As had been ordained, the farm women of the township held Christmas in July, despite no one remembering who had ordained this, or why. It was one the secrets of the Order of the Eastern Star to which many of the elderly women belonged, or had once belonged, or might still belong – even if the only official business they conducted was coming together for a celebration once every summer. In the early 1970s the Order, along with the Grange, was in decline as family farms went uncultivated after children moved away and husbands passed on.
My parents’ place was one of the new ranch-style homes, part of a fledgling exurbia east of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A decade earlier they had sold half of their eighty acres along with the drafty farmhouse my mother hated and built on the remaining forty. Soon after we moved in a developer carved a golf course out of land across the gravel road from us, land so sandy my father said an Irishman couldn’t raise hell on it with fifth of whiskey. For a couple of summers during high school the developer hired a friend and me to work on the course. We’d drive little utility vehicles around all night, rotate the course’s sprinkler heads, smoke dope, and get to bed near dawn.
Now, home from my second year at college, I helped taxi the women who had no other way of getting to the party, women who shopped on weekends when it was one or another family member’s turn to take them. For the first time, Christmas was being held at our house instead of the old Grange Hall. I remember singing carols there in the hall’s basement, which was pleasantly cool in the heat of July. Condensation caused water to seep from the painted cement walls like miraculous tears.
I was uncertain what I was majoring in at that point, although I had settled upon religion as a minor entirely because I had already taken Intro to Religion and Indigenous Religions of India, so was already halfway to fulfilling the requirement. During the Indian course we covered Hinduism and Buddhism, and dipped briefly into the beliefs of the Jains and Sikhs. Between the Bhagavad Gita and some primo Columbian I was beginning to see the world in pretty heavy cosmic terms. Around this time my father, who commuted to the city for his job as a factory foreman, took me aside to talk about my future, which was uncomfortable for both of us. He said he thought journalism sounded like the most practical of the majors I was considering, which included philosophy, comparative literature and integrated studies. I said I’d think about it.
My mother, who taught at the local elementary school, organized the party to please her own mother who wanted to see the tradition continue. When Christmas in July was still thriving it was my grandmother who accompanied the carolers on a piano that managed to stay almost tuned in the dampness of the Grange Hall basement. Our house was better suited than the hall for hosting the party, because we had a walk-out basement. Those women who had children or grandchildren still in the area could be delivered right to the back door by driving across the lawn. A couple of the women got dropped off at the front door by mistake and had to precariously climb downstairs, tightly gripping the railing.
Since the celebration took place next to my basement bedroom I sat upstairs in the living room enraptured by the afternoon movie on TV, the sound turned down low. Just as Tarzan was showing Boy how to save a tiger from poachers my mother came in and said I needed to drive one of the women who wasn’t feeling well home early. I set my paper plate of pot-luck down on the coffee-table and went to pull my rusted sub-compact beater around to the back.
A lot of food remained on the Santa Claus-themed tablecloth covering our ping pong table. Christmas in July used to attract enough people so that the magi had to park their cars on the shoulder of the county road once the Grange Hall’s dusty parking area filled up. Now, there were fewer than a dozen white-haired women picking at the food on their plates. Clara Abrams, who used to make popcorn balls to hand out at Halloween, sat in an upholstered swivel chair looking frail and nearly bloodless. Her pale skin clung to her face so tightly I could clearly see the outline of her skull. My mother explained to Clara that I was going to take her home now. I helped her get up and walked with her to the door. With her cane she tested the distance to the ground, stepped out, shuffled a couple of paces, and managed to lower herself into the passenger seat of my car with me still holding on to her arm. My mother had to stay with the other women, so I headed off as Mom went to call Clara’s daughter.
I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get Clara from the car and into her house, but the warm afternoon seemed to revive her. It was less than a five-minute drive to her place, but some color had returned to her face by the time we arrived. I parked and walked around the car to open the door for her. Although she said she didn’t need any help, I still held her elbow lightly as she got out of the car and walked carefully along an uneven brick path to a porch almost hidden by overgrown rhododendrons. The temperature was in the 80s and it was humid, but her skin felt dry and cool, papery.
Clara’s house was one of many that were going to survive for only as long as its current occupant did. The paint was peeling and a barn that hadn’t been used in decades slumped over on one side. I briefly had the sensation that the house, which itself was warped and tilted and had a roofline like the spine of a swaybacked horse, had been transplanted from some fable. Inside, she sat down in an easy chair next to a low side table that held a black rotary phone and a box of tissues instead of a magic key in a crystal box or bowl of golden eggs. I got her a glass of water from a kitchen that had not been updated since the war that took one of her sons at Anzio, turned on the TV and found the soap opera she wanted to watch. I didn’t really want to leave her, but I also didn’t want to stay. She assured me she felt much better, so I said my Mom would call her in a little bit to make sure everything was okay.
