The Carolers

A Short Story

Mitchell could hear the bells down the street. He sat on the white sofa with a drink in his hand, staring at the upholstered arm and the damp ring left by the condensation on the glass. A plate of half-eaten pie rested on the coffee table in front of him, the whipped cream beginning to pool and turn the crust soggy. His tie was loosened, the top two buttons of his dress shirt undone. Thin black dress socks did little to warm his feet. He considered switching on the gas fireplace, but doing so required going down to the basement – still full of moving boxes – and opening the gas valve. He didn’t like going down there if he didn’t have to, didn’t like looking upon the mess. Instead, he sipped his drink while the index finger of his free hand traced the wet circle on the sofa’s arm, and outside the church bells continued ringing.

The television was muted. Eerily silent Claymation figures twitched and wobbled through a winter wonderland. Mitchell recognized it as one of the holiday specials he watched as a child, but he couldn’t remember its title. He craned his neck to look through the window behind him. No snow yet. Earlier in the day, the weather app on his phone had indicated a fifty percent chance of flurries. Wouldn’t that be something? Mitchell had thought to himself. Then he had said the same out loud to Lucy as they drove back to his house. “Wouldn’t that be something, honey? A white Christmas.” But Lucy only rolled her eyes away from him and gazed wearily out the passenger window of the car.

Mitchell continued undaunted. “I remember it happened when I was a kid. Not sure what age I was. Couple years older than you, I think. Maybe it was ’89 or ’90. Not a lot of snow back then, either, but every once in a while. That Christmas, we got some. A white Christmas! It was…” He considered the image for a moment. The memory felt like an item in an antique store, dusty and long-ago disregarded, but perhaps still useful. “Perfect,” he concluded.

“Mm hmm” was Lucy’s response.

Mitchell grinned, then began to intone the first lines of the song in his best Bing Crosby. Lucy didn’t look at him, but he thought maybe through the dark strands of hair curtaining her face he saw the corner of her mouth lift. He kept going, but after “sleigh bells in the snow” he realized he couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics. Something about Christmas cards, he thought, but, sure enough, he butchered it, failing to find the rhyme.

“Dad!” Lucy snapped. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Just stop.”

Looking out on the cul-de-sac from where he now slouched on the sofa, with a vague sense of disappointment Mitchell realized his surroundings didn’t rise to the level of Bing Crosby’s pastoral blessing. It was pretty, of course, but nothing even close to glistening treetops and snowy lanes. The yards were clear, save for the inflatable figures positioned on his neighbor’s front lawn. The big house across the cul-de-sac had spelled out “Merry & Bright” in white holiday lights on the small hill at the edge of their property. All the front windows of the houses were adorned with green wreaths and big red bows, including Mitchell’s house. Only a couple days after moving in, he’d been irked to learn this was a tradition by way of a handwritten note in his mailbox. It wasn’t an HOA thing, the note informed him. Just a pact between everyone on this particular street. By then, however, the retail websites showed “out of stock,” and all the home goods and home improvement stores were mostly picked clean. He’d had to drive to four different places, a couple on the other side of town, just to find enough similar-looking wreaths to cover his windows. All this had left a salty taste in his mouth. All the same, though, he had figured that while he was at it he should probably pick out a tree. It seemed everyone else’s house had one sparkling in their front picture windows. He also grabbed a couple strings of whatever color of lights were left.

In spite of his irritation, the more items Mitchell collected, the stronger the urge came to indulge a sense of holiday nostalgia. He was getting into it, he couldn’t deny. It felt awkward at first, after such a harrowing year, to take pleasure in something so seemingly jejune. But as he drove home from the last store, the backseat of his Audi crammed with decorations and a boxed, six-foot artificial tree, he found himself humming the schmaltzy Christmas Muzak that had trickled from the stores’ speakers. After a few minutes of this, he searched for a holiday station on the satellite radio, hoping to hear the classic, syrupy strains of Burl Ives or Andy Williams. He found, to his disappointment, that the station’s programming was a more bombastic mix of Mariah Carey, The Jonas Brothers, and someone named Ne-Yo. He switched it off, but, still reveling in sentimentality, he tapped his smartphone. The ringing came through the car’s speaker system. Then Marnie picked up.

