“Lemmy,” I say, pulling a clean towel out of the cabinet and holding it up in front of me, “it’s time to get out.”
The four-year old in the bathtub regards me haughtily. He dumps another plastic cup of lukewarm water over his blonde head. “My name Liam,” he says, after the water has cleared his mouth. “Lemmy a baby name.”
It is three days before Christmas and it has not yet snowed in Portland, Oregon, although it is threatening to at any moment. Lemmy’s—Liam’s—father is lying in the bed in the larger of this crappy apartment’s crappy two bedrooms, in this crappy neighborhood way out by the airport. He is dying of emphysema brought on by years of refinishing hardwood floors without using the proper safety equipment, as well as smoking crystal meth and cigarettes like only a true addict can. He is forty-four.
My girlfriend Nan is Liam’s father’s half-sister, which makes her Liam’s aunt. Since I am her lover, I suppose that makes me Liam’s aunt too, although neither he nor I seem convinced of this. Right now Nan is in the other room trying to get Liam’s father, Richard, to eat something, which takes almost more energy than he can spare. Their mother, Shari, has passed out on the couch, supposedly from exhaustion, although I suspect she may have had the assistance of a few pharmaceuticals as well. This is really OK, since Shari is about the same amount of help with things when she is passed out as when she isn’t. More, really.
Nan and I flew up from LA just eight days ago, when the hospital sent Richard home to die. They didn’t say this exactly, but all the adults know that’s what’s happening and sometimes I suspect that Liam knows it too. He has been mostly in my charge since we got here, which has made us both uneasy. I am not very good with kids and I freely admit it, but I would like to be at least somewhat useful to Nan during this time, which is proving to be even more horrible and depressing than I had originally thought it would be, and that’s saying something. So I have been putting my best kid-friendly foot forward: coloring in color books, playing with Hot Wheels cars, and reading stories out loud. Liam, however, is not fooled. He is perfectly aware that I find him alternately frightening and tedious, and I can tell that he is only tolerating my company because he knows that there is a momentous occasion happening in his young life very soon. Nan says that he believes that momentous occasion to be Christmas, but I am not so sure.
“OK, Liam,” I say, shaking the towel in his direction again, “let’s go. It’s bedtime.” Going to bed for Liam right now means sleeping on a pallet in the smaller of the two bedrooms, the one that he usually shares with Shari—she has the bottom bunk and he has the top. Unfortunately for him, right now I am sleeping on the top bunk, and either Nan or Shari are on the bottom one, more or less in shifts, unless one of them passes out on the couch first. We have a hotel room just a few miles away, but for the last two days it hasn’t seemed wise to take the time to go to it. Things have been touch and go.
“Go away,” Liam says, pouring yet another cup of water over his head. “You’re ‘nnoying me.” He covers his face with his yellow washrag shaped like a duck to make sure I get the point.
I sigh and sit down on the toilet. It’s not the first time this trip that Liam has told me I am annoying him. He has also recited from memory all the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, spelled all their names both forwards and backwards, drawn about seventeen startlingly lifelike Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and properly identified the make and model of every motor vehicle he has seen on the road from the vantage point of his car seat when we drive the six blocks to the grocery store, which we do at least once a day just to get me out of the apartment. He has sung from memory every single Christmas Carol I have ever heard and some that I haven’t, and played Jingle Bells and Greensleeves on the tiny, second-hand electronic keyboard that Richard bought for him at the thrift store. If he suddenly began reciting The Wasteland or singing the aria from La Traviata, honestly, I would only be mildly surprised.
On our third day in Portland, once we had gotten Richard home from the hospital and what passed for comfortable in his room, Nan and I had gone back to our hotel to try and grab some sleep.
“Does Richard sing?” I asked her as I stripped off my clothes and tossed them over the back of the desk chair.
“Sing? Is that a joke?” Nan’s face was whiter than usual and her blonde hair was pulled back in a no-nonsense bun that made her look like the “before” picture in a Clearasil ad. “He can barely breathe, much less sing.”
“I meant before.” I flopped down on one of the double beds.
Nan picked up her iPhone from the side table and glanced at it, poked a few buttons. “Why?” She sat down on the other bed and kicked off her shoes.
