“Selections from the Phone Book”: A Short Story for Christmas

Abbott, A.  
	Abner is shuffling out to the front porch of his brick mid-century where a row of hanging spider ferns continue to petrify. He notices them just twice a year, on December 24th when he strings bubble lights across them and again on January 2nd when he takes the lights down. By then he’s too tired to do anything about the plants, and the next day he’s forgotten again. The bubble lights are on every hazard list known to man, but Abner doesn’t care. He likes a little risk in life. 

Abbott, A. R.  
	Abatha Rose, no relation to Abner, though she gets a message once a year from Abner’s granddaughter wishing him a merry Christmas. The message comes through on the kitchen phone where Abatha sits working crosswords, but she’s never picked up the phone to correct this mistake, nor has she ever passed the message along to A. Abbott, to whom it clearly belongs. She isn’t responsible for other people’s lack of attention to detail. The past two years, though, she’s left a potted ham on A.’s front porch. Her answering machine has fifteen saved messages, and they all say the same thing. 

Abbott, Jerome. 
	Abner’s brother. His house smells like cedar planks and eggshell coffee. All his life Jerome has been in love with his next-door neighbor, Miss Evelyne Patchett. At fourteen he declared his undying devotion and she laughed at his joking way. Just now, Jerome is making the cranberry sauce for Christmas dinner at Abner’s where, after dinner, the two brothers will make their way out to the porch and watch the neon bubbles ripple upward in never-ending certainty. “Pretty,” he’ll say to Abner like always. “Yep,” Abner will say. Then Jerome will turn the key to his own dark house, remembering all those bubbles floating up in their brief moment of glory. 
        Next door, Evelyne is trotting out that dadgum cardboard snowman with a sign demanding snow when it obviously won’t be coming. If Jerome wasn’t in the habit of being head over heels, that snowman would have done in his affection long ago. 

Appleton, Thomas and Vivian. 
	From up north somewhere. Suet ornaments for the birds in their magnolia are their only Christmas decorations, which is a source of continual puzzlement and conversation for their neighbors. But they understand themselves, so it doesn’t matter.

Ardmore, John P. and Cheryl.
	Moved into the sprawling house at the corner of Little Fox and Peppertree six years ago. Since the arrival of John Jr., 4, and Mary Kate, 3, cheerio fragments crunch under every rug though Cheryl banned the things two years ago. The kids tussle and give tea parties for dragons and the occasional fierce hug. Cheryl and John are quite happy too. Long ago, Cheryl learned the rules of conversation, and those have stood her in good stead. “A conversation is like tennis,” her grandmother told her. “You hit the ball and then they hit the ball and then you hit the ball and so on. The IMPORTANT thing is not to let the ball stop moving.” And Cheryl never does. The ball never stops. Though these days when she serves, she always knows how John will return.
	At this moment, the kids are gluing cotton balls on paper snowmen and each other, and Cheryl has opened the refrigerator to find that the defrosting turkey has leaked all over the carrots. 

Bassett, Bernard. 
	No one is at home because Barney is at his mother’s place, enduring her deconstructed fruitcake party where everyone mills around, spooning candied cherries and sliced almonds onto their plates and trying to avoid Barney’s mother who is wandering around with a bowl of citron. “It’s the cake that makes this unappetizing,” she always says. “On its own it is delightful.” No one thinks this is true. 
	After the party, Barney helps his mother clean up. She’s done a good job with the citron because there isn’t any left. “Now Bernard,” she says, scrubbing away at nothing on a crystal bowl with her Brillo Pad, “I’ve been meaning to talk with you. I’m worried about you.” 
	He wants to dash from the room, but he’s got that annual fruitcake feeling in the pit of his stomach. She turns from the sink, suds dripping from her hands. “You have to make an EFFORT, Bernard. I don’t think you said a word to the Potters, and they have such a nice daughter. There’s only so much I can do for you.” 
	He mumbles something and she turns back to the sink. “Just don’t blame me when you don’t have anyone. I won’t be here forever, you know.” 
	Make an effort. As if were that simple. 
        Back at home, there’s a new phone book on his front stoop and while he’s getting out the scissors to remove the only number that matters, an idea strikes him. If cold calling through the phone book isn’t enough of an effort to get his mother off his back, he doesn’t know what will be. He’ll start with the As and work his way down. 

