It’s twelve o’clock, and Dan still isn’t here. I sit on the couch next to the small artificial Christmas tree; six or seven presents I’ve bought him lie underneath it. I’ve bought one for Alice, too, whom I’ve never met. On the TV a black-and-white movie with Humphrey Bogart plays, but I’ve not been watching it; I only keep it on for company.
Every Christmas, Dan visits me in the afternoon and his father in the evening. I always suggest he come Christmas Eve and stay the night, but he always refuses. Too much work to do, he says.
I wonder what Alice will be like. I imagine it’s serious between them; Dan wouldn’t bring her otherwise. In the past he’s only brought one other girl. Her name was Beth, and she didn’t eat meat. I asked Dan over the phone if Alice was a vegetarian. He said no.
Through the window my small backyard which leads up to woods looks cold and barren. The sky is gray. There’s nothing outside to suggest it’s Christmas; it looks like any other winter day.
I check on the ham. The table’s already been set. It makes me think of past dinners when Sam and I were still married.
I’ve been divorced eleven years.
The ham is cooking nicely, and I shut the oven. I take a glass out of the cabinet and pour myself water. I take a long sip. The house is quiet except for Humphrey Bogart’s voice in the living room. I finish my water and put the glass in the sink. I return to the living room, and as I’m sitting down the doorbell rings.
Dan wears chinos, a turtleneck sweater, and a black leather coat; he looks like a model from a Macy’s catalog. He holds presents, and when he kisses me on the cheek I smell his cologne.
“This is Alice,” he says.
She has shoulder-length brown hair and is lithe and tall. She has a small nose, and her eyes are large and intelligent. Her clothes- white sweater, black pants- look expensive. I think of the term “career woman.”
“It’s very nice to meet you.” She extends her hand.
“You, too.” Her hand is soft and warm.
In the living room, Alice points to a picture on the mantel of Dan when he was in the eighth grade. “Is that you?”
“Yep.” Dan picks up the TV control and changes the channel.
“Would anyone like coffee?” I say.
In the kitchen I can hear them talking, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. I pour Alice’s cup and take it to her with a cup for myself; Dan didn’t want any.
“Oh, thank you,” Alice says.
I sit down on the edge of the easy chair. “So,” I say, holding my cup with both hands, “Dan tells me you work in advertising.”
Alice nods. “He was representing the company I work for actually. We met in my office.”
“How nice,” I say, and smile.
Dan looks at the presents he brought, which sit on the coffee table. His foot taps. I think back to when he was a child and Sam and I bought him dozens of presents every Christmas. Sam always said we spoiled him too much. He was our only child, though.
Dan hands me the top present. “Here, Mom.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” I say. “Thank you.”
He’s bought me the same things he gets me every year: a CD of a singer I don’t listen to; two books by authors I’ve never heard of; a calendar with pictures of waterfalls. I imagine him rushing through a Barnes and Noble picking stuff out in a hurry until he had what he thought was the appropriate amount of gifts.
“It’s wonderful,” I say after each present. “Thank you, honey.”
I’ve bought him all clothes. He opens each box and holds the shirt or sweater in front of him.
“That’s so nice,” Alice says.
“Thanks, Mom,” Dan says.
I bought Alice a gift basket with various cheeses in it. I couldn’t think of anything else. “It’s lovely,” she says, holding it in her lap. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re very welcome.” I look at my watch. “I’m going to finish up dinner,” I say, and stand up. “We’ll eat in about twenty minutes.”
“Do you need any help?” Alice says.
“Oh, no. It’s under control.”
I open the oven and check on the ham. I turn the stove on and begin making the vegetables and potatoes. The sound of the stove and the smells of the food cooking relax me. I hum.
When everything’s on the table, I go into the living room. “Dinner’s ready.”
After we’ve begun eating, Alice says, “This is excellent.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Dan says. “It’s good.”
“Please. Have as much as you like.”
As we eat, the kitchen is silent except for the scraping of knives and forks against the plates.
Alice’s cell phone rings. She excuses herself and goes into the living room. I look at Dan and say, “So is this serious?”
“I don’t know.” He takes a sip from his Coke and shrugs. “I guess so.”
I don’t ask anymore. I look at the ham and realize I’m going to have a lot of leftovers.
“So,” I say, “are you going back tonight? Or are you going to stay over your father’s?”
“Oh, no,” Dan says. “I’m going back tonight. I’ve got to be in work early tomorrow.”
Alice returns. “Dan?” she says. “I just remembered. You have to call Tim about that thing.”
Dan nods and chews, staring at the table. “I’ll do it when we’re done eating.”
When Alice finishes her ham I say, “Please, have more.”
“Oh, thank you. But I’ve had plenty. It was excellent, though.”
Dan takes a long sip from his Coke. He then crumples his napkin and puts it on his plate. “I made pie,” I say. “For later on.”
Alice smiles and nods.
Dan pushes his chair back and stands up. He walks to the sliding-glass door and opens it.
I get up and pour myself more iced tea. “Would you like some more?” I say.
“Sure,” Alice says. “Thank you.”
I pour iced tea into her glass. “So you live in New York also?”