“Liam sang Christmas carols all day. He seems to know all the words to them. I was just wondering if Richard sang them to him, that’s all.” I sat up and took off my earrings and necklaces, then placed them on the bedside table. All that long day I had Liam first at the house and then at the park while Shari and Nan got Richard home; they hadn’t wanted him there when they brought Richard in because they were afraid it would upset them both. It was hard for Richard to do even the simplest things now, and then he needed to sleep for a few hours afterwards to recover from the effort. That meant that Liam and I had spent quite a bit of quality time alone together, both of us begrudgingly.
“Maybe he learned them at school,” Nan said, closing her eyes and adjusting the pillow under her head.
“He’s too young for school, isn’t he?” I queried. “He’s only four, right?” I know better than to ask if Liam learned them from Shari, who can barely remember the intended end of her sentences long enough to finish them. She lives in a cloud of marijuana smoke, which has been a problem in the house since Richard was diagnosed. Shari has been banished to the front steps to partake, and while Portland isn’t Alaska, it isn’t LA either. It can get cold outside, which Shari points out by sighing dramatically every time she has to pull on her coat and hat to go have a hit off the pipe. That’s a lot of coat-and-hat-pulling on, and even more sighing.
“Maybe Richard got him a CD or something?” I say, although I didn’t see any place to play music in the tiny apartment.
“Can we get to the bottom of the Christmas Carol mystery later?” Nan asked, yawning. “I’m exhausted.”
That day, while Nan slept, I stared at the ceiling and tried to remember where as a kid I had learned the few Christmas carols I know. It’s true that we are assaulted with Christmas music in every public place from Halloween on, but it didn’t seem possible that Liam could have spent so much time in Target or the Gap that he memorized “We Three Kings” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”, especially since Richard and Sherri have almost no money and don’t do much shopping. They lived on public assistance and the payouts from the guilty conscience of Richard’s father, Shari’s first husband, who found Jesus somewhat late in life. Prior to his religious epiphany he abused both his wife and son until Shari, not known for her get-up-and-go, finally got up and went. Unfortunately for Richard, she got up and went with Nan’s father, who didn’t want another man’s ten year-old along for the ride. So Shari left Richard with his abusive father, and has been smoking pot to forget about it ever since. Or at least that’s what I can glean from the occasional references to the past that occur during Nan’s and my dutiful bi-annual visits to Portland for the six years we’ve been together, and from the brief summations I get from Nan on the rare occasions she chooses to talk about her family history. I was already in the picture when Shari moved in with Richard after Liam was born and his drug-addled mother, Tanya, abandoned him. Tanya’s family, average middle-class folks from Tillamook, wanted to take the baby, but Richard adamantly refused. Nan was absolutely horrified at the thought of Richard, who at the time was still enjoying the pleasures of crystal meth, trying to be a father, but I have to admit that the fact that Richard wanted his kid as badly as he did, and has been able to provide a semi-stable home for him for the last four years—even getting sober to be able to do it—makes me grudgingly admire the stupid son of a bitch. It is the cruelty of either an asshole of a Supreme Being or an immensely callous universe that Richard is not going to live to see his kid grow up.
I am thinking this exact thing again now as I watch Liam very carefully wash each individual toe by sticking the bar of soap between them and then pulling it out. He still has his washrag hat on. Sighing like Shari, I pull myself together and stand up.
“That’s it, Liam. Time’s up.” I’m about to pluck the duck washrag off his head when Nan walks in to the bathroom and takes my place on the toilet seat.
“Did he eat?” I ask.
“This seat is warm,” Nan says.
“Auntie Nan, look! I made this for you!” Liam holds up the duck washrag.
“Thank you honey,” Nan says automatically, barely looking. “He did eat. He did.” She is relieved. Not eating is very bad.
“You did not make that,” I say to Liam. “Come on, let’s go.”
“I think we can go back to the hotel, get a decent rest. He ate pretty well and I think he’ll have a good night. I woke my Mom up.” Nan takes the towel from me. “Come on, Liam, sweetie, let’s get you in your PJ’s.”
“Are you sure? I say, then catch myself. If Nan says we can go back to the hotel, I am not going to argue. I follow Nan into the bedroom as she hustles Liam into his Spiderman pajamas and tells him he can sleep on the top bunk tonight. He looks first happy, then suspicious.
“Where are you going to sleep, Auntie?” he demands.