        When Cheryl tells John what she’s done, he doesn’t answer, just lets the ball bounce out of bounds. It isn’t until after dinner that he speaks. “Is there something you need to tell me, Cheryl? Is there? Because this seems . . . erratic.” 
        “We don’t have a turkey and anyway I don’t want to make a turkey just for us. You don’t like it and the kids don’t like it and I don’t want to eat the whole thing again. So when the man called - his name’s Barnard or something like that - and said there’s a neighborhood gathering, I just - I just want to make my green beans with almonds and show our kids what it’s like to have an extended family.” 
        “But we don’t know these people. We don’t know any of them.” 
        “So then that will be exactly like family. We’re going, John, with or without you.” 
        The next evening when they all pull up to the house with blinking lights draped across the gutter, Cheryl grips the casserole dish. 
        “There might be an axe murderer in there,” she whispers. 
        “Very likely,” says John. “Let’s go home.” 
        Cheryl looks back at the kids in their Christmas clothes. That morning they opened their gifts and played with them for a full fifteen minutes. The day still seems flat, and she slips on her Mistletoe oven gloves. “No, I don’t want to go home. And neither do you. Not unless you want to eat green beans for the next three days.” 
        He grabs the door handle. “Well, it’s been nice knowing you. Kids, should you feel at any moment that you’d like to leave, yell ROSEBUD loud as you can.”
        The front door swings open to a dark wooden room. Barney, their host, introduces them to three old people with the same last name. This was definitely a mistake. Cheryl puts her green beans almondine next to a potted ham, some cranberry sauce, and fruit cocktail in a dusty fluted dish. 
        Barney rings a little bell and the conversation, such as it is, stops. “I just want to say, welcome, everyone. I didn’t know what would happen when I called you all. It’s so easy to be like eggs sitting side by side in a carton, and now here we are, together in one bowl.” 
        “Cracked and scrambled,” whispers John. 
        “So I hope you enjoy this . . . this . . .”
        “Gathering. Or, if you prefer, conglomeration.” It’s the old woman, Abatha, twisting her hands around like she’s nervous. 
        “Exactly. Thank you.” 
        “I like to find the right word for the occasion.” 
        “Sometimes that’s difficult,” says John in full voice, and Cheryl pokes him in the ribs, but the old woman doesn’t seem to care, just says, “Comes from a lifetime of crossword puzzles.” 
        Abatha retreats to the corner with a china dish full of food. She recognized A. Abbott right away from his shadow through the window but it was too late to retreat. That would seem suspicious, to see him and turn tail. How unfortunate, how appalling that he should be here. When she heard a different voice on the machine extending this invitation, she’d picked up at once and that had led her right back to A., or Abner, as she now knows. It was more than improbable. It was fate.
        Abner doesn’t seem to have recognized her, which is fortuitous, but his brother Jerome, very dignified in whiskers, keeps staring at her with a curious expression. She wonders if he suspects about the messages, though that doesn’t seem possible.
       The young wife’s voice carries clear across the room. “Do you have family close by?” She’s talking to Abner and Abatha can’t help herself, she steps closer, picking all the pineapple out of her fruit cocktail.
        “Just him.” Abner points to his brother. Abatha freezes, her fork midair. 
        Jerome strokes his whiskers. “Now that’s not quite true, Abner. There’s Lucy.” Lucy. The name from all those messages. 
        Abner shakes his head. “No other family.”  
        Abatha spends the next few agonizing minutes chasing the last cherry around the plate with her plastic fork. When she finally spears it and looks up, the lines on Abner’s face are so deep she knows there’s not a potted ham in the world that could make up for them. 
So she grabs her green goblet with the spiced cider and advances. 
        “I just want to say – you’re wrong, Abner. You do have Lucy.” 
         A murmur ripples through the room. Even Mary Kate stops playing with all the reindeer she’s collected from around the house. Abatha takes a deep breath. “As soon as she hangs up, I always want to call her back and . . . and rectify the matter, but she doesn’t leave her number. Next year I’ll pick up.  And I’ll get her number to you.” 	
        Abner shakes his head. “I have it. Just figured she could call first.” 
        “You’re an idiot, Abner.” Jerome has eggnog on his whiskers, but he doesn’t look funny. He turns to Abatha.  “I congratulate you. Not many people would face the music like that.” 
        Abatha is searching Abner’s face to see if she’s helped him, but somehow Jerome sweeps her off to the couch before she can reach a conclusion. “You don’t have a snowman on your front yard, do you?” he asks.
        “Why would I have a snowman? We never get snow.” 	
         Jerome sighs and wipes his whiskers with a napkin. “Good. That’s real good. A person of substance.”
          She feels the need for full confession after her fifteen-year hiatus. “Sometimes I put out a poinsettia.” 

