The warm house welcomed me with a perfect cloud of pumpkin, cinnamon, and roasted bird smells. Fire crackled on the grate, and the windows dripped with steam. Alcott and Babette fawned over me even more than usual, which made me feel wanted and suspicious in equal measure. Harry was unusually subdued—probably because they paid more attention to me than to him—and guzzled his rum and apple cider cocktail like water. They always made such a fuss as if anxious and unsure of my affection. I don’t know why Harry insisted I come. But the food was good, so I could ignore his sulkiness for one day, and they’d load me up with leftovers which I’d take to Ed.
Baba wore sparkly chrome nail polish. Her fingertips glittered like razors over the place settings—the help hadn’t aligned the forks with the same precision I would a set of cavaletti poles—and making sure all the food got to the table hot. Allie sat in a corner smoking his pipe and working the New York Times crossword puzzle. If I didn’t know they were so dysfunctional, I’d think I’d stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. Well, maybe not the silver nails. And the dysfunction? Made me feel right at home.
The turkey was free-range with grape leaves—flown in from Greece for all I know—garnishing the porcelain platter. Pumpkin risotto came to the table in hollowed out gourds, and Brussel sprouts were grilled still attached to the stalk. There was cheesy cauliflower with a sexy Italian name, more cider in the stuffing along with golden raisins and bacon, celery root puree with toasted hazelnuts, sautéed green beans with caramelized pecans, and cranberry chutney. Mountains of fragrant fresh-baked rolls steamed from beneath embroidered cloths. All brought out by glove-wearing servants. Fancy. I’d think they were trying to impress someone, but it was just us, and this was normal for them. Christmas was an even bigger deal because, you know, gifts. I’d given up trying to procure presents for them. They always made a joke of saying my presence was more than enough. God knows why. I could be as sullen and bad-tempered as Harry, or Ed Todd for that matter, but they never seemed to mind.
Harry waved away a hovering servant, snapped his linen napkin to his lap, plunged a silver spoon into his risotto, and directed a seemingly innocuous question to my end of the table. “You hear about Becca?”
My forkful of turkey froze midway to my mouth. “We don’t exactly travel in the same circles.” I stabbed a few green beens and stuffed them and the turkey in. That would prevent me from saying something I shouldn’t, but I doubted it kept my eyebrow from hiking up. Anyway, Harry could read me better than anyone. He’d baited the hook with an irresistible morsel.
He took his time, dumping a dollop of cranberries on his plate while I chewed. To my right, Baba tried to hide a sigh behind the corner of her napkin, and to my left, Allie focused on cutting his food into bite-sized pieces. Bite-sized, that is, if you were a hamster. I caught his barely audible tsk when I shoved all that food in my mouth at one time. For all their class, none of them were particularly subtle.
Harry buttered a roll, savoring the moment.
I jumped at the bait. “Well? You’re obviously dying to tell me, so spill.”
He tilted his head, and one side of his mouth curled up. “That mare bucked her off in the low hunter class.”
Many uncharitable thoughts swirled through my mind before I spit out the correct response. “Oh my God, is she okay?”
Harry shrugged. “She will be. I don’t think the limp will be permanent.”
“You mean Becca, right, not the mare?”
He gave me a look. “I should have known you were more concerned about the horse.”
“No, I was asking about Becca, really.”
An exaggerated eye roll let me know exactly what he thought of that. “She has just bruises, mostly.”
Yeah, to her pride. I knew that feeling but couldn’t dredge up any sympathy for her. Whatever the mare had done, cold-backed or not, Becca had most likely driven her to it.
Baba put her hand on Harry’s arm. “Michael, dear, you shouldn’t take pleasure in another’s misfortune.”
Harry jerked his shoulder. He hated it when she called him by his first name. She always called him Michael, so he was perpetually mad at her.
“Did I say I took pleasure in it? I’m just reporting. For some reason, Vi liked the horse. I thought she’d want to know.”
“It doesn’t change anything,” I said.
Harry shrugged again, but his shrugs never meant disinterest. If anything, they meant he knew more than he was saying.
“Everything happens for a reason,” his mother said with another sigh.
I didn’t want to dwell on Becca’s bad luck, bad choices, or bad riding, so I changed the subject.
“When I got to Ed’s last weekend, he was out cold on the floor.”
Baba gasped and pressed her gleaming fingers to her heart. Even Allie looked up with interest. They knew Ed from his heyday, and if they hadn’t exactly shunned him since he’d fallen on hard times, they didn’t exactly reach out to him, either.
Harry didn’t stop slicing a fresh piece of turkey. “You’d think the old guy would know better than to try and keep up with you.”
“Harry,” I said. “Sometimes you go too far. He fell over the trunk and hit his head. He’s lucky he didn’t crack his skull open or break his hip or something.”
“I doubt it,” Allie put in. “He’s got strong bones from all the riding. I wouldn’t worry about his hips.”
“Someone moved the trunk. But I can’t figure out who or why. The thing weighs a ton.”
“I thought you always kept everything in its place, Vi, so he can get around without tripping.” Harry mopped up celery root puree with a hunk of stuffing. “Maybe you should get him a seeing-eye dog.”
“Michael, dear, they’re called therapy dogs, now.”
Harry colored slightly. I knew what he was thinking but not saying. I don’t give a fuck what they’re called, Mother.
And really, Baba could be annoying. We called her Our Lady of the Platitudes.
Allie—also known as Lord of the Pregnant Pause—brought us back to the point. “Is he…all right?”
“I’ll fix a plate for you to take to him.” As if that would fix everything. In platitude-speak, that meant Baba would have the servants fix several plates, wrap them in foil, nestle them in season-specific colored tissue in an insulated hamper, and tie it all up with a neat bow. She’d probably have them include a thermos of rum and cider cocktail as well.
“He has a bump on his head, but he’s as cantankerous as ever, so I think he’ll be all right.”
In a rare show of poetic generosity, Harry said, “Clearly, it’ll take more than a knot on his noggin to keep Ed Todd down.”
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