“We’re going to go to our hotel for the night, honey. Your Aunt Robin and I need to get a shower and change our clothes. Don’t worry; we’ll be back in the morning.” Liam scrambles up the ladder as Nan and I turn to go.
“We didn’t say prayers,” Liam says reproachfully.
Nan is startled. Her mother and Richard are not religious.
“Oh…OK, honey. You go first.” She glances at me. I shrug. I assumed she knew about this bedtime ritual, but then again, why would she? Liam bows his blonde head and clasps his hands in front of his chest.
“Our father, who art in Heaven, hallow’ed be the thy name;
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation…”
Liam says the entire prayer, which, oddly, I remember from my Southern Baptist upbringing. He is letter-perfect. When he gets to the end, I chime in with a solid “Amen”. I nudge Nan, who manages to choke one out too.
“Here Auntie Nan,” Liam hands her his favorite red Hot Wheels car. “I made this for you.”
Nan takes it and mumbles a thank you. She hands it to me, and I put it on the night table by the bed.
“Liam, you did not make this,” I say. “You made this and this and this.” I point to the numerous drawings that hang on the walls of the bedroom.
Liam ignores me. I steer Nan out of the bedroom and towards the door. Shari calls from the kitchen that she is making coffee, do we want a cup before we leave, but Nan has the sense to recognize this for what it is and says we really need to go, but we’ll be back early in the morning.
Neither one of us says anything on the way back to the hotel in downtown Portland. It’s not a long drive, but it’s slow going because now it is now, finally, snowing just a little bit, and the roads are messy. Back in the room Nan doesn’t even bother to change; she is on the bed and asleep almost as soon as I close the door. I am not sure of the last time she ate anything, but waking her up right now seems akin to torture. It’s only eight o’clock, but it’s winter dark outside, although the hotel is lit up like a spaceship. I am slightly hungry but mostly ready for a giant slug of alcohol.
Quietly I slip out of the room and head downstairs to the bar, which in this hipster hotel is decorated with neon pink Christmas trees and a kind of psychedelic projection of what I think is the Bing Crosby movie White Christmas on the thirty-foot high wall of the lobby. Safely ensconced in the bar, out the giant side window I can see the Willamette River as it flows, fiercely, icily, through the bare brownish trees that have been recently and fastidiously trimmed by the hotel’s gardeners. The river is fast, freezing, relentless. The neat geometric plan of the grounds cannot hide its wildness. Watching it flow through the hotel’s neat landscape is like watching Caliban charge through a country club tea party. I order a Grey Goose martini up with a twist from the dark-haired cocktail waitress in a Santa-inspired mini-dress and stare at the wild brown river.
Here is what I am thinking: Nan and I have money. Not ridiculous money, but comfortable money, the kind of money you make when you are both intelligent, educated and gainfully, regularly employed. As a teenager Nan somehow figured out she needed to go to college to get away from her parents, so she got student loans and busted her ass waiting tables to get her degree in industrial design. Now she has a comfortable client list and a cute office on Los Feliz Boulevard in Silver Lake, the same neighborhood we live in. I run my own brand management practice from home, teaching big corporations how to manage things like acquisitions of other companies and name changes. It pays well, and I don’t work that much. It’s not a bad way to make a living. We have money; with money comes opportunity. Possibility.
What’s weird about the fact that we have money? Nothing, except that Nan’s family has none whatsoever and it’s weird for her that we do. It’s not like we have enough to take care of them, not that Nan’s therapist would let her do that even if we did, but it does create an odd contrast when we’re going to Italy for three weeks on vacation and her mom’s buying food with vouchers from WIC. Her parents have no money because all their lives they just sort of drifted around from place to place, working occasionally, fighting with each other and other people, waiting for money to either fall from the sky or materialize in the form of a winning lottery ticket. Neither one of these things happened. Her father was a mechanic—he died five years ago—but he wouldn’t take direction from anyone and therefore got fired from every job he ever had after a year or two at the most. Shari, on the other hand, has always been in too much of a pot haze to stay committed to anything for long. Sometimes she cleans houses, and she used to grow and sell pot until she got busted while Nan was in college. She didn’t go to jail or anything, Nan tells me, but it was a close enough call that she hasn’t been in the business since.
