Ah, Christmas, Joanie Moseley reflected. Nine days to go. Before heading upstairs, she gazed around the garage at the smorgasbord before her. Only nine days left to package the Tennessee Treats for her mushrooming list of clients, so that they themselves might have Christmas gifts to give to others.
They were framing her life, these Tennessee Treats. Already, it was almost too much to handle. Some of her deliveries were nearly two days behind schedule. She had run out of the Bucksnort smoked trout, a perennial favorite. And the last batch of the sausage balls had a queer, sour taste. She told Maria immediately to prepare another six pounds. Pulling off her apron, she made a mental note to consider hiring a full-time salaried manager for Tennessee Treats next year. Maria, maybe? What a success story Maria would turn out to be!
Entering her dressing room, Joanie examined herself in the mirror and ran a brush through her shoulder-length waves of brown hair. Forget Tennessee Treats, she thought; focus on tonight's Que Pasa benefit. Thank God Sims was coming over. He had called 20 minutes ago to say that Dorthula had cancelled lunch with him, and that he couldn't spend one more minute with his mother.
Sims, she knew, could shoulder split-second catastrophes as the party unfolded. She had seen pay parties come together before, and without exception, no matter how heroic the effort and planning, she had seen them fall apart. This first crisis, the entertainment backing out at the last minute, was just the beginning. The devil had played his first card. Now she was to meet with the caterer and the florist at the event sitea hotel banquet room, a challenge in beigewhere the critical layout and design decisions would be made. Having Sims beside her would be a huge comfort.
The bathroom window flashed red and green, courtesy of the blinking Christmas display across the street: a 10-foot arrow atop the roof, aimed like a missile at the chimney. How cute, Joanie Moseley thought. Joanie loved Christmas. What immersion it required! She loved the excessive nature of its commitment, its countless moving parts, its social interaction. She loved it for Maria and Dorthula, and for all the newly arrived Hispanics who benefited from Que Pasa. She loved it for her church. Every December, at St. Anthony's Episcopal, she would sit woozy from exhaustion at Midnight Mass and watch families traipse down the aisles for communion. Past her in hazy procession would come wave after wave of flowers, flickering candles and green and red outfits. Often, as she watched a friend flowing by to receive communion, she would pinch Trigg and whisper in his ear, her mind having flashed on a piece of gossip. Trigg might bolt awake as if cattle-prodded, but he always smiled at whatever tidbit she passed on.
If Joanie enjoyed Christmas in part because it was project-based, it must be said she never completely mastered it. This Christmas hadn't even come yet, and already she was vowing with a junkie's perpetual optimism to get a bigger headstart next yearsay, two weeks before Thanksgiving. Every year, as she stood at the sink on Christmas Day washing a vast number of dishes from her late-afternoon supper, she would be stricken with doubt. The seasons-greetings photograph of her two sons, on the family Christmas cardwas it out of focus? Should she have given gifts to their schoolteachers? Was it right to have invited Maria to Christmas dinner? Did Trigg appreciate his gift?
For days afterward, Joanie would actually prolong the agony. Having been too busy beforehand, she would circle through town dropping off gifts that fell in the category of "family friends." The gift was always the same: a jar of her peach preserves. With Christmas over, she also finally had time to address and mail the Moseley family's holiday card. She hastily amended its greeting to "Happy New Year."
Sometime around December 29th, by which time most families had already littered Elmington Park with cast-off trees, Joanie inevitably collapsed into mild depression. The second Trigg left to hunt ducks with her brothers in West Tennessee, she would gaze at the discarded gift boxes and burned-out lights and dried-out Norway spruce and feel like an abandoned orphan. At least she could hear the boys running about in the post-Christmas carnage, their amplified toys and video games filling the silence with alien chirps and whirrs. The racket would drive some parents crazy. Joanie felt only faint comfort.
Taped to her mirror this year was a to-do list of holiday tasks, beribboned with a curlicued tangle of Post-It Note strips. She had yet to buy Trigg his big whopper "Santa" present, even if she had picked up several smaller doo-dads. A son's sore throat and a last-minute Que Pasa meeting scuttled plans for Tree Decorating Night. Three dust-covered cardboard boxes of ornaments sat unopened, and what decorations there were had been hung by Maria. She would dangle a Restoration Hardware robot from a branch, then regard it with a kind of quizzical amusement.
Near the fireplace sat a three-foot mound of evergreen branches that she had told Trigg to ask for when he took the children to pick out the tree. These would make garlands, or kudzu for perfectionists. It would take several hours to strip away the greenery, then wire the unruly sprigs into graceful braids. She would then drape the long green runners from the hearths above the fireplaces. There would be garland on the shelves in the library. There would be garland surrounding the manger scene. There would be garland on the dining room table, in a foot-high fortress around the advent wreath. She had even meant to get Trigg to wind a long evergreen tendril around the mailbox. Next year.