“Hello, Mitchell.”

“Hey, um…” he started, then found he needed a few seconds to translate his impulsive thought to actual words.

“What do you need?” Her voice was wary and tightly wound.

“I was just thinking– maybe, I dunno, just about what you mentioned back in October– you know, at the arbitrator’s office, you’d said maybe, I mean, if she wanted to–” He took a deep breath and decided to just pull the trigger. “Maybe Lucy could spend this Christmas with me?”

Anxious hesitation on the other end. Then Marnie said, “Are you even all the way moved in?” Her words were thickly coated in incredulity.

“Yeah, no,” Mitchell replied. “I mean, yeah, totally. I’m, you know, all unpacked. Good to go.”

“Really? It’s not just a forest of moving boxes and dry-cleaning you haven’t put away?”

Mitchell felt heat in his ears. He ground his molars, but kept his voice in check. “No, Marn. The boxes are all unpacked. I’ve got her room all ready, too. Even got a Christmas tree.”

“You’re kidding. When did you have time to do all that?”

Mitchell passed on several snide remarks before replying. “Nights and weekends. I just wanted to get settled, that’s all.”

There was a long, dithering sigh on the other end of the line. Mitchell faintly heard another voice in the background, and Marnie’s strained words – likely the receiver was momentarily covered. Then she was back. “Well, I’m not sure. She’s been an absolute pill lately. She completely ignores Mark’s daughters, and she’s refusing to come with us to his parents up in Durham. It’s an annual thing, but obviously this would be our first time. I’m embarrassed to bring her, frankly, and expose his family to whatever horrible phase this is.” She sighed again, and Mitchell could almost hear the conflict clattering in her mind. “This holiday’s going to be difficult enough. I don’t know… Everything’s so different. She’s different.”

The heat drained from Mitchell’s face. He unclenched his jaw. “Marion,” he said softly. “It’s fine. It’ll be fine. Let me.”

Immediately after the call ended, Mitchell veered into the left lane, pulled a u-turn, and screeched into the parking lot of a Bed, Bath, & Beyond. He wasn’t sure if there was room in the Audi for curtains, sheets, pillows, a comforter, and whatever else Lucy’s room still needed, but he was determined to make things fit.

The last chime of the church bells faded into the night. Mitchell took another sip of his drink and then set it down next to the half-eaten gingerbread pie on the coffee table. He had been exceedingly impressed with himself for making the dessert, excited to tell Lucy that the recipe was her great-grandmother’s, that his mother had taught him how to make it and he’d grown up eating it every Christmas (until Marnie’s lactose intolerance forced it off their holiday menus). But Lucy hadn’t touched her slice. When he tried to cajole her – “C’mon, you hardly ate any dinner” – she had begrudgingly severed a minuscule bit of the tip and slipped it between her lips with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old eating lima beans. Then she had asked to be excused.

Mitchell stood up from the couch and rounded the coffee table to the tree. His sock feet were unsteady on the slick wooden floor. He still needed to purchase a few rugs for the place. The tree was the pre-lit kind with fake snow on the tips of the branches, some kind of solvent stuff. In setting it up, Mitchell had become aware of the fact that Marnie still possessed all the ornament boxes, including the ones he’d inherited from his parents. He thought about calling her back or even stopping by Mark’s house to pick them up, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He’d told her the tree was already set up. Calling her back would raise suspicion, and he refused to give her fresh reasons to doubt him.