I know it’s been hard for Nan to adjust to thinking of herself as part of the middle class, or the upper middle class, depending on how you would classify us. Since I come from a rich Louisiana family, to me we’re doing fine but certainly aren’t what you’d call wealthy, but to Nan we’re freakin’ rolling in it. Once, in the second or so year we were together, I lost her in the Whole Foods on Crescent Heights. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the place was a total madhouse, everyone was cranky and hostile, fighting for the perfect sweet potato. I kept bumping into people trying to slide past them in the aisles; I looked everywhere. I called her phone five times. I was beginning to get kind of wild-eyed myself when I happened to check once more in the dairy section. I found her standing among the quarts and gallons with tears streaming down her face.
“Nan, oh my God! Where have you been? I’ve been looking…what’s wrong?” I was equal parts relieved, irritated and confused. Almost sobbing, Nan held up a quart of organic vanilla yogurt.
“I can afford Stonybrook Farms,” she wept. “I can buy this if I want to. I can afford it.”
I took her in my arms and comforted her, saying I understood, and I did in some vague intellectual way. But I know I don’t understand what it’s like to be stuck between two worlds in the way she does. The closest I can get to it is the divide between my self and my family because they are straight Southern Baptist Republicans, and I am a liberal elitist left-wing Democrat dyke. There’s some distance there, yes, but it’s not a broad as what’s between Nan and her Mom, or her brother.
“Excuse me,” says Miss Sexy Santa, startling me a little. “Would you like another one?”
I nod and she gives me a sweet, slightly overdone smile. She really is cute. I turn to watch her walk away in her short little suit, and when I turn back Nan has slipped into the chair across from me.
“Meeting her when she gets off?” she asks me, amused. She knows I look but don’t touch. I like my life and at forty-one don’t think I’m dumb enough to do anything to mess it up. I got that out of my system early. I call Miss Santa back and order a drink – Grey Goose on the rocks – for Nan, and also ask for menus for both of us.
“Get some rest?” I ask, and she smiles at me and nods. She touches the tip of my nose with her finger.
“He felt a lot better today. He ate the whole bowl of soup.” From her bag, her iPhone buzzes. She digs it out of her purse quickly and looks at it, but it’s OK, it’s not the call. She sets the thing down on the table so she can keep an eye on it.
“I’m wondering about Liam,” I say.
“Thank you,” Nan says to the waitress, who’s all business as she sets our drinks and menus in front of us. “Wondering about him how?”
“Do you want to order?” I ask. “You have to eat something.”
“Don’t nag,” Nan says mildly. “I ate today.”
“No you didn’t,” I reply as I scan the menu. She orders a steak, medium well, and I get some kind of artsy salmon dish.
“So,” I say again. “Liam.”
“He’s a cute kid, isn’t he?” she asks as she plucks a piece of bread from the basket.
“That’s not the word I would use,” I say. “What’s going to happen to him?”
Nan is startled. She stops in mid-butter stroke. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s going to happen to him when Richard…is gone?” I can’t bring myself to say dies.
Nan looks like I have smacked her across the face with the wine list. She puts her buttered bread down, missing the plate, and stares at me.
“He…he’ll stay with my mother. She’ll take care of him. Besides, Richard might…he might…” She can’t say it, because she knows it isn’t true. She looks down, gropes for her drink, and finishes it in a very uncharacteristic, Bogart-like, toss-it-down-the-hatch sort of way. I look around for Miss Santa, but don’t see her anywhere.
“Nan, Liam is…well…he’s an unusual kid, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Now Nan is looking around for Miss Santa too. “Maybe we should have some wine. Not a whole bottle though.”
“Nan, Liam is either really smart or he has some kind of, I don’t know, condition.”
“Condition?” Nan’s eyes narrow just a bit. “What are you talking about? He’s a perfectly normal little boy!”
“I don’t mean condition bad,” I say hurriedly. “I mean condition good, like…you know…like Rain Man. Or something.”
“Liam is not like Rain Man,” she sputters. “Jesus, Robin!”
I sigh. I sound like Shari at the door. Mercifully, Miss Santa reappears with water refills. Nan asks for the wine list. I try to start over.
“What I mean is, I think Liam is unusually smart. And his drawings are not like what other four year-olds do. And his memory…”
“What do you know about other four year-olds?” Nan demands. It’s a fair question.
