The First December
August 1988

“The First December,” New Era, Aug. 1988, 46

The First December

First-Place Fiction

Paula’s world would never be the same. But there was one thing that divorce couldn’t take away.

Paula Reed had told herself that she was just another passenger as she boarded the bus and squeezed into a window seat. Just another college freshman, anonymous as the snow-covered fields and opaque sky that seemed to hold the bus in limbo, though she heard the wheels skimming over the wet freeway.

Only an occasional glance at her slender gold wristwatch told her that the miles were slipping by. And she looked at the bright digital numbers only in response to the anxious query of the elderly woman seated beside her as she hurriedly crocheted one last baby bootee for the family she was visiting this Christmas.

“Takes me months to get ready for the holidays, you know,” she sighed happily in between stitches. “I have 36 grandchildren. And then there’s the birthdays!

At first Paula had followed the work of her plump fingers, noting that one of them bore a dull silver wedding band. Then the woman had glanced at her questioningly, and she turned a hot cheek to the window.

A nagging weariness eventually stung Paula’s eyes so that she closed them gratefully. Her secretarial job and a heavy load of classes had kept her mind occupied until now, though she was never able to push her parents’ divorce to a completely comfortable distance. Huddling deeper into the folds of her parka, Paula realized how unprepared she was to even contemplate her last phone call to Dad without opening her eyes to a burning stare.

“Dad? This is Paula.”

The long silence on the other end of the line had been broken too heartily as he answered, “Well, how are you doing?”

He tried to speak matter-of-factly, as if he took it for granted that she planned to spend the Christmas holidays in Virginia with her mother and 16-year-old Jeffrey. Paula had finally broken through the strained overtones of his monologue, surprising even herself by saying, “Dad, I want to come home for Christmas—please.”

At first he had protested that his celebration would be “minimal” because of the new print shop opening in Brookside. Yet it was the awkward silence with which her father accepted her decision that rang tauntingly through Paula’s mind, surrounding even the pleasant memories with reverberating pain.

A quivering hand patted her sleeve again and Paula checked her watch mechanically, before the woman could complete an inquiry. It was well past four o’clock. Centerville was less than an hour away.

Frowning ruefully at the nervous anticipation that knotted her stomach, Paula slipped a paperback volume of Don Quixote from her travel bag, then leaned forward slightly, into a comfortably studious pose. She stared at the pages in an effort to read thoughtfully, but wryly recalled a resolution to finish the book by the end of the year.

At one time an efficient daily planner had been the only key to her unruffled composure, but now she found herself measuring all that others did not perceive. As she considered the changes brought on by the past eight months, Paula felt her face settle into a rigid mask.

She tried to recall the expression on her father’s face when she received notice of her academic scholarship to Eastwood College nearly a year ago. Just before supper she had shown him the letter; it was the last time she saw his heavy black brows lift with a smile as he waltzed her around the dining room table, their laughter spilling a bit of chaos around the immaculate room.

They had not noticed her mother’s straight-lipped smile until their excitement subsided into the tense pause that sometimes preceded family prayer and the blessing of the food.

While she pretended to discern the scenes that passed beyond the steaming window, Paula questioned herself mercilessly as to why she had blithely over-looked those silences, the hollow exchanges that must have passed between her parents for months before they quietly announced their pending separation. Her few close friends had envied the relationship she shared with her father and brother. Jeff, though, had seen the break coming, or so he told her later, his dark eyes narrowing with unfamiliar accusation.

Paula had promised herself that she would never reflect on the delicate spring afternoon that had suddenly gone cold as her parents sat, waiting for responses, in the heavily shaded living room. Yet her own determination could not withstand the shock of it all; the image of her father’s trembling face remained trapped in her thoughts, alien and struggling for release. She had never seen him so uncertain before, yet when she felt his eyes searching her face, finding nothing, and searching again at another unexpected moment, Paula knew that her own expression closed abruptly. Her mother seemed less complex, isolated somehow in her discreet coolness. Paula’s graduation and the first weeks of summer were a blur of smiles and poses that she quickly assumed just to cope, while the divorce proceedings were being finalized.