He bent down and checked the wrapped presents at the foot of the tree. There were only three – a couple things for Lucy he’d found on Amazon, and, so he had something to open as well, the gift his sales team had given him last week. A small, square box, just the right size and weight to be a coffee mug. Mitchell was almost certain that inside there would be a “We Appreciate You” note and a gift card to a Brazilian steakhouse or something for which they all obligatorily pitched in. It was pretty much the same every year. He stared at the presents. They looked pathetic – just three little boxes sitting alone under a impetuously purchased artificial tree. Mitchell furrowed his brow, trying to envision what tomorrow morning might be like. He’d never spent a Christmas without either his parents or his wife. Marnie was right. It was different. He tried to picture previous Christmases when the three of them were together, but the only memories that came to mind were the weird ones when he’d pushed them to spend in impressive vacation spots like Cabo or Bermuda. Mitchell closed his eyes and thought back farther. After a few seconds, he seized on the image of a tiny Lucy thundering down the stairs. He recalled the dolphin-like squeaks of excitement she used to elicit at the sight of a cluster of presents and a full stocking. Hard to imagine the same girl was now upstairs in her room just–

Stockings!

Mitchell gritted his teeth. He’d forgotten to hang a stocking for her. He punched the floor, feeling a sudden, annoying thickness in his throat. The stockings – the fancy, monogrammed ones – were also with Marnie. Everything was! How was he supposed to recreate it all? All the little details. What the hell had come over him? He’d told himself he was being spontaneous, going with the flow of the holiday season. He was trying to facilitate goodness and cheer and all the stuff one was expected to embrace. Most of all, he was making a real attempt at togetherness. After a year defined by separation and a lack of contact, of arbitration offices and scrupulous custody agreements, was this not commendable? Why, then, wasn’t it going well? Kneeling before the undecorated tree next to a pathetic trio of gifts, he began to view his spontaneity as actually just ignorant recklessness. He wasn’t prepared. Not at all.

He thought of Lucy up in her room, sitting on the polka-dot comforter next to a pair of pink curtains – the colors he had hastily selected from the store. Only after following Lucy into the room, setting down her suitcase, and seeing her confused expression had Mitchell realized he’d shopped with a three-year-old in mind, not a sixteen-year-old who hadn’t worn frilly princess dresses or cute, embroidered jumpers for years. How had he overlooked this?

Then there was their meal – turkey breasts baked with gold potatoes, carrots, and leeks. A mixed green salad. A loaf of French bread with butter. Lucy had eaten a few bites of salad, hardly touched the rest. Mitchell thought of the candles he’d lit, and the new silverware and dinner plates. But then he recalled the lack of a tablecloth and the fact that they’d had to use paper towels because he’d forgotten to buy napkins. It had seemed to him, in the moment, that the details were indelibly necessary. From the moment he’d gotten off the phone with Marnie, he’d scrambled to check every box. But no matter how much work he put in, how thorough he had endeavored to be, gaps remained. A home goods store sold-out of Christmas wreaths. Botching the words to a song he’d heard a thousand times before. These were gashes in the portrait he was desperate to paint.

Mitchell felt the heat rise in his ears. It wasn’t anger coming to a simmer inside him, but something else. Shame. Exasperation. Or maybe, more accurately, it was a sense of powerlessness, like receiving an indecipherable IRS notice in the mail, or when the electricity cuts out during a thunderstorm. There was no reversing things. No exculpation. He had tried his best, but his best simply wasn’t enough. A chill pricked the back of his neck. His fingers touched cold perspiration.

Marnie used to tell him that he wasn’t attentive. That he flew through life at thirty-thousand feet. That he refused to bring his head out of the clouds and actually connect with her. Mitchell always hated to hear her say it, always had a comeback cued up when he suspected the argument was turning down that path. But as those accusations came to mind now, none of his rebuttals seemed as shrewdly astute as he once considered them. He felt the heat rush from his ears into his cheeks. Thickness returned to his throat.

Defiantly, Mitchell cleared his throat and stood up. He walked across the living room toward the foot of the stairs. Outside, his own red and green Christmas lights, tacked around his front door and draped under the eaves, twinkled and jittered in the night breeze. A car pulled slowly into the cul-de-sac, as if taking in each house. Probably some carefree, happy family taking in the neighborhood decorations, Mitchell thought. He turned away from the window and looked up into the bare upstairs hallways.

“Hey, Lucy!”

There was no answer. He waited a few moments, then called again, careful to keep the timbre of desperation out of his voice.

