swabbed down every surface she could reach, including the floor and the far side of the washer. She threw the paper towels into the trash can, and peeled off the rubber gloves and threw them in there as well. The room reeked of bleach, which was unexpectedly pleasant, like knowing a fumigation had killed all the invading insects in the walls. She turned on the overhead ventilation fan, and left the small room. There, I've exorcised your stench, you pigs. And see if I ever let you out of my sight at any other party I give. A thought occurred to her. And if I see you sneak off at anyone else's party, I'm going to send your husband looking for you. As to Marl Bloch: he was just nothing but a big, fat, hairy ass from head to toe and she hoped Marcella had given him some genital-rotting social disease.
She walked out to the patio to watch Paris bully the other fish in the late morning sun.
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