So what if the Christmas clock had run out, as always. It was time for Joanie to recite her twin mantras, "I'm a Christmas kind of girl" and "It's all about the kids." From her first child's birth, she held firmly to the notion that her two sons would receive the ultimate in holiday cheer, down to the last Norman Rockwell detail: setting out the cookies and milk for Santa, leaving a dish of water for the reindeer, getting Trigg on the roof at midnight to bang on the shingles with an old pair of boots. It wasn't about being a perfect mother. It was about being perfect enough. Nothing would be denied her children, least of all their make-believe.
As she readied herself at the mirror, Joanie took an unaccounted moment to appraise her face. Not bad, she concluded, apart from a few lines here and there. Her body, check. In college, she was considered quite attractive in a willowy, natural way. Once she had given birth to the two boys, however, an extra 15 pounds had refused to budge. Joanie had grown to accept life as a size eight. Nothing to be ashamed of. Really. Waitwas that a hair sprouting from her earlobe? As she plucked at the stubborn strand, the doorbell startled her.
"Hellooo," came a male voice, singing out the word in three pitches. Joanie circled her hair behind her ears, glanced at the overall package she presented in the mirror once more, and slipped effortlessly into hostess mode. Even if it was only her brother-in-law.
"Hello, Sims," Joanie said, walking down the stairs with practiced lack of care. The two kissed one another on the cheek without brushing skin.
"Well," he said, stepping back. "Don't we look marvelous."
"Oh, Sims," she said. "Every married woman should have a gay husband."
Sims chortled. "Thanks, I'll take that as a compliment. I'll also take that glass of white wine you offered so generously. Two hours with mother, ya know."
Sims had changed clothes. On the plane from New York he wore a pair of unwashed blue jeans. He had slipped into a pair of black slacks, a long-sleeved light-blue cashmere sweater, and an open-collared white Oxford cloth shirt. All the other women gathered at the hotel, he knew, would be dressed in respectable pantsuits. The two walked into the kitchen, finding Maria elbow-deep in sausage balls.
"Sims, you haven't met Maria, have you? Then again, you haven't been here for two years, so of course you haven't met Maria."
"Ouch," Sims mocked. "A pleasure to meet you, Maria."
"You, too," Maria said, ducking her head. "And Meez Moseley, you wan that I pack rest of box?
"Oh, yes, do as many as you can until the cheese runs out."
"And Mrs. Moseley, did you do elves?"
Joanie thought for a moment. Elves. Elves?
"For de boys. De elves. Een wan half hower. At school."
The inaugural Day of the Elves! Joanie had utterly blanked on the gift-exchange program that the boys' private school had hatched this year. In recent years, a number of students had begun purchasing Christmas presents for other students. It was a selfless and altruistic practicebut not, alas, an inclusive one, as teachers, administrators and the parents of the giftless concluded. Rather than eliminate the gift-giving altogether, a parents' group recommended that the school allow each student to draw a name from a hat. The resulting gifts would come collectively from "Santa's elves," from each according to his ability to each according to his need. A new era of egalitarian and anonymous holiday-related cheer would commence.
"I find dees on dee ping-pong table under box of cracker," Maria said, waving the announcement letter. "Triscuits," she pronounced deliberately, with obvious pride.
Joanie could remember neither the letter not the Triscuits. All she knew was that she had to hit the store, and fast. The boys had already told her what they wanted to give. One wanted a swim/shower radio with water-proof headphones, the other a DVD compilation of the Nashville NHL team's smash-mouth highlights. She would have to pick up the gifts, wrap them, and get them to her boys' classrooms shortly before the ceremony. She glanced at her watch.
"Well," Joanie said, plucking the letter from Maria's hands. She pretended to read it while she stalled for decision. "Elves," she said, to no one in particular. "My little elves. Oh, me."
Sensing a slight delay, Sims walked to the refrigerator. Opening it, he scanned the slideshow of labels inside and grabbed a jug of white wine from the door. He then peered into the mahogany liquor cabinet. There he beheld dozens of wine glasses standing at attention, all neatly ordered according to shape and size. He marveled at the way they sparkled in the hot light of the kitchen. At left stood a chardonnay glass, a crystal tulip bulb of exquisite simplicity, inscribed with a modest "Riedel." Gotcha.
"At times like these," Sims said, "we pay our respects to the grape they call the Pinot Grigio."