He heard the door open, and a sense of relief engulfed his body. Lucy came to the top of the stairs. He saw she had changed her clothes. Her jeans were heavily frayed at the knees. A snug, purple sweater exposed her midriff. Her dark hair was down and straightened. There was even more makeup on her face. She was carrying her coat.

Mitchell’s face fell. “What are you doing?”

Lucy descended the stairs. “Going to a party.”

“A party? What party? What’re you talking about?”

Lucy exhaled deeply and slid past him at the bottom of the stairs. “Don’t make a big deal of it, Dad, please?”

“A big deal of it?” His voice cracked slightly. “You didn’t say anything about a party. And your mother said that you–“

“I won’t be out late, OK? It’s at Brad Thurman’s house. That’s like one neighborhood away. He’s just having some people over for a Christmas Eve thing.”

“But, Lucy,” Mitchell objected. He stammered for words. “I’ve got you this weekend. We were supposed to celebrate together.”

He stared at her, mouth agape, as she checked herself out in the entryway mirror, one of the only items he’d gotten around to hanging on the walls. “We did celebrate. We had your meal and that pie and everything.”

Mitchell started to reply that she’d practically ignored everything on her plate, and that she was doing the same to him now, but before he could speak, as if she anticipated his comment, Lucy said, “It was nice, Dad. I’m just, you know, still full from lunch at Mark’s house, that’s all. I’ll be home later. Don’t worry. We can, like, do presents or whatever tomorrow morning. Whatever you want.” She passed in front of him again, then peeked through the open window blinds.

“Lucy,” he protested again. “C’mon, honey. I’m trying. I’m… you know… really trying.”

“It’s fine,” she told him. “I gotta go. He’s here.”

Mitchell felt a logjam of words in his brain. Who’s he?, Don’t go, You’re not allowed, I can’t let you go dressed like that, Please stay, We can do anything you want, You don’t have my permission, How dare you think you can just leave?, I’m going to call your mother… None of them seemed correct. They were all as thin as tissue paper, each one pitifully lacking the firmness necessary to reverse the situation. Nevertheless, he opened his mouth to speak – to get something, anything, out – but his throat now seemed utterly choked by an accumulating mass. It snuffed his voice like a wavering candle. He tried to clear his throat again. It came out somewhere between a moan and a whimper.

Lucy opened the door and waved at the car in the cul-de-sac, now idling at the curb in front of the house. Mitchell could just make out the silhouette of a kid in a ball cap and a puffy jacket at the wheel.

“I can drive you!” he blurted, a strained and devastated plea. “I don’t mind.”

Lucy turned to look at him. She was smiling, but he knew it wasn’t genuine. He could see the irritation underneath. Her darkly lined eyes reflected an abiding impatience. Marnie’s voice invaded his mind again: She’s just like you.

“I thought,” he said, stepping outside in his socks, “maybe we could just take a moment to… I mean, we have a chance to reconnect and…” He closed his eyes and tried to gain control of his words. “Look, I know this year hasn’t been easy for you. It’s been hard for me, too. For us all. But we have a chance to–“

The car’s horn cut him off.

It was only a mild bleet, but Mitchell’s eyes immediately narrowed. He took another step outside, fully prepared to sling an expletive or two at the driver. It was quite cold. His face, however, was hotter than ever. When he lifted a hand to point at the car, he saw it was trembling, but not due to the temperature. Directly across the road, the words “Merry & Bright” mocked him, and the window wreaths, like observant eyes, judged him.

“Dad,” Lucy said. He felt her briefly touch his shoulder as she stepped past him. “Just let it go. You’re making too much of this. Relax, OK? I’ll be back later. Don’t worry.”

Then she was in the passenger seat and not looking his way again. The car rolled away from the curb, then picked up speed against the quickening wind. Its headlights swept across the lawns, momentarily illuminating a group of pedestrians making their way toward the cul-de-sac along the sidewalk. He watched her disappear at the far end of the street by the church, where the church’s doors stood open and parishioners buttoned their coats as they headed for the parking lot.

