Darryl’s assessment of Dean was reasoned and detached, as objective in observing his own family as one could hope from a man whose adult life has been devoted to the scientific method.
He watched as Dean moved between kitchen and dining room with a delighted buoyancy. He brought platter after platter, bowls and baskets out to the dining room table, now positioned against a wall to serve as the buffet. And to a side table, a full punch bowl and a tin tub from Mexico filled with bottles of beer and sparkling cider, nestled into party ice. Then several bottles of wine.
Scilla had told Darryl that they chose to put out paper plates for the food, but that they had rented glass stemware for the wine. Every three-piece set of flatware they owned, stainless and silver, the kids had bundled with a paper napkin and put in a wide basket. It was as if the event were catered. Dean and Scilla told Darryl that if all worked out, they would not have to hustle into a fork-washing chore in mid-party.
“Well, leave that to me. As the grandfather, I should have the clout to set the two kids at work on that task if a need arises.”
Yes, Dad, we will see.
Before he had delivered everything to the table, Dean brought a scotch on the rocks for Darryl, perfect, exactly the way the older man prefered it. No mulled wine, no punch, no bottled beer for Darryl.
When Dean was finished with the dining room, he brought five CDs to the stereo. He told Darryl he had burned them with Christmas music he had found online, obscure pieces like Spike Jones’ “Barnyard Christmas,” with some oldies grooved so deep in the collective memory that they would never again sound fresh, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” The Jackson Five’s “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus” was bundled with scores of other tunes Dean had found, all of them secular Christmas songs. In a quiet voice, he told Darryl that the only condition Scilla had insisted upon when Dean proposed the mix was that none of the songs be religious.
He threw all five in the CD changer and pressed shuffle.
“We’ll let that robot be our deejay for the party.”
Dean was having a fine time. He liked the way his father-in looked at him as he tipped his scotch in a toast to the newly cherished son-in-law.
Soon the place was filling up. His own dad and Dolores were settled in, Scott and Hazel had just arrived. This was all going to be great fun.
As he moved about in his bustle of obligations, he saw that Flo and Darryl avoided eye contact and had selected chairs as far from each other as they could be. Dean enjoyed playing with the trope that he was the conductor for his wife’s magnum opus. In this role, he was confident that he had the power to mix Darryl and Flo together, to generate interaction between them, if he manipulated things only slightly. But he decided to leave them alone. Small steps.
The initial reunion had gone splendidly. Tears, hugs, some reconciling efforts, but in the ebbing of those emotional waters, the old faultlines were once again exposed.
Just as well to leave them apart.
Scilla pulled him into the kitchen at one point. She was quite troubled. She liked the party, but it had evolved in ways that she had not planned for. Dean told her not to worry, to surrender to it if she could. She gave him one of her impassive expressions, the lifeless face dumbed into a blank stare. He gently repeated his suggestion. His own conducting was going well, but the composer was not pleased with her creation. Someone had snuck into her study and messed with the composition.
“What is the problem, Scilla, other than that the party does not have the shape that you expected it to?”
Scilla shuffled deeper into her dumbfounded state. Dean pitied her. She wanted to complain about something but could find nothing till she came up with: ”There won’t be enough chairs. Or paper plates.”
Dean countered her. “Mitchell and Artis are running late. He just called, mostly wanting to know if Dewey and Josh and Josefina were here. I told him they were, not to worry, no underage drinking and all that. His uncle still needed to shower. Barry and Shiloh just told me that they’re heading out soon, going to their friends Mark and Chet’s place in the Castro for a drink before it gets too late. That frees up a few chairs. Even if the neighbors are still here when Mitchell and Artis and the uncle arrive, it’s only, let me see, seven, nine…”
“Dean, what good does it do to have a place for someone to sit if there’s no food for them to eat?”
“There’s plenty of food. And not everyone’s here for dinner.”
“And what if the Cassidys come? How many will that add?”
“Scilla, calm down, OK? It’s a wonderful party. Open your eyes. You’ve pulled off a miracle. The Reunion. I did not believe it was a good idea. But it was a wonderful idea. It is a wonderful party. All you need to do is get out of your own way with all this pessimism and let it happen.”
Scilla sighed and turned to leave the kitchen when she nearly bumped into Scott, who carried an unopened bottle of beer.
“Hey, oops! Sorry. You got an opener, man?” he asked Dean.
“There should be a church key tied to the tub handle where you got that beer. But here.” Dean handed him a corkscrew with a bottle opener in the handle. Pfft.