“Nan, he knows all the dinosaurs. He can spell the names of dinosaurs I have never heard of. He knows if they were omnivores or carnivores. He knows what period they came from. He knows the words to all the Christmas Carols. All the words to ALL of them.”
“Maybe he learned then from TV…Richard has to sleep a lot, and maybe he just watched the same programs over and over and learned them that way.”
“I don’t think he could learn…I just mean he’s got some unusual…um…skills.” Can four year-olds have skills?
Nan is glaring at me. I take a sip of water. I consider shutting up, but can’t, so I blunder onward. “I just mean maybe we should think about…what’s next for him…who will be there to make sure that he is…I mean if he is really smart, then…”
Miss Santa appears with the wine list. Nan takes it and says we need a minute. Several pass. Wine is ordered, a bottle after all.
“What about Tanya’s parents?” I finally ask, once the Zinfandel has been poured and the food has arrived and Nan has had a few peaceful bites.
“What about them?” Nan demands. We all know that Tanya is not parent material. Even her parents know that. But they are parent material, far more than Shari is, to my mind at least, and this is what I am not quite saying to Nan. If he lives with Tanya’s parents, Liam might have a chance. I don’t really want to say this to her, any more than she wants to hear it.
So I don’t say anything, and for a long time Nan chews her steak.
Nan believes in thorough mastication. She believes in vitamin supplements, and colonics, and in the health benefits of drinking enough water to be properly hydrated at all times. Nan believes in sustainable fisheries and organic produce and that we can all do our part to reverse global warming. She really does believe that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Nan believes in making order out of chaos, and in doing the right thing.
“What will my mother do?” she asks after a while, and I don’t have an answer for that. I study my salmon.
“I guess she’ll figure it out. To be honest, I don’t think she really wants to raise another kid. She’s never said so, but…” Nan fiddles with the bread basket and takes another sip of wine, then refills both of our glasses. She sighs heavily and continues.
“I’ll talk to Richard. He’s going to hate this.” Nan crosses her fork and knife over her half-eaten steak.
“He’s got to know it’s the best thing. He’s got to know Liam needs…more than Shari can give him.” I say. What I don’t say is what we are both thinking – what’s going to happen to Shari when Richard dies? Who’s she going to live with? She’s like a kid herself.
“I don’t know what he knows, Rob, he’s been so sick for so long. And honestly, I don’t even know if they will want him now…Tanya’s had another kid since then, and they have that baby. They may not even want…” Nan doesn’t finish her sentence, but we do finish the bottle of wine. Miss Santa clears the plates and asks if we want dessert. We don’t, but we do have a cognac by the open fire in the ultra modern lobby while Bing sings White Christmas from the wall.
The next morning we sleep through the alarm and wake up at close to eight instead of six. Nan hurries me out to the car, and on the way to Richard’s house we almost have a huge fight because Nan refuses to stop for coffee.
“Damn it, Nan, 15 minutes is not going to make any difference!” I say. “I want to pick up a pound for tomorrow; everything is going to be closed.”
Nan is horrorstruck. “Oh my God, it’s Christmas Eve. I haven’t gotten any one any presents! It’s Richard’s last Christmas! It’s his fucking last Christmas and I haven’t bought him anything! And what about Santa Claus for Liam? We’ve got nothing!” She yanks on her hair, a sign of real distress.
“Honey, don’t do that. Surely your mom has gotten some stuff for…” Nan stops me with a look; surely nothing. There is no surely with Shari. I regroup.
“So no big deal, it’s not too late. I’ll drop you off. You can relieve your Mom with Richard and I’ll go shopping.”
“You will?” Nan asks, as if I have just said I will swim the English Channel or something equally difficult, something with very little chance of success. “Are you sure you’ll know what to get? It doesn’t have to be much—something simple.”
“I think I can manage to get presents for three people,” I say, trying not to sound annoyed.
“OK,” Nan says, realizing she has little choice. “Be sure to get paper. And ribbons and bows and stuff. And tape. We have to wrap things. Liam has to have things to open.”
“I’m not the fucking Grinch, Nan. I know how to buy Christmas stuff!” Now I am annoyed.