Sims savored his first sip in the twilight of Joanie's panicked confusion. He twirled the glass between his fingertips, tracing the wine's legs as it trickled down the sides. Joanie, lost in Elvish misery, wondered how she could weather this latest interruption. Maria saw her boss upset and no way to help. For one instant, the day had been placed on pause as all three lost themselves in thought. But then they heard an unexpected soundthe sound of footsteps thudding down the hall. No doorbell had been rung; no front door had slammed. The three looked at one another with identical puzzled expressions. Then a voice came through the walls.
"Look, Mom, I am not going through his personal papers," a nondescript young voice declared. From the sound of it, the intruders were walking quickly. Walking into the space already occupied by Sims, Maria and Joanie, as if they'd expected the house to be empty, were Dorthula Raines and her daughter Alexandra.
"What y'all doin' here anyway," Dorthula blurted out sternly, her face bunched up in angry wrinkles.
"Dorthula!" Sims exploded, so happy to see her one might have mistaken the two for long-lost siblings. He set down his wine without rippling its surface and swept her into a hug. "Here you go canceling lunch on me, and you're here instead! How in the world are you doing, honey?"
Sims rocked Dorthula slightly, to the right, to the left. Her arms, in response, patted half-heartedly at his back. After a prolonged and rather one-sided hug, he pushed her away yet held her shoulders firmly. It was the kind of position people use to give a close visual inspection to someone who might not want it.
"Lord Almighty," Sims said, reading Dorthula's pinched expression and slivered eyes. "Here I been gone all this time and you've got yourself all dithered up over something. Darling, you look like you're prepared to kill!"
"Why, I..." Dorthula stammered, which was not her practice. "I didn't expect y'all to be here. Joanie, you got Elves, and Maria, well...I never do know 'bout you. You should just be goin' on about your own self."
Sims smiled. It was good to hear Dorthula speak. Mad, happy, sad, comicalit didn't matter. The sound and cadence of her voice were a breezeway to his childhood. When he heard her speak, he became fuller somehow. It made him less anxious, helped understand himself. He had tried to explain this to some of his friends in New York, even his therapist. But invariably the conversation would veer into an ugly discussion about race. Over the years, he'd simply given up talking about it. Yankees just didn't understand.
Sims picked up his glass, delighted that Dorthula knew about the elves program when even Joanie had forgotten. Dorthula knew everything. She had made the Moseley family her business for nearly four decades. Sims took another sip, just in time to feel the first wave of Pinot Grigio's liquid happiness sweetly cloud his brain. Maybe it wasn't the wine, he thought. Maybe he was just happy? He wasn't quite sure which was which. To settle any doubt, he took another double-sip so quickly that wine sloshed from his glass onto the marble island's burners. The burners were so polished and industrial that the recessed lights overhead refracted off the stovetop like lasers. The spilled wine pooled in a small puddle. Maria moved in quick with a sponge.
"Hello, Dorthula," Joanie interjected, putting away the letter while drawing everyone's eyes from Sims' wine incident. Her timing was perfect. "And Alexandra, so good to see you as well. How is everything at the firm?"
"It's fine, thank you for asking. This is a busy time of year for us. End-of-year tax considerations and all that."
"Yes, I'm sure," Joanie said, her head turning imperceptibly away from Dorthula and Alexandra. As always, this signaled the end of her involvement in the conversation. "You all make yourselves at home. Maria, can you come with me to Target? As it is I'm going to be late, so I need all the help I can get. Sims, would you fill in for me at 2 with the hotel florist? If he brings those calla lilies I've seen at every event in Nashville since they built the Ryman, send him on home. I'm positive I'll be there at 3 o'clock for the caterer, but right now goodness only knows."
Preoccupied as she was, Joanie did not ask Dorthula what she was doing there. On its own, Dorthula's appearance would not have been strange at all; she dropped by all the time, usually just to visit or to do some little thing. But the presence of Dorthula's daughter was something else. Alexandra would visit Darby Glen quite often, back when Dorthula was working there a lot and had no option but to bring her little girl. But in recent years, she had made herself scarce. As soon as Joanie and Maria left, Sims upended his glass.
"As lovely as it is to see you two ladies," he said, "there's something unusual going on here girls." For a moment he felt alarmingly sober.
"You damn right sumthin's up," Dorthula shot back. "That brother of yours has got every Negro in North Nashville shoutin' out. You heard what Dr. Winnings preached in church today? That y'all gonna develop Darby Glen and tear down them slave shacks out back? That y'all gonna just tear down those shacks? They's gonna be hell to pay, Sims Manner Moseley. Hell to pay. I just don' know what else to say."
