The Wedding Bed
  The Marriage Bed
Fiction by Elaine Ford
 
  A Sense of Morality
  Wasps in a Bottle
  Rita Lafferty’s Lucky Summer
•  Birthing    
  Ship Street
  Nerve-Wrackin Christmas
  Original Brasses, Fine Patina
 
About the Author   |   Family-Based Historical Fiction  |   echapbook.com  
November 2015 fiction issue 

Nerve-Wrackin Christmas

Naomi watched her brother maneuvering Marilyn out of the display window, easing his skinny rear end past a jumble of mini-spotlights and a pyramid of TVs playing Some Like It Hot. Dixieland jazz rattled from every set. Suddenly Naomi realized that an extension cord threatened to tangle itself around Soren’s leg. “Hold it,” she said. She reached over to yank the cord out of its socket, and the cord snapped in her hand, stunning her with a bolt of electricity. Naomi staggered backward. Her ring glowed, on fire, and she flung it off onto the carpet.

Soren crouched in the window, Marilyn’s torso in his arms, her plastic limbs splayed beneath a dusty cellophane gown. “Yikes,” he said. “Look at your hand.” It was scorched black. “Should I call 911?” he asked, clambering down from the window.

“I guess there isn’t much point,” Naomi replied, “since I seem to have survived.” A blister had begun to rise on her finger where the ring had been. Warily, in case it might still harbor a charge, she picked the ring up from the floor.

“It’s melted,” Soren said in awe. In fact, the ring, a silver band engraved with ivy leaves that were supposed to represent eternal faithfulness, or something like that, looked as if it had been ground briefly in a Disposal—misshapen, chewed at the edges. “Didn’t Gary give you that ring?”

“You know perfectly well Gary gave me that ring.”

“It’s a sign,” Soren pronounced. Her brother, who cultivated a cadaverous New York look and bristled with piercings here and there, was home in Annapolis between semesters at photography school, annoying their parents and Naomi’s boyfriend and making a general pest of himself. To assuage his ennui he’d volunteered to create a new outfit for Marilyn, the signature centerpiece of the store’s display window.

“You wish,” Naomi replied. “Luckily, however, this isn’t the Old Testament.”

She went to the bathroom in back to scrub the scorch marks off, without a lot of success. The welt on her finger hurt more now. In a few minutes she heard Soren hauling Marilyn out the door, her limbs colliding with the jamb, the bell clanging feverishly. “Ciao,” he yelled. When Naomi returned to the front a customer came in and began to peruse the film noir videos. She slipped the ring into a drawer behind the counter.

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Gary took one look at the Classical section and groaned. Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Beethoven category, Prokofiev mixed up with Puccini, the whole scene total chaos. He hated Christmas, which every year drove hordes of jerks to rifle through the CDs in a frenzy. Bad enough what they did to Country & Western, and to R&B and Soul, but Classical was always the worst. Those heads-in-the-clouds types couldn’t even get it together enough to focus on the goddamn alphabet.

His feet were sore, his neck had a crick in it, the inane music blaring from the speakers was driving him nuts. While he straightened the racks Gary thought about how the landlord had just jacked up the rent on his condo, as good as wiping out the raise he’d received when promoted to assistant manager. Some promotion. All it meant was more problems dumped in your lap from both ends of the hierarchy.

Gary thought about the crumbling exhaust system on the Taurus—the car sounded like a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, only without the muscle. Somehow he was going to have to find the money to replace the exhaust. Face it, the whole damn car was falling apart chunk by chunk.

Moving Menotti’s one-act operas out of the Mendelssohn slot, he thought about the phone calls from his mom out in Waukesha. Why can’t you and Naomi come for Christmas? Surely you can take a few days off.

 Mom, listen to me. Tower Records never shuts down. It’s like a hospital. Or the Army.

Gary did not have the guts to admit to his mother, who had trouble grasping the fine points of his relationship with Naomi, that his job wasn’t the sole reason he couldn’t go home for Christmas. “Waukesha?” Naomi had said, laughing, like he was proposing a jaunt down the Zambezi in a dugout. So he’d abandoned that idea. No way was he about to hand that brother of hers any more ammunition: Nyah, nyah, mama’s boy, pushing-thirty mama’s boy. Seemed like the kid was always underfoot, dropping by to sneer at Gary’s collection of Dallas Cowboys souvenirs while deigning to drink Gary’s beer, and Naomi did nothing to discourage the obnoxious brat.