It was all a hopeless masquerade, she concluded, as her finger traced an aimless design on the foggy window and the book slid shut in her lap. She could never know how long her family had sat together in church as shells of what they felt and understood; for a time it did not matter that they moved and spoke on the most fragile of surfaces.

Paula dropped her hand with a sigh. Perhaps Jeff was the most honest about the situation after all. During those last months she had dimly observed his struggles while his grades dropped and he stopped attending church meetings. Then the confrontations began, and she rehearsed his quarrels with Dad until the ache in her throat became unbearable. It was a relief to gather the travel bag and pillows into her lap when the bus pulled into the parking lot of the old Bluebird Motel and Cafe.

Christmas carols drifted fuzzily from the outdated speaker that Mattie Hall always placed above the front door of the lobby; the same rotund Santa beamed in red and white neon from a side window as Paula emerged in the cold gray air and inhaled deeply.

The sky had darkened by the time the family station wagon pulled up to the curb. Paula moved forward hesitantly as her father slid out of the driver’s seat and greeted her with a brief squeeze around the shoulders.

“I see you made it all right,” he said, more softly than usual, as he loaded her suitcases into the backseat. “I heard that a storm was coming in.”

“It was a long ride,” Paula answered, fingering the white fur of her mittens. “But you know the bus. It always comes through. Even when it’s loaded with grandmothers and college freshmen.”

She had hoped that he would laugh at that, but nothing more was said during the two miles home.

Only the headlights penetrated the dark quiet of the front yard as the car swung into the driveway. After her long absence, Paula allowed her eyes to seek mutely for familiar things—the rope swing, her mother’s rock garden, and the cluster of aspens where Jeff used to string lights to form a Christmas star each December. Daylight had faded completely, however, softening distinct forms with shadows and mounds of half-melted snow. The aspens laced black and silver above her head as she stood shivering on the lawn. Dad’s boots cracked an icy puddle as he approached the front door and she turned to follow him, noticing how the porch light accentuated the harsh new lines between his brows and on either side of his mouth.

He opened the door abruptly, causing Paula to catch her breath in a wave of cold blackness.

“I haven’t been home since yesterday morning. Sorry it’s so cold in here.”

“But where … ?” Paula’s question echoed away as her father hurried into the living room to build a fire.

“The new office in Brookside. I told you about it over the phone, remember? We’re doing good business there, but some equipment malfunctioned and I had to get it fixed on the button. Christmas rush, you know.”

The kindling began to snap softly, and he carefully added two logs to the blaze. They remained motionless in the frail warmth for a moment, watching the firelight play over the sooty hearth. When they removed their coats, Paula noted a slight lag and heaviness in his posture. His mouth drew down to one side self-consciously.

“I haven’t played much raquetball since my partner quit town.”

“What about Bobby Benson down the street?” Paula asked brightly, glad for a chance at conversation.

Dad shot her a cautious glance.

“I haven’t seen much of the boys since I asked to be released from the Young Men presidency.”

Paula turned away from the sight of his large slender hands smoothing the varnished surface of the baby grand piano. Last year the rowdy laughter of teenage boys—and Dad had laughed like a boy—dispelled the emptiness of this room as they played football together in the backyard. After an hour they had gulped root beer floats enthusiastically—even when he announced that they weren’t leaving behind a mess for her mother to clean up.

A curious anticipation enveloped Paula as she sifted idly through a stack of sheet music. The front window lacked a Christmas tree, and there was no porcelain Nativity set to arrange. Yet it was not the lack of festivity that teased her spirits.

Paula sat down at the piano without speaking. Dad’s hand dropped to his side as she painstakingly chorded the first measures of “Silent Night.”

Then, visualizing the ease with which her mother had filled the room with music, Paula played more softly until she stopped mid-phrase. She had not heard her father move in front of the fireplace where he stooped, hands clasped over his knees, as if he were listening to another late evening.

Suddenly, Paula felt smothered by the impact of undiscriminating change; she stared hotly at his profile as the hymnbook slapped the keyboard.