When I got home the party was breaking up. Clara’s bout of the vapors had put a damper on the afternoon. Even before that, the gathering had been a thin version of previous years. There was no Secret Santa exchange of little gifts, and the record player lowing out Christmas music was on its last legs, so that the carols spun a little slower than they should have, as though the humidity, or the burden of time itself, had slowed them down. Phone calls were made to let family members know that the adoration was wrapping up. I made three more short trips ferrying women home. By the time I got back from the last one the party was over. Mom called Clara, but by then her daughter had managed to get away from the branch office of the insurance company she worked for and said everything was under control.
That night after I heard my parents go to bed upstairs, I grabbed a joint out of the stash I had hidden in the back of my sweater drawer. I opened and closed the basement door behind me as quietly as I could, and walked across the street to a bench near the 14th tee of the golf course. There, I lit up in the glow of a soft drink machine that had been installed just a few weeks earlier. I sat there long enough that I heard the sprinklers, automated now, turn on and off. Smoking the joint made me thirsty, so I floated to the vending machine and thumbed in a quarter. The machine dispensed a can of cola with a clatter that momentarily silenced the night chorus of crickets and tree frogs.
Earlier we had eaten leftovers since most of the women had insisted on leaving what remained of their casseroles, saying they would just go to waste at home. After Mom, Dad and I had finished dinner and put our dishes away in the dishwasher, Mom placed her hand on my arm. She said she was proud of me. For a moment I was as worried for her as I had been for Clara. We were a family that viewed expressions of emotion as being vaguely anarchistic, threats to a carefully constructed and zealously defended social order.
I put what remained of the joint in a black plastic film canister and stuffed it in my pocket. The road separating our house from the course was lined with hickory trees, and once I cut through those I was in a field we leased to an adjacent farmer. In the darkness the field, which had recently been harvested of alfalfa, was no taller than the golf course’s rough. I was at the edge of the field farthest away from the house. It abutted a stand of stunted apple trees where a cousin had placed an old lawn chair he used during deer hunting season. I sat down. As I contemplated the almost full moon I heard the vending machine dispense another can. Since there wasn’t anyone else who would be out at that hour, I wondered whether I was the one there buying a soda or the one sitting incongruously in a chair (sitting in an incongruous chair?), or both.
The light in the upstairs bathroom came on behind its blind.
After it flickered off after what seemed like a very, very long time, I tried to find the energy to get up out of the chair and make my way to bed. Then it occurred to me the reason my father (I was sure it was him and not my mother) had awakened to use the bathroom was because he had heard me sneaking back in. Maybe I was already lying in bed after having re-hidden the film canister with the half-smoked joint.
I stumbled through the alfalfa field now wet with dew, crossed our lawn and opened the back door, closing it silently behind me. When I got to my bedroom I wasn’t there. I mean, I was there but not already there. I wanted to take a shower, but thought it would make too much noise. I settled for brushing my teeth and pulling on a summer-weight pair of pajamas. Before falling asleep I heard my father get out of bed, use the upstairs bathroom, then go to the refrigerator for a glass of milk. I decided then to tell my parents, hoping to please them, that I was considering changing my major to journalism after all. It was a lie, even though journalism ended up being my major. Or maybe I was already the person I would become. Perhaps I was already one with the Buddha – past, present and future – as celebrated in the Heart Sutra.
I could not have told you then, and can’t explain even now, why the bathroom light suddenly being switched on seemed to me so wholly and inconsolably sad. Maybe my elevation to the status of bodhisattva had triggered the epiphany that the suffering which takes place outside of books – until then my main experience of sorrow – exceeds what can be captured on the page, in the same way the soul exceeds the body. There are no words to describe, for example, an elderly woman holding a worn doll, cradling him in one arm even as she balances a flimsy plate of food precariously on her lap. All you can do is marvel, or harden your heart, or offer the gift of your minor, inadequate compassion.
You can quote me on that.
Marc J. Sheehan is the author of two poetry collections — Greatest Hits from New Issues Pressand Vengeful Hymns from Ashland Poetry Press. His short story “Objet du Desir” won the Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Contest sponsored by the public radio program Selected Shorts and was read on stage in New York by David Rakoff. His story “The Dauphin” was broadcast on Weekend All Things Considered as part of its Three-Minute Fiction series. He has published stories, poems, essays in reviews in literary magazines including Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Michigan Quarterly Review and many others.