Dorthula threw up her hands as if to wash them of the situation, walked over to a plate of chess squares, and popped one in her mouth. Sims tried to remember when he had seen her so angry. It had to be that time as kids when he and his brother peed in a chest of drawers. She had cut a switch from a hickory branch without hesitation and tanned their hides.
"Dorthula, what in the world are you talking about? I had no idea..."
"Sims," Alexandra interrupted him. "What we're talking about is pretty delicate. We're going to need your family's attention fairly quickly if we're to avoid calamity. Dr. Winnings is a fairly commanding figure in town. I can't see that it would be advantageous for your family to engage him, or his followers."
Sims eyed Alexandra closely. She had her mother's fiery eyes and strong chin, but other than that he was at a loss to find anything else that resembled her mother. For a moment he was put off by her. He thought the gold buttons on her navy business suit were too big; when he looked at her black high heels, he thought they were a bit boxy. When she spoke, she seemed about as Nashville as one of those new female weathercasters who had come to town: fresh-looking, obviously bright, vaguely Midwesternand yet not really from, nor of, this world.
He knew she had gone to Columbia Law School on a full-ride. He had even entertained them, Dorthula and Alexandra, for a week in the big city when she graduated. But now, seeing her in her actual professional environment took some getting adjusted to. He thought how proud Dorthula must be of her, and at that point he started to warm to her no-bullshit style. Kind of reminded him of Dorthula, only with an Ivy League seal and no accent.
"You've got my attention," Sims said to Alexandra. He pushed the glass away, regretfully. "But I'm just here for the weekend, and I don't know much about my brother's businessI mean, my family's business."
"Well, in a nutshell, I don't think it's looking good," Alexandra said. "When my mother came to me seeking advice, I decided to watch your company's stock price just for my own edification. It seems to be falling even as we speak. The point is that my mother has asked me to help your family extricate itself from this mess, and so not have this fight with the church. Which is why I'm on board."
"By all means," Sims said. "I say, let's get moving." He tried to sound rousing and commanding, but he knew he was very much the passenger on this ship. It was obvious who the captain was.
"It would be helpful to see any and all documentation related to the project," Alexandra said. "In fact, the reason we're here is that Mom wanted to look in your brother's home office. She thought there might be documents that would help."
"Trigg just about keeps everything upstairs in that little office in the poolhouse," Dorthula chimed in. "Come on. I'll show ya."
The three exited the house onto a lifeless brick patio. It being December, all of the chairs had been moved into the basement and nothing was in bloom. They walked through a little iron gate into the pool area until they came to the poolhouse. A tiny structure, it housed a small bathroom, a kitchenette, and another room that Trigg had converted into an office. Trigg used his office downtown when he had to meet clients, but when it came to getting work done he preferred this.
They stepped into the room and found what they were looking for almost immediately. A full-scale, three-dimensional model of a fully developed Darby Glen, with golf course and clubhouse, curving lanes and Italianate fountains, stood atop a card table. A three-foot-wide aerial photograph of the still-undeveloped property was thumb-tacked to the wall. Dorthula moved to an antique wooden file cabinet beside Trigg's computer, affixed with an adhesive label reading "Darby Glen Real Estate." She opened the top drawer. Inside, every conceivable file related to the project was neatly arrayed.
"Sims, you do own part of Darby Glen, don't you?" Alexandra asked him.
"Yeah, sure," he responded.
"Good then. Knowing that my understanding of these files may be important, bear in mind that they are not my property. I cannot take them from here; I cannot advise that they be taken from here. Should you decide, as an owner, to remove them on your own and then have me review them, I would be happy to do so. Bear in mind that I should disclose I'm not sure there's anything in here that will even help. But it's worth an examination."
Sims hesitated. Was he doing the right thing? Could he get in trouble?
"I..." he stammered. "What if...."
"Sims Manner Moseley, you do it!" Dorthula barked.
That clarified things. "Which ones you want me to take?"
"All of them," Alexander stated. "I'll have them copied and returned in one hour. Put them in the front seat of my BMW out front."
The phone on Trigg's poolhouse desk rang. Sims picked up the receiver, expecting to take a message for his brother. Instead, he heard his mother shrieking, so loudly that he had to hold the receiver a foot from his ear. Dorthula and Alexandra could hear her clearly as well:
"What in God's name is that goddamned preacher doing in our goddamned business? And where on earth is your goddamned brother?"
Whatever pleasure remained from the Pinot Grigio vanished at the sound of her voice, thst maternal dentist's-drill whine that bored into Sims' skull. The only relief was that she didn't linger. Once she hung up, Alexandra presented a different game plan.
"Why don't we bypass going to my office to have these documents copied," Alexandra said coolly. "Darby Glen would make a fine war room, don't you think?"
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.