Gary went to the back of the store, popped Nerve-Wrackin Christmas, Vol. 2 out of the CD player, and buried it in the trash barrel among a heap of Styrofoam peanuts.

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On Sunday Naomi and her brother met for brunch at McGarvey’s, down by the waterfront. Nearly drowned out by the clatter of talk and clanking of silverware, Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas. Fat chance. In this town a chilly drizzle was the best you could expect.

Investigating the construction of his tofu and artichoke lasagna, Soren asked, “So what did Gary say when you told him about the ring?” Soren was wearing a skimpy black suit jacket, a recent find at Junque Boutique, over a white T-shirt.

“I didn’t.”

“He didn’t notice your hand?”

“He noticed, all right. He gave me a lecture about the perils of antiquated wiring and the folly of trusting predacious landlords.” She cut a fried oyster in half.

“Neither of which has one iota to do with the extension cord.”

“But it was sweet of him to be so concerned.”

“Uh-huh.”

Pensively Naomi chewed her oyster. “What kind of bugged me, though, was his assumption that the whole episode was somehow my fault.”

His brows raised, Soren speared a mushroom. Just behind him, a waitress was shoving through the crowd at the bar, a tray of beer glasses balanced high above her head.

“My fault and yours, that is.”

“Mine?” he croaked. “Precisely how did he arrive at that conclusion?”

“You were there, weren’t you?”

“Geez, even my powers don’t include zapping people with lightning bolts.”

Naomi wasn’t so sure about that, though Soren’s methods of manipulation were usually more subtle.

“But somebody may be trying to tell you something,” Soren went on. “Encouraging you to give this Gary thing a second thought.”

This Gary thing. Naomi remembered last summer’s trip to Quebec in the old Taurus, and their coming upon the ring in that charming shop in the Quartier Petit-Champlain, and Gary’s endearingly hopeless attempts to speak French to the proprietor. What fun they’d had. They seemed so right for each other, both connected with the arts, sort of, both partial to Ben & Jerry’s Aloha Macadamia ice cream. The trip was before she moved into Gary’s condo, before she became aware of his odd little habits, like cutting cents-off coupons out of the Sunday paper before reading even the sports section, or asking guests to remove their shoes before approaching the wall-to-wall carpeting. Then there was all the time he spent on the phone with his bossy mother. “Give it a rest, Soren.”

“You don’t have to bite my head off.”

“I happen to love Gary.”

“Okay, okay. A chacun son goût.”

To accompany his lasagna Soren had ordered a champagne cocktail—a drink that seemed to be currently fashionable in his set, the result of spending too much time watching old Charles Boyer movies—which was no doubt, Naomi thought, going to wind up on her credit card.

“Anyhow, why didn’t you tell him what happened to the ring?” he asked.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even Gary would be upset at the symbolism, although there isn’t any.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I told him I left the ring in the shop, on account of the blister on my finger.”

“He bought that?”

“Temporarily. But sooner or later I’m going to have to explain why I’m not wearing it.”

Soren grinned. “It could happen to fall down a grate. You could arrange for the store to be broken into and selected valuable items stolen. You could fly to Aruba on a package holiday and meet a guy who isn’t a penny-pinching, judgmental, anal stick-in-the mud, like some we might mention.”

“All those ideas are really cool, Soren. I’m so grateful for your advice.”

Soren signaled the waitress to bring him another champagne cocktail.

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In bed Gary held Naomi’s hand, reassuring himself that the burn blister was pretty well healed, but aware of the absence of the silver ring. He decided he wasn’t going to say a word about it, let her be the one to bring the subject up.

