There was a note on the bedside table when Gloria Schwartz woke up. Her daughter Lana had gone to take a walk but she’d be back within the hour. For Gloria getting out of bed was harder than it normally was. Her right knee was stiff and her back was sore. She wasn’t accustomed to traveling or jet lag. A cup of mediocre coffee helped her feel more normal but she was going to hold off on showering until the ibuprofen kicked in.
She moved slowly around the room hoping against hope that Lana hadn’t planned a sightseeing tour that involved a lot of walking. When she opened her suitcase she found that the shirt she had planned on wearing was wrinkled. She considered wearing it without touching up the front but when she tried it on one of the creases went across the front of her bosom so she found the iron and plugged it in with a curse. The marble vanity in the bathroom was as smooth and still as a lake of black glass. Gloria brushed her teeth and rinsed her mouth out. The air was humid and sticky around her. She unwrapped a fresh cake of hand soap when she couldn’t find the one that had been there. The wrapper fell to the floor and she cursed again when she realized she’d have to kneel down to retrieve it.
She found the wrapper but there was something else lying in the wastebasket under the sink. A handmade card lay in the trash. Gloria had been buying and receiving cards that Natalie the neighbor girl had made ever since her family had moved next door to the Summerville's some thirteen odd years ago. She still thought of Natalie as a girl even though she was in her thirties, had been married twice and was about to have a child of her own. Even before she opened the card she knew it wasn’t from Natalie. Lana would never throw a card from Natalie away. Gloria went back into the room to sit down. Reluctantly she opened the card. Brad Summerville’s small distinctive handwriting covered most of it.
I know you don’t believe in Christmas so think of this as a gift to celebrate the winter solstice. We’ve had a lot of snow recently. Natalie took some pictures of the evergreens in front of Marlene’s. You’ve probably seen them by now if you’ve had time to check your e-mail. I know your name was on her list. My dad was singing ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ the other day and Rita already has the tree in the living room up. We were talking about how you didn't believe the ceiling in the living room was as high as it is just so Rita can have a decent tree there. I know we told you a lot of things that weren’t true but that was one of the times we were telling the truth and you didn’t believe us. Not that I blame you. We were a bunch of punk brats back then. We probably still are.
Things are a lot quieter around here now that you and Brent are gone. He and Fern are coming up to celebrate for about forty-eight hours. They’ll be up for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Rita is put out that they’re not staying with her and dad but Natalie really wants to have them over and everyone knows that Fern and Rita don’t get along. You're the only person who could make both of them see things from the other's perspective. We all miss that about you. What Gretchen and I were hoping, really what all of us were hoping is that you’d come home for Christmas. The credit card is yours for whatever you want to get. That’s our gift to you and it’s good for whatever you want to buy over the next twelve months. Gretchen is still sick. She feels like crap and you’re probably not even reading this anymore but if you are it would really mean a lot to her if you’d come home for at least a little while.
I’m hoping that you and I can set aside our personal differences for the holiday season. I’ve forgiven you for all the things you’ve said over the past couple of years and I’m hoping that you’ll put down my..., if there’s something I’ve said or done to tick you off I hope you can forgive and forget but if not I’ll stay out of your way while you’re here. Dave and Monique are going down to Florida so you and Panos can stay at their place if the idea of staying with your parents doesn’t appeal to you. I don’t know if you remember, I know you remember when Brent and Chloe broke up but I’m not sure if you remember the conversation you and I had afterwards. I was mad at him for being such an idiot but you said that was the way he was and being mad at him wasn’t going to change things. You told me he was the only brother I had and I’d miss him if he was gone.
Gretchen is the only sister you have. She’s sick, she’s pregnant and she doesn’t do much of anything besides go to work and sit around looking pitiful on the couch. I’m sure you know that your parents are less than thrilled that she’s expecting but I don’t care. This is selfish but I’ve always wanted a wife and kids and maybe we weren’t planning on Parker but now that we’ve got him, this is one of those times I wish I could write like you so you’d know some of what I feel.
Gloria set the card back on the desk while tears rolled down her cheeks. She thought about how her husband had always wanted a boy and she thought about the look on his face when Brad had told him their daughter Gretchen was pregnant. She thought about what good neighbors Jim and Rita Summerville had been. They were still great neighbors. She and Rita had shared everything from their children sleeping together to Natalie’s first husband Dan dying.
The anniversary of Dan’s death was next month. January was already one the coldest and bleakest times. Christmas was over. By the end of the month New Year’s resolutions had failed and people were back to work and back to their old selves. Dan Parker was someone people would never forget. His artwork was still hard to look at. She smoothed the card out but it was a mindless motion. Her mind was on Christmas several years ago. Rita was the one who had given Gretchen a fluffy pink sweater for Christmas. Someone had given Brad and Brent matching French blue dress shirts. Gretchen had given them cufflinks. Lana had given the twins matching suspenders.
Gloria had been standing near the piano when she heard Gretchen talking to Dan. She had heard her daughter ask Dan to take a picture of her and Brad. Dan had given Brad a painting for Christmas. There had been a fight between the two of them. At the time Gloria thought that explained Dan's reluctance to photograph Brad and Gretchen. Despite Dan's misgivings the picture had turned out even better than some formal shots that Gretchen had posed for. There was a natural and relaxed quality about the picture. Dan had captured the mischiveous look in Gretchen's big blue eyes. Brad’s arm was around Gretchen and for once he was smiling in a picture.
Brad's mother Rita was the one who had given Gloria a copy of the Brad and Gretchen picture. Gloria had always been fond of that particular picture but when Dan Parker had seen it up on her fridge he had taken it down. She remembered asking him about it. He had smiled at her but it didn’t reach his eyes. He had taken the picture down and his words were as fresh and clear in her mind as if he was standing in the room next to her. “It’s a great shot Gloria. If you were anyone else I’d tell you what I told Brad about that picture. I told him I could sell it to both Forbes and Playboy and retire on the proceeds. Your husband can help me invest my millions. The only problem with the picture is Brad has his arm around the wrong daughter. It can go on the side of the fridge but not the front. Trust me on this Gloria. I know what I’m talking about here.”
Alone in her hotel room Gloria did something she very rarely did. She tucked the card into her purse. Tissues from a nearby box lined the bottom of the wastebasket. Lana might notice the card was missing otherwise. She drank a small bottle of brandy and pulled the covers back before climbing back into bed. The Red Innocence painting flashed before her eyes. A snapshot of Brad and Lana standing next to each other melted into it but Gloria knew in her heart that no matter how he felt about the baby Brad was still engaged to the wrong daughter.