“Of course you do,” she says soothingly. “I’m sorry.” She both appeases and thanks me by stopping at Starbucks, where she calls her mother from the car while I go in for a double espresso. I make my first purchase here; this Frosty the Snowman travel mug is perfect for Shari. Too bad it doesn’t come with an ashtray.
When we get to the apartment Richard has refused to eat and Shari is upset and stoned and supine on the couch with a headache. Liam is drawing dinosaurs with the crappiest set of crayons on the planet. I am pleased to note this because I now know what to get for him.
“Auntie Nan, I made this for you!” he shouts as we come in, snatching Shari’s ashtray that she isn’t allowed to use anymore off the coffee table and waving it in the air.
“Oh honey, it’s beautiful!” Nan says, bustling by him to Richard’s room.
“Liam, you did not make that.” I say. “That’s make-believe.” Liam looks at me for a long moment, observing me, as if I am a strange object of interest, like a dog with horns or a talking cat. Then he picks up the drawing he’s been working on.
“This a brachiosaurus, from the Cretaceous period. It herbivore,” he says. Then he turns back to his work. His blonde head is bent over the paper; his concentration is absolute. With his crappy crayons he labors over his picture. He’s like a caveman, diligently scraping stick figures into rock.
Well, dammit, I can’t change this kid’s life, but I can buy him some decent crayons. To appease Nan, I eat two pieces of toast before I had out to the rental car. Nan believes in breakfast.
Normally I don’t like to shop much – I’m a get in, get out kind of gal—but today I feel inspired. I go to the mall, a place I would normally avoid like the swine flu, and with the power of my upper middle class income I go slightly nuts. I know it as I am doing it, but I can’t help myself. I hit the art supply store. I buy Liam paints, pencils, a little kid easel, a pencil sharpener, brushes, colored chalk. I buy him a case of paper. I buy Shari a new coffee pot, a gorgeous terry cloth robe, slippers, a collection of bath salts made from extract of God-knows-what kind of tropical fruit. I buy her a turquoise and silver lighter for her joints. I buy Richard the complete Ozzy Osborne collection on CD, the Star Wars, Episode I-VI Collection on DVD, and a pair of flannel pajamas. I buy him a fifty-dollar iTunes gift certificate and then realize he doesn’t have a computer, but I decide not to return it because I can use it myself. I buy everyone including me a stocking even though there is no fireplace, and a glitter gun so Liam can put our names on them. I buy a Christmas card for Nan, on which I intend to write the sweetest message ever composed in which I will promise to take her to New York for a week to see theatre, which we have been saying we will do for about two years. When I have exhausted the mall I go to Whole Foods and load up: a huge chicken to roast with potatoes and green beans and bread for the stuffing I am going to make, some fancy cheese that Nan likes, plus two bottles of champagne and two of red wine, and of course a Yule Log, which looks like something crapped out by a large bear. But Nan likes them. I get peppermints and Christmas cookies for Liam, as well as apple juice and cinnamon sticks for hot cider. I buy Egg Nog, which I don’t even like. I buy wrapping paper and ribbons and tape and scissors, and in the crowning moment of insanity, I buy myself a Santa hat.
Driving back to Richard’s house, the trunk of the rental car looks like Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. I am suffused with good feeling; this is what is known as Christmas cheer. To celebrate further, I decide to treat myself to a Starbucks Grande Cappuccino with whole milk and an extra shot. It is Christmas Eve after all, and it’s still early-ish. There’s plenty of time to wrap presents and all.
When I get back to the apartment, everyone but Liam is asleep. Shari is still on the couch, and Nan has passed out sitting straight up in the battered recliner. Liam is in front of the television with a Swanson’s chicken pot pie, methodically picking out every pea and every carrot and lining them up on his tray. The smell in the air reminds me of when I was a kid and we had a babysitter. The aroma of a frozen chicken pot pie is the same today as it was then – almost buttery, with an undertone of something greasy and false. I open the sliding glass door a crack to let the smell out and check on Richard. He coughs and stirs, but seems to be breathing steadily under his oxygen mask.
“You don’t like peas and carrots?” I ask Liam as I put the first of the bags in the bedroom. He doesn’t answer, but I watch as he eats first a pea, then a carrot, then another pea, then a carrot, all the way down the line until they are gone. Then he turns the pie shell upside down on plate.
“Grandma,” he shouts at the couch, “I made this for you.”