        “May I use your phone?” says Abner, hanging onto his plate for dear life. Barney points him to the back, and he’s trying to talk quietly but they can hear him through the thin walls. He can’t even get through “Hi Lucy” before his voice breaks and Barney knows he has to do something. 
        He says the first thing that comes to mind, which wasn’t at all what he’d planned. “Does anyone want to sing?” 
        They all gather around the untuned piano where Barney plunks out carols with one finger, and they’ve just finished Silent Night when Abner comes out, wiping his eyes and trying to hide it. 
         A knock on the door saves everyone from saying anything. 
        It’s that couple from the North, Thomas and Vivian. “We found your message when we got in tonight, and we thought, why not? I’ve brought plum pudding.” Vivian unties a string and the cloth wrapping falls off a moist dome.
         “ROSEBUD,” yells John Jr. 
        “Oh, what a lovely name,” says Vivian, smiling at Mary Kate. 
         No one wants to pull away from the circle of singing, all the old forgotten lines remembered in the company of others, so it’s almost midnight when John and Cheryl gather their children from the snowmen pillows, carrot noses imprinted on their faces. 
         “It was lovely. Transporting, really,” Thomas and Vivian say. “Goodbye, John. Merry Christmas, Rosebud.” 
        Jerome helps Abatha on with her coat. “May I see you home?” he asks. 
        She searches for the right answer. “Yes,” she says when nothing else comes to mind. “I’d like that.” 
        John and Cheryl wave goodbye as best they can with sleeping children in their arms. They drive in silence for a few blocks, and every now and then Cheryl glances back at the kids in their car seats, at the street lamp light sliding over their faces.
        At a red light with no other cars visible in any direction, John reaches for her hand. 
“You’re beautiful.”
         Cheryl doesn’t even try to hit the ball back. Just lets it be. 
         “And that was. . . that was not nearly as bad as it could have been. But don’t test our luck twice. Please, I’m begging you.” 
         She nods, slipping a hand through his arm. 
         At home they tuck the kids in under twinkle lights, and they’re tied at love all. 

          Barney sets the last dish on the draining board. That went well, he thinks. Really unbelievably well. Though never again. One of those people could have been an axe murderer, something he’d only thought of when the first set of headlights swung into his driveway. 	
         He sweeps green beans from under the couch, wipes off the buffet, straightens all the pillows, blows out the candles. And still the phone book waits. Finally he stalks over to it and flips to the page where each year he cuts out the slim rectangle of a name and number. This time, he dials it instead, cradling the receiver under his chin. Those dishes are begging to be put away, so don’t pick up. Don’t pick up. Lights on his ceramic tree blaze in all the blurry colors.  
         “It’s me,” he says when she answers, because of course she does. She always dashes to the phone when it rings. “Baby, it’s me.” 



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