She nods. “Yes. On 86th Street.”
On the patio Dan talks on his cell phone; he takes long drags from a cigarette. Steam and smoke come out of his mouth as he talks.
“You have such a nice home,” Alice says.
Dan has put his cell phone away. He puffs on his cigarette and stares in the direction of the woods.
“Would you excuse me?” Alice pushes her chair back. She opens the sliding-glass door and stands next to Dan. I watch him give her a cigarette and light it for her. I carry the rest of the plates to the sink.
When I finish, I make another pot of coffee. The first drops have begun to trickle into the pot when the door slides open and they come inside.
“I’m making coffee.”
Dan nods. “I’ll be in the living room.”
Alice smiles at me and follows him in; she smells of cigarette smoke as she passes.
As the coffee brews I look at the leftover ham. I take cellophane out and wrap it around the plate.
When the coffee finishes I stick my head into the living room. “Who wants pie?”
Alice looks at Dan, who’s staring at the TV. A football game is on. I didn’t know they had football games on Christmas. Alice looks at me. “I’ll have a piece.” She turns back to my son. “Dan? Do you want any?”
“In a minute,” He still watches the TV. A man in a black and white outfit signals with his arms. The crowd boos. “When the half’s over.”
“We can have it in here,” I say.
“Holding,” the man in the black and white outfit says, his voice echoing.
“Oh, gimme a break,” Dan says.
“On the offense. Ten-yard penalty. Repeat second down.”
“I’ll help you,” Alice says, standing up.
I cut the slices. Alice brings Dan’s into the living room. When she returns she says, “Thanks again for the basket. It’s so lovely.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Oh, what the hell was that?” Dan says in the living room.
Alice and I carry our plates and cups in. I sit down on the edge of the easy chair and begin eating my slice. Alice sits next to Dan. As they eat they both look at the screen.
“It’s very good,” Alice says.
“I can give you the recipe if you like.”
“Sure,” she says, nodding. “Thank you.”
Dan finishes his slice quickly; he puts his plate on the coffee table and sits back in the couch. I take a sip from my coffee and look out the window. The lawn outside looks cold and hard, like the grass will never grow again. But it comes back every spring.
When I finish I stand up with my plate and lean over to get Dan’s and Alice’s. Alice hands them to me. “Thanks,” she says.
Dan’s cell phone rings. As I walk with the plates into the kitchen I hear him say, “Hey, Dad.”
I put the plates in the sink. I go back into the living room; Dan has the phone to his ear. He looks at me. “Dad says Merry Christmas.”
“Tell him likewise.” I sit down in the easy chair. I glance at Alice. Our eyes meet for a second, and then she looks at the TV.
After Dan hangs up, he stands and walks down the hallway. On the TV, two men in sports jackets sit behind a desk talking about the football game.
“I heard it’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” Alice says.
“I heard that, too,” I say. “They say up to ten inches.” I look outside and think how the snow will look on the yard. The same as it looks every year, I know, but it’s still exciting to imagine.
Down the hall the toilet flushes, and then Dan comes back into the room. “You know the bathtub’s leaking?” he says.
“I know. The guy’s coming next week.”
He nods and sits down.
“They have to make some serious adjustments on offense,” one of the announcers says. The other announcer nods. “I agree with you, Steve.”
“Anyone want more coffee?” I say.
Alice nods, but Dan looks at his watch and makes a face. “We should really be going,” he says. “I told Dad I’d be there by four.”
I nod and don’t say anything.
He stands up, and Alice stands up, too. “Thanks for everything,” she says. “The meal was fantastic.”
“Oh, it was no trouble.”
Dan helps Alice put on her coat; he then puts on his own. He leans forward and hugs me; I smell his cologne again. “Merry Christmas, Mom,” he says. “Thanks for everything.”
I follow them to the door. Dan carries the boxes; Alice carries her basket.
“All right, Mom,” Dan says at the door.
“I had a wonderful time,” Alice says.
I’m about to ask if she’d still like the recipe for the pie, but Dan looks at his watch. So I just say, “It was very nice meeting you.”
I follow them outside; from the front steps, I watch them walk to Dan’s black Lexus. He puts the boxes and basket in the trunk. They wave and get in, and the Lexus backs out of the driveway. Through the window Alice waves again; then the car disappears down the street.
It’s cold out. The neighborhood is quiet. In all the houses up and down the street, it looks like no one’s home.
I go inside.
The football game is still on. I shut off the TV. The coffee table is covered with wrapping paper. I carry it into the kitchen and throw it into the garbage.
On the patio, two cigarette butts lie. A wind blows one of them into a crack in the concrete.
I pour a cup of coffee and take it to the table and sit down. As I sip it, I wonder if I’ll ever see Alice again. I think of that other girl, Beth. I wonder what she’s doing right now.
Outside, the boughs bend in the wind. I remember Dan playing in the yard when he was a child, how I used to watch him from this same chair. I think of the way he is now, the way he was then.
I take a sip from my cup. The house is dead silent. Something like oppression comes over me, but then it passes.
It’s close to four o’clock. I try to think what I’ll do with the rest of the day.