“Liam,” I say. “That isn’t true; you did not make that.”
Liam ignores me. Shari snores a little and turns over on the couch. Nan jumps in her sleep at the sound of my voice, then opens her eyes.
“I have to talk to you,” she says.
“Come out to the car first,” I say. I can’t wait any longer to share my spoils.
In the parking lot, Nan stares at the packed trunk.
“My God, what did you do?” she says weakly.
“I got some presents,” I say, surprised. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
Nan picks through the spoils. “Is that a whole case of paper?” she asks.
“Liam likes to draw,” I reply. “I just want him to have enough paper.”
Nan stares at the trunk, and then looks at me.
“I talked to Richard while you were gone,” she says as she wraps her arms around her body. She came out without her coat. “He wants us to take Liam when he’s gone. He wants us to take him.”
I don’t know why this possibility didn’t occur to me. It should have. In some ways it’s the most logical thing, except that it isn’t, and we can’t. Nan watches me, shivering.
“Well,” I say, “I can see why he would want that.”
“That’s your response? That’s all?”
“Let’s go in the house,” I say. “Here, take these,” I try to give her two of the bags.
Nan steps away and puts her hands behind her back. “No,” she says. “It’s too much. It doesn’t make sense. It’s too much.”
“Nan, it’s Christmas,” I say. I try again with the bags.
“It’s not that,” she shakes her head from side to side, shivering. “It’s not that. What are we going to say? No?”
“Just say OK,” I say. “We’ll work it out later.”
“No,” she says. “No. No. I can’t.”
“Nan,” I say. “He’s dying.”
“We can’t. I can’t. We can’t.” She is crying for real now.
“It’s OK,” I say. “It’ll be OK. Take them.” And she does.
There’s no place inside the tiny apartment to hide the present wrapping from Liam, so Nan and I barricade ourselves inside the second bedroom and wrap all the presents while Liam stands outside and taps on the door. Now and then Nan pauses to wipe her eyes. When we are finally finished, I slip outside without opening the door too wide. Liam is sitting on the floor in the short hall, blocking my path to the kitchen. He stares up at me.
“What you doing in there?” he demands.
“None of your business,” I say. “Now you need to go to bed or Santa Claus won’t be able to come and see you. Did you brush your teeth?”
Liam stares at me solemnly from the floor. “I want to tell Daddy goodnight,” he says.
“Shari,” I call into the living room. “Liam wants to tell Daddy good night.”
“OK,” she says, but she doesn’t come into the hallway like I am expecting her to. Liam waits patiently by the door as I stand there. Finally I open it and we both go in.
Richard is asleep; his breathing is shallow but steady. Liam climbs on the bed, alarming me, but Richard opens his eyes and smiles at him.
“Good night, buddy,” he says. His voice is airy and soft. “I love you.”
Liam lays his head on Richard’s chest.
At five a.m. I wake up on the top bunk with Nan breathing softly below me. Since I am up I might as well be Santa Claus. I figure Nan needs her sleep. I peer over into the corner; something seems wrong in the room. When my eyes are accustomed to the light, I realize that Liam’s pallet is empty. The soft blue glow of the television spills in under the door, and I can hear the low buzzing of voices, but I can’t tell if they are real or mechanical. I pad softly into the living room in my bare feet.
The living room is cold. Shari snores gently from the couch. Liam sits in front of the TV watching a cooking show on The Food Network. He has a plate and the one frying pan in the house in front of him on the floor; there is a wooden spoon he got God knows where in his hand. He points at me with the spoon.
“What your name?” he asks.
“I’m Robin,” I say. I have told him this many times.
Liam picks up the empty frying pan and diligently stirs something inside it with the wooden spoon. He flips an imaginary omelet in the air, turns the pan upside down over the plate, and finishes it with a pinch of imaginary salt. Carefully he sets the frying pan down, picks up the plate and thrusts it in my direction.
“Here,” he says.
The voice of the Food Network host fills the room.
“It’s Christmas morning, and you’ve made a special omelet,” she gushes. “Wake up your family and say ‘I made this for you!’”
I sit down on the floor next to Liam and take the plate from his outstretched hand. I think, for just a moment, about the future.
“Thank you,” I say, picking up an imaginary fork. “It looks delicious.”