He stood on the concrete walkway in front of his house, arms folded to hide his shaking. His gaze drifted from one house to the next, the warm yellow glow of their windows, the twinkling lights, the red ribbons, the garland-lined front porches, the ornamented trees in the front windows. From where he stood, it all appeared so pure and established, as if all the decorations had sprung up naturally out of faithfully cultivated earth. Every detail perfectly curated and checked off the list.

Presently, the group of pedestrians on the sidewalk paused in front of the house with “Merry & Bright” spelled out on the lawn. One of them walked briskly up to the front door and rang the bell, then rejoined the group. Mitchell watched as the door opened and the figure of his neighbor filled the doorway. The group promptly began singing.

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed

The carolers’ breath rose in small white clouds. The neighbor, whose name Mitchell did not know, had not yet taken the time to meet, turned quickly and shouted into the house. Moments later, several more people crowded the doorway, and they all stepped onto the porch.

Despite the cold burrowing through his thin dress shirt and slacks, Mitchell did not move. He listened to the entire carol. Then he watched the group move further along the sidewalk while the neighbors at the first house clapped and called out holiday greetings. The carolers repeated the process at the next house. Mitchell saw that their audience this time was an elderly couple and no one else. Since moving in, he’d seen the man, tall and lanky, puttering around the flower beds on occasion.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung

The couple peacefully received the music. The man put his arm around his wife and drew her close against the chill. It was clear that the carolers had rehearsed. Two men, standing behind the rest, intoned a low, noble register, while a trio of women’s voices harmonized with one another. There was also a pair of children, maybe nine or ten years of age, their angelic voices lifting into the night. It really was lovely.

At the third house, the one next to Mitchell’s, the carolers began very softly. At first the words seemed lost within the sound of the wind sifting through the tree boughs. But then the breeze deposited a ruminative, haunting melody in Mitchell’s ears. He glanced at his next-door neighbor, who had come out to stand at the edge of his yard with his wife and four children huddled together. The glow of the inflatable decorations cast them in a faint, green light.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Something icy and tiny touched Mitchell’s cheek. Another alighted on the back of his neck. Several white specks fluttered in front of his face. He looked down and saw more clinging to the edge of his tie, and speckling his black dress socks. The carolers sang on.

Gave thee clothing of delight
Softest clothing wooly bright
Gave thee such a tender voice
Making all the vales rejoice

Catching his breath, Mitchell reached a quivering finger to the edge of his nose and gently lifted away a flake. He stared at it inquisitively as it slowly dissolved upon his fingertip. More nanoscopic jabs of ice, more wetness on his cheeks. He turned away from the carolers and raised his eyes. A million tiny stars were falling to earth. He tried to clear his throat again. Sniffled.

The carol was concluding: Little Lamb, God bless thee. Little Lamb, God bless thee. The children clapped. The wife called out, “Beautiful!” The husband nodded his head and thanked them. Mitchell’s head was still tilted skyward, but he figured they were now approaching his house. He heard the scrape of thick shoes on the sidewalk.

Then came a soft count-off, and the carolers began in perfect unison.

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day

They were swaddled in heavy winter coats, their necks nestled in bright scarves. Two of the women were wearing fuzzy hats. One of the children, the smallest, wore mittens. His cheeks were noticeably pink. The group bobbed slightly and merrily with the tempo, smiling contentedly as they sang. Flurries dusted their coats and stuck in the women’s eyelashes. It was perfect, Mitchell thought. Worth a thousand window wreaths and Gingerbread pies. He wished Lucy was still up in her room, wished he could run back in the house and call to her. Here, finally, was something for her to see, something she wouldn’t be able to brush aside.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Mitchell smiled and prepared to offer applause, but the carolers quickly launched into a second verse, so he folded his arms against the cold and kept smiling. Meanwhile, the mass in his throat seemed to be swelling in size, becoming hard to ignore. There was an aching soreness behind his eyes. He felt some of the flurries on his cheeks melt and begin to roll to his chin. He sniffled again.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Again, he unfolded his arms to clap. Again, the carolers continued to another verse, to lyrics beyond familiarity for Mitchell. The carolers kept smiling and bobbing and singing, and so he stood before them, shivering but respectfully receiving their gift. His feet, however, had turned to leaden blocks. And he was struggling to swallow. He could feel more flurries melting and flowing freely down his cheeks. The harmonious voices, lovely as they were, began to sound hollow in his ears. His was the last house on the cul-de-sac, he realized. Perhaps this carol was their finalé. Stand here just a little longer.

