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--- C H R I S T O P H E R   C H A M B E R S

I parked the car, a white Mercedes, not mine, in front of the red brick garage and walked through the snow, leaving footprints drifting up to the back door. I struggled to get the key in the lock without dropping the Sunday paper, the paper cup of coffee, or the white paper bag of croissants. Inside, I walked into a bright room, white-carpeted, with wide windows all around a smooth wooden desk. I tossed the paper onto the desk, and opened the styrofoam cup of cafe au lait releasing a cloud of steam and a trickle that ran down onto the glossy desktop. I took off the long wool overcoat, tossed it over a chair. I sat down, strangely content. It wasn't my house, my desk or my chair, and I felt quite sure it couldn't have been any sweeter if it had been.

My thoughts jumbled up, running into each other, going off at the same time instead of waiting their turn and coming in an orderly fashion. I hadn't talked to anyone for three days, except the girl at the coffee shop, a college student probably, blue baseball cap turned backwards and huge silver hoop earrings. She'd smiled at me and I had to repeat my order. My voice came out hesitant and hoarse from disuse, too soft at first. I couldn't trust it.

I thought for a moment about staying at the coffee shop, sitting at a table by the window with the paper and coffee to watch people walk by, maybe get a refill and make small talk with the girl. But I came back here instead. Her clear smile and flashing hoops made me feel old, and I felt that if I opened my mouth again I would betray myself.

Not that I am old. Disconnected, maybe. I've lived here since I quit my job waiting tables at the Blue Horse in October. I'd been feeling restless and it seemed like a good opportunity for a change. The Nielson's always requested my section, and they tipped well. They came in on a Saturday night, like usual and I fixed them up at their favorite table. They had two manhattans after dinner, which was unusual. While serving the second round, I overheard them discussing the upcoming move to their condo in Florida for the winter.

I got their local address off the check, and drove by the next week out of idle curiosity. They were gone for the winter. I looked around and found a key inside the gas grill on the back deck. At least it wasn't under the welcome mat like most places. I returned later that afternoon and went in for the first time. I sat in the living room for a couple hours, in the quiet, watching the daylight fade until everything was dark. I quit my job at the restaurant the next day.

I'm still on restaurant time though, up nights wide awake. I finished the coffee, left the paper unopened, and went into the living room. I fell asleep on a white, new-smelling sofa trying to read a book I'd found on the coffee table. A Brief History of Time. I dozed awhile, my chin on my chest, hands holding the open book.

I see myself getting more like my old man that way, taking naps whenever, then up all hours, the light in the study burning ungodly into the early early morning. I never could understand his insomnia, and I understand my own no better. It is like a wall against the world, to stretch out snoring in a La-Z-Boy in the bright afternoon and find yourself up padding around in the stillness of three a.m., wide awake and alone.

I try to picture my father, still wandering from room to room through an empty house at night. I wonder if he thought about us over the twenty years of sleepless nights after we left. My mother left him, and Fargo, and drove us east to Minneapolis. I lay on the back seat and watched miles of headlights and streetlights and billboards play across the roof of the car. Just go to sleep she kept telling me.

The doorbell rang, startling me. I checked myself in the gilded hallway mirror. Earnest, rumpled, calm. It was the neighbors come over to check on things. They'd noticed the car leaving, the lights on. They knew that Dick and Betty were in Florida for the winter, and of course were concerned. A nervous, older couple. Nicely-dressed. I turned on my waiterly charm. Obsequious. They were quite relieved when I told them I was the Nielson's nephew, that I was house-sitting and working on a master's thesis in clinical psychology. I invited them in for a drink, but they declined.

I went back to the paper to read my horoscope. I thought about how people will take an easy lie over a hard truth almost every time. My horoscope said to get a good night's sleep in order to deal with a complex personal matter, and to unclutter your life, dig through storage areas to find unneeded, salable items. Good advice, I thought.

I wandered downstairs to a closet off the finished family room with the big projection TV and the knotty pine wet bar. I rummaged through the mothballed furs and Saks boxes until I found a new VCR, still in the box. A nice one, though not as nice as the two they were using, one upstairs and one down. A tag was taped to the box - Happy Retirement, from the sales staff.

"How thoughtful," I thought.

I carried the box, and the fur upstairs. I disconnected the VCR in the living room, but left the TV. Too much trouble to get into the car. I headed downtown to the pawn shop behind the Greyhound bus depot with the stuff on the front seat beside me.

The man at the pawn shop ran his thick fingers through his thinning hair and squinted at the VCRs as if he'd never seen one before. He looked me over as well, then punched the cash register, took two wrinkled hundreds from under the drawer and put then on the counter. He watched me, one eyebrow raised. I hesitated for a second, looking first at the money, then at the box. I knew they were easily worth twice that.

"Come on. You're breaking my heart," he said.