Scilla took her worried face out of the kitchen and back into the party. Dean was leaving to join her when the phone rang.
“Hey, Gene, Merry Christmas!”
“And to you.”
“So, hey, guess what? We’re on 19th Avenue and Jerry just checked his flight. It’s delayed, they think about two hours, so we’ve got some time to kill. Could we take you up on that offer and swing by?”
“Uh, yeah, hey, love to have you. You guys hungry?”
“Naw. We been eating leftovers since we got up. But I will have a glass with you if you’re in. We got a crowd here, though. Is that still OK?”
“Yeah, sure, of course. So who’s with you?”
“My two brothers, my mom, Maggie, her mom. Enough for a basketball team plus a sub.”
“Parking is pretty sucky. You may have to do Sanchez.”
“No prob. We’ll figure it out. It’s a holy day. Hail Mary, full of Grace, help us find a parking place. Uh-oh, scowls from my mother and my mother-in-law for that one. Still, I betcha it works. See ya soon.”
Dean took one of the tall IPAs and the corkscrew with the church key in the handle and popped the top. It was the first alcohol, other than a few tasting-sips of mulled wine, that he had consumed that day. There had been no need. He was buzzed enough on the house full of people that he had not thought of alcohol.
But now he had to tell Scilla that the party was about to grow by another half dozen, and with the Cassidys, some of her least favorite people in their social world.
He found her in the dining room and gently led her back toward the kitchen, murmuring the news of the impending arrival. When he told her, she stopped in her tracks and gave him a look he had never seen in her before. It was surrender, that which he had urged her to adopt just moments before in the kitchen, but it was not the go-with-the-day’s-happenstances surrender that he had intended.
It was more like a capitulation to a bitter fact about her husband’s machinations that, if Dean could articulate it, would go something like I knew that you were going to ruin my Christmas party. I knew there was no way I could stop you. You have been out to defeat the whole project from the moment I proposed it last summer.
“Scilla. Stop. It’s going to be OK. Gene’s brother’s flight is late. They’ve already eaten, they’ll come by for an hour or so and be on their way. Please don’t give me that look.”
“What look is that, Dean? What look do you think you see?”
He did not answer her.
Dean was surprised then, with how gracious she appeared when Gene’s family arrived. She had never met his two brothers, and she had only seen Mary and Paula, his mother and mother-in-law, in passing, perhaps two or three times. Scilla welcomed them at the door, took their coats, led them to the living room.
There were plenty of chairs. Josh and Dewey and Josefina had joined Harlan and Candice and their guests downstairs in the garage, where they were playing table tennis and listening to non-Christmas music on the family’s portable CD player. There were enough chairs upstairs for the Cassidy clan. In fact, all the chairs between Flo and Darryl had been empty until the Cassidys came in and filled them.
Dean took requests and returned presently with glasses of wine, bottles of beer and mineral water. The Cassidy invasion had been absorbed. All was well.
Flo and Gene found themselves sitting next to one another.
“Excuse me, your name is…?” she asked him.
“Gene. Gene Cassidy.”
A look of recognition flashed over her face. “Oh, you’re supposed to be… I’m supposed to have… some things in common with you?”
“Really? Are you a textbook editor, too?”
“No, oh, no.”
“Didn’t think so; kidding you.”
Flo chuckled. “Scilla says…” She made a point of not getting eye contact with her father. She lowered her voice and tilted her head closer to Gene’s ear. “Scilla says you have… shall we say, an open mind about some things… like 9/11?”
“Yup. I can definitely go on that jag.”
Dean had just handed out the last glass of wine when the doorbell rang.
When he opened it, Mitchell and Artis, in unison, cried out, “Merry Christmas!”
Then Mitchell stepped into the house and gestured behind him to a figure on the porch. ”Dean, this is my uncle, Burton Cartfaler.”
Dean stepped back. He had to get his bearings. For a moment, he thought some aberrant neural current was distorting his perceptions of Mitchell’s uncle. Had he drunk that IPA too quickly? Then he realized his perceptions were sound, knew this by the look of recognition in the uncle’s eyes as he reached out his hand to shake Dean’s extended palm, with a greeting of “Merry Christmas.”
It was a shared recognition. Dean knew this man. He wanted to retreat but there was no place to go. He dropped his hand. His back banged up against the wall.
Mitchell turned to his uncle. “You know my brother-in-law? And I thought you stopped using that name years ago? Or is that just what you told us? What’s going on here?”
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