The singers bid him tidings of comfort and joy a third time. And then a fourth. Mitchell was fully shaking now. It was the cold outside, of course, but he felt his very equilibrium crumbling. Perhaps the shaking wasn’t only coming from an exterior frozenness. The music was summoning a reaction inside him, too. He did not want to be out here anymore, and yet he couldn’t just turn his back on the carolers and walk inside, could he? What kind of person did that? Mitchell tried to recollect his upbringing, the Christmas Eve services from decades past, and how many verses were in this carol. How much longer would these words go on? He felt feverish, his face hot, his neck cold, his eyes swollen and stinging.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

At the final refrain, he fell. His backside hit the concrete walkway, and he crumpled into a feeble sitting position, his arms hanging limply between his knees. His shoulders jerked up and down. He tucked his chin between the open collar of his dress shirt. Involuntary noises escaped his sputtering lips. His face was soaked. Hundreds of flurries, it must have been, melting and dripping down his face.

In the absence of music, there were a few awkward claps from next door. His neighbor’s family had remained outside to marvel at the snow and listen to the next carol. Mitchell wondered if the old couple was still outside, too, watching from their porch. So be it, he decided. Let them all stare at him. Let them stare at the single, middle-aged executive who’d only recently moved onto the street. Let them wonder why he was alone on Christmas Eve and collapsed on his lawn in front of a group of strangers. What did it matter?

“Sir?” one of the female carolers said. “Are you OK?”

“We shouldn’t have sung all five verses,” said another. “You’re not even wearing a coat.”

“Or shoes,” added one of the men.

Mitchell lifted his head and peered up at them from where he sat, his face a messy contortion of despondency and smeared snot. His entire body shook like a washing machine. Yet he cupped his hands like a beggar and lifted them. “Would you p-please…” he began, his teeth starting to chatter between words, “s-sing another?”

The men at the rear of the group looked at each other. One of the women wearing a fuzzy hat frowned and placed a cautious hand on both children’s shoulders. “Are you sure you don’t want to go warm yourself inside?”

Fighting for control against his quaking, Mitchell firmly shook his head.

The carolers consulted one another with confused expressions. They shrugged. They mouthed a couple things back and forth to each other. Mitchell heard one suggest, at a whisper, that perhaps they should just repeat the first song they had sung.

“Could you m-maybe…” Mitchell uttered, “s-s-sing ‘White Christmas’?”

“What’s ‘White Christmas?'” one of the children asked, looking up at the adults.

“It’s not a carol,” the fuzzy hat woman answered.

“P-p-please?” he struggled. “If-f-f you d-don’t mind.”

“Sir, I really think you should put on a coat.”

“I w-w-will,” he answered. “Aft-t-t-ter the song.”

Again the carolers exchanged uncomfortable glances. The neighbor next door quietly ushered his children back into the house. The woman in the middle of the ensemble finally shook her head. She started to say something, a disinterested look on her face, but suddenly a low, noble voice cut her off.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know

Mitchell hugged himself. He closed his eyes. The man’s voice was sturdy, yet sonorous. There was warmth in it, and an elusive kind of sincerity. Mitchell dragged the damp sleeve of his dress shirt across his eyes and leaking nose. He said, “You s-s-sound like Bing Crosby.” An odd peacefulness settled upon him. It didn’t calm his shaking, but it did seem to assuage the tumult inside of him. He began to sing along softly.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Mitchell smiled and nodded. “That’s r-right,” he whispered. “That’s the w-way it goes.”

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