I picked up the money. He snatched the tag off the box and crumpled it in a big hairy fist and filled out the pawn ticket. He was wearing a gold pinky ring the size of an eyeball. Two hundred dollars and a new pawn ticket in my pocket. I held the door for a tall black man with white hair, cradling a tenor sax in a battered case. I could feel myself getting into the holiday spirit.

It was getting dark already. The streetlights on Lake Street came on like magic as I drove past them. I could feel the two bills folded fat in my pocket. I pushed a button and the power window whirred down, letting fresh air and snowflakes drift in to melt on my cheek, and on the leather upholstery. I had the fur coat draped over the passenger seat like roadkill. It had looked too good for the pawn shop.

A young woman at a crosswalk near the adult bookstore on 3rd Street followed me by with her eyes, hitching her long coat just enough so that I saw a flash of leg. The lights and tinsel were up on the lampposts, the shoppers were out. She was working. I made a left at the corner and came back around the block.

She leaned in the car window, young, bottle blonde, chewing cinnamon gum. She said her name was Annie. I thought I recognized her. She said she remembered me, too.

"You want to party?' she said.

"Tis the season," I replied.

She tossed her stiff, spiky hair, leaned over and brushed a cold wet kiss across my cheek.

"Whose coat?"

"Yours." I said, without thinking. I felt happy. I reached over and opened the door.

"For real?" She walked around and slid into the car. She picked up the coat, held the fur to her cheek and closed her eyes. "Let's go for a ride."

I pulled back into the holiday traffic, down Lake Street to a tree lot at a boarded-up service station. I parked and opened the car door for Annie, and she jumped out laughing, slipping out of her cheap leather jacket and into the fur. She walked over to a bus stop shelter where a middle-aged woman with plastic bread bags sticking out of her boots was huddling, hugging herself. The old woman looked up, startled. Annie handed the woman her old jacket.

She skipped back and looped her arm in mine, looked back and yelled 'Merry Christmas.' I was smiling so hard my face hurt. I paid for a tree and we drove down the snowy street with it sticking out if the trunk.

We stopped at a convenience store and I gave Annie a hundred dollar bill. We strolled through the aisles, laughing and loading up with Christmas lights, candy canes, frozen pizza, and a beer. I could tell Annie was lit on something, but I was sober. On the way back to the house, she leaned against me, making a low humming sound and holding the fur coat around her.

Back at the Nielson's, Annie danced from one room to the next, twirling around, arms out. She stopped to run her fingers lightly across the sofa and the shiny black baby grand piano.

"This place is fucking beautiful," she said.

"Yeah," I said, "I guess it is."

We set the tree up and she decorated it with white lights, candy canes, and later, empty beer cans. It looked great and I told her so. She sat next to me on the sofa. She turned her head and left her eyes open when I moved to kiss her. She took my hand and put it between her legs, like one last decoration. I looked at her, and I watched myself looking at her in the reflection of the big living room windows.

It was still early when I dozed off curled up with Annie under the fur coat on the Nielson's sofa. The room was dark but for the little white lights blinking on the tree that leaned uncomfortably in front of the bay windows. I was dreaming about being in my father's La-Z-Boy, unable to move. My mother was packed and ready to leave. A jingling sound half woke me up. I opened my eyes a squint. Annie was standing there surrounded by a faint flickering light, holding something in her hands.

She bent down and carefully set my pants back on the floor and pulled her sweater over her head. She tossed her hair and looked at me, her head tipped to one side. I closed my eyes and whispered, "You don't have to go." At least I think I did. Or I dreamt that I did. I don't know if she heard me.

She was almost out the door when I sat up.

"Annie. Did you hear me? You don't have to go."

She stood with her hand out toward the doorknob and I could hear the seconds ticking on the clock on the bookshelves behind the piano. She dropped her arm and I heard her sigh.

"This isn't your house, is it?"

"No. Does that matter?"

"It matters if you aren't supposed to be here. It matters if you're some fucking lunatic." She put her hand back on the doorknob.

"Oh." I didn't know what to say. I didn't want her to leave. My hands came up, empty, pleading-like.

"I don't want you to leave," I said, and my hands dropped back to my sides.

"This isn't how it's supposed to work," Annie said.

"I can get more money, if that's what you want. And we don't have to stay here." My right hand came up alone and swooped across the windows. "This means nothing to me."

She looked at me like she was looking at me for the first time ever. Finally she laughed, a loud laugh that echoed like ice cubes in an empty glass. I laughed with her.

"Okay. Sure," she said. "But first I need to go get some cigarettes."

She took the car to the store, and right away the house felt empty. I missed her. I lay down on the sofa and imagined her coming back in from the cold, snowflakes melted on her face, her cheeks flushed and red. I will pretend to be asleep, and she will walk quietly over to the sofa, bend down over me, her face next to mine, her eyelashes lightly brushing my cheek. Angel kisses, my mother called them, and I smile to remember. I smile in anticipation. We will take the car, the credit cards, and drive west. Little white lights blink on the tree, and I close my eyes to wait, to dream of other places, breathing in the evergreen scent of home. I feel myself drifting off, waiting for Annie's return.

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