She snuffled in her sleep and turned over, her hand slipping from his. The bedroom was nearly dark, lit only by the glow of the streetlight seeping around the edges of the mini-blinds. He could just make out the mushroom shape of the Tiffany lamp on her dresser and the pile of her clothes tossed sloppily over a chair. The heap looked like a drunken body or a corpse. Naomi never hung up her clothes when she took them off and then wondered why she was always having to pay the cleaner outrageous prices to have them pressed, which wouldn’t be so bad if her shop was actually making a profit. He hadn’t lived with a girl before, not even a sister, so he had no one to compare her behavior to—except his mother, and Naomi wasn’t a bit like his mother.

He loved Naomi, he was pretty sure he did, but he wished she’d be more responsible about things. Keep her wits about her, as his mom would say. Naomi’s whole family was kind of dizzy when you came down to it. Her old man, a disheveled philosophy professor who tormented the cat and any visitors by playing Hindemith on a viola, would never have been able to support a family—let alone afford that house on Duke of Gloucester Street—if money hadn’t been trickling down from some ancestral source that no one, including Naomi, ever mentioned. Not a lot of dough, just enough to insulate the family from harsh reality. Naomi’s mother dabbled in useless things like origami and yoga and book discussion groups, and her brother… Gary wasn’t even going to begin thinking about that little shithead or his adrenaline would start to flow, and he had to get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be another harrowing day. Unlike Naomi, he didn’t have the luxury of being able to show up for work an hour late and barely conscious—or not at all, as the spirit moved her.

But the more he lay there, worrying about how exhausted he was going to be in the morning, the more agitated and wakeful Gary became. All at once it occurred to him that maybe Naomi wasn’t just being careless or forgetful, leaving the ring in her odds-and-ends drawer at the shop. What if her failure to put it on again was a big fat hint that up to now he had missed? Supposing she wasn’t willing to settle for a modestly priced silver pre-engagement ring (bought with Canadian dollars) anymore? Supposing she expected the real thing, and not from Kwality Discount Jeweler’s, either? He’d seen the hunk of ice her girlfriend Claire was sporting. How was he going to afford a ring like that, even on E-Z credit?

Gary got out of bed, made himself a peanut butter sandwich, and turned on the TV in the living room. He watched a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movie, which was set in Budapest for some reason,until he fell asleep in his chair.

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It might not be such a bad idea, Naomi thought, to have the ring mysteriously disappear, down a grate or wherever. A ring is only a material object, and whatever symbolic or sentimental meaning it carries can easily be reassigned, if necessary. Moreover, something about the damaged ring nagged at her. All week, every time Naomi opened the drawer to retrieve a pen or a Post-it, the sight of the ring gave her a queasy feeling deep in her gut, reminding her of the unpleasant surprise of the electric jolt, the reflexive way she’d flung the ring away from her, the lingering smell of scorched skin and metal. Not that she was superstitious, she told herself. Not that she believed for one second that what had happened was an omen, in spite of what Soren had said, in spite of Soren’s uncanny way of being right about things like that.

Although the shop was busier than usual, customers picking up crime and action movies to see them through the Christmas festivities, she couldn’t get the ring out of her mind. Her thumb kept feeling out the slightly sensitive place on her finger where it had been.

During a lull, shortly after two, Naomi put the ring into her coat pocket. She locked up, pointing the hands of the cardboard “I shall return” clock to 2:30. Past the display window with the newly gowned and coifed Marilyn she walked, past the antique shop that specialized in marine artifacts, and the Persian rug store, and the café that played Paul Winter in unending loops, around the corner to Prince George Street. At the end of the block she crossed College Avenue and entered the campus, empty at this time of year. Dead grass under her feet crunched with frost. Behind abandoned classroom buildings and dormitories the ground sloped down to soggy brown athletic fields and then to the river. Her boots were getting muddy, sinking into the turf.

At the river’s edge, Naomi took the ring out of her pocket and, without pausing for even a moment’s reflection, threw it high over the water. She waited for the plink but never heard it. Perhaps, she thought, the ring didn’t fall at all, but instead was sailing toward the moon or a distant star—propelled by some force from inside herself, miraculously whole again, but no longer hers.

Naomi felt so happy, so downright ecstatic, that when Gary came around to the shop in the late afternoon bearing a small white velvet box, she just shook her head no. They went to McGarvey’s to celebrate.

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  © Elaine Ford, 2015
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