She became vaguely aware of the unsteady hands cupping her shoulders.

“I guess I forgot—the piano will be gone in a few days. Your mother wants it, now that she’s found a bigger place—”

Paula waited intently, with her eyes straight ahead, as he looked down at her, then away, then back again. He sank down beside her, sighing, and said, “How about a cup of hot chocolate—or something to eat? It’s early yet, but you look tired.”

Almost against her will, Paula flung herself from the piano bench, took a deep breath and shouted, “You won’t tell me anything, will you? I’ve never understood anything since it—since Mom left. Jeff blamed me for not knowing. What am I supposed to do?”

She paused for a moment, instantly regretting her words.

“I know, Paula. I’m sorry.”

Dad sat down in his recliner, his expression dulled by the slanting shadows. When his fingers pressed tightly together, she realized, incredulously, that he had nothing more to say.

Hours must have passed, but Paula had seen only the rectangular light of her digital clock shift occasionally in the darkness. At one time she heard the soft rush of sleet against her window, but now the house and the wind settled into complete stillness.

Lying warm in her narrow bed, she could not help but relax in the subtle comfort of old books and pictures, the dusty gleam of her cherry-wood desk. Her bedroom afforded pleasantly dreamlike memories of hours spent reading or playing her guitar, conversations with Dad or her brother. With the remembering came a yearning to reach back, back—to restrain a passing innocence or a transient moment that could only be cupped in reverent hands. For the first time in weeks, Paula gave way to quiet prayer, her fingers clenching until they throbbed and trembled against her wet cheeks.

She did not know when she awoke to see her father bent over the bedside lamp, his hand poised on the tiny gold switch. As she sat up sleepily, Paula saw that the sagging vulnerability had eased from his face. He was looking at a miniature gilt music box that she always kept on the dresser, perfectly positioned on a round mirror.

“I’m sorry—about tonight.” Her hands brushed slightly to one side.

“I thought you’d gone to sleep …”

His voice deepened, then trailed off as he sat down on the rumpled bedspread. After a moment his eyes lifted to meet hers.

“I know you want to understand—you’ve put your whole mind to it.”

His gaze wandered over the pastel wallpaper and the grayish Priscilla curtains until it returned to her, helplessly.

The pain came to her again as she watched him. Then she remembered how emptily her thoughts had recaptured moments such as this and she settled back, waiting patiently, as her father studied his hands.

“I wish I could explain,” he continued at last. “But there is something that I can’t …”

He lifted his chin abruptly, then carefully picked up the music box. Paula watched, wonderingly, as he balanced it in his fingertips.

“You bought it for me in England, remember? The Christmas I was seven.”

She was surprised at his quiet smile that came with the words.

“You were frightened, almost, to keep such a thing. Then you made me tell you—over and over again—how I asked the tough little Scottish shopkeeper to find something for a ’brown-eyed bonnie lass,’ so that it would be just the right thing.”

Paula’s lips parted numbly as he placed the music box in her hand. She wound it up thoughtfully, then tilted her head to one side as they listened to the sparkling melody.

“There was no one quite like your dad then, was there?” He chuckled tightly and stared at the fringe of the matted rug. “I could do it all perfectly when it was near impossible for anyone else to even try. Makes a fellow feel pretty good …”

His eyes grew wet as he squeezed her hand.

“But sometimes it—can’t be—much as I try, or you. Sooner or later you have to see things differently. But you learn.” He nodded, musingly. “You’ll learn.”

He crossed the room and raised the window shade, staring into the darkness with slightly drawn brows. Paula felt for her robe, the fabric gradually warming as she went to his side.

“I love you, Dad,” she whispered.

The moon became a diffused glow, riding high beyond the cold glass. Something in her heart drew inward—his features looked suddenly worn, and he drew her closer. Her world would never again be the simple, secure place it had once seemed. But she knew that in spite of all they had lost, their love, at least, would endure. Huddled together, they peered out, apart from the fog-heavy night.

